Recently Reviewed Books…

Experience: A MemoirExperience: A Memoir by Martin Amis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Transcending the Purely Dental


The above occurred to me as an apt title, for Martin embodies, among other things, the Englishman’s pre-occupation with bad teeth.

Raised in the bosom of private schools and under the shadow of a larger-than life literary lion, father Kingsley, Martin flunks, plays truant, and smokes dope before stepmother Jane (also an author) takes him under her wing and inspires him to qualify for Oxford. From this late blooming (or awakening) Martin goes on to match his father in literary heft.

This book is mainly an elegy to Kingsley, for we see him and his ghost throughout the book,  but it is mostly of the elder Amis coming down the mountain from the literary heights he attained after the success of his breakout novel, Lucky Jim. Kingsley loved his booze and his women and drove his wives away with his bad behaviour, even though they both remained loyal to him until the end. Kingsley is an enigma: he refused to drive and refused to fly, and couldn’t easily be alone in a bus, a train or a lift, or in a house after dark. Martin sums his father’s decline well: “With him, getting fat was more like a project, grimly inaugurated on the day Jane left him in the winter of 1980. He ate for comfort; the tranquillising effects of starch and glucose helped to allay fear. But I now see that his nocturnal gorging was a complex symptom, regressive, self-isolating. It cancelled him out sexually. It seemed to say that it was over: the quest for love, and the belief in its primacy.”

Martin’s literary heroes are Christopher Hitchens, Vladimir Nabokov, Saul Bellow, James Joyce, and of course, Daddy. Yet these literary stars were querulous and critical of each other:  Nabokov criticized Joyce, Kingsley criticized Nabokov, and Hitchens destroyed a visit with the ailing Bellow by talking outrageously. Similarly they ooze literary wisdom:

1.     Don’t start two consecutive paragraphs with the same word, but you can start three consecutive ones.

2.     The writer is the opposite of the suicide, constantly applauding life and, furthermore, creating it, assigning breath and pulse to ‘a nonexistent progeny.’

3.     If the trick is to work, the unreliable narrator must in fact be very reliable indeed: reliably partial, reliably unaware of his own egotism.

4.     Writers write far more penetratingly than they live. Their novels show them at their very best, making a huge effort: stretched until they twang.

The narrative jumps back and forth in time, as if Martin prefers to dive deep into each recollection rather then try to stich them into a chronological order. Letters he sent his father and stepmother—candid ones that are quite literary and usually end with a request for money—open many of the chapters, and we see the budding and bold writer trying to match up to the established father. I got the impression that either Martin has a very impressive vocabulary or he was using ancient thesauri to pull out lesser used synonyms to pepper his narrative.

Martin’s misfortunes with his bad teeth, that embarrass him no end, and Kingsley’s lingering death get more than required air time in this book. Also floating around to provide an air of mystery and tragedy is the murder of Martin’s first cousin, Lucy Partington, by one of Britain’s most prolific serial killers. Noteworthy is that the “villain of the piece” turns out to be Kingsley’s biographer who writes and sells an unflattering account of the elder Amis to the tabloids upon his subject’s death. Descriptions like, “He is Thersites: a one-speech phenomenon in the Iliad, but a fully developed argument in Troilus and Cressida. ‘Thou crusty batch of nature’, as the (here) despicable Achilles calls him. ‘[T]hou core of envy.’ Thersites — ‘A slave whose gall coins slanders like a mint.’ He is the ‘deformed and scurrilous Greek’, compelled by his own baseness to see deformity everywhere” – didn’t enamour the biographer to the Amis family. I concur.

This is a good book to glimpse into the life of a literary giant who did not have to struggle to get published (his father’s agent and publisher published Martin’s first book and got him off to the races without the required mandatory years committed to wandering in the literary wilderness). His career flourished in the company of well-known personalities of the literary and entertainment world. In Martin’s own words, he was an Osric, the unworthy courtier who found himself among royalty. This memoir is his attempt to succeed in the new world of experiential writing which he recognizes as ascendant – “We live in the age of mass loquacity. We are all writing it or at any rate talking it: the memoir, the apologia, the c.v., the cri de coeur. Nothing, for now, can compete with experience.”

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A Writer's NotebookA Writer’s Notebook by W. Somerset Maugham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book about forty years ago, when I had aspirations of becoming a writer, and it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, as I did not have the “lived experience” of one, at the time. Reading it now, nearly twenty years into my writing journey, it is a goldmine of information and a reassurance regarding this perilous profession.

Somerset Maugham, one of the most celebrated popular writers and playwrights of the 19th and 20th centuries, has often been dismissed by the literati for not being a serious literary writer. And yet, many envied the lifestyle he enjoyed as a writer with his home on the French Riviera, his travels around the globe into hot-spots and playgrounds, his many plays in London and Broadway, and the movies made of his novels and short stories.

In this book, condensed from 15 manuscripts, which spans from 1892 when the author was 18 to 1944 when he was seventy, we see the man behind the mask: the philosopher, the product of empire, the acute and intrusive observer, the restless seeker, the spy, the consummate healer, the atheist, the man with his secret sexuality, and the celebrity who believed that his success was fleeting. From his early thoughts on the purpose of life, he dedicates separate chapters to travel (in the South Pacific, South-East Asia, Europe, America, and India), to the people he encountered and who made it either whole or in part as characters in his fiction, to his practice strokes of place descriptions spurred by criticism that his writing was flat, to his wartime exploits as a doctor and spy (WWI) and Allied promoter (WWII), and to his ruminations on a life-lived to the max as he enters his seventies.

Along the way, we are exposed to his philosophy of life, insights that elevate him above the average writing hack (literati – take note!):
-“Unselfish parents have selfish children” – he justifies the selfishness in children.
-Wisdom is only available to a minority – hence the world cannot act wisely.
-The attainment of pleasure is the object of all actions.
– A novelist must never grow up, or else he will lose interest in his craft.
– The ego causes our wickedness. But it also gave us music, poetry, painting and art.
– Being famous? Like wondering whether the string of pearls you have is real or cultured.
– Americans are more concerned with their plumbing than their cooking.

I found his descriptions of the outer reaches and trading outposts of the British Empire and its denizens to be the most interesting. Many of the characters he paints are expatriates who are missing something in their lives, who drink copiously, are married to local women, or are of mixed blood themselves. They live lives of isolation with a marked lack of intellectual stimulation, like deformed trees that have grown up on a beach under a one-directional force of wind.

As he sums up in his three-score-and-tenth year, he accepts responsibility for his earlier self-righteousness, although he still believes that “might is right.” He still has trouble with the soul and its transmigration as he was exposed to in India, and he believes in death being a full stop. He doesn’t mourn the loss of his boat, his house on the Riviera, and his artwork – all confiscated by the Axis powers – at least in this respect he has realized that you can’t take your earthly wealth with you. However, like a good writer, he laments that there are four novels he yet has to write but doesn’t have the energy to get to them; but also like a good writer, in a footnote written five years later, he apparently finished three of them.

This is a writer’s notebook, and should be appreciated as such: scraps of disparate information and sketches that paint the life of an itinerant writer and the places and people he touched. Unlike his fiction, it has no beginning, middle and end. However, for a writer, it is an engaging companion for those long days when we feel we are going nowhere.

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I, Claudius (Claudius, #1)I, Claudius by Robert Graves
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An interesting history of the Roman Empire, around the time it swivelled from its rise under Augustus Caesar to its fall under his progeny, told by the idiot Claudius who went on to become the one remaining spark before the lights finally went out for the Ceasars.

Robert Graves chooses to tell this saga that spans the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula, through the eyes and quill of Claudius, the stammering, lame, sickly discard from the Claudian line of the Caesars. Sitting between the three emperors in age (he is the adopted grandson of Augustus, the nephew of Tiberius and the uncle of Caligula) Claudius witnesses the grandeur, folly and mayhem these rulers unleash upon Rome.

Augustus is the great empire maker, bringing the far flung colonies of Rome under central command and creating a working form of government. Universally revered by the populace, he is destined to be crowned a god upon his death. He is, however, henpecked by the real power behind the throne, his second wife Livia of the Claudian line. Livia is the villain of the piece, forcing Augustus to divorce his first wife, Scribonia, on trumped up charges that she was carrying another man’s baby (when it was Augustus’); she poisons an ever-lengthening list of nobles who are perceived threats to her reign – after awhile, if anyone dies suddenly, just put it down to Livia’s work. She even resorts to exotic forms of poison: Julia, the supposed love child of Scribonia, is given “a mixture of crushed bodies of certain green flies” which turns her into a nymphomaniac. Some of those who fall out of favour are exiled for life on remote islands of the empire.

Tiberius keeps Livia close to him when he ascends the throne. He is a mean and ugly man, distinguished in battle. His reign is filled with informers; trials by trumped-up charge of anyone suspected of treason are de rigueur. His ally is Sejanus, Head of the Guards, who fills His Excellency’s head with the dirty (and false) secrets of those who must be gotten rid of. Counterbalancing Tiberius is his nephew and Claudius’ brother, Germanicus, the truly noble and courageous Roman. Germanicus distinguishes himself in battles in Germany and France and challenges his uncle’s unsavoury practices, only to end up poisoned. Sejanus’s reward for his poison-tip whispering is to be dismembered by Tiberius. Everyone lives in fear, and loyalty has an expiry date.

Fear ramps up to a ridiculous degree when the mad Caligula has his grand-uncle assassinated and ascends the throne. Sports, arts, and entertainment-crazy young Caligula runs through the empire’s coffers in a non-ending debauch; he passes laws that force the citizens to pay for his excesses; he openly sleeps with his trusted senators’ wives, after running through four wives himself; he murders people at will, just for the heck of it. Claudius lives in mortal fear of his crazy nephew, placating and humoring him at every move.

Of course, this mad reign has to end in carnage, and it does, leaving no one to rule in the royal family but the crippled and cowering uncle Claudius, who is quickly elevated to emperor to quell a mutiny in the ranks of the military. Claudius’ enlightened 14-year rule is the subject of the sequel to this novel.

Given that Claudius is a writer and a historian, accredited with documenting the history of the pre-Roman civilization of Carthage and compiling a dictionary of the Etruscan language, his style of narration is ponderous and full of historic detail. There is event upon event piled in here, far too much to list.

Ancient Romans do not come across as deep thinkers, but are practical people who work on expediency. Marriage is a convenience and respected for its legality, but immorality and infidelity are rife. Among the nobility, the birth rate is declining, and it is every emperor’s duty to see that the right people marry and breed to keep the royal line alive. Conversely, the emperor has to be prepared to sacrifice family members who put the line in jeopardy.

This is a very good book for those wanting an insider’s glimpse of the last days of an empire. Graves has created a great insider in Claudius. This period reminds me of another empire that is in decline during our lifetimes; the antics at this modern version of the “imperial palace” which flashes across our social media screens is no different from the one in Claudius’ time, although perhaps poison is not on the menu, but Covid-19 seems to be – and we can leave poison to that other Cold War adversary.

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SiddharthaSiddhartha by Hermann Hesse
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A tale of universal truths

I read this book and saw the movie many years ago as a teenager. It had a profound impact on me then. Now, as I enter my golden years, I picked it up again to see whether it had the same pull as before. The pull was greater this time.

Hesse, perhaps out of respect, and wanting to create fictional protagonists out of religious leaders, creates the fictional character of Siddhartha, one who has the same name as the Buddha. He lives during the time of the Buddha. Siddhartha’s life follows a similar path of the Buddha: born into privilege, rejecting comfort and taking up the ascetic life at a young age, discovering its limitations and taking the middle path to enlightenment, and ending his days as a great teacher and spiritual leader. In fact, the fictional Siddhartha meets the older Buddha and tells him that living by others’ teachings, something he had done as a Brahman and later as a Samana, is insubstantial; Siddhartha wants to experience enlightenment, just as the Buddha has done. The Buddha smiles, as if to say, “The road ahead is long and tortuous.”

Siddhartha, therefore, leaves the life of an ascetic Samana where his only skills are of waiting, fasting and thinking, to lead the sensual life. He takes up with the courtesan Kamala, becomes a successful businessman, and accumulates wealth. He gives into lust, and gambling, but finds both to be masks that hide his continued dissatisfaction. “I was afraid of myself, I was fleeing from myself! I searched Atman (soul), I searched Brahman, I was willing to dissect my self and peel off all its layers, to find the core of all peels in its unknown interior, the Atman, life, the divine part, the ultimate part. But I have lost myself in the process.” He finally leaves the worldly life too, heading for the river, a place where enlightenment will finally come, but only after learning the pain of love.

The river is a metaphor for the circular nature of life and the confluence of all desires and sufferings: flowing, evaporating, condensing and flowing once more. Everything and everyone that goes upstream, finally returns downstream, and the water flows everywhere simultaneously, making the past and the future irrelevant, making only the present matter.

There are some beautiful words of wisdom in this book, although Siddhartha claims that wisdom is intrinsic to the individual and cannot be transferred, as he had once complained to the Buddha.

1) Everyone can perform magic; everyone can reach his goals, if he is able to think, to wait, and to fast.
2) Writing is good, thinking is better. Intelligence is good, but patience is better.
3) “There was nothing that the wise one or thinker possessed that put him above the rest of them except for one single, small, tiny thing: the awareness and conscious thought of the unity of all life.”
4) “I therefore see whatever exists as good. Death is like life to me, sin is like holiness, wisdom is like foolishness; everything has to be just as it is, and everything requires only my consent, willingness, and loving agreement to become good to me and work for my benefit, unable to ever harm me.”
5) “When someone is searching, then it can easily happen that the only thing his eyes see is that for which he is searching. He is then unable to find anything or let any thought enter his mind because he always thinks of nothing but the object of his search. He is obsessed by a goal; searching means having a goal. But finding means: being free, open, and having no goal.”

The story is told in the form of a parable, full of wisdom and philosophy, low on the other elements of novelistic importance.

Hesse was supposed to have had a less than fulfilling visit to India before he wrote this novel. But I suppose the insights in this book did not only come from that visit but from a continuous preoccupation on the purpose of life and the search for meaning.

I highly recommend this read.

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The Face of WarThe Face of War by Martha Gellhorn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Adrenaline Rush or Compassion for Humanity?

Every time I read a book by or about Martha Gellhorn I come up with the puzzling question: “Why did a woman of white privilege and from middle class America, with influential connections in government, risk her life to travel to the most dangerous and miserable parts of the world, taking Fascist and dictatorial regimes head-on, while forcing the flashlight into dark corners of international politics to expose her own country’s complicity or instigation of heinous crimes against humanity?” Was it ego, mission, guilt, the need for a constant adrenaline rush, or a true compassion for humanity? I guess we will never truly know, except that her writings reveal the world at its worst and most shameful.

This book is termed her masterpiece, for it has gone into many editions, with a new section being added every time she went to yet another theatre of war after the previous edition had gone to press. In all, she covered the Spanish Civil War, WWII, the Vietnam War, The Six-Day War, and the guerilla wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua. The dispatches she sent from the battle front, many of them published by Colliers Magazine, form the chapters in this book.

There are so many set pieces described from her grandstand view, tableaux of life at the battle front, that they are too numerous to include in this review. Suffice to say that this book is a collage of images that highlights the randomness by which winners and losers are picked during conflict; who will live, who will die, and who will be indiscriminately maimed. Flying fragments of shrapnel and bullets pick off body parts at random—a leg here, an arm there, a head here, a stomach there, an eye here, an ear there. Lives for the survivors are indelibly changed thereafter. Gellhorn miraculously escaped getting hurt during all her missions, testament perhaps to her divinely anointed role of witness to the atrocities of the 20th century.

Her earlier dispatches are subjective, where she focusses on the unfairness of the politics and on the plight of the victims. In Spain and during WWII, she laments, “We were guilty of the dishonest abandonment of Spain and the quick cheap betrayal of Czechoslovakia. We niggled and refused asylum to doomed Jews; we inspected and rejected anti-Fascists fleeing for their lives from Hitler; we were full of shames and ugly expediencies.”

Battles and age hardens her, and by the time she gets to Vietnam and Central America, she is broadening her reportage with statistics: Vietnam—“Fifty-eight thousand twenty-two Americans died in Vietnam, in combat and from non-combat hazards. 300,000 Americans were wounded”; Nicaragua—”To the end of 1984, U.S. taxes have paid for the murder of 3,954 harmless men and women and 3,346 children, the uprooting of 142,980 people now refugees, the destruction of 137 hopeful modest infant centers, clinics, schools, co-operatives, built by the Sandinistas for the peasants.” Her statistics on nuclear proliferation is even more cutting (albeit these are 1983 numbers): “Global military expenditure—$728.3 billion—and global health care, $545 billion. In ten years to 1985, Third World governments ran up a debt of $240 billion for imported weaponry. Armed conflicts have been a tragedy for the poor people of the Third World every year since 1945, with a death toll calculated at 20 million and mounting. In 1984, 26,980,000 men and some women wore the military uniforms of 140 nations: global armed forces of nearly 27 million people.”

Her condemnation of US complicity in the mini-wars around the world is total in several quotes:
• “These peasants had survived the Vietcong since 1957, on whatever terms, hostile or friendly, and the war however it came to them. But they cannot survive our bombs. Is this an honorable way for a great nation to fight a war 10,000 miles from its safe homeland?”
• “There is never enough money for life, though money can always be found for armaments, nuclear and conventional, and for our immense military establishments.”
• “We should stop calling ourselves the Free World and instead call ourselves the Free Enterprise World.” Totalitarianism is rejected but Authoritarianism is accepted.”
• “In 1823, the Monroe Doctrine established the claim that the U.S. had a backyard and the right to supervise it. Since 1909, when the U.S. ousted a popular Nicaraguan President, the American government has actively supported its own choice for President of Nicaragua, sending the marines if there was any sign of revolt. No American President denounced the long and real Somoza tyranny.”

Despite the desolation of war, there are some bright and philosophical spots in the book. Here is how she describes the life of a war correspondent: “Meantime you could sit on the sand with a book and a drink of sweet Italian rum and watch two British destroyers shelling Rimini, just up the coast; see German shells landing on the front three kilometers away; follow a pilot in a slowly sinking parachute, after his plane had been shot down; hear a few German shells whistle overhead to land two hundred yards farther down; and you were getting a fine sunburn and life seemed an excellent invention.” Or the outlook of a Jewish survivor: : “He was thinking of the future; he was thinking of the world that would be safe and honorable and free. It was amazing that he never commented on the Germans at all.” Or the words of the Polish spy tortured by the Germans: “It is possible that disgust can be greater than hate; that disgust can be the strongest emotion of all.”

Call her a bleeding heart leftist if you will, or a Zionist (she was unshaken in her support for Israel), but she was a very courageous woman, far ahead of her time. She served as witness to the unfairness in the world and was not daunted in writing about it, even if it cost her sanction or censor. Her concluding remarks attests to her belief in a better world just out of reach: “The state has fallen down on its job: instead of a fuller life, the state has led man to a haunted life. There has to be a better way to run the world and we better see that we get it.”

Unfortunately, Martha Gellhorn did not live to see that better world.

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Political FictionsPolitical Fictions by Joan Didion
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked this book up because I was told that Joan Didion was part of wave of writers called Literary Journalists, in that they wove a storyline from among the myriad of source quotes and factual event recordings that went on in a typical journalistic piece. What I read was a series of long essays still mired in disparate source quotes, woven into complex, run-on, and fragmented sentences, some that spanned whole paragraphs – certainly not your everyday journalistic writing.

Many of these pieces were written on the eve of a presidential election – so the focus is on the buildup and not the outcome – i.e. Bush Sr. vs. Dukakis, Clinton vs. Dole, Bush Jr. vs Gore et al. There is also an implied belief that the reader understands the issues of the day, which at this point is historical and faded from memory. As these essays were also published in the New York Review of Books, and refer to several books within them – Newt Gingrich’s To Renew America, Bob Woodward’s The Choice and Marvin Olasky’s The Tragedy of American Compassion among others – one needs to have read these books to get a deeper appreciation of Didion’s essays – unfortunately, I haven’t read these books.

A theme emerges of the evolution, or a straying away from the core, of American politics between the ‘80’s and the year 2000, the time span during which these essays were written. Beginning with Reagonomics that reduced regulatory barriers and unleashed the “Me, Myself and I” culture, to the fall from grace that this hedonism attained with the impeachment of Bill Clinton, to the resurgence of the religious right under George W. Bush where a return to binding the state to religion (termed Reconstructionism) was advocated, Didion portrays the see-saw swings of political ideology and the manipulation of the electorate by a few college-educated, establishment types (and the partisan press). The photo-op, the undecided voter, the negative attack ad – these election-winning devices reared their heads during this 30-year span to become the monsters they are today.

What I liked best, if I were to confer the title of Literary Journalist upon Didion, was her character portraits of the personalities within this book. Ronald Reagan was the quintessential movie actor, even in his role of president: organized, superficial in relationships, managing his daily schedule like a film script, always looking for the drama in his interactions, even making up stories to deepen character. Bill Clinton always talked about the pain of his childhood, and seized upon hate speeches made by others to show what a clean guy he was. Newt Gingrich was the self-reliant man with outlandish ideas on the how much the individual could achieve – including space travel and a modern Jurassic Park. And Bob Woodward had a problem describing what his books were about. Being often in the coterie of journalists invited to accompany presidential candidates on their campaign trails, Didion had an incredible closeness to the personalities and issues of the time while writing these essays.

I am pretty sure these pieces would have been lapped up during the time they were written, for the author adopts an objective stance, dissecting liberals and conservatives alike. And yet, given the complex writing style, the overreliance on injecting source quotes that break up the narrative flow, and the assumption that the reader is fully versed on the issues being covered, I wondered whether Didion too was writing for the college-educated, establishment types and not for the masses who could have effected real change with their vote.

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Shane actively reads and reviews books by other authors. Below are his most recent reviews.