Post-modern Post-bookclub

Even though it was my turn to stay home on bookclub night last month, I did actually read the book anyway. My take on bookclub is to write my thoughts into this blog and whoever reads this is welcome to comment. Or not. It was a post-modern novel this time, so alternatives to traditional, in-situ bookclub discussion are completely appropriate.

The Raw Shark Texts

Jaws meets Memento meets The 39 Steps meets Tristram Shandy

I tried to get this. I really did. I hung on – hoping for something. Something that never came. Almost, but not quite.

It is difficult to talk about or explain The Raw Shark Texts, the first novel by UK author Steven Hall, without giving away some of the surprises. I don’t want to give any spoilers, as it is the mystery and surprises that were the most rewarding parts of the book for me. In this way, it reminded me of The 39 Steps – the main protagonist has no idea what is going on, neither does the reader, and the fun is from finding it out together.

Hall has training in Fine Arts, and apparently produced artwork with a textual element. This background is apparent in the book, with something akin to ASCII art featuring in the story and even forming part philosophy underpinning the story’s universe. It was a very interesting idea, but didn’t quite work for me as a plot device.

The title is a pun on Rorschach (ink-blot) Tests where the reader is urged to come up with their own interpretation of what is happening in the story. Unfortunately, I found enough inconsistency with different interpretations that I couldn’t find any that really worked, although I could appreciate the story as a bunch of clever ideas.

My rating: 2.0 stars

Not The Bookclub Book

Last month I didn’t read the bookclub book, but I did read the book the book nominator wanted to nominate as the bookclub book. (How many chucks can a woodchuck chuck etc.?) When it came to bookclub last week, it turned out more people had finished reading that book than the actual bookclub book.

The Year of Living Biblically

A thought-provoking book about taking The Bible literally

This book is the day-by-day diary of the author, A.J. Jacobs, as he takes a year to follow as many of The Bible’s rules as literally as possible. Jacobs doesn’t just follow the ten commandments – he digs through the old testament (the first eight months) and the new testament (the last four months) and attempts to go by every proclamation or suggestion. Is Jacobs a particularly religious man? No, and this is the intriguing part. The Bible is taken as an experiment to see what following it would do to someone, in this day and age.

There are some obscure, and some would say, obsolete rules in The Bible, but Jacobs is determined to follow them all. It would take a rather obsessive personality to persevere with this, but luckily that’s what Jacobs has, and the book also provides an little bit of insight into living with obsessive compulsive disorder.

There is fun in this book in learning about strange Biblical rules, their background, and their ardent adherents. But there is also heart – it is amazing to read about how a modern day New Yorker and his family is affected by taking up the challenge of living Biblically for a year.

My rating: 4.0 stars

For the record, the actual bookclub book was the author’s previous book: The Know-It-All.

Actuaries as Heroes

One of the troubles with an insight is that when you then explain it to someone else, they find it obvious. It can be a bit disheartening, but people seem to have a knack for finding surprises obvious in hindsight. Which, of course, doesn’t make them any less of a surprise at the time.

So, coming across a book that points out that stuff that I take for granted was not taken for granted 500 years back, and in fact, enabled civilisation as we know it today to flourish, I was a bit surprised, you might say. It was interesting to try to put myself in the position of people who didn’t know about probability, to see how something so “obvious” could be an exciting insight.

Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk

An interesting journey through the birth and history of risk management

The author, Peter L Bernstein, puts his main thesis plainly enough at the start – “The revolutionary idea that defines the boundary between modern times and the past is the mastery of risk: the notion that the future is more than a whim of the gods and that men and women are not passive before nature.” However, it’s a good thesis, is extensively researched, and Bernstein writes about it well. Enough to sustain interest over some 330 pages.

I found it quite compelling to think that, before the Renaissance, people thought of the future as something they couldn’t control, only put up with. And, that God or the Fates dictated what would happen, or tomorrow would simply be same as today, and it was egotistical or heretical to try. This assumption closed down any thought of trying to build a science of probability, so until the assumption was broken, we couldn’t develop probability, statistics, or insurance.

Marine insurance was needed to make European colonisation economically feasible. Life insurance was sold by governments needing to raise funds to wage wars. Risk management is used by organisations to manage large projects. Home or health insurance are regularly used by prudent families to protect against disasters. Society would be a lot smaller, simpler and sadder without this elementary mathematical invention. Yes, actuaries are heroes.

Bernstein drew me into the successive insights produced by keen minds over the recent centuries that has taken us to where we are today in economics, finance and gambling. Some of the people he profiled were more interesting than others (but others may have their own favourites) – the initial Renaissance thinkers and the behavioural finance guys were pretty cool. It would seem to be a rather complete set of the important contributors.

If you have any interest in modern history, economics or mathematics, you’ll probably find this book a worthwhile read. And it also made me reflect on what other basic assumptions we might hold that could be overturned in order to advance society.

My rating: 4.0 stars

Christmas Traditions

We all have our Christmas traditions – the Santa stockings, the bad jokes over the Christmas meal, retelling embarrassing stories about a distant relative – but my favourite tradition is grabbing a book that I received as a present, and submerging myself in it for as long as it takes. Surfacing only to eat chocolate and ham (not necessarily in that order). Kate took a punt, and bought me the latest Neal Stephenson (I couldn’t get into his previous series) which I’ve spent most waking hours with since.


Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose meets Carl Sagan’s Contact

This is a long one. You’ve got to want it, and Stephenson doesn’t make it easy. He has created a whole new lingo for his futuristic world, a bit like Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange, but admittedly does help a little by scattering dictionary entries throughout. There are also mini-essays at the end that you need to read in order to follow some of the plot. It is hard-core speculative fiction, with a particularly academic bent. If this is not your thing, I’m pretty sure you’ll be hating it before you even need to worry about its length. If you like sci-fi novels with big ideas, then keep reading..

The main characters belong to a cloistered order, and we get a feel for what monastic life might be like (I was reminded of The Name of the Rose). This is contrasted with the futuristic world outside the walls of their self-imposed prison, which gets a satirical treatment ironic for a sci-fi author. But, the sci-fi take on monastic life is pretty cool.

It takes about a third of the book before the plot picks up in pace, and we’ve got a mystery, some puzzling philosophy and characters that we care about. It takes about this long to get used to the lingo as well, so be prepared.

I already knew a lot of the philosophy, math and science that Stephenson draws upon in this book, and I really appreciated his explanations and clear analogies as provided by the characters. Part of the fun was in seeing how many different strands of knowledge could be pulled together to service the plot.

It’s probably 10% story and 90% academic discourse, but I liked it.

My rating: 4.0 stars

After I read the book, I also checked out the website of the Clock of the Long Now, which relates in a tiny way to the book, and is a pretty ambitious idea. Worth a look.

Flash-back to Grade 10

I was introduced to this book back in highschool, where my English Literature teacher (who was an American) used this as one of our set texts. Despite this, I really enjoyed it, and now, near 20 years later, I picked it up in some second hand book shop for $1.50 and got engrossed in it all over again.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Both a wry observation of 19th century America and a classic adventure tale.

Mark Twain (not his real name) sailed the Mississippi river as a riverboat pilot early in his career, and the truth of his depiction of people and way of life in this novel shines through, despite the fanciful nature of the adventure. I couldn’t help but get caught up in the crazy tale of Huck Finn, hopeless trouble-magnet that he is, as he struggles to get free of his troubles with the less-than-helpful assistance of a large cast of characters.

The language is a joy to read. The characters are fun to follow. And although the plot isn’t the most complex, the characters themselves do a fabulous job of making the simple into convoluted mayhem. Several times I had to laugh out loud at the absurdity.

Even though I picked this book up cheap, it’s well worth hanging onto. I can easily see myself re-reading this again – hopefully before another 20 years pass!

My rating: 4.5 stars

Book Club Homework: complete!

A couple of hours ago I finished reading the last book for our book-club this year. It surprised me. For a literary novel – a genre which typically doesn’t excite me – it turned out to be enjoyable. Lucky, because the book-club only picked it on a re-count. And given the truculent and debate-hardened members of the book-club, it’s a wonder we managed to get someone to change their vote at all!

Anyway, before I discuss this with anyone else, or check out the publisher’s official book-club website, I thought I’d jot down my thoughts while I can claim that they are still mine.

The History of Love
A tangled history that I loved being caught up in.

This is a book about the intertwined histories of a number of quirky characters, all with Jewish ancestry, around New York, and their relationship to a book called The History of Love. It’s the second novel by Nicole Krauss, and I would not be surprised if she drew upon her own family’s history of Jewish culture and migration. Certainly, those details had the feeling of accuracy throughout the book.

Strangely, one thing didn’t quite ring true for me: the male voice of the character Leo Gursky, who we are introduced to through his narration in the first chapter. I must confess that I like to play a game when reading articles in the newspaper, trying to guess the gender of the author from their style, and usually it’s not too hard. However, finding out that Leo was male was a little unexpected. I assumed he was a Leonore or something. And once I’d identified that the male characterisation didn’t gel for me, I noticed that other male characters weren’t as well realised as the female characters. But it was a minor thing, really, and a little strange.

Something far more impressive was how Krauss maintained the half-a-dozen storylines through the book. To be honest, I was confused for most of the way along about which stories were “real”. And the stop-start manner of my reading this book didn’t help given the concentration required to keep track of what had happened and when. But perseverance paid off, and by the end I was thoroughly enjoying how it was all coming together. Not the sort of book I would’ve normally picked off the shelf to read, but glad that I did.

My rating: 4.0 stars

Cafe of Nightmares

Book-club this month had selected the book Cafe Scheherazade, which it turns out is actually based on a real cafe in St Kilda. Not unusually at all for Melbourne, it’s an eating establishment created by migrants for migrants (and anyone else wanting to sample traditional food from the motherland). But as this was a novel, it focussed on all the stories of those migrants…

Cafe Scheherazade

Intermingled tales of escape from war and oppression

This book by Melbourne literary author Arnold Zable is a set of stories within stories. It is at a superficial level the story of a journalist trying to capture the stories of the founders of a Jewish restaurant/cafe in St Kilda, but this is really just an excuse for characters within the novel telling their own tales. And they are not exactly pleasant tales.

The characters (all based on real people) have endured World War II and the subsequent atrocities, and journeyed to Australia as refugees. It was eye opening to read about life in Russia, life as a guerrilla fighter, and the role of Japan and China in the migration of Jews out of Europe.

Unfortunately, the sheer number of stories, and the style used in jumping between them, doesn’t make it an easy read. The lyrical style used principally at the beginning of the book allowed me to treat the writing as poetry, and let the words wash over me without spending too much effort keeping track of the story. Towards the end of the book the style changes into more of a linear narrative that was easier to follow.

I found it an okay read, certainly educational, but probably wouldn’t recommend it to most.

My rating: 2.5 stars

The Failure of Dreams

Yesterday was ANZAC Day, and it is a day that looms large in the Australian psyche. Why is it that we always retell the story of Gallipoli, an overwhelming Australian defeat in the first World War? In some way, while failure is pathetic, it is somehow heroic. And the recent book club selection had a similar message.

I Was Bono’s Doppelganger

A cathartic tale of musical dreams crushed.

This is Neil McCormick’s autobiography. We learn that from a young age, his life’s ambition is to be lead singer in a world renowned pop group. Although we all have crazy ideas, and our friends set us straight, McCormick has the misfortune to be school-friends with Bono. Yes, that Bono.

Since you’ve never heard of McCormick, it’s not giving anything away to say that he never became world famous. However, the story of his musical disasters set against the rising star of Bono and U2 is quite incredible. Even if you’re not a U2 fan, this is a very engaging book that quickly sucks you in with intimate and honest details of the band before its mega-success, behind-the-scenes in the record (as it was at the time) business, and the unbelievable bad luck that seems to follow McCormick.

I don’t normally make a habit of reading autobiographies, but this one had a special magic that attracted me to it. McCormick is not some star-struck U2 fan, but apparently a genuine friend of Bono’s, who writes the Forward in the book. His take on the rewards, ravages and addiction of fame is particularly well-informed, and left me with hope, despite his own failure.

My rating: 4.5 stars

The websites listed at the back of the book have ceased working, but if you read the book, you really should listen to some of his music. It will allow you to judge for yourself if he had the stuff to make it really big. The following links are from the Internet Archive:

You may also want to check out his CD on as it sounds like it would make a fine companion piece to the book. Ghost Who Walks is the name that he releases his music under, but the picture there is definitely him.

The Holocaust

Perhaps it’s just me, but I’ve never read any books that describe The Holocaust. That is, until recently when our book club chose this one. It just blew my mind – you would read something terrible and you’d think it couldn’t get any worse, but then you’d read on, and it would. It certainly helped put some of the international politics of the region in perspective.

The Sunflower

Interesting philosophical views on forgiving the unforgivable

Now this is a good book-club book. Simon Wiesenthal writes about an experience that he had during World War 2 while a prisoner in a concentration camp, then a number of other people with relevant experience (including the Dalai Lama) respond to how he dealt with that experience. It’s relatively short, you don’t have to read it all, it comes with a selection of pre-canned opinions that you can choose to agree with or not, and discussion is sure to be heated.

It’s not an altogether pleasant read, but it isn’t densely philosophical or likely to be traumatic to read either. As the discussion revolves around putting yourself in the shoes of Wiesenthal, you need to get to grips with the environment of hopelessness and oppression first. He writes well, and although I doubt that anyone who hadn’t been through it could ever truly imagine it, you do get to a level of empathy. Some of the respondents that follow his story are not as well written, but it is easy to skip the ponderous ones.

Wiesenthal goes on to become a “nazi-hunter” later in his life, tracking down those who engaged in war crimes when younger. He has obviously come to his own conclusions about repentence, forgiveness and forgetting. Reading this book helped me come to some also.

My rating: 4.0 stars

The “Book-Club Book” as a genre

I’m a member of a book-club, and it’s quite fun. The peer-pressure that forces you to read something interesting but “not what I would have chosen” is a force for good. Apparently book-clubs are relatively common, and their popularity is growing. Perhaps this is my cynicism, but I suspect some authors are now targeting the book-club as the audience for their books. And I suspect this is the case with last month’s book …

The Shadow of the Wind

A mystery story that’s a little too wordy.

What alerts the reader that this book is targeted to book-group discussion is that it has a discussion guide at the back. I’ve seen this on a few books now, and I’m not sure it’s a good thing. If a book needs help to discuss it, then it’s probably not a good book-club book.

It is an interesting story, though. This novel tells the tale of Daniel, who is the son of a book store owner. He gets caught up in a mystery that has several bizarre characters and plenty of twists. Will books be his life? Will a book take over his life? Will a book take his life?

Set in Barcelona in the 1950s, the atmosphere of post Civil War recovery provides a rich stage for the characters to develop on. The book is originally Spanish, and the English language version is a translation.

I doubt it’s the translator’s fault, but the writing seems obsessed with its own cleverness and wordplay. It does seem to go on a bit. At over 500 pages, this book is probably also slightly long for the average meet-once-a-month book-club.

In the end, it was a pretty light read. There wasn’t much meat in the story to really discuss and argue about. I find the best book-club books are ones that people are prepared to get heated up over. This wasn’t one of those.

My rating: 3.0 stars

Next month we’ll be discussing Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower. It’s not light, but I think it will be an excellent book-club book.