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The Volcano Lover: A RomanceSusan Sontag

See, here’s why I love libraries. Book shops you gots to spend coin, so you get a bit risk-averse and you’re more likely to go with what you know. Second hand book shops, less so (less coin, so less risk) so that’s a bit better. Libraries: zilch. And if you work at a uni and have a brace of libraries at your whim, well, you’re laughing. So I picked up Sontag’s The Volcano Lover at random. I didn’t read the back because it was all quotes from other people (“slippery, intelligent, provocative” and “a banquet of a book”) and I don’t get much out of such blurb-substitutes; I liked the cover, and the font, and the whole book had a nice, well-thumbed feel to it. Plus: library means free. So I borrowed it and damned good it was too. Thing is, if I’d read a blurb, I probably wouldn’t have bothered it, because it’s not at all the kind of book I normally read, and therefore I would have missed out. I like that. Low entry cost = more likely to take a gamble on not liking it = a chance to explore new stuff. It’s good for the brain, that kind of gamble. So, The Volcano Lover is an historical novel, about the lives and loves of Sir William Hamilton (an English diplomat stationed in Naples). But that is too brief an explanation: it is also about the love between he and his second wife, Lady Emma Hamilton; and the love between him and Admiral Horatio Nelson (in a strictly platonic sense); and the love between Lady Emma Hamilton and Admiral Horatio Nelson. But then that description excludes his passion for collecting, his elevating taste, his beloved Vesuvius, his first wife Catherine, the French revolution, the occupation and briefly Republican state of Naples — there is a lot going on in this book. But it’s only now when I think about it I realise how much: what a broad, tumultuous, ongoing world this book shows. The people are astonishingly vivid: you feel like there aren’t really any baddies in the book, just people who do questionable things for understandable reasons (understandable in the context of their personalities and circumstances, I mean). There’s empathy and compassion for the humans crowding this book: it’s exciting and engaging, challenging, sad and really, really interesting. I really enjoyed the introspective parts of the book, where the perspective of the collector or lover were reflected on. One of the back cover not-blurbs says the author has “produced something lovely and substantial, and shown us how we might free ourselves”. I liked that. It was beautiful, entertaining and dramatic; it was insightful, intelligent, provoking and gave me a lot to think about.

Foucault’s Pendulum – Umberto Eco

In finishing this book, I’ve finished my more-than-a-year-long Eco binge. This is the last one I’ve got on the shelf, and I’ve been in Eco-land for quite some time now. This is a pretty intense book, but like all of Eco’s stuff, it’s tremendously rich and deep and satisfying. So there are three editors at a publishing house, who are a little bored with all the occult stuff they’re working with, so they start feeding scraps of the occult manuscripts and scraps of mass culture and established facts into a program which begins randomly linking things together. From these random associations, the trio develop a plan that spans centuries and empires and has a centuries-long goal of domination and power. And then people start getting killed, and they realise the plan might have struck a little closer to truth than they intended. It’s pretty exciting and full of lush, diverse, interesting language, moods and settings. But it is also long and that’s what I had a bit of trouble with. About two-thirds of the way through I started feeling bogged down, having trouble keeping track of all the details of the plan they had developed. I had a break and then had a bit of trouble getting back into it: then I set my jaw, narrowed my eyes, brushed my hair and decided to finish it. I went back a little and found the thread again, then charged ahead. And it was totally worth it. It’s such a rich book. There’s a lot to chew on: themes of finding or making meaning in a potentially random world; finding meaning in life; history and heroics, both personal and global; and making connections to people, making connections between events and changes in the world. See? Lots going on in there. A really good book, but a long one and one that needs you to pay attention.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran Foer
So on a recent flying visit to the library — I was there for a meeting that wasn’t held there and was on a different day altogether, talk about a planning fail — I paused by the sorting shelves and scooped up a bunch of books to take home with me. One was The Volcano Lover (see above), another was Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I like the way books arrive in my reading line of sight: in this case, I liked the cover and remembered an interview with Jonathan Safran Foer I liked (about another of his books, Eating Animals), and figured these were as good reasons as any to borrow it. Dudes, it totally rocks! What a great book. So the narrator is nine-year-old Oskar Schell, whose father was killed in the September 11 attacks. As the book unfolds and he pursues a mysterious key he finds in his father’s possessions, you get to experience Oskar’s grief, confusion, and fascinating and clever mind as he comes to terms with what happened and why. It’s beautiful. The story of the family grows and blooms, and you’re experiencing these revelations with Oskar, and you’re feeling his confusion and frustration and fear as he goes. Never — not even once, not even just a little — does Foer allow the narrative voice to stray into twee, patronising territory; not once does Oskar feel like a narrative tool or plot device. I loved it. I had to really tear through it, too: a day or so after I started reading, I got an email from the library that another user had requested it, so I had to get it back sooner than anticipated. I roared through it in about three days, and I can testify that it is totally readable and digestible in such a short period.

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