Archive for January, 2009

Book 991 Marina Lewycka – A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

January 27, 2009

Beware,  Marina Lewycka’s debut novel is very deceptive. On the surface it may seem like a typical chick lit situation ; an eighty-four old Ukrainian emigrant  marries a bosomy Ukrainian divorcee, Valentina. Which in turn brings together two sisters who have been feuding for years over their dead mother’s inheritance.

but it is much more than that.

Each character in the book represents a part of the Ukraine’s history and Lewycka comes to the theory that each person’s character is shaped by the era of history they were part of. To illustrate a case in point take the narrator. Born at a time when the second World War finished and the Ukraine was filled with hope of a new era, resulted in Nadia (the narrator’s name) acquiring positive traits, while her sister Vera grew up amid the Russian tortures and thus is a negative person, Valentina is materialistic as she has been brought up to believe that products are a sign of well being and prosperity.

In between this we get interjections of the Ukraine’s pre war history through Nadia father’s work in progress – a history of the Tractor in the Ukraine, which lends insights to how industrialism affected said country.

At first one isn’t sure if Lewycka wants to  really focus the story or the history of the Ukraine but by the middle of the book it is quite clear to see which path she is going to take and the divorce/inheritance plot is simply a macguffin (I’ve ALWAYS wanted to use that word – hurrah!) . This leads to an interesting and insightful novel although some of the supposedly funny bits are corny, they provide light relief to a sort of harrowing history of a country which has been going through (according to the author) some sort of transition period.

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Book 992 Daniel Kehlmann – Measuring the World

January 22, 2009

One advantage of this list is that I’m tackling books which I would have never even bothered to read as I am not a fan of

1) Historical fiction (ok there’s Pynchon but he is a different kettle of fish)

2) Literature translated into English (as a lot gets lost)

However Measuring the World was next on the list so I had to read it whether I liked it or not.

The book is about two scientists (who existed in reality), Alexander Von Humboldt and Carl Gauss. The former is an adventurer in the true sense while the latter is a recluse. Despite this difference the two have parallel lives. Both have discovered secrets about the world we live in  and it makes them famous. When the two finally meet each other in 1828 they find out that both their talents and current situation (Germany has been annexed to France) have stopped them from continuing their mission to map out the world. Add to that guest appearances by Kant, Schiller, Thomas Jefferson and you do get quite an interesting story in your hands.

As such the novel is divided into two halves. One focuses on the early life of  the scientists. Humboldt’s journey through South America, which is a highpoint of the book, and  Gauss’ martial problems. The second half is about the grim reality posed by a French occupied Germany and the trappings of fame. I admit that in this part the book drags a bit and loses the verve it had in the beginning. Just like it’s two protagonists I suppose.

A bestseller in Germany, Measuring the World, is a page turner filled with moments of sly humour and a restless energy. Kehlmann avoids cliches so it does makes fresh reading.  Not too clever but with a brain, it is one of those books that caters for all types of people and, in my case, was a pleasant surprise.

Book 993 Edward St. Aubyn – Mother’s Milk

January 18, 2009

Although this book is the third part of the ‘Some Hope’ trilogy but, as in my case, did not read the aforementioned series of books, Mother’s Milk can be read independently.

One thing that struck me instantly about the book is St. Aubyn’s writing style. Conversational, yet witty. Acerbic but warm. Throughout the book I kept laughing and extinguishing quickly within the next sentence. So powerful is the use of language that the novel will ensnare you right away.

The main focus of Mother’s Milk is clearly ‘Middle Age’ and poses the question on what a man, with a troubled past and a comfortable present do?  with main protagonist Patrick Melrose, he solves this by 1) having an affair, 2) worrying on whether he will be the ideal role model for his newly born son 3) moves to America.

When focusing on minute details and the inner workings of Patrick’s mind, St. Aubyn simply dazzles. Ultimately Melrose is a very complex character and yet wants things to be simple but can’t due to his multi-angled reasoning.  St. Aubyns sense of satire is rich as well as his portrayal of the U.S. as a consumer machine has to be read.

Oddly enough I am having a hard time in describing the novel, mainly because it’s very true to life. I feel that middle-aged men (thankfully I haven’t reached that time yet) do have these thoughts and St. Aubyn captures that. Maybe because I cannot relate to this 100% so I am a bit hesitant in placing my views down here.

Ultimately , though Mother’s Milk is a very enjoyable read and it has a fresh feel all over it.

Book 994 M.J. Hyland – Carry me Down

January 17, 2009

I am quite a fan of ‘coming of age’ stories so I was quite excited when I picked up Carry me Down. I read this novel in 2006 when I was at a low point in my life and I thought it would be a sort of pick me up.

Beware

Carry me down is gritty, very gritty. It starts out with some kittens being killed and ends with the main protagonist, John Egan, finally emerging out of childhood.

but the rite of passage in between is a tough one and Hyland does manage to capture John’s innocence to situations, such as his family moving, his father’s affair and repercussions  and his bullying at school. In way Egan is a like a less delinquent version of Patrick McCabe’s creation, Francie Brady. Oblivious to the world and, in a way, himself.

Despite the fact that John is at a loss to the world, he is still unlovable. Throughout the duration of the novel I was unable to pity John in any way,sure Hyland is a clever writer but the characters in this book are cold hearted creatures that cannot give love. I think that although childhood does have it’s hardships and misunderstandings there are moments of bliss and ‘Carry me Down’ lacks a lot of happy pieces so I admit I was not able to engross myself fully with the novel. I felt like some peeping tom.

Probably growing up in ‘ 70’s Ireland was tough but I doubt if it was like some daily depressant. Even books which treat the same subject such McCabe’s ‘The Butcher Boy’ or Roddy Doyle’s  ‘Paddy Clark ha ha ha’ sometimes a potentially great novel is ruined by lack of humour and Ultimately ‘Carry me Down’ suffers from that.

Book 995 – Thomas Pynchon – Against the Day

January 16, 2009

Ever had that feeling of triumph when you finish a something that has taken you a long time to achieve. Well I felt that way when I read the last line of  Pynchon’s latest novel ‘Against the Day’  I had bough the book in October and had been carting it around with me until yesterday (Jan 15th) To be honest whenever I finish a Pynchon novel I feel this way.

Do not get me wrong I ADORE Pynchon. His plot’s , use of slapstick and the dazzling language. The fact that no one beat him at his game still shows what a powerful writer he is. Saying that as Pynchon is now past 70 and his age is showing in his novels. There are both pros and cons to this and it is all in Against the Day.

As many critics have rightly noted this is Pynchon’s most accessible novel. It is very readable (by his standards of course) and plots are more linear and digressions less frequent.  Like all of his novels the main focus is on man’s want to destroy and create the world he lives in and infused with this plot are revenge fuelled unionists, mathematical cults, a bunch of arial adventurers, a psychic detective and dozens of more characters, all interacting with each other and travelling  to different lands, each on a search for self fulfillment and all taking place between the years 1890 – 1920. It is also his longest book, running at 1220 pages and, trust me he makes every use of it.

So far so Pynchon.

However one thing that is evidentally missing if the manic humour that pervades his novels. Other than the mayonnaise scene and a few minisicule bits here and there, the cartooney exaggeration of lore has nearly disappeared. This does not mean that ‘Against the Day’ dry in any way however that Pynchonian spark is simply not present. As a fan I was a teensy bit disappointed but if a person approached me asking which Pynchon novel would be the best to start with I would point him towards ATD as it is indeed suitable to for those who want to work through his books.

However I am extremely glad I read it for some strange reason I feel more complete (literature-wise) when I read his novels.  Maybe because I constanly check wikipedia (in the past it was the dusty set of encyclopedias that reast on my shelf) learn something new with each segment and feel brainy? I honestly don’t know but Against the Day does certainly demand you to read it.

Book 996 Kiran Desai – The Inheritance of Loss

January 7, 2009

I first purchased this book the day it was available in stores and attempted to read it but it simply got on my nerves and I put it down (something I rarely do) after a 100 pages. Mainly cause I felt that the whole thing was overwrought and I wasn’t really going through a great time in my personal life either and the book’s pessimism didn’t do much for me.

Now it’s on the list so I attempted to re-read it.

Plot-wise it’s all about three main characters who lose their innocence in different ways. A Judge who feels like an outcast in both his own country and England. Sai a girl who dates an intellectual turned revolutionary and Biju (the cook’s son), who has immigrated to New York City in order to find opportunities. All the destinies entwine and each character moves through a process of self discovery, not through the best means though. There are other supporting characters who play an important part in shaping these people’s futures and it affects them as well.

Although it is a complex and interesting read, even witty and funny at times I found the whole thing to be remarkably souless, all of Desai’s characters are losers lacking in sympathy and this makes the novel drag at times.  With the exception of the Judges’ sojourn in Cambridge (where he acts like a loser as well, but it is humorous) I can’t say I warmed to the book.

Despite this factor I did like the way Desai protrayed a changing India and the generation gap and I did want to know how the novel would unfold and end. It is a pity because this could have been a perfect novel. All it needed was some heart.

Book 997 Jonathan Littell – The Kindly Ones

January 6, 2009

This book will be published in March. All I can say is, Watch this space.

1st October 2009

I have spent the month of September tackling this weighty tome and unfortunately I dont have many nice things to say about it. In fact i’ll cut straight to the chase and admit that this book is an unholy mess. Here’s why.

As such it’s not the plot which made me want to chuck this book out of the window, It’s well researched, it’s potentially interesting and it’s main protagonist Maximillian Aue is a character that will be remembered in contemporary literature. In a nutshell The Kindly Ones is about a Nazi SS high rank official, who both a homosexual and in love with his twin sister.  Aue is in all the right moments of the second world war – Poland 1941 , Stalingrad, and the dissolution of the concentration camps. As I said earlier it’s meticulously researched and it shows that there was a lot of work involved. There is a ton of detail, and that’s not bad at all. Although Aue is not a realistic character Littell creates a very memorable recreation of  Germany, Poland, Russia and Hungary during World War II (at least as I;ve read about it in history books) It’s also worth nothing that the whole novel is based on various greek tragedies and Littel also brings this comparison/ homage out nicely.

What makes this book a torturous read is the AWFUL translation. It is as if the person involved just translated the book sentence by sentence instead of seeing the paragraphs as whole. So there’s a slew of disjointed sentences, non flowing prose and in many cases some passages don’t make sense. The Kindly Ones was written originally in French. To date i have never ever read a badly translated French novel. I’ve always thought the beauty and simplicity of the language fares well in English. Obviously i’ve been proved wrong.

Disappointed? I’m absolutely gutted that this potentially great novel turned out to be sludge due to a half-assed translation!

Book 998 Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Half of a Yellow Sun

January 5, 2009

Half of the Yellow Sun focuses on a period of African history that has always interested me, The Biafran war, where an independent state was set up by a group of Nigerians as a way to seperate thenselves from British rule. This lead to a war and by 1970 the state of Biafra collapsed.

Ngozi focuses on three characters and how the war affects them. The first is Ugwu a houseboy to a professor who supports the Biafran cause. Olanna a high society woman with a British education who is dating the professor and Richard, a white Englishman dating Olanna’s sister.

All three have different views of the war and by the end of the novel all three have been shaken by the after effects of the Biafran emergency.

All though heavy handed at times (Ngozi is not a subtle writer), I did enjoy this book and found it compulsive reading. As my knowledge on Biafra was very scant I had to conduct research in order to understand the book a little bit better, it is also worth noting that Ngozi does not only focus on Nigerian politics but includes events that happened in other parts of the world.

Half of a Yellow Sun is a big novel in the traditional sense.  Very real and believable character, a complex plot and memorable situations. It also is a very satisfying read.

Book 999 Mohsin Hamid – The Reluctant Fundamentalist

January 4, 2009

After the rather disappointing DeLillo, I was pleased at the fact that the next book is one that I enjoyed thoroughly Not only is it insightful and somewhat touching but it kept me hooked from the first page .

Changez is a Pakastani recounting the story of his post university life to a stranger in a cafe. He begins by saying how he was hired by an prestigious company that does risk assessing to business proposals. From there onwards the story takes a life on it’s own.

As Changez is becoming more successful in his job he begins to embark on a relationship with Erica, an American, who does have a lot of baggage with her but at this stage the relationship bodes well. Due to this high point in life Changez truly believes that he is an American and is infatuated by the country.

That is until the 9/11 disaster.

After this incident Changez starts to ponder about his race and whether he is a misfit in the U.S. While this is happening he starts to slacken job-wise, and his relationship with Erica starts to disentegrate. Eventually this all leads to out anti hero returning to his homeland, his love affair with America has vanished completely and the book ends on a dour note.

Hamid’s writing style is very precise and is completely without fat, which makes the book very readable. Also as a foreigner who lived in Canada for a very long 14 years I can understand Changez love/hate affair with America. Hamid truly gets into te mind of his characters and his eye for the workings of the human mind in a foreign are spot on. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a small literary triumph

Book 1000 Don DeLillo – Falling Man

January 3, 2009

I have a very shaky (metaphorical) relationship with Don DeLillo. On one hand I admire the tension that is present in his novels. On the other hand I tend to drift off while reading them. Underworld was a great novel, However I felt it way overlong, I couldn’t stand White Noise but i did like The Body Artist but I felt that I would never tackle a DeLillo again.

Now he has reappeared in my life for a fourth time.

Falling Man, though has got to be DeLillo’s most human novel to date (well at least from the ones I read) the cold atmosphere of the previous novels are gone and yet the intense use of detail still remains. To give a short summary, the novel is about a 9/11 survivor who returns to his ex wife and kids. As Keith Settles down and gets used to readjusting his life again he starts to tour the world as a professional poker player.

In the meantime his ex wife’s world starts to crumble. Her neighbour annoys her. The reading group she sets up for Alzheimer patients falls apart and she spends more time with her mother. During this she watches a performance artist called The Falling Man, who’s act consists of dangling himself from skyscrapers.

To be honest the same old problem with DeLillo began to occur. I got bored read, especially during the tedious second half. Sometimes I find DeLillo too intense for his own good and it happens in Falling Man. By the end of the book I felt unsatisfied. True it is about humans adapting and overcoming themselves but isn’t Jonathan Franzen’s ‘The Corrections’ about that and written in a more interesting way?