About Me

My photo
I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Saturday, 28 March 2009

"The Autograph Man" by Zadie Smith

The Autograph Man is Alex-Li Tandem, son of a Chinese doctor and a Jewish mother (and therefore half-Jewish. His dad takes him and his mates, Adam and Rubinfline to a wrestling match between Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks; at the match his dad dies of brain cancer.

The main part of the book tells of a week in Alex-Li's life. It starts after a three day blank out following an acid trip; it follows him to autograph auctions and through boozy lunches; he travels to New York to meet Kitty Alexander, the old film actress he worships; he returns to London.

He spends an awful lot of the book drunk or hungover or on drugs or wasted. This became tedious. The rest of the time he is meditating on the meaning of life from a Chinese-Jewish standpoint. This also became tedious. I think the main problem was that I couldn't really like him: he was a self-indulgent waste of space. The book is essentially a drunkard's excuse for his drunkenness and we have all been cornered in a bar by some sot who wants to justify himself and explain the meaning of the world.

There are some enjoyable flashes of humour. "How did you find New York?" asks one character; "The pilot knew the way" is the reply. A couple of characters sparkle. There was one moment when one character posed a dilemma that sounded real rather than spoilt: what should your response be when you discover that someone has loved you unrequited for fifteen years; should you not let them love you? But basically I couldn't see the point of the book.

I preferred Zadie Smith's White Teeth and her wonderful NW. Swing Time is excellent as well.

March 2009, 419 pages

Thursday, 19 March 2009

"A town like Alice" by Nevil Shute

This is a book of two halves. The first part tells of the experiences of a young woman, Jean Paget, who is with a party of British "mems" captured by the Japanese in Malaya and treks around Malaya under guard before ending up in a Malayan fishing village. During these adventures she encounters a captured Australian who falls "fowl" of the Japs. The second part tells of her adventures in Australia after the war and contrasts a quite businesslike description of the power of capitalism to build an outback village into a town with a somewhat sedate (by today's standards) love story.

The first part is compelling reading. The second part one tolerates because one wants to know what happened.

The story is told by a quaint English solicitor who becomes trustee for the young woman. He is clearly a man of his time (I suspect he would have been old-fashioned even then) and this narration device is cute but lends the whole book a slightly musty air.

The author's style is very matter of fact. I believe Shute was an aeronautical engineer (who worked on the R100 with Barnes Wallis; he was English by birth but emigrated to Australia after the second world war) although he sounds like a journalist. He has a very direct, simple style and the plot is clear; there are no complicated literary mannerisms to get in the way.

It is clearly of its time. It is casually racist. There is a clear distinction between the white mems in Malaya and the native women, although here he clearly has sympathies with the natives; the white women who survive do so because they adopt the native way of life. There are references to Negroes and Abos; an aboriginal woman is described as a lubra and is clearly no fit mate for a white man; it is important to the Australian farmers that they have white cowboys because the abos can't be trusted. The most shocking event to my mind was the fact that the forward thinking businesswoman who set up the ice cream parlour deliberately created two counters, one for whites and one for "boongs" because "I don't think you could serve them [the boongs] in an ice-cream parlour, with a white girl behind the counter."

It is also slightly funny in its depiction of Australian speech with the swear words changed to "mugger" or "mucking" and the frequent use of (one suspects bowdlerised) phrases such as "oh my word".

Finally, although it gets quite risque when she gets half-naked in front of him, they wait until they are married!

Nevil Shute is a writer I have never read before. He is very much out of fashion although he was clearly very much in fashion when this was published (1961): it was "specially chosen" as the 1000th Pan paperback. I am glad I have read this book and I would now like to read "On the beach" but I haven't missed great literature.

March 2009 314 pages

Monday, 9 March 2009

"December" by Elizabeth H Winthrop

This is a classic modern American novel in that the detail is incredible. On page 5 we learn what is in the trash can: "cardboard, Styrofoam, wood scraps, newspapers, empty paint cans and oil bottles, and other rags like this one. .... The rag is flannel, printed with purple alligators." Obsessive?



The book is about a man (city businessman) and his wife and daughter. The action starts at their upstate weekend "cottage", in the snow. The daughter is an elective mute. The parents are tearing their hair out because of this.



The father makes lists all the time and gets on with jobs. The mother's conversation is a model of pointless phrases tossed out into the air for comfort rather than communication. The daughter (who is, OF COURSE, very intelligent) chose silence as a means of controlling her environment but is coming to regard it as a prison which she cannot escape.

But it goes deeper than these somewhat stock characterisations suggest. The mother is desperate that her daughter should break through her silence and mostly devises ways to try to force her, trick her or manipulate her into speech. Yet you cannot think of her as an evil woman, rather as a desperate one. The father is far more content to let things be and find ways of really enjoying his daughter. Other family members get involved: the mother's delusional and sometimes violent brother; the paternal grandmother who keeps horses in the countryside.

The child herself is aware that her silence is confusing, damaging and terrifying her parents and she knows she has no right to inflict this on them. At other times, especially when she feels she is being manipulated, she is furious at them. Thus, a typical adolescent.

It is well plotted, perfectly observed and it all builds to a most satisfying climax.

Excellent.

March 2009 373 pages

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

"Evita the woman with the whip" by Mary Main

This is the biography of Evita that got Tim Rice excited enough to insist that Andrew L-W wrote the musical.

It has some beautiful description: a pueblo "lies like a worm cast on the platter of the plains" and "encompassing as a cup turned down upon a plate and dwarfing the pueblo and man himself to insect size, is the great dome of the sky."

But you could hardly call it unbiassed. It wears its anti-peronista prejudice like a tee-shirt proudly advertising Tommy Hilfiger or Abercrombie & Fitch. Evita cannot do anything without being sneered at. About her only positive quality seems to be her drive and energy and even that is regarded as a rather manic outpouring of unbridled ambition. Thus: Eva is a bad actress who hasn't even worked out what an actress needs to make her good, she is a promiscuous slattern who manipulates men, she is vengeful against political enemies and old friends alike, she resents being sneered at by the oligarchs, she is totally corrupt and on the make and her charitable activities are total shams.

All this might be true. But she must have had something to get her to the top and to keep her there for so long. And she was adored. And Peron clearly adored her too and was prepared to share his Presidency with her when many men would have got rid of the awkward wife.

Aside from this continual negativity (and it sometimes sounds bitchy and snide) the book is mostly a good read. I got a bit bogged down in the details of Peron's first term as President and there was not nearly enough about Evita's final year when the cancer was killing her; the epilogue about Peron's return from 15 years of exile to Argentina was also too rushed.

There is no doubt that the Peronistas did an awful lot of good in Argentina whilst at the same time being a neo-fascist and totalitarian regime that out-mussolinid Mussolini. Main lists their successes such as the minimum wage and decent working conditions and the right for women to vote. Nevertheless they left the country beset by rampant inflation, economically crippled and veering from military junta to weak civilian government. That is why they wanted Peron back when he was basically too old and tired to do any good (he died within a year and was succeeded by his wife who therefore became the first Argentine woman President but who was NOT Evita).

Good book

March 2009 285 pages