Wednesday 12 December 2012

3 in 1

Oh deary me, having just checked my posting history, I found that my last update was a month ago on 11/11/12… That’s no way to cultivate a blog. It probably doesn’t help that the last month has been a time of change for me, but even so, I really didn’t think it had been that long since a post.

Right, so straight down to business.

In the last few months I’ve read several books worthy of reviewing. And I keep meaning to give them all their own posts, but have failed. So to ensure that my move into 2013 is not going to be weighed down with a long list of To-Do’s from 2012, I think I will give a brief review of each below, and then endeavour to move along.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami

A weird and wonderful book about a man deserted by his wife. This was my first Murakami and I absolutely devoured it. There are brutal scenes of awful violence (just to warn anyone) from the war in Japan and these are mixed with the alienation of the central character from the world around him. I would guess that critics generally say that the escalation of violence in the novel represents the estrangment from society. But to me it felt more like an important part of modern history which runs just below the surface of life in modern Japan.

My friend who lent it to me recommended it by saying that I would want to go and sit at the bottom of a well after reading it. Suffice to say she was right. Read it, really, read it.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

I was turned onto this book by the review, which I can no longer find anywhere! At any rate, it was a really interesting read.

A researcher heads out to the Amazon in search for her missing professor who has been researching specific new drugs. Once there though, things become much more complicated.

This is a difficult book to discuss without giving away large chunks of the plot. I’m trying to write carefully here.

The researcher finds herself with a tribe in the Amazonian rainforest where women are fertile until death. The questions this particular issue raises I found were poignant and stayed with me long after finishing the book. It is written as something of a mystery story, which kept me hooked and turning pages up until the very end.

I liked the writing even if the book itself seemed very plot driven (which isn’t normally my style). And I’ll be looking out for Ann Patchett again.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

I should have read this book a long time ago. And I didn’t. But I picked it up in a bookshop in September, with a vow to finally do so.

I’ve heard it mentioned in critical literature on gender identity whilst studying for my Masters, and so I had some inkling of the issues to be raised. I was also quite curious as to the reaction to the portrayal of Cal from the transgender community, and so have since read up on that as well online. I think what I’m trying to say is that, unlike my normal reviews, this one is entered into knowing some of the problems caused by Eugenides’ creation.

The story opens in a very self-reflexive way, invoking the power of the Muses to help Cal tell his/her history. If you do not like epic tales (a la Salman Rushdie or Guenter Grass) then this is probably not a book for you – at least this is what I think the opening is trying to tell you! (I for one liked the beginning)

Then the problems start.

Eugenides creates Cal by having his/her grandparents commit incest. I guess Eugenides at this point was more interested in including a small Greek community in the drama (where his roots are as well) than in pacifying all the critics of the book. I’m sure it could be argued that incest is such a taboo subject that however it is included there will be a gut reaction of disgust from the readers. All the same, I can see the critics’ point that it does to some extent demonise hermaphrodites as the product of this union.

If we can ignore this argument briefly, I did enjoy the section in Greece and coming to America. The depiction of the industrial age in American history was excellent. The epic nature of the book really comes home at this point – it does feel necessary for Eugenides’ story to move from the birthplace of tragedy to the great arena of the American Dream – I can really understand the story arch at this point.

I’m not sure quite whether the final sections of the book work quite as well. Obviously an analysis with a doctor is crucial to the plot (in New York) and Cal’s subsequent flight is fully understandable, but the steam has somewhat gone out of the book’s sails. With the reader aware from the outset that Cal is now living in Berlin, identifying as a man (due to the narrative itself being at times told from Berlin), the final coda from Berlin, feels not quite so perfectly timed as the rest.

Having read the biography of Eugenides’ (who also lived in Berlin) I felt that he had a built a story around his own circumstances as much as possible, and then fed into that the gender identity question. Maybe this is a successful technique for a writer who is not transgender to engage with this question. I think it was probably necessary for him. That doesn’t stop me feeling as if the story was slightly stilted by it. And then combined with the returning problem that I have with the creation of Cal from incest, this stopped me enjoying the book as much as I could have done.

The book was convention breaking, a real first for the mass market, for that reason I really recommend it. But readers should be aware of its limitations. A much more convincing look at the intersex debate (and the awful operations performed until very recently) can be found in “Mitgift” by Ulrike Draesner. But that’s just my personal opinion.

Sunday 11 November 2012

German literature November - again!

I should be continuing my job applications, but actually I’m going to post for German Literature Month run by the lovely Caroline and Lizzy – you can sign up here.

Per chance I actually started a German book last night, so despite the fact that I hadn’t logged onto the blogosphere for sometime, I hopefully will continue to complete the month.


  • Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (The lost honour of Katharina Blum) by Heinrich Böll
I bought this before my holiday in September, with the intention of reading it, but have not as yet got round to doing so. I’m really looking forward to getting into some Böll as I’ve not read anything by him.

  • Die Mittagsfrau by Julia Franck (Blindness of the heart - gosh what a weird title?)
OK, so I have actually already started this, albeit several months ago. That’s probably not a good sign, but in my defence I am trying to read the German version, and it’s not exactly bedtime reading. BUT I’m gonna do it. I will complete it by the end of the month!

Turns round in living room to look at bookshelf…hmmm…what else could I read in the next 2/3 weeks?

  • Der Mauerspringer by Peter Schneider
This also came to my shelves at the same time as the Böll with the intention of taking it on holiday. I really love Berlin though, and especially history about the DDR, so this has to be read.

Aiming to read:
Ok so if I’m feeling ambitious, these others might get a look in…

Some Kafka…. I have a large collection of his short stories on my shelf which is untouched and this is a crime. I will endeavour to read a few.

I have a nice translation of some Fontane short stories which I also might dip into. Esp. having loved Effi last year.

I think that’s probably enough of good intentions for now. Let’s see how it goes! Would love to hear what others think about German Literature Month.

ARGO review

So last night I went on my own to see Ben Affleck's "ARGO", and for once I want to make some comments on here. This space is intended for everything, even though so far I've only posted book reviews!

Really enjoyable and both funny and tense/gripping. The thing about it is, the material is necessarily good because it is based on a true story. And that led me to wondering how come the critics in general have said that Affleck is a good director?

The CIA help rescue Americans from Iran after the revolution when Iranians hated the US for refusing to send back the Shah. The bravery of all those involved is exceptional. What touched me wasn't how good the movie is (like for example a Batman film, or an Indie one like Juno), but rather, if even only a fraction is true,
what those poor people went through is absolutely incredible. The film made me forget about the actual hostages, who were kept for 444 days... and instead I was totally hooked by those 6 trying to escape.

Affleck lets the power of the story shine through, and I think that's the most important job of a director. You could argue that this should be easy, but I think that is underestimating how hard it is to make a compelling story come to life and have drama/tension/comedy on screen. I can guess where there was additional padding added for Hollywood, but quite honestly that doesn't bother me.

I saw this at the Tyneside Cinema which really gave the film something special. In the small Roxy theatre (max. 70 people I'd guess?) you feel attached and free with the small audience. Extra leg room and reclined seats come as standard, as does the generally great atmosphere. I always laugh out loud so much there.

Friday 12 October 2012

The scandal of mental health

Tender is the night
F Scott Fitzgerald

I will declare to start with: I picked this book because in a film I saw recently (the Squid and the Whale, very good actually, very moving breakdown of a marriage and the kids) the rather annoying university professor father goes on rather a lot about how it is The Classic by Fitzgerald.  And because I am drawn to such descriptions, I decided to try for myself.
I understand from glancing through the introduction by the academic (a strange economics based introduction actually) that there seems to be some dispute about the order of the text, but I know no more than this. Obviously that will have a massive impact on the first reading of the novel, and probably on my interpretation, but because I’d rather draw my own conclusions (and review) of the book first, I will leave Googling all of that until I have written this blog entry.

The plot revolves around an American couple in the French Riviera. They adopt a young American girl into their group, who has become a bit famous through some movies but is still very young, and then we follow this couple back through their own history and forwards into the future as their marriage breaks down. The young starlet leaves them behind and moves on with her career in the film industry, but her first love is always the husband, Dick. There’s a lot of discussion about the wealth of the wife’s family and Dick’s non-wealthy background.  And more importantly, the book dramatizes how Dick met his wife whilst he was a doctor at a mental retreat in Switzerland. Yes, that is it actually openly discusses mental health and the scandal of it.

The relationship between husband and wife is brilliantly drawn, and the book has sufficient breadth to show the picture over a longer time span. The depiction of the wife is convincing, as is the slow spread into middle age of Dick’s ambition, spark and intellect. It almost appears as she goes up he goes down in the world (see here for reference the disturbing film Poppy Shakespeare, which I saw on Channel 4 a few years ago, and which I can never forget).

The style of writing is sparse and beautiful. I had honestly forgotten how lyrically Fitzgerald writes, and it made quite a change to the previous book I’d been reading where I was so desperate to find out what happened that I read at breakneck speed. I found myself having to slow my reading speed here, just to account for one word I’d missed that gave the whole meaning to a sentence.

A few quibbles
I felt the focus drifted in parts of the book – why does the starlet open the novel, but then come to nothing really?
Is it me, or is it incredibly racist? The depiction of the blacks, including a savage murder at one point, left me queasy.

Thursday 19 April 2012

Téa Obreht – The Tiger’s Wife

For some reason, April has been a rather quick month. Checking my blog posts, I realised today with horror that my last entry was 25th March. Aiming to leave somewhere around 1-2 weeks between posts, I hadn’t noticed that now we are at 19th APRIL and I still have 3-4 books that I want to review before April reaches its wet conclusion.

I say wet because, despite the hosepipe ban in the South of England, Newcastle is cold and wet right now. What better excuse to stay inside and work on my blog!

In all honesty I think I read The Tiger’s Wife in February or early March, but I wanted to give it a bit of time to settle in my head, and to see what other friends thought of it. Maybe I’ve now given it a bit too much time, but I’ll try harder next time. The first thing that struck me was the age of its author. She was born in 1985, which is only a year older than me, and yet she wrote this book that won the Orange Prize in 2011. Her photo in my library’s copy of the book is of a cute-faced blonde who really could be any age between 16 and 27.

I feel I have to declare: I like imagination in a book. I enjoyed Garcia Marquez and his craziness; I loved Bulgakow’s The Master and Margarita (interestingly in an amazing stage production at theBarbican last month). The Tiger’s Wife is beautiful in that respect – it tries to show the relationship between humans and animals, and at the centre of this are the wife and the tiger. I don’t want to go into the plot too much, because that actually worked for me. The observations of the villagers and their life in the village are great too. The novel has two or three different strands: the story with the tiger; the modern story of the granddaughter; and the story of the grandfather and the deathless man. For me, these just didn’t quite gel. It felt inexperienced somehow. Maybe this was due to the mixture of time periods. It kept me going right until the end, but I didn’t come away feeling I knew anybody in the story any better. Perhaps it was the mixture of the epic family saga and the short novel form with its fantastical elements.

I would however read other things by Obreht. It has taught me to watch out for her, because if she were to produce a more substantial work, that would be a killer. What did other people think? Was this the right choice forlast year’s Orange?

Sunday 25 March 2012

Jenseitsnovelle/Next World Novella

The premise seems familiar from the abundance of police thrillers on our screens: A man comes in to find his wife sitting at his desk, looking beautiful, but as he moves closer we all realise that the figure at the desk is in fact dead.  Here the similarities with all those TV dramas end.  Instead of collapsing with grief or calling some sort of official, the husband finds himself reading the last words she was writing.  Words of recrimination, words condemning him.  Notes in the margin of an old manuscript from the beginning of a novel of his.  The husband is compelled to read and he cannot ignore it or answer back:

„Es half nichts, er mußte lesen.  Gut, er hätte vielleicht erst einmal die Kinder benachrichtigen sollen.  Doch kam es auf ein paar Minuten jetzt noch an?  Gut, er hätte einen Arzt holen müssen, damit der den Totenschein ausstellte. (...)  Und dann wäre ja wirklich alles vorbeit gewesen (.)“
/  “It didn’t help, he had to read.  Yes, perhaps he should have called the children first.  But were a few minutes going to make a difference now?  Yes, he should have fetched a doctor to write the death certificate. (…)  But then everything would truly be over (.)”  (my translation)

It is a dark novella, full of Kleistian questions of the ability to communicate truly with another human being.  The couple both studied Ancient Chinese philosophy and so there are also questions about the afterlife and belief.  Images of an eternal lake we all have to cross once we go are used by the late wife.  Unfortunately one of the weaknesses of the English title is that it just cannot capture the beauty of the German word “Jenseits”, meaning the far side, the beyond.
It is a novella concerned with death as the end of a relationship.  The husband can no longer communicate, and feels his early novel has been misunderstood as relating to his own promiscuity.  He cannot convince his wife Doro of this though because she took the facts in her own interpretation and then passed away.
Not for the faint-hearted, but necessary reading.

Sunday 18 March 2012

The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna

This has to be one of the best books I read last month.  It does have tough competition what with Snow Crash and American Gods having made such an impression on me.  It centres on life in Sierra Leone after the civil war and it isn't for the faint-hearted.  The thing about its violence, in comparison with trashy thrillers or even Sci-Fi, is that it has all actually happened in Sierra Leone.  That's the heartbreaking part of it.

We follow an English psychologist who has volunteered overseas, despite having a wife and daughter back home.  He is that typical foreigner, invading a developing country after a war or flood or catastrophe with the idea of "helping" who is resented by the locals, and whose small amount of work can barely make a difference to the thousands suffering there.  He seems to be working through his own problems rather than truly helping.  But then what else can he do?

Adrian, the psychologist, connects with an old, dying man in the hospital who wishes to tell his life story.  You can see from the outset though that this is a story of his own devising, and there are gaping holes in his version of events.  In a somewhat cliche fashion, Adrian also falls in love with a local woman, who turns out to the be estranged daughter of the old man.  I'm not sure what I think about the twists of the plot.  It all fits so neatly, even when the most gruesome details are being discussed.  But maybe that makes it all the more effective, because we can anticipate what is going to happen - there is a limited cast of characters and they are all interconnected.  The one I haven't mentioned so far is Kai, a surgeon at the hospital and befriender of Adrian, who has his own past which he is trying to bury.

I read this on my trip to Germany a month ago, and given that I am still thinking about it, I think that means it really moved me.  I will definitely be looking out for more books by Aminatta Forna...

Sunday 11 March 2012

Happy Birthday 6 Music!

Am having a lovely Sunday enjoying the wonderful BBC Six Music and its celebrations for having been on air for 10 years.  I'll admit, I'm a fairly late convert to 6 Music, I only started listening in 2009/2010 when they were threatened with closure.  That basically coincided with the Christmas when I asked for a digital radio...  It's been such an eye opener to good music from all over the place.  I probably now listen to it just as often as Radio 3. 
So here's to another 10 years!

Wednesday 7 March 2012

OOohh :-) American Gods by Neil Gaimon

Now I’ve started with this book reviewing thing, the list of books I need to review is rapidly expanding, and yet I haven’t yet posted another review.  Well I guess, given that it’s the weekend and I have some spare time, I should remedy that.

So I discovered, or rather finally explored, the rather wonderfully shiny City Library in Newcastle a week or so ago.  It’s a new glass building with 3 floors, and as a friend of mine commented, on first glance you can’t see any books.  Well after further investigation, they definitely are there!  The fiction section seemed quite small to me, and so when I started searching for something specific (Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, review imminent, following my trend of classic sci-fi), I first checked online whether they had it.  Turned up, couldn't find it, and asked a librarian, who went to a special backroom to find it.  Amazing!  I mean I can see why that copy wasn't on's rather old and battered and is a boring hardback without a decent cover.  I just got so excited by the idea that they had more books in storage somewhere...  It's like the University Library all over again - a secret chamber of hidden books, that only the librarians get to see, unless you are lucky enough to work out how to use the catalogue and request one.  Anyway, I picked up Fahrenheit 451 and The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht at the City Library just after I came back from my trip to Germany a few weeks ago, where I had devoured American Gods by Neil Gaiman.  So, review...

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

We meet and follow an ex-con as he tries to come to terms with the death of his wife.  He travels around the States, getting mixed up with a bunch of gods.  That is, the old gods, the ones that came over with all the different settlers from around the world.  Mainly the ones we focus on are the old European gods who are waging war on the new gods, the gods America itself has created.  But by the end we have also met Indian gods, gods of technology and communication, gods of the moon and the stars.

Crazy things happen.  Shadow (that's the main character, good name actually) learns to see the world in a different way, meets his dead wife, solves a murder that has been recurring for decades...  And I followed it.  The crazy suspension of disbelief, which practically starts from the first chapter, just keeps on going because I believed in Shadow.  He was real and those gods were real.  Can you imagine being dragged to a new country, adored, and then put aside?  Well, yes actually, that sounded exactly right for the consumerist culture of today.  And it's all interspersed with short chapters about the history of other gods, so that we're not trapped with Shadow the whole time.  I swallowed it whole, just like the female god does to a man in one of the chapters.


The first I'd heard of Neil Gaiman was a friend raving about Neverwhere, and then another friend claiming he just couldn't get anywhere with American Gods - had started it and floundered.  Well I guess this might not be a book for everyone.  But if you like journeys, epic books, thoughts that will stay with you long after the memory of the plot has gone (slightly true of me honestly, as my short review above will testify), then read this.  If you are completely plot driven, I can see how you might flounder...

Sunday 26 February 2012

Back to the blog…

Time has come for a new start for me, and some new hobbies, of which this blog shall be one.  February has always been such a grey month, wherever I've been, that I feel it needs to have some life injected into it. 

I surprised myself when I wrote a top list of things to do this weekend (on a long train journey) and WRITING came it at number 2:
  1. Work to live
  2. Write
  3. Exercise and eat well
So in that vein, I guess I should post a book review...

Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson 
Now I realise I've come to Sci-Fi rather late.  My first H.G.Wells was only last year, ditto Asimov.  I like to think this is all because I wasn't really aware of Sci-Fi, but if I'm honest, I judge books in libraries by their covers.  I get put off by Romantic faces, or anything that looks like a Horror or a Thriller.  And also Sci-Fi.  Similarly, I hate to put a book down when it's no good or hasn't grabbed me.  And so I stick to things I know I'll like...

In this case my friend, whose book recommendations are sound, had raved about this before, and so when I was visiting her and we entered a bookshop, I ended up buying it.  A decision I definitely did not regret.
Despite the huge differences of the universe which Stephenson creates, I was hooked from the beginning by the thrill of the character, “The Deliverator”, who fills the first chunk as we follow him delivering pizzas.  The rampaging plot leads from this Mafia pizza enterprise to his life as Hiro Protagonist, a hacker in what Stephenson calls the “Metaverse”, i.e. the world of virtual reality created on the internet.  The female lead, in the form of “Y.T.”, a 15-year-old skateboard courier, bears no small resemblance to the heroine of Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy – although obviously I realise that this probably came the other way round, as Snow Crash was published in ’92.  Y.T. bumps into Hiro by chance whilst he is failing to deliver a pizza and saves his skin, earning herself points with the Mafia for doing so.  The plot then veers off into and out of the cyberspace Metaverse, incorporating the critique of the modern consumerist era, a powerful hatred of mega-monopolies and a CIA which pays hackers such as Hiro for information that they then use against the citizens in this anarchic state.

I guess you could criticise the proliferance of violence, but in all honesty this is balanced by the mythic plotline.  Stephenson has Hiro investigating ancient gods in order to find the source of the drug Snow Crash.  This leads us into a beguiling world where the brains of hackers are considered to be wired differently to others.

It is breathtaking in its details: the chapter where we follow Y.T.’s mother at her work at the CIA, with its minuscule descriptions of how long she is meant to take to read a staff bulletin…  I was swept along on the heady rush of this alternative universe, leading me to finish the book all too quickly.  Suffice to say, I will definitely be investigating more classic Sci-Fi in the future.