Thursday, December 31, 2015

After the QuakeAfter the Quake by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“You know something?" she said.
"I'm completely empty."

This is my second book by Haruki Murakami; over two years ago I read and reviewed Kafka on the Shore . I have read After the Quake in a Polish translation as I do not have access to the English version right now. This is a collection of six short stories, linked together by references to the tragic 1995 earthquake in Kobe. All stories in the set are compulsively readable, yet - in my view - of quite uneven literary value.

UFO in Kushiro tells a story of a man whose wife left him, after the quake, and who was asked to deliver a package - a small box - to someone in a distant part of the country. This enigmatic tale poses many questions to which it gives only oblique and indirect answers. What was in the box? Why did the wife leave the man? Why did Keiko say that the wife had died? And most importantly, what do we really know - if anything - about other people? I quite like the story, probably because of the last question: our guesses about other people's motives are usually wrong. (Also, being a connoisseur of bad jokes, I appreciate Mr. Murakami's use of the famous joke about bears and bells, without spoiling the punch line.)

Landscape with Flatiron is ostensibly about the human atavistic fascination with fire, but this moody and melancholic story really focuses on the feeling of emptiness in human life. Nice but not particularly memorable.

The Polish translation uses the title of the third story, All God's Children Can Dance as the title of the entire collection, probably because it is a catchy phrase, yet to me this story of a man in search for the father he has never known is by far the weakest story in the set. It is pretentious, superficial, and it fails in its attempts to titillate the reader with religious and sexual references. (By the way, there is nothing wrong with explicit sexual references in literature as long as they make at least some sense in the context of a story; Yoshiya's huge penis does not).

The quiet and reflective fourth story is about a medical researcher, divorced from her husband, vacationing in Thailand (which is the title of the story), and trying to cope with memories of her painful past. This "secrets and lies" sort of tale is enlivened by the character of Nimit, a Thai driver and guide, who speaks with a Norwegian accent. The piece would have a greater impact if the author were not so insistent on explicitly telling us what he wanted to convey through his prose. There are subtler ways of portraying human loneliness.

The title of the next piece - Super-Frog Saves Tokyo - succinctly summarizes the plot of this amusing yet lightweight story. The highpoint here is a funny reference to Anna Karenina, especially coming from the mouth of a frog (sorry, the Super-Frog). On the other hand, its low point is pretty low in my opinion: the showy claptrap bit about suppurating abscesses, oozing pus, worms, and bugs.

The last story, Honey Pie, is clearly the best: the author manages to refrain from cheap literary tricks and does not try to dazzle the reader with showiness. Here we can see a good writer at work, telling us about the ways in which love changes our lives and brings some sense to our otherwise meaningless existence. This story is the only reason that my rating of the entire collection is higher than "Fair".

In the review of Kafka on the Shore I wrote: "In a sense, the novel is a beautiful, yet empty shell." I have a similar feeling - minus the "beautiful" bit - after reading this set of stories. With the exception of the excellent last piece and the fourth one where the author explicitly tells us what we are supposed to think, the stories read as empty textual structures that the readers can fill with any interpretation they want - not that there is anything wrong with it, in my view, as long as the structures are constructed of engaging prose.

Two and three quarter stars.

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Monday, December 28, 2015

Philip and the OthersPhilip and the Others by Cees Nooteboom
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"She became the shadow and the quivering of the silver spruce that grew there and the aged, cracked crimson of the dried-up riverbed."

"Magical" is the word that best describes Cees Nooteboom's novella Philip and the Others (1954). Trying to grasp the word's entire spectrum of meaning I looked it up in several dictionaries: excluding the denotation that refers to magic I found two nice definitions: "mysteriously enchanting, bewitching" and "describing something with a special and exciting quality". While these are adequate, the definition from The Oxford Dictionary best captures my impression of the novella: "beautiful or delightful in such a way as to seem removed from everyday life." This is exactly how I felt reading Philip. Let me continue the quote from the epigraph, the quote that epitomizes Mr. Nooteboom's magical prose:

"That evening the valley was created afresh with the hands of a lunatic who had come into possession of the moon and who painted and struck the rocks and the trees with the light of the moon until an unbearable madness seized control of the landscape, and all things began to breathe and live together with her, unbearably."

Mr. Nooteboom, whose work I had not known until about half a year ago, has quickly become one of my favorite authors and I would probably call his The Following Story the best book I have ever read (with
Lost Paradise not so far from the top of my choices). Philip and the Others is his first published book, and its beginning chapter is a literary tour de force, a beautifully told account of events from Philip's childhood and youth. I will never forget the passages about a bus ride at night, walking just around the corner to Africa, the uncle's secret from the distant past, and, particularly, a girl in a red coat, whom Philip saw at a bus stop and who was not there six years later. The evocation of childhood memories is so powerful and the prose so vivid in its magical intensity that Philip's childhood could well be my own.

The remainder of the novella relates Philip's search for a beautiful Chinese girl. He hitchhikes through France: Provence, Paris, Calais, then farther, through Europe. This reads almost like a fairy tale, a tale that contains episodes featuring different characters in changing locales. One can find some rather incongruously included autobiographical elements - the passages about a Carmelite school that likely reflect Mr. Nooteboom's Catholic education. I do not much like this part of the novella, finding it unfocused, somewhat contrived, and overwrought. I am aware how presumptuous of me is to quibble about this author's prose, but I think at the time of writing Philip he was still learning to become the great writer he is now, a writer of ethereally beautiful yet lean and economical prose. While I do not believe there are many sentences that could be cut from The Following Story without diminishing its impact, about a half of text in Philip could be deleted, without much harm to the book's significance. True, one can find passages of beauty in the main part of the novella, for instance the fragment about buying a bird of paradise, named Janet, or the one about the chorus of people seated on park benches in Luxembourg, but on the whole the reader will likely find the book aimless and meandering.

I also do not particularly like the Preface, in which Mr. Nooteboom writes about the reception of Philip in mid-1980s by students at Berkeley, although it has a great fragment about the young man who wrote this book in 1954 and then went "on his way to becoming the unavoidable me that I am [...] the mystery of time's passage has become too perplexing." While this mystery is a central theme in Mr. Nooteboom's books, I much prefer when the author speaks to me through his work rather than directly.

Two and three quarter stars.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Sand CastlesSand Castles by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

"[...] a once bestselling writer whom everybody now thought a joke"

Nicolas Freeling had achieved international fame as one of the best crime novelists of the second half of the 20th century based on a series of novels featuring Inspector, later Commissaris, Van der Valk. I was totally awed when Mr. Freeling killed his main hero mid-case in 1972 in one of the best crime novels of all time A Long Silence . Even though the author was famously known for his disdain of clichés and repetition, discontinuing a series that brought him fame and made a lot of money must have required real courage of conviction. So I was greatly disappointed when I learned that Mr. Freeling succumbed to the readers' pressure and returned to Van der Valk much later in his life. As much as it pains me to say this, Sand Castles (1989), despite some flashes of writing brilliance, is not a good book. The sentence quoted in the epigraph is taken from the novel; does it convey the author's bitterness?

Anyway, Van der Valk walks into a bar... The Commissaris and his wife Arlette are spending vacations on the Dutch coast. In a small seaside town, Van der Valk visits a bar, where he notices some strange goings on. Having followed a suspicious character he discovers quite ugly criminal activity that involves local notables, people in position of responsibility. When these doings are properly dealt with by the Commissaris, it is off to Germany for the vacationing couple. On Norderney island they meet a rather mysterious character, a Mr. Rijk (Herr Reich, in German), a rich businessman who insists on making friends with Van der Valk. "Why is he so damn pally?" wonders the Commissaris. Alas the suspense soon dissipates into a run-of-the-mill thriller that features spies, government agents, right-wing conspiracies, and - as a pièce de résistance - a preacher from Florida. Some people get killed and the climactic scene occurs near the Visbek Bride, a megalith assemblage close to Bremen, in northern Germany. Enchanting place, utterly silly scene.

While Herr Reich is a well-drawn character and the initial suspense is promising, the idiotic plot of the standard thriller variety is so cliché that it is hard to believe it comes from Mr. Freeling. Also, the purpose of including in the novel the first part of the plot escapes me. There are some beautifully written passages, where the places on the Dutch and German coast, the small towns and the big cities, come alive on the pages of Freeling's prose. All in all, though, Sand Castles is - to me - the weakest book by my favorite author: unremarkable, unnecessary, and forgettable. Van der Valk is an ill-conceived revenant.

One and a half stars.

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Monday, December 21, 2015

Dear Committee MembersDear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"[...] the student cheater is amazed at my powers of discernment, my uncanny ability to detect a difference in quality between his or her own work and, for example, Proust's."

I received this book as a gift from my dear friend, Kat on Goodreads. In fact, I owe her much more: it was she who showed me this great website, and thanks to her I have been addicted to reading books and writing reviews for over two years. So thank you, Kat!!!

Dear Committee Members (2014) is a funny book, hilarious indeed to people like Kat and me, who are in academia, but almost everyone will get quite a few laughs out of it. The book is composed of over 60 (fictitious) letters of recommendation (LORs, for short) written by a Dr. Fitger - a Professor of Creative Writing and English in the Department of English - for his students, advisees, and colleagues. There is no narrative glue between the letters - they constitute the entire book - and no such glue is needed: there cleverly emerges a plot when the letters are read in order. It is, in fact, valid to categorize the book as a novel.

Professor Fitger is a once popular author, whose first book, Stain, made quite a splash and almost became a bestseller, yet his career is now stagnating and his fourth book is not selling. He has long been divorced, and his love affairs have not been too successful either; what's worse, his relationships with the three important women of his life are – to put it mildly - strained, yet his work requires maintaining professional contact with them. Professionally and personally spurned, entering late middle age, Dr. Fitger is generally dispirited and his bitterness abundantly spills into the LORs, with hilarious effects for the reader.

I had always believed I was a prodigious LOR writer - how wrong I was! With my meager output of about 350 letters of recommendation produced so far, and being quite a bit older than Fitger, I am just a flyweight compared to his heavyweight status. Yet even with my limited experience in writing LORs, I recognize the author's utter mastery of the subject, language, and peculiarities of LORology. While the main difference between Dr. Fitger and me is, obviously, that he has a good command of the English language, we share many experiences and views. For instance, like him, I have had to write a LOR addressed to myself - twice, in fact. Like him I have written letters for students or colleagues about whom one could only say "[He] has a singular mind and a unique approach to the discipline. He is sui generis." And in many cases I wish I were courageous enough to use Fitger's great phrase "This letter's purpose is to provide the usual gratuitous language recommending a student [...]".

I am leaving the funniest snippet for readers to find on their own (just a hint: it concerns Hamlet). Alas, the humor tires rather quickly and the customary sniping at other departments and schools (the opulence of the Economics department versus the inhumanly rough conditions that the English faculty have to slave in) is too cliché for my taste. Also, the satire feels lightweight and disappointingly "safe". Well, the author of the book , Dr. Julie Schumacher, happens to be an actual Professor of English at an actual university, so it is obvious that she is not allowed to venture beyond the bounds of acceptable satire as defined by the rampaging PC brigades.

What I like in the book is the author's success in constructing a momentous event in the past and using it to cast a long shadow over lives of many people (the "Seminar", attended by Fitger and "his" women, led by Fitger's old mentor). I also like the Darren Browles thread, which brings some respite from the unbridled "funniness". And, of course, I like the recursive nature of the setup: Browles as an alter ego of Fitger, whom the reader might construe as Schumacher's alter ego.

A fun read. Thanks again, Kat! Happy Holidays!

Three stars.

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Friday, December 18, 2015

A City SolitaryA City Solitary by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! how is she become as a widow! she that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary!"
(Lamentations 1:1, King James Version)

When reading A City Solitary (1985) my reactions alternated between awe and exasperation. Now, that I have finished, I feel a little like someone who, having received a beautifully packaged gift, excitedly unwraps it to find just a little trinket inside. "Is that all there is?" one might be inclined to ask. This is my thirty-eighth book by Nicolas Freeling (only three more are known to exist): I have reviewed all of them here, on Goodreads and of all of them this is the one that I wish to review the least. The first thirty or so pages dazzle with utterly magnificent prose: I kept rereading sentences and passages to prolong the pleasure of being in contact with real, high literature. And yet, not even fifty pages later, I was barely able to focus on the text, so awkward and wooden it was. First, a thumbnail synopsis:

Walter, a middle-aged writer living somewhere in southwestern France, falls victim to a home invasion. The robbers, led by a young man, Fernand, break into Walter's house, threaten him with a gun, take whatever valuables they can find, destroy some precious objects of sentimental value, kill the much loved dog, scare Walter to the extent that he wets himself, and leave him bound. When Walter's wife finds him and wants to notify the police, he does not allow it. What's more, when the robbers are caught during another burglary, and Walter is called as a witness to provide additional testimony, he refuses to incriminate the suspects. He is determined to help the gang leader, who manages to escape from jail in the meantime. The second part of the book is an account of a demented journey of an unlikely quartet of characters across almost the entire length of France.

Most of crime/suspense/thriller novels are built on one fundamental premise: when bad guys do harm to people, a good guy (often a policeman or a detective) chases the bad guys and punishes them, thus meting justice. This is the archetypal, Biblical eye-for-an-eye principle. Mr. Freeling changes the pattern: when the bad guy hurts the good guy, the good guy helps the bad guy escape the so-called justice. Clever and interesting? Oh yes! Convincingly shown? Not quite. The lack of plausibility is not even the main problem to me: I would even tolerate it, if the whole novel was as beautifully written as some of its parts.

I have already mentioned the beginning thirty or so pages, where Freeling first vividly describes the home invasion, and when the victim is left tied up, in a sudden shift in the narrative focus, the author moves from detailed microscale reporting of events to a macroscale view, when his inimitable, soaring prose that touches on the essence of Europeanness, national character. and human fate, relates the story of one man's family on the backdrop of European history. But this magnificent narration soon fizzles to interminable, artificially sounding dialogues; as I have noticed many times, writing dialogues does not seem to be Mr. Freeling's strongest suit. Yet soon we are back to superb prose as we get beautifully recounted memories of one of Walter's first girlfriends and how he was trying to make love to her on the beach. Also, when Walter first learns about his wife’s infidelity, the account of his emotional trauma that quickly turns into physical pain is a first-rate psychological analysis of a universal human emotion.

The autobiographical component of the novel is rather obvious: in his youth Walter worked as a cook's helper and then as a cook, and so did Nicolas Freeling. Walter, whose heritage is a mix of English, French, Spanish, and German elements, has lived in various countries and his peripatetic life is reminiscent of Freeling's personal story that he later described in his last work, The Village Book.

Partly wonderful, partly irritating, a tad too sophisticated novel for my dwarf intellect. Let's call it a mostly failed literary experiment that had carried great promise.

One and three quarter stars.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Blood Rain (Aurelio Zen, #7)Blood Rain by Michael Dibdin
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"The dualistic, northern approach to life is completely alien to the Sicilian mind. So far from there being just two possibilities, there are, in any given case, an almost infinite number."

Michael Dibdin's Blood Rain (1999) is a part crime drama part thriller that perceptively portrays the Sicilian mentality - or I should rather say - the stereotype of Sicilian mentality. The blurbs on the cover of the novel scream "Spellbinding... superb" (The Washington Post), "Dibdin, whose prose is as startlingly clever as his plot, stretches the existential suspense through to the final page..." (The Wall Street Journal). I beg to differ: the phrases "superb" and "clever plot" are totally misused. This is my seventh "Italian" crime drama in the Zen series by Dibdin and it barely rises above the level of the totally lame and ridiculous Cabal. On the other hand, I quite like the other five Zen novels that I review on Goodreads.

Inspector Aurelio Zen, "unambitious and deeply compromised", has now been posted to Catania, Sicily, ostensibly to work on "smashing the Mafia", once and for all. The author clearly suggests that this is just a pretend appointment and - like virtually all police-type jobs in Italy - his posting as a liaison officer between the Catania office and Rome headquarters is just a sham personnel move, and Zen is just supposed to pretend he is fighting the Mafia. Zen's adopted daughter, Carla, a computer expert, also happens to be in Catania, working on setting up a computer network for the local Palace of Justice; she is trying to find the "back-door" entry to the system that causes leaks of sensitive information. We also meet Corinna Nunziatella, the local judge, who befriends Carla, and the two women are young enough to seem to believe that the fight against the Mafia clans makes sense.

The first half of the novel is totally unfocused and wanders aimlessly from a thread to a thread, from a possible main topic to another one. All of a sudden, several dramatic events conveniently happen, and Mr. Dibdin finally makes a decision what he wants to write about. The novel mutates into a standard thriller, characterized by breakneck pace and little logic, other than that things are different than they look like. Since it is of course true that nothing is ever like it seems, the silly "Third Level" stuff invoked by the author is also only a delusion, like all the misconstructions of various conspiracy theories. Whole lotta blah blah blah. The only part of the plot that I really like is the explosive ending.

While in my eyes, Blood Rain fails as a crime/thriller novel, it seems to redeem itself as a novel about Sicily. Here's a nice highlight, as a sample: Mr. Dibdin writes about a fish market on the Sicilian coast that has been in the same place for about 3,000 years. Also, one is impressed with the author clearly explaining the phony nature of Italian war against the Mafia, and how it is that the so-called "bad guys" usually win. They do because fighting them for real would be a greater inconvenience than tolerating them. Also, in some ways, the "bad guys" are just like us.

In several of my previous reviews of Mr. Dibdin's novels I noticed his peculiar preoccupation with human excreta. In this book, in addition to mentioning flatulence and defecation, the author widens his scatophilic range to include other species: he writes about "piles of [dog] turds the size of a meal and the color of vomit." We are also offered truly original references to feeling like "eating the breast of a pregnant woman" and "chewing on penises of dead boys." Maybe the author thought these literary devices would emphasize the brutal and deeply cynical tone of the novel? I am probably just dull-witted, but I find these fragments pathetic.

One and three quarter stars.

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Saturday, December 12, 2015

Tokyo FiancéeTokyo Fiancée by Amélie Nothomb
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"More than in any other country on earth, the Japanese did things because they were done."

Other readers will probably find Amélie Nothomb's Tokyo Fiancée (2007) - yet another autobiographical work by this popular Belgian author - more interesting than I did; alas I may have been a little overexposed to details of the author's biography, having recently finished reading her The Life of Hunger . While neither of these books rises to the true masterpiece level of Loving Sabotage , they are both sweet, charming, and very readable. It is not Ms. Nothomb's fault that I suffer from the Too Much Of The Same Thing syndrome, and the repetitiveness of the main topic prevents me from enjoying the books with the level of enthusiasm they deserve.

After 16 years away, the author returns to Japan, the place of her birth and early childhood, to learn Japanese and get an adult-level view of the country. The first sentence sets up the premise: "The most efficient way to learn Japanese, it seemed, would be to teach French." And so she places an ad and immediately finds her first pupil, a twenty-year-old student, Rinri, a handsome, extremely well-behaved and proper young man, heir of a wealthy family. Not only do they teach each other their respective languages but they also get close emotionally and live together for quite some time, the affair being much more serious for Rinri than for Amélie.

The book offers enlightening glimpses into Japanese society and culture, as viewed through the eyes of 21-year-old Amélie and then filtered through the mind of an almost 40-year-old, accomplished writer. The good thing about Tokyo Fiancée is that the observations feel authentically youthful and devoid of mature cynicism. The Mount Fuji story - the dramatic highpoint of the book - is captivating and very well written. Of course, one appreciates the funny depictions of various seemingly inexplicable Japanese customs: my favorite is the story of Amélie's party to which Rinri invites eleven young men, his university friends, none of whom says anything all evening long.

So while this modest, quiet, little book gets my wholehearted recommendation as an interesting and pleasant read, it does not in any way transcend the frame of a standard memoir, and the anti-repetitiveness bias prevents me from rating it higher.

Two and a half stars.

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Wednesday, December 9, 2015

GadgetGadget by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"A gadget is physicists' jargon for a nuclear device: a playful and harmless word for what we would call an atomic bomb."
(From the Author's Note.)

The thirty-seventh book by Nicolas Freeling that I am reviewing here! Only four remaining to read; what will I do with my life? While Gadget (1977), being a straightforward thriller, is a little unusual entry from my favorite crime/mystery author, it has been even more unusual for me because for almost half of the book I did not like it too much. I found the first two parts, out of five, boring, implausible, charmless, and - what would seem inconceivable for the author known for his stellar prose - not that well written, particularly the artificial sounding, stilted dialogues. Of course, I would never dream of not finishing a book by Mr. Freeling, so I plodded forward. And lo! At about the 40% mark the novel suddenly picked up and became quite readable.

Jim Hawkins, an American physicist working in a German nuclear institute, is kidnapped by terrorists, along with his wife and two young daughters. The captors - terrorists of a rather atypical variety - want him to produce the Gadget, a small nuclear device, that they want to explode to achieve their goals. They have managed to steal the necessary quantity of highly enriched uranium, they have collected all needed parts, and the only thing they are missing is the know-how. Mr. Hawkins is diligently working on assembling the device, and things keep looking up for the captors, but suddenly... a piercing scream can be heard in the terrorists' well-equipped lab, and at about page 100 the plot becomes really interesting.

While in most thrillers the descriptions and explanations of science are ridiculously botched, the situation is not that bad here: the fragments presenting the mechanics of the Gadget sound plausible (I have had some exposure to theoretical physics), although there are probably too many details, and they are accompanied by overly simplistic calculations. Rather unexpectedly for a book written by a master of psychological crime drama, it is the psychology that does not have enough depth and lacks plausibility in the first half - only in the first half - of the novel.

Oh, but how can I not like the mention of PDP-11/40. I used to work on PDP-11 series computers in the late 1970s, at about the time the novel was published. These were wonderful times for scientific computing: no Internet, no Facebook, just the real stuff.

To sum up: the topic of terrorism is perhaps even more relevant these days than 40 years ago, and save for its first 40% the book is a good read - truly a nail-biting thriller in latter parts - with a splendid, powerful ending. Not my kind of Freeling, though.

Two stars.

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Sunday, December 6, 2015

Giving Offense: Essays on CensorshipGiving Offense: Essays on Censorship by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"The punitive gesture of censoring finds its origin in the reaction of being offended. The strength of being-offended, as a state of mind, lies in not doubting itself; its weakness lies in not being able to afford to doubt itself. "

J.M. Coetzee's Giving Offense (1996) is a collection of 12 essays about the nature and essence of censorship, its various aspects and manifestations, and its effects on the society and on the artists (the subtitle of the book says it simply: Essays on Censorship). While a profound and highly scholarly work, meticulously researched and referenced on over 50 pages, this set of philosophical and literary criticism analyses is not at all impenetrable thanks to Mr. Coetzee's unsurpassed lucidity of writing. The depth and elegance of the author's analyses are so much above my ability to explain them that I am embarrassed writing this review, feeling like an elementary school kid tasked with annotating Finnegans Wake. I will thus limit my highly unqualified comments to a few selected essays, although each of the 12 fascinating studies deserves detailed analyses by scholarly-inclined readers.

Chapter Four, entitled "The Harms of Pornography: Catharine MacKinnon", is a devastatingly sharp critical analysis of Ms. MacKinnon's writings. Mr. Coetzee points out the parochialism and limitedness of some of her central ideas, as evidenced by her sole focus on the Western world, and her lack of interest in the widespread objectification and denigration of women in the world of advertising. Coetzee is at his most forceful when he criticizes what I would call a severe intellectual fraud perpetrated by Ms. MacKinnon who relativizes truth to gender and interprets female sexuality as a "construction of male power".

Allow me a personal aside here: Coetzee's writing resonates with me so strongly because he observes the social phenomena not from the perspective of what is "right" and what is "wrong" (which, of course, depends on who defines the rightness or wrongness and when and where the definition is constructed), but purely from the perspective of logic - through examining whether the arguments are valid. Coetzee's reasoning is so resoundingly refreshing because it goes strongly against today's prevalent mode of social discourse, driven by the so-called Political Correctness movement, the mode that eschews calm, logical analysis and instead focuses on attempting to right past wrongs, thus - incidentally - introducing new wrongs.

In Chapter Six, entitled "Osip Mandelstam and the Stalin Ode", the author offers an analysis of censorship and - more importantly - of self-censorship in 1930s, the darkest, Stalinist period of the Soviet history. In the next essay, "Censorship and Polemic: Solzhenitsyn", Mr. Coetzee, among many fascinating threads of analysis, mentions both proscriptive and prescriptive aspects of Soviet censorship and - most interestingly - describes "the dynamic of spiraling mimetic violence precipitated by a collapsing of distinctions", referring to a dialectic embrace between the enemies (Solzhenitsyn vs. the regime).

Out of the remaining chapters I would like to mention one on the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, which is a little outside the main thrust of the collection. While it indeed deals with issues of censorship, it focuses more on the universal and humanistic values of Mr. Herbert's poetry and on his use of allusiveness as a "mode of humanistic affirmation", and his recognition of irony as an ethical value. In Chapter Eleven which deals with relationship between the philosophy of apartheid and the system of censorship in South Africa, Mr. Coetzee - who is a mathematician by education - introduces the "algebra of mixing blood" - a sharply ironic device to illustrate the madness of apartheid philosophy.

Giving Offense is one of the most profound books I have ever read. It took me almost 20 hours to get through the 240 pages - the effort was totally worthwhile and I am happy that the onset of my senility has so far been slow enough to allow me the enjoyment of the read.

Four and three quarter stars.

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Thursday, December 3, 2015

Cook bookCook book by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"When, after setting out on that solitary swim across the entire ocean which is the first reading of Proust, we reach the first and the most famous seamark, the episode in which he eats the petite madeleine, then we know at once that whatever else Proust may be - at the least he is the most acute and penetrating of prose fiction writers - he is going to tell us more about food than we ever dreamed exists [...]"

Nicolas Freeling's The Cook Book (1972) is a companion to his wonderful The Kitchen: A Delicious Account of the Author's Years as a Grand Hotel Cook , which I reviewed here two years ago. Mr. Freeling, universally acknowledged as one of the very best writers of the crime/mystery genre in the second half of the 20th century (to me, of course, he is the best, by quite some margin), and a great writer in any genre, worked as a cook for the first 15 years of his adult life. Not only does he know what he is writing about but he writes about food so well that his cook book reads better than 99% of current fiction.

The Cook Book is - to borrow an apt phrase from the blurb on the back cover - a "fortuitous blend of the culinary and the literary". Mr. Freeling provides thirty-odd recipes for a wide variety of dishes, such as bouillabaise, beef bourguignon, nassi goreng, lapin à la bière, osso bucco, fricandeau à l'Oseille, Dutch pea soup, cinammon lamb stew, moussaka, etc., with the recipes embedded in fascinating prose - which is Freeling's true specialty - about literature, social mores, European history and culture, culinary fads and the like. One can find many hilarious passages, e.g., "The Germans eat blutwurst off a wooden plate, and the less said about this the better", "Nero [Wolfe], plus a whole gang of gastrologers, is busy tasting a most nauseating concoction of - I quote textually - celery, cayenne, pepper, chervil, tarragon, thyme, parsley, chives and shallots - and the author of this amalgam gets, one is mightily relieved to note, a knife stuck in him."

I applaud Mr. Freeling's fanatical zeal when he ridicules the notion of providing precise amounts of ingredients in recipes and specifying accurate cooking times (I realized long ago that my need to know exactly how long to cook something indicates that I am a very bad cook). I love his heartfelt tirades about the modern trend to suppress "all sense of smell" in supermarkets and against banquets of any kind ("ghastly things", "the most uncivilized ways of eating dinner"). I agree with his praise of choucroute (sauerkraut) and, in general, of pig-and-cabbage combination. Of course, what I love the most is the constant stream of literary references: not only to Proust, but also to Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, Alexander Dumas, Rex Stout, and others. A very good read!

Three and a half stars.

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