Friday, 28 December 2012

End of the World Dystopian Read - The Age of Miracles

I wanted to like this book. I had heard so many good things about it. The unquestionable Jennifer Byrne had it even listed it in her top 5 reads for 2012. So I was sorely disappointed when I just did not care.

The premise for the story is that the Earth is slowly beginning to stop rotating. And then the book was supposed to look at the consequences that then occurred because of the lengthening of the days. Such as crops being unable to grow, how to make society function to a time, etc.

When it was first announced that this was occurring  the days had already extended by 90 mins. I'm not sure how no one had noticed this yet, unless it had occurred incredibly suddenly. But this book does not let science get in the way of a story.

Explanations? Pfft!
Physics? Not needed!

Let me list the issues:
1. Earth slows down rotating. No one knows why. At least they seem slightly perplexed about this.
2. Gravity changes. While not scientifically inaccurate, no one seems bothered by this, except soccer balls and birds.
3. The Magnetic field buggers up and disperses somewhat. Life carries on and no one cares. Well... we would be stuffed. Dead in fact. We could not go out in the sun full stop. The kids getting a nasty case of sunburn is ridiculous. They would have extreme radiation poisoning closely and quickly followed by death. And it's not just the sun people. Cosmic radiation anyone? But we will conveniently forget all about that. Also, without the magnetic field, the solar wind would strip away the Ozone layer. You know. Just minor inconveniences.
4. The Auroras are everywhere. Lies. You can't have an aurora with no magnetic field. It's the solar wind charging particles in the field! How can you... just... nevermind.
5. Things are better in Mexico at the equator. No. Just no. It would be the opposite, at the Poles things would be better, but as highlighted above, I actually just think you're fucked no matter where on Earth you are.
6. Trying not to spoil here, the book goes for about 9 months when the day goes from 24 hours to about 60 hours. The last couple of pages suggest either something has been fixed, or a reality which could not exist. With nothing mentioned at all. Suspend critical thinking people!

Now do not get me wrong. Science fiction you have to break some rules. Obviously. However, I want you to explain it to me. Even if it is "we have this thing but it means everything works". I can deal with that. But don't break the laws of the universe willy-nilly and don't explain anything. Or don't not understand physics and hope that no one notices. And don't do it repeatedly! To quote Terry Pratchett "the rule in science fiction is you are allowed one impossible thing," If you do more, and do it badly, you look like a knob.

You know what though, I could overlook some if not all of the scientific cluster-fuck that is above if the story or characters were likeable. They weren't. Julia, the girl who is our narrator, isn't too bad. And her love interest Seth too. But I just could not care. It was a young adult novel with a cataclysm involved, but it didn't really matter. It was ridiculous. The world is ending and I'm listening to an 11 - 12 year old worrying about whether a boy likes her or not, or why doesn't she get to go to the popular girls party. Seriously?

It wasn't a good coming of age story, it wasn't a good dystopian apocalypse story. It had a decent idea that was not all that terrible to read, just frustrating. I again feel like it was a young-adult book as she didn't have the knowledge or the story for an adult one. So lets write it half-arsed, and publish it as a young adult book. Gosh that makes me angry.

It also had a self-indulgent section at the back of the book that explained the type the book was written in, which just opened itself up to more criticism, as it wasn't the lively read the type was supposed display. All in all, Jennifer and I will be having words.




Lexx says that if you all want to read a good sci-fi dystopia with well based science in it, we should all go read Anathem. While debriefing to him before posting, he was adamant I gave you all a good book to read.

The Windup Girl - #24


When I started this challenge, I asked on Facebook for recommendations from other countries that people had read. I had Danish and Swedish friends recommending lots of Scandinavian lit, Czech friends providing opinions on a large range of European lit, Sri Lankian friends suggesting relevant selections, language students from all over suggesting other texts, linguist friends recommending everything! But the one that sparked my interest the most was a quiet suggestion to read this book, set in Thailand.

Reading the review there were a few things that sparked my interest. Hugo award winning always a plus. Steampunk huge win. Dystopia also a good sign. But the Thailand thing confused me. Why on earth Thailand? Why would that work? I need to read this!!

So I did, and am so very, very glad my friend Dennis told me too. 


The book is set about 100 years in the future. Everything that is a possibility now has gone wrong. Climate change, rising sea levels, near exhaustion of fossil fuels, genetic engineering and the subsequent control of food sources through corporations. Incredibly close to reality and then taken that step further. A good dystopia for me is one that is completely within the realms of possibility that terrifies you slightly. And makes you reconsider your choices. This book did that for me.

So the Thailand connection is that the Kingdom of Thailand is one of the best placed countries after the Expansion (what we are in now) and then the subsequent Contraction. They also closed and then strictly monitored their borders and limited imports as so to keep plagues and diseases out of the country. So far it worked. There was a lot of tech explanation at the beginning of this book to explain the world, what had happened and how it worked. There is very, very limited fossil fuels for example so explaining how the factories work with genetically engineered elephants (megadonts) winding large spindles, and hand-crank radios back in vogue and such. Be prepared to stick with it, but the book I feel is worth it.

The story otherwise was fascinating. The idea of a Windup Girl and her issues, problems and trials where great. I really liked Emiko herself as well. I emphasised a lot with her. While some of the scenes with her were possibly unnecessary they really made me understand her story's climax. And cheer her on!! Maybe this makes me a horrible, callous person, but as a true Aussie, I love an underdog.

The character of Hock Seng, while he really annoyed me at times as a person, I felt for him and his story as a refugee. He is Malaysian-Chinese, and in this world all ethnic Chinese ended up being driven from Malaysia, as the vast majority of them were ethnically cleansed. "Driven" I mean escaped. The refugees are called Yellow Cards in Thailand and are second class citizens. The story of Malaya and the Green Headbands is not again unimaginable with the rise of extremists of all different types of religions, especially in SE Asia. The interaction between the Malayan Chinese and the Thais I found heartbreaking. The contempt and thinly veiled malice was a little too true to home. The control through labels and cards. I worry as the last two governments in Australia have had such terrible policies on refugees that this is not such a dystopian future for us, it may be tomorrow... That is one of the truly terrifying parts of this book.

Otherwise, I really enjoyed going into Kanya's story and her own back story and where she had ended up. She and Jaidee were a welcome surprise as they aren't mentioned any where I found as main characters, yet they really are. At 500pp though, we needed a few more main characters. These guys provided the story beautifully.

For me, the book ticked all the boxes. Good story. Disconcerting, realistic dystopia. The essence of Thailand with the heat, humidity and mangosteens (yum yum yum). Read it

Monday, 3 December 2012

Anna Karenina - #23

I don't know what to think of this book. It's a conundrum.

It is brilliantly written. Hands down, no arguments at all. It is immersive and, just, well... beautiful. I was sitting on my back steps the other day  in the blazing Canberra spring (spring can be blazing here, trust me). I was leaning up against the brick wall, sitting on the concrete, with a view of the Brindabella mountains and a gin and tonic as it was so warm, with magpies singing and cockatoos squarking around me. But for the first time I could remember in a very long time, I was so sucked into the writing I felt like I was in a dingy Muscovite hotel, in winter in 1870 or so. The only thing that brought me back was a chicken jumping into my lap. I was astounded, once I had recovered from my confusion and slight shock from a big black chook snuggling into me.

Because of this, I wanted to keep on reading. But I wanted to keep on reading something worth reading. Tolstoy reminds me of a brilliant painter, who only paints still life. While the technique and result is breathtaking, you can't help get over the fact they have only painted a bowl of fruit. Over and over again.

Now don't get me wrong, some of the characters Tolstoy creates are fantastic. I shouldn't of loved Oblonsky but I did. I thought he was wonderful. I liked Anna right until the end. Then she went all weird. Even Vronsky I grew to like, although I didn't find him attractive (too many moustaches and bald spots for me).

But the story... You do want to know what happens to Anna and whether she gets everything to work or not  (although Russian novel should indicate that to you at the start). But if I hear one more thing about hunting or farming I think I will scream. I know that Tolstoy had all these great ideas and that this was how gentleman passed them on to the masses if they couldn't write an interesting essay. Whack a story around your philosophy! But sometimes I think he was trying to be too clever (like the 3 pages inside the mind of the dog. Slightly left field...) or too preachy (the entire last part with Levin).

However, his ability to completely convey what is happening inside peoples' minds is pretty remarkable. Anna's ... how to say this non-spoilery... "journey" at the end of the book while perfectly conveys that way of thinking, however a little too well as I just wanted to shake her and yell "Pull yourself together woman!!" I didn't like her at the end of the book. But I think because she was so real and believable and there is a reason I am not a practising psych.

There was much that I missed with this book, which is fair enough really at over 800pp. Watching this episode of the First Tuesday Book Club again after finishing the book highlighted this (sorry I can't find a youtube link to this one). Thank you Richard Flanagan for explaining the doctor in Kitty's bedroom scene in a way my mind never went to. Makes complete sense, that the doctor may have been, umhum... "servicing" her, in 1870 or there abouts, I just never made the leap (the man has read the book too many times, or enough times I guess).

Back to my conundrum. I didn't love the story, so I want to give it a 3. But I loved the writing, so I want to give it a 4. But 3.5, doesn't sit well with me. But it is the diplomatic thing to do. Also, it looks like the movie has cut out Levin and Kitty completely. I was wondering how they were going to make it 2.5 hours long. Anyway, compromising with 3.5 horrible Jude Law moustaches.


Thursday, 22 November 2012

The Cypress Tree - #22

I will preface this post by saying I did check all the screws on my chair before starting.

I thought this book was a novel. It's not. It was a bit of a disappointment. Not the book as a whole. Just when you settle down to read a story and you know, you have a doona and a glass of wine and you've suspended your disbelief and are ready to be transported. Then 10 pages in you just go "Well, fuck." I don't dislike memoirs. I just prepare for them differently to novels. And as I have read a few lately I was ready for story land. While it wasn't the books fault, I felt like I had been slightly tricked into attending a function, and was then stuck up the front where it was just too awkward to leave.

Besides starting the book with the feeling that someone's great aunt has noticed my uncomfortableness and then daring me to leave with their crazy, judging, old lady eyes, it was not too bad. It was the story of the last hundred years or so of Iran through the stories of this woman and her family. She is an exile from Iran after the Islamic Revolution to the UK, and then tells the story of her family as she sort of rediscovers it,  as she shunned it as a teenager in London in the 80s.

It provided a good insight into the history of Iran. She's a journo and so it makes it an accessible read. It explains how Iran has ended up how it is. While she is not a sympathiser with the Islamic Revolution at all, she does explain sympathetically how the country ended up how it is, and points out the benefits and dichotomies of the laws and the actions of the country and especially it's people.

What astounded me was that once again the meddling West (those meddling kids) once again played god with a country that they had no claim over, but then the country decided to stand up to the two big powers in the world and say "Nope, our stuff. Give us a fair price you bastards!". And so they, the West, overthrew a government through CIA and MI6 funding. And what did that do? It gave a little known religious leader in a small town a taste of power and money and a little bit of fame. He also then got exiled himself from Iran by the reinstated Shah, growing his infamy and followers over time. This guy? Oh you know, only Ayatollah Khomeini. The guy who lead the Islamic Revolution and made the most liberal Middle Eastern country the most concerning one. Good work (morons).

The issue of women's rights was really interesting too though. Women had the same rights for divorce in Iran as the men before the Revolution. They could work, study and dress in "wonderful" 70s fashion, miniskirts and all. While it is true now they can still study and work, this was banned for a while, then reinstated and now has resulted in this bullshit.They also had the legal marrying age for women at 18. Then they all revolted and such, had to rebuild their country from scratch and engaged in a war with their neighbours (Iraq). So first thing they changed? First? Women's rights and reduced the marrying age for women to 9. I do not comprehend. I cannot fathom a world that women are so feared, so needed to be controlled. I mean, ours is still pretty bad, but what kind of man gets into power and has war, famine, no public services, and no government to deal with and goes, "You know what's wrong with this country? I can't marry a 12 year old girl." Seriously?

All of that aside, I could have strangled the author more than once when she was all blah blah this happened blah blah and then the revolution happened but my auntie such and such cooked this wonderful thing with rose petals and let me tell you about that. Really? I'm sure you family is fantastic, but you know. Revolution. Kinda trumps dinner. And she was really disjointed at the beginning. I just wanted her to stick with one family or one person instead of jumping around. And maybe it was because I had problems with the names and keeping everyone straight. But I just felt she was like a 3 year old full of red cordial until half way through.

All being said and done, 3.5. I learnt a fair bit, but also felt like I was dealing with a kid with ADD again for the first 100pp. She does calm down, and you get a better understanding of what is happening. But a lot of people wouldn't stick with her.




And now I am on to some fiction!! I think December I may get a little distracted away from my Around the World quest as I have a few other books for a couple of things calling me. But I will come back if I stray.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

In the Time of Butterflies - #21

I got distracted again by life. It really needs to stop getting in the way like that. Last book that was half read on the plane and half in a jet-lagged state was In the Time of Butterflies. This poor book got a bit more love than I would like, as I'm pretty meticulous with my books, as I had a mother of a cold on the plane and sneezed, causing me to wave my hands in the air like a numpty, which then collected my G&T and doused my lap and my book in too much tonic and not enough gin. At least I missed the two unfortunate women sitting next to me...

Besides the wiggly and alcoholic state of the book, I actually liked the book. I am hesitant when there are a few narrators and they they use diaries to describe their life events etc. But this book balances it beautifully. It has first person narration, scribbles in personal diaries as well as third person observations about the

....

This post was briefly interrupted by the fact that I tried to shift my weight on my computer chair by leaning on one arm and moving my body. At this stage all the screws holding the chair to the frame fell out on the left hand side of the chair, propelling me over the right hand arm rest I was leaning on and landing on my head on the floor. I have now spent 10 minutes finding the appropriate allen key to screw in all the screws again and am back in business.

....

dictatorship of the Dominican Republic under Trujillo, and the story of the 4 Mirabel sisters and their attempts through the Underground, where they were collectively known as the Las Mariposas (the butterflies), to overthrow him.

Who am I kidding? I am not going to recover this post!

Good book, well written, nice introduction albeit fictionally into the world of dictatorships in Central America.


Wednesday, 7 November 2012

What the Day Owes the Night - #20

Next!

Moving on from the wintry and chilling images of supernatural Muscovites, I picked up this novel of the Algerian revolution. The story starts with a boy called Younes, an Algerian boy, witnessing his family losing his family's lands. After a steep decline from that point onwards, his father ends up asking his uncle who has been educated in the West and married to a French woman, to look after Younes and raise him as his own. Younes then becomes Jonas, as he moves from a life of a poor Arab boy to one of wealth and privilege within the educated and colonial elite in Algeria.

We then follow Jonas as he then negotiates the world where his ethnic group is viewed as only servants and possessions, and while these downtrodden people are plotting to take Algeria back for the Algerians. He then has to deal with the consequences of teenage passion, as well as meeting a beautiful girl who drives his group of friends apart. Girls trump ethnic uprisings as deal breakers. Apparently.

I picked this book up now as it was the October read for a group on African Lit. But the benefit of reading it while I was travelling, was I ended up reading it while I was in Paris, and Algeria was colonised by the French. I think this helped the mood somewhat. Ignoring that the book was in the desert and it was 8 degrees in Paris, the Frenchness oozed through into the book.

Otherwise, as I know not everyone is as lucky to be able to read this in Paris, it was a wonderfully written book. But it was accessibly beautiful. Not like reading a book of poetry. It was able to transport you to feel like you were lying on an African Mediterranean beach, even if you were sitting in a freezing cold, open Parisian train station where the French do not believe in seats and so you have to perch on top of your suitcase for 2 hours... >.> ... /end rant.

Also, you could feel the split poor Jonas was feeling between his background and supporting his people (including his family) and maintaining the status quo. I wonder if I ended up feeling this more acutely than the character did in the end. As if I was projecting my own emotions, and ignoring his slightly. But to throw his lot in with the revolution could have separated Jonas from everything that was now his life. That must be heartbreaking.

What I did have a problem with was the romance. I didn't buy the dilemma. I'm sorry. I didn't get it. Therefore, sympathy for decisions made in this regard just wasn't there. And seeing it was what half the book was about, that just annoyed me. So due to that annoyance of the story, it took me down to a 3.5. I'm sure other people won't be as annoyed, but it just detracted from the rest of the book to be annoyed with half the story.


Night Watch - #19


I’m so behind on my reviews! I decided not to review all my overseas reading at once like I did in June, but this means I’m reading faster than I am reviewing and not catching up! So I think I need to throw that idea out the window.

So, Night Watch. This was going to be my Russian read. Then I had the brilliant idea of reading Anna Karenina as my Russian read (which I haven’t finished yet), and as Sergei Lukyanenko was born in a part of the USSR that is now Kazakhstan, this became my Kazakhstani read instead. Brilliant playing of the system, however confusing when all the stories are set in Moscow.

I say stories as the book is pretty much 3 stories of around 150pp each, featuring the same characters and building on the events of the story before it. I loved it. It was a play on the supernatural domains that I hadn’t read before, with a distinctly European twist. It had magic and wizards and such, but without the kitchness that the fantasy genre tends to fall into.

The basic premise is that there is light and dark magic. When one finds out they are a magic user, or Other, they have to make a choice between whether they are light or dark. But there is more to it than it seems, as a lot of the time it comes down to the circumstances that the person is in the first time they enter the Twilight (the magical realm). Ie, you’re in a bad mood, you may end up on the dark side because of that, not because you are inherently bad.

Light and Dark are in a permanent truce with each other. In order to police this truce, we have the Night Watch of light magicians who monitor the Dark, the Day Watch who are dark magicians who monitor the Light, and the Inquisition who monitor and police them both. This book was stories about, funnily enough, the Night Watch (the second in the series is conveniently called the Day Watch and confusingly the third is called Twilight Watch so not sure on that one).

I wanted to read this book badly after we had heard such good things about it in Aus, and then they released the movie before any of us had read the book. And the movie was shocking. Absolutely appalling. Which meant even more that we had to read the book. There is no way this acclaimed book could have been that bad.

It wasn’t, it was great. The movie it turns out is based just on the first of the three stories. This meant that the characters where pretty underdeveloped in the movie. Turns out, because you have another 350pp in the book to get to know them. The strange reasoning in the movie gets explained in the book. Another reason why some books are just better left as books.

The moral to this particular story is to pretend the movie doesn’t exist. It’s how we get on with our lives. So pretend the movie never happened and read the book. The book has a wonderful spin on light and dark, good and evil, highlighting the fact that they are sometimes blurred, incomprehensible and indistinguishable, even to those inside the system. 4 stars.

Friday, 2 November 2012

An African In Greenland - #18


I loved the thought of this book when I heard about it. The idea that a young African boy learns about a place like Greenland and then runs off to live there. It’s so ridiculous and yet so fantastical.

That’s the story of Michel. He grew up with his father’s family on the coast of Togo and starts with a lovely whimsical illustration of his life there, starting with an encounter with a snake up a coconut tree. There was something so jovial and carefree about the stories of him in Africa, first in Togo and then as he journeys to Greenland, through the entire north-west of Africa earning money, in to Europe and beyond.

The thing that starts being apparent during this journey is that Michel is a very privileged African boy. He has been schooled and knows a couple of languages (benefit of Togo being an ex-French colony of course). But this seems to have made his transition through Europe and ability to get jobs much easier.  Lucky him of course, but it starts to draw away from his “typical” African boy image.

I really liked the book and was recommending it to everyone, until I got to Greenland.

Now the book wasn't bad from Greenland on. However it began to take on this air of condescending judgement. Michel wasn't happy with the people he found in Greenland. He didn't approve of their lifestyle all that much. He had an idealised idea of what Intuits should be, without much knowledge of the background of the area (Denmark colonised Greenland and was very big on getting the Intuit’s to give up their traditional way of doing things, but without much consideration to what they should be doing instead). As like most people with uninformed, idealised points of view, he was a little disappointed.

 And not to mention had a huge heap of double standards. Alcohol and promiscuity wasn't his thing. Unless he was doing it. He even goes on to mention that he is happy to sleep around, but not happy when it’s “his” girl who does it. I am not sure if this is a result of his home polygamous culture, a result of being a product of the 1950s-1970s or just being a misogynist.

Otherwise it was a good introduction into the ways of the Greenlandic community, their culture and their activities. There is a lot of blood and slaughtering in this book. If you don’t like the thought of people eating meat or whale blubber raw, this probably isn't for you. But if you get over that slight turn of your stomach when he describes his meals there is a lot to learn.

I did enjoy it, don’t misunderstand me. I just am frustrated that a book that started out so well fell into the trap of the usual judgement of other cultures. “It’s not what I expected and therefore it’s not the right way to act”. And hypocrisy always annoys me. So it’s not one I’ll be running out and telling everyone to read any more. But it’s still worth a good 3 stars.



Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Wild Swans - #17

Yes, I know that image is Japanese not Chinese. Not to mention god knows what or who is doing what to whom. But it sums up this book for me. Elephant-Swan. The thing was huge.

This was one of those highly acclaimed and raved about books I had been meaning to read for a very long time. I was given it by my housemate who bought it at a garage sale down the road for 50 cents. He was very pleased with himself how little it cost. While appreciating the present, it was one of those occasions where you kinda didn't want to know how little was spent on you, no matter the bargain  It has sat on my shelf since then, trying to lure me to read it to see if it was worth 50 cents.

Was it? Yes. Was it insightful? Yes. Was it astonishing? Yes. Was it informative? Yes. Did it inform me how much of a bad person I have become? Oh hell yes.

I was amazed and horrified at the autocracies described in this book. By the Chinese landowners, by the Japanese and especially by the Communists. I had no idea about the Long March. I knew the phrase the Cultural Revolution, but actually had no idea what it meant. Chatting to my brother the other night highlighted how my education has lacked from doing no history in high school and very little in Uni. He knew all about this stuff from a subject he took in Yr 12. I, however, was completely in the dark.

Which lead me to an interesting discovery. I was listening to Jung talk about how she could not challenge Mao in her mind. How she was brainwashed into believing he was almost a god and infallible. And I thought, how stupid do you have to be? Well, not stupid as the consequence was torture and either death or complete destruction of your family and their futures. But how could you accept this and not challenge it at least internally.

And then I realised. Being a child of the 1980s I was always brought up to think that China was wrong. That they were bad and not good. They had human rights issues and freedom of speech problems and you don't want to end up like them. Oh and that Mao guy? Bit of a dick really. Not very nice. And I, until this book, had never known why besides one or two stories I had heard over the years. Except I accepted this premise. It was what we were taught. It's what was right.

While I am definitely on that side still after reading this book, my questioning of her brainwashing, lead me to discover the almost brainwashing of my own. My quick judgement of her made me realise that as a child especially, it is so easy to be talked around to other people's way of thinking. While I'm not saying we are comparable to Maoist China, I am saying that maybe we are throwing stones and not realising we are in a glass house.

But that's not why I am a bad person nor why this book is an elephant-swan. Why I am a bad person and this book to me is an elephant-swan is because my boss, who happens to be a Professor of Literature (you know, I mention this for the street cred haha), saw I was reading this book. While work is still insane, she was all "You have to go and read this book!! Now! Stop that work and read! I was all puffy-eyed for over a fortnight while reading that book. I couldn't stop crying!!".

I sort of looked at her, and replied, "Really? Until we got to the Cultural Revolution I was a bit bored. Hopefully things pick up a bit now".

There was a bit of a blank stare in return.

Really. I was bored. I was just thinking over and over again:


If it wasn't for the fact I had to read the book in September I may have, possibly, dumped it. Not sure, as the positives for reading it far out weighed the bogging down bits. But still. Bad person. I mean, seriously, who gets bored hearing about a families persecution and torture and harassment by a flawed but immensely powerful system?!? Not a good one.

But whether I am a good person or not, it's 3.5 elephant-swan stars. Recommend to everyone to read who has no idea about Chinese modern history, but be prepared you may be bogged down in the middle. Or I'm just horrid.


Monday, 24 September 2012

Another Aside - Last Chance to See

Work is insane. I do not believe I will have a lunch break at work until November. However, I have thought to keep me sane during these days, especially when it involves inane activities like filing (I haven't filed since May until last week, as I haven't had the time. I still don't but I was working on piles of paperwork that really should have been locked away) to listen to an audio book. 

I was unsure of audio books. The boy raves about them. He likes to listen to them in the car. I was always worried I would get too caught up in the book I would drive off the road or into someone else. I like things in the background so I can have enough distraction to not be bored but if I tune out due to driving or work, I don't miss anything. I also though have lots of things to read for all these damn challenges I have signed myself on to, so this knocked one out of the way.

But I will say, that listening to this book was the best thing I ever did. There is a very slim chance to my mind that you could get as much out of this book if you weren't read it by Douglas Adams. His tone of voice and way of telling the story enhances everything, which you would expect as they are his thoughts and musings. Now, I don't usually say things like this, but this audio book was close to perfect.

What the book is about is Douglas Adams, being the writer of Hitchhiker's Guide, and a zoologist travelling around the world to see endangered animals, sometimes critically so, in their own environments in the late 1980s. This involved places like New Zealand to see the Kakapo shown above (I will house any Kakapos anyone would like to bestow on me. Apparently they love people) but also places like Zaire (It's changed it's name) to see the White Rhinoceros, and China to see the Yangtze River Dolphin, both of which would have been "interesting" places to visit in 1988-1989. Adams then tells all of their adventures in alarming detail to us the reader.

Whether this is the intricacies and bizarre happenings of Tanzanian airports, chickens being stolen by Komodo Dragons in Indonesia, being lectured by crazy scientists in Mauritius, you feel like you were there. With Adams' matter of fact, but yet sometimes exasperated voice walking you through as some form of spirit guide. The story that made me giggle as it hit so true to home at the moment was the Australian scientist in Melbourne giving them advice about what not to get bitten by in Komodo. That was, everything. And every time he tried to explain himself, he just made it worse. I spend far too much time in the role of the Australian, explaining the exact same thing to all our European visitors at work. It was wonderful to hear this discussion from the terrified European's side for once, instead of being the blasé Aussie.

In short, everyone should read, or more accurately listen, to this book. You learn so much about the amazing animals in this world we take for granted, hear of the ridiculous destruction our species is causing, and to boot get a good workout giggling. And once you have done that, you should do what I'm going to now do and watch the BBC follow up show made 20 years later in 2009. As Douglas Adam's had sadly passed away by this stage, his friend Stephen Fry fills his shoes.

5 very big, Kakapo hug worthy, stars.



Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The Zahir - #16

I am just going to come out and say it.

Paulo Coelho is a knob.

I dislike this man, his opinions and his writing. I have read The Alchemist and The Fifth Mountain in the past and have felt that they were completely over rated. Then a friend links all these "insightful" quotes from him all the time on Facebook. And then there is this article from earlier this month. But all of these were forgivable. Until I read this book. This book lead me to one conclusion.

Paulo Coelho is a complete wanker.

This book, The Zahir, is about an amazing author who is famous, incredibly successful with the ladies, intelligent, accomplished, and did I mention a brilliant writer? Maybe I need to tell you again how good a writer the author is. He is married, but has many girlfriends as he is incredibly attractive, and his wife who is a journalist goes missing. He mopes for a bit, while being a brilliant, amazing writer, but then gets an actress girlfriend. He then gets approached by a man who knows where his wife is, and he has to rediscover himself, by writing another ground-breaking book and some other stuff, before he can go find her. But the actress stays with him until he leaves, because he's great.

In case you forget how wonderful he is, he points out randomly how many languages (nearly all the languages in the world) he has been translated into. The books themselves, while wonderful, are not him or his ideas. 'Everything that's written in my books is part of my soul...' (p101). Yeah right. Get your hand off it.

Also he mentions the Zimbardo prison experiment at one stage, because he can. Why? No idea. It wasn't important or necessary. It was in fact completely out of place, not to mention wrong, and seemed to be mentioned to show off how intelligent he was.

My "favourite" part, was after he came home from spending all night out wandering Paris with the "Tribe" and then come home and didn't want to turn on the tv because they had "run out of things to talk about" so were covering a story of a rebellion in Haiti. So he goes on this whole rant about how is a rebellion important to him as a rich, incredibly successful author in Paris! Who cares! I just wanted to slap him the narrow minded prick! Urgh.

As well as all of this he seems incredibly unhinged as well. He screams at his girlfriend after being out all night with the Tribe, mentioned above, and she doesn't ask him where he was. So therefore as she is not jealous (not interested, jealous) he screams at her for not loving him any more. Besides the fact he has been moaning on about his wife who he loves who has left him for the whole book. I was beyond loving him at p5, no wonder the girlfriend seemed to have had enough by p200. But she hadn't really. She really thought he was great. You know why? Because this unnamed author is fucking fantastic, just ask him.

Why did I finish it? Because I wanted to find out what happened to his wife and girlfriend as I liked them (not worth it, it ended all about him), it was only 270pp, and it was orange (for a rainbow challenge). It gets 1.5 stars as it was well written for self-congratulatory masturbation. Actually, no. After writing this, 1.

Knob.




Sunday, 19 August 2012

The Unbearable Likeness of Being - #15


Now I am over my panicked state of last night. Who knew reading for time was so stressful! But fun as well. Ooo we may have created a monster.

So this book was another one for the Olympic themed challenge. And I really enjoyed it. To begin with it seemed like a brag fest about philosophers the author had read. Then a list of sexual conquests. But as the story went on it be much more engrossing than I expected. And not because I was interested in the characters as such, but I was interested in the place and the society.

Part of me does wonder as well if the parts of the book I didn't enjoy was possibly my own lack of understanding of what was being discussed.

Again this book, like Between Shades of Gray, highlighted aspects of the ex-communist states that I had never thought about before. The idea of students having to got to work camps on their university holidays to work in steelworks or some such place. The thought of constantly playing happy music throughout the entire work camp during waking hours, and there not being a place you could go to escape it. To present a facade on how wonderful and perfect the system was... it's brainwashing at it's best! And I sympathised with Sabina who told this story, like I never thought I could with someone who was telling you they hated music. How could you hate music I always thought. How naive I was.

The complacency of the West was highlighted to me in the stories of Switzerland. Especially as I had been musing on them below earlier in the day. The story of Tereza taking her photos to a newspaper in Switzerland of the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia and them not being interested in them anymore as it was old news. Her exclamations that it was still occurring falling on deaf ears as the editors looked at photos of a nudist beach. Her being called a prude as she wasn't interested in the pictures as she has a sense of perspective. And then it being suggested that maybe she should be a fashion photographer... urge... to ... strangle... rising...

Otherwise, besides the usual "I DON'T SPEAK GERMAN DAMMIT!" issues (which to be fair finally did get translated into English around page 220. Would have been useful 200 pages earlier), and the fact that this damn book spoilt the end of Anna Karenina for me (ARGH), it was a really absorbing, incredibly well written read. 4 surprising stars.





Now back to Anna.

Between Shades of Gray - #14

I am actually still reading Anna Karenina. But some of the lovely people who are doing the Around the World Challenge invited me to do their own 24 hour challenge for the weekend. It is all Olympic in theme, and therefore I am reading European books for Team Europe today. Also means no time for relevant pictures for my post.

I picked this up at the start which was midnight my time last night. I ripped through 8 chapters before bed. This quick amount of reading annoyed me. I hate the fact that people who are writing from young adults or children feel like that is an excuse to write badly. Or that if they write badly, then they change their audience to young adults and children. I think that is patronising. And not to mention I feel this must just turn off kids from reading. Thank you J.K. Rowling for cementing this trend (although she obviously didn't turn kids off reading but is a terrible writer).

And that's what I felt with the first 60pp of this book. However picking it up again this morning has made me change my mind somewhat. I couldn't for the life of me work out how we were going to see a happy ending to the book, or even an ending. I was pleasantly surprised that it was accomplished.

The story is of Lina, her brother and her mother who are Lithuanians who are taken from their homeland by the secret Soviet police/military and then are forced in to work camps and hard labour in Russia and Siberia. This occurs during WWII and you have this interesting insight again (like in Purge) of the people dealing with Stalin and hoping that Hitler will save them, only to realise that Hitler is just a monster from the West, as opposed to one from the East.

I feel so sorry for the people of Eastern Europe. They seem to have been forgotten by us in the West after we dealt with Hitler and the Japanese. As long as people were not attacking us and people like us (US, UK, Aus, France, Germany, Austria etc), we were kind of happy to leave them be behind their Iron Curtain. Where is seems that those people who fell on the wrong side of the curtain endured the horrible crimes that existed in the War for 40 years longer. That to me seems inexcusable...

But back to the book. It picked up pace, the flashbacks began to fit, and the writing  began to flow. Despite the few typos (what is with editors these days?) it was an enjoyable YA read. A great introduction to the horrors of the Soviet regime. Well great and enjoyable as it can be in the circumstances. 2.5 stars.




Monday, 13 August 2012

Not Dead ... Yet

Just in case anyone was wondering. Not dead, stuck in Russia. Which some may argue is the same thing...

To tie you over until Anna and I finish with one another, have a picture of a girl and a camel.


Saturday, 28 July 2012

Cutting for Stone - #13

I love Ethiopian food. One of our favourite restaurants is Ethiopian, and I could happily eat a large Doro Wat (a wat is an Ethiopian curry, and Doro Wat is a thick paprika based curry with chicken) and piles of injara bread (a cold flat bread, full of bubbles with the consistency of a pancake and the taste of sourdough) more than once a week. It is one of the few "eat out" meals I have learnt to cook at home. It appeals to me that when I am asked what am I eating for lunch I can reply with "Wat", thus causing mass confusion. So reading a book that mentions the wats and injara at every meal had me salivating at every page.

But it was more than this that kept me reading. This book is large but incredibly readable. It fills you with history of a region that I would have at a guess that most of us know little about. It deals with the issues of colonialism, of occupation, of liberation, of dictatorship and of guerrilla and military coups but in an incredibly accessible way. And without preaching. That I feel is a real talent.

The story is told based for most of the book in a missionary hospital in Addis Ababa, staffed by English and Indian nuns and Indian doctors and follows the story of two twin boys born in the hospital. The characters are all well developed, understandable, essentially likeable. The setting is strangely familiar with the images of eucalypts and acadias. The story telling is fantastic as well, as you never feel like you are bogged down, which again is an art with the length of the book.

The issues of being in a missionary hospital in the Ethiopian capital from the 1950s-1980s is that there is a lot of horrible illnesses and surgeries described. If you have a weak stomach, then this may not be the book for you. But it was appreciated that the author didn't shy away from these issues. Of course in a country that experiences coups, nasty gunshot and fighting wounds would appear. In a country where it is common for female circumcision or more realistically, female genital mutilation, that is dealt with along with the horrors.

When I was about 18 years old, my mother got involved with a hospital in Ethiopia set up by Australians that specialised in helping women with fistulas. So I had heard terrible stories of girls who had developed this horrific condition in Ethiopia and surrounding areas and how people were working so hard to fix this problem that no one wanted to even discuss, let alone have these women near them. When the first fistula patient appeared in the book, I knew exactly what was going on and hoped that this was explored more, for at least people who had never heard of the condition before. I was very glad that the author did not dumb down the issue. I was also glad to see in the acknowledgement at the end of the book (which I skimmed through, and this is big for me) that he lists the Hamlins as inspiration.

This all being said, the climax of the book was a bit of a let down for me. I couldn't feel sympathy for the situation that set it into motion. All I wanted to do was slap Marion. It made the rest of the book frustrating. I would love to engage in a longer rant about this but I am incredibly mindful of spoilers. I wonder if it is just me. Also, the man needs to work on his sex scenes. They just felt a little rapey. I felt slightly off reading them.  But I acknowledge that they are apparently ridiculously hard to write well or make them sound believable. Hence the need for the Bad Sex Award.

So with the not so good sex, and the unsympathic climax catalyst, this took me down to 4 stars.




Next: I am conflicted. I didn't have this on my list but I am thinking Anna Karenina as a classics Goodreads group I just joined is reading this as well. And if I am going to read this monolith (and I do want to) I might as well do it with company. I think it is time for a classic.... Then maybe a Diana Wynne-Jones... But it means I have to shuffle my list again.

Monday, 23 July 2012

The Appointment - #12

I'm sick and should be in bed. But I wanted to post quickly about this book. This book was small (only 200pp) but dense. I picked it up as I thought I could knock it over quickly in a few days before we went on holidays in Cairns and I could relax on the beach with a big, thick book. Oh how I was wrong.

Instead, it was like walking through treacle. But surprisingly, not in a bad way. Just sticky. Like walking through mangrove mud, which I fell into the other day and then the pressure of pulling my foot out of the mud   pulled my thongs apart (poor thongs, they had served me well). It was almost poetry. It was lyrical and thought out and considered. It was also like a stream of consciousness, but I wish I thought as clearly and musically as Herta Müller.

Once again, the European style of writing surprised me. We Anglo-Saxons/Celtics seem to love tied up endings. But these "continentals" (oh I would have a mouthful from so many different people if I said that at work lol). They hate tied up endings. Or endings at all. They just cease.

Maybe I should take a page out of their book with my waffling blog posts. I am also wondering if I am feverish. However, I really recommend this book for you all. Just don't get surprised by the stickiness.




Next: Ethiopia with Cutting for Stone

Monday, 9 July 2012

Saving Fish from Drowning - #11

I wish this novel lived up to it's name. Instead of Saving Fish from Drowning as it claimed, this story slowly suffocated. Amy Tan let it flip flop all over the place in front of you, and then, when you thought it couldn't possibly still be alive, it would spring up and kinda flop over again.

The story is apparently about a woman called Bibi (which is a ridiculous name... no offence to any one reading called Bibi, you can't help your parents). She's dead. That's not a spoiler, it happens on page one. She's self obsessed, incredibly learned and cultured. And she's haunting her friends who are going on a holiday she organised. She sucks at haunting though as she just kinda follows them around like annoying small animal. But one you don't notice.

So you follow her friends around, after you get through 50 pages about her funeral. Which you don't care about as you don't like her. And her friends are awful, stereotypical travelling Americans. They are the people that walk into your hotel breakfast and you shudder with embarrassment as you feel terrible for being white as people may think you're from the same country, or worse, family.

I'm sorry. It's true. American's have the stereotype of being obnoxious, loud and ignorant while travelling. With the Brit's, they look down their nose at *everything*. Australians have the stereotype of being constantly drunk and obnoxious. You learn to work with it, and prove you are the exception.

Anyways. These are people you do not want to be around. All of them. Dead fish people or alive people. So after 100 pages, they got abandoned. And I hate myself a little for it. But after 100 pages, you had a good shot, and I couldn't see it getting better.

Also, I should have been warned when I found out that Amy Tan made up some stupid story about the book coming out of automatic writings she stumbled across in some Psychic Museum. So this was a "real story" told to a "real psychic". While my personal bullshit meter was going into overdrive, I then learnt that she made up this story to get more interest in the book. If you have to make up some story about automatic writings and psychics to sell your book, that should scream that it's not worth reading. Next time, I listen to that meter.

The problem is now, I don't know what to do with my journey. I think I have to find another South East Asian story, as I already felt my SE Asian pickings were rather slim. And for that, I am, just frankly, annoyed. Ruining my list *mumble mumble mumble*.



Next: To Romania, and let's hope it does better with The Appointment

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Zorro - #10

I did not have high hopes for this book. For some reason, some where I had read that it was terrible. I personally think that review was unfounded and untrue. Was it Dickens? No. Does everyone now have a picture of Charles Dickens dressed as Zorro in their mind? Yes. I am happy to have helped. Let me help you more.


Right. I, however, had Antonio Banderas in my head for this whole book, which is wonderful. Slightly strange while Diego was a boy, and he was just a mini version, but it worked. The story is a wonderful swashbuckling adventure throughout California (which was then a part of Mexico and a Spanish colony), mainly around LA and Spain, mainly in Barcelona. It follows Diego up until the point he is established as the Zorro we all know. There are sword fights, duels, love, Gypsies, horse riding, pirates, Native Americans, gambling, whoring. It’s fun.

Am I therefore cheating having it as my Chilean read as it is not set in Chile? Very probably. It was on my bookshelf though and that was one of my rules; that I read what was on my shelf first. I broke it once and I can’t do it again. We have run out of room for more books. My partner is trying to put up shelves in the house for more books, but it is just resulting in the house smelling like wood stain (as we can’t open it up as it has been -6 all week), lots of holes in walls, and one exploded drill. He’ll get there and he’ll do it better than me. But in the meantime, I must read my already acquired books.

Also, who else do you think of as a Chilean writer than Isabel Allende? The House of Spirits was amazing! It probably helped that I had just done a Sociology unit (my god the website is still active 8 years on) on South America and it’s dictators, their overthrowing by socialists and then overthrowing of the socialists by military junta backed by the US. Chile was one of these countries (I say one, as it happened in most of them. Astounding). So reading that story that talked about these happenings from the family involved’s perspective was wonderful. That and I think she is a brilliant storyteller.

That storytelling brilliance was evident again in this book. You were easily whisked away on the journey and adventure. You were pulled into the Californian desert or the streets of Barcelona. What was jarring however was that while the book was told in the majority in third person (and worked wonderfully), every now and then there would be a narrator that jarringly popped their head in. The first time I was shocked. It was like someone had burst in on my dream and started telling me what’s what, while I was trying desperately to work out who the hell this person was and how the hell they got into my head. Then they popped in and out every 50 pages or so, talking in first person, telling you little snippets about Diego’s character (kinda worked it out already little dream invader, but cheers for that) or how they know Diego *sooo* well, or guess what happens later!

This dream invading narrator needed a good slap. But when they disappeared and left you to the story it was enjoyable and fun. I want to go swashbuckling. 3.5 sabre wielding stars.





Next: Burma with Saving Fish from Drowning

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Smilla's Sense of Snow - #9

This is one of those books I hope so much that the author did their homework and therefore all the interesting facts I learnt are true. This book at times is like reading a science textbook, but an interesting one, that has a murder mystery behind it. Maybe our educators could learn something from that (although as is the way with most "educational initiatives" there would be a 97% chance that they would make it incredibly lame).

This book spends half it's time in Copenhagen and then the other half either in Greenland from memories or actuality, or travelling to Greenland. I have therefore counted it (maybe in a slightly dodgy way) as a read for both countries. Coming from the humidity and heat of the Solomons to the icy chill of Denmark and Greenland in winter, suited my switch from Singapore back to icy Canberra.

The book was interesting and had a good pace to it. It did have some twists in it that you felt like you knew exactly what was going to happen in the build up, and then it threw you in a different direction. The writer had the lovely Scandinavian way of not patronising you, of taking you on a journey but allowing you to work things out for yourself along the way. I am beginning to *love* this way of writing as a wonderful refreshing change. And the ending was unlike any English book I had read before, which was infuriating but kinda cool.

Gripes. My English translation was titled "Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow". I hate it. Smilla's Sense of Snow has this beautiful ring to it and conveys the meaning perfectly and concisely. The Miss is completely useless and redundant and is only there to let sexist English speakers know the gender of the protagonist. I bet that there are people who have put it down because of the Miss, or picked it up because of it, or gone "Oh thank you publisher for explaining this ridiculous foreign name to me on the cover as I am too stupid to pick it up in the first couple of sentences". Why does gender matter? Argh!

Also, and this is because I am the victim of my Australian upbringing, if it is an English translation could you please translate the German as well as the Danish. Place names were not translated thank god (overtranslations are sometimes worse!), and the Greenlandic words weren't translated but explained. The Swiss cook however spoke entire sentences in German which had important plot points in them without them being explained in English. I know that it was trying to portray him as an other, but you could say the German and then get him to translate it into English or something. Google translate and I formed a close relationship over the last few days, and I now know enough German (of words I memorised in order to not look them up again) to say "I am not a Swiss clock." Useful.

Lastly and most importantly, there were two sentences that nearly made me hate the book. They were jarring and not written like the entire rest of the book. They were unnecessary and I just don't know what happened. Either the author or the translator had a massive brain fart, and it really bugs me. I would be interested in knowing if anyone else had this feeling when they read this book. But these two sentences turned me from about to exclaim to my Mum from the back of the car that she had to read this book, to going nope, no way if this is what the rest of the book is like. Luckily, it wasn't and I will recommend it to her again, but with this disclaimer. Where the hell was the editor is what I want to know.

But besides these things, and the fact that it went on longer than I thought entirely necessary however I still very much wanted to read it, it was a great book. I am slightly cold still after finishing it, and have an overwhelming wish to travel to Greenland. 4 stars!




Next: To Chile to warm up with Zorro

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Dar

I went to my grandfather's funeral this week. This included a trip to Melbourne and a long drive home with my family back. I was supposed to get a lot of reading done, but it didn't really happen. But that's okay.

Besides being a sad occasion, my family has a way to make any event a memorable and usually hilarious one. Most of our family is in Melbourne, so we tend to only really catch up together at weddings and funerals. For some of us, that is more frequent than we would like, like the "black sheep" who stuffed his pockets full of biscuits from the wake. For all my cousins, who spent the rest of the day taking turns to try and turn the pocket biscuits into crumbs while the rest of us watched from the other side of the room, this is not enough.

But the man of the moment was my Dar. Dar was an incredibly successful and intelligent man. He was a research food scientist who started working for Kraft in the late 1930s and is the man credited with discovering that vitamin B1 and therefore Vegemite, is good for you. The Vegemite we eat today, is his team's recipe. He helped start one of the biggest Academies of Science in Australia and the annual Award of Merit awarded to Food Scientists in Australia each year is named after him. He got interested in my aunt's study of history at Uni and then decided he would go earn himself a Masters in history just because he could. And he went on to write quite a few books on science, food science, the history of food science and history.

He and I shared a love of science too, and I think he was a little chuffed that I used to work at the Science Centre here in Australia, and worked on the largest science prize awarded within Aus. At least I hope so, because I was always thinking of him while I was there.

What ties him in to this blog I guess, besides me obviously, was that this was a man I can never remember not reading. When he used to come stay with us what I remember as a kid, besides us having to have the best table manners in the world, and me being told off constantly for my pronunciation of the letter H, was that he always had so many books with him.

Usually it was work related, but he loved humorous British novels and British detective novels as well. He always sent us money for books or book vouchers for our birthdays and Christmas. One Christmas a couple of years ago at Mum's, we had all opened our presents. All 7 of us were sitting there with a pile of at least 3 books in front of us, some of us with 7 or 8. Dar looked around the room and just burst out in his large, explosive laugh. "Well," he said, "I have never met such a bookish family!"

I am very grateful to this old man, who always wore dress pants, a blazer, a vest, business shirt and a tie no matter the weather, who instilled in me a love of reading. I am grateful he taught his children this too, with my Mum and her sister both becoming librarians, and them making sure I always had books. I will miss our discussions about literature, education and science. I will miss the way he made me value all of them. I will just miss him.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Devil-Devil - #8

This. This book was perfect for Singapore. I couldn't quite get my head into a space with Norwegian Wood, where I could imagine snow. What I needed after that, was somewhere where there was 28C temp and 85% humidity like Singapore. This book filled it. So what about it?

Straight up.
This book had 1 major error that I had problems getting past. It just SCREAMED(!) outsider (it was written by a Brit who had lived in the Solomons). All these intelligent islanders, were sent to Australia for an education. If, and I understand they were in the 60s, they had the unfortunate experience of drinking XXXX, they would know to spell it XXXX. As an Aussie, you spell it XXXX.

Not, definitely not, 4X.

The whole joke is "Why is spelt XXXX? Because Queenslanders can't spell Beer!".

Bah.

So with all that aside. Murder mystery. Traditional culture vs colonial culture clash. Hiking around the bush in the heat and the humidity. The fact that there were too many fallible characters that any one of them could be the killer. Grumpy, precocious nun.

You like the main character Ben Kella. He is straddling a world that is drastically changing, which he knows  and has to balance them both. He is the traditional peace keeper of his traditional culture, yet a policeman of the new world order. You respect him and empathise with him.

Same with Nun-face (yes I called her nun-face. I call everyone whats-his-face if I don't know their name and I have no idea how to pronounce the rest of her South American name, so nun-face will have to do). You respect her for what she is doing and where she is. Also, as much of me resents it, in the 1960s it was probably the most amount of independence she was going to get (as a woman, to become a nun and end up in the Pacific).

Best read ever? No. But fun read? Yes. Nice murder mystery? Yes. Nice Pacific Island read? Yup. Read it. It gives you perspective, and education (it comes with a map inside! Bonus!) and I think shines light on a place that hasn't got that much light shining on it (what is it with the lack of Pacific fiction? Seriously?). 4 stars.





Next: Denmark with Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Norwegian Wood - #7

I wasn't expecting this book. I again have heard wonderful things about it. But I am going to plead something that I hate doing, but I think I was an ethnocentric Westerner. I think I combined Haruki Murakami and Kazuo Ishiguro, both of which I wish to read and have it seems slightly fantastical, futuristic and almost sci fi elements in their fiction. But that wasn't Norwegian Wood.

Norwegian Wood is named, thank goodness, after the Beatles song. That would have driven me mad otherwise. It is set at the turn of the 60s and 70s, with Toru Wanatabe heading to University in Tokyo and learning about himself and in turn love. However his learning about love is long, and more complicated than you could  really imagine.

I guess that is the benefit of fiction at times. You can have these characters experiencing things that seem so far fetched, in a way so you don't have to. Or so you can work through your own response to those scenarios just in case they ever eventuate for you. But you feel for Wanatabe. You wish for him to fall for a normal and uncomplicated woman. Although part of you wonders if he falls for incredibly complicated women as he is borderline boring himself.

I will say however, that this is not a book to read if you do not want graphic sexual descriptions. And it does make it uncomfortable to read on the Tube/Metro/SMRT system in Singapore as in our heads at least, it is considered a very conservative place. Surrounded by headscarfs and people who at least (yes, see above, judgey Westerner, I hate it) look like they are Hindu or Muslim it makes it hard to read passages about noises made during sex. Although there were other times when there were many teenagers (either Chinese, Malay, Indian, or European) in tiny clothes rubbing up against each other in those trains.... Point is Singapore is complex, and it made this book uncomfortable at times. But that was my own issues... Maybe don't take it to read in the Middle East.

But in summary, beautifully written. I think I could have hated the story and still loved the book. Looking forward to reading more of this author. Loved that it was set in Tokyo as I have spent a few days there and could imagine quiet vividly some of the settings.

I did want to drink Midori while reading it due to Midori's name in the book (which simply means "green" in Japanese), but even better was we had bought some Choya plum wine duty free (well the expensive stuff, but this is what we drink at home) and spent a few nights after coming in from the sweaty crowds and bustling markets to sitting reading this book and some ice cold, Japanese plum wine (if you haven't tried this stuff, you *have* to). Perfect, or in one of my few Japanese phrases: totemo oishii desu. 4 stars.




Next: Solomon Islands with Devil-Devil

The Elegance of the Hedgehog - #6

We went to Singapore for a week. My work had a conference there, so we decided to buy another ticket and take a week off. Once you get on a plane for 8 hours (or 9 if you include the transfer to Sydney), you better bloody well have a holiday I think. The benefit however of living on an island where the closest neighbour is 4 hours away (which is closer than flying to the other side of the "island"), is that it gives you lots of time to read. The draw back is that with the data roaming charges being what they are, I'm going to be spending this week playing catch up.
....
I really don't have anything to complain about.

Anyways, Hedgehogs. Elegant ones.

This book had been on my "to-read" list for a while. I don't know why exactly. I think it was because it was one of those books that popped up everywhere, without any real reviews I could see. It had a nice cover. And it mentioned hedgehogs. I have read books for more ridiculous reasons.

This book sort of screamed self-indulgence for the first third of the book. The two main characters were incredibly intelligent. Like brain bleedingly so. But then they just tried as hard as they could to conceal it. I personally cannot fathom that. I feel that I am surrounded by stupidity so often, that intelligence should be embraced, encouraged and waved in everyone's faces.

What I ended up feeling like with this book was that the author made the characters that way to show off how clever *she* was. So maybe the waving it in everyone's face is a little obnoxious. All I wanted to do was shake her and yell "Yes! We all get how clever you are. Get on with the damn story!!"

Thank god someone listened and in comes Mr Kakuro Ozu who finally makes the book interesting, makes the book likable and somehow wiggles a plot out of the rest of the book. Everyone at 7 Rue de Grenelle is fascinated and in awe of him, and you as a reader are too. 1. Because he is infinitely likeable and a great human being, and 2. because he's made the 100 or so pages you have just struggled through worthwhile.

We had a ... lively discussion... over the book title in Sydney Airport. I said it was because hedgehogs are elegant in their own little way. My partner thought that this was ridiculous, and that it must be some metaphor on how something really wasn't elegant at all. It resulted in a "HAH!" moment when I came across:
“Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside she is covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary--and terrible elegant.” 

Take that Mr Hedgehogs-aren't-elegant. 3.5 stars from me.




Next: Japan with Norwegian Wood

Monday, 28 May 2012

The Lacuna - #5

Straight up. I will make no apologies but I was brought up on musicals. 1950s musicals to be exact. According to my wonderful father, Frank Sinatra is the best singer, Fred Astaire is the best dancer, but Gene Kelly is just the best. This has nothing to do with this book, besides the fact that my mind thinks in musicals and finds links to any song possible. Which is helpful as a singer. However reading a book (as demonstrated in the last post) can be very annoying.

So, this book had Living Lacuna Loca in my head the entire time. While not Ricky Martin's fault, as it is not the actual title of the song, I am still annoyed.

That being said. That is where my usual "annoyance" ends.

This is a brilliant book. Not perfect but pretty damn close. I loved The Poisonwood Bible, and this is comparable.  Harrison's childhood and then young adulthood in Mexico was tangible. Parts of it made it feel like I could reach out and touch things. You respect Harrison and wish, no LONG, things to work out better for him.

You love Trotsky and Kahlo as secondary characters. Frida Kahlo was a big thing here in Canberra while I was in College (Yrs 11-12 for non-Canberrans). She had a exhibition here then, yes 50 years after her death,  and made a stir. One of my favourite Aussie bands mentions her in one of their songs of that time (also in my head the entire time).

Besides the brilliant first half of the book in Mexico, the rest of the book leaves me terrified in America. I'm not going go in to an anti-American diatribe. But the the last half of the book, with it's anti-Communist-for-the-sake-of-it focus is heart breaking. Not the author's point of view but the society's.

I have never ever though about post war America. My father mentioned above was a kid when the war hit. He lived in England, in the North, and he met so men who trained up North and were fed at his Grandmother's house and went to war. He was a sailor in Korea and Vietnam and trained in the States, but you could not get him to say a nice thing about the States in WWII. To them and him, America only came in when they themselves were threatened.

I am not going to argue with anyone here. My father is gone so I can't convince him otherwise. My point is as an Australian with a Yorkshireman as a father who lived through the war, I never though about America post war. It just happened, and then there was Mad Men. But this book explained, if it was close to what happened, the American psyche. It explained to me the terror, the void of identity, that needed to be plugged. It if nothing else explained to me the blatant fear of socialism and communism that exists in the country today.

I don't need a political debate and that is not what I am after. However, when a President for example looks at introducing something the rest of the Western world has and is labelled a Communist or/and a Socialist, the end of this book explains why that is so for the rest of us who cannot fathom it. Too us it is madness, this book explains where madness comes from.

It was amazing, liberating, for a borderline socialist, invigorating, historically balanced, and just bloody well written. I may have a girl crush. I also crave enchiladas. So 4.5 controversial stars from me.




Next: The Elegance of the Hedgehog in France

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Heart of Darkness - #4

I was excited for this book. It's been sitting on my shelf for a little while and had been so built up. You know, one of those turn of the century novellas that shaped English literature into what it is today and challenged the ideas of morality and what not.

And you know what it felt like? It felt like reading an Old Spice ad.

It was the characteristic flowery over-description that I can tolerate, but after Purge was a bit of a smack in the face of how old Londoners (not English, Conrad was Polish) waffle on a bit. And by a bit I mean a lot. Now don't get me wrong, I like a good old fashioned, Victorian/Edwardian waffle. Oscar Wilde is my prime example.

However, what Mr Wilde does, that Conrad doesn't, is mix it with wit. Conrad however mixes it with self-indulgent musings. And I can't deal with them at any time. It's like when you go on a date with some guy who spends the whole time giving a soliloquy (as he won't let you get a word in edge wise) on why what he thinks is so insightful and fantastic, and let him enlighten you on that (not that you have a choice). In fact, the only enlightenment you get is how much you want to stab him in the eye with your fork.

But back to the Old Spice ad. The bit that frustrated me the most was that he was telling the story, or narrative for those English teachers among us, about how they were fixing a boat and couldn't ever get parts because they are in deepest darkest Africa. Then he went on to a paragraph of self-indulgent, let-me-tell-you-how-clever-and-insightful-I-am drivel. And the next paragraph they are sailing down a river. On the broken boat. That wasn't broken any more. What the hell? I re-read it 3 times, I have no fricking idea how they got there. Suddenly it was all "I'M ON A BOAT!". And any person who gets that in my head while I'm reading a book needs to be taken out the back and put down.

And you know what? Do you think that Mr Conrad was content with doing that to me once? No. Not at all. He does it again. In the climax. The guy has attention issues!

This book, I can concede, was probably very confronting and thought provoking in 1902 or whenever the magazines where first published (that's the book publication date). I was more confronted by the use of the n-word and the term savages. Otherwise, the book was a meh, and has been added to the list of books that have been thrown once finished 

So, in the end, this boils down to




Next: Mexico with The Lacuna