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…


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?

Reading failure #2: Neuromancer

Well, here we are again. Neuromancer is the second book of my 2012 26 book challenge that I simply can’t finish.

Whereas I simply disliked eveything about The Zahir, my reasons for giving up on Neuromancer are quite different: I just don’t understand it. I’ve perservered for some time, insisiting on reading 26 pages each day, determined to reach that “aha” moment, but I think it’s just too technical or verbose or complex for little-brained me, and I find I’m just brushing my eyes against the words without taking anything in.

So, head hung in ignorant shame, I need a suggestion for a book to fill the Neuromancer-shaped gap. Your recommendations, please, for a story of 130 pages or fewer…

The Zahir: I can’t take it any more

Well, I was warned.

An arguably admirable 226 pages in to Paulo Coelho’s The Zahir, I just can’t take it any more. There’s only so much poorly written, derivative, self-absorbed parapsychological gibberish I can consume in two weeks. Depending on your point of view, this may be my first book-based failure of the year.

To mitigate my failure, I’m adding another book to my 2012 26 book list: John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps. I picked it up in the library yesterday, aware that my Zahir-inspired despair was soon likely to reach breaking point. Buchan’s novel is just the right length to fill the remaining time I’d set aside for The Zahir.

Coelho’s is the second book I haven’t enjoyed this year; but the first (Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart) wasn’t such a hard slog that I gave up on it. I very rarely give up on books (which is a testament to how awful I found The Zahir). Should I have stuck this one out? Or will it be extra satisfying to cram another (hopefully better) book into 2012? Your thoughts please.

Book 9: The Zahir

The Zahir is a 2005 novel by the Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho. Just as in an earlier book, The Alchemist, The Zahir is about a pilgrimage. The book touches on themes of love, loss and obsession.

– From Wikipedia

The Zahir is (so far) unique on the list of 26 books I’ll read in 2012. Why? Because one person recommended it to me, while many more have told me how awful it is. Some have advised that I read a different book by Paulo Coelho; others have warned me to steer clear of his work altogether.

I usually try to approach new books in the same way I’d prefer to experience a new film: in complete ignorance. I often won’t even read the back cover. But, having been presented with a barrage of condemnations of The Zahir, it’s difficult to start reading with an entirely unspoiled opinion. Only 44 pages in I find myself already acutely aware of all its flaws (and it suffers further from following Milan Kundera’s inspiring The Unbearable Lightness of Being).

It will be interesting to see whether The Zahir defeats my prejudices and ultimately wins me over.

Have you ever liked or disliked a book primarily (you think) because you’ve been “programmed” to do so?