Review: 'South of the Border, West of the Sun' by Haruki Murakami

This is the latest in a vague, meandering odyssey through Haruki Murakami's books that I've been making over the last few years, and I'd estimate I'm now about halfway through. I picked it up in Waterstones the other day as I fancied something new to read and I'm totally attracted to slim volumes at the moment after my epic Dickens tomes, the complete reading of which has turned into a total non-starter, not that I'm too sorry about that.

'South of the Border, West of the Sun' is the story of Hajime, the narrator and central character, who we follow from early adolescence to his mid-thirties in Tokyo, where he goes from awkward schoolboy to lonely twenty-something to a married, jazz bar-owning early middle-aged man. The story starts with his quiet friendship with a similarly lonely girl called Shimamoto, with whom he plays records after school and feels his first confusing feelings of teenage lust. He then moves schools and they lose touch. The story then moves forward detailing his few failed love affairs, his sad, maladapted twenties and then marriage and fatherhood, before Shimamoto reappears, just in time for his tragically-impending mid-life crisis.


'Ashenden' by W. Somerset Maugham

'I'll tell you an incident that occurred only the other day and I can vouch for its truth. I thought at the time it would make a damn good story. One of the French ministers went down to Nice to recover from a cold and he had some very important documents with him that he kept in a dispatch-case. They were very important indeed. Well, a day or two after he arrived he picked up a yellow-haired lady at some restaurant or other where there was dancing, and he got very friendly with her. To cut a long story short, he took her back to his hotel - of course it was a very imprudent thing to do - and when he came to himself in the morning the lady and the dispatch-case had disappeared. They had one or two drinks up in his room and his theory is that when his back was turned the woman slipped a drug into his glass.'

R. finished and looked at Ashenden with a gleam in his close-set eyes.
'Dramatic, isn't it?' he asked.
'Do you mean to say that happened the other day?'
'The week before last.'
'Impossible,' cried Ashenden. 'Why, we've been putting that incident on the stage for sixty years, we've written it in a thousand novels. Do you mean to say that life has only just caught up with us?'

'Ashenden, or, The British Agent' by W. Somerset Maugham, is a book based upon Somerset Maugham's own experiences as a spy in Switzerland during WWI, which is remarkable for being the first collection of published spy stories written by someone who has actually done the job. Already a celebrated writer in 1914, Somerset Maugham's cover as a writer who was in various European locales for research and relaxation was inspired, but I do wonder at the logic of dispatching a writer on your most secret missions, and then expecting them to stay entirely secret. This collection was first published in 1928, so I do wonder if a little 10-years-of-silence deal was done before he was made privy to the establishment's inner workings.


The Rejection Generator

Only click this link if you are feeling brave, and wish to steady yourself against all thoughts of possible rejection in the future. C'mon, we're writers, rejection is just grist to the mill!

This is the humdinger I got:

Dear Writer,
We know the feeling of hope with which any writer opens a message from a publisher, 
expecting a new breakthrough, a new recognition. That is a good feeling, and you 
deserve to feel good. Savor it. Maybe jot down a few sentences describing your 
dizzy near-elation at this moment. It's about to end.
Your piece is not for us.
The Editors


via The Millions


Review: 'Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World' by Simon Callow

'Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World' is the second Dickens biography that I've read properly in this year of Dickens' bicentenary (the first being Claire Tomalin's), and I think the two biographies work very well together, in a strangely coincidentally complimentary manner. 

Simon Callow's biography is much shorter, at 370 pages including notes and an index, and speeds along at quite a fast clip, passing through the events of his childhood quite quickly and onto his adult life. All the facts stand up and it's clearly very well-researched, but the point at which this biography really comes alive is when Dickens enters the theatre. It is as this point that Simon Callow has his most to say, and the most new information to impart, as, being an actor, this is clearly the aspect of Dickens' life that interests him the most.  


In My Mailbox, No. 6

It's April, which means it's In My Mailbox time again, hosted as always by The Story Siren! So...

'Ashenden, or, The British Agent' by W. Somerset Maugham is my current read, and was part of a wonderful late birthday present last Saturday. It's my first Somerset Maugham, which is quite exciting. Review to follow in a week or so.

'The Pendragon Legend' by Antal Szerb, and translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix, was the second part of my late birthday present, and it's an intriguing-sounding murder mystery/hilarious romp/'gently satirical blend of gothic and romantic genres' (according to the blurb). Yikes. Looking forward to this.

'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close' by Jonathan Safran Foer marked the beginning of a little shopping spree that I had in my local Waterstones on Wednesday, when I feeling a bit down. Buying books always make me feel better, and if I chose instinctively, rather than by just buying what I need, I often end up buying books with vague answers in for me. Anyway, this was on buy one, get one half price at the front of the store, and see ing as the consensus seems to be that the film is a miss, I though now's as good a time to read this as any.

'South Of The Border, West Of The Sun' by Haruki Murakami was the next book I picked up - this is one of only a few of his that I haven't read, and I liked the thought of a slim volume that I could make my way through in a few days. Really excited about this, so might read it after 'Ashenden' above.

'Surfacing' by Margaret Atwood was bought as a consequence of three things: I had Murakami and Safran Foer in hand, and thought I need to buy something by a girl; it is also slim, and the cover is the most dreamy, calming blue; a couple of years ago, I read David Lodge's 'Art of Fiction' and this book was given as an example of a successful present tense narrative.

'The Pale King' by David Foster Wallace was my fourth pick on Wednesday, as I feel I should have read something of his by now, and also it had an offer sticker that made it my 'get one free'. The blurb sounds good, so we'll see. Incidentally, I felt quite intellectual carrying it round the store :)

That's it for now I think; what are you reading?


Review: Bulgakov's 'The Master & Margarita' - the Novel and the Play

'The Master and Margarita', Bulgakov's riotuous, surrealist masterpiece, was pressed into my hand by my lovely friend Abi, already mentioned for her fabulous book taste, several months ago, and it sat on my TBR pile until a week or so ago, when I realised the showing of Complicite's stage version, at London's Barbican Theatre, for which we had tickets, was fast approaching, so down it came.

Having both read the book and seen the play this past week, the two are now inexorably linked in my mind, so I'll explore the both, albeit separately, in this one blog post.

First of all, The Novel:

'The Master & Margarita' is as surrealist and fantastical as any book you are ever likely to read, with one of the profoundest and most exciting dangerous messages of any book I've ever read.   
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