The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay – Michael Chabon

June 3, 2016


Escapism. It’s a term used for stories that are entertaining, light, and inconsequential. Nothing more than an escape from reality. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay doesn’t just revel in escapism; it makes a two-fisted defence of it.

The novel tells the story of Joseph Kavalier and Sam Clay, two Jewish cousins growing up in the era when Nazism began to cast its shadow across the world. Joe is a talented artist with a passion for escape artists and stage magic. Aided by his family’s life savings, his magic teacher and an inanimate golem, he escapes Europe just as the fascists are closing the trap. Sam lives in New York with his stereotypical Jewish mother (who doesn’t love a stereotypical Jewish mother?) and grandmother, having been abandoned by his circus strongman (really) father.  Despite coming from such burly stock, Sam is short of stature and spindly of leg due to a bout of polio at a young age.  He has a big mouth, he is able to conveniently translate into a knack for bombastic writing. Read the rest of this entry »


To Have and Have Not – Ernest Hemingway

January 25, 2014

To Have and Have Note (Hemmingway novel) 1st edition cover.jpg

Set in Cuba and Key West, against the background of prohibition, the Great Depression and the spread of communism, To Have and Have Not, as the title suggests, is about the difference between the rich and the poor. The first half of the novel focuses in Harry Morgan, a tough, often cruel rum runner who works the Gulf Stream. He’s in the classic Hemingway mold, but is neither as noble nor as colourful as some of the author’s more beloved protagonists.

After a rich passenger stiffs him for a season’s work, Harry is forced to take a job smuggling ‘ Chinamen’, typical of the dangerous assignments he feels he has to take on to feed his family. At this point, the theme is subsumed by the exotic setting of Cuba and the adventure of the smuggling trade. Read the rest of this entry »

The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins

December 22, 2013

The Hunger Games (Book 1) by Suzanne Collins

If I have a daughter, I’ll get her to read The Hunger Games. Katniss Everdeen is a great heroine – smart, resourceful, and pretty handy to have around if there’s no meat in the freezer. Sure she’s a little grim, but she provides a nice counterbalance to the passive princesses and attention-seeking twerkers that young girls have to look up to.

She’s also a product of her world. There’s a bit of backstory to The Hunger Games, but it’s all pretty familiar. Dystopian future America. Totalitarian government. Teen death match.  In many ways, it’s like a concentrated, exaggerated version of our world, and I was surprised at how political it is.  It’s savage in its depiction of wealth disparity, the media, and corruption. Although the central conceit of gladiatorial bouts to keep the populace subdued is a bit ridiculous, it did strike me as echoing our individualistic, cruelly competitive culture. Read the rest of this entry »

Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

April 25, 2013

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Humbert Humbert – what a creep.  Sexual predator, public masturbator, effete pseudo-intellectual; it’s not an easy prospect to spend 300+ pages with a pretentious paedo as a narrator, but Nabokov pulls it off (pun intended) thanks to some beautiful writing and razor-sharp wit.

Lolita is the story of a European literary scholar who develops an all-consuming fixation with nymphets – his term for girls on the cusp of puberty.  In his twenties, Humbert alternates between sordid indulgence and tortured repression.  His determination to escape temptation leads him to take multiple coalescence in mental hospitals, to marry the most coquettish woman that he can find, and even to flee to the arctic.  Conversely, his attempts to seek at fulfilment are so wretched and farcical that I almost – almost – felt sorry for him.

Inevitably, though, he accepts his perversion, and begins to seek out opportunity.  He gains accommodation and even marries a woman with one intention in mind – to gain access to her precocious twelve year old daughter, the titular Lolita.  The consummation of this obsession is the subject of the first book; the second is devoted to his downfall.

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The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway

August 5, 2012

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

An old fisherman has been eighty-four days at sea without catching anything.    He is said to be unlucky, and the boy that was apprenticed to him has been assigned to another boat.  Still, on the eighty-fifth day, he rises, as always, before dawn, rows out into the open ocean, drops his precisely weighted lines, and waits.  The sun climbs high into the sky and he catches only bait.

Then, around noon, his line is taken by a great fish.  As the battle stretches over days and nights, it becomes clear that it will claim one of their lives, for the man must fight not just with the marlin, but with his fatigue, hunger, thirst, and his old body.

The Old Man and the Sea was a return to form for the aging Hemingway, and it won him the Nobel Prize.  The story is so simple that it can be taken as an allegory for many things: writing, the creative process, life’s struggles.  The picture presented is bleak but uplifting.

The old man, Santiago, is a hero, strong, focused and fearless, the personification of the author’s quasi-religious views on masculinity.  He is also simple and humble, in contrast to Hemingway’s earlier hard-drinking, hard-living protagonists.

A beautiful, small book that typifies the iceberg method, of something written truly being able to stand for many things.  Recommended.

Tender is the Night – F. Scott Fitzgerald (Part 1)

June 12, 2012

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Chapters I-XVI


I was very excited to read this, my first Fitzgerald.  A contemporary of Hemingway’s, loved by Murakami, a big name in twentieth century literature.  Plus, I was in Nice at the time, and there aren’t many things I love more than reading a book set in the same exotic locale I’m travelling.

From the first page, there’s no doubt the man can write.  His greatest strengths are his descriptions of characters and social situation, achieved by an unflinching grasp of human nature and an ability to communicate emotions and tensions in a clear, palpable manner.

He’s one of those authors who throw about bold truisms and judgements.  Many writers who use this style make assertions that don’t hold up to reflection, but most of the time Fitzgerld rings true.

But what the hell is he writing about?  The first time I read The Sun Also Rises, I missed the sub-text and though it was just about the idle, hedonistic elite.  Tender is the Night seems to just be about the idle, hedonistic elite.

Fourteen chapters in, and all that’s happened is a naïve, romantic seventeen year old starlet, Rosemary, has fallen in love with a married man, Dick Diver, and been sucked in to his proto-hipster lost generation clique.  Give me something, Scott…


And then you have a chapter like chapter fifteen where Fitzgerald’s insight into the core of people is on full display, when the romance reaches its climax and Rosemary suddenly becomes interesting as she is shown to be both naïve and calculated without any contradiction.

A Moveable Feast – Ernest Hemingway

May 8, 2012

Me at Shakespeare and Company, Paris

A Moveable Feast is Hemingway’s memoir of his early days in Paris and his friendships with literary figures such as Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  It presents a romantic image of a starving artist, unable to afford wood for heating, gambling on horse racing to escape the bread line, but working everyday with great dedication to perfect his craft.

Hemingway’s portrayal of his first wife, Hadley, is full of affection and regret.  “[W]e were very poor and very happy”.  This contrasts with how he depicts his more famous relationships.  His Stein is a semi-tyrannical gossip lacking discipline towards her work.  Scott Fitzegerald was a neurotic alcoholic.  Zelda Fitzgerald was a manipulative and promiscuous harpy.  Only Ezra Pound completely escapes his vitriol.  The book is both a cautionary tale on the trappings of riches and success, and a surprisingly bitchy tell-all. Read the rest of this entry »