From Putin to Martin in 13 stages – a reading quarter

My quarterly reading round-up – all the books I’ve read in the year’s first quarter… starting with Valdimir Putin.

The Man with no Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin
by Masha Gessen
Given the political turmoil of 2016 this seemed like a good book to pick up when I needed something to read on the flight back to Brussels from Gothenburg just after the New Year. I bought this, together with Masha Gessen’s book about Pussy Riot, for Mrs SC about three years ago. This is a fascinating unofficial biography Putin and Gessen’s account – sometimes very personal – of the events leading up his becoming Russia’s new Tsar. With Trump’s election in America at the forefront of one’s mind it’s easy to draw parallels. Fortunately, I don’t believe Donald Trump is personally anything like as dangerous as Vladimir Putin. But of course I can’t say the same for the people around him. At the end of The Man with no Face I found myself imagining a companion book: The Unlikely rise of Donald Trump, the Man with no Brain.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
by JK Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany
I followed Putin with Potter. My friend and Potter-head Lena was concerned about me when I went into hospital in October. She lent me her entire Harry Potter collection to keep me going. After the first seven volumes, which I polished off last year, this was the only one remaining. It’s a play script from the London production (premier 30th July, 2016) and was actually written by Jack Thorne “based on an original new story by JK Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany”. I think it’s a very satisfactory book and I’m sure it would make a very satisfactory novel if Thorne, Rowling and/or Tiffany were ever to turn their hands to it. I can’t entirely escape the feeling that we are dipping our toes in the stagnant pond of fan fiction though.
Solaris
by Stanislav Lem
This was my first re-read of the year. I don’t know when I originally read Solaris. It must have been some time in the very early 80s or the late 70s. I know that I read it soon after seeing the film for the first time and that I found the film more interesting. With the passage of time and the fact that I haven’t seen Solaris the (original) movie for about 30 years, I find myself much more impressed by the book this time around. As you would expect, the book is fuller with more philosophy and a more cogent story. Still, I do think Tarkovsky’s film captured the descriptions beautifully. At the same time, reading the book I get a definite frisson looking back into the concept of space exploration from a Soviet perspective. It puts me in mind of the Cosmonauts exhibition I visited a couple of years ago in London.

1st quarterr books 1

M Train
by Patti Smith
Continuing my Patti Smith theme from last year. This book is in many ways very different from Smith’s account of her life with Robert Mapplethorpe in Just Kids. Yet it’s clearly by the same author. What I particularly liked about M Train is that she writes an autobiographical account of little more than a year of her life, but turns it into a poetic, philosophic novel about the passage of time, memory and the craft of writing. There are passages and incidents in the book which I think are probably fiction, although I can’t 100% sure. Her early reference to WG Sebald caught my eye. I’m still in the middle of discovering this author who hovers between false history and true fable. That may be a clue. And then there is the Chestertonian quality of the references to a weird organisation that celebrates an obscure German explorer, its strange rules and regulations, odd meetings and final dissolution. I can’t really believe it, at the same time – who knows?
Fishing in Utopia
by Andrew Brown
This is an autobiography by a journalist who lived part of his youth in Sweden. It is a combination of a memoir and journalist’s analysis of recent Swedish history. Generally, I think it works – and there is some very beautiful writing, some lyrical passages. But there are a couple of chapters towards the end where Brown goes off on a road trip to investigate the Swedish condition which I felt didn’t fit comfortably with the rest. He saves himself towards the end though, and I found the last chapter very poignant and satisfying. There is quite a lot about fishing. I notice some reviewers found that irritating or boring. Come on, guys, you can’t say you weren’t warned. It’s in the title! And besides, there’s a literary heritage behind it going back to Izaak Walton and The Compleat Angler. Brown’s description of life in Lilla Edit dates from the early 70s, but it reminds me vividly of Kouvola in south-eastern Finland where I lived in the mid-80s. Brown gets one or two facts wrong – anyone who knows Sweden will raise their eyes to learn Skövde is in Småland – but I don’t think they undermine the veracity of his story.
Chocolate Filling
by Maher Hamoud
This is another autobiography. Hamoud is an Egyptian, a journalist and a political activist who was involved in the Arab Spring in Cairo. The revolution broke out during his first year as a doctoral student in Ghent in Belgium and he returned to Tahrir Square to participate and report. This book is an account of his experience of Belgium in the light of his experience of the Egyptian revolution. Hamoud’s grasp of English is not the most secure. Occasionally it’s a little difficult to follow him. But his enthusiastic use of the language and the account that he gives of his experiences in both – very different – places is fascinating.

Putin: 1st quarterr books 2

Head of State
by Andrew Marr
Andrew Marr is a British political journalist and commentator. He has regular programme on the BBC where he interviews British politicians and reports from Westminster. I picked up this book in a Belgian bookshop partly because of his name and partly because the blurb describes it as a thriller set in post-referendum Britain. I read most of it under the impression that it was written and published after last June’s referendum. Doubts started to creep in when I was more than half way through. Then I looked at the title page and discovered the book was actually published in 2014. The story is about a death and the highly political attempts to cover it up. It’s a bit hard going to begin with, but it does pick up the pace after a while. Overall, though I found it disappointing as it’s not really thrilling enough for a thriller, but not nearly funny enough for a satire. (It would have worked much better as a satire.)
Jag Ringer mina Bröder
by Jonas Hassen Khemiri
I’d been looking for a book to read in Swedish that wasn’t too long, wasn’t too difficult and was at the same time not a children’s book. (I’m still continuing with my project to read all Tove Jansson’s Moomin books – I have three piled up on the bookshelves near me now.) But I wanted something different and Khemiri’s book is that alright. I very much enjoyed it and especially the way Khemiri conveys so many different characters only through the language they use speaking. It doesn’t appear to be available in an English translation, which is a shame. Though I wonder how it would translate.
His Bloody Project
by Graeme Macrae Burnet
My next book is an historical novel, a crime fiction and a work of postmodern(?) legerdemain. It describes the events surrounding the murder of a Scottish crofter and his family and the confession and trial of the man who killed them. It is a beautifully constructed work and, I think, entirely believable. The longest part of the book is the confession written by 17 year old Roddy Macrae. At the end of this, you as the reader are deeply sympathetic to young Roddy. The documents that follow the confession, though, shed different lights on the first document and at the end of the book you are not likely to have quite the same view of the killer. A very satisfactory read.

1st quarterr books 3

On Writing and Writers
by Margaret Atwood
I started out making detailed notes on this book. (See here.) But I borrowed it from the library and the loan time was likely to expire before I was done. When I realised how little time I had left, I gave up my annotation ambitions and just read on. I think I’ll have to borrowed this one again when I’m back in Brussels and carry on making my notes. I found this book inspiring, educative and interesting for the glimpses of Atwood’s autobiography it contains.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
by Jonathan Safran Foer
This was a recommendation to me by one of my Blogg52 friends. (Tip of the hat to Lars Christer Billbäck.) I probably wouldn’t have read it if not for the recommendation. I’d seen the title – I’d even taken a photograph of somebody on a bus reading this book when it was first out and popular – but it put me off. I just didn’t find it enticing. Funny how one develops irrational likes and dislikes. This book is about Oskar Schell, a nine-year-old boy who may be autistic – on the autistic spectrum at any rate. Oskar’s father is killed in the 9/11 terror attack in New York and Oskar sets out on an expedition to discover his father’s secret. The book is largely told from Oskar’s perspective, but the story is interspersed with snatches of other writings that are eventually explained. In the end a family secret is revealed, but it isn’t what Oskar imagines – or even what the reader expects. (Not this reader at any rate.) It’s very satisfactory and, in the end everything is explained.
Not for Print #1 Censorship
Ello
This next isn’t really a book in the same sense as all the others. I include it for completion’s sake. Censorship is the first of what promises to be a series of photo books/magazines produced by the artists’ social network Ello (of which I am a not so very productive member). The magazine was fun to see and there are a few pictures in it that I like… They’re collecting pieces for the second edition now.
A Feast for Crows
by George RR Martin
This volume is most of the reason I’ve only read 12 books this quarter. A Feast for Crows is just so damn thick it took me most of March to read. It’s done now and I enjoyed it, but though I’m looking forward to the next episode, A Dance with Dragons, I think it’ll be some months before I revisit Westeros.

I wrote this article for the #Blogg52 challenge.

4 thoughts on “From Putin to Martin in 13 stages – a reading quarter

  1. Oj, vilken blandning av böcker. Spännande! Ungefär som det brukar vara för mig också. Men just nu har jag fastnat i Legenden om Ljusets rike av Margit Sandemo. Kräver inte så mycket av mig nu när jag är inne i en intensiv period.
    Kram Kim 🙂

    • Thanks for your comment Kim.
      I recently read this blog article Learning from Reading on Writer Unboxed which makes a point of encouraging readers (and so writers) to read adventurously. But so long as I’m reading, it’s what I’ve always done. I have catholic tastes.
      🙂
      I’m not always sure that’s a virtue, but I hope.

  2. Håller med Kim, just blandningen gör det extra roligt att läsa om dem! HP and the cursed child ligger i min läsa-hög men jag har ännu inte lyckats läsa den trots att – eller kanske på grund av – att de andra böckerna, de “riktiga”, var så trollbindande.
    Eva

    • Thanks Eva,
      I may have let my feelings about fanfiction (“stagnant pond”) get the better of me in the passage on The Cursed Child. I actually thought the story was very good, and appropriate to the Harry Potter universe. (And of course JKR has approved it and probably had at least some hand in forming it.) But I understand your resistance to reading something that isn’t part of the “real” canon. Probably the story would be better seen on stage. (I did wonder – reading the stage instructions – how some of it is done.)

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