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Books from the First Half of 2005

Martin C. Strong: The Great Rock Discography, Vol 7 (E)

Just brought this one home and boy, it's a whammer of a book. Covers 1200+ artists and groups, with full listings of album releases, the comings and goings of group members, splits et cetera. Martin also gives album ratings (based on “reader feedback, reviews and personal impressions”): a debatable practice, perhaps; on the whole, however, I found them not too much off the mark. At any rate, the amount of factual information is so overwhelming that a bit of “biasedness” won't hurt. I've only had it for a week but I can already see that it's going to become a well thumbed-through reference. If you have the slightest interest in anything that has remotely to do with Rock or Pop music, do yourself a favour and GET THIS BOOK.

Elias Canetti: Die Blendung (D) [English title: Auto-da-fé]

Anyone who can enjoy (if “enjoy” is the proper word here) the more claustrophobic Kafka stories will love Die Blendung, as the book is, more aptly I think, called in its German original (first published 1935). The story line is simple: Peter Kien, a book-loving (actually, book-mad) sinologist is confronted with a reality he never knew existed, tries to accommodate it, loses practically everything in the process (and I am not only talking about tangibles like money or books) and finally breaks down. The execution by Canetti, however, is frightening. And in more than one sense: Kien's mind is crushed and pulverised before the very eyes of the reader (however, he is not the only person to be crushed; Canetti does a pretty thorough job). The reading is not always easy-going, sometimes the book demands a certain discipline. Perhaps the most appalling and yet fascinating aspect of the writing is that the narrative, despite its eeriness, its desolation, seems never very far from a strange reality we can't be sure doesn't exist, somewhere out there…

Douglas Kennedy: A Special Relationship (E)

A “page turner” from an “internationally bestselling author”… plenty of forewarning. In the event the book wasn't as bad as it could have been, given the hype. However it is much too longwinded (and I mean MUCH) for its own good; at times it is also sloppily written (taking medication at around 9pm, sleeping solid for eleven hours and waking at 6.15am is an impressive feat). The heroine, an American, falls first into love with a fellow journo, a Brit, then into a complicated pregnancy, and, after an emergency caesarean, into an extended bout of postnatal depression. There's already much potential for interesting complications here; all that, however, is but the start of her problems. Well, one way or another I learned a lot about postnatal depression. And human folly.

Freya Stark: The Valleys Of The Assassins (E)

A highly enjoyable and colourful account of Stark's travels through parts of (then) Persia (“then” means in the early 1930s). Stark was travelling alone, only accompanied by one or two local guides and a few donkeys; whenever decently possible, she roughed it. Being not one of the squeamish brigade allows her to gloss over the grubby trivialities and to concentrate on what made her trip extraordinary: the story is often hilarious, never fretful, always interesting. In a word, it's a book that made me want to go there on the spot, right now (then again, that's perhaps not so remarkable, given my exposure to various travel bugs over the last few years).

George Orwell: Keep The Aspidistra Flying (E)

A relatively early Orwell novel about the money machine and a not too successful poet (Gordon Comstock) who fights it on principle, without realising that it is much more his own obsession with all things money (and not the lack of it, as he believes) that makes life thoroughly miserable for him as well as his girlfriend (not to talk about his long-suffering sister). The finishing twist is predictable and Comstock's response to it rather disappointing. The story certainly has its moments but on the whole it left me dissatisfied: Comstock is such a pitiable, poor prat (and not mainly in terms of money) and the end is so much of an anti-climax that one wonders why Orwell bothered to write about him.

Paul J. Nahin: Time Machines (E)

A voluminous book about scientific and philosophical aspects of time travel, written by a scientist who knows his physics if not always his philosophy. There are also numerous references to the SciFi treatment of time travel as well as scathing comments about writers who neither know their physics nor their philosophy. I learned something (google for a “Tipler machine”; this won't be easy to build but it would be one truly amazing gadget) but I would have learned even more if the book were more stringently structured. Nahim is sometimes too opinionated (nothing against opinionated people, good grief, but as someone trying to give a summary of the field he should try to be more even-handed).

Harper Lee: To Kill A Mockingbird (E)

Atticus Finch is a decent man and a lawyer, Shakespeare notwithstanding. The book deals with his handling of an alleged rape case, as told by his young daughter. Given that the rapist is black, the victim is white and the action is taking place in 1930s USA the plot development is at times perhaps a bit obvious. Nevertheless the main characters are credible. There are some minor mistakes in the voice and perspective of the narrator; on the whole, however, the line is convincing. And using a young child as her mouthpiece allows Lee to air some simple, but deep questions no adult hero would ever think (or dare) to ask.

Albert Camus: The Fall (D)

Too much irony chasing too few pages. Some interesting ideas, for sure, but in the end I found myself asking “Hey Albert, we had all the gloominess, thank you, but where's the meat?” Perhaps I'll try to crossread the French original one of these days. Then again, there ought to be more to life than wondering whether there ought to be more to life than wondering whether there ought… Oops.

V.S. Naipaul: Half A Life (E)

A strange hero, our Willie, and made even more so by Naipaul's habitual terseness. Some beautiful writing, although the effects are at times overdone. The account of how Willie's Indian father and mother came to be his parents is hilarious, as are some of Willie's experiences during his half-exile in England. His marriage and subsequent life in Africa is also portrayed rather nicely. But in between there are stretches where one wishes the editor would have been a bit more resolute. Or Naipaul a bit more to the point.

Vladimir Nabokov: Lolita (E)

I always thought Lolita was a book about a lecher who fumbles around with a school-girl and somehow I never bothered with reading it. And of course, it is exactly that — but my god, how well it is written. The sheer pleasure of deconstructing Nabokov's ironic cadences, to follow Humbert Humbert's various attempts to deal with his affliction in what charitably could be described as a half-way decent manner, the way he and the author manage to make clear that “normality” (and normality not just in terms of sexual matters) is just a thin veneer over something we prefer not to talk about, the craziness that always underlies the polished language… clearly a must-read. At any rate, the book tries hard (and succeeds) to be not graphic, so on that front there is nothing to fear (or hope). The book is not about a naked schoolgirl, it's about naked prejudice.

William Golding: The Lord Of The Flies (E)

A simple premise and a deceptively simple book. But Golding packs some questions into his boys' doings and their ultimate fate that are basic to our understanding of humanity. The most disquieting aspect for me was that I started the whole thing firmly on Ralph's (and even more Piggy's) side, but during the story slowly realised how hard it would be not to switch to the lure of Jack if this were not a story but real life. Difficult to convey the eeriness of actually feeling how the two sides of being a human can tug one into opposite directions: the Lord of the book's title is a dark siren.

Siri Hustvedt: The Enchantment of Lily Dahl (E)

A nice book, written before the author found herself on the wrong side of being famous, when she could still afford to indulge herself and the reader in writing for writing's sake. The Lily of the title is fully convincing, as a woman and as a lover. She is naive, of course, but in the one way that makes her enchantment possible in the first place. At any rate, she wins more than she loses and I suspect that this is the morale of the story, if indeed there is one: give it a try and see what happens. A simple philosophy, perhaps, but it worked well for Lily.

Mark Richardson (ed.): The Travels of Ibn Battutah (E)

A jewel of a book. Abu 'abd Allah Muhammad Ibn 'abd Allah Al-lawati At-tanji Ibn Battutah (I think I'll just stick with Ibn Battutah) was born in 1304 in Tangier and died in 1368 or '69. In between he travelled. Actually he travelled a lot: almost 80.000 miles (about 130.000 km), that's roughly three times around the world. Not bad for the 1300s. He saw most of the Islamic world (which was perhaps not too spectacular as he was an Islamic scholar himself). But he also saw (and survived) India, China, Sumatra, among many, many other places. And he wrote a tome about the people and things he encountered along the way…

This book is an edited and slightly modernised version of Ibn Battutah's writings. Even if the text was written 700 years ago it is still fresh and vivid and touching. It has relevancy. And it makes clear that Ibn Battutah knew how to travel and knew how to write about his travels. This is one of those books which teach us that people all over the world, at all times, had and have similar dreams and aspirations and fears, even if they are separated by hundreds and hundreds of years, by religion by and gods, by their upbringing and even by their dietary peculiarities.

Siri Hustvedt: What I Loved (E)

Not as brilliant as I was led to believe by the hype and the reviews. This ambitious book only wins tempo (and credibility) once the first part is over and done with. (As do quite a few books nowadays: what do they have editors for?) Some very good moments in the second part, but the (male) hero is still not convincing. And there is this steady undercurrent of everything having been so much better in the good old times. Too much looking-back, too many misguided attempts to portray today's Brave New World vis-a-vis yesterday's sheer goodness.

Paul Auster: The Book Of Illusions (E)

Ever since reading The New York Trilogy Paul Auster has remained one of my three, four favourite authors and this book is no disappointment. In some ways it is easier to digest than some of his earlier works. There is darkness and strangeness and pain (Auster is Auster, after all) but there is also beauty and hope and strength. A solid plot (not always the strong side of his books), combined with complex and compelling characters, drives the story. Perhaps the most engaging feature of the book is the artful, even ingenious way in which Auster combines the fate of the two contemporary protagonists with the life and times of Hector Mann, a fictitious but rather convincing silent-movie star. At times it is difficult to say who is the main character: Zimmer, the professor who has lost his whole family in an accident, the girl he meets while he researches Mann's life — or Mann himself. And then there is of course someone else, a fourth person, whose role gets clear only towards the end…

Some moments brought actual tears to my eyes: not so much because they were particurlarly sad, not at all. No, it's because the emotions that roll through the protagonists can be felt so strongly, even though they and their universe exist only on paper. The writing, in these few moments, is transparent: there is nothing between reader and book, not even the author.


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