The first thing I did when I brought Nicolas Rothwell’s Belomor home from the library was to Google its title. I skipped the few reviews because I did...moreThe first thing I did when I brought Nicolas Rothwell’s Belomor home from the library was to Google its title. I skipped the few reviews because I didn’t want to read any of them until after I’d written my own, but I couldn’t make a connection between the image on the front cover and the title. I was also curious about the frontispiece image of the Belomor Channel. Where was this book going to take me?
Well, (thanks to the photo credits) I was able to find out that there’s a Byelomorsko–Baltiyskiy Kanal in Russia that was constructed by convict labour in the 1930s between the White Sea and the Baltic. Under Stalin’s forced labour program, many of these convicts died, though the numbers are disputed. There was also a brand of Soviet cigarettes called Belomorkanal which was introduced in 1932 to commemorate the building of the canal. What’s not clear until you view the original image at Photodom is that those shaggy bits are not a beard; the image is of a man whose head is bent upon his filthy hands, and the title of the photograph Belomor Thoughts (Crisis) hints at why he might be in this pose. I thought that the book designer might have done better to show the whole image not just a bit of it.
Except that as it turns out, the image, the cigarette and the canal are mere fragments in the most fragmented book I have read in a long time. What’s more, there are so many allusions to people, places and history that were unfamiliar to me, that my brief quest to discover meaning from these images turned out to be emblematic of the frustrating experience of reading this entire book.
Anyway, armed with this information I began reading…
There's been a fair bit of hype about this book, but I was underwhelmed by it. James Salter is apparently a Big Deal in the US, but I'd never heard of...moreThere's been a fair bit of hype about this book, but I was underwhelmed by it. James Salter is apparently a Big Deal in the US, but I'd never heard of him, probably because All That Is is his first novel since 1979. Now that I have heard of him, and have plodded through his tiresome novel, I am wondering what all the fuss is about.
I don't mind it having very little plot. I was prepared to tolerate a number of vignettes about some characters which went nowhere at all. But I was baffled when I read in one of the reviews that this author 'can write'. What on earth does this mean? Of course Salter can write, there's nearly 300 pages of it. But was there one page where I paused to savour an image, an idea, or an insightful bit of characterisation? Nope. Not one. What the blurb calls 'economy of prose' I call a pedestrian paucity. (Yes, I have read Hemingway. Lots of Hemingway. IMO Hemingway is the only author who can get away with writing like Hemingway). People who think that Salter 'can write' ought to read more widely, starting with this year's Miles Franklin winner Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser (see link to my review on my blog). Now, that's an author who 'can write' well, write stylishly, write sensitively, write intelligently and write with purpose and insight!
I did pause, with a sharp intake of breath, each time I came across another of Salter's inane portrayal of women. I was soon very tired of the way that the central character classifies women by their breasts, 'associating' low ones 'with privilege' and noting that one of his fellow-characters chooses women with bigger ones each time he marries.
Hmm, perhaps I should have guessed that an ‘international best-seller’ with a million sales in Korea alone would be a disappointment…
I was about a qua...moreHmm, perhaps I should have guessed that an ‘international best-seller’ with a million sales in Korea alone would be a disappointment…
I was about a quarter of the way through Please Look After Mom (translated as Please Look After Mother in the UK) and was bored witless by it so I decided to re-check its nomination for the Man Asian Literary Prize to see why I should have been enjoying it. It seemed to me that this was a rather pedestrian story in rather plodding prose about an ageing mother who goes missing on a crowded subway and her guilt-stricken adult children’s search for her. Was I missing something?? Was it going to improve??
**spoiler alert** I'm sooooo tired of overwrought lyrical prose. This one is the utterly unbelievable story of Lucy, a C19th girl who dies in her earl...more**spoiler alert** I'm sooooo tired of overwrought lyrical prose. This one is the utterly unbelievable story of Lucy, a C19th girl who dies in her early twenties of consumption. She sees life as a series of photographic images, tortured into forced images by Jones in the most ridiculous way. Everybody dies. All the images are of melancholy and loss. Lucy's mother dies in childbirth; her father kills himself shortly afterwards. His neighbour is blind; the midwife has a purple birthmark. The uncle that adopts Lucy and her brother Thomas is a ne'er do well and he dies when Lucy is packed off to India as a bride to settle his debts. (Are you still with me? It gets worse.) The would-be groom is actually gay, and in love with Neville (the uncle). Although disappointed that Lucy (pregnant after a shipboard romance with a married man) isn't older and more 'worthy, he is sanguine about her behaviour and becomes a friend. He pays for her to take up photography when she goes back to England, and her brother Thomas (childless after his wife Violet's miscarriage) attaches the tripod to the baby's pram. It's all so silly! Don't say you weren't warned. (less)
What a dreary, narcissistic book this is! Here he is, in one of those most interesting travel destinations on earth, a place that challenges and inver...moreWhat a dreary, narcissistic book this is! Here he is, in one of those most interesting travel destinations on earth, a place that challenges and inverts the ideas of any Westerner whose history meshes with Vietnam because of the Vietnam war, and all he does is moan about himself. Coming from the wealthiest country on the planet, he has the temerity to scorn their energetic efforts to improve their pitiful standard of living: he thinks they're too interested in making money. He hasn't made the slightest effort to learn about the history and culture of the country before arriving, and he doesn't learn a thing while he's there. Don't bother. (less)
This was said to be ground-breaking, hilarious and an insight into Australian life when it was first published. Let's just say that I didn't think so,...moreThis was said to be ground-breaking, hilarious and an insight into Australian life when it was first published. Let's just say that I didn't think so, on all three counts, and it was badly written too. (less)
Unbelievably badly written, lurid with every possible unpleasant smear of snot, sex, and mastication - and tasteless in its spiteful depiction of rura...moreUnbelievably badly written, lurid with every possible unpleasant smear of snot, sex, and mastication - and tasteless in its spiteful depiction of rural life. It makes every country lass a slut who drunkenly submitts to the unaesthetic gropings of country louts. It lays bare secrets of these couplings that everyone knows about but leaves best alone. An utterly unbelievable plot, all focussed around two girls who are half-sisters to a boy killed in a car accident. Both their mothers vanish, leaving grandmothers to bring the girls up, one loveless, the other smothered by love. Far too many cluttered themes to be bothered with, and nothing works out in the end. It could only have been accepted for publication because there is so little written about country life that some cynical publisher thought it would sell in an undiscerning rural market with a title like that. (less)
The only excuse I have for spending my time reading this was that I took it to hospital as an undemanding read while I waited my turn for the knife. B...moreThe only excuse I have for spending my time reading this was that I took it to hospital as an undemanding read while I waited my turn for the knife. By the time they wheeled me in, I was glad to see the back of it. (less)
This is a thoroughly distasteful book, most unpleasant. I can't remember now why it was hyped back in 2003 when I read it; one can only wonder why. (T...moreThis is a thoroughly distasteful book, most unpleasant. I can't remember now why it was hyped back in 2003 when I read it; one can only wonder why. (This review is taken from my journal notes at the time). It's supposed to be the story of two brothers, one a sex-crazed boor and the other a molecular biologist, thinker and idealist. So it said on the blurb, but I got so bored by the ramblings about atoms and DNA that I skipped most of those bits. Which left me to read the pornographic descriptions of Bruno, assessing every woman he sees in terms of her breasts and the age and elasticity of her vagina. Fat, gross and repulsive, he is a total failure at sex himself, paying for prostitutes and masturbating over his students' assignments - until he meets Christian at a nudist camp. Houellebecq indulges a collection of fantasies of orgies, describing with evident relish the permutations of one joyless encounter after another. The point of all this is meant to show how disconnected modern life is. Just meaningless sex and asexual thought and philosophy. The scene where the brothers' mother dies reminded me of Camus' The Outsider, where the main character feels nothing at all and is incapable of love. But Camus deals with the problem of disconnectedness and alienation with elegance and subtlety. This one is just nasty. If I could rate it zero I would. I think it's probably the worst book I've ever read. To discover it amongst the recommended titles in 1001 Books You Must Read is a surprise, to say the least. PS, some years later in 2013 The first part of this essay (by someone who obviously knows what he's talking about) confirms my reaction, but also explains why this author is a literary person of note. http://nplusonemag.com/ancient-curse. It explains H's preoccupation with sex-as-market-enterprise and the notion that counters the solitariness of materialism, the EPR paradox i.e. that when particles interact their destinies link. Yeah, you have to read it (the essay, I mean, not the novel)...(less)