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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0622 | Rabbit is Rich | John Updike post image

Context: Mrs Arukiyomi’s grandfather (centre) passed away while I listened to this. Private Eye readers will be glad to hear that he was 94.

More of the same from Updike with two exceptions: less happens and there’s more graphic sex. Quite why this novel, of the three Rabbit novels so far, won the most awards including the Pulitzer is beyond me.

My conclusions that Rabbit and his ilk are a complete waste of human space were confirmed by this. How many people are there out there whose lives are of no benefit to anyone except themselves and to the detriment of everyone around them?

No one in this novel is capable of loving anyone around them or even aware that they lack the ability. Instead, they carry on with facade and distortion as if life really is all about their petty concerns.

Rabbit has grown fat, in more ways than one, on the proceeds of the Toyota showroom inherited from his now deceased father-in-law. He is estranged from his son, emotionally estranged from his wife, and still beset by fantasies of the sexual grass being greener. [click to continue…]

0621 | Rabbit Redux | John Updike post image

Context: was listening to this when we completed on a lovely little family home in North Yorkshire.

After Rabbit, Run comes this. Rabbit’s now settled down but he’s definitely not put the past behind him. He’s in a real dead end job instead of a pretend one, and the woman he felt he couldn’t face in the first book is tired of facing him and gives him some of his own medicine. His son is old enough to know but not old enough to understand.

Once she’s left him, Rabbit starts hanging out with pretty much anyone, and this results in him inviting a couple of strangers to live with him. At this point, Updike finds his philosophical muse in the character of Skeeter and the novel started to bog down a bit for me.

It all comes crashing down in misery towards the end before coming to what, for Rabbit, is something of a happy ending, i.e. mediocrity resumed.

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0620 | Pale Fire | Vladimir Nabokov post image

Context: Was reading this when we visited the lovely Ma’in Hot Springs resort in Jordan. That’s a steaming waterfall!

It is the mark of genius that most of the world doesn’t get what you are trying to do at all. Such is the case with Nabokov’s Pale Fire, a novel which isn’t really a novel unless you understand that novels exist only because people pushed the boundaries of an art form that, at one time, didn’t exist.

This is no easy read. You start off with a 999-line poem and then move on to a commentary on it which starts focussed and then ends up ranging into the political intrigues of a fictitious nation and an assassination. Whether any of it relates to any of it is open to question, and better minds than mine have been wrecked upon its shores.

What I do know is that I have no clue what it’s about, what Nabokov intended by it, nor what it’s place may or may not be in the literary canon. All I can say is that I read it, I thought the poem had shades of genius, and that the commentary ranged from mildly interesting to downright tedious. [click to continue…]

0619 | Americanah | Chimamanda Ngozi Aidichie post image

Context: Was listening to this when the wife and I walked to our nearby cinema to watch Johnny English Strikes Again. Very funny.

Recently added to the 1001 Books list in the new October 2018 edition, this title was worthy of its inclusion capturing, as it does, the state of race in a nation founded on racism. I listened to the audio book read by Adjoa Andoh and she did a superb job of bringing all the African accents to life. Highly recommended.

Now, before I get into this, I just have to add an explanatory note for any USAnian readers who may be confused as to why there may be a need for such a book.

Prior to the arrival of the British, other people lived in what is now the USA, and the new people, who subsequently, and with no claim to the title, called themselves Americans, carried out a deliberate and very much orchestrated campaign of genocide against them. There may be some for whom this comes as a revelation. If so, please stop reading my review and immediately pick yourselves up a copy of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. When you’ve finished that, come back here and carry on.
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0618 | Rabbit, Run | John Updike

0618 | Rabbit, Run | John Updike post image

Context: Completed a wall of empty tins to stop the cats getting up above the cooker while reading this.

A long time ago in a galaxy far away, I was given a copy of Rabbit is Rich by mistake for a birthday present. I’d asked for Pulitzer Prize winning NON-fiction and received five fiction titles instead. At the time, I didn’t read fiction because no one had published 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. How times, and reading habits, have changed.

I digress. I got about halfway through Rabbit is Rich and it pretty much appalled me. I can’t really remember why, something to do with the sex I think, and I simply gave up and never finished it. So, it comes as a nice surprise that Rabbit, Run, the first in the series, turns out to actually be a well-crafted novel exploring the crises that occur in the minds of men who are too old to have earned a mid-life crisis.

Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom is our eponymous runner. Well, actually, he’s a basketball player. Well, he was. Now he feels trapped in a [click to continue…]