Tuesday, February 28, 2012

2,501: 1,001 Books Challenge - Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

This is going to be an interesting post for me to write (and, I hope, not too uninteresting for you to read) as I had two very strong and differing reactions to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.  On the one hand, I think it is an incredibly powerful and well-written book, yet, on the other hand, I really didn’t enjoy it at all and, were it not for the fact that I downloaded it onto my Kindle, I would have hurled it into the waste bin once I’d finished it.

To be fair to myself, the two attitudes are not mutually inconsistent but, nevertheless, I find it a little uncomfortable trying to praise a book for its quality whilst simultaneously wishing I’d never bothered picking it up.  For, despite being an Evil Lawyer and being trained both to see things in a myriad of shades of grey and to be able to claim that black is white with a straight face, I am, at heart, a simple man who likes to gush about the great books I have read and to inveigle against the dross.  Not so here, unfortunately.

Blood Meridian is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most textured, well-written, intelligent and vivid novels I have ever read (I initially typed the word “written” here – a Freudian error if ever there was one, as I could not write anything like this if I lived for a millennium).

The book follows the story of an unnamed teenager from Tennessee, known only as “the kid” from his days as a runaway and during his lone journey through Texas and his time as a member of a scalp-hunting gang and his later wanderings through the American West of the late 1800s, ending ambiguously in his possible murder.

McCarthy’s command of the English language is nothing short of extraordinary (maybe even a little freakish).  It is highly unusual for me ever to need to resort to a dictionary whilst reading a novel but here word after word was so alien to me that I had either to look it up or lose the meaning of the passage I was reading.  This facility with language is complemented by his skill in painting word-pictures of landscape, weather and atmosphere so that the borderlands in which much of the action takes place comes alive in all its bleak majesty and empty beauty.  I felt the changes in weather from arid heat to sudden rainbursts and the unforgiving nature of the land and its native inhabitants.

There is also a wealth of themes that are woven together in a way that defies a common interpretation.  Critics have argued over whether it is amoral and nihilistic or a morality tale.  It’s been described as “the ultimate Western” and as a satire on Westerns.  There is a heavy odour of mysticism in it and, apparently, it can be seen as a Gnostic text – I say “apparently” as I am largely illiterate from a theological perspective and have no idea what Gnosticism is.  It’s a book that clearly has a meaning but whose meaning is elusive.  Indeed, even the supposed central character of the kid is elusive, remaining anonymous throughout and slipping in and out of focus as McCarthy’s lens shifts onto other characters such as Glanton and the most memorable and evil of them all, Judge Holden.

Held in awe by Glanton’s gang of scalphunters, Holden is an embodiment of almost divine evil.  He is a murderer, a paedophile and a sadist but he is also something of a dark shaman, seemingly unkillable.  Yet despite his evil, the kid, given numerous opportunities to shoot him, does not do so, lending support to the notion McCarthy plants that he is somehow not strictly human.  McCarthy’s almost biblical writing style also helps to create this impression.

Blood Meridian is infused with a sense of foreboding and oppression, underpinned by its central focus, the never-ending, meaningless, almost quotidian violence generated by and against virtually all of the characters.  Maybe one of McCarthy’s messages is about the futility of violence as he creates such a welter of it that, despite describing it in vivid and explicit terms, it ceases to have an emotional impact as the novel progresses, up until the ending (which I won’t spoil for you).

And this is where my admiration stops and my personal dislike starts.  I found Blood Meridian to be so unremittingly bleak and amoral that I couldn’t identify a single element of hope or enlightenment in it.  It is something of an emotional pile-driver, an exposition of purposeless and meaningless violence, where the weak are broken and the good exploited.  It depressed me to the point where it took me months to read, as I had to put it aside periodically before it overwhelmed me. 

I suppose it is a symptom of the book’s power that it could affect me like that and it may also be a sign that I am not as sophisticated a reader as I’d like to think I am but, whilst I can marvel at its quality and could contemplate its meaning for an age, I equally dislike it with a passion.  I can’t disagree with Harold Bloom’s judgement of it as one of the 20th Century’s finest novels but it will never appear on any list of my favourite novels.  Perhaps that is why I am no literary critic.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Literary Giveaway Blog Hop Winners....Could It Be You?

OK…….the Literary Giveaway Blog Hop has finished so……….dim the lights, here we go, the Random Number Generator has voted and the winner of the 2606 Books and Counting Literary Giveaway 2012 is………………….

Stephanie Carmichael of Misprinted Pages

Stephanie graciously asked me to choose for her and so I have decided that she will be receiving a copy of The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse which will, online book stores permitting, be the rather lovely Everyman hardback edition.  I don’t know whether Stephanie is a Wodehouse fan but I am rather happy at being able to spread the word on him.

I had also said I was going to give a mystery book-related gift to the author of the best comment but have instead decided simply to give that person their choice of book so that they’d be getting something they wanted.  Anyway, the competition was stiff but, for making me chuckle aloud, the best (or, at least, most amusing) comment prize goes to…………………………..

Ellie of Musings of a Bookshop Girl

Ellie has requested a copy of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco in order to prevent her from degenerating into kleptomania and who am I to reject a plea from the heart.

Thank you to everyone who took part and left a comment and if you didn’t win anything here, I do hope you won something at one of the other participating blogs.  Also, a big thank you to Judith at Leeswammes’ Blog for organising the whole shebang – I’m sure we are all looking forward to the next edition!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Literary Giveaway Blog Hop - come and get a book!

Today marks the start of the Literary Giveaway Blog Hop, hosted by Judith at Leeswammes' Blog.  With nearly sixty participating blogs, there are sure to be a veritable mountain of literary goodies out there up for grabs.  The giveaway runs until the end of Wednesday, 22nd February so please do stop by as many of the participating blogs as possible, enter the giveaways and check out the many wonderful book blogs of which I hope at least a few will be new to you.  Assuming my computer skills are up to it (always a risky assumption to make), links to all the participants can be found at the bottom of this post.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I can hear you saying – cut to the chase, what’s up for grabs?  Well, being possessed of a butterfly mind and also being generally in favour of choice, I’m going to give you lucky people a selection of books from which to choose.  Listed below are ten books that are currently sitting on my shelves in the basement of Falaise Towers.  All you have to do is to leave me a comment saying which one you would like.  If you can’t choose or enjoy surprises, just leave a comment to that effect and, if you are the lucky winner, I will make a selection for you.  And, as a final enticement, the poster with the best comment (as decided by me, in my sole, despotic opinion) will win a mystery book-related gift.  That’s all there is to it (although do feel free to follow the blog as well!).  The winner of the book will be chosen at random and, although  I'm happy to send anywhere, if you are a long way away from the UK, the book may take a while to get there!

The rules we’ve been given are pretty relaxed.  The giveaway has to be book-related and if it’s a book, it has to have some literary merit.  No romance, supernatural or urban fiction or YA. Non-fiction and poetry are also fine, as are standard contemporary fiction books and well-written mysteries or thrillers.

So, as you can see, it’s a pretty big universe from which to choose.  I’ve not tried to be clever and theme the books in my list.  Equally, I’m not claiming that these comprise my favourites or that they have any particular quality over and above the required literary merit, something which I believe can exist in non-fiction books.  The only link between the books in my list is that each of them is about to catch my eye as I now take a break to go downstairs on this wet and grey London afternoon and make my choices – feel free to go and make a cup of tea,  I shan’t be long.............

...................OK, I’m back, with a list at least twice as long as I had intended – spending time amongst bookshelves can be dangerous.  So here are your choices, get commenting!

1.             The Sword of Honour Trilogy by Evelyn Waugh.  I really believe that this trilogy ranks as some of Waugh’s best work but it doesn’t seem to get the same attention as books like Brideshead Revisited, Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies or Scoop.  It is the partially-autobiographical, blackly humorous yet touching story of Guy Crouchback, a middle-aged officer in the British Army during the Second World War.  It’s probably my favourite Waugh.

2.       Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens.  It’s February 2012 and so it only seems fair to include a Dickens in this giveaway and Oliver Twist is quintessential Dickens and a incredibly vivid portrayal of the underside of Victorian London.  It’s simply fabulous and Mrs F and I often used to pass Nancy’s steps in Southwark on our weekend walks on the South Bank when we lived in Bermondsey.

3.       Lord Emsworth Acts for the Best by P.G. Wodehouse.  Given my near religious devotion to Plum, it was pretty unlikely that I would be able to resist the temptation to include him in this giveaway.  This is the complete collection of Blandings short stories.  All the gang are here: Lord Emsworth, Gally, the Empress of Blandings and the rest of them.  If Blandings isn’t your Wodehousian cup of tea, then I offer you as an alternative either a classic Jeeves and Wooster story – The Code of the Woosters – or, for the adventurous amongst you, Uncle Fred in the Springtime, featuring the incorrigible Earl of Ickenham.

4.       Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne.  I just love this one.  The story of Phileas Fogg’s wager and race around the world pushes a lot of my hot buttons – travel, adventure, humour and Victorian clubland.  Lovely and fun.

5.       The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux.  Another book about which I am quite evangelical and continuing the travel theme, Paul Theroux’s railway journey around the world is a true travel classic.  If you’ve already read it, or would prefer a more contemporary account, you may instead choose Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, his recent revisiting of the journey.

6.       The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.  Probably his most famous novel, this medieval-set mystery with a heavy seasoning of Sherlock Holmes has oodles of secret codes, hidden manuscripts, grotesque characters and, in William of Baskerville, a memorable hero.  It is completely and utterly satisfying.

7.       Stamboul Train by Graham Greene.  Stamboul Train  is one of Greene’s earlier novels and, I think, is unfairly overlooked these days.  It’s really a collection of loosely linked vignettes or short stories about a motley cast of characters who have gathered together on the old Orient Express which comes together to form a coherent narrative.  Lots of political and social comment as well as elements of travelogue.

8.       The Dumas Club by Arturo Perez-Reverte.  The protagonist, Lucas Corso, is a kind of literary detective, hired to authenticate a rare copy of The Three Musketeers and a 17th Century manual for summoning the Devil.  The more he investigates, however, the more the texts appear to be linked.  Opinion in the blogosphere on this mystery set in the world of antiquarian booksellers and rare manuscripts is divided – some love it, some loathe it.  I’m in the former camp.

9.       The Master of Go by Yasunari Kawabata.  On the surface, this is the fictional chronicle of a Go match between a revered champion and a younger challenger.  Underneath, it is a treatment of the 20th Century collision of values between Imperial Japan and the modern country.  Kawabata was a Nobel prizewinner and it’s easy to see why.  This book is both elegiac and suspenseful, almost peaceful in its style, whilsr dealing in deep emotions.

10.     Documents Concerning Rubashov the Gambler by Carl-Johan Vallgren.  So what would happen if one had immortality thrust upon oneself?  Rubashov, a degenerate gambler finds out in this amazing picaresque novel, translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death.  It is New Year’s Eve, 1899 and Rubashov challenges the Devil to a game of poker.  He loses, naturally but, instead of sending him to Hell, the Devil gives him immortality.  The novel follows him through 20th Century Europe and some of its best-known events.

So that’s your lot, I’m afraid.  Tell me what you’d like and once you’ve done that, hop off and visit these other participants.  Good luck! 

  1. Leeswammes
  2. Curiosity Killed The Bookworm
  3. Lit Endeavors (US)
  4. The Book Whisperer
  5. Rikki's Teleidoscope
  6. 2606 Books and Counting
  7. The Parrish Lantern
  8. Sam Still Reading
  9. Bookworm with a view
  10. Breieninpeking (Dutch readers)
  11. Seaside Book Nook
  12. Elle Lit (US)
  13. Nishita's Rants and Raves
  14. Tell Me A Story
  15. Living, Learning, and Loving Life (US)
  16. Book'd Out
  17. Uniflame Creates
  18. Tiny Library (UK)
  19. An Armchair by the Sea (UK)
  20. bibliosue
  21. Lena Sledge's Blog (US)
  22. Roof Beam Reader
  23. Misprinted Pages
  24. Mevrouw Kinderboek (Dutch readers)
  25. Under My Apple Tree (US)
  26. Indie Reader Houston
  27. Book Clutter
  28. I Am A Reader, Not A Writer (US)
  29. Lizzy's Literary Life
  30. Sweeping Me
  1. Caribousmom (US)
  2. Minding Spot (US)
  3. Curled Up With a Good Book and a Cup of Tea
  4. The Book Diva's Reads
  5. The Blue Bookcase
  6. Thinking About Loud!
  7. write meg! (US)
  8. Devouring Texts
  9. Thirty Creative Studio (US)
  10. The Book Stop
  11. Dolce Bellezza (US)
  12. Simple Clockwork
  13. Chocolate and Croissants
  14. The Scarlet Letter (US)
  15. Reflections from the Hinterland (N. America)
  16. De Boekblogger (Europe, Dutch readers)
  17. Readerbuzz (US)
  18. Must Read Faster (N. America)
  19. Burgandy Ice @ Colorimetry
  20. carolinareti
  21. MaeGal
  22. Ephemeral Digest
  23. Scattered Figments (UK)
  24. Bibliophile By the Sea
  25. The Blog of Litwits (US)
  26. Kate Austin
  27. Alice Anderson (US)
  28. Always Cooking up Something

Saturday, February 11, 2012

2,502: Berlin Crossing by Kevin Brophy

Berlin Crossing is a novel by Kevin Brophy, an Irish writer who spent time teaching in Germany in the period just after reunification and whose encounters with disenchanted Ossies were the inspiration for the novel.  Most books that deal with East Germany and the fall of the Wall are written from the point of view of dissident East Germans or focus on the iniquities of the Communist regime and the evil of the Wall. The received orthodoxy is that the reunification of the two Germany's was a good thing for everyone other than members and informants of the Stasi.

Brophy approached the subject in from a different and refreshing perspective.  His hero (or at least his focal point) is a teacher and former Party member from Brandenburg in the east.  Michael Ritter's life before reunification had been successful and relatively privileged. Although not a member of the security or political apparatus, he was a fully paid up believer in the system and had been saddened at its collapse.

Reunification has not been good for Michael, something which might help explain the curious dislikeability of the character for much of the book.  Dismissed from his job as an English teacher for being politically suspect (I.e. a former member of the Party), he also loses his mother shortly afterwards.  Worse is to follow.  His mother's dying words had been a request for him to find a pastor in another East German town, Bad Saarow, and the mention of Roland, a man whose name was not that of his father, who had died before Michael was born.

Having nothing better to do and piqued by curiosity, Michael makes the trip to Bad Saarow, which proves to be just the first step in a journey into the past both of Michael's family and East Germany itself.  All of Michael's preconceptions are shattered as he is forced to confront the fact that his beloved country was not the place he thought it had been and Michael is not who he thought he was.

I was sent a review copy of this by its publisher, Transworld, with a publicity blurb that claimed that were echoes of le Carré.  With due respect, and although the Cold War setting and the spy story plot device has a flavour of le Carré, I think this comparison is a little misleading.  Le Carré's key themes are those of deception and its dehumanising effects and the manipulations of governments and their agencies.  By contrast, Brophy's characters are, almost without exception, honest, even if wrong, and the deception that drives the plot is depicted as having been noble in its own way rather than the corrosive kind of lying that permeates the world of Smiley.

Berlin Crossing is a novel of love, sacrifice and of awakening.  I keep wanting to describe it as redemptive in nature, due to Michael's realisation that he had been mistaken about the true nature of the East German state.  This is not quite right though, as Michael has done nothing wrong himself and therefore does not have anything to be redeemed for, unless you count being on the losing side, or failing to celebrate the fall of the Wall, as a sin.

The structure of the book is interesting, incorporating a text within the text that acts as a device to flip from the central plot to the sub-plot that underpins the whole thing.  It also allows for a shift in time from post-Wall to the height of the Cold War.  As well as the clever  plotting and structuring, the characterisation is strong and avoids falling into the trap of predictability or stereotyping.  With one or two exceptions, the main characters show a mix of traits and motivations so they come across as believable and human.  I particularly enjoyed the development of Terry Feldmann, brother of one of the central characters.
I would also say that Brophy's also creates a real sense of time and place, which is critical for a story that cuts back and forth across the late 20th Century and ranges across Europe.

Criticisms?  Well, Brophy does have a bad habit of insisting on translating even the shortest German phrase he uses, which slows the story down and is a touch condescending.  Frankly, most of them were comprehensible even to this non-German speaker and those that weren't didn't really add anything essential to the story.

Secondly, and more seriously, there is a certain credibility gap at one point in the story.  A random Irish-German student is sent into East Berlin on a spy mission, despite having no training as a secret agent.  Although I can understand the plot demanding this, it doesn't quite ring true.  After all, the intelligence services couldn't really be that short of German speakers, could they?

These niggles notwithstanding, though, all in all, I found this an enjoyable , thought-provoking and evocative book which I would recommend, with the caveat that one should not approach it as a spy novel but as a piece of general fiction with some spy novel elements.