Author: Michael @ Knowledge Lost

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

Posted May 22, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literary Fiction / 0 Comments

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick HamiltonTitle: The Slaves of Solitude (Goodreads)
Author: Patrick Hamilton
Published: Constable & Robinson, 1947
Pages: 327
Genres: Literary Fiction
My Copy: Library Book

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Patrick Hamilton is one of those authors I kept hearing about but no one had actually read him. An author that is often compared to Graham Greene (and sometimes Charles Dickens) and yet I could not tell you anything about his books. Well, until recently when I picked up his 1947 novel The Slaves of Solitude. Doris Lessing (who wrote the introduction to my edition called Patrick Hamilton “a marvellous novelist who’s grossly neglected”1. What a delight it was to find a novelist like Hamilton, there was something quite thrilling about reading a novel that is underappreciated, like I was in on a literary secret but I just cannot keep quiet.

Patrick Hamilton was born to writer parents but due to his father’s alcoholism the family lived in boarding houses. He became a novelist and published his first novel Monday Morning (1925) in his twenties. His first major success was the play Rope (1929) which was later turned into a movie of the same name directed by the legendary Alfred Hitchcock. Another of his plays, Gas Light (1938) gave rise to the psychological term ‘gaslighting’ which is commonly used today. His writing is often associated with an acerbic humour but later in his life he started to write in a more misanthropic voice. His own alcoholism and disillusions towards capitalism are often the driving force in his novels believing that violence and fascism would mark the end of capitalism. The Slaves of Solitude is the only one of his works to deal with the Second World War directly.

The Slaves of Solitude explores the lives of the residents living in a boarding house of the small fictional town Thames Lockden during the Second World War. While largely focusing on the experiences of Miss Roach, who moved to the suburban town to escape the overwhelming terrors and rigor of a city. Hoping for a dull and uncomplicated life, Miss Roach soon finds that living in close proximity to others, the added pressure brought on by war, and then the appearance of Vicki Kugelmann makes things anything by simple.

This is a quiet novel exploring the life of Mary Roach, a spinster type character who is just looking for some solitude. The cast of characters living in the Rosamund Tea Rooms do not make life easy. There is Mr Thwaites, who is often described as the ‘President in Hell’; Miss Steele and Miss Barrett, two aging gossiping spinsters; a retired comedian and also her so-called friend Vicki Kugelman. The novel follows Miss Roach and Vicki as tensions between them rise, as they become rivals in love. The Slaves of Solitude turns into an exploration into the emotional struggle between the two and their love triangle in exquisite detail.

I often hate the term love triangle and far too often feels so fake and unrealistic. However in The Slaves of Solitude, Patrick Hamilton is able to explore this trope the right way. This is a highly emotional novel, as a reader you get to experience all the anger and jealousy that Miss Roach is feeling. Hamilton is able to construct this complex web of emotions, not just because of the love triangle but also drawing on the emotions caused by war and living together. What impressed me most was just how much raw emotion was being explored with all its nuances.

Even when exploring different stages of sobriety, Patrick Hamilton has this unique ability to capture the changes in emotions, manners and personality. I do not think I have ever read a book that can capture this as well as The Slaves of Solitude. There is something so satisfying about being taken on an emotional journey and know that the author has the skills to master every unique feeling that might come up along the way.

This is not a plot heavy book, but the character development is well worth reading. Make yourself a Gin and French (Miss Roach’s drink of choice) and give The Slaves of Solitude a go. I know I will be heading back into the writing of Patrick Hamilton very soon. This novel was hilarious and witty but was still able to capture the raw emotions of the characters. A balance that seems impossible to pull off but Patrick Hamilton seems to do it with ease. I cannot recommend The Slaves of Solitude more, and I hope that more people will be reading it in the future.


A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman

Posted April 10, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 0 Comments

A Horse Walks into a Bar by David GrossmanTitle: A Horse Walks into a Bar (Goodreads)
Author: David Grossman
Translator: Jessica Cohen
Published: Jonathan Cape, 2016
Pages: 208
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: Library Book

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When the Man Booker International longlist was announced for the year, I logged into my library and searched to see which books I could reserve. Sadly they only had five of the longlist, which included one I had already read, War and Turpentine. David Grossman’s A Horse Walks into a Bar was one of the books available. Having now read this novel, I do not think any book has left me as emotionally perplexed as Horse Walks into a Bar.

The novel is set in a small Israeli town comedy club where the audience gather for a night of laughter. Instead they witness a comedian coming apart on stage. This is such an emotionally charged novel and one that must have been difficult to write. I went into the book interested in the techniques used to write a stand up show into a novel and I wanted to see how Grossman would handle this meltdown. Humour is so subjective and I felt myself groaning at the attempts made by this comedian. Obviously this is not the type of comedian I would go see perform.

I do wish I knew more about Israeli culture than I do, because I think there was so much I could have gotten from the novel and I feel like some of it just went over my head. There was so much to be gained and having never read David Grossman before I do not think this was the right starting point. The breakdown was such a tough piece of writing to pull off and I often felt like it was not being handled correctly. Having said that, writing a novel around one stand-up performance would have given the novel many restrictions.

This was such a difficult book to read, mainly because I felt so emotionally drained from reading it. I could not read more than twenty or thirty pages before I need a break from the experience. I think David Grossman is a brilliant writer even if this is not a book for me. I am curious to read more Grossman, I have often heard great things but never sure where to start. While I did not enjoy the experience of reading A Horse Walks into a Bar, I cannot stop thinking about it. This is the type of novel that would make for a great stage performance.


Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Posted April 6, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Magical Realism / 0 Comments

Exit West by Mohsin HamidTitle: Exit West (Goodreads)
Author: Mohsin Hamid
Published: Hamish Hamilton, 2017
Pages: 240
Genres: Magical Realism
My Copy: Hardcover

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Every so often a book comes along that gets you thinking about an important social issue in a whole new light. These are the books I actively seek out, I am always looking for literature that is going to challenge my thinking or even teach me something new. Mohsin Hamid’s latest novel Exit West was a recent example of a book doing this with the topic of refugees. This is such an important issue and Hamid got me thinking about it in a different way with the simple introduction of magical doors.

The premise of Exit West is straightforward following the budding relationship between Saeed and Nadia in an unnamed country. As the novel tracks their developing relationship, it soon becomes apparent that they will need to escape. As the city they grew up in becomes increasingly unsafe, they are soon planning to leave everything behind. Through a door and into another country.

While the concept of these doors might be inspired by Nanina, Mohsin Hamid has stated he used this idea as a way to not get bogged down with the refugee journey. He wanted to explore the story as the events that lead these characters to flee and how it felt to be a refugee in Western culture. While I understand his reasoning, the idea seemed to work differently for me as the reader. The magical journey to another country gave off this idea that Western media do not care about the journey they only care about asylum seekers in their country. It worked to symbolise that missing piece that is often left out of the news when reporting on the refugee crisis.

In an interview with the author, he said the doors also where a symbol of globalisation. In today’s world we are able to talk to someone on the other side of the world face to face with video calling programs like Skype. The world seems smaller thanks to the advances of technology and while the idea of walking through a door into another country sound wonderful, it works as a motif for the complex issue of border control. Some doors are heavily guarded and other doors, like the one to their home country, are left accessible as if to invite them to ‘go back to where they came from’.

What I think Mohsin Hamid did really well in this novel was use the character focus to challenge the perceptions people might have of the refugee stereotype. Nadia wore an all concealing black robe in public not for religious reasons but to make her feel safe. Nadia is not religious and lives alone, she had to lie and said she was a widow to get her apartment. Nadia’s story is one of protecting herself from judgement while trying to explore her own sexuality. She longs for the freedom and individuality of the Western world. While Saeed is not overly religious he is the one that wants to wait to they are married. When fleeing the country he wishes to be part of the community of fellow countrymen, he does not want to give up on his traditions.

The two different points of view allows the reader to explore the idea of refugees from their perspective. Rather than focusing on the journey and the conflict with the Western world. Exit West focuses on their personal identity, as the characters try to understand their place in the world. For Nadia this is a chance for a new beginning, to reinvent herself but for Saeed this is the story of missing what he left, the nostalgic idea he had of his homeland.

Mohsin Hamid intentionally left the country and city unnamed because this could be the story of anyone. He did model it after a city in Pakistan but worried that mentioning any names might have been viewed as a political statement rather than the story he wanted to tell. I am so glad that I picked up Exit West and I know I will be dipping into more of Hamid’s works. This novel was so accessible, I feel like everyone should pick it up, in the hopes that it will get more people thinking about refugees.


An Ode to Books about Books

Posted April 4, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literature / 2 Comments

As a passionate book lover, I am constantly thinking about books and finding ways to share my love with the world. When it comes to social media, Goodreads serves as a preferable substitution for Facebook and I have my blog as a platform to talk more about literature persistently. I even created a BookTube channel as another way to share my passion and meet like-minded people. While creating videos is not my preferred method of communication, it has been a beneficial tool in my personal development. I have even dabbled with the idea of creating a podcast. Suffice to say, I am passionate about literature and I am always looking for other ways to feed this addiction.

Other bibliophiles might also share my love for books about books. There is something so satisfying about reading a book about reading books. I first discovered this joy with The Shadow of the Wind, a wildly popular piece of translated fiction that had me wanting to adopt my own book. Not to mention the desire to gain access to something like the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. A positive for reading popular books is that it allows us the joys of finding other fans with ease but there is something deliciously delightful with finding a piece of literature that friends do not know about. For me, one of the biggest compliments I receive on my blog or BookTube channel is ‘I have never heard of this book before’. While it can be a source of frustration, it is thrilling to know I may have introduced someone to a new book. My frustration comes from those occasions when someone has not heard of a book that I would consider classics but that is a different essay topic.

Take, for example, the wildly entertaining satire, Books by Charlie Hill. The premise is based around a best-selling author whose book is so mediocre that when you read it your brain stops working. A neurologist recruits a grumpy indie bookseller to help her solve the mystery in this Dan Brown-esque dig at popular fiction. This hilarious book sadly never got any real attention, with under a hundred ratings on Goodreads. This is a little sad, especially since it described my idea of a perfect bookstore; “A bookshop full of long-forgotten noir fiction, modernist classics, chapbooks, transgressive experimentation, translated erotica, minimalism, short stories, satires, samizdat, surrealist poetry and smut.”

My love for books about books is not rooted in fiction, I am always on the lookout for a bibliomemoir – a memoir about someone’s reading life. I find the reading journey to be a captivating topic and exploring the way other people approach their own reading is like peeking into their personal book journals. I have read about all the books being read by journalist and politicians. I have read about people setting outlandish reading challenges and others that just challenge themselves to be better people. I am particularly fond of the unknown person (like a struggling author or blogger) who decides that their reading journey is interesting enough to get published.

Ramona Koval’s By the Book: A Reader’s Guide to Life was one of my first tastes into the bibliomemoir, and it was a charming account of growing up with books. It served as a literary account of her childhood, in which she shared memories like borrowing Franz Kafka from a library at a very young age and asking her mother to buy her a copy of the Kama Sutra. I keep a spreadsheet of all the books I have read but this does not hold the memories of the books. I have been writing essays about my reading life and literature as a way to preserve those memories. Not to mention I harbor a desire to write like Anne Fadiman; her bibliomemoir/collection of essays has been a constant source of inspiration.

The best bibliomemoirs are the ones that have a theme and that also cover books that interest the reader. I thought The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman would become a favourite of mine but it lacked the personal touch. While the book did cover Batuman’s life and interest in Russian literature, it was missing something. There are two sides of the bibliomemoir scale, a personal reading journey or literary criticism. I like both styles but if a book is lacking one or the other, I find it difficult to enjoy.

The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life by Andy Miller is an example of a bibliomemoir that really hit the mark. In this memoir, Miller sets himself a challenge; to read all the books he had lied about reading. He created a list, The List of Betterment, which consisted of books he has once lied about reading or felt he should read. The book documents the rekindling of his former reading passion and hits both key factors I look for in a bibliomemoir, the personal journey and criticism. Andy Miller has since gone on to co-host a wonderful bookish podcast, Backlisted which I am currently obsessed with. I have even contemplated the idea of trying to read every book they have covered on the show, but first I should really re-read Andy Miller’s memoir.

I try to read as many bibliomemoirs as I can get my hands on because I often entertain the idea of writing my own. I think I have had an interesting journey and would love to share it with the world. I read the bibliomemoirs to find elements that work, so I can avoid the common slip-ups. Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading is a popular bibliomemoir but the idea of reading a book a day sounds dreadful. Quality over quantity is always a good rule to live by and I can pick the exact moment when I gave up on that book. It was when she refused to read her son’s favourite book, Watership Down because it was almost 500 pages.

The bibliomemoir does not have to follow the same format to be enjoyable, Alberto Manguel wrote a collection of essays about building a personal library called The Library at Night, which I adore. Susan Hill spent an entire book talking about the random books on her bookshelves in Howards End is on the Landing. I mentioned Anne Fadiman before but her collection of essays in Ex Libris is my definition of the perfect bibliomemoir. It gives glimpses into her life of reading but also talks about those common reader issues. Like the time her and her husband decided, after a few years of marriage, it was time to merge their books. Of course, I object to the idea of only keeping one copy of a book but the essay was enchanting. I am not saying keep all the pretty covers but a book contains memories, not to mention the different introductions or translations.

My most recent bibliomemoir was Books for Living by Will Schwalbe, which I am not particularly fond of but I did like that he dedicated each chapter to a book. For example, the chapter on What I Talk about When I Talk about Running was on the topic of napping. If you have read Haruki Murakami’s running memoir you would know that he shares his fondness for napping as well. When I read Murakiami’s memoir I did it to explore his passion but a passion for napping is something I can get behind. I will continue to dive into the world of the bookish memoir and hope to share some new favourites in the future. I would love to have some recommendations. One day I may have my own bibliomemoir; but in the meantime, I will practice my craft with more essays. Although my wife did suggest I should write a book about books about books, because that would be wonderfully meta.


The Lover by Marguerite Duras

Posted March 20, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic / 2 Comments

The Lover by Marguerite DurasTitle: The Lover (Goodreads)
Author: Marguerite Duras
Translator: Barbara Bray
Published: Pantheon, 1984
Pages: 117
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Paperback

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Marguerite Duras is best known for her novel L’Amant (The Lover), which was published in 1984 and won the Prix Goncourt for that year. Set in the colony of French Indochina (now known as Vietnam) during the 1920s, the novel explores the salacious love affair between a fifteen-and-a-half year-old French girl and a wealthy Chinese man. What makes this a literary masterpiece is the exploration into desire (and colonialism) and the experimental style that Duras adopted for this novel.

The narrative devices adopted in L’Amant allows Marguerite Duras to tell an autobiographical story while offering a form of self-reflection and way to analyse her own feelings. To do this Duras often switches perspective from first person to third person as well as switching from a current point in the story to a flashback. For me the effects of these literary devices offered an ideal contemplation into the emotions Marguerite must have been going through and also providing a meditation into the art of writing.

The Lover was published when Marguerite Duras was seventy, fifty-five years after she met Léo while traveling by ferry across the Mekong Delta from her home in the town of Sa Đéc, to her boarding school in Saigon. The depiction of love was so masterfully done in the novel, I knew exactly how Duras was feeling. The whole idea of a first love and then reflecting back on it many years later only to find that what you thought was a great love was merely an infatuation. I think this was what brought The Lover together and what stuck with me the most.

Since it is a love affair between a young French girl and an older Chinese man in Saigon, I think we need to talk about colonialism when reflecting on L’Amant. You can see the disapproving opinions playing out from her widowed mother but it was the wealthy father who had the biggest impact on the Chinese businessman’s relationship. I had thought that class struggle and colonialism would have played a bigger part in a book like this but I feel that Marguerite Duras handled the idea well with just how the characters interacted with each other.

I was thrilled by The Lover and the passionate love affair in this novel. Though I have to say it was Marguerite Duras skilful use of narrative devices that really made this a new favourite. I want to dip in and out of this book and I have only just finished it. I was even tempted to carry this novel around, just so I can read a passage or two while I had a spare moment. You may notice that I have been reading a decent amount of French literature lately and it is because of novels like this that I am currently obsessed. I hope to one day have the necessary skills to read L’Amant in French; I have been practising the language just for novels like this.


War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans

Posted March 18, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Historical Fiction / 0 Comments

War and Turpentine by Stefan HertmansTitle: War and Turpentine (Goodreads)
Author: Stefan Hertmans
Translator: David McKay
Published: Text, 2016
Pages: 304
Genres: Historical Fiction
My Copy: Library Book

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Before he did, Stefan Hertmans’s grandfather gave him two notebooks which make up his life. Stefan held on to these notebooks for a while before he read them. Expecting the story of war he found a more detailed account of his grandfather’s life, from growing up in poverty, meeting his great love, war and a passion for art. Providing a more modern voice, War and Turpentine is a stylised account of what was in these notebooks. To call it a biography or memoir is a stretch but this literary hybrid is masterfully told.

Born in 1891, the author’s grandfather lived until 1981. While the key focus of the novel is the life of one person, I was particularly drawn to how it represented a whole country. This was a very turbulent time for Belgium. During The Great War, the occupation by German forces was so harsh that it is often referred to as the ‘Rape of Belgium’, which economically crippled the country and lead to a high unemployment rate. World War II was not as devastating but the country once again capitulated to the Germans.

There is a large section that focuses on the devastating nature of war to the people involved and the country. Despite the gritty nature, there is real beauty to be found. Like the title, War and Turpentine this is a novel of polar opposites; from gritty depictions from the trenches to almost dreamlike descriptions of the German zeppelins floating overhead.

Putting the depictions of war aside War and Turpentine also explores family, love, marriage and art, which allows a contrast from devastation to beauty. There is a real tenderness in the approach that Stefan Hertmans took in writing his grandfather’s story. I wonder what this story might have been if Hertmans produced it when he first received his grandfather’s notebooks. I think the 40 years between receiving the notebooks and writing this book gave him enough time to develop his craft and live his life. This I believe was necessary to come up with something so stunning and beautiful.

I love the title War and Turpentine simply because it accurately covers the balance found in the book. From destruction in war to the creation and beauty of art. This is a powerful piece of storytelling, masterfully executed. I am not sure where I found out about this book, I went into it not knowing much about it at all. The writing alone was enough to make War and Turpentine wonderful, which is a huge credit to David McKay’s translation. Everything about this book just resulted in the perfect balance of the dramatic and absolute beauty.


The 2017 Man Booker International Prize Longlist

Posted March 16, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literature / 2 Comments

The Man Booker International Prize is one of the few major literary prizes that holds any interest to me. As many people know I am focusing more on reading books in translation and my goal is to have at least 50% of all my books be translation (currently sitting at 52% for the year so far). So when the longlist for this prize was announced late last night I paid attention. Unsurprisingly I had only read one of the books mentioned on the list, War and Turpentine (will post a review in the next few days). The Man Booker International Prize is a celebration of the finest fiction from around the world that have been translated into English. The prize awards the winning book £50,000 which is split equally between the author and the translator.

However, the main concern I have for the list was the lack of women in translation (only 26% of books translated into English are by female authors). I counted three out of thirteen books written by women; Swallowing Mercury, Fever Dream and Mirror, Shoulder, Signal. This gender imbalance is something I am struggling with in my own reading life as well, I have become very aware just how many women authors in translation there are and I feel I need to make more of an effort to balance my reading. I am even at the point where I am thinking about only buying books in translation if they were written by a woman, just to get more of a balance on my bookshelves. Having said that I am pleased to see a more even balance with the translators, with seven of the thirteen translators being women.

Another imbalance I have noticed with the longlist is to do with where the books are from. I count one book from South America and only three from Asia (including Yan Lianke from China who is the only author to return from last year’s longlist). France and Israel have two authors in the longlist. Though this is where the age old debate on how to classify these books comes in once again. Alain Mabanckou who was longlisted for his book Black Moses shows as French on the list, though he was born in the Republic of the Congo and currently resides in the United States of America.

I have often entertained the notion of reading the entire longlist of a prize like this but the lack of availability has often stopped me. I have found only five of the thirteen books in my library and have immediately reserved the four I have not read. If I were to read the entire longlist I would have to resort to my e-reader, an option that does not interest me. Although I have noticed an increasing need to use ebooks because of availability.

I will continue to read more books in translation, though I am not one to read recent releases. I hope to talk more about the books in this longlist as I read them but if you are interested in the Man Booker International prize I would recommend following the shadow jury. A group of book bloggers get together to write the entire longlist and blog about it; trying to predict the shortlist and winner.

Have you read any of the longlist? and if so, I would love to know what you are predicting to be on the shortlist or the winner. War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans is my current pick, not just because it is the only novel I have read but it is likely to make my top books of 2017 list. Let me know your thoughts on the longlist and the Man Booker International Prize in the comments below.

The 2017 Man Booker international prize longlist

  • Compass by Mathias Énard (France), translated by Charlotte Mandell and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions
  • Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg (Poland), translated by Eliza Marciniak and published by Portobello Books
  • A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman (Israel), translated by Jessica Cohen and published by Jonathan Cape
  • War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans (Belgium), translated by David McKay and published by Harvill Secker
  • The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen (Norway), translated by Don Bartlett and published by MacLehose Press
  • The Traitor’s Niche by Ismail Kadare (Albania), translated by John Hodgson and published by Harvill Secker
  • Fish Have No Feet by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (Iceland), translated by Philip Roughton and published by MacLehose Press
  • The Explosion Chronicles by Yan Lianke (China), translated by Carlos Rojas and published by Chatto & Windus
  • Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou (France), translated by Helen Stevenson and published by Serpent’s Tail
  • Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer (Germany), translated by Katy Derbyshire and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions
  • Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors (Denmark), translated by Misha Hoekstra and published by Pushkin Press
  • Judas by Amos Oz (Israel), translated by Nicholas de Lange and published by Chatto & Windus
  • Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (Argentina), translated by Megan McDowell and published by Oneworld

Apocalypse Baby by Virginie Despentes

Posted March 10, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Thriller / 0 Comments

Apocalypse Baby by Virginie DespentesTitle: Apocalypse Baby (Goodreads)
Author: Virginie Despentes
Translator: Siân Reynolds
Published: Serpent's Tail, 2010
Pages: 338
Genres: Thriller
My Copy: Library Book

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Provocative French author Virginie Despentes is best known for her debut novel Baise-moi, which was published in 1993 to much controversy. The book was adapted into a film, which was also written and directed by Despentes. This debut novel is often considered the most controversial French novel of recent times, exploring a punk fantasy of two women on a vengeance rampage à la Thelma and Louise. The novel and film are modern examples of a crime thriller genre known as rape and revenge.

Virginie Despentes has had a salacious life, which ranges from working as a maid/sex worker in ‘massage parlours’ to being a pornographic film critic. As a novelist she has written seven novels of transgressive fiction, although only three have been translated into English. Her latest novel Apocalypse Baby (Apocalypse Bébé) was published in English by Feminist Press in 2015. The book is a faced-paced thriller about a missing adolescent girl. Two mismatched private investigators are paired together to find this lost girl.  The two follow the evidence from Paris to Barcelona and back on this epic road trip.

Lucie Toledo is not a great private investigator, her skills typically include watching over her clients, but when the troublesome fifteen-year-old Valentine disappears she is out of her league. Tasked to watch the girl by her grandmother, Lucie is held responsible. She enlists the help of the legendary detective, known as The Hyena to help with this missing person case. The Hyena is a sexist, misogynist; constantly wolf whistling at female pedestrians and grabbing their crotches. Two very different personalities stuck in a car propels the novel towards the inevitable conflict.

Apocalypse Baby is an unflinching thriller that never shies away from graphic descriptions. Though not without its flaws, the novel offers so much more than a psychological romp. Virginie Despentes uses this transgressive story as a platform for social criticism, exploring French politics and society. Between each chapter, there lies a glimpse at different members of Valentine’s family, exploring their own struggles and fears. Her father, step mother, and two sisters are all fleshed out in these sections; not taking away from the novel but rather giving an extra dimension and providing a deeper understanding on Valentine’s motivation.

What really stuck with me in Apocalypse Baby was the way it played with the idea of gender equality. Take for example the misogynist partner The Hyena, when you think about this character, did you envision a woman? I found myself constantly thinking “You are a woman, you should know better” but then I stop myself, a man should know better as well. I like the way Virginie Despentes used this idea as a tool to explore social issues. While this novel is nothing special, this one aspect really stuck with me and I appreciate just how masterfully Despentes made her point.


Organising Your Personal Library

Posted February 14, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literature / 4 Comments

Recently I have been thinking about building the perfect library; this was due to a collection of essays I was reading called The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel. In this book, Manguel explores the process of building his personal library from an old barn but he also looks at the history of libraries around the world. Each essay is titled ‘The Library as…’ space, power, shadow, and so on. These essays explore different topics, giving you a wealth of information. Take for example ‘The Library as Shadow’, which explores a darker side of library history, from book burning to censorship.

What I am particularly interested in was from the essay ‘The Library as Order’, which focuses on how we would arrange our personal library. It does not matter where or how you house your personal library; every person has their own opinions on that topic. I wanted to explore the concept of how we arrange the books. There are so many ways to arrange books, currently my books are everywhere and there is a certain appeal to this. I have bookshelves around the house and any new books end up wherever it fits. If I need to find a particular book, I can spend hours searching for it. This is not always ideal but there is something about this literary treasure hunt that I enjoy. I often discover books on my shelves that I have forgotten about or I want to dip back into. Looking at a shelf that offers no rhyme or reason can be mesmerising, and who does not enjoy just staring at a bookshelf? While this method works for me now, it is not practical if I have a library, I need to arrange my books differently. In The Library at Night, Alberto Manguel suggests some different ways to organise books;

  • alphabetically
  • by continent or country
  • by colour
  • by date of purchase
  • by date of publication
  • by format
  • by genre
  • by literary period
  • by language
  • according to our reading priorities
  • according to their binding
  • by series

Amidst all of these choices, I have to admit ‘according to our reading priorities’ does sound appealing but I feel like this would continually change. The obvious choice would be to organise alphabetically (by authors last name of course) but there are some draw backs with this. Not only will fiction and non-fiction sit side by side but the idea of Charles Dickens sitting next to Philip K Dick or Jane Austen beside Paul Auster seems odd. Although for those authors that dabble in both fiction and non-fiction, like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn this system may be preferable.

Sorting by genre seems like a popular choice, and for all intents and purposes the most logical. As someone that reads on a whim, the ability to just head to somewhere like the detective fiction section and pick a gritty hard-boiled novel sounds wonderful. My only problem is the fact that it is often difficult to fit novels neatly into a single genre. Also, with an author like Jonathan Lethem you would have to separate his works, especially with his early books. I like the idea of sorting by genre but I found too many flaws in this system.

Picking an organisation strategy appeared to be much harder than it looked. Organising by colour is aesthetically pleasing but I never considered this as an option; it is just too random. I am playing around with a book-sorting app on my phone, which allowed me to create different shelves for organising. This allowed me to scan my books into the program and play with different ways to organise.

I eventually decided that there was no perfect way to organise a library, you can go into your public library and see evidence of this everywhere. I had to come up with a solution that worked for me. I do not have a library yet, but when I do, I am now sure I know how it will be organised. I have settled on sorting by continents for my fiction, this is because I have a keen interest in books in translation. I have discovered that splitting my fiction into continents will give me the opportunity to see where my strengths and weaknesses lie. If I organise my fiction by continent, I will notice which continents I need to focus on, like South America and Africa. I love reading around the world, I find it both an educational and rewarding experience.

If your reading journey and your library is a personal reflection, then the books that do not appear on your shelves say just as much about you as the books you do have on your shelf. When I became a reader, I quickly started building my book collection to a point where I have shelves and shelves of books everywhere. The problem I face now is the fact that I have only read about half of them. Publishers sent me books because of my blog but I also purchased books that sounded interesting. Now I have evolved as a reader and discovered where my literary tastes lie, there are books that remain on my shelf that are not a reflection of me as a reader. These books do not tell you anything about me because I have no desire to read them. While I know I should cull all books I have no interest in, it is hard to let go of a book that you have never read. What if it is fantastic and I just do not know that yet? There is the problem, but I do feel like I am getting to a point where I can be confident about a book I would not like. So maybe a purge is coming.

Now the problem with sorting the fiction by continents is that there are some countries I have a greater interest in – the literature of France and Russia for example. Do I split them into their own section? I am interested in all post-Soviet literature, so that brings up another question. How do I shelve these books? Russia seems too exclusive; calling them post-Soviet countries just does not sit right with me; Baltic and Slavic countries do not cover all the countries. This is one problem I need to solve, but for now I think this is the best choice for me.

Another issue I found with sorting by continent is that the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland fall under Europe but they do not feel the same. There is so much literature from the United Kingdom anyway, I feel like it would require its own shelves. I wonder about North America but honestly, does it matter if Canada and the United States sit together? For me it does not, although this may displease my Canadian friends. There are so many things to consider and this is only a small fraction of the problems I face with sorting my books.

When it comes to non-fiction, it was not difficult; this was always going to be sorted by subject. Philosophy, history, Russian history, books about books, art, and so on. However, that posed some interesting questions as well. Do you include philosophical novels like The Stranger by Albert Camus or Either/Or by Søren Kierkegaard in the philosophical section? My feeling is yes but where do you draw the line? There are novels that are philosophical in nature that I would not include under philosophy, like The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

I will continue to ponder just how I would organise my dream library, but I wanted to give you plenty to consider. Instead of reviewing The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel, which everyone should read, I preferred to explore what I got out of this essay collection. I have not even touched on any of the other topics in this book; I will leave that for you to discover. Also, I have not even talked about other aspects of setting up a library, like using the Dewey decimal system, or a card catalogue system. Thinking about setting up a dream library is an exciting activity for every bibliophile and we all have different ideas. I loved reading about someone’s journey and it gave me plenty to contemplate. For now, I will continue cataloguing my books using the app BookBuddy and working out how to organise everything. This experiment should also help me discover the gaps in my own library so I can pick better books to purchase.


Understanding my Fascination on Russian Literature

Posted January 31, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literature / 0 Comments

I am not entirely sure where my interest in Russian literature came from. I think it started with a fascination with the Cold War, which lead to a desire to understand the complex nature of the Soviet Union, both its politics and the people. The first Russian novel I read was Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, however my obsession with Russian literature came soon after. When I first became a reader I was using the 1001 Books You Must Read before You Die list as a guide to work out what to read. While I would love to complete the full list, it has served its purpose, which was to expose me to good literature in all genres, allowing me to find where my literary tastes lie.

My Russian literature obsession grew from my interest in satire, beginning with Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, which is a dystopian tale of globalisation. However under all that, it is an autobiographical novel of a Russian immigrant. I loved discovering the story underneath the plot, and I quickly discovered that Russian literature was a treasure trove for that. Russia has a very complex history; this is often reflected in its literature and makes it a big part of Russian culture.

Just a brief history on Russian literature, which has its roots in Chivalric romance, epics and chronicles on the Russian life. It is here at its roots where we establish the importance of irony and satire in the literature. It was Peter the Great’s efforts to modernise Russia that gave way to Russian literature in the 18th century. While I have not read any of these authors from this time, authors like Antiokh Kantemir and Vasily Trediakovsky were notable contributors to its literature. The 19th century is the golden age for Russian literature with Nikolai Gogol, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anton Chekov, Ivan Turgenev and Leo Tolstoy creating some of Russia’s greatest pieces of literature. It was also where the literary movement Russian Romanticism was established, which explores metaphysical discontent with society and self, from notable authors like Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov. The silver age in the beginning of the 20th century was focused around poetry and the avant-garde. Poets often associated with the silver age include Marina Tsvetaeva and Boris Pasternak.

This was then followed by the Soviet era, which was the rise of Socialist realism, Russian formalism and futurism. While the Soviet era was an extremely complex period for literature, and covers so many different literary styles, it is easier to put all of the work from the Soviet Era together. If you want to break out the soviet era, you could do that by Samizdat, Tamizdat and Gosizdat. Samizdat ‘self-published’ is the distribution of literature illegally published (often by carbon copies of typescripts) and distributed among other Russians. This is similar to a method used in the Tsarist era, and allowed uncensored literature by authors like Mikhail Bulgakov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to reach an audience. Tamizdat ‘over there’ is when a soviet writer has their works published in the West because they could not publish in Russia. Most Soviet authors had to rely on this method to have their works published, most notable example of Tamizdat is Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. Gosizdat ‘State publisher’ was the term used for officially sanctioned publications. In all honesty, I cannot think of a single modern classic from the Soviet Era that was published originally by the state. Although the Russian literature magazines where many works were first published would have been state run.

The post-Soviet era covers all literature published after the collapse of the USSR. Although the censorship of the soviet era was officially lifted, writers still approached sensitive subjects in a similar fashion. In part by the political/economic chaos of the post-Soviet era and partly to follow the traditions of great Russian literature. Although authors like Boris Akunin enjoy huge success in popular fiction, writing a historical detective series. This does not include the authors that fled Russia or the Soviet Union and became authors after gaining citizenship elsewhere, such as Ayn Rand, Isaac Asimov, and Vladimir Nabokov.

While there is a rich history of Russian literature, often there are common themes that appear throughout the ages. Most notably is the struggle for stability; Russian history has been a whirlwind of war and tyranny. This struggle often translates as redemption through suffering. This could be a struggle with religion, philosophy, society or even one’s self. That struggle can be seen in novels ranging from the likes of The Brothers Karamazov to Vladimir Sorokin’s 2006 science fiction novel Day of the Oprichnik. Although my wife might agree with Russian literary critic Viktor Shklovsky, who said “Russian literature is devoted to the description of unsuccessful love affairs.”

Authors within Russia often fall into the social class (I don’t think I need to explain the role class plays in Russia) known as the intelligentsia. This class of intellects are tasked to guide or critique society’s culture and politics. This is why Russian literature plays such a huge role in Russian culture, and also explains why literature was so controlled in the Soviet era. Union of Soviet Writers was formed by Stalin to control the field of literature in the USSR. Membership was not mandatory but if an author was not a member, they would have very limited opportunities for publication. Despite their best efforts, thankfully we still have a rich selection of Soviet literature critiquing the culture and politics of the time.

In both Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union, authors had to be careful of what they said, many were exiled to a labour camp for what they wrote. So literary devices were often deployed to say what needed to be said in a more creative way. Literary devices often found in Russian literature include metaphors, allegories, irony, satire and even propaganda to express the author’s views. Which is why many Russian classics are very philosophical or political in nature. It is the dangerous writing that seems to have stood the test of time.

There is so much to offer in Russian literature, I know I have so much I need to learn and read but I am excited about the prospects. I find it sad when I see “Russian novel” used as shorthand for lengthy or turgid; I never understood that. While War and Peace is often considered a challenging book due to its length, there is a reason why it is considered a masterpiece. I would love to gain some recommendations on Russian literature I should check out. My personal favourites include Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov and for something really weird, Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin.