Year of a Hundred books – #21 The Prague Cemetery

The Prague CemeteryThe Prague Cemetery, by Umberto Eco

4/5

I have mentioned before how much I love Umberto Eco. The depth and quality of his writing is above and beyond anything I could ever aspire to as a writer, and as an historian, the historicity of his work is the best I’ve ever come across (excepting maybe Hillary Mantel).

The Prague Cemetery is no exception to this rule, skilfully tying every conceivable anti-semitic, anti-masonic, and often, anti-Jesuit plot, scheme, or crisis from the late 19th century into one overarching conspiracy. Almost every character in the novel actually existed, the only main exception being the “Protagonist”, though Anti-Hero is most definitely a more appropriate title here. Even the main character’s uncle and the source of all his hatred is historically verifiable.

As with all of Eco’s books, amid the history and mystery, there is also an exploration of more abstract concept, such as identity, memory and sanity, done here in a typically skilful way; the character appears to be being visited each night by someone with very-but-not-quite-exactly similar thought to himself, who takes the time to write in his diary before fleeing. This could have been executed a bit more smoothly, it mostly becomes obvious long before the reveal, though the specifics still come as a bit of a shock, but in general, it acts as a good device to tie the book together.

The main downfall for the book is that because the protagonist and POV character is such a despicable creation, it does affect the reading of it. I don’t think I ever felt sympathy for him, though I can’t necessarily be certain of this fact, and I suppose that this may have been part of Eco’s intention. However, reading all of the bile and hatred that passed for the characters thoughts and personality made me feel as unclean and physically repulsed as I did while read Lolita. This doesn’t reflect poorly on the book itself, and indeed, as I say, it was likely Eco’s intention. But still, it did affect my appreciation of the novel, making it the first of Eco’s books that I wouldn’t rate at 5/5. I wouldn’t avoid reading it, but I’d definitely read one of his others, particularly The Name of the Rose or Baudolino first.

 

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Year of a Hundred books – #20 The Teleportation Accident

The Teleportation AccidentThe Teleportation Accident, by Ned Beauman (Read by Dudley Hinton)

1/5

When I was talking about audiobooks a few weeks ago, I made reference to the fact that the narrator can make or break a book, and the Teleportation Accident is a prime example of this!

My local Blackwell’s recently had a table dedicated to the books longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and though I didn’t have any money at the time, the Teleportation Accident’s cover caught my eye, and I after flicking through the first few pages, I thought that it sounded like a good read. A couple of weeks later, I found myself in the possession of a free-download from Audible.co.uk, so decided to give it a shot.

This was a mistake. The narrator stumbled over words, had only two emotions: bored or whiny, struggled with convincing female voices, and above all, has no talent for accents whatsoever, which I think is probably the main reason I hated he book so much. Some context: The first third of the book is set in Berlin, and with one exception, features exclusively German characters speaking German. The exception is an Englishman speaking German, with the same accent. I can (grudgingly) forgive this, because logistically it’s easier than having to have use different voices for the same characters when the language changes. However, when the action moves, first to Paris and then to California, the accents Hinton use border on parody, and make it very difficult to engage with the book, to the extent that by the time I got to the end of the first “side” as it were of the audiobook, I gave up and got the book out of the library.

This didn’t help matters that much, and despite how disappointed I was with the narration, a proportion of the blame must be attributed to the text itself. There are no likeable characters in the book, least of all Egon Loeser, the “protagonist”.  Politically oblivious in Weimar Germany, Loeser is a Neo-Expressionist set designer, and possibly the best example of the rich-&-arrogant-drama-person cliche I’ve ever come across, and certainly his obsession with the perfect Adele Hitler (no relation!) and his vintage French pornography makes him the most pathetic protagonist I’ve ever read. Neither of these are compliments. I suppose, it may be that Beauman is trying to make a point, much of Loeser’s philosophy is based on the idea of equivalence, that you can tell a story using historical characters, roles, and archetypes and still have it ring true today. But I feel I may be over thinking it. With subplots ranging from Quantum research in McCarthy-era Caltech to the doomed-to-fail quest of one of Loeser’s acquaintances to become part of the Lost Generation in Paris, the only one that really interested me was that of Loeser’s idol, the (fictional) 17th century set designer Adriano Lavacini, who may or may not have unleashed Lovecraftian horror upon Paris and Louis XIV in the titular accident. No matter how compelling it was, it gets lost amid all the others, and the final resolution is more than disappointing.

I think the one thing that The Teleportation Accident has in its favour is that Beauman’s descriptive prose can be phenomenal. Just read the opening paragraph:

When you knock a bowl of sugar on to your host’s carpet, it is a parody of the avalanche that killed his mother and father, just as the duck’s beak that your new girlfriend’s lips form when she attempts a seductive pout is a quotation of the quacking noise your last girlfriend made during sex. When the telephone rings in the night because a stranger has given a wrong extension to the operator, it is a homage to the inadvertent substitution of telegrams that terminated your adulterous cousin’s marriage, just as the resonant alcove between the counterpoised struts of your new girlfriend’s clavicle is a rebuttal to the apparent beauty of your last girlfriend’s fleshier decolletage.

It’s almost breathtaking, though it doesn’t quite make up for the deficiencies in plot and characterisation, based on the strength of this, I would probably read another of his books. However, it is yet another problem with the audiobook, as by the time the descriptive metaphor has finished, you’ve forgotten what the point of it was.

It may be that I’ve missed something, either through my own negligence or because of the appalling audiobook. Certainly most other people seem to think the book is great, but I just can’t get behind it.

Year of a Hundred books – #19 The Wheel of Time: A Memory of Light

The Wheel of TimeA Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
4/5

This post is very much a follow on from the other weeks’. Watching my girlfriend work her way through the 900 strong page book however weakened my resolve to listen to them all, and so, the morning after she finished, I began. The following morning, having done a six-hour shift at work and slept for a good seven hours, I finished it. I’m not necessarily proud of this feat, but I think it was worth it. That it’s taken me this long to write my review of it is a testament to how emotionally draining the book was (Alright, that’s a little bit of a lie. The emotional fatigue only lasted about a week. It’s mostly because I’ve been working a lot recently, and haven’t got round to posting.)

It wasn’t the best book in the series, not by a long shot, but it was a satisfying ending to the series. The final climax occurred in a way that very few people could have seen coming, and the tying-up-but-not-completely-closing of over 20 years of sub-plots was done very well. As I said, for nearly a week, I kept finding myself stopping what I was doing, struck with the realisation that various characters were dead. Not that I wouldn’t find out what had happened to those that survived, because, well, they were still alive and I needn’t worry. It’s weird.

This is all the more impressive, considering that while it would ordinarily be considered a testament to the author, in this instance, it was not the original author who completed the series. After Robert Jordan died in 2007, his widow and editor chose fantasy author Brandon Sanderson to finish the series. I’m pretty much in awe of Sanderson, as not only does he write phenomenal Fantasy books, he also writes them with an astonishing speed. Seriously, check out his output! So for him to have completed a trilogy of this length, with so many people invested in it, while still writing his own fiction, it’s an impressive thing.

There’s been a lot of controversy about the publication; mostly in that the eBook version will not be published until the end of April. The stated reason is that Harriet, Jordan’s wife, (who’s 82 years old btw, and thus can not necessarily be expected to have grasped the eBook zeitgeist), wants the book to top the NYT Bestsellers list, in tribute to her late husband.  I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this, because on the one hand, I do love my Kindle, but on the other, if we’re talking about convenience, paperbacks are more convenient than hardback, and they never come out at the same time.

What I know I don’t agree with is the hundreds of people who have been review-bombing the book on Amazon because of this, with no actual bearing for the quality of book. Or the people who, within a couple of days of the publication, had scanned the book and uploaded it online. And most especially not the people who have posted some horrific abuse of Harriet and her husband’s memory online.

As I said before, if you’ve not already read the Wheel of Time series, you’re not going to pick up the final, 14th installment, but for everyone that gave up on the series before now; it’s worth picking it back up, just for this ending!

Year of a Hundred books – #17-18 The Wheel of Time

The Wheel of TimeWinter’s Heart by Robert Jordan (read by Michael Kramer and Kate Reading)
5/5

Crossroads of Twilight by Robert Jordan (read by Michael Kramer and Kate Reading)
3/5

So, this time it’s something a little different. Part of the reason that posts have been a bit sparse lately is that most of the time I’d ordinarily have spent reading, I’ve actually been listening to audiobooks. Although I’d read the first 13 books in the series, in preparation for the publication of A Memory of Light, the 14th and final book in the epic fantasy Wheel of Time series, and to pass the time during my commute to university, I started to listen to the audiobooks. That was in November 2010, and by the time the last book was published on this past Tuesday, I’d only managed to make it up to book 10 (I had not been listening constantly by the way). What happened next is a story for another day.

As I said, this post is going to be a little different, as rather than reviewing the books as such, I’m going to be talking about them as audiobooks, and the medium in general. (That said, the ratings above do reflect the novels).

I’ve always been a fan of audiobooks. I was older than I care to admit before I stopped falling asleep to the sound of a good story, and had done for as long as I can remember (and when I was younger, usually after already having read a substantial amount of a book before turning the light out). It’s a good way to consume novels, and I’ve noticed while listening to the Wheel of Time, I often pick up on things that I hadn’t done previously. Not so much in terms of plot, but more subtle things, such as distinctive character voices and (unfortunately), overly florid or repetitive descriptions.

But then, there is an issue unique to the medium; that of abridgment. You’d never go to a bookshop, look at a book, and think “That looks too long but I still want to read it, I wish there was a shorter version”. Well, maybe some people would, but no one would ever pander to your wishes. I suppose it made sense in the era of audio cassettes, and I suppose even CDs, because you’d end up with situations like this, but to still see abridged books being sold in digital format is baffling to me. It’s not all bad. Tony Robinson (of Blackadder fame) has narrated all of Terry Pratchett’s back catalogue, and they’re fantastic, but it’s not quite the same. You still get the essence of the story, but because, generally speaking, plot is not removed, it’s all of the extra bits that make the writing worth reading. It baffles me.

This also tangentially moves me on to the issues of the narration. There are, as I’ve noticed, three main ways this can be approached. The standard version of a single narrator reading the whole text, then two narrators alternating depending on various conditions, and finally, full on dramatisation. All have their pros and cons, and I’ve heard good examples of each of them. Possibly my favourite example is the His Dark Materials trilogy, in which the third person narrator is the author, while all the character voices are provided by train theatrical actors. It’s fairly epic.

The Wheel of Time books have two narrators, one male, one female, who alternate based on the gender of the POV character. The biggest pitfall to me is their accents. Though both Michael Kramer and Kate Reading are good at providing distinct character voices, the accents underlining both of their voices is American. Even though there is no reason (despite Hollywood) to assume that the inhabitants of a fantasy world would speak with British accents, that is always going to be what I hear in my head, unless otherwise specified. (The American narrations of Harry Potter however, is just plain damn weird). So that was a problem when I first started listening to it, but about halfway through the first book, I managed to get over it.

There is also the problem of pronunciation. There can be a degree of forgiveness for variations in the way the two narrators say made-up words, but on some of the more complicated character names (The most prominent being, for the sake of example, Moghedien and Moiraine) the narrators do not pronounce them the same way twice in a row, let alone the same as their counterpart. It’s irksome enough that they don’t pronounce these the same way I had, but this is incredibly infuriating, and would be highly unhelpful if you didn’t already know who they were talking about.

The only other complaint I have with the narration of these books, is that sometimes, the narrators just straight up make mistakes. It’s forgivable. Each book is in excess of 250,000 words, but to suddenly hear a character who is a thousand miles away from the action show up to deliver a single line and promptly disappear again, is a little jarring… But this happens so rarely that it’s not really worth holding it against them.

The series as a whole is, in addition to being an amazing piece of fantasy literature (and despite what many naysayers will claim, worth putting the effort in to get past the weightier books), great fun to listen to in spite of the issues I’ve spoken of. I could probably rhapsodise for another thousand words on the pros and cons of audiobooks, and perhaps I may yet before the year is out, but I think I’ve said enough, for now.

Year of a Hundred Books – #16 Return to Akenfield

Return to AkenfieldReturn to Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village in the 21st Century,

by Craig Taylor

5/5

Okay, so I know I said that I wouldn’t write about any more history books, and technically I’m sticking to that. Return to Akenfield is in essence a journalistic look at life in 21st Century rural suffolk, and only becomes a piece of historical interest when compared to its parent book, Akenfield.
Written in 1969, the author Ronald Blythe (who features in Return to Akenfield conducted a series of interviews with people in a couple of farming villages (Akenfield itself is a fictional amalgamation), to create a picture of what life was like and had been like in this little corner of the world, one of the first pieces of Oral History to reach the mainstream consciousness (Predating the more famous work of Studs Turkel by about a year).
Much has changed in “Akenfield” since the 60s, almost beyond all recognition. I’m not one to mourn the passing of “the good old days”, but hearing farmers talking about the changes in their industry and their side of the debate on farming standards has made me think more about the role of supermarkets in society, and the problems they raise for the future.
I think, perhaps, Return to Akenfield isn’t as interesting as Akenfield, but that might just be my personal bias coming into it. Either way, they’re both fascinating reads for what they are.

Year of a Hundred books – #15 And The Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks

And The Hippos Were Boiled in Their TanksAnd The Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks,

by William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac

3/5

This rather morbidly (and irrelevantly) titled book tells a fictionalised story of the murder that launched the Beat Generation, a crime both authors were arrested in relation to, though neither were directly involved.

I’m not a huge fan of the Beats (aside from Allen Ginsberg), but this was quite compelling. Set during the Second World War, with two of the characters (one of whom is Burroughs’ alter-ego) invested in trying to enlist in the navy, it actually reminded me a lot of the last book I read all the way through (more on this in a future post). Of course, unlike Bellow’s existentially fraught protagonist, Burroughs and Kerouac’s peers are, as even the most limited knowledge of the Beats will imply, a feckless bunch of wasters.

Through as far as I can tell the first work Burroughs and Kerouac wrote, chronologically speaking, The book was published posthumously for both the authors and the perpetrator, though it is, according to the editor’s notes, far from the only interpretation of the events published by members of the group. These editors notes were actually almost as interesting as the novel itself, almost providing an element of closure to the story. While the fictionalised account ends fairly abruptly, the notes tells what happens next, and I think, some much-needed context that is absent from the novel.

I’m still unlikely to love either Kerouac or Burroughs writing simply because I enjoyed this, but I think this, early work that doesn’t quite have their signature styles, worth a read.