Tuesday, 30 November 2010

WHITE MAN'S BURDEN by William Easterly


I've only just begun this one but I just had to give you an update. So far it's very interesting, mostly it seems an attempt to discredit THE END OF POVERTY, which I blogged about earlier this year here. However, he makes some incredibly quaint statements, such as positing that markets are – get this - “the ideal vehicle for feedback and accountability”.

How charmingly pre-credit crunch! The sweetly naïve good old days of 2007. I am very much not noticing the jails overcrowded with AIG employees, or the unemployment queues full of traders from Goldman Sacs. Feedback. Ha ha. Accountability. Ha bloody ha.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

THE CHARTERHOUSE OF PARMA by Stendhal


I kept meaning to read something by Stendhal, ever since I learnt about Stendhal Syndrome. Quite different to Stockholm Syndrome, this is when you are so overwhelmed by the beauty of a place or event that you become ill. Apparently, this happened to Stendhal when he first went to Florence. It makes me feel a bit inadequate. I'm not sure I've ever been so overcome by beauty that it made me ill. Though actually, come to think of it, I was sick in Florence. But that had more to do with an quaint traditional sandwich I had than with great art. The filling was all juicy and . . . bouncy. I don't eat much meat, so I just thought, maybe I've just forgotten what meat tastes like. But then I looked at the filling itself, and immediately feeling some serious concerns, looked it up in the phrase book, and found out it was SHEEP STOMACH.

So that was more sheep stomach syndrome than stendahl syndrome. Though I did learn a valuable lesson: do not eat apparently quaint and traditional foods in foreign countires without doing your research.

Anyway, THE CHARTERHOUSE OF PARMA. First of all, extra points for a great title. This book tells the story of one Fabrizio del Dongo, the younger son of a wealthy nobleman, who is inspired by liberal ideals runs away to support Napoleon, arriving just in time for the walloping defeat of Waterloo. He is then in trouble with his very conservative father and has to go on the run, escaping various perils from treacherous courtiers to enraged actors. He is sheilded by his aunt, with whom, in a bizarre turn of events, he starts to have an incestuous relationship. I can't tell you what happens after that because I kind of gave up on page 225. It was just ridiculous, he kept going from one swashbuckling adventure to the next and I got bored. Either there is something wrong with Stendhal or with Sarah.

There were a few great bits. The French Revolution has only taken place some fiftly years before, and there is a very interesting series of discussions about what the end of reverence for nobility means for nobles such as Fabrizio. There are some hilarious minature pen portraits, such as, on the people of nineteenth century Parma: "they sat on the pavement eating icecream and criticizing passersby;" or, on discussing rural peoples' superstitions – "What do you expect! These people had hardly read four books in their whole lives!"

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

HARPER'S – November 2010


As you can see, I am catching up with my HARPERS addiction . . .

From the Dept. of Well Okaaaay :

“Also a Western conceit is a vampire's pallor; whereas female vampires are beautiful and white robed, most firsthand accounts indicate that male vampires are ruddy, corpulent peasants, whose affect - once unearthed – is that of a freshly gorged mosquito. In animal form, the vampire is not strictly limited to the bat but can appear to its victims as a cat, a dog, a rodent or even a butterfly. These manifestations are not to be confused with vampires that were never human in the first place, which may even assume a vegetal guise (among numerous indignities through history, the Roma suffered the obscure nuisance of vampire watermelons).”
Twilight of the Vampires: Hunting the real-life undead” By Tea Obreht

In other news, from the Harper's Index:
Percentage increase since 1960 in the average weight of a farm-raised US Turkey = 72
Chance that an American couple who met since 2007 met online = 1 in 4

Monday, 15 November 2010

PROMISES, PROMISES by Erica James

In the interests of historical accuracy, I must tell you I read the above. For work, please. I don't think it's released yet in the UK, so I won't say anything further.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

HARPER'S October 2010


This is the only magazine I read regularly, Harper's. My lovely friend Dio gave me a subscription. My favourite bit is the Index, which is a page of sobering statistics. A sample:

Percent of the entire national income taken by the wealthiest 10% of Americans in 2007 = 50

Chance that a Chinese criminal prosecution will result in a guilty vedict = 9 in 10

And, one to think about when next you have a drink or two:

Chance that a Briton who has sent a sexually explicit text message has sent it to the wrong person = 1 in 5

Thursday, 11 November 2010

BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES by Tom Wolfe


This is a famous novel of 1980s New York.

It's main character is Sherman McCoy, a fabulously wealthy bond trader with a fashionable wife and a younger mistress. It's all feels very apropos our current obsession with filthy bankers. There's lots of shouting and making huge amounts of money for not too damn much in the way of actual work. However, they occasionally break off from this mythic money making to use a pay phone, or to send a fax, which gives the whole thing a sweetly quaint air.

One day, Sherman picks his mistress up at the airport in his Mercedes sportscar, and they get lost in the Bronx. They hit a young black man and leave the scene. The story follows the collapse of Sherman's life as this incident is investigated and prosecuted.

It's an immensely cynical novel. There is not a single character in it who is no driven by ulterior motives: the criminal case is twisted by all sorts of people (journalists, ministers, judges) for their own personal gain. This dark view of the city and the era is so insistent, and so powerfully stated, and re-stated, and stated again just in case we missed it, that I kept expecting Sherman to finally change, to grow, to provide some kind of climax or rebuke to this world, if only because it seemed artistically necessary, after 713 pages of gloom. Not so: Sherman is crushed by events, no doubt just as he deserves.

There are women in this book, and they come in two varieties: no, not the usual madonna or whore, but pretty or ugly. That's pretty much it for the women. All the men, no matter how differently their characters are drawn, share the same view of women. That is, they like to view them, but only if they are under 25. All married men are by definition unhappy apparently. I think I can guarantee that Tom Wolfe is unmarried, or if he is married, that the lady is a good bit younger than he is.

VICTORIANA ALERT! Apparently Wolfe was inspired to write this book in part by Thackeray's VANITY FAIR. He wanted to write a great novel of the city, of New York, and was inspired by the older novel's presentation of London. This gives us an interesting perspective on the title. Extra points for naming main female character in Vanity Fair. NO GOOGLING.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

TROPIC OF CANCER by Henry Miller


Apparently this one was banned on publication for being too sexually explicit. I think it should have been banned for being so incredibly boring.

I can't really tell you what it is about, as I had to stop about twenty pages in. There is some guy. He is an aspiring novelist, he is poor, he is Paris. So far, so DOWN AND OUT IN PARIS AND LONDON. And yet, from the same source material as Orwell, this guy has managed to write a load of rubbish.

Basically, the main character likes to have sex with prostitutes. One of these prostitutes (and we are not talking wealthy call girls, but starving women on the street) "loves her work." Apparently, she is all body, and only exists in sensation. She does a lot of panting in her torn hose. What immensely craptacular nonsense. Her labia are referred to repeatedly as her rosebush. I'm sorry, that's when I had to give up.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

A DANCE TO THE MUSIC OF TIME by Anthony Powell


Now this is a book I really wanted to like. Sometimes you come across a book in a perfect kind of way, and with the weird symmetry that life can sometimes have, it becomes the perfect book for you right then. I found this book randomly in a Goodwill in LA. I had just had my mind boggled by what books cost in a real bookshop (a place I never go): US$16! So the price was right: US$1.99. Also, it was the only thing worth reading in the whole place. I was giving up, because all the rest was sad 80s chick lit, or self help (Dream Yourself Thin, etc), when suddenly I found "the major achievement in post-war English fiction" (Guardian); "one of the most important works of fiction since the Second World War" (New Yorker) and "more realistic than A La Recherche du Temps Perdu" (Evelyn Waugh). And I'd never heard of it! The Waugh really sold me. As we know, I love me some Proust in a serious, and seriously embarrasing, way. I love big fat novels that you can live in for months, and I love dry old English lit.

And it certainly is dry. Very dry. It's told in the first person, by one Nick Jenkins, beginning in his last few years at public school, sometime in the 1930s. The work is made up of 12 novels, and the three I have in this volume are A QUESTION OF UPBRINGING, A BUYER'S MARKET, and THE ACCEPTANCE WORLD. The first covers his school years, the next his first years out of school, and I can't tell you about the third one because I have given up on it.

I really want to like it, but I just can't. There are some interesting elements. It's quite involving to see how the First World War affected those just slightly too young to fight in it, and to see what daily life was like in that period. Occasionally, the author makes observations about human life and behaviour that are insightful and compelling. And yet, somehow, I just can't go on. For one thing, we know virtually nothing about the inner life of the first person narrator. I've never come across anything like that, and it's just bizarre. It gives the whole novel a kind of empty, unengaging feel. What we mostly learn about are his acquaintances (not even really his best friends) who he runs into an improbable number of times in his life. We learn a lot about people he doesn't have much strong feeling for and doesn't care about. Apparently, this is a major theme of the book: how people and issues recur across a lifetime, making patterns, and over the course of the remaining nine books, which will take us to the 1970s and his old age, it will all become clear, and presumably engaging. Sorry Mr Powell, I just can't make it.

Also, isn't the cover dire?

Thursday, 4 November 2010

THE REVERSAL by Michael Connelly

I had to read this one for work.

Blah blah child murder blah blah terse court room scenes blah blah divorced detective.

Can you believe this thing is a bestseller? And worse yet, like tenth in a series of bestsellers. Is everyone morons?

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

GoFugYourself.Com: GQ Photoshoot on Glee




This blog is supposed to be about everything I read in 2010. I have tried to be honest, even when the truth is embarrassing (eg. Carole Matthews). Even so, as I mainly cover books, a lot is left out: newspapers - magazines - internet crap. Ah, internet crap. Specifically, gofugyourself.com, which I read everyday. And I just had to promote their latest post, which I totally, totally agree with, about GQ's photoshoot on Glee.

In this photoshoot, actors famous for playing teens were photographed in embarrassingly sexualised ways. Look it up: it is totally unnecessary and exceptionally gross. What makes me especially mad is the fact that the boy gets to wear all his bloody clothes. You actually can't believe they are serious. Male gaze, much? Did feminism totally pass them by? Try looking up OBJECTIFICATION in the dictionary, bitches. Admittedly, all the actors are legal, but that is SO not what the shoot is about.

The photographer has had some complaints previously about his manipulation of young models. Perhaps a picture of him is worth a thousand words on this subject.

The New York Times is very interesting on this also.

It makes me totally mad.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

A MILLION LITTLE PIECES by James Frey


Everyone seems to love this book. Meanwhile, it's a bit crap.

It's all about James Frey's attempt to recover from drug and alcohol addiction. He wakes up on an airplane, with a huge hole in his cheek and missing teeth, and slowly realises he is being flown to his parents, who will put him in rehab. The book tracks his recovery, and his romance with a fellow patient. The cover is full of quotes from reviewers, apparently seriously misled. (Utterly compulsive" "heartbreaking memoir" etc. Maybe they are on crack too). It was also a bestseller.

True is not always interesting. I am sure recovering from drug addiction really sucks, and mostly you think "I hate my life" and "I want drugs" basically all day. As the subject of an entire book however these two thoughts get dull very quickly. Blah blah blah I need crack blah blah blah I have ruined my life blah blah blah I need vodka. You get the picture. It's only got one colour.

The best part was when he tells us all about how he had two root canals without anaesthetic or painkiller. He couldn't have drugs because of his addiction, so he just had two tennis balls to hold. He held them so hard he split his fingernails.

Hilariously, your friend and mine Wikipedia tells me that it has emerged that some of the book was invented. Frey apologized for fabricating portions of his book and for having made himself seem "tougher and more daring and more aggressive than in reality I was, or I am." He added, "People cope with adversity in many different ways, ways that are deeply personal. . . . My mistake . . . is writing about the person I created in my mind to help me cope, and not the person who went through the experience." This does not surprise me. One very irritating aspect of the book is that he is constantly telling us how tough he is, and how he cows lesser men with his giant penis, (okay I exagerrate) etc etc. His publisher admitted that despite marketing the book as a memoir, and describing it as 'brutally honest' she had never had any section of it fact checked. Nice.

IN COLD BLOOD by Truman Capote


Capote was inspired to write this book by a 300 word article in the New York Times, which began: "Holcomb, Kan., Nov. 15 [1959] (UPI) -- A wealthy wheat farmer, his wife and their two young children were found shot to death today in their home. They had been killed by shotgun blasts at close range after being bound and gagged ... There were no signs of a struggle, and nothing had been stolen. The telephone lines had been cut." (Thanks Salon)

He went down to Holcomb, with his childhood friend (bizarrely: Harper Lee) to interview people, and spent the next six years working on a detailed account of the crime. It is widely credited as the first non-fiction novel, and as more or less inventing the true crime genre. This genre is disgustingly large and healthy now, of course, so the book seems a good deal less radical and remarkable now than it did then.

It's still however a gripping little story, with well drawn and compelling characters. What most appealed to me was the long sections of direct quotes. It was fascinating to see how ordinary people spoke in 1959. It's sort of insanely quaint. They all sound like they're in an Arthur Miller play all the time.