The Devil and Miss Prym by Paulo Coelho
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
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Paulo Coelho‘s The Alchemist book is one of those books that I categorize as having a rabid, zealous following…much like Ayn Rand’s books, and to some extent The Catcher in the Rye…books that some people claim they love or were life-changing. I read The Alchemist years ago hoping that it would be a book that I loved. I enjoyed it but angels didn’t sing and fireworks didn’t go off while I read it. It was okay but not the best book ever (in my opinion).
A couple of years ago I read Coelho’s Veronika Decides to Die and ended up really liking it. It made me decide that I really should read more of Coelho’s books…so I took The Devil and Miss Prym out from the library and set off. I picked this particular book because it is also on the list of 1001 books to read before you die.
Once again, Coelho has written a fable. This one is set in a remote mountain village. A stranger shows up in the village one day and talks with Miss Prym, a villager who works at the local inn and bar. The stranger show Miss Prym a fortune in gold and tells her that if the villagers kill one of their own, they can have all of the gold. The stranger is trying to find out if people are at their core good or evil.
So how did I feel about The Devil and Miss Prym? Once again, this was a book that fell into the “it was okay” camp. I didn’t love it. It felt a little flat to me. The characters were one-dimensional and not very believable. Nevermind that none of the characters were likeable in any way. Deep down I didn’t care what decision they made or what happened to them. The book was loaded with parables but the main story line was lackluster and did little to pull me in. It would have been better if it was edited to be at least 100 pages shorter. In a nutshell: this book was just ‘meh’ to me. I will cling fondly to my memories of “Veronika Decides to Die”: my past and still current favorite Coelho book.
Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
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Translated into English from the original German, Austerlitz is filled with beautiful, complex prose that is best read slowly. The novel features an unnamed narrator recounts his encounters and discussions with a man called “Austerlitz”. Austerlitz is a middle-aged man in search of answers about his past. His past is slowly uncovered through a series of digressions and fractured narratives. At every meeting with Austerlitz the narrator finds out more about him through discussions about memories and architecture. We learn about how the Holocaust tore apart Austerlitz and his family and how a young Austerlitz repressed those memories to the point that he actually thought he was the son of the Welsh couple who took him in.
This book was a challenge to read, especially in the beginning and it definitely isn’t for everyone. There were sentences that went on for 5+ pages and the narrative style is far from what you usually find in novels. But if you are up for a reading challenge with a book that requires your full attention you should consider reading Austerlitz.
Animal’s People: A Novel by Indra Sinha
“Animal” is a 19-year old Indian boy who was disfigured as a result of a chemical plant explosion in his town when he was a small boy. The disaster caused his spine to become bent in such a manner that Animal is forced to walk on all fours. Since both his parents died in the incident, Animal is raised by nuns in an orphanage and also spends a good deal of time earning a living by running scams on the streets of Khaufpur.
My story has to start with that night. I don’t remember anything about it, though I was there, nevertheless, it’s where my story has to start. When something big like that night happens, time divides into before and after, the before time breaks up into dreams, the dreams dissolve into darkness. That’s how it is here. All the world knows the name of Khaufpur, but no one knows how things were before those nights.
“Animal” makes for an interesting if sometimes frustrating narrator. The text is full of his colorful language. Animal tells his story in a mix of English, Hindi, and French. His English and French are sometimes phonetically interpreted versions of the real word…for example he refers to spying on people as “jamisponding”, which he got from “James Bond”-ing. (don’t worry, if you don’t know any Hindi, there is a glossary in the back of the book). Just as Animal struggles with life in the aftermath of the disaster, the whole city struggles. There are major health and poverty issues throughout the city. Many of the people Animal interacts with lost loved ones after the explosion or have had negative health impacts.
“Animal’s People” is a fictional story based on the real Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal, India in 1984. The book is full of tragedy but has a good dose of black humor woven throughout. The book is a gritty read that will definitely leave a mark on you.
I recommend this book to people who enjoyed any of Salman Rushdie’s books or A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. Read with caution though if you are turned off by crude language and lewd thoughts or if you don’t enjoy books with lots of foreign words in the narrative.
“Animal’s People” was shortlisted for the 2007 Booker Prize and was also listed as one of the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die.
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Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Two of my favorite books from the past 10 years were by David Mitchell (number9dream and Ghostwritten). Both of those books were unique and slightly trippy, which are characteristics that I really enjoy in a book. I have been eager to read Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas for the past couple of years. The book was included on the list of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die…and being the list-whore that I am… I feel an insatiable need to read as many books from that list as possible. 😉
Cloud Atlas did not disappoint. This book is like a nesting doll of interwoven short stories. Each short story is written in the style of a different genre, takes place in a different era, and is sliced in half…each story sandwiching another story. It is a very difficult book to explain, but at its core it is about good and evil.
The first story is a 19th century sea-fearing tale (think Billy Budd) about Adam Ewing who is travelling aboard a ship destined for California. The 2nd tale is set in the 1930’s and is about a young Englishman who takes a job working for a famous composer in Belgium…with plenty of scandal and romantic escapades (think Evelyn Waugh). The 3rd story is a mystery/crime drama set in California in the 1970’s, where journalist Luisa Rey is working to uncover the truth about a nuclear power plant that is being built in the area. The next story brings us to present day England where publisher Timothy Cavendish finds himself achieving career success but at the same time his life begins spiralling out of control and he finds himself committed, against his will to a home. The 5th story zooms forward to the near future of the 22nd century to Korea. In this future dystopia, most of the world has become a wasteland and the population is concentrated in large cities that are managed by corporations. These corporations use bioengineering to create “fabricants”, which are humans that are bred to be workers. The lead character is Somni, who works the counter at a fast food restaurant. She develops a mind of her own and a desire to learn. A group of rebels free her from the fast food enslavement and educate her so that she can help their cause. The final story is set in the more distant future in Hawaii at a time where most of humankind has perished. Most of the survivors have reverted to a primitive life where they simply try to get by on the land, with no technology. There are a few more advanced groups left that travel by ship to try to find other people and try to rebuild society. After this 6th story the other stories begin to unwind/complete in reverse order, until we are once again back to the tale of Adam Ewing.
This book is a brilliant work. Each tale may not be your cup of tea, but you can’t deny the overall literary excellence of Cloud Atlas. Mitchell has truly written a unique and special book that will leave you thinking.
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In the Forest: A Novel by Edna O’Brien
rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars
I’ve read quite a few Irish novels lately. In the Forest is my most recent read that falls into that category. This novel is based on a true story and is a creepy look into the mind of a killer. The killer in question is Michen O’Kane who we first meet as a young 10-year old boy in a small Irish town. Michen had a troubled home life full of domestic abuse and neglect. Michen becomes known as The Kinderschreck after he steals a gun and shoots it in the general direction of two men.
The Kinderschreck. That’s what the German man called him when he stole the gun. Before that he was Michen, after a saint, and then Mich, his mother’s pet, and then Boy, when he went to the place, and then Child, when Father Damien had him helping with the flowers and the cruets in the sacristy, and then K, short for O’Kane, when his hoodlum times began.
Michen is sent to a juvenile detention center where he is tormented by the older boys and abused by a priest. He spends the next several years in and out of various detention centers and jails. Over time, Michen becomes a very troubled and mentally unstable young man. The residents of his small Irish village try to tolerate him at first but soon enough start to feel terrified of him.
The novel is told with alternating perspectives in each chapter. Some chapters are told from Michen’s point of view, some from his victims and other chapters from the various villagers whose paths Michen crosses. The prose was lyrical and the Michen chapters could be very difficult and disturbing reads at times. His mind became so twisted it was hard to tell what was real and what was dementia.
I recommend this book to those who enjoyed other books that let the reader delve into mind of a killer such as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman. In the Forest was included on the original list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. I am slowly working my way through that list (I can’t resist tackling to-do lists) At this rate I hope I don’t die until I am 120. Must.finish.all.1001.books… 😉
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Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee
rating: 4 of 5 stars
Sixty-something Paul Rayment is a photographer who is hit by a car one day while out riding his bicycle. The collision shatters his leg and the doctors amputate it near the knee. Paul refuses a prosthesis. He finds himself feeling hopeless and isolated.
A circumscribed life. What would Socrates say about that? May a life become so circumscribed that it is no longer worth living? Men come out of prison, out of years of staring at the same blank wall, without gloom taking possession of their souls. What is so special about losing a limb? A giraffe that loses a leg will surely perish; but giraffes do not have the agencies of the modern state, embodied in Mrs. Putts, watching over their welfare. Why should he not settle for a modestly circumscribed life in a city that is not inhospitable to the frail aged.
Paul who used to pride himself on his independence now finds himself having to depend on others. Two people he develops relationships with are Marijana, his Croatian nurse, and Elizabeth Costello, an author who mysteriously shows up at his door one day. Paul proclaims his love for Marijana and Elizabeth tries to push him to take a hold of his life and do something.
Slow Man is the third Coetzee novel that I have read…and that man can write! All of his novels cause you to think about their central themes long after you put the book down. Slow Man, like his other novels. has a darker set of themes: loneliness, isolation from others (both emotional and physical), and hopelessness. Paul is a stubborn man who refuses to try to rebuild his life…instead he just wallows in his own loneliness and laments over his fate. Paul’s plight caused me to think about making each day count and developping deep meaningful relationships with people. The book also has hints of meta-fiction, which is almost always a plus as far as I am concerned.
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That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern
rating: 4 of 5 stars
If you ever wonder what daily life is like in rural Ireland, John McGahern’s novel That They May Face the Rising Sunmay be a book that you want to pick up. Its a serene, meandering story about a small community surrounding a lake. We meet the local residents and experience their days with them. It is a book with a plot per se, other than the daily events in the characters lives. McGahern does an amazing job painting a scene.
The next morning a white mist obscured even the big trees along the shore. Gossamer hung over the pear and plum and apple trees in the orchard and a pale spiderwebbing lay across the grass in the fields. A robin was trapped in the glasshouse and set free before it became prey for the black cat. The heavy mower was uncoupled from the tractor and replaced by the tedder. The very quiet and coolness of the morning was delicious with every hour promising later heat.
I found the prose to be beautiful and while the book wasn’t a page turner, it was a pleasure to read. It was a book that I would read a little bit of at a time and then put it aside to pick up again another day.