Arubabookwoman Tries Again

CharlasClub Read 2012

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Arubabookwoman Tries Again

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Dic 8, 2011, 11:14pm

Hello Everyone--

I've been derelict over here in maintaining my thread, although I have been reading other people's threads. I'm thinking that next year I will have my main thread be in Club Read rather than the 75 Book Group, which has become enormous.

I don't know exactly what I'll be reading next year, but I do plan to focus somewhat on rereading books I read years ago and loved--most of these will be classics.

Dic 8, 2011, 11:24pm

Best of 2011:

Dic 8, 2011, 11:24pm


Dic 8, 2011, 11:25pm


Dic 8, 2011, 11:25pm


Dic 8, 2011, 11:26pm


Dic 12, 2011, 1:43pm

I think you'll like Club Read, Deborah, and your old 75 Book friends can still star you and follow along. Let's plan to get together again in 2012. I promise to plan on shopping with you, not just having lunch, next time. :-)

Dic 12, 2011, 3:26pm


Dic 12, 2011, 3:32pm

Will be looking forward to your thread.
As a random tidbit, I don't know why but I always mispronounce your user name. It's not hard, aruba-book-woman, but I always try pronouncing it first as arubaba-b-ook-woman. It's the strangest thing.

Ene 2, 2012, 9:51pm

Hi Deborah, it, took me a while but I've found you and got you starred. Hope your Christmas and New Years were great and I'll look forward to reading about which books you read this year.

Editado: Ene 30, 2012, 4:43pm

Comments on the books I've been reading are well-past overdue. My resolve to comment contemporaneously is a failure so far. :(

1. Classic Crimes by William Roughead 560 pp

"They say that even of a good thing you can have too much. But I doubt it...{T}o my mind, one cannot have too much of a good murder."

Roughead was a crime reporter in Edinburgh for many years in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During that time he attended every criminal trial of significance in that city. This book includes his analysis of many of those trials, as well as of other earlier notorious crimes. The book is arranged in chapters, each devoted to a particular crime, roughly arranged in chronological order.

I found much of each narrative to be repetitive. For each of the major witnesses, Roughead reports, often verbatim, what the witness initially told investigators, what he said in later interviews (sometimes several), what he said to others, and what he said at trial. Very often there is only a little variation, as Roughead painstakingly analyzes and compares the similarities and differences of all the various witnesses. As an attorney, I understand that the specific words used by a witness, and all the nuances of various statements are important in establishing the credibility of or impeaching a witness. And perhaps in contemporaneous day-to-day reportage this type of detail was appropriate. However, in a compilation such as this, I would have preferred perhaps a little more amalgamation of the various statements and testimony, with the author briefly commenting on similarities and discrepancies, instead of reciting numerous statements word-for-word. This repetitiveness made it difficult for me to maintain my concentration on the book.

There are some very interesting facts included in the book. For example, I learned that trials used to proceed non-stop, 24 hours a day, until resolved. Some cases went on for days, which meant that basically no one would be paying attention for large portions of the trial. I was also disconcerted to learn that a defendant could be found guilty and sentenced to death on a jury verdict of 8--guilty, 7--not proven.

I also was much taken with Roughead's literary style. He uses formal Victorian/Edwardian language, and we are never quite sure when he is being intentionally humorous and pulling our leg, or when he is serious. For the most part, I think the humor was intentional and this kept me reading. For example:

"Although in her private capacity of friend and relative of the prisoners {the witness} had told extra-judicially everything she could against them.., she is said to have shrunk from the painful necessity of swearing to her story in the witness box. She therefore disappeared from the Ken of the Lord Advocate...."

or the delightfully understated:

"To poison a person in such a condition seems, to the lay mind, a superfluity of naughtiness."
"No sooner had he insured this mansion against fire than it was burnt down. Such accidents will happen in the best of families."

or one of my favorites, describing the two criminals who murdered, and sold the cadavers to a medical school for dissection:

"The firm of Burke and Hare--purveyors-extraordinary to Surgeon's Square, began business in earnest. During the nine months of their joint adventure they successfully carried through sixteen capital transactions. These at least were all that their natural modesty would allow them to claim, but there is reason to believe that they had other affairs to their credit. The firm kept no books...."

3 stars

Ene 30, 2012, 5:11pm

2. Bridge on the Drina (1959) 318 pp

I read this book for Reading Globally's Balkans segment and for Classics in Their Own Country. Unfortunately, I never connected with the book.

The main "character" is a centuries old bridge. The novel begins with its construction, and this was the part of the book I liked best. It then skips forward over the centuries, stopping along the way for brief episodes in the lives of the villagers living near the bridge. While sometimes thin threads connect the characters of the past with the characters of the future, in general, the only cohesiveness of the novel is provided by the bridge, and by the recitation of Balkan history--the ongoing conflicts between the Serbs, the Bosnians, the Turks, and the Austro-Hungarians.

While the history is fascinating--and it is a history with which I am largely unfamiliar--the book did not work for me as a work of literature.

3 stars

Editado: Ene 30, 2012, 5:37pm

3. 1984 by George Orwell (1949) 267 pp

I read this book many years ago when I was 16, which was well before 1984. I don't know why, but one of my most enduring memories was of the "oily" gin the inhabitants of this dystopian drank. I was looking forward to reading it again.

I found it to be a book which is still important, and well-worth reading. I remembered, as do most people who've read the book and perhaps some who have not, most of the simple slogans representative of Big Brother's regime. For example, the phrase "War is Peace." At the time of my first reading, the concept of constant warfare was foreign to me. Now, it does not seem strange at all, horrendous as that seems.

I also remember being intrigued by the aspect of the novel relating to rewriting the past. Winston works at the Ministry of Truth, where he rewrites history. Each time an alliance is changed, or a person is removed, or the statements of Big Brother are not realized, all references to these things are purged or edited, based on the philosophy that "who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past."

This was also at the time a concept alien to me. Now we have politicians denying past statements, even when contradicted by You-Tube, and the government would like us all to forget that we were once allied with Sadaam Hussein or Iran.

And who could forget Big Brother, constantly watching his subjects. We don't have two-way telescreens in each home (where it is dangerous to talk in your sleep), but we do have a government that can instantly intercept our email correspondence and can easily discover such things as where we travel, what we buy, what we read.

This book was ominously prescient when it was written, and it is ominously pertinent today.

4 stars

Ene 30, 2012, 6:30pm

Just for its present day relevance, you have made me want to reread 1984. Around 1984 I started to watch the videotape of the movie but never got very far into it.


Ene 30, 2012, 7:33pm

I read 1984 in the summer of 2009 and I agree with your 4 star rating. Later that same summer I read Michael Jackson Conspiracy by Aphrodite Jones which is about how what the media reported about that scandalous 2005 trial didn't quite match up to what was really happening in the court room. Those two books together were quite a lesson in media manipulation!

Editado: Feb 2, 2012, 11:03am

I think I liked Bridge on the Drina more than you, Deborah. Some of the images are so vivid in my mind even now years after reading it (and that's saying something with my memory). I'm trying to think of another example of a book where an object is the central character. People of the Book, although the Haggadah shares the limelight with a woman). Maybe The Red Violin?

1984 is also a book I can never forget. The rats see to that. Are you planning to read 1Q84?

Eta: my phone thinks it is smarter than I.

Feb 2, 2012, 12:25pm

Great comments on Nineteen Eighty-four. I think it's a very important book, and one that everyone should read. I know some people don't like it, but I still think it's important to read. And it should be mandatory for anyone who runs for public office.

Feb 7, 2012, 10:48am

Sorry you didn't like Bridge on the Drina, which I loved, or Classic Crimes, which I thoroughly enjoyed, as much as I did. It's been a long time since I read 1984; thanks for reminding me about it.

Editado: Feb 12, 2012, 4:41pm

Thank you all for your comments!

More January reading:

4. The Murderess by Alexandros Papadiamantis 127 pp

Hadoula, "the murderess" of this book, is a 60 year old woman living in a small village on one of the Greek islands. She has led a down-trodden life. As the novel opens she is watching over her newborn grandaughter, who is seriously ill, while the child's mother sleeps.

"As the old woman rocked the child, she could have sung the whole saga of her sufferings over the cradle. In the course of the previous nights she had really lost track of reason in the catelogue of her sufferings. The whole of her life, with its futility and its emptiness and hardness, had come into her mind in pictures and scenes, and in visions."

As she reviews the difficulties of her life, her brain "began to smoke," and she almost unthinkingly suffocates the newborn. The baby's death is attributed to natural causes. However, suspicions begin to arise when other girls die.

This novel quietly conveys the reality of a woman in a remote poor community a century or so ago, its fishermen, shepherds, and other peasants. It also magnificently and believabley reveals the mind of a woman, who feeling herself trapped, acts in a way that is horrifice and difficult to understand.

I read this for Reading Globally, and recommend it.

3 1/2 stars

Editado: Feb 12, 2012, 4:43pm

5. The Inheritors by William Golding (1955) 233 pp

William Golding is best known for the enduring classic Lord of the Flies. However, he considered The Inheritors to be his best novel. I first read this book when I was in college. On rereading it, I find it to be an almost perfect book.

The novel is about a brief but disasterous encounter between a small group of Neanderthals and a small group of the more advanced Cro Magnon or Homo Sapiens. (There is some dispute about some of the anthropological aspects of this book, but these critics seem to forget this is a novel, with characters and a plot, not a textbook on human development.)

Most of the novel is narrated from the pov of Lok, one of the younger Neanderthal men, whose mate is Fa. (A final short chapter is narrated from the pov of the new people.) We are aware from the beginning that Lok is not as mentally sophisticated as Fa, although under the group's traditions, Lok will succeed to leadership of the group after the elder, Mal, dies.

The people are gentle, loving and peaceful. Instead of thinking or reasoning, they "see pictures," and they can communicate with each other nonverbally. They do not hunt, but gather their food, although they will eat meat if they come across an animal that is already dead. They are unable to make fire, and must keep their fire always alive. They have no tools or implements, and, for example, must carry water in their hands.

Into this innocence the "new ones" intrude. They have fire and weapons. They have fashioned boats, tools and other implements. They wear clothes and have alcohol. They are sometimes violent.

In narrating the novel, Golding presents things and events as these primitive people perceive them, and we may sometimes have difficulty determining what they are actually observing or experiencing. Here, for example, is the description of Lok's first encounter with one of the new ones; Lok is curious, the new one attacks him with a bow and arrow:

"The man had white bone things above his eyes and under his mouth so that his face was longer than a face should be. The man turned sideways in the bushes and looked at Lok along his shoulder. A stick rose upright and there was a lump of bone in the middle. Lok peered at the stick and the lump of bone and the small eyes in the bone things over the face. Suddenly Lok understood that the man was holding the stick out to him but neither he nor Lok could reach across the river. He would have laughed if it were not for the echo of the screaming in his head. The stick began to grow shorter at both ends. Then it shot out to full length again.
"The dead tree by Lok's ear acquired a voice.
"His ears twitched and he turned to the tree. By his face there had grown a twig; a twig that smelt of other, and of goose, and of the bitter berries that Lok's stomach told him he must not eat. This twig had a white bone at the end. There were hooks in the bone and sticky brown stuff hung in the crooks. His nose examined this stuff and did not like. He smelled along the shaft of the twig. The leaves on the twig were red feathers and reminded him of goose. He was lost in a generalized astonishment and excitement."

I loved this book and highly recommend it.

Editado: Feb 10, 2012, 8:06pm

I also read Nana by Zola and Cousin Bette by Balzac, and will try to get my comments down this weekend.

Other books I've finished that I need to comment on:

The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee, Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell, and To Mervas by Elisabeth Rynell.

Feb 11, 2012, 4:22am

Good review of The Inheritors and I loved the extract you quoted. I must find time to read this one.

Feb 12, 2012, 12:09pm

Nice review of The Inheritors. It is on my tentative reading list for this year.

Feb 12, 2012, 1:23pm

Enticing review of The Inheritors -- not sure why I haven't read this one. I think I'll skip The Murderess as I have a grandbaby due in a couple of weeks.

Feb 21, 2012, 3:19pm

The Inheritors is one I have to look out for, that was a great review.

Feb 22, 2012, 3:46am

Liked your review of The Inheritors — joining the chorus!

mayo 9, 2012, 5:22pm

Thank you all for your compliments.

I'm not doing very good at fulfilling my pledge to keep up this year. Although I've been reading other threads, I've ignored my own. Will try to do better. I'm going to begin by posting comments on my reading to date, basically in reverse order.

For the Patrick White challenge for the anniversary of the 100th year of his birth:

The Vivisector

The vivisector of the title is Hurt Duffield, an artist who "saw rather than thought." He was born into poverty, but was adopted at an early age into a wealthy family (he preferred to think of it as his birth parents "selling" him). The first part of the book is about Hurt's childhood, and I found White's vision of the world through the eyes of an unusual child to be mesmerizing.

The remainder of the book, from Hurt's early adulthood to old age, segments his life into his artistic periods (or visions). His artistic periods usually coincide with his lovers of the time. He coldly and selfishly exploits his lovers as pawns in furtherance of his art.

His first lover is Nance, an uneducated prostitute. His paintings of her, which become more and more abstract, bring him his first success and artistic recognition. It is during his affair with Nance that Hurt recognizes and accepts his detachment from other people--the alienation of the artist whose entire being is consumed by his art. In this, Hurt feels a connection with God (if he exists) as a vivisector and himself, the artist as vivisector. Regarding his relationship with Nance,

"Hurt knew every possible movement of her ribs, every reflection of her skin. He had torn the hook from her gills; he had disemboweled her while still alive; he had watched her no less cruel dissection by the knives of light. You couldn't call an experience an experiment, but he profited by whatever it was..."

His victim Nance is not clueless and recognizes his utter selfishness. She tells him:

"'What your sort don't realize,' she wasn't saying, she was firing into his brain, 'is that other people exist. While you're all gummed up in the great art mystery, they're alive, and breaking their necks for love.'"

Another artistic phase is defined by his relationship with his adoptive sister, a hunchback. He obsessively paints her in a series that evolves more and more into abstraction, all masterfully described by White. In old age, Hurt becomes obsessed with Kathy, a (young) teenaged piano prodigy. She becomes his exclusive artistic subject, and she and Hurt quickly engage in a Lolita-like sexual relationship.

This book more than any other I've read conveys the sense of what it's like to be a driven artist. Hurt has no choice in life, other than to paint. Everything and everyone is expendable for his art. In his penetrating consideration of the creative process White makes us see where the ideas come from, and how the artist proceeds to realize his visions.

Perhaps the highest recommendation I can give this book is that on finishing it, I immediately began another book by White.

mayo 9, 2012, 5:24pm

Riders in the Chariot by Patrick White

Riders in the Chariot is often considered White's best novel, an opinion that I can agree with after rereading it. It intertwines the stories of 4 disparate individuals: an aboriginal artist, a holocaust survivor, an eccentric, half-mad heiress, and a religious washer woman. Each of them is an outsider, a damaged soul, and each has experienced similar visions of riders in a chariot in the sky.

Of this novel, White wrote:

"What I want to emphasize through my four "Riders"--an orthodox refugee intellectual Jew, a mad Erdgeist of an Australian spinster, an evangelical laundress, and a half-caste Aboriginal painter--is that all faiths, whether religions, humanistic, instinctive, or the creative artist's act of praise, are in fact one."

White's prose shimmers as he deeply probes the psyches of his characters. I find that he frequently writes on the periphery of what is actually happening, so close reading is necessary. His descriptions are vivid and brilliant. Miss Hare, the eccentric heiress, has, "at times the look of a sunflower, at others just an old basket coming to pieces."

When Miss Hare encounters Alf Dubbo, the aboriginal painter,

"Once she had entered through his eyes, and at first glance recognized familiar furniture, and once again she had entered in, and their souls had stroked each other with reassuring feathers, but very briefly, for each had suddenly taken fright."

I love the image of your ideas as "furniture" in your mind, and of "reassuring feathers."

While the novel is seemingly plotless, in actuality a lot happens, over an epic canvas, from the Holoicaust, to the "Great Experiment" in which half-aboriginal children were removed from their homes to be raised by missionaries. Dubbo, one of the children wrested from his parents, although a talented artist is an alcoholic who works as a janitor. The Jewish intellectual who survived the Holocaust, but who is wracked with guilt that his wife did not, has consciously decided to put aside his education and experience to work at a menial job. The laundress, who seems to have as many children as the old woman who lived in a shoe, nevertheless has it within herself to nurture the other three damaged souls. And Miss Hare, who lived a life of luxury as a child (but also a life without love) now lives in a decrepit mansion, with trees growing through the wall, and feeds snakes to try to befriend them.

The novel is divided into sections, each devoted to one of these characters. Thus, we not only delve into the mind of that character, but we also get glimpses of what the other characters look like to the outside world.

This is one of the best books I've read in a while, and I highly recommend it. I'm convinced White is one the twentieth century author who will still be read in the 22nd century.

mayo 9, 2012, 5:26pm

The Solid Mandala by Patrick White

So, right after I finished Riders in the Chariot I went on to The Solid Mandala. This was another reread, and I read my copy from the 70's. Unfortunately, it fell apart as I read it, and when I was finished, I threw it away, forgetting that I was going to do a review. So this review will be shorter and less detailed than those above.

In this novel, White's characters are again outsiders, living on the edge of society. Waldo and Arthur are non-identical twins. The short first part of the novel has a suburban matron gossiping with a companion about the men when they pass by, holding hands, inappropriately dressed, hurrying, unseeing in a race to nowhere. After this first exterior glimpse, the novel then proceeds in a long section narrated from the pov of Waldo, and then a long section narrated from the pov of Arthur. Despite their being twins, they are polar opposites.

Waldo for most of his life has worked in a library, and is constantly concerned with how the world perceives him. He is Arthur's intellectual superior, and he bitterly blames all his failures and shortcomings on Arthur. He looks down on Arthur for his menial position as a grocery clerk.

Arthur is the "idiot savant." He knows Waldo is unhappy, and tries to do whatever he can to make Waldo content. Unlike Waldo, he relates to people, and people like him. He is Waldo's opposite--empathetic, naive and loving to Waldo's calculating hatred.

As in his other works, White's prose style is unique and stellar. This is a book of character study rather than a book of plot, and it requires close reading, but it was nevertheless difficult to put down.

mayo 9, 2012, 5:30pm

A couple of nonfiction books

The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee (2010)

"Was human cancer caused by an infectious agent? Was it caused by an exogenous chemical? Was it caused by an internal gene? How could three groups of scientists have examined the same elephant and returned with such radically variant opinions...?"

This "biography" of cancer, described by the author as a "borderless gulag", is a multifaceted masterpiece. It examines cancer from a historical, personal, and medical perspective, and from the points of view of patients, doctors, researchers, and anyone else affected by cancer. It explores cancer in the context of its treatment, curative and palliative, its causes, and its prevention.

It considers medical ethics--what should researchers do when an experimental treatment is showing strong signs of success? Is it fair to continue the experiment to the detriment of the control patients? Have some of the horrors of previous treatment methods been justified?

It relates how time and again certain advances have occurred after creative thinking has led to a leap of faith by a scientist willing to ignore conventional wisdom, and how time after time advances come as the result of the day-to-day tedium of unnamed scientists following strict protocols.

I am not a scientist, but for the most part I could with careful reading understand the author's clear descriptions of the scientific information, principles and experiments. (Even if I can't explain them to anyone else). This book is by no means dry--it is full of interesting characters and events, and at times reads like a mystery. Highly recommended.

mayo 9, 2012, 5:32pm

Gulag by Anne Applebaum

During its more than 60 years of operation, more than 30 million people passed through the Gulag, millions of them never to return. I first became interested in the topic through the writings of Solzhenitsin, and my interest was reignited a few years ago when I read The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia by Orlando Figes (which I highly recommend, by the way, despite the recent revelations of Figes' unethical and possibly illegal actions).

Applebaum's book begins with a chronological overview of the system, which existed even in Tsarist times. In its second section, the book explores every aspect of the Gulag experience, from arrest, to interrogation, to trial, to transportation to the camps (during which there was a high mortality rate), to actual life in the camps. Life in the camps is explored from the point of view of the prisoners and the administrators. The prisoners themselves were a diverse group--the politicals and the actual criminals, prisoners of war and other foreigners. The experiences of women prisoners uniquely included sexual abuse, as well as childbirth.

Applebaum was the first to utilize the newly released official archives of the Soviet Gulag administration, and so she is able to explore not only the personal experiences of day-to-day life in the camps, but also the how's and why's of the existence of the Gulag itself. For example, she thoroughly analyzes the issue of the underlying purposes of the Gulag. Was it intended to remove undesireable elements from society, whether politicals or true criminals, or was it merely a device to obtain slave labor? The Gulag system was indeed a large portion of the Soviet economic system, and there is ample evidence that the Soviets used the system to colonize remote and hostile regions of the country, as well as to exploit the valuable natural resources of those areas, but there is also evidence of Stalin's paranoia. Applebaum also ponders the controversial issue of why for so many years the crimes against humanity resulting from this system were all but ignored, even as memorials were raised for Holocaust victims.

This is an important book, because as compelling as the individual survivor memoirs are, they do not present the whole picture. This book undertakes to give us the universal as well as the personal. It is compellingly readable in addition to being academically documented, and I highly recommend it.

mayo 9, 2012, 5:36pm

A couple of African novels

Houseboy by Ferdinand Oyono

As this novel opens, Toundi is on the verge of death. He asks:

"'Brother...Brother, what are we? What are we blackmen who are called French?'
"His voice grew bitter. I had never asked myself that question. I was young then and thoughtless. I felt myself grow stupid."

As he dies, Toundi gives his diaries to the narrator, and the remainder of the novel consists of Toundi's diaries.

As a young boy, Toundi was fascinated with the local Catholic mission and the priest who regularly distributed candy to the village children. After an argument with his father, Toundi runs away to the mission, and becomes the "boy" of the priest. When the priest dies, Toundi becomes the "boy" of the town's French commandant. (The novel is set in the French Cameroon).

From his sometimes naive point of view, Toundi draws clear portraits of the French colonists and their cruelty to and disdain for the native people. Although in becoming the priest's houseboy Toundi gave up his tribal identity, he finds that he will never fit in among the colonizers. Tragedy ensues when the commandant and his vain wife seek to "dispose" of Toundi when they think he knows too many of their secrets.

The Times Literary Supplement said of this book:

"It is a better guide to French colonial Africa, and to racism, than any non-fiction account, whether by an African or Frenchman."

It certainly is a brutal and searing account of a past history that is closer than we may care to remember. Highly recommended.

mayo 9, 2012, 5:38pm

The Antipeople by Sony Labou Tansi (1983, 1990)

This strange novel is the story of Dadou, the respectable married principal of a female teacher's school in Zaire. Yavelda, one of his students, is attracted to him, and begins to pursue him and try to seduce him. Dabou knows he cannot succumb to her, and to avoid giving in to her charms, he turns to drink (!?). As he begins to sink into alcoholism, he becomes derelict in his duties, and begins to act strangely. Nevertheless, he resists Yavelda.

Through Yavelda, Dadou meets her cousin Yealdara, who also falls in love with him, and would do anything for him. When Yavelda commits suicide, and falsely accuses Dabou of being the father of her unborn child, Dabou is beaten by an enraged mob, which also causes the deaths of his wife and two children. Dabou is then thrown into prison, and for the next four years Yealdara works relentlessly to seek his release or to help him escape across the border to the Congo. Ultimately, she is successful, and in the final section of the book, Dabou becomes involved with some of the freedom fighters in the Congo.

This book is well enough written, but in the end I was asking myself, what does it all mean, what is its purpose? I don't really know. So, do I recommend it? Not really, but if anyone reads it and can explain it to me, please feel free

mayo 9, 2012, 5:41pm

A few miscellaneous books:

Old Men in Love by Alasdair Gray

This is one of the few books I've bought in a while that was not on my wishlist. I had heard of the author (who wrote Lanark which is on the 1001 list and is on my shelf), and what I began to read in the store grabbed me, so I bought it.

The opening part that I read in the store consists of a narrative by a long-lost cousin of retired school teacher John Tunnock. She has recently learned that she is the sole heir of Tunnock, who died under mysterious circumstances. She is now in Glasgow to settle his estate, which includes a large antique-filled mansion. She is also going through his papers to determine how they should be handled. The rest of the book consists of portions of these papers.

The papers include excerpts from a number of unpublished novels by Tunnock. One is set in ancient Rome and is about Socrates, one is set in Renaissance Italy and is about some of the more important early masters, and one is set in 19th century England about James Prince, founder of the Agapements. In between excerpts of the novels, Tunnock relates the story of his life, from a childhood spent with his elderly spinster aunts to the bizarre events that led to his death.

I generally enjoy meta-fiction and books in which the author plays games with the reader, but I didn't particularly care for this book. I never fully engaged with John Tunnock's "novels", and while parts of his life were interesting reading, overall this wasn't enough to make it a good book for me. I can't point to any specific examples of bad writing--the catch just didn't match the hook

mayo 9, 2012, 5:43pm

The Comforts of Madness by Paul Sayer

This winner of the 1988 Whitbread Prize is the story of Peter, a catatonic inmate of a mental institution. In an attempt to rehabilitate him, he is moved to another facility for some experimental treatment.

The entire novel is narrated by Peter. I think the author creates a believable interior monologue for Peter, and convincingly portrays the perceptions of a catatonic person. For that reason I enjoyed the book. However, while the book was thoroughly believable about what Peter's life is like in the present, it didn't successfully convey why and how Peter became the way he is, although much of the book relates his pre-catatonic life. I found this to be a weakness that hampered my enjoyment of the book.

mayo 9, 2012, 5:44pm

Red the Fiend by Gilbert Sorrentino

This is the story of how a good child grows up to become a monster. The theme of abuse, poverty, neglect, and lack of education has been told many times, but Sorrentino's style is unique and compelling. The narrative varies seamlessly from omniscient third-party narrator to stream of consciousness. Red's grandmother's malevolent spirit permeates every corner of the book. Some may dislike the book because of its unrelenting bleakness, and things do go from bad to worse in Red's life. This is an extremely good book, however, and if these themes resonant with you (or even if they don't and you want to read some virtuostic writing), I recommend this book.

mayo 9, 2012, 5:46pm

Great great reviews of the Patrick White novels. I share your enthusiasm, he is indeed a stellar writer.

mayo 9, 2012, 5:48pm

A couple of classics.

I am reading the Rougon-Macquart series in order. I'm up to Nana.This magnificent novel is the story of the rise, fall, and rise again of Nana (child of Gervais of L'Assommoir) from streetwalker to queen of Parisian society in the late 1860's.

It opens with Nana's stage debut in a risque theatrical production. Many of Paris's high society womanizers and rogues are there, as well as many of Paris's reigning courtesans. All are breathlessly awaiting their first experience of Nana; however, when she eventually appears they are at first underwhelmed. Then:

"looking as though she herself were saying with a wink of her eye that she didn't possess a ha'porth of talent, but it didn't matter, she had something better than that,"

Nana wows them all. I pictured Marilyn Monroe singing Happy Birthday Mr. President.

Thereafter, we follow Nana as she acquires and ruins men of all social status and rank. She has "an ever keen appetite for squandering money, a natural disdain for the man who paid, a perpetual caprice for devouring, a pride in the ruin of her lovers." We see Nana at the theater, entertaining at orgy-like dinners, at her country estate, at the races. Through her we see the decadence and corruption of French society of this era.

Zola has skillfully created a well-rounded character in Nana, not just a cardboard symbol of immorality. Despite her penchant for destroying men, we are still sympathetic to her. Although she can be vain and selfish, she is also generous, sometimes to a fault, and she is accepting of others. Although she is calculating and cunning, she is also innocent and naive in many ways. Perhaps these are the things that make her so irresistible.

For the most part Zola stays away from moralizing. He rarely interjects himself into the novel, and lets us be a fly on the wall observing Nana's life. Not surprisingly, the novel was widely condemned when it was initially published, for example:

"Much ability is displayed in this offensive work of engineering skill, and people are asked to pardon the foul sights and odors because of the consummate art with which they are presented. But intellectual power and literary workmanship are neither to be admired, nor commended of themselves. They are to be judged by their fruits and are no more justified in producing that which is repulsive or unwholesome than a manufactory whose sole purpose is to create and disseminate bad smells and noxious vapors. Such unsavory establishment might do its work with a wonderful display of skill and most potent results, but the health authorities of society would have ample occasion for taking measures against its obnoxious business, while those who encouraged the introduction of its products into their households would be guilty of inconceivable folly, besides exhibiting a morbid liking for filthy exhalations."

For me, this is one of the must-reads of the Rougon Macquart series.

mayo 9, 2012, 5:52pm

Cousin Bette by Honore de Balzac

In his series "The Human Comedy", which consists of more than 100 books, Balzac portrayed every aspect of society. The events set forth in Cousin Bette take place 30 or 40 years prior to the events depicted in Nana. Unlike Nana, which focuses on one courtesan who ruins many men, Cousin Bette focuses on one man, Baron Hulot (and his family) who are ruined. The Baron is an aristocrat who, when the novel opens, is on the brink of bankruptcy brought about by his romantic adventures with a series of courtesans. The Baron is "one of those splendid human ruins in which virility asserts itself in tufts of hair in the ears and nose and on the hands, like the moss that grows on the all but eternal monuments of the Roman Empire." When he becomes obsessed with a new mistress, he sinks to even greater depths of depravity, leaving his family to go hungry and illegally diverting funds from the state to support his mistress.

The vortex around which the Baron's story swirls is Cousin Bette, who is the cousin of Adeline, the Baron's pious wife. Bette is a plain middle-aged spinster who has always envied Adeline, who is beautiful and who married well. When Adeline's daughter marries a Polish artist Bette had nurtured and had perhaps considered a potential husband, Bette's jealousy and hatred of Adeline erupt and compell her to take revenge.

Bette takes action by covertly facilitating the Baron's pursuit of Madame Marneffe, the woman with whom the Baron is currently obsessed. As Balzac describes it, "Madame Marneffe was the ax,{Bette} the hand that was demolishing by blow after blow, the family which was daily becoming more hateful to her...."

Balzac does not paint his characters black or white. We can fully understand Bette's motivations, and to a certain extent sympathize with her, while also disliking her and condemning her actions. We can admire Adeline while despairing of her inability to assert her will against the Baron. And as to the Baron, one of his former mistresses states to him:

"Well, I would rather have an out-and-out spendthrift like you, crazy about women, than these calculating bankers without any soul, who ruin thousands of families with their railways, that are gold for them, but iron for their victims. You have only ruined your family; you have sold no one but yourself."

Like Zola, Balzac does not particularly moralize, although his authorial voice is more present in this book than in Nana.


Interestly, the courtesans in both books come to similar ghastly ends: Madame Marneffe's teeth and hair drop out, she looks like a leper, her hands are swollen and covered with greenish pustules, all of her extremities are running ulcerations; Nana has a face like a charnal house, a mass of matter and blood, a shovelful of putrid flesh etc, etc.


Like Nana, Cousin Bette is a masterpiece that should be read by everyone. I've only read a few of Balzac's novels, of which Cousin Bette is considered one of the greatest, but perhaps after I finish the Rougon Macquart I'll move on to "The Human Comedy.

mayo 9, 2012, 5:58pm


To Mervas by Elisabeth Rynell (2002, 2010)

This book gets a five star rating from me. Not only did it speak to me on a very personal level, but it is also one of the most sensitively written books I've had the opportunity to read recently. I suspect that quite a bit of this review is going to consist of quotes from the book, since I don't know how otherwise to convey its beauty.

To Mervas is the story of Marta, a sad and empty woman who is jolted into examining her life when she receives a letter from the man who was the one true love of her life, from whom she has not heard in many years:

"A letter from the other end of time had arrived and the blind and complacent one-day-at-a-time existence I'd been living for so many years had instantly burst into pieces. Instead, I now held my entire life, my whole story, in my arms, and it looked like a skinned animal, a skinned yet still living, struggling animal."

Marta takes the letter to be an invitation, and she spends the next several months rethinking her life. In doing so, she has to face not only her present demons, but the demons from her tragic past. Again, in poetically chosen words, Elisabeth Rynell perfectly conveys Marta's inner life:

"Once you get lost in your life, I thought, you just keep getting more and more lost. Meanwhile, the years close in on you like a swift forest. They tangle and grow denser, they become tangled forests of years."

Marta has always shied away from thinking about her life too closely:

"And I'm afraid of this darkness. I know that from it, anything can break through, a bright, blind violence, a rage like a forest fire igniting even the air. There are monsters living there that have courted me, monsters that hatch in darkness, and I don't want to see them, don't want to know about them."

And later,

"My thoughts moved around the room like anxious shadow animals, sniffing and listening. I almost thought I could see them flickering on the walls. Herds of fear ran down the slopes as if they were being hunted, being egged on by the thoughts and visions spinning in my head. The terror seemed to hatch in new places all the time, one vision after another appearing in long painful sequences. And I had to keep looking at them; I couldn't avert my eyes."

I particularly identified with Marta's thoughts on aging:

"Growing old has been much harder than I'd imagined. Since I've never cared very much about the way I look, the way other women do, I didn't think I'd care particularly about things like wrinkles, getting a potbelly and grey hair. But I did. It was devastating. My body fell apart, and suddenly became my great source of sorrow."

"Like being forced to watch your house fall into decay without being able to do anything about it. Like watching a plant wither. At once my whole life seemed wasted, as if I'd neglected to live it while I could."

Another way in which I identified with the book was Marta's descriptions of Mervas, the abandoned mining town above the Arctic Circle. The town I grew up in Aruba has also been abandoned and is sadly decaying. These passages resonated with me:

"You could tell that this place, this little town, had been abandoned in a very organized way. Even in its deterioration, the precise, businesslike order that had once ruled here was still very much present. A sort of bottomless rationality, an organized decay seemed to surround her."

"Some people can be connected to a place, a certain place, a kind of place that gives itself to you and allows you to hear its song."

This is not a book for everyone. It is primarily dark and somber, and in some parts devastating. The ending is ambiguous. Buit I loved it.

I'll try to be back sooner with more on my reading.

mayo 9, 2012, 6:18pm

What wonderful books you've been reading lately, Deborah, and great reviews to match! Impressed with the Patrick White-read-athon you did, would never be able to do it myself -- I find his writing so rich and penetrating I invariably need to pick up lighter fare after.

mayo 9, 2012, 6:49pm

Thirteen reviews in one day. I am extremely impressed!

mayo 9, 2012, 7:06pm

Wow! You have been on an absolute reading binge! Where to begin. I may have to add one or two of these to my wish list. Gulag sounds intriguing, and I feel Balzac breathing down my neck. Not sure when I'm going to get to him, but your review of Cousin Bette caught my eye. I currently have History of the Thirteen, a trilogy by Balzac, sitting on my Kindle, so that one will come first.

Editado: mayo 9, 2012, 8:06pm

Nice to see you, Deborah! I was at a dog park the other day and was thinking of you. What a wonderful array of books you've read lately. I glad you liked Gulag: A History. It was one of my favorites from last year. Both Emperor of All Maladies and Houseboy shall go on my list. Wonderful reviews.

ETA: I was going to give you thumbs but see you either haven't posted your reviews yet or don't in general. Oh well, just so long as you know they are appreciated!

mayo 10, 2012, 7:31am

Wow, Deborah, when you catch up, you really catch up! So much good reading, and so great to read about it.

I was very pleased to read how much you liked Riders in the Chariot because that's the Patrick White book I picked to read this year for the challenge for the 100th anniversary of his birth. I hope to get to it this summer. And I'm glad you liked Gulag and Houseboy, both of which I read last year. I read another book by Sony Labou Tansi. Life and a Half, which I found both remarkable and mystifying, so maybe that's a characteristic of the author.

I am definitely going to have to read Zola and Balzac; I just don't know when.

mayo 17, 2012, 10:12am

Aruba - just now finally catching up with your thread. Love all your reviews of Patrick White. Your review of Houseboy will stick with me and also poor Marta (from To Mervas)

Editado: Sep 1, 2012, 6:48pm

31: Wow! Thirty million? That number really hits you. I think I still would rather read Figes's book, though. You can fill me ith facts and interesting anecdotes when we meet up.

I keep thinking I've read Mukerjhee's book, but I can't remember any details, so maybe it's on my wish list? But, I was having a hard time remembering anything about a book I read last week, so it's still possible. Let's discuss that one.

Regarding your other reviews, I'm not tempted by most (you continue to read above my level) but your reviews always leave me with something to think about. I do want to read To Mervas, but that book scares me. Let's talk about that one too. Hope to see you soon!