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 »


Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

March 18, 2016


Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Of all the writers I’ve read, Tolstoy is best able to capture the totality of human nature. Again and again, I was floored by the depth of his  characters’ internal worlds, his ability to sketch out the motivations and contradictions and fantasies of people whose circumstances are so varied and different from his own.

Anna Karenina is, for those that don’t know, the story of an aristocratic woman who has an affair. There’s also a lot about a guy who likes farming. That’s it. As far as plots go, it’s not the greatest hook, but around this unexceptional subject is more insight into the human condition than you’ll find in a hundred best sellers. 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 »

Les Miserables – Victor Hugo (Part 2)

August 8, 2013

Maybe the best thing I can say about Les Miserables is that it made me look at Christianity differently.  I was raised Christian but stopped believing and practising when I was a teenager.  If I was forced to categorise myself, I’d say I was an atheist.  As an adult, I have to admit to having more of an ear for the negatives of religion – the wars, hatefulness and discrimination justified by doctrine; the parasitic opulence; the criminal concealment of child sex abuse.  This novel has not made these sins any more excusable.

It has, however, reminded me of the positive side of Christianity.  A good writer makes you sympathise with a character, and once you are hooked, the unfolding of their story allows you to experience a shade of a life you have never lived. Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Obabakoak – Bernardo Atxaga (Part 2)

June 5, 2012

Basque Country

Click here for Part 1

The second section of the collection, Nine Words in Honour of the Village of Villemediana, has the weakest plot but best communicates the reality of life in a small Basque village, and makes for very pleasant reading.

The unnamed narrator has taken refuge in Villemediana to clear the “ferns and mosses” from his heart.  He occupies himself by getting to know its inhabitants with a Louis Theroux-like inquisitiveness and equanimity, collecting portraits of village elders, shepherds, lonely woman, squalid men, and even a pretentious dwarf.  It continues the focus on the outcasts or discontents, defining the society by its borders.

But for all its apparent foreignness, there’s something universal about the setting that reminded me of writing on country Australia, with its insularity and toughness, and its lonely, quirky characters.

The third, last, and longest section, In Search of the Last Word, has a wonderful rambling structure as many of the characters tell tales, both true and imagined, and discuss literature.

The narrator, a writer, perhaps Atxaga himself, develops a fixation with whether a classmate was sent crazy by having a lizard put in their ear.  The fixation leads him to the potential culprit’s bar, his home town of (where else) Obaba and to a meeting of his uncle’s literary circle.

Many of the stories in this section have no relation to the central plot, so much so that Atxaga could be accused of shoe-horning them, but I enjoyed reading them all so much that I didn’t mind the paper and string framing device.

However, the story that had the biggest influence on me, and sent me on a spree of trying to write something similar, probably does not even belong to Atxaga.  It is called The Rich Man’s Servant, and is a fable in which a servant on a trip to the market receives a threatening look from Death, and tries to escape his apparent fate.  It takes up only half a page and can only really be read on one level, but I loved it for its simplicity and depth, its broad-stroke style and the clarity of its rising and falling action.  There is, maybe, too much of a focus on realism and clever description in modern literature at the expense of equally effective techniques from traditional tales.

In Search of the Last Word also includes chapters that venture into the realms of non-fiction, discussing what constitutes a good story, how to write a story in five minutes, and a very cheeky and accurate section on how to plagiarise.  Hint: you steal the plot and call it a homage.

My biggest criticism is with the twist at the end of the main story.  It is cheesy, and uses a device on which Atxaga is overly-reliant.  I’m not saying he’s M. Night Shyamalan, but this is why, despite all his experimentation with form, I earlier accused him of being formulaic.

It’s possible I’m missing something, though, and the twist is a warning about the degeneration of the Basque language.  This could be supported by the epilogue/autobiography, in which the author’s passion for his mother tongue is made clear.  If anyone has done a closer reading and can enlighten me, I’d appreciate it.