Sunday, October 25, 2015

september/october 2015 books

More book stuff:
Oxford Fall (Veronica Stallwood): After reading a fair amount of non-fiction recently, I decided that a crime novel would make a “pleasant” change (especially as it was based around Oxford)! Well, it proved to be a massive disappointment. I found the “plot” painfully contrived and hugely unconvincing. The main character (Kate Ivory) is an author who takes a temporary, summer school job in an Oxford college. When one of her students (knowing that she’s writer) suggests that “I suppose you only write well when you are truly inspired”, our Kate replies: “If you want to earn a living as a writer, you have to produce a book when it’s needed. Inspiration rarely comes into it”. Well, for me, this summed up everything about the book (Kate seemed to be speaking on Stallwood’s behalf)… inspiration certainly didn’t come into it!
Lenin’s Kisses (Yan Lianke): This is our book group’s next book. This long book (500 pages) was a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013. It’s an extraordinary novel. It tells the fictional story of a small, remote village populated almost entirely by disabled people (197 blind, deaf and disfigured citizens) who enjoy a peaceful, mutually supportive life out of the sight and mind of the government… until their crops are wiped out by an unseasonal snowstorm. It’s at this point that a county official dreams up a scheme (a travelling freak-show!) intended to raise money for the village’s citizens and for the district (and for the county official, of course). But I don’t want to spoil the story, so I think I’ll leave at that… It’s a satirical, political fable which “movingly chronicles the price that Communist China’s rush to get rich has exacted from its vulnerable rural majority” (as the Spectator put it). Although it took me some time to really “get into it”, it’s a brilliant, thought-provoking, hugely-inventive and ambitious novel (well translated by Carlos Rojas)… which echoes many of the greedy characteristics of our own western capitalist society of today.
Notes From A Big Country (Bill Bryson): Published in 1998 (some 2-3 years after Bill Bryson had returned to New England after spending nearly 20 years living in England, UK), this is a collection of articles from his weekly column in the Telegraph. I do like Bryson. He seems a really nice bloke… and he writes very amusingly and his stuff is ridiculously easy to read. It reads a bit like Alistair Cooke’s “Letter from America”… My only concern is that it all seems to be SO easy… I read his “take” on computers, bureaucracy, politicians, the environment, shopping and the like and think: “I could have done that!” He also has his moments of being a bit of a grumpy, moaner – just like me! We could be brothers?
One day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich (Alexander Solzhenitsyn): I first read this book some 40 years ago (the only other Solzhenitsyn book I’d read was “Cancer Ward” in 1978). It’s set in a Soviet Labour Camp of the 1950s and describes a typical day of Ivan Denisovich, a typical prisoner (he was accused of becoming a spy after being captured by the Germans as a prisoner of war during World War II. He is innocent, but is sentenced to ten years in a forced labour camp). Solzhenitsyn, himself, was in such a camp (arrested in 1945 for making derogatory remarks about Stalin - where he stayed until he was released in 1953, on Stalin’s death). As you imagine, it’s bleak, cruel, unremitting and very, very cold (they’re only exempt from working if the temperature gets below minus 41 degreesC!). It’s about survival, making the most of the appalling daily food “allowance” and avoiding the wrath of the guards. Denisovich counts the days until his release (3,653 days) - although he acknowledges that he’s unlikely to be allowed to return home to his family… simply to be sent into exile. Powerful and frightening, but also a testament to the endurance capacity of the human spirit.
Bernice Bobs Her Hair (F Scott Fitzgerald): It took me ages before I read “The Great Gatsby” (only a couple of months ago) and so thought I’d follow it up with another one. This is a book of short stories. Essentially, they provide a snapshot of America in the 1920s – albeit the America largely inhabited, it seems, by twenty- and early thirty-somethings and about square-chinned, successful males and beautiful women and their mutual quest for living the “high life”… or maybe I’m just too cynical! Very readable.

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