Monday, 24 September 2012

Nemesis | Philip Roth, wine and free books

Nemesis proved to be one of those books we were all able to agree on. Well, almost. Before George jumps in and accuses me of re writing history again not everyone was UTTERLY BOWLED OVER BY HOW WONDERFUL IT IS. George has doubts about the mid section. Doubting George. Always picking holes. Just because NOT EVERYONE IS BARBARA KINGSOLVER.

The evening was noteworthy in a number of ways. The location was shifted to MY HOUSE, where the red wine flowed like a fast flowing river flowing in a fast flowing way. I drank a bucket load and spent the next day groaning. I stopped groaning about four o'clock in the afternoon. By this time I couldn't remember the evening before. Not clearly enough to write a summary that is.

So, I had to go back to the CCTV footage. Carmen and I installed the CCTV system years and years ago when we were refurbishing the house. It has proven extremely useful as a means of tracing bunches of keys, shoes, children and various rubber instruments.

Arabella "I brought a bag"

This image reminded me that the purpose of the Fergus Drive location was to get rid of some books. But hey, Arabella, if you also need a mini fridge, go for it.

Mark goes in search of the loo

We waded through a lot of books. Most "were rubbish" and are therefore "still on my floor". The Winnie the Pooh erotica has disappeared. I think Martin had it in his pocket as he climbed, or was that more of a stagger, into his taxi at 3am.

Personally I think you missed some real gems. Embossed covers and everything. You will regret leaving those Reginald Hills behind, you know you will.

I hadn't finished Nemesis by the time of the meeting, so wasn't able to get stuck in to WHAT IT ALL MEANT and the IMPORTANCE OF GUILT as a theme, but I've added some thoughts in a blog below, should you want to wade through them. I did finish the book and LOVED IT. Roth is a genius. He is who I want to be when I grow old.

I should add, the quality of discussion amongst the group was particularly high. From Mark's extensive quoting of Latin to Martin's re-enactment of the first act of Hamlet, in which he played the Danish Queen Gertrude, were only two of the highlights. When Cathy offered to dissect our family dog I thought at first she was kidding.

Sadly neither John or Lisa were able to make Wednesday's lushfest. John was prowling the night cityscape taking photographs of the underside of motorways, while Lisa had a prebooking to play the ukelele. There are times when I wish I could make stuff like this up, but it is in fact true.

I should report that the Group had two special guests. Carmen Reid, celebrity author, occasional mother and the TALLEST PERSON PRESENT, sat in on most of the evening, helping with the wine lake.

And Jimmy, the Jack Russell, also made his presence felt before the heat of the fire, or possibly the intellectual rigour of the conversation, finally drove him to the back sitting room. Where he lay in front of the TV clearly wishing we'd turn it on so he could watch Top Gear, as he usually does on a Wednesday night.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Philip Roth | Nemesis | Polio epidemic, guilt and nostalgia

Roth is known for writing magically precise books. Prose that is as polished as the brass railings on an old style fire truck. Nemesis is a gem.

Short, about 230 pages, you'll breeze through this in a couple of sittings. Not just because of the word length but because the narrative is so seamless.

This is one of the most assured storytellers writing today. Roth begins with a factual account of how the Polio epidemic first hit the Newark area in the summer of 1944, before zooming in on the main subject of his novel, Bucky Cantor. Athletic, pure of heart, hard working. Cantor is a physical education teacher and a playground instructor. He loves teaching sports to young boys, seeing them evolve into men. An accomplished diver with a powerful physique, Bucky is however devastated when his poor eyesight prevents him from joining the Marines to serve in WW2. His two best friends head to Europe for the D Day landings. Bucky teaches baseball. Then the illness takes grip.

Roth is writing about his childhood here, about an epidemic many will have forgotten. Polio was defeated in the 1950s, but too late for the thousands who succumbed to it in the early part of the 20th century. It spreads around Newark like a plague. People are in a panic.

Bucky stands tall. He lends support. He encourages the kids to keep playing. Not to worry. But his girlfriend is desperately afraid for him and engineers a job offer -- a chance to get out of Newark, and away from the plague. He is determined to turn it down, but his desire to see her, to have a happy life, takes over. He takes the job. He heads to the mountains.

We discussed Nemesis in our book group and the section at the camp was the only one that drew any criticism. It seemed "too perfect". I can't really agree. This is a nostalgic passage. I sense that Roth is trying to capture something of his childhood here, and in doing so speaks volumes for America of the 1940s, for its ambitions. Its innocence. I found myself wishing I could spend my summers in camps like  the one here, at Indian Hills. I'd love to swim in that lake too. I'd even eat the macaroni cheese.

Spoiler alert

What happens to Bucky is devastating but, as with all great stories that are well told, utterly inevitable. The polio follows Bucky to the camp and strikes his closest friend there. He becomes convinced he is the carrier -- and medical tests prove he has the virus. He falls ill just days later.

Roth wraps the story up cleverly. He projects forward twenty years. Bucky is now an older man and we learn that the narrator of the book is one of the kids from the playground, who caught polio himself, became crippled, but survived.

There is a stark contrast between them, however. The narrator has coped, built a life for himself, had children, a relationship and a satisfying career. Bucky shunned his fiancee, dwelled on his victim status, tore himself apart with guilt. Guilt that he was the "Typhoid Mary" who had infected all the children in his playground. That he was responsible for their deaths.

Guilt is a major theme amongst American Jewish authors. Shalom Auslander's Hope: A Tragedy is built on it. Solomon Kugel moves into a new house and discovers Anne Frank, now an old woman, living in his attic. He had always been made to feel guilty for having survived the Holocaust -- indeed, for having been born decades later, thousands of miles away -- and for not having suffered as Anne did. And now here she is in his attic, demanding Mitzoh crackers, and she won't go away.

But guilt isn't an exclusively Jewish thing. I found Nemesis extremely life affirming. Terrible things happen, but life either goes on or it doesn't. And if it does, then you should make the best of it. Not dwell on what went wrong. But build on what went right.

Poor Bucky Cantor. He might have had a real life. Instead, he became a shadow. Smothered by a sense of guilt, when in reality he was a victim.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Ian McEwan | Sweet Tooth

Love the cover of the latest Ian McEwan. The figure on the front is quite clearly intended to be the glamorous lead character, Serena Frome (rhymes with plume).

This book has one of the most delicious opening paragraphs I've read in a contemporary novel for a very long time.

After getting a third in Maths at Cambridge, Serena has an affair with a professor, a much older man, Tony, who instructs her in the politics of the Cold War. She's an easy convert and happy to agree to a job interview with MI5.

What follows never quite becomes a full blown spy story. Serena is beautifully imagined. An awkward, slightly aloof daughter of a bishop, the ultimate English middle class good girl, a compulsive reader of novels (in paperback, she can't afford hardbacks), who is sucked into the shady world of espionage by virtue of chance and her good looks.

Her former lover's history emerges -- no huge surprises perhaps but it is neatly done. It is however her mission, to fund an author, to encourage him to write anti-Soviet literature, which makes up the meat and bones of this book. She falls in love with Tom Haley in part through reading his short stories.

This, for me, is the one weakness of the novel. McEwan relates these stories in a "reported" fashion. And you can sense the pace of the novel slacken as he does it. Also, he never quite goes far enough with the spying. McEwan loves a high stakes plot, but here, it doesn't quite become that.

That said, it is highly enjoyable and the final twists of the novel are hugely satisfying. Being a McEwan, you are left wondering what it was you just read, and flipping back to see where the trick was laid. But of course, it was there all the time. From that very first paragraph.

Zadie Smith | NW

Brilliant cover

"But this isn’t White Teeth. NW is in its way a magnificent read. There are passages that really do knock you out. But the author is developing a style that is far more stripped down and raw than was the case in her first book. (And I’m happy to take her word on the current London slang.)

"NW revolves around two school friends, Leah Hanwell and Natalie Blake. Leah is white and clever, but a drifter, one who was into every passing trend but now finds herself without a goal. Natalie, is mixed race, churchy, bookish and professional. She changed her name from Keisha (as Zadie herself evolved from Sadie).

"Leah and Natalie’s lives go in very different directions. Leah’s career has stalled and she and her husband Michel, a French-African hairdresser, have constant money troubles. Natalie is a successful lawyer, married to a banker, living the middle class dream existence complete with a nanny in the basement. But of course, there’s more to it than that."

--- Zadie Smith's NW, reviewed in The Big Issue, Sept 10