Thursday, 30 April 2009

The Music of Silence (Andrea Bocelli)

--The blurb--
"Andrea Bocelli is currently the world's most successful male singer. He has sold an astonishing 60 million albums worldwide and has sung for the Pope and Bill Clinton. His concerts sell out in every continent, and his album Sacred Arias has become the biggest-selling album of all time by a classical vocalist. His single 'Canto Della Terra', was the BBC's official song of Euro 2000. Yet behind this man's extraordinary success lies a story of personal triumph more dramatic than any opera. Andrea Bocelli was blinded at the age of twelve, whilst playing football. Not only did he overcome his sight loss to qualify as a lawyer, but continued to pursue his childhood dream to sing, using Braille musical scores and lyric sheets. He was discovered singing in piano bars by the Italian star Zucchero, before Pavarotti took him under his wing. Bocelli's first CD, Romanza, became the third biggest global hit in 1998, rocketing him to international stardom. Everything he has released since then has either gone Gold or Platinum. His recordings now outsell all of the 'Three Tenors'. Andrea Bocelli: The Music of Silence is Bocelli's true story, told in his own words for the first time. In this frank and charming memoir, Bocelli talks as never before about his blindness(something he has long refused to talk about with the press) the importance of family, and stage fright."
blurb from

--The review--
The unusual choice to present his life story through an alter ego, Amos Bardi, makes this autobiography a charming and distinctive read, and thankfully Bocelli explains the full details of his choice to the reader in the introduction so that we can proceed with the least of confusion. Written with sophistication and without the help of a ghostwriter, it allows unprecedented insight into Bocelli's life, personality and upbringing, including equally unprecedented frankness regarding the misdemeanours of his youth.

However, parts of this autobiography were far too syrupy. Objection number one is a general point: it appeared at times that Bocelli chose this alter ego/third person passageway so that he could big himself up more than he would have been able to by writing more traditionally, and this egotism became a little grating. Objection number two is more specific - having worked in a nursery, and thus realised that even the smallest child can be 'trained' or prepared to cope with the greatest of changes, I couldn't really sympathise with the great heartbreaking situation of chapter three, when Bocelli's parents leave him at boarding school - but perhaps that's just me. The ending of the autobiography, when Bocelli finally finds fame, was also a little weak and seemed to peter out, but this seems fairly usual in autobiographies where the author's career is not yet over (so there is perhaps no 'natural' conclusion).

The slightly unconventional style may not sit well with everyone, especially since it takes a bit of getting used to, even with the initial explanation. However, it is certainly bound to stick in your head, and allows the polymath underneath the classical crossover star to be deftly revealed.

Update: April 2009

# of books read in April: 4

Cumulative total: 14

1. You Are Here (Bremner, Bird and Fortune)
2. Le Dossier: How To Survive The English (Sarah Long)
3. Du phonographe au MP3 (Ludovic Tournès)
4. Where Angels Fear To Tread (E. M. Forster)
5. Born on a Blue Day (Daniel Tammet)
6. The Tale of Genji (Lady Murasaki; tr. Arthur Waley)
7. The Comedy of Errors (William Shakespeare)
8. The Golden Gate (Vikram Seth)
9. Al Capone Does My Shirts (Gennifer Choldenko)
10. A History of Modern Britain (Andrew Marr)
11. The Power and the Glory (Graham Greene)
12. Le CV de Dieu (Jean-Louis Fournier)
13. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Jonathan Safran Foer)
14. The Music of Silence (Andrea Bocelli)

Average number of books per month: 3.5

% by male authors: 78%
% by female authors: 22%

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Jonathan Safran Foer)

--The blurb--
"Nine-year-old Oskar Schell is an inventor, amateur entomologist, Francophile, letter writer, pacifist, natural historian, percussionist, romantic, Great Explorer, jeweller, detective, vegan, and collector of butterflies. When his father is killed in the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Centre, Oskar sets out to solve the mystery of a key he disovers in his father's closet. It is a search which leads him into the lives of strangers, through the five boroughs of New York, into history, to the bombings of Dresden and Hiroshima, and on an inward journey which brings him ever closer to some kind of peace."

--The review--
In keeping with Foer's earlier work, Everything Is Illuminated, it seems that in both, he is the kind of author you have to 'unwrap': the characters he creates are as complex as the emotions that are dealt with, and the books need to be read multiple times in order to peel back the layers. The characters take centre stage; the situations around which the plot is draped seem secondary and subsidiary props. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close could arguably be summed up as one huge exercise in character development, and perhaps even more surprising than the book's base event (9/11) seeming of lesser importance than the characters themselves is the notion that the 'secondary' characters are of more interest than the main character himself. Oskar Schell is almost certainly autistic, though this is never mentioned, even though other hints that he is not 'normal' are certainly dropped. This in itself is fine, although I hope that following this and Mark Haddon's character (Christopher Boone, in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time ) there will not be a proliferation of young autistic protagonists, or else things will get quite tiring. However, I had extreme difficulty believing that Oskar was supposed to be a nine-year-old child, even if a particularly precocious autistic genius. Teenager? Yes. Nine years old? No way.

However, discarding this fact of age made the novel easier to read, and focusing on the other characters, such as Oskar's mother and grandmother, and the people he meets along the way, made it even easier. This is not to say there were not even further blips, such as a French mistake on the very first page (bad for a main character who is meant to be a Francophile) and the needless inclusion of Hiroshima (the inclusion of events at Dresden, however, was more understandable), but the general arc of the plot line was extremely varied, vivid and fully fleshed out, from Oskar's explorations of New York City to his grandmother's tiny and dark apartment (Foer, for all his weaknesses as a writer - Harry Seigel points out ways in which Foer shamelessly rips off other writers, for instance - is at least dexterous in his descriptions of setting). The dénouement is highly satisfactory, and the ending's incompleteness proves in fact to be its greatest strength, providing a high degree of realism to the grief suffered by Oskar and his family.

This is a story for anyone who has ever loved, or grieved; it is a story for those who just want something quick to read (a day and a half for me) and yet also a story for those able to commit to rereads and to unwrapping the characters further. The title is mentioned once, albeit not in its entirety, and the title itself is also well-chosen: as well as possibly describing what those who lost their lives in 9/11 may have been through, it also serves as a helpful descriptor for Oskar's grief, and perhaps indeed for anyone's grief. The novel, for all its flaws, is just as strong as Foer's debut, and while being recognisable as his, it is suitably different to show some form of progression. The prospect of where on earth he will go next as a writer is intriguing.

Other works by Jonathan Safran Foer
Joe (2006; with Hiroshi Sugimoto)
The Unabridged Pocketbook of Lightning (2005)
Everything Is Illuminated (2002)

Friday, 17 April 2009

Le CV de Dieu (Jean-Louis Fournier)

--The blurb--
"Heaven was finished, earth was finished, the animals were finished, and man was finished. God thought that he was done too, and descended into a deep melancholy. He didn't know what to do with himself next. He did a little pottery, kneading a ball of earth, but his heart was no longer in it. He no longer had confidence in himself, he had lost faith. God no longer believed in God. He urgently needed something to do, new projects and big tasks. He therefore decided to seek work, and like everyone else, he has to draft his CV..."
from; translation mine

--The review--
We may be on the cusp of Jean-Louis Fournier's work being catapulted further into the public eye. Not to be confused with the more famous Alain-Fournier (author of the acclaimed Le Grand Meaulnes), this M. Fournier is barely known outside of France, with his works at present being only available in French. This could, however, all be about to change, with the esteemed Prix Femina, a literary prize created in 1904, being awarded to his latest offering (Where Are We Going, Dad?) last year. If this work is translated into English, others could soon follow, including the delightful light read God's CV. As well as being quite short, the interview format between God and the director of a company is frequently interrupted by various personality tests filled out by the man himself, as well as (among other things) medical and law papers, and correspondence between God and the Pope.

God is presented much in the way ancient Greek legends portrayed their gods: as an ultimately fallible being not that far away from being human, but having the ability to wield awesome power. This Bruce-Almighty quality is quite likeable and makes the character of God far less irritating than he could have been: as well as displaying modesty and creativity, he also suffers from crises of confidence, leaves things to the last minute, and occasionally even displays streaks of evil that Hitler would be proud of. Some good attempts are made by the author to explain things like why God created disability (variety's the spice of life, innit) and why the good die young, even if these are not always followed through. In the latter scenario, the analogy of a cinema is used: you go in (at the beginning of your life), watch the film (your life plays out) and then you exit the cinema (you die), but this is not entirely successful, as the reason why people die young, or are dragged out of the movie theatre kicking and screaming halfway through the film, is not really addressed or explored properly. However, given the highly fallible God that Fournier has set up for us, chances are this was the intention.

The book is well-written with plenty of humour, and the setup of various documents being used to tell the story is a successful narrative device that other authors, such as Paul Torday, have used since. The length is just about right too, keeping the plot taut and concise. The notions of God, religion, Satan and hell are themes that seem to crop up repeatedly in Fournier's oeuvre, so I would be interested to see his other interpretations of the idea. In God's CV, we are even confronted with the suggestion that God and the devil are one and the same, meaning that this 'light read', then, actually turns out to be considerably dark in places. However, the ending is lighthearted, slightly humorous in a sinister sort of way, and completely appropriate, rounding the book off nicely. In a world of dark times, we need books like this that simultaneously confront and deflect from the world's major concerns through deftly-woven black humour. If the Prix Femina has any clout at all, it is to be hoped that soon all you anglophones will be able to read this too.

Other works by Jean-Louis Fournier
Where Are We Going, Dad?/Où on va, papa? (2008)
Blasted God!/Satané Dieu! (2005)
Little Meaulnes/Le Petit Meaulnes (2003)
I'm Not Going To Hell/J'irai pas en enfer (2001)
The Dark Girl/La Noiraude (1999)
My Dad Never Killed Anyone/Il a jamais tué personne mon papa (1999)
I'll teach you to be polite, little idiot/Je vais t'apprendre la politesse, p'tit con (1998)

Monday, 13 April 2009

The Power and the Glory (Graham Greene)

--The blurb--
"This title is provided with an introduction by John Updike. During a vicious persecution of the clergy in Mexico, a worldly priest, the 'whisky priest', is on the run. With the police closing in, his routes of escape are being shut off, his chances getting fewer. But compassion and humanity force him along the road to his destiny, reluctant to abandon those who need him, and those he cares for."

--The review--
Graham Greene's biography makes him seem an elusive, talented, tortured and somewhat hypocritical being: the converted, lapsed and then returning Catholic, intelligent and bullied at school. These qualities are all also, perhaps unsurprisingly, to be found in spades in The Power and the Glory: the unnamed main character embodies elusiveness in his escape from the law, a tortured nature in his grapples with morality (his duty and his actuality) and the associated hypocrisy. He is a drinker, gambler, liar and philanderer who in the book regularly stands by and allows others to be killed to protect himself, despite knowing that his game will inevitably soon be up regardless. And yet we keep reading not because we love to hate him, but because of his humanity: people are by definition not perfect (i.e. they are not God), and the character not only offers illuminating insights on the nature of religion and of humankind, but also provides suitable contrasts against the other characters, who protect him, despise him, and beg of his help in equal measure. Characterisation is generally strong, and it is easy to picture the novel's entire cast, from the precocious child, Coral Fellows, to the bewildered bystander, Mr Tench, to the various stern police officials and the remaining believers who beg for sacrament.

The novel's structure is perhaps a little bewildering at first: it skips from minor character to minor character, whom you often won't hear from again until the end. However, this serves as an excellent frame for the more intense tribulations of the main character, and the story ends with whom it began, providing an excellent comedown. While there is little or no element of surprise in the plot - the inevitability of the dénouement and outcome is made clear from the start - the elements of fascination come from character development, with other points of interest coming from the descriptions of setting and the main character's more philosophical ruminations on human nature and religious belief. It is a story that can be savoured because of this; there is no need to race through, since so much food for thought is provided throughout (and all without making your head hurt). It can easily be read and reread, allowing the layers of the narrative to be scratched away at, and there is only one arguably weak point in the entire book, concerning an unnecessary insertion on the subject of the main character's persecution at school (thankfully it is a rather short interjection, but Greene could have easily omitted it to the book's advantage).

This is a simultaneous story of persecution and justice, and is a good introduction to Greene's work. It emphasises the power and powerlessness of both God and human beings, it lingers intensely in the mind, and makes the reader query whether or not justice has really been done.

Other works by Graham Greene
Monsignor Quixote (1982)
Ways of Escape (1980; autobiography)
A Burnt-Out Case (1960)
The Potting-Shed (1957)
The Quiet American (1955)
The End of the Affair (1951)
The Third Man (1949)
The Heart of the Matter (1948)
Brighton Rock (1938)