Category: fiction

The fifth in a series of 13 book reviews from my pre-blogging years.

STEPPENWOLF by Hermann Hesse (1927)

steppenwolf The Steppenwolf of the title is Henry Holler, a tired intellectual living a solitary life in an attic flat in a cosy bourgeois home. He is 50 years old and weary of life to the point of contemplating suicide. The nephew of his landlady observes that “the root of his pessimism was not world contempt but self contempt”.

Holler thinks of himself as a kind of Jekyll & Hyde figure with the wolf in him representing the pleasures of the flesh. Despite his book learning he finds no enjoyment in the spiritual life and finds himself  “outside all social circles, beloved by none”.

In this desperate state he meets Hermine who is a member of a Magic Theatre advertised as being ‘For Madmen Only’. She teaches Holler to laugh, dance and enjoy sex without guilt.

Above all, she despises his patronizing attitude to those he regards as uneducated:  “You learned people and artists have, no doubt, all sorts of  superior things in your heads, but you’re human beings like the rest of us, and we too have our dreams and fancies”.

Through Pablo, who plays in the theatre company’s band, Holler learns that music is not something to be felt with the heart not something to analyse or philosophise over.

The moral of Hesse’s novel can be summed up by the criticism of what he calls the “never-ceasing machinery” of everyday life which can prevent people from being “the critics of their own lives and from recognizing the stupidity and shallowness, the hopeless tragedy and waste of the lives they lead”.

What he advocates as an alternative is to “learn what is to be taken seriously and laugh at the rest”.  

I second that emotion.


The fourth in a series of 13 book reviews from my pre-blogging years.

LOLITA by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)

Lolita continues to draw its share of critics because it deals with a sexual relationship between a middle-aged man and a 12-year-old ‘nymphet’ without taking then easy option of moralising or sensationalising the story.

The novel examines the desires of the lonely and slightly pathetic Humbert Humbert but pointedly refuses to present him as a pervert or a monster.

Nabokov’s neutral tone is what exasperates and antagonizes those looking for any excuse to label the novel as depraved and obscene.

The Russian born author also writes so brilliantly that the story is vivid, believable and disturbing. He doesn’t need to write lurid sex scenes to convey the true nature of the man’s fatal attraction to the young girl. Continue reading

Currently enthralled by Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (why has it taken me so long to read this masterpiece?) and this passage made me laugh out loud in painful recognition of the struggles of any form of creative writing – be it blogs or books:

“Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.”

THE MOTEL LIFE (2006) + NORTHLINE (2008) by Willy Vlautin.

Motel NorthlineWilly Vlautin
I got interested in the novels of Willy Vlautin after seeing a tower of his latest novel,The Free, piled up in an ace bookshop called No Alibis in Belfast this summer. That a cool store would order so many copies made me think this was worth checking out.

I soon realised that I know Vlautin already, not as a novelist but as the lead singer and driving force behind a fine Alt.Country band called Richmond Fontaine whose songs are like miniature stories. A track and album of their has one of my all time favourite titles; it’s called We Used To Thing The Freeway Sounded Like A River.

After writing great tunes like this, there are probably lots of listeners who told him “Gee, I bet you could write a great novel”. I’m sure many said this to Bob Dylan too and then he came up with Tarantula which is kind of cool if you don’t mind stories that are cut and pasted in a random sequence. This demonstrated Dylan’s debt to the Beat poets and also gave an insight into how much acid he was on. In comparison, Vlautin’s writing is more conventional. His novels have a beginning, middle and end; more or less in that order.

Critics have generously compared Vlautin to John Steinbeck which tends to happen a lot when the characters are those that have slipped through the safety net of life. Typically they come from dysfunctional families, have dead-end jobs, drink a lot of beer, smoke like chimneys and eat shit food. They live from pillar to post, eking out a living and trying their best to stay on the straight and narrow. They spend a lot of time in bars, diners and cheap motels. They are exasperating but real.

William Bell wrote a Blues song for Albert King in 1967 called Born Under A Bad Sign and the lyrics sum up the plight of these lost souls. The chorus goes: “if it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all”.

Willy Vlautin was born in Reno, Nevada and that’s the main setting for both his first two novels which I decided to read before tackling his latest.

I only know Reno from Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues (“I shot a man from Reno just to watch him die”) and my mental image of it as a tough, uncompromising city is largely borne out by Vlautin’s fiction. Continue reading

AND THE MOUNTAINS ECHOED by Khaled Hosseini (Riverhead books, 2013)

khaled-hosseiniSeparation, both in physical or psychological, is one of the recurring themes of this absorbing novel . Khaled Hosseini shows how individuals are isolated from their past when they don’t remember important details or because they simply choose to forget. Continue reading


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