What a strange, strange man Russell Hoban is! You can get an idea of how strange by reading the afterword in my edition, where he describes his first...moreWhat a strange, strange man Russell Hoban is! You can get an idea of how strange by reading the afterword in my edition, where he describes his first visit to Canterbury Cathedral. He looks at a medieval painting of the life of a saint, and instantly gets the idea of writing a novel about a post-nuclear Kent, with a large part of the story revolving around Punch-and-Judy shows.
I have read and enjoyed several of his novels, most notably Kleinzeit, which I loved. Just like Kleinzeit, Riddley seems to be cast loose in a baffling world, struggling to make sense of it, confronting death, and ultimately wondering what does life mean? In this post-apocalyptic world, people are illiterate and unskilled hunter-gatherers, and Riddley is one of only a few (along with itinerant showmen) who try to develop ideas and philosophies rather than sticking to the rudiments of everday survival. The reader can only share Riddley's bewilderment. The basic message of the story is pretty depressing, but Riddley is a hopeful, persistent character who finds things to believe in no matter how dire his situation.
Laura M's Goodreads review sums up much of what I would say about this book. It's a modern classic. But it obviously divides people -- you are likely to either love it or hate it. You need to enjoy playing with language, sounding the words in your head and finding multiple meanings. The language is hard work and will slow you down, but it's meant to -- to bring your thought processes down to the speed of Riddley's. The language isn't just a gimmick, it's an integral part of what the book is about. The thought of the sheer work and imagination that went into writing this book, creating this world, over a period of five years, is just mind-boggling.
Finally, all the Hoban books I've read feature the disembodied head of Orpheus floating down a river, and this one is no exception!(less)
**spoiler alert** This is a very good book, not just in terms of a genre (hardly travel writing, more reportage) but on a larger scale, about what it...more**spoiler alert** This is a very good book, not just in terms of a genre (hardly travel writing, more reportage) but on a larger scale, about what it means to be alive.
It opens with American Bill Carter hitching a ride to besieged Sarajevo with a rather wacky aid organisation called The Serious Road Trip, who deliver food dressed as clowns. Why is he there? Over the next few chapters we gradually learn about a difficult childhood and a love affair cut short by his girlfriend Corrina's death in a car accident. Since then Bill has been trying to make sense of his life, to no avail.
It gradually begins to seem that Bill is channelling his love for Corrina into an urgent desire to help the Sarajevans. He is far from a dispassionate observer -- he soon feels he is one of them (although not all of them would agree!). At any rate he shares their privations, living for months in a bomb-scarred office block with no electricity or water, surviving on jars of baby food. He is very far from being a professional journalist, but a chance meeting results in him setting up satellite links from Sarajevo to U2 concerts throughout Europe, thus raising awareness of the war, and he ends up making an award-winning documentary, Miss Sarajevo.
He writes beautifully and passionately about his experience and how it changed him, with lyrical, almost nostalgic reminiscences of the friends he makes in Sarajevo. Initially naive, he soon develops a painfully clear-eyed view of the horrors suffered by Bosnians, and the West's cynical and inadequate response. He is honest too (as far as one can tell), describing how after months in Sarajevo living on almost nothing, and virtuously refusing financial support, he accepts $8,000 from U2, reasoning that he is worth at least as much as the despised UN-financed bureaucrats colluding in Serb atrocities or cynical Western journalists sitting eating hot food (a rare luxury for him) in the Holiday Inn. But later he reflects that "the moment I had started to want something from my work, whether it was money, fame, or recognition, everything had stopped working."
In the end, living alone in an adobe house in Tucson, and still missing Corrina, he does achieve some kind of epiphany and the whole book is testimony to the resilience of the human spirit in extreme circumstances. Reading back over what I've written, I can see I really haven't done this terrific book justice. So just find a copy second-hand (it's out of print) and read it.(less)
There doesn't seem to be much point in adding to the rave reviews of this. If you loved Wolf Hall, you'll love this. If you haven't read either, I env...moreThere doesn't seem to be much point in adding to the rave reviews of this. If you loved Wolf Hall, you'll love this. If you haven't read either, I envy you for the treat you have in store.
Just a few points: 1. If this doesn't win another Booker, there is no justice in the world. 2. While Ian McEwan was resting on his laurels, Hilary Mantel cruised past him to become Greatest Living British Novelist. She took her time reaching the peak of her powers, but now it's hard to see what she can do to better this trilogy. 3. Power corrupts. In Wolf Hall, we can like Cromwell: intelligent, witty, loyal, hard-working, kind to children and animals. In Bring up the Bodies he still has those qualities. But he sees a chance for revenge and takes it. I found it interesting that the trials are skimmed over in a few paragraphs. Cromwell chooses who will die and who will be saved; the trials are a formality. Could he have saved Anne if he'd wanted to? Probably not; Henry has realised what an encumbrance living ex-wives and their offspring can be. 4. I found a nice interview by a friend of hers which gives more insight than most into Mantel's writing process. And another one here.
Ir's a compelling read. I found it less hard work than Wolf Hall in terms of keeping track of what's going on, but it's more intense and claustrophobic. The writing is mind-blowing in places -- you can read a page again just for the pleasure of it. The last 100 pages are frighteningly good -- Mantel holds the reader in the palm of her hand and never lets go.
Cromwell is at the peak of his powers here, but Mantel is already hinting at what is to come. The old English families think they can use him, and discard him once they have achieved their aims. At one point, Cromwell says that his only friend is the king. That sounds good, but there's an unspoken subtext: What will happen to him when the increasingly capricious, self-indulgent king is no longer his friend? All the characters seem to be in the grip of a huge machine, slowly and inexorably crushing them; those who avoid the executioner are doing whatever they can to survive. Bring on The Mirror and the Light!(less)
I was gripped from the first paragraph, and stayed gripped all the way through, with a special "wow" moment on page 173. According to another review h...moreI was gripped from the first paragraph, and stayed gripped all the way through, with a special "wow" moment on page 173. According to another review here, "The first rule of Fingersmith is that you don't talk about Fingersmith". And I can see what she means. You can't really say much without giving away some of the plot. And the twists and turns are such that you SHOULD NOT read any spoilers before you start.
All I can say is that the brilliance of the detail, the colourful characters, the plot twists, the Gothic atmosphere cannot help but recall Wilkie Collins (without the laughs) -- but as others have said, Waters gets to put the naughty bits in. I couldn't help also thinking of Daphne du Maurier, but I can't say why without giving things away. And finally of Margaret Atwood's magisterial Alias Grace
I've read both The Night Watch and The Little Stranger, and thoroughly enjoyed them, but this tops both. Waters' biggest talent is to get inside the period she's writing about, and every word, description, gesture seems utterly authentic. Few other authors could maintain the different voices and viewpoints of Sue and Maud so convincingly, and keep the who-knows-what-about whom so perfectly balanced and believable. The flipping of viewpoints that turns everything you think you know inside out is wonderful.
So if you love Victorian gothic, read this. Best book I've read so far this year. My only regret is that I can never again come to it fresh and be constantly surprised. Affinity is beckoning ...(less)
I loved this book, and Nella. It's the wartime Mass Observation diaries of Nella Last, "Housewife, 49" of Barrow-in-Furness. I've read other similar d...moreI loved this book, and Nella. It's the wartime Mass Observation diaries of Nella Last, "Housewife, 49" of Barrow-in-Furness. I've read other similar diaries, most notably the ones in Our Hidden Lives, and they are interesting, but none has captivated me as this book did.
She starts out cautiously but is soon using the diaries as a safety valve to express her frustrations with life. She writes beautifully and naturally, but what's most interesting is the way she changes as the war progresses. At the beginning she is sickly and weak, plagued with arthritis, and refers to a "breakdown" she had a few years before. But she determines to "do something" for the war effort and joins the WVS. From there she goes from strength to strength, and the evolution of her ideas is fascinating; she comes to see her conventional marriage to an old stick of a husband as "slavery". She's also very observant and perceptive of the people around her.
She had me hooked on page 20, when she writes:
[Mr Murphy, her cat] is not anything to look at, and is not too particular about keeping his white bits as clean as he could, but he has a kind and thoughtful nature for a cat.
... "kind" and "thoughtful" are such inappropriate adjectives for a cat, but it shows she knows him. But she also writes lyrically of walks home by moonlight, trips out to the countryside at Coniston Water, the stresses of the blitz, the challenges of getting palatable meals on the table every day, and everyday squabbles and power games at the WVS. She has a truly open mind, always questioning and wondering what the future holds for her sons and the other young people she knows.
I don't want to say too much about it; just read it. It's one of those books where you long to meet the author; she really does seem like someone you know and admire. "Next to being a mother, I'd have loved to write books," she wrote. If only she knew how much pleasure and enlightenment people would get from her "scribblings" 60 years later.(less)
well, wow. I can't say much about this book that hasn't already been said by hundreds of reviewers here and on Amazon. It is extremely rare for me to...morewell, wow. I can't say much about this book that hasn't already been said by hundreds of reviewers here and on Amazon. It is extremely rare for me to give a book five stars, but while this novel isn't perfect, it deserves them. I'm going to say something anyway, but you can ignore it -- just beg, borrow, or buy a copy of this book and read it. Why on earth it didn't win, or even get shortlisted for, the Booker prize I'll never know.
It starts out as a defiantly 19th-century novel, reminiscent of Flaubert. No plunging the reader into the action or attempting to arouse curiosity, the first page is a description of a dull suburban street in Amiens! This first section describes the passionate affair between lonely Englishman Stephen Wraysford and the wife of his French host, a few years before the First World War. Faulks' writing is so vivid and sensual that this is utterly compelling despite the fact that "nothing much happens".
We then skip ahead to the war, and much of the book is taken up with s brutally realistic description of trench warfare. Sometimes I felt Faulks went a bit far with his no-holds-barred descriptions of dragging decomposing bodies out of shellholes, seeing men with their brains dribbling out of their eye sockets -- but it's above all about the reaction of Stephen and other soldiers to extreme stress, as well as a testimony to the appalling inhumanity/insanity of which human beings are capable. Yes, there have been other books and memoirs written about this, but this moved and angered me more than any book since Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth.
This novel is about characters, not plot -- Stephen is a real person, with real thoughts and feelings, real flaws, and you are completely absorbed into his experiences. The description of the attack on the Somme, and all of the last 100 pages, are compelling -- you can barely breathe as you read.
Inevitably the 1978 interludes with his granddaughter Elizabeth finding his notebooks and discovering more about him were less successful. I couldn't believe that Elizabeth could be so ignorant about this war and of course her daily dilemmas were a lot less interesting. But the resolution in the final chapter rounded off the story touchingly. And it is one of those books where you immediately turn back to the beginning.(less)
This is Alice Munro's first published collection. I hadn't read it for some years, and I'd forgotten how perfect some of the stories are. Such surenes...moreThis is Alice Munro's first published collection. I hadn't read it for some years, and I'd forgotten how perfect some of the stories are. Such sureness of touch: it includes several of my favourite stories, notably Boys and Girls, Dance of the Happy Shades, and most especially Red Dress -- 1946. The comparisons with Chekhov and VS Pritchett are thoroughly justified.(less)
My finger hovered over the fifth star for ages. I'd really like to give this 4 1/2 ... I almost never rate books 5* unless they are true masterpieces....moreMy finger hovered over the fifth star for ages. I'd really like to give this 4 1/2 ... I almost never rate books 5* unless they are true masterpieces. But Strout has taken over the mantle of Alice Munro for me -- in a different register, since this is a novel, not short stories. What a writer -- not just stylistically, but in the way she develops real characters, using tiny, intimate details to convey so much about them. At one point, Jim and Helen are staying in a hotel in Shirley Falls because Jim's nephew has disappeared. There's a moment where the fact that Helen does not want to pick up Jim's socks from the floor tells you that their solid marriage is crumbling.
Strout takes you inside all the characters' heads with such skill, exploring the difficult family dynamics in a way that makes you wince but keeps you glued to the page. The least successful characters, rather predictably, are the Somalis, who seem stereotyped in a way the other characters are not, but actually they are just the trigger that starts the unravelling process in the Burgess family. The only other imperfection is the ending, which didn't seem quite right -- although I couldn't say how it should end.
No, the characters are not particularly likable, but they are real, flawed human beings whom you think about when you aren't reading the book -- hallmark of a successful novel for me. I read slowly towards the end, trying to spin it out as long as possible.(less)
I discovered Andrea Barrett via this thoroughly researched narrative about 19th-century Arctic exploration, and she's now one of the authors whose wor...moreI discovered Andrea Barrett via this thoroughly researched narrative about 19th-century Arctic exploration, and she's now one of the authors whose work I snap up as soon as it appears in hardback. Her talent is in combining science with literature in a fascinating and accessible way. Here she manages to combine 19th-century concerns (emancipation of slaves, theories of evolution, an obsession with the Arctic) with more modern ones -- the role of women (who have to stay at home and wait), personal growth, cultural imperialism, and how 'truth' is relative. She reminds me of George Eliot in the way that she takes a generous view even of the least admirable characters. Early in the novel, her main character, Erasmus Wells, a repressed and unsuccessful 40-something naturalist, writes:[return][return]"If I drew that scene I'd show everything happening at once ... But when I describe it in words one thing follows another and everything's shaped by my single pair of eyes, my single voice. I wish I could show it as if through a fan of eyes. Widening out from my single perspective to several viewpoints, then many, so the whole picture might appear and not just my version of it."[return][return]This is how the novel is written -- it doesn't always work (notably in the case of trying to put across the experience of an Eskimo woman transplanted to Philadelphia). But it does give you a sense of the many different versions of reality, and it is beautifully written.(less)
For my money, Ryszard Kapuscinski should be better-known than he is, despite a difficult-to-pronounce name -- he's one of the most outstanding journal...moreFor my money, Ryszard Kapuscinski should be better-known than he is, despite a difficult-to-pronounce name -- he's one of the most outstanding journalists of the 20th century. As the Polish Press Agency's only reporter in Africa, he has covered just about every coup, revolution, civil war, and natural disaster there since 1957 (and also found time to cover conflicts in various other parts of the world as well).
There's an important difference between Kapuscinski and reporters from Western democracies -- unlike them, he has no money. So whereas the other reporters stay at the Hilton and buy or hire Landrovers or planes when they want to go somewhere, Kapuscinski stays in cockroach- and mosquito-infested hovels, catches malaria and TB, and cadges lifts on lorries or private planes. This gets him into some perilous situations (I am constantly amazed by the insouciant way he shrugs off his numerous brushes with death) and it also obviously gives him a different perspective on Africa. He has a gift for engaging with people, and this book is full of encounters with ordinary Africans who would normally just figure as a backdrop to reports on war, famine, or whatever. To him, they are not a homogeneous, starving and desperate mass, but individuals doing their best to get on with their everyday lives in virtually impossible conditions. At one point, he rents an insalubrious room in the "native quarter" of Lagos, despite dire warnings from other westerners of what will happen to him. Their opinions only diverge on one point: whether he will be murdered, or simply die from the effects of the unhygienic conditions. Undaunted, Ryszard carries on anyway. All is well, except that his room is regularly burgled whenever he is absent for a few days. At first, he is enraged. But then a Nigerian, Suleiman, explains to him that in fact the thefts are a gesture of acceptance: they are a way of telling him he is useful to the locals. He will be quite safe so long as he doesn't attempt to find the culprits and punish them. A week later, Suleiman returns with a bunch of white cock feathers and hangs them over the door. The burglaries stop.
The book is full of little vignettes like this (another memorable one is the moment when, sitting on a rock in the desert smoking, he realises he is about to stub out his cigarette on the head of a deadly viper which will bite him if he moves). He's written elsewhere about the horrors of civil war (see notably his earlier book The Soccer War, the title of which refers to a war that broke out between Honduras and El Salvador over a football match). While this book does include eyewitness accounts of coups, it's mostly a vivid, kaleidoscopic view of Africa's multiple landscapes and cultures, mingling personal histories, with brief, effective expositions of history and politics. Despite the grimness of many of the scenes he paints, and the apparent hopelessness of the political and economic situation in every country he visits, the book is genuinely entertaining, and he ends it on a note of hope: a Tanzanian tells him, "The spirit of Africa always takes the form of an elephant, because an elephant cannot be defeated by any other animal -- not the lion, nor the buffalo, nor the snake." Kapuscinski breaks through the stereotyped view of Africa as a continent of famine, corruption, and conflict, and shows you its hidden riches.
This is apparently the first volume of a projected trilogy which will cover Africa, Latin America, and Asia -- I can hardly wait for the rest. If you haven't discovered Kapuscinski yet, you should.(less)
This is a harrowing book. Reading it immediately after Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness made me feel Alexandra Fuller's family had got of...moreThis is a harrowing book. Reading it immediately after Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness made me feel Alexandra Fuller's family had got off quite lightly. The history of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe over the past century is like a showcase of the worst that human beings can be. It makes me almost despair of the human race. Godwin recounts the calamitous results of Robert Mugabe's dictatorship on a country that was once the breadbasket of Africa and is now one of the poorest in the world, and how it affected his own family.
Parts of this book made me feel sick with revulsion. It seems almost incredible that a Jew could escape from the Warsaw ghetto in 1939, reinvent himself as English, escape to Africa, and then find himself persecuted again, purely for being white -- something more difficult to disguise than Jewishness. For me, this book ranks with Bill Carter's Fools Rush in and even Primo Levi's If This Is a Man. And it is shameful that Robert Mugabe still has his foot on the necks of all Zimbabwe's people, black and white.(less)