Reading in order to live

“Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live.” ― Gustave Flaubert

Notes on books I have read

This blog is simply my notes on the books I have been reading. I hope they are of passing interest to those who pass by.

Featured post

Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia by Peter Pomerantsev

One irony of this book is that it gives a very entertaining and insightful account of how modern Russia is awash with conspiracy theories and, at the same time, offers one of its own: that Russia is a gangster state where everything is manipulated in its interests.

The difference is that the latter feels very believable, when presented in this book. The writer is a television producer who has worked extensively in Russia. His style is fast-paced and engaging. He gives the reader a series of stories that, together, suggest that modern Russia is a truly frightening and unstable place, especially so for the people who live there.

Russia and China, today, are gigantic experiments, it seems to me. Something new has emerged from the clash of capitalism with the remnants of socialism, a hybrid that throws up a lot of unpleasantness, with no stable outcome in sight. China still seems to have the ballast of its ancient civilisation, despite the attempts of the Communist Party to destroy it, whereas Russia, according to this book, is very unpredictable and spinning around all over the place. Scary.


The Girls by Emma Cline

I read this after seeing, and really liking, a piece by Emma Cline in a recent issue of Granta magazine, called ‘The Best New American Writing’, or something similar. So it was good that the taster format led me to this book.

What she does really, really well is create an atmosphere of menace, especially menace towards women. Her writing is unsettling. The plot concerns a cult-like community in California in the 1960s, and one person’s involvement with it. I liked the way the narrator’s perspective reflected what she didn’t know, or hinted at it, as well as what she did. It made me think, as I have often before, of how male-dominated a lot of the hippy, free love thing became. In both of the pieces I have read by Cline, her acute analysis of the psychology of her female characters is very powerful.

Very good book.

Eureka Street by Robert McLiam Wilson

I learned after reading this book that it was made into a TV series. It is good, but a little overlong and repetitive. Overall, though, very enjoyable and the author has a real gift for turning a phrase and changing the mood.

It is set in Belfast and makes great fun of the weirdnesses that surround that city. I was there recently and this book was given to me for that reason. It is very funny but sharply satirical at the same time. If you knew nothing about Northern Ireland, a lot would be missed. But it is very entertaining.

Mao’s Great Famine by Frank Dikötter

Books are frequently described as ‘must reads’, or ‘essential reading’. This is as close to that description as any book I have read. It is the second in a trilogy of history books about post-1949 China from this Dutch historian. This book deals with the Great Leap Forward, from about 1958 to 1962. It was a period when political theory was treated as axiomatic and policies were enforced by self-interested bureaucrats with no residue of decency to restrain them and no means of escaping the pressures of the system.

The book, like the others in the trilogy, is founded on hard scholarship, drawing on archives only relatively recently opened. Many remain closed in the authoritarian state that is modern China.

The author’s estimate, the best available I imagine, is that 45 million people died in the famine and associated horrors brought about by Mao’s policies. That is, 45 million more people than would have died anyway. Most died of starvation, some were murdered, some committed suicide and some were killed and their bodies boiled down for fertiliser. The old and children were worst affected. The catalogue of horrors is harrowing reading.

But what is most awful and most astonishing is that the whole thing was entirely man-made. Crazy ideologically-founded ideas, like letting peasants, with no education or tools, build tractors from scratch, on the basis that proletarian zeal can work miracles, took hold and were promulgated and enforced with vigour and violence. The greatest destruction of property in human history saw many buildings broken up and ploughed into the land as fertiliser. Enormous irrigation projects, badly designed and failures from day one, were executed by thousands of poor farmers who were forced to abandon their crops in pursuit of Socialist modernisation.

The Great Leap Forward must stand as the worst example of ideological lunacy in human history. But the reason it is important to read this book is that the period is within living memory. The Party that did all this is still in power. Makes you think.

The Psychopathology of Everyday Life by Sigmund Freud

I think one book by Freud is probably enough, unless you are into the detail. His theories are incredibly interesting but they do boil down to one big idea: that the activities of the human mind are interconnected by many layers of meaning and consciousness. So even the most trivial mental event has ramifications and causes.

I confess I did not read all of this book, as the detail of his cases did not interest me sufficiently, fascinating though they are, especially for psychologists and psychiatrists. So much of Freud has soaked into our everyday language – ‘Freudian slips’ and quips about penis envy – that it is easy to forget what an amazing and revolutionary thinker he was.

I suspect true followers of Freud must spend a good part of each day analysing the smaller part of the day during which they did something else. Almost everything is susceptible to analysis, almost without limit. Which is as daunting as it is exciting.

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

I read Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain, when I was too young to understand it. This novel is about an American – David – in Paris, who cannot reconcile his homosexual love for Giovanni with the expectations of convention and his lifestyle.

It is quite harrowing and intense but gripping and rather sad. The atmosphere of Paris is beautifully constructed and the feelings of the characters are convincingly portrayed. David’s fiancee, Hella, is a particularly vivid character, in contrast to those of Maugham (see below).

The book must have been pretty edgy for the 1950s. A very good read but serious and thoughtful.

The Moon and Sixpence by W Somerset Maugham

An enjoyable novel, but flawed. Maugham’s great strength is his ability to write aphoristic, clever, declaratory sentences. But his weakness is his complete failure to write convincing female characters, at least in this book.

The story concerns a fictional painter called Charles Strickland, based on Paul Gauguin, who abandons his comfortable middle class life in London and ‘drops out’ to become a painter in Paris. He then goes to live in Tahiti, where he lives in extreme poverty before dying of leprosy. He is sociopathic and entirely unsympathetic as a character, consumed by his artistic mission.

The narrator is a writer, who observes Strickland but is never a friend, as Strickland has no friends.

It is a well-paced, very sophisticated novel but the female characters are unconvincing and serve only as illustrations of the effects of Strickland’s strange charisma.

A pleasant holiday diversion but a bit dated, truth to tell.

Ruined City by Nevil Shute

This was recommended – a little half-heartedly – by an acquaintance of mine who is a merchant banker. It concerns a merchant banker (funny, that) who comes to question the purpose of his all-consuming work and, after a spell in a hospital in the depressed North East of England, decides to use his wealth and prestige in the City of London to bring jobs back to a poor and workless town.

I had not read a Shute novel for many years, though with A J Cronin and one or two others, he was a novelist I read a lot as a teenager.

This book has a lot to dislike for the modern reader. Lots of racism, which I suppose was normal at the time of writing; some very two dimensional ‘oriental’ characters, set in a fictional state in the Balkans; a working assumption that Britain is best, for everything; and an assortment of cheerfully simple-minded working class characters.

For all that, it rattles along. But it is a bit rubbish, really.

Between Friends by Amos Oz

I thoroughly enjoyed this collection of short stories, all dealing with the same characters and all set in a kibbutz. I was attracted to a kibbutz myself, when I was about 18, probably towards the end of the period during which working on one was on the list of things that people of that age in the UK did, along with riding on a double decker bus to India and working as a helper on Camp America.

The stories are all about the relationships within the kibbutz but they are never cloying and each, in its own way, raises questions about the system: the way in which women are not treated equally; the restrictions imposed by communal living on personal freedom; and the dominance of the articulate and the ideological. It also reminds the reader of the embattled and politicised nature of Israel, at least as understood by the kibbutzim.

There are some phrases repeated, not particularly meaningful ones, in several of the stories but I put that down to the translation.

Overall, I am not sorry, after reading this book, that my youthful flirtation with heading off to a kibbutz never led anywhere. It all sounds a bit weird.

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