Give a Hoot

Non-spoiler book reviews. Only fiction and only good books.

  1. The Pillow Book - Sei Shōnagon

    The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon is a fascinating collection of little chapters - thoughts and ideas and strings of categorised words; observations and jokes and poems and lists - written by a person believed to be called Sei Shonagon around the year 990. She served the Empress Teishi at the time as a gentlewoman in Japan.

    The book doesn’t have a strict narrative - instead it drifts in and out of dates and times and situations as though in a dream (this is in now way related to book’s title, by the way) - at one point the author even tries to start a novel, but this is quickly abandoned. Aside from the historical interest - as you can imagine, the book is a rich source of utterly absorbing information on medieval Japan, and there are all sorts of controversies pertaining to the authenticity of certain chapters etc., what with there being so many different versions of the book - what this book does for me is reinforce the belief and confidence in humanity. It’s 1000 years old, yet the writing is punchy, witty and modern. This isn’t due to the translation; Sei Shonagon wrote light-years ahead of her contemporaries. She reaches across time and holds your hand because she is just the same as we are now. She laughs at others’ misfortune with believable cruelty, then in the next sentence she writes with an aching sense of empathy.

    One passage that sticks in my mind especially is of her description of a young girl’s hair sticking to her face, contoured from the tears produced by the agony of untreatable toothache. All at once you are swept 1000 years into the past in a state of complete heartbreak, the savage reality of that time making your own teeth sting.

    Shonagon lived in a very different time, where class and social standing ruled the day, yet her humanity shines through this when her defences are down. She writes about the sound the lid of a kettle makes when it closes and at how she delights in the way a light tree branch springs upwards once the required amount of morning dew has burned away in the early afternoon sun. She writes about the expression in a lying man’s eyes when he leaves her bed in the morning and she knows she won’t see him again. She writes about how young adults are ruining the language by dropping certain letters. She discusses her fears at her new job and, eventually, how she quickly settled in. She is introverted and extroverted at the same time, confused, happy and sad. She is completely real and it’s very easy to forget just how old this text is.

    Another thing that strikes is the description of the clothes. I think that we’re used to food being a huge indicator of culture and time. In Japan it was clothes, and Shonagon takes a lot of time to describe the colours, shapes and patterns on clothes. She writes with passion about how it’s unseemly to wear certain shades of autumn green at certain times of the day and the way a sleeve will roll up slightly, revealing a splendid contrasting colour. Her descriptions are almost synaesthesian in that you can almost feel, taste and touch the 
    colours as she writes about them. It’s so charming to read somebody writing with such strength of passion - and of course her personal tastes are unmatched.

    Nobody knows what happened to her once she left royal service. Some say she went on to lead a life every bit as exciting as the one she details in the book, whereas another speaks of her old and decrepit and bitter. I don’t know which one is more romantic to me.

    There were some problems with my translation, in that it suffered from the translator forgetting that she isn’t some superwoman genius above the rest of us - a common problem I find with old Japanese fiction. I’ll explain: the notes and appendices are extensive, but too much so; words that describe the shape of a roof or a certain cloth will be starred and noted, fine. Words like ‘mat’ and ‘room’ do not need to be explained to us. Russian books do not suffer from this patronising treatment - it’s just Japanese fiction in my experience. A typical side-effect of the fanboyism an interest in that culture seems to fuel (and I write this as a bit of a J-dork)? I don’t but it’s annoying.

    I challenge anybody to read this and not fall in love with Sei Shonagon.

  2. IQ84 - Haruki Murakami

    Murakami is an author whose work I am constantly revisiting in an effort to find what I appear to be missing. In theory his body of work should be one I worship. It has all the ingredients for both great stories and meaningful expression – at least, in my interpretation of what makes these so. His male leads resonate with me on a very deep level, although I would like to think that I am not even a tiny bit as passive as the people who populate his world, and the awkward, metaphysical reality he presents, with his strange, muffled supporting cast constantly digressing in speech, action and views while shifting to and fro throughout his stories is an ideal that has hung at the edge of my conscience for as long as I can remember, but have never been able to express in any kind of form. Murakami always gets this right, and the results are inspiring as a reader and a hopeful writer.

    But for all of these positives, I see Murakami as a massively flawed author, and unlike some flaws, which can lend an author’s body of work charm or vulnerability that are not just overlooked but embraced by readers, Murakami’s flaws are so massive and untreated that I can only think of him as an incredibly immature, even childish, writer at times, whose talent will never be properly realised.

    1Q84 is, for me, everything good and everything bad about Murakami in one large package. My copy is around 900 pages long and I finished it in a matter of days without ever having to force myself. It is bulky and uncomfortable but it accompanied me everywhere. The story is compelling. A real accomplishment of imagination and creativity, and with a very well controlled pace that’s never lets up but is certainly never hurried, there are no complaints from me here, and despite all that I will say next, this means that IQ84 is, at its core, a good story, and that really is the most important thing when cracking open a book, especially one of this size.

    But I have many problems with this book, and they were present from start to finish, always tugging at my sleeve while I read and no matter how firmly I ignored them, there were moments when they were so incessant and nagging that I had to put the book down for a moment while I reset my annoyance receptors.

    Bad people are ugly and good people are beautiful. Not consistently, because in Murakami’s work, almost every single woman is heart-stoppingly stunning in every way possible and always wears a minskirt and heels and is also very forward in a way that none of his male leads are and is just completely perfect, but if they’re morally okay then this detail is worked up for a long time. If they’re morally bad then it’s a wicked kind of beauty that he touches on before racing off to his next point. If they’re men and they’re good then they’re big and strong and straightforward, like Stephen King’s sheriffs and English teachers, but if they’re bad then they’re not just paunchy or shifty but incredibly ugly – revolting in fact, and everyday people shun them without even thinking about it. Oh, and everybody we’re introduced to who we’re supposed to like is extremely sporty and academically bright-to-gifted. Dangerous people are very skillful and superbly trained, and they can’t so much as walk down a street without this being explained to us again, with various backdrop characters swooning or commenting on this with total admiration.

    Murakami’s characters are pulp fiction while his writing tries – and sometimes succeeds in being – something more. Any subtlety and mystery he draws with precise and wispy lines is constantly ruined by an adolescent’s tabletop RPG character sheet brought to life with the broadest of brush strokes. The effect ranges from mild exasperation to genuine annoyance. Quite simply, I don’t think Murakami’s stories and characters make a good fit. On the one hand we have this pale, slow, beautiful-in-its-monotony world and on the other, walk-in parts from a school production of Reservoir Dogs. This is not an effective melding of tropes but an awful colour clash that lends the book a messy, over-written and under-edited feel. And on top of this, the majority of the characters share the same personality and worldview.

    One more point on this: writing your extremely gusty, attractive and totally flawless lead female character as being completely smitten with balding middle-aged rich guys is also just eye-rollingly tedious and transparent and, again, makes me think of Murakami has an incredibly immature writer.

    I am in no way qualified to speak in an anthropological or social studies manner, but I can’t express my impression of this book – or Murakami’s entire body of work, in fact, – with any honesty without mentioning my views on his take on sexuality. The constant appearance of sexless, robotic but staggeringly beautiful teenage girls grates. And not just because they are ever-present in the Murakami’s word. Japan’s sexual imagery is rife with this, flawless young (sometimes very young) girls presented as both sexy and sexless with a curiously effective kind of coherence that in no way could ever prepare a growing person with the realities of what a woman really is, and it’s my opinion that Murakami has internalised what you would expect him to see as a damaging and detrimental aspect of his society and expressed it as his ideal. It is tempting to say that this is in fact his comment, presented as neither a positive or negative, or perhaps that it these characters are a manifestation of the passiveness that saturates his books, in his characters and narrative style, but my instinct is that this is not, and I feel that this is somewhat backed up by other examples of Murakami’s immaturity, and that, basically, Murakami simply really likes writing about super-hot Japanese schoolgirls who seduce the mental image he has of himself with the confidence and skill of a saucy bored housewife.

    It’s not just looks either – relationships. Strong ties are formed immediately, and flames of passion never even flicker while decades spin past. Murakami seems to have an acute ability to write about humanity on a personal level but fails utterly when writing a convincing relationship. At times it’s like reading a Disney script.

    But as riddled with Murakami cliché as this book is, and infuriating and tiresome as his characters are, I kept reading. Totally addicted, desperate to find out more. It feels as if all of his work bar one or two examples has been building up to this kind of story and that he’s finally stroked out what has been churning around inside him for decades. Unrelated events begin to twist together, and I felt very stupid indeed when I didn’t see some of them coming. There’s subversion galore and beautiful, exotic ideas given perfect form. The impossible is given credence and even a sense of inevitability and the atmosphere is, as always, superbly worked. There is something quite special here, and although it is often hidden between two-dimensional characters and childish scenarios and what I find to be quite an objectionable worldview on occasion, when it’s given the space to break through and shine it is glorious. You don’t read 900 pages of a book in such quick time unless it’s doing something right, and if I complain loudly about Murakami, it’s more because I can sense what he’s trying to do and dearly want him to succeed as I see it rather than any malice towards him as a writer – I think he has a very unique insight and talent and it’s necessary for him to express it because it makes the world a more understanding and forgiving place. It’s just that he has always disappointed on other aspects and shows no sign of improving these and they are of such significance to any story that it lets everything else down.

    A word on the translation: my version couldn’t have done with some tightening up. The translation is clear but there are some repeated points bookending connected chapters split by 50 pages or so that I don’t think is purposeful – this is not a book with that kind of rhythm but that is a small complaint and maybe I am totally wrong.

    If you like his previous stuff you’ll lap this up. If you’ve never read Murakami before then it’s not in any way impenetrable (as usual, expect fanatics to claim this in order to convince themselves that they and only they with their years of training could understand such a book) but you may want to read some of his shorter stuff first so you know what you’re letting yourself in for.

  3. Sanshiro - Natsume Sōseki

    Part sarcastic, part funny, part helpless and part infuriating, this book is about a boy moving from rural Japan to 1903 Tokyo. He meets girls and he’s crap with them. The city terrifies him at first but he grows into it and the reason for him moving – university – doesn’t quite live up to his expectations. Instead of finding answers to his life, he finds more questions – but at the same time, the questions he moves with are answered – but of course he doesn’t realise that at the time.

    The honest descriptions of his gradual loosening of his ties with home and the blend of disenchantment and excitement at his new life are immediately recognisable. His ability to interact with women is infuriating but utterly sympathetic. The friends he makes piss you off chronically but you can’t wait for them to appear again. The portrayal of a fast-moving, new Japan is somewhat reliant on the reader being Japanese, I suspect (and this goes for Sanshiro, the character, too), but is still engaging enough for the foreign reader. The feel of the book as a whole is that of slow Sunday afternoons wrapped in headache-inducing banks of cloud punctuated by dazzling sunlight that bounces off the floor a little too brightly but nevertheless makes you feel very good indeed. You don’t know why it is enjoyable, so you make the effort to take a step back and just enjoy it for what it is.

    It’s difficult to describe the book because nothing much happens. But that’s the point. I burned through the 270 pages because it was so compelling that I read while on the bus – reserved only for the best reads because doing so makes me feel sick. If you know what I look like when I feel sick, that should be convincing enough for you to pick this up ASAP!

  4. "I stopped reading TWCTTE because there was no central character - so it seems funny that you were recommended it because of that. I got quite a way in, and started to find it tedious. I've worked a lot of office jobs in my time, and always thought there was a lot of comedy there, but this seemed very downbeat, and despite the style of the prose, it felt quite leaden. I probably also had something else I 'had' to read as well . . .

    Sometimes some acquaintances send me links of things I might enjoy reading, and it always freaks me out that they read my blog ( Sometimes I forget it's public.

    I'm currently reading Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. He's awesome, if you haven't read anything by him. The only other book of his I've read, apart from some essays and short stories, is The Yiddish Policemen's Union, which I think has massively effected the way I read and write."


    Perhaps I’m too easily seduced by novelty.

    I read Kavalier and Clay back when it came out and remember not enjoying it a great deal - I can’t remember why though. But it was years ago so perhaps I was too young.

    I love downbeat books! Not sure why - my tastes in other media run totally opposite to this.

  5. "Was interested in what you wrote about And Then We Came to the End, because it's one of only a handful of books that I got a fair way into and then put down. I might give it another try. I think the affect of the "we" voice in this case was I felt disconnected from everything that was happening. I've seen it work most effectively when it's used to suggest a much tighter unit. Have you read any Primo Levi? If Not Now, When is fantastic."


    Because I was about to start a job at an advertising firm so I asked around for any decent books about the subject - expecting guides and so on rather than fiction. I seem to remember somebody who knows me well saying that I’d relate to the main character.

    Out of interest, why did you put it down? 

    I’ve not read Primo Levi, no. But I’ve put him on my wish list now.

    Thanks for the follow + Q. I was wondering if anybody read this.

  6. My Life – Anton Chekhov

    Less of a short story and more of a mid-story, checking in at around 100 pages, this is probably my favourite piece of Chekhov writing.

    Everything wonderful about Chekhov is present here in a gloriously meandering, unfocussed style that nevertheless manages to keep you hooked and desperate to finish the story. It has Chekhov’s quiet Sunday afternoons that, despite coming from a culture that so old and alien to us, conjure up an incredibly familiar feeling of steamy kitchens and long, sun-slated hours where the dreaded evening always seems so far away, his characters tend to express an ideology rather than people (and the dialogue is somehow completely believable all its unrealism) and, of course, the ideas are unflinching in their honesty – this is coming from a man obsessed with the truth – no matter how much it may portray his own failings and uncertainty.

    There are moments where you feel you know where the story is going – such as when it describes the artistic endeavours of a well-off family concerned only with narcissism wrapped up as self-expression – who, despite their best efforts, manage to accomplish nothing outside of a hollow simulation of what they believe to be artistic integrity, or when the main protagonist rejects his middle-class upbringing in favour of mucking around in the dirt, but despite these themes coming to pleasing conclusions, they are merely eddies and distractions to the main thrust of the story – the journey of a man who knows that he doesn’t fit in to his heritage and destiny.

    Hypocrisy, disgust, isolation and spiritual peace are what you’re left feeling with once you turn the final page. Like everything I’ve read of Chekhov, there is no simple message or moral, but a chaotic look at the thought processes of a confused and frequently hurt man. The writing is a confession of a writer’s mistakes and what he’s learned from them – and especially what he’s ignored since. Chekhov’s stories cause you to recall the times you’ve looked down on the people around you when you’re in a bad mood, or when you’ve lashed out at your friends and family when you were too afraid to aim your vitriol at those who deserved it.  He casts all of your turmoil and self-doubt and confusion as completely normal. These are not healthy thoughts but they are there and they’re here in this story and you’d be hard pressed to find writing that captures these selfish and self-centred feelings in such a tender and compassionate way.

    Chekhov is seen as a master storyteller but he’s not universally loved. I’ve seen critics dismiss his characters and his storylines and even his style, but for me he’s one of very few writers who speaks with such a degree of honesty and sophisticated self-reflection.

  7. The Collected Tales - Nikolai Gogol

    Split into two sets of stories - those that take place in Ukraine and those in Russia, this is a collection that takes pride of place on my bookshelf. 

    The theme of each story tends to deal with the darker aspects of human nature – such as depravity, poverty, the squandering of talent and opportunity, groupthink and malice. However, the narrative never dips into over-sincerity or narcissistic exposition. There is a sharp, honest, knowing quality to the writing that is evident from the surface level aesthetics down to the very core of each story.

    There are some writers who are good storytellers and some who are known because of their penmanship skills. Even translated, Gogol is clearly both. The 13 stories in this collection, while undeniably Gogol’s, play with a range of styles and rhythms. He describes states of being and situations from the disintegration of one’s min to the excitement of a young girl’s booties, from the combat of a warrior to a human nose on legs with prose that is completely fitting to each situation. He is not scared of playing with a reader’s expectations in this arena. Yet somehow the writing is never inconsistent, either. 

    Pathos and menace are nearly always present, but somehow you feel comfortable in his hands. He plays and teases with you, drawing you in one direction before shoving you into another. Gogol paints his pictures with deep colours and complex textures, yet communicates all of this with a simple stroke, a glance in one direction that is fleeting but piercing, unapologetic, maybe dangerous in its unwavering loyalty to honesty. One scene (this does not spoil any of the stories), briefly shows a wizard flying past the moon in a magic saucepan. Written here this is sugar and twee. From the pen of Gogol it is delightful and energetic, entirely suited to the scene and, rather than fitting in lik a square peg into a pre-thought squarish hole, is in fact inevitable. It was reading this moment for the first time that I felt that rising excitement in my chest that tells me I’m reading genius. For me it’s a standout moment and one I return to again and again.

    But as I said, it’s not just the writing (and of course this is translated! Gogol is famous for the sophistication of his literary techniques but I shall never read his poetry as he intended me to) but the content of the stories, too. In the grand Russian tradition they tackle the very worst of humanity in a way that is rescued from cynicism with a tinge of optimism for the future, but Gogol’s inimitable - slightly mad, and obviously completely at odds with the world around him - mind doesn’t just twist some old formulas around but instead smashes them into each other and creates something brand new and rude in their originality. In each story you can see the germination of ideas explored by Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Kafka… and these ideas are spat out and dispensed with almost immediately. Most writers could spend a career delving into each one. The rate at which Gogol sprays them across the page is staggering and beautiful. It’s ‘The Mysterious Portrait’, however, that stands out as the true achievement. Anybody - anybody - who has ever had even an inclination towards art in the smallest bone in their body (in the ear, right?) needs to read it. Gogol lacerates through every affectation and whimsy in order to get to the truth in brutal fashion, executed with such style, with such sureness and swiftness and with such power that I find it difficult to type about right now without running downstairs to reread it.

    While dealing with lofty ideas and rich characters, the stories are also compelling and - importantly - fun. You want to see what happens. Not with dread or fear for the worst, but with excitement. It helps that even at his most morose, Gogol is funny. As with his writing style, he has it all - wit, sarcasm, slapstick and punch lines. He has his heroes and his villains, self-discovering, transcendence of thought and all-out action, the scenes of which put the imagination of Hollywood’s directors to shame. There is more packed into these 13 short stories than the entire careers of many giants of literature. If you read the stories in one sitting you’re left reeling, dizzy with ideas, unsure of which one to contemplate first.

    And the best thing about this collection is that this isn’t even Gogol’s best stuff. That would be Dead Souls Part I and II, which I’ll write about at some point in the near future,

  8. The Tale of Genji - Murasaki Shikibu

    This very long and very old book was written 1,000 years ago during the famous Heian period of Japan. Without turning all geeky and writing out a no-doubt poorly understood bit of history, it’s sufficient to say that this was, like many periods of history, a time of astonishing beauty and artistic achievement yet also absurdly dangerous, unhealthy and exploitative. It’s well worth reading up about it on the Internet because you will be enamoured.

    This book is unusual for those in the West because not only is it very old, but it was also written by a woman. However, the Heian period is famous for pumping out quite a lot of women’s fiction and I believe that this is because the Heian period was when the Hiragana syllabary was developed by women, for use exclusively by women. FWBW.

    It concerns the Shining Price Genji and his development from boy to old man. It is sensual, sexual, poetic and moving. Poetry is in fact the key point here – the story contains over 700 individual poems, sadly mostly very underwhelming due to the difficulties in translating from one language to another. However, the copious notes go some way towards explaining the meaning and word trickery that takes place in the original language and if you’re in the right frame of mind then it is possible to vaguely understand the overreaching concept of what’s happening in that try-not-to-focus-on-one-point-too-hard manner familiar to anybody who has spent time reading about various art movements or, in fact, any book written by Alfred Bester.

    I can only speak for myself as a Westerner, but this book provides a double hit of culture shock curiosity. I read a lot of Japanese fiction and I still come across prose – even in contemporary fiction – that make me realise that in many arenas, some subtle and some not, our societies developed in very different ways and have not really converged yet. Perhaps they never will.

    Being Japanese, The Tale of Genji frequently shows motivations and outcomes to thought processes that leave me a little puzzled and occasionally mediating on why I think in the way that I do that is so at odds with the characters I’m reading about. However, it also gives this the even more compelling/frustrating (delete as appropriate) twist of describing this within a society that is entirely alien to all but the experts in Heian culture.

    To make things even more difficult, plenty of the chapters overlap each other and incorporate different characters or points of view. The careful reader will go mad trying to fit this into their mental timeframe. I just ploughed ahead as I always do and made it fit retrospectively.

    It would be a waste of time to go into too much detail. Suffice to say that I’m talking about the bewildering amount of official, non-official titles and alternative names that each character carries but the very drives and ambitions and reactions to situations that are a fundamental part of a person’s being. We are talking about a society that on one hand judged a woman’s worthiness on the quality of her handwriting while on the other was perfectly happy to have these extremely delicate living monuments to a beautiful ideal shit in a box in the corner of the room.

    Normally I wouldn’t bother to discuss this kind of thing and focus instead on what makes the story and characters worthy of your time, but The Tale of Genji is steeped in an ancient and mysterious culture that is at once gorgeous to behold and terrifying in its callousness. It’s the same length as War and Peace but will take you twice as long to read. It’s important to know what you’re getting yourself into with this.

    Personally I found the first 300 pages or so to be engaging and insightful. As ever with a very old book, it was a thrill to read and recognise parts of modern humanity among the dust, and the Heian period, for all of its many, many faults, gives the story a powerful, moving, almost erotic charge. The next 400 pages were a struggle. There was a point where I was reading 4-5 pages a morning on the bus to work and falling asleep for the rest of the journey. While I could understand how it was a good read on a technical level, it was too much of a product of its time, delving into the detail of diplomatic affairs and subtleties of relationships that, to my shame, left me flummoxed. The rest of the book picked up again though, and I was hesitant to turn over the last page.

    The Tale of Genji is, according to the 2 Japanese people I know who have read it, a tough, complex read that not many people finish. The English translation wasn’t convoluted or knotted in any sense – indeed, the language is simple enough and there are plenty of notes that explain some of the more obscure scenes (perhaps too many, but this is a frequent complaint of mine with Japanese books). It’s just a bit of a drag in places. I can’t even pretend that I’ll read it again any time soon, but one thing is certain – I’m very glad I have read it and don’t consider the considerable amount of time it took me to be a waste. It’s an incredibly valuable insight into a very strange society and so rich in detail and imagery at times as to be quite staggering. It is, objectively, a beautiful achievement. It’s just not that entertaining. 

  9. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – (Into) The First Circle

    Difficult to know where to begin with this one. If you don’t know who Solzhenitsyn is then I’ll provide a quick explanation. A Russian who fought in WWII, returned, and was promptly put into political prison. For 11 years. This is the guy who brought the word ‘gulag’ into the English lexicon through sneaking his writing out to the West. Hard to imagine, but nobody really knew what was going on behind the Iron Curtain before this man popped up.

    That out of the way, The First Circle (Into… in Russian) is a work of fiction set over 3 days in a prison. It’s not as physically torturous as the labour camps were because it’s populated by former engineers and scientists working on various projects at the behest of Stalin.

    However, don’t think for a minute that the prisoners got away with anything. The mental torture inflicted on every prisoner is as hideous as it is subtle – uncertainty.

    Men taken at night without any warning; letters to and from families intercepted and destroyed; lights switched on in the middle of the night; meals not turning up; books taken away – Solzhenitsyn shows us how the human spirit can be crushed by taking away the smallest thing we take for granted. He shows how the prisoners’ identities are slowly sapped away and how, despite the walls and the barbed-wire fences and the lack of communication, this leaks into the prisoners’ families.

    Never mind Orwell and his boot on the neck – in this case fascism is a man forced to sleep with his arms hanging outside of his blanket – an action that goes against every instinct in one’s body.

    But like those other great Russian masters, Solzhenitsyn never sinks into immature black and white bad vs good. Oppressor and victim merge, and this is perhaps stretched to its fullest realisation when he goes on to get into Stalin’s head. How Solzhenitsyn must have toiled over this part of the book!

    I have always found myself attracted to artistic expression that concerns itself with isolation, misery, and loneliness. Not because I feel that this is what life is about, but because I think that it’s among these feelings that what we truly are is exposed and can therefore be examined. As a result I have often found myself blinking tears away as I have read/listened/gazed at whatever is in front of me – but always in a fuzzy melancholic knowledge that it’s all a simulation. This is different. I had to steel myself before reading it, I had to be careful that I didn’t read it on the commute to work (because doing so would have resulted in me walking in and putting my fist through my monitor), and I had to have at least an hour of uninterrupted quiet in front of me. For days afterwards I had to fight the temptation to slap whatever bullshit my fellow commuters were subjecting themselves to out of their hands and shoving a copy of this book at them instead.

    I have never read anything so menacing, so malicious and – most importantly – so real. The First Circle sometimes makes Dostoyevsky and Kafka look like simpering children – and the former was no stranger to prison and death sentences himself. This is the most affecting book I’ve ever read. The most sad and damming examination of humanity I’ve come across. But at the same time it’s as celebratory towards the human spirit as the end of Crime and Punishment is. It just has something more to it that’s only possible due to its subject matter – it also celebrates the triumph of freedom and warns how we should never lose sight of what this means to us.

  10. Life: A User’s Manual - Georges Perec

    It’s a fairly hefty book describing the history of the residents of a big block of flats in 1960s Paris. The prologue of the book describes the of-overlooked genius of ‘proper’ jigsaw puzzles, which sets both the tone and structure of the short chapters that follow. Each resident’s life interlocks with another - sometimes in a very direct manner, which both parties participating with their full knowledge, other times in a nebulous, hazy way that will never become obvious to two lifelong neighbours. I’ve heard that the travels from one room to another mirror those of a chess knight piece moving around each of the 64 squares on the chess board consecutively, but I’m not in any way smart enough to even know where to begin confirming this. I wouldn’t be surprised though, because both the central story (that of an eccentric billionaire who loves to paint) and the microstories dotted around him are frequently smart and hilarious.

    Despite each chapter being relatively short, Perec takes his time to describe furniture and art decor, paintings and letters and office knickknacks. The writing is extremely rich and deep, and Perec is obviously a very cultured man. His writing is functional and if not beautiful, certainly aesthetically pleasing in a way that modern authors sometimes forget to be - humility and charm fill every page. There is no effort to be smart; it simply is. This is a book worth chewing over and, certainly in my case, something that will stand up well to repeat readings.

Theme = Manuscript Neue