0640 | 1000 Years of Annoying the French | Stephen Clarke post image

Context: Started crossing off the days on our final calendar in the Middle East while reading this.

This millennial look at the history of Britain and France is told with wry, sometimes childishly irritating, and rarely laugh-inducing humour. It’s pretty comprehensive, coming in at just under 650 pages, and it’s not all as good as the rest of it.

Beginning with William the Conqueror (not French) and ending with Nicolas Sarkozy (French), Clarke covers a fair bit of ground including food, battles, trade, battles, Canada, battles, wine, battles, Voltaire, battles, the French Revolution and battles. Oh, and there are about seven chapters dedicated to Napoleon.

You learn a lot about the impact of France on the world. In many cases, as the book has a clear anti-French bias (albeit tongue-in-cheek apparently) Clarke takes pains to point out where our common understanding of the influence of France on history is misplaced.

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0639 | The City of God | E. L. Doctorow post image

Context: Was reading this at the Farmer’s Market where we went every Saturday morning to have breakfast through our last winter in Bahrain.

If you’re after a pacy novel with a great storyline and memorable characters that zips you from A to B in a rush of finely written prose, you’ll need to get through this quick so that you can get yourself something that fits your bill. This novel isn’t it.

What it is though is a series of sketches that, together, give you an impression of contemporary New York and bits and pieces of WW2 Europe and what being Jewish means in both contexts. Bear in mind though that people who are Jewish absolutely love writing about being Jewish. People who live in New York also love writing about New York. Combine this and, well, you get writing that is entirely self-absorbed.

Was it worth it? I’m not really sure, and that shows that this novel is probably for people who consider themselves to have more literary intelligence than myself.

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0638 | Testament of Youth | Vera Brittain post image

Context: no idea!

While this is one of the classic war books and written from the almost unique perspective of a woman, if you can find an abridged version to read, get that instead of the full text.

Brittain has written an extremely self-focussed work here. Where it deals with the life and times of women in the early years of the 20th century and, in particular, the impact of the war on them, it is very interesting.

Where Vera describes her own life and, in particular, what she gets up to after the war, the book is little more than a diary and thus, IMO, not worth reading. She does go on a bit, and when she does, its all me, me, me.

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0637 | Rosshalde | Herman Hesse

0637 | Rosshalde | Herman Hesse post image

Context: Was reading this when I had to visit the National Power Academy to see if they were ready to host our trainees. Er… no.

This beautiful, sad and moving book is the story of a man at odds with life, himself, his wife and his sons. I enjoyed it very much.

Living in luxury in a purposefully designed building on an estate which he regards as idyllic, Johann Veraguth lives separately from his wife in the main house. Their young son, Pierre, helps to maintain the only tie that now binds them.

Johann paints to escape the loneliness and pain of the emotional wounds he bears, but his self-absorbtion only serves to further isolate him from Pierre, who hates the smell of the oils, and his wife, who does not understand his works.

Hope comes in the form of a close friend who suggests he travel to the east with him and discover a new life there. Before this plan comes to fruition however, tragedy strikes the family and forces them to look to each other for the strength to endure it.

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0636 | Ada | Vladimir Nabokov

0636 | Ada | Vladimir Nabokov post image

Context: honestly cannot remember this one!

This was very, very hard going. Nabokov is not an easy man to keep up with when he puts all the power of his mind into something, and he just couldn’t stop himself with this one.

The story of two siblings who hit it off and eventually end up lovers and then they grow up and then … I forget. I really do.

Although I’m sure there are some sublime moments in there somewhere, I was so utterly confused and confounded that I simply couldn’t see them. The storyline didn’t help. It’s not particularly interesting and there’s no desperately clear plotline to help things along.

The writing is complex and, I thought, littered with puns and plays on words which, after a while, had all the entertainment value of dad jokes at a Christmas dinner. I found the whole thing really laborious.

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0635 | House of Leaves | Mark Danielewski post image

Context: We celebrated Christmas late at home with a roaring YouTube fire while I read this one.

One of the weirdest books you’ll ever read and it looks like he put a tremendous effort into pulling it off. Does he succeed? Not for me, he doesn’t.

This book screams gimmick from the very get go. You can’t help but pull it off the shelf and leaf through it, so bizarre is its layout. While it starts off in a reasonably orthodox style and layout, things start to get increasingly weird as Danielewski starts mucking around with fonts, colours (in my edition), page layout and blurring the lines between fictitious non-fiction.

It starts out really well with a guy discovering a whole bunch of writings some old recluse left when he died. The story then splits into the guy writing about his own life and the story he’s attempting to piece together from these writings. At this point, you’re entirely hooked. Danielewski has got you turning pages like there’s no tomorrow… then it all kind of pans into nothingness.

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0634| The Virgin in the Garden | A. S. Byatt post image

Context: was reading this when I did my last ever photography sale in Bahrain.

The influence of Iris Murdoch on Byatt seems to be very apparent here. Virgin reads like an intellectual’s version of Murdoch’s The Bell, written 20 years earlier, but without as strong a plot and far more musing on literature. In fact, at times you could be forgiven for wondering if Byatt was competing for the world’s longest bibliography so many references does she include.

Things Mean A Lot wrote that…

A.S. Byatt’s writing – more so in her novels than in her short stories, I think – is very much cerebral.

For me, cerebral is the perfect word. There’s really only one character I can relate to in the entire novel and that’s the only one who has subsumed his intellect with his passions: Daniel the rector. Apart from him, I wanted to stuff the rest into a string bag and drown them in a well.

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0633 | Sabbath’s Theater | Philip Roth post image

Context: read while staying at Bethany Children’s Home on the shores of Lake Victoria, Tanzania.

Not the most pleasant read anyone of us will experience. Just under 500 pages describing the purposefully repugnant Mickey Sabbath. While the more prudish among us will simply stop reading, those of us who are more widely read ask ourselves the question Roth surely intended: aren’t we really all like Mickey Sabbath deep down?

And I can’t disagree with him. Deep down, we’re all repugnant, driven by animal desires and a self-interest that is utterly loathsome at times.

There’s another question here though: isn’t Mickey to be praised above the rest of us because he is, at least, honest and, in admitting he is as such and revelling in it, lives the fullest life that he possibly could while we live in fear of our peers and confine ourselves to the limitations of their expectations?

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0632 | A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man | James Joyce post image

Context: Read this while drinking spiced tea over a few games of bao at a place in Zanzibar.

Joyce is such a wordsmith, He’s so able, at any point, to spring off with a bound and run with words in such a way that you really have to be on your toes with this one.

At first glance, you’re reading a simple autobiographical account. But woe-betide you if you settle too comfortably into that. Joyce won’t leave you where you find yourself.

Unless you are intensely focussed (and people settled comfortably usually aren’t), you will suddenly realise that you’re now in a completely different phase of writing. You may return to look for a transition, but you’ll spend a long time doing so. Joyce includes hardly any (I hesitate to say no, but it may just be no) transitions. If you’re looking for a new chapter to introduce you to a new scene or change of pace or change of style, forget it.

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0631 | Fingersmith | Sarah Walters

0631 | Fingersmith | Sarah Walters post image

Context: Was reading this while staying on a beautiful beach in Zanzibar.

Before we’ve reached the 100th page of this, Ms Walters can’t hold it in any longer:

Maud stood very still, her pink lips parted [ooh er], her face put back, her eyes at first closed and then open and gazing at me, her cheek with a flush upon it, her throat lifted and sank as she swallowed, my hand grew wet [ooh er#2] from the damp of her breaths [ooh er #3]. I rubbed [ooh er #4] and then felt with my thumb [ooh er #5]. She swallowed again, her eyelids fluttered, and she caught my eye.

Now you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was some form of erotic seduction, particularly given the title of the novel, but that’s all in the mind of Ms Waters. It’s actually someone performing dental work. I kid you not.

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0630 | The Holder of the World | Bharati Mukherjee post image

Context: Was reading this as we flew into Stone Town on my first visit to Zanzibar.

Had I not been held captive in a stifling, airless bedroom of a beach bungalow in Zanzibar by the worst sunburn I’ve ever had in my life AND a foot aching from sea urchin spines, I doubt I would have had the wherewithal to make it through this. As it was: “Thanks, Ms Mukherjee. You only added to my misery.”

Trying to do too much in a short novel is the fate of any writer who really lacks the ability to write well. If you can write prose like Alessandro Barrico, Virginia Woolf or Colm Toibin, you can easily achieve mastery of your literary mission in under 200 pages. If you’re Mukherjee, you cannot. In fact, she should not.

Having said that, I wouldn’t have wanted her to have to pull another 200 pages of printer paper off the shelf to make this one work. Her writing jumps around all over the place, can’t make up its mind if it is history of sci-fi or romance or whatever.

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0629 | The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy | Lawrence Sterne post image

Context: got VR for the first time at home while reading this. All I can say is, “Wow!”

This is a novel that has, since it’s publication in 1759, divided opinion throughout the ages. It certainly divided mine as you can tell from the review radar below.

While I’m all for authors trying to push the envelope of what a novel can do, such experimentation often comes at a price. In this case, the price to be paid was a great deal of readability and, unless you can excuse an autobiography dedicating hundreds of pages solely to the birth of the protagonist, any sense of plot.

Sterne was both a genius and massively influential. But genii are often unaware of the masses’ need for accessibility, much like most of us are unaware how hard using scissors is for lefties.

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0628 | Slaughterhouse Five | Kurt Vonnegut post image

Context: went to the dentist while reading this. Teeth nice and healthy.

What a genius this man was to write a novel so short, so deceptively simple, so (frankly) bonkers and yet so very relevant not just for the age in which he wrote it but for now and many to come.

Based on Vonnegut’s own experiences being abducted both two alien races (one a bloodthirsty brood from another world who threaten to take over the entire planet, and the other from the planet Tralfamadore) this novel bends both narrative and time itself as you read it.

Of course, that last paragraph is unlikely to make any sense to you unless you have experienced the wonder that is Slaughterhouse Five. If you haven’t get out and read it. If you have, I’m sure you need no encouragement to read it again.

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0627 | The Untouchable | John Banville post image

Context: Had to visit the company clinic to get some malaria meds while reading this.

I last read Banville nearly a decade ago. The Sea and The Newton Letter didn’t impress me much. This one was better than both of those put together, I thought.

Banville has the ability to get deeply inside a character and that makes him the perfect author to tackle the tale of the double-agent Victor Maskell. Once inside though, he is quite appropriately only showing you what he wants you to see.

This is not a novel for those who like to have everything told them up front. This is a slow burn. You’ll need patience to make any sense of obscure references dropped here and there. Were life longer, I’d recommend a second reading.

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0626 | Eclipse of the Crescent Moon | Geza Gardonyi post image

Context: We had solar panels installed on our future retirement home in the UK while I was listening to this.

This is on the 1001 Books list simply because it is a Hungarian classic chronicling the successful defence of Eger Castle from the Ottoman Turks by a vastly outnumbered army.

My main interest in it was the siege itself as I’ve visited Eger, which is a lovely town with some stunning Baroque architecture, and remember well our visit to the castle and the tales we heard there of its defence.

But Gardonyi is no Max Hastings. Anyone coming here looking for historical accuracy is going to have to find another book to reference in order to sort the fact from the fiction. The novel was written by a Hungarian, for Hungarians, about Hungary. As anyone knows who has ever travelled there or spent much time talking to people from that lovely and unique nation, if Hungarians like to talk about anything, it’s Hungary.

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0625 | Islands | Dan Sleigh

0625 | Islands | Dan Sleigh post image

Context: Took Mrs Arukiyomi to the local hospital for a check up while reading this.

Absolutely fantastic book. Just one of those that you come across and know immediately that you’re going to end up buying someone a copy because you just want to share the wonderful experience of reading it. You’re disappointed when you reach the end which is saying something for a book which comes to over 700 pages.

I found it utterly captivating, a fantastic insight into the establishment of the Cape Colony in what is now South Africa by the Dutch in the 18th century. It’s just replete with historical detail with beautifully recreated details about clothing, society, relationships, maritime travel, industry and so much more.

It’s a historical novel; you’re not reading non-fiction here. But Sleigh, a history teacher himself, has done a wonderful job in taking historical characters who you can look up online and fleshing out their lives with details that, although imaginary, are entirely plausible given what we do know.

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0624 | Three Trapped Tigers | Guillermo Cabrero Infante post image

Context: Bought us a fan to keep the costs down on the AC. Electricity price has tripled in a year in Bahrain!!

Nothing to see here people. Move along.

At least, if you’ve read any Sterne (1759) or later Joyce or Tristram Shandy (review forthcoming) or Ulysses (1904) in particular, you will find all this (1967) has been done long, long before, and it will start to pale on you very shortly after you begin the novel.

Worse, though, is that it hails from Latin America, an area of the world I’ve long had no literary inspiration from, with one minor exception. That only compounded my misery.

In fact, I’m betting the only reason it’s on the 1001 books list is its Cuban origin, as if to say, “Look, they finally figured out how to write copy crazy stuff over there, too.”

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0623 | The Story of Lucy Gault | William Trevor post image

Context: while reading this, I visited one of Saudi Arabia’s largest oil refineries on a business trip to Yanbu’.

What a beautiful novel is Trevor’s paean to loss, regret and life itself. I can’t tell you how it cleansed the palate after the first three books of Updike’s Rabbit series. It restored my faith in the novel as a vehicle for the expression of human sensitivity.

Lucy is young when her parents, fearful of the turning political tide, make plans to leave the only home she has known on the beautiful Irish coast. But tragedy strikes, and the novel enters a period of mourning, separation and loss which William Trevor’s prose paints perfectly.

In fact, it is a testament to Trevor’s skill as a writer that the novel does not descend into utter melodrama, such is the tragedy you are faced with. I’m not sure anyone but an Irish writer could have portrayed such depth of loss with such subtle prose. It’s enchanting.

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