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…]

0586 | The Master | Colm Tóibín

Context: Went to the dentist at a local hospital for a checkup while reading this.

It’s been a while since I read this, but the impression it made on me hasn’t left. Tóibín has written a melancholic novel of a man much misunderstood it seems. I don’t know enough about its subject, Henry James, to know whether The Master clears or muddies the water. But it certainly held interest for me as perhaps the only novel on the 1001 books list that is about a novelist who features heavily on the 1001 books list.

The Master is slow going, much like a Henry James novel. Thankfully, the clear, careful prose isn’t like a Henry James novel and is quite readable if a little slow. It’s certainly not a biography with the novel beginning in 1895 when James is 52 and ending just 4 years later. Quite why Tóibín picked this period of his life, I’m not sure, but there’s plenty of toing and froing into the past to fill in the details.

Being a kindred spirit, Tóibín has of course to explore the question [click to continue…]

0585 | Ulysses | James Joyce

0585 | Ulysses | James Joyce post image

Context: Mrs Arukiyomi produced a beautifully knitted baby blanket throughout the time I was reading this.

Notoriously difficult to read, even more notoriously difficult to understand, whatever your opinion about this novel it is not notoriously difficult to appreciate the genius that lies between its covers. What Joyce did here revolutionised the novel and showed that the art form could do a lot more than the history of English lit. had so far revealed it could.

As is well known, this is a day in the life of a few characters. It is a testament to the writing that those characters and what they get up to is so peripheral it hardly matters. The writing literally ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous. I’d agree with those that argue that there is more of the latter than the former, but I have read enough to know that when I don’t get it, it’s usually my fault, not the author. Usually.

So, I did what most dedicated readers do when then they look for scholarly insight into the works they are perusing: I turned to Wikipedia. Thankfully, the entry for Ulysses is excellent with not [click to continue…]

0584 | Promise at Dawn | Romain Gary post image

Context: Enjoyed the first coffee out after Ramadan while reading this.

This memoir is basically a eulogy to Gary’s mother. Seeing as I have never really had a mother to speak of, this was an interesting one for me to read as a kind of “what if”, all the while imagining I’d had a female role model there to love, encourage and inspire me to head for my dreams.

My mother never wanted children, drank heavily, was emotionally and physically violent, left us when I was 9 and then fought for custody just to spite my father, lost and then won the right to force us to spend one holiday a year with her until we were 18 and could decide whether we wanted to see us or not. Romain Gary’s mother was not like this.

In contrast to me, Gary grew up without a father to speak of although he suspects in the book who it might be. Instead, his mother becomes both parents in one and pursues the unlikely dream [click to continue…]

0583 | The Radetzky March | Joseph Roth post image

Context: went out for breakfast at our local cafe of choice while reading this.

A book filled with melancholy not only for the characters but the world in which they live, The Radetzky March is a carefully constructed memorial to a lost age. Roth depicts three male generations of loyal subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire prior to World War I, focussing on the last, young Carl Joseph. Along the way, we get a picture of an empire in decline, of traditions slowly tottering, and of a society entirely unaware of the cracks appearing around them.

Time and again while reading this, I was reminded of The Bridge on the Drina. Both novels chronicle the history of empires and both end with WW1. But whereas Drina remains fixed on one locus in space, March roves far more widely. The writing has similarities, too. Both depict solid characters who fail in their attempts to stand against the tides of time, and both are written in prose which is very carefully constructed.

[click to continue…]

0582 | The Player of Games | Iain M. Banks post image

Context: Was reading this when we went to the American Mission Hospital.

While I’ve read a few of Banks’ non-sci-fi novels, none of them are as memorable as The Player of Games. The world that Banks has created here is truly original in many ways. I had to keep reminding myself that this was written in 1988 and not 2008.

Gurgeh is the player and his renown for playing earns him an invitation from the shadowy hierarchy of his society. He is asked to take a long journey to another world and there play a game like no other. The game culminates in a life and death situation which Banks does well to spin out to the end of the novel although there is a certain amount of inevitability surrounding the ending which I thought a tad weak.

What impressed me more was the way that Banks uses the two worlds he has created to ask questions about our own society. It’s clear that the world Gurgeh visits is, in many ways, modelled on our [click to continue…]

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…]