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The Library of Babel

A Spin-off of http://bookwormshead.blogspot.co.uk

David Mitchell - The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet - David Mitchell


If you go to the beautiful and recently re-opened Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, make sure not to miss the rooms dedicated to the deeds of the Dutch East India Company.

You will see heaps of colonialist paintings and dioramas showing ships flying the Dutch flag docked to piers surrounded by dark skinned slaves sweating their hearts out in plantations dotted by the random elephant.

When walking over these paintings, please spend some time looking at the one portraying a romanticised view of the Grote Postweg 'created by Dutch engineers' and running across the island of Java in Indonesia.
If you read the through the tiny lines of the painting caption, you will learn that up to 12,000 Indonesian unpaid workers died building up the Grote Postweg. Don't get fooled by the innocent name 'The Great Post Road' as this was actually a military road used by occupying Dutchmen and Frenchmen to defend in a more suitable way Java from the British forces (who eventually never showed up).

This preamble to say that Dutch colonialism which is still known in The Netherlands as a key element of De Gouden Eeuw (The Golden Age) was far from being based exclusively on trade, science and art. While the works, ideas and thoughts of Spinoza, Rembrandt, Grotius, and Huygens flourished back in the motherland the Dutch East India Company made money overseas. And moneymaking is not exactly the province of honest and gallant gentlemen.

One of the greatest peaceful achievements of the Dutch East India Company was the creation of the first European commercial outpost in Japan on the artificial island of Dejima in the bay of Nagasaki.
You will find a cute scale model of Dejima in the Rijksmuseum looking like it has been made with matchsticks and paper tissues. The whole island was a tiny thing no bigger than a modern day football pitch but played a significant role in opening up Shogun Japan to the outside world for bad or for good.

One day in the 1990s David Mitchell - back then an English teacher in Japan - was wandering through Nagasaki and stumbled into the former Dejima which had been swallowed up by the city growth in the meantime and was no more an island but a neighbourhood wrapped up in motorways.

Thus the decision, years later, to write this novel. Or this is what Mr Mitchell said.
The result is a compelling story all right, but left me quite disappointed due to many a historical inaccuracy I believe David Mitchell should have studied his subject more carefully before embarking on such an ambitious novel.

I'm not an expert on 18th century Japan, but there are a few bits of information here which left me dubious while leafing through the pages. I will give you two.

a) It's the year 1799 and Mitchell tells us that some Japanese women spend their time playing mahjong. Now this rang an off-key bell as the game is actually a Chinese one. By checking online it seems that the game was imported to Japan only in 1924 by a soldier coming back from China. Mahjong known and played (by women!) in an isolated community in rural Japan in the year 1799? Very unlikely.

b) Same year. A Japanese scholar suggests that his fellow countrymen should learn how to use and produce rifles to defend themselves, thus avoiding being exterminated 'like the natives of Van Diemen's Land'.
Now, in AD 1799 Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) was not even fully explored and the awful, bloody massacre of its local population - known as the Black War - began no earlier than 1804 lasting around thirty years. Someone stating in 1799 that the natives of Van Diemen's Land are exterminated was either a foreseer or the proud owner of a customised Delorean car hidden in a barn.

I'm not sure if I can forgive David Mitchell his laziness even though I like his way of writing.
After all, he lived in Japan and he was supposed to check his facts*

*Surfing around the Net, I've found an interview in which Mitchell claims that he spent FOUR years researching this novel. Apparently he got very concerned regarding the existence of shaving cream in 1799. It's a pity that he overlooked many other significant details.

Evelyn Waugh - Put Out More Flags

Put Out More Flags (Penguin Modern Classics) - Evelyn Waugh

ROYAL MARINE CORPS
Per Mare, Per Terram

Memorandum for:
Flow Bookshop, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China

Subject:
Recommendation for Special Duty

1. I am privileged to write in support of one of our members, CAPT Evelyn Waugh. CAPT Waugh was assigned to our naval base in Chatham and has soon been involved in a daily training routine that left him with - quoting CPL. Chubb - 'so stiff a spine that he found it painful even to pick up a pen'.
During the time CAPT Waugh has spent here in Chatham, I have witnessed his tremendous growth and development among other Men at Arms. This development came not only in the area of literary works, but in maturity and character as well.

2. CAPT Waugh arrived here as an incipient writer eager to make his mark and certainly not expecting to make quick progress through the ranks. At first, he had difficulty adapting to regimental life meaning that he soon lost his command and became his battalion's Intelligence Officer. In his capacities of IO, CAPT Waugh finally saw action leading his men to withdraw from Dakar hampered by a Handful of Dust and misinformed by Black Mischief about the extent of the town's defences. But eventually he learned the valuable trait of humility and enjoyed the opportunity to learn from his older peers and supervisors.

3. CAPT Waugh was later required to assist in the evacuation of Crete. Even though he was shocked by the disorder, loss of discipline and - as he saw it - cowardice of the departing troops to the extent he called them Vile Bodies, CAPT Waugh proved to be an invaluable asset all through the most unfortunate Decline and Fall of a British outpost.

4. CAPT Waugh quickly learned to manage his time, work in group situations under strict deadlines and to recognize the importance of a strong work ethic, persistence, and integrity. He has become the most valuable and dependable member of our section and is a role model for newly assigned Officers and Gentlemen alike.

5. I recommend CAPT Waugh as the officer appointed to return the unabridged book entitled Put Out More Flags to you with absolute confidence. The aforementioned book has recently been found in Abingdon, UK after having last been seen in room 5090 of the Shangri-La's Mactan Island Resort, Cebu, Republic of the Philippines on 2nd January 2004. We have reasons to believe that the book was brought to the Philippines by a former employee of the CIA who leaked details of several top-secret US and British government mass surveillance programs to the press and travelling by the name of Basil Seal. It is my opinion that CAPT Waugh would be a trustful envoy to accomplish this mission and I highly recommend him.

Yours faithfully,
LTG Sir Alistair Digby-Vaine-Trumpington Esq, CBE

Roy Jacobsen - Child Wonder

Child Wonder - Roy Jacobsen

Bought in the only actual bookshop (as I refuse to call the local branch of WH Smith a bookshop) of Abingdon-on-Thames out of fondness to support a laudable independent business.
And because I've got a fascination for bildungsroman novels set in poor pre-oil Oslo. Call it a hang-up.

Unfortunately, I should have known that Roy Jacobsen is no Jan Kjaerstad nor Lars Saabye Christensen.
Furthermore 'Child Wonder' suffers from a weird four-handed translation by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw.

What's the purpose of having two translators, I wonder? Especially considering how Mr Shaw's speciality is Danish (to the point he wrote a Danish-Thai-Danish dictionary!) and not Norwegian bokmaal.
I reckon how bokmaal itself is but an adaptation of written Danish with merely 106 years of history, but - for goodness' sake - it's not Danish. Nor Thai.

I don't know who's actually to blame for the mess they made with this book, but I'd like to discover who had the brilliant idea of NOT translating Mr, Mrs and Miss so that characters are called, say, herr Syversen and fru Amundsen.
Was that supposed to make one think of a play by Ibsen?
So why 'Uncle Bjarne' is not 'Onkel'? And 'Mother', 'Mor'? Lack of inspiration? Mere distraction?

My distant Norwegian memories shook, rattled and rolled when the butcher boys Don&Don called 'legendary restaurants' the sportsstue (literally 'sports lounge', technically cafes for skiers) of Sinober, Soerskauen and Lilloseter.
Really? I mean, we have a scene of anticipation for a Sunday ski-excursion in the forests of Lillomarka and later a working class kid in ski overalls swallowing waffles in a no-frills sportsstue and Don&Don chose the expression 'legendary restaurant' to define it.
Go check a better dictionary, guys; possibly not a Danish-Thai-Danish one.

Ah, and thank you to Don&Don for having left "the 1961 edition of 'Hvem, Hva, Hvor', an almanac" with its original Norwegian title. Which is, I am sure, extremely understandable for the standard Anglo-Saxon reader. Who? What? Where? May I add 'Hvorfor', why?

'Child Wonder' is no masterpiece, but nonetheless a decent novel which I would like to enjoy without frowning too much. It's a pity that I cannot rely on Don&Don in order to do that.
I hope Roy Jacobsen had the chance to have a look into this Frankenstein of a translation.

Kurt Vonnegut - Player Piano

Player Piano - Kurt Vonnegut

Let's not beat around the bush.
'Player Piano' is far below the very high standards Vonnegut set up later in his career as a novelist.
Most surprisingly - given what Kurt V. would have written in the following years - this novel casts plenty of dull dialogues and many an uninspired wordy description.

There are a few exceptions here and there (e.g. the onomatopoeic sounds, the Shah of Bratpuhr) which show a glimpse of its author sparkling absurdist postmodern talent.
But if you worship Vonnegut - as I do - then 'Player Piano' is going to be an utter disappointment.

In short, it's a first novel and it shows.
Suggested only for disillusioned completists in search of the Vonnegutian Holy Grail.

PS: It must be said that it does get better towards the end. Especially in the 'Meadows' chapters, one can easily foresee the brilliant author who would have worked on novels such as 'The Sirens of Titans' and 'Mother Night' a few years later. Still, what an evolution old Kurt had!

Penelope Fitzgerald - The Bookshop

The Bookshop - Penelope Fitzgerald

A good friend of mine is going to make her dream real. After years spent working as a bookshop assistant all around Italy, she will finally open her own bookshop in her hometown on next autumn.

This is what I call a brave decision given the state bookselling is in in these days. One may say that the rise of ebooks, bookstores chains and heavily discounted books available on Amazon pretty much killed the business for any independent bookseller, but this is only a part of the whole picture.

The bitter truth is that people don't read.
According to Istat (the Italian National Office for Statistics), 54% of my compatriots didn't read a single book on 2012.
Not. Even. One. Book.

Not that among the so called (and often self-proclaimed) 'readers' things get much better. The same study reveals that 46% of the Italians who read something on 2012, didn't manage to leaf through more than 3 books in 12 months.

So much for Italy and its love for the written page.
And good luck to my good friend who - I must say - got the right cards (i.e expertise, ideas, passion) in her hands to win over the stark numbers and whose bookshop will be a smash despite all odds.

Anyway.
You may expect that the UK - with all of its High Street booksellers, charity shops, jumble sales, literary prizes, and literary festivals - shows a completely different picture when it comes to the reading habits of its inhabitants. If you think so, you would be mistaken.

Surprisingly enough, skimming through the ONS, Yougov archives and the likes, I couldn't find any relevant study on how many UK citizens read something on 2012. Weird, isn't it?

However, even though the current Education Secretary stated that pupils aged eleven should read up to 50 books a year, the problem is that 17% of the UK population still struggle with literacy, according to a recent survey by the National Literacy Trust. I daresay that these 11 million people struggling with the written word can hardly be counted as potential readers.

But it's time to talk about this novella.
I'm afraid that I won't 'give 'The Bookshop' as a gift to my owner of a bookshop to be friend.
You will see the reason why.

Set in a remote corner of East Anglia in the 1950s, this book revolves around the decision of a past her prime widow, Florence Green, to open a bookshop in her village. Quite predictably, the new bookshop is seen as a menace to the dull status quo of the little town by many of the prominent members of the local community. This means that Mrs Green will have to struggle against ignorance, envy, hypocrisy and malice to open her bookshop, keep it open and catch her customers.

As Penelope Fitzgerald herself had her own bookshop on a stage of her life, I expected this novella to be a sort of ode to the power and magnetism of books.

I didn't call for an happy ending, but I thought that the author would have drawn a provincial fairytale with the brave Mrs Green succeeding in elevating the love for the spoken word of the villagers thanks to well chosen books, visiting authors etc. Which is nowhere near what happens in 'The Bookshop'.

Let me make myself clear, I wasn't looking for a British version of 'Reading Lolita in Teheran' with East Anglian fishermen replacing Iranian teenagers (by the way, 'Lolita' is the only novel being mentioned here). No, that would have been too cheesy.
I am aware that the author wanted to escape from a romanticised view of the bookselling business and focus her attention on local characters with their gossiping and petty feuds, which she did remarkably well. But I reasonably expected from Penelope Fitzgerald something more on books.

The thing is that the reader is never told why Mrs Green decided to open a bookshop and not, say, a clothes shop? Is she a reader? No. Was her deceased husband a booklover? Nope. Does she have a stock of inherited novels to get rid of? Nothing like that.

Call me a harsh reviewer, but as far as I'm concerned, the whole entrepreneurial battle of Mrs Green this novella speaks about could have worked the same if she had started a cafe or a hardware shop (none of them to be found in her village).

I reckon that Penelope Fitzgerald wrote an interesting novella and I appreciated her talent more than once leafing through 'The Bookshop'. There's not a superfluous page, sentence or dialogue in this book and you will enjoy the odd pearl of British humour, but what lacks here is substance, passion, warmth.
And if you love books, you will miss all that.

Anne Applebaum - Between East and West

Between East and West: Across the Borderlands of Europe - Anne Applebaum

Stunning travelogue from Kaliningrad to Odessa passing through Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and Moldova including a bunch of places called in three or four different names at the same time once belonging to Hungary, Romania and former Czechoslovakia.

For those who are interested in digging deeper into these fascinating - if often forgotten - places, the Polish journalist Andrzej Stasiuk travelled on a similar route in his On the Road to Babadag a decade or so later.

And yet I have to reckon Between East and West is much much better than the excellent Babadag.

The year is 1991 and Anne Applebaum writes with the keen eye of a skilled reporter, the deep knowledge of a masterful historian and the flawless humor of a talented novelist.

And, what's more, Ms Applebaum (who married the Polish Foreign Affairs Minister Radek 'Twitter' Sikorski and now entertains herself writing books on Polish traditional cuisine...sic transit gloria mundi) doesn't make confusion at all. She is as knowledgeable about the writings by Bruno Schulz and Gregor von Rezzori as she masters the political and economic intrigues of post-communist countries.

Either if you're looking for something profound and engaging about that dreadful place named Kaliningrad (formerly Koenigsberg) or if you want to learn more about the sentimental life of Adam Mickiewicz - the poet on whose patriotism Poles and Lithuanians still quarrels for - there cannot be anything better than this.

PS: Just one remark for Anne Applebaum: Koenigsberg was heavily bombed and almost completely destroyed by the RAF well before the Red Army conquered the town. The author here doesn't mention the British bombing at all and that's a strange omission.

Niall Ferguson - Empire

Empire: How Britain Made The Modern World - Niall Ferguson

I swear I will write a proper review as soon as possible.

Good but extremely partial book.
Ferguson did his homework and reveals a good deal of interesting stuff on the rise and fall of the British Empire.

However, the author does indulge way too much in justifying British colonialism.

Take the episode he describes involving a British officer savagely killing in cold blood an unarmed boy in Calcutta.

According to Ferguson, the difference between British forces and, say, Nazis is that whereas German soldiers would have never dared to criticize this behavior from one of their officers, British troops in India cried 'shame, shame' to their superior.

And yet, they did nothing to stop the guy and Ferguson doesn't even bother to tell us whether the officer kept his high rank in the army (as he likely did) after his barbarian act. Biased stuff.

Would a Turkish policeman or a Syrian soldier cry 'shame, shame' when one of his colleagues hit and kill an innocent civilian peacefully picketing on a public square? And would that cry make him more civilized?
I don't think so. Fighting to stop the killing or stepping back from his police or army ranks would.

The problem is that the scene portrayed by Ferguson here sounds like edifying fiction to me. Something like 'we let the killing go, but actually we disapprove it and we're quite horrified by it'

Honestly, could you visualize British troops standing on the ramparts of an Indian fortress in the late 19th century and giving cries of 'shame, shame' when their colonel is killing a boy down in the street?

But let's suppose for a moment that that really happened. Then what? Did the soldiers welcome their colonel in the fortress by shaking their heads in disbelief? Did they tell him 'What you did is wrong, sir'. Oh. come on! Let me be skeptical about that.

What I fail to understand when living in the UK is how some historians of this country (Max Hastings, to name another one) genuinely believe that England has an anti-militarist tradition.

I mean, seriously? Did British troops had picnics in the US, India, Myanmar, Afghanistan, South Africa and in a score of other former colonies of theirs? Oh no, wait, they were actually bringing civilization.

Not that Mr. Ferguson here denies that the mighty British Empire actually began with privateers attacking Dutch and Spanish ships and trade ports with the blessing of the Kings and Queens of England. No, the historian makes that clear and that makes his book worth.

But what follows later is not as convincing as the very first chapters of the book. Niall Ferguson does take a side and that should have been avoided to make 'Empire' better.

Oh well, I'll get back on this one.
Off to Paris, now!

The Dream Life of Sukhanov - Olga Grushin On The Vicissitudes of the Dream Life of Sukhanov.

In the beginning it was fire...

I've rescued this book from a mouldy crate (which once contained Portuguese tangerines) left on the floor of a firemen station in a provincial English town on a placid Saturday afternoon of early May.
The first novel by Olga Grushin was lying on her meek ivory back crushed beneath a pile of heavy-weighted low-browed gaudy rubbish labeled Sophie Kinsella, Danielle Steel and E.L. James.

(BBC Oxford set the mood broadcasting 'Total Eclipse of the Heart' by Bonnie Tyler)

The local firemen were sipping cups of tea wrapped up in their fluorescent-striped uniforms chatting amiably with elderly bystanders and enjoying their charity event. They couldn't save The Dream Life of Sukhanov.
And no one of the reluctant book-scourers of Abingdon-on-Thames had the keen eye or the noble heart needed to pick up this gem of a novel. What they did, little by little, was making room for The Dream Life of Sukhanov by taking the aforementioned Kinsella, Steele and James away.

(BBC Oxford adjusted their standards by switching to 'Ring of Fire' by Johnny Cash)

Thus, I was able to spot the novel, lift it up and - taken by a sudden impulse - decide to save it from oblivion and bring it home, across the street. It costed me one quid. Sgt. Sam Fireman said: 'thanks, mate'.

You may be surprised to know that I had never heard of Olga Grushin before.

However, put a nice sketch of the Red Square in Moscow on the cover as well as a line stating 'shortlisted for the orange award for new writers 2006' and a broad spectrum of praise from Vogue (do they know books?) to The Financial Times (do they care about books?) and that's it: you buy me.
What I thought is this: in the worst case scenario - say, if this is going to be awful cheap Russian-flavoured crap like 'Snowdrops' - I will have good fun in writing an evil review smashing this novel to bits. But if the novel proves to be good, that would be almost better than being sarcastic about it.

And then came water...

It happened that the very same night my partner in life and in book-rescuing were invited to a social gathering involving the making and baking of a half-dozen pizzas, multilingual chatting and the occasional warm beer.
You know, we're not exactly the Oxford University Ball types. Falling hopelessly drunk in a college quadrangle blabbering obscenities in Latin is not our idea of entertainment. Or not anymore.

Anyway, what matters here is that I put 'The Dream Life of Sukhanov' in my rucksack so that I could have something to read on the bus (my partner abhors noise on the public transport and wears fancy earplugs which do not encourage conversation). And that's when I begin to understand that this novel was stunning.
A few pages were enough to make me realise that Olga Grushin likes adjectives but does have talent.

I left a postcard from Lisbon (a homage to those Portuguese tangerines) as a bookmark between page 16 and 17 and left the bus with my partner to reach our social gathering. We wanted to walk a bit. The problem is that we didn't expect a deluge to welcome us in Oxford.

It took us half an hour to reach our destination where our friends had already started to make dough, warm up the ovens and assemble the ingredients for the pizza bonanza. We were desperately wet but beastly hungry and after fishing bottles of beers from my rucksack, I forgot to check what happened to The Dream Life of Sukhanov.

We baked. We ate. We chatted. We drank.
We said goodnight see you later guys.
My partner and I left.

Back home - despite the late hour - I spent twenty minutes hair-drying my freshly rescued book page after page. The first novel by Olga Grushin took so much water that its last 80 pages were like a single thick plank of plywood. The Red Square was flooded beyond recognition. Only the faintest outlines of Saint Basil and the Kremlin were still there.

(I hope my neighbours have forgiven me for the noise. If you meet them, say sorry on my behalf and tell them that the hair-dryer bit wasn't a song by Kraftwerk and was for a good cause).

Ok, to cut a long story short, I am glad to tell you that The Dream Life of Sukhanov survived the deluge.
The Red Square is back on dry soil. One can actually leaf through each of the last 80 pages. Luckily.

In short. Go, fetch this book. It is truly exquisite.

It doesn't have much of a plot but it's masterfully written. It includes some of the best pages about art which I've ever read (not that I'm an expert, but still). There are sentences which are worth of Nabokov and others which would have pleased Bulgakov. Believe me.

The likes and works of Chagall, Dalì, Rublev are here. Moscow in the mid-1980s is here.
The moral miseries and sour memories of a privileged man - Tolya Sukhanov, you bet - are here.
Some interesting literary experiments in switching from the first to the third person narrator (and back, and back again!) are here. Beauty is here.

Just keep this novel in a dry place, please.
A Week in December - Sebastian Faulks I knew I shouldn't have bought this.
But, alas, I did.

What could I have bought instead for 1.50 pounds? Mmmh...let's see
- half iced vanilla latte at the local coffee place;
- 5 litres of still mineral water from the cornershop;
- a big bunch of fair trade bananas;
And so it goes.

I remember how 'A Week in December' was included in a list named 'books you should read about post-financial crisis London' published in The Economist.

The list included 'Other people's money' by Justin Cartwright and 'Capital' by John Lanchester which I skipped countless times when raiding charity shops and such.

And yet, I bought this one. Why on Earth? Why?

My goodness, this book is so terrible.
It does look like Sebastian Faulks attended a cheap course on British bestseller cocktail chemistry, as shown:

- 20% of White Teeth Martini by Zadie Smith;
- 35% of The Infomation Soda by Martin Amis;
- 30% of Ian McEwan's Londoner Absynth;
- 10% of David Mitchell's Multicharactered Liquor;
Plus, an olive imbibed in the Thames (the remaining 5%).

Unfortunately, the taste of this inky concoct is rather dreadful. And it does leave an unpleasant aftertaste too.

What would you expect from an author who - when thinking about a name for a completely unnecessary character of a Polish footballer - ended up with Tadeusz Borowski?

Taduesz 'Spike' Borowski, to be precise.

I mean, dear Sebastian Faulks, are you an idiot not knowing who the actual Tadeusz Borowski was or shall I take this choice as a sort of clumsy joke or - even worse - as a literary anti-tribute?

For Tadeusz 'Spike' Borowski speaks in broken English.

Bad. Bad. Bad.
Just bad.

Anyways, now I can see how 'A Week in December' is included in the 'Abandoned Books' list on Goodreads.
Which doesn't surprise me a bit: after a few sips I've also left my cocktail untouched.

Did I say that this novel is bad?
Avoid it at all costs.

Evelyn Waugh - Decline and Fall

Decline And Fall - Evelyn Waugh

'Decline and Fall' is the sort of merciless social satire about Oxford and its elitist characters I expected to find when I bought 'Zuleika Dobson' by Max Beerbohm.

Whereas the latter left me utterly disappointed - to the point I left that book half-read - this novel turned out to be far more brilliant than I thought.

It's funny to notice how Mr. Beerbohm was chiefly a caricaturist who toyed with literature while young Evelyn Waugh was exactly the opposite.
And I believe both men made the right choice in sticking to what they did best later in their life.

'Decline and Fall' was published in 1928 as an 'illustrated novelette', but Waugh's sparse cartoons are amateurish and clumsy when compared to his brilliant flourished words.
In fact, among the novelists I have been reading, only the Swiss author Friedrich Durrenmatt had a worse inclination to figurative art than Waugh did.

So much for Evelyn Waugh's early aborted career as an awful cartoonist.
Shall we focus on his writing? Oh yes, indeed!

Mind you, this novel is the very first published by Waugh and it is better than a household name of British humour like P.G. Wodehouse in my humble opinion.

Am I partial to Mr. Waugh?
Well, to be honest, I don't think I am. And let me tell you why.

This guy was a conservative at heart, a converted Roman Catholic and an incurable reactionary.
Had he lived in these years, Evelyn Waugh would have probably had his weekly column in The Times or The Telegraph attacking the UE and flirting with the UKIP.
I hardly doubt his harangues would have spared harsh words on Eastern and Southern European immigrants alike invading the UK.
Had we met in person, Mr. Waugh would have probably been condescending in talking to me, found my English pronunciation disgraceful and my social manners uncouth.

But still, I'm not bitter about him. Not a bit.
No hard feelings, Evelyn.

True, Mr. Waugh changed and developed his writing style quite a lot, but the joyous, sadistic pleasure that you can find in this early novel of his is unsurpassed in his later - and more accomplished - works.
After all, this is the same author who delivered novels such as 'A Handful of Dust', 'Brideshead Revisited' and 'Scoop' which are staple food for many an English literature fan. And yet, all those books were just too perfect to blow me away completely.

'Decline and Fall' might be a juvenile work, but it does have power, anarchy, courage.
What I'm trying to say is that this novel is spontaneous and authentic to the point that you can easily imagine its author giggling at his own jokes and making fun of its own characters.

The downside of this novel is that there is plenty of racism in it. Which is hardly surprising thinking that Waugh is the same guy who entitled one of his novels 'Black Mischief'.

Actually, if you are a black person, an Italian, a Frenchman, a Welshman or have Jewish heritage chances are you will be either deeply offended or bitterly amused by this book.
And if you're a woman things won't improve that much. Female characters here are pompous matrons, coquettish posh bitches and prostitutes (Waugh plays the prudish by calling them 'entertainers').

But then again Waugh here is pitiless in his scorn for everyone and every social class, from aristocracy to the bourgeoisie passing through Bauhaus-inspired architects, butlers, schoolmasters and pub-owners.
If there is one thing Mr Waugh is excellent at it's in despising people and the way he does that is terribly funny.

'Decline and Fall' is a 'Candide Revisited' without the wit of Voltaire, but with much more enjoyable cruelty. Waugh didn't need to stage the Lisbon earthquake to raze to the ground the times he lived in.

Dave Eggers - A Hologram For the King

A Hologram for the King - Dave Eggers

This is a strange beast of a novel about an impotent middle-aged American man, Alan Clay, engulfed in the quite predictable twists and turns of the global economy.

Before dealing with impotence and middle life crisis, Mr. Clay used to be a self made man building up an entrepreneurial career in the manufacturing sector.
Now, the problem with Alan was chiefly a philosophical one: he thought that quality would have always won over quantity. Which was wishful thinking in the 1980s and 1990s and daydreaming in the noughties.

Having found his niche market, bicycles, Alan firmly and strangely believed that he could keep the production in the US despite the rise of cheap manufacturing labour abroad - in China, to be precise.
In Mr. Clay's myopic view, purchasing a sturdy, durable and reliable bike was what the American buyers aimed at. An American-made jewel of a bicycle that should and might have made its owners proud to ride it and to show its chromes around. A sort of family heirloom of a bike. A bike made of the same substance of dreams.

Now, all of this didn't make any sense and, in fact, doesn't stand a chance against mighty China.
(oddly enough, Eggers seems to ignore that the most of the world's biggest bike manufacturers such as Giant, Merida and Ideal Bike are actually Taiwanese).

Anyways, let's get back to poor Alan Clay.
When his dreams to keep the bicycle production line in the US are crushed and the company he works for has to shut down, Alan tries to fight back but in his own over-optimistic fashion. Quality cannot save him.
Needless to say, that all his following start-ups fail one after another. Banks refuse to give him any more loans. His creditors start losing their patience. Alan puts his house on sale and wait for opportunities.

Which is precisely why he finds himself stuck in a tent in the Saudi desert in this novel.

The opportunity has come. Due to a lucky coincidence (and a dubious acquaintance), Alan has been sent to the Saudi Kingdom by an American IT company as the member of a team which is trying to get a lucrative contract from no one else than King Abdullah.

And selling a futuristic communication system involving holograms to the King of Saudi Arabia thus winning the tender for King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) is what the middle-aged American would like to do. He needs his commission to restart all over and pay a good college for his daughter.
That Alan doesn't know (and doesn't care) a fig about holograms is not the point. He's the senior member of the American expedition. He's supposed to be the problem solver. He should know how to talk business.

Unfortunately, the whole enterprise turned out to be a game of endurance between Jeddah and KAEC.
Nobody shows up in the tent to meet Alan and his team and the Americans are left alone awaiting King Abdullah or one of his dignitaries to show up. Just imagine 'Waiting for Godot' by Beckett set in 'The Desert of the Tartars' by Buzzati to get a snapshot of the whole situation.

And a hologram, a mirage, a Fata Morgana is what King Abdullah Economic City is.
Will the King pop up? Will Alan Clay come back home with his money? And does that really matter?

After all Alan does find a way to kill his time by making buddies in Jeddah.
The young chatterbox of a chaffeur driving him around and taking him to his family's secluded palace for hunting wolves down. The nymphomaniac divorced Danish woman who tries to arouse Alan sexually to win over her boredom and loneliness. The mysterious and fascinating Saudi lady surgeon who shows the hidden pleasures of snorkelling to the American visitor.
All supporting actors and actresses who come and go with the mere purpose to make Alan's (and the reader's) wait more bearable. Well, to some extent.

This is a novel about too many things at the same time. Eggers doesn't manage to keep up the good work he did in his former non fiction books and it's hard to see where he tries to take us at the end.
'A Hologram for the King' may lack a clear purpose and is certainly written in a somehow artificial oversimplified style, but it has an exotic taste and a sorrowful meaning:
no matter where you go and what you do, outsourcing always gets the last word.

Kurt Vonnegut - Jailbird

Jailbird - Kurt Vonnegut

Let's face it: this is a minor novel by Vonnegut.
Which means - mind you - that 'Jailbird' is still a good book.

There is a certain melancholic Shawshank Redemption-like feeling here and I've found the pages about Sacco & Vanzetti to be particularly touching and interesting. The weather sympathises.

A sentimental novel imbibed of heavyweight topics such as the Watergate, McCarthysm, civil rights, fight against the corporations and much more.

Any other novelist would have either made a mess out of this lot or took it too seriously (Philip Roth, I'm talking to you). Not so Kurt Vonnegut.

'Jailbird' may have hazy, even blurry outlines but its core is clear and straight. And it's this: disilussion.

The Captive Mind - Czesław Miłosz


I'm not an avid reader of essays - well, actually I have a tendency to keep them out from my bookshelves -, but 'The Captive Mind' is a different matter.

As some earlier Goodreads reviewer stated: 'This book has some power'.
Well, a Hell of a lot of power, indeed!

'The Captive Mind' is an extraordinary study on the different behaviors of human beings when they are engulfed by history.

At first it was all but easy to get into the spirit of the book, but then the whole fruitful meditation took off from the moment in which Czeslaw Milosz introduced four characters:
Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta. Four turncoats, each in his fashion.

Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta were four men of letters of pre-World War II Poland. They were, as it comes, acquaintaces, friends (and sometimes rivals) of Mr. Milosz himself.

I toyed myself trying to guess who the four case studies actually were and it turned out that I only got one right: Tadeusz Borowski (Beta). For a while I thought Gamma was Witold Gombrowicz, before realizing that I was wrong and that my knowledge of Polish literature is still quite poor.

The fierce sarcasm and merciless irony used by Milosz when talking about the political somersaults of Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta here is certainly contemptuous, but it does hit the target.


Black Swan Green - David Mitchell

From such an architect of a novelist as Mitchell I expected much more.
Reading 'Black Swan Green' brought to my mind a mediocre Jonathan Coe (with a better finale).

A longer review will follow soon.

David Remnick - The Bridge

The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama - David Remnick

This is not because of Mr. Obama. This is because of Mr. Remnick.

Ok, I admit there's also a slight interest in Mr. Obama from my side. Yessir.
But if Mr. Remnick had written about the Life and Rise (and Fall) of Mr. McCain I would have taken that book too. Fact.

Jeez, the man could make even his shopping list worth reading. Mr Remnick, I mean.
(Not that reading Mr. McCain's shopping list wouldn't be entertaining, at some point).

Kurt Vonnegut - Mother Night

Mother Night - Kurt Vonnegut


Today I will tell you about an interesting and unexplicably underrated semi-underground tribe: the Vonnegutians.

Either urban or rural, the Vonnegutians are spread all over the world (with primeval colonies in Indianapolis and the Galapagos islands) and cover at least three generations.

Tendentially secularists, the Vonnegutians may however be inclined to join the subtropical doctrine of Bokononism at an earlier or a later stage of their lives.

Regretfully, the social behavior of the Vonnegutians is still a mystery. And so it goes.

Oddballs at heart, many Vonnegutians are lonesome, romantic and slightly schizophrenic souls. These folks like to be considered outsiders and underdogs and, sometimes, join (and then desert) international fellowships of fanatic Vonnegutians known as 'karass'.

An interesting habit of the members of a karass is to call 'granfaloons' all non-Vonnegutians clubs, parties, societies, communities and religions.

How to recognise a Vonnegutian?
Well, that's incredibly easy. Just let him/her speak.

Most Vonnegutians are avid readers and share a common ground of uncommon jokes, obscure quotes, historic dates, Trafalmadorian jargon, German poetry all spiced up with a mix of sarcasm and fatalism.

Another key to understand if you are talking with an actual Vonnegutian is to ask him/her what their favourite book is.
Chances are the Vonnegutian will answer by mentioning one of the novels written by his/her prophet: Kurt Vonnegut Jr (KVJ).

The sub-tribe known as the 'Mother-Nighters' worship a scroll entitled 'Mother Night' and written in 1961 from KVJ.

It must be stressed out that the 'Mother-Nighters' do not represent a majority among the Vonnegutians, whose main sub-tribes are definitely the tempered 'Slaughterhouse-Fivers' and the fanatical 'Cat's Cradlers'.

However, if you will ever have the chance to meet an authentic Mother-Nighter (as your humble pen pusher, here, is), please keep calm and listen on. You won't regret it.