The latest addition to my website is António Lobo Antunes‘s Conhecimento do Inferno (Knowledge of Hell, an earlier novel by Antunes but still very much in the style of his later novels. It is the story of a psychiatrist called António Lobo Antunes who is travelling from the Algarve to Lisbon by car and is recounting what he sees but, more particularly, his life, to his (absent) daughter, Joanna. His vision is inevitably bleak as he starts off by criticising the English tourists and the Portuguese who sell things to them and moves on to paint an overall bleak portrait of Portugal as it is in the present day. But he also spends much time damning his own profession and the psychiatrists who practise it, as well as describing the horrors of Portugal’s colonial war in Angola, where he served as an army doctor. As always with Antunes it is superbly told, told in an original and vivid language but it is uniformly grim as well.
The latest addition to my website is Amélie Nothomb‘s Ni d’Ève Ni d’Adam (Tokyo Fiancée), another quirky novel from the Belgian author. This one, like many of her other books, is about one of her visits to Japan and the main theme is Western-Japanese cultural differences. As the English title indicates, she meets a Japanese man and they become engaged. She had been teaching him French, which he is studying, not very successfully, at university. As always, Nothomb is witty but also insightful about Japanese culture and the Japanese view of Westerners, as well as Western views of the Japanese. Nothomb is one of those authors, like Joyce Carol Oates, whom I find difficult to keep up with, as she is prolific, producing a new novel every year. I plan to read one or two more soon.
The latest addition to my website is Rachel Joyce‘s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. This is one of those quirky English novels about a seemingly normal and boring Englishman, who suddenly does something unexpected. In this case, Harold Fry, who is retired from working for a brewery and is living with his wife Maureen, their marriage having long since gone sour, receives a letter from a former colleague, Queenie Hennessy, who is dying from cancer in a hospice at the other end of the country. He writes her a brief letter and sets out to post it and then does not stop but decides to walk all the way to Berwick-upon-Tweed, where the hospice is, without proper footwear, equipment or maps. The book is the story of his journey. He meets some helpful people, sees something of the country and reflects on his life – his marriage, his relationship with his son, his job, Queenie. That he is a different and probably better person at the end of his journey is certain. The novel is witty, well told and, at times, poignant without being mawkish.
The latest addition to my website is Cezar Petrescu‘s Cezar Petrescu: Întunecare (Gathering Clouds), another early twentieth century Romanian novel. This one was originally three volumes but, sadly, only the first volume has been translated into English so this review only covers that first volume. It is set in the First World War. Romania initially stayed out of the war. King Carol was a Hohenzollern and tended to support Germany and Austro-Hungary. Most Romanians wanted Romania to join Russia, Britain and France, primarily to reclaim Transylvania from Hungary. Romania was ill-prepared for the war when the country finally declared war on Austro-Hungary and, after initial successes, its armies were soon overrun and went into headlong retreat. This novel shows these events from the perspective of a Romanian family – an army colonel and a member of parliament – and their friends and family. Petrescu cleverly shows the widely differing views prevailing both before and after the war and the dark side,with much corruption and profiteering. It is a pity that the other two volumes have not been translated, as they go on to tell more of what befell Romania for the rest of the war and what happened to our hero, Radu Comşa, secretary to the MP.
The latest addition to my website is Emyr Humphreys‘ The Little Kingdom. Wales has not fared as well as, for example, Scotland, in recognition of its literature in recent years, despite a thriving Welsh-language publishing industry with some of its output translated into English. Humphreys is still alive at the time of writing, almost ninety-four, but his best-known novels were written before 1970. He was a committed Welsh nationalist and Christian and these traits can be seen in this novel. It is the story of a young man who is a fervent nationalist but moves away from Christianity and gets carried away by his own arrogance and self-importance, as he and his friends and associates fight the construction of a new aerodrome, much of it built on his uncle’s land. For a first novel it is an excellent work though, sadly, long since out of print.
The latest addition to my website is François Mauriac‘s Le Baiser au lépreux (A Kiss for the Leper). I first read Mauriac many, many years ago. Indeed, Le Mystère Frontenac (The Frontenac Mystery) is the first adult novel I read in French. Mauriac is a Catholic writer and it is his Catholicism that informs his writing (though certainly not all that informs his writing). As the Millions reports, Catholic writers seem far fewer than they were. The Millions is reporting on the USA and UK but I think the same applies in other parts of the world. Mauriac was a very important writer in France, as was Georges Bernanos who also appears on my site. Both are still read today in France but far less so in the English-speaking world. This is a pity as both are superb writers and are well worth reading, whatever your religious views. There are several other well-known French Catholic writers of that period, such as Paul Claudel, Julien Green and Charles Péguy, many of whom are still read in France today, often by non-Catholics.
Mauriac was not well served by the film industry. Apart from Thérèse Desqueyroux, made by the legendary but very much underestimated Georges Franju (there is also a very recent film version of the book), his films did not translate well to the screen. Bernanos was far more fortunate, not least because two of his books were filmed by the brilliant director Robert Bresson and are now classics of French cinema.
Le Baiser au lépreux (A Kiss for the Leper) is not a fun book. It is gloomy and miserable, both trademarks of Mauriac’s writing, and all the major characters end up far worse off than they were at the beginning. Mauriac was from les Landes, the area around Bordeaux, very conservative and Catholic and very rural. These features are reflected in many of his novels, including this one. It tells of the marriage of the son of the rich landowner to an attractive woman. Jean, the son in question, is small and ugly and tends to keep himself to himself. Noémi, who marries him at her parents’ insistence, does her best but cannot help finding him repulsive and he is well aware of this. He feels guilty about having married her and spends his time wandering the countryside in order to keep away from her. It all ends badly. Nevertheless, it s a very well-written novel and one worth reading. It has been translated into English but is out of print and not cheap to obtain, which is a pity.
The latest addition to my website is Hamid Ismailov‘s Железная Дорога (Railway), a novel from Uzbekistan. Ismailov actually lives in London and works for the BBC, having left Uzbekistan in 1992. This novel is a series of interconnected stories around the fictitious Uzbek town of Gilas and is similar in form to Fazil Iskander‘s Сандро из Чегема (Sandro of Chegem). The stories are set from the early twentieth century to around 1980 and deal with how the Uzbeks cope with Soviet domination, the various races that live in the area and, of course, their culture. They are funny, colourful and very well told.
The latest addition to my website is Timur Vermes‘ Er ist wieder da [He’s Back]. This book has had considerable success in Germany and also caused a lot of controversy. It is based on the idea that Hitler suddenly returns to Germany in August, 2011. He does not know why but assumes that it is because he is needed to help Germany with all its problems, such as Turkish immigrants and a woman chancellor. Other Germans assume that he is an actor playing the role and playing it very convincingly. He is soon offered a slot on a TV programme, where he is so authentic that it becomes wildly successful on YouTube. Vermes plays it partially for laughs, with lots of jokes about Hitler discovering new technology but also about how the producers and audience think that he is acting and he is convinced that he is back to steer Germany towards the way he thinks it should be. But Vermes also has a serious point, namely that, if Hitler were to return, he would not be rejected out of hand. The book is not yet available in English but is being translated and should appear in 2014 in English. I am sure that it will be very successful when it does appear in English.
It has been widely reported that Amazon has been granted a patent for selling used ebooks. While the idea is interesting it has, as some commentators have noted, raised a few issues.
1. Publishers have not really liked ebooks and have never really liked the uses book market. They are really not going to like a used ebook market. Can they withhold their permission? Can Amazon twist their arms enough? Will they get a cut on the resale price (not if Jeff Bezos can help it)?
2. I have never really understand why Amazon competes with itself by selling used print books at a fraction of the price at which the new book sells for, though I do not doubt that Jeff Bezos has done the maths (or math, as he would say) and made sure that it does work. However, if I buy a used book, I know full well that the quality will not be as good as a used book and may well be an older, out of date edition. This is a trade-off that used book buyers have to make. With ebooks, this does not apply. A used ebook should, in theory, be exactly the same quality as a new ebook. So why would I ever buy a new ebook? The answer, presumably, is that there will be a limited number of used ebooks available. I imagine, though I am happy to be corrected, that, unlike with print books, Amazon holds just one copy of a new ebook on its server (with, maybe a few backups stored elsewhere) and that when a purchaser buys an ebook, s/he downloads a copy of that book. However, with used ebooks, they will have to hold multiple copies, i.e. the one that sellers actually sell them, or do they still sell a copy of the original and just tick if off as a debit to the used one?
3. If you sell a used car to a dealer, the dealer will presumably check it over and, in some cases, make some minor repairs before selling it on. Will Amazon check the ebooks they buy? What if the file has got inadvertently corrupted, as electronic files of all sorts can? What if the seller has (successfully or unsuccessfully) hacked the file and damaged it in some way? Will Amazon have an easy way to see if it is still in pristine condition? Will they bother?
4. One of the problems with ebooks, at least new ones with DRM, is that you do not own them, as you do with a print book, you only own the right to read them on your ebook reader, unless Amazon decides otherwise. Amazon, of course, famously zapped Animal Farm from people’s Kindles a while back, because of a copyright issue, and users were understandably upset. Amazon has made it clear that you cannot leave your ebooks to your next of kin (unless, of course, they inherit your Amazon account). Obviously, the same rules will apply with used ebooks. But will there be other limitations? Various commentators and the patent suggest that a used ebook cannot be sold on indefinitely. There will be a limit to the number of times this can be done. And, presumably, Amazon can zap it from your Kindle for whatever reason.
5. It has been suggested that Amazon has no intention of selling used ebooks but is only getting this patent to prevent other people from doing so. This may be true but never underestimate Jeff Bezos when it comes to ways of making more money.
6. WWGD? WWAD? (i.e. What will Google and Apple do?) They both sell ebooks. Will they allow Amazon to sell used ebooks and not want to do the same themselves? Of course, they will. Will Amazon’s patent pre-empt them? Probably in the short term. Almost certainly not in the longer term.
Amazon have only just got the patent so you cannot buy used books from them just yet. But, if they are actually going to do it, no doubt they won’t wait too long.
Amazon is not doing well in the British press, because it is evading UK tax by claiming that it is a Luxembourg company. The Luxembourg office employs 134 people while the UK operations employ 2265 people but it still only pays tax to Luxembourg. Obviously, most of Amazon UK’s customers are based in the UK, not in Luxembourg. But this post is not about that, which has already been widely reported but about a more mundane issue – Amazon UK’s customer service. I have now contacted them seven times over the past couple of years and every time, without fail, I have got a spectacularly inept answer, which completely failed to resolve the issue I was raising. Twice, in the last couple of weeks, I have received one of their evaluation emails, asking to say whether the item had been received by such and such a date, in both cases the date in question being at least a week away. In both cases, I had not received the item so the only evaluation possible was, No I have not received the item. The second time, I sent a facetious email, asking if they expected me to predict the future and then, because they always fail to answer my question, I concluded And, just for a change, please answer my question which is: Why can’t you make sure that you send these out when the final day has passed?. Here is their answer:
I’m sorry for any misunderstanding caused.
I understand your concern regarding the delivery of your order.
I see you purchased “xxxx” (referring to a completely different order I had made that day which had nothing to do with the order I was writing about) on our website in order #xxxx.
In this situation, it’s best to contact the Seller to explain the situation and to make appropriate arrangements.
To contact your seller, click “Your Orders” in Your Account and then click “Contact Seller”. Please allow up to 3 business days for the seller to respond to your e-mail.
Nothing whatsoever to do with my question. Is this an issue for me? For Amazon UK? Do users of other Amazons have this problem? Is there a secret way to get to an Amazon customer service rep that actually answers the question you raise? Or do they just really not give a damn?