Less – book review

Less, by Andrew Sean Greer

I liked Less a lot.

Arthur Less is a white middle-aged, gay, American man walking around with his white middle-aged, gay American sorrows. Well, that is the character in a novel Less is writing. “It’s a little hard to feel sorry for a guy like that,” says a friend. True that.

But somehow we do! Arthur Less is a lovable white middle-aged, gay, American man. All the boys say he kisses like he means it.  And Less is nursing a broken heart. He is confused and struggling to understand the depths of his emotions. His much younger ex, Freddy, is about to marry someone else. Less lets him go, because he loves him so much and doesn’t believe he can make him happy. Less leaves town to escape the despair of loss. Continue reading “Less – book review”

Converstations with Friends & Normal People – book reviews

Sally Rooney is my new discovery. Sure, I’m behind the play on this one, the last two years have seen her plastered with awards. Don’t ask me why she is so good, I find it hard to say why I find the lives of twenty something Irish students and their friends so compelling. They don’t go on adventures or do remarkable things. Their journeys are mostly internal and all about relationships. They’re going through the  pretty mundane stuff of growing up, involving incidents that you’ll probably recognise, things that you or your friends might have struggled with.

The two books are similar, each with the main character a very bright girl at university in Dublin, with family issues pulling her emotional strings and intense friendships. Continue reading “Converstations with Friends & Normal People – book reviews”

Birds without wings – book review

Birds without wings by Louis de Bernières

God, this is horrific. If you’re looking for a sweet but deep sequel to Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, which is what the bloke in our book club thought he was giving us, this is way out of your depth.

This is Turkey before, during and after WWI, the waning years of the Ottoman Empire. I don’t voluntarily read war stories, but this was for book club and having been brought up on the glorious allies, I was interested to read the perspective of the other side’s glorious allies. But I was sickened by the brutality and inhumanity in this story. De Bernières writes with such clarity and perception there are images painted in my head I will never wipe clean. Continue reading “Birds without wings – book review”

Unsheltered – book review

Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver

Other reveiws of Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered focus on the political; the coy way that Trump shadows the book but is never mentioned by name, the crisis in mid-America in employment, health, etc, our hurtle towards ecological crisis. It has all this; it is trademark Kingsolver.

But I read the book very literally.  To be unsheltered is a primal fear. Unsheltered gave me goosebumps. It is as threatening as a horror story, more so because the menace lies in the undercurrents while things on the surface look good enough. Continue reading “Unsheltered – book review”

Elizabeth and her German Garden – book review

Elizabeth and her German garden, by Elizabeth Von Arnim

Here’s my pick for a Christmas gift for a woman who likes reading and gardening, and doesn’t go at things in a rush. It’s for someone who takes time over words and soil, someone who stops to look at dew on a spider’s web and who, when you drop by over Christmas, is invariably in a flowering sunny nook with a book.

It’s a turn of the Century book (20th Century, that is) in which a young English woman marries a German count and bucks established conventions, opting to leave city society and live in his country pile, where she is obsessed with being outdoors and working in the garden.

She refers to her husband as the Man of Wrath though he is a long suffering dear, who humors her and visits when he can and gives her a generous budget for her mulches and compost though appears quite bewildered by the oddball he has married. She says it must be agreeable to have an original wife, he counters that she is eccentric.  Her three daughters are the April baby, the May baby, and the June baby and are all “inoffensive and good” and are released by the nurse periodically to wander the gardens with their distracted mother.

Elizabeth, meanwhile, is learning how her garden grows. Her gardener has planted rockets right along the very front of the two borders and now the plants behind are completely hidden.  “No future gardener shall be allowed to run riot in quite so reckless a fashion.” But she is charmed by the delicate colour of the rockets and their scent, she picks them to bring inside to the room is filled with their fragrance. She experiments with planting in long grass, she puts pansies in the rose beds and makes a great bank of azeleas in front of the fir trees to brighten up a gloomy nook.

The extent of Elizabeth’s garden and obsession is far beyond what most of us consider gardening, but between monologues about over-wintering of tea roses and the planting of annual larkspurs around the privet hedge she does consider wider issues of a woman’s place in the world, the foibles of society and the benefits of me-time (my words, she calls it wintering all alone, which is disapproved of by the German matrons).  She has visits from two friends, one she likes, the other they pick on, and when the visitors get too much, Elizabeth escapes to her garden.

Elizabeth and her German Garden is a lovely read. It has a gentle pace and a spirited heroine, through she does little other than walk around her flower beds. I’m no large-scale gardener and was a bit overwhelmed by the plants and flowers she describes in all their glory and through every season, but very much enjoyed her enthusiasm and love for them all, the poetry of the writing and the fact that a woman can be so happy in her eccentricity.

I love Charles Dickens

As a tonic for insomnia

I became a Dicken’s fan early on. I remember reading David Copperfield at primary school and I gobbled up Oliver Twist. Pip and his Great Expectations hovered around my teenage years. I probably had a strange view of the world.

The thing I liked best about Dickens were the characters I met, they were nothing like the people I knew in 1970s Wellington.  I would have died for friends like the Artful Dodger and his gang.  They were my imaginary friends and did much more exciting things than the real ones.  And because I was not long out of the fantasy & magic worlds of Narnia and Middle Earth I half believed these people existed. I knew that “Dickensian London” was a real time and place, and I read in that zone between reality and imagination. Where most history probably belongs, anyway.

One of the main advantages of Dickens now is that he’s out of copyright. Yes, you can download the entire works of Dickens onto your kindle for free.  Generally, I don’t download books for free. I like to ensure the authors get paid, but that’s a rant for another time. Dickens doesn’t need my coin any more. I put him in my bag when I’m travelling and now I look forward to that four hour delayed stopover.

I suppose I’ve read Dickens on and off throughout my life. There is no end to the stories, once you’ve read the entire collection you can happily go back and start again – by that time years will have past and the stories will be fresh. They certainly won’t get any more dated.

But here’s the thing. Charles Dickens saved me.

It was when I was living in England, and my children were little, and I was an insomniac. I don’t mean the kind of insomnia when you’re a bit stressed and don’t sleep well for a few nights and whine, I’m so tired.  I’m talking about the deep insomnia that can last for months, when you have no expectation of sleep at all, even though you are in that place that’s deeper than tiredness. Fathoms deeper.

It’s where you wake up at 2am and know that nothing will send you back to sleep. That’s where I was. Of course I drank cocoa, had hot baths, did yoga, said hommmmm for hours. Counted bloody sheep. Sleep wasn’t coming.

If you ever find yourself there, here’s my tip: read Dickens.

I’m not suggesting for a single second that Dickens is soporific.  Quite the reverse. Reading Dickens will not send you to sleep.  He’s thrilling. And anyway, you’re an insomniac. Nothing is going to put you to sleep. You may as well read. At 2am, there’s not a lot else to do.

After a while you’ll find Dickens’ characters will climb in to bed with you.  They become so real, you can anticipate what they are going to do. And then they surprise you, like when a friend you know well does something out of character. The very fact that you can know a fictional character well enough to be surprised by them is a bit creepy.

When you know characters so well, you don’t even need to turn the light on or pick up the book. You can look, wide-eyed into blackness of your black room and you can play with Dickens’ characters, because you’ll know them so well. You can put yourself in the stories with them – you can take Pip in hand and tell him to forget his Great Expectations and go back to the forge, and have Pip look up at you with those big eyes and say “Yes! Yes I will go back. Joe is a good man, I’ll go home.”

Doesn’t happen in the book.

Or pick up a gun and shoot Little Nell – God knows she deserves it – and put her and generations of future readers out of their misery. I’ve done that a few times. BANG! Goodbye Little Nell.  It’s very satisfying at 3am.

I’ve been thanked many times by insomniacs  for that bit of advice – to read Dickens through the night. I know a teacher who received his entire classical education between 2 and 5am.

So if you find yourself falling into an insomnia that might last for months, put a stack of Dickens on your bedside table and pick some characters to romp around in bed with you. You can mix them up. I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for Inspector Bucket of Bleak House, and I sometimes take him to visit Dombey, to see if he can’t sort out that great bully. He tells Dombey to take note of little Florence: “You’re a sensible man of the world,” he says. “And a sensible man of the world knows the value of an intelligent girl.”

If you want a suggestion on where to start, try here:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” and keep going until you have worked your way through the complete works.  You won’t get any more sleep, but you will spend your nights in excellent company and get out of bed in the morning with a dramatically improved vocabulary.

 

 

The Sea – book review

The Sea, by John Banville

I’m a bit ambivalent about John Banville’s The Sea. I wish he’d put a plot in.

Instead, there are pages full of wistfully charming descriptions and heavily clever observations in search of something to do with themselves.

I got pretty impatient with it. There are characters, but other than the grieving narrator its hard to get a handle on them. It turns out it’s not really the dead wife who drives the narrative but a pair of twins our man met on a youthful holiday, or perhaps another child who I eventually figured out wasn’t a child but the nanny who turns into a later character to tie it all together, who wasn’t in love with the father but the mother and was there when the twins walked into the sea, not quite sure why – but I’ve lost you.

It’s easily done.  Even if you went back to figure it all out I’m not sure it would get any more interesting.

The thing that is interesting, that I discovered only after I’d finished it and gone – meh – is that it won the Man Booker Prize in 2005. It was a controversial choice, up against Zadie Smith, Kazuo Ishiguro, Juilan Barnes.  Banville himself implied it was a victory for high art over slick popularism. He comes across, like his character, as a bit of a prat.

But this acknowledgement of literary merit perhaps is the reason for my ambivalence and its inclusion in my list of “good reads for book clubs”. I do like a well hung sentence and I did find myself starting to enjoy snippets very much before the story wandered off somewhere else. So I guess I understand why the Booker judges found the novel classy; though classier than Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go?  Get your book club to read both and ask yourselves what those judges were drinking!

Then again, if you’re an educated, white, middle class bloke and you have a quiet afternoon in front of you with no expectations of wild adventure or a ripping yarn and are in the mood to finding poignancy in very good prose, this thoughtful, old-fashioned read will suit you well.