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.


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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.

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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.

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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…]

0563 | Pierre and Jean | Guy de Maupassant post image

Context: Was reading this when I visited the British Club to audition for a play. Got the lead role. Turned it down for a lead role in a musical!

304 books ago, I reviewed Bel Ami, my first Maupassant novel and, coincidentally, the one he wrote just before this one. Thankfully, although it still deals with the worst of our fallen nature, at least you have some sympathy and understanding for the characters involved. With Bel Ami, I just wanted to punch the protagonist in the face.

Pierre and Jean are brothers, young men on their verge of finding their ways in the world. The underlying frictions caused by their very different natures rupture when one of them becomes the sole beneficiary of the heavily-laden will of a fairly obscure old friend.

It’s not just the brothers who have a hard time interpreting this injustice; the event also threatens to destroy the entire family as various skeletons are let loose from their closets to redefine relationships in unexpected ways.

Maupassant can definitely write and he does a very good job in what [click to continue…]

0562 | Inferno | Henri Barbusse

0562 | Inferno | Henri Barbusse post image

Context: read this as we went for breakfast at a new restaurant nearby. Nice, but pricey and bore zero resemblance to the pics on the menu.

Not a very long novel and not a completely entertaining one either. Barbusse has constructed a hotel room where the unnamed protagonist discovers a hole which allows him to see into the next room undetected. Through this, he manages to view a wide range of events, overhear every single word of every conversation and thereby satisfy his every voyeuristic whim. It’s not entirely edifying.

I read somewhere that the idea is that the hole enables a view of the full range of life. There are illicit lovers, obscure conversations about life, betrayals and even a death. Every conversation is laden with pathos and melodrama. Trouble is, life, especially that in hotel rooms, is usually banal and humdrum. This seems to have been lost on Barbusse.

Putting aside the contrived plot device of a small hole conveying omniprescience, there’s still little here that’s going to engage many modern readers. Nor did I feel that there was anything scintillating that Barbusse had to say about the human condition that wasn’t [click to continue…]

0561 | Carry me Down | M. J. Hyland post image

Context: Another audiobook to help me through horrendous school holiday traffic on the Causeway.

M. J. Hyland’s novel of a young Irish boy growing up in domestic turmoil is poignant, moving, and well-written. If, like me, you suffered similar domestic turmoil in your own childhood, there’s a lot here you’re going to relate to. And I did, not least because the first-person narrator is my namesake.

It takes a special kind of writer to construct a novel so that, in sinking into the sea of prose, you find yourself immersed in the narrator’s world. Hyland’s prose does just that. From the very opening lines, you are in John’s world and seeing things shaped by his own understanding of them or, more often, his lack of understanding.

And there is much John does not understand. This I found so evocative of what childhood is all about. You start life from a place of such supreme ignorance that even when you can look back on those days 30, 40, or more years later, you still really don’t           [click to continue…]

0560 | Love in a Cold Climate | Nancy Mitford post image

Context: Visited Bird Kingdom while reading this one with some very noisy parrots.

Semi-autobiographical, this is the story of people who have nothing much better to do than worry about their social position in the upper echelons of the British class system. Yawn.

It’s so wonderful that, 100 years on, the British people have far less to do with these plonkers than they were forced to do when this novel was set. Their absolute contempt for anyone who isn’t able to maintain their lifestyle and their self-important system of etiquette is as obvious here as it is in the work of Evelyn Waugh. What is missing though, despite cover blurb to the contrary, is any really decent writing or incisive wit.

Waugh’s books are brilliantly written with characters incisively portrayed as charicatures of the aristocratic class. They are laugh out loud funny in places (Decline and Fall) or draw you in with great storytelling (A Handful of Dust).

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0559 | The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes | Anonymous post image

Context: While reading this, they finally took down the scaffolding on the building near our place.

What better way to follow a weighty picaresque novel that was incredibly influential with a very light one that is credited with inventing the genre itself. Someone, and we have no idea who, managed with less than 100 pages, to define a genre that even a genius like Henry Fielding could do no more than emulate with 1,000 exactly 200 years later. Brilliant.

This is a great read as long as you stop at the end of the first of any edition that might have later added portions appended to it. I started reading one of these and gave up after a while. They’re not part of the original and you can tell immediately. Don’t bother.

Stick to the original seven chapters and you’ll follow the life of Lazarillo as he heads out to make his way in the world when forced to leave his home as a child. He finds himself the servant of seven masters who are in turn cruel, corrupt, rife with hypocrisy, miserly and unjust. Through each of these encounters, the author brutally [click to continue…]

0558 | The History of Tom Jones | Henry Fielding post image

Context: thinking that this was really the life of the singer helped me through this one.

Anyone with a modicum of experience reading literature knows that a “very influential novel” from nearly 300 years ago will consist of pretty much every stereotypical literary device that could be crammed into it. This is not because the influential novel itself is badly written. In fact, quite the opposite: the novel is so well written and so unique in its construction that every other novel of any note within 100 years of it finds itself beholden to it for virtually all of its inspiration.

Such is definitely the case with Tom Jones. Unfortunately, we don’t have the benefit of camping on the pavement outside Andrew Millar’s shop in The Strand, London in the dim and almost undoubtedly drizzly days leading up to February 28th, 1749 and rushing out to the waiting media with a copy of the first edition of iTomJones in our hands. Instead, we have to read this novel through the opaque and definitely distorted lenses of the 21st century.

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0557 | The Life and Death of Harriett Frean | May Sinclair post image

Context: Mrs Arukiyomi started producing some knitted wares for sale at events we go to locally while I was reading this.

This is a very short novel but that doesn’t stop Sinclair constructing a complex character who spends her life bound by moral boundaries. Harriett grows up with parents who ensure she is protected in every way. I think they do their best but you can’t help thinking that Harriett also adds to the mix with a kind of supercilious self-righteousness that makes her kind of irritating to be around.

This is put to the test when she falls for her best friend’s fiancé, but her response is, by this point you realise, typical. Thus, she embarks on a lifetime of chastity as she fights off the demons of regret. Her relationship with her parents is also tested as various skeletons come out of the closet, but she holds fast to what she considers to be the best course of action and, as a result, ends life in lonely isolation having built a wall against self-doubt.

You can’t help thinking that the whole point was to tell us that life by moral compass is somehow not a life worth living. It seems that Sinclair’s mother was very strictly religious and perhaps the novel [click to continue…]