Wednesday, 14 November 2012

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

One of the odder Dickens novels, in that the slightly stop-go nature of its writing is evident in the structure of the story. But it contains many memorable characters and the death of Little Nell is, as billed, melodramatic in the extreme. The best thing about it is the evocation of the rapidly changing society of Dickens's time, with graphic scenes from the industrial hell that was the Black Country and the grey, foggy London that we know from so many other of his novels.

Not all that much comedy - a dark book, all in all.

The Drowned and the Saved by Primo Levi

An intensely serious and penetrating book, that I certainly felt I had to respect and venerate, in a certain way, by only reading when I knew I could concentrate and give it the attention it deserves.

It addresses, with amazing humanity and insight, the astonishing evil that was the Holocaust and the mentality of those that made it happen. But Levi is a Jew and a survivor of the death camps, so he commands our attention when he speaks in such measured and powerful words.

We must all wonder how such incredibly evil things could have happened. This book goes much further in answering that question than any detailed account of the historical events as it examines the psychology of those who perpetrated these evils and those who suffered at their hands.

A tense, sobering book that ought really to be required reading for every European.

China in Ten Words by Yu Hua

This is a fairly hyped book; but it is justified, I think. The author is Chinese, which gives him a head start when it comes to understanding China and its myriad contradictions. He writes really interestingly about the Cultural Revolution in particular, and its enduring impact on so many Chinese people of a certain age.

The format of the book is simple - he chooses ten Chinese words, like 'writing', 'disparity', 'leader' and 'people', then offers an essay on each, drawing as he does so lessons about modern Chinese society. Much of what he says is, in a very measured way, critical of today's China. But he lives and works there and has not been persecuted politically, as far as I know, so he is carving out a position that commands credibility.

A refreshing and intriguing book.