The reluctant fundamentalist – Mohsin Hamid

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This is an extremely well written book on a difficult topic. Challenging the stereotyping and scaremongering that always surface around cultural or religious rifts, Hamid manages to keep the story engaging and even pleasant to read. The unusual conversational styling is well constructed and avoids being clunky or distracting. The language was beautiful and pitched just right to create the warm tone of an educated man, from a land with a proud tradition of poetry and storytelling, recollecting a series of events ranging from perplexing to incomprehensible. The narrator was not lovable or good but very human and understandable, a real and relatable person refusing to be wholly defined by their labels or circumstances. A brilliantly observant book that can be read and read into as much as you wish. If only it were less, rather than far more, poignant today than when it was written.

For a more detailed plot review head to the wonderfully written post by Miss quickly at the blue bore which inspired me to dig these thoughts out the archive.

It is not always possible to restore one’s boundaries after they have been blurred and made permeable by a relationship: try as we might, we cannot reconstitute ourselves as the autonomous beings we previously imagined ourselves to be. Something of us is now outside, and something of the outside is now within us.

From: the depths of the TBR shelf, origin unknown.

Read: April 2015 as my ‘it’s ok, I’m early’ backup book. I have never been so punctual as the week I was reading this!

Felt: like I was sat with them in the cafe, and ashamed of how familiar and common all those acts of prejudice were.

Liked: the clever construct and seamless switching between the past and present.

Would recommend: to everyone. Would read again someday.

 

Strong Opinions – Vladamir Nabokov

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Picked up on a whim, this turned out to be an unexpectedly fun read from the author of Lolita. A collection of interviews and articles, Nabokov comes across as someone who does indeed have ‘strong opinions’ and is a powerfully intelligent and uncompromising character who does not yeald to public demand or scrutiny. Yet his insistance on scripting all interviews, feeling his spontaneous English inadequate for expressing himself,  is the act of a man who cares what the world thinks of him. His mastery of the written word is never in question and the book brims with fantastic quotes from the very first sentence:

‘I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author and I speak like a child’.

Covering a wide range of personal and global topics, including his beloved butterflies, this was a good book to dip in and out of. I didn’t make it through all the articles but enjoyed the interviews and have picked out a few great lines.

On Russia

I will never go back, for the simple reason that all the Russia I need is always with me: literature, language and my own Russian childhood.

On his travelling and where he feels is home.

The writer’s art is his real passport

On an artist’s motivation

I don’t think an artist should bother about his audience.

In short, it was the bizarre mix of self deprecation and arrogance in the very first line that led me to read all that followed in the voice of an eccentric genius and become very fond of the man and his peculiar ways. Nabokov feels very much a person belonging to a different culture and time and it makes for a fascinating read, in small doses before bedtime.

From: the library

Read: before bed – and not all the way through (shock horror!)

Felt: pleasantly diverted and in the presence of mad genius

Liked: the frank, grumpy honesty presented in flowery elegance

Would recommend: to fans of Russian writing and the literary set

* the postcard/bookmark is my favourite painting by Finnish artist Askeli Gallen-Kallela of lake Keitele, hanging in the National Gallery.

The second life of Sally Mottram – David Nobbs


In short, this felt a bit like a Miss Marple but without the murder mystery. A modern day  St Mary Mead with a bit more backbone. Lovely read that was funny without trying too hard or taking itself too seriously. Great to see a book mention suicidal thoughts and attempts without being morose and showing that deciding to live is not a ‘failed attempt’ but a positive and powerfully good decision (however tough). Not up there with ‘Obstacles to young love’ but still good.

From: the library

Read: Feb 2016 instead of a long list of chores

Felt: Mildly charmed and amused. Slightly peeved with the ending.

Would recommend: for a gentle lighthearted distraction

Belonging – Umi Sinha

imageMy entire being wants to condemn this book for shoehorning every conceivable sadness into its pages, for representing India through the eyes of the empire and for being yet another book about one of the world wars. But I learned a lot. It was refreshing to see the Allies portrayed more realistically than just the glorious victorious and to highlight the racism, perpetuated by history’s omission, against the commonwealth countries that fought and died alongside the UK, USA and ANZAC forces.

It also felt important to have the hazy days of the empire cut through with the reality of a rule that could be brutal. That there was savagery on both sides was no mitigation of the atrocities committed. A recent survey about our attitudes to colonialism (will hunt down the link) shows that there is still so much ignorance in the UK on the subject and hopefully this book will encourage people to find out more.

As a novel, this is captivating writing and the characters are very real and their many flaws and terrible thoughts seem to make them all the more human and even a bit more likeable. I did spend the entire book going ‘really, more suffering? Seriously?’ and I had to put the book down and walk away for a bit when there was mention of ‘mixing races giving bad blood’. I know this may have been to highlight how ingrained prejudices were, but it makes for very difficult reading – perhaps all the more so because of it being not yet totally eradicated from society. The book served as a haunting reminder of how quick we are to trample each other for survival and forget that the ‘enemy’ is probably not the person we are facing (Mina’s character was a good example of this).

In short, it is a thought provoking but tough read. It was mercifully quite a quick read and probably worth it if you can stand the perpetual misery and have something cheerful lined up next or a lot of chocolate on hand.

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From: Heathrow Terminal 5 on the way to NYC

Read: Jan 2016 in lunch breaks and through stormy evenings

Felt: Horrified, frustrated

Liked: that neither the people or the regimes were seen as flawless or wholly good or bad.

Would recommend: tentatively to those who don’t mind a grisly read

From the land of Green Ghosts – Pascal Khoo Thwe

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This is a transporting and absorbing read, yet to call it magical or enchanting feels far too flippant for writing that covers so much real suffering and violence. Pascal Khoo Thwe’s life story, from growing up in a catholic tribe in Burma to fighting in the jungle as a rebel, feels an important one to share. His keen observations and favouring of explanations in place of simple descriptions bring his narrative alive. The clarity of his writing and matter of fact approach do justice to both the delightfully fantastical and the unjustifiable atrocities he repeatedly witnessed. From the Padaung to Mandalay and on into the jungle, this is a captivating, educating and eye opening tale. Hand drawn illustrations and photographs underline the reality of both the wonders and the horrors.

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Looking for a few quotes, just one paragraph contained these two gems and every page is filled with meaningful and mesmerising passages.

On eating wasps

The meat of the baby wasp is tender, and the texture is somewhere between scrambled eggs and roast prawn….(many years later, I was to read Lewis Caroll. My descriptions sound quite like him but are literally true.) ….We regarded wasps as a delicacy, which is why we tried to be so precise in describing their taste – rather like wine-lovers in Europe.

On hanging honeycomb on doors to ward off spirits: Continue reading “From the land of Green Ghosts – Pascal Khoo Thwe”

1984 by George Orwell

Just a short note since most people have heard of or read this already but, having hated it first time through and rediscovered it some years later, I thought I’d put down a few words in its favour.

Yes, this is a classic, but being a classic does not always mean being gripping, thought provoking and possibly even more relevant today than when it was written (here’s looking at you CCTV, GPS tracking and mega corporations that follow every online move). This is not some dusty old tome, nor is it simply a political manifesto. The book follows a man trying to survive, humanity intact, in a world where every movement and thought is watched and the past can be rewritten. Orwell captures human emotions and failings with frightening accuracy in an inhuman environment.

Personally, his greatest acheivement was not the brilliant foresight or captivating plot but managing to keep the book fairly easy to read and even finding room to be funny! Definitely one for the read and reread pile.

 

 

Patience by John Coates

This is a glorious book. It was such a magical read and I think it’s my favourite, a bold statement from someone who is too indecisive to decide on a morning cereal, let alone a favourite anything. Adopted from an Oxfam shop purely for its sleek style and beautiful 1950s patterned endpapers from Persephone, this book was one wonderful surprise after another.

Beyond a delightful heroine who sees the world in a dreamy detached way, this is a frank commentary on feminism, religion, sex and social expectations that is still fresh and really very funny. Patience’s self discovery, her wonder at life and her straight forward perception of the world that was often mistaken for ignorance resonated so strongly with me that I was stunned to see it was written by a man, and a man in the 1950s at that! It felt like a small miracle. Please don’t think I’m under any impression men can’t empathise, I was just delighted to find that someone had done, and with such clarity, so far ahead of their time (and no I didn’t clock the name on the cover, I tend to get a bit over excited and just dive headlong into books!).

There is a great and much more articulate review over on Yasmine Rose’s book blog that puts all my feelings about it into words, while I’m still waving my arms about and exclaiming ‘fabulous’, ‘incredible’ and ‘you simply must read it’.

Reading it for the second time, it was just as funny, I had slightly forgiven it for the whole orgasmic mountains and violins metaphors and really enjoyed the forward by Maureen Lipman that gave me the confidence to start waving the book under friends’ noses and insisting they sit down and enjoy it immediately.