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Sunday, August 22, 2010

THE LACUNA by Barbara Kingsolver

This book is the reason there was a bit of a long lull between posts recently. I was trying to see if I could finish it, but I can’t.

I should have known it was going to be a fail when I was about one third of the way through and deliberately left it at home when I went on holiday. I picked it up when I came back, but still it failed to excite me.

I’m bewildered about that.

I love Barbara Kingsolver. The Poisonwood Bible is one of my favourite ever reads and while none of the other novels I’ve read were as grand in their sweep as that, I found them all immensely enjoyable.

This one bored me from the get go. Right there on the fourth page of text is a flowery description of fishes on a coral reef which had me rolling my eyes. I’ve always loved the strong presence of nature in Kingsolver’s other books, but in this one it seemed forced and overly description-y.

I soldiered on and started to find her main character as likeable as they always are, but the narrative remained uncompelling to me. It plods along in a straight timeline, with very little entwined around it. Then he did this and then this happened so he did that…

And perhaps because I always enjoy Kingsolver’s characters so much, I found the presence of Frieda Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky in the book clunky. Rather than adding richness to the scenario they seemed to make it cartoon like.

It certainly doesn’t add tension having real people in fiction, as you already know how it ends with them. In Trotsky’s case that only requires a passing familiarity with the lyrics of The Stranglers.

I’m gutted that I could I be so unenchanted by a book by one of my favourite authors, which has garnered rapturous reviews and won awards (the Orange Prize, no less) and fear the failing is all mine.

So, any of you who have read it tell me this: I’m three quarters of the way through. If I keep on to the end, will it all become clear to me?

(No scores as I haven't finished it - yet.)

PS In a sweet moment of synchronicity, the day after I posted the above my lovely Twitter pal @randallwrites (Lee Randall - who writes brainy stuff for The Scotsman newspaper) posted a link to her new interview with Barbara Kingsolver about this book.

It explains the genesis of the book very interestingly, although I'm still not sure it's going to enable me to be gripped by it. Take a look:

Friday, August 20, 2010

THE BOOKSHOP by Penelope Fitzgerald

I can’t remember where, why or when I bought this book, but I’m awfully glad I did.

I found it recently while browsing in the piles of the great unread which teeter under my bedside table and woofed it up in a day.

I can see why it was nominated for the Booker Prize.

It’s a very slim volume – 156 pages of widely-spaced lines – but packed with insight. Maybe that’s because Ms Fitzgerald was a late arrival at the literary ball, like the last author I read, Mary Wesley.

Fitzgerald published her first novel at 60, after a career that started at Somerville College, Oxford and then spanned the BBC, editing a literary journal, teaching and running a bookshop. Presumably the inspiration for this novel.

It’s packed with satisfying characters and, unlike my most recent Elizabeth Taylor outing (A View of the Harbour), I found them all equally believable and enjoyable. One of my favourites was a 10-year old girl. Another, an old man who runs cattle on the marshes.

Several of the people are marvellously horrid. One of them actively, from vanity and self-importance, others from laziness, frustration and general weakness. One is very good, but hopelessly ineffectual. I found all that very much like my experience of real life.

It’s an oddly unredemptive story, which did make me slightly wonder what point she was making. Perhaps just that bad things happen to good people?

Or to show how one really unpleasant person can be given enormous power by lots of people not bothering to do very small things which could prevent it.

Which is, I suppose, a metaphor for the whole great wide world.

As well as the people, I very much enjoyed the setting of the book, a bleak little village in East Anglia, which is so vividly portrayed, the weather and the topography of the location become characters in themselves.

I look forward to reading more books by Penelope Fitzgerald, but for now, I really want to find something to read which isn’t about middle-aged middle-class English women.

Suggestions gratefully received.

Reading satisfaction: 7
Un-put-downable-ness: 5
Recommend to best girlfriend: 10
Recommend to mother: 10
Recommend to niece: 9
Recommend to gay best friend: 7
Recommend to man pal: 5
Recommend to Helen Razer: 8
Read on public transport: 10
Unpleasantness: 0

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A SENSIBLE LIFE by Mary Wesley

I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it again: I get really cross when authors rely on coincidence to bring their plots together.

And it’s amazing how many serious literary names do it.

Edith Wharton has ridiculous chance meetings in The House of Mirth and I remember being incredulous that Jay McInerney – a writer I love – used coincidences so lazily in The Good Life.

I have put one chance meeting in my new novel, but only after a lot of agonised consideration. In the end I left it in as it is the kind of coincidence that we have all experienced – bumping into a friend unexpectedly – and it is absolutely not germane to the plot. It’s just an amusing incident that allows greater insight into one particular character.

So it was very disappointing that this novel – which starts really marvellously – relies on no fewer than three ridiculous chance meetings, one of them hilariously unlikely, and a far-fetched coincidence of place, to bring it to a ludicrous close.

I can’t understand why the author’s editor allowed her to do it to herself. Mary Wesley is better than that.

I remember so clearly when she burst onto the scene in the early 1980s. An instant literary sensation, publishing her first book at the age of 71, she was an inspiration to everyone who dreamed they might write a novel one day. Which included me at that stage.

I loved Jumping the Queue and The Camomile Lawn, so when I stumbled on this one in my mother’s study, in search of something to read, I was delighted to be dipping back into Wesley again.

I really loved the first three quarters of it, particularly the opening section, which is set in Normandy in the 1920s, where a lot of English families are gathered on holiday.

It’s a really vivid evocation of the period, combined with the universal experiences of adolescent angst and first love. There are also some wonderfully believable hateable characters, particularly the narcissistic parents of the little girl who is the main focus of the book.

Their blithe way of making sure that having a daughter impacts as little as possible on their own self-indulgent lifestyle rang true with many modern parents I have observed.

So I recommend the book for this early section alone, but with a warning that it has one of the most laughable endings I have ever read in a novel. The scores below reflect this. Had it ended properly it would have had the first number.

Reading satisfaction: 8/3
Un-put-downable-ness: 7/5
Recommend to best girlfriend: 9/5
Recommend to mother: 9/8
Recommend to niece: 7/4
Recommend to gay best friend: 5/3
Recommend to man pal: 0/0
Recommend to Helen Razer: 0/0
Read on public transport: 4/4
Unpleasantness: 0

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A VIEW OF THE HARBOUR by Elizabeth Taylor

My great holiday reading treat was to allow myself another taste of my new favourite author. My third.

I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as the first two and think I may have come into her oeuvre at the top by reading In A Summer Season first.

I’ve read it twice now and it has taken its place in my personal Top 100 Favourite Novels. It’s a miniature masterpiece.

This one follows her format of an omniscient point of view of a small group of people over a relatively short period of time, so that you see each moment through the eyes and feelings of each person involved in it. It makes me wish you could live like that in real life.

As usual the main focus is a middle-class English family, in the post-war period, but there were some peripheral characters in this one, which didn’t ring as true to me as I expect from this author.

I have never liked all her characters – but that’s precisely what makes her writing so vivid. You see their flaws, but also experience their feelings, which makes it impossible entirely to despise anyone. The empathy is written in.

A bonus of this volume is an introduction by another writer I admire, Sarah Waters, another massive E. Taylor fan. She says it’s her favourite - and she particularly enjoys the characters I didn’t, so there you go.

One thing she said that did really resonate with me though, is that she believes the reason Elizabeth Taylor – the novelist - isn’t better known, is because of the coincidence of her name with the other Elizabeth Taylor, the film star.

I think that’s a very good and interesting theory – and please help me to turn it round, by reading her novels and telling everyone you know how good they are.

Reading satisfaction: 7
Un-put-downable-ness: 7
Recommend to best girlfriend: 8
Recommend to mother: 9
Recommend to niece: 8
Recommend to gay best friend: 7
Recommend to man pal: 5
Recommend to Helen Razer: 5
Read on public transport: 9
Unpleasantness: 0

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


I picked up this classic espionage thriller genre after having a dream that I wrote a book in that genre. This was inspired entirely by the thrilling recent news story of that young Russian spy Anna Chapman

I was gripped by all that, thinking she was just like a character from one of my books, who happened to become a spy. My subconscious clearly jumped aboard this notion and I dreamed a whole plot along those lines.

The next morning I wondered whether I shouldn’t perhaps write it, so thought I would take a look at the most famous work of the acknowledged master of the spy thriller. I was further encouraged by seeing that the book is one of Time magazine’s 100 Best Novels.

The cover also boasted a – characteristically economical – quote from one of my favourite authors, Graham Greene: ‘The best spy story I have ever read.’

His book The Quiet American would still be my vote for that title, but I did read this one with interest.

Le Carré’s tense, cool style is compelling and enjoyably male. I was also relieved that I found the machinations of the plot very easy to follow – which is all down to the intelligence of the author, not the reader.

But do I think it deserves to be on Time’s list? Not so sure. I found it as much of a period piece as the Edith Wharton I read just before it, and the Cold War paranoia in every sentence seems slightly hysterical with the hindsight perspective of nearly 50 years of subsequent events (the book was published in 1963).

Le Carré’s portrayal of all Communist party functionaries as brain-washed psychopaths, who are using that dogma as a way of amassing personal power, rather than because they might have believed in it as a way of creating a fairer society, made it seem rather one-dimensional.

The main baddy – the really sadistic psycho Commie – is actually a Jew-hating former Nazi, which I found quite hilarious. The underlying message being that Communists are actually just more of the same old evil fascists in different uniforms.

That hints to me that Le Carré was just as brainwashed in the other direction as his Commie characters and reminded me uncomfortably of McCarthy era paranoia.

What’s really scary to me is how deep that fear still runs in America’s psyche. It’s what made ordinary working Americans protest against having a fairer new state-subsidised health care system. That’s how frightened they still are of anything that even hints at – whisper it – socialism,

Of course, Communism didn’t work – although of course it depends how you measure it. Communist Cuba has the highest literacy rate in the world. The people don’t have much to eat, but they can all read War and Peace while they don’t eat it.

That aside, Communism didn’t work because human nature won out. I believe it comes down to the most basic survival instinct: the individual triumphs over the notion of the mass.

And although I’m a fervent fan of government-funded health care and education systems, I’m very glad I never had to live under Communism to enjoy them. At least in a Capitalist state you don’t have to pretend you’re not following your genetic prerogative.

But I do ask myself, while they might have jeans, biros and even McDonalds on tap now, are the ordinary people of Russia really better off now a new superrich elite has replaced the Communist party?

An elite very similar to the one the Communists threw out in 1916, except they’ve amassed the cash by all means necessary, rather than inheriting it.

Anyway, I'm going on a bit, but I do wonder what Mr le Carré thinks about all that. I'll have to read read one of his more recent books to find out. And perhaps he'll be inspired to write one about Anna Chapman.

Reading satisfaction: 5
Un-put-downable-ness: 5
Recommend to best girlfriend: 3
Recommend to mother: 7
Recommend to niece: 5
Recommend to gay best friend: 0
Recommend to man pal: 10
Recommend to Helen Razer: 0
Read on public transport: 5
Unpleasantness: 4
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Sunday, August 1, 2010

THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett

When I was a little girl in the early 1960s I used to watch a television programme with my granny called 'The Black and White Minstrel Show'.

It consisted of a large chorus of male dancers done up in black face make up with big painted on white lips and eye-holes, and cropped black afro-style wigs. There would be a big line of them in matching suits, bow ties, white gloves and boaters.

Even as a child of five I thought it was weird, but at the time nobody could see anything wrong with it. It was a prime time show on Saturday nights.

The blacked-up men would do their odd synchronised dances in long rows, like legions of golliwogs, doing jazz hands, then Kathy Kirby would come on and sing in a lovely sparkly gown and my granny enjoyed it all as an entertainment in the music hall tradition.

I haven’t thought of it for years – until this book reminded me.

The author is a white woman – from Mississippi – who has written two thirds of The Help in the voices of two black women, who were maids in Jackson, Mississippi, back in the early 1960s, right when I was watching that terrible television show. And when a black man would still be lynched down there, for using a lavatory reserved for white people.

The book may be her attempt to redress some of the wrongs of that terrible time in American history, when the South lived under brutal apartheid law, but as far as I’m concerned, she’s written it in black face.

How dare she?

It’s a huge bestseller – two million copies and counting – and it has had rave reviews everywhere. Am I really the only person to be outraged by her profiting from the hardships of another race? And using their voices to do it?

I must stop and say here that it’s a wonderful, riveting read. Stockett writes beautifully, her white characters are brilliant (especially the really nasty one) and it’s grippingly interesting to have insight into just how badly black maids – the ‘help’ of the title – were treated by their white employees.

I just hate her writing in their voices.

Her heart is clearly in the right place – she grew up in Mississippi, raised herself by a black maid, who it seems was more of a mother to her than her real mother – I get all that and I admire it. But she really loses me because the person who helps the black maids in this book move on from their oppression is, guess who? A white woman.

Maybe I am more alert to all this than I might have been because a couple of weeks ago I heard a very interesting programme on BBC Radio 4 discussing that most famous novel of southern US race relations, To Kill A Mockingbird, which was published fifty years ago this year.

To my surprise most of the commentators on the show – all serious academics - were quite critical of the book, saying they found the portrayal of the black character, Tom Robinson, patronising and archetypical.

I listened in disappointment – this was one of my all-time favourite books they were dissing. Then it gradually came out that the majority of the contributors to the programme were of British Afro Caribbean descent i.e. black.

They were prepared to acknowledge that the book was very much of its time and to make allowances for that – much as I did about the grotesque anti-Semitism in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth - but their consensus was that over the long view, while not the author’s fault, those outdated attitudes lessened the ongoing worth of the book.

I felt sad about To Kill a Mockingbird, but by the end of the discussion I could see their point – so that made it all the more shocking that Ms Stockett has up and done exactly the same thing in the here and now. Written a patronising white woman’s view of dem down home black folk.

When there is a black president in the goddam White House.

To put it in another context, this book is the equivalent of me – a white English woman - writing about the systematic extermination of aboriginal people in Tasmania by the British invaders, using the voices of two aboriginal woman. I wouldn’t bloody dream of it.

I carry the race shame of what my forebears did – and I would not insult the victims of it further, by writing a make-it-better book in their voices (perhaps with a lovably wayward aristocratic British woman as the one who helps them…).

Stockett even knows it was wrong herself. There is a little apologia at the back of the book, entitled 'Too Little, Too Late', where she writes about the childhood experiences in Mississippi that inspired the book, and then says this:

‘I was scared, a lot of the time, that I was crossing a terrible line, writing in the voice of a black person.’

And then: ‘What I am sure about is this: I don’t presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially in the 1960s.’

So she knows it’s wrong – and she did it anyway.

Read it if you want to – you will enjoy it - but ask yourself what Michelle Obama would think about this book. And then, if you want to know how a real black American woman feels about things, read some Toni Morrison.

Reading satisfaction: 8 and also 1
Un-put-downable-ness: 8
Recommend to best girlfriend: 9 (because I want to discuss it with her)
Recommend to mother: 9 (ditto)
Recommend to niece: 9 (as above)
Recommend to gay best friend: 9 (same)
Recommend to man pal: 3
Recommend to Helen Razer: 9 (as previous)
Read on public transport: 0
Unpleasantness: 2