Saturday, January 31, 2009

Boy in Darkness - post I

If there is one word that you have to associate with Mervyn Peake it is imagination and it is a feature of this story from the very outset.

Those who have read the Gormenghast Trilogy will be familiar with the figure of Titus Groan. The boy runs away from his inheritance and the castle his family rule over in those stories and heads into strange worlds. This story is apparently what happened to him in between deciding to run away and when he got to the wilderness.

What happens here involves a relatively small cast it appears but dark ideas that are described in such a way that they become even darker if that makes sense. The idea of a goat, hyena and lamb talking and living in relative seclusion is made much darker with the revelation that they were once men and have been destroyed by the lamb. He has encouraged them to resemble and grow to become beasts and presumably with the arrival in his lair of Titus will try to do so once again.

The way evil and fear are portrayed and inspired is through the description of colour, particularly of eyes, and of the eerie use of animals, with dogs being a feature, before Titus even comes across the goat and his friends.

More tomorrow…

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Reader - post III

This story ends with you choking back the tears. Not so much for Hanna’s character but the sense of what is lost by an untimely death. Those that went through the holocaust were cut down and so that theme continues years later.

After all Hanna says that the only people she feels she has to answer to are the dead.

This story is weaved brilliantly with the sense of victim hood continuing right to the very end. Michael was never one of Hanna’s victims in the camps but he ends up being damaged by her long afterwards and his sexual and marital relationships are damaged by his youthful experiences.

But this is also a book about a generation of Germans, step forward Michael’s father, that were unable to face up to the past even if they themselves were not guilty of being involved with the crimes. That sense of everyone being either a victim or guilty is something that you are encouraged to question.

That seems to be the lasting impact of the story with you wondering just where the lines between the past and the present can be drawn and when a victim becomes a persecutor and vice versa.

A review will follow soon…

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Reader - post II

The Reader

The affair continues and the reading of books after love making sessions becomes a pattern that is not broken even when Michael starts to develop friendships at school. But there comes a point where the two worlds collide and after he fails to publicly recognise Hanna she disappears.

Michael then grows up and opts to study law and when on his course concentrates on cases involving ex-Nazis. That is when he comes into contact with Hanna again. She is revealed by her tendency to get prisoners in the camp where she was a guard to read to her at night.

I am still struggling with the short chapters with a relatively shallow characterisation. The focus is the main relationship but Hanna knows a little about him and as he watches the trial it becomes clear he knows very little about her. As a reader is sometimes feels like you are watching scenes through a glass window, detached from feeling the story.

More tomorrow…

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Reader - post I

Before I get any further let me just stress that I picked this book up a while ago and this is not a case of having a knee-jerk reaction to the film. In fact when I started I was not totally aware the two were related as movies often change their name to have little similarity with the novel they are based on. But this is of course the work that looks like it might get Kate Winslet an Oscar.

The chapters are short and as a result it feels quite clipped as the story unfolds in segments with the 15 year old boy entering into an affair with a 36 year old tram conductor.

So far, around 50 or so pages in, it is difficult to get a feel for the character of the boy, Michael Berg, and the woman. He is of course a young boy who is amazed and head over heels with the sexual relationship with the woman. But as to her why would she get involved with someone like him and why would she maintain the relationship? That is presumably going to be answered but you try as a reader to look for the depth and it is not there in abundance.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Poor Folk & Other Stories - post V

Mr Prokharchin

Again madness is a theme along with poverty. The idea of people living in a corner of a room in complete poverty scraping along as a clerk is a picture that Dostoevsky can paint in incredible detail.

A poor clerk is the object of ridicule for the other lodgers with them teasing him by making up gossip about his workplace. In the end they start making up gossip about him directly and that pushes him over the edge and he losses his grip on reality.

“...for more than twenty years he had lain behind his screen, never uttering a word, knowing nothing of the world or its cares, hoarding his meagre salary, and now suddenly, all because of someone’s trivial, idle remark he had completely lost his wits with fear that life might suddenly become difficult for him…And it did not even seem to occur to the man that everyone found life difficult!”

In the end there is no way back and he loses his mind and his life with the suspicions of his fellow lodgers being proved correct that he had hoarded a small fortune. But the fact that hoarding was so important to him and his plans presumably for a magical moment when he could spend it were taken from him as he imagined his equilibrium being shaken.

There is tragedy here but also a comment on the sort of society that leads people to waste their lives waiting for the day suddenly when it will change. Why not change it now?


A very clever story that has the joker out witted and left destitute by someone who really should have been above playing such a game. I guess you are meant to conclude that there is a corruption that goes from top to bottom. But also there is the sense again that if life had just played a different card fortunes would have been so different.

The gambler’s craving for the winning roll of the roulette wheel is something that all of the main characters in this volume share. Life sadly does nothing but leave them battered and bruised and worse off than before. The mind is one of the most precious commodities but once that is lost all hope of ever changing for the better is gone forever.

A review will follow soon…

Sad to see the Updike news

I still have the rest of the Rabbit books to get through on the shelf but sadly they have now become the work of an author deceased. He might not have been everyone's cup of tea but he was one of the modern American greats and will be missed.

The BBC has the full story of his death to cancer.

Monday, January 26, 2009

book review - What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Years ago, when getting ready for my wedding, I started to run in an effort to lose weight. It worked for the time I did it but then I let it slip and have ever since been a lapsed runner but one keen to get back out there when they can shake off the procrastination.

When I was plodding the streets all I could think of was when the pain would end, why it always rained on a Monday night and how to run with a battered old Walkman. Had I read this book by Haruki Murakami then I might well have pounded the streets in a much more philosophical mood.

On one level this book is a bit like a greatest hits from a runner’s diary with the longest and best races of a 26-year running career reviewed and enjoyed. There are the first marathons, the run from Athens to Marathon and the 64-mile ultra marathon in Japan. They all tell a tale of a determined individual running in most cases against himself and his own targets.

But as he talks about running and his motivation for it he reveals that he is not only a loner at heart but happy being that way and as a person is ideally suited to long distance running.

That sense of discipline and focus that he holds when running are also the guiding disciplines for him as a novelist and the message for anyone planning a career writing, which can be lonely and isolated, is that they need to prepare for it just as Haruki gets ready for his races.

Go into it under prepared or without the discipline of regular training and injury and failure await. But he also believes that some are made to work harder than others with the creative stream being something most have to mine deep for and there is always the threat it could run dry.

Although there were passages, particularly about the triathlon races that verged on being too introspective, appealing to a small audience of similarly ambitious athletes overall this book did reach out and make you think.

In a sense it made me wonder what sort of runner I would be if it was related to personality. After the most obvious thoughts that I would be the runner lying on the couch dreaming rather than running races I came to the conclusion I would be a short to middle distance person. Not because I couldn’t do a long race but because I need other people, can be alone but not for long stretches, and know my limits.

Poor Folk & Other Stories - post IV

Having finished Poor Folk it only seems right to carry on and get through the other three stories in this volume. The longest is the first and I will combine the other two in a post tomorrow.

The Landlady

There is a scene here that reminds me of David Lynch at his best. That sense of the lines between reality and madness disappearing are gripping. As the wine flows and the old man and the young woman who are the hero’s landlady and landlord start arguing the hero finds he is losing his grip on sanity.

It marks the climax of an attempt by the young recluse to fall in love and get the young woman away from the clutches of the old man. He finds them after he is forced to leave his lodgings and then falls for the young woman. He follows them home and asks for a room.

As a lodger he gets to know the young woman who nurses him when he falls ill. But everything is far from clear. What is the relationship between the old man and the young woman? What is her story? Is the old man mystical and spiritually gifted?

Adding in the sense of unreality created by the epilepsy of the old man and the illness that dogs the hero the battle played between the main characters is on a mental plane and the mental scars are left with the hero long after he has left his lodging.

There is a moment when you wonder if souls have not been traded and the old man and the young woman are not quite what they seem. That is the Lynch like quality, reminding me of Blue Velvet in particular. That idea of a normal man entering into a world of insanity and darkness in order to rescue the damsel in distress only to find himself undermined by what he finds.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Poor Folk - post III

This book doesn’t quite end in the way you expect – with death or some tragic loss of employment – but it is moving nonetheless. The clerk is changed over night following the handout of 100 roubles from his ultimate superior, his Excellency. But it comes too late to save his friend.

She has been courted in an incredibly aggressive way by a rural merchant who pushed her into marriage and then drags her away forever into the countryside. As her marriage unfolds and the day of her departure draws near the clerk is bed-bound with illness and despite his heart breaking has neither the strength or the financial might to get her to change her course.

This story shines a light on the poverty that surrounded a certain class of people in Russia that are in employment but always one slip or illness away from losing everything.

Powerful stuff and in the spirit of sticking with it for a bit longer I am going to read the other couple of stories that are included in this volume, The Landlady, Mr Prokharchin and Polzunkov.

I will post on those in the next few days…

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Poor Folk - post II

"Poor and unhappy people ought to steer clear of one another, so as not to catch a greater degree of infection."

It is odd to be reading Poor Folk during a global downturn because the problems that he writes about with the spiralling debt are serious concerns for many right now.

There is a break down in pride as the old clerk reveals that to support and woo the young slight relative he has gone into debt. He then takes money from her and when she struggles she begs him for funds. The result is the two are slowly falling down a debt slope that will surely end in a terrible situation.

What is highlighted so clearly is the impact on not just the physical health of the poor but also the mental stress. Hopes are like dreams that hit the dreamer hard when they fail to come off.

No wonder when the book was written those progressives who took it as an attack on the Russian system embraced it. Of course it is all part of the formulation of a belief that would end up in Dostoevsky’s support for brotherhood. That part of the equation lost him support but at this stage he had quite a few influential literary people with him.

Last bit, which is likely to be tragic, tomorrow…

Friday, January 23, 2009

Poor Folk - post I

This story put Fyodor Dostoevsky on the map and is one of his books that I have managed to miss. It is a classic case of seeing it gathering dust sitting on the self but never getting it down to have a closer look.

Once down and open it is a pleasant surprise. Mainly because instead of the usual introductory pages setting out the family tree of the main characters this gets stuck in. Through a correspondence between an aged clerk and a woman he has taken under his wing who lives near by the story unfolds.

The clerk is so poor he lives in a portioned section of a kitchen and the woman he writes too is not much better off having to rely on her friend’s kindness.

As they write to each other a story of misery and missed opportunities emerges. He has become the butt of jokes in his office and because of his appearance and pathetic acceptance of the very lowest that life can give he has accepted a life of compromise.

She has been destroyed by the death of her parents and her tutor exposing the fragility of the situation the poor are trapped in. Dreams of escape are shattered by ill health, which of course is always lurking for those unable to clothe and feed themselves properly.

You suspect even the friendship between the clerk and the woman could come undone for that reason…

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Print is Dead - post V

Chapter 10

Having set out the pressures on publishers with book printing machines offering another direct to customer model he then lists the reasons that publishers will survive:

1. find talent
2. support talent
3. edit talent
4. market talent
5. pay talent

He argues that content is finally becoming king and not the technology as that stage of the development of ebooks is being completed and it is now all about the words rather than they way they are presented.

But publishing needs to understand it is in the business of ideas.

“Publishing needs to come to a similar conclusion, realising that it’s not in the book business, but instead that it traffics in ideas, information and stories.” Pg 193

He ends the book talking about the fact that there is a much wider debate that rises above the arguments of digital or paper.

“If upcoming generations don’t read digitally there’s a good chance they won’t read at all – then through whatever mechanism it takes to get words in front of a pair of curious human eyes, or wherever those words end up, the important thing is that they are read.” Pg 203.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Print is Dead - post IV

Chapter 7

Gomez looks at the emergence of the iPod in 2002 as a defining moment that set a benchmark of what was possible. Since then there have been various attempts to crown various ebook platforms the ipod of the book world.

The iPod showed things could happen quickly and the results could turn upside an industry steeped in tradition. But there are ongoing problems to sort out in terms of price, copyright and range of titles available to download. But change is coming that is for sure.

Of course since this book was written there have been strong sales of the Sony Reader and the Kindle and although most of the points he makes are still valid you feel we are slightly further down the road.

Chapter 8

The web offers opportunities for writers to interact and reach more readers and potentially breakthrough when they might have failed in traditional publishing

But for those writers that fail to embrace the changes things could start to become a lot more difficult.

“Authors who choose not to take part in any sort of online promotion or to curry online exposure, and unwilling to do things like start a blog, post clips on YouTube, have a page on MySpace or otherwise engage an internet audience in any meaningful way will find themselves at an increasing disadvantage.” Pg 151

Those who refuse to play the new game will be in real trouble.

“The age of the aloof writer, removed from his audience or not even knowing who his audience is, is long gone.” Pg 155

Chapter 9

Advances in technology have laid the platform for ebooks.

“Portability, searchability and the fact that you can carry around every book you own at once; these are the real hallmarks of a digital reading experience.” Pg 162

The most obvious question is where will print go?

“This is an argument of the ‘print is dead’ debate; not that print will become extinct, but that it will instead become a niche product and specialised interest.” Pg 169

There is s till a challenge for the publishing industry to work out what the model will be in terms of pricing and multiple platform availability.

“Electronic reading and digital delivery is not just a new way of doing an old thing – issuing books one way instead of another – it is instead an entirely new way of doing business. As revolutionary as reading will be in a digital future, so too must be the accompanying business model. If not consumers will reject paid content and surf the web until they find something that they can read for free.” Pg 174.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Print is Dead - post III

Chapter 4.

The emergence of digital music is the subject and the impact of the iPod and the reminder that the physical media is not as important as the content.

He quotes from an article by Matt Richtel in the New York Times to describe the yearning the young have for information.

“Experts who study computer use say the stated yearning to stay abreast of things may mask more visceral and powerful needs, as many self-aware users themselves will attest. Seductive, nearly inescapable needs. Some theorise that constant use becomes ritualistic behaviour, even addiction, the absorption of nervous energy, like chomping gum.” pg 77.

I can understand the addiction for information but surely books are a different experience4 and offer an alternative if anything to those pressures. Maybe I’m sounding a bit too much like Sven Birkerts there…

But the next generation is getting used to expecting its information and its choices to come on demand.

“This is how high the stakes are for book publishers. If they don’t adapt to the habits of the new generation, they can forget about selling much of anything to them and those who follow. Yet, so far, most publishers are reacting cautiously if not indifferently, the same way that the music industry discounted the invention and the rise of the MP3”. Pg 80

Chapter 5

Generation download is also the generation of upload. Using YouTube as an example he shows how a generation has opted to produce their own content and become part of the internet as well as watching it. Classic Web 2.0 stuff.

The pressure is on the publishing industry to provide the tools to encourage interaction.

“The publishing industry needs to realise this, and it needs to also find a way to get to those kids by making content available in a way that will first reach them (i.e digitally) and then will give them the tools to interact with it and share it (post excerpts on their MySpace pages, email chapters to friends, IM paragraphs across class etc.). If not, there are dozens of ways this generation will choose to spend their time, and none of them will involve books.” Pg 97.

Chapter 6

Gomez starts to pull together the strands of the last few chapters and points out that there have been fundamental changes with attitudes and consumption of film, music and TV and the world has changed. Therefore there has to be a change in books.

“Prose will be left behind unless it makes strident efforts to adapt to this ‘I want it now’ on-demand model.” Pg 111.

Monday, January 19, 2009

book review - Winter Notes on Summer Impressions

This is an odd book in terms of both the way it is written and the subject matter. Fyodor Dostoevsky heads to Europe to follow in the footsteps of so many of his fellow Russians and finds the experience for the large part disappointing.

He writes about what he sees in terms of human behaviour and is driven to despair by the French but is also less than impressed with his fellow Russians. He talks about them waltzing through Europe and getting the sort of response they provoke and deserve. As a result they fail to notice the flaws in the countries they are visiting and are blinded by the tourist attractions.

Dostoevsky however is different failing to mention most of the more obvious attractions of Paris and London and instead opting for a mixture of rant and philosophical discourse on the state of Europe and the ambitions of Russians.

The introduction warns that this book attempts to be some things it fails to achieve including funny and it also suffers from repetition. But it also includes a passionate plea from Dostoevsky about the benefits of brotherhood and a rejection of the false socialism of the French. That idea of brotherhood is something that comes out in his later works, particularly the Brothers Kazmanov and The Idiot but you can see it is something he was mulling over years before.

The main focus of the book though is to criticise the French for failing to live up to their revolutionary promises and for being suckered by impressive oratory rather than anything substantial.

The result of his French experiences is to widen the attack not just to foreigners but countrymen who view Paris as a home from home. He is also angry with them for failing to understand that not all is great in France and they should be prouder of their own achievements.

The one major attraction of this book is that it provides a much more informal Dostoevsky with none of the usual structures that sometimes make reading more laborious in his better known works. But it is a shame that the ranting and the humour on display here are not given more of an airing again with such frankness.

Print is Dead - post II

Apologies it has been a while since I blogged on this book but I am determined to get through it this week so here we go. Lots of thoughts about the future of the book that are both interesting and challenging.

Chapter 2

Books are going away because people don’t care. The internet has killed the book and the publishing world needs to react.

“But not many people in the industry are willing to admit of acknowledge that the internet is not the prime veichle for the dissemination of information. For everything from online news to Wikipedia (with Google tying it all together), the web is where people go where they’re looking to gain access to content. This change has already happened, and publishing now needs to react instead of preach.” Pg 41

“While those in publishing hem and haw and wearily engage in this debate at various levels, an entire generation has already decided that print is dead. Indeed, for them – raised on the internet – it might not ever have been alive.” Pg 46

He talks about the resistance to ebooks and the fact that the publishing industry has failed to understand the stage the debate has reached.

“What the critics of digital reading fail to realise is that it has already happened; people have already made substantial changes in their daily lives when it comes to digital reading.” Pg 44

He also stresses that a love of reading is importantly different from a love of books. Content versus object.

Chapter 3

To underline the changes that are happening to readership patterns and consumption of the written word he casts an eye over the newspaper world where it is not too difficult to produce examples of change.

Falling readership levels and dropping advertising support illustrate a changing situation. He attacks the newspaper industry for failing to move with the times and accuses it of clinging on to an antiquated publishing model.

“Publishers in fact aren’t in the magazine, newspaper or book business (in the sense of these things as physical objects); they’re in the idea and story business.”pg 55

But there are economic models at work here that have been slow to adapt and if the newspapers have been slow surely it’s as a consequence of those paying for their pages to be even slower seeing change coming?

Anyway he touches on the literary critic versus blogger debate and the folding of the book review sections but that is a bit of a side debate that is probably best avoided or dealt with in much greater depth than here.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Expensive reads

In a world where money seems to be ceasing up it is rather reassuring to see some people can still spend vast amounts of money on books. According to some of the big purchases of last year included just shy of $13,000 spent on a Harry Potter first edition signed by the artist and with a printing error that was corrected in further issues.

In terms of novels a first edition proof copy of Lord of the Flies cost $9,260 and Men Without Women with an inscription from the author Ernest Hemingway fetched $8000.

Makes spending £10 plus seem somehow less of an issue when you think about how much some people are willing to spend.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running - post IV

The book ends with a reminder of the human fragility of ambition as he misses out on the time he was hoping for in the marathon. He muses on the increasingly high barrier that is being raised all the time as a result of old age and concludes that he will run until he can do so no more.

That then raises the question of what motivates him and ultimately the goal he is aiming for is something that only he can decide. It is clear that he is a tough critic on himself and his own targets are very high. But as he gets overtaken on the race course he starts to revaluate those goals.

At the end he underlines how long distance running has helped shape his life and his mind helping him as a novelist. The link between his craft as a writer and his running is strong and he argues until the end that the discipline needed for one reinforces the other.

But he also end reminding us of the joy that running provides, something that is lost when he focuses on times and performance issues. If you can live your life to goals and make yourself try to reach them no matter how bad you feel then the rewards can be there.

That makes this a very good book to pick up while the resolutions of the New Year are still fresh in the mind.

A review will follow soon…

Saturday, January 17, 2009

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running - post II

Murakami draws distinct parallels between running and writing novels. Both are done with an individual testing themselves and developing their training over months and years to reach their goal.

As he recalls getting ready for his first marathon and building up to his latest attempt in New York he expands on the idea that ultimately the only think, apart from time, challenging a long distance runner is themselves.

Likewise with writing a novel the writer must dig deep for the creative seam and then train themselves how best to keep the mind focused and the brain exercised.

I’m not sure I could ever do a marathon a year and stick to a punishing running regime but putting those reservations to one side this is inspirational stuff. It also provides you with a glimpse inside the mind of a writer without the traditional stuff about how and why they write.

More tomorrow…

1000 books to read

The idea of lists is something that is always a good one to provoke thoughts and arguments and The Guardian is bound to do both with its 1,000 books recommendations which started today with love.

There is no problem with recommending books, in fact good can come of it, but I would question the way these have been categorised. The 1001 Books to Read before You Die approach is to do it in terms of centuries. But Penguin opted to code its Classics range by the greatest love, crime etc so maybe that was the inspiration.

Best to suspend judgement till the end of the series but if one of the aims of the exercise was to get people talking about it then it can already be qualified a success.

Friday, January 16, 2009

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running - post III

As he gets nearer to his latest challenge of running the New York marathon Murakami looks back over some of his more extreme moments running.

One of them was a 64 mile race that took it out of him both physically and mentally and pushed him into a depression he tagged the ‘runner’s blues’. That downturn lasted for a long time and he indicates that it only really started to shift as he geared up for the NYC marathon.

In between the reminiscing about marathons and training sessions of the past he talks some more about the novelists craft and the parallels between the disciplines of running everyday and writing – focus and stamina.

Although this is interesting stuff it is hard not to be envious of his lifestyle, which clearly has time to allow him to trot off for hours on end running as well as having the space to sit down and think. I don’t seem to have any time to do anything and certainly don’t have a ‘creative space’ that would help me focus.

But still that is just harping on and the reply I guess Murakami would give is that each of us has to find their way. I haven’t found mine yet and he has clearly found his. If that is the lesson from this book then it has been worth reading it this week.

Last chunk tomorrow…

Thursday, January 15, 2009

What I Talk Aboout When I Talk About Running - post I

Reading Norwegian Wood there is a question, which is tackled in the introduction, over how much the main character is autobiographical. Murakami apparently plays it down but having started this there are clear similarities.

The first is the acceptance and ability to survive without much human contact. The loneliness that runners often have to put up with is something that Murakami embraces. He accepts that he has the sort of character that is able to cope alone quite happily. The same was true to some extent with Toru in Norwegian Wood.

Then there is the other personality trait of not heeding conventional wisdom. When others told him not to sell his jazz club and maybe some would have shied away from running heavily into their late 40s he did both. Again that strong headed mentality is a feature of the loner.

But, and it is a substantial but, you can’t help liking him and the simplicity with which he describes the joy of running is something that is attractive to even the most hardened couch potatoes.

Maybe that’s the reason why this works because ultimately he is not setting out to convert people to become runners but instead is sharing the thoughts that not only go through his head as he runs but his history and philosophy of life.

More tomorrow…

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Winter Notes on Summer Impressions - post III

He is really ranting against the French. He comments on their respect for eloquence remarking that they seem to appreciate anyone who talks even if it is nonsense.

He also talks about their marital shenanigans with the mistress culture criticising those who secretly dream of being rich but prefer to act as the indignant poor.

But his main criticisms are reserved for the Parisians who he argues are obsessed with the idea of seeing the sea and rolling about in the grass. These activities lead them into the countryside but their attitude towards the rest of France and the rest of the world never really changes.

He serves up stereotypes is a generalist but at least he is honest and gives it to you straight. You can imagine him going home to Russia and bolting the door swearing never to leave the country again.

Forget looking at cathedrals and palaces Dostoevsky is looking at the souls and in many cases he doesn’t like what he sees.

A review will follow soon…

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Winter Notes on Summer Impressions - post II

Dostoevsky finally starts to put down some thoughts on Paris and London. The British come out of it better than the French with their character generally liked by the Russian author.

But when he enters into a crowded street at night and is surrounded by drunks and the excesses that the British can be famous for he is horrified and scuttles back to safety.

However there is a sense of more general despair about the French with some genuine anger emerging. Dostoevsky believes in a brotherhood of man as a philosophy and believes that on the surface the French, with their proclaimed Liberty, equality and freedom would be in a good position to provide it.

What angers Dostoevsky most is the French character that is bourgeoisie to the extent that neither socialism nor a sense of Brotherhood could take route. Add to that the mistrust that the French show of foreigners, spying on them in trains and getting hotels to note down all particulars, and you have an experience that seems to leave the Russian author cold.

Mind you as he points out repeatedly many other compatriots enjoy it so there will never be a shortage of Russians in Paris.

More tomorrow…

Monday, January 12, 2009

Winter Notes on Summer Impressions - post I

The introduction by Kyril Fitzlyon sets this up in an odd way reducing your expectations from the very start.

“The neglect from which Summer Impressions has so far suffered at the hands of literary critics is due to a variety of reasons of which style is not the least. Dostoevsky, never a good stylist had at that time only a very slender experience as a journalist and he was obviously trying to evolve a way of writing that would enable him to put his ideas across in the most digestible form he could think of. Unfortunately the most digestible form he could think of was one which retained all his most glaring faults of style – repetitiveness, excessive colloquialism, discursiveness, slipshod grammar – and added two of its own: forced breeziness and waggish humour. The reader must make up his mind to disregard them. If he does, he will be amply repaid.”

Having those words echoing in your head you wonder where you go from there and the reality is nowhere very clear.

Dostoevsky opts to tell his readers why he has chosen to make a trip, something he has never done before, out of Russia visiting Germany, France and England.

But the way he tells you is more to do with Russia than the places he goes with the first three chapters sharing his thoughts on why Russians travel and what they hope to see when they get there.

“People love the West in this country; they love it and when it comes to a certain point they all go there.”

You start to yearn for a little bit of travelogue after a while wondering quite what his impressions of Europe itself have been rather than just his feelings about fellow Russians.

More tomorrow…

Sunday, January 11, 2009

book review - Norwegian Wood

This was the last book I managed to squeeze in last year and as a result it ends this marathon run of reviews.

Haruki Murakami is one of those authors that occasionally flits across the radar screen because he is still alive and producing novels and as a result pops up as a topic for discussion on literary review shows. So as a result you know of him before you pick a book up but it was still unknown territory reading Norwegian Wood.

If you were to boil it down to themes it would include loneliness, despair, suicide and would be in there. But that would leave you with the impression that this is about

This book is reasonably old and has the feeling of being even older as it is set in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It follows the progress of Toru Wantabe who is a student who moves to Tokyo after his best friend commits suicide at the age of 17. Toru falls in love with his dead friend’s girlfriend Naoko but she is always slightly out of his grasp.

After they make love she disappears into a sanatorium and then slowly disappears from mainstream life and finally fails to stop her problems from over coming her.

In between that process Toru, who remains in college getting on with a lonely but relatively regulated life, meets Midori who is complex and challenging but the opposite from Naoko. He seems to face a choice between the two women who become the past and the future.

Part of that decision is taken out of his hands when Naoko takes a decision to disappear forever but he still cannot bring himself to embrace the future. For a while he is also in the balance and he could have easily followed his friends and taken the suicide option but he comes back to life and chooses to live and ultimately whether or not it involves Midori it is on his own terms he opts to live.

The character of Toru is a lonely but admirably determined student who is wiser than his years and as a result of having death introduced into his life at a young age has an inner strength. But he cannot live alone and the women in his life remind him of his need not so much for sexual satisfaction, he gets that from one night stands.

He requires relationships that involve love not so he can receive it but more importantly so he can give it. There is a yearning from him to be able to give love and that also comes through.

In some moments of the book it felt like a poor attempt at an erotic romance but there is a story that you stick with that is slightly autobiographical no doubt. You can only conclude that the reason it spoke to so many people is because it described the way they felt.

Choosing to live is as hard if not harder than choosing to die and that is the message that after the memories of the exact details fade will be what you take forward from this novel.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Penguin suggests 52 books for the year

Penguin has posted 52 books which it believes you should plough through this year. A good idea but having looked at the list there was not that much that was inspiring and so I will be opting for my own alternatives.

Mind you some things that do chime are the Darwin, bearing in mind the anniversary this year and the mass media coverage he will be getting. Plus And The Hippos were boiled in the tanks by William S Burroughs sounds like an experience worth going for.

Anyway see what you think by viewing the list.

book review - Beedle the Bard

Having only got through half of the Harry Potter books that factor maybe had a negative impact on reading this because J.K Rowling is writing for an audience totally immersed in her world.

As a result of not being a Potter expert you come to this cold and as a result the book has to stand and fall on its own merits. Okay so it has to be put into perspective that this is for charity and everyone knows how popular her books are so it will raise money.

As a collection of fairy tales it is not too bad but what undermined it for me were the notes that followed each story attributed to Dumbledore the headmaster of Potter’s school Hogwarts. He puts the stories into a historical context and shares the reaction to them from wizards at the time of publication.

But most of the observations he makes about the actual stories you have already realised as an adult reader and too much space is spent spelling the obvious out.

But still this is a kid’s book and it does what it should with a combination of make believe and author-penned illustrations it will take children back to the land of witches and wizards as well as helping out some of the poorest children and so for that it has to get a thumbs up and my grumpiness ceases.

Friday, January 09, 2009

book review - The Fire Engine that Disappeared

Some of these books are better than others but I am unashamed to say that I thoroughly enjoy the Martin Beck thrillers from Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo.

Between them the husband and wife team manage to weave together a story that often seems to be in two halves with the crime and the misunderstanding around it taking up the first chunk before they pin it down in the second.

Interestingly the main character Martin Beck doesn’t feature a great deal in this book as the other detectives step into the spotlight and help crack a crime that at first seems to be suicide and then a crime where it will be almost impossible to find the killer.

What keeps it going of course is the determination and dedication of a handful of detectives who refuse to give in even when the odds of them getting a resolution to the crime seem to be remote.

Along with the police Sweden itself plays a role along with the weather as the cold streets of Swedish cities and docks add to the mood and the feeling of despondency.

As part of the story there is a development in Beck’s family life with the breakdown of his marriage more obvious and his daughter opting to move out and make life at home even more unbearable. But he is largely in the shadows and that is a brave move. It would be hard to imagine an Inspector Morse story where the spotlight fell wholly on Lewis and others in the department solved the crime.

But that is the difference that Sjowall and Wahloo bring along with a determination to introduce political themes of the day, in this case the rumblings of discontent against the 60s love culture and drugs.

Although it is hardly going to be put on the library shelf in the category of great literature this is a real joy to read and there are moments when reading should provide this sort of experience.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

book review - Lines of Fate

This book was one of those finds in a charity shop that at first you are very please with. The blurb on the cover informs you that this won the first Russian equivalent of the Booker Prize so it is with high hopes you open the covers and delve inside. Mark Kharitonov is always in control of the experience and as a reader you never feel totally at ease in the world he describes nor did I ever really understand.

Maybe that is part of the point about this book – it is clearly meant to be difficult – with a cast of numerous characters spanning two different time lines. But in many places it was just too much like shooting fish in the dark and as a result sadly this review is probably lacking a great deal of astute comment.

What did emerge through the fog was the idea that a student was studying for his doctoral thesis but concentrating on the writings of an author who ended up living in exile.

The author not only lived in the wilderness but lacked some of the basic things like paper and resorted to writing on the back of candy wrappers, which were produced in the factory in the town he was staying in. Some of the thoughts put down on the wrappers are just single lines but they seem to speak to the student many years later.

What also seems to speak to the student is the sense of political doom that the author predicted would happen and did indeed shatter his world as the factory was closed and the estate connected with it looted and destroyed.

But in-between those moments of clarity there are meetings both in the past and present with academics and publishers that meet and influence and try to exploit both author and student. But what they also have in common seems to be a failed love affair that ends with the woman disappearing into the mists of time.

The problem with the book is that it just never gets any easier and even at the 200 page mark you are left flummoxed. I know that there is a larger debate about whether or not literature should be difficult and challenging for the reader but there is also something about it being enjoyable.

I am happy to admit that my reading is not as deep and as wide as I would like and neither is the memory that good (hence why I write things down here to remember) but for me this was one of the most difficult reads of last year.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

book review - A Dead Man's Memoir (A Theatrical Novel)

The reviewing catch-up continues, and will do until next week, so here is another from the tail-end of last year.

This is a strange book that is framed with a sense of bitterness. As a writer and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov knew more than most about the tightrope that you walked in Soviet Russia. Deliver something too sycophantic and your peers would condemn you but deliver something too critical and you would be cast out into the wilderness or even worse sent through the Gulag system.

The character in this story is caught in the trap of the position of writing a book that is deemed to be not only of mediocre quality by the literary establishment but something that is also on the wrong side of the censor. But despite that situation, which drives the writer to suicide, he still manages to get his work published and is invited to put on a play.

The combination of Kafka type madness swamping the literary world and a heightened sense of politics that the writer never manages to grasp produces a nauseous feeling of madness. For instance in his play he has written in a scene involving a gun shot but the head of the theatre specifically dislikes the use of gun shots so this has to be turned into a knife being brandished. The casting is also a political minefield and the initial failure to get it right undermines support for the play among the theatrical troupe.

But if there is one thing that will stick with me from this book, which can be awkward and depressing to get through, it will be about the impact that a deeply oppressive system has on creativity.

As he starts to write the play Bulgakov describes the writer sitting down and watching characters he has invented come to life on a stage. All he has to do is curl up with them night after night and capture the dialogue and stage directions. It appears almost like magic with the writer peering over the actors as they dance around a tiny stage weaving their stories.

But as the rewrites are demanded and the pressures to please various factions get put on the writer those magical figures disappear and his writing becomes uninspired and politically motivated. He loses the soul from his work and that is ultimately the quality the attracted him to the theatre in the first place.

Although the main character can be accused of being naïve the consequences of working in a country where creativity has to meet a long list of strict requirements take their toll and reduce him to a broken man whose vision has been destroyed.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

book review - The Friend of Madame Maigret

There might be a snobbishness with thrillers but there is a skill to weaving a story that is both unfathomable but equally realistic. The prolific Georges Simenon is better than most at managing to do both with a helping hand from well established characters in the form of Inspector Maigret and Paris.

Paris plays a bigger role than you might expect with the city setting the mood with its rain soaked streets and seedy bars full of gossips and informants. Then there are the hotels and brothels that provide refugee for murderers. In this case there is a carefully choreographed location with a book binder's flat and workrooms sitting on a corner looked on by a grocers and a café.

An anonymous tip-off to the police starts the investigations at the bookbinders with the binder taken into custody facing the charge of disposing of a man’s body in his furnace.

Muddying the waters is an ambitious lawyer who represents the bookbinder and the binder’s girlfriend who swears they lead a quiet life without the opportunity for murder.

The ball is already rolling when Maigret gets involved with the case and he constantly regrets not being able to start afresh and investigate it with methods that he would have deployed from the start. But the irony is that the link between the bookbinder and the murderer’s comes from Mrs Maigret who manages to meet some of the gang purely by mistake while waiting for a dental appointment.

She weaves in the occasional piece of information that Maigret ferments in his brain and finally leads to a solution. What really unlocks the mystery is Maigret’s ability to understand and predict human behaviour to the extent that he can reveal links and actions that no one else could have guessed at.

Of course he solves the case but he does so displaying great understanding and humility and shows that he is head and shoulders above most of his colleagues.

Monday, January 05, 2009

book review - A Cab at the Door

Memoirs and biography in general are not things that usually draw me and it was with a sense of having paid for it and now having to read it that I picked up this book. Beautifully produced and printed by Slighty Foxed magazine the story of his youth by V.S Prichett is delivered in a well crafted tome.

Inside the pages the story emerges of a boy becoming a man living under the dual influences of his ambitious father and rather intimidated, but within the home aggressive, mother. The story of his life is one of constant movement - The Cab at the Door – as creditors catch up with his father.

But in the home it is the mother who exerts the influence and manages to help develop a boy that has ambitions to become a writer and use his talent not just to escape from poverty but also to give himself choices.

Things settle down a bit when the family moves near Dulwich and the teenage years begin but after being pulled out of school and sent to work the dreams of academic and literary success fade dramatically.

The reason why the book works though is that there is another character in the shape of London and the City emerges as Pritchett goes to work as a dirty fog filled inspiration. The glimpses of the capital as it prepares for war in 1914 and the details of working life are things that maybe you didn’t expect to find among the personal but are really interesting.

Plus the other reason for taking away an upbeat message is that despite the difficulties he faced and the moments when he almost gave up hope of being a writer he obviously did make it and that is something for us with creative ambitions to take note of.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

book review - All in the Mind

One of the phrases you often hear handed out to those that want to start writing is that you should start by writing what you know. That seems to have been Alistair Campbell’s starting point as he centres his book on a psychiatrist who is himself suffering from depression.

Campbell is of course not just well known for being Tony Blair’s spin doctor and the man who took on the BBC in the weapons of mass destruction ‘sexed-up’ document battle but also someone who suffers from the Black Dog. How do we know that? Well in recent months, no doubt aimed at helping with the eventual appearance of the book, Campbell fronted a documentary about depression.

At the centre of the web is the poor Doctor Sturrock who wants to heal the sick but is failing to look after himself. Through a roster of patients ranging from the burns victim, the alcoholic, rape victim and depressive Campbell weaves in and out of a couple of days in the doctor’s life.

Part of the problem is that half the time you wonder which character is closer to Campbell himself with the boozy politician probably close. But because of the day structure to the novel and the medical theme I couldn’t help but feel reminded of Saturday by Ian McEwan.

In terms of the outcomes of the story they are powerful enough and designed to make you think not just about mental illness but those who spend their time trying to treat it.

No doubt the focus of most readers was clouded by Campbell himself being such a personality but if anything his experience is key to the book and the baggage he has needs to be brought along to make the book work. I felt that this is one of those razor edge novels that will either mark the start of something or the end of an ambition.

It would be good if it were the latter because it would be good to see what Campbell turns up if he really started digging in his creative mine.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Review of the year part two

Review of 2008 part II – July to December

The second d half of the year started with the subject of the war continuing. On one side there was Unconditional Surrender by Evelyn Waugh and on the other A Soldier’s Art by Anthony Powell.

But of course having got through the three war books by Powell in the Dance to the Music of Time series the downward slopes were sighted and a renewed pace came into the reading.

Yet despite the determination to get through Dance to the Music of Time I rather ambitiously looked for other distractions and knocked off Rabbit, Run by John Updike and discovered a selfish America that I had not previously read about. The idea of dreams, the past and what might have been was at work in both Spies by Michael Frayn and Pincher Martin by William Golding. Both took you into a character’s mind and both left you wondering just what might have happened if other decisions had been made.

The satirical contribution to the year’s reading came from the East with Andrey Kurkov showing with Penguin Lost and The President’s Last Love that the corruption in East Europe is prime material. But when it comes to having a go at the biggest of them all, Stalin and the Soviet system, Mikhail Bulagov was in great form with A Dog’s Heart and The Fatal Eggs.

Again succumbing to the publishing hype it felt like a good time to read the Booker of Bookers and so Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie was packed in the holiday bag and dominated the last few days of my stay in France and the weeks after I returned. A book working on many levels I had to be carried along when the history escaped me but there were episodes of great story telling that were worth sticking with it for.

Powell finally came to an end with the narrator standing beside a bonfire congratulating himself on having outlasted nearly all of his contemporaries destroyed in their conquest for power.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby reminded you of just how powerful fiction can be and sadly The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson and The Lines of Fate by Mark Kharitonov were experiences of how disappointing and difficult reading can be.

But the year ended with a bit of publishing hype in the form of the average Beedle the Bard, think of the charity and it seems to have been worth paying, from J.K. Rowling and the memorable Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakamui.

I am not sure what this year holds yet in terms of ambitions. But I am sure that come the end of the month and just like 2008 a shape to the reading year will have started to emerge…

Friday, January 02, 2009

Review of the year part one

Review of 2008 part I – January to June

The year always starts with the best of intentions and in this case it began with the aim of at least matching last year’s levels of reading.

Of course that didn’t quite happen and the reason, part from the inevitable problems getting time to read consistently throughout the year, was because of the problem of getting bogged down with disappointment.

To illustrate the point the year started with The White Lioness by Henning Mankell that was bizarre. A book that not only stretched the boundaries of what was plausible but then suffered from feeling dated was not the greatest way to kick-off 2008.

That was followed with the William Golding sea-bound trilogy with Rites of Passage, Close Quarters and Fire Down Below weaving a spell of a voyage round the world in a boat that kept threatening to sink with a mixed bunch of passengers that also threatened and chose to do the same.

There were a couple of Ian McEwan’s to get stuck into with the Cement Garden feeling like a slightly more rounded experience compared to On Chesil Beach which seemed to run into the sand at the end.

Although it got a mixed ride on lit blogs I have top confess a liking for Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris and that book will no doubt come into its own this year as the cut backs start in earnest. The other ‘current’ books included Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday and another difficult experience getting through The Steep Approach to Garbadale by Iain Banks.

Angela Carter provided some odd entertainment with Wise Children and that feeling of South America came flooding in with Memories of my Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

But this year was one set to be dominated by trilogies and series with Golding being the first but then the 12 volume journey that is The Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell started and dominated a lot of reading this year.

Once the Powell books were started it did tend to dominate the reading with other books sneaked in between the volumes as breathers to provide a break and some alternative voices.

So as a result there was the chance to chime in with Powell’s build-up to London at war with some Muriel Spark, The Ballad of Peckham Rye and Girls of Slender Means. The war theme also continued with the Evelyn Waugh Sword of Honour trilogy. At times it was hard to remember exactly whose interpretation of the Second World War you were reading.

But as the summer approached there was the chance to get in the heavy tome that was Michael Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, which proved that it is always worth battling through the first 100 pages with some books. There was also the opportunity to indulge, not for the last time in the year in some publishing hype and pick up Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks.

So far sort of so good but I won’t deny the Powell was starting to become a little bit of a burden and as he entered the war years, with three books on the Second World War, I was struggling with the first couple.

Second half to follow…

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Happy New Year

Wishing you all a great 2009. Hope you get some good reading in and the year delivers everything that you wished for last night on the stroke of the chimes.

Books read 2009

1. Winter Notes on Summer Impressions by Fydor Dostoevsky
2. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
3. Print is Dead - Books in the Digital Age by Jeff Gomez
4. Boy in Darkness by Mervyn Peake
5. Poor Folk and Other Stories by Fyodor Dostoevsky
6. The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
7. The Boy in the Striped Pjyamas by John Boyne
8. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald
9. Crabwalk by Gunter Grass
10. The Interrogation by J.L. le Clezio
11. The Human Factor by Graham Greene
12. 2666 by Roberto Bolano
13. 1974 by David Peace
14. 1977 by David Peace
15. 1980 by David Peace
16. 1983 by David Peace
17. The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith
18. The Damned United by David Peace
19. American Tabloid by James Ellroy
20. The Spire by William Golding
21. Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton
22. Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
23. Falling Man by Don DeLillo
24. Cosmopolis by Dan DeLillo
25. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safrer
26. Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton
27. Cats Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
28. The Russian Interpreter by Michael Frayn
29. The Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
30. The Colony by Hugo Wilcken
31. Strange Energy by Benjamin J. Myers
32. Millennium People by J.G.Ballard
33. The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger
34. The Drowned World by J.G.Ballard
35. Lights out for the Territory by Iain Sinclair
36. Dreams from the Endz by Faiza Guene
37. Just Like Tomorrow by Faiza Guene
38. High Rise by J.G.Ballard
39. The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster
40. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
41. A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
42. The Twelve Chairs by Ilf & Petrov
43. The Red House by A.A. Milne
44. The Drought by JG Ballard
45. The Crystal World by JG Ballard
46. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
47. The Ancient Shore by Shirley Hazzard
48. Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
49. The Tenth Man by Graham Greene
50. The Life of Monsieur Moliere by Mikhail Bulgakov
51. Journey to Nowhere by Eva Figes
52. The Glass Room by Simon Mawer
53. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
54. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
55. Lost Hearts and Other Chilling Tales by M R James
56. Legend of a Suicide by David Vann
57. Explorers of the new century by Magnus Mills
58. The Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg
59. Man in the Dark by Paul Auster
60. Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill
61. Murder at the Savoy by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo
62. Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones
63. The Abominable Man by Maj Sjowall and Per Whaloo
64. The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas
65. The Last Englishman by Roland Chambers
66. Fire in the Blood by Irene
67. Hammerklavier by Yasmina Reza
68. The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins