The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

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The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh

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Around the time that I finished reading A Dance to the Music of Time, it happened to start getting gloriously warm and sunny. It was staying light until gone half past nine, and then, when the sun did eventually start to sink towards the horizon, there were often stunning red sunsets. As I was considering what to read next, I saw my old copy of Brideshead Revisited sat on the bookshelf, and thought to myself: What could be more fitting than to read Brideshead on such beautiful, long English summer evenings?

And so I did just that. I sat in the evening sun, and delighted in rereading this wonderful novel: Brideshead Revisited: The sacred and profane memories of Captain Charles Ryder.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Indeed, summertime really is the time to read this classic. Evelyn Waugh’s depiction of privileged, slightly naive, hugely romantic young adults, just starting out in the world is beautifully written. The prose is sublime, the scenes well crafted, the settings evocative, and the characters brilliantly crafted. Waugh captures not only their enthusiasm and joy in exploring everything about the world around them, but also provides a snapshot of an aristocratic, feudal system that was very soon to be lost forever. It is partly this combination of youthful exhilaration coupled with a subtle underlying nostalgia that makes this tale so poignant.

The early chapters see our young protagonist, Charles Ryder, approaching the end of his first year at Oxford, when he makes the acquaintance of the charming, aristocratic, and entirely singular Sebastian Flyte. The two soon become inseparable, and enjoy an intense period of pleasure and discovery as they drink champagne, eat quails eggs, party and philosophise – all against the backdrop of the ancient spires of Oxford during a glorious English summer.

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Hearing Secret Harmonies by Anthony Powell

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For my next book, I decided to tackle the final instalment of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time series: the wonderfully named novel, Hearing Secret Harmonies.

Hearing Secret Harmonies by Anthony Powell

And so, nearly five years after beginning this series, and having read 12 novels, each typically around 250-300 pages (totalling over one million words), I have now finished this vast and impressive work.

In keeping with one of the themes of the series – namely how chance encounters can end up having a profound impact on one’s life – I have been reflecting on how I came to read these books in the first place. It was the summer of 2010, and I was on holiday in Cornwall with my wife and some good friends. One day we decided to visit Truro, and whilst there I wandered past a second-hand book shop, and decided to have a nose around. Whilst browsing the shelves, and I spotted this series, and having heard of it and knowing that it chronicled the lives of a set of English characters from their school days right through to old age, I decided that I’d like to read it for myself.

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Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara

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Next up in my pile of novels that people had kindly given me, was Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara. A couple of years back I had noticed that this book featured in both the Modern Library 100 Best Novels list and the TIME Magazine 100 best English-language novels published since 1923 list, which piqued my interest. I then looked up some information about the novel, and decided it definitely sounded like my kind of read.

Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara

Fellow book blogger Robert Bruce (over at 101books.net) mentioned in his review of the novel last year that some have referred to Appointment in Samarra as a “poor man’s Gatsby”, and having now read the novel, I can see why. Within the world of this novel we meet not only the rich and the elite, but also bootleggers and gangsters, mistresses and, ultimately, Death.The setting of the book is 1930s America and the main character is a privileged young man named Julian English, who is part of the social elite of his home town.

However, despite everything that he has going for him, including a good job (the owner of a Cadillac dealership, no less), a lovely home, a beautiful wife, society friends, and a certain amount of natural charm, Julian English is somehow dissatisfied with his lot. Yes, as with The Great Gatsby, here too, it seems that the great American Dream is not quite able to deliver all that it promises.

Be in no doubt: this is a cynical and darkly comic exposé of the reality behind the façade of 1930s respectability and outward success.

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An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

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Hello dear readers. Apologies for my absence. It has been a very busy few weeks. I did in fact finally finish reading An American Tragedy a while ago, but this is the first time that I’ve had the chance to sit down and update this blog.

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
Here are some titbits and highlights from this large novel:

First published: 1925

Length: my edition runs to a whopping 856 pages

Meaning of the title: I guess that Dreiser is subverting the well-known notion of “the American Dream”. Broadly speaking, the American Dream can be said to represent opportunity for all and the possibility of each man reaching ever greater levels of success, riches and happiness. So, even in the very title, Dreiser appears to be questioning this notion. The novel is also a tragedy in the true sense of the word, as Clyde’s downfall is brought about by his own innate weaknesses.

Opening lines:

Dusk – of a summer night. And the tall walls of the commercial heart of an American city of perhaps 400,000 inhabitants – such walls as in time may linger in a mere fable.

Setting: Kansas City, Chicago, and Lycurgus – a fictitious small town in New York

Origins: Dreiser apparently based the book on an infamous criminal case. As in the novel, the real case featured an overturned boat and the body of young woman found in a lake in Upstate New York. The man convicted of killing her also denied murder.

What’s to like? For me, the plot is the best thing about this novel. It is compelling and it does make for a good read. However, see the next point…

What’s not to like? Whilst the plot itself is gripping, the writing style sometimes leaves a little to be desired.  It is very heavy-handed in places, so much so that you nearly always know a long time in advance what is coming next. And, strangely, this makes the experience of reading the tragedy more not less painful. There is also some highly questionable punctuation, including dashes seemingly in every other paragraph. In fact, to my mind, the text cries out for some editorial attention.

Key quotes: I’ve picked out a few choice excerpts that give a flavour of the tale.

Early in the novel we find Clyde reflecting on his current situation and comparing his life with the lives of others:

His life should not be like this. Other boys did not have to do as he did.

Next is one of the many passages that highlight the conflicting desires that rage within the young Clyde. On the one hand he is desperately trying to better himself and to fit in with those he views as his social superiors, yet on the other hand he cannot seem to escape certain desires and behaviours that run counter to his social ambitions:

… he had sought to be as retiring and cautious as possible. For – after that and while connected with the club, he had been taken with the fancy of trying to live up to the ideals with which the seemingly stern face of that institution had inspired him – conservatism – hard work – saving one’s money – looking neat and gentlemanly. It was such an Eveless paradise, that.

Towards the end of the novel there is a powerful scene wherein a local priest gets to the heart of the matter when reciting a gospel passage to Clyde:

What matter it if a man gaineth the whole world and loseth his own soul?

In summary: a good yarn that I would recommend, although I suspect that its length and slightly dry style will put some people off trying this novel.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy: Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham.

The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon

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After the pleasant, entertaining and soothingly nostalgic experience of re-reading My Family and Other Animals, I thought I would go for a very different kind of book next. And boy! is The Crying of Lot 49 a very different kind of book!

In fact, I do not really know how to begin to describe it. Let me see… Well, in one sense it is a story about a lady called Oedipa Maas, who discovers that a wealthy ex-boyfriend has died and made her a co-executor of his estate. In order to fulfill this duty, Oedipa begins to look into the business affairs of the late man (Pierce Inverarity), and in doing so starts to unearth a trail of information that possibly points to there being an underground postal delivery service.

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

This quest leads Oedipa down some very strange paths. At one point she meets Manny di Presso, a lawyer who is suing the Inverarity estate on behalf of his client, who recovered and sold human bones to Inverarity but apparently never received proper payment. (The human bones, it transpires, were wanted to make charcoal for cigarette filters. Obviously.)

Oedipa also finds herself tangled up with a good-looking chap named Metzger, who is an ex-child television actor, and a Beatleseque group called The Paranoids, who are all mop-haired Americans, who sing with pronounced British accents. Then there is Oedipa’s psychiatrist, Dr. Hilarius; the great stamp expert, Genghis Cohen; and another chap named Mike Fallopian, who our protagonist meets in a bar, and who provides Oedipa with more information, such as about the existence of The Peter Pinguid Society.

Confused? I certainly was. But things begin to get really complicated when one of The Paranoids points out the strange similarity between these unfolding events and the plot of a 17th-century play called The Courier’s Tragedy.

This lurid Jacobean revenge play, when not showcasing gruesome torture scenes, seems to be somehow tied up with a centuries-old conflict between two mail distribution companies: Thurn and Taxis on the one hand, and Trystero on the other. As Oedipa digs further into this strange mystery, she begins to meet others who seem to be in some way connected with this unofficial mail service, and even discovers that it has a secret symbol (the muted post horn) and a network of disguised post boxes seemingly scattered throughout America.

There are plenty more characters and plot detours and details in this sprawling, loose text, but I shan’t mention much more. Well, I won’t mention much more other than the fact that almost everything may not be as it seems. That is, that Oedipa Mass herself at several points in the story questions the reality of all of these strange elements and, in turn, questions her own sanity.

Basically, this is the kind of postmodern text where pretty much everything is up for grabs and open to interpretation. I did enjoy reading this novella, although I am also quite looking forward to reading something slightly less convoluted for my next read.

Meaning of the title: the title refers of the sale at auction of the deceased man’s stamp collection (which happens to be lot 49). This collection may or may not hold the key to the whole Trystero mystery.

Trivia about the author: Thomas Pynchon is a famous recluse. He has not given any interviews for years and years and only a handful of photos of him are known to exist.

Standout quote: “Shall I project a world?”

If you liked this, you might also enjoy: The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster, which is not quite as off-the-wall, but does interweave various incongruous storylines and plays with multiple meanings. John Fowles’ great novel The Magus is also fantastic if you enjoy a gripping mystery.

Money – Martin Amis

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Many years ago I read Kingsly Amis’s Lucky Jim, but until now I had never read anything by Kingsly’s equally famous son, Martin.

Money by Martin Amis

I was in thoughtful mood – expansive, self-questioning, philosophical, if not downright drunk.

What was I expecting? Well, perhaps something darkly comic, something slightly controversial, and probably something slightly controversial. I knew the book was meant to be some kind of satire or parody of the hyper-capitalistic boom days of the early 80s.

And what did I find? Well, I guess it lived up to these vague expectations … and then some! Money – or to give the novel its full title – Money: A Suicide Note, is an intense and savage tale of what can happen when individuals – and wider society – become singularly obsessed with money and the things it can demand.

Waking bright and early the next morning I reached for a copy of Delicacy as the most economical means of establishing whether I was still alive. Other questions, no less pressing – such as who, how, why and when – would just have to wait their turn.

At first I was more than a little unsure about this book. The main character and narrator, John Self, is, to put it mildly, an absolute jerk.  He is selfish, ignorant, greedy, lazy, misogynistic and lacks any form of self-control. I mean, he really has none whatsoever. So, fifty pages in, after having read yet another pathetic, sorry, drunken account, I started to wonder whether I really wanted to read on… but then I started to ‘get it’.

Yes, this is one of those books that likes to wrong-foot you. You could isolate a single paragraph or page or few pages and just see the drunkenness, the chaos, the obscenity and think, what am I reading? Is this really art? Is this really worthy of my attention? Yet as you stay with it, you come to see what Martin Amis is doing. For this is in fact, intelligent writing. This is social commentary. This is a book with something to say.

Much of the narrative is darkly comic. At times John Self has flashes of insight, but much of the time the joke is just how absurdly misguided he is. It is the consumer age writ large. It is a world where anything and anyone can be bought and where, therefore, it seems that only money matters. John Self holds up money as the answer to literally any problem. He convinces himself that his long-term abuse of his body (through excessive drinking, smoking, pills, fights, poor diet and sleep deprivation) will all be rectifiable in the future if he earns enough money to visit the top health surgeons and cosmetic surgery artists some day.

I felt my heart curl and my scalp hum. Why? I gave up spirits three days ago. Giving up spirits is okay so long as you drink an incredible amount of beer, sherry, wine and port and can cope with especially bad hangovers. I think I had an especially bad hangover.

Likewise, when things are not going so well with his girlfriend, he tells himself that it doesn’t really matter; that ‘ll be able to get himself a better one, once he has a little more money. Yes, that’s right: John Self sees everything in life as a commodity.

John Self is the ultimate hedonist in a way. He is a slave to his appetites, addictions and whims. So, there is no end of drunkenness, eating and sex in this novel, yet it is significant to note that none of this really brings any true pleasure of happiness to Self. In fact, the reverse is generally the case: that the binges and blow-outs and orgies typically leave him sad, lonely, disappointed and full of shame.

So Money makes for an uncomfortable read at times. Yet it is also gripping. It is darkly comic, at times even brutal, yet also strangely moving, and, occasionally, life-affirming. Taken as a whole (394 pages in my edition) this narrative is sharp, forceful, significant. Plus, I must say that the writing is very good in parts. Amis uses a lot of parody, to good comic effect. I could go on pulling out quotes after quote. As you’ll see from my selection here – many of them revolve around Self’s pathetic alcoholism:

Martina sighed. ‘You were drunk. You know, it’s quite a lot to ask, to spend a whole evening with someone who’s drunk.’
…I had always known the truth of this, of course. Drunks know the truth of this. But usually people are considerate enough not to bring it up. The truth is very tactless. That’s the trouble with these non-alcoholics – you never know what they’re going to say next. Yes, a rum type, the sober: unpredictable, blinkered and selective. But we cope with them as best we can.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy: Lucky Jim by Kingsly Amis, or The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, or The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.

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