The Thief and the Dogs

The Thief and the Dogs by Naguib Mahfouz9780385264624

publication date: 1984
pages: 108
ISBN: 9774240340

This Egyptian novella, though first published in 1961, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988, after being translated into English from the Arabic in 1984. The author, Naguib Mahfouz, worked for the Egyptian civil service and used this book to present the story of a convicted thief’s descent into madness.

The book had a very noir quality, with the action mostly occurring at night and with the main character, Said, constantly prowling the streets of Cairo. While Said roamed, the book included his bitter and obsessive inner monologue:

The bars have shut down and only the side streets are open, where plots are hatched. From time to time he has to cross over a hole in the pavement set there like a snare and the wheels of tramcars growl and shriek like abuse. Confused cries seem to seep from the curbside garbage. (I swear I hate you all). Houses of temptation, their windows beckoning even when eyeless, walls scowling where plaster has fallen.

Mahfouz’s writing had a compelling poetry and directness. Here was an example from a scene where Said was attempting to break into and burglarize the home of an enemy:

When [Said] was sure the street was empty he dodged into the hedge, forcing his way in amidst the jasmine and violets, and stood motionless: If there was a dog in the house – other than its owner, of course – it would now fill the universe with barking.

Another example of Mahfouz’s writing style was this line of absolution:

But the dawn shed dewy compassion giving momentary solace for the loss of everything, even the two banknotes, and he surrendered to it.

Another aspect of Mahfouz’s writing that I enjoyed was his ability to write in aphorisms. For example, here was Said attempting to explain the traitorous nature of a former mentor:

But what’s truly ridiculous is that the distinguished teacher of the accused is a treacherous scoundrel. You may well be astonished at this fact. It can happen, however, that the cord carrying current to a lamp is dirty, speckled with fly shit.

The book included innumerable details of Egyptian life. The author inserted specific Cairene streets and depicted the Egyptian characters’ dress, food, jobs, and religion. It also was very universal. Mahfouz presented a convincing portrait of a man with an increasingly tenuous grip on reality.

At times, however, the book was slow. This was quite a feat, considering it was only 108 pages. The dullness came from the book’s repetition and its proselytizing characters. There also was not much of a plot: newly freed convict wanders urban streets as the reader wonders how much of the book’s action is taking place within the main character’s head.

With that said, I would definitely recommend the book. It’s a classic and a quick read.

4/6: worth reading

Other reviews:
D.M. Miller blog
Curled Up blog

Norweigan Wood

Norweigan Wood by Haruki Murakami, translated by Jay Rubin9780375704024

publication date: 1987 (translation: 2000)
pages: 296
ISBN: 296-0-375-70402-7

In this coming-of-age story, university student Toru Watanabe attempted to maintain a recent relationship with Naoko, his best friend’s ex-girlfriend, while meeting unusual new people, including a talkative and unconventional young woman, Midori. Watanabe navigated these relationships against a backdrop of 1960s student protests and a rash of suicides among young people.

Norweigan Wood was incredibly popular in Japan after it was published in 1989. Young people were drawn to Murakami’s western-centric language — the title comes from the name of a Beatles song — and his grappling with heady themes while writing from the point of view of a young protagonist. The book was also well-received in America, especially after it was translated into English.

Murakami used what may have seemed like a straightforward love story to explore numerous weighty themes. Murakami examined the circular and repetitive nature of time, which never quite moves the way we want it to. He also discussed sex, and the myriad forms it uses to manifest itself. Probably the most pervasive theme, however, was the specter of death. Murakami suggested that death was mainly experienced by the living:

The shadow of death slowly, slowly eats away at the region of life, and before you know it everything is dark and you can’t see, and the people around you think of you as more dead than alive.

Murakami also imbued his love story with a tension throughout the book. The tension was often a vague feeling of dread, as in this passage, where Watanabe was taking public transportation to visit Naoko:

The bus would enter cedar forest, come out to a village, then go back into forest. It would stop at a village to let people off, but no one ever got on. Forty minutes after leaving the city, the bus reached a mountain pass with a wide-open view. The driver stopped the bus and announced that we would be waiting there for five or six minutes . . . Eventually another bus came climbing up from the other side of the pass and stopped next to ours . . .
It was not immediately clear to me why our bus had had to wait for the other one, but a short way down the other side of the mountain the road narrowed suddenly. Two big buses could never have passed each other on the road, and in fact passing ordinary cars coming in the other direction required a good deal of maneuvering with one or the other vehicle having to back up and squeeze into the overhang of a curve.

Beyond setting an effective tone, there were so many times that something in the narrative was pleasingly relatable. I was often reminded of something a friend had recently said, or something I’d thought while drifting off to sleep. This introspective passage, for example:

At five-thirty I closed my book, went outside, and ate a light supper. How many Sundays — how many hundreds of Sundays like this — lay ahead of me? “Quiet, peaceful, and lonely,” I said aloud to myself. On Sundays, I didn’t wind my spring.

Although there was a lot I liked about the book, I often found it tiresome or maddening. It was sometimes repetitive, and the prose could be dull or inconsistent — although that might be the fault of the translator.

Perhaps most importantly, I don’t gain a lot of satisfaction anymore from coming-of-age stories with a man who is finding his way in the world with the help of lessons learned from the women around him. I’m tired of reading sentences like this:

The power she exerted was a subtle thing, but it called forth deep resonances . . . It was a kind of childhood longing that had always remained — and would forever remain — unfulfilled.


I felt as drawn to her as ever, perhaps more than before, but the thought of what she had lost in the meantime also gave me cause for regret. Never again would she have that self-centered beauty that seems to take its own, independent course in adolescent girls and no one else.

Or, my favorite:

[Falling in love with two women happens] all the time in this great big world of ours. It’s like taking a boat out on a beautiful lake on a beautiful day and thinking both the sky and lake are beautiful.

I suppose it wasn’t Murakami’s fault I’ve read variations on those lines dozens of times. Doesn’t make it less annoying or less inaccurate, though. Although the book was inconsistent, there were enough potent passages to make it:

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

New York Times
The Guardian 
The Ooh Tray blog

The Princess Bride

The Princess Bride by William Goldman9780156035217

publication date: 1973
pages: 353
ISBN: 978-0-15-603521-7

William Goldman’s classic story, adapted to a movie by the same name in 1987, was generally tedious, often annoying, and sometimes even insulting.

The book took the classic genre of adventure story and attempted to modernize it by creating quirky and easily mock-able characters, then framed it all with much discussion from an irritating narrator called – William Goldman.

The concept of the book is that William Goldman’s father read him the story “The Princess Bride,” by a fictional S. Morgenstern, when he was a kid, and Goldman wanted to present the story to his son. However, it turned out Goldman’s father had only read the good parts to Goldman so he decided to transcribe Morgenstern’s story into an abridged book that included only the “good parts” and notes by Goldman. Here was a long example of the style of the Goldman narrator:

When I said at the start that I’d never read this book, that’s true. My father read it to me, and I just quick skimmed along, crossing out whole sections when I did the abridging, leaving everything just as it was in the original Morgenstern.

This chapter is totally intact. My intrusion here is because of the way Morgenstern uses parentheses . . . Either Morgenstern meant them seriously or he didn’t. Or maybe he meant some of them seriously and some others he didn’t. But he never said which were the spurious ones . . . All I can suggest to you is, if the parentheses bug you, don’t read them.

What Goldman was referring to was tiresome asides in the narrative of “The Princess Bride” made by Morgenstern. Like this as an example:

The Countess was considerably younger than her husband. All of her clothes came from Paris (This was after Paris) and she had superb taste. (This was after taste too, but only just. And since it was such a new thing, and since the Countess was the only lady in all Florin to possess it, is it any wonder she was the leading hostess of the land?)

I usually found all these asides and meta posturing to be unfunny and dreary. Also, the characters in the book, including Goldman himself, were generally just mouthpieces for Goldman’s style of humor, which did not work for me.

Although the writing and characters were unimpressive, sometimes the action was compelling, especially any scenes involving Westley the farm boy. Additionally, there were a few parts that I thought were funny, including these lines:

He was seventy-five minutes away from his first female murder, and he wondered if he could get his fingers to her throat before even the start of a scream. He had been practicing on giant sausages all the afternoon and had the movements down pretty pat, but then, giant sausages weren’t necks and all the wishing in the world wouldn’t make them so.

Although the book was a quick read, with a few funny parts and some effective action scenes, I would say you can just skip it.

2/6: many problems

other reviews of this classic:

The Daily Beast
SF Site
Fantasy Book Review

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K Rowling, John Tiffany & Jack Thorne9781338099133

publication date: 2016
pages: 308
ISBN: 978-1-338-09913-3

I’m sure this review was too late for most of you readers. Either you were planning on reading this new play and you’ve done so, or you had no interest in reading it and my review would not sway you. Just for fun, though, and because I love Harry Potter, I’m putting this review out there.

This book – it’s actually a script – returned to the story of hero wizard Harry Potter nineteen years after the seventh book ended. Harry was now a father to three young children who were experiencing their own adventures at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Cursed Child focused on Harry’s middle son, Albus, as he encountered his own brand of troubles at Hogwarts. The book included much about Harry. However, there was definitely an emphasis on the next generation.

Obviously, this little play was surrounded by anticipation. Harry Potter was one of the most cherished and endlessly examined book series of all time. As I was reading, I tried to keep my expectations in check because it would be impossible for something to live up to the original series. However, I thought this book was a lot of fun.

I liked the plot: it had a low point and an emotional climax and there was a twist that took me by surprise. I also liked the characters, both old and new. There was continuity with the characters I was familiar with from the original book series. This scene was a great example, where the main characters were unexpectedly gathering in Professor McGonagall’s office:

PROFESSOR McGONAGALL: Right. Very sensible. I expect . . . there will be quite a few [volunteers].
RON bursts in. Covered in soot. Wearing a gravy-stained dinner napkin.
RON: Have I missed anything – I couldn’t work out which Floo to travel to. Ended up in the kitchen somehow. (HERMIONE glares as he pulls the napkin off himself.) What?
Suddenly there is another rumble in the chimney and DRACO comes down hard, surrounded by cascading soot and dust.
Everyone looks at him, surprised. He stands and brushes the soot off himself.
DRACO: Sorry about your floor, Minerva.
PROFESSOR McGONAGALL: I dare say it’s my fault for owning a chimney.
HARRY: Quite a surprise to see you, Draco. I thought you didn’t believe in my dreams.
DRACO: I don’t, but I do trust your luck. Harry Potter is always where the action is at. And I need my son back with me and safe.
GINNY: Then let’s get to the Forbidden Forest and find them both.

That was simply classic Harry Potter. McGonagall’s dry chiding. Ron constantly doing slightly the wrong thing. Draco being the only polite one. A Weasley sounding a call to action.

I liked the new characters, as well – especially Albus Potter’s best friend Scorpius. He was a sensitive, intelligent kid with a great sense of humor. Here was some fun dialogue between Scorpius and Albus, on top of the Hogwarts Express:

SCORPIUS: Okay, now we’re on the roof of a train, it’s fast, it’s scary, this has been great, I feel like I’ve learnt a lot about me, something about you, but –
ALBUS: As I calculate it we should be approaching the viaduct soon and then it’ll be a short hike to St. Oswald’s Home for Old Witches and Wizards . . .
SCORPIUS: The what? The where? Look, I am as excited as you are to be a rebel for the first time in my life – yay – train roof – fun – but now – oh.

Although I liked a lot about Cursed Child, the writing was not as captivating as the book series. I think most of that was because this was a play and not a book. Because this was a play, I couldn’t read about the rich inner lives and monologues of any of the characters. As a play, this story would be more visually compelling than a book, but it does not create the same immediate and long-lasting connections with the characters.

Also, Cursed Child had some of the same flaws as the original series. People were always getting outraged for seemingly no good reason. And these people weren’t kids anymore; now they were adults! There were little riddles and adventures that didn’t actually make a lot of sense but did provide good fun. And many of the small plot points were just a little too convenient.

My mind cannot fathom separating this book from the original series, so, if you have never experienced the Harry Potter series, I have no idea whether you would like this book or if it would even be understandable. However, if you were a fan of the original series, I thought this play was a likable continuation, as long as the constraints of a play are kept in mind.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

New York Times
The Independent (this review quotes a 10-year-old kid’s review)
Read at Midnight


Roots by Alex Haley9780440174646

publication date: 1976
pages: 688

Roots is a classic and for good reason.

The book followed an entire family’s ancestral line, from 17-year-old Kunta Kinte being snatched from a Gambian forest by slave traders in the late 1700s, to the author, Alex Haley, who was born into freedom in 1921. The first half of the book was devoted to Kunta Kinte’s life, as a young man in Africa and then in adulthood as a slave in America. The second half of the book focused on the descendants of Kinte, from Kinte’s daughter Kizzy, through several generations down to Haley.

My favorite part of the book was the first 150 pages, which described Kinte’s life as a member of the Mandinka tribe in Africa. Haley’s text captured the specific details of a culture very different from our modern-day Western culture, but he always considered the shared humanness that existed between Kinte’s Mandinka culture and our American one. For example, here was a passage describing when Kinte graduated from school:

One by one now, the arafang asked each graduate to stand. Finally came Kunta’s turn. “Kunta Kinte!” With all eyes upon him, Kunta felt the great pride of his family in the front row, even of his ancestors in the burying ground beyond the village – most especially of his beloved Grandma Yaisa. Standing up, he read aloud a verse from the Koran’s last page; finishing, he pressed it to his forehead and said, “Amen!” When the readings were done, the teacher shook each boy’s hand and announced loudly that as their eduction was complete, these boys were now of the third kafo, and everyone broke out into a loud cheering.

Although I loved reading about Kinte’s life in Africa, the most powerful part of the book was after his capture, when he was shackled in the slave transport ship from the African coast to America. In very concrete terms, Haley portrayed the horrific conditions of the months-long forced voyage that Kinte, and thousands of other Africans, took during the transatlantic crossing to slavery. Here was a passage:

Occasionally, down in the hold, Kunta would hear a little murmuring here and there, and he wondered what they could find to talk about. And what was the point? His Wolof shacklemate was gone, and death had taken some of those who had translated for the others. Besides, it took too much strength to talk any more. Each day Kunta felt a little worse, and it didn’t help to see what was happening to some of the other men. Their bowels had begun to drain out a mixture of clotted blood and thick, grayish-yellow, horribly foul-smelling mucus.

The ending of the book, with Haley investigating Kinte’s life in Africa, was also very emotionally moving, although I discovered in my research that there was controversy surrounding the truthfulness of Haley’s story.

Throughout the book, there was nothing very special or interesting about Haley’s writing. He didn’t create many memorable phrases or passages and there were timing and pace issues in the second half of the book. What made the book so memorable was Haley’s subject matter and his intricate characters.

5/6: seek this book out

other reviews of this book

Good Books and Good Wine
An Improbable Life

Lonesome Dove

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

publication date: 1985
pages: 857
ISBN: 978-0-684-87122-6

It is rare to find a book that makes you race along reading it because the plot is so spirited, while also pressing you to stop and ponder humanity and mortality because of its scope and language. A book that introduces you to characters so complex and whole that it doesn’t matter if you find them “likable” or “relatable;” instead, they just exist. A book that makes you laugh, makes you cry, makes you question, worry, wonder, remember, approve. Lonesome Dove is that book.

In Lonesome Dove, McMurtry crafted an epic Western that was sweeping, but never pretentious; long, but perfectly paced. The book followed the Hat Creek Cattle Company as it moved cattle from newly-settled Texas to the unsettled territory of Montana in the late 1800s. The Company consisted of two former Texas Rangers, Gus McCrae and Captain Call; young Newt; Bolivar the Mexican cook; unthinking Pea Eye; and steadfast Deets.

As these characters rode through the American West, McMurtry used description so expertly that a sense of atmosphere was evoked in almost every scene. Here was an example:

Jake looked off across the scrubby pastures. There were tufts of grass here and there, but mostly the ground looked hard as flint. Heat waves were rising off it like fumes off kerosene. Something moved in his line of vision, and for a moment he thought he saw some strange brown animal under a chaparral bush.

As mentioned above, McMurtry was also deft at crafting characters. Because of the encompassing nature of the book, McMurtry introduced dozens of characters. However, I can picture almost all of them distinctly. One of my favorites was Lorena, a tough prostitute who showed little affection but was the unrequited Manic Pixie Dream Girl of almost every man who met her. Here’s a cowboy’s description of her:

Looking at her, though, was like looking at the hills. The hills stayed as they were. You could go to them, if you had the means, but they extended no greeting.

One of my favorite things about the book was how the characters were so realistic that they were not merely reflections of the author’s message or plot. Instead, all the narratives were slightly biased toward that particular narrator and were subtly false. It was nothing blunt or confusing, but the dialogues and the narratives wove together to create a picture of the character, not necessarily a picture of the world in the book.

As I was reading the book, I was struck by how alien these characters’ lives were. No electricity, no refrigerators, riding on horseback all day – usually voluntarily. However, much was the same. Some people sought adventure, some just wished to stay at home. Some people were lazy, some would work until you stopped them. Some people would do almost anything to get laid or have any kind of companionship, others would be content to see another person once every few years. Although the setting was foreign, the book itself never stopped being understandable.

6/6: instant classic

other reviews of the book:

New York Times
World’s Strongest Librarian
Wendy Reads Books

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë 

publication date: 1847
pages: 207
ISBN: 978-0-307-95780-1

Anne Brontë – in the tradition of her sisters and other writers from her time, such as Jane Austen and George Eliot – used novels and language to satirize contemporary culture and mores. In Agnes Grey, Brontë satirized the upper class and employment opportunities for women.

The book followed Agnes Grey, a young poor woman who loved and cherished her family but wanted to see more of the world and be financially independent. To that end, she became a governess.  The bulk of the book was Agnes’s encounters with members of the upper class – most of whom were morally depraved or downright psychopaths. For example, there was this young man, who trapped birds and tortured them:

“Sometimes I give them to the cat; sometimes I cut them in pieces with my penknife; but the next, I mean to roast alive.”
“But don’t you know it is extremely wicked to do such things? Remember, the birds can feel as well as you, and think, how would you like it yourself?”
“Oh, that’s nothing! I’m not a bird, and I can’t feel what I do to them.”

Beyond being mildly disturbing in parts, Brontë’s portrayal of the English gentry could be very funny. This was a conversation between husband and wife at lunch, beginning with the husband asking what is for dinner:

“Turkey and grouse,” was the concise reply.
“And what besides?”
“What kind of fish?”
“I don’t know.”
You don’t know?” cried he, looking solemnly up from his plate, and suspending his knife and fork in astonishment.

There were also a few times where Brontë presented brilliant insight:

We are naturally disposed to love what gives us pleasure, and what is more pleasing that a beautiful face . . . when we know no harm of the possessor at least? A little girl loves her bird . . . Why? . . . Because it lives and feels, because it is helpless and harmless. A toad, likewise, lives and feels, and is equally helpless and harmless; but though she would not hurt the toad, she cannot love it like the bird, with its graceful form, soft feathers, and bright, speaking eyes.

However, the book in its entirety didn’t thrill me. It was good, but not great. There was a lot of pontificating and moralizing by the author, as she instructed the reader on how to raise children, how to be a governess, how to grieve, how to be a good neighbor, and on and on. It was also somewhat boring and predictable. I knew who the “good” characters were, and who the “bad,” almost immediately, and what comeuppance they would all receive.

In the interest of completeness, and because it is slim, and interesting, Agnes Grey was certainly a worthwhile read. However, there are more exemplary books from that period that I would recommend.

4/6: worth reading

The Guardian
Books Please
She Reads Novels