Context: Was reading this when I sold my car in Saudi in preparation for repatriation. I bought it 227 books ago!
When you read, you bring something of yourself to the book so that you can interpret what you’re being told according to your previous reading, your life experience and your own philosophies. With Borges, you might as well leave all that at the door.
You leave it at the door because if you think you can simply wade through his prose bearing it all, you’ll soon find yourself drowning in his vertiginous depths. The only way to survive is to float.
Borges can accomplish more characterisation and plot in a two page short story than mystifyingly popular writers like Ben Lerner can accomplish with his entire life’s output.
Context: Read this at Crust & Crema, Bahrain while I waited for a customer to collect some photo prints from me.
Life’s too short to figure out books like Lerner’s. It’s not hard to read. It’s not actually anything except an attempt by a man to show us he understands the word proprioception. A single usage in a novel would be remarkable. Lerner uses it on average every 50 pages. Literally.
There are bits which Bret Easton Ellis could do perfectly which Lerner tries to imitate and fails badly at.
None of it is original. None of it is unique. None of it is worth reading except this midly amusing quote that Lerner probably overheard on the subway:
“Shaving is a way to start your workday by ritually not cutting your throat while you have the chance.”
Books like 10:04 make you realise that you still have that opportunity open to you.
Context: Fostered a three-legged feral cat while reading this. We called him Herman Hiss because that’s pretty much all he did.
My my, what a book. And the eponymous joke is on who exactly? The characters or the readers?
Not for the faint hearted at over 1,000 pages including 380 miniscule footnotes some of which are pages long in themselves, this is not an easy read by any stretch of the imagination.
In fact, it’s not much of anything by any stretch of the imagination. Even Wallace’s. It lacks a beginning, a middle, an end, a plot, a point. The vast majority is sheer tedium punctuated by very, very isolated islands of brilliance.
It does, however, have characters a few of which are very well crafted and ingenious in each of their own rights. Unfortunately, most of these are fairly pointless, and there are an awful lot of them.
Context: Was reading this when some dear friends came to visit us in Bahrain.
Littell’s meticulously researched memoir of an SS officer is a book that no one who reads it can ever forget, and that’s exactly how it should be. It’s absolutely horrific, chilling from the introduction. Here, you get your first glimpse of the incisive analysis the protagonist Maximilien Aue brings to his involvement in the Final Solution when he says
There was a lot of talk, after the war, in trying to explain what happened, about inhumanity. But I am sorry, there is no such thing as inhumanity. There is only humanity and more humanity.
The introduction is a masterpiece in itself. It begins and ends as follows:
Context: Read this while I took part in filming for a video about plastic pollution on a beach in Bahrain.
Before the mid-1980s, superheroes were pretty simple. They had special powers, they fought baddies, they fought on our side, and they won. Wathmen changed all that.
Moore single-handedly deconstructed the character of the superhero with a comic that presents its characters as flawed beings who are as complex as they are capable of superhuman feats.
Moore’s characters can be corrupted, they know fear, they can be jealous, they can be hurt and not just physically, and they can overcome all this and be noble.
Throw in a complex, compelling narrative that weaves in earlier material in only the subtle ways comics can and you have a book you will want to take your time over.
Caption: Listened to this while I waited on Causeway Island until 1am for my final Saudi multi-entry visa to be issued.
Less than halfway through his bundle of tedium, Pessoa says
Let the plotless novel come to an end
If only …
Instead, Pessoa moans on and on for another half of his eternity.
It wouldn’t be so bad but Pessoa himself undermines his own work by attempting to dismantle such commonly held (and therefore suspect?) beliefs such as truth and opinion. Anyone who takes him seriously would therefore have to dismiss anything he says as worthless. I didn’t need to be forced.
Context: Was reading this when I did my first photo shoot specifically for an interior designer.
No clue why this is regarded as some kind of seminal work in queer literature. It’s certainly queer, but not in the way the gushing Winterson considers it in her foreword.
It’s kind of very loosely about the love of two women for each other, but then it’s not even really about that. In fact, you’d be hard pushed to say that it’s about anything at all.
There are a number of characters who are linked by their love for a woman who basically trashes them all emotionally, and there’s a mad doctor. He gives them advice at various stages which either resembles the ramblings of a madman or some esoteric philosopher no one can make head nor tail of.
It’s very tedious to read, there’s no real plot to speak of, and the whole thing has aged quite badly indeed. There’s really nothing here so it’s no surprise that it’s fallen into obscurity.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.