This is a slow book. Not much is happening over 572 pages. The worst thing in the protagonist's life has happened already, and has turned out to be false, before the story starts. There isn’t a quest for an mysterious author, as was the case in Mercier’s bestseller and masterpiece Night Train to Lisbon. Rather, this book takes you into the life of Simon Leyland, a translator by trade, a lover of words and languages.
All the people mentioned throughout share that fascination, which leads to many interesting discussions on terminology and the sound of certain words in certain languages. Having studied semantics and language sciences, I thoroughly enjoyed that. I also loved the philosophical touch of the book. I had wished philosophy would play just as big a role as it did in Nighttrain.
What I didn’t like so much were the many anecdotes. There were lots of side characters who were introduced with pretty much all of their life’s stories. And then they were repeated in letters.
By the end of the book, Leyland begins writing his first ever story, rather than translating or retelling other’s stories in other languages. Without giving away too much: it is then that Mercier’s book falls into place and everything makes total sense.
Leyland is probably in his early sixties, and more than once during reading I asked myself if readers of that same age category would enjoy it more than I – being 30 – did now. I don’t recognize the feeling of “being finished with life” in a satisfied way; that’s not because life treated one badly, but just because it’s been enough, one has seen everything, felt everything, and just is nourished.
Through the eyes of Jack Burden, we follow the rise and fall of Willie Stark, a politician in a Southern State in the USA. Originally an idealist (his biggest project is to build a hospital that offers care for everyone, for free), he soon learns that achieving his goals is practically impossible without corruption.
Jack observes this development of his friend and boss. More than a story of Willie Stark's career, this novel follows Jack's personal development. He falls in love with his childhood friend Anne, starts studying Law - a topic that doesn't interest him in the least, but he chooses because he suspects his girlfriend expects him to study it -, but breaks up with her for a reason unbeknownst to himself. He becomes a journalist and somehow ends up being Willie Stark's right hand, helping him in corrupt businesses which also makes him manipulate his childhood friend Adam, Anne's brother, and attempt to manipulate Judge Irwin, a longtime friend of his mother and a kind of mentor for himself - with fatal effects.
Over the course of time, Jack has developed a nihilistic approach, seeing himself as merely an observer of life and his relations, but a number of events make him realize that everything that happens does have a direct cause, and in turn every action he takes has consequences.
A very strongly written book, deeply psychological, and the language and style is much fun to read.
"Stories from village life? Sounds boring", said my husband when I read the blurb aloud. "Amos Oz has written them, I don't think so," was my reply.
And they were anything else than boring.
Eight stories of eight people living in the same old village, who are all somehow lost or lonely: a middle aged single woman who is waiting for her nephew who was to visit, but isn't in the bus. A widowed woman that lives with her grumpy old father, a former member of the Israeli parliament, who complains about digging sounds from beneath the house at night - as if someone was digging the facade of his life away. He suspects the Arab student that lives in the house's shed, but then it turns out the student hears the noise too. A real estate agent that visits the old house he want to buy to replace it by a modern resort, but it toured the house by the owner's granddaughter and lives an intimate moment with her in the basement. A middle aged man that receives a note from his wife stating he's not to worry about her, but when she does not show up at home, he goes searching for her. Another man, living with his old mother, is visited by a stranger, who isn't clear about the subject of his visit, but slowly it turns out he seems to force himself upon the family in order to receive a part of the inheritage. A nameless single man finds himself at a singing gathering in a house where a 16 year old son committed suicide. Though there is a single woman and they seem to feel attracted towards each other, he is more attracted to the upstairs room where the tragic event happened.
And Oz is merciless. The stories create a sense of unease, the unease felt by the protoganist is felt by the reader. In every story, the protagonist is left in some disconcerting situation: in bed, without knowing where the nephew is but in possession of a random coat; in the bedroom, suddenly hearing the strange digging noise too; in a cellar in the dark with a locked door; on a park bench, waiting for his wife after searching the village for her; on a bed with both the mother and the stranger; beneath the parent's bed, the exact spot where the boy shot himself.
And we, the readers, are left just there. The story stops, and we never learn if Gili's nephew came the following they, if Beni's wife returned, if Jardena freed Jossi from the cellar, or what was the reason for the digging sounds Pessach, Adel and Rachel started to hear. This is wildly disturbing. At first, I was irritated, a bit angry even, wanted Oz to just clear the case. But after a night's sleep I realized this unease was just genius. Village life boring? Every person has his story, his fears, his package of life to carry. And they often aren't relieved in the next minute, or the next day. Why would we, the readers, have the right to be granted that satisfactory feeling then?
Well, this is a book that demands your full attention. No comfy reading on the couch while you're husband is watching a movie with this one! The story jumps around in both character perspective and time, without even indicating this by a using a paragraph break. Nowadays, we're spoiled by chapter captions telling you the exact date and - especially in crime/detective novel - occassionaly even time of day described, but Conrad considered his readers were able to find that out for themselves. Or he was just being a very true early modernist.
Besides the swifts in time and people, the plot is complex in itself. It's done brilliantly though, and actually it's amazing how Conrad manages to create a fictional country with a rich and complex political history, including a society and a whole lot of key characters with their own personal history in *just* 600 pages.
It's a story that shows how the idea of money and wealth destroys even the most sober and noble-hearted people. It's a story about colonialism, about Europeans treating indigineous people as savages (something that Conrad is guilty of himself, according to Chinua Achebe) and them trying to force their political systems onto worlds and societies that are incomparable to theirs. It learns us that money and not individuals actually rules the world and that greed makes people as unreasonable as can be.
It's a tough read, but this book definitely is a great literary accomplishment.
‘The Red Pony’ is a beautiful novella consisting of four episodes out of the life of Jody Tiflin, a boy living on a California ranch in the first third of the 20th century. In each of the four stories, Jody experiences something that initiates adolescence in his young soul: in the first, he’s getting a red pony to take care of. He feels his responsibility and takes this very serious. When the pony is left outside in the rain for an whole afternoon, it get an infection and dies a couple of days later. Jody’s despair upon its dead is heartbreaking. Also, he learns that Billy Buck, the ranch-hand, isn’t infallible, since he had stated it would be safe to let the pony stay out - an insight that hurts Billy’s own feelings as well. The third story also has to do with horses. This time, Jody is promised to be getting the responsibility for a colt yet to be born. But when time comes, the colt is in the breech position and so Billy Buck has to kill the mare and perform a cesarean section in order to save the colt in order to keep the promise. Jody learns that birth isn’t necessarily a happy thing.
In the second and fourth story, old men are the central figures to take effect on Jody. An old Mexican man appears at the ranch, requesting to stay there to die, because he was born on those grounds. Jody’s father refuses but offers him to stay for the night. Jody is intrigued by the old man, assuming he must be full of adventurous stories, but doesn’t get much out of him. In the morning, the man has taken an old horse from the barn, of which Jody’s father Carl had said it resembled the man. Jody feels worried about the old man who has now left for the unknown mountains.
In the last story, Jody’s grandfather comes to visit, to Carl’s despair, for he can only talk about the time he led a group of people across the plains. Jody feels sorrow for his grandpa and encourages him to tell his stories when Carl makes clear he loathes them. In both of the stories, Jody is actually the one having pity and acts selfless.
Each of the stories is beautifully written. It’s amazing how Steinbeck always manages to touch me deeply using rather simple language. A great storyteller, a great talent.
I think Annie Proulx deserves to be called the Mistress of Bizarre Deaths. The cruel ways in which characters meet their ends was already what I remember her Wyoming stories for, but this book tops all of those!
The only stable factor within Accordion Crimes (except for the deaths) is a little green accordion, which throughout the book gets into the hands of countless people from various descent. Roughly a century goes by, while Proulx takes us on a wild and windy road through her limitlrss fantasy. The book is divided into 8 parts, and each of those has families with other roots in focus: Italian, African, German, Irish, French, Mexican, Polish, Norwegian, and travelling through the States of Louisiana, Iowa, Texas, Maine, Illinois, Montana, and Mississippi. While telling stories of ordinary people, all with some interest in accordion/traditional/folk music, Proulx gives us insight into the history of migrants, acceptance, assimilation or staying true your own traditions, and racism in the US. Even within the seperate parts of the books there are short stories, which makes me marvel about the immense variety of stories and character Annie Proulx has in store. Her harsh humor made me smile quite some times, the US is a bitter country when you base your impressions on Proulx' narrations. Nevertheless, I always love to get lost in them.
‘Heart of a Dog’ is a satirical novel which attacks Bolshevism. It was written a year after Lenin’s death and at the height of the NEP period, when communism appeared to be relaxing in the Soviet Union. It wasn’t published in the Soviet Union until 1987, but in the “underground” it circulated nevertheless.
In the story, a professor takes care of a stray dog, from whose perspective the story is being told initially. It soon turns out the professor didn’t take in the dog, which he names Sharik, out of pity, but because he wants to conduct an experiment with him. On his operation table, he gives the dog a human pituitary gland, as well as human testicles which were taken from a homeless guy with bolshevist sympathies….. After the operation, the rest of the story is being told by the professor’s assistant, Bormenthal. In the days and weeks following the operation, the dog’s manners and his looks begin to transform, until he is a human being (albeit quite a primitive version of one). The professor and Bormenthal attempt to teach him manners, but they fail dramatically. Rather, Sharik, who renamed himself Poligraf Poligrafovich Sharikov, turns out to become an aggressive Bolshevist.
The novel is quite hilarious, I grinned at Bormenthal’s desperation several times. Of course it reminded me of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, though that one is more of a horror story whereas this has quite a dose of satire. 4 stars.
I decided to read this book during a visit to the Mauritshuis, where Carel Fabritius' 'Goldfinch' is one of the masterpieces on display. A good friend of mine does guided tours there and I was lucky enough to be able to take part in an exclusive one he did for his friends. Of course, he also stood still by this wonderful, though sad painting of the beautiful bird that's held captive solely for entertainment of it's owner.
Which is basically true for the main character in Donna Tartt's book and the painting, too. Young Theo and his mother are visiting an exhibition in a New York museum when terrorist attack it. His mother dies immediately, but Theo, who was in another room at the fatal moment, survives. He stays with a dying man, who gives him a ring and hints to bring it to his partner, Hobie, while slowly fading. In his confusion, Theo takes the painting that he and his mother had admired while leaving the dusty building.
This is the point where Theo's maelstrom of tragedy begins. Initially, he's taken into the home of his friend Andy's family. He doesn't dare to return the painting at first and, at some point, he realizes it's now too late - especially when he starts helping out in Hobie's antiques store. Somehow he doesn't want to part from it anyway, he loves looking at it.
Just as he's going to find his way back into life because he feels loved by and part of Andy's family, his alcoholist father suddenly turns up. He takes Theo to his home and his drug dealing girlfriend in Las Vegas. It's there where Theo meets Boris, who introduces him to drugs. Theo thankfully uses narcotics to forget the actual agony of losing his mother and the happy life he could have had.
And he more than thankfully hides in delirium when newspaper articles appear about other paintings that were found after being believed destroyed during the museum's attack once he's returned to New York. At that time, he works with Hobie again, reopening the antique shop and earning money by selling furniture that Hobie restored as if they were originals. Convinced he AND Hobie are going to end up behind bars when the painting is found, he hides it in a storage safe for years, but doesn't stop his illegal selling activities nor his drug use.
Years later, Boris returns back into his life and has shocking news: he lost the painting. It's only now that Theo finds out he had never had it since Las Vegas, for Boris stole it from him when they were still teenagers and Theo never had had the guts to open up the package, in which he sealed the painting when his father had almost discovered it. He's been using it as a collateral in drug deals for years. The quest to return the painting leads them to a thrilling hunt in Amsterdam, to murder and Theo's almost-suicide - but eventually to a happy end.
This book combines coming-of-age story of a traumatized boy with a thriller and is done so so very pleasantly. I thoroughly enjoyed the extensive descriptions of, e.g., Hobie's restoration work, for I love art and all things old. At a certain point I was afraid it was going to be too much "I was so drunk/stoned and slept for 2 days straight" as in The Secret History, but there was a twist in the story just before that happened, thank goodness. I enjoyed balancing on the edge of liking-detesting the main character and to be a witness of his struggle to get through life. He isn't a typical main character, for he's not a hero and no "good guy" either. But nonetheless, Donna Tartt manages to capture the reader over almost 900 pages - not in the least because of her clever structuring - a great accomplishment.
The only thing I didn't like was the essay-like monologue by Theo on ethics and carressing things beautiful. I was somehow waiting for another plot twist, which didn't come. If those 30 pages would have been placed outside of the story by calling it Epilogue, I would have given it 5 stars, probably.
This book is exactly how I know Annie Proulx: a bit harsh, a tad mysterious, and taking place in a small forgotten town somewhere in the middle of nowhere in the United States. The story centers around Quoyle, a middle-aged man who lost his parents after they jointly committed suicide. He’s married to an abusive woman, Petal, who openly sleeps with other men and does drugs. When she and her drug-addict boyfriend try to sell Quoyle’s daughters, Petal dies in a car accident. The police returns the two girls to Quoyle, whose life is really falling apart at this time. Without having to much of a plan, he drives to Newfoundland, where his father grew up and his aunt Agnes is still living. Agnes convinces him to stay and build up a life of his own here. He finds a job at the local newspaper, where he’s to write about accidents as well as incoming and outgoing ships; the shipping news.
He meets several locals and step by step learns more about his ancestors. The life on the wild island transforms him. It’s like he’s finally finding to himself, discovering his inner worth, and emerges from his shell. This allows him to develop a close friendship and eventually a relationship to a woman, Wavey. He learns that human relationships can be enriching and not just threatening. Beautiful!
Max Havelaar was a VERY important book in shaping and modifying the Dutch colonial policy in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.
The protagonist, Dutch colonial administrator Max Havelaar, tries to battle against a corrupt government system in Java, which was then a Dutch colony. Multatuli’s book made European readers aware of the fact that their wealth was only possible because people on the other side of the world were suffering. It illustrates the hypocrisy of wealthy Dutchmen in the colonies, who rather looked away than act against the exploitation of poor natives by the Indonesian government – because it helped them and their home country The Netherlands become wealthier too, of course.
This is one of those books that really made a change in history. People warned me that it was boring, but I didn’t find it that boring at all. In fact, the chapters by Droogstoppel were super funny, and the chapters taking place in the Indies were so intriguing/fascinating they couldn’t be boring.