Month: May 2015

Monthly Review – May 2015

Posted May 31, 2015 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Monthly Reading / 1 Comment

Wolf TotemMay has been a big month for me. I have been preparing for a trip to New Zealand and I also took time off before hand to get some reading done. In fact, I have scheduled this post in advance, so it will be posted on the right day. This does mean I will not be talking about my entire month of reading but just the highlights upon writing this. If you do want to see a full monthly wrap up, you will just have to subscribe to my YouTube channel and wait for it to be posted. I think I went into May with eleven reviews I still needed to write, and then add all the books I have read so far and I am so far behind. I get on a roll with my reading and it is much more fun reading than writing reviews. About a year ago I wrote my book blogging manifesto, which I have been reflecting on. So much has changed but my goals are still the same. I just need to remind myself to get back into writing more frequently.

Looking at the Literary Exploration book club, we tackled translated fiction this month (a favourite of mine) and we read Wolf Totem, a Chinese novel by Jiang Rong and translated by Howard Goldblatt. I am glad we finally got to books in translation and I hope it encouraged many people to read more novels from other countries. As a reminder next month we are moving onto hard-boiled/noir theme and reading Double Indemnity by James M. Cain and I am looking forward to re-reading this classic.

This month has been a wonderful month for reading but I am still very behind in blogging. Highlights of the month have included Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard, Aquarium by David Vann, The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith and a re-read of Anna Karenina for my Russian lit project. However, I am packing some great books to take away with me, including more Russian classics, so I think by the time this post goes up, I would have had a wonderful month. I am sad that I was not able to do a longer wrap up post talking about my entire reading month but a much need vacation was a better option. I will be back to a normal wrap up next month; but I would love to know what everyone else read this month.

Read More

Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong

Posted May 30, 2015 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Book of the Month, Historical Fiction / 0 Comments

Wolf Totem by Jiang RongTitle: Wolf Totem (Goodreads)
Author: Jiang Rong
Translator: Howard Goldblatt
Published: Viking, 2004
Pages: 527
Genres: Historical Fiction
My Copy: Library Book

Buy: AmazonBook Depository (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

Wolf Totem is the story of a Chen Zhen, a young Beijing student who is sent to the countryside of Inner Mongolia in 1967. He lived with the nomadic Mongols, who are a proud, brave, and ancient race of people, exploring the harmony, beauty and also cruelness of nature. As well as learning the philosophy the Mongols have towards nature and their attitudes towards the wolf; who keep the ecological balance.

This is a semi-autobiographical novel that follows an experience that the author, Lü Jiamin (writing under the pseudonym Jiang Rong) had during the height of China’s culture revolution. This revolution was a social-political movement that took place within the People’s Republic of China between 1966 and 1976. The communist chairman Mao Zedong’s goals were to preserve the true communist ideals within China. This meant the purging of capitalism and even traditional culture.

In the height of this purge, the protagonist is exploring the folk traditions, rituals, and life on the Steppe, looking into the culture and traditions of the ethnic Mongolian nomads and the Han Chinese farmers. These traditions were at risk of being purged under Chairman Mao’s rule, allowing the author to talk about the importance of keeping ancient traditions alive.

Also within Wolf Totem there is a whole obsession Chen Zhen has with wolves. They are seen to keep nature in balance. He fears and respects the wolves but he also questions their role in nature. A connection could be made between the wolves and the Communist party but that is up to the reader to decide.

I found this book to drag on a bit too much; there is a lot of information about wolves and agriculture that seemed to just go on and on. However, Wolf Totem explored some unfamiliar cultures to me and gave me great insight into one man’s opinions about the culture revolution. I think I would have enjoyed the book a lot more if it did not drag on so much; could have purged at least a hundred pages. Having said that, I am glad I read it and I think it is worth exploring different points of view.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Posted May 28, 2015 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic, Russian Lit Project / 0 Comments

Anna Karenina by Leo TolstoyTitle: Anna Karenina (Goodreads)
Author: Leo Tolstoy
Translator: Aylmer Maude, Louise Maude
Published: Oxford World's Classics, 1873
Pages: 831
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Personal Copy

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

Anna Karenina is the tragic story of the socialite’s marriage to Karenin and her affair with the wealthy Count Vronsky. The novel begins in the midst of their families break up due to her brother’s constant womanising; a situation that preferences her own situation throughout the novel. Running in parallel to this story of Konstantin Levin, a humble country landowner that wishes to marry Kitty, who is Anna’s sister in-law. Anna Karenina is a pinnacle piece of realist literature, exploring a wide range of family issues.

At over 800 pages, Anna Karenina can be a daunting novel to pick up; the large cast of characters does not make it any easier. I look at this classic novel as an exploration into melodrama that just about every family experiences. Born in 1828, Lev (Leo) Nikolaevich Tolstoy was born into a large and wealthy Russian landowning family, and has often been suggested that Anna Karenina is based on a similar social upbringing. While there are vast differences, issues with wealth, religion, farming and morality are issues that seem to parallel between reality and fiction. The story arch of Levin is considered to be autobiographical; Tolstoy’s first name is Lev (although in English he is known as Leo) and the Russian surname Levin actually means Lev.

Leo Tolstoy has been known for adding real life events into his fiction as a way with dealing with current political and social issues. Within Anna Karenina, events like the liberal reforms initiated by Emperor Alexander II of Russia and the judicial reform are used as the backdrop for the novel. This allows him to explore current issues, like the developing of Russian into the industrial age and the role of agriculture in these changing times. Also Tolstoy questions the role of the woman in this changing society and (the ever popular in Russian lit) class struggles.

The story of Anna Karenina is probably the most interesting for me and I enjoyed reading the struggle between love and the public opinion. She was trapped in a marriage and wanted to divorce but Karenin, who was a politician cared more about his public image. Then there is the fact that Anna’s brothers womanising destroyed the family and now she is faced with a similar situation that could cause the same damage. Adultery becomes a big theme within the book and seems to be a common theme within Russian literature to this day. However with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) and Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857), these three novels seemed to start a fascination in exploring the themes of passion and adultery in the mid to late nineteenth century.

There is a lot to explore within this book, and re-reading Anna Karenina was such an enjoyable experience. I know big books often scare me but there is something about going back to a much-loved novel that I find enjoyable. Leo Tolstoy intentionally made this novel long, he wanted to replicate life’s journey and the struggles people face along the way. I think he was able to capture that struggle and Anna Karenina will remain a favourite on my shelves and in Russian literature. There are so many more themes that could be explored within the novel but I will leave that for others to discover on their own.

Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov

Posted May 26, 2015 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary, Humour, Russian Lit Project / 2 Comments

Death and the Penguin by Andrey KurkovTitle: Death and the Penguin (Goodreads)
Series: The Penguin Novels #1
, 1996
Pages: 228
Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

Viktor Alekseyevich Zolotaryov is an unemployed aspiring writer struggling to live in a post-soviet society. He has aspirations to write novels but a job writing obituaries conveniently fell into his lap. Viktor’s job is to prepare obituaries for notable Ukrainian figures. However he quickly found out he was being assigned to write obituaries of the enemies of an unknown organisation, using the newspaper as a front. He is now trapped in a situation and there appears to be no escape.

The title of this book refers to Viktor’s job and his pet king penguin, Misha. The Kiev zoo had run out of money and could no long afford to support or feed the animals. Their solution was to give the pets to any citizen able to feed them in the hope they will care for the animals. Andrey Kurkov uses Misha to mirror Viktor Zolotaryov. An existential look into life imitating art and the balance between life and death.

Death and the Penguin is a dark comedy and political satire that portrays a bleak post-Soviet Ukraine to the reader. Kurkov takes a pragmatic approach with exploring morality. The idea of writing a mournful article in case a politician or socialite dies suddenly in exchange for money offers a morbid look at mortality but that is not enough for Andrey Kurkov and he wants to talk about politics and corruption. “People have got used to the corruption. People here are flexible and they accept the new rules and don’t dwell on moral questions. They just watch what everyone else is doing and try to find their own ways of deceiving others to make money for themselves to survive”

The Kiev Kurkov portrays is one driven by greed and corruption. A place where bribes have to be handed out before an ambulance will come and take a dying man to hospital. However, once at the hospital the staff can offer no medicines to ease the pain, let alone a cure. A place where money rules and the gangster underworld are offering a practical solution into solving corruption. Turning this society into a place where organised crime and political corruption seem to be ruling in tandem.

What really stuck with me was the parallels between Viktor and Misha’s life. Starting from struggling to feeling trapped, Misha’s life mimicked Viktor’s own life. Also Misha helped provide a contrast with Victor’s plot; exploring ideas of life and death simultaneously. While people are dying due to the hit list, Viktor struggles to keep Misha alive in an environment that is not suitable for a king penguin. These parallels and contrast make up the back-bone of the book and what really cemented my love for this novel.

Death and the Penguin is a wonderful satire that combines elements of the surreal and existential. I really enjoyed the dark comedy and the themes Andrey Kurkov explored within this novel. There is a sequel to the book called Penguin Lost which I plan to read but I have no idea how this story could continue. As part of my Russian lit project, I plan to explore a lot more post-Soviet literature and if this is anything to go by, I know I will discover some great novels.

The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis

Posted May 16, 2015 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Historical Fiction / 2 Comments

The Zone of Interest by Martin AmisTitle: The Zone of Interest (Goodreads)
Author: Martin Amis
Published: Jonathan Cape, 2014
Pages: 320
Genres: Historical Fiction
My Copy: Library Book

Buy: AmazonBook Depository (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

Angelus Thomsen is an officer working at Auschwitz; on August 1942 he gains his first sight of Hannah Doll, the wife of the camp’s commandant. After a few encounters, their relationship becomes more intimate. Despite their attempts to be discreet, Hannah’s husband Paul becomes suspicious. He threatens a Jewish Sonderkommando into killing his wife. However things are not that simple and life is far more complex.

The Zone of Interest is Martin Amis’ fourteenth novel and the second to focus on the holocaust (his 1991 novel Time’s Arrow being the other). The novel is told from prospective of three narrators; Angelus Thomsen, Paul Doll and Szmul the Sonderkommando. This allows Amis to explore the three different sides of this budding romance and betrayal, however what it does not talk about is far more interesting. Thomsen and Doll are so focused on Hannah, while Szmul is unwillingly dragged into this complex situation.

I found the plot to be a bit flat and the ending of this novel anti-climactic but it was Martin Amis was not saying that really stuck out to me. The way Amis told the story allowed the reader focus on the melodrama of this love triangle but we have to remember this was set in Auschwitz. We can explore the indifference towards human suffering and the prisoner’s general psychology without the need to talk too much about this situation. Szmul’s narrative does focus more on the life in the concentration camp from a Jewish point-of-view but it is the Germans’ lack of interest that stuck with me. The more I think about this novel, the more I admire the way Amis wrote this book. I cannot think of another novel that explores an issue like this by actively trying to avoid the topic.

At the time of reading this book, I found this novel to be average. However, it was the post-reading experience that really stuck with me, and I really appreciate the satirical approach Martin Amis took. I am determined to try some more of his works; I need to find out if he uses satire consistently in his novels. I would love to know which novel I should check out next from Martin Amis.

The Whispering City by Sara Moliner

Posted May 15, 2015 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Crime, Thriller / 2 Comments

The Whispering City by Sara MolinerTitle: The Whispering City (Goodreads)
Author: Sara Moliner
Translator: Mara Faye Lethem
Series: Martí #1
Published: Little Brown and Company, 2013
Pages: 416
Genres: Crime, Thriller
My Copy: Paperback

Buy: AmazonBook Depository (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

General Franco was at the height of his power in Barcelona, 1952. When a wealthy socialite is found murdered in her mansion, the police scramble to seize control of the investigation. An over eager journalist named Ana Martí Noguer is assigned the task of shadowing the lead investigator, Inspector Isidro Castro. However, Ana discovers a bunch of letters that dramatically contradict the official statement made by the police. Now she is in mortal danger; her information can expose a conspiracy of murder and corruption.

The Whispering City (originally title: Don de lenguas) is a Spanish novel written by Sara Moliner and translated into English by Mara Faye Lethem. Sara Moliner is the pseudonym of the writing duo of Spanish author Rosa Ribas and former German philosophy professor Sabine Hofmann. This is their first book together and, with their backgrounds and the premise, I went into this novel with high expectations. Sadly, this turned into a run-of-the-mill thriller novel which is not a bad thing; I just was hoping for so much more.

The back drop of a fascist government, known for their shadowing tactics, mixed with the philosophical background of Sabine Hofmann meant I was hoping for some interesting insights. I was hoping to learn about the cultural landscape and the political impact of Barcelona in 1952 but the main focus on this book was the murder and the conspiracy. Having recently read Red April by Santiago Roncagliolo (translated by Edith Grossman), which explored the political and cultural issue in Peru at the time, I was expecting something similar with The Whispering City.

The Whispering City is in no way a bad novel, and I found it incredibly entertaining and worked as a palette cleanser for me while I was reading The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis and The Stranger by Albert Camus. One of the main reasons I am drawn to books in translation is the insight into the cultural life and I did not get that with this book. The Whispering City reminds me a bit of The Millennium series by Stieg Larsson, with a journalist as a protagonist investigating murder and corruption. While it was not as dark as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I found it a lot more enjoyable but still the same thriller formula.

A Young Doctor’s Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov

Posted May 14, 2015 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Russian Lit Project, Short Stories / 0 Comments

A Young Doctor’s Notebook by Mikhail BulgakovTitle: A Young Doctor's Notebook (Goodreads)
Author: Mikhail Bulgakov
Translator: Hugh Aplin
Published: Alma Classics, 1926
Pages: 155
Genres: Short Stories
My Copy: Paperback

Buy: AmazonBook Depository (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

A Young Doctor’s Notebook (also known as A Country Doctor’s Notebook) is a semi-autobiographical collection of short stories published early in Mikhail Bulgakov writing life in Russian medical journals. Bulgakov was educated at the Medical Faculty of the Kiev University, though his interest lied in theatre. When World War I broke out, he volunteered with the Red Cross. He was sent directly to the front lines to work as a medical doctor and was badly injured on two separate occasions.

In 1916 Mikhail Bulgakov graduated and was quickly appointed as a provincial physician to the Smolensk province. He found himself performing procedures he had only seen once or twice while at medical school. The seven stories in this collection explore the ignorance or stubbornness of people towards medical treatment, an issue that is still very relevant today. While A Young Doctor’s Notebook was set in the small village doctor in revolutionary Russia, the stories were all written in the 1920s.

Like most editions of A Young Doctor’s Notebook, my copy of the book came with one extra story called ‘Morphine’. This was also published in a medical journal and is much different to the other stories. ‘Morphine’ is yet another semi-autobiographical story that explores Mikhail Bulgakov’s own struggles with a morphine addiction. His injuries in the war lead to chronic stomach pains and the easy access to pain relief quickly lead to a morphine addiction. Bulgakov did end up leaving the medical profession to pursue a career in writing stage plays and was able abandon the use of morphine.

A Young Doctor’s Notebook is a wonderful collection of stories that illustrate Mikhail Bulgakov’s humour and writing style. If you have seen the TV adaptation, you may notice some similarities to the story, blending the seven short stories and his other story ‘morphine’ together to deliver a fabulous dark comedy. I binge watched the show over a weekend and I was not ready for it to end, so I picked up this collection and this quickly started an obsession with the life of Bulgakov.

While Mikhail Bulgakov is mainly known for his book The Master and Margarita (a book I recently re-read), A Young Doctor’s Notebook may be a more accessible book. It allows you to get a taste of Bulgakov’s style and humour with the seven short stories. I read an edition that was translated by Hugh Aplin and he is quickly becoming a favourite of mine and I will be hunting down everything he has translated (he translated mainly Bulgakov and Dostoevsky). Learning more about Mikhail Bulgakov’s life does give me extra enjoyment and context when reading his books. I am slowly reading a collection of his letters and diaries in a book called Manuscripts Don’t Burn, so you may see a lot more about Bulgakov on this blog.

Something Coming Through by Paul McAuley

Posted May 13, 2015 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Science Fiction / 0 Comments

Something Coming Through by Paul McAuleyTitle: Something Coming Through (Goodreads)
Author: Paul McAuley
Published: Orion, 2015
Pages: 384
Genres: Science Fiction
My Copy: Library Book

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

Aliens exist, and now they need our help. After Earth is ruined by nuclear and environmental disasters, it is puzzling that humanity has been given fifteen habitable planets to start a fresh. The Jackaroo assist with the move to the new planets, infrastructure is built and humanity is saved. Chloe Millar is mapping out the changes caused by importing alien technology when she stumbles upon a pair of orphaned children that appear to be possessed by an ancient ghost. On one of the new planets, Vic Gayle is investigating a murder in a remote excavation site that could lead to a war between rival gangs. Something is Coming Through is a new novel by prolific science fiction novelist Paul McAuley.

Something is Coming Through interlinks the story of Chloe Millar and Vic Gayle, all the while trying to understand why the Jackaroo are helping humanity. The premise of this book sounded too intriguing to pass up; think a science fiction crime novel that explores the concept of first contact. Unfortunately, nothing seemed to work within the book; it tries to do so much but everything moves too slowly to make it enjoyable. Even the Jackaroo sound like they are an interesting race but there is no real exploration into their motivations which really hurt the novel.

I am not sure if I am no longer into reading science fiction; it has been a while since I enjoyed this genre (with the exception of Russian sci-fi). Or maybe I just need to stick to the classics, those novels from the 60s and 70s that explore sociology and philosophy. I just found Something is Coming Through to be a very bland novel that relied too heavily on dialogue. I have to accept the fact that I enjoy novels with substance that explore themes or ideas over plot; this is why Russian sci-fi is still great.

 I struggle to find anything positive to say about Something is Coming Through; it is one of those occasions where I should have abandoned the book. I honestly cannot even remember why I decided to pick this book up but I was intrigued by the premise. Sadly I found nothing enjoyable about this novel and I do not know if I will try Paul McAuley again. I would like to think I was willing to try authors again but at the moment, there is no way.

Mr. Kiss and Tell by Rob Thomas & Jennifer Graham

Posted May 6, 2015 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Crime / 0 Comments

Mr. Kiss and Tell by Rob Thomas & Jennifer GrahamTitle: Mr. Kiss and Tell (Goodreads)
Author: Jennifer Graham, Rob Thomas
Series: Veronica Mars #2
Published: Random House, 2015
Pages: 336
Genres: Crime
My Copy: Paperback

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

Veronica Mars is back, and this time she is investigating what might be her most challenging case. The Neptune Grand has hired her to investigate a woman’s claims of assault and rape in one of their hotel rooms. This is a high-profile scandal that has the potential to ruin this ritzy hotel. Mr. Kiss and Tell is a mystery that finds Veronica working for the ‘big guy’ investigating something she has personally experienced, how will she cope with this type of case?

Most may be aware that I am a big fan of the Veronica Mars series and I was so excited that they were continuing the story in book form. Now the books are slightly different, switching from first person to third, but the characters and setting are all there. If you have seen the TV series you know that sometimes Veronica can get involved in a case that can challenge her own values. The show and book have an interesting exploration into the class struggle and Mr. Kiss and Tell has Mars working for the people (this time Neptune Grand) with the money.

What I enjoyed about this book is the way that Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham explored that struggle between Mars’ own personal experiences and the nature of the case. Rob Thomas often did this in the TV show and it was nice to see this conflict returning for the book series. Veronica Mars is a strong independent woman and I love this about her but I like to see that little bit of vulnerability coming through in this book, it really helps humanise her.

It is hard to talk about mystery novels without giving away the plot but what I will say is that I did not enjoy this one as much as The Thousand Dollar Tan Line. This book does feature a lot more of Logan Echolls but I always ship Veronica Mars and Mac Mackenzie (who featured heavily in book one). I am so happy to read more about Veronica’s life and I will be anxiously waiting for the next book in this series.

The Stranger by Albert Camus

Posted May 2, 2015 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic / 6 Comments

The Stranger by Albert CamusTitle: The Stranger (Goodreads)
Author: Albert Camus
Translator: Matthew Ward
Published: Vintage, 1941
Pages: 123
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Paperback

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

The Stranger (also known as The Outsider or L’Étranger) tells the story of Meursault, an unsympathetic French Algerian, who after attending his mother’s funeral, finds himself killing an Arab man. The novel follows a first-person narrative that explores the events before and after this murder. Albert Camus said is best when he said “I summarised The Stranger a long time ago, with a remark I admit was highly paradoxical: ‘In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.’ I only meant that the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.”

On the surface The Stranger is the story of an emotionless protagonist; Meursault does not care about anything and could be considered a sociopath. However, this novel is often cited as an example of Camus’ philosophy on the absurd and existentialism. So in order to fully grasp the intent behind this classic novel, we must look into just what existentialism is and more practically absurdism.

The absurd is often referring to the conflicting philosophy that humans have a tendency to seek out value and meaning in life. However absurdism believes it is logically and humanly impossible to find any meaning of life. Philosophers may have very different doctrines but they generally believe that philosophical thinking begins with the human subject. Though existentialism comes from the disorientation or confusion that we are living in a meaningless (or absurd) world.

For Albert Camus, The Stranger is an exploration into the meaning of life and if life has no meaning what is the purpose of morality. Meursault’s detachment from the world is a result of his conclusion that life is meaningless; “The chaplain knew the game well too, I could tell right away: his gaze never faltered. And his voice didn’t falter, either, when he said, ‘Have you no hope at all? And do you really live with the thought that when you die, you die, and nothing remains?’ ‘Yes,’ I said.” Paradoxically, it was only after being sentenced to death, that Meursault was able to obtain some sense of happiness.

Without an understanding of Albert Camus’ philosophical ideas, I do not think that the reader will have any hope in truly understand or appreciating this novel. However I have heard that The Stranger has been an option for high school students (especially in America) to study. I wonder how many students fall into the trap of picking this novel thinking it was short only to discover how difficult it is to analyse. I do not have enough of an understanding of absurdism or existential philosophy to full appreciate The Stranger. However re-reading this novel has helped me understand this enough to enjoy the Camus’ philosophical ideas.