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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Absorbing, but not everyone's cup of tea, 2 Oct 2012
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This review is from: The Server (Hardcover)
As some one quite interested in the complex relationship between individuals and organisations/systems, and the intriguing matter of our sense of identity, this book absorbed me for a week or so on holiday this summer. I chose it on the strength of the blurb before I'd realised that the author, Tim Parks is the same man who wrote 'A Season With Verona' (cracking good read about the relationship between a football fan, his adoptive Italian team, and much else besides, and where territory and identify are again the powerful themes.) In 'The Server' not a lot happens, and yet so much is going on. Things felt, intimated, groundswells of feeling and yearning: for submission, for rebellion, and for release. A book for those who enjoy the territory of human experience rather than complex plot, and who value the posing of questions above the supply of answers.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Pointless change of title but thoughtful, intelligent and often amusing, 6 Jun 2013
By 
Ripple (uk) - See all my reviews
(TOP 100 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Sex is Forbidden (Paperback)
Tim Parks's "Sex is Forbidden" is narrated by twenty-something, Beth. She's working as a volunteer server at a Buddhist retreat called the Dasgupta Institute where she has been for the last nine months although the book covers one ten day cycle of retreat. The Dasgupta Institute imposes bans on attendees, although the conditions are slightly less onerous on the servers who, nevertheless are expected to join in the meditations. There's no talking, no writing, no mingling of the sexes and no physical or even eye contact. One day Beth, still a rebel at heart, wanders into the men's side where she discoverers an attendee is keeping a diary where he is contemplating his moment of crisis and she is hooked. The revealing of the past that has driven both Beth and the mysterious diary keeper to such an austere retreat is part of the intrigue of the book, but while there is an inevitable focus on introspection and new age thinking, Beth's tone is delightfully sceptical and feels very authentic. It's almost impossible not to feel for her plight and to admire her approach.

The hardback version of this book was published with the title "The Server" and I must confess that I rather regret the, presumably commercially driven, decision to move to a more titivating title. Similarly too, this is one of those books that proves the adage not to judge a book by its cover as both the paperback and indeed the hardback have gone for different but similarly imaged pretty girl in alluring poses. Both are lovely photographs but are hardly representative of the tone of the book. That said, at least one element of Beth's past involved multiple sexual partners of both genders but her issues are far deeper than lust driven urges.

It's certainly not a book with a driving plot line, but as often with books that are set in a clearly defined environment over a set period, it is entirely engrossing and the character of Beth is absolutely perfectly portrayed. The issues of her resolving her past are an element of the book, but it's also a broader look at Buddhist thinking. While in general Parks seems to suggest that it has much to offer, neither Beth nor the diarist are uncritical of the thinking and often gently send up aspects of the set up. There is a wonderful irony in that while the message of the course is about constant change and things never staying the same, the content of the courses are always identical and the attendees watch the pre-recorded DVD of the Dasgupta giving an unchanging message time and again to everyone.

Novels where the narrator is involved in introspection can become somewhat self-indulgent, but Parks cleverly avoids this. Partly this is helped by Beth's character but also her role as a server - which is why I still think that's a better title for the book. Beth's own battle with her past is touching and believable. Some of this is achieved with the benefit of the Buddhist teachings but much also despite them. The result is a book that is both often funny but also deep at the same time. Parks slowly reveals Beth's past and while she is clearly suffering, she never resorts to self-pity unlike the man with the diary.

It may not be a book for everyone, but if you have even a slight interest in meditation and Buddhist teachings, and don't require your reading to be plot driven, then this is an excellent, thoughtful and intelligent book.

4.5 stars
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Just Observe, 29 Jan 2013
By 
Antenna (UK) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: The Server (Hardcover)
Drawing on his own experience of transcendental meditation, Tim Parks transports us into the mind of Beth, impulsive, provocative, sensuous twenty-something former singer in a pop band who has spent the past nine months in the incongruous role of server cooking, cleaning and setting a good example for a group of meditators on a ten day Buddhist retreat.

It is a strict regime: segregation of the sexes, no talking or touching, hours of exerting the "strong determination" to sit motionless in painful poses, focusing on breathing with the daily brainwashing from recordings made by the guru Dasgupta, "who preaches against self-regard in a self-regarding way". There is a consistent tone of scepticism, a flippancy, which may upset strong advocates of meditation. Despite this, Parks conveys a clear and strong sense of the process of meditation.

Although she used to have no trouble losing herself in music, and wishes ardently to change herself through meditation, Beth's thoughts keep slipping back to speculating about the other inmates, whom she cannot resist winding up and leading astray on occasion, or brooding on her clearly troubled past life. Some recent trauma has driven her to the retreat, and Parks skilfully drips out the facts to hold our attention.

Sometimes I found this book too contrived, too much of a master class in creative writing by an expert published author, rather than a sincere examination of human dilemmas. The detailed descriptions of the routines at the retreat are sometimes tedious, although this may have been the author's intention. Since he builds up a strong sense of tension, moving towards an anticipated dramatic, perhaps shocking and unpredictable ending, I was a little disappointed by the final chapters which have a kind of banality, making the experience in the retreat seem lightweight.

However, it is an original, well-constructed story and in the midst of the wry, jokey humour, there are some convincing characters and many telling observations on life and relationships.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Server, 20 May 2012
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This review is from: The Server (Hardcover)
A very honest account of spiritual life experienced by a character who was comically and sadly unsuited to its rigours. I'd be interested to know if Parks chose the character for this reason. I subscribe to the view that you don't have to like characters in fiction but I confess to wanting to hit this one at many points in my reading - perhaps the intended response. Sex oozed out of every corner of this book, which amused and entertained me. It also portrayed buddhism as beautiful, but at the same time, as irritating as its main character made it in her description. All in all,the novel held me completely. I wanted to stop reading but couldn't. Well done, Parks, especially for including so much about buddhism without betraying the novel form. V.clever.
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4.0 out of 5 stars A Book that Evokes Many Emotions, 14 Sep 2013
This review is from: The Server (Hardcover)
I was first introduced to Tim Parks by my best friend, who for my birthday, got me a copy of Tim Parks' non-fiction book, Teach Us to Sit Still, which follows Parks' struggle to cope with an illness that doctors can't seem to pinpoint, diagnose definitively, and so want to operate. After exhausting all other avenues, Parks decides he'll try a Buddhist retreat, where apparently, pain management can be found in meditation. The Server is a contemporary fiction novel set inside the boundaries of a Buddhist retreat, obviously inspired by his own time in one.

Bethany Marriot is a 'server' in the Dasgupta Institute, meaning she sets an example to the retreat's guests, and also takes part in the day-to-day running of the institute itself. It is obvious that Bethany is hiding a secret from everyone, using the retreat as a place to ignore the outside world, refusing to face up to her problems. And since sex, talking, male-female congregation is forbidden at the Dasgupta, Bethany knows she's safe. But Bethany stumbles upon a diary, written by a man in the retreat, and she soon becomes engrossed with this man and his problems; inevitably releasing all of her fears and worries from the outside world.

The novel is wholeheartedly a character driven novel. Not much actually happens, so it's absolutely important that you feel or connect with Beth; being written in the first-person. The problem with character driven novels is that they can be exceptionally slow, often literary and The Server sadly does suffer from this slightly. Especially in the beginning, where Beth hasn't come across the dreaded diary, and where all of her secrets aren't exactly known. But once you get past the routine of the Dasgupta, as well as all of the coinage associated with Buddhist retreats, this book holds within it as true mesmerising story.

Beth is annoying, there's no denying it. But warming, easily relatable (if that's a word) and clever (in a street-smart sense of way). You know she has secrets lurking in the background, and you can definitely understand why she's staying at the retreat. She wants rules; rules to live by, rules to set her life a path to follow, rules so she can forget the past. And some of the book is about the ins and outs of the Buddhist way, showing the religion and its mantra in a calming and respectable way. Some of the points do make sense, and it gets us (the reader) to question the way in which we conduct our own lives - and to do that, must mean that Parks is a gifted writer.

But behind the rules, Beth is a rule-breaker. She likes rules, just so she can break them, and when she discovers the diary (which in itself is breaking the rules) it forces her to become more skeptical of the rules set by the Dasgupta, and the 'old Beth' starts to return to the fore. And it's not a pretty thing. She's in multiple relationships, often playing a game with them to get what she wants. She sleeps around with both men and women and she's such an attention seeker. It may be annoying, but it makes for a fabulous read, and at times we can easily see some of ourselves in her character.

This is very much an adult book. Beth has a way with words, some of them expletives and sexual, but her blunt thoughts don't match the persona of 'Beth inside the Dasgupta' and she knows it very well. She's funny too on occasions, and its wonderful how The Server can flick between funny and serious so smoothly. There were quite a few times I found myself laughing out loud, but equally as many times where I found myself squirming, or shouting. It's a book that evokes many emotions.

The Server is a clever novel. If you can get past the slow start, inside you'll find a book that touches on religion, personality, grief and raw emotion. It was the Sunday Telegraph that said: 'Parks is an excellent writer, capable of writing wittily and with great beauty about the near indefinable' and I couldn't agree more. Tim Parks has a way at getting deep within a character, letting us see both the character everyone else sees, as well as the true person inside. If you've read Teach Us to Sit Still, then it's easy to see the connections between the two, but in my opinion, The Server is a much more successful book. If you're someone who loves explosive scenes of action, then I'm afraid this book isn't for you. If you're someone who loves to delve deep into the gritty multiple layer of the human self, then you'll find something very special indeed. The Server sums up exactly why Tim Park is a nominated Man Booker Prize author.
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Sex is Forbidden
Sex is Forbidden by Tim Parks (Paperback - 2 May 2013)
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