Sunday, September 04, 2016

august-september 2016 books...

More book stuff:
Country Girl (Edna O’Brien): This is (yet) another purchase from the excellent £3 Bookshop. I’d never read anything by Edna O’Brien before but, having flicked through a few pages in the shop, this autobiography rather appealed. Published in 2012, O’Brien wrote it (somewhat reluctantly, it seems) at the age of 78. She’s clearly a very talented writer and I loved her “way with words” – and also her humour and her ability to recall and articulate small, incidental details from her life. Ultimately, she became an acclaimed writer of novels, plays and screenplays worldwide and something of a celebrity in her own right. At times, I felt that the book’s middle section seemed to be little more than a list of famous people with whom she regularly mixed (according to O’Brien, Jackie Onassis, for example, once told her that she was “one of the three people on the planet whom she loved most”) or, indeed, slept with!! I found this section of the book by far the least interesting. Much more impressive, for me, were the recollections from her childhood in Ireland, together with reflections from her later life. A very enjoyable book about what has clearly been a fascinating journey as a writer… I think it’s about time that I tried one of her novels!
Somewhere Towards The End (Diana Athill): Athill is one of my heroes/heroines. I’ve read a number of her books over recent years and found them in all, in their various ways, inspiring. This book (published in 2008), as the title suggests, is a book about her (attitude to) life in old age – happily, she’s still alive at the ripe old age of 98 (as I write this). It’s a brilliantly positive book for everyone – and especially those, like me, who see themselves as entering “old age”. She writes beautifully and has a wonderful, generous attitude towards life and other people. She’s also funny… and I particularly enjoyed her comments about how young people give her energy and enthusiasm; about her attempts to give up driving when she was 82 (note: I’ve resolved to do the same when I’m 72!); and about her enjoyment of drawing. This extract rather put me in my place(!): “That is why most people find it more interesting to draw other people, or animals, or plants and trees, rather than man-made objects such as architecture or machinery. (There are, of course, fine draughtsmen who specialise in those – and no doubt it’s a foolish quirk of mine that makes me suspect they will be bores)”! Wonderful!
Oscar and Lucinda (Peter Carey): This was another Book group book. A rich, complex, intelligent and powerful novel, set in the mid-19th century (largely set in Australia), about the undeclared love between a clergyman and an heiress. The flysheet of my own copy described the main characters as being “made for each other, the two are gamblers – one obsessive, the other compulsive – incapable of winning at the game of love”… which seems a fair summary. Frankly, I struggled for much of this long book (some 520 pages in length) – especially the first 100 pages or so. All too often, I found myself being irritated by Carey’s painstaking descriptions of minor characters which, although well-written, frequently felt like “padding” and slowed down the main story itself. I also often found myself exasperated by the Oscar character and didn’t find him particularly convincing. I’m still trying to make up my mind as to whether I found the book’s ending impressive or something of a cop-out (all along, I just knew it wouldn’t have a “lived happily ever after” tag!). Overall, I thought it was a hugely-inventive, clever, sad (but frequently amusing) and well-written book… I just wished Carey had reduced its length by 200 pages or so!
The Ghost Road (Pat Barker): This is the final book of Barker’s “Regeneration” trilogy, set in the closing months of the First World War and follows the fortunes of shell-shocked British army officers. As in her previous two books, Barker explores ‘possible’ relationships between real people (eg. real-life psychoanalyst William Rivers, poet Wilfred Owen) and fictional characters (eg. working-class officer Billy Prior). Prior and Owen are about to return to combat in France, after being under the care of Rivers. The book’s title gives a powerful sense of the two battles involved (other than the war between nations) – the war between individuals and the psychological war within oneself. The final, futile battle scenes (which include the inevitable deaths of Prior, Owen and thousands of others) take place in the early days of November 1918 – a matter of just a handful of days before the Armistice was signed (on 11 November). Everyone knew that the war is coming to an end, but the Generals are adamant that “there is to be no retirement under any circumstances”. Prior observes: “That was the order. They have tied us to the stake, we cannot fly, but bear-like we must fight the course”… yet more soldiers’ names to be added to the appallingly-long list of deaths in a war that decimated a generation. An extraordinary, frightening, depressing, outstanding book (and trilogy).
Skios (Michael Frayn): I like Michael Frayn as a writer and bought this at the “Last Bookshop” for £2.50 – despite the fact that a) it’s a farce and b) I don’t particularly like farces! So… an internationally-renowned (male) academic arrives at the Greek island of Skios to give the annual lecture on the scientific organisation of science (or something like that!) to an important Foundation… but, at the airport, the Foundation’s attractive female PA confuses him with a much younger, charming character (who’s something of a womaniser) who is attracted by the woman’s smile… and decides to pretend to be the person she’s looking for. Meanwhile, at the other end of the island, a young woman waits for the very same notorious womaniser (she’s rashly agreed to go on holiday with him) but, of course, he fails to turn up… and yet, amazingly (due to a whole series of ridiculous mix-ups), the academic turns up at the villa of the young woman… and, oh, one thing leads to another… and another (oh, you get the idea!)! Sadly (for me), despite the intricate and highly-imaginative storyline, the book’s finale is somewhat fudged – almost as if Frayn had grown tired of it all and (literally) lost the plot! Let’s just say that it was an entertaining, light “holiday read” (retirement is a never-ending holiday, of course!).

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