Tender is the night – F. Scott Fitzgerald 

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There is no doubt that Fitzgerald has a wonderful way of laying words on the page. The first few pages of this book are sheer eloquence. This excerpt perfectly captures that delightful happy wriggle of getting into cool water on a hot day:

Rosemary laid her face on the water and swam a choppy little four-beat crawl out to the raft. The water reached up for her, pulled her down tenderly out of the heat, seeped in her hair and ran into the corners of her body. She turned round and round in it, embracing it, wallowing in it.

It’s not that the rest of the book is any less eloquent, only that I find the poetic
summations a bit wearisome after a while. It takes me longer to work out what is actually going on and feels a bit like wading through mud and poking around with a big stick, trying to find the point. I, shockingly, felt the same about ‘The Great Gatsby’. Continue reading “Tender is the night – F. Scott Fitzgerald “

The new sorrows of young W. – Ulrich Plenzdorf

IMG_3427 The sulky, sarky and irreverent Edgar narrates from beyond the grave as his father investigates his death. Edgar holds that common youthful belief that he knows better than anyone else and feels noone understands him or his potential while never seeming to really understand others himself. Knowing nothing about its context or the GDR in the 1970s, I read this as an amusing, confusing ‘trials and tribulations of an aspiring artist’ that was quite stark and just a bit odd. It felt as if the book was probably being very clever in a way I couldn’t quite understand. And it was. It turns out that the tale was a remodelling of Goethe’s ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’, written a century before, and the original is repeatedly referred to and even plays a starring role as a nameless High German book that Edgar finds and keeps quoting from. Overall, it seems a quirky quick read that made me go find out a bit more about East Germany.

This quote is not typical of the slang heavy style but I loved the sentiment.

All the books suddenly looked like they were constantly being read by someone. You suddenly wanted to go and plop yourself down somewhere and read them all one after the other.

From: the local library

Read: February 2016

Felt: a general wry sense of amusement but slightly unsure of what exactly was going on. I think it could make quite a good play with a really bare set and a lot of ‘pretend this box is a boat’ involved.

Liked: Edgar’s grudging admiration of Zaremba – probably the most real and likable of all the characters.

Would recommend: if you happen across it. Don’t rush out to find it but if you stumble across it and you’ve a long train journey ahead then go for it. Or if you have any interest  or understanding of Germany in the 1970s.

Vie Française  – Jean-Paul Dubois

A brief history of modern France as viewed and experienced by a fictional frenchman. Having bought this after falling for the cover, which is not just beautiful but soft enough to make the physical process of reading really enjoyable, it was nice to find it contained a punchy and engaging story. It was very frank and there were a lot of gritty or unpleasant moments (and characters) but it still managed to be charming. It reads like an autobiography rather than a work of fiction and includes a lot of reference to contempary events in France in each time period. It still worked in translation but probably has another layer of meaning to those with a better knowledge of the country and its history. It was interesting to see the ripples these political and national events  caused in the private lives of the characters. If you dont mind unlikable characters and a lot of talk of sex, Dubois has turned an apparently unremarkable life into an interesting and thought-provoking read.

The wonderful wry tone of the narrator allows him to laugh at himself and everyone he meets while still expressing a great fondness for life.

On his childhood behaviour

The child is father to the man

On his boss

Spiridon became giddy from his adorably effervescent little sin of pride

And finally, a great quote from the Marquise de Montespen – Mistress of Louis XIV

The grandeur of a destiny arises as much from what one refuses as from what one gains

From: The French Embassy in New York. Really. Walking along the side of central park, coming out of Café Sabarsky and heading for the Frick, I stumbled across a sign saying French and English books for sale. This felt the most magical place, hidden past a beautiful marble entrance hall. I ended up buying this book in both English and French (not as pretty but a compact little thing that seems to be a standard in French publishing), an even smaller book of Rudyard Kipling’s work in French and a canvas bag with Jules Verne quotations. The French bookseller’s enthusiasm for this particular book was encouraging too!

Read: Nov 2015 in Seville over breakfast on the roof terrace.

Felt: like I was listening to someone reminiscing on their life over a bottle of red wine.

Liked: The honesty and realism with just a touch of the bizarre. The tree photography concept was also mesmerising.

Would recommend: to anyone wanting to learn more about France or French life, or to those who like life stories and books that are more than fluffy niceties.

The reluctant fundamentalist – Mohsin Hamid

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This is an extremely well written book on a difficult topic. Challenging the stereotyping and scaremongering that always surface around cultural or religious rifts, Hamid manages to keep the story engaging and even pleasant to read. The unusual conversational styling is well constructed and avoids being clunky or distracting. The language was beautiful and pitched just right to create the warm tone of an educated man, from a land with a proud tradition of poetry and storytelling, recollecting a series of events ranging from perplexing to incomprehensible. The narrator was not lovable or good but very human and understandable, a real and relatable person refusing to be wholly defined by their labels or circumstances. A brilliantly observant book that can be read and read into as much as you wish. If only it were less, rather than far more, poignant today than when it was written.

For a more detailed plot review head to the wonderfully written post by Miss quickly at the blue bore which inspired me to dig these thoughts out the archive.

It is not always possible to restore one’s boundaries after they have been blurred and made permeable by a relationship: try as we might, we cannot reconstitute ourselves as the autonomous beings we previously imagined ourselves to be. Something of us is now outside, and something of the outside is now within us.

From: the depths of the TBR shelf, origin unknown.

Read: April 2015 as my ‘it’s ok, I’m early’ backup book. I have never been so punctual as the week I was reading this!

Felt: like I was sat with them in the cafe, and ashamed of how familiar and common all those acts of prejudice were.

Liked: the clever construct and seamless switching between the past and present.

Would recommend: to everyone. Would read again someday.

 

The second life of Sally Mottram – David Nobbs


In short, this felt a bit like a Miss Marple but without the murder mystery. A modern day  St Mary Mead with a bit more backbone. Lovely read that was funny without trying too hard or taking itself too seriously. Great to see a book mention suicidal thoughts and attempts without being morose and showing that deciding to live is not a ‘failed attempt’ but a positive and powerfully good decision (however tough). Not up there with ‘Obstacles to young love’ but still good.

From: the library

Read: Feb 2016 instead of a long list of chores

Felt: Mildly charmed and amused. Slightly peeved with the ending.

Would recommend: for a gentle lighthearted distraction

Belonging – Umi Sinha

imageMy entire being wants to condemn this book for shoehorning every conceivable sadness into its pages, for representing India through the eyes of the empire and for being yet another book about one of the world wars. But I learned a lot. It was refreshing to see the Allies portrayed more realistically than just the glorious victorious and to highlight the racism, perpetuated by history’s omission, against the commonwealth countries that fought and died alongside the UK, USA and ANZAC forces.

It also felt important to have the hazy days of the empire cut through with the reality of a rule that could be brutal. That there was savagery on both sides was no mitigation of the atrocities committed. A recent survey about our attitudes to colonialism (will hunt down the link) shows that there is still so much ignorance in the UK on the subject and hopefully this book will encourage people to find out more.

As a novel, this is captivating writing and the characters are very real and their many flaws and terrible thoughts seem to make them all the more human and even a bit more likeable. I did spend the entire book going ‘really, more suffering? Seriously?’ and I had to put the book down and walk away for a bit when there was mention of ‘mixing races giving bad blood’. I know this may have been to highlight how ingrained prejudices were, but it makes for very difficult reading – perhaps all the more so because of it being not yet totally eradicated from society. The book served as a haunting reminder of how quick we are to trample each other for survival and forget that the ‘enemy’ is probably not the person we are facing (Mina’s character was a good example of this).

In short, it is a thought provoking but tough read. It was mercifully quite a quick read and probably worth it if you can stand the perpetual misery and have something cheerful lined up next or a lot of chocolate on hand.

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From: Heathrow Terminal 5 on the way to NYC

Read: Jan 2016 in lunch breaks and through stormy evenings

Felt: Horrified, frustrated

Liked: that neither the people or the regimes were seen as flawless or wholly good or bad.

Would recommend: tentatively to those who don’t mind a grisly read