Reviewer Focus: Inspirational Reads

Welcome to a new feature for 2015, our Reviewer Focus posts.

Over the course of the year we are going to recap the wonderful reviews we have already posted, but this time by the reviewer who contributed them.  Just like a favourite author we sometimes find ourselves in tune with the opinions of one reviewer or another.  Here’s your chance to see if one of our lovely folk hits the button for you.

To start us off, we will be looking at the awesome contribution of Tori.  Going by the handle of Inspirational Reads, she has contributed an enormous 33 reviews !!
Sadly for us she has hung up her editorial boots here at 1001, but we are hoping she will find time to add one or two more reviews to her outstanding total so far.


After the Quake – Haruki Murakami

Book #64

Reviewer: Inspirationalreads

11299Murakami is another author that I have been in awe of and yet a bit wary.  He is a firm favourite among many of my fellow readers, highly lauded by many a critic/reviewer.  This was the last available to review on this list of the four books he has on here.  And yet I was intimidated by the highly surreal nature often referred to where his books are concerned, where readers were unsure of what was happening but were enjoying themselves, happy to be taken for the ride.  This was further emphasised when I read After Dark, another short story collection of his that is not on this list.   So nabbing this last opportunity to review a Murakami for this list (so far at least) I put myself in the mindset of being open and willing to go wherever Murakami wanted to take me.  Which for all my mental preparedness ended up being very middle of the road.

After the Quake features six short stories all set in the aftermath of the destructive 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan.  Rather than being directly set in and around Kobe, or having the characters be directly affected by the earthquake itself, these stories are more ripples than aftershocks, the earthquake being a passing mention,  a distant motivation.  So while this collection is called After the Quake, this is far less a unifying theme as there is another more obvious ; that of human relationships.  Be it the losing of some and gaining of new, re-connecting with yourself, searching for a connection that is missing, or re-connecting in a more meaningful manner this thread of connectivity runs throughout five of the six stories here. For me, this was unexpected and whether or not it was because I had mentally prepped myself for something different, a little disappointing in their straightforwardness and accessibility.  That is not to say that these stories are not poignant or meaningful, as this common thread does make for interesting thought when looked at as a collective.  The reactions of these different characters and the different aspects of human inter-connectivity are displayed in scenarios that never feel forced and could be everyday occurrences anywhere.  In the first story, our main character’s wife leaves him and he is given the opportunity of a new connection when he is sent on a mysterious work trip.  In another, a business woman has a spiritual encounter that encourages her to let go of the painful past in order to move forward and connect more truthfully and happily in the future.

It is just that this does not feel like a new handling of a common theme; nothing here is fresh and off-kilter like one would come to expect from Murakami.  It is not until I got to the fifth of the sixth stories, ‘Super-Frog Saves Tokyo’ that the absurd surrealism that I have come to associate with Murakami comes into play and for me, this story becomes the saving grace of the collection.  This thread of relationships can be drawn through this story as well, even though it is, as the title depicts, about a super-sized, super-skilled frog battling a giant worm to prevent an earthquake in Tokyo.  A loan collector, who thinks little of himself, is chosen as Super-Frog’s companion due to his selflessness and giving nature towards not only his family, but his friends and colleagues too.  Perhaps it is that he, who is humble and giving in his relationships with others is worthy of such a task, that of defending the city of Tokyo.  This odd little tale was a bright spot that stood out because of how different it was and was enjoyable because of the difference.

This book would be an odd choice as an introduction to Murakami so I would not recommend it for this.  It is however a nice study of human interaction and a must read for Super-Frog alone.  Maybe Murakami’s plan was to make the expected unexpected and therefore not so far out of his scope after all. Maybe this is just a lesson for me to leave any and all expectations at the door, especially when it comes to this author.

Waiting for the Barbarians – J.M Coetzee

Book #287

Reviewer: Inspirationalreads

WFTBWith an impressive ten books on the list, this is surprisingly the first Coetzee to be reviewed on this site.  A Nobel Prize winner and two-time Booker prize winner, this South African native is one of the most highly lauded modern day authors Coetzee (pronounced kut-si) cannot be overlooked any longer.

Set at the colonial settlement of an undefined (sidebar: I really feel I have to stress the undefined Empire.  For some reason, and I think because I knew Coetzee is South African, I really thought it was set in Africa and got a little thrown when they started talking about the approaching snowy winter and when our Magistrate adopted a wolf cub.  I’m not going to assume that any other readers are as presumptuous as I am, but just in case, undefined.), “Empire”, our narrator is the magistrate, having been appointed to the post some twenty years earlier.  Over this time he has grown to know and respect the indigenous people of the area, referred to as the Barbarians.  When a new Colonel arrives due to the news of some disturbance by the Barbarians, the Magistrate becomes more and more uncomfortable of the treatment of the Barbarians at the hand of this new authority. When a relationship develops between himself and a Barbarian girl, he leaves to return her to her people, further emphasising his sympathies and when he returns is branded a traitor to the cause.

This is an all encompassing story of a flawed man with very noble intentions.  As the Magistrate is our narrator, we, the reader, are able to hear his most intimate thoughts and motivations and his own painful awareness of his flaws.  There is no self delusion here, or even delusion in his role in the Empire, or in the Empire itself.

For I was not, as I liked to think, the indulgent pleasure-loving opposite of the cold rigid Colonel.  I was the lie that  the Empire tells itself when times are easy, he the truth that the Empire tells when harsh winds blow. Two sides of imperial rule, no more, no less.

The story itself is moving, because at its very basic it is about a man who is persecuted for being a decent human being.  History itself dictates that these type of atrocities happened and still do happen. And yet, to have this tale told from the perspective of someone in power, is a compelling read.  His fall from power, the resulting suffering he experiences both physically and mentally all leading to a bittersweet redemptive conclusion is laid out with a masterful hand.  Coetzee paints a very real man in an artfully described surroundings, surroundings not specific to a time and location so could be at any time in history, anywhere.

This book is well written, as well it should be as not only is it on the list but has at its helm on of the most highly regarded authors of modern time.  But the strength in my opinion is the sympathy and emotion evoked, an absorption into the story that leaves the reader mulling over it long after they are finished reading it.  This is not a happy read, and is quite heavy going in parts which is not unexpected given the subject matter, but it is a great read and one I highly recommend.

Women in Love – D. H. Lawrence

Book #728

Reviewer: Lizzie C

Women in LoveAnother first time reviewer here on the blog – welcome along Lizzie. C!

Before I begin it has been years since I have sat down and written any kind of book review so forgive me for being slightly rusty in this area. I also must mention that this book is a sequel to The Rainbow although I did not realise that until I was about half way through, I cannot say it impacted at all but perhaps might be best to read that book first.

The central characters are sisters, Gudrun and Ursula. Gudrun is an artist and Ursula is a school teacher in the 1910’s in the Midlands, England.

As the story progresses the 2 love interests arrive into the lives of the sisters. Gerald Crich the son of a coal mine owner becomes Gudrun’s love interest and Rupert Birkin a school inspector and Gerald’s friend becomes Ursula’s.

The two central relationships that develop are not your typical boy meets girl ones with them all living happily ever after. The relationships are somewhat tainted with politics, social standings, the place of men and women in society and their own individual inward battles.

It also becomes quite clear as the novel evolves that there is quite a strong love between Gerald and Rupert but there are too many internal and external barriers to prevent them being together. There are definite descriptions of subtle homoeroticism which whilst would be considered tame these days would no doubt have potentially been quite the controversy back when this novel was written.

It must be mentioned also that despite the fact there is often discussion of love and a repeated asking of “Do you love me?” between characters it seems there is also a self filled hatred of love, almost a disgust of it, a total inability to take it as a joyful emotion within each character which overrides a lot of conversation and inner thoughts.

In terms of the characters themselves Gerald is a cruel, very pessimistic man who totally overrules Ursula and who verges on evil and dangerous which becomes more apparent near the ending.  Birkin is less harsh and more loving towards Gundrun but I got the feeling that neither man loves either sister, they just say the words, they just do what is expected and that as a result it only adds to their bitterness towards life.

Overall I would say that I enjoyed the book and that with a bit of persistence it is worth reading. There is a lot of flowery language and internal conflicts that can be a bit over the top intertwined with some discussion that can be a bit self absorbed but overall as I said I enjoyed it and I would recommend it.

The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway

Book #521

Reviewer: Inspirationalreads

old man

I have long associated Hemingway as being the most masculine of writers.  I was aware of him being a keen hunter and the titles of his books, in particular A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls and this The Old Man and the Sea also screamed “manly!”. While this was not entirely off-putting for me, it did mean that it has taken a long time in getting around to reading anything by him.  And so this, my first Hemingway, was both as expected but also a revelation in being so thoroughly deserving of all the accolades it has been awarded.

Santiago is our old man, a  fisherman in his twilight years.  A lifetime spent as a fisherman has left him little to call his own, wizened but still in relative good health for his advancing years.  Manolin is his young fishing companion and when they go 84 days without catching a fish, Manolin’s parents stop him from going out on Santiago’s skiff, sending him to fish on more successful boats.  Still full of admiration for the old man, Manolin is there to see off Santiago as he embarks on a solitary trip that lasts over two days and nights battling to catch and bring back the biggest marlin of his life.

As are many of the other reads on this list, this is a deceptively simple read.  This is the struggle of one man in a story of perseverance and strength. Nearly two thirds of this book are spent with Santiago on his lone boat struggling with this catch.  Where his mind goes, the conversations of companionship and respect that he has with this mighty marlin, his thoughts on many other things including, endearingly, baseball star Joe DiMaggio.  In an age where there is so much to fill your time, noise and distraction at your fingertips, this aspect of the book is of an age and yet timeless  because of its familiarity.  When left to your own thoughts, where does your mind stray to? What conversations do you have with yourself?  Santiago brings age-earned wisdom to his musings.  On accepting Manolin’s help;

He was too simple to wonder when he had attained humility.  But he knew he had attained it and he knew it was not disgraceful and it carried no loss of true pride.

And as his task would dictate, his mind often turns to the relationship with his prey.  He is so respectful of the mighty marlin, marveling at it’s size and what it will contribute to his life.  Income, of course, but a source of pride especially coming off an 84 day losing streak.  Something to prove to his peers who think he is too old, something to prove to Manolin’s parents.  And something to show Manolin, a thank you for his continued support and a justification for his admiration.  There is struggle here and a bloody minded persistence, necessary to stay out there for two days and two nights.  But this isn’t a the story of a fevered Ahab type trying to land his Moby Dick.  Yes Santiago has all the those above motivations but he also is a fisherman and this is his job.  And can’t this be said for so many of us?  The slog, the perseverance, the determination of getting the job done for income, but also for pride for yourself, respect from your family and friends and just because it has to be done.  Written in 1952, when a lot more employment was manual labour based, the physical task of landing this giant fish would have been more familiar.

The novel ends on a bittersweet note, one which makes this tale more of a fable, its moral clear to decipher but one I don’t want to spoil because this really is a great read.  Yes, it is one man fishing, and it is very masculine in its feel.  There are no flowery passages of prose, but there is a beautiful clarity of language, a straightforward but no less masterful manipulation that left me often re-reading paragraphs in appreciation.  Please, don’t be put off like I was.