Friday, 2 December 2016


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THE SYMPATHISER [By Viet Than Nguyen]. This won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction: I liked it a lot. It is slightly too long, he drags out the incarceration scene at the end for twenty more pages than necessary but for most of the narrative arc he is in complete control of his material.
What’s it about? I think it is a rumination from an American-Vietnamese author on the war, the politics of the war, the aftermath of the war and the fate of those who managed to escape the VC invasion and wash up in southern California in immigrant communities, barely tolerated as reminders to the US of their failure. It is quite funny in parts, not hilarious as the blurb claims but readable, tongue- in-cheek observational humour.
It touches on so many aspects of Asian society, why the South lost although a bit thin I thought on why the North won. He seems to blame the American failure on a combination of things but mainly a strategy of defence rather than attack [invading the North might have brought them face to face with the Chinese Army] and a drying-up of Congressional funds at a critical moment and in the end, abandoning the South Vietnamese people to face their enemy alone. He is quite clear-eyed about his own leaders, their appalling decisions and the corruption.
But it is so much more than a book of war. With tremendous insight and personal experience he has created a narrator who can see both sides: communist and democratic, so the duality of the narrative constantly surprises both in the big landscape and the smaller but still important details. And he wears his erudition lightly.

We meet some terrific characters: Madame, his sponsor’s wife is a truly wonderful creation; Sofia Mori also and the General himself who can assemble and disassemble an M16 in the heat of battle but can’t boil a kettle. And Claude, an inspired literary device that allows our narrator hero to hide behind the strictures of command for his own misdeeds.

I had a slight problem with the lack of speech marks [as in Cormac]; not sure why he has written it that way. It doesn’t spoil the book but it is a long novel and makes it harder than necessary to read and enjoy and I hated the gratuitous rape scene. Completely unnecessary.

THE GUEST CAT [By Takashi Hiraide]. The New York Times Bestseller. Quite liked this: if I were putting up a review on Goodreads, I would probably give it four stars.

I have real animosity towards cats; I was bitten by one when I was about eleven and have stayed clear of them ever since so a novel about cats wouldn’t be my first choice of reading material.
What’s this about? It is set in Tokyo in a small rented house within the garden of a much larger house and is about a couple in their early thirties, without children who work from home in publishing. She is a proof-reader; he is a writer. They work in separate rooms of the house all day and only seem to meet fleetingly at other times. They are not estranged exactly and there are no clues as to why they have no kids we are just given the situation.
Next-door’s cat comes into their lives and they begin feeding it and then they make a little bed for it in a shoebox and it stays over. Gradually, the cat becomes a focus for something else. And that is more or less that. Over the years the owner of the big house dies and then the property is sold.
Several reviewers call it a meditation on change: it is certainly very Japanese. I read an excellent review of this by a Japanese in which he draws attention to the society that a novel like this springs from, for example Transient Love, so entrenched in Japan that businesses have been set up around the idea: Maids Cafes and Hostess Bars where the focus is not on sex but on companionship . There are even cafes where you can have the companionship of a dog or a cat that you can stroke. Perhaps this is the fallout from the interconnected society: human loneliness.

And I guess that is what it is about, loneliness. I didn’t get the ending at all: probably not sufficiently steeped in Japanese culture to understand the nuances.

LIE WITH ME [By  Sabine Durrant] Not my usual thing, a psychological thriller. I have never read The Girl on the Train and I packed in Gone Girl after 50-pages but this is at No 18 in the Amazon charts: in hardback. In hardback! It will take over the entire universe when it is released in paperback.  Someone on Amazon while awarding it 5* says: ‘I always say that I don't have to like characters in a book to enjoy the book. That's a good thing with this book because, to be brutally honest, I really didn't like any of them. They were all particularly horrid in their own individual way and, I guess, this will probably split enjoyment and indeed reviews/ratings’.  I agree, I felt much the same way and ultimately, really I felt I had been manipulated rather than entertained. I gave a couple of days of my life to this, not certain it was worth the effort.

The first-person narrator is Paul Morris, 42 years old. Paul is not an appealing character . . .  arrogant, lazy, drinks over-much, broke, a string of broken relationships and an irredeemable liar. He hooks up with goodie-two shoes human-rights widow, Alice and wheedles himself into her home and family and then to the Greek Islands on the family’s annual visit to their holiday home. Her teenage children cannot stand him and he finds that another family have also been invited and he can’t stand them so into this web of relationships and history, Paul, totally oblivious to everyone and everything except his own needs, blunders his way through, lying quite unnecessarily about what he does, how much money he has, his life and digging bigger and bigger holes for himself. But as he slowly discovers he actually has much bigger things to worry about.
Nicely written as you would expect from a Guardian columnist, it is well-paced and cleverly structured. I thought it plodded a bit during the Greek Island sojourn but I am quibbling; it’s almost impossible for any author to withhold  key pieces of information in a thriller without resorting to treading water at some point.

If you like this kind of thing it is a class act.

Monday, 28 November 2016


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That series about great cinema speeches was on the radio again tonight. One of the greatest; and so, so perspicacious:Terry Southern's mini-masterpiece.

George Hanson: You know, this used to be a helluva good country. I can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it.

Billy: Man, everybody got chicken, that’s what happened. Hey, we can’t even get into like, a second-rate hotel, I mean, a second-rate motel, you dig? They think we’re gonna cut their throat or somethin’. They’re scared, man.

George Hanson: They’re not scared of you. They’re scared of what you represent to ’em.

Billy: Hey, man. All we represent to them, man, is somebody who needs a haircut.

George Hanson: Oh, no. What you represent to them is freedom.

Billy: What the hell is wrong with freedom? That’s what it’s all about.

George Hanson: Oh, yeah, that’s right. That’s what’s it’s all about, all right. But talkin’ about it and bein’ it, that’s two different things. I mean, it’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. Of course, don’t ever tell anybody that they’re not free, ’cause then they’re gonna get real busy killin’ and maimin’ to prove to you that they are. Oh, yeah, they’re gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ’em.

Thursday, 24 November 2016


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I am not working class: don’t think I ever have been. Although both my parents were born into abject poverty, my mother [an orphan] into foster homes and my father the sixth son in a household without a father, they worked hard to make something of themselves and to break free from the lot of the working class. Plus, they had no vices: no gambling, hardly drank, never went inside a pub; my dad didn’t chase other women.

They soon owned their own house, the first step of the upwardly mobile. They never applied for benefits or went on the list for a council house. My dad worked hard and was ambitious, my mother took a part-time job to pay for holidays. They owned a car: in 1955 they drove it across to France and in 1959 drove all the way to Rome.

I am pretty middle-class now.

An article in The Guardian recently made me ponder on all this. I live now in an enclave of middle class families: self-employed businessmen; college lecturers; teachers; a hospital matron; retired couples abroad on cruises six-months of the year, surrounded by working class housing; terraces and semi-detached once-council-houses which they purchased under Thatcher’s right-to-buy scheme from the Council. It would be fair to say that in front of every fourth or fifth house is parked a four-year old transit. The self-employed. Roofers, central heating engineers, plumbers, joiners, painters & decorators, double-glazing guys and all the rest of the essential labour force the country relies on to maintain and repair their properties.  

For cash.

No negotiation, if you won’t pay cash they will walk. Receipt? Errr . . .

We have had roofers here quite a few times; no hard-hats, no harness. They just walk around on the roof as though they were indestructible. But what if they slip and fall, break their arms or worse? Hospital, of course but who is paying for that? Not them, they pay little or no tax from their cash receipts. And their vans; who maintains the roads they drive on and keeps the traffic lights working and the traffic flowing? Not them. I don’t think it even enters their heads that they are making no contribution to society and that they are simply taking, taking, taking all the time.
Of course these are the Brexiteers, the once-Labour-voting UKIP supporters that are smashing our country and our economy by their selfish actions. Their cultural values remain intact: money counts more than refinement. Of course that's the biggest conundrum . . . how can you tell a sheep that she is irrational, without offending her for calling her a sheep?

I met quite a few of them on the ward: covered in tats; wearing the same clothes, sometimes sleeping in their clothes, never washing, foul-mouthed to everyone doctors who were trying to help them and young nurses who deserved much, much better. And God, racist to a man; we had quite a few Filipino nurses, including a terrific Filipino Sister and they treated them worse than you would treat a dog. And blah, blah, blah: they never stop talking; to each other to anyone that will pay attention [not me in other words]. They have their TV’s on and their i-pods on all at the same time. Zero chance of rest or sleep.

Are the divisions in society becoming ever-more unbridgeable? I think perhaps they are. I am glad I lived in better times.
If you want to read the article I am referring to it is here.