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Sam J. Ruddock (Norwich, England)

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Eating Animals
Eating Animals
by Jonathan Safran Foer
Edition: Hardcover

17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why it's all about the story, 28 April 2010
This review is from: Eating Animals (Hardcover)
Eating Animals in one tweet-sized chunk:
Eating Animals is about the stories we tell about the food we eat. But also the gaps between the stories we tell and the stories as they actually are.

"Stories about food are stories about us - our history and our values."

When I sat down to write this review I did so with 16 pages of notes and ambitions to compose a review that would change the eating habits of every person who read it. Only such lofty goals, I felt, could do justice to a book that casts the debate around the meat industry in a fresh light.

But what I soon realised as I considered how to achieve this gargantuan feat, was that the brilliance of Eating Animals is the extraordinary realism Foer injects into the debate. His master-stroke is to get away from the all-or-nothing vegetarian versus carnivore debate in favour of a third way, a way that promotes a reduction in our collective consumption of meat to a level that is conducive to stable and lasting farming practices. This is not a fundamentalist case for vegetarianism, or a moralistic case against eating meat per se, but an exploration of why the choices we make about what we eat matter - to ourselves, the animals we do or don't eat, the planet, and the lives of all those who inhabit it.

Those who have enjoyed either of Foer's sublime novels - Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - will find the same inventiveness is at play here, alongside a familiar appreciation that what matters most is not facts and figures but the stories that surround them. He lets a factory farmer speak for himself, devotes an entire chapter to a debate between a farmer, his vegetarian wife, and a vegan PETA activist. He has an inherent understanding that there is no such thing as unequivocal truth, merely lots of different stories that collectively make up a whole.

Eating Animals is about the stories we tell about the food we eat. It is about their importance to our communal experiences of eating, our cultural ways of life. But it is also about the gaps between the stories we tell ourselves and the stories as they actually are. And it is about the stories we want to tell about ourselves in the future.

These stories begin with Foer himself. Having spent the first twenty-six years of his life disliking animals and oscillating between vegetarian and omnivore, between feeling guilty about eating animals and savouring the taste and smell of meat, the prospect of becoming a father made him reconsider the person he wanted to be. Taking his cue from Michael Pollan's assertion in The Omnivore's Dilemma that "eating industrial meat takes an almost heroic act of not knowing," and faced with the responsibility of deciding what to feed someone more important than himself, Foer set out to understand what sort of repercussions the decision to eat meat had. But what started as a curious bit of research soon grew into a mission to expose factory farming and the culture of cheap food that drives it. He joins an animal rights activist in breaking into a factory farm under cover of darkness, and what troubles him most is not the horrific living conditions of the birds, though they are bad enough, but the secrecy, the locked doors and hi-tec surveillance.

"In the three years I will spend immersed in animal agriculture, nothing will unsettle me more than the locked doors. Nothing will better capture the whole sad business of factory farming. And nothing will more strongly convince me to write this book."

Above all else Eating Animals is a bid to burst open that secrecy and end the whole barbaric practice of factory farming once and for all. Part investigative journalism, part scientific study, and told through a variety of literary mediums, it is difficult not to be convinced by the passion and conviction of his arguments and the panache with which he conveys them. Of all the arguments in the book it is the assertion that what we chose to eat matters that reverberates longest. He recounts a powerful conversation with his grandmother about how she survived the holocaust:

"The worst it got was near the end. A lot of people died right at the end and I didn't know if I could make it another day. A farmer, a Russian, God bless him, he saw my condition, and he went into his house and came out with a piece of meat for me."
"He saved your life."
"I didn't eat it."
"You didn't eat it?"
"It was pork. I wouldn't eat pork."
"What do you mean why?"
"What, because it wasn't kosher?"
"Of course."
"But not even to save your life?"
"If nothing matters, there's nothing to save."

One must make choices based on our own conscience, and Foer never deviates from this central assertion. However, that doesn't mean that he doesn't do everything in his power to shape our consciences. Much of Eating Animals makes uncomfortable reading. He tells of turkeys genetically modified to the point of being unable to reproduce sexually, to a state where there are virtually none left in America that could survive in the wild. "What we do to living turkeys," he asserts, "is just about as bad as anything humans have ever done to any animal in the history of the world."

He tells of the pigs slaughtered in stages, of cesspools filled with animal excrement, and the often-overlooked seafood industry's mind-boggling war on the seas. He breaks down statistics into conceivable metaphors. At one point he asks the reader to imagine being served a plate of sushi that also holds all the animals that were killed for that one serving, concluding that "the plate might have to be five feet across." Another chapter begins with its title - `Influence / Speechlessness' - repeated roughly 840 times over five pages. Why? Because "on average, Americans eat the equivalent of 21,000 entire animals in a lifetime - one animal for every letter on the last five pages."

Some consider this sort of approach glib and distracting, but it is this exuberance to communicate in a variety of ways that has always made Foer's work so engaging, and it is as powerful here as ever it has been.

Not all the book is made up of tales of animal abuse, though. Far from it. Much time is devoted to the environmental degradation that results from factory farming. "Just as nothing we do has the direct potential to cause nearly as much animal suffering as eating meat, no daily choice that we make has a greater impact on the environment." He explains how factory farming is implicated in the spread of global pandemic illnesses such as bird flu, how it produces terrifying quantities of waste which has no sewerage system through which to be disposed, and how meat is injected with so many hormones that it is strengthening the resistance of viruses to antibiotics and thereby damaging our health. His argument is that cheap meat is a false economy as factory farms do not pay for the mess they create, that they pass on all the associated costs of environmental clean-up and health-care to taxpayers without taking responsibility for either their actions or the consequences.

It would be difficult not to reach the conclusion, as he does, that industrial factory farming is a horrendous blight on our world that cannot even begin to be excused by the cheap meat it produces. While it is important to recognise that Eating Animals deals almost exclusively with the American industry and that the situation there is more extreme than in the EU, the picture he draws is reflected to a lesser or greater degree in every meat industry in the western world. It would be a travesty if the focus on the American system were taken to give readers reason to adopt the sort of arrogant superiority that so often underpins our reactions toward America. After all, the UK has some of the cheapest food prices in the world and those savings have to come from somewhere.

The problem Foer quickly encounters is that we consume too much meat - about 150 times more chicken than we did eighty years ago. And that sort of production is only possible through factory farming.

"We shouldn't kid ourselves about the number of ethical eating options available to most of us. There isn't enough nonfactory chicken produced in America to feed the population of Staten Island and not enough nonfactory pork to serve New York City, let alone the country. Ethical meat is a promissory note, not a reality. Any ethical-meat advocate who is serious is going to be eating a lot of vegetarian fare."

Foer spends an inordinate amount of time searching for an `ethical farm,' a farm whose meat he would be happy to feed his children. Though he finds better farms whose work is based on traditional animal husbandry and organic rearing, he still witnesses what he considers barbaric and unnecessary practices such as branding and concludes that there is no such thing as humane farming methods. This is the closest he comes to stating openly that he believes eating animals to be wrong. Yet still, he doesn't say `don't eat meat' but rather, `eat less meat'. He separates his personal decision to become a committed vegetarianism from a universal demand that others follow. Because of this many hard-line vegans have criticised Eating Animals for its refusal to explicitly support universal vegetarianism. He is wise enough to know that an absolutist argument of this kind would be counter-productive. So he couches his argument in storytelling, in a journey of discovery. He pitches this book not at a distant utopian future of universal vegetarianism but a first-step incremental reduction in meat consumption for all

Eating Animals is a rallying call to unite in opposition to the factory farming method of meat production. Yet it is typical of the book that Foer doesn't sugar-coat this message in moral absolutism, but rather a return to stories.

"To give up the taste of sushi or roasted chicken is a loss that extends beyond giving up a pleasurable eating experience. Changing what we eat and letting tastes fade from memory creates a kind of cultural loss, a forgetting. But perhaps this kind of forgetfulness is worth accepting - even worth cultivating (forgetting, too, can be cultivated). To remember animals and my concern for their wellbeing, I may need to lose certain tastes and find other handles for the memories that they once helped me carry."

As a reviewer I am guilty of describing books as `must read' far more often than is strictly true. Indeed, it is arguable whether any fiction is ever must-read. However, if there is ever a book that warrants the moniker then it is Eating Animals or another book on the ethical and practical questions raised by the food we eat. Aside sleep and death, there is nothing that can be said to unite the entire global population as eating does. What we eat, and the impact it has on the lives we live and the world around us, is a fundamental question of our existence.

Eating Animals ends with its author hosting a meat-free Thanksgiving for family and the acceptance that they will need to develop new stories for this new diet. But, he contends, that is a small price to pay for not living with the shame of supporting such a profoundly abhorrent meat production system. During the course of his journey he repeatedly returns to an emblematic story about Franz Kafka staring into a fish tank and, on seeing his own reflection mingling with the animals he once ate, saying "Now at least I can look at you in peace."

Life is about recognising the person you are and the person you want to be. It is about making decisions based on knowledge rather than routine. Without ever being overly preachy, Eating Animals asks us all to stare into a fish tank, to see ourselves reflected, and to decide what stories we wish to tell in the future.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 14, 2013 9:22 AM BST

Even the Dogs
Even the Dogs
by Jon McGregor
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sure to contend for major prizes this year, 28 April 2010
This review is from: Even the Dogs (Hardcover)
"They break down the door at the end of December and carry the body away.

The air is cold and vice-like, the sky a scouring steel-eyed blue, the trees bleached bone-white in the frosted light of the sun. We stand in a huddle by the bolted door."

Prose this good - this sparingly, articulately, precisely composed - does not come along every day. Jon McGregor has long been considered one of finest lyrical novelists of his generation, and Even the Dogs is his best novel yet. Taut, controlled, uncomfortable, the prose grips you like a vice from the first sentence and doesn't let go. At times the vividness of the winter-frozen air takes one's breath away. I will be shocked if it doesn't carry away a major prize this year.

When he was alive, Robert Radcliffe was an obese and lonely alcoholic who hadn't been outside his dilapidated flat in years. But he is dead now, found by two police officers putrefying amidst the broken glass and bottles and cans and blankets and clothes and car tyres on his living room floor. His skin is swollen and softening, an "oily pool of fluids spreading across the floor."

Statutory procedures kick in. They take him away to a mortuary, conduct a post-mortem, hold an inquest, and cremate his rotten body. It is quick, efficient. More attention than Robert has received for years.

"We gather together in the room, sitting, standing, leaning against the wall, and we wait. For the morning. For someone to come back. For something to happen.
Waiting is one thing we're good at, as it happens.
We've had a lot of practice.
We've got the time.
We've got all the time in the world."

We follow the progress of his body through that nameless city, accompanied by a disembodied chorus of mourners who seem to have known him when he was alive. But who are they? They speak in an eerily inclusive first person plural voice, ghost-like and omniscient, drifting from one scene to another without the encumbrance of a physical form. Over five chapters we follow the corpse on it's final journey, dipping into the past to understand how he came to this fate, assembling fragmentary portraits of Robert, and those friends of his now watching on.

These narratives flow like a film script. Montages, reminiscences, shots fading in and out of focus. We see Robert as a younger man, with his partner Yvonne, lovingly setting up home together, bathing their daughter. Life, love, sex. But things start to go wrong. Robert has undiagnosed headaches and takes to drinking. Yvonne leaves, taking Laura with her. Robert stays put, awaiting their return. At some point, others arrive: squatters, addicts, the disenfranchised. There is Danny, an inexperienced young heroin addict who first discovers the body and needs to find someone to tell. Heather, with a third eye tattooed on her ageing forehead. Mike, a paranoid schizophrenic Scouser. Steve, ex-army, alcoholic, never forgets to lay his socks out to dry. Ant, Ben, Jamesie, Maggie. And, of course, Laura. One by one they step into focus and we hear their stories from their point of view, fuelled by defiance, anger, resentment, hope, shame, gratitude, comradeship, obsession.

What emerges is a harsh and unflinching vision of life on the margins of society. Well-researched and - I'm told by those who know such things - impressively true to life, it is about addiction that leaves you shaking, diarrhetic, desperate for another fix. Addiction that consumes and contorts life to its satisfaction. Addiction full of earth shattering lows and orgasmic highs, each repeating themselves day in day out, month in month out, year in year out. It is an inherently human tale, told in the characters' own voices, unflinching in content or conclusion. Taking his queue from authors such as James Kelman and William Faulkner the dialect is contracted and ugly, yet perceptive and with internal cadences all of its own. There is no effort to shock, or explain. Only to understand. And perhaps bear witness.

There's a haunting ethereal quality to the narrative, an urgent need driving it forward even as it swirls and loops about and jumps backwards and forwards, in and out of character. It is a book that is difficult to describe without accidentally putting readers off. So next time you are in a bookshop, pick it up and read the first couple of pages, and see what you think. The prose will get you, even if this review does not.

Indeed, so fine are the words within this short novel it seems inappropriate to mention the book as a physical product. Yet it is also one of the most beautiful books I have ever held. Published in a new 'bendyback' format that is halfway between hardback and paperback, and bound in a cloth jacket that contributes an almost three dimensional effect to the blooming yellow flowers sprouting against a slate-grey sky, Even The Dogs is an all-round beautiful book. The paper is thick and grainy, the typeface rich and resplendent and enticing to the eye.

Yet it remains the prose that make it the great book it is. Through his stunning command of poetic prose, Jon McGregor tells a story like a still life painting, a freeze-frame of living, breathing tissue as immediate and enthralling as if one were watching with one's own eyes. Anyone who liked his multi-award-winning debut, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, will be entranced by this book. It may not be comfortable reading, but the gurgling unease in the pit of one's stomach is proof of the visceral power of the novel. Even the Dogs is a sumptuous and engaging glimpse into the easily forgotten seams of society.

Monsters of Men (Chaos Walking)
Monsters of Men (Chaos Walking)
by Patrick Ness
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 11.19

17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A near perfect conclusion to a near perfect trilogy, 28 April 2010
"War," says Mayor Prentiss, his eyes glinting. "At last."

So begins Monsters of Men, the final volume in Patrick Ness's multi-award-winning Chaos Walking trilogy. Lines have been drawn, armies are marching; divisive and polarising leaders have got what they wanted. And Todd and Viola are caught in the middle of it, faced with ominous odds and unenviable choices. The first of these is to split up, with Todd staying behind to keep an eye on the Mayor and fight the invading Spackle army while Viola goes in search of the scout ship that has just landed. Once again, their trust in each other will be tested to its absolute limit.

Given that its title stems from the warning delivered by various characters throughout the series - "war makes monsters of men" - it is no surprise that war is the predominant theme and, for better or worse, shapes everything that takes place. Yet Monsters of Men is as complex and multifarious as war itself, an investigation into the many ways and many ends for which people are drawn into it. It is an enthralling culmination to the finest series I've read in many years. Chaos Walking combines first rate characterisation with heart-stoppingly exciting plots and engaging, direct, and often lyrical prose. I run out of superlatives when describing just how good it is.

Best of all it challenges the reader. You cannot sit back and watch passively as events unfold. At every turn you are placed in the characters' shoes, confronted with the question: what would you do? What would you do if your greatest enemy were the only person who could save you from a marauding army bent on revenge? What would you do if your "one in particular" were about to die and the only way you could save them were to fire a missile that would kill hundreds, if not thousands, of enemy soldiers and destroy all hopes of a desperately wished for peace. Faced with the choice between vengeance and forgiveness what would you do? What space is there for idealism when your very survival is driven by a need for realpolitik?

Every choice is played through to its conclusion, laying clear the full ramifications of that choice, the characters forced to live with and adapt to the world they have shaped. Reading is a dynamic experience; different fonts for the different narrators bring the text alive, Noise sometimes squeezing, sometimes ramming its way onto the page. Characters feel alive because their choices are your own and because they are each three- dimensional, capable of a whole gamut of actions and reactions, none of which are black or white. Ness seems to instinctively appreciate that it is in contradiction and hypocrisy that life is lived and experienced. Uncomfortable truths demonstrating just how difficult some choices are:

"Come!" he says to me. "See what it's like to be on the winning side."
And he rides off after the new soldiers.
I ride after him, gun up, but not shooting, just watching and feeling-
Feeling the thrill of it
Cuz that's it-
That's the nasty, nasty secret of war-
When yer winning-
When yer winning, it's ruddy thrilling-

Or how about this, a realisation that love might be the most destructive possibility of all:

"I'd have done the same, Viola," Todd says, one more time.
And I know he's saying nothing but the truth.
But as he hugs me again before I leave, I can't help but think it over and over.
If this is what Todd and I would do for each other, does that make us right?
Or does it make us dangerous?

Monsters of Men combines gripping storylines with real moral quandaries. In Todd and Viola it has heroes you root for with every ounce of your being. They are far from perfect and it is their self-abasement, their doubt, which makes them so likable. And the point that Todd and many other characters come back to time and again is that it's not how you fall, but how you get back up again that counts.

Contrarily it is the absolute certainty of Mayor Prentiss and Mistress Coyle that makes them so hideous. Their bloodthirsty eagerness for war only adds to this, as does their calm and rational defence of its transformative nature, the Nietzschean survival of the fittest test by which you walk into the fire and either emerge bigger and stronger, or fall away. War doesn't make monsters of men, Mayor Prentiss and Mistress Coyle chillingly echo each other early on. "It's war that makes us men in the first place."

Yet whereas The Knife of Never Letting Go and The Ask and The Answer had, at their heart, a message that power is the ultimate end, Monsters of Men begins to reveal the inherent flaws in that argument. Madness is often defined as continuing to do the same thing time and time again yet expecting different results, and the longer the book goes on, the more those who seek to divide and rule appear ridiculous. Stuck using the same tactics as before, without recognising the new opportunities that exist. Underlying their military struggle is another battle - this one an ideological struggle between competing visions of how peace is won (discussion versus force, individuality versus collectivism) - and they are losing it.

What would life be like if you could hear everybody's thoughts, and everybody could hear yours? What would be the effect on individuality, free thought, privacy? These are the questions Ness posed in The Knife of Never Letting Go. In The Ask and The Answer the question evolved into competing ideas of how to run such a society. In Monsters of Men, the circle is completed and the benefits of Noise presented. What if communication were organic rather than active, a natural inter-connectedness that provided community to all and bred trust and unity rather than secrets and lies? How much more intimate might relationships be if miscommunication were no longer possible?

"I think it could be the way forward for all of us,"...If we can all learn to speak this way, then there won't be any more division... That's the secret of this planet, Todd. Communication, real and open, so we can finally understand each other.

Warmth, love, and hope abound. As the book goes on these choices begin to congeal around a coherent moral stance, a single call to arms: be the change you want in the world. No matter how hard that might be.

"I'm sorry, Bradley," I say. "I couldn't have done any other thing."
He looks up sharply. "Yes, you could have." He pulls himself to his feet and says it again, more firmly. "Yes, you could have. Choices may be unbelievably hard but they're never impossible."
"What if it'd been Simone down there instead of Todd?" I say.
And Simone is all over his Noise, his deep feelings for her, feelings I don't think are returned. "You're right," He says. "I don't know. I hope I'd make the right choice, but Viola it is a choice. To say you have no choice is to release yourself from responsibility and that's not how a person with integrity acts."

With a host of new characters - including an angry third narrator bent on revenge - who provide fresh impetus and perspective, Monsters of Men is a fitting conclusion full of all the qualities and insight that made its predecessors so rewarding. As you'd expect from a final volume, loose ends are tied up, though not at the expense of the narrative flow, and plenty remains unanswered. Most notably of all, Ness integrates the vast and powerful themes into the plot so seamlessly that they appear effortless. This is a rare and remarkable achievement. Monsters of Men is a near perfect conclusion to a near perfect trilogy.

by Stephane Audeguy
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The first book i have ever read twice in a row. Subtle, beautiful and brilliant., 5 Jan 2008
This review is from: THE THEORY OF CLOUDS (Hardcover)
Since the dawn of time writers have been drawn to the sea, to its solitude and its silent power. From Virginia Woolf and Iris Murdoch to Homer and William Shakespeare, the sea has existed as both a very real living presence, and a metaphorical idea on which novels, poems and plays have floated...and occasionally sunk. Yet despite their equally transient nature, moodiness, and deceptive depth, clouds have been largely overlooked in the annuls of literature. Suddenly, having read The Theory of Clouds this strikes me as a remarkable oversight.

"All children become sad in the late afternoon, for they begin to comprehend the passage of time. The light starts to change. Soon they will have to head home, and to behave, and to pretend."

From this sumptuous first paragraph, The Theory of Clouds takes you on a journey across the skies and into lives, quietly, gradually, sparsely building a tapestry of interlocking narratives, stories of life, and obsession; and clouds. Stephane Audeguy's debut novel, already the recipient of the Grand Prize of the French Academy, reveals a rare and delightfully fresh new literary talent.

Legendary couturier Akira Kumo has built his whole life for himself: never questioning the holes in his memory: the absence of a childhood, or family, or a vast, earth-shattering explosion. Now, in retirement, he has devoted himself to amassing the world's largest collection of books on clouds and meteorology. Requiring someone to catalogue this vast library, he hires Virginie Latour and begins to teach her about the history of clouds, and those who have watched them.

So begins this most gently beautiful of books. As Kumo takes Virginie on a historical tour of clouds, we meet prominent men whose lives have been attracted to those deceptively heavy clouds which float so lightly across the skies.
"You have to be single-minded, Kumo said to Virginie, and single-minded in a particularly wilful sort of way, to take an interest in clouds."
We meet Luke Howard a devout Quaker who, in 1821 gave clouds the names by which they have been known ever since, Cirrus, Cummulus, Stratus, and Nimbus. And so the nomenclature of clouds was born. Then there is Lewis Fry Richardson, a devout pacifist and mathematician who devised the means of modern weather forecasting years before the technology existed make it a reality. But when his work on weather patterns was used for more effective dissemination of poison gas is World War One, he changed track and spent the rest of his life attempting to create a mathematical model for why people wage war on each other, work which has, sadly, never been followed up.
But, Kumo continues to explain, "like all things so simple and sublime, clouds pose dangers." Who could forget the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa, and the vast cloud of ash and debris which spread across the entire world, altering global temperature for years to come. And cloud watching itself also poses problems for those drawn to it. Not all relationships between people and clouds have happy endings.

"Men are destroyed, and destroy each other, over basic things - money or hatred. On the other hand a really complicated riddle never pushed anyone to violence; either you found the answer or gave up looking. Clouds were riddles too, but dangerously simple ones. If you zoomed in on one part of a cloud and took a photograph, then enlarged the image, you would find that a cloud's edges seemed like another cloud, and those edges yet another, and so on. Every part of a cloud, in other words, reiterates the whole. Therefore each cloud might be called infinite, because its very surface is composed of other clouds, and those clouds of still other clouds, and so forth. Some learn to lean over the abyss of these brainteasers; others lose their balance and tumble into its eternal blackness."
And this infinity, this capricious refusal to be defined can send people mad. For example, Carmichael, the English painter, whose obsession with painting the true nature of clouds drove him mad. And then there is Kumo's past, and the cloud which lurks there, raining black dust on all he has become.
But it is the story of Richard Abercrombie, noted cloud watcher and all round English gentlemen, which holds the key, not only to Kumo's collection, but to his past, and Virginie's future.
"All great collections tend to orbit around a missing piece, a central absence that acts like a hub around which revolve, indefinitely, the collector's desires...In the case of Kumo's collection, the missing piece bore a name, a name celebrated in meteorological circles, The Abercrombie Protocol."
So when it appears The Abercrombie Protocol becomes available, Kumo dispatches Virginie on a mission to London to see if she can lay her hands on the fabled document. Her journey takes her into the heart of the very history Kumo has been teaching her, its locale and its characters, and soon she returns with fresh stories, stories which run to the heart of that most difficult of relationships, between clouds, and the people who watch them.
And devoid of the companionship Virginie offered him, Kumo is beginning to remember things about his own past and the great cloud that overshadows everything in it.

The Theory of Clouds is a novel about clouds, both literal and metaphorical, all the different sorts and the people who look at them, sometimes with intrigue, sometimes wonder. It is about the interconnectedness of nature and humanity, the first in a planned trilogy investigating the relationship between humanity, the natural world and technology. And it is a phenomenal beginning.

Without a single line of dialogue Audegey builds a novel which is both illuminating and beautiful, understated and yet intensely profound. Just a look at the cover offers an insight into its fabulously, carefully constructed plot. The ying and yang of clouds, darkness and light, that depth and deception which lead people to stare in wonder and sometimes lose themselves forever in their midst. The narratives verge from the fictional to the literal, each story merging together, reflecting its predecessors in some way or other, be it geographically, emotionally, intellectually or in the events of life and death. And slowly but surely the lives of Kumo and Virginie are merging with their forebears, being written into this future history of clouds.

There are touches of Kazuo Ishiguro here, in the Japanese history and the sparse prose, the ability to let events and stories speak for themselves. Subtly, ever so quietly, this novel will creep up upon you until you find yourself thoroughly engrossed, hungry to read at all hours of the day. Such sparsity requires incredibly confidence and ability, and Audeguy pulls it off consummately. There is also something of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas in the multiple narratives, all taking place together under an ever changing sky.
And as it draws to a close the various plots begin to come together, the interconnectedness of lives and clouds, each reflecting the others simplicity, constantly evolving, ever apt to be caught by a strong breeze and whisked off somewhere completely new. Or else destroyed.

"Only the ocean may be more fascinating to watch than clouds, and equally dangerous, for nothing is more useless and more deceptive and generally more stupefying that watching something that is ever changing and ever self-renewing. Yearning to describe or understand, or even control it can cost you everything. What Virginie first perceived as a long and sweetly amorous procession of clouds now contained an element of despair, unrequited love, and dreary solitude."

Reading this simple tale of clouds is so much more and less than that. It is like watching the clouds pass overhead, like looking at life itself, head on for once. Infinity, infinitely recurring, always changing, never definable. And the clouds are both literal in the history and science behind them, and a metaphor for the transience of thought, of life, and of expectations.

Audeguy is a prestigious talent. I cannot wait for Autumn 2008 and the publication of the second in the trilogy, The Only Son, which has already been published in France. I almost want to learn French fluently just to read it. I finished The Theory of Clouds on a Friday afternoon and started re-reading it immediately. I have never done that before and it was as good the second time as it was the first. I can offer no greater recommendation than this.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 27, 2010 8:58 PM BST

Predator's Gold (Mortal Engines Quartet)
Predator's Gold (Mortal Engines Quartet)
by Philip Reeve
Edition: Paperback

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Even better than Mortal Engines!, 9 Nov 2007
Having escaped London shortly before it exploded, Hester and Tom have been excelling in the freedom of normality. They spend their days flying the bird routes, carrying passengers and cargo between cities and falling ever more in love. They are approached by the eminent `historian' Professor Penneyroyal to carry him to Brighton but when the Jenny Haniver is attacked by a group calling themselves the Green Storm, they are soon drawn into another adventure, one that will put both their courage and their relationship to the ultimate test.

Forced to make an emergency landing on the last American City of Anchorage as she ploughs her way across the Ice Wastes of Greenland they find themselves aboard a once grand city ravaged by plague and led by Freya, a sixteen year old girl who doesn't even know how to dress herself. There are less than fifty people left, but the arrival of Professor Penneyroyal seems the answer to Freya's prayers - as author of the bestselling book America the Beautiful there can be no better man to navigate them back to what was once America, the Dead Continent and the green planes that await them there. But as they navigate a course across the thinning ice there are questions which no-one seems to be able to answer: did Penneyroyal really do all the things he claims in his books? With Tom happily back aboard a Traction City and Freya developing a fancy for him, can Hester and Tom withstand the pressures being placed upon their relationship? Can Anchorage survive the journey to America without being eaten by the vast hulk of Archangel who will pay handsomely to anyone willing to take Predator's Gold in exchange for information on the location of smaller cities it can eat? And with the Green Storm gaining strength and influence within the Anti-Traction League is it only a matter of time before they declare all out war on the very existence of the Traction Cities.

Predator's Gold is the rip-roaringly exciting second title in Philip Reeve's award winning Mortal Engines quartet. With its rapidly unfolding plot and superb characterisation it carries the reader on a fast-paced and varied journey into the heart of the Traction City world, where no-one is ever quite who they seem to be. Hester and Tom are fabulous characters and here they are joined by a vast array of great creations such as the hapless Freya and Caul, a Lost Boy who spends his time robbing bigger cities in service of a man known only as Uncle.

If anything, Predator's Gold is even better than Mortal Engines. Its plot is faster, the background even more developed and in Hester and Tom the world of children's literature has found two really wonderful characters. As they visit new cities their world grows deeper and ever more complex and the unexpected usually lurks just around the next corner. Philip Reeve has created a terrific world which will carry you along with the story just as if you were aboard a Traction City yourself.

Mortal Engines (Mortal Engines Quartet)
Mortal Engines (Mortal Engines Quartet)
by Philip Reeve
Edition: Paperback

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great characterisation, a really exciting novel for everyone, 9 Nov 2007
Thousands of years in the future, London has become a Traction City, an anthropomorphised metropolis on wheels which stalks the plains of the hunting ground (formerly Europe) in search of smaller cities to eat. For years it has been hiding in what was once the British Isles, building its defences and avoiding bigger prey, but now it has crossed the land bridge and is in search of food.

Within the city lives Tom, a young apprentice historian with an obsession for adventure. Then there is Katherine, the daughter of one of London's most celebrated citizens and Tom's hero, the explorer, archaeologist and adventurer Valentine. But soon Hester Shaw appears, appallingly scarred and with murderous revenge blazing in her eyes - and her target is Valentine himself.

As London scampers across the hunting ground and prepares to launch a fantastic new weapon known only as MEDUSA, events within its walls take disturbing twists which will soon propel Tom, Hester and Katherine into adventurers they never saw coming, but which may determine the future of the entire world. And Valentine has been sent on a secret mission, from which nobody can contact him.

What a great imagination Philip Reeve has. Where many authors would have satisfied themselves with the brilliant idea of Traction Cities, he goes the extra mile, developing an entire historico-philosophical justification for their existence. Municipal Darwinism it is called and is that extra touch of depth which turns a brilliantly exciting adventure into a really believable world in which you feel like you can almost touch the characters. It is a concept at once both exhilarating and terrifying; seen first through the eyes of Tom it is the ultimate adventure; the excitement of the chase, the celebration of the kill. But like Darwinism, it is also thoroughly cutthroat and merciless. It is both post apocalyptically barbarian, and technologically advanced. In a barren world where land animals seem extinct the Traction Cities roam the plains in search of a kill.

Mortal Engines is everything you could want in a teenage fantasy/adventure. It is well written, exciting, jammed full of intriguing ideas, and each of the characters is strong and individual and likeable. Even the truly horrible ones. As the first in a quartet of novels spanning the entire world and twenty years Mortal Engines is a series to really get your teeth into. Like all the best children's fiction it is dark and at times quite remorseless: characters are alive one minute and dead the next, tragedies strike out of nowhere and endings are always tinged with remourse.

If you buy this book today, I am certain you will soon be buying Predator's Gold, Infernal Devices and A Darkling Plain. This is a series to enjoy for weeks to come.

South Of The Border, West Of The Sun
South Of The Border, West Of The Sun
by Haruki Murakami
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

4.0 out of 5 stars Every Murakami novel is worth reading, this is no exception, 9 Nov 2007
Having spent his 20's drifting about lonely and in search of himself, Hajime has found love and security with his wife and two young daughters. He runs two successful jazz bars and spends his days keeping fit and taking his children to and from school. But he is haunted by the memory of the girls he first loved: Shimamoto, a fellow only child with whom he lost touch when he moved to high school, and Itsumi, a girl whose heart he broke when he was seventeen. Then, out of nowhere, Shimamoto appears in his bar, beautiful and mysterious, as if plucked straight from his memories and Hajime is forced to choose between his past and his present.

More reminiscent of Sputnik Sweetheart or Norwegian Wood than Wind-up Bird Chronicle or Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, South of the Border, West of the Sun is a simple, sweet love story set against the background of personal self discovery. As with everything Murakami there is the familiar otherworldlyness to the plot, the fantastical mixing almost invisibly with the everyday. In my opinion he is at his most poignant when this otherworldlyness is combined with the longing of a love story; when it seems that the emotions of the characters are too powerful to be contained and must explode forth in any way possible. This surrealism can thus be read both literally and metaphorically as the externalisation of emotional frailty which knows no boundaries and cannot be contained in just one place. This emotional vulnerability sums up Murakami's well meaning loaners and individuals in search of themselves. It was most exquisitely realised in Sputnik Sweetheart and although this is not quite as good, South of the Border, West of the Sun remains a beautiful novel, well worth a few hours reading.

When each and every book he writes has the same basic characters and the same atmosphere, how does he maintain the suspense and readers interest? Haruki Murakami continues to amaze me with his timeless style and beautifully subtle stories. His is a special talent and his prose remains sublime even in translation, which says much for the simple symmetry of his writing. When I am stuck for what to read next one of his books invariably jumps out at me, offering such a satisfying and tactile haven of retreat it is impossible to refuse. Murakami thinks the things you think, listens to the music you listen to and reads the books you have read. You can almost reach out and touch his fiction, it is so immediate and familiar. And he renders this all in such simple beauty that it fairly breaks your heart. If you have not discovered Murakami yet, you should make it your number one priority.

Rebecca (VMC)
Rebecca (VMC)
by Daphne Du Maurier
Edition: Paperback
Price: 8.09

4.0 out of 5 stars Exquisite classic fiction, exciting, intelligent and beautifully written, 9 Nov 2007
This review is from: Rebecca (VMC) (Paperback)
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I hovered, unseen above the events taking place, deliciously voyeuristic, as the vines crept closer and the night began to wane. An orange glow flickered on the sea breeze and all too soon I realised I was dreaming.

For there is no returning to Manderley, you cannot unread the books you have read. Such a shame since Rebecca is a novel to delight in endlessly, there is so much left unsaid, so much more you want to discover. It is a masterpiece of atmospheric storytelling and quietly creepy imagery. The simplicity of its narrative style is matched by a fast paced and exciting plot which is never quite what you expect it to be. Rebecca is, in short, a fabulous novel, so enthralling it will enshroud you like a vast curtain flapping in the evening breeze.

The narrator and protagonist - whose first name we never know - begins the novel in Monte Carlo working as a companion to a stubborn old lady with pretensions of grandeur. There she meets Max de Winter, owner of one of the most beautiful estates in England, a man whose legendary wife Rebecca recently drowned in a boating accident. When he suddenly proposes she is shocked and delighted, liberated from her tedious companion and whisked away on a brief honeymoon in Italy. But all too soon they return to Manderley and the new Mrs de Winter is confronted by the haunting spectre of Rebecca whose memory resides in every single brick and blade of grass in the entire estate. Rebecca, whose grip on Manderley was absolute when she was alive seems to have maintained all of her dominance even in death. Rebecca the enigma, whose mystery seems almost as great as her personality. Servants compare the new Mrs de Winter with Rebecca, house guests are constantly judging her, and all the while Max is growing more and more withdrawn. Despite her best efforts the hauntingly perfect beauty of Manderley gradually grows stronger, and with it comes the realisation that she can never compete with the memory of a dead woman.

But there are secrets surrounding Rebecca, and it is only a matter of time before they begin to float to the surface. This is a fabulous novel, the perfect combination of beautiful imagery, exciting plot and fantastic characters. Read it now.

The Road
The Road
by Cormac McCarthy
Edition: Paperback

6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The best book you will read this year, 9 Oct 2007
This review is from: The Road (Paperback)
They are nameless. The man and his son. But they are us all. Walking The Road because it is the only way they can go. Alone. Heading for the coast. A post-apocalyptic world enshrouding them. Ransacked. Gutted. Ash rain tumbling from the grey blanket that was once called the sky. Perpetual gloom.

It is always there. The threat. From armed cannibalistic gangs, from hunger, from loss of hope. Horror assaulting the eyes behind every corner. And the sun no more to be seen. "He looked at the sky out of old habit but there was nothing to see."

Polluted. Now the earth is expunging life from itself. But they keep walking The Road south, fleeing the winter they know they cannot survive. Sometimes he remembers the before, but those memories are fading. And he will not let himself dream. The boy never even knew the before. But he knows plenty about life.

"He turned and looked. He looked like he had been crying.
Just tell me.
We wouldn't ever eat anybody, would we?
No. Of course not.
Even if we were starving?
We're starving now.
You said we weren't.
I said we weren't dying. I didn't say we weren't starving.
But we wouldn't?
No. We wouldn't.
No matter what.
No. No matter what.
Because we're the good guys.
And we're carrying the fire.
And we're carrying the fire. Yes.

Sparse, understated. The Road is everything good in modern fiction. It is bleak and desolate. Yet through the gloom come little chinks of lights: it is life affirming, redemptive, real. You can taste the ash in the water, feel the gloom and almost reach out and touch the boys terror. It is a book everyone should read. Yes, it is that good.

Just pick it up and read the six pages of glowing praise from some of the worlds leading lights. You will be salivating when you are finished these. Worried? How can any work live up to such fantastic praise? I don't know. But The Road does.

And then it ends. And it is an ending to befit the stark beauty of such a shattering novel.

Crime And Punishment: A Novel in Six Parts with Epilogue (Vintage Classics)
Crime And Punishment: A Novel in Six Parts with Epilogue (Vintage Classics)
by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

6 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good translations cannot break down the language barrier, 7 Oct 2007
Ah, that most capricious of customers: the classic. The very idea can conjure up the image of dark alleyways, men in top hats and overcoats, enticingly dusty smells and dark oil painting covers. There are some which you pick up and can't believe you never read them before. The Great Gatsby, Frankenstein and Catch-22 are three classics I received in such rapturous delight. For these wonderful books, the word classic barely does them justice. They are so much more than just a word, they are whole, complete works of fiction to which I will always be drawn.

And then there are the others, the ones you read and know you are reading a classic which thousands of people have loved, and you can tell its crammed with really great ideas, but for you it doesn't quite do it. Sadly for me, Crime and Punishment found its way into the latter of these two categories. It tells the story of Rodion Romanych, a young student with a Napoleon complex who has fallen on hard times but dreams of a glorious future, both for himself and his fellow mankind. Feeling wronged by misfortune his thoughts begin to turn towards the good he could do were he in possession of the requisite finances. He writes essays on morality and justice, arguing that it is just for a man of genius to transgress moral law if it will ultimately benefit humanity. He posits that the test of this genius is the ability to transgress moral laws and not feel guilty, to be wholly focused on the grander scale. To this end he begins to plot the perfect crime, the murder and robbery of a horrible old pawnbroker, universally hated by all. So begins Crime and Punishment, a book of great scope and plot and a powerful study of a psychology in turmoil. It is an investigation into the grand ideas so prevalent across nineteenth century society: the social implications of rampant capitalism, the crossover between morality and legality, and the growth of psychology as a means of explaining mans actions.

Crime and Punishment unfolds slowly as the author lays out his message through the intermeshing of the various characters. Dostoyevsky has been described as an author for whom an idea is always rooted in human skin, that no idea is removed from its very intimate human bondage. That is never more prevalent than here, where much of the story is told in miniature tales, single chapter stories in which supporting characters appear to share their story, then leave almost as quickly as they arrived. This method of telling the story is incredibly seductive, it draws you into a world you feel is almost boundless and encourages you to involve yourself within it.

All the while I was aware I was reading a really great novel. But I was bored. The whole premise of Crime and Punishment has been done better elsewhere. Take Albert Camus' The Outsider, or Kafka's The Trial if you are interested in the psychology of crime and the nature of punishment. There are some startlingly good characters here, each with a really fascinating story to tell and the chapters in which they espouse their tales are brilliant examples of secondary characterisation. But then there are long, long passages in Raskolnikov's life in which we trudge around like his shadow in the sludgy snow and wait for something of interest to take place. All the while growing cold and tired. A third could be cut from it just like that. There are no superfluous plot lines but there are many flabby periods when I just wanted to get back into something interesting.

Although Raskolnikov develops into a rounded and really powerful character and his mentality is intriguing at times, there is something about his `woe is me' attitude which really gets on my nerves. Like the snivelling little creatures that populate many of Gogol's short stories and Dostoyevsky's own Notes from Underground I found the most powerful impression he engendered was not sympathy but disgust. Pathetic disgust for a man who expects the world to unfurl before him without any effort. And even though this impression was diluted as the novel progressed to the point where he had become partially interesting his is still a story of unmentionable blandness. Perhaps this is the point, but it doesn't make for great reading.

Another problem, as with many works of Russian literature, lies in the translation. Even with an award winning translation such as this one, much of the lyricism is lost so we are left with the story and ideas Dostoyevsky intended, but without the expressive and poetic prose in which it was originally written. And although I noticed a slight difference between this translation and another by Sidney Monas, it was not enough to change the essential chunkiness of any Russian translation. It is in the language that I believe a real classic is borne and I believe this language would have kept me enthralled through the long journeys in Raskolnikov's mind, but shorn of much poetry I found it a struggle to finish.

I suspect I may re-read Crime and Punishment in the future and wonder how I could ever have written such drivel about a great work. For when that day comes, I shall just say sorry.

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