I really like some of Murakami's work, but I'm a little lukewarm on his latest book.
All the popular criticisms to Murakami's style apply here, but so...moreI really like some of Murakami's work, but I'm a little lukewarm on his latest book.
All the popular criticisms to Murakami's style apply here, but so do the praises. At times he falls into a habit of recycling terrible cliches (I recall one reviewer theorising this is actually an intentional literary device to help the more inventive, dreamlife passages shine... I'm not sold). He still displays talent in depicting the fragility of the human psyche; in constructing delicate characters and beautiful imagery. We get a few doses of his signature blurring of the lines between dream and reality; and of course his penchant for sex.
I raced through this book fairly quickly. The prose and crisp, clean and easy to read - but at the novel's conclusion I felt a little empty. This is a passable, but not particularly brilliant book; it lacks the interest of The Wind Up Bird Chronicles' dreaminess, and lacks the emotional charge of Norwegian Wood.
Like the title, this book ends up being just a little colorless, a little plain: not bad, not good, and without any outstanding characteristics.(less)
'The Secret Agent' started promisingly with a series of hilarious, dark caricatures of various elements of English society in the late 1800s - renown,...more'The Secret Agent' started promisingly with a series of hilarious, dark caricatures of various elements of English society in the late 1800s - renown, eloquent anarchists who would never match their alleged ideals with the conviction of action or risk; detectives who believe their intense self-belief ironically permits them to operate outside the law; a delusional, simple house-wife who believes "profoundly" that nothing in life "stands much looking into").
With this slew of highly entertaining and darkly satirical characters I had high hopes for this novel from the outset. However by the mid-point the plot direction was easily anticipated, and many of my favourite characters were simply pushed out of the picture.
Conrad's command of language is intimidating. While this book was a pleasure to read I can help but feel let down by the second half - perhaps the opening chapters fostered in me unrealistic or misguided expectations; or perhaps I would have enjoyed a far longer and more detailed plot.
Still, 'The Secret Agent' is very much worth reading, and I will look further into more of Conrad's work.(less)
Call of the Wild was hugely enjoyable. I finished this in a single, rainy day around Lake Atitlan in Guatemala.
On paper, this seems like too sentimen...moreCall of the Wild was hugely enjoyable. I finished this in a single, rainy day around Lake Atitlan in Guatemala.
On paper, this seems like too sentimental or silly a novel for me to enjoy - and while sometimes London's tendency to romanticise at times reaches a comic pitch, this short story was engaging, entertaining, and unlike anything else I have read. The prose is simple, stripped back and effective. using the tale of a dog as an allegory to the human condition, and our struggle to reconcile primitive urges with civilisation.
Fun, energetic and worth a read. It won't take up much of your time. (less)
While my previous experiences with Rushdie have been mixed, East/West is a great collection of diverse and well-written short stories.
While I knew th...moreWhile my previous experiences with Rushdie have been mixed, East/West is a great collection of diverse and well-written short stories.
While I knew that Rushdie's control of the English language is masterful, the range of literary styles and settings employed in this anthology stunned me. While some stories are executed better than others, this collection comes highly recommended. (less)
Being a big fan of Hunter S. Thompson I'd been quite excited to read Hunter's earliest published novel for quite some time, but when I did I was sadly...moreBeing a big fan of Hunter S. Thompson I'd been quite excited to read Hunter's earliest published novel for quite some time, but when I did I was sadly disappointed.
I can recall a few short bursts of promising prose, but other than that I found it a forgettable, quick read. It's worth mention I watched the fairly-awful movie adaptation before reading (whose plot departs significantly from the book itself) which might have coloured my perception. (less)
Down and Out in Paris and London is George Orwell’s first published book, which saw a print run in 1933.
It is a sort of memoir of the period in which...moreDown and Out in Paris and London is George Orwell’s first published book, which saw a print run in 1933.
It is a sort of memoir of the period in which Orwell returned disillusioned from his time as a police officer in Burma, and intended to make his living as a writer. He spent two years struggling with poverty across the two cities.
Down and Out is fairly slight read at 228 pages. Orwell’s style is clean, clear and crisp, following a sort of detached, journalistic style whereby conversations and events are reported with little of Orwell’s own character or judgement bleeding into the page. We can also see at this early stage of Orwell’s career his trademark dedication to the integrity of his written work.
The bulk of the book tracks Orwell’s struggle to find work, budget his meager finances, his experience with starvation, his work in a Parisian hotel kitchen, his time tramping in London, and a retelling of the conversations, attitudes and interactions along the way.
At one point he goes without food for three days. On the experience he writes:
"Hunger reduces one to an utterly spineless, brainless condition, more like the after-effects of influenza than anything else. It is as though one had been turned into a jellyfish, or as though all one’s blood had been pumped out and lukewarm water substituted. Complete inertia is my chief memory of hunger…"
His character-portrait of his boisterous, larger-than-life Russian friend Boris was particularly fascinating. At one point, when there were trying to find work together, Boris provided this sage advice:
"It is fatal to look hungry. It makes people want to kick you."
The man is a walking contradiction; starving, though of enormous appetite – bursting with enthusiasm one minute, and crushed by utter despair the next. His mind is something to behold.
As we might expect, the book closes with some thoughtful reflections on the nature of poverty; on the systems which keeps people trapped in the cycle of poverty, and on preliminary ways in which the cycle might be addressed.
Orwell meditates in particular on the absurd uselessness of a tramp’s life – the system in London effectively forces him to stay idle, waste time and continue tramping from shelter to shelter:
"The evil of poverty is not so much that it makes a man suffer as that it rots him physically and sexually… the problem is how to turn the tramp from a bored, half-alive vagrant into a self-respecting human being."
His solution is beautifully simple – rather than have tramps spend their time either locked into soul-destroyed, stimuli-deprived shelters for hours each day, or tramping to another shelter (for they cannot stay in the same shelter twice in the same month), he proposes tramps spend their time contributing to communal shelter gardens or farms. Not only would this solve the crippling boredom and inertia, but help tramps take steps towards being productive members of society once more, and gaining crucial confidence. Of course, the food they grow can ultimately help feed them, too – and far better than the stale bread and cheese provided at such shelters.
Orwell’s final analysis of poverty is almost an afterthought to the bulk of the book; he does not spend a huge amount of time analyzing all he has experienced, which is a shame, but it keeps this book a simple, easy read that can help provide an insight into the nature of poverty.
I've been in love with Colin Wilson's The Outsider for many years. This collection helped me dip my toes into some of his other work. Of particular in...moreI've been in love with Colin Wilson's The Outsider for many years. This collection helped me dip my toes into some of his other work. Of particular interest is his desire to merge Maslow's psychology of 'peak experience' with existentialism / the problem of nihilism.
A great primer on Wilson's thought which has definitely added a few more of his books to my reading list.(less)
In the opening pages I was struck by the similarities in Batchelor’s teenage years and my own. In high school we were both...moreThis is a fascinating book.
In the opening pages I was struck by the similarities in Batchelor’s teenage years and my own. In high school we were both baffled by our fellow pupils and teachers lack of interest in the meaning of existence. For us, the quest for existential resolution overrode all other concerns. We were (or still are) obsessed by the search for meaning.
Batchelor too shared my love of Hermann Hesse, Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts, and also possessed a strong drive to reject the complacency and spiritual-intellectual sterility of those around him. Unlike Batchelor, however, I never wandered off to India to smoke hash and join the company of the Dali Lama (well, not yet in any case).
I assume Batchelor’s trajectory is far from rare; certainly this would explain why so many Westerners are drawn to his work. His story may be a common one, but it is made far more interesting given Batchelor’s many years experience in delving into various forms of Buddhism – Tibetan Gelug and Korean Zen in particular.
Batchelor’s many decades of study, coupled with his interest in existentialism makes Confession of a Buddhist Atheist a most excellent reference for fellow ponderers. Since Buddhism is still relatively new to Westerners, Batchelor has saved many of us decades of brutal legwork in de-mystifying Buddhism; stripping it of its metaphysical additives to lay bare what secular/rational value remains, and providing a humanised and historically-accurate portrait of the life of the Buddha.
But the greatest value Batchelor can offer is the clear manner in which he articulates his sophisticated form of sceptical, spiritual agnosticism. His fusion of Western philosophy and Eastern spirituality has inspired me deeply, and I will be picking up more of his work in the future.
"The point is not to abandon all institutions and dogmas but to find a way to live with them more ironically, to appreciate them for what they are – the play of the human mind in its endless quest for connection and meaning – rather than timeless entities that have to be ruthlessly defended or forcibly imposed."
John Gray's aim is the dissolution of illusion; to face existence as clear-eyed as possible in hope to uncover a key to more real and meaningful life....moreJohn Gray's aim is the dissolution of illusion; to face existence as clear-eyed as possible in hope to uncover a key to more real and meaningful life. He is driven by a deep desire to break out of automatic existence, and to experience the present moment with more clarity and intensity.
To do this Gray must first clear away the mythological debris in which modern thought has become entangled.
In the book’s first section Gray produces a wide-ranging commentary on society, religion and philosophy. He is ruthless in his pursuit of two targets in particular: belief in the irreversible progress of civilisation, and faith in rational, liberal humanism.
Gray recognises humans tend to create abstract realities in which they can become trapped. The result is a barrier between the individual and the ‘real’ world. While Gray certainly refuses to entertain the notion that humans are capable of experiencing pure, undiluted reality (it would go against his strongly skeptical nature) he does believe that at times the sleep can get lighter.
The Silence of Animals has huge value in helping us think about the true nature of humanity, society, and the world in which we live.
I admire strongly admire Gray’s resolve. While he embraces one of the most negative, cynical and sober perspectives I have encountered, he still looks beyond the horizon for a life-affirming state of mind. His naturalistic streak sees him searching for a deeper connection with the natural world, and ways in which mankind can live in harmony with the universe.
The book itself is a pleasure to read. At times Gray’s writing style seems almost stream of consciousness; he tosses up ideas as they spring to mind, and moves on as quickly as he had begun. From one perspective this makes The Silence of Animals a constant source of interest – the pacing is reasonably fast, and we are never bogged down in one strain of thought for too long – but it also means that some ideas or statements aren’t given the elaboration they require.
Some critics have lambasted Gray for over-use of citations (they run at about one-third of the book’s two hundred pages), but I’m quite comfortable with this approach. Colin Wilson utilised a similar citation-heavy style in his much-cherished portrait of the challenge of existentialism in The Outsider - and I will thank him forever for it. Throwing in passages from Conrad, Nietzsche, Borges, Freud, Schopenhauer and many more obscure writers and thinkers keeps reading fresh.
Gray’s is often thought-provoking. He touches on countless other ideas I have not been able to cover here for brevity’s sake. While Gray’s bouts of misanthropy, and his tendency to grimace might scare some off, for many this book will provide yet another useful perspective to consider the most important questions of our life.
The Silence of Animals is recommended reading to those who, like Gray, seek inner peace and freedom from delusion.
Incredible. The clarity of this man's thought, and his command of language is as awesome as ever. The first essay in particular is just awesome. Defin...moreIncredible. The clarity of this man's thought, and his command of language is as awesome as ever. The first essay in particular is just awesome. Definitely one of my heroes.(less)
I am sick to death of banal "new-atheist" arguments that seek to reduce religion to a literal, narrow reading of religious texts -- so when I picked t...moreI am sick to death of banal "new-atheist" arguments that seek to reduce religion to a literal, narrow reading of religious texts -- so when I picked this essay/letter up, I did not have high hopes.
I needn't have worried. Sam Harris is an incredible communicator with a deep understanding of the importance of spirituality, ritual and myth in life and psychology. He doesn't fall to the same flaws as many of his contemporaries, and respects the complexity of spiritual/religious experience and belief.
This is a precision-perfect argument against using religion as a source of morality; and a debate for rational-humanism -- and it is just about perfect in all ways. Absolutely recommended.
"...it is time we learned to meet our emotional needs without embracing the preposterous. We must find ways to invoke the power of ritual and to mark those transitions in every human life that demand profundity - birth, marriage, death - without lying to ourselves about the nature of reality."
A splendid short essay which addresses the psychological and spiritual state of modern man, and recognises the conflict and tension between scientific...moreA splendid short essay which addresses the psychological and spiritual state of modern man, and recognises the conflict and tension between scientific rationalism and lived experience.
'The Undiscovered Self' is essentially a case for the importance of self-reflection; a call for recognition of the importance of the inner life of man; and an analysis of the neglect of self as spurred on by political context.
Sage subject matter, and a worthwhile (through brief) read.(less)
I'm not completely sure what to make of this book. At times the narrator is so bizarre and unreliable that the book is absurd... but at others the wri...moreI'm not completely sure what to make of this book. At times the narrator is so bizarre and unreliable that the book is absurd... but at others the writing, or the depiction of everyday humans during Hitler's rule, is brilliant. Still, I almost put this down - perhaps it is a matter of translation... I'm just not too sure how I feel about this all. (less)
This was an interesting book. Jan comes from his native Amsterdam to move into a Zen monastery in Japan during the 1950's.
In my humble opinion, Jan wa...moreThis was an interesting book. Jan comes from his native Amsterdam to move into a Zen monastery in Japan during the 1950's.
In my humble opinion, Jan was ill-prepared for his stay in the monastery. He seems rather deluded, and totally unwilling to break his old habits and frame of mind. He cannot let go and throw himself in Zen training; he is strongly attached to his ego. As a result he suffers considerably, but with little to show for it.
This certainly acts as an interesting counterpoint to romaniticised accounts of mysticism and enlightenment -- and useful for anyone looking to learn more about what goes on inside a monastery.(less)
White Noise is my first experience with Don Delillo's work. Over the past 12 months I'd heard his name uttered many times - usually coupled with some...moreWhite Noise is my first experience with Don Delillo's work. Over the past 12 months I'd heard his name uttered many times - usually coupled with some recognition that he is one of the most important fiction authors in recent decades.
From the moment I began reading White Noise it was apparent that Delillo is a supremely gifted author; his metaphors are sublime, his prose smooth and easy to read. His most commendable skill seems to be his ability to perfectly capture human frailty in simple, everyday scenes. In White Noise the narrator supplies a seemingly endless supply of observations on human behaviour; how shallow appearances and subtle symbols instill confidence in social institutions; how a family looks to each other for emotional reassurance in a million trivial games of power and dominance; how cultural identity and meaning are maintained every day through our most insignificant gestures.
As an illustration I'll outline on passage I found particularly memorable. In this scene the narrator Jack and fellow lecturer Murray take a tourist trip to see 'the most photographed barn in America'. The significance of this barn appears to be entirely circular; it is famous because it is so often photographed, and it is photographed because it is famous. This absurd passage follows:
"No one sees the barn," he said finally.
A long silence followed.
"Once you've seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn."
He fell silent once more. People with camera left the elevated site, replaced at once by others.
"We're not here to capture an image, we're here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies."
There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.
"Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We've agreed to be part of a collective perception. This literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism."
Another silence ensued.
"They're taking pictures of taking pictures," he said.
There are dozens of moments like this in White Noise, where post-modern / Foucauldian concepts are bound with anthropological observation and presented in a humorous deadpan style that reminds me often of Bret Easton Ellis (it would appear as though Ellis is indebted to Delillo’s style). Unfortunately a novel is not built on keen observation and creative metaphor alone. White Noise is divided into three parts; I almost abandoned the book towards the end of the first part, simply because nothing seemed to happen. In fact nothing of consequence seems to happen in the first 150 or so pages; we are merely subjected to a continuous stream of miniscule observations; of beautiful insights into human intimacy; of the slow and steady development of characters (Delillo's ability to give life to his characters is also excellent) -- but there is seemingly no overarching "plot" at such.
Things certainly "happen" in the second and third parts, but at the book's conclusion I still did not feel I had completed a novel. Delillo's writing stalks along at the same steady pace for over 300 pages, drawing a smile or a chuckle with regularity, but seemingly refusing to deliver a major story arc or significant plot development. The cute-ness of his style seemingly prevents any moments of heightened drama. I finished White Noise lacking a sense of closure, and this left me with mixed feelings.
As a commentary on human frailty - particularly fear of death - this was a pleasure to read - but as a fiction novel I felt a little deflated and left wanting more. Perhaps this was Delillo's intention (skimming summaries of his other work certainly seems to indicate he is a man who throws off the standard convention of a linear novel), but I am left undecided and lukewarm.
Delillo possesses piercing insight but I am still undecided as to his status as a novelist. There is a reasonable chance that I will return to more of his work in the future; perhaps that will put me in a position to better comment on his intentions and approach.(less)