JB's Reading Life

JB's Reading Life

A reader from very young age. Heaven would be an endless library, a comfy armchair, coffee, cake and wine - and good company of course.

The Shooting Party by Anton Chekhov

 

In “The Gentleman of Moscow” by Amor Towers, a German visitor to the Metropol hotel challenges anyone to name three contributions Russia has made to the West beyond the invention of Vodka. Count Rostov takes up the challenge and begins with Chekhov and Tolystoy who he claims are “the bronze bookends on the mantlepiece of narrative. Henceforth writers of fiction from wheresoever they hail, will place themselves in the continuum that begins with one and ends with the other. For who, I ask you has a better mastery of the short form than Chekhov in his flawless little stories? Precise and uncluttered, they invite us into some corner of a household at some discrete hour in which the entire human condition is suddenly within reach, if heartbreakingly so. While at the other extreme…..”

This eulogy prompted me open a beautifully illustrated Folio edtion (pictured) of “The Shooting Party” by Chekov, bought last month from a second-hand bookshop in Dulverton at the bargain price of £9. What a disappointment. For this is not part of that unsurpassed bookend of great literature, a Chekhov short story, but rather a short and rambling novel, the only one Chekhov wrote and told as a story within a story. It leads tediously to a murder, where the victim and murderer are flagged up for those with eyes to see, from very early on - although Chekhov tries to surprise the reader by leaving the denoument to the very end. All the characters with their mulititude of glorious Russian names are sunk in gloom, misery, drunkeness, and despair - the reader would cheerfully shoot the lot, and toast their deaths with a bottle of Vodka.

However, having a got a taste for Russian literature by reading Tolstoy two years ago, there are aspects of the novel I enjoyed. The landscape, the weather and the descriptions of place are uniformally depressing, yet so effective you automatically throw another log on the fire and reach for your slippers. I’ve also got the Folio edition of Chekov’s short stories so do these really make a bronze bookend of great literature? I can’t really see myself disagreeing with Count Rostov but you never know..

The Gentleman of Moscow

 

I can't believe that "Days Without End" by Sebastian Barry has been already knocked off the top spot for this year's best reads, and having enthused about that book I don't know how to describe the overwhelming delight I had from reading "A Gentleman in Moscow. It was a feast of a book, like a meal with a succession of mouthwatering dishes, superb wines, wonderful company and briliant conversation. The gentleman in question is Count Alexander Ilych Rostov who is a resident in The Metropol, the most prestigious hotel in Moscow. As a member of the aristocracy in 1922, he no longer has a place in post-revolutionary Russia, but instead of being shot, or given a one way ticket to Siberia, he is made a non-person and sentenced to house arrest back at the Metropol, no longer in his palatial suite however, but up in a tiny attic room. If you know Charlie Mortdecai from the Bonfiglio books, or have seen "The Grand Budapest Hotel", you get an idea of the flavour of this book. Early on we have these lines:

”After all, what can a first impression tell us about someone we’ve just met for a minute in the lobby of the hotel? For that matter, what can a first impression tell us about anyone? Why, no more than a chord can tell us about Beethoven or a brushstroke about Botticelli. By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory, that they deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration--and our unwavering determination to withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour.”

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The book progress from 1922 through to 1954 and we meet many engaging characters en route, including, the chef, the concierge and the seamstress, Russian officials, visiting Americans, a beautiful actress, and two precocious young girls who grow to adulthood, and play a key role in the story. One of them, at the age of 9 decides she needs to compile a list of the Prime Numbers and test Galileo's ideas about falling objects. The other plays the Count at a game they call "Zut", in which you have to name members of a category e.g the uses of wax or things that come in fours. There is poetry, philosophy and humour with the unexpected lurking at the turn of the page, all set down in masterful prose. You are taken on a journey where the journey is more important than the destination, although the final destination seals the perfection of the book.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

 

Lyrical writing, quotable on every page, a story of love and survival set in America in the years of the Indian wars and the Civil War. Thomas McNulty, a young Irish immigrant meets John Cole a fellow countryman. They work in theatre, join the army, rescue and adopt an Indian girl, go through times of terrible hardship, and through everything hold together with courage and love. The story, often grim and brutal is told by Thomas in prose that sings off the page. One of the best books I've read.

Review
5 Stars
The Gene: An Intimate History
The Gene: An Intimate History - Siddhartha Mukherjee
If you are a seeker of the ultimate truths then this a book to read.

It is a detailed history of the understanding of how the machinery of life and reproduction works, from the ideas of the ancient philosophers through to Darwin, Mendal, Watson & Crick and on to the scary world of re-programming the human genome. The genetic system of DNA to RNA to Protein to Organism is so simple in principle yet so complex in practice. It is fascinating to read how progress in unpicking this story was made by slow and difficult steps with many blind alleys. You realise that from a genetic point of view everything is just variation, and the idea of "normal" is simply a human construct. The burning question is, how far are we a machine programmed by our chemistry? What choices do we really have? The author envisages an experiment in which 100,000 babies from across the world have their genetic codes sequenced and stored and then tracked through their lives to see how the 100,000 selves develop in terms of all their physical, mental, emotional and cultural attibutes. Once the results of such an experiment were know how much of the "me" in me would be left? One thing genetic research has already made clear in the "nature v nurture" debate, is that "nature" is by far the most important factor in making us who we are.
Review
4 Stars
In the Days of Rain: A Daughter, a Father, a Cult
In the Days of Rain: A Daughter, a Father, a Cult - Rebecca Stott
Rebecca Stott was a 4th generation member of the Plymouth Brethren, an exclusive Christian sect. They believe every word of the bible as being the Word of God and believe they are commanded to keep themslves pure from the world which they see as under the control of Satan. They "withdraw" from those who fall foul of their rules and discipline them, to the extent that a man or woman could be shut in their bedroom, fed by a tray left outside the door, and denied any contact with family or friends until they are deemed repentent and clean. All the power and leadership lies with men and the women are subservient and silent. Rebecca Stott's grandfather and father were respected leaders and preachers, but following a massive split in the 1970's her family left the sect.

It is the story of how her indoctrination from childhood set her mind into ways of thinking that were hard to shake off and which despite her own university education and questioning mind, still linger many years later. But it is also the story of her volatile yet loving relationship with her father who was highly intelligent and who was able, before a clampdown by the Brethren leadership, to gain a degree from Cambridge and was enthralled by literature, drama and poetry. When at last he freed himself and his family from the cult his main thought was, "How could I have been so stupid".

This is the question that seems obvious yet if your understanding of " the truth" is a matter of life and death, good and evil, fight or surrender, heroism or cowardice, obedience or betrayal, then what choice do you have? Only when the illusion is shattered and the spell is broken do you become free to escape.

Review
2 Stars
Autumn
Autumn - Ali Smith
I'd never read any Ali Smith, so on the strength of reviews of Autumn I bought "How to be Both" from a charity shop. Then Autumn was on offer at a bookshop so I bought that too. Ali Smith does not write conventional stories, if this small sample is typical, rather she writes about incidents that happen, and not necessarily in chronological order and many just mundane. They are like bits of a jigsaw which the reader tries to slot together to give some coherance to the narrative, but for me I could not construct a picture that had much sense or interest, I gave up How To Be Both but finished Autumn. I can see how her writing might appeal to some readers but she is not an author I will read again.
Review
4 Stars
The Little Paris Bookshop: A Novel
The Little Paris Bookshop: A Novel - Nina George, Simon Pare
If ever a novel had the wrong title then this is it. Nina George dedicates the story to "The departed and to those who go on loving them", and this is the essence of the novel. The central character, Jean Perdu is a bookseller and yes, he does sell books, but not from "The Little Paris Bookshop" but from a barge the "Literary Apothecary". Jean Perdu does not just sell books, he dispenses them. He says, “There are books that are suitable for a million people, others for only a hundred. There are even remedies—I mean books—that were written for one person only…A book is both medic and medicine at once. It makes a diagnosis as well as offering therapy. Putting the right novels to the appropriate ailments: that’s how I sell books.”. The story begins in Paris but the floating bookshop is soon sailing south, as Jean Perdu finally faces up to the grief of the loss of the love of his life. A book to savour for all romantics who love books.
Review
4 Stars
My Brilliant Friend
My Brilliant Friend - Elena Ferrante, Ann Goldstein
The first of Elena Ferrante's popular Neopolitan Quartet. Set in a poor district of Naples amidst families, feuds, first loves and strict moral codes, i t is the story of the developing friendship of two girls, told through the eyes of one of them, the "Brilliant Friend". But it is the other girl who fascinates the reader and who dominates the pages. It is her originality, courage and clarity of mind, that shines through their lives and with a different, more beguiling brilliance than the dull, academic brilliance of her friend.

I can see why this book gained such a big following but the question is, do I read the othet three?
Review
4 Stars
Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia
Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia - Peter Pomerantsev
What a depressing book. A Russian business woman is arrested by the Russian police because her company makes a chemical that is a forbidden drug. No actually, she has all the officialv permits to manufacture the chemical, she's been doing it for years and it's not a drug. She is still convicted and stays in jail until she can find a lawyer who will take on the authorities. Just one of the many stories of life in Russia today. This is a book reveals how The Kremlin sits the centre of a spiders web of bribery and corruption, and controls media output, peddling myths and fantasies as truth. What is more, Russian oligarchs use their ill-gotten millions to buy up London - they are not investing in the UK, they are money-laundering. Anyone who has read, 1984, Brave New World or Fahrenheit 451 will find this book a chilling read.
Review
4 Stars
Your Life in My Hands
Your Life in My Hands - Rachel Clarke
A book to make you angry. The lack of staff in the NHS is crippling the service and most people would pay more taxes to ensure that our NHS meets all the demands placed on it. But while voters blindly support a government that is running public services into the ground there will be no improvement. Hunt should have been sacked by May for his attitude to the Junior Doctors and the fact she didn't sack him shows what a poor PM she is.
Review
4 Stars
How To Stop Brexit - And Make Britain Great Again
How To Stop Brexit - And Make Britain Great Again - Nick Clegg
Concise summary of the UK'S relationship with the EU. How the issue has split the Tory Party for decades; how big money, and a small number of people, hijacked the debate and used the right-wing newspapers to poison attitudes and distort the truth; how the referendum was won and how MPs have capitulated their personal views to the two big party machines. But also an honest assessment of the failings of the EU and its need for reform. He suggests an EU of varying types of membership from inner committed core countries to two outer layers of countries with looser relationships. As, for stopping Brexit, he only sees that a rise in political activism from armchair voters, and an obvious shift in public opinion against the likely damage to the UK can bring enough pressures to bear. Worth reading by all who have the future of the country at heart, whether Leave or Remain.
Review
4 Stars
Under the Greenwood Tree
Under the Greenwood Tree - Thomas Hardy
More a set of sketches of rural Dorset life, than a fully plotted novel. Full of laugh-out-loud humour and beautifully observed description of landscape and village gossip.
Review
3 Stars
Against the Double Blackmail: Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbours
Against the Double Blackmail: Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbours - Slavoj Žižek
Not sure what to think about this. It is a relative short polemic on the problems faced, mainly by Europe, by the refugee issue. Though short it is densely written and academic, so not an easy read. Not sure that I followed all his arguments but he certainly lays into global capitalism, colonialism and Western Liberal values, values that generally I espouse.
Review
4 Stars
The Potters Field: The Seventeenth Chronicle of Brother Cadfael of the Benedictine Abbey of Saint Peter and Paul at Shrewsbury (Brother Cadfael Mysteries)
The Potters Field: The Seventeenth Chronicle of Brother Cadfael of the Benedictine Abbey of Saint Peter and Paul at Shrewsbury (Brother Cadfael Mysteries) - Ellis Peters
The Brother Cadfael books are great comfort reads. Ellis Peter's tells these stories with wisdom and grace, using language that harks back to the 12th Century where they are set.
Review
4 Stars
The Bridge of San Luis Rey
The Bridge of San Luis Rey - Thornton Wilder
Are our lives ordered by a higher being? Is there meaning to be found behind tragedy? The deaths of 5 people killed in the collapse of a bridge in Peru are explored by a monk as he seeks to answer these questions. Some beautiful writing and definitely worth reading. Basically an exploration of the conflict between desire and love.
Review
5 Stars
Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World
Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World - Tim Marshall
A quick and easy read that explains why countries distrust their neighbours, and how and why China is taking over the world.