Archive for September, 2010

New edition of 1001 list

September 26, 2010

In March a new edition of the ‘1001 Books you must Read before you Die’ was published, which means that there are new additions to the list. Here they are :

Muriel Barbery – The Elegance of the Hedgehog (read)

A.S. Byatt – The Children’s Book

Paul Auster – Invisible

American Rust – Philipp Meyer

Roxana Robinson – Cost

Aravind Adiga – The White Tiger (read)

Marilynne Robinson – Home

James Kelman – Kieron Smith, boy

Anne Enright – The Gathering (read)

Julia Franck – The Blind Side of the Heart

Junot Diaz – The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (read)

While I’ll be sticking to the current edition I will try to read the above books.

Advertisements

Book 872 Marina Warner – Indigo

September 25, 2010

Potentially this would have been the greatest idea for a novel – ever.  Imagine an author explaining the roots of a Jamaican family , while using Shakespeare’s The Tempest as a backdrop.  Also now and then there are chapters dedicated to storytelling.  Sounds great? Unfortunately in reality this was a mighty disappointing read.

The book opens up properly in post war London where two Jamaican immigrant families are coming to grips with their race. We find out in one long interlude that their ancestors were the first governors of  a Jamaican island that was inhabited by the witch Sycorax, her son Caliban and the spirit Ariel (here Warner takes liberties with The Tempest and actually devotes a lot to Sycorax’s background) The governors destroy everything and take over the island.

We jump to the present day and the families now are spread out and their daughters actually return to the Caribbean to find out about their past.

Like I mentioned before great idea but I did not like the execution, I found Warner’s style boring and I couldn’t care about the characters, Although the first hundred pages or so are very promising I struggled to keep myself from drifting off.

I don’t like slagging books off like this but now and then in a list of 1001 books you are bound to find the odd stinker or so.

Inbetweener 11 Muriel Barbery – The Elegance of the Hedgehog

September 23, 2010

My goodness it’s been nearly a year and I’ve barely deviated from the list but since we’re discussing this for the book club I had to change my reading habits a bit (and in the coming months there will be more inbetweeners) .

Renee is the concierge of a prestigious hotel and a closet intellectual, with a disdain for the rich people she works for.  Paloma Josse is an overly precocious twelve-year-old girl who is already showing prototype emo angst towards the world and is contemplating suicide. Together their lives change with the death of a tenant and the arrival of  Mr. Ozu. Renee is able to express her cooped up thoughts and views and ultimately becomes a happier person. Paloma befriends Renee and realises that there are genuine people on this planet. However things do not end exactly how they seem but I’ll leave that up to you to figure out what happens.

Within the actual story there are many philosophical interjections, Renee’s thoughts on art and language are acceptable but Paloma’s philosophy of life tends to veer on the pretentious and over emotional even and this detail stopped me from loving this novel. In fact the chapters dedicated to Paloma were not really enjoyable.

Other than that I enjoyed the satires on social class and the philosophical bits helps add a bit of zest to the novel. It is something I would recommend but be a bit careful.

Book 873 Michael Ondaatje – The English Patient

September 20, 2010

For some very strange reason I have got four copies of  The English Patient at home .  It seems that whenever a member of my family is abroad and raid a bookstore it crops up in the pile.  To complicate matters my own personal copy was bought because the library I have at home is in total disarray ( although now I have alphabetized all the fiction, hence me discovering all those titles) and I couldn’t find the older versions. Ah well one can one do??

The book takes place during 1946 Italy and the war is over, However in a disused hospital a Canadian nurse (the daughter of a character in Ondaatje’s  The Skin of a Lion), Hana is taking care of a badly scarred man, whom she calls The English Patient.

A while later her family friend, a spy called Caravaggio turns up with the news of Hana’s family in Canada. To complement the crowd a Sikh sapper called Kip shows up on the premises as he is on a mission to defuse all mines around Italy.

All four characters have a hefty background history and throughout the novel we get bits and pieces of their past and weirdly enough  all lives are interconnected through war. Ondaatje’s lays the clues all around so when each tidbit of information is revealed, the characters become more tangible, and human in the process. Also each character falls in love with Hana, with Kip being the recipient to the more physical aspect of Hana.

Just as war brings them together, it tears them apart. When Kip hears news of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings he feels that he has been betrayed by the Caucasian nation and escapes to India. The novel ends with a brief glance of Hana and Kip in their mid thirties.

The previous Ondaatje that I have read was .. Skin of a lion, a novel which I enjoyed immensely (and Anil’s Ghost – which I found ok)  but this takes writing to another level.  Passages of sheer beauty  constantly occur and the raw emotions of the characters  jump out of the pages. Not to mention a plot which unfolds slowly but ends in a very satisfying way.

I always find it very difficult to conclude these blog entries without retreating to usual clichés like ‘read this’ or ‘A book which resonates right after you read it’  but honestly I don’t know what to say as it is indeed a book that you must read, no qualms about it!

Book 874 Alice Walker – Possessing the Secret of Joy

September 15, 2010

I was always curious if Alice Walker’s only book worth mentioning is  ‘The Color Purple’ , I mean that book was momentous and constantly dropped in blogs, school libraries  and so on. But none of her other books are bandied about so readily. As always the list breaks stereotypes and has placed ‘Possessing the Secret of Joy’ as one of those essential novels that have to be read.

Although Walker says it’s not a sequel Possessing… does have the same themes as …. Purple (and contains a minor character from that novel). Mainly women being oppressed in dominantly male society. However it does take an interesting route as Walker focuses on tribal customs and whether torturous rites should be permitted.

Tashi, who was briefly mentioned in …Purple, lives among the (fictitious) Olinka tribe in Africa and one of their rites is to mutilate female genitalia, so that she will remain pure. Tashi, is hesitant to perform this rite, especially at the age of thirteen but she badly wants to be accepted so she goes ahead with it and it scars her whole life and not only in a medical way. It also affects one subsequent action which shapes her destiny in a nasty way. In between we readers see how women are tortured unnecessarily in order to fulfill tribal wishes.

The book is told through the eyes of Tashi and of other people who surround her so us readers get a complete picture of all the events happening as Tashi is not a 100% reliable narrator due to her madness.  If there is a main message to be derived from this book it is that culture is not torture. Something which I agree with.

Possessing the Secret of Joy is an excellent novel and a highly addictive read. Plus it is on par with The Color Purple, if not better due to the fact that it focuses on a more original aspect of female enslavement.

Book 875 Cormac McCarthy – All the Pretty Horses

September 13, 2010

My first attempt at reading Cormac McCarthy was not a good one. I had picked up The Road three years ago and I didn’t like it at all. However I was curious to see if all of his books are über negative, cruel pieces of work. When I finished All the Pretty Horses, my opinion on McCarthy changed somewhat.

It’s 1949 and Texan born and bred John Grady Cole is sixteen and has lost the ranch he loves and misses out on an inheritance. A s a result he decides to, along with his best friend Rawlins decides to move to Mexico (on Horseback) and start a new life there working as cowboys.

As they cross the border they are accompanied by another teenager called Blevins and from there onwards they discover that the wide open desert is a sinister place which is cruel and unforgiving and yet has moments of kindness. During the course of their stay in Mexico these three characters ;  fall in love, get killed, imprisoned and are banished back to their homelands and learn about themselves in the process.

You could say this is a coming of age story of sorts or maybe even a criticism on social class. Even one on politics. Although McCarthy is not writer who makes his makes his symbolism obvious, it’s up  for you to figure out what the books is about.

Which leads us to my opinion of the book itself. I loved it.  The story, writing style, characters. It’s a perfect novel and one that will haunt you. It is cruel and even violent but McCarthy writes with such panache that you are in awe of the power of his pen. Now I can see why he is considered one of America’s best writers.

Book 876 Zulfikar Ghose – The Triple Mirror of the Self

September 7, 2010

The Triple Mirror of the Self is a strange book. It’s three short stories that are different from each other and yet connected by one small detail.  Don’t forget this is before David Mitchell employed the same technique for Cloud Atlas.

The first novella deals with a community of outcasts who live in the mountains – this was by far the strongest section. The second is about an English person trying to cope in the U.S. and the third takes place during the independence of India where a  boy has to cope with partition and the different religions that surround him. I thought this story was strong.

As you can see the other binding theme is identity and individuality, no matter what how bizarre or dangerous the situation is and on this aspect the book succeeds.

However I’ll admit that I found the writing  a bit stuffy at times and I did drift off a bit and re read passages in the second story. Plus Ghose isn’t 100% clear in his style so you have to look over certain passages in on order to understand what has happened ( I’m not referring to the linking bits just general actions or characters).

In other words this is a bit of a ‘mixed reaction’ book. I wish I could have liked it more but I couldn’t.

Book 877 Apostolos Doxiadis – Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture

September 5, 2010

When I was at school I hated Maths (yes over here we say it in the plural) with a passion. When I’m confronted with a ton of numbers my mind just refuses to work. The funny thing is when I’m reading these mathematical/scientific novels all the concepts become clear. This was the case of Uncle Petros…

On the whole it’s a very simple story. The  narrator is a good mathematician but finds out that his mysterious Uncle Petros is a professor in the subject. On further investigation he has found out that Uncle Petros has not published a single paper or theory since the mid 30’s and so he is curious to why his uncle has been inactive.

Through a long confession the narrator discovers that Uncle Petros  had fallen in love with a girl, and in order to impress her, decided to solve Goldbach’s Conjecture ( An even number greater than two is always the sum of two primes). One of the most difficult problems to prove.

Needless to say that this becomes Petros’ obsession for 20 years and he turns into a madman. When he realises that the conjecture cannot be rejected he accepts his fate (and the mighty repercussions) and settles down playing chess.

The narrator doesn’t believe that all theories should be accepted and eggs Uncle Petros to revive the theory, which he does and returns to his madman status.  Eventually Uncle Petros makes a breakthrough but at a cost.

Doxiadis does an excellent job in creating a highly readable and fun book. All theories are explained clearly so that anyone can understand them and although it promotes the ‘mathematician as insane genius’ stereotype it done with a lot of exuberance and charm.  If there is a film that complements this book then I suggest Darren Aronofsky’s 1999 film ‘Pi’ which shares a lot of the same themes here.

Book 878 Harry Mulisch – The Discovery of Heaven

September 3, 2010

The Discovery of Heaven is a book which will shake up your brain, even after reading you feel like you’ve learnt a dozen things,  unfortunately it makes it more difficult to actually summarise it  as the plot is out there.

Superficially two angels shape the destiny of two brainy individuals (max is an Astronomer and Onno is a linguist) and together they both father (yes a woman has sex with both of them) a child who has been chosen to return the ten commandments back to heaven as the human race has not been following them properly.

Yes on paper this sounds absolutely ridiculous and some two-bit author (Dan Brown???) would make a total mess out of a fantastical plot like this but Harry Mulisch is one’s of Hollands leading intellectuals so he pulls and teases the plot into other directions.

Thus the reader gets meditations and theories on the Holocaust, Dictatorships, Art, Architecture, the development of Science, etymology , Ancient Jewish culture and Jewish history. The amazing thing that each page contains a wealth of  facts and some brain rattling ideas. These are so entwined with the plot that none of the information presented is padding and furthermore Mulisch is brief and to the point and in its own way The Discovery of Heaven is not a slow nor difficult read.

I loved this novel.  Although this summer I read some good ones but none of them stood out like this.  I’m still stunned