Friday, 31 December 2010

Surviving 2010


Oh god it's the last day of 2010.

I had an old nun as a teacher in high school who always used to say TIME FLIES GIRLS. ARE YOU USING IT WISELY? TODAY IS TUESDAY. WEDNESDAY, THURSDAY, FRIDAY AND THE WEEK IS GONE. TIME FLIES.

She was a very youthful lady in her 90s, and managed to give the strong impression that time really did fly, and that we were probably not using it wisely, if only because nobody does.

ANYWAY, let's not dwell on that too much shall we? One thing I have managed to do in 2010 is, to my amazement, actually fulfill my commitment to blog every book I read this year. The final list is (unless I get really crazy this afternoon . . . )

1.A SUITABLE BOY by Vikram Seth
2.DR THORNE by Anthony Trollope
3.2666 by Roberto Bolano
4.YOU DON'T LOVE ME YET by Jonathan Lethem
5.WEDLOCK by Wendy Moore
6.THE FOUNTAINHEAD by Ayn Rand
7.WHEN YOU ARE IN ENGULFED IN FLAMES by David Sedaris
8.DR THORNE by Anthony Trollope
9.STARLINGS LAUGHING by June Vendall Clark
10.THE INHERITANCE OF LOSS by Kiran Desai
11.DILEMMA OF A GHOST/ANOWA by Ama Ata Aidoo
12.THE LOST DOG by Michelle de Krester
13.THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
14.THE SAVAGE GARDEN by Mark Mills
15.ME TALK PRETTY ONE DAY by David Sedaris
16.WIZARD OF THE CROW by Ngugi wa Thiong'o
17.FRAMLEY PARSONAGE by Anthony Trollope
18.THE BOTTOM BILLION by Paul Collier
19.DOWN AND OUT IN PARIS AND LONDON by George Orwell
20.BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S by Truman Capote
21.WOLF HALL by Hilary Mantel
22.MOUNTAINS BEYOND MOUNTAINS by Tracy Kidder
23.THIS SEPTEMBER SUN by Bryony Rheam
24.THE LAST CHRONICLE OF BARSET by Anthony Trollope
25.THE SMALL HOUSE AT ALLINGTON by Anthony Trollope
26.CIDER WITH ROSIE by Laurie Lee
27.GLOBALIZATION AND ITS DISCONTENTS by Joseph E Stiglitz
28.THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS by James Fenimore Cooper
29.FAST FOOD NATION by Eric Schlosser
30.JOY IN THE MORNING by PG Wodehouse
31.FREE FOOD FOR MILLIONAIRES by Min Jin Lee
32.CHARITY GIRL By Georgette Heyer
33.IT'S NOW OR NEVER by Carole Matthews
34.THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATOO by Stieg Larsson
35.THE END OF POVERTY by Jeffery Sachs
36.ELEGY FOR EASTERLY by Petina Gappah
37.MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR by William Shakespeare
38.I CAPTURE THE CASTLE by Dodie Smith
39.HANGOVER SQUARE by Patrick Hamilton
40.DARK MATTER by Michelle Paver
41.ORANGES ARE NOT THE ONLY FRUIT by Jeanette Winterson
42.PIED PIPER by Nevil Shute
43.WHITE MAN'S BURDEN by William Easterly
44.THE CHARTERHOUSE OF PARMA by Stendhal
45.PROMISES, PROMISES by Erica James
46.BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES by Tom Wolfe
47.TROPIC OF CANCER by Henry Miller
48.A DANCE TO THE MUSIC OF TIME by Anthony Powell
49.THE REVERSAL by Michael Connelly
50.A MILLION LITTLE PIECES by James Frey
51.IN COLD BLOOD by Truman Capote
52.OUR HUSBAND HAS GONE MAD AGAIN by Ola Rotimi
53.NATIVE SON by Richard Wright
54.THE GOLDEN NOTEBOOK by Doris Lessing
55.THE GORSE TRILOGY by Patrick Hamilton
56.STILL LIFE WITH WOODPECKER by Tom Robbins

Highlights: I CAPTURE THE CASTLE by Dodie Smith (mindblowing) GULAG ARCHIPELAGO by Solzhenitsyn (also mindblowing, but in a very different way). Both are gnaw your own arm off wonderful.

Lowlights: 2666 by Robert Bolano. It's managed to hold its crown of terribleness since I gave up on it in about February, so I thought for sure it would be in on the day - but there's an unexpected late contender for worst book of the year, which I only started (and gave up on) yesterday: STILL LIFE WITH WOODPECKER by Tom Robbins. Dreadful, dreadful, I-think-I'm-so-funny-but-I'm-only-dreadful and I keep calling a girl's vagina 'the peachfish' - reminding us of TROPIC OF CANCER's 'the rosebush' - let's not say anymore.

2010's been a great blogging year, and I've been really happy to meet lots of new bookish friends on this blog.

See you in 2011! I've got a brilliant new plan: definitely let's keep a list of literary names for ladies' bits in the New Year. Hoorah! Now that's something to look forward to.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

MR STIMPSON AND MR GORSE and UNKNOWN ASSAILANT by Patrick Hamilton


These two novels complete THE GORSE TRILOGY. They follow our anti-hero, Ralph Ernest Gorse, as he continues to con women out of their money.

MR STIMPSON AND MR GORSE is oddly named, as Mr Stimpson comes into the story only tangentially. Mr Gorse’s real prey is one Mrs Plumleigh-Bruce, a colonel’s widow with inflated ideas as to her own status. She is, as is common with every other character in this novel, completely unpleasant: vain, grasping, and calculating. Gorse convinces her of his probity by encouraging her to entrust him with small amounts of money initially (to bet on the horses for example). He eventually convinces her to become secretly engaged to him, and they spend a wild week in London, during which he encourages her to drink far too much. She entrusts him with £500, and he sends her back home to Reading, saying he will follow shortly. Needless to say he does not.

One very striking aspect of this novel is how much of it takes place in drinking establishments. Everyone is constantly either drinking or drunk. Patrick Hamilton clearly spent an ungodly amount of time in bars, as I don’t think I’ve ever read such detail or accuracy about pub culture, pub conversation, drunken dalliances, the taste of brandy, the effect of ‘Gin and It,’ Monday morning hangovers, etc etc etc. It kind of made me want to have a drink.

UNKNOWN ASSAILANT

The title made me very worried that here Ralph Ernest Gorse would finally mature from conman to serial killer. The atmosphere of these books is strangely suspenseful – or stressful might be a better term – and I was kind of worried this might be where it was going. However, bizarrely, this was the most cheerful of the books, and included, incredibly, a character who was not irredeemably bad! Amazing. Of course, we are immediately told that he is to die senselessly in the early days of the WWII, so fear not, this is still vintage Hamilton.

Gorse meets a rather dim barmaid, Ivy, and convinces her that he would like to marry her. He bamboozles her (through her stupidity and timidity); and then bamboozles her father too (but in this case through his cupidity and brutality), into investing in a fictitious theatrical enterprise. Once he has their money safely in hand, he takes Ivy to a lonely part of the countryside. You can see where I thought this was going to go horribly wrong. However, all he does is tie her up, tell her she has been swindled, and leave her to make her own way home.

At this she point, she meets the one not thoroughly objectionable character in the book, Stan, a lone telegraph boy, who takes her home, comforts her, and gives her the courage not to return to her horrible and vindictive father.

The last two books in THE GORSE TRILOGY continue to be bleakly funny, as:

Chelsea proper is, as is well known, despite its countless normal inhabitants, the favourite London resort of those who are obvious failures or of those who are obviously going to be failures before long. The failure is nearly always of an ‘artistic’ kind.


But I found that more than funny, they were bleak. I enjoyed them, but I am glad they are finished. For some reason I am not surprised that they were Patrick Hamilton’s last novels before he drank himself to death. The man who wrote the Introduction called these end-of-the-tether novels, and while I don’t know exactly what he means, I know exactly what he means.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

THE WEST PIER by Patrick Hamilton


This came to me in the way I best like books to come: randomly. Someone else picked it out for me at the library.

The author's voice was naggingly familiar, and eventually I placed it: it's Patrick Hamilton! He wrote the fairly fabulous HANGOVER SQUARE, which I blogged earlier this year. (Here it is).

THE WEST PIER is the first in a trilogy of novels based on a real life confidence man, Neville Heath. It begins by telling of his time at school, and his love of 'mischief' – for example, he always carries a long pin about with him, so he can make punctures in the wheels of any bicycles he finds unattended. He attends a rather posh public (or private, depending on the country you're reading this in) school, and is generally sheilded from the consequences of his actions. The story then catches up with him as a young man just after the First World War, and tells how he manages to defraud a working class girl of her life savings (£68; a great deal to her, and not very much to him) simply for the thrill of it.

Much that appealed about HANGOVER SQUARE also appeals about THE WEST PIER. There a sort of coldly comic edge to it which is often hilarious. Like this bit of schoolboy conversation in a changing room:

"You'd better not accuse me, you know” said Kerr, now anxious to be accused, and endeavouring to create the allusion that this had already happened. “Because I'll jolly well punch your nose.”
“And you'd better not accuse me either,” said another boy named Roberts, perceving and rushing with all his belongings towards the glorious Yukon of quarreling with Kerr had discovered. “Or I'll jolly well punch your nose too.”

For some reason, I just love that about the Yukon. Or this, about these same boys as young men in their early twenties:
All these boys were, of course, in what is deceptively called the 'morning' of life – deceptive because the vigorous word 'morning' does not at all suggest the clouded, oppressive, mysterious, disquieted, inhibited condition through which the vast majority have to pass at this age.

I don't know if that's so much funny as it is sadly true. And this is I think the reason I can't really say I enjoyed this book. It's written with great clarity, truly remarkable insight into human behaviour, and with painfully accurate analysis of how people act in social situations; but it's all rather sad. The con man is a clever, cunning, and unpleasant man. His victims are greedy, vain, and rather credulous. These people are drawn clearly and intelligently, but I wasn't sure to what effect. The bad man tricked the stupid people. That was basically it.

Perhaps I'm being rather Victorian about it all, but I didn't really get the point. It was all rather sad and defeated, and no one emerged well or was any the wiser from their experiences.

I believe poor Mr Hamilton ended his life an alcoholic, and I think I would drink too if I found the world so very full of evil and idiocy. In fact, I might just go have a drink right now. I'm not sure how else I'll get through the rest of the trilogy.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

WHITE MAN’S BURDEN by William Easterly (Contd)


You thought I had forgotten this one! But I haven’t. It was bubbling away nicely on the back burner.

Easterly delivers a damning indictment of aid to the developing world. He points out that:
-most aid is not properly evaluated. There is virtually no high quality independent evaluation of most aid spending. No one really knows what projects are actually succeeding.
-most aid organisations have insanely large and vague missions (eg: end global poverty). So even if there was evaluation, it would be hard to know exactly what one was evaluating.
-because the missions are so grandiose, no one really expects any success
-most aid is driven by what the funders want, or on what looks good to the public in the rich world, not what the poor actually need
-too much money is spent on conference after report after paper after project, which gives an impression of activity to very little real effect.
-too much power is given to central planners with little realistic grasp of what can work, which Easterly believes can only be solved on a small scale, case-by-case basis

In short, he seems to be saying what many suspect: that the EMPORER HAS NO CLOTHES ON. Nothing much is being done, but at great expense.

I think a great deal of what he says is very accurate with regard to the pitfalls of aid. His solutions are however not all terribly convincing. Some ideas are excellent, and I don’t really understand why they are not already in place (eg. independent evaluation; aid workers staying based in one country, not moving around - I totally agree with that! etc). Some are rather more dubious. He bangs on about how there ought not be too much top down planning, but rather that the poor ought to be able to say what they want. This sounds very good, and I feel rather guilty opposing it, but let’s face it: sometimes what the poor want is to cut off little girls’ bits. Yes, alright that’s a bit flip. But my point is, if you don’t know germs are causing your baby’s diarrhoea, then how can you demand anti-bacterial soap?

Mr Easterly seems to have a somewhat naïve faith in the markets, with the idea that the poor, if allowed to function as consumers (which is apparently our natural state) would soon put themselves to rights. I found the whole book to be written with a staggeringly splendid degree of pre-credit crunch confidence.

One favourite part includes a long list of the IMF’s successes. Then he admits that elsewhere, the IMF has had ‘more mixed success.’ That’s one way to put it.

(His blog, if you are interested, and it is interesting, is here)

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Bookish Profiled on Wealth of Ideas

Emmanuel Sigauke runs a very interesting blog over at WEALTH OF IDEAS. He is running a series on who read what in 2010, and profiled my blog as part of it. There's a little interview, and the year's reading list. Here it is!

Thanks Emmanuel!

Sunday, 19 December 2010

THE GOLDEN NOTEBOOK by Doris Lessing


I am thoroughly confused as to how I actually feel about this book. On the one hand, I found it annoying and boring. On the other, I found it profound and enlightening.

The first level on which I feel divided by it is on the level of culture. Doris Lessing grew up in Zimbabwe, and lived there till she was about thirty. The book is full of her memories of Zim. She even went to my high school! I feel like I therefore ought to feel the kind of fondness for her I have for Bryony Rheam, but I can't. We're from the same physical location, but it's a very different place, because while I'm Zimbabwean, she's southern Rhodesian.

In this case, let me assure you, the past really is a foreign country. Apparently, it's one where they eat steak and kidney pies, and say 'I say old chap' and feel that they are strangers in a strange land (DESPITE IT BEING WHERE THEY ARE ACTUALLY FROM). But anyway, shame. She's a woman of her period, and we none of us escape our period.

And that's another point. She keeps going on about her periods. The book is very much about the dawn of the feminist movement, about her relationships with men, about opportunity for women, and so on. Also her periods. You get the impression no one had ever written about periods before. Which, thinking about it, maybe they hadn't. She seems to spend a lot of time agonising about feminist issues which now seem so obvious; but probably they are only obvious now because women before us did a lot of agonising. I think I might be irrirated with her in the same way you can be irritated with your mother; with someone to whom you owe a great deal.

Okay, what the book is actually about. It's more or less six books. There is one overarching novel, called FREE WOMEN, and the novel is interspersed with sections from the notebooks of the author of the novel, Anna Wulf. The notebooks deal with various aspects of Anna's life (politics, private thoughts etc etc), and as the novel is also autobiographical you feel you are hearing the same story from many different perspectives. I found it very interesting in terms of seeing how ordinary experience is filtered and reshaped to become fiction – what is excluded and what included.

The basic story, told in its many versions, is of a woman (Anna, or Ella as she is sometimes called) living in London in the mid 1950s, with her small daughter (Janet/Michael) her female friend (Molly/Julia) and her friend's teenage son. Both women struggle with being divorced, and thus 'free' and are constantly sleeping with, and having their hearts broken by, married men. Anna is living off the royalties of her first novel, and Molly is an actress; both are initially committed socialists. Anna moves out eventually, after a failed relationship, and her daughter goes to boarding school. Living on her own, she begins to unravel mentally; but in the end you get the sense there she is going to be able to hold it together. There is a strong sense of what is learnt over a long life.

In an interview, Lessing said she wanted to capture London as it was in the middle of the twentieth century (as the great nineteenth century novelists did) and I feel she has succeeded. A mark of a great novel is I think when you really feel like you sort of know a place or a time as if you have been there, and this novel absolutely fills that requirement. (Let's also give a shout out to A HOUSE FOR MR BISWAS on this front).

You learn a lot about what it was to be a communist in the middle of the twentieth century, just as news of Stalin's crimes was being released. Read from the perspective of today, the idealism is really heatbreaking; they honestly believe communism will genuinely make a better world. It made me think how very cynical we are today; I don't think hardly anyone believes there is a solution to the world being a mess – I think we just think that's it's natural state.

She's in psychoanalysis, so you learn a lot about that too. She endlessly goes on about her dreams, and I skipped these parts, much as you switch off when people tell you about their dreams in real life. . . . . I was in a golden hall with a box, and in the box was a crocodile, and people were . . . SHUT UP Doris.

The book also really helps you understand what it was to live before the sexual revolution. It's obssessed with sex as a deeply meaningful element of life in a way I find really foreign. You must prepare yourself for lines such as “Integrity is the orgasm” and strange, over intellectualised scenes such as:

“Anna, we have nothing to say to each other, why not?” “Because we aren't the same kind of person” “What does that mean, the same kind of person?” he asked, injecting the automatic irony into his voice – a sort of willed, protective, ironic drawl . . . Then he said, “Come to bed.” In bed, he put his and on my breast and I felt sexual revulsion and said: “What's the use, we aren't any good for each other and never have been?” So we went to sleep.”

She has so much heartbreak and despair in her attempt to make sex meaningful, it is sort of astonishing. You honestly just want to take the character and sit her down in front of the SEX AND THE CITY. What a brave new world we live in.

I admired the central character Anna/Ella very much (Though she is probably I think Anna/Ella/Doris really). She was making such a noble struggle against so many massive odds: the partriachy, capitalism, commercialism, etc. They frequently return to the idea that there is a dark mountain, called human ignorance, and that great men stand on top of it, making great discoveries. Others, less great, work on pushing the boulder of humanity up the mountain. They keep trying, putting all their lives and talents into making small changes, and moving it a few inches forward. She is, she says, one of the boulder pushers.

On the other hand, she acts offended when people want to buy the movie rights to her book, because she is so horrified with commercialism. Get a GRIP, woman.

So the book while irritating, opened a window to me on to a particular era, and by so doing helped me understand my own time. And while the central character was irritating, she was also genuinely inspiring. There is a sense that what is worthwhile is the struggle – the struggle to live your own life in your own way – whether you are successful or not.

Also, let me just mention again, she went to my high school, and is a Nobel Laureate. Well done Convent! Yes Chisipite? Yes Arundel? Any Nobel Laureates? No? No? Any other major international prizes of any kind? No? I guess that means it's time to SUCK IT!

(And you can start sucking it without even getting on to Kirsty Coventry)

Saturday, 11 December 2010

OUR HUSBAND HAS GONE MAD AGAIN by Ola Rotimi


I was fortunate to be taught by Ola Rotimi at university in the US. He appeared at that time entirely circular, due to the huge number of layers he wore against the Minnesota cold. He was a charming and intelligent man, with a fiery passon for African theatre, and a great many opinions on all subjects from the World Bank (very negative) to palm wine (very positive). He once bought me a theatre ticket, and signed the card to 'his little African sister.' A lovely man. He passed away in 2000.

OUR HUSBAND HAS GONE MAD AGAIN is my favourite of all his works. It carries a genuinely crazy West African energy, and you can't help but adore it's fine disregard for Western realism. The play tells the story of one Major Lejoka-Brown, who despite having left the army many years ago, and made a fortune in cocoa, still carries himself as a miltary man, and now that he is entering politics is organising his campaign on bizarrely miliatry lines.

Before the play begins, he has married a Kenyan woman, Liza, who has since been studying medicine in the US. She is now on her way to live with him in Nigeria, and is unaware that he has not one, but two other wives, and the Major is determined to keep it that way. Really he loves Liza, and the two wives are sort of unintentional: one is much older, his late brother's wife, who he had to marry as per Muslim custom, and the other much younger, who he married to advance his political career. Liza arrives and predictably discovers the two other wives; but from there on it all becomes more and more unpredictable. Liza forges allegiances with the wives, teaching the older about supply and demand, so she becomes a chicken magnate, and inciting the younger to oppose the Major in his ludicrous election.

There's a wild mix of ideas here, about gender equity, old and new Nigerias, bikinis and hijabs, etc etc. It's a lovely little show. The plot is maybe a teensy bit weak, but somehow I really don't care.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

HARPERS December 2010


My Harpers is here!

There is always something interesting I didn't know about in this magazine. For example, who knew that there were 'content mills' for the internet. From the Dept of We're-All-Going-to-Hell-in-a-Handbasket:

". . . consider the example of Demand Media, a so-called content-mill, which uses a vast collection of Web-recruited freelancers to generate articles for about $15 per 300-word item; copy editors are said to get $2.50 for each piece they correct. The outfit's editorial direction is chartered by what the company's prospectus calls "our propeitary algorithms," which is to say, equations that mainly weigh two factors: what perople are searching for on Google and what advertisers might pay to associate themselves with a given topic." (EASY CHAIR by Thomas Frank)

Even more proper newspapers, like USA Today, have used these mills. Journalism is dead and we are all totally screwed.

Let me just close off by saying something that is not strictly relevant, but has been bothering me for some time. What is going on with Julian Assange's hair? Is it prematurely white? Or is it white in the usual way, but his face is freakishly young? Or what? These journalists keep reporting on Wikileaks, but no one is asking the real questions.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

NATIVE SON by Richard Wright


According to the back: “NATIVE SON follows the fortunes of Bigger Thomas, a young black man who is trapped in a life of poverty in the slums of Chicago. Unwittingly involved in a wealthy woman's death, he is hunted relentlessly, baited by prejudiced officials, charged with murder and driven to acknowledge a strange pride in his crime.”

Well, sort of. But actually this undersells this novel, making it sound like a straightforward condemnation of racial attitudes in America in the twentieth century, with Bigger the innocent victim of an evil system. In fact, Bigger is a complex character. He is presented as violent, and frustated, and I'm not sure we can describe his murder as entirely unwitting. He most wittingly continues by burning the lady in a furnace, to cover up his crime, and demands a ransom from her parents. He then goes on to rape and murder his girlfriend when he fears she will expose him. When the white woman's bones are discovered in the furnace, he goes on the run, and is eventually captured, tried, and sentenced to death. However, without making Bigger in any way a saint, or implying he is not responsible for his actions, the book still manages to put Bigger's society on trial, rather than Bigger himself.

This book was written in 1940, and made Wright the first best selling black novelist in the US. I think it was remarkably brave at such a period to present such a negative portrait of a black man, and a remarkable feat of writing skill to ensure we feel sympathy for him. This reader, at any rate, found it easy to understand his frustration, and even the sense of joy and freedom he felt once he had committed the murder. He finally feels as if he has some sort of control over his own life, and is at last a person to be reckoned with.

The first two sections, 'Fear,' about his life before the murder, and 'Flight' about his life after it, are beautifully written. Clear, compelling, gorgeously unpretentious (save for one terrible sex scene). The last, 'Fate' is not quite up to this standard. It covers his trial, and has some dreadful unconvincing set pieces, in the way of speeches to the jury, and a heroic but misguided attempt to have Bigger realise what has been wrong in his life in his last moments.

The back again, from David Mamet: NATIVE SON is, in addition to being a masterpiece, a Great American Novel”. Mr Mamet, you are still a mysoginist. But you are right about Native Son.

Friday, 3 December 2010

BRITAIN'S WORLD CUP BID or, Being Safe in Elevators


In an unexpected departure for this blog, let's talk about football for a moment. This doesn't really count in a blog about reading, expect in so far as if you are literate you cannot fail to have read about the UK losing the World Cup. In fact, even if you aren't literate. Even if you are living in a box, pretty much.

Now I don't care at all about the World Cup. But, what makes me cross is the fact that apparently the British bid team were told that it was the British media that hurt the bid's chances. This is clearly a thinly veiled reference to the allegations on Panorama about the World Cup bidding being totally corrupt, which no doubt were entirely correct.

So who do they give it to instead? RUSSIA. Which is certainly not going to have it's bid effected by any small inconvenience such as a goddamn FREE PRESS. No, no, if you had anything to say about the World Cup in a Russian newspaper, you better watch out next time you get into an ELEVATOR. Let's take a moment here to salute ANNA POLITKOVSKAYA! (If you don't know who you are saluting: here)

It makes me proud to be British. Or 30% British. Or whatever I am.