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!!!

Sunday 29 November 2009

84 - 'The Woman in the Dunes' by Kobo Abe

As many of you probably know by now, I quite enjoy the odd Haruki Murakami work (no sniggering at the back), and it is through him that I got into Japanese literature in the first place. To find out a little more about the area, I joined a Facebook group, only to abandon it earlier this year. Why? Well, apart from the fact that I've become a tad bored with the superficiality of most Facebook groups, I got fed up of defending Murakami against a nameless (and, judging by their profile picture, faceless) individual who seemed to regard themself as a master of Japanese literature and who didn't consider Murakami to be a writer of literature at all.

Now, anyone is entitled to give an opinion, but I just got sick of the general, sweeping nature of the comments, the contradictory sense of certain remarks (Everyone in Japan thinks Murakami is a bad writer: he's only a popular writer...) and the lack of any recognition of the points made in favour of the great man. In fact, any negative comment made by anyone remotely more famous than... well, me, was treated as the final nail in the coffin of Murakami's reputation.

The only real positive contribution this phantom made to the discussion was to ask whether anyone had read any Kobo Abe, claiming that he was a great influence and (of course...) a much better writer than Murakami. All of which drags us (screaming and kicking) towards the actual point of today's post - and you doubted there was one -, Abe's classic novel 'The Woman in the Dunes'. Shall we?

School teacher, and amateur entomologist, Junpei Niki sets off on a holiday he has planned in secret to visit the coast and search for new kinds of insects which could make him famous. He stumbles across a small, run-down village and accepts the offer of accommodation for the night in a small hut, where the only occupant, a woman, is engaged in a never-ending battle against the sand which slips down onto the building from the steep embankment surrounding it. Only the next day does Junpei realise that the offer of a bed for the night was actually a lure into slavery: the walls of the embankment are too steep to climb unaided, and the villagers have no intention of helping him out...

A quote on my (Penguin Classics) copy describes the book as "A haunting Kafkaesque nightmare", and if Murakami is supposedly indebted to Abe, Abe must have taken a great deal of his inspiration from the Czech master (in particular from 'Der Prozess' or 'The Trial'). Just as Josef K. finds himself held against his will, unable to obtain a reason for his 'arrest', so too does Junpei struggle (in vain) to understand why is being held against his will. Where K.'s prison is psychological, in the sense that he is actually free to carry on his usual life and plan his defence from home, Junpei's is physical and, at least at first, impossible to escape from. However, later in the book, he too becomes trapped by his mind, and the physical barriers to escape become less important.

Although we are told his name, Junpei Niki is usually referred to as 'he' throughout the book while we are never told the woman's name. None of the (few) other characters in the book are named either, a deliberate, alienating tactic on the part of the author. However, there is one more major character (apparently especially vivid in the film version) and that is the ever present sand which forms the barrier to escape and gradually seeps into the hut, covering every surface with a fine layer of dust. In addition to its physical role, the sand also plays a more metaphorical role in the sense of the sands of time, ever-moving, ever-changing, burying things in the past with its slow, inexorable march across the dunes.

In this context, Junpei's plight can be seen as a struggle against everyday life. All of a sudden he is plunged into what is, essentially, a marriage, forced to live in a small home with a woman, granted the small essentials of everyday life by the strange villagers, but unable to survive without submitting to the drudgery of scooping sand into buckets to protect the house from burial. This 'domestic bliss' is contrasted with his gradual loss of interest in entomology, the reason for his visit to the coast in the first place. As the book progresses, the reader sees how his attitude changes from one of anger against his captors, to secret plans for escape, to sullen acceptance of the necessity of playing along, for the time being; each time he accepts something from the villagers (be it water, sake, newspapers, or sex...), he loses a little bit of his will to escape and begins to accept the inevitability of what is actually an unacceptable situation.

'The Woman in the Dunes' is a very powerful and intriguing book, and there are definite influences on Murakami's work to be found here. The anonymity is an obvious one , and the idea of ordinary people coming to terms with the extraordinary is another. However, that is not to say that Murakami is in any way derivative. I'm not sure how representative Junpei is of Abe's other characters, but he's definitely not the prototype for any of Murakami's laid-back characters (most of them would probably have found it quite relaxing down in the hole...). I'm not sold on the 'read Abe, and you'll see through Murakami' mantra.

A final note on parting: I haven't really talked much about the woman of the title, and that is deliberate. Firstly, Junpei is the main character, so I have focused on him, particularly in light of the parallels with both Josef K. and Murakami's heroes. Secondly, I would find it difficult to because the way she is handled is, in many ways, a little unsettling. Anyone who has lived in Japan would have seen how women are portrayed (graphically - both metaphorically and literally; see any Manga book...) in a sexual light. There is a tendency in Japanese culture for there to be a very fine line between aggressive courting and rape; anyone who feels especially strongly about this should be warned before they read this book (and they may well be less than well disposed towards Junpei for the behaviour he exhibits towards his new 'de facto').

Influences are useful to know about but do not render an artist's work any less interesting. Kafka (obviously) influenced Abe. Abe (definitely) influenced Murakami. All this means is that they are likely to be enjoyed by the same readers. Well, with one possible exception...

Thursday 26 November 2009

83 - 'Der Weg Zurück' by Erich Maria Remarque

In one of my recent posts, I talked about my experiences with German literature, but I probably didn't start quite at the beginning. In fact, as mentioned in an even earlier post, my experiences with German history began earlier, when I was studying Germany for my twentieth-century history class. A lot of the interest I have in German literature today stems from the reading I did at that time about the two World Wars and the events of the inter-war period.

When it comes to books about World War 1, one of the stand-out pieces of literature is Erich Maria Remarque's 'Im Westen Nichts Neues' (translated into English as 'All Quiet on the Western Front'), a book I reread last year. As a teenager, the title always confused me (until I found out it had been written by a German) as I couldn't work out where the British Army's Western front could have been during World War 1 (were we fighting the Welsh?!). Of course, this book relates the experiences of a young German soldier, Paul Bäumer, who skilfully sketches out what life was really like in the trenches.

'Der Weg zurück', although not a sequel in the strictest sense (unlikely for obvious - and heart-breakingly sad - reasons), continues the topic covered in the earlier novel, following another soldier from Bäumer's troop, Ernst Birkholz, from war to peace. As the 11th of the 11th finally arrives, the shattered and defeated German troops finally leave the mud and death of the trenches behind and make the way back (der Weg zurück) to Germany. However, the long-awaited cessation of hostilities and the break-out of peace do not take things back to normal, and before long Ernst and his 'Kameraden' are left wondering what is left for them back at home.

The title has a double meaning as the soldiers are seeking a way back not only literally (to Germany and their hometowns) but also metaphorically: after years of war, they attempt to fit back into their old lives. Unfortunately, this proves to be considerably more difficult than they had imagined. Smothered by families unable to understand what their sons and brothers actually went through in the trenches, patronised by teachers who expect the battle-hardened war machines to go back to being good little schoolboys, despised by patriotic politicians (who never went to war) for their lack of enthusiasm for songs of glory and revenge: eventually the soldiers return to the only support they feel they can trust in - their fellow soldiers.

Yet even here, things are not as they were. Where life in the trenches depended on one's ability to function under pressure and kill or be killed, back in peace-time Germany social status (worth nothing in Flanders) begins to rear its ugly head. Men who were afraid to talk to certain of their colleagues, in awe of their presence and 'warcraft', now look down upon those they previously venerated, money, education and status replacing calm under pressure and the ability to lob grenades accurately into a column of advancing British soldiers.

The tight-knit group of friends starts to crumble as they find different ways to cope with post-war life. Some choose marriage; some throw themselves into work; some take advantage of the chaotic political and legal situation to advance themselves either socially or financially; however, others are unable to cope and, after struggling to understand what they had been fighting for, succumb to their depression...

Just as in 'Im Westen Nichts Neues', Remarque has sketched here a remarkable portrait of what was happening on the German side of the war; the big difference in this book though is that it is highly political. The book was written in 1930/31, when Germany was once again beginning to think about 'The Great War' and justify steps to remedy the 'injustice' done to the country by the Treaty of Versailles. Near the end of the book, as Ernst and a few of his friends are relaxing in a meadow, a group of boys led by a scout leader (or Führer...) march by, dropping to the floor and pretending to blow the unsuspecting rabbits and bluebirds away with their walking sticks, temporarily metamorphosed into rifles. As one of the characters rightly pointed out earlier in the novel, "it's all happening again"...

Sadly, as we know, Remarque's comments were prescient. Hitler's elevation to President was only a couple of years away - as was the infamous burning of books in Berlin, at which both 'Im Westen Nichts Neues' and 'Der Weg Zurück' were condemned to the flames. Within a decade of the writing of this novel, the German people had once again plunged Europe (and most of the World) into a catastrophic, crippling war, which was to produce (amongst other things) its own generation of misfits unable to return to society.

Together, these two books tell the tale of what really happens at war and what effects it has on those who fight them when they finally come home. Over the past few decades, we have slowly come to understand more about the horrors of combat and rehabilitation. In Vietnam, the Falklands, Northern Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan... wherever there is bloodshed, there is misery and a generation of broken people. The sad thing is that despite the information left for us by Remarque almost eighty years ago, we still struggle to understand the problems soldiers have when they try to find their way back home.

Monday 23 November 2009

Free E-Day (1/12/09) - We Need You!!!

The rather nifty little picture to the left is the logo of Free E-Day, a wonderful idea which I am happy to be a part of.

What is it? Glad you asked...

Basically, this is a day on which we can celebrate the wonderful talent of people who are prepared to make their work available (electronically) for free! On the 1st of December (and, in many cases, beforehand), dozens of writers, bands, poets, artists etc. will make some of their work free to download. Stuff for free: brilliant!

The whole shebang is the brainchild of the, quite frankly, amazing Dan Holloway (or, as I call him, "The Man Who Needs No Sleep"), whose first novel, 'Songs from the Other Side of the Wall' was reviewed on this site a few months back (just in case the FBI are listening in, yes, Dan did send me a paper copy of the book, but only after I'd reviewed it - be gentle with the handcuffs). Among other goodies available on the day, you can download PDF versions of both 'Songs...' and his latest book, the written-in-chapters-on-Facebook novel, 'The Man Who Painted Agnieszka's Shoes'.

So where do you go to join in? Well, a couple of places to begin are the official web-site and the Facebook group, from which you can hop off to hundreds of interesting (virtual) addresses; if you live in Oxford (UK), there's even a live event - free, of course...

And my part? Well, aside from acting as Dan's personal pom-pom girl, I will be giving away a short story (my first work of fiction) for free. Hopefully, it's worth it... Anyone interested should check out my blog on the first of December and follow the link - just don't blame me if you don't like it ;)

So what are you waiting for? Check it out for yourself, and have fun discovering great new talent; you may even stumble across the next big thing! Here's a tip: it won't be me...

Friday 20 November 2009

82 - 'The God of Small Things' by Arundhati Roy

Books. The more of them you read, the more links you see between them. Presumably, if you manage to read all of them, you will become omniscient and be able to tease out the strands linking every piece of writing in creation to every other scrap of text. At least, that's what I imagine having a PhD in English Literature to be like.

The reason for this random short aside is that this is the third book I've read recently where important times in someone's life are contrasted, and the second in a row where the author has decided to play with time, dancing back and forth across the years like a yo-yo in a tutu (now there's an image). However, where 'The President's Last Love' used a fairly straightforward approach to this time-travel nonsense, keeping the stories fairly untangled and linear (well, as linear as its possible to get when you're telling three stories at once), 'The God of Small Things' switches between two main time periods but jumps back and forth repeatedly during the first, revealing, teasing, concealing, hinting. Oh, and it's bloody brilliant...

A bold statement, perhaps, and one which should be backed up by a postgraduate-level analysis of the themes and motifs, but, seeing as I just scraped a B for GCSE English Literature in the fifth form (simpler days - more football, less Shakespeare), that's not going to happen. In fact, as discussing the plot in any great depth would destroy the pleasure you would get from reading the novel, I'm not going to go too deeply into that either. So, as the majority of you start muttering and heading for the exit, what exactly am I going to talk about? Wait, I'll think of something.

'The God of Small Things' takes place at two different times in a small, rural Indian village, before and after a devastating event which destroys the family at the centre of the story. It deals with several important themes, but the main one is love (in particular who should and can be loved, and the effect it has on those around you). Choices made contrary to what Roy describes as the 'Love Laws' not only lead the participants into deep water, but also cause ripples which reverberate throughout th neighbourhood and overthrow the smooth sailing of everyday family life. Four relationships of differing types - three consummated, one platonic (and longer lasting)- test these rules about who can love and be loved and the consequences for breaking them. As you may have gathered, there aren't a lot of happy endings, and yet the ending is happy. It does make sense.

The consequences of the protagonists' action are not limited to the human participants of the story. One of the compelling features of the book is the way the sprawling house owned by the Kochamma family sinks from its bustling status into decrepitude and decay. The lack of hope in the family is transferred to the walls it lives in; dust piles up, insects invade and take over. The garden, freed from the strictures of its tenders, reverts to wild jungle, overgrowing paths and even claiming a car as its own.

At the same time, outside influences start to creep into traditional life, displacing local customs and subtly altering the villagers' way of life. The arrival of satellite television accelerates the decline of the household as the shattered old women abandon reality for reality TV. The travelling Kathakali dancers, forced to perform bastardised twenty-minute shows of six-hour classics for an ignorant, uncaring tourist audience, seek solace in private performances away from the visitors, wailing and twirling their way through the dark hours in front of whoever happens to be around (a story which reminded me of what happened in 'Dirty Dancing' - see, everything is linked to everything else...).

However, in lieu of actually discussing the plot, I'd like to look at another feature of both this book and the other Indian novels I've read this year, namely the language and the way it is manipulated. Language is intrinsically linked to culture and mentality, and it seems that Indian writers are able to use English in a very different way to that of 'native speakers'. Roy has written poetry, and the way she approaches her writing can be very poetical. Rahel and Estha, the child (and, later, adult) protagonists, are given titles with Capital Letters, Elvis the Pelvis, Ambassador Stick Insect, names which run through the novel, at times humorous, at others sad, juxtaposed with heart-rending events in their lives. She also captures the way children speak and understand their environment, running words together and breaking them up incorrectly (the Bar Nowl living in the pickling shed) and seizing upon misspellings and repeating them throughout, often to great effect. While this may not seem unique to Indian writers, I believe that writing in what is a second language forces Indian writers to think more about what they write, and the first-language influences they have behind them contribute to creating a rich, unique variety of English, sometimes silly, sometimes beautiful.

Well, I know I haven't given you much to go on, but (as you may have seen from the cover above) 'The God of Small Things' was the winner of the 1997 Booker Prize, so I'm obviously not alone in finding it a pleasant read. There's just one thing which annoys me about this book, and its author, and that's the fact that Roy hasn't written a novel since, preferring to write essays and works of non-fiction (is it just me, or is that incredibly selfish?). Of course, one way of looking at that is that there's no point trying again if you get it right first time out, and that is exactly what she did with this book. Those of you out there in the blogosphere who haven't read this novel should seriously think about adding it to your list for Father Christmas. It is very, very good.

Tuesday 17 November 2009

Not mentioning the war...

The photo you see to the left is a little souvenir from my time in Germany, now (unbelievably) over a decade ago, and this little pennant is serving as an introduction to the next in my series of posts on my reading interests and influences. More on the pennant later...

I was introduced to German (by which I mean literature written in German, not just books from Germany) when studying the language for A-Level. We had a small class (only five people - there were six, but one girl did the test lessons at the end of the fifth year and promptly chickened out), which allowed us to discuss the books we were studying in more depth (and which even led to our finishing our A-Level revision at our teacher's house over tea and chicken soup!). The first book we read, 'Der Richter und sein Henker' by the Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt, was a marvellous literary crime novel and is still one of my favourite books today. Along with this novel, we read Hans Fallada's 'Kleiner Mann, was nun?', Max Frisch's play 'Andorra' and Brecht's 'Mutter Courage', and, for me, it was a revelation that it was possible to read novels in a foreign language (albeit very slowly and with the aid of a dictionary) and enjoy them.

I read some more works in an ill-fated (and ill-advised) attempt to get into Oxford, but the next lot of reading came when I started my Bachelor's degree at Leeds University. The first year was fairly easy (Leeds had been wonderful enough to choose most of my previous books for the first-year set-text list), so it wasn't until the second year that I got into some new works. As well as diving further into Dürrenmatt with 'Der Verdacht', 'Das Versprechen' and his famous play 'Der Besuch der Alten Dame', I was also introduced to Kafka in the form of 'Die Verwandlung' ('The Metamorphosis').

On finally moving to Germany, firstly during my third year, for what was loosely described as 'study' (but can more truthfully be described as drinking, sleeping and playing football with the Dutch boys down the corridor), and later for work (although at that early stage, my 'work' consisted mainly of my giving German businessmen something to read and then getting them to chat about it in pairs), I discovered that it's difficult to keep up a good reading regime when you don't actually earn very much money (and have no idea where the local library is). It is to this situation that I owe the pleasure of possessing a small collection of cheap German chick-lit and a translated Agatha Christie omnibus. Ouch.

Now I work at a big university with a lovely little second-hand book shop, and it is here that I discovered my next big German author, Heinrich Böll. The Nobel prize committee did discover him in 1972, but (to be fair) I wasn't alive then. Better late than never...

If you have been waiting patiently for me to tell you why I like German books, I'm afraid you're going to be disappointed; I really can't say. Part of my reason for reading them stems from not wanting to lose the language proficiency I had built up to a reasonably high level by the time I left in 1999 while another reason is to see life from a different perspective. Damn, didn't want to mention it... You see, a lot of my reading has been from the twentieth century, and anyone with a passing interest in history (or just the Earth in general) will know that this period lends itself to certain themes in German lit. Whether it's the futility of war portrayed in Remarque's 'Im Westen nichts neues' ('All Quiet on the Western Front'), the attraction of the Nazis to a struggling family man in 'Kleiner Mann was nun?', the difficulties of surviving the war at home in Böll's 'Gruppenbild mit Dame' or the absurdity of Nazi sympathisers being able to transform themselves into solid, democratic citizens in post-war times ('Ansichten eines Clowns', 'Billard um halbzehn'): it's difficult not to mention the war...

Still, enough of that for now. Give a German book a go and you won't regret it (and if you do, don't blame me). Oh, you want to hear about the pennant; I'd almost forgotten about that. You see, one of my other passions is football, and I spent two seasons playing for the fourth team of my local club, making some good friends along the way. When it was finally time for me to move on and leave Germany for good, I packed up my things and walked down to the train station to get the NRW-Express to Düsseldorf airport. When I got to the platform, I found four of my team-mates who had come along to say goodbye, and one of them presented me with this pennant from our football club as a final present (in addition to the parties and barbecues we'd had as formal farewells). It now hangs just to the side of where I am writing this post as a reminder of the times I had back in Germany; perhaps as a reminder as to why I continue to read German books.

Wednesday 11 November 2009

81 - 'The President's Last Love' by Andrey Kurkov

As mentioned in an earlier post, I came across this book at a campus book sale a while back, and it has been sitting patiently on my Russian/Chinese shelf for the past two-and-a-bit months, waiting for me to get around to reading it. I now have absolutely no idea where I got good vibes about the work of Andrey Kurkov, a Ukrainian author who writes about his home country (but in Russian), but it must have been somewhere I trust as I had no hesitation in snapping up this novel when I spotted it.

The story follows the life of Sergey Pavlovich Bunin, by 2013 President of Ukraine, through three different stages of his life: as a young man drifting through the last days of the Soviet era and the first of his country's new found independence; as a successful government official attempting to start a family; and, finally, as a President recovering after an operation to insert a new heart. Nothing unusual there, you might think - you'd be wrong...

For starters, these three stories are not told consecutively, but simultaneously. The book consists of over 215 chapters, each lasting a page or two, most of which tell Bunin's story in alternating sequence. Thus, in the space of a few pages, the reader will see Bunin sleeping off an alcohol-induced rush in a Kiev police cell, flying off to Switzerland with his wife, his (mentally-ill) brother and his (equally mentally-ill) wife, and attempting to run the country with the help (or hindrance) of his manic and, quite possibly, suspicious assistant Nikolai Lvovich. Got all that? It takes a while to get your head around the constant flicking back and forth through time, but once you do, it helps to create a complete picture of the President and how he came to make it that far.

The book centres on Bunin's heart transplant and the problems it causes. Little by little, strange details are revealed about the procedure, an operation which seems to have been carried out with ulterior motives behind it. However, this cat-and-mouse detective story is merely a bizarre and humorous backdrop to the sketching out of a public life lived behind (and after) the Iron Curtain.

In the first strand, we follow Bunin through the streets of Kiev, drifting (but with nowhere to go), numbing the boredom of his days with copious amounts of alcohol and attempting to deal with the petty bureaucracy, widespread corruption and accommodation issues which plagued the communist world. In the second, Bunin must now walk the tightrope which is the lot of all ambitious politicians in democracies which are not quite living up to their names. In addition to attempting to balance private and public spheres, he has to negotiate the tricky playing field of corruption and bribery while keeping as clean as possible. By the final strand, having been elected as President, his standing seems safe, and he is, literally, master of all he surveys. However, the stress he experiences forces him to seek peace anywhere he can find it (including his nice big bathroom) and to look back and wonder if it was all worth it.

Bunin is a likeable character, a very sociable drinker (by Eastern European standards - by Western measures, he'd be off to rehab), a man who looked for success and love and only really found one. It's a pleasure to read about his alcohol-fuelled escapades and attempts to subdue his presidential staff (and locate his stolen Ottoman couch). Having said all that, this book fell between two stools for me. The writing was good, but not extraordinarily special while the plot was interesting, but not intriguing enough to carry the reader's attention for the whole journey. In fact, about two-thirds of the way through, I thought the story was about to take a whole new direction - only to be disappointed when the resolution turned out to be less intricate than (and nowhere near as exciting as) the one in my head. Where this book works best is when concentrating on the pathos of Bunin's lonely life at the top. The image of a national leader reduced to snatching five minutes of privacy in his bathroom, drinking whiskey while gazing out of his window at the fog-enveloped monuments of his national capital is the one I will take from this book.

In short, this didn't quite hit the spot but would be, nevertheless, a very enjoyable read for anyone with an interest in matters Eastern European, slightly left of centre, or just soaked in vodka. I hope that makes sense... I'd like to read Kurkov's most famous novel now - 'Death and the Penguin' -, mainly because I don't think there are enough good novels starring penguins, and I am assured that the penguin has a major role in this one.

I'll keep you posted.

Saturday 7 November 2009

80 - 'A Wild Sheep Chase' by Haruki Murakami

So now we come to Murakami's first 'real' book, his first real novel, and the first one available in English without resorting to Amazon and internet searches for pirated PDFs. 'A Wild Sheep Chase' is the third book in 'The Trilogy of the Rat' and marks the first time that Murakami painted his views, themes and slightly bizarre imagination on a wider canvas. The first time I read this book, I think I must have been suffering from Murakami overload as I remember the story dragging a little. On a second reading, this was a superb story.

Our old nameless friend (whom, as regular readers will know, I decided to nickname 'Toru' - for the sake of convenience...) is now approaching thirty and is still working with his friend in their company, which has branched out from translation into advertising. In the five years which have elapsed since 'Pinball, 1973', Toru has married (possibly the secretary introduced in the previous book) and recently divorced, leaving him at a crossroads in his life. His good friend The Rat has recently made contact by letter for the first time since leaving their hometown five years ago and has sent Toru, amongst other things, a picture of a sheep farm, asking him to use it at some point. And then, one day, things take a turn for the... well, the only word for it would be weird.

Without giving too much away, the rest of the book involves a girl with the most beautiful ears in the world, a henchman of one of the most successful businessmen (and exerters of political influence) in the country, a strange hotel (where sheep are the main topic of discussion) and the enigmatic Sheepman (whotalkslikethisfornoapparentreasonthaticanthinkof). And that's without mentioning the sheep who may be looking to control the world...

It sounds crazy, and it quite possibly is, but the whole scenario is grounded by the everyman central character arbitrarily known as Toru. As a reader, we experience the events of the novel, the mundane and the extraordinary, through the eyes of an average Japanese man, disillusioned by life and the modern world. While the things that happen to him seem incredible, the reality is that, presented in the way they are, any of us would probably approach them in the same way.

Toru, in effect, has nothing to lose. As he says, once he makes the decision to quit his company, he has nothing to hold him down: no wife, no job, no hometown. His decision to go on, what is literally, a wild-sheep chase, is unsurprising given his situation in life and could even be a very attractive proposition for those of us who have left the globetrotting days of our twenties behind us. This quest for the sheep with the star on its back is also a search for a way to return to the carefree days of his youth, an attempt (an excuse even) to find The Rat again and go back to the good old days where the two of them sat for nights at a time at the counter of J's bar, talking about nothing and drinking way too much.

The search for the sheep is also a reaction against the modern world and its obsession with consumerism. Since taking on the added work in advertising, Toru has felt unhappy, and his partner has started drinking too much. The world has moved on from the simpler times of Toru's childhood (indeed, in his hometown, even the beach has moved on as the town has reclaimed land from the sea!), leaving him feeling at odds with the world he is now living in. Several scenes in the book, including his musical tastes, show that Toru has a strong sense of nostalgia and struggles to adapt to a modern, commercial environment.

One example of this is the way he interacts with the smooth-talking, highly-educated, well-dressed sidekick of the big boss. This is the classic encounter of capitalist success versus suburban mediocrity (and any casual Murakami fan will know which one the great man prefers...). The man in the suit represents everything which is bad with capitalism, everything which renders the common man paralysed in his dealings and comfortably numb in his everyday life. By standing up to him and taking him on, even at the expense of his livelihood, Toru represents all of us in our struggles to be more than just a statistic contributing to GDP (especially poignant to many readers and bloggers who are more concerned about quality of life than quality of furniture).

And the sheep (yes, there is a sheep)? Don't quote me on this, but I feel the sheep represents ambition and a drive to be as successful (as opposed to happy) as one can be. I'm not going to expand on this (I don't want to spoil the book for you); I just think that the sheep represents the driving force behind the ideology which Toru and The Rat are obviously so uncomfortable with.

But, of course, there is no Toru; this is just a name I chose (not entirely randomly) to represent a character whose name we never learn. This trick of generalising his characters, either by a lack of names or by spelling their names in the katakana syllabary (usually reserved for foreign loanwords), is a deliberate attempt on Murakami's part to make his 'heroes' as universal as possible. Our main man makes this quite clear himself in 'A Wild Sheep Chase': in a conversation with his girlfriend, he claims not to really need names - he, you, they, are all you really need. Before you scoff - how often do you actually use your partner's name (at least in their presence)...

'The Trilogy of the Rat' technically ends with this book (which, in case you hadn't realised, I now think is brilliant), but Murakami obviously wasn't quite finished with his first group of characters. Our friend returns one more time in 'Dance, Dance, Dance', a novel which I enjoyed immensely the first time I read it and one which I am planning to read before the end of the year. So here's an idea: why don't you come back in a month or so, and I'll tell you all about it? Agreed? See you then...

Thursday 5 November 2009

79 - 'The Temple of Dawn' by Yukio Mishima

Well, we're three-quarters of the way through 'The Sea of Fertility' series; the end is in sight. Whether there's an answer in sight is another question altogether. 'The Temple of Dawn' is a very different book to its predecessors ('Spring Snow' and 'Runaway Horses'), not only in its settings but also in the focus on character and Buddhist theology. Let me explain further...

The third book of the series begins in 1940 in Bangkok, where our old friend, Shigekuni Honda, is working on behalf of a Japanese trading company. Either side of a mystical trip to India (where he visits a couple of the locations described in 'A Suitable Boy' - only a decade or so earlier!), Honda is taken to meet a Thai Princess, the daughter of one of the Princes he knew during his school days. Of course, it's not as simple as all that; you see, Princess Chantrapa, or 'Ying Chan', claims to be the reincarnation of a Japanese man...

After his return to Japan (and glossing nicely over the war years), Honda is disturbed in his relaxed and successful life by a further encounter with Ying Chan, now a seductive nineteen-year-old exchange student who has forgotten about her youthful claims of former lives. He struggles to balance two counteracting emotions in his life: his desire for the young woman's body and his belief in reincarnation coupled with his link to Kiyoake and Isao. Is Ying Chan really who she once claimed to be?

As mentioned, one of the major differences in this book is the focus on Honda. Where, in the first two parts, he was the foil to Kiyoaki and Isao and a sort of entry point for the reader, in 'The Temple of Dawn' he is drawn out as a major character, and the results are not always flattering. His success in his work has allowed him to indulge in his hobby of reading Buddhist tracts, and a later stroke of fortune enables him to retreat into his private world. However, the more he steps back into his cocoon, the more his energies start to go in other directions. We are told of (and shown) his penchant for voyeurism, and his pursuit of the young Thai princess, while starting innocently enough, becomes increasingly desperate as the novel progresses.

The timescale of the story, stretching from 1940 to 1953 (with a postscript in 1967), also contributes to the change Mishima makes his subject undergo. His financial success seems inversely linked to his physical appearance; as Honda passes through the autumn of his life, we are exposed to his growing stomach, his shrinking muscles, his troublesome teeth. In this context, the nubile, lithe, tanned body of his obsession stands out all the more.

Honda's obsession is all the more consuming as it is linked to his past. He swings between his lust and his desire to find out whether or not Ying Chan is the reincarnation of his friends. In fact, this fact is to be the deciding factor in his decision as to whether or not to sleep with the Princess (a decision which is not really his to make).

It is a little unfair to compare 'The Temple of Dawn' with the first two books, but I never claimed to be fair. This book does not have the poetic beauty of 'Spring Snow' or the fiery anger and passion of 'Runaway Horses', and there are some issues with the story. As you will read in any review of this book, the long section on reincarnation tends to stop the reader dead in their tracks; the theological discussions act like a giant pool of quicksand, sucking the reader down and draining them of their reading energy. Yes, reincarnation is the central theme of the tetralogy, but a quick summary here and there would have sufficed...

Once past this (looooooong) discussion, however, the story does pick up, Once you realise that Honda is the star of the show and that Ying Chan is merely the foil for his character development, the book becomes much more enjoyable. We experience with him the frustrations of his life and his regrets for the conventional way he has lived it so far. Unlike Kiyoaki and Isao, his actions are not underpinned by the beauty and dynamism of youth, and, therefore, seem tawdry and out of place. Nevertheless, the reader stays with him to the fiery and (in some ways) unexpected crescendo, an ending which sets up the final part of the series. And, of course, Mishima's life. Drop by in December for the conclusion...