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Title: The Botany of Desire
Author: Michael Pollan
Year: 2005

I selected this book quite randomly, but after reading the introduction, I thought it sounded interesting with a book examining the parallel evolution of plants and humans and claiming to be able to illuminate the subject in a new way. The common way to view things is of course that humans are in control of most things (especially domesticated plants, just look at that word), but in this book, Michael Pollan promulgates another paradigm which focuses on mutual exchange and evolution.

Sadly, the really interesting bit ends with the introduction. Setting up this fairly epic goal of radically changing the reader’s outlook on the place of other living things in our lives, he then goes on to discuss at length something mundane (and, at least to my mind, boring) as Johnny Appleseed. It’s not that I can’t understand what a discussion about him has to do in the narrative, it’s just that the original goal of the book gets lost on the way. The first part of four is about the apple and almost made me give up the book.

Fortunately, I continued with the second and third parts, about tulips and cannabis. These proved to be really interesting, not in the light of the ambitious intentions laid down in the introduction, but because of the fascinating tales and information about these plants and their role in history as well as modern day society. The fourth part is a bit more down-to-earth (it’s about the the potato) and also a bit dull.

There are two critical problems with this book. The first is that it isn’t about what the author says it’s about. Michael Pollan claims it’s about co-evolution and about changing the way we view the world, but instead, he gets bogged down in detailed descriptions of completely different things (like whether or not Johnny Appleseed liked young girls). The second problem is that two of the four parts don’t interest me at all.

That being said, there are some advantages as well. To begin with, Pollan is far from being a bad author. Even the bits with boring details are still readable because of his smooth and fluent prose. He knows how to tell an anecdote, to put it briefly. In addition to this, the chapters on the tulip and on cannabis is really interesting, regardless of the aim of the book. In all, I would say that the patrs I like roughly counters the disappointment of not getting what I thought I would get and the frustration generated by the first and fourth chapters. I’m a bit sad to give this book three snails, because really, it could have been a lot better.

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Title: Shalimar the Clown
Author: Salman Rushdie
Year: 2005

Salman Rushdie seems to be one of the exceptionally few authors I’m prepared to read almost regardless of what he writes. Why? Because the language alone is likely to lift the book up to at least four snails. If he then adds an adequate plot and don’t botch something important, the sky is the limit.

Shalimar the Clown is a fairly recent work (2005), at least when compared to The Satanic Verses, which was the first novel I read by Salman Rushdie. I haven’t read enough of him to comment on development, but it seems to me that although the Satanic Verses were rich in its language and had a multifaceted story, Shalimar the Clown outshines it at least for the language part. The story sets out with a man called Shalimar the Clown murdering a former American ambassador to India and the rest of the book explores the events leading up to the murder: how the ambassador has an illegitimite child, India, with Shalimar’s wife and how that child grows up and Shalimar seeks revenge. The narrative is set in varying environments, but with an explicit focus on Kashmir and it’s stormy relationship to India and Pakistan.

After finishing a book, I rarely feel the urge to read it again, but I feel something like that after finishing Shalimar the Clown. It’s not that the story is extraordinarily good or anything, it’s just that i feel that I didn’t have time to appreciate the language enough. In short, this book is expertly written and is worth recommending solely on this basis. There are inumerable passaged worthy of quoting and if I were a more diligent reviewer, I would present some here, but let it suffice to say that language is what makes this book worthwhile. In addition to this, it also contains an interesting portrayal not only of Kashmir, but also of the characters which in a way can be said to represent the region. A possible drawback is that the book feels a lot longer than the 450 pages it spans, perhaps because of the shattered plot. I woudl need to read this book again before awarding it a higher (or possible lower) rating!

Do I recommend the book to everyone? No, not really. You need to be the kind of reader which is prepared to read without a specific goal in mind, without a clearly defined plot and so on. If you don’t regard story as the most important part of a book, you should read Shalimar the Clown now, because it really is the most well-written book I’ve read for a very long time.

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Title: East of Eden
Author: John Steinbeck
Year: 1952

To be honest, I can’t quite explain why I picked up John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. It’s very long (roughly 700 pages) and the story seem extremely boring when summarised; it’s a chronicle of two families in California and their intertwined destinies, spanning the time from the beginning of the 20th century to the end of the first world war, with heavy biblical references as well as autobiographical aspects. Sounds rather dull, don’t you think?

Well, it isn’t. Just as in The Pearl, Steinbeck makes this story come alive in a way I very rarely come across. I’ve spent some time trying to figure out what in particular makes this novel worthwhile, and eventually realised that even though all individual pieces are masterfully crafted, the characters are what really stands out. They are real people, almost hauntingly real and yet without being tainted by reality’s dreariness. I might forget most of the story in East of Eden, but i will not forget some of the characters.

Even though I have mostly good things to say and I found it difficult to leave the story once I was immersed in it, the book isn’t perfect. Indeed, the length is only one of the problems, another being the fact that not all parts of the long story are equally interesting. Some characters are truly fascinating, thus also making their parts interesting, but others are merely skillfully rendered, which isn’t enough to maintain my interest for such an extended time. Still, overall the book is more than worthwhile, worth a rating of four snails.

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Title: The Crying of Lot 49
Author: Thomas Pynchon
Year: 1966

After reading Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and liking it quite a lot in the end, despite the fact that i didn’t understand very much, a shorter, less enigmatic book (although such a relative term is rather pointless if Gravity’s Rainbow is used as a yard stick) by the same author sounded very interesting indeed. The Crying of Lot 49 was introduced to me as a good introduction to Pynchon’s writing, and although I’m sure that’s an accurate description for most people, it isn’t true for me. This review will mainly consist of a comparison with Gravity’s Rainbow, because even though they aren’t the same, they are similar enough that most of what I said in the previous review holds true for this novel as well.

There are two significant differences between The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow. First of all, the story about Oedepa Maas, who is assigned to carry out the will of her now deceased ex-boyfriend and real-estate tycoon Pierce Inverarity, and her gradual uncovering of a clandestine rival to United States Postal Service is quite easy to follow and seems close to normal in comparison to the wild extravaganza of Gravity’s Rainbow. As such, this book is easier to follow and it’s actually possible to appreciate the plot itself. In general, this is a good thing.

The second difference is that The Crying of Lot 49, while still being written in a relatively entertaining style, falls short of being as funny and as witty as Gravity’s Rainbow. I laugh sometimes, I smile often, but I can’t find any passages that are so good I feel I need to quote them in a review.

In short, I do think that this is a good introduction to Pynchon, a lot better than Gravity’s Rainbow, which most people would probably give up on after fifty pages or so. However, I’m not as impressed this time, but I’m more than willing to read Pynchon again, because even though he didn’t hit solid gold this time, he’s in many ways a unique author with qualities seldom seen elsewhere. That alone makes his books worthwhile.

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Title: The Pearl
Author: John Steinbeck
Year: 1947

The story of The Pearl is derived from a tale that John Steinbeck heard in La Paz, which to him was an almost perfect parable about the consequences of greed and not being content with one’s lot. Steinbeck’s novella is told in the tone of a parable told in a primitive, but is of course relevant in a much broader context. I find the style and the story entertaining, well-written and thought-provoking. In other words, the key ingredients to create a masterpiece.

The text itself tells the story of the poor Indian Keno, who like his father and his grandfather before him, earns a living diving for pearls in the Gulf of Mexico. The pearls are hard to find and only bring a limited income, only just enough to support Kino and his wife Juana and their young child Coyotito. One day, Coyotito is bitten by a scoripon, but since they have no money to pay the greedy doctor, Kino is resorted to a last attempt to find a pearl big enough to pay for the help the doctor allegedly can offer. He finds more than that, though, he finds the mystical pearl that everyboyd is dreaming of finding, a pearl of such unfathomable wealth that it almost becomes without value. Juana wants him to throw the pearl back into the ocean, thinking it brings only evil, and throughout the narrative, she is proved right time and time again.

I like this story for two reasons, apart from the things I mentioned in the first paragraph. First, it inspired me to write fiction of my own. The moment I finished this story, I started writing a similar one, but set in a completely different environment and with a somewhat different goal. The Pearl reminded me that even a very simple story can be great. Second, the atmosphere and the tone set by Steinbeck’s language is absolutely fabulous; not only does it feel genuine, but it does so in a strangely mysterious way. On the whole, this novella isn’t perfect, but it’s still good enough for me to give it four and a half snails and recommend it to everyone!

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Title: All the Pretty Horses
Author: Cormac McCarthy
Year: 1992

When sixteen-year-old John Grady Cole learns that his grandfather is dead and that their farm has to be sold, he avoids the default move into town and instead heads southwards, towards Mexico, with his good friend Lacey Rawlins, there hoping to eek out a living as cowboys. On the road, they meet up with a mysterious boy who claims his name is Jimmy Bevins and who masters a number of skills very rarely seen even in adults. Together, they experience a lot, but the novel’s main focus is on John Grady Cole and his falling in love with the beautiful but unreachable Alejandra.

This being the third book I read by Cormac McCathry, I can without any doubt say that he really is a skilled author. As was clearly seen in both The Road and No Country for Old Men he knows how to use the English language is a simplistic and yet highly successful way, a skill I admire. I listened to this book, which means I cannot comment on the fairly unusual way in which it is written (almost no punctuation, for instance), but I highly doubt my impression would have been any better had I read it visually instead.

Whereas both the previous books had intensely interesting plots and characters, I find All the Pretty Horses lacking in this area. Sure, the story is well-composed and the characters portraits are attracting my attention, but that can only slightly cover the fact that the underlying story simply isn’t interesting at all. It’s classic, it’s been done many times before and thus I quickly lose interest. But it’s still a good book and as such I will award it three snails.

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Title: The Road
Author: Cormac McCarthy
Year: 2006

I usually say that competent authors writing outside their main genre are the ones most likely to write truly fascinating books. I’ve seen this happen a number of times with science fiction, i.e. mainstream or at least non-SF writers making a short foray into the future and hitting solid gold. As far as I know, The Road is the only science fiction novel Cormac McCarthy has written, although I only know him from one previous book, No Country for Old Men. Even though the post-apocalyptic setting of this novel is depressing, degenerate and dark, the workmanship is splendid and shining.

The Road tell the story of a little boy and his father (none of them named in the book), and how they struggle on their journey south, to the coast, away from the onset of winter. Most of humanity is gone, along with the majority of other life forms which formerly thrived in the world. Food is scarce and dangers abundant, not seldom from other humans, who desperately try to sustain themselves in this hell-bent future America.

McCarthy doesn’t spend much time on the greater picture, choosing instead to focus on the boy and his father, which means that the world is mostly glimpsed from what they experience as they walk along the road. This interaction is portrayed through concise dialogues (reminiscent of No Country for Old Men) and a narrative that never feels exaggerated or wasteful. They man is in a very difficult situation, how shall he encourage his son to fight on, even though he himself doubts that there really is any future for any of them? How shall he protect him from the horrors that follow in the wake of the catastrophe?  And, on top of all this, how shall he be able to go on himself, having the knowledge to despair that his son lacks?

The Road is touching in many ways, perhaps because it’s so down-to-earth and realistic, and at the same time, so horrifying. I really enjoy the author’s way of writing, especially since it’s concise and to the point, without feeling even remotely blunt. I wish more experienced writers could move into the realm of science fiction, using their expertise in language and portrayal of characters that some science fiction writers, although otherwise talented, lack, and thus create something as brilliant as Cormac McCarthy has done here. I can see no reason not to give five snails to this novel and recommend it to everybody, especially those who don’t think science fiction is for them.

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Title: Excession
Author: Iain M. Banks
Year: 1996

Since Excession is the tenth novel I read by Iain M. Banks, it should be quite clear that I like him a lot. However, he has proved unreliable in the past, sometimes producing masterworks and at other times just barely passing the average mark. This erratic behaviour doesn’t seem to be correlated to publication date at all, so reading Excession after some of the books that comes after (such as Look to Windward) doesn’t give any hint of what I might think of Excession. Still, I have thought most Culture novels worthwhile in some way, and knowing that Excession wouldn’t be bad, I picked it up.

As is the case with a lot of Banks’ novels, the story is somewhat divergent, focusing on a number of interrelated threads (some more interlaced with each other than others). The primary event that makes everything else happen is a mysterious hypersphere appearing in the galaxy. It defies a number of assumed physical laws and is deemed to be very interesting, very dangerous and possibly a lot of other things no one can even think of. It’s called an Out of Context problem, something which the Culture has no previous experience of and potentially can bring it down. The excession itself is not a very big part of the story, although a number of high-level Culture ships are very concerned with it and we do get to follow their conversations, arguments and actions regarding the entity.

Instead, the main focus is on a number of humans who are, for various reasons, drawn into the vortex spiralling around the excession (although humans and other races can be said to cause more stir than the excession itself). These threads are connected, but in a fairly weak manner, which also makes the reading a bit tedious at times. The stories themselves are not extremely interesting and only become worthwhile when put into a larger context, which happens much too late and to too small an extent.

Still, as I said in the first paragraph, Banks simply doesn’t write bad books, and even though I think this one is pretty far from being his best, it’s still good. I have said so before, but Banks combines a sense of the fantastic and the humorous, two traits which are rare in themselves, but even harder to find represented in one author.

Banks normally writes fairly complex books, often using many story lines which run parallel to one another, but which most of the time makes sense, at least towards the end or in retrospect. The problem with some books (Excession included), is that the threads are not relevant enough. If we take Look to Windward as a contrast, it’s a book containing a number of wildly different stories, but which yet still manages to feel complete and held together. This is not the case with Excession, and that’s the primary reason I’ve decided to give it just three and a half snails.

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Title: Monsignor Quixote
Author: Graham Greene
Year: 1982

Even though very much is going on in my life at the moment, I still do have some time to do some reading (and listening, in this case). Monsignor Quixote is a book I’ve been wanting to read a long time, even since Alva’s brother spoke highly about it, which actually lead me to pick up Graham Green in the first place. However, I thought (correctly, as it turned out) that it would be a good idea to have read the original novel by Cervantes first. Then, it was time to read Monsignor Quixote.

Graham Greene’s books are very predictable in one way. They are always well-written and contain a special kind of main character (often angst-ridden middle-age males), and Monsignor Quixote is no exception. We follow a priest (who becomes a monsignor), called father Quixote and the former mayor of his home village of Toboso (who is of course named Sancho) on their adventures across Spain. The narrative is criss-crossed with references to Cervantes, both explicitly (they talk a lot about the novel) and implicitly (the two novel share a lot of story elements). The biggest difference might be that of religion, which I didn’t perceive as very important in the original novel, but which is central to this one. Sancho is a communist and often engages in verbal combat with the placid monsignor, often in a quite entertaining way.

Still, I think this book lacks a solid foundation. There are many interesting things here, especially the characters, but the story is not very coherent and not very fascinating. It’s nico to follow the dialogues between the main characters and their journey through spain, but even though Greene makes something enjoyable out of it, I think the story is by far the weakest point. I would like to give more than three snails, but that’s all Monsignor Quixote deserves.

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Title: No Country for Old Men
Author: Cormac McCarthy
Narrator: Tom Stechschulte
Year: 2005

I first learnt of Comrac McCarthy after a friend recommended his novel The Road (only circumstance made me choose No Country for Old Men first, give me a week or two and I will probably review The Road as well), and later learning that the novel also gave birth to the film with the same name, which has also been recommended to me. The book is quite extraordinary in that it isn’t very extraordinary at all, and yet manages to be very good. I shall try to explain why this apparently paradoxical statement is true.

The story is probably the most important sign of mundanity: after a shootout in the desert close to the Rio Grande, Vietnam veteran Llewelyn Moss finds the only survivor of a terrible shootout between drug-trafficking gangsters. He also finds a briefcase containing more than two million dollars in cash. Moss leaves the dying Mexican and takes the money with him, but cannot help returning later to help the Mexican. This sparks a hunt for Llewelyn, which is the scarlet thread running through the narrative. Apart from Moss, there are two main characters: Ed Tom Bell, the sheriff and the main protagonist of the novel, and Anton Chigurh, psychopath, hitman and the antagonist.

Similar stories must have been told thousands of times, but still McCarthy does it in a memorable and intriguing way, and I can see a number of reasons for this. Most importantly, the story is split between the three main characters, and although they interlace frequently, it’s not a straightforward narrative. This means that the reader only gets patchy updates on what’s going on, which in this case leads to a novel which is actually thrilling to read (I can’t even remember when that’s happened before). Second, the characters are realistic, but yet unique enough to be interesting. I find Anton Chiguhr with his high-standard villainy to be the most fascinating character; the others are realistic, but perhaps not very unique.

What about language and style? Overall, it’s good. Cormac McCarthy knows when to spell something out and when not to, meaning that the novel is almost exactly as long as it should be (the end being an exception; it’s too long). He relies heavily on dialogue to let the characters tell his story for him, which means that we encounter a lot of “it don’t mean nothing” and “it ain’t them Mexicans” and so on. This lends credibility to the setting and the characters, but also grows quite annoying at times.

Conclusively, No Country for Old Men is quite good, very good in fact. The ending is weak, some characters are boring (although realistic), but on the other hand, the language is nice and the book about as long as it should be. In my case, Tom Stechschulte’s narration made the novel come alive, but I’m quite sure that was as much due to his skill as to the author’s. Four snails to my first Cormac McCarthy novel.

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