Thursday, 29 December 2011

my 2011 books

how do we look, chaps?
this is not a list, nor is it a "best of", it is really a musing on the books I read in 2011 that I considered in some way noteworthy. I won't mention everything I read. I began the year in Cyprus, as I would choose to begin every year, with Monica Ali  'In The Kitchen', which I did choose to review. It is a book about London, about immigration and migration, about difference, about work, and about mental illness. I thought it was splendid, in an unpretentious sort of way (the best way, I always think). Something I noted in it is that Ali describes the bemoaning, by the elderly white working class, of the disappearance of things they say they value - large, close families, home cooking, people clubbing together rather than going into debt, and everyone knowing everyone else's name, family and business. All these things are to be found today of course in the Asian families of Britain. Who are feared, sometimes hated, but certainly not understood, by those same elderly white working-class people.

Then 'Life' by Keith Richards (with James Fox, I suspect not that one), excellent on the music and a fluent, entertaining read. Worth reading again, which I will. Something I note in passing here is that Keef was on heroin for quite a long time, and that that drug, unlike alcohol, does not destroy memory, so he remembers everything, it seems. I noted too that he has not only had relationships with some beautiful and interesting women (in whose number I do NOT include Marianne Faithfull, whom I consider a tedious charlatan, and who is incidentally from Reading) but appears to have been kind to them, and to his children too, apart from the names he chose for them. Good for you, Keef.

A GREAT highlight of the year was re-reading (after more than 40 years) Huckleberry Finn, out of copyright and available free as an e-book. Too many delights to list, but a great many linguistic ones in his rendering of the more or less extinct Missouri vernacular, in such phrases as "humbug talky-talk" for women praising each other's cooking. The social mores described, in which idle men set fire to a stray dog for fun, and no-one is shocked, are shocking in a way that I do not believe Twain intended, but which can hardly be found depicted anywhere else, would probably have shocked no-one before about the 1980s. No apology for the number of "shocks" there.  On slavery I doubt that anything better has been written. And yet it is not a tract. Nor, probably, did it change thinking on slavery. That had already happened. I noted at the time that 'The Catcher In The Rye' owes a lot to this book. I meant to check whether this aperçu is a given in American literary criticism. But I didn't get round to it.

I did re-read 'Howard's End' by E.M. Forster in 2011, for the nth time, but only this time did I observe that most great English novels, most not-so-great ones, and just about all my favourites, are about money. That's it. Money. And houses, but that is money too. I went straight from there (or almost) to re-read 'Of Human Bondage' by Somerset Maugham, another gay male English writer of the first half of the twentieth century (why do you chaps not have proper first names?), and also about money. In a compelling and wonderful way. Why are gay men so good at writing about women's bodies? I wondered at the time, and did not note, and yes I knew that Maugham was married for many years. So was Oscar Wilde. Those were the times.

In between all this I read '5 Days To Power' by my successor as MP for Reading East Rob Wilson, about the formation of the 2010 coalition government in the UK. Well, interesting. Sort of. I imagine I betray my ignorance and lack of education by revealing here that it was from this book that I learned the phrase "confidence and supply" which I had never knowingly heard before. Though I was a Blair Babe and have never been in opposition, nor been defeated at an election, so what indeed would I know about coalitions, or opposition. Whatever.

By April I was reading, some years after it was published, 'Arthur and George' by Julian Barnes, which was different from his usual in that it draws you straight in. It deals with England, and indeed Scotland too, and is about money. And houses. And, of course, railway journeys.  In a nineteenth-century sort of way.  Recommended.

I'm restricting myself to the fiction I read in 2011, you will be pleased to know, and not all of that either.

Herta Muller, Germanophone Romanian writer who won the Nobel Prize, two short books, sorry to say I read them in English translation, but glad to say the translations were there. 'The Appointment', published in Germany in 1997 and in English translation in the USA in 2001. A chilling story of human lives in a totalitarian state. Solzhenitsyn did this too, as not many others have, but at much greater length, and with less humanity. I have lived both in the Soviet Union and in its post-communist self (in Latvia in 2006, fifteen years after the end of communism) and I recognised the Romania of this book, everything the same, the endless tram journeys to stops where everything was the same, eternally and for ever.

My book of the first half of the year was 'Norwegian Wood' by Haruki Marukami, translated wonderfully into English by Jay Rubin. You might have seen the film by now. I haven't, yet. Great sadness. What it is to be young. An image of depression I will never forget. "...her eyes were absolutely flat. I had never seen them that way before. It was as if they had been painted on cardboard.". And, of course, a quite spectacular misunderstanding of the song.  Rubin is correct to translate the title as "Norwegian Wood", because the song title is what the writer meant, but what the writer wrote was 'Noruwei no Mori' which I would translate as "A Wood in Norway" - "mori" in Japanese means "wood" in the sense of a bunch of trees growing in the ground close to each other.  But hey, what do I know.  However, here is the Wikipedia (for what that's worth) on the song title in Japanese, which does seem to bear me out.

The original Japanese title Noruwei no Mori, is the standard Japanese translation of the title of The Beatles song "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)," written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.[11] The song is often mentioned in the novel, and is the favourite song of the character Naoko. Mori in the Japanese title translates into English as wood in the sense of "forest", not the material "wood", even though the song lyrics clearly refer to the latter. Forest settings and imagery are significantly present in the novel.

And finally, as some might say, for the first half of 2011 I would recommend 'Germania' by Simon Winder. A work of non-fiction, the only one for this post, which is none the less the author's take on today's Germany, with fascinating and sometimes very funny observations. Did you know there was an Elector, or possibly a Margrave, who married a Spanish princess called Joanna the Mad?

Oh and Northanger Abbey.  On reading which I got the point of Jane Austen.  Sort of.  For the first time.  Thanks Jonny.  And yes, I know it is a piss-take.


Anonymous said...

No he isn't that one. James Fox wrote White Mischief - probably the best book written about the murder of Lord Errol and Happy Valley. A film was made based on the book starring a ( then) beautiful Greta Scacchi with Charles Dance as male lead and John Hurt in a supporting role.

The person whoo haunts the Richards book is Anita Pallenberg and the image of teh walls drenched in red wine is compelling.

Grateful for the Somerset Maugham review -- Of Human Bondage is superb. Oddly enough, I have just finished reading The Moon and Sixpence.
I usally like Barnes but couldn't get on with Arthur and George; not inetrested in Conan Doyle. I have always preferred Barnes' very early novel Before She Met Me - and of the recent stuff, the short story colletcion published in 2011, Pulse is excellent ; also his autobiographical book about family and death published a couple of years ago: Nothing to be Afraid of.

Just reading A Widow's Story by Joyce Carol Oates. Definitely worth it.

Oh - and the Jeanette Winterson: Why be happy when you could be normal?

Well - yes, there is that.

Best thing in this account of some of her life is when she gets irritated with her 'real' mother ( having found her) when the latter criticises Mrs Winterson.
Felt very odd seeing the dreaded picture again. I don't like it.
Some of us always felt uncomfortable about it.
A couple of us are now dead -- one of us is nearly dead. Some of us did not like that picture at the time and like it less as the years go by.

It feels evry Miss Havisham.

Jane Griffiths said...

Yes, I was in two minds whether to publish it (the picture) but it is a piece of history we were part of, and enough time has gone by. "Besides, the wench is dead"...

Anonymous said...

Yes - actually three wenches rather than the two, Fiona and Mo that I originally thought of.The late Audrey Wise is on that pic as well - oh and so is G Dunwoody - so four dead to date.

Really pray that the one who is close to it ( a very nice woman) will pull through and find that there is more to life than that and the copnsequences of it.

Apropos of the picture - how timely in a way. B Boothroyd is 'guest editing' The Today prog today ( not one of your fave people as I recall?) and she was wombling on about the fact that positive discrimination for women was disgusting and that women should 'get there on their own merits'. Yes,Betty - I agree. So lets have merit then and ban all the unfair advantages that some in that picture got even before they were elected by rags like The Filth saying they were goign to be the Labour woman PM/Chancellor ebfore they ahd even made a Maiden speech. Nuff said - but I will carry on saying that, so there!

But - on another note- forgot to say in previous post that Greta Scacchi played the wonderful Diana Delves Broughton in the White Mischief film - and that her husband, Jock Delves Broughton was tried for the murder of her lover Errol because of the incriminating discovery of a pair of his 'checked stockings, splattered with blood'; found near to the corpse. All went on in Kenya. He was sensationally acquitted - but then, just as sensationally, killed himself in a hotel room some years later. Of course, Diana ahd left him by then and had married and left the John Hurt figure too. Oh and - guess what?! Isabella Blow who killed herself a couple of years ago by drinking weed killer after trying and failing to do it by jumping off a motorway bridge ( she just broke both her ankles on that attempt) was the great grandaughter of Jock Delves Broughton. So it goes on into another generation.

Fascinating - and a world away from Betty! apart that Diana was a bit of a hoofer too, as far as I can see.

If you do one thing in 2012, read White Mischief - also the biography of Lord Erroll. Oddly enough ( again), Frances Osbourne, wife of Boy Gideon, has written a not half bad biog of Joss Erroll's first wife, Lady Idina. It is called The Bolter and again I would recommend it.
And last of all, David James Smith who wrote the best and most sympathetic account of the way Fiona Jones in that picture was hounded to her death - also wrote a very good and sympathetic account of the life of Isabella Blow in The Sunday Times Magazine! And he had a brilliant biog of N Mandela's early days published last year caleld The Young Mandela. Again a good one to read! Degrees of separation and all that.

Anonymous said...

Bloody Hell! Five of us. I had forgotten Rachel Squires who died of breast cancer.

This picture is becoming a Memento Mori.

How's your own health? I had a nasty touch of flu recently.........

Augustus Carp said...

Wha? You are on the political Left, have been reading voraciously and widely for nigh on 50 years and you have only just realised that the best English novels are all about money? Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray, Austen, the "snobbery with violence" school of the 1920s, Fleming, Waugh, Captain WE Johns, the whole of English letters is about money. That's why some of us are compelled to read "foreign" stuff, just to get a break from it all.

Jane Griffiths said...

Gus, I'm sorry, but if you think my posts are stupid you don't have to read any more of them. We can't all be Clever People who are Brainy At Stuff. I am well supplied with people prepared to call me stupid at regular intervals, so your contribution is not helpful. I have never claimed to be a person of letters, just a person who likes reading. Oh and what has being "on the Left" got to do with anything? Happy New Year.

Jane Griffiths said...

How many of the Labour men elected in 1997 died? I don't think any of them did. The ones who passed on were of an older generation. Of the true Babes (Labour women elected for the first time in 1997) two, Fiona and Rachel, are dead, and another one might be. I hope those responsible for hounding Fiona to her death get their comeuppance one day. Not holding my breath.

Anonymous said...

Jane's posts on books are always interesting because she is interested in books. Most people aren't. People who talk about 'the Left' in relation to literary appreciation don't know how to read. And - hey, Mr Gus! The best novels in any language are about the range of human emotions in their various forms. That's it really. Have you read Blake? Bet you don't understand him.

Anonymous said...

Two of the women who were elected in 1997 as BBs also had breast cancer. As well as the sad case of Rachel Squires, Melanie Johnson had it; also, Debra Shipley.

Debra was certainly treated in the most gross and abominable way by her Constituency Labour Party. This is why she did not stand in 2005. It should here be mentioned that the one person who really stood up for Debra and supported her bravely against all the abuse she endured at the hands of the CLP - especially after she had lost her husband to cancer - was the vilified Maragret Moran.
And Tess from Gloucester and Jenny from Wolverhampton stood down in 2011 because they hated the nasty and spiteful bullying meted out to women MPs. Julia from Swindon also decided that she had had enough in 2005.
Daria was bullied unmercifully by her CLP.

All the women in the bad stuff,wasn't it? That is what Harriet and co should be investigating. It is not just getting the numebrs - it is how those women are treated and supported once they get there - and what systems are put in to deal with abuse when it occurs that matters. Sadly such support systems were all at hand when Oona King was persecuted and when Fiona Mactaggart suffered abuse. But this help was applied selectively. It was not availabel on an equal basis - or even at all to other women. This is unfair and must be addressed as of urgency.

Augustus Carp said...

Oh dear! I seem to have annoyed more than one person – sorry, but that really wasn’t my intention, I assure you. I had assumed that it was almost axiomatic that English novels written between 1800 and 1950 were all to do with money – that’s one of the things that makes them interesting. And please don’t confuse me with “Clever People who are Brainy At Stuff” – my highest academic qualification is an A Level in English, but as that was a Grade D I don’t suppose it amounts to much. Sorry if my contribution was not helpful; that’s for you to judge, but I really was not calling you stupid, neither then nor at regular intervals.
With regard to Anonymous 15:32, I agree wholeheartedly! I really enjoy Jane’s stuff on books – I even went and bought the David Bellos book on her recommendation, although I haven’t read it yet. I must say, though, that I thought that a left, Marxist or Marxian critique of literature was a valid and academically respectable approach, along with, say, a feminist critique. From her clearly stated views and honestly held beliefs, I would have expected Jane to have adopted such a “Leftist” approach, if only as one of the many tools in her critical armoury – if not, then so be it. Maybe it’s a bit passé nowadays, what with structuralism and the like.
As to the “best novels in any language are about the range of human emotions in their various forms”, yes, I agree completely, but have you noticed that it only tends to be the English novels which use money as the impetus to examine them? I don’t think that German, Russian or French novels are money based to the same extent, but I am willing to be persuaded otherwise.
And Anonymous 15:32, you are right about Blake – I have read little, and understood less. But I do remember Terry Eagleton’s closing lines from his Alternative National Anthem – “And Milton, Blake and Shelley, will smash the Ruling Class yet!”
Happy New Year to you all.
PS By the way, I reckon that the description of the Beethoven Symphony in Howard’s End is one of the best depictions of music ever committed to paper.

Anonymous said...

And Happy NY to you too AC! And many of them!
You can't analyse books using a Marxist or a feminist critique or anything like that and certainly not an 'Eagleton' approach.

What you do is, you look at the words on the page and in the sentence and the next sentence. And think about why they have been put there in that way.

Flaubert knew that...

Anonymous said...

Mr Carp. Happy New Year to you too.

The way Beethoven's last quartet is written about in Milan Kundera's 'The Unbearable Lightness Of Being' would, I think give the book about Howard a run for its money. (Though I admit I haven't read Mr Foster's classic.) In the words of Stanley Calms, well almost, I loved it so much I went out and bought the album. Thereby doubling my collection of classical albums as an addition to 'Peter and the Wolf.'

Anonymous said...

Unbearable Lightness of Being is a good book - and a good film was made ot it in the 1980s with Daniel Day Lewis in the main role.