Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief has one of the most original and striking narrators since Julian Barnes introduced us to the canny perspective of a wood...moreMarkus Zusak’s The Book Thief has one of the most original and striking narrators since Julian Barnes introduced us to the canny perspective of a woodlice in History of the World in 10½ Chapters. There’s no caginess about it. The first word of the first chapter’s title makes it clear that the narrator is a personified Death: the not so grim reaper. Having Death as the narrator for a book set in Germany at the start of World War II starts the book on exactly the right blackly humorous tone which continues throughout. It’s a very Jewish type of humour. I’m thinking of the classic Borsch belt comedians like Sholem Aleichem, Milton Berle or perhaps even later comedians like Billy Crystal or Woody Allen. As Harvard Professor Ruth Wisse quoted in her Radio National piece on Jewish Humour, Saul Bellow calls “characteristically Jewish” a story in which laughter and trembling are so curiously mingled that it is not easy to determine the relations between the two, or as Death puts it: “A final dirty joke. Another human punchline.” (12) This is part of the power of what Zusak does in The Book Thief.
Although The Book Thief succeeds on the most post-modern of levels, its impact on the reader is as much due to superb old fashioned plot and characterisation as anything else. It is, afterall, simply a beautiful and painful story of a young girl as she deals with an important and tragic point in history. Liesel is nine and her younger brother six, when her mother takes her and her brother to Munich to be given to foster parents. En route her brother dies: “When the coughing stopped, there was nothing but the nothingness of life moving on with a shuffle, or a near-silent twitch. A suddenness found its way onto his lips then, which were a corroded brown colour, and peeling, like old paint.” (20) Liesel is then thrust into a nightmare/dream existance which involves the thieving of a book, the development of a relationship with her foster parents, Rosa and Hans Huberman, and her growing sense of self as she ages during this period. Liesel’s coming of age is a key part of the plot, and it is possible to read the book as simply the story of Liesel. Certainly Liesel’s characterisation is enough to carry the story. When Liesel arrives at the Hubermans she is scared, almost mute, and refuses to get out of the car or into a bath, but we have already begun to love her through the lens of Death’s sympathy
Death’s own role as a character is a strong one, and he hints at a conflicted inner life. In some ways he makes himself a slave of humans – dealing with the impact of their wars and atrocities: “The boss, however, does not thank you. He asks for more.” An afterlife is hinted at very subtly, but never clarified – bodies go cold and melt and sometimes warm again as their souls are gently removed. That’s all the reader gets. The rest is left open to imagination, as is the direction that Death as character might be moving in. He’s allegorical in one sense, but so real in his sensations, longings and emotions, that it isn’t hard to imagine some kind of progression for him. As character, he may not be nice, but he has his charms, as typified by the last line in the book. Death’s most striking punchline is delivered at the very end. And like the best Jewish humour, it works by turning both fear and convention on its head, in this case, making humans the ‘other’ haunting entity. It also places the final spotlight directly on life, and the celebration and triumph of it, even in the face of man-made hatred and horror. The Book Thief is a wonderful book, full of beauty, pain, longing, joy, and sensuality. It never skirts the horror of war, death, or pain, nor does it flinch at the very real tragedy it immerses itself, sometimes graphically, in. But even at its ugliest, this is a story of the beauty and celebration, however fleeting, of human life. (less)
There are times when, as a book reviewer, it is tempting to simply put the adjectives on hold; when mere descriptors seem paltry next to the indescrib...moreThere are times when, as a book reviewer, it is tempting to simply put the adjectives on hold; when mere descriptors seem paltry next to the indescribable beauty of the book itself. Richard Flanagan's Gould's Book of Fish is that kind of book. Reading it open mouthed, gasping at the richness and complexity of the text that clearly defies categorisation and classification, one feels intimately connected, while in awe of what the author has produced. Gould's Book of Fish is a serious read; one of those desert island books you can read again and again and find still more meaning in its strange depths; both confirmation and destruction of those things you believe in (and cannot articulate). The book simultaneously makes a mockery of language, history, love, and humanity, while celebrating, and even immortalising them, much as Joyce's Finnegans Wake, or Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury did for the last century, although with a more straightforward storyline. Both Joyce and Faulkner are celebrated in the novel, as are other great authors from history such as Flaubert, Hugo, Blake, Keats, Cervantes, Sterne, Wordsworth, Pope, Borges, Voltaire, and Conrad.
For all of the shifts in Gould's Book of Fish, with things like time, history, identity, and power all variable, there are some constants, and this is the basis on which the book is built. Love is one of those constants. Another is its corollaries, racism, brutality, and hatred - clear and obvious evils. A third and more subtle constant is that sense of the mysterious beauty in life, and the world: "The knowledge of a world so awful, this sense of a life so extraordinary - how am I to resolve them?" Ultimately, as Gould says, this is a book about life, not death, and despite the inherent sadness, the brutality, the grossness, and the torture, what remains with the reader is how we ultimately escape with Gould; how the love, beauty, and even the story, remains, shining and glorious. In its gorgeous use of language, its extraordinary structure, its ambitiously realised depths, and above all, the magic it works on its reader, Gould's Book of Fish is a masterpiece. Read it for the interesting story, and find yourself, like Hammett, lost in its labyrinth depths, obsessed, changed forever, and your unrequited love of literature both challenged, and invigorated.(less)
The nights were blinding cold and casket black and the long reach of the morning had a terrible silence to it. Like a dawn before battle. (137)
It’s pr...moreThe nights were blinding cold and casket black and the long reach of the morning had a terrible silence to it. Like a dawn before battle. (137)
It’s probably fair to call The Road a perfect novel. It goes to the very edge of the precipice: death, destruction, annihilation. The two characters who populate the story are at the very end of the road. The title suggests some kind of Kerouacian journey to fun loving beatnik enlightenment, but nothing could be further from the truth. The Road is neither fun loving, nor beatnik. There is possibly enlightenment, but the tiny candle of hope the book holds out is dim indeed. McCarthy goes as far as it is possible to go in literature – stripping the characters’ world bare until there’s nothing left but metaphor. The result is as beautiful as it is painful.
It takes about ten pages to reveal, in patches of bleak discovery for the reader, that the landscape that the two characters of this novel inhabit is a post-apocalyptic one. Everything is burnt, ash covered, with corpses everywhere. The two main characters of this novel, a father and his son, are on the run, hiding from gangs of vicious ‘bloodcult’ cannibals looking to capture, enslave and eat anyone left alive. They are also in search of something, but it’s never quite clear what: someplace to stay; some group which is overtly good and safe. They follow a broken “tattered oilcompany roadmap” towards the southern ocean. But the landscape is unforgiving. Starvation is always at hand. Their lives are only safe in the temporary serendipity of what they might happen upon with their wrecked shopping trolley, protected by no more than a single bullet. There are overtones of Mad Max—the black humour of wild, comically dressed road gangs--but the relationship between the nameless father and son is so tender, so sad, and so full of the longing of the world that no longer exists, that every word of the book is wrought. And at no point does the reader laugh. Even looking away from the continual horror is difficult.
In this environment, McCarthy allows himself no spare words, but what he does use is a testimony to his craftsmanship. The novel is as sparse and clean as anything Hemingway or Carver has produced, and yet, in the pristine bone cracking cold of its prose is so much linguistic lushness. Every word is heavy with poetic richness. The book is full of metaphor, and the metaphors are used wonderfully, but so perfectly integrated is the language with plot and characterisation, that it’s possible to read this and not notice the metaphors. Instead the reader gets straight to the heart of what the metaphor is conveying:
He rose and stood tottering in that cold autistic dark with his arms outheld for balance while the vestibular calculations in his skull cranked out their reckonings. An old Chronicle. To see out the upright. No fall but preceded by a declination. He took great marching steps into the nothingness, counting them against his return. Eyes closed, arms oaring. Upright to what? Something nameless in the night, lod or matrix. To which he and the stars were common satellite. Like the great pendulum in its rotunda scribing through the long day movements of the universe of which you may say it knows nothing and yet know it must. (14)
Throughout the novel, the work takes its momentum from the pain of encroaching nothingness and hope simultaneously pressing against each other. The man loves the boy, but knows his own death is coming as he spits blood onto the ashy snow. The father and son spend the entire book seeking the good, and safe, struggling for life, with death and extinction everywhere. And yet it’s almost unbearably beautiful, almost intensely rich and the reader absorbs the desperate love between the boy and his father, or the boys own desperation to be one of the “good guys.” This is a book that hits the reader between the eyebrows with the ache of an ice cream headache.
Although the story centres myopically on the father and his son, there are other characters in the periphery. There is the mother, who isn’t in this story—having already coldly committed suicide before the story opens – but who populates the story through the father’s memory. She is part of the life and world he can only dream about, but can’t construct, in words for his son, or in reality. The boy was born in the early days of the tragedy, and therefore has no memory of his mother, and yet he is the embodiment of her – of a place his father once inhabited. There are also characters they meet on the road; brief glimpses of an almost extinct species (and most others are already extinct), reduced to survival instinct. There is the old nameless man they meet and help on the road. There is the baby they don’t save who later might be the same one they find on a spit. There is the little boy’s face the boy sees in a window, who later might be the same one he joins up with: “Goodness will find the little boy. It always has. It will again.” (300). There are the chained people in a house they run from. There is the man they kill, and the one they may as well have killed.
The dialogue between the man and his son is sharp in its contrast to the long sentences which seem to originate in the man’s head. These two sentences for example, comma-less and metaphor rich draw the reader away from the action into the biblical intensity of the landscape:
The soft black talc blew through the streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor and the cold crept down and the dark came early and the scavengers passing down the steep canyons with their torches trod silky holds in the drifted ashes that closed behind them silently as eyes. Out on the roads the pilgrims sank down and fell over and died and the bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond. (193)
Then the story pulls the reader out of reverie into the stark survival dialogue of the pair as they struggle for food, for warmth, and to move towards a place – an ocean no longer blue -- where the man’s consumption won’t kill him: (less)
Dirt Music is one of those books that gets under your skin. Comes into your bed with you; changes your dreams; travels with you throughout the mundane...moreDirt Music is one of those books that gets under your skin. Comes into your bed with you; changes your dreams; travels with you throughout the mundane details of everyday life. Winton's descriptive prose works both externally in its depiction of the natural land - the sea and desert of Western Australia which makes up its setting, and internally, in the way it goes deep inside the pain and anxieties of its characters, as they struggle to free themselves from tremendous damage, and paralysis.(less)
Che Selkirk is a boy whose parents, members of the increasingly violent Students for a Democratic Society, have both disappeared, leaving him with his...moreChe Selkirk is a boy whose parents, members of the increasingly violent Students for a Democratic Society, have both disappeared, leaving him with his very rich grandmother. At the age of eight, a woman that Che recognises as his mother suddenly arrives and kidnaps him, taking him from New York to Australia. This is how the book begins, and Che’s adventure through hunger, love and loss becomes almost a coming of age tale as he starts to understand who he is and where his future lies.
On the simplest of levels, the book is a super fast-paced race across the globe as Che and Dial attempt to hide from the police and carve an existence for themselves. The plot is propelled by both the readers own dislocation as they come to grips with the distortions between the two narrative voices. Both Che and Dial are presented as equals – joint narrators in this story, but their stories aren’t identical. The reader is put in the uncomfortable position of being between them, unable to discount either the intensity of Che’s needs, or the combination of confusion and desire which motivates Dial. Both need one another, and continue to work together at avoiding the truth and avoiding the law, at the same time they find themselves removed from their usual lives, and co-opted for causes they don’t believe in.
As in so many of Carey’s novels, real love and visual artifice become the two forces that move the narrative along. It’s a search for a truth that isn’t nearly as obvious as one might think. It’s about the way love crisscrosses us – marks us, makes us whole, and hurts us at the same time.
Carey handles it all very subtly, weaving privilege, pain and damage together into a beautiful tapestry. Nothing seems stable, and yet there’s something solid growing – that “sharp searing pain that didn’t hurt” – something real, absolutely true, and physical that stays with us through life’s changes.
There are no fireworks in this book – the prose is light and smooth, but looking closely, each sentence is wrought with meaning and intensity. Che is “gooseflesh, head to toes” as he realizes how helpless he is. When dial hears a girl calling for the lost Che, she recognizes this “dreadful sympathy.” The hippy landscape of Nambour, from the home grown vegetables to the scruffy undergrowth is almost lovingly depicted.
Like even the blackest of Carey’s novels (and for me, it’s tempting to almost see this novel as the antidote to The Tax Inspector), there’s a strong undercurrent of humour. Dial is subsumed in the small-mindedness of Australia, and yet she holds onto desperately to her status: “Her mother would have died to see her genius in a dump like this.” (36) She was an “SDS goddess”, the Alice May Twitchell Fellow – an assistant professor at Vassar College, stuck in the backwoods of Australia where, as with any commune, the pettiness is all pervasive. She puts up shelving for lentils, lines the house with crooked boards, and tries to procure the services of a Zoot-suited lawyer to argue her case back in America so Che can go home, but her ignorance is obvious enough to the hippies whose commune she joins.
Trevor tells her at one point “You’re American. You wouldn’t know if you were up yourself” (70). She begins to know whether she’s “up herself” as the book progresses however. Dial’s painful learning curve is part of what makes this novel work.
In an act of remarkable self-control, Carey leaves the story open, suggesting a long and complex history which the reader isn’t privy to. This last sentence so changes the story that this reader at least went back and re-read it in its entirety, taking in the rich linguistic power which Carey has become famous for. Che is believable, both as the 8 year old boy struggling to find himself, and as the older, wiser narrator he becomes by the end of the book. One can imagine many other landscapes, or books growing out of this boy. But for now, there’s only the reader’s imagination, which Carey has kickstarted with this moving novel. (less)
Malik Solanka is mad. Not just irritated or cranky, but filled with fury, and not just his own fury, but the everyman fury that characterises his age....moreMalik Solanka is mad. Not just irritated or cranky, but filled with fury, and not just his own fury, but the everyman fury that characterises his age. At 55, the Indian born, NY dwelling protagonist of Rushdie's latest novel Fury, has the kind of rage which causes him to stand with a knife over the sleeping bodies of his wife and son, scream in public, and slip between the red heat of anger to blackouts which leave him questioning his sanity and public safety. His anger is also part of the broader anger of the world - the human condition, which prefigures recent terrorist attacks, and hints at the kind of anger which makes anything possible. Fury is used in many contexts in this novel, which is blackly funny, engaging, easy to read, and as verbose and modern as anything Rushdie has written. Fury is everything which is evil in man - the mythical flies; ugly sisters; Erinnyes; Eumenides; vengeful wrath: Terror, strife, Lies, Vengeance, Intemperance; Altercation, Fear and Battle. They are the pursuers of Orestes, guilt, hounding those deserving of their hunger. On the simplest level, the fury is Solanka's guilt at leaving behind his 3 year old son Asmaan, who "twisted in him like a knife", his fear of his self, and anger at the unspoken act performed on him by his stepfather long ago. There is also that empty, self-loathing at the heart of a fearful but prosperous America; a land of sitcoms and shopping malls, and superficial everything, leaving a deep and unfulfilled longing. This longing, also the impetus for creation in its highest form, is also part of that fury. Then there is the broader world's fury; the fury of nations and religious fanatics fighting one another. This is the fury which Mila Milo's father flies into - the Serbias and Croatias and Fiji or Lilliput-Blefuscu as Rushdie names it, or the middle east - the anger of a taxi driver screaming obscenities in his mother tongue, or the anger and ugliness of Eddie Ford's father in Nowheresville, Nix. Tragedy; emptiness; murder for kicks, loneliness; death. This is all at the heart of Solanka's fury. While the book is as rich in linguistic skill and wordplay as any of Rushdie's material, there are some problems with Fury. The number of references are so extensive, especially the references to current pop icon figures, that the book threatens to collapse from the number of names dropped. Few cultural icons escape mention, from Al Pacino, Jennifer Lopez (multiple mentions), Puff-Daddy, N'Sync, Lord of the Rings, Butch Cassidy, Madonna, Star Wars, Gandhi, Max Headroom, Tiger Woods, The Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, the Bush and Gore election ("Gush vs Bore"), Finnegan's Wake, Robbe-Grillet, Butor, Amazon books, you name it. Piled into the novel so tightly, the ongoing references are tedious, and strain credulity, rendering the novel so heavily anchored to today, that it may become meaningless within a few years, despite the universality of the themes. In its attempt to assimilate youth culture, and pick up on all of its radio signals, while still continuing to bring together diverse themes such as the nature of academia, myth, history, political conflict, philosophy, fairy tales, children's stories, science fiction, jingles and rock and roll, Rushdie dilutes his story and makes for an overly convoluted book, where the potential richness of its substance is marred by its reliance on known names and linguistic puns.(less)
Martin Amis’ prose is a distinctive combination of droll black humour mingled with near purple theatrics. It’s acerbic and heady all at once. His char...moreMartin Amis’ prose is a distinctive combination of droll black humour mingled with near purple theatrics. It’s acerbic and heady all at once. His characters deal with situations that concern everyone: thwarted love, identity and self-worth, but always amidst a grand setting of transition, whether that be a scene of historic atrocity such as the Holocaust or a brain damaging, personality-changing head blow. In his latest novel, House of Meetings, the setting takes us deep into a Soviet Gulag camp.
The novel is told in epistolary flashback: an extended letter written by the narrator to his stepdaughter Venus. The narrator is, in part, aboard the Georgi Zhukov, on the Yenisei River in the Arctic Circle – a fancy cruiser near the Gulag the narrator was interned in. As his body travels around the Siberian wasteland of his old labour camp, his mind travels back in time to his imprisonment. The reader is put in the role of the healthy American stepdaughter; an unwilling confidante and participant in the events which are conveyed through the letter. We are alluded to, winked at, and made to feel pampered, and “burnished” in the face of the dying, and depraved.
Venus’ name reminds us that, despite the pain and atrocities the novel doesn’t shy from recounting, the subject of this book is love – a point made by the narrator from the first page. His unrequited love for the beautiful Zoya provides the core of this book. Although as a character, Zoya remains a caricature—shaped like Betty Boop, and almost inarticulate next to the narrator—she provides a catalyst for the beautifully depicted love/hate relationship between the two brothers. The younger, uglier (half) brother is Lev, the poet who comes to the same labour camp, already married to Zoya.
As with many other of Amis’ novels, the protagonist is far from pristine. Between self-deprecation and aggrandisement, he describes an often criminally unpleasant life, but we nevertheless come to understand him. There is an odd charm in his struggle to send off his last defining email and cope with an unopened revelation from his brother which will finally reveal the true nature of his past to him. Venus represents not just love, but life, health, the West. The narrator is Russia: corrupt, and withered. His farewell isn’t only to his stepdaughter, but also to life, as he finds himself dying, and is glad of it. Amidst the bravado is sorrow. The narrator laments the loss of his country, his love, and his life. These contradictions drive the narrative forward. The notion that this lengthy confession covering about 60 years, should be delivered in the casual format of email adds irony.
Both the narrator’s and Lev’s feelings for Zoya are fuelled by the feelings the brothers have for one another. There is sibling rivalry, and protectiveness too, amidst the horrors of the camp, and afterwards. The intensity of Amis’ camp descriptions provide a backdrop for the plot which involves Lev’s stubborn pacifism, and the power that the memory of Zoya exerts over the brothers. Throughout the novel, metaphors are strikingly original and powerful: “All night I walked and crawled across a landscape overlaid with grit, a desert where each grain of sand, at some point or other, would have its time between my teeth.” (105) The eloquence always drives plot or characterisation, remaining subtle, even with recurring images like the “Wild Dogs of Predposylov” that haunt him, or the anthropomorphism in his extended metaphors. As the plot moves away from the gulag and into the post-prison relationship between the brothers, Lev becomes frailer and less successful. He loses Zoya and re-marries, suffering tragedy and disintegration, while the narrator grows wealthy, and tries to confront his demons back “home”.
There is a ring of truth and emotive power in the historical veracity of House of Meeting’s setting. Amis has done his research well, and claims that an English author can’t really write about Russia don’t do justice to the deep sense of history and personal involvement that underpin this book. But House of Meetings really isn’t meant to be a realistic picture of life in the Soviet gulag. For that, Amis’ Koba the Dread provides a more literal trip into the atrocities of this period, which Amis makes clear is poorly understood in the West. Instead House of Meetings uses the setting to explore character and what is left when our carefully constructed roles in life are stripped away. Amis has every claim to being a master of that kind of exploration. In House of Meetings he has created an exciting novel, full of pathos that transcends the morality of nonfiction. It is a celebration of the beauty and horror of the human character in all of its frailties, and because of, rather than in spite of, contradiction.(less)
Kafka’s Soup is a cute little book which has been designed to celebrate 14 of the world’s most famous writers. The book contains real recipes written...moreKafka’s Soup is a cute little book which has been designed to celebrate 14 of the world’s most famous writers. The book contains real recipes written in a style that parodies the work of Raymond Chandler, Jane Austen, Franz Kafka, Irvine Welsh, Proust, Marquez, Steinbeck, Marquis de Sade, Woolf, Homer, Greene, Borges, Pinter and Chaucer. Jane Austin gives us Tarragon Eggs, Marquez provides a magical Coq au Vin. Homer cooks up Fenkata, and Graham Greene makes Vietnamese Chicken. The work is assured, and the prose style makes for a good pastiche which reflects the writers' most famous books. Austin’s eggs begin with a similar opening to Pride and Prejudice and focus heavily on the serving of the eggs and relationships between the guests. Kafka’s Miso Soup is infused with an underlying anxiety which is never clearly defined, and follows the outlines of The Metamorphosis. Irvine Welsh’s chocolate cake is written in slang-filled Scottish dialect full of gritty angst, though the actual cake is smooth and silky. Other recipes are similarly rich with the tenure and sense of the writer involved, and will give readers familiar with their work a good chuckle.
The recipes are all real and tested, and are nicely designed, for classic food items. They are all easy to make and fun to serve and talk about with literary minded friends. But there is a rather jarring mismatch between the culinary concoction and the author it is assigned to. Surely Kafka would never have eaten Miso Soup, and Proust could have had the Coq Au Vin rather than Marquez. Many of the writers that Crick chooses write about food in their work, and the book could have been improved significantly by using a food item that actually appears in the work being chosen. The obvious choice for Proust would then be Madeleines, while for Chaucer, we could have Spicerye Sauce (from The Canterbury Tales) rather than Onion Tart and Rich Sultana Bread for Woolf (mentioned in The Waves). It is hard to enjoy a full sensual experience when the foods are so different from those that the writers would have eaten or described.
That said, this is still a well-researched, fun book, with an original premise and the text is often very clever. A nice touch is that each recipe is illustrated by Crick with an accompanying picture – from the noir cartoons of Chandler, soft watercolour images for Austin, or the stained glass picture of Chaucer after his Onion Tart. The book is beautifully presented in hardcover format, and the accompanying images make it attractive enough to give to someone as a gift. Each recipe contains a hefty serving of humour, which is reflected in both the prose, and in the illustration. The recipes work, and so does the prose, though the sustenance it provides is relatively minor.(less)