Monday, April 30, 2012

THE PATRICK MELROSE NOVELS BY Edward St. Aubyn (fic.) 680 pp

This book with 680 pages is not as daunting as it appears.  It is actually a compendium of four novels which can be read separately. It contains, "Never Mind," "Bad News, "Some Hope," and "Mother's Milk."  The last title was short listed for the Booker Prize.  I read it some years ago, and was delighted that the novels were now collected in one book.  They should be read sequentially.  Now that I have read the others, I more fully comprehended the Patrick Melrose of "Mother's Milk."  There is now a fifth and final novel to complete the cycle called, "At Last."
St. Aubyn is an incredibly good writer, and you will not come away disappointed.  The books are based on his own life and sad childhood.  The early books, chronicling the abuse by his psychotically monstrous father and Patrick's heavy drug use and addiction to heroin, are not pleasant reading.  In the final two novels, one gets the sense of Patrick's coming to terms (if that is possible) with his hideous past and moving on to a better place.  This seems only possible with the death of his parents.  The British upper class are presented as a pretty pathetic lot with more money than brains, but with weapons of words at their disposal that can wound, demolish and put away handily any poor soul who happens to step into their world uninvited.  There is a funny (peculiar, not ha-ha) scene of a party in  "Some Hope" attended by Princess Margaret.  St. Aubyn puts her under the microscope for our enjoyment and horror.  I highly recommend these books, but not for the squeamish.

RODIN'S DEBUTANTE by Ward Just (fic.)

Ward Just's narrative is stylistically reminiscent of books written in the decades between the World Wars.  It is perfectly suited for the story he tells in "Rodin's Debutante."  The story opens around World War I, though this doesn't figure in novel.  The setting is small town,rural Illinois. The local "lord of the manor" Tommy Ogden, a cynical world weary man, whose only passion is hunting, is introduced to us, briefly in his youth and then in adulthood.  In order to spite his wife, he founds a boy's school, based on eastern prep schools.  He funds the school but takes no part in the running of the institution.  A sculpture of a young girl which stands in the school's library, threads its way through the tale.
The real story begins with a student at the school, Lee Goodell.  Lee is the son of a local judge and most of the novel tells of his coming of age.  Despite his father wanting him to carry on the family tradition of the study of law, Lee becomes a sculptor and the story tells of his passage through school, his dream like meeting with the aged Tommy Ogden, and finally his life in a downtrodden neighborhood in Chicago.  The book completes a circle as the final chapter ends back at Ogden Hall. 
Ward Just writes with quiet elegance.  If you like an old-fashioned book, you will enjoy this read.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

PRIME GREEN: REMEMBERING THE SIXTIES by Robert Stone (non-fic) 229pp

I picked up this book on the sale table in the Harvard Coop.  Robert Stone is a fine and excellent writer.  As the title declares, it is a memoir of Stone's adventures in the famous decade, and as you may imagine, Stone samples the sixties drug culture and meets the stoned and famous along the way.  The names are all there, Ken Kesey, Kerouac, Alpert, etc.  He begins his story in the late fifties when he was in the Navy patrolling the seas around Australia.  There he finds love, spends some time in Vietnam as a journalist, eventually moves back to the States, marries, lives in New Orleans, and travels across the country to New York.  Maybe I am just sixtied-out, but my interest flagged early on.  In the past ten years or so there have been many interesting memoirs of this time period, and having survived the decade myself, I find I am getting bored with reading about it.  If you don't know a lot about this time, Stone's book can give a perspective from one who was an older participant in the counterculture. 

Sunday, April 15, 2012

TITANIC First Accounts: Tim Maltin ed. (non-fic) 375 pp

I saved the last 5 pages of this book to finish today, the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, April 15th, 1912.  Everyone knows the tragic story of the Titanic.  No need to go into it here as there have been legions of books, accounts and even movies and documentaries, all playing on the tragedy of hubris.  There are many educated guesses as to who was at fault, much going over of the lives lost and the discrepancies between those saved from first class and those lost in steerage class.  This book, "Titanic," is a first hand account containing transcripts from the two court inquiries in England and in the United States, both within the month following the disaster.  The book also includes firsthand accounts by Lawrence Beesley, Margaret (the Unsinkable Molly) Brown, and many others of the survivors.  Reading firsthand accounts is always fascinating and important, because there is so much false information floating around based on romanticized fiction and movies.  Parts of the book are repetitious because there might be several different accounts from people in the same lifeboats.  Still, the voices are different, and sometimes the information.  It gives one an idea of how courts have to sift through differing accounts to arrive at the truth.  One immutable truth, however, is the bravery of both those who went down with the ship and those among the saved who lost loved one while experiencing the perils of the sea in subzero temperatures. 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

THE VANISHING ACT OF ESME LENNOX by Maggie O'Farrell (fic) 245 pp

Iris Lockart runs a vintage clothing shop in Edinburgh.  She has a complicated relationship with her step-brother Alex.  She is trying to sort out her feelings toward Alex and Luke with whom she is having an affair, when into her life walks Esme Lennox, a grand-aunt who she never knew existed.  Esme has been imprisoned in a draconian mental institution for 61 years. That institution is now being closed down. Unbeknown to Alex, she was given power of attorney for Esme when Alex's grandmother (Esme's sister) becomes incapacitated by Alzheimer's. The novel goes back and forth between Esme's story from the 1930s and Alex's in today's world. Esme's story unfolds in the random thoughts floating through both her mind and her sister's.  The reader gradually becomes aware that a dark family secret, stretching back to India where the sister's story begins, is about to unfold.  The tragedy at the center of the novel is the incarceration for life of a young high-spirited girl who most likely today would be diagnosed with Asberger's syndrome or maybe, bi-polar disorder.  O'Farrell an excellent Scottish writer, brings this story to life. I highly recommend this book and believe it would offer a rich topic for discussion is a reading group.

Monday, April 2, 2012

LONDONERS by Craig Taylor (non-fic) 412pp.

This is a compilation of first-hand accounts of the great city of London by residents and visitors collected by the author through hundreds of interviews.  Some are interesting, some not so much.  Having resided in London for four wonderful years, I wish the author had also recorded the years of the memories. I could then picture styles, popular culture, etc.  I borrowed this book from a friend so I read it at one go over several days.  I would have preferred, and recommend reading it piecemeal; maybe, leaving it on a nightstand or coffee table and picking it up form time to time.  I found myself wishing for the end about half way through.  I would not have felt that way if I read it in an occasional manner.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

THE MISTRESS OF NOTHING by Kate Pullinger (fic) 250 pp DOWN THE NILE: Along in a fisherman's skiff by Rosemary Mahoney (non-fic)

Imagine yourself as a Victorian woman, dressed in voluminous layers of clothing and trussed up with corsets and heavy stockings.  Now imagine the unforgiving heat of Egypt.  Why, oh why, would you ever contemplate what can only be a gruelling trip up the Nile?  Apparently many did! Victorian men and women in search of better health, (in the case of Lucie Duff Gordon who had tuberculosis), the romance of the ancient land, and hoping to find adventure, battled the discomfort of extreme heat while stubbornly maintaining the habits of their own culture. Kate Pullinger has written a descriptive and fascinating book based on the true life adventures of Lucie Duff Gordon (who wrote her own book, "Letters from Egypt") and her ladies' maid Sally Naldrett.  The story centers on Sally, a spinster of 30, who tends to the tubercular Lucie as they float in their hired dahabieh up the Nile from Cairo to Luxor where they settle for two years and adapt to native life.  Sally in her new found freedom enters into an erotic relationship with Omar who has been hired as a guide and attendant to the ladies.  Her subsequent adventures form the center of this gripping tale.  Pullinger's research is meticulous in following the real story of these interesting woman and their Victorian lives.  I highly recommend this book, which would also be an interesting choice for a book club read.

In contrast to our Victorian adventure, read Rosemary Mahoney's modern-day account of her travels in the opposite direction, downriver from Aswan to Cairo.  Her difficulty in travelling as a single woman, and even more of a struggle to obtain a boat makes equally fascinating reading.  Her uncomfortable skiff, battles against the current and difficulty with the sexual overtures of modern Egyptian men who are baffled by a woman who is rowing alone the Nile, keep one in suspense.  Is Rosemary even more of an anomaly than her Victorian counterparts?  This is another highly recommendable book which would make a good book club choice.