0597 | The Forsyte Saga | John Galsworthy post image

Context: read this while we visited Japan and did something I never did in 6 years living there: watch sumo!

The last book of 2017 is the one and only book of the year that reaches the lofty heights of the 90%+ rating needed to enter Arukiyomi’s Hall of Fame. And deservedly so. This study of a Victorian family was one of the best portraits of generations that I have ever set eyes on.

From start to finish, the writing is excellent. At times, it is utterly sublime. I don’t think I will ever forget the passage at the end of The Indian Summer of a Forsyte. If you are looking for writing that will move you to tears with its beauty, try that out.

But the writing is so much more than that. Galsworthy has given us a quintessential study of the Victorian age as the sun begins to set on empire and the values that formed it. The characters of each generation are vividly brought to life, and through them, you live in another age.

At the pinnacle of Galsworthy’s achievement sits the character of [click to continue…]

0596 | The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night | Anonymous post image

Context: read this epic while I lived through another as the two-year process to take me on direct hire at my company came to a successful end.

Right, first off, if you’re going to read this, you should do it unabridged. Let’s face it, if you don’t, you’ve not read the 1001 nights but 648, or 385, or whatever the editor decided to trim off this masterpiece. If Sheherezade can tell 1001 stories to keep herself alive, give the woman’s effort some respect and read all the tales she tells. It’s only by doing so that you can really fully appreciate this vast collection and its influence on, not only the literature of Persia and Arabia, but huge aspects of its culture too.

There’s no better way to accomplish this task than by picking up the 6 volume boxed set of the 1962 Heritage Press edition of Richard Burton’s translation with his vast collection of footnotes and 1001 beautifully simple illustrations by Valenti Angelo. This made reading it a delight for me. There’s nothing better than picking up a book that people have taken such care to create.

I was privileged to be able to borrow this edition from a friend who hadn’t read it himself and who, I think, fully expected me never to [click to continue…]

0595 | Silk | Alessandro Baricco

0595 | Silk | Alessandro Baricco post image

Context: read this as I landed back from a trip to the UK.

This is a tiny jewel of a novel and, like a jewel, I felt that it deserves to be looked at for longer than it’s size perhaps might initially indicate. I certainly spent longer looking at it than I might otherwise have done, my ex-wife having gone off with my copy prior to our split.

Eventually, I got it back from her and managed to finish it off. This meant I read it in two sittings, one either side of my divorce which, considering the subject matter, was somewhat ironic. Silk, you see, tells the story of unrequited love within a marriage, something that is sadly all too common an occurrence.

The writing is beautiful and brilliantly paced. It is simple and yet deep, and through it all Baricco lends everyday life a melancholic pathos that belies the depths of desire that each of us have. The tragedy of the novel, and unrequited love, is that a partner can [click to continue…]

0594 | Murphy | Samuel Beckett

0594 | Murphy | Samuel Beckett post image

Context: Was listening to this while Curly was prevented from producing lots of little Curlies.

My, this was a strange one. Having not read any Beckett before, I really wasn’t sure what to expect. Being Beckett though, it seems that, even halfway through, it was typical that I still wasn’t sure what to expect.

Murphy (and, I suspect, the rest of Beckett’s oeuvre) is for the intellectual and, as such, went completely over my head. I found it a much harder read and more esoteric than The Third Policeman or even Ulysses, works which also illustrate the Irish tendency to push the boundaries of what the novel can be. Whereas Joyce and O’Brien can keep your attention by providing some more lucid footholds, Beckett often leaves you stranded in a fog.

Ostensibly the book is about a guy called Murphy who lives in London, ends up taking a part time job at an asylum and has an affinity for tying himself into his rocking chair and playing chess. Various characters orbit the protagonist all of whom share the hero’s [click to continue…]

0593 | Women in Love | D.H. Lawrence post image

Context: endured this across the bridge to Saudi on my commute.

Back when I lived in another world, I listened to The Rainbow, the first of this two volume story of the Brangwens of Nottinghamshire. Rainbow scored 59%. This one has scored 58%. Neither of them were enjoyable and, when I’ve spoken to people who can’t stand Lawrence, I wonder whether they tried one or both of these and then gave up. That’s a shame.

As I said 237 books ago, the writing is “tedious” and I don’t think anyone is going to put Ursula and Gudrun on their list of great fictional heroines. I mean, for a start, why on earth would you choose those names for them?

Throughout, these two display the same tormented states of mind as in Rainbow. One minute their all passionate about something, the next minute they detest it, or themselves, or both, or everything. They go on and on and on about the state of the world in [click to continue…]

0592 | Cause for Alarm | Eric Ambler post image

Context: Listened to this in the car with the wife (who also thought it was pants.)

Dear me, this hasn’t aged well at all, and I couldn’t wait to get to the end of this one. According to Wikipedia, Ambler is known for his thrillers. I can’t say I was thrilled at any stage while reading this lame account of a particularly pathetic British engineer who ends up the victim of espionage agents in pre-WW2 Fascist Italy.

Apart from wanting to punch the “hero” in the face on virtually every page, the storyline is utterly predictable with the only twists being ones where the plot gets lost in some kind of bog while you wait for anything remotely thrilling to happen. The somewhat ironically named Marlow – ironic because he’s the complete opposite of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe – spends the whole time acting like a paranoid tourist with the backbone of C3PO. Quite how Zalashoff, the Russian agent who effectively saves him, manages to resist putting a bullet through his head is beyond me.

What Ambler’s done here is what others, such as Buchan, failed to [click to continue…]

0591 | Buddenbrooks | Thomas Mann

0591 | Buddenbrooks | Thomas Mann post image

Context: Had a record year for photography sales which finally saw me get out of the red and make a profit.

Now this was a Mann novel I could get into. This masterfully told epic of generations of a German family shows their demise from a close family of business leaders self-secure in their wealth to a shattered shadow of their former selves.

Completed as his first novel, at the age of only 25, this was a glimpse of the Nobel laureate that was to come. Compared to his later novels such as The Magic Mountain, and particularly the very late Doctor Faustus, the novel is emphatically realist with its emphasis on the socio-political mores of the time and closely-crafted characterisation that extends to the geography itself.

I have to say that while I enjoyed the tale of Hans Castorp as he attempts to recover his health on The Magic Mountain, the ethereal aspects of the novel were hard for me to process in my early history of novel reading. Faustus was beyond me even with a lot of reading under my belt. So, to have a straightforward story of a family with realistic characters was quite refreshing.
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0590 | The Adventures of Augie March | Saul Bellow post image

Context: While listening to this, we got a third kitten… for the second one to play with. That should do it.

Another Bellow, another fellow. This time it’s Augie, a Jewish kid from the ghetto who we follow entirely randomly as he grows and flows out into the world and all it has for him.

Now, I know very well that Bellow won a Nobel prize and that this is regarded as one of the best novels of the 20th century. However, I remain to be convinced that anyone actually regards this as one of the best novels they’ve read.

Augie is a tempestuous figure and events come at him thick and fast once he leaves home. There’s no real rhyme or reason. He ends up with various women on various continents doing things as varied as being a salesman and hunting iguanas with an eagle.

But this is a Bellow novel; the events are simply stimulus for the psychotherapy. As is typical, you, the reader, are trapped inside Augie’s head. You don’t feel as claustrophobic as you do in Herzog‘s [click to continue…]

0589 | Norwegian Wood | Haruki Murakami post image

Context: Read this while house-sitting in Stockholm. Perfect IKEA reading set up!

Last summer, just before a week in Sweden, we were staying at some friends. Browsing their bookshelves, I came across a lovely little two-volume boxed edition of Norwegian Wood. Perfect 1001 Book holiday reading I thought as I headed downstairs to ask if I could borrow it.

It wasn’t until I went to check it off the 1001 Books list after completing it that a horrible feeling came over me… “It’s on the list, isn’t it? Isn’t it?!”

Er… no. It isn’t.

And this was not the first, but the second time that I’d bothered to pick up this novel under the same misapprehension. Years ago, I now recollect very dimly, I bought it second-hand only to realise it wasn’t on the list and dump it in another second-hand shop. So this time, [click to continue…]

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…]

0583 | The Radetzky March | Joseph Roth post image

Context: went out for breakfast at our local cafe of choice while reading this.

A book filled with melancholy not only for the characters but the world in which they live, The Radetzky March is a carefully constructed memorial to a lost age. Roth depicts three male generations of loyal subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire prior to World War I, focussing on the last, young Carl Joseph. Along the way, we get a picture of an empire in decline, of traditions slowly tottering, and of a society entirely unaware of the cracks appearing around them.

Time and again while reading this, I was reminded of The Bridge on the Drina. Both novels chronicle the history of empires and both end with WW1. But whereas Drina remains fixed on one locus in space, March roves far more widely. The writing has similarities, too. Both depict solid characters who fail in their attempts to stand against the tides of time, and both are written in prose which is very carefully constructed.

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0582 | The Player of Games | Iain M. Banks post image

Context: Was reading this when we went to the American Mission Hospital.

While I’ve read a few of Banks’ non-sci-fi novels, none of them are as memorable as The Player of Games. The world that Banks has created here is truly original in many ways. I had to keep reminding myself that this was written in 1988 and not 2008.

Gurgeh is the player and his renown for playing earns him an invitation from the shadowy hierarchy of his society. He is asked to take a long journey to another world and there play a game like no other. The game culminates in a life and death situation which Banks does well to spin out to the end of the novel although there is a certain amount of inevitability surrounding the ending which I thought a tad weak.

What impressed me more was the way that Banks uses the two worlds he has created to ask questions about our own society. It’s clear that the world Gurgeh visits is, in many ways, modelled on our [click to continue…]

0581 | He Knew he was Right | Anthony Trollope post image

Context: Read this during Ramadan where, at work, non-Muslims like me were confined to this room to eat or drink.

Trollope’s story of a marriage and a life destroyed by the jealousy of a husband could have been a vivid portrayal of how delicately married life can be balanced. Instead, Trollope watered down a potentially powerful narrative with sub-plots and minor characters that only serve to underline Trollope’s trademark verbosity.

When Louis Trevelyan suspects his wife Emily of emotional adultery with Colonel Osbourne, an old family friend, the situation quickly gets out of hand. Louis’ lack of trust is met with Emily’s equal lack of humility. Despite there being nothing untoward in the initial exchanges, she undermines her position by going against her husband’s wishes and meeting Osbourne behind Louis’ back. Each spouse, when given the opportunity to pour water on the flames, decides instead to pour aviation fuel. The resulting conflagration not only costs them their marital harmony, it drives one of them out of their mind.

Trollope could have developed so much around this storyline. [click to continue…]

0580 | Vernon God Little | DBC Pierre post image

Context: Mrs Arukiyomi bought me a guitarlele while I was reading this. Perfect for a travelling troubadour.

Pierre’s adventure tale of the pursuit of poor little Vern by virtually the entire machine of ‘Merica is a combustive mix of satire and suspense. The pace doesn’t let up. From the moment you meet the eponymous hero until his final homecoming, you feel as out of breath, as uncertain of your surroundings as he is. It’s a novel that very cleverly characterises the claustrophobia suffered by those for the whom the American Dream is nothing short of a nightmare.

Vernon is the product of a dysfunctional single-parent family in Couldbeanytown, Texas. His mother dreams of a limited edition refrigerator while Vernon dreams of simply being accepted. He attends a local high school where something has gone horribly wrong. What exactly took place, you piece together as the story unfolds. Exactly what role Vernon played in it is what everyone else wants to know.

Through the introduction of some of the most comic US-lit characters since Ignatius J. Reilly and Yossarian, we find the [click to continue…]