Tuesday, 31 May 2011

TWILIGHT by Stephenie Meyer


For the benefit of those of you who have been being held by Columbian rebels for the last few years, I will summarise the TWILIGHT plot. A central character, unashamedly named Bella Swann, moves to a new high school. There she meets Edward Cullen, who is strangely beautiful. They fall in love. She discovers he is a vampire. He is a kind of vampire who has learnt not to eat people. A people-eating kind of vampire tries to kill Bella, and Edward saves her.

At first, I really enjoyed this book. It has real-page turning power. It's very compelling, the will-they-won't-they and the suppressed sexual tension, and I was just thinking: I see why this is a hit! I am so in touch with the zeitgeist! With the mind of the common man! Let's watch the movies!

When, sadly, it all just got too stupid for anything. I tried, god knows, I tried. If I could like it, I know I could be a different type of person: Fun! Happy-go-lucky! Down-to-earth! Etc!

But, I mean, god:
About three things I was absolutely positive. First, Edward was a vampire. Second, there was part of him – and I didn't know how potent that part might be – that thirsted for my blood. And third, I was was unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him.

Here's an interesting article about the author, who is an Arizona based Mormon mother-of-three who has never even seen an R-rated movie. This starts to make it clearer as to why while the book is very sexy, nothing sexual actually happens. It also helps to explain some of Edward's clothing choices:

He was removing a light beige leather jacket now; underneath he wore an ivory turtleneck sweater. It fit him snugly, emphasizing how muscular his chest was.

I was reading this book at the same time as RABBIT, RUN, which is a novel that makes a serious attempt to understand how relationships work. It made for a lurid comparison with TWILIGHT, where the main hurdle - falling in love - is handled in the first couple of chapters. Thereafter, all major threats are external; whereas, at least in my unhappy experience, most major threats are entirely internal.

Geez. I will never be Fun! and Down-to-earth! at this rate.

Monday, 30 May 2011

RABBIT, RUN by John Updike


This book had been frequently recommended to me, in particular, and vehemently, by young men of a certain stripe. Thus, I had avoided reading it.

It begins with the central character, Harry 'Rabbit' Angstrom going out to get his pregnant wife some cigarettes. He doesn't come home. Almost on impulse, he drives through the night, trying to go South. It's a sort of wonderful fantasy of escaping a disappointing life.

The fantasy doesn't last long, as he gets lost, and returns to his home town, where he gets romantically involved with a lady who is a part-time prostitute. His wife gives birth to their baby, and overwhelmed with guilt her returns to her. One night, after a fight, he leaves his wife again. She gets drunk and accidentally drowns the baby in the bathtub. (No, I did not expect that twist either). After the funeral he flees back to the part-time prostitute, who is pregnant, and says she will abort if he doesn't marry her. Once more, he starts running.

The presentation of someone trapped in their life was strangely compelling, maybe because I am about Rabbit's age. He was a very good basketball player in high school, and he yearns constantly for that experience, of the perfect. It's awfully sad. Here's when he's trying to force himself to go back to his wife:

What held him back all day was the feeling that somewhere there was something better for him than listening to babies cry and cheating people in used-car lots and it's this feeling he tries to kill, right there on the bus; he grips the chrome bar and leans far over two women with white pleated blouses and laps of packages and closes his eyes and tries to kill it.

Stylistically, it's astonishingly accomplished: he actually manages to pulls off not just the present tense, but also very long stream-of-consciousness sentences, both of which are usually a recipe for disaster. Try this, when Rabbit seems some Amish:

Amish overworked their animals, he knew. Fanatics. Hump their women standing up, out in the fields, wearing clothes, just hoist black skirts and there is was, nothing underneath. No underpants. Fanatics. Worship manure.

Unfortunately as you may be able to tell from the above quote, the book is sort of creepily obsessed with sex, and with women as sexual objects. Rabbit wants to have sex all the time, even when his wife is just back from the hospital, even when its time for the baby's FUNERAL. And it's all taken terribly, embarrassingly, seriously:
His wish to make love to Janice is like a small angel to which all afternoon tiny lead weights are attached

Small angelic sex apart, it's a very good novel.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

VANITY FAIR by William Makepeace Thackeray


Thackeray, rather impressively, had managed to lose all his money by the age of 25. This was partly because he was a pretty bad businessman, and partly because he had a pretty big gambling problem.

He thus had turned to writing for an income, and eventually in his late thirties managed to produce VANITY FAIR, the novel that gave him back his financial independence, and eventually his claim to literary posterity. I always feel rather a fondness for these historical figures who only get their acts together in their thirties.

VANITY FAIR is, curiously enough, both a wickedly comic and a deeply moral book. It tells the story of two young women: Becky, who is poor, dishonest, and very clever, and Amelia, who is rich, honest and about as dim as a trout. I would summarise the plot, but honestly, this thing is 900 pages long, I don't think you want me to. Briefly: marriage, Battle of Waterloo, death, debts, Wimbledon, bankruptcy, long lost love, India, happily ever after.

The joy of it really is the shining comic voice. Here, about a hopeful MP:
But though he had a fine flux of words, and delivered his little voice with great pomposity and pleasure to himself, and never advanced any sentiment or opinion which was not perfectly trite and stale, and supported by a Latin quotation; yet he failed somehow, in spite of a mediocrity which ought to have insured any man a success.

A wonderful book.

Trivia!: Weirdly, Thackery went to the same school – Charterhouse – as an author two books back, Robert Graves, and hated it just as badly, always calling it Slaughterhouse.

Monday, 23 May 2011

LOST IN TRANSLATION by Nicole Mones


Sometimes when one can’t sleep in the middle of the night, one will read anything one can get one’s shaking hands on.

Mine unsteadily landed on LOST IN TRANSLATION by Nicole Mones. Now, unlike 90% of everything else in popular culture, this has nothing to do with the movie.

It is a trashy tale of an American translator in China who is hired to help an archaeologist find the bones of Peking man, a homo erectus fossil lost during the Second World War. Here are the main elements:
- an engaging find-the-object plot
- ‘evocative’ descriptions of China (ie. evoking nausea)
- stupidly obvious psychological issues for the translator
- a background story relating to a 17th century Jesuit, intended to give a literary patina to this nonsense

The translator who is a white American is apparently only interested in Chinese men. We are supposed to find this charming, but really I just found it racist. For some reason, people don’t seem to get this: anytime you outline how you only like one race, you are by definition a racist.

Anyway it was a good page turner, but I had to stop after 250 pages or so. I could easily have got to the end, but really, life is short.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

EAST OF EDEN by John Steinbeck


I seem to be reading nothing but memoir at the moment, so I thought that this epic novel would be a interesting change.

Oh dear, never mind that, this turns out to be a kind of memoir too, but of the large scale, mythic and messed-up kind. Steinbeck wrote it as a history for his small sons, and was convinced it was his masterpiece.

It’s pretty long and painful overall, but there are some great parts: a wonderful evil prostitute murderer character; ideas about early home freezing; some quite shocking violence; and an interesting conception of America: ”In the old lands they say of us that we go from barbarism to decadence without an intervening culture.”

On one level, it’s a retelling of the biblical story of Cain and Abel; on another it’s a story of the Salinas Valley in California where Steinbeck grew up; and on another it’s a history of his family. Basically, the book tells of two neighbouring families, across two generations, where two sets of brothers battle for their father’s affections. Steinbeck clearly feels we are a bit dim, and in case these repetitions weren’t enough, makes sure to tell us, frequently and explicitly, about his theory that the ur-story of us all is our endless struggle for our parents’ love.

Clearly, this guy had a lot of issues with his siblings.

Personally, I think he should have gone to the therapist, rather than the publisher, but what the hell, he’s Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck and I’m some girl in Nairobi who’s still in her pyjamas at 2pm.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

GOODBYE TO ALL THAT by Robert Graves


Graves wrote this memoir when he was just a year older than me, 34, going through an ugly divorce, and on the point of leaving England forever. It is an awesome exercise in wholesale bridge burning.

It makes me feel like writing my memoirs, except that fortunately for me I have not had quite such an event filled life as Graves, who was in that unlucky generation that left high school in 1914, and so swapped one uniform for another, entering the First World War as teenagers.

We begin with his childhood, which is largely spent in one of these famously damaging English public schools, and he seems to have been accordingly damaged. He is bullied relentlessly (honest to god, where are the ADULTS in these places? When I was teaching I regarded one of my main jobs as keeping a beady eye on the big ones - anyway), until he takes up boxing. He has some success with this, and that seems to help keep the worst kids off him. He’s also astonishingly frank, for a book written in 1934, about falling in love with a younger boy, Dick.

On graduation, he volunteers for the army and is sent to France. The first dead person he sees there is a soldier who has killed himself rather than carry on, and things go downhill from there. Graves writes a very straightforward account, including detailed accounts of the bungling by high command. At one point he is declared dead, and his mum gets the condolence telegram, but with all the rude health of nineteen he pulls through.

On one of his leaves he marries a young woman and when the war ends they live in Oxford together. You might think, from the prosaic way he writes, that he was not as damaged by the war as some; but then he calmly tells you all about how he keeps seeing dead people piled up on the streets, and how these daymares are with him constantly until at least 1928.

He has four children by his wife, who is an early feminist, and when they lose all their money in a failed business venture, very laudably pitches in with this mountain of childcare for many years. Even more laudably, given that this book is written during a bitter divorce, he refrains from bashing on the feminist wife too much.

A grimly honest account of an interesting thirty four years.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

THE LAST RESORT by Douglas Rogers


This book tells the story of the author’s parents’ attempts to hold on to their land during the decade of Zimbabwe’s collapse from about 2000 on. The perspective is surprisingly honest: Douglas Rogers couldn’t wait to shake the dust of Africa from his feet, and can’t understand why his parents would fight to stay.

Rogers grew up on various farms in eastern Zimbabwe, and once he left school fled this rural idyll as fast as he could. On retirement, his parents bought a rocky piece of land and decided to run a backpackers lodge, which did well initially, until the economy, and thus the tourism industry, began to crumble.

That Rogers worked as a journalist for many years is abundantly clear from this book. The style is simple and unaffected, and the plot moves quickly enough to keep the attention of any commuter. This is almost to a fault; the book is sort of forgettable, though the story is not.

After the backpackers left, the prostitutes started arriving, then a small dagga business (that’s pot to the non-African readers), then the dispossessed farmers (both black and white), then the illegal diamond dealers, then, most dangerously, the MDC activists in hiding during the dark days of 2008 (that’s during the bloody elections, non-Zimbabwean readers). Meanwhile the possibility of their land being seized was constantly in the air; at one point they found out that their property deed had been cancelled, and ‘vested in the president,’ without their even being informed.

It’s a very intimate portrait of his parents, and of their struggle to maintain not just their lives (it gets very dodgy at the end), and their land, but their definition of themselves as Zimbabwean. In the final chapters, when the father is taking considerable risks protecting the MDC members, there’s a very sweet section about how, for the first time in his life, and for the first time in the history of his family in Africa (an impressive 350 years) he is at last on the right side of history.

This books sounds quite tragic, but is largely written in the comic vein, which is I think very Zimbabwean. It also a story more of victory, than of defeat. I hope that’s very Zim too, though possibly not.

Here’s a rather sweet interview with the author.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

I DREAMED OF AFRICA by Kuki Gallmann

This book recounts the author’s life in Kenya. Originally from Italy, she had always been fascinated by Africa, and eventually moved there with her second husband, buying a large ranch on which they kept cattle and provided a safe haven for wildlife.

She provides an interesting picture of Kenya in the 70s and 80s, at the tail end of the Happy Valley period, and includes many accounts of her intimate experience with African wildlife. The heart of the book however is her various bereavements. Her husband is killed in a car crash, and then a few years later, her son, an amateur herpetologist, is killed by a puff adder. Their funerals are minutely recorded, as are those of two or three of her friends.

Now, you would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by this.

I think I may have a heart of stone.

Great suffering does not necessarily make a great novel. Heartfelt sincerity, while important, is not all you need. (Oscar Wilde: “All bad poetry is sincere.” Ouch)

Now, before you start hating me in the Comments, let me give you an extract, and you hand on heart try and tell me that this is not dreadful:

There, on the extreme edge of the Great Rift Valley, guarding the gorge, grows an acacia tree bent by timeless winds. That tree is my friend, and we are sisters. I rest against its trunk, scaly and grey like a wise old elephant. I look up through the branches, twisted arms spread in a silent dance, to the sky of Africa . . . A last eagle flies majestically back to nest on steep cliffs.

Clearly, while she may have dreamed of Africa, she did not dream of writing without cliché.

In the interests of fairness, I should say it is very readable, especially if you skip the funerals. I couldn’t sleep last night, and polished off about 200 pages from 1am.

I admire the lady, who has a genuine and inspiring love for the Kenyan landscape, and has had a genuinely terrible time; but I just cannot admire the writer.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

BOSWELL’S LIFE OF JOHNSON


This is a book I have been meaning to read for some time. It’s one of those books one ought to read. So, I’ve read it. Alright, most of it. I had to give up. And I feel terribly guilty. How charming is this, from the Preface, obviously written by a much better person than me:

Loyal Johnsonians may look upon such a book (the abridged ‘Life’) with a measure of scorn. I could not have made it, had I not believed that it would be the means of drawing new readers to Boswell, and eventually of finding for them in the complete work what many have already found – days and years of growing enlightenment and happy companionship, and an innocent refuge from the cares and perturbations of life. (Princeton, June 28, 1917)

Dr Johnson’s fame rests primarily on the fact that he wrote the first English dictionary. In other countries this was apparently the work of entire institutes, not just one man, so this is no small achievement. Dr Johnson was apparently a great conversationalist, and was much admired across eighteenth century London. And by nobody was he more admired than Boswell, who set himself, after every night out, to recall Johnson’s words and set them down. On the one hand, I found this a bit bizarre and stalkerish. On the other, there's something touching, and not at all contemporary, about so unashamedly and entirely admiring someone. So we learn a lot about Johnson’s opinions. Here’s one I really feel:

When I was running about this town a very poor fellow, I was a great arguer for the advantages of poverty; but I was, at the same time, very sorry to be poor. Sir, all the arguments which are brought to represent poverty as no evil, shew it to be evidently a great evil. You never find people labouring to convince you that you may live very happily upon a plentiful fortune.

Or:

Johnson, upon all occasions, expressed his approbation of enforcing instruction by means of the rod. ‘I would rather (said he) have the rod to be the general terror to all, to make them learn, than tell a child, if you do thus, or thus, you will be more esteemed than your brothers or sisters. The rod produces an effect which terminates in itself. A child is afraid of being whipped, and gets his task, and there’s an end on’t; whereas, by exciting emulation and comparisons of superiority, you lay the foundation of lasting mischief; you make brothers and sisters hate each other.

I got a good way through the book, but eventually I got bored and had to give up. There were large sections that seemed obscure and eighteenth century, and I constantly felt like I was missing the point. Also, it had no shape. Like real life, it had no plot, no structure or meaning, and I don’t read books to spend more time in real life, but less.