Monday, May 31, 2010

Thoughts at the half way point of They Came Like Swallows

The idea of telling a story from the view points of several characters is not just something that David Mitchell can do and in this tale of grief and loss William Maxwell is able to not only build tension but do so through different people.

I have to confess for the first few pages it felt as if the world Maxwell was describing was an English country house with its library and maids and a family of two boys and their parents. But before long the unmistakable signs of America were there and the family on the brink of the end of the First World War were enjoying life not too far from Chicago.

But a shadow hangs over the world of eight year old Bunny and his thirteen year old brother Robert. It is not the war, that hardly seems to be noticed by the boys, but it is the Spanish influenza that is spreading across the country.

As the neighbourhood starts to shut down to avoid spreading the disease the family faces the flu as it hits Bunny and then threatens to impact the plans the parents have to travel to a specialist hospital for the delivery of their third child.

A review will follow soonish...

Sunday, May 30, 2010

bookmark of the week

Picked this up in Waterstones in Bath at the weekend. Quentin Blake is one of the best illustrators around and even before you flip this over to have a look you know it's George's Marvellous Medicine. Brilliant and a really great addition to the bookmark collection.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

book review - The Cuckoo Boy - Grant Gillespie

“’Cuckoos lay their eggs in other bird’s nests. The chicks look really silly. I’ve seen them in books…a big baby bird and a really small one trying to feed it. They have to catch even more worms than ever. The mother bird's babies die. They get pushed from the nest…Is that murder or is it an accident?’ He was serious, his brow gathered in concentration.”

At the heart of this story is one single question – is someone evil when their environment and lack of love have created someone unable to go through society in a normal way and they kill as a result?

It’s a tough one to answer but Grant Gillespie asks it in a very clever way through the character of James. The surviving child after one twin has died he is adopted by a normal, house proud and uptight couple Sandra and Kenneth who cannot have children of their own. Perhaps they are as unable to love and bond with him as they are but as he grows up he does so devoid of love and attention stuck at home with a mother who increasingly comes to hate and fear him.

Does he deserve to be feared? Well in a way that reminds you of the boy in Gunter Grass’s Tin Drum it is several years before James starts to show signs of developing normally. He breaks through the barriers of walking, talking and eating properly when his parents either have their backs turned or at night when they are not physically present.

But the nail in the coffin comes with the development and continuous presence of James’s imaginary friend David. It is David who insults people, causes physical harm and makes James even less willing to engage with the outside world. Even as he starts pre-school and school proper David is always there and the conspiracy between the two friends acts a shield for James and an impenetrable barrier for his parents.

A sister comes along unexpectedly, Amy, but then dies and James and David are suspected of being involved. After all the boy and his friend had stood by and watched not calling for help as their grandfather had a fatal heart attack. With most of the scratches, punches and cuts distributed at school being blamed on James and David the boy reaches 10 with a heavy cloud already surrounding him. To describe him as a ‘difficult child’ would be an understatement.

But it is with the arrival of a new boy in the street – a real David – that things step up and as the imaginary David fights for the attention of James things take a sinister turn and end perhaps where they might have done in a worst case scenario with death, court cases and prison.

Gillespie never makes you pick sides choosing James over his parents or makes it obvious where blame should be apportioned. What he does do is so you just how easy it is for children to be left behind when their parents cannot cope and when their parents are not identified as failing. Throughout the story James is paraded in front of child psychologists and doctors and throughout the mother display signs that she herself is unhinged. But she is allowed to carry on living with a son she cannot stand.

With child crime something that sadly has become more frequent since the high profile James Bulger case this book is both relevant and provocative. It might not be comfortable reading but as a way of taking a reader on a journey, which good books should do, into the mind of a unloved and desperate child it delivers.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Author interview - Grant Gillespie author of The Cuckoo Boy

Having finished The Cuckoo Boy, written by Grant Gillespie, it seemed like a good idea to interview Grant to find out what inspired him to write the book and what he has planned next.

Thanks Grant for taking the time to reply to my questions and a full review of the The Cuckoo Boy will be posted tomorrow.

Q. Where did the idea for this story come from? In some ways it reminded me of the James Bulger case in terms of the court scenes and the media reaction to James. Where did the inspiration come from?

Part of my inspiration for the novel was the Bulger case, and in particular in the responses of the public and the politicians. I was really shocked to read that John Major decreed that "Society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less." When we're vindicated in turning those who have committed crimes into 'the other', (eg the bad seed, the little monster, the worthless, the freaks) then we are also given permission to avoid looking at ourselves and our society. I certainly don't profess to have any answers, but in The Cuckoo Boy I wanted to pose the question: 'Given the wrong set of circumstances, what child isn't capable of violence?'

Q. In places the book makes quite uncomfortable reading were there times when it was difficult to write, particularly scenes like the torture of David in the woods?

It sounds like a cliche but I find that once I am underway with a novel the characters take on a life of their own and they dictate what happens next. I tend to have an arc in place but then the narrative often veers off into new areas, and I tend to let that happen, especially in the first draft. Some people who've read the book have said it reads like a painfully slow car crash, and I think that that may be because, like the reader, I too was reluctant to reach and deal with the parts which were tragic and distressing.

Q. I found it almost impossible to sympathise with James but as the book progressed my dislike of his mother grew in tandem with sympathy for Kenneth. Were you trying to accentuate the fact that Sandra was as damaged as the son?

To my mind, and of course everyone responds differently to the writing, all three members of the family are - to a greater or a lesser degree - victims of their own natures and the limiting domain that they inhabit. I believe (or I'd like to believe) that if Sandra had been better equipped, if Kenneth had been stronger or if James had been raised by more receptive people, then most of the incidents in the book could have been avoided.

Q. David the imaginary friend is quite disconcerting where did the idea from him come from and although its an inevitable question did you have one yourself when you were a child?

I did have an imaginary friend, also called David, in fact. And he was very, very real to me. Likewise, in the book, David is very real to James, but I also wanted to have David as an ambiguous figure. He could be James' dead twin, he could be his negative side, or he could just be a child's imaginative plaything. That's all open to interpretation. I made decisions in my head, but I wanted to leave it vague in the story.

Q. How long did it take to write the book and how do you write - a computer or paper and pen person - and how does it feel to have got to the end and now seeing it in print?

The Cuckoo Boy took me about a year to write, but the editing and publishing process took much longer. More and more I tend to write on the computer (now I have a laptop) but in the past I would write the first draft on paper in pencil and then the second draft as I typed it up.

I can't begin to tell you how exciting it is to have the book in print. To be honest I write because I love to write. On one level I never thought that my writing would see the light of day - rather than the dark of drawer - so it's thrilling that it's out there. I'm also an actor and as an actor you can't generate your own work, you need other actors and directors and producers etc. Writing is a way for me to keep creative in an autonomous way.

Q. What next Grant? Is James a character that you might turn to again in your writing?

It's funny you should ask, but I did research and start a sequel to The Cuckoo Boy, with James in incarceration, but then I thought that actually James will never be allowed to grow up. He is a child frozen in time.

My next novel, which is nearly completed in its first draft, is called There is the Sea and is about suicide, tsunamis and synesthesia...

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Thoughts at the halfway point of The Cuckoo Boy

Having got a child of my own the idea that you could have a son who is both unloved and is suffering from a complete retreat into an imaginary world is something that you have to rely on Gillespie's fiction to deliver.

The fact he does so and maintains a growing tension as the cuckoo boy James grows up and drives his parents to the edge of sanity and their marriage keeps you reading even when it is uncomfortable to read about the exploits of a disfunctional family.

The book focuses on the quartet of Sandra, Ken and their adopted son James and his imaginary friend David. The problem is that David only turns up after a couple of years where James has managed to already create such a gulf between himself and his mother that the idea each could perhaps love each other has already become a non starter.

You sense that as the years go by and the imaginary David makes James step up the violence and the danger this can only end badly. As we all know it's the real people and not the imaginary who take the blame.

A full review to follow shortly...

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

book review - The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet - David Mitchell

"At the Crossroads, Jacob stops: ahead, Long Street continues to curve.
'That's Bony Alley,' Grote poinmts to their right, 'goin' to Sea Wall Lane: an' thataways,' Grote points left, 'is Short Street; and the Land-Gate...'
...and beyond the Land-Gate, thinks Jacob, is the Cloistered Empire."

It was almost impossible to come to this book without the weight of expectations set down by the numerous mentions of the words "David Mitchell" and "the genius of Cloud Atlas". The result is that when you open the pages and start to scan the pages you are looking for early and concrete signs that Mitchell is going to deliver.

The early signs are encouraging because it starts with Mitchell describing a world that is well researched but completely alien to a modern reader, describing Japan in 1799. This is a world that is cut off from the rest of the world, willingly and suspiciously keeping foreign influences at bay. But via a landbridge over to a small trading post Japan has made a trading relationship with the Dutch.

But before you get into that you have to go through a graphical opening passage describing a difficult birth of a child who manages against the odds to be saved by a skilled midwife. The passage is accompanied by an old fashioned etching type image that occasionally crop up elsewhere in the book.

Once that graphic and vivid introduction to Japanese culture, with men not allowed to see women naked, the midwife having her influence curbed because of her status you get the chance to move on and start the first book which is an introduction to the Dutch trading post through the eyes of Jacob de Zoet. The young clerk, the God fearing son of a clergyman, has been sent to clear up corruption that is rife in the trading post and he sets about his task with great gusto. But he is naive and the world he enters is not only a strange one but one that is tainted by politics, intrigue and violence that he initially appears to be far to wet behind the ears to deal with.

But there is a strength to de Zoet that comes from his conviction of what is right and his unbowed spirit is understood by others looking for someone to trust and as a result Jacob hovers in the background as the story moves on. The books that make up Thousand Autumns pick up the story of the Japanese midwife Orito that Jacob falls in love with as she is sent to a nunnery that carries out bizarre practices.

The story moves deeper into Japan and Mitchell opens up a world that is built on fear and power with the concept of what happens outside the halls of power and its borders almost irrelevant for its leaders.

But when the outside world does arrive with the British in the harbour firing cannon balls into the Dutch trading post the pressure is on to think differently and at that point Jacob returns to centre stage and the various strands of the stories come together.

Thematically this book is not just about the ideas of what is forbidden but the key concept is around the sense of things being lost in translation. It is not just words that are not understood but also actions and modes of behaviour. The breakthrough comes when Jacob makes the effort to teach himself Japanese. With interpreters not telling the truth it is one of the most powerful scenes in the book when he reveals he can understand them and talk their language.

"'I am told,' says the Magistrate, 'that you now understand some Japanese.'
To acknowledge the remark would advertise his clandestine studies, and may forfeit a tactical advantage. But to pretend not to understand, Jacob thinks, would be deceitful. 'Somehow I understand a little of the Magistrate's mother tongue, yes.'
The horseshoe of advisers murmurs in surprise hearing a foreigner speak."

But the other theme that will be carried long after the books has been read is the idea of traveling to different worlds and the concept that most of us don't understand in this connected world - the idea of distance.

As Jacob falls in love with Orito he is pining for the woman he left behind and the gap between boats bringing letters and messages from home stretches and finally those links with the past are completely severed.

Mitchell has delivered a book that shifts focus from one character to another, from one perspective to another but done so in a way that works. My solitary criticism would be the occasional moments when periphery characters are given free reign to spend several pages on their life stories, which don't add any particular value, but I sense even there it might be nit picking for the sake of it.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

book review - The Book of Disquiet - Fernando Pessoa

"Everything in me is a tendency to be about something else; an impatience of the soul with itself, as if with an importunate child; a disquiet that is always growing, always the same."

At the start of this book it felt as if someone was describing how I felt about my job and sharing my dreams of escape. It felt as if the thoughts of Bernardo Soares echoed my own. But as the book went on it perhaps suffers from being a compiled after the author's death because it keeps going with no definable end simply halting when the material does.

That though is the solitary criticism of a book that manages to tap into human frustrations and emotions that feels as fresh as when they were first written 80 odd years ago. The thoughts that Soares shares are about dreams, work, love and God can make you laugh, think and ponder on the universality of life.

Set in Lisbon with most entries in the diary dated around the early 1930s the character Bernado Soares dreams of leaving his job as a clerk and turn his back on his boss Vasques, the office boy and his other colleagues. But he knows that even if he left them tomorrow what he moved into would end up being the same. As a result he moves from thinking about specific escape from his job to thinking about how it would be possible to escape from the conformity of life. Break free of that and wherever he goes would be different.

But of course that is an incredibly difficult task and even he accepts that as he starts to ponder why people believe in God, choose marriage and relationships and continue to work in the way they do whether or not there ever could be an alternative.

Because of the style of the book, which is in the form of entries from a diary dated and then where possible grouped thematically, this is perhaps not something you read in one sitting. It is a book that is perhaps more powerful being dipped into. So many thoughts are packed into one space that it is difficult to absorb it all.

For anyone who has ever thought that were alone in despairing about their job and the way life is then this is an ideal read. It shows not only that you are not alone but it's been that way for a long time. There is a great deal of comfort to be taken from that.

Monday, May 24, 2010

book review - The Elephant - Slawomir Mrozek

"In the morning the elephant was moved to a special run in a central position, next to the monkey cage. Placed in front of a large real rock it looked fierce and magnificent. A big notice proclaimed: "particularly sluggish. Hardly moves."

It is a rare thing to be able to make you laugh out loud about something that is far from laughable - the iron grip of a society that crushes the spirit - but it is with a wide smile on your face you race through The Elephant.

Mrozek knows how to deliver satire by the bucketful hitting the right mark everytime. A policeman who is stunned that anyone would want to lay a wreath at the statue commemorating trade unionists without having to be ordered to do so; the zoo that saves money by using an inflatable elephant; the man who's honest weather station reports end up being deemed to be politically incorrect.

Underneath the laughter there is of course the tragedy of living in totalitarian Poland in the years when the grip of the USSR was a firm one indeed. But what Mrozek shows on page after page is that it is possible to ridicule the state by taking some of the excessive behaviour to the extreme.

This collection of 47 stories, some less than a page, was written when the USSR was still a powerful force in the late 1950s but in many ways the emotions and frustrations he writes about here are timeless and just as applicable to the modern reader.

The best way of illustrating that is by focusing on the title story. The zoo owner might well think that he has struck on a brilliant idea of saving money by canceling the order for a real elephant and using an inflatable one but he is providing a false representation to the school children who come to look at it.

Such a short story is able to say so much about the pathetic way the USSR tried to imitate the West as well as how it's citizens were lied to on a regular basis. What thew children see is an elephant they are told will not move because it is temperamental. It even exposes the failings of a system that encourages box ticking rather than passion with the keepers filling the elephant with gas when they find blowing it up too difficult. But when it comes free of its moorings it moves in a way that no one could expect. Again there is a false experience for the viewers of the spectacle.

By lifting the veil and laughing at things that provoke fear and frustration this collection of short stories is a revelation that even in the darkest times there are writers prepared to use their skill to puncture the fear and nonsense of a totalitarian regime.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

bookmark of the week

this bookmark came with some books sent to me by my kind bookish friend Janette known as BookRambler on twitter. It is a great bookmark of the leaning tower of Pisa. I visited there years ago and never saw a bookmark as good as this one and wasn't allowed anywhere near the tower either because of repair work. This is a wonderful reminder not just of Pisa but the paper craft shops that populate that part of Tuscany. Thanks to BookRambler for adding a bit of class to the bookmark collection

Saturday, May 22, 2010


years ago there was a glossy monthly magazine Ink that interviewed authors, produced pages of reviews and even had a section at the back encouraging people to try creative writing. it was published by a company in Bath and lasted for a few issues before biting the dust.

I recently managed to dig up my first issue of the magazine and was flicking through. it aimed for the mainstream with articles on Lord of the Rings etc but it was also able to offer a few nuggets. I still get the LRB and TLS and Literary Review but do think it is a shame that Ink folded.

Friday, May 21, 2010

lot's of catching up to do

Feel miles behind this month. problem with trying to read as much as you can is that blogging can sadly come second place occassionally.

As a result there are several reviews outstanding:

White Castle by Orhan Pamuk, which I think might even be from last month
The Elephant by Slawomir Mrozek
The Carpenter's Pencil by Manuel Rivas
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

Also have a lot of bookmarks to put up for bookmark of the week.

Please bear with me while i try to catch up this weekend hopefully will be a productive one and things will get back to how they should be.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Thoughts at the halfway point of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet

In some ways the way that Mitchell writes a story reminds me of one of those microscopes where you roll the lens to get a different view.

He starts from one angle and then shifts to another almost pushing the first character into the background completely. Although I put Cloud Atlas to one side to crack on with this you could see the same being done there.

In this case you enter the world of Japan in 1799 where the country is locked to foreigners and keeps its own archaic laws and rituals. But because of trade via a bridge to a small island the country does operate with the Dutch.

Jacob De Zoet has been sent to stamp out corruption but finds himself fooled by those he believes are trying to clear up the trading post. His mistake is not just to stick to his principles in a world where no one else does but to fall in love with the Japanese medical student Orito. She is from another world and as the book moves focus to settle on her you realise that De Zoet was not just late to the scene but is blissfully unaware of the battles that young woman has fought and is fighting.

A review will follow on completion...

Sunday, May 16, 2010

bookmark of the week

There used to be a book magazine called Ink and it gave away themed bookmarks in some of its issues and this was the music one. Sadly the magazine didn't last and this bookmark is one of the only reminders for me of its existence.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

bookshops you find yourself visiting -

This is a difficult one because everytime I buy a book from Amazon I feel as if I'm taking food out of the mouth of an independent bookseller and that is not a good feeling.

The problem is that when it comes to buying new releases in hard back it is very difficult ignoring Amazon because it does offer prices that are 50% or even more. So it was with a couple of clicks that this afternoon I found myself ordering The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, the new book from David Mitchell. At £8 something it is half the price of the £18.99 cover price.

It might well have saved me money but that feeling of guilt remains and sadly I'm not sure what to do about it. If I could afford to turn my nose up at the Amazon offer I would but I can't. The positive I guess is that I only buy one or two hard backs a year sticking to the paperback format nearly all the time because of the weight of books commuting.

Friday, May 14, 2010

A magical time in the Faber Archive

Having been one of the lucky six people given a chance to go and visit the Faber archive as part of a competition run by Culture 24 I wanted to provide a report on what happened on what was a magical evening.

After turning up and being greeted by the incredibly friendly Gemma Lovett and making our way up to the archive, time seemed to pause, as we sat back and soaked up information and the atmosphere.

The evening was split into three parts with the first bit spent with the archivist Robert Brown using photographs to tell the history of Faber & Faber and the influence of TS Eliot on the company.

A series of black and white photographs and a couple of videos took you on a virtual tour of the old Faber building in 24 Russell Square, which is now where SOAS is housed, and introduced you to the idea of the book committee and the way the company chose to accept or reject manuscripts.

Having seen the book committee at work in a 1951 video we were then shown some of the ledgers which marked down some of the decisions including the one made in 1944 to reject Orwell's Animal Farm.

The second part of the evening then moved on from the ledgers, kept in their beautiful copper script, to more of the physical objects that live in the archive. These included a postcard from Philip Larkin and some doodles made by TS Eliott as well as the rejection comments made on the decision to turn down William Golding's Stranger from Within, which became Lord of the Flies. It was dismissed in no uncertain terms as being far-fetched and 'dull'.

In the end the story of how Lord of the Flies did manage to be published was just as interesting as the rejection letter. Saved from the slush pile by another editor it was edited down by two thirds and became the book we all know today.

Just sitting round the very table that the book committee meets round and where Eliott would have sat was something very special and I have to admit to touching it with some reverence.

The archive keeps the correspondence of the authors and poets that are on the Faber roster and we were allowed to see some of the letters that were deemed to be suitable because of course with some writers the people mentioned and the decisions described are still living and live.

Finally to show how the archive was a living and developing body two of Faber's poets, Joe Dunthorne and Heather Phillipson read from their own work and other Faber poets, including Charles Simic, John Berryman, Simon Armitage and Don Paterson. The readings were intimate and powerfully showed just why everything Faber does matters.

The Faber archive is a wonderful insight not just into how one particular publishing house operated but into a world where the written word matters. Of course it is a business and money has to be made but the passion for books swamps the very air in the Faber offices and it was wonderful to be allowed to breathe some of that in for an hour.

My thanks to all those that organised it and I hope, for the sake of the many friends that told me they would have loved to have gone, that after this first run Faber will open the archives again and allow more book lovers into look at these fantastic objects of history.

In the meantime keep an eye on the web because Gemma and colleagues are scanning documents whenever they get the time and the archive is going to be digitized so the world can see some of the marvels in the archive.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Thoughts at the halfway point of the Book of Dis-Quiet

Just a few pages into this book I felt such an empathy with the voice of the narrator that it felt almost like a self-help book, but one without any advice just observations on how miserable working life can be.

A man who hates his job, dislikes most of his colleagues dreams of escape but he knows in his heart of hearts that wherever he goes it will be the same and he starts to see his colleagues in a more tolerant light.

The book is written in the format of a journal over several years but the jumping around between the years is because of the attempts to group together certain observations thematically.

if you ever wondered if anyone felt like you when you walked through the doors of the office and took your seat then wonder no more they do and they have been well before you were ever born.

A review will follow soon...

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Flying through a book

If there is one good thing to be said for having to give up some of your own weekend, evening and even your own comforting bed for a hotel room in Europe it is the chance to read en route.

The flight from London to Barcelona made on Sunday afternoon and returning on Monday night took just shy of two hours and in that time it was possible to have a small snooze and knock off a 160 page novel. Really enjoyed that side of the experience and realise that it underlines very firmly just how much reading you can achieve when you have the time, the lack of distractions and a chance to dictate your own reading rhtym.

Sadly that trip is far too rare so it will be back to snatched minutes on the daily commute.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

bookmark of the week

One of the most well loved children's books of all time has to be Eric Carle's the Hungry Caterpillar and this magnetic bookmark is done with great imagination. it clips onto the top of the book pages giving the impression that even after all those apples and pieces of cake the book might be next to be munched.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

bookshops you find yourself visiting - airport bookshop

If you find yourself at the airport before going away without your chosen reading material already packed then you might struggle. Although there are plenty of WH Smith branches offering a selection of sorts there is nowhere near the depth you need to make a decent choice. Plus the deals on offer tend to push the reader towards a supermarket type selection of best sellers that only make economic sense if you buy more than one or two.

But before this post slips into pure moaning let it be said that one advantage are the special airport paperback versions of hardbacks yet to appear in that format. These exclusive editions remind me a bit of the paperback readers club which used to specialise something similar. But if there is something you are after and were worried it might weigh a lot in hardback format then the airport bookshop might just turn up trumps.

Friday, May 07, 2010

book review - Natasha and other stories - David Bezmozgis

"-Roman Abramovich, remember, you always have a friend in Moscow. Visit anytime.
laughing at his joke, the agent turned, and we proceeded to the elevator and rode up to Sergei's floor. In the elevator my father leaned against the wall and finally loosened his grip on my neck.
-Don't ever forget. This is why we left. So you never have to know people like him."

The interlinked short stories from David Bezmozgis give a fascinating insight into the lives of a Russian Jewish family that has emigrated to Canada in the 1970s. The Soviet rule of fear and the KGB is still in full swing under Brezhnev but for the Berman family made up of Roman, Bella and their son Mark they have escaped that world.

Although as the tale starts with the family living hand to mouth learning English and relying on the immigrant community to help them escaping is far from an easy option.

Through a series of stories Mark grows up and the world around him becomes one that starts to get easier as the hard work put in by his father and mother starts to pay off.

Stories that stand out include Tapka about a friend's dog who is involved in a car accident after a young Mark and his cousin neglect to look after the animal. The sense of that moment when a childish mistake causes very real adult consequences is brilliantly conveyed.

Then the tale of the Second Strongest Man also provides an insight into the hard world of the KGB, drugs and sport and how quickly a sportsman's star can fall. The way in which someone can have their life decided for them is palpable as the former world champion weight lifter Sergei has to confront the moment when the authorities decide he is no longer number one.

The final couple of stories concentrate on the fate of some of the older Jewish members of the community and how they have been forgotten and often abandoned by younger generations that see them as some sort of embarrassing link to a past and a world they would rather forget.

After you put the book down a couple of thoughts spring to mind. The first is that essentially we are all the same regardless of where we grow up, all making the same mistakes in life and love. But it also holds out hope that there is such a thing as community and it will come to the rescue when things look bleak. Sadly it is that as much as the former USSR that Bezmozgis's characters have escaped that you suspect has faded into history.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Thoughts at the half way point of Natasha and other stories

These stories have a distinctive voice that of someone far from home in a country that his family is trying to make home. The Berman family has escaped Brezhnev's Russia and moved to Toronto but as Bell and Roman and their son Mark try to get to grips with the new language they also face challenges coming to terms with their past and the complete change Canada offers.

The book opens with a great story Tapka that captures that moment when you grow up and realise that you joking around has serious consequences. As a six year old Mark tears up the trust shown in him by fellow immigrant neighbours after he almost kills their dog Tapka.

In The second tale about how his father tries to set up his own massage business, Roman Berman, Massage Therapist, it shows how hard it is for immigrants to break free of poverty and how crucial their own communities are in opening doors.

More to come on completion...

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

book review - Young Hitler - Claus Hant

"‘It’s alive. Alive in a man. He is the Chosen One.’ Her eyes shone as she looked at me. ‘I know you don’t believe me,’ she said. ‘ But mark my words: it will happen here. In Munich. Not just according to Sebottendorff. Astrology has predicted it too. And Nostradamus.’
‘So where is this…”Chosen One”... now?’
‘No one knows where He is. But we know He’s coming. Soon.’"

It is always going to be difficult writing a book about Hitler as a 16 to young 30-yr old because of the monstrous things he later carried out. Claus Hant manages though to introduce you to someone who is interesting and able to exploit problems, mainly economic as well as political, to seize the moment to emerge from the shadows as the Fuhrer.

But Young Hitler is also selfish, cruel, mad and a totally unpleasant friend to have as the voice of the narrator manages to convey repeatedly. By combining four friendships Hitler had at different stages in his youth it is possible to have an uninterrupted narrative of the Hitler who walks into a Linz cafe one afternoon to the man who flunks art school in Vienna, ends up in a tramps hostel selling his small paintings in Munich and then a solider winning the Iron Cross in the First World War.

For me that was the biggest lesson of reading this book. I had seen the picture taken of a young Hitler with his smudgy moustache taken at the front but had assumed that he saw little action and spent most of his time well behind the front line. Because that view was wrong it has made me think again about some of the moments in the Second World War when Hitler told his generals what to do. It makes slightly more sense considering he had a fair amount of military experience.

But back to the selfish maniac and Hant portrays Hitler as a man that essentially has two skills. The first is to take the views and histories of others and simplify them, combine them and retell them in his own forthright homespun philosophy. This means that occasionally he contradicts himself, is bluntly opportunistic when he gets the chance and is always refining his views with them getting progressively darker and more anti-semetic.

The other skill that emerges towards the end of the book is his ability to keep a hall of thousands hanging off his every word. His hypnotic eyes and thunderous speeches of course became signatures of his leadership but here they start with Hitler trying to convert and convince his friend Martin and then fellow soldiers and eventually the Munich population.

The character of Martin, the narrator, just about works although you do wonder why he doesn't leave someone so selfish. He is used as an extension of the German people feeling magnetically pulled back to this man who is clearly known as a monster to those around him. The eyes, the conviction and the energy levels make it difficult to ignore someone who is after all a failed student and oddball.

The tragedy is of course that just as the country started to fall apart after the end of the war and a messy peace with communists and then right wingers fighting on the streets Hitler emerged as a strong voice. His real talent perhaps lay in knowing when to step forward. But of course the causes of his later downfall were all there from the very start and those, like Martin, who were closest to him had seen them exhibited all the way through his youth.

There is quite a lot of useful information about the book over at the Young Hitler web site.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Thoughts at the halfway point of Young Hitler

Having read Castle in the Forest the idea of reading about Hitler's youth is one that fills you with apprehension. Not just because you fear Mailer type oddness but because this is a character that you instinctively can not like.

But a book coming from the man behind the screen play of Downfall, Claus Hant, is going to have an authority on the subject that perhaps other authors would lack.

You meet Hitler at the age of 16 when the year's of parental abuse from his father are behind him and he is reading widely and starting his political education. Hant merges into one character the four friends Hitler had at various stages of his youth and through the eyes of piano playing Martin you start to see Hitler develop his ideas.

His only positive quality is his boundless energy and his talent lies in simplifying ideas from others and merging them into his own philosophy. But his cruelty, selfishness and tendency to opt for views from the more bizarre ends of the spectrum are worrying.

A review will follow soon...

Monday, May 03, 2010

Review of the month - April

April turned out to be a really good month reading wise. Got the tempo back and managed to knock off quite a few books. It probably helped that there wasn't a book of the month coming from the industry so I could read in a hypeless vacuum.

Books read this month:

A Month in the Country by J.L Carr
The Various Haunts of Men by Susan Hill
How I Came to Know Fish by Ota Pavel
Old Masters by Thomas Bernhard
Tofu Landing by Evan Maloney
The White Castle by Orhan Panuk
Untimely Death by Cyril Hare
Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley

If there was a theme then it was probably two fold with crime represented by Cyril Hare and Walter Mosley and the second world war and its impact a subject covered in A Month in the Country and How I Came to Know Fish.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

bookmark of the week

Not sure where this one came from but picked it up on the travels round London. One of the things you don't have to hunt that far for is something to do with Churchill he is still a symbol that populates museums and souvenir shops. This bookmark is praising him for his speeches. made of some sort of plastic.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

bookshops worth a visit - Parliamentary Bookshop

With the election in mind thought it worth mentioning one of the specialist bookshops that exist in London to serve a particular readership.

Those interested in politics can flick through the biographies and texts pondering the use of power and look up from the shelves and take in the view of the Houses of Parliament at the Parliamentary Bookshop.