Book Review: The Infatuations by Javier Marías

This was another book I picked up at the Ceilidh Place in Ullapool. I have a couple of other books by this author that I’ve tried and given up on. I think you have to be in the right mood for his style. Actions are surrounded, time is nearly suspended, in a Proustian exploration of character, motivation and possibility.

I enjoyed this book and there is much wisdom to be found in its discussions on grief and loss. It’s a brave male author who writes from the viewpoint of a female central character. I’m not sure he pulls it off but I’m a man so what do I know?! In my humble opinion, only Arnold Bennett is wholly successful in this line of work.


Book review: Hunger by Knut Hamsen

We went to Gairloch at half term. If you go to Gairloch you have to go to Ullapool. If you go to Ullapool you have to go to the Ceilidh Place. The bookshop, open almost all day and night has a fantastic selection of books. Along the road, Captain’s Cabin has 3 times the shelf space but I never seem to find anything I want there.

Hunger seems to have a reputation as a seminal, original work. An impoverished writer wanders around a city. Hunger makes him paranoid. There seem to be many opportunities for him to escape poverty and hunger but his state of mind, or pride, or just stupidity prevents him.

I enjoyed the book but I’m afraid Dostoyevsky did this first and better in such works as Notes From Underground and Crime And Punishment.

Gear: what is waterproof?


The other day I went for a walk in the rain. Steady rain with some gentle wind, for 45 minutes or so. As it was a local walk I was trying out some “gear”:

  • new Montane Atomic Jacket (“fully waterproof”)
  • 6 months old Paramo Cascada II trousers
  • 4 years old Sealskinz gloves
  • 6 months old Meindl Respond shoes

The gloves and shoes are tried and tested – completely waterproof and reliable. The Montane jacket beaded water off for five minutes, then wetted out. My fleece underneath was very wet around the shoulders and arms at the end of the walk. The Paramo trousers lasted for 10 minutes before I felt water on my left knee and in my pants. Yes, to paraphrase Al Pacino in The Godfather – in my pants! This is steady rain in the Staffordshire Moorlands, luckily not a downpour in the Scottish Highlands. I’ve sent both those items back, I’ll let you know the results.

There seems to be some strange ideas about waterproof. Water resistant? Not waterproof, might be ok for a 2 minute shower. Waterproof? Might last for 10 minutes of continuous rain. Highly waterproof? Might do the job.

About 15 years ago, after being let down by many cheap “waterproofs” I invested the horrendous sum of £160 in a Berghaus Long Cornice jacket. This is still the only jacket I can trust in the rain. However long I’m out, however heavy the rain is, it always keeps me dry, it is always breathable.

My faithful Berghaus. Photo not taken in the rain as I wouldn’t dream of getting my phone out in the rain!

I would like something lighter though, any suggestions?

Book Review: the Double by José Saramago

Last year I was stunned by Blindness by this author so I thought I’d try another. In this book a man rents a video and sees someone on it who looks exactly the same. Everything escalates from here. Saramago’s style involves a lack of quotation marks, hyphens or separate lines to indicate who is speaking, but it’s always obvious and this technique seems to help in hurrying the action along. There are many references to history, literature and philosophy, as well as a dry and cynical sense of humour, particularly when common sense turns up to express opinions. The ending turns up far too quickly but also has a satisfying twist.

Books Read In 2014


As way of encouraging my students to read more I display the books I have read during the year. So I’ve managed to reconstruct 2014 from a photo I took at the end of the year!

I began with Speak, Memory by Nabokov. His, and Alice Munro’s short stories were about all I could read after the operation in 2013: one short story and I was fast asleep. This is a beautifully written autobiography about his privileged upbringing and less fortunate exile.

I’d been bowled over by Lucy Ellmann’s Mimi so I decided to read Varying Degrees Of Hopelessness. This wasn’t quite at the same level but was still an excellent and original book.

I then moved on to the first part of what I think is the best fictional work of this century: A Death In The Family by Knausgaard seems to be a sort of Proust for 70s kids like me. It’s a profound exploration of death, fathers, family. Strange how I can have so many similar experiences with someone from Norway!

I then moved on to Benjamin Britten: A Life In The 20th Century by Paul Kildea. This had many interesting facts but it left a nasty taste in my mouth: the accusations against his father, the calling his sister ugly, the sensationalism of the author’s claims about Britten’s death, since denied by his surgeon – all nasty and unnecessary.

Alan Rusbridger’s Play It Again is a great book for motivating you to do some serious piano practice. I can identify with many of the problems he describes, although not the life of privilege being the editor of the Guardian seems to bring.

More privilege in the next two books: Mother’s Milk and At Last by Edward St. Aubyn, although in this case privilege did nothing to protect him. These more or less autobiographical accounts of abuse, neglect and drugs, followed some sort of return to normal life are beautifully written and, however grim the subject matter, full of joy and humour.

Part 2 of the Knausgaard saga came next. A Man In Love starts with some 60 or 70 pages about being a parent at a children’s party and then moves back to falling in love and becoming a writer. Wonderful!

Imre Kertész’s Fatelessness is an autobiographical account of a child being sent to Auschwitz. I always prefer to read of actual experiences, if prefer is the right word. Fictionalised accounts, such as The Book Thief or The Boy With Striped Pyjamas seem to belittle the experience of the Holocaust, or use it to add a layer of seriousness which the book itself does not merit. The remarkable thing about this book is that the central character has little idea of what is happening around him. One of those books it should be compulsory to read.

I’ve always loved Dostoyevsky for his ability to have you saying to yourself “you just can’t do that” as you simultaneously realise that you can. Notes From Underground seems to be every bit as original and biting in its realism as when it was first published.

I’d enjoyed The Magus by John Fowles but his much shorter The Collector, about a man kidnapping the object of his obsession seemed nasty without any particular reason.

I seem to have this habit of reading other works by the same author after being impressed. I loved Andreï Makine’s La Vie d’un Homme Inconnu but La Musique d’une Vie was less convincing.

A student I taught loved Hardy and recommended The Return Of The Native. He was right – classic Hardy.

A strangely similar ending to my next book – The Mill On The Floss by George Eliot – superbly fresh writing on childhood.

I read my first Lawrence with Sons And Lovers. This is remarkable for its descriptions of a mining village, nature, frankness about relationships and, sadly for me, terribly prophetic in describing the uncomplaining death of a mother.

Another Auschwitz memoir came from Borowski in This Way For The Gas, Ladies And Gentlemen, a collection of unbearably raw short stories. This is a book you’ll never forget.

Stefan Zweig seems to be having a bit of a comeback. I loved Beware Of Pity and The Post Office Girl for their combination of almost Russian storytelling and modernism. But I’m afraid his autobiography, The World Of Yesterday disappointed me a little.

I’m not sure why Woolf’s To The Lighthouse should seem appropriate following the death of my mother. On the surface there are no similarities. But… A beautiful novel.

You can always rely on Laxness for life-affirmation against the odds and The Fish Can Sing almost managed it but I was a little disappointed, unfairly comparing it to Independent People perhaps.

Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning had some early promise but he tends to throw figures of speech at every sentence in the vain hope of creating poetry. And it just seemed like a bragging session to me.

Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist exceeded all expectations. What an amazing description of the trials of working life! How remarkably relevant it still is. Should be read by all schoolchildren before they embark on job-finding.

In the legendary Scarthin Books, in Cromford, there was a selection of books by Ivan Klíma. I chose Judge On Trial as it was hardback, clean and with a large font. A fantastic book, along the lines of early Kundera but more mature, wiser.

I’ve given up on every Jane Austen book I’ve ever started but I thought I’d better behave and try again. Northanger Abbey was delightfully witty and I particularly loved its Gothic genre switch. Maybe I should leave it at that?!

I fancied some Dutch literature and a quick search led me to Herman Koch. I read The Dinner and Summer House With Swimming Pool. They were ok – witty, cynical, dealing with issues of today but I found them overly nasty. Bye Herman.

I will break my Holocaust rule for someone with the intelligence and meticulous research of Martin Amis. Time’s Arrow should be much better known. The Zone Of Interest is his latest novel. He is certainly back on top form here and manages to create something that is faithful to the seriousness of the subject matter.

I liked the look of Belle De Seigneur by Albert Cohen. So I bought it, though I knew nothing about it. This is such an amazing work that I’m going to get it in French and read it again. No offence to the translator (for once!), the translation is incredible, capturing all the modernisms and puns. This has comedy, romance, streams of consciousness, utter, bleak tragedy. I so often read something like “One of the greatest novels of the 20th century, comparable to Joyce, Proust…” in blurbs. In this case, such a statement would be true.

On to my next Knausgaard, Boyhood Island. The evocation of boyhood is so true, so intense. Yet another remarkable book.

Ford Madox Ford’s Parades End deserves to be called the English War And Peace, it’s that good, although there is little peace for the main character, even in peacetime.

I’m not sure I should have read Christopher Hitchen’s Mortality, detailing his cancer and decline but I did and I’m glad. Classic courageous raging against the dying of the light.

On a whim I bought Will Self’s Umbrella when it was going cheap on my Kindle. I was obviously saving it for a rainy day. It’s actually very good. Very modernist but still easy enough to read and understand, with a fascinating subject matter, rather similar to Oliver Sacks’ Awakenings.

My lat book of the year was perhaps the most disappointing: More Fool Me by Stephen Fry. I love this man but there was rather a lot of recap at the beginning and not much to follow.

Books read in 2015

I started off with a traditional Christmas Dickens effort, which continued into the New Year. Bleak House was completely new to me, as I’ve managed to avoid any televised versions of it (I’ve recently watched the BBC’s wonderful 2005 version). This is my favourite Dickens novel so far. At first I thought, after a hugely atmospheric opening description of London, fog and mud, that it would get bogged down by too much legal detail but it settled into almost a detective story with a huge cast of highly entertaining characters.

The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Richard Flanagan had recently won a prize and it is certainly worth reading. The Japanese POW scenes are by far the most effective and every bit as harrowing as you’d expect, more so in one particular incident. However, the other parts – love affair, bad sex scenes, contrived disaster scene – were less effective.

Boyhood by Coetzee was a superb depiction of growing up in South Africa. Everything this author writes seems to be beautifully written, austere and well-constructed.

Helen Macdonald’s H Is For Hawk was stunning. Firstly I love the work of TH White, secondly I remember all the hawk descriptions from Kes and, most of all, the raw grief depicted was all too familiar for me.

Almost as light relief I then read Wise Children by Angela Carter. A wonderful, joyful bawdy romp. It’s not often I write the phrase bawdy romp but this book justifies the phrase’s existence.

There’s not much Dostoevsky left for me to read and I’d given up on Demons before. Much as I love this author, this particular work seems even more disjointed than his other novels. I made it through to the end. There are wonderful passages, entertaining set pieces and the obvious prescient revolutionary politics but I still prefer his other works.

Since A level English Literature (a few years ago) and The Power and the Glory I’ve avoided Graham Greene. I finally started to catch up with The End Of The Affair. This was so dark it seemed like a film noir script. The English wartime setting, the moral choices – I loved it.

I’m pleased to say that I have a signed copy of Knausguaard’s Dancing In The Dark, not that his signature is decipherable – anyone could have written it. Which is what his style often seems like. But his insight is so great that people everywhere must be saying, as I often do, that’s just like me. I loved the previous books in this series so much that I flew through this one. It’s not quite as good as the others, or it didn’t seem to be. Maybe it’s too focused on the need for sex. But what else is youth for?!

I’m fairly new to DH Lawrence. His strange style and frankness appeal to me, as well as his realistic characters. The stories which make up Three Novellas were all very satisfying.

Ishiguro’s A Pale View Of Hills was every bit as disturbing as Never Let Me Go. As usual with this author, it’s not necessarily what he is saying on the surface that is the issue(guro). The narrator has secrets, is she fooling herself as well as us? I do love a Japanese setting, even though I’ve never been there and know nothing about the country. Even though I read Narrow Road To The Deep North.

I’ve spent most of my life with Alan Garner: my childhood with Weirdstone, my teenage years with The Owl Service and Red Shift. Thursbitch was slightly disappointing after reading his astonishing later work, Boneland, last year. Some of the modern dialogue just didn’t ring true, which seems unlikely if you’ve read Red Shift.

To feed my Japan thing I continued with Colourless Tsukuru And His Years Of Pigrimage by Murakami. Sorry, I’m not spelling it the American way. One of the things that grates about reading him is the Americanisation of the translations. There wasn’t much to this story, but it is this author’s gift to make something banal seem deep and meaningful, as well as gripping.

I thought Professor Andersen’s Night by Dag Solstad was overrated. I’m sorry!

Blindness by Saramago was incredible, horrific and extraordinarily compelling right from the start. I read it in a day, in awe.

My next book, Mountains Of The Moon by IJ Kay was something I picked up at the Mountain Coffee Company in Gairloch, worried that I might run out of books. What a great book – such insight into deprivation and childhood. Very bleak yet full of hope. Wonderful.

An Artist Of The Floating World was yet another disturbing book from Ishiguro, again set in Japan just after the end of the second world war. Another unreliable narrator, another compelling book.

Dr. Fischer Of Geneva is a late, short book by Graham Greene. Fascinating on greed and wealth.

Lawrence’s Aaron’s Rod is about a man who plays his flute to entertain ladies. It’s more than that but the symbolism is obvious. An excellent read but I must settle down with The Rainbow sometime.

Graham Greene’s The Human Factor disappointed me slightly as it felt like any other spy story.

Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square has a great wartime atmosphere and descriptions of London and Brighton. The troubling central character is original and disturbing but there was something I didn’t quite like.

I broke my Forster duck with Howards End. A well-constructed plot and sublimely written but… I don’t know, I didn’t fall for it completely.

I then re-read The Inheritors by William Golding. What skill he has for depicting unusual worlds.

If you haven’t read Independent People by Halldór Laxness stop now and go and read it! I continued my exploration of his work with The Atom Station, a wonderfully dry comedy with politics as its main target.

My beach blockbuster for the summer holidays was The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing. Now there is some African politics and Communism stuff to get through but this is a work of genius.

I feel a duty to read Jane Austen once a year and this year it was the turn of Emma. It’s obviously a classic but I couldn’t help preferring Northanger Abbey! And she doesn’t like gypsies does she?!

An Amazon deal led me to The Crimson Petal And The White, Michel Faber’s evocation of all things Victorian. I loved this, but see below.

Someone in Waterstones at Inverness had chosen Alone In Berlin by Hans Fallada and well done, whoever did! Fantastic descriptions of the bleak life in wartime Berlin. Grim though!

With the summer holidays over I read The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. So much of the Victorian era and its sexual secrets was in this that I really think Michel Faber owes the Fowles estate a large percentage of his profits. This is also much better written than the Faber, very clever, very meta.

Onto what must be the greatest novel ever: War And Peace by Tolstoy. I read this 20 years ago and I’ve since read various passages in Russian. My current edition preserves all the French and German passages. I never wanted this book to end!

But it did and I finished off the year with The Longest Journey by Forster. A great book, beautifully written but I’d just read Tolstoy and felt deflated!

Book Review: Wolf Solent by John Cowper Powys


I bought one of this author’s novels – Weymouth Sands – from a secondhand bookshop in Sedburgh a few years ago and have not yet got round to reading it. Then I saw an article in the Telegraph (it’s ok fellow lefties, someone gave it to me!) about Wolf Solent and this spurred me into action.

This seems to be one of the few books by this author you can buy new. I’ve since found a battered paperback of A Glastonbury Romance on Amazon.

He appears to be an author out of fashion. While I can understand in a way – his style is highly descriptive and sometimes elusive – I think I’ve been missing out and can’t wait to read that battered copy!

I can’t be doing with book reviews which tell you exactly what happens in the book so I’ll just try and sum up some features of the book.

Newspaper articles seem to describe him as a mixture of Hardy, Lawrence and Blake. Landscape and nature is described in detail, as it would appear that the characters’ fates are bound to where they live. Sex is talked about frankly, without there being any detail about sexual encounters. It seems that such frankness is because it arises directly from nature. Much more than this is the idea (and this is where the author seems so original) that our minds are so affected by natural surroundings as to be almost an aspect of it – everything is matter.

The passage below should illustrate what I’m having difficulty explaining!


This book seemed to take hold of me stealthily. I’m not sure the author is, as George Steiner put it, the English Tolstoy, but it is a great and very different work.