The Embassy of Cambodia

zadie smith

This book gave me a convenient break from the heavier content of my recent reading. While bound in book form, The Embassy of Cambodia is  caught between being a short story and a novella.

It’s only 68 small pages but covers a lot of ground relating to the life of a migrant worker in London.

Misunderstanding,  suspicion, exploitation and ignorance: the companions of someone far from family and the familiar. Someone who finds a degree of compensation in simple pleasures

Maybe its cheating a little to count this as a book in my 2016 tally, but its brevity and simplicity compensate for the difficulty of other things on my list so far.

The story can be found here:

Two Weeks Away From Here…

I’m taking a two week break. I’ll be heading to Victoria to spend time in an 1850s granite cottage. A time of relaxation and hopefully a chance to have another slice of one of my favourite cakes, Raspberry Dacquoise, from one of the town’s cafes.

I am also hoping to catch up on some reading – to finish what I’ve started and to reduce my still-to-be-read pile. There are so many books I’d like to read, but deciding which one is a big decision. Choosing one means neglecting others.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been a bit over-stretched, with too many books on the go at the same time. I don’t want to repeat that situation again during my break.

I’ve been listening to some interviews with David Mitchell during my drive to work, and I’ve seen most of the film version of his book Cloud Atlas which I hope to finish watching on the weekend. I’m tempted to read another of his novels, or even to re-read Black Swan Green or Cloud Atlas… but I feel reluctant to start re-reading when I have so many books waiting for a first reading.

Another possibility if I don’t follow the Mitchell path is Zadie Smith’s NW. It all depends on how I’m feeling when I’m ready to make the decision.

While I’m away any comments here won’t get moderated. They will have to wait for approval until I get back

Fictional Discoveries and a Memoir or Two

Looking back through this year’s reading list I find that I’ve discovered (and rediscovered) several authors that I’d love to read again. I’ve added their other books to my wishlist.

Starting at the beginning of the year the discoveries have included:

Joan Aiken – a good way to start the year. Although I first read her Wolves of Willoughby Chase at the end of last year, it was the next book, Blackhearts in Battersea that really won me over. I soon bought the remaining books of the “Wolves” series and started working my way through them. The books are a fun alternative history, using rich and amusing language and could be seen as a precursor to the “Steam Punk” genre.

David Mitchell – I’d read Black Swan Green a couple of years ago and finally got around to reading Cloud Atlas, an inventive and highly readable book spanning various time periods using language and writing formats relevant to each era (including those of the future). It also has a very interesting structure   . Mitchell is an excellent interview subject and I’ve  enjoyed hearing several recorded interviews I was able to track down via google.

Salman Rushdie was someone I struggled with when I read The Satanic Verses, but his memoir, Joseph Anton was compelling from the first page. During the reading of this, when I reached the part where he described the writing of his first children’s book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, I took a short time-out to read that book. Its dedication to his son Zafar has to be one of the most poignant pieces of writing I’ve come across.

Zadie Smith is someone I initially gave up on. Her first book White Teeth is one of the very few books I’ve abandoned since I started my reading list a few years ago. But she won me over through a few recorded interviews I listened to and I gave her writing another go and enjoyed The Autograph Man and Changing My Mind. Like David Mitchell she is an intelligent and articulate interview subject. Eventually I’ll give White Teeth another try, but not until I’ve read her most recent book NW.

Nadeem Aslam – clearly there’s a trend to be seen here. Yet another I was inspired to read after hearing a radio interview. I could listen to him for hours. The interview related to his most recent book The Blind Man’s Garden, a non-partisan story about the effects of the “War on Terror” in Afghanistan. A genuinely sensual book, with vivid use of all of the senses to portray  convincing  experiences shared by a community affected by an imposed war.

Hilary Mantel – did I mention the trend? Should I point out yet another radio interview connection? Hearing her talk about her work led me to her memoir Giving Up the Ghost, and back to her fiction. I’d previously read Wolf Hall and now have the sequel Bring Up the Bodies on my “to be read” list.

There are some others on this year’s list I could mention, but they aren’t exactly new discoveries (or rediscoveries) more like old acquaintances who I can trust to give me an entertaining read.

But before I close this post I can’t afford to leave out Kate Atkinson. Started Early Took My Dog is the first novel of hers that I’ve read and I’m confident it won’t be the last. It has an intriguing plot alternating between two time periods (1975 and the ‘present’). There are multiple characters who are slowly shown to be connected to each in some way, drawn together by events and actions of the past. I haven’t finished it yet, so hopefully the conclusion will match what I’ve read so far.

Throughout this post I’ve mentioned recorded interviews with authors. Some of the best sites I’ve found for interviews are:

The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith

Autograph manMy autograph collection was started in the mid-1960s. It was the final day of a sea-side holiday with my parents. They had bought me an autograph book as a holiday present. Taking a last walk along the promenade we saw Mike Winters, a well-known comedian at the time, part of a double act with his brother Bernie.

My dad approached him and asked if he would sign my book. He agreed and then patiently waited while my mum tried to find a pen in her handbag. Being the last day of the holiday she had used the bag to hold a few things that had been left out of our suitcases, and these were pulled out one by one during the search for the pen, including a pair of pantyhose.

Mike WintersEventually a pink felt-tip was found and my autograph collection was memorably started. Slowly my collection grew, but rarely with any really famous signatures. We had few celebrities around our home village. The most well-known at the time was Jack Bodell, briefly the British heavy weight boxing champion, and uncle of a class mate of mine.

It is only in during the past 20 years or so that my collection gained more prestigious additions, including several “A list” movie stars, prime ministers and other politicians, musicians, athletes and several significant authors.

Is it therefore surprising that Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man appealed to me? I thought I’d bought the book several years ago, around the same time I’d bought her first novel White Teeth; but I searched my library and couldn’t find it. So I bought a(nother) copy and over the Easter weekend read it.

One thing I found a little off-putting early in the book was the use of the name “YHWH” as label to signify breaks within the prologue. “YHWH” is the anglicised equivalent of the Hebrew name of God, a name that devout Jews refuse to speak in fear of breaking the third commandment, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain”.
Even as a non-Jew I found the usage inappropriatem unnecessary, and yes – offensive.

I recall Smith writing something in one of her essays about using structural aids in her work, a kind of scaffolding that was helpful while writing that ought to be dismantled after the work was completed. Maybe Smith found something helpful in using “YHWH” in that way, but in leaving it behind, it became (in my view) an irrelevant artefact serving no real purpose.

The Autograph Man of the title is Alex-Li Tandem a man with mixed Chinese and Jewish parentage. His interest in autographs began during childhood and in adulthood developed into a career, buying and selling and authenticating celebrity signatures.

Tandem must be one of the most dysfunctional characters I’ve come across – dabbling in mystical religion (his own version of his friends Kabbalah practice), writing a book that no one is likely to want read (Jewishness and Goyishness), obsessed with a reclusive “golden years of Hollywood” actress and seemingly intent on destroying the long-standing relationship with his girlfriend, the sister of his best friend.

I previously said that my early autograph collection was lacking famous signatures, but what exactly is fame? Smith looks at this question throughout the book. What makes someone sufficiently famous to make their signature worthwhile and collectable? TV exposure? Withdrawing from society after a brief but promising film career like Greta Garbo? Being caught mid-sex act with a celebrity? And in what way does a person’s “claim to fame” define them in other people’s eyes?

The story was enjoyable despite (or because of) the frustration of Tandem’s talent for making the wrong choices, but to me the ending was a disappointment. It brought no feeling of resolution and neither did it leave me with an open question to chew upon afterwards. It just came to an end with no sense that anything had changed in Tandem’s life. He was more or less back where he started, primed to continue the same mildly destructive path, enabled by all too forgiving and tolerant friends who fail to make him accountable for his actions, but continually clear up his wake of damage.

A year or two ago I struggled with Smith’s debut novel White Teeth and eventually gave up on it. After reading The Autograph Man I’m encouraged to go back to that earlier book and give it another chance. But before I do that I’m looking forward to her latest book NW. My copy of it arrived in the mail yesterday.

Entering the Reader’sTwilight Zone

the-art-loverAfter completing Zadie Smith’s book of essays (see previous posts), I wasn’t sure what to read next. My eventual choice was The Art Lover by Andromeda Romano-Lax (published as The Detour elsewhere). It’s been sitting on my bookcase for a few months since I bought it on a trip to Canberra.

After reading the first three chapters during my work lunch break I decided to find out more about the author.

She has a wordpress site and while skimming through its contents I came across the title of something she wrote for another blog:  “The purpose and joys of rereading” –  if you look back to my previous post about Zadie Smith you’ll see why this title jumped at me.

I couldn’t resist taking a look at the article to find out why this term “rereading” is beginning to haunt me.


Cue the Twilight Zone music!



also see:

Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith

Changing My Mind was structured like a sandwich. It began and ended with academic essays related to books and authors I haven’t read. So through the first 90 or so pages I wondered whether it was worth persevering. Fortunately I stayed with the book and came across the more appealing sandwich filling.

The “filling” that made the book worthwhile includes essays on:

zadie0001The craft of writing.


Human nature and identity.

Film reviews.

 and lastly

Personal memories of childhood, family and in particular of Smith’s late father, to whom the book is dedicated.

Then came another academic essay to enclose the sandwich

In the academic essays, the idea of “rereading” comes up several times, and those references seem to  show an aspect of Smith’s reading practice, and her literary interests, that differ greatly from my own.

I am not a rereader.  I rarely read novels twice, and when I have it has been many years later when I’d forgotten enough of the story for it to be like reading the book for the first time. The only time I recall finishing a novel and then immediately restarting it was almost 40 years ago with Frank Herbert’s Dune.

When I re-read Dune, it wasn’t because I needed to dig deeper into its wordplay or its philosophy of life or to admire the author’s skill, it was because I loved the story and the characters.

When rereading is mentioned in Smith’s essays I think it relates to more “literary” or “writerly” issues, and while those things don’t really motivate my reading of fiction I can understand the idea behind them. After recently finishing The Satanic Verses I thought I’d probably get more out of the book if I read it again; a second reading would build upon the first and maybe some of the puzzling aspects (of which there were many) would become clearer. 

If there wasn’t so much else to read it might have been something to consider. But there are far too many other books around that I find much more appealing. And the need to understand The Satanic Verses doesn’t come high enough in my life’s priorities to want to spend another couple of weeks reading through it again.

When I read fiction I am more interested in plot and character than in philosophy or gaining insight into the meaning of life – for that I’ll stick with the Bible: a book where continued rereading is more than justified.

Can Zadie Change MY Mind?

Guantanamo Boy was one of those can’t put down books, the kind that makes reading a pleasure, despite its grim and disturbing content. The downside of a book like that is finding something as a follow-up. What can I start reading next that can compare?

Unfortunately, out of all of the possibilities available – shelves full of candidates – the two books I’ve started aren’t inspiring me.

scan0001Lee Krasner: a biography is slow going at the moment. I’ve read a few art biographies over the past year. Most of the others I enjoyed and I gained an insight into the artists and their work. With Krasner I’m feel I’m mainly reading list after list of names of her fellow artists, people I’ve mostly never heard of. I’m almost a quarter of the way through and apart from the Introduction I’m finding it hard going. The intro seemed to show promise of some good reading ahead, but so far the promise is unfulfilled.

The other book I started just before Guantanamo Boy. It’s a book of essays by Zadie Smith: Changing My Mind. And like the Krasner biography I’ve been finding it hard going. It isn’t helpful that the first section of essays is made up of the kind of literary studies that I did for assignments in University. While I enjoyed writing them 20 years ago (I loved the mental workout after more than a decade of menial office work –I entered Uni as a 30 year old “mature-age” student), I don’t find them very interesting when I’m not familiar with the books they are examining; books that I’m not likely to read myself.

zadie0001Maybe I should ask myself “why Zadie Smith?” Her book White Teeth is the only book I’ve abandoned during my reading campaign started a few years ago. I tried and tried to stick with it but I eventually ran out of steam and put it aside. This book of essays could have seen me following that same path – but I want to stick with it until I break through to the next section where Smith writes about the process of writing. That will be the real test for this book: when she writes about topics that DO interest me.

So why on earth would I give so much time to an author I’ve clearly struggled to read in the past? There is a simple reason. I like Zadie Smith and I want to like her work. I’ve heard her interviewed a few times and she speaks so well with intelligence, humour and insight. She makes her work seem appealing and I want to discover the books she leads me to expect.

Buy Less, Read More?

On the weekend I visited my parents. My mum was reading one of her books for the third time. She had read everything in her library at least twice and had nothing new to read.

booksI don’t have that problem. I have a few bookcases and two large cupboards with bowing shelves full of mostly unread books. When I got home from my parents’ place I tried to go through them to sort out things I’d be unlikely to read, but I found few I was willing to cull.

I WANT to read them all. I bought them over many years because they interested me. But I have a problem with time. I don’t have as many opportunities to read as I would like and yet I continue to find more and more books to add to my growing collection.

Why do I keep buying?
One reason is that I don’t want to miss out. Some of purchases are remaindered or liquidated stock. Others are second hand. They aren’t things you can put aside to buy at a later date. Their availability is limited. While I probably won’t read a new purchase immediately, at least it’s there for me to read when I’m ready.

A second reason is my wide ranging and regularly changing interests. For a few weeks I’ll want to read about the space programme and will find a few books about that subject. And I’ll read one or two before moving on to something else, leaving the rest of the books in my to-be-read-later pile.

books2That “something else” may be literature, and I’ll pick up a book or two that has alleged literary merit, fully intending to read something of “quality”, but then I’ll struggle through the first choice, quenching any ambition to read the others (at least for a few months). This also creates the disadvantage of slowing down my reading. It dampens my enthusiasm, ridding me of that “can’t wait to get back to it” drive that ensures I’ll read at every available opportunity. On rare occasions I’ll eventually put the book aside only half read – but that’s something I really want to avoid.

Why do I bother with these “literary” works? Because I’m hoping to come across a gem, something that makes the disappointments worthwhile and surely my own writing can’t be harmed by exposure to “the greats”. And even the books I struggle with usually have moments of recognisable quality.

As well as the above “reasons” for book buying, occasionally I’ll discover the author of a series of books. At Christmas I came across Joan Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase. It’s a book I remember from childhood, not through reading it, but possibly through a TV or radio adaptation. I found a copy in a Wagga Wagga bookshop and enjoyed it so much I tracked down all of the sequels in the series. I’ve now read a few of them, but the rest have been put aside for later while I try to catch up on other things.

My current reading projects include Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, Zadie Smith’s collection of essays Changing My Mind and At Risk by former MI5 boss Stella Rimington.

SVThe Satanic Verses is one of those “literary” books that I find a struggle to read but I’m determined to get through it. It’s a book I first started maybe 20 years ago and gave up on. This time I want to make sure I finally get to the end. I’ve past the half-way point and have given myself the luxury of taking a break to tackle something easier and more interesting: the Stella Rimington book, an authentic thriller (I naively assume,considering the author’s background) about British security services discovering and trying to prevent a planned terrorist attack.

The Rimington is another purchase (second hand) that led me to buy more of her books, all taking their place in my to-be-read-later collection. And that is often why I continue to buy: one good book leads to another…