Friday, 23 April 2010

THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

This is a famous book that one keeps meaning to read, so one has decided to read it. I bought it on Amazon, where the customer reviews are the sort of mouth-frothingly eager ones that make one feel all the more required to read it. Check it out. Charmingly, it comes to me in Zimbabwe as a discarded book from a library in small town Arkansas, complete with index card sleeve.

It's not really the sort of book that one can call 'good,' because that seems sort of disrespectful. Quality terms don't really apply to this sort of book.

Basically, Solzhenitsyn spent eight years in a hard labour camp under Stalin. He actually got off lightly, as typical setences were ten to twenty five years. He was jailed for being a literary person, but you needn't think you actually needed to be guilty to go to the Gulag. Essentially, areas had quotas, both for jailings and executions, so anyone and everyone could be arrested quite randomly, and thousands and thousands of people were. They really wanted 'confessions' and lists of 'co-conspirators' (ie, your acquaintances, to make arrests less effort). So there was a lot of torture, stomach-churningly described. Incredibly, to me, lots of individuals refused to sign anything, or give up any names, and so as Sozhenitsyn puts it about one case, 'died a victor in his cell.'

It actually boggles the mind. You can't believe it really happened. They also sent whole groups - like millions of people - to exile in Siberia, where many died. Just twelve years after the Russian Revolution had divided up the land fairly, some people were already doing slightly better than their neighbours, presumably through hard work as they had no material advantages. These 'kulaks' were viewed as class enemies and sent into exile - millions of them - which immediately caused a three year famine, in which millions more died.

Being in Zim at the moment, I'm especially struck by two things: one, how angry the author is, and two, how madly brave he is. He is naming names and ripping shit up. Like, he tells us who informed on who simply to get his girlfriend, and then tells us where he currently lives in comfort in Moscow. Madly brave.

Here's the rest of the review.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

THE SAVAGE GARDEN by Mark Mills

Well, this is one of those books that makes me feel like I better become an author. Seriously, can any old crap become a bestseller? If so, let me start writing. That's a bit mean, but DUDE. It was a bit rubbish.

It tells the story of a young man who as a university project goes to study a Renaissance garden in Italy. It's written in the past, and opens with him in university, and the narrator says of his past self: "Try as he might, he couldn't penetrate the workings of that stranger's mind, let alone say with any certainty how he would have dealt with the news that murder lay in wait for him, right around the corner." I mean, seriously. Murder . . . right around the corner. Hurl.

So it's quite charmingly evocative of an Italian summer, but then it goes down a sort of de Vinci style what secret was hidden in the garden 400 years ago type route, which is distinctly borderline as a plot. We discover a 400 year old murder and also a contemporary one, and also have a love interest and some distinctly dodgy sex scenes.

I got it at a short story reading event I went to quite randomly, where there were cupcakes with labels saying 'Eat Me' (as in Alice in Wonderland) and books saying 'Take Me' - of which this was one - and so though I didn't enjoy the book I enjoyed the rather sweet way I came by it.

I just have to tell you that the first line of the author's bio is "Mark Mills graduated from Cambridge University in 1986." I guess that's the beginning and end of his life and everthing we need to know about him. Hurl.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

ME TALK PRETTY ONE DAY by David Sedaris

Now as I've told you before, I almost never buy books. Partly because I'm too cheap, and partly because I only really like owning books I really like. But I'm off to Zimbabwe for three months, where good books are hard to come by, so I gave in and spent some serious money on Amazon. Oh yes. So this is one of the first from that batch. I blogged about WHEN YOU ARE ENGULFED IN FLAMES by David Sedaris as I read it earlier this year, and really enjoyed it. ME TALK PRETTY was a bit of a let down, really. In the previous book, I enjoyed the way Sedaris was so open about his somewhat messed up life, but in this way rather than being pleasingly open and honest, it started to seem like a gimmick. And I didn't really find it that funny. Hmmm. Is it because that it's not as good a book, or is it because it's the second of his books I've read, so I'm wise to his shtick? A pressing question for the ages.

Since I last wrote I've flown to Africa - 20 hours, FOUR stop overs - let's not talk about it - so I've read a lot of books, but not been in a bloggable state. Much more to follow. After I get back from a four day holiday, far from internet. Laterz!

Thursday, 1 April 2010

WIZARD OF THE CROW by Ngugi wa Thiong'o


Oh god. This didn't go well. It was given to me as a very kind gift. The back cover, a review, calls it a "remarkable book that will be widely read . . a sprawling analogy." Hmmm. Remarkable how? Remarkably bad?

And sprawling? This clearly means: needs editing.

I tried for 70 pages or so, but I just couldn't do it. I could just tell he was settling in for a long one, and I couldn't handle it. I feel bad, because they've even dressed the crow up on the front in Zimbabwean colours, because it's about a dictator, so I give them props for that, but I just couldn't handle it.