Monthly Archives: June 2015

My Reading Challenge – Book 49: ‘Atomised’ by Michel Houellebecq

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For reference, the second of the Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky was book 47, The Checklist Manifesto book 48 (and referenced in my column http://thatdifficultfirstnovel.co.uk/my-world-in-books/my-world-in-books-medical-non-fiction/)

‘Atomised’ (or as it is called in some place ‘The Elementary Particles’) is about as difficult a book to write about as I could imagine. On one hand, I fully enjoyed my time spent reading Michel Houellebecq’s story of two brothers, their lives and loves. On the other hand, it is a difficult book to wholeheartedly recommend. It is deep, difficult and depressing in equal measure, and is certainly not for the faint hearted.

As with any challenging book, whether in theme or in general content, ‘Atomised’ is difficult to effectively summarise, especially in a forum that works best without spoilers giving away key parts of the novel. At heart, it is a story of two brothers; two brothers who are vastly different in their attitudes towards life and in terms of their personalities. Bruno is a pervert, a sexual deviant who seeks out any opportunity to indulge in what could be perceived as increasingly depraved sexual activity. Michel, on the other hand, is a man who drifts through life, never quite seeming to find solace in relationships, preferring to drift around the periphery no matter how much those in his life try to engage him, even love him.

Andy Miller described Michel Houellebecq as a ‘nihilist’, and I can now see how he came to that decision: in the book, nothing good happens to anyone. Sure, there are fleeting moments where things seems to improve, for sunshine to peek through clouds of existence, yet all too soon, this illumination is extinguished, replaced a darker, more tragic hue. This makes ‘Atomised’ a difficult read, almost as if you are being bludgeoned with every conceivable perversity of life itself, with no real happiness or salvation outside of death. Suicide and death are central themes, and are almost seen by characters as a viable outlet to escape the crushing and numbing inevitability of living.

There is also a lot of sex, and I mean a lot of sex. I’m not a prude, but even I was surprised by casual way that sex and masturbation were dropped into the story, mainly through the eyes of Bruno. His lust and desire seem to intensify as his opportunity to satiate these cravings becomes less due to the creeping spectre of age. Even he finds solace for a short while, only for his perverse house of cards to inevitably also topple down. Michel, on the other hand, seems to veer away from sex and society in general, a shell of a man who doesn’t really find his place until the end of the novel, yet uniquely so.

This is also one of the books that would have initially driven me away from the idea of reviewing books. When I read, I often tend to read solely for pleasure, often not really spending time analysing message, motive, themes, etc. As I’ve begun to read more, I’ve started to try and take these types of ideas on board more, though actually finding the belief in your own thoughts about a piece of creative media is difficult. What if I’ve read it wrong? What if people laugh at the concepts I’ve discussed? What if I’ve missed some obvious symbolism that would be the key to truly helping me understand? It is almost as if we are putting our very ability to read and understand on show, a concept that is oft unchallenged.

So, here goes.

Again, without wanting to spoil it for those who have yet to read, I believe the book is exploring the nature of our interactions with the people around us, and the damage they inevitably cause, even when they are relationships that should, in theory, be there to support us and make us better people. By involving ourselves in social interactions, we are only really causing ourselves bigger difficulties, whereas a life of solitude may cause less hurt, but is as equally unfulfilling. Both men arguably represent the social poles, and maybe Houellebecq is trying to imply that neither way of living is preferential, and that only be working within those parameters can things truly work out. Although, having now read the book, Houellebecq might just be suggesting that life sucks no matter what, and then you die.

Do I recommend it? Yes, but I was primed to know what to expect coming in by my reading of reviews for the book. I can see why people love this book; I can just as easily see why people would want to run a mile from it. All I do know is that I think I need to move onto something a bit more…optimistic for my next read.

Books I Haven’t Read: ‘ISOLT’ by Marcel Proust; ‘ROTTK’ by Luo Ghanzong

51sCIJ7uTlL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Re: Proust's In Search of Lost Time On 2013-11-06, at 2:06 PM, Rinehart, Dianne wrote:     DIANNE RINEHART BOOKS EDITOR AND WRITER TORONTO STAR, ONE YONGE ST. TORONTO, ON., M5E 1E6 416-945-8694 From: Klein, Evan [mailto:eklein@randomhouse.com]  Sent: Wednesday, November 06, 2013 2:06 PM To: Rinehart, Dianne Subject: RE: Proust's In Search of Lost Time   Hi Dianne - Here it is. If you need anything else please don't hesitate to ask. Thanks, Evan   Evan Klein  Publicity Support | Random House of Canada  One Toronto Street, Suite 300 | Toronto, ON | M5C 2V6  eklein@randomhouse.com                                                                                                           From: Rinehart, Dianne [mailto:drinehart@thestar.ca]  Sent: Wednesday, November 06, 2013 2:00 PM To: Klein, Evan Subject: FW: Proust's In Search of Lost Time   Evan, possible to get this? thanks! D.   DIANNE RINEHART BOOKS EDITOR AND WRITER TORONTO STAR, ONE YONGE ST. TORONTO, ON., M5E 1E6 416-945-8694 From: Rinehart, Dianne  Sent: Wednesday, November 06, 2013 1:59 PM To: 'Sharpe, Dan' Subject: Proust's In Search of Lost Time   Hi Dan, is it possible to get a jpeg of this cover? Best, D.   DIANNE RINEHART BOOKS EDITOR AND WRITER TORONTO STAR, ONE YONGE ST. TORONTO, ON., M5E 1E6 416-945-8694   Books I Haven’t Read

‘In Search of Lost Time’ by Marcel Proust

‘Romance of The Three Kingdoms’ by Luo Ghanzong

Not content with merely reading books that can be perceived as challenging (see http://thatdifficultfirstnovel.co.uk/books-i-havent-read/books-i-havent-read-infinite-jest-by-david-foster-wallace/ for my initial forays into the world of challenging literature), I began to desire another way to challenge myself. I was already trying to cram in a number of books within the year, as per my Goodreads challenge, but this didn’t seem enough. Suddenly, it hit me. What if I not only decided to read a certain amount of books within a year, but I included some of the biggest books ever published?

As with anything related to reading and reviewing media of any kind, it can be difficult to not cross over into pretentiousness. There can arguably be no more pretentious a statement than ‘I shall read the biggest books known to man’, because the task is designed to allow you to tell people that you are reading these books, and in the end, that you have finished these books. There is obvious literary merit to these novels, don’t get me wrong, but there is also that self-satisfied smugness that comes with mentioning ‘War and Peace’ when comparing the novels you are currently reading with a group of readers. It is the literary version of waving your hands in the air and shouting ‘look at me’.

I bought ‘War and Peace’ first, before deciding that this wasn’t enough – I even typed into Wikipedia ‘the world’s longest books’ to give myself some other alternative options. Finally, I settled on ‘In Seach of Lost Time’ and ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’. The lure of three of the longest books recorded for the sum total of around five pounds felt like the most amazing bargain ever: so many hours of entertainment for so few pence. I felt a richer man as these books found their way onto my Kindle.

What has stopped me from reading these two books, when ‘War and Peace’ is halfway finished? Would it be too obvious to suggest the length? Anytime I tried to pick the books up, the metaphorical weight of trying to tackle two novels of such length crushed me – I didn’t have time to commit my precious reading time to books that would, according to my Kindle, take me over a day to read…each. What about all the other novels I can’t read as I traipse for the next few months through worlds created by Tolstoy, as well as Proust and Ghanzong?

The only things that ‘War and Peace’ has over these two monolithic masterpieces are that I bought it first, and I started it first. This choice came from a pre-conditioned understanding of ‘War and Peace’ as this monster of literature, a view solidified over the years by cultural and social references towards the book. ‘War and Peace’ became the buzz phrase for a long book, and the punchline to any joke about the length of a piece of writing. Even though the complete volumes of ‘In Search of Lost Time’ dwarf Tolstoy’s novel, the layman or woman KNOWS how big ‘War and Peace’ is.

This brings me back to the discussion on pretentiousness. Maybe the main reason I chose to commit to ‘War and Peace’ first, considering there was nothing stopping me from making the leap directly to Proust or Ghanzong, was for the response I would receive when I told people I was reading it. Just like a joke whose punchline needs to be explained isn’t funny, the impressive nature of reading a large book is somewhat negated if you have to explain to people that that is what you are doing. Since I was guaranteed a bigger reaction to one of the three books, did I subconsciously choose it?

Of the two books, I’m more likely to read Proust than Ghanzong – once again, arguably due to the associations attached to the concept of ‘reading Proust’. Ghanzong loses out just because he had the temerity to be born other the other side of the world. Poor sod.

In the end, my desire to impress people has been my own reading albatross. Not only do I have two weighty tomes sitting there ominously, waiting to be tackled, but I also have to try and commit a chunk of my life every day to the reading a book where no end is in sight. The challenge becomes the chore. Sure, it is enjoyable – but I can only vaguely remember what happened at the start of the story and how the various characters are interlinked. It has become the reading equivalent of walking the wrong way up and escalator. You’ll get where you want to go eventually; you’ll just get there very slowly.

Serves me right for trying to show off.

My World in Books: Medical Non-fiction

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The World of Medical Non-fiction

A plea to start – if you read this and enjoy it, please click on an ad on the site. The coppers I’ll get will make the difference in keeping this thing running. Thanks in advance!

At the start of the year,if you had told me that the genre of book I would most enjoy in 2015 would be ‘medical non-fiction’, I would have asked you to get your head checked out. Thankfully, with neurologists such as Henry Marsh and endocrine surgeons such as Atul Gawande, any mental mishap or hormonal imbalance that caused you to utter such a preposterous statement can be easily rectified.

The genre of medical non-fiction does feel like it is a burgeoning niche in the world of books – or maybe, upon reading several, I am just more primed to notice them. I’ve read four over the past year, and each has been fantastic in opening my eyes to the reality of life behind the surgery doors.

‘Do No Harm’, by the aforementioned Henry Marsh, was the first in my medical odyssey, charting the triumphs and pitfalls of being a brain surgeon. Marsh did a brilliant job of tempering the increased ability to tackle major medical issues with the reality of the random nature of chance, luck and the human body. He’d move from uplifting stories about successful surgeries, to the aftermath of operations that had not gone as smoothly. No matter how many years of experience Dr. Marsh had, things could, and still would, go wrong. Even more fascinating were his stories of working in Ukraine, where the surgeries were completed under extreme constraints of equipment, yet there were still people trying to do their best by their fellow man. Heartening, as well as harrowing.

My interest in ‘Do No Harm’ led me to ‘Being Mortal’, the newest book by Atul Gawande. As this year progressed, I read ‘Complications’ and ‘The Checklist Manifesto’ also. Every opportunity to check out Gawande’s books, I’ve swallowed up voraciously. Without wanting to play favourite, ‘Being Mortal’ is still probably the most thought-provoking of the three, yet they all offer something to the discerning reader who wants to peak behind the curtain.

Gawande does a wonderful job of not only being informative, but genuinely engaging in the way he tells the narratives of his books. Whether it is the changes needed in care for the elderly in ‘Being Mortal’, or the desire to try and utilize a checklist to strengthen teamwork and eliminate mistakes in the operating theatre in ‘The Checklist Manifesto’, his descriptions of the space he occupies in the world of medicine are as riveting as any page turning crime thriller.

As would be expected of a surgeon, Gawande is clearly very intelligent, and his research around the topics of each novel encapsulates the wider world effortlessly. For example, ‘The Checklist Manifesto’ includes the story of the Miracle on the Hudson, a crash landing where no-one was hurt due to the use of a simple pilots checklist. In using it to prove his point about the effectiveness of this administrative task, he also develops the narrative hook that all good novels require. In showing us the bigger picture, he makes his work seem all the more vital.

To finish, it would be remiss not to consider some of the questions thrown up by ‘Being Mortal’. It is Gawande’s most personal book, with the backdrop of a father who is beginning to suffer the travails of old age. As we begin to elongate life for all, what needs to happen to the care offered to the elderly? How can we make the end of life as fulfilling as the previous years? How can we manage an ageing population in an area where money and investment is sparse?

If anything, Gawande is asking the questions that should be at the forefront of our future plans for progression as a community and society across the world. You can’t ask for much more in a book.