Who's reading what?

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Re: Who's reading what?

Postby k-j » Wed Oct 21, 2015 7:50 pm

Kangaroo - Yuv Aleshovsky, tr. Glenny

Moderately trippy Russian satire about a chap framed by the police for the (made up crime of the) rape and murder of a kangaroo in the zoo. There's a farcical show trial with a grotesquely elaborate propaganda film as the central evidence, hallucinatory interactions with Hitler and Stalin, lashings of swearing and squalor and absurd Russian humor. I thought of Gogol, Bulgakov, Kafka (although it's not believable like Kafka), and modern Russian/Eastern Bloc authors I've read like Viktor Pelevin and Yuri Buida, Gombrowicz and Konwicki. I found it a little too exuberant and madcap at times, but I don't fault it for that since that's clearly the point.

The Golden - Lucius Shepard

I read some of Shepard's short stories last year and fell quite hard for them, so even though the only novel of his my library had was this one about vampires, I decided to give it a go. It's more or less a murder mystery set in Castle Dracula or a close analogue of that fort. You have these different clans of vamps with different views on the future of vampirism, and lots of political scheming. Not badly written, but quite generic in its plot and not my thing. I liked the end, though, which (in contrast to Shepard's short stories) was decisive, logical, unforeseen and seemed to me to reorient the novel quite interestingly.

The Mayor of Casterbridge - Hardy

I quite like reading Hardy but his novels are all pretty similar in their explorations of guilt, thwarted ambition, frustrated desire and tall poppies cut down. There's not a lot of joking around. My favourite scene in this one was the skimmington ride, the public shaming of Henchard and Lucetta, which was a custom I had never heard of before.
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Re: Who's reading what?

Postby k-j » Thu Oct 22, 2015 9:44 pm

The Treasure of Sainte Foy - MacDonald Harris

The incomparable Harris demonstrates again his ability to write genre novels which don't so much transcend their genre as give it a good buffing and insinuate it into the hallowed halls of High Art while the doorkeepers aren't looking (not sure I've expressed myself very well there). This is a thriller, more or less, about an antiquities heist on a village church deep in the rural, Occitan, and slightly creepy south of France. Half the book is the first-person narrative of the failed American academic who scouts out the treasure and gets romantically embroiled with its enigmatic curator. For the other half we're in the company of his accomplices, Occitan separatists/communist agitators who are ruthless but frequently comical. They hijack a helicopter and it doesn't end well. Like the rest of Harris's novels, this features his perfectly-tuned, unpretentious prose, his effortless incorporation of research, his darting imagination, his genial, knowing worldliness, etc. etc., and a beautifully understated magic-realism that leaves a little coal of awe inside you after you turn the last page.

The Moor's Last Sigh - Salman Rushdie

Rushdie's brand of magic realism, of course, is the opposite of understated. But I enjoyed this rambling picaresque with its hurtling, helter-skelter prose. I loved the liberal indulgence in Indian English (reminded me a lot of G.V. Desani's All About H. Hatterr) and the whole ferocious, love-hate portrayal of India and its history, ending in a special lament for Bombay and a rousing philippic against religious nationalism. Really it's a family saga novel, or a superb parody of one, and while every generation of the de Gama-Zogoiby clan provides its own great characters and stories, it seemed to me that most of Rushdie's art and labor was given to the earlier ones. In fact the last part of the book was rather weak and disappointing.

Going Native - Stephen Wright

A super beginning to this novel, as a regular suburban guy wanders away from a soul-destroying dinner party, deserting his wife and home, destination unknown. Then we encounter (presumably) him in the guise of various radically different strangers/wanderers as we take a long strange American (road?) trip. The prose is full-on technicolour throughout, prickling and sparkling and dense up close like a chameleon's hide. But the vignettes are not all of an equal high standard, the shared themes are tenuous (which is OK), and I felt that the whole never quite lived up to the promise of the first part. But an engrossing book.

This brings me to the end of June and only 29 books in arrears.
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Re: Who's reading what?

Postby k-j » Tue Oct 27, 2015 9:21 pm

Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology - Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili

This is a good functional summary of the emerging field of quantum biology. It's hard not to see the fascination of quantum weirdness, but a lot of people are probably turned off by the remoteness of it from our classical physical world. This book smashes the two together with CERN-like force. We are quantum, it says. Everything is quantum. At the same time, this is the weakness of "Life on the Edge". By invoking quantum effects to explain so many and varied biological mysteries, the authors seem to protest too much. Sometimes (magnetoreception in migratory birds) there is very strong experimental evidence to support their case, and other times (origin of life) they freely admit that there isn't (yet). I don't begrudge them their enthusiasm - I suppose it's inevitable in such an emergent field - but I was left with the feeling that Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili would happily blame everything from earthquakes to the Easter Bunny on Quantum Biology, given half the chance. Recommended for its sheer novelty.
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Re: Who's reading what?

Postby Ros » Tue Oct 27, 2015 9:35 pm

k-j wrote:Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology - Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili

This is a good functional summary of the emerging field of quantum biology. It's hard not to see the fascination of quantum weirdness, but a lot of people are probably turned off by the remoteness of it from our classical physical world. This book smashes the two together with CERN-like force. We are quantum, it says. Everything is quantum. At the same time, this is the weakness of "Life on the Edge". By invoking quantum effects to explain so many and varied biological mysteries, the authors seem to protest too much. Sometimes (magnetoreception in migratory birds) there is very strong experimental evidence to support their case, and other times (origin of life) they freely admit that there isn't (yet). I don't begrudge them their enthusiasm - I suppose it's inevitable in such an emergent field - but I was left with the feeling that Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili would happily blame everything from earthquakes to the Easter Bunny on Quantum Biology, given half the chance. Recommended for its sheer novelty.


Does it insist on giving you a potted history of quantum theory first? I'm getting fed up of popular science books that insist on starting decades ago and taking a run up to the new stuff.


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Re: Who's reading what?

Postby k-j » Tue Oct 27, 2015 10:09 pm

Ros wrote:Does it insist on giving you a potted history of quantum theory first? I'm getting fed up of popular science books that insist on starting decades ago and taking a run up to the new stuff.

Yes it does, but as I've never read a proper book about quantum theory, my understanding deriving instead from popsci moultings on the net and hazy references in my other reading, that was fine by me. But yes, there is an info dump in the first few chapters. It's not a terribly well-written book - the attempts to colourise each chapter by inserting some tangential biographical details of the boffins involved seem desperate and are not well-integrated into the discussion of the science - but the various applications of QT to deep biological processes provide plenty of grist for the brain to grind away at.
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Re: Who's reading what?

Postby k-j » Wed Oct 28, 2015 9:09 pm

Anna Karenina - Tolstoy

Plot was gripping, characters almost all masterfully-drawn. The only aspect I wasn't enamoured with was the character of Levin, the author's avatar. He is rather a bore and the last section, after AK has gone her way and we are left with Levin, is worthy and dull. The brilliant set pieces, mostly social gatherings, are a joy to read, full of wit and irony.

There is so much to admire; it's abundantly clear how influential and ahead of its time this novel is. The characters are deep, conflicted, morally ambiguous, evolving: fully credible. The narrative is compulsively readable and subtly daring with its glimpses of interior lives. There is a startling passage where for a couple of pages, we experience things from the perspective of a hunting dog, and unlike almost all similar attempts in later literature, it is convincing (and fun - it's clear from all his fiction that Tolstoy loved dogs). Even the short chapters, and the way Tolstoy handles time, feel modern.

Probably one I'll read again, which puts it in pretty select company.
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Re: Who's reading what?

Postby David » Thu Oct 29, 2015 6:16 pm

k-j wrote:Anna Karenina - Tolstoy

You've got me thinking I should read it again now.

What about the short stories? Some terrific stuff in there.
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Re: Who's reading what?

Postby Ros » Thu Oct 29, 2015 7:56 pm

Never read it. Makes me think I should.
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Re: Who's reading what?

Postby k-j » Thu Oct 29, 2015 8:29 pm

David wrote:What about the short stories? Some terrific stuff in there.

I've only read The Kreutzer Sonata and The Death of Ivan Ilyich. The latter I remember thinking a masterpiece; the former was well-written but I couldn't stomach the moralising. Tolstoy after all was a proper genius - more than a little crazy.

Ros wrote:...

I think it will surprise you. It was certainly more than the episodic tragic romance/morality tale I had been expecting.

Am watching the 10-part 1977 BBC TV adaptation; hit a lacuna after episode 6 but will finish that soon. Not the flashiest production, but some cracking performances and commendably faithful to the book.
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Re: Who's reading what?

Postby k-j » Sun Nov 22, 2015 2:18 am

Pig and Pepper - David Footman

Funny, deft coming of age novel about an increasingly less-clueless young British diplomat in a fictional state somewhere near Romania, Moldova or Ukraine. One of those books it's impossible to hate or even really dislike.

North American Lake Monsters - Nathan Ballingrud

A set of short stories about Americans, generally poor, whose problems take supernatural shape. A father fresh out of chokey tries and fails to rebuild his relationship with his wife and daughter while a leviathan carcass rots on the nearby lakeshore. Etc. They are all well-written, and some very well indeed, but I found them a bit lacking in variety. I found myself wanting a story where bad, inexplicable things happen to boring, normal people for no reason at all. Writing isn't always about making connections, drawing links.

To Have and Have Not - Hemingway

I was on holiday, and neglected to bring a book to the beach. I begged my brother for the loan of his e-reader, and he agreed and recommended this. That evening he told me he had been thinking of another novel and hadn't meant to recommend this at all. Even so, I was almost half way through, so I got it from the library on arriving home and finished it. Really a very crappy novel. The more I read of Hemingway, the less I like him - in fact, I think I am now in the position of actively disliking him. This one doesn't say much at all, it's just your standard hard-workin' law-breakin' good guy tryin' to support the ol' lady (but not actually giving a shit about her) and be (what he conceives to be) a man in a horrible, two-faced world. Pathetic really.

The Road to Wigan Pier - Orwell

Quite disappointed in this too, but it's still a text worth reading. I think it lacks the immediacy of "Down and Out in Paris and London" and the taut potency of his essays. I was really hoping for a more thorough investigation of the lives of the miners, but this is only the first half of the book and even then, it is very repetitive and underwritten. Orwell seems to have wanted the facts to speak for themselves but abject poverty, unfortunately, is quite boring by itself (it's of course harder to make sense of the countless monetary sums after decimalisation and 70 years of inflation). The second half is a well-reasoned argument for Orwell's idea of socialism but I didn't get anything from its 80 pages that I hadn't previously got more quickly and convincingly from his shorter essays.

Wilt - Tom Sharpe

I read several Sharpe novels when I was about 14 and thought they were the greatest thing. Coming back to Wilt, I am still impressed by the potency of the vitriol towards the various social frauds and graspers. Wilt is a highly sympathetic hero, a decent bloke surrounded by morons and bastards. On the other hand, the farce largely fell flat for me this time around.

When I Was Otherwise - Stephen Benatar

Found this in a second hand store and bought it because I'd loved his NYRB-published Wish Her Safe at Home. WHSaH is a masterpiece, this is just a very good novel. Benatar's an expert at (there's probably a Greek term for this) making ironic remarks via the thoughts or speech of his characters. He's not a writer who is easy on his characters - he turns them inside out - but he's very realistic indeed and there are no real heroes or villains. He's also great at period detail and scene-setting, and his dialogue is exquisite. WHSaH has a persistent and brilliant undercurrent of psychosis, which occasionally takes over the narrative, and the same exists here but only towards the end, where it is introduced and deployed very effectively. But this novel lacks the drive and focus of WHSaH; I believe it could have used a good editor. I suppose my only other criticism would be that while the female characters are superb, the men seem underdone, lacking a spark. I don't think Benatar can really write men.

The Martian - Andy Weir

Execrable. I reviewed it on librarything.

Recently watched the movie which is better, but still devoid of real drama as we all know how it will end. It's a well-made film, but the most serious failings of the book remain. It doesn't help that I can't stand Matt Damon. Something about the shape of him.
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Re: Who's reading what?

Postby k-j » Mon Nov 23, 2015 11:21 am

And Still the Earth - Ignácio de Loyola Brandão tr. Helen Watson

This is my second novel by Brandão, after Zero and although stylistically different (more conventional), it is just as convincing in its dystopic vision. Like Zero, And Still the Earth is inspired by the Brazilian dictatorship of the 1980's, but rather than a sideways-skewed surreal version, this is a projection into a near-future Brazil run by an insuperable military bureaucracy (in some ways like Terry Gilliam's Brazil). Ecocide is rampant as large swathes of the country have been sold off to foreign states and corporations, forcing the local population into ever-shrinking zones of confinement. The climate has been wrecked beyond repair and the country is dying of thirst (uncanny echoes of the situation in 2014 and 2015). It's a long novel and I suppose quite a bleak one, but there is lots of humour, only some of it black, and frequent shafts of sunlight pierce the gloom in the form of everyday incidents and moments of humanity. It's also a sad story of a decayed relationship - the early days of the 50-something hero's marriage are beautifully related, as is its gradual, ungraspable decline along with the country.

Travels in Brazil - Henry Koster

Henry Koster was a friend of Robert Southey, and after going to Brazil in an attempt to improve his health, spent much of his adult life traveling there (specifically the area around Recife) and trying to make a go of a sugar plantation. He died young, but managed to produce the first eyewitness account of Brazil in English with the assistance of Southey's extensive library. Koster is quite plain-spoken and documents the social structure, government, economy and daily life of the country even-handedly. Admirably, he is as interested in the lives of the poor and the slaves as in the land-owning and merchant classes. His description of the intricate racial hierarchy, with the various mixes of white, black and Indian arranged in a clearly-defined pyramid with slaves at the bottom, was fascinating. Worth reading.
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Re: Who's reading what?

Postby violajsilver » Mon May 30, 2016 5:37 am

currently I thought to read an Indian novel. I took the book life is what you made and it is quiet good.
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Re: Who's reading what?

Postby k-j » Mon Sep 19, 2016 4:45 am

I'm having a poor year, reading-wise, and will probably end up with fifty or so books, a book a week, half what I managed in the last two years. I've also had some severe reading disappointments this year (which may partially account for the slowness).

The best new (to me) books I've read this year have been Ballard's Empire of the Sun and The Other by Thomas Tryon (great name). I've also reread Ulysses (twice), the Iliad tr. Fagles and Smollett's tr. of Gil Blas to make up for all the disappointments.
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