Monday, February 10, 2014

Dipping into some Leonid Andreyev

After deciding to dip into Project Gutenberg and see what was there, and to postpone getting bogged down further in the Dostoyevsky I'm trying to read, I downloaded The Crushed Flower and Other Stories by Leonid Andreyev.

It's shaping up to be quite a diverse collection of short stories with different techniques used here to cover such themes as adultery (The Crushed Flower), love and faith (Love, Faith and Hope) as well as the very short tale from the view point of a snake (The Serpent's Story).

The serpent tail did make me think of Bulgakov's Heart of a Dog, in the sense it takes the reader into an animal's mind. And I have to confess thinking of Sue Townsend's Adrian Mole series when reading The Crushed Flower, because it has that ability to show the reader an adult world through the eyes of an innocent child.

There are some great descriptive flourishes and you sense that this is a writer on a bit more of a mission to use literature as part of a political dialogue that was moving on towards revolution.

I'm only a few stories in to the collection but did want to share some initial reactions, which are favourable. Not everything he works but the vast majority does and you find yourself being drawn back to read more and wishing the tube journey to and from work was just those few stops longer.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

A short introduction to Turgenev

In a last ditch effort to try to have a go at using an e-reader I fired up the Nook on the tube to work this morning and taking advantage of some Russian short stories downloaded a while ago from Project Gutenberg managed to do a spot of reading.

What has out me off using the Nook up to this point has largely been the price of ebooks and the mixed experience of reading digitally. It still feels unnatural and it was only because it doesn't feel right to dump the Nook without giving it a fair go that I have chosen to use it today.

Anyway the upshot of it is that I was able to read a bit of Ivan Turgenev, who is an author I have not really dedicated anytime to before. I own some of his books but there has never really been a moment when they have been read. So today gave a chance to start to rectify that.

This short story contains a great deal of the classic ingredients of great Russian literature. A central character of a pesant that is abused by his rich mistress. First the deaf and mute Gerasim is taken out of his beloved country and moved to Moscow at the whim of a lady who wants to use him as a watchman and courtyard sweeper; Then he falls in love with one of the laundry maids but again the mistress uses her power to force the girl to marry a drunkard in an attempt to get the man on the straight and narrow; Finally he saves a dog, named Mumu, and it becomes the love of his life before the same Mistress demands that it is killed because the barking keeps her up at night.

There is a great deal of tragedy and the story exposes the slavery conditions that most peasants found themselves subjected to by the rich from the Cities. Turgenev chooses a deaf and mute character because the man can only express his feelings through physical movement and the setting of his expression. But in many ways the peasants were mute when it came to talking of their own lives and any attempt to change things would have fallen on deaf ears.

It's one of those stories that you hope doesn't head the way it does but you keep reading and rooting for Gerasim because of the core values of the man to be true to himself.

It certainly would make me want to read more by Turgenev and I hop to in the next few weeks.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Review: A Country Doctor's Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov

Mikhail Bulgakov is world renowned for the brilliant The Master and Margarita but if you go back to the start of his writing career you get a slightly different but still hugely enjoyable experience.

The main difference with A Country Doctor's Notebook is that it starts in 1916 when the war is the background but the revolution and the Stalinistic oppression that hung over the rest of his writing has not yet arrived. As a result you get an insight into a country of extremes - light and dark is Bulkgakov's metaphor - with vast differences between cities and the countryside.

Sent as a newly qualified doctor to head up a rural hospital with a staff of two midwifes and an assistant the main character and alter-ego for Bulgakov heads away from electricity, telephones and civilisation to a remote world where the weather and the roads can make a six mile journey take all day. This is an environment where ignorance about medical matters among the peasants is supporting the spread of syphilis and people fail to follow their courses of medication because they simply cannot grasp what the doctor is telling them.

But the stories about individual cases, used to illustrate the experience of being a country doctor, are told with a degree of warmth and humour that makes you stick with the story and grow to like the main character. Of course he can be boorish and arrogant but underneath he shares his constant insecurity about his lack of ability and inexperience with most medical crises.

The small hospital is not just a learning ground for him in terms of medicine but also as a man as he copes with facing the demons of isolation and loneliness for months on end. By the end he is not only a much more competent doctor but also a better observer of human nature.

For all but a couple of chapters the story focuses on the remote country hospital but once the main character leaves and heads back into civilisation to a larger city-based hospital there is a shift in direction. Now he uses the stories of others, both doctors, to illustrate the dark side of being in such a remote and isolated situation at such a young age as well as introducing the theme of the revolution and the battle for control of Russian in the civil war.

The last couple of chapters give off the sort of feeling that most of his work would have following the arrival of Lenin and his friends with a tension and fear that is not apparent before starting to creep in. It makes the earlier stories about the country hospital ones that can be seen with a degree of sentimentality.

The Russia described in the first two thirds of the book disappears not long afterwards under five-year plans and the persecution of rich farmers. There is a certain irony that just as Bulgakov starts to find his writing wings and soars with this descriptions of rural Russia the full stop at the end of the book is not just his return to the bright electric lights of the city but a stop to an era stretching back hundreds of years. You sense that not long after the ink dried on writing this book it became in large parts a work of almost instant history.

Published by The Harvill Press, 1995
Translated by Michael Glenny

Friday, January 17, 2014

Going for a Russian lit/history focus

Having been thinking about things now for most of this week the decision that has been reached is to opt for an area that I could read about all year with great happiness. As a result this blog will now be covering Russian literature and history.

Both of those areas are real passions and I think that having a focus will make it easier to keep the reading and the blogging going. I have read a few of the Russian greats but there are still plenty out there and as well as the classics I'm hoping to get into some more modern stuff, depending on what has been translated and is available.

The history theme is also going to provide me with a chance to have a better mix of fiction and non-fiction and provide an opportunity to occasionally complement the era used as the setting for a novel as a period of history to study in more depth.

To celebrate I have started reading A Country Doctor's Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov and am enjoying it immensely. Set during the First World War this is a rare Bulgakov where the spectre of Stalinism does not over shadow the tale and as a result you get a different take on Russia's problems at the time. The main theme is one highlighting the difference between rural Russia and life in the cities. The world that young Bulgakov is sent to to deliver his medical skills is dark in more than just the quality of the light.

Anyway hope things going forward will make more sense now this blog has a bit more of a direction.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

No longer the everyman

Thinking about what this blog should be about has lef me to a few possible options. When I was a child I remember going into a stamp shop and telling the man behind the counter that I enjoyed collecting stamps. He asked which ones and I replied "All of them". He then laughed and said that most serious collectors specialised in one country or one period and that although my collection was a good one for a young boy it lacked any focus.

I often think of that same conversation when I think of this blog. At the start the idea was that I would record all the books I read. The broad remit was that after years of just reading non-fiction there was a lot of catching up to do and so I would pick up some of the greats and get thoughts down on those. It was also an attempt to try and capture thoughts that would otherwise have been lost as a result of my leaky memory.

But there are various problems being an everyman blog. It leaves you often without direction, makes it hard to engage with a specific online community and prevents any great analysis from ever developing as you jump from genre to genre and period to period without enabling too much comparison.

So thinking about what I like to read a lot there are a couple of stand out options:

Russian literature and history has always been a passion of mine and I would be happy to go down that route. Pros are that it would keep me entertained for a long time. Cons are that the books tend to be fairly gloomy and I'm not sure a sustained diet of Russian lit would be good for the soul.

History, specifically modern, is something that I have studied in the past and there is plenty of material here. The Pros are that you can really get stuck into some interesting things, like my current interest in the Vietnam War. The Cons are that the books tend to be long, dense, not always that well written for the lay reader and can be hard to share.

IThe third choice is of course to combine the two but I'm not sure how that would work.

Plenty of food for thought there and I hope to make a decision soon and change the blog strapline and get a more coherent focus.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Must try harder

It's hard to believe that when I started blogging I took great pride in the output and used to pat myself on the back for doing at least a post a day, if not sometimes multiple entries.

So when I see the total posts of last year only came to 10 it is quite a shock and a graphic illustration of just how far things have changed. There are several reasons why things have slowed down:

* Time - I just don't seem to have any of it anymore. As a result of running a marathon last year (first and only) and a couple of half marathons I seem to spend the little time I have donning lycra and trying to fight the bulge.

* Kids - I have a young son, not yet two, and it's hard reading and blogging when there are special moments to be had with him. Milo is a real joy and along with his brothers deserve my attention.

* Motivation - The drive that used to be there at the start has almost completely burnt out. I know that this will never be a blog attracting thousands of hits, my interaction with people is poor and there are so many better alternatives (see the blogroll). I'm comfortable with that but am still working out just what this all means for the blog going forward.

* Readers block - this is a really serious one for me. Last year I just couldn't read without feeling stressed and the result was that I only managed to read a handful of books and most of the time started and abandoned reading books. I'm not sure what this is all about but suspect that it is psychological connected to some of the other factors I have listed here.

If I have one aim for this year it is not only to fall back in love with reading but also to try and work out what this blog is for. It is something that I want to provide me with enjoyment, that hopefully can be shared, but right now it is doing little of that. Hopefully that will change and I will work out a strategy for 2014.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Review: Chickenhawk by Robert Mason

This is the second book about the Vietnam war I have read in recent weeks as I amble through the history of that conflict that might see me take in a couple more before moving onto another subject.

Just as with Matterhorn, which was written from the view point of an infantry solider who was out in the bush coming into contact with the enemy on the ground this is also a personal history that is used to tell a larger tale about the war. This time around the focus is on the air with a Huey helicopter pilot the narrator of a tour of duty that sees him go from a believer to a sceptic and from a functioning human being to someone crippled professionally by PTSD.

The points that come out of this book are similar to Matterhorn with the enemy regularly underestimated and an arrogance of those controlling the war to believe that firepower and body counts would win and grind down their opposition. But with people in the field like Bob Mason who were trying not just to make sense of orders but stay alive and fight their own demons the chances of success appear to be limited.

The book flows well and there is a benefit perhaps of having a year tour from August 1965 to July 1966, because it by default gives a structure to a large part of the book once you get past the before and share a little bit of the after story. There are a few photographs online but my edition could have benefited from having a few. There is also a slight need perhaps to provide brief thumbnails of what became of some of the people that Mason mentions regularly throughout the book. Not all finish their tours at the same time and are left behind in Vietnam and the reader is left a little bit in the air wondering and hoping that they all came through in one piece.

Each book about the war comes from a different viewpoint and that is true of Chickenhawk. But if you read enough of them then a picture starts to emerge of an army that had the best of soldiers but a level of ignorance about the way to fight the war and of a political and military machine bogged down in spin. The Tet Offensive blew away the idea that the war was almost over and revealed that the strategy of body count was not working. But until that point you are left in a world, like Mason, where there is optimism mixed in with speculation that turns out to be based on spin and hope.

Having read Matterhorn and now Chickenhawk and got tales of the war from the ground and the air its hard not to feel depressed about how these young men were taken into a war they knew so little about. The stories are there to be read and hopefully the lessons are there to be learnt.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Review: Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes

I have read a great many books about the Vietnam War because it has always interested me. I came to this book wondering if there's anything new to be learned from reading yet another account of the war.

 But I was pleasantly surprised and drawn in and found that despite being almost 600 pages it really was what you would term a page turner. Written by a marine who served in the Vietnam from the fall of 1968 to the fall of 1969, it covers the first few months of his tour of duty. In that time he is involved in two major battles that are relayed in such detail to give you a sense of the fear and tension those under fire felt. But this is not just about the frontline and also gives you a sense of the futility of war. Marlantes touches on some of the big themes about military leadership, the political dimension and the racial issues that were felt in society at the time. There are also consequences mixing young men from all over the US who sometimes struggle to respect each other and resort to extreme violence, fragging, those they don't agree with. In the end of the day most of the people who were fighting where 19 to 20 years old and what they're asked to do was perhaps beyond anybody.

Told through the eyes of lieutenant  Mellas you find the story begins on Matterhorn, the name given to a hill that the American troops are defending to try and stop the North Vietnamese from incurring further into South Vietnam. The daily routine involves going out on probing search and destroy missions, defending the lines at night from attack and spending the time inbetween trying to behave as normally as possible, whilst constantly fighting the fear of death. 

And people do die. Young men die in the most wasteful and the most heroic ways. With the powers that be deciding that troops need to be deployed to the low lands Matterhorn is abandoned and other mountains around. But the enemy is always moving and they have to retake that ground in a bloody encounter. Most of Mellas's  platoon is wiped out and the young men suffer brutal and horrific injuries and die on the hillside and in their bunkers. 

As American troops come and go in their helicopters contesting pockets of land, which they then often relinquish after the enemy moves off, you wonder what sort of war this is. The approach taken in World War II to capture land and push the enemy back was almost non-existent in Vietnam, where body count was used to try and measure success. 

Failing to define success gives an army a haunting sense of never being able to rest. Even back at base you can't relax as the front line is everywhere.

Plus back at base there is a battle with the politics as the rise of black power and the racial tension is never far away from the surface. Ambitious want-to-be generals push their troops harder and harder as as they look for promotion, medals and glory for themselves. 

Marlantes writes the story from numerous viewpoints giving you an insight into the pressure everybody feels, including those that are ordering the troops into the front line battles. It feels totally authentic because it was written by somebody who was there and somebody who cares deeply about his fellow soldiers and wanted to tell their story. 

He writes a story which works from beginning to end and leaves you frazzled after sharing some of the horrors of war. At the end you are left wondering about the futility of it all and feeling frustration at the pointlessness of the deaths of such young men on both sides of the conflict. 

Sadly I suspect that those who are not interested in the history of the Vietnam war would not pick up such a weighty tome. But the war is a backdrop to some universal Issues about politics, race, fear and heroism. This is a story from the past that challenges us to think about the future. To think about Afghanistan and any conflict where young men and women are going through a similar hell.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Guest post: Luca Quicke on The London Eye Mystery

The London Eye Mystery
Siobhan Dowd
David Fickling Books 2007

Ted and Kat, a brother and sister from London, have their cousin Salim visit from Manchester. He is staying one night with them before he goes to live in America. But it all goes wrong when Ted suggests they go into London and have a trip on the London Eye and see some sights before Salim has to go and live in America. Salim gets given a ticket by a stranger to go to the head of the queue and get into a pod. He goes inside but does not appear once the ride is finished. That starts a family crisis, where it becomes clear that Aunt Gloria, Salim’s mother, is in denial about her son’s feelings over emigrating and does not believe he could have run away. Kat and Ted are desperately trying to save their cousin but get little recognition from the adults. After a trail of clues and an intensive mystery it is thanks to Ted’s extraordinary brain that he solves the case and Salim is brought back to safety.

My favourite character in the book was Ted. What I liked about him was that his brain works differently and he has no social skills but he provides a different view point to what is going on. He is obsessed with the weather and listens to the shipping forecast in bed and even though his Aunt Gloria was described by his mum as a “hurricane waiting to hit land” he can’t stop thinking about real hurricanes even though it was just a figure of speech. Although he doesn’t do all the actions, Kat takes that role, Ted is the brains and a real hero. He never lies but he has to go out with his sister to Earls Court, which proves to be a crucial part of the story, and he has to say they are going swimming. His honesty is a really good quality. He gets ignored by most people as he tries to share his theories, he has nine in total, about what has happened to Salim and in the end one of them is right.

This is a brilliant story because the author packs so much into small chapters that want you to keep reading more. The pace of the book really speeds up and the last 40 pages whizz by. Although most of the book is full of clues in each chapter they all fit in to the jigsaw puzzle that makes up the book. The mystery that starts when Salim disappears only concludes at the very end of the book. The tension rises through every chapter before suddenly everything fits into place.

I would definitely recommend to a friend. The mystery was fantastic and the characters personalities made you want to be their friends.

I liked the way they used the London Eye on the cover and included Big Ben. It drew my eye in the bookshop and the story was as good as the cover.

BOOKWORMS 5 out of 5

Monday, March 11, 2013

review: The Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

When you start a book that is the first of a trilogy there is a part of you that starts to prepare for a long literary journey. You expect to read a book that is set at a pace where you finish with plenty of questions left unanswered.

It is quite rare to come across the first part of a trilogy that can be read as a volume in its own right. Perhaps the flipside of that is once you have finished there is not the urgency to continue with the next volume. As a result thThe Fifth Business is as far as I got in the Deptford Trilogy and it might be as far as I ever get as the desire to read on further is not particularly strong.

That's not to say this wasn't enjoyable. It was a dense memoir of the life of Dunstan Ramsey, who is writing a memoir as he comes to the end of his time as a teacher at a college addressing it to the headmaster.

The story starts with a tale of two friends and slight rivals who have a snowball fight and bring on the premature birth of the vicar's son as a snowball intended for Ramsey hits the pregnant woman instead of the intended victim. The tale then jumps to the current setting - 1969 - which is when the memoir is being penned. It is a memoir written with a fair amount of anger with Ramsey hitting back at those who have attacked his life's work of hagiography as a bit of nonsense that is far away from being an academic subject.

As he trawls through his life he shares some of the stories that happened to him and came out of that childhood in Deptford in Canada. and a couple of main characters emerge - Boy Stanton who threw the snowball and the child that was born as a result Paul Dempster.

Over several sections the story of Ramsey's life interlinks with these two other characters until a final moment when they meet each other and a sense of destiny emerges with dreadful results for Ramsey who realises that although he was often relegated to watching the action from the side of the stage he was in fact a catalyst for many things that happened.

In a way it doesn't matter how far Ramsey travels looking to satisfy his interests in saints he is always grounded in that small town of Deptford with his past holding him back as well as shaping his future.

Would I want to go on and read the Manticore - the second part? Not sure but as a book in its own right the Fifth Business is a decent read.

review: Departures by Tony Parsons

The Heathrow writer in residence is something that has happened over the last few years with some well known names spending a week at the airport collecting ideas and stories that can inspire some further work.

Tony Parsons book was something I picked up while going through an airport and thought it looked like an apt choice. The chapters are almost like a guided tour through the different departments he visited in his week with plenty of time spent with the people who have to look after animals that are flown around the work and have to go through quarantine. But perhaps the effort of trying to link the experiences of those in-front and behind the scenes with some passenger stories is too much and it feels like most of the thinking was spent on trying to work out how to make those links work.

It's one of the books that manages perhaps to make you think a little bit about the numerous stories that are unfolding in an airport at any one time but there is also the slight doubt in my mind that you would really want to know about half of them.

Airports are temporary places for most people and although we walk past and benefit from the work done by the staff in their high-vis tabards the interest in their stories is not something that is at the forefront of the mind.

In some respects Parsons makes you stop and think about all that goes on in a busy hub like Heathrow and the book itself proves that it can be an inspiring place for a writer but it also feels like an exercise in literary creativity that could equally have been played out in a hospital or hotel.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

review: The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund De Waal

there are times when a book transcends across the best seller lists and into the must read category because it provides pleasure to so many readers and the Hare With Amber Eyes is one of those books.

Small Japanese wood and ivory carvings, often of animals, are a thing of beauty and when Edmund de Waal wonders about the netsuke he has inherited it sparks off a journey through his family history that is a story that covers most of the crucial moments of the 20th century.

Having recently strolled through the Japanese rooms at the British Museum and looked at the case of netsuke on the walls you can appreciate just why these small but beautifully carved objects can inspire such devotion.

His family story takes in Russia, Paris and the brutality of the second world war towards jews before it heads to Japan and a world where post-war there were Westeners starting to enjoy a country that still had a great deal of mystery surrounding it.

What keeps you reading through a personal memoir and family tree is the story itself. The history is all the more powerful because it is personal and there are moments of cruelty to some of those relatives living in Vienna that remind you of the ugliest side of the last century.

But the main takeway for me is the way the story is told. There is a certain style that comes through and makes you feel a great warmth towards someone elses tale. We all come from different backgrounds but perhaps if we dug a little deeper we too might find that at crucial points in the world's history our relatives were out there facing their own tough decisions.

review: The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Boll

With the Leveson inquiry fresh in the mind the idea of someone having their life destroyed by the press perhaps isn't too surprising. But rarely do you get such an insight into what exagerrated half-truths can do to someone.

This story follows the sad case of Katharina Blum who makes the mistake of falling for a young man that is wanted by the police. She doesn't spend that much time with him but when the press get to hear about it she becomes the villain of the piece.

The story around her takes on its own ever expanding proportions with her labelled as a communist, whore and her relationship with the man taken into the realms of fantasy as the newspaper writers write what they want about her.

Her life starts to crumble and the previous hard working and respectable existence that she had worked so hard to develop is pulled apart by damaging headlines and tabloid lies. Ultimately she resorts to something rather desperate and as a reader you are left knowing why she did it and even going as far as to sympathise with her actions.

The tragedy is of course that if you want to get back at the press you play into their hands by becoming the sort of person that they have been portraying you as. Losing control gives them even more material.

This story is a sobering one because it shows how dangerous lies can become when they were presented as fact. when you are caught in the middle of the nightmare as Katharina is then it must be a nightmare. A nightmare quite brilliantly pulled together by Boll.

review: The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale

True life can often be much more gripping than fiction and it proves it again here as the case of a murdered child unravels with the reader being pulled into all of the grisly details of an 1860 murder case.

At the heart of the story, along with the details of the death of Francis Kent, is the role played by one of the most celebrated detectives of the time Jack Whicher.

He arrives to find that after having disappeared the three year old has been murdered in a fairly sadistic way. The full picture of how the family live in their home in the village of Rode in Wiltshire is gone into in enough detail to make the reader feel like they are mastering a Cluedo game with the layout of the house and suspects.

This section of the book grabs you and takes you into a world of intrigue and has touches of the Conan Doyle about it. But legal proceedings and then the struggle to determine who was guilty takes over.

The initial focus falls on the nursemaid but she is released and the detective believes that she was not the killer and someone else in the family was the murderer. The victim's sister Constance is a strong contender but there were plenty of other factors going on that would muddy the waters, with the father having an affair just being one of them.

Once the case has cooled and the family move to Wrexham the story becomes slightly less compelling and in the end this becomes a tale of confessions, perhaps false to protect others, and a sense of a crime that was largely unresolved. Whicher comes through the case fairly badly given that his suspicions are often not shared by many others and you sense the greatest injustice is perhaps not for Francis bit for him.

review: The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

The premise of this book is a great one in the sense that going back in time can be treated like a trip to a specific destination. Pack for your hols and usually one of the pieces of hand luggage will be a Rough Guide or Lonely Planet guide to the place you are going.

These travel guides provide the reader with a guide to where to stay, eat and what sort of sites to take in. But they also cover off cultural differences that can save you from making mistakes or getting into dangerous situations.

The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England is no different with chapters covering what to wear, what to eat and drink and a guide to the people and places of the fourteenth century.

In some ways it is a history book in disguise with the reader enjoying hearing about the differences in where you might stay depending on your background, without even realising its a fairly good guide to the fuedal class system.

The lessons you learn traveling back in time are surprisingly relevant for today's travellers with the dangers of crime and bad hygiene and food still at the top of most people's concerns all these centuries later.

In places the pace of the book inevitably slows but what keeps you going is the writing style and the power of description. the past does come alive thanks to Mortimer and as an idea its a great way of visiting the past without having to wander through dusty tomes full of dates.