Category Archives: Modern Masters

The Lawgiver – Herman Wouk – 9/10

“God was right about Adam: for a man to live alone is not good. I can’t spare a rib.”


Herman Wouk (yes, that Herman Wouk) has been trying to write a novel about Moses for fifty years. As he finally sits down to start, Hollywood comes hurtling into his life; an eccentric billionaire will bankroll a film about Moses if Wouk will approve the script by unknown ex-Jew Margolit Solovei. Margo’s desperation to land the job puts her back in contact with a high school sweetheart and through him, commences a sweet and much-needed confidance with a literary professor. Throw in a naive Australian sheep farmer and a mad English agent; yet somehow romance and creativity prevail over absurdity.

This is really a character study in the somewhat polarised and distorted film world. Margo is a fantastic creation – passionate about her work yet insecure, craving the approval of her father, mentor and idols, yet perfectly happy to throw multiple spanners into works. The novel is tightly cast; no one is extraneous and all contribute to both plot and humour. Possibly my favourite character is gentle-natured Perry Pines, accidentally thrown into the whirlwind of Hollywood, yet clinging stubbornly to the farmland of his youth (“Crooked Creek Farm”).

The epistolatory/”collection of evidence” style of writing is one which I’ve only come across a few times before – it worked very well in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and spectacularly in Salmon Fishing in the Yemenwhile I wasn’t a huge fan of A Visit from the Goon Squad. Suffice to say, the book’s got to be quirky before you can think about using this method. Anyhow, it works here – various voices are developed without that inconvenience of having all your characters in one place, or justifying lengthy monologues/stream-of-consciousness.

Similarly, the technique of the author writing himself into the text as a character is both bizarre and gives him an auto-biographical mouthpiece; his anxiety at running out of time is palpable, as is his deep devotion to his wife of 65 years. In a sense, this has aspects of an open love letter to BSW in the same way that The End of Your Life Book Club is an open eulogy. The humour is strong without being forced – I was safe to read this while having my hair cut (no laugh out loud moments) but plenty of little chortles.

I found the deep-running Jewishness at once bizarre and intriguing, isolating, yet with the footnotes, captivating. This is really a novel about being Jewish, as well as being in the film industry (or a reclusive author, or sheep farmer…). I suspect that Jewish readers might find it overly simplistic or even a little insultingly stereotypical, but I’m not Jewish so I can’t judge.

Now I have to read Marjorie Morningstar.

Additional information:

The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood – 6/10

“Why stir everything up again after that many years, with all concerned tucked, like tired children, so neatly into their graves?”


Iris Chase, heiress to the Chase family button-making business and married off to rival Richard Griffin, takes the opportunity towards the end of her life to revisit her story. Along the way we are treated to excerpts from the book penned by her prematurely deceased and decidedly odd sister Laura, newspaper clippings telling of the untimely demise of multiple family members, and Iris’ life as an elderly lady back in the town where she grew up.

If you’re interested in my thoughts as I went along, here are links to read-along parts 1, 2, 3 and 4.

The strands of the book varied greatly for me; I loved Iris’ story as an old lady, reminding me of Moon Tiger, one of my favourite book, as well as having strains of The Help. Gentle, smooth, comfort reading. The newspaper articles were intriguing, moved the plot along smartly and added a sense of location and community and times. Iris’ memories of childhood were the best part for me; Very Dead End Gene Pool with overtones of Blackberry Winter, but more positive. She tells this section very slowly, which strings out the reading pleasure and increases the bitter anticipation of the tragedy we already know will happen. In terms of the pulp novel/sci-fi subplot: I never connected with the people or really understood the relationship – there was a neat twist at the end but I could have lived without it; as for the dreadful fantasty writing…

It became more and more readable as it went along; possibly because there is less and less of the sci-fi story and more of the slow-motion train wreck of Iris Chase’s life. Interspersing it with her days as a pensioner is sort of reassuring because we know that she’s going to get through all the mildly unpleasant parts of her life intact, and we already know that Laura will drive off the bridge so now we’re sort of just waiting for it to happen.

Atwood writes fluently and elegantly but without much showiness; I only noted a few quotes:

“On the main street of Port Ticonderoga there were five churches and four banks, all made of stone, all chunky. Sometimes you had to read the names on them to tell the difference, although the banks lacked steeples.”

“Alone and therefore neglected, neglected and therefore unsuccessful. As if I’d been stood up, jilted; as if I had a broken heart. A group of English people in cream-coloured linen stared at me. It wasn’t a hostile stare; it was bland, remote, faintly curious. No one can stare like the English. I felt rumpled and grubby, and of minor interest.”

and my favourite, which tops this review.

It’s a sad novel; an inevitability of tragedy hangs over the protagonist. I did enjoy the description of life in between-war Canada, the life Iris had before and after marrying new money (it reminds me of something I’ve read recently, a woman who marries for money rather than love… ah – Wallis Simpson).

It turns very interesting from a semi-unreliable narrator point of view;  Iris is quite happily telling us all her marital woes while she fails to notice anything about Laura at all, and fails to protect her from the Richard and Winifred double act. Old Iris’ morbid (she even calls it lugubrious) discussion of her own death interspersed with her observations on her very unhappy marriage adds even more darkness to the domesticity. The marriage is quite oddly unhappy, actually – the dynamic of the traditional over-bearing mother-in-law who won’t let go of her son is occupied by Winifred (“Freddie” – really?) the older sister, which struck me as very strange. Why would Richard choose a wife so far his junior if he enjoys the company of his older sister as a peer? Or is it just poor coincidence that the age gap was so large and really it’s just the Chase business that Richard wanted?

I was so pleased when the sci-fi stopped. I know it was intentionally awful, but still.

The twist in the The Blind Assassin affair reduced Laura as a character for me; she became a little girl once more. The slightly autistic, reserved but also impetuous trouble-maker of the family; no longer a sophisticated woman of intrigue. Iris grew in my eyes to become much stronger, with backbone (which is an odd reaction for me. I abhor infidelity in novels).

The ending felt very rushed. Suddenly Laura was dead, and Richard was dead, and Iris is clearly on the way out herself; either Atwood ran out of time (highly unlikely) or simply decided she was done with the part of the story she wanted to tell.

Thoughts? Thoughts on the book as a whole? on the read-along experience if you joined in? (as a straight-through sort of reader, read-alongs are a very different animal for me).

Additional information:

The Edible Woman – Margaret Atwood – 2/10 (DNF)

“I had returned from lunch and was licking and stamping envelopes for the coast-to-coast instant pudding-sauce study, behind schedule because someone in mimeo had run one of the question sheets backwards, when Mrs. Bogue came out of her cubicle.”

edible woman

From the blurb: What happens to someone who has been a willing member of consumer society when she suddenly finds herself identifying with the things consumed? … The witty and diverting story of a young woman whose sane, structured, consumer-oriented world suddenly slips strangely out of focus. As a result, Marian McAlpin finds herself unable to eat: first meat, then eggs, and finally even vegetables become abhorrent to her. In this tour de force, Margaret Atwood presents a striking condemnation of contemporary society and of the rampant consumerism that deprives people of both soul and sustenance.

Well, I don’t know at what point Marian starts identifying with the consumer products, but it hadn’t happened by page 100. Until then, she had just pottered along with her existence, her quite strange boyfriend, her fairly dead-end job, her bizarre housemate… so far, the setting has been confusing rather than dystopian. So I lost patience and gave up.

Additional information:

The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes – 8/10

“His action had been unphilosophical, self-indulgent and inartistic: in other words, wrong.”

This review is completely impossible to write. Nevertheless, I shall try. It’s partly my own fault – I read the book in October or November and it’s been lying around waiting to be reviewed ever since.

I don’t want to rate this highly, but I sort of have to. It is so smooth, so readable, and yet so cleverly worded and framed and constructed, that despite the narrator’s almost repulsive self-justification, you HAVE to keep reading.

Tony Webster is an ordinary sort of man, reminiscing now about his time at school and university and the group of friends he had at that time. He drops tiny hints along the way that his account might not be an entirely objective truth, but the scale of his unreliability as a narrator comes as a shock.

Some of my favourite quotes:

“We live in time – it holds us and moulds us – but I’ve never felt I understood it very well.”

“In the meantime, we were book-hungry, sex-hungry, meritocratic, anarchistic.”

“Yes, of course we were pretentious – what else is youth for?”

“But wasn’t this the Sixties? Yes, but only for some people, in certain parts of the country.”

“One of those suburbs which had stopped concreting over nature at the very last minute and had ever since smugly claimed rural status.”

Fortunately, I have a get out of jail free card on this review, namely – I convinced The Book Accumulator that he must buy and read it, which he duly did in short order, and this is what he had to say about it:

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending, which I read slowly – it was almost meditative – but could not put down. It was justifiably short-listed for the Booker prize; it won, so I suspect the judges were all sixty-year-old men. The narrator recounts his school and student days, and then forty years later has cause to look back at it – as well as at what has happened in the intervening time. I enjoyed the introspective and retrospective view of this life and the narrator’s ruminations as he tries to make sense of one part of his life, until the surprise ending. His hero claims he is average, but it is interesting to judge him as not only above but also below the mean, a limited and not always attractive individual whose memory lapses can be both useful and hurtful. A pleasantly surprisingly short novel about memories and memory and how we view our own history, about changing with age while settling into an ever more ordered and ordinary life, and yet about how life can surprise us, because we just don’t see things as we should.

See? Clever thoughts, articulately arranged. Thanks Dad :-)

Additional info:
This  copy was borrowed from my magnificent local library.
Publisher: Vintage Books, 150 pages
Order The Sense of an Ending from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards giveaways.

Remembering Babylon – David Malouf – 2/10 (DNF)

“Strange how unimportant eyebrows can be, as long as there are two of them”

In David Malouf’s IMPAC-winning novel (novelette? 182 pages), a group of children in 1840s Queensland happen across a young man, unkempt and racially white, but exhibiting behaviour they and their community expect of the local Aborigines. The community is changed forever by Gemmy’s arrival.

I don’t understand how this won the IMPAC and was shortlisted for the Booker. It’s So Incredibly Uninteresting. I couldn’t bring myself to care about any of the characters, the setting, the writing, just any of it. Maybe that’s a criterion for book prizes.

Each chapter is from a different character’s point of view – we get Gemmy, Lachlan (the boy who found him), Janet (Lachlan’s jealous cousin), Jock (Janet’s father), the teacher… and none of them is an interesting person by themselves. There are some vague hints of interesting colonial life (dialogue is written in a strange Scotch hybrid sometimes) but it’s not explored. The writing is… meh. It’s not even exhilerating writing.

Urgh. Take it away from me.

Additional info:
This  copy was bought from a charity shop.
Publisher: Vintage Books, 182 pages
Order Remembering Babylon from Amazon if you can bear the tedium*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards giveaways.

The Great Gatsby – Read-a-long Part 2

“Perhaps it’s because she doesn’t drink. It’s a great advantage not to drink among hard-drinking people. You can hold your tongue and, moreover,  you can time any little irregularity of your own so that everybody else is so blind that they don’t see or care.”

Catching up with Wallace’s read-a-long of The Great Gatsby:

This middle section is quite strange. There’s a fair piece of character exposition on Gatsby; all the parties, Daisy’s history with him, his warming to Nick.

I’m not sure what function Jordan Baker is serving in all of this; she seems to be a vaguely interesting confidante-type information conveyor. FSF makes her interesting in that she lies and drives terribly, but mostly she seems to be there to give us Daisy’s history with Gatsby.

As for the dreadful tea party: ohmygoodnesstheawkwardness. Eeek. No wonder poor old Nick wanted to just leave them to it and go for a wander in the rain. But why is Nick so overawed that he permits himself to be pushed around like this by Gatsby? Gatsby is clearly a bit clueless and puppy-in-love-ish, but even Nick could have seen that Daisy would not be comfortable having Gatsby restored to her so suddenly, and what good could come of it?

Not so sure.

The Great Gatsby – Read-a-long Part 1

“And so it happened that on a warm windy evening I drove over to East Egg to see two old friends whom I scarcely knew at all.”

This is the only one of my reading intentions for 2012 which I’m currently able to fulfil: Wallace’s read-a-long of The Great Gatsby. Having struggled to pick up a copy from the library thanks to the Christmas/New Year closures, I’ve finally found an e-copy and got cracking. The read-a-long is up to page 90 (50%) but I’ve already got so much to say at 25% that I thought I’d only catch up one week this time.

I was a little put off by the first page, in which Carraway pronounces himself as one able to reserve judgement and thus an unwilling receptor of strange men’s confidences. Nevertheless I persevered and I’m so glad I did.

What strikes me most is Fitzgerald’s (hereafter FSF) use of tiny detail to convey huge amounts about his characters. Tom’s brutal nature is handed, pre-captured, to the reader when he pronounces upon the dominance of the white-skinned race. Daisy’s depression is encapsulated in her words upon hearing she has given birth to a girl:

“‘All right,’ I said, ‘I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool – that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.'”

I’m expecting a dramatic suicide from Daisy. Her friend Jordan Baker seems a facilitator for facts at present (Tom’s infidelity, a vehicle for Carraway’s social ease at Gatsby’s party) but there is clearly potential for a side storyline here.

Of course Tom is vile. He is bullish to his college friend, openly cheating on his wife, shows no interest in his daughter, and beats his mistress. Wallace pointed out that during the Roaring Twenties, in which time period this is set and written, there was a very specific set of circumstances contributing to social norms. Both the passing of the law of prohibition and the enfranchisement of women in 1920 clearly influence FSF, given the flowing champagne in “glasses larger than finger bowls” and strange treatment (thus far) of women.

FSF has a beautiful and tender way of writing which I didn’t expect based on the first page; Carraway seems pompous and dry before he starts his narrative. Thereafter he softens and is bleakly or off-handedly amusing:

“Instead of being the warm center of the world the middle-west now seemed like the ragged edge of the universe – so I decided to go east and learn the bond business.”

“I had a dog, at least I had him for a few days until he ran away, and an old Dodge and a Finnish woman who made my bed and cooked breakfast and muttered Finnish wisdom to herself over the electric stove.”

There are occasional moments of pretentiousness, with which I will swiftly lose patience if they come back, but so far I’ve glossed over them:

“As I walked on I was lonely no longer. I was a guide, a pathfinder, an original settler. He had casually conferred on me the freedom of the neighborhood.”

I’m still a little confused by moments where FSF seems to have got distracted, or decided to abandon the accepted method of storytelling and abruptly move to his next idea: Tom’s breaking of Mrs Wilson’s nose, and the strange, dreamlike recollections of Carraway after he rides down in the elevator with Mr McKee are quite disconcerting and I don’t know what to think quite yet.

Anyway, I’m intrigued and loving TGG. I’ll be catching up to pace with the read-a-long asap!

The Uncommon Reader – Alan Bennett – 8/10

“While ma’am had been in the Lords, the sniffer dogs had been round and security had confiscated the book. He thought it had probably been exploded.”

‘Exploded?’ said the Queen. ‘But it was Anita Brookner.’

The young man, who seemed remarkably undeferential, said security may have thought it was a device.

The Queen said: ‘Yes. That is exactly what it is. A book is a device to ignite the imagination.”

This delight of a novella considers what would happen if the Queen of England were suddenly to become an avid reader (not that I have reason to believe she isn’t!). Encountering a travelling library one day while walking the corgis, she feels obliged to patronise it and selects a volume of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s, simply because she recognises the name. A few attempts later she happens on Nancy Mitford, a much better choice. Over time, she becomes so absorbed in her reading that her attention to her duties and her wardrobe slips.

Bennett won’t be winning any competitions for significant literature with this one, but it is a sweet little volume, with beautiful characterisation and gentle humour. He doesn’t try to sculpt the Queen as a character – instead she appears much as portrayed by Dame Helen Mirren, very restrained, very bound up in the idea of duty and doing rather than relaxing. Reading is not doing.

Not that many other characters get much of a look in – Sir Kevin Scatchard is the tedious private secretary one expects him to be from the first minute, Norman the kitchen boy is not all that thoroughly developed but I do like him as an idea, the Queen’s amanuensis, her personal literary assistant. Apart from them, and the Duke of Edinburgh getting an occasional reference (“Extraordinary to think of it, the dashing blond boy he’d been.”), the Queen’s family and equerries are referred to in the collective. The Prime Minister comes across as a bit boorish and useless and again, much like in the film.

But what makes this book beautiful is the language about reading. Bennett uses words like amanuensis and panoply.

“The appeal of reading, she thought, lay it its indifference: there was something lofty about literature. Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included. Literature, she thought, is a commonwealth; letters a republic… Books did not defer… There was something of that, she felt to reading. It was anonymous; it was shared; it was common. And she who had led a life apart now found that she craved it. Here in these pages and between these covers she could go unrecognised.”

There is plenty of gentle humour, reminiscent of Flowers for Mrs Harris (is this a feature of every novella?):

“Did Her Majesty ever let a book fall to the carpet it would straightaway be leaped on by any attendant dog, worried and slavered over and borne to the distant reaches of the palace or wherever so that it could be satisfyingly torn apart… Patron of the London Library though she was, Her Majesty regularly found herself on the phone apologising to the renewals clerk for the loss of yet another volume.”

“Her private secretary… was left to gather up his papers and wonder why ma’am needed a travelling library when she had several of the stationary kind of her own.”

“The next morning she had a little sniffle and, having no engagements, stayed in bed saying she felt she might be getting flu. This was uncharacteristic and also not true; it was actually so that she could get on with her book.”

” ‘I feel, ma’am, that while not exactly elitist it sends the wrong message. It tends to exclude.’
‘Exclude? Surely most people can read?’
‘They can read, ma’am, but I’m not sure that they do.’
‘Then, Sir Kevin, I am setting them a good example.’ “

Thoroughly recommended to all and sundry.

Additional info:
Borrowed from The Book Accumulator
Publisher: Profile/Faber & Faber, paperback, 121 pages.
Order this from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards giveaways.

84 Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff – 8/10

“I have implicit faith in the U.S. Airmail and His Majesty’s Postal Service”

Miss Helene Hanff, struggling writer, sends a missive to a second-hand bookshop in London asking for clean second-hand copies of a few books for under $5.00, and from this simple request, a Transatlantic friendship of almost 20 years is born. Letters fly back and forth, Hanff haranguing the staff for not finding her a particular copy of the New Testament, Mr Frank Doel responding in cordial British every time with some new offering. Hanff’s desire to see “the England of English literature” and the bookshop staff’s gratitude for her post-war gifts are palpable.

This is a slim volume – even in a double edition with its sequel The Duchess of Bloomsbury St, it barely runs to 200 pages. Nevertheless, the characters are beautiful – innocent, good-hearted, and all the better for being real, including sweet Cecily, who timidly includes a note:

“Dear Miss Hanff, Please don’t let Frank know I’m writing this but every time I send you a bill I’ve been dying to slip in a little note and he might not think it quite proper of me… We all love your letters and try to imagine what you must be like. I’ve decided you’re young and very sophisticated and smart-looking…”

and teaches Helene how to make Yorkshire pudding, by correspondence.

Hanff’s letters are full of sweet comedy (capitalisation or lack thereof is as printed – all the better for imagining her pecking away at her typewriter):

“Will you please translate your prices hereafter? I don’t add too well in plain American, I haven’t a prayer of ever mastering bilingual arithmetic.”

“Frank Doel, what are you DOING over there, you are not doing ANYthing, you are just sitting AROUND… you leave me sitting here writing long margin notes in library books that don’t belong to me, some day they’ll find out i did it and take my library card away. I have made arrangements with the Easter bunny to bring you an Egg, he will get over there and find you have died of Inertia.”

(I love the capitalisation as emphasis rendered by a typewriter.)

“WELL!!! All I have to say to YOU, Frank Doel, is we live in depraved, destructive and degenerate times when a bookshop – a BOOKSHOP – starts tearing up beautiful old books to use as wrapping paper. I said to John Henry when he stepped out of it… You tore that book up in the middle of a major battle and I don’t even know which war it was.”

“YOU’VE BEEN PUBLISHING THESE MAMMOTH CATALOGUES ALL THESE YEARS AND THIS IS THE FIRST TIME YOU EVER BOTHERED TO SEND ME ONE? THOU VARLET? Don’t remember which restoration playwright called everybody a Varlet, i always wanted to use it in a sentence.”

Not a long or taxing read, but a beautiful one. I can’t wait to see the movie, which is supposed to be excellent.

The cover art is so beautiful and so appropriate, a simple idea but a wonderful one. This is definitely one of my favourite covers.

Additional info:
I bought this at Gould’s Books in Newtown, Australia
Publisher: Futura, 216 pages (paperback in double edition with The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street)
Order this from Amazon* 
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link; proceeds go towards giveaways.

A Pale View of Hills – Kazuo Ishiguro – 0/10

“Young women these days are all so headstrong”

Continuing the Japanese theme from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, this 200-page novel is set predominantly in Nagasaki. We do flit back and forth between 1980s England and 1950s Japan, but the main focus is definitely post-war Japan.

I struggled with this so much – I was surprised that I finished it. Ishiguro being such a revered name, I kept assuming that I would happen across the marvellous piece of writing… and it never happened. There appears to me to be nothing at all special about the writing – the sparse style (which I’ve already admitted I don’t get on with) was devoid of any beauty or flourish, and the characters were difficult and unsympathetic; I couldn’t really ever get to grips with any of them.

In this book, nothing is obvious. We have to deduce that Etsuko is a widow; once she goes back to Japan in her memories we have to deduce that she was in the early stages of pregnancy from “At that point in my life, I was still wanting to be left alone”; and a romance for Etsuko before she married Jiro is briefly alluded to but further clarification is not forthcoming. The whole book is written in a very “softly, softly” approach – the same approach that the conversations take – never broaching a topic directly, but instead coming at it from a number of different angles, coming back to it again and again if the conversational partner is avoiding it. I found this style really frustrating, although (while I know little of Japanese culture), I’m assuming that this is considered polite in Japan – not to address a topic directly means that a person can never be forced into speaking of something?

Niki, the English-raised daughter, is in a sense more direct, but she too is quite apathetic, a pale rendition of a person. Etsuko and Niki spend long periods talking at cross-purposes, serving to highlight the generational and cultural chasm between them. Etsuko has a strange relationship with her father-in-law (it seems to pre-date her husband), but this is never clarified; and as for her husband, who seems to be a lazy, ungrateful, rude piece of nothing, with boorish, misogynist friends:

“That’s typical of women. They don’t understand politics. They think they can choose the country’s leaders the same way they choose dresses.”

I haven’t even got started on Sachiko and Mariko, who both behave truly bizarrely throughout the novel – I’ve made a list of the ways in which Sachiko acts strangely, both towards her daughter, for whom she seems to care not a bit, and towards Etsuko, apparently her only friend.

I just don’t understand. Can someone enlighten me, or is this a dud?


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