Year of a Hundred books – #11 Piercing

PiercingPiercing, by Ryu Murakami


I honestly don’t know what drove me to pick this up. The blurbs compare it to J.G.Ballard and David Lynch, both of whom’s work has always seemed a bit too… weird, for me to want to experience. The same can definitely be said for Piercing.
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Year of a Hundred books – #10 The Map and the Territory

The Map and the TerritoryThe Map and the Territory, by Michel Houellebecq


I’d never heard of Michel Houellebecq when I picked up The Map and the Territory, but while reading the blurb I was intrigued by the fact that the author himself appeared as a main character. It’s not a unique plot device by any means, but it was enough to make get my attention.
The protagonist, Jed Martin, is a formerly successful artist currently struggling in every area of his life: Family, Romance, Career, Central Heating, and chronicles his attempts to stage an exhibition of his most recent work. There’s also a lot of flashback to events over ten years previous, to set the context of what’s happening.
The story is engaging and Houellebecq’s portrayal of himself is certainly unique (for lack of any better way of putting it), and the translation from the French is quite good, with no confusing idioms or odd choices of words. However, the biggest problem I had was that the foundation of the book is satire, both of the artistic community and of the author himself, which as with Maskerade, I feel as though I might have enjoyed it more, had I been more familiar with the subjects. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it, but knowing that it was satirical, I kept wondering if the things I was taking at face actually had a deeper point that I was missing, and evoking self-doubt is never a particularly desirable quality in  book. At least, not in that sense.
I suppose the most I can say is that while I probably won’t rush out to read more of Houellebecq’s work, I also wouldn’t actively avoid them if I saw them in the library. 

Year of a Hundred books – #9 The Red Pony

The Red PonyThe Red Pony, by John Steinbeck


In some ways, I feel a bit cheated by this book, mostly because I didn’t realise that it was supposed to be a children’s book. Yes it’s short, and yes I picked it up because I remember that it was one of the books that Roald Dahl’s Matilda read, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s aimed at children. Especially since the edition I read was published by Penguin, rather than Puffin, their children’s imprint.

At the same time however, I’d say I probably enjoyed it more than the other Steinbeck books I’ve read (Of Mice and Men for school, and an attempt at The Grapes of Wrath). It’s yet another coming of age/adolescence story (I really need to find something else to read, it’s beginning to look like I have a problem!), set on a timeless ranch in California’s Salinas Valley. Rather than being one overarching narratives, it’s more like a series of short stories depicting events in the early teenage years of Jody Tiflin, as he comes to terms with the fact that life isn’t as a clean-cut as it seems when you’re a child.

Steinbeck’s description is, as ever, breathtaking, and his prose is a joy to read. The book of course, lacks a lot of the depth and commentary that his more adult works thrive on, (the only reason this is a 4, and not 5 rating) but it’s to be expected, and The Red Pony is a good, quick, example of a master writer.

Year of a Hundred books – #8 The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

The Prime of Miss Jean BrodieThe Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark


It was the thought that I don’t read enough Scottish literature, which led me to pick this book up on my wander round the library yesterday, and now that I’ve read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I think I’ve probably filled my quota for a while.

Although Edinburgh’s literary scene is now more likely to be identified as belonging to Ian Rankin, Irvine Welsh, or Alexander McCall Smith (or even worse, J.K. Rowling!), I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that better portrays a place than Brodie does of the area in which I live. It’s not so much about the place, Morningside and Merchiston are only mentioned once, and most of the recognisable action takes place either on Cramond, in the Braids, or the Royal Mile. (Confused yet? Don’t worry, here’s a map!). What makes this book so thoroughly Edinburgh is the character of Miss Jean Brodie herself. A junior school teacher, She’s domineeringly middle-class, judgemental, very concerned with appearances, and implacably arrogant.

That’s why she’s so frustrating, both for me, and for the people that encounter her. While the story is about Miss Brodie, it’s told through the eyes of “The Brodie Set”, six girls that she had adopted as her personal coterie. While Miss Brodie’s characterisation is clearly defined and expanded by dialogue and the plot, most of what we find out about the Set is told to us directly by the narrator. The only real exceptions are Sandy, the closest the novel comes to a protagonist, and Mary Macgregor, whom everyone despises (but is still, inexplicably part of this elite group of individuals). 

Immediately after I finished the book, which had taken me a bit less than two hours, my girlfriend asked in astonishment how High School English classes managed to drag it out over seven weeks. My somewhat dismissive response was that it’s the sort of book that the English Literature curriculum loves to dissect. It has a non-linear narrative, a unique authorial voice, social context, Historical context, and, in a twisted way, it’s about adolescence and coming of age.

After having slept on it, I realised that while I really didn’t like the book, any of its characters, or its narrative style, that doesn’t stop it from being a good book in a technical sense. Miss Brodie’s downfall in the eyes of her most loyal students as they age is, I suppose, the main thrust of the novel, and it is executed well. However, there is enough that is wrong with this book that even this realisation, and its excellent portrayal of a certain part of Edinburgh society, cannot make me say I liked it.

Year of a Hundred books – #7 Hawksbill Station

Hawksbill StationHawksbill Station, by Robert Silverberg


It seems I just can’t keep away from genre fiction. While I know that Silverberg is a big name in Sci-fi circles, Hawksbill Station (also titled The Anvil of Time) is the first of his novels, and th

e second title in his bibliography that I’ve read. The only other thing, the short story of the same title that this book is based on, I read about two years ago and promptly fell in love with.

Hawksbill Station, is what One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich would have been if Solzhenitsyn had been into speculative fiction. In common with Radio Free Albemuth, the catalyst for the plot is a conservative take over of the US Government. This government, which is too benign to muddy its hands with capital punishment, has harnessed the power of time-travel to send its most dangerous opponents back to the Precambrian Era and leaving them to their own devices. The protagonist, Jim Barrett, is the undisputed king of the station and a former counter-revolutionary leader. While there is a lengthy back story for Barrett (the only real change from the original short story) which details his life before the Station, this could be interchanged with almost any 1960s pulp conspiracy story. Instead it is the “Present Day” story which depicts the struggles of isolation in a novel setting that makes this worth reading. As the story opens, Barrett is suffering from a crippling leg injury, chronically aware of the fact all of his old comrades are either dead or insane, and despairing of his mortality. As a character study and exploration on a theme, its one of the most effective I’ve ever read, and the time travel element is mostly just a framing device for this. While it is, obviously, Science Fiction, the way time travel is treated, it could just as easily be the Trans-Siberian Railway, or a boat that takes the men to Antarctica, as it’s only role is as a way of facilitating the characters isolation.

To be honest, the secondary plot doesn’t add much to the story other than context, and I while there are a few variations on the theme, it’s by and large generic stuff, which is the only thing keeping this from being a 5/5. At a push, I’d recommend seeking out the short story over the full novel, just because it’s better paced, but this was still a good read, and both quick and easy for a lazy afternoon.

Year of a Hundred books – #6 The Chosen

The Chosen,by Chaim Potok


Nu, for the first time in My Year of 100 Books, I’ve given a book Five Stars. (Is it tacky to reference/imitate the book’s narrative style in reviews? I can never decide). The Chosen tells the story of the unlikely friendship between two teenage, Jewish, New Yorkers.

In the brief and almost entirely spoiler-free (yes, really!) introduction, the commentator says during his youth, different people told him The Chosen was about different things, and then gives his own conclusion:

“In grade school, they told me it was about Judaism. […] In middle school, they told me it was about the Holocaust. […] In high school, they told me it was about Zionism.

But The Chosen, […] is primarily about fathers. And about sons. And about fathers and sons”

This is perhaps the best way to explain the novel, as while it does feature the first three options very heavily, at its heart it is about the relationships of the two protagonists with their fathers, and each other’s fathers.

Even if it is about fathers and sons, as I say, the other three subjects are integral to the telling of that story. If you’re interested in Judaism, particularly Orthodox and Hasidism, this is the best introduction I’ve ever come across. It’s explanatory, but all the theology is well blended into the narrative, which is something that’s so often lacking in religiously oriented fiction. It assumes a basic knowledge of Judaism, and almost everything is easy to pick up from context. It also gives a good narrative history of the founding of Israel, and most powerfully, a fantastic portrayal of how American Jews reacted to the revelations of the Holocaust.

If The Chosen has a downfall, it’s that sometimes it gets a bit repetitive, with characters having the same conversations, or snippets of dialogue, more than once, particularly towards the end. This gets a little tedious, especially since everything else that’s going on in regards to plot is so interesting, but that really is my only fault with the story.

The copy, on the other hand, is a different matter. As I mentioned in my post on proof-reading, the version I read (Penguin Modern Classics, as pictured above), is not perfect. In addition to the misspelling of Hasidim, I noticed one or two further errors later in the book. It’s not a big deal, I suppose, but my opinion of Penguin has gone down slightly, and I’d definitely think twice about buying another book in the Modern Classics imprint, despite their aesthetically pleasing covers.

Despite these flaws, I’d still recommend The Chosen wholeheartedly.

Fiction: Fifteen Stories, ≤ Fifteen Words

“I disagree.”
“Yes, he said.”
The cat watched, bemused.
“What should I do?” “Forget.”
“Why are you wearing that hat?”
“Do you think someone died in this?”
“You’re leaving me?” “I was never with you.”
“I used to love this one,” Rebecca said sadly.
He climbed onto the bed and finally closed his eyes.
The flames were so warm, he had to remove his coat.
“For the first time a Venusian artist is the UK Number 1.”
The last time I saw my mother was the day I started nursery.
Suddenly I realised that I was the Monica to his Chandler, not the Joey.
“How can people think that he represents people like us? He’s only got two arms!”