Mr Wilder & Me, Jonathan Coe
I wasn’t mad about this. It passed the time pleasantly enough but at the end I wondered why I bothered reading it. I was attracted because of a positive review in the TLS and subliminally perhaps because I saw some Billy Wilder films – I thought last year – actually it was the year before! Whenever it was I had enjoyed them and thought them very clever as indicated in this blog. This story imagined a young woman serendipitously employed as his assistant on one of his last, and not very well received movies, Fedora. I don’t know anything about that film. I found the book strained credulity somewhat from the get-go. And it didn’t seem to provide any great insights into movie-making. A disappointment all round.
The Shepherd’s Life, James Rebanks
I’ve had this book in my iPad for ages and finally got around to reading it. I enjoyed it quite a lot after first finding it a bit curmudgeonly – not quite the right word. He over-does the ‘farmers are the salt of the earth’ schtick at the start. He’s bright but doesn’t like school and later goes to Oxford but is, I felt, sanctimoniously superior to his fellow students. Maybe with good reason. Anyway he goes back to the farm and his descriptions of farming life in the lake district is often lovely – and for one brought up in the Victorian mallee, not unfamiliar. Family members, neighbours, friends and competitors, daily and seasonal rituals, the spectacular beauty of the rugged terrain and the vicissitudes of the weather are all encompassed in this life. He’s currently being much praised for his lates book, English Pastoral, but I think one is enough for me.
Jillian, Halle Butler
I didn’t enjoy this at all. It describes the relationship between two, to my mind, quite unattractive characters. An older and younger woman who are work colleagues in a radiography practice. They’re receptionist and some sort of unskilled radiography assistant respectively. Jillian is the older of the two and her life is spiralling out of control; single mother in financial difficulties that she just ignores until it all looks as though she’s going to end up homeless and possibly in psychiatric care. Awful. The younger one seems to be hostile to everybody she encounters. She’s contemptuous of Jillian and seemingly obsessively competitive with her circle of friends, all of whom have recently graduated and are making their way in the world. Her relationship with her boyfriend seems to be going downhill as well. Unlikeable characters, hopeless lives and as far as I could see no insights into the human condition. Not recommended.
Max, Alex Miller
This was recommended to me, by a man named Max! Not the Max of the book. I didn’t enjoy it much. I loved Alex Miller’s first two books, The Ancestor Game and The Tivington Nott, but have been disappointed in the later, Journey To The Stone Country. This book is an attempt to uncover the truth about the life of his friend and mentor Max Blatt. The search takes him to Poland, Germany and Israel and into Nazi archives and arcane feuds between different German socialist / communist sects. I found the structure confusing as the reader is taken back and forth in time and to different places with different people. And at the end of the day, Max’s story – when fully discovered – was not as compelling to me as it seems to have been for Alex.
What Are You Going Through, Sigrid Nunez
I didn’t like this book either – having a bad start to the year! The first half includes a lot of waffle about the supposed fears of older women that when their looks give out they will be replaced by younger ones. This was a trope in the years leading up to second wave feminism – surely it’s not still a thing! Depressing if it is. It then moves on to a story about a woman agreeing to help her friend ‘die with dignity’. Whilst raising the interesting question of what you would do in similar circumstances it doesn’t go anywhere; leaving everything up in the air. I hate this sort of writing. I bought this because I had enjoyed her earlier novel, The Friend. I couldn’t really remember much about it so I looked up my comments on that earlier book. Which are indeed positive as seen in the very last book described here. I’m not so keen on this one.
These Old Shades, The Devil’s Cub, Georgette Heyer
Despair about the state of the modern novel took me back to Georgette Heyer. I gave myself permission to do so because my friend Iola had enjoyed re-reading some of these the year before last and given everyone is swooning over the Netflix show about Regency England, Bridgerton. I loved both of these – all over again. They are wonderful romps – and apparently historically true regarding the details of life at the time. I couldn’t really remember These Old Shades, but I remembered very vividly the opening of The Devil’s Cub. I would have been in my late teens when I last read them. I have nearly all of Ms Heyer’s output from my mother. She was a fan from the start; these were published in the 1940s and she got them in 1952 and 1956. Each one cost the princely sum of six shillings and sixpence. I gave Mum a biography of Georgette which I don’t think she liked – she didn’t like biographies on the whole I think. I now have it and will now give it a go. I have read a bit about her and know that she was very diligent in her research and I think her books have never been out of print. There’s a reason for that; they are hugely enjoyable.
The Animals In That Country, Laura Jean McKay
This won the VIctorian Premier’s Literary Award this year so I thought I would return to the modern novel. Alas! It is an original concept and apposite as it happens – a pandemic is raging across Australia. One of the symptoms experienced by sufferers is the capacity to hear animals talk. Clever idea that is built on over the course of the novel. The author also captures Australian vernacular really well; characters talk like real people, in shorthand, in unfinished sentences. Very accomplished. But none of the people are likeable! I sound curmudgeonly but I do think this is a feature of a lot of modern novels. Perhaps those that are being published these days, and winning prizes, are predominantly dystopian. I’ve never liked them much. Here all of the characters are awful; as are their relationships with each other. There is no kindness and goodness anywhere. Which I really miss in a novel. Also the clever idea about people being able to hear animals doesn’t really go anywhere. I would have liked the dingo that accompanies our heroine (hopeless drunkard that she is) to have a redemptive role. Ditto the whales. I was disappointed.
A Compass Error, A Favourite of the Gods, Sybille Bedford
A discovery in a second hand shop in Holbrook of all places led me back to Sybille. I bought the one pictured – great design – and then got the other as an ebook. I loved them both. I read them the wrong way round. A Favourite of the Gods precedes A Compass Error but I don’t think it really mattered. There is a lot of repetition of the first story in the second – but it’s an interesting story and you pick up new information in the retelling. Characters are drawn efficiently; in their different responses to objects, situations, places and people. And they are compelling, interesting, sympathetic people – with both good and bad in them and capable of both cruelty and kindness. I’ve read, and enjoyed very much, Sybille’s other books; Jigsaw and A Legacy. Both of which were heavily autobiographical and I’ve also read her autobiography. She’s had a very interesting life. These two books are about a family; wealthy, American mother, Italian father; a daughter and a son, later a grand-daughter. Much of the action in the first book occurs in England; in the second we are in the south of France. It starts in the late nineteenth century and proceeds through the early twentieth century, the first world war and the in between time before the second. A sort of post script tells us what happens to people during the second world war. They were written in the nineteen sixties and republished in 2011 with forewords by the author. A Compass Error reminded me strongly of Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse in its focus on a young woman meddling in the affairs of her elders. I enjoyed what is essentially a family saga a lot. My faith in the novel restored.
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, John Le Carré
Faith in novels is also restored reading anything by John le Carré – at least his early work. I don’t remember having read this before although I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the film with Richard Burton. Either way I had no recollection of the plot which is terrific. A triple-cross. You have to concentrate to work out what is going on; and even then you have to go back and check after reading the whole to see where you were given clues. Such a bleak view of human nature and of English society. Not a word wasted. Terrific. There’s an afterword by le Carré in the ebook I got which is funny. No-one believed him when he said his books were not based on real life and that he’d just been a very minor functionary. So he gave up trying to convince people. His employer was cross that anyone thought the secret service would be so uncaring about an agent as in this novel. Very funny. As le Carré says, it’s because, whilst not accurate to the truth, his novels are authentic. My favourites were always The Honourable Schoolboy and A Perfect Spy. I must go back to them some day.
A Family and a Fortune, Ivy Compton-Burnett
Here’s another book I had no recollection of reading. I found it on my iPad looking for another. book. To my surprise I found I had indeed read it – back in 2013. My faintly dismissive comments are at the end of this very long blog. I absolutely loved it second time round. So clever. A whole family described basically through conversations between family members. Mother and father settled comfortably into a respectful, companionable but no longer romantic relationship. Father closest to his unmarried brother who lives with them. Older son learning / preparing to take over running the estate; second son destined for academic life, youngest son being tutored at home because he is ‘slow’. Daughter the driving force for conversation and carrying the story forward. Mothers relations – widowed father and unmarried sister – fallen on hard times come to stay in a cottage on the grounds. There is as noted in the title a fortune inherited, disposed of, returned. Mother dies and is mourned. Brothers fall in love. One leaves and returns. Life goes on. So clever. I loved it and can’t imagine forgetting anything about it – it’s stayed with me for a long time after.