On the surface, Alif is just a young man who lives with his Indian mother and their maid in the Old Quarter of the city; his Arab father spends his ti...moreOn the surface, Alif is just a young man who lives with his Indian mother and their maid in the Old Quarter of the city; his Arab father spends his time with his aristocratic first wife and their larger family. But his secret identity is as a computer hacker, working against the State to protect his clients, no matter who they might be or what their political or religious affiliations, from surveillance and censorship. In this unnamed emirate city on the Persian Gulf, lines are drawn deep and clearly in the sand and Alif is most definitely an enemy of the state. But he's good, and he's never been caught by the one the hackers call "the Hand of God", or "the Hand" for short.
And then there is Intisar, an aristocratic university student Alif is having a very secret and very illicit affair with. She breaks it off with Alif because her father has arranged for her to marry an important and powerful man: Abbas Al Shehab. Alif is so upset to be losing the woman he loves, that he decides to create a program that will ensure Intisar can never find his online presence, either accidentally or by seeking him out. Naming it "Tin Sari" after her, his creation should be impossible - or at least, it's never been achieved before: it is able to recognise Intisar's key strokes. But when his program falls into the hands of the Hand, state security is able to use it against Alif and his friends.
With his neighbour and childhood friend, Dina, who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, Alif is now a fugitive in his own city. Security agents wait for him at his home and try to follow him through the streets, intent on arresting him - and, now, Dina. With one last parting gift from Intisar, the Thousand and One Days, the jinn's collection of stories to counter the more famous, Thousand and One Nights, Alif and Dina's options of eluding the government are so slim they decide to meet with an infamous figure called Vikram the Vampire, thinking that Alif can pay him to be his bodyguard.
But Vikram is no bodyguard, nor is he a vampire. He's an ancient jinn, definitely not human, and he takes a keen interest in Alif when he discovers that he has one of the original copies of Alf Yeom - The Thousand and One Days. With Vikram's help, they meet "the convert", a young American woman living in the City working on her PhD. thesis, who can help them confirm the book's origins. But with state security and the Hand closing in, and no plan to save their necks, Alif and his friends must make it up as they go along, even if that includes journeying into the hazards of jinn territory.
This is a tricky book to summarise, and the book jacket did a much better job than I've just done, but I wanted to give you some idea of how it all starts and how much magical realism is involved, because it's highly relevant. The thing is, this story isn't really about plot, but about the characters and, even more importantly, ideas.
Cleverly packaged into an adventure-mystery-fantasy novel, Alif the Unseen is brimming with good stuff, and I loved it. It's the kind of book where I could read it on many different levels: amused by Alif, who's a bit of a dag, intelligent and skilled but young and rather immature (at first), and his friends; curious about Dina, an Egyptian who's decided to go the whole niqab even though that's an aristocratic thing to do (the full covering minus gap for eyes); enchanted by the incredibly charismatic and funny Vikram; absorbed by the religious and ideological questions posed; fascinated by the jinn and their world; and on the edge of my seat with suspense. There's some gorgeous writing here too, unpretentious, laid-back almost, vibrant with just the right amount of detail to really draw you in without boring you. For a debut novel (though not Wilson's first published work), it's really very, very good.
At its heart it is a story of a young man growing up: Alif (which is his "handle", not his real name; it's the first letter of the Arabic alphabet), matures over the course of the novel, as more misadventures and hardships are thrown his way, and he has to come to the personal realisation that Intisar is just a rich girl who likes her comforts, while Dina, he realises, is so much closer to his heart. It's such an old storyline, but so true of us. As Alif wastes away, naked and starving, in the State's prison in the desert, locked up in complete and utter darkness, his mind drifts, remakes the past, and coalesces into a new future - if he can get out.
He thought of Dina in a summer robe, gray or green in contrast to her usual black, sandals slapping against her feet as she came through the courtyard laden with bags of fruit from the market.That would make it a Saturday. He was baffled to remember that there had been a time when such a scene would have filled him with existential dread, agony at the quiet female rhythms that encompassed him, prompting him to flee back to his computers, the cloud, the digital world populated by men.
Now the idea of such an afternoon seemed exquisite. He had let too many pass with too much indifference. In his mind he made himself get down off the ledge and go outside to help Dina with her bags, then see if there was anything his mother needed; he spoke to the maid in complete sentences, and remembered to clean the dust from his own shoes when he came back inside. Naked in the dark, with the memory of the Hand's reptilian eyes, he realized that the ritualized world he had dismissed as feminine was in fact civilization. [p.270]
It was interesting to find the sensory-deprivation torture and imprisonment method in this gaol, in this book, because it reminded me of another book: Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine, which begins with the history of this method. It began with a Canadian psychiatrist who believed that he could cure people suffering from things like bipolar, depression and schizophrenia etc., by wiping their minds and starting anew - to do this he experimented with extreme sensory deprivation: total darkness, silence, no human contact, the kind of environment designed to make you mad or at least a slobbering idiot, and then shock the brain to restart it. The method was picked up by the American military and adapted to the scale of whole countries, the goal being to reduce them to helplessness with this "shock therapy" and then to roll in with a rescue package which involved total privatisation and corporate control. Which was the plan with Iraq, and we all know how well that turned out. Anyway, it's just one of the many tangents my mind went on while reading this (meaning that it's thought-provoking in unexpected ways, not dull!).
Alif's time in the State Security Prison was vividly rendered and one of the most absorbing sections of the novel. His decline into a kind of madness occurred so organically, and the stripping away of all his dignity and notion of "self" so realistic, that it was one of the most tense parts of the story. I honestly couldn't tell how that ordeal would end; suffice it to say that you won't be able to predict it.
Almost all the characters in this book were "my favourite character", from Alif to Dina to Vikram to Sheikh Bilal to NewQuarter01 to the vast array of supporting cast. Sheikh Bilal, though, really stuck out for me, being one of those older-generation men, sheikh of Basheera mosque and as such a high-up religious leader, who nevertheless has a ready wit, a sharp eye and a certain degree of open-mindedness. In a way, he's the Arab equivalent of the kindly Father/vicar/priest, the oldish man at peace with himself, untroubled by spiritual questions or paralysis, and generally content. Quite likely a cliche character, a stereotype that we enjoy - not being religious myself, I couldn't say how true to life the character really is, but they're like a kindly uncle, a wise grandfather, a calm, reliable guide through the chaos of life. Sheikh Bilal certainly fulfilled that role for Alif, though he found a new calling along the way. He's not rigid in his beliefs, and comes to new understandings:
"I have had much experience with the unclean and the uncivilized in the recent past. Shall I tell you what I discovered? I am not the state of my feet. I am not the dirt on my hands or the hygiene of my private parts. If I were these things, I would not have been at liberty to pray at any time since my arrest. But I did pray, because I am not these things. In the end, I am not even myself. I am a string of bones speaking the word God." [p.294]
Sheikh Bilal's words capture the artistic side of religion - or of humanity, really, since we've never managed to successfully stifle the creative, poetic side of our natures (not that we should, but many people, many religions, have tried and continue to try). The passage sounded like a kind of poetry when I read it. Sheikh Bilal is everything that is good about religion, though as far as I'm concerned, figures like him don't make up for the negatives of organised religion. He reminded me of the quintessential, quaint old English parson. Religion is a key theme of the novel - not dogma, not moralising, but the nature of religion, and how people interact with it - the human condition as it relates to religion - and this I have always found interesting. A djinn who acts as their guide into the Empty Quarter, the home of the jinn that lies in another dimension, has a keen perspective on it:
"Belief," said the man. "It doesn't mean the same thing it used to, not for you. You have unlearned the hidden half of the world."
"But the world is crawling with religious fanatics. Surely belief is thriving."
"Superstition is thriving. Pedantry is thriving. Sectarianism is thriving. Belief is dying out. To most of our people the jinn are paranoid fantasies who run around causing epilepsy and mental illness. Find me someone to whom the hidden folk are simply real, as described in the Books. You'll be searching a long time. Wonder and awe have gone out of your religions. You are prepared to accept the irrational, but not the transcendent. And that, cousin, is why I can't help you." [p.303]
It's in this way that Alif the Unseen connects the contemporary human world, religion and the "unseen". I've said before that the Bible is, in a way, a fantasy novel, and that doesn't diminish anything it has to say. I've read other novels that, like this one, speak to the idea that religion and fantasy are one and the same, not enemies of each other, as opposed to the strict, dry interpretation of other denominations the world over which fears the unknown, the unseen, the questionable. One thing that you'll be sure to notice, is that while Islam is the religion of the characters, and the region, it's almost identical to Christianity. This novel does an excellent job at humanising Islam and Muslims - the repressive and oppressive State has little to do with religion - and since books about how much you should fear Islam are still being published, I figure we need more books like Alif the Unseen.
I wasn't able to follow the computer/technology side of the plot as easily as the mystical, though Alif himself doesn't understand what he's doing half the time. It's not confusing in such a way as to put you off; you can easily go along with it, letting it sidle into your brain in an unfocused way, but I do like to visualise things and it's hard for a non-computer-geek to visualise 1's and 0's. ;)
If it is about mysticism, it is also about storytelling, and human nature - especially human greed and lust for power. The Alf Yeom, or The Thousand and One Days, was narrated to a Persian man by a jinn, forced to tell jinn stories which, men believed, contain the secret to gaining immense power. The Hand has a plan for it, and Alif comes to the realisation of what the Hand was going to attempt - and also to the knowledge, through experience, of why it wouldn't work. Within Alif the Unseen are several short stories, or parables, that impart a message. They were very fun to read, with "The Vampire and King Vikram" being an immediate favourite.
Wilson has written a fantastic novel, a high-stakes adventure-mystery story that skilfully weaves in parables and timely questions on faith, censorship, integrity and freedom, while remaining at its heart an endearing love story. Having recently read her graphic novel, Cairo, I really enjoyed going back to the world of the jinn, where human rules and understanding do not apply, as well as exploring this ancient, dusty Arab city.
My thanks to McClelland & Stewart for a copy of this book. (less)
"So today, I hit one of those stoned camels with my truck." So beings Ashraf's story to his mother, sitting by her grave with a cigarette in one hand...more"So today, I hit one of those stoned camels with my truck." So beings Ashraf's story to his mother, sitting by her grave with a cigarette in one hand and a hookah by his side. Ashraf is a drug dealer, running hashish into Israel, and hitting that camel nearly gets him killed by border guards. That's just the beginning of his wild and wonderful tale. Leaving the cemetery, he heads for a cafe where his good friend Ali is having tea with Ashraf's sister, Salma. While a young female Israeli soldier gets a ride with the Bedouin and their "stoned camels" into Cairo, a Lebanese-American called Shaheed (meaning "martyr") with possible suicide-bombing plans arrives on a plane along with another American, an idealistic student called Kate who came to Cairo mostly to escape Orange County. She wanders into the cafe asking for directions to her hotel, and there she meets Ali and Salma. Ali offers to take her to her hotel, but as they head down the street they are taken hostage, all because of Ashraf and the hookah. Ashraf, meanwhile, is looking for a dumb tourist to sell the hookah to, and encounters Shaheed, who willingly buys it.
Inside the hookah, unbeknownst to Ashraf, is a jinn called Shams, a tall elegant-looking man who manipulates probabilities in order to "grant wishes". He was trapped inside the hookah by Nar, an evil sorcerer who is looking for a box that contains a word of power, which Shams is determined to get to first and give to Shaheed. Nar's goons have taken Ashraf's friend - and Kate - hostage until he brings back the hookah, which means Ashraf must find Shaheed. Things for Ashraf are further complicated by Tova, the Special Forces soldier from Israel who asks Ashraf, at gunpoint, to get her back into Israel using his drug running route. And so the race, the confluence of choices, begins.
Cairo is an energetic, adventurous, fun, quick story that you can devour in a couple of hours - in fact, it shuttles along at a quick pace like a movie, flowing from one scene to another in much the same way. It perfectly balances a modern, colourful city with cultural and political tensions and ancient Egyptian myths to create a magical adventure story complete with gun fights, djinni, flying carpets, the devil, crises of conscience and coming-of-age stories for the two youngest, Shaheed and Kate.
The five main (human) characters, Ashraf, Tavo, Ali, Kate and Shaheed, are each introduced in such a way that you get a good idea of their characters from the start, Perker's clever illustrations capturing body language and nuances that complement the dialogue. Their intro scenes bleed one into another, so that it's very easy to flow with the story. The pacing is swift, but not always busy, giving you time to catch up.
That said, there were a few times the plot went a bit too fast for me, especially in regards to Nar and the mysterious box. Or rather, the box containing the mysterious word. I'm not entirely sure I followed all that, and while I did get the full impression of Nar as a bad man with strong magical powers and a cunning mind, I knew nothing of him beyond those details. He wasn't fleshed out at all, which left him as a bit of a caricature of a character.
On the other hand, Shams was also left mysterious, but in his case this added depth to his character, not left him flat. He's a jinn, after all. There are times when you see his vulnerability, his hopes, his sadness. He and Ashraf were my favourite characters; Ashraf may have been a bit of a cliche, but he was still hugely fun and could often steal a scene. He was also the comic relief, and like any good action movie, there's always a need for a few laughs.
There are some moments of moralising, not preaching but the characters coming to realise things about themselves and the world. It was handled well, not belaboured, sometimes not even stated but shown. During an unexpected trip to the Undernile, where the devil whispers to them, Kate and Ali have a great argument where their prejudices and arrogance come out. Shaheed has a mystical transformation which I didn't fully grasp, since it all hinges on the word in the box. And Ali has a renewed enthusiasm in getting the news out to Cairo, no matter how much the censors remove first.
If you're looking for a well-written, wonderfully-illustrated graphic novel that reads like an action movie but with more depth, and tells a story you haven't really heard before, definitely pick up a copy of Cairo. (less)
It all begins the day David's wife Stacey is queuing at the bank. A man comes in, armed with a gun, and makes everyone line up, customers and staff al...moreIt all begins the day David's wife Stacey is queuing at the bank. A man comes in, armed with a gun, and makes everyone line up, customers and staff alike, and orders them to give him whatever is most precious to them. He doesn't want their wallets, but random objects of sentimental value - they are pieces of their souls.
Without these objects, strange things begin to happen to each of the people who were in the bank that day. For some, it is a small, passing moment that endangers no one. For others, life changes irrevocably. Dawn Metcalf's lion tattoo leaves her skin and turns into a life-sized beast that hunts her relentlessly through Toronto's streets. Gail's husband turns into a snowman and begins to melt. Jenna Jacob turns into candy, and in the heat of passion, her husband eats her. David Bishop's elderly mother splits and splits until there are hundreds of her, all tiny; she keeps splitting until she drifts away on a gust of wind. And George Walterby, who had given the robber his daughter's dummy, got home to discover his baby girl is shitting money. Stacey, meanwhile, begins to shrink, a small amount each day. When she figures out the pattern, she realises exactly how many days she has left before she shrinks away and disappears entirely.
This tiny little book - beautifully bound and illustrated, with soft paper that makes it feel much older than it is - hits a great many of my reading preferences: it's set in Toronto, and I love reading books set in places I'm familiar with; it's a modern-day fable, and quirky as hell; it's magical realism, which always tickles and delights me; and it's a moving story about a couple whose marriage is on the rocks - despite their two-year-old boy, Jasper - and who have to fix what's wrong with their relationship before Stacey's shrinking can be arrested. It's a story made up of little stories, each one fascinating and imaginative, poignant and pleasing, as well as, at times, sad and even tragic.
This is the first book by Kaufman I've read, though based on my enjoyment of it, I've since ordered a couple more of his books. In eight-eight pages, Kaufman's strength was in creating the weird and wonderful, spinning dark tales with clear prose that blur the lines between horror and whimsy. I did feel that there was something, something I personally sought, missing - I don't know what, but for as much as I loved this, it holds me back from really loving it. Yet it's so well brought together, nothing drags, and there's hope for Stacey at the end.
Perhaps it's that we never find out the truth about the robber, who may or may not have met his end at the paws and jaws of Dawn's lion. Why did he do it? Why did he later make phone calls to them, as if he wanted to help them solve their dilemmas? This, I guess, is what makes it a fable. The questions, the hints of possibility. That, and what happens to the individuals themselves. Some of them escape with what seem like safe, if still bizarre, events - like what happens to Jennifer Layone:
On Thursday 22nd February, one day after the robbery, Jennifer Layone was searching underneath the couch for the remote control when she found God. He looked almost exactly like she'd expected him to look - long white beard, robe, sandals, the whole thing. But he was very dirty. It was dusty underneath the couch, and since she was doing laundry anyway, she took him with her to the laundromat.
Jennifer put him in a washing machine. She was running low on quarters, so she washed him with a load of jeans. She must have forgotten to check the pockets because when she took God out of the washing machine, he was covered in little bits of Kleenex. This disappointed God. He wouldn't look Jennifer in the eyes and he left the laundromat without saying goodbye. Now she was no closer to God than she'd been before the robbery. [pp.22-23]
I just love that one, it's so neat and perfect and weird and I can just picture it, it reminds me of British sketch comedy. From the fun and chuckle of that story, to the awful tragedy of Grace Gainsfield which near brought me to tears, this little book - novella - packs quite the punch. There's also a great sense of atmosphere in the scenes, rendering them vivid in my imagination - balancing the surreal with the tangible to create a story that's almost plausible.
The black-and-white illustrations, done in silhouette style, beautifully complement the stories and add to the fairy-tale quality of the whole novella. If you want to see them, check out the book trailer.
This is an utterly delightful novella, the best kind of fable with its balance of dark and light, tragedy and hope. Skilfully told, beautifully paced with a throbbing sense of tension and suspense, I whole-heartedly recommend this to readers who delight in the strange and unexpected.(less)
I'm leery of writers as prolific as Patterson, because it shouts of quantity over quality and I'm suspicious of someone who can churn out books that f...moreI'm leery of writers as prolific as Patterson, because it shouts of quantity over quality and I'm suspicious of someone who can churn out books that fast: doesn't seem like they can be anything more than poorly-written fluff.
I saw this one at Christmas and maybe it was the cover or the premise, I don't know, but I was in the mood to give it a try. And, well, it is fluff.
"What if your imaginary friend from childhood was your one true love?" the caption on the front cover reads. "I'd be a bit creeped-out" is my immediate response.
Jane Margaux's famous Broadway producer mother has no time for her, though she'll drag the little girl to the Astor Court in the Regis Hotel, where she'll eat sundaes at a separate table while her mother does business or gossips with her celebrity hairdresser. Afterwards she happily follows her mother, Vivienne, to Tiffany's, where Vivienne will try on diamonds.
Jane's not completely alone though: she has an imaginary friend, a grown man named Michael whom only she can see. He keeps her company, plays games with her, talks to her and walks her to school. They are the best of friends and Jane never imagines for a moment that he won't always be with her. On her ninth birthday, however, Michael has bad news: now that she's nine, he can't stay with her anymore. She won't remember him at all tomorrow and she'll be able to manage without him.
But Jane does remember Michael - and, as an adult still under her mother's domineering thumb, writes a surprisingly successful play about their friendship called Thank Heaven. The lead actor who plays Michael, Hugh, becomes Jane's boyfriend: he's superficial, vain and a weasel, but she lets him stand her up at dinner and try to bully her into casting him as Michael for the film version, even though she doesn't think he was right for the stage play.
Then one day she sees a man having dessert with another woman at the Astor Court, and she can't believe her eyes: it's Michael. He hasn't changed a bit, but now that she's a grown woman she can appreciate how handsome he is. With Michael, she has the courage to do and say the things she's always wanted to do, but will he leave her again? And what exactly is he? Is he even real?
It's a simple-enough premise, and a bit of a coincidence after reading Eternal just before (about a guardian angel), but you just need to go with it. It's a very sweet story, full of cliches and self-indulgent moments - though to be fair, I didn't catch myself cringing more than a couple of times. It's far from a deep story, shying away from anything too profound, and reads like a very light romantic drama movie that tries too hard to wring a few tears out of you.
I wasn't wrong about the writing quality - it's not that it's bad, just that it's light and simplistic. Very easy to read, in eighty-two very short chapters that alternate between Jane's first person and Michael's third person narration, the pacing enables you to fly through this book. If you're taking it on a plane (which seems to me to be the perfect setting for this book), make sure your flight only lasts about three hours, or you'll need to pack a second book.
I'm curious about what role Charbonnet played - a children's book writer, I don't think she wrote Jane's parts and Patterson wrote Michael's, because they aren't written in different styles, but I have no idea how you write a book with another person.
The only other thing I really wanted to say, speaking of the characters, is that they're too superficial: you never really get to know them. Michael in particular is so kind and good and perfect and handsome, but has no personality. And he serves as Jane's crutch - she falls apart when he's not around. Which makes her a weak, dependent heroine.
I won't say this is a disappointing book, because I had pretty low expectations and was in the mood for something fluffy and non-taxing. But just because I wanted to read a book like this doesn't mean that I can excuse its many faults - if the characters (and the story) had grabbed me more, I probably would have (as I did for Twilight and others). But it is what it is and so don't expect too much.(less)
Originally published as a short-story in Collier's magazine's "Tales of the Jazz Age" in 1922, Fitzgerald's quirky, fairy-tale-like story of a man bor...moreOriginally published as a short-story in Collier's magazine's "Tales of the Jazz Age" in 1922, Fitzgerald's quirky, fairy-tale-like story of a man born at age seventy who gets younger has been widely available as a novella for many years. This collector's edition has been released to coincide with the movie: it's a lovely little black hardcover with glossy pages and wonderful colour illustrations by Calef Brown.
Benjamin Button was born in 1860 at age 70: bald, shrunken, with a long beard and a querulous voice. His parents are horrified. His father, Roger, refuses to think of him as anything but a baby, even though he has to go out and buy a man's suit for him. He also gets him toys that his son isn't interested in and makes him play with the other little boys on the street.
The story in brief (skip for spoilers; read if the movie preview made no sense to you) As he grows "older", he actually gets younger. At five, he's 65. At 18 he is accepted at Yale but on meeting the registrar is thrown out because of his apparent age. At 50 (or 20, depending on how you look at it), he falls in love with pretty young Hildegarde Moncrief (who likes older men) and marries her. As she ages and he gets younger he loses interest in her and goes to fight in the Spanish Civil War. He has a son called Roscoe. He continues to get younger at the same rate a normal person would age. Finally his wife moves to Italy and he lives with his son. At the age of 20 he goes to Harvard but each year the work gets harder. His own son treats him like a teenager, is impatient and embarrassed with him. At fifteen he gets a letter wanting him to join the Great War as a General - he goes off to the base and is laughed at, until Roscoe comes to take him home. And so it goes, until he's back at kindergarten with Roscoe's son, and then he's too young for that and he spends his time with his nanny until, finally, even the smells and sensations he knows slip away. -------
It's a sad story, especially because from the very beginning we know what will happen to Benjamin Button. There's no escape for him, fate rides heavily on him. He has seventy years in which to live and that's it. So what the hell is this story trying to say? What's the point of it? Is it fantasy, a fairy-tale, a fable, a parable?
I read this yesterday and have had some time to think it over. It could be saying many things, among them: the inevitability of our existence, our death, or how when you're old you're very much like a baby - there's some cute joke about that. It also brought to mind that song, Cats in the Cradle, you know the one, about the father who was too busy and impatient to spend time with his son until he was old, but by then his son was too busy and impatient to spend time with him. So sad. This story is a lot like that. Benjamin just never seems to be the right age, to appreciate things or to be appreciated. The way his own son treats him is especially sad, far sadder than how Roger Button treated him.
Because of the style - and it's written like a fairy-tale, not in Fitzgerald's usual style (which makes it more readable, in my opinion) - it doesn't read as sad, but it does have that tone of inevitability. It has comical moments which are tinged with this tragic inevitability, which certainly makes it sad, yet it's not depressing. I'm no fan of Fitzgerald as you know, but he was capable of writing some truly stunning sentences. You won't find that here. It's sparse, stripped down and lacking embellishment - because none is needed. It is, at times, tongue-in-cheek, but softly so and easily missed.
A quick 10 minute read at most (plus some extra time to study the lovely illustrations), you could easily read this standing in the aisle in the bookshop. But I'm glad I brought it home with me. Yes, this is the first time I've been pleased to read something by Fitzgerald. Fans should at least be able to appreciate this little book as sign of his wide repertoire even if they don't like the story itself.(less)
Ah me I love Murakami. This is only the fifth book of his I've read but they never disappoint. I started with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which I read...moreAh me I love Murakami. This is only the fifth book of his I've read but they never disappoint. I started with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which I read when I lived in Japan. Seemed fitting. Followed up with A Wild Sheep Chase, Dance Dance Dance and Underground, a non-fiction book where he collected and told the stories of survivors from the Tokyo Subway gas attack. I have more on my shelf. I plan to read every single book of his.
After Dark is definitely one of his more approachable books. It was almost "normal". I had thought, when I bought it back in 2008, that it was a collection of short stories set in one night - that's how the blurb reads. It's not, though in a way there are vignettes. Over the course of one night, we follow nineteen-year-old Mari, who doesn't want to go home, as she tries to keep herself awake. She encounters Takahashi, who met her once at the pool several years ago; he has an all-night jam session with his trombone. When a friend of his, Kaoru, who manages a love hotel, needs help with a Chinese prostitute who's been beaten up, Takahashi tells her where she can find Mari, who speaks Chinese. Meanwhile, at her home, her older sister, a beautiful model called Eri, is deeply asleep. There's something deeply disturbing and scary when her unplugged TV comes to life and a masked man watches her through the screen.
So there is a touch of Murakami surrealism here, but only in the Eri scenes. Of course, the conversations the characters have are delightfully Murakami as well, though less bizarre than in some of his other books. The prose is gorgeous, a heavily descriptive style in After Dark that yet manages to be light and airy and somehow sinister at the same time. He has such a way at turning "telling" on its head: he narrates, describes, details, but shows more than he tells. It's subtle, you almost don't notice it at all. So much more is revealed in a simple descriptive sentence than is really told. It's in the telling, in the style. It reads so light, deceptively light.
The atmosphere is rich and vibrant. Tokyo at night - it feels insular and narrow, but real. I remember the pockets, pockets of neon light, pockets of deep shadow. The feeling of being both awake and asleep at the same time. Of being alone amongst so many people. Of being part of a tapestry, or a labyrinth.
This isn't what I expected, it's not as dark or surreal as some of his other books - more dialogue-centred, focused more primarily on interactions between people - but that just meant it wasn't predictable or boring. There's suspense, a feeling of tension, but not the anxious kind. More a feeling of expectation. And of course the mystery is unsolved, and leaves your imagination buzzing with possibilities. Just the way I like it :)(less)
It is 1985 and the world isn't quite as we know it. Nor is history the same. There's a lot of odd things going on, otherwordly creatures are real, som...moreIt is 1985 and the world isn't quite as we know it. Nor is history the same. There's a lot of odd things going on, otherwordly creatures are real, some people can go back and forth in time, literature is BIG, and the Crimean war has been going on since the 1800s. Thursday Next, a veteran of this war, now works for SpecOps (Special Operations) 27- the Literatec division. She's a kind of literature detective, and when the original manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit vanishes, she is brought into a much bigger case involving her old Uni professor, Acheron Hades, now a master-mind criminal.
Hades' plan is fairly simple: using Thursday's uncle's Prose Portal invention, he can kidnap characters from manuscripts and hold them to ransom. Literature being as important as it is in this world, you can bet he can demand millions. When his plan for Chuzzlewit doesn't go quite as planned, he steals the manuscript for Jane Eyre instead.
In this story, the plot of Jane Eyre is a bit different. Namely, she marries her cousin St John and goes to India with him. Or Africa, wherever it was. Everyone agrees it's a disappointing ending, not least of all Rochester himself, whom Thursday has a few run-ins with. It seems popping in and out of books isn't so hard as you might think. I do have to wonder, though, at Thursday's run-down of the plot for her colleague's benefit, because I have to disagree on a few points: firstly, Rochester fell in love with Jane pretty much straight away, he just didn't show it; secondly, he never intended to marry Blanche Inghram, that was just a ploy to get Jane jealous and make her love him back; and maybe it's naive of me, and maybe it's the opposite, but I don't know that there's much proof that Adele was Rochester's "love-child".
Anyway. The plot might seem a little confusing, because there's so much happening at once, but it's not. It's fast-paced and funny, and also highly original. I do have to question the curious use of a first-person omniscient narrator - though in this particular world, anything goes; it's just a bit odd to have scenes related in detail of which Thursday wasn't present for. Also, and this is a bit of a pet peeve of mine, when someone is retelling a situation that includes a conversation, no one says things like "I stammered in reply" and "There was a pause. Acheron smiled." Seriously, this kind of thing is very distracting because it's so utterly implausible and unrealistic.
Also, I don't know how much of literature or anything else you could learn from a book like this, which is at its heart mocking, and full of deviances. I wouldn't take anything for fact. But I loved the joke names, especially the (rather obvious) Jack Schitt - oh loads of fun there! Thursday's uncle, Mycroft Next, the inventor, is a bit like Q from the James Bond movies, but much more vague; anyway, his inventions are quite funny. The side-plot of the Crimean war adds a serious bent to the novel, and is plenty pertinent.
In short, it wasn't quite what I was expecting but I enjoyed it immensely. I loved how the ending of Jane Eyre - one of my favourite books by the way - was changed to the one that we are familiar with sort-of by accident. And I loved the idea of the characters living the life of the story, over and over again, but able to do more or less as they liked when they weren't in the scene. Rochester was wonderful :)(less)
This is a book to treasure, a new classic. I absolutely loved it.
Set in Germany in the years 1939-1943, The Book Thief tells the story of Liesel, narr...moreThis is a book to treasure, a new classic. I absolutely loved it.
Set in Germany in the years 1939-1943, The Book Thief tells the story of Liesel, narrated by Death who has in his possession the book she wrote about these years. So, in a way, they are both book thieves. Liesel steals randomly at first, and later more methodically, but she's never greedy. Death pockets Liesel's notebook after she leaves it, forgotten in her grief, amongst the destruction that was once her street, her home, and carries it with him.
Liesel is effectively an orphan. She never knew her father, her mother disappears after delivering her to her new foster parents, and her younger brother died on the train to Molching where the foster parents live. Death first encounters nine-year-old Liesel when her brother dies, and hangs around long enough to watch her steal her first book, The Gravedigger's Handbook, left lying in the snow by her brother's grave.
Her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Herbermann, are poor Germans given a small allowance to take her in. Hans, a tall, quiet man with silver eyes, is a painter (of houses etc.) and plays the accordian. He teaches Liesel how to read and write. Rosa is gruff and swears a lot but has a big heart, and does laundry for rich people in the town. Liesel becomes best friends with her neighbour Rudy, a boy with "hair the colour of lemons" who idolises the black Olympic champion sprinter Jesse Owens.
One night a Jew turns up in their home. He's the son of a friend of Hans from the first world war, the man who taught him the accordian, whose widowed wife Hans promised to help if she ever needed it. Hans is a German who does not hate Jews, though he knows the risk he and his family are taking, letting Max live in the basement. Max and Liesel become close friends, and he writes an absolutely beautiful story for her, called The Standover Man, which damn near broke my heart. It's the story of Max, growing up and coming to Liesel's home, and it's painted over white-painted pages of Mein Kampf, which you can see through the paint.
Whenever I read a book, I cannot help but read it in two ways: the story itself, and how it's written. They're not quite inseparable, but they definitely support each other. With The Book Thief, Markus Zusak has shown he's a writer of genius, an artist of words, a poet, a literary marvel. His writing is lyrical, haunting, poetic, profound. Death is rendered vividly, a lonely, haunted being who is drawn to children, who has had a lot of time to contemplate human nature and wonder at it. Liesel is very real, a child living a child's life of soccer in the street, stolen pleasures, sudden passions and a full heart while around her bombs drop, maimed veterans hang themselves, bereaved parents move like ghosts, Gestapo take children away and the dirty skeletons of Jews are paraded through the town.
Many things save this book from being all-out depressing. It's never morbid, for a start. A lively humour dances through the pages, and the richness of the descriptions as well as the richness of the characters' hearts cannot fail to lift you up. Also, it's great to read such a balanced story, where ordinary Germans - even those who are blond and blue-eyed - are as much at risk of losing their lives, of being persecuted, as the Jews themselves.
I can't go any further without talking about the writing itself. From the very first title page, you know you're in for something very special indeed. The only way to really show you what I mean is to select a few quotes (and I wish I was better at keeping track of lines I love).
"As he looked uncomfortably at the human shape before him, the young man's voice was scraped out and handed across the dark like it was all that remained of him." (p187)
"Imagine smiling after a slap in the face. Then think of doing it twenty-four hours a day. That was the business of hiding a Jew." (p.239)
"The book was released gloriously from his hand. It opened and flapped, the pages rattling as it covered ground in the air. More abruptly than expected, it stopped and appeared to be sucked towards the water. It clapped when it hit the surface and began to float downstream." (p.325)
"So many humans. So many colours. They keep triggering inside me. They harass my memory. I see them tall in their heaps, all mounted on top of each other. There is air like plastic, a horizon like setting glue. There are skies manufactured by people, punctured and leaking, and there are soft, coal-coloured clouds, beating, like black hearts. And then. There is death. Making his way through all of it. On the surface: unflappable, unwavering. Below: unnerved, untied, and undone." (p.331)
"After ten minutes or so, what was most prominent in the cellar was a kind of non-movement. Their bodies were welded together and only their feet changed position or pressure. Stillness was shackled to their faces. They watched each other and waited." (p.402)
"People and Jews and clouds all stopped. They watched. As he stood, Max looked first at the girl and then stared directly into the sky who was wide and blue and magnificent. There were heavy beams - planks of sun - falling randomly, wonderfully, onto the road. Clouds arched their backs to look behind as they started again to move on. "It's such a beautiful day," he said, and his voice was in many pieces. A great day to die. A great day to die, like this." (pp.543-4)
Writing like this is not something just anyone can do: it's true art. Only a writer of Zusak's talent could make this story work, and coud get away with such a proliferation of adjectives and adverbs, to write in such a way as to revitalise the language and use words to paint emotion and a vivid visual landscape in a way you'd never before encountered. This is a book about the power of words and language, and it is fitting that it is written in just such this way.
The way this book was written also makes me think of a musical, or an elaborate, flamboyant stage-play. It's in the title pages for each part, in Death's asides and manner of emphasing little details or even speech, in the way Death narrates, giving us the ending at the beginning, giving little melodrammatic pronouncements that make you shiver. It's probably the first book I've read that makes me feel how I feel watching The Phantom of the Opera, if that helps explain it.
Written in Russian in 1925 by the author of The Master and Margarita (his more famous book, which is on my to-read list), Heart of a Dog upset the Com...moreWritten in Russian in 1925 by the author of The Master and Margarita (his more famous book, which is on my to-read list), Heart of a Dog upset the Communist sensibilities so much that it was banned in Russia until the 80s. That should give some indication of the flippancy of this book, though it was probably quite easy to upset the Russian Communists (as I learned from reading Darkness at Noon).
It follows the story of Sharikh, a stray dog who follows a man home because he offers him sausage. The man, Professor Philip Philoppovich Preobrazhensky, is a kind of doctor who specialises in putting animal parts - namely sexual organs - into human patients. He's wealthy, a bougois oasis within the Communist machine, keeping his lavish 7-room apartment with the help of his high-profiled clients. Another doctor, young Bormenthal, assists him, and he has two female servants - another luxory, to be sure. Needless to say, the building's Housing Committee hate him.
His latest experiment involves taking a human man's testicles and his pituitary gland and inserting them into Sharikh. The man is dead, the dog unconscious, and against the odds he survives. The experiment was part of the professor's search for rejuvenation, but instead the dog becomes a kind-of human man. He starts to talk, he loses most of his fur, he stands upright. But his habits are filthy, his temper bad, his intellect questionable. To make matters worse, he lets Shvonder of the Housing Committee educate him in the communist ways, and gets a job ridding Moscow of cats.
This is a fascinating, funny book full of ideas and themes. I was rather surprised that, among the nine people present at the book club meeting, a few like me really liked it, some were neutral, and some really didn't like it. We could come to no concensus on what it was really about, or even if we were reading too much into it. One idea is about the animal-like qualities of the Communists, another about forcing foreign ideas into people's heads before they're ready for them, as the "foreign" patuitary gland is put into Sharikh's. There were lots more ideas but, sadly, they've slipped my mind just now (the meeting was two days ago).
But I loved the tongue-in-cheek humour and irony, the moments of silliness which was refreshing after recently reading other Russian heavy-weights like Darkness at Noon and Anna Karenina. I loved the writing style: Bulgakov is able to conjure images in your head with only a few words. Having read this, I'm really looking forward to reading his more well-known book, The Master and Margarita, which I had never heard of until recently (and when I was looking for this book, it took me a while to realise it was the same author! Yep, I'm a complete twit). (less)
This is a perfect example of low - and negative - expectations bringing in the mother load. A year or so ago this book suddenly hit the big time. Ever...moreThis is a perfect example of low - and negative - expectations bringing in the mother load. A year or so ago this book suddenly hit the big time. Everywhere I looked people were reading it. They still are. Curious, I looked it up and was immediately put off. It sounded like one of those boring meditative, well-meaning quasi-religious books like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (the very first page of which, I assure you, bored me to tears - that was as far as I got).
Yet a few months ago I found myself buying it at one of the secondhand bookshops I frequent, and I'm still not sure why. It got fat and lazy on my shelf, not making any effort whatsoever to catch my eye. I still expected it to be a lot of philosophical mumbling like Sophie's World, which I didn't get far with either back when I was a teenager. But then it came up as the book for June with one of the online book clubs I'm with, and when I eventually got around to it I found it very hard to put down.
Piscine Molitor Patel grew up in Pondicherry, India. His father was a zookeeper and kept a great many animals at the Pondicherry Zoo - until a change in government has his family packing their bags for the Big Move to Winnipeg, Canada. All the animals have to be sold or traded off, and homes have been found for them in zoos in India and America, among other places. In 1977, those bound for the US join them on the Japanese cargo ship, the Tsimtsum, which, somewhere in the Pacific, sinks.
The only survivors are Pi, a urangutan named Orange Juice, a zebra with a broken leg, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger. The lifeboat they share is not just cramped, it's a case of who'll be dinner first. Pi not only has to survive the Pacific, he has to survive a hyena and a Bengal tiger.
Written in the first person in a wonderful, humorous, frank style, we come to know Pi so well his story is infinitely believable. The question of whether his story is true or not is raised at the end, when an alternative version is given, but - as some people with a better grasp of such things helpfully pointed out in the book club - if you can believe Pi's story, you can believe in God. Here is one crux of the story: it is set up, at the beginning by "the author", who is supposedly re-telling a true story after having talked to Pi Patel at his home in Toronto, that "this is a story that will make you believe in God". It very well might, but that's not what I got out of this story.
I didn't have a problem believing in it. Humans - and animals - are capable of the most extraordinary things in extraordinary times. The laws of nature have plenty of exceptions. With so many vivid details, so many helpful tips if you are ever stranded in the ocean on a lifeboat, and Pi's youthful (he's only 16) but wise narration, I not only wanted it to be real, but visited him on his boat completely while reading. I was drawn in so totally, I felt very few, and very brief, doubts at the end. Actually, the only bit I found even the slightest far-fetched was that a Japanese ship would sink in the first place. Granted, the crew were mostly Chinese, but I was very surprised that the ship wasn't maintained far and beyond regular standards.
I have a great amount of love and respect for animals, and enjoyed learning about their behaviour in zoos vs nature (and Pi makes some good arguments in favour of zoos, though I'll never stop feeling guilty about them). There were some scenes that were downright horrific to me - I generally feel more anger, pain and sadness when confronted with cruelty to animals than to humans, perhaps because in such situations they are more vulnerable and dependant - or, in the wild, more out-matched and misunderstood. The section on anthropomorphism added to a fascination I've had with this for years now, and I loved the scene where Pi is talking to the Catholic priest - he is born Hindu but becomes a Christian and a Muslim, yes, all three - and talking to the Japanese men at the end; both got me giggling. This book is often funny, poignant, revealing and wise ... and the last sentence made me cry.
I have no complaints about this book. I was not bored for a second. It was not heavy-handed, lecturing, narrow-minded, self-indulgent or anything else that annoys me in books. I wondered how you could write a book about a boy stuck on a lifeboat in the Pacific for, what was it? 227 days? and not bore your readers to tears - but Martel managed it effortlessly. I finished it yesterday morning over breakfast and already I have an itch to pick it up and read it again. But first I think I'll invest in the beautiful hardcover illustrated edition that came out a few months ago - I flipped through it before I read it (ah, this reminds me of why I must have bought the book) and loved the paintings in it. My favourite is of the three different holy men looming over the viewer (Pi), after realising for the first time that he has been going to all three different temples of worship.
Without wanting to give it away, I just have to say: when you get to the beginning of Part Two, you'll be completely won over I think, if you weren't already. I honestly didn't see it coming AT ALL - call me blind and stupid but I was floored, in the best possible way. I laughed out loud when I realised. This book is full of surprises (there's another towards the end which I won't even hint at) and, corny as this sounds, the prose sweeps you up and carries you towards a far shore just like the Pacific swept up Pi and took him to Mexico. Well worth a Man Booker Prize. And yeah, it did bring me closer to believing in God than anything else ever has, sure, but it brought me treasure greater than that :)(less)
One Hundred Years of Solitude follows several generations of the Buendia family, one of the first families which founded the town of Macondo in the ju...moreOne Hundred Years of Solitude follows several generations of the Buendia family, one of the first families which founded the town of Macondo in the jungle near the Columbian coast. The characters are numerous and many of them have the same name, which presents a bit of a challenge for the reader in keeping track, and many of their children are illigitimate and, because their origins are hidden, in-bred. The town itself rises and falls alongside the family until it is eventually obliterated by a hot wind, along with the last surviving member of the family.
I read this with a great deal of impatience, and a few times I was so annoyed I wanted to throw it against the wall - but it is a beautiful edition and I never wilfully damage books (no "cricking the spine" near me thank you!). Its tone of fabrication, magic realism, embellishment - all told with a complete straight face and not a single tongue in cheek - reminded me of Angela Carter's Nights of the Circus and Big Fish by Daniel Wallace (though I've only seen the movie), yet both of those stories were more captivating because they had a central protagonist, a character you could come to care about. Solitude does not have a central character but rather an ensemble cast through generations, and so it is hard to care for any of them or really understand them. Even the town is haphazardly drawn and constantly shifting, so that it is hard to grasp it - I know this is probably deliberate, but it didn't work for me.
The language is rather dry and emotionless, very much a matter of telling, not showing. Dialogue is limited, and entire years pass by in the space of a few pages of very dense prose. The story seems to lack control, in its habit of shuffling forward, halting, reversing, moving forward again, stopping, starting, going back again, jumping forward - it's all over the place. By the end, you can see that Marquez had very good control, but I'm a fan of structure, structure that is a part of the story as much as its backbone. You could say that that is exactly how it works in Solitude, but to me it was just annoying.
I held off on researching or reading reviews of the book until I'd finished, because I find that other people's opinions - even jacket blurbs - prejudice and contort my own reading experience. Yet, once I finished it, I found that the section on allegory in Wikipedia (the book has its own entry) really cleared things up for me.
Anyone studying or with an interest in South American or Columbian history would appreciate this book far more than I did - I'd like to study it, but it's just so alien to me that I find it hard to interest myself with it. It's obviously a very clever book, but it's not the kind of book that works for me, and I would never bother re-reading it. Despite the fact that it would be nothing without the characters, none of them are treated with any respect - the women in particular are horrible people - and their emotions, motivations, passions, fears etc., while being central to the novel, are mentioned as one would note the weather. The author, apparently, wrote it in the style his grandmother used to tell stories - complete with "magic realism" told with a straight face and no change in tone - and he's done so admirably. Aside from the sentence about Amaranta's "hot and wormy guava grove of love", the language is not cheesy, certainly not sentimental and, in general, too dry and distant to pull me in.