Thursday, 30 September 2010

JOY IN THE MORNING by PG Wodehouse


I've been meaning to read some Wodehouse for ages, and this was it: JOY IN THE MORNING.

It is the fourth of Wodehouse's eleven wildly popular Jeeves and Wooster stories. Bertie Wooster is a dim but wealthy gentleman living in London in the 1930s. Jeeves is his butler, who is very much the brains of the operation, and is constantly having to get Wooster out of what I can only describe as - this being a nineteen thirties comic novel - scrapes. In JOY IN THE MORNING, Bertie has to go down to Steeple Bumpleigh, the home of his terrifying aunt, to help his friend secure the hand of the girl he loves. There's all sorts of hijinks (I use the word advisedly), involving explosions, fancy dress balls, boy scouts and drunken uncles, and eventually Jeeves saves the day.

In general, I love these establishment English Lit figures. This is no doubt because I have been so colonized mentally, and Bob Marley would be ashamed of me. Thus, I expected to love Wodehouse. I'm really sorry to say that this is not the case. It all seemed horribly overwritten - every sentence was crammed to the brim with ironic, slangy language; and the comic idea (idiot rich man, clever servant) seemed rather old hat. It might only seem old hat now of course, because Wodehouse was the milliner who first made this particular hat, and now we've seen it repeated over and over.

So perhaps while it does appear derivative, it is only derivative of itself. Whatever. I was bored.

As a side point, JOY IN THE MORNING alludes to Psalm 30:5: "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning." Which I think is rather lovely. And interesingly, the title has actually been used for two other novels. You must just read the write-up for the 1950s one below, especially if you want to barf:

"In Brooklyn, New York, in 1927, Carl Brown and Annie McGairy meet and fall in love. Though only eighteen, Annie travels alone to the Midwestern university where Carl is studying law to marry him. Little did they know how difficult their first year of marriage would be, in a faraway place with little money and few friends. But Carl and Annie come to realize that the struggles and uncertainty of poverty and hardship can be overcome by the strength of a loving, loyal relationship. An unsentimental yet uplifting story, Joy in the Morning is a timeless and radiant novel of marriage and young love."

Barf.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

FREE FOR FOR MILLIONAIRES by Min Jin Lee


This is the story of one Casey Han. Her parents moved from Korea to America to escape the troubles there in the aftermath of the war, and have provided her with a solid upbringing in Queens. She received a scholarship to Princeton, and the story tells of her attempts to find a job and a happy relationship as she grows into her twenties.

It's enjoyably Victorian, which a giant cast and lots of interweaving plots, and maintains your interest, if not your sympathy, throughout. The main character is always re-reading MIDDLEMARCH, and I will eat my bra (and its got a LOT of underwire) if the author is not a great lover of the Victorians.

Actually, I've often noticed that immigrants are fond of the Victorian style (another example is Vikram Seth's A SUITABLE BOY, the first book of this blog), and you may not be surprised to learn that I've got a theory about it. It's this. Ready?

Now, you can't play variations on a theme until you know what the theme is. Or: you can't remix a track that doesn't exist. European and American writers can have a fine compempt for narrative, and for character; they can mix it up and spit it out all they like, because the basic narratives in which they live have all been formed already. Thus they can mix and remix. They can be modern, and post-modern, and tear the Victorian novel apart, because they already have the Victorian novel. A lot of people from outside this tradition, however, have never really had their stories told. Thus, they need plot, and character, so their grandchildren can rip them all up. They need to write their own Victorian novels.

It's kind of the same thing with modern art. You can't mess with the visual world until you've agreed what the world looks like.

I can't think that I've ever read a book as absolutely immersed in consumer culture as this one is. Casey has a bizarre sense that the world has somehow treated her unfairly, because she is not as wealthy as some of her fellow students at Princeton. She honestly seems to consider herself poor, and, also bizarrely, the author seems to agree with this anaylsis. This is a book in which not being able to afford 500 count Egyptian cotton sheets is regarded as being a genuinely difficult thing, for which Casey deserves sympathy. It makes it a little hard to relate to.

Eventually, Casey decides to go to business school (irritatingly referred to as B school throughout), and the world of business is written about with such familiarity that I think I learn a little something about the author's background, and about why the absence of 500 count sheets might be perceived as such a problem.

I just googled her, and if you look here you'll see I won't be needing to eat my bra.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

CHARITY GIRL By Georgette Heyer


Georgette Heyer is an author of historical romances, usually set in the Regency period. Her novels are comic and well-plotted, and remind one for obvious reasons of Jane Austen. They don't remind one too much however, as Austen is a great writer, while poor Heyer is more in the trying hard department. But! She's charming and fun, and I loved her when I was in my early teens, so I was quite pleased to find her in another camping site's book exchange.

It was a tiny bit of a letdown. It's still funny and sweet, but I'm afraid my 33 year old self can see that it's also horribly overwritten, and rather cynically plotted. Also, I don't think anybody in any period speaks with quite as much period detail as her characters do. For example: I should like to know ma'am, what the dev – deuce – you mean by setting the servants to spy on me? By God, I think it beats the Dutch! I'll say what I dashed well choose” etc etc and etc.

She was on the best-seller lists consistently from when she was seventeen though, for which I give her mad props. Note that CHARITY GIRL was first published in 1970, and my copy is the ninth edition, published 1981 (charmingly, it's price was £1.50)

Apprently she was quite contemptuous of what she did, which I find rather sad. In 1943, speaking of a new novel of hers she said: "Spread the glad tidings that it will not disappoint Miss Heyer's many admirers. Judging from the letters I've received from obviously feeble-minded persons who do so wish I would write another These Old Shades, it ought to sell like hot cakes. I think myself I ought to be shot for writing such nonsense, but it's questionably good escapist literature and I think I should rather like it if I were sitting in an air-raid shelter, or recovering from flu. Its period detail is good; my husband says it's witty---and without going to these lengths, I will say that it is very good fun." More here.

IT'S NOW OR NEVER by Carole Matthews


As you can see from this little beauty, things were not going well in the finding books to read while camping department. This one I found at one of those book swap things they have at campsites. I think the cover is trying to let me know that this is chick lit.

There are a pair of twin sisters, one trapped in a dull marriage, one in a painful affair with a married man, who decide to change their lives. They are inspired to do so by attending the birthday party of their older and more successful sister. You will not be amazed to learn that they succeed.

It was okay, in sort of a dumb way.

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATOO by Stieg Larsson


Yes, this is the piece of crap I bought for 12 euros and read in 2 days because I was so desparate for some fiction. The protagonist is a journalist (as the author was) who reads a lot of murder mysteries (as I suspect the author of this murder mystery did) and has lots of beautiful women who want to have sex with him all the time (think not, if his picture on the backflap is anything to go by). I don't know if you really need to know the plot, as I suspect you already know it, due to it being the plot of all these books. I'll give you the highlights: loose cannon investigator blah blah serial killer blah blah it gets personal blah blah killer is one you least suspect. So it was pretty blah, BUT immensely page-turning. No denying it. I also enjoyed the way it was so thoroughly set in Sweden, so they were constantly eating foul fish dishes and putting on thick jumpers.

One thing that made me REALLY MAD was the inclusion of an entirely unecessary and very sadistic rape scene. I've had this before with other books, where you are reading along quite comfortably, and all of a sudden you are like: ah. I see this book was written by a man. And a certain kind of man, too. I don't mean he is a sadistic rapist, but rather that he is clearly someone who comfortably participates in that strand of our culture that eroticises female pain. I'm not saying these sorts of scenes are never acceptable: of course they are, if they are central to the plot or important to the book's theme. But it's incredible how often they are just sort of chucked in there. And I think the reason they are is that they give the writer, and some of the readers, a distinct thrill. Nice. Really nice.

A brilliant example of this is some stupid book I read, the title of which I can't remember. It's set in post Civil War America, which I am sure was a dark time for many people – eg, recently empancipated black people, traumatised white soldiers, etc etc. You'd never know it from this book, which is pretty much one long rape scene, written with precisely detailed excitement. What's incredible, is that this piece of nonsense won the Pulitzer. Honestly, these people ought to phone their moms to apologize.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

THE END OF POVERTY by Jeffery Sachs


My title should perhaps also include: FOREWORD by Bono. Which, based on the cover, the publishers think is apparently as important a feature as the book itself. I didn't bother with the it, though. Partly on principle. That principle being - Dude: how much contempt do the publishers have for us? They're all like: these morons will be totally excited by two pages from a celebrity.

Anyway, Jeffery Sachs is a famous economist, who was given tenure at Harvard at 28 (a fact he is not at all embarrassed to highlight for us on about page 3). He believes, or claims to believe for the rhetorical joy of it, that poverty can be ended in our lifetime, and in this book attempts to explain how. Okay, I have to confess, I can't tell you more about it right now, as I haven't finished it yet. I took it camping with me, and it was all too much for me. I discovered, to my shame, that apparently I can't live without fiction. Sweet, sweet, fiction. Which is how I ended up paying 12 euros for a piece of crap, which I did finish, in a shameful two days, which I'll tell you about next.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

ELEGY FOR EASTERLY by Petina Gappah


This collection of short stories won the Guardian First Book Award recently. One can't help but feel proud of a Zimbabwean girl flying the flag high!

I actually read my first of her stories when it was in the Guardian in 2009. It was set in the Mabelreign OK, which was very weird, as that's the supermarket that I grew up going to with my parents (every Saturday, without fail, same till, same packing guy, etc, etc, my parents are like that). On a side note, I've probably never interacted with a piece of art set specifically somewhere I know in my life before, so that was notable for me. It was a sweet and sad story about a meeting with an old teacher.

I enjoyed the book itself, especially "Something Nice From London", about trying to get a body back from the UK, and "The Annexe Shuffle" about a UZ student who was briefly interned in a mental institution. I think Ms Gappah's at her best when she's writing about middle class life (perhaps because that's the world she grew up in?) and a bit more unsteady when dealing with people outside that world. The class gap in Zim is truly immense.

I also thought there was something peculiarly and charmingly Zimbabwean about her light-hearted and cheerful handling of the country's serious problems. I was once told by a theatre's artistic director (who shall remain nameless) that a Zim project I was working on was 'too cheerful.' Apparently, for some, Zimbabwean stories must always be stories of misery. English people can laugh and be silly, but we Africans are all tragic figures apparently.

What nonsense. Zim couldn't stagger on if Zimbabweans did not have a strange ability to keep their chins up (if only to stop the water closing over their heads . . .)

Petina Gappah's blog is great too. Here it is.

MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR by William Shakespeare


This should maybe read "Merry Wives of Windsor" x 10,0000000. This isbecause this is the show I have been working on. It is a great show, and a very well cut version of the play. Here's the link if you're interested.

Now you may have thought by my absense from this blog, I had forgotten about it. Oh no. I have just been camping around Europe, which means I have had a lot of rain and mud and fun, but not very much internet access. It also means that reading material has been thin on the ground, so I have been reading some shocking crap. It's going to be a new low in 2010's reading, but the high moral standards of this blog forbid me to leave anything out.