Wednesday, 18 January 2017

What I've been reading

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Annus Dramaticus in 2014ce
by Alastair Gamble
"Luke Trevelyan was a practising architect, and a committed Buddhist for over twenty-one years. Experiencing a quite severe mental episode in the early part of 2014, this sparked a strongly held belief that his life might be in mortal danger from the authorities. Were these thoughts the delusions of someone insane, or had he in fact broken through to new levels of insight?"
I'm no professional book critic, I just know what I like. And I always try to write in this blog as though anyone at all could be reading, including anyone I write about. Alastair would like to make a living as an author, and he has put all of himself into this semi-autobiographical novel. That's partly what made it such uncomfortable reading, because knowing him has made it difficult to read about his personal life in such explicit detail. Aside from the personal, I haven't found the narrative engaging at all. I'm not sure what it's supposed to be about, with references to Buddhist writings alongside the main character's experiences of himself and the world around him coloured by paranoia presumably arising from his bi-polar disorder. None of these topics is examined or analysed in any detail, and with conclusions notably absent. What it has really made me think about is how one knows whether one's writing is good or not. Comedians always say that the only way to know whether their material is funny is to deliver it and see if anyone laughs. Perhaps it isn't possible to be self-critical in terms of quality of prose writing either?


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Death in Venice
by Thomas Mann

narrated by Peter Batchelor
"A stunningly beautiful youth and the city of Venice set the stage for Thomas Mann’s introspective examination of erotic love and philosophical wisdom."
I listen to most audio books in the car, and this one engaged me so little that after 5 minutes I realised I wasn't even listening, and had to start it again. When I had to start again for a second time later in the journey, it was clear that the writing style is not for me. I had absolutely no idea what this book was about when I picked it as my next 'classic' book. I now know it is short, originally written in German, set in 1913, its topic is homosexual love between the old narrator and a young boy he encounters in Venice, and the title gives away the ending. The most striking thing is the coincidence of reading this at the same time as the book above - they both throw armfuls of adjectives at any noun, sentence structure is Germanic and long, virtually no narrative arc, tedious philosophising and uncomfortable content. Mann was awarded a Nobel prize in 1929, so maybe I'm being too harsh on Alastair.


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H.M.S. Surprise
by Patrick O'Brian
"Amid sights and smells of the Indian subcontinent explore ships of the East India Company. Aubrey is on the defensive, pitting wits and seamanship against an enemy enjoying overwhelming local superiority."
I'm not sure why I keep reading these, because I have no idea what he's going on about most of the time, and not only in the bits where he's talking about sailing the ship. I'm sure it's very authentically nineteenth century and accurate in its maritime detail, but I wouldn't really know one way or the other. I think I'll skip the rest of books that I have in the series. Just admitting to this is a bit of a relief.


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The Man in the High Castle
by Philip K. Dick

narrated by Jeff Cummings
"It's America in 1962. Slavery is legal once again. The few Jews who still survive hide under assumed names. In San Francisco, the I Ching is as common as the Yellow Pages. All because some twenty years earlier the United States lost a war - and is now occupied by Nazi Germany and Japan."
Another in a string of titles that hasn't engaged my interest at all, and this one had such a promising premise as well. What if the Axis powers had won WWII? There were a number of strands to the story but none of them made much sense or provided any coherence to the story. I would struggle to recall much at all, and I only finished it yesterday.


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Introducing Buddhism
by Chris Pauling
"Images of the Buddha are everywhere: selling tea bags, mobile phones, holidays. But what is the true attraction of Buddhism? This best-selling book explains the essential teachings and practices that underlie most forms of Buddhism."
A slim volume containing just the basics, which has confirmed what I suspected - my weekly group is teaching me two meditation practices but not much about Buddhism. Which is fine; I'm not desperate to become a 'proper' Buddhist and I quite enjoy the meditation. There's a lot of 'threefold' this and 'eightfold' that, but there were also a few useful paragraphs that resonated with my experience so far. And did I mention how short the book is? I could skip through it again any time.

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