Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Consolations of Philosophy - post I

Having got through chapter one and learnt from the example of Socrates that just because something is popular and as a result a widely held belief it isn’t necessarily right, Button turns to other issues. Next in line is the question of pleasure and wealth.

Step forward Epicurus who welcomed the seeking of pleasure. Before he gets into describing what the great philosopher thought produced that pleasure he lists off some of his own demands which includes a couple of similar wishes to my own including the following:

A library with a large desk, a fireplace and a view on to a garden. Early editions with the comforting smell of old books, pages yellowed and rough to the touch. On top of shelves, busts of great thinkers and astrological globes. Like the design of the library for a house of William III of Holland.”

Hoping the next few pages won’t burst the bubble that getting that library is something worth aiming for.

More tomorrow…

Death and the Penguin - post III

Thankfully there is a sequel to this book because this ends in a hurry with too many questions left unanswered. With Misha the penguin out of the picture having surgery to save his heart in the last chunk of the book the focus goes back onto Viktor.

You have to say that he is not the most loveable character. He lives with Nina and Sonya yet doesn’t seem that attached to either. When faced with the reality of what he has been doing – helping write death orders – he also seems to be only mildly disturbed.

What does trigger a reaction, a selfish one of self-preservation, is when he faces losing his own life.

Viktor runs away and as a result the book sort of hangs there. It is an ending that leaves an awful lot of the blanks to be filled in by the reader. In some respects too many because by the time you have thought about them you have moved onto another book. Maybe the best idea is to get straight into Penguin Lost and treat this as one half of a two-part story.

A review will follow soon…

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Books for free even if you want to cut down

I have been admiring Stephen Lang's attempts, described on his blog, to only read books he has already purchased for the rest of the year. I Thought of him this morning as I picked up The Times at Victoria station and received another free book from the Penguin celebrations collection.

Even when you don't want to buy a book it seems without too much effort you can find one for free. The book today, Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton is about how we can learn from the great philosophers can help us accept problems in our own lives. Chapter one covers Socrates and the fact he was prepared to be unpopular - to the point he had to kill himself as he tried to inflict his own justice on himself rather than that of the Athenian court. Half way through the chapter and already liking the idea that just because an idea is popular it doesn't mean it is right.

That was one book worth getting for free to add to the pile to be consumed this year.

Will post the final chunk of Death and the Penguin tomorrow...

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Rabbit Run - post IV

In some respects you finish this book with your own ideas about Rabbit but you are grateful for an afterword by Updike that helps clarify some points. He is using a character as a way of challenging American attitudes and working out what some of the big questions are.

The problem is that you come to the end of the book and you are still left wondering what some of those answers are and questioning the response of running away from trying to figure them out.

After his daughter dies and his wife falls apart Rabbit returns from his fateful night away and starts to pick up the pieces but at the graveside he cannot resist asking out loud why everyone is treating him like a murderer when it was his wife’s fault. He then heads off at speed running through the woods rather than facing the fallout from that one.

He blusters back into Ruth’s flat and she shouts and screams at him for being selfish and useless and rather than take in what she has said he walks out the door and starts running.

The sense of failure is reinforced by the appearance at a couple of points of his old basketball coach who has had a stroke. In the afterward Updike points out that he lived in towns packed full of failed high school basketball players so finding the inspiration for Rabbit was not that difficult.

Will have to get together my thoughts for a review to be posted soon…

Death and the Penguin - post II

This book works on several different levels. In one sense the reader is ahead of Viktor as it becomes clear that he has been writing not just obituaries but in effect death orders that have been processed through his newspaper offices based on selected criteria he is not party to.

But in other ways it is far from clear where this is going. Writing the obituaries has changed Viktor’s life permanently and he has not just collected the mafia bosses’s daughter as a companion but now gains a nanny for her who becomes his lover. The link between all them is the reaction they all have to Misha the penguin.

Misha is growing as a character and makes you realise the potential that a good writer can get out of a character that not only does not speak but has very little facial expression. If anyone asked me if this book was worth reading the answer would have to be that it is just for the Misha character alone.

More tomorrow…

Rabbit Run - post III

This is a hard book to get on with. Maybe Rabbit is a metaphor for a period of American history where maybe the country felt after the success of the Second World War that it was now a loser.

Rabbit is a selfish character that is driven not just by a yearning for a repeat of the success and adoration he had on the basketball court but also by a primitive sexual urge. Having returned to his wife believing on the way that the preacher’s wife is also after him he leaves her at a critical stage.

Having encouraged her to get drunk so he can have sex with her she goes on a bender that results in the tragic death of their newborn baby daughter. The bath-drowning scene is written with pace and through the perception of a drunken woman in a world of pain that is also something rather selfish.

With Rabbit now handed the reason to leave Janice and partly to blame because of his absence will he again try to run? Problem is that he can’t run away from himself and his own immaturity.

More tomorrow…

Monday, July 28, 2008

Death and the Penguin - post I

The expectation before you start this book is of the penguin being a comic character but within a few paragraphs there is a penguin that lives in a flat with the main character Viktor because he could no longer be cared for in the zoo.

Although Misha the penguin can’t speak he both expresses some of the moods of the hero, the environment and the world as he shuffles from room to room sighing. He also acts as a bridge between the isolated hero of the story and others acting as an excuse to attract friendship and fellow penguin enthusiasts.

The world of Viktor is largely a failed one with his girlfriend abandoning him, his attempt to become a novelist in tatters and his career not particularly going anywhere. He writes a short story, all he is capable of and that leads to a job writing obituaries for the as yet undead.

Problem is that after undertaking some work for the mafia he mentions none of his work has been published so one of his favourite subjects is helped out of a window. The penguin watches this with an air of indifference as a war breaks out between rival mafia gangs sparked by Viktor’s obits.

More tomorrow…

Sunday, July 27, 2008

bookmark of the week

This graphical and bright bookmark is designed to help children learn about road safety. Some of the faces represent things like zebra crossings and the importance of stopping to look and listen. Does the job as far as getting the message across and as a bookmark.

Rabbit Run - post II

The irony is that although children don’t seem to matter much to Rabbit the arrival of a baby daughter pulls him back to his wife. It is the minister Eccles who ends up watching Rabbit’s son Nelson playing in his grandmother’s yard fighting for toys and angering the neighbours dog. Rabbit seems to care about nothing other than trying to recapture former glories.

His relationship with Ruth seems to be built on possession and control. Those two factors make him feel successful and in the sense of being a competitor he has managed to beat her opposition. But ironically it is her previous independence that drives his jealousy.

He leaves her not knowing she is pregnant to head over to the hospital to see his new child arrive into the world. Ruth is left behind crying bitter tears sensing that she has lost Rabbit to the pull of his wife. It certainly appears that way as Rabbit leaves the maternity ward to stay with the minister rather than go back to Ruth’s apartment.

But for a man without much paternal pride will the thought of a daughter and another child on the way cause him to run off again. Probably.

Someone I once met had her husband walk out on four days after the birth of his son saying, “It wasn’t for him” the whole fatherhood idea. That real-life story reminds me very much of the fictional Rabbit.

More soon…

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Children of Hurin - post IV

Well the curse takes them all to their graves and the dark lord continues to rule with out challenge. Although he does lose his faithful servant the dragon he is not going to lose too much sleep over it and even lets Hurin lose at the end in the knowledge that he can do more harm.

This feels like a start of something and when it does end it is with a sense of slight anti-climax because the story did not quite go according to plan plus with Morgoth still in control there is a real sense that justice has not been done.

At the end there are family trees, maps and appendices about how the book was written. This in a way is more interesting because it shows the love a son has for his father and his commitment to keeping a world that came out of his father’s imagination going. There are notes about when J.R.R wrote the book and how it fitted in with other works he was planning plus an insight into the switch from just being a story told in verse to something that ended up in prose.

A book that is a struggle to get into but then keeps going with a great plot but probably one that the Lord of the Rings fans rushed out to buy quicker than anyone else. Also you can’t help but feel like you a reading a children’s book when people on the train catch you at the moments when the entire right hand page is taken up with one of the illustrations that pepper the book, good though they are.

A review will follow soon…

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Children of Hurin - post III

By now the curse that lies on the children of Hurin is not only bringing doom to Turin but anyone he decides to visit. So there is always a mixed response when he turns up and sure enough the little empires of elves and men start to crumble as Turin wanders through Middle Earth.

He brings death to his friends and manages to provoke Morgoth to bring out not the Orcs but a dragon that has a very cruel streak and managed to bring desolation to Turin and his mother and sister.

What felt like it was building towards a climax when a mixed army or men and elves stormed the Dark Lord's lands now feels like it is going to end in death and failure. Not quite what you were expecting but maybe that’s refreshing after the success of the climatic battles in Return of the King.

The moral of the story so far seems to be: do your best to avoid curses, particularly from those that happen to go by the nickname of The Dark Lord.

Final chunk tomorrow…

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Time specially dedicated to you

I was moaning at work today about the lack of time we have to get round to posting dozens of stories on the web now we are all web first whizzy internet hacks.

But time is something I miss in other areas. The only reason I occasionally have a go at the Lottery is to try and get the money to realise the dream of owning a house with a library big enough to have a gallery you can pull yourself around with one of those special ladders, ideally a real log fire for the winter plus of course a globe that turns out to be a drinks cabinet.

After sitting on a day bed flicking through book after book occasionally you might feel like going into the local school and sharing some of your thoughts on great writing with the impressionable, but most of the time the struggle would be to choose the next book and flick crumpet crumbs off your chest.

Oh happy dreams…

Rabbit Run - post I

There is a moment near the start when Janice says to her husband Harry (Rabbit) not to run but as he goes out to pick up his son from his parents and his car from outside the front of his in-laws something clicks.

He picks up the car and drives hundreds of miles before oddly coming back to his home town. He avoids going home but instead seeks out the support of his old basketball coach. Things then become stranger still because far from running he seems prepared to get involved in another relationship with a girl, Ruth, he is introduced to by his coach.

There are some great bits of dialogue: "after you've been first-rate at something, no matter what, it kind of takes the kick out of being second-rate."and good descriptions of places but Rabbit does seem to be a loser and his decision to from Janice to Ruth an odd one. Also having got kids it is hard to sympathise with a character so happy to walk away from his son. He may think his wife is dumb but what about the child?

Maybe he will get the chance to run further than a few blocks away? Wait and see I guess.

More tomorrow…

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Children of Hurin - post II

Although this is a story still populated by odd names of characters and locations there is a real plot developing and it is that which keeps you reading on. Turin has blotted his copybook in the land of the Elves after wandering off first put of boredom and then returning to kill one of the King’s council after a row.

He joins up with a band of outlaws to populate the woods but they are driven away from their hunting grounds by orcs and end up getting in a position of hunger and despair so they turn to a dwarf and seek shelter in his home in return for sparing his life.

There are personality stories developing the whole time with Turin managing to fall out with people left right and centre, including for a while the elf who is sent by the King to tell him he is pardoned for killing a member of the council.

All you really want him to do is get to the battle when Turin tries to release his father from the imprisonment of the dark Lord.

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

First few pages, first impression - Rabbit Run

There is something different about the moment you decide to walk down a well trodden path and start reading a book that has been read and praised widely. One of the fears I suppose is that ultimately the experience will be disappointing and leave you wondering what the fuss was about.

But there is also something attractive about finally getting round to entering into a world that has managed to work for millions of other readers already.

So it was with a sense of anticipation I picked up Rabbit Run and started the first twenty pages. What you have to comment on already is the deftness of touch, Little descriptions, like the rotting toy under the porch step and the exchange between husband and wife convey a lot without taking up much space.

Your focus is instantly on Rabbit and you do want to carry on reading and get into Updike’s imagination.

More tomorrow…

Pincher Martin - post IV

It was only at the very end of the book, and I’m not going to give away the ending, that you sat up and thought about what Golding had done. For a few moments on the train on the way to work I just looked out of the window and pulled the final scenes together.

Golding left you wondering whether or not the lucky ones where those that die in war rather than limp on waiting to be rescued and also about the human costs of war. But that comes in a way as a relief because having expressed the desire the other day to see what happens to the stranded survivor you almost wish you could turn away your eyes as he goes slowly but very surely mad. The turning point seems to be a change in the weather with a thunder storm turning his world into a dark and lightning streaked hell. The wind also plays a part pushing him into the sea with such a thud he is convinced for a while somebody hit him.

But as the end nears the ghosts of the past become stronger and the hallucinations more real.

Golding does something clever with the point of view at this point and splitting Martin into mind and body he takes up the story clearly out of the body turning Martin into something of a third person although still connected via the mouth between mind and body.

Close to the end you feel that this has been as tortuous to read as it has been to live for Martin but the twist at the end and the thoughts it leaves you with were worth reading for.

A review will follow soon…

Monday, July 21, 2008

book review - The Soldier's Art

The Valley of Bones ends with Jenkins walking into a room to find that Widmerpool has requested that he joins his staff. Surely this is the greatest example of all of the recurring partners that dance through the world described by Anthony Powell? Surely it is a chance for Jenkins to sidestep boredom and head straight into the action on the coattails of his old school friend?

Not quite. Widmerpool is totally self interested and seems to have chosen Jenkins to work for him as part of his attempt to get another pair of eyes and ears to assist him in his political war he is waging against various different departments. All Widmerpool cares about is himself and at the end with a promotion to Whitehall in the wings he is quite happy to leave Jenkins to fate.

But there are lessons about self-focus that are illustrated by the reappearance of Stringham. The ex alcoholic turns up serving Jenkins in the mess as a waiter and although the old school connection encourages Jenkins to ask Widmerpool to move him to something better the former school and university friend is clear about his priorities. He is only concerned with keeping himself on an even keel and even when moved to the mobile laundry unit he faces being moved into action in the Far East he is resigned to it.

Jenkins seems to want to get some glory, like his brother in law Robert Tolland who is killed in France during the retreat to Dunkirk, but at the same time is almost completely impotent. This book seems to underline his position in life, or lack of it and remind the reader of the futile mazes that those trying to get involved in the war faced if they were the wrong age.

There are always hints that there might be some connection that will work to Jenkins advantage and Sunny Farebrother reappears at the end and might be able to do something for his old acquaintance. But Jenkins has allowed himself to be identified in some quarters as a Widmerpool man and that could go against him.

The problem for Powell was always going to be that having established a series of characters in the early books that were damaged by their lack of valour in the First World War then it would put him in the same category if he followed suit. Clearly the first challenge was to get into uniform but having done that all he seems to be able to do is paperwork and the closest he gets to fighting Hitler is talking about him in the mess.

Of course the idea might be to show what happens to another generation unable to do their bit on the battlefield and draw out the consequences in the final books. But there is still a chance with the final of the wartime trilogy, The Military Philosophers, that Jenkins will get more of a heroic role to play. We’ll see soon.

Version read – Arrow paperback

Going a bit crazy at a 50% borders sale

Went a bit book crazy at Borders today with the lyrics of the Motorhead classic Orgasmatron (I was young and it was a funny year) ringing in my head.

“I am the one, orgasmatron, the outstretched grasping hand…”

That hand was busy putting books into a basket. Armed with some hints from The Modern Library by Carmen Callil and Colm Toibin went to the Borders branch at Lakeside Thurrock. The branch is closing down with every book 50% off. That gave me the chance to pick up Gravity’s Rainbow, a couple of the Updike Rabbit books and some more Cormac McCarthy without breaking the bank.

When I asked the poor guy at the till why it was closing he say that they had found out about the internet and that didn’t need people to run a store.

If you live nearby then get down their quick because the stock is going fast but there are some bargains to be had with all of the stock reduced.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

book review - The Valley of Bones

There is something about the politics of war, the impact of the fight well behind the lines that is frankly dull. Out of all of the Anthony Powell books so far encountered the wartime trio that starts with The Valley of Bones is one of the most unsatisfactory to read.

Part of the reason is that the action is often confined to barracks and after six books with the same continuing characters suddenly you are introduced to some new names. The problem is that unlike the sorts of people, like Moreland, who you know are going to be recurring features of the story, you sense that a large proportion of the people in this book are purely transitory in terms of the relevance to the narrator’s life.

Then there is the problem with the central character Nicholas Jenkins himself. Drifting through life seems to have been okay so far and not prevented him from coming into contact with some influential and interesting people and situations. But here he is cut off from the war because of his age and inexperience and the reader finds themselves, along with the narrator, a long way from the action.

Where the book works best is when the story moves back to the family and characters of the first six novels come back to life. Jenkins himself introduces a confident soldier who gets involved with his sister in law and threatens to break up the marriage with Chips Lovell. But in one of the best scenes of the book the attempt by Chips to reconcile the marriage is stopped by bombs that kill him and in another part of London his wife. As collections of characters including Lady Molly bite the dust the war seems to have finally arrived in Powell’s world.

The rest of the time he is mucking around in Northern Ireland with the Welsh regi8ment playing at being an officer and watching as the ambition of his senior officer burns strongly then gets snuffed out.

All the time Jenkins seems to amble along. But unlike the character of Guy in the Sword of Honour trilogy by Evelyn Waugh, Jenkins does not seem to be able to crack the army and move into a position of interest.

Perhaps the boredom and futility that pervades most of this book was also something of the time and is certainly evident in the world portrayed by Waugh. But the reader needs something to cling onto and if this was not the start of the second half of the Dance to the Music of Time it is doubtful you would continue to read on deeper into the series after putting this book down.

Version read – Arrow paperback

Saturday, July 19, 2008

book review - The Cossacks

There are so many reviews that I have not got round to posting that this blog is failing in one of its original aims - which was to help remind me about the books I had read. After finding myself buying the same book twice it became clear there was some sort of memory problem. Recalling characters and plot lines is getting harder as the weeks go by. For some reason names are always just beyond reach and so you end up referring to the main character etc. Still this one falls into the category of classic so in some sense stands out because unlike most of the other stuff in the review pipeline is 19th century.

The Cossacks are a symbolic people in this story as they are elsewhere in Russian literature. Leo Tolstoy writes with real affection about those that live a life far removed from the splendour and riches of Petersburg.

Although this is a book housing three stories it is the title tale about the Cossacks that sticks in the mind.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich is about a man dying not just physically but also emotionally as he realises his ambitions to become a success have been at the expense of real happiness. As he ebbs away on the couch he realises that his wife and daughter have already moved on thinking about a life without him. In some senses it is about the pressure to conform to a certain pattern of success but it is also about the hollowness of a marriage and family that is built on ambition and greed rather than love.

There is the potential for a similar type of feeling with Happy Ever After where a young girl falls in love with an older man and it is her ambition that almost kills the relationship. Leaving the quiet of the country for the bright lights of Petersburg the relationship is put under the twin strains of his jealousy and her ambition to make something of herself. The marriage falls into a state of mutual indifference but then when she confronts her husband back in the country she realises that the relationship on offer is now different and includes a love for their children and an adult love that has grown beyond the youthful heady romance of their first days in the country.

It is putting the first two stories together that the theme of this collection emerges, with Tolstoy looking at the many different sides of relationships. The final story also touches on that area. But The Cossacks is also saying something about the value of nature, the corruption of Russian high society and the wealth that those who live simply have that cannot be bought by unhappy wealthy aristocrats.

There is a love triangle between the wealthy Olenin, who takes up residence in the home of the bare footed peasant girl Marianka's family. The girl is engaged to the young and confident Luka who manages to shoot a Chechen warrior and get the attention of the men and the women for his bravery and swagger. But after a friendship where Olenin goes from falling in love with nature - the real Russia - he also decides that he needs a real Russian wife and after Luka is shot in a battle with revenging Chechens he mistakenly feels that he will be able to take her hand in marriage, but he angrily tells him that he can do nothing for her and he decides to quit the village.

Knowing how Tolstoy viewed the peasantry and the way that real Russia came through contact with the earth and the people who worked with that earth this is more than just a tangled love story. It is more than just a tale about the divide between rich and poor and the barriers love can face. It is also a warning that those sitting in the cities without much idea or care about how the rest of the population work and live will find themselves in the wrong when put alongside their better counterparts.

An interesting collection of stories and one to keep the contact with Tolstoy going but things are still better paced when he can get the whole family relationships and contextualisation that is so much a feature of the 19th century style and then still have 600 pages left to carve out a cracking story.

Version read - Penguin hardback

Friday, July 18, 2008

Wall-E saved the evening (as well as the planet)

I don’t use this blog to review films mainly because I hardly see anything these days other than children’s movies.

But having just come back from seeing Wall-E it is worth a mention. There has been a lot of coverage of the green message – the idea that as a race we fly off to space having filled the earth up with rubbish. But there were so many things going on here with a sprinkling of sci-fi (2001 came to mind), some Orwellian Big brother and a fair dose of Huxley.

I came away having felt guilty for eating too much popcorn – one of the main sub messages of the film seemed to me to be about obesity – but smiling after watching a film that manages to tackle some big ideas with real personality. If you have children then it’s worth going to and if you are a fan of Pixar and its animation then it is also worth sitting in front of. Those reviews that have praised it highly are right, mind you the length is slightly too long as Pixar always seem to stretch their films, because overall this was a pleasure.

Back to books tomorrow…

Pincher Martin - post III

One of the main aims of writing is to paint a picture through words that is so believable the reader is lost in that world and moment. Golding manages to put you on the rock with the shipwreck survivor Christopher Martin.

Although of course you want to see if he will be rescued you are half tempted by the prospect of him being left there because that would take the writing to a challenging and darker place.

Through flashbacks you get the picture of a young actor who seems to have a series of spurned relationships before he joined the navy to go and fight for his country. But despite the experience on the rock there has not yet been an indication that if he gets back to normal life he might lead it differently.

The other challenge for the reader is the style where hints and not just a couple of failed female relationships but also one with a young boy are mentioned but never really drawn out in great detail.

Maybe the past will become clearer as the pages and the chance of rescue start to run out? More tomorrow…

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Children of Hurin - post I

It is a bit like reading some of those Old Testament passages of the Bible trying to get past the start of this story with the family lines explained. But once the names and the relationships and blood lines have been gone through the action does start to take over and the children of Hurin face their first test as their father and his Elvin friends are crushed in battle by the dark lord Morgoth.

This is a world long before the Lord of the Rings but because of the writing style and the context setting introduction by Christopher Tolkien it feels like an easy extension of the trilogy we all know so well.

Left as a 10 year old boy is Turin the son of the captured Hurin who is sent by his mother to seek safety in the woods to the south inhabited by Elves. The story is unfolding with the all-powerful Morgoth sowing seeds of hate and revenge and presumably Turin will be the one to channel those into a fight.

Hopefully there will be more action and not so many names of fathers, sons and the lands they inhabit.

More tomorrow…

Pincher Martin - post II

I remember reading Golding as a schoolboy and his style is not the easiest and this reminds me of struggling with homework. Not sure what I was meant to be learning reading this sort of stuff but as an adult it is still a test of endurance.

The struggle that the survivor has to find food and water and plan a rescue attempt on his rocky outcrop is being written in what feels like real time.

The battle to survive is mixed in with memories fleshing out the characters recent history and background. His drafting into the navy and his pre-war relationship with shipmate Nathaniel is also given more context with the two of them being connected someway, possibly through the acting field that the main character is involved in.

More tomorrow…

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Enjoying an old library book

As a child I used to hate the idea that a book I was reading from the library had been handled by other people. A sort of Kenneth Williams obsession with cleanliness, particularly when reading in bed, made it difficult to enjoy flicking through a dogeared and stained copy of a book.

But as I get older and value the ability to go to the library and get books for free the idea of owning an ex library book becomes more attractive.

The dates stamped in the front cover hint at a story. My copy of The Cossacks by Tolstoy is from the Kensington and Chelsea library and the last date stamp is a faded 1968. it is easy to imagine someone reading that book as the world erupted in protest.

A bookmark that also doubled up as a library stamp shows that people were getting books out during the second world war. As the bombs dropped and the battlefields of France robbed lived someone was still clinging onto routine by going to the library.

Buying ex library stock, particularly from the past, has now become something to be desired rather than shied away from and those books have the ability to tell a story that is only limited by your imagination.

Pincher Martin - post I

There are certain styles of writing that really challenge the reader to concentrate. This book starts with a man drowning but the metaphor of a glass diver bobbing away in a jar throws you a bit.

But bit by bit the fact this man swimming in the Atlantic has ended up there because his boat was hit by a U-boat starts to help you out it all together. But to get there involves reading through swirling and slightly surreal passages that are as unclear as the drowning man’s future.

He finally manages to pull himself out of the water onto a rock after a moment when you expected him to be saved by a ship which almost kills him. Once on the rock he changes again from a drowning swirling glass diver in a jar to a limpet on a rock.

In an opening devoid of any characters other than the survivor and the names of his dead crew men the drowning man’s legs and arms become characters of their own as they drift, swim and cling out of the sea onto the rocks.

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

spies - post III

This book is so wonderfully crafted as you get into the mind of a young boy who discovers the dangers of playing in an adult world.

Stephen becomes the only one playing the game and in the end he switches sides and becomes the only link with the man at the end of the lanes. As the truth unravels and he recollects the final stages of the game, which end in deadly consequences, the loose ends are tied up.

But there is still room for a twist or two and the experience of reading the book is to ponder on the way that adults often take children for granted as possible witnesses and interpreters of their schemes and plans as well as the dangers of failing to take them seriously.

A review will follow soon…

Monday, July 14, 2008

A happy blogging birthday

Two years in and there have been a lot of books read and some intersting moments and the mind is still churning as a result and so onwards and upwards...

Sunday, July 13, 2008

bookmark of the week

Occasionally on the counter in a bookshop there will be a free bookmark that is not so overladed with promotional messages that it is something you would use. This bookmark, picked up in a bookshop in South East London, is one of those that would quite happily be used for years to come or until it became too dog-eared to be useful.

book review - Outer Dark

This was an incredibly easy book to get through despite the subject matter. Despite the italicised start and the slight disorientation that comes from a complete absence of quote marks that is the Cormac McCarthy style the story gets you early on.

The themes that seem to run through his work include traveling down roads searching for something and coping with extreme almost supernatural violence.

Outer Dark has doses of both with a brother and sister giving birth to a son from their incestuous relationship that seems to be one of hate by the time the child comes and possibly was never one of love just forged out of boredom or possibly rape and violence.

The siblings live in a run down shack and the day she gives birth a tinker comes calling and it is he who discovers the abandoned child in the glade that the father chooses to dump it in.

The mother does not believe her brother’s explanation of the infant’s death and a hunt then starts for the child. She wanders looking for the tinker and then her brother wanders looking for her.

The siblings wander through an America at the turn of the last century with work available for those prepared to sweat in the fields but suspicion as well as madness waiting for them as they pass from settlement to settlement.

Complicating the search for the tinker is the shadow cast by mysterious men who seem to cross the path of the brother and murder and engage in cannibalism. Who are they and what do they want? Those questions become more important as the dark horsemen get closer to intersecting with the siblings and the lost child.

The world that McCarthy describes is one that works on different planes with the landscape holding as many secrets as the people. When Holme crosses on the ferry and the cable snaps in a storm the elements as much as the mean spirited ferry driver are against Holme.

As the siblings go down their separate roads they draw nearer to a climax that not only leads to the child but also the destruction of their relationship. The sister finds the tinker but it is the mysterious riders who find the child and Holme and in the end the sister just finds ashes marking the end of her journey.

In a way this sets out all of the themes of his work – a journey, a road, violence, potentially a brush with something supernatural and an America that is lost.

Version read - Picador paperback

Friday, July 11, 2008

Lunchtime read: Weir of Hermiston

The book ends with Archie and his girlfriend arguing as he under duress tries to inform her that for the sake of her reputation they part.

The suggestion that they nip their young love in the bud comes from Archie’s bitter Aunt and the viper in his nest his lawyer friend who is keen to enjoy a heavy dose of revenge.

The plan was to then turn back to the introduction at the start and discover where the novel was planned to be heading before Stevenson was unfortunately struck down and died at 41. Even in the brief 115 pages you can see he was building a novel that could have gone in quite a few directions. The foundations where there with a strong father and son relationship, a budding love affair and the characters on the side who are quite capable of muddying the waters.

A review will follow soon…

Thursday, July 10, 2008

spies - post II

Although the characters of Keith and Stephen annoy you because they are not only immature but also slightly dense the idea that they have stumbled onto something does start to stir the story.

The character that steps forward increasingly is Keith’s mother herself. The alleged German spy appeals to Stephen directly to stop following her and to make her life easier after they rumble that she is leaving things in a box for someone.

The box lies through the railway tunnel at the right at the entrance to the drive and the boys still think it is a German spy. But by now the penny is starting to drop that this is a relationship with a man and the boys get closer to not only catching the mother but also to discovering the identify of the mystery man.

The relationship between the narrator Stephen and the mother of his best friend starts to become central and that is the fault he seems to have returned to face up to.

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Weir of Hermiston

The Romeo and Juliet story begins and it could be quite a straight forward plot development from there but Stevenson decides to throw another character into the mix.

Another lawyer, who has fallen on hard times and seems to have a vindictive streak, turns up on Archie’s door and soon sets out to find out why the Laird keeps disappearing without him. He manages to pin down the relationship with the young girl from a rival estate and then starts to turn the knife.

He threatens to tell Archie’s father and her family and all the meanwhile spreads gossip around the parts about Archie implying that the man is unstable and has left a dark secret behind.

Your heart goes out to Archie who is being so badly betrayed and you hope that had the novel been finished justice would have been done.

Last bit tomorrow…

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

spies - post I

The book starts with an old man literally walking back down memory lane to his childhood. As he walks down his old cul-de-sac he can recall with exact detail the same street in the war with the blackout blinds and the bombed out house.

the narrator comes from one of the more shambolic households down the street and recalls a friendship with the more upmarket Keith. The boy dominates the friendship and it is Keith who starts the ball rolling that leads to the events that the old man has come back to recall.

The words “my mother is a German spy” sets them spying, recording everything in a log book and inventing all sorts of potential spying activities for the mother. The result is no doubt going to be awkward and awful. As an adult reader the worst you suspect her of is having an affair but the boys might have guessed right.

More tomorrow...

Lunchtime read: Weir of Hermiston

The blurb on the back of the page describes this unfinished book as a masterpiece. It is hard to agree with that before you have finished but you can see where this is going. Having established the background of Archie Wier through the stories of his mother and father the story now widens with the movement of Archie to the family home in Hermiston.

Waiting for him in the family home is an old spinster as housekeeper and a lot of solitude. He seems to be aloof but he is just unable to break into the community. But inevitably there is a beautiful young girl and the Laird looks set to have a romantic encounter.

The problem is that the beauty is the niece of the housekeeper and before Archie has a chance to get to know her he faces the challenge of healing a minor family rift.

More tomorrow...

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Lunchtime read: Weir of Hermiston

It inevitably takes a couple of books before you can start to get into a position where you can start to suggest the themes that drive an author on.

But after a short story collection, including the infamous Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, it is fair to say that what seems to drive Stevenson on is ideas around the question of personality. In this story it is the idea of the conflict between good and evil that exists in a single person that troubles the lead character Archie Weir.

Brought up by his mother, a god fearing but frightened woman, he rejects the world of his father, a well known ‘hanging judge’ because he views his world as coarse and evil. But with the mother dying Archie has little choice but to live in his father’s shadow.

He does so until he reaches the age of 19 when after starting his legal studies and witnessing the trial and execution under his father’s command of a man that arouses pity in him. He accuses his father publicly of murder and after a confrontation between father and son he aggress to become a landowner on the family estate in Hermiston.

On the one hand he wants to hate his father but whenever he feels a spark of kindness he is torn and he remembers the biblical teachings to honour parents. That source of distress pushed him into a position of complete vulnerability when face on with the hanging judge.

More tomorrow…

Monday, July 07, 2008

book review - Tree of Smoke

The plan was to knock out this review last Friday because it would have been apt to review a big book by an American author on Independence Day. It would have been timely because one of the many questions that Denis Johnson asks in Tree of Smoke is about exactly what America is and what its boys were fighting for in Vietnam.

This book comes with the blurb on the dust jacket informing you of its high qualities but for the first 200 pages you are wondering just what the critics were on about. Part of the problem is that the story is disjointed and the background is being painted in but it is not until you get the chance to stand back and see the picture that it starts to make sense and become an easier and in place gripping read.

There are relationships between families that are used as pivots to move the story on. The two most important characters are Skip Sands, a man wrestling with his own motivation for being in the war working for the CIA but more directly working for his uncle ‘the general’.

Then there is James Houston who joins up despite hearing how miserable life is from his elder brother who is in the navy. The teenager lies about his age to get straight into the war zone and joins the infantry to go in as a grunt into Vietnam.

Meanwhile after bumbling around the Philippines cataloguing a card file system established by his uncle Skip finally makes it to the war. In the meantime he has met some shady characters that are working their own mini-war within a war.

Once in Vietnam the world melts and the line between good and bad disappears and in the case of Houston his moral compass cracks. Sands is also stuck in the middle of a war but it is between one half of the CIA and his Uncle. The Washington-based half is fighting a war different to those that have understood the horror of the conflict on the ground.

It would be too simple to describe this as a war novel but the fighting scenes are delivered brilliantly but what is more powerful are the post combat passages where a character like James is killing innocent women one day through his drug fuelled battle shocked state and is then home just a few days later.

You sense that the point Johnson is making is that the reason why the veterans were failed is that no one really understood the transition they had to make from world of unreality to world of mundane domesticity.

But there are other questions being asked about just how you fight any way, with the tree of smoke a reference to the idea of confusing the enemy with a confusing series of double bluffs. The general wants to wage a psychological warfare that is alien to those counting body bags and strategic hits by bombers. Skip caught in a world on the sidelines doesn’t seem to know who to support and in the end ultimately pays for his personal apathy with his life as he is hanged for gun running years after the war ends.

There is also a religious question with Skip’s affair with Kathy the widowed missionary’s wife who sees the horrors of the war through the eyes of someone trying to save children. What is right more than where is god? Seems to be the question that this book challenges you to find an answer for.

The reason it works so well and grips you is because the tree of smoke plan grips those who knew the general and they never stoop believing that the old man died in an accident in the middle of the war. The search for the general, which turns up a handful of potential gravesites but no living body, goes on until the end of the book. The search for the rights and wrongs of wars like Vietnam continue up to this very minute.

Version read - Farrar, Straus and Giroux hardback

Sunday, July 06, 2008

book review - Devil May Care

It is hard not to get wrapped up in the hype before even opening this book. The amount of pre-launch coverage was intense with the main angle being that this James Bond novel had been written by a literary figure. Sebastian Faulks was expected to deliver a book that combined the best of his writing style, developing characters and drawing out emotions, with the best of Ian Fleming’s fast paced action and tightly controlled plots.

The question should not whether or not he manages to deliver that but whether or not you enjoy reading the book. The response to that has to be a qualified positive. The qualification comes from a couple of moments when it became hard to see what was being gained by stringing scenes out.

But before launching into that a quick reaction to the story. Picking up where Fleming left off this is a Bond in the 1960s managing to sidestep the oncoming hippy revolution and the summer of love and stick to fighting shady characters against the cold war background.

The other change though is the focus on drugs that could ironically place the action bang in 2008. Mind you these were early days with drugs and the idea of corrupting an entire nation with narcotics is a novel one. The irony is that even with drugs now firmly established and by all accounts quite widely available the collapse in society hasn’t happened. Or has it? Let’s not start that debate.

Aside from the drugs and the swinging sixties much is the same. This is a Bond reliant on his fists, strength and quick thinking rather than on gadgets galore. This is also a man quite happy to spend some serious time in the company of women as well as evil megalomaniacs.

But his is also a Bond with frailties and the book starts with him weighing up the prospect of retirement. He is never quite away from those thoughts until close to the end when it becomes clear that this is a world he could never leave, except as a result of taking a bullet.

The fight between the mad chemist thwarted by the British establishment and his Vietnamese henchman who goes in for tongue clamping removal as a form of torture is enjoyable but sometimes stretched. It seems to take ages for Bond to complete a game of tennis with the arch villain Dr. Gorner and likewise a passage of events on a plane when Bond is struggling to stay alive seems to take just that bit too long.

The other criticism comes with the womanising. It takes Bond an age to take the lead female to the bedroom and then when he gets there he takes her “roughly” in a moment that makes you think of Mill & Boon. The sex has to be there but is clearly not somewhere Faulks feel comfortable writing about.

But give him credit this is an enjoyable book with several plot strands running in parallel that he manages to all pull together at the end. This is enjoyment and is not meant to be much more. The skill is writing a believable plot with a leading character that is not only known the world over but in most reader’s minds already carries the face of a Connery, Brosnan or a Craig and their behavioural patterns.

From a publishing point of view it has already been a great success for Penguin and in terms of the highlights of this year it will be included in most lists. The real test is if it is remembered for anything than being yet another attempt to resurrect the Bond character and that is of course far too early to judge.

Version read – Penguin hardback

book review - Venusberg

For some reason this just doesn’t work very well. Anthony Powell has tried to take the world of social intrigue and politics and set it in a mystery country in the Balkans but the effect doesn’t quite come off.

There are several reasons why this doesn’t quite get it right including the location. Setting it in a country that you hazard a guess at but is never actually revealed is an odd move that makes this hard to connect with.

Then add to that the odd feelings that the main character inspires and it is hard to care about the world that he inhabits and the love lives he plans to lead. Things start with a literary correspondent for a newspaper, Lushington, being sent off to cover foreign parts. Much as the world described in Scoop all this really involves is hanging round government and diplomatic circles waiting for a revolution or something else to happen.

The select circles that Lushington moves in take him into contact with an old acquaintance Da Costa, who his girlfriend in England had turned him over for, as well as a series of generals and diplomats from the country and US diplomats.

Central to experience in the East is the boat trip on the way there where he meets the woman with whom he starts an affair on board and carries on in the city. The irony is of course that she is married and much in the same way that Lushington himself was the spurned element of a threesome so the husband finds himself wondering just why his wife is acting so strangely.

The problem is the detachment that the central character displays to almost every situation. Having made friends with a Russian émigré on the boat he then fails to show anything other than the interest of an observer when he visits the Russians incredibly crowded flat.

Likewise even after his mistress and lover’s rival XXX have been killed in a botched attempt to kill the chief of police he still seems to drift back to London and into the arms of his old girlfriend.

That detachment might work when the world around the central character is interesting and organic in terms of developing in different directions and as a result provoking the main character. But none of that happens and when an event does occur, like the murder of his mistress, it seems to have very little impact.

Presumably there is meant to be humour in the book but it is not as easy to spot as What’s become of Waring? one of his other pre Dance to the Music of Time novels. The target of amusement in a stereotypical sense seems lost here as well as the focus seems to be partially on the buffer states coping with the communists in charge over the border.

This is a book that has sadly dated. The world described is incomplete and of partial interest, the problems of revolutions and shots at police chiefs soon were far from comic once the true extent of the Stalinist horrors emerged and the characterisation just doesn’t have enough to engage.

Version read – Penguin paperback

Friday, July 04, 2008

Unconditional Surrender - post IV

For a moment it feels as if this book should have been called The Death Wish because as a theme it is one of the strongest throughout. But of course the title refers not just to what happened to the Germans but also to Guy.

He makes an unconditional surrender not just to the prospect of facing death but also to whatever life might throw at him. Guy left widowed by Virginia’s death sits in Yugoslavia waiting out the war as he watches those in a rush around him either literally bursting into flames or in the case of Ritchie-Hook crawling up to the enemy and getting shot.

Guy ends the war with a new wife, two sons of his own and plenty of money. As he meets his brother in law Box-Bender there is bitterness and jealousy. But Guy won by being prepared to lose everything and of all those around him he played no political games so perhaps justice is done.

A review will follow soonish…

Thursday, July 03, 2008

book review - Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

For quite a short book this manages to pack in quite a few genres. On the one hand Dai Sijie’s look back at the cultural revolution in China have the feel of an autobiography but it is also a rites of passage tale for more than one of the main trio of characters.

In addition to those styles the content is also varied with a mixture of history as well as a story that charts the power of literature, reminding everyone of the costs of banning books.

Two students, who both have parents in disgrace with the Moa regime, are sent into the countryside for a spell of re-education. The years spread out before them with all hopes pinned on a change to their circumstances that will get them recalled to the City.

Because the author tells you fairly early on you know that their future lay abroad but for the other characters liberation came inside the mind rather than in a physical sense. The key to that growing imagination and freedom in terms of thought comes in the form of a dog eared translation of Balzac.

The world that the Frenchman describes, not just in terms of colour and variety but also emotionally about love and lust, has a tremendous impact on the two students. It also touches the world of those they describe the passages to, including the tailor in the next village and his daughter the seamstress.

Of all the characters she is the most transformed starting to understand that she is beautiful and that a Balzac character in the same position uses that beauty as a weapon. She leaves the two students behind not just in a physical sense but in terms of her reaction to the written word.

Unlike the students, who both have a high opinion of their own worth, it is the seamstress who allows herself to come alive with the magical words of the great banned Western writers. She drinks it in and then changes her life. The students however are stuck worrying about much more mundane concerns about sex, getting away from the mountain and acquiring and then destroying the books.

Ultimately the message is not just about the power of literature to change lives and minds but also the different reactions to it that means that the most surprising reactions can come fro m the most unexpected quarters.

It also shows that no matter how tightly the restrictions the mind can still wander and imagination can still liberate those held in intellectual and well as physical captivity.

Version read – Vintage paperback

The Soldier's Art - post IV

Of all the Powell books so far in the Dance to the Music of time series the last two, The Valley of Bones and The Soldier’s Art have been the most unsatisfactory to read.

The reason I think has to do with the timing. On the way ion on the train it struck me that both Waugh and Powell were writing about a time and experiences that they both went through but importantly at the time and for the few decades afterwards so did their readership.

Coming to this story, which is predominantly about the randomness of death and the politicalling of those looking for promotion, it is describing a world that is not only lost but of marginal interest.

At the end a rash of movement engulfs Jenkins, who seems for most of the time to be totally unable to control his own destiny. Widmerpool hears of a promotion to the Cabinet Office, other figures get promoted out of the division and even Stringham moves to the mobile laundry unit and accepts the prospect of death overseas as the unit is posted to the Middle East.

A telegram at the end asking Jenkins to report to the War Office in London is the bridge into the next novel. Hopefully with the last of the war novels it will return to a more accessible tale of colourful characters from the past.

However the death count is rising with the artist and womaniser Barnby being shot down at the end of the book to join the ranks of deceased with Lady Molly, Chips Lovell and Priscilla Tolland.

A review (so many to get through I apologise) will come soon…

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Unconditional Surrender - post III

With hindsight it was perhaps not the wisest thing to read both Powell and Waugh’s military novels at the same time. It not only gets slightly confusing but there are also incredible similarities.

Having been sent back to rest at his uncle’s with a damaged knee a desperate Virginia sets her sights on remarrying her husband. She hopes she can charm him but Guy admits he no longer loves her and instead steps up to the altar after she has admitted that she if pregnant with another man’s child.

The child is born but the marriage is short lived as a V2 falls on Guy’s uncle’s house and kills Virginia. Guy is told the news in the Balkans where his is working as a liaison officer with the Yugoslavian partisans.

One of the many odd people he meets informs him that he has a death wish. Something that Virginia seemed to have wishing the bombs would fall on her and something that Guy also appears to possess.

Quite what the title refers to other than the capitulation of the Germany Army is still possibly open to interpretation. With the marriage to Virginian Guy surrendered himself to pit but is he also capable of surrendering himself to love, possibly in the form of his son Gervase?

More tomorrow…

The Soldier's Art - post III

Powell is often criticised for writing about a closed world but he manages to convey, primarily in the figure of Odo Stevens, that the war gave some people the opportunity to break through the barriers.

The normal conventions are in flux and given the chance some will rise. Stevens manages to have an affair with Jenkin’s sister-in-law Priscilla, someone he would have struggled to have met before the war gave him the opportunity.

Likewise the war can also give those who were previously in positions of relative comfort a knock and Stringham’s appearance as a mess waiter being baited by a more senior soldier called Biggs disturbs Jenkins.

But it is a return to the world of London and some of the familiar characters that brings this book back from a world of limited interest. Describing the war is all well and good when it is battle scenes but the endless political movements well behind the lines gets slightly tiresome.

The trip by Jenkins to London sees him reintroduced to Moreland, who has now taken up with the ex-wife of the suicidal critic Maclintick, as well as meeting Chips Lovell who confides his worries about the affair his wife is having with Stevens.

Then in a cruel twist of fate both Chips and his wife are killed by different bombs in the blitz with several other known characters also biting the dust including Lady Molly, the central character of book 4.

In a few pages the war hits home before it fades away again as Jenkins returns to toe world of reports and Widmerpool.

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The Soldier's Art - post II

Powell is using a slightly different technique revealing that something is about to happen before it does so the next few pages are already set up. It mixes up the style a bit but it does remove some of the elements of surprise that were integral to the earlier volumes.

There is also a sense of reduced surprise as some of the old characters turn up.

If Jenkins thought he had fallen far working for Widmerpool he is disturbed to find Stringham working as a waiter in the mess. He tries to reach out to his old friend, a reformed but clearly damaged alcoholic, but he fails because Stringham cannot cope with the possible upheaval.

Meanwhile just as in the war time world portrayed by Waugh there is plenty of opportunity for characters to get bogged down in the politics of the labyrinthine command structure of the army. Widmerpool is determined to make enemies if he feels it will benefit his career but it looks as if he might have bitten off more than he can chew.

Jenkins almost benefits from bumping into a general who tries to fix him up with a job with the Free French but Jenkins blows the written and oral parts of the test. That starts his week of leave.

More tomorrow…