November 2019 | Books & Links

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Tuesday 26th November 2019

Fiction

The Secret Commonwealth – Philip Pullman

I’ve been looking forward to reading The Secret Commonwealth since I finished the last page of La Belle Sauvage two years ago. I love the original His Dark Materials trilogy, I enjoyed La Belle Sauvage, and The Secret Commonwealth was really good too. It’s much darker than I expected, and between some of the themes and scenes as well as the swearing it’s really not a children’s book (although publishers still bill it as one). My only criticisms are that I think it could have been shorter. I don’t mind long books, but some of the scenes involving the Magisterium introduced lots of new peripheral characters (perhaps they will become more central to the plot in book three) and made the pace drag a little. There were also a couple of encounters that felt improbable even for the HDM world, for example the scene in Prague when Lyra has just arrived by train and is drawn into a strange encounter involving an alchemist. My final issue is Malcolm’s romantic interest in Lyra. It seems unnecessary and a little bit shoehorned in as it doesn’t contribute to the story all that much.

It’s the middle instalment of a trilogy and felt like it was laying the groundwork for a lot of what will happen in book three, so I suppose I’ll just have to be patient until I can get my hands on that when it’s released.

Night Boat to Tangier – Kevin Barry

Night Boat to Tangier tells the life stories of two ageing Irish drug smugglers as they sit in a Spanish ferry terminal waiting for an estranged daughter to turn up on a boat to or from Africa. The chapters alternate between past and present, so the reader comes to understand the shape of these men’s lives. Night Boat was on the Booker longlist, but it’s important not to read too much into that. The Booker longlist tends to be populated by novels that are experimental and topical, and sometimes that is at the expense of a good narrative, strong characters or an enjoyable read. Night Boat is no exception. I feel quite strongly that a ‘clever’ novel isn’t enough, it has to be enjoyable to read too. For dark, gritty novels about difficult lives, there need to be moments of light or at least strong characters you feel a connection to as a reader. I feel that Night Boat didn’t have those features, and read more like it was written for the sole purpose of being nominated for a literary prize.

There were a few things I really didn’t like about Night Boat to Tangier. Mostly I didn’t like the writing style. The prose chapters, set in the past, have moments of beauty and lyricism, but at times I found it repetitive and clunky, for example when describing the sound of fast jets. I didn’t like the dialogue chapters set in the ferry terminal at all. There are no speech marks, just lots of white space between lines. At times it’s hard to work out who is speaking as it is very stream of consciousness. Barry has also written very Irish characters, and the dialogue is peppered with Irish turns of phrase I imagine many non-Irish readers don’t understand. Footnotes would have been helpful here.

As for the characters and the story, I didn’t find much to enjoy there either. The characters have no redeeming features, and the story is 200 odd pages of unrelenting melancholy. I finished this one because by the time I realised I didn’t like it I was half way through and it’s short, so I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I shouldn’t have bothered though as this book didn’t do it for me.

10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in This Strange World – Elif Shafak

The synopsis for 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds makes this one sound like it’ll be 308 pages of misery, but I was pleasantly surprised. 10 Minutes begins with the main character, a sex worker called Leyla, lying dead in a bin in Istanbul. Elif Shafak had read that the human brain continues to show signs of life for up to 10 minutes and 38 seconds after the heart stops beating, and she wanted to explore this in a novel. After the opening scene, each subsequent chapter begins with a smell or taste linked to Leyla’s memories, and her life story unfolds in this way. 10 Minutes is about gender inequality and violence against women, but it is also about the power of friendship and how friends can sometimes be more important to us than our family members.

10 Minutes is a book of two halves. The first half recounts Leyla’s life and friendships, and it’s heavy going, but the second half was completely different and unexpectedly funny. I was surprised by 10 Minutes as I thought it might be one of those Booker list books where the concept and structure take precedent over storytelling, but there’s a good balance between the two. 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds has what Night Boat to Tangier doesn’t in my opinion, and that’s strong characters I felt a great affinity towards.

Non-fiction

I Was Vermeer: The Legend of the Forger who Swindled the Nazis – Frank Wynne

I added this to my list of books to read after enjoying an article about art forgery in September. Frank Wynne recounts the true story of Han van Meegeren who in the 1930s and 1940s painted new paintings in the style of Vermeer, with the intention of having them authenticated as genuine by the art critics who had dismissed his work. I really enjoyed reading about how he did it, as it’s such a detailed and time consuming process. Wynne describes how van Meegeren selected period canvases to repurpose, carefully removed layer upon layer of paint, and then went about the small matter of creating masterpieces using period pigments. I know very little about art history, but I really enjoyed this one.

Graphic Novels

Hostage – Guy Delisle

Ed bought me copies of Guy Delisle’s Hostage and Jerusalem for my birthday in September and I have been saving them as I didn’t want to use them up too fast by reading them straight away as I knew I’d enjoy them. Yes, I know that doesn’t make sense, but it’s the way my brain works. I really enjoyed Hostage. The art style is sparse and a story about a guy chained to a radiator doesn’t sound like it should be a riveting read, but it was really good. Hostage is the true story of Christophe André who was held hostage for several months while working for MSF in Chechnya in 1997. The story focuses on his experience as well as the mind games he used to distract himself from what was going on.

Links

German novelists reflect on the fall of the Berlin wall on the thirtieth anniversary. My family moved to Berlin on the first anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall in November 1990 when I was four years old. I was very young and we lived on a British military base rather than in a civilian suburb so my experience was obviously very different and my memories aren’t as reliable, but it’s a part of history I’m very interested in because of my childhood in newly reunified Berlin.

East Berliners were out and about in West Berlin, easy to spot thanks to their cars, their clothes, the way they inspected shop displays, the bananas and oranges in their shopping bags. At the border, the East German Volkspolizei were friendly, in contrast to their earlier attitude, and in East Berlin I could walk into Humboldt University without going through the security check that had previously been obligatory. Otherwise people did what they always do; they went to work, did their shopping, sat in cafés. History is everyday life.

Bernhard Schlink

A YouTube video by Fran Meneses, a NYC based illustrator whose work I love. In this video she explains how her art style has changed over the years.

This article is quite interesting as it reveals a little bit of the creative process behind the CGI in the BBC’s His Dark Materials. I noticed how few characters have daemons in the TV drama version (everyone has one in the book) but it seems it was a creative decision they had to make because the scenes were becoming too busy with multiple animals walking around and interacting with each other.

White noise and anxiety.

Firefox and internet privacy. I use Firefox exclusively and have done so for years.

Concert pianist Tiffany Poon has partnered with Steinway and they’ve loaned her a grand piano in exchange for some publicity. I loved watching it be wheeled into her apartment and how excited she is to be able to have a Steinway at home.

Moses and Gaspar by Amparo Dávila shows the power of a well written short story. I have so many questions! Are they cats?

Seasons around the world.

Abandoned

The Magic Mountain – Thomas Mann

I abandoned this one because I didn’t like the translation. It’s really stilted and awkward to read, and I just had a sense that it would end up being a slog to see it through to the end rather than a reading experience I’d enjoy. I’ll keep an eye open for a copy of the Woods translation as I’ve read that it’s much better than the original by Lowe-Porter.

Summer Before the Dark – Volker Weidermann

I read half of this, but didn’t feel inspired to finish it. It’s a fictionalised biography of a summer Stefan Zweig spends in Ostend, Belgium, on the cusp of World War 2. I love Stefan Zweig’s writing and thought I’d enjoy this, but it didn’t interest me all that much. Perhaps it’s the way it’s written, as it jumps all over the place using letters and other correspondence to tell the stories of a series of Jewish émigré authors gathering in the beach resort of Ostend in the summer of 1936 and feels too broad in scope as a result. I think I’ll get my hands on a copy of Stefan Zweig’s autobiography instead.

Books