Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Killing Commendatore

I have been a fan of Haruki Murakami’s books for more than a decade now, and I have read almost all of them. I was excited by the promise of this one, and indeed it seemed to contain all the things that make his writing so great, namely the blurring of realism and fantasy. Yet this was in fact a terrible book and I regret having wasted so much time reading it.

Killing Commendatore is the story of a painter whose wife suddenly leaves him. He drives around Japan for a while before settling on a mountain in the home of a famous painter who is now in an old folks’ home. The young painter, whose name we never learn, befriends a mysterious man who lives across the mountain, and finds a mysterious hole out back of his new house. In fact, as with most Murakami books, there is a whole lot of mystery. Even the somewhat normal things that happen are imbued with a certain mystery because the narrator views them that way.

Throughout the book, the narrator brings up the same ideas and events over and over, making you – as reader – wonder what they really mean. There is the whole outside his house, his odd neighbour, a girl he once slept with, a dream, a guy he saw in a café, and much more… All of these appear to be filled with magic and meaning because the narrator presented them that way.

I shan’t given any specific spoilers, but I will say this: nothing actually happens. Nothing is explained and no significance is given to any of the things that the narrator observes. This is a very long, winding book that goes nowhere. All the things that he makes you have interest in are in fact ignored by the end of the book. It seems to me that Murakami was just writing weird stuff and hoping that the book would come together by the end, but it didn’t.

If I was being kind, I might say it was a deliberate choice. In the book, the painter has a painting he doesn’t finish. The elder painter has one whose meaning is lost. Perhaps Murakami was echoing one or both of those in his own book that seems very much unfinished and lacking in conclusive meaning.

Or maybe it was just a rare terrible book by an otherwise talented author. I am more inclined towards this position as there are some genuinely terrible passages. The sex, for one thing, is poorly written (although Murakami was always hilariously bad at writing sex). But sometimes the grammar is just awful. I don’t mean that he is using a particular style that allows sentence fragments, but rather it is sometimes just plain wrong:

·         It seems as if, year after year, the world becomes a more difficult place to live. 

Don’t you mean “live in”? Or “a more difficult place in which to live”?

I suffered through this book because the story was at times quite engaging, but I feel tricked. It went nowhere and it was poorly written. I am sorely disappointed in one of my favourite living writers.

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Adventures of a Young Naturalist, by Sir David Attenborough

David Attenborough has long been an important figure in my life. I have greatly admired him as a pioneering TV presenter who has created some of the best documentary programmes in history. He helped shape television and has been one of the most influential figures in the – sadly futile, it seems – resistance to our human war on nature. His recent work, such as Planet Earth I and II and Blue Planet, is astonishing. It seems that every show he makes brings something utterly new to a cynical audience that thinks it has seen everything.

I didn’t know that I could be any more impressed by David Attenborough, but then I found out that he is an incredible writer. Adventures of a Young Naturalist is a collection of three journals he kept whilst making very early programmes for the BBC. Two of them see him visit South America and one recounts his travels through Indonesia in search of the Komodo Dragon. All of them see him attempting to capture animals for London Zoo and at the same time film them in their natural habitat for the BBC.

I was expecting interesting, occasionally witty descriptions of animals and plants, but while they do indeed appear in this book, most of it is made up of wonderful observations about the landscape and culture of these places, and his often hilarious interactions with the local people. Attenborough was travelling in the era of the adventurer, long before the tourist trod across these lands and ruined them. His journeys were difficult, often fraught with hardship. Yet unlike writers such as Paul Theroux (whom I’ve read often these past few years), Attenborough takes every set back with good humour. Indeed, this book is often laugh-out-loud funny. It is very much an adventure tale, filled with dangerous people and wild locations.

It is also a sad reminder of what we have lost. Attenborough wrote these stories only sixty years ago, yet they may as well have come from another planet. The jungles have been cut down, the animals brought to extinction, and the cultures all blended into nothingness as Facebook and Instagram make everyone look and act and think more and more like each other. This book is a beautiful paean to all we’ve lost.

David Attenborough really is a stunningly good writer, and this book at times made me jealous for my inability to describe places and people the way he does (although of course I always assumed he could do better at describing animals). He is a national treasure, a world treasure, and this book is one of the best things I have read in many years. I highly recommend it.

Thursday, 25 April 2019

The Quiet American

The Quiet American is a 1955 novel by Graham Greene. It was something I had long intended to read, and in Venice a few months ago I found the novel in a hostel. However, I was reading another book and didn’t finish in time to swap it. Later, travelling through Eastern Europe I was reading books by Paul Theroux, and he often makes reference to Greene, so my interested grew further. Last week, I saw the book was on Kindle and downloaded it. I was not disappointed.

The book is set in Vietnam during the final years of French colonialism. The events in the book could be described as allegorical, I suppose, although they are partially prophetic. They concern three main characters: Thomas Fowler, a British journalist; Alden Pyle, the “quiet American” who appears to be working for the US government, and perhaps the OSS; and Phuong, a Vietnamese woman whom both men love.

The book is told in the first person perspective by Fowler, who is a cynical old man – although I don’t recall his age ever being given. He is separated from his English wife and living with his Vietnamese girlfriend, but his wife won’t divorce him. When Pyle arrives, Fowler takes a strong dislike to him, and that dislike grows as Pyle announces he is in love with Phuong.

Pyle is pleasant, education, and naïve. He has read a great deal about Indo-China (mostly by an author called York Harding), but he has no real experience. Despite this, he assumes he knows what’s best for the region, and is engaged in attempting to find a “third force” to run Vietnam once they have kicked out the French. He represents the American attitude towards the post-colonial world: that between colonialism and communism there must be some third option. While this is logical, the ill-formed American causes death and pain, just like his country would do in the decades following this book.
The book is based upon Greene’s own experiences in Indo-China during that period, and apparently based upon a conversation with an American much like Pyle. The insights into colonial era governances and post-colonial American attitudes are fascinating, but I was particularly taken by his perspective on war. Fowler is against the war, yet trapped in it. There are countless poignant lines about death in the book, and some excellent, vivid scenes portraying the horrors of war. One that stuck with me was:

·         …we didn’t want to be reminded of how little we counted, how quickly, simply and anonymously death came.

He also describes the normality of life against the backdrop of war with beautiful little details:

·         … it seemed impossible to me that I could ever have a life again, away from the rue Gambetta and the rue Catinat, the flat taste of vermouth cassis, the homely click of dice, and the gunfire travelling like a clock-hand around the horizon.

Finally, although one gets the feeling that the characters exist more as allegorical constructs than anything else, at least Fowler’s feelings come across as real. When Phuong leaves him for Pyle, he says:

·         I began to plan the life I had still somehow to live and to remember the memories in order somehow to eliminate them. Happy memories are the worst, and I tried to remember the unhappy. I was practiced. I had lived all this before. I knew I could do what was necessary, but I was so much older – I felt I had little energy left to reconstruct.

I will look out more books by Graham Greene…

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

The Fight Belonged to Her

The Fight Belonged to Her is a Kindle-edition short story about a young woman who grows up feeling powerless because of the men in her life. From her grandfather voting on her behalf to her father, whose authority is unquestioned in the family home, she has little say in her own world. Even her mother, who once upon a time was young and hopeful, encourages her to pipe down and do what's she's told by the men around her.

Robin's life appears filled with bullying and abuse at the hands of the men around her. Hardly a paragraph goes by in this slim volume without our protagonist being victimized. She is sexually harassed at work, sexually abused elsewhere, and constantly reminded that, as a woman, she is more or less at the mercy of the men around her, even in the modern era where equality supposedly exists.

The book largely leads up to the election of Donald Trump, yet despite that awful moment in American history marking the end of the book, it sparks a hopeful tone, as Robin finds women who have the will-power to fight back. Thus, the book stands as a comment on gender inequality in our society, but also as a call-to-arms.

I enjoyed the book, which was very well-written, but I do prefer more subtly if I am entirely honest. I felt that this book virtually bludgeoned its reader with a message that essentially says: "all men are pigs". Yes, it carries an important message and yes, it is a short book which gets quickly to the point. However, no man is painted in a positive light, and indeed every word and every action seems very simply contrived to deliver the message: "it's a tough world, and it's men who make it that way." Life isn't so simple, and the best books deal with complexities rather than attempting to deliver such a plain message. 

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life

Looking at my last blog post, I see that it has been more than a year since I posted to this blog. For that, I am sorry. I've not stopped reading. No, on the contrary, I've been reading quite a lot. In fact, I posted some rather good - if I do say so myself - reviews to the Beatdom website. However, this blog sort of lost interest to me. I felt pressured to write reviews and I wasn't enjoying it very much. However, now I'm back in that frame of mind and ready to review once again. 

So here goes. 

A few weeks ago I was in Edinburgh and I found a book called Ikigai. It sounded interesting, and I could see from the reviews that it was highly regarded. The book professes to hold the secret to happiness and longevity, and though that it is a bold enough claim to assume impossible, I was quite attracted by the book's design and the fact that it was based upon Japanese philosophy. I've long been attracted to the Land of the Rising Sun. 

I didn't buy the book, but I did download it on Kindle later. The reason I didn't buy it there and then in the shop was because, although it did look beautiful and did sound interesting, whenever I opened it, the text was a bit... well... a bit wanky. That's a British way of saying it sounded like bullshit. 

Unfortunately, when I got into reading the book some days later, I found that my initial ideas about the book were correct. It was terrible. The book is a mix of the most awful pop science, some bullshit spiritualism, and advice that is so patently obvious that it is not worth saying unless you are teaching small children. It seems that half the sentences in the book start with "According to expert scientists..." and end with "... can improve your mind-body-chakra connection." 

Ok, I don't think that they ever actually said "chakra". This is, after all, based upon Japanese ideas. However, there is a liberal dose of hippie bollocks smeared through the pages. The text jumps from idea to idea like a badly organized meditation retreat, and backs up idiotic claims with things that no one could deny: eat healthily, get some exercise, avoid stress. In these, they of course hide elements of nonsense, adding that eating healthily should include superfoods and that exercise should definitely include yoga! (I have nothing against blueberries and yoga, but don't pretend these are some fucking magical elixir.)

The book definitely contains good advice, and I assume it's so popular because it targets the average idiot pretty well. I can think of a good hundred people I've met in my life who would read this and find it absolutely wonderful. But for me, it was genuinely difficult to finish, even though it's a very short book. It's like sitting through a kindergarten class as an adult. "No, I wasn't planning to eat that glue... and give me back my fucking scissors." 

If you have any self-respect, avoid Ikigai. I don't mean the concept (which, by the way, I forgot to mention means something like "finding your passion and sticking to it"). No, avoid this book. Go to Japan or read Murakami or something instead. This book will do nothing good for you. 

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World

How did a small group of islands off the western coast of Europe, of almost no interest or importance on the world scene, suddenly become the most powerful nation on earth, whose empire stretched so far that the sun never set on it? This is the premise of Niall Ferguson’s book, Empire: HowBritain Made the Modern World.

That Britain became incredibly powerful is common knowledge, but in this huge work, Ferguson’s aims to tell us just how that happened, because it seemed so very unlikely. Just a few hundred years ago, Britain had no power and was essentially a nation of pirates. Yet this piracy turned into a series of conquests that brought a full quarter of the world’s landmass and population under the Queen’s control. It is a fascinating story told in a fascinating book.

There has been a lot of criticism over the author’s apart right-leaning historical perspective. I honestly found the book fair and reasonable, despite my own strong left-leaning political views. Sure, empire is an ugly thing… and Ferguson does not deny that. He gets into the horrors of British imperialism as well as any leftist historian. However, he does argue that the British Empire was, in some ways, a force for good in the world – and he’s correct in that assessment. 

Monday, 5 February 2018

The Taste of Conquest

Michael Krondl's book, The Taste of Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice does exactly what the name suggests - it tells the stories of three cities (Venice, Lisbon, and Amsterdam) and their roles in the spice trade.

He takes us on a tour of the world in the present time, meeting people and talking about spice. But interwoven with this narrative of his own journey is the vast history of spice trading between Asia and Europe. He looks at how the three cities got involved in spice trading and how it changed them and the world, before finally each of them fell from power.

The book is utterly engrossing, although by the third section is does tend to get a bit repetitive. Of course, the story of these three cities is intertwined but I felt the author could have avoided so much repetition. His description of flavors and smells, too, is great but at times a little over the top.

All in all, a fantastic cuisine-focused history text.