Saturday, June 30, 2007

book of books - Life A Users Manual

When you try to describe this book to someone you realise the ambition of Georges Perec. He describes a Parisian apartment block and then goes through it room by room describing the notable features and objects and telling the stories of those who lived in the rooms both past and present. At points he goes off on long interesting tangents and at others he concentrates of a developing story that concludes the book. In between he redefines the reading experience with lists of the tales that feature in the book as well as illustrations of the words that occasionally pop up on books and papers in the apartment.

There is no chance that this review can do the book justice, not because it is some work of genius that is above criticism, but because it is in place indefinable and as a result you might be able to pin down one part that works or doesn’t work but there are 100 other parts that are different.

Plot summary
There are several different things going on here with a story of the puzzle maker and the puzzle solver with Winckler and Bartlebooth; a comment on the state of Paris by the way the building is threatened by destruction; along with that there are lots of different stories, some short and some long, about the people who live in the flats. But at the end he manages to compress it all into seconds and that is one of the most powerful moments of the book, when you realise that all of these observations have been made without time passing more than a fraction of a few seconds. But the story that you are left with is one of a rich Englishman Bartlebooth who spends ten years learning how to paint watercolours, twenty years painting 500 different ports and then sending them back for Winckler to make into 750-piece jigsaw puzzles. Bartlebooth then solves the puzzles at a rate of one a fortnight and sends them back to where they were created and they are dipped into the water and the blank sheet of paper is sent back to him – a pointless life’s work but one that is completely harmless. But in the end it is made hazardous by the interest from the media, the personal cost to Bartlebooth with blindness and the almost bitter battle he plays out against Winckler who puts traps into the puzzles with the way he shapes the pieces. There are a hundred plus stories that run alongside this one but ultimately it is the Bartlebooth story you remember and it is with his death that the book concludes.

IS it well written?
You will probably struggle to find a book that is similar to this in ambition and style. It is brilliant at weaving a web that maintains the interest and continues to show what life is like in Paris and how it has changed. In a way this is a psychological battle over a jigsaw, a social history of Paris and a series of tales that are of differing interest. But it is never dull and you have to credit Perec with a style that keeps it going. Part of the reason it does keep going is because unlike Proust, who is equally ambitions in using objects to describe an era or a person, Perec reels off long lists of paintings and books but in a very detached way that allows the reader to walk through the apartment block almost like a museum or in some ways as a ghost travelling between the past and the present.

Should it be read?
This should be tackled by anyone who wants to see what French literature had to say for itself in the 1960s and 70s. There is a hint of the heavy war time legacy with a couple of characters having wartime obsessions but most of the book illustrates a society that is class ridden, based on money as well as heritage, and although living in a community still deeply individualistic. From a budding writer point of view it shows how far you can push a style, from a reader’s point of view makes you dwell on the thin line between a tale and real experience and from a sociologist point of view provides a great idea of the differences between people living all within a few metres of each other.

A society is shown through the world of an apartment block with the puzzle of life never quite being solved

Version read – Harvill paperback

Friday, June 29, 2007

Lunchtime read part II: The Big Sleep

"What did it matter where you lay once you wee dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell."

The book ends with Marlowe in devastating form ripping apart any attempts to stop him spelling out the truth. You wait for this moment for 215 pages and when it comes it is well worth waiting for.

Highlights from chapters XXXI and XXXII

* Marlowe stops after getting his commission from the general to find Rusty and talks to Carmen the younger crazier daughter and she asks him to teach her to shoot after he hands her back her gun he picked up when she fired at Brody

* She directs him out to a remote abandoned farm and oil works and Marlowe wanders off 30 years to set up the target but as he gets within 10 feet of her she starts shooting at him and falls into an unconscious fit after he manages to grab her

* He takes her home and then confronts her sister Vivian and tells her what he thinks has been happening – that Carmen shot Regan and she had to pay Eddie Mars $15,000 to hush it up but in turn Mars was going to blackmail her out of her fortune – and then tells her that he filled the gun with blanks and that’s why he has come back unlike Regan

* She admits it and Marlowe demands that she takes her sister away to get cured from her condition but threatens to spill the beans if she has not left town in three days and then despite the likely trouble he decides to head out and tell Eddie Mars its all off

A full review probably on Sunday…

Lunchtime read: The Big Sleep

The book reaches its conclusion and in a way The Big Sleep has been two books with the blackmailing Geiger story the first part and then the hunt for Rusty Regan the second. The Regan story is darker than the first and is personally more dangerous for Marlowe and takes you into contact with contract killers, bent policemen and the seedier side of what money can do as a corruptible force.

Highlights between chapters XXVI to XXX

* Marlowe decides to follow up on the lead to Agnes who knows where Eddie Mars’s wife is hiding out but he is too late and the man he arranged to meet has been poisoned with cyanide

* Marlowe takes a call in his office and Agnes arranges to meet and she tells him the details and Marlowe heads off to find her and after getting two punctures meets the poisioner hanging out in a garage

* Before he knows it Marlowe has been knocked out and tied up but the mistake they make is to leave him with Eddie Mars’s wife who lets Marlowe escape but all he does is wait outside and then put four bullets into the man who kept him prisoner

* He goes to the police but doesn’t get thanked for it and then he has an appointment with the general who asks him why he chose to try to go after Regan when he had not been instructed to

* Marlowe explains that he had a hunch that’s what the general wanted and when he explains he is now backing off the old man offers him $1,000 to track Regan down and sends him on his way

Might try to squeeze the final bit in tonight or tomorrow…

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Life A User's Manual - post VIII

Hurrah it's only been a week and a half but at last a book gets completed.

All of a sudden – and there is not too much space left anyway – the Bartlebooth story starts to dominate and the anecdotes start to lean in onto the development of that core story.

By this stage of the book you start to value the style, which is best described as a detached Proust, his gaze never misses anything but there is not the emotional involvement with it and you can go from a story about a triple murder to something about a hotel chain without barely pausing for breath.

The ending comes and you are left wanting more - more of the stories of the people who lived in the apartment block and more of the tales that its objects inspire.

Bullet points between pages 410 – 500

* The story of Helene Borodin is told with her deciding to seek her own form of justice by tracking down her husband’s killers and snuffing them out one by one before heading back to France from America

* Then there is a long-winded description of how two hotel groups signed a strategic deal to try and compete with the growing number of multinational competitors by setting up the most exclusive hotels in the world

* Along with providing guests unique experiences like their own ski slopes the hotel chain plans to offer some of the most unique art and after hiring a well known critic Beyssandre and gives him five years to find the most famous art

* He reads about the Bartlebooth painting, jigsaw making, puzzle solving and then destruction and decides that those pictures would be the most unique in the world and after writing to Bartlebooth indicates he is prepared to start killing to get his hands on the pictures

* Just as it seems that the pictures will have to be destroyed in another way the hotel chain folds and nothing more is heard of the critic and Bartlebooth can return to his struggle to finish the puzzles

* There is then a tale of the young Reol family who are almost bankrupted by their desire to have a luxurious bedroom suite but just as it seems to be black things are saved; then there is the tale of the man who believes Hitler is alive; and a final mention of Hutting the painter

* But the book closes with Bartlebooth dying with Winckler’s final twist in his hand, a jigsaw piece that should be an X shape which is fact shaped as a W with him gone his old water colour teacher also dies and his servant disappears bringing to an end one of the main characters of the apartment block

As things reach their conclusion with Bartlebooth there is an incredibly powerful reminder that this entire book has been describing real time of just a few minutes and as an achievement this book is an incredible one

A review will follow over the weekend…

Lunchtime read: The Big Sleep

The loneliness that Sara Patesky wrote about in her article in the Saturday is all too evident as Marlowe sits in his office and wonders what he will do with his time. Luckily for him the phone rings to break the monotony.

Highlights from chapters XXI to XXV

* The Sherwood’s butler contacts Marlowe to tell him that having read newspaper reports about the murderers being found they assume the case is closed and will pay $500 for the trouble the detective has gone to

* Marlowe starts to become increasingly interested in what did happen to Rusty Regan so heads out to see Eddie Mars at his night club and gambling joint to find out what he knows

* Mars coughs up almost no information but Rusty’s ex-wife is gambling for high stakes and Marlowe goes through to watch her and is then on hand to protect her when a stick up man tries to get the money back she has won for the casino

* She melts in Marlowe’s arms but he continues to ask her what Eddie Mar’s has on her and so she demands he drives her home and she runs into the general’s mansion and closes the door

* The next encounter is with the younger sister Carmen who is waiting for Marlowe in his bed naked and the detective slings her out and then destroys the bed she lay on because it soils his living area

* Next is an encounter with someone who has been tailing Marlowe for two days a man who finally gets the courage to come and lay out his business which involves leading Marlowe to Mrs Mars who was meant to have fled with Rusty but in fact never managed to do so because the bootlegger had been killed by Mars

More tomorrow…

Life A User's Manual - post VII

There is an amazing capacity to go deeply into what you might see as odd tangents. For instance a boy reading a magazine about an adventurer in Egypt is focused on and the entire story is relayed. Likewise the entire history of people and the stories in paintings and maps is told in full.

Bullet points between pages 366 – 410

* The story of the ex resident who became a famous cyclist who rode the tour de France is told including what happened to him after he finished racing he becomes a pace setter and after a while becomes jealous of his protégé and takes him on a time trial that ends in a crash and disfigurement

* The disfigured cyclist asks for the pacesetters sisters hand in marriage and after getting it they last a few months before she runs away and he goes to South America where he becomes rich, pays for surgery and comes back for his true love

* You get the entire story of an Arabic speaking Frenchman who is sent by napoleon I to get a pact with the Barbary leader as a result of a boy who is reading about it in a magazine on the stairs while he waits for5 his grandfather a piano tuner

* Bartlebooth goes blind making his jigsaws and has to hire help to explain to him what the pieces are shaped like and what they depict

* Then there is the story told of a judge and his wife who steal for the sexual excitement it causes who are eventually caught and as a result sent to prison and their flat is inherited by the butler

More tomorrow…

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Reading for different countries

There was a great article in the weekend FT magazine recommending different books based on countries. I’m heading off to Switzerland for my holiday so according to the FT the book that should be in my luggage is Imposture by Ben Markovits. Ironically it is by an American author and the subject is Byron’s doctor but there must be enough of a Swiss connection to link it in with the country.

On the lunchtime read front it has been a disaster these past couple of days and so the hope (and it is probably vain) is that I can get back on track tomorrow and finish The Big Sleep this week.

I’m attending a business dinner tonight but there will be a Life A User’s Manual post it just might not quite make the midnight cut-off…

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

A conspiracy theory

Sometimes it feels as if there is almost a conspiracy against you reading. The most valuable commodity when you are trying to read a book is time but with emails, phone calls and Blackberry’s there is rarely a chance to get the peace and quiet needed just to read a few pages.

It is getting harder and harder to find space in the day to read and that is a real worry because if that goes then a reality check disappears and a chance to switch off from the drudgery of the day is lost. I’d be tempted to go one further and mention that there is almost a conspiracy to stop you getting the time to blog. People talk about blogs etc all being a generational thing but it has nothing to do with age and is all about time. Right now I am sitting here tapping this out while the wife stares daggers and wonders why I haven’t tidied up the kitchen. I never got that sort of grief when I was 15…

Life A User's Manual - post VI

A better day on the Life A User’s Manual front but still not as much consumed, as I would have liked. The best thing to do is to pick out a couple of stories although there is again a slight advance in the Bartlebooth story that seems to link in with most of the other main characters.

Bullet points between pages 266 – 338

* There are some moments which would be perfect as a way of showing someone not reading this book what it was like and the collection of things that have been found on the stairs shows the exhaustive imagination that is being deployed here

* As usual there are some stories that stand out with the painter Hutting using a colour palette based on price as one story that sticks in the mind along with the German scientist who tried to recapture the spirit of the experiments he made during the war another

* But it is with a sense of reassurance as you get back to the more solid platforms of some of the stable characters of Madame Moureau and Bartlebooth and you hear about her disagreements over the development of her kitchen and start to learn more about his problems with jigsaws

* Setting himself the task of completing a jigsaw every two weeks starts to become harder not just because of age and boredom but because Winckler the maker of the puzzles views each of the 750 piece puzzles as connected to one large puzzle

* He makes the challenge for Bartlebooth difficult because he sets booby traps that are not sprung until several puzzles have gone by and puts shapes and inconsistencies into the shapes of the pieces that remind the rich Englishman who is really in control

More tomorrow…

Monday, June 25, 2007

An apology about the evening post

Against the grain a bit, there is not going to be an evening post about the book I’m reading on my commute for the simple reason that the amount of pages I managed to read make it hardly worthwhile. On both legs of my journey I had the pleasant experience of sitting with friends and as a result the book stayed on the lap unopened. I intend catching up tomorrow with a good day’s reading.

Needless to say there will be more of the usual from Life A User’s Manual with a collection of observations and stories that are changing almost as often as you turn the page so the best way of reporting on the days reading is to highlight a couple of the enjoyable episodes that are shared as the eye of the author moves from room to room and flat to flat.

Apologies for today’s failure but normal service will resume tomorrow…

Delayed weekend paper highlights

A couple of interesting pieces in The Guardian at the weekend, which are worth mentioning. The first, an interview with Gunter Grass, was part of the author’s media blitz to try and promote his autobiography Peeling the Onion but it contained one insight into the art of biography that others, particularly celebrities would be wise to ponder:

“There are some authors who think they have to write their autobiography at the age of 30. I had to be 80.”

“Writers know that sometimes things are there in the drawer for decades before they finally come out and you are capable of writing about them.”

The other article that was enjoyable, partly because of the current reading of Chandler, was a piece by American crime author Sara Paretsky. She argued that there had always been a mythical appreciation of the strong loner in America and Chandler along with Dashiell Hammett were able to deliver great models of that character in their books.

“Chandler thought of Marlowe as a knight. Like all romantic knights marlow takes justice into his own hands. We ordinary people trust knights because they are working on the side of right against people who may be perverting the law.”

But she comments on the price these hard boiled detectives pay for being the lone crime fighters and Marlowe, Chandler’s most famous creation is no exception:

“When I revisit Chandler’s novels, Marlowe’s loneliness stands out in a physically painful way. Except for an occasional chess game with someone in the police department, he is alone all the time.”

Lunchtime read: The Big Sleep

There is a break of sorts in this book when one side of the case is solved and on his own initiative Marlowe sets off to solve the other nagging questions surrounding the disappearance of Regan the Irish bootlegger married to one of the Sherwood daughters. That has been the case everyone thought he was on and he now embarks on it of his own volition.

Highlights from chapters XVII to XX

* Having watched Geiger’s gay lover shoot down Brody Marlowe takes him back to the house and there has to calm the man down with a couple of punches and some hand cuffs before discovering the body of Geiger has been replaced in the house

* Marlowe calls up his friend in the DA’s office and gets him to come down and clear up the mess, which involves handing the details of Geiger’s killer and Brody’s to a rather bemused and ungrateful police officer

* Having nailed those two crimes the next twist focuses on Regan the Irish bootlegging husband of one of General Sherwood’s daughters and so Marlowe calls on missing persons who reveal that the suspicion is that the Irishman ran off with the wife of a nightclub owner Eddie Mars, who incidentally owned the house Geiger lived in

Armed with that information no doubt Marlowe will now go off and do what the police have failed to be able to and find the missing Irishman. More tomorrow…

Sunday, June 24, 2007

bookmark of the week

This was purchased years ago on a holiday in the US and it has lasted in such good condition partly because it is not quite my thing with the smiley face but also because it completely failed to get people to keep quiet.

book of books - Trouble is my business

Raymond Chandler is able to deliver a combustive mixutre of strong plot and great characterisation not just once but several times in this short story collection.The usual formula of the view coming from the eyes of a detective, or former detective, is deloyed but that repetition of style does not undermine the enjiyment of this collection of stories.

As I posted a couple of days ago in an early response to The Big Sleep there is something almost akin to a feeling of guilt when you come across a book that is not only easily digestible but also enjoyable. the snob in you comes out and makes you feel like it has been a waste of time that could have been spent reading something else more 'heavyweight'. To stick to that line would be a real mistake because not only is the hard boiled detective a very popular genre (there was a piece in The Guardian about this yesterday) but it can teach a reader about what it takes to write in a style that demands the ability to maintain a level of tension and intrigue from start to finish.

There are sevral stories in the collection but just higlighting a couple will give an idea of the standard. The title story, which opens the book, is great but the Goldfish is something special and the last story are both examples of Chandler's craft.

The Goldfish

Kathy is a woman with a cocaine addicted lodger who served time in prison with a man named Sype who was responsible for a famous hold-up that stole the Leander pearls worth $200,000 and although no one ever found the pearls Sype hid them somewhere and made the mistake of telling the cocaine addict while they were serving together and so Kathy turns up at Carmady’s office, a detective friend and asks his advice.

The insurance company has a reward of $25,000 on offer for the return of the pearls and so she tells Carmady that the lodger knows where they are so he pops round to see him only to discover a murder victim who had his feet burn with an iron. He then gets called by the murderers, a ruthless girl and a dodgy business man, who need Carmady because they failed to get the information out of their victim before he died.

Soon the knowledge is shared that the character with the pearls is a goldfish loving old man who is now living in Canada and Carmady and the two killers set off independently to track him down. Carmady meets the cocaine addicts partner and they are about to head off and stake out Sype’s house when the other two turn up and after another killing Carmady manages to fool them and heads off to meet the old criminal and after a shoot out Carmady guesses that the pearls are hidden in a fish and he manages to work it out and leave the house with a dead Sype, injured and dead mudering duo and a bitter wife who watched her fortune dissapear.

Guns at Cyrano’s
The last story in the collection differs from most of the usual Chandler stories with the hint of romance.

It focuses on an ex detective who seems to be the son of someone who was very well connected in the town, Ted Malvern, comes across a woman in a doorway who has been hit in the face. After talking to her it turns out that her boyfriend is a boxer who is meant to throw a fight and he is being warned off by his backer who is concerned the fighter will not play ball. Malvern seems to know everyone and heads off to see the fight which is not thrown because the rival is so bad that the fight just cannot be thrown and Malvern heads backstage to warn the fighter that he is now going to be in trouble.

The fighter has a bodyguard who ends up in a fight with Malvern and then after they break apart all of the interested parties head to Cyrano’s night club where the boxer and his singer girlfriend are held up in a booth which results in the stick up man being shot by the boxer and then being taken by the police. Back at the apartment block Malvern heads to the girl’s room and tells her he has to speak to her but they get on badly and he decides to leave but is confronted by two armed men who take him to a criminal’s hideout. Once there it turns out the girl is blackmailing a senator trying to make him believe she is his daughter and because the senator is in the pocket of the criminal he dislikes the idea but after an argument, which Malvern loses with a punch to the jaw, they are all bundled in a car and taken to the senator’s house

Once there they confront the old man and claim that the blackmailing will stop but Drago the boxer, who has been sprung from police custody, takes a dislike for him and is shot for his trouble and then the criminal turns on the senator and shoots him. Back in the apartment block the girl tells Malvern she is leaving and he replies that his whole life has been based on dodgy money and that he will be around if she wants to be with him despite her blackmailing attempt.

Is it well written?
There is something confident about the writing that is similar to the lead characters and in the same way that you feel James Bond will not be let down by Ian Fleming. Howver many guns are pointed at the lead he will survive and no matter how off the pace he appears he always manages to nail the criminal comings and goings. It is a smooth and enjoyable ride reading Chandler and even if he is going to be classed as pulp fiction then at least he is one of the masters and not one of the numerous imitators that followed in his wake.

Should it be read?
If you have read any Chandler then it's not so much a case of should it be read as can you avoid reading it? Chandler's books are addictive in quality and once you start from either this collection or one of his novels it is only a matter of time before you get round to consuming this collection. For anybody looking for a literary escape from the rigours of the world for a spell that starts the minute you read the first line then this along with all Chandler's works delivers and deserves to be read.

Version read - Penguin paperback

book of books - The Blood of Others

The idea behind the timing of reading this book was that it was a sort of companion piece to Iron in the Soul by Jean-Paul Sartre. The prompt was the suggested further reading at the end of the book. The problem was that the library did not have a copy so eBay became the supply route and that took time and in the end this bookby Simone de Beauvoir was not read quite when intended.

That is a shame because this would work well with the Sartre Roads to Freedom trilogy. The same topics are covered and you get a reinforced sense that far from the second world war being the only major thing to happen to the French in the 1930s there was also political unrest that spawned some of the future leadership of the resistance movement.

Plot summary
The book evolves around the relationship of Jean and Helene. There are a series of flashbacks from a point where for reasons unknown Helene is dying that outline how Jean left home and became a communist before rejecting that political line and becoming a trade union leader before finally post invasion becoming part of the resistance. His relationships with his parents go full circle as well with his father initially disliking him for the communism but then becoming proud of his resistance activities. Helene is a young girl trapped in a boring relationship with Paul, a work colleague of Jean's, and stuck in a dull job. She meets Jean and falls for his independence and sense of clear direction and identity. They become lovers and even plan to marry but when war is in the offing she gets him a desk job back in Paris and he hates her for it and they split up. She eventually comes back to him to ask her to help get a Jewish friend across the border and she starts working for the resistance. In a mission she is fatally wounded and she dies in his arms and Jean, who by now is responsible for hostages dying each time he carries out a bombing or sabotage really does have the blood of others on his hands.

Is it well written?
It starts a little bit clumsy with it not quite clear what is going one and it is only after a little while that you start to understand the time device being used to build up the story from the past to the point of the present. The characters are strong and the small cast makes it feel intimate. But the crucial but here is te exetensialist style that is consitent and is on display in both Jean and Helene. In the end no one can force you to make a decision you don;t feel you want to make or feel honest about and it is the dilemma of having to make a choice that will have a fatal impact on others that is the dilemma that Jean faces that is at the heart of the book, It does gently but firmly grip you and make you want to see it through to some sort of conclusion, which as a measure of the success of the writing is a fairly strong one.

Should it be read?
For those who want to build up a picture of the state in France prior to the war and immediately afterwards then this deserves to be read. The scenes of the retreating army leaving them exposed to the enemy and the Jewish baby being taken away are powerful and not connected with any philosophical style. It is also one route into this prolific but legendarty feminist writer. This seems like a good starting point and she has a real knack of imagining the male motivation and point of view making it a strong book from a characterisation point of view. Overall it deserves to get a look in but the fear is that the start is so liable to leav you confused and lukewarm that you might fail to continue with a book that has some valuable things to say.

An independent man learns painfully that he cannot make decisions or live a life that is solitary and unconnected with the world around him.

Version read - Penguin paperback

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Lunchtime read: The Big Sleep

There just was no time yesterday to do any reading in my lunch break but I have managed to squeeze some in today while the boys watched Scooby Doo. The reason why Chandler is such a good choice for a quick read in between other activities is because you are very quickly into the action and you can block other distractions - like Shaggy and Scooby – without as much concentration as you might need for something like Life A User’s Manual.

Highlights between chapters X to XVI

* With the victims piling up, first the smutty bookseller Geiger and then Owen the Sherwood’s chauffeur, the number of suspects is also increasing and after the nude picture turns up with blackmail demand Marlowe starts to pursue that lead

* First of all he goes back to the bookstore and notices that the stock is being removed and follows it until he discovers that it has been taken to the home of a J. Brody, who was one of the original Sherwood blackmailers

* The girl in the nude photograph Carmen tells Marlowe that Brody killed Geiger and that then forces the detective to follow on with that lead but before he gets a chance he is caught with the girl at Geiger’s house by Mr Mars who owns the house and wants to know what is going on

* Marlowe manages to get away from him and his luger without giving too much away and then heads over to see Brody who is hiding out with the receptionist from the Geiger bookstore and acts tough with a gun to try and get Marlowe to hand over money for the picture

* But Brody denies murder and reveals that it was the chauffeur who shot Geiger and then they had a tussle when Brody tried to get the photo but they are interrupted by Carmen who comes armed looking for the photo herself and then after she has gone the doorbell rings again but this time it is death for Brody as he is shot by the boy from the bookstore who believes he is avenging Geiger’s murder

More tomorrow…

Friday, June 22, 2007

Life A Users Manual - post V

This collection of stories housed in a single book – a perfect metaphor for the apartment block he is describing in the text – continues to bombard you with an amazing amount of detail while moving the development of the Bartlebooth and Winckler story on slightly further.

There is also a great literary device that Perec uses to not only bring you up to speed on the number of different storylines going on in the book but it is also reassuring that you feel you haven’t missed any off the list and it gives you a taster of what is to come. You go straight into a couple on the list.

Bullet points from pages 210 - 266

* The story of how Winckler met his wife, an excellent miniaturist, is told and how he reacted after her death giving birth to a stillborn baby, removing his apartment of nearly all traces of her before returning back to the jigsaws he had to cut for Bartlebooth

* Then there are a couple of stories told of someone who spent a year or two collecting cuttings on anything to do with the opera before being told that the library has to make cuts and the job is going to be done by a guard

* One other story that leaps out is the one about the jeweller who is killed and there are all three suspects who each tried to kill him but in reality it was a heart attack that was caused by someone who had discovered he wiped out a village in Africa to gain his fortune

All along there is such a web being weaved with the attention to detail being phenomenal with paintings, newspaper crosswords and the décor being analysed as if you are being walked through the apartment block in a cinematic way

More hopefully over the weekend…

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Life A User's Manual - post IV

The central story about Bartlebooth and the jigsaws does not progress a great deal but there are a couple more singular stories that are culled from the past and present inhabitants of the Parisian apartment block.

Bullet points between pages 155 – 210

* Bartlebooth advertised for a jigsaw maker who would be prepared to make a jigsaw a fortnight for twenty years and was sent 12 applications and Winckler stood out not just because of his technique but because of his age, which at 22 meant he would live through the task

* Each jigsaw once made was put into its own box that had the location and the date put on in a uniform manner with a label that was added to a collection that awaited Bartlebooth’s return from his travels

* Elsewhere there is the story told about a former inhabitant of the block who ran foul of the Gestapo and was sent to a concentration camp after his role in a bomb and shooting plot at a hotel

* One of the other tales that stands out is about the concierge who fell out with one of the tenants after she was given food to use while the woman went on holiday but was then asked for it back after the tenant’s holiday went wrong and the embarrassment has caused problems between them ever since

More tomorrow…

In praise of Chandler

One of the things about reading Raymond Chandler is that there is a nagging voice at the back of your head that keeps telling you that what you are reading is not as valuable as Dostoyevsky for example.

The truth is that because of the way you are fed literature from school onwards there is this inbuilt snobbery about the pecking order of certain authors. As a result Chandler gets pigeon holed as a pulp fiction writer and nothing more.

But having now read a bit of his work the come back has to be that it is unfair to dismiss him because there are certain things he does that are really worth mentioning.

Firstly, he has this fantastic ability to nail characters with Philip Marlowe being the most obvious example of that. Okay you could say that he is pretty two dimensional but that ignores the fact that he is capable of showing fear, tenderness and anger as well as projecting a professional image that is cool and hard.

Secondly, the dialogue adds to that image and makes the books so enjoyable to read. In Bond type fashion there are lots of one liners that bring an instant smile to your face and remind you why reading can be enjoyable.

Thirdly, the plot is so well delivered. It grows like roots from a tree going off in various directions before coming back to an end point that you usually have not seen coming until almost the last minute.

Overall the moral of being a reader sitting down and enjoying Chandler is that if a book is good enough enjoy it and don’t assume that there is nothing of value in something that can be described as pulp fiction.

Lunchtime read: The Big Sleep

The normally masterful Marlowe is in the dark about the events that are happening all around him and it is great reading along because just like him you have almost no idea what will happen next.

Highlights from chapters III to XI

* Having been recruited to find the blackmailer Geiger and find out what he wants from the Sherwood family Marlowe discovers by trailing one of his customers that he is dealing in erotic books

* He waits and finally picks up the trial of Geiger and follow shim home and then waits because he gets a sixth sense that something else is going to happen and sure enough some shots are fired and Marlowe ends up breaking into the house

“Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.”

* Geiger is dead with three shots and the Sherwood daughter is naked on the couch having her photo taken she is drugged and totally unaware of what has happened around her so Marlow tidies up and finds a book with a list of Geiger’s customers

* Marlowe takes her home after discovering that there is no film left in the camera and then after dropping her off heads back but discovers after letting himself back into the house that the place has been tidied up and the body has gone

* There is no mention of the death in the papers and he is called by a friend in the DA’s office who tells him that the Sherwood’s car has been found in a lake and sure enough when they get there the chauffeur is inside dead

More tomorrow…

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Life A User's Manual - post III

The extent of Bartlebooth's ambitions are laid out with him decideing to spend ten years learning every day how to paint watercolours before heading off for twenty years to paint 500 ports in 500 different places. He then sent the pictures back on a fortnightly basis for Winckler to cut up into 750 jigsaw pieces. After he had solved the puzzles, at the rate of one a fortnight they would be repaired and then sent back to the port they were painted in and the watercolour would be dipped in water returning it to its original state. The motivation is that Bartlebooth wanted to do something that would consume his life but at the end leave no trace.

Around that central story there are so many other stories being told that this is more than just one book. You get sidetracked pleasantly into other areas before being brought back into another room in the building.

Bullet points between pages 105 - 155

* Bartlebooth is virtually housebound and is struggling to get through his jigsaws with most of the enjoyment gone whereas for his butler each ones reminds him of some ports on their twenty year painting trip

* The story is then told of Appenzzell who is related to someone living in the block who went missing in the jungle on a field trip to investigate native tribes and after returning to Paris he runs off again to join the tribe

* He spends five years living with them and following them around until the penny drops that they want him to go away and are contunially moving to more inhospitable places to try and get the message across that they don't like him

* Another story is told of the daughter of Madame de Beaumont who killed a baby she was meant to be looking after as an au pair and fled leaving the mother to lose her mind in grief and kill herself

* The husband spends years tracking the woman down until he eventually kills her and her husband and a letter from him ends up in the hands of Madame de Beaumont explaining how he wasted his firtune tracking her down and killed her before he took his own life

It is very difficult trying to encapsulate the contents of this book but hopefully you are getting the idea that it is a mammoth series of different stories, some short and some longer, but it is enjoyable and not the sort of struggle you might have expected from something of this length and ambition.

The only thing is that you tend to just let the numerous names and room descriptions start to flow over you a bit. Not sure that is a wise thing to do. More tomorrow...

Lunchtime read: The Big Sleep

"I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.”

So opens The Big Sleep, a book which was made even more famous by the Humphrey Bogart starring film. It is one of the Chandler must-reads that made his name and helped established Philip Marlowe as a literary character.

Because of work commitments it has not been possible to make anything more than a very brief start to the book.

Highlights from the first couple of chapters

Marlowe goes to call on a rich and elderly general who is being blackmailed by someone looking to settle his daughter’s gambling debts but this is not the first case of blackmail and he seems to have a problem with his two daughters being irresponsible with money and men

One of his daughters was married to an Irish bootlegger who upped and vanished a couple of weeks before Marlowe’s visit and there perhaps could be a connection with him and the trouble

More, hopefully much more, tomorrow…

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Life A User's Manual - post II

This is quite a hard book to produce daily highlights from because it is not only going back and forth between the different characters that live/lived in the apartments in the block but it is also able to go off into deep tangents telling stories about different former tenants or even stories and legends that are connected to some of the objects and pictures in the building.

The result is that you are clinging to a central character, Bartlebooth, who seems to link in with most of the other tenants in the building either directly through a financial relationship or through reputation. He is the one who is obsessed with the jigsaws and painting the pictures that are used to make them spending his fortune and numerous years of his life painting ports from all over the world.

But at the same time of unwrapping the Bartlebooth story, and there are glimpses that it will become a major tale, there is the room by room floor by floor exploration of the apartment building.

Bullet points between pages 40 – 105

* The introductions of the characters that live in the building continues with the butler of Bartlebooth who at 80 continues to work for his master and was instrumental in organising a trip across a couple of decades where his master painted 500 different ports

* Every couple of weeks the watercolours were sent back to Winckler who turned them into jigsaws and kept the building alive with the sound of his jigsaw

* Elsewhere there is a chance to tell the story of the family who owned the building and their mixed fortunes which meant ever greater diminishing returns from it for not only them but also for their children

* Then there is a moment when an American author arrives to research a book she is writing about Bartlebooth’s uncle who was taken in by conmen trying to sell him the vase that Joseph used to store the blood of Christ

* There is also a lengthy piece about Madame Moureau who saw the DIY boom coming and managed to become very wealthy on the back of it and several pages are used listing some of the goods her company sells in its catalogues

* Madame Moureau, who is now a bed-ridden cripple, had her apartment designed to incredibly luxurious standards to show off her position and standing as a successful businesswoman and combined with the central heating that was out in it turned the block into a building site for a year

Perec is very fluid with time with the pendulum swinging back and forwards between the past and the present with such ease it is sometimes hard to tell who is a tenant and who is a memory. He also continues to spend a lot of energy explaining the details of each and every picture that are on the walls in the numerous rooms in the block. There must be a reason for doing that but it is not clear yet. More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Trouble is my business

Numerous things going on today so this is very delayed. Came home late from a couple of meetings to be confronted with some problems with broadband but looks okay now so here is the last chunk of the Chandler.

The book finishes in a different way from most of the usual Chandler stories with the hint of romance. The plot unravels like an onion with the girl rather than the boxer being at the core of it and the hero Malvern is in the dark about the exact details until almost the very end.

Highlights from the second half of Guns at Cyrano’s

* Having failed to throw the fight Trago the boxer shoots dead someone threatening him in Cyrano’s night club and is hauled off down the police station to face questioning but Malvern thinks things are fishy but walks out of the club to find his friend and car gone

* He wanders to a taxi rank gets home and then discovers the bell hop Tony is dead after having been shot tailing the boxer’s bodyguard who seems to have been in on the scam to fix the fight

* Malvern heads to the girl’s room and tells her he has to speak to her but they get on badly and he decides to leave but is confronted by two armed men who take him to a criminal’s hideout

* Once there it turns out the girl is blackmailing a senator trying to make him believe she is his daughter and because the senator is in the pocket of the criminal he dislikes the idea but after an argument, which Malvern loses with a punch to the jaw, they are all bundled in a car and taken to the senator’s house

* Once there they confront the old man and claim that the blackmailing will stop but Drago the boxer, who has been sprung from police custody, takes a dislike for him and is shot for his trouble and then the criminal turns on the senator and shoots him

* Back in the apartment block the girl tells Malvern she is leaving and he replies that his whole life has been based on dodgy money and that he will be around if she wants to be with him despite her blackmailing attempt

A review of the collection will follow shortly…

Life A User's Manual - post I

Last night I stood by the bookcase and had Road to Calvary in my hand but thought about it and chose something else from a French author. There is also a picture of the author Georges Perec on the back, which is one of the oddest writers I have ever seen, and it either inspires or puts off. I opted for the former and so started Life A User’s Manual and Road to Calvary will have to wait.

Bullet points between pages 1 – 40

* There is a preamble at the start the talks about jigsaw pieces which makes the interesting point that although you put a jigsaw together on your own the maker is always there with you because they have worked out your reactions in advance

* The story starts describing a woman walking up the stairs in an apartments block on her way to visit a flat that has been empty since its occupant died - who has planned some sort of intricate revenge - so she can assess its value for a sale

* She holds in her hands a map of the block and some details of the interior structure and the tenants the live on the different floors around the flat which provides Perec with a chance to take the narrative in a different direction

* He introduces the family of an archeologist who committed suicide after failing to discover ruins he had staked his career on, an artist who has a studio in the attic, a wealty jigsaw lover and their various servants

* The theme that is starting to develop appears to be around the area of jigsaws with the dead man from the flat making them, his fellow wealthy tenant enjoying them and others in the building being paid to help store and look after them

Perec has a great style which opens up the apartment block not so much room by room but person by person with a fascination with the pictures each character has on their walls and he says almost as much about their art as he does about them. More tomorrow...

Monday, June 18, 2007

Lunchtime read: Trouble is my business

The last story in this collection is slightly longer than most of the rest and as a consequence is going to be consumed over two days. Admittedly the original intention was to read this over the weekend but I find it increasingly difficult to do any reading when I am not on a train coming to and from work or going to a meeting.

Highlights from the first half of Guns at Cyrano’s

* An ex detective who seems to be the son of someone who was very well connected in the town, Ted Malvern, comes across a woman in a doorway who has been hit in the face

* After talking to her it turns out that her boyfriend is a boxer who is meant to throw a fight and he is being warned off by his backer who is concerned the fighter will not play ball

* Malvern seems to know everyone and heads off to see the fight which is not thrown because the rival is so bad that the fight just cannot be thrown and Malvern heads backstage to warn the fighter that he is now going to be in trouble

* The fighter has a bodyguard who ends up in a fight with Malvern and then after they break apart all of the interested parties head to Cyrano’s night club where the boxer and his singer girlfriend are held up in a booth which results in the stick up man being shot by the boxer

More tomorrow…

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Blood of Others - post V

The book ends with Jean not only for spilling the blood of others but also once again treated differently from those around him. He is also left without Helene who dies in his arms after being injured in a mission that Jean feels he could have stopped her from carrying out. Again there is a real sense here of the no win situation the resistance were in because for every Nazi they killed the retribution against their countrymen was severe.

At the risk of pre-empting a review it is safe to say that would be a great companion piece to the Jean-Paul Sartre's Road to Freedom trilogy with the same themes and the same feelings covered.

Bullet points between pages 220 – 240

* Helene is shaken out of her plodding routine by her Jewish friend Yvonne who has to go into hiding because the Germans are rounding up the Jews and deporting them back to the concentration camps

* Helene witnesses a woman being torn apart from her baby with the soldiers assuring her that they will soon be reunited and the woman cries her name “Ruth” as the truck carries her away

* After those two incidents Helene goes to call on Jean to try and get Yvonne away into the free zone and asks if she can work for him and although reluctant he accepts because it is not his place to decide other people’s decisions

* He wants to go in her place but the committee has decreed that he is too important to the organisation and cannot risk his life – something that again separates him from the workingmen and women around him making him feel bourgeois

* Helene must have been wounded and she lays dying and does so finally in his arms and all the time Laurent, one of the resistance fighters keeps asking Jean if he will agree to laying a bomb, something that will be paid for with the death of hostages the German’s will shoot in reprisals

* Jean has already faced the wrath of his mother who told him to turn himself over to the authorities and face the consequences of his actions rather than let other people die but that along with his guilt for Helene and his friends is the guilt he is carrying

A review will follow shortly…

bookmark of the week

A few years ago on a holiday to Tuscany there was the chance to pop into Giacomo Puccini's house. Not being that much of a fan of Opera it was a real eye opener to not only hear some of his famous arias but to look round where they were written. This bookmark was cheaper than a CD so was my momento of the visit.

book of books - Fruits of the Earth

Up front it’s probably best to make the position clear – I thought this book failed to do what it set out to achieve. The reason is because of the style and the devices used to address the reader. For a book that is meant to be a passionate plea to enjoy life and the fruits of the earth from a man who thinks he is dying it lacks punch. Even in his introduction Andre Gide almost sets it up for a fall admitting that in a decade only 500 copies of the book sold.

Plot summary
The narrator is addressing the reader to embrace life listing themes and experiences with a constant attempt to increase the fervour of the reader. The narrator is addressing a figure called Nathaniel and within his recollections asks advice from a character Menalcas, that is meant to be Oscar Wilde (according to the dust jacket blurb). The chapters are usually themed, for instance drink and food, and contain a mixture of prose and poetry. But there is a second book included that rather than looking at nature and the fruits of the earth focuses on some specific anecdotes as evidence that the best approach to take to life is through communism. Even in the communist part of the book there is a constant theme of loving nature and loving God, who Gide views as being the creator and therefore responsible for all the good things. Man made vices and problems are not to be confused with the good that nature can provide.

Is it well written?
It can be confusing, difficult to follow and ultimately can leave you feeling unrewarded. Because of the chapters being broken up with front pieces and in the second book the text rarely taking up more than the top half of a page there are also style issues that add to the difficulties for the reader. But the real problem is that the central idea about living life to the full only occasionally comes to the surface with the poetry, Oscar Wilde figure and the style of writing all getting in the way.

Should it be read?
As an introduction to Gide I suspect there are better starting points. The attraction of Fruits of the Earth is slightly oversold on the dust jacket. There are some parts that are genuinely inspiring, particularly when he is describing the way we all take for granted the beauty of nature or forget the first time we felt love or felt like rulers of the world after getting drunk. But there is too much confusion for most readers and the consequence is that this will understandably get left to one side.

Enjoy life while you still have the chance and remember the beauty of nature.

Version read – Penguin Modern Classics paperback

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Blood of Others - post IV

Because it is the weekend and a lot has been going on today with school fairs and working in the house all I am aiming to do is read the remaining 40 pages of The Blood of Others in two readings.

By now the uncertainty of the start has long been forgotten and the way de Beauvoir weaves the past and the present has actually become familiar and you start to appreciate the way she is building the story to its climax. The other point that has to be made for her is a wonderful ability to put herself into the heads of both strong male and female characters and the way she describes Jean’s thinking is incredibly perceptive.

Bullet points between pages 200 – 220

* Helene splits from Denise and her family and heads back into Paris after hitching a lift with the Germans who are taking supplies and villagers back into the capital, which is deserted and feels like a Sunday afternoon, but a particularly strange one

* Then there is a skip ion time and Helene is working for a German and even considering going to Berlin but at the moment when she has to commit she backs out because she is ashamed to be collaborating

* Then the story moves to Jean who meets his old friend Marcel who has escaped from the prisoner of war camp and is bemused to find his friend running a resistance movement that involves ‘terrorism’ as he describes it but at the same time he thoroughly approves

Last pages tomorrow…

book of books - Candide

Voltaire is one of those names that conjures up all sorts of images. A favourite of Catherine the Great and seen as a philosopher that was so independently minded that he was brave enough to upset monarchs across Europe you come to his work with some trepidation.

But Candide could not be further from what you expected. Literature can throw up some real surprises and this matched Homer’s Odyssey in terms of being more enjoyable than expected. Maybe I’m not reading it in the right way and it should be a lot harder and no doubt students of literature pore over every word but for the casual reader this is easily digestible and has a point that is fairly easy to grasp.

Plot summary
Candide is a young man that has been influenced by his mentor Pangloss who is a philosopher that believes in optimism. Voltaire’s definition of which is explained by Candide to a fellow traveller: “'What is optimism?' asked Cacambo.
'It's the passion for maintaining that all is right when all goes wrong with us,' replied Candide." Things certainly go wrong for Candide who starts working for a Baron and ends up getting his first piece of bad fortune after being sacked for falling in love with the Baron’s daughter Cunegonde. Candide stays faithful to the idea that they will be together but has to go through a series of escapades including being forced into a war, tortured by the inquisition, having the wealth given to him by the King of Eldorado stolen and then finally when he does meet Cunegonde she is ugly and has a temperament that he is not too keen on. But he remains optimistic throughout even after picking up a counterbalance to Pangloss in the form of the pessimist Martin.

Is it well written?
At the time of its publication it presumably had them rolling in the aisles slightly more than it does today because the style does seem dated. There is also a strong feeling that Voltaire is making numerous political points at the nobility and religious structures of various countries, which again without further study are lost on the modern reader. But in terms of the style it has a lively pace, moves the narrative on and has a limited cast that makes it fairly easy to navigate through what is a constantly changing background.

Should it be read?
One consequence of reading it is that you get an insight into a different style of writing, something not just satirical but provocative. Is Candide someone to be admired for remaining optimistic and positive in the face of such bad fortune or is he a fool? Likewise is Pangloss right or is Martin’s view the one you subscribe to? It is because of the pertinence of those questions to the modern reader that it deserves to be read. Most of the time I see the glass half empty so Martin’s cynical view of the world is closer to my own but just seeing an alternative does make you think about being more like Candide and Pangloss.

Remaining optimistic in the face of numerous twists off bad fortune Candide does end up with the love of his life even though she is ugly and he is broke

Version read – Penguin paperback

Friday, June 15, 2007

The Blood of Others - post III

The narrative shifts between the past and the present with the story always getting closer to converging with Helene dying of a wound gained in some mission that she carried out for the French resistance. Along with Sartre’s Iron in the Soul this provides a great insight into what it must have felt like to be running away from the German invasion and there is a poignant moment when Helene and Denise watch the French soldiers, officers and then tanks and guns head through the village leaving them alone and then the German troops stroll in.

Bullet points between pages 110 - 200

* Jean and Helene’s relationship develops but she is frustrated that he continues to see Madeline and starts to wonder why he has no real need of her living an independent life that he believes makes him some how less bourgeoisie and more working class

* Madeline announces that she is going to go and fight in the Spanish Civil War so she drops out of the picture for several months and the focus stays on Jean and Helene and Denise and Marcel their friends

* Marcel is driving Denise insane with his attitude to life refusing to be touched for days on end and wasting his talent as an artist because he cannot believe in what he is doing and despite the comments of Jean and Helene he cannot seem to change his ways

* Denise puts her energy into a book that Jean too honestly appraises as being second-rate upsetting her but in the meantime he has agreed to marry Helene and they are all set for the happy event

* But war does break out and Jean is called up and because of her fears for his safety Helene pulls some strings and gets him sent back to Paris to a safe job in the rear, which makes Jean furious and he breaks off the engagement and manages to get back to the front

* Time skips and Jean has been injured, Helene and Denise are leaving Paris to take refuge in the country and Marcel has probably been taken prisoner because Germans surrounded his division

* Then the characters are different and Helene is dying and Jean is struggling with his feelings about it all although at this stage you do not know why she has been hurt and why Jean feels so responsible for it happening

More over the weekend…

Let's be miserable

There is an interesting piece in today’s Guardian about ‘misery lit’ the current craze for books about terrible childhoods. There is of course a market as Bill Bryson can tell you for books that are even about happy childhoods. Apart from raising questions about the state of the publishing commissioning process there is a wider point that can be made here about the obsession with childhood.

My one and only trip to a semi-psychoanalyst (forced on me by college lecturers who said it would provide an opt out for a late essay) started with the almost stereotypical discussion about my childhood. Had it been a happy time? Did I hate my mother, father or even both? Where did I see myself in the family circle? It all felt like something picked up from a television drama.

But obviously it is literary gold dust and maybe had I spent more time with her it would have been possible to draw on an untapped well of misery. For what it is worth my recollections, particularly of the teenage years, was that any misery was delivered at my own hands and had nothing to do with my parents. But we are all analysts now and no doubt the demand for miserable books about unbelievably bad childhoods will continue to thrive.

Lunchtime read: Trouble is my business

Chandler makes assumptions about people that are true whatever end of the social spectrum you are – that you will be motivated above all else by money. As a result his leading characters talk and respond to most situations with a knowing contempt for people whether they are criminals, business men or landed gentry. It is a technique that adds to the air of confidence and invulnerability of his private detective leading men.

Highlights from The Goldfish

* Kathy is a woman with a cocaine addicted lodger who served time in prison with a man named Sype who was responsible for a famous hold-up that stole the Leander pearls worth $200,000

* No one ever found the pearls but Sype hid them somewhere and made the mistake of telling the cocaine addict while they were serving together and so Kathy turns up at Carmady’s office, a detective friend and asks his advice

* The insurance company has a reward of $25,000 on offer for the return of the pearls and so she tells Carmady that the lodger knows where they are so he pops round to see him only to discover a murder victim who had his feet burn with an iron

* He then gets called by the murderers, a ruthless girl and a dodgy business man, who need Carmady because they failed to get the information out of their victim before he died

* Soon the knowledge is shared that the character with the pearls is a goldfish loving old man who is now living in Canada and Carmady and the two killers set off independently to track him down

* Carmady meets the cocaine addicts partner and they are about to head off and stake out Sype’s house when the other two turn up and after another killing Carmady manages to fool them and heads off to meet the old criminal

* Sype is a hard man who after listening to Carmady pulls a gun and is about to shoot when the girl and accomplice turn up and in the confusion the girl is shot by Sype’s wife and Sype is gunned down by her accomplice

* As he is dying Sype tells his wife “the moors” and Carmady works out that he means the Chinese Moor fish and inside two of them are the pearls but at the end while they wait for the police the wife tries to con Carmady out of them and he sees through her and then has a vision of the $25,000 he and Kathy will share

Final story in the collection comes over the weekend and then there is going to have to be more Chandler because he is too addictive…

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Blood of Others - post II

This book has improved over the last few chapters as the characters become more defined and a clear story emerges. You don’t naturally fall for them as they are slightly difficult as people to understand but despite that it is worth sticking with.

Bullet points between pages 42 – 110

* Along with Jean, the 20 year-old who rejects everything his family has provided for him so he can be truly free and able to claim his true position another character Helene emerges who is someone looking for love and is stuck in a relationship with Paul who works with Jean

* Paul doesn’t inspire her and she falls in love with Jean although he tells her he is not interested and is involved in a relationship with someone else who he has a casual sexual relationship with

* Helene keeps dreaming of jean even though he does his best not to encourage her and the effect on her relationship means she finally splits with Paul and as a result naively thinks that Jean will accept her

* She goes round to talk to him and after he rejects her again she throws herself into the arms of an old friend who takes her virginity and leaves her with a pregnancy to worry about and she ends up having the abortion at Jean’s flat because that is the only place she can go outside the family home

* As a result Jean feels so guilty that he allows her in and although he continues to sleep with Madeline the woman he has a causal sexual affair with Helene becomes his lover and their relationship starts to develop but the year is 1937 and you know what is round the corner

More tomorrow…

book of books - The Tin Drum

There are certain books you come to with a baggage that has been handed to you by the media, word of mouth and your own expectations. The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass falls into that category because you start reading it with the knowledge that he is one of Germany’s most famous writers, is embroiled in controversy over his Nazi past and won a Nobel prize. There is even a film version of this book, which I have not seen, which for those that have will also add to the noise before you even turn a page.

There is also a slight intimidation in the length, not far off 600 pages, that puts it into the middle category of not a major undertaking like War & Peace but equally not a slim volume that can be consumed quickly.

Plot summary
A boy named Oskar is telling his life story from the comfort of a mental hospital explaining that from the age of three he decided not to grow up and so remained for many years three foot high. The other event on his third birthday is the drum he is given as a present. He drums his way through most of the next twenty seven years but the landscape around him changes. On the family front his mother, who has two lovers, dies and one of his presumptive fathers dies after defending the Polish Post Office in Danzig. In terms of his education Oskar is unable to fit into a school environment and mainly communicates through his drum and uses his high pitched scream that shatters glass. His life changes after he meets another midget Bebra who advises him how to behave and then after the war starts drafts him into the propaganda company cheering the troops. Meanwhile Oskar has used his third drumstick to get the family shop girl Maria pregnant but she marries his remaining presumptive father and the son Kurt is never acknowledged as being his. Following the end of the war and the Soviet takeover of Danzig Oskar and family head for Düsseldorf where Oskar starts a jazz band that makes him rich and falls in love with a nurse living in an apartment opposite his own. The nurse turns up dead and Oskar takes the blame – hence the mental hospital – but on his thirtieth birthday the news comes through that the real killer has confessed and he might be acquitted and sent out into an uncertain future.

That’s the gist of it but there are numerous episodes that have been missed but the key point is that there is a development of Oskar that is unique and although delayed takes him into some strange places and links him with some very unusual characters.

Is it well written?
The start is a challenge and it takes a fairly long time before any sort of interest grows in Oskar who is not only a deliberate freak but very annoying at times. Where you start to appreciate Grass is when it starts to dawn that in a way Oskar is a metaphor for the stunted ambitions firstly for the Poles to have an independent nation and then later for there to be a sane voice against the violence and bitterness of the post-war Germany. The character of Oksar becomes more likeable when he starts to speak and by the end the drumming and the height are not the issue it is the idea that he is frightened of the world, despite everything he has done, that is the image that you remember. There is a large amount going on here that at first is not only obvious but is also not engaging. It is only when the history starts to dictate events that the book gains a momentum independent of the main characters. Because of the length of the book Grass is also able to deploy various techniques and involved the reader sometimes in a historical battle scene, a rags to riches success story or even a thriller.

Should it be read?
This deserves to be read because it not only contains a very good story but it is a challenging book that almost deliberately throws in the face of the reader a collection of ugly, freakish characters that it is almost impossible to like. The struggle he makes you go through is worth it because the ending is something that is very thought provoking. It is also a good idea to read works of literature from other cultures because it not only provides a different geographical perspective on the world but also throws up a different writing style. I would recommend this book to anyone that was prepared to work at it and stick with it until the end but for a casual holiday read it would not make it into hand luggage. That is a shame because it does deserve to be read but it is a reality.

Oskar the midget grows up in a world that is tainted by the evil and actions of others and realises at the end that hiding behind a childhood façade is not a long term solution

Lunchtime read: Trouble is my business

A different voice in this story with the house detective in a hotel being the lead character rather than Dalmas. As a result the action is confined to the hotel, its guests, staff and grounds. It makes for a tight story that Chandler sets up to have various possible endings.

Highlights from I’ll be Waiting

* A house detective in a hotel takes a shine to a female guest who reveals she is waiting for a man to arrive who she ended up putting in prison for four years and she is hoping for an opportunity for reconciliation

* After talking to her the detective is called to the door to meet someone named Al who tells him to get the girl out of the hotel because the man she is waiting for owes money to some criminals who want to collect their debt

* Instead of warning the woman the detective discovers that the man she is waiting for has turned up and is in the room next to her so he heads up there to warn him and give him the chance to escape

* After heading back down stairs and checking with the garage attendant that the man has escaped he settles back into the radio room where the woman, who cannot sleep has reappeared, but he is called to the phone to be told that Al knew he would give the man a chance and they have tracked him down

More tomorrow…

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Blood of Others - post I

In a way it would have made a lot more sense to have read this straight after the Jean-Paul Sartre Roads to Freedom trilogy but because of the variants of eBay bidding and post office delivery that was not possible. The reason why it makes such a good companion piece to the Sartre is because not only does it have much of the same existentialist style and it is set in France but also there is the backdrop of the war looming.

Just as in the Age of Reason, Mathieu the lead character has a moment when he has to decide if he will join the communist party this book starts with the very same internal debate going on in the characters wondering how to make something of their lives.

Bullet points from pages 7 – 42

* The story seems to start with a question being asked of a group of people about a decision having to be made that you sense could be quite a life and death one for those involved

* Then the narrative seems to swing back to an earlier time when a well to do man Jeans decides to embrace communism and reject the luxuries of his life and after completing a two year apprenticeship in his father type setting firm he announces that he will take nothing more from him

* He finds work at the bottom rung of the typesetting trade and starts to ingratiate himself with his fellow workers and convinces his artistic friend Jacques that he is doing something worthwhile enough for his friend to sign up to the party as well

* Then a character named Helene is introduced who works in a chocolate shop but dreams of escape and finds her boyfriend Paul too boring to inspire much and when she demands that he takes her along to a meal with a friend it turns out he is meeting Jean who by this time has rejected communism and is concentrating on traditional non-political trade unionism

Hopefully the action will pick up a bit tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Trouble is my business

As long as there is an address to visit, a lead to follow or a punch to be taken Chandler keeps the plot growing almost organically until he pulls it altogether. For those people who don’t think the short story is a good genre then this will prove them wrong. Over 55 pages Chandler weaves a magic spell that ends with you wanting to plough straight into the next short story.

One comment I could have made yesterday but is equally applicable today is the sense of time. Chandler packs a huge amount in just a few hours and it is hard to credit that some of it has happened on the same night.

Highlights from Red Wind

* Private detective John Dalmas pops over to a bar opposite his apartment block and is talking to the barman who has recently opened while a drunk at the other end of the bar keeps ordering drinks

* Suddenly a man walks in and asks if anyone has seen a woman and as he is leaving the drunk shoots him twice fatally and then runs out into the dead man’s car and heads off leaving Dalmas and the bartender to call the police

* After reporting the events Dalmas heads back to the apartment and as he exits the lift stumbles across the woman that fits the description given by the man who has just been shot in the bar

* She reveals very little and in a discussion about the shooting they are suddenly disturbed by the killer who has come back to shoot Dalmas to prevent him from being a witness

* Hidden in the closet the woman steps out at just the right time to save Dalmas’s life and after she leaves he calls the cops and a glory seeking policeman comes to pick up the killer and arrange it with Dalmas that he takes all the credit

* The woman reappears and asks Dalmas to help track down some pearls that the dead man was meant to be selling to her so the private eye heads to the apartment and discovers a dead man but no pearls

* The latest victim leads Dalmas to the husband of the woman seeking the pearls and reveals that the bar corpse was blackmailing both husband and wife before being killed by an old criminal partner he had grassed up for a prison sentence

* In a final showdown with the crooked policeman and his saner colleague Dalmas sets out the case and answers all the queries before succumbing himself to the madness caused by the red wind throwing the pearls one by one into the sea

Another story tomorrow…

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Fruits of the Earth - post III

This rather strange book comes to an end and it is not with too much regret that it is over. Sometimes you get to the last page and wish there was more of it but sadly not in this case. The reason why it doesn’t work for me is that it is too clever almost for its own good. If you can imagine that you believe you might never see another dawn and set out to write a book that urges people to enjoy life then that’s great but at least do it without losing the reader along the way.

Points Gide attempts to make are often either in your face or so oblique that you only get them because of the helpful pointers contained in the blurb on the dust jacket. Hard work in places and not quite what I was expecting. Still here are the comments on the last pages of the book.

Bullet points between pages 136 – 221

* After finishing the first book telling the addressed reader Nathaniel to throw it away and get on with living his life the second extension starts by reengaging the reader with tales of those who point the way to the reason why communism is a good choice but also why things will have to change

* There are various stories introduced from a tramp, drowned girl and an inmate in a lunatic asylum which are all used to show that there is great injustice and suffering all around

* The response is to concentrate on loving nature, following God’s will and turning the back on those man made things that cause the evil and suffering in the world and that naturally is a communism but not one that is blind to human nature but one that Gide adapts to be a genuine alternative

A review will follow in the next couple of days but there is The Tin Drum and Voltaire to get posted as well…

In praise of the short story

There is a thought provoking piece in The Independent by A L Kennedy in defence of the short story. She is one of the judges for a literature prize for short stories and is pleased to report that the genre is alive and well. But she wonders why there continues to be such a bad perception of the short story and why people link it with a childish way of expressing emotions.

"The short story - it gets a bad press. Well, mainly it gets no press at all, which is worse. But if it ever is discussed, the short story is usually dismissed as the commercially untouchable equivalent of finger-painting."

Radio 4 carried out a short story competition recently which might also have helped increase the profile of the style.

Having read a fair few short story collections over my lunchtime reads I have to agree with Kennedy that they are very important and can satisfy in a way a novel cannot. Equally it shows off a different side to a writer that can increase your appreciation for them. Long live the short story!

Lunchtime read: Trouble is my business

This is a real pleasure to read and you are rooting for John Dalmas throughout enjoying it when he rides his luck and smiling at his wise cracks. Chandler has the ability to create a world (that is often set at night) where the lines between good and bad are blurred almost completely and the winners are those that live to fight another day with their integrity intact.

Highlights from the second half of Trouble is my business

* Having been picked up by the driver for the client who has hired him and witnessed the shooting of the younger of the two gun men who held him up in his flat earlier Dalmas heads back to the hotel to visit the girl at the centre of the commotion

* She isn't there but the gambler her boyfriend owes money to is and after threatening Dalmas he tells him that he would have not authorised the shooting of either the car Dalmas was in or the detective he had discovered dead earlier

* Dalmas is left in the hotel room alone and investigates in the bedroom and discovers his client's son dead in the wardrobe but leaves him there and heads home and meets the police who have been tipped off that he was involved in the earlier shooting

* Dalmas comes out of it clean and then after encountering the now lone gunman who he handcuffs to his bed he heads for a showdown with the client and a chance to break it to him about his son and discovers on arriving at his house that the dame has already arrived

* Dalmas outlines his theory which you are in suspense over along with the other three characters in the room and it turns out that the killer is George the driver who hoped to be made an heir to his master's millions once the real heir was out of the way

* The ending includes a trip to the Police station, some dates with the woman and a couple more chances to use the line "Trouble is my business"

Great stuff and more comes tomorrow...

Monday, June 11, 2007

Fruits of the Earth - post II

Gide continues to guide the reader through the things to enjoy in life and gets onto the areas of drink and love handing out some advice as well as some anecdotes about his own experiences.

This book probably only sold 500 copies in a decade because it is difficult to stick with and although now and again the point he is making becomes clear it is almost instantly lost under waves of confusing poetry and references to places and people that have not lasted the years.

Bullet points between 72 – 135

* Having gone through some of the things that should be enjoyed in life the idea of love and sex are touched on with the advice being that it is a great idea as long as deceit doesn’t come into it

* Then there are several pages that focus on drink with the advice being that it is relatively easy to get drunk and when you do so the way you see the world can be quite enjoyable

"I know the drunkenness that makes you think yourself better, greater, more respectable, more virtuous, richer than you are."

* The scene then shifts to a farm and the rooms in the farmyard are described as they are walked through with the virtues of animals and animal products like milk and butter praised

* Then things shift to an autumnal Brittany and the recollections gather around the seasons, the weather and then the benefit of siestas before he is off again to the deserts dreaming of sand and the quenching quality of water

* Gide admits there is not really a main character in the book and that he is addressing the reader in a random type of way sharing experiences that meant something to him hoping that in turn they will mean something to those that have yet to think about them - like the patterns of leaves for instance

The first part of the book draws almost to a close and there is the second part to look forward to (a bit of tongue in cheek here) when Gide had become a communist. That awaits tomorrow...

Lunchtime read: Trouble is my business

When you pick up a Raymond Chandler novel you know that three things are certain: the case will never be a simple as it seems, the way the story is told will be fantastic and along the way there are going the be bribes threats and death.

This is a short story collection (not too short) and the title piece is the first one and the immortal lines there might be trouble to which the reply “trouble is my business” is uttered.

Highlights from the first half of Trouble is my business

* Private eye John Dalmas is hired to try and get a wealthy man’s son away from a relationship with a woman that has connections with a gambler that the young man owes money to

* Dalmas is sub-contracted from another investigator that hasn’t got the energy to pursue the case and he is referred to the other detective who she had hired to work on collecting background

"I need a man good-looking enough to pick up a dame with a sense of class, but he's got to be tough enough to swap punches with a power shovel."

* The other detective turns up dead and that forces Dalmas to get acquainted with the main characters more quickly than he might have chosen to and he is rewarded with being knocked down out by the gambling son

* On returning home two men with guns are waiting for Dalmas and they warn him off the case but fail to give any other information leaving the detective intrigued about all the fuss that is being made

More tomorrow…

Sunday, June 10, 2007

bookmark of the week

This bookmark is from Brussels and is a great place to visit if you like Tintin, Horta (a real exponent of Art Nouveau) and beer. Not sure what this building is because the bookmark kindly doesn’t say but it at least gives you a taste of the varied types of building styles on offer.

Lunchtime read: Candide

The book comes to an end with plenty of lessons for those who are searching for a definition of optimism. It would not be too difficult to update this with a modern version with more humour and a slightly more detailed exploration into the human condition with its varied displays of greed and deceit.

I’ll make a few more comments on that in a review that will follow in a couple of days.

Highlights from chapters

* While Candide and his companion Martin sit in Venice and wait for news he has a meal with six former kings and is reunited with his servant from the Eldorado expedition who tells him that his love is in Constantinople

* Candide heads for the Turkish city with Martin and his servant, who he has paid out of slavery, but is worried that Cunegonde has become very ugly because of her labours washing dishes down by the sea

* On the slave ship they are being rowed across Constantinople in Candide is amazed to come across Pangloss and Cunegonde’s brother both of which he thought were dead but both were brought back to help by kind medical helpers

* Once Candide meets Cunegonde sure enough she is ugly and he wishes in a way he could escape marriage but he sticks to his word and has to send her brother packing back to the slave ship to stop his objections

* In the end the little groups of philosophers and friends of Candide settle on a farm and only become happy when they all share the work in the gardens – an ending that ends more on a socialism note than you might have expected

A review will follow soon…

Saturday, June 09, 2007

weekend paper round-up

Having just read a review in The Times of Gunter Grass's new book The Onion Peeled it has only just come to my attention that The Tin Drum is seen as the first in a Danzig trilogy with Cat & Mouse and Dog Years being the other two books. Wish I'd known that before reading them in a slightly wrong order, not that it matters too much. But you do start to wonder if Cat & Mouse had been easier to get to grips with if The Tin Drum had been consumed first.

Apart from that review there are not too many other things that caught the eye in the newspapers. Quite a lot of coverage of the Orange prize and the usual book sections but in the main body of the broadsheets not a great deal.

The only source of debate - and its purely from a how many have you read/or would you buy point of view - is the list of the top 50 best holiday books in the Independent (trying to find a link and will post if successful). The only thing that strikes you glancing through is that it seems to be a healthy mix of classic and contemporary literature, which is a good thing with most of these sorts of lists just being the top ten in the bookshops.

Lunchtime read: Candide

The search for his love is restarted as Candide escapes from France, which he believes is full of barbarians but next stop is England and it is no surprise that he finds the people there even worse.

Highlights from chapters XXIII to XXV

* Landing in England Candide is witness to an execution of an admiral who is shot for failing to kill enough of his men in a battle against the French enemy and he starts to plan his escape asking a Dutch captain to take him to Venice

* Once in Venice he looks for his old servant and the love of his life but the weeks pass by and he fails to find either and starts to depair and as result talks more to his companion Martin about happiness

* Candide bets that a woman and a monk arm in arm are happy but when they get them back to his house for a dinner it turns out they are both deeply unhappy and have tragic lives

* Next Candide is invited to go and see someone who believes themselves to be so superior to everything that he takes a peverse pleasure in disliking everythinng including great literature

The final chunk comes tomorrow...

A poem on books

As mentioned yesterday there is a great poem about books in the Fruits of the Earth which gets you thinking about the consumption of literature and the differences and wonders that books can deliver:


Some books one reads sitting on a narrow bench
In front of a school desk.

Some books one reads out walking
(A little too because of their size);
Some are for the woods,
Some for other country places –
Nobiscum rusticantur, says Cicero.

There are some I have read in diligences;
Some others lying in a hay-loft.
There are some that make us believe in the existence of the soul;
Others that make us despair of it.
Some that prove there is a God;
Others that fail to.

Some that can only be admitted into private libraries;
Some that have been praised by many eminent critics.

There are some that treat of nothing but apiculture
And might be thought a little technical;
Others in which there is so much talk of nature,
That after reading them there is no need to go out for a walk.

There are some that are despised by wise men
But that trill little children.

Some are called anthologies
And contain all the best sayings
On everything under the sun.
There are some that try to make one love life;
Others, after writing which
The author has committed suicide.
There are some that sow hatred
And reap what they have sown.
Some, as one reads them, seem to shine,
Charges with ecstasy, delicious with humility.
There are some one loves like brothers
Who have lived more purely and better than we.
There are some written in such strange languages
That even after a deep study of them,
They are impossible to understand.

Some are not worth a penny-piece;
Others extremely valuable.
Some speak of kings and queens,
And others of the very poor.

There are some whose words are sweeter
Than the rustle of the leaves at noon.
It was a book that John ate on Patmos,
Like a rat, (as for me, I prefer raspberries);
It made his belly bitter
And afterwards he had visions.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Fruits of the Earth - post I

Last weekend on a trip to Bath visiting family there was a chance to pop into the Oxfam bookshop and pick up some books. Because of the recent Jean-Paul Sartre I picked up some French authors including Andre Gide. My intention was to follow The Tin Drum with Simone de Beauvoir’s The Blood of Others but I couldn’t find it this morning on the bookshelf so took Fruits of the Earth instead.

This might change but so far it is a book that promises more than it delivers. The blurb on the dust jacket describes it as an address to the reader to enjoy life before it is taken from them and was written when the author after he almost died of tuberculosis. It sort of does that but there is no narrative linking it together and a series of anecdotes emphasise the things to enjoy along with some of the things to avoid. But in between clarity there is poetry, often unconnected, and a character Menalcas, which according to the dust jacket is meant to be Oscar Wilde. Confusing – it does filter through to the text.

Bullet points between pages 1 – 72

* In a book that has an incredibly honest foreword from the author, where he admits in the first decade of its publication “barely 500 copies were sold” and then there is a letter to Nathaniel urging him to learn from the teaching on fervour which is about to follow

* One easily identifiable activity that it is being recommended to enjoy is food and drink with Nathaniel being advised to drink and eat when he is hungry and eat to his fill and enjoy the delicacies that are put before him

* Then there are some warnings about wasting time with books and people that are not constructive (there is a great poem about books I will post tomorrow) and then Nathaniel is encouraged to embrace the joys of travel

* The sights and people that can be seen by travelling are an experience that should be taken advantage of not just because it breaks the monotony of normal life but is a joyful experience that all the time helps understand the mysteries of the world

* God takes a central role as the source of the good experiences and love, which equals God to some degree, is also to be encouraged and enjoyed

More soon…