Monday, 29 September 2008

TITLE: THE BIRTHDAY BOYS AUTHOR: Beryl Bainbridge DATE PUBLISHED: 1991 DATE READ: September 2008 NOTES: This is a fictionalised version of the ill-fated Polar expedition led by Scott. Each chapter is narrated by a different member of the team. Knowing from the outset that these were the ones who died making the final journey to the South Pole made it all the more poignant. It is a beautifully written book which makes all the characters come alive. Some of the errors made by the expedition are (seen in hindsight) unbelievable. Few of the team had any serious experience in either skiing or moving sledges with dog teams. The ponies were unsuitable for the terrain, as were the motor vehicles. Scott eventually chose (against all previous plans) to take five rather than four on the final push to the Pole – this had a damaging effect on their supplies which he failed to take into account. Bainbridge treats all the men with honesty and sensitivity. She exhibits a real understanding of the mindset of the officer class of the Edwardian era – the divisions between officers and men, the feeling that using huge dog teams was “unsporting” and the virtue of stoicism. A lovely book that led me to a greater understanding of a group of men who were heroic while at the same time slightly insane!

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

TITLE: GILEAD AUTHOR: Marilynne Robinson DATE PUBLISHED: 2005 DATE READ: September 2008 NOTES: This book won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and came with reviews from some very notable people. It is written in the form of a letter from 76 year old Reverend John Ames to his young son. I found this structure a bit clumsy and unhelpful. While I agree that the language and tone are beautiful it is not a book that I enjoyed. Much of it is taken up with the narrator’s musings on religious doctrine and the meaning of grace, forgiveness etc. The story unwinds painfully slowly. The setting is the small town of Gilead and although we learn a little about some of the townsfolk no clear picture of the town emerges. On page 272 Ames says “I think I’ll put an end to all this writing” If only he had decided that 200 pages earlier!

Sunday, 21 September 2008

TITLE: POINT TO POINT NAVIGATION AUTHOR: Gore Vidal DATE PUBLISHED: 2006 DATE READ: September 2008 NOTES: As a fan of Gore Vidal’s writing I was keen to read this second part of his autobiography. It is written in an unconventional style and moves back and forward in time with some chapters very short and others quite lengthy. This is a structure I found interesting. As expected he is gossipy, bitchy and pretty scathing about his perceived enemies. This is all great fun. His bits about films and actors were excellent, as were his forays into politics. But in parts he names and discusses strings of (American) writers many of which I had never heard. He continues to keep his private life just that and reveals very little about his partner Howard although he writes very movingly of his death. Vidal’s novel Creation remains one of my favourite books.

Monday, 15 September 2008

TITLE: LANARK –A LIFE IN FOUR BOOKS AUTHOR: Alasdair Gray DATE PUBLISHED: 1981 DATE READ: September 2008 NOTES: I had heard Lanark described as a Glaswegian cult classic but I didn’t quite know what to expect. There are two narrative threads. Books 1 and 2 are written in a fairly conventional and naturalistic style and tell the story of Duncan Thaw as he moves through a pretty unhappy childhood into an equally unhappy adolescence. His burning ambition is to paint and he takes on the mammoth task of a church mural. He receives no payment for this and in the end it is rejected by the church hierarchy. Thereafter he sinks into depression and breakdown. Books 3 and 4 describe the strange dystopic parallel world of Unthank and the adventures of Lanark. This is a surreal place – a mixture of sci-fi, Kafka and horror comics. Here the normal rules of reality have broken down. Although the book could be read as two separate narratives it soon becomes clear that Unthank is an allegorical Glasgow and Lanark is another version of Thaw. There are other parallels – for instance the eczema that Thaw suffers from and the dragon skins of the inhabitants of Unthank.
The story of Duncan Thaw was excellent – touching without being sentimental, a beautiful evocation of childhood and adolescence. Not being a fan of science fiction I was less enthralled by the Unthank sections - although I appreciated the vigorous language and the massive flow of ideas. You can play at “Spot the Influences” – Kafka, Joyce, Orwell etc. In fact Gray, in one of many comic touches, includes a list of “embedded Plagiarisms” which stretches over fifteen pages! Lanark is very much a political book – in the Institute of Unthank the patients are used as food for the staff (an allegory for capitalism in action?). The plot also involves pollution, environmental degradation and over-population. It is not easy to sum up Lanark in a few words. It is ambitious, quirky, funny and challenging. Quite an achievement!

Sunday, 7 September 2008

TITLE: THE PAINTED VEIL AUTHOR: W. Somerset Maugham DATE PUBLISHED: 1925 DATE READ: September 2008 NOTES: A delightful well constructed story of an unhappy marriage. Kitty Fane is shallow and vain while her husband is stiff and socially inept. They travel out to Hong Kong where Walter works as a bacteriologist. Here Kitty meets and is besotted with Charles Townsend. When Walter hears of her affair he gives her several alternatives and in the end she feels her only choice is to travel with him to the interior of China to work in a cholera-ravaged community. Kitty’s honesty about her own feelings and weaknesses endear her to the reader – but we are equally drawn to sad cuckolded Walter. At Mei-tan-fu Kitty begins to work in the Catholic convent and gradually comes to recognise good qualities in her husband while finding spiritual solace through hard work. Maugham introduces some great characters – Waddington the Customs Officer living with a Manchu woman and the wise Mother Superior. Some of Kitty’s shortcomings can be explained by her loveless family background. We do not get an insight into how Walter became the man he is. The Painted Veil is a good old-fashioned story beautifully told.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

TITLE: THE NAMING OF THE DEAD AUTHOR: Ian Rankin DATE PUBLISHED: 2006 DATE READ: September 2008 NOTES: This Rebus story is set in the week covering the G8 meeting at Gleneagles. Rebus and Siobhan realise that a recently murdered rapist may be only one victim of a serial killer. Meanwhile at Edinburgh Castle a SMP falls to his death. Suicide, accident or murder? Rebus is thwarted in trying to find the truth by Special when he begins to see links with the SMP and an arms dealer. A convoluted plot involving revenge, political intrigue and murder but Rankin keeps the whole thing going with great pace and verve. The background atmosphere of the G8 conference is brilliantly portrayed – the marches, the riots, the concerts, the anarchists, the egotistical pop stars and the well-guarded politicos. The London bombings were particularly well integrated and meshed into the story in a believable way. Siobhan is given plenty to do – even leading her to make a few misjudged acts. Rebus is his usual cynical self and there is plenty of sparky dialogue. All the loose ends are more or less tied up at the end making this a satisfying read.