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 »


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 »

After the Quake – Haruki Murakami

November 5, 2013

After the Quake: Stories by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami wrote After the Quake in response to the 1995 Kobe earthquake.  In his characteristically unconventional memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, he states that the short story collection was a turning point in his fiction, when his writing become less introspective and more outward-looking.  His new perspective is evident in the greater range and depth of his characters, the third person narratives, and the more mature themes which he explores.

It deals with the earthquake very indirectly.  Rather than exploiting the tragedy for drama, he explores it as a psychological phenomenon. In most of the stories, it is ancillary to the main story, but pivotal.

Still present are all the things I love about the writer – the championing of mundane courage, the conversational prose, the off-beat sensibility.  My personal favourites in the collection are the last two stories, Super-Frog Saves Tokyo and Honey Pie.  In the latter, the main character, also an author, ends on a note that I suspect is autobiographical:

‘I want to write stories that are different from the ones I’ve written so far, Junpei thought: I want to write about people who dream and wait for the night to end, who long for the light so they can hold the ones they love.’

From now on, I’ll be reading Mr Murakami’s later works with this in mind.

The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

October 14, 2013



The Kite Runner is a strong debut novel that distinguishes itself from from other books on the shelf with its insight into a culture that attracted Western interest following 9/11; and with the extremity of violence it depicts.

The narrator, Amir, reflects on his childhood in 1970s Afghanistan, an idealised world of relative peace and tolerance, of colourful markets and Hollywood movies and kite contests. The son of a wealthy philanthropist, he enjoys a privileged upbringing despite his absent mother and disapproving father. His best friend is Hassan, a sweet natured, hair-lipped boy who happily accepts his lot as servant dictated by his Hazara ethnicity. Their happy childhood comes to an end one afternoon by a violent, harrowing event, and all chance of recovery is obliterated by Amir’s treacherous actions in its aftermath.

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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 Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice

June 28, 2013

Ochazuke no aji poster.jpg

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Yasujiro Ozu was a contemporary of legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, but is much less famous in the West because instead of making epic, stereotype-enforcing samurai movies, he focused on more low-key, domestic stories.  The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice (Ochazuke no Aji) is a great example of the one of his early comedies that provides an intimate insight Japanese society.  It’s a cute story about a wife, Taeko, and husband, Mokichi, who don’t seem to get on.  She is a shrewish snob who lies to get her way, he is a complacent bumpkin who likes the simple things in life.

It’s set in the post war period, a time of great social upheaval in Japan which informs much of the inter-generational conflict in Ozu’s movies.  The couple’s niece, Setsuko, seeing how unhappy they seem together, refuses to follow in their footsteps and enter into an arranged marriage.  But as the story progresses, the layers are peeled away from the Taeko and Mokichi and it becomes clear that the way they feel towards each other is a lot more complicated than it appears from the outside.  The movie culminates in an incredibly sweet domestic scene that makes this one of the most original love stories I’ve seen in years.

Funny and wise, The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice is well worth chasing down online or at your local library.  Recommended.

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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