Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Moment In Time

I showed Hunting and Gathering to Wendy when I started reading it and she did not think, from the few glimpses she had, that it would be her sort of book.  As a love story she recommended H E Bates' A Moment in Time.  It would be arrogant of me to try and 'review' a book which must have been the subject of so many comments over the years by people far better qualified than I to pass judgement.  

However there is one very striking comparison between it and Hunting and Gathering: the endings.  I commented on the latter's ending that "What one can say is that the ending is wrapped up without a single thread left unsewn".  Bates's ending is one which leaves you to believe in the ending without telling you what it is.  Many years ago I wrote a piece called Life Is Good Brother which did just that.  I thought (and still think) that it was quite a good piece. However I was slated by the teacher because it did just what Bates has done.  I liked it in my essay.  I don't like it when others do it.  Inconsistent or what?

A Moment in Time is a pleasantly written story which one could not leave half read but it is not a book which I would pick up again nor put on my list of suggested reading for anyone else. Which just goes to show you.


It's always as well to remember that there are occasions when the greatest danger comes not from your enemies but from your friends. [Quote, Unquote]

It sounds like the most ordinary and simple of conversations but because of it I felt my latent affection for Tom Hudson stir very deeply inside myself, turn over and then go completely to sleep again, exactly like a warm kitten.  [Hmmmm.]

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Hunting and Gathering

Translated from the French, Hunting and Gathering, Anna Gavalda's latest book is, apparently, a departure from her previous two books in that it is not a dark story of love denied nor lost nor roads not taken.  It is a story driven by its characters rather than a plot.

The characters are Camille, who works as a 'cleaning operative' and lives alone in a tiny, unheated, delapidated garret with a Turkish toilet on the landing and doesn't eat; Philibert, an aristocrat 'minding' an enormous flat which is the subject of a family inheritance feud and which is in the building in which Camille lives; Franck who lives in Philibert's flat and is a talented chef with severe boorish tendencies and Franck's Grandmother, Paulette, who is too old to look after herself but who is terrified of being placed in a nursing home.

All these characters are damaged in some way but come together as a group of individuals who, through each other, manage to mend that damage.  It is a story of many emotions: despair, kindness, sadness and happiness.  To my mind they were crafted with considerable skill and feeling.  One suspects the whole time of reading that this is a book which will have a happy ending.  Surely it will...............  What one can say is that the ending is wrapped up with not a single thread left unsewn.

I seem to wonder about the intentions of the authors of books that I have been reading recently.  I can't decide, for example, whether this book is simply a 'holiday read' or a more serious work.  Whichever, it is very pleasing prose.  I would suggest, too, that it is one of the most beautiful books that I have read recently.

It was recommended to me by a friend who knows me well and was a welcome recommendation. Would I recommend it to others? Absolutely but, and it's a big but, only to selected people.  'Cos if you're not one of those people you may well just not take to it.


It's a hypothesis.  History won't take us far enough to confirm it.  And our certainties never really hold water.  One day you feel like dying and the next you realise all you had to do was go down a few stairs to find the light switch so you could see things a bit more clearly.

In mid-November, when the cold weather began its dirty work of undermining everyone's morale...  [So appropriate on Lewis this year!]

The thing that prevents people from living together is their stupidity, not their difference.  [Ouch, that hurt.]

Why does there always have to be a notion of profitability? [in knowledge] I don't give a fuck if its useful or not, what I like is knowing that it exists.

...everything you regret comes back to haunt you, torment you.  Day, and night...all the time.  [My Godfather, Uncle JPD, drilled into me that one must never regret anything in life because, you've guessed it, it would come back constantly to haunt one.  The one thing I've regretted haunts me constantly.  Oh dear.]

Mathilde had the kindness, arrogance and offhand manner of those who are born in finely woven sheets.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Wuthering Heights

Until I read Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronté I had not read any of the Bronté sisters' books. Somehow that era of classics had just not appealed to me.  However Wendy prevailed upon me to read ít and I have just finished it.  It is another first too:  the first time I've read a novel borrowed from a public library.

I had always thought that this was a story of great emotional love.  As I got into it (I have to admit that, at first particularly, I found it very hard to follow) I felt more and more that it was a story of obsessive all-consuming hatred and revenge.  Such 'love' as there was appeared to me to be obsessive desire rather than true love.  This is a novel about male domination and female powerlessness, abandonment, betrayal, jealousy, obsession and revenge.  Of true love I find little.  I accept that I am a still, small voice.

But who am I to comment on such a novel when, apparently, more essays and analysis and speculation has been written about this novel than any other.   I do wonder, though, how somone of the tender age and upbringing of E B could have the knowledge and imagination that which she obviously had in order to write such prose and convey emotions or actions of such fearful ferocity.

This is not a novel for the faint hearted.  I shall, at some time, revisit it.  It will be interesting to see if, next time I read it, I perceive it in a different light.  To be sure I will certainly enjoy the splendid prose.

I did rather enjoy one critic who had evidently been infected by the food and starvation imagery of the novel who wrote "There is an old saying that those who eat toasted cheese at night will dream of Lucifer".  The author of Wuthering Heights has evidently eaten toasted cheese.

Friday, November 7, 2008

If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things

I finished reading this book on the 'plane on the way to New Zealand.  I've been thinking about it on and off ever since.  I think that this is the first book I've blogged about and upon which I have had such difficulty knowing what to say.  

I'm not well enough read to comment on the style of writing but I have never come across a similar one.  It seemed to me that the storyline was almost irrelevant.  I think that the point must be in the detail rather than the general. The prose was, I thought, beautifully poetic and painted a picture that even my unimaginative mind could appreciate. However I usually read a book in very small tranches and my inability to conceptualise sometimes made it difficult to re-locate myself into the geographical setting.   But that's probably just me.

I'm not even sure that I actually enjoyed it.  But it certainly made me think.  Perhaps that is what I got out of this book.  Has any other reader of this blog read it?  

If you listen you can hear it.
The city, it sings.
It's a wordless song, for the most, but it's a song all the same, and nobody hearing it could doubt what it sings.  And the song sings the loudest when you pick out each note.

...I don't understand how we can be so busy and then have nothing to say to each other.

I look at my room, at the table with the flowers and the pot of tea, the two cups, I think how nice two cups on a table can look.

He says, if nobody speaks of remarkable things, how can they be called remarkable?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Tom's Midnight Garden

I'm not sure how one can read a book by mistake but that's what I have just done. I was contemplating the next book to read when my eyes alighted on this thinnish volume and I though that I'd manage to finish it before I leave for New Zealand. As I started it I had an uneasy feeling that it wasn't quite what I expected and it seemd to be a children's book. No indication anywhere that it was so I persisted. Then I decided that as I'd got so far I might as well find out the ending. I imagine that it's an enjoyable enough book if you were a pre-teenager in the 1950s. Or someone old enough to read children's books again! In a funny sort of way I enjoyed it. More importantly, though, I liked the concepts of time and space explored in the story and the potential for other planes of being. I think I would have enjoyed this as a child.

Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce is regarded as a modern (children's) classic. I'm certainly not qualified to comment but I'm not sure that it ranks with Black Beauty or Peter Pan.

But I've decided that I shall re-read Peter Pan.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Cold Comfort Farm

When I started to read Cold Comfort Farm I didn't know what to expect even though I'd read CJ's posting on A Book Every Six Days which, by the way, I would suggest that you read before you venture further with this paragraph. It was that posting that made me take the book off my shelf and read it. Anyway whatever it was I might have expected I certainly would never have expected what I found.

It is supposed to be a comedy. It didn't amuse me. It seemed to me to be a parody. But of what or whom I had no idea and it made me wish that I had a better knowledge of English literature. I came across a paragraph which started "Dawn crept over the Downs like a sinister white animal, followed by the snarling cries of a wind eating its way between the black boughs of the thorns." I have never liked Thomas Hardy and it was at that moment that I thought perhaps I had discovered at least one of those whom Stella Gibbons was mocking.

I was fascinated by the ludicrousness of the whole book: its plot, its setting, its characters, its language and its prose. I couldn't see why I should continue reading it and yet I couldn't put it down. Surely there must be a twist in the tale's tail. But no. Instead we end up with the ending of a romantic novella.

W are told that "The action of the story takes place in the near future." As it was written in 1930 and 1946 is in the story's past it is difficult to even approximate a time. However as air taxis are a commonplace it is nearer our time. But as mail appears to be delivered the next day it is presumably set some time ago! Ah. 'Tis full of puzzlement. And sukebind.

There was a son [a Sussex man] who was easy on the eye but slow on the uptake. [A current Sussex saying is 'Strong in the arm but thick in t' head']

'Who's "she"? The cat's mother?' [A saying of Mum's from my youth. Had she read Cold Comfort Farm I wonder.]

Nature is all very well in her place but must not be allowed to make things untidy. [A quote for Helen and CJ in particular.]

..a philosophic treatise.....not to explain the Universe but to reconcile man to its inexplicability. [That's one for me - I never did have an enquiring mind.]

She liked Victorian novels. They were the only kind of novel you could read while you were eating an apple.

I think we ought to dine out... to celebrate the inauguration of my career as a parasite.
And one must not forget the parrot. You did read CJ's posting, didn't you?

Yes. I enjoyed this book. But I'm still not really sure why.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Remains of the Day

Last week just as I was starting this book CJ posted on Ishiguro's book Never Let Me Go . I wondered whether I would have more to say than CJ. Well I'm a bit at a loss for words on this one. Did I enjoy it? Not really. Did it have a satisfactory ending? Not really. Did I learn something from it? Not really. Did I understand what Ishiguro was attempting to achieve? Not really. In fact it was a bit of a not really book altogether.

I started off enjoying the story, briefly, because I thought I had an idea where it was going. Wrong. The narrator of the story has striven (at the time of the narration) to be called a 'great' butler and is a self-satisfied, emotionless and, I thought, very unfeeling, uncaring and unpleasant person. I was sure, however, that Ishiguro did not intend him to be. Or did he? Now I'm not really sure.

One of the things about posting views on a book is that it does make one think back to what one has read. I'm sure that Ishiguro was trying to get far more issues across to his readers than I have managed to assimilate. But as I review the pages I fail to see those issues. The last pages talk of the evening being the best part of the working day (actually and metaphorically) hence making the best of the remains of the day. But if that is the message then........

I would add that the narration prose is wonderfully evocative of how one might expect a butler in a great house to communicate in the earlier and middle part of the twentieth century. How does anyone who has not lived through that era - in fact was not born in this Country - do that? But then the last four words of the book contain a split infinitive! Oh dear.

Would I rush to read another of his books (which I have on the shelf)? Not really.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Does God Believe in Athiests?

No, I haven't read this book. Life's too short to drink bad wine and too short to read books which are a turn-off from the cover blurb never mind the first page. Mainly because, despite the title, the book is really a quite academic treatise in part (the part that traces the development of atheistic and agnostic thinking from the 'Golden Age' of Greek philosophy to the present day with Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Camus and Sartre thrown in for good measure) and the rest which is, as the existence of God cannot be proven, an exposition of faith.

I thought that the title, however, was brilliant and worth a mention for itself alone.

It did make me wonder whether in an analogy with the question as to whether a falling tree makes a sound in a forest where there is no one to hear it, if God does exist and doesn't believe in athiests do they exist?

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Blogging About Books

It had never really occurred to me to blog about books until I realised that I really enjoyed CJ's and Helen and Ian's Blogs. It's fascinating to know what other people are reading and what they find enjoyable or otherwise. It also gives one ideas for prioritising ones own reading.

From the blogger's perspective it is a memory jogger, a diary of books read and something to be re-visited.

I wish that I had kept up the index book I started when I was about 18 of the books that I had read. It was not a diary as such only a simple a list. How fascinating it would be, for example to know what I thought when I read War and Peace (twice, two separate translations! I think I favoured the Penguin Classics translated by Rosemary Edmunds, the Heron Books one, I seem to recall anglicised the names which felt inappropriate), Crime and Punishment (did I really understand it then, would I now?), London Bridge is Falling Down by David Lodge (read in 1971 it is the only book against which I placed a quote: 'Literature is mostly about having sex, and not much about having children. Life is the other way round.'), the whole Strangers and Brothers series by C P Snow (which I have re-read twice since), lots of Somerset Maugham (I devoured his books avidly but cannot remember a single emotion that they elicited from me), every C S Forester book published (a story teller par excellence) and so many more.

In fact when I see how many Russian novels alone I have read and forgotten about it makes me appreciate just how many books proper readers must get through. Then there are the books about which neither the author, the title nor the subject bring back any recollections whatsoever: Myself a Mandarin by Austin Coates or The Twelfth Mile by E G Perrault to name but two.

Ah yes, what if?

"What if? Big Lou's answer came quickly: One did not engage in such idle speculation in Arbroath. 'No point thinking about that,' she said 'It didn't happen'." The World According to Bertie.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Agatha Raisin And The Quiche Of Death

In May CJ stayed with me and read some of the books on my shelves. One of these was Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death by M C Beaton. Naturally he wrote a blog entry on A Book Every Six Days. I couldn't remember what he had written (although I knew that he had enjoyed it) and had deliberately not re-visited the entry until I had read the book myself. Which I have done over the last few days.

This is the first of a series of Agatha Raisin murder mysteries. Agatha sells up her public relations firm and takes early retirement to a quiet village in the Cotswolds. She is the antithesis of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple. Booklist described her as 'A refreshing, sensible, wonderfully eccentric, thoroughly likeable heroine'. Which book, I wondered, had they been reading. Doubtless we will come to love her as we love Miss Marple but to describe her as any of those things is, in my view, palpably incorrect. She doesn't even have the virtue of being eccentric. She's friendless, boorish, rude, selfish and rather pathetic figure of an anti-heroine. Or was I reading a different book?

That may sound as though I didn't enjoy the character or the book. In fact I enjoyed both. And I will read another one. That will be the test for me. Will the next book continue to provide interest or will the novelty wear off very quickly?

Not for the first time , Agatha wondered about British Rail's use of the word 'terminate'. One just expected the train to blow apart. Why not just sat 'stops here'?

'If you want to make your mark on the village, Mrs Raisin, you could try becoming popular.' Agatha looked at him in amazement. Fame, money and power were surely the only things needed to make one's mark on the world. 'It comes slowly,' he said 'All you have to do is start to like people. If they like you back, that is a bonus.'

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The World According To Bertie

For comfort food I turn to spaghetti bolognese, for comfort reading I turn to Alexander McCall Smith. As I started on the book I wrote those opening words in my blog posting and saved them for when the book was finished. A few days later the following paragraph written by Helen appeared in Helen and Ian's Book Blog : "People widely accept the concept of 'comfort food'. I wonder if anyone else has special books to which they turn and reread for comfort or inspiration?" Well I don't return to McCall Smith's books to re-read them (not yet anyway) and they don't inspire me But they are the spag bol of reading for me. They are undemanding, entertaining and, above all, comfortable. And for anyone with a knowledge and love of Edinburgh (as I do) the 44 Scotland Street and The Sunday Philosophy Club series are just that little bit more special.

Having said that there is something about The World According to Bertie (the fourth in the 44 Scotland Steet series) which seems to me to be rather self-indulgent on the Author's part. McCall Smith is an exceptional man - that cannot be denied. He was, amongst other things, Professor of Medical Law at the University of Edinburgh and served on national and international bioethics bodies until he gave it up in 1999 to concentrate on writing fiction after the global recognition of The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. However in this book his desire to show off his exceptional knowledge occasionally grates and appears to have been done for no other reason than to show that he has that knowledge.

That won't stop me reading the next one and the one after that. I love spag bol too much.

People who do that [decide that Edinburgh is too small for them and move to London] often then discover that London is too big for them, much to the amusement of those who stayed behind in Edinburgh in the belief that it was just the right size for them.

Money, education - these give you freedom, but they can take you away from your roots, your place.

We are here [in life] and by and large we seem to have a need to continue. In that case, the real question to be addressed is: how are we going to make the experience of being here as fulfilling, as good as possible?

...the English are half mad when they think nobody's looking.

Unhappiness in childhood was worse than the unhappiness one encountered in later life; it was so complete, so seemingly without end.

What if? Big Lou's answer came quickly: One did not engage in such idle speculation in Arbroath. 'No point thinking about that,' she said 'It didn't happen'.

...for most of us nothing very much happens; that is our life.

But was it better, he wondered, to be trapped [in a marriage] with a Porsche or not trapped without a Porsche?

Do you remember his book-distressing service for the nouveau riche? [CJ that would be a really good idea for you.]

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Piano Shop On The Left Bank

I have just read the third book in a row which was a first publication by the author. None has disappointed me. When CJ and I were in a charity shop browsing through the books as we are wont to do I came across The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, subtitled The hidden world of a Paris atelier, by T E Carhart an American living in Paris. I was attracted to the book but for some reason let it lie and CJ acquired it. However it prayed on my mind and I eventually 'borrowed' it from him. I use the parenthesis 'cos he has allowed me to keep it after I fell in love with it.

Rarely have I read a book of such charm which has completely captivated me. Not just as a read but as an inspiration to look more closely at things. Carhart's subject is pianos but he could have brought a similar insight to some other subject. Around the subject he weaves a charming, quiet story of people, relationships and music.

This would not have struck me as a book which would have made it into the top selling lists but it would appear to be into its third paperback edition at least and when a friend saw it on the breakfast bar last week she, too had read it and was full of praise.

It is also quite a coincidence that the importance to the author of his piano was a very strong part of the story in C'est La Folie which I so enjoyed and blogged about a few weeks ago. And I learned from both books that it is the French custom when one's hands are wet or grimy to offer one's right forearm to shake instead of a hand.

I was amused by the Guardian's Reviewer's opening paragraph: "Picture the scene had Carhart taken his proposal to the more ruthlessly commercial kind of publisher. "Well, I want to write a book about how I hung around in Paris, and got friendly with a piano restorer," mumbles the author uncertainly. "Then I buy a piano from him, start playing again myself after 20 years, and think quite a lot about pianos." The publisher fixes him with a disbelieving stare. "And that's a book? .................." "

The Observer's reviewer concluded "Perhaps the best recommendation of his book is that it makes you want to reach immediately for Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart, Bach, Scarlatti and the other composers whose names litter the book; if his aim was to inspire in his readers a renewed love for the music, he has succeeded admirably."

I'm not necessarily suggesting that you read this book. Unlike the last two I've mentioned this may not be to everyone's taste. However I thought it was both enjoyable and inspirational.

"Life is a river" he once told me "and we all have to find a boat that floats."

"Ah, I never wait for 'eventually'."

I hadn't considered the suite, as the French put it, the follow-through to circumstances and events that lend life its air at once poignant and meaningful.

...on a modern grand piano [there is] a combined torque [on the strings] of over thirty thousand pounds across an entire keyboard. [Wow]

..even Voltaire dismissed the piano as late as 1774: 'The piano is a boilermaker's instrument compared with the harpsichord'. [Another of Voltaire's statements for me to take issue with with Fiona]

More than any other composer's, Chopin's music addresses the central paradox of the piano: how to make a percussion instrument sing.

'There are many ways of doing things, but there is always one way that is natural.'

'A polytechnicien knows everything, but nothing else.'

'We have to accept that things are ambiguous.'

I wanted to thank him. I wanted him to play more, but finally I saw that the sincerest form of homage would be to follow his lead and talk about the instrument. He knew that we knew [how great his playing was], and the rest was noise.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Before I Die

I can't remember (so nothing new there then) whether friends who had read Jenny Downham's novel Before I Die and extolled me so to do, did so before or after CJ had read it and blogged it on A Book Every Six Days. Anyway it makes little difference because this week I read it. I am so glad that I did.

The book is ostensibly written for the teenage market. How many teenagers would appreciate it I'm not sure because the possibility of dying or even the idea of dying is too far away. The Before I Die website précis describes the novel thus: Tessa has just a few months to live. Fighting back against hospital visits, endless tests, drugs with excruciating side-effects, Tessa compiles a list. It's her To Do Before I Die list. And number one is sex. Released from the constraints of 'normal' life, Tessa tastes new experiences to make her feel alive while her failing body struggles to keep up. Tessa's feelings, her relationships with her father and brother, her estranged mother, her best friend, her new boyfriend, all are painfully crystallized in the precious weeks before Tessa's time finally runs out.

Looking back over Andy's fight against cancer I see similarities of attitude on occasion; flashes of acceptance, optimism, anger, bitterness and so many more emotions that someone who has not faced the imminent probability of death by illness (and specifically by cancer) must find hard to comprehend. I certainly do. For most of us, the reality of someone young facing these emotional challenges is incomprehensible. But somehow the author guides us through the last days of Tessa's life with an astonishing understanding from all perspectives.

This is a book that everyone should read. I won't give a reason: there are too many. But, whoever you are, make sure that you have a large box of tissues to hand.

I want to live before I die. It's the only thing that makes sense.

How long can I stave it off? I don't know. All I know is that I have two choices - stay wrapped in blankets and get on with dying, or get the list back together and get on with living.

'What will happen if anger takes you over Tessa? Who will you be then? What will be left of you?'

I feel a strange warmth filtering through me. I forget that my brain is full of every sad face at every window I've ever passed.

'You want some sweet and lovely things, Tessa, but be careful. Other people can't always give you what you want.'

I want to die in my own way. It's my illness, my death, my choice.

I want to be empty. I want to live somewhere uncluttered.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

C'est La Folie

I never cease to marvel at CJ's blog A Book Every Six Days, not just because of its content (which so often fills me with enthusiasm that I never manage to convert into action) but also because of the fact that someone can read that many books. Having seen CJ read a book in the time that it takes me to do a crossword (I know, I've been told a million times not to exaggerate) I may not understand how he does it but I can at least sit and marvel at the feat. But it's not just the ability to read a book so quickly, it's also the ability to assimilate it and then comment upon it. Then I read Helen and Ian's Book Blog and was fired with more enthusiasm.

So I thought that for what will probably be the first and last time I would do a book posting.

Over the last few days I have read C'est La Folie by Michael Wright. The theme could lead one to believe that this is just another "ma première année essayant d'habiter en France/Italie...". Once I had managed to put Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence behind me I have enjoyed quite a few books on the theme. However Michael who had a head start over the majority of Les Anglais by speaking French (rather than English loudly) has written a book not of Provence or the Dordogne but of a town not too far away from where I am staying. The La Folie website says of the book that it is the true story of a jaded townie, fearful of Abroad and almost entirely ignorant about animals and plants, who gives up a successful media career to attempt to learn how to be a solitary peasant in the depths of rural France, accompanied only by a cat and a vintage aeroplane.

Actually I think that undersells it. Like many people who write about their attempt at a new life in a foreign land Michael is searching to find a way of living comfortably with himself. It is a book about a personal search to be a 'hero', a story with optimism and pathos and a raft of emotions. But above all it is not patronising. Even more than that, it is one of the few books that Sue and John and I have just read which made all of us laugh out loud - sometimes quite uncontrollably - on many occasions.

Even the goldfish add to my social picture, in their dreamy, silent way, their three bright-orange shapes gliding in the depths of the pool, permanently searching for something they've already forgotten they've lost. [Shades of The Drunken Goldfish methinks].

If, one day, I am to have a wonderful relationship with a woman, I first need to learn to be happy within myself, even when things are tough. And if I am to be a wise old man, I need to live through some difficulties first.

And then I woke up one morning and found that I could play it (Widor's Toccata) myself. It's amazing what the brain gets up to, while our backs are turned.

As far as I can tell the difference between flying in france and flying in Britain is that here in France pilots drink too much coffee whilst waiting around for the midday sun to cool, whereas in Blighty they drink too much tea whilst waiting for the clouds to lift.

It's difficult to be a hero when life keeps getting in the way.

And as the man in the paper-shop tells me, at least we're (Les Anglais) are not Parisians.

They (local ouvriers) earn what is needful to live, and ça suffit. In England this might look like laziness. Here it looks like contentment.