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0668 | The Engineer of Human Souls | Josef Skvorecky post image

Context: Went out for a final meal with our church homegroup while reading this. Terrible meal!

If Iain Sinclair wants to know how to eradicate plot but nevertheless write a novel that is at once funny, poignant, moving, funny, sad and tragic, he should put down his pen and pick up a copy of this.

The tragedy that was Czechoslovakia is portrayed intimately through a series of vignettes that covers the 20th century history of the nation and its scattered citizens around the world.

Much of the history is told through letters and memoirs, in particular the memoir of a professor of literature at a Candian university. Here we see the influence of autobiography (take note Sinclair) as Skvorecky’s own life permeates the pages.

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0667 | Dining on Stones | Iain Sinclair

0667 | Dining on Stones | Iain Sinclair post image

Context: Mrs Arukiyomi knitted a pair of socks for our newest nephew while I was reading this.

You know you’re in for a rough ride when the book your about to read is recommended by the lamentable Will Self.

When everything else fails, fall back on doctored autobiography.

p76

While this is ostensibly one of the musings of our protagonist, I believe this also provides us with an insight into exactly what Sinclair has done here.

Basically, Sinclair wandered the Ballardian wastes of Essex, came up with nothing worthwhile for a novel and then just decided to write what happened to him instead. Sadly for us, that was pretty much nothing.

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0666 | LaBrava | Elmore Leonard

0666 | LaBrava | Elmore Leonard post image

Context: Took the cats for their final medical stuff prior to export while reading this.

If you like hard-boiled detective stuff, this is for you. Leonard even throws in a faded 1950s movie star so you get a bit of film noir along the way.

Halfway through, there’s a twist which isn’t entirely unforeseeable, and it all reads pretty well. While it is a novel that very accurately captures its era, this in many respects is a shame.

Misogyny is rampant with all the women being represented as sexual objects in one way or another and all the men represented as macho in one way or … well pretty much one way.

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0665 | The Labyrinth of Solitude | Octavio Paz post image

Context: Sold a picture of a sunset in Ethiopia to a colleague at work while reading this.

This is for die-hard fans of literature really. Very philosophical, this collection of essays wasn’t my cup of tea at all despite whatever place it may hold in Latin America or Mexico in particular.

This is a very loose exploration of the history of Mexico. You won’t really get much of it unless you already understand a fair bit of the narrative in the first place. He spends a lot of time using his references to history to clarify his ideas about the identity of Mexican people.

On the whole, it’s very much about what makes people Mexican, but in some respects, his ideas can be applied to the people of any nation anywhere. Thus:

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0664 | The Goldfinch | Donna Tartt

0664 | The Goldfinch | Donna Tartt post image

Context: We submitted objections to a proposed caravan park in our new hometown in the UK while I was listening to this.

Some people say this is overlong. I’m not entirely sure I agree. At the pace the novel moves at, I can’t see what might be omitted. What I will state however, is that it’s almost an entire duplication. Tartt seems to be a one-trick pony.

The protagonist is a young man, alienated from his parents and placed in a strange environment. He ends up involved in a crime that, although he bears some responsibility for, can be explained away due to circumstance and spends the rest of the novel (and his life?) dealing with the consequences of that.

If you’ve read The Secret History, you might find that synopsis familiar because I have, in fact, just described the plot of the novel Tartt wrote 21 years prior to Goldfinch and which she has pulled out the freezer and hastily warmed up in the microwave, throwing in some refried beans to mask the taste of leftovers.

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0663 | City Primeval | Elmore Leonard

0663 | City Primeval | Elmore Leonard post image

Context: Sold our balcony gardening stuff while reading this.

I’m writing this a good 11 months after finishing this novel. It was the first Elmore Leonard I’d read and shortly afterwards, I also read LaBrava. The latter has eclipsed the former in my memory and, sadly for posterity, I did not make an audio recording of my thoughts on finishing it as I did for all the other novels I was reading at the time.

But it’s enough to simply say that despite reading a number of synopses of the plot and reviews of the book, Primeval has left almost no trace in my memory.

I can’t remember what I thought of the plot, the characters, how readable it was. I can remember nothing of what I thought Leonard was trying to do in the novel, nor can I remember whether it made any impression on me at all at the time.

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0662 | Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids | Kenzaburo Oe post image

Context: Went wakeboarding (or attempting to wakeboard) on a friends’ boat from their private jetty while reading this.

Very poignant. Very raw. A booked that rocked Japan when published just 13 years after the Japanese surrender in 1945.

This is Japan’s Lord of the Flies with important exceptions: adults are always on the periphery and the children work together for survival.

During WW2, a group of boys is left to fend for themselves in a village deserted due to a viral outbreak. Despite most surviving against the odds, when the adults return, they force them into secrecy about how they have been treated. Only the narrator escapes to an unknown fate – clearly a metaphor for the author.

The storytelling is vivid and heartbreaking. Their plight is visceral and easy to get drawn into. Their betrayal and treatment at the hands of the adult villagers is harsh. The metaphors abound.

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0661 | Paradise of the Blind | Duong Thu Huong post image

Context: First visited the indoor summer Farmers’ Market while reading this.

I thought this was going to be really good. It was the first novel translated from Vietnamese to English even though it was only published in 1988. That says a huge amount about many things, most of it supposition.

The plot follows the life of Hang, a young woman, in a series of flashbacks and contemporary reflections. We follow her as she studies in Moscow and visiting her ageing uncle there.

As she grows, she discovers what has caused the tensions between her, her mother, her aunt and her uncle, and she fights to keep in play multiple loyalties.

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0660 | The War of the End of the World | Mario Vargas Llosa post image

Context: Went out for a final breakfast at our favourite coffee shop in Bahrain while reading this.

A very good long read which has all the intensity of the most roasted Brazilian coffee you can imagine. There’s a lot of conflict here so steer clear if you’re not up for that.

Based on the true story of a hinterland rebellion in northeastern Brazil in the late 19th century known now as the War of Canudos. The coming millenium leads to the formation of a messianic cult formed almost entirely of peasants who form an early version of Occupy to form their own society building their own town of Canudos.

In the eyes of the government, doing anything they didn’t sanction invited the only solution governments understand: crush the people at all costs. And the cost is high, on both sides. This leads, ultimately to a major tragedy which should never have happened.

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0659 | Reasons to Live | Amy Hempel

0659 | Reasons to Live | Amy Hempel post image

Context: Bought our cat carriers to ship our cats back to the UK while reading this.

A book of short stories that are very easy to read and very engaging. I would probably read this again if I came across it again. Sadly, I had no time to give this more of the minutes it deserved; I was reading through all the 1001 books I could get hold of from my library at work before I left forever just a couple of months after reading this.

One of the reasons for wanting to re-read it is her particular use of characterisation. There’s a lot more going on under the surface than it seems.

This seems astonishing when you consider that some of the stories are just 2 – 3 pages long. And yet, within that tiny span, she can, like Borges, draw you right in. However, unlike him, she never loses you or makes you feel like you don’t have a brain.

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0658 | The Left-Handed Woman | Peter Handke post image

Context: Shredded unbelievable amounts of old paperwork in our office while reading this.

A strange novel that faded from my memory within a few days of reading it. My third short novel in a row and, like the others, it runs out of pages before it really gets anywhere.

In this case though, that’s probably for the best.

A woman living with her son in a cardboard cut out of a town welcomes her husband back from a business trip. They decide to go out for dinner and while their eating decide to end their marriage.

None of this seems in any way suprising. She raises her son for a bit while a visiting publisher tries to start a relationship with her but gets no further than the doorstep.

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0657 | Miss Lonelyhearts | Nathanael West post image

Context: Created a course to teach team members to code by themselves while reading this.

A tiny novella which reminded me of The Postman Always Rings Twice or pretty much anything by Raymond Chandler.

The protagonist hides behind the pseudonym Miss Lonelyhearts as he writes for an agony column. His initial cynicism starts to break down as he realises that there are real people out there with real issues in their real lives.

But although his readers lives are real, Miss Lonelyhearts never actually gets real and grows up enough morally to do anything with the insights he gets into humanity. Instead, he does all he can to avoid facing them by indulging himself in as many escapist fantasies as he can.

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0656 | The Pigeon | Patrick Suskind

0656 | The Pigeon | Patrick Suskind post image

Context: Got my wife back safely from Colombo shortly before I finished this – 259 people died in the bombings while she was there.

This is a little slip of a book and quite why it should make the 1001 Books list at all is a mystery to me. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s not a patch on Perfume, his previous book.

You get a feeling that the nine years spent between Perfume and Pigeon were pretty barren as far as literature goes for Suskind and, when pressed for some content, he gave in and allowed his publishers to issue the precis for the novel that had eluded him.

It’s a shame because the premise is a good one and, without more flesh on the Pigeon‘s bones, there’s too much here that others (The Nose, One No-One and One Hundred Thousand, Kafka’s Metamorphosis) have done before. And they’ve mostly done it better.

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0655 | Sentimental Education | Gustave Flaubert post image

Context: Was listening to this when I handed in my letter of resignation from Saudi Aramco.

The story of youth, this is a great example of how someone acts when they grow up simply with the morality given to them by the society they emerge from. It’s a tale not how a character remains true to values that are immovable but rather subject to the vicissitudes of emotion, lust and the winds of circumstance.

As such, I think our protagonist Frederic is to be pitied. He has no understanding of values such as loyalties or real love. The writing brilliantly characterises Frederic. He’s someone to whom every reader to some extent will relate.

But the fact that, in the end, his most treasured memory is that of a visit to a brothel pretty much sums up his life. As with Bel Ami, which it must have influenced, the man has lived solely for his loins.

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0654 | The Museum of Unconditional Surrender | Dubravka Ugresic post image

Context: Read this while photographing the famous coloured streets of Harar, Ethiopia.

I can see how this book is important. It appears to be mostly autobiographical and shares memories of a woman which coalesce around the Balkan War and exile from.

The writing style is befittingly fragmentary, and this has a disorienting effect on the reader as you encounter pieces from her mother’s diary, her own experiences of exile, reflections on memory, political treatises, photographs and the way they shape the past, stories of friends and acquaintances, descriptions of literary events, magic realism, vignettes of Berlin.

Although there is coherence, you never feel like you’ve got a grip on anything and, for me, this was an unsettling experience. While I appreciated that this is probably exactly what Ugresic was after, I came away wanting more of a documentary account. She certainly never intended that it would be something of that nature, I’m sure.

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0653 | Everything You Need | A. L. Kennedy post image

Context: Read this while photographing the town of Harar, Ethiopia.

This one really got me. Maybe it was because I was also reading the abonimable In Search of Klingsor at the time, a novel that would make any other author appear talented.

Nathan is a writer with a past living on a remote Welsh island only reachable by boat and only peopled by his literate peers. His past starts to catch up with him though when aspiring writer Mary Lamb appears, his estranged daughter.

This leads to a game of cat and mouse as Nathan, fully aware of his fatherhood, makes his way closer and closer to the daughter his guilt won’t let him confess to.

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0652 | The Talk of the Town | Ardal O’Hanlon post image

Context: Read this while photographing the rock hewn churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia.

Had I not read Angela’s Ashes then this would have been unique and would have totally captivated me. But seeing as this was published just three years after Ashes, I found it was just more of the same.

It was also a bit too much more of the same. It’s almost as if O’Hanlon wasn’t writing for the Irish but for those not familiar with them. The Irishness is lathered up into a frenzied caricature. It all seemed a bit contrived to me.

Patrick is a young aimless waster who goes wherever life takes him. He falls in with a young woman who is his polar opposite and it’s all very tragicomic, with the emphasis mostly on the tragic.

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0651 | In Search of Klingsor | Jorge Volpi post image

Context: Read this while staying in a hotel with this amazing view at Lalibela, Ethiopia.

On the flyleaf of my edition, it says that this has been compared to The Name of the Rose. Either the person who wrote this has never read The Name of the Rose or they had in mind that they’re both books. The comparison stops right there.

Badly written, badly translated, badly edited, this should never in a million years have made it onto the 1001 Books list. Writing in the 2008 edition of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, Oscar Rickett says the novel “moves on at a pace that allows for the development of the mystery.” Garbage. The mystery is about as hidden as a blancmange in a boxing ring. Mind you, I doubt Oscar Rickett’s view is too worthy of consideration. His bio in 1001 Books describes him as a “freelance writer and amateur clarinetist.”

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