0604 | Arrow of God | Chinua Achebe post image

Context: read this while having dinner at the British Club. It seemed an appropriately colonial thing to do!

Not as easy to follow, Achebe’s third novel in his African Trilogy is a less straightforward narrative than his famed Things Fall Apart. Although both novels focus feature Nigerian male protagonists battling with the influence of colonialism, Things was more us versus them. With Arrow, priest Ezeulu also faces a fatal battle with his own people.

As with Things, Achebe sets up the local scene before introducing the white man. Again, this gives the (intended Western) reader time to come around to the local way of thinking and doing things, to gain some level of empathy with tradition. But by the time the white man shows his influence in Arrow, it’ll be the rare reader who feels that what might potentially be destroyed by the Imperial influence is worth hanging on to.

Achebe paints a vivid picture of tribal infighting, familial jealousies and as much disharmony as you can expect in any culture anywhere. [click to continue…]

0603 | The Savage Detectives | Roberto Bolaño post image

Context: had many rehearsals for three parts in two plays as part of a pint-sized comedy night while listening to this.

The Guardian describes this as a “a shaggy dog story.” Merriam-Webster defines that as “of, relating to, or being a long-drawn-out circumstantial story concerning an inconsequential happening that impresses the teller as humorous or interesting but the hearer as boring and pointless” That’s spot on. Bolaño did this for his own enjoyment, not mine.

Publishers [sic] Weekly said that “It is safe to predict that no novel this year will have as powerful an effect on the reader as this one.” and in that they are right. I can’t think another novel this year will be as powerful as this one when it comes to the desire to simply make it stop. Mind you, I’m not sure I trust what I read from any publishing company that can’t even accomplish the basic punctuation needed for its own name.

It starts out OK with this student guy joining a group of poets at university. Their philosophies rub off on him, and he tunes in and drops out as you’d expect. Then the book takes the inevitable [click to continue…]

0602 | Hallucinating Foucault | Patricia Duncker post image

Context: finished this off while sitting outside enjoying the warm spring weather at a local coffee shop.

Not really sure why this is on the 1001 books list. Didn’t grab me. Seemed a bit too much like navel-gazing for the Cambridge set (e.g. “we went to Browns for lunch” – oh did we now? It’s not what it was, though) and littered with characters who are a just far enough removed from everyday reality to actually relate to insanity.

So, there’s this guy whose written some novels and he’s a bit like a cross between Jack Kerouac and Holden Caulfield, an anarchist homosexual who has to be French (I mean, could he be anything else?) And this undergrad at Cambridge falls in love with his writing which is really a metaphor for falling in love with the novelist and so he hears that no one has a clue where he is now and it turns out he’s been sectioned and is in some asylum outside Paris. With the thinly veiled excuse of research trip, off trots our star-struck student on a quest that is as much a search for self as it is a search for other.

And they strike up this relationship and it’s all a bit coming-of-age, [click to continue…]

0601 | The Man who Loved Children | Christina Stead post image

Context: attended a driving course at our security training centre so that I can drive company cars while listening to this.

Once you’ve got over the fact that this isn’t a sinister title in terms of today’s worries about child abuse, you discover that this is, in fact, more of a study in spousal neglect and the emotional-relational issues that arise when a husband and father lives with his head in the clouds. For all that, this is a pretty down to earth novel which, for me, started a bit too slowly.

There’s really nothing I can add to a review of this book that hasn’t already been written in Jonathan Franzen’s wonderful review… except, that is, what I thought of it and how it related to me, so that’s where I’ll focus. I should say at the outset that I do have a father who loves children. There were times in the novel when I was also reminded of my father’s idealism and how it affected our family for both good and bad. It made me realise that, in comparison, we got off lightly.

Stead has created a character primarily for her own catharsis but also for the very beneficial catharsis of anyone who has grown up a [click to continue…]

0600 | Burmese Days | George Orwell post image

Context: built myself a very, very fast computer to speed up my photo editing while reading this.

George’s southeast Asian tale translates his scorn for capitalist Britain into the wilds of Burma where the sultry humidity and lazy pace of tropical life do little to dampen his ire.

Flory is an experienced colonial at a backwater station where the British empire is doing its level best to make its rule felt. When the young Elizabeth turns up, Flory senses his chance not only to secure his emotional future, but to provide an cultural induction to the young impressionable. Elizabeth however, lacks the ability to see beyond her prejudice and, somewhat inevitably, it all ends in tears.

Orwell uses this to set up a tension between those who see things from Orwell’s point of view and those who, well, don’t. George is clear: the empire is a vehicle for making the rich richer. The Brits come off none too well in this novel, and he drew some criticism for this at the time of its publication.

[click to continue…]

0599 | The Woodlanders | Thomas Hardy post image

Context: read this at the lovely Cataract Hotel in Aswan on the Nile

Six down and one more to go of Hardy’s from the 1001 Books List. Unbeknown to me at the time, I actually finished it to within an hour of 80 years and a day since Hardy passed away.

Fans of Hardy will know that he often brings the landscape to life in his novels. In The Woodlanders, he does more than that as the title indicates. The inhabitants of Little Hintock are as intricate a part of the landscape as the woodland itself. From the very beginning, the roles that these characters play are entwined intimately with the lives of Grace Melbury and the two men who take turns in her heart.

Grace has been educated beyond her station by a father who wishes her to escape the traditional life he leads as a timber merchant. This apparently places her out of reach of her stoic admirer, local cider brewer Giles Winterbourne, but makes her a perfect match for an outsider in the form of Dr. Edred Fitzpiers. At least, this is what [click to continue…]

0598 | Everything is Illuminated | Jonathan Safran Foer post image

Context: another book finished as I commuted backwards and forwards to Saudi each day.

This is at once one of the funniest and also one of the most tragic novels I’ve experienced in a long time. Safran Foer’s tale of the history of his own Jewish family’s experience in Ukraine is told from two very different points of view. Neither are equally accessible, but together they form a splendid whole and one that is even more impressive for a first novel.

The modern-day episodes of the author visiting Ukraine are very readable. This comes both from the farcical humour and, as this gives way to plot, an increasing desire to uncover the secrets that are obviously waiting to be discovered. So far so good.

Then there are episodes woven between detailing what at first appear to be unconnected events in the distant past. These events are told in a style bordering on magic-realism with a fair amount of wordplay. However much difficulty you might encounter, I’d highly recommend that you persevere. The rewards are truly great. [click to continue…]

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.
[click to continue…]

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…]