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A Man in Love: My Struggle Book 2 (Knausgaard)
A Man in Love: My Struggle Book 2 (Knausgaard)
by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Everyone's struggle, 27 Jan. 2016
‘The life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it, and always had done. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined all my efforts.' This, in a nutshell, is what the My Struggle cycle of four books is about, though at 3,000 plus pages altogether, this lends itself less than any other work to any nutshell characterisation.

A Man in Love Family is the second of four volumes which, while they can be read entirely independently, purport together to tell the story of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s own life. Ostensibly autobiographical, the books appear to have been fictionalised in areas, or at least in the detail, though in the main it checks out. But the point is that Knausgaard’s life is no different from that of any average denizen of the modern, developed world, save perhaps that a writer is free from some of the professional constraints most people find themselves labouring under. His life is meant as an ordinary life, with a more or less fraught relationships, the search for professional success and meaning, friends, marriage, divorce, and so on. His struggle is everyone’s struggle.

A Man in Love, zooms in on the author’s relationship with his second wife, the Swede Linda. At first dazzled by Linda and entirely fulfilled, Knausgaard finds that the magic wears off as he gets used to married life and young children put pressure on his couple. Debates about the time and dedication each must invest in child rearing takes the place of unquestioning mutual devotion. And once again, Knausgaard labours to recover the sense of meaning he thought he had found in his everyday life.

Much else happens, ranging from the semi-tragic to the entirely comical. Knausgaard’s writing, indeed, proceeds by open and never-closed parenthesis, one subject or anecdote recalling another one, and so forth without always closing the first. His narration has a rambling, Russian-doll structure that creates the impression of a table-corner or pub-counter confession, and gives it the aura of a friend’s confidence. The book is occasionally long-winded, but it is never boring nor heavy-going. Perhaps my only criticism of this second volume is that actually Linda does not come across as very likeable. It is no coincidence, finally that the cycle title, My Struggle, or in Norwegian Min Kamp, is the same as Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Obfuscation, misdirection: these are also part and parcel of this dense, rich, and fascinating work.


The Lowland
The Lowland
by Jhumpa Lahiri
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Irregular, 22 Jan. 2016
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: The Lowland (Paperback)
Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland begins with an intriguing storyline, revolving around the Marxist-inspired Naxalite rebellion in 1960s Bengal, where students chose to join by violent means the cause of desperately poor peasants in that region of India. Subhash and Udayan, the sons of a Calcutta civil servant, are very close to one another. Udayan, though, is attracted to the Naxalite movement while Subhash chooses to go complete his studies in the USA. This is where the plot gets somewhat sidetracked. I don’t want to reveal too much, but Subhash ends up marrying Udayan’s girl and raising his child. The Naxalite plotline gets more or less dropped, and the story ends up dealing with the difficulties of integration and the estrangement of diaspora Indians. This is familiar territory for Lahiri, and I guess this is what she likes to write about. But the novel, which then moves down another generation again, ends up losing a common thread. Lahiri writes well, of course, but this is not up to, say, The Namesake, and the feeling is that she has written this story before. Nor does the tone vary very much. It is constantly wistful and lightly sad, with the result that the book often fails to engage the reader. Pursing the Naxalite storyline, one can’t help thinking, would have been more fruitful, more filled with potential tension and with strong, emotional choices for the characters. The Lowland is readable throughout, but it ends up feeling as something of a letdown.


The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture (Harvard Historical Studies)
The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture (Harvard Historical Studies)
by Rebecca L Spang
Edition: Paperback
Price: £15.95

4.0 out of 5 stars Rich fare, 29 Dec. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Spang’s The Invention of the Restaurant traces the origins of the restaurant, in France, as a place of fine dining. There were plenty of places where one could eat outside home in the eighteenth century, when the story begins, but they were inns or taverns or cafés, where one went to drink and perhaps eat a set meal, or they were traiteurs, establishments that provided home cooking to a group of guests sitting around a table at set times. Spang’s question is how the restaurant was born as establishments where one could order food from a written menu at a private table and a time of one’s choosing. In passing, she debunks the myth that they were born during the French revolution, when the unemployed chefs of exiled aristocrats started their own businesses (a myth that some of her reviewers, who obviously haven’t read the book, are happy to repeat – e.g. The New Yorker). She also asks interesting questions about sociability and privacy, qualifying the prevailing model about the rise of a ‘public sphere’ in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in that the restaurant was at once open to the public and a place where one sought and could find privacy. Nor was it, like the café, a forum for sharing political and other ideas.

The Invention of the Restaurant explains that the first restaurants were providers of health food, especially in soup form, hence the name 'restaurant’, from the verb 'to restore’, namely restore one’s health. The attraction was thus born of ancien régime sensibility and the Rousseau-ist craze for natural things. Restaurants were a type of health spa, and it is only progressively that they began to expand their menus. But the French restaurant came into its own in the hedonistic period that arrived after the revolutionary terror and with the first empire. Preoccupations about health were dropped, and the restaurant became a place of enjoyment as well as a social marker, even if it performed that second role ambiguously in that it was nevertheless democratic in being open to all. Spang’s story expands into the mid-nineteenth century, finally, when the restaurant, still uniquely French, began to resemble its modern equivalent, with fancy menus and famous names.

This is academic cultural history, and it not always as entertaining as it sounds or does not always make for easy reading. Some sources sound as though they might perhaps be over-glossed, and the writing can be cryptic. To provide a sample: 'The collapse of the division between cook and diner, the crossing to the threshold between kitchen and dining room, when it occurred, could easily precipitate the abolition of the line between the eater and the eaten. Despite its many advances and improvements, the art of cookery needed to remain in the realm of private, semi-alchemical, Arcanum’ (page 156). This is nevertheless a worthy monograph on an important historical topic. Its research is broadly based, moreover, and Sprang makes an interesting and uniquely valuable contribution to her subject.


A Death in the Family: My Struggle Book 1 (Knausgaard)
A Death in the Family: My Struggle Book 1 (Knausgaard)
by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Everyone's struggle, 15 Dec. 2015
‘The life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it, and always had done. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined all my efforts.’ This, in a nutshell, is what the My Struggle cycle of four books is about, though at 3,000 plus pages altogether, this lends itself less than any other work to any nutshell characterisation.

A Death in the Family is the first of four volumes which, while they can be read entirely independently, purport together to tell the story of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s own life. Ostensibly autobiographical, the books appear to have been fictionalised in areas, or at least in the detail, though in the main it checks out. But the point is that Knausgaard’s life is no different from that of any average denizen of the modern, developed world, save perhaps that a writer is free from some of the professional constraints most people find themselves labouring under. His life is meant as an ordinary life, with a more or less fraught child-parent relationship and childhood, the search for professional success and meaning, friends, marriage, divorce, and so on. His struggle is everyone’s struggle.

The point, then, is to find meaning in ordinary life, any human life. A Death in the Family, which deals mostly with Knausgaard’s childhood, specifically makes the point that for children every small experience is intense, of tremendous novelty and import. A child’s reality remains unfiltered and therefore everything in it is vested with great meaning. But the adult sees things through the prisms of experience, judgement, and self-observation. For him or her, it becomes that much more difficult to relate tangibly to the everyday. For Knausgaard, this becomes clear when his father dies, and he is forced to come to terms with entire aspects of his youth. The death forces him to assume his own adulthood – his father dies of drunkenness, having damaged the lives of several of his closest kin in the process, and Karl Ove cleans up after him – but at the same time his grief is that of a child for a however ambivalent role model.

Meanwhile, of course, much else happens, ranging from the semi-tragic to the entirely comical. Knausgaard’s writing, indeed, proceeds by open and never-closed parenthesis, one subject or anecdote recalling another one, and so forth without always closing the first. His narration has a rambling, Russian-doll structure that creates the impression of a table-corner or pub-counter confession, and gives it the aura of a friend’s confidence. The book is occasionally long-winded, but it is never boring nor heavy-going. It is no coincidence, finally that the cycle title, My Struggle, or in Norwegian Min Kamp, is the same as Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Obfuscation, misdirection: these are also part and parcel of this dense, rich, and fascinating work.


Judas Unchained (Commonwealth Saga)
Judas Unchained (Commonwealth Saga)
by Peter F. Hamilton
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

5.0 out of 5 stars Top Hamilton, 19 Nov. 2015
This is the second novel in Hamilton’s Commonwealth Saga and the sequel to Pandora’s Star. It is possible to read Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained if you have already read the Void Trilogy, even though they all belong to the Commonwealth series and the Void Trilogy takes place later. (Ignore Misspent Youth, by the way.) This is what I did, and I did not feel the Void Trilogy had spoilt any of the suspense of the first two Commonwealth novels for me. Indeed, I highly recommend reading these two books no matter what, as they are perhaps Hamilton’s best set of novels.

Judas Unchained follows straight from Pandora’s Star and concludes the Prime or Starflier war. Since I assume you have already read the first novel in this set of two, there is no need to elaborate on the premise in this review. Suffice to say that this second volume is worthy of the first. What I like about Hamilton’s novels, moreover, is that they offer a progressive vision of technology, a sober but in many ways positive peek at the future, and this is particularly true of the Commonwealth Series. In a sense, they are a return to the heroic era of science fiction, and they stand far from the gloomy dystopias that have become fashionable. Biological enhancements have become available to humans. They can interface mentally with computer networks. Manufacturing has been made easy. At the same time, though, politics and conflict remain as fraught as they ever are. Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained (there is no getting out of reading both once you have started, but you will be grateful for so much reading material) combine science fiction and the detective novel as genres, and even some fantasy. The plot is absolutely breathtaking, and this is highly recommended whether to Hamilton fans or novices.


Pandora's Star (Commonwealth Saga)
Pandora's Star (Commonwealth Saga)
by Peter F. Hamilton
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

5.0 out of 5 stars Top Hamilton, 19 Nov. 2015
It is possible to read Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained if you have already read the Void Trilogy, even though they all belong to the Commonwealth series and the Void Trilogy takes place later. (Ignore Misspent Youth, by the way.) This is what I did, and I did not feel the Void Trilogy had spoilt any of the suspense of the first two Commonwealth novels for me. Indeed, I highly recommend reading these two books no matter what, as they are perhaps Hamilton’s best set of novels.

Pandora’s Star, set in the twenty-fourth century, finds humanity having expanded, thanks to wormhole technology, into several hundred star systems. Scientific attention is attracted to a group of two stars, the Dyson pair, which appear to have mysteriously been isolated behind an energy barrier. The mission sent to enquire sees the barrier come up and the release of the dreadful Prime civilisation, an alien race prepared to destroy all life in its path and determined to get rid of the human challenge at the earliest opportunity. Internal disagreement compounds the threat to the commonwealth as a group of violent renegades based on the planet Far Away contends that the Primes are being helped behind the lines by a fellow alien, the Starflier, and his human spies and collaborators. The novel has an operatic cast, including the incorruptible detective Paula Myo, the genius inventors and corporate magnates Nigel Sheldon and Ozzie Isaacs, the hot and ambitious journalist Melanie Rescorai, and many others. It never pauses and uses Hamilton’s trademark practice of pursuing innumerable subplots until they all converge into one grand narrative.

What I like about Hamilton’s novels is that they offer a progressive vision of technology, a sober but in many ways positive peek at the future, and this is particularly true of the Commonwealth Series. In a sense, they are a return to the heroic era of science fiction, and they stand far from the gloomy dystopias that have become fashionable. Biological enhancements have become available to humans. They can interface mentally with computer networks. Manufacturing has been made easy. At the same time, though, politics and conflict remain as fraught as they ever are. Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained (there is no getting out of reading both once you have started, but you will be grateful for so much reading material) moreover combine science fiction and the detective novel as genres, and even some fantasy. The plot is absolutely breathtaking, and this is highly recommended whether to Hamilton fans or novices.


What I Loved
What I Loved
by Siri Hustvedt
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Life & art, 28 Oct. 2015
This review is from: What I Loved (Paperback)
Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved tracks the intertwined fates of two couples in 1970s to 1990s New York. Leo and Erica Hertzberg are both academics, while Bill Wechsler, a painter, has become estranged from his wife and moved in with a former model, Violet, who writes on sociology and psychology. The friendship between Leo and Bill initially drives the novel, as Leo, who teaches art history and criticism, is among the first to have 'discovered’ Bill and put him on the road to success. Both couples have boys the same age, moreover, Matt and Mark, bringing the two families even closer. But tragedy soon hits the Hertzbergs, and Bill and Violet turn out to have been no luckier as Mark, in adolescence, runs wild and becomes the creature of a con artist and suspected murderer. The novel, told in Leo’s voice, moves deftly from Bill’s initial rise to the accidents that shake but never quite break the incredible partnership between the four protagonists. Hustvedt’s touch is light and never heavy-handed, her story told stroke by tentative stroke, and the novel, perhaps at no point utterly engrossing, is never boring either.

What I Loved is also about New York, though here the originality is less obvious, since it is the narrow New York world of the rich and the artistic that is being described. Bill begins as a struggling Soho artist, but soon he is exposed to the darts of spiteful art critics and the pathological envy of imitators, with fateful consequences for his family. But the novel more generally explores the interpenetration of life and art (serious reviewers always write that novels 'explores’ something, don’t they? you can just tell you’re reading a highbrow review when you stumble upon that term.) Bill’s art, described at length in the novel, involves, apart from canvasses, model rooms with tiny characters in them drawn from the real world or from popular stories. Mark, Bill’s son, turns out to be an inveterate liar, and he develops an unhealthy relationship with someone whose art flirts ever too ambiguously with violence. Leo is an art critic, and much of his story is derived either from letters, especially between the artist and his subject, or from works of art themselves. What I Loved is in this sense self-referential, its curious, sometimes beguiling plot more about the leap of faith that is modern art more than the unpredictable lives of its devotees.


The Makioka Sisters (Vintage Classics)
The Makioka Sisters (Vintage Classics)
by Junichiro Tanizaki
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

5.0 out of 5 stars An understated masterpiece, 19 Oct. 2015
Tanizaki was one of Japan’s great mid-century literary figures, and this is probably the best introduction to the author. Not a great deal happens, and yet this makes for compelling reading. The novel also is a portrait of a world in transition: a modernising Japan stuck in old-fashioned mores and ideas that are nevertheless, we are relentlessly notified, about to crumble under the impact of war and the American occupation.

The Makioka Sisters follows the fortunes of the four daughters of a once-wealthy, department-store owning family in the years between the two world wars, and especially the late 1930s and last years before Pearl Harbour. None of the sisters work, and inevitably marriage is a prime preoccupation. The two eldest, Tsuruko and Sachiko, already have families, one in Tokyo and one in Osaka, but the other two, Yukiko and Taeko, remain single. Both are moreover very different. Yukiko is loyal to traditional feminine ideals, meaning that she is strong at home but a shrinking violet in public, that she dresses in kimonos, and scarcely ever expresses any of her feelings. Taeko, the youngest, dresses Western-style and is more individualistic and wilful. She earns her own money as a dress and doll-maker, keeps company with suitors, and is prepared to travel abroad and live independently. Yet all is not always what it seems, and as the plot progresses both surprise in their own way. Meanwhile the family is incredibly hidebound, with a deep sense of honour, propriety, and hierarchy, making what ought to be simple unbelievably complicated. Any marriage has to be arranged, and this has to follow proper procedure as set by intermediaries, the lengthy backdoor control of any suitor’s family and personal references, and approval by the ‘main house’, or Tsuruko’s household, especially the patriarch that is her husband. The constant danger, moreover, is that Taeko’s over-liberal behaviour will cause scandal and ruin Yukiko’s prospects at the last moment.

The Makioka Sisters paints a picture of the old-fashioned, bygone society that was bourgeois Japan in the early twentieth century. What makes it a complex and fascinating work, though, is that change and modernity nevertheless constantly intrude. In many ways, the Makioka are considered excessively proud and crusty by those who surround them and try to help them. They have foreign neighbours and friends who move internationally and help provide broader chronological markers to the story. Nor are the Makioka the denizens of some antiquated rural utopia: they are sophisticated urbanites who listen to imported music and watch foreign films as well as going to the Kabuki, they buy German medicine and eat foreign foods, and in many ways they represent the industrial and already modern Japan of the 1930s. The book ends at the beginning of 1941, with the clear implication that much that makes their world is nevertheless about to be transformed forever. Its last line is priceless, a masterpiece of ambiguity all by itself.


King Rat: The Fourth Novel of the Asian Saga
King Rat: The Fourth Novel of the Asian Saga
by James Clavell
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Clavell's great debut, 26 Sept. 2015
Though King Rat is nominally part of Clavell’s Asian Saga, it is actually unrelated to the rest of the series and only comes fourth within it because of its chronological position. None of the characters in the previous books or their descendents appear here, and even stylistically it is quite different. The reason is that unlike the rest of the saga, indeed, King Rat is based on Clavell’s own experience, namely as a prisoner in a Japanese camp during WWII. Before writing it, Clavell was a scriptwriter, and this was his first novel. But if the book lacks the wide cast and racy plot of the rest of the saga, it makes up for it in veracity and originality. Part of the attraction of King Rat is that it is based on the dire reality of Japanese POW camps, a reality he lived through himself. The prisoners were gravely underfed, they were exposed to Malaria, and the Japanese did not pass on the medicine supplied to them by the Red Cross. Lodging conditions were very poor and the place crawled with bugs. Officers and men were forced to do heavy building work in dangerous conditions. All this comes out vividly in the novel, which concentrates on descriptive work as much as on unspooling the typically taught Clavell plot.

King Rat revolves around the fates of Peter Marlowe, an RAF lieutenant seemingly modelled on Clavell himself, and an American corporal named King. Smuggling, or any trading for profit, is strictly forbidden in the camp, but the King circumvents the rules, keeping himself fit and healthy when so many others are fighting for survival. But it is dangerous business as an ambitious British officer, Grey, is quite prepared to enforce Japanese regulations to the letter to further his own aims. Marlowe, who has the advantage of speaking Malay, befriends King and becomes his partner in crime, or rather in adventure as they attempt to smuggle a diamond out of camp and fight to keep its last, hidden radio going, the men’s only link to the outside and sole source of news about the war. More than a tale of war and survival, though, King Rat asks questions of responsibility and morality. Marlowe long agonises before joining King, and he refrains from sharing in his profits except from necessity. But is the King exploiting his comrades, or is he helping them survive? Can survival in such conditions ever come without some cost to others, and is it acceptable to compromise if one is directly at threat? King Rat is ultimately about the difficult moral choices of war and survival conditions generally.


The Children Act
The Children Act
by Ian McEwan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A convincing act, 11 Sept. 2015
This review is from: The Children Act (Paperback)
I’ve always had mixed feelings about Ian McEwan and haven’t read anything from him after Atonement and Amsterdam, both of which (fans: feel free to disagree) I found deeply disappointing. My grudge is that whilst McEwan’s writing invariably dazzles, his plots are wobbly and ultimately unconvincing. My favourite novel of his was always The Innocent, a spy story set in Cold War Berlin, which I incidentally recommend highly whether or not you are an admirer of this author. Anyway, the point is that whilst the writing of The Children Act remains a pleasure to read, the plot this time stacks up and makes for absorbing material.

This short novel takes for heroine a fifty-nine year old High Court judge, Fiona Maye, and takes place at the intersection of her professional and private lives. While she has become an authority on family law and deals justice from on high on matters such as divorces and child custody, the irony is that her private life has come to a difficult pass. Fiona is childless, and her husband, thirsting for romantic excitement as old age approaches, is asking for leave to have an affair elsewhere. A life-and-death case, meanwhile, reaches her desk, involving a seventeen-year old Jehovah’s witness refusing treatment against advanced leukaemia. Fiona deals with the case with her habitual authority, but not before she decides to meet the boy in person. And in her fragile emotional state, this turns out to have been a decision with consequences for all concerned. The Children Act is erudite, well informed as to the court circuit, and full of anecdotes and crunchy dialogue revolving around the legal profession and court cases. It is fun, interesting, and as a psychological piece both convincing and enjoyable to read.


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