Month: June 2016

John Williams: Stoner


The latest addition to my website is John WilliamsStoner. This novel got into the news again, when Ian McEwan rediscovered it, though it had never been out of print since it was first published and was certainly not unknown, at least in the United States. It is a first-class campus novel about a man, William Stoner, who comes from a poor farming background in Missouri, goes to college to study agriculture and discovers and falls in love with English literature. His great joy and great achievement is to transmit his love of English literature to students. However, not everything goes all right for him. He has a disastrous marriage and his wife essentially declares war on him, and tries, with some success, to alienate their daughter from him. The pain is not mitigated by a loving affair. Almost as importantly, he has a run-in with his departmental superior over the assessment of a graduate student and the superior holds this against him for the rest of his carer and makes life difficult for him. Despite this, he continues teaching English literature and gains great pleasure from sharing his love of it. It is the life of an ordinary man who, despite adversity, manages to keep going and doing what he loves. It is a superb book and Williams tells his story brilliantly.

Antal Szerb: VII. Olivér (Oliver VII)


The latest addition to my website is Antal Szerb‘s VII. Olivér (Oliver VII). This is a light-hearted novel, set in the fictitious Southern European country of Alturia. The country is broke and is considering an offer from Coltor, a rich businessman from neighbouring Norlandia. He will take over the two main Alturian industries, sardine fishing and wine, in return for bailing out the country. King Oliver VII and his ministers are reluctantly in favour while the people are not. Indeed, a revolution is under way, determined to stop the treaty and one of the associated conditions, that Oliver marry Princess Ortrud of Norlandia. The revolution takes place, Oliver’s reluctant uncle Geront takes his place, and Oliver leaves the country. He reappears in Venice, where he is living under an assumed name and identity, working with a bunch of swindlers. The swindlers aim to swindle Coltor out of a sum of money using someone pretending to be Oliver VII to assist them. The fake Oliver is, of course, the real Oliver, though some of the swindlers do not think that he is a very convincing Oliver. It is all great fun and light-hearted and a well-told tale.

Antal Szerb: A királyné nyaklánca (The Queen’s Necklace)


The latest addition to my website is Antal Szerb‘s A királyné nyaklánca (The Queen’s Necklace). According to Szerb’s introduction to the book, this is not a novel but then, in his posthumous papers, he claims that it might be sort of a novel. In my view it is perhaps what we might call a popular history. However, it certainly reads like a novel and is clearly written by a novelist. The story it tells is a well-known historical one, that of the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. The necklace was made by two German jewellers based in Paris, who hoped to sell it first to Madame Du Barry, Louis XV’s mistress and then, when he died, to Marie Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI. However, they got caught up in a scam involving a descendant of the Valois royal house and her fake aristocrat husband, a cardinal, a probably fake magician and a few others. The jewellers and the Cardinal thought the necklace was to be bought by Marie Antoinette. However, she knew nothing of it. When everything came out, Marie Antoinette, however, was blamed by the French public for her role and this was one of the incidents that led to the French Revolution. Szerb tells the story well but, more particularly, goes into some detail into the contemporary state of affairs in France and the whys and wherefores of the impending French Revolution. A novel it is not but it still a fascinating story.

Elnathan John: Born on a Tuesday


The latest addition to my website is Elnathan John‘s Born on a Tuesday. This novel could be said to be a Boko Haram novel, as, in the latter part of the book, we see the rise of a Sunni group which is intent on using violence, not only to destroy its traditional enemies, the Shiites, but also to attack more moderate Sunnis. The book is narrated by Ahmad, a young Nigerian Sunni, who had spent six years at a Koranic school, with virtually no contact with his family during this time, and, on leaving, joins a local gang of boys who are used to help the Small Party win an election, using violence to do so. When things really get out of hand and someone is killed, he briefly returns to his family but his father has died and his mother has lost her reason after the death of her twin daughters. He returns to Sokoto, where he works for and becomes close to a local Sunni Sheikh. However, the Sheikh’s assistant wants more violence, against the Shiites initially, and then against the Sheikh himself and things get out of hand. It is a well-told story and interesting to see how all sides rationalise their behaviour.

Victor Pelevin: Священная книга оборотня (The Sacred Book of the Werewolf)


The latest addition to my website is Victor Pelevin‘s Священная книга оборотня (The Sacred Book of the Werewolf). This is another of his books where the main characters of the book are in fact animals, albeit in human form. A Hu-Li, the main character, is a prostitute working in present-day Moscow but she is also a two thousand year old fox. She takes human form – she looks like a young woman aged between fourteen and seventeen – enabling her to work successfully. She disguises her foxness by waggling her tail which has a hypnotic effect on humans. When something goes wrong – a client falls out of the Moscow hotel window where she works – she has to change her modus operandi. Working from the internet, she has a client who likes to be beaten with a knout. When she is too enthusiastic, as a result of his sexist remarks, she comes into conflict with the police. One of the police officers turns out to be a wolf, with pretensions to being the sacred werewolf but the fox-wolf pairing initially works – they fall passionately in love – but then both realise that this is probably not going to work. Inevitably, Pelevin is highly critical of the current political and moral situation in Russia and, with A Hu-Li’s sister married to an Englishman and the traditional English love of fox-hunting, the English do not escape his satirical pen. Post-modernity, language games and a fair amount of obscenity are the usual par for the course. It does very much drag towards the end, as Pelevin cannot decide how to wrap it up but it is still not a bad read, though certainly not his best.

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