May 2020 Wrap-Up

Stoner [1965] – ★★★★1/2 

This American classic by John Williams is a great, even if heart-breaking read. It tells the story of Stoner, a university professor, as he finds his way through life. He means to lead a simple life, but certain tragedies and disappointments in it get the better of him. The book is beautifully-written and is a quiet meditation on life and its meaning. The book can be compared to Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure [1895] and to Jack London’s Martin Eden [1909]. 

Five Centuries of Keyboard Music [1972] – ★★★★1/2

This book by John Gillespie provides a fascinating journey into the history of the piano and piano-playing, from medieval composers and first keyboard instruments (clavichord, pianoforte) to modern composers and a present-day piano. This book shows how musical compositions on the piano have evolved over time, such as when a minuet form developed (in France, in the sixteenth century), and what influence Baroque keyboard composers had on later composers.

One of the great things about this book is that it later focuses on each country in turn and on their contributions to perfecting the piano-playing. Thus, there are sub-chapters on English Henry Purcell (1658 – 1695), Italian Domenico Scarlatti (1685 – 1757) and on other early influences on J. S. Bach. We read how Bach’s masterpiece Goldberg Variations came to be, and then later find whole chapters devoted to Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, as well as to Romanticism composers (Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and finally, Chopin and Liszt). Russian, Spanish, North American and Northern European composers are mentioned before the book talks about  “impressionists” (Ravel, Debussy) and finishes with twentieth-century and contemporary composers (such as Satie and composers from Latin America and Canada).

Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy [1951/1964] – ★★★★

This insightful book by Romanian historian Mircea Eliade opens a whole world of shamanism like few people encountered it before, talking about its main elements and demystifying the whole concept. Analytically and thoroughly, from Siberia to Latin America, Eliade talks about the practices and their meanings in a clear and engaging manner. 

The Power of the Dog [1967] – ★★★★

This under-read book by Thomas Savage packs quite a punch as it tells a story of two brothers Phil and George who find themselves on different sides of a psychological warfare when George takes a pity on one widow and decides to marry her. 

The Poisonwood Bible [1998] – ★★★★

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver takes place in the Belgian Congo in the late 1950s/early 1960s. It follows a family of a missionary priest Nathan Price and his family – a wife and four daughters (Rachel, twins Leah and Adah, and little Ruth). Kingsolver portrays Congo and the new lives of the family in Congo exquisitely, and it really is an unputdownable read for the most part. The multiple characters’ perspective means that we read the account of their new lives in Congo from each of the girls’ points of view – Rachel, who is concerned with her looks even in an African village where there are no “adequate” suitors longs for mirrors and entertainment; Leah, a tomboy, makes friends with some boys her own age; disabled-from-birth Adah makes use of whatever books there are in vicinity and is probably the most intriguing narrator; and little Ruth just likes to play outside. From the start we are hinted of some tragedy that took place in the Price household when they were in Africa and we are kept guessing throughout what that was, as we read how the family tries to combat malaria, wild animals and also an increasingly irrational and dictatorial behaviour of Nathan Price as the region becomes a dangerous place to be for Americans due to the difficult political situation. 

I would have given this novel five stars and called it a brilliant masterpiece if I had only read it until about page four hundred and thirty. After that point in the book (when the Price family returns back to the US), the tale becomes very strange, melodramatic and unrealistic. In the last two hundred pages, there is a feeling that this is not the same book anymore and the characters’ behaviour does not accord anymore with their personalities as these were set out before for the reader. Quite strangely, Kingsolver starts to “sum up” her novel where there are still about two hundred pages worth of storytelling to do. The fates that she accords to her characters in the last two hundred pages seem ludicrous and almost nonsensical (and the author also sends a very odd message about romance/marriage in one instance). In my opinion, it is a real shame that the author let down her own novel in such a way because at least half of this book is absolutely brilliant. In my whole life I have never read a book that started so amazingly and ended up so wrong. 

The Detour [2010/2012] – ★★★★  

This quietly unsettling book is worth a read – it tells of a Dutch woman who starts to live alone on a farm in rural Wales. It becomes an interesting read as her background and her intentions in Wales remain unclear. Gerbrand Bakker’s evocative description of nature is another highlight.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant [1982] – ★★★★  

The author of this novel Anne Tyler (The Accidental Tourist, Breathing Lessons) once said that this was the most difficult of all her novels to write. This is a family saga where we follow a number of family members who try to come to terms with their unenvious familial situation and each other, as well as find their own paths in life. Set in Maryland, there is mother Pearl and her three children (Cody, Ezra and Jenny) who are left fatherless when Pearl’s husband abandons her. We first follow the mother and then the children as they mature, with the story slowly becoming moving and very much human. Tyler’s skill as a storyteller and as a writer is on full display here. 

White Masks [1981] – ★★★1/2

This novel by Elias Khoury is set in the early years of the Lebanese civil war and traces the steps of one man from Beirut who grieves the loss of his son. This may be an important book as it tries to portray the true horror and psychological impact of war on ordinary people, but it proved for me a little disjointed and chaotic (including in its attempt to incorporate a murder mystery and a number of different storylines).

He Died With His Eyes Open [1984] – ★★★1/2

Most people live with their eyes shut, but I mean to die with mine open” [Raymond, 1984: 95]. This book is a hardboiled thriller from Derek Raymond (Robert Cook) who is considered to be the father of the British noir. Set in seedy 1980s London, it begins with a particularly gruesome murder case of a fifty-two year old man who was found beaten to death on a sidewalk. No one of importance wants to investigate this case and it is landed in the hands of a sergeant of forty who happens to be a divorcee. He not only starts to interview all the people who knew the dead man, Charles Locksley Alwin Staniland, but also finds a heap of cassette tapes which Staniland recorded and where he tells of his life. Can these lead to the murderer?

The book is a surprisingly witty and existential read as the sergeant in the book tries to get inside the head of the victim and find out who he really was – an average drunk who wasted his life, or a brilliant man gone wrong through no fault of his own? The sergeant has to work in a difficult political situation, and in the environment rife with prostitution, unemployment, poverty and drug abuse to come to the truth and there is probably a femme fatale involved there too. He Died With His Eyes Open is slightly underwhelming in its conclusion, but the great thing about it is that it is both light and deep at the same time, and worth the read if you like slow, dialogue-driven thrillers set in dark, cynicism-driven environments.

Smoking Poppy [2001] – ★★★  

I used books the way some people use alcohol, to obliterate the noise of the outside world” [Joyce, 2001: 28]. This book by Graham Joyce explores fatherly grief for his missing twenty-two year old daughter who is allegedly imprisoned in a Thai prison. The father ventures to Thailand to try to rescue her, but nothing is as it seems and he gets caught up in red herrings, Thailand’s exotic practices and opium smuggling operations. This fantastical jungle adventure has its shares of tragedy and comedy, and becomes quite surreal towards the end. However, the first half of the book is still much better than the second, and, overall, it becomes one surprisingly unexciting and disappointing “adventure”.

14 thoughts on “May 2020 Wrap-Up

  1. It looks like you had a good reading month! 🙂 I especially appreciated seeing your thoughts on The Poisonwood Bible, I’ve long been meaning to read that one. The ending does sound frustrating though I’m happy to see it’s a great read for those first 400 pages at least!

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    1. Yes, I enjoyed The Poisonwood Bible overall, but I just could not believe what Kingsolver was writing in the book’s second half nearer to the end – it was like another author and the girls’ destinies in the book were so clumsily and too conveniently “patched up” and worked out. Very strange. I know only of one other reviewer who agrees with me, so I guess others saw something different. I will be very interested to know what you think of the book when you read it.

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  2. I quite agree about The Poisonwood Bible. If that had been the first Kingsolver I’d read I’m not certain I would’ve gone on to read any more. Fortunately I started with The Prodigal Summer, which I think is still my favourite.

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    1. Thanks, I have now added The Prodigal Summer to my TBR list – I am eager to try another book by Kingsolver since The Poisonwood Bible was at least very promising and beautifully-written.

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  3. I read The Poisonwood Bible and thought it was super until that ending. I, like the person above, loved her The Prodigal Summer. Unfortunately, now, I find her new books to be filled with political items and that hit you on the head telling you what you should be mad about. Ugh! I do have Stoner on my list to read soon. Sounds like you had a fine reading month.

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    1. I am glad to find another person who thinks the ending was not good in The Poisonwood Bible! Yes, this sometimes happens with authors and I noticed that some of Kingsolver’s earlier books have higher ratings than her later ones – so that may be telling us something too. I hope you enjoy Stoner!

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    1. Thanks and I hope you enjoy Stoner – I think it definitely redeems itself overall and by the end – a quietly heart-breaking book. I am curious to know what you would make of it.

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  4. Looks like you read a lot of great books this month! Stoner and Poisonwood Bible are also on my TBR, and I’m glad you mostly enjoyed them. It’s a shame about the last pages of Poisonwood Bible, though. I’m also intrigued by the book on Keyboard Music—now that I’m getting back into piano, I seem to be interested in books about it too! Will add to my TBR.

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  5. I’ve never read any of these books so feel absolutely ignorant and underread. I did enjoy Kingsolver’s The Lacuna so I feel a bit better about thinga now. The drive to read more continues…

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