0583 | The Radetzky March | Joseph Roth post image

Context: went out for breakfast at our local cafe of choice while reading this.

A book filled with melancholy not only for the characters but the world in which they live, The Radetzky March is a carefully constructed memorial to a lost age. Roth depicts three male generations of loyal subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire prior to World War I, focussing on the last, young Carl Joseph. Along the way, we get a picture of an empire in decline, of traditions slowly tottering, and of a society entirely unaware of the cracks appearing around them.

Time and again while reading this, I was reminded of The Bridge on the Drina. Both novels chronicle the history of empires and both end with WW1. But whereas Drina remains fixed on one locus in space, March roves far more widely. The writing has similarities, too. Both depict solid characters who fail in their attempts to stand against the tides of time, and both are written in prose which is very carefully constructed.

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0582 | The Player of Games | Iain M. Banks post image

Context: Was reading this when we went to the American Mission Hospital.

While I’ve read a few of Banks’ non-sci-fi novels, none of them are as memorable as The Player of Games. The world that Banks has created here is truly original in many ways. I had to keep reminding myself that this was written in 1988 and not 2008.

Gurgeh is the player and his renown for playing earns him an invitation from the shadowy hierarchy of his society. He is asked to take a long journey to another world and there play a game like no other. The game culminates in a life and death situation which Banks does well to spin out to the end of the novel although there is a certain amount of inevitability surrounding the ending which I thought a tad weak.

What impressed me more was the way that Banks uses the two worlds he has created to ask questions about our own society. It’s clear that the world Gurgeh visits is, in many ways, modelled on our [click to continue…]

0581 | He Knew he was Right | Anthony Trollope post image

Context: Read this during Ramadan where, at work, non-Muslims like me were confined to this room to eat or drink.

Trollope’s story of a marriage and a life destroyed by the jealousy of a husband could have been a vivid portrayal of how delicately married life can be balanced. Instead, Trollope watered down a potentially powerful narrative with sub-plots and minor characters that only serve to underline Trollope’s trademark verbosity.

When Louis Trevelyan suspects his wife Emily of emotional adultery with Colonel Osbourne, an old family friend, the situation quickly gets out of hand. Louis’ lack of trust is met with Emily’s equal lack of humility. Despite there being nothing untoward in the initial exchanges, she undermines her position by going against her husband’s wishes and meeting Osbourne behind Louis’ back. Each spouse, when given the opportunity to pour water on the flames, decides instead to pour aviation fuel. The resulting conflagration not only costs them their marital harmony, it drives one of them out of their mind.

Trollope could have developed so much around this storyline. [click to continue…]

0580 | Vernon God Little | DBC Pierre post image

Context: Mrs Arukiyomi bought me a guitarlele while I was reading this. Perfect for a travelling troubadour.

Pierre’s adventure tale of the pursuit of poor little Vern by virtually the entire machine of ‘Merica is a combustive mix of satire and suspense. The pace doesn’t let up. From the moment you meet the eponymous hero until his final homecoming, you feel as out of breath, as uncertain of your surroundings as he is. It’s a novel that very cleverly characterises the claustrophobia suffered by those for the whom the American Dream is nothing short of a nightmare.

Vernon is the product of a dysfunctional single-parent family in Couldbeanytown, Texas. His mother dreams of a limited edition refrigerator while Vernon dreams of simply being accepted. He attends a local high school where something has gone horribly wrong. What exactly took place, you piece together as the story unfolds. Exactly what role Vernon played in it is what everyone else wants to know.

Through the introduction of some of the most comic US-lit characters since Ignatius J. Reilly and Yossarian, we find the [click to continue…]

0579 | Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow | Peter Høeg post image

Context: Read this on a sublime camping trip in Oman where we camped in canyons like this one.

I don’t very often tread the streets of Copenhagen having only spent 48 hours there before. I’ve spent about 48 hours less than that in Greenland. So, Peter Høeg’s social rant against the treatment of Greenlanders by Denmark (heavily disguised as a thriller) was very interesting.

This was a good thing because the thriller that he buried it all up in didn’t really do it for me. I found that contrived, nonsensical and full of the obvious kinds of coincidences a writer who can’t really do thrillers has to rely on (c.f. Dan Brown). Oh, and he can’t write an ending either.

What you need to do with this novel is peel back the layers of Arctic insulation, chuck aside the crampons and ice picks, forget you’re on an ice-breaker somewhere in the North Atlantic and realise that you are being offered a tantalising glimpse into the underbelly of Danish history. You won’t see trailers for this history on TV like you do Danish bacon or Lurpak. Denmark is not advertising its colonial [click to continue…]