Witty, insightful, poignant and thought-provoking, for men of a certain age Marcus Berkmann’s book provides a useful compass with which to navigate those twilight years, with humour rather than resignation, grace rather than grumpiness. Should be compulsory reading for all men with the potential to age predictably.
This was a random choice on my part, with which to fill the waiting times that accompany jury service. But, if I say so myself, an excellent choice, brimming with likable, if somewhat flawed characters, set in a wonderfully familiar 1960s onwards. Not since ‘Fever Pitch’ and the well thumbed pages describing West Ham’ s FA Cup triumph over Hornby’ s beloved Arsenal have I felt so warmly nostalgic and thankful to have been there.
This book follows the journey of fictional rising TV star Sophie Straw, but it is the clever background use of programmes such as ‘Till death us do part’ and ‘Steptoe and son’, which gave the novel depth and for this reader an added affinity with the central ‘cast’. The clothes, activities, people and cultural norms all seemed so gloriously yesteryear, sympathetically described by the author and diligently reflecting the seemingly dated expectations of the time. This is no retrospective critique, but rather a wonderful observation of the period with its sometimes bizarre conventions, seen through the eyes of a young northern woman drawn to London in search of a better future. I thoroughly enjoyed the storyline and commend Nick Hornby for his deft handling of the relationships weaving together a very compelling read.
The word ‘superb’ is not one I bandy about lightly, but it seems eminently appropriate for “The Book Thief” by Marcus Zusak. Not only is it inventive in the use of Death as a narrator, which adds a peculiar perspective to the story and confers so much more than a simple device, but the plot and characters are truly compelling. Just when I might have thought the rich seam of World War II had been overworked, comes this beautifully crafted book, which teases at loose threads of this global human tragedy and gradually unpicks the experience of a unique individual, her foster parents and the street and town in which they lived. That the street and characters are German and shaped by the familiar trajectory of the conflict is intriguing. That human frailties and blessed courage know no national boundaries, yet flourish at the individual level, is fascinating. The gloriously flawed heroine, Liesel, is a child, but nonetheless challenges stereotypes and her arbitrary circumstances, not saintly, but indomitable, funny yet deep. Meanwhile, the disparate array of relationships between Liesel and her parents, neighbours, asylum-seeker and benefactor sow the seeds of sadness, frustration, admiration and despair in equal measure. The impact of man’s folly is clearly shown in war and is perhaps felt most keenly by the poor and yet the author also casts a hopeful light on the resilience of the human spirit and without sentimentality the possibility of greater things. A wonderfully poignant read to ponder.
We all have talents, this seems self-evident, but in a world apparently possessed by a clamouring for celebrity culture and the reward of extrovert behaviour, there is a risk that we trade charisma for depth and push ‘quiet’ souls to the margins. This book makes a compelling case for re-evaluating the contribution of the introverted and examines why the range of human personalities exists, what are the implications for those who fall to the introverted end of that continuum and for those successful in overcoming such a potential disadvantage, how did they do it? Naturally there is an obvious attraction in this book for introverts everywhere (though western culture appears to offer the greatest challenge) and there is a warming validation in Susan Cain’s explanation that it’s OK to be ‘quiet’. The cerebral-leaning are not to be pitied, the ‘geeky’, the ‘shy’ are capable of making profound contributions in work and social life and this book offers some real insight for those seeking to understand how best to relate. The book also offers strategies for the introvert not wanting to be held hostage to their natural self. I found it gratifying to find that introverts don’t need to move to China to be appreciated, but awareness of approaches that might oil the wheels of relationships were thought-provoking. This book reaffirms that ‘it takes all sorts’, but my favourite quote appears in the conclusion, “The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting.For some it’s a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamplit desk”. Thank goodness for that!
The underlying premise of this book is quite intriguing in that it appears to question the morality behind the ‘warehousing’ of our elders in Care Homes. Moreover, the delegation of caring responsibilities for some of our more vulnerable people to the vagaries of commercial enterprise seems destined to deliver only a diminished quality of life. Cue Martha Andersson, a septuagenarian heroine unwilling to allow the status quo to go unchallenged and the potential for conflict, drama and humour is set. Like a latter-day Spartacus, Martha contrives to lead her friends and fellow malcontents on a spree of uninhabited rule-breaking and new experiences, in an effort to enrich their lives.The series of adventures struck me as reminiscent of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, or rather how they might behave in retirement. Still, there is something endearing in the rebels rejection of stereotypes and their general railing against the dying of the light. Indeed, there is something delicious about the group’s refusal to comply with social etiquette and the frequently patronizing expectations of the older fraternity. Friendship, romance, bonding and unashamed thrill-seeking drive the ‘gang’ into an escalating spiral of misdemeanors, outwitting those in authority and proving the adage that people can only be ‘governed’ by consent.
On the whole an easy, entertaining read without being overtly funny or exciting. Nonetheless, the concept is a good one and just as some of us aspire to be the elder in the purple hat, some of us may now have a sneaking desire to join the ranks of the aged rebels and definitely not go quietly, but rather wring some quality from life well into our dotage.
This latest book by Kazuo Ishiguro has the feel of another experimental departure. There is no doubt the author is a gifted writer and yet in this sojourn into the genre of fantasy and legend, his mastery of language underpins another compelling novel. It has not always been the case (I disliked ‘The Unconsoled’ quite strongly), but in this book there seems to be a return to the sure-footed exploration of relationships and character development that resonated so memorably through “The Remains of the Day” and “Never Let Me Go”.
In “The Buried Giant”, set in post-Roman, post Authurian Britain, we follow the journey of elderly native couple, Axl and Beatrice, as they walk towards their son’s village, some days away. Enter saxon warrior (Wiston) and later, aged nephew of King Arthur (Sir Gwawain), who befirend the couple on their travels, protect them through a series of diverting challenges and provide a welcome change of pace. Throughout the literal journey, Ishiguro also exposes gradually the challenges of a lifetime together, which have been overcome by the couple and the consequent strength of their relationship, weathered by such adversity. In that sense it is a very touching story of mature love and the complexity of of the human bond. No longer fueled by youthful passion perhaps, nonetheless, the poignant intimacy between Axl and Beatrice and their dogged loyalty to each other is inspiring and described with great empathy and skill.
Arguably, a philosophical theme of the book surrounds the role of memory as the mortar, which binds together the foundations of our shared experience and upon which our one-to-one and broader collective relationships are constructed. Moreover, the partial interpretation of memories can prove both a blessing and a curse, which potentially subvert our respective futures.
However, in a more prosaic reading, the inclusion of exciting swordplay, some wayward monks and a dragon, against a backdrop of ancient Britain and the plot woven by the author is simply an exceptionally crafted tale with a beauty in the writing, which will continue to live long in the memory.
An engrossing novel, which charts the devastating, lifelong impact of a misguided child’s testimony, in the wake of sordid domestic incidents. Belatedly, Briony Tallis, acknowledging her role in the deceit destined to shatter her family and the life of her sister’s lover, seeks to atone. In this acclaimed work, McEwan deftly develops the plot against the backdrop of Britain in the 1930s, 40s and post-war, conferring upon the book momentum, but also a weight of years, which carries the reader seamlessly to a contemporary conclusion.
One can but feel a sense of enduring torment for Briony, though dwarfed by the price paid by Cecilia Tallis and her would-be suitor, Robbie Turner. The sweep of the book touches on class, and the seismic social change in Britain advanced by the war, as experienced by the main characters. However, while the fickle nature of fate is evident, so too is the injustice of an immutable social order destined to ensure the ‘criminals’ live the life that was expected, apparently untainted by their willingness to sacrifice the innocent.
The book also offers a commentary on love, but challenges the construction of romantic idylls, which demand a happy ending. Rather, Briony’s gnawing sense of guilt is overtaken by the reality of events and her sense of ‘doing the right thing’ must suffer an unsatisfying delay. The resulting sense of unfairness for the victims is palpable and skilfully managed by McEwan, which is testament to his writing powers. Ultimately life can be unfair, despite our hankering for ‘natural justice’!
This was my first dip into the work of this author, but on this evidence he is rightly lauded and I found ‘Atonement’ a truly absorbing read.
There can be little doubt that McEwan ia an exceptionally talented writer. Fresh from reading “Atonement”, for me, this is clearly demonstrated by the contrasting, but similarly compelling style and storyline deployed in “Solar”.
This book centres on Nobel-prize-winning physicist, Professor Michael Beard. A brilliant mind, though past his ‘best before’ shelf-life, Beard is an emotional train crash, careering out of a fifth failed marriage and destined to be perpetually disappointed by the self-inflicted carnage of his sabotaged relationships. And yet, the superficial nature of Beard’s disposable romantic encounters, juxtaposed with the gravity and gloomy predictions of global-warming, is shot through with mawkish satirical humour. Notwithstanding the lure of scientific rationality, the weak and shallow base motivations of man are seemingly unequal to the challenge of impending destruction. Moreover, humankind may yet be sacrificed on the altar of our individual and collective inability to focus! It’s a sobering thought….
Another well-constructed novel, which further burnishes McEwan’s reputation, though I was also left with the impression that the serious threat to the planet is no laughing matter!
This book chronicles the life of Phillip, from orphaned young boy to around thirty, set in the late 19th century and yet the story is so exquisitely told that a much longer period seemed to pass. Maugham tackles some weighty themes too, such as the meaning (or not) of life, class, death, gender, poverty, the relevance of ‘moral’ behaviour. There are very few books that I would consider starting again immediately, but with “Of Human Bondage”, I could, safe in the knowledge that there would still be much to mull over within the text. Notwithstanding the beautiful use of language, at times the book seems quite profound and I found myself savouring some delightful passages. Certainly the themes retain a contemporary resonance and the tension between individual and wider social values continue to echo modern dilemmas. This was my first exposure to Maugham and yet this book has been elevated , on this one reading, to my personal shortlist of ‘great’ books. The plot appears simple and yet is intricate in the unfurling, the underlying issues are challenging and it is hard not to reflect on one’s own capacity for rational behaviour. At the very least it is an interesting examination of aspects of the human condition, which everyone should have on their ‘must read’ list. I must read it again very soon! Simply a great read!