Review of Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh

My word, this book is dull. I had high hopes for this one, seeing that it appears in so many best-of lists. Even a Jeremy Irons performance on the audiobook (who was pretty awesome, I must say) could not detract from the extremely plodding storyline.

In summary, there’s this chap, Charles Ryder, who whilst studying in Oxford, befriended Sebastian Flyte, and then spends the novel basking in his friendship with Sebastian, meeting Sebastian’s rich, upperclass and staunchly Roman Catholic family and the goings in and out of the Flyte family mansion, Brideshead. The novel recounts Charles life as it revolves around Sebastian’s family, a story of reflection on family ties, expectations, religion and memories. In fact, the whole book is a retrospection of Ryder’s earlier life, as the novel starts with him, a middle-aged military man who in the course of his duties with his tour came across Brideshead almost inadvertently.

The writing is crisp, and the dialogue can be pretty funny in parts. The best part I have to say is the dry wit of Charles’s father, who spends some effort in tormenting Charles when he returns home to stay with father when he exhausted his funds during his study break.

Of course I’m simplifying the novel. There are parts of the novel that are complex, the relationships that are explored are complex, the sentimentality that’s evident throughout the book and the motivations of the characters, particularly between Charles and Sebastian’s sister Julia, are complex. But the story doesn’t move me in a way that generates excitement or urgency. This reminds me of a sequence in Robin Hobbs’s Farseer Trilogy, where in the second book, Royal Assassin, the bloody book seemed to roll along *but nothing bloody hell happens*!

(There, try to find another review that compares Waugh with a fantasy trilogy!)

If I’m pressed to find something to say about the book that’s intriguing, it’s the ambiguity in the exact nature of the relations between the main characters, Charles and Sebastian. This isn’t something that I considered while reading the book – in fact this because interesting after I was looking at reviews of the novels after I finished it. There were some odd (misplaced, I thought) passages where I raised an eyebrow, but nothing that explicitly said they were more than platonic. There was a scene where Charles was spending the summer in Brideshead with Sebastian, but their frolicking involved some stage of undress. At one point Sebastian calls out to Cordelia, his younger sister, to refrain from entering the area of the house where they were apparently lazing about without their shirts on. Like I said, I did not think much about this during the reading, but I was surprised and fascinated that this was so much in the front and centre in discussions of the book.

I considered for a time whether knowing if they really were physically getting it on affected my feelings about the book, and I decided in the end that this does not change anything at all. The book was still dull, the story did not burst forth in new understanding for me. The physical relationship between them, even if it were true, evidently wasn’t something Waugh wanted to dwell on, since Sebastian pretty much all but disappears from the story somewhere in the middle of the novel, and flitting in and out as Charles began to be described and defined by his relationship with first his wife, then with Julia.

Here’s another perspective from an Asian reader – the name Evelyn normally has been more associated with the fairer sex for the longest time. I’ve heard of Waugh for a long time, of course, but I’ve only within the last few years realized that Waugh was actually a man. I was just watching an episode of Downton Abbey where the love interest of the eldest daughter of the patriarch in the drama is named Evelyn, and I thought ‘how very English this name is’.

Haul from Big Bad Wolf

Ok, so here’s what I got at the Big Bad Wolf Books sale today (click image for a larger view):

  • Air, Geoff Ryman
  • Money, Martin Amis
  • Kraken, China Mieville
  • The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova
  • Chronicles of the Black Company, Glen Cook
  • Market Forces, Richard Morgan
  • The World Inside, Robert Silverberg
  • Lowboy, John Wray
  • Manhood for Amateurs, Michael Chabon
  • All The King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren
  • Grey, Jon Armstrong
  • Neuropath, R. Scott Bakker
  • The Great Book of Amber: The Complete Amber Chronicles 1-10, Roger Zelazny


Scenes from Big Bad Wolf Books Sale

Today was a preview-pass access only, and while I expected a lot of people, I did not expect quite so many. Only those who won the passes through the contests via their website (and perhaps some generous handouts to lucky, privileged people) were allowed to enter today. The actual day is tomorrow, and if today was any indication, tomorrow onwards would be insane.

The selection was good, and more varied that your usual warehouse sales. Some warehouse book sales were varied, but the selection was thin. Boasting 1.5 million books, I suppose you couldn’t accuse it of lacking.

I like these sales (and BBW’s in particular) because of the kind of gems you can uncover – the kinds that were either too expensive in normal bookstores, or you just couldn’t find elsewhere. It’s kinda like a treasure hunt.

This year there weren’t any gasps of astonishment or whoops of joy at finding a gem, but there were a few that I didn’t mind having. I suppose I did find one that I’m pretty pleased with – John Wray’s highly regarded Lowboy. I had the privilege of talking to him in Bookbabble last year (at least for a short while), and from all accounts his books come highly recommended. Looking forward to it.

My haul’s in the next post, so go check there for what I got. Here are some pics I took of the event. I have to say it’s incredibly poor representation of what’s there (I stood just a little back from the half-way line of the showfloor). I was busy browsing, and with Max on my arms and the clock ticking down I sort of took these as a quick snapshot of the moment.

Review of The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes, Volume 1, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I have long loved the Sherlock Holmes stories, since I was introduced to them when I was pretty young. I was so enamoured by the stories that it played a big part in my deciding to go to UK for my tertiary studies, just so I can steal a trip down to London to visit 221B Baker Street (I was a little bit of a let-down, looking back after so many years, but it was a dream come true nonetheless).

As big a fan as I was, however, I have never yet managed to completely read the canon of stories from Doyle, despite owning multiple editions of the stories, including my absolute treasure: The Original Illustrated ‘Strand’ Sherlock Holmes, which is a compendium of all of the Sherlock Holmes stories by Doyle, reproduced with all the original illustrations from the pages of the Strand magazine as they first appeared!

I was pleased to find not to long ago that Audible held a sale and I saw The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes, Volumes 1 and 2 being sold at a very tempting price, and seeing that I’m getting a lot of reading done on the road, and relishing the chance to rekindle my love for the detective, I got them both.

Volume 1 consists of two novels, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four, followed by a collection of short stories entitled The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

What can I say, aside from the fact that if you haven’t yet sampled Sherlock Holmes, what the heck are you doing reading my silly reviews than to head down to your nearest bookstore (or online store), buy the darn books and start reading? The short stories are in an easily digestible format, and leads you on to a great adventure in detection. Delightful stories that will have you thinking long after you’ve finished them. Classics such as A Scandal in Bohemia, The Adventure of the Red-Headed League, The Adventure of the Speckled Band are all here.

What struck me was the quality of the stories of those that aren’t so famous in this collection, and I’ve always wondered about the fact that some of these stories must be of variable quality to be excluded from the general mindset (unlike say Speckled Band, which I think most English readers would have heard of at one time or another being associated with Sherlock Holmes). On a whole, however, I found the stories to be more or less pretty good.

Because I’m listening to them one after another in a continuous fashion, and maybe due to a most excellent reader in Charlton Griffin, I’m picking up some very distinctive Doyle mannerisms in the stories. Sherlock Holmes has a tendency to say ‘pray continue your most interesting statement’, or some variation of this when a client starts to tell their conundrums. And the word ‘singular’ comes up in almost every story – a most ‘singular occurrence’ or most ‘singular event’. And the deductions – sometimes to my jaded mind that some of the deductions seem far fetched. But not nearly as much as the ones from the latter stories.

In all, my favourite stories from this collection include:

  • The Boscombe Valley Mystery
  • The Adventure of the Speckled Band (this is a classic, and rightly so!)
  • The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet
  • The Adventure of the Red-Headed League

More from the succeeding collections, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, and The Return of Sherlock Holmes.

Review of 2666, by Roberto Bolano

Really, I don’t know why I persist in calling these posts ‘reviews’. They are more like thoughts. Anyway.

Unlike most people, I did not have problems reading the book, in fact I rather enjoyed it. That’s because I didn’t *read* it, but rather listened to it as an audiobook. Facetious, I know, but hey, I got through the book. And the experience was generally positive. I can imagine that as a book 2666 would present a huge challenge to me, because it’s very testing in places. But it was very easy to digest this monster of a book during my daily commute, as the story was being read out by supremely talented actors. Even as an audiobook there are sections of the novel that was hard to get through, but I did manage to get the complete 40 hours it required. But a little more on that later.

A bookish background then. My previous Bolano was By Night in Chile, which was the first 100-odd-page novel to defeat me completely. It was laced with so many South American literary, historical and cultural references that was just too much for your average Malaysian Chinese reader to truly relate to, not to mention the fact the book was narrated by a character who would fit right in with the Mad Hatter (if Bolano was an eccentric, slightly crazy Englishman). The psychedelic experience didn’t stop me from leaping at the chance to try 2666, though, as the waves of good reviews for the book meant that it was something that I had to sample. But I braced myself for a wild, barely coherent, ride.

Imagine my surprise that I actually could understand the novel this time. Not that it was easy, mind you.

There are 5 interlinked stories within this huge tome, each pretty much an own book in it’s own right. These stories are very varied and loosely tied together by a few commonalities. But the largest character in the story isn’t even a person; it’s the Mexican border town of Santa Teresa, which is Bolano’s version of Cuidad Juarez, a place infamous for its rapid industrial growth and high crime rate. There’s a singular chain of violent events in Juarez that clearly inspired the backdrop for 2666.

The first story is about 4 literary critics of an obscure German author named Benno von Archimboldi (and after a quick wiki search, I ascertained that Archimboldi was also fictional. Hey, Bolano sprinkled names of actual authors in there, ok?). They travel to Santa Teresa in hopes of finding this elusive author, and in the course of the story learns something of their journey and of themselves. The second, a story centered around a supporting character in the first story. The third is of an American journalist, who arrives in Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match but ends up working towards a story about the violent events in the city.

By far the most striking feature of the novel was the contents of the fourth book, which is made up almost entirely of a catalogue of murders that occurred in Santa Teresa. Clearly inspired by the real life events, in the book Santa Teresa is the setting where hundreds of women were killed in a short period of a few years, and Bolano took to listing out, almost hypnotically, how each of the murder was carried out.  How the body was found, how old the victim was (most were young), at what state the body was in, whether the victim was sexually assaulted or not, and so on and so forth (probably not every murder, but by the fiftieth killing you kind of lose track). The result was a hugely bleak and depressing novel. A lot of the victims were young teens barely out of their childhood, and this did not make easy listening. This section of the novel served, as a friend commented, to numb the reader to the violence, and by jolly did it succeed brilliantly. By the end of the section you have a sense of complete and utter helplessness, a silent fury at the authorities who seem impotent at addressing the issue. At parts the book even hinted at those in power being complicit in these crimes.

To tie it all up, the fifth story centres around a young German soldier called Hans Richter, who eventually grows into an author of some stature, and later in life discover ties that sends him to Santa Teresa.

The story is sprawling, with lots of jaunts to places that you aren’t always entirely sure whether it belongs to the larger narrative. In the first book, there’s an underlying history about a fatalistic artist who chopped off his own hand, had it embalmed and set it as a centrepiece of a huge work of art. The text goes some way into explaining the backstory of this fascinating individual, but there’s nothing there to indicate he’s directly involved in the main plot, besides serving as an allegory or as a metaphorical symbol that I cannot grasp.  And the dreams. Everyone dreams here, and the dreams are strange, haunting, frightening.

The writing is pretty interesting. There’s a languid, not quite plodding quality. At times rambling when describing the most mundane of coffeeshops, other times sparse like the desert surrounding the maquiladora in Santa Teresa. Bolano took his time with the words, and the one thing that I realized was how much more effort it would have taken to digest the work when actually read, as opposed to it having performed for you.

Speaking of performance, a word on the voice actors. Each of the 5 books were narrated by different male actors, and they did a magnificent job. The characters had at turns German, French, Italian, Spanish, American and English English accents, and the actors did a fabulous job on them.

The novel doesn’t have an ending in the traditional sense, as Bolano actually originally planned to have these five books to stand individually. Still, the novel attempts to bring the events in all the books to a full circle, and seemed to me managed it to some extent. I’m a stickler for a very tidy summation, and I have to say the story doesn’t answer all the questions, but still it made many people deliriously happy at this monument of a novel.

I cannot say I loved the novel, as it lays a little beyond my literary comprehension capabilities at present. It was surely enjoyable and incredibly educational journey.

And one last thing. The fifth book was about Archimboldi’s early life, his start into writing and his emergence as a prominent writing. Early part of his career his publisher asked a critic what he thought of Archimboldi’s work. The critic thought his work was reminiscent of a Malaysian writer! I’m not kidding – I almost fell off my chair when I heard this (except I was driving, and falling off my seat in the car would… nevermind). A couple of things crossed my mind: First, Bolano mentioned Malaysia, how cool is that! Second, Bolano almost certainly pulled that out of his ass, because there were no Malaysian authors of prominence that I could think of that would warrant a comparison (even to a fictional author!) at the time, unless he read Malay, which I’m willing to bet that he did not. Even then it seems unlikely.