Graphic Novel Review: Blue is the Warmest Color

Blue is warmest colorBlue is the Warmest Color
Author: Julie Maroh
Originally Published: 2013
Length: 160 pages
Published by: Arsenal Pulp Press
Why I read it: Review request
Where I got it: Publisher

Quick thoughts: A tender, intimate and painful love story that perfectly captures the turmoil of youthful emotion and self-discovery.

Sometimes it takes a bit of sensational press to grab people’s attention. Such was the case when the film adaptation of Blue is the Warmest Color (La vie d’Adèle) won the Palme d’Or at Cannes earlier this year, and I’m perhaps a little ashamed to admit that my ears perked up on account of the flurry of publicity. Then again, it’s not every day that squeaky-clean Steven Spielberg puts his image on the line to unreservedly praise a film which was largely overshadowed by strong reactions to its graphic lesbian sex scenes. In a way, you could even say that Steven Spielberg drove me to read this book, because I felt compelled to find out what sort of story would cause him to gush over the movie adaptation.

After reading the novel for myself, one thing I can say is that it’s definitely worth the buzz. Julie Maroh is an exceptionally talented artist, and her ability to convey emotional tension and sexual desire is uncanny. Were this a written novel, I don’t think it could pack half the punch of just one of these panels. This is a story perfectly suited to the graphic novel format, but also one executed with rare style and an eye for what matters. And although some of the panels certainly ensure the “graphic” part of this novel, I would never describe the art as gratuitous. Despite the nudity and sexual content, the depictions are never lurid or prurient. In fact, they fit so extraordinarily well with the contours of the story that they are expected and, quite frankly, feel altogether natural.

Another element that really won me over was the title. Can I just admit to loving the ambiguity? It’s wonderful because it doesn’t make sense, and things which don’t make sense immediately arouse my curiosity. Blue is the warmest colour, you say? On what basis can you even begin to make that claim? But start reading the story and you will quickly realize that blue is the colour of desire in this tale; it’s the warmth of love and the burning of passion. The drawings are also done in a muted style with greens and browns as the main palette, which makes the blue pop out in electrifying contrast.

What also makes the title work is that blue isn’t the warmest colour – at least not in a conventional sense. And the love story here, of course, is not conventional either. It’s all about a young girl struggling with the undeniable fact that she is a lesbian. The emotional turmoil is almost unbearable even in the reading, and one of the panels — an illustration of this young woman on the funeral pyre like Joan of Arc, surrounded by a group of KKK members — evokes the feeling of this stigma in painful detail. And yet, despite the unconventional nature of her love, the emotions on display are universal. This is a story of true love, even if the packaging is a bit different.

Blue is the Warmest Color is one of those books which makes you feel enlightened after the fact, as though you’ve really walked a mile in someone else’s shoes and can now approach a culturally loaded topic with some modicum of sympathy. It’s a compelling story in its own right, and deserving of all the accolades being thrown its way. Arsenal Pulp Press also did an incredible job in publishing this graphic novel, and I would be remiss not to point it out. The glossy cover is enough to grab anyone’s attention from the get-go, but I was totally impressed with every aspect of the finished product. It’s always nice to see a publisher pay such attention to the small details. Definitely recommended.

If you want to take a peek at the artwork, Arsenal Pulp Press has an excerpt posted on their website.

From the Publisher:

Originally published in French as Le bleu est une couleur chaudeBlue is the Warmest Color is a graphic novel about growing up, falling in love, and coming out. Clementine is a junior in high school who seems average enough: she has friends, family, and the romantic attention of the boys in her school. When her openly gay best friend takes her out on the town, she wanders into a lesbian bar where she encounters Emma: a punkish, confident girl with blue hair. Their attraction is instant and electric, and Clementine find herself in a relationship that will test her friends, parents, and her own ideas about herself and her identity.

First published in French by Glénat, the book has won several awards, including the Audience Prize at the Angoulême International Comics Festival, Europe’s largest.

The live-action, French-language film version of Blue Is the Warmest Color won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2013. Directed by director Abdellatif Kechiche and starring Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos, the film generated wide praise as well as controversy for its explicit scenes. It will be released in North America in the fall of 2013 through Sundance Selects/IFC Films (USA) and Mongrel Media (Canada) as well as other countries around the world, including the UK and Ireland (Artificial Eye) and Australia (Transmission Films).

Julie MarohJulie Maroh is an author and illustrator originally from northern France. She studied comic art at the Institute Saint-Luc in Brussels and lithography and engraving at the Royal Academy of Arts in Brussels, where she still lives.

Book Review: Under This Terrible Sun

Under this Terrible SunUnder This Terrible Sun
Author: Carlos Busqued (translated by Megan McDowell )
Originally Published: 2008
Length: 140 pages
Published by: Frisch & Co.
Why I read it: Review request
Where I got it: Publisher

Quick thoughts: A dark, disturbing book that wasn’t necessarily enjoyable, but one which won my applause nonetheless.

At first glance, Under This Terrible Sun is a book that shouldn’t work. The two intertwining stories which make up the novel are at such ends with each other that it seems like mixing oil and water. Cetarti is a socially stunted underachiever whose only goal in life seems to be watching television documentaries with a stash of marijuana close at hand. On the other end of Argentina (both literally and metaphorically), Duarte is an ex-military officer with some psychopathic tendencies. What brings them together is the murder/suicide of Certarti’s estranged mother and her partner, who happens to be Duarte’s old Air Force buddy. Perhaps “brings together” isn’t quite the term I’m looking for. It’s really more like trying to shoehorn Fast Times at Ridgemont High and American Psycho into the same breathing space. What’s most incredible is that Busqued actually manages to pull it off.

To say I enjoyed the novel, however, might be a bit of a misnomer. Under This Terrible Sun was one of those rarities where I fully appreciated and admired the writing without experiencing any real sense of pleasure or delight. To be frankly honest, this is not a comfortable book. In fact, there are moments of such utter depravity that I fear they may be forever burned into my memory. In some ways, I’m quite at a loss in trying to think of any redeeming qualities in the novel. Then again, sometimes we need a book that forces us to look into the abyss.

The prose, on the other hand, is like nothing I’ve read before. There is a latent primal energy that courses just beneath the surface, but never actually breaks through. It almost feels at times as though the subtext is more important than the story. The incessant mention of giant squid, which seems oddly puzzling at first, begins to take on a special significance in terms of something lurking beneath the surface. There is also a more predatory and sinister motif, a connection between the hunter and the hunted in some abyssal sense, but the thematic connection is always just teasingly out of sight and out of reach. What is clear, however, is that the bestial menagerie that collects throughout the book — squid, elephants, mad dogs, boas, beetles and even axolotls — develops some sort of animal kingdom or law of the jungle ideology that obliquely informs the larger story.

It’s a harrowing journey, but there was something intangible at play which made reading Under This Terrible Sun seem worthwhile in the end. It was an impressive and gutsy choice by Frisch & Co. to add this novel to their nascent series of literature in translation, and one that has earned my respect.

From the Publisher:

Cetarti spends his days in a cloud of pot smoke, watching nature documentaries on television. A call from a stranger, informing him that his mother and brother have been murdered, finally tears him from his lethargy: he must identify the bodies.

After making sure he has enough pot for the trip, he sets out to the remote Argentinian village of Lapachito, an ominous place, where the houses are sinking deeper and deeper into the mud and a lurid, horrific sun is driving everyone crazy. When Duarte, a former military man turned dedicated criminal, ropes Cetarti into a scheme to cash in on his mother’s life insurance, events quickly spiral out of control…

A riveting, thrilling, and shocking read, Under This Terrible Sun paints the portrait of a civilizational in terminal decline, where the border between reality and nightmare has become increasingly blurred.

Carlos BusquedCarlos Busqued was born in the northern Argentinian province of Chaco in 1970. He has produced the radio programmes Vidas Ejemplares, El otoño en Pekín and Prisionero del Planeta Infierno; and he contributes to the magazine El Ojo Con Dientes. He currently lives in Buenos Aires. Under This Terrible Sun is his first novel.

Audiobook Review: Gulliver’s Travels

Gullivers TravelsGulliver’s Travels: A Signature Performance by David Hyde Pierce
Author: Jonathan Swift
Narrated by: David Hyde Pierce
Originally Published: 1726
Length: 9 hrs 52 mins
Why I read it: Personal Selection
Where I got it:

Quick thoughts: Expecting a facile children’s book, I was instead astounded by a brilliant adult satire.

I had always believed Gulliver’s Travels to be a child’s novel. In my defense, it’s rather hard not to come to that conclusion when the story is fodder for family television and movie adaptations, and when abridged versions are often included in juvenile collections of classic literature. My immediate impression upon finishing the novel, however, was how emphatically this was not a children’s book. Not because of inappropriate content or mature subject matter, but because it was so concerned with politics and social philosophies.

Everyone is likely familiar with the first part of this book where Gulliver wakes to find himself bound by hundreds of tiny people, but that is just one of the four voyages recounted here. Each journey involves the introduction of some impossible alternative reality wherein the people, apart from possessing some memorable physical distinction, have developed an entirely different society. Much of the novel is taken with describing the benefits of these alternative models, and recognizing by comparison how silly some European social customs and conventions appear.

Some of these examples are brilliant. One of my personal favourites was the land of the Houyhnhnms, where the horses are intelligent and humanoid beings are the animal labourers. The Houyhnhnms do not lie, and have no word by which to express an untruth, leaving Gulliver at an absolute loss in attempting to describe a lawyer. Others are a product of their age, and have either lost their appeal or hint at failed social experiments from our modern history.

Although it lacks consistency (the third voyage seems to drag on interminably), the sparks of genius often seem just as fresh nearly 300 years after its original publication. It’s easy to see why it became an instant classic, and why it still holds cultural sway in our modern age. In a way, it’s also a shame that this has for many been relegated to a shelf which holds little interest to a child, yet is assumed to be too childish for an adult. It’s a biting political satire which retains a good deal of its sting despite the intervening years, and is definitely worth the read.

Audiobook notes: Do I really need to say more than Dr. Niles Crane from Frasier? Probably yes, but a bit of bombast is always fun. I was actually expecting something more frivolous and contrived, but David Hyde Pierce instead went a much more natural route. My initial disappointment was perhaps paired with my expectations that this would be a children’s book, and the more I came to see the novel as an adult satire, the more I appreciated the narration. This was a brilliant choice all around, and a production that I would highly recommend.

Shipwrecked castaway Lemuel Gulliver’s encounters with the petty, diminutive Lilliputians, the crude giants of Brobdingnag, the abstracted scientists of Laputa, the philosophical Houyhnhnms, and the brutish Yahoos give him new, bitter insights into human behavior. Swift’s fantastic and subversive book remains supremely relevant in our own age of distortion, hypocrisy, and irony.
Jonathan SwiftJonathan Swift was an Anglo-Irish cleric, Dean of St. Patrick's, Dublin, satirist, essayist, political pamphleteer (first for Whigs then for Tories), and poet, famous for works like Gulliver's Travels, A Modest Proposal, A Journal to Stella, The Drapier's Letters, The Battle of the Books, and A Tale of a Tub. Swift is probably the foremost prose satirist in the English language, and is less well known for his poetry. Swift published all of his works under pseudonyms — such as Lemuel Gulliver, Isaac Bickerstaff, M.B. Drapier — or anonymously. He is also known for being a master of two styles of satire; the Horatian and Juvenalian styles.

Audiobook Review: The Story of Dr. Dolittle

do littleThe Story of Dr. Dolittle
Author: Hugh Lofting
Narrated by: David Case
Originally Published: 1920
Length: 2 hrs 33 min
Why I read it: Personal selection
Where I got it:

Quick thoughts: A classic, perhaps, but this wasn’t exactly a winner with our family.

Even though I never read any of Hugh Lofting’s Dr. Dolittle books as a child, the doctor who speaks with animals is too culturally pervasive for me to have been entirely ignorant. Between movie adaptations, TV references and one-liners in comedy routines, it’s rather hard to imagine remaining unfamiliar with the character on some basic level. When Audible offered this particular edition as part of a free promotion this summer, it seemed like an excellent excuse to make my acquaintance while at the same time letting my children listen to this classic on a road trip.

Apart from some general idea of a doctor talking to animals in the jungle, I was also aware of some accusations of racism, so we had a little family chat before pressing play. Things were relatively fine on that level until our heroes got to Africa. At that point, my wife and I dropped our collective jaws at the diverse usage of racial epithets, and at the storyline that involves an African prince wanting to become white so he can win the fair princess. Even though the story was always innocent and never actively bigoted, it was still quite shocking to hear such racially loaded terms in a beloved children’s book. I’ve read several justifications after the fact — some well-reasoned, others quite belligerent — but there’s really no way of excusing or avoiding the fact that Dr. Dolittle has more than its fair share of problematic colonial holdovers.

There were some quality lessons, to be sure, such as the need to actually listen to the needs of others, as exemplified by Dr. Dolittle taking the time to learn to talk to animals. The whimsical nature of the story, altogether too rare in our day, was also a most welcome feature of the book. Yet despite the many positives, I can’t say that we ever truly enjoyed the story. Perhaps we were too spoiled in our modernity to appreciate such innocence, or maybe the sheer number of children’s books makes it that much more difficult to impress. Either way, it was difficult to bridge the gap between this book and our modern sensibilities, although I can certainly appreciate why it has remained so loved through the years. For myself, I may just end up watching the Eddie Murphy adaptation which I’ve been so studiously avoiding these many years. At that point, I will undoubtedly revel in the sheer irony of an African-American playing Dr. Dolittle, and smile at how the seed of a good story can grow into something fundamentally the same yet entirely changed.

Audiobook notes: Although mostly a solid production, there were two issues in this edition which I found terribly distracting. First, it begins with a lengthy note by the author explaining why The Story of Dr. Dolittlewas such a great children’s book. Yes, that type of author introduction was common back in the day, but I found it a poor decision to include at the start of the audiobook. Not only did the self praise set my teeth on edge; it’s also incredibly hard to keep a child’s attention focused when some adult is nattering on about nothing. I was also a bit turned off by the ludicrous accent chosen by the narrator for the African voices, as it only served to reinforce the colonial caricatures.

Hugh LoftingLofting was born in Maidenhead, England, to English and Irish parents. His early education was at Mount St Mary's College in Sheffield, after which he went to the United States, completing a degree in civil engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He traveled widely as a civil engineer before enlisting in the Irish Guards to serve in World War I. Not wishing to write to his children of the brutality of the war, he wrote imaginative letters that were the foundation of the successful Doctor Dolittle novels for children. Seriously wounded in the war, he moved with his family to Connecticut in the United States. Lofting was married three times and had three children, one of whom, his son Christopher, is the executor of his literary estate.

Audiobook Review: Steelheart

Steel heartSteelheart (Reckoners #1)
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Narrated by: Macleod Andrews
Originally Published: 2013
Length: 12 hrs 14 mins
Why I read it: Review request
Where I got it:

Quick thoughts: A crackling sci-fi thriller that already has me aching to read the next book in the series.

If some cataclysmic event caused a handful of people to develop superpowers, comic books have taught us to believe that superheroes would rise up to enforce justice against villains who might abuse those powers. Brandon Sanderson’s latest novel, Steelheart, imagines a near-future world where that isn’t necessarily the case. If I tried selling the story with a quick pitch, it would be to imagine a world where Superman is evil and average people must find a way to defeat him. It’s a twist that hones the tension to a keen edge, and Sanderson has delivered a real knockout in this first instalment of what will almost certainly be a stellar series.

After reading Legion, Sanderson’s novella from last year, I had high hopes that he would use the ideas behind that piece as a springboard into something unique. As much as wrapping up the Wheel of Time series did wonders for publicity, I think it also threatened to pigeonhole him as a Robert Jordan derivative. Legionreally showcased his potential in thinking up innovative stories well outside the confines of high fantasy, and now Steelheart proves there’s plenty more inspiration in that creative well.

If there’s one element I’ve come to love about Sanderson’s approach, it’s that that he is very rule-oriented. Each of his books is based on a unique magic system that functions as logically and consistently as elements in a periodic table. Moving into the dystopian sci-fi world of Steelheart, the supporting framework really isn’t much different from his high fantasy worlds. Each Epic has both a primary and secondary superpower, along with a corollary weakness. These powers are then further categorized into broader categories with defining traits, and each Epic has a degree of power which functions as a multiplication factor. In many ways it reads like a novelized role playing game with all the regalia of geekdom. The beauty of it, though, is that it provides a logical consistency to the whole. I might chuckle and laugh at some of the plot elements, but I’ll never feel as though Sanderson cheated in finding a way to bridge a plot hole.

Although this book is being marketed as a teen novel, I’m tempted to say that’s a bit of a misnomer. I’m not suggesting that the content is inappropriate—Sanderson’s writing has always been and likely will always be squeaky-clean—but it would be like calling The Avengers a kid’s movie. Don’t be misled by the marketing. If you like books where you can’t help but give a few adrenaline-fuelled fist-pumping whoops, then Steelheartis definitely worth your attention.

Audiobook notes: The narration by Macleod Andrews was fantastic, although I say that with a mild caveat. The text was read so slowly that I was on the verge of gouging out my own eyes. After bumping up the playback speed on my iPod to 1.5x, though, it was silky-smooth perfection. Andrews was exceptional in creating distinctive voices for all of the characters, and it often felt more like a radio play than a novel. In fact, his performance was so outstanding that this Canuck can even forgive him for giving the French Canadian a Parisian accent (the difference between soft and harsh sounds, or “zee accent” compared to “da haxENT”). This style of book is already perfectly suited to great audiobook narration in the first place, but Andrews really takes it to the next level. Well, at 1.5X speed anyways, and that’s enough for a strong recommendation in my book.

From the Publisher:

From the number-one New York Times best-selling author of the Mistborn Trilogy, Brandon Sanderson, comes the first book in a new, action-packed thrill ride of a series – Steelheart. Ten years ago, Calamity came. It was a burst in the sky that gave ordinary men and women extraordinary powers. The awed public started calling them Epics.

Nobody fights the Epics…nobody but the Reckoners. A shadowy group of ordinary humans, they spend their lives studying Epics, finding their weaknesses, and then assassinating them.

And David wants in. He wants Steelheart – the Epic who is said to be invincible. The Epic who killed David’s father. For years, like the Reckoners, David’s been studying, and planning – and he has something they need. Not an object, but an experience.

He’s seen Steelheart bleed.

And he wants revenge.

Brandon SandersonBrandon Sanderson was born in 1975 in Lincoln, Nebraska. As a child Brandon enjoyed reading, but he lost interest in the types of titles often suggested to him, and by junior high he never cracked a book if he could help it. This changed when an eighth grade teacher gave him Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly.

Brandon was working on his thirteenth novel when Moshe Feder at Tor Books bought the sixth he had written. Tor has published Elantris , the Mistborn trilogy and its followup The Alloy of Law, Warbreaker, and The Way of Kings, the first in the planned ten-volume series The Stormlight Archive. He was chosen to complete Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series; 2009’s The Gathering Storm and 2010’s Towers of Midnight were followed by the final book in the series, A Memory of Light, in January 2013. Four books in his middle-grade Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians series were released by Scholastic, and his novella Infinity Blade Awakening was an ebook bestseller for Epic Games accompanying their acclaimed Infinity Blade iOS video game series. Two more novellas, Legion and The Emperor's Soul, were released by Subterranean Press and Tachyon Publications in 2012, and 2013 brings two young adult novels, The Rithmatist from Tor and Steelheart from Delacorte.

The only author to make the short list for the David Gemmell Legend Award six times in four years, Brandon won that award in 2011 for The Way of Kings. The Emperor’s Soul won the 2013 Hugo Award for Best Novella. He has hit the New York Times Hardcover Fiction Best-Seller List seven times, with all three Wheel of Time books hitting the #1 spot.

Currently living in Utah with his wife and children, Brandon teaches creative writing at Brigham Young University.

Media Mondays: Russian Ark

With so much emphasis on fast and furious storytelling in modern cinema, it’s refreshing to experience a movie that takes the time to linger. Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002) takes this to an almost fetishistic extreme in that the film is one long, unedited take. It’s an unbroken 96-minute tour through the Winter Palace, with the interesting twist of replicating a walk through time. Each room of the palace is occupied by people from various eras of Russian history, with exquisite costumes and choreography. It’s an experience at the expense of any actual storytelling, but you’ll likely find yourself holding your breath in disbelief at this impossibly long and gorgeously realized cinematic masterpiece.

Book Review: Timbuctoo

Author: Tahir Shah
Originally Published: 2012
Length: 544 pages
Published by: Secretum Mundi
Why I read it: Review request
Where I got it: Publisher

Quick thoughts: A historical re-imagining which seems barely able to contain the author’s passion and exuberance.

“WHEN I SAW IT FIRST, I was lost in the bowels of the London Library, searching for an obscure volume on shrunken heads…

“A leather-bound book, an inch thick, jammed up against a water pipe. Without thinking, I reached up and yanked it out. Cupping the book gently in my hands, I pulled it open at the title page and began to read. That was the moment my obsession with The Narrative of Robert Adams began.”

This is how the author prologue begins, and it perfectly sets the stage for the story that follows. You can only imagine the impact of such a serendipitous moment as described here. It’s like finding a long-lost secret, something precious that hints at deeper and more hidden historical knowledge. And aren’t we all, to some degree or another, thrilled by the possibility of hidden knowledge, of an alternate account that questions our assumptions? That same surge of excitement courses through Tahir Shah’s Timbuctoo as he imagines the mania accompanying rumours of a mythical golden city, and the cover-up which could have been effected to hide the truth.

Shah’s love for the Regency era is blindingly obvious, and he fills every nook and cranny of the story with tender detail. The world he creates is lush, vibrant and altogether plausible. He also weaves in plot elements from across the social spectrum, creating a veritable tapestry of Regency life. The manifold plot lines were a distinct source of pleasure in that they seemed so unnecessary and superfluous at the outset, yet each thread of the story proved to be in some way essential by the end.

Although I personally prefer historical fiction where the author assiduously sticks to known facts, Shah’s exuberance begins to take on an appeal of its own. It’s not often that I let myself be swept away by a story with this much artistic license, but that tended to be the case here. It wasn’t just that the story moved along so fast, or that the constant intercutting of story lines always kept my attention engaged. It may sound a bit silly to say, but I think what made it work was the feeling that Shah actually cared about his creation. It was so pronounced as to be tangible, and most definitely contagious — like how you can’t keep yourself from smiling when you witness someone so utterly consumed by their own happiness that they are oblivious to the world around them. In the same way, I couldn’t help but smile even though the blurring of facts would normally trip me up.

That sense of care and devotion also extends to the physical presentation, where the end product is practically wrapped with a bow. While the size makes it a little inconvenient to tote about or read in the lunchroom, it really is quite stunning. The old-fashioned gold embossing on a faux-leather cover is eye-catching, and the gorgeously rendered fold-out maps occupied my attention for hours on end. Timbuctoo is undeniably a labour of love from Tahir Shah, and his passion for the material threatens to burst out of every seam.

As a sort of footnote, there’s also an accompanying website which serves as a complement to the novel. It’s worth checking out, and the attention to detail there will give a pretty good idea of what you can expect of the book.

From the publisher: Inspired by a true story…

In October 1815, an illiterate American sailor named Robert Adams was discovered roaming the streets of London, half-naked and starving. In the months that followed, high society was rocked by his tale.

At a time when the European powers were posturing for empire, there was one quest above all else, one destination to which no Christian had ever ventured and returned alive – Timbuctoo.

Regarded as a golden metropolis par excellence, an African Eldorado, fashioned from the purest gold, it was for centuries a European obsession. The British, Germans, French, and others, dispatched their most capable explorers to seek it out and to sack it.

Most of them never returned alive.

The only nation uninterested in the mania for Timbuctoo was the fledgling United States. And so, when a young American sailor claimed to have visited the city as a guest of its king, while a white slave in Africa, it caused uproar on an unknown scale.

More shocking still was the sailor’s description of the Eldorado – as a poverty-stricken and wretched place – and the fact that he seemed blasé and uninterested at having been there at all.

Set against a backdrop of the British Regency, a time of ultimate decadence and avarice, of haves and have-nots, Robert Adams’ tale has been all but forgotten, until now.

An astonishing story of survival and hardship, it’s a one touched with irony. A man who had set out to make his fame and fortune through trade, Robert Adams gained both, but by selling the tale of his journey.

Almost twenty years ago, Tahir Shah noticed an inch-thick quarto-sized book propping up a water pipe in the basement of the London Library. Pulling it out, he first set eyes on Robert Adams’ Narrative, published by John Murray in 1816.

The book became an obsession to Shah, just as Regency London was itself fixated with the golden metropolis of Timbuctoo. Packed with well-researched detail of the time, and inspired by Adams’ ordeal, TIMBUCTOO is a fast-past and compelling read. It’s a tale of treachery, greed, love, betrayal and, above all else, of survival in the face of insurmountable odds.

Tahir ShahTahir Shah’s books have appeared in thirty languages and in more than seventy editions. They are celebrated for their original viewpoint, and for combining hardship with vivid description.

He also makes documentary films, which are shown worldwide on National Geographical Television, and The History Channel. The latest, LOST TREASURE OF AFGHANISTAN, has been screened on British TV and shown worldwide. While researching the programme Shah was arrested along with his film crew and incarcerated in a Pakistani torture jail, where they spent sixteen terrifying days and nights.

His other documentaries include: HOUSE OF THE TIGER KING, SEARCH FOR THE LOST CITY OF GOLD, and THE SEARCH FOR KING SOLOMON’S MINES. And, in addition to documentaries, Shah writes for the big screen. His best known work in this genre is the award-winning Imax feature JOURNEY TO MECCA, telling the tale of the fourteenth century Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta’s first pilgrimage to Mecca.

Tahir Shah lives at Dar Khalifa, a sprawling mansion set squarely in the middle of a Casablanca shantytown. He’s married to the graphic designer, Rachana Shah, and has two children, Ariane and Timur. His father was the Sufi writer, Idries Shah.

Audiobook Review: The Art of Fielding

Art of FieldingThe Art of Fielding
Author: Chad Harbach
Narrated by: Holter Graham
Originally Published: 2011
Length: 16 hrs
Why I read it: Personal selection
Where I got it:

Quick thoughts: It’s not perfect, but this literary sports novel has enough heart to make up for its shortcomings.

The Art of Fielding had been on my reading list for a little while, but there were a few issues that kept nudging it to the bottom of the pile. First, it seemed to suffer from flash-in-the-pan syndrome. Everybody seemed to be unanimously hailing it as the best novel of 2011, and then it just vanished. I’ve seen that scenario play out often enough that it’s cause for concern. A second strike against it was the sports theme. I like a good sports novel, but it’s usually an exception for me. It’s the rare author who can rise above the tired clichés to create something unique and interesting. I have to admit that the title didn’t exactly win me over either, providing a trifecta of excuses to keep putting it off despite some lingering interest.

Considering how long I procrastinated, it came as quite a surprised to me that I enjoyed it so much. The story hinges on the character of Henry Skrimshander, a small kid with an outsized passion for baseball. His preternatural skill defies the expectations of scouts conditioned to look for something more physically imposing, and you can’t help but cheer for this kid fighting an uphill battle just to play the game he loves . It’s a time-worn formula of triumphing against the odds, but Harbach puts a unique spin on his telling, dodging the bullet of tired clichés that I was admittedly expecting. It’s not often that I’m on the edge of my seat while reading a book. With The Art of Fielding, I was utterly absorbed. You couldn’t predict which way the story would go or where a character arc would lead, and the passion was contagious.

Despite the obvious and pervasive emphasis on baseball, The Art of Fielding is very much a literary novel, packing in all the trappings one would expect from modern fiction. The Art of Fielding is actually a book within a book – a Zen Buddhist manual on baseball that riffs on Sun Tzu’s The Art of War – and Westish College, the fictional school where Skrimshander plays, is loaded with references and homages to Herman Melville. There’s also the fairly standard soul-searching twist of fate, side-trips of agonizing introspection, and even (in what’s beginning to feel like a prerequisite for serious novels nowadays) a gay subplot.

All that literary stuff AND a sports novel, you ask? Well, that’s the idea in theory, but the execution isn’t always so seamless. At times it feels as though Harbach is trying to paint a mural onto a postage stamp. There is just too much going on to fully develop any one theme or idea, and the result is that things tend to get lost in the shuffle. Even something as central as baseball is occasionally relegated to irrelevance as “serious” themes are explored. Having said that, though, it’s not something I really noticed when the story was in full swing. It was only in retrospect, when trying to piece together the story elements into a cohesive whole, that the themes and allusions began to seem less than the sum of their parts.

While it might not be a perfect novel, it’s certainly got heart. In many ways, it’s a little like Henry Skrimshander himself: something that seems below the mark, but has such a keen eye for what matters that it eclipses any shortcomings. It’s that person who seems so ordinary in a photo, yet so compelling in real life. The character inside threatens to burst out at every seam, and you can’t help but be won over by some sort of ephemeral life force. So long as you’re not expecting the great American novel — or even the best novel of 2011, for that matter — The Art of Fielding is a great choice if you’re looking for something arty that dishes out an equal amount of whimsical fun.

Audiobook notes: Holter Graham’s narration really plays on the muted emotions and the feeling of inertia that accompanies a few of the character arcs. It serves well to set the artistic tone which the book seems to be striving for, although there are times when the combination of voices in conversation sounds staged and hokey. Overall, though, this production works quite well.

From the Publisher:
At Westish College, a small school on the shore of Lake Michigan, baseball star Henry Skrimshander seems destined for Big League stardom. But when a routine throw goes disastrously off course, the fates of five people are upended. Henry’s fight against self-doubt threatens to ruin his future.

College President Guert Affenlight, a longtime bachelor, has fallen unexpectedly and helplessly in love. Owen Dunne, Henry’s gay roommate and teammate, becomes caught up in a dangerous affair. Mike Schwartz, the Harpooners’ team captain and Henry’s best friend, realizes he has guided Henry’s career at the expense of his own. And Pella Affenlight, Guert’s daughter, returns to Westish after escaping an ill-fated marriage, determined to start a new life.

As the season counts down to its climactic final game, these five are forced to confront their deepest hopes, anxieties, and secrets. In the process, they forge new bonds, and help one another find their true paths.

Written with boundless intelligence and filled with the tenderness of youth, The Art of Fielding is an expansive, warmhearted novel about ambition and its limits, about family and friendship and love, and about commitment – to oneself and to others.

Chad Harbach

Chad Harbach grew up in Wisconsin and was educated at Harvard and the University of Virginia. He is a cofounder and coeditor of n+1. - See more at:

Book Review: Dirt Music

Dirt MusicDirt Music
Author: Tim Winton
Originally Published: 2002
Length: 411 pages
Why I read it: Book club selection
Where I got it: Library

Quick thoughts: An exceptional evocation of the Australian land with a riveting story to pull everything together.

“Dirt music” isn’t a term I’m at all familiar with, and I’m still not sure whether it is common Australian slang or just something Tim Winton came up with on his own. Regardless of the term’s provenance, it ends up being a fitting choice for the title of this novel. Before venturing into the why, however, it’s probably best to start off with the definition as given in the book: “Anything you could play on a verandah. You know, without electricity. Dirt music.”

Oddly enough, music doesn’t even begin to enter the picture until the story is well underway. We begin in an isolated fishing village on the west coast of Australia, where a glut of foreign money spent on the rock lobster harvest has made life very comfortable for residents. So comfortable, in fact, that they think nothing of discouraging interlopers and poachers with lawless displays of armed violence. Thrown into this mix is a love triangle of sorts: Jim, the leader of the fishing community; Georgie, the outsider who is filling the void left by Jim’s dead wife; and Luther, the poacher who sparks in her the need to escape the life she has come to accept.

It’s only when Luther is being run out of town that we really discover his musical background, along with the devastating reason why he left that music behind. In his subsequent travels through the outback, the theme of music begins to take on a much more elemental connotation – as though the land itself is thrumming with some vibrating note or chord. “Dirt music” might be described in the book as acoustic sound, but Luther’s journey into the wild begins to give it a different meaning, as though the dirt itself is possessed of some primeval music that echoes melodies from millennia past. In many ways, the land itself becomes a character which looms large over the story.

As Luther’s purgatorial journey into the outback moves toward a featured role in the narrative, it begins to take on take on echoes of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – something which seems intentional based on a few references to that novella early on in the book. There is also a strong connection to the romantic notion of a walkabout, that lone journey into the bush that is both spiritual and sacred. Of course, that’s not the sort of writing that will appeal to readers looking for a gripping story. For those who enjoy revelling in the creative use of language and literary themes, though, this might be right up your alley. Dirt Music is full of prose that resonates with terrestrial harmonies. Some moments are vast and expansive. Others are painfully intimate. Scattered between are moments of levity and biting humour. It’s a symphony in words—an oratorio celebrating the wondrous beauty of the Australian land, and a requiem for the death of innocence.

From the Publisher:
Luther Fox, a loner, haunted by his past, makes his living as an illegal fisherman — a shamateur. Before everyone in his family was killed in a freak rollover, he grew melons and played guitar in the family band. Robbed of all that, he has turned his back on music. There’s too much emotion in it, too much memory and pain.

One morning Fox is observed poaching by Georgie Jutland. Chance, or a kind of willed recklessness, has brought Georgie into the life and home of Jim Buckridge, the most prosperous fisherman in the area and a man who loathes poachers, Fox above all. But she’s never fully settled into Jim’s grand house on the water or into the inbred community with its history of violent secrets. After Georgie encounters Fox, her tentative hold on conventional life is severed. Neither of them would call it love, but they can’t stay away from each other no matter how dangerous it is — and out on White Point it is very dangerous.

Set in the dramatic landscape of Western Australia, “Dirt Music” is a love story about people stifled by grief and regret; a novel about the odds of breaking with the past and about the lure of music. Dirt music, Fox tells Georgie, is “anything you can play on a verandah or porch, without electricity.” Even in the wild, Luther cannot escape it. There is, he discovers, no silence in nature.

Ambitious, perfectly calibrated, “Dirt Music” resonates with suspense and supercharged emotion — and it confirms Tim Winton’s status as the preeminent Australian novelist of his generation.