home

Archive for the 'recommended books' Category

The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn: Colour Photographs from a Lost Age by David Okuefuna

Sunday, June 22nd, 2008

Drop everything and rush out to your local bookshop! Utterly gorgeous, it’s the eagerly awaited (by me) companion book for the BBC Four series on Albert Kahn’s Archives of the Planet project.

Photographs (autochromes being a particular favorite) are a passion of mine, and these are stunning.

Inventing a process to create stable colour photographs was no small thing. Black and white photography had existed for over fifty years before the Lumière brothers finally came up with the autochrome process around the turn of the century. The mystery ingredient: potato starch! Another reason to love the lowly tuber… Autochromes continued as the standard until well into the 1930s. Don’t miss the lovely selection of photos on the website for the book.

If you’re in Paris, the Musée Albert-Kahn has a new exhibit on India (with photos taken between 1913 and 1928).

Musée Albert-Kahn : 14 rue du Port in Boulogne-Billancourt 92100
Métro stop: Boulogne Pont de Saint Cloud (on the #10 line) just 2 stops beyond the official city limits…

Tags: , , , , , ,

Regeneration by Pat Barker

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

(First of a trilogy, it’s followed by The Eye in the Door and Ghost Road .)

I wanted so badly to like this. World War I poets, post-traumatic stress, early psychiatry… how could you go wrong? I read them over Christmas. It was this or Milton, I couldn’t make up my mind. Should have gone with Milton.

The whole trilogy suffers from "historical fiction" disease: very thoroughly researched, but the characters are one-dimensional, the dialogue stiff, the plot stagey. The first book is the best, but that’s not saying much. At least it centers on the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. The second and third books center on the least interesting character who does some not-so-believable things, shows all known symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (look at my research! cries the writer) and who becomes increasingly tiresome to the point that you are hoping he will die in a gruesome fashion. When I reached the end of the third book I was ridiculously happy that I was rid of him.

The awkwardness of the writing is downright painful and the clichés are embarrassingly plentiful. She also seems to take a real relish in the graphic details of the horrors of war. This sort of thing can be extremely effective, of course, but here it just feels gratuitous. As does her obsession with homosexual sex. Again, it feels added on. Why? Maybe in an attempt to make the books more "edgy" and therefore more likely to be considered literary fiction? That’s my cynical guess. If it’s something else, it’s between her and her therapist. Anyhow, it doesn’t add anything to the story.

The Middle Parts of Fortune by Frederic Manning I would say the whole experience was pretty forgettable, except that a few months later, rooting about in a second-hand bookshop, I came across a novel entitled The Middle Parts of Fortune . It was written by Frederic Manning, an Australian who fought in the First World War.

As far as I can tell, this is not a widely known book. A limited edition was published privately in 1929, but when it was published for general circulation in 1930 (under the extremely regrettable new title of Her Privates We ), the editors heavily censored and re-worked it to make it "less offensive" to the ever-delicate general public. Amazingly, the novel wasn’t published in its original form until 1977! (I guess by then people stopped passing out and hitting their heads on the furniture at the sight of the word fuck .)

Remember that tiresome character of Pat Barker’s that I mentioned? The one who became the primary character in the final two books of her trilogy? Well, he bears a striking resemblance to the main character in Manning’s book. Very striking. Only in his book, this character is developed and revealed in subtle and interesting ways. There is, of course, graphic violence, but it is an integral part of the story that’s being told. It really is hard to get over the number of similarities. One difference: The Middle Parts of Fortune is well-written and moving. The sad thing is no one talks about it.

P.S. A couple hours later, shuffling the book piles into order, I was feeling a little sheepish about what I wrote here: insinuating that Pat Barker may have nicked characters, scenes, etc. from an obscure novel written by a WWI soldier. What’s the matter with me? I thought. I’m getting way too suspicious, too quick to accuse. What do I know, maybe Barker’s talked all about Frederic Manning, said what an inspiration he was, how much she owed him.

I decided I’d delete my insinuations and just say Manning’s novel was better. Leave it at that. As I came to this conclusion, I was flipping through Barker’s "The Eye in the Door" one last time before I was put it into the "off to the second-hand shop" pile. And that’s when something caught my eye. I’d completely forgotten the name of a secondary character: Charles Manning. A rather masochistic sex partner of Barker’s protagonist.

This is all too much. This is how it must feel to think you’ve seen a UFO. I have no idea what it means. Common name? Coincidence? Very strange hommage? Am I making too big a deal out it? Too much shoddy contemporary fiction may have finally driven me over the edge. I am open to suggestions.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

High-Rise by J.G. Ballard

Saturday, May 24th, 2008

This was good. Not great, but good.

The plot: the yuppie universe implodes.

The setting: a monstrous apartment tower that immediately brings to mind Le Corbusier’s plan for central Paris. (”Eighteen, sixty-story cruciform towers” each of them home to 40,000 inhabitants. Alain de Botton talks about it in his wonderful book “The Architecture of Happiness“, which I highly recommend.)

Ballard has a wonderful eye for little details of behavior and personality; however, the weakness of the book, I feel, is in the lack of character arcs. People may devolve, but they do not change — their essential personality merely regresses to its crudest form. So, instead of an arc, we have a straight line into a brick wall. I think you have to accept the fact that this is not a realistic novel about believable characters in a particular situation; it’s bigger in scope than that, more parable-like.

There are scenes in this book that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. Many of them. Brutally visceral and full of dark truths, they have this epic, symbolic quality to them without straining for it. Worth reading.

Tags: , , , ,

Tolstoy Madness!!!

Saturday, December 1st, 2007

Okay, I’m one martini into it, but this is my blog dammit and I can rant about Tolstoy again if I want to!

So he’s popping up everywhere. I’m so thrilled. The world can’t be completely going to hell if Leo is getting this kind of column space.

The New York Times has gone even more mad than me. This is like a fantasy. Here’s a screenshot (of page one of three), just in case it disappears one day and we want to relive it (please tilt your head to the left):

Tolstoy frenzy

I also just discovered this New Yorker article but I am way too overstimulated to read calmly. How can they not give more info on the photo? I know Tolstoy’s wife was big into photography — was this one of hers? It looks like an autochrome… is it? What year?

I was in my local English-language bookshop (one of two! Help! Please send English language books to: …) and saw the British edition of the Pevear and Volokhonsky War and Peace translation in person and fell in love. In the online photo it doesn’t look like much, but in person it’s beautiful: grey cloth, red text… I wanted desperately to buy it, but the only copy they had (?!?) had been in the window and had somehow gotten horribly water damaged.

Cruel, cruel fate…

But I think I’ll order a copy (ISBN-10: 0099512238 / ISBN-13: 978-0099512233). What the hell, it’s gonna be Xmas soon. I’m tired of counting centimes. After all, this isn’t something useless like rent or food — this is a book.

Tags: ,
  • Search

    • "Let's go swimming and have Martinis on the beach," she said. "Let's have a fabulous morning."
    • Goodbye, My Brother
    • by John Cheever
    • I tell myself that we are a long time underground and that life is short, but sweet.
    • Alcestis
    • by Euripides (translated by Richard Aldington)

    • What business Stevinus had in this affair,---is the greatest problem of all;---it shall be solved,---but not in the next chapter.
    • The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
    • by Laurence Sterne