Review: The Golden House by Salman Rushdie

Book supplied by Netgalley for an honest review.

My rating: 5 out of 5

Salman Rushdie’s The Golden House was one of those treats where I started the book without knowing a thing about it. Immediately you know you’re in the safe hands of a storyteller, not just a plotter or a writer, but a craftsman who knows his story-telling trade. The story twists at the start while the characters settle down and the narrator (a neighbour to the Golden’s) is established, and then it jumps into a full blown inspection of identity. His suite of characters tackle all the main issues – loyalty (whether to the family or your nation), gender politics, political leaning, mental health, and so on, all addressed like a debate where different views are expressed (my favourite was the trans-billionaire opponent).

I’d be interested to know the genealogy of this parable since I suspect there’s a story in there too, maybe a frustration with recent elections. For example, towards the end of the book, Rushdie vents – “when your fellow Americans tell you that knowing things is elitist and they hate elites, and all you have ever had is your mind and you were brought up to believe in the loveliness of knowledge, not that knowledge-is-power nonsense but knowledge is beauty, and then all of that, education, art, music, film, becomes a reason for being loathed.”

I tend to review books as it helps the author – they get feedback, gain social media exposure, and hopefully as a result, gather more sales. I think Salmon Rushdie may have enough presence already that my little voice isn’t going to make a difference! Still, this review is my way of saying thanks, for an intelligent, remarkable book, that is going to set the benchmark for all future books that I read.

Review: No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need by Naomi Klein

Book supplied by Netgalley for an honest review.

My rating: 4 out of 5

I should be the ideal audience for Naomi Klein’s “No is Not Enough” – I’m very much a liberal, very much opposed to all the things Trump, and a strong believer in the positives of immigration. However, I did struggle with this book, and in the end found myself skimming pages towards the end.

Naomi Klein is incredibly articulate and very informed on all these topics, the book is clearly well researched. My problem is that it reads like a tedious activist’s manifesto. Her arguments, and I apologise for this, can be broken down to: unions good, business bad.

She bemoans Trump for negotiating a killer deal on a NYC hotel that he bought in the 70s, depriving NYC of $350 million dollars of future taxes, but doesn’t criticise those who made the sale. Trump is a business man, of course he wants the best deal he can, the problem here is not him, but the muppets who sold him the property on such a bad deal for the city and the state.

Likewise, I disagree with her support of Anticorporate street demonstrations, the ones to be expected now at all G8/G20/etc meetings. She writes about how the protesters receive unfair bad press, while acknowledging “yes, there had been battles with the police and broken store windows”, but there’s no criticism of this violent behaviour, of masked protesters vandalising property and terrifying residents, just disapproval that the press are hostile to the cause.

Similarly, she claims that the IMF’s goal was the “abject humiliation” of Greece in return for bailouts. This wasn’t the case, Greece was heavily over spending on public services while not collecting income through taxes and needed to reform. As an example, public servants could retire at 50; the IMF’s requests were only to put the country inline with other EU members. Without those reforms, Greece would be continually asking for further EU/IMF bailouts, which would be unfair on the other European tax payers who didn’t have such great terms themselves.

And finally, all good books should include all the information to paint a true picture, not just the facts that suit the author’s argument. This was done extremely well by Matthew D’Ancona’s in his recent Post-Truth. Naomi, as I said before, reads like an activist, strong-arming all her opinions as the only truth. While I deplore Trump, I can understand that he gained voters turned off by some of the liberal agenda – if you’re about to lose your job and your house, you don’t care what symbols are used on toilet doors, you don’t care about reparations for slavery that happened 300 years before you were born, you just want to see fixes for your problems, steps to improve your life. The argument in this book is that if you voted for Trump, you can’t see how the dots are connected like us smart liberals can, you can’t see that you’re being taken for a ride, like us smart liberals can.

I never write reviews this long, but this book frustrated me so much in that it missed such a wonderful opportunity. But all people who voted for Trump don’t walk around with their knuckles dragging on the floor, the average salary for a Trump voter was $60k (quoted on a recent Intelligence Squared podcast). And I do feel that this liberal we’re-smarter-than-you mantra does more harm than good, you don’t win an argument by telling the other side that they’re stupid. That’s one of the reasons why the UK voted to leave the EU.

Still, disagreeing with an author’s view is healthy, especially an author who I respect so much. So, 4 out of 5, a well-researched read, with some interesting points made.

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Review: The Stars are Fire by Anita Shreve

Book supplied by Netgalley for an honest review.

My rating: 5 out of 5

I first read Anita Shreve almost 20 years ago with A Pilot’s Wife, too long ago to remember the details, but not that long too forget that I enjoyed it. The Stars are Fire has similar themes: a family wrecked by an event, the wife emboldened while struggling through the aftermath. The writing is sparse, minimal sentences written in the present tense (seems to be the publishing trend this year), and emotionally detached prose.

Reading this kept making me think of Anne Tyler, another writer I hugely respect. Tyler is more subtle, no monumental inciting incident and more left unsaid, but both tackle disjointed families with compassion.

My only minor complaint is that the epilogue was too sugar-coated and was unnecessary, but an otherwise very enjoyable read.

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Review: The Silver Dish by Saul Bellow

My rating: 5 out of 5

Saul Bellow’s The Silver Dish has been on my to-read list for at least a year. Ethan Canin, a guest on Brian Koppelman’s The Moment podcast, praised it so heavily that it seemed rude not to give it a shot. It’s just a shame it took so long to get to the top of the list. This is story telling that demonstrates why Bellow won the Nobel Prize for Literature – expansive in theme and characterisation, quirky and nuanced, everything a short story needs!

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Review: A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman and Jessica Cohen

Book supplied by Netgalley for an honest review.

My rating: 5 out of 5

It’s rare to find uniqueness in fiction, we’ve been making up stories for thousands of years after all, but David Grossman’s A horse Walks into a Bar squarely hits the mark. The story is framed around Dovaleh G’s stand-up routine in an industrial area of Israel, but as the night goes on, the comedy fades and the story of a parent’s funeral prevails. The narrator is an old friend of the comedian, one who was close, but who didn’t offer support when support was needed. The tale explores what it is to be bullied, how the mind creates tricks to avoid the pain, and how those decisions affect the rest of your life.

A brilliant book, and a worthy winner of the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.

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Violence: A Writer’s Guide Second Edition by Rory Miller

My rating: 5 out of 5

Rory Miller comes across as a good guy, but I wouldn’t want to bump into him a dark alley. Many of the examples in this writer’s guide come from his experiences; he’s been a prison guard, tactical police officer and a host of others, so he knows what he’s talking about. Folks in the UK have very little experience of guns, even the little details that Americans take for granted would be unknown to us, but Rory spans that knowledge divide excellently, for people of all experience levels.

The book does have a habit of repeating, sometimes within a few pages, so it could’ve done with a bit more editing, but the information is invaluable, and the writing engaging. An excellent writing resource.

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Don’t Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training by Karen Pryor

My review: 5 out of 5

Karen Pryor’s Don’t Shoot the Dog! is an interesting read for anyone, not just for dog owners, or dolphin owners, or the owners of children! Her background is in sea life training, and many of the anecdotes are based around those experiences, but a large part of the training philosophy also applies to human behaviour.

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Why Father Christmas didn’t bring a Kindle

 

Santa ClausI’d been very good in 2011. I tidied my room whenever I was told and always ate my greens without complaint, except for sprouts of course but that goes without saying. Father Christmas was very happy and said (s)he’d bring me something special: an e-book reader. Unfortunately, Father Christmas gets confused by anything more technical than the TV’s remote control so (s)he asked me to choose which one was best.

In the UK we have two frustrating problems with technology: it’s overpriced and often it’s not as readily available. Americans can choose from a bucket load of e-readers. You have numerous e-ink Kindles and the new Amazon tablet, you have several models of B&N’s Nook, there’s the Sonys plus many, many others. For us Brits, we have two, bottom of the range, non-touch Kindles (with or without keyboard) and the touch screen Kobo which WHSmith’s started to sell in-store late last year. And that’s it. More of a coin flip that a choice.

“No-one ever got fired for buying IBM…”

Now, one thing I should admit, is that I always tend to support the under-dog, a very typical British attribute. I don’t like to see big guys pushing their weight about and people mindlessly following without considering the alternatives. For this reason, I’ve never bought Apple products; not because I don’t like them, it’s just that I prefer the alternatives. For example, Father Christmas has an iPhone 4 and it’s a very nice phone but I much prefer my Android HTC Sensation. I love my Zune MP3 player and my Acer netbook is exactly what I needed. I didn’t consciously shun Apple, it’s simply that the alternatives suited me better.

I mention this, because I often hear the same one-horse, no alternative argument being used by those who buy Kindles. Post Christmas sales figures would agree with this, they show that Kindles were a soaring success. Over a million e-book readers were sold in the UK over the 2011 festive period and a staggering 94% of these were Kindles. Jeff Bezos, I suspect, may be smiling quite broadly right now.

I agree that Kindles are nice little e-readers. I’ve used an old keyboard Kindle and found it to be a great device. The screen is excellent, the design slick and the choice of books is second to none. The new Kindle definitely looks better than its predecessor and the lack of the dedicated keyboard doesn’t hinder its use. If you like reading and like variety in what you read, then you can’t go wrong with a Kindle.

Ho-ho-ho

So, having said all that, you may be surprised to hear that I asked Father Christmas to slide down my chimney with a Kobo Touch in his sack. Father Christmas didn’t mind, the prices were pretty much the same, the Kobo was only £10 more, and they come in pretty colours so (s)he and my daughter like playing with it as well.

The main advantage for going with the Kobo is stated in the product’s name, Touch. Whenever I use a non-touch device these days, I find myself poking the screen and, to the amusement of anyone watching, waiting patiently for something to happen. Well designed touch screen interfaces can make the user experience so much more intuitive, and the Kobo’s is excellent. My eight year old daughter loves flicking through some of the fairy tale books I’ve downloaded when we’re in the car, it is that easy to use. To me, this was the clincher.

In other respects, the devices are pretty similar. The e-ink is the same, the responsiveness is comparable and so is the capacity. Yep, the Kindle has better book availability, but the Kobo is good enough. Sure, the Kindle has audio support, but I’ve got a phone with an Audible app. The Kindle has better magazine/paper coverage, but again, that doesn’t interest me. So for me, the Kobo was the perfect choice and has been an excellent device which I’m very, very pleased with.

Reading habits

As an aside, I’d read several reports from the Wall Street Journal and others which claim people with e-book readers read more than their paper-based counterparts. I was sceptical about this, but having now got a device, I totally agree. I’ve read three novels in a fortnight, which is considerably more than I would’ve otherwise. This could partially be explained by the ‘new toy’ mentality but e-readers do give more freedom, and not just because of the reader, the technology itself is liberating.

Both the Kindle and the Kobo have smart phone apps which sync with the e-reader. So if I read a few pages on the reader before snuggling up beside Father Christmas in bed, the next day I can seamlessly carry on reading on my phone during the lunch break at work. This continuity allows me to read a book when I want, where I want, without having to wedge a cumbersome paperback into my back pocket, and this flexibility is definitely encouraging me to read more.

In conclusion, regarding the devices, if you’re thinking of an e-book reader, consider the Kobo. Kindles are a good choice, but they aren’t the only choice. If you are a mobile person and enjoy reading, definitely get a Kobo or a Kindle. I can guarantee you won’t regret it.

Happy reading!