Tuesday, 26 August 2014


Title: (George)

Author: E.L. Konigsburg

Date of publication: 1970, Macmillan edition 1971

Status: Completed

Inner cover blurb: 'George is a little man who lives inside Ben, but his is no still small voice.  George speaks out loud and clear and his opinions quite frequently fail to coincide with Ben's.  For instance about William.  Ben thinks William is great.  He admires everything he does, and William is not only four years older but conspicuously successful.  George thinks William is a phoney.
   The only other person who knows about George is Howard.  Ben's kid brother, and he knows because, except for Ben, he is the only person George has ever spoken outloud to.  George finds Howard a comfortable friend.  They look at the world in the same way, except Howard can see it.
   That was how it stood the year that Ben was twelve and Mr Berkowitz announced that the seniors in the Organic Chemistry class were going to be allowed to do research.  This meant that William and Ben could no longer be lab partners.  Ben was sore but George was glad.  He felt Ben was getting too absorbed in science and he felt it would lead to no good.  He was right, but it took some pretty sensational happenings and an alarming period of non-communication before they (and Howard) were on speaking terms again.  In fact things might have made headlines and changed a lot of lives for the worse if it hadn't been for George.

Reading reveals: EL Konigsberg was a treasured American children's author, but (George) is one of her less-treasured books.  The premise of a boy with another personality living inside him is great, but George never reveals himself to be that interesting.  Then the plot gets bogged down in some tedium about talented high-school kids doing university-level research and some missing lab equipment that you can't imagine any young reader getting that excited about.  Maddeningly, the story sparks into life when enquiries are made into the protagonist's mental health, and there's a timely LSD scene, but nothing leads anywhere of consequence.  A frustrating book that has the capacity to be a classic, but just skims the surface of its material.  Oh well.  At least it's got pictures.


Monday, 18 August 2014

My Merry Mornings

Title: My Merry Mornings

Author: Ivan Klíma

Date of publication: 1983, Readers International Edition 1985

Status: Completed

Back cover blurb: 'A popular young writer during the Prague Spring, Ivan Klíma was banned from publishing in the aftermath of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.  He has continued to write, however, and his works circulate in hand-typed, lovingly bound "padlock editions", along with other banned writers like Kafka, Orwell, Kundera and Škvorecký.' 

Reading reveals: A collection of stories, one for each day of the week, detailing the life of an intellectual forced to work a series of menial jobs under the Czech communist regime.  How purely autobiographical they are are is open to question (the author's wife and family zip in and out of existence throughout the book, while any woman who meets him immediately wants to sleep with him, despite his looking like a hobbit in a Beatle-wig on the back cover), but nevertheless the stories are sprightly and joyful, as the title states, despite the underlying grimness of the situation.  An engaging and surprisingly sexy tour of Communist-era hospitals, building sites and live carp street sellers.

Random paragraph: 'I think she worked as a shop assistant.  Whenever I saw her she was giggling at something, no doubt under the impression that laughing made her look sexy.  In bed, or so Mr Mixa maintained, she demanded it three times - first with him on top, then from the left and thirdly from the right.  Mr Mixa related all this in order to show how virile he was despite his age and his bulk.'


Saturday, 2 August 2014

The Revolt of Gunner Asch

Title: The Revolt of Gunner Asch

Author: H.H. Kirst

Date of publication: 1954, Fontana edition 1971

Status: Abandoned, p. 16

Back cover blurb: 'The "Catch 22" of the German armed forces
   Gunner Asch is fed up with his brutal barrack-room companions, with his Nazi bosses, and with the horror and stupidity of the coming war.  Also, he is seeing far too little of his girl.  But what can one man do against the mightiest army in the world?  It is a known fact that every army has its weak spot.  So Asch finds the Wehrmacht's - and strikes hard!'

Reading reveals: Former Nazi Party member H.H. Kirst's 'Gunner Asch' series was a huge success, selling millions of copies across Europe, and re-published regularly in the UK from the mid-50s to the early-80s.  The writing (or at least, that of the translation) was too perfunctory to engage me, and anyway, I hate books about soldiers because I never know who outranks whom.
  What is more of interest to me is the sheer wrongness of the covers they ended up with in the UK.  Generally, they were a photographic/cartoon combo featuring German military/Nazi uniforms and women's breasts, neatly encapsulating the weird relationship with WWII some sections of the British public somehow developed in the following decades.  Here is a prime example:

Why would you publish that?  Why would you buy it, unless you were into that stuff that Max Mosley definitely wasn't?  I've actually seen even worse covers on books by Kirst wannabes (you could see nips, and swastikas), but couldn't bring myself to acquire them for the library.  There are limits.  Even here, there are limits.

Random paragraph: 'Johannes was now standing in front of the entrance to the barrack block.  He looked up.  He could just make out the shape of a woman leaning out of a window.  It was Lore Schulz, the sergeant-major's wife.'


The Fall of Valour

Title: The Fall of Valour

Author: Charles Jackson

Date of publication: 1948, Ace edition 1960

Status: Completed:

   Mr. Jackson has handled this difficult painful them with skill and sensitivity.
   There is an undoubted earnestness and care in his sketch of the university professor whose marriage is coming to grief and finds himself in new deep waters with his love for a young soldier.
   The Fall of Valour is a work of great competence.
   I... was thrilled by the exact understanding of the problems that beset every overworked husband and underloved wife.
   by the author of The Lost Weekend'

Reading reveals: In The Lost Weekend, Jackson dealt with the thorny subject of alcoholism.  In this follow-up, he dealt with the still thornier subject (for 1948) of a male university professor falling in love with a sailor.  This is the sort of story that Far From Heaven intimated would have been untellable at the time actually being told.  True, much of the detail is hidden in delicate phrases, but squint and there are periods, contraceptives and erections all over the shop.  It speaks of a time when sexual categories were so crudely defined, people could be left utterly out of touch with their desires, not knowing who or what it was they wanted.  Of course, we've fixed all that now and everything's fine.
   Swimming in a fog of interiority, there'a Death in Venice languor from which the inevitable unwanted erection emerges.  Although the characters see homosexuality as a shameful state one step above child molesting in the pervy scheme of things, the book doesn't, and is ultimately humane in its treatment of the issue, and its exploration of a time when some men went to war and some didn't, and some men were thought of as men, and some were not.

Random paragraph: 'Cliff gazed moodily into the surf, his forehead troubled and frowning.  "Gee, sometimes I even think-"  He broke off suddenly, as if disgusted with himself."