Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Joseph Conrad - An Anarchist

THAT year I spent the best two months of the dry season on one of the estates -- in fact, on the principal cattle estate -- of a famous meat-extract manufacturing company.
B.O.S. Bos. You have seen the three magic letters on the advertisement pages of magazines and newspapers, in the windows of provision merchants, and on calendars for next year you receive by post in the month of November. They scatter pamphlets also, written in a sickly enthusiastic style and in several languages, giving statistics of slaughter and bloodshed enough to make a Turk turn faint. The "art" illustrating that "literature" represents in vivid and shining colours a large and enraged black bull stamping upon a yellow snake writhing in emerald-green grass, with a cobaltblue sky for a background. It is atrocious and it is an allegory. The snake symbolizes disease, weakness -- perhaps mere hunger, which last is the chronic disease of the majority of mankind. Of course everybody knows the B. 0. S. Ltd., with its unrivalled products: Vinobos, Jellybos, and the latest unequalled perfection, Tribos, whose nourishment is offered to you not only highly concentrated, but already half digested. Such apparently is the love that Limited Company bears to its fellowmen -- even as the love of the father and mother penguin for their hungry fledglings.
Of course the capital of a country must be productively employed. I have nothing to say against the company. But being myself animated by feelings of affection towards my fellow-men, I am saddened by the modern system of advertising. Whatever evidence it offers of enterprise, ingenuity, impudence, and resource in certain individuals, it proves to my mind the wide prevalence of that form of mental degradation which is called gullibility.

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Image taken from here

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Desmond Elliott prize shortlist announced

The Desmond Elliot prize shortlist has been announced. The shortlisted novels are:

Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman
Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman
Saraswati Park by Anjali Joseph

Read a full report at the Guardian

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Book Review: The Complaints by Ian Rankin

It feels kind of strange when you get into your hands a novel by Ian Rankin in which the main character is not good old detective Rebus. However, Rebus or not, this is yet another fine crime novel by one of the best authors of the genre.
     The main characters in this story are Malcolm Fox, who leads the Complaints & Conduct department of the Edinburgh police force, widely known as The Complaints, and Jamie Breck, a cop who is suspected of being a member of a pedophile ring. Having just brought to its conclusion a very difficult case Fox feels utterly exhausted, but there’s no time for him to take a rest. He has to find out what is going on with Breck and help out his alcoholic sister as well, who’s boyfriend have started abusing her yet again.
     Trying to find a balance between his professional and personal lives he seems to be moving back and forth all the time, and that just seems to be tearing him apart. Sometimes he even thinks that he doesn’t have a life; not really. With his sister being who she is and his father in a facility for the elders, with no love life at all and his everyday battle with the department politics, he seems to be at a dead end. But, he keeps going. And in this he looks just like Rebus. He moves all over the city, from end to end, and he visits construction sites, pubs, casinos and some underworld joints, working hard to figure things out, until, all of a sudden, he comes to realize that someone is trying to frame him for a crime. Who is he though? And why does he target him? His career seems to be hanging on a thin thread and he becomes more suspicious by the minute. He no longer knows who to trust. In the end he’ll get all the help he needs from the most unlikely source, and the two of them together, will do everything they possibly can to bring the truth to light.
     While all that is happening, a successful businessman simply vanishes from the face of the earth, or rather the sea, and everyone thinks that he committed suicide, since he suddenly lost all his fortune because of the collapse of the economy. Fox accidentally bumps into his case and thinks that there’s more to his disappearance than what at first meets the eye. The author, given the chance, talks excessively about the problems of the modern Scottish society: the extreme poverty, the high rates of crime and unemployment, the alcoholism.
     The element of love is not absent from this story, or should I say, the element of unfulfilled love, as Fox meets an attractive woman that keeps herself more than busy working on cases that have to do with pedophilia and child pornography , and whom awakens in him some long forgotten feelings. He comes to believe that in her he met a sister soul, someone who can really get him; however both of their lives are so complicated, and the baggage they carry from the past so heavy that is virtually impossible to make things work; unless, of course, life has different plans for them.
     The Complaints is a well crafted novel, which the fans of the good writer will surely enjoy. As it seems, there’s life after Rebus after all.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Book Review: Room by Emma Donoghue

Room is one of those books that absolutely any writer would be proud to have written. If I’d had to describe it with just one word I’d say: Amazing! It is simply and truly an amazing novel that can make you smile and weep at the same time; that can make you think about all the blessings in your life.
     I’d dare say that Emma Donoghue is a master storyteller as she takes a depressing subject matter and makes out of it a story that can be read or rather felt with joy.
     The all-seeing all-tell narrator right here is Jack; a five year old boy that has never spent a single moment of his short life in the outside world, as he was born in captivity. His father is someone that both he and his mother refer to as old Nick. Nick abducted his mother many years before and since then she’s been living in the soundproofed room. At first she was all alone and wanted to die, but then Jack came along and decided to live.
     Jack is raised in a completely sterile environment; he seems to live in a fairytale world. A world created by his mother in order to protect him from the idea, or the dreams, of a freedom that is not about to come. His only connection to the outside world is the television; though he believes that everything he sees there is not true, apart from Dora, his very best friend. He also truly thinks that apart from himself, Dora, his mother and old Nick that there are no other people in the world. How could he think any different from the moment that he doesn’t really know that there’s a whole universe out there? He looks at the clean or clouded sky from the skylight; he looks at the stars and the moon in the night; but he considers all that part of the scenery; an extension of the room.
     Despite all that Jack is really happy, because he has his mother, who’s all the time right there beside him, someone who knows everything apart from the things she can’t remember. However, she’s deeply sad, and as time goes by she starts to hate herself, for keeping the truth from the boy. It is time to put things right and the only way she can do that is by finding for them a way to escape. She tried that once before, when she was all alone, and failed, but now she has no choice but to succeed or else. To do that though she needs Jack’s help, so she starts talking to him about the outside world, she tells him all the things she left behind; or most of it anyway. And she’s trying to prepare him as much as she possibly can for the big escape. Jack listens to her carefully as she explains how their life is going to be inside the Out and he smiles. He thinks he understands it all, since when he was a little kid he used to think like a little kid, but now he’s five and knows everything.
     However, the more they talk about it the more confused he gets. The only world he knows is his room; he doesn’t want to leave it; never mind the fact that he spends most nights sleeping in the closet. No, he wants to stay. And that makes his mother angry. For the first time ever she treats him hard. He has to do what he’s told to save their selves, and that is that. Jack, scared and brave at the same time (or scave; one of his sandwich words), has no other option but to obey. And it’s exactly then that their real adventure begins.
     This is one of those novels that grab you by the throat and never let you go from page one until the very end. It is finely crafted, with a very good story and tons of humor that manage to make light reading out of a serious issue. The author talks in an exquisite way for the big tragedies in life; about the innocence of a child’s heart; for our psychological powers, which now and again fail us; about the real play, outside in the fields that can only make us stronger.
     Emma Donoghue, an Irish woman living in Canada, seems to follow in the footsteps of her country’s great storytellers, but not only that; she also seems to be creating her own paths into a world full of beautiful, though sad at times, stories.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Theakston's Old Peculier award longlist has been announced

The long-listed books for the U.K.'s most generous crime fiction prize has been announced. It includes six novels by women which is a first for the prize. The winner will be revealed during the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate on the 21st of July. Here's the list:

Blacklands, by Belinda Bauer
From the Dead, by Mark Billingham
Blood Harvest, by S J Bolton
61 Hours, by Lee Child
Winterland, by Alan Glynn
A Room Swept White, by Sophie Hannah
The Woodcutter, by Reginald Hill
Rupture, by Simon Lelic
Sister, by Rosamund Lupton
Dark Blood, by Stuart MacBride
Fever of the Bone, by Val McDermid
Fifty Grand, by Adrian McKinty
Still BleedingStill Bleeding, Steve Mosby
The Twelve, by Stuart Neville
Random, by Craig Robertson
The Holy Thief, by William Ryan
The Anatomy of Ghosts, by Andrew Taylor
A Capital Crime, by Laura Wilson

Book Review: Snakes and Earrings by Hitomi Kanehara

Snakes and Earrings is not a book for the tenderhearted; even though it does become tender every now and then. Actually this is a very harsh story, talking about a hard world; the world of Lui, Ama and Shiba-san. It’s a story about a different way of life; a way of life that breaths and breeds in the darkness of the human soul; of life without hope.
     The three heroes live inside this world of ours, but mostly at the side of it. They know everything about its conventions, but they do not abide to them. They are just themselves and the road to destruction is paved by their own hand.
     It all begins when Lui, a kind of a Barbie girl with as many earrings as one can get, meets Ama, a total freak who has even more piercings on his body than her. They hit it off right away and before too long she moves in with him. What did she find so attractive about him? What else did you expect but his forked-tongue and his tattoos? She’s mystified by this creature. And she feels jealous. She needs a tongue just like his. But not only that; she also wishes to have engraved on her body the most original tattoo anyone ever made. It’s exactly because of her dark wishes that she finds her way, along with Ama, into the workshop of Shiba-san, a real master in the arts of piercing and tattooing. As she walks through that door, the floodgates of hell seem to open wide and the oncoming waters are bound to rush her into the abyss.
     Lui is an extreme character. She likes falling down psychologically time and again; to dive in with no regrets into the worlds of sin; to torment her body without giving it a second thought. She seems to live in order to suffer, and it’s exactly this pain that keeps her alive. She may be an item with Ama but she doesn’t hesitate to sleep with Shiba-san; even after he says that he really wants to kill her. At the same time she feels almost ecstatic at the idea of her forked-tongue. Actually she’s so eager to get it that she places herself into a spot of insurmountable pain; almost flirting with insanity. Ama, despite his looks, is quite a sensitive man and he really loves Lui. He hates watching her doing bad things to herself but doesn’t seem to have the power to stop her. He’d even kill for her; if she didn’t kill herself first that is. As for Shiba-san, well, he’s a man without a trace of humanity in him. He likes inflicting pain and that’s probably why he’s doing what he’s doing for a living. However, maybe, just maybe, he’s not completely lost, and a tragic event is all that it will take to bring some samples of goodness out of his dark heart and into the light.
     Snakes and Earrings is mainly a book of characters. The plot is not so important. The author doesn’t treat her creations with a gentle hand by with extreme harshness. She has a story to tell, and she’ll stop at nothing, in order to do so. The modern Japanese society comes under the microscope, goes through her fine filter and comes out at the other side just as bad as it could ever be. Sex, violence, drugs, alcohol, prostitution, fears; she talks about all these matters in a masterful way, in a raw language that could be hard to cope with, but which is the only one that could describe things as they really are.
     This is a hell of a novel, about the hell of some people’s everyday lives.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Twelfth Caine Prize shortlist announced

The shortlist for the Twelfth Caine Prize for African Writing has been announced. Widely known as the African Booker this prize honors short story writing. You can read this year's shortlisted stories by clicking on their titles.
The Mistress's Dog by David Medalie (South Africa)

What Molly Knew by Tim Keegan (South Africa)

Hitting Budapest by NoViolet Bulawayo (Zimbabwe)

In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata by Lauri Kubuitsile (Botswana)

Butterfly Dreams by Beatrice Lamwaka (Uganda)

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Childe Roland To The Dark Tower Came by Robert Browning

My first thought was, he lied in every word,
That hoary cripple, with malicious eye
Askance to watch the working of his lie
On mine, and mouth scarce able to afford
Suppression of the glee, that pursed and scored
Its edge, at one more victim gained thereby.

What else should he be set for, with his staff?
What, save to waylay with his lies, ensnare
All travellers who might find him posted there,
And ask the road? I guessed what skull-like laugh
Would break, what crutch 'gin write my epitaph
For pastime in the dusty thoroughfare,

If at his counsel I should turn aside
Into that ominous tract which, all agree,
Hides the Dark Tower. Yet acquiescently
I did turn as he pointed: neither pride
Nor hope rekindling at the end descried,
So much as gladness that some end might be.

Continue at the source

Book Choice:  Robert Browning's Poetry (Norton Critical Editions)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Book Review: The Fifth Witness by Michael Connelly

The Lincoln Lawyer, Mickey Haller, returns to action in The Fifth Witness, a courtroom drama. Haller is a successful defense attorney who used to make a living by working from the back sit of his car. However, things are changing fast in this unstable world of ours, and he has to change with them. In order to make ends meet, the good lawyer has turned to foreclosures, one of the most lucrative sectors of our times in the U.S. His practice is suddenly booming and, for the first time, he has to ask for help. So he hires a young woman, just out of the law school, which shows a lot of promise and rents an office.
     Haller doesn’t find foreclosures as interesting as crime defense, but he’s quite happy that business keeps pouring in. After all, saving people’s homes is not a bad thing. He misses though those rushes of adrenaline, which only crime trials can give. And what he misses is exactly what he’s going to get, as one of his customers, Lisa Trammel, is arrested for the murder of a banker.
     Trammel is a desperate woman, who’s run out of luck, when the economy collapsed. Her husband went away, leaving her behind with a kid to raise and a big mortgage to pay. As she’s about to lose her house she starts a campaign against the banks, which inevitably draws on her person a lot of publicity. Fame, nevertheless, will bring with it misfortune, since when a banker is killed she’ll be considered the prime suspect and arrested at once. All the evidence shows that she’s guilty. She used to demonstrate outside the back, she gave some people a hard time, a restraining order has been issued against her, and she was spotted by a witness very close to the scene of the crime.
     Haller, as expected, will rush to the rescue. He’ll take her case and find his way back into crime defense with a bang. He has no idea if she’s innocent or guilty, he doesn’t even want to know; all he cares about is winning the case for her. The thing is though that Trammel herself is doing everything she can to make his life difficult. Irrationality seems to be her modus operandi. She does almost everything he tells her not to and then some more, and as time goes by the less he trusts her. He hates himself for working for a customer he doesn’t like, and whom he started to despise. But that’s part of the job and he knows it.
     The Fifth Witness is not just a courtroom drama; it’s a story of ambitions as well: the ambitions of a lawyer winning a big trial; of a prosecutor who does not hesitate for a moment to play dirty in order to reach her goals; of a woman that just loves to be at the spotlight; and of a man who will stop at nothing to have things his way.
     The story moves at a great pace, the action is almost nonstop and all the twists and turns are nicely done. Most of the characters seem to be at a dead end or another. Their love connections are failing and their existential beliefs come into question. Their everyday lives are illuminated and they don’t look too good at all.
     Maybe, just maybe, this novel is the best Michael Connelly brought out since The Poet. A great read.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Plane Tree Thinker

All of a sudden our village’s square came to life. A weird old man arrived there out of the blue one day and took a post at the fountain; under the big plane tree. The news of his arrival were spread all over the village at no time at all. The kids just started running around all over the place screaming out loud that “an old man wearing a dress came to visit.”
    Of course, none of us wanted to miss that unexpected and out of the ordinary sight, so we all rushed towards the fountain to greed him welcome, but most of all to have a good look at the strange old man. Oh yes, he seemed to be quite a wonder in our eyes. The kids were right, he was wearing a dress; well, not exactly a dress, just a white robe, Arab style. We’d think that he was indeed an Arab if his face wasn’t so startling white. A peaceful face, his was.
    “Welcome, old man”, we said.
    “I’m so glad to be here”, he replied.
    “What brings you to our village, if we may ask?”
    “The southern wind, I’m a traveler”, he answered with a smile.
    To tell you the truth, the old man did look a little weird, but strangely enough we didn’t feel like asking him any more questions, and on his part he didn’t seem eager to keep on talking; so, we just let him sit there and went back to take care our every day affairs. The kids, however, stayed there and started playing around him, laughing and screaming and singing. Despite all the mess he just kept sitting there smiling, seemingly happy to be with them; as if that was the only place in the world he was supposed to be.
    In the afternoon, as we were going back home after a hard day’s work, we found him still sitting there. By that time, we all thought he was just a passerby; that he would rest for a while and go on with his travels, but obviously he had no intention of doing so. There was no other destination whatsoever in his mind. Even when the kids went away and left him alone, he remained there, sitting still, thinking and smiling to himself; so really weird.
    As the night was about to fall, I went to him and asked if he was planning to go away. He just whispered to me that he had nowhere to go, since that exact place is where his road led him. I really didn’t know what to say so I started for home. After a while, I’ve sent him a plate of food with my son, inviting him over at the same time, to spend the night at my house, if he wanted to. He told the kid that for many long years the ground was his bed and the starry sky his blanket; as for food, thanks to my generosity he wouldn’t feel hungry.
    Very early the next morning, just before sunrise, I started off to irrigate my fields. But I couldn’t fight an urge to pass by the fountain to see the old man. He was still sitting there, with his eyes shut, thinking. His face was shining bright. “Dear god, is this an angel or a demon?” I could not but ask myself. I approached and wished him a good morning. He replied likewise.
    “How are you old man?”
    “I’m fine and thinking, my child”
    “Thinking about what, old man?”
    Just as he pronounced the word his whole being have started glowing, as if in accordance with the spoken feeling; or rather with the thought process. His face was the face of serenity itself. I spoke no more and started for the fields. Oh, how I wish I could read the old man’s soul; but I couldn’t.
    The days went by, one after the other, as slow and as fast as ever, and the old man kept sitting there, at the fountain. Little by little everyone would get used to him and start sending him food in turns with the children. And he would thank them. And if they asked him how he was doing, he would say that he was “fine, and thinking; thinking about happiness.”
    He became a very good friend with the kids in no time at all. Actually every single person in the village liked him. He was a weird old man, but a kindhearted one, full of love for everyone and everything; and as time went by we felt that he was one of us. As for his name, no one ever found out what it was, so we didn’t really know what to call him. In the end, everyone came to refer to him as “the old man who thinks about happiness” or simply “the thinker.”
    He really was a thinker, and he seemed to have the answers to every question or the solution to every problem anyone ever had. So, when once I was in a dilemma and really didn’t know what to do I went to ask for his help. Needless to say that he gave me the advice that I needed to hear. And as I went back home to tell my wife that I found the solution to our problem, she cut me short: “The old man told you what to do; right?”
    Day after day, week after week, the old man became a kind of a celebrity in our part of the country. People from other villages came to visit him every so often, sad and troubled, but when they left, you could see wide smiles spread all over their faces.
    As for the children, they adored him. And he loved them too, as if they were his own. When they were around, he would slip away from his deep thoughts, just to start playing with them, or to tell them some exciting stories; about the places he’s been to, about the people he met, about the beautiful creatures of his imagination. And they, who hated school, who wouldn’t spent a minute reading, would sit around him quiet, obedient, taking into their heads and souls his every word. Just before the night called in he would give them all a big hug and wish them to a have a good and dreamy night. The kids would go home with a lot of new stories to tell their parents.
    It was in May that the old wise man came to the village and by August he never slept in a bed. He only sat there at the fountain day and night, thinking about happiness. “Happiness!” That’s what everyone felt since he arrived in our lives. “He is a demon” cried out the priest; “A saint!” said the housewives, as for the kids; he was the best friend they ever had.
    Since day one of his arrival at the village, all the quarrels and fighting in the households have suddenly stopped. You could hear no one yelling at the other, no arguments taking place; everyone seemed to live a peaceful and loving life. And if ever a problem arose they would go to the old man to take his advice; ask him to offer a solution. Only to his own quest he didn’t seem to able to reach a conclusion.
    “Did you find happiness, old man?”
    “I’m thinking about it; I’m thinking about it all the time, my son! It will be mine.”
    As time went by his unsought for fame crossed the borders of the neighboring areas and even reached the cities. More and more people would come from afar to see and talk to the old thinker. Every Sunday was a festive day for our village. We’ve never seen so many people in our lives. And all that thanks to the old man; who had a kind word to offer to everyone who came to visit; who had so much love to give. By the end of autumn, the wise old man was in everybody’s lips, since all the people who came to see him, when they went back home, talked to everyone about the one who thinks about happiness, feeling utterly happy themselves.
    It was on a late Friday afternoon, just before sunset, that a few lucky of us saw the old man suddenly jumping off his favorite sit, and start leaping about, and yelling and dancing, and singing like a young lad.
    We were left speechless for a moment, but then we all rushed to ask him what was going on. He gave us no answer. Instead he kept on dancing. Well, at no time at all we found ourselves, young and old, kids, husbands and wives, joining his wild dance. Someone started playing the lute and somebody else the guitar; the mandolin followed suite. The women brought out barrels of wine and beer and lots of food and joy. It was a party unlike any other. Even the priest left aside all his reservations and joined in the dancing, enjoying with us that sudden burst of happiness and unheard of freedom.
    The party went on and on, and everyone there would describe it in the days to come, as the happiest night of their lives. As the music, the feasting and the dancing started dying out I went to the old man to ask him again what that was all about. He said: “I’ve found happiness, my child!” “Where did you find it, wise man?” “At the absence of thought!” he answered with a grin and started off for the fields. I smiled too and left for home.
    The most unexpected news swept through the village the very next morning; the good old man has left. But, strangely enough, no one seemed to miss him, or feel sorry that he was gone. It was as if a magic hand has kindly touched all of our souls, allowing them to feel nothing but joy; the joy of life.
    A few months later a traveler arrived at our village. He told us that during his long journey he met, at a far away place, a wise old man, who just sat under a plane tree smiling, and thinking about happiness!
Image taken from here