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Books July and August 2005

Henry Thoreau: Walden (E)

Thoreau on nature, on how to live a simple life, on modesty, on what is (or should be) important and what should not (but seems to be): he has to say many a good thing about these questions but language is alas not his strongest point. Granted, the book was written in the 19th century; still, he could try to come to the point with a little more diligence. There are interminable excursions into all the nice things he achieved with his stubbornness and his will but his smugness, his self-satisfaction is often simply distracting from the message.

Max Frisch: Stiller (D); I'm not Stiller (E)

I read this oldie (the first reading must have ben, oh some thirty years ago) in the original German and the English translation. Well, I tried, at least. Unfortunately, the translation is so rough (to put it mildly) that I couldn't stand it for more than thirty pages. Still, the story of Mr White, an American who is mistaken for a Swiss national while trying to cross the borders to Switzerland, and, after a minor wrangle, is put behind bars, is eminently readable. White tries hard to make clear that, no, he his not Anatol Stiller: a sculptor who disappeared seven years ago, just like that. His American passport alone proves that he can't be that man! And many other things which he patiently recounts to a gullible prison guard, his lawyer and the prosecutor… prove it as well. I do not want to give away too much, so let's just say that he puts up a valiant fight, against the Swiss prosecutor and his system, against Stiller's wife Julika, who is a lovely woman (he promptly falls in love with her) — but in the end he loses the fight. Well, in a way he doesn't…

Patrick McGrath: Asylum (E)

McGrath usually writes about dark stuff. He used to haunt the more Gothic corners of literature but Asylum is certainly not Gothic in the usual sense. Stella, the beautiful and unsatisfied wife of a high-ranking doctor in an asylum near London, falls desperately in love with a patient, an ex-sculptor. The narrator of the story is Peter, another doctor of the asylum; indeed, the patient in question, Edgar, is “his” patient. Peter also happens to be a good friend of Stella and her husband, so he is in perfect position to recount the story. As one would expect, Edgar isn't the most stable of men; in fact he has killed and butchered his own wife a few years ago: that's why he is now in the asylum. The story develops on two levels: the disastrous relationship between Stella and Edgar (told mostly in flashbacks) and the narrator's attempts to “help” Stella, first as the family friend, then in his capacity as psychatrist. However, from the start Peter is not a very convincing narrator: the fact is that he follows his own agenda. And in the end he lets himself too lightly off the hook: the weakest part of the book.

Daniel J. Boorstin: The Image (E)

Written in the 1960s, this book and its message is still significant (perhaps even more so than it was back then). Boorstin is an American and I have certain, er, prejudices when it comes to Americans. In this case I am the first to admit that I would be completely mistaken. The theme of his book is the pernicious influence of the media, our willingness to take images for the real thing, the fact that we are less and less able to distinguish between things that are genuine and things that are simply consumerist fakes (to use language he would not have used). His core thesis is that we are slaves to our expectations (more, better, faster, richer…) and that this weakness is used by interested third parties (PR and media companies, politicians…) to convince us to do or buy or think or read things that enslave us ever more to our expectations: don't think — consume!

There's more to Boorstin's book than this; he fleshes out quite a few neighbouring regions (one chapter I found especially interesting deals with travelling and the changes to it in the last hundred or so years). The main message, however, is his battle cry: “Back to the roots of clear thinking, of simplicity.”

Ian McEwan: The Comfort of Strangers (E)

McEwan is another favourite author of mine. He is slightly mad (or else he can do a very believable simulation of being slightly mad) and it shows in his books. This book, one of his ealier ones, is technically not as accomplished as his later works. But even here he is able to do what not many authors can do with such seeming ease: connect a “normal” starting point (we all have been there) with a “mad” endpoint (we never want to be there) in an almost straight line, so artful that the tension, the rope you almost don't feel around your neck, is tightened ever so slowly, almost unnoticeably. Only at the very end you wonder how you got where you are, how *he* got you there. The two heroes, Colin and Mary, are on a holiday and of course they meet strangers. And strangers can do strange things. The book shows the friendliness of strangers, how comforting they can be, and how this comfort of strangers can radically change your whole life.

Elias Canetti: Masse und Macht (D)

An interesting read but ultimately a bit disappointing. There are many good ideas in this book (dating from the '60s) about why humans behave as they do in solitude or in masses, the differences between these modes, eye-openers about the ways commands are given and obeyed, unexpected connections between all these themes — but what I found sorely lacking is a kind of red thread. What *exactly* is it Canetti wants to say? It is never entirely clear what type of book we deal with: philosophical treaty, anthropological study, collection of amusing facts… The text is too unstructured for my tastes and there were simply not enough practical things I could take home from it (and it is a pretty long read). A little more scientific discipline (more citations and pointers to sources used, a bibliography, an index, in general references so that we can prove things on our own and need not take them from Canetti on trust) would have made the text more authoritative.

Ian McEwan: Atonement (E)

An accomplished book, a later work by McEwan. It is 1935, before the war. Briony Tallis is a young girl with a strong imagination: later she will become a well-known novelist. She sees her older sister Cee and Cee's old friend Robbie in situations not normally seen by a thirteen-year old. Her interpretation of what she observed, of her sister's behaviour and her own strong reaction determine the course of her life — and also the lives of Cee and Robbie. Soon there comes a point where she understands that imagination (hers and others) is not as innocent and playful as she had always imagined, and that her sister and Robbie have paid and still pay for that knowledge. Even later she also realises that she in turn will have to pay for what she did, for the damage her strong imagination and her righteousness have caused. But she doesn't make it easy, not for herself and not for the reader. The final chapter is spectacular.

Mitch Albom: The Five People You Meet in Heaven (E)

Another book in the literary news. Supposed to be Uplifting and Great and Touching and what have you. I don't share all of Albom's metaphysical and philosophical ideas (he seems to believe in god, for one thing) but he sure gives his hero a good run for his money. His writing is not at all bad, and certainly not as barmy as some of the reviewers seem to suggest (who are themselves perhaps a bit barmy). Anyway, this is the story of Eddie. He is a kind of mechanic in an amusement park and dies in an accident, in the park. He comes to heaven (what else) and learns that this particular heaven is an altogether different place to what he was led to expect (which may well be lesson no 1: never believe those guys in black, as they know as much as you do: precisely nothing).

In this heaven Eddie meets five people who played a role in his life and those five people have two tasks: each one recounts and explains a specific, often painful event in Eddie's life to him so that Eddie finally understands not only what happened — but why it happened, had to happen. Their second, more difficult task is to undo the damage a life on Earth brings with it. And it is here that Albom has a good few interesting things to observe. And though his outlook is different to mine a lot of what he writes touches the raw basics and is valid for almost all of us. Nevertheless, Albom's book left me disappointed. Sure, it's all very nice and good to read, but beside the somewhat forced attempts to show us (some of) the meaning of life there are two specific reasons: a) I knew a lot of it before (which is by no means Albom's fault, for sure) and b) I have the feeling that many people will read this book, understand what it is all about — and then do exactly nothing about it (again, not Albom's fault). A sad conclusion, though.

D.J. Taylor: Orwell; The Life (E)

Another curiously flat book. I sure learned a lot about George Orwell, the man, about his life and times and also his works. The substance of the person who was Eric Arthur Blair, his core, remained very much in a shroud, however. Perhaps this has as much to do with the subject himself (“an enigma,” says the blurb) as with the biographer: Orwell was certainly not an easy man to understand, to get to know, even when he was still alive. So how much more difficult the task must be today! Then again, I have the feeling that Taylor never really connected to Orwell's way of thinking, his modus operandi, that he never crawled under the skin of his subject, so to speak. Taylor has collected and connected lots of facts and again and again tries to convey some of what Orwell (as well as the people in his immediate circle) might have thought — but it rings hollow too often. The depth is somehow missing. Orwell died over fifty years ago and Taylor simply doesn't succeed in bringing him back to life.

Mark Tully: No Full Stops In India (E)

All the guide books about India tell you that this book is one of the must-reads if you want to come to grips with the place. Hm… it is not a bad book, but it's not that good either. Tully is an old BBC hand who has spent most of his professional career in India. He sure knows a lot about the country but his writing is sometimes incredibly dreadful, on all levels. (Do some people in India really “tow the line”? Poor guys.) He loves the country, the people, especially the common people — this much is obvious. However his love has sometimes the quality of an elder uncle's: he knows best, he condescends from his throne and deigns to hand out his wisdom. (Tully is British, after all.) Nevertheless, he has some pretty good stories to tell — but then, who wouldn't, after living for decades in a place like that? As always: best is going there yourself. If you can't Tully will bring you some of India's colours but not always coherent and not especially well written. For the latter you might go to William Dalrymple instead (see his “The City of Djinns” as well as “The Age of Kali”).

Alexander McCall-Smith: From the Full Cupboard of Life (E)

I barely managed to finish that book. Let's just say the longwindedness and also the relentless good-heartedness of the author and his poor protagonists, the overdone, almost boring simplicity, the fact that in Botswana all ladies seem to be “traditionally built” — all that is simply not my cup of tea. There are also a good few stylistic gaffes. But I know that some people (including Vero) like that sort of thing for an easy read. So yes, give it a try, by all means… but remember: you have been warned.

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