I became mildly interested in Joseph Banks after reading 1788 by David Hill and so when I took Joseph Banks, A Life home from the library with a greatI became mildly interested in Joseph Banks after reading 1788 by David Hill and so when I took Joseph Banks, A Life home from the library with a great pile of other books greedily gathered, it made its way to the top of the pile. The plan was to browse through it and take it back to the library fairly promptly. Patrick O’Brian was familiar to me as the author of the nautical novels which were popularised by Peter Weir’s film, Master and Commander but on the basis of browsing some of the novels I had my doubts about his writing style.
It turned out to be more interesting than I’d expected, though there are rather too many digressions about the numerous acquaintances and associates of Banks, and some long, long slabs of correspondence and journals that I found dull. But the facts of Sir Joseph’s life are far from dull. He was an adventurous young man in the days when real adventure was to be had, and he discovered a love of botany almost by chance, for he was a dull scholar. He made expeditions not only to Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, and the Falkland Islands, but also to Iceland, and was the pre-eminent botanist of his day. He was an affectionate, forgiving man with such a wide network of international friends that in times of conflict between Europe and Britain, he was once considered a potential spy!
Rose Tremain is one of those rare writers who can write literary fiction and yet be a bestseller. In The Gustav Sonata she achieves it with an undemanRose Tremain is one of those rare writers who can write literary fiction and yet be a bestseller. In The Gustav Sonata she achieves it with an undemanding first section, which blossoms into something more complex as the novel progresses.
Part One, (which corresponds to the exposition in sonata form) is set in a minor town in postwar Switzerland where we meet Gustav, a sober, rather prim little boy who lives with an unloving mother Emilie in reduced circumstances. She is bitter about his dead father Erich, who held a senior position in the police department until it was discovered that he had been falsifying documents to allow Jewish refugees to stay in the country. Switzerland was neutral during the war, but under the very real threat of invasion by Germany they conceded to some demands including refusing entry to Jews. The authorities regard Erich’s compassionate actions as betrayal because they put the security of Switzerland at risk. He is sacked, he can only get menial work, and the family has to move to a cramped apartment far from the comfort they previously enjoyed.
Gustav does not know how his father died, but he does know that his mother doesn’t love him, or, indeed, anyone. From her he learns that what matters is to have mastery over the self, a characteristic of the Swiss people and one which enables them to survive in a complex world. Gustav demonstrates this mastery again and again in this section of the novel about his grim childhood, a childhood enlivened only by his friendship with Anton, a child prodigy at the piano, and blessed with two loving parents and a comfortable luxurious home. The only thing Anton lacks is the temperament that he needs to succeed: he panics if required to perform in front of an audience. He does not have mastery over the self.
It’s getting on for ten years since I bought this book and I really can’t explain why it’s taken me so long to get round to reading it. I love De BernIt’s getting on for ten years since I bought this book and I really can’t explain why it’s taken me so long to get round to reading it. I love De Bernières’ books, which (like everyone else) I discovered when Captain Corelli’s Mandolin became a bestseller, and then went on to read everything else that he’d written. Of them all I liked Birds Without Wings best: it captured so well the way it’s the little people who bear the brunt of wars. Without being sentimental or didactic, De Bernières has his heart in the right place, showing us that ordinary people are not ordinary at all.
A Partisan’s Daughter is a departure from the exotic locales used in his previous novels. The ‘Latin American trilogy’ i.e. The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts (1990); Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord (1991) and The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman (1992) are set in the anarchic chaos of an unnamed Latin American country which might be Columbia since the author lived there for a while. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (1993) was set on the Greek island of Cephalonia during WW2 and the setting for Birds without Wings (2004) was Anatolia in the last years of the Ottoman Empire. Red Dog (1999) is a children’s story set in Karratha Western Australia, a place so remote that it’s exotic even for Aussies. But A Partisan’s Daughter is located firmly in ordinary suburban London, featuring one of the most ordinary characters De Bernières has ever created, a dull man of no initiative who forms a relationship with an illegal immigrant, a Scheherazade who beguiles him in ways he had never expected.
The Words in My Hand piqued my interest because it’s a reimagining of a relationship between a Dutch maid and René Descartes, a French philosopher anThe Words in My Hand piqued my interest because it’s a reimagining of a relationship between a Dutch maid and René Descartes, a French philosopher and mathematician who is on my radar because The Spouse is studying him this year at Monash. If you’ve read Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier (or seen the film) then you know the script: domestic servant to Somebody Eminent forms special relationship and in some way contributes to The Work of the Great Man but slips back into obscurity because women are always unrecognised for their contribution.
Well, in this case there really was a Helena Jans, and she really was employed by a bookseller called Thomas Sergeant in Amsterdam, and Descartes was a lodger there in 1634. Like any number of domestic servants all over the world, yes, she did bear the gentleman a child, but here the historical record varies from the script for unwed mothers. The child was born in 1635, acknowledged by Descartes, and he was named, albeit obliquely, on her baptismal certificate. Scraps of information hint at cohabitation at least for a time, and there is a record of Descartes paying a substantial dowry to an eventual husband for Helena.
Out of this scanty record, British author Guinevere Glasford has woven a satisfying debut novel which celebrates the thirst for knowledge in a world where women were denied it and men were constrained by church ideology.
It’s just synchronicity that I happened to read another book about Stalinist repression straight after Katherine Brabon’s The Memory Artist . The laIt’s just synchronicity that I happened to read another book about Stalinist repression straight after Katherine Brabon’s The Memory Artist . The latter arrived courtesy of Allen and Unwin after Brabon won the Vogel while The Noise of Time just happened to be on the New Books shelf at the library this week. I knew nothing about it except the author’s name, and that was enough for me, I didn’t even read the blurb before taking it home.
The two books couldn’t be more different. While Brabon has created a meditation on how Stalin’s repressions were imposed on people who had no choices, Julian Barnes has fictionalised the life of Dmitri Shostakovich to depict what the blurb calls the collision of Art and Power and to explore how the composer was forced to choose between human compromise, human cowardice and human courage. The novel is only 180-odd pages long, so it can be read in a day, but like Brabon’s book it leaves the reader with a lot to think about…
The Noise of Time starts with the chilling image of Shostakovich (1906-1975) standing beside the lift in his apartment block, waiting for the KGB to arrest him. To avoid the indignity of being arrested in his pyjamas, and to spare his wife and children the horror of it, he is waiting fully dressed for the inevitable, knowing that it is more than possible that this could be his last day on earth. He expects to be exiled to a Siberian labour camp, or to be shot. To read the rest of my review please visit https://anzlitlovers.com/2016/06/07/t......more
I had read about two-thirds of Part 1 of this three-part biography of Churchill, when the Nook App I was using to read it refused to open it any more.I had read about two-thirds of Part 1 of this three-part biography of Churchill, when the Nook App I was using to read it refused to open it any more. All my notes, highlights and everything else, gone. I was livid.
I knew that the Nook was sunsetting, but I had installed it on my laptop ages ago, and I didn't think that it would stop working altogether when I used it to read ePub files sent to me by the publisher.
Was it a Windows 10 update? Or Nook?
So I haven't abandoned this through any fault of the book, only the technology used to read it on. ...more
What I noticed was how quickly this book has dated. The book is almost 20 years old now. It's not just that it's full of pop references and outdated tWhat I noticed was how quickly this book has dated. The book is almost 20 years old now. It's not just that it's full of pop references and outdated technology like cassette tapes and a *wow* exciting, new, call-back system for identifying the boyfriend who'd telephoned, it's also that I can't imagine any author today writing a comic novel featuring a female so obsessed with her weight. A serious, heavy novel about fat-shaming, body-image or anorexia, maybe, but the whole topic is so loaded today that it might take a brave author to make jokes about it.
But I hope I'm wrong about that because BJD's comic take on female insecurities shows them up for what they are. As you know if you saw the film, it's a rom-com with a happy ending and the take-home message is stop worrying about what other people think. Serious people have written serious stuff about intertextuality and plot similarities with Pride and Prejudice and the allusions in the text are copious and not exactly subtle. But for readers who identify with the fear of a lonely single life and irritation with a tactless mother intent on sourcing a rich husband, it's a light-hearted look at modern relationships. ...more
Christmas Pudding was quick and easy to read, and the satire is amusing without being spiteful. It satirises The Country House Novel with a gatheringChristmas Pudding was quick and easy to read, and the satire is amusing without being spiteful. It satirises The Country House Novel with a gathering of disparate souls in Gloucestershire, where Lady Bobbin is in high dudgeon because The Hunt has been called off owing to an outbreak of foot and mouth disease, and Amabelle Fortescue has taken a large mock Tudor house called Mulberrie Farm to amuse herself and her smart city friends.
Amabelle has ‘a past’ which is tactfully not named:
Amabelle Fortescue, unlike so many members of her late profession, was an intelligent, a cultured and a thoroughly nice woman. The profession itself had, in fact, been more a result of circumstances than the outcome of natural inclination. Cast alone and penniless upon the world by the death of her father, who had been a respectable and well-known don at Oxford, she had immediately decided, with characteristic grasp of a situation, that one of her many talents which amounted almost to genius should be that employed to earn her bread, board and lodging. Very soon after this decision was put into practice, the bread was, as it were, lost to sight beneath a substantial layer of Russian caviar; the board, changing with the fashions of years, first took to itself a lace tablecloth, then exposed a gleaming surface of polished mahogany, and finally became transformed into a piece of scrubbed and rotting oak; while the lodging, which had originally been one indeed, and on the wrong side of Campden Hill, was now a large and beautiful house in Portman Square. (p. 19)
City and country are brought together by Paul Fotheringay, in deep despair because his first book, penned as a poignant tragedy, has been hailed a great comic success. To console himself, he decides to write a biography of Lady Bobbin’s ancestor, a Victorian poet by name of Lady Maria Almanack, but is brushed off by Lady Bobbin when he requests permission to research the poet’s journals. To gain access he poses as a tutor to Lady Bobbin’s son, setting up the situation where Bobby, in his final year at Eton, can amuse himself at nearby Amabelle’s, and Paul can read the journals undisturbed.
I had never heard of British author Alice Thomas Ellis (1932-2005) until I read Guy’s review at His Futile Preoccupations but the review was enticing,I had never heard of British author Alice Thomas Ellis (1932-2005) until I read Guy’s review at His Futile Preoccupations but the review was enticing, and it was all too easy to download it to my Kindle.
Alas, it was not so easy to read, however, because this edition from Corsair is very badly formatted with stray hyphens causing mangled words all over the place. Although the formatting improved as it went along, it was very annoying in the early chapters – so if you find yourself tempted as I was, don’t follow my example and buy this Kindle edition. Not when you can buy a proper second-hand paperback edition from Amazon for a song. #EndOfRant
The Birds of the Air reminded me straight away of Susan Johnson’s best-ever novel IMO, Life in Seven Mistakes. (See my review). Both novels are set around the dreaded Annual Family Gathering at Christmas, and black humour laces the story from start to finish. However, the novel by Ellis features an existential crisis of a different order altogether, because the main character Mary is still coming to terms with the death of her child, Robin, and isn’t ready for compulsory Christmas cheer.
However, I’m not inclined to be as hard on Mrs Marsh as Guy is.
Do you remember John Banville’s playful book, The Infinities? Salman Rushdie’s Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights features rampant spiritDo you remember John Banville’s playful book, The Infinities? Salman Rushdie’s Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights features rampant spirits as well, but the ways in which they interfere with the lives of men are quite different to the capricious Greek gods that saunter through Banville’s novel…
Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights (an allusion to the 1001 nights of Scheherazade’s storytelling) begins with a love story. A medieval Muslim philosopher called Ibn Rashd (known to us in the 21st century by his Latinised name Averroës) is exiled from his home town of Cordoba because he taught that natural phenomena obeyed natural laws that God had created. Although today Ibn Rashd is acknowledged as the ‘founding father of secular thought’, in his own time he was less influential than his rival Al-Ghazali of Tus who argued that the only law that exists is what God wills, and that anyone who disagrees with faith is incoherent. (And alas, this idea still has its adherents who use it to justify atrocities).
Sent to a place where he does not belong (migration is a frequent theme in Rushdie’s books) Ibn Rushd falls in love with Dunia, a jinnia, (i.e. a female jinn or genie), because these events take place at a time when the slits in the world are open and jinns who are normally quiescent, are out and about. Dunia thus becomes a mythical matriarch, producing innumerable offspring who combine the human qualities of their father and the quixotic characteristics of a supernatural creature from the unknown world.
These offspring spread to the four corners of the world, and closer to our time, end up doing battle with more malevolent jinns when in the period of The Strangeness lasting two years, eights months and twenty-eight nights, the world is under siege from amoral and hostile beings who make Banville’s mischief-makers look like innocents
The Unknown Bridesmaid is Margaret Forster’s 26th novel, the most famous of which is Georgy Girl (1965). I’ve read seven of these, and enjoyed them alThe Unknown Bridesmaid is Margaret Forster’s 26th novel, the most famous of which is Georgy Girl (1965). I’ve read seven of these, and enjoyed them all, so I pounced when I saw this one at the library, even though I have two of hers on the TBR, including her award-winning biography of Daphne du Maurier. Well, strike while the iron is hot, eh?
It’s an intense, claustrophobic novel, centred on Julia, the unknown bridesmaid of the title when she was a little girl, and a child psychologist now. Brought up by her strict, embittered single mother and excluded from matters deemed not suitable for children, she has a childhood full of guilt and anxiety. The wedding at which she was bridesmaid was a brief moment of colour and sunshine in a grey and gloomy life, and it is after that wedding that things that are not really her fault start to go badly wrong.
Julia’s story (told in the third person but always from her point-of-view) is interspersed with vignettes from her work with disturbed children. With some of these children, the problem is really the mother, not the child. There are a couple of distant or vague fathers, but it is mostly the mothers. Mothers with unrealistic expectations, mothers with no respect for a girl’s need for privacy, mothers demanding gratitude, mothers who want their children to be what they are not. Mothers withholding intimacy. Unloving mothers. And this is the problem with the other children too, except that their behaviours have escalated into criminal behaviours like shoplifting or violence against other children.
As the novel progresses, the calm, reasonable, empathetic child psychologist is revealed not only as a wary, guilt-ridden child herself, but also as quite malevolent.
Jon Godden’s A Winter’s Tale is an old book in more ways than one. Published in hardback in 1960, and apparently not reissued in any other editions, iJon Godden’s A Winter’s Tale is an old book in more ways than one. Published in hardback in 1960, and apparently not reissued in any other editions, it was an Op Shop find, still with its original somewhat battered dust-jacket. I picked it up because I’d enjoyed the novels of the author’s more famous sister Rumer Godden, and I’d read the memoir Two Under the Indian Sun which was a collaboration by the duo. (Yes, another writing duo!) But the book is not just old in age, it’s old-fashioned in style. I can’t imagine anyone writing a story with this plot and characterisation today.
Jerome is a successful writer of plays and novels, living in a remote country house in the English countryside with his former batman Peter, who brings in additional income for the household by breeding orchids. Peter was disfigured by a shocking accident during the war, and since his wife left him he prefers to live an isolated life, venturing only to nearby farmhouses for supplies. Jerome needs peace and quiet to write, visiting London only occasionally to see his plays on opening nights, and to have casual, light-hearted affairs with a succession of women. No one has ever visited the house since Jerome bought it as a workplace. With only a magnificent Alsatian dog called Sylvie for company, they live together in contentment, Peter doing all the household drudgery, and Jerome writing his books and plays.
Into this apparently idyllic life blunders Una, a foolish young actress [sic] who fancies herself in love with Jerome. On the day that she arrives, a severe snowstorm makes the house snowbound, and the men are forced to give her shelter. Although she is ditzy and irritating, the inevitable happens and the dynamics in the house change, most notably regarding the dog. From being the sole focus of attention, Sylvie has to compete for Jerome’s affections with Una. Peter also resents Una’s presence and doesn’t try to hide it, and Jerome resents being challenged over his casual dismissal of a dog that is devoted to him.
How Proust Can Change Your Life is another book that’s been languishing too long on the NF TBR and rediscovered in the annual Tidy the Bookshelves marHow Proust Can Change Your Life is another book that’s been languishing too long on the NF TBR and rediscovered in the annual Tidy the Bookshelves marathon chez moi. Did I buy it back in 1998 when this edition was published, barely a year after its debut? It must have been a bestseller, (and it claims to be so on the front cover) which is interesting because, well, we know that not a lot of people have actually read Proust. I certainly hadn’t back in 1998… I didn’t actually read Proust until the Penguin translation came out and I read the entire thing over about eighteen months in 2004-5, twenty minutes a day on the exercise bike before I went to work. It took me ages to read, yes, because it’s long, but also because I used to drift off into Proustian reveries (which is not a bad way to stave off the tedium of riding an exercise bike).
#MemoryStirring, (Oh… that’s not entirely true. I had read Book 1, Swann’s Way, long before that, Moncrieff’s translation, but I didn’t have the others and never got round to buying them. I was probably too young for Proust back then.)
Do you need to have read Proust to enjoy Alain de Botton’s book? It seems not from my readerly friends’ thoughts at Goodreads… like many other readers they (mostly) loved this book whether they’d read Proust or not. I think it enhances what de Botton has to say when Proust has become a part of your life but de Botton writes with such wit and geniality that pretentiousness is out of the question.
Philosophers are at their most useful when they guide us towards thinking about how to live our lives. In How Proust Can Change Your Life de Botton is on about taking time to savour life, using Proust’s example of noticing everything and according it proper attention. Savouring life is what people do when they think they have a finite time to live, but de Botton and Proust tell us not to wait for that, but to savour life in the here and now. Smell the roses, taste the Madeleines.
Human Traces is a strange book: I was torn between admiring it very much and wishing it would hurry up and end so that I could read something else.
It’Human Traces is a strange book: I was torn between admiring it very much and wishing it would hurry up and end so that I could read something else.
It’s a long book at 608 pages in the edition I read, but long books are usually no problem, especially not if they are written in the style of the traditional 19th century novel. I grew up on the 19th century novel, and I like its certainties and its style, especially for comfort reading. Faulks has recreated this style almost as if he had travelled in time, and the world he creates is compelling and believable.
The problem derives from the 19th century quest to understand the mind and madness, which drives the novel. Two young men, Jacques Rebière and Thomas Midwinter, share the ambition to find a cure for the madness that made them doubt the existence of God. To make this real for the reader, Faulks takes us through the history of managing mental illness, starting with Jacques’ brother Olivier, chained in a barn on the family farm, and moving on to Thomas’s first job in a vast English asylum where the descriptions of how the inmates were treated will haunt you. But the author also devotes long pages to explaining the 19th century theories about mental illness, dressed up in the form of didactic digressions, as when Sonia, Thomas’s sister and eventually Jacques’ wife, is given a crash course in understanding medical terms so that she can understand their work. There are speeches and papers at public events, and internal monologues which reveal the thoughts and anxieties of the two young doctors too. And, as you might expect, there are also sequences of dreams and interpretations, although Freud is present only for his Oedipal theory to be mocked by Thomas, who believes in biological causation of mental illness. (Which brings him into conflict with Jacques, who supports the coexistence of these competing schools of thought).