A Very Wise Guy: A review of “A Man Without a Country” by Kurt Vonnegut.

I recently re-read this book by Kurt Vonnegut. In fact it was the first book of his that I ever read, and though I’ve naturally gone on to read most of the others, this is a book I keep coming back to because it is a bitter-sweet delight.   It only takes you a couple of hours to read, but I think Vonnegut’s thoughts and ideas stay long in the mind afterwards.

Subtitled “A memoir of life in George Bush’s America” this book will delight those who still revile that odd character who did impressions of the President of the USA.

There’s much more to this book, however, including as it does Vonnegut’s wry, cynical, exasperated and very funny observations on everything else worthy of ridicule, from the more vapid aspects of culture (in both his native US and elsewhere), semi-colons, Western man’s love affair with fossil fuels and even the pros and (mostly) cons of early Saab cars. In fact the passage on Saabs had me coughing and spluttering with laughter as much as the engines in these cars. There is a man near me who drives an old green Saab of a certain vintage, and every time I see it I can’t help laughing. People passing me at the time must think I’m odd, but I don’t care. You see, at those moments I’m with Kurt, and he makes you laugh at the absurd in life, and that’s a very good thing.

Written in a delightfully laconic and earthy style, this is the equivalent of passing a lovely afternoon with someone older, wiser and far funnier than yourself. It reminded me of Spike Milligan at his best. Like Spike, Vonnegut is a master of adopting an unexpected perspective on things, in order to expose some of the absurdities of life and thereby prove that, in Milligan’s phrase,  “nothing could be as mad as what passes for ordinary living”.

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A Review of “Whatever it is I don’t like it” by Howard Jacobson.

This book is comprised of selected newspaper columns written by Howard Jacobson over the last ten or so years in the The Independent newspaper. I gave up buying newspapers a good while ago, so it’s good to have his columns collected here in book form.

Some readers will recognise the title as a quotation from the song sung by Grouch Marx in Horse Feathers. Others may miss the reference and reasonably infer that this book is the collected grumblings of a grumpy old man. Either that or the latest collection of rants from Tory misfit Jeremy Clarkson. 

Not so. Although Jacobson is frequently angry and indignant in these selected newspaper pieces, and though he is now a gent of a certain vintage, this book as a whole covers a far wider emotional and intellectual range. Nor does he write about cars much. And it turns out he actually likes quite a lot, too.

Chief among his loves has got to be the english language and the good old fashioned essay. How many times have you read a column in a newspaper and thought “what a load of…” or “how much was this hack paid to dash this off?”. You could never level these charges at Jacobson, since at his best he shapes and hones the language of his journalism as much as he does in his novels. As for the structure of his columns, they aren’t rambling or inconsequential in the way of many another columnist I could mention (try some of Jacobson’s lesser Independent colleagues for a start). In fact, you could give any one of these pieces to an A Level student as an object lesson in how to set out one’s stall, elegantly develop a line of argument and come to a pithy conclusion. I think Jacobson would quite like that, since the state of education in modern day Britain is something he returns to more than once.

The best thing I can say about these pieces is that, just like his novels, they will make you laugh but they will also make you think. You may agree with him at times, just as you will disagree with him at others. But Jacobson never ever gives less than his best and never wastes his readers’ time. Just as well, then, that his best newspaper pieces have been collected here, since they probably will be still read when The Independent and all the other print newspapers have gone the way of the dodo.

So rather than lump this book in with the ramblings of all the other grumpy old men, keep it instead with your collection of columns by writers like Kurt Vonnegut (“A Man Without a Country”) and Primo Levi (“Other People’s Trades”): good men and first-rate writers with something original to say, and a precise, elegant style in which to say it.

My only bone of contention is that at one point Jacobson expresses a liking for Michael Gove. In the light of this pip-squeak’s record so far as Education Minister, I don’t like that opinion, so I hope that, like Groucho,  Jacobson has others.

Book review: The Periodic Table by Primo Levi.

I first read Primo Levi when I was in my late teens, starting with his collection of newspaper essays Other People’s Trades, and moving soon on to his first and possibly most important book If This is a Man/ The Truce. 

It’s satisfying to know that The Periodic Table (which I should have read back then, but better late than never) is something of  an amalgam of the above two books. It consists of 21 chapters, each one named after a chemical element. No chapter is about any of the named elements per se. What Levi gives us instead is a sideways take on chemistry, revealing some of the myriad ways in which it influences lives. Each chapter stands alone to a certain degree, but taken together they add up to something like an autobiography, Levi describing a specific episode or aspect of his life through the way in which a given element featured in it.

Why read this book? I think the main reason is because it is a great work. In many ways it is very serious (how could it not be, given a large part of it deals with Levi’s war time experiences, including his time in the Death Camps?). However, the seriousness is balanced by moments of levity and humour, and also by Levi’s intense curiosity about life. He wrote, he said, partly to bear witness to the Holocaust, so that it never be forgotten. But I think in  a more general sense he also wrote because he basically loved life, he loved the world and he wanted to explore it more through his writing.

Being based on personal recollection, the book provides an insight into what pre-war Italian Jewry was like, and how things changed over time under Fascism. Likewise it affords some insight into civilian life in Europe during the Second World War and its aftermath, which is a subject I always find interesting.

Perhaps most importantly the book reveals some of the many ways in which chemistry can touch upon everyday life. Levi remained a working chemist for all of his professional life, and it’s fascinating for me as a non-scientist to see, thanks to this book, the world through the eyes  of a specialist.

The almost perfect comparison to this book is another one that I found in my local library when I was halfway through Levi’s work. The Periodic Table  published by Quercus Books is an illustrated element-by-element guide to the building blocks of life and their role in world around us. It’s a lovely book in it s own right, and it allowed me to see those elements in their raw form that Levi went on to transform on the page.

Primo Levi: Other People’s Trades.

I can’t believe this book appears to be out of print and only available second hand.

On the surface, an Italian chemist with a flair for autobiographical and discursive writing, with a very sad and turbulent personal history, has very little in common with an english teenager. However, I can pinpoint exactly what it was that made me buy this book when I was much younger. It was because I’d read of Levi and his major work “If This is a Man” in the newspaper. And it was also because, having seen this book by him in a shop, I picked it up and read a couple of pages.

Even at a young age, with barely enough knowledge to follow what I was reading fully, I must have known on some level that this was a very special writer. I think the intriguing titles of the essays got me first. Then the tone of the writing. It’s knowledgable and authoritative, but never patronising and its disarmingly personal. As a result,  I have had this book for many years, and it’s survived numerous house moves and culls of otherwise unwanted books. I always come back to it. It is a collection of essays which the late Italian writer published in the Turin paper La Stampa over a number of years. Of course Levi is most well known for his memoirs of the Holocaust, and the books that dealt with that event are very much the product of a writer forcing himself to recollect, to tell people and to stand as a public witness.

The essays contained in this book, by contrast, show another side to Levi, in which the private man invites his readers to take a look at the world around them in his company. The equally enchanting The Periodic Table is very similar to this book in tone and approach, showing his ability to observe and note things of interest that in turn can alter a reader’s perceptions of things for the better. While Levi’s life and his work in chemistry form the backbone of Table, this book by contrast ranges even wider. Levi was an endlessly curious man it seems, endlessly fascinated by the world about him and the people who inhabit it. Hence the title of “other people’s trades”, as each essay is the work of a man who is not interested in just his own little world and opinions, but someone who is interested in what is going on around him. Thus the essays reflect on many disparate topics, from the moon landings to the language of schoolchildren, from the fear engendered by trying to learn a language in your sixties to the wonders of looking at things through a microscope.

The book, then, contains the Levi mix of autobiography and a fascination with chemistry and natural history that we get in his other works. However, the mood is by and large lighter. When I was  younger I  was in no doubt at all that these were the words of a wise man, and a man with a great deal to teach other people.  As I’ve got older and come back to these essays the quality in them that I have come to value most is their humanity and love of life.  Although written for newspaper consumption, there is nothing throwaway about these pieces. The willingness to stop time for a moment, to think about those things which matter, and then to elegantly sum up your thoughts in writing is a timeless skill. Levi had this ability in spades,  and for this reason I don’t think I will ever tire of this book.