Tuesday, July 31, 2007

It's a mad bad world

Please forgive this indulgence with a lot of first person ranting but I’m afraid there is not going to be a post about The Madhouse tonight because it feels rather odd writing about a fictional madhouse when it feels like you are living in one.

After a hard day at work I returned to the station tonight to discover that my bike had been stolen. Although Brockley station bike shed is it covered by CCTV nobody at the station apparently watches it, so £225 worth of bike and accessories just disappeared while I was at work. Sometimes it is safer to live in a world of fiction and keep away from the real world.

I still feel angry and although it might be incredibly naïve it just seems so unfair that you slog your guts out doing a job that some days you can’t stand to earn the money to pay for things like a bike – which every Londoner is being told to use – and then some little scroat, for either drug money or just for a laugh, decides to take it from you. This loss will cause disruption and grief until I sort out a replacement but it will also produce a sense of suspicion and unease that will take a lot longer - perhaps it’s permanent - about that area in London and might make me change my commute.

Fiction not quite worthy of Rowling

A colleague picked up a copy of The Sun at lunch to find out all about this great white shark off the coast of Cornwall and inside among the usual guff about celebrities and Big Brother was a piece about a head teacher who had decided to read out the last page of the final Harry Potter and ruin the ending for 400 pupils.

Bearning in mind the book came out on the 20 July at midnight and most schools broke up that afternoon you start to suspect that the story might be the work of fiction itself…

Lunchtime read: Franny and Zooey

The relationship between mother and son is strained as she looks to him to provide help and answers for Franny’s current condition. While she focuses on her daughter it is subtly clear that Zooey himself also needs some attention but that is not going to be forthcoming. Realising that the focus only seems to fall on the child that is in obvious trouble explains why both Zooey and Buddy are left to carry on their troubled lives because they have not broken down visibly.

Highlights between pages 70 – 82 (not much today)
After being badgered by his mother to speak to Franny about what is wrong with her Zooey tells her about the books she has been reading and about the incessant praying that the Russian peasant has managed to get to. The mother seems slightly relieved that Zooey seems to know what is going on and asks him to talk to Franny, something that despite initially seemingly to be uninterested, he does agree to do.

More tomorrow…

The Madhouse - post I

It is unusual to have an author set out in the foreword a declaration that the book you are about to read is about a non-entity. Most would at least try to give the impression that the main character was perhaps flawed but worth sticking with but Zinoviev from the off explains that the story will focus on the trials and tribulations of JRF, a Junior Research Fellow, who is destined never to fit into Soviet society.

Bullet points between pages 1 – 64

* JRF has moved out of his parents house and shares an apartment with a couple and their daughter and works at the institute of ideology trying to work his way through academia and up the greasy pole

* His academy is known as the madhouse because it is painted yellow, which was the colour the state used to distinguish those buildings that housed the mentally ill and insane and so although having a weekend of it being blue the nickname has stuck

* He manages to lead a pretty undistinguished sort of existence neither gaining the eye of his superiors or the respect of his family and manages to stir some sort of love hate relationship with the man he shares an apartment with

* The problem he faces is summed up in poetry by his friend who has the ability to produce lyrical verses that pack a punch:

What really matters is, I find,
You have to be one of Their kind.
Not one of Them up at the top,
But down below among the slop.
To she with Them identity
The watchword is ‘nonentity’.
You see, when all is said and done,
The thing to realise is one
Is joining not the brightest wits,
But a Brotherhood of Shits.

* Despite being a slight nonentity JRF has too much of his own mind – described almost like a schizophrenic at times with different voices advising him what to do – and he is able to conjure up the voices of the past, particularly Lenin and Stalin and the old head of the KGB

* He is not a member of the party but realises that you have to become one to make your way and there are hoops you have to jump through and he doesn’t seem to make the right connections

Those lines taken from a poem will stick with me, tempted to print them out and have them around my desk at work, that has been a real highlight from today’s reading.

More tomorrow…

Monday, July 30, 2007

Lunchtime read: Franny and Zooey

Salinger interweaves his stories so it is no surprise that this moves onto dealing with the consequences of Franny’s mental problems outlined in the first story. Having returned home still gabbling about prayers and not eating the family have to deal with her and that is the cause of tension.

Highlights from pages 48 – 70
Zooey and his mother are in the bathroom talking and then arguing about how to treat Franny who is still not eating and reading her religious books. Zooey points out that not only are the books from Seymour’s room but there are deep problems in the family that have never really been addressed that focus on the way Buddy and Seymour, the two oldest boys influenced their younger siblings. Zooey expresses rage at the way they indoctrinated them and then points out that no one is able to deal with Seymour’s suicide. Mrs Glass listens but provokes by talking of her desire to get a psychoanalyst involved with Franny.

More tomorrow…

Sunday, July 29, 2007

bookmark of the week

This is as English as they come - Stonehenge - and is a bookmark that was purchased when visiting the famous stone circle a couple of years ago. All I remember about the trip was a sense of dissapointment over how far away you were kept and how close the roads came breaking the tranquil scene with noise and exhaust fumes.

book of books - The House on the Embankment

There are two approaches to trying to illustrate how oppressive a political system is. The first is to go head on and try and show how those at every level are impacted and that is where Vasily Grossman was sort of coming from with Life and Fate. Then there is an alternative approach, which is more on display here with Yuri Trifonov. He focuses on a small group of school friends but in particular Glebov and shows how in order to survive he has to become a man of almost no opinions or loyalties. Those he cares for he lets down and those he should love he betrays with indifference.

Plot summary
Glebov pops into a furniture shop to buy a dining table and when there meets an old school friends Lev who is a shop assistant and clearly down on his luck. The encounter is topped with a phone call that night after Lev blanked him in the shop with Lev explaining that he hated him and that’s why he did not want to talk to him. Then the story goes back to school and Glebov is vying for attention with Lev who seems to have a well-connected father and money. An uneasy friendship exists for years but starts to turn sour after it is Glebov who manages to win the heart of Sonya, the professor’s daughter, and not Lev who really wants her. Without realising the hatred Lev has for him or the way the academic authorities plan to use him to discredit the professor Glebov manages to get to the crossroads in life and then delay having to make a decision. Those around him that do seem to make wrong ones, with Lev falling from grace and Sonya going mad before dying. But the question you are asked at the end of the book is whether or not Glebov regrets what happened in the house on the embankment where Sonya lived.

Is it well written?
It is a struggle to get into because there are no chapter breaks, just a couple of paragraph returns and you have to work hard not just to work out what period of Glebov’s life is being discussed but also when the narration switches voices to understand another point of view. It manages to convey the sense of how the fear of standing up for anything terrorised people in the Soviet Union. It also gets across brilliantly the differences that influence can bring with Lev having access to clothes and films that his school friends could only dream of. Finally it shows that no matter what your record, in the professor’s case an exemplary one with the revolution, you are always vulnerable to attack.

Should it be read?
It is not going to be on anyone’s summer reading lists but it should be read by anyone who is interested in Soviet literature and in particular seeing what the 20th century writers were doing updating the story from the 19th century greats like Dostoyevsky. It also deserves to be read because the story here might be set against a regime that is trigger-happy about destroying people’s lives but putting that to one side there is a morale here about standing up for what you believe in. Do you let down a friend, a love and your own ideals just for immediate self-preservation? Quite a question to be asked from a novel.

Glebov gets through life unscathed while those around him die and crumble but he ends up without much more than regrets of the life in the house on the embankment he left behind

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Lunchtime read: Franny and Zooey

I have only just started this really today and it is a chance to get reacquainted with Buddy Glass and his attempts to use writing as a way of coping with the suicide of his brother. Each of the Salinger stories that are meant to have been penned by Buddy provide a little bit more information about what happened to Seymour and this starts by describing how Buddy felt to have to go and pick up the body and fly back home with it.

Highlights from the first few pages of Zooey
The character the story is named after is the youngest of the Glass family, an actor who is reading a letter from his brother Buddy in the bath. The letter is old and faded and is four years old but in it Buddy tells his brother that he has been asked to write by his mother to encourage him to take up his PhD and have it as a fallback if the acting does not work out. But Buddy uses the letter as a confessional for past actions and gaps in communication and it is more illuminating about Zooey’s family than it is about him at this stage.

More tomorrow…

Friday, July 27, 2007

Story of a Life - post V

The book ends and you really want to carry on to discover what happened next. That is the sign that it has got through to you and the fact it does is testament to the likeability of the author. There is an innocence here that he hints at being lost through later events with friends dying in the world wars. There is also an acute understanding of what it means to be growing up looking for independence while at the sane time being fearful of what the world has to offer.

Bullet points between pages 254 – 277

* Konstantin gets an article accepted, his second or third, and he leaves Kiev in celebratory mood with his graduation also behind him and university beckoning and he sets out for a summer holiday he hopes will include a relationship with the neighbouring Lenya

* But she is not there when he arrives at Uncle Kolya’s and when she does finally turn up she is accompanied by a painter that is obviously intended as her partner for the summer so Konstantin buries his sorrows by throwing himself into the beautiful landscape

* Near the final couple of pages he has his Proustian moment when the art of writing is explained to him by a local chemist who wants him to understand that the key is understanding the needs of real people

“’This is a big thing you want to do, and it needs great knowledge of life. Right? At present you’ve got very little of it, if any. Do you realise how much a writer needs to know? It’s frightening to think of! He’s got to understand everything. He’s got to work like an ox and not think about fame. One thing I’ll tell you. You’ve got to go everywhere and see everything. Go to fairs, factories, night-shelters, peasants’ huts. And to theatres, and to hospitals, and to mines, and to prisons – everywhere. So that in the end life is distilled in you like valerian in alcohol. So that you get a genuine essence. Then you can offer it to people as a miracle cure. In specified doses of course.””

* The last page concludes with an understanding of his mission to understand everything and a longing to get as much of life as he can out of himself and his surroundings

A review will follow shortly…

Lunchtime read: Franny and Zooey

Having read quite a few Salinger short stories someone posted a comment encouraging me to get hold of Franny and Zooey. The book finally turned up in the library so with press day out of the way and a little bit of calm in the office I have managed to do a spot of lunchtime reading getting through the Franny story that starts the book.

Highlights from Franny
Franny is spending the weekend with her boyfriend Lane and he is waiting expectantly at the station after receiving a letter from her saying how excited she is about the trip. He has a weekend planned around a meal, a game and then some cocktails and they head off for a meal in a restaurant. Lane starts by lecturing her on his latest theories and after a while Franny cuts in and contradicts him and then carries on in a confrontational mood. She is irritated by him and goes to the toilet and bursts into tears and clutches a book close to her chest.

Back at the table the odd conversation continues and Lane points out Franny is seating and she empties her bag trying to get Kleenex and the book pops out. Lane asks what it is about and she tells him it is about a Russian holy man that teaches people the special way to pray by saying “Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”. The idea is that you say it in time with your heart beat but Lane is sceptical and critical and then after telling Franny that he loves her in a quite off-hand way she heads for the toilet, faints and is carried to the managers office. Lane is suddenly all chivalrous and goes off to call a cab leaving Franny recanting what must be the holy man’s prayer.

This is one of those stories where you start alongside Lane but as soon as Franny arrives you side with her. But as the story develops it becomes clear just how unhappy the woman is and how unsuitable Lane is. who seems to be unobservant, unable to listen and not willing to take criticism of a point of view. In just a few pages Salinger starts to allow a tight emotional coil to unspring leaving you wondering what might happen next.

Story of a Life - post IV

The narrative becomes harder to stick with as Konsantin returns to Kiev because a lot of the wide open countryside that he describes so well disappears from view. So the minute he gets back out in the wilderness there is a distinct feeling of the landscape breathing again and the skill he has describing his surroundings is again accentuated.

Bullet points between pages 174 – 254

* Back at school Konstantin is immersed in the lives of his fellow students and joins them in various capers including one touching episode when the German master who has been writing an Opera for years loses it and all the boys get together and find it restoring the master to his happy self

* There is a reference to Mikhail Bulagov a fellow pupil who went onto become a famous writer and Konstantin makes the point that not only was it a time when greater writers were alive like Tolstoy but the theatre in Kiev was strong and there was a culture that encouraged creative thinking

* To keep his money ticking over he has to take lessons and ends up teaching a general’s daughter who is thick as two short planks but desperate to improve her education to make her more attractive to a husband

* When the holidays come and Konstantin agrees to visit friends of his brother there is a Robin Hood type character that steals from the rich and plagues those within the community that are seen as evil doers reminding you of the backwardness of the vilages

* he finally after a two year break visits his mother in Moscow and discovers that his sister is not only blind but going deaf and realises that he is now divided from that side of his family by distance and experience

* He spends New Year celebrating with an old friend that might become a love interest for the 18 year-old Konstantin and it is left as a possibility as he heads back on the train to Kiev and back to his life of independence

Last few pages tomorrow...

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Story of a Life - post III

All of a sudden the chapter lengths creep up and you are immersed in a world of lavender smelling summer nights and bitterly cold winters. The movement slows down and the marking of time begins with the deaths of state heroes and the breakdown of the family.

Bullet points between pages 106 – 174

* There are a couple of announcements *that seem to bring the world to a standstill with the first being Tolstoy’s death and then later on Chekhov dies causing real despair and sadness to Russians who saw them both as almost immortal spokesmen for the nation

* With the promises of more freedoms made by the Tsar the students take to the streets and Konstantin’s brother is among them so Konstantin goes along to watch and is there when the army starts shooting at the demonstrators and the Cossacks come in with their sabres

* The family then heads to the Crimea for their holidays but Konstantin falls ill and has to stay behind with his mother and he falls for the charms of Lena a local girl who visits him with grapes

* His mother suddenly has to rush home and leaves Konstantin in the care of their maid and the great love affair with Lena is broken up by the older girl who tells him to head home without turning back

* Once home he discovers his father has left both his job and the family and they are now in a state of poverty and can only survive by selling off their possessions and so Konstantin is sent to live with his Uncle Kolya to protect him

* Finally his father remerges and gets a job near his son but the mother is on the move to Moscow and all Konstantin wants to do is go back to Kiev and be independent so he heads back to the City

More tomorrow…

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Joining the book description fun

I stumbled on this via Stephen Lang's blog and couldn't resist having ago on the Blue Pyramid quiz, something that only takes a minute and is great fun. My result, which I think is partly influenced by my working environment at the moment, is not too far off the mark.

"You're Catch-22!
by Joseph Heller
Incredibly witty and funny, you have a taste for irony in all that you see. It seems that life has put you in perpetually untenable situations, and your sense of humor is all that gets you through them. These experiences have also made you an ardent pacifist, though you present your message with tongue sewn into cheek. You could coin a phrase that replaces the word "paradox" for millions of people."

Have a go...

Story of a Life - post II

This book reminds you slightly of Life a user’s Manual in that it is almost like a collection of different tales and anecdotes even though they are connected to one single person. The reason for the comparison is that the scenes change here and there is a great deal of potential story that is just touched on before things move on.

Bullet points between pages 58 – 107

* As the story moves from Konstantin moving from the safe world of home to school he struggles to accept that he is growing up and finds school a bit of an ordeal made worse by one boy shooting himself in front of his class

* What makes it harder is the collection of teachers and older boys that alternatively strike the fear of god into the younger boys or make them uncomfortable with their strangeness including the geography teacher who takes a liking to Konstantin

* Konstantin goes back to his house and a younger woman is there and after he sees the teacher’s collection of odd bits and pieces she takes him for a drink and a cake and asks him what he thought of it and he replies that he liked the butterfly but is sad because no one sees it

* He then overhears his parents explaining to each other that the young woman was the old man’s wife and she has run away – the butterfly finds an audience – and as a result the old man gives up teaching and dies not long after encouraging Konstantin to carry on using his imagination

* One other tale is of a young woman who is skating with Konstantin’s brother and is seen dancing one night by the Prince of Siam who marries her and inherits the throne but the courtiers don’t like a Russian woman being queen and using ground up light bulbs are able to kill her after six months via internal haemorrhaging

* As all of these stories are told the beautiful countryside of Southern Russia slips by and acts as a backdrop to his education and exploration of Kiev

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A bluffers tip

There is a great article online from Australian publication The Age where a journalist who is pleased to see someone reading one of the classics has to fudge it when the reader asks his opinion of A Man for all Seasons by Robert Bolt.

“It was at around this point my young student began to twig that at no point in my life had I ever actually read a single word of A Man For All Seasons by Robert Bolt. But that didn't stop him.”

“He was trying to smoke me out, the sly bastard. But I was ready for him. As a journalist, pretending to have read books I've only heard about was second nature. We all do it. So I hit him with this: "I think you know the answer as well as I do. If you don't, you'd better read those chapters again, my young friend."

I’m going to try to remember that come back line if I get ever caught bluffing – might not get away with calling anyone young friend though…

Story of a Life - post I

The blurb on the dust jacket makes the claim that what Boris Pasternak managed to do for Siberia Paustovsky is able to do for Southern Russia. So far though there has not been too much of a chance for the countryside to breathe as the chapters fly by and it has rather too much of an episodic feel to it without the depth that you want in certain places.

For instance the book starts with Paustovsky rushing to get to his dying father who is living on a flood cut-off island and he manages to get there before he dies and is told with the dying man’s last words: “I’m afraid…your lack of character…will destroy you.” You want to know why the father might feel that and hopefully the answers will come out in the rest of the book.

Bullet points between pages 1 – 58

* After travelling to see his father for the last time and take place in the burial Paustovsky who is not a boy but is not that old either – probably early twenties starts to look back over his life

* He starts by explaining why the family home was on an island farm that was linked to the rest of the village via a flood prone causeway and recalls how his father came there to live knowing that he only had a few years to live and died of cancer

* In his childhood Paustovsky remembers telling a local peasant girl that he took shelter in his grandfather’s hut in a storm that he would marry her only to overhear his aunt telling someone else that she had consumption and would die

* He remembers his other grandparents who lived in Chenstokhov and the old man was kept in a room because he chained smoked and he ruffled his hair as a greeting and as the total of his conversation

* Because this is the time of the Tsar there are references not only to the social system with those family members looking for advancement joining the civil service or the army and there is a story about his Uncle who spent sometime in Japan and China and his mixed loyalties during the 1905 war between Russia and Japan

* Then there are the gypsies that Paustovsky becomes friends with and his dedication to helping one particular family even melts his mother’s heart and she also goes to visit them and give them charity

More tomorrow…

Monday, July 23, 2007

Lunchtime read concluded

The book comes to a very Russian ending with those who are dead almost being in a better position than those who are left behind to suffer on. The voices in the narrative switch back and forth between Lev and Glebov and in the end the narrator is unnamed because life has changed for everyone and although you know it is Glebov it isn’t the same Glebov from the previous 150 pages.

Highlights from pages 134 – 153
After the fateful meeting the narrative is picked up by Lev who is helping defend Moscow against the German bombs and ends up in Sonya’s flat where Glebov is saying his farewells. Lev no longer cares for anyone having gone through the baptism of fire that is the war and views the people in the house on the embankment as relics of his childhood. Glebov seems to fudge reality and cannot remember if he did or did not denounce Sonya’s father but the mother hates him and in the end Sonya ends up going into an asylum and going mad and dying. Glebov finally catches up with Sonya’s father and together they go to visit the grave and Lev is the man on the gate who lets them in and then as they all head back to Moscow city centre he wistfully looks up at the house on the embankment and wonders if he can ever return from his shattered adult life to the situation he was in when he was a child.

This is a book as much about the choices people are faced with as children and young adults and how they can shape their future and acts as a powerful metaphor for the Russian system

A review will follow in the next couple of days…

Lunchtime read: The House on the Embankment

I’m determined to finish this book today because it feels as if it has been hanging around for a long time. That’s not fair but it certainly has not been the flowing read that I had hoped. Partly that is because it is asking you as a reader some pretty heavy questions about whether or not you would make the brave turn at the crossroads or save your skin and get through by letting down friends and family.

This is part one of the final post and the rest should come later…

Highlights between pages 114 – 134
Glebov doesn’t know what to do about making his speech against his prospective father-in-law at the Academic Institute meeting so he asks Lev’s advice who tells him to dump Sonya (he wants her after all) and then as he waits and the pressure mounts his grandmother does him a favour and dies making it impossible for Glebov to go anywhere on that Thursday leaving you wondering what happened because he himself had ruled that option of not attending out because it would do nobody any good

Final chunk later…

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Headline grabbers

With all the focus on Harry Potter it’s easy to forget that there was another book hitting the headlines recently. Having been given The Blair Years, Alastair Campbell Diaries for my birthday I have started to dip into what it a pretty serious piece of work both in page count and content. Things start before the election win with Blair taking over from John Smith as leader and recruiting Campbell from the daily newspaper world to become his communications and media manager.

How the story ends is of course well known but it should be interesting on the way finding out how it felt to be involved from the centre. Along with The Deathly Hallows it shows just how much books can influence the agenda and is a poke in the eye to those who claim that in the Internet age reading is dying out.

Stalingrad further reading

After reading Life and Fate it's worth pointing in the direction of some other books that over the last few years I have read that also cover that battle and the other great city siege of Leningrad.

Stalingrad is one of the most important battles of the Second World War and the story is so powerful that it makes otherwise dry military history books come alive. Leningrad (Saint Petersburg) is also an amazing story as the city was under seige for 900 days forcing the population to resort to cannibalism.

Stalingrad – Anthony Beevor
This is probably the most famous history book of recent times with a reputation for crossing over the divide between traditional military history and mainstream narrative. The fact it manages to do that is as much down to the story of the battle as it is Beaver’s writing and it is sometimes hard not to glaze over when you get the lists of generals, locations and military manoeuvres. What makes this such a powerful book is that it tells the tragic story from an impartial position that gives room for both sides to breathe, die and rise and fall.

Enemy at The Gates – William Craig
This book inspired the film of the same name and charts the battle for the city but with particular emphasis on the story of a Russian and a German sniper battling it out between themselves across the ruins. As you might expect there has been quite a lot of disagreement in historical circles about if this even happened so that does cast a shadow over the book, as sadly does the film, which was a massive disappointment failing to build a solid story alongside impressive special effects.

900 Days: Seige of Leningrad - Harrison Sailsbury
The seige of the old capital left a scar on the population who had to suffer from fuel and food shortages and try to protect their most valuable architectural prizes. The pictures in the Hermitage were removed for safety and the people waited for relief. In the three plus years it took for the siege to be lifted many died of cold and hunger and were driven to become cannibals and as money lost its meaning the wealthy were those with a supply of wood and bread. Naturally throughout there was a feeling that because those running Leningrad were popular leaders in their own right that there were political reasons for allowing the siege to last so long.

bookmark of the week

As part of the 150 year anniversary celebrations at my son’s school the pupils were each given a mug and a bookmark. The school colour is maroon hence the colour of the bookmark. I was particularly pleased with the later and hope that he will look after it and use it when he starts reading adult books that need a bookmark to remind you where to come back to. Apologies for the image being dark it should be clearer if you click on it and enlarge.

book of books - Life and Fate

This book by Vasiliy Grossman was in terms of pages one of the longest that I have chosen to read so far this year and that has an impact on the way you approach it with the expectation that it is going to be an epic. The fact it is an epic that encompasses the most vital stuff of life but not quite in the way you might have expected.

You come to this book with an idea, based on the dust jacket imagery and words, that this is going to be a hard-hitting book based on people in and around the battleground that became the bloody fight for control of Stalingrad during the Second World War. The battle is a backdrop but the real fight here is not for control of buildings and a city but of your own mind and the position to be able to speak your mind without fear of attack.

Plot summary
The tentacles stretch out from nuclear physicists Viktor and his wife with their various family members and their loves being used as a way of illustrating what was happening at different levels of the social spectrum as well as various locations during the fight for the survival of the motherland. Grossman is able to also jump into the heads of the German’s that have a similar battle with wrestling with the party and their own ability to speak the truth.
The main plot ends up focusing on Viktor who ends up almost losing everything after making a breakthrough in his field of science but is saved by a telephone call from Stalin. Meanwhile others are either busy being denounced or facing the consequences of speaking out. There are also others quite happy to avoid that sort of conflict and step aside and duck out and compromise themselves.
Along with Viktor the old communist Krymov is dragged back through the KGB prisons and the heroic tank commander Novikov, who are both vying for the love of the same woman, is also denounced and called back to Moscow.
On the German side the blind faith in Hitler is exposed as the sixth army is surrounded and then finally forced to surrender and those that are Nazi party members are ridiculed in the same way that right-minded people criticise the Communist party/
But the main theme of the book along with the title struggle to overcome fate – which the system seems to be in charge of – and enjoy life is the moral questions that Grossman raises. In a passage that includes a meeting between a dye-in-the-wool communist and the commander of a Nazi prisoner of war camp the suggestion is made that both the communist and the Nazi systems are not that far apart but are in fact mirrored with their one party state, aggression and disregard of individual liberty. The battle here is for the ability to speak your mind and most of the time reality has to be distorted as the system turns saints into sinners and soldiers into cowards.

It is well written?
Despite its length Grossman has an ability to put together a book that operates on various different levels including the political and the emotional. The characters work on their own, the battle scenes and fear of death at the hands of the enemy are powerful and the political muscle of the state has a genuine frustration and incredulity to it. In the world of journalism the answer to the question a writer often asks about how long the story should be is: “write it to what it deserves”. You sense it would have been difficult to write a book that on one hand described the world in 1942 across Russia along with making an incredibly powerful statement about the political systems of both Germany and Russia without using all 855 pages. Add to that the chapter where Viktor’s Jewish mother writes to him about life in the ghetto and her inevitable death – one of the most moving pieces that you are every likely to come across about the holocaust – and there is a very powerful statement being made throughout the book about the evil of anti-Semitism.

Should it be read?
If you ever want to know what it might have felt like not only to be trapped in a city under siege, facing charges that have been completely fabricated and living in fear of conversations that you made with friends years before then this is the book that provides the insights. This is a piece of work that was “arrested” by the KGB and aged the author by years because he believed that his own country was ready to read something that was not only critical but true. They weren’t but luckily it was smuggled out and has become the well-known piece of literature. It deserves to be read because of its message and story but also because of the costs the author paid personally to deliver this novel.

The bullets and bombs might be flying around Stalingrad but the most dangerous move to make on both sides - that share the disregard of individual rights - is to speak your mind

Version read - Vintage Classics

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The waiting doesn't end at midnight

That was not the experience I expected. After deciding to support a book shop rather than a supermarket I popped down to my local midnight opening Waterstones in Greenwich. Joining the queue at just gone midnight I finally got my hands on the final instalment of Harry Potter at 1.45. There were still people waiting behind me. It was all screams and shouting at the start - "What do we want? Harry Potter. When do we want to read it? Now", but that died away to leave just a queue of people, some policemen and plenty of drunks. At times it felt like you were being accused in a slurry voice of being a freak for wanting to read a book. At others it felt like you were part of something rather extraordinary and you can't help but wonder if this sort of mania over books will happen again in the near future.

I probably won't even read the book for months and by then the details of the plot will have long since been revealed. But I'm glad I went tonight just to see the crowds, breathe in the excitement and be able to look back and point to the power of a good book. Let's just hope as someone in the queue in front of me said that after waiting almost two hours it was worth the wait...

Time to jump on my broomstick (old scenic) and fly...

With midnight fast approaching it is almost impossible not to get caught up in the excitement and anticipation about the launch of the final Harry Potter book. Apart from Spycatcher by Peter Wright (which was not published in the UK) and the fuss over some of the Diana books there has never been anything like the buzz around a book lauch. Looks like I'm caving in and with less than an hour to go I'm searching for the nearest store open at the wicthing hour and about to get the coat...

Friday, July 20, 2007

Lunchtime read: The House on the Embankment

The inevitable pressure of the Soviet system starts to impact on Glebov with the educational authorities turning the screws on his girlfriend’s father. The assumption is that he will marry Sonya but already you guess that the great survivor will help destroy her father and then leave Sonya. Because of the other critical voice attacking Glebov, which the more you think about it might be from Lev, the more you start to dislike him.

Highlights between pages 88 – 114
Glebov is asked by a couple of the academic staff to choose another professor so his future ‘father-in-law’ does not end up supervising his post graduate studies. They then ask him to get evidence that will help build a case that the professor is straying from the Marxist path and his idols include dangerous elements. Glebov tells Sonya who in turn tells her father who does not show alarm at the prospect of a hate campaign against him and instead seems to know all about it. Meanwhile Glebov is agonising over whether or not he really loves Sonya.

More tomorrow…

A name abridged

There is a little excerpt from Collins useful facts books about Art and Literature inside today's Independent. Along with the lists of Nobel Prize winners there was a quirky list of author’s pseudonym’s and real names.
One of the best changes was Joseph Conrad who was actually called Jozef Teodor Konrad Nalcecz Korneniowski.
Put that on a book spine and you might just have a problem getting the title on

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Having a pop at the publishers

It seems to be a topical thing to have a pop at publishers at the moment with David Lassman, the director of the Jane Austen festival in Bath, putting together a modern version of the classic Pride and Prejudice and then finding that although it included almost word for word the famous opening about it being a truth that every single man with a good fortune needs a wife no one recognised it.

On the back of that the BBC has put up a quiz that lists ten famous openings and gives you the chance to see how much you know about openings.

I obviously don’t start paying attention until we are a few pages in because the quiz left me feeling depressed and bemused that even books I have read seemed to be unrecognisable and my results were unprintable.

Lunchtime read: The House on the Embankment

Love is in the air as Glebov finally declares his feelings for Sonya but will it last? Already there have been narrative clues indicating that it will not. Then Trifonov uses another voice, as yet unidentified, to describe Glebov from the outside and it is a damming appraisal describing him as a “nothing” person who is neither one thing or another and going through life as a successful nonentity.

Highlights from pages 64 – 88
Left alone in her parent’s dacha Sonya and Glebov finally falls into each other’s arms and get down to it. They keep their secret for a while but finally the mother finds out but is in denial about the affair. Then the narrative voice changes and it is an admirer of Sonya describing Glebov who he clearly struggles to like and reveals he is a nonentity and tries to please everyone.

You sense there is some real tension with two rivals for Sonya’s affections with Glebov possibly heading for some problems with his rival.

More tomorrow…

Will the web blow the plot?

There was an interesting piece on the Today programme on Radio 4 that actually had me agreeing with Jeffery Archer. The discussion was around whether or not it was right to reveal the ending of the final Harry Potter book on the web. Archer pointed out that it might ruin the experience for readers that wanted to discover it for themselves. The interviewer asked if it was important not to know the ending and pointed out that people were quite happy to go to the films knowing the outcome.

With a book like Harry Potter revealing the ending unravels all of the hundreds of pages of plots and build-up that keeps you gripped. Take that away, and no doubt the web will do, and it certainly spoils it for plenty of people. The problem is of course that you have to go and buy it at midnight and then read the whole thing before you meet anybody that might blab about the plot – a harder task than anything Harry faced!

UPDATE: Looks like it has already happened according to reports on The Guardian website which is a great pity. Don't spoil the fun for everyone.

Life and Fate - post XIII

This mammoth book comes to an end and the reader is left mentally tying up the lose ends with the point having been well and truly made that the characters lives are in the hands of fate. In a book that is more about the personal battle an individual has with the state rather than the battle with the Germans this is not the book that you might initially expect.

A full review will follow by the weekend but it’s fair to say that the ambition here is as strong as Tolstoy’s to get down on paper the thoughts, hopes and fears of a generation at one particular time in Soviet history. The fact he manages to pull it off is not just down to style but because there is an anger and a determination to tell the truth that is on every single page.

Bullet points between 806 – 855

* Kyrmov receives his parcel from his ex-wife and it becomes clear that he has not been forgotten of denounced, unlike Novikov who disappears into the system to be chewed up and interrogated

* Viktor has his comfortable world turned upside down after being asked by colleagues to sign a letter damming those who go against the system and now it is his friends who are going to be against him not his enemies

* Back in the ruined City life starts to return to normal with the workers quickly put back in their places by the bosses and the last family scenes played out by Viktor’s mother and sister-in-law remind you of the strength of the state to rule people’s lives much more than the bombs and tanks

* The book ends with a couple that are not described whispering and sharing their hopes and misery together as spring arrives and life moves on

Exhausting but well worth the read…

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Lunchtime read: The House on the Embankment

I’m close to knocking this lunchtime read thing on the head because it is becoming very difficult to get through an decent amount of pages in my lunch break. If you are not able to get into a rhythm and close out the external noise then it becomes nigh impossible to read seriously.

Along with finding the time I would add the right mood as one of the biggest challenges for those wanting to read. You can come home on a train with somebody deciding that they want to play music on their mobile phone and amid the rising anger and the noise you can end up reading just a couple of pages. There isn’t the noise in the office, mind you everyone is watching YouTube which is enough of a distraction, but it is still very difficult to concentrate.

Highlights between pages 50 – 64
Glebov starts to spend more time at the professors house on the embankment and starts to try to define his relationship with his daughter Sonya. Friends suggest that he is having a relationship with her and that starts him thinking about how they stand but he doesn’t want the friendship to develop into anything different even though he is round the house almost everyday and very close to the father.

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Life and Fate - post XII

There was a slight hope of finishing the book today but it’s often the case that as you get closer to the end the pages get slower to consumer. Its almost as if you don’t want it to end so you read more slowly almost without being conscious of it. Still it will get completed tomorrow because there are simply not that many pages left.

There are so many contrasting stories going on here with some to do with fate and others to do with love and even when things seem to be going well there is a fear that one false move and it could all come crumbling down.

Bullet points between pages 754 - 806

* Krymov is put through the interrogation mill being kept up all night and confronted with so many facts about his past that he becomes dizzy at the knowledge of the state but he remains determined not to confess to being a German spy

* After a while he cracks and shouts at the interrogator asking him where he was when the bullets were flying in Stalingrad and his reward is the be beaten by guards that seem to know exactly where to hit to start some serious internal bleeding

* Krymov comes to the conclusion that his ex-wife has denounced him and faced with that bitter betrayal, which is of course not the case, he becomes resigned to his fate and starts to enter possibly the final stage of the process ending in a confession

* Viktor is finding that following Stalin’s phone call he is the most popular and intelligent scientist around and although he enjoys it he knows that they were only too ready to kill him off before his luck changed

* Novikov finds life getting harder with Getmanov threatening to countermand his orders unless his exhausted tank corps continues into the Ukraine and in the end after being dropped by Krymov’s ex-wife who he thought would be his he is recalled back to Moscow

There is no lunchtime read for the simple reason I spent my lunch break talking with someone about the state of the computer security market in a hotel next to Liverpool Street station. There will be some more House on the Embankment along with the final chunk of Life and Fate tomorrow…

Monday, July 16, 2007

Life and Fate - post XI

The word ‘fate’ crops up more and more but unlike the fate the soliders talked about on the battlefields which was in the hands of the gods the fate Viktor and others are subjected to is very much down to the system.

Poor old Viktor, who remains astounded at his misfortune despite his big mouth, starts to show that in the face of a political and bureaucratic storm he has some metal and will not bow to pressure. Through his experience Grossman shows all too clearly how the state could turn on an indivudual, how friendships could unravel and how decent men and women could betray themselves in the madness of fear.

Bullet points between pages 670 - 754

* Viktor’s career at the academy is running into increasing trouble and he is expected to renounce his views and attend a meeting where he will publicly repent but he decides not to attend and stick to his guns

* The result is he feels isolated and lost but his ego continues to carry on being a feature of his personality and results in a continuing dividing line between Viktor and his wife

* Back on the front Novikov expects to get married not yet aware that his intended is hanging out at the Lubyanka trying to see her first husband Krymov who she has so fare failed to get any information about

* Things are looking really bleak for Viktor and he stops going into work and discovers that everyone but his best friend denounced him and so he resigns himself to the inevitable arrest

* Krymov’s wife finally gets the chance to send him a parcel in prison which will indicate to him that he has not been forgotten but as she comes back to Viktor’s house she hears a radio broadcast that mentions the heroics of Novikov and his tanks

* The Germans are starting to fall apart in the encircled city and those who are members of the party stick to each other mistaking fear of Russian retribution as evidence that no one will leave and desert showing how well disciplined Hitler has made his army

* Just as everything seems to be getting pitch black for Viktor the phone rings and it is Stalin himself who is on the other end telling Viktor that his work is very important and in a matter of seconds turning his life back the right way up

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: The House on the Embankment

It is interesting reading a Russian book about post Stalin life alongside Life and Fate because it is impossible to get away from the same sense of paranoia and fear that the Soviet system produced.

This book delves back into the same period of the war and pre war because it is about a man looking back over his childhood and it is a good companion piece to the Grossman. The only slight downside is that it is very slow going.

Highlights from pages 32 – 50

Glebov continues to delve through the memories of his childhood friend Lev and remembers how powerful he was seen to the degree that his parents asked his father to try and get information for an uncle in the camps. Then the history fast forwards a few years and the war has taken the lives of a fair few of Glebov’s friends including his mother and left him poor and hungry. So it is with amazement he bumps into Lev looking well wearing an expensive leather jacket and still living in luxury. The same feelings of inadequacy he had as a child come back and despite the obvious lies he is hanging off Lev’s every word.

More tomorrow…

Life and Fate - post X

As the battle for Stalingrad enters its final phase with victory for the Russians insight the personal battles of some of the individual characters Grossman has introduced us to start their battle for survival. A system that encourages and rewards denunciation finds plenty of people happy to keep the secret service ticking over.

Bullet points between pages 625 – 670

* Having been arrested Krymov sits with his colleagues and waits for the inevitable to come with them urging him to confess to make his own life easier a similar fate awaits Viktor who is targeted by a newspaper criticising scientists who work for their own vanity and not the state

* Meanwhile back at the front the tank regiment is ordered into battle but in order to ensure none of his men are killed and the barrage has cleared a path through Novikov keeps Stalin and his generals waiting for eight minutes

* The tanks sweep through and the encirclement is complete after 100 hours of fighting but those eight minutes provide Getmanov with ammunition in his report and you suspect the successful tank commander will be next in for questioning

* Meanwhile Viktor’s sister in law who decides that after flirting with the idea of being in love with Novikov will come to Moscow to support her husband Krymov sets out on the difficult task of trying to see him in prison

More tomorrow…

Sunday, July 15, 2007

bookmark of the week

Yesterday to celebrate my birthday with an outing and to go somewhere where the kids would be happy we chose the Royal dockyards at Chatham. It is a big place with a couple of ships and a submarine to walk around, but it was sadly quite empty with not enough for young children and too much aimed at the old boys who might have fought on the ships and submarine. To survive as a museum you suspect they are going to have to target a different generation. Those who actually served or spent time in the navy in action are a dwindling minority.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

365 days of blogging

Well the milestone has been reached and the year is complete. What started off as an idea that sounded like a good one but without any real experience of the web or an idea of the commitment involved quickly became a passion that has continued day in and day out since July 14 2006.

There are various lessons that have been learnt on the way and there have been some overwhelming positives that include reading more books, encountering like-minded bloggers and being challenged through reading other people’s thoughts to read different authors. The later has been particularly good because it has led to some interesting experiences and should lead to a lot more.

The downside has been the loneliness that you can feel when the traffic is low and there is a pressure; of course it is self-imposed to write everyday. The posting everyday is something that has caused quite some tension at home and made life difficult on holidays and weekends. Maybe now the year is up there will be a chance to reflect and take some days off but it is unlikely because my nature is to read everyday and view the blog as something that should be updated on a regular basis.

If I was asked what the past year had meant it would be on balance overwhelmingly positive. It has handed someone who is pigeon holed in a job the chance to show they have different interests. It has provided a chance to engage with the entire Web 2.0 phenomenon and understand why it is important to look as much outwards as inwards. Finally it has provided a structure and a place to help read more.

One thing that I am aware has been absent, particularly when you read other lit blogs, is some of the longer academic type posts that try to take on an author or an issue in their work. I am not afraid to do those and the next blogging year might well see more of those types of thoughts being shared.

Thanks for reading, commenting and making this all seem worthwhile. I have enjoyed it so far and hope you have as well. Here’s to the year ahead!

Now back to the birthday cake…

A special day

There are various reasons why today is special. Firstly it is my birthday, secondly it is a year since I started blogging and thirdly if you are French it's a great day for a national party.

I am heading off to see a submarine and some boats at chatham dock yard with the jids but will post tonight about what blogging has meant over the past year.

Friday, July 13, 2007

book of books - Scoop

Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop is one of those books that sits on the shelf for a long time and gets recommended often enough but gets passed over because the mood is not right or something else catches the eye. That is a shame because not only this is a very enjoyable read but also it is written with a real panache and there is a great deal about pace and comic timing that can be learnt by reading this.

It is also a historical work because the good old days of Fleet Street have long gone and this is a novel that describes in snatches that life and the rewards of the journalistic profession. Sadly not only has Fleet Street gone but so has the freedom of the expense account and the ability to go off into the field. Now it resembles a desk job like many other expect there is still a great deal of time spent tapping one fingered stories out that people would rather you didn’t read.

Plot summary
As a result of confusion between John and William Boot the rural reporter William for The Beast ends up getting sent to Africa to cover the story of a revolution in Ishmaelia He has not any experience of journalism let alone foreign reporting but as a result of his innocence and unassuming personality he manages to make the right friendships and scoops his main rival and manages to go down in journalistic history. William also falls in love with a German agent who manages to take a fair amount of cash off him and then still go back to her husband. William returns home a hero but refuses to go on any more trips. John Boot gets the knighthood intended for him and life returns back to a state of relative normalcy.

Is it well written?
It is very enjoyable and the things that you miss from the plot summary are all the ingredients that go to make up a really great comic tour de force: quirky characters, clever plot and a play on the Boot confusion right to the end. The British character of muddling through even when you have no idea of what is going on is lampooned both home and abroad and nearly every body is a target for Waugh’s wit. It is easy to get through and is one of those rare things a novel that is so satisfying and ties up all the loose ends in rapid fashion that you sit back with a smile on your face happy with your lot not feeling that nagging feeling of wanting more.

Should it be read?
There might well be some readers who find the subject and the period too distant and look at the style as a bit dusty and not as compelling as something in the top 20. But this is a classic read that has lasted the test of time because it is so well written and if you are prepared to engage with it does have the ability to get you to laugh out loud on more than a couple of occasions.

The village innocent comes to town and then is sent to play on the global stage and succeeds against all the odds but opts for the quiet country life

Version read – Penguin paperback

Life and Fate - post IX

One of the features of the Stalinist system was that those who had helped carry out the arrests, interrogations and murders of innocent people often ended up going through the same process. At that point even the most ardent believers in the system faced the moment when they had to accept that it was a cruel house of cards that had been more about manipulation and greed than solving poverty and breaking down class barriers.

The other powerful point that Grossman underlines is that living during this period of history was a twenty four hour nerve racking experience as it was not just about a job but it was a way of life that surrounded and suffocated.

Bullet points between pages 560 – 625

* Viktor burns his bridges after losing his temper and taking the unwise decision to speak his mind to his superior who is against him and quite happy to watch an opponent lose his cool

* Viktor is quite surprised by the lack of interest in his downfall from his close friends and his family and starts to accept that his future lies outside his institution and outside of Moscow in the provinces

* Back at the front the Russians finally mount the offensive that would lead to surrounding he German sixth army and it brings cheer and relief to those who have been waiting for a sign of hope

* But for Krymov the spirit of optimism is crushed as he is arrested and taken back to Moscow to the Lubyanka (KGB headquarters) and starts to endure the sort of sense of loss and vulnerability and confusion that thousands of others have gone through

* He cannot quite accept what is happening to a loyal old Bolshevik and is fighting to keep his reasoning and his loyalty to the system even in the face of such overwhelming evidence that it is all wrong

Maybe more tomorrow…

Life and Fate - post VIII

What happened to the Jews in the Second World War is one of those terrible things that becomes all too easily statistics on a history book page with a black and white image or two to try and illustrate the horror. Even on a trip to one of the camps that stands as a memorial it is all too easy to step back from the glass cases full of shoes and suit cases and feel comfortable in your late twenty first century skin.

Chapters 45 – 48 in part two of Life and Fate offer a chilling and moving account of death in a gas chamber. You finish reading those chapters with tears just behind the eyes but with your heart beating with anger at what happened and you start to realise how easy it all was and why these things should never be forgotten because they might happen again.

Bullet points between pages 500 – 560

* Something seems to have happened to Krymov and he seems to be out of favour with most people until he meets an old friend of the love of his life who he seems to be trying to forget

* Then there is the story of the Jews arriving at the camp and going through the gas chamber experience with the tension being built up as they are sorted between those with a value – doctors and dentists - and those who are going to be killed

* Despite being a doctor Sofya decides to accompany David and the rest of them to death and in some incredibly moving passages they all die in an airless room where they hoped they would be washed

* Back in Viktor’s world and things are staring to turn against him with his laboratory staff being dismissed and his position as a potentially great scientist being undermined by accusations he has gone against the Leninist principles of science

More tomorrow…

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Lunchtime read: The House on the Embankment

Things at work are always manic as we put the magazine to bed so there has been little chance to do any reading over the lunch break. Even if I had tried there might well have been a lynching had I sat there for too long with my nose in a book.

Although this book has barely started there are comparisons that can be made to Cat & Mouse by Gunter Grass that also covers the topic of one boy remembering the superiority of a friend at school.

Highlights from pages 14 - 32
Glebov remembers more about his friend Lev and how he was able to entice the friendship of almost anyone he wished and even undermined the ont thing that Glebov had to offer, which was exploiting his mother's job at the cinema to get his friends in for free. Lev it turns out has the film on his own reel and can watch it at home. Still on a childhood theme Glebov remembers a family of thugs that lived in his building and made life hell for various people until one day they killed their dog and the family seemed to fall apart and dissapear into the wind

More tomorrow...

The danger with calls for bans

At the risk of opening a real can of worms the opinion I wish to express over the call for copies of Tintin in the Congo to be removed from bookshops because it is racist is that if you follow that line knowing where to stop is going to be the problem. Most books written in the colonial era take a line that would now be considered racist including some parts of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, which was the lunchtime read earlier this week. These focusing on Tintin should be careful they don’t whip up a storm they can’t calm down.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Life and Fate - post VII

Not much read today because I met a colleague on the train and then fell asleep it is non-stop at work at the moment. There is a sense of the disconnect between the military and the political with the later believing that because they are party disciples they are somehow more worthy than generals. That difference in opinion naturally causes tension but there is a blindness that comes from arrogance that the politicals are on the side of right that gives them carte blanche to be hypocrites as well as lecturers.

Bullet points between pages 440 - 500

* The story follows the German camp commander as he visits the first construction of a gas chamber and discovers the extent of the amibtion to wipe out the Jews and that provides Grossman with a chance to warn about the evils of going along with the holocaust

* Viktor discovers that the head of the scientific academy has been encouraged to stand down and there have been other changes that penalise those who are not in favour by the regime

* Viktor starts showing his frustration in a way that could potentially cost him more than his job and his inability to control his tongue loses him friendships and his relationship with his daughter is under strain for similar reasons

* Near the front Getmanov is a whirlwind getting round the generals and staff upsetting them and making sure they realise that whatever they do on the battlefield means very little

* Krymov recovers from his head wound and has to write a report about his experience in Stalingrad and discovers that he seems to have fallen out of favour with the reader guessing that earlier comments Getmanov made about his war record probably being the reason why

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: The House on the Embankment

Sticking with Russian authors and by default staying with the theme of living with an oppressive system this book is by someone, Yuri Trifonov, I have never heard of before. The beauty of second-hand charity shops is that you end up getting a choice of books that you have never seen before and don’t have to pay a huge amount for. As a result though you start off with just the dust jacket blurb which indicates that this was a writer who managed to win respect of Soviet writers because of the way he managed to make comments about the system by focusing in on the day-to-day lives of his characters.

Highlights from the first 14 pages

You start by being introduced to Glebov who is heading out to a furniture store to buy a table when he meets an old acquaintance Shulepnikov who refused to acknowledge him when greeted. Later that night he phones up Glebov and tells him that he did recognise him but didn’t want to talk to him because he never liked him. That starts some memories going where Glebov remembers ho popular, confident and influential Shulepnikov was when they were at school but there are numerous indications that things went wrong for the student.

More tomorrow…

Life and Fate - post VI

After mapping out a network of Russian characters that are linked with Viktor and his wife Grossman shows his true Tolstoyian ambitions by switching the narrative cross to cover the German forces. Here he again focuses on the theme of freedom of speech with a lieutenant suffering from a shoulder injury frightened of sharing his real thoughts with his fellow solders.

What appears to be becoming one of the central themes of the book – the battle to speak your mind – surfaces again as Mostovsky the old communist meets the head of the prisoner of war camp and is lectured that there is not a great deal dividing the Germans and the Soviets both with their adherence to a one-party state and brutality.

Bullet points between pages 340 – 440

* The Germans are as much dominated by Hitler with the common soldiers frowning on those that are party members blinded to criticism of a leader who appears to be unable to walk away from Stalingrad

* General Paulus in charge of the German forces around and in the besieged city seems to understand the threat to the flanks and the futility of fighting but signs the order for a major attack on the tractor factory

* Viktor stumbles across the solution to his scientific problems but continues to be hurt by the attitude of his colleagues that ranges from jealousy to indifference and he ends up arguing with his daughter and realises his wife doesn’t care anymore

* Back at the front the fighting goes on with the house holding out against the Germans a target of both sides as Krymov is sent into to make sure that the political line of the party is stuck to and the commander there does not become too partisan

* It becomes irrelevant because Krymov is hit by a bullet and taken back to hospital and then the Germans attack and flatten the house and everyone in it the only people who escape are the female wireless operator who goes off with her sweetheart and a couple of scouts who were absent when the attack began

* Viktor and his family are sent back to Moscow with more people feeling that a corner has been turned and there is reason to be optimistic and it is all because the Nazis have been halted on the Volga

* Meanwhile back in the prisoner of war camp there is a late night discussion between the camp commandant and Mostovsky about why the two countries should really be fighting together leaving the old communist feeling like he has been mentally assaulted

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Lunchtime read: Scoop

It is very hard to read a novel that has the ability to make you laugh out loud at your desk in an open plan office. The ending of Scoop is comic writing at the top of its game with the humour coming thick and fast and the book ends with everyone happy including the hero who returns to his pastoral existence.

Highlights from Book III
To celebrate his return Lord Cooper requests that Boot is knighted and has a banquet thrown in his honour but there is a mix-up and John not William Boot receives the knighthood and neither want to attend the banquet. Salter travels down to see William Boot to get him to come but he refuses and after an introduction to Boot’s weird country world Salter is only too happy to get back to Fleet Street. The problem is that Theodore Boot follows him up and starts trying to get hired to tell lurid stories from his youth. The banquet arrives and it is Theodore not William or John Boot that sits next to Lord Cooper. William returns to writing his rural life column, Salter gets moved to an easier jon at Knitting World and life returns back to normal.

A full review will follow in the next couple of days…

Life and Fate - post V

"What a wonderful power and clarity there is in speaking one’s mind. What a terrible price people paid for a few bold words."

When I did a history evening course a couple of years ago the tutor kept talking about his aim to do a book about what it was really like for normal people to live under Stalin’s rule. He wanted to try and capture the fear of being denounced, the attraction of doing it and also try to paint a picture of what life was like – was it all prison camps and interrogations or was there some normal living going on as well? I’m sure he has read Life and Fate but if not there are some interesting passages around the pages 256 – 275 mark where people dangerously express their views.

Grossman manages to evoke a sense of real fear and danger just from sharing your opinion or views not just on politics but everything including literature.

Bullet points between pages 256 – 340

* Viktor shares a discussion with his scientific friends that covers the war, the political system and literature but some come close to the edge of what is allowed and as a result there is an argument as the host tries to prove his loyalty to the party

* One suggestion is made to Viktor as they leave by another guest that the most outspoken guest has survived the purges almost untouched and as a result had to be protected as an informer adding to the feeling of suspicion

* Then the focus moves back to the front picking up the story of Darensky and his artillery unit that is being sent into a particularly unattractive sector to try and unsettle the Germans and then Novikov the tank commander remerges and catches up with his lost love who turns out to be Viktor's sister in law who had such problems with her passport earlier in the book

* Viktor despite being depressed manages to crack the scientific formula he has been wrestling with but as he shares his excitement he is only met with indifference and jealousy and is depressed by his colleague and wife

* Novikov is suffering Getmanov the political instructor who pokes around in his private life but when the tank commander finally loses control and speaks his mind - as Grossman has alreafy pointed out - an incredibly dangerous thing to do he wins the respect from the political commissar rather than his wrath

More tomorrow...

Monday, July 09, 2007

Sharing the enthusiasm

Do you ever find yourself being wrapped up in someone else’s enthusiasm? Sometimes it can derail you but it can also take you to different places and encourage you to read different authors. The latest example came from a friend who had just finished reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Not only did he enthuse about that book, which he argued was worthy of its Pulitzer Prize, but he referred back to others including all All the Pretty Horses and left me wishing Life and Fate was shorter and I could start off on some McCarthy. Having seen what some lit blogs have had to say about The Road, particularly Stephen Lang who encourages you to stick with it and read it through. Maybe that will be my next excursion after the current Grossman epic is concluded...

Lunchtime read: Scoop

All through the book there is the ideea that even in the most brazen lie there might be an element of truth and the moral seems to be that if you are kind, trusting and perhaps a little bit stupid then amazing things can happen to you –almost Forrest Gump style.

Highlights from chapter five
With Boot now the journalist of the moment with scoops coming out of all directions his ytavelling companion from the plane, train and boat reappears and seems to be the lychpin in deciding the future direction of the country. He exploits the drunken madness of the Swedish doctor who smashes up the president’s palace and as a result smashes up the counter revolution. Boot gets the use of a private wires service to keep the office in touch and his time in Ishmaelia is drawing to a close.

More tomorrow…

Sunday, July 08, 2007

bookmark of the week

After emjoying watching the Tour de France this morning as the whizzed past in Greenwhich it seemed apt to have a French bookmark. In France they seem to have plenty of shops selling pens, cards, magazines and bookmarks and some of them are very attractive including this one of writing materials. They seem to be sold across France not tied to any particular attraction or region, which is a great idea.

Lunchtime read: Scoop

Having said that the book was going to be predictable yesterday as it reached its concluding half is slightly unfair and fails to appreciate the skill in Waugh’s writing. Chapter four includes some twists that you did not see coming and you cannot help but be rooting for Boot as he finally gets the story even if it looks like he has lost the girl.

Highlights from chapter four

Boot remains the only journalist left in the capital but because Hitchcock has terminated the story and the other jacks are still stuck in the field he is sacked by the Beast. But he sends what he believes will be his final story after Katchen tells him in passing that the president is being held hostage and a junta has started. It turns out that the root of the problem is gold ore with German and Russian factions both fighting it out to get control of the mining contract. Having sent his scoop his notice of termination is rescinded and he sends a follow-up that is so explosive it stops the presses. But Katchen’s husband returns and they borrow Boot’s canoe and set off to the French owned area promising to be in touch once they are free

More tomorrow…

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Lunchtime read: Scoop

You start to get a good idea of where this story might be going but it is enjoyable enough to want to stay with it and enjoy the ride. Some of the characters would not seem out of place in a P.G. Wodehouse universe and it makes you wonder just how Britain got by with a generation of vacuous baboons running the place. But then again have you seen some of the Tory front bench now…

Anyway here are the highlights from the rest of chapter three book two

* After the scoop about the revolutionary base being in Laku (a local word that translates as nonsense) the press demand passes to allow them to leave the capital and head off into the country

* Trucks are hired and everyone but Boot, who is told by The Beast he is not to go on the expedition, heads off to waste their time in the jungle leaving William with the chance to make a deeper acquaintance of the German girl Katchen

* She is upset after William tells her that he loves her but brightens up after she thinks of a way to get money out of him by becoming a source of stories for him and promises to being him details for a price from her contacts in government

* William heads back to see his consulate friend who tells him that something is brewing with the Russian and the government but after Hitchcock, the journalist who had the Laku scoop, announced he is heading home and the story is over it looks unlikely William will get a chance to prolong his stay in the country

More tomorrow…

Friday, July 06, 2007

Lego, marketing tricks and a nibble of a lunchtime read

After enjoying a very rare day off work taking my children to Lego Land – great but expensive – we pitched up at my in-laws and my niece, who is an avid reader showed me her latest pile of books she aims to get through. One of them caught my eye not so much for the cover and content but the marketing ploy that it is using. A book by a German author Cornelia Funke advises the sceptical reader to turn to a particular page to get a feel for how good the book is.

I know there has always been the mythical page 69, or thereabouts, test of a novel but this seems to be going one step further and actually highlighting a page that contains in the author and publishers opinion a good taster, in this case page 89. It is a ploy that I have not seen used before but it certainly seems to work with my niece and myself both turning straight away to the recommended page.

On the lunchtime read front as you might imagine the lunch break was spent running round Duplo world trying to get a couple of bites of a £3 hotdog. I did manage to get a couple of the sub chapters of chapter three in book two of Scoop done and the brief highlights follow:

* Boot decides to quit the hotel after another hoard of journalists arrive and ends up moving into accommodation that has been used by the German wife of a missing engineer and Boot and her strike up a friendship pretty quickly

* Corker breaks up the mood to tell Boot that they have all been scooped by a rival hack who claims to have discovered the hideout of the revolutionary headquarters – a place that William has been told contains nothing by his contact at the consulate

* Despite pointing out to his colleague Corker that the rebels cannot have a base there because there is nothing there he is told that regardless the scoop has gone round the world and everyone now has to find the place and follow-up the story

There just hasn't been a chance to read any Life and Fate but there might hopefully be more of an opportunity tomorrow…

Life and Fate - post IV

The action swings back to Stalingrad but most of the focus sticks with the political commissars who are spending their time giving lectures and making sure that the Stalinist line is not deviated from, rather than getting behind a gun. The result is that they are distrusted and unless they are assured of their own power and ability end up feeling slightly vulnerable and isolated.

Bullet points between pages 200 – 256

* At the front Getmanov has arrived to sit with his tank squadron and the men get ready to pull out of their camp and head off to face the enemy with some frank talking between the commanding officer Novikov and Getmanov about the mistakes Stalin made shooting so many generals in the 1930s

* Meanwhile the other political officer Krymov has been stopped from fighting and is frustrated at the way he is isolated from the generals never being taken into their confidence or sparking debate about his lectures

* Back with Viktor (sorry just sharpened the eyes and realised it doesn’t have a ‘c’) he is struggling to make headway with his experiments and is slipping into depression, which is exacerbated by what is happening to him at home

* Lyudmila is going through the motions following the loss of her son and does not show any interest in Viktor’s work or to be honest much else going on around her

More hopefully tomorrow but my son has an Inset day (teacher training day) so I am taking a day off work and we are all going to Lego land so I am not sure quite when the reading will get done but there is always hope…

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Lunchtime read: Scoop

This book is starting to feel like Graham Greene's Our Man In Havana with the humour being based around people inventing things that actually start to happen. Complete lies turn out to have a solid basis in fact.

Highlights from Book II chapter one

Chapter one
Corker and William finally arrive in Ishmaelia to discover the place is overrun with other journalists all desperate for the story. The problem is that nothing seems to be going on so the journalists start making things up. William discovers a link in the consulate and discovers that no one really knows what is going on but there seems to be more truth to some of the strange stories than might be given credit for.

More tomorrow…

Reading strikers and record books

Sadly as suspected the news feeds are too broad to be any use with lots of stories about Reading football club rather than reading and incidents of athletes getting into the record books rather than just a story on books. Taking it off now...

Life and Fate - post III

The web from Victor’s family starts to spread wider and introduce new characters and locations and there is a comment from Grossman about the treatment of the Jews at the hands of the Germans in the Second World War. The comments are understandably strong but you sense that the criticism of anti-Semitic Nazi behaviour could equally be applied to Stalin who was quite happy to stand by and let it happen on his own turf.

Bullet points between pages 146 – 200

* Victor’s wife has mentioned that her son’s father is somewhere in the camps and the story catches up with him and reveals the suffering of the life of a political prisoner in one of Stalin’s camps

* Surrounded by criminals that are quite happy to murder politicals and intimidate them it is a miserable life that seems to go against everything that being a member of the party seemed to be about

* Things then move to describe the world in 1942 with the Nazi’s at the peak of their power making the decision to rid the world of Jews and start the final solution

* A woman in a train being sent to her death in one of the camps is surrounded by Jews that are all trying to cope with what has happened and Grossman dips into their various stories to reveal the horror of mass graves, abuse and the destruction of families

It is easy to forget that for those Jews living in Russian owned areas that were then taken over by the Germans, the Ukraine for instance, it was a double blow because they lost their liberty but then faced a brutal regime that was determined to destroy them. Grossman makes the point that fascism was able to hypnotise entire populations into carrying out mass murder but also points the finger at the community of victims arguing that they went in some cases too willingly to their deaths and failed to organise resistance.

More tomorrow…

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Feeding the news...for now

Playing around with the features that Blogger offers there is a news feed that makes it possible to post up snippets about book news. If it gets on the nerves then I will take it off but it looks like it might be a good little feature that adds some value.

Lunchtime read: Scoop

The world of journalism starts to get exposed as Boot joins up with an agency reporter on the boat taking them to Aden. There are some pieces of dialogue that have aged badly and now seem incredibly racist but given the context of the time sort of understandable.

“You know, you’ve got a lot to learn about journalism. Look at it this way. News is what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read. And it’s only news until he’s read it. After that its dead.”

Highlights from chapter five

Chapter five
On the way to Ishmaelia Boot meets a mystery man who shared his plane from England, his train from Paris and now is on his boat going to Aden and you sense that this character is going to be important. On the boat Boot makes the acquaintance of Corker who works for a news agency but has done some work for Boot’s paper the Daily Beast and starts to induct him into the world of journalism before going down ill with food poisoning. After receiving a telegram telling him that the agency is going to work with the Beast the two reporters agree to work together. Meanwhile back in London the other Boot catches up with Mrs Stitch and asks what happened about the war reporting job only to be told that according to the newspaper he has already been sent.

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Life and Fate - post II

There is an increasing concentration on Victor, the scientist and his extended family, with it becoming clear that although they believe they are going to be evacuated to Moscow they presumably end up somehow in the battle of Stalingrad. While the focus shifts to Victor and co. the battle is hardly mentioned with life at war more of the theme.

There is a great chapter where life under the Stalinist oppression is laid bare with one local part official scrambling for cover after a fellow apparatik discovers that his four year old has scribbled a pointed beard and glasses onto a picture of Stalin. Even in war the prospect of a bullet from your own side never diminished.

Bullet points between pages 80 – 146

* Victor’s wife gets news that her son, who was conceived with her first husband, has been badly injured and so she finds out which hospital he is laid up in and heads off to visit him

* There is a chapter with a local politician Getmanov who has been assigned to a tank division and he gets ready to head off and join his unit but before he goes he bids farewell to party colleagues who are all watching very carefully what they say

* Then carrying on the theme of the stifling bureaucracy (no wonder the KGB stole Grossman’s manuscript) a friend of Victor’s is hounded by a passport office and has to lean on all her contacts to beg to be allowed to stay and continue her war work

* When she gets to the hospital Victor's wife discovers that her son is dead and when she visits his grave she loses her grasp on reality and seems to think that he still might come back and once she gets home she rushes to open every letter and the front door

More tomorrow...

Lunchtime read: Scoop

The humour in the book is delivered in a gentle but constant way so you end up reading with a smile on your face and occasionally burst out laughing because of the deft way Waugh delivers some of the punch lines.

Highlights from chapters three and four

Chapter three
After having weighed up the idea of the sack or going on the trip Boot heads to a hotel, then gets kitted out with almost everything the outfitters stocks. He gets sent by mistake to chase up Lady Stitch who has driven into some public toilets and he thinks she is beautiful before he gets called back to the office and sent to the airport. Once there everything is going well until someone mentions stamping his passport.

Chapter four
Salter, the foreign editor, back at the office is upset that Boot has not got a passport so sets it up so he can get an emergency one but after being told he needs to get approval from the Ishmaelia agencies in London he gets the passport burned because one group says it has been stamped by a traitor. He finally heads off on an aeroplane with his expenses mounting all the time and lands in Paris ready to start the overland trip to pick up a boat.

More tomorrow…

Inspiring stuff

Reading chapter 18 of Life and Fate, where a mother writes to her son to bid her farewell as she faces certain death at the hands of the Nazi’s, is an incredible piece of writing. No wonder then that when you tap in Vasily Grossman into Google you get the details of the stage play and the film that were based on that single chapter. It is testament to his writing ability that just one chapter can inspire such high levels of spin-off creativity.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Life and Fate - post I

If you have the battle of Stalingrad as the backdrop to your story the question is where to start. The choices seem pretty obvious with either introducing and developing the characters in the build-up to the battle; alternatively start the story in the heat of the conflict but not at a point where anything has been resolved; or something different to the two approaches outlined above.

Grossman opts for the third option and the story starts in a prisoner of war camp and you start by trying to work out whether the battle will be told through a retrospective lens but it turns out that the prisoner was captured early on and the description of the bombed out city and the heat of battle is still to come.

Bullet points between pages 1 – 80

* Things start with Mostivskoy who has been put in a camp run by the Germans and he describes the inequality in the camp system and the way it brings out the ugliness of human behaviour with some doing anything to protect themselves at the cost of others

* Then the story picks up the movements of the generals and commanders on the Russian side in the battle to hold a bridgehead on the Volga and the anxiety and fatalism of those running the conflict seems to be evident

* But of course the Russians couldn’t let their heads drop because there would be political commissars there to notice and the next character Krymov is introduced as he goes to deliver a lecture to soldiers at the front

* The general he visits then pops over the river to see Chuykov but they fail to talk about anything meaningful and the gallows humour and the differing opinions over the possibility of ever being victorious shows that despite the political pressures these are normal people fighting

* Then the story shifts to focus on a scientist Victor and his wife, mother-in-law and daughter as they have the luxury of sitting behind the lines and worrying about family members and try to carry on life against the backdrop of the war

* There is a powerful, haunting and moving letter sent to Victor by his mother who is a Jewish doctor who faces death now that the Germans have taken over where she lives and she is bidding him farewell a letter that he recieves and reads in secret

More tomorrow...

Lunchtime read: Scoop

It is difficult finding examples of books that are written about your profession that are an enjoyable read. There are various reasons for this including the most obvious that it makes you feel like a failure reading them; then there can be the feeling that what you should avoid doing is having a busman’s holiday; but the most concerning point is that far too often the only good professions to write about are police, private detectives and murderers (not sure that’s a profession – more a vocation).

Being a journalist by day and a tired journalist by night I’m hoping that the reputation of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop will mean it can be added to Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning as a good example of using a newspaper as a setting.

Highlights from the first two chapters

Chapter One
John Boot, an author who has travelled the world a bit, asks a well-connected friend Lady Stitch to get him a job abroad so he can get away from some female trouble for a while. She convinces a friend who is editor of a national newspaper that Boot would be the ideal person to cover a war that has broken out in Ishmaelia. The foreign editor is charged with hiring Boot and scans down the staff list and comes across William Boot who does a column about the country.

Chapter two
William Boot is waiting for the worst because a column he produced on badgers was changed by his sister to be about the Crested-Glebe so when he receives the telegram he heads off to London with a heavy heart. After the confusion about why he is there has been cleared up he is threatened with the sack unless he goes on the trip to Ishmaelia.

More tomorrow…

The choice is made

At the start of a fresh week of reading it’s a bit like that moment you get when you put a spoon through the foil on a new jar of coffee. It is hard not to get excited about what you are going to read next and some of that decision making is purely on an emotional level.

As a result of reacting emotionally to a great front cover, a recent BBC 2 programme about the battle of Stalingrad and the chance to read something by a Russian author this week, and let’s be honest most of the next, will be spent reading the mammoth Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman.

The story of the battle of Stalingrad is such am amazing one from every angle of courage, despair and revenge that is a great magnet for historians, fiction writers and film makers alike. Some efforts succeed, Anthony Beevor's Stalingrad for example, while others only get half way there. The film Enemy at the Gates might have a fantastic opening sequence but then it rather ebbs away.

So it is with a mixture of anticipation that Life and Fate is started. The first post comes tonight…

Sunday, July 01, 2007

bookmark of the week

Earlier today the family and me popped along to see the new planetarium complex at the Royal Observatory. The boys were too young to see a show in the new centre but they had some fantastic interactive exhibits which really show what can be done with modern technology. One of the favourites of our short trip was one showing the different planets in infrared, xray and gamma and so this bookmark whould also remind me of today.