Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

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This is book six in my attempt to read fifty books in 2005.

Rushdie is one of those authors who I really want to like. Many people think he is one of the most important writers of the late 20th century. Like many people, the first of his books that I attempted was The Satanic Verses and like many people I gave up after just a few chapters.

But Midnight’s Children is generally accepted as his best work. It won the Booker Prize in 1981 and the “Booker of Bookers” in 1993. I was determined to enjoy it.

But I have to say that I didn’t enjoy it at all. I can see why people like it. I can see why people think it’s an important and interesting novel. But I can’t see why people put up with Rushdie’s over-complex prose style. To me, that made the book close to unreadable. He also fills his writing with religious and cultural references that I didn’t get and that also diminished my enjoyment.

I mentioned that last point to my wife who is a big fan of the book and she (quite rightly) pointed out that Tom Stoppard also throws in obscure cultural references and I always enjoy his work. Thinking about it, the difference is that I get all of Stoppard’s clever references and therefore reading him makes me feel cleverer. I estimate that I get about 10% of Rushdie’s clever references and therefore reading him makes me feel stupid.

So I don’t like this book as it makes me feel stupid.

The Time-Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

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This is book five in my attempt to read fifty books in 2005.

In many ways this is a lot like Slaughterhouse Five. Henry DeTamble is adrift in time in much the same way as Billy Pilgrim but although she starts with a similar premise to Vonnegut, Niffenegger’s novel turns out very differently. Vonnegut uses the concept to rage against the Allied bomobing of Dresden and Niffenegger writes a love story.

Not that I’m saying that’s a bad thing. Vonnegut’s book will always be considered a classic whereas I suspect that Niffenegger’s will only enjoy a transitory success. But that’s fine. It’s a well-written and enjoyable book and it’s nice to see a book that discusses the grandfather paradox (tho’ admittedly, not in much detail) on the bestseller shelves in the bookshops.

One image that I couldn’t get out of my head whilst reading it was one of the actual mechanics that Niffenegger went through to write it. I picture her sitting in her study with two timelines pinned to her wall. One is Clare’s boringly linear life and the other is Henry’s more confusing history. I also imagine many lines between the two indicating where Henry was coming from at the times he met Clare through time-travel. It must have been a lot of fun to write.

I predict you’ll see a lot of people reading this on the tube over the next few weeks. You could do worse than to join them.

Anyone You Want Me To Be by John Douglas and Steven Singular

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This is book four in my attempt to read fifty books in 2005.

Here’s a good rule of thumb for choosing true crime books. Anything that is endorsed on the cover by Patricia Cornwall has a very good chance of being almost unreadable.

On the front cover of this book Cornwall is quoted as saying “John Douglas is one of the most exciting figures in law enforcement”. That may well be true, but he certainly hides it well in his writing – which is some of the dullest prose I have read.

The book was bought for me because it is about crimes committed over the internet. Or, rather, the criminal made initial contact with his victims over the internet. He was a S&M fan who contacted women over the internet, convinced them to move to his home town, made them his sexual slaves and finally (when he was bored with them) murdered them.

If it wasn’t for the internet connection (which is loudly advertised all over the cover) this would have been a book that I would never have picked up. I’m just not interested in reading about these crimes. And the author clearly knows very little about the internet. The book is written like one of those internet scare stories that you’d expect to find in the Daily Mail. It’s full of phrases like “the darkest corners of the internet”.

Yes, there are nasty people out there. Yes the internet makes it easily for them to communicate with both thmeselves and potential victims. That does not make the internet a hotbed of crime and debauchery. It makes the internet somewhere where you interact with other people and need to take the same amount of care as you do in your “normal” life. If you move halfway across the US to be with someone you’ve only ever met online then… well obviously you don’t deserve to die, but you’re acting very stupidly.

This book made me very angry. Please don’t read it.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

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This is book three in my attempt to read fifty books in 2005.

Now this is more like it. I was getting a bit jaded after the first two books, but this is much more to my taste. Strong hints of transexuality (or is that transexualism) in the first sentence followed by incest in the first few chapters :)

Actually it turns out that it’s not transexuality, but rather hermaphroditism – but that doesn’t make it any less interesting.

And in case anyone thinks that I have really weird tastes in books, I should point out that backing up all this sensationalism there is also a very interesting and well-written story. The book tells the story of three generations of Greek immigrants from their arrival in the USA in the 1920s.

Don’t read it for the sensationalist aspects. Read it because it’s a very good novel.

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

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This is number two in my attempt to read fifty books this year.

It was certainly a very simple read. The prose is very plain. I’m told that this is part of its charm, but I find it hard not to see it as a limitation of the author.

It’s not that I didn’t like it. I don’t feel that I wasted the few hours it took me to read it, but I really don’t understand why it’s as popular as it is and I’m certainly not tempted to read any of its (many) sequels.

Actually, I think the large number of sequels also puts me off a bit. It reminds me of Terry Pratchett and the Diskworld books – a series that I gave up on after reading about four of them because the rate at which they were appearing made it clear that Pratchett was putting very little effort into them. There are now five (or maybe six) books in this series. And Smith is writing other books as well. This obviously isn’t very hard for him. I much prefer to read books by people who put a bit of effort into their writing.

The Bookseller of Kabul by Åsne Seierstad

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Guess what? Life in Afganistan under the Taliban was a bit shit. Particularly if you were a woman. And since the Taliban have gone it’s only got a little bit better.

Seierstad spent a few months living with a family in Kabul soon after the Taliban were removed and this is her interpretation of what she saw. It’s interesting stuff but Seierstad is at pains to point out that this family are far from typical, so it’s difficult to draw any conclusions about the country (or even the city) in general.

And something about the translation into English seems a bit stilted. I’ve noticed the same problems with other books translated from Scandinavian languages (I particularly remember Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow) so maybe it’s an intrinsic problem with translations from those languages.

It was a pretty interesting read, but I’m not sure I’ll be rushing off to read any of her other books.

Here’s an interesting article from the Guardian which includes some details about how the author and the bookseller argued after the book was published.