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This year (2018)

Previous years: 2017; 2016; 2015; 2014; 2013; 2012; 2011; 2010; 2009; 2008; 2007; 2006; 2005


Bettina Hoffmann:
     Die Viola da Gamba
Graham Swift:
     Last Orders
     Waterland
Ian McEwan:

     The Children Act

     Nutshell

Ian McEwan:

     Black Dogs
Hideo Yokoyama:
     Six Four
Philip Salom:
     Waiting
Jane Harper:
     Force of Nature
Miles Franklin:
     My Career Goes Bung
     Some Everyday Folk and Dawn

A Few Books from the Beginning of the Year:

     To begin with, a Christmas present was Bettina Hoffmann's book on the viol - or viola da gamba. I didn't really appreciate it as much as a previous book I had read on the same subject, namely "Die Gambe", by Annette Otterstedt. That earlier book had more technical information about the instrument, and interesting, very personal observations of the author. But the present book was a history of the viol, finding as many historical quotations as possible which boundlessly praise the qualities of the instrument. While this may flatter the ambitions of amateur musicians, it had less substance than Ottersetdt's book. Of course I am extremely interested in this subject since now, in retirement, my main ambition is to learn to play the viol. For this purpose I am practicing for at least three hours most days.

    Last year I very much enjoyed reading "Mothering Sunday", by Graham Swift. Therefore I was looking forward to reading more by the same author. "Last Orders" won the Booker Prize in 1996, so I thought it must be good. However, as experience has often shown, the Booker Prize is not a particularly good recommendation. I was only able to wade through the first 50 or so pages before giving up. The book is filled with working class London dialogue, often awkward to read, involving a group of men who have been drinking together at a pub for years. One of the men has died and they are setting off to do something with the ashes. I suppose the professors of literature, sitting on the Booker Prize Panel with their posh, upper class accents, thought that they might redeem themselves by voting for this book. I found it to be boring, seemingly going nowhere, telling a totally uninteresting story.
    Then I tried "Waterland" and did read it through to the end. The story takes place in the Fens, which is a lowland region on the eastern coast of England. The author philosophizes about the quality of mud, water, eels, flatness. He seems to associate these things with human depravity, madness. The story of the book is a complicated affair, describing the rise and fall of a brewery family. In the end it all boils down to an unpleasant little business involving the memories of the narrator of his adolescent sexual explorations in the mud, resulting in the pregnancy of his future wife, a horrible abortion and the consequences of the resulting sterility. An unpleasant story.

    Happily, I then realized that there are still a number of books by Ian McEwan which I have not read yet. "The Children Act" is about a very highly placed, established woman judge in the English judicial system at the "Inner Temple", or something, of the "Inns of Court" in London. She has her apartment there which she shares with her husband, a professor at a London university. They have no children. Career has come first, and now it is too late. Frustration about the failure of this basic biological urge to reproduce causes the husband to think of an affair with a younger woman. His wife, the judge, filled with anger, tells him that the consequence will be his banishment from the family. But this isn't really the main story. It is concerned with the Jehovah's Witnesses and a young man who needs a blood transfusion to save his life, yet he is a few weeks short of his 18th birthday, still a minor, and thus, following the recommendation of the hospital, could be forced by the courts to accept a transfusion against his wishes. As with all these books of McEwan, it was hard to put down. There develops a fatal relationship between the young man and his judge.
    I've given pints of blood to the Red Cross at least 30 times over the years. But now I'm too old, and anyway, after all my eye operations a few years ago they think that my blood might have become impure so they no longer want it. Blood seems to me to be something which is hardly worthy of complicated religious pronouncements.
    "Nutshell" was a strange book, telling the story of the murder of a man by his brother and his pregnant wife through the experiences of the unborn baby. It took a while to get used to the idea of an unborn baby philosophizing about all sorts of things, and in particular objecting to the fact that the brother of his father was continuously inserting his member into the birth canal of his mother. But gradually it became an amusing story of human frailties.

Black Dogs, by Ian McEwan

     The review in the New York Times which I've linked to here really tells it all. June and Bernard Tremaine fall in love with one another while working in some sort of secret agency an London during the Second World War. They had both joined the communist party of England during the 1930s, perhaps for the friendship of other young people, all going out together on bicycle trips and what have you. They marry after the war and take a trip to Italy and France with the idea of helping people who had become destitute. After a month or two of this, they escape to a lonely region in the south of France to go hiking in the hot summer sun.
    At one point, June walks ahead, leaving Bernard behind, examining the doings of some caterpillars. Suddenly June sees two huge black dogs along the path. They attack her, but she shields herself with her rucksack and stabs one of them with a pocket knife, thus driving them away. This experience changes their lives. The dogs represent evil. They were trained for evil by the occupying Nazi Gestapo. Returning along the path, June and Bernard meet a tranquil French shepherd who lets them sleep in an old barn. On an impulse June buys the barn, and over the years it becomes the center of her life. She rejects communism and embraces mystical spirituality. Bernard returns to England. His overly rational communism turns him into a successful left-wing politician, often in the news, having an opinion about everything. June and Bernard hate, and yet still distantly love one another, living far apart in different countries. All of this is narrated many years later by their son-in-law who speaks to one and then the other, trying to understand their story.
    I thought it strange that June settled in that isolated, lonely farmhouse near to her experience of evil. But who can understand the mysteries of the spirit? Bernard has rationalized away the failure of communism, yet the middle chapter of the book takes place in the Berlin of 1989 when the Wall fell down. Bernard is excited and rings the narrator in the middle of the night to get him to come with him to enjoy the End of Communism party in Berlin. They hectically arrange a flight from London. In Berlin, Bernard is attacked by a group of skinheads.
    If the book is about good and evil then I suppose Bernard has now also learned that there are forms of evil which are not political. I remember that some Germans here did go to Berlin back then on that night in 1989, finding it to be a great emotional experience. But I thought the situation was potentially very dangerous, and the many Russian soldiers stationed in East Germany could easily have been ordered to go on the rampage, violently suppressing the whole business. Thankfully that didn't happen.

Six Four, by Hideo Yokoyama

     This is a police novel written by a Japanese. It shares with those Scandinavian police stories and TV programs the idea that we are more interested in the police themselves, their personal lives, loves, ambitions, rather than the criminals, or the victims of all the crimes.
    But if we are to believe the story of this book, then it must be the case that those Japanese policemen are very different from the more familiar Scandinavian ones. The hero is named Mikami. (This made me think of Murakami, the novelist who writes those fascinating Japanese surreal novels.) There are lots of other policemen, women, and other characters whose names start with M, and so I lost track of things every now and then. At the end of the book we realize that all this M..., and in particular Ma... business has a certain reason. Anyway, Mikami used to be a detective, actively hunting criminals, but six or eight months ago he was unhappily transferred from the "Criminal Investigations" side of things into "Administrative Affairs". His job is to deal with the press. Newspapers, TV.
    His office is next to the room of the Press Club, and the big thing is that a pregnant woman has had an accident in her car, killing a pedestrian. The press wants to know her name. Yet Mikami has instructions to protect the woman by withholding the name. This conflict seems to go on for hundreds of pages. The reporters in the Press Club become more and more aggressive. And then everybody else in Administrative Affairs treats Mikami dreadfully as well.
    Do all those Japanese who, as in this story, outwardly pretend to be so nice and polite suddenly become horrible in when they know that they are safely concealed from public censure?
    The GREAT SECRET, which at all costs must remain hidden, but which after countless trials and tribulations Mikami uncovers, is that during a kidnapping 14 years ago, the police tried to record the kidnapper's voice on tape, but for some obscure technical reason, the tape recorder failed to start at the critical moment. The police considered this to be such a great scandal that everyone who knew about the problem was silenced.
    One of the policemen was hounded out of the force, and then another policeman spent the next 14 years spying on the disgraced one. And another was driven to insanity, spending the 14 years locked up in his bedroom.
    This - or perhaps many other things - (or the Japanese mentality in general) led to a total conflict between Administrative Affairs and Criminal Investigations. Rather than investigating crime, they seemed to spend all their time investigating one another. Finally Mikami learns the ULTIMATE SECRET, namely that the central police department in Tokyo is planing to replace the local chief of police with a candidate of their own. This is considered to be a catastrophe of such earth-shaking dimensions that it is almost sufficient to unite Administrative Affairs and Criminal Investigations.
    Well, all of this seems to me to be very strange. How are we to understand all these crazy Japanese? Surely things at the local police station would improve if Tokyo sent somebody to clear up the whole mess. And somehow the Scandinavian version of "The Police" agrees more with what I would imagine to be a sensible state of affairs. But thankfully I have almost never had reason to interact with the police. Nevertheless it seems to me that at least the police here are civilized and can be counted upon to see to it that society functions with as little fuss as possible.

Waiting, by Philip Salom

     An Australian novel. Things take place in Melbourne. It starts off with chapter 1 telling us about a crazy couple: Little and Big. Little is a relatively young woman who is suffering from Lupus, an extremely unpleasant autoimmune disease which particularly affects women and which has left Little a semi-invalid. Big is a fat, older man, a former bush cook who worked for a team of sheep shearers but who now has become a transvestite, exposing his hairy arms and legs by wearing awkward dresses and other female paraphernalia. They seem to have no source of income and so they live in a "hostel" which is also occupied by other outcasts. Australia is a comfortable, prosperous country, and so they must all receive generous payments for their idle, eccentric lives.
    Big and Little are mainly preoccupied with the thought that Little's mother, in Adelaide, is dying, and so Little can expect to inherit her house, which she expects to then sell and so buy some modest home for herself and Big in Melbourne. (I don't know how realistic such a prospect would be these days, considering the mindbogglingly absurd real estate bubble in present-day Australia which has been fueled by all of those Chinese who have struck it rich.)
    But Little's mother has a number of sisters who also want the house. And thus she has a cousin in Melbourne who, in contrast to the rest of the characters, is a sensible person. He is a kind of landscape architect and contractor who constructs his own designs. And then the cousin has a girlfriend who is a university lecturer in some obscure field which nobody is interested in.
    It is a pleasant little story, rambling on and on. We sympathize with all of these characters, these misfits. I enjoyed the book.

Force of Nature, by Jane Harper

     Another Australian novel, but very different from the last one. The characters are again based in Melbourne. Rather than rambling on about nothing, letting one day dissolve into the next, everybody here is filled with action, ambition. We have a corrupt accountancy firm and a pair of policemen: a policeman and a policewomen. The policeman is secretly in love with the policewoman, but she is in love with somebody else - in Sydney - and so she steadfastly refuses to acknowledge any further attachments despite giving her Melbourne police partner a chaste kill after a dramatic scene at the end of the book.
    But the real emotional tension results when the accountancy firm which they are investigating decides to send five men and five women from the firm into the bush for a character-building trek through the thick, cold, rainy forest of north-east Victoria. The men and the women are sent on different trails. The women get lost. They fight. They end up in a horrible, secret cabin used by a murderer and rapist some 20 years before this time. The fighting and bickering amongst the women continues and increases. It ends in tragedy. And we learn about the broken families of these women. The head of the firm, who is taking part in the men's part of the trek, also has a broken family. His degenerate son was together with the degenerate daughter of the woman making all the problems in the woman's group.
    The problem with these two youthful family members was that they took videos of themselves using their mobile telephones, in exposed, compromising situations. Then, as is typically the case with such things, the videos found their way onto the internet, thus exposing the daughter to unwanted notoriety. I can well imagine that such a situation would be unpleasant. But surely the crimes of the accountancy firm, robbing innocent people of their savings, were more serious.

My Career Goes Bung, by Miles Franklin

     Back in 1983, the Folio Society brought out a very nice edition of Miles Franklin's My Brilliant Career which I read then (and which I have now reread) and which made a great impression on me. The author was only 17 or 18 years old when she wrote it, living with her family at the Brindabella Station amongst the Brindabella hills just west of Canberra (which didn't exist then) back in 1899. It is a novel, pretending to be an autobiography of rural Australia. The heroine of the novel is Sybylla Melvyn. She describes herself as being an ugly, but lively and sparklingly intelligent young woman. Her family was earlier prosperous, having extensive farmlands more to the west, but now they have a poor dairy farm near the town of Goulburn. The father has become a drunkard, leaving the family almost destitute. The mother, who was earlier an elegant woman, has become embittered, doing everything to make life as miserable as possible for poor Sybylla.
    Things improve when Sybylla is sent to stay with her still prosperous relatives, back out west. She blossoms, enjoys the new sense of belonging, and develops a romantic relationship with Harold Beecham, the tall, handsome owner of a large neighboring property who owns various other farms and extensive properties in Queensland as well. As in all such romantic novels, Adversary strikes. Sybylla is removed from the comfortable home in the west by the tormenting mother and made to work in a degenerate situation. Harold becomes bankrupt, loosing all his holdings. But then, following the pattern of a Jane Austen romance, circumstances change and the hero and the heroine come together. At first misunderstandings prevail. But then, contrary to our expectations and Jane Austen's examples, Sybylla refuses marriage, proposing instead undying women's liberation. The devastated Harold is sent into the wilderness, leaving all of his extensive, regained properties, aimlessly traveling about the world with a broken heart.
    The book was an instant success, both in England and in Australia, when it was first published in 1901.

    And so I thought it would be interesting to read the present book, My Career Goes Bung, which Miles Franklin wrote soon afterwards. What a difference! Sybylla's father is no longer the degenerate rural drunkard. Instead he is a man of great dignity and honor who has been reduced from prosperity to a more simple life due to the fact that he refused to be a part of the general corruption of life back then. Her mother is now a wonderfully loving, caring woman, doing her best to see that things go well with Sybylla. Reading about the life of Miles Franklin, and looking at the photo of her parents reproduced there, I can well imagine that this was what her parents were really like.
    Sybylla tells us about why she wrote My Brilliant Career, and about the shock of learning that it had been published in England. All of the neighbors are scandalized. Her parents dismayed. She travels to Sydney to stay with a wealthy family who are friends of her parents. And although she tells us that she is not beautiful, still, she is feted by all of Sydney society. The most desirable young bachelors all fall madly in love with her. She is the envy of the Australian literary scene. But through all this she writes scathingly cynical portraits of everyone she meets in Sydney. I am sure that for the people of those days, these descriptions would have been easily associated with the real-life people she so easily caricatures. Thus no publisher was willing to touch the book, and it was only first published in 1946.
     I suppose Miles Franklin considered this to be an honest description of the Australia of her day. Too honest. And thus it is a disappointing read after the lighthearted style of her first book.

Some Everyday Folk and Dawn, by Miles Franklin

     Miles Franklin published this one in 1909, when she was still a young woman. She had moved to Chicago to become part of the women's trade union movement. Despite this, the book is again set in Australia. The narrator is a middle-aged woman, an actress who is suffering from a heart condition. And so to recover, she settles in a boarding house in an imaginary town just west of Sydney. She tells us that it is on a river and the trains cross over a bridge on their way up over the Blue Mountains. Therefore it is clear that the river must be the Nepean River, and the town must be Penrith.
    At the boarding house she meets Dawn, a young woman who is beautiful in all ways. The boarding house is run by Dawn's grandmother who tells us everything about her old, Australian country ways, and in particular we learn about her ideas concerning the place of women in a rural, colonial society. Dignity and yet with deference to the menfolk. This is contrasted with the various undignified men who make their appearances in the book. Back in 1902, women in Australia had gained the right to vote, ahead of their contemporaries in most other countries, and so much is made in the book of whom the women were to vote for (all the candidates were men).
    But the main story is how the narrator tries to find a nice man for Dawn to marry, while at the same time encouraging Dawn to take singing lessons in Sydney with the aim of going on the stage. She faces strong opposition from the grandmother who thinks actresses are evil and a woman's place is in marriage.
    After reading the book in fits and starts I simply got bored and gave up halfway through. I need a more modern story with more action.