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The Possessed
The Possessed
Price: £1.59

3.0 out of 5 stars Self-reflection on a grand scale, 20 Mar. 2014
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This review is from: The Possessed (Kindle Edition)
Like Tolstoy's War and Peace, The Possessed is a weighty tome of Russian literature packed full of politics, social etiquette, regret and anti-heroes. Set in a Russia where landowners lost serfs in card games and grand families commanded respect and vast country estates, themes of poverty, revolution and suffocating social conventions frame a remarkable story of a provincial town.

The Possessed has many of the themes of French literature along the same subject and of the same flavour: the revolution of Hugo's Les Miserables and the ridiculous etiquette of Balzac's Father Goriot. Dostoyevsky's writing gives the book the Russian splash of vodka, servicemen and corrupt officialdom.

The book is told through a central character, always central to the action and filling in details for the reader - including a conclusion that ties up all the loose ends. The technique works well and gives the reader a feeling of arriving in town and sharing a Samovar with the town gossip.

The story itself revolves around the theme of political insurrection. Some of the younger men of the town, mainly students and offspring of wealthier families, have returned to their hometown amid talk of a secret society that hopes to bring a political change by exploiting simmering revolt at a local factory. The secret society hangs over the book along with the whiff of paranoia and suspicion.

The social structure and relative calm of the town become more and more skewed as untruths, rumour, fear and shame strain and snap bonds between old friends, families and political allies. What begins with dinners and chats in officers' clubs ends in violence, disorder and tragedy.

The book does not in social etiquette and bore the reader lime some of the aforementioned French novels can, but it manages to add enough of these constraints and political detail to highlight their ridiculousness, hoisting the protagonists with their own petard on more than one occasion.

The Possessed will appeal to readers looking to dip their toe into Russian affairs of the time - the families, the politics, the poverty. The beauty of the book is that such detail forms a rich backdrop for a tale of personal gain, loss and regret.

Michel de Montaigne - The Complete Essays
Michel de Montaigne - The Complete Essays
Price: £0.99

1.0 out of 5 stars Notes to self - compiled essays are hard going, 6 Feb. 2014
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Ok, I give up. Call me weak willed, call me a Philistine; I couldn't finish this book of collected essays.

The book is delivered in dense sentences, with sub-clause after sub-clause after comma after hanging participle. While the language itself is very accessible, the roundabout style often left me wondering which parentheses went with which and, more to the point, what the thread of the writer was.

I also struggled with the constant references to classical literature: Cicero, Socrates, Aenid among others. I've read some more contemporary literature and enjoyed it, but my lack of classical education meant that even though the references were well explained, I was unable to grasp the context.

The book is probably best suited to those with more of a grasp of philosophy, and probably best read as separate essays at the readers leisure rather than one big lump.

I found the section I read quite hard going with very little reward. It's not a book to which I'll return to in a hurry, if at all.

Gargantua and Pantagruel
Gargantua and Pantagruel
Price: £0.00

3 of 10 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A waste of time, paper and ink, 24 Jan. 2014
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Oh dear, where to start. As somebody who was raised with the maxim "if you cannot say anything nice to say about something or someone, say nothing at at all" then this review would be nothing more than a blank page. However, I feel a duty to warn other prospective readers of wasting even the most fleeting intake of breath on such tripe.

The prose of the book is almost impenetrable. Granted, writing styles are as susceptible to fashion as your finest clothes, and the book was written during a period of florid description. While one may find it tiresome in some French classics - and I wouldn't expect all authors to conform to the view that if you can't describe a scene in three sentences then you're overwriting - it does help the reader if your sentences contain information relevant to the plot, rather than references that namecheck the benefits of a classical education.

There is nothing wrong with classical literature, Latin or florid prose per se, but to read page after page of it, mixed with complex cross-references and frankly juvenile humour is tiresome. No, frankly it is dull.

I picked this book from a list of a 100 books recommended as the best around, irrespective of time, theme, length or other restriction. This book is the only one, thus far, and I'm a fair way through the list, that leads me to bribe that those compiling the list had spent some time imbibing Mescal.

If you enjoy books that quote, exhaustively, Plato, Cicero and make puns such as franticalus articus (bearded tits) then you'll enjoy this book. If you're note a potty-mouthed public schoolboy you'll probably think it a steaming mind fart, to use the author's vernacular.

In short, the worst book I've read in a long time.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 31, 2014 6:41 AM GMT

The story of Burnt Njal From the Icelandic of the Njals Saga
The story of Burnt Njal From the Icelandic of the Njals Saga

2.0 out of 5 stars Marauding tales get lost in the wilderness, 5 Dec. 2013
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The story of Burnt Njal would lend itself to a great TV series. The constant mix of families, blood fueds, double crossings, bribes and relentless hewing of limbs would give fans of Game of Thrones a treat (though the programme would need the caveat that it contains more beards than sex).

The book is essentially a collection of short stories connected by characters that span the narrative. The Njal to whom the title refers appears in many of the chapters, as a wise lawmaker, wise counsel and friend to one of the main marauders, Gunnar of Lithend.

The story of Njal and Gunnar is repeated, albeit with new players, throughout the book. Gunnar is a a warrior who becomes powerful through his adept fighting skills, which no man can match. These skills and subsequent power gives rise to much jealousy among fellow warriors, ranged across Iceland and at times Ireland, Norway, Denmark, and various northern islands.

I should think that the tales formed a central part of any Icelanders childhood and gave them a semblance of their national identity, but such tales, while entertaining, should not be viewed as any more historically accurate than the tales of the Knights of the Round Table. I've recently read another Icelandic classic, Independent People, and the story of Burnt Njal gives an insight into the stubborn, frontiersman attitude that makes up the backbone of characters in both books.

So, reader, or potential reader, what can you expect from this book? If you're interested in swashbuckling adventures, endless parting of limbs from body, tales of honour and men who would look on decapitation as a mere flesh wound, you'll enjoy Burnt Njal. It is very good fun to begin with, but then it repeats to fade. Men disagree, fight, make amends and pay tributes, then somebody breaks the truce and the cycle begins again.

The depiction of brutal deeds and landscape is impressive, and the characters defined by few words and many actions fits with tone and time of the book. However, the relentless procession of shallow characters left me ambivalent to each of their fates. The sheer size of the cast, complete with a description of their relationship with characters glimpsed only briefly earlier in the book only adds to this detachment.

As a result, the book begins to drag the longer it goes on. There is a farcical passage in which rival bands take to the courts to air grievances. The exhausting process recounts the deeds, which the reader is already party to having read the previous chapter, then lays out each grievance. The accused then set out their case before both sides call witnesses, at each juncture repeating their complaint or defence. This is all fine if you enjoy reading the minutes of a small claims court case presided over by officials with short-term memory loss, but pretty dull otherwise.

Burnt Njal is an enjoyable enough tale to begin with, but perhaps the full collection of ancient yarns is showing its age.

Jacques the Fatalist
Jacques the Fatalist
Price: £3.79

4.0 out of 5 stars Hit the road, Jacques, 21 Nov. 2013
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Jacques the Fatalist, by Denis Diderot, is a gentle, easy to read book full of humour. Essentially the story is broken into many small yarns told by Jaques, a valet, to his master in order to make a journey more enjoyable.

The overarching story is that of Jacques loves, which he begins to recount only to be interrupted by his master, the author - in asides to you, the reader - and anybody and everybody else they happen to meet on the way. At first this has a slightly disorientating effect, which ebbs away once the reader becomes used to the technique. And, rather pleasingly, the seemingly loose ends begin to tie up as the story, and Jacques' journey progress.

Jacques and his master are an excellent pairing. At various times they are the best of friends, then sworn enemies in the manner of a couple of sulking toddlers. Their relationship is similar to that of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote, Jacques having a similar taste for wine. However, Jacques is much more of an equal partner in the double act, both men being bright, full of experience but slightly curmudgeonly.

The relationship between Jacques and his master is referred to specifically at various times in the book. The fact that his master allows Jacques an equal footing rather than a master-servant relationship makes both characters more rounded - as opposed to, say, the more conventional hierarchical relationship of Blackadder and Baldrick - because it allows both characters to drive the narrative, depending on whose turn it is to tell the story. These stories are less predictable because of the characters' parity. The reader knows, for instance, that Jacques' story need not end in farce every time.

The technique of story within story is very effective, especially when the author interjects to address the frustration the reader may feel when Jacques' main story, the story of his loves, is interrupted for the umpteenth time. These interjections are far from annoying, they are engaging. The reader is given the sense that the author is addressing them directly, at times belligerent reminding them that he gets to decide what happens next; if you don't like it you can go and write your own book.

The technique of author asides is borrowed from Tristram Shandy, which is credited in the book. Readers fond of Mr Shandy will certainly enjoy the company of Jacques, which is warm, funny, stubborn, principled and sometimes inebriated. In short, a great companion for a journey, as his master knows.

Fans of books such as Don Quixote or even Canterbury Tales should enjoy the personal, lighthearted and sometimes bawdy tone of this book. It might not be a life-changing experience that alters your perspective on the world, but it will have you chuckling out loud.

The Golden Notebook
The Golden Notebook
Price: £6.71

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Complex threads difficult to tie up., 14 Nov. 2013
The Golden Notebook is a book made of sections and compartments. Anna Wulf and her friend Molly are two friends at a crossroads: both were energetic members of the Communist party who have lost faith in the cause, both are separated from their husbands and care for a child, and both are declared 'free women'. The book catches the two friends at a time when they are both, concentrating very much on Anna, evaluating their political and personal beliefs .

Anna is a complex figure, demonstrated by her keeping of four notebooks that compartmentalise her life into sections, without giving too much away, four divisions divided along emotional and rational interactions with people and the world around her. She has previously written a bestselling novel, which pays for her modest but not breakdown existence. Molly, by contrast, survives by taking acting jobs.

The bulk of book lays the groundwork for Anna's later challenges, giving a some detailed causes for her later thoughts and attitudes. This foundation is immensely detailed and enjoyable, with Anna's own book and earlier life in Africa intersecting the reality of the 'now' Anna. These underlayers of the book - bursting with characters and situations that are immensely colourful - contrast with the sparse, grey world of the now narrative. They are the highlight of the book.

There are other diversions, such as the seemingly tragic trajectory of Molly's son and her former husband's new wife. Anna's own domestic situation is also a choppy sea. As a male reader there were genuine insights into the differing challenges that face women who have chosen to be 'free' especially when compared to the seemingly free and easy globetrotting and be shopping. As a male reader, also, the portrayal of men as misogynist, philandering, unfaithful rakes became quite tiresome as the book wore on. The issues, attitudes and stereotypes were possibly more relevant and recognisable at the time the book was written; hopefully things have moved on.

The Golden Notebook is a fascinating read in terms of narrative structure, and some of the character development and description are deep and vivid, especially the Africa period. For this reader, however, the book lost its way in the same way as the character of Anna Wulf.

Sentimental Education (Dover Thrift Editions)
Sentimental Education (Dover Thrift Editions)
Price: £0.77

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Courting greatness, arriving at indifference, 15 Oct. 2013
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Sentimental Education is a kind of coming of age yarn set within the framework of French, chiefly Parisian, society. The subject of the book is leading character Frederick's obsession with Madame Arnoux, an older married mother of two.

Frederick leaves his provincial village of Nogent in an attempt to make his name in Paris, with vague notions of a career in law or perhaps as a local state official. However, his vague notions become even more vague when his path crosses that of Madam Arnoux. She is wife to a moderately successful journal editor, but Frederick determines that he shall worm his way into the Arnoux social circle and, eventually, Madam Arnoux's affections.

The pursuit of Arnoux is littered with obstacles - illicit affairs, shady business dealings, gossip, scandal and the staples of many French novels of the time: politics, revolution and the conventions of society.

Sentimental Education is much less concerned with political events than Les Miserables, with only fleeting glances of revolution, which most of the central characters regard with indifference. It is less stinging in its examination of class in Parisian society that the salon-laden Father Goriot. There are references to wealth and poverty but only in connection with the central characters of the book, who seem to flit between debt, often between each other, inherited wealth and squandered savings.

The key thread to the book is Flauberts examination and portrayal of Frederick's all-consuming love for Madam Arnoux. The author's description of the uncertainty, giddiness and heartache experienced by Frederick is so clear and beautifully described that it almost brings a note to the stomach of any reader who can recall their first teenage crush.

Flaubert is wonderful when describing the courting process - especially the delicacy of a complex process made more fraught by the fact one of the party is married. The read is given an insight into the torment Frederick endures through stolen kisses, secret walks and loving glances.

For this reader at least, the book fell away as the story progressed. Each character seemed to wrong another, with relationships descending into fueds and spiteful gossip. Love and brotherhood become polluted in a sea of bile and ill feeling.

Frederick's quest, which had at first seemed so naive and pure, is not immune from the bad odour and his ill humour makes him increasingly difficult for me to like, let alone root for. His random acts of unkindness and propensity for spoilt-brat tantrums made him tiresome.

In conclusion, the thrill of the chase is enchanting and vivid. The problem is, the tangled web of the narrative left me feeling like I couldn't care less if the quest were fulfilled.

Journey to the End of the Night (Alma Classics)
Journey to the End of the Night (Alma Classics)
Price: £4.74

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Explore the night life, 19 Aug. 2013
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I must admit that I'd never heard of this book or its author before I came across it on a list of recommended reads, and I would now add my name to those recommendations. The book is expansive on terms of the years it covers, amounting to the life of the protagonist Bardamu, yet it clips along at a lively pace while maintaining the his listlessness.

The book opens with Bardamu signing up for duty in the first world war, something he quickly regrets. Appalled by the mindless slaughter, the pointlessness of the conflict and the cruelty of those in command, Bardamu's outlook is set: resigned to his fate, questioning of authority and looking for a way out.

The search for an exit brings Bardamu's first encounter with Leon Robinson, who is also looking to escape. Throughout the book Robinson and Bardamu find themselves in a number of different locations - no man's land, Paris, Africa, New York - but cannot manage to change their lot, cursing their luck and surviving just above the breadline.

Bardamu's wanderings may appear listless, but they are far from frustrating. And what appears at first to be the frustrated rants of the author's main protagonist are pointed criticisms of his contemporary society - the antipathy toward ex-servicemen, the right of the poor, colonialism, the hypocrisy of authority are all spat on to the page in fits of pique.

The ideas in the book, thus morality, attitudes toward sex and criminality and the mocking of authority - let alone the language - probably explain the fuss it created when it was published. However, the book can certainly walk the walk. Bardamu is sometimes heroic, cowardly, thoughtful, selfish, likeable, despicable but always readable.

Nostromo, a Tale of the Seaboard
Nostromo, a Tale of the Seaboard
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The loves and treasures of Gian' Battista, 2 Aug. 2013
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My second encounter with Joseph Conrad after Heart of Darkness, Nostromo, a Tale of the Seaboard (as the title suggests) contains many of the themes of the more renowned work: the sea, foreign climes. However, Nostromo is more of a tale of love, haunted pasts, duty and revolution.

The action take place in the small coastal town of Sulaco in the republic of Costaguana, which in my mind I'd placed somewhere along the Caribbean coast of South America. The town is little more than minor port until Charles Gould reawakens his grandfather's silver mine, which looms over the town both physically and spiritually and brings riches, employment along with treatment treachery and death.

While Charles Gould and his wife Emilia, the first lady of Sulaco, May be the town's principal players they are supported by a cast wandering Europeans, first among them is Gian' Battista, the captain of the dockside labourers and all round man for all seasons. Battista is the binding that brings together all strands of the story - the mine, the business of the port, the links with European homeland and the mastering of the new frontier and its people.

The fortunes of the characters follow the fortunes of the silver mine, which brings prosperity and fortune but also jealousy, and notoriety. The plot follows the contours of a mountain, climbing the steep slope of development, bringing railways, telegraphs and riches before plummeting down into chaos and uncertainty.

There is much to praise about this book. The atmosphere of oppressive climates and political unrest, the early days of European settlement and modernisation. There is also, to my mind at least, something lacking. Gian Battista is the constant, and his fortunes reflect the flow of the narrative, but the development of the wider cast never really materialises. On many occasions the reader is given a quick recap of how characters have been affected by events before the disappear, sometimes literally, into the sunset.

Nostromo is a good yarn, if not thoroughly involving - a made for TV if not a Hollywood blockbuster. The atmospherics are excellent and readers may find themselves mopping their brow, but the character involvement that one might get in a similar story by, for example, Gabriel Garcia Marquez is lacking.

For readers looking to sample Joseph Conrad I'd recommend Heart of Darkness. It has the same oppressive backdrop with an added menace.

Father Goriot
Father Goriot
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3.0 out of 5 stars The social ladder of Paris reveals many snakes, 4 July 2013
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This review is from: Father Goriot (Kindle Edition)
Parisian society and all its pomp is the vehicle for Balzac's study of fatherly love. A retired, wealthy trader, Goriot is the butt of jokes at Madame Vanquer's down-at-heel boarding house, deep in the Latin Quarter. But one of the new residents sees past the facade of aged ignorance.

Eugene Rastignac has been sent to study law on dowry of his family, who are simple farmers in the south. Originally driven by a need to study and make good for his family, Eugene, with the offer of some dubious assistance from mysterious fellow boarder Vautraine, sets his sights higher in society with the help of his once distinguished name. A journey through marriages of convenience, jewels, dresses, balls, debt and cold-heartedness strip away the sumptuous veneer of high society Paris.

Balzac's use of florid language suits the cluttered, gaudy salons and overcomplicated social etiquette of his subjects. Rastignac's journey takes him from an outsider in Parisian society, eager to use his once-grand family name to get on, to a player in the most prominent social clique. Yet he is abhorred by the grubby nature of these upper echelons, of which Balzac's descriptions are fascinating.

The characters in Father Goriot are many layered and often many faced, which adds a real depth to the book. The themes of debt and society make an excellent study of the more decorated end of France. In fact, in some ways the book is to the salons of Paris what Les Miserables is to the backstreets. And if you enjoyed Les Miserables then you will probably find Father Goriot similarly grips your imagination.

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