Monday 31 January 2011

January Reads

I have managed to get the year off to a good start book wise.  I read five books and listened to three audiobooks.  The most surprising was Kim by Rudyard Kipling.  My first encounter with Kipling as a writer.  Though I did see a rather good TV play about his son who was killed in the First World War.  This confirmed my image of Kipling as a jingoistic warmonger and defender of the Empire.  As I have now discovered, there is more to the man than that.  He was of course an arch Imperialist and believer in war, but then so were most people of his time.  He was also a very fine writer.
Kim was published in 1901 and is set in northern India in the latter part of the 1990s.  The eponymous hero is in fact a young British orphan, though he as been brought up as an Indian in Lahore.  Kim in fact is much more comfortable speaking Hindi than English.  The novel is a kind of picaresque spy adventure story.   Kim uses his knowledge and close familiarity with native Indian society to become a spy for the British.  What is fascinating and revelatory for me, was that Kipling was clearly very knowledgeable about India and very sympathetic to the different religious and language traditions in the country.  Hindus, Moslems, Buddhists, Hindis, Punjabis, Afghans and Bengalis are all represented in the novel which presents us with a vivid, colourful and lively account of India at the end of the 19th century.  I was perhaps particularly drawn to Kim as my father was born in northern India, in Kanpore, in 1908.  So the novel gave me a wonderful insight into the lives and places where my grandparents were stationed in the early 1900s.  
Other highlights included a couple of very good contemporary crime novels.  Left early, took my Dog is the latest novel by Kate Atkinson.  This one also features the somewhat beleaguered private detective Jackson Brodie.  This time he is back in Yorkshire and the tale revolves around deception and the abduction of children, and the dog of the title.  As with all Kate Atkinson books, this is written in her traditional slightly playful style.  Still she writes about serious subjects in a non-judgmental way and this was another enjoyable read.
The other crime novel which I particularly enjoyed was Allan Massie’s A Death in Bordeaux.  Massie is a prolific Scottish writer, yet this was my first encounter with his work.  A Death in Bordeaux is set to be the first of a trilogy of novels set in occupied France.  The events in this book take place in 1940, starting just before the invasion and continuing into the occupation itself.  Massie is more interested in the strains and inner conflicts that come from living and working in a time of great uncertainty.  So this is less a who done it and much more a study of human nature.  Written in a deceptively simple and unadorned style I am already eager to get the next in the series, whenever it comes out.
Another unexpected pleasure was listening to the audio version of Sex and Stravinsky, by Barbara Trapido.  A beguiling title, which may disappoint a few readers, as there is virtually no sex in the novel and not a lot of Stravinsky either.  Once over this, you have a well crafted and intriguing tale.  It reminded me a bit of A Comedy of Errors, though it is much, much darker.  In fact it is more a modern version of Commedia del Arte.  The one recurring link with Stravinsky is his ballet Pulcinella, which features some of the stock Commedia del Arte characters.   Masks feature quite a lot too and this is what really links the ballet and the novel.  For the novel is mainly about how people can willingly cover up their real selves and settle for a comfortable life.  This is what the two couples in the novel have done.  One in England and the other in South Africa.  Some chance encounters, or more accurately re-encounters force the protagonists to face up to who they really are and what kind of life they really want to live.  The tale is told through the perspectives of each of the characters in turn.  Which is quite a tour de force as two of the protagonists are teenage girls.  Written with a light touch, and though there is much comedy in the telling, it is in the end a somewhat bitter sweet novel.  But well worth reading or listening to.
For February I already have a few ideas in mind.  First off will by first foray into the East European Reading Challenge, hosted by Amy at Black Sheep Dances.  For this I have selected Turkish Gambit by Russian writer Boris Akunin.  A kind of spy and adventure tale set in 1877 I look forward to it with great interest.  Also lined up are Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, Redeemer by Jo Nesbø, and a Spanish language novel - Un Crimen Imperfecto, by Teresa Solana.  Hopefully I will manage a few more.

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