Amis and Hornby and Rankin and more

Singapore officially on Saturday was on a reading jag. READ!Singapore, a 12-hour reading marathon, was organised by the National Library Board to promote the reading habit. Singaporeans swot for school and to climb the career ladder but fewer and fewer people read anything other than textbooks and professional books. So says the READ!Singapore website. The National Library would like people to read more and one of the things it did was organise a book talk for taxi drivers, says Rambling Librarian.

Well, the event was over and out of the way when I visited the Woodlands library yesterday. The place bustled with the typical Sunday crowd — mums with kids borrowing children’s books, youngsters mooching round the shelves, readers browsing in quiet corners.

I was in luck. I got not one, not two, but six good books. Martin Amis’ Money and London Fields, Nick Hornby’s How To Be Good, Alan Lightman’s The Diagnosis, Hari Kunzru’s Transmission, and Ian Rankin’s A Question of Blood. Rankin has already come out with another Inspector Rebus mystery — Fleshmarket Close (published as Fleshmarket Alley in the US). I wonder when I will be able to lay my hands on that. I immensely enjoyed reading Hornby’s High Fidelity — even tracked down some of the songs — and would like to read Fever Pitch again. I had tackled Money earlier — and “tackled” is the word — but though the writing was absolutely fantastic, as hip and colourful as anything written by Rushdie and Tom Wolfe, the voice and character of the hero-cum-narrator was somewhat over-the-top. I got bored. Let’s see if I like it better now. I have never read Kunzru, but he has been praised to the rafters as one of the brighest young writers, and this book looks promising, mixing London and Bollywood and Silicon Valley. I have no idea at all about Lightman except that his book has been highly praised. But I must finish Rankin first. After all, we both love the Rolling Stones!

The Da Vinci Code

There is no reason why a book written by an American should not win Britain’s Book of the Year award though Americans honour only American writings in the Pulitzers and the National Book Awards.  The British Book Awards, or Nibbies as they are called, don’t celebrate exclusively British books and British authors. What matters apparently is how much buzz a book created and how good it was for the book trade, the things that really matter to the publishers and booksellers who choose the award winners.

No wonder then that Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code won the British Book of the Year award. With more than 17 million copies sold, a movie in the making, and generating a huge controversy which is yet to die down, there can be no question this was a humongous bestseller.

I recall a time when one could scarcely travel on a bus or a train in Singapore without seeing someone clutching a copy of The Da Vinci Code.  And it is not as if Singapore commuters invariably travel with a book; they are more likely to carry a newspaper or a music player or fiddle with their cell phones. One reason why the book sparked so much interest was of course the subject matter: many Singaporeans are regular churchgoers.

But I, for one, found the book a huge disappointment. Not that I am inclined to denounce the book with the fury of the Catholic Church which has its own reasons to pour down fire and brimstone. I am all for freedom of expression and reading the book as a work of fiction, though there can be no question that the author was bent on mischief that would play very well in the bestseller lists. But it is such a bad book, even as a work of fiction.

The writing is humdrum, the characters are cardboard cutouts. It seemed to have been written to be made into a movie. It may play well as an action thriller movie, but one thing it is definitely not is a literary thriller. Compare The Da Vinci Code with anything written by John Le Carre or even Len Deighton or Elmore Leonard, and Dan Brown stands exposed as not much of a writer. He may have done his research and he may be able to build a plot, but the writing does not snap and sparkle. It is absolutely leaden. It is sad a book so lacking in style should be Book of the Year, especially in a country which gave us Le Carre and Deighton and Graham Greene.

More Bellow

I discovered I had read one more Saul Bellow novel,  making it three in all.
Mr Sammler’s Planet was the third book. I don’t remember anything about it except the title and the old European Jew Sammler’s confrontation with a black American pickpocket. I remembered that only when I went  through the New York Times website which interestingly published the Times’ original reviews of Bellow’s books.
I did not like Henderson the Rain King. Neither did the Times’ reviewer when the book appeared in 1959. He found it both dismal and fantastical. So did I. 
Herzog on the other hand was acclaimed as a masterpiece when it came out in 1964. Mr Sammler’s Planet also appeared to a favourable review in the Times in 1970 though some voices elsewhere expressed disappointment.

Saul Bellow

06bellow1_184 Maybe I read him when I wasn’t ready to appreciate him. Still the death of Saul Bellow at the age of 89 marks the passing of a literary giant. Three other American writers have won the Nobel after he won in 1976 — Isaac Bashevis Singer in 1978 (only two years later!), Joseph Brodsky in 1987 and Toni Morrison in 1993. Only Morrison is as widely read as Bellow was in his day, though she too is not my kind of a writer.
Singer, though much admired, is too niche a writer. As for Brodsky, I have not read any of his poems or plays.
I am not inclined to pick up Singer again after what little I have read.
But Bellow I should have read more.  Henderson the Rain King and Herzog are his only two novels I have read.  I went through them when I was deep in Graham Greene, Lawrence Durrell and other English writers. An altogether different cup of tea.
PS: Bellow was no minimalist either in his writing or in his private life. He had a daughter by his fifth wife when he was 84!

Macbeth defamed?

Is this a murderous villain I see before me? No, it’s a cuddly, peace-loving king, says The Times headline. And it reports:

DOUBLE, double toil and trouble: Shakespeare’s portrayal of Macbeth as a blood-soaked assassin manipulated by a cunning wife has been branded a travesty by politicians who want to restore the king to his proper place in his nation’s history — and cash in on it.

Members of the Scottish Parliament want to rescue the 11th-century monarch from what they claim is the “bad press” of the play.

The MSPs have submitted a motion to the Scottish Parliament which, if agreed, will see 2005, the 1,000th anniversary of Macbeth’s birth, as the year in which he acquires a new halo and his image as the tragic, twisted villain of the Scottish play is dumped in favour of that of a cuddly, peace-loving monarch.

The motion calls for the Parliament to make arrangements to mark Macbeth’s birthday and regrets that he is “misportrayed in the inaccurate Shakespeare play when he was in fact a successful Scottish king”.

The 20 MSPs who have signed the motion are also calling for the establishment of a Macbeth heritage trail in the north-east of Scotland to boost both tourism in the area, which contains a Macbeth Well and a Macbeth Cairn.

Alex Johnstone, the Conservative MSP who is spearheading the Save Macbeth campaign, said: “Macbeth gets a bad press from his association with Shakespeare. He was very probably a good king and he should be given an amnesty.

Continue reading “Macbeth defamed?”

The second Mrs Eliot

Eliotvalerie I was so surprised when I read today that TS Eliot’s wife is still alive. But Valerie Eliot was only 30 years old when he married her. He was 68 himself. Phew, she was not even half his age. And it was she who pursued him working as his secretary for eight years before he married her in 1957, 10 years after the death of his first wife, Vivien. She did not have him long. He died eight years later in 1965.

The story is told in The Guardian by Karen Christensen, who worked on the first volume of Eliot’s letters. She has an axe to grind. She hoped to publish letters from Eliot’s later life after she came out with the first volume in 1988. But she can’t. She writes:

Continue reading “The second Mrs Eliot”