Florentine follies

22 09 2018

Up at the Villa by Somerset Maugham

 

Mary Panton walls up her desires in a beautiful villa high up in the hills above Florence, as she calmly contemplates her disastrous marriage. But a single act of compassion begins a nightmare of violence that shatters her serenity. She turns for help to the notorious Rowley Flint, and through him comes to realise that to deny love, with all its passions and risks, is to deny life itself.

A short novel of two parts, the first evocative, languid and contemplative as Mary reflects on her life as she looks out over Florence, and the second a roller coaster of events which changes the course of her life for good. Really well-paced, perfectly pitched and crafted, it’s a classic Maugham and well worth a read.

 

four stars

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Small town boys

15 09 2018

The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles by Giorgio Bassani

 

Into the insular town of 1930s Ferrara, a new doctor arrives. Fadigati is hopeful and modern, and more than anything wants to fit into his new home. But his fresh, appealing appearance soon crumbles when the townsfolk discover his homosexuality, and the young man he pays to be his lover humiliates him publicly.

As anti-Semitism spreads across Italy, the Jewish narrator of the tale begins to feel pity for the ostracized doctor, as the fickle nature of a community changing under political forces becomes clear.The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles is a gripping and tragic study of how lives can be destroyed by those we consider our neighbours.

A quite outstanding book, set in the same place and time as the equally marvellous The Garden of the Finzi-Continis which I inexplicably have failed to review here previously. It’s a beautifully written and translated tale which is perfectly paced and judged. Painful and thoroughly compelling it really is a thoroughly recommended read.

 

 





The end of the world as we know it

8 09 2018

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

 

What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty.

One snowy night in Toronto famous actor Arthur Leander dies on stage whilst performing the role of a lifetime. That same evening a deadly virus touches down in North America. The world will never be the same again.

Twenty years later Kirsten, an actress in the Travelling Symphony, performs Shakespeare in the settlements that have grown up since the collapse. But then her newly hopeful world is threatened.

If civilization was lost, what would you preserve? And how far would you go to protect it?

An outstanding novel covering the beginning of the end as a deadly virus rapidly brings the world to its knees and then the years afterwards as the few remaining try to survive and rebuild society in whatever way they can. Some great characters, switching of the narrative between the crisis and two decades later and a throughly convincing backdrop means that Mandel offers a quite compelling dystopia which feels complementary to the post-virus British survival trilogy conjured up by Louise Welsh.

Recommended (with thanks to @BlatherwickIain who recommended it to me).

four stars





A hilarious new academic satire?

13 08 2018

The Shakespeare Requirement by Julie Schumacher

 

 

I’ve bemoaned the wait for a decent new campus novel for some time now as previously observed here. Indeed, it’s been quite a while since I’ve talked positively about anything like this. I’d go so far as to suggest that the distinctive Cow Country is probably the only decent effort in this regard for some years. However, there is a new challenger. Following the success of her previous epistolary outing, Dear Committee Members, Julie Schumacher has launched a fully-fledged satire on higher education which sounds like it takes on all the expected targets:

 

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune keep hitting beleaguered English professor Jason Fitger right between the eyes in this hilarious and eagerly awaited sequel to the cult classic of anhedonic academe, the Thurber Prize-winning Dear Committee Members. Once more into the breach…
Now is the fall of his discontent, as Jason Fitger, newly appointed chair of the English Department of Payne University, takes arms against a sea of troubles, personal and institutional. His ex-wife is sleeping with the dean who must approve whatever modest initiatives he undertakes. The fearsome department secretary Fran clearly runs the show (when not taking in rescue parrots and dogs) and holds plenty of secrets she’s not sharing. The lavishly funded Econ Department keeps siphoning off English’s meager resources and has taken aim at its remaining office space. And Fitger’s attempt to get a mossbacked and antediluvian Shakespeare scholar to retire backfires spectacularly when the press concludes that the Bard is being kicked to the curricular curb.
Lord, what fools these mortals be! Julie Schumacher proves the point and makes the most of it in this delicious romp of satire.
Is it a delicious romp of satire? We’ll have to wait for the paperback (unless someone wants to send me a review copy) and then see what all the fuss is about. Is it as good as Cornford’s Microcosmographia Academica? Who knows, but “fearsome department secretary” doesn’t sound like a major character innovation and arguments about office space are tough to get a giggle out of. However, everyone who has read the book so far seems to like it – you can read all of the exceptionally positive reviews on Amazon.com here. I remain open-minded though and look forward to reading more about the slings and arrows in due course.




What’s up Doc?

11 08 2018

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

Part noir, part psychedelic romp, all Thomas Pynchon – private eye Doc Sportello comes, occasionally, out of a marijuana haze to watch the end of an era as free love slips away and paranoia creeps in with the L.A. fog.

It’s been awhile since Doc Sportello has seen his ex-girlfriend. Suddenly out of nowhere she shows up with a story about a plot to kidnap a billionaire land developer whom she just happens to be in love with. Easy for her to say. It’s the tail end of the psychedelic sixties in L.A., and Doc knows that ‘love’ is another of those words going around at the moment, like ‘trip’ or ‘groovy’, except that this one usually leads to trouble. Despite which he soon finds himself drawn into a bizarre tangle of motives and passions whose cast of characters includes surfers, hustlers, dopers and rockers, a murderous loan shark, a tenor sax player working undercover, an ex-con with a swastika tattoo and a fondness for Ethel Merman, and a mysterious entity known as the Golden Fang, which may only be a tax dodge set up by some dentists.

In this lively yarn, Thomas Pynchon, working in an unaccustomed genre, provides a classic illustration of the principle that if you can remember the sixties, you weren’t there…or…if you were there, then you…or, wait, is it…

I don’t think it really is that unaccustomed a genre for Pynchon to be honest. The setting feels a bit like a straight version of Vineland and the characters are exactly what you would expect. It’s a bit of a rambling plot but the drug-fuelled narrative somehow hangs together and the cast of strange friends and associates of Doc rarely disappoint. Entertaining stuff.

 

four stars





Rakish progress

4 08 2018

The Professor of Desire by Philip Roth

 

As a student in college, David Kepesh styles himself as ‘a rake among scholars, a scholar among rakes’ – an identity that will cling to him for a lifetime. As Philip Roth follows Kapesh from the domesticity of childhood out into the vast wilderness of erotic possibility, from a ménage à trois in London to the depths of loneliness in New York, Kapesh confronts the central dilemma of pleasure: how to make a truce between dignity and desire; and how to survive the ordeal of an unhallowed existence.

This really isn’t one of his best. Stylistically strong and well written as ever but Kapesh is not an appealing character and at the end of the day his journey of desire feels neither profound nor meaningful. Not a great addition to the campus novel list.

 





Owlish anecdotes

22 07 2018

Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls

A guy walks into a bar . . .

From here the story could take many turns. A guy walks into a bar and meets the love of his life. A guy walks into a bar and finds no one else is there. When this guy is David Sedaris, the possibilities are endless. In Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, Sedaris delights with twists of humour and intelligence, remembering his father’s dinnertime attire (shirtsleeves and underpants) his first colonoscopy (remarkably pleasant) and the time he considered buying the skeleton of a murdered pygmy. By turns hilarious and moving, David Sedaris masterfully looks at life’s absurdities as he takes us on adventures that are not to be forgotten.

He is a master of expanding on small observations and fragments of recollections. As the Guardian puts it:

All these superficially insignificant memories are preserved for later examination, like the dead animals that are a recurring theme – Sedaris seeks a rare stuffed owl as a gift for his partner, Hugh; his sister Gretchen carries around a jar full of dead insects to study. A joyous moment swimming with a giant sea turtle in Hawaii reminds Sedaris of how, aged 10, he captured a clutch of baby sea turtles and kept them at home for weeks, giving them minced beef to eat until their tank turned into a rancid turtle graveyard.

It’s a really entertaining and at times disturbing collection of well-honed and crafted tales which I found it was almost impossible not to read without hearing Sedaris’ voice. Anyway, having seen him read in Nottingham the other day (at a packed Royal Concert Hall) he really is very good value. Take a look at this recent commencement speech at Oberlin College for an example of his work:

Commencement Address 2018: David Sedaris from Oberlin College and Conservatory on Vimeo.

 

four stars

 








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