Sunday, December 07, 2014

november-december 2014 books

more book stuff:
Acts and Omissions (Catherine Fox): Moira originally followed this book in weekly chapters via Catherine Fox’s blog and was a huge fan. To be honest, it didn’t really sound like “my kind of book” (the flysheet gave me the impression it would read like a churchy version of “The Archers”!). Actually, I was wrong. Fox is a very clever, very funny writer (with a beautiful turn of “holy” phrase) – who just happens to be married to the dean of Liverpool Cathedral – and her fictional “take” on the Anglican Church is, at times, hilariously funny but also full of poignant insights, much generosity and a certain amount of head-shaking! Almost against my better judgement, I came to have a real affection for all the characters (yes, all of them). A rather lovely, surprising book. 
Black Mischief (Evelyn Waugh): This comic novel (published in 1932) satirises two unscrupulous cultures – a fictional barbarous African country where cruelty, treachery, cannibalism were rampant and the upper-class affluence of London’s Mayfair society where privilege and imperialism are dominant. It’s very funny at times, but also uncomfortably un-politically correct.
Where Angels Fear to Tread (EM Forster): Published in 1905, this novel* is about a young English widow who takes off on the grand tour and along the way marries a handsome, penniless Italian. Tragically, she dies in childbirth and her in-laws (who weren’t amused by the marriage in the first place) mount a campaign to bring the child back to be raised in England. This was Forster’s first novel and it’s beautifully written (as well as being well-observed and funny). I enjoyed it… even if I did find the ending rather contrived.
With Chatwin: Portrait of a Writer (Susannah Clamp): I’d read three of Bruce Chatwin’s books (“The Songlines”, “Utz” and “What Am I Doing Here” – but now feel the need to re-read them!), so was looking forward to this memoir, published in 1998. Clamp was a good friend of Chatwin, edited two of his books and also knew many of his friends well. This is a beautiful memoir – affectionate, affecting, frank, funny and rather enchanting. Chatwin died of Aids in 1989 aged 48 and was a man of diverse talents and interests. He was certainly someone who had an eye for art (he worked for Sotherbys briefly), but he was also someone who made people look and see things in a different way (and not just art). Clamp describes him as being “a traveller, a teller of tales and a connoisseur of the extraordinary” which, to my mind, sums him up beautifully. I love the fact that the Bodleian Library in Oxford has 40 grey cardboard boxes of his paraphernalia – including 85 of his notebooks. It’s now 25 years since his death, so reading this wonderful memoir at this time seemed very appropriate.
The Bonfire of the Vanities (Tom Wolfe): This is our Book Group’s next book (for discussion next month). It’s a mammoth tome of over 700 pages - so it’ll be interesting to see how many book group people actually manage to finish it! Published in 1987, it’s a satirical look at the contrasting world of 1980s New York – the haves and the have-nots; wealthy Wall Street bond traders; raging ambitions and vanities; power-hungry men (always men, it seems!); attractive young (“x-ray” thin?) women who are only too happy, it seems, to be pampered and spoilt; violence and corruption; white Park Avenue versus poor, black Bronx. The book’s been hailed as a masterpiece. Personally, whilst I found it eminently readable and funny, I also found the American world of greed, money and injustice all pretty depressing – even more so when one realises just how similar things have become in the UK (eg. greedy bankers? surely not!) over the past 20 years or so.
Note*: Forster’s book (first published in 1905, but reprinted in 1969) was part of the Penguin Modern Classics’ series and has the following price printed on the back cover: “20p  4/-“ (in anticipation of UK currency decimalisation in 1971). I appreciate that it’s only a relatively short book (some 160 pages), but TWENTY pence does seem RIDICULOUSLY cheap… even for 1969!

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