Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Nadine Gordimer, Living in Hope and History: Notes from Our Century

nadine gordimer living in hope and history: notes from our century

Literary Nobel Prize tends to be a good book recommendation...  but wait, didn't I say just that in my last post?  I did, but Nadine Gordimer gives me a good reason to repeat it.  Living in Hope and History is my second encounter with this delicious writer and I'm looking forward to reading more. 

If you've read any more of this blog, you also already know that I love essays - another reason to savour Living in Hope and History.  Essays collected in this book can be roughly divided into two main groups:  those on writers and those on evils of apartheid (sometimes combined in the same piece).  There's more than that - as it should be in works written over a few decades - but sooner or later one of the two subjects surfaces.  I'm damn glad it does. 

While I'm not too hot on the apartheid bit (simply because of not being very familiar with it), I fell in love with Gordimer's deliberations on writing and a writer's position in today's society.  She makes the profession sound noble, more than that, she inspires writers, potential or otherwise, to strive for nobility.  

'Nobility' can mean something different to each individual, but for me it has much to do with the truth, with speaking of the truth loudly and clearly, unafraid of its inconvenience or unprofitability.  I spend a lot of time in virtual company of affiliate marketers presenting themselves as 'writers' and often end up bitter and disappointed under heavy showers of self-explanations these people create in defence of their profession.  Then along comes Gordimer, with her powerful words on writers as speakers of the truth (whatever this truth may happen to be) even in the face of adversity and I feel like I've just been given a breath of the fresh air.  There are people in the world who speak the truth even if their books are banned or burned, even if they themselves are being imprisoned, exiled, persecuted.  They don't give up.  They keep on repeating the politically incorrect truths because ultimately - the truth is more important, more powerful than politics.  Compared to that, all marketers of the world can go hang, they are not worth anyone's time and definitely not worth my upset. 

If, by any chance, you happen to be a writer struggling to oppose ever-present selling out or simply in need of inspiration, then Living in Hope and History is a must for you.

If you are anyone else, it will simply be a highly enjoyable, well-written book.

Oh, if you are a 'writer' who employs his skill in affiliate marketing, do not read it.  It will only make you sad.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Orhan Pamuk, Other Colours

orhan pamuk other colours

If I had to pick a single writing genre that I love best, I would probably say it's essays of every shape and size.  Somehow, whenever I pick a tome of essays, it doesn't much matter who wrote it.  I'm happy like a guinea pig anyway.  Fiction may convey truths disguised as lies, popular science may teach and dazzle, but nothing compares to musings on life, death and everything else. 

Yes, you've guessed it, Other Colours is a collection of essays.

When it comes to quality of writing, Nobel Prize tends to be a good indicator of what to expect.  Pamuk won the prize for his Snow, although if it was up to me, he would have got it for Other Colours.  I've read Snow and I've read My Name is Red, another book of his, and although both were pretty enjoyable, I didn't devour them as I did the essays (i.e. in one sitting - all four hundred pages!).  Pamuk's writing is not the easiest thing in the world, he steers sharply towards abstracts and poetry, but he sure can write. 

If I was to pick one thing I liked best in Other Colours, it would be numerous glimpses of the writer at work.  There are screenshots of daily routines, thoughts and motivations, in short - stuff that every writer will be familiar with.  A glorious opportunity to learn from the best, dear fellow penpushers :).

To keep the balance, I also need to get picky and complain a bit about one detail that I didn't like at all - book reviews.  There are quite a few literary essays, mainly concerning the classics - among others Dostoyevsky, Nabokov, Camus, Rushdie - but well...  can I share one of my pet peeves with you?  I totally hate it when book reviewers (even if they are distinguished and Nobel-decorated) presume to know an author's mind better than the author himself. How the hell does Pamuk (or anyone, anyone else) know what did Dostoyevsky have in mind when writing his novels?  It's not as if he could ask him...  Once a book is written in a language that I can understand, I don't need anyone to translate it for me further. 

There, I'm done with complaining.  Don't let my fussing spoil the pleasure of reading the book for you - overall it is highly recommendable.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake

margaret atwood oryx and crake

I don't think like Margaret Atwood.  I don't fully agree with what I presume is her world view, as expressed through multiple pieces of writing, creative or otherwise.  I'm not a particular fan of poetry and Atwood's books tend to be full of it.  And yet...  I can't think of her in any other terms than 'one of the greatest writers of our age'. 

She is good, damn good. 

Oryx and Crake is her another go at anti-utopias, the world after the Apocalypse.  What we get is a single survivor of a lab-generated human extinction project, trying to stay alive and musing of present and past.  The story is quite engaging, the imagery extremely vivid and the vision of the future...  well, not-so-impossible. 

Funny enough, I didn't detect preaching.  It's not a warning, at least not obviously so.  It's just a story, a good one, too.  

Oh, probably not recommended to underage readers.  Language has not been smoothed out and well...  it's not a nice story. 

But if you're an adult with a taste for fine literature, do try Oryx and Crake.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke

nicholson baker human smoke

Shocking title, shocking book.  I actually chose it only because it promised 'controversy' on the cover and well - it delivered.  I can't imagine any politician reading Human Smoke with pleasure...   But let me start at the beginning.

Human Smoke is a World War II book.  It describes years leading to the conflict and the actual war time up to the end of 1941.  Yet, it is not a historical narrative, not as most people understand the term.  It's a collection of press releases, diplomatic documents and diary excerpts.  Baker doesn't add any commentary with his own words, he allows historical sources to speak for themselves.  I'm sure he chose his material in order to create the particular picture, so his objectivity may be questioned, but nevertheless the picture is striking.  I presume his sources are authentic (check some 80 pages of detailed bibliography at the end of the book if in doubt) and if it depended on me, every child would be made to read the book at school. 

Popular image of the World War II tends to be rather shallow, distorted - Allies, the good guys, won the just war against evil Nazis.  Hooray for our heroes, for our brave war leaders, our excellent war effort...  Yet, the more I learn about the war, the less clear-cut the picture becomes.  Human Smoke added a handful of new doubts to my already subversive image of the war activities.  Let me share some things I've learnt:

- Germany wanted to get rid of Jews from German territory - true, and ugly too.  Few people know that their first plan to achieve this was to force them to emigration.  None of the 'good guys' agreed to take them in. 

- the war was preceded by multiple peace initiatives, demonstrations, manifestos, publications - none of them was taken into consideration

- when people of Europe were dying from starvation by the million, war leaders (including Churchill and Roosevelt) were being driven around in private trains, fed with sirloin steaks and brandy

- speaking of brandy, Churchill did not abhor a drink during the course of his duty.  Actually, he was proverbial for his love of strong liquor.  It surely helped him contain aggression...

There's more, but I don't feel qualified to make public judgement based on one book (plus, I don't want to ruin your pleasure of reading it).  

One thought can't leave my head after reading Human Smoke:  everyone who shouts 'war!' should be sent to the front.  Cheerleading a nation to a military conflict and watching it from a safe office/mansion/headquarters many miles away while unwilling children die on battlefields is not right.  Whether you are a politician, a writer, a philosopher - if you vote for war, go and experience war with your own precious self instead of jailing draft resisters.  Ok?

I was going to write a book review, and it turned into a political manifesto.  THAT'S now good the book is.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Asne Seierstad, The Bookseller of Kabul

asne seierstad the bookseller of kabul

I seemed to have made better decisions when book picking last time and The Bookseller of Kabul proves it.  Truth to be told, I'm probably late by a few years with reading it - I'm dimly aware that it was a hot title during the top of Afghanistan frenzy.  Nevermind, I still enjoyed it.

Books like this one inevitably make you think.  I won't even start on the issue of the last Afghan war, whether it was justified or not, whether it brought more damage or benefit to the country and The Bookseller of Kabul doesn't either, not really, although it does portray wartime reality of Afghan citizens.  Seierstad's novel/report (call it what you like) focuses mainly on patriarchy in Afghan society, criticising it without actually pointing the finger. 

I find it an interesting literary trick - the bookseller in question is introduced as a gracious host who allowed the author into his own house etc.  Nevertheless, to the western eyes the man appears rather ghastly.  Nowhere in the book can you find any direct criticism, all you get is are descriptions of some day-to-day events, ranging from mundane to tragic.  Still, the portrait is scary (and it didn't appeal to the man either - after the book was published, he sued the author for defamation).

If you ask me, it's not the man, but the whole society that is frightening.  If the book is to be believed, women are no better than men when it comes to judging and punishing whoever happens to be of lower social status.  It's the jungle law in the purest form - whoever happens to be the most powerful, issues orders and woe be to you if you dare to disobey.  Victimisation of those without power is the obvious consequence, and there aren't many shelters available if you decide to rebel. 

Or so it seems, because judging a society on the basis of one book seems a bit irresponsible.

Whatever the truth, the book IS gripping, thought provoking and very well written.  It is an eye opening experience to read about a culture so different to ours.  What I'm going to say next may not be the most sympathetic or politically correct thing in the world, but hell, let me say it - if you are a western woman unhappy with your life, do read it, if only to see that it could have been so, so much worse...

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Jules Verne, Paris in the Twentieth Century

jules verne paris in the twentieth century

Jules Verne has a reputation for predicting the future.  You surely know at least some of his books, which tend to hang somewhere between science fiction and children stories.  I've read a few and quite enjoyed them, so when I saw Paris in the Twentieth Century on my library shelf I didn't hesitate too long before grabbing it.

The book remained unknown until 1989, when it was accidentally discovered by one of Verne's heirs.  It became a small-scale publishing sensation some years ago, marketed as 'the lost book' of the great writer.  Is it worth the fuss?

There will be no suspense building.  If you ask me, Paris in the Twentieth Century is no big deal.  Easy to put down - it took me some days to get through it, because after a few pages my attention inevitably drifted somewhere else.  I believe it was written sometime at the beginning of Verne's career, and that sort of redeems him...  But in this case he definitely does not land on my list of the best books of all times. 

One thing, though, remains typically, impressively Verne-ish - his ability to predict the future.  His Paris of the future is a grim place.  It is also strikingly similar to some aspects of today's reality:  money is the absolute ruler of the universe. 

If you want to see how joyless life is when money-making becomes priority of human kind, do read the book.  As a warning.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Anonymous, A Woman in Berlin

anonymous a woman in berlin

I wonder how heavy a review should I write now.  A Woman in Berlin certainly is a heavy book.  It provides excellent food for thought.  It is beautifully written.  It is not for a sensitive (or underage, for that matter) reader.

A single journalist in her thirties describes her life in Berlin, spring 1945 - first besieged, then conquered by the Red Army.  The diary is full of ugly details of war existence - bombardments, air raid shelters, hunger, rape, despair, uncertainty... 

A Women in Berlin may provoke harsh judgements - after all it's so easy to condemn a woman, who sleeps with the enemy in exchange for food and protection.  This is probably the reason why the author chose to remain anonymous and agreed to the second edition only after her death. 

Germans being the official 'bad guys' of the World War II, it is rare to find the war's description through the eyes of the vanquished.  It inevitably brings up questions - was this a 'rightful' punishment for the hell they unleashed upon Europe?  Or a proof that the innocent suffer on both sides of any conflict? 

A Woman in Berlin was turned into a movie in 2008.  I haven't seen it, just letting you know it's out there.

I've consumed the book during one afternoon.  Whatever else you want to say about it, it surely is unputdownable.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Lucien Romier, A History of France

lucien romier a history of france

I am very much tempted to leave you with a shortest review in the world today (i.e. 'don't read'), but a verdict so crushing as this surely requires some explanation.  Here it is.

I've been through my share of boring academical textbooks, and yes, I have seen worse that Romier's, but not many.  I'm not that sure if the book is meant for college students either.  Most of the secondary-education titles I've known tend to be more polemical in nature, as in 'here's the most likely theory, here's the evidence, it's your job to confirm or disprove it'.  A History of France is very dogmatic.  This and this happened, in such and such way, with so and so involved, over.  No space for discussion or varying theories. 

As if history ever was so simple.

Another feature I didn't much like (although you may, especially if you happen to be a Frenchman):  A History of France was written by a Frenchman, for Frenchmen.  Which is fine by me, theoretically, but practically - a foreigner might find all this patriotism a tad tiring.  I'm not particularly attached to my own nationality and the 'proud history of my country', I'm even less likely to be moved by a proud history of a country that is not my own.  I suspect I'm not the only one.

I just wonder if all this patriotism doesn't colour Romier's facts a bit.  I don't know enough of French history to judge it, but A History of France reads very much like 'the official history' - oops, we did some nasty things in the past, and while we obviously don't make excuses, it was the best possible course of action in circumstances, and if only other nations followed our enlightened lead, etc. etc.  I'm exaggerating, obviously, Romier doesn't use exactly those words, but the trend is there. 

A History of France is quite digestible at the beginning, but the further you go, the worse it gets.  Somewhere after The Great Revolution the text turns into strings of names (that mean nothing to an uninitiated reader) and political programs of all the fractions fighting for power over the course of last two centuries.  If political history of France happens to be your hobby, you will surely love it, otherwise - run like hell.  I'm not tempted to quit the book before the end too often, but in this case I had to struggle with myself.  The last hundred pages were pure torture and let me say this officially - this is not what I'm looking for in a book. 

The only thing I can say in Romier's defence is the book's age:  A History of France was originally published in 1953.  Those were totally different times, with propaganda being a popular mind-shaping tool.  That excuses him.  Sort of.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

William Manchester, A World Lit Only By Fire

william manchester a world lit only by fire

History books are my latest fixation.  I have this little fantasy of reading through the history shelf in my library, from A to Z.  No, I don't honestly expect to ever make it happen - which, I guess is a compliment to the library - but hey, wouldn't that be something to be proud of?   

Anyway, I've been reading a lot of history books lately, with medieval history spontaneously becoming my main focus for now.  Hence William Manchester's A World Lit Only By Fire.

What an attention grabbing title, wouldn't you agree?  The same can be said of the book, and it's up to you whether you want to treat it as a good or a bad thing.  Let me explain.

I'm all for readable history books (Norman Davis being the prime example here) but A World Lit Only By Fire does make me think of a tabloid and somehow it didn't agree with me very much.  The basic facts seem to be generally correct, but whenever there's a good story to be found, expect Manchester to present it as a fact, regardless of any doubts voiced by historians.  After all, claiming Robin Hood and King Arthur as real historical characters makes a much better tale than explaining all the pros and contras.  

This approach can be seen throughout the book - quick judgement in favour of a good story, especially when it comes to describing people.  I don't know my friends so well as Manchester seems to know people like Magellan.  He's surely very knowledgeable when it comes to 'what should have been done' - for example, he seems to be quite certain who to blame for Reformation and I dare say most historians would argue with him on many points.  In short, facts are served in a thick sauce of opinions. 

Sure, even historians are entitled to opinions, but they tend to mark them as such.  'It is my belief...', 'all sources seem to point to...', 'my theory is...' are only some examples of useful phrases that could be employed here and I would have enjoyed A World Lit Only By Fire much more if they were. 

What else does a good story need?  Sex and death are another safe (and tabloid-ish) bets, and Manchester knows it well.  Immoral behaviour of medieval popes?  In detail.  'Bathroom language' in Martin Luther's writings?  Quoted at length.  You notice the trend. 

Having said all that, it IS a damn well written story.  While I would hesitate before adding hi- to the word, as long as stories go, this one is brilliant.  A good position to recommend to someone who wants a taste of medieval ages but has no academical training to get angry by the inconvenient details.  I imagine teenagers would love it and who knows, they might even grow to like their history lessons this bit more (unless you're of puritanical persuasion and teach your children that babies and storks come together). 

Manchester is not a historian and he clearly says so in the preface, so I guess only my library is to blame for placing his book in the 'History' section and ultimately, for my disappointment.  You have been warned, so you may just as well give the book a chance.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Terry Pratchett, Snuff

terry pratchett snuff

I know I've been tormenting you with only positive reviews recently.  I promise to supply an exception to this trend soon, as the book I'm reading at the moment is already showing some signs of bad literaturiosis, but first I have some catching up to do. 

Today's review will be full of worshipful admiration.  No, don't run yet, Snuff really deserves it. 

I'd better say it sooner rather than later - I believe Terry Pratchett is the most talented writer of our times (and possibly ever, goddamnit!).  I know his Discworld novels almost by heart, I fall asleep to the sound of his audiobooks pretty much every night and I still haven't had enough.  Language is Sir Terry's obedient doggie - it does tricks for him, runs errands and does anything the Big Man wants of it.  Unbelievable.  I can read his books again and again and every time I find something new - a new joke, new double-meaning or comic reference.  It's like mining for gold, which can last for years without bringing the mine any nearer to exhaustion. 

Pratchett is the only author in the whole wide world whose books I'm collecting.  Usually I'm a big fan of libraries and similar institutions - I see no point in spending substantial (for my means) amount of money for a book that will be read once and then collect dust on the shelf for years to come.  Most books fall into this category - they can be unbelievably enjoyable to read, but once you're through, you don't want to read them until you totally forget the storyline.  Terry Pratchett's prose is different.  It's a bit like puzzle solving - decoding yet another reference brings me as much joy as cracking a difficult crossword, only it's far funnier.  I could go on (and probably will, at some other time), but since it's a review of Snuff, not Pratchett's profile, it's high time to focus on the book itself.

If you know the Discworld, please skip the following paragraph - it's meant for the uninitiated and you'll be bored to tears.

Imagine a flat disc, situated on top of four elephants, which, in turn, rest on top of a giant turtle travelling through space.  A world like that simply must be suffused with magic and peopled not only by humans, but other intelligent races as well - dwarfs, trolls, vampires, werewolves, elves, pixies (or, in this particular case, pictsies), bogeymen, golems, orcs, medusas and many more.  Snuff is about goblins.  Well, mostly goblins.  It is also about Commander Vimes, a lifelong copper, going on holidays.  Now, what happens if a policeman takes some time off?  According to the ancient Murphy's Law, crime happens (although this particular copper is more relieved than vexed by this occurrence).  What follows is a criminal story worth of Agatha Christie, set in a magical environment and full of intelligent, semi-cynical sense of humour. I'm not sure if it's a good book to start a Pratchett adventure with - after all it's number 39th on the list and Discworld books are chronologically organised, but if you were to read just one (which is highly unlikely), Snuff is as good as any other.  And since you'll be wanting to read it again and again, you can just as well buy it...

Now back to serious Pratchett fans.  First, let me share my joy and excitement - UAAAUAUAUAUAUA, SNUFF IS OUT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  Finally!!!  I've been counting the days down for months (but, ironically, forgot all about it just before release day and run to the bookshop two weeks later).  I got it, I've read it, I love it. 

Snuff is a Vimes novel (note how I'm NOT saying 'city watch novel' - there's very little of other watchmen and virtually no city).  Some years have passed since events described in Thud.  Commander Vimes has become a worldwide symbol of justice and good coppering.  Sybil, with only a hint of suggestion from Lord Vetinari, decides it's high time for Young Sam (aged six) to learn that food doesn't grow in shops and declares family holidays in the countryside. 
Obviously, Vimes is not too comfortable with such a turn of events.  What, no cobbled streets under his feet? Nobody shouting 'It's one o'clock and all is well'?  And, above all, no crime???
Here, at least,the Commander may soon breathe a sigh of relief.  Crime happens and happens big time (and I'm hereby done with plot spoilers).
You also get closer look at goblins, Quirm, and Young Sam's fascination with poo.
What you don't get - and it is a big surprise, since this character had until now appeared in pretty much every Discworld novel (I need to double check if I can delete 'pretty much' bit) - is Death. 

As classically Pratchett-y as it gets.

Kurt Vonnegut, Armageddon in Retrospect

kurt vonnegut armageddon in retrospect

I was going to start this post by comparing Kurt Vonnegut to Pepsi.  As in - big, recognizable brand, high quality product etc.  Then I thought - no, Pepsi is not a good idea, too much pop culture and too little class.  I'd need to settle for a more elegant beverage, coffee perhaps.  Trouble is, I don't really know any extra posh, generally recognizable brand of coffee (apart from the one procured from cat shit, but I'm not going to compare anyone I like to THAT).  Moral of the story is that I'm not really good in drink metaphors.

I've never met a book by Vonnegut that I didn't like.  I've read quite a lot of them, years ago, and I remember them as funny, enjoyable and as far from sugar-sweet as physically possible (which is the number one compliment on my list).  His writings are dark, rather pessimistic and sometimes heavy like hell, but they read like a dream and make you laugh.  I never could stop myself from reading bits aloud to people around me - they were so good I simply HAD TO share them (besides, if you roll on the floor with laughter and don't tell anyone why, people tend to look at you in a weird way - consider yourself warned).  So yeah, when Armageddon in Retrospect landed on my shelf, I was quite looking forward to the moment when I could finally give it some attention. 

By the time I had reached page 5, I laughed out loud more than ten times.  This doesn't happen very often, and it hardly ever happens when I'm reading foreword.  This particular preface was written by Vonnegut's son  (because Armageddon in Retrospect was published after Kurt Vonnegut's death) and - call me a heretic if you want - it was the best part of the book.  What followed was far more serious. 

Armageddon in Retrospect consists of thirteen brief pieces, mostly short stories, but also a letter to his family and a transcription of a speech.  The book is described as 'writings on war and peace' and indeed most of the stories are set in WWII background, but Vonnegut doesn't spend much time commenting on war itself.  He writes about people who are forced to live and survive in wartime and while you may say it boils down to the same thing, I liked this subtle shift of focus. 

The stories themselves are unsettling.  Happy end doesn't really apply.  Not that they end badly - Vonnegut is simply too close to depicting the reality as it is to make use of such an illusive concept.  Black and white rarely show up in real life and it's highly gratifying to see this mirrored in literature.  Bombing of Dresden comes up in more than one story (Vonnegut survived this catastrophe), so if you liked Slaughterhouse-Five, you can expect to enjoy Armageddon just as much. 

I surely enjoyed it immensely.  I gulped the book down in about three hours, which gives you two important bits of information:

1.  Armageddon in Retrospect is quite a short book, 232 pages of rather large print interspersed with graphics (well, some people are REALLY scared of thick volumes).

2.  The book is damn hard to put down.  Can I recommend it better than that?

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Robert Rankin, Apocalypso

Robert Rankin Apocalypso

I came across Robert Rankin when I was about 13 years old. That means 'a long time ago'. More than a decade ago, to be precise. I wish I could tell you which book I read then, what was the story like, and many other joyous pieces of information that come handy when you're standing in front of a bookshop/library shelf deciding what to choose. Unfortunately, I can't remember a thing.

Mind you, that was more than a decade ago. I can say many glorious things about my 13-year-old self but 'the best literary critic in the world' wouldn't be one of them.

For reasons that have nothing to do with this review, I've spent a lot of time in front of the sci-fi shelf during my last library hunt. Lo and behold, there was Robert Rankin's ApocalypsoSome long-forgotten warm note chimed in my book-filled brain and soon enough there I was, installed snugly in my bed and reading away.

Robert Rankin surely is a comic writer - pretty much every single sentence has 'funny' written all over it. But the type of funny that comes as a bit of a shock, especially if you happen to read him right after anything by Terry Pratchett (like me). After the initial shock wore off, I actually started to enjoy it quite well, although I will probably never again call Rankin's prose 'the most hilarious thing ever written'. We live and learn.

There are bum jokes. There's lots and lots and lots of bum jokes, followed closely by wanking jokes and... Well, that really says it all. THAT'S the type of humour you're getting. Even if it starts with something innocent, a newspaper perhaps or a rubber duck, you can rest assured that there will be a willy somewhere by the end of the page. Apparently, British public loves that kind of jokes (can I hereby ask the British public not to burn me at the stake if the rumour proves to be false?), and although Rankin lacks the absolute genius of Monty Pythons, he's ok once you get used to him. I believe that by the end of the book my laughter outburst actually grew quite loud.

Bum jokes aside, what else you're getting with Robert Rankin's Apocalypso? Predictable, although quite pleasant, plot, following all the rules of light science fiction. Interesting, if not popular, theories about governments (which I believe are mostly true, especially those concerning drugs - read the book if you want to know more), served in light and funny sauce. Numerous alliterations, and I KNOW there are people out there who love this type of word play.

Overall you get pleasant, funny, to-be-quickly-devoured example of comic science fiction and for that alone the book deserves recommendation.