Wednesday, December 31, 2008

book review - The Gutenberg Elegies

This is a book that, even with a 2006 edition, has been overtaken by events. When Sven Birkerts sat down to write his original draft the individual could still have a degree of choice towards technology and decide to opt-out of a fair proportion of it.

However, as his 2006 postscript admits, by the time this book had been around for a while that situation had largely changed. The pace of technological development was supported by a hunger among most people to take advantage of the benefits it could offer. So emailing rather than letter writing has become the norm, using the web as a research tool something that students are now expected to do as a matter of course.

But crucially in terms of reading there is still a degree of choice about how far the individual goes. If you strip it back to that question, and Birkerts often makes it a much wider debate which can be unhelpful, then the choice seems to be a straight one between electronic reading and sticking with paper.

Unlike email and social networking the pressure on the individual to move to electronic reading is not as great as in other areas and along with Birkerts there are going to be plenty of people, myself included, that are happy sticking to paper.

But the crux of his argument is slightly deeper and what Birkerts is arguing is that in a society where concentration spans are shortening and more and more information is consumed via a screen the art of “deep reading” is being lost. What he refers to as “deep reading” is the ability of the reader to sit in isolation, distraction free and allow themselves to become absorbed in a book to the extent that their dreams entwine with the author’s and they are lost in the worlds conjured up by the written page and their imagination.

Where Birkerts has a point is in highlighting the dangers, he refers a great deal to the soul, of what happens when this ability is lost. But the problem I have with this point of view is the blanket dislike of technology. In many respects technology has improved the experience for the reader. Finding out about authors and making those stepping stone connections between works is now much easier aided by the web.

There is also a sense of balance that needs to be stressed here that Birkerts is not too good at. For instance if I really enjoyed playing football on a PlayStation does that mean that I would stop having the urge or the ability to go and kick a ball around in the garden? Likewise the chances of paperbacks disappearing soon can be overestimated. Electronic book readers have broken through this year but to the extent that you see them on trains and in the hands of your friends there is still a long way to go.

There are valid points here about the society we live in and the impact that a digital culture could be having on the next generation of readers but in a way what this book shows is that the pace of the debate is moving so quickly it is far too early to make judgements.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

book review - The Fatal Eggs

As might have become clear over the past year Mikhail Bulgakov is one of my favourite authors and this slime volume is a cracker.

It works on many different levels. On one level it is about science fiction with a professor discovering, quite by chance, a ray of life that gives growth and multiples the sizes of cells. But on the other it is a satire on the Soviet system.

The combination of the two produces a chilling end to a story that in the first half has an almost comical feel to it. Having discovered his ray of life the professor is still operating in his own world unaware of a plague that has wiped out the Russian chicken population.

However armed with the knowledge of the professor’s discovery and an ambition to climb up the party apparatus an official gets the backing to commandeer the ray of life and turn it to repopulating the chickens that have been wiped out due to the plague.

At the same time the professor, without the ray of life, has returned to his first love of reptiles and has placed an order for an assortment of eggs including crocodiles, snakes and alligators so he can hatch them and study them at his institute.

Of course it is those eggs that end up in the hands of the keen bureaucrat with terrifying consequences. The moment a 30 foot snake swallows the bureaucrats head any sense of humour disappears and as the country battles to stave off the attack from giant reptiles the professor eventually becomes the focus of the anger of the masses and pays for his discovery with his life.

What you take away from this book that feels in many respects like Heart of a Dog is that science and the state don’t mix too well. Of course that was one of the guiding principles of Stalinism that the state could harness the power of science and use things like the ray of life to overtake enemies and rivals.

But there is also a clear dig at the basic mechanics of the state with the chicken eggs going to the professor and the reptile eggs going to the chicken farm. How could that sort of elementary mistake happen in a perfectly run society? Of course the consequences of the cock-up can be measured in hundreds of deaths and maybe that last thought is the most powerful one.

In a country where people in their hundreds of thousands were sent into the gulag system the idea of pen pushing murderers is neither that far from reality or particularly funny. The fact that Bulgakov is able to attack them and undermine them in such a short number of pages is a testament to his satirical brilliance and his skill as a writer.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Norwegian Wood - post IV

Well at the end the moral seems to be that life is what you make it and amidst the unbearable sadness and death the hero Toru decides to live. He could have chosen differently but in that moment when he is on the beach far away from home it is the sense of enough being enough that drags him back to Tokyo.

This was enjoyable but quite why it stirred all the fuss it did is not something I can picture immediately. Perhaps there was a shock caused by the sexual scenes in the book and the relatively casual attitude that the characters have towards sex. Maybe the theme of suicide was very cutting edge for the time and stirred interest? Not sure about either of those but it does seem dated.

What perhaps makes it more so is the decision to date it in 1968/69. But reading this in 2008 when most of the subjects tackled by this book appear in the weekly run of Eastenders it is no longer that shocking.

What does succeed is the writing around the main character. This is a coming of age book where the main character has to cope with death, isolation, loneliness and the oddities of other people. But it is the lack of a supporting cast that heightens the sense of loneliness. A memorable read for that aspect alone. Where are you he is asked at the end of the book and you had to wonder how that question gets answered.

A review will follow soon…

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Beedle the Bard - post II

I tried but I think you do have to be a fan and there was a feeling for me that this was like one of those jokes that only works well when you were there at the start.

That is not to say it is a waste of time and this collection of tales has a point that is not just about witches and wizards and there are some questions and lessons that younger readers would do well to ponder and learn.

But for me there is too much catching up to do with the Harry Potter series and had I finished them all no doubt I would have been hungrier for any crumbs that came from the table of J.K.R.

A review will follow all the others…

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Saturday's top ten - reading gifts

The top ten this week has a festive feel because it is about the sort of gifts that appeal to readers.

A booklight
Book rest
Penguin mug
Library chair (see one of these for a jaw dropping £1,300 at Liberty)
Book mark
Book token
Books I’ve Read album to fill in
1001 Books to read before you die to inspire and depress
Subscription to a reading magazine – ie. Slightly Foxed
Prod to join the library if they haven’t already.

Friday, December 26, 2008

book review - The Free Fishers

If you had to summarise a John Buchan book you would use a few words including “adventure, pace and drama” and it is no different here.

But for those that loved the 39 Steps there is a slight difference in the amount of time it takes for the story to become clear and the action to get going. This is a slightly more convoluted story and it takes getting past the history of the Free Fishers group and the misunderstanding about a duel before things get going.

When they do get going this is a story about a plot to kill the prime minister and leave the finger of blame pointing at an abused woman who is too weak to fight her own corner.

Instead an odd selection of characters emerge to defend her led by the hero a professor and priest, Anthony Lammas, who manages to surprise even himself as the plot develops and the violence increases. He is supported by some of the Free Fishers as he speeds down to Norfolk to smash a gang run by a maverick nobleman who has turned against Britain.

It takes a long time for the story to emerge after Lammas is initially asked by a friend to step-in and stop his son from letting himself down by chasing after a woman that he has deemed to be unsuitable. That then puts Lammas on the road and caught up in a plot that is quite different from where you initially expect it to be going.

Once it beds down and the focus of the action emerges it does gain the pace you recognize from 39 Steps. As the two groups head towards their date with destiny Lammas is the link between all sides meeting the enemy before the others and then acting as a catalyst for action.

What reminds you strongly of 39 Steps is the way that no one seems to believe Lammas and he is often alone in wild countryside struggling in the darkness both literally and metaphorically to fins the light.

At the conclusion there is a hint, with the growing feelings of love that Lammas has developed for the rescued heroine, that this has been more than just an adventure for the minister but a Damascus type conversion of character.

What keeps you going with this book is the pace, the plot and the sense of surprise that Buchan can conjure up when something happens that you did not expect. For instance Lammas gets captured, something you did not expect, shows bravery that you are not prepared for based on his description at the beginning.

There are some things that don’t quite work with this book, sometimes the language is too dated and the sense of honour something that is very alien in today’s society. But overall this is a great adventure story and although the length gives more opportunity for weakness – the story does take too long to get going – it is well worth reading.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas to you one and all

Hope you have a great day and get some good books from Santa!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Priorities, priorities

Very far behind with posting reviews, finishing books and generally feeling comfortable about things. But Father Christmas is very shortly going to be here and in my position as a parent blogging, reading and enjoying myself will temporarily have to be put on hold.

Normal service will resume when I can find a key to the bedroom and lock myself away…

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Shelves full of seasonal tripe

Looking round the bookshops at this time of year is surprisingly disappointing. Along with the usual 3 for 3 offers, which seem to run the whole year long, there are other seasonal books populating the shelves.

Unlike last year, when you couldn’t move for celebrity biographies this year it seems to be cookery books and hardcover tripe. Cookery books vie for attention with large books that don’t seem to exist any other time of year than this one. Mind you it seems to work. Looking in Waterstone’s with a colleague he picked up a brick about the history of Marvel comics and made a face and noises that reminded me of my six year old.

As my father was always fond of saying “fools and their money….”

Monday, December 22, 2008

Beedle the Bard - post I

The problem with this time of year is that you don’t get those extended times to read so you end up picking at things. It was in that spirit I opened and digested the first couple of stories in Beedle the Bard.

I have read some of the Harry Potter books and enjoyed them but this, although harmless fun, just didn’t work as well. In some respects it falls victim to that old cliché of not only trying too hard but also a book very much for the fans. If you are immersed in the world of Harry Potter then presumably this is a must have.

In much the same way I used to pursue Cure b-sides when I was a younger, and arguably more fashionable, man this has the same feel.

Might change my mind with the second half but not sure…

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Norwegian Wood - post III

A clear choice is emerging for Toru as he hangs out more with the weird but likable Midori and writes once a week to Naoko. But the letters are pining for a love and a relationship that might never happen rather than the fun that is on offer in the present.

Midori lets Toru in on her life as she introduces him to her dying father in hospital and then reaches out for him as she works through her grief. The relationship is not sexual but neither of course is the one with Naoko. In between them is Toru who is seeking happiness and meaning in life and as he sits between the two his options are becoming clearer – the past or the present?

More tomorrow…

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Saturday's top ten - books and locations

These are not necessarily books where the City becomes a character in itself, although that does happen with a few of them, but these books are set in these locations and remind you of those cities.

Dublin – Ulysses, The Dubliners
St Petersburg – Crime& Punishment
Kiev – The White Guard
Stockholm – The Martin Beck Series
New York – Catcher in the Rye
Chicago – The Jungle, Sister Carrie
Paris – The Maigret books
London – Dickens
Brighton – Brighton Rock
Tokyo – Norwegian Wood

Friday, December 19, 2008

Norwegian Wood - post II

At moments this reads like the sort of erotic fiction that populates certain parts of the internet. But there is a method in the madness and the use of sex, however casual, is all part of the jigsaw.

At the heart of the puzzle seems to be the challenge of picking up the pieces after a loved one has committed suicide. In fact you start to suspect this is the big question at the heart of this book about not only why someone dies but what it says about the world.

After he visits Naoko in the sanatorium Toru hears from her how she felt when her boyfriend and his best friend Kizuki died. But she also reveals that her sister had hanged herself and that she had found her body.

The moments they are together are intense and move at a different pace but back in Tokyo Toru has struck up a friendship with an odd girl in his university, Midori. She is completely different from Naoko in that she has a different attitude to death having lost her mother and survived but in some respects is the same struggling to adapt to “normal” life.

There is one moment when Toru is accused of wanting to sound like he is speaking like a character in Catcher in the Rye and there are other similarities with the university setting and the sense of not fitting into the mainstream.

More tomorrow…

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Print is Dead (Books in Our Digital Age) - post I

As you read the introduction you find that you are nodding your head as Gomez points out that the world has fundamentally changed as a result of technology. But he is clear about the boundaries of his study but keeps making reference to the educational and legal issues surrounding e-books and the Google moves to disseminate them.

That has the unfortunate impact of making you wonder if that is not a debate that is an interesting and slightly hotter because of its currency in the current debate about digital literature.

Still back to Print is Dead and the message seems to be that things have changed and there is no stopping them and although the book brigade argue that there is nothing that can top the design and experience they are fighting against an unstoppable tide. He makes none of the judgments that Birkerts makes about whether that is good or bad but comments that it is a fact.

The first chapter establishes the impact of the Mp3 on music and concludes that a similar change is going to happen with books.

“To see where words are headed, simply follow the evolution of music’s various technological leaps from one format to another: wax cylinder, vinyl, eight track, cassette, compact disc, MiniDisc, Mp3. What’s important to note in this sequence is that the last format - Mp3- doesn’t necessarily exist. It’s a file format, a way of digitizing and storing information. It’s not a physical thing that you necessarily hold or trade…the majority of printed material will eventually undergo a similar transformation, ending up as a digital file instead of a physical thing.” Page 16

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The race to the finish

Things start to get a bit tense this time of year as you look at the days left on the calendar and try to work out how many more books you can squeeze in. Once I stop work, on the 19th, the daily commute goes and the chance of getting through any serious reading goes with it.

So for the next two days its a case of cramming as much Murakami as I can and trying to get another couple in before the 31st. I know that reading should be fun but there is always the race - with yourself - to see how many books you can get through in a year and in that race we are now entering the sprint finish and after 11 and a bit months its the exciting part.

Norwegian Wood - post I

This book takes you back to how you felt as a love sick teenager poring over every word in a letter reading a million different meanings into every word and gesture. It also sums up the futility that you often feel when you hit your early twenties and wonder just where everything is going.

Having never read any Murakami before I had mixed feelings about picking up something that has quite a reputation but a few pages in and the style, which is largely conversational, is comfortable and before you know it this slow story has managed to interest you.

The story of young love retold by a much older and regretful narrator who was the male in the relationship is a device that could get tiring. But Murakami gets straight into the story leaving the regrets, triggered by Norwegian Wood being played in an airport, behind to concentrate on telling how they came about.

A trio of friends devastated by the suicide at 17 of one of them are left to pick up the pieces and find love again. A robbed adolescence impacts the narrator as well as the girl and a soulless attitude to sex and friendship doesn’t help fill the gap.

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Fire Engine that Dissapeared - post II

After an experience like Lines of fate it is attractive to turn to something that is like a warm bath. For me the thrillers of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo fir that bill.

The fifth book in the ten book series has all of the pluses of the former books with strong characterisation, an intelligent plot and an eye to detail that others might have missed.

But it also has the same frustrating moments when a detective chooses to keep suspicions to themselves or goes back to bed rather than follow-up an idea.

In this story Beck takes rather a back seat as the other officers fight it out between themselves to initially get the case dismissed before they then get on with the task of getting the killers.

Keeps going right until the last page and after a book that took weeks to race through a couple of hundred pages in a day is a complete joy.

A review will come soon…

Monday, December 15, 2008

Lines of Fate - post V

Surfing the web to find the answer to the question: Lines of Fate what on earth does it mean? I stumbled across a review which concludes by saying the book sums up the chaos of the Soviet system. In a sense that it was I am clinging to that on the level of being confusing, ambitious but unclear and a story of how history dogs the modern day then it has worked as a metaphor for the USSR.

However as a reading experience it is difficult, unclear and consitent in its unbreakable nature with page 100, 200 and even 300 going by with it remaining a tough challenge.

Things finally come to an end and you wonder whether the lines of fate refers not just to the sense of lay lines and places having a history that influences the present but also a sense of a connection between people across the past.

Because Anton has kept the quest for the old author he is studying alive the prospect that someone will do the same for him is raised and that is an interesting thought thaty you are left with. It is haunting to think that one day someone could look at these blog posts and start to conjure up my character...

A review will come shortly

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The pressure to make sure every book counts

At this time of year you always end up regretting the fact that the sands of time are running out and the ambitions you had for reading have not been realised.

The phrase too many books too little time is true for those with commitments that keep them away from the written page. But it can also be a source of anxiety with shelves full of books being distant stranger rather than familiar friends.

My ambition for next year is to have the ruthlessness to put a book down that hasn’t worked for me. Lines of Fate has been painful and largely unenjoyable and I wish that I had put it down and rattled off a couple of more enjoyable books in the time I have struggled with it.

I hate the idea of quitting but with so little time it is more a question of wondering if precious time can be spent on the equivalent of a literary cul-de-sac.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Saturday's top ten - ingredients of a good second hand bookshop

Visiting a second hand bookshop is a real pleasure but there are certain ingredients that make it a real success:

Spending money
Friendly staff
Some sort of scheme that makes it easy to find literature
Wide choice
Realistic prices
Hidden gems
The book in the trilogy that you were missing
Regular stock change
Easy parking if driving

Friday, December 12, 2008

Fallen for it again

If you think about this year there have been a couple of moments of pure publishing hype that remind you of the midnight openings of the Harry potter moments.

I have to confess I have fallen for most of them queuing up for the last HP instalment as well as popping out and getting Devil May Care. So it was no surprise to be standing in Borders this lunchtime and asking them to scan and slip a copy of Beedle the Bard into the bag.

Let’s hear it…sucker!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

In tough times who wants to be like Jordan?

Interestingly in the unpicking of the poor figures from HMV the performance of Waterstones came in for some criticism. It seems a bit strange that only a few months ago we were all being told that books were a luxury item that survived any downturn.

The idea was that faced with gloom and doom the average person would want some escapism and one of the cheapest but most sure ways of getting that was through books.

So the figures have undermined that. Mind you according to some reports what has been hit hardest is celebrity biographies. Who wants to read about how rich and famous some people are in the current situation is maybe escaping too far into bitterness.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Lines of Fate - post IV

Reading this book is like being dragged through a hedge backwards with only the occasional landmark helping you work out where you are.

Once Anton becomes ill and is confined to hospital it becomes easier at least to place him and work out where his mind is wandering.

He seems to be trying to understand the deeper questions of what happened to the writer he had dedicated the last few years of his life studying. The power of the hunt for love and stability is something that has also started to consume Anton and is partly an explanation of why he is in hospital.

Final bit hopefully soon. this has bogged me down for weeks...

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

A Dead Man's Memoir (A Theatrical Novel) post III

Despite the madness of the theatre he play goes into rehearsal and the hero of the story gets closer to his moment of glory. But he has to suffer interference and the politics of the theatre.

he ends the novel, which has that unfinished quality about it by saying that it is crucial that those acting on a stage make it so believable that the audience totally believes it.

the fact, like so many others in the Soviet system, that he has seen the falseness behind the facade makes it difficult to believe in what is happening on stage.

A review will follow...

Monday, December 08, 2008

A Dead Man's Memoir (A Theatrical Novel) post II

this is still not easy reading but unlike a Kafka novel, which it does resemble with its oddness, there is humour in here. The laughs come from the extremes of the theatrical crowd with one scene having a group of people al;l resemble their theatre portraits down to the clothes they are wearing.

What it shows is the madness of trying to be creative and write a play in a culture that is not only working to the state censors but also happy to add its own censorial policies.

The result is to confirm the narrators desire to commit suicide as he gets further and further away from the magical experience he had of creating the play in the first place.

Final bit tomorrow...

Sunday, December 07, 2008

What to do with the books?

have you ever faced this dilemma - you love books, buying them and hoarding them but you haven't got the space. The result is that the pleasure you might have derived from th books is reduced.

Sadly that is my situation and I am not sure what to do about it. either give lots of books away, try to sell them or just hide them in an increasingly stuffed attic.

Any advice would be much appreciated

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Saturday's top ten - TV detectives

Having caught a bit of Wallander the other night it set me thinking about some of the other detectives that have successfully made the leap from printed word to the small screen. So in an effort to get something topical in my list this week here are some of the more obvious TV literary detectives.

Sherlock Holmes
Inspector Morse
Miss Marple
Lord Peter Wimsey
Dalziel and Pascoe
Adam Dalgleish

Of course there are others I have missed I’m sure but that was a quick brain dump

Friday, December 05, 2008

book review - The Testament of Gideon Mack

There is not much point trying to put a gloss on things. I simply didn’t click with this book and the longer it went on the payoff became less likely to be rewarding, which is sadly exactly what turned out to be the case.

James Robertson puts a great deal of effort into creating a context for the story of Gideon Mack, with some web sites still going that give the impression that this is a factual story aka Lost. But all he succeeds in doing is by starting off pretending that this book is based on a testament that has been uncovered by a journalist who has in turn sent it to the publisher who is narrating the introduction.

The basic story is that a preacher went missing and after he was found dead one of the final things he had done was complete a history of his life. It is that document that forms the story. The problem, and this is a major one, is that the contents of the testament that are about to follow are shared in this introduction.

Telling the reader that they are about to read the thoughts of a man who said he met the devil and then shocked his congregation by telling them before running off to go and die on a bleak mountain rather gives the story away.

It would be alright if the testament gripped you but a story of a weak man’s life through a dour upbringing in the home of a Scotch minister and then into a relationship he never really wanted is tedious. Then add to that the main story about meeting the devil coming rather too late to revive your interest and all you are waiting for is to see how things end.

Of course you know he dies and so it is left to a postscript with the journalist heading back to the village where it all happened. The conclusion he comes to is that what the minister said happened probably all did, including the devil bit. But by then you are cheering not because the plot has been concluded but the book has finished.

This is a trawl and the central story never really grabbed me. The idea of someone meeting the devil means not a great deal to me. Is it shocking? Not really and in a country that has legends galore it seems odd that this modern attempt to add another literary one falls so short.

Ultimately the testament of Gideon Mack is a story of man who compromised his whole life and starved of love didn’t really know where to find it or how to demand it of others. The result is a fatally flawed character that ironically finds the love he is looking for in the shape of the devil. If you had invested more interest there are probably profound things there that can be unravelled and digested. Unfortunately for me this is as far as the thought process goes.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

book review - Heart of a Dog

The concept of having literary heroes is not something that I have had before but if I had to choose then Mikhail Bulgakov would be mine. He not only managed to keep his integrity when plenty of those around him were losing theirs but kept writing when the pressure of the Stalinist system would have crushed most writers.

Add to that what he wrote and this is someone who deserves to be better read and as a result of these lovely editions from Hesperus might well be. You know that when you open a Bulgakov book you are going to be introduced into a story that will not only be a clear satirical attack on the communist system but will also be a very well crafted story.

Using his knowledge and experience as a medical student this story concentrates on a theme – rejuvenation – and takes it to a science fictionesque extreme. A professor that is managing to cling onto his former luxuries – like having an apartment with a decent set of rooms picks up a dog one night.

The story starts from the dog’s perspective and he reveals how a stray learns to identify certain places like the butchers based not just on small but the colour used in the state design of the shop logos.

That knowledge comes back later to echo but meanwhile there are a series of clients, some influential and able to protect the professor, traipsing through the clinic and having all sorts of implants from other animals to rejuvenate sex drive and performance.

The dog watches all of this with mild interest until the moment he becomes the focus of the operation. A criminal’s mind is put into the dog and the resulting creature, that does start to resemble a man, is to bring in all the brutish ugliness of Moscow into the professor’s protected world.

He drives the medic to distraction and just when you think he will kill him he reverses the operation and frightens the criminals friends of the dog away with their accusations of murder.

There are clear messages here about handing over power and responsibility to criminals that are not only unable to rejuvenate themselves but also fail to have a positive impact on their community.

Although the battles between the dog and the professor are about the right to tenancy writ large this is about ownership of the state and the Tsar has been replaced with the mind of a thug. In some respects the dog is an innocent victim as well because he is no more cut out for life as a human. Once a man he still chases and kills cats and cannot suppress his former self.

This is not just about the power and ambition of science with a Jekyll and Hyde type warning about the costs of pushing the boundaries. But it is also a lesson in political science with those that dabble with ignorance also likely to get burnt as a result.

There is clearly a moral at the end that the natural order will be restored and those that in their naivety thought they could improve on society by letting the communists in can easily switch them back off. Sadly that of course proved to be more of a fiction than Bulgakov would no doubt have liked.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

In praise of Enid Blyton

One of the things you are encouraged to do is read to your children. For years I have struggled and failed. I put the reason down to the disappointment of having an audience that doesn’t listen and regularly walks out of the room or starts making noises while holding Playmobil figures in their hands.

However at last I managed it and with a book coming in a 248 pages, The Mystery of the Notes, it has taken a fair few weeks. But finishing it off felt like a triumph and my eldest loved it.

Oddly enough there was a piece about Enid Blyton in The Times the other week and the point was made that despite how unfashionable she has been and the apparent limitations of her style she does manage to turn so many children onto reading.

I am hoping for the same and am about to start a Secret Seven adventure next. The idea of a mystery, secret agents and friendship really appeals to my children and for that I have to take my hat off to Blyton. Each chapter ends with a cliffhanger and reading it out loud is a joy.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The time of year for lists

I wonder whether or not the lists of books of the year, that crop up in numerous national supplements, ever really have an impact. They certainly don’t on me. The idea that just because an author likes a book somehow you should aspire to share their taste has always bemused me.

In the web 2.0 era these lists of books of the year look like the old fashioned pontificating from high with the selected names from the literati world telling us what we should read. It all seems slightly irrelevant I’m afraid.

Monday, December 01, 2008

The Fire Engine that Dissapeared - post I

When you are feeling rough it is always comfortable to take your temperature and duvet and slip into a thriller. There is a pace that prevents you from falling asleep and even if you feel no better you can't be as bad as some of the characters described on the pages of this book.

As you have come to expect with this husband and wife writing duo the story sits up and grabs you in the first couple of chapters. In this case a man, suspected of being involved with drugs, is blown up while one of Martin Beck's homicide squad watches from over the street.

Of course after the action, with the detective pulling bodies out of the windows, the questions start to be asked. At that point Beck starts to come to the fore but he is tired and run down and there is no spark there yet.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Dead Man's Memoir (A Theatrical Novel) post I -

IF you ever get pushed on one of those questions about who is your favourite writer then the usual response is to fudge it and say that it depends on your mood or when you read them.

But I am becoming more and more convinced that my answer to that question now would still involve the usual get-out clauses but would also mention that Mikhail Bulgakov has to be close.

The reasons for that is a combination of good writing and great characterisation but also a writer with a mission. This is someone who literally risked everything to write and prized it above all else that he risked time and time again the wrath of the Stalinist state.

Sadly there aren’t that many works and in the hunt for more of his work I have picked up this book.

It feels autobiographical in the sense it is about a writer who has his book turned down by the state because it fails to pass the censors. He is dragged into the literary establishment and almost destroyed by it. But he is saved by the entrance of a publisher who wants to publish his book and then a theatre owner who is prepared to put on his play.

The story feels like something from Kafka with the publishers office changing every time he visits until finally it is gone forever. Strange but very interesting.

More tomorrow...

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Saturday's top ten - symptoms of illness

Bearing in mind that my son is ill and I am not feeling too great it seemed to be a good idea to do a list of his literal symptoms that any good author should include when writing about illness. These should include of course the crucial and enigmatic “wobbly”.

Sore throat
Running nose
Aching joints
Scratchy tongue
Sore ears
Loathing of bright lights

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Friend of Madame Maigret - post II

You are rooting for Maigret as he gets attacked and undermined by the press and in some cases his own police department but he seems to be more than two steps ahead of anyone else.

Finally he starts to flex his muscles and the net draws around the guilty with various loose ends getting sewn up and the reader being taken on a fair journey of having to guess if the bookbinder is guilty or not.

Without giving the ending away its safe to summarise by pointing out that the superintendent gets his man but also puts justice back on an even keel.

This is a book that drags you into a world of rain soaked Parisian streets and into the politics of small traders. It also tackles the influence of the press and the impact on an investigation when the waters become so muddied by the impact of gossip and speculation.

A very enjoyable read that might not have the ending you expect or particularly wanted but one that leaves Maigret standing tall as usual as a policeman in a field of his own.

A review will follow soon…

Lines of Fate - post III

I am sort of getting to grips with this book. Chapters that start with some of the thoughts that the old author wrote down on the candy wrappers then are either put into a historical context or have an influence on the researcher reading them.

In an attempt to locate more details about the author Anton heads to Moscow and discovers that an old friend who is allergic to the system and hypocrisy has disappeared and that he is now being seen by other academics as a success because of his studies.

Back in the world of the candy wrappers the painful moments when fortunes shifted in the civil war are being charted with the great landowner losing his life and then his collection of pieces from the local museum being pilfered.

But what is starting to emerge is a voice from the past that no only describes and foresees the disruption of a society that starts to lose its foundations and is driven by fear and violence.

Having lost the woman that it becomes clear now not only loved him but bore a son he seems to develop even greater tragedy.

What you start to suspect is that Anton might be that lost son and the end of the author’s life was one of those numerous clashes between individual intelligence and the state.

More tomorrow…

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Friend of Madame Maigret - post I

If you are struggling with a book, and Lines of Fate is just that, then the perfect alternative is a great thriller.

This is one of the 75 books written by Georges Simenon and it develops the character of Maigret's wife. Not hugely but more than in the other books I have read and she plays a pivotal role in helping sole the crime.

There is a book binder waiting in prison to find out if he is going to be charged on the basis of an anonymous tip-off that he burnt a body in his incinerator. But there is something else going on with Maigret being hounded in the press by the book binder's lawyer.

But the unshakable detective not only gets a grip on the case but starts to take the initiative. But you still feel the bookbinder is innocent and the real story lies elsewhere.

More tomorrow...

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Cab at the Door - post V

This has been a much more enjoyable book than I expected. I’m not a great fan of memoirs but this covers an era where plenty was happening and a way of life that is no longer around.

The descriptions of London are now museum pieces and there is an enjoyment that comes from reading this just for those descriptions of fog filled streets. In the end the education that Victor has craved all of his youth seems to come back as a possibility and her heads off to Paris to continue his education through travelling.

He knows that he is leaving his family behind but he has outgrown his father and his Christian Science beliefs and the relationships with his siblings never seems to be that strong.

But what keeps you going is the character of Victor and knowing that by holding this book in your hand he clearly fulfilled his final ambitions to be a writer.

A review will follow soon…

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Lines of Fate - post II

This is tough going. Half the time, and there's no point trying to pretend otherwise, it is hard to know exactly what is going on. That is not just because the two different stories of the author and the student researching him are being blurred but also because of the style of writing.

this is written almost like snatched conversations with you as a reader being expected to fill in the blanks and engage with the story enough to keep on top of where things are going.

I have to confess that my skills as a tired reader picking this up on the way home from work are not up to the task.

As a result there seems to be some sort of obsession by Anton the student with the love of the author he is researching. There is also a moment when the student also discovers the taste of falling foul of the law as those desperate to get his aunt's living space intrigue against him.

But most of the time it is often just words on a page dancing before your eyes and you are desperately hoping that things will click and you will get more of a handle on it.

Maybe that will happen tomorrow...

Cab at The Door - post IV

I am rather enjoying this memoir as it weaves a story of a youth blighted not just by poverty but also by the war and by the pressure on the average to go straight into the workplace.

For Victor the knife is turned by his grandfather who tells his father that he should go into the workplace at the age of 15. That ends his dreams of becoming a writer and going onto study at school and college.

But aside from that there is an interesting insight into living in the London suburbs during the war because there was bombing and zeppelins coming over. but there is also a great deal of information about the Christian Scientists because that is what Victor's father turns out to be and clearly for several years Victor himself was involved in that world partly to please his father and partly to gain access to an outlet for his writing in their magazine.

This is gentle but not totally unable to provoke a reaction.

More tomorrow...

Monday, November 24, 2008

All in the Mind - post V

The ending of this book is a severe test of Campbell’s ambitions to try and describe what must be almost indescribable – the depths of depression. He talks of shards of glass grumbling as the world implodes and the sufferer is left without anywhere to turn.

Ironically although my job verges on the mind numbing sometimes and I often feel that things are black I understood that I have not got the anything to really complain about. But for those that do the choice between living and dying seems to be blurred about no so much taking your own life but just taking a route out of the bottomless pain.

The final scenes are powerful and moving and this book is clearly written not just to share the experience of depression but also to say thank you to those that helped the author come to terms with his problems.

We often focus on the sufferer and the question of whether or not they have improved but rarely does the same attention get given to those treating them. If this book has a lasting legacy it will be to generate more understanding of depression and more sympathy for those that are trying not only to live with it, but also help those that are to conquer it.

A review will follow soon…

Sunday, November 23, 2008

All in the Mind - post IV

The climax of the story is coming and as expected the impact of the psychiatrist’s sessions with his patients on the Friday that opens the book is positive. The problem is they let him know that by emails, which he doesn’t open. He is falling apart with his marriage on the brink and the alcoholic ex Minister of health slumming it in his home.

As he goes back to work on the Monday he can barely face getting out of bed and despite all the pieces of the jigsaw that are falling into place around him he is unaware and on the brink of a mental collapse.

The lessons here seem to be that the healer is often as sick as the patient and just as desperate to find a cure.

More soon…

Saturday, November 22, 2008

A Cab at the Door - post III

Juggling several books at once gives the opportunity to forget one. Sao it was after a couple of says break that I turned back to this childhood memoir.

The tragedy is that you sense that even as things become settled and his father gets a business that seems to last the impact of the First World War is probably going to be disastrous and destroy the stability that is just starting to emerge.

The family settles in Dulwich, South east London, after being carted to Yorkshire, Ipswich and other parts of London. Once there it becomes clear to young Victor that he wants to be a writer and he starts consuming books as quickly as he can lay his hands on them and trying to get his parents to appreciate his interests.

But he fails to get a scholarship into a private school and that brings him down to earth with a bumpy and he is facing a mediocre future as the war breaks out.

More soon…

Friday, November 21, 2008

All in the Mind - post III

The joke that might be running through this is that despite his apparent sense of failure the psychiatrist has actually managed to get through to his patients and change their lives for the better.

In terms of the burns victim she ventures outside for the first time; the depression sufferer starts to come to terms with humility and the rape victim starts to see the doctor rather than just the rapist in her dreams.

Even the politician, who is embroiled in a sex scandal, is in a better position because from rock bottom he has the option to acknowledge his problems and try to rebuild his life.

The only person who is suffering is the psychiatrist who realises that his marriage is effectively defunct and his career has been ultimately quite a selfish activity.

What you pick up loud and clear from this is the mental illness is quite a selfish thing from the point of view that it is very difficult for family members to reach the sufferer and the patient spends a great deal of time concentrating on how they feel.

There are clear benefits from navel gazing if you can look up and make positive changes. But it becomes dangerous when you never look up.

More tomorrow…

Thursday, November 20, 2008

book review - Hearing Secret Harmonies

In the end you are left with an old man standing in his garden in the Somerset countryside next to a bonfire. He is surrounded not just by the smell of the fire but by the sounds and smells or autumn. He knows that time is running out and the autumn of his days is soon to be replaced by winter.

The twelfth book in the Dance to the Music of Time series Anthony Powell winds up some of the characters threads but leaves you at the end with Jenkins wondering and pondering on what life is all about.

For many of the characters, no more so than Widmerpool, life seems to be about a conquest for power. Getting wealth is a by product of the real Holy Grail to be a person of influence and someone with the ability to decide the destinies of others. Jenkins always wonders if Widmerpool is haunted by his role in sending Stringham to his death but never finds any remorse.

Equally motivated by power are those in the publishing world that find as they get older they become part of the establishment to be lampooned and undermined. No more cruelly than J C Quiggin’s twins who infused with the spirit of the 1960s embarrass him on numerous occasions. People seem to become the role models that they initially fought so hard to replace.

But the central character of Jenkins, who has by now had a long and happy marriage and a consistent career in the literary world is not only still able to stand to one side of the action but turn out by surviving and valuing happiness to personify the alternative path that many could have trod.

One character who manages to surprise till the end is Widmerpool who moves seamlessly from University Chancellor to head of a hippy commune renouncing his former motivation but at the same time striving to carve out an alternative source of influence.

He manages to come into conflict with a younger much more driven man who has come from a world far removed from the Etonian privilege enjoyed by Widmerpool. Murtlock manages to take over Widmerpool’s sect and in the end the struggle between them for leadership is the cause of the older man’s death as he tries to prove he can still keep up.

But one of the main themes here is about reflections with Jenkins able to accept more than most that he is now at the end of a generation and everything is about looking back not forward. He is occasionally dragged back through what his old friend Moreland called sentimentality jogging memories by pictures or places but as he watches acquaintances self-destruct or lose a life’s work he manages to steer a course to his safe home in the countryside.

For the first time really you feel that this where there are real moments of truth with Powell’s home life in Frome being described in the passages about the countryside. There is also a feeling that out where the worst thing to fear are devils in old stone circles age has also taken Jenkins away from London.

The bright lights and parties that first attracted him to the capital and then the work that kept him there have gone. Released from the centre of power he is also released from the fever that grips those looking for power.

There have been numerous moments in the 12 book series when the reader wants to urge Jenkins forward but in the end his approach, with its wisdom and detachment, succeeds.

Lines of Fate - post I

There is something about literature when it is not easy. It challenges the way you read demanding more concentration and in some cases more imagination to make the jumps that the author is demanding of you. There are also tests of memory that you will only pass if you have been really concentrating.

In some respects this book reminds me of Georges Perec with a bold idea being laid down from the start and time shifting backwards and forwards enough to confuse from the first paragraph.

In Lines of Fate the story that starts to emerge is of a student who is writing a dissertation on an overlooked author who spent most of his life in both exile and enforced exile. Having found most of his works and sketched a biography of his life the student Anton Lizavin has almost completed his studies on Simeon Milashevich.

But he then discovers that the author used to write scraps of thoughts on the back of sweet wrappers because he did not have access to paper. These bits of paper are half thoughts and in some cases appear to be directly addressed to Anton making his quest for the real Milashevich far from finished.

There are red herrings with double identities and different names being used to describe the same person and place and you feel that Kharitonov is having fun with the reader mostly at your own expense as you struggle to navigate through to a point where you feel you have some handle on the story.

More tomorrow…

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

All in the Mind - post II

A trip to a brothel after a day of failure ends the day for the psychiatrist but ironically for his patients it seems that he did not do as badly as he thought leaving them with plenty to ponder. But the looming funeral of his aunt starts Sturrock on a downer and he is starting to lose any grip he had with his wife doing her best to push him over the edge with her incessant nagging and trivial tasks.

Having established all the main characters and their relationships towards each other the writing starts to feel slightly more relaxed with it clearly building towards some sort of crescendo.

Have to confess that despite some depressing (pardon the pun) storylines this is a fairly enjoyable read and Campbell is clearly leaning heavily on personal experience to make it feel as totally believable as it does.

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

book review - The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The way things usually work is that you read the book then go to see the film and spend the rest of the evening grumbling about how the printed word was so much superior. But with this book it was the film that drove me to pick up the novella.

The story of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s last few months after he slipped into a state that left him unable to use anything to communicate other than his left eyelid is not only inspirational but a testament to the power of the imagination.

The film is faithful to the book and both have the ability to move you as a person who could have folded in on themselves completely allows his mind to live beyond the confines of his body and the hospital.

The reason why this was an international nest seller is partly because the story inspires such interest but also because once you are listening to the voice it reminds you of how much gets taken for granted and how little we all live, despite being able bodied and free of movement.

Having locked-in syndrome following a massive stroke leaves him feeling as if he is in a diving bell when his mind still has the ability to soar and fly like a butterfly.

His imagination allows him not only to give nicknames to everyone around him and humanise a very difficult situation but also conjure up ghosts of the past with his imagination bringing the Empress who established the hospital back to life.

What makes this even more poignant is the life he had before the stroke. As editor in chief of Elle he travelled the world, enjoyed the luxuries of moving in social circles that included film stars and musicians and he was about to get his hands on the car of his dreams.

Although a short book it leaves you thinking and makes you question the way you live your life, why we all waste so much time chasing nonsense and just how brave we would be in a similar situation.

When you realise the book was dictated through the blinking of an eye it also makes you realise just how precious and powerful words on a page can be.

All in the Mind - post I

Campbell starts to weave the story together with alternate chapters introducing the patients heading in for consultations. There is a burns victim who hates how her injuries have undermined her life and confidence, a depressive, a rape victim and a sex addict.

But the real patient is the psychiatrist Sturrock who is starting to fall apart and when ever the story concentrates on him it becomes more interesting. He seems to be stuck with an obsessive wife, suffers from depression and is lusting after one of his patients.

The one problem though with a book that is about psychatiry is that it can be fairly depressing reading. There is a black humour lurking behind the story but there are also individual scenarios that can be uncomfortable reading. Mind you they are handled with sensitivity.

What you really want to know is whether or not just like his depressed patient Sturrock will lose it and become a danger to others.

More tomorrow…

Monday, November 17, 2008

First chapter, first impression - All in the Mind

This might be unfashionable but I have to admit a liking for Alistair Campbell. He always reminded me of one of those preachers who stood up and spouted graphic warnings about hell. In a world where it was about what was left unsaid he had a great ability to steam in and simply say it.

So it is with interest that I pick up his first novel. Following in the wake of the Blair years this is Campbell turning his hand to fiction and the subject seems to be something close to his heart.

The book starts with an introduction to Professor Martin Sturrock who is about to start his Friday before he is detained from heading into work as a psychiatrist but having a row with his wife and a phone call from his cousin informing him that his aunt has died.

The scene is set with a psychiatrist who is himself suffering from depression. He struggles outside of his environment in his clinic and once there he takes comfort from meeting people more depressed than himself.

A few pages in and you want to see where it is going. More tomorrow…

The Gutenberg Elegies

Since the original book came out a lot has happened and no more than to Birkerts himself as he reveals in this afterword to the 2006 edition.

He has got two children that are playing on consoles and surfing the web and he has been forced to admit that he himself is using the technology and rather likes the speed. But he looks at it in the wider context and points out that society has changed, not just his household.

“We are quickly acquiescing ourselves into a reality unlike anything we’ve known before. We are replacing the so-called real with the virtual, substituting the image for the thing, moving about ever more in the zone of simulations.” Page 236

Reading has been assaulted and no longer happens in the intense solitary way. Non-fiction has threatened fiction and the support for literary journalism has been eroded by the decline in the support of that type of writing.

Things seem to be shallow but it doesn’t seem to be bothering anyone and avoiding the big questions is now normal.

“Turning our back on full sensory business of living, we have installed another – proxy – world between ourselves and that original place. And each new flashing circuit we mint makes the division between worlds more complete, rubbing away what raw declarations we have left.” Page 249

Reading could be the route to salvation and we must all decide as individuals how we want to balance between the new and old to work out what level we say no more and refuse it.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Gutenberg Elegies

As the end draws near this personal book becomes even more so with him urging readers to take a stand against the digital future.

Chapter 15
Birkerts makes it very personal talking about a battle inside himself.

“What is it that I envision? Not a revolution – this is not a revolutionary scenario. I see instead a steady displacement of old by new, a generational pressure that escalates, its momentum gathering as the members of the old dispensation age and die off.” Page 214

He talks of depth and duration and the difference with an online experience. But this is quite emotional stuff with references to the online world being the devil.

“We have destroyed that duration. We have created invisible elsewheres that are as immediate as our actual surroundings. We have fractured the flow of time, layered it into competing simultaneities. We learn to do five things at once or pay the price. We have plunged ourselves into an environment of invisible signals and operations; we live in a world where it is unthinkable to walk five miles to visit a friend as it was once unthinkable to speak across that distance through a wire.” Page 219

He says the changes over the last 25 years have been quick in terms of the technological advances and have had a massive impact but no one questions if they have been positive. There seems to be a blind acceptance of the benefits of technology.

Birkerts also talks about technology making you lose something but then it seems to become some sort of Luddite's dream with the telephone, fax, answer phone and email all getting cursed.

Tomorrow I will post a summary of the afterword to the 2006 edition…

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Saturday's top ten - literary reads

This is a bit of a subjective one but these are the top ten places I go to to find information about books and to immerse myself in the literary world that can be found on the high street. Obviously there are numerous blogs that are also enjoyable but I think I will save a top ten of those for another weekend.

Literary Review
Times Literary Supplement
London Review of Books
Slightly Foxed
The Guardian Saturday Review section
The Times Saturday books section
The Independent Friday arts supplement
The Telegraph (can’t remember which day)
The Financial Times magazine on a Saturday
The Bookseller – as a window onto the world of publishing

Friday, November 14, 2008

Cab at The Door - post II

Despite the constant movement of the family and the cracks in the parental marriage there is a loyalty shown in the young Vic not so much towards his family but towards London.

So when they move into the centre of the City he revels in the poverty and starts indulging in habits that even his parents disapprove of. They carry on when he has another spell back in Yorkshire at his grandparents.

There is a real sense of a childhood at the turn of the century with older boys threatening him with rumours of the reappearance of Jack the Ripper and references to the death of the King.

This evokes not just the past but the emergence of what became the future with his father representing the care-free modern man and his father the preacher holding all of the values of the Victorian era.

It is an easy read and one that shows underlines the old maxim about writers writing about what they know.

More soon…

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Gutenberg Elegies

Having had a stab at the world of hypertext the last few chapters appear to be discussions based on a handful of works by other authors.

Chapter 13
Using the book Death of Literature as a reference point he points out that the value and respect that used to be given to literature has disappeared.

Literature has suffered over the years in direct competition with the sciences and he asks where are the thinkers in society let alone the authors?

Arguments about Marxism undermined literature then along came TV and gave it a real kick in the teeth. Books and literature have lost their authority and position in the knowledge tree.

Kerman is merely interested in literature in academia and not the general population.

There are also problems with the pressure of time.

“Who among us can generate regularly the stillness and concentration and will to read Henry James, or Joseph Conrad, or James Joyce, or Virginia Woolf as they were meant to be read?” page 191

One slight problem is that it refers a lot to the American reader and as someone from the UK you do tend to start feeling a bit isolated.

“My nightmare scenario is not one of neotroglodytes grunting and wielding clubs, but of efficient and prosperous information managers living in the shallows of what it means to be human and not knowing the difference. I fear a world become sanitised and superficial, in which people have forgotten the primal terms of existence - the terrors and agons – and in which the existential unknown is banished outside the pulsing circulation system of data.” Page 194

We are approaching a crisis of meaning.

Chapter 14

The book has lost its prestige and threatened by video games and MTV etc but society is bless about isolated individuals as we all rush to get online and live inside a network consciousness.

“Fifty years ago the human environment was still more or less the natural environment. We had central heating and labour-saving devices and high-speed travel, but these were still only partial modifications of the natural given. It is the natural given that is now gone. Now, for better or worse, we move almost entirely within a regulated and mediated environment. Our primary relation to the world has been altered.” Page 205

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Cab at the Door - post I

Now and again when I get the chance I pick up a copy of the literary quarterly Slightly Foxed. The magazine is always a real joy to read with various articles all espousing the pleasure of reading with various personal reactions to books and texts related. But earlier this year the magazine started publishing its own books. I picked up the first and third ones, not sure why I omitted the second one, and started to dip into the third one.

This is a memoir that I am going to read alongside maxim Gorky’s My Childhood, because in many respects they promise to be similar.

The Cab at the Door in the title refers to the constant moving of the family as they moved to escape the debts run up by the father. A poor childhood is very much dominated by the father’s constant movement but ironically he never seems to suffer with the brunt of the misery being taken on by the mother.

Past around various locations the narrator Vic is shuffled off to his grandparents who live in a Manse in Yorkshire but things are strained with the preacher and things never seem to settle down for Vic and his family.

More tomorrow…

The Fatal Eggs - post II

At points it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming this is some sort of farce focusing on the role the media and the politicians and the secret service can play. But as things take a more frightening turn the story becomes more horror science fiction and the power of the description makes this really work.

A cock up that must have been a constant feature of a centralised state causes a chain reaction that leads to mayhem. What is added to the mix is an over zealous party member who believes he can use the ray of light to further his own career.

In the end it costs him his wife and his sanity as giant snakes and crocodiles rip through the countryside. In the end with Moscow threatened the end comes for the besieged professor who has seen his dreams of isolated experimenting shattered forever.

This might be a very short book, at just shy of 100 pages, but it is a well weaved story and it really captures your imagination and because of the combination of humour, satire and wicked science fiction this is going to come close to being one of my favourite reads of the year.

A review will follow soon…

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Fatal Eggs - post I

With his background in science and medicine Bulgakov confidently weaves a story that in many respects is similar to A Dog's Heart.

Just as with that story there is a professor Persikov beavering away in his lab in Moscow trying to make a breakthrough in his field, which concerns frogs. He discovers, almost by accident a ray of life that makes everything in its path grow at an incredibly fast rate. Before long the news of his discovery has spread across moscow and he is besieged by journalists.

Where A Dog's Heart was concerned with the politics of shared housing and a dumbed down intellectualism that threatened to hand the stupid the chance to lead this is also about journalism.

The professor at the heart of the story, Persikov, is a victim of tabloid journalism that makes his brief utterances long passages that land him in even more hot water. There is one great exchange when the professor asks the secret police if they can not rid him of the problem:

"And is it not possible for you to shoot the reporters?' asked Persikov, looking over the top of his glasses.
This question amused the guests greatly. Not only the gloomy small one, but even the tinted one in the entrance hall smiled. The angel, sparkling and beaming, explained that for the moment, hm... of course, it would be a good thing... but, you see, the press, after all... although, actually, a plan like that is already taking shape in the Council of Labour and Defence..."

The rest of this short book will be concluded tomorrow with the professor no doubt being drafted in with his ray of life to help repopulate the Russian chicken world following a plague that has wiped out poultry. No doubt the experiments will lead to something horrendous. Just like they did in real life when old Uncle Joe was steering the good ship USSR.

More tomorrow...

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Free Fishers - post III

There are moments here when Buchan is juggling four different strands of the same story as the various groups come together for the climax. He moves backwards and forwards but never loses the gathering pace of the story and as a result by the time the final confrontation comes you are wound up enough to appreciate it.

But this is not just a straight forward adventure story of a dastardly plot to assassinate the prime minister being foiled and is much more with the subtle differences between Scots and English, learned and unlearned men getting a going over as well.

By the end you realise that you are in the hands of a brilliant story teller who has weaved a story from relatively innocent beginnings. The slow start and the mixed messages that are sent out about the likely plot development make the final third of the novel an even greater and more enjoyable surprise.

You might know how things will end up but you don’t know how and that makes this so gripping.

A review will follow soon…

Sunday, November 09, 2008

book review - Temporary Kings

Having mentioned in a review of the previous volume Books do Furnish a Room those connections are in the open here as Anthony Powell moves the location of the action to Venice.

Jenkins is on an academic publishing conference organised by Mark Members and along with some faces from the previous book, Ada now a successful novelist among them, there are some new comers. Among those are two figures that stand out. Russell Gwinnet, a academic from the US announces he plans to produce a biography of Trapnel who has died since the last volume. Then there is Dr Brightman who has the ability to combine an academic ignorance of the real world with an interest in gossip and intrigue.

There is plenty of that provided by the Widmerpools. Pamela is linked too the death of a French public figure and he is embarrassed and embarrassing as they drag each other round Venice. They are guests of a film star that Pamela wants to turn her into a film star but they all meet as the academics do a tour of the film director’s palace.

On the ceiling in the film director’s palace is a painting depicting a King quite happy to allow another man to sleep with his Queen while he looks on. As the book develops it becomes clear that this is the sexual activity enjoyed by the Widmerpool couple.

But Pamela is never one to sit tight and she makes a beeline for Gwinnet and after hearing that the American has purchased at auction a copy of Trapnel’s writings that will help him construct the great lost novel that Pamela destroyed the two enjoy a heated relationship.

Jenkins watches on as these relationships develop and is confined to the margins, even when he visits his first boss who has moved from publishing to painting and now lives in Venice. Throughout it all the twin figures of Kenneth and Pamela Widmerpool are the subject of gossip and scandal.

Once back in England Jenkins is reminded of the past once again as he sits by the bedside and watches his friend Moreland die but he is also keeping an eye on the future with Widmerpool embroiled in a spying scandal and Pamela missing out on her role as a film star.

The ghosts of the past are kept alive with Bagshaw meeting with Gwinnet to fill him in on the life of his autobiographical subject Trapnel. The American is an oddity who has problems conversing and is obsessed with death with his former girlfriend’s death being some cause of erotic stimulation for him.

The book is rather a watershed with not only the death of Moreland but also of Pamela. Maybe part of the problem for me with this volume is that never having particularly cared much for Pamela her rise and fall rather passes me by. Of course she has a role in influencing other characters and pushing life in a certain direction. But with it looking as if she has taken her own life to please her new lover Gwinnet it just feels like not only a waste but to some extent a relief that the remaining book will not be dominated by her personality.

Although it is becoming clear that Jenkins is getting older and his connections with the dance is becoming ever more limited as he fellow dancers dies off there is a real sense of the end coming and ironically it is Jenkins who starts to step into the spotlight. After years and years of describing other people and their achievements it starts to look as if his is not only surviving but also doing so with family, health and mind intact.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Saturday's top ten - Russian authors

For the Saturday top ten this week the selection, in no particular order, is Russian writers. I love Russian history and the writing from the country reflects the realities of living during the turbulent times of both Tsarism and communism. Here are just a few of the writers that would have to make any top ten list. There are of course plenty more that wait to be read…


Friday, November 07, 2008

The Gutenberg Elegies

This book has been dragging on and although the level; of argument is sustained it does feel like being battered by a pub ranter at times and you feel that there has to be a little bit more grey in his outlook and not so much black and white.

Chapter 11
He takes head on the difference between the printed word and the words that appear on screen.

“Extremists - I meet more and more of them - argue that the printed page has been but a temporary habitation for the word. The book, they say, is no longer the axis of our intellectual culture. There is a kind of aggressiveness in their proselytising. The stationary arrangement of language on a page is outmoded. The word, they say, has broken from the corral, is already galloping in its new element, jumping with the speed of electricity from screen to screen.” Page 152

“Disputants, many of them writers, say to me, “Words are still words – on a page, on a screen – what’s the difference?” There is much shrugging of the shoulders. But this will never do. The changes are profound and the differences are consequential. Nearly weightless though it id, the word printed on a page is a thing. The configuration of impulses on a screen is not – it is a manifestation, an indeterminate entity both particle and wave, an ectoplasmic arrival and departure.” Page 154

Computerised words do exist in some way but it is not the same sense of depth as a printed word.

He talks about an erosion of the “domination of the author”.

But he admits it will take a long time for someone like him who reads in a certain way and uses a typewriter to come round to a different reading experience.

Chapter 12
He laments the loss of the combination of literary and intellectual imagination. He challenges the view that just because more books are now written and sold that we are better off. There has been a dumbing down and embarrassment has undermined the literary elite.

Because of the decline in the interest in literature you face a split between the academic elite and the general mass of people that has widened over the past few decades and is being sped up with the emergence of technology.

While technology is seen as the demon that is driving us all into a social sheep-pen where we share exactly the same experiences. You have to suspect that actually he has stumbled on larger issues here that are being filtered through his fairly limited argument.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Away, so not posting with substance

Currently sitting in a hotel room in Lisbon having sat through a day of presentations from various executives from Cisco. As a result the normal reading I would have aimed to have done has not been and also there is an evening engagement so the chances of posting a review are slim. So apologies things should be back to normal late tomorrow night.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Free Fishers - post II

It has been a while since I read 39 Steps but you are reminded how capable Buchan is of weaving a plot with pace and mystery.

Having spent 80 odd pages laying the foundations the story goes up a gear and Lammas starts to come into his own as the true evil of the scheme to undermine the British government becomes clear. Lammas is the one who has the strange encounter with one of the main victims of the plot and he picks up the burden of chasing down the arch plotter Crammer and releasing Mrs Crammer from certain death.

Up to this point the story has been muddied with love interests of two sons of significant men but for now that is cast aside as the main plot takes over. Buchan splits up the characters and has the action coming to a conclusion from several different directions. He also uses coincidence with great effect as well as making his characters walk the tightrope between being believed and being seen as mad.
As things start to move towards some sort of conclusion the reader is gripped expecting the plot to go in a certain direction but gladly letting Buchan take you on that journey.

More tomorrow...

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The Free Fishers - post I

Having read about one Scottish minister get embroiled with mystery it seemed like an apt choice to pull John Buchan’s Free Fishers off the shelf.

This is written in the Scottish style with language sometimes making it difficult to quite get the gist. But the story starts to kick in and what turns into a mission for Nanty Lammas the university lecturer and minister of the Kirk to protect a love struck youg man from a duel widens out into something much more interesting.

On his way to save the young man Lammas bumps into a young man who is part of the Free Fishers group of fishermen but is also love struck. But Lammas is quickly brought into the mission that has been handed to the free fishers by the King.

The centre of the problem is a woman who apparently is a spy for the French and using her remote stately home as a base for spying, smuggling people into and out of the country. Now Lammas has the task of breaking the spy ring as well as saving the young lover from the pistol shot that threatens him in a duel.

More tomorrow…

Monday, November 03, 2008

The Testament of Gideon Mack - post V

Hurrah. Finally the book ends and can be put on the pile. I don’t know why this didn’t click for me but it just didn’t work. The story had all been told in the start and all you were waiting for at the end was to see the reaction from those that had been named as some of the principle characters in Gideon Mack’s life.

But even there you felt frustrated because none of the characters contacted by the journalist working on behalf of the publisher had seen the transcript so were only adding a different angle to a story you had already read.

Ultimately there are questions being asked here about what happens to someone who spends their entire life compromising themselves. There are numerous references to a childhood of being unloved with that being suggested by some as a trigger for a breakdown.

When the breakdown comes it comes with style with Gideon deciding to tell his congregation about the meeting he had with the devil. That kills off his career as a minister and also forces the last few days to come that bit quicker.

But was he really mad? Can a society that is happy to contemplate the existence of God also accept the possibility of the devil? These are the sorts of questions you are left with.

Goodness knows what Richard & Judy made of it but for me this was not an enjoyable read but something of a slog.

A review will come soon..

Sunday, November 02, 2008

bookmark of the week

My niece and nephew spent their summer holiday touring America and kindly picked up a bookmark from Alcatraz for me on their travels. A bookmark makes a great gift because unlike anything else from a souvenir shop it is likely to be used for years to come and remind you not of the place, because I have not been there, but of the people who kindly gave it to you.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Saturday's top ten - bookshops

I remember once reading about a man who had been to every football ground in Britain. Not quite sure that sort of mission is a wise idea but there is something about visiting bookshops that is attractive. When you get the opportunity to pop into a well known one there is a temptation to go inside and get a feel for its take on the ancient art of book selling. My most recent experience was in Hatchard’s which had a great fiction section in a basement as well as a great selection with books that you don’t often see for sale in your common outlet.

In no particular order these are a top ten of the bookshops I like to frequent given the time and opportunity

Galloway & Porter Cambridge
Oxfam bookshop Bath
Toppings bookshop Bath
Hatchards London
Waterstone’s in the old Simpsons building London
Oxfam Blackheath
West Dulwich Bookshop
Foyles London
Blackwell’s London
Heffers Cambridge

Friday, October 31, 2008

Trick or treat

“One need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Material place.”

Emily Dickinson
One Need Not Be a Chamber to be Haunted (1862)

Thursday, October 30, 2008

book review - Books do Furnish a Room

No doubt reflecting the urge of the time having spent three books on the war Anthony Powell is keen to take the reader on to a post-war world. In the case of the main character Nicholas Jenkins that means back into the literary world writing and reviewing books.

As a result some of the livelier characters emerge with the establishment of a literary and political magazine Fission. Most of the characters that have been connected with reviewing and political writing are involved with Quiggin and Members both having a connection with the magazine.

But it is the arrival on the scene of the writer Trapnel and the editor of Fission Bagshaw, who is responsible for the quote about books furnishing a room. What gives Fission its life is ironically the sudden death of Erridge who was planning to launch a left-wing magazine. His trust allows for the magazine to go ahead with Widmerpool, now an MP, helping steer the magazine through its tricky first few months.

Lurking in the background throughout the story is Pamela whop has married Widmerpool but is still odd. She turns up late at the funeral and then is sick in a vase in Erridge’s house before walking out and leaving her embarrassed husband to maker her excuses.

She becomes intertwined with other characters throughout the story and emerges as Trapnel’s lover and for a period leaves Widmerpool to set up home with the writer. Trapnel becomes some sort of focus of the novel as he expounds his theories of writing and what it takes to produce a masterpiece. He has one popular work of fiction to his name but still feels that he has more in him. He shares his views with Bagshaw and Jenkins in various pubs and while not writing, drinking or lecturing he is on the look out for the chance to tap up anyone for money.

So it is ironical that Pamela, who likes the fines things in life runs off with him, but it is through Trapnel that her character starts to unravel. She is effectively frigid; motivated by attention that derides from her behaviour and in the end destroys not just Trapnel’s unfinished novel but also his spark.

With his real life experience as a literary editor Jenkins is able to paint a very realistic picture of the publishing world with a fair degree of pretension running round a fairly limited and clearly defined social circle. Into this mix several critics are introduced, Sillery’s secretary Ada, who has plans to become a writer herself.

But the main axis is between the writer X. Trapnel, Bagshaw the editor and Widmerpool the financial string puller. In the end the magazine bites the dust because Trapnel writes and Bagshaw publishes a parody of Widmerpool’s left-wing economic ravings. Plus of course Trapnel has run of with Pamela.

As a bridge to a post-war world, Fission serves Jenkins well giving him the chance to re-establish himself in the literary world. Unlike some of his contemporaries, notably Quiggin, he remains a reviewer and novelist and doesn’t become a publisher.

But the storm is brewing with Widmerpool and Pamela and that is clearly going to be carried over to the next book.

I have to confess Pamela, as a character and woman, does nothing for me. Part of it I suspect is because I have a suspicion that she is some sort of classical reference to some Goddess or other that captivates then destroys men. Failing to grasp that reference, but being slightly aware of it, makes you dislike her even more. Through the references to art and classical mythology Powell is trying to draw your attention to other places but I am failing to get those and the result is a slight feeling of frustration.

Still the story is now entering its final phase and there is a real determination to see how things turn out.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Testament of Gideon Mack - post IV

Had a go at it and got a bit further on with the moment when Gideon meets the devil about to be described. Before he slips into the Black Jaws he gets entangled romantically with Elsie, his old friend telling her that he loves her, and then has to disappoint fellow minister Lorna who reveals she has fallen in love with him.

But it is the moment he falls into the Black Jaws that he starts to get more interesting. The problem is that as a result of the mysterious start you know what is going to happen and that really is the main criticism.

The only real mystery is why Mack was seen after he had died but presumably his testament had been completed before that. Equally there is going to be some reaction presumably from Elsie and John, Gideon’s old friends, but getting through another hundred pages to get there is slow going.

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Stuck in a reading rut

Having looked back, via the wonders of the Internet, to what was happening this time last year it has occurred to me that I am stuck in a bit of a rut. Both The Gutenberg Elegies and The Testament of Gideon Mack have effectively stalled and although I sneaked in a bit of Bulgakov the thought of finishing those other two books is starting to haunt me.

I know some people would just walk away but I like to finish a book once started and so with a hundred odd pages – roughly a third or half of the book – already consumed the task is going to be to knuckle down and just get on with it.

The problem is the bright lights of what lies ahead is almost overwhelmingly distracting. More Bulgakov, a great looking Russian book Lines of Fate by Mark Kharitonov and then some other bits and pieces that have been acquired from charity shops and bookshops in the past few months.

Those people who can genuinely keep several books on the go have my admiration. After trying to balance three and occasionally four I have concluded that I am strictly a two-book man at most.

Anyway back to it, come on Mack and Gutenberg…

Monday, October 27, 2008

A Dog's Heart - post III

The book ends with a twist but not the one you might have been expecting. The pressure starts to mount as the dog/human gets a job ridding the city of cats. He starts to throw his weight around Moscow and in the end drives the doctor’s to conspire against him with the reader led to believe that the doctors will kill him.

In a fireside discussion they talk of the consequences and reveal that they will lose everything if they do kill the thuggish lodger. It sums up the risks that those who thought that they could fight the authorities had to weigh up with most like these men deciding that the costs were not worth it.

In the end the dog is returned and those looking for a murderer are dumbfounded and disturbed by the transformation that they have witnessed. Were they equally as concerned as the country tore itself apart?

There are also questions here about science and is it a dog’s heart or a man’s heart? Where does the evil come from?

Cracking book. A review will follow soon…

Sunday, October 26, 2008

bookmark of the week

Might seem like an odd thing to post about bookmark of the week next to a blank space but the point here is that increasingly bookmarks are one of the items that are absent from the gift shop. Couldn’t find one in Legoland in the shop today, mind you it was a scrum in there, but that is not an unusual occurrence and fewer shops are selling them.

Bookmarks are special and worth selling because they encourage reading, help preserve memories and are often one of the more affordable items. Let’s see more of them…

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Updike every page you turn

John Updike must obviously be doing the press tour to promote his latest the Widows of Eastwick. He pops up in a couple of papers today with an insight into his views of growing old and remaining a voice.

I haven’t had the chance to read this yet but there is an interesting couple of pieces with David Baddiel talking about the author in his column in The Times and the Telegraph running a longer feature.

Will get round to reading them but for Updike fans it seems the publicity machine is currently cranking out a fair bit of material.

Friday, October 24, 2008

book review - The Unfree French

On the ferry heading over to France for my holiday this year I noticed that the shop on board had a few books that were crammed in with the chocolates, fags and booze. On the way home I chose to dispose of some euros and picked up Richard Vinen’s book. It seemed an odd thing to be selling on a boat that would include a fair amount of French passengers.

Still why not with this promising to dispel some of the myths of the occupation years and inform a general reader of what happened in France just before Hitler and company took over and the resulting four years.

If there were one word that sums up what happened during those years it would have to be “confusion”. No one seemed to know what was going on and as a result the army fled, fought when the war was over, and the general population often had no idea what was going on. In terms of the politics it was almost the same with Vichy trying to stand for some sort of French rule while having to accept that there was powerlessness in the face of German demands and wishes.

The other word that could also be taken away from this book is cruelty. Sometimes the fate for those that were taken as prisoners of war dragged to work in Germany or dammed by association with Germans was incredibly cruel. Obviously the Jews suffered but other groups were also victims of a regime of oppression and a country that was occasionally quite prepared to denounce each other.

The reasons for the fall of France are probably covered better elsewhere in military histories but the military historians usually walk away after the battles have been fought. Vinen is different and what he does is use letters, memoirs and other primary sources to patch together what it felt like to be living in France during the war years. As a result he manages to get that randomness of fate that meant some survived and others took a wrong turn and were dealt a much harsher hand.

One of the lasting impressions this book will leave me with is the impact that Blitzkrieg can have not just militarily but on the psyche of a nation. France never really recovered from the attack that swept pass the Maginot Line and saw Hitler walking into Paris. The people had various groups to blame - the army, the politicians and external agents – but ultimately the fingers could have been pointed into the air because there was no satisfaction for anyone trying to pin blame.

History needs to be understood and read because it contains millions of stories of normal people that were living through extraordinary times. Vinen gives voices to several and the effect is to open your eyes. How would you have reacted? Would you have fled, supported Vichy or joined the resistance and fought on? The insights of those who really faced those decisions can provide a great deal of food for thought but ultimately thankfully the reader of this history doesn’t have to find answers to those questions.

A trip to France will never quite be the same again and for that Vinen deserves a great deal of recognition.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Testament of Gideon Mack - post III

There is an obsession with this stone that Gideon has discovered in the woods and no matter who he tells about it he is always met with incredulity and when he attempts to photograph it the images are blank.

He then also introduces a previous minister’s tales of darkness and mystery surrounding a local waterfall known as the black jaws.

All of this is happening before and after his wife’s death in a car accident. That leaves Gideon not only alone but open to the possibility of a liaison with Elsie, his wife’s best friend, and then he becomes a target of love by another minister and a god fearing woman in the local community.

Because he is alone in the house most of the dialogue he has is now with himself and his own thoughts and that adds to the sense that he is slowly going mad. One of the continuing features of the story that is starting to nag at me is the fact that no one else gets the chance to see this stone that has cropped up in the hills and Gideon starts to keep it more as a secret which has the irritating consequence of keeping the stone from every having that second independent validation.

More to come…

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A Dog's Heart - post II

This is a great idea with the story entering Jekyll and Hyde territory as the professor swaps the brain of a man and testicles with the dog. Just as with Frankenstein and Stephenson’s work the dilemma is for the bender of scientific laws as he has to face up to the consequences of his action.

Sure there is something immediate about the changes that the communists were trying to impose on Russia in an attempt to politically rejuvenate the country but as they found out handing power to certain types of people backfired.

As the stitches sew back up the dog’s skull there is a pause as you expect some sort of intelligent dog to spring forth but the result is not quite what you would expect with the dog becoming humanised. He takes on the character of a thug that appears to be a mixture of the stray dogs own upbringing and the roughness of the man who had a background as a criminal.

The result of this thuggish beast is to turn the world of the professor upside down. Firstly the introduction of foul language and violence but then he also starts to drag his owner/creator into a dispute into with the housing committee which results in the professor losing some of his rooms.

The irony is that this dog/man is exactly the sort of Russian and Russia that the opera-loving professor had tried so hard to keep out of his home.

Last chunk tomorrow…

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A Dog's Heart - post I

There is something that is wonderful about Russian literature when it is being delivered by someone with the skill of Bulgakov. The imagination is running at full speed with the narrator for large chunks being a stray dog, and the satirical look at Soviet society is also revved up. But there is also something else that leans on the author’s experience in the medical field as the dog meets and moves in with a professor dedicated to the strange art of rejuvenation.

Monkey’s ovaries inserted into old women and god knows what else inserted into elderly politicians to keep them performing in the bedroom all happen as the dog starts to regain health and acclimatise himself to his new surroundings.

Meanwhile the professor faces a stand-off with the housing committee about the number of rooms he enjoys using and then lectures his assistance on his dislike of the proletariat. The professor has the support of those he treats but he is sailing close to the wind if that were to ever fail.

That as well as a hint he might have some plans for the dog keep you wondering just where this is going. Plus you wonder what other secrets of the dog’s mind will be revealed with so far the lessons of associating colours with meat and butchers emporiums something that I had top confess had never passed my mind.

More tomorrow or it might be some more Gideon Mack, see how things work out…