Thursday, 31 December 2009

The 2009 Tony's Reading List Awards

Welcome, one and all, to the Tony's Reading List Awards for 2009! This is where we celebrate the previous twelve months of reading, look at what was read, where it came from and who the big favourites of 2009 were. We will also be awarding a couple of prestigious prizes: the 'Golden Turkey Award' (self-explanatory really) and the 'Book of the Year Award' (ditto).

So, without further ado, let's begin! Firstly, the 'Most-Read Author Award' goes to Haruki Murakami:
1) Haruki Murakami (6)
2) Yukio Mishima (5)
3=) Heinrich Böll (4)
3=) Charles Dickens (4)
3=) Thomas Hardy (4)

Belezza's Japanese Literature Challenge 3 inspired me to read more Japanese literature than I otherwise would have: the Murakami books were all rereads, but the Mishima novels (including all four 'The Sea of Fertility' works) were new to me. While Dickens and Hardy are old friends, 2009 saw German author Heinrich Böll leap into my conciousness: four down and more to come ;)

When it comes to nationality, it's no surprise that England takes out the 'Most-Read Country Award':
1) England (32)
2) Japan (15)
3) Australia (8)
4) Germany (7)
5) Russia (4)

I am (as you may know) English by birth, and I lived for three years in Japan a while back. I am now an Australian citizen, having lived here for more than seven years, and I studied German at university, later living there for two years. I have absolutely no connection with Russia whatsoever... I just checked my list, and, of the 91 books read this year, 39 were originally published in a language other than English (of which 14 were read in the original).

The 'Golden Turkey Award' goes to the book which was the biggest waste of time this year. Luckily, my prediliction for classics means that bad books have been few and far between. However, there were a few...
1) 'The Universe' by Richard Osborne
2) 'Wish You Were Here' by Mike Gayle
3) 'Blind Faith' by Ben Elton
4) 'My Favourite Wife' by Tony Parsons
5) 'Oliver Twist' by Charles Dickens

Please read my review of the awful 'The Universe' (just DON'T READ THE BOOK!). 'Persuasion' by Jane Austen managed to extract itself from the bottom five thanks to an improved performance in the second half. 'Oliver Twist' scrapes in (!) largely because of dashed expectations.

Book of the Year - Very Honourable Mentions
'The God of Small Things' by Arundhati Roy
'Die Verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum' by Heinrich Böll
'The Trilogy of the Rat' by Haruki Murakami
'Midnight's Children' by Salman Rushdie
'Der Prozeß' by Franz Kafka
'100 Years of Solitude' by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
'Breath' by Tim Winton
'Middlemarch' by George Eliot
'Ulysses' by James Joyce
'The Riders' by Tim Winton

A bit of a cheat to include four Murakami books here, but I felt it was only fair to nominate them for the sum of their parts. Tim Winton is the only author with two separate nominations here, and I heartily recommend him to all you non-Aussies! The truth is that I had a preliminary short-list of about 25 books, and even keeping to that list caused me to cut out dozens of great books (I have had a very good reading year!).

But what gets the big award?

The 'Book of the Year Award' for 2009 goes to:

'The Sea of Fertility' Tetralogy by Yukio Mishima

No big surprise to regular readers of my blog, I suspect. Before this year, I had only read Mishima's 'The Temple of the Golden Pavillion', which I found tough going. After buying, reading and posting on 'Forbidden Colours', I decided to take the plunge and tackle all four books in Mishima's career-defining series. All I can say is that I'm very glad I did and that I think you should too!

Thanks for your time: I hope you've come away with some ideas for your reading year in 2010. Happy new Year!

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

91 - 'Gott ist Rund - Die Kultur des Fußballs' by Dirk Schümer

This is the final review of 2009, and a slightly unexpected one at that. I've had a very good year with reading books in other languages, and this one brought the tally up to 14 out of 91 (12 in German and 2 in French). I was at a bit of a loose end as I finished the two books I thought would take me to the end of the year with a few days to spare, so, after a good half hour of gazing at my bookshelves, my eyes flicked across a German book I bought more than a decade ago and never quite got around to reading all the way through (it does happen, albeit very rarely). What better way to cap off a year of power reading than by making up for old lapses? Well, let's see if it was a good decision or not...

'Gott ist Rund - Die Kultur des Fußballs' ('God is Round - The Culture of Football', and can I just say here how happy I am to have found the ALT-Code for ß? ALT + 225 if anyone's interested) is a non-fiction book featuring the musings of a very serious German newspaper editor on the beautiful game and the effect it has on human culture and society. Over nine chapters, he muses on such things as business, society, people and poetry and tries to explain the pull the game of football has on large parts of the globe. In German.

Yes, that may seem a very redundant statement, but it is actually important. Being German, Schümer takes everything very seriously and never uses two words when one seventeen-syllable monstrosity will do. He also makes sure that every possible theoretical base is covered, leading yours truly to occasionally find himself staring at a page with absolutely no idea how he got there. While the first couple of chapters were mainly personal philosophical arguments of the type which anyone with a keen interest in football and more than a passing knowledge of the rules of written grammar could knock off, the later sections do seem to have been based on substantial amounts of reading. As I said, Germans take these things very seriously.

Some of the ideas Schümer toys with make for interesting reading. The concept that football is, in itself, utterly meaningless, only existing to promote products, pacify aggressive natives or further the ambitions of crafty politicians (depending on which chapter you happen to be reading) is fascinating and, unfortunately, very true. The story of Sylvio Berlusconi's rise from sleazy businessman to Prime Minister, purely on the back of the symbiotic relationship between his companies, AC Milan and the media networks he happened to buy up is just one of many. Even today, even here in Australia, similar things happen. It was no coincidence that the winning side in the recent Queensland state election was the one which promised to chip in tens of millions of dollars for an AFL stadium...

Having been written in the mid-nineties, the book is a little dated now, and it is very interesting reading certain parts in view of subsequent world events. The idea of ever-increasing television revenue took a bit of a hit during last year's financial meltdown, and Schümer's presentation of Opel as a paragon of the advantages of Football and Business working together is a little unfortunate given the farcical umming and ahing over GM's decision whether or not to sell off its European affiliate. To give him credit though, some things do still stand up: the prediction of the growing importance of Asia is spot on (but no mention of Australia).

Let's be honest though; most of the things said in this book are self-evident, and if Herr Schümer's intention was to reinforce the German stereotype of being efficient, thorough and ever so slightly dull, then he did a brilliant job. A native speaker might have a more charitable view of his writing, but I found that he was unable to really bring the magic of the game to life in a way I would have expected from someone daring to write a whole book on the subject. Still, I was ready to give him the benefit of the doubt, based mainly on the intriguing chapters on Business and Politics (again, home territory for the average German) when I got to the final 4-page coda - where he basically gave himself away as a bit of a fairweather fan with no real strong affiliation to any club side.

I can sense the lack of horror from my (mostly North-American female) readership, so let me explain. Your team is not really something you choose (as Herr Schümer weakly claims), it is a part of your birthright, it is thrust upon you. Nick Hornby puts it best in 'Fever Pitch' when he compares a football allegiance to a marriage, before taking it back: there's no chance of divorce from your football team. Separation may be possible, but, sooner or later, you'll go crawling back. This realisation of the cruel nature of football, which Schümer touches upon but obviously does not really understand, is what is needed to make this book into the work it should be.

Look, it's not bad; just read 'Fever Pitch' instead though ;)

Monday, 28 December 2009

2009 and 2010

As 2009 draws to a close, and we get ever closer to 2010, I thought it would be a good time to look back at a busy reading year and look forward to what's in store next year. I will look back at particular books in another post; in this one, I'd like to consider the year from a more general point of view.

The first, and (perhaps) most important, occurrence this year was the little electronic piece of fluff you are currently reading. I started my blog on New Year's Eve, pledging to post on books I read so that I could remember what I'd been reading and to keep me on the straight and narrow regarding the quality of what I was reading. On both counts, the blog has worked spectacularly well. In addition, the responsibility of posting has forced me to analyse the books I read on a much deeper level than was the case before. Whether or not that is always a good thing...

This incursion into the blogosphere also enabled me to discover other people's blogs as, amazingly, it turned out that I was not exactly the first person to have had the idea. In fact, as you all know, there are trillions of passionate readers out there, frantically typing out their thoughts on books as we speak. Even if you discount the Twilight fans and other various nutters, there are still a good few people out there who write interesting and meaningful reviews of books which are well worth reading. Astoundingly, even some of them like Twilight (it's a strange world).

Of the many blogs I follow and peruse, I would have to mention two here. The first is Colleen's Bookphilia, a wonderful site run by an English Literature PhD turned second-hand book shop owner, which was my first connection to the world of blogging. Like me, Colleen has her own niche areas (especially French writings from the middle ages) and brings a nice sense of educated disdain to some of her posts - something which is otherwise missing in the somewhat anodyne world of blogging

The second is Belezza's Dolce Belezza, notable for the Japanese Literature Challenge it hosts. This year has seen an explosion in my Japanese reading habits, especially with regards to Yukio Mishima, and I doubt that this would have happened if I hadn't stumbled across the challenge. Belezza has also acted as a counterweight to all the award/nomination/comment-obsessed bloggers that you can come across out in the blogosphere, posting on the importance of community and the relative ephemerality and uselessness of the popularity game (for which she should be highly commended).

Another innovation which caused a quantum leap in my reading this year was the discovery of the best thing since sliced bread (nay, since the wheel), The Book Depository. Virtually any book you want, postage free (and, since the Australian Dollar appreciated massively against the British Pound, for a most reasonable price)? Yes please; don't mind if I do. Do I feel guilty that I'm not supporting the overpriced cartels which have set up shop inside all of Melbourne's major shopping centres? What do you think... The only down side is the possibility of developing a book-buying habit which I will then need to hide from my wife. I'll keep you posted.

Enough of the past, on to the future: what does 2010 hold in store for me and my blog? Well, sadly, I doubt I'll be posting as regularly as in 2009. Reviewing each and every book I read is proving to be a bit of a strain (December has seen me struggling to keep up with my posts), and I don't think I could bring myself to cut down on how much I actually write for each review. I see myself limiting my blogging to weekly updates with full reviews for books I feel strongly about. I also see myself winning a Nobel prize for Literature at some point, so don't take anything written here as gospel.

While I will continue to read widely and try to get into new authors and countries (just as 2009 brought an interest in Woolf, Wharton and Indian literature), 2010 may well be the year of rereading. As well as continuing my second tour of Haruki Murakami's novels and beginning a trip through Trollope's Barchester Chronicles, I will be reading David Mitchell's books again (in order this time) in preparation for the release of his Dejima novel. George Eliot may have to wait until 2011, but Hardy and Dickens will almost certainly be towards the top of my most-read author list in 2010 (as they were this year). But let's not get ahead of ourselves...

Finally, I would like to think that next year will see the gradual development of what I am starting to think of as 'my book'. For Free E-Day on the 1st of December, I wrote a short story entitled 'Far From Home', and I have already written a second chapter following on from the first story. While I already know I will be insanely busy next year, what with finishing my Master's in TESOL and with other family business taking up most of my time, I hope to plod along with the story when I get time and (eventually) publish it on Smashwords, Lulu etc. If I do (which is highly doubtful, especially before the end of 2010), then I may even change the subtitle to my blog. Having said that, maybe it's time for the blurb to go. I mean, I must have written close to 100,000 words in my blog this year; surely that qualifies me as a writer...

Anyway, that's all for now. Check out my 2009 Awards post, and have a very Happy New Year: see you in 2010 :)

Sunday, 27 December 2009

90 - 'The Decay of the Angel' by Yukio Mishima

Please look to your left, dear reader (oh, alright, look to the left of this text; I don't care what you can see next to your laptop...). The lovely photo I took a few hours ago shows the complete 'The Sea of Fertility' tetralogy in all its wonderful glory (and, for some reason, in two different Vintage editions - that's the Book Depository for you). Today, about six months after finishing the first instalment, 'Spring Snow', I finally finished the fourth and final part, 'The Decay of the Angel'. Wow.

As our old acquaintance Shunsuke Honda nears the end of his life, he is looking back on how he has spent it and the events concerning the three doomed young people he has been involved with. One day, while walking on a Shizuoka beach, he comes across a look-out tower and, going inside for a look around, he meets a young man named Toru Yasunaga. Naturally, Honda sees an unusual birthmark under the young man's singlet and decides to adopt him, believing him to be the next incarnation of his friend, Kiyoaki Matsugae. But is Toru all he seems?

Toru certainly seems to be special (although for all the wrong reasons); he is egocentric, self-contained, cruel and possessed of an innate sense of his own worth in the world. While Honda seeks to mould the young man, playing with him to see if he (unlike his 'predecessors') can make it to his 21st birthday, Toru has his own ideas, slowly taking over control of the household and perverting events to his own ends. Within a few years, it is unclear who exactly is controlling whom...

In previous posts, I commented on the role of the seasons in the books, but I mainly focused on the background role of the seasons against the actions of the novel. However, the idea of seasons is, of course, a metaphor for the passing of Honda's years. 'The Decay of the Angel' marks the winter of Honda's existence, and it is (as is the case for many people) a harsh winter, full of bodily and mental frailty and atrophy. The title of this instalment of the series comes from a description in Buddhist lore of the passing of an angel: five signs of decay indicate the imminent death of an angel, including increased sweating from the armpits, a sudden shabbiness of attire and an inability to motivate oneself to move from the spot. By the end of the novel, Honda is not the only character in whom these signs can be seen...

The main intrigue of the book is the question of Toru's status: is he the reincarnation of the previous characters? While some of the signs are positive, there are some doubts: both Toru's date of birth and Ying Chan's exact time of death are uncertain, leaving the possibility that Toru was born too early. In addition, while Toru is certainly different (if by different you mean evil), is he really unique? Is he such a freak of nature that he is fated to die young?

As a novel in its own right, I doubt whether 'The Decay of the Angel' would quite cut it. It is far shorter than the first three books (perhaps because Mishima had something on his mind...), and the reader does get the feeling that the story, especially the mental conflict between Toru and Honda, could have been fleshed out more. However, as the denouement of the series as a whole, it works splendidly. With the doubts thrown up about Toru's status, Honda's whole existence is put under the microscope. Why has he spent so much of his life obsessing over Kiyoaki and his successors? Why has he become the cold, voyeuristic, secluded old man we see in this book?

The end gives us some of these answers but creates a whole host of others; on a visit to the Nara temple where Satoko, Kiyoaki's lover, shut herself away from the world, the dying Honda recreates Kiyoaki's painful pilgrimage of sixty years ago to obtain an audience with the abbess in an attempt to obtain some kind of truth or justification for all that has gone before. What actually confronts him... Well, you'll just have to read the book for yourself.

So what is it all about? Not a clue, but, in the countless rereadings this series will attract over the coming decades, I hope to get a glimpse of the ideas Mishima wove into his four-novel canvas. Reincarnation, the inevitable decay of earthly flesh (and society...), the recreation of the universe after every breath, every second, the nature of destiny, the lot of the unnatural or superhuman, the impossibility of sustaining perfect beauty in a less-than-perfect world... It cannot be described: it must be read.

Please do so.

Friday, 25 December 2009

89 - 'Vanity Fair' by William Makepeace Thackeray

Roll up, roll up, one and all! Let me take you for a brief walk through my world of wonders, my carnival of cretins, my celebration of sycophants, the one, the only Vanity Fair! What? Leave you to walk unguided through my novel alone? Never fear gentle reader: there is a vicious social world out there, so Mr. Thackeray will be with you every step of the way, to protect you from the worst of the inhabitants - and perhaps from your self.

What's that you say? The gentleman over there? That is merely William Dobbin, a military man and an all-round good egg, but he is not the main attraction here, the just and sensible are peripheral figures in our world. The lady he is secretly (but nothing escapes my eyes) gazing at in admiration? Ah, that is Amelia Osborne (Sedley as was), pretty, charming, demure... not to mention boring as batsh.. But we move on. The plump young (well, not old) gentleman across from her, twiddling his moustaches and loudly proclaiming his role at Waterloo to all and sundry (and what a role that was - if you are interested in cowardly retreats)? Mr. Joseph (Jos) Sedley, one-time revenue collector in India, current bon vivant and on the lookout for women with a matrimonial gleam in their eye. Oh no, you misunderstand me; I mean so that he can run away from them, of course!

Now this gentleman here, once a fine young man, but now become dull and stolid (I wonder how...), this is Rawdon Crawley, another of our military friends, one who actually did fight at Waterloo with soldiers with guns (and not just with cunning menservants). Sorry? Ah yes, you do right to dismiss him. This poor soul is no longer what he used to be, mainly because of... There you go! I wondered how long it would take for you to spot her!

Who is she? What?! You've never heard of Mrs. Rebecca Crawley (plain old Becky Sharp to her oldest friends - and debtors)? One of the brightest lights of the London and Parisian social scenes? Well, I suppose in the strictest sense she is rather a new arrival, but her sparkling conversation and quick wit quite make up for any unease you may feel about the rumours which... What rumours? Well, some people (cruel people of course, but we must consider all information before forming our judgement) believe her to be of extremely obscure origin, and I did hear tell of a liaison or two (or five - people can be so mean) behind Mr. Crawley's back... But look at her; how radiant she is! How could a woman with a face like that be capable of any of those deeds? Easily? Well, perhaps you're right; I am, after all just a simple narrator here. I'm sure you know best.

I suppose I should explain what this Vanity Fair I mentioned is. Yes, quite right, it does draw upon the idea outlined in Bunyan's 'The Pilgrim's Progress'. A year-round fair, a never-ending, global-encompassing, dazzling and intoxicating sensation for the sensuous and sentimental (if not for the spiritual). It's a picture of a consumer society, ahead of its time, a place where wit and beauty can make a fortune (always provided that virtue and honesty are safely ignored). Exactly as good Ms. Sharp... I mean Mrs. Crawley, has done. Yes, it would be good if the just, the good, the meek did inherit the Earth. Still, never mind, eh? Maybe they'll do better in the next life (they can't do much worse...).

What's that? You'd like to leave? You've seen enough? My dear fellow, you can't leave! This is Vanity Fair, this is where you exist! This is society in a capitalist world! There's only one way out of here, and that's in a box (beautifully satin lined, if you're lucky)! Well, nice to meet you; do enjoy yourself (I especially recommend the vol-au-vents - priceless). I must be off; I spy a newcomer just across the room...

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

An Early Christmas Present

A very merry Christmas to you all (yes, I know we're a few days off yet), and here is my present to my readers - whether you like it or not...

As predicted, my short story 'Far from Home' has served as the inspiration for a longer work, and I posted Part 2 today on Smashwords. Just click on the link (or the photo) to be taken to the page where you can download the chapter. Of course, if you haven't read Part 1, read that first please.

Just nine days of reading and posting to go in 2009: from my little blog, you can expect at least two reviews (one on 'Vanity Fair' and the other on a book I'm keeping secret but the name of which very clever clogs may be able to work out) and a few end-of-year specials, including the unveiling of the coveted Book of the Year and the presentation of the Golden Turkey Award for 2009. No, thank you...

Monday, 21 December 2009

88 - 'Dance, Dance, Dance' by Haruki Murakami

"Yougottadance. Aslongasthemusicplays. Yougottadance."

Yes, the Sheep Man is back, and so is Murakami's first (anti) hero. Technically speaking, 'Dance, Dance, Dance' is not part of 'The Trilogy of the Rat'; realistically, however, to get the most out of this novel, it helps to have read the trilogy first. In these three books (the two novellas 'Hear the Wind Sing' and 'Pinball, 1973', plus Murakami's first full-length novel, 'A Wild Sheep Chase'), we learn about our nameless hero (let's call him Toru...) and meet some of the characters discussed in 'Dance, Dance, Dance' - including the enigmatic Sheep Man...

The story takes up events four-and-a-half years on from the end of 'A Wild Sheep Chase'. After a six-month mourning period, 'Toru' has tried to slip back into his monotonous daily life, writing excellent, but ultimately pointless, restaurant reviews for women's magazines and generally coasting through life without casting a shadow. Of course, this can only go on for so long, and, with cries from a lost friend echoing through his head, he decides to return to the eerie Dolphin Hotel in Sapporo. And that's where the adventures begin...

Toru's new quest takes him on a ride through a world which seems to have changed immensely in a few short years. His noble, Don Quixote-like, struggle against big business and faceless power is in the past: capitalism has arrived and conquered. Now is the time of mass consumption, and with a backdrop of Boy George and Talking Heads, where everything can be bought on expense accounts (even call girls...), Toru is forced to adapt to this new, unpalatable reality.

A symbol of this new world is Toru's old school friend, Gotanda, a successful television and film star who has made a career out of projecting an aura of honesty and proficiency. Gotanda becomes a part of Toru's search for his former girlfriend, the woman with the most beautiful ears in the world (I told you you need to read the other books first...) when Toru sees him on the screen in a scene with this woman, but the film star also becomes a friend. Unable to break out of the shallow world of showbiz, Gotanda is drawn to Toru's simplicity and down-to-earth attitude towards life. Unfortunately, this may not be enough to save Gotanda from his demons...

Gotanda is the key to this novel as he is inextricably caught up in the horrors of the modern consumer society. Fleeced by his ex-wife (whom he still loves) in a cynically orchestrated divorce, he is massively in debt to the studios who employ him, forcing him to carry on working in an industry he has come to despise. Despite these debts, however, he is able to (and, in fact, is urged to) live life to the fullest on his tax-deductible expense account. Murakami skilfully sketches the paradox of a man who is showered with Italian sports cars and free visits to the best restaurants and night clubs in Tokyo but is unable to step back and take a break from his life. The contrast with Toru is obvious.

Of course, the focus of the novel is still on Toru, who, having lost his friend, his wife, his girlfriend and his past, is wading through a miserable time in his life, trying to break through to 'normality'. A chance encounter with a young girl, Yuki, who somehow becomes his responsibility, is one of the factors which moves him along on his path, perhaps compelling him to snap out of his low and finally achieve real adulthood. Yuki's function in the novel is similar to that of May Kasahara in 'The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle', allowing Toru to see himself as other 'normal' people see him - a person detached from society. Having said that, Yuki is far from normal herself...

When you look past all the supernatural imagery and metaphor, the four novels represent a young man's struggle to mature and settle down. Toru, 34 years old in this instalment is finally able to tie up loose ends, sow a few wild oats and put the past behind him (Gotanda, on the other hand, is not). The university student of 'Hear the Wind Sing' has become - or, at least, will become - a (reluctant) member of society, if not a staunch believer in mass consumption. And so we bid farewell to our nameless friend (Toru was always my invention)... but is he so nameless? The dates and ages given in the four books always match up, allowing us to calculate his year of birth as 1949. So? Well, a certain Japanese author you might know also happened to be born in that year...

It's always with a feeling of regret that a reader says goodbye to a character they have spent so much time with. Whether it's Harry Potter and co., the inhabitants of Barsetshire or the vast cast of 'A Suitable Boy', the last page of a series, or a long novel, leaves you feeling a little sad and empty. Such is my feeling now. Until next time.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

86 & 87 - 'The World from Italy' by George Negus & 'Also Sprach Bellavista' by Luciano De Crescenzo

Follow me, dear reader, to Italy if you will (metaphorically, of course - I'm not offering to pay for your air fare). Today's bumper post is discussing life, love and philosophy in the land of the Caesars as seen by two authors with very different backgrounds. There is also a little tale to tell about how I came to be in possession of these works and what connection they have with my life. Intrigued? Settle back with a plate of pasta and a nice Chianti, and I'll tell you a story...

I stumbled across the first of these books, George Negus' 'The World from Italy', in a second-hand bookshop in the Victorian country town of Daylesford a few years back. Old George, for the non-Australians among you, is a fairly well-known journalist and television personality with a background in political and current affairs reporting, and his book dates from his year's 'sabbatical' in Italy around the turn of the century. Far from being a travel book, however, 'The World from Italy' promotes Italy as an example for the rest of the world to follow when it comes to lifestyle and concentrates on three main areas in which it excels: football, food and politics. Bear with me...

According to Mr. Negus, the reason that Italy is such a popular destination for tourists and immigrants alike is its people's ability to enjoy the finer things in life. Football and food are probably self-explanatory, but the politics angle is based on the way Italians actively engage in discussing the running of their country, unlike the apathetic Anglo-Saxon approach to what should be a concern of everyone. This Latin involvement in daily political discussion, long lunches with the family and the Sunday evening ritual of calcio are apparently what makes life in Italy worth living.

It's an interesting book, but it would definitely be better were it not for the writer himself. Negus comes across as a bit of a smug know-it-all, never content to let ideas speak for themselves when he can hammer the point home (with a reinforced-steel sledgehammer). You get the impression that Negus sees anyone with a different view to his as a little deficient in the brains department, and he's going to let you know about it too. As for his discussions on football... Well, as a lifelong player and fan, I really don't need his patronising ill-informed views on the 'Beautiful Game' to tell me why it's so important.

To be fair, although he does bang on a bit, Negus can articulate some interesting ideas, and the political section of the book is probably the best. His discussion of the Italian origins of 'The Third Way' of politics is fascinating and a good wake-up call for those who thought Tony Blair came up with the idea all by himself. Italy's system of politics, with most areas of the political spectrum represented, may seem strange to those of us accustomed to a predictable two-party system (as is virtually the case in Australia), but it certainly makes life interesting. How interesting? Well, when I turned on the computer this morning, one of the first stories I saw was about Silvio Berlusconi's bad day (smashed in the face with a statue) - now that does not happen back home...

This discussion of 'The Third Way' leads me neatly on to the second of my reviews, 'Also Sprach Bellavista' ('Thus spake Bellavista'), a wondeful book which I picked up when I was living in Germany just over ten years ago. I was teaching English at a private language school, and every Monday night after my class, I stayed behind to join in an Italian class (which consisted of five or six Italiophile German women and yours truly). Anyway, one week one of my fellow students was raving about a book she'd read by an Italian author and, somehow, persuaded us all to buy it too. Very glad she did actually.

Where Negus spoke of Italian lifestyle and how the rest of the world could take a leaf out their book, De Crescenzo, Neapolitan by birth, wrote (and still writes) of the differences in philosophy between not only Italy and the world, but also between his beloved Napoli (Naples) and the rest of Italy (especially the North). The name, of course, evokes Nietzche's classic 'Also sprach Zarathustra', and this book is, at heart, philosophical. Don't be put off though; this is not philosophy as you know it...

The book is divided into two alternating strands. In the first, we follow enjoyable philosophical discussions on the nature of Love, Freedom and Power, and where Naples stands in the world; in the second, De Crescenzo relates funny, poignant and (amazingly) true stories from the streets of Naples, which illustrate some of the more abstract truths outlined in the discussion chapters. The parables about ingenious football fans who will do anything to avoid paying for a ticket - not because of the cost but because of the principle -, normal people obsessed with the lottery to the extent of consulting psychics and gurus, and arguments on buses which attract a (participative) crowd, who then need to jump off the bus quickly before it goes (they only got on to join in the discussion): all of these stories help to give us that insight into the Neapolitan psyche that De Crescenzo outlines in the first strand.

The discussions on Love, Power and Freedom, in which the fictional (but highly autobiographical) Professor Gennaro Bellavista expounds his views in the presence of his friends are superbly structured and by no means one sided. The other characters give as good as they get, whether it's Doctor Palluoto, the emigrant living in Milan who has a more objective view of Naples and its failings, the first-person narrator, an emigrant engineer who has returned for the holidays, or Salavatore and Saverio, two working-class men (although not working that much...) providing comic asides and putting away the Professor's excellent wine.

Bellavista's main point is the contrasting urges of Love and Freedom, the importance of balancing your behaviour between the two ideals, and the need to avoid Hate (the opposite of Love) and Power (the opposite of Freedom). This middle way (or even Third Way) leads to a healthier, more balanced style of life, even if the majority of people lean either towards Love (like our Neapolitan friends) or Freedom (apparently, where Naples is the centre of the realm of Love, London is the capital of the empire of Freedom- make of that what you will...) to differing extents.

It's fascinating reading, written in a style which both entertains and makes you take stock of where you would stand in Bellavista's description of people's characters. Having had a brief dalliance with Power (didn't care for it), I'm back in the area of Freedom trying to balance my desire to be left alone with the need for human contact. Of course, if I had more money then it would be a lot easier; however, Bellavista has the answer to this one too. It's not a matter of earning more money, but lowering my expectations of my living standards. Glad that's sorted then...

However involved the discussions get, humour is never far from the surface though, and that is what makes this book (and Italians?) so entertaining. Let me leave you with an example (my translation) of an extract from a discussion between Salvatore Coppola, Deputy Replacement Caretaker of 58 Via Petrarca, and Doctor Passalacqua, one of the residents, on the subject of statistics.

Passalacqua - Do you know what that is, statistics?

Salavatore - Just vaguely, I was never much good at school. But, if I've understood it correctly, I might be wrong, correct me if I am, well, if someone put my backside in an oven and my head in a fridge, then, statistically speaking, I should be feeling pretty comfortable.

There's more to life than economics :)

Friday, 11 December 2009

85 - 'David Copperfield' by Charles Dickens

This year has seen a return (for me) to reading Dickens after a fair absence, and it would be fair to say that I've had mixed impressions so far. After being amazed (again) by 'Bleak House', partially disappointed by 'A Tale of Two Cities' and thoroughly let down by 'Oliver Twist', I was looking for a right-rollicking read to restore my faith in the master Victorian novellist. Thankfully, 'David Copperfield was that book.

I was persuaded to buy it after reading Nick Hornby's review in his book 'The Polysyllabic Spree' earlier this year, and it has lain dormant for the past few months, waiting for me to take a break from my Japanese, German and Russian novels. Hornby's love of a single scene, totally unimportant in the progress of the story but given three or four pages by Dickens, a scene which other authors would have skipped over in a couple of sentences, attracted me to the book, which I thought I hadn't read before (having now read it, I suspect that I had read it a long, long time ago but had forgotten all about it).

'David Copperfield' is the book Dickens himself described as his favourite, and well it might be as it is heavily influenced by the author's own life experiences. A young boy overcomes a rocky start to life, caused by difficult family circumstances and financial hardship, and starts to earn his place in the world. After dabbling in law and reporting political speeches, he finally becomes a successful writer. Sound familiar?

Of course, what happens to David himself is not the key to the book. The wonder of 'David Copperfield' consists in the amazing descriptions of the people he meets along the way, among them some of the most memorable characters in English literature. One of these is Mr. Micawber, a noble pauper much given to writing letters (and running up debts), a man who is permanently unemployed but always convinced that something good is just around the corner, indulged and supported by his long-suffering and ever-supportive wife. Another is Mr. Dick, a weak-minded gentleman who, saved by David's aunt from being locked up in an asylum, charms everyone with his simplicity and astounds all and sundry by his ability to see solutions and unite warring parties where 'normal' people are unable to see the wood for the trees (just don't mention King Charles...).

However, the most memorable character in the book is the ever 'umble Uriah Heep, a creature described so meticulously and horribly that the reader's skin crawls whenever his name makes its slimy way onto the page. The working class lawyer's clerk, who attaches himself to his employer in his misfortunes like a parasite, acts like a slow-moving cloud on a sunny day; gradually, but surely, his false servility and slimy obsequiessness cast a shadow over the happiness of the other characters, poisoning the happiness of David's friends as - HEEP! plots his dastardly revenge on the upper classes. Don't worry, this is Dickens...

'David Copperfield' is a fairly long book (my copy was around 750 pages), and this broad canvas allows Dickens to work at his best, spreading the story thinly over the framework of the pages so that he is able to colour in the gaps with characterisation and humorous asides. The part quoted by Hornby is a typical example; rather than just allowing the wandering David to sell off his jacket and be on his merry way, Dickens puts a wild, half-crazed pawnbroker in his path, forcing little David to wait outside the shop while the eccentric owner attempts to persuade him to accept a lower price, always adding the nonsense word 'Garoo!' to his utterances. Believe me, it's surreal.

The length of the story also allows us to follow a wide cast of personages and build our opinions of their characters as we go. This is important as one of the main ideas of the work is the fallibility of first impressions and the need to get to know someone intimately before making assumptions about their worth. Aunt Betsy, Mr. Dick, Mr. Micawber and Miss Moucher all rise in the reader's estimation as the story progresses while characters such as Steerforth and Littimer lose their initial lustre as we learn more about them. Naturally, some characters, whether good or bad, are exactly what they seem at first glance...

Finally, the book is about family. Although David never knew his father, and loses his mother early on in life, in reality he is surrounded by a group of people who love him and help him through the difficult periods of his life. As people come into his life and assist him in his path through Dickens' Bildungsroman, they become part of his family and often connect with David's other acquaintances. Peggotty, Traddles, Agnes and all the rest eventually form an extended family group which does more for David than a nuclear family ever could.

I know that up there in the northern hemisphere it's the start of winter and that you all need something to get you through the abysmal weather and the long nights. Might I suggest a nice warm room, a comfy chair, a cup of tea and 'David Copperfield'? You won't regret it.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

What I've been up to lately...

I've been a little busy recently, so I haven't read as many books as I normally manage to get through. For those of you (any of you?) who are wondering why, I'll quickly run through the guilty parties:

1) I've just waved bye-bye to my parents, who were in Australia for a few weeks to see me (not true, they were actually here to see my daughter; I just live in the same house). All the bonding and visits to the zoo didn't leave much time for books.

2) I'm currently reading 'David Copperfield'. I'm getting there, but it'll be a few days yet...

3) Cricket on the telly. Very distracting for the serious reader. West Indies leading by 35 runs, by the way.

4) Of course, the main cause of my slow down in reading was Free E-Day, which took place on December the 1st. In addition to plugging the event, taking part in a couple of discussions (unfortunately, my time zone was not ideal for participating in on-line chats) and downloading a few interesting novels for nothing, I took advantage of the day to publish (on Smashwords) my first ever short story - for free! If I ever get around to thinking about it a little more, it may even (one day, in the dark and distant future - not quite sure why the future is dark, but there you go) become a novel of some sort. It's a little story about intercultural relations and the importance of not making assumptions, and (if you want to) you can download it for free by clicking on the title photo above! Please note that the photo is not meant to be arty; I just walked out of my front door, pressed the button on my camera and downloaded it. Looks nice though :)

Normal service will be resumed shortly. As you were...

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Free E-Day is here (and so is my story)!

Happy Free E-Day everyone! The best places to find free goodies are the official web-site and the Facebook group page. Please check them out, and download some interesting new writing!

And, as promised, you can download my story (for free!) by clicking here and following the links. At the moment, it's just a short story, but I have a lot of ideas in my head, so you never know; it may just be the first chapter of my first book ;)

Please support the cause, spread the word, and show everyone that good writing doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg!!!