Monday, July 31, 2006

Journey to the end of the night post I

This is one of those books that starts and doesn’t immediately grab you. Like an album that needs repeated listening to ‘grow on you’ the Journey to the end of the night starts and goes straight into the action of war without really establishing much of a relationship between the main character Ferdinand Bardamu and the reader.

Sometimes that jerky fell can be as a result of it being a translated work but here you get the feeling it is more a deliberate style.

Bullet points between pages 3 – 94

* The story starts with Ferdinand and a friend arguing in a café about patriotism. In a fit of provocation he runs after a marching troop of soldiers and ends up joining up

* The story moves to the First World War where he discovers that he is a coward and afraid and his dislike and distrust of generals and authority figures emerges

* After being given a medal and sent back for some time to recuperate to Paris he meets an American Red Cross worker Lola who stirs and interest for him in the States

* After walking in a park and seeing a deserted shooting gallery Ferdinand had a fit of fear and starts shouting that everybody is going to be shot and ends up in a mental hospital

* Lola decides after a conversation about the war that he is a coward and that seems to be the end of that

* As the war starts to slip towards its end Ferdinand ends up in a relationship with a young prostitute, Musyne, who sings for the troops and as his jealousy mounts she leaves him

* He fails to get recalled because he is still below par and is sent to another hospital and there comes across a patriotic and confident doctor who thinks he is improving and allows him a visit from his mother who disappoints him with her complete belief in the doctors diagnosis

If you get the feeling that this is all stops and starts, just from my bullet points, then that is the way the book is flowing at the moment. There are no chapter headings and there is no contents panel to chart the development of the story. I’m hoping that things will improve a bit tomorrow…

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Bookmark of the week

This is a bookmark celebrating the Northern Line in London. For about four years I had to commute down the Northern line on the underground and so it has several memories for me - not many of them enjoyable because the tube is a hot, smelly and sometimes violent place. But it is always good to be reading a book and thinking that if nothing else at least I am on a bike and train now not the underground.

Bought from the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden London.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Book of books - grapes of wrath

One of the John Steinbeck 'must reads' that is also on reading lists worldwide as an example of Depression literature, a book able to encapsulate a time and a feeling. Because of the subject matter it is for some people a drepressing hard read but it is a book that must be taken through to the finish, even if there is not a 'light at the end of the tunnel moment'.

The context:
The book is set in the 1930s with the farmers being driven off their land as the small tenant farmers are replaced by large tractor cultivated cotton farms. In response to hand bills advertising work tens of thousands abandon the land worked by their families for three generations and buy old cars and trucks and head for the West and the promised land of California. Once there they find Hooverville camps, hatred and very little work. On the way they find death, hunger and a growing sense of awareness about the problems. Steinbeck tells the story of that migration by focusing on the Joad family and the people they come across.

Is the book well written?
the book is almost like a film script, with the Joad story being interspersed with stories of the exploitation and hate from different angles, so you get inside the mind of a car salesman ripping off the migrants as they leave, some of the Californians resisting the arrival of the migrants and you get a quick update on what things like the flood near the end of the book meant for large numbers of people. By breaking up the Joad family story it gives the book a momentum it needs and it takes away from what otherwise could be an incredibly depressing tone.

is it worth reading?
If you finish this book without being moved and left feeling angry then you can't be human. Although the tip of the iceberg that is exactly the sort of feelings the Joads and thousands like them had so the book has succeeded in making you understand what they went through. The setting might be the depression but the prejudices and hatred that people can show to each other as well as the friendship and charity are relevant to today and that is why this is a book that exists beyond its time. If there had been more understanding and more tolerance things would have been very different for the Joads.

Leads to
As with some of the other books that are associated with this author and this time there are other paths you can take which are mentioned at the end of the review of Cannery Row, posted earlier this week. If you want to theme it, which is the way I tend to go then you could add in some more Steinbeck, Down and Out in Paris and London by Orwell to get another take on the camaraderie and hostility experienced in poverty and search the web for other tales linked to this period like Jack Conroy's The disinherited, which I just bought from a bookseller in the US and should get next week.

Version read - Heinemann modern novel series

Friday, July 28, 2006

Grapes of Wrath post V

This is the final stretch. Normal spoiler alert here: if you haven't read as far then please do not read on it will take away the enjoyment of the book for you.

We left things with the family finding work in a pear picking farm but Tom got involved in a fight with Casy and his trikebreakers and some farm guards and breaks his nose and hits a man. There is a sense that no matter where the family goes to it will not find comfort.

Bullet points between pages 340 – 400

* Tom it appears did kill a man and the family leave the fruit picking and drive until they come to cotton picking fields.

* Tom hides out in the undergrowth to avoid detection

* Al gets engaged to a girl, Aggie, that he has been seeing at the cotton picking camp

* Ruthie spills the beans about her brother and so Ma goes to see Tom, gives him seven dollars, and asks him to go far away

* The rains come and the work stops Steinbeck uses a chapter to describe the death and despair it brings to the migrant community

* Rose of Sharon goes into labour supported by Ma with Pa out trying to get a flood barrier built to stop the box cars in the cotton pickers camp flooding

* The baby is stillborn and the flood barrier is broken by a falling tree and the cars and trucks are flooded out

* They end up running for cover in a barn where they come across a man and his son. The man is starving and Rose of Sharon breastfeeds him to stave off death.

A couple of times in the book there is a suggestion that as long as the people can get angry then they will have the energy to survive. Ma mentions it about Pa but it is one of Steinbeck’s many inter-chapters (as the commentary by Michael Millgate at the start of this version describes them) that it is spelt out:
“…the break would never come as long as fear could turn to wrath”. (at the end of chap 29)

What Grapes of Wrath contains is a power and a tragedy that you take away with you and mull over. Hopefully after some of that mulling over my review will be able to articulate how the book makes me feel.

A full review will appear tomorrow and next week to move away from just seeing what US writers had to write about in the interwar years I’m going to start reading Journey to the end of the night by Louis-Ferdinand Celine.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Grapes of wrath post IV

Normal spoiler alert here: if you haven'’t read as far then please do not read on it will take away the enjoyment of the book.

We left things with the family in a Hooverville camp full of migrants struggling to understand who to believe -– those who are moving North because there is no work and those looking for something in the local area. The sense of bewilderment is made worse by the collective exhaustion the family feels.

Bullet points from pages 240 -– 340

* Dropping like flies Connie decides to abandon the family and his pregnant wife Rose of Sharon

* Tom ends up in an encounter with a Policeman and Casy takes the blame and is driven away

* That night the family heads off just before the local farmers come in and burn the Hooverville camp claiming it is full of "“reds"”

* They drive South to the government camp and find a space and friendliness

* Tom discovers that the local farmers are hoping to disrupt the camp because people are "starting to feel human"” and might get organised against the inequality

* After failing to find work they head North and end up in a farm where there are strikers picketing outside

* Tom goes out to see the strikers, and discovers they are being led by Casy, they are then attacked by men who kill Casy and break Tom's nose. In the struggle Tom hits a man and believes he might have killed him.

Even at this stage what amazes you is the optimism that Ma in particular still carries around hoping that they will get a house and steady work. Leaving the camp looks like a backward step and now Tom is in trouble you start to feel the worst. Can the family survive? Tomorrow and the last 60 pages will tell...

Book of books – Cannery Row

John Steinbeck manages to weave some deep issues of trust and friendship against a background of desperate poverty into this story about a run down community living on the Californian coast. Alongside his other work it is another book that reflects on the struggle of people who are on the brink of extreme poverty and how they dream of finding happiness. In this case they set the modest aim of throwing a party and manage to achieve it leaving you with a very different ending to Of Mice and Men, but no less powerful.

Book context
Set a bleak fishing town that is known by its name linking it to the fish canning industry this is about a handful of different characters in that town and their plans and dreams to discover and share some happiness. There are moments of great pathos and when the anger and frustration boil over. There are also bits that are entertaining - for instance the moment when the vagrants use frogs as currency with the grocery store.

Is it well written?
The comment I wrote down immediately after reading this was “beautifully written with an ending that leaves you feeling bereft”. The reason for that is that at the end the main character Doc finally understands his position in the community and the high value of friendship. Up until the end any display of friendship is accompanied by deep suspicion and comes with a catch and it’s almost a case of every man looking out for himself but the different pockets of community – the whores, the couple living in the old boiler, the shop owner and the bums living in his storehouse – all come together at the end and remind us that you don’t have to have money to be happy and rich in spirit.

Is it worth reading?
If you are going through a Steinbeck phase then definitely. What put me onto it is that in the computer magazine I edit we do a weekly interview and ask people what their favourite book is and someone said Cannery Row and it just stood out from the norm so much I bought it that day off eBay. But if you want to read more deeply into the whole class and race literature that dominates 20th century US literature then this has to be included in the list. Not the first Steinbeck you should read but one of first few you should plough through.

It is also worth mentioning that the main character Doc appears is based on a man named Ed Rickett's a marine biologist who was part of revolutionising that area of science and is recognised for his work in the Monterey Bay Aquarium. For more details click onto: a tourist site that also has details of the area's heritage.

Leads to
More Steinbeck of course but if you want to get more depression era literature then Upton Sinclair is good, Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie is good and for the hollow side of being rich but brutally unfulfilled try some F.Scott Fitzgerald, particuarly Tender is the Night and The Great Gatsby.

Version - Penguin Modern Classics

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Grapes of wrath post III

before you read on let me just warn you that unless you are reading this particular part of the book then of course the daily bullet points will spoil it for you so please don't read on further if that is the case. Otherwise...

As the family get closer to California they start to encounter some of those people who have been and are going back and come across the term "Okie" as derogatoryry label being applied to the immigrants coming into the state.

Bullet points between pages 154 - 240

* Granma starts to decline following her husband's death and keeps talking as if he was still alive

* At an overnight camp site a man is there who has come back from California and he moans that people are treated badly and there is no work

* Further on the road the family encounter a father and son who have also returned and paint the same picture of discrimination, despair and injustice

* At the same camp site a Policeman asks them to be gone by the morning and warns Ma Joad that they "don't want any Okies settling here".

* They are dropping like flies and Noah decides to go off and leave the family

* Mrs Wilson, who has been ill since hooking up with the Joads, can't go on and the Joads head off through the desert deeper into California without them

* Just as they cross the desert and get to see the lush green valley ahead of them Granma dies leaving them with the costs of a funeral. They really will be starting with nothing.

* They reach California and everything they have been warned about appears to be true so they decide to head up North to look for better prospects

You really want them to make it but at this rate there won't be much of the Joad family left to make it much of a better life. Although they are too tired to see it the journey has already been a tragedy. More tomorrow...

Book at bedtime

It can be pretty hard going reading in this summer heat so as an alternative it's possible to listen all this week, and for the next seven days, to For Whom the bell tolls on BBC Radio 4. It's the stations Book at bedtime this week.
Click on this link for more information and to listen again:

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Grapes of wrath post II

The book goes from small chapters with different styles and different stories back to the main story of the family heading West in the great exodus to escape the dying land.

You really want the family to make it but you start to get hints that Route 66 is a place of despair for some of the travellers and that even when and if they get to California the hand bills proclaiming a land of milk and honey might not turn out to be true.

Bullet points between pages 76 - 154

* The family heads off with the preacher aboard and the family weighed down with possessions and fear

* The first casualty is the dog that runs into the Highway and gets killed

* The next is Grampa who has a stroke and is buried by the side of the road

* the Joads meet up and combine forces with the Wilson's from Kansas and head off in convoy to lighten the load on the truck

* The car breaks down giving first Tom and Casy the chance to talk about how the mass migration mean there is something wrong with the country and then the brothers Tom and Al head off for a spare part and get a chance to talk about his prison time and his philosophy about the future

Will try to get back to 100 pages a day tomorrow if this heat cools down in London and the trains become more bearable. All you want now is for the family to make it but somehow you just sense that is not going to happen...

Monday, July 24, 2006

Grapes of wrath post I

Most great works of literature start with an introduction that puts the work in context and provides some information about the author. These are always worth reading because, although they usually do contain spoilers that will take away the impact of some of the twists in the book, they do provide a lot of background that can help understand the book and the author's motivation. Have to say in passing that the intro by Michael Millgate is one of the strangest I have read because it concludes by going through the book chapter by chapter. I skipped that bit because it really would have spoilt reading the rest of the story.

Bullet points between pages 1 - 76

* The scene is set with the tough depression era farming world of the Great Plains being destroyed by dust.

* Tenant farmers are being driven off their land by the banks and heading for the promised land of California where the living is meanrt to be easy

* Tom Joad is introduced as a character who has just been released from prison three years early for good behaviour after a homicide and is heading home

* He discovers his family have moved and meets the preacher from his youth -Casy - who as almost a metaphor for the community has lost his faith

* Tom meets up with his family as they prepare to depart for California

Like a great symphony, where the main theme echoes through the movements, already you are starting to get the idea for the themes of struggle – dust and the endless journey of the land turtle being two of them.

I wanted to read more but fell asleep on the train in the heat and as a result of a 4am start after taking my brother to the airport hope to crack on a bit more tomorrow...

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Bookmark of the week

This bookmark is from the Kennet and Avon Canal and was bought from the shop at the side of the canal after a very pleasant one and a half hours going up the canal to the Roman aqueduct and then back. The canal boat is run mainly by volunteers and the captain was described as being grumpy and non communicative, which explained why most of the time we had no idea where we were. The canal trips are not far from Bath and well worth going on if you are on an extended stay in the area.

This is a very traditional leather type bookmark that is standard fare for any Tourist shop in the UK.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

book of books - Of mice and men

John Steinbeck is known world wide for a number of works including Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden and Of mice and men. This later work is something that can be read very quickly but is a story that you mull over in your mind for a long time afterwards.

book context:
The story of two friends that are roaming around trying to get ranch work in order to try and save up to but their own plot of land. Lennie is a large strong man with the brain of a child who relies on his friend George to look after him. They have left a ranch where Lennie got into trouble and George starts the book begging him to be quiet and to keep out of trouble. In the end sadly through no fault of his own Lennie ends up killing the ranch owners daughter-in-law and is shot by George before the rest of the lynch mob can catch up with him.
According to the introduction to the book there were some attempts to ban it in America because they viewed it as encouraging euthanasia. They obviously failed to see that it was a metaphor for the cruelty of the depression and the sentiment, which is echoed with the killing of an old dog in the book, that only the strong will survive.

is it well written?
It takes a bit of time to put the story into a context of the depression hit 1930s and you are continually wondering if Lennie and George are brothers, until it is explained about the historical friendship later in the book. It is a very short story compared to some others but manages to pack in a great deal of deep themes. At the end you are left moved by the ugliness of the extents that poverty drive people to, sadness at the desperation of their dreams of escape and anger at Lennie's victim who eptiomises the voyeurism that the rich could afford.

Should it be read?
Without a doubt it is a story bigger than its setting and deserves to be read by anyone looking for a tale of friendship, failed ambition and the cost of what happens when the lines are crossed between two different worlds - the adult and the child and the rich and the poor. The ending should leave you moved and keen to read more by Steinbeck and more about the race and class issues that drive so much modern American literature.

Leads to
You can go in various directions. Firstly, more Steinbeck, which is what is happening next week, or secondly, something I did is to go into more classic American literature including Harper Lee, Capote, Twain and for reasons I'll explain later some Upton Sinclair and Theodore Dreiser.

Version - Penguin Red Classics range

Friday, July 21, 2006

Book of books - For whom the bell tolls

It is quite an achievement to get a literary worked linked forever with an event but Ernest Hemingway achieved that with For Whom the bell tolls and the Spanish Civil War.

book context:
An account of the Spanish Civil War from the view point of an American explosives expert who is sent on a mission to blow up a bridge. Trough a story that lasts only four days we get a whole gamut of emotions ranging from love and lust for Maria to despair at the end and hatred and frustration on the way between. The sense of frustration about the way the war is managed that echoes from Orwell is highlighted with the mad French communist general but the added dimension to this story is the multiple view points that lead to the conclusion that all war is senseless and there are victims on both sides. Reading it against a backdrop of the 70th anniversary of the civil war (which it is this July) also made it resonate that little bit more deeply.

is it well written?
There are parts of the book that are so powerful, particularly between Jordan and Maria, and the climax of blowing the bridge that it puts the reader right in the action. His ability to step inside any of the characters including even those fascist soldiers fighting against Jordan is something that most other authors avoid sticking instead to one narrative position. Even at the end he reminds us that the officer Jordan is about to kill was one of those involved with fighting against Sordo.
There is a pace to the book kept going by the tension created between the principle characters and the mission. Hemingway continually draws on the palm reading Jordan received from Pilar early on and we can all guess it showed his death. He also highlights the battle between bravery and cowardice in the figure of Pablo.
Aside from the descriptions and the characterisation the other skill is weaving in at various points the story of the war and the differences between the two sides.

Should it be read?
It's rare that a book can appeal to someone without an interest in the context but this should be read even by those without an interest in the Spanish Civil War. It is a story about two sides fighting and the decisions that are made in a conflict and for that reason it could be about any conflict and is about human beings and not about generals and military manoeuvres. For anyone who starts to think that most American literature is obsessed by class and race this is a demonstration that there are other basic human emotions that can be tackled very cleverly indeed.

Leads to
This could be a springboard into more Hemingway, books on the civil war or as a spur to read some more American great writers. I am taking the later course because of the Beevor and Orwell stuff already being done. Hemingway will be returned to but just not yet.

Version - Penguin Modern Classics range, published 1961

Thursday, July 20, 2006

For whom the bell tolls post VI

So the book concludes in a flurry of death, frustration and tragedy. The pace is maintained by the switching back from Andres carrying Robert Jordan’s message trying to stop the attack to the tension in the camp about what the morning will bring. Then when the attack starts the action makes reading 50 pages feel like reading five.

Bullet points between pages 351 – 444

* Andres sets off to take the message but it takes a long time and he accepts he will miss the attack and when the message gets through it is too late

* Pablo returns with five rebels promising to fight for the cause

* Robert and Anselmo blow up the bridge while Pablo and the five new rebels dispatch the other sentry post

* Anselmo is killed as are two more of the group – Fernando and Eladio - and the five rebels who Pablo found are shot by him as he escapes from an armoured car

* As the remaining members of the group escape Robert breaks his leg as his horse is injured and signals to Pablo that he can’t go on because he will slow them down

* Robert convinces Maria to leave and then settles down with a gun to wait for the fascist troops to come.

It is too early to produce a full review of the book because its impact is still very fresh. But even now you can rank this as a brilliant novel that puts you in the minds of multiple characters allowing you to share the ectasy of love, the frustrations of war and the fear and dangers of action.

Will post a full review tomorrow.

Sticking with American writers will start Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck on Monday.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

For whom the bell tolls post V

Things heat up immediately in chapter 21 with the moment when Robert, who is sleeping outside encounters a cavalryman and shoots him. That decision leads to a nerve racking day that culminates with doubts creeping in to Jordan and the end of Sordo's band in the mountains.

Bullet points between pages 253 - 351

* Robert shoots a cavalryman and then has to prepare the group for action

* He becomes in effect the leader of the group

* El Sordo and his forces are wiped out by soldiers and planes

* Robert sends a message through to General Golz trying to get the bridge blowing mission cancelled

* On the eve of the attack Pablo disappears taking some dynamite and the detonator

Where Hemingway differs from some authors is that he is determined to provide different points of view. Some others would stick with Jordan and relay that Sordo had been killed through the sounds of the battle and the discovery afterwards by Pablo of the corpses but he goes much further. So you get to be with Sordo when he dies, in the minds of the officers trying to kill him on the hill and get the responses to the action from Robert and those around him. You even get to be with the messenger he sends to Golz and get to share his feelings about the battle.

All of these view points add to the feeling this is starting to climax in the final day of the battle. Tomorrow should be an eventful day in the book...

Book lists to read before you die

Although you should have your own way of choosing books – reviews, word of mouth, gifts or impulse – or in my case an attempt to catch up and diligently read the classics in a themed way, it can be interesting to see what other people recommend.

Because I have two young children I have taken a keen interest in the lists of books that authors feel every child should read and it was both frustrating and instructive to see who came out on top in the BBC’s top 100 book list, in the Big Read, a couple of years ago.

Having recently purchased the 1001 Books to read before you die (such a motivating title) by Peter Boxall. I sat down and started going through the index to see what I had read and still needed to get through.

Some great books I enjoyed are not in it and some authors get a great deal of their work listed because of their position as ‘greats’. It is a useful companion but just like those other lists from authors and BBC viewers it is ultimately a beautifully packaged list.

For anyone serious about reading it is something worth having as a reference guide but for someone who has read very little this might actually put them off not just through the thickness of the book, which is so substantial you might die before even finishing flicking through it, but the ambition of reading 1001 books is a very steep one.

For further coverage of recommended lists cut and past these into your browser:

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

For whom the bell tolls post IV

Third day into the book and it has been an opportunity for some of the main characters - Robert, Pilar and Anselmo -– to share their thoughts with the readers filling in some of the background to why they ended up fighting in the war.

You also get a fixing for the timing, 1936 or early 1937 and a clear idea of what drove the people to war and the anger they had for thosfasciststs living rich off the hard work of the peasants.

Bullet points between pages 149 - 253

* Pilar recounts how the uprising started and the violence she was involved with Pablo in cleansing their home town by killing all the fascists

* Robert starts to think about how long he will be with Maria and faces up to the problems blowing the bridge during daylight and the subsequent retreat

* He also recalls how he was Spanish teacher and the problems being classed as a 'red' might cause for his career

* Anselmo waits watching the road and the guard house and thinks about killing and how he wished he didn't have to do any more

* The relationship between Pablo and Augustin and to some extent the rest of the group starts to disintegrate but then it calms down although they all suspect Pablo heard them all planning to kill him

* Robert dreams of going back to Madrid with Maria if the mission is successful.

Things again are on a knife edge with Pablo becoming more unstable, the mission deadline looming and different reactions stirring towards Robert partly because of his growing love of Maria and partly because of the distance he has put between himself and some gyspy Spanish beliefs. Let's read on for more tomorrow...

Book of books - The Spanish Civil War

The Spanish Civil War by Antony Beevor
Linking in with the current reading this is a military history of the conflict.

book context:
A historical account of the Spanish Civil War from the origins of the conflict through to the conclusion. It covers all of the major political and military developments without having a bias on either side of the war. That is not always easy to do bearing in mind some of the horrendous things carried out, most notably the bombing of Guernica (the horror of which was famously captured by Picasso in his painting of the same name). The author has also published another updated book on the history of the Spanish Civil War earlier this year: The Battle for Spain.

is it well written?
Beevor is well known for Stalingrad and The Road to Berlin. He has the advantage of the story being in the former instance localised to a single area and long running world famous battle and in the later a story, that although capable of throwing up plenty of new revelations, is generally understood by most people. The Spanish Civil War is not as well known and so his job is a harder one and it is all too easy to fall victim to glazed eyes syndrome as you read the numerous names of generals, partisan leaders, political groups and places that before you read the book meant nothing to you.
You can’t knock Beevor as a military historian but more of a traditional narrative approach might have helped widen the appeal and made it easier to follow and stick with. This was written before his other well known works where narrative was a real cornerstone of the approach and things might have changed in the latest Battle for Spain.

Should it be read?
For those interested in, or studying, the civil war it is a must. But the casual reader is likely to pass it by, which is a shame because it is a book that deserves to have a readership that can learn that before the second world war there was a conflict that tore apart a country and left a fascist, General Franco, in charge long after his contemparies Hitler and Mussolini were dead. It is not always an easy read but this war needs to be better understood.

Leads to
If you like Beevor then try Stalingrad and The Road to Berlin. In terms of the Civil War from a fictional point of view you could also read the Hemingway currently under discussion, For Whom the Bell Tolls, or Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.

Version – Cassell military paperbacks

Monday, July 17, 2006

For whom the bell tolls post III

Second major day into the book and it is starting to develop with some of the questions being answered and others lingering on. You can feel the tension mounting and fears about the war and the chances of success of the bridge blowing mission mounting in the small group of Republican fighters.

In terms of characters the old man Anselmo has faded into the background but Pablo's wife Pilar and the girl Maria have become stronger. Also some of the other members, who spent most of their time guarding the camp: Fernando, Augustin and the gypsy are getting fleshed out a little bit more.

Bullet points between pages 59 - 148

*It doesn't take long for things to develop between Robert and Maria

*Some of the group expected Robert to kill Pablo but he lets the chance go

*fascists send over bombers and fighters which scares everyone

*Rumours of republican forces blowing up the bridge are circulating the town

*Jordan links up with the other rebel group led by El Sordo

You are starting to get the feeling with the display of bombers and fighter planes, the heavy fascist troop movements and the mental state of the republican forces that the mission will end in disaster. Let's see what happens in the next chunk of reading tomorrow...

The long tail

There is quite a buzz at the moment around Chris Anderson's book The Long Tail, which apparently argues that the Internet is giving a chance for those books that might not be mainstream to find an audience in terms of buyers and readers. He points out that those books that might only sell in dribs and drabs could over a course of time end up being stronger than short-boom selling blockbusters.

Certainly finding out of print titles has never been easier thanks to Abe and some of the antique book sites but just because you can buy them should you?

Mainstream culture, with its labels of bestseller, classic and the marketing budgets can influence what people read. But if you know anything about books and authors you know that some of the pulp biographies are not worth using as toilet paper and the trashy novels are going to provide the sort of experience a three minute pop song does. We all want to read work with depth but if you go off exploring down the long tail without any informed knowledge you could end up wasting a fair bit of time and money.

My view is that the Internet has opened up fantastic opportunities for book lovers looking to find obscure works but it has also opened up a world of peer review that sometimes influences choices in a bad way. It might seem like fence straddling but the best thing to do even at the end of the tail is to use your best judgment, buy with caution and always be prepared for a great surprise or flat disappointment.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

For whom the bell tolls post II

As we go into the week ahead when For whom the bell tolls will be read I'd like to set the scene after the first four chapters. The main character is an American called Robert Jordan who is fighting against Franco's fascist forces with orders to blow up a bridge. We start the story with an American volunteer in the Spanish Civil War being ordered by general Golz to blow the bridge and then his scouting of the bridge and the rebel base in the company of an old man, Anselmo.

Bullet points between pages 1-59
*Jordan has to blow up a bridge
*The group Jordan has to work with are led by someone against the plan, a man named Pablo, but the others are generally supportive.
*Pablo has an argument with his wife where she calls him a coward and takes the dominant role
*The group Jordan is sent to work with have had previous experience of an American explosives expert Kashkin who seemed to have lost his nerve after his mission to blow up a train and later died
*Jordan meets Maria, a prisoner who was released in the train explosion the group was involved with and he is attracted to her and the feeling is mutual.

At the end of chapter 4 Hemingway has built up the tension about the mission, the group dynamics and the chances of success against the fascist forces. You don't know if the bridge will be blown or if it will but the group will be killed. Maybe Pablo will try to stop him and will he end up disappearing after the mission with Maria?

A great book should ask the reader questions and get you excited about when you next open the pages. So far Hemingway is living up to his reputation and the painting of the scene is excellent and the characterisation is good. My one complaint would be that unless you had some basic historical knowledge about the Spanish Civil War you would struggle to understand fully what the context of the story was. Some of the language - the use of Thou in particular - is obviously of the time and maybe hasn't aged well.

But he may put some historical background in later on let's see what comes in the next 100 pages tomorrow...

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Bookmark of the week

I noticed on a recent holiday to Chicago that bookmarks were absent from tourist attractions and mainly on sale in book shops like Borders and Barnes and Noble. In the UK bookmarks are usually a standard item in any tourist gift shop and once a week I will share one of my collection.

My passion for books has spilled over into bookmarks and what is even sadder is that the choice of bookmark can reflect a mood and how I feel about the book (maybe this is a public invitation for therapy). I use two bookmarks at a time, one from where I started reading in the morning and the other to where I have got up to whenever I have to change trains or stop and go to work. My sons think I'm a bit odd and maybe I am but it works for me.

Anyway here we go with the first one from the bookmark collection.

This has a picture of a school of fish on and was purchased at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich in London. It has a logo on it that says "Planet Ocean". I live near Greenwich and go to the museum quite regularly. This bookmark, which is made of plastic rather than leather, makes me remember the museum and my children having fun looking at the boats. Because of the picture and brightness makes the prospect of reading a mammoth tome about naval history that little bit easier.

Uncanny Bell Tolling timing

Funny how you can pick up a book and it turns out to have a relevance you hadn't realised. In an article titled "For whom the bell tolled" John Walsh in today's Independent writes about the writers that went out to fight in the Spanish Civil War and the reaction of the literary establishment and the arguments the conflict created with some backing the communists but others being caught inbetween not wanting to back either so picking a group like the anarchists as a safer bet.

The article mentions Hemingway and Orwell but also W H Auden that went out to fight but also several other writers including the likes of Ezra Pound who were vocal in the debate it sparked in literary circles about which side was worth fighting for.

The 70th anniversary of the Civil War is on the 17 July so it is an interesting time to be reading For Whom the bell tolls.

Also a good stepping stone tip - the next book to go for after Bell Tolls -is mentioned in the article. It remarks that the other major work to come out of the Civil War was L'Espoir by Andre Malraux. Time to head to eBay or Abe to get that one...

To read the Independent article click on:

book review - Homage to Catalonia

Book of books - Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
Linking in with the current reading books both fiction and non-fiction relating to the Spanish Civil War will be posted for the next couple of days starting with this one.

book context:
A personal account of the Spanish Civil War and his experience fighting for the socialists (anti-Franco) side. Like a large number of people who romanticised the cause for freedom Orwell went to fight for justice as he saw it and beat the fascists in the form of Franco and his help from Hitler. Maybe the socialists were always doomed because they couldn't compete with the support Franco was getting from abroad but the frustration Orwell feels at the infighting between communists and anarchists provides another explanation that goes towards explaining why Franco was able to win.

is it well written?
It's hard to have a pop at Orwell who was not only a journalist but able to produce classics like 1984 and Animal Farm but the only criticism would be that sometimes it is hard to follow all of the groups involved with their acronyms and different takes on the socialist spectrum. Mind you the sense of frustration and vagueness is of course part of the feeling he is trying to get across. As he says in the book: "there was much in it I did not understand."

Should it be read?
Not something you would run out and buy unless you had an interest in the Spanish Civil War or George Orwell. Those people who are Orwell readers would probably be satisfied with Animal Farm and 1984. This is a book that is in the style of a hack writing so it is a bit like reportage and it shows how he can weave a story out of the moment and you do end up sharing his frustration and boredom and wondering what on earth it is all in aid of. This is a 'classic' according to Penguin and deserves to be read but not as a first port of call on a voyage into Orwell's world.

Leads to
Apart from Animal Farm and 1984 in this style of reportage living it for real is Down and out in Paris and London which is also a pretty quick and easy read.

Version - penguin Classics range

For whom the bell tolls post I

Reading now...For whom the bell tolls by Ernest Hemingway
I read books ideally from a Friday to a Friday and so I just started this and am about 50 pages in. There is such a weight of expectation going into a Hemingway that comes from his reputation and the number of high profiles fans he has. So far the story has been sketched - the blowing up of the bridge mission - and the main characters have been introduced and you feel that at some point soon the pace will pick up and he his writing will really grab you. We'll have to see next week if that's true.

The rationale

Books are my only real hobby the only constant source of knowledge and wonder and as a result of a four hour daily commute the books I read are a daily companion through the long train journeys.
History used to be my passion but after recently completing a creative writing course I discovered that if you want to be a good writer - which who knows maybe one day will happen - then you need to read other writers. That means that the last few months have been ones of intense catching up on the fiction front.

The choice of an author is much like a trail of stepping stones. Both with history and fiction the starting point is with one book that maybe will lead to six or seven more. For example you will read about Kennedy that will lead to Vietnam that will lead to the French involvement in the country which will finally lead to the end of the American involvement with Nixon. Maybe in that trail five or six books will be read and at the end it could go off into more Nixon or back into something to do with the French or even communism generally.

In terms of fiction I took my love of Russian history and turned that to reading Dostoevsky and Lermontov etc and then because of a holiday in America started an American fiction phase with Steinbeck, Twain and Capote included.

What I will do with this blog is upload the musings I have already made on the books I have read in the last couple of years and will also be used to share thoughts and views on current reading. Everything I read gets summarised in a little book I call my 'Book of books" and the idea behind this blog is that I share that and as I would add new entries also add them online.

I hope that some of the things I post will interest you and maybe we share the same thoughts and feelings about some of the books.