Year of a Hundred books – #37 Homer and Langley

Homer and LangleyHomer and Langley, by E.L. Doctorow


When I lived in Glasgow, my local library had a section dedicated to the quirky and alternative books. This is quite a broad genre, and thus it included anything from Proust to Vonnegut to Bukowski. One day, on a whim, I picked up The Book of Daniel by E.L. Doctorow, which was a fictionalised story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, told from the point of view of their son years after their executions. I really enjoyed that, so when by chance I saw Homer and Langley in my new local library, I was quite keen to read it.

To say that now I wish I hadn’t would be a bit of an exaggeration, but it definitely failed to live up to my hopes. Like The Book of DanielHomer and Langley is a fictionalised take on a true story, this time the titular Collyer Brothers, a pair of reclusive hoarders who apparently became something of local celebrities in Harlem in the first half of the 20th Century. Extending their lives into the ’70s, rather than the ending them in the ’40s, Doctorow manages to paint an interesting picture of the major societal changes that took place between in the decades after the First World War.

Except he doesn’t really. Aside from a brief involvement with the burgeoning Harlem Jazz movement, and the Japanese Internments of the Second World War, The only time that the brothers interact with the rest of the world in any meaningful sense is during the 60s when they unwittingly become gurus to a crowd of hippies that reads much more like a parody than with any sense of

You do get a sense of the degradation of their lives over the years; Homer goes blind within the first few pages, and not long after that, Langley is victim of a mustard gas attack on the western front, around about the time that their parents fall victim to the Spanish Flu. They then spend the next 60 years accumulating tonnes of junk and clutter, slowly but inexorably filling their town house to the brim. Except, you don’t really get a sense of this for most of the book. As the narrator, Homer, is blind, it’s forgivable that there are perhaps not visual descriptions of the clutter, but the ease with which he describes his movements within the house don’t really give an indication of a living space full of old newspapers, pianos, typewriters, plant pots, bikes, motor cars and all manner of other flotsam and jetsam. At times there are passing references, but until the final chapters, I just didn’t get a feel for their defining gimmick through the text.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe Doctorow wasn’t aiming for this as the main thrust of his novel and I’ve missed the point of the book. But still, in comparison to the depths and subtleties of the Book of Daniel, Homer and Langley just doesn’t even come close.

Year of a Hundred Books – #34 The Valley Under the Cross

The Valley Under the CrossThe Valley Under the Cross, by David Bruce


I’m not entirely sure why I decided to read this book. Or rather, I am sure, but in hindsight I don’t know why it seemed like a good idea. Every year or so, my secondary school sends out a newsletter to all of its alumnus. Mostly full of obituaries, old photos of the school, and updates on what various graduates are doing now, in the most recent issue there was an excerpt from an edition of the school magazine from 1950, celebrating the publication of one of the Old Boys’ début novel. The book is described as being the story of what would have happened in the Oberammergau Passion Play had been performed during the Second World War, rather than being postponed as it was in real life. Having a passing interest in the story, I decided, on a whim to buy it for cheap online.

There are a lot of flaws in the book; the plot is appalling clichéd and formulaic all the positive characters are practically sanctified already, all the antagonists are evil (apart from the one morally ambiguous character the protagonist falls in love with), women are not Nazis, even when they are, and most of all the writing is abrupt and lacking in subtlety.

That said, is it right to criticise this book for that? There is a historiographical debate known as “Presentism“, which basically states that you can’t necessarily judge people in the past according to today’s morality. Usually it’s applied to atrocities like Slavery, but I think it’s actually applicable for this book. As much as I’d like to condemn this book for the faults listed above, am I really justified in criticising a book written in the 1940s for an unbalanced portrayal of Nazis? I should be thankful that it does actually depict any Germans in a positive light. As for the quality of the prose? Well, it was hardly high class literature in the first place, and just because it’s dated, that shouldn’t draw further criticism.

But somehow, I can’t help myself. I suppose I might have enjoyed it better if it had been written today and thus was more in line with today’s literary techniques, (oh, and if my copy hadn’t been missing 20 pages in the middle! The fact I was able to finish the book does say something about the formula I suppose)  but I might not have done.

However, one thing does strike me, which is the fact that (unless anyone reading this inexplicably feels inspired to seek out this book), I’ll probably be one of the last person ever to read it, which feels quite odd really…

Year of a Hundred books – #27 HHhH

HHhHHHhH, by Laurent Binet


Wow. I absolutely loved this book. It’s also caused me to fundamentally rethink a number of key philosophies about historical novels.

Because HHhH is most emphatically not historical fiction. In fact, it’s not fiction at all. Binet explicitly states that he finds the concept of creating fictional characters, dialogue and situations excessively vulgar (Here taking a cue from another author whose work I’ve loved; Milan Kundera), and thus in his depiction of the assasination of the SS second in command Reinhard Heydrich, Binet includes nothing that isn’t historically verifiable. (That said, the historian in me notices he rarely cites his sources academically!)

This leads to an interesting novel that is at times more concerned with the authorial process of research, editing, and at times, obsession over the topic, than it is with the topic itself.

It’ll be interesting to see how Binet follows this up, and indeed whether the book is sincere, or if the ‘author’ we read about in the book, is actually a constructed persona instead of reflecting Binet’s actual beliefs.

Either way, I cannot recommend this enough!

Year of a Hundred books – #23 The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and DisappearedThe Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson


To begin with, I really liked The Hundred-Year-Old Man…. I’m a fan of a number of authors in the current wave of Swedish Crime, particularly Henning Mankell’s Wallander series, and from the beginning this book read like an amusing satire of this genre. It had most of the recognisable tropes: an atypical protagonist (although Allan Karlsson, the titular centenarian is certainly no Lisbeth Salander), racist Biker Gangs, corpses ending up in obscure African countries, and police following seemingly incomprehensible trails, misinterpreting vital information while having to deal with obstructive central bureaucracy and the media. There were even interesting and entertaining flashbacks to Allan’s early life.

Then, about a quarter of the way through the book, it started to get silly.

If you think about Forrest Gump, and the way he casually and obliviously blunders into all the major events of the 1960s and 70s, but still manages to be heart warming because the story telling is so innocent. The Hundred-Year-Old Man… is the exact opposite. It’s so smugly self-aware that as Allan blunders from contrived meeting to contrived meeting, getting by on little more than his fondness for alcohol and vague smile, I just wanted to scream at him. The ‘present day’ story also begins to become a little incredible before long, as each and every person he encounters, regardless of whether they had been trying to kill him or arrest him, magically falling in love with his charm and agreeing to follow him to the ends of the earth.

Which would have been fine if it was only occasionally, but it happened so frequently, it got both annoying and unbelievable before the book was even half over.

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


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.

Year of a Hundred books – #14 Dangling Man

Dangling ManDangling Man, by Saul Bellow


Set in 1942, Dangling Man is not so much a traditional story as it is a character study of a man with no direction and too much time on his hands. Joseph, is young married man who, due to his immigrant status hindering his attempts to enlist in the US Army, has been left in a Chicagoan limbo.With nothing to do, and no one to talk to, Joseph begins to unravel. In fits of ennui, he lashes out at his friends, his relations, and his wife, and while he does feel remorse, this doesn’t stop it from happening again and again.

Continue reading “Year of a Hundred books – #14 Dangling Man”

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.