DECEMBER READING - The Tiger's Wife; State of Wonder; The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake; The Villa Girls
THE VILLA GIRLS by Nicky Pellegrino
What more can one ask for over the summer/Christmas holiday period than lying down with a bit of chick-lit. How blissful and escapist! I had forgotten how intensely enjoyable a bit of relaxing, romantic and light reading can be. And you can read extraordinarily quickly which enables you to move onto the next one...
And, to take the bliss one step further, how about a setting of southern Italy, to an olive estate, owned and operated by the one family for some generations - oh the history, the family intrigues, the wine, the food, the olives!!!! The bliss goes on and on.
Rosie is a school girl in London when the story begins. She has recently lost her parents in a horrific road accident and is living unhappily and aimlessly with her aunt and uncle. She still goes to school and quite by accident strikes up a friendship with an Italian girl from school, Addolorata who takes her under her wing slowly introduces her to life. The first step in this process is a holiday at a villa in Spain with two other girls from school. Surprisingly this goes extremely well, and Rosie gradually begins to find her feet, ably assisted by Addolorato and her Italian family who own and run, none other than an Italian restaurant! Quelle surprise!
At the same time as Rosie is coping with the curve balls of life, in Italy Enzo is being groomed to take over the management of the olive estate from his father at some time in the future. Despite the estate being run by the men in the family, it is Enzo's fiery and strong grandmother who really runs the show and is determined that the estate will retain its prestigious international reputation. There is pressure on Enzo to find a young local woman to marry, but he continually resists.
Inevitably of course, as in all good chick lit, Rosie and Enzo are destined to meet, and this is on a second villa holiday that the girls decide to take two years after the first. And as in all good romances there are complications and difficulties until, naturally the inevitable happens and the two are reunited.
Oh yes it is all so predictable, and delicious and gorgeous, but who cares! The writing is delightful - the gloom and oppression of London vs the sunshine and brilliance of the Italian country side. And the food - Mamma Mia! I don't know if the writer has a background in food, but she writes about Italian food with love, joy and passion. Although from Liverpool and now living in New Zealand, her father is Italian and surely this must have something to do with it!
So to take you away from your ordinary life, a little bit of Italy and romance and food combined could be the perfect recipe.
THE PARTICULAR SADNESS OF LEMON CAKE by Aimee Bender
How many times do we wish that we could read someone's mind, to understand exactly what is going on in there? I expect men and women say it to themselves about each other all the time! Imagine then how weird it would be to be able to taste the emotions of the person who has prepared food for you!
Rose is nine years old. She lives in the middle of Los Angeles - between Santa Monica Boulevard and Melrose. She lives in a house with her lawyer father, her homemaker mother and older brother, goes to school, has friends, arguments with her brother. All very ordinary and unremarkable. Until the day of her ninth birthday when she bites into a piece of lemon-chocolate cake that her mother has just made. Wham, instantly Rose can taste her mother's emotions and her life is changed forever. She sees that her mother is very unhappy and as her mother is the only one in the house who prepares the meals, Rose is confronted all the time with her mother's turmoil; all the food tastes bad. This is just the beginning, and Rose finds her life dominated with finding food that has as little human involvement in it as possible because it seems to her that everyone has a level of unhappiness, despair, anger, boredom in them that she is forced to experience every time she eats. Her obsession with eating only processed food would seem to most people like a case of child neglect, but of course to Rose, as she grows older and tries to come to terms with this affliction, it is a matter of simply surviving.
Her heightened sensitivity, however, leads her to finding things out about people, especially in her family, and unsurprisingly affects her relationships with them and others in her life. Her brother Joseph, in particular, whom she has always adored and looked up to, is a particularly troubled boy. But no-one, not even Rose can figure out what is going on with him. As Rose gets older however she does eventually come to terms with and accept 'gift', but not without considerable trauma. Perhaps the most beautiful part is her finding a restaurant where she can taste the love and happiness of the chef in the food and ends up finding a life for herself in this particular small suburban LA restaurant - the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow!
And yet it is a very disturbing story. It starts out so promisingly with a child in possession of an unusual ability, trying to make sense of other people's lives, and then very suddenly becomes just plain weird. At that point, for me, all the carefully crafted credibility came crashing down. Fortunately the 'weird' happens about 3/4 of the way through, so I did finish reading to the end, really to find out where it all came from. Still don't know.
It seems to be quite in-vogue at the present time for authors to put a certain amount of magical realism in their stories, just enough fantasy and magic to tip us a little over the edge of the story we are reading about - The Twilight series, The Tiger's Wife, books by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabelle Allende. It seems that the magic in these stories is based on already known myths and legends that the authors cleverly weave into their plots, thus perhaps making it easier for the reader to accept the magic stuff that does happen. But in this story I am not aware of any precedent anywhere for someone to be able to taste the emotions of someone through food. Then how on earth that is connected to the very strange happening that I cannot tell you about I really do not know. It really is just too weird. I think what makes it all so disturbing, is that unlike the books and authors previously mentioned, this author is simply unable to tie it all together and make sense of it. She doesn't even seem to be able to make sense of it herself. Mind you, her setting being a stone's throw from Sunset Boulevard, is probably fairly appropriate.
However, before it all went pear shaped for me, I did enjoy the writing. It is such an odd thing to write about and because we have all been children, and I am sure believed in magic in some form or other, reading about the world through a child's eyes is always fascinating. Wouldn't it be great to know if Mum was in a good mood while preparing dinner so you would know the right time to ask to borrow the car or stay out late! Poor wee Rose however spends all her time trying to make child sense of all that adult stuff she is tasting. Worth reading, but borrow it rather than buy it. This might be good for a book group too, as I am sure it will provoke plenty of discussion.
STATE OF WONDER by Anne Patchett
It must now be about 10 years ago that I read 'Bel Canto' by this author. I can still remember reading that book, the story as it unfolded, her outstanding writing, all in a book that is not very big at all. So when 'Run' was published some 4 years or so ago, I thought another winner. But no, it left no impression on me at all. So little impression that I have had to Google it to be reminded of the plot line - too complicated and too many characters. When 'State of Wonder' was introduced into book club, I was a bit sceptical, bit wary, bit sitting-on-the-fence. The plot synopsis was certainly intriguing - Amazon setting, cutting edge scientific research, people disappearing - plenty of mystery and curiosity to lure the cautious reader.
And what a book it is, really quite outstanding - the unfolding of the story, full of surprises and twists, the depth and complexity of the characters, the alienation of being alone in a foreign city, the beautiful and frightening descriptions of the Amazon and the rainforests, the range of emotions expressed.
Marina Singh is a pharmaceutical researcher working for a large pharmaceutical company in Minnesota. She started off as a medical student under the tutelage of Dr Annick Swenson. Dr Swenson is a brilliant, enigmatic and totally fearless doctor who is now deep in the Brazilian Rio Negro developing a wonder drug that, if successful, will change how women manage their fertility. Dr Swenson, however, is not very good at keeping her employers up to date with her progress. So Marina's lab partner, the mild-mannered family man Anders Eckman is sent off to Brazil to find out how things are going. Unfortunately, as it very succinctly states in the first six words of the book - "The news of Anders Eckman's death...", things don't turn out too well and the upshot is that Marina finds she is the one sent to Brazil to find out what happened to Anders and more importantly to find Dr Swenson.
The search is far from easy, with Marina having to deal with difficult people, language problems, coping with the climate, illness, and then when she finally gets to the doctor's camp the natural environment - the dirt, the heat, the insects, spiders, snakes, undergrowth, the food, her lack of clothing, the oppressiveness, the native people. The challenges are huge, especially for a woman in her early 40s, who has lived virtually her entire life on the open plains of Minnesota. It is not only the physical challenges that Marina faces. What she finds deep in the Rio Negro change her forever and leave her questioning what sort of life she really wants.
I have no idea if the author has ever been to the Amazon rainforest area. However the magic of her writing is such that you can feel that you are there - the heat, the isolation, the expanse of the water and the rivers, the inaccessibility, the bugs and forestation. It is scary. Her characters are very human, and as in 'Bel Canto' she makes the reader sympathetic to the characters we aren't even supposed to really like. And how amazing it is that your impression of someone changes as you get to know them, just like in life. This is an incredible book, and a great holiday read for the beach. You'll be glad you are there and not floating lost on a river in the Amazon.
THE TIGER'S WIFE by Tea Obreht
A second book about tigers! And even more amazing I started reading this on holiday in Thailand where there are...tigers! Not that we saw any unless you count three white tigers caged in a hideous indoor cage in a ghastly cultural theme park, all white, no foliage, just a few logs, and thousands of gawping tourists. At the same place you could also have your photo taken for an obscene amount of baht with a very small baby tiger being bottle fed, again in front of hundreds and hundreds of tourists in a hot humid room. This particular experience made me feel ashamed to be a tourist at this establishment and lent greater depth to my reading of this book.
The author was born in the former Yugoslavia in 1985. She grew up a child of the war that ripped apart this region, pitting the peoples of Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and others with all their various ethnicity and religions against each other. Her story is set in a fictional region in the Balkans just like Yugoslavia after such a devastating civil war.
Natalia is a doctor. The war is officially over and major adjustments are still going on. With her friend Zora, also a doctor, they are on a charitable trip to an orphanage in what is now on the other side of the new border with a truck load of vaccinations. Natalia has always had a very close relationship with her grandfather, also a doctor. Natalia is the only one he has told about his terminal cancer. But she is very surprised when she gets a phone call from her distraught grandmother advising the sudden and mysterious death of her grandfather in an unknown town, that Natalia realizes is surprisingly close to the town where the orphanage is. She takes it upon herself to arrange for her grandfather's body to go back home, and to take care of his personal effects. In particular she wants to recover a tattered and battered copy of Rudyard Kipling's 'The Jungle Book' that has been an inseparable part of her grandfather as far back as she can remember.
Over these few days, Natalia, in her grief and sadness, reflects back on her relationship with her grandfather and the extraordinary man he was. From a very young age she knew of his deep love and respect for the tiger. But there was much more to this love than just regular visits to the zoo with him, and his love for 'The Jungle Book'. She grows up with the most marvellous stories told by her grandfather and there are two stories in particular, which as Natalia tells it, are integral to the understanding of the type of man her grandfather was. One is the story of the tiger's wife and the other is the story of the deathless man. These stories are a masterful blend of regional myth and folklore, plus actual events that shaped the man he became, and stayed with him till his own death.
The back story to all this, of course, is war and its devastation of this region over the decades. Specifically World War II when grandfather was a child and first met the tiger's wife, and the more recent war which started when Natalia was a student. Even in the modern day, folklore and superstition still dominates much of the way of life, and in her search to uncover her grandfather's mysterious death so far from home, Natalia also finds herself getting caught up in the stories from her grandfather's life. The tiger becomes a symbol for all that has been lost through the conflicts that blight this part of the world, and by the end of the story there was a tear or two in my eye.
The story moves easily from present day to various times in the past. At times it is almost like reading a fairy tale and reminded me very much of the magical realism of the one or two books I have read by Isabelle Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The author is only her twenties, and yet her writing is so rich and sumptuous, especially in her telling of the stories of the past. I loved, just loved, the section when a young boy finds himself exploring the Pasha's Hall of Mirrors - beautifully visual writing.
This is a wonderful story, perhaps a trifle too long, but so much to escape into and go back to read and enjoy again.
THE TIGER : A TRUE STORY OF VENGEANCE AND SURVIVAL by John Vaillant
In 1997, in the far eastern reaches of Russia, where it borders with China and just a hop, step and jump from Japan, in other words as far from Moscow as you could possibly get, a tiger began hunting humans, killing them in a particularly brutal fashion and leaving so few remains they were able to fit into a shirt pocket. Tigers, of course, have hunted prey and killed for hunger since time immemorial, much the same as humans have, but with a difference. The difference is that humans no longer hunt to survive but to satisfy demand for furs, and the so-called life giving properties of the various body parts - for example paws, penises, blood. In fact, in his research the author tells us that in the past tigers and humans have lived side by side, even sharing kills. Things would appear to have gone badly awry in the past few millennium for this relationship to no longer exist. So has the tiger finally decided to seek revenge?
The story of the hunt for the tiger is actually only a small part of this book. What the author has been very successful in doing is teaching us about a whole raft of things we would never usually have learnt about. Not only about the magnificence of the tiger and its history in this remote, bleak, impoverished and rapidly reducing forest region, but of the people who live in these communities, their histories, the effects of policies and politicians in Moscow whose decisions have really no relevance at all on this region. Stalin, Peretroiska, and capitalism, economic expansion have all wrought absolute havoc on this part of Russia as it has on many other parts. Other parts of Russia, however do not have the Amur or Siberian tiger - up to 10 feet/3 metres long and 500lbs/225kgs, its food source dwindling as the forests are chopped down for export to China, poachers an ever-permanent threat to them and other forest creatures. Hardly any wonder the tiger is out for revenge.
Most interesting are the people in these small desolate communities - those trying to eke out a living - hunters, poachers, their wives and families, plus the tracking team commissioned to hunt down and kill the tiger before he wroughts any more havoc. All I can say is I am glad I don't live in this bleak part of the world, beautiful it may be.
The author has brilliantly amalgamated all this material into a spell-binding true story. I can't really figure out how it all comes together, as there is so much material, but it does. The last chapters have an inevitability about them, but it doesn't detract from the importance of the message that humankind and rampant consumerism is responsible for the near-extinction of the tiger, the destruction of its habitat and its fight back. I actually thought the book was going to be more about tigers rather than Russia, but it didn't matter at all. Highly recommended for anyone interested in conservation issues, wildlife and social/economic history.
HAND ME DOWN WORLD by Lloyd Jones
Did you read Mr Pip, Mr Jones' 2007 novel that was short listed for the Man Booker? Having read the winner of that year's competition I still can't understand how 'The Gathering' won it. But never mind. Moving on. So, after reading this new novel, you ask yourself how on earth does a white, middle aged, literary man from little old New Zealand at the bottom of the world, somehow create such characters as Mathilda in Mr Pip (teenage girl, growing up in a Pacific Is village, being immersed in the literature of Dickens, then dealing with the blackness and evil of an invasion), and in this story, Ines (young black African woman, desperately seeking her lost child). And what's more, manages to tell the story from their points of view rather than in the third person? The one thing I particularly remember from Mr Pip, was how true he was able to make Mathilda, how he got inside the head and soul of a young girl. Which is also very striking in this novel, it is almost as if he is the character that he has created. The second very striking thing about Mr Jones is that he is primarily a story teller. I would love to be a child of this man, and listen each bed time to the marvellous stories and weaving of characters he creates, to send me off to sleep. This novel is also such a great story.
But don't think that Mr Pip or this story are lovely. They are not, quite the opposite.
Ines, as we come to know her by, is a young African woman working as a hotel supervisor in a Tunisia hotel. Seduced by a German guest, she bears a child, which is ruthlessly taken off her by the father and his wife and whisked back to Germany. Instead of self-destructing, Ines then sets about making her way to Berlin in a bid to get the child back. The single minded determination of a mother's love is the one thing that keeps Ines going. In the course of her story there are many opportunities and times to simply give up, but she just keeps on keeping on, heading north, scraping money, lying and deceiving to find her child. This is the one constant through the story as Ines deals with people traffickers, near drowning, a sleazy truck driver, learning to trust the strangers she meets and then more often than not abusing that trust. Quite remarkable really.
The story is not actually told through Ines' eyes till the last third and then it expands and elaborates on the previous two thirds, which is told through the voices of the people she comes into contact with along the way - a fellow hotel worker, the variety of people she meets on the journey to Berlin, the young man she hooks up with once there, and the blind man who employs her to be his eyes and carer.
I found it quite a fascinating way to read a book. As each person narrates their encounter with Ines we build up a picture of what she is like, and as such she encompasses the entirety of a human being - compassion, love, courage, ruthlessness, selfishness, sacrifice, hope, determination, and ultimately survival at all costs. Until finally of course we meet Ines herself at the end of the journey she has so far been on, and maybe the beginning of the next stage in her remarkable life.
I am surprised how much I enjoyed this book. I loved Mr Pip so much, I almost didn't think something could be as good. But this is, in an entirely different way. When it was published the reviews were many and various. Interestingly the reviews by men were less supportive of the story than those written by women. I can't help but wonder that maybe men perhaps feel uncomfortable with such a story about a woman being told by a man. Maybe I am reading too much into it...
Mr Jones wrote this story while on a year's writer's residency in Berlin over 2007-08. From reading this story, the city would appear to have left a mark on him as the city is as much a character in the book as Ines, Bernard and Ralf are. I want to go there now myself! Another place for the list...
OTHER PEOPLE'S MONEY by Justin Cartwright
This is the second book I have read by this South African born, London living author. I read 'To Heaven By Water' earlier in the year and enjoyed it very much. So when this one was put into book club, only published this year, I snapped it up. And it is even better than the first one I read. I have also found out via Google that this book has just won the Novel of the Year in the Spear's 3rd Annual Book Awards. Who might you ask is Spears? "Spear’s is the multi-award-winning wealth management and luxury lifestyle media brand whose flagship magazine has become a must-read for the ultra-high-net- worth (UHNW) community." (Taken from the Spear's website). So I find it both amusing and ironical that this novel which is essentially an attack on the international banking scene should receive such an award. Unless of course they are all trying to have a good old laugh at themselves. Maybe in light of events in the last 3 years or so, they need a good old laugh. The monied characters in this book, however, do take themselves and their lifestyles very seriously; I can't imagine them laughing at all at the predicament they find themselves in!
Julian Trevelyan-Tubal is, I think, the eleventh generation to be running the privately owned, 340 year old upper-crust banking institution that is known as Tubal and Co. Technically his father is still in charge. But Sir Harry has recently suffered a very serious stroke, is living at the family beach house in Antibes, and failing fast. Julian and his trusty lieutenant, Nigel, have in the past few years, and against Sir Harry's modus operandi, been investing and operating heavily in a variety of high risk hedge funds. With the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage and derivatives market, which was essentially gambling on price rises of ethereal, paper based assets, Tubal and Co is now in very big trouble. Julian and Nigel have come up with a way that floats somewhere between marginally legal/marginally illegal to save the bank - a rearrangement of figures. I still don't entirely know what exactly is legal or illegal about what they were doing - it seems to be something along the lines of borrowing off Peter to repay Paul, but this sort of fine detail has little bearing on the story or the enjoyment of reading it. I wonder if the author truly understands it himself as in his acknowledgements he writes "I have taken advice on banking and how it works, but I have decided not to name any of those I consulted". Very intriguing and amusing.
At the same time as these two gents are rebalancing the books, they are also trying to sell the bank to a large American bank. Julian's heart was never in becoming a banker, but he was forced to step up when years earlier the older son, Simon, simply refused to do it and ran off to Africa. As you do. In fact Simon is probably the only member of this family to have any sense at all, and although ridiculed within the family certainly has the sympathy and understanding of the reader. Naturally the family is unaware of the impending crisis. The only certainties are the impending death of Sir Harry and the purchase by the Americans, but at what price.
Meanwhile, in a small town in Cornwall, lives the ex-husband of Sir Harry's second wife Fleur. Since Fleur ran off with Sir Harry some 24 years prior, Artair Macleod has received a quarterly payment from one of the bank trusts. This is his prime income, and enables him to pursue his varied career as a playwright and producer/director of, amongst other things, Thomas the Tank Engine re runs for the local community. Suddenly one day, his quarterly payment is not in his bank account as expected and so begins the exposure of Tubal and Co's current financial situation. This occurs via the local newspaper whose aging editor lost his entire pension fund when working for Robert Maxwell and so has a particular hatred for those who mismanage other people's money.
The author does not appear to like the monied classes at all, taking a very dim view of the smallness and emptiness of their world, and exploitation of others for their own gain. To a certain extent the Trevelyan-Tubal family members and their hangers-on are caricatures, but nevertheless he writes in such a way that the reader does feel some empathy, only some mind you, to them. Fleur for example, came from nothing, and once Sir Harry dies, knows she will go back to nothing, but it will be a very rich nothing!
This is a terrific story, almost thriller like in its development and pace, but also a very wry social commentary. Much like Sebastian Faulkes' 'A Week in December' it can be seen as a parable of our times. Both entertaining and thought provoking, it does make me glad not to have been born into vast quantities of money and have to live in the gilded cage as a result. Just goes to show money cannot buy happiness, but does make for some jolly good stories. And for those who like Cornish pasties, you will be pleased to know that since this book was published earlier in the year, the European Commission finally granted "Protected Geographical Indication" (PGI) status to genuine Cornish pasties. Now you really do have to read the book to find out more.
NEVER FAR FROM NOWHERE by Andrea Levy
This is Andrea Levy's second book, written way back in 1996 and before the success of 'Small Island'. The themes are very similar - immigrants from Jamaica trying to find their feet in an alien society, and yet also trying to maintain their own cultural identity amidst prejudice and the struggle to make a living. This very insightful novel is set in 1970s London on a council estate, and revolves around the lives of two teenage sisters, Olive and Vivien. The girls are first generation English-born, of Carribean descent. Their parents migrated from Jamaica to London in the hope of improving their lives and and that of their children. But like many migrant families to England, the transition is not easy, the desired standard of living is never really achieved, and surrounded by prejudice many people are made to feel like second class citizens. For the girls there is the added complication of being teenagers with the pressures that brings on schooling, parent expectations and peer pressure.
So far so good, and plenty of rich material for a writer to work with. The story becomes that much edgier with the revelation on page two that the sisters are as different as they could possibly be and these differences really dictate how the lives of the girls turn out, or could turn out. Olive is the elder of the two by three years, but is a shade or two darker in colour, and with frizzier hair than her sister having inherited more of the African gene from her father. Vivien has inherited less of the African gene, and more of the Spanish/Indian features of her mother: so fairer complexion and wavy black hair. This is all complicated by the fact that the mother has never really seen herself as a 'black' person and consequently passes this very mixed message onto her two girls with the result that the girls don't really know what they are, but know that being black is not as desirable in their world as being less black. Hence Vivien has a much easier passage through the teen years than her sister does.
The author uses these essential differences between the two girls as the driver of her story and very effective it is. Olive is smart, feisty, independent and wants to leave the apron strings as soon as possible. Vivien on the other hand, also a smart girl is more interested in fitting in with the white crowd she finds herself in, to the extent that she refuses to admit she is of Jamaican descent, telling people she is from Mauritius. It all falls apart of course when her friends finally meet Olive! Vivien realises fairly early on that to get ahead and get on in the English world, she has to do well at school and go to university which she does. Although according to Olive, her sister will never be fully accepted by the white world, simply because she is not white, and thus she will end up 'Never Far from Nowhere'.
And this is probably the essential theme of this book - even though we always deny how much we judge by initial appearances and impressions, the author is very firmly in the camp that actually this is exactly what we do - first impressions count big time.
For this reason it is a very bitter sweet story. The girls are both great characters and it is the mark of a good writer that she can make the reader feel empathy for the girls and frustration over some of the things they end up doing. The differences between the two and the paths their lives take is accentuated by Olive and Vivien narrating alternate chapters. The chapters are also kept very short so the reader does not really have time to get into Olive's world before turning the page into Vivien's world. The one thing I did notice is that the only black people in the whole story are the girls and their parents. Living on a London council estate, I would have thought there would be neighbours, school mates, teachers, shop owners, and so on also of Carribean descent. But no, this family operates entirely in a white man's world. A little strange I think.
Anyway a great story, beautifully told, with much feeling and poignancy. It is easy to see how the threads of 'Small Island' came out of this story. I really enjoyed it, and will make an effort to read Ms Levy's earlier books both written either side of this one.
OCTOBER READING - The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter; What Was Lost; Let the Great World Spin; Nancy Wake; A Pound of Paper
A POUND OF PAPER by John Baxter
The dictionary very simply sums up a bibliophile as someone who likes reading and/or collecting books. But as any serious reader/book person will tell you, that word sums up so much more - mooching around in bookshops both old and new, finding 'finds' again old and new, stacking them on the shelf read or unread in a certain order peculiar to only you, or occasionally discarding. Then there are those who buy and sell books - old, new, rare, out of print, autographed, penned, dedicated, good or bad condition. John Baxter perfectly fits this entire bibliophile profile. And what a lucky bloke he is.
It would seem, from reading this memoir, that life in post-WWII Australia was a cultural desert and people who read books were a bit dodgy. Young John developed a passion for books and reading from a very young age and found himself continually frustrated at the lack of reading material in the small country town he grew up in. Maybe this lack gave birth to his relentless (obsessional) pursuit of books and collecting them as he grew older. I expect one could psychoanalyse his motives forever! Nevertheless John Baxter has written what is, overall, a most entertaining and interesting account of his life long love for books and some of the amusing and intrepid ways he has obtained them. Plus the weird and wonderful characters he meets along the way.
I had never heard of John Baxter till I started reading this book. So every page was a revelation. It transpires that he was what we would now call a bit of a nerd. He was heavily into science fiction stories and comics as a youngster, a passion that he has never really lost. But it was also the beginnings of his forays into collecting and writing. As a child he had a friend whose father had a garage literally full of science fiction comics, and young John would spend hours reading these things, which led to him joining a society of like minded people and starting to write stories himself for publication in sci-fi magazines. A career in writing beckoned, after the initial career in the railways bombed and he eventually found himself in London. There he found another passion - weekend street markets - specifically used-book stalls. Purely by chance one day he finds a rare copy of a children's book written by Graham Greene and from that point on he becomes what can only be termed as obsessed by Graham Greene and his writing. Plus this opens him up to the fascinating world of buying and selling used books and publications.
'Finding' books for himself and for others forms the bulk of the funny and at times sordid anecdotes that make up this book. He has all sorts of interesting encounters with authors, publishers, film makers, and collectors. A lot of these people I had never heard of, and most of the books/magazines/manuscripts he obtains are also completely foreign. But it is still overall an entertaining read. There are some chapters where he just simply drones on about his passions without actually telling the reader very much and the whole thing is all a bit self absorbed. But people often are with their obsessions. And he still manages to have an amazingly interesting life - living and working in London, visiting professor at a college in Virginia, working as a film writer in Australia on that modern day science fiction marvel Mad Max, LA to do more screen plays and books, and finally Paris. Now he lives in Paris, married to a French woman, surrounded by books, still collecting and selling and writing. How bad can all that be for the little boy from Sydney whose first book purchase at the age of 11 was 'The Poems of Rupert Brooke'. Even he seems slightly amazed about it all!
Take a look at the author link - if you never get into book collecting, which sounds marvelously tempting, you can always take a holiday in Paris.
NANCY WAKE by Peter Fitzsimons
On August 7 this year, one of the most amazing women of our times passed away at the grand old age of 98. Nancy Wake has been claimed by both New Zealand and Australia as one of their own - by New Zealand because she was of Maori descent, born there and retained close ties with her extended family; and by Australia because she lived there from early childhood, grew up there and lived for a period of time after the war there. But she could equally be considered French for her service to France during the war, and also British because her war service was under British command, and she lived much of her later life in England. Above all however, as becomes apparent almost from the beginning of this book, she was her own person with enormous courage, enormous self-belief and enormous determination.
Peter Fitzsimons is a highly respected journalist from Australia and has written what is probably considered the definitive account of Nancy's life. I very much like the fact that one of her fellow countrymen took it upon himself to tell her story. His style is light and easy to read, and gives plenty of background to what made her the person she became. For example he goes right back to the beginning, to her birth, when the Maori midwife noticed a 'thin veil of skin which covered the top part of the infant's head, known in English as a caul.' The midwife tells Nancy's mother that it 'means the baby will always be lucky. Wherever she goes, whatever she does, the gods will look after her'. And what an omen that turned out to be.
Nancy was a very feisty child, very independent and strong willed. Not easy characteristics for her mother to deal with but major shapers of the adult she was to become. By the time she ended up in Paris in the 1930s, still only in her mid-20s, as a correspondent for Hearst Newspapers, she already had quite a life story to tell. A trip to Vienna in 1935 with some other journalists, however, became the defining moment for how the rest of Nancy's life was to turn out. After witnessing the most horrific atrocities to the local Jewish population she developed a very deep seated hatred for the Nazis, Hitler and everything they stood for. Once the war started, and France was taken over by Germany Nancy set about doing everything she could to hinder Nazi activities in France, to such an extent she ended up on Hitler's most wanted list. She was, in a word, relentless. And that is all I will say about her war exploits here, because you need to read it for yourself to fully appreciate the person Nancy was. I couldn't possibly give her story justice by 'reviewing' it, and I wouldn't dream of trying.
There are many heroes and heroines during times of war, and we also know that many do not make it, dying under extreme torture, betrayal, deprivation and atrocious circumstances. Such stories need to be told, and told regularly. In our consumer and celebrity driven society there are very few heroes/heroines for our young people to look up to, to learn from and to follow the example of. This is one such person we would all be a little richer for knowing more about. If you click onto the Peter Fitzsimons' link it will take you to a radio interview about Nancy Wake.
LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN by Colum McCann
On 7 August 1974 an incredible thing happened. A magical young man, a genius, some would say a freak of nature, walked a tightrope between the north and south towers of the recently opened World Trade Centre, 110 floors up. In light of what happened in 2001, there is an even more amazing photo in the book taken from street level of this ting wee human and his balancing pole, part way along his wire, and not that far above him a much larger plane going about its business. How poignant.
Tightrope man lives in his magical escapist world, continually perfecting his tricks, his techniques to micro-nth degrees. Meanwhile at street level, on this particular day, life is not quite so harmonious, together and carefree. Two Irish brothers, a mother-daughter pair of street walkers, a group of mothers united in their grief for their sons killed in Vietnam, a disillusioned city circuit judge, and a young woman artist are all loosely linked to each other in the events that enfold either side of this day. Thees people are all trying to lead good lives as best as they can, yet life seems to continually throw curve balls at them, making me think of that sad phrase that we all live lives of quiet desperation.
The other character in the story is New York City itself. Virtually bankrupt, crime and violence out of control, the justice system barely able to cope, the ugliness and squalor of living in the Bronx, contrasted with the wealth, starkness and civility of the Upper East Side, the city is the back bone to the story. It is the city, strangely enough, that provides the link and humanity between this diverse group of people. This is not the first book the author has written with New York City at its core. 'This Side of Brightness', another stunning piece of writing, is a story of the men who built the train tunnels underneath the Hudson River linking Manhatten and Brooklyn. It is hardly surprising that this Irish-born author now lives in New York.
This book has won a number of awards since it was published - the National Book Award 2009, 2010 Ambassador Book Award Winner, 2009 Prix Deauville, and Amazon.com's 'Book of the Year'. I am not at all surprised.
WHAT WAS LOST by Catherine O'Flynn
A second stunning book for this month. Again it is about childhood and the loss of innocence, and the loss of many other things too. The title is very ambiguous - is it the loss of a life and a childhood? The loss of a slower pace of life? The local High Street shop strip? The loss of friendship? The loss of hope? A meaningful fulfilled life? All these things are symptoms of many people's unhappiness in our modern urban world. In this novel Green Oaks shopping centre, big when it opened in 1984, humungous twenty years later, is the magnet which draws a wide variety of people - in this novel mainly sad and lonely, to it. Why is it that shopping is listed as the number one past time for many people? Reading this you would never want to set foot in one again. Green Oaks is symbolic of how shopping centres seem to suck the life blood out of communities and the people who frequent them.
Kate is ten years old, orphaned, and lives with her well-meaning and loving grandmother. Her life ambition is to become a detective and to this end she is busy being junior detective, training herself up for the big time when she is a grown up. Together with her trusty side-kick Mickey and her 'Top Secret' notebook she keeps an eye on the goings-on in her small community. She makes regular forays to her favourite place, the newly opened up Green Oaks shopping center where she is convinced that a major bank robbery will shortly be taking place. Her best friend is Adrian, the 22 year old son of the local news agent owner. They understand each other perfectly and in the absence of a father, he is probably the closest thing Kate has to a father figure. With all the magic that young children can create, Kate makes her own world that she is in control of. Then one day she simply disappears. Just like that.
Nearly twenty years later, the shopping center has become truly enormous, a monument to modern consumerism and the hold it has over its subjects. Adrian's younger sister, Lisa, works in a music store in the center. She hates it, but can't see any way out. She was only 12 when Kate disappeared and her brother was investigated for the disappearance. He himself disappeared shortly after and this has shadowed Lisa's life ever since. The other lost soul at Green Oaks is a security guard, Kurt, who has his own demons to deal with. One long lonely night, Kurt sees on the CCTV in a back corridor a small girl with a toy monkey and a notebook. Not long after in another back corridor, Lisa finds a toy monkey. These two lost souls develop an unlikely friendship as they investigate exactly what they have seen and what it could mean.
A thread of hope and rising above the odds runs through this story, with our innate need for companionship and tenderness making our lives better and way more meaningful. After reading this you will look at your local large scale impersonal shopping center in a brand new and not very positive light. Back to your local main street for those odds and ends from your locally owned small business. Now if we could just manage to lose the real estate offices on the main street and make more room for those owner-operators...
THE VOLUPTUOUS DELIGHTS OF PEANUT BUTTER AND JAM by Lauren Liebenberg
It is the 1970s in eastern Rhodesia. Eight year old Nyree lives with her younger sister Cia, her mother and grandfather on a remote farm. Her father, under compulsory conscription of white men, is away fighting the Terrs in the civil war. Nyree and her sister create a world of magic and imagination combining the best parts of their Catholic upbringing, fairy tales and African magic and ritual. It is marvellous reading what these two wee girls get up to and how they make the most mundane surroundings into something magic. Despite their dad being away for long periods of time the farm seems to function well enough under the care of their mother and cantankerous, racist, homophobic, ultra-Catholic grandfather. There are black employees who are part of the family and who the girls turn to as much as their own family. At all times however the threat of the Terrs hang over the farm. Into this mix, one summer, arrives their cousin, 14 year old Ronin - the 'bastard', an orphan whose grandfather Seamus is the black sheep of the family and brother of the girls' grandfather. What this boy's problem is is never really revealed but what becomes quickly apparent is that grandfather puts all of Seamus's sins, whatever they may be, onto the boy, creating a climate of fear, hate and loathing. As you may expect it ends badly.
This is a novel about the innocence of childhood, how as children we intuitively know that something is not quite right but, being children, of course, we don't know what that it is or how to fix it. The writing is beautiful, lyrical, magical and all the more heart rending because of this. Narrated in the first person by young Nyree takes us that much closer to her world and the brilliance of it. I loved it, just loved it, it made me want to be a child again so I could convince my younger sister that we will indeed grow wings just like fairies and fly away.
THE HUNDRED FOOT JOURNEY by Richard Morais
The reviews are glowing - from other novelists, celebrity chefs, a successful screenwriter, industry magazines, even Oprah. The concept of the story is intriguing - young man, born of the Mumbai slums who becomes a celebrity chef in Paris of all places. And yet... for me it just did not work as well as I was expecting.
The author is a journalist, who appears to have had a very successful career with amongst others Forbes magazine for whom he was foreign correspondent for many years in London and Europe. He obviously has a very deep love and appreciation of food and cooking, is well travelled, and has moved amongst the ranks of the rich and famous.I don't think anyone could write so beautifully and evocatively about cooking and the magic that occurs when ingredients are combined in certain ways without being a gastronome of some sort. In his acknowledgements he talks about his close and long standing friendship with Ismail Merchant of movie producer group Merchant and Ivory. He says this book is a 'homage' to his friend, in that they had talked that the book, once published, would eventually become a Merchant Ivory movie. Sadly Mr Merchant died before this could happen. So I feel quite comfortable saying that the book definitely has that waiting for a movie to happen feel about it. The author also seems to have developed close friendships with a number of well-known chefs, not that that is a bad thing, but I just had this nagging feeling there was just a bit of name dropping going on, that the whole thing was more about the author and his life, than it was about what he has written about. Take a look at his website in the author link and see what you think...
Anyway the story itself. Hassan Haji hails from the slums in Mumbai, born into a Muslim family who operates a very successful restaurant on the edge of the slums. After a terrible tragedy destroys the heart of the family, the father sells the business and the family moves to London for a short and not very pleasant time. By this time Hassan is a teenager. To escape the continuing unhappiness in their lives, the father takes the whole family to Europe, eventually ending up in the town of Lumiere, home to a two-star Michelin restaurant owned by the formidable Madame Mallory. Haji senior decides to open an Indian establishment directly across the road. Not a good move. After a protracted period of professional confict, everything is eventually resolved and Hassan goes onto to enjoy success as a chef.
The first half of the book is terrific in its very vivid descriptions of Hassan's early life in Mumbai, the tastes and colours of the food leap off the page and you can almost taste what is being cooked. In France too, the descriptions of the town food markets, the complicated nature of French haute cuisine - some of which would make your stomach turn, not recommended for vegetarians - are so vivid and gorgeous, even a trip into the countryside to collect mushrooms makes you want to pack your bags and go. I loved all that part of it.
But that is probably all I loved. The plot is very predictable, the characters for the most part one dimensional, predictable and to a large extent stereotyped. There were some oddities such as how does a Muslim family from the slums of India suddenly find themselves able to communicate and be understood in the heartland of the French countryside. And in the 1980s, which I guess is when much of this is set, what French town would have all the spices and condiments necessary to whip a good biryani?
I also found the story started to lose its thread in the last quarter once Hassan makes it to Paris. Rather than a feast for the senses as the rest of the book has been, the last part focuses on Hassan as a famous celebrity chef and the pressures that places on him. It all just got a bit too hand-wringy and navel gazing for me - I wanted more about food! I wonder if the author simply had had enough of the story and just wanted to wind it up. I am sure it will make a wonderful movie, visually it could be beautiful, I just hope it remains about the food and the love of cooking and not some sort of 'feed the fragile ego of the celebrity chef' promotion. I think we are probably a bit over the celebrity chef self promotion merry go round. But do read it for the food!!!
THE SNOWMAN by Jo Nesbo
I am really not sure if I like the crime thriller genre. I felt vaguely ill after reading the one and only Val McDermid I have read; parts of the Millenium novels were not pretty, and this writer certainly does not do pretty either. But there is no denying these books are gripping reads with the complicated plots, the twists and turns, the outwitting, race against time, the psychological stuff going on, and that is without touching on the characters at all! The general trend seems to be a crusty tired embattled detective such as Wallender; feisty young brilliant female offsider - either cop or journalist or medical person; and deranged psychopath killer - naturally.
The Snowman is no different! As one reviewer puts it on the back cover - 'chilling, spectacular stuff'. The author is Norwegian, and has been writing crime novels featuring Detective Harry Hole since 1997. This is the fifth one to be translated into English. Harry is one tough man, his personal life is in a bit of chaos, and over the years his work life has not fared not much better. His off sider for this particular story is a young detective Katrine Bratt, who has her own back story. There is a killer on the loose, naturally, who appears to be targeting women with children, killing them quite brutally and leaving a snowman behind. He always kills at the time of the first snows, so his murders go back some years.
Despite all the horrible bloody stuff, this is absolutely gripping, a true page turner. I couldn't stop reading it. It doesn't matter that you sort of know the ending ie the guy gets caught, and Harry and Katrine live to fight another day. As they say it is all in the journey...
Having said all that, I don't think I need to read another Jo Nesbo book. The first chapter of his book 'The Leopard' is at the back of the book - more horrific violet death scenes. He is compared to Stieg Larsson of the Millenium trilogy, but other than them both being Nordic writers writing violent crime novels, they books are quite different. This book does not have the enormous depth and scope that Larsson's books have; it has as much gore in its 550 pages as Larsson probably has in the whole series; but like Larsson the writing is very atmospheric, the physical settings very vivid, and the characters very well drawn.
THE SUMMER WITHOUT MEN by Siri Hustvedt
Mia Fredricksen is a poet (published too!) and a teacher, is in her early fifties, has been married for 30 years to Boris, has a daughter Daisy and has a very nice life. Completely out of the blue, Boris wants to have a 'Pause' in his marriage, so he can do his mid life crisis thing with a younger work colleague, French naturally. A scenario played out time and time again and Mia has many musings during the course of the story on the nature of relationships between people. In fact that is really the crux of the whole story - the value we place on relationships and how to care for them.
Poor Mia finds herself falling apart, and after spending a period of time in hospital, takes her broken heart and spirit to her childhood town where her aged mother now lives in a residential care facility for the elderly. Mia finds herself a house to rent, carefully removing all photographic traces of the happy family that lives there, and manages to find herself a summer job teaching poetry writing to a small group of young teenage girls. This is time for Mia to recover, rebuild her spirit, find herself after 30 years of Boris, learn to nurture herself and in the process nurture those around her. Her relationship with her mother, her mother's equally elderly friends, her daughter, the young mother who lives next door, and most especially her young students and the relationships they all have with each other are what the story revolves around. Really, it is all about love.
Narrated in the first person, Mia provides plenty of her own musings on love - lost and found, being alone, with copious references to Jane Austen, as well as other literary giants, plenty of poetry (not sure whose). At times, I must admit, there was a bit much of all this, and I did a bit of speed reading, but overall there were many good messages in all the literary referencing that related well to what was going on in Mia's life at the time.
I enjoyed very much this little book - just over 200 pages - but would not have wanted to see too much more of the internal monologuing/self-analysis going on. The strength of the book is in Mia's relationships with the other characters and the secrets they all carry. I found myself flicking back and forth through it, re reading little bits and pieces, as it is also quite quirky and funny. Just goes to show life can be way more interesting when you take the distraction of men out of it, even if just for the summer.
THE WONDER SPOT by Melissa Bank
February last year I read The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing by the same author and wasn't terribly impressed. It was all very Bridget-Jones-try-hard, Jane the main character was incredibly dull and I am just did not get it. In fact when the book was published, according to Wikipedia, Melissa Bank was compared to Helen Fielding (creator of Bridget) and held, along with Helen, for being the creators of chick lit. Maybe in America...So I wasn't terribly fussed about starting this one, but because I had actually bought it many many months ago, I thought I should at least start it.
And what a different type of book it is!
It is exactly the same plot line and structure as Hunting and Fishing. Beginning when the main character, Sophie, is a teenager, then moving onto college, work, friends, love life, inappropriate men, keeping family happy etc etc, it follows Jane's life almost to a T, right down to a frightful despotic female boss and terminally ill parent. So why do I like this one so much better than the first one? Sophie is a vastly more interesting person than Jane, very self deprecating, a biting wit and doesn't seem to be quite so desperate for a man. More like Bridget really (apart from the getting a man bit). Perhaps the author has matured a bit - Hunting and Fishing was published six years earlier. It is almost as if she has wanted to rewrite the earlier book, seeing its flaws and wanting to improve on them. There is a lot more depth to the characters, to the story and especially to the relationships. It is set, initially in a suburban Pennsylvania, but primarily in New York City with excursions into Brooklyn and other neighbourhoods; the author would appear to have great love of the city.
I really enjoyed this one, so much I may even be tempted to read her third novel, if there is a third.
THE CAST IRON SHORE by Linda Grant
Linda Grant has become a bit of favourite in our book club lately, starting with 'The Clothes on Their Backs' which was short listed for the Man Booker in 2008, and the non-fiction 'The Thoughtful Dresser'. These two books both reveal the author's very deep love and appreciation of clothes as more than just garments. She sees what you wear as crucial to self-identity, self-esteem, inner peace and harmony. Clothes are not just what we wear, but what we are.
So what does all this have to do with this particular novel, Linda Grant's first one, first published in 1996, and re-published last year? Although the story is not really about what we wear or what we look like, it is very much a central theme to the whole story and the raison d'etre of its main character, Sybil Ross and a number of other characters in the story.
The story begins in Liverpool, in 1938. Sybil is a teenager, living with her Serbian Jewish furrier father with his dark East European features, and her very stylish and beautiful mother, blond and blue eyed from Holland. Sybil has taken after her father in her looks and her personality although adores her mother with her gorgeousness and has considerable of appreciation of beautiful clothing and furs even as a 14 year old. Furs are a recurring symbol through the whole story and central to the essence of Sybil in her life.
The war changes everything. Liverpool is blitzed to bits, and on one the worst night of the blitz Sybil learns something about her parents that changes her view of the world and how she perceives her place in it. From then on she drifts, and that is really what the rest of the book is about - Sybil's drifting: through life, men, jobs, belief systems. And I don't think she ever really finds her true self either. Interestingly enough, after spending her life looking for whatever she is looking for, she ends up exactly where she started.
As soon as the war is over, just 21, she flees Liverpool plus all the things her parents stand for, and sails to New York, with her furs of course (the one thing she can't let go), in search of Stan, her Royal Navy boyfriend also from Liverpool. Stan has his own identity problems but he is a very snappy dresser - a spiv. She finds Stan and being both pretty and stylish she finds a job in a top department store. Big changes are afoot in the post-war world and Sybil finds herself drawn to the black community, persecuted and downtrodden in America much like the Jews had always been in Europe. Communism is on the rise and is seen as the vehicle of change for the black population. Sybil is soon immersed into the local red circle, despite her very bourgeois background, after falling for Julius, a charismatic black man. Naturally she has to give up her comfort blanket - her furs - and working in the store - the ultimate symbol of consumerism and capitalism and live like the other comrades. In other words owning nothing, completely divorced from anything remotely bourgeois, and unable to do anything that doesn't have the express approval of the committee.
Against her inner most judgement she goes with Julius to a grotty little working class town in the middle of the mid-West, Michigan or Minnesota - read middle of nowhere, works in a potato chip factory. Julius is 'chosen' for further training and education in Moscow, leaving Sybil alone and stranded. All this is happening during McCarthyism and the manic anti-communism witch hunts and persecutions that were going on in the 1950s. With Julius gone Sybil basically has to live an underground sort of existence for quite some time and eventually makes her way to the west coast, which had always been her goal. She has to make a few difficult decisions, but even then her continuing indecision about her life is infuriating to the reader. This endless drifting... More choices are made and after quite a lot more drifting Sybil finds herself living in England again having come full circle back to her bourgeois roots.
Satisfying read? Not really. Plot all over the place; not sure if the discovery on blitz night is really catastrophic enough to turn one communist; although can see how New York would be considerably more exciting than Liverpool in 1945; still don't really understand why she stayed in that horrible little town in the middle of nowhere with Julius who did not treat her at all well; can sort of see why she had to give up all her beautiful furs, but then why keep only one? All a bit messy and wishy washy for my liking! But having read two of her subsequent books, I love the way the author's love affair with how and why we dress was so important to her way back in her first book. Her books have definitely got better over time.
HALF THE SKY: HOW TO CHANGE THE WORLD by Nicholas D. Kristof & Sheryl Wuduun
'Women hold up half the sky' - Chinese Proverb.
Although after reading this book you may wonder what went wrong with this worthy thought. It is well known that sons in China are more highly valued than daughters - it has 107 males for every 100 females, and in Pakistan and India the ratios are higher.
We females in the Western World really are the lucky ones, whether we hold up half the sky or not. We live in our comfortable homes, we eat good food, we are well educated, we have labour saving devices in our homes, fresh tap water and electricity, first class health care. We are productive and functional members of society. We have freedom of speech, of movement, of dress, we have financial independence, we have the law on our side, we are equal members of society with men. But we are unique: the majority of women in the world have none of these things, not one single one.
The authors are Pulitzer Prize winning journalists, both have been foreign correspondents and editors for the New York Times, so are well qualified to comment on the lamentable plight of the female sex in our world. Their research and investigation has shown that there are more females in sex slavery than there ever were men, women and children in slavery prior to the American Civil War of the 1860s. The authors write about women and girls in China, many places in Africa, India, Thailand and Cambodia on the subjects of prostitution, sex slavery, genital mutilation, maternal deaths and sickness in child birth and post natal, the lack of education and freedom, rape as a weapon - wide ranging, sobering and depressing subjects summarising the complete and utter powerlessness females have over their destinies in many societies throughout the world.
But, this book is littered with stories of women who have risen above the dreadful circumstances they have found themselves in, and this is what kept me wanting to read this book. We, in our comfortable little worlds, don't know what real hard work, determination, sacrifice and courage are - these women put us to shame. These women have gone on to do great things for the women in their local communities. The key, of course, is education, as the authors point out, which allows women to see opportunities, possibilities, and ways to achieve a better life.
The last chapters are a call to action, targeted mainly at the American reader, but equally applicable to readers in other countries. And a long list of websites of course to access! Like many commentators of the world we live in have noted, the United Nations has been completely useless in protecting or furthering the welfare of women and girls from these countries.
Despite it's unpleasant subject matter, this is a very readable book, very well written and very thought provoking. Much of it is not nice reading, but really I think quite essential for every woman to read and discuss openly with friends and daughters. Then maybe women really will hold up half the sky.
STARS AND BARS by William Boyd
I have just counted up the number of books written by William Boyd - 17 in the 30 years! That is prolific by anyone's standards. This novel is his 4th, published in 1984 and the 7th of his books I have read. Apart from Harry Potter books and Enid Blyton decades ago, I don't think I have read so many books by the same author. He really is very good. His stories full of interesting characters, trying to go about their normal lives but then finding themselves in difficult circumstances that somehow they manage to get themselves out of. And this story follows much the same theme, which you think you might actually start to get a bit sick of, but it really is like meeting an old friend - the stories are all different but also very familiar, and his plots and characters are so good you don't really mind!
So in this story, we meet Henderson Dores, a very English Englishman, art assessor, nearly 40, who has recently moved to New York to lend his considerable expertise to an art auction house. His personal life is in chaos - trying to rebuild his relationship with his ex wife, and a mistress on the side. He finds New York chaotic and is literally a fish out of water living there. Nothing seems to be going right. His chance to escape comes in the form of an unexpected assignment to the Deep South, Atlanta to be specific, to assess a rare art collection. And finds himself the middle man in a quite peculiar and dysfunctional family situation which threatens both his mental health and physical safety.
Through the ever more bizarre things that happen to him, including a crazy few hours in a theme hotel in Atlanta, and finding himself running for his life in the middle of the night in New York wearing nothing but some cardboard, he somehow retains his English-ness - his dignity, his manners, his impeccable dress sense. This just makes those all around him more buffoon like and madder than they already are.
I see the book was made into a movie in 1988, the screen play written by the author and starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Henderson Dores. I think it would be well worth seeing!
JULY READING - Before I Go To Sleep; In A Strange Room; The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim; The Widow of the South; Lilla's Feast
LILLA'S FEAST by Frances Osborne
The author was 13 when her great grandmother, Lilla, died in 1982 at the age of 100. Anyone who lives to this age has a story or two to tell, and Lilla had many. Born in China at the height of the might of the British Empire, Lilla's life mirrors the upheavals that change the fortunes of Britain forever. Her life experiences would not necessarily be unique for a woman of her class and background, but regardless, they still make a great story and deserve to be recorded. The thing about Lilla, is that in many ways she was typical of her time and class and upbringing. But she also had incredible spirit, enormous personal dignity and a steely determination to survive no matter what.
Lilla's eventful life was shaped entirely both by being born in China and being of British extraction. And like many of the thousands whose families worked for the colonial governments and business enterprises, such British people were never really considered fully British. Aside from a short period of time in England and India, virtually all her life was spent in China. She married twice, had children, and devoted herself to the art of homemaking, thus ensuring the happiness and comfort of the men in her life, as she had been taught to by her mother. Not at all unusual for the times. The crises and tragedies were many, culminating in Lilla aged 60 and her husband in his mid-70s being incarcerated during WWII in a Japanese internment camp for three years where they almost starved to death. There, she finished compiling, amidst great deprivation, her cookbook which for a period of time was displayed prominently in the Imperial War Museum in London. This cook book was not, as one would expect, a wartime cook book, but one that was full of recipes from a time of plenty. And all put down entirely from memory. It is said that the memory becomes more acute in times of suffering, and I guess it is understandable that when starving, thoughts turn to food and one's memories of that food.
Lilla was undoubtedly a survivor. Wouldn't we all love to have a great grandma of such courage and determination. And what a legacy to leave your descendants. A really good life story, of a time not so far in the distant past, told with admiration, love and plenty of spirit
THE WIDOW OF THE SOUTH by Robert Hicks
For those of us, which I expect is most of us, who have grown up and lived our lives without war, it is very difficult to imagine how we would be in a war situation. Would we react to situations of danger or deprivation or horror as we think we would? Based on other people's accounts of what we have heard or read, or movies we have seen? Or would our reactions and behaviour be quite different? How deep would we have to dig into ourselves to deal with the chaos going on around us? Hopefully we never have to find out. Which is why reading about it is so interesting and with plenty of 'wow' factor.
Here in New Zealand, the American Civil War is not something we know a great deal about. 'Gone With the Wind', the slavery issue and the assassination of Lincoln are really the sum total for most of us as to what this war was. But to Americans this war is very real with memorials commemorating battles all over the country side.
One of these memorials is at Franklin, Tennessee which in November 1864 was the site of the greatest loss of life in battle that America has seen. In the space of five hours, 9,200 men died - 6700 from the Confederate army and 2500 from the Union army. This was more than the Americans lost at D Day and more than twice as many as at Pearl Harbour. A dark day. This battle took place on farm land on the outskirts of the town. Overlooking the battle field was (and still standing) the 'big house' of Carnton, owned for three generations by the McGavock family. Its occupants at the time of the battle were John, his wife Carrie, their two young children and a few black slaves. Once the fighting was over, the house became a field hospital for hundreds and hundreds of wounded and the fields became the burial ground for 1500 soldiers. Carrie McGavock worked alongside the army medical people nursing and caring for the many wounded and dying men. She made the men she had cared for and buried her life's work, resulting in the creation of a proper cemetery for the 1500 on the property that is today kept in pristine condition. The plantation and house have been extensively restored, the author of this novel being the driving force behind the restoration.
From reading the background to this novel, it would appear that after the war Carrie McGavock 'was transformed into a living martyr and curiosity' and according to Oscar Wilde 'the high priestess of the temple of the dead boys'. This book is well worth reading to get an insight into the reverence with which Americans cherish their war dead.
And yet very little is known about Carrie herself. Which the author attempts to redress in this fictional context.
Carrie is a desperately unhappy woman. She is 35, and in recent years has seen three of her five children die from illness. The type of illness is not known. She wears black, spends her days wandering from room to room mourning her children and is so absorbed in her grief she really does not know what is going on around her. It is hard to know what role her husband John has in her life. During much of the novel he appears to be absent and largely ineffectual. The arrival of the Confederate Major General Forrest on her doorstep the day before the battle to commandeer her house for a field hospital starts to lift her out of her gloom. She literally has only hours to organise the house for its new inhabitants. She is assisted throughout by Mariah, the black slave she has had since childhood and one feisty woman.
Carrie's new role, and her friendship with one of the soldiers she nurses, Zachariah Cashwell, change her life and give her a reason to live again. For anyone to survive their injuries and recover amidst so much horror would give the power of life back! The story continues after the war culminating with Carrie trying to find a way to protect the buried 1500 soldiers from being ploughed up by the person whose land they are buried on. The recovery from war is also symbolic of Carrie doing her own personal recovery, resulting in her finding her inner strength and succeeding in relocating the buried.
I found the narrative of the book a bit slow at times. But there is no doubting the power of the writer to give us plenty of visuals as to the horror of battle, the fear, the blood, the pain, the injuries, the dying etc. He also writes very well of the chaos of post war life - the poverty, the lawlessness, the despair of survivors. And the hope personified in Carrie herself. This book is uplifting, especially in light of the legacy she has left behind, not just at Carnton, but for the many, many cemeteries that sprang up around America after the war.
THE TERRIBLE PRIVACY OF MAXWELL SIM by Jonathon Coe
A slightly crazy story of a man from Watford (the author later apologised to the residents of Watford for portraying the city in a possible negative light), aged about mid-40s, on the verge of a breakdown, in fact I am not giving anything away by saying that is exactly what happens to him. The story is really a commentary on the type of society we live in - despite the endless variety of communication gadgetry we have at our disposal, we are probably more lonely and isolated as individuals than we have ever been. Poor Maxwell Sim (as in in sim card) has over 70 friends on Facebook, he admits most of them are complete strangers, whom he admits he is never likely to meet up with for a coffee, and anyway why would you when you can keep in contact virtually? The book is full of such observations, in fact you could almost say the social isolation so characteristic of how we live began with the invention of the car -'Cars are like people. We mill around every day, we rush here and there, we come within inches of touching each other, but very little contact goes on. All those near misses. All those might-have-beens.' The 'terrible privacy' is lonliness and how this lonliness can actually make us go mad, as it does for Max and another real-life person Max is introduced to - Donald Crowhurst, an amateur sailor who in the late 1960s decided to take part in a round the world solo yacht race, realising very quickly he was completely out of his depth, and to cut a long story short, descended into insanity and ended up killing himself. So Max never actually meets him of course, but comes to increasingly identify with him and his sadness while trying to make sense of his own misfortunes.
Max is on sick leave from his job suffering from depression after his wife took his daughter and left the marriage. The book takes place on journeys - a trip to and from Sydney that Max takes to visit his distant father; Donald Crowhurst's tragic yacht race; Max's road trip to the north of Scotland to promote a new environmentally friendly toothbrush, where his only meaningful relationship is with Emma (after Emma Thompson), his GPS; and finally his return to Sydney.
It is interesting that almost all the people Max comes into contact with in the story are also alone or lonely. His father, whose story Max manages to unearth during the course of his travels; a young woman, Poppy, whom he meets on the flight from Sydney to London and must have one of most tragic jobs ever - 'junior adultery facilitator'. You will need to read the book to find out exactly what that involves but it makes Max's job as an After Sales Customer Liaison Officer (ie returns clerk) sound positively enriching. Then of course there is the dead Donald, and an old childhood friend Alison who spends much of her time alone while her husband is on business. She also gets one of the best descriptions I have ever heard for getting ready to go out - 'upstairs making last-minute adjustments to her appearance' which as all us ladies knows can take anywhere from 5 minutes to half an hour.
So I haven't said much about 'the plot', because the book is really more about the characters than the action and how people relate and inter-relate to each other, and also how to maintain your own individuality, your own sense of self, in the face of all this anonymous communication stuff we are surrounded with. I really liked this book. Despite being of a serious subject matter, there is some biting satire and comedy, the characters are interesting, and many of Max's conversations and internal dialogue are really quite funny, particularly his doomed relationship with Emma.
The ending however, is another matter altogether - most surprising, never seen done before, and ultimately disappointing.
IN A STRANGE ROOM by Damon Galgut
Damon Galgut is a South African writer. He started writing as a young man, and met with immediate success. This is his second Man Booker nominated and short listed novel. Much of his writing is set in South Africa and surrounds, and much of it also autobiographical. This novel is also partly set in Africa and may or may not be autobiographical. It could also be a book of travel writing of sorts too - he journeys to many of the countries of Africa, as far north as Morocco, and to India where the last part of the book takes place. It is such personal writing, with such personal insight and depth I almost felt as if I was intruding on someone's inner being. Such spare and beautiful writing deserves to be more widely read as it also allows us to look into our own selves.
This book is not just one story as most novels are, but more like three short stories, each from a different part of the narrator's life as he struggles to find his path in life. The chapters are entitled 'The Follower', 'The Lover' and 'The Guardian' and the narrator is each of these people. 99% of the story is narrated in the 3rd person, but so weirdly very occasionally, in mid sentence or mid paragraph he suddenly talks about 'I' and then immediately goes back to 'he'. I can't think of a possible reason why he would want to do this, it doesn't make sense. Damon is a loner, a young man who really does not know what he wants in life or how to get there. I get the impression money is not a problem as he doesn't really seem to do anything except travel aimlessly. Lucky him. In the third story, he would appear to be quite a lot older, settled and I would say now a successful writer. But he is still essentially a loner, still looking for that essence of peace and belonging.
I think every now and again we need to read books like this, beautiful writing, very spare, very reflective. It makes us think about relationships we have with people and how deeply affected we can be by the things we may say or do to those people - the subtle nuances of our friendships and relationships.
BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP by S.J Watson
Christine wakes every morning next to a man she doesn't recognise who tells who he is her husband. She goes into the bathroom and, to her dismay, she sees a woman some 20 years older than she remembers. Around the mirror are photos of her and her husband with labels to help her identify where and when and who. She remembers during the day everything she learns that day, but next morning wakes up and has to start all over again.
Christine suffers from a rare amnesia disorder which manifests itself in not being able to remember anything from the past or form new memories, which means when she sleeps at the end of each day, her memory is completely wiped. But how or why did this happen, as it would appear from the photos in the bathroom and the fact she has a husband, she knows that she once had a life.
The other two characters in the story are her husband Ben, and a psychologist, Dr Nash. For reasons I could not figure out, Ben does not know Christine meets with Dr Nash, and of course every time she meets Dr Nash she is meeting him for the first time! Confused? It does feel a bit like that at times. Dr Nash tells Christine to keep a journal in which she is to write everything that happens during the day before she goes to sleep. He rings her each morning after Ben goes to work to tell her where the journal is so she can read what has happened in the previous days. Gradually she builds up a picture of herself, keeping it secret from Ben, because for some reason that she does not know, the journal says in big hand written letters 'Don't Trust Ben'. What's more the daily reading of her life and the time Dr Nash spends with her gradually begins to unlock some of her memories. What she learns does not equate with the reality of what Ben tells her about her past life and how she came to be an amnesiac.
Slowly the tension builds. The reader really does not know where the story is going so of course we keep reading! Very clever. The web is very intricate, especially as the daily journal gets bigger and Christine takes longer to read it and to write it as her brain begins to remember her past life. Who does she trust? Her husband? Her doctor? Her own confusing memories?
A thriller with a difference, really making you think about the power of memory, and how much trust we can place in our own memories. Read it and be afraid. Then go to sleep...
THE ZANZIBAR CHEST by Aidan Hartley
If you just took a moment to think about the devastation wrought on Africa since the white man landed on its vast coastlines, you would weep. Britain, Italy, Germany, France, Portugal, Russia, America, Spain, Turkey: they have all left their indelible and catastrophic mark on the continent. Once these countries have wrought their havoc, bled the place dry of its resources, its people and its essence they leave. And really in our little Western worlds we think very little and very infrequently of that vast and diverse land mass. Our interest is really only piqued when we are full on exposed to the ravages of famine and drought, the madness and tyranny of its leaders, or the blood and gore and horror of its wars. And who brings us this news, who ensures we have full frontals of these events, who piques our consciences? The foreign press, foreign correspondents, journalists. Virtually all the journalists we have anything to do with in our daily lives are those attached to our daily newspapers and nightly TV news entertainment - reporting on the mindless trivia of local and national politics, chasing 'celebs' for nothing meaningful, commentating on the latest sporting event, reporting on the day's court cases - you get the picture. But out there, a long way from our comfortable and tiny existences are the real journalists - those that report on stuff that does matter.
Aidan Hartley is one of those real journalists. He is in the incredibly unique position of actually being a child of Africa himself. Descended from a long line of adventurers, explorers, soldiers and men of action who variously contributed to the ever expanding British empire, he also has that urge to discover, explore, do something different with his life and see the world. From seeing news footage from Vietnam on TV one evening in his teens, he knew that being a journalist was what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it in Africa.
Due to his childhood in various parts of Africa and being his father's son, Aidan developed a very deep love for the land, its people and all the tragedies that have happened to it as a result of foreign intervention. As a young man he finally made it back to Africa and began his reporting career in 1988 as a stringer for the Financial Times in Tanzania. From that time on till the mid-1990s Aidan was on the spot to report, for our Western eyes and ears, on virtually every bit of conflict and catastrophe to hit Africa. And he pulls absolutely no punches about what he sees and how most of the mess that Africa is currently in is due to interference from the West and the total powerlessness and uselessness of the UN in 'mananging' the various conflicts. He sees too much death, brutality, hunger, poverty and waste. Including the deaths of many of his fellow correspondents and friends. He saves his worst for his reporting of the Rwanda massacres in 1997. Be prepared, it is not pretty reading.
There is absolute no doubt that his experiences have scarred him deeply. On his father's death, Aidan discovers a wealth of other stories in his father's Zanzibar chest and he intersperses his modern day observations with the tragic story of his father's close friend who also loved Africa intensely.
This is a remarkable book for the author's passion in telling his story, the catharsis such writing must have been for him, his ability to convey the horrors he saw, the sheer futility and waste of money, life, and energy that was going on around him, and the infinite variety of good and bad humanity he was exposed to. He does come out the other side, but it is a long and difficult road to that point. He has come full circle however; living happily with his wife and young children in Kenya. This is a very big book and will stay with you for a long time after you finish reading it.
THE BEACH by Alex Garland
The best thing about belonging to a book club is that you are exposed to books you would never normally pick up, let alone read. This book had been sitting on the table for a few months, and you know how you sort of get a gut feeling to take a second look, well I did, and then the person who owns the book told me I should read it without really saying why, so I took it home, looked at for a while then after a week or two, started to read it. Wow, what a read. I never saw the film 'The Beach' with Leonardo di Caprio as the lead character mainly because the reviews were pretty mediocre and the subject didn't really appeal - sort of Lord of the Flies (which I never liked) crossed with Blue Lagoon (too ridiculous).
The book, however, is more of a psychological dissection of what can happen when idealistic young backpackers, fueled with the local grass of choice, discover Utopia. You just know before you reach the bottom of page 1 that it aint going to end well! I was hardly surprised when I read that the author's mother was a psychoanalyst; this book is a fantastic study of the young back packer mind - the thrill of adventure, relying on one's own resources, the excitement generated by the discovery of new places, people and things, and the inevitable disillusion that sets in when this life is really not that much different from the life left behind.
Richard is English,in his early 20s, on what I guess is a gap year. With a life long interest and morbid fascination with the Vietnam War he decides to head to South East Asia, the story opening with his arrival in Bangkok in a typically seedy backpacker-ish part of town. It doesn't take him long to meet people, including one who gives him a map of the beach and where it is. Within a few short days he finds himself on The Beach - an unspoilt strip of shore line surrounded by cliffs and commercially grown and heavily guarded marijuana fields; the beach itself occupied by 30 other similarly footloose backpackers who live communally in harmony, surviving from the land and the sea, with the occasional foray back to the mainland. For quite some time the beach life is very peaceful and cooperation reigns. But the modern twentieth century world cannot be held at bay forever. It transpires that the arrival of Richard and his friends is the catalyst for everything to fall apart. Which it does in a most spectacular fashion.
It is fairly apparent that all the people on the beach have become slightly mad with the isolation, the communal nature of their hunter/gatherer existence, and the endless supply of drugs to smoke and probably poisonous own-brewed liquor to drink. Richard's obsession with the Vietnam war, video games, and his relationships with his equally strange fellow residents contribute to his own downward mental and emotional spiral. It is absolutely fascinating watching the inevitable train crash happening.
The author wrote the book based on his own back packing adventures in Asia, mainly the Philippines. He is very scathing of what Western style tourism has done in a short period of time to the beautiful coastal areas of this region, choosing to target his criticism at the beach resorts of Thailand. It is a little ironic that when the movie was made, the beach chosen as the site for the film was extensively excavated to produce the required look, and was apparently restored to its natural state by the 2004 Tsunami.
A truly worthwhile book to read, especially if one has ever done back packing of any kind, or spent time living in a 'tropical paradise'.