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Books December 2005

Carlos Ruiz Zafón: The Shadow of the Wind (E)

I had heard a lot about this one before reading it: and if even The Economist says good things it must be good. And it was… but not as good as I thought. The reviews led me to believe that the text would have more substance, more things that make you think. It's still a great read, don't get me wrong; the plot (about a Spanish writer who disappeared under mysterious circumstances) is extremely well thought out. If there is an imbalance between the characters (a tad too weak) and the story (very strong) then that's because Zafón has really put a lot of hard work into developing an intricate, interesting plot. Having said that, the book with its 500+ pages has one big problem: the first 300 pages should and could have been shrunk to 200 (what do they have editors for, these days?). I can see that Zafón, in order to develop the plot and to keep things credible, needs a lot of “infrastructure”. Still, during the first half the prose runs on and on… Another point is that his prose sometimes turns very purple indeed, although other parts are so well written that I asked myself more than once how the same person could have written all that.

Colum McCann: This Side of Brightness (E)

An unexpected discovery, is Mr McCann. This book deals with New York (I have a penchant for literature which has New York as its “hero”; witness Auster's New York Trilogy, among others). It's also about two men who couldn't be more different: one, Clarence, works on the high risers, balancing his heavy body across the big steel bars and levers that form the skeletons of these monsters; the other (named Treefrog, a name I found immediately endearing) lives as a bum in the NY subway tunnels, the very same tunnels Clarence's own grandfather Nathan helped to build many decades ago. With that simple trick McCann has his story span all the time from the first tunnels to today. And yet, it's clear, almost from the start, that the two men, Clarence and Treeefrog will collide at some point in the story. But it's only during the final 40 pages of the story that McCann slowly brings his two protagonists together, in a way that I found, strangely, almost obvious and still surprising at the same time. And his writing has a difficult-to-describe quality as well: immediate, yet detached; clinically clean, yet touching; honest, yet opaque. Yes, taken all together, a real discovery.

John Banville: The Sea (E)

This is my third Banville novel and I admit I begin to tire. Of Banville's voice, his mannerisms and the way he artificially strews his texts with fancy words that cry for a huge dictionary (have you ever come across the word “hellion” before?). I normally like these things very much but he simply overdoes it, as I wrote for one of his other books. Nevertheless, this is not a bad book. He got the Booker for it, which these days seems to be more of dis-recommendation to me (I found too many of the Booker winners in the last decade simply not good enough. But that's perhaps just me.). Anyway, the book is, as usual for Banville, a retrospective: Max Morden (hm… we had that before, hadn't we?), an old man, after having watched his terminally ill wife wither and die, returns to the place at the coast where he has spend the holidays of his youth. This sets the scene for a helter-skelter of memories, real and imagined (or perhaps half imagined), of things that shaped him and his life. It's all very well written, but the narrator sounds too similar to some other Banville characters to be wholly convincing: in the end it was Banville I heard talking and not Morden.

Jasper Fforde: The Jane Eyre Affair (E)

Another of those books I heard a lot about before I finally managed to read it. However, I was a tad disappointed. A hollow, rather empty, not even especially funny story about Thursday Next, a literature detective in a Britain that is slightly different to the Britain we all know and love (for example, the Crimean war is still on and Wales is a People's Republic). Well, if you read Fforde, better get used to the strange names of his heros: they all carry ridiculous first and/or surnames but not in a really clever way. The first time it's certainly funny, the second time a bit less so… and then the effect quickly fades. That about sums up the rest of the book: a fireworks of ideas which are funny or amusing or brow-raising first time round but then are flogged to death by Mr Fforde. The whole is not helped by some obvious lengths in the writing (again, did the manuscript go through any sort of editorial process? Probably it did:-)). Some bits and pieces are not bad at all, especially in the second half: there is clearly potential in Mr Fforde. But overall this book was not my cup of tea. Douglas Adams showed us how to do this sort of thing in an effortless way: his writing and ideas and phantasies seem to be much less laboured than Fforde's first attempt. Partly, I think, that's because even if Adams makes up crazy, impossible things (four before breakfast) there is always a certain consistency in his writing that makes the reader trust him. I found this implicit trust lacking while reading the Fforde book.


$updated from: Books December 2005.htxt Sat 18 Jan 2014 13:14:22 thomasl (By Thomas Lauer)$