Nutshell – Ian McEwan

November 1, 2016 at 14:24 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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nutshellWhen I reviewed McEwan’s last book, I noted that it felt somewhat formulaic; a little bit too heavy on research and, dare I say, somewhat underwhelming.

Well whether stung by my review or simply fired with inspiration, Ian McEwan has released a book that you could never accuse of being formulaic. It’s a black comedy, inspired by Hamlet, narrated by a nine-month old foetus from the confines of his mother’s womb. Not one of the larger sections at Dymocks, that one…

It’s a terrific book. Audacious and joyful to read, it is a literary tour de force. (Literary skill that, as you can see by the use of such a hackneyed phrase, I lack.) The womb-bound protagonist offers soliloquys on everything from contemporary politics to enduring having his father’s brother’s penis thrusting inches from his nose, whilst we follow the plotting between his uncle, Claude, and mother, Trudy, to kill his father by means of a hipster smoothie laced with antifreeze.

It all sounds utterly preposterous, but the extraordinary writing and compelling narrative drive just sweeps you along – it’s an exhilarating read. There’s literary nods and winks a-plenty along the way, but all that cleverness and conceit avoids being, well, clever and conceited, and just adds to the joy of reading this slim volume.

I read somewhere that McEwan said he enjoyed writing this book, and it shows. It’s a cracker. Get yourself a copy.

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Animal Farm – George Orwell

October 18, 2016 at 16:36 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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animal-farmDo you suffer from insomnia? Well, if you do I may have the answer. It takes the form of a BBC radio programme called ‘In Our Time‘, in which exceptionally plummy-voiced academics discuss incomprehensible subjects in soporific tones.

It just takes a little of Melvyn Bragg’s introduction (‘and joining me to discuss the influence of thirteenth century epic poetry on the development of the Romance languages are, Edwin Higginbotham, Emeritus Professor of Nearly Everything at the University of Somewhere….) and I’m asleep. It’s one of my favourite programmes, and I assume all this erudition is somehow lodging itself into my somnambulistic brain.

A little while ago, I stayed awake long enough to pick up that the following week’s programme would be about George Orwell’s Animal Farm. This prompted me to read the original book, which I’m not sure I had ever actually read.

The story is, of course, very familiar. The animals of Manor Farm rise up against the brutal and incompetent farmer, and after chasing him away begin to manage the farm for themselves as a sort of co-operative utopia. In those first very heady months everything goes well, with all the animals working together to improve their conditions.

However, it soon starts to go sour, as the pigs (the intellectuals of the farm) start to take more and more for themselves as they exploit and terrorise their fellow animals until, in the famous last scene, the pigs and men in the farmhouse appear indistinguishable from each other, the pigs having turned into the very oppressors they sought to overthrow.

It is a searing commentary on the events of the Russian Revolution, and the eventual rise of Stalin, although written at a time when Britain was in the throes of the Second World War, with Russia as an ally. Because of this, here was significant pro-Russian sentiment in the UK at the time, and Orwell struggled to find a publisher. It was eventually published just after the war, at a time when the pro-Russia sentiment had evaporated and the horrors of the Stalinist regime were becoming more clear.

However, the historical overlay is not necessary to enjoy the book; although it’s a bleak read. It has a kind of relentless inevitability about it; from the moment the pigs first take the milk for their mash the spiral down towards the final outcome seems somehow fixed. It is of course a classic, and worth reading again if you haven’t read it for a while.

Having read it, I then looked forward to the programme to further sharpen my appreciation of the book. But alas, I was asleep within a few minutes of it starting…

 

The After Party – Anton DiSclafani

October 2, 2016 at 19:49 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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afterpartyFollowing my resolution to read a book from the library every time I take the kids there, I picked up ‘The After Party’ from the display of new books by the children’s section, without really even glancing at it. It’s not a book I probably would have chosen normally, but I think this new ‘grab from the library’ strategy has quite a bit going for it, as you get to read some interesting and unusual books.

This book is set in 1950s Houston, and drips with period detail – the rich, bored, un-emancipated housewives of rich oilmen live in a dizzy world of socialising and manners. Their lives are at once luxurious and stifling.

The book revolves around two characters in this world – Joan, from one of the oldest and richest families, and Cece, her friend, confidant and sometime chaperone. Joan is unconventional; straining against the barriers of convention. She is the darling of the gossip columns as she moves from one outrageous incident to another. Cece, desperately wanting to conform to  the expectations of society, is drawn to Joan and spends her life in Joan’s orbit, both enthralled and appalled as she attempts to understand and corral Joan’s behavior.

The novel explores the relationship between these two women as Joan’s life spirals out of control, and DiSclafani deftly explores their obsessive and stifling friendship, set against the backdrop of rigid societal expectations.

It’s an enjoyable book, but not exceptional, and the pace drags a little sometimes. It is an interesting window into both the era and the dynamics of female friendship.

Nod – Adrian Barnes

August 15, 2016 at 21:57 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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nod adrian barnesHurrah! I finally got around to reading another book. Regular readers would be forgiven for thinking that the ‘book’ part of my blog title seems rather irrelevant. Apologies for this, dear readers. I will do my best to make amends.

I picked up ‘Nod’ by Adrian Barnes from my local library, when I was there with the junior Chillikebabs. Aren’t libraries great! Just like bookshops, except the books are free, and there is fast wifi. We go there a lot, but only ever get out kids book. So my new resolution is borrow (and then read) at least one grown-up book on each visit.

Nod is a dystopian novel, set in a contemporary world where, suddenly, almost no-one is able to sleep. As sleep deprivation takes hold, society falls apart alarmingly quickly. A few lucky individuals, including the books main protagonist and narrator, Paul, are able to sleep – but they all have the same strange dream. And some children are also able to sleep – but are rendered mute and unemotional, moving to live rough in a park all together.

At all sounds very weird when I write it like that, and I guess it is; as the book progresses it becomes more and more dream-like, mirroring the decaying mental state of the ‘Awakened’ – those that are unable to sleep. Strange cults begin to develop, behaviour becomes savage and violent, and through it all glide the serene ‘Sleeper’ children.

I enjoyed it a lot, although felt it was just a bit short of being a great book. Some of the literary allusions are a bit too forced, and at times it descends into a zombie-horror-flick parody. However, those are minor criticisms, it’s a book that stays with you for a while after you read it and which has some thought-provoking themes.

 

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 Casual Vacancy – JK Rowling

September 15, 2015 at 08:30 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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This is, of course, casual vacancy JK rowlingJK Rowling’s first adult fiction book, published to much fanfare in 2012. It explores the interwoven lives of the inhabitants of a small English village, touching on themes as diverse as racism, drug-taking, bullying, domestic violence, teenage sex, crime and prejudice.

Rowling herself has described it as a ‘black comedy’, which is an apt description of many of the characters. As in her children’s books, Rowling has a knack for creating extreme caricatures that somehow remain believable, and this cast of grotesques do have a certain dark, comedic quality. The plot and storylines, however, are far from humorous in their explorations of the darkest sides of human nature.

The cast of characters is large, and there are multiple storylines and plots that run throughout the book. Other reviewers have found this difficult to follow, but I didn’t find this confusing; the characters jump off the page and are so memorable it’s easy to keep up.

The writing, whilst somewhat clunky in parts, flows along well enough, despite the book’s length – although it does feel like it could do with a bit of judicious editing. There are some quite poignant moments, as well as some challenging ones – but there are also some rather long, tedious passages that could do with trimming.

It’s worth a look – it’s easy to read, and quite fun – but it’s not a great novel.

The Children Act – Ian McEwan

August 15, 2015 at 16:19 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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It’s always a pleasure to open a nmcewan children actew book by Ian McEwan. Familiar as an old pair of jeans, yet always fresh and new. From the moment you sink into the luminous prose to the point when you emerge, blinking, from the fine textured world McEwan conjures, you are swept along by the sheer technical mastery of the medium. McEwan is truly a great author, a master of his craft.

And yet, and yet, something niggled with me slightly about this novel. Not that it wasn’t executed with the customary brilliance. Not that the plot wasn’t intriguing and though-provoking, and the characters fully rounded and believable. No, somehow, there was this niggle in my mind that it was somewhat formulaic. A really good novel, yes, but ‘just another Ian McEwan’, rather than some new statement. It sounds almost sacrilegious to say it, but I was strangely reminded of  Dick Francis’ novels – basically all the same story, but made (somewhat) interesting by the illuminating background research into whatever the protagonist happened to be – a photographer, a wine merchant, a computer teacher etc etc.

In ‘The Children Act’, the main character is a family court judge, and the book revolves around both her troubled marriage and her caseload, most particularly Adam, an intense teenager who wishes to refuse lift-saving treatment for religious reasons.

And, à la Francis, we also get quite significant discourses on the processes and ethics of the family court system in England, coupled with expositions on the religious mores of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

This is a much, much better novel than an airport thriller. But somehow, for me, the assemblage of raw materials failed to gel into a great book.

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 Magic of Reality – Richard Dawkins

January 13, 2015 at 13:53 | Posted in books | 1 Comment
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dawkins

When I was at  high school, I took classes in both French and German languages. My grades in both had been patchy, until in my third year I was taught French by a lady called ‘Miss Smith’. She was an excellent teacher, and suddenly French became much easier for me (and ultimately became the subject for which I got the highest grade when graduating). So in my fourth year, I was thrilled to also score Miss Smith for German classes too. Weirdly, friends who had had her for German previously all seemed to hate her, but I ignored them in the lead up to the new academic year. And yet, she turned out to be a terrible German teacher. She shouldn’t have been; German was her primary subject, and she was a native German speaker. But therein lay the problem; she was so familiar with German she struggled to teach it; couldn’t understand why we were struggling and got impatient, shouting at us rather than helping us.

I got a Richard Dawkins book for Christmas this year – The Magic of Reality. Unlike his other books, which focus on his own field, biology, this is a science ‘primer’ aimed at a general audience – specifically a non-scientifically literate audience. So here we have one of the worlds’ foremost scientific minds trying to make his subject accessible to those who may have in the past struggled with science, whether in school or more generally.

It is clearly a work of passion. Dawkins really wants everyone to know, understand and be inspired by science. In this book he covers not only his home turf, the evolution of life on earth, he also covers a range of other topics in geography, astronomy, physics and probability. he does this by asking a question (What is a rainbow?, Why to bad things happen?) and then using this as a springboard into the underlying science.

He also starts each section not with the science, but with some examples of how such questions have been answered in the past, with various myths, legends and religious stories. These then form a comparison with the actual explanation, with Dawkins intent to reveal that the scientific answer has more interest, awe and ‘magic’ than any explanation cooked up by shamans or prophets. As a structure this works well, with Dawkins amply demonstrating that the wonder of the natural universe far exceeds those limiting and colourless tales.

It’s an easy book to read, although the subject matter was all very familiar to me. However, at times the tone come across as rather condescending. Now, I’m not in the target audience for this book, so perhaps it’s just me. But there was a few things he keeps doing which really started to grate.

One is when he is explaining something, and either he uses a generalisation or there is an exception to the general rule. He just kind of leaves with a brusque ‘Actually, in this case they are not… blah blah… but I’m not going to go into why that is.‘ He does this over and over in various ways, and it started to get a bit maddening. Perhaps it’s because I already know the material, so those exceptions and side-points are actually more interesting to me than the main text, whereas Dawkins is trying to not confuse someone new to the topic. But it would have been better I think if he had either just left them out altogether (although I can just see the dilemmas that would have left Dawkins with, being pathologically unable to write something not 100% accurate!), or (more elegantly in my view) perhaps put in a small footnote to say that this is a slightly simplified explanation, and you can read a better one somewhere else, with some kind of reference. Heck, he could even write them himself (or invite others to do so), host them on a website somewhere, and use it to deliver audience engagement and various other marketing spin-offs. I’ll waive my usual marketing consultancy fees for that idea, if you’re reading, Richard…

The other one is is his exhortations to see his metaphors solidifying in your mind. ‘Can you see it … developing in your mind as you read this description?’ Can you? Can you really? Really? Now, I realise he’s trying to be chatty, but it’s a bit like a slightly crusty Oxford don trying to connect with a slightly disinterested teenager. Either your metaphors are going to good enough for us to grasp, or they are not, Richard, and no amount of exhortation is going to change it…

The penultimate sentence in the last paragraph is laced with deliberate irony, because of course that is exactly what this book is. Dawkins is a slightly crusty Oxford don, and this book is aimed at a non-technical audience probably slightly disinterested in science.  I’m not in that target audience, so perhaps not a fair judge of this book. But whilst it is customarily well written and accessible, I have a horrible feeling Dawkins has missed the mark slightly. He hasn’t fallen into the trap Miss Smith fell into, and shouted at us. But it’s notable that the chapters not on evolutionary biology are much easier to read and more interesting than those covering his own specialty.

A comparison point is Bill Bryson’s 2004 book  A Short History of Nearly Everything. This too aims to introduce a non-technical reader to the wonders of science, but I remember it to be a much more entertaining read. Tellingly, it’s written by a non-scientist; indeed someone who by his own admission initially knew nothing about the world or how it was made – it was going on that voyage of discovery that led to him writing the book. It’s a bit out of date now in some respects, but whilst ‘The Magic of Reality‘ has a lot to recommend it, I’d still recommend Bryson over it to anyone interested in broadening their scientific horizons.

 

 

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