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…]

0600 | Burmese Days | George Orwell post image

Context: built myself a very, very fast computer to speed up my photo editing while reading this.

George’s southeast Asian tale translates his scorn for capitalist Britain into the wilds of Burma where the sultry humidity and lazy pace of tropical life do little to dampen his ire.

Flory is an experienced colonial at a backwater station where the British empire is doing its level best to make its rule felt. When the young Elizabeth turns up, Flory senses his chance not only to secure his emotional future, but to provide an cultural induction to the young impressionable. Elizabeth however, lacks the ability to see beyond her prejudice and, somewhat inevitably, it all ends in tears.

Orwell uses this to set up a tension between those who see things from Orwell’s point of view and those who, well, don’t. George is clear: the empire is a vehicle for making the rich richer. The Brits come off none too well in this novel, and he drew some criticism for this at the time of its publication.

[click to continue…]

0599 | The Woodlanders | Thomas Hardy post image

Context: read this at the lovely Cataract Hotel in Aswan on the Nile

Six down and one more to go of Hardy’s from the 1001 Books List. Unbeknown to me at the time, I actually finished it to within an hour of 80 years and a day since Hardy passed away.

Fans of Hardy will know that he often brings the landscape to life in his novels. In The Woodlanders, he does more than that as the title indicates. The inhabitants of Little Hintock are as intricate a part of the landscape as the woodland itself. From the very beginning, the roles that these characters play are entwined intimately with the lives of Grace Melbury and the two men who take turns in her heart.

Grace has been educated beyond her station by a father who wishes her to escape the traditional life he leads as a timber merchant. This apparently places her out of reach of her stoic admirer, local cider brewer Giles Winterbourne, but makes her a perfect match for an outsider in the form of Dr. Edred Fitzpiers. At least, this is what [click to continue…]

0598 | Everything is Illuminated | Jonathan Safran Foer post image

Context: another book finished as I commuted backwards and forwards to Saudi each day.

This is at once one of the funniest and also one of the most tragic novels I’ve experienced in a long time. Safran Foer’s tale of the history of his own Jewish family’s experience in Ukraine is told from two very different points of view. Neither are equally accessible, but together they form a splendid whole and one that is even more impressive for a first novel.

The modern-day episodes of the author visiting Ukraine are very readable. This comes both from the farcical humour and, as this gives way to plot, an increasing desire to uncover the secrets that are obviously waiting to be discovered. So far so good.

Then there are episodes woven between detailing what at first appear to be unconnected events in the distant past. These events are told in a style bordering on magic-realism with a fair amount of wordplay. However much difficulty you might encounter, I’d highly recommend that you persevere. The rewards are truly great. [click to continue…]