The Tobacconist – Robert Seethaler (Book Review)

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Earlier this year I read A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, and after enjoying that, chose to read more of his work! This was also selected as a book for this month’s book club:

Seventeen-year-old Franz Huchel journeys to Vienna to apprentice at a tobacco shop. There he meets Sigmund Freud, a regular customer, and over time the two very different men form a singular friendship. When Franz falls desperately in love with the music-hall dancer Anezka, he seeks advice from the renowned psychoanalyst, who admits that the female sex is as big a mystery to him as it is to Franz.

As political and social conditions in Austria dramatically worsen with the Nazis’ arrival in Vienna, Franz, Freud, and Anezka are swept into the maelstrom of events. Each has a big decision to make: to stay or to flee?

The book is set in pre-war Austria where a young man is sent to Vienna to work with one of his mothers old friends at a tobacconist shop. This tobacconist was once a soldier in the trenches during which time he lost a leg and now worked in the shop to make ends meet – reading the newspapers and knowing everything about the cigars (despite not smoking).

The shop gets regular customers, one of which is the famous “idiot doctor” Sigmund Freud – a man Franz has heard much about and is excited to meet.

As war approaches however, the shop becomes vandalised as a “place that sells cigards to Jews”, and as the tobacconist fights these strange new ideas, and Franz chases love, the city of Vienna seems smaller and smaller as war approaches.

Frustrated by the Nazi’s, sad at the fate of his lost love, Franz seeks Freud’s advice and friendship, though this becomes difficult; Freud being a Jew.

The book is not unlike A Whole Life in the way that it is written – no chapters and much imagery. The constant call backs to a peaceful childhood fit effortlessly in the prose, and Franz becomes a likable character as he develops into a man in such a difficult time.

It certainly gives a good glimpse to pre-war Austria, with peoples opinions seeming to change in such a short period of time – one month mocking Hitler as a dog; the next shouting “Sieg Heil” and mocking the Jews…

The cynic in me questions our immunity to such fluctuations too – we are often blind to our hypocrisy even today, and a liberal society is in danger as being no different to a totalitarian one once it starts enforcing by law it’s liberal ideologies – “believe in liberalism, or face punishment, or public shame, or jail”. We must be on guard and soberly check our logic in such things.

Overall a thought-provoking read though an acquired taste – often slow and seemingly insignificant, but all rounded to a big picture of change and the loss of hope in the face of your own country against you.

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The Light Fantastic – Terry Pratchett (Book Review)

I bought the second in the Discworld series after enjoying the first one. The ease in reading this, and the light-heartedness of the stories, have become something I look forward to between reading more challenging books:

In the sky appears a red star, which gets bigger day-by-day as Great A’Tuin approaches it. The wizards of Discworld begin the search for the 8th Great Spell, which must be said along with the other 7 – only in times of crisis.

The 8th spell, safely within Rincewinds, seems somewhat reluctant to be caught, however.

Joining up with the now old, Cohen the Barbarian, Rincewind and Twoflower traverse Discworld, seeking the answer to save the world from colliding with the great red star.

The story sets place in a variety of environments, from forests, to cities, to inside an ancient spell-book. The characters continued to be developed, and the conclusion of their story-lines something which I’m eager to pursue in the following books in the series.

I did feel, however, that there were one or two lines which should have been cut somewhere in editing. Though perhaps humorous, they just didn’t sit well in the holistic atmosphere of the book.

Though perhaps not quite as enjoyable as the first Discworld novel, the conclusion to evade me until the closing pages – the threat of the approaching star seemingly unavoidable, yet the mixed reactions of the inhabitants of Discworld making it hard to guess who knew what was actually happening – which is not a bad thing.

Reading the Discworld series so far has encouraged me to branch out more in fantasy novels, and that can’t be a bad thing. I looked forward to exploring the genre more this year!

The Dice Man – Luke Rhinehart (Book Review)

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I got this book for free sometime last year, and it was recommended to me by a trusted friend as a ‘cult classic’, comparable to Fight Club:

Luke Rhinehart is a psychotherapist bored of the routines of everyday life. Believing that we suppress other selves when decision making (i.e. a self that wants to steal, rape, and murder), he begins experimenting with what later becomes DiceLife – decisions and reactions decided by the roll of a dice.

Slowly this snowballs, gaining him a fame among many: thousands who follow the way of the Dice (a new religion, of sorts), and those despairing at the suggestion of destroying free will and random chance being an increasingly common claim in court.

As a short story idea, I feel this book would have worked a lot better. I got the impression about halfway through that the author had an idea, and stretched it way too far:

Firstly, positive stuff: I found the writing style to be very witty, and did like the main character – I seem to have a liking for fairly sarcastic, cynical main characters.

Secondly, the negative: Far, far too many of the decisions focus on sex, making the whole concept of a DiceLife feel little more than a sexual experiment. About 300 pages the vast majority of decisions related to who will sleep with who, and how. I felt this to be very limiting in terms of shock or interest.

Another thing is that I just didn’t buy it as a viable suggestion – that the philosophy behind it was in anyway convincing. The whole thing was just a bit silly (and I am aware some people follow it since the books publishing – likely mostly as an affectation).

Ultimately I was disappointed with the book, but I did finish it. The writing was witty and it was an easy read. I just wish that the author either shortened the length or included more varied content – as it stands, some content could have been removed with little effect in terms of the overall story.

 

 

 

The Colour of Magic – Terry Pratchett (Book Review)

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I bought this book about 2 years ago but never got around to reading it. I bought it after a talk with a friend of mine who has read everything Pratchett ever wrote. I recently gave it a read before starting a bigger book:

Rincewind, a wizard drop-out, becomes the unlikely guide to the Discworld’s first tourist: Twoflower. Travelling on the a Disc-shaped world, supported by 4 large elephants on the back of a giant turtle travelling through space, the characters get into a variety of situations, pursued by the overly-loyal Luggage.

To appreciate the book, a knowledge of fantasy is already required: over-the-top plots, very convenient timings, etc. as the whole book is written as a fantasy-satire. This is introduced early on when, in the case of an attempt to greet another person failing, it is said that the character realises he ‘fumbled the introduction’ – a reference to D&D.

The book follows to characters as the face a variety of challenges, mostly coming about by the eager Twoflowers want to explore and take pictures of the world.

The book is written in a very simple way but, and this was my misunderstanding, in a way which is appropriate for young children (teens perhaps, though). With references to ‘whoring’ and a fair bit of nudity aside, a lot of the humour would require a bit of explanation for children.

The book itself is light-hearted, however, and I enjoyed reading it. I’m likely to read others in the series in time, but not after a heavier read!

Alex – Pierre Lemaitre (Book Review)

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This was one of the choices for this months book club. Being a crime book, and assured that it doesn’t rely on a twist ending, I thought to give it a go. I usually avoid crime novels due to cliches after all…

Alex, a young woman, finds herself kidnapped and hanging in a cage from an abandoned warehouse ceiling; the abductor saying he only wants to watch her die.

Verhoeven is assigned to the case and must track down a girl who seems to have no connections to anyone, and who seemingly moves about France a lot.

A fairly simple premise, but a quite complex story-line as it gets going.

The crime in the book is described quite graphically, which though it could have worked, felt somewhat forced in the writing. I got the impression that I was supposed to be more shocked than I actually was (perhaps I am desensitised, but who isn’t today?)

Alex was a very interesting character, and by far my favourite in the novel. For a victim, she had none of the cliches that are common in crime novels, and I for one certainly appreciated that.

Verhoeven, however, did carry some cliches. Widowed, angry etc. But perhaps if I read more of Lemaitre’s books, I’d grow to like him more (being a recurring character).

The story-line was complicated and the ending very clever. In fact, it dawned on me what had happened at exactly the same time it did another character, which I felt was novelty: the writer had managed to keep me in the dark as much as the characters, despite knowing all the clues.

Overall, certainly a unique crime book, and for lovers of the genre, one I would recommend. Perhaps I will develop a love for crime fiction eventually, but until then, books like this certainly make an argument in favour of the genre to me.

Post Office – Charles Bukowski (Book Review)

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I’m a bit of a fan of Bukowski’s poetry, though finding books of his is somewhat of a rarity. I stumbled across this in the ‘cult fiction’ section of my local bookshop.

Henry Chinaski is a low life loser with a hand-to-mouth existence. His menial Post Office day job supports a life of beer, one-night stands and racetracks.

Jumping from one relationship to the next, and dropping work on a whim, Chinaski lives day-by-day life.

The novel itself is short, and a very quick read. There are lots of points throughout the book which are very funny too, with Chinaski’s cynical attitude towards the authority figures in his life, and the lack of love he shows to the women in his life.

The book is void of hope for consistency for Chinaski, but he doesn’t seek it either. His bosses annoy him; and sooner or later, his lovers do too. He wants to live a life of ease, without pressure, and where he can simply drink and bet on horses.

I would recommend the book to people who enjoy things from the beat generation where this definitely belongs, and those who are fans of Bukowski. His down-to-earth attitude to writing, often with brute honesty, is something we sometimes need reminded of.

Laughter in the Dark – Vladimir Nabokov (Book Review)

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If Nabokov wrote about paint drying, I would still read it. I’ve read a lot of his books, and after stumbling across this one in a shop, added this to the collection:

Albinus, a wealthy artist is a married man with a young child. Arriving in town for a meeting one morning, he notices he is early, and so goes into a cinema to kill some time. Whilst in there, he notices a young, pretty usherette, and becomes obsessed with visiting the cinema to see her.

Eventually, a semi-abusive relationship develops, with Margot, the young usherette, abusing Albunis’ feelings towards her for financial gain, and the possibility of using his influence for her to become an actress.

When tragedy ensues, Albinus is pressed between moral and emotional pressures.

 

The title becomes so much darker once the book is finished, and you notice what the ‘laughter in the dark’ is laughter at. Albinus was the only semi-nice character in the book, and considering he cheated on his wife for the sake of the thrill, that is saying something.

The characters are all well written, and each unique in so many aspects. Much like Nabokov’s other novels, fairly common human characteristics become all too focused on for anyone to feel comfortable when carrying them out (or, has a hypocritical cynic like myself saying ‘yeh, exactly! People are stupid’).

The shortness of the book and typical style of prose make it well worth the read, though perhaps not as an introduction to Nabokov. The characters are well written and very stylized, and usually mundane situations become poetry when Nabokov describes them.