Catching up – thoughts on four books

In the spirit of starting the New year with a clean slate, (something I love to do in theory), here is a little housekeeping post about books I have read this year but for various reasons didn’t write about at the time.
Anatomy of a Disappearance – Hisham Matar


Attracted by the cover and the totally deserved glowing reviews from fellow book bloggers, I read this on kindle a few months ago. I was on holiday at the time so didn’t write about it straight away and then somehow it got left behind.

Drawing on what must be the terribly painful events in his own life, Hisham Matar’s novel is narrated by the dignified and elegant teenager, Nuri, living with his father in exile in Egypt. Their country of origin is not named, perhaps it is Libya if true to Matar’s own circumstances. After the witnessed but never completely explained death of his mother, Nuri is aware his father has secrets, that men from their country may be looking for him, that he is at risk and they must be careful. There is loss and the threat of further loss permeating Nuri’s life. At the same time, Nuri and his father both fall for the same woman. Nuri as a boy meets and lays an adolescent claim to her first but knows he cannot be any match for his father. Still this infatuation stays with him for many years and for many years he seeks to understand the nature of his many losses.

It seems such a cliche to describe a novel as ‘beautifully written’ but this one really is. I plan to read Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men soon. If it is anything like this novel, I’m expecting it to be graceful yet sad and at a deep level.

2011, 256 pages

The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery

My first thoughts about Muriel Barbery’s best seller were that it was pretentious with a precocious 12 year old character mature and insightful beyond her years in a way that was not believable. For the first few pages I couldn’t get a grip on all the words I hadn’t heard of and on principle I wasn’t prepared to constantly interrupt my reading to look them up… so first thoughts were not good..

But slowly it grew on me. The 12 year old Paloma, deciding if life had enough to offer to deter her from committing suicide on her 13th birthday, remained a little unrealistic but her co star in this story was a delight. Renee, the concierge of a Parisian apartment block, pretending to be everything she expected a woman of her station to be but being the exact opposite was like the ugly duckling turning into a swan. Well perhaps she had always been a swan but it took a death in the building and a new arrival to spot what others hadn’t and the ensuing frivolous cat and mouse game was like a modern day fairy tale.

The ending of the book changed the context of the story completely and I wanted to immediately start again at the beginning. I didn’t and I probably won’t get to it anytime soon but still it was a lovely read eventually and worth writing about.

Translated from the French by Alison Anderson

2009, 320 pages

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – Haruki Murakami

I’ve read three I think it is now of Haruki Murakami’s novels; he entertains and challenges me with his writing. Whilst committed Murakami fans were devouring his latest offering, the mammoth three volume, 1000+ paged 1Q84, I was kind to myself, set that one aside for another time and dipped into his slim and much more manageable thoughts on running, travel, writing and little bits of philosophy on life.

It is a candid and modest account of how he took up running at age 33 after selling his jazz bar to write full time. He speaks of his preparation for several races, of the parallel between his writing and his running and how important his daily run is to his writing output. Murakami has run over 25 marathons, an ultra marathon and numerous half marathons and shorter distance races.

What I find fascinating is how surreal and imaginative Murakami’s stories are contrasted with how routine based his daily life is. He is a man who knows what works for him and goes to lengths to make sure he doesn’t need to deviate from that. I’m also amazed at how modest he is considering he is writer whose work is loved by so many people.

I guess you could say Murakami’s musings are a little repetitive- I’m not sure it would be of the same interest if he wasn’t who he is but I guess that’s the point – it’s a revealing and therefore generous insight by Murakami into what makes him tick, especially generous I think as he is honest about what he considers are his limitations as well as his strengths and especially as he is a person who values his privacy. Being a runner and a Murakami fan would be a bonus when reading this but not essential I don’t think – I really enjoyed it.

It is to me more than a book about running and writing – it’s about simplifying life and eliminating the non essentials. Murakami’s goal is to write and running helps him to do that. If you are so inclined this little book could be seen as an example of how to live a peaceful and successful life.

Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel

2008, 192 pages

Headhunters – Jo Nesbo

And now onto a book that didn’t quite work for me.

Roger Brown is a headhunter, ruthless and at the top of his game. So good, his referrals are all by word of mouth. He plays his candidates in a finely tuned routine that guarantees his success. Unfortunately, Roger Brown has an exquisite expensive wife he feels he doesn’t deserve. To keep her in the custom she is used to, he needs to supplement his income – and that’s where it all gets interesting and eventually a bit far fetched.

There is a fast paced plot and I’m not sure that I followed every twist and turn as closely as I needed to. Roger Brown finds himself in some sticky situations and I have to admit that I found it a bit unrealistic and lost concentration in the second half of the book. He was an entertaining character though and I liked the narrative style a lot.

This novel is not related to the Harry Hole Inspector Series. I like the Harry Hole books – not sure if Jo Nesbo has written any other stand alone novels but I think I will stick to Harry in the future. He and I are a better match.

Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett

2008 (English 2011), 272 pages

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10 responses to “Catching up – thoughts on four books

  1. I agree it is a cliche, but Anatomy of a Disappearance is beautifully written, as is In the Country of Men.
    Also, glad to see you liked What I talk about when I talk about running. It is a really interesting little book, even for non-runners.

  2. Graham – I’m really pleased and not suprised to hear In the Country of Men is beautifully written as well. I’m really looking forward to reading it.

    I read What I Talk About When I Talk About Running on kindle but it’s the sort of book I would like to have to have in hard copy to dip in and out of.

  3. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is one of my all time favorite books. I’m glad you stayed with the story and finally came out appreciating it. It has opened my eyes to many things, one of which is the works of the Japanese film director Yasujiro Ozu. Since reading the book two years ago, I’ve caught up and watched almost all his films and writing posts on them. I’ve also read Barbery’s ‘sequel’ to Hedgehog, Gourmet Rhapsody, it’s enjoyable but has a much lesser impact on me than Hedgehog. If you’re interested, allow me to share my review of Hedgehog with you.

    May I take this opportunity to wish you and yours a Happy New Year, and more good reads in 2012!

    • Arti – thank your for your best wishes and a Happy New Year to you as well!

      One of the things I love especially about reading is the follow on reading and learning opportunites and I can understand completely how that could be with The Elegance of the Hedgehog. One of the reasons I didn’t write about it straight away was because I intended to do what you have done and revisit all the little gems that crop up in the book.

      I will definitely read your review and will also take a look at Yasujiro Ozu as well.

  4. Never read Murakami, but I’m fascinated by your descriptions of this book and his writing process. Adding to tbr.

    Happy New Year!

    • Nicola – Happy New Year to you too!

      I will look out for your thoughts on Murakami and hope you enjoy – his novels are different from anything I’ve read before that ‘s for sure!

  5. I am glad you read Hisham Matar’s novel. It’s my year’s best and truly love his writing. Hope you have another great year this year!

  6. Jo – thank you and to you too! I will pop back when I’ve read In the Country of Men and let you know how I find it.

  7. Love ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’; but read it in French, and I am sure that made all the difference to my enjoyment and understanding.
    Shall now seek out those others from your list that I have missed.

  8. Min – How lovely to be able to read it in French and I’m sure there would be all sorts of little subtleties that get missed in translation, no matter how good the translator. I can see this would be a book a lot of people love, I plan to read it again and more slowly, I’m hoping to get more out of it the second time around.

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