View Full Version : Read anything exceptional recently?

07-19-2008, 07:17 AM
A little later, after seeing to her grandaughter's needs, the old woman approaches the Induna.

"You will do this, Zulu? Go after our people and save them?

The Induna nods.

"It is true what they say about the bravery of Shaka's lions!"

"Yet I see by your eyes you are troubled, old mother, there is something else you would tell me."

The old woman nods. "It is so," she says. "These Lords - they are many and you are just a few."

The induna grins. "Yes," he says, "but we are Zulu and they are not."

I've read a number of histories of the Zulu nation over the years, here one can feel the ground vibrate as it is eaten up by the Zulu Impis.


About the book1818, South East Africa: on the summit of a low hill, encircled by a foe six times their number, fifteen hundred men armed with cowhide shields and short stabbing spears sit and wait as the midday sun blazes overhead. Calm in the face of the horde gathering below, they know it's a good day for dying...but a better one for killing. At the centre of their formation a tall, broad-shouldered man surveys his troops. Only at his command will they rise and engage the enemy. He is Shaka, his men are Zulu - the best trained foot soldiers in Africa - and the blood spilled in the coming battle will write the opening chapter of their legend.Following in Shaka's footsteps, AmaZulu sweeps across the burned hills of south east Africa's interior, charting the dawn of the Zulu nation through the eyes of the Induna, a battle-scarred captain, and his eleven-year-old apprentice. Aflame with conflict and intrigue, nobility and treachery, it tells the story of an unquenchable thirst for revenge and a genius for warfare that forged an empire as powerful and revered as Napoleon's France or Caesar's Rome.

04-05-2009, 03:23 AM
My current bedtime read, is The Cellist of Sarajevo.

So far, I can only describe it as being excellent.

Here's the sales blurb:

This brilliant novel with universal resonance tells the story of three people trying to survive in a city rife with the extreme fear of desperate times, and of the sorrowing cellist who plays undaunted in their midst.

One day a shell lands in a bread line and kills twenty-two people as the cellist watches from a window in his flat. He vows to sit in the hollow where the mortar fell and play Albinoni’s Adagio once a day for each of the twenty-two victims. The Adagio had been re-created from a fragment after the only extant score was firebombed in the Dresden Music Library, but the fact that it had been rebuilt by a different composer into something new and worthwhile gives the cellist hope.

Meanwhile, Kenan steels himself for his weekly walk through the dangerous streets to collect water for his family on the other side of town, and Dragan, a man Kenan doesn’t know, tries to make his way towards the source of the free meal he knows is waiting. Both men are almost paralyzed with fear, uncertain when the next shot will land on the bridges or streets they must cross, unwilling to talk to their old friends of what life was once like before divisions were unleashed on their city. Then there is “Arrow,” the pseudonymous name of a gifted female sniper, who is asked to protect the cellist from a hidden shooter who is out to kill him as he plays his memorial to the victims.

In this beautiful and unforgettable novel, Steven Galloway has taken an extraordinary, imaginative leap to create a story that speaks powerfully to the dignity and generosity of the human spirit under extraordinary duress.

And here is Albinoni's Adagio:


Rising Sun*
04-05-2009, 07:13 AM
I thought this, which I stumbled on in a junk shop recently, would be exceptional:

Syonan - My Story (The Japanese Occupation of Singapore) by Mamoru Shinozaki. Time Books International, Singapore, 1982 (First published by Asia Pacific Press, 1975)

The author was a press attache in the Japanese Consulate in Singapore and was imprisoned by the British in Changi as a spy at the time the war began. He went on, by his own account as supported by various Singaporeans, to try to help people targeted by the Japanese authorities. He had his own difficluties with the Kempei Tai. He was involved in; peripheral to; or aware of but unable to affect most of the major events in Singapore, such as the Sook Ching massacres and the exportation of Allied POWs to the Burma Railway.

While the events he recounts are important, the author manages to recount them so flatly that this has to be most boring and unillimunating book ever written about significant events.

04-05-2009, 07:50 AM
For me, that's the gift of the novelist, and the beauty of the novel; to take a true history and bring it to life. Yes, it may have fictional characters and a little artistic license, but then, having read the novel, the non-fictional history becomes more interesting and, indeed, more readable. :)

Already, I find myself hungry to discover how Sarajevo looks today, as compared with the Sarajevo described in the above mentioned novel - which matches, quite realistically, that which I saw in many news reports.

04-12-2009, 03:25 AM
Now reading The Secret Scripture, by Sebastian Barry. I was attracted to this book after having read his previous book A Long Long Way - it doesn't disappoint.

The Secret Scripture
by Sebastian Barry
300pp, Faber, 16.99

Roseanne McNulty, forgotten centenarian, long-time resident of the Roscommon regional mental hospital, is facing an imminent upheaval. The decrepit Victorian institution is soon to be demolished, leaving its residents displaced in a starkly changed modern Ireland that has all but buried its violent origins. Attempting to organise her memories, some reliable, others shifting, she embarks on the writing of a chronicle.

Her account forms the main part of Sebastian Barry's compelling new novel, in which Roseanne's testimony interweaves with that of her psychiatrist, Dr Grene. A man who feels fatherly, "even motherly", towards his patients, he is plagued by memories of an uneasy marriage. He and his late wife were "like two peoples that have once committed grave crimes against each other, but in another generation".

Barry writes about loss, broken promises, failed hopes. This novel of crippled perspectives and ducked responsibilities comments on his 1998 book The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, a story about "scraps of people, blown off the road of life by history's hungry breezes". In addition, The Secret Scripture offers itself as a kind of thematic cousin to his Booker-nominated masterpiece A Long Long Way and his award-winning stage play The Steward of Christendom.

Barry, in effect, is making one operatically extended fiction comprising discrete but interrelated novels and plays, often inspired by his real-life ancestors. It is an astoundingly ambitious body of work, which establishes that family trees, like national histories, sprout "the strange fruits in the cornucopia of grief".

He writes with a dramatist's timing and a poet's exactitude. (One character, a priest, is "cleaner than the daylight moon"; panic is "blacker than old tea".) The result is a richly allusive and haunting text that is nevertheless jagged enough to avoid the anaesthetic of high lyricism. This is a novel in which swans enduring a rainstorm are "like unsuccessful suicides" and the accents of Sligo corner-boys are "like bottles being smashed in a back lane". The setting is the western Ireland of traditional literary depiction - subtle Yeatsian references abound in the novel - but Barry's destabilising of inherited images gives the book a punkish energy as well as fiery beauty.

Roseanne's voice is urgent, colloquial, strange, a song of insinuations, non-sequiturs and self-corrections. It sifts the troubled memories it purports to be organising while always keeping faith with the impossibility of the task. Shards of stories intrude; fragments of lost narratives jostle. Half-forgotten quotations and scraps of ancient folklore blow around her mind like old leaves. Is she chronicler or creator? How much is reliable? "No one has the monopoly on truth," she points out. "Not even myself, and that is a vexing and worrying thought."

Her turn of phrase is bleakly funny and there are warm, vivid reminiscences, for a girlhood in rural Ireland "is not all knives and axes", but as recollection coheres into a devastating story the nature of her sufferings becomes clearer. Dr Grene is both detector and hider of truths, and he finds himself in paradoxical reversal with his baffling patient, speaking to her of his own losses and hurts. But the book is arranged and imagined with immense tact, so that it is never unbalanced by its ironies. Roseanne and Dr Grene, though hardly ever described, are incarnated with such commitment and narrative astuteness that you feel you are standing in the rain of their lives. You are reading them, not reading about them.

As often in Barry's work, Irish history is a malignant omnipresence, its antediluvian hatreds and innumerable betrayals forming not so much a backdrop as a toxic sludge through which the characters must wade, as best they can. The terrors of civil war have led to incurable enmities, the "sad, cold, wretched deaths of boys on mountainsides". Innocence is murdered and idealism compromised by the dirty truths of sectarianism. The newborn state professes fealty to republican slogans but its bitterest irony is that liberty, equality and fraternity have proven so viciously incompatible. Trust is unaffordable. Love is a risk. The neighbour is the assassin, the former comrade the enemy.

In this territory of "murders so beyond gentleness and love that to be even in propinquity to them was ruinous", identity itself is contested. Roseanne, as a working-class Presbyterian and a woman, is presented both as traumatised outsider and intimate commentator, a spectator of warring men whose allegiances and concomitant hatreds will have woeful consequences for her own family. Perhaps the act of telling her story is in some sense redemptive, but behind the mistrust of patriotism are more elemental questionings. This is a novel of masculinities; the damage done by men, to women, but also to themselves.

Students of militant Irish nationalism may be tempted to read Roseanne as a sort of personification. Certainly, the image of Ireland as a forlorn old woman has for so long been central to republican iconography that the novel can be filtered through the lens of those meanings even as it cleverly subverts them.

But Barry is doing something darker and more daring than image-breaking. He makes enthrallingly beautiful prose out of the wreckage of these lives by allowing them to have the complication of actual history in all its messy elusiveness. "History, as far as I can see, is not the arrangement of what happens," he writes, "but a fabulous arrangement of surmises and guesses held up as a banner against the assault of withering truth." His achievement in this magnificent and heart-rending novel is a kind of restitution.


04-12-2009, 03:28 AM
Review of A Long Long Way - Sebastian Barry

History is made up of memory, and memory is a storyteller. Sebastian Barry knows this, and knows that the vast movement of history, politics, and war is a cloth woven of the threads of personal experience, of the ways in which we come to cherish personal beliefs. In A Long Long Way, Barry uses his exceptional gifts to tell the story of Ireland's entry into the First World War through the heart and mind of one young soldier.

Willie Dunne, brother of Annie from Barry's previous novel Annie Dunne, joins the Royal Dublin Fusiliers at age seventeen because he is less than six feet tall. Six feet is the height requirement for becoming a policeman. Willie's father is a policeman and is disappointed that his son cannot follow in his footsteps. Willie becomes a soldier instead. While many around him are willing to fight because of the promise of home rule for Ireland, such beliefs are still foggy in Willie's young mind. Like so many young men, he wants to please his father and prove himself a man. One of the many truths revealed in this story is the way in which the relentless violence of war is fueled by such simple motivations.

The history of Ireland's role in the Great War is not well remembered, and Barry is a master at embodying political issues in the hearts of his characters, with all the ambivalence and emotion of the human heart. Willie's father is devoted to king and country while Willie must question many familiar assumptions as he develops the ability to hold his own opinion. The hideous daily violence of war and the larger political beliefs that seem to make it necessary are the raw material that Barry uses to ask a more fundamental question: How does a person come to think for him- or herself? As one character says to Willie, "The curse of the world is people thinking thoughts that are only thoughts which have been given to them. They're not their own thoughts. They're like cuckoos in their heads. Their own thoughts are tossed out and cuckoo thoughts put in instead" (p. 9). Barry is asking what makes people think and behave as they do. Almost one hundred years after the events in this novel, with the world still engaged in war after war, could any question be more important?

Barry, who is also a poet, writes with a lyrical power that makes this lost world pulse with reality. The music and beauty of Irish speech is everywhere here and is all the more poignant when brought to bear on the terror and madness of life in the trenches. Barry's knowledge of his characters is deeply felt, and their story is shared by all of us who live in a world continually threatened by war and by unexamined beliefs. A Long Long Way is a work of profound sadness and beauty that rings with the truth of what it is to be human.