Mars: Making Contact – Rod Pyle

With Nasa’s new lander, InSight, due to launch in 2018, and the Mars 2020 Rover set to touch down just two years later, all eyes are on Mars. Rod Pyle traces the history of the Red Planet in this stunning new publication from Carlton Publishing Group.

519q2nj3sl-_sx258_bo1204203200_The universe can be a pretty lonely place. What are we but a pale blue dot, orbiting an insignificant star, in one of any number of solar systems, in an unquantifiable amount of galaxies that make up the universe? For generations humankind has hoped to one day discover life beyond our world, to finally know that we are not alone in the universe. Of all the planets in our solar system, there is one which will forever encapsulate the human desire to discover alien life, that dull red dot flickering in the distant night’s sky – Mars, our, not-so-identical, twin sister.

For millennia, Mars has held a special place in the human psyche, fascinating explorers enamoured by its dull red appearance and unusual celestial motions across the night sky. In the past, the relative closeness of the Mars to our own home seemed to hold the promise of hardy plants, animals equipped to handle long cold winters, and a whole new world of secrets and history. Over the years, however, we’ve come to learn quite a lot about our distant neighbour, and the truth is far from appealing.

Multiple flybys, orbiters and landers throughout the years have awarded us a deeper understanding of our sister planet, and opened our eyes to the truth of that which once lay just beyond our grasps. The first fleeting images of Mars, awarded by the success of the Mariner 4 flyby, revealed a hostile frozen desert – similar to Earth in terms of geology and physics, but cold, dry and lacking in any kind of atmosphere that would allow for the development of life.

Mars: Making Contact traces the history of Mars here on Earth, as the lonely red sphere in the night’s sky evolved from an otherworld entity, to a place, and as the secrets of Mars continue to unfold. Author Rod Pyle reveals the many human interactions that have occurred with our sister planet, and lays out the hope of more to come, as we move towards the first human mission to the hostile red sands of Mars.

This review was first published on online for E&T magazine

Kafka on the Shore – Haruki Murakami

“People think dreams aren’t real just because they aren’t made of matter, of particles. Dreams are real. But they are made of viewpoints, of images, of memories and puns and lost hopes.”
― Neil Gaiman

Kafka on the Shore – Haruki Murakami

Some time ago, after reading After Dark, I said I wanted to explore more of Haruki Murakami’s work, well I finally got around to it, and I’m very happy I did.

Earlier this year I read Norwegian Wood as a book club selection (review to come, our club has yet to meet due to a few members taking their sweet time to read the book!) and I loved it. I loved it almost as much as The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and you know how much I love that book! I don’t know what it is about certain translations (that they are beautiful maybe?) but I just can’t get enough of them. I was so taken by Norwegian Wood that I began to think that Murakami might actually be one of my favourite authors, but I couldn’t make such a decision based on two books, to find out for sure I needed to read more.

So, I set myself the task of actively reading more Murakami (to begin with I decided I’d read one book a month, but what with all my other commitments that is starting to seem like wishful thinking) and first on the list was Kafka on the Shore. Now, Norwegian Wood is said to be somewhat of an anomaly in Murakami’s portfolio, but Kafka on the Shore is quintessentially Murakami-esque – so I thought this could be the decision maker.

Where Norwegian Wood is a unique take on a classic tale of love, Kafka on the Shore is weird, wonderful and unashamedly unique!

It’s as if when you’re in the forest, you become a seamless part of it. When you’re in the rain, you’re a part of the rain. When you’re in the morning, you’re a seamless part of the morning. When you’re with me, you become a part of me.

kotsIn Kafka on the Shore storylines combine to trace the extraordinary journeys of two seemingly unrelated characters. Kafka Tamura runs away from home on the eve of his fifteenth birthday, haunted by the words of his father’s dark prophecy. Ever since the mysterious departure of his mother and elder sister Kafka’s life has been full of questions. Now his aim is simple, to travel to a far off place and live in the corner of a library. The journey, it seems, may hold the answers.

Elsewhere in Nakano ward, the dim-witted but amiable Nakata tracks lost cats and enjoys the simple things in life, like eels, and pickled vegetables with rice. But this is all set to change with the arrival of a tall man in a top hat and boots, whose interest in the neighbourhood cats is far from innocent. With his simple life turned upside down Nakata is forced to leave Nakano ward, and embarks on journey unlike anything he has ever experienced before, or his simple mind can even comprehend.

As Nakata and Kafka’s stories unwind and intertwine the remarkable interlaces with the ordinary and the world takes on a wholly unusual shape – fish and leeches fall from the sky, and cats converse with people, while WWII soldiers live, unageing, in the depths of unnavigable forest, and living ghosts lurk in the perimeters of consciousness.

Kafka on the Shore is a classic tale of quest and enlightenment, with a wholly unusual twist, which goes beyond the boundaries of classic literature. Murakami’s characters embark on a journey of stunning proportions, a voyage of self-discovery through inexperience. Neither Kafka nor Nakata know what it is they are looking for, but the answer is out there, and the journey introduces them to many strange and wonderful characters, with whom brief encounters prove to be life-affirming.

Anyone who falls in love is searching for missing pieces of themselves. So anyone who’s in love gets sad when they think of their lover. It’s like stepping back inside a room you have fond memories of, one you haven’t seen in a long time. It’s just a natural feeling. You’re not the person who discovered that feeling, so don’t go trying to patent it, okay?

Kafka on the Shore is strange – there is no getting around it. Weird and wonderful things occur and the reasons behind these occurrences are not immediately, if at all, clear. Each chapter harbours events which, however deep and profound an impact they may have, lack any logical explanation. Try and apply a logical filter to Murakami’s and you will no doubt find yourself disappointed and frustrated.

I found it useful, in having read Kafka on the Shore to try and get some insight into  Murakami’s own thoughts on his writing. Murakami has explained his writing process as similar to dreaming, rather than delving into the fantastical: “Writing a novel lets me intentionally dream while I’m still awake. I can continue yesterday’s dream today, something you can’t normally do in everyday life. It’s also a way of descending deep into my own consciousness. So while I see it as dreamlike, it’s not fantasy. For me the dreamlike is very real.”

Kafka on the Shore, then, can be seen as the amalgamation of two different worlds, the combination of the conscious and the unconscious. Think of the book as you would a dream, and suddenly things become much clearer. I was reminded, in reading this, of the talk I went to by Nigerian author Ben Okri last summer in which he spoke of exploring a new way of thinking in his writing, to show that text does not have to follow strict criteria. The world that you create, he said, can be sequential and logical, or circular and dancing. Kafka on the Shore falls firmly into the latter category.

Despite everything, it’s not a difficult book to read. The obscure and the philosophical, which may at times feel somewhat overwhelming, for me were lightened by Murakami’s abstract humour. Here I could give examples of the pimp dressed like Colonel Sanders, or Nakata’s continued reference to going for a ‘dump’ – but for me, the most hilarious part of the book, was Oshima’s fantastic shutting down of two women who refer to him as a ‘typical sexist, patriarchal male’.

My verdict – I liked it. But nowhere near as much as Norwegian Wood. I definitely need to read some more before I make a decision on just how much of a Murakami fangirl I am. The book won’t be for everyone – fans of the logical and sequential and those of you unsettled by violence against animals should steer clear of this one – but I’m certainly not done with my Murakami journey just yet.

Private Pleasures – Hamdy el-Gazzar

“All I know is that when I whisper to dirt, my conversations are less than meaningful.” ― Maggie Stiefvater

4166013

I was drawn to Middle Eastern literature after reviewing A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. I enjoyed the book so much that I had to see what else there was on offer. Also, and this may seem a bit naïve on my part, I have really enjoyed other translated texts I have read, in particular French translations, and the work of Haruki Murakami – so I was interested to see how an Arabic translation would read.

I chose this book in particular because I was intrigued by the synopsis in the publisher’s catalogue:

Private Pleasures describes the three-day sex, drink, and drug binge of a thirty-something newsreader in the back streets and crumbling apartments of his native Giza, that pullulating mass of humanity that, like an ugly sister, sits opposite Cairo on the Nile’s west bank.

Sex, drink and drugs – it seemed like it could be interesting, so I requested a copy.

For me the book got off to a good start, you know I am a sucker for a rich description, and I was drawn into el-Gazzar’s initial portrayal of Giza square:

Behind us, Giza square is a raucous pullulating, raging inferno, filled to its farthest limits with lights, sounds, and shapes and crowded to overflowing with bodies, objects, and goods of every conceivable kind. The square is a giant, twisted oblong bathed in the evening lights shining from the buildings and tall towers scattered about the corners of its celebrated streets: Murad, University, el-Sanadeeli, Saad Zaghloul, Salah Salim.

This wasn’t the most beautiful description I’ve ever read, but it really appealed to me. This scene does not paint Giza Square in a particularly romantic of light, or spread the square out in front of the eyes of the reader to scrutinise in the smallest details, there is no description of the buildings themselves, or the eyes of the people encased within the square. Instead it is described in its entirety as a teeming cess pool of activity filled with bodies crawling over one another, likes rats in a ship’s hold.

Unfortunately, after my initial delight at the author’s descriptions, it all went downhill.

I first got the inclination I wasn’t going to like the book when al-Gazzar introduced Simone, the beautiful, fair-skinned street walker. Any liking I had had for the author’s description of Giza went out of the window with his crude analysis of Simone. Her breasts are, ‘round and large as pomegranates’, she is chewing a ‘large piece of bubble gum in her small mouth’ which she rolls around with her ‘red tongue, popping it like a child.’ – These description are nothing like as evoking as those previously used. They are almost childlike, and then, as if to prove my point, he rounds off his description by summing up her face as ‘innocent and attractive’ – one of the vaguest statements I have ever read.

The introduction of Simone seems like a good time to bring in the sexual aspect of the book, I say ‘aspect’ but really there is little in the book which is not sexualised to the highest degree possible. I don’t mind overly sexual books, but this one is nothing short of obscene and downright ludicrous. I was most perturbed by the protagonist’s sudden interruption of his friend in the midst of doing the dirty with the fair Simone:

Impetuous and crafty, I galloped towards them like a donkey in heat, grabbed her breasts hard with both hands, plastered myself against her from behind, and plunged it between her white buttocks.
I lifted her thighs from the floor and put her into a kneeling position so that she looked like a coddled white bitch quietly standing there, and then I spread her legs apart till her buttocks clenched and quivered.
With schooled professionalism, she raised her backside into the air and displayed her two red passages.’

I didn’t just dislike this description; it made me cringe to think that anyone would ever describe sex, however primitive, in this way.  The idea of someone raising their backside up with ‘schooled professionalism’ is completely perplexing, even more so is the fact that she displayed her ‘two red passages’ – I’ve never heard the female anatomy described in this way before, and I don’t think anyone should ever use it again.

Unfortunately, this was only the beginning of a too-long succession of sex scenes, perverted streams of consciousness, and other randomly sexualised scenarios. The most ridiculous of which is a lengthy tale about a young girl possessed by a demon who made her overly sexual in every way shape and form:

Her family lived in constant fear that her breasts would burst forth in the faces of the passersby, that she might on some occasion reach down to her drawers, rip them to pieces, and throw them in people’s faces.

Yes, her family lived in fear that ‘her breasts would burst forth in the faces of passersby’. I’ll leave that at that, I don’t feel as though I need to explain why I found this ridiculous and unnecessarily perverse. By all means be in fear of the fact that she may disgrace the family, but not that her breasts will ‘burst forth’, no one lives in fear of that.

I felt at one point close to the end, when the three day-drink and drug binge which gave birth to two hundred pages of perverted stream of consciousness and overly self-pitying reflection was over, that the protagonist may have been about to redeem himself. After his wife had spent three nights devotedly feeding him warm milk while he recovered from his self-inflicted wounds, I thought that perhaps he would see this as an opportunity to make things right with her, to start again, from fresh, but I was to be disappointed.  Instead, after eating the food his wife prepared for him he went out again to smoke and feel sorry for himself some more.

One the whole, I found the book to be, not only perverted and grotesque, but completely self-obsessed and self-pitying. The protagonist was one of the most unlikeable characters I have ever come across. I was so relieved to have finished the book, after committing far too much of my time to struggling through each and every page.

With this as my first experience of an Arabic translation I have to say that I do not think it works well in English at all. Perhaps it reads much better in its native language, but I found it to be difficult and ugly to read. There was no beauty used to the language; it was harsh, and awkward. The whole experience has put me off of the idea of reading Arabic literature, if not for good, then for a while at least. Perhaps I will try again with something a little less controversial, but for now I feel happy to be ending this chapter of my reading life.

I was sent a copy of Private Pleasures by the publisher in exchange for a review.