Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #41: Mr. Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood

Mr. Arthur Norris is a perfectly debauched creation, a fey man of middling years with the murkiest of pasts and a complete vacancy of morals. Meeting him on a train to Berlin in the ’30s, young English teacher William Bradshaw – another Isherwood stand-in – is taken by his acquaintance: “His smile had great charm. It diclosed the ugliest teeth I had ever seen. They were like broken rocks.”

Amused by this delicate dandy with his equal parts fastidiousness and generosity, their friendship is cemented over the first of many drinks. Later, Bradshaw notes, “the second cognac worked wonders”, and in Norris and Bradshaw’s decadent Berlin, it generally does. The brownshirts and the political turmoil around them is a backdrop to Norris’s much more appealing transgressions – drunken evenings, sexual perversity, and disreputable company. And then there is the delicate topic of money, and how Norris funds his many proclivities. It is all, to Bradshaw, a bit of fun, despite what his other friends may thing of his odd duck friend. But then there is one con too many, and his Berlin adventures begin to get far more serious.

Isherwood condemned his own novel, twenty years later, as a heartless fairy-story. But as a description of one type of mischief that was lost with the Nazi regime, the unraveling of a sub-society, and the terrible rise of Hitler, it is effective and heartrending. After reading Orwell condemn just the sort of poncey halfassed Marxist that Isherwood clearly knew he was, this was an interesting counterpoint: we need many different kinds of stories about war and politics, and the exposure of people to evil, and the fact that even Norris is horrified by Hitler is a darkly funny testament to that. Not heartless at all, it’s a very funny work shot through with suppressed terror.

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Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #40: Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

levyLast week my train home was delayed by, according to the tired-of-this-shit station announcer, “At least 45 minutes.” It turned out to be closer to an hour twenty. I was thrilled. It was just enough time to finish reading Swimming Home, let the whiplash of the ending flip me back to re-read several passages, and walk off a little of the shock and satisfaction of this odd, intense novel.

Spinning a tale from that clunky old set-up, bickering English people on holiday somewhere hot and slightly exotic, Levy sets up a family group in a villa on the Riviera, and sticks a body in their swimming pool. The body is the very alive, very naked, Kitty Finch – a character who reminded me of Poison Ivy. She’s beautiful, and bonkers, and a botany student; she also writes poetry, toxic tendrils of which unfurl in the direction of alpha male Joe. Joe is a famous poet, an adulterer, a loving father, a man on holiday with some of his wife’s friends who don’t much care for him, and he knows that Kitty is dangerous. Everyone seems to see something dark in Kitty – except for Joe’s wife, Isabel, a war correspondent. Isabel invites Kitty to stay.

Thus the stage is set. People bake under the sun and plants wilt. Things begin to rot. Levy sends us through the bottom of the dark pool of an Agatha Christie plot and dredges up something that’s off. But the writing is limber and sparky, each word sinking deeply like a pebble hitting the water. It was kind of like watching a subtitled movie, one with many hazy long shots that you can’t quite puzzle out – you have to sink in to the resonance of emotion, and the otherness of the world created.

It’s an arty thriller, like The Secret History, but with a whole different set of references. It made me very glad to be staycationing in grey England and not somewhere hot and unsettling.

 

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #35: The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery

I very rarely re-read books, but when Hesperus Press re-issued L. M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle I could barely stop myself. At first I just picked at it, looking for tidbits to amuse myself, but before long I had to curl up and lose myself all over again. This is a pure comfort read for me, a soppy tale based around the most hackneyed cliche of a woman only finding life when she encounters death. It’s full of sass and vigour and beautiful nature writing, and one of literature’s great spinsters, Valancy Stirling.

Like moi, Valancy is an unmarried woman of a certain age, but unlike moi she doesn’t enjoy the spinster comforts of gin-drinking, debauched company, and Magic Mike .gifs. She’s not even allowed to read novels, by the command of her overpowering and constantly disappointed mother Mrs. Frederick. One thing my re-visit to this book picked up on much more was that, for unmarried women in an earlier age – the book is set in the early 20s, in smalltown Canada – the economic ties that bound them to their family did bind them so much to acceptable behaviour.

Without even fiction as a solace, Valancy turns to her rich inner life in a fantasy Blue Castle. But even that can’t help her on the morning of her 29th birthday, when she’s faced with a long loveless future in the ghastly household she endures with Mrs. Frederick and Cousin Stickles, and a social life composed of her stuffy, judgmental, hectoring relatives. She also has these chest pains which are getting worse and worse, but does she have the gumption to go to a doctor behind her mother’s back? One rainy morning, she does – and like romantic comedy heroines through the years, she finds out she has a fatal heart condition, and will be dead in a year.

The news understandably upsets her, but instead of informing her miserable clan, she embarks on a surprising quest to make her last year count for something. Will there be lessons learnt, will her bullying relatives get shown up, is there a chance for love for Valancy, after all? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work it out, but Valancy’s magical year is enchanting to read about.

As well as the wish-fulfillment and the soppiness, I felt a lot of common ground with Stefan Zweig’s The Post Office Girl, a realist take on the Cinderella myth. Both the heroines are spinsters marooned in life by social mores and family situations, who hitch their stars to unlikely wagons.

Unlike Zweig, Montgomery doesn’t go in for blistering social realism. But if you want to press a book to your chest and heave a great sigh of joy when that long-awaited first kiss happens, then she can deftly construct the enchantment needed. Sometimes realism can go hang. The ending is utterly satisfying, and I’m sure I’ll return to it again and again.

Lauri’s #CBR5 Review #7: The Martian by Andrew Weir

I “borromartianwed” the Kindle edition of this techy sci-fi novel from my dad — who reads a lot of cheap books on his Kindle. While I think he makes up for quality with quantity, he raved enough about this book that I thought I’d give it a try.

Andrew Weir’s novel about an astronaut left for dead on Mars attempting to survive everything thrown at him is a fun, though sometimes tedious, read. It’s hard sci-fi with lots of technical explanations that I generally just let roll over me as I waited for the protagonist, with the help of mission control back on Earth, to overcome the immense alien world around him. This book is the ultimate Man vs. Nature and while the prose is nothing to write home about, the book moves along at a decently-paced clip.

I would recommend this to anyone who likes sci-fi and wants some light reading for the beach or pool.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #30: The Key by Junichiro Tanizaki

When I picked it up for a holiday read, I didn’t realise that The Key would fit in with my spies theme so well. It’s another story about secrets slowly being unwrapped, but these ones are inside a marriage, and they concern the body of a woman.

Two diaries, side by side, tell the story of a man’s sexual exploitation of his wife – in a most unusual way*. There are a lot of doubles in this story, and a lot of muddled visions. Even assuming, as I did when reading, that neither the husband or wife were telling the full truth, quite prepared me for the ending.

It is an unsettling and intimate read.

*Perhaps I’m sheltered, but I think it’s a fairly unusual way of going about this type of business.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #29: Spies by Michael Frayn

I was going for an espionage theme at the beginning of this month, which has currently been derailed, but it was an opportunity to finally lash into this corker of a novel. After seeing Copenhagen in my feckless youth and being dazzled by it, I’ve admired and fancied Frayn for his wordcraft, smarts, and great sense of humour. I must’ve owned at least two copies of this in the last ten years. But I was apprehensive of it – something sinister lay behind that hedge on the front cover, and perhaps I wasn’t smart enough to appreciate it? It was released in 2002, when I was still trying to get a handle on the confusing world of ‘grown up’ fiction. Ten (!) years later I took it on a weekend holiday away, to see if we could get in a dirty fling overseas.

I bloody loved it. It’s a book about childhood that nails so much that’s right about the state of being young, and those half-true stories that seem to be everywhere, in the very air, and the powers of imagination. It also captures that cruelty of children, chillingly. One moment had me gasp out loud, then put the book down to recover.

One of the review quotes in the front compares it positively with The Go-Between, which is my pick for the most perfectly realised novel ever, and I’d co-sign that. They both cover some similar ground – the lurch from child to adult, secrets half-revealed, the black holes of our memories. A wonderful, potent story.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #28: A Delicate Truth by John Le Carré

For years I assumed that Le Carré was Dad Lit, along the lines of Tom Clancy or John Grisham. Blame those glossy 80s covers, I guess, or my own Dad’s appreciation of them. Sorry, Dad. It took the combined forces of Oldman, Hardy, Cumberbatch, Strong & Firth (not to mention my beloved Kathy Bates) in the recent top drawer film adaptation of Tinker Tailor Solider Spy to get me to read the Karla trilogy, which I roared through and absolutely adored. I had no idea that this holiday-home-reading-shelf staple was so brilliantly witty, wry, sharp, sad, and surprisingly queer, both poignant and pointed about the decline of the Empire viewed in the microcosm of MI6.

Le Carré is that rare creature, a sure bet. His books are always good-to-excellent, and even though his latest isn’t quite in the league of his masterpieces, it’s still a killer read with a sharp edge to it. Like the recent headline says, he ain’t mellowed with age. This is a story with teeth.

It took me a little while to ease into it, which is probably more my fault than the novel, but once I let the familiar elements grip me – a lone man in the system, pervasive corruption, opacity, sex, dryly observed social mores,  the anti-glamour of the secret world of the foreign service – I was riveted. Without giving too much away, it starts in 2008 with a man in a hotel room, on a top secret mission, and then goes ahead four years later, where many people have to deal with the unforeseen consequences of that evening. Deadly stuff.