Welcome to Hokitika

It’s been ages since I’ve last posted a review here. Not because I haven’t read anything during this period, but mostly because I’ve been busy, and not so much in shape lately. Work has become somewhat irritating and stressful, I went back to school (learning the secrets of book publishing and publishers – all teachers say it’s not as romantic as we usually imagine it, hope it doesn’t break my heart), and I’ve also been a bit blue due to the weather changes and stuff. One of the books I’ve read in this silent period, which made a good impression, and about which I would post now was The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. I would rather skip writing a review about The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Physics of Sorrow, because they wouldn’t be the best and nicest posts I’d write.

I must admit I was a bit worried of the size of The Luminaries, when I first picked it up. It’s been a while since I’ve read a book of such size, and I was afraid it would take me forever. Then I read a few comments on Goodreads from people who were complaining about how detail-oriented Catton’s writing is with whole paragraphs and pages of descriptions and plus information, which the book could do without. If there is one thing I don’t like in a book, it’s long and detailed descriptions. If I see a one-pager about a crack in a rock or a tree on a hill – I scream and run. This is one of the reasons I never liked classical literature – even being half Russian didn’t make reading Russian classics any easier or more enjoyable. So, I took a deep breath, made a strong coffee, sat down with the book, and sank. Just like Godspeed barque did at some point in the story.

Yes, The Luminaries is full of detailed descriptions, it gives loads of background and plus information about characters, history, or places, but it’s done in such a manner, that you actually enjoy it. It’s like when you listen to a live storyteller, or you’re having a discussion with one. One thing leads to the next, oh and by the way, did you also know, and you know, and now I mention this I also remember. You end up sucked in the story, and just following it. I also didn’t feel the size of the book, because of how rich the story is. There are about 20 characters in it, all of them richly described, all of them introduced with their flaws and strengths, each of them with her or his own personal story – it’s like reading several novels at once.

The center of the story are the events which take place one night in Hokitika – a hermit is found dead in his home, a whore is found almost dead after supposedly trying to kill herself with opium, the richest man in the region is gone, the barque Godspeed set sail for an unannounced voyage, and a stranger arrives.

The interesting thing is that in the first quarter of the book you already know who the person at fault for all of this is, but none of the 12 main characters can prove any of it. They combine powers, they divide them, they all tell their story in the whole thing, and gather the different pieces of the puzzle to give you an idea of what really happened and how. One found a document in the deceased’s house, another one was close with the whore, a third one spoke with one of them shortly before these events took place, and if they all sit down and share their stories, they might as well come up with a solution.

This was a very rich and enjoyable read! I’ve never been a fan of books which have won the Man Booker prize, but this one was an exception. A pretty good one. Don’t read this book to find deep truths. Don’t read it expecting some life-changing writing. Read it for enjoyment. Read it to relax and travel in the gold-digging era of New Zealand.

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Avilion

I’ve been meaning to read Margaret Atwood for quite some time now, and when I got The Blind Assassin as a present for my birthday back in June (by who else than Miss Inga herself) it made me really happy. Finally!, I thought to myself, because I already have so many books, I wasn’t planning on visiting a bookstore and buying anything any time soon, not even Atwood.

I started worrying about writing this blog while I was still reading The Blind Assassin. I had no idea how to write about it, I was lost for words, what to say? How? This is a book with several stories in it. A family history, a love story, a science fiction novel, and a couple of betrayals. All these stories intertwine so well, that only a master of the pen would be able to follow through with all of them, and make this book so stark and complete. Even though there are a few stories within the story, they are all so tightly connected and homogeneous, you don’t feel like dividing your attention at all. You just follow the flow of the lines, and go forward. The book evolves so well, and the stories develop so finely, that at first you think one thing, then you realise you were wrong, and it’s not what you’ve expected. Then something else happens that changes your perspective, and you just keep on reading, because you need to know.

The book tells the story of Iris Chase. Or actually she does it herself in one of the stories in it, while the other one is the story of, and in, a science-fiction novel called The Blind Assassin by Iris’s sister Laura, published posthumously after Laura drove off a bridge. While the book we read deals with the story of Iris’s life her sister’s death, the book within the book deals with two love stories. Those of two lovers meeting secretly in strange flats, in attics and basements, in back streets. And it is during these meetings that the man tells another story to the woman – the story of a blind assassin from the planet Zycron, sent to kill a tongueless virgin.

Why did Laura drive off the bridge? What happened with the blind assassin and the virgin? How does Iris come into this picture? Do these stories even connect in any way?

When I started reading this book I immediately knew it would be hard for me to put down and turn the light off, or leave the flat, or basically – stop reading in any way. I was lucky enough to spend a weekend alone. I did not leave the flat even to go to the shop. I would occasionally stop reading just to get some food, or to not have too much of it at once. When the weekend was over I deliberately went to work with the tram again, instead of my car. Because I wanted to read more of it. It still keeps me under its influence, though it’s been a couple of days since I’ve finished it. And still, here I am lost for words.

Elephants

When I finished reading A History of Danish Dreams by Peter Hoeg, I knew that’s not the last I’ll read by him. This first book made such a big impression on me, I was already looking forward to getting my hands on another of his works. There is Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, of course, but that is probably his most popular novel, so I wanted to keep it for later. Read something less popular first. And since The Elephant Keepers’ Children was what I was considering for our 20 books from 20 countries projet (and it lost to A History of Danish Dreams), I decided it would make a great second choice.

I am happy that back in August last year (exactly one year, what an interesting coincidence) I chose to read the History, and not The Elephant Keepers’ Children. Good as it was, I don’t think it would have left the strong impression Hoeg‘s debut novel did, and I’m not sure I would have been so eager to come back to his writing. Of course, I would have read Smilla’s Feeling for Snow sooner or later, because it’s been on my wish list for quite some time now, and I already have it on my to-read shelf, but most probably I wouldn’t have hurried too much.

The Elephant Keepers’ Children reminded me about the History of Danish Dreams quite a lot. It was written in the same style with long sentences full of loads of information, with a huge number of characters roaming around and giving ever more and more details, telling so many stories at the same time, you start feeling dizzy with information after about five pages. The story goes not only into the future, with you expecting to see what will happen, but also goes back into the past with all of the background stories and explanations you get. I must admit Hoeg is a master storyteller, I am seriously impressed by the power of his imagination, and the way he manages to envelope details and stories. With this book, however, he wouldn’t win me as a fan, even though I saw the same mastery in it, as in his other work.

The Elephant Keepers’ Children is a bit chaotic with a few obvious deus ex machina moments in it. This is the story of three children, Peter, Tilte, and Hans, and their dog Basker, who end up on a quest to find their parents who disappear (too bad it wasn’t Karl Lauder in their place). Their father, a priest, and their mother, an organ player in the church, end up plotting a… terrorist attack against the Grand Synod (a meeting of ALL religions in the world) in Copenhagen. They also wanted to steal the religious treasures on display during the Synod, which is something the children want to prevent from happening. Of course this means that the parents have a lot of people after them – a cruel school principal, a bishop, a psychiatrist, and some random mafia representatives, who are also trying to keep the children apart and away in the same time. Well, the kids end up doing their own investigation, as well as running away from the above mentioned group of people. They find their parents, escape the principal, psychiatrist, and bishop, find love, and forgive that damn Karl Lauder, no matter how strange that is. All this while they grow wiser, discover the meaning of love, religion, and brotherly/sisterly love. Seems too much? Believe me, I just told you about one fifth of what’s going on in this book!

In its style the book reminded me of a children’s or a comedy book. Quite often it reminded of Lemony Snicket‘s A Series of Unfortunate Events, or Jonas JonassonsHundred-Year-Old Man. In the same time, however, I felt it had the pretension to be something more serious and thus it didn’t give me the pleasure Snicket or Jonasson did. The narrator was a 14-year-old boy, and the style would have been just perfect, had the main character not tried to deal with such serious topics, in such a serious way, while trying to be funny.

I do recommend reading Peter Hoeg. But in case you’re about to choose some of his books, I’d suggest going for something else than The Elephant Keepers’ Children as a starter.

Next stop – Canada!

Bingo.

I’ve never played bingo, so I don’t really know how it goes and how fun it is, but I do love buying a scratch card or two occasionally. The Bingo Palace gave me a similar feeling to the one I have when I get another scratch card – I’m happy and excited, hoping for the best, but when I see I have two numbers missing I just smile and sigh. I don’t feel I’ve hit the jackpot with this book, but yet again I don’t regret a single minute of reading it. When you buy a scratch card you fully realise that not winning is in the pack, but the experience is still worth it. You do it for the fun of it.

Louise Erdrich became one of my favorite authors really fast. I read The Plague of Doves, and that was about it – I fell for her writing. Love Medicine only made it stronger, and Tracks just reconfirmed my feelings for her novels by becoming my favorite so far. I feel that The Bingo Palace didn’t have the same impact on me, and didn’t impress me as much as the above mentioned books, though I still found and felt Erdrich’s unmistakable touch in creating the plot and characters. The structure of the book also had her special mark – each chapter covers the story of a different character, and all these stories come together to introduce the overall plot.

The main thread was about luck and love, and the connection between the two – the love for luck, and the luck in love, I suppose. Putting everything you have, all faith and love, and gambling it away blindly by entrusting your chances to ghosts. The main character here was the young Lipsha Morrissey, who is in love with Shawnee Ray and tries to win her heart over from Lyman Lamartine. All this is happening while there are bingo games, gambling, and frauds. On the one hand I felt sympathy for Lipsha, being considered a loser, being unloved, being looked at as a failure. In the same time, however, there were cases when he irritated me almost as much as he irritated the people around him. I guess that makes his character a well-developed one, able to influence me just as much as the people in the plot around him.

For some reason, however, I did not always feel the connection between the different characters’ stories. At moments they were even a bit hard to follow, as there were many references to characters and situations from the previous three books in the series, which made it a bit confusing, as I had to pick my brain and try and remember who was who. It was not that easy, having in mind a lot of the characters switch partners, have a lot of children, some of whom were then brought up by others, or ended up having strange family ties (like being uncles, nephews, and cousins at the same time). After finishing the book I still had a couple of questions left unanswered, but that might be just me missing something at some point in the story.

My Erdrich addiction is far from over. With a list full of titles, and a bunch of her books waiting on my shelf, she will be back on this blog quite shortly. And I can hardly wait.

Of Flesh and Sea

Some months ago the idea of reading my way through South and North America came to mind, and I sat down to make a list of the countries I’d need to find books for. After that I went on looking for a book from each of them, but gave up pretty fast. After looking at the list in front of me, and at my shelf with my still unread books, I realised it would not be so wise to add another pile of books to the 50 I already had scraped together. A few of the titles I found, however, were quite intriguing and I decided to at least buy two or three of them. This is how I came to read The Witness by the Argentinian novelist Juan José Saer.

The title of this book pretty much sums it up. The story is about an orphan, who makes his way to the piers and gets a job on a ship that sails away on a journey to India. There, however, he ends up being used by the sailors not only for his primary tasks. When the ship reaches land the crew is attacked my a cannibal Indian tribe, which kills everyone except the boy, whom they start calling “def-ghi” and taking care of for ten years. This boy then witnesses the way the Indians live, the way they communicate, fall in ecstatic state once a year, when they eat human flesh, get drunk and copulate, and live the rest of the year as if no such thing has ever happened. Later on, the story moves to the “civilised” world – Christian Europe of the XVI century.

The title sums up the part the narrator takes in the whole story, which goes through some 60 years. During the whole story the narrator keeps a really passive role, that of an observer, rather than a participant. I don’t think there were a lot of scenes in which he would mention doing something, except for writing down his experience, or answering questions, or talking to someone. The whole story is based on what he saw, experienced, and thought, with a lot of philosophy and contemplating on human nature, instincts, and why people act in a certain way in a certain situation (mainly in connection with the Indians he spent 10 years with). Here are some examples of what I mean:

“Since my return, living has become something that happened outside myself, something whose incomprehensible, fragile evolution I watched unfold from a distance and which I knew the slightest jolt could bring crashing down.”

“Indifferent to it all, I nevertheless allowed myself to be drawn into a way of life I could not fathom.”

Although I must say I lost track of the philosophical bit at the end, and didn’t always understand what the author was trying to say, I found this book interesting because of the way and style it was written in. It was quite raw, describing some gruesome scenes quite cold-heartedly and coolly, just as I would imagine a professional journalist describing facts. Adding this to fiction about cannibals eating people makes quite an interesting combination.

Orphan of a book

I spent two days wondering whether it’s me or the books I’m reading lately. Maybe I’m becoming too critical… Or maybe I’m stressed at work and it’s affecting my free time as well. Or maybe it’s a sheer coincidence that I pick up a line of books I end up disappointed with.

This was the first time Kazuo Ishiguro caused me such disappointment. I still haven’t read so many books by him, but in comparison to what I’ve read so far When We Were Orphans proved to be a disappointment. I really loved the first few chapters, the way the story builds up, and the narrator introduces people and places. Christopher Banks, born in Shanghai, both of his parents and his uncle mysteriously disappear when he is still a child, and he is sent to England, to live with his aunt. Over the years, as he grows up, memories of his childhood friend Akira and their detective games surface up. He also remembers conversations and strange events around his parents’ disappearance. So far, so good. It was also ok, when after becoming a detective, and joining the higher society in London, he adopts a girl, Jennifer, all the way from Canada. But the moment Christopher leaves her in London, and travels back to Shanghai to solve the mystery of his parents’ disappearance – I’m lost.

After the masterful introduction to the plot, comes a part of hysterical chaos. Christopher is walking around the Shanghai International Settlement where everyone somehow knows who he is, everyone is helping him (at least pretending to) find his parents, while in the same time the Chinese – Japanese war is going on in the background. While the Chinese and the Japanese are throwing grenades around, Christopher is running around town, looking for some secret informer (I have no idea where this one came from). Then he sees his friend Akira casually walking on the street, but doesn’t say anything to him, because he’s busy looking for a house, where he is sure his parents are still held hostage. 20 years after their abduction…? Some time later the war is somehow worse, Christopher is more impatient, he’s running around yelling at people, looking for policemen to escort him to this blind actor’s house, Je Cheng (they got the name from thin air), and then among the war and bombs the policeman leaves him alone, he finds wounded Akira who helps him, and then there is a completely different ending. I mean… enough.

It was chaotic, most of the mystery’s solutions came out of thin air without any logic or explanation. You read a chapter about Christopher looking for his parents, then suddenly in the next chapter, there’s magically a clue. Apart from that everyone seems to help him on his mission in war-torn Shanghai, while he’s complaining soldiers don’t follow him to free his parents, and “what do you mean I can not go to that part of town, which is occupied by the Japanese. I must, do you understand? I have a very important mission, my mission depends on this!” By the end of the book the conversations were absurd and repetitive, I lost track of what’s going on, and the ending went into a completely different location. I honestly thought that the book will end with Christopher being mentally ill, and imagining all of this, and this is the reason it all became more and more absurd. Alas, that was not the case.

I still really love Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day, but after When We Were Orphans I’ll need to be more careful with my expectations towards Ishiguro.

Midnight’s children, noon’s grown-ups

I think I read my first Salman Rushdie book when I was in my first year in university. I remember it was “Shame” – I found a translation of it in one of the bookstores I frequented at that time, and was happy I bought it immediately, because it was impossible to find it anywhere a few week later – people grabbed it like hot bread. I must say I loved it pretty much myself. Then “Shalimar the Clown” followed the next year or so, and I bravely started saying one of my favorite authors is Salman Rushdie, while other people thought I was pretentious and a snob for stating it.

Things have changed since then. I guess the 10 years that have passed have their share. Over these years I read “Grimus” (Rushdie’s first book) in English, and didn’t enjoy it at all. Then there were the “Satanic Verses”  in a horrible Bulgarian translation, which was a good way to kill the empty minutes without work in the office. I enjoyed “The Enchantress of Florence” while trying to get over a short period of depression, though it was a bit girlish for me. “The Moor’s Last Sigh” and “The Ground Beneath Her Feet” were good, but didn’t blow my mind away. “Fury” started off pretty well, but lost me when some outer-space-other-galaxy things started going on. I enjoyed most of the stories in “East, West“, and got very disappointed with “Luka and The Fire of Life“. Over the years from a favorite writer Salman Rushdie became an okay writer for me. I still think he’s extremely talented, and I just love the way he mixes Indian culture and all that magical realism, but I caught myself having a bit too much of politics, rhetorical questions, and pretentiousness mixed with them.

I just finished the only Rushdie book left for me to read – “Midnight’s Children“. And boy did I have some expectations about it! I bought that and “Haroun and the Sea of Stories” about six years ago on Slaveykov square in Sofia for a small fortune. Just like many other authors, at some point you can only get Rushdie books in the used-book markets in Sofia for quite the amount of money. For some reason, however, I never really got to reading “Midnight’s Children“. I ended up bringing it with myself to Hungary, hoping to read it soon, but it still had to wait for 4 years. Now I’m done with it, I can’t say I’m happy I didn’t read it earlier, but I can’t say I’m sorry I haven’t, either.

I think I might have enjoyed this book a lot more, had I read it in English. One thing that really bugged me was the translation. Its style was very disappointing – it sounded as if it were the hobby-work of a teen, who just sat down, made a first draft translation of a book, and put it on the web for free use or something. There was almost nothing in the language and the flow of the text. Then came the lack of editorial and proofing work – the amount of spelling and grammar mistakes was outrageous! Not to speak of translation mistakes. To share one example – there was one part of the text where they mention “Billie Holiday and his band “The Comets“. First of all – Billie Holiday is a woman. Then I was surprised Billie Holiday had an official band name. I went online the moment I read this, and what did I find? It was actually “Bill Haley and His Comets”. Not even “his band The Comets“, but simply “His Comets“. Then one of my favourite parts – something about someone writing the dot above the letter i in “bitch“. It was translated literally as “the letter i in the word bitch”. First issue – in Bulgarian we use cyrillic, so there is no such letter as “i” (therefore no dot), cyrillic i looks like this – и. Second issue – the word “bitch” in Bulgarian doesn’t even have the sound [i] in it. I had to read the sentence a couple of times, before I realised what was wrong. And what if someone who doesn’t speak English would read the book? Apart from this the translator didn’t translate the measure units (such as foot, inch, pounds, etc) to the metric system we use. I rolled my eyes every time I read something about a seven-foot man, six-inch whatever, and something weighing five pounds, because hey – how tall, long, and heavy is that, actually? It somehow never bothers me when I read a book in the original – I go and check. But I do believe it is something to be translated.

Anyway. “Midnight’s Children” has some really great elements, and loads of imagination in it. It shows the story of three generations of the Sinai family, as narrated by Saleem Sinai, born exactly at midnight when India is proclaimed independent, and switched at birth with another baby, born at exactly the same time. I did enjoy reading it, even though I found the fluff and page-fillers a bit too much, the rhetorical questions too pretentious, and sometimes wanted to skip pages. The plot is a bit too crowded with characters, and sometimes I got confused who is who, because I had some breaks while reading, and by the time I got back to the book, I was confused of all the people running around. However, Rushdie manages to weave his story very masterfully, closely and carefully following all details. I was really impressed by how he manages to connect all the sub-stories and details so masterfully. The book is constantly jumping between present, past, and future, and I think you need a lot of talent, guts, and persistence to be able to follow all of these time lines, and entwine them so well. Long story short – it was a good book, I liked it, if you like Rushdie, but still haven’t read this one – do it now, if you don’t like him – forever hold back.

Do I complain too much? I think I complain too much…