Notes from underground

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Archive for the category “novels”

Sex and Stravinsky

Sex and StravinskySex and Stravinsky by Barbara Trapido
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I saw this book in the library I recalled reading another one by the same author, Frankie and Stankie, with its vivid evocation of a Durban childhood. I didn’t review that one on Good Reads, so I don’t know how many stars I would have given it, but I did write about it on my blog Growing up in Durban | Notes from underground.

But I found this one rather disappointing. The descriptions were not as vivid, and seemed somehow less authentic. When Barbara Trapido describes scenes from the 1940s to the 1970s she is usually spot on, but in Sex and Stravinsky the main action takes place in 1995, and the descriptions seem anachronistic. Perhaps the most jarring was the use of “the uni” to refer to universities. I don’t know if South African students use that term now, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t use it in 1995 (when I was still working at a university). In my own student days we spoke of “varsity”, never of “uni”, and I think I first encountered “uni” on the internet, and only in this century. I believe it started in Australia and was adopted in the UK, but does not seem to be used much elsewhere.

Another anachronism was the description of cell phones. In 1995 they were a novelty in South Africa, and were about the size of bricks. Very few people had them, and those that did would ostentatiously show that they had them. There was a story of a man walking into a restaurant talking on his cell phone when, to his embarrassment, it rang.

Apart from the anachronisms, there are serious plot holes. The story is about characters whose lives are linked by an amazing series of coincidences, which stretch credulity too far, and keep on happening. One of the characters, Josh, who lectures in theatre, perhaps explains this, when his mother-in-law takes him and his wife to see Rigoletto, which he did not enjoy:

-He likes early opera, for heavens sake; chamber opera, tightly-plotted comedies in which everyone is in love with somebody else’s betrothed, and sundry marriage contracts are called into question by a range of incompetent stage lawyers. Foppish drunken halfwits or scheming rogues. He likes it when the entire dramatis personae is cheating, spying, playing dead and dressing up in other people’s clothes.

Some of Shakespeare’s comedies are like that, and indeed A midsummer night’s dream makes an appearance in the book. In some ways it looks as though Barbara Trapido is trying to write the whole book along the lines of one of those early operas, but though it may have worked for 17th-century stage productions, it doesn’t come off too well in a 21st-century novel.

I quite enjoyed reading it, and wanted to know what happened to the characters in the end, but it was disappointing. There were too many dei ex machina, and some of the characters were too inconsistent.

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Robert Goddard: pastiche and parody

The Ends of the Earth: (The Wide World - James Maxted 3)The Ends of the Earth: by Robert Goddard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the third book of Robert Goddard’s spy trilogy. I’ve just finished reading the second and third books one after the other, so will comment on the series as a whole rather than on each volume separately.

It’s quite an enjoyable read, even though it has more plot holes than a colander and more loose ends than a bowl of spaghetti. It’s not up to Goddard’s usual standard, where the books are more carefully and believably plotted. Most of his best books are written to a formula in which a mystery in the past influences events in the present. There are echoes of that here, but in this book the “present” is itself in the past, as the main action of the story takes place immediately after the First World War, during and following the peace conference at Versailles, though it is influenced by events that had taken place nearly 30 years before.

But in most of Goddard’s other books the protagonist is usually an ordinary person who gets involved either accidentally, or in an unsuspecting way. Here, however, the protagonist is James “Max” Maxted, wartime flying ace and and James Bond-type swashbuckling hero. The second volume starts off reading like a sequel to The Thirty-nine Steps, which was set before the war, and this one is set after it. One of the characters even mentions The Thirty-Nine Steps. Perhaps the mention of the book is a hint that Robert Goddard is self-consciously writing a pastiche and a parody of the spy story genre, with hints of John Buchan, Ian Fleming and Robert Ludlum. Perhaps the real challenge to the reader is to work out which bit is imitating whom. And perhaps in some parts he’s even parodying himself.

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The Red Queen

The Red QueenThe Red Queen by Margaret Drabble
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“One does not expect a run-of-the-mill academic conference to have such a far-reaching effect.”

The first part of this book is the memoir of an 18th-century Korean princess, describingn the cloisered but eventful life of the Korean royal family, incorporating a modern and postmodern commentary on it..

The second part describes, in minute detail, how Dr Babs Halliwell travels to and attends a run-or-the-mill academic conference in Seoul, Korea. On her journey she reads the account of the Korean princess, and in breaks in the conference she visits some of the scenes of her life. Until the events that cause the far-reaching effect, however, one might think Margaret Drabble‘s main purpose in writing was to record the early-21st century academic conference experience for posterity, perhaps as raw material for a furtire historian of academic conferences.

I’ve attended enough academic courses and conferences to find it familiar territory, very familiar territory, even though most of the ones I’ve attended have not been held in such posh hotels. As I read, I kept having flashbacks to this or that incident at this or that conference.

“One does not expect a run-of-the-mill academic conference to have such a far-reaching effect.”

And most of the academic conferences I’ve attended have had no effect at all.The participants exchange e-mail addresses, and promise to keep in touch, but almost never do. Some of the papers may be published, and may appear on the Internet in one form or another, and probably have more effect there than being read at the conference, as the book notes.

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The Whistler: corruption unmasked

The WhistlerThe Whistler by John Grisham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of John Grisham‘s better novels, dealing with an investigation into allegations that a judge is corrupt, which uncovers a major crime syndicate.

It isn’t really a detective novel, since the investigators are not detectives, and their breakthroughs in the case mainly come from informers or lucky accidents, with activities and suspects being caught on video, or careless slips by the criminals.

While I have linked this post to my review on Good Reads, I’m adding more here because it has less to do with the book itself than my reaction to it.

Central to the story is the building of a casino in an Indian reservation in Florida, USA, and the way in which the corrupt judge smooths the way for a crime syndicate to profit from it in various ways. And it seems that many Indian reservations in the USA built casinos, which were to some extent, at least, not subject to the local state or federal laws of the United States.

I found this part of the book very interesting, since something very similar happened in South Africa before 1994, where there were “Bantu Homelands” that were the equivalent of the Indian reservations of the the US, and they also had a penchant for building casinos. I can quite easily picture the process of planning and building the casinos in such places being very similar to that described in this book. Many of the casinos built back then still exist, and in some cases the descriptions fit remarkably well.

One of the visions of the National Party regime in South Africa was of a “constellation of states”, which resulted in newspaper cartoons about “Star Flaws”, and snide comments about the “Constellation of Casinos”.

Nowadays we hear a lot about corruption, but much less is heard of corruption before 1994. That is largely because we now have a free press, and press freedom guaranteed by the constitution, whereas before 1994 the corruption was much easier to cover up.

In addition, a lot of the civil servants who were around at the time of the building of the casinos, and who cut their teeth on corruption in the “homeland” governments, were simply absorbed into the civil service of the new South Africa.  So South Africans might find this book an interesting read simply for the insight it gives into how the system worked back then, and even, to some extent, how it works now.

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The Anatomy School (book review)

The Anatomy SchoolThe Anatomy School by Bernard MacLaverty
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m in two minds about this book. At one level it is a Bildungsroman, and at another it is a picture of a period. Martin Brennan is a teenager in his last year of high school. He attends a Catholic school in Protestant Belfast, where being Catholic is a badge of identity. Martin has two friends, Kavanagh, who is an athlete, and a new boy at the school, Blaise Foley, who rejects everything that the school stands for.

At home his pious mother regularly entertains three friends of her age, oen of them a priest, and Martin helps to serve them, hears their conversations, and is sometimes himself the subject of their conversations.

The book opens with Martin at a silent retreat with his contemporaries from the school, where the expectation is that he and the others will consider a possible vocation to the priesthood. Martin’s conscience is troubled by moral and venial sins of thought word and deed, throughout the retreat, and when he gets back to school, after deciding that the priesthood is not for him, he is severely tempted to mortal sins by his new friend Blaise Foley.

After leaving school he works as a technician in the anatomy school of the university, where his friend Kavanagh is a medical student.

It was a bit difficult to work out the period in which the book is set. One clue was a reference to the blowing up of Nelson’s statue in Dublin in earl;y 1966. It was clearly after that event, but close enough for it still to be a talking point, so as far as I could determine from such clues in the story, it took place in 1966-68. It was a time when I was in the UK as a student, though I was never in Belfast.

One feature of the book is the very detailed descriptions of everyday life — the composition and making of sandwiches for tea, noises and sounds like lift doors clanging. In that it reminded me of A touch of Daniel by Peter Tinniswood. That book was set somewhere in north-west England, and gave a very vivd picture of the place and period, and the foibles of the people, though with considerably more humour than The Anatomy School. But A Touch of Daniel was published closer to the time, and The Anatomy School was published in 2001, which makes some of the close detail suspect, and one of the anachronisms that stood out for me was when Martin tells someone that he had a job “at the Uni”. I never heard anyone call a university a uni during my time in the UK, and only learnt of it much later, via the internet. It may be that it was a peculiarly Irish term, that started in Belfast before reaching other parts of the UK, but for me it made much of the fine detail throughout the book rather suspect.

On the other hand, there were some things that reminded be very strongly of when I myself was Martin Brennan’s age. I went to a Methodist School, not a Catholic one, and in Johannesburg, not Belfast. But I hung out a lot with two or three friends, as Martin did, and our conversations were not all that dissimilar. I enjoyed reading it, but I think it might have been better if some of the superfluous (and suspect) detail had been dropped — it would have made the characters and their intreractions stand out better.

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The Grand Sophy

The Grand SophyThe Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the last couple of years I seem to have read a number of romance novels set in the period 1795-1820. First it was Jane Austen, who wrote about the landed gentry. Then it was George Eliot, who wrote about the yeoman class. And now it is Georgette Heyer, who writes about the aristocracy. Austen was contemporary, Eliot wrote 50 years after the time in which her novel Adam Bede was set, and Heyer wrote more than 130 years afterwards.

The Grand Sophy was one of those recommended in The Modern Library and was indeed worthy of the recommendation. A good read, in fact. More about The Modern Library here.

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Adam Bede

Adam BedeAdam Bede by George Eliot
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s a love story.

It’s set in the fictional English county of Loamshire at the end of the 18th century, which is some kind of rustic paradise until things start going wrong about halfway through the book. Unlike Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, whose romance novels are peopled with the landed gentry and their urban equivalents, this one is set among the yeoman class.

The book has been on our shelves forever, and I’ve been meaning to read it some day but kept putting it off, partly because of things I’d read about George Eliot, and partly because of plot summaries I’d read. Reading plot summaries can be a bad idea. It made it sound too simple, and a 600-page novel with such a simple plot must be boring, mustn’t it, with all that padding?

But Eliot’s descriptions of country life, though perhaps too idyllic, are part of the interest of the book, and she makes the characters sound interesting. I don’t know how accurate her description of early Methodists is, but she probably knew several of them personally and perhaps some of her description is based on their recollections.

It’s when the action starts that the plot holes appear. The reader is kept ignorant of some things, which is a common device in fiction, but when the characters themselves appear to be ignorant, the suspension of disbelief gets a little strained. At one point there is a rather improbable Deus ex Machina, but it’s still a good read.

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BookCrossing: First capture

I’ve been a member of BookCrossing for about 14 years, and was chuffed that for the first time ever I’ve had a message that someone has “captured” a book I released into the wild, and has bothered to mention it on the BookCrossing web site:

Journal Entry 3 by NKR-Reader at Augrabies, Northern Cape South Africa on Wednesday, September 07, 2016

I love reading and found the book in a cottage at Quiver Tree Guest House outside the town of Augrabies. First time I have ever come across Bookcrossing. What an exciting way to share ones books. Looking forward to reading the book and then passing it on.

For those who don’t know, BookCrossing is a scheme for circulating books and sharing them with other readers. Each book is given a number, with a note asking the person who finds the book to pass it on, and note on the web site where they found it, and where they rereleased it.

It seems that I muddled up the places where we left the books during our holiday trip a year ago — we didn’t have Internet access till we got to Cape Town, and so I muddled the order of the places in which we left the books when entering them a week later. But we enjoyed our stay at the Quiver Tree Guiest House, and are glad they left the book available for someone to find. We’ve sometimes wondered whether the books we have left are found by cleaning staff and tossed in the rubbish as just useless stuff that some guest has forgotten.

Quiver Tree Guest House, Augrabies -- where we left a BookCrossing book

Quiver Tree Guest House, Augrabies — where we left a BookCrossing book

BookCrossing is an interesting form of social networking, especially if you get to hear what has happened to books you have left lying around. You don’t have to leave them in hotels and guesthouses, they can be left in any public place, or even passed on privately. So if you haven’t joined yet, please consider doing so.

Quiver Tree Guest House. on the road to Augrabies Falls

Quiver Tree Guest House. on the road to Augrabies Falls

 

The life and times of Michael K

Life and Times of Michael KLife and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Michael K is a gardener in Cape Town whose mother, a domestic servant, is ill, and fears she may lose her job, so he decides to take her back to Prince Albert in the Karroo, where she grew up. But there is a war on, and people need permits to travel, and though he applies, the permit is lost in red tape, so he decides to set out on foot, with his mother in a home-made wheelchair. She takes a turn for the worse, and is admitted to a hospital in Stellenbosch, where she dies and is cremated. Michael K continues alone, with his mother’s ashes, but has only the vaguest notion of the farm where she grew up from her description.

When he finds a farm that he thinks may be the right one, he find it abandoned, and so lives as a recluse, shunning human company and becoming self-sufficient, but though he has left the world, the world keeps breaking in on his solitude, and trying to remould him according to its own values.

It is well written, and has won several literary prizes. I found it more readable than other books by J.M. Coetzee, and quite a gripping story. The first part, about the journey to the farm, is reminiscent in a way of Sammy going south by W.H. Canaway, which describes a similar journey, though of a child rather than an adult. After Michael K becomes a recluse, it is quite different.

There is also a surreal quality to the book. It was first published in 1974, which was in the middle of the apartheid era, but there is no mention of apartheid in the book. Race is never mentioned, and so it seems unreal. The bureaucracy is there, but the people are more kindly than they were in that era. So while the book is set in South Africa geographically, it seems to be a South Africa in an alternative universe, as if it had taken a different turning, and developed in a different way.

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Authors familiar and unfamiliar

A friend asked on Twitter whether people read anything by authors that were unfamiliar to them, and I thought that if an answer to that was to be worthwhile, it needed to be longer than 140 characters, so here are some thoughts about it.

Yesterday I went to the Alkantrant branch of the Tshwane public library, and for the first time I went armed with a list of books and authors to look for. Usually I just browse the shelves and pick out anything that looks interesting, but this time I had a list of books that had been recommended by various people, a bucket list of books, as it were.

So here are the books I found:

Actually only one of them was on the recommended list of authors I hadn’t read, the John Banville one. I had read another book by Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf, which I read about 50 years ago. And the recommended book by Jessica Anderson was Tirra Lirra, by the river, but that wasn’t on the shelf at the library, though she does count as an unfamiliar author.

And then I went browsing for some non-fiction (not on my list), and found this:

Palimpsest: A MemoirPalimpsest: A Memoir by Gore Vidal

I’m not quite sure why I took this book out of the library. I sometimes find that I like literary biographies of authors more than the books they wrote, and I’ve never read any books by Gore Vidal. In my youth I was vaguely confused about Gore Vidal and Vidal Sassoon, who were both celebs at the time, though I wasn’t quite sure what the cause of their celebrity was.

Much later a relative in New Zealand sent a transcript he had made of my wife Val’s great great granduncle’s diary. He was Edward Lister Green (1827-1887). In it he describes travelling by ship from Bombay to Hong Kong, and striking up a friendship with David Sassoon, the “million heir” (I wondered whether that was the normal spelling of “millionaire” at the time, or just an elaborate private pun). That got me reading The Sassoon dynasty, about this remarkable family of Iraqi Jews whose business in Bombay (now spelt Mumbai) expanded over most of southern and eastern Asia. I also read Siegfried Sassoon the biography of the poet, who was a member of the same family, as was the Vidal Sassoon who provided a very tenuous link with Gore Vidal.

When I’ve finished reading those (or abandoned them, if I don’t like them) I still have these on my list:

Anderson, Jessica — Tirra lirra by the river
Bell, Sara Hanna — December Bride
Burgess, Anthony — Earthly powers
Byatt, A.S. — The children’s book
de Bernieres, Louis — Captain Corelli’s mandolin
DeLillo, Don — Underworld
Hosseini, Khaled — The kite runner
Kadare, Ismail — The successor
Tartt, Donna — The secret history

Not all those are unfamiliar authors either — I’ve read other books by A.S. Byatt and Ismail Kadare — the latter I had never heard of until we were sitting in a cafe in Tirana, Albania, and our friend told us that Kadare was sitting at the next table and was the most famous author in Albania. A little while earlier we had seen the most famous film star in Albania, riding his bicycle down the street, but I forget his name.

So this might be the appropriate point to mention the last book I got from the library, though it’s not on the list and I was browsing the shelves in the non-fiction section.

Albania: The Bradt Travel GuideAlbania: The Bradt Travel Guide by Gillian Gloyer

One normally reads travel guides before one visits a country. If you find it useful, you might take it with you on your visit, but I visited Albania 16 years ago and I’m unlikely ever to travel there again unless we win the Lotto, which is unlikely even if I do remember to buy a ticket. So I took this book out of the library to remind me of our previous visit. Apart from anything else, I don’t think this book was available when we visited Albania in 2000 — the first edition seems to have been published in 2005.

So it’s really for the memories, and perhaps to find out a bit more about the places and things we saw.

And I’m looking forward to tomorrow, when we have our Neo-Inklings Literary Coffee Klatsch, and Duncan Reyburn will be telling us something about G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton is not an unfamiliar author to me, though I’ve only read a few of his books. And if anyone is interested, and living in or near Tshwane, come and join us at Cafe 41 in Eastwood Road (opposite the US Embassy) at 10:30 am on Thursday 7 July 2016.

 

 

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