The Great American Novel(ists)

GbyeColumbusI read Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint – found on my parents’ bookshelves –  as a teenager and I have read Philip Roth ever since.  A great novelist and a great American political novelist; what a line up: American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Plot Against America, The Human Stain, Everyman. 

Here is the intoxicating, bewildering start of The Prologue (The Great American Novel):

CALL ME SMITTY. That’s what everybody else called me – the
ballplayers, the bankers, the bareback riders, the baritones,
the bartenders, the bastards, the best-selling writers
(excepting Hem, who dubbed me Frederico), the bicyclists,
the big game hunters (Hem the exception again), the billiards
champs, the bishops, the blacklisted (myself included), the
black marketeers, the blonds, the bloodsuckers, the
bluebloods, the bookies, the Bolsheviks (some of my best
friends, Mr. Chairman – what of it!), the bombardiers, the
bootblacks, the bootlicks, the bosses, the boxers, the
Brahmins, the brass hats, the British (Sir Smitty as of ’36), the
broads, the broadcasters, the broncobusters, the brunettes,
the black bucks clown in Barbados (Meestah Smitty), the
Buddhist monks in Burma, one Bulkington, the bullfighters,
the bullthrowers, the burlesque comics and the burlesque
stars, the bushmen, the bums, and the butlers. And that’s only
the letter B, fans, only one of the Big Twenty-Six! Continue reading “The Great American Novel(ists)”


Reading 2016 (June)

tauzeroTau Zero by Poul Anderson (1970). This is an interesting yarn. Your heart does sink when you read inside the front cover how many tens of books Poul Anderson wrote. But Tau Zero is considered a ‘hard’ SF classic, meaning that it is scientifically accurate (here in terms of knowledge in the late 1960s). Based on relativity, tau refers to proper time that is time as we know it, i.e. measured by a clock, and tau zero being approximate to the speed of light (I think that this is right). Set in a post-holocaust new world order (the “Covenant” a sort of Swedish social democratic yet authoritarian empire bent on the colonisation of the galaxy), the latest starship – the Leonora Christine – with its multinational crew of scientists sets off. But already some way into the future the colonialist quest goes awry when the starship collides with a nebula cloud – and stuck in a space-time continuum – eventually and at great speed arrives at the collapse of the universe passing through the subsequent Big Bang, thereafter the plucky explorers happily recommence life on a new Earth. Phew. For all the science this is as much a boy’s own adventure plus the softest of sexual fantasy – including a Dr Strangelovian abandonment of so-called monogamous sexual relationships… again  a sacrifice required for the future of the human race.

Among Others by Jo Walton 2010. This is a great read. And not least because it is paean to (perhaps the lost world) of public libraries and dedicated to librarians throughout the world.

Interlibrary loans are a wonder of the world and a glory of civilisation… libraries just sit there lending you books quietly out of the kindness of their hearts

It is a rites of passage story, as told in her diary by a troubled teenager Moamongothersrwenna Phelps, whose family has endured a degree of insanity, or at very least an other world experience of magic, fairies and witches, living with damaged minds and bodies. Mori is a prodigious reader, with a staple diet of fantasy and SF novels It’s a relief to recognise some of the authors and titles in her canon. I’m not a fan of SF in general: I disliked the LOTR and The Hobbit as a teenager, but enjoyed the John Wyndham´s The Day of the Triffids, Frank Herbert´s Dune and Ursula le Guin’s The Dispossessed.

Among Others has such a positive outlook on life plus it is a celebration of the joys and solace of reading.

feetchainsFeet of Chains by Kate Roberts (published in Welsh as Traed Mewn Cyffion in 1936), translated by Kate Gramich in 2012.

An everyman tale of the family and times of Jane and Ifan Gruffydd in rural northern Wales from the 1880s to the 1920s.  Ifan is a labourer in a slate quarry and the family lives in a one-room cottage and with a smallholding, and Jane describes their efforts to make ends meet as their children to make their own way in life through education and migration and war. One son, Twm, is killed in the Great War (a war that “… no one in Moel Arian knew what to make of it really”). Realism and fatalism collide. At the end the surviving son Owen declaims:

It was the time for someone to stand up against injustice. To do something about it. Thinking about it, that was the trouble with his people. They were heroic in their capacity to suffer, and not in their capacity to do something to oppose the cause of their suffering.

Reading 2016 (February)
Reading 2016 (March)
Reading 2016 (April)

Reading 2016 (April)

I came across The Screwtape Letters by C.S.Lewis (1942) via an article in The New Yorker. I downloaded a copy from the Gutenberg website (Canada). It is a dry deadpan satirical tale following the efforts of Wormwood an apprentice demon and Screwtape his mentor and senior demon to capture the soul of an unnamed man (who is not tempted, but rather falls in love and is killed in an air raid).  Lewis was a well-respected broadcaster and writer during WW2: he was wounded on the Somme in 1917/18. Its enduring power comes from its portrayal of a typical life, which despite temptations and failings reveals the strength of human nature. When we were kids my mother didn´t let us read Lewis – so of course we borrowed The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe from school friends. Perhaps she was not keen on christian apologetics.

lady van

I saw the movie the The Lady in the Van by Alan Bennett (1989) and then immediately caught up with the novel (really a short albeit true story, a Graham Greene ´entertainment´). I had read some of the stories before in the London Review of Books. The screenplay is actually much better than the novel. I also re-read his more recent novella The Uncommon Reader (2007) which is a firm favourite, a gentle piece of lèse majesté. The Queen comes across a mobile library parked outside the kitchens of Buckingham Palace, and starting with Ivy Compton-Burnett moves on eventually to Marcel Proust, causing much discontent in the Palace and beyond. For republicans the ending is a treat too.


Power: A Radical View (2nd edition) by Steven Lukes (2005). This classic text was published in 1974 and updated in 2005, showing Lukes´ willingness to re-assess his ideas. Lukes describes “three faces of power”, of which  – the third dimension – is about power as domination over people: “how do the powerful secure the compliance (unwilling or willing) of those they dominate?” Much of this translates into drivers of change and theory of change approaches in my own field of work.

The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera (2014) is sadly not much good. His classic novels – The Joke, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable kunderaLightness of Being – were written before the fall of the Czech communist regime. Since then he has rather lost his mojo. Jonathan Coe reviews Kundera´s legacy, which includes his apparent disdain for his women characters.

Kundera would fail a literary version of the Bechdel–Wallace test that asks whether a film features (a) at least two women who (b) talk to each other (c) about something other than a man.


My own bookshelves show that I would fail such a test in terms of what I buy. Most of these books are non-fiction, not that that is an excuse. I am making an effort to read more fiction written by women. One of my favourite writers has been Jenny Diski who has sadly died. I have copies of Rain Forest and Skating To Antarctica.  As she wrote she lived with cancer. The London Review of Books has put all her contributions online, a lovely gesture.




Reading 2016 (January)
Reading 2016 (February)
Reading 2016 (March)

Reading 2016 (February)

Rather somber reading for February: I must find some laugh-out-loud reading this coming month…

The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, by M.G.Vassanji (2003).  vikramVikram Lall comes of age in pre-independence 1950s Kenya,  the grandson of an Indian railroad worker trying to find an identity and life between the Kenyans and the British. It’s a story of childhood, fear (Mau Mau), politicians and corruption as Vic becomes a fixer and exile. It’s well-written and I believe this is a better novel than Dust (but then again there’s a lot to be said for the “die-hard” in-your-face approach of Mukoma Wa Ngugi’s Nairobi Heat and Black Star Nairobi both made to measure action movie scripts too). But killing off the first-person narrator? I remember being told off for doing that at school. A poor ending but Helon Habila’s review  captures the novel well.

The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai (2006). Another great novel. It’s a sobering commentary on inherit_lossturn-of-the-century experience of people in two continents – more often than not one of humiliation – from the unseen workers in Manhattan to a lost village under the Himalayas. The novel is centred on the lives of a small household circle, but it focuses on dispossession, abasement, the loss of opportunity, dignity and justice (the font of fundamentalism and terrorism) from which monopoly finance capitalism offers limited futures.

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett (2011) & In the Heart of the Amazon Forest (Penguin Great Journeys No.11, 2007, abridged version of The Naturalist on the River Amazon, Walter Harry Bates, published in 1863). Reviewed here for Forest Novels.

danielThe Book of Daniel, E.L.Doctorow (1971). I really should have read this novel ages ago, somehow Doctorow slipped off the radar. This unsentimental novel is narrated by the scarred son of communist sympathiser-activist parents (based upon Julius and Ethel Rosenberg,who were tried and then electrocuted in 1953 at the height of cold war hysteria for allegedly passing atomic secrets to the Russians) and it evokes the communist scares of the late-40s and early-50s with the US of the late-60s (it was written during some of the bitterest anti-war and pro-civil rights debates in the US).

A fragment from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” prefaces the novel, and is perhaps, the key to its morality.

I play not marches for accepted victors only, I play marches for conquer’d and slain persons.

Thgilead1ere are many of the  “conquer’d and slain” in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (2004). Just a phenomenal novel. For once the publicity blurb on the covers is right. I’m going to have to re-read this one very soon. Best read of the year so far.


Reading 2016 (January)