0617 | The Secret History | Donna Tartt post image

Context: another one down on the commute back and forth between Saudi and Bahrain.

Tartt’s debut novel of a small college clique deciding to knock off one of their own rambles on a bit but is generally an easy read. It suffers from readers having to suspend belief that anyone can remember events years ago in anything like the detail depicted. And it would have been made better had the weaknesses of memory been a central theme.

As it is, it’s not so much a whodunit as a whydunit. You know from the start that Bunny is going to die. You just don’t know why they decide to kill him. In the end, there’s not really a satisfactory motive for this either as the group’s meagre inertia becomes just enough to overcome individual reluctance.

Along the way, there’s an accurate portrayal of the vicissitudes of college relationships, the student struggle and a whole host of characters who are very well-developed. In fact, this is probably the strength of the novel and plays out well as guilt and regret come to [click to continue…]

Context: Swapped this for Hunger at a cafe book swap in Manchester.

My second Ali Smith, and I’m starting to get the idea now. Ask questions about who people are by rotating the point of view to show us that, as many of us are already aware, we all see each other differently.

While this is a pretty enjoyable read for the most part, it doesn’t really do anything she hasn’t already done before in The Accidental which is a more engaging read. The plot (although that seems too strong a word) revolves around a guy deciding to lock himself in the spare bedroom of his hosts somewhere towards the end of a dinner party. For me, this works as a good plot device and I give credit to Smith for coming up with it and the very entertaining long dinner party conversation that leads up to it.

What I take issue with is what she does with the novel as a whole. Quite naturally of course, this crisis raises two questions in the [click to continue…]

0615 | Brooklyn | Colm Tóibín

Context: Read this while property hunting near the duck pond in Norton.

Last summer’s The Master had me wanting more of Tóibín’s writing. So, this summer, I picked up a copy of Brooklyn to see if he could transport me back to the dreamlike interior of someone’s mind in the way that he had done with Henry James and Eamon Redmond in The Heather Blazing.

Not quite. I can see how this is perhaps his most popular work and why it was made into a film unlike his other works, but it doesn’t quite go as deep as the others in terms of character development. There’s more plot and less musing.

For some, this might be just what they like. Personally, I prefer to get inside the mind of someone. There’s enough in anyone’s mind to keep me occupied without anything significant actually happening in their lives. After all, it’s our minds that lend significance to anything. [click to continue…]

0614 | Hunger | Knut Hamsen

0614 | Hunger | Knut Hamsen post image

Context: Was reading this while I met a friend for drink on the Tyne this summer.

If you’ve not read Crime and Punishment, then this is a good place to start. Far, far shorter, it is nevertheless cram packed with the fevered wanderings of a protagonist whose own fate he fumbles daily. However, in Crime, although you can’t really sympathise with the motive, you can with Raskolnikov’s tortured mental outcome. In Hunger, you are constantly questioning why the narrotor doesn’t avail himself of the opportunities he obviously has to better himself.

But perhaps that’s the point. Hunger, pure persistent hunger, can reduce people to cycles of confusion and dependency that can be hard to break out of. Time and again, he’s offered a helping hand but he refuses, preferring instead to take advantage only of funds or food which aren’t, by rights, his. These only serve to add pangs of conscience to those of the stomach.

Every other character is ephemeral. None are fleshed out, and all seem phantom and dreamlike. Even the mysterious woman he names [click to continue…]

0613 | Great Apes | Will Self

0613 | Great Apes | Will Self post image

Context: left this where it belonged at Abu Dhabi airport while in transit to the UK.

20 pages into this, you’d be forgiven for thinking Will Self was a meaningful pseudonym. Pretty much from the get go, this seems to be all about convincing us how clever the author is. As Lyn Gardner writes in her Guardian review of the Great Apes stage play,

… the show always seems keener on showcasing its larky cleverness than on creating real feeling.

Replace “the show” with “the novel” and my job here is done.

But for those of you expecting some sort of synopsis, Simon Dykes wakes up from what is effectively a Self-ian version of life to find that he is, not a beetle (cf Kafka), but a chimpanzee.

Or at least everyone else thinks he is. Simon remains convinced for pretty much the rest of our tedious literary journey that he is human. This is quite patently not the case at least from his affinity [click to continue…]

2018 new edition of 1001 Books

1001 Books 2018 edition

Yes, finally, finally, finally, October 2018 will see a new edition of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

As usual, Arukiyomi will be updating the 1001 Books App for iPhone and the 1001 Books Excel Spreadsheet for fans of the list. You can expect those out at the same time as the new edition is published, give or take any intervention by the deity I serve.

Judging from the cover, is this the first time that one title has appeared both on the 1001 Books cover and the 1001 Movies cover? I think it is.

In the meantime, what can we expect from the list? Did you just finish A Remembrance of Things Past only to find that it’s been removed from the list? Well, here’s the moment of truth, the lowdown on what’s in and what’s out:

Books outBooks in
Forever a Stranger
Hella Haasse
Goldfinch
Donna Tartt
The Life of Insects
Victor Pelevin
The Circle
Dave Eggers
Dirty Havana Trilogy
Pedro Juan Gutierrez
Americanah
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Soldiers of Salamis
Javier Cercas
The Flamethrowers
Rachel Kushner
The Successor
Ismail Kadare
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing
Eimear McBride
Your Face Tomorrow
Javier Marías
The Story of the Lost Child
Elena Ferrante
The Blind Side of the Heart
Julia Franck
H is for Hawk
Helen MacDonald
Kieron Smith, Boy
James Kelman
10:04
Ben Lerner
The Children’s Book
A. S. Byatt
H(A)PPY
Nicola Barker
There but for the
Ali Smith
Winter
Ali Smith

For movie fans, the 1001 Movies list will also see a new edition (as usual). The app and spreadsheet will also be updated for that too.

0612 | Portrait of a Lady | Henry James post image

Context: listened to this on my daily commute Bahrain Saudi

Many regard Portrait as James’ greatest novel. What they mean by this, of course, is that it’s the easiest to read. Written before James went off on the subordinate clause bender that was only derailed by his death, this is in fact a sensitive if somewhat contradictory portrayal of Isabel Archer, a young woman who, choosing freedom, finds that the ties of tradition are inescapable.

The contradiction I’m referring to is, for me, the most unsatisfactory aspect of the work and spoiled the novel for me. In rejecting the early proposals of marriage in the novel, Isabel is kicking against the goads. Add the epithet of wealthy heiress to those of already being young, free and single and you have a character set up to defy all the Victorian mores that can be thrown at her.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, she accepts a proposal of marriage which every reader knows is completely inappropriate. While James has [click to continue…]

0611 | Germinal | Emile Zola post image

Context: Poor old Mrs Arukiyomi was run into by someone breaking a red light while I listened to this. No harm done to her though.

Britain has The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists. The US has The Jungle. France has Germinal. It falls somewhere between the two in terms of its readability, but it is far, far ahead in terms of both its influence and the esteem with which it is (still) held in its home country.

I don’t know for sure, but I bet if you find your nearest Frenchie and ask them, they will have heard of this novel. Try doing that with your nearest Brit or USAnian for their respective novels. I’d be surprised if you got more than a questioning grunt in response from the latter two. France isn’t my favourite country on earth, but for worker’s rights, they have to be given credit and that’s why novels like this one are remembered there.

Written more than 20 years before The Jungle, Germinal is the moving story of the brutal consequences of a miners’ strike in northern France. Zola, a contemporary of and equivalent to Dickens in terms of literary influence and sheer storytelling, can spin a yarn. [click to continue…]

0610 | Fall on Your Knees | Ann-Marie MacDonald post image

Context: Celebrated Eid with a weekend at the Art Rotana Hotel in Bahrain while listening to this.

About as uplifting as digging out a mass grave, MacDonald’s portrayal of an immigrant family shattered from within by abuse isn’t going to win anyone’s most-loved novel awards. It’s memorable, and it’s, for the most part, well-written, but it’s just too close to the bone for comfort. I’m sure that’s exactly what MacDonald was intending, however.

The novel mostly traces the lives of the daughters of Irish James Piper and Lebanese Materia and is told through a series of flashbacks so that your sense of narrative is, for the most part, disjointed. This only adds to the reader’s discomfort. By the time the daughters are old enough for us to see life through their eyes, we begin to get a picture that something is not quite right. You’re never quite sure what exactly is wrong though.

[click to continue…]

0609 | Of Love and Shadows | Isabel Allende post image

Context: was reading this in Bangladesh while I took a boat through a swamp.

While I get the fact that The Disappeared is a tragedy of epic proportions, and the world needed to sit up and notice when it was endemic in South America, to choose the medium of a shmaltzy, 1980s, Lady-Diana-hairstyle romance to portray it is just the wrong thing to do. It’s not equally tragic, but it’s somewhere on the scale.

Allende could write. For sure. I’m just not convinced, after two of her novels, that she could write well. This seems a shame for someone who apparently, according to the source of all knowledge (i.e. Wikipedia) “writes on a computer, working Monday through Saturday, 9:00 A.M. to 7:00 P.M.” If spending 84 hours a week produces the likes of this novel, then I for one am thankful she had all that time to edit. Goodness knows what state the book would have been if she’d knocked off early at 3 in the afternoon each day for a tequila.

So, there’s this country ruled by a military dictatorship but it’s a [click to continue…]

0608 | Gormenghast | Mervyn Peake post image

Context: Read this while watching a fantastic sunset from a cliff top in the absolute silence deep in Wadi Rum, Jordan

As I watched the protagonist ride off into the sunset at the close of the second part of Peake’s vastly underrated trilogy, I couldn’t help but think that he’d mixed up the titles of the first two installments. This novel, not the first, is about Titus Groan whereas the first novel, not this one, is about Gormenghast.

But that is a negligible criticism for two works of writing which have been all but forgotten in the half century since they were written. A lot of what I wrote for Titus Groan applies yet again, and more so: the prose perfectly matches the world Peake has created; the characters only deepen their Dickensian charm; Steerpike’s scheming reaches its climax; and the best way to approach it all is to lie back and drift in the stream.

At times, I have to say, I wondered if Peake was a bit too ponderous. Irma Prunesquallor’s love life seems a bit too tangential to hold my attention for as long as was required. But having got through that, and in the latter third of this volume, the pace quickens as political [click to continue…]

0607 | Martin Chuzzlewit | Charles Dickens post image

Context: was reading this while I attended a day’s training at the Movenpick Hotel in Al-Khobar.

Dickens takes a cultural diversion to the USA in this one (in order to boost flagging sales of the installments the book was released in) and it’s a plot diversion in what is otherwise a difficult tale to keep up with as characters come and go throughout. It wasn’t his most popular work and was removed from the first edition of the 1001 books list. I can see why on both accounts.

The first issue that threw me was that there are two Martin Chuzzlewits. Whereas the eponymous one is the younger and protagonist, he is the namesake of his wealthy grandfather who disinherits him. Thus, he stumbles into an acquaintance with the arch duplicitor Pecksniff who wheedles his way into Martin senior’s good books to the detriment of Martin junior. Pecksniff also has two daughters who are spoiled upstarts and then there’s Joseph Chuzzlewit (nephew to Martin Sr. and cousin to Martin Jr.) who is an absolute rogue.

With it so far? [click to continue…]

0606 | The Soul of the Camera | David DuChemin post image

Context: picked this up at a photography event at the Bin Matar House in Muharraq, Bahrain.

Picked this up from a fellow photographer at a photography event one evening and, were it not for the fact that I need to get up at 5am for work, would have finished it in one sitting such is the power of DuChemin’s writing on photography. As it was, I finished it the next evening.

Whether you’re a professional or only use the camera on your phone, The Soul of the Camera is worth a read. For one thing, it’s beautifully illustrated with his own photographs and this guy can take them, he certainly can. In fact, I’d say it was worth having for the images alone. All black and white in this edition, the book itself is a beautiful thing.

But in between each pair of photographs are a few pages of DuChemin’s captivating and extremely thought-provoking prose. His website describes him as a “humanitarian” and I take that to mean that he aims to capture what it is to be human in his work, [click to continue…]

0605 | Daniel Deronda | George Eliot post image

Context: read this while working on training materials for one of Saudi’s first female driving academies with the recent change in the law here.

So often Eliot is held up as the paragon of 19th century English prose. Here is yet another novel to demonstrate why I simply cannot afford her the accolades that others offer.

Although the term schizophrenia wouldn’t be coined for another forty years, studies of the illness were extant and influential among them no doubt is George Eliot’s last novel. Firstly, as with Adam Bede, the novel is a misnomer. For the first third of the book, you’ll be wondering what Deronda has to do with anything at all. For someone with obvious creative abilities, Mary seems to have been a bit stumped when it came to naming her overlong writings.

There are a number of novels in here, and critics of her day even suggested that abridgements be created which allow the reader some focus. There’s the story of Gwendolyn Harleth which, on the face of it, is the simple and pretty obvious tale of a headstrong young woman whose pride leads her into a loveless marriage with a tragic end. No literary surprises there although, to be fair, if Eliot [click to continue…]

0604 | Arrow of God | Chinua Achebe post image

Context: read this while having dinner at the British Club. It seemed an appropriately colonial thing to do!

Not as easy to follow, Achebe’s third novel in his African Trilogy is a less straightforward narrative than his famed Things Fall Apart. Although both novels focus feature Nigerian male protagonists battling with the influence of colonialism, Things was more us versus them. With Arrow, priest Ezeulu also faces a fatal battle with his own people.

As with Things, Achebe sets up the local scene before introducing the white man. Again, this gives the (intended Western) reader time to come around to the local way of thinking and doing things, to gain some level of empathy with tradition. But by the time the white man shows his influence in Arrow, it’ll be the rare reader who feels that what might potentially be destroyed by the Imperial influence is worth hanging on to.

Achebe paints a vivid picture of tribal infighting, familial jealousies and as much disharmony as you can expect in any culture anywhere. [click to continue…]

0603 | The Savage Detectives | Roberto Bolaño post image

Context: had many rehearsals for three parts in two plays as part of a pint-sized comedy night while listening to this.

The Guardian describes this as a “a shaggy dog story.” Merriam-Webster defines that as “of, relating to, or being a long-drawn-out circumstantial story concerning an inconsequential happening that impresses the teller as humorous or interesting but the hearer as boring and pointless” That’s spot on. Bolaño did this for his own enjoyment, not mine.

Publishers [sic] Weekly said that “It is safe to predict that no novel this year will have as powerful an effect on the reader as this one.” and in that they are right. I can’t think another novel this year will be as powerful as this one when it comes to the desire to simply make it stop. Mind you, I’m not sure I trust what I read from any publishing company that can’t even accomplish the basic punctuation needed for its own name.

It starts out OK with this student guy joining a group of poets at university. Their philosophies rub off on him, and he tunes in and drops out as you’d expect. Then the book takes the inevitable [click to continue…]

0602 | Hallucinating Foucault | Patricia Duncker post image

Context: finished this off while sitting outside enjoying the warm spring weather at a local coffee shop.

Not really sure why this is on the 1001 books list. Didn’t grab me. Seemed a bit too much like navel-gazing for the Cambridge set (e.g. “we went to Browns for lunch” – oh did we now? It’s not what it was, though) and littered with characters who are a just far enough removed from everyday reality to actually relate to insanity.

So, there’s this guy whose written some novels and he’s a bit like a cross between Jack Kerouac and Holden Caulfield, an anarchist homosexual who has to be French (I mean, could he be anything else?) And this undergrad at Cambridge falls in love with his writing which is really a metaphor for falling in love with the novelist and so he hears that no one has a clue where he is now and it turns out he’s been sectioned and is in some asylum outside Paris. With the thinly veiled excuse of research trip, off trots our star-struck student on a quest that is as much a search for self as it is a search for other.

And they strike up this relationship and it’s all a bit coming-of-age, [click to continue…]

0601 | The Man who Loved Children | Christina Stead post image

Context: attended a driving course at our security training centre so that I can drive company cars while listening to this.

Once you’ve got over the fact that this isn’t a sinister title in terms of today’s worries about child abuse, you discover that this is, in fact, more of a study in spousal neglect and the emotional-relational issues that arise when a husband and father lives with his head in the clouds. For all that, this is a pretty down to earth novel which, for me, started a bit too slowly.

There’s really nothing I can add to a review of this book that hasn’t already been written in Jonathan Franzen’s wonderful review… except, that is, what I thought of it and how it related to me, so that’s where I’ll focus. I should say at the outset that I do have a father who loves children. There were times in the novel when I was also reminded of my father’s idealism and how it affected our family for both good and bad. It made me realise that, in comparison, we got off lightly.

Stead has created a character primarily for her own catharsis but also for the very beneficial catharsis of anyone who has grown up a [click to continue…]