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…]

0579 | Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow | Peter Høeg post image

Context: Read this on a sublime camping trip in Oman where we camped in canyons like this one.

I don’t very often tread the streets of Copenhagen having only spent 48 hours there before. I’ve spent about 48 hours less than that in Greenland. So, Peter Høeg’s social rant against the treatment of Greenlanders by Denmark (heavily disguised as a thriller) was very interesting.

This was a good thing because the thriller that he buried it all up in didn’t really do it for me. I found that contrived, nonsensical and full of the obvious kinds of coincidences a writer who can’t really do thrillers has to rely on (c.f. Dan Brown). Oh, and he can’t write an ending either.

What you need to do with this novel is peel back the layers of Arctic insulation, chuck aside the crampons and ice picks, forget you’re on an ice-breaker somewhere in the North Atlantic and realise that you are being offered a tantalising glimpse into the underbelly of Danish history. You won’t see trailers for this history on TV like you do Danish bacon or Lurpak. Denmark is not advertising its colonial [click to continue…]

0578 | The Recognitions | William Gaddis post image

Context: Another one I was glad to listen to rather than read on my way to work in Saudi.

The literary critic jack green is probably best known for insisting that his pseudonym be written, like adidas, without capital letters. He’s arguably less well known for lambasting those critics who dismissed The Recognitions on its publication, saying that they had failed to recognise “the greatness of the book” and failed “to convey to the reader what the book is like, what its essential qualities are.” Well, despite me not recognising “the greatness of the book” let me at least attempt to convey to the reader what the book is like and what its essential qualities are.

This book is like attempting a full day’s work which, after about ten minutes, you kind of get in the rhythm of. You know you’ve got some way to go before you complete everything you have to do but, you feel pretty optimistic. An hour in, you take a break, putting your fatigue down to the fact that you didn’t quite have enough caffeine that morning. In the struggle through to lunch, you begin to dread the afternoon’s grind. Lunch is like a lying on a sun-drenched beach watching a storm approach from the horizon. The afternoon is best [click to continue…]

0577 | North and South | Elizabeth Gaskell post image

Context: Finished this off while on a wonderful camping trip in Oman.

Such was the impression this book left on me that I completely forgot I’d read it. I made no note of it in the list of completed books I keep, ready for review, and only recalled it when someone mentioned it recently.

Gaskell is not one of my favourite authors although she does have the right to some credit. I’m glad to have closed my attempt at her output with this novel as I shall not be going back.

What does Gaskell contribute that future generations should be grateful for? Well, she does give us a good profile of the social issues facing her generation. The rise of industrialisation had created misery for millions. Gaskell portrays this honestly, if not skilfully. Although that’s about it as far as I’m concerned, I’d say that’s enough. Her work was as important for her own need to remain true to her beliefs as it was for her generation to hear. And the relentless [click to continue…]

0576 | The Golden Notebook | Dorris Lessing

Listened to this while I was on a road trip around Oman. This particular scenery felt very apt.

A tough read this one, for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s long and you are going to wish you were nearer the end than the beginning on many occasions. This is because it’s often tedious. There’s no real story that cohesively holds the whole thing together that is really of much interest.

It’s the life of Anna Wulf, a novelist. She spent some time in South Africa during WW2, was for many years a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and has published a novel which hasn’t done too badly. Although each of these in itself has the potential to be an engaging read, Lessing is too much of a realist for that. Instead you are bound and gagged and placed on the fringe of endless conversations Lessing uses to portray communism, attitudes towards women, sexuality, male-female relationships and so on which culminate (although that’s far too strong a word) in something that may be a nervous breakdown (again, too strong a phrase).

On top of this, having watered down potentially engaging topics [click to continue…]

0575 | The Feast of the Goat | Mario Vargas Llosa post image

Context: Bought the wife a car from a friend who was leaving Bahrain while reading this.

Powerful and at times gripping, this is not what I’ve come to expect from novels from Latin/South American authors. In fact, this is the very first of the many I’ve read that I enjoyed and would recommend.

Based on the actual life of the Dominican dictator Trujillo, the novel centres around his assassination. One one side you have the build up, the background, the character formation, the development of the plot and, after the epicentre, the hiding, the clampdown, the reassessment of a nation’s identity, a twist and a resolution of sorts.

I’ve not read Vargas Llosa before, and I’m glad to find that there are others of his on the 1001 list. His writing is powerful and ingenious; the style he adopts for Goat cleverly blurs the lines between a character’s [click to continue…]

0574 | Against the Day | Thomas Pynchon post image

Context: listened to this on my daily commute to Saudi.

Absolutely pointless and not worth anyone’s time, this is a novel by a man entirely self-absorbed. It says nothing about any particular era, has no characters more three dimensional than a sheet of paper and has no plot to speak of. It wanders aimlessly across the planet sometime around the beginning of the 20th century and contains nothing memorable short of some rather gruesome and vacuous sex scenes.

He doesn’t even include a single chapter to give his poor readers a break as they struggle against the interminable tide of prose for over 1,000 pages.

Avoid.

[click to continue…]

0573 | The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England | Ian Mortimer post image

Context: read this over a year and a half in bed with the wife in Bahrain

I kind of like history and so, when I started to dip into this in a bookshop, I thought it would be right up my street. In the end, I was glad to get to the end of it. Mortimer can write, but there’s a little too much detail in this to actually keep my attention right the way through.

This basically starts off like a Rough Guide to Medieval England. This in itself is a great idea. I think if Mortimer had stuck to this, he might have written a better book. Instead, it starts very quickly to morph into a pretty standard description of various aspects of Medieval English life.

This has its own interest of course. There’s a ton about Medieval England which is fascinating. There’s also a lot which is, obviously, going to be mundane and Mortimer doesn’t really know what to leave in and what to leave out. As comprehensive as it is, there are [click to continue…]

0572 | Antic Hay | Aldous Huxley

0572 | Antic Hay | Aldous Huxley post image

Context: got myself a nice table lamp from IKEA while reading this.

Not the most memorable novel I’ll ever read. Apart from pneumatic trousers (a chindogu candidate if ever there was one), little remains a couple of months on as I write this review.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve read so, so many other novels that attempt to spoof the era after WW1 that it just kind of got lost in the haze. Why is it that so very many writers have to describe that era using witty, ascerbic satire rather than writing about it in any way seriously? Was that stance itself actually a tribute to the age?

Gumbril, who the book opens with and mostly focusses on, is probably the most memorable of the caricatures, and his pursuit of the “Complete Man” fantasy was at times amusing and wry.

But, although it was a good novel, it was only mildly amusing and not a patch on Decline and Fall, for example. Despite being written after his opening Crome Yellow, I prefer the earlier work although I can’t really put my finger on why. [click to continue…]

0571 | Sister Carrie | Theodore Dreiser post image

Context: listened to this while auditioning for Charlie Brown the musical. Got the lead role.

This is the story of a young woman who, somewhat naively, leaves home to make a life for herself in Chicago. Unlike most novels of this sort, where the author quite predictably causes everything to fall apart at some point to teach similarly tempted other youngsters to tow the social line and stay at home, no such thing happens. At least, not to her.

Instead, Carrie finds herself befriended by men who obviously want her for her physical charms. That they should seems as natural as anything to innocent Carrie and she has no moral issues with providing their needs. She eventually marries (kind of) under circumstances that aren’t entirely clear to her for quite some time. In the end, she overcomes the difficulties that her new husband succumbs to and makes a life for herself which he can’t quite cope with. I’ll leave you to discover the rest.

[click to continue…]

0570 | Princess of Cleves | Madame de La Fayette post image

Context: read this while sitting in the desert during lunchtime at work

Massively influential in French literature at least, this story of unrequited love is a eulogy to virtue whose message should be more widely known outside its native land.

Wikipedia will give you a decent plot summary and overview of its significance. For me, the novel was somewhat hard to access because of the original style it was written in. It was a case where knowing the plot and what would take place in advance actually helped me follow the events in the novel as they unfolded. Without that, I might have emerged none the wiser.

What’s very apparent though is the refusal of the eponymous Princess to compromise her morals. Not only does she refuse the advances of the Duke de Nemours by committing adultery while married, once her husband had died, she refused to be unfaithful to his memory. This despite not being able to love her husband as he [click to continue…]

0569 | On the Eve | Ivan Turgenev

0569 | On the Eve | Ivan Turgenev post image

Context: was reading this when we barely broke even at a sale at a nursery. Never again!

So, this is one of those novels for which an understanding of the historical context is essential for a full appreciation of its significance. The era is the early 1850s and Russia stands on the brink of the Crimean War as it manoeuvres to take advantage of weakening Ottoman Empire. Also standing to gain are those who dream of independence from Ottoman oppression.

One such is the hero of On the Eve, Insarov, a Bulgarian who, though in Russia, makes forays back to his homeland and is part of a network of nationalists chomping at the bit to be let loose on the retreating Turks. But while Insarov is the hero, he’s not the main focus of the story.

Meet Elena, fending off less than suitable suitors while her life slips slowly by. Her world is transfixed after her introduction to Insarov and thus begins a love story which is ignorant of the boundaries of class, politics, familial or national allegiance.

[click to continue…]

0568 | The Accidental | Ali Smith

0568 | The Accidental | Ali Smith post image

Context: Visited The Nest art exhibit in Adliya while reading this.

This is a quirky story told from the perspective of each member of a family who rent a holiday home in the English countryside for the summer. When a mysterious stranger arrives, you get a facet of her from each description but never enough to complete the whole picture of who she might be. There’s a twist in the tale once the mother throws her out though.

It’s so often true that, within a family, walls exist which prevent us seeing others and others seeing us as we truly are. We will, however, often let strangers see parts of us that we keep hidden from our relatives. The Accidental shows what can happen when that occurs.

This is not an excellent novel, but it is good enough because it asks questions about how we view ourselves, the views of ourselves we present to others and about our own views of others. Throughout the book, you are often presented with two or more views of a character [click to continue…]

0567 | Falling Man | Don DeLillo

0567 | Falling Man | Don DeLillo post image

Context: The wife finished off a stack of squares for a baby blanket while I was reading this.

Many years ago, Underworld scarred me for life. Then I read White Noise. Had it not been recommended by a great friend, I would never have returned to DeLillo. I was very surprised to find an excellent novel. Falling Man settles between the two somewhere towards the Underworld end of the spectrum.

Thankfully, it’s about the same length as White Noise. Had it been as long as Underworld, it would have been very, very tedious. DeLillo loves to play around with structure. Whereas in Underworld he did that to the detriment of the entire novel, here it kind of works because he’s chosen a subject which lends itself to fragmented structure: the life of a Keith, a 9/11 survivor.

The novel starts on the apocalyptic streets of New York while he attempts to make sense of his new world. Gradually you piece together his life as you see things from the perspective of his relatives and acquaintances but there’s no point where it all really [click to continue…]

0566 | Journey to the End of the Night | Louis-Ferdinand Céline post image

Context: listened to this while it rained for the first time in 8 months on my drive to work.

Here’s a novel powerful enough to suck the life out of Amazon’s entire self-help catalogue in seconds. In terms of sheer pessimistic cynicism of humanity, Céline’s Night is unparalleled with its tale of Ferdinand Bardamu’s adventures as he leaves his native Paris for WW1, Africa, the US and returns full circle to pursue work as a doctor in a profession he barely believes in. If Henry Miller didn’t get his inspiration from this novel for his riotous Tropics of Cancer & Capricorn, I’ll be very surprised.

All along the way, everything and everyone he encounters is subject to satire and critical examination. There are no survivors, not even Bardamu himself. Being British, I was born cynical, and although I appreciated what Miller had to say (to a certain extent), I found Night a lot easier to follow.

For a start, there’s a storyline and the writing maintains its structure, which is, in places, sublime. Miller would no doubt cite [click to continue…]

0565 | Fugitive Pieces | Anne Michaels post image

Context: Visited the bank as usual to send money home from Saudi while reading this.

This was a strange book, the tale of a WW2 Jewish refugee who is initially harboured on a Greek island before emigrating to Canada. Michaels writes her own prose, and the style forms a major part of the work. This is deep writing which would benefit not only from a second reading, but probably many more.

The entire first person narrative is overshadowed by the opening scene. Nazi troops break into a family home and Jakob flees. His initial flight is a whirlwind of imagery as this small boy attempts to come to terms with what has happened while at the same time adapt to life on the run in rural Poland.

Once he is given refuge and smuggled to Greece, the story shifts, and we find ourselves in a world illuminated by Greece and all the philosophy and learning it has to offer through Athos, Jakob’s new guardian. Despite the Mediterranean light, the darkness of the book’s beginning constantly haunts the writing and Michaels’ use of [click to continue…]

0564 | The Well of Loneliness | Radclyffe Hall post image

Context: Listened to this while we created a popup gallery of my photography at the Royal Golf Club.

With the expiration in the EU of its copyright, this initially suppressed novel is now, somewhat ironically, in the public domain in Europe. Almost 88 years to the day after it was banned, I finished this off as an audio book. It left me with mixed feelings.

This is a brave attempt to sensitively portray a human side of lesbianism given contemporary attitudes to homosexuality. In its attempt, Hall gets full marks for effort. But, for me at least, I felt it was a bit over the top. I tried hard to discern whether this was a factor of the era that I’m living in or not. I don’t think it was.

Stephen Gordon, so named despite being an unexpected daughter, is raised pretty much like any little boy would be. Now, if I met a woman called Bruce, I’d at least wonder why her parents named her that. But no. Strangely, not a single person in the entire novel seem to find it strange that she, a girl/woman, has a man’s name. “But [click to continue…]