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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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1 comment
0650 | One, No One and One Hundred Thousand | Luigi Pirandello post image

Context: Read this while visiting the stone cut churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia

Started out a bit Kafka-esque but then didn’t really go anywhere. Maybe that’s the point. It took Pirandello 15 years to write it which equates to just over 10 pages a year. Maybe that’s why.

Vitangelo’s wife tells him that his nose isn’t exactly centred and this off-the-cuff comment sends him into a metaphysical spiral. Questioning first his assymetrical nose in the mirror, he starts to question the truth of his own reflection, eventually disappearing up his own bum in pursuit of some form of reality.

The title refers to him being one person but really no one because no one really knows who he is but then he’s one hundred thousand because so many are like him. Whatever.

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0649 | A Tale of Love and Darkness | Amos Oz post image

Context: Did some filming for a documentary on plastic pollution while listening to this. It was never completed.

This moving autobiographical tale of Oz’s childhood is fascinating in that it gives a child’s view of the 1948 establishment of the state of Israel and what it was like to live as a Jew in British Mandated Palestine prior to that. Particularly memorable is his remarkable description of the night Israel became a nation and the poignant mixture of hope and terror.

Mentioned early in the novel, the suicide of his mother casts a solemn pathos across the entire work as Amos grows and begins to assert his own independence by working on a kibbutz. Along the way, he meets a number of people who would play key roles in the newly born nation.

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0648 | The Romantics | Pankaj Mishra

0648 | The Romantics | Pankaj Mishra post image

Context: Sold my photo of sheep grazing in Jordan to a friend at work while reading this.

This one was a bit tedious to be honest. Samar, a young Indian man falls in with a bunch of foreigners in Banares who are exploring the esoteric orient. They do most of the talking while he reflects on their relationships and then he gets involved in one himself.

Banares, Hinduism’s most holy city, is a typical place for Westerners to run away to in search of themselves, so it’s not without irony that Samar ends up running away from Banares and his own issues.

I found it all a bit unreal and very self-absorbed. I came away with little idea of what Mishra is trying to convey unless it’s that we can all get hung up on things in life. Not something that we really need reminding of too strongly.

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0647 | Labyrinths | Jorge Luis Borges

0647 | Labyrinths | Jorge Luis Borges post image

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.

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0646 | 10:04 | Ben Lerner

0646 | 10:04 | Ben Lerner post image

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.

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1 comment
645 | Infinite Jest | David Foster Wallace post image

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.

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0644 | The Kindly Ones | Jonathan Littell post image

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:

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0643 | Watchmen | Alan Moore

0643 | Watchmen | Alan Moore post image

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.

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0642 |The Book of Disquiet | Fernando Pessoa post image

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.

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0641 | Nightwood | Djuna Barnes

0641 | Nightwood | Djuna Barnes post image

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.

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0640 | 1000 Years of Annoying the French | Stephen Clarke post image

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.

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0639 | City of God | E. L. Doctorow

0639 | City of God | E. L. Doctorow post image

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.

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0638 | Testament of Youth | Vera Brittain post image

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.

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0637 | Rosshalde | Herman Hesse

0637 | Rosshalde | Herman Hesse post image

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.

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