The Zone of Interest – Martin Amis

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Last nights boysbookclub was a vintage edition, a book that completely split opinion with scores ranging from 2 to 9 meaning that discussion was heated and varied throughout.  We were, as we always are, looked after by the lovely staff of the Crosskeys and enjoyed sumptuous food (the venison and black pudding scotch egg was a thing of wonder) and wine while sinking our teeth into Amis’ latest book.  It’s actually a really good experience to be able to thoroughly disagree with someone and argue the point back and forth but to do so from a position of respect for the other person which only deepens the bond on friendship between us.  I left feeling thoroughly enriched.

If you can’t make it to the book club then you are need to submit a written review and while I have a very different view of the book than this, below is the fantastic review from Phil (@phildean1963) who scored the book 9 out of 10.

Before I read this book, the first question I asked is does the world need another holocaust book? The death camp Holocaust story has been told powerfully many, many times in film, book, stage and for me there has to be a very good reason to put the reader through it again. But after I’d read it, I had to re-appraise my view.

Firstly I have to say I found the The Zone of Interest one of the most brutal, empty, morally void, ambivalent and unflinching books we’ve ever read. At times this book was unreadable—in a good, bad way.

Amis is clearly a writer of real stature, a ‘proper’ author who uses words to massive effect (often ones I have to look up in a dictionary, so he must be proper). He’s that good. He perfectly captures the stark contrast between the captors and the captives – each suffering in their own way. I was reminded many times of Maus, a very different take on the holocaust but no less powerful.

I like at 1st how we didn’t know when the story was set. The picture gradually revealed itself, which usually frustrates but I enjoyed this reveal. Initially it could have been any time in history or the present day, which I’m sure was an intentional dramatic ploy.

The multi-voice narrative was bold, powerful and immersive. Confidently painting the darkest picture imaginable. Unusually, this was easy to navigate displaying the author’s prowess. The impeccable research and exquisite German cultural detail sat alongside horribly accurate concentration camp atrocity. I felt the book laid bare the German psyche: the reasons, the impact, the retribution, the horrific fallout and consequences of their actions. Amis casts an unswerving eye on Germany as a whole and whether involved directly in the mass murder or not, everyone is guilty by implication.

The notes at the end of the book were most enlightening: the immersion and desire to understand what happened and the philosophical arguments that to somehow understand why it actually happened actually validated the actions. These discussions actually helped me to make some sense of the book.

There was of course a mini drama being played out against the harrowing backdrop: Hannah, Thompson and Doll’s complicated relationships seemed at first petty and pathetic, annoying details set against the enormity of industrialised death. It seemed horrifically banal. But in the final chapters, the bitter love story developed into an insightful filter by which we could observe and understand how Germany came to be like this and the dreadful outcome. The relationship was unexpectedly but satisfyingly resolved in the end, in a typically and brutal fashion, the long, icy fingers of the past creeping into the present.

This book made for a truly unenjoyable read: not in the sense that it was hard to read or that it was laborious prose, but because to turn each page was to unearth inhumanity. In the end I didn’t want to turn the pages but I felt compelled to. At times I felt hollowed out by it. There was no triumph of the human spirit to be had here. The atrocities were laid bare, responsibilities clearly handed out and the complicated aftermath only just beginning. Amis revels in the moral ambiguity of his characters, challenging the reader at every turn. At the heart of it were meticulously drawn characters – not sketches – but Leonardo-esque in their detail and accuracy.

I actually love reading history books about the Second World War: Anthony Beevor’s Stalingrad and The Second World War are immense and immersive accounts of man’s inhumanity to man (both credited by Amis I noticed in this book). But for me personally, the veneer of factual history literature protects me from the grab you by the balls detail of a novel, where the writer has unfettered access to our imagination—the imagined more powerful than the actual, for once.

And yet his book digs deeper. Gets under the skin of the Third Reich, using the collective German psyche as a prism for their actions; gradually, imperceptibly becoming truly horrific. The book maps out the moral maze Germany faced: everyone implicated from locals turning a blind eye to grey snow and the stench to corporates like Bayer, who still exist today in our everyday lives, quietly making products like Alka Seltzer.

It’s not often I wheel out words like elegant, intense, powerful, truthful. But this book is all of these. I’m not sure it’s ‘fearless and original’ as the blurb describes (back to my earlier point about does the world need another book about the holocaust) but In The Zone of Interestdemands the attention of the reader until the very last page and I’ve scored it high because the book held me in its vice-like grip to the very end.

Impossible to pick up, impossible to put down.

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Reliance – by PB

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Following on from our boysbookclub trip to Barcelona where as well as reviewing a book we also took on the task of doing some writing of our own based on the theme of Reliance.  I’ve put up Phil’s and Stuart’s and here’s another one of the pieces done by PB.

The holiday camp next door had portholes for windows and a jaunty ships funnel on its roof, as if all the smoke from the combusting fun had to safely escape to prevent vacation asphyxiation. To the north a silent nuclear reactor, sitting monolithic, casting a long, evening shadow over the caravans. Behind, inland, the rusty Imperial Chemical factory emitting orange, fat, noxious plumes. All that was left was wide expanse. The sky. And to the west the bay, flat-lands and mud, salt-marsh and treacherous, shifting, sinking sands and rolling, curling tides.

Each school holiday the world revolved around this spot on the edge of the ocean. It was still guarded by hexagonal,  piss-infused pillboxes. Some of these crumbling sentinels were losing their own battles. Under them the soft, clay-layered coastline and cliff distintegrated, leaving foundations exposed, teetering on the brink. Others had already made a swift descent to the beach. Now they were making the slow journey to the sea, like giant, unwieldy, concrete, new-born turtles, where the motion of the waves would return them to sand and pebbles.

And a beach littered with huge slabs and blocks, more remnants of coastal fortifications and defences. Why would the Germans invade the country through a caravan site, where good folk take their families for summer, half-term, easter?

But, what i didn’t appreciate at the time was that caravan sites like Quantum Theory, baby boomers and credit cards were a more modern phenomenon, not one the nazi’s had to negotiate.   Their popularity coincided with the post-war picking up and brushing down. From where we were you either headed east or west. And west was where we headed.

The eight berth metal box on wheels was secure. Tethered to the ground, like a barrage balloon, to stop it blowing away in the gusts, gales and winter storms. In high winds it was safe under the sway and the drumming of the rain.

The roof was a ballroom for albatross-sized seagulls that tap-danced across it. If you crawled under, among the grains of dry, sandy earth, you could see the chains keeping it grounded. A hub surrounded by 3 generations, cousins, parents, aunts and grandparents. Fat chips for dinner and ham out of a tin. There were other tins. Tinned potatoes. Tinned carrots. Tinned peas.Vegetables with a metallic edge. Tinned pies. Tinned people.

It was a beautiful place.

After a quarter of a century things have changed. The caravan site, although the same size as it ever was has shrunk. It still smells the same though. According to someone that told me they’d read it, Marcel Proust in Remembrance of Things Past refers to the rush of memories he experiences when smelling a biscuit, a madeleine. My madeleine moment happens whenever i pass a sewage works. I never realised why i’d smile and think of childhood holidays until I returned as an adult.  It can instantly transport me to childhood holidays by the sea and the aroma of the sewage pipe that still carries shit out into the ocean.

The family has dispersed like the tide going out. The stall selling nettle beer in the local village has disappeared.  Further still, in the town, turning away from the empty shops, dilapidated amusements and derelict attractions across the bay there are green hills and purple mountains that weren’t there before but emerged from behind the clouds of growing up.

It is a beautiful place. The always changing constants.

The worst book I’ve ever read

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I realise that’s a contentious title, but I have to come clean about the last book we read in Book Club.

It was awful. No, worse than awful, it was dreadful. Hang on, scratch dreadful. In fact, the more I think about it, it was fucking abysmal.

Last month’s book was Life: A user’s guide by George Perec. If you’ve read this book and loved it, it’s probably best that you look away now or, better still, reply at the foot of the post explaining why I’m a foolish thrill seeker looking for fun where there clearly is none and deep meaning where there is monotony. If, on the other hand, you’ve read this and hated it – read on and enjoy the vitriol.

But seriously, this book sucked. Big time. Never have I read a book so diametrically opposed to engaging the reader with the author adopting an almost unreadable modernist style that meant every single page was the hardest reading yards I’ve ever done. There was no dialogue whatsoever, no light and shade in his writing – just shade. Page after page of tedious descriptive text which to give him some credit was moderately interesting, in an autistic obsessive kind of way.

The book paints a ludicrously detailed picture of a Parisian apartment building and all the people who live in it. That in itself would have been a feat I can tell you, but Perec decides to not only tell those stories but those of every other family that has ever lived there. It would have been one of the great feats of modern literature for the author to pull this off this vast tableau of stories successfully. But unfortunately for me, he didn’t.

And then there was the size. The sheer number of pages the book took to unfold its layers of tediousity mocked me daily. We make a point of not de-selecting books if they are large – in fact some of the best books we have ever read scared us with the point size of the book or the page count. But Perec took page count to a whole new level of tedium, filling the pages with meaningless drivel and thankfully page after page of OCD type lists that could be skipped easily (and by the way, his style of writing meant there weren’t many opportunities to skip pages, believe you me I did try).

So were there any positives? As ever, the evening discussion inevitably led to some insight and enlightenment for me. But to be honest I wasn’t buying it. There weren’t any scores above 5/10 which is rare, bottoming out with my big fat zero – which is a first for me, king of the optimists. Some of the other chaps were gamely digging out gems that gave the author far too much leeway and whilst I accept the writing style, subject matter and sheer quantity was a major barrier to my getting anything out of this experience, my failure to connect was in itself  interesting and hilarious in equal measure.

Under no circumstances read this book, or attempt to read this book. It’s hours of your life that will never, ever come back.

By the way, this is what the author looks like – I rest my case.

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Boys Book Club – 2012 results

We’ve just had our last book club meet of 2012 – in January – due to overfull diaries and just too much Christmas stuff happening.

Our tradition is to meet over a meal and this year we dined at the rather fantastic Create Leeds which proved to be a most conducive venue. The format is to review the December book, which this year was Great Expectations, and then we take a look back over the year and vote on our top three books. It’s not BBC Sports Personality of the year, but it’s a big deal for us.

2012 has been quite a year for the unique and resilient boys book club: we’ve read probably what is our most consistent dozen books ever, one member has taken a sabbatical, we’ve had guest members (one of which was female) and as of January 2013 and we now have three brand-new full-time members. I have to say at the mid-point of the year we did wonder what would become of the book club. With a couple of founder members no longer in the club, we had to think long and hard about what we wanted the club to be.

Book Club for me has always not just been about the book. That may sound odd but it was always about what a disparate group of men would talk about when they met, over copious amounts of alcohol, in some of Leeds’ finest drinking establishments. So we thought it was worth fighting for and we had to think differently – the club will have been together eight years this year and that’s a tough environment for new members to enter. But I think we’ve pulled it off and our new members seem to be finding their feet if recent meeting are anything to go by.

As I mentioned earlier, 2012 has been one of our most successful years. I’d count a successful year on the number of books that have excited, challenged, rewarded and made me look forward to picking it up every time. Our scores this year have been consistently high and our evolved selection process is getting better and better (it was a little iffy earlier on in our life).

So – without further ado, I’ll unveil the top 3 books of the year – in reverse order of course along with an excerpt from my original review…

Number 3 — Master and Margerita by Mikhail Bulgakov

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Wow. Wow. Wow. What an incredible book. I almost don’t know where to start; such was the impact it has made upon me.

I had left a lot of pages to read this week to hit book club deadline but Bulgakov took me on a breathless journey through the natural and supernatural, effortlessly mixing magical realism, horror, comedy, satire and social commentary. I don’t recall a book so bold in its ambition for some time. Here’s the thing: I certainly didn’t expect this journey from this book but it has so many facets and functions on a narrative level incredibly well – rolling along at a rollicking pace, twisting and turning.

First up, I absolutely loved the interplay between Stalin’s Moscow and biblical Judea – at first I thought this was just an enjoyably random flourish but as the story unfolded about the master’s book about Pontius Pilate, it was a touch of genius. The intimate portrait of Pilate and Yeshua (Jesus), the subsequent execution and beyond were powerfully written and provided a poignant counterpoint to the chaotic shenanigans going on in Moscow when Satan comes to town.

Number 2 — American Gods by Neil Gaiman

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American Gods is based around an elegantly simple and highly original premise that the global diaspora that gravitated to America over the last 200 years all brought their gods with them. These gods became as much a part of the birth and growth of the United States of America as the people did. Then, as generations passed, these traditional gods became more and more marginalised and discarded when ultimately new gods took their place – gods of television, machinery and the internet.

What an idea.

These forgotten gods then continued to live amongst men, as men, forlorn and desperate to find relevance in a world that has moved on. The Norse gods loom large and are central to the development of the narrative leading to the perhaps inevitable battle between good and evil. As the story unfolds, we encounter all manner of mythical beings –  from ancient Egyptian gods to Irish leprechauns. It sounds bizarre and it is.

Gaiman’s visual style of writing suits this subject matter beautifully and he brings alive the characters in vivid detail. If you were to pigeonhole this book it would be in the fantasy horror genre but to do so would be a huge disservice to the ambition of the author. It’s more than a cult title for geeks – it delivers brilliantly original storytelling to a wider audience.

Number 1 — Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa

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Every so often, book club delivers a book that is bolt out of the blue and this book is certainly that. In fact we’ve done well recently with books that I really didn’t have much of an idea about that turn into classic book club books. A classic book club book for me is a controversial read – it might be easy to read or a complete nightmare to finish in the time and the result is a great discussion on the night. Goat did just that.

Although we were depleted due to illness and we had another guest member for the evening – resulting in a new dynamic in the group – it resulted in a classic discussion. The book itself centres around the assassination of The Dominican Republic dictator Trujillo in 1961 and weaves around this momentous act a tangled web of characters and plot lines. Llosa employs an intriguing narrative ploy flitting between tenses which builds, sustains and at times neutralises the tension he cleverly creates, making it almost impossible for the reader to not turn the page.

This author is another clever exponent of the ‘what is fact and what is fiction’ brigade, carefully weaving complex fact and characterisation amidst what is clearly a factual account of the bloody episode in South American history. In fact when I finished the book I couldn’t wait to find out more about what actually happened in the Dominican Republic, such was its grip on me.

The book is unflinching in its portrayal of the brutality of the regime and there is a genuinely shocking secret at the heart of the story that’s possible to see coming but even suspecting this might be the case doesn’t dissipate the power of it. It’s not often I actually gasp reading a book but this was one of those occasions.

Judging, books, covers.

I love this image – this is the cover art for all of the books we’ve read in book club.

It gives me a real sense of achievement when I look at it and each book cover reminds me of the book immediately and brings back the feelings and emotions I had for each book when I was reading it. They also serve to remind me how important the design of a book cover is and if a publisher or author gets it right it completely adds to the overall experience and if they get it wrong how it compounds the any negativity I have about it.

Who says you can’t judge a book by its cover?