A Whole Life – Robert Seethaler

Egger felt Marie’s body next to his. He put his arm around her shoulders and heard her quiet breathing. On the other side of the valley the glowing lines swooped across the hillside in arc after arc, or closed in rounded shapes. Right at the end a single dot lit up above the I on the top right, and Egger knew that old Mattl himself had clambered across the scree to ignite the last bag of paraffin. FOR YOU, MARIE stood inscribed on the mountain in huge flickering letters, visible for miles around to everyone in the valley. The ‘M’ was rather crooked, and there was a piece missing, too, so that it looked as if someone had pulled it apart in the middle. At least two of the bags had apparently failed to catch fire, or hadn’t been set at all. Egger took a deep breath: then he turned to Marie and tried to make out her face in the darkness.
‘Will you be my wife?’ he asked.

I actually don’t think it’s possible to get a more opposite book to American Gods than A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler. While pretty much everything happens in American Gods, hardly anything happens in A Whole Life, yet it is just as compelling and enjoyable, but in a completely different way.

Say hello to Egger, who lives, apart from when he’s sent to war, in the same village, or just outside it, in quiet solitude. He works on the early ski lifts and meets a girl and starts a family before the mountain decides that’s not for him. He spends the rest of his life on his own and Seethaler takes the ordinary and makes it extra ordinary, the simple and makes it beautiful and poignant, and balances it all perfectly.

As Egger gets older he witnesses the change in the village. His experience of being at the front during the war is told simply, yet you feel the sheer emotion of it, even as it’s treated as just another chapter in his life. His love for the mountains and the nature surrounding him bring comfort and an anchor to his life, and the trials that it brings him at one point or another. For me the moments that have lingered after finishing are the teacher that Egger tentatively connects with without knowing really why or what to do, and his realisation that he’s spent his entire life in the village. The bus trip he takes, was, to use the words of Jim Crace from the cover, Heart-rending.

A Whole Life is a slim book, yet Seethaler manages to literally cover a whole life in it, one that, blends every experience into human existence regardless of how joyful or painful it is, and is beautiful and compelling to read because of that.

One clear autumn day, when a roll of sandpaper slipped out of his hand and sprang down the slope like an impetuous young goat before eventually sailing out over a spur of rock and vanishing in the depths, Egger paused for the first time in years and contemplated his surroundings. The sun was low, and even the distant mountaintops stood out so clearly that it was as if someone had just finished painting them onto the sky. Right beside him a lone sycamore burned yellow; a little further off some cows were grazing, casting long, slim shadows that kept pace with them step for step across the meadow. A group of hikers was sitting beneath the canopy of a small calving shed. Egger could hear them talking and laughing amongst themselves, and their voices seemed to him both strange and agreeable.

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American Gods – Neil Gaiman

‘Lady Liberty.’ said Wednesday. ‘Like so many of the gods that Americans hold dear, a foreigner. In this case, a French woman, although, in deference to American sensibilities, the French covered up her magnificent bosom on that statue they presented to New York. Liberty,’ he continued, wrinkling his nose at the used condom that lay on the bottom flight of steps, toeing it to the side of the stairs with distaste – ‘ Someone could slip on that. Break their necks,’ he muttered, interrupting himself. ‘Like a banana peel, only with bad taste and irony thrown in.’ He pushed open the door, and the sunlight hit them. The world outside was colder than it had looked from indoors: Shadow wondered if there was more snow to come. ‘Liberty,’ boomed Wednesday, as they walked to his car, ‘is a bitch who must be bedded on a mattress of corpses.’

Well…Well, where do I begin with this. I confess my book loving friends that I did this wrong. I watched American Gods the TV series on Amazon before I read the book! I know, never watch before you read. But Lovejoy was in it. And I’ll be honest, because you know, if you can’t be honest in your blog just where can you be? I’d never really been interested in the book until I watched the TV series. After after I finished the series I sat there and thought, without a doubt that was the weirdest thing I have ever seen.

I bought the book, with the TV series cover, that is in fact, the directors cut equivalent, that it includes some 700 billion extra pages (the actual number may differ from this).

It’s my first Neil Gaiman book and I loved it. I loved the storytelling, a real world George R. R. Martin crossed with David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, you can just read and read and read and never want to put the book down, even when you don’t have a clue what is going on. but for you I will attempt to summarise (Cue spoiler alert). SPOILER ALERT.

Shadow Moon is getting released from jail, and he can’t wait to see his wife. Except for his wife is dead after being killed in a car accident with his best friend who coincidentally was her lover. So, heartbroken, Shadow is released early and after a little coercion, signs up to work for Mr Wednesday. As if someone who literally asks you what day of the week it is and then calls himself after that day isn’t suspicious at all. But you know, Shadow just doesn’t care right now.

Mr Wednesday is, well he’s different, and special and oh by the way did I mention he’s the Norse God Odin? Shadow slowly works this out until it’s pretty much smacking him round the face, as Wednesday starts rounding up the old gods, gods that have travelled across the sea from the old countries to the land of the free, for a ding dong with the new gods, technology, media, television etc. Shadow realises he is caught up in something beyond his comprehension, but also that his involvement is not completely by chance. Meanwhile, Laura, Shadow’s deceased wife, realises now she’s dead that she does in fact love Shadow and comes back to tell him and also help him with some new found supernatural powers. I mean, how does that work? Well the leprechaun has the answer there, obviously.

So while the old and the new square up, Shadow is having weird dreams and meeting even weirder and wonderful, and not so wonderful people, and trying to keep his head down and wrap his brains around everything, particularly why his dead wife is back and keeps talking to him.

I will confess further that I got slightly lost at the end, regarding Whisky Jack and the Buffalo man but that’s probably me being so excited I skim read some crucial points along the way, such is the pull of Gaiman’s story telling and my appalling attention span.

If you enjoy fantastic story telling, read this. To be honest you can watch the first season of the TV series which deviates from the plot somewhat, but I would still read the book first, because, well because I’m a book lover the book is pretty much without exception, always better than the celluloid adaptation. Gaiman includes lost of historical stories of how the gods were brought over from the old countries and slowly forgotten or replaced, and it all ads up to what is unquestionably an engrossing incredible epic of a book.

There was a girl, and her uncle sold her, wrote Mr Ibis in his perfect copper-plate handwriting.
That is the tale; the rest is detail.

There are stories that are true, in which each individual’s tale is unique and tragic, and the worst of the tragedy is that we have heard it before, and we cannot allow ourselves to feel it too deeply. We build a shell around it like an oyster dealing with a painful particle of grit, coating it with smooth pearl layers in order to cope. This is how we walk and talk and function, day in, day out, immune to others’ pain and loss. If it were to touch us it would cripple us or make saints of us; but, for the most part, it does not touch us. We cannot allow it to.

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The Following Story – Cees Nooteboom

Teaching children the language they were already hearing in the echo chamber of the womb, long before they were born, and stunting the natural growth of that language with tedious drivel about ordinal numbers, double plurals, split infinitives, predicative uses and prepositional connectives is bad enough, but to look like an underdone cutlet and pontificate about poetry, that’s a bit much.

So I came to this slim volume by way of the World Book Club on the BBC world service. The monthly grilling by Harriet Gilbert and members of the audience worldwide accompanying my Sunday night ironing, such are the foibles of habit and routine. I’ll be honest though, I can’t remember much about the session with Nooteboom, except that the book opens in Lisbon and I remember listening and being intrigued by the story as it was picked and pulled apart by the usual voracious audience.

Still it look me a good while before I plunged in and bought it, there always being something more pressing to be bought in front of it, until I decided to finally read the Following Story.

Herman Mussert wakes up in a Lisbon hotel room despite going to bed the previous night in his house in Amsterdam. If only travel were that easy. Despite this, he calmly assures himself he is not dead, he still has all his faculties and thoughts, although the inclusion of Portuguese money in his wallet was unexpected, and gets up to establish what is going on.
He had been in this particular hotel room before though and he slowly threads his way through memories and experiences, recounting his life and embarking on a journey further away from his home – and deep down the Amazon river in Brazil (Brazil you say? well I’m in!)

What I loved most about The Following Story was Mussert’s wonderful subtle humour than surfaces throughout the whole book, his unflinching honesty about himself and his character, which comes with age and bitter experience, yet which doesn’t diminish the pleasure he takes from life. These pleasures include his time teaching in university and the women he meets there that become integral parts of his life. And it’s understanding his relationship with these women that ultimately becomes what the following story is about.

As Mussert comes to the end of his physical and meta-physical journey he has stopped thinking about the Mussert who went to bed in Amsterdam and become the other Mussert, who listens to others recount their lives before it’s his turn, and he recounts The Following Story. (Do you see what he did there?)

“As soon as I stepped out of the sacristy into the Duomo I would feel sick. I felt like a floor-cloth, waiting for them to wipe off their lives on me. You have no idea to what lengths people will go. You have never seen their faces at such close quarters either, the hypocrisy, the lewdness, the rank sheets, the greed. And they kept coming back, and one kept being forced  to forgive them. But in some horrible way that made one an accomplice, one was drawn into the liaisons that they were unable to break off, into the sordidness of their characters. I fled from all that, and went into a monastery. I could no longer bear the human voice unless it was singing.”

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The Buried Giant – Kazuo Ishiguro

But this time his wife seemed reluctant to let him go. She grasped his arm, as though momentarily to steady herself, then let her head rest on his chest. As though by it’s own instinct, his hand rose to caress her hair, grown tangled in the wind, and when he glanced down at her he was surprised to see her eyes still wide open.
‘You’re in  a strange mood, right enough,’ he said. ‘What did that stranger say to you?’
She kept her head on his chest for a moment longer. Then she straightened and let go of him. ‘Now I think of it Axl, there may be something in what you’re always saying. It’s queer the way the world’s forgetting people and things from only yesterday and the day before that. Like a sickness come over us all.’

whoah calm down now, there are spoilers in this, just so you know..

I loved this book, a beautiful tale that you drift through like a boat on a slow moving river, and, what I loved most was the ending, Did the boatman take Axl?

I don’t think he did. Then I wonder if that’s a reflection on me rather than the book. I felt that Axl had remembered more than his wife, or had knew more than he had told her and for that reason would not be joining her, and as much as that made me sad, from the story itself it didn’t feel completely wrong.

But that is the end, and the end is no place to start. Set in England after the Romans have left, a mist settles across the country and people are forgetful of the past. A small cast of characters are bound up tightly in not only their own destiny, but that of the entire country. Pulling in old tales, myths, legends and pastoral living, this is a tale ultimately about love, and memory. Axl and Beatrice leave their communal home to go searching for their long lost son. They meet and fall in with a Saxon warrior and Sir Gawain, of Arthurian legend. Slowly, as Ishiguro gently pulls the reader along, and the source of the all pervading mist is revealed, the quest of all the characters is intertwined as Axl and Beatrice’s memories start to bubble to the surface.

At points the reader knows more than Axl does, and Ishiguro handles this wonderfully.  Even as Axl sees things and remembers instincts forgotten, they flow naturally into his consciousness, without revelation but instead like the flow of a stream gently merging into the river of his memory and he starts to fear what will happen if the small band succeeds in it’s efforts to put an end to the mist covering the land.

Thinking back, The Buried Giant feels like a Sunday afternoon movie, an enjoyable indulgence that contains a nip at the end, but which enhances the memory of it more than sours the pleasure of reading it. The prose and style is simple and engaging, and Ishiguro seamlessly mixes the magic with the mundane throughout, and makes it all seem perfectly normal.

By the end you know what you want to happen, and what you think should happen, but Ishiguro leaves you at the threshold and shuts the door, you’ll need to make you’re own mind up.

Wistan smiled. ‘I believe, sir, it’s this very gift to withstand strange spells won me this errand from my king. For in the fens, we’ve never known a creature quite like this Querig, yet have known others with wonderful powers, and it was noticed how little I was swayed, even as my comrades swooned and wandered in dreams. I fancy this was my king’s only reason to choose me, for almost all my comrades at home are better warriors than this one walks beside you now’
‘Impossible to believe, Master Wistan! Both report and observation tell of your extraordinary qualities.’

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The Travels – Marco Polo

When he cast his eyes over this astonishing treasure, Hulegu was amazed, and had the caliph brought before him. ‘Caliph,’ he said to him, ‘why did you hoard so much treasure? What did you intend to do with it? And were you not aware that I was your enemy and that I was coming against you with a huge army to dispossess you? When you realized this, why did you not take your treasure and give it to the knights and mercenaries to defend you and your city? The caliph gave no answer, because he did not know what to say. And then Hulegu said to him: ‘Caliph, since I can see how dearly you love treasure, I will give you your own to eat.’ Then he had the caliph taken and put in the treasure tower, and he ordered that nothing be given to him to eat or drink.

“You see Marco, You’ve really had a wonderful life..”
That’s what I imagine Marco being told after he departed this world in January 1324, or maybe by Rustichello da Pisa when the two were imprisoned with one another in Genoa, and Marco related some of his travels to his fellow inmate.

It was during this time in captivity that Polo dictated his travels to Rustichello, who, many believe, embellished them with fanciful tales and anecdotes of his own, in a style similar to his own previous works. Marco’s travels, some with his father and uncle, had taken Polo about 15,000 miles in 24 years, through central Asia and China and included time in the service of Kublai Khan.

There has been debate on the veracity of some, if not all, of the book since the middle ages, and in his preface Nigel Cliff discusses some of these, as well as where he has taken the travels from, as numerous versions exist, in place of the original manuscript by Rustichello.

It is likely that Polo included places that he only had second hand information on, or hearsay of places near to where he did travel, it is also likely that some of the directions and distances are wrong, recalling from memory every step of a 15,000 mile journey can be no easy task, and Rustichello would surely have allowed himself some novel flourishes in amongst the litany of people who are idolators, subjects of the great Khan and who use paper money, but why write off the whole of the travels as fanciful story telling? I reckon you would be hard pushed to find any travel book that did not contain second hand experiences and fanciful storytelling. Indeed Polo is one person in all of the world in all of time I would love to meet, to sit down and listen to. An early traveller who recorded much of the mundane of the world he witnessed as well as the fanciful so that people would start to have an understanding of a place an people who, with a different history could have swept through Europe and ruled them in Genghis’s time. He travelled through eastern Europe, central Asia and the eastern China and touched Myanmar and India in a route that would be difficult to follow today, and in a time where he would have had no preconceptions of what he would see and experience.

I do admit the book in some ways can get monotonous, and Rustichello’s conversational style throughout does get tiring but it is the substance that interests me, not the style, and there is plenty of that. The Penguin Classics edition comes with an introduction, a timeline, maps, an appendix and notes and it didn’t feel like a chore to slip back and forth between them all when reading to better understand the experiences.

To focus on the debate is to miss the point for me, Marco did travel, and I personally believe, for the most part did experience the peoples and customs he writes about, and his book expanded the horizons of western readers. This is why I could sit and listen, question and marvel at his experiences, experiences which, ultimately, he had no need to share, yet did so in order to let others read about people and places they could only imagine.
I expect some of the early criticism came because the Travels inadvertently paints the christian west as backward compared to the opulent and civilised east, and as we are witnessing today, the ignorant are not taken to receiving criticism kindly.

First, though, we will tell you about their battle tactics. You should know that every soldier is under orders to carry sixty arrows into battle: thirty smaller ones for piercing and thirty larger ones with broad heads, which they use for shooting at close quarters, aiming for the face and arms or cutting through bowstrings and inflicting heavy losses. And I can also tell you that when they have shot all their arrows they lay hold of swords and clubs and deal mighty blows with them. Now I have told you how they go into battle, so we will return to the matter at hand.

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Genghis Khan: The man who conquered the world – Frank McLynn

They reckoned that each person needed five horses to live well, which meant that a family of five would need twenty-five riding horses and four to six pack horses. A ger containing five people that had more than ten horses was considered rich. A horse was valued as being equal to five head of cattle or six sheep or goats. A two year-old counted as half a horse and a yearling as one-quarter. The Mongols used mainly mares, as these were more docile and yielded the vital milk for making koumiss. If short for food, they had a technique for making an incision in the animals vein, drinking the blood, and then sealing up the wound.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Genghis. He always seemed like a man who did not understand the word no, who simply did not know how to give up, who would take what he wanted, preferably when he wanted, but if not, he would come back later and take it. Apart from the basic knowledge, one of my earliest experiences of Genghis was in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, not a classic historical study, but a film that did make me think about figures of the past that I would love to meet if I had the chance.
Next up was Conn Iggulden’s Conqueror series, a fictional series of Genghis’s life, although largely based on fact, it gave me a much broader understanding of Genghis, although from what I remember, and correct me if I’m wrong Conn, painted him in an entirely flattering light.
But I heard rumours, I saw odd excerpts of his more dastardly actions, the mass killings and destruction of cities, he was, they claimed, terrible. A cruel despot who sated his blood lust with an orgy of death.

The Man Who Conquered The World is a detailed, richly painted narrative of Genghis’s life. From his early days of Temujin to the ruler of the biggest empire in the world.
The sheer number  of names to remember means as a casual reader it can be difficult to keep up, there is a list of names at the beginning, and although I started flicking back to it at first, I soon gave up and lost myself in the endless stream of people, going back only occasionally if someone popped up who seemed of interest.

If you can put up with his tendency to use elaborate terms when more simple ones would suffice, which irritated me a lot more than I thought it would, McLynn’s book contains an abundance of information, set down in an informative if not mostly entertaining way.  He details the sources of his information, pointing out where they are likely to be accurate or biased and the reasons for this, and where there is no information available, his assumptions seem well founded and reasonable.

Genghis took a fractured nomadic people and united them into an unstoppable war machine that conquered and subsumed entire populations, separating the artists from everyone else, but absorbing the existing administration into the Mongol whole. The initial struggle to besiege Chinese cities was remedied by learning from and incorporating Chinese siege tactics and machines into the Mongol arsenal. From the beginning, his inclination to promote based on merit rather than heritage set him apart from the other Khans, including his childhood friend Jamuga, and also built him up an incredible group of generals and leaders, as well as administrators and vassals.

Chinqai’s administrative genius was twofold. First, he had to solve problems caused by the Mongol’s ignorance of sedentary populations. The Mongols were nomads and warriors and had no one trained for the task of administration. Nor were they linguists, and in their raw state they knew nothing of a money economy. They therefore had to depend on literate, multilingual members of the very nations they had conquered. Like the British in the nineteenth century, they had to rule vast numbers with a tiny bureaucratic force and like them depended on quislings and converts to the Mongol vision of global conquest 

After his ascendancy to Genghis Khan, Genghis built his empire on reward, knowing if he kept his army and his subjects in booty they were less likely to rebel or scheme against him. It was the main reason for the ever increasing expansion, and the main reason why, at times he massacred populations, it removed the risk of attack once his army had moved on, deeper into what was at the time, enemy territory, and also reduced the administrative burden on the relatively small native Mongol population. Cold? yes, Calculated? Certainly, but here was a man whose vision was black and white, there was little room for grey, and if there was, it wasn’t tolerated for long.

For me, perhaps the greatest achievement of Genghis was the promotion of the those who showed talent, regardless of where they came from. He was a great reader of men, and had no racial or religious prejudice. Effectively delegating the conquest of China to his favourite general Muqali, while taking his sons to conquer central Asia and the middle east, and sending Subedei and Jebe on a great raid that introduced Europe to the Mongols.

Subedei may have been the master strategist but there is no reason to dissent from the view that Jebe was ‘probably the greatest cavalry general in the history of the world’. Eight hundred years later the scale of his achievement with Subedei on their great raid is still astonishing. In three years the two captains and their men rode 5,500 miles – history’s longest cavalry raid – won seven major battles (always against superior numbers) and several minor engagements and skirmishes, sacked scores of cities and revealed the world of Russia and eastern Europe to Genghis. Subedei made sure that this would be no evanescent achievement by leaving behind him a whole cadre of spies and secret agents who would keep the Mongols informed of all future developments in the West.

These generals were given great power and responsibility by Genghis, and although he could be paranoid and capricious, he rewarded handsomely those who served him well. There were times when some were rewarded perhaps more than they should have been and others, inexplicably not given the rewards they deserved. There were other flaws of course, Genghis was by no means perfect, and there were a few he indulged a little too much or for a little too long, particularly his family. Although he was furious with them if they did not do as instructed or rebelled against him, in some cases they were given leeway to repeat their transgressions two or three times.

Despite his abilities as a tactician, leader and strategist, his detail on organisation of his army, down to the night guards that protected him as he slept, the operation of the army, that could be split in two but regroup in less than a day, McLynn posits that potentially the ‘Mongol’ empire or conquest was likely to fail, in that they had to always expand and conquer due to their nomadic lifestyle and Genghis’s reward system. Eventually they would have run out of territory to conquer or would have had to become sedentary, giving up the nomadic lifestyle which had given them their tactical advantage. After his death, the empire was divided between his sons, which went on to cause civil war as, growing up in a world where the strongest take what they want, they jostled for the top position.

So, after reading a good 500 pages, is my soft spot still there? Yes. Genghis was someone who had vision, and an unwavering belief in what he wanted, and felt, he was meant to, achieve. Ultimately he achieved it all, at great cost to those in his way, but to great reward for those that aided him. McLynn’s book does well to reveal the man behind the legend.

Genghis’s brother Qasar was famous for his skill with the bow, but his son Yisungge was even more talented: at an archery contest in 1225 he shot an arrow 550 yards. The combination of archery and horsemanship that made the Mongols so formidable came from their being put on horseback almost before they could walk. This resulted in the piece de resistance whereby juvenile archers were trained to release their arrows at the precise moment when all four of their horses’s hooves were off the ground – so that the jolt of hooves hitting the ground would not throw off their aim.

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