Tuesday, 28 December 2010

The Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman by Elizabeth Buchan


DATE READ: December 2010

NOTES: Rose appears to have a very enviable life. Both she and her husband Nathan are in well-paid jobs, her good-natured children are emerging from University and she lives in a comfortable house with a much loved and well-cared for garden. So what can go wrong?

When Nathan reveals that he is having an affair and about to leave her, Rose sinks into despondency. Her problems far from over – his new love, Minty, is Rose’s underling at work and within a short time the ambitious Minty is promoted and Rose is squeezed out. This could then have become a story along the well-trodden path of the bitter, wronged and innocent woman versus a callous man. But Buchan avoids this and is much more nuanced in her approach.

It is a subtle story of a woman coming to terms with both her past and her present. Her children are very well drawn – and far from problem-free! I thought the only wrong note was the traitorous Minty turning up uninvited to a family celebration.

The Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman holds some lovely writing. The descriptions of the garden are particularly good – especially how the sudden neglect of the garden reveals itself. (Analogous with Rose’s neglect of her marriage?)

My first book by this author – but I shall look out for more!

Thursday, 23 December 2010

The Tent, the Bucket and Me by Emma Kennedy


DATE READ: December 2010

NOTES: This book was subtitled “My family’s disastrous attempts to go camping in the 70s”. It was certainly that – never was there a more inept and ill-prepared group of campers. Each holiday they set out optimistically but were continually dogged by disaster and misfortune. The book begins off well and is quite funny for the first two chapters. But there really is not enough material to sustain the narrative for 300+ pages and it feels as if the whole thing has been padded out.

Lots of the incidents sound very implausible. I don’t think this matters – but it should have been funnier! Telling us that French people are weird is not funny…..

We camped all through the 70s and had a great time. Yes, things went wrong. Cars broke down in France and Spain, we once forgot to take our camp kitchen and our roof rack collapsed in the Pyrenees. I got gastro-enteritis in Portugal – it was 108 paces to the toilet block! But it was all great. Hope no-one is put off camping by this book!

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

DATE PUBLISHED: 1947 (first published in English 2009)

DATE READ: December 2010

NOTES: This is a bleak, terrifying and haunting novel. Set in wartime Berlin it seeks to tell the story of Otto and Anna Quangel – a pair of very unlikely dissidents. After the death of their soldier son in France they decide that they must do something to challenge the Nazis. Otto decides he will write postcards with anti-regime slogans and leave them in random spots to be found and read by others. The book makes clear from the start that their actions are doomed to failure but despite that the story is compelling.

The title is intriguing. Throughout the book there is a sense of “aloneness” of the characters. Otto and Anna seem to be living quite separate lives (but do come together emotionally later in the book). The wastrel Enno moves from woman to woman thinking only of himself. Frau Rosenthal is a Jewess living alone and appearing to have no friends or relatives. Judge Fromm is also quite alone in his apartment with his books and his thoughts (or is he?) Even the Gestapo Inspector Esherisch is alone in his work with no respect for those around him.

What this book makes clear is the answer to the question: When the German people realised how bad the Nazis were why didn’t they challenge them? Fallada describes in graphic detail the ruthlessness of the police, the justice system and the terror and insecurity of the ordinary people. For the overwhelming majority it became easier and safer to be quiet, keep your head down and avert your eyes.

But (according to Fallada) in the final analysis the question to ask oneself is whether you remained a decent human being or sunk to the level of those around. When asked if their resistance has been in vain the prisoner Doctor Reichhardt says:

“Well, it will have helped us to feel that we behaved decently till the end………As it was, we all acted alone, we were caught alone, and every one of us will have to die alone. But that doesn’t mean that we are alone or that our death will be in vain.”

A profoundly moving book.

A Most Wanted Man by John le Carré


DATE READ: November 2010

NOTES: I have become a great fan of le Carré’s post-Cold War fiction – The Constant Gardener, Absolute Friends and The Mission Song. While I enjoyed A Most Wanted Man I found it to be a little uneven and didn’t hold my attention as much as his other books. The setting is Hamburg and he describes the Turkish community there vividly and realistically – explaining their hopes, anxieties and disappointments.

I think the main problem was the character of Issa – a young man who seemed to have appeared from nowhere and is espousing Islamic fervour. He reminded me of Prince Myshkin in The Idiot – a sort of innocent very much out of his depth. Le Carré has, I assume, deliberately made him an ambiguous character but for me he was the weak link in the plot. The banker Tommy Brue has various financial skeletons in his vaults left over from his late father’s regime and he seems to agree to help Issa and his attractive lawyer Annabel.

What the book describes well are the machinations and manipulation by various intelligence organisations. Their ruthlessness is terrifying – but in a very subtle way. They may appear to be on your side but in the final analysis all their loyalty is with their own organisation not with the people they are supposed to protect.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

The Unbearable Lightness of Scones by Alexander McCall Smith


DATE READ: December 2010 (audio)

NOTES: A gentle, funny satire on modern Edinburgh life. There are lots of characters whose lives cross in different ways. Matthew struggles to come to terms with marriage, young Bertie with his psychotherapy sessions, Domenica with increasing loneliness, Angus worries about what to do with six puppies delivered to his door and Big Lou is forever offering food and comfort. And Ian Rankin even makes and appearance!

There is no one plotlines – the story meanders along with a series of misunderstandings and errors of judgement.

The Steiner School children are particularly funny – and bearing some really whacky names: Tofu, Hiawatha, Merlin, Pansy, Laksmi! All very comical but a bit too precocious for six year olds (but perhaps I am misjudging Rudolf Steiner!). Bertie is an unwilling participant in psychotherapy. But he proves to be clever and manipulative and we cheer him on.

What comes over is McCall’s deep affection for Scotland and in particular Edinburgh.

As indicated in the title this book is light and fluffy. It is a feelgood read – and none the worse for that.