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Man and People (Norton Library)
Man and People (Norton Library)
by Jose Ortega y. Gasset
Edition: Paperback
Price: 16.44

5.0 out of 5 stars A thought provoking read., 8 Aug 2014
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Jose Ortega y Gasset was a twentieth century Spanish thinker who is always worth reading. In this book--the last one he wrote--he loooks at society, and asks what society is exactly. Of what does "Society" consist? He points out that while eminent sociologists (he cites Durkheim and Weber) have written thousands of pages on society, they never once defined what society actually is. In the course of exploring this question, Ortega y Gasset raisies some interesting ideas and points--the salutation, customary usages, man and woman, the opinions we hold which aren't really ours, but simply "what people say", and much more. Fascinating.

His book on Love is also worth a look (See my review of it.)


The Girl Who Played Go
The Girl Who Played Go
by Shan Sa
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars Exquisite, sombre, beautiful, 8 Aug 2014
This review is from: The Girl Who Played Go (Hardcover)
Firstly, I must confess that I didn't buy this from Amazon, though I was planning to--I found a copy in a charity shop. The game of Go is mystifying to a Western mind, and I wish I could play it better than I do.

Shan Sa's tale is set in Manchuria in the thrities, when Imperial Japan is rampaging over China, and eslewhere. The girl in the title is a fifteen (later sixteen) year old schoolgirl who is an exceptional player of go. She plays regularly--in the town square--with a young man whom she takes to be a Peking Chinese . His accent isn't quite right, however: maybe he has spent time abroad. (The reader knows the truth.) Over the course of many games, they get to know each other quite well. This strange relationship, in which hardly any words are said, is the heart of Shan Sa's tale. In the meantime, there is a whole lot else going on, and the tone soon becomes melancholy. When you read how it ends, you will say "Bloody 'ell!" and then reach for a stiff drink. (May I recommend sake?)

Lin Yutang's novel "A Leaf in the Storm" is set in the same troubled, tragic period. I recommend that book too. (See my review of it.)


The men of Ness: The saga of Thorlief Coalbiter's sons
The men of Ness: The saga of Thorlief Coalbiter's sons
by Eric Linklater
Edition: Unknown Binding

3.0 out of 5 stars In the style of the old sagas, 8 Aug 2014
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I hesitated hetween giving this book a two or three star rating. I expected to like this book: the subject and setting (vikings) certainly has potential. Also, when I researched the book before buying it, I learned that the German translation was among a number of books publicly burned by the Nazis. A good reason to read it! The author has reproduced the spare, laconic style of the sagas very successfully. Unfortunately, I really couldn't get into it. I failed to warm to it. My eyes started glazing over.

Perhaps we should question the spare, laconic style that he is trying to reproduce here. We should recall, that even though the old sagas are set in the twilight of the pagan era, and involve pagan characters, the tales were actually committed to writing by Christians (monks, I believe). They were preserving what they knew of an era that had already passed, so you have to wonder how much interest, deep down, they had in the material. That would explain the spare style--a style so economical that the story is pared down to the bone, and then they shave the bones. The Christian authors' hearts did not resonate to the material, so they got the job done as economically as they could. "Have we done them all now? Yes? Thank God for that! Let's return to our prayers." Well, I'm speculating now, but that's the impression I got from the sagas when I read them many years ago. My point is this: is this a style we should be reviving?

The style of storytelling in the old sagas has its defenders, of course, perhaps rightly so. One of the most prestigious was critic W P Ker, who praised the craftmanship of the old tales. What he had to say may be found in a chapter entitled "The Art of Narrative" in his brilliant book "Epic and Romance" (Full text available online.)

Eric Linklater, clearly admired the sagas too. hence this novel, in which he attempts to reproduce their way of telling a story. One day I shall have another go at it.


The futile life of Pito Perez
The futile life of Pito Perez
by Jose Ruben Romero
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars So who wants to be respectable?, 8 Aug 2014
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The author was a member of the Mexican government--he worked as a diplomat--and he really shouldn't have been writing books like this. The Pito Perez of the title has dropped out of regular society: he is not part of normal life. He is also a petty conman and thief, drinks too much, and has some caustic views of what constitutes respectable society. In exchange for a drink (or two!) he tells his stories. You know you should not admire this guy, but you do. You cannot help yourself. It's great to see that the picaresque tradition can still give us a delightful read.


Fathers and Sons
Fathers and Sons
by Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.94

5.0 out of 5 stars A delightful read, 16 July 2014
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This review is from: Fathers and Sons (Paperback)
"And what do you do?" asked Yevdoxia.
"My name is Arkady Nikolayevich Kirsanov," Arkady informed her, "and I don't do anything."
Yevdoxia burst into a laugh,
"How delightful!"

That quote sums up the characters in this delightful novel, and the tone of the work. It trips along very nicely, and the deft character drawing is continually of interest. There is no plot as such--but Turgenev, a master storyteller, doesn't need one: his story unfolds in a natural and organic way. Stylistically, it is at the opposite pole to Dostoevsky, another favourite of mine. Dostoevsky complained of Turgenev's "superficiality"--but hidden depths are hinted at here, and in passages it is genuinely moving. There is a lot of keen--and affectionate--observation. It is rather short for a Russian novel, and quickly read.


On Love: Aspects of a Single Theme
On Love: Aspects of a Single Theme
by Jose Ortega y. Gasset
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.50

5.0 out of 5 stars A rich thoughtful work., 3 July 2014
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I first came across this book in a library many years ago. I was a young man then--a lot younger than I am now. The author Jose Ortega y Gasset impressed me with the depth of his thought on the subject, and the brilliance of his style.

Rereading it now as a much older man, I find that my opinion has not changed much. It is a rich, thoughtful, serious work, in which he attempts to develop a philosophy (or "science") of love. He analyses the nature of love between the sexes, distinguishes it from sexual desire, looks at the difference between male and female, and the different ways in which each responds to the other.

He has interesting--and quite caustic--things to say about Don Juanism, too. The inadequacy of the Don Juan type intrigued another Spanish writer, I recall--novelist Perez de Ayala ("Tigre Juan" and other works).

In contrast with that, he also writes (briefly, alas) on courtly love. The modern age is the offspring of the Renaissance, he points out. He continues: "The Renaissance in turn is the offspring of Provencal culture which flourished in the thirteenth century. The Provencal culture rose under the protection of a few genial women who invented the ley de cortezia, the first break with the ascetic, ecclesistical spirit of the Middle Ages."

It is possible to disagree with one or two of the points he makes--but you never forget that you are disagreeing with a man of supreme intelligence who has thought deeply and widely on his subject.

For the record, here are essays which comprise this work:

"Features of Love" introduces the subject.

"Love in Stendhal" looks at a work by French writer Stendhal--"De L'Amour" ("On Love".) Ortega y Gasset disagrees with the frenchman, and presents his own alternative view of how love works.

"The Role of Choice in Love" points out that we do not fall in love at random, with just anyone--there is a pattern that can be observed. Here is the opening paragraph: "The essential core of our personality is not fashioned from our opinions and experiences; it is not founded upon our temperament, but rather upon something more subtle, more ethereal and independent of these. We are, more than anything else, an innate system of preferences and distastes...."

"Thoughts on Standing Before the Marqusa de Santillana's Portrait." meditates on the difference between male and female.

"Landscape with a Deer in the Background" looks at Captain Nelson and ambassador Sir William Hamilton, and the woman they both loved.

"Portrait of Salome" deals with a particular kind of abnormal psychology.

"Toward a psychology of the interesting man" This essay begains: "Nothing is so flattering to a man as to hear women say that he is interesting. But when is a man interesting in the opinion of a woman? This is one of the most subtle and difficult questions to raise....."


One Thousand and One Nights
One Thousand and One Nights
by Hanan Al-Shaykh
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent recreation of some classic tales, 5 Jun 2014
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This is a joyfully and beautifully written collection of tales. "The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad" is the principal tale: the others are fitted inside it. The stories are not bowdlerised, (thank Heaven!) , so they're quite racy at times.


The Romantic Comedians
The Romantic Comedians
by Ellen Glasgow
Edition: Paperback
Price: 16.95

4.0 out of 5 stars Judge Honeywell, you should have known better, 5 Jun 2014
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This review is from: The Romantic Comedians (Paperback)
This novel is set in the years post WW1--1923--when new attitudes and styles were about. The lead character is sixty-something Judge Honeywell, who remains nostalgic for the 1880's. A widower now, he falls in love (or thinks he does) with young Annabel, whom he marries. But she turns out to be a materialistic and flighty young lady. "I cannot love without love!" she cries at one point. Unfortunately, at this point she is married to the judge: she married him for a comfortable life, and she knows it. It is not hard to predict where the story goes after that.

"The Romantic Comedians" is a slight tale, but gorgeously told. The lush, epigrammatic style is reminiscent of Oscar Wilde


Chess (Penguin Mini Modern Classics)
Chess (Penguin Mini Modern Classics)
by Stefan Zweig
Edition: Paperback
Price: 2.70

4.0 out of 5 stars Stefan Zweig's swan song, 21 May 2014
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Stefan Zweig wrote this novella at what turned out to be the end of his life--it was published posthumously in 1943, the year after he committed suicide. It is a well constructed tale about a remarkable and brilliant chess player, who meets his match on board a ship headed for South America. The two protagonists are very different characters, and are very well drawn. There is a touch of Dostoevsky, too: one character teeters on the edge of madness, from time to time; another has a brilliant mind, but zero social skills. A touch of Asperger's? This was my introduction to this author: I intend to read further works by him.


The Lonely Polygamist
The Lonely Polygamist
by Brady Udall
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Fancy four wives and lots of children? Read this first., 21 May 2014
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This review is from: The Lonely Polygamist (Paperback)
I first heard of this novel when I stumbled across an interview with the author online. The book was also praised on a forum. Now that I have read it I can say it is a good a read.

The lead character is a Mormon man who has four wives, and 28 children. If that weren't enough, the boss's wife is angling for him. It's all too much for the poor fellow, especially as his voluminous family is slowly unravelling, with bitterness towards the first (and oldest) wife, the children dividing into separate tribes, and his own incapacity--or simple unwillingness--to deal with the situation. Udall's novel is quite touching in parts, especiallty when the back stories of certain characters is revealed. Udall knows that people are full of surprises. The Lonely Polygamist is a substantial read, but a delightful one.


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