Friday, January 12, 2018

Recent Reads - January 2018

Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith by Andrew Wilson
Patricia Highsmith was a fascinating character right down to the snails she carried around in her handbag and her voracious sexual appetite. She became an active and predatory lesbian while still a school girl – at a time (the late 1930s) when it was very much a love that dare not speak its name. No married woman or visiting journalist was spared her advances and she had a hit rate that would put Don Juan to shame. She was also a decent writer of entertaining novels – usually with a dark flavour. However, her biographer spends way to much time analyzing her books in detail – she was no Dostoyevsky. Her life, especially her tortured relationship with her mother, was more interesting than her work and this book would have been better if it were a third shorter than its 500 pages.

The Rub of Time by Martin Amis
I prefer Amis’s non-fiction to his fiction – especially in recent years. Earlier in his career I enjoyed Money and London Fields. But The Moronic Inferno, The War Against Cliché and Koba the Dread worked better for me. His latest entertaining collection throws its net wide embracing poker, porn, politics and literature. There’s even a piece on the Tangerine Terror across the Atlantic. There are very few duds and I especially liked his two essays on Philip Larkin where his ongoing admiration is tinged with some recent reservations. There’s also a very astute piece on Nabokov and of course something on his hero Saul Bellow. It’s not all high art – there’s a very good piece on the renaissance of John Travolta and a rather sad piece on his fading tennis skills.

Sticky Fingers – the Life and Times of Jann Wenner by Joe Hagan
I expected to enjoy this a lot more than I actually did. Maybe I grew weary of the relentless confirmation of what a prick the founder of Rolling Stone actually is. He had the gumption to realize that he could monetize the whole sex, drugs, and rock and roll scene that developed in San Francisco in the Sixties and didn’t much care who he stepped over to accomplish this. His interaction with people like John Lennon and Mick Jagger are occasionally interesting – the Stones were not amused that he called his magazine after them and threatened legal action. He pointed out that they had in turn taken their name from a Muddy Waters’ song and in the end there was a compromise whereby he let Jagger control a UK edition (which quickly foundered). There’s plenty of entertaining tittle tattle about sex and drugs and who was sleeping with who – everybody with everybody it seems. The early drug-fueled chaos of producing the magazine is amusing but it’s now a corporate advertising platform that not many people care about. I gave up about half-way through its 550 pages. I may dip in again if I’m stuck.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

This is a stone masterpiece. I avoided it for a long time because I felt queasy about the basic premise – uneasy spirits chatting in a grave yard while Abraham Lincoln mourns his recently deceased young son. But it works. The chatty corpses in Limbo are in denial about their state and look back towards their unfinished business on earth. They also take a keen interest in whether Lincoln’s son will linger restlessly with them or pass over fully. Their conversations are punctuated by contemporary accounts of Lincoln and his son, how he died and how the family dealt with the tragedy. It came as the American Civil War was in full spate and many thousands of families were mourning their dead. It’s a sophisticated and thought-provoking novel and it has sent me off to discover Saunders’ earlier works (all short story collections).

Midwinter Break by Bernard McLaverty

This is hardly the classic I was expecting from all the laudatory reviews I read over the past 6 months. It was a reasonably convincing portrait of a marriage stuck together by old custom that endured despite the yearning of the female partner for something more spiritually satisfying. She had survived a shooting in Northern Ireland and also felt the need to keep a promise to God. The husband’s relentless drinking (morning, noon and night) seemed unconvincing to me. The ice metaphor was a trifle crass also I felt – a bit too obvious. It kept me mildly entertained – no more.