Reading in order to live

“Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live.” ― Gustave Flaubert

Notes on books I have read

This blog is simply my notes on the books I have been reading. I hope they are of passing interest to those who pass by.

Featured post

Noon Wine by Katherine Anne Porter

This is the third novella in the edition I have, entitled ‘Pale Horse Pale Rider’. Like the eponymous story and its sequel, ‘Old Mortality’ it is a heavily psychological work, written in spare, pellucid prose. The story concerns a family living in South Texas whose farm is struggling, but which is revitalised by the arrival of a hand who rarely speaks but works extremely hard and turns the place round. One senses this cannot last and when the outside world interferes in this happy arrangement, the farmer kills a man and is unable to deal with the consequences.

It is a bit like Hemingway – short sentences, simple structures, but meanings inferred and implied. A story which invites the application of the reader’s imagination.

“The sad fact is that language and logic cut off from reality have a far greater power than the language and logic of reality – with all that extraneous matter weighing down like a rock on any actions we take. In the end, unable to comprehend each other’s words, we’d part, each going our separate ways” – Haruki Murakami, in Underground

Underground by Haruki Murakami

I wanted to read this book, partly because I love Murakami’s writing and partly because I was living in Tokyo at the time of the sarin gas attack, in 1995. I was actually across the road from Shinjuku station, where much of it unfolded, and saw the emergency services in action.

It is Murakami’s assiduous attempt to understand how those acts of terrorism affected the victims, and what motivated the perpetrators, who placed packages of liquid sarin on commuter trains and then burst them with umbrellas, before escaping. Many people died and hundreds were injured.

This particular book brings together his various writings on the subject, some of which have appeared in Japanese magazines. He says himself the is following the approach of Studs Terkel, and it works very well. He interviews victims and members of the Aum cult, which lay behind the attacks.

His summary of all this is brilliant, if only a few pages long. He identifies an enduring problem for Japanese society, maybe for many societies, which consists in its structure and expectations. Not everybody fits in, so what are they to do? That might imply he is soft on Aum – he isn’t. Some of the best pieces are his arguments with them about their beliefs. But, overall, it is a measured and thoughtful book, and a great example of what a writer’s sensibilities can bring to very difficult problems.

“O youth! youth! you go your way heedless, uncaring – as if you owned all the treasures of the world; even grief elates you, even sorry sits well upon your brow. You are self-confident and insolent and you say, ‘I alone am alive – behold!’ even while your own days fly past and vanish without trace and without number, and everything within you melts away like wax in the sun… snow…..and perhaps the whole secret of your enchantment lies not, indeed, in your power to do whatever you may will, but in your power to think that there is nothing you will not do: it is this that you scatter to the winds – gifts which you could never have used to any other purpose.” from First Love by Ivan Turgenev

First Love by Ivan Turgenev

This is a beautiful novella. I read it years ago but wanted to come back to it because it is translated, in this Penguin edition, by Isaiah Berlin, whom I greatly admire. It is allusive and poetic and perfectly modulated. I take it as a finely drawn illustration of the singularity and complexity of the individual human heart and how imperfectly the world can be understood.


The Falling Sky by Pippa Goldschmidt

This was recommended to my by a friend. I am not sure I would otherwise have picked it up. It is a pretty good novel, about a young astronomy academic and her emotional life, confused by the death of her older sister when they were children. It is poetic at times, and very nicely written. The bits about being an astronomer are good fun. It peters out a little, as if the writer wasn’t quite able to pull the strands, good as they are, together.

The Porcelain Thief by Huan Hsu

This book was recommended to me by one of the people I meet occasionally in my China-related work. I have studied Chinese for over 30 years and have lived in the country from time to time. I found it interesting but it is a bit long and could have done with some firmer editing.

It is partly a memoir, partly a family history and partly a commentary on modern China. The last aspect is the most interesting, as the writer is an American-Chinese, with his family now divided between China and Taiwan. There is an excellent chapter when he writes about his first visits to mainland China. As an American of Chinese ancestry, he looks Chinese and, of course, feels Chinese, in many ways. So his disappointment at the discourtesy and public squalor of some parts of modern China was reassuring, for people like me who have had similar feelings and worry that we are being unsympathetic.

The details of his family history, including the escape to Taiwan, first from invading Japanese armies and then from the implacable Communists, are interesting. The reference to porcelain comes from the family’s store of imperial porcelain, collected over  many years and highly valued. It is a supposed buried selection of this porcelain that the writer tries to find. I won’t spoil the ending.


His Bloody Project by Graeme MacRae Burnet

This is a very good read. Clever, stylish and convincing. It won the Booker Prize in 2016.

It is the story of young man in the remote Highlands of Scotland who commits a triple murder. The novel is constructed as if drawing on published documents, such as trial proceedings. The brilliance of the author is reflected in the way he sustains several narrative voices, and summons up dark questions like: what damage is wrought on individuals by repression of emotion and sexuality? How misguided can professional expertise become? And how can we ever know the human heart?

A superb novel.

The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas by Gertrude Stein

I gave up on this after 100 pages. The conceit of the book is that it is Stein’s autobiography, written in the third person, as if the narrator is her friend Alice B Toklas. I would have preferred Toklas, as it happens. The style is very mannered and, I assume ironically, dull and clumsy. She lived through interesting times and the whole milieu of Paris, with Picasso and Matisse and Hemingway and Braque, all knocking about, is interesting. But the style is so repetitive and monotonous. Yawn.

I was reading a second hand copy, as I buy most of my books second hand. I am usually a bit irritated if there are notes written in a book, but this time I was fascinated by the fact that someone had made notes throughout the whole thing, right up to the end. I tried to decipher the notes, to see what it might be like to read the book and appreciate it. But the handwriting was terrible and mostly unreadable. One note I could read, however. It was beside a passage where Stein (through Toklas) said that someone ignored her. The note said “I’m not fucking surprised”. I felt an affinity with the book’s previous owner.

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