Wednesday, 28 October 2009

the Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

DATE PUBLISHED: 1963 DATE READ: October 2009 NOTES: This is a sympathetic and moving story of a young girl’s disintegration into depression and mental illness. The writing is beautifully precise and lucid as we are taken into the mind of Esther Greenwood as she tentatively tries to move to adulthood. Much of the language is vivid. In referring to a German book she says “…the very sight of those dense, black, barbed-wire letters made my mind shut like a clam.” Although quite believable, it is not especially depressing – much of the writing is quite funny as Esther views the world in a quirky way. She finds many of the customs in New York confusing. For example she always seems to get tipping wrong – and we can all sympathise with her there! In spite of being a straight A student she has continual feelings of inadequacy and lists all the things she can’t do while dismissing her own talents. As her breakdown occurs we are taken into the world of 1960s mental health treatment – a very uncomfortable experience even for a private patient. She perceptively compares her electric shock treatment with the execution of the Rosenbergs. How sad that this is the only novel by Sylvia Plath – what a loss to literature.

Monday, 26 October 2009

The Dig by John Preston

DATE PUBLISHED: 2007 DATE READ: October 2009 NOTES: At one level this is a very slight story: Landowner asks archaeologists to investigate the mounds on her land. They dig and find Anglo-Saxon treasure. But in fact The Dig is much more than a deceptively simple story. The book is a fictionalised account of how the Sutton Hoo treasure ship came to be excavated in 1939. The story is told from the point of view of different participants. There is the widowed landowner Edith Pretty, not in the best of health and still mourning the loss of her husband. Basil Brown is the first to start digging the site and is a self-taught archaeologist – an honest and simple soul. Peggy Piggot is the new wife of an archaeologist brought in for his expertise. She is also keenly interested in the excavations while at the same time aware that her marriage is not what she thought it would be. The touching epilogue is by Robert Pretty who eagerly watched the dig as a nine year old. This is a subtle and compelling read. Class conflict and professional jealousies abound in a gentle and understated way. The coming war looms large in the narrative – barrage balloons are sighted overhead and the air-raid shelter is dug. The reader gets the clear impression that the world is about to change…… A tender and entertaining book. Highly recommended.

A Gate At The Stairs by Lorrie Moore

DATE PUBLISHED: 2009 DATE READ: October 2009 NOTES: I had read many good reviews of Lorrie Moore’s work so I had very high hopes of A Gate At The Stairs. The story is of a young college student, Tassie, who leaves her family farm in the Midwest to find an exciting new life in the provincial town of Troy. She is bemused and bewildered by many of the people she meets and the new things she encounters. Her very quirky and eccentric use of language suffuses the whole book – much of it very witty. Her college classes merge in her mind as she contemplates Intro to Sufism, Soundtracks to War Movies and Pilates/the Neutral Pelvis. She seems to have a bright enquiring mind – but many of her relationships end disastrously. She manages to get a childcare job helping out a professional couple who are in the process of adopting a little girl of mixed race origin. This leads to some interesting reflections of attitudes to race. We could only cheer on Tassie when approached by a woman requesting a play date so that her toddler could have experience of being with a mixed race child. Her quick response was: “I’m sorry, but Mary-Emma already has a lot of white friends.” But in the course of the narrative some seriously sad things happen…. But Tassie seemed hardly moved at all and her quirky language just carried on relentlessly – almost to the point of being annoying. Although the book had so many funny moments it was also bleak and melancholy. The writing is fine – I understand what reviewers rave about. However Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar gives a better picture of a young girl finding her way at college and Ann Tyler’s Digging to America is more perceptive about adoption.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

The Standing Pool by Adam Thorpe

DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: October 2009 NOTES: Dissatisfied academics Nick and Sarah Mallinson decide to take a sabbatical in France and agree to rent the house of Lucy and Alan Sandler. As they set off with their three young daughters they anticipate an exciting time for all the family during which they will both pick up the threads of their academic work. But life in France turns out to be less than idyllic and the house seems to have a dark shadow looming over it. The characterisations of the British folk were all good. The monstrous Sandlers were brilliantly portrayed and the Mallinson family seemed very believable. The appearance of Nick’s feckless son from his first marriage probably struck a chord with many parents! Unfortunately the local French were all portrayed as slightly batty or sinister. The plot was all a bit thin and not very credible and the tone of the writing veered from farce to serious sexual violence. It was as if the writer was unsure of which direction he was headed. Also I do wonder for how much longer novels set in the present can still hark back to wartime. And why would apparently intelligent people rent a house with a swimming pool when they have very young children who can’t swim??? Obviously educated but with no common sense! But nonetheless this was an entertaining read.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Nella Last's Peace by Nella Last

(edited by Patricia & Robert Malcolmson) DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: October 2009 NOTES: This is an edited version of Nella’s diary entries submitted to the Mass Observation organisation from 1945 to 1948. They recount her time spent as a housewife in Barrow. Although some major world or national events are mentioned her writing is more focussed on her family, her neighbours and her friends. She writes honestly and openly and is very critical of lots of people. Her husband was obviously an extremely difficult man to live with and she certainly lets rip about him in her diary (and sometimes in real life). The book is quite repetitive – a reflection of her life which was (to us) rather tedious – a constant round of shopping, cooking and household duties with very little social life. I must take issue with the cover of this book. It shows and street of small terraced houses, a woman scrubbing the pavement and another with a babe in arms. It very much evokes the “grimness” of the lives of the Northern working class. But Nella was in no way “typical”. Her husband ran his own business and she had a small private income from her parents. They had a modern semi-detached house in a good area with a garage and a car. And they even had central heating! She also sent all her washing to the laundry each week and had a woman come in to clean. But she nonetheless gives us a good picture of life at the time – the rationing, the uncertainty about the future and the general greyness that pervaded most people’s lives. Few of us today would choose to swap places!

Saturday, 17 October 2009

The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor

DATE PUBLISHED: 2006 DATE READ: October 2009 NOTES: This is a serious and scholarly piece of work. People of a certain age and political persuasion tend to view the Spanish Civil War as a passionate but doomed attempt by Republicans to maintain their democratically elected government against fascist forces. All that romanticism is ripped away by Beevor’s book. His excellent research reveals all the ambition, violence and thuggery on both sides – as well as the idealism of some of the participants. Few emerge from the story blameless. Franco’s side is shown to be personally ambitious, ruthless and vengeful while the Republicans were too hopelessly divided to take full advantage of the situation and not helped by incompetent and short-sighted leaders who led their men into futile battles. The antipathy of the communists to the anarchists is well-known but Beevor explores this further. The interference and collusion of outside powers is also very well documented here. I hadn’t realised that there were German arms manufacturers selling weapons to both sides! The Battle for Spain does not just concentrate on the progress of the battlefronts. He also discusses frequently how the civilian population was coping and the terrible privations many Spaniards (especially Catalans) were forced to suffer. The beginnings of the conflict and its awful aftermath are particularly well described. This is a brilliant, but ultimately depressing, read.

The Lemur by Benjamin Black

DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: October 2009 NOTES: Having read and enjoyed several of John Banville’s novels I was looking forward to reading him in his crime writing persona. But The Lemur was very disappointing. After a good beginning the plot became really flat and there was simply no suspense as the narrative moved to its conclusion. I thought the device of a rich, successful businessman employing his son-in-law to write his biography very odd. Surely most biographies are arranged to be written via a publisher? The character of The Lemur – a young researcher – was interesting and could have been developed further but he was only present for a few pages. I didn’t feel I could care about any of the other characters. Hard to believe this was by the same author as The Untouchable and The Book of

Saturday, 10 October 2009

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

DATE PUBLISHED: 1989 DATE READ: September 2009 NOTES: This is a wonderful book in every way – poignant, funny and thoughtful. Johnny Wheelwright recounts the story of his friendship with Owen – a boy of very small stature (dwarfism is never mentioned) who is highly intelligent and socially manipulative. But as well as being clever Owen is convinced he has been chosen by God for a special purpose. He also claims to know the date of his death – a fact that Johnny treats with great scepticism. There is much sadness in the book – Owen seems to come from such an unloving family, Johnny would love to know who his real father is, people die unexpectedly and tragically. But the friendship and love of Johnny and Owen overcomes all this as they move through childhood to adulthood. The narrative is brilliantly constructed and everything in the story is relevant. Irving explores ideas on organised religion and spiritually and although the story is set in small town New Hampshire the wider political scene is referred to as John links his narrative with facts about the Vietnam War and the Iran-Contra affair. I chose to read this book as it so often appears on those lists of “most favourite books”. I left in on my book shelf for over a year – initially put off by the 640 pages. But now I realise it was a wonderful treat just waiting for me! Owen Meany must be one of the best literary creations of all times…..

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon

DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: September 2009 NOTES: This is a really fascinating book. Like other good writers whose first language is not English (eg Nabokov, Conrad) Hemon brings to his work a freshness and vitality. His lead character’s confusion between “sadness” and “sardines” is a particularly nice example. The chapters alternate between the 1900s and present day in Chicago. The earlier part of the book tells the story of a young Jewish (possible) Anarchist (Lazarus Averbuch) and his murder by the Chief of Police. Much of this strikes chords with today’s situation – fear of terrorists, immigrants, police cover-ups, political bias of the press. This is based on actual events – although many of the facts remain uncertain. The other part is the story of a would-be writer Brik who is planning a book on Lazarus and sets off on a journey to Europe to find out about his origins. But he himself has his own memories of the war following the break-up of Yugoslavia so he decides to include a visit to his home country. He is accompanied by a photographer friend whose own actions in the past do not bear too much scrutiny. Sometimes the story of Lazarus leeches into the modern day chapters. When this occurred I took it to mean that these parts were being imagined by Brik whereas the 1908 chapters were what actually happened. The ending was somewhat ambivalent – but then life is often like that and some things do not end neatly. I am not sure about the photographs. The old ones from the Chicago archives were interesting but the modern ones were so poorly reproduced that I didn’t know their purpose.