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0677 | The Driver’s Seat | Muriel Spark post image

Context: Finished this on the day I finished working for Saudi Aramco and retired. Haven’t looked back since!

Strange little book this one at just over 100 pages. In this very short space of time Spark creates Lise, a very memorable character who I was never quite sure of. I spent the whole time wondering why she’s strange, what her motivations are, and whether she should be pitied or, in fact, envied.

While the central character is strong, those around Lise are only barely sketched in. The writing has a very ephemeral feel about it. Sometimes I wondered if other characters were only figments of Lise’s imagination.

The title may perhaps refer to the fact that she lives life on her own terms and isn’t bothered about how others view her. She dictates exactly what happens to her right up to her tragic finale.

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0676 | The Moor’s Last Sigh | Salman Rushdie post image

Context: Last meal at Tandoori House while reading this.

Started out alright but Rushdie can’t seem to just sit still and be a good boy. No sooner have you got settled then he’s up and off on some mad caper with some outlandish characterisation, blurred reality and has you out on a boat in a stormy sea of symbolism laden.

And while you vomit over the side and try to catch a glimpse of the stability of land somewhere on the horizon, he relates a tale of Moraes, a child strangely deformed born into a wealthy family involved in the southern Indian spice trade.

As you push off from the shore into a calm sea, his tale of family rivalries in trade and love keep you highly entertained for a good third of the novel. As soon as the focus shifts to the narrator himself as the family moves to Mumbai, the billows start to roll and you quickly lose your bearings.

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0675 | Freedom | Jonathan Franzen

0675 | Freedom | Jonathan Franzen post image

Context: Wandered round Al Khobar for a final farewell to old haunts before leaving Saudi forever.

As with Franzen’s other novels, everyone’s got hangups and skeletons in the closet and he spends the novel dragging these out into the light while the characters kick and scream.

This differs from The Corrections, at least, in that it does all go a bit saccharine at the end. Tying up all the loose ends does seem to me to clash quite a bit with the gritty reality of characters dealing with lives that are less than perfect.

The novel jumps around an awful lot. If you’re not paying attention, you will get lost fast which, in a long book, isn’t helpful. So, hold on tight and keep your hands inside the car.

There’s a fairly tight narrative surrounding a woman called Patty who grows up suffering from the human condition which is compounded by a sexual assault. This results in polar opposite responses from her parents and she never really recovers from the effects of all this.

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0674 | The House of Doctor Dee | Peter Ackroyd post image

Context: Transferred Mrs Arukiyomi’s car to a new owner at the Transport Ministry.

As with all things Ackroyd, this novel suffers from not only an obsession with London now, but, as if that wasn’t ethnocentric enough, London then.

Even though it’s been 8 years since he published Hawksmoor, he’s still playing the same old riff. Any reader coming to Ackroyd for the first time is going to find it enchanting to consider the same geographical space inhabited by characters centuries apart. But for those who’ve already gone through it, it starts to get a bit tired.

This is particularly because Dee, like Hawksmoor before it, doesn’t really communicate why Ackroyd has to draw parallels in the space-time continuum. I think most of us have enough imagination to realise that there were people who lived many years ago where we are sitting right now who may have had things in common with us. And?

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0673 | Self-Condemned | Wyndham Lewis

0673 | Self-Condemned | Wyndham Lewis post image

Context: Saudi bank screwed up transferring my remaining cash to the UK while I was reading this. Very stressful!

To a certain extent autobiographical, this again, as with The Driver’s Seat, is about someone making their own decisions. This resonated with me as Professor Rene Harding resigns from his job which coincided with me resigning from mine. We also both worked in education.

However, while he pursues this course of action very much against the advice and wishes of his wife, I had the full support of mine. This comes back to bite him after he emigrates from the UK to Canada and his marriage starts to show cracks from cross-cultural strains.

The Canada of Self Condemned is always miserable, always cold and has no redeeming features whatsoever. In addition, Prof Harding’s own life starts to grow very familiar as all the things he has run from gradually find him out in his new surroundings.

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0672 | The Midnight Examiner | William Kotzwinkle post image

Context: Mrs Arukiyomi stunned me with some amazing bread while I was reading this.

Kotwinkle is probably more famous for writing E.T., not this, and it’s hard to see why this needs to be read by anyone before they die. This is a shame because he did not in fact actually create E.T., he simply wrote the novel after the screenplay was written by Melissa Mathison. Anyway, I digress …

Not as talented as either Wallace (Infinite Jest) or Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions), Kotzwinkle seems to be trying to match both in this tale of a group of correspondents for a mediocre tabloid in New York. We can at least be thankful that he mirrors Vonnegut and not Wallace in terms of length, and that he’s easy to read. He isn’t a patch on either of them as a satirist, though.

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0671 | Platform | Michel Houellebecq

0671 | Platform | Michel Houellebecq post image

Context: Dismantled our furniture for shipping back to the UK.

A very strange novel not least because it must be one of the only novels that takes place in the context of the tourism industry. However, lest that conjure up images of dad helping the kids build sandcastles while mum kicks back on the sunlounger with a pina colada, Houellebecq’s characters are passionate about sex tourism.

The self-absorbed Michel (how’d he come up with that name?) narrates his experiences of a relationship with a travel company executive he meets while servicing his needs at the expense of the women of Thailand. This relationship takes on two dimensions, the first of which is sex. The second, much less important dimension, is his role in providing ideas for her career move creating a series of resorts catering specifically to sex tourism.

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0670 | The Violent Bear it Away | Flannery O’Connor post image

Context: Went out for a farewell meal with work colleagues while reading this. Great meal!

Reads very much like Wharton but with religion as its theme rather than morality. Stark, grim and dark all the way through, a great caution for anyone involved in religion. A perfect portrayal of humanity.

Peopled with characters beset by insecurities and contradictions, many people won’t like this but will have to admit that to how it resonates with reality; life is, after all, mostly grim so…

I liked the fact that the religion gave those who followed it no redemption. That can only come in Christ, not something that humanity might spawn from his teachings. I appreciated the fact that all the characters were somehow handicapped even though only one is so in the way normally ascribed that adjective.

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0669 | 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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0668 | Dining on Stones | Iain Sinclair

0668 | 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 you’re 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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0667 | LaBrava | Elmore Leonard

0667 | 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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0666 | 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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0665 | The Goldfinch | Donna Tartt

0665 | 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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0664 | City Primeval | Elmore Leonard

0664 | 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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0663 | 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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0662 | 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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0661 | The Man Without Qualities | Robert Musil post image

Context: Fostered a kitten a sore on its paw while reading this tome.

This unfinished tome of a book is an extremely strange one to experience. Written in a very Magic-Mountain-like way, we find ourselves party to the life of Ulrich, a minor official in the vast machine of empire that is the Austro-Hungarian empire in the early 20th century.

Ulrich finds himself involved in various projects of state that consume the lives and ambitions of those in government around him. There are relations with various women and other officials and there are long discussions of how things ought to be done and plans carried out.

No clear conclusions are ever reached and, as a result, nothing ever seems to get done however. In this, Musil has composed a dense satire not only of his day, but rather prophetically pretty much every major infrastructure project attempted by the British government of the early 21st century. Quite an achievement.

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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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