Category Archives: book review

Books I’m Reading October 2010

Gadzooks, haven’t got around to this in a while, which is not to say I’ve not been reading!

Some gems in the last while, beginning with the most mind-blowing.

Jitterbug Perfume, by Tom Robbins

First off, just wow!

On the back cover blurb, Corriere della Sere describes the author as ‘The most dangerous writer in the world’.

Would have to seriously consider this as a possibility, having read this book.

Most difficult to pin down, let’s say that it begins in ancient times, and ends in Paris, around now.  Most epic.

Robbins weaves a tale abundant with recurring themes of beets, (yes the mangel-wurzel variety) perfume, and their connection to the hunt for immortality, that is so dazzling, that his conclusions are plausible.

Anybody who wants to live forever should consider this book a prototypic working manual on same.

Should the lure of eternal life demystified not be enough, you will also learn a staggering array of odds and ends on the way.

Robbins has a suspiciously large breath of knowledge to draw on, and each sentence in this book is a densely packed idiomatic maxim that yields its own reward.  It inspires many superlatives, so I’m not going to gush on.

Read this, and give it your undivided attention.

It will raise your IQ immeasurably, and maybe teach you how to beat this mortal coil.

Now, two classics by George Orwell.

Burmese Days, by George Orwell

George Orwell is without question one of the most important authors of the 20th Century.

Not only for Animal Farm, and the increasingly urgently relevant 1984, but also for how he thought as a man.

My brother, who largely knows my reading tastes, passed this and another Orwell novel on to me a while back.

Burmese Days concerns Flory, a British timber merchant, living in colonial Burma.

Orwell lived here for a time, and much of his experiences are so vivid and rich in their description that the reader can almost palpably feel the sweat of the jungle on every page.

In a tale describing how a functioning alcoholic’s life is transformed by the sudden appearance of a suitable debutante from Paris, we are exposed to a world in which casual racism is endemic to the system of British Sovereignty in the region, a value system whereby the colonials took pride in being ‘pukka sahibs‘.

Flory has befriended an Indian doctor, and as such defied the orthodoxy.  The doctor is in danger as a result from a local corrupt magistrate, who is jealous of the status conferred upon him by such an esteemed friendship.  The magistrate, U Po Kyin, embarks on a campaign of devious ruination directed at the doctor, and by proxy, undermining Flory himself.

The only thing that can save either of them is acceptance in the all-white Club for ex-pats, however the Club members have very strong feelings as to why this should never happen.

The story here is really a moral in the classic sense, though it reads excellently as prose.

The central character is questioning the hegemony of the day, through his interest in left-wing politics, and defiance of a racist, exclusive hierarchical order.  Note that this was first published in 1934, at a time that very few were interested in how the natives felt.  It is obvious that Orwell has much in common with Flory, so much so that I was looking at his portrait to see if he had a facial disfigurement of some description.  Flory is an outsider to his social situation, something of a thorn in the side of good Colonial theory & practice, and alleviates his alienation with drink, local mistresses, a local friend, and finally an unsuitable infatuation with the young English rose fresh off the boat from Paris.

It is a mesmerizing read, both for the unrivaled descriptions of Burma at the time, and also for its stark perception and commentary on the sins within the soul of the former British Empire.

Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell

This is another Orwell classic, whereby he turns his sharp eye to the circumstance of poverty.

Again, this is way ahead of its time, (having been first published in 1933).

Orwell actually lived in both cities as a complete destitute, and this recounts some of those experiences and the characters he meets in a world largely hidden from view at the time.

From being slave labour in the kitchens of Paris, finding ways to scam the next few centimes with a Russian ex-military Captain, to being led through the soup kitchens and shelters of London by homeless nobodies, Orwell lends the plight and our incomprehension of poverty a narrative structure and a cast of characters.

In doing so, he gave a human face to the statistics of poverty for the first time.

We should all read more George.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, by Marina Lewycka

Two years after the death of her mother, Nadezhda gets a call from her 84 year-old father (a Ukrainian ex-pat now resident in the UK) to say that he is getting married.

To a bleach-blond, breast-enhanced 36 year-old Ukrainian woman with a ‘genius’ 16 year-old son.

Cue Valentina, a materialistic gold-digger, who ‘exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade’.

Her arrival unearths some uncomfortable truths about the distant relationships of two daughters, now united in a mission to save their aging father from ruination and embarrassment.  On the way, they all learn something about their family history, and the bleakness of life behind the rising Iron Curtain, wherein the best anybody could expect to do was survive.

It is an interesting sketch of surviving recent Ukrainian history, and in ways it studies the fear of motives of immigration through marriage, and perceptions of wealth as viewed from struggling economies in central Europe.

A Partisan’s Daughter, by Louis de Bernieres

This book is set against the backdrop of London in the 70s.

It is a telling of encounters between Chris, who is bored, getting old, and trapped in a loveless marriage, and Roza, a Yugoslavian emigrant, and daughter of one of Tito’s partisans.

Chris initially meets Roza on the street, and mistakes her for a prostitute, and seeing as she doesn’t exactly correct his misunderstanding, a form of friendship ensues, whereby lonely Chris becomes a frequent caller at Roza’s flat, and listens attentively to her stories, and through her, and the people around her, rediscovers an interest in life, and tries to understand some of the popular culture of the time that has been inaccessible to him.

On the way he learns a lot about the former Yugoslavia, and discovers that he is falling for Roza, and she seems to be leading him on.  The story is told from both parties, to give us a gods-eye view into the hearts and minds of the characters.

This is a nice book with a lonely heart, however it doesn’t have the same poetic realism of other de Bernieres work, and seems to be lacking in imagination and scope as a result.

Divorcing Jack, by Colin Bateman

This is a dark tale, with quick and hard humour throughout, set in Northern Ireland during the troubles.

It concerns Dan Starkey, a young journalist in Belfast, who is still partying ‘like a student, with adult pay cheques’ with his wife, and their circle of friends, who share their interests.

One drunken night, he encounters Margaret, a beautiful and forward student, who propositions him at a party at his house.

Being discovered smooching by his wife, he is kicked out, and rolls off with Margaret, to see where it goes.

Next off, Margaret is murdered and Dan’s wife is kidnapped, and he is the prime suspect for a double murder.

We are led through a hazy conspiracy that links new politics with CIA spies, paramilitaries and the police, all looking for something to which Dan is the key.

An entertaining read, and apparently a film now too. Reads like one also.

The Soloist, by Steve Lopez

This book and the one above were loans from my big Sis, so hats off for that!!

This is of course the origin of the tale that has become a movie starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr, that I can’t persuade anyone to watch with me.

It is a largely documentary account of a journalist (Steve Lopez) who encounters an amazing musical talent on the streets of LA, in the shape of Nathaniel Anthony Ayres, a former attendee of the prestigious Julliard Music Academy in New York.

Ayres is also hopelessly schizophrenic, and resistant to any ideas of treatment or settled living.

Lopez manages to personify homelessness in LA through his features in the LA Times on Ayres, and as public interest begins in the story, this muscles action from City Hall, the LA Philharmonic, Yo Yo Ma and a cast of many in the social services scene in LA.

Lopez is accused throughout the process of using Ayres’ situation for personal gain, profit and fame, and there is a resonance of this.  However, while he struggles with this accusation himself, the final word on the subject is that he has given all his advance payments and royalties to a certain Nathaniel Ayres.

An interesting read, and a great example of how one person CAN make a difference.

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, by Alexander Mc Call Smith

Precious Ramotswe is Botswana’s only, and finest, private female detective.

Her methods are not conventional, but then again neither is her chosen calling.

The characterisation in this book is wonderful, in the form of Precious herself, and how happy she seems in her own skin.

She is investigating a number of trivial cases when she first opens her agency, but eventually becomes embroiled in a missing child mystery, that leads into a dangerous side of Botswana’s underbelly.

An enjoyable read, that sets itself up nicely for future serialisation.

Hide, by Lisa Gardner

This is more holiday page-turning stuff, a whodunnit involving a children’s mass grave, an unknown psycho entity hunting the heroine, and a buff cop love interest.

Does what it is supposed to, by the numbers.

Having said that, I’m intrigued by the author’s approach to character while writing.

In her acknowledgments at the end of the book, she thanks some neighbours and colleagues of her brother’s, who she has used to base characters upon.   Furthermore, Gardner runs a ‘Kill a Friend, Maim a Buddy’ sweep-stake on her website,  whereby fans can nominate a friend, whose name will become immortalised as a victim in one of her books.

A canny enough hook for the fan community, I would have thought.

Budding pensmen take note.

Finally, honorable mention to longtime partner in crime and erstwhile crony Trash Ninja, who got me the following as a birthday gift:

Street Knowledge, by King Adz

This book is a perfect coffee-table compendium of all that’s cool out there in the global urban jungle, from Banksy to Yo! MTV Raps, and then some.

Illustrated lovingly throughout,  this is a must-have for fans of street art and culture & its origins and a great guide to what has become one of the most important art forms to emerge from in recent years.

It takes the form of an encyclopedia, as it follows various heroes of the form alphabetically, and fills in a sketch of their ethos, mentionable work and a few canny quotes on a page-per-artist basis.

It is resoundingly a labour of love, yet has enough websites and shout-outs to yield plenty of future exploring of a universe of unbridled visual communication and creativity.

Well worth owning, thanks dude!

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