Monthly Archives: August 2010

The shelf.

Ok, so I made the big mistake of glancing over at that buckling shelf next to my bed which couldn’t possibly hold another piece of dust, let alone another book that I really should read! It used to be that a position on this shelf meant imminent consumption by me, the reader. But, over the last however long, perhaps since I’ve started to sink into digital reading spaces, I have been seriously neglecting this shelf and I can’t imagine that any of these poor tomes are happy! I have to admit that in a buying frenzy (the store was going under and liquidating all of its stock, I had to buy!) I have actually added to this shelf, knowing that it would probably be years before I could tickle these new pages.

In short, I am feeling guilty about abandoning these books so I thought I would give them some public recognition and recommit myself to reading them, well, at least some of them … Ok, maybe just one? … at some point in the near future.

So here goes. This list is in order of appearance. No favouritism implied.
1. Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi – I am half way through this book. I have been half way since it was published in 2003! Not a good sign.
2. Solar, Ian McEwan – I have read some of his other books and really enjoyed them so I am interested to experience this one, although the reviews were not so fabulous.
3. Shiver, stiefvater – I am filled with enormous anticipation about this one!
4. The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman – I bought this one based on a great review that I read in the Sydney Morning Herald.
5. Stones Into Schools, Greg Mortenson – this story grabbed me. I am in awe of ordinary people who manage to change the lives of others in such a positive way.
6. The New York Trilogy, Auster – those of you following my blog will know that I have almost given up on this one, unable to finish reading the first in the trilogy. I have kept it on the shelf because I am holding a little flame in the hope of reigniting my desire to uncover the austereness of this author.
7. Deception Point, Dan Brown – a bit of light escapism.
8. Maps for Lost Lovers, Nadeem Aslam – promises to be a “dramatic and moving portrayal of Muslim life … Richly poetic and poignant.”
9. The Hungry Tide, Amitav Ghosh – I loved The Glass Palace so it seemed logical to buy this one!
10. The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littel – amazing concept, I had to read this one! Or at least have it on the shelf.
11. Peacock Throne, Sujit Saraf
12. The Angel’s Game, Carlos Ruiz Zafon – The Shadow Of the Wind was one of my favorite books and I have great expectations for this one!
13. The Children’s Book, A.S. Byatt – one of my all time favorite authors.
14. Things I’ve Been Silent About, Azar Nafisi – I bought this just because I respect this author… Not that I have managed to read any of her books, but I respect her life.
15. The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie – my confession, I have never read this book, shame on me. I have read almost everything else that Rushdie has written, not sure why I missed this!
16. The First Hour I Believed, Wally Lamb – I think the size of this one is somewhat of a deterrent. But that seems to be a Lamb trait. I loved his other works so hoping this one will be a winner.

The rest of the shelf is filled with some theory books about memory and remembrance. All yet to be read.

Clearly I have some serious reading to do!

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Conspiracy Theories

Well, in the wake of my spinning experience with Collum McCann, I felt that I needed something a bit lighter to whet my literary palette. And, what better to do this than a free ebook from Amazon?

Anyway, Don Brown was just the man I needed. His book, The Malacca Conspiracy, was fast paced in an action packed kind of way. I won’t share too much about this book as it will spoil your fun, but suffice to say, there’s drama, romance, guns, helicopters and nuclear weapons – oh, and don’t forget the necessary Islamic fundamentalist meets US Navy Seals!! All vital components of a good trashy thriller.

If you are looking for distraction and a bit of excitement, Don Brown is just the man for you — not to be confused, of course, with Dan Brown of Da Vinci Code fame. Don’s books are far more easily digested, with much less thinking required.

Let the Great World Spin

This is one of those diamond books: rare, sparkling, a gem in any light. It is also a difficult book to talk about because it is woven from so many different strands of narratives, characters, themes and emotions. McCann is a genius, that much is clear. His book pays homage to the notion that we all exist in some way connected to one another, each “reassured by the presence of one another.”

McCann starts with the image of a man walking across a tightrope strung illegally between the World Trade Centre Towers… “Those who saw him hushed.” As readers we are stilled too, because as a post 9/11 audience those towers have a significance beyond themselves, connoting loss, danger, terror, everything that is evil in our world. But, here is a man, defying the imagination of New Yorkers, attempting the impossible, balancing with a pole on a thin rope mid-air, dancing – much like McCann himself is doing in this telling. The emotion of this vision is indicative of  the emotion that runs throughout this book and McCann has crafted his tale to engage with readers on even the most uncomfortable of levels: “many of the watchers realised with a shiver that no matter what they say, they really wanted to witness a great fall.”

From the Towers, audiences are transported to Dublin, into the lives of a pair of brothers who take us into their family travails and then back to New York City where they are reunited in unusual circumstances. The relationship between these brothers is so dense that it is difficult to describe. Says one of the other:

“He was at the origin of things and I now had a meaning for my brother – he was a crack of light under the door, and the door was shut to him. Only bits and pieces of him would leak out and he would end up barricaded behind that which he had penetrated. Maybe it was entirely his own fault. Maybe he welcomed the complications: he had created them purely because he needed them to survive.”

The brothers are individuals, yet at the same time so connected that it isn’t until the novel’s end that readers realise the extent of their commitment to each other.

“And I kept thinking that we were all children once, maybe I could return. That’s what echoed in my head. Go back to being a child. Sprint along the strand there. Up past the tower. Run along the wall. I wanted that sort of joy. Make it simple again. I was trying, really trying, to pray, get rid of my lust, return to the good, rediscover that innocence. Circles of circles. And when you go around in circles, brother, the world is very big, but if you plow straight ahead it’s small enough. I wanted to fall along the spokes to the centre of the circle, where there was no movement. I can’t explain it, man. It was like I was staring at the ceiling, waiting for the sky. All this banging was still going on outside the door. Then hours of silence.”

It is hard to pinpoint what this novel is actually about in thematic terms. Certainly it is about family, about love, loss, war, triumph… but, it is also about sacrifice and turmoil, about desperation, and of course, about New York City and its particular flavour. Mostly, it is about life: “I sit there thinking about how much courage it takes to live an ordinary life.” Life and the inherent need for people to feel valued and valuable, despite their infinite mundaneness. “The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough.”

“Funny how it was, everyone perched in their own little world with the deep need to talk, each person with their own tale, beginning in some strange middle point, then trying so hard to tell it all, to have it all make sense, logical and final.”

One of the magical things about this book is McCann’s way with language and his ability to string these marvellous sentences together, totally submerging readers in the music of his prose. I think that this is one of the reasons that this book is so miraculous, why it left me spinning, almost drowning. There are many passages which illustrate McCann’s skill. I have chosen just one:

“Some people think love is the end of the road, and if you’re lucky enough to find it, you stay there. Other people say it just becomes a cliff you drive off, but most people who’ve been around awhile know it’s just a thing that changes day by day, and depending on how much you fight for it, you get it, or you hold on to it, or you lose it, but sometimes it’s never even there in the first place.”

In case it isn’t clear, I loved this book, I love this author, I love these characters. I am desperate to go back and start the book all over again and to reel in the genius of the narrative and the way it is crafted. I will definitely be reading more from this author and if you like being spun out by a genius then I highly recommend that you plunge in to this one without a moment’s hesitation!

Collum McCann

Whew. I have finished McCann’s Let The Great World Spin and I am indeed, still spinning. When I eventually stop, I will have to share my thoughts. Suffice to say, what a book!

Emil and Karl

Yankev Glashteyn’s book Emil and Karl is one of those startling and breath taking books that everyone should read.

Originally published in Yiddish in 1940, Glashteyn wrote this book after he visited his ailing mother in Europe prior to the outbreak of World War II. The book is prophetic on so many levels and clearly captures the traumatic tone of the times – for Jews and non-Jews alike.

The story is set in Vienna in 1938 and follows the lives of two 9 year old friends, Emil and Karl. Emil is Jewish, his father has disappeared and he is left alone after his mother can no longer cope with events. Karl, an Aryan, is also alone after his mother, a Socialist, is forcibly taken away.

The book begins with:

Karl sat on a low stool, petrified. The apartment was as still as death. He looked at the pieces of the broken vase scattered on the floor. Several times he reached out with one hand to pick up an overturned chair lying beside him. The chair looked like a man who had fallen on his face and couldn’t get up. But each time Karl tried, he could only lift the chair up a little bit, and then if fell down again. It was even quieter in the kitchen and the bedroom – so quiet he was afraid to go in there.

The narrative recounts the lengths to which Emil and Karl went in order to survive in this tumultuous and torturous time. The book contains some horrifying moments, near death experiences and accounts of tremendous abuse. However, it is also filled with insights into extreme kindness and sacrifice. Glashteyn carefully treads this balance with humility and honesty.

By far my favourite character in this book was Hans, an activist who disguises his intentions by feigning madness. His role in this text is to touch on the insanity of this period and to illustrate the great lengths which many people were forced to go to in order to survive.

There are many things which will stay with you from this text … the fragility of life, the horrors of war and ultimately, the comfort of friendship.

Although it is primarily a young adult book, this is a must read for everyone.

Review from the New  York Times.

Le Bal

There is no doubt in my mind that Irene Nemirovsky was and is a great writer. Her books, even in translation, are moving and austere and this novella is no exception.

The tale is set in Paris, in the apartment of a family with newly found wealth. The event is a ball planned to announce the family’s arrival into ‘high society’. While the plot is simple, it is the characters themselves and their relationships which make this a wonderful piece of writing.

Meet Madame Kampf, who opens the story with: “Madame Kampf walked into the study and slammed the door behind her with such force that a gust of air made the crystal beads on the chandelier jingle with the pure, light sound of small bells.” The Madame slams right through this tale, her feelings of inferiority casting a dark shadow over this family.

Meet Antoinette, Madame’s daughter, all of fourteen and precariously perched on the edge of womanhood. She day dreams about falling in love and escaping her mother’s tyranny. Throughout the narrative readers keenly appreciate that Antoinette is, for her mother, an unnecessary and difficult appendage – “couldn’t you use the service entrance?” Madame asks of her daughter toward the end of the novella. This type of treatment sets the tone of the Story and partly justifies the lengths to which Antoinette goes to undermine her mother’s attempts to establish herself in society.

Overall, a very sad and moving piece. A fabulous reading experience!

A Lesson Before Dying

This is one of those books that is difficult to write about. I am unsure why this is… The book is beautifully written, it clearly captures the climate (both physical and socio-political) of Louisiana in the 1940s, it is filled with marvelous and rich characters and it is finely structured.

The challenge in discussing this book comes from the weight of the subject matter.

In short, this book oozes profoundness. On the surface it about Jefferson, an innocent black man convicted of a crime he did not commit and sentenced to execution by electric chair. On a deeper level, the book explores the complexities of what it actually means to stand tall and be a man. It confronts the reader with the uncomfortable situation where the characters know not to question the conviction and sentence, and instead go about ensuring that Jefferson goes to the chair knowing his self worth.

Surprisingly, this book does not read like other books which explore the same subject and setting. It is not the type of text which tries to deconstruct the dynamic between White and Black in the South and the racism inherent in the social system of the time. Rather, it engages with the way that individuals and communities respond to that system, exploring how different characters negotiate the path between the own morals and ethics and the reality of the time in which they live. On one level, the book is frustrating because the characters’ own efforts are so limited by their lack of freedom. On another level, there is a sense of euphoria present in the way that each character finds his or her strength to change both themselves and others.

Parts of this book reminded me of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, particularly in terms of the themes and the notion of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. I was also reminded of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying – the titles are so close and Faulkner’s book is set in a town called Jefferson, which is the name of Gaines’ protagonist. (Although, I will have to revisit Faulkner to see if the similarities extend further!)

The lesson of this text is clear: “I want you to show them the difference between what they think you are and what you can be.” There is no doubt that there is value in this notion. And, while I was left breathless and tingling by the book’s ending, there were times when I found that there was something lacking in this narrative. Perhaps this had to do with the fact that there were some relationships which were distracting – like that between Grant and Vivien – or maybe it was just that the depth of the social comment was so intense that other parts of the narrative slipped away from me.

It is certainly a worthwhile read and I expect that I will be mulling over this story’s narratives for quite some time.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

This was my first taste of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s writing. I wasn’t sure quite what to expect as I knew little about the author – Russian literature is not my forte. However, somehow he sounded ‘great’ so I was more than willing to give this one a go.

Needless to say, I was not disappointed. This book is painful in its description of the mundane elements of life in a prison camp. Painful in a good way, because the author’s aim is clearly to convey the minuscule elements of the day to day existence in this environment. In this novel, everything has significance beyond itself. A hat, a tool, a piece of bread, each item is loaded with possibility, imbued with the ability to make or break a prisoner. Even time itself is a precious commodity: “He always gt up at once, for the next ninety minutes, until they assembled for work, belonged to him, not to the authorities … ”

I found my senses bombarded in this book, everything was magnified and there was no respite from the intensity of this sensory overload. Even the quiet was intense.

Our ‘hero’s’ day spans some 140 pages in my translated version and its ending is a mark to a prisoner’s survival. The irony in this ending is clear… what for the reader has been a painful, intense day, is for the prisoner, “A day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day.”

Will I read more Solzhenitsyn? I’m not sure. This book tore at my soul and I think I need more time before I can subject myself to another onslaught.

Do I recommend this book? Absolutely. It is an outstanding depiction of what life was like for prisoners at work camps in the era that the author describes. It clearly conveys the atmosphere of this experience and even through the translation, it is plain that Solzhenitsyn is a great writer.

A Friend Like Henry

This is one of those books that resonates for a long time. There are many reasons for this, the one which stood out for me was the dedication and commitment of these parents to the well being and integration of their children. I was startled by the extent of their struggle to find a space and a place for their son socially, academically and psychologically. The isolation of their struggle to mainstream him was simply disturbing. For this reason alone, this book is worth reading.

In literary terms, it is one of those memoirs that is actually well crafted and a pleasure to read. Gardner clearly has a way with words and she has managed to capture so many elements in this narrative that the reader is captivated by her voice. Through her prose we appreciate so many aspects of her life: her battle to fall pregnant, the challenges she faced with her son and her husband and the people around her, her amazing tower of strength mother and of course, the beauty of Henry, the true hero of this book.

While, at times I felt as though this book was too pointedly saying thank you to all those people who helped the Gardners on their journey, I found myself forgiving Gardner for this and appreciating her need to publicly acknowledge people.

One of the things which will stay with me for a long time to come is the way in which the officials (medical and social) failed to really appreciate this mother’s  struggle and in fact presented more obstacles than aids. As a consequence, while this book recounts Nuala’s personal story, it is also a testimony to the fact that one has to stand up for oneself, that you are your best advocate and that when you believe in something you have to ensure that nothing gets in your way.

This family’s tenacity of spirit, their will to succeed, their awe-inspiring determination and their love for each other are all inspiring. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to be moved.

An interesting article for The Sunday Times.

Fascinating YouTube of Henry and Dale.

Think of a Numb3r

This was a surprisingly good read. I am not sure whether that’s a reflection of the fact that I was expecting very little or an indication of the actual quality of the book! But, whatever the explanation, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and was thrilled to have stumbled upon a new writer in the thriller genre!

Think of a Numb3r is Verdon’s first book and I am suitably impressed. His characters were intriguing and there was enough meat in the plot to leave me asking for more … What happened to the protagonist’s sons? What was his relationship with his father, with his wife? All fascinating questions and I would be thrilled to read a prequel and sequel featuring this retired detective.