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2004 08 24

Base | Media | Books


Voyage into murky depths

Het Hof Van Barmhartigheid (A.F.Th. van der Heijden)

Het Hof Van Barmhartigheid (A. F. Th. van de Heijden)

This book is the third part of a four part series of books, although in terms of books, it is already the fifth out of seven. According to the listing in the front matter, part 5 and 6 are 'in preparation'. To students of Dutch literature, this may seem as much of a threat as it is a hint of what's to come.

For all the praise and credit heaped upon this author (well-earned as it is), this is not a book that aims to entertain in the modern (or even mediocre) sense. At times, I found it a challenge to hang on to the seemingly endless avalanche of imagery and philosophical excursions, all with absent regard for keeping a story line alive, let alone moving forward at more than glacial pace. In short, this is not a novel for the squeamish reader, both in form and content.

As far as the content goes: be warned that it is an exploration of the depths of the human psyche, taking a non-too well behaving specimen as its center of attention. This exploration takes the reader to low points of behaviour, then merrily keeps on digging well below that level. More than once, aided by the rest of the cast, the text surprised me with yet even worse aspects of what humans are able to think and do, not least to each other.

A very pleasant aspect of the book stucture is that it is chopped up in small pieces, covering wildly varying amounts of story time, but rarely using more than half a dozen pages. Every section is from another character's perspective and has a date noted, in anything but chronological order. Besides facilitating reading the book in short bursts (as I tend to do, using small bits of spare time) it creates an effect like the literary equivalent of a fractal: at first glance you could be forgiven for thinking that you have seen the whole thing. Dig deeper (or zoom in, whichever image you prefer) and you find that there is ever more detail to be found. Best of all: you wind up finding repeating patterns inside of smaller detail.

For those who read literature as a self-imposed intellectual challenge, the book (and indeed the whole series it belongs in) is a worthy choice, best read as part of the set. The casual reader looking for entertainment in the commonly understood sense had better look elsewhere.

2004 06 04

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More interesting than funny

Dr.Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation (Olivia Judson)

Dr.Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation (Olivia Judson) - cover

When we were on holiday in the South of France in 2002, one of the people in our party was reading this book; the hard cover edition even. On a fairly regular basis, he would laugh out loud and--by way of explanation--read aloud a small passage of this book. I remember it being much funnier then than it was reading the whole thing myself.

The blurb on the cover, as well as some reviews I read all say this book is wildly funny and entertaining. Funny to people who rarely get out of their stuffy laboratories, maybe, but not to me.

Don't get me wrong: I enjoyed reading the book, but much more because of the interesting subject matter (which a lot less raunchy if you will just get over your sexually inhibited self for two minutes), which is in itself presented in a very readable format.

Mrs. Judson deserves credit for this work. Not for being more than lightfooted with words, but for making a subject matter that is (despite the best juvenile intentions) on par with paleontology for entertainment value into a book that will be read by non-scientists, and read with interest.

2003 11 30

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Impressed into insignificance

Atonement (Ian McEwan)

Atonement (Ian McEwan) - cover

Reading this book, I couldn't help but feel that whatever I will ever write myself will never amount to more than an exercise in futility.

It is a surprising read on many levels: the story is dark, but gripping. Several times, drastic turns of the narrative happen in the middle of a paragraph, tripping me up and having a truly exhilarating effect: it is anything but predictable and thus extremely compelling to keep turning those pages.

Then there is the self-referential structure and the overlapping viewpoints (the same events told more than once, but from different characters' points of view): highly technical, yet not obtrusive in the least.

As the back cover says: "By the end of that day the lives of all three [main characters] will have been changed for ever." Very true. You never see the changing event coming until it hits you square in the face. The rest of the book I spent reading in a single, drawn out gasp of shock. Shock at what happened and the ever increasing magnitude of the impact it is bound to have on the lives of all involved.

On another level, it gave me a glimpse of what life in England was like just before and during the start of the Second World War. There is enough material to give even the most reluctant history student reason to reconsider.

I picked this book up at a whim, but I can heartily reccommend it.