0588 | If on a winter’s night a traveller … | Italo Calvino post image

Context: Read this at a great veggie restaurant overlooking the water in Stockholm while housesitting this summer.

I can’t think of many novels that are as memorable as this one for its sheer audacity, its outrageous cheek, and the utter genius with which the writer sets out to toy with the reader. This is a novel-readers’ novel; from page 1, dear reader, you are invited to take the central part in what is essentially a search for meaning.

The opening page or two of this is utterly hilarious. By the time Calvino has you working your way through a bookshop, he has exposed all the deepest joys, desires and fears of anyone who truly loves reading. At this point, you’ve probably checked more than once to see if you are in fact reading some kind of foreword to an actual novel. But no, you aren’t. In fact, you aren’t reading an actual novel at all.

Well, not all of one because Calvino takes you through no less than ten novels none of which get much further than a few pages before something serves to render them inaccessible. This something is often farcical, and that’s the overall impression you get of the [click to continue…]

0587 | The Day of the Triffids | John Wyndham

Context: Read this at a cafe in Manchester Airport where we got lunch free for performing on their piano!

An even better read than The Midwich Cuckoos, Wyndham’s best-known novel gets off to a great start even if the ending leaves you hoping for a climax which never comes.

The appearance of a mysterious meteor shower heralds an apocalypse for humanity as the world is struck by blindness. We awake with Bill Mason, one of those who have for various reasons, been unable to see the sights of the night before. From then on, we attempt to make sense of what we encounter as he makes his way from hospital into a world where new rules have to be invented to survive.

Bill’s experience with triffids comes in handy when they seek to take advantage of the handicapped population. The novel runs along a knife edge the whole way through and you’re never quite sure which way things will turn. For the most part, the story is captivating as Wyndham creates a very real world and characters who you are genuinely interested in, but there are a few places where things [click to continue…]

0586 | The Master | Colm Tóibín

Context: Went to the dentist at a local hospital for a checkup while reading this.

It’s been a while since I read this, but the impression it made on me hasn’t left. Tóibín has written a melancholic novel of a man much misunderstood it seems. I don’t know enough about its subject, Henry James, to know whether The Master clears or muddies the water. But it certainly held interest for me as perhaps the only novel on the 1001 books list that is about a novelist who features heavily on the 1001 books list.

The Master is slow going, much like a Henry James novel. Thankfully, the clear, careful prose isn’t like a Henry James novel and is quite readable if a little slow. It’s certainly not a biography with the novel beginning in 1895 when James is 52 and ending just 4 years later. Quite why Tóibín picked this period of his life, I’m not sure, but there’s plenty of toing and froing into the past to fill in the details.

Being a kindred spirit, Tóibín has of course to explore the question [click to continue…]

0585 | Ulysses | James Joyce

0585 | Ulysses | James Joyce post image

Context: Mrs Arukiyomi produced a beautifully knitted baby blanket throughout the time I was reading this.

Notoriously difficult to read, even more notoriously difficult to understand, whatever your opinion about this novel it is not notoriously difficult to appreciate the genius that lies between its covers. What Joyce did here revolutionised the novel and showed that the art form could do a lot more than the history of English lit. had so far revealed it could.

As is well known, this is a day in the life of a few characters. It is a testament to the writing that those characters and what they get up to is so peripheral it hardly matters. The writing literally ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous. I’d agree with those that argue that there is more of the latter than the former, but I have read enough to know that when I don’t get it, it’s usually my fault, not the author. Usually.

So, I did what most dedicated readers do when then they look for scholarly insight into the works they are perusing: I turned to Wikipedia. Thankfully, the entry for Ulysses is excellent with not [click to continue…]

0584 | Promise at Dawn | Romain Gary post image

Context: Enjoyed the first coffee out after Ramadan while reading this.

This memoir is basically a eulogy to Gary’s mother. Seeing as I have never really had a mother to speak of, this was an interesting one for me to read as a kind of “what if”, all the while imagining I’d had a female role model there to love, encourage and inspire me to head for my dreams.

My mother never wanted children, drank heavily, was emotionally and physically violent, left us when I was 9 and then fought for custody just to spite my father, lost and then won the right to force us to spend one holiday a year with her until we were 18 and could decide whether we wanted to see us or not. Romain Gary’s mother was not like this.

In contrast to me, Gary grew up without a father to speak of although he suspects in the book who it might be. Instead, his mother becomes both parents in one and pursues the unlikely dream [click to continue…]