Dutch Rarebit

Reading challenges mean different things to different people. For some it's competitive, fellow bloggers and blog-readers will recognise the competitive challenger - they've got to read more books on the list more quickly than anyone else, and they've got to tell everyone about it. Then there's the reader (mainly bloggers or book website types) who use a challenge as a sort of online extended reading group. You know you'll all be reading much the same kind of thing, and so can compare notes on the books you've covered over the year.

I'm not that competitive, and I'm not really into reading groups either, they remind me too much of Eng Lit lessons in school. Why I enjoy challenges is that it either prompts me to finally get around to reading that book I've been meaning to read for ages; or it draws my attention to a book that I would otherwise never have heard of. With the Before I die challenge I've tried to find a list of books that suggests that they have some worth to read. These are books, many of them classics that critics, writers and readers have genuinely cared about. I may not entirely agree with the list, but I know that I'm going to enjoy reading at least some of the books suggested.

I would never, for example, have come across Willem Elsschot's Cheese if it hadn't been for the challenge. Elsschot was from Antwerp (another famous Belgian to add to the list). He had a successful career in advertising, and on the side, unbeknown to his family was a fairly successful writer and poet. At heart I think he was a bit of a bitter man.The sort that feels he's never quite got it right, and this is reflected in the hero of Cheese.

Frans Laarmans is a lowly shipping agent. Inspired by a friend he becomes the chief cheese agent for Belgium and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. However when 10,000 rounds of Edam turn up on his doorstep with no prospect of Laarmans selling them (he doesn't even like cheese!), his dreams of business success descend into farce.

I really wanted to enjoy this novel. The premise sounded great - Monty Python on paper. And there were many enthusiastic reviews, but.......but......it just didn't grab me. Yes, there were sections that made me smile. The death of Laarman's mother raised a laugh in a rather Joe Ortonish way (30 years before Joe Orton!), but for me the novel lacked heart. And Laarman's unpleasant attitude towards his wife and son didn't endear him to me either.

Any novel that celebrates Edam can't be all bad, but personally I've always been more into Caerphilly.


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