Archive for August, 2009

Book 956 Ismail Kadare – Spring Flowers, Spring Frost

August 27, 2009

The first Kadare that I read was the political thriller The Successor, which I liked but did not fall in love with. mainly because I felt that an important element of the story was missing. In these cases I tend to blame the translation.

In contrast Spring Flower, Spring Frost is much more satisfying and bizarre in places as well. If The Successor was a dour adult then this novel is the teenager that has has one trip too many. Yet both feature politics and quite heavily.

Albania is now a democratic state (so I guess we’re in 1991)  and Mark, a painter hears, about a bank robbery and sees two kids unearth a hibernating snake.  This takes him by surprise as such events would never happen under Communist Albania. While he obsesses about the robbery and the snake he starts going on other mental tangents. Within the very brief 180 pages we get musings on Albanian Folklore (which figures snakes) , The theft of immortality via ancient Greek mythology, The Kanun – the Albanian code of laws regarding blood feuds and the iceberg that sunk The Titanic. On top of this he has to finish painting a nude portrait of his girlfriend ( The Kanun and her are entwined). Cleverly enough Kadare manages to mesh all these disparate musings altogether and tie them to the fall of communism. As one can expect the final chapter is the big enlightening one and is the ‘grand finale’

As I finished Spring Flowers I instantly started to make mental comparisons and this is indeed the better book. I already repeated the reasons above so I won’t go into them before but this felt like a fresher read. If there is another Kadare on this list (and I hope so) then it should be completely bonkers. We’ll see.

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Book 957 Paulo Coelho – The Devil and Miss Prym

August 23, 2009

My first taste of Coelho was The Alchemist. A book I disliked, mainly cause I thought that it was regurgitated Middle Eastern Philosophy with a self help sheen to dupe people into thinking that the novel  would take them to some higher plane.  As I pointed out this opinion to many people, I  met two very distinct opinions. There were those who swore by the book and those who swore at the book. I admit I guess I’m in the latter category. Saying that at the time I was swindled by the bookstore I worked at and I turned to the book so that I would feel better but I suffered from the opposite effect.

Which brings us to The Devil and Miss Prym, a book that I should read before I die. Keeping in mind my first Coelho experience, I was quite sceptical about the whole thing and began to read it with a sort of mocking undertone in my brain.

When I was a kid, there were a series of televised fairy tales (no it’s not Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre)  that had a popular following on video tape. The reason being the series were constantly rented out and you really had to rely on luck in order to find one of the blessed things! There was one story in particular about a man who made some Faustian pact with a creature in which he would forgo washing altogether in order to lead a rich life. Predictably his social life went down the proverbial drain so he gladly gave up the cash in order to apply soap to his grubby torso.

When I was reading The Devil and Miss Prym I was transported into the past as the novel is indeed a fairy tale with a more Christocentric message.

One fine day in the poor village of Visco a fellow possessed by evil decides to see if the villagers are capable of evil. He does this by offering 10 bars of pure gold to the villagers if they kill one person in their close knit society. To make matters worse this stranger uses a barmaid called Chantal Prym as her mouthpiece and rope her into doing his dirty work. (in fact I noted that it was similar to the book of Job- and then two pages later there are quotes from the book)

When the village find out about this plan many discussions about the nature and personification of evil. All done through parable. Eventually through Miss Prym they reach a decision and find out that the secret to a rich life lies within our free will. In order not to give any spoilers I have to be this vague.

Being a Theology student, I found a lot of points postulated in the book to be quite valid, However Coelho sometimes becomes way too preachy for his own good and it can be a bit bothersome. One gets the feeling that he is some perfect faultless being or at least he’s using his books as a mouthpiece for that concept. After a little while I did put this aspect aside and I did like the book. Essentially it’s a cautionary tale that’s a bit more religious in it’s outcome.

Will I tackle Coelho again after this? probably not, unless another one of his books are part of the 1001 list.  Don’t ask me the reason cause I don’t know why. However I will say that i’ve seen him in another light and I am glad that I tackled this novel.

Book 958 Michael Chabon – The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

August 21, 2009

I came across this novel sometime in 2003. It was my first year in the bookstore and one thing I liked to do was scan book catalogues for titles that would interest me, then order two copies. One for myself and the other for the store. Yes it is selfish but I figured out that if I read the book I could sell it to someone who was interested. This method never failed so I did this action regularly and guilt free. True I had to wait three weeks but then I always got a good discount. At that time i had a backlog so I didn’t mind the wait.

ANYWAY

What fueled my interest was the fact that the book was about comics. I had no prior knowledge about Chabon or even the fact that this novel won the Pulitzer.  It was the plot that drew me in.

It’s 1939 and Jewish teenager Josef Kavalier just manages to escape from war torn Prague and emigrate to New York, and seek refuge with his cousin Sam Klayman. Together the boys share a love of comics and create their own character called the escapist. A Houdini like character who outwits The Nazi’s. This is during the golden age of comics so their timing is perfect. From there onwards the book chronicles the trials and tribulations of these two artists but you can separate this into three types of histories.

The first one is the History of comics and all the happenings which befell the comics industry from the 1940’s – 1960’s. Publisher problems, lack of codes. Everything. it’s all documented here.

The second more crucial one is how Nazism affected American Jewish society in that time.  It is worth mentioning that the creators of Superman were also Jewish and felt the need to create a character that would help people feel protected from the Nazi reign. The Superman (and many other characters ) were born.  Both Kavalier and Clayman represent this attitude.

The third is the personal history of the duo. I did mention it earlier but I felt that it should be singled out. Both cousins have their personal problems which they try deal with throughout the book. To state them here could give away the ending of the novel.

The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a wonderful book. It’s also very powerful and drives it’s point home, despite the fact that it’s quite a weighty tome. Although it’s main topics have been tackled, the idea of including the golden age of comics, which was crucial to the U.S. citizens during this time is a masterstroke and adds originality to the novel.

Book 959 Mario Vargas Llosa – The Feast of the Goat

August 20, 2009

The first Vargas Llosa I encountered was the short story collection , Cubs, and I didn’t like it at all. Saying that I’m not a huge fan of short stories so I was curious about my first foray into his novels.

I was not disappointed!

What I’m loving about this project is that each novel is virtually a treasure trove of information. A regular educational experience. This time round it’s an in depth study of the Trujillo government. I know practically nothing about the Dominican Republic so I was quite keen on the subject matter.

Vargas Llosa tackles the Trujillo’s reign through three different viewpoints. The first one is through the fictional character Urainia Crabal, who returns to The Dominican Republic  after 30 years. The second one focuses on the Trujillo’s assassins and the third is the last day (and night) of the Generalissmo himself.

Through these characters Vargas Llosa manages to squeeze in over 70 years of history. Although it’s not in chronological order and certain scenes repeat themselves, it is performed so deftly that the reader doesn’t even notice. In fact it’s almost like a game and with each chapter historical timeline becomes even more clear.

Trujillo is portrayed as an overgrown child, albeit a dangerous and organised one who seeks revenge at every confrontation. He’s also very macho and believes that sex is power and yet it’s his leaky phallus which is his greatest enemy at the same time and Vargas Llosa pokes fun at this weakness quite a few times in the book.

As for his victims, who clearly represent the results of this dictatorship, they are a bunch of people who stay by Trjuillo’s side but then a devoid of free will as Dominicans were not allowed to express themselves. One particularly poignant part of the book is how Balaguer manages to transform the Dominican Republic into a democracy and the affect it has on the population. Saying that Urania Crabal represents the aftermath and stabilization period.

Historically all the events and characters that shaped the Dominican Republic’s history are all present and told in detail, despite this The Feast of the Goat is essentially a work of fiction and reads like a story with it’s twists, turns and surprises, and trust me there’s one plot twist which I kicked myself for not figuring it out earlier! . It was probably this reason why I obsessed over it for the past week. It is truly one of those books that absorb you from the first page onwards.

Apparently it took Vargas Llosa over a decade to write this book. If his writing gestation period produces masterpieces like this then it’s definitely worth the wait!

Inbetweener 5 Hugo Wilcken – Colony

August 17, 2009

I know it’s a tired cliche but when I was reading Colony I was reminded of  Henri Charriere’s Papillion. There are similarities, mainly the fact that both novels deal with life on a penal colony  and, at least for it’s first half, Colony is equally gritty and ragged.

The first half of the book focuses on Sabir, a french soldier, who arrives on the penal colony in South America and decides that his raison d’etre is to escape from it as quickly as possible. Eventually Sabir does manage to achieve this wish, but with consequences.

The second half focuses on a shady botanist called Manne. This time around he is approached by the island Commander’s wife, who wants to escape from her marriage into other pastures. Manne obliges and he suffers consequences as well. Clearly if you want freedom, there will have to be a price to pay!

This is a novel of  breaking free of shackles,  memory plays and important part in this book and it seems that most of the characters are prisoners  of this mind trap and attempt to break free from it. Whether they succeed is a different story altogether.

Strangely enough, despite the fact that this is a gripping novel, I felt very unsatisfied after reading it. I wanted more. I felt that the characters weren’t fully developed, especially the commander and his wife and it leaves a sort of distaste by the end.  Colony has a lot of good things going for it but unfortunately if  the characters and some plot aspects ( let’s say the island scene – those who have read the book know what I’m talking about) could have had more depth and expanded.

Still with so much potential im sure that there will be a winner soon.

Also thumbs up to John Self’s blog, ‘Asylum’ for pointing out this novel to the blogging world!

Book 960 Niccolo Ammaniti – I’m not Scared

August 10, 2009

As I live on an island that lies between Sicily and North Africa, I have a tendency of gravitating towards literature (and films) from both cultures as it’s very easy to relate to the situations presented in the novel. Add that to the fact that I’m a fan of coming of age novels and you could see why I rate I’m not Scared so highly. Ever since it’s 2003 publication I’ve read the book quite a few times so it does feature heavily when I recommend books to friends.

It’s 1978 in Southern Italy and it’s a blazing summer day (trust me I know what a blazing summer day is. As I’m typing this review at 5:30am I’m already dripping sweat from every pore) and a group of children stumble upon a kidnapped boy who’s being kept in someone’s farmyard. One of the boys, Michele strikes up a friendship and he stumbles upon a lot of disturbing secrets about the boy’s history, which leads to some nasty consequences. It’s also worth noting that in the 70’s there were a lot of abductions happening around Italy and it lasted till the early 80’s so Ammaniti’s plot is not that bizarre or far fetched.

As expected these events lead to a loss of innocence but Ammaniti is not ready to say that there is a distinction between child and adult. In fact both worlds do share many similarities, something the film director Giuseppe Tornatore presents in both Cinema Paradiso and Malena.

Like I said earlier I could relate to a lot of stuff here. Groups of children playing games, fields, the way of life. Not only does I’m Not Scared focus upon growing up but it’s also about the beauty of Southern Italy, a beauty with a dangerous agenda lying beneath it. No matter how ugly the situation is there’s always some aesthetic description scattered throughout the book. The translation is excellent  so nothing is lost.

With I’m Not Scared Ammaniti achieves many literary heights but in it’s essence, what you’ve got is an addictive story. As a word of caution, Salvatores film doesn’t do much justice to the book as he adapted the ending of his movie to create a more optimistic outcome but really just makes the film inferior. Seek out the novel first and you’ll be more satisfied in the long run.

Book 961 – Javier Cercas – Soldiers of Salamis

August 7, 2009

To be honest summarising this novel, without giving away everything is a bit difficult so here is the plot in one brief nutshell.

A journalist, possibly Javier Cercas himself, becomes obsessed with the Spanish Civil War rebel leader Rafael Sanchez Mazas, who manages to escape death twice. First he runs away from a firing squad and then while he is hiding he notices that he has be discovered by a soldier, who ignores him. Thus Sanchez Mazas is able to seek refuge with some farmers and survive the war.

As the journalist becomes more curious he starts to dig deeper into Sanchez Maza’s life and uncover more secrets and eventually writes a novel based on his discoveries (it’s the second part of the book). Yet he is still unsatisfied as he feels that it is unfinished. Eventually through an interview with Roberto Bolano (and I adored this section of the book) he manages to seek out a soldier who might have had contact with Sanchez Mazas.

Probably the most valuable lesson this journalist learns is the notion of the hero in literature and why a story is not complete unless there is one.  There are discussions on the qualities of good and bad writing and what actually makes a writer different from a journalist.

Although I enjoyed reading this book I felt that some sections were slightly stronger than others. The first and last parts are pure brilliance, while the section where we actually read  the novella is a slight disappointment as it just is a retread of the first part of the book. Nonetheless it is definitely worth reading and for those who are not sure about the Spanish Civil War, there is a handy brief history at the back of the book (written by the translator) which should be read first.

Book 962 Ian McEwan – Atonement

August 5, 2009

I have got a lot of mixed reactions with McEwan’s Atonement. On one I love the first half of the book which really sets the scene for the novel and I think that it’s final part is a great twist and the ultimate form of atonement but it’s mid section simply stinks of selling out. It’s as if McEwan saw Saving Private Ryan and tried his hardest to emulate it in prose.

The novel takes place in pre-world War II Britain, where the Tallis family are expecting the return of their son, Leon. His youngest sister Briony has written a play for him , while her eldest sister Cecilia has returned from Cambridge to greet him as well. In the meantime she is also having romantic feelings for her childhood friend Robbie. Also in tow are the Tallis’ cousins Lola and twin brothers Jackson and Pierrot.

Finally Leon arrives with his friend Paul. At the same time Cecilia and Robbie have an argument which is witnessed by Briony. In order to atone for his first mistake Robbie writes a dirty letter then a proper one, unfortunately he sends the dirty one to Cecilia via Briony ( shades of The Go Between here). Briony reads the letter and decides that Robbie is a maniac.

Robbie now realises that he made a mistake and apologises to Ceclia and they have sex in the library, again Briony manages to catch them and formulates her own conclusions – eventually getting Robbie kicked out of the house and arrested.

Years later and Robbie is now a soldier in the second World War both Cecilia and Briony are nurses and the latter is very guilty about her actions. Robbie does actually die of septicemia and never reunite.

Jump forward to 1999 and Briony has now finally atoned for her mistake many years ago by writing the Novel ‘Atonement’  but she changes events and creates a happy ending. Perversely Briony herself states the atonement cannot be achieved through writing as the author can change whatever he wants and shape the future by using his pen.

This is the real masterstroke of the novel. In Plato’s Phaedrus , Socrates places an emphasis that written word is more powerful than spoken and in Atonement we do see that the written word from the letter that Robbie writes to the conclusion that it is writing that shapes people’s actions and destinies. Despite the fact that Briony states that writing will never compensate for actions (which I agree with) the written can be equally powerful.

What does put me off the novel is it’s stuffy writing – something Brit authors tend to suffer from-  and the hackneyed mid section. Sure it may be well studied but it still bored me.

Personally I think McEwan excels when he is writing about the perverse and unthinkable. The Cement Garden,  Enduring Love, The Comfort of Strangers are really what I look for. Atonement may be McEwan at his most elegant but, with the exception of a few portions of the novel, it’s also his dullest novel to date.

Book 963 W.G. Sebald – Austerlitz

August 4, 2009

This was the first time I’ve attempted W.G. Sebald and I have to admit I was disappointed.

At first I was amazed at this book. Within the first fifty pages or so you get a whole diatribe about the architectural teats of Antwerp’s train station then then further on in the novel there are further discussions about moths, Wittgenstein and other famous buildings around the world. More importantly though is the theme of memory which runs throughout the book.

The unnamed narrator bumps into a person called Jacques Austerlitz. Whenever they meet they indulge in intellectual discussions. As Austerlitz’s confidence in the narrator grows he starts to expose bits and pieces of his childhood. His past under Welsh parents, his discovery of his real parents – victims of Nazism, his mental breakdown and other  bits and pieces of his past start to crop up. By the end of the novel we get a scattered but full biography of Austerlitz. Add that to the pictures strewn all over the novel, which give us more clues and you’ve got a first class book in your hands.

Probably it is so. After all there are tons of people who loved this novel but one thing made my reading of this book weary and that it is one long 415 page paragraph. Although i’ve been exposed to many literary techniques, this one exhausted me completely and, at times irritated me highly, which is a pity cause this is one hell of a plot.

What else can I say? I think there are other Sebald novels in this 1001 reading challenge so I hope I fare better next time.

Book 964 Yann Martel – Life of Pi

August 3, 2009

I remember coming across this fantastic little book one day while on my lunch break, reading the culture section of the Sunday Times and coming across a review of the said book by Margaret Atwood.

There are moments in time when you feel that you absolutely need a book. It’s a rare feeling but this desire to read Life of Pi surged through me and I went to the rival bookstore (as I knew they were more efficient in ordering books than the company I was working for) and within a week and half I was carting the book around with a grin on my face.

I started the book on the bus ride home, continued it when I arrived and sat on my chair reading it and flipping each page, letting the whole story devour me – like a tiger and feeling elated.

By 23:00 I finished the book a happy man and an even happier one 5 months later when I found out that it won The Booker.

Life of Pi functions as story within a story a story, which heightens it’s appeal.  Anyway it’s about about an Indian boy, named Pi Patel who’s family own a zoo and decide to emigrate to Canada due to India’s political instability. The Patels manage to sell the whole zoo but they have to ship the animals with them. Unfortunately the boat capsizes and Pi is trapped on a lifeboat with a tiger, zebra , hyena and Orangutan.

At first he is terrified but then he makes peace with the Tiger, named Richard Parker and the rest of the book is about Pi’s adventures. Strange islands, strange people. Martel has clearly made this a first class adventure book, albeit with many weird moments.

When Pi is eventually rescued the journalists who interview him tell him to re-tell his story as it is too fantastic, which Pi does as well but the journalists prefer the story with the tiger in it.

I found this section to be the clincher as it does play around with the idea of  the fine line between madness and truth. Obviously the only one who knows what really happened is Pi himself and it is up to us as readers to just accept the main tale for what it is.

Despite the digressions into Theology, Philosophy and Zoology, Life of Pi is a grand story in every sense of the word. It is essentially a tale to tell everyone and anyone and in fact this is how the book starts out. A tale can be muddled as time passes by so neither Pi or the man relating this story to the author are wholly reliable. Neither is the media for that matter.  Like all stories though, there is an entertainment value. Something to make you want to hear it constantly and treasure. This is what I feel is the true meaning of fiction and is lacking in so many books as it is reality that most authors are focusing upon. This is also why Life of Pi is a towering achievement, it harks back to the days when our parents would sit at the end of our beds and relate an engrossing tale from the top of our heads. Life of Pi is an embodiment of that bygone era.

I remember a scene in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 when Guy is upset that he has spent his whole career burning books as a living and stumbles across people who recreate these books from memory, despite the fact that there may be inaccuracies. I feel that if ever Life of Pi was destroyed it has the power to be recreated again as, I have mentioned before, it sums up the art of storytelling to the maximum.