1001 Books Round-up July 2020
In June I managed to read a whole 1 book from the 1001 list did I manage to do any better this month?
House Mother Normal by B.S. Johnson – Tackle the TBR – What the 1001 editors say: “B.S. Johnson’s novel is a razor-sharp parody of the world of geriatric state-care. Cruelty between proprietor and patient is normalised as an accepted routine for nursing the elderly under meagre sponsorship. House Mother Normal is structured by descent, both psychological and moral.” Sadly with one notable exception this seems more accurate than parody. Considering how the novel is structured it is interesting that House Mother herself is the final voice we hear from.
My thoughts – When I started reading this book I was really enjoying it for the first few chapters we were heading towards 4 star territory and then it went downhill. I know books are supposed to challenge us and that reading outside your comfort zone can sometimes be good for you but sometimes I feel authors take things too far unnecessarily and this was one of those times. I believe you can write a powerful book about the treatment of the elderly without going to the lengths that Johnson did.
My personal feelings aside I can see why this book made it onto the 1001 list. The narrative structure is certainly unique each chapter is 21 pages told from the point of view of one patient about what has happened that evening in the care home the same events are seen from multiple viewpoints and while the reader gets a very basic idea of what is happening as we go along it is the final chapter from House Mother that brings it all together.
Each chapter starts with a brief biography of the patient you are about to hear from including age, marital status and an outline of why they are in the home, the book then uses spacing to show where the characters thoughts have been interrupted. The further into the book you get the less words there are as the patients fall asleep or have limited thought processes to start with. It was interesting to see what a “typical” social evening in the home consisted of and I can well believe that the enterprises House Mother engages in could well take place in real life (apart from that one incident). It was also interesting to see how House Mother justified her actions as being in the best interests of the patients by giving them something other than themselves to be disgusted by.
3 Stars – it is a quick read it is interesting to see the how the thoughts of the elderly are laid out on a page and the gross bits are over quickly. There are worse books on the list so if you don’t mind a bit of grossness go for it.
The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham – BOTM May – What GR says: Larry Darrell is a young American in search of the absolute. The progress of this spiritual odyssey involves him with some of Maugham’s most brilliant characters – his fiancee Isabel, whose choice between love and wealth have lifelong repercussions, and Elliot Templeton, her uncle, a classic expatriate American snob. The most ambitious of Maugham’s novels, this is also one in which Maugham himself plays a considerable part as he wanders in and out of the story, to observe his characters struggling with their fates. Can’t argue with the summary.
My Thoughts: This was a digital read from my library which means reading on the phone which I hate so I am always wary of how I feel about a book read this way as I can’t be sure my feelings are not based on the medium of reading rather than what I have read.
Disclaimer aside I enjoyed this book I just wasn’t blown away by it. According to the 1001 editors I did 2 things wrong when reading this the first was being over 20 years old (apparently this means I can’t appreciate falling in love) the second was not having and not longing for faith. Given my failure to comply with these conditions I found the book to be an interesting look at the life of American ex-patriots living in Europe. In some ways it remined me of Proust and the snobbery associated with parties, invites, keeping up appearances and the need to fit in.
I wasn’t that inspired by Larry’s search for faith or how he chose to live his life. He was a good person, he travelled and he experienced other cultures and spiritualism but really I just didn’t care for him. The other characters by contrast seemed shallow and obsessed with position in society and money but at least they were real and colourful.
A couple of quotes that I felt the need to highlight:
“Because American women expect to find in their husbands a perfection that English women only hope to find in their butlers.”
“When I am really fond of anyone, though I deplore their wrongdoing it doesn’t make me less fond of him. You’re not a bad woman in your way and you have every grace and every charm. I don’t enjoy your beauty the less because I know how much it owes to the happy combination of perfect taste and ruthless determination.”
3 Stars – more meh than yeah but it is fairly short and easy to read.
A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh – July BOTM – What GR says: Laced with cynicism and truth, “A Handful of Dust” satirizes a certain stratum of English life where all the characters have wealth, but lack practically every other credential. Murderously urbane, it depicts the breakup of a marriage in the London gentry, where the errant wife suffers from terminal boredom, and becomes enamoured of a social parasite and professional luncheon-goer. This summary makes the book sound dull credit where it’s due this book is not one you can predict.
My Thoughts: Based on the summary and my previous feelings towards social satire I was not expecting to enjoy this one however from the very start I was sucked into the story.
I really enjoyed watching how the characters changed as the story progressed and their perceptions by society were upended. This book has some really hilarious moments and some truly tragic.
Tony is a bit of a wet lettuce right up until almost the end of the book when he does something so out of character I had no idea where the book was going and honestly that ending…very sinister.
Brenda meanwhile starts out as a sympathetic character a young woman stuck in a decaying house away from the lights and action of London but in love with husband and a caring mother to her son and then bang! all that is gone and she becomes a cold and calculating b**ch.
I can’t explain what makes this book so funny and so readable without giving away major plot points so you will have to take my word for it this is well worth reading!
3 Stars – funny, tragic, sinister and totally unpredictable also fairly short you should read it!
The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan – May BOTM – What GR Says: In this tour de force of psychological unease – McEwan excavates the ruins of childhood and uncovers things that most adults have spent a lifetime forgetting or denying. Ruined childhood check. Do I need to deny or forget doing anything like these kids now I am an adult? Hell no – they are seriously messed up.
My Thoughts: One thing you can say about McEwan’s books is that they are never the same this is good and bad some books I love like Atonement and Enduring Love and some I just don’t get and could live without reading like On Chesil Beach and The Cement Garden.
This book explores what happens to 4 children left alone when their parents die. While some of their actions make sense in a warped kind of way others are just totally bizarre. Our narrator spends a lot of the book taking himself in hand, literally, while not bothering to maintain basic hygiene levels. The relationship between the elder siblings is very Flowers in the Attic and the youngest child obviously needs some help, grief counselling would probably be a good first step. By the end of the book our narrator is at least managing to wash himself but it is clear the siblings are on a path to self destruction and perhaps letting events spiral out of their control is the only way they can reach out and get the help they desperately need,
3 Stars – This is not a book for me but apparently it is a cult classic so others must find something in. At only 138 you won’t waste much of your life reading it and if you plan to complete the list you have to do it some time so you may as well get it over with.
Have you read any of these? Let us know your thoughts.