Sunday, 20 May 2012

Tony Judt, The Memory Chalet

tony judt the memory chalet

The Memory Chalet is a tricky piece for a reviewer.  See, it was written by a dying man.  Worse than that, the man in question was immobile, paralysed almost completely by one of those neurological disorders that make you gradually lose control over your muscles before they kill you.  Now how can a reviewer write something unkind about a book written in so dreary circumstances?  How indeed?

Frankly, I think it's a cheap trick.  Not Judt's - in the very first sentence he claims the essays were never meant for publication.  Without pointing a finger, let me just say that making money off a dying man's suffering is ugly and I can't help feeling slight disgust when I read all those raving reviews (focused, it goes without saying, more on the author's condition than on merits of his writing).

Call me outrageous if you will, but I think The Memory Chalet is nothing remarkable.

The book itself it tiny, 250 pages of thinly scattered text (spaces between the lines are actually larger than the font and don't even get me started on margins), perhaps two hours of focused reading.  It is mostly a memoir, with elements of commentary on contemporary world, and it is decently written with a really brilliant sentence inserted here and there.  Intensely personal, I bet it is a treasure for Judt's family, friends and admirers.  As to the rest of the world...  well...

I have not come across Tony Judt before.  From what I gather he was a historian and a humanist, apparently a good one.  I imagine The Memory Chalet would mean more to me if I ever read any of his history books, if I managed to form any personal (even if indirect) relationship with the author.  Because for the value of the stories themselves, it is not particularly life-changing.  Riding a bus is a common enough experience, no need to go frantic about it.  I can see why Judt could remember it with nostalgia, but why on Earth would his readers care?

It gets better towards the end, with the essays turning more philosophical than personal, touching on a wide range of subjects, from education through pop culture to multiculturalism.  Judt was opinionated - something I really like - but there simply wasn't enough space in the slim volume for his opinions to shine.

Not an unpleasant book, overall, but I can't see any reason to rave, no matter where I look.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Andre Brink, Reinventing a Continent

andre brink reinventing a continent

Up until now, South African literature equalled Nadine Gordimer to me (oh yes, Nobel Prize does give you this extra bit of publicity).  I'm smitten enough with her writings to search for more - hence Andre Brink.

Reinventing a Continent is a collection of essays (a bit of a tradition on this blog, ehem, ehem...) which, on the surface, are not much different from Gordimer's.  Inevitably, much is said about apartheid and associated nightmares, but since the book consists mainly of pieces written during the transformation years, there's some hope there, too.  Otherwise, Brink talks about literature and function of culture in oppressed societies, about censorship and general condition of mankind.

I'm not very fond of theory of literature (the best way to kill art is to write a thesis about it, or so I believe), so some of Brink's essays did not resonate with me.  This is as much criticism as I can spare, the rest is pure raving.  Elegant language, shrewd observations and great humanity are only some of the book's features.  Just like with Gordimer, 'no bullshit' attitude prevails (although I very much doubt if Brink has used exactly those words anywhere in his writing) and one is really forced to agree that tragic circumstances breed great writers.

My favourite essay in Reinventing a Continent  is colourfully titled The Hour of the Idiots and, perhaps surprisingly, is the best commentary on post-Nazi Germany that I've ever read.  Even if you do give the book a skip, be sure to seek it out - a masterpiece.

I think there will be more of Andre Brink on this blog some time in the future.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Paul Theroux, Fresh-Air Fiend

paul theroux fresh-air fiend

Is it just me, or does the title Fresh-Air Fiend suggest something from fantasy shelf?  It might be my vivid imagination, but in my mind the word 'fiend' is neatly filed away in a drawer marked 'Witches, Demons and other mystical stuff'.

Nah, I'm just pulling your leg.  Fresh-Air Fiend is about travel and staying outdoors, mostly.  It is an essay collection (yep, another one), mainly concerning travelling but also writing and well, general wondering about 'how does this world work'.  It is a curious mixture of exotic (Africa, China, Pacific Islands) and not-so-exotic locations, with a good deal of retrospection thrown in for good measure and a few literary reviews to finish it off.  Oh, and two short pieces of fiction which do not fit the rest in any way whatsoever.  

I have mixed feelings towards Theroux's writing.  He's eloquent, yes.  His travelling experience is impressive.  He's opinionated, and while I usually adore this trait, in his instance it irks me - don't ask me why.  After reading Fresh-Air Fiend, I like him much more.  I can't help liking people who avoid human gatherings and camp on desolate islands instead.  Another, more important reason:  it appears that Theroux is not afraid of voicing unpopular truths, something I didn't notice when reading him previously.  Yet, someone who claims publicly that the Olympics are about business opportunities, not sport (to give you only one example) is definitely worth listening to - people who don't buy or promote bullshit are getting rare these days.  

As long as the essays stay focused on travelling and places, the book is great.  In the last hundred pages or so, Theroux strayed towards literary criticism and cameo biographies and well - I would be happier if he didn't.  It's not that his reviews are bad as such, but they lack this certain sparkle, the flare, the liveliness that his travel pieces contain.  They just don't match the rest of the book, or such is my impression.

Still, Fresh-Air Fiend is a highly satisfying travel book.  You can always skip the last chapters.  

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love

elisabeth gilbert eat pray love

I was very cautious when approaching this book.  Say what you will, you'll never persuade me that 'bestseller' equals 'good book'.  Eat, Pray, Love was a bestseller not too long ago.  It sold like insane and was turned into a movie a few years after publishing.  NOT a good sign.

I chose it because I was suffering from overdose of heavy subjects.  War and politics is all right, but sometimes you just need a break.

I gulped it down within a day.  It was entertaining.  Well-written.  Trendy.  Not particularly enlightening.

The heroine of Eat, Pray, Love (Gilbert herself, I wonder?  Really, really?) takes a year off and travels around Italy, India and Indonesia, getting over a difficult divorce and searching for God.  She starts with heavy depression, ends with a new affair and puts a lot of sightseeing in between.  Yeah, a generous amount of money is the best possible cure for depression.  I'm being slightly sarcastic, I admit.  More cruel than necessary, perhaps.  Maybe I'm just jealous.

I found it extremely difficult to identify with Liz, mainly because of this crucial money level difference.  I don't even know people that loaded.  I want different things in life, I have other values.  Still - she's likeable.  Difficult to take seriously after stories from war zones, but likeable.  Sometimes even inspiring.

If only Eat, Pray, Love was less like a sequel to Sex and the City...

Friday, 11 May 2012

Sandra Mackey, The Saudis: Inside The Desert Kingdom

sandra mackey the saudis: inside the desert kingdom

I've recently read (and reviewed, of course) a book by Thomas Friedman, a book which made me really angry and which, among other subjects, mentioned Saudi Arabia a lot.  When I saw Sandra Mackey's The Saudis on library shelf, I instantly grabbed it.  If I ever have a chance to get into a blazing row with Mr. Friedman, at least I'll know what I'm talking about.  Or, more likely, I'll be more confident when smirking in the silence of my own mind.

Until I've read The Saudis, all I knew about Saudi Arabia could be summed up in 'somewhere in the Middle East, plenty of sand and oil, you can get decapitated for funny things, not really a place where I want to spend my holiday'.  Nah, to be able to argue about geopolitics (even in imagination), you need to know more.  

The Saudis was published in 1987, which makes the book nearly as old as I am.  Not the most up-to-date account, I admit.  A lot has happened since it was written, plenty of things must have changed in Saudi Arabia too.  Still, it's the clearest exposition on Middle Eastern politics and psychology that I've ever read.  The best explanation of the East/West clash we're experiencing today.  As I turned page after page, I kept saying to myself - shit, I wish she wrote a sequel.  

Saudi Arabia as described in Mackey's book is admittedly scary, but there are some aspects of its culture that I actually admire.  I applaud their love of freedom and rebellion against being forcefully turned into faceless work force in the name of 'modernity'.  I congratulate them on their wisdom in putting family over career.  I still don't want to spend my holidays there (and they don't want me there either - how convenient!), but I've gained new insight into this proud desert culture and perhaps some understanding why they don't want to let go off it so easily.  

As to geopolitics - I guess it will take many more books before I can make some sense of the bubbling, oil-fuelled cauldron of the Middle East, but I'm getting there.  Stay tuned.  

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Janine di Giovanni, Madness Visible: A Memoir of a War

janine di giovanni madness visible: a memoir of a war

Madness Visible is a very apt title for a book about Balkan wars.  It is focused on 1999 conflict in Kosovo, but it visits all or most of the former Yugoslavia battlegrounds.

Let me put it straight:  it's a book that kicks you in the teeth, plain and simple.  Not for delicate constitutions, or pink-bubble minds.  The language is not particularly graphic, but facts described in plain words are enough to seriously shake the reader.  I was reading the book with a mixture of frustration born out of helplessness and fury.  I seriously had moments when I wanted to crash the book against the wall - nothing wrong with the book, it's just that the anger I felt needed some outlet.  If I felt that angry when reading about it, I can't even imagine feelings of people who actually lived through this nightmare.

Janine di Giovanni has a talent for asking difficult questions.  She moves outside the 'us - good, them - bad' perspective, but she doesn't achieve it through murky philosophy and avoiding slippery ground.  She never lets you forget she's talking about people, not ideas.  Madness Visible is full of people, individuals with names and terrible stories to tell.  It is a perfect antidote for official propaganda of war-waging states.  If you ever find yourself drowning in patriotic speeches and 'we vs the enemy' talk, run to the library or a bookshop and get this book.  'The enemy' is not some faceless entity composed of bloodthirsty ghouls.  People are people, anywhere you go.

To be quite frank, Madness Visible scared the shit out of me.  Things happened - hair-raisingly evil things.  Cruelty and stupidity can be let loose upon the world, even today.  There was no saviour to stop them from happening.  There was no higher power to forbid killers to kill, rapists to rape, arsonists to burn and torturers to maim.  It all happened, less than twenty years ago.  And what I perceived as probably the most terrible thing is this - there was no one to punish them either.  Most of the perpetrators are still walking free, managing businesses and generally not being put to any inconvenience.  I have a nasty feeling that the only message they got is 'I got away with this once, I can do it again'.

Oh yes, the only thing that Madness Visible lacks is a list of killers, organised by name or perhaps by length of the sentence received.  It is difficult to write about things non-existent, though.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Nadine Gordimer, The Essential Gesture

nadine gordimer the essential gesture

Reading Nadine Gordimer has a refreshing effect on someone (eee... me) whose day-to-day occupation consists mainly of writing for so-called writing platforms (marketplaces in sketchy disguise).  Professionally I'm often in touch with people who cling for their dear lives to the idea that there is no difference between a writer and a copywriter.  Sparks fly, no need to add.  And my frustration mounts.  Then enters Nadine Gordimer in her non-fiction outfit and reminds me what is a function of a writer - in her usual powerful, beautiful style.  Hint:  this function is NOT selling crap to people.  For this reason I will always love Nadine Gordimer, but praises for her definitely shouldn't stop here.

Gordimer has always been a fighter against apartheid, against censorship, against all sorts of observable injustices.  I haven't read much of her fiction - one book perhaps, and I can't even remember the title - but her non-fiction has always left me breathless.  She's political, oh yes.  Yet, I have a feeling that she's not being political for politics sake, but because in some circumstances it is not possible to remain human without being political.  I sense tremendous amount of compassion in her writing, as well as courage to defend the truth as she saw it, even if it happened to be an inconvenient truth.

The Essential Gesture is no different.  It is subtitled Writing, Politics and Places and this rather neatly sums up what the book is about.  I've grown to consider essays on writing and opposition to apartheid a standard Gordimer's fare, what's new here (for me) is travel writing. The book includes a few short travelogues, among which The Congo River stands out as the best piece of travel writing I have read so far, anywhere.  I didn't expect it but hell - give me more of such surprises, please!

If I were to find a fault in this overall amazing essay collection, it would be this:  some pieces are slightly too detailed, too involved, too remote to identify with for a foreign reader.  I'm guessing they were written for South African audience (some are actually records of Gordimer's speeches), so I'm not really complaining, only...  observing.  Let's blame the editor - he's the one who made the selection, not entirely relevant to international readership.  Even so, it's only a minor glitch, don't let it scare you off the otherwise fantastic book.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Jan Morris, Hong Kong

jan morris hong kong

When I grow up, I want to write like Jan Morris (IF I ever grow up, that is, because age-wise it happened long ago).

Seriously, Morris's writing makes my jaw drop.  Where the hell does she take all those words from??  I know they exist all right, but the only other place where you can see them written is a dictionary, and you never hear them spoken at all.  If there was such a thing as a wordsmithing guild, she would be the Ultimate Grandmaster.  I am yet to come across someone with more colourful, richer vocabulary than hers and I'm seriously wondering if I ever will.  If you want to improve your brain (or language!), Jan Morris is better than crossword puzzles.

Hong Kong is a curious marriage between history and travel writing.  Morris is a travel writer, first and foremost, but in this particular case she's not rushing around, but analyses the eponymous city now and in the past.  My edition ended in 1996, a few months before the Big Takeover (Hong Kong returning to China's possession after more than a century of British rule) - I'm guessing the updated edition goes further than this, but I can't be sure.  Snapshots of various periods in the past are broken up by pictures of contemporary Hong Kong, so you get both history and present, but you don't get bored.

The result is rather delightful (even if your brain steams a bit).  History told by scholars tends to stay on the dry side, while a travel writer is specifically qualified to bringing remote geographical spots to life (should be, at least, if he or she is a good travel writer).  As I've said elsewhere, I'm not a total fan of Morris's writing style - she's a self-declared romantic, and I am everything but - still, quality quickly conquers such minor obstacles.  Whether you want to learn more about the Far East or simply savour some damn good writing, I can honestly say that Hong Kong is worth your time.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Vidya Samson, Indian Maidens Bust Loose

vidya samson indian maidens bust loose

If you are a regular reader, today's review may give you a bit of a shock.  Indian Maidens Bust Loose is a light, easy-going and fluffy novel, which ultimately can be thrown into the drawer marked 'romance'.  Vidya Samson has asked me to review it for her and I agreed, even if the book is totally not in line with my usual choice of literature.  This much in the way of explanation, let us now turn to the book itself.

Indian Maidens Bust Loose is advertised as a clash-of-cultures comedy and on this front it totally delivers.  American relatives arrive to visit a traditional Indian family.  Inevitably, chaos follows.  We witness it through the eyes of Nisha, an unmarried daughter of the hosts, who dreams of going to America and/or marrying a handsome man.  There are New Age fanatics (well, at least one), corrupt officials, malicious neighbours, white chargers and even holy cows - all generously spiced with semi-sarcastic and undeniably funny commentary of the narrator.  An easy and entertaining story of the laugh-out-loud kind.

I have no idea how accurate the book is in portraying Indian (or, for that matter, American) society, but there are some things I just won't believe, no matter what.  Like a young American girl, quite literally beating the hell out of numerous grown up and desperate men - oh, really?  Then again - light fiction novels are written to be entertaining, not convincing, so let me officially declare - within its genre, Indian Maiden Bust Loose holds its own.

Oh, the book is finished off with a prolonged, miracle-spiked and totally unrealistic happy end.  I'll let you, dear reader, decide whether it's a warning or recommendation.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Orlando Figes, Natasha's Dance - A Cultural History of Russia

orlando figes natasha's dance - a cultural history of russia

Russia has been unusually present in my life recently.  First there are some books I've been reading - have a look through my earlier posts, you'll see for yourself how I seem to gravitate to Russia-related topics.  Next - my sister physically visits Moscow, sharing plenty of beautiful pics and stories afterwards.  Finally, a huge, huge spike in readers from Russia (hi guys! It's good to see you here).  With all this going on, it's probably not surprising that my next reviewed book is also about Russia, this time seen through a cultural lens.

Dostoevsky.  Tolstoy.  Stravinsky.  Nabokov.  Tchaikovsky.  Chekhov.  Pasternak.  Solzenitzyn.  Rachmaninoff.  To name only a few... The names ring a bell, don't they?  Russia has been generous when it comes to providing the world with great artists.  Reading Natasha's Dance is a very good way of getting to know them slightly better.

I swallowed the book within three days.  That's something, considering its size - 600 pages, plus another 200 pages of notes and bibliography (no, I didn't read them.  I'm telling you about this only to let you know that someone has done a piece of proper scholarship here).  The whole volume reads rather smoothly, but if I were to express it in numbers, I'd say 70% were just alright, while the remaining 30% were absolutely brilliant.  All according to my personal taste, of course.

Let me elaborate.  The 70% is the stuff that you can find in any encyclopedia (or wikipedia, for that matter) - dates, names, literary/musical/visual analysis.  Nicely written, sure, but still - nothing outstanding.  I am rather distrustful towards people who try to tell me 'what the poet truly meant', especially if it happens three hundred years after the poet died.  I believe a piece of art is to be taken in individually and perceived according to a viewer's (reader's etc.) feelings, sensibilities, observations.  People who tell me what I should see in a picture give me goose bumps.  Nothing kills art quicker than conventional analysis...  Especially analysis delivered in pretty sophisticated language (for example sections on classical music are pretty unintelligible to someone who has not received proper musical education.  Truth to be told - they were to me).

The 30% are 'the tasties'.  The off-the-beaten-track screenshots of everyday life of 18th and 19th century Russia.  Eating habits (gourmet feast within higher classes apparently were quite stunning).  Social behaviours (e.g. a close look at domestic violence, or child upbringing).  Great artists presented as blood-and-bone human beings.  Ethnographic sketches on shamanistic tribes.  That sort of thing.  After all - who says that 'culture' is only created by the outstanding individuals?  Well, some people (critics?  scholars?) do, but I prefer the view that a nation's culture is the sum of its art, history, habits, attitudes and probably plenty of other things too.

If you're a fan of Russian art, you probably won't need much persuading to read Natasha's Dance.  If you aren't...  well, if you trust my recommendation and read it, you might yet become one.