Books catch up: The Leopard, My Happy Days in Hell, Middlesex, Kafka on the Shore

Two more admissions of failure: one for not updating this blog each time I finish a book in the last few months; and the other for not finishing a particular book. But we’ll get to that. Here are the four (or three and a half) books I’ve read recently:

Book 21: The Leopard by Guiseppe di Lampedusa

I came extremely close to giving up on The Leopard, but it was short enough and occasionally interesting enough to power through. I can see its appeal for the politically-minded, but I found that, for every witty and enlightening description of the human condition, there were two more verbose descriptions of wallpaper or wood panelling – and it was this attention to seemingly insignificant detail that completely turned me off.

Book 22: My Happy Days in Hell by György Faludy

I’d read quite a section of My Happy Days in Hell before I discovered it was not fiction but autobiography. The author is a poet, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that his prose is quite lyrical, giving off the aura of a novel. He’s also distinctly unlikeable, which seems so much easier to accept in a work of fiction than in a true story. And, like The Leopard, this is a novel flitting between two styles: on the one hand, an interesting examination of humanity; on the other, accounts of extremely dull conversations about communism and other political topics. I tried, I really tried, but I just couldn’t sit this one out.

Book 23: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

What can I say about Middlesex that hasn’t already been said? Nothing, so here are some quotations with which I agree:

“A vastly realized, multi-generational novel as highspirited as it is intelligent … its real triumph is its emotional abundance, delivered with consummate authority and grace” – Pulitzer Board.

“Thrilling in the scope of its imagination and surprising in its tenderness” – Tami Hoag.

“Epic and wondrous” – Andrew O’Hehir

Book 24: Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Really, I have no idea what happened in Kafka on the Shore, and despite incorrectly assuming it was drawing towards a satisfying explanation, I really quite enjoyed reading it. The conversations Murakami’s characters have sometimes veer towards the inanity I so disliked in Paulo Coelho’s attempts at profundity, yet somehow always save themselves, revealed to be poetically fascinating instead. I’d still like to know what happened, but I had a good time nonetheless.

Two books to go…

Books catch up: The Emigrants, Ghostwritten, Long Walk to Freedom, The Book Thief

Sorry, sorry, sorry for the lack of blogs recently. I know just how disruptive my apathy can be to the lives of my million-odd readers. Some of you have emailed to complain of panic attacks, shortness of breath and hysteria. I can only apologise and, by way of repentance, offer a blog about four books (four thoroughly enjoyable books) at once:

Book 17: The Emigrants by Vilhelm Moberg

A misleadingly chunky book, this is one of the easiest reads I’ve had this year – despite being set variously in the 19th century in rural Sweden and the Atlantic ocean. I’ve barely been in either of those places ever, let alone in the 19th century. But it’s such a pleasantly and simply told story, you can’t fail to enjoy it. I’m only sad that The Emigrants is the first part of four books the final three of which, until next year, I won’t have time to read.

Book 18: Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

This one of only a few contemporary-set novels I’ve read this year, and it was a refreshing departure. David Mitchell has an astonishing talent for covering a multitude of voices (the novel is told in the first-person by nine unique characters) and to match it a gift for clever, convoluted plots. This is one to read quickly but carefully.

Book 19: Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

The only non-fiction book, – indeed the only (auto)biography – on my list. There’s not much I can say to add to the multitude of compliments this book has been paid; only that I began reading wary of a tale so inextricably connected with history, politics and geography – three things to which I’m not very good at paying attention – and was delightfully welcomed by its human warmth and clarity.

Book 20: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Several pages into The Book Thief I really didn’t expect to enjoy the subsequent 500; it has a tone and a style that takes a few moments to embrace; at first seeming a little twee, a little contrived. But so very quickly it wins you over with quiet aplomb. A story narrated by death, a character who every day encounters humans at their best and worst, but will never fully understand them; what a shining manner in which to explore Nazi Germany: a time and a place when humans encountered death so much, and did things so difficult even for humans themselves to understand.

Next up: The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.

2012 books challenge: Half-year review

A lot of people have remarked that they’d like to see me write retrospectively about (or review) the books I’m reading. I must admit I don’t feel much of a natural urge to review books, nor do I think I have much experience or skill on which to draw to do so (I’m much more arrogant about films…).

Having said that, a) I can see that posting a blog before I read each book means I’m essentially just publishing a list of books, which isn’t terribly exciting; and b) we’re more than half way through the year, which seems like an ideal time to do a brief review of the 21 books I’ve read so far in 2012.

The very good

Until recently I wasn’t prepared to say I had a favourite book of the year. I’ve read some very good books and begun some very bad ones, but none stood out as the all-defeating grandaddy of the selection so far. Then I read Harry Mulisch’s The Discovery of Heaven. It’s difficult to say exactly what mesmerised, moved and enthralled me so much about this meandering, knowing tale of humanity’s clueless adherence to fate and attempts to find meaning in an unexpectedly meaningful reality. Some combination of the sharp insights into human philosophy, the tragicomic fatalism and the fascinating, rhythmic prose just won me over in a big way. This, more than any other so far, has been the book my hands didn’t want to put down and my brain couldn’t, the book I’ve recommended to everyone who’s asked.

The very bad

Since January I’ve probably talked to people about Paulo Coelho more than all the other authors on my list put together. He seems to be a rather divisive figure. People either hate his writing, or they just hate The Zahir (with the exception of Jeroen, who has effectively done penance for suggesting I read The Zahir by suggesting I read The Discovery of Heaven). As a well-meaning joke (I think) Wes bought me Coelho’s most famous and celebrated book, The Alchemist, for my birthday. I’ve recently finished it and (sorry Wes) I appear to fall into the category of those for whom Coleho does absolutely nothing. I can see the appeal for some of his simple, parable-like style, but for me it felt like reading a Ladybird book about the worst (and most predictable) kind of fatalistic, fantastic bunkum.

The very unexpected

I was all set to be miserable slogging through Great Expectations. The last time I tried to read Dickens (a good ten years ago) I was hopelessly impatient with the overlong sentences, the extravagant prose, the constant overegging of the etymological pudding. Great Expectations couldn’t have proven a greater surprise. I craved and loved every last syllable.

With only eight books left on my 2012 reading list, I’m starting to think about what I’ll read next year. Do you have any recommendations based on my experiences so far? What books have surprised you?

Book 16: The Discovery of Heaven

The Discovery of Heaven is a 1992 novel by Dutch author Harry Mulisch. It describes the intense friendship between two men and the mystical journey of another to return to Heaven the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments.

– From Wikipedia

I start Book 16 even further ahead of schedule than Chess or Persepolis. The Discovery of Heaven is a big book with small type, so I imagine my schedule will catch me up. Having said that, 50-odd pages in I’m thoroughly enjoying myself. (I hope this goes some way to healing Jeroen’s – who suggested this book – wounds after I so disliked his previous suggestion, Paulo Coelho’s The Zahir).

In a mildly amusing twist, my other failure this year has been replaced with another of Coelho’s books, widely acclaimed The Alchemist. Rosa and Wes – one of the people who warned me against reading The Zahir – gifted me it for my birthday. Thanks Wes, I think!

Book 14: Chess

The Royal Game (Or Chess Story; Schachnovelle in the original German) is a novella by Austrian author Stefan Zweig first published in 1942, after the author’s death by suicide.

– From Wikipedia

The elusive Chess (it seems to have three different names) has an equally elusive description on Wikipedia. I know nothing about the book (just how I like to operate), and I should have finished it in three days. Quick sharp!

Book 13: The Reader

The Reader (Der Vorleser) is a novel by German law professor and judge Bernhard Schlink, published in Germany in 1995 and in the United States in 1997. The story is a parable, dealing with the difficulties post-war German generations have had comprehending the Holocaust; Ruth Franklin writes that it was aimed specifically at the generation Berthold Brecht called the Nachgeborenen, those who came after.

– From Wikipedia

I’m a bit behind on my blogging; in fact, I’ve just finished reading – and thoroughly enjoying – The Reader. After struggling with several of my 26 book challenge books it’s encouraging to have read two excellent books in a row, and specially encouraging to have read one – this one – with such ease and vigour.