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Books September 2005

Ian McEwan: Amsterdam (E)

McEwan received the Booker for this book but I fail to understand why. It's by no means badly written but it's a far cry from the roundness of some of his other books. It's the story of two lifelong friends (one a newspaper editor, the other a famous composer) who have been lovers to the same woman and are now at her funeral. What follows is a series of cleverly designed manoeuvres by McEwan that lead to the friends first seeing each other with different eyes and than falling out with each other. Both have to make an important decision; both fail and in their failure give the other a handle, almost a weapon to wield. These developments are very nicely done, however, the book is ultimately let down by the ludicrous way in which both decide to get even with the other.

Iain Banks: Walking on Glass (E)

A strange book. Three interwoven strands, one a seemingly conventional love story, the next the daily misfortunes of a paranoid, the third, well, the third is actually difficult to explain: an old man and an old women are imprisoned in a castle and they have to play strange games (whose rules are unknown to them and must be deduced by trial and error) in order to try to answer “The Question” — what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? Only the right answer will set them free. All three strands come together at the end, but I am not sure that I have understood the whole thing. Anyway, I found the strange castle (a Kafkaesque castle if there ever was one) and the two old players most engaging. Not to talk about the puzzling red crow…

Carson McCullers: The Ballad of the Sad Café (E)

A collection of novellas and short stories by an US-American author whose most well-known novel is called “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter”. I always found this title so off-putting (sounds like one of these bad, over-sentimentalised books) that I never bothered to read anything written by McCullers. That was an error and I am glad to say that another of my prejudices went down the drain. The title story is dealing with a love triangle set in the said “sad cafe”: a tall, strong woman, her cousin, who's a hunchback, and her ex-husband, just released from prison. The cousin and the ex-husband destroy the café and the woman, whose main error was to fall in love, for the first and last time of her life. The story is told in sparse language and not at all sentimental, actually the other way round.

The other stories in this collection are much shorter but they all have an edge that makes the reading slightly jarring. McCullers was certainly not a person with whom it was easy to get to grips with.

Iain Banks: Whit (E)

A completely different book to Walking on Glass (see further down): Banks is certainly a writer of many faces. This one is written in deceptively simple language: it deals with the travails of a religious order in Scotland and its Elect of God, one Isis Whit. She is naive, but not really; she is young but not really; she is clueless but not really: she's definitely a charming character, is Isis. Her main job is to find her cousin Moran (who has betrayed the order and its principles) and get her back into the fold. To do this she must go down to London (“Babylondon”) and to some other no less strange places. The whole thing is one level Isis' and Moran's story (and the story of their grandfather, founder of the order), on another a parable about the craziness of life in 20th-century Britain, on a third a gentle send-up of religious orders. And there's even more.

Paul Auster: In the Country of Last Things (E)

Bleak. I think that's the word for this novel. It is a relatively early Auster and it's well written though perhaps not as incisive as his New York Trilogy. Anna Blume is in a place that could well be the New York of films like Blade Runner or The Fifth Element: a dark, harsh, dangerous place some time in the future. She searches her brother (a journalist who went there from “the outside” and disappeared) and she tries to come to terms with the mad way of living in this sinister place. And after learning the ropes (and surviving this phase) Anna seems to succeed for a while but (Auster being Auster) the place proves to be stronger than her. And not only that: it's also stronger than all the people she meets and bonds with. Stronger than books, cars (not that there are many left), houses, stronger than life itself, as it turns out. Finally, hopelessness pervades everything and yet Anna refuses to accept defeat. But for how long?

James Hogg: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (E)

This book was first published in 1824: its language is at times a bit dated and contains many Scottish allusions but on the whole it's pretty readable stuff (there are also copious endnotes). The Justified Sinner of the title is a Calvinist who simply knows that he is predestined for Heaven. Others will burn but he won't. So all the bad (but unfortunately neccessary) things he does (or has to do) on Earth will not count against him. Quite contrary: he has to do them because God obviously wants him to.

The chap is completely crazy, of course, but in his religious craziness and blindness he is not far away from certain people of the 21st century who blow themselves and their bombs up to take as many people with them as possible. A chilling portrait of self-delusion, self-justification and plain idiocy. And all the better because it makes clear that crazy people existed at all times and in all cultures.

John Fowles: Daniel Martin (E)

This book dates from 1977. I love John Fowles' books, the careful way he constructs his characters, his unspectacular plots… and this long novel of around 700 pages is no exception. However, it is full of allusions one can only fully comprehend and appreciate if one is English. In fact, that is one of the main themes of the book: exploring Englishness (not Britishness, mind you). How it feels, why the English do (or don't do) the strange things they do (or don't do), what and how they feel and think. But this is one these things that are very difficult, if not impossible to explain: those in the know need no explanation and for the others no amount of clarification will actually explain the thing. Think of explaining the concept of redness: a non-blind person needs no explanation and for a blind man it's all words. Still a very interesting psychological portrait of the hero and the woman he loves all his adult life without actually admitting it to himself, herself or anyone else. Perhaps some hundred pages too long… though I am not sure: this is certainly one of those novels one can enter and live in.

John Noble Wilford: The Mapmakers (E)

Pretty hefty tome about mapmaking through the millenia. Maps (all sorts, not only the topographical variety) have always fascinated me, so a book like this is just what the doc ordered. It is clearly structured and very well written indeed; the many connections between exploration and mapmaking are nicely outlined. But somehow I could not get rid of the impression that there is more to the subject than what the author delivers: more about the basic know-how and principles, about the underlying theories and world-views, more about the ways maps are actually produced, and how their makers build upon the work of their predecessors. I also found the number of pages devoted to modern mpamaking rather too many. Most of these things we can easily find on the internet.

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