The Golden Legend by Nadeem Aslam

The Golden Legend is another exquisitely written novel by Nadeem Aslam.

An enthralling view into a world of politics, religion, persecution, corruption, love, loyalty, and extremism. A story of  violence and tenderness, love and fear, hope and despair, in a nation wracked by political and religious inconsistencies.

There are times throughout my reading year when I need to sit down with a “page-turner”, a book impossible to put down. A book I can finish in a couple of sittings.

This book is not one of those – it can’t be rushed. It needs to be savoured, not only to enjoy the richness of the writing, but to absorb the realities it explores. It takes us into a world contrasting significantly from the familiar western reality most of us take for granted, a place where political and religious allegiances, no matter loosely held, can make daily life precarious depending upon the opportunistic agendas of others .

number9dream, David Mitchell

number9dreamI’ve liked most of what I’ve read of David Mitchell’s work.

He writes in interesting ways – never satisfied in telling a story in the most straight forward way, he experiments with genres, styles and, writing forms; even in the same novel, and somehow manages to keep it all coherent.

In number9dream, 19 year old Eiji Miyake has moved to Tokyo to search for the father he’s never known. Every step taken leads him to a disappointing, often dangerous  detour, sometimes real, other times not. Alternating between actual experience and various imagined scenarios.

Mitchell seems to have a talent for incorporating incidents and dialogue with potential to offend or disgust; yet not gratuitous offence for the sake of it.

Those occasions are used sparingly to spotlight the deep moral corruption of a character’s make-up. In this book there are some scenes of gruesome, brutal violence, effectively showing the world of the Yakuza, (powerful Japanese organised crime figures) into which Eiji stumbles.

I enjoyed a lot of this book but it definitely isn’t my favourite example of Mitchell’s work.  One section in particular didn’t work for me, more or less a story within the story, where the protagonist is hiding away for a time and discovers a writer’s manuscripts. The content of the manuscript stories is alternated with the main narrative of the book, but I haven’t got a clue why. To me it seemed like padding and lacked the coherence I mentioned above.

The end of the book was also a disappointment. For those who’ve seen David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive: I felt the book’s concluding section took a surrealist bent like the end of that movie… and then it just

New Salman Rushdie novel depicts Obama and Trump’s US

According to publisher Jonathan Cape, The Golden House, Rushdie’s 13th novel, follows “a young American filmmaker whose involvement with a secretive, tragedy-haunted family teaches him how to become a man”.

Starting with the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2008, the book will include current and recent political and social events, including the rise of the ultra-conservative Tea Party; the Gamergate scandal, which saw the widespread online harassment of female gaming journalists framed as a debate about media ethics; the debate over identity politics; and, perhaps most urgently, “the insurgence of a ruthlessly ambitious, narcissistic, media-savvy villain sporting makeup and coloured hair”.

Publishing director at Jonathan Cape, Michal Shavit called it “the ultimate novel about identity, truth, terror and lies” for “a new world order of alternate truths”.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/feb/07/new-salman-rushdie-novel-depicts-obama-trump-us-golden-house

Now waiting for Trump to issue a fatwah sending Rushdie back into hiding again.

A book definitely on my “to buy” list.

Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War by Joseph Loc

A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War by Joseph Loconte, is one of several books I’ve read over the past couple of years about WWI, its origins and its ongoing effects.

What it says about the spiritual conditions leading into (and through) the First World War seems disturbingly familiar. The specifics may have changed, but the general spirit of those conditions is unmistakably in the world again today; disguised to a degree – but with a flimsy mask.

“The alliance of church and state allowed the secular goals of government to get mixed up with the spiritual goals of Christianity.”
“Add to this the rise of the most potent political ideology of the hour: nationalism. The nation-state was replacing religion as a powerful source of meaning and identity in people’s lives…

…For devoted nationalists, their patriotic faith was equivalent to membership in an alternative church. For religious believers, nationalism offered a grandiose political outlet for their faith commitments. The result was the birth of Christian nationalism, the near sanctification of the modern state.”

That hybrid of nationalism and religion may have worked well at first for the recruitment of willing soldiers (“for God, King and country”) but it later had a detrimental impact on the faith of many. Christianity and God had been portrayed as being aligned with the cultural, political and philosophical systems of the age leading up to WWI, so:

Since Christianity was considered integral to Europe’s political and economic system, the perceived failure of that system was a spiritual failure as well.

…the Great War had defamed the values of the Old World, along with the religious doctrines that helped underwrite them.

Loconte writes about the despair and disbelief affecting the generation that lived through the War, and how it was reflected in post-war literary expression.

Postwar writers seemed to have no mental category for the nature of the conflict, no set of beliefs to understand it.

However he observes a difference in the work of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis who “rejected the sense of futility and agnosticism that infected so much [literary] output of their era”.

The dark horrors of their experience such as the scale of death and destruction informed their writings”

Central to their experience was an encounter with the presence of evil: the deep corruption of the human heart that makes it capable of hunting down and destroying millions of lives in a remorseless war of attrition.
A conviction emerged in both of these authors, however, that the problem of evil was not explainable only in natural terms. Rather, evil existed as a darkness in the soul of every human being and as a tangible spiritual force in the world.

But they also drew on aspects of “light”, things like the strong and often sacrificial relationships that sustained men through their time in the trenches. That close interdependent bond is the strength that, despite setbacks, ultimately leads the authors’ characters through the obstacles they face, looking ahead for the hope and promise of victory. But that hope wasn’t based on mere, vague wishfullness.

After returning to England from the front, Tolkien and Lewis might easily have joined the ranks of the rootless and disbelieving. Instead they became convinced there was only one truth, one singular event that could help the weary and the broken hearted find their way home: the Return of the King

xa-hobbit-a-wardrobe-and-a-great-war_jpg_pagespeed_ic_-ws7jyhfp8

…the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words. (1 Thess 4)

[All quotations, apart from the last are from A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War by Joseph Loconte

Schindler’s Ark, by Thomas Keneally

Schindler's ArkThis is my 300th book read, since starting this blog in November 2009.

I wanted to mark my triple century with something of significance and worth, and thought this book met those conditions.

As a Booker prize winner it has literary recognition. As the inspiration for an Oscar winning film it gained a wider appreciation and appeal.

And the book’s topic and themes make it worthwhile representative of many of the books preceding it on my reading list.

Literature, war, Jewish history and the extremes of human nature;  some of the significant characteristics of the other books I’ve read in the past (almost) 7 years.

Schindler's ark 2

I’ve had this book for a long time, firstly in a paperback released as a movie tie-in, with of course the changed title of Schindler’s List. And then I came across the first (Australian) hardcover edition illustrated above. I bought it and gave the other one to my mum.

The book then sat on my bookshelf for a few years unread – until now.

In the beginning Keneally makes it clear that his book is not a history book, but a novel based on historical research and personal interviews with many of the people who appear in it as “characters”. I’m not entirely sure of the distinction he tries to make. It doesn’t seem any different to many of the military histories I’ve read over the past year. Maybe he wanted to distance his book from potential readers’ assumptions about the dryness of history telling.

Now that I’ve committed myself to making this my 300th book – it’s restricting me from starting something else alongside it, just in case I forget myself and finish that “something else” first.

 

 

 

schindler

 

300!!!

Since I started my “books read” list in November 2009, I’ve read 298 books (as of today).

That means I’m only 2 books away from the triple century milestone and have read an average of 40+ books per year for the past 6-7 years.

Now, what do I do?

Just continue reading and ignore the “significance” of my 300th book? Or do I make sure I hit that target with a book of significance? But what would be a suitably significant book to read as my 300th?

I don’t have much time to make the choice. I’ll be starting book 299 today.

 

books

A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam

golden ageI read this over two days during my Christmas break and I’d love to write something that could express how much I enjoyed it. But I wouldn’t want my own expressive shortcomings to diminish anyone’s impression of the book through any “review” I wrote.

The story is set in the early 1970s during the civil war that led to Bangladesh winning independence from Pakistan. A brief glimpse of that time and its human cost is given through the experiences of the Haque family (mother, daughter and son) and their neighbours.
It’s a period of history that I knew nothing about before reading this book, apart from remembering that George Harrison had arranged a benefit concert and album on behalf of Bangladesh when I was a young teen.

I found the book had a slight similarity to the work of Nadeem Aslam, one of my favourite writers, exploring political ambiguities and occasional brutality in a vividly poetic way through an intimate human story.

My disappointment at coming to the end of the book and leaving the lives of the Haques has been tempered by the knowledge that the family story continues in another book The Good Moslem.

The final part of what I’ve heard is intended to be a trilogy has yet to be released.

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

ghostwrittenI have strong but mixed feelings about David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten.

I love his style and the way he structures this collection of inter-related stories, but some of the content of those stories is jarringly crude.

It’s a similar issue I’ve found with a lot of Stephen King’s books, but unlike King, Mitchell’s occasional use of crudity doesn’t come across as gratuitous but plays a consistent part in revealing character. It’s not to my taste, but I can see the purpose it serves.

Apart from that issue, I found more than enough to enjoy in Ghostwritten. While at times individual stories seemed unfinished, there are clues in following (and even preceding) stories that provided some resolution: incidental characters in one story reappear as major players in another; ripples from events here can become significant there.

Part of the pleasure of the book is re-meeting people who it seemed had been left behind in an earlier part of the book, even if their re-introduction is fleeting and they merely pass through a scene with apparently no effect. They bring an interconnectedness that highlights the roles that chance and choice play in lives of protagonists. Coincidental connections, brief meetings can be insignificant to one, but life changing (even lifesaving) to the other, setting the path for important events to come.

There are some similarities in style to Mitchell’s later book Cloud Atlas, another novel constructed from a collection of intersecting shorter stories in which the shadows of characters’ lives are cast beyond their individual stories. Some characters from Ghostwritten also reappear in Cloud Atlas and other Mitchell books, extending character inter-relationships beyond an individual novel. It’s an aspect of Mitchell’s work that I love, and it’s something I’d previously seen in Tim Winton’s work. I find it creates a sense of authenticity to their fictional worlds, where the lives of people can carry on beyond the experiences that made their own stories worth telling, and how they can play some part in the stories of others.

It’s the kind of thing I think I would have tried myself if I’d been more diligent and persistent with my hope of being a writer, if I’d been disciplined enough to push myself to write despite the lack of deadlines and the need to complete obligatory assignments: those things that forced me to be productive in my university years.

Books (and writers) like those mentioned above excite me – but also stir a sense of regret. They are reminders of why I wanted to be a writer, but also of the opportunities I let slip by.

Another reason for mixed feelings.

The Wasted Vigil, Nadeem Aslam

wasted vigilI’m writing this before I’ve finished the book, because Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil is book that I don’t want to end. I want to write something about it now before I face the disappointment of reaching the last page.

 There have been books I’ve read recently that I haven’t wanted to put down, that I read at every opportunity until I finished them. This one is different. It isn’t a gripping page-turner to be consumed like fast food, it’s something I want to savour – and enjoy for as long as possible.

 Two years ago my wife took me to lunch on my birthday. We ate at a cafe attached to a commercial art gallery. Both of us ordered vegetable lasagne, and were initially disappointed when the meal was served. It seemed tiny in comparison to our expectations – and apart from a small quenelle of pesto on top, a small rectangle of lasagne was all that was on the plate. There wasn’t even a token garnish of lettuce leaves.

But as soon as we had the first taste,  all disappointment vanished. Every mouthful was rich with the flavours of roasted capsicum, eggplant, zucchini and sun dried tomato, with an occasional burst of pesto…

…but this is not about food. I mentioned that because reading this book gives me the same kind of rich experience, full of different flavours.

quote 1 Set in Afghanistan some time after George W Bush made it the focus of his war on terror, the book sweeps across the country’s turbulent history, throughout which  local war lords and foreign invaders have preyed on the population.  Only the source of oppression or hardship changes: warlords, Russians, The Taliban/Al Qaeda and the United States all have the same kind of  effect on the people, creating fear through the threat of death, disability or even hell’s fire.

The main characters in the book are representative of the major powers of recent Afghan history. All of them are brought together for various reasons in the house of an English doctor who moved to Afghanistan decades before after falling in love with (and marrying) an Afghan woman, also a doctor.

 There’s a Russian woman searching for information about her brother who went missing after trying to defect while he was part of the Russian occupying force in the 80s; a former CIA agent who was part of US involvement with Afghan warlords opposing the Russian occupiers; and then there’s a young man devoted to the Taliban and Al Qaeda who needs to take refuge (hiding his true identity) when he is mistakenly seen to be a traitor by his fellow terrorists.

 This strange collection of “housemates” allows the author to give a vivid and disturbing look at the plight of average Afghan people and the ongoing suffering under several regimes and the various conflicts waged around them.

quote 2The author gets into the minds of each character so that the reader can “understand” what motivates them. The young terrorist is a particularly interesting example, as we are shown how his corrupted world view has been shaped by religiously motivated misinformation to create a hatred for anyone not taking the extreme path that has been instilled into him from childhood.  (Did you know that the Americans have always hated Islam so much that they even assassinated their Moslem President” Ibraheem Lankan”?)

The book presents many heartbreakingly cruel and violent incidents that the western mind would find hard to understand: especially that such things could be officially sanctioned, or at least tolerated, not only by the Taliban, but also, when politically expedient, by the Russians and Americans. But although very disturbing to the reader, those incidents are not treated graphically or gratuitously. Its not the physical horror being highlighted, but the human cost.

 It is a beautifully written, intellectually stimulating book with a compelling story, vivid in imagery and touching multiple senses while stirring the conscience. It ought to be read by every politician potentially in the position of committing troops to conflicts in foreign place.

 

 

 

Funny Girl, Nick Hornby

funny girl

Nick Hornby was another safe bet. Another author who could be trusted to help me out of the book-reading difficulties I had last year.

One of the appealing things about Funny Girl was its nostalgia; there were a lot of references to people and events from my childhood.

That element of nostalgia is also what appealed to me in the first Nick Horny book I read, Fever Pitch. That book brought back memories of attending football matches with my dad, standing on the terraces, mostly to see his favourite team, Derby County, but when the opportunity arose, to see my team, Stoke City.

And then there was the film adaptation of Fever Pitch starring Colin Firth. Scenes of him attending games and being physically carried along with the ebb and flow of surging spectators brought back experiences I’d forgotten of being part of similar football crowds.

With Funny Girl the nostalgia wasn’t quite so personally relevant. It brought back the flavour of an era (1960s England) rather than memories of my own experiences. The nostalgic familiarity was in the setting more than in the characters and their situations, possibly because I was much younger than the book’s characters when I lived through the 60s

I enjoyed Funny Girl, but perhaps not as much as previous Hornby books. For me the tone throughout remained too light. Even through potentially confrontational situations, there seemed to be little sense of real loss or grief, or any other strong emotional connection.

Earlier this week I mentioned to the readers of another blog that I was approaching the end of the book and said: “the thing that is standing out is the lack of any real difficulties in the character’s lives. Everything seems to fall into place easily for them and there’s been no real conflict. There’s still time I suppose, but if something like that happens in the remaining 50 pages I think it will be too much of a change of tone.”

An example of what I mean is the way the lead character Barbara chooses to move from Blackpool to London to chase her dream of emulating her heroine, Lucille Ball, by becoming a comic actress. In a very short time she is lucky enough to accidently cross paths with a theatre agent willing to support her until he finds her work. And very soon after finds herself in the right place at the right time with the right people, to become the star of a popular sitcom written specially around her.

And that’s the way it continues until the “remaining 50 pages” that I mentioned above. Around that point of the book the tone does change, but not harshly enough to grate with what came before. The lightness remains, but a degree of melancholy is added to the mix when we have the characters are brought into the present day, looking back at the successes or failures they’ve had throughout the years.

I felt that latter part of the book was more like the Hornby writing I’ve enjoyed in the past, where the ongoing humour is balanced with something a little darker that gives the story more emotional ambiguity. Until that final section, I felt the book lacked that depth.