27 November 2011

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

I honestly have no excuse not to read Parrot and Olivier in America - yes it's stuck on my broken kindle but aunt Hwee did lend me her hard copy, two inches thick and all.  It's just that its size is hardly inviting, especially when compared to Julian  Barnes' compact little bestseller that's making headlines everywhere now.  So with my sincerest apologies to Peter Carey, and a promise that I will finish reading Parrot and Olivier if it kills me, here's my review of the Booker's recently declared winner.

The Sense of an Ending was surprisingly easy to read for something so thought-provoking.  Barnes writes about the imperfection of memory; the way it beguiles and deceives.  The narrator is Tony Webster, well past middle-aged and looking back at a particular point in his life, trying to make sense of the things that happened during a tumultuous time.  What he remembers and what actually happened are, of course, quite separate matters.

30 September 2011

Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro


There it is, my faithful friend - broken. 

I can't quite bear the thought of replacing it yet, so it's a good thing I had Nocturnes sitting steadfast by my bedside.

Nocturnes is a collection of five short stories, all centered around the theme of music and the passing of time.  I suppose it says as much on the cover, much more poetically than I ever could - "Five Stories of Music and Nightfall".

The "nightfall" part requires a bit of thinking.  Certainly there are key events which happen at night or in the evening.  But that's a bit too literal - nightfall refers to the setting of the sun on - the close, the end of - relationships in a world where too many things, from friendship to marriage, are transient.  Ishiguro seeks to capture those fleeting moments in our lives when a connection is made with someone, but that connection is destined not to last, except in memory. 

08 September 2011

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut

Grove Atlantic, 2010
This is a collection of three separate journeys undertaken by a South African traveller, Damon.  The author, Damon Galgut, is South African.  The character, Damon, is a writer.  I'm not sure how much of the work is actually autobiographical, but I imagine that it must be. 

Because what is certain is that the words on the page come from a deeply personal, intimate place.  Damon's travels are isolated and lonely, yet his memories feel familiar.  It is as if a window to a man's soul has been opened, and when you look in, you see yourself standing there.  Author, character and reader form some kind of trinity and there is a sense that it does not matter whether Damon the traveller and Damon Galgut the author are one and the same.

06 September 2011

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Atlantic, 2008
I should probably focus on reviewing the two remaining books I've earmarked to complete Project Booker but I was in the mood for a bit of comic relief so I scanned my bookshelf, and The White Tiger called out to me.  I thought I heard a wolf-whistle.  Though I've read it before, I responded to its proposition, since it is a champion specimen and we are on the subject of the Man Booker Prize after all.

When The White Tiger pounced upon the Booker 3 years ago, I was delighted.  It is not a dramatic / epic colonial saga by an Indian author that typically finds its way to the shortlist every couple years or so.  For once, a truly humorous novel with a young, modern voice was given the recognition it deserved.  Not satirical humour (though there is that), nothing you have to "get", not clever dry wit, slightly removed - No, this was in-your-face, dark, unadulterated comedy.

28 July 2011

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

 My copy of On Chesil Beach has this description by the Independent on Sunday on its front cover: "Wonderful...Exquisite...Devastating". I can't think of three words that are more apt for this novel.

This is a monumental endeavour.  Though he makes it look easy, McEwan sets out to capture, in a mere 150 pages (or thereabouts), a turning point.  The separate lives of Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting have brought them to where they are now; we see how they grew up, how they met, how they fell in love.  Perhaps we might think that their lives were too divergent to now run in parallel, but here, at this brief but important intersection, the split-second decisions they make, right down to the words they choose, will chart the course of their lives permanently.

(Please note spoilers ahead.)

12 July 2011

C by Tom McCarthy

Jonathan Cape, 2010
I've been struggling for weeks to get through this book and have finally finished.  If not for the fact that I've said in an earlier post that I'd make a review of it, I'd have long given up.

This is one of those post-modern, experimental works that I don't quite know how to appreciate.  That the plot is inconsequential I can accept.  What I cannot abide are improbable, surreal characters that I am unable to identify with.  While I understand that a novel may be an abstract piece of art, my preference is for writing that tries to reach out to rather than alienate readers.  That is of course my own opinion - there is an entire genre of works that eschews conventional literary devices such as characterisation.

22 June 2011

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

Bloomsbury, 2010
The Finkler Question really is about what you might call the Finkler question.  It is an almost perfect title. Early on in the piece, Jacobson makes it clear that the word "Finkler" is a substitute for "Jew" or "Jewish".  And so the book is an exploration by a Jewish author of the various lines dividing Jews and non-Jews, whether those lines are clear or indistinct, and, perhaps more importantly, whether or not they can be crossed. And by whom. This, to me, is perhaps best summed up by a line in the book:

As always he wondered if he would ever get to the bottom of what Finklers were permitted to say about themselves that non-Finklers were not.

I did and continue to wonder whether Jacobson would have been able to write this book were he not himself Jewish.

26 May 2011

Project Booker

Racing against time!

So I'm midway through The Finkler Question which won the Man Booker Prize 2010. Other shortlisted ones that interest me are:

C by Tom McCarthy
In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey

The longlist for 2011 prize will be announced 26 July 2011, and the shortlist 6 September 2011. At that point I will decide whether this was worth my while.

Four novels and four reviews in four months - here's hoping. No more page-turning blockbusters for a while - thank goodness there aren't any more Hunger Games books left to read!

04 May 2011

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Algonquin Books, 2006
First, a caveat. I am not amongst the legions who picked up this book because of the recent movie adaptation starring Robert Pattinson! It has actually been on or near the top of the Amazon Kindle bestselling list for ages. I passed it over for a while because I am generally not a fan of circuses, and I particularly do not like circuses with live animals. But I did buy it eventually because reviews promised it would be a great summer read.

And so it was. Despite the fact that my nervousness concerning animals proved to be entirely justified, I really enjoyed reading this book.

02 April 2011

February by Lisa Moore

Anansi, 2009
I was itching to write this review even before I finished the book. But now that I've finished and I'm putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) I am not sure how to start, and what combination of words to use.  I am staggered by the depth of its reach into me.

Let's start with what the novel is about. It is about Helen O'Mara, whose husband Cal died on the Ocean Ranger oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland one stormy Valentines' night. It's about how she copes with desperate grief, in the face of which time resolutely refuses to stand still - pregnant Helen has to summon all her strength and raise their four young children without Cal. The narrative moves back and forth in time, and we see Helen at various stages of a long life. Somehow she pulls through. She has lost the love of her life, but she is surrounded by those who love her with so much of theirs.

20 March 2011

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

Random House, 2010
 The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is set in 1799, during the time the Dutch East India Company occupied, with the permission of the Japanese shogunate, the port of Dejima in Nagasaki Harbour.

We follow two main characters - Jacob de Zoet, a Dutch clerk seeing out a five-year stint in Dejima to earn enough to marry his fiancee back home, and Orito Aibagawa, a young Japanese midwife. De Zoet, a man of integrity and intelligence, finds himself thrown into the local Dutch politics of the day, smitten with the beautiful but elusive Aibagawa and embroiled in the dark and sinister machinations of the book's villain, Lord Abbot Enomoto. It is tale told in the bipolar format of good vs. evil - most if not all of the characters are either one or the other.

28 February 2011

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua

The first time I read the Wall Street Journal excerpt from her book (which can be found here), my eyes popped out. Here's a Chinese mother (in Chua's words, not mine) brazenly flaunting her own perverse child-rearing techniques, something that most other Chinese mothers would rather keep under lock and key. It was like reading a juicy tabloid magazine without having to actually stoop to reading a juicy tabloid magazine! My curiosity piqued, I read and reread the article about 5 times, then googled her name, and lo and behold - there were about a million commentaries about the article and the book itself.

So the kindle edition of the book just "one-click" away, I downloaded it and did not stop reading until I finished it. Took about one half of a lazy Saturday.

12 February 2011

No small diversion

I've recently picked up knitting again, and it has seriously queued my reading. Which explains (sort of) the 3 month gap between my last two posts.

Thanks to knitting I am also now supporting a yarn addiction. I have been purchasing yarn from online stores, notably this lovely one, like a crazed turkey. I'm going to have to buy an extra large basket just to store all my yarn.

So I thought I'd keep track of my projects, to hold myself accountable for my yarn stash.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Book Cover by Fritz Eichenberg
1943 Random House publication of
Wuthering Heights
Having read Wuthering Heights over 10 years ago, I recently felt a desperate need to return to it after listening to the song of the same title by Josh Pyke, which is actually a cover of Kate Bush's 1978 original. Josh Pyke's rendition is a fresh and very different take on the song, yet equally haunting. The name "Heathcliff" circling my head for days, I decided to try and find my old copy of the book - no luck - and ended up buying a penguin classics copy for $4.95. Sometimes the price you pay just isn't commensurate with the value of what you buy, and it's nice when it's this way around.

Of all the things I can say about Wuthering Heights, and believe me, I have been struggling for weeks if not months to put some structure to my thoughts, I would first of all say is a brilliantly constructed novel. The textual integrity is so great it grips you from the very beginning just like those ghostly hands on Lockwood's window, and demands to be re-read the moment you finish. Lockwood's confusion is the reader's confusion regarding the identities of the various Earnshaws, Lintons and Heathcliffs and the opening scene at Wuthering Heights is not fully understood until close to the end of the novel - which brings us full circle (but of course). Lockwood's gleeful voyeurism becomes ours too as we delve into the dark and murky depths spanning Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights, with Nelly Dean as our competent tour guide. The wild and unforgiving landscape within which the novel is set permeates our every sense, because its effects are not so much described per se, as manifested in the characters. Reading becomes an almost physical experience. It's like going on one of those haunted house theme park rides, without ever having to leave your couch.