Archive for January, 2010

Inbetweener 10 Kamila Shamsie – Burnt Shadows

January 28, 2010

Burnt Shadows is my first book by Shamsie and to be honest I’m still not really sure how I’m going to tackle it. On one hand it’s got an interesting plot and a nicely layered one as as well and yet there are many flaws which stopped me from enjoying this novel.

Hiroko is in love with Konrad Weiss, a German who is living in Japan during the mid forties. When Konrad dies due to the radiation of the atom bomb (Hiroko is badly scarred on her back), she decides to move to India and stay with Konrad’s half sister and husband, James Burton. During this visit she falls in love with the Burtons houseboy Sajjid. It is also during the time when Pakistan was created and the Muslim/Hindu riots are taking place. Eventually a misunderstanding leads to Sajjid being kicked out of the Burton household. Despite this he marries Hiroko and they are forced to live in Pakistan.

The next part of the book takes place during Pakistan in the 1908’s. Hiroko and Sajjid have been happily married and are both in their sixties and now have a 17 year old son called Raza. Unfortunately Raza has failed his final exams in order to attend law school so as an act of rebellion he befriends Abdullah  he joins (and is rejected from)  an Afghanistan training camp. In the meantime the Burton’s son Harry returns to visit Sajjid but an argument gets him banished from Sajjid’s house.

We jump again and it is 2002. Sajjid is dead, James Burton is dead and Raza now works in the CIA with Harry Burton. Hiroko is living in New York with Harry’s daughter and his mother Elizabeth. Raza’s past comes to haunt him in the shape of Abdullah and Kim in a fit of post 9/11 paranoia reports him. Thus ends the novel.

Burnt Shadows is definitely ambitious but I felt that Shamsie wanted to write a novel that would appeal to everyone so although she does mention important events that shaped history she does not go into much detail. These are just mentioned and skimmed through. It is true that events such as the atomic bomb does shape the destiny of each character but if there was more depth it to a better plot development.

At times I felt that a movie was in the mind as well. There are some passages in the book which read like film scripts, plus Shamsie’s english is not engaging. It is simply functional. It took me a while to absorb the book.

As for the good side, all characters are fleshed out and there weren’t any predictable moments. and it did not drag in the least but lacked something to make it a truly special read.

So I would approach the book with a bit of caution. There’s a lot of unfulfilled potential!

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Book 934 Barbara Kingsolver – The Poisonwood Bible

January 22, 2010

The Poisonwood Bible has been a book that I have wanted to read ever since I read positive reviews about it back in in 1998.  I have felt that it’s one book that I HAVE to read and having finished it yesterday I’m glad I did.

It’s 1959 and the Price family move from the U.S. to a tiny village in the Belgian Congo, led by the insane Nathan Price, the family go through a maturation process through their trials of life.

Sounds clichéd right?

Well the book is told through the eyes of  all the Price women wife Orleanna , The shallow Rachel, Fearless Leah , the crippled mute Adah and very young Ruth May.  There’s also the political aspect as the Congo gained independence in 1960 and a few months after was taken over by the dictator Mobutu. Trust me this is no Swiss Family Robinson story.

As Nathan’s aim in converting the natives to Christianity (and to western ways) fails completely, he loses his mind and becomes unbearable and as a result he is deserted and then the book shifts to the Price women shaping their futures. Rachel leads a glitzy life , Leah marries a local school teacher , Adah and Orleanna return to the states, the former manages to overcome her muteness and her stumbling walk and becomes a doctor. As for Ruth May – well her fate takes a different turn midway through the book.

Through Leah and Rachel we get a glimpse of Africa during the years 1965 – 1997 so the political emphasis becomes heavy but one main theme that runs throughout is that the Congo changed the girls lives and futures.

Although I found the book very enjoyable I did feel that it was a bit overlong at times, especially during the Rachel chapters, which contain a bit too much padding but it was an insightful read and helped me understand some details about this torrid part of history.

Book 935 Paulo Coelho – Veronika Decides to Die

January 11, 2010

In a funny way I’ve always wanted to read this book and a lot of people have been recommending it to me for a very long time but as I don’t really like Coelho I kept putting it off. Finally I’ve got an opportunity to read it and I didn’t mind it too much.

Veronika purposely overdoses on sleeping pills and wakes up the next day in a mental asylum. There she is told that the pills have damaged her heart and she has only one week to live. At first Veronika sticks to routine but since there are other mad people surrounding her she loses her inhibitions and starts to become more spontaneous (like slapping a man or playing a piano) and live a day-to-day existence. In other words she becomes a person. The people who help her grow spiritually are some of the inmates, namely Zedka, Mari and Edouard, who all have been victims of  societies norms. There’s also a sub plot about The Asylum’s head doctor but that would give away the plot.

As usual Veronika is a typical Coelho story.  It’s spiritual, positive and offers guidance in a self help sort of way. Actually it is his least preachy book so it didn’t bother me as much. I will say though that he does pile on the sadness throughout most of the book to such a degree that it becomes ridiculous but then Coelho is all about that.  I did like the fact that Coelho breaks the fourth wall and enters the book as a character  and i’m sure that Edouard represents the author as well (Coelho was institutionalized due to the fact that he was artistic) .

In the end the message of  Veronika Decides to Die is for us to break free of life’s constraints and to live a life that helps us develop and become full human beings. As a novel it is quite good – not superb or a masterpiece but it will lift your spirits up if you are going through a bad patch.

Book 936 Michael Cunningham – The Hours

January 9, 2010

I honestly feel that I’m doing the book a disservice by writing a review but anyway here goes :

The only Michael Cunningham novel I have read is A Home at the end of the World and I loved it. To this day I still reflect about it’s contents. Now I knew about The Hours reputation so I had an inkling that I would not be disappointed.  When finishing the book  an onrush of indescribable feelings surged through me.  Even four hours after reading that last sentence im shaking.

The chronicles one day in the life of three women in three different eras and places. First is 1920’s London and the author Virginia Woolf is planning out the rough sketches for Mrs. Dalloway. Then we jump to New York in the late nineties, where we meet Clarissa who is preparing a party for her best friend who is dying of AIDS and the third story focuses on Laura Brown in 1940’s LA, who is reading Mrs. Dalloway and is preparing (with her son) a birthday meal for her husband.

All three women are united by the fictional Mrs. Dalloway. I am not going to go into detail over here but the themes which run through the novel are Suicide, Lesbianism, writing, alienation and the need to break free are just some of the uniting factors.  Cunningham ties everything together brilliantly but this plot isn’t the only reason why I was elevated by this novel.

Cunningham’s use of language is simply astounding. The Hours reads like one long poem. Each simile and metaphor will grab you. Never have descriptions affected me so. Also it’s only a 225 page book so in order to get so much when using such little space also left me speechless.

I know I am probably overdoing it on the hyperbole front but it’s very rare that book does this to me so I savor it.

Has anyone else out there felt the same way about this book?

Book 937 Cees Nooteboom – All Souls Day

January 5, 2010

When I was reading All Souls Day I was reminded of those obscure European art house films I used to watch when I was in my early twenties. Slightly weird, interesting and yet lacks something in order to be truly loved.

Arthur Daane is a director of documentaries and treats is life as one whole film that is waiting to be captured on camera. Although he has travelled to some places around the Earth his favourite city is Berlin and while he walks he notices (and films) the details and soaks in the city’s rich history. He also meets his two eccentric friends Arno and Victor and they discuss life food, art and history.

The reason Arthur travels and notices details in the places he goes to is because his wife and son have died in a plane crash ten years earlier and he sees his obsessions as a from of escape.

All goes well until Arthur falls in love and he goes on another adventure which is completely life changing.

The main theme is history, especially Berlin’s. Nooteboom makes sure to squeeze in every aspect of pre wall era Berlin and I liked this aspect of the book. The romantic sub plot works as well and gives the novel an extra dimension. Even the inclusion of a narrator who breaks the fourth wall and tells us about the future of some of the characters is a great idea.

Yet I found it difficult to be absorbed in the story. I definitely did not get bored and neither is the translation off-putting. I just felt that it lacked one more thing and I’m still debating on what it is. True some of the characters aren’t that fully fleshed out but we sympathise with Arthur very easily. I don’t know what it is and it’s still bothering me a bit.

Another thing the paperback version is out of print but you can buy the hardback one at the Book Depository (although I opted for the paperback at abebooks.co.uk)

Book 938 Miguel Delibes – The Heretic

January 3, 2010

So far I have noticed that all the books which take place in the middle ages or even later are the ones that I have disliked. I try to keep an open mind and I’m definitely sure that there will be a novel which is based in the middle ages that I will love but so far this has eluded me. Unfortunately The Heretic will have to join the ‘unenjoyable read’ list.

The year is 1560 and the Catholic church is going through a lot of unrest. On the day that Martin Luther nails the 95 theses on a church door in Wittenburg,  Cipriano Salcedo is born in Valladolid, Spain. From the start his father abandons him and he is under the care of his wet-nurse Minervina.

Cipriano is a fairly bright child and becomes  a successful businessman, however the reformation (which is well underway) attracts him and he abandons Catholicism and joins the revolutionaries. This leads to his arrest, trial and death. There’s also a small twist at the end which involves his past and present clashing in an ugly manner.

Historically the novel is accurate, As a theology student I had to study the Inquisition, Reformation and Counter-Reformation in detail and Delibes gets that down excellently but I just could not appreciate the story. I got bored many times and I had to force myself to read – something I hate doing. At a certain point I did not really care if Cipriano was just a victim of  a certain type of mentality. I just wanted it all to end.

I wish I could love every book that passes through my hands but I have to come one I dislike now and then.

Book 939 Michel Houellebecq – Atomised

January 1, 2010

I first came across Atomised back in 2003 when I was working in the bookstore. I have to admit that the cover did catch my eye (don’t you think she looks a bit like Kristen Dunst? ) but I was always keeping the book stored mind until the right moment.

One day a customer rushed in and asked if we had The Elementary Particles (it’s the U.S. title)  by an author called Michel Houellebecq. Just before I could answer the customer grabbed Atomised and told me that the author is at the centre of a controversy due to his writings of other cultures.  Now at that time the word controversy made me perk up so I instantly bought the second copy of Atomised and read it in a couple of days.

Bruno and Michel are half brothers born to a bohemian mother, but despite their upbringing they are two completely different persons. Michel is an introvert and almost afraid of sex. He is, though a brilliant molecular biologist. Bruno, on the other hand is a sex maniac and indulges in every perverse action possible. In curious way, despite his Lothario lifestyle he is a loser.  He does not really have a decent relationship with his half sibling.

Saying that these two brothers are like a split atom. When they are separated they have the potential to be powerful but it is inert but when they join they are an almighty force and it is when Bruno finally establishes contact with Michel that life turns out for the better as both brothers manage to bring the best out of each other and help sort out their lives. There is also a futuristic sub plot here but that’s not really given that much importance.

On the whole Atomised is a flawed but interesting novel. When it works the passages are simply brilliant, especially when the brothers get together but unfortunately there are dull moments and I felt that the sex ridden pages were written for shock value. There’s even a bit of a tackiness among the bleak exterior of the novel. I won’t say I loved it but I will not say that I disliked it either.

For a Houellebecq beginner I suggest that his third novel Platform should be tackled first. it is a more consistent and satisfying read.

Book 940 Ardal O’Hanlon – The Talk of the Town

January 1, 2010

I simply adore coming of age novels and Ardal O’Hanlon’s The Talk of the Town is definitely up there with the best ones.

It’s Ireland in the early eighties and Patrick Scully is nineteen, works as a security guard in jeweler’s and yet is an outcast of sorts. He cannot stand the small town mentality and petty violence which surrounds him and yet his hatred of academia and lack of initiative means he has trouble with getting along with his friends who attend university. Namely his girlfriend, Francesca, who is a misfit like him but attends university and is more studious. The thing is that Patrick wants to cut loose the bonds which restrict him from being himself and when he does there is a huge consequence.

The book’s chronology is not exactly easy to explain but it starts off with Scully attending a nightclub, losing his virginity and then getting beat up. While he is in hospital we get a whole flashback (his point of view) explaining his life prior the punch up. The third half of the book returns to the present-day. Inbetween this we get snatches of Francesca’s diary, which goes into detail about her relationship with Patrick.

In essence this is a book about education and how it can make a person stand out from small town upbringing. It’s a novel about relationships and, like all Irish novels, The IRA have their role as well. At times there are echoes of Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy, especially with the descriptions of  the smaller Irish villages and Scully’s frame of mind during the last half of the book. Then again I feel that The Butcher Boy changed Irish fiction and gave it a more humanising aspect, something I see in authors such as Roddy Doyle and Frank McCourt.

For those who do not follow British television Ardal O’Hanlon played the bumbling Father Dougal in the defunct series ‘Father Ted’ and I admit that I would have never expected something this dark. It’s also out of print  but there are lots of copies at abebooks.co.uk and in the U.S. it’s called Knick Knack Paddy-whack. I’m giving you all this information because I urge you to read it. It’s not a life changer but it’s an extremely enjoyable novel.

So this is my first book of the new year. Not a bad literary start at all!