02 July 2016

35   United States – William Faulkner – Light in August – May 2016 (Score 3.5)

According to “The Oxford Companion to Literature in English” the term “Light in August” is a country expression for pregnancy.

Lena, a young pregnant woman, was walking from Doane’s Mill in Alabama looking for Lucas Burch, the father of her unborn child. She had reached Mississippi by the time the story opened, walking and hitching lifts on wagons.

Armstid and Winterbottom saw her as she passed and, later, Armstid and his wagon caught up with her and gave her a lift. He took her to Jefferson where she had been told she would find Lucas, working in a mill. She then, strangely, plays little part in the story until near the end.

The story moves backward and forward in time, dramatically, and rather confusingly. Chapter 6 tells the story of Joe Christmas when he was a boy of five in a children’s home. The style of writing in this section is quite different from the earlier pages – “In the rife pinkwoman’s meddling obscurity he squatted pinkfoamed”, and “thwartface curled” cigarettes.

On page 219, at the end of the top paragraph the last two lines reminded me of an experience I had in 1975. The company I worked for was hosting a four yearly international conference. I had become friendly with a delegate from Ghana, and we spent a good bit of time together on the bus trips.

One day at a meeting associated with the conference I went to speak to some South African delegates. One of them looked at me as if I had crawled from under a stone, said something similar to, but even more vicious than the text in the book, and all four turned their backs on me. That was when I experienced real racism for the only time in my life.

Going back to Mississippi, there was a hunt for a suspected murderer, using bloodhounds, unsuccessfully. It was a comedy, not at all like the similar events which we have seen in prison break and similar films set in the southern states of the USA.

The fugitive played a major role in the book, being caught after only a week, forty miles from Jefferson. The confusing thing is that the description of his flight reads as if his flight had been many years long.

All in all, I found this a difficult read almost, in places, a stream of consciousness like Ulysses. I know that the author won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but I can’t honestly say that I enjoyed the read. I can only score it at four out of ten.

34  South Korea – J M Lee – The Investigation – April 2016 (Score 8.33)

This story is told by a young man who was a prison guard in Fukuoka Prison in Japan, on the west coast near Nagasaki, during the Second World War. At the time he is telling the story he is imprisoned in the same establishment as being a low-level war criminal. His name is Watanabe Yuichi.

At the beginning of the period he is recording he was tasked by his commander to investigate the murder of another of the guards, Sugiyama Dozan, and who, and why, did it. In the guard’s pocket Yuichi found a small sheet of paper with a poem. He described the words of the poem as being “nestled together to create small villages”. This is a strange metaphor.

Yuichi was a student of liberal arts before being drafted during the war. He was clearly well educated and of a literary bent. He was a literate man who loved books and poetry. He met Iwanami Midori, a young nurse at the prison, playing a piano and practicing for an upcoming concert.

In a supreme act of irony, Maeda, Yuichi’s superior officer gave Yuichi the job of censor, formerly carried out by Sugiyama. This involved Sugiyama, and hence Yuichi, in book burning of such subversive and dangerous authors as Turgenev, Hawthorne, Dante, Shakespeare and Stendhal. In his words he had become an executioner of literature.

Yuichi found the killer (read the book to learn how) and persuaded him to confess without any use of violence, unlike Sugiyama. He was promoted to corporal and told to take no further action on the case. He was flummoxed.

We learned that the brutal guard Sugiyama had another side. He could tune a piano to perfection, loved and wrote poetry. Even in a book where brutal events took place there are occasional beautiful images (see page 137) “Caught in the barbed wire the afternoon sunshine flashed like the scales of a fish in a net”.

At page 141 the inmates saw kites flying outside the walls of the prison. These kites played an increasing role in the story especially when a prisoner made one and started to fly it, and a kite war started.

We learned that Sugiyama had worked with another prisoner, Dong-ju, to enable him to convert surplus government documents into paper to allow books to be translated into Korean and written up on the treated paper. It does seem unrealistic in the time-scale discussed in the book that this could be done to the extent claimed. Named books are “Les Miserable”, “The Poetry of Francis Jammes”, “The Works of Kierkegaard”, “Don Quixote”, “The Greek Myths”, “Robinson Crusoe”, “Romeo and Juliet”, works of Andre Gide”, Stendhal, Baudelaire, Rainer Maria Rilke, Dickens, Hugo and Goethe (The Sorrows of Young Werther).

Most of these books are many hundreds of pages long in their original language. It seems likely that it is only the gist of the stories which are transcribed into Korean because of the sheer length of most of these books.

Dong-ju was educated, so he would certainly have been able to do the translations and transcriptions, but ---. Yuichi discovered about fifty volumes which had been transcribed like this, say 2500 pages.

The method employed by the prisoners was for those who could read Dong-ju’s translations to memorise as much of a book as they could while in solitary confinement. They then told the story to those who couldn’t read, who memorised it as told to them and passed it on again. This reminds me of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”.

Despite the above difficulty with a crucial part of the plot I did enjoy the book, and I recommend it to you. I scored it at 8.0.

17 April 2016

33 Ireland – Colm Tóibín – Nora Webster – March 2016 (Score 8.08)

I have only read two of Colm Tóibín’s books, this one and “Brooklyn”. Within two pages I found them to be linked. May Lacey, who came to visit Norah Webster to commiserate with her about the death of her husband, is the mother of Eilis, the protagonist of “Brooklyn”.

Nora set about the task of ridding the family of those parts of their lives which she no longer wanted to hold onto. She went to Cush and decided to sell their old summer house, collecting just a few photos and books to take home for the family. Nora has four children, Fiona, in teacher training in Dublin, Aine at school in Bunclody, Daniel, at school near home, and Conor, the younger boy, also at school.

She took the boys to Dublin for a day. They bought books at Easons, and went to Bewleys for a meal. They crossed the Ha’penny Bridge on their way back to the station. I did all of these during our holiday in Dublin last Christmas and New Year. In fact, I bought nine books from Easons, mainly on Irish subjects.

Page 30 – I read Teilhard de Chardin in my teens (from the library). I could make nothing of him. In fact, I had forgotten about him until I read this page.

Nora’s Aunt Josie paid a visit. The boys had stayed with her for two months while Maurice was dying. They behaved strangely quietly and ignored her. Daniel woke up screaming from a nightmare that night. Nora wondered if something happened during the stay and went, later, to see Josie who was straight-faced and silent about things, except to wonder why the boys were left with her so long.

Pages 70 and 71 – I laughed out loud at the story of the fire-irons and the sheep.

Nora went to work at Gibney’s where she worked before she married. This was at the specific request of Mr Gibney. She was to work for Francie Cavanagh whom she did not like, and who detested her. Kavanagh proved herself to be a really nasty piece of work.

On page 113 there is a discussion of the TV news of a civil rights march in Derry being broken up by the police, brutally. We follow Nora and her family though happy times and sad times, getting to know them. Tóibín has a deft touch in making his characters come to life.

Nora showed how strong a woman she was when Conor was moved, together with two other pupils (the three of them being the best pupils) from the A-class to the B-class. The Christian Brother in charge of the primary school gave no reason. Nora sent letters to ll of the teachers at the school to say that she would start to picket the school on a certain day if Conor was not moved back into the A-class. Two teachers visited her and she told them that she had her placard prepared and, if any teachers crossed her picket line she would put a widow’s curse on them “and you know how powerful a widow’s curse is. Conor was returned to the A-class.

This story tells us a lot about the power of the Catholic Church in Ireland at the time and about the continuing folk ways and beliefs in the old ways. It was certainly interesting to read about the Irish reaction to the events in Derry.

Nora learned to sing, and was introduced to Classical music> She took to it like a thirsty person who had been given water. She went back to work, reduced it to part time so that she could still have the opportunity to do the things she wanted.

She took on the complete redecoration of one of her rooms, straining herself very badly by painting the ceiling with chest pains and sore arms. She thought she was having a heart attack, but it was a false alarm, luckily. Life went on, and the book ended. And what a good ending it is.

After I had finished the book I wanted to hear Nora’s favourite, Beethoven’s Archduke Trio. I bought a CD of this, on which the Archduke is bundled with two other pieces by Beethoven. I enjoyed them all, and especially the Archduke. Thank you Nora (Webster) for telling me about it.

My score for this book is 8.5.

11 April 2016

32   Nigeria – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Half of a yellow sun – February 2016 (Score 9.25)

Ugwu’s aunty is taking him to a new home where he will learn to be the house-boy for Master. It is a distance from their small village in Eastern Nigeria since they had to talk a lorry part way and have now been walking for a considerable time. His sister Analika also lives in the village. His new Master works in the mathematics department of the university in Nsukku. They speak Igbo.

Master tells him to call him by his name, Odenigbo. He tries, but is uncomfortable and slips quickly back to Master.

Olanna and her family are from west of Nsukku, and are clearly very wealthy. She has met Odenigbo. Kainene is Olanna’s sister. They are growing distant. Olanna is going to Kano in the north.

There are several hints of racism among the people whom we meet. Olanna’s cousins would never marry a man from another tribe. Mohammad’s mother did not want him to marry Olanna since “this Igbo woman would “taint the lineage with infidel blood”, though I am not sure whether that is racism, religious hatred or both. There is an interesting statement on page 72 that Igbo were a people who “deposed gods when they had outlived their usefulness”. Odenigbo’s mother would never allow Odenigbo to marry Olanna.

There is a military coup. Igbo are assaulted on the streets because locals think that they are behind the coup. In a later coup Hausa officers in the Nigerian army kill Igbo officers. The horror builds up. Igbo refugees are arriving from the north to escape the massacres.

Richard, who takes a role in the later parts of the book breaks with his fiancée since she says dreadful things about the Igbo like “they are uncivilised, just like the Jews (!!!!!)”, and “they had it coming” even though she clearly knew about the massacres.

Independence is finally declared for Eastern Nigeria under the name of “Biafra”, their flag being as described in the name of the book. A great sense of hope and relief sweeps through the people of Biafra. I, as the reader, know very well the horrors yet to come since I was a young man in my last year at university at the time of the start of the Biafran war in 1967, and read, listened and watched the news of what was happening right up till the end in 1970 when Biafra had been pummelled into submission. The Biafran engineer who worked in my office showed us newspapers and magazines from overseas which clearly demonstrated (assuming they had no reason to lie) that the British media were biased and misleading (assuming that the foreign media were not lying).

Adichie tells of bombers and fighters from UK, Europe and elsewhere bombing hospitals and refugee camps and strafing fleeing refugees from each city as it fell to the Nigerians. Food aid was prevented to the extent that kwashiorkor was given a new name – Harold Wilson Syndrome. Public libraries are burned, and even people’s individual book collections are destroyed. The war stops, but petty violence, theft and bullying by the Nigerian soldiers continues.

I felt very emotional when I reached the end of the book and read the dedication which finished it.

This is a harrowing story, but I think it is a story which had to be told. Once again we can see that much of the problem between the various tribes was caused by the divide and rule policies of the colonial masters in their greed for oil and raw materials. I scored it at 10.0.

06 February 2016

31 India – RK Narayan – The Painter of Signs – January 2016 (Score 6.35)

We drop immediately into the crowded world of milling people, traffic, life (for some at least) being dictated by the doubtful prognostications of astrologers who dictate the exact timing of the fixing to a wall advertising the opening of a new correspondence course legal practice.

Raman is the sensible sign writer caught up in this affair, not even paid yet for his work, apart from a small deposit to buy the materials.

The story is written in a humourous way and we watch his trials and tribulations as he tries to get payment from shifty customers who had hidden their shiftiness well until payday after the signs were erected.

Then he meets a new customer, a girl called Daisy whom he hopes will become the love of his life. She wants him to travel round remote mountain villages with her, painting family planning messages on the walls. She works for the family planning clinic and has an ambition to reduce, drastically, the birth rate in her part of India.

After a good bit of to-ing and fro-ing we find that Raman is suddenly to marry Daisy.

I quite enjoyed the story, including the unexpected twist at the end. This is one of Narayan’s “Malgudi” stories, set in the mythical town of Malgudi. I hope to read one or two more. I scored the book at 6.5.

27 January 2016

30 New Mexico – Chicano Writing – Rudolfo Anaya “Tortuga” – December 2015 (Score 7.25)

This is a story of sadness and joy, pain and recovery, crying and laughter with, perhaps, just a touch of the famous Spanish American Magic Realism.

There is, unfortunately, some poor editing with unusual word divisions at the end of lines. For example “as-leep”, the “as being as the end of a line and the “leep” at the beginning of the next. These problems seem to be caused by the unfortunate decision to use start and end line justification of the text. From a university press this is inexcusable.

The story opens with a teenage boy being taken by ambulance from one hospital to another where he is expected to receive better treatment. The boy is telling the story. They are in pouring rain in a desert. A member of the ambulance staff says that he can see Tortuga (Turtle) Mountain which sits above the hospital.

The boy has been paralysed in a dreadful accident, so Filomeno unstraps him and lifts him so that he can see the mountain, while Clepo, his assistant, looks on. Tortuga is a volcano, isolated in the desert. The hospital is on the bank of a river, in Agua Bondita, a spa town in the desert. The waters from the underground streams running from inside the mountain are believed to have healing properties.

Filomeno is a caring person; Clepo is brusque and seems uncaring. It is a private ambulance, a converted hearse owned by Filomeno. He picked up Clepo, lost in the desert, and employs him. Clepo was a patient in the hospital.

The doctor orders a body cast from the boy’s navel to the top of his head, with holes for his face, eyes and ears. He will start work on the legs. He tells the boy that his hands and arms are strong. When the boy is left alone in the room, a patient called Danny comes in and taunts and torments him. He call the boy Tortuga, so that becomes his nickname.

Throughout Tortuga’s first day in the hospital he meets many other people. I recommend that you keep a note of the names so that you can keep track of their interaction with Tortuga.

When he falls asleep he has a very vivid dream. In fact it is so vivid that it could be a vision.

On the morning after the dream Tortuga achieves some movement in his toes, at the same time suffering from a high fever. Danny pays Tortuga another visit. He seems destined to be Tortuga’s nemesis, except that his treatment of Tortuga is not just.

Eventually Tortuga is ready for Physical Therapy. At about the same time on of the patients leaves the hospital at night, through a window, after having told others he wants to go home. When he is discovered to be missing the head surgeon, Dr Steel, leads a search party in the snow and up the mountain. When the rest of the party give up, Steel keeps going and eventually finds the boy frozen to death. He carries the boy down on his back for a funeral.

There is a great celebration when Tortuga has finally improved enough to get a wheelchair, even though he is still in his body cast. Permission is given to take the older patients, including Tortuga, into the town, in snowy icy weather, for a visit to the cinema. “Frankenstein” is showing, with all its obvious connections with their lives and broken bodies being made whole. They love it.

After the film a bunch of college American football players and their girl cheer-leaders start mocking and jeering at the boys from the hospital. A fight started, one-sided because the patients could control their wheelchairs and crutches much better than the bullies could control their feet on the ice. The description was incredible. The patients thumped the bullies. Did I cheer! Unfortunately some of the patients were injured.

I’ll stop describing the action at that point since I don’t want to give away too much.

What I will say is that this is the best Latin American (despite being set in New Mexico) book which I have read during our travels. I scored it at 9/10.

04 December 2015

29   Kansas – Wichita – Thad Ziolkowski – November 2015 (Score 5.86)

Written in the present tense, therefore with a feeling of immediacy and urgency, this book opens with Lewis and his mother Abby driving to a tornado devastated farm. We are in redneck country, seeing a lorry with a bumper sticker reading “Where’s your Baghdaddy?”, with a picture of an attack helicopter,

There is a smashed metal shed where a meth lab was, surrounded by police ticker tape. Lewis has gone back to Kansas to the family home after a break-up with his girlfriend. Abby doesn’t seem entirely switched on. We hear about Lewis’ brother Seth.

As this episodic story progresses it certainly gives us a good idea of how (at least some) people live in Kansas. This, after all, is why we joined this book group – to travel the world and see other people’s lives, so different from our own.

Several of the characters are totally bonkers, in an entertaining way.

On page 102 I was surprised that a young man of Lewis’ apparent background would have heard of Robert Musil. Having reviewed his CV I believe he had read widely at some stage, and not just when he was doing his degree in English.

There are many interesting metaphors scattered throughout the book such as, when thinking about a local sand quarry, Lewis describes “hulking machinery playing dead in the moonlight”.

Towards the end, when Abby has set up a tornado chasing company, they take her first paying customer out. We see, with them, a massive tornado forming and, with them, get caught as it changes direction straight towards them. Crazy Seth has ridden his moped straight towards the twister, determined to enter its heart.

They are caught by the wind. The others manage to get into the car but Lewis, opening the door, is smashed against the windscreen, his head cracking it. They manage to escape.

fter Seth’s funeral Lewis sees him, and talks to him. He blames Seth’s drug-taking friends for having slipped something into his drink.

When the book nears its end we find Lewis working as a guard in a privately owned art museum in Brooklyn. The book ends as Lewis, and his and Seth’s father Virgil, achieve some sort of closure by scattering Seth’s ashes on the Hudson River, nearly getting a fine in the process for illicit dumping of ashes in the river.

I enjoyed the story, in particular the zany humour, and gave it a score of 8.0.

18 November 2015

28 Japan – The woman in the dunes – Kobo Abe – October 2015 (Score 5.3)

I was rather disappointed with this book, bearing in mind the author’s reputation as being one of Japan’s greatest 20th Century writers. I am afraid that I found it tedious despite the concept of the man trapped in a rather unusual situation.

The story is that a man has gone missing, with no evidence of anything suspicious. After seven years the case is closed.

We go back seven years and follow the man as he sets out for the seaside, complete with equipment to catch insects. Once he gets there he starts to wander over the huge dunes which threaten to cover the village which he has found.

At one point he is suspected of being a government inspector, but he manages to convince the villagers that he is not. One of them agrees to help him get accommodation for the night.

Eventually he is tricked into going into a deep pit in the sand. He finds a dilapidated house occupied by a single person, a woman whose purpose in life seems to be to shovel encroaching sand from one side of the pit into buckets at the opposite side. These are then lifted out by the villagers and disposed of somewhere.

The woman seems to have the task of saving the village from disappearing. He learns with horror that he has been enticed into the pit so that he can help the woman in her task. He discovers the hard way that he will only be fed and watered if he co-operates.

I liked the man’s notion of converting the village into spherical homes which could roll over the sand. The inner, stable, living quarters would rotate in the opposite mode to the outer, thus staying horizontal. This could be an ideal form of living for Arrakis, Frank Herbert’s desert planet.

Although the man is a teacher, he seems to have a totally different idea of teachers from ours. We value teachers for their work in bringing our young into the world as fully fledged humans, capable of thinking, reasoning and learning even if many of them do not take advantage of the opportunities available. His attitude is more that he is worthless since he, and other teachers are left behind as the pupils move on to the next year.

In his musings about how his colleagues might be setting up a police investigation to find him, we finally (page 81) learn that he is called Nikki Jumpei, and he is 31.

From page 111 to 113 there is a short section in which Nikki seems to be cogitating about writing a book about his experiences. Does this mean that he escapes at some future time?

I eventually didn’t care as I was getting more and more bored with the whole thing, though I stuck it out to the bitter end since I wanted to find out.

I could only give “The woman in the dunes a score of 5.5/10.