Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “novels”

The Reader’s Companion to the Twentieth-Century Novel (review)

The Reader's Companion to the Twentieth-Century Novel (The Reader's Companion)The Reader’s Companion to the Twentieth-Century Novel by Peter Parker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I found this book quite useful to pick up at odd moments when there was nothing else to do, when Eskom was doing its load-shedding and the electricity was off, for example.

The plot summaries and comments on the selected novels were generally quite good, and served to remind me of books I had read and half forgotten, or to note ones that I had not read but might be worth reading.

One of the weak points, however, was the novels selected for inclusion. Of course one cannot include everything worth reading in the period in a single volume, but one of the first things I noticed about it was that it made no mention of the novels of Charles Williams. It dis seem to include almost every published novel by Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. They are both authors I quite like, and I think their best work ought to have been included, but Waugh, in particular wrote some quite mediocre stuff, and they could easily have been dropped in favour of Williams.

There were several books by Somerset Maugham, who described himself, quite accurately, I think, as being in the very first rank of the second raters. There was a rather patronising article on C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series, with no mention of his science fiction.

The book was also published in 1993, when there were still seven years of the twentieth century to run — did they think that nobody would write anything worth reading in what was left of it?

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Dreamcatcher: a book review

DreamcatcherDreamcatcher by Stephen King

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m never sure what to expect with Stephen King novels. Some I think are very good, some very bad, and most somewhere in between. The ones I liked best are Needful Things, Pet Sematary and The girl who loved Tom Gordon. I’ve generally enjoyed his supernatural horror stories rather than his science fiction ones or other genres, though The girl who loved Tom Gordon, about a girl lost in the woods, is neither science fiction nor horror.

I read a couple of his science fiction ones, including a UFO novel, The Tommyknockers, which I thought was his worst. So when I picked up The Dreamcatcher at the library, I wasn’t expecting much, but thought that as it was only a library book, I didn’t need to feel I had to finish it. In the end I did finish it. It was a page turner, in the sense that I wanted to see what happened, but it confirmed my opinion that King is better at writing about spooks than about space aliens. Dreamcatcher was better than The Tommyknockers but not much.

The story line was disjointed and made little sense, and thoughout the story telepathy seems to be overused as a deus ex machina. The eponymous “dreamcatcher” is never really explained in any coherent way. The main characters are unreal; we are told virtually nothing about their families, and they hardly ever think of them or miss them when they are experiencing tough times.

But there is also a kind of moral thread running through the story. Stephen King clearly has a lot of sympathy for bullied children, and one could say that there is a moral in the story: be kind to bullied and disabled children.

A possible explanation for this might be that King had been in a serious accident, and appears to have written this book while recovering from it, and one of the characters experiences a similar accident, and goes through similar suffering. The girl who lived Tom Gordon, written shortly before the accident, was a much better book.

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Splinter by Sebastian Fitzek (book review)

SplinterSplinter by Sebastian Fitzek

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I began reading this book, it reminded me of The double by Fyodor Dostoevsky, with the atmosphere of Kafka’s novels thrown in.

Marc Lucas is a social worker, miserable and grieving because he has lost his wife in a motor accident. He does, however, succeed in saving the life of a suicidal teenager. He sees an advertisement for a clinic that claims to be able to remove painful memories, and decides to visit it. He discovers that they are conducting memory experiments, and will give him complete amnesia, and then reload the pleasant memories, and decides not to participate, and leaves without signing anything. Then his nightmare begins.

It seems that his identity has been stolen. All the addresses have been wiped from his cell phone, his credit cards no longer work. He goes home to get medicine he needs to take because of the after-effects of the accident in which his wife dies, and the keys of his flat no longer work, but his wife answers the door, alive and pregnant, but no longer recognising him.

He is befriended by a woman who claims that she too is a victim of the same conspiracy, but then she appears to betray him, making him believe that she too is part of the conspiracy. The things that happen to him become more and more irrational and arbitrary, but the end, when all is revealed, turns out not to be like Dostoevsky or Kafka at all, but something far more prosaic, and far less believable. After reading the first few chapters, I was thinking that this would be a five-star book, but by the end it had dropped to three.

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Atlas shrugged

Atlas ShruggedAtlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I read this more than 40 years ago, at the urging of someone in our newspaper office, so I’m not really in a position to write a review, but someone asked why I gave it one star, so I’ll try to remember what I did think!

I’d heard Ayn Rand extolled before, by people whose views I didn’t admire, and so I wasn’t too keen to read a book by her. But since my colleague nagged me, and lent me the book so I didn’t have to buy it, I started reading it, and found it rather boring. I told him so, and he said, “It’s not the story, it’s the philosophy.” And I said that I found the philosophy rather repulsive, so if the story was boring, there wasn’t much left.

I did, however, lash out on a book of essays, with the title “Capitalism, the unknown ideal”, which laid the philosophy bare, and made it clear that Ayn Rand was trying to do for capitalism what Karl Marx tried to do for socialism — give it an ideology. And both were atheists. But Karl Marx’s version retained a vestige of Christian values, diluted and degutted, perhaps, but still discernable; Ayn Rand’s had none.

So evil philosophy and crummy story — one star.

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And I’ll add something here, which I did not include in my “review” on Good Reads, but perhaps can be said, since this isn’t really a book review. I found trying to discuss things with Ayn Rand fans was a bit like trying to discuss things with Scientologists. Their minds seemed to be stuck in an ideological groove.

I first encountered the Scientologists in 1961. Someone from our church youth group had seen an advertisement in the newspaper for free IQ and personality tests, and so some of us went along for a lark. We arrived at the two white-painted victorian houses in Joubert Park, Johannesburg, just across the road from the railway line, that proclaimed themselves to be the headquaters (in South Africa), of the Hubbard Association of Scientologists International (HASI).

They gave us the two tests, IQ and personality, which were pretty standard psychological tests. They said we could come back the next week to hear the results.

The next week we went back for the results, which they explained, and then came the sales talk. We could take their Peronal Efficiency Course, which lasted a week and only cost R2.00. They guaranteed that it would improve our IQs and personalities. But that’s when we started to argue. They were quite patient with us, a bunch of stroppy and argumentative teenagers. One of the values they said we were low on was “havingness”. Whether correctly or incorrectly, we interpreted that as acquisitiveness, and said that we were quite happy for it to be low. Having it too high would go against our Christian values.

They assured us that Scientology wasn’t against any religion, and all religions were welcome (that was before they reinvented themselves as “the Church of Scientology” about 8 years later — in 1961 they presented themselves as the lowest cost mental health treatment on earth). But the spirit of “havingness” that they urged on us seemed a bit too much like plain old greed, as espoused by London’s mayor Boris Johnson:

Boris Johnson has launched a bold bid to claim the mantle of Margaret Thatcher by declaring that inequality is essential to fostering “the spirit of envy” and hailed greed as a “valuable spur to economic activity”.

And that, too, seems to be what is espoused by the followers of Ayn Rand that I met a couple of years later. I don’t think the ideologies of Scientology and Objectivism are exactly the same, but there seemed to be something of a similar spirit in the followers of each, and I was rather repelled by it.

In the beginning Time magazine created the heavens and the earth

The other day on Good Reads, my attention was caught by this:

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee1984 by George OrwellThe Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. TolkienThe Catcher in the Rye by J.D. SalingerThe Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Time Magazine’s All-Time 100 Novels

I had a look at it and was slightly puzzled at some of the choices, in particular some of the books that weren’t there. No Jane Austen? No Dickens? No Conrad?

Instead there were a whole lot of books I’d never heard of, which seemed odd choices for an “all-time” list.

At the end came the explanation:

Full List – ALL TIME 100 Novels – TIME: ALL TIME 100 Novels

TIME critics Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo pick the 100 best English-Language novels from 1923 to the present

Clearly, in the beginning Time magazine created the heavens and the earth, and time itself. Anything before 1923 was outside time and so did not count.

That must be an all-time record for hubris.

In the dark: book notes

In The DarkIn The Dark by Mark Billingham

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A run-of-the-mill crime novel.

A pregnant London police officer is on maternity leave, and her boyfriend, also a police officer, is doing things that have little relation to his everyday duties. I found the first hundred pages, which set the scene, rather dull, and at several points contemplated abanding the book. But then the story picks up and becomes more interesting as one gets involved with the remaining characters. To say uch more would give away too much of the plot.

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Evocation of a Durban childhood

Yesterday I went to the Unisa library and found a novel by Barbara Trapido, called Frankie and Stankie. I saw it on the end of a shelf and was intrigued by a review quote on the cover that said, “There aren’t many novelists whose stories one doesn’t want to read, but Barbara Trapido is one of them.” It seemed a strange enough recommendation, so I took it out.

In the evening I read the Barbara Trapido book, and read bits aloud to Val, because it was a very good evocation of a Durban childhood, and actually some of the people were real too — it mentioned people I knew or knew of, like Ken and Jean Hill, who were members of the Liberal Party, and Eileen Krige, the anthropologist, whom I had heard of. I checked the cover blurb again, and found that it was not what I thought it was — it said “There are very few novelists whose books one doesn’t want to end”, not “doesn’t want to read”, so I’d taken it out under false pretences. But I was glad I had; it brought back a lot of childhood memories, like this

Dinah continues to be a non-eater throughout her childhood. When one of her dad’s colleagues visits with a packet of biscuits, he says they’re ‘for Lisa to eat and Dinah to play with. The biscuits are called Iced Zoological but the girls call them Animal Biscuits. Each biscuit is a scalloped rectangle with pastel icing on the top and an animal piped on to it in a contrasting colour. There are yellow giraffes on rose-pink icing and white tigers on sky-blue icing.

And this:

By eight Lisa is judged too big for the sleigh-ride through Santa’s grotto in Greenacre’s department store, and has to walk around to the exit to collect her present from Santa, just as Dinah comes helter-skeltering to conclusion in a cloud of fake snow and piped jingle bells.

Both Val and I remember the sleigh ride in Greenacres, though it belonged to Father Christmas rather than Santa; but that could be explained in the book by Lisa and Dinah’s father being Dutch. And then

The school wash basins are all furnished with shiny pink chunks of slimy carbolic soap that look like sections of human lung.

I haven’t seen Lifebuoy soap for years, but its appearance after being left in a wet soap dish can never be forgotten.

I think I spotted a few anachronisms, but they were minor ones: Cadbury’s Crunchies appeared later on the scene than the time described in the book, as was the girl Julia Painting being bitten by a shark.

The name of the author, Barbara Trapido, sounded vaguely familiar, so I Googled, and found she was born in the same year as me, 1941, so it’s no wonder her evocation of post-war Durban as seen through the eyes of a child was so familiar. I also checked my diary, and found I had actually met her once, on 19 August 1973:

In the afternoon there was an incredible party where there were 12 kids and 19 people altogether in the house, having separate little tea parties. Andy Argyle arrived with her children and Barbara Trapido, and Roger Aylard came round with two of his boys, and Gill Browne was there with her children. In spite of the numbers, it was amazingly peaceful, and it could hardly be noticed that so many people were

And at the time I was banned, and not supposed to attend any social gatherings. Of course it was my landlady’s gathering, not mine, but still. And at that time my landlady’s children also attended the Berea Road Girls School, described in detail in the book.

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