The Road Home

This weekend saw my occasional visit to my sister’s book club in the wonderful city of Cologne, Germany. It was my third appearance and since my last, at the beginning of this year, the makeup of the group has changed somewhat, with a couple of long-running members leaving for various reasons.  Book clubs can contain some friction between members, primarily over choices for forthcoming meetings, which sounds fickle but can result in some real arguments over the direction of the club. Anyway, ths turbulent passage has passed for the Cologne club and the core group is the same, so there were plenty of familiar faces to catch up with and an interesting book to discuss.

Rose Tremain is probably most famous for her novel The Gustav Sonata, which I believe was a Man Booker winner. Our choice was The Road Home, her tale of immigrant Lev, who comes to London from an unnamed European country (a stylistic decision which I found a little grating) to try to provide a better life for his family back home. In the current political climate this topic is something of a hot potato, so I was looking forward to a warts-and-all story of hardship and toil which sunk its teeth into the issues surrounding those who seek a better life in a faraway country.

Unfortunately I came away from reading the book a little disappointed. Whilst Lev does go through many travails as he attempts to carve out a niche for himself, the narrative never gave an impression that these problems would prove unable to  solve. Indeed, Lev’s rise from humble sawmill worker to leading chef required an enormous suspension of disbelief to get your head around. The plot was unrealistic to me. On a number of occasions I thought Tremain relied on a perfect coincidence or a vast gesture of goodwill from a fellow character to propel Lev’s journey along. The right person tended to pop up at exactly the right moment, either with financial help when he most needed it or the offer of a roof or employment.  I wanted to enjoy the kindness of the strangers he met, but I’m afraid my possibly world-weary cynicism prevented me from doing so.

There were some very jarring episodes in the story that felt completely out of place, too. Lev gets into a relationship with fellow kitchen worker Sophie, a woman many years his junior, and after it breaks down, there is a bizarre, borderline rape scene which is explicit in detail and is glossed over with very little explanation or fallout. Later on, Lev goes to work picking fruit on an East Anglian farm and there is another peculiar scene where two Chinese workers seduce Lev after a night out.  Again, it’s as if Tremain forgets this ever took place, for it is barely mentioned the next morning. The flow of the story is interrupted by such acts and just added confusion and a hint of ugliness that is completely at odds with the charm and romanticism of the rest of the narrative.

I wanted to like this book more than I did, for I admired some of the minor characters greatly and Tremain skeched them with a lot of skill. And I liked the positive theme of human kindness that threads through the book. We could all be more empathetic to our fellow human beings, after all. But the narrative flaws were too much for me to get over and as such I’d have to say that the book is an gallant, but flawed exploration of the immigrant experience.

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German Return- Stones from the River

So, after an absence of four months, I returned to my sister’s book club in Germany for the first time in a year.  As i suspected, being out of a book club after my return from Australia has been tough – I miss my group very much and have looked on at their forthcoming book choices with envy.  I was pleased to be invited back to the Cologne group, it is a smaller group with a more intimate feel, mostly because the members are regular and they have no one-off participants.  It is also held at a member’s house rather than in the pub which feels more homely, and there’s plenty of home cooked food to eat as well which is always a bonus!

The book choice for the month, Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the River, was one that I struggled with in its opening stages. The main narrator of the story, Trudi Montag, is a dwarf growing up in a fictional rural German town.  The first few chapters highlight her issues with her disability and the abuse she suffers as a child in one particular horrifying event that I won’t spoil here.  It also starts to describe the people of the town of Burgdorf, some in little potted portraits, others sketched in more depth.  These characters weave their way in and out of the story as it progresses.

The first 150 pages or so I found a bit of a drag, not really engaging fully with the narrative.  But once the spectre of World War II approaches, the pace starts to quicken and the character building that has gone before starts to fall into place.  The fascination of this tale for me was twofold.  One, how each character reacts as the Nazis begin to take a stranglehold on society.  Some turn the other cheek, others actively resist and are removed from the town without warning, Trudi and her father secretly help others to build a tunnel to hide those in danger. Second, was how the regime didn’t insert itself with fanfare and a great explosion, it was much more insidious than that.  Rights were encroached upon slowly, quietly, and curtailed in small increments.  To start with, some agreed with these restrictions, through coercion or fear or belief.  Then, as things got worse, they realised how much had been lost, but far too late.  The regret this caused led to some characters making awful decisions that destroyed lives and families.

Hegi explores these two themes with great skill – the town almost feels like a character in itself, how it changed from a bucolic village to one of fear and oppression.  The heightened state of events gives the narrative pace and the middle third of the book contains its most powerful passages.  How each character makes their stand is fascinating, and their decisions are always explained with empathy, if not approval.

The last section of the book dragged a little, and I think overall the book could probably lose 50-100 pages and improve for it – the love story involving Trudi and Max could have been cut down and its conclusion was rather obvious – but on the whole I enjoyed the book, and most of all, thought it was an excellent discussion piece for native Germans, who are only a generation or two removed from these events.  It was fascinating to hear how modern Germans approach the Nazi regime, how comfortable they are to discuss it, how it happened.  I felt from the discussion that the struggle to reconcile their feelings on the monstrousness of Nazism is still going on, along with a still lingering sense of guilt and shame over what happened. For this book to bring these issues into public discourse is to its great credit.

 

The Last Hurrah

Whilst writing this blog I have been reluctant to disclose too much about my personal life, as this has been my outlet to discuss books, the art of writing and to get some of my work into the public domain. Of course what is going on behind the scenes has an effect on all of these things but I would rather use this space as an escape from the humdrum of everyday life – reading and writing is my form of escapism and I don’t want to muddy the waters.

But in this case it is almost inevitable, as since my last post I have left Australia and moved back to the UK. This upheaval has had an influence on every aspect of my life. My reading has suffered, I haven’t written anything of note in a while, and until I get back on my feet, I’m now out of a book club, which is an enormous shame, as I enjoyed the experience immensely. We had a close-knit, lovely group of people with an eclectic range of tastes which garnered some interesting conversation and at times robust debate. I did attend one last meeting a few days before my departure and despite the sorrow of the occasion for me it was a chance to talk about one of my books of the year so far.

The novel in the form of a diary is something familar to most. Adrian Mole is probably the most famous example of the form for me, I and many others I know devoured the first in the series on its release and even now I can quote passages of it almost verbatim. The idea that the reader is encroaching on the most private thoughts of the narrator can be thrilling and the format lends itself to immediacy and a fast pace.  And the novel we chose, William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, is as fine an example of the genre that I can remember.

The narrator, Logan Mountstuart, is, possibly through his sheer open honesty, a character who reveals a fair amount of bad behaviour during his ife – promiscuity, adultery, alcohol abuse, and so on. He makes some exasperating decisions. often at great detriment to himself, which alienate the people around him. From his actions, this is a man hard to put up with. And yet, despite his numerous failings, it is hard not to fall for his charm. His wit, humour, and refusal to conform form an irresistable cocktail and slowly but surely you get swept up in his world. There are passages of great poignancy when he talks of the death of his wife and child, and some of his reflections on life in old age are bang on the money and really resonate.

The narrative is imbued with chance meetings with celebrities of the twentieth century, including Hemingway, Woolf and Picasso. This was a sticking point for some of the group, who felt this was a bit of a gimmick in order to name-drop, but I disagree. I found it wove into the story easily and wasn’t the least bit contrived. It added some context and culture and placed Logan in the circles of the day.

The overriding feeling I had on completing this novel was a sense of loss that my relationship with Logan Mountstuart was now over. Since I finished it I have thought of it often, and to start with I almost grieved for him. For a novel to conjure up such strong feelings make it an unqualified success in my book. I would urge anyone to read this – genuinely one of the best I’ve encountered in a long while.

In contrast, Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the River had no lasting effect on me at all. I can’t even begin to conjure up any feelings about it, positive or negative. A book I read and took nothing from. I appreciate I was in the minority on this as most of the group spent as remarkable amount of time singing its praises, going into the nuances of the main character Nora as she told the tale of her loveless marriage and subsequent relocation to England. It was an interesting discussion but one I’m afraid passed me by a little bit. If numbers of fans has weight, it’s probably worth reading. Not one for me, though.

So my book club days are over for a little while. I will always be thankful to the group for the laughs, great debates, and for introducing me to some books I never would have read otherwise. I came to Australia looking to find like-minded friends and put some of the spark back into my reading life – I can safely say being in this book club fulfilled both. I will miss it greatly.

 

The Last Whites

For 2016 I have been undertaking a reading challenge on Goodreads. Up until now this has had little effect on my reading habits, as I read voraciously at the best of times. But one problem that has arisen is that I am reading my book club choices weeks in advance, and when the meetings come around, I am trying to conjure up talking points from a book I read over a month ago. Which makes writing these blog posts a little more difficult, but I will endeavour to carry on regardless…

A few months ago I brought along my copy of Richard Price’s The Whites to book club, his latest crime novel written under the pseudonym of Harry Brandt. I bought a copy as soon as it came out, for I have been a huge fan of Price ever since Clockers, his era-defining novel about New York drug culture, which indirectly spawned The Wire, arguably the greatest TV series ever made. (Price wrote a couple of episodes for it, too.) Without prompting, I found that it had been chosen as this month’s first choice. Which I was very pleased about, as I think Price is one of the most important writers of his generation.

So why the love? Firstly, Price can write dialogue like no other. Some writers are unfortunately afflicted with a tin ear when it comes to the way people talk, but once a while someone comes along who just have a knack for it. Elmore Leonard did, and Price is up there with the great man. He knows the language of the street and his characters interact with a truth and zeal that just zings off the page. This novel is his first set more in the police procedural genre, and he has no trouble with the hard-nosed black humour that flys between the Wild Geese, the core group at th novel’s heart.

I suspect Price chose a pen name to represent this change in genre, although the edition I have is shorn of the Brandt moniker. The plot is too labyrinthine to go into in great detail, for the world Price has created contains at least 50 major and minor characters. Even those with one or two pages of screen time are well-drawn and you never get the sense that they are extraneous to proceedings. Price’s ability to juggle all these balls in the air and still create a frenetic pace that keeps you turning the pages is a strength few could manage. There is a lot of violence and hurt here, but the relationships are embued with an underlying tenderness, particularly between Billy and his dementia-riddled father. These scenes give the prose its heart, and remind us that the ties of family can rise above the ugliness and desolation of the seedy underbelly of New York city. It’s a triumphant work and one that proves Price is still at the top of his game.

Miranda July’s novel The First Bad Man  is unlike any novel I’ve ever read. Having read it a while ago, I still don’t know what to make of it. The main character Cheryl is one of the most interesting protaganists I have read in a long time – owner of some exceedingly bizarre sexual fantasies, a vivid imagination, and aching vulnerability. Her relationships are nothing short of strange, especially with philanderer Philip, a man she shares erotic text messages with as he explores a new relationship with a teenager.

For the first hundred pages or so I found Cheryl tiresome and impossible to relate to, and other book clubbers had similar reservations. But around this point the novel takes an unexpected twist with the arrival of Clee, Cheryl’s bosses young daughter. Their relationship begins with some utterly bonkers bouts of wrestling which borders on domestic violence before blossoming into a lesbian love affair involving a baby which allows Cheryl’s maternal fantasies to flower and grow.

Now I’m sure this plot explanation makes little sense, which goes some way to describing the off-beat, quirky nature of the novel. Some of the ideas are nonsensical, the story develops in unexpected ways, and the whole things teeters on the brink of the absurd throughout. But if you go with it Cheryl’s character takes on an endearing quality, particularly in the scenes after the birth of Jack, which have an affection completely different from the almost random exchanges in the early parts.

This surreal type of fiction has shot up in the last few years and there are a few female writers writing this sort of stuff – A.M Homes is another I can think of. Its a world of cosmetic surgery, strange relationships with therapists and a frankness of sexual ideas. It’s something that is a bit out of my comfort zone but this was a worthwhile read into an alien world for me.

Vegetarian Rabbit

One of the major disagreements I have with people when discussing books is over whether unlikeable characters diminish one’s enjoyment of it. I remember having a quite heated debate over the characters in Chistos Tsiolkas’s novel ‘The Slap‘, a book I really loved. Some of the characters in that book are repulsive – selfish, nihilistic, superficial – Tsiolkas’ stock-in-trade, you might say. My opponent in this argument thought the book was disgusting because of the sheer ugliness of the characters. I strongly disagree with this kind of analysis. If there is a convincing explanation for poor behaviour, and the character development leads to bad things happening,then that’s fine by me. A character is only badly drawn, in my view, if their actions do not sit with whatever development has already taken place. The Slap may deal with horrible people, but there was never a moment when their actions felt inexplicable.

This argument came into focus when discussing our first choice this month, John Updike’s Rabbit, Run. I don’t think there was a person in the room who found Rabbit Anstrom likeable – he leaves his pregnant wife at the start of the book on a whim, takes up with a prostitute then returns home when his wife gives birth. Pretty repugnant stuff. All these actions are undertaken without any real explanation – Rabbit just does them. That didn’t sit well with me, because without an opportunity to understand the reasoning  behind his decisions, I couldn’t empathise with him and therefore the book fell short for me. The counter argument to this is that this lack of explanation was the point. Here is a man who acts on sheer impulse without thinking of the needs of others, somebody who has the family but is in search of something else, and will follow his heart no matter who it effects. I see this point of view, but I find it a little unconvincing. Rabbit’s selfish needs would, in my mind, lead to rejection by his wife and probably being ostracised from the community. But no, his family and wife forgive him, and he emerges virtually bulletproof from the affair. Even the tragic death of his young daughter, an event partly influenced from the trauma his wife suffers in his absence, seems to have little effec on his behaviour. I found this unrealistic and couldn’t shake that feeling.

This was somewhat of a shame, for there is no doubt that Updike can write. Some of the descriptive passages are wonderful, and his thoughts on 1950s, post-war America are insightful and thought-provoking. Writing in the present tense gives the book a nice sense of pace which is well sustained throughout. I think despite my misgivings I would probably seek out the remainder of the books in the Rabbit series, to see if Rabbit keeps up his selfish attitude if nothing else.

I’m hesitant to stereotype writers from Japan and the East as having a stylistic connection, but of the books I’ve read from this part of the world, I’ve found many have a sparse, poetic quality to the prose which is quite unique. Han Kang’s ‘The Vegetarian‘, winner of the Man Booker International Prize in 2015, is another book, this time from a Korean author, which shares this trait. The book has an extraordinary quality which is difficult to define. The subject matter is provocative, with a woman descending into madness after having surreal, ghostly nightmares. She decides to give up eating meat and from then on all sorts start happening, there’s scandal in there, abuse, estrangement, eroticism, you name it. As a sufferer of mental health issues over the years I thought the portrayal of her illness was very well done and certainly resonated strongly.

The novel is split into three sections, each section narrated by a different family member. This gives a more well-rounded insight into her character, although I would say that the quality of each section differs – the first is certainly the strongest of the three. Despite this Kang manages to keep a pitch-perfect tone throughout. In the hands of a lesser writer the big issues explored could have spiralled out of control but the style of this book is more a steady, rhythmic, almost hypnotic beat. I read this a few weeks ago now and I still think of it from time to time, which shows its unsettling power.

Apples and Olives

For some reason over the last few months we have studied books written by male authors almost exclusively. This is probably just coincidence, but there has been a notable absence of female writers on our shortlist. This month we attempted to redress that with a couple of very different books authored by women.

I tend not to read memoir or biographies very often; first of all because the market is stuffed to the gills with them, and to be frank most of the subjects are of little interest to me. A sportsman writing (or ghost-writing, very often) their autobiography when still in their mid-twenties seems to me to be a highly cynical attempt to cash in on their popularity rather than having anything interesting to say. There are always exceptions to this, of course, but I approach such books with a degree of caution.

So when reading Magda Szubanski’s memoir Reckoning I was please to find my fears were unfounded. For a start, she can really write. I had little knowledge of her work as a comedian and TV personality before reading, which put me at odds with the other members of the book club, but I found it a candid and humorous read nonetheless. The crux of the book deals with Szubanski’s complicated relationship with her Polish father and his years spent under Nazi rule in Warsaw in World War 2. She struggles to come to terms with her identity, mostly because of her father’s reluctance to explain his formative years and its effect on him as man and father. Her other struggle with identity was dealing with coming out as a lesbian in the still hostile atmosphere of 1980s Australian society, particularly from those in the television industry.

This twin struggle gives the book its emotional weight, and there are some very tender and moving moments at the books conclusion when Szubanski begins to come to terms with her background and sexuality. As I said earlier, she has a talent for writing and a frankness that is admirable, exploring her own flaws with great insight and a constant dry wit. The celebrity pile of self-absorbed tittle-tattle books of gossip are already groaning under their collective weight. Thankfully Szubanski’s book eschews this mundane frivolity and the result is all the better for it. A welcome addition to the genre and I shall endeavour to seek out more of these sorts of biographies in future.

A bugbear of mine in book discussions is the criticism of a book as being ‘depressing.’ Firstly, everyones idea of what constitutes depressing is completely different – having suffered from it throughout my adult life I can say most peoples ideas are probably way off beam – and more importantly, a book which deals with such issues shouldn’t be criticised for doing so. Life is pretty depressing at times, and it would be dishonest to not say so, so the argument that it is something of a black mark against a book I have little time for.

This made Elizabeth Strout’s collection of intertwined short stories Olive Kitteridge something of a conflict for me. The eponymous hero  of the book is certainly a character who is pretty intolerable at times. She is selfish, neurotic, judgemental, and and at times quite nasty, with seemingly little self-awareness of these traits. This comes sharply into focus through her relationship with her son, who after entering therapy delivers some home truths that Olive is completely unaware of. She is completely immune to this side of her personality, and hostile to the criticisms that come her way. Which makes her a frustrating character to read.

Frustrating yes, but always fascinating. And this is my argument – to dismiss the book as depressing because of Olive’s character ignores the brilliance of the writing. Strout has created a woman who is compelling to read about and never boring. The structure of the book, with Olive appearing in some capacity in virtually all of them, makes you eager to see when she will crop up next. Indeed, the weakest of the stories are those where she is reduced to little more than bystander. I found myself turning the pages wishing to get back to Olive, to find out more about her and look for explanations of her flawed character. That feeling can only come when a character explodes off the page and into the reader’s consciousness, warts and all, demanding that their story be told. If the writing is weak, this just doesn’t happen. That it did so powerfully here is a testament to Strout’s strength as a storyteller.

First Novel Phenomenon

We took on two first novels at book club this month, and both caused something of a sensation on release. Very different books, and one in particular had an enormous effect on my teenage years when I read it many years ago.

I remember when Zadie Smith’s White Teeth came out at the beginning of the century and the buzz it caused. This tale of the lives of two wartime friends, one Bangladeshi and the other English, and their sprawling families, was a smash on release and made a superstar of its author. I never had much of an inkling to read it at the time, never being one for the popular read, so it passed me by. It is an amazingly accomplished work for a first novel, particularly from a writer aged just 25, and contains a cynical humour and pathos that I really liked. The themes it explores are weighty and really relevant to today’s society too.

Immigration and the assimilation of immigrants is a political hot potato no matter which side of the world you are on. The efforts of Samad and his family to integrate into British society form the backbone of the novel. Putting down roots is a major metaphor (hence the White Teeth title) and all the first-generation immigrants in the book face a struggle in trying to do so.

The second generation find it even more difficult; the children of Archie and Samad, despite being born in Britain, seem to have no further connection to their country of birth than their parents. They also turn against the influences of their parents in an attempt to find their own way – Millat being the most extreme of these, a rebellious womaniser who ends up being radicalised into an Islamic fundamentalist. The quest for assimilation ends up alienating the children from their parents.

These themes are woven expertly into the book by Smith, and shot through with the off-beat humour already mentioned. Despite being 15 years old the book remains really relevant today, as sadly many countries in the world face real problems from homegrown terrorism. In fact I would call the book very prescient in that way.

That’s not to say it is without its flaws – the ending of the book feels rushed and ties up the loose ends in an abrupt fashion. This was an almost universal criticism. The writing style changes and it feels jarring, as if Smith didn’t quite know how to pull everything together and got into a panic. Which is a great shame as it mars what up until then had been an enjoyable read.

I first read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies as a 10 year old at primary school, which in hindsight was a brave decision on the part of my teachers. The violence and savagery of the book has stayed with me ever since, and it was fascinating to re-read after all these years and assess my feelings about it from an adults perspective. I would now say this is one of the finest books I’ve ever read.

Why? Well, first and foremost it is a brilliantly written adventure story. Place a group of teenage boys on an uninhabited desert island and see what happens. The possibilities are endless, and Golding takes us down some very dark roads and into the shadows. As a kid this was the first book I’d ever read that opened my eyes to the dark potential of what my peers and I were capable of, and this thought was overwhelming and a little frightening. As the group dynamic begins to disintegrate and Jack and his band of hunters escape into the forest, the tension ratchets up notch by notch. Something terrible is going to happen, and its inevitability is both depressing and exciting. Once Simon and then Piggy are killed in acts of mindless savagery the destruction is complete and civilisation has been destroyed.

It was the sheer plausability of this scenario that got to me then and still discomforts  me now. How far away are we from total destruction? Would a group of boys today behave in such a manner? I think I know the answer, and it is a troublesome thought.

I think the books unique brilliance is its utter refusal to allow any sentimentality about childhood to enter the narrative. I think it is almost inevitable for this to happen when adults write about children – its hard to reminisce without becoming a little misty-eyed. This is the only novel I can think of which does so, and with complete success. I think it is peerless in its field and should be sought out and read by all.