Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig #AtoZ

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance embodies that 70’s spirit of road trips and the search for enlightenment.

The story follows the narrator and his son on a motorcycle trip across the North-Western USA. It’s a very personal and moving account, which is not only testament to their father and son bond, but also feels incredibly raw and real.

Along the way, the father and son duo have many philosophical discussions which they call Chautauquas, ranging from ethical emotivism to the philosophy of science. Unfortunately, the son, Chris, does not often get a word in edgeways. His father, or Phaedrus as he refers to his past self, has a lot to say. And while his teachings are solid, they are a mere introduction to philosophy and touch on the great philosophers who should be explored more after reading the book.

Despite the name, there is not as much Zen Buddhism, or motorcycle maintenance come to think of it, as one would expect. That being said, the explanation of the scientific method and how we as a society and as individuals go about discovering the truth, and the analogy of working on a motorcycle is beautifully written.

Road trips have this habit of serving as time for contemplation and finding oneself. The open road can do that to you. And discussing philosophical aspects and teachings with a fellow traveller is a valid past-time. Towards the end of the book, Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance really tips over into preaching, though. It’s no longer a discussion or an anecdote seen for its philosophical value. And that’s when the reading turns from being fun into being tedious. The search for enlightenment has turned into a lesson.

As a road trip story between father and son, during which the father wants to share some life advice, this would be great! But the author apparently could not resist temptation to turn absolutely everything into a philosophy lesson, which takes away from the story at the heart of this novel.

 

My Rating: ♥♥♥

Title: Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Author: Robert M. Pirsig
Publisher: Vintage Classics
Release Date: June 6, 1991 (originally published September 1974)
Pages: 416
ISBN:  978-0099786405

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Young Sherlock Holmes – Death Cloud by Andy Lane #AtoZ

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

Young Sherlock Holmes: Death Cloud (as it is known in English) by Andrew Lane takes place in the 1860’s with a fourteen-year-old schoolboy Sherlock Holmes solving his very first mysterious case.

As someone who has grown up with the original Sherlock Holmes canon and more recent TV regenerations of the sleuth from Baker Street, I was intrigued by this book.

Sherlock is meant to spend the summer with his aunt in the country, and the teenager couldn’t be more bored by that prospect.

The case Sherlock comes across involved a mysterious cloud, which descends on people and leaves them dead and covered in boils. However, at age 14, Sherlock’s world-famous deductive skills are still seriously lacking. His sidekick is not a teenaged version of John Watson but a boy called Matty. And while Matty is a great character and their friendship is nicely written, Sherlock is disappointing for fans of the sleuth.

Young Sherlock Holmes is not at all what I expected. While I find the concept of a teenaged Sherlock really intriguing, it is hard to reconcile this young boy who suggests rather than deduces and has a love interest with the well-known adult Sherlock Holmes everyone knows. If the premise of a book is the childhood of one of the best known fictional detectives ever, I would expect that at least some part of the story hints at what shaped this teenager into the aloof, friendless and highly analytical sleuth people know.

A Sherlock Holmes story – no matter how old the protagonist happens to be – should be clever, witty, interesting, and at the end baffling. Unfortunately, this novel is none of that. Granted, the plot is original, as are most of the characters, but the character of Sherlock feels wrong for true fans.  It reads like sophisticated fanfiction, and  – dare I say it? – there’s more convincing fanfiction out there which explores Sherlock’s childhood in Victorian England. If the protagonist had any other name, I doubt I would have recognised that he’s meant to be the detective.

 

My Rating: ♥♥

Title: Young Sherlock Holmes: Death Cloud
Author: Andrew Lane
Publisher: Macmillan Children’s
Release Date: June 4, 2010
Pages: 313
ISBN:  978-0330511988

Xingu by Edith Wharton #AtoZ

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

This short story is usually part of a collection entitled Xingu and Other Stories, but it is now also available by itself.

Edith Wharton’s Xingu is a hilarious take on Ladies Book Clubs and luncheons.

Written in 1916, the story centres around a group of six ladies who regularly get together to discuss literature, even though some of the women do not even bother to read the books. And yet, their contributions are often somehow fitting.

When a famous guest author comes to town, nothing really goes to plan as this guest does not want to discuss anything – except for Xingu. While all of them assure that they have studied it, and the guest wants to appear superior, it’s one of the less popular members of the women’s club who has to take her down a peg.  It’s a brilliant satire of book clubs and critics and hilariously funny. Calling out the snobbery and pretentiousness of ladies who want to seem cultured but refuse to do the legwork.

Incidentally, the book club members also represent the different types of readers. The purist who wants to internalise the entire book, and the one who only reads a book if the man gets the girl at the end, to the non-reader who just wants to look and sound cultured. Despite the story only having 48 pages, it is full of sarcasm and social critique.

Xingu is a clever, timeless story, that makes for an entertaining short read.

 

My Rating: ♥♥♥♥

Title: Xingu
Author: Edith Wharton
Publisher: Kessinger Publishing
Release Date: June 1, 2004 (originally published February 7, 1916)
Pages: 48
ISBN:  978-1419195136

 

Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera #AtoZ

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

Witi Ihimaera’s Whale Rider is a beautiful gem of a story, highlighting and celebrating Maori culture and society.

Eight-year-old Kahu is a girl growing up in a male-dominated world. Her tribe claims to go all the way back to the whale rider Kahutia Te Rangi and the current chief is her ageing grandfather Koro. It’s a sore point with him that his first grandchild is not only a girl, but also named after the legendary ancestor.

In a society, in which the tribal ways still dictate social and cultural behaviour, the little girl has to prove her worth as her grandfather desperately seeks a successor.

Whale Rider is written from the perspective of Kahu’s uncle Rawiri, who – like the author – knows the Maori culture. Trying to gain her grandfather’s love, Kahu throws herself into her studies of the Maori language and local legends. And with a little curiosity and the secret help of her relatives, Kahu learns the skills usually reserved for boys. When whales start to wash up on the beach of the small Maori community, it is time for the real heir of Kahutia to take their rightful place in the tribe.

It is a beautiful story, weaving together the past and present, highlighting the generational shift in dynamics while trying to hang on to the old ways and legends. The relationship between Kahu and her grandfather is both beautiful and incredibly sad. All Kahu wants is for her grandfather to love her. She’s a good, well-behaved girl, who does not understand why she is being punished with neglect; while he is an old man who only knew one way of running the tribe, and what positions girls in his family are supposed to take and struggles with breaking from tradition.

The book does a wonderful job of introducing Maori culture and includes many Maori names and words. There’s no westernized view of tribal life or belittling of the traditional ways. It showcases the importance of the ancestral legends and the how their culture defines their everyday life. But at the heart, it is a touching story about a little girl and her granddad who live in Aotearoa – the Land of the Long White Cloud – and who have to work at  finding mutual respect in a world in which cultural limitations are changing.

Whale Rider was the first novel by a Maori author to be published, and to me, this is a defining piece of Kiwi Literature. If you are interested in New Zealand at all, read this book first and foremost!

 

My Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥

Title: Whale Rider
Author: Witi Ihimaera
Publisher: HMH Books
Release Date: May 1, 2003 (originally published in 1987)
Pages: 150
ISBN:  978-0152050160

Voss by Patrick White #AtoZ #60Books

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge. Also part of my 60 Books Challenge: Based on a true story.

Based on a true story of exploration in the Australian Outback, Voss, by Nobel Prize for Literature winner Patrick White,  epitomises nineteenth-century Australian society and explorer mentality.

Johann Ulrich Voss is a German explorer who is set on being the first to cross Australia, based on Ludwig Leichhardt, who famously got lost in the Australian Outback.

It’s as much a story about passion as it is about exploration. Voss meets a young woman called Laura, who is new to New South Wales and who is the – slightly naive – niece of Voss’ expedition sponsor. Laura and Voss connect on a deep level and share an almost spiritual bond as he leaves on his ill-fated expedition into Australia’s red centre.

Why a character like Voss, who although being enigmatic is also quite arrogant and introverted, would choose to lead an expedition is a bit of a mystery. His sponsors insist on him taking a whole entourage of characters with him, even though it is obvious that Voss would prefer to travel solo. Keeping in contact with Laura as far as possible as many letters do get lost, they come to see each other as husband and wife, even though most of their relationship exists and progresses only in their dreams and imaginations.

Though it is not the main character who is the most interesting figure in this story. Voss’ team consists of a handful of men, all distinct and all misfits, even in their own small group of misfits. Their interactions are what moves the plot along, and they are fascinating to observe. Once the group of explorers encounters aboriginal folk in the Outback, the story becomes infused with their spiritualism as well. Aboriginal people come across as completely “other” and strange, compared to the colonial explorers, and their interactions with Voss’ band of people are rife with communication problems and cultural misunderstandings which are nevertheless crucial to the story.

Patrick White’s writing is simultaneously strange and beautiful. He creates characters and paints landscapes the descriptions of which will stay with readers.White’s story is littered with observations and psychology, and sentences are sometimes designed to be tripping people up while reading.

A story of love, loss, and the dangers of the Outback. Voss truly is the quintessential, modernist Australian novel.

My Rating: ♥♥♥♥

Title: Voss
Author: Patrick White
Publisher: Vintage Classics
Release Date: 1994 (originally published in 1957)
Pages: 464
ISBN:  978-0099324713

Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas #AtoZ

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

Dylan Thomas’ “play for voices” Under Milk Wood was devised as a radio programme.

It follows the inhabitants of Llareggub, a small, fictional fishing village in Wales. Using a mixture of first and second person narration, we get to experience the villagers’ dreams and everyday interactions with each other.

There is not much plot as such. But with a whole cast of varied characters, all with their own dreams, regrets, problems and lives, there is never a dull moment.

As is common in small towns and tight-knit communities, everyone has a big secret to keep hidden and old ghosts that haunt them. Behind the socially obligated pleasantries and forced smiles lies a host a contempt and murderous thoughts.

Dylan Thomas’ writing style is beautiful with its lyrical wordplay and poetic descriptions which conjure up the village and the folks living in it. Thomas’ language is almost musical, packed with metaphors, imagery and hilarity. As Under Milk Wood is intended to be read and heard, rather than read, the full effect of the play becomes apparent when you read out loud or listen to one of the many great recordings of the play.

We are not wholly bad or good, who live our lives under Milk Wood.

 

My Rating: ♥♥♥♥

Title: Under Milk Wood
Author: Dylan Thomas
Publisher: Penguin Books
Release Date: February 3, 2000 (originally published in 1953)
Pages: 112
ISBN:  978-0140188882

#WeekendCoffeeShare: If We Were Having Coffee… On April 23

Hello book lovers!

Welcome to the Weekend Coffee Share, a blog hop by the lovely Diana over at Part Time Monster. Every weekend we get together for virtual coffees and a little casual chat.

If we were having coffee today, we’d sit inside sipping a hot brew. Even though temperatures reached 20°C here this week, today it’s back down to 8°C. How have you been this week?

If we were having coffee, we’d be talking about the Bard himself, William Shakespeare. Today is the 400th anniversary of his death, and there are Shakespeare celebrations everywhere. In fact, tonight, I’ll be seeing the star-studded live screening of Shakespeare Live! at the RSC from Stratford-upon-Avon.

I’ve been to Stratford twice before. My grammar school actually had an exchange programme with the Stratford-upon-Avon Grammar School for Girls and in 2001 I had the chance to participate. It served as my introduction to Shakespeare and his works, though back then, all we did was read his works. I confess, I may have gotten into Shakespeare earlier if we’d seen some of his plays. I went back in 2010, to revisit Shakespeare’s birthplace, New Place and take a short trip out to Shottery to Anne Hathaway’s Cottage.

I think I really started to fully grasp Shakespeare when I saw the production of Richard III at Trafalgar Studios in London, starring Martin Freeman in 2014. If my first introduction to Shakespeare had been that play, I’d have been a convert immediately. It was updated, set in the 70s, performed in an intimate theatre, incredibly well-performed and so full of energy you didn’t feel the time pass at all. Since then I’ve made it a point to see more Shakespeare plays, like Hamlet at the Barbican last year, screenings of Richard II, As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet and Coriolanus.

Do you have a favourite Shakespeare play? I can’t decide. I’d probably say A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but I have also found that in terms of theatre, I do like Shakespeare the better the gorier it is.

If we were having coffee today, I’d tell you I’m still catching up on the A to Z Challenge posts and hoping to be all caught up by tomorrow. So far I’ve reviewed: A Study in Scarlet, Bonjour Tristesse, Cross Bones, Down Under, Everything is Illuminated, Fahrenheit 451, Gulliver’s Travels, Holy Cow, Into the River, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Kim, Lucky Man, Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Neverwhere, On the Road, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as well as Quite Ugly One Morning

I’m afraid this is where I have to leave you today. I still need to drive to Düsseldorf to get to the cinema in time for the screening.

Thank you for having coffee with me today. Same time, next week?

 

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman #AtoZ

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

There is something magical about books that transport you back to your childhood, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman is one of those special books,

After a family bereavement, a man returns to his rural childhood home and heads down the lane to the old ramshackle farmhouse next door that he used to visit as a child.

And he starts to remember fragments, of how he used to play with a little, remarkable girl called Lettie Hempstock, who lived on the farm with her mother and gran. Who took him to the pond behind the homestead and called it her ocean.

Neil Gaiman beautifully weaves a tale of magic and half-remembered childhood days. The man had not thought about Lettie and her family in decades, and yet, fragments of his past come back to him that seem too strange and frightening to have happened, let alone to a seven-year-old boy. Something incomprehensible happened in the man’s childhood, which unleashed a darkness on the small community on the lane, and set in motion a devastating chain of events.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a beautiful study of what makes us human, and also on how we perceived the world when we were little. Lettie and her family could not really be witches, could they? But which part of the remembered past are true, and which are childish imagination? Maybe there is no distinction between them at all.

Neil Gaiman seems to have found the perfect mixture of truth and imagination, magic, reality, joy and sadness, wit and dry humour, happiness and fear, which gives the story a sweetly melancholic atmosphere. The book captures the reader’s attention from the first page to the very last, spinning a tale of mystery, old wisdom, love, and resentment. Parts of the story hit close to home, in every sense of those words, while others are endearingly whimsical.

Even the physical book itself insists on being whimsical and that little bit different and special, with its intentionally rough, untrimmed edges of the paper.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane stretches imaginations and definitions of what is possible and what is not; and whether one thing could not simultaneously be another as well. And maybe, just maybe, the fantastical stories we thought we made up as children turn out to be real after all. Not remembering properly may simply have been less painful.

This is one of those rare books whose message you have to digest for a while after you finish reading it. It will make you question your childhood memories and the limitations of your imagination, and Gaiman’s exquisite style will immerse you so deeply in the story that you think you are really walking alongside Lettie Hempstock and the boy searching for the ocean behind the old homestead at the end of the dusty lane.

 

My Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥

Title: The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: Harper Collins
Release Date: June 18, 2013
Pages: 181
ISBN:  978-0062272348

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse #AtoZ

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha is a classic example of a Bildungsroman.

The development and progression to maturity of the main character, a young Indian man called Siddhartha, is at the centre of this German classic. Finding enlightenment is the most important aspect of the journey the character undertakes in his life, as the novel follows him from a vagabond childhood through what can only be termed a mid-life crisis to his spiritual awakening.

Hesse’s prose is beautiful and poetic, whether you read it in the original German, or in the English translation. For being written by a German, Siddhartha does a wonderful job of bringing the old Indian way of life and the philosophies of Taoism and Buddhism to life.

However, you can have too much of a good thing. Siddhartha’s story follows that of the buddha – who, incidently, was also called Siddhartha. The names are taken from deities and holy people. And those unfamiliar with Eastern lifestyles and disciplines might have trouble keeping the terms apart as Siddhartha encounters brahmins and ascetics, and discusses the Atman, hindu deities, moksha, and samsara.

The German word “Bildung” means education, and this is what Hesse attempts with this novel. To educate about the path of enlightenment. But it comes across as trying too hard. While the story itself is enjoyable enough, the constant life advice does grind on. Some books you read and come away from them, and your whole view of the world has changed. And I am sure this is what Hesse was going for with Siddhartha. But some books, like this one, don’t get the message across between the lines, and become too obvious about it.

Someone in a more spiritual state of mind would probably enjoy Siddhartha, but to me it read like a nice story around an Introduction to Buddhism textbook which was meant to give a basic overview and introduce terms and names to be discussed in further lessons.

 

My Rating: ♥♥

Title: Siddhartha
Author: Hermann Hesse
Publisher: Bantam Books
Release Date: December 1, 1981 (originally published in 1922)
Pages: 160
ISBN:  978-0553208849

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch #AtoZ

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London was a huge surprise. Expecting a crime novel and police procedural, this book is so much more than that.

It all starts with Constable Peter Grant, an officer in the Metropolitan Police. He’s only supposed to take witness statements in a murder inquiry – and ends up interviewing a ghost.

Turns out there’s a Chief Inspector at the Met who is also the last wizard in England. And Peter Grant has just become his first trainee in decades, investigating cases that could have supernatural elements to them.

Rivers of London is refreshingly British. Sort of Scotland Yard meets Harry Potter (minus the wizarding school), and you can’t get much more British than that. Aaronovitch really knows how to write convincing dialogue incorporating British slang with just the right amount of sarcasm, and DC Peter Grant is a very well-written character and a narrator with a great voice. It’s smart and witty, without being patronising. It is also just as refreshing to see a non-white protagonist, especially as a detective of the Met, who is unselfconscious about his mixed-heritage ethnicity.

The author obviously knows London like the back of his hand. It is also pretty obvious that Aaronovitch is a proper geek as there are several references to the works of authors and scientists, as well as British pop culture. The amount of detail that goes into the police procedure descriptions is incredible.

The magic in this book is unique. The river Thames and her tributaries are in fact deities who are alive, and the Old Man of the River and Mama Thames are both fighting over the control of the rivers. There’s no silly wand-pointing. Peter and the Chief Inspector can pick up the essence that magic leaves behind, and they really use their full magical and non-magical arsenal to solve their cases.

Rivers of London is a great urban fantasy with the perfect mixture of detective story, magic, and British humour.

 

My Rating: ♥♥♥♥

Title: Rivers of London
Author: Ben Aaronovitch
Publisher: Gollancz
Release Date: January 10, 2011
Pages: 392
ISBN:  978-0575097568

Note: In the US, this book is known as Midnight Riot