Monday, July 14, 2014

june/july 2014 books

More book stuff:
The Shock of the Fall (Nathan Filer): This is our Book Group’s next book (but I’ve read it so far in advance of our next discussion that I might have to read it again!). It’s a novel about a young schizophrenic man struggling with guilt. It’s a story of grief, madness and loss. It’s a deeply moving, funny and incredibly impressive first novel (as well as a performance poet and writer, Filer is also a registered mental health nurse). It’s quite, quite brilliant – one of those compelling books that you just want to read in one sitting.
The Men Who Stare At Goats (Jon Ronson): I haven’t seen the film but, as you might guess from its title, this is something of a bizarre book. I spent much of the time reading the book thinking the author had made up the entire narrative… but, worryingly, as Ronson tells readers in the book’s first five words: “this is a true story”. It’s the author’s investigation into “psychological warfare” techniques used by America’s elite Special Forces. I’ve just read Tim Adams’s review in the Observer from 2004 which ends as follows: “…not only a narcotic road trip through the wackier reaches of Bush's war effort, but also an unmissable account of some of the insanity that has lately been done in our names”. I can only agree with him. The book is hilarious, incredible and frighteningly scary.
Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice (Janet Malcolm): I don’t think I’ve ever read any of Gertrude Stein’s work so, when I bought this in the £3 bookshop, it rather felt as if I was going “out on a limb” in choosing this. I was somewhat intrigued to learn more about the forty-year relationship of Stein (American writer of novels, poetry and plays, fervent collector of Modernist art, friends of the likes of Picasso and Hemingway) with Alice Toklas and how this “pair of elderly Jewish lesbians” had survived the Nazis whilst living in France. Sadly, this never really gets explained – neither Stein nor Toklas seems ever to have acknowledged to anyone, least of all themselves(!), that they were Jewish and therefore in a highly vulnerable position. I have to say, I really came to dislike Stein as I read the book - she comes across as someone shamelessly certain of her own literary genius; I found many of her quoted passages unreadable and/or hugely awkward; and she was a supporter of Franco and an early advocate of Hitler (who, she suggested, should be given the Nobel prize for getting rid of conflict in Germany!). Although Stein had willed much of her estate to Toklas, including their shared art collection (some of them Picassos) housed in their apartment, the couple's relationship had no legal recognition. As the paintings appreciated in value, Stein's relatives took action to claim them, eventually removing them from Toklas's residence while she was away on vacation and placing them in a bank vault. Toklas then relied on contributions from friends as well as writing to make a living. It all goes to make a remarkable story – but, sadly, one which I personally found didn’t quite make its mark.
Of Human Bondage (W Somerset Maugham): This is a very long book (some 700 pages) and, given its weight and the resulting implications for trying to read it in bed, is the best argument for converting to a Kindle – but no, I’ll stick to the old fashioned book format  (at least for the time being)! I’ve really enjoyed every Somerset Maugham book I’ve read and this was no exception. This is probably his best-known book (published in 1915) and tells the story of an orphaned boy who is raised by a religious aunt and uncle and who leaves home (and school) at 18 to pursue a career as an artist in Paris and then on to London to study to be a doctor… but it’s also a book about poverty, sexual infatuation, freedom, beauty and connection. For me, Somerset Maugham writes with a simple elegance that I find very appealing.  
The Ascent of Rum Doodle (W E Bowman): A rough description of this book might be: “Mountaineering’s equivalent of ‘Three Men in a Boat’”. It tells the completely fanciful story of a group of English gentlemen who set out to conquer the ascent of a spoof 40,000-and-a-foot peak. Published in 1956 (the author had never actually climbed a mountain!), this is an outrageous, ridiculous but funny book… featuring (amongst other things): a team guide who was constantly getting himself lost (search parties had to sent out); a hapless team photographer who accidently, but predictably, ruined the entire stock of used film of the expedition; a team doctor who insisted on including several cases of champagne as part of the medical supplies etc etc. It’s a short, amusing and very readable book.

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