Monthly Archives: December 2012

Henry James, An English New Year

Gosh James is a wonderful writer. I often forget how much of this stellar craft has  been lost in recent years. Here James illustrates his brilliance in what seems to be a short extract from something larger, a brief observation of sorts, a muse, which ends with an abrupt and somewhat dissatisfying insight.

I love the way that James captures London:

“But there are fogs and fogs, and the folds of the black mantle have been during the present winter intolerably thick. The thickness that draws down and absorbs the smoke of the housetops, causes it to hang about the streets in impenetrable density, forces it into one’s eyes and down one’s throat, so that one is half blinded and quite sickened – this form of the particular plague has been much more frequent than usual.”

Having spent much time in this great city I know this fog which he describes… I swam through that fog and it is one of the things that makes London skies seem so low.

This little piece is worth reading just to revel in James’ artfulness.

Thinks, David Lodge

ThinksI had forgotten David Lodge’s witticisms and quirkiness. Not surprisingly as it has been quite some time since I enjoyed his fiction. I can’t even recall where I stumbled across this book but unpacking my library I discovered it and plunged straight into it. If memory serves me correctly, it’s not one of Lodge’s best works and at times I found myself drifting off into my own thoughts, rather than following the plot and the development of his characters. Nonetheless, this book possesses all of Lodge’s brave merging of philosophical musing and ironic interactions between various characters.

Meet Helen: her husband has recently passed away, quite suddenly. She is a novelist who has taken up a post teaching a course in Creative Writing for a semester in a university in some quaint corner of Britain – a standard Lodgian location! She is struggling to come to terms with her new status as a widow and is unsure of how to place herself within the context of the academic institution.

Meet Ralph Messenger, known to most as just Messenger: he is a successful academic in the field of Artificial Intelligence and cognitive science. He is an enigma, a flirt, a philanderer and a fascinating individual. He is exploring the nature of the conscious mind in her personal life and in a professional context. He is intrigued by Helen from the moment he first spots her and getting her into his bed becomes a subtle quest of his.

Meet Carrie: Ralph’s wife, mother of a number of children (some from a previous marriage), aware of Ralph’s straying nature and engaged in some of her own straying too. She is intelligent and witty but lives sometimes in the shadow of Ralph’s enigmatic personality.

There are other characters who litter this novel – Ludmilla, the wench from Prague (I can’t think of a better word to describe her!), Ralph and Carrie’s children, Marianne and her husband and, of course, the hot tub built at the Messengers’ weekend home, imported from California and totally out of place in the British midland environment.

The relationships between these various characters, the confidences shared, their individual growth and the random events that make up the novel’s background (a police investigation into pornography, an international conference and the appearance of a possibly terminal disease) all lend themselves to a smashing read.

If you know anything about Academia then this one is definitely for you!

In The Sanctuary of Outcasts, Neil White

I had no idea what to expect from this book. It was simply something to read that looked vaguely interesting and I had nothing else on my shelf. The story itself is relatively interesting. Meet Neil White, convicted for bank fraud he spends a year in a low security prison which doubles as a sanctuary for lepers. A true story.

I really wanted to love this book. White is so clearly trying to do penance through this writing, trying to explain and expose and perhaps, on some level, to forgive himself for all he caused his family to suffer and experience. There are fragile moments of perfection in this telling – White’s connection with Ella and her story, his friendship with some of the prison inmates. These stand out as stellar insights in a memoir that somehow lacked something and left me feeling disappointed. It sounds judgemental to be disappointed by a man’s telling of his own experiences, but I felt as though there was too much that was predictable in the way this text was structured and told, so much so that I didn’t feel the need to finish it and this is highly uncharacteristic.

I love the fact that White had the strength to write this book as it is confrontational on so many levels and consequently, I really did want to love this book. But, I didn’t and I feel like I should apologise for that to White himself … (does that even make sense?). Perhaps it was the fact that I read this on the back of a dry reading patch or that I was so busy with other things … I am not sure. I only know that I wanted to bowled over and I wasn’t and I’m sorry for that.

The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling

51L2TXKdyjL._SL160_Confession: I would not have read this book if someone hadn’t given it to me and told me to read it. I am not a Rowling fan … not sure why … perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I read the first Harry Potter in Hebrew without knowing anything about the text and I struggled to understand it, the made up words (muggles) transliterated and to my baffled brain untranslatable – what is the root of that word? Muggles? In Hebrew? Yes, that could explain my lack of fascination with the wonder that is the imagination of this author. Nonetheless, this book was thrust upon me and I have to say that I actually enjoyed it.

The only word that I can think of to sum up this book is ‘raw’ – and I mean ‘raw’ in a kind of gritty, grating way. There is very little prettiness in this book. Rather it is filled with despair on so many levels that at times it is more of an elegy to the under-class than anything else. But, despite this undercurrent, there is some wonderful tension in this book and the characters are real and palpable, alive, struggling through their various challenges. It is this that makes this book so readable, coupled with the fact that the cast is so diverse. The world of the casual vacancy is populated by the desperate, the willing, the sorrowful and the pitiful. It is filled with the angst of teenage rebellion, the hopelessness of the cycle of drug addiction and the sad chasm left by the death of a friend.

To share more would be to ruin this book, to destroy the opportunity to escape into a world that Rowling has so patiently and empathically crafted. I will only add that this is an unexpectedly good read. Enjoy!

It Doesn’t Have To Be So Hard, Joanne Fedler & Graeme Friedman

9781742754901Yes, relationships are hard. There’s no denying it. It’s hard to stay sane when there are so many pressures on people to achieve those standards that they set for themselves and that the world thrusts upon them. Relationships are a minefield, a labyrinth fraught with dangers at every turn and we are our own worst enemies when it comes to being successful at this business of sustaining successful partnerships.

Fedler and Friedman’s book doesn’t deny any of this. In fact, the book pays homage to the way that people connect despite their contrariness and how we persist at trying to maintain these connections in the face of all sorts of trauma and drama.

These authors have done a wonderful job of making the thing that stymies so many of us, that big elephant of intimacy in the lives of so many, into something tangible, approachable and normal and it is this that lies at the heart of this book. So often we feel alone and isolated, struggling through the mire of life on a solo voyage and what Fedler and Friedman do is bring company to our journeys. We are never alone. Whatever you are experiencing, there is someone else with more of it or with less of an ability to deal with it.

Not only is this book poignant on so many different levels, but the authors have introduced some incredibly addictive characters to explore the issues that form the basis of their concern – I loved these people, I loved reading about their lives, understanding their relationships and seeing how they interacted with each other. I loved the buoyancy of their exchanges and the way that they managed to negotiate each other in such a sensitive fashion. There is one moment in the text where one character peeks through the window to watch a struggling pair communicate on the street outside: I felt exactly like this character throughout the book … here I was, peering through the crack in the blinds, watching these people fight, make up, go to therapy and confess their darkest fears. I wanted more. I want more!! I loved the priest/counsellor who ended his sessions with a prayer, inviting God into the couple’s world to help solve their problems. I loved the gay couple, struggling through the dynamic of the desires of one to be a parent, I loved the cheating husband who so loved his wife but felt worn down by her distraction. Each of these characters has been so carefully painted and explored and each brings such depth to what would otherwise be quite a dull book, something more in line with an inane pop-psychology waffle.

Dare I say it, but even more than these quirky individuals, I loved the way that Fedler and Friedman littered their observations with insights in the form of tales from different cultures. I found these excursuses as enlightening as the book itself! Each brought such an intense flavour to the text, I can only explain properly by sharing one:

“Many years ago, in the time of the Buddha, Kisa Gotami, the wife of a wealthy man, lost her only son who died in his sleep. The poor woman was so overcome with grief she went to the Buddha and begged him to bring her son back to life. He agreed, on condition that she bring him back a handful of mustard seeds from a family that had not lost a beloved one. She was overjoyed and set off on her quest to find these mustard seeds. She knocked on the door of the first home and told her story, asking for a handful of mustard seeds, which the owner happily gave to her. ‘Oh, and just one more thing – no one has died in your home, have they?’ At this, the woman’s face fell. ‘Yes, just last week, my beloved father died.’ Sadly, Kisa Gotami returned the mustard seeds and went to the next house. At each house, she found that someone had lost a person they loved; in every face she found a mirror of the grief on her own. And so she went from home to home, realising that she was not alone in her suffering, and she returned to the Buddha, awake. Through the worst grief that broke her, she was broken open into enlightenment.”

So I say thank you to Joanne Fedler and Graeme Friedman for breaking me into enlightenment.