Two Caravans – Marina Lewycka

May 26, 2017 at 10:20 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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 Another book plucked from the shelf. So many good books on my shelves waiting to be read! This is Marina Lewycka’s second novel, and follows the fortunes of a group of itinerant workers who have come to England to pick strawberries. There is a memorable and hilarious cast of characters, from the shady Farmer Leapish who houses the workers in two broken-down caravans in his field to the naive nineteen year old Irina, fresh from Ukraine and hoping both to make a living and find a handsome English man like to match the dashing Mr Brown from her ‘Let’s Talk English’ textbook.

Whilst a highly comedic novel, it does shed an uncomfortable light on the conditions endured by such migrant workers, as well as the lack of security and risk of being trafficked they face. The use of language is sublime, with the various characters somewhat broken English adding to the atmosphere; for example the hard ‘mobilfonmen‘ who control the workers, and the sinister Vulk, who calls Irina ‘little flovver‘ as he kidnaps her with nefarious intent.

The first half of the book has a wide ensemble of characters, and follows them as they move around the country (driven away from Leapish’s farm when his wife runs him over in her sports car after finding out he has an ‘arrangement’ with Yola, the Polish supervisor). Along the way they acquire a dog (called Dog), and the pace and humour in this part of the book make for a rattling read.

About half way through, most of the characters disappear, and the book becomes a love story between Irina and Andiry, as they attempt to find stability and peace whilst pursued by Vulk. This part of the novel is less successful, to my mind, and it becomes more forced.

Still, it’s a fun book to read that I recommend. And one that will certainly open your eyes to the conditions endured by the immigrant underclass who make up much of the low-paid workforce.

Kowloon Tong – Paul Theroux

February 10, 2017 at 21:08 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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kwoloonThis book has been on the shelf, and sort of looking at me for years. Lots of years. I don’t know where it came from, who bought it or when, but I’ve been sort of aware of it’s presence on the shelf for, well, a long time.

So I decided to read it. This was, in part, due to a desire to road-test my reading glasses. Yes, that’s correct, folks. I an officially old. Visiting the optician recently, I was told that reading glasses might be beneficial, especially when I am tired. So I got some, in the (perhaps vain) hope I might read more in the evening, a time when, if I am honest, my eyes are a bit tired for reading. Wanting to test this out a few days after receiving my new glasses, I pulled this book of the shelf, and started to read.

Actually, I have to say, it was rather good. I’ve never especially felt like I had eye-strain, but it was certainly much more restful; I was able to read up until bedtime without feeling like my eyes were more tired than the rest of me.

Enough of all that, how was the book?  Well, I think I enjoyed it. It’s set just before the handover of Hong Kong from the British to the Chinese, and follows the story of ‘Bunt’ – a Hong-Kong-born British ex-pat, as his (recently inherited) family business is bought, against his wishes, by the shady Mr Hung, a representative of the Chinese state army. Bunt is a very weak man, under the thumb of his overbearing mother, who spends his days working at the factory and visiting ‘blue hotels’ with prostitutes. Just as he starts to discover love (an affair with one of his factory workers), his world collapses. It’s a bleak novel, and Bunt’s ultimate weakness and impotence are painfully laid bare.

There’s really no characters in this book to like. Bunt and his mother are smug, racist ex-pats. Mr Bunt is alarming and menacing. The are also a range of other unsavoury characters who seemingly abandon all morals in the pursuit of money and success.

As I said, I think I enjoyed, it. I certainly kept turning the pages; it’s gripping in a sort of dreadful way. But it’s also strangely unsatisfactory; there is so little humanity and colour on offer that it leaves a thin, sour taste. Interestingly it has a very even spread of reviews on amazon from 1 star up to 5, so I guess it’s a book that elicits a range of opinions.

Still, as a test run for my new glasses, it worked very well. Now I will see if this prompts me to do more evening reading…

 

The Secret River – Kate Grenville

October 13, 2015 at 21:06 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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The Secret River starts in 1780s Lsecret riverondon. William Thornhill, a small boy, born in the squalid slums of London, get a chance to create a life for himself as a waterman, ferrying people across the Thames. Then, when things go wrong for him, he, his wife and their son are sentenced to be transported to Australia.

Arriving in Sydney in the early days of the colony, Thornhill sets out to rebuild his life, eventually claiming land and settling on the banks of the Hawesbury river.

Of course, the settlers come into contact with, and conflict with, the Aboriginal people of the area. There is horrific violence and brutality, but also attempts at reconciliation and peace. The moral choices are often ambiguous, and the novel paints a vivid portrait of early colonialism.

It’s a gripping read, often uncomfortable, and certainly gives an insightful perspective into the struggles between the white settlers and the Aborigines – and ultimately how the ‘blacks’ were brutally subjugated.

I’ve read a fair bit of Australian history since moving here some years ago, but this novel really puts that history into human terms. There is a risk in reading it as history though, in that Thornhill is very unusual in terms of his liberal, tolerant outlook. This paints a rather romanticised picture of white settlement (although Grenville does not shy away from the uglier side of colonial attitudes in other characters). But that said, I still recommend this book to all seeking both a great novel, and also an insight into how Australia was colonised by Europeans.

The Man who invented the Future – Franz Born

July 8, 2015 at 06:12 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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inventedfutureAnother holiday read plucked from the shelf of a rented holiday house. This accessible biography of Jules Verne was actually quite entertaining. He led an interesting life; initially not really sure what he should be doing so filling his time with voracious reading covering many topics of science and geography.

After some failed attempts at scientific adventures of his own (such as building a huge hot air balloon) he finally turned his hand to writing fiction, and the rest, as the say, is history.

His breadth of knowledge on all matters scientific meant that his fiction had a solid basis in real fact, and many of the fantastical machines he created in his imagination – from submarines to videoconferencing – are of course now real and everyday. (There’s an article here covering many of them). In that sense he was a true science fiction writer, constructing worlds which relied on the laws of physics, rather than the now rather more fashionable fantasy writers who rely on magic and agency.

The funny thing about this book, interesting though it was, is that it was written in the mid nineteen-sixties; a time of great technological excitement. It is sprinkled with gushing predictions, such as ‘and in a few years, when regular space traffic is established, we will see even more how Verne’s predictions were correct‘ and so forth. It seems Verne was somewhat more adept at predicting the future than his erstwhile biographer..!

Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck

June 8, 2015 at 20:53 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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miceandmenThe Chillikebab family went on holiday recently (well, not that recently really, but I’ve not been keeping up with my blogging recently…), enjoying a peaceful week in a rental house on the South Coast. The sun shone (mostly), the beaches were sandy, the beer was cold and there was time to relax. I always enjoy browsing the books on offer in such houses; usually a mix of yellowing paperbacks from the 1970s, strange non-fiction titles on random topics (‘How to build a Minibike’, ‘Advanced Topiary’, ‘Midwifery Careers for Modern Girls’ and so on), and a few bodice-rippers left by previous holidaymakers.

One of those yellowing paperbacks was Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’. I pulled it down from the shelf, settled down into the soft brown cord of the 1970s sofa and began to read. (I’d like to say I was driven by a great literary urge, as desire to improve myself, but in reality it has as much to do with the fact that it was a rather slim volume…)

This book is of course a classic, and with good reason. On the one hand a story of loyalty, courage and love, and on the other a horrifying tale of blank, hollow lives lived as victims of circumstance. It is concise and pithy, with rich characters and sparse, taut dialogue. As George and Lenny chase their dream; to own their own rabbit farm, it is always obvious that they will not succeed; there is a kind of awful inevitability about the ending that makes it no less arresting when it does.

If you haven’t read this as an adult, and only know of it from adaptations or schoolwork, it’s worth picking it up.

The Believing Brain – Michael Shermer

May 16, 2014 at 19:22 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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shermerAs humans, we revel in our ability to think. To judge. To see the world around us, to fathom its intricacies, to understand and communicate its nuances, and above all to be able to discern its truths.

Except that we are deluded. We are actually pretty terrible at objectively weighing up the evidence around us, preferring to use a range of mental shortcuts to arrive at a ‘truth’ that is often utterly at odds with reality. Furthermore, once these ‘truths’ are lodged in our brains, we resolutely stick to them, ignoring all evidence to the contrary. The strength with which we cling to our beliefs is extraordinary, and in many cases we simply refuse to ever give them up, however ludicrous they may seem to an objective observer.

This behaviour is familiar to everyone, of course. We are also rather good at spotting this behaviour in others, even as we are blind to our own delusions.

But why should this be so? Why do we cling to our beliefs? How are they formed? And why do certain topics – religion, politics, spirituality, –  seem to be at the heart of so many powerful belief systems?

In this book Michael Shermer dissects the patterns, systems and neuroscience of belief, to explain how and why we get so caught up in our beliefs, and why the more they are challenged the more entrenched they become. He breaks this process down into two broad categories – patternicity, or the tendency humans have to see patterns in everything, even when none are present; and agenticity, the tendency we have to ascribe an outside purpose to random events. He also explores the nature of objective truth and how to arrive at it; the power of sceptical thought and the scientific method.

There are some fantastic observations and evidence. For example, he describes how easy it is to make mice and birds ‘superstitious’ –  associating a food reward with some random, unrelated  action. He then goes on to describe how trivial it is to get humans to do the same things; his accounts of otherwise perfectly normal, rational people doing weird dances, or touching every wall before hitting a button because they think it might influence the number of ‘points’ they score is both hilarious and somewhat disturbing (the number of points they actually received, by the way, was completely random).

Overall this is a good primer to the subject, and is for the most part well written – although there are sections than ramble on somewhat. He takes entertaining potshots at all sorts of institutions along the way, from faith healers to economists, from religion to political parties, and shows how they are slave to biased thinking.

The book is not startlingly original and doesn’t have a great deal of new material for anyone reasonably versed in sceptical and scientific literature (think Dawkins, Harris, Grayling, Sagan etc). He amusingly also gets very caught up in his own US-centric libertarian political views which significantly colour the chapters on politics – apparently Shermer is not immune from the effects he describes. However, as an entertaining and well-written introduction to the subject it is to be recommended.

 

 

The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern

February 9, 2014 at 19:24 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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nightcircusThis book was given to Mrs Chillikebab a few year ago, and she has not yet got around to reading it. So one evening when I fancied reading a book, I pulled it down from the shelf, knowing nothing about it at all.

As it turned out, it’s a fantasy novel that revolves around a magical Victorian circus created by the two main protagonists, Marco and Celia. They compete to create, manage and hold together this complex construction as part of a strange contest to which the rules are never made clear. The contest was set up by two shadowy figures who drift in and out of the novel. There are also a host of other characters who play parts in the drama, and one of the good things about the book is how all these disparate threads slowly come together towards the finale.

The writing is richly descriptive, and very evocative. There are some lovely passages describing the environments of the circus, as well as other locations that are beautifully realised. This is really the main strength of the book – you can loose yourself in the rich scenery, and it stays with you after you have put it down.

Where the book is let down in is its characterisation. The main characters particularly seem very two dimensional, and there are some truly cringe-worthy moments when they declare their undying love for each other that make you wince. How can someone who can create such rich backdrops write such trite dialogue better suited to a teen romance novel?

That said, it was an entertaining enough read that I rattled through in a couple of evenings. It’s not great literature, and there are all sorts of holes you could poke in it (not least the way the characters in no way seem to behave or reflect the era the book is set in – their manner, style, behaviour and language are all completely contemporary. And the ending is, to be honest, somewhat predictable.) Overall though its strengths outweigh its faults, perfect if you are looking for a light read to take on holiday that’s  a step or two up from airport fodder.

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