Thursday, August 27, 2015

august 2015 books

More book stuff:
Cultural Amnesia (Clive James): Published in 2007, this mammoth book of over 850 pages (which makes bedtime reading a little tricky!) took James 40 years to write. It’s organised from A to Z and contains over 100 essays. It’s been described as “the ultimate guide to the 20th century” and I wouldn’t argue with that at all. The essays take the form of James’s brief biography/background context of some of the greatest thinkers, humanists, musicians, artists and philosophers of the 20th century (and before)… from Louis Armstrong to Sigmund Freud via Frank Kafka, Marcel Proust (you get the idea), followed by one of their quotes, followed in turn by James’s own reflections – which frequently refer to such things as when he first bought a copy of a book or saw a performance or a conversation. Over the past 20 years or so, I have continued to be amazed by the massive depth of James’s knowledge… and its diversity (and, yes, I appreciate that James has never been embarrassed to show off his intellect!). Just as an example, I paused at the end of the piece on Georg Cristoph Lichtenburg, 1742-99 (yes, there were MANY people in the book that I’d never heard of!)… in it, James had made references to his first experience of seeing a Lautrec painting… which tumbled into his reflections on Barbirelli’s Berlin concerts at the end of WW2… which in turn developed into what the Greeks made of Helen’s beauty… and on to feminism in the late 20th century… then the writings of Thomas Mann… and “The Great Gatsby”… and Solzhenitsyn, Sartre, Kingsley Amis… Chekhov etc etc. This chapter alone probably contained references to over 50 books he’d read (and quoted from) or music he “knew” intimately or… I could go on! A couple of other (slightly quirky?) observations of the book: he uses the word “humanist” or “humanism” in at least every other essay and he also frequently tries to encourage to language students – such as “students who want to make a start with Spanish could do worse than to track Vargas Llosa through his essays” (something that James had clearly done in developing his own wide-ranging language skills). James has been a long-time hero of mine… this is a wonderful book (with some minor reservations) – informative, pithy, endearing and frequently amusing.
Sentenced To Life (Clive James): Yes, another Clive James’s book (sorry) – this time a book of poems written between 2011 and 2014, after James had been diagnosed with terminal illness (“leukaemia, emphysema and kidney failure – ‘the lot’”). It’s a really beautiful, poignant, enriching book… of his guilt, his regrets, his illness, his family and life, but also about how his condition has given him time and space to appreciate things that he’d previously hardly noticed or just taken for granted – like rain and nature. Take this example from the poem “Sentenced to Life”:  
Once I would not have noticed; nor have known
The name for Japanese anemones,
So pale, so frail. But now I catch the tone
Of leaves. No birds can touch down in the trees
Without my seeing them. I count the bees.

His poem “Japanese Maple” has rightly, in my view, been highly acclaimed via the internet/social media. James has been quoted as being “embarrassed at having lived with his death so long” (he certainly hadn’t anticipated seeing much beyond last Autumn), but he’s still here and I, for one, am mightily grateful for that. A book I’ll continue to treasure for many years to come.
The Great Gatsby (F Scott Fitzgerald): I’d never read this book (or seen any of the film versions) but, encouraged by Clive James’s various comments on it, I thought I’d give it a “go”. First published in 1925, it paints a picture of a lifestyle and a decade that is both fascinating and horrific… about the American dream in a time when it had descended into decadence – an era, known for unprecedented economic prosperity, the evolution of jazz music, flapper culture, bootlegging and other criminal activity, is plausibly depicted in the novel. Loosely based on some of Fitzgerald’s own experiences/acquaintances… idolising the very rich and their seductive and exciting lifestyle… with, for some, brutal consequences. Beautifully crafted writing.
Dancing Barefoot - The Patti Smith Story (Dave Thompson): Although I’ve got her album “Land” (1975-2002), I’ve never really been a big fan of Patti Smith (or her music). I still see her as the loud-mouthed, foul-mouthed, provocative, anarchistic, geeky singer/poet she was in the 1970s/80s. She’s clearly now seen as an important figure of the rock/punk era… and probably rightly so. This biography, published in 2011, is perhaps what you’d expect from a musical journalist (well, what I anticipated, at least) – full of glib phrases and re-hashed quotes. Its saving grace is that it also fills in some of the interesting background details. It’s also made me play her music again… and, crucially, to watch some of her LIVE performances on YouTube.  
Life After Life (Kate Atkinson): This is our Book Group’s latest book. My book’s cover included the following words of description: What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?... Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?  This multi-layered, complex novel follows the story of Ursula Todd – and lives out a number of her lives starting (again and again) in 1910. This intriguing synopsis might sound somewhat bizarre, but it’s a key premise of the book. Atkinson is a hugely-gifted, intelligent and inventive writer. She has an extraordinary ability to evoke the past and also to find humour and warmth - even in life’s grimmest circumstances. I really enjoyed this clever, intriguing book. I’d previously only read one other novel by Kate Atkinson (Behind The Scenes At The Museum – excellent!) and definitely need read more of her work. Quite brilliant.

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