Absorbing the pain

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
by Michael Chabon

This is a big book and, like all the best chunky tomes, it’s a little bit heartbreaking when you get to the end to leave that world and all of its characters behind. Which is a long way of saying that I liked it.

Like Chabon’s previous books, this is a historical novel with a strong Jewish slant and a great deal of research has clearly gone into creating a believable setting for the action. Many’s the time I reached for my laptop to look up details mentioned, famous people or events named in passing, but I invariably changed my mind because I was too eager to carry on reading to pause, even briefly.

The story is that of two Jewish men, cousins Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay, during and after World War II. Joe escapes Nazi-occupied Prague and goes to live with Sam and his mother in Brooklyn, NYC. Sam’s mother has somewhat exaggerated his career and influence in her letters to Joe’s family but the appearance of this strange foreign cousin – and Joe’s astonishing skill as an artist – spark an idea in Sam that shapes the rest of their lives, and proves his mother’s faith worthy. Sam and Joe create a series of comic books that take America by storm, their greatest character being The Escapist, a superhero with Houdini’s escapism skills and a particular hatred for Nazis.

The book follows Joe and Sam’s changing fortunes over a couple of decades, but it also tells the larger story of comic books in America, as well as, on a much smaller scale, looking at changing attitudes toward Jews, Germans and homosexuals in the US.

With such huge events and themes, it is inevitable that some things will be dwelt on while others are skipped past quickly. The examples that stood out for me were the excellent long passage covering a brief section of Joe’s military service – a brilliant study of loneliness and self-evaluation – and the woefully short description at the start of Joe’s escape from Prague. Joe trains, as a boy, in escapology and it is his escapology teacher who plans his escape in a coffin. The origins of the plan, based around the smuggling out of German territory of a golem, precious to Jewish clerics, are detailed over several chapters but when it comes to the actual escape, a brief paragraph summarises Joe’s route before his arrival on Sam’s doorstep. This seemed to me to be a shame but it certainly added to the mysterious silence that Joe maintains regarding his past and his violent anger toward Nazis and Germans. Having left his family and friends behind in Europe the origin of his anger is obvious and his helplessness whenever he hears more bad news is devastating to follow.

I know very little about Jewish culture or escapology and, while I’ve read a handful of graphic novels, my knowledge of the history of comic books is almost non-existent, but I don’t think any of that matters. I loved this book. The tone and subject matter could veer from light comedy to the darkest exploration of humanity’s guilt and yet it never stopped being readable. The characters and story were absorbing, the writing style a good balance between faux memoir and adventure novel, and there were some descriptions of brief moments that were astonishingly vivid. This is definitely a book to lose yourself in.

Published 2001 by Fourth Estate
ISBN: 978-1-8411-5493-0

If I had one wish I'd ask for infinite wishes

A barman at our local asked the other day what I would wish for if I had one wish. I think my answer – “I would wish to never be ill” – threw him a little but it was the first thing my brain came up with. It’s a pretty selfish wish, when I could have plumped for world peace, or an end to all suffering, or for the proposed solutions to global warming to all immediately be put in place and to work…lots of things really.

The thing is, I’m ill a lot of the time. It sucks. I have a handful of chronic diseases that together conspire to have me overtired, in pain or otherwise non-functional for far too much of the time. I mean – just think what I could achieve if I didn’t have to rest for half the day and sleep for 10 hours a night; if I had bounding energy and enthusiasm. I could be an unstoppable force for good!

Which is not only selfish but megalomaniacal. Because who’s to say that I’ve got it right? That my ideas will make the world any better? We all think that if we ruled the world we could sort all the shit out but it’s not that simple, obviously. We all think differently. My perfect world is another man’s nightmare. Which is the basis for many brilliant books.

Do all politicians start out thinking that they’re going to make the world a better place? It must be so disappointing when it turns out to be all compromise and stalemates. Which of course was the take-home lesson of West Wing.

Anyway, assuming that you’re not allowed to ask for more wishes, which would clearly be cheating, what would you wish for?

Light on the heavy

Petite Anglaise
by Catherine Sanderson

Having been a fan of the blog for years it’s not a huge surprise that I loved this book. It was the first blog I ever read and opened up a whole new world to me. Now the book has filled in many of the blanks that were necessarily kept out of the blog at the time.

I will add that, had I not read the blog, I very much doubt I would have been attracted to this book. I am not a fan of chick lit with all those pink covers and hapless heroines. That was a phase I went through as a teenager and even then I knew that the books were rubbish. This book is being marketed as chick lit and it does have some things in common with that genre – loveable heroine, an emphasis on the romances in her life, an easy-to-read style, approachable sense of humour. However, Petite Anglaise also deals with some serious, painful, life-altering events (and I don’t mean getting married) and a quick scan through the comments on Amazon proves that lovers of chick-lit are not the right market. Not to mention that it’s very well written.

For those who don’t know the background, Catherine Sanderson started the blog Petite Anglaise in 2004, documenting life as an Englishwoman living in Paris with her French partner and their baby daughter. As her relationship began to fall apart the writing became both more serious and more enticing, laced as it was with intense emotion. She eventually left her partner for a man she met through her blog and the story became one of the effort to be a good parent to her toddler while in the passionate throes of a new relationship. In 2006, Catherine was dumped and fired in a short space of time. Her employer cited her blog as the reason for firing her. Having taken great care to keep her real name, line of work and indeed any detail about that side of her life out of the blog, Catherine took her former employer to court claiming unfair dismissal and won.

Obviously much more has happened to Catherine since that day, but this is where the book ends and it is a suitable full stop. She is now a full-time writer and in 2009 announced that she was no longer going to blog, except for updates about her books. Her writing was always so good that you felt this was where she should end up and I look forward to reading more of her output.

Published 2009 by Penguin
ISBN: 978-0-1410-3119-4

Quietly beautiful

Silk
by Alessandro Baricco
translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

This is a slight volume of short chapters (some extremely short) and lots of white space. This, coupled with Baricco’s use of repetition and sparse language adds up to a sense that what you are reading is closer to poetry than novel.

The story is at once vast and simple. In 19th century France, the town of Lavilledieu relies on silk production for most of its income. When European silkworms start dying, Hervé Joncour accepts the job of travelling ever further abroad to buy silkworm eggs for his town.

In the hands of another author this might have been the basis for a great adventure story with a real action hero at its centre. Silk is not an adventure story, it is a romance.

Hervé’s travels are described so briefly you almost forget what a capable, worldly man he must be. In many ways, this is the tale of the two women in his life. Hervé’s wife, Hèlene is devoted, saddened by their childless state and worried by her husband’s travels. Hervé loves her in a placid, steady sort of way. But when he goes to Japan he falls suddenly and desperately for a woman he can never touch or speak to – the concubine of an important man. Hervé is entranced by her and starts to let his passion rule his previously detached judgment.

I think it’s possible that some people may reach the end of this book thinking that nothing really happened, where others will be amazed by how much was crammed in to so few words (I sit in the latter group). The style may also be offputting. I did take a few chapters to find it beautiful rather than jarring. But I ingested this volume in one gulp, which is testimony to how enjoyable it is.

Like most modern books, the cover is awash with praise and strings of adjectives. The one that comes closest to my experience is “subtle”. This is, for the most part at least, a very subtle book.

Published 2006 by Canongate
ISBN 978-1-8419-5835-4

On being a book lover

I love to read. I mean, I really love to read. I was that child whose parents had to wrestle the book from my hands at the dinner table to get me to eat, who had to seriously weigh up severe car travel sickness against the awful idea of a (sick-free) journey without reading, who read almost every book at the local library so was greatly relieved when they largely restocked in my early teens, who in a recent house move packaged up my most beloved books more carefully than the crystal wine glasses. In my defence I know that Debenhams still sells those glasses.

The point is that I write about books because I love them. I love the look, feel and smell of them, old and new. I love the shape of words on a page. I love the language of books: folio, typography, endpapers, head and tail bands.

But mostly I love to read. As a grown-up I read a lot less than that book-obsessed child I once was, because reading has to fit around work and housekeeping and socialising and all the rest of it, but reading is still a great pleasure, a guaranteed escape to a good place (no matter what the book is about).

My favourite books is an ever-changing list, partly because there are so many great books out there. But my favourite ever grown-up book is probably Sophie’s Choice by William Styron.

My favourite books as a child were much more clearcut. They were:

  • The Ghosts of Motley Hall by Richard Carpenter
  • Alpaca by Rosemary Billam
  • Carbonel by Barbara Sleigh
  • The Wickedest Witch in the World by Beverley Nichols
  • The Jolly Postman by Janet and Allen Ahlberg

Plus I also devoured everything by Roald Dahl, Colin Dann, Brian Jacques, Noel Streatfield and Frances Hodgson Burnett over and over again. Which is probably a more sophisticated list than the five I’ve picked out above, but taste is taste and they were my absolute favourites.

It’s personal, it’s about you the reader as much as anything else, it can be hard to put a finger on. I rate enjoyment of a book separately from quality of writing or storyline or characters because sometimes an author does everything well but I still don’t enjoy the book. And vice versa.

So, without further ado, my first Nose in a book review is here.