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The Double by José Saramago

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

double saramagoI’ve always been fascinated by doppelgangers. (I’m sure this reveals something shocking about my psyche, please feel free to mail in your ideas!) I really enjoyed “Blindness”, so I was thrilled to discover Saramago having a go at doppelgangers.

This is going to be great! I thought.

I was wrong.

I’ve never seen a theme so utterly unexplored. A veritable Dickensian waif of an idea wandering aimlessly through the void. The author set up what might have been an interesting story, brought in a few characters, and then we all sat there waiting for something to happen… discretely checking our watches now and then. You could almost hear the Musak and the rustle of Nixon-era magazines. Strangely, Saramago was in the waiting room too. He entertained us passably with his occasional narration, but he gave the very distinct impression of a man putting in time. Like community service for a series of parking violations.

Much as I liked the device of the narrator, (who frankly, was the only one in the book with any personality or sense of humor–in fact, he was the only rounded character in the whole thing…) As I was saying, much as l liked the narrator, he certainly couldn’t fill, never mind redeem the book.

I wonder if the Nobel Prize people are slapping their foreheads. It’s much easier to give prizes to the dead — fewer surprises. It’s an odd thing that no matter what rubbish a Nobel winner comes up with, for the rest of his life he’s got this massive endorsement. I wonder if the Nobel committee ever tried to take the prize back? Or perhaps threaten authors with notes attached to bricks flung through windows: “The next one better have character arcs or say goodbye to your garden gnomes!”

Verdict: A terrible disappointment. Embarrassingly bad ending!

(Sometimes, after a book, I scoot around on the web to see what other people thought. Looks like a hell of a lot of other people were unimpressed as well.)

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The Secrets of the Camera Obscura by David Knowles

Sunday, October 1st, 2006

I have half a dozen other books that I’ve read before this one. The trouble is, they were fabulous and I’m still trying to think of something intelligent to say about them.

This book, on the other hand, will be easy to deal with quickly. Think “high concept”: Da Vinci Code meets Victorian potboiler meets Jim Thompson. This gives you an idea what the author was reading. I’m guessing he is also the product of many a writer’s workshop and thinks of himself as an Artiste. Translation: poseur. Basically, this is pretentious, high school level rubbish. And the author would receive a C+.

A few quotations to get us started:

“I am satirizing people in the art world.” [from an interview]

Ooow. Guess that makes you smarter, eh.

From the book, part of a message left on someone’s answering machine:

“…a memory I won’t ever surrender. The ensuing weeks were filled with more of the same, long walks, endless conversation, and romance.”

Read that out loud. When’s the last time you heard someone say “the ensuing weeks”? Ugh. It’s vague, clichd and frankly, straight out of a Harlequin Romance. (And someone get the man (and his editor) a book on punctuation!)

Here we have another example of the sloppy ransacking of the past in a desperate attempt to elevate a thrown-together bit of rubbish. He didn’t even bother to think it through. Now, I don’t like or read mysteries, but I do know that the most important element of a mystery story is the mystery bit. It’s glaringly obvious who the killer is right at the beginning. If I had been his editor, I might have pointed this out to him.

And why does he trot out the three historical figures? (Other than to give his book a little borrowed glory.) His research is non-existent. (Oh, I’m sorry, he does cite “Time Life Library of Art”, copyright 1967. Guess he visited his parents and found that propping up the sofa.)

He’s name dropping. He seems to think that sprinkling the magical name of Da Vinci about like pixie dust will just blow our doors off to the point that we’ll leap out of our chairs and shout: This guy’s a genius!!! And when we exclaim that, we ourselves shall not know to whom we refer: the artist/inventor or the author. Oy. (Sounds a little like Charlton Heston there… except for the “oy”.)

The little uninspired stories he fabricates loosely around the names he drops are just embarrassing, e.g.: Vermeer apparently had no talent and used the camera to cheat his way to fame. Wow. That is so preposterous it’s stunning. Is that actually in “Time Life Library of Art”?

It’s that ignorant way of thinking that supposes great artists have a “secret”. And if we could only find out what it is, we too could be just like them. Forget talent and years of hard work. No, no… no craft, that’s boring. There must be a magic device that will make me rich and famous.

Disappointing. Oh well, I still love camera obscuras — why I picked up this book at the second hand shop without even skimming it. That’ll teach me!

So here are some good camera obscura links:

Vermeer and the Camera Obscura

An Appreciation of the Camera Obscura

Flash demo of how a small box one works

And there’s even a movie that uses the camera obscura as a central device: “Addicted to Love”.

camera obscura
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Italian Neighbours by Tim Parks

Thursday, August 31st, 2006

Italian Neighbours by Tim ParksRead this one back in May, but I want to shuffle it off to the second-hand bookshop, so I thought I’d do a small review just so I remember that I read it.

(Gee, I hope the author doesn’t Google himself and read that! I still feel uncomfortable writing things about living authors (the dead are fair game!), but I do try to be polite unless it’s a real stinker and they seriously have it coming.)

Anyhow, I’m sorry, Mr. Parks, but I didn’t care for it.

Sometimes, being a downer is mistaken for realism or honesty. But sometimes, a person is just standing there staring at the dog poo in the gutter. Life is too short for hanging out with people like this — in life or literature. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not espousing sacharine, feel good rubbish. All I’m saying is that if your going to drag me through bleakness, it better be worth the ride. (see Dostoevsky)

I’ll grant that he does a good job of describing the place — but what a place! Who packs up their kit and moves to a run down suburb in a dumpy town, down wind from some chemical plants? Someone who likes to be depressed, that’s who. The whole thing just reeks of bleakness. Now, I have no problem with reality — I too loathe Peter Mayle — but this is swinging a bit too wildly to the opposite end of the spectrum. And to what purpose?

The author condescends, quirk hunts, has a patronizing attitude and is not very interesting. And I’m definitely not asking him to pet sit for me. (There’s a bizarrely long, drawn-out toying with the idea of poisoning the neighbour’s dog that I could have happily lived without.)

I found this book depressing and not very interesting, there weren’t (m)any insights and the company wasn’t engaging. Won’t read another by this author. Especially when there are so many other wonderful books about Italy. (i.e. Goethe’s Travels in Italy, H.V. Morton, Axel Munthe, etc…)

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Greene on Capri by Shirley Hazzard

Saturday, August 19th, 2006

Greene on Capri by Shirley HazzardHere’s another one to skip! It will put you off the man and the island.

I’d previously read a few essays by Graham Greene and found them interesting enough, but he comes off as such a monumental jerk in this book, I can’t imagine wanting to read anything by him ever again.

As for Capri, thankfully, I’ve already been there a few times myself and so have my own impressions and memories. Went for some lovely walks, had delicious lemon ices (yum) and visited Tiberius’ villa — which I heartily recommend.

The reason I picked up this book is because I love Italy. The reason I kept this book even after I read and disliked it so much, was because of the cover painting. The rocks there have a very special look to them, which is partially due to the colouring (pinkish-grey-green rock any geologists out there that can explain what this means?) and the scrubby little bushes that cling on to nothing. The cover painting does a not-too-bad job of capturing it.

I really don’t know what all the fuss is about. Everyone seems to like and recommend this book. It’s not well written: the timeline is unclear, the dialogue is idealized and stagey, and Capri, although it’s in the title, receives only a passing mention — you certainly get no feeling for it whatsoever.

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