Saturday, September 13, 2014

Books before I'm 30: The Enchantress of Florence by Salmon Rushdie

My previous knowledge of Salmon Rushdie was that he had written a book which caused the Ayatollah to declare a fatwah on him. If you judge a man by his enemies, he's looking pretty good.

Coming into this book I had very little expectations, other than it might be a slightly literary work. I was very pleased to find it a joy to read. It follows the tale of a man who travels from Florence to tell the Emperor/Sultan a story of his mother, who is a lost princess. The story draws heavily on the myths and legends of Arabia, leading to an engaging sense of magical realism: the Emperor imagined his wife into existence, at one point the protagonist gains entry to the palace by using unguents which make everyone fall in love with him. This is cleverly contrasted with the more earthy world of Florence, where, if you believe the story, practically everyone is obsessed with having sex with one another, to the point where three young boys will run to a hanging to get a man's semen, so that they can grow a mandrake.

Not a story you could share with children then, but a fun one, and an engaging one. It conjures a wonderful, deep world, with fascinating characters, and made me want to spend lots of time enjoying this company. If I had a gripe with it it would be that the ending feels a little too tidy, a little too pat. I almost wanted more from it, maybe a sense of mystery or confusion, while the book mostly just ends. Still, I would happily recommend this book to all.

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Saturday, September 06, 2014

Books before I'm 30: The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks

This book came recommended to me by multiple people. It is comprised of several case histories put together by Oliver Sacks, which focuses primarily on how neurological disfunctions can alter people's identity, or ability to identify others. The titular example is a man who cannot perceive the abstract: the only way he can perceive faces is by looking at details, which can often confuse, hence the attempt to put his wife onto his head.

 Sacks goes out of his way to humanise each case that appears in the book, and each persons struggles to maintain their sense of self. This includes studies of a woman who has lost the sense of her own body, and amnesiacs with very little sense of who they are now. At its best, the book can be quite moving as you see how much people can lose but still manage to carve out something of themselves. 

That said, I'm not sure the book completely works for me as a piece. The case histories are often quite disconnected, to the point where I feel like Sacks repeats himself. The language often varies quite a lot: it goes from lyrical descriptions of people's suffering to rather technical language which I'm afraid went over my head. A minor bug bear as well is that Sacks adds in his conversations with these people, which often sound like he is talking to himself.

Still a good work, and I imagine at its first release date quite a revolutionary one. The "World of the Simple" section where he suggests that people with severe mental retardation still have value strikes me as somewhat patronising, but that might be me looking at it from a more modern perspective.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Books before I'm 30: Care of Wooden Floors By Will Wiles

Care of Wooden Floors is Will Wiles' debut novel. It features a first person narrative from an unnamed copywriter who desires to write more than council leaflets. He has come to an unnamed Eastern European city (unnamed, I suspect, so Will Wiles can happily slander its architecture and people without fear) to flat sit for his OCD friend Oskar, who, while absent for most of the novel, leaves copious notes on how to look after the flat.

Care of Wooden Floors is intended to be funny, and indeed has moments of humour, but I found it quite frustrating. The narrative can go into unnecessary detail at times in describing fairly mundane activities, and while the writing is often entertaining, it easily strays into pretentiousness.

Ultimately though it was the plot of the book which frustrated me, or rather the behaviour of the main character. Having been told that he should not leave wine glasses on the floor, he immediately does so, leaving a stain. He also allows the cats to sit on the sofa, which lets them be torn. He then, rather bizzarely, rather than consulting the book on the care of wooden floors to deal with the stain, basically ignores it, and gets drunk. This is something he does repeatedly, even when handling fairly nasty acid later on. As accident after accident piles on, he rarely takes responsibility for his actions, and comes across somewhat as a socio-path. My sympathies ended up very much with Oskar by the end of the book.

The best section was probably when he actually interacted with another human being, the even drunker Michael from Oskar's orchestra, which leads to a fairly entertaining, if somewhat inconsequential diversion.

To discuss this book further, I shall need to spoil it, so read no further if you wish that not to happen.


The book lost me a bit when he "accidentally" kills a cat, which has managed to pull a cork out of a bottle of wine he left, get drunk, then clamber into a piano and have the lid slam on it. This is absurd, and just annoyingly so. Will Wiles clearly wanted the cat today, but he clearly didn't want the narrator to be directly responsible, and so was forced to construct events in such a way as to beggar belief. The main character then decides to dispose of the body down the trash chute, but for some reason doesn't put it in a bin bag first, so the cleaner sees him do it.

This leads, later, to his accidental killing of the cleaner. He justifies himself as it being an accident, but he is the one that pushes her onto a knife sticking out on the dishwasher, and then, when she collapses from blood loss, assumes she is dead without calling emergency services, then drags her body back to her flat to try and get away with it! Bizarrely, the end of the book even seems to imply that he might have done so. He certainly shows a remarkable lack of guilt for being directly involved in the death of another human being.

I actually suspect that tonally all these events could have worked, perhaps as a third person narrative, where we get a bit more detachment, so can enjoy the blackly comic nature of the events (thats what Tom Sharpe tends to do, who writes stories of a similar manner). As it is, I found the style ultimately rather off putting.

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Monday, July 21, 2014

Books before I'm 30: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

The Lies of Locke Lamora is a fantasy novel set in a grimy version of Venice. The people of the world all live in the remenants of something built by an ancient civillisation, who have since died out. Magic exists, but is rare, although there is a sciency/magic analogue in alchemy.

The book follows Locke Lamora, who is essentially a fantasy con man. He and his compatriots fool rich nobles into parting way with their fortunes. Doing so is fraught with danger, as it is not only against the laws of the city, it is also against the laws of the underworld, where there is a so called "secret peace" involving criminals avoiding preying on nobles, and nobles turning a blind eye to many criminal activities.

The book wears its influences on its sleeve, Pratchett clearly being a strong one, but the book is a lot darker in places, with often brutal scenes of torture or violence throughout. Despite this, the tone is mostly light hearted and enjoyable. I had a good time with this book, it carries you along with it, and the plot is decent. The world is well drawn and fairly flavoursome, even if it does borrow from the best.

If I had one complaint about it, its the lack of women. The "Gentlemen Bastards" which Locke leads does include a woman, but she spends the entire novel abroad, not even turning up in the flash backs. I assume this is to allow her reappearance in the sequels, but it is a bit frustrating. The female characters that are introduced are interesting and varied, but very rare, and have quite a short amount of stage time, which is a shame as they do seem to have a fair amount of personality. Still, this wouldn't be the first fantasy novel to make this mistake, and at least there is a suggestion that sequels will involve women a little bit more.

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Friday, July 18, 2014

How I Met Your Mother (contains all the spoilers!)

So I finally got to watch the last episode of How I met your Mother last night. e4, in their infinite wisdom, had split a two parter into two. This led me to guess the second half of an ending I had already had spoiled for me.

I was already aware that the mother was dead, but from Barney and Robin's divorce, I guessed that Robin and Ted were likely to get together for the conclusion. Which I don't hate. There are some nice things about that: the refutation of the idea that there is only one right person for you, and that they do kind of acknowledge that some relationships do fail.

But, here's the thing. The writers knew that they were going to have Ted ask out Robin at the end. Failing killing off Barney (which I think would have worked fine, but I guess they didn't want that note of sadness?) they knew that Robin and Barney would need to break up. However, they wanted to have their cake and eat it. They wanted to capitalise on the chemistry that Robin and Barney had developed, and they also wanted to have their ending they had planned from Season 2.

And again, it does make sense that Barney and Robin would divorce, although to have Barney regress immediately after was super tiresome, but to spend three seasons building to their wedding, and having their wedding take an entire season, and then at its happy conclusion, tell us they get divorced in the next episode? Thats a bit of a sucky structural choice. For that matter, offing the mother after again, somewhat inadveratly, setting up this amazing character? Bit lame. I do think they'd have been better off just cutting that final conversation with the kids and restructuring the end, but sadly they were too attached to it.

Oh well, it was a good ride. The show decayed in quality: Seasons 6 and 8 in particular were pretty weak, but I still found that it remained funny, and managed to tell interesting stories, right up to the end.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Books before I'm 30: The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje

[Reviewing several books over a few days as I read a few on holiday!]

For quite a while in this book I was having trouble determining if this book was autobiographical or fictional. Several of the events that occur are deeply implausible, and have a certain lyricism that would be very neat for real life, but the plotless, somewhat aimless structure of the book as a series of stories of events on a boat seem to indicate someone telling the story of their life.

Reading the notes at the end gives some enlightenment: while the author did go on a similar journey in his youth, most of the details were utterly fictional. So there we go. The Cat's Table is a first person narrative following a young boys 3 week journey from Colombo in Sri Lanka to England, where his mother, who he has not seen for a very long time, awaits him. He is sat on the "Cat's table", at dinner, the one furthest from the Captains, with other non-persons, including two other boys similarly lacking parental guardianship. Together they explore the ship, meet other people, and generally go on adventures.

Its a well written book, and there are engaging passages, but I found myself failing to connect with this. This has mostly to due with the plotless nature of the book: at least initially all we have are a series of anecdotes where the young author is just having fun. There is no real sense of peril, or even any conflict: he seems to just mostly enjoy himself, which is fine, but not terribly engaging.

There are later passages which connect: tales of his relationship with one of the trio as an adult, and his early passing, are striking and somewhat moving, but they are soon there and gone. What plot the book has only emerges late in the book, and doesn't actually connect to the main characters story at all: it involves mostly background characters, and comes across as remarkably implausible.

I might try another book by Ondaatje at some point: this one was picked primarily due to its availablility than any other metric, so I might have more success with other books by him, but this one didn't really strike a chord.

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Monday, July 14, 2014

Books before I'm 30: Wild Swans by Jung Chang

Wild Swans has been sitting waiting to be read by me for a while. I am very glad of this project, as every time I came to start a new book I would read the blurb of Wild Swans and think "phew, that sounds heavy" and read something else.

Wild Swans is a remarkable novel, and really is essential reading, especially for anyone (like myself) whose knowledge of Chinese history over the twentieth century is pretty shaky. It manages to tell a very personal story of three generations of women, but also tell the history of China in the twentieth century, which comes across as a slow tragedy.

The remarkable thing about the book is how many stories and themes it contains. It begins by being about the place of women in society, with Jung Chang's grandmother becoming a concubine (effectively an unofficial wife) of a local warlord, so that her father can improve his position. To use his daughter effectively, the grandmother has her feet bound at birth, a tradition that is going out of fashion and is insanely cruel. We see just how perilous her position is: she has to appease the wife of the warlord as well as the other concubines, and even her servants need to be treated extremely well, lest they make up stories about each other. This society turns women against each other as they struggle for security. Her story is heroic, as she manages to struggle to protect her daughter from others who would treat her cruelly.

Alongside this personal tale is a story of occupation by a series of cruel occupiers. The Japanese are replaced by the  Kuomintang who are in some ways even worse, and more corrupt. Communism, when it comes, comes as a breathe of fresh air, but this only makes it more heartbreaking as this new system, which held so much promise, betrays Jung Chang's mother. In particular Jung Chang's father, who is presented as an incorruptible figure who believes utterly in the communist cause, strikes a tragic figure as the full insanity of Mao is revealed. The madness of the great leap forward followed shortly by the cultural revolution are vividly described.

The writing is clear and involving, and managed to deliver a wild sweeping story in a very engaging fashion. I would absolutely recommend that everyone who has not read this book.

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