Washington Squared

30 06 2012

Washington Square by Henry James

Washington Square marks the culmination of James’s apprentice period as a novelist. With sharply focused attention upon just four principal characters, James provides an acute analysis of middle-class manners and behaviour in the New York of the 1870’s, a period of great change in the life of the city. This change is explored through the device of setting the novel’s action during the 1840s, similarly a period of considerable turbulence as the United States experienced the onset of rapid commercial and industrial expansion. Through the relationships between Austin Sloper, a celebrated physician, and his sister Lavinia Penniman, his daughter Catherine, and Catherine’s suitor, Morris Townsend, James observes the contemporary scene as a site of competing styles and performances where authentic expression cannot be articulated or is subject to suppression.

In brief then, a widower is not terribly fond of his only daughter but disapproves of her suitor whom she eventually determines not to marry. So not a lot happens. At some length. I do really like Henry James and generally am hugely impressed by his writing but really found Washington Square to be terribly dull.

Missing you already

23 06 2012

La Rochelle by Michael Nath

A couple of the quotes on Amazon about this recent and really rather good novel:

Stylish, very funny, discreetly surprising, this remarkable novel reads at times like a fable of England under New Labour, where nothing is quite what it seems and not much is worth what it costs. But it’s not a fable. It’s the subtle, semi-sad story of a lost man, who has wit enough to have found himself several times over if he had really been looking. –Michael Wood
Jules et Jim with a postmodern twist. Nath has a confidence and attitude that rocks you on every page. –Daisy Goodwin

Like the gales that blow around the equinox, the disappearance of his friend’s woman stirs up the life of a doctor, placing him in the power of a subtle enchanter and threatening professional ruin. Will it make or break him? Set during the hostage crisis of 2004, against a background of superheated thinking and sexual oblivion, this study in modern heroism tests adoration to the limit.

A really entertaining dark and comedic literary debut from this University of Westminster academic. Mark embarks on week long bender with his best friend Ian as they mutually mourn and then fret over the latter’s vanished girlfriend. A whole host of strange drunken encounters ensue followed by a surreal jaunt to Devon inspired by an encounter with a psychic. Nothing though is quite what it seems and all of the characters reveal unexpected motivations and histories. Sharp and erudite and highly recommended.

Just the thing

16 06 2012

This isn’t the sort of thing that happens to someone like you by Jon McGregor

A man builds a tree house by a river, in anticipation of the coming flood. A sugar-beet crashes through a young woman’s windscreen. A boy sets fire to a barn. A pair of itinerant labourers sit by a lake, talking about shovels and sex, while fighter-planes fly low overhead and prepare for war.

Set in the flat and threatened fenland landscape, where the sky is dominant and the sea lurks just beyond the horizon, these delicate, dangerous, and sometimes deeply funny stories tell of things buried and unearthed, of familiar places made strange, and of lives where much is hidden, much is at risk, and tender moments are hard-won.

(This brief note appeared in a recent What Are You Reading? column in Times Higher Education.)

Jon McGregor is my favourite writer at the moment. After three outstanding novels (all highly recommended) he’s now delivered a wonderful collection of short stories. The writing is lyrical, poetic and haunting with many of the pieces containing an underlying menace. Set in the bleak, flat fens (with echoes of Swift’s Waterland) these are remarkable stories of strange and different lives and events and things that shouldn’t happen to someone like you. But they do.

It’s a terrific book and highly recommended. Jon McGregor’s website about the book includes further details about the location of each of the stories and is well worth exploring.

Saviour of the universe?

9 06 2012

Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser

From the Amazon reviews:

Harry Flashman: the unrepentant bully of Tom Brown’s schooldays, now with a Victoria Cross, has three main talents – horsemanship, facility with foreign languages and fornication. A reluctant military hero, Flashman plays a key part in most of the defining military campaigns of the 19th century, despite trying his utmost to escape them all.

Expelled from Rugby for drunkenness, and none too welcome at home after seducing his father’s mistress, the young Flashman embarks on a military career with Lord Cardigan’s Hussars.

En route to Afghanistan, our hero hones his skills as a soldier, duellist, imposter, coward and amorist (mastering all 97 ways of Hindu love-making during a brief sojourn in Calcutta), before being pressed into reluctant service as a secret agent. His Afghan adventures culminate in a starring role in that great historic disaster, the Retreat from Kabul.

‘Not so much a march as a full-blooded charge, fortified by the usual lashings of salty sex, meticulously choreographed battle scenes and hilariously spineless acts of self preservation by Flashman.’ Sunday Times

‘Not only are the Flashman books extremely funny, but they give meticulous care to authenticity. You can, between the guffaws, learn from them.’ Washington Post

‘A first-rate historical novelist’ Kingsley Amis

I’m afraid I disagree with the Sunday Times, Washington Post and Kingsley Amis.

Mildly diverting at best and then only as an exemplar of what was once regarded as intensely amusing in a similar way to ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ and ‘Please Sir’. Not very PC would be an understatement – casual and routine racism and sexism is the order of the day. Yes a bounder, a cad, a coward, a liar and a cheat. All of these things and more. Flashman is a rogue and far from loveable. Really difficult to find humour in this stuff. It really is about and of a different age.

Literary pretenstions: approximation of a playlist §60

2 06 2012

Literary pretensions – songs pinching or very closely linked to the titles of books or poems

Atrocity Exhibition    – Joy Division

Lost Weekend   – Lloyd Cole & the Commotions

She   –  Peter Skellern

Tobacco Road   –    Nashville Teens

Cecilia   –  Simon & Garfunkel

Thunderball   –  Tom Jones

Up the junction   –  Squeeze

Venus in furs   –  The Velvet Underground & Nico

Charlotte Sometimes   –  The Cure

There she goes, my beautiful world    – Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

Xanadu  –  Electric Light Orchestra

Wuthering Heights    – Kate Bush

Dr Faustus   –  The Fall

Arabian Knights  –  Siouxsie & the Banshees

Killing an Arab    – The Cure

Sex Crime (1984)    Eurythmics

Guns Of Navarone    – The Specials

Great Expectations –   New Model Army

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