Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Book of the Month: Sunnyside (Glen David Gold)

Glen David Gold’s hugely successful debut novel, Carter Beats the Devil, regaled the readers with the exploits of a popular American magician of the 1920s, named Charles Carter. Although few outside of America (and I suspect even in America) would have heard of the long-since-forgotten magician, it detracted not a jot from the inventive and highly entertaining novel.  The critical acclaim and commercial success of Carter Beats the Devil catapulted Gold to the A list of writers.

Therefore, when, a full eight years after Carter Beats the Devil, came Sunnyside, Gold’s extensively researched second novel, expectations were high. And the advertisement and promos proclaimed that at the centre of Gold’s new novel was another hugely popular entertainer from the early twentieth century America, one whose fame, unlike that of Charles Carter, went beyond the shores of the United States, one who was a truly international star in his time who is considered one of the greatest entertainers of the last century: the British born comedian Charlie Chaplin. 

If you start reading this behemoth of a book (560 pages, each one crammed from top to bottom with words in small type) with the expectation that Charlie Chaplin would really be at the centre of it, you would be disappointed. Chaplin forms one of the three strands of the story. The Chaplin story (which I found the most interesting) focuses on the three crucial years in Chaplin’s career which saw him forming the distribution company United Artists along with arch rival Mary Pickford (at least that is how the relationship between the two is depicted in the novel) and other leading names of Hollywood such as Douglas Fairbanks, ostensibly to protect the creative independence of the artists, as the leading Hollywood producers and distributors joined hands to control the rocketing star-salaries and have the decisive say in the production of films. The novel also recreates the events leading to Chaplin’s disastrous first marriage to the actress Mildred Harris, and the rapid disintegration of the relationship, which would end soon after the death of their son—born with severe congenital defects—three days after his birth.

The backdrop to Chaplin’s story is America’s entry into the inferno of the First World War. The war takes the centre-stage in the other two strands of the novel, which have fictional protagonists: Leyland Wheeler, who fights the war in France, and Hugo Black who finds himself stranded in the forgotten campaign of the allies in Russia long after the war comes to an end.  Wheeler, the result of a brief liaison between a lighthouse-keeper and a variety entertainer—a cheap imitator of the Buffalo Bill who heads the world’s worst Wild West entertainment group and gives a dreadful performance in front of Kaiser Wilhelm—, has an ambition to become a movie-star himself. However, he gets entangled unwittingly in the scam of a family—one of the several supporting characters, historical as well as fictional, pullulating in the novel—and finds himself in the trenches in France. There, he rescues two puppies from a bombed out winery and trains them. The female shows great promise but dies on the return voyage to America at the end of the war. Leyland decides to train the not-so-bright dog, and it is suggested that this is the same dog which later finds fame in the 1920s in the Hollywood films under the name Rin Tin Tin. Hugo Black, the solitary, priggish and bookish son of an engineer of engineers ends up in Archangel, Russia, and fights under the (real life) British general Edmund Ironside in what is now a largely forgotten half-hearted campaign the allies fought against the Bolsheviks.

Sunnyside is a hugely ambitious novel. As in Carter Beats the Devil, Gold gives a panoramic view of America, Hollywood (on the cusp of becoming a global merchandise), and America’s role in the First World War. The novel is the literary equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster. And, like in a Hollywood Blockbuster, there are some tremendous set-pieces. The novel has one of the most breathtaking openings I have read in recent times. Leyland Wheeler, working in a lighthouse off the Pacific coast, spots a sinking skiff in the stormy weather, the skiff’s only passenger being Charlie Chaplin, who drowns. At the same time, in Beaumont, Texas, crowds gather to see Chaplin who is coming into town on a train; however, when the train arrives, there is no Chaplin on it, and the crowd gives vent to its frustration by setting fire to the train and knocking the daylights out of its snooty engineer (Hugo Black). Afterwards no one can quite recollect why they were expecting Chaplin to be on the train. The bravura opening sequence is based on a true historical event: on a day in 1916, Charlie Chaplin, then the biggest star in America, was a subject of mass hysteria and was allegedly simultaneously spotted in several places set apart by thousands of miles. (He was, in fact, in the Los Angeles Athletic Club.)  There are more such dramatic highpoints in the story—for example, the culmination of the aggressive Liberty Loan campaign run by the then Secretary of the Treasury, William McAdoo (another real-life character who makes periodic appearances in the novel) in Los Angeles, or the grand and bizarre ballroom dancing of Hugo Black with the three princesses of the defunct Russian aristocracy in a crumbling palace in the middle of a forest to in Russia in freezing winter, to name just two—which Gold describes with great relish, and which, on their own are highly entertaining.

However, as the novel progresses, the reader begins to suspect that Gold has been perhaps too ambitious, as he (the reader) struggles to appreciate a sense of continuity, a sense of coherence, to the narration. Putting it bluntly, Gold has bitten more than he can chew and the reader can’t swallow. Each of the three strands of Sunnyside is a novel by itself and, they do not gel. The story of Hugo Black and the American Campaign in Russia, supremely entertaining as it is, sits particularly awkwardly in the narrative.  Matters are not helped by Gold’s uncontrollable eye for detail. Each and everything—be it the countryside Ironside happens to glance at while travelling in his sleigh in the wintry wilderness of Russia, or the interior decoration of Chaplin’s sets, or the three course meal eaten in a banquet—is described with the ruminative delight of an obsessive. Even the simple act of listening to violin is described in a manner that leaves the reader reeling under the twin assault of Gold’s towering imagination and masterful prose. (“As he listened to the single violin, whose tremulous notes spoke of failed crops, loneliness, wide autumn winter skies with no sign of rain, Alf understood he was unable to write a memo to Accounting that explained how the set had become in his absence.”) Here is another randomly selected sentence:

“A newsreel photographer was there to capture it, a vision too broad for that camera’s small, dull eye: a sea of black wool, upon which seemed to bob many bright faces, the uniform of straw boater or tweed cap making it seem like a shoreline upon which shivered an infinite rockery of seagulls and terns.”

This is one of the easier, shorter sentences in the novel. Add to this the torrent of technical information Gold unleashes. A chapter begins in the following way:

“Lee Dunacn’s job was to maintain the machine guns for a DH4 airplane called Lenore. The observer seat had a pair of Lewises mounted on a Scarff ring that allowed them to swing up, down and approximately 270 degrees. Unfortunately the arc of fire included the empennage, the plane’s own tailpiece. For the pilot there was a pair of Marlin .30 calibres which fired through the arc of the propeller via the amazing precise harmonics of Constantinesco synchronizing hydraulic gear.”

If the idea was to convey to the reader that the aeroplanes were a bit dodgy, it has been done more than adequately. I have no idea what ‘a pair of Lewises’ or ‘Scarff ring’ or ‘Marlin’ or for that matter ‘Constantinesco’ is; however, this chapter began on page 284 of the paperback edition I was reading. By that time it was only a sense of grim determination that was propelling me on; I still had more than 250 pages to plough through, and had neither the inclination nor the energy to find out more about these terms. (Earlier in the novel when I had a bit more vigour I did make an effort to google diegesis on which Gold waxes eloquent without actually explaining what it is). 

Sunnyside is a very clever novel, but reading it can be very fatiguing. (I had to take a two week break after reading the first three-fifty pages before I picked up the novel again.) Mind you, the prose is excellent and crackles with wit and erudition on every page. Gold has a great feel for language, and the novel overflows with sentences like ‘Democracy bloomed, as it always blooms when forcibly planted in a kakitocracy [that was a new word to learn] of worst possible men.’

Sunnyside is a rich elixir containing minced, half-dissolved, and macerated ingredients of historical facts, biographical speculations and unrestrained imagination that makes the period tangible for the reader. The trouble is that amongst the giddy mélange of momentous events and an army-load of characters, the novel has lost its soul. You admire the rich tapestry Gold has woven; you are full of awe of the huge canvas against which the dramatic events unfold; yet you either don’t care or feel you don’t really know the main characters. Reams and reams of pages are spent describing Chaplin’s romance with Mildred Harris and the rapid falling out of love (on Chaplin’s part) soon after they are married. All of which, however, remains at the outer, superficial level. It is like reading a food-review that describes in excruciating detail how the food looks but remains silent on how it tastes. Surely, Gold, who has very cleverly mixed facts and fiction at other places in the novel, could have given us a glimpse—albeit speculative— into Chaplin’s inner world. Similarly when Hugo Black meets his strange fate on the Russian prairie, it fails to move you.

The title of the novel is taken from one of Chaplin’s less successful films. It is a shame that the novel, just like Chaplin’s film, despite the grand vision of its creator, is not a resounding success. However, just as no film of Chaplin was a total disaster, you will find plenty to enjoy in Sunnyside


Thursday, 8 January 2015

Books Read in 2014

Below is a list of the books I managed to read in 2014.

  1. Canada—Richard Ford
  2. The Observations—Jane Harris
  3. The Blueflower (reread)—Penelope Fitzgerald
  4. The Misfortunates—Dimitri Verhulst
  5. The Girl in Polka Dot Dress—Beryl Bainbridge
  6. Hotel Savoy—Joseph Roth
  7. The Cut—George Pelecanos
  8. May We Be Forgiven—A.M. Homes
  9. The Wasp Factory—Iain Banks
  10. The Painter of Silence—Georgina Harding
  11. Sweet Tooth—Ian McEwan
  12. England’s Lane—Joseph Connolly
  13. The Best Exotic Merigold Hotel—Deborah Moggach
  14. The Last Runaway—Tracy Chevalier
  15. The Temple Goers—Aatish Taseer
  16. A Possible Life—Sebastian Faulks
  17. Two Brothers—Ben Elton
  18. The Catcher in the Rye (re-read)—J.D. Salinger
  19. Never Let Me Go (re-read)—Kazuho Ishiguro
  20. The Mask of Dimitrios—Eric Ambler
  21. Infinite Jest—David Foster Wallace
  22. Gone Girl—Gillian Flynn
  23. Hotel Du Lac (re-read)—Anita Brookner
  24. The People in the Photo—Helene Gestern
  25. The Hundred Year Old Man . . .—Jonas Jonasson
  26. Love (re-read)—Toni Morison
  27. Wolf Hall—Hilary Mantel
  28. Narrow Road to Deep North—Richard Flanagan
  29. L’Mour Actually—Melanie Jones


  1. An Interrupted Life—Etty Hillesum
  2. Me Talk Pretty One Day—David Sedaris
  3. Whatever it is I don’t Like It—Howard Jacobson
  4. The Romantic Economist—William Nicolson
  5. Past It Notes—Maureen Lipmann
  6. Dear Lupin . . . Letter to A Wayward Son—Roger Mortimer
  7. A Dangerous Method—John Kerr
  8. Confessions of A New York Taxi Driver—Eugene Salomon
  9. Shakespeare—Bill Bryson
  10. Red Love: Story of An East German Family—Maxim Leo

I have heard people saying that the world can be divided into those who have read Ulysses and those who haven’t (I come in the second category, although the book is prominently displayed on my bookshelf. It is a modern classic and one of these days I am going to get round to read it.) I have also heard people describing Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest in similar—either or—vein.

The underlying theme about such books, depending on how clever/snooty you are, is that the books are so deep that only someone with an IQ high enough to withstand Stephen Fry’s questions on the QI would understand them (so not many). You might be forgiven for considering such people as a bit narcissistic. They are special; they belong to an elite literary group of people who inhabit a higher plane of existence that involves reading books (in prominent places such as underground tube, parks) most wouldn’t go anywhere near five miles of, snacking in organic cafes, starting book groups, starting book-blogs etcetera). If, on the other hand, you are in the habit of telling it as it is, a habit commonly seen in those who are scarred by the self-realization that they are not clever enough and have spent their entire lives rebelling against things they suspect they are not sophisticated enough to appreciate, you might say that these novels are essentially unreadable totems, which are not worth bothering with. As regards Infinite Jest, I can suggest that a third category be created:  those who started reading the novel with great enthusiasm and determination, but gave up before they completed reading the full novel. I started reading Infinite Jest in the summer of 2014, when I was on a vacation for 3 weeks. My (as it turned out overambitious) plan was to finish reading the novel during the vacation. Keeping aside the advisability of reading a novel like Infinite Jest while on a holiday, the folly of assuming that I could finish reading it in three weeks can only be compared with the disaster that was Operation Barbarossa. I finished roughly 70% of the novel (give credit where it is due), on vacation. I carried on reading the novel in the three weeks after I returned from vacation. By that time I had read nothing but Infinite Jest for 6 weeks and finished about 85% of it. At that stage I decided that I needed a break from the novel if I was to be able to maintain my sanity which would go a long way towards realizing my ambition of finishing it. I thought to myself that I would read a couple of light reads and then return to Infinite Jest. That has not happened. I really am cheating by including Infinite Jest in the list of books I read in 2014; however, I decided to include it because the book is almost read, and, without it, the number of books I read in 2014 comes to 38. That does not feel right. 39 books, while considerably lower than the books I read in previous years, is one more than 38 books, which makes me feel good. Anyway, what did I think of the novel? At the risk of adding nothing new or original to the plethora of reviews and opinions that pullulate the Net, I would say that the book in part is unbearably tedious, but also absolutely brilliant (not at the same time). The late David Foster Wallace had an encyclopaedic knowledge of drugs of recreation. His knowledge of the philosophy of Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) is like that of someone who has had first-hand experience of this self-help group which has a lot of takers in America. The novel has three strands, which are very loosely connected. I must confess that I have not been able to figure out what the book is about; but I have read only 85% of it. There is no reason to believe that insight would not be gained when I finish the remainder of the novel. I do plan to finish reading the novel in 2015.

The year started for me (book-reading wise) on a good note. I read Richard Ford's Canada and loved it. In Canada Ford returns to the type of story-telling that marked his earlier novels before he chose to become a literary novelist with Sportswriter. Canada is still a literary novel, I think, but it is very plot-driven, with not much of the meandering musings that characterised Sportswriter and the Pulitzer winning Independence Day. The novel loses its momentum a bit midway, but picks it up again in the last third. A very good read.

Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North won the 2014 Booker, and for that reason I decided to read it. The novel, which Flanagan dedicated to his father, who was the prisoner of war for the Japanese in the Second World War and worked on the dreaded Thailand-Burma railway, reads like a non-fiction memoir at times. Flanagan’s prose style is often described as lyrical. On the evidence of the only book of Flanagan I have read I’d say that the descriptors are referring to his other novels. The prose-style of The Narrow Road to Deep North is direct, matter of fact, unostentatious, and very effective.

Sebastian Faulks’s Possible Lives was (surprisingly) a disappointment. Surprisingly because Faulks is a superb story teller, a weaver of different strands of narrative into a coherent whole. (A week in December is a case in point.) Possible Lives is an unremarkable attempt by Faulks to weave together different stories which, in themselves, are not particularly riveting, and don’t come together to form a whole.

Also disappointing was the late Iain Bank’s cult debut novel, The Wasp Factory. I have had this novel on my shelf for years (because I like to have cult novels on my shelf placed prominently), but got round to read it only last year because it was chosen by the book group I have been trying politely to disengage from for several months. I simply did not get into the novel. Perhaps when it first came out decades ago The Wasp Factory blew the critics’ socks off by the audacity of its story-line; however, the next generation of readers having grown up reading the likes of The Silence of the Lambs earlier, wouldn’t find it as shocking as that.

Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth was (surprisingly) a winner. This is the first novel of McEwan in the past ten years that I enjoyed reading. It tells the story of a woman who, when she was a university student in Cambridge, was recruited by the British Intelligence Service. There is the usual McEwan twist at the end (no novel of McEwan is complete without a twist); but on the whole McEwan, to my great relief, concentrated more on the story and less on gimmicks. Sweet Tooth was a very entertaining read.

In The Mask of Dimitrios, we find Eric Ambler, the granddad of espionage novels, sadly, largely neglected these days, is in fine form. It is the story of the elusive Dimitrios,who is followed by an amateur British journalist. There are twists galore, and Ambler keeps the reader guessing and interested till the end. In the 1930s Ambler wrote six espionage novels which sealed his reputation as a thriller writer. The Mask of Dimitrios is generally considered to be his best novel. I wouldn’t know that (only because I have not read all of his novels published during this decade).

Like everyone else I read Gone Girl (though I missed watching the film). Entertaining but stretches the limits of your credulity to the length of Siberia as it progresses. The end was a bit unconvincing—a bit of a cop out if you ask me. This book was lent to me by a friend whose usual staple of books comprises misery memoirs (how I overcame my horrendous childhood which I spent eating out of beans and fellating my father etcetera) or stories. She gave me this book threatening that if I did not like it would be an incontrovertible proof that something was wrong with me. I told her that I liked the book. (In the interpersonal context I follow the safe policy of being scrupulously polite on people’s faces, and prefer to bitch on their back.) Gone Girl is not a dreadful book, but I can’t understand the big hoo-ha surrounding it. 

I can’t now remember why or how I came to be reading The Temple Goers by the Indian author Aatish Taseer. I must have picked it up from the library. The novel tells the unlikely and slightly unsettling story of an unlikely and unsettling friendship between a rich, upper class narrator and an ambitious lower or lower-middle class man (who, we are informed, belongs to one of the higher casts; it seems in modern India cast is not to be confused with class; you can be poor but of higher cast, therefore properly classier than some nouveau riche low cast person. Taseer’s novel is not about the Indian cast system; in any case the labyrinthine cast system is so complex, I don’t think even the Indians fully understand it themselves). The Temple Goers is remarkable for the unashamed inspiration its prose style derives from that of V.S. Naipaul: ruthless, cutting and pithy observations, which, with minimum of fuss, go to the core of things. A Naipaul-like character even makes a cameo appearance in the novel. Taseer is obviously a fan of the great author. On the whole The Temple Goers is an uneven effort, but still worth a read.

After reading slightly dystopian vision of modern India in The Temple Goers, I dived into Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac more eagerly than Michael Douglas dived into Catherine Zeta Jones. Hotel du Lac won the 1983 Booker prize, ahead of the critic’s favourite—J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, which puzzled many (J.G. Ballard most of all). Brookner, in a display of self-deprecation worthy of heroines in many of her novels, declared that her novels were not deep and Ballard’s novel ought to have been given the award. More than 30 years later, The Empire of the Sun is considered a modern classic, whereas Hotel du Lac does not get talked about much. I re-read Hotel du Lac after many years. Brookner is one of my favourite authors and Hotel du Lac, which glows with the quiet cadence of Brookner’s measured prose, has everything in it that I like about her novels: not exactly bursting with events, but lots quiet discussions between people in which what is left unsaid gives you a lot of insight into human psych. I would without hesitation have put Hotel du Lac ahead of The Empire of the Sun (which I didn’t like) but (with some hesitation) put it behind Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, which was also shortlisted for the Booker that year.

Wolf Hall, for which Hilary Mantel won the 2009 Booker, is an absolutely smashing read, the centre of at which is the shadowy figure of Thomas Cromwell. Even if you (like me) are not a fan of historical novels, I would recommend Wolf Hall, which crackles with wit and intrigue, and keeps you engaged till the end. I shall read Bring Up the Bodies, the next instalment this year.

Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred Year Old Man who Jumped out of the Window . . . (I can’t remember the exact title) was foisted upon me by an acquaintance who would not take a no for an answer. This novel, originally in Swedish, was a surprise hit with the readers, apparently, by word of mouth publicity. Its far-fetched story is told in a flat, matter of fact tone, which is sometimes amusing, sometimes irritating, and mostly not very riveting.

I re-read a few novels this year, The Catcher in the Rye, being one of them, which I read after almost 25 years, and found it as enjoyable a read as I had as a teenager. This is a timeless classic. More than seventy years after it was first published, it remains in circulation.

Another classic (one of the better choices by the book group), though it has not been around for as long as The Catcher in the Rye, was Never Let Me Go. Some of the members pontificated endlessly whether it was a science fiction novel or not, and if it was—which half of them thought it was—whether it was a credible science fiction—which half of them—from the half who agreed it was science fiction—thought it wasn’t. The other half (that is the half that didn’t think it was a science fiction) could not agree what it was that the novel was attempting to convey on the dubious grounds that they didn’t understand it. Of this half, some said that they were additionally disappointed that Ishiguro eschewed the main question which they (the members) eschewed by not clarifying what that question was. I think Never Let Me Go is a great novel. I am not bothered if it is a science fiction, therefore a genre, novel. It is a surreal tale which has melancholy at its heart. I am sure it will be read in hundred years (although I won’t be around to witness it).

When a member of my book group suggested that we should read a novel by Toni Morrison I suggested The Song of Solomon, which I think is Morrison’s best novel. I wouldn’t have minded re-reading Jazz or Beloved, both of which are first rate novels. But the group chose Love (for no reason other than that enough copies were available in the local library). Love is a readable enough novel but not a patch on some Morrison’s earlier great novels. As the title suggests the novel examines different layers of through the eyes of its female protagonists—one just about alive, another almost dead, and the third, dead. I gave the novel seven out of ten. (Yes we mark the novel out of ten; average the scores, and a really sad bloke amongst us updates the ranking. To Kill A Mocking Bird, I think, is at the top for several months, I think.)

I am an admirer of the late Penelope Fitzgerald, and have loved all of her novels bar two, which happen to be her most celebrated novels. Blue Flower, Fitzgerald’s take on the eighteenth century German Romantic novelist Novalis, was the last full length novel published in Fitzgerald’s life, and is considered by many to be her finest novel, including a rather narcissistic and smug chap in my book group, who insisted that this book be chosen by the group (and was terribly put out when a few amongst us had the effrontery to not love it as much as he did. I must say that second time round I was as underwhelmed as I was when I’d first read the novel when it came out in 1995 (I think).

I heard Ben Elton in a literary programme talking about Two Brothers, and decided to read the novel partly because I was intrigued to learn that the main characters were based on Elton’s father and uncle who grew up in the Nazi Germany, but also because the interviewer’s attitude towards Elton—who came across as a likeable geezer—was insufferably condescending (Elton gave back as much as he got). The interviewer clearly thought that Two Brothers was not a literary novel (I am sure he snacks in organic cafes). Two Brother is not a subtle novel. Not having read any of Elton’s other novels, I couldn’t say whether this is a style he feels comfortable with, or whether he chose it to convey to the reader the full horror of Nazi Germany and the apocalypse awaiting the Jews. It hits you with the force of a tornado. At times the novel reads like an elementary history lesson of the Nazi Germany; but I didn’t mind that.

May We Be Forgiven by the American author A.M. Homes was an enjoyable, if slightly meandering tale of redemption. Tracy Chivalier’s The Last Runaway was very disappointing.

Deborah Moggach’s The Best Exotic Merigold Hotel was one of the light reads I picked up to overcome the exhaustion of Infinite Jest. Words fail me to describe how bad the book was, so I won’t try.

I read only ten non-fiction books in 2014, most of which were memoirs (bought on Kindle for 99 p). One which I did not buy as an e-read, but was worth every penny was Interrupted Life, the diary of Etty Hillesum the Dutch Jewish woman who, as it happened, lived in Amsterdam the same time as Ann Frank, and perished in the Holocaust. The title of the diaries (not of course chosen by Hillesum) is apt. A bit sententious at times, the book is remarkable for the calm and serenity with which Hillesum met her fate, without any rancour for her persecutors.

Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare is a witty, if brief, account of the bard’s life. Bryson makes it clear that he was commissioned to write this book and perhaps it was not a labour of love. Still he makes it very interesting, primarily, I think, because he is incapable of writing a boring word.

Rest of the non-fiction books were not much to write home about. Me Talk Pretty One Day confirmed that its writer knew how to spin an amusing yarn, without really telling much about his life. Maxim Leo’s story of his East German family would have been very riveting had I not read three similar nostalgic memoirs of the long since dead GDR in the past. Past It Notes was too wordy and not very interesting.

2014 was not a very productive year reading-wise. With the exception of Wolf Hall, The Mask of Dimitrios, Canada, and Sweet Tooth, most of the novels which I enjoyed reading were re-reads. I am hoping that 2015 would be different, although it has not started well; I am plodding through David Mitchell’s (the British comedian, not the novelist) whining memoir, The Back Story.

The Top Ten novels (not including re-reads) in 2014:

1  Wolf Hall
  Sweet Tooth
3  The Mask of Dimitrios
4  Canada
5  Observations
6  May we be Forgiven
    The Narrow Road to Deep North
8   Hotel du Lac
  Gone Girl
     Infinite Jest

The best non-fiction was Etty Hillesums’s diary, followed by Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare.