Sunday, August 31, 2008

Lost not yet found

As I struggle to find the bookmark I picked up in the Munster in Bern it strikes me that perhaps the best place to store a bookmark - new as well as old - is in a book. Otherwise you end up having to postpone bookmark of the week...

Saturday, August 30, 2008

book review: Penguin Lost

Sometimes it might seem like a mistake to put down one book and then immediately turn to the sequel. In some cases it has taken the author several years to formulate their thoughts so arguably it might be a wise idea to give your own thoughts some time to settle. But let’s face it Andrey Kurkov’s Penguin series is not like getting to the end of the first half of War & Peace and there are after all nagging questions that remain from the sudden end to Death and the Penguin.

In the ending to that book Viktor has jumped on a place intended to take his penguin pet Misha back to the Antarctic. He has flown away from the mafia and the prospect of being killed to lie-low.

When he gets to the ill-funded and remote Ukrainian scientific station there is a dying banker also on the run who kindly gives him a note to take back to Moscow as well as a credit card with funds.

Once back in the Ukraine the hunt starts to find Misha. That takes him into contact with some former characters plus into the world of politics. His talents with a pen come in handy again as a local politician decides to run for serious office. Viktor manages to walk through the cynical world of a local election helped by his protector who introduces him to the argument of the snail’s house, the place of protection.

Viktor does get in touch with his old fellow flat mates the young girl Sonya and Nina and it is the little girl that saves his life when he finally manages to track his penguin down to Chechnya.

In a rather surreal few chapters Viktor finds himself burning bodies in a gas pipe outlet working for a criminal politician who has hidden out in a war zone. The level of cynicism is widespread and it doesn’t seem to be a war with conventional sides but a case of victims trying to cope with a system of corruption and oppression through armed struggle rather than anything conventional because the lines of good and evil are blurred.

With Misha on his way back Viktor starts to plan for the end game that is this time an escape for both him and his penguin. A complicated arrangement leads him into Dubrovnik as part of the Ukrainian arm wrestling team and once there he uses the last of the money from the Moscow bankers account to pay for his passage on a boat that is meant to be heading to the Antarctic.

Instead it is going to South America captained by a couple of war criminals but Viktor is saved again, this time by marriage and finally the moment comes to say goodbye to Misha.

There is the same sense that Viktor can almost daydream his way through war zones, corrupt politicians and mafia bosses partly through ignorance and partly through holding good intentions.

Ultimately there is satire here about the political system and there are probably references to Eastern European politics that escape a British reader but it is the character of Misha the penguin that will be the takeaway from both of the books concerning him. Without speech, limited facial expressions and being almost permanently out of his environment the penguin manages to express both the disbelief and the indifference to what is going on in his adopted country that Viktor seems to be unable to formulate into either words or speech despite his ability as a writer.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Fair criticism

Somebody recently commented on one of the reviews I posted up a while ago pointing out that I was pretty much an ignoramus. At first the criticism hurt but then it got me thinking and in a way I have to agree.

The more you read hopefully makes you a better reader. By that what I mean is that literary references and style aping that might be included in a work pass you by if you don’t have the wider knowledge needed to pick up on them. For instance when I started to read Ulysses someone pointed out that without a knowledge of the Odyssey it was going to have points that just sailed over my head. Have to admit that even with Homer under the belt the references were still pretty hard to spot.

So that is the first line of defence, but the second is that reading is subjective and also meant to be enjoyable. That last point is crucial. I know that by blogging thoughts on books you sort of put yourself out there but that believe it or not is still part of the enjoyment.

Hopefully the point is made that even in terse criticism there is some food for thought and give it time (a decade or two more) and a lot more reading and my reviews actually might become better…

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Midnight's Children - post III

The moment of birth arrives and India’s independence starts with fireworks, fights and a race to get the baby that is born on the stroke of midnight. Having relocated to Bombay after the father’s leather goods warehouse was burned down the family settle into the idea of becoming property magnates in Bombay.

They pick up a house on an estate owned by a man sharing the same name as the original dreamer who hoped to get Bombay established by draining the sea and joining together disparate islands. Methwold sells them his home on the condition they take nothing out until independence has been declared so the narrator’s family and a host of other new owners to the estate have to live surrounded by the English man’s rubbish.

The birth of Saleem Sinai drives his father to drink and although the narrator is swapped at birth with another baby – a detail in the story that causes the narrator’s audience Padma to leave in disgust – the family soon settles into a rhythm of mother focusing on child and father slowly succumbing to drink.

Meanwhile across the country the signs are not good with talk of omens indicating that India is losing favour with the Gods and being punished for being a secular country. Those who took the decision to go to Pakistan appear to be better off and things get worse when Ghandi is assassinated.

Just a few years into independence and already the cracks, which are slowly covering Sinai and killing him, are evident across all parts of Indian society.

More tomorrow…

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The President's Last Love - post I

It takes a couple of chapters – which are often just single pages – to get into the flow with this book. The story moves backwards and forwards from the past to the future, with the current day set in 2015. The subject of the story is Bunin the Ukrainian president who is clinging onto life after a heart by-pass and clinging onto power trying to survive the scheming politicians and business men that surround him.

Back in his past it is revealed he seemed to be totally normal with a brother in care, a wife who divorced him after a still birth and little signs of political ambition.

Of course how he got where he is is unravelling slowly but it becomes clear early on as he recovers that the wife of the deceased who gave permission for her husband's heart to be used has set conditions that she lives within close proximity to the heart. It is that sort of oddity that you start to expect from Kurkov and to be honest start to enjoy because no doubt she will have some serious influence on the plot as it develops.

more tomorrow...

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Midnight's Children - post II

What is particularly enjoyable are the asides the writer/narrator makes to his maid/lover Padma as she reads his manuscript and comments on his family history.

As the story develops and moves into political territory with the movements against British rule gathering momentum and the narrator’s grandfather hoping for some sort of change, which is cruelly snuffed out, there is a wider aspect to the story. Having developed to begin with the focus on the family the lens now opens wider to take in a country on the brink of change.

The family tales continues to develop with the narrator’s father and mother meeting but it does so in Delhi where the couple live. The announcement of the narrator’s existence comes as a crowd threaten to lynch a man for the apparent crime of being a Hindu in a Muslim area. Meanwhile businesses are being burnt down as mafia type groups exploit the religious divide that is soon to be crystallised in the partition with Pakistan.

With the information that the narrator is only in his thirties and that his birth is just months away the focus is going to clearly be on his life and India’s during independence. But before that there are presumably some more visual treats in store – you sometimes feel you are being given the keys to a foreign world - as the first book nears its end.

More tomorrow…

Monday, August 25, 2008

Midnight's Children - post I

The idea of choosing this doorstep of a boom for a holiday read was that it would be something to consume while the children amused themselves. Apart from one day by a lake that never happened so it has come back with me far from finished.

The introduction helps set the scene not just of the book that follows but also of the importance it played in Rushdie’s life as a writer/. You sense that had this failed he would have given up. As most writers seem to do he turned to himself and the things he knew to draw on as inspiration and his story is of a character that is born on midnight at the moment India becomes independent.

The style of writing and the references to a land and religion I have not too much knowledge of take time but it does start to become easier and in a Tolstoyian sense this starts to map out the history of the grandfather of the narrator starting the story with an Indian doctor freshly qualified back from Heidelberg.

His association with Europe cuts him off from his family and friends on the one hand but elevates him on the other and makes him a suitable match for a rich merchants daughter. Their courtship, as doctor treating patient, through a perforated sheet sets the scene for the introduction as a reader into a very different world.

More tomorrow…

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Old fashioned ways

In the absence of a computer I wrote down reviews and book thoughts in the tried and tested pen and paper way and will start back dating stuff in a bit. It is surprising how given the chance to write and read and then input thoughts they change and get edited, something that clearly I usually lose when just inputing stuff on the fly. Maybe good blog posts are like some of the French wine I have been drinking - they need time to mature and settle?

Saturday, August 23, 2008

book review: Death and the Penguin

When you open the pages of an Andrey Kurkov novel you are stepping into a world that is not quite the same as our own. This is a world where corruption, death and power are all permanent but fleeting for most of those who grasp after them. It is also a place where a journalist living alone with his penguin can become the catalyst for numerous deaths and odd meetings.

At the heart of the tale there sits in a cold flat Viktor who dreams of becoming a novelist. His book never gets written so he decides to try his hand at writing short stories. That leads to the newspaper getting in touch offering him the chance to write obituaries of high profile dignitaries who are still alive. After a while those he writes about start dying and the snowball that involves the state, mafia and aspiring political schemers starts rolling.

The satire about a corrupt political system where death is cheap and those trying to the top do so for a brief moment before being killed is clear. But there is also something here about the impact that sort of society has on love and friendship.

Along with his penguin Misha Viktor ends up living with a mafia bosses daughter and a young woman he pays to be her nanny. Both of those relationships are financial ones and as a result Viktor comes and goes without making commitments to either of them.

Misha becomes the star of the show connecting Viktor to the underworld as the penguin becomes de rigueur at funerals of the most important slain gangsters and also brings his master into contact with a retired zoologist.

Viktor seems to get through life in a mixture of ignorance and luck always missing the bullets and always managing to get his hands on some dollars whenever he needs them.

But it is Misha that is a wonderful creation. The penguin shuffles round and in his own way communicates his despair and cynical distrust of most of the people around him. In the end he becomes involved as a solo player with the mafia funerals and they pay for him to have a heart transplant.

The irony is that in planning to release Misha back into the wild in the Antarctic it is a dangerously pursued Viktor that ends up taking the flight and escaping from those that would do him harm.

Littered with memorable scenes and larger than life characters and a gentle insight into the madness of a society run by guns and dollars this is an enjoyable book that also gets away with having a penguin as a main character.

Friday, August 22, 2008

book review: Rabbit, Run

If it wasn’t for the postscript that John Updike follows the end of the novel with this would have been a slightly more difficult reading experience.

The central character, Rabbit, is in a harsh light a selfish underachieving loser who is chasing after a moment that he once had as a winner on the high school basketball team but is now gone for ever. He drags down with him his wife and his mistress and his parents and in-laws. He also managed to impact a local preacher who decides he is a worthy cause to help. When he is needed most he turns on his heels and runs, hence the title.

But in a more sympathetic light he is a man that has known the adulation of the crowds and tasted the success of victory and now struggles to find meaning in a relatively hollow existence.

His struggle is the same as his country with a nation that had tasted victory in the second world war and known the joys of mass production now starting to lose its way in the 1950s. This is a world that is frayed at the edges and tired. Characters like Rabbit’s former basketball coach, his mother-in-law and the preacher’s wife are all either physically suffering from ailments or just bitter with life.

As Rabbit wanders out of his marriage into a relationship with a woman he also gets pregnant before going back to be by his wife’s side during the birth of their second child he is never totally convincing. He has run once before and it always feels as if he might do so again. Perhaps this is stretching it too far but this sense of running off and looking for a way of attaining a sense of former glory is an allusion to things like the Korean War and of course late on Vietnam.

There is also a sense with the death of his baby daughter and the way Rabbit treats his marriage and relationships with most people that this is a society that doesn’t value much.

But there is also the question of religion. Rabbit seems to hold the Lutheran preacher in high regard and there is a certain tradition about the role of the church in life that doesn’t necessarily mean that it makes a difference but is something almost automatic. What is interesting is the way that Rabbit is hardly condemned by anyone of his own age but is criticised by his parents but it is perhaps a different generation with different values that is prepared to make that judgement.

When I told my father I was reading Updike he commented that he never liked his style and there is perhaps something to be said for that. There is a slightly detached narrative perspective that keeps neutral when perhaps other author’s might have voiced more condemnation.

As a metaphor for a period of American history Rabbit is of course just starting and the success of the character is something that will be established more I suspect by reading the other Rabbit novels. Right now as he ends by running off he is not necessarily a character you want to spend more time with, but I’m prepared to change my view of that.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

book review: The Children of Hurin

Having stuck with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, with its numerous names and locations the slimmer Children of Hurin does not at first look like much of a challenge. Add to that the illustrations that are peppered throughout the book by J.R.R.Tolkien and you half expect this to be digested in an single sitting.

It might have been but what made it difficult was getting the head round the family trees and the maps that are helpfully included in the appendixes. There is a story there, about a cursed king and his son and daughter, but it takes time to emerge.

The fact that Tolkien is one of the greatest story tellers is not in doubt but he does make it difficult for a reader that is not necessarily prepared to go into the sort of depth and detail he obviously revels in. It reminded me of those people who not only loved the Lord of the Rings films but had to own the director’s cut and squeeze every minute out of that world.

As a more casual reader it’s a challenge sticking with it. After an introduction by Christopher Tolkien that shows quite clearly how dedicated the son is to his father’s work and vision, you get into something that starts slowly. Even when the basic facts have been established the problem with characters that rove around the place is each new land requires a detailed explanation and the family trees and strings of names come out again.

In the meantime the son wrestles with the curse that prevents him from resting in the kingdom of the elves and takes him out to seek a challenge from the dark Lord that keeps his father chained and captured. The challenge is finally met by a dragon that is slain in a battle that is not finished before the cruel hypnotic beast has informed the son of Hurin that he married his own sister by mistake. Both the children of Hurin end up taking their own lives and the father is released powerless and broken.

That was not quite the ending I was hoping for and although of course the idea that good triumphs over evil is not always a given it does leave you feeling rather cheated when that scenario is not played out. In terms of sparking an interest in the world of Tolkien this might work but the better place to begin is The Hobbit and then the trilogy.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

book review: Pincher Martin

The one word that keeps coming back when you think of this book is bubbles. Not the large things children blow around the garden but the small numerous bubbles that float to the surface as someone struggles for life in the water. As this is almost like a stream of consciousness the idea of bubbles floating like ideas up to the water is one the seems apt.

This novel by William Golding is the sort of thing that you would be handed as part of your coursework if you were studying English Lit. The reason is not just because it is a great work of imagination but it also has that sense of being written in the 60s as almost perfect fodder for polytechnic teachers.

The story centres on a single person - Christopher Martin - as he struggles to survive after his boat is sunk by a U-boat torpedo. The Second World War is in full flow and as he struggles for life the last thing he can remember is falling into the water and kicking his sea boots off. He manages to get washed to a rock and clamber onto it and then it becomes a battle to survive and keep morale hoping for rescue.

The rock is described in detail and named by the narrator to make it easier for the reader to remember and the memories of pre-war life as well as the moments before the sinking come back in waves. Also on board the ship was an old acquaintance who has married the girl that he loved. There is a sense that he has wronged people in his life.

There is also a sense that the trial on the rock island, where he sustains himself by drinking trapped rain water and sea life, is somehow something he has tempted. This sense increases during a storm when Martin seems to lose his mind and fear that supernatural powers are coming for him.

Presumably he could have stayed on the rock for quite a while longer going mad or possibly being rescued. But the twist comes with the shifting of the scene to a dead body being washed up on a remote island like the Shetlands where there are a couple of locals discussing the body. One comments that his death would have been quick because he didn’t even have time to kick off his sea boots.

What then is the book about if Martin has been dead all along? Is it some sort of religious allegory about purgatory and the fact that given the chance to consider a life most of us would find ourselves guilty of cruelty? Alternatively is it some sort of dream of what could have been raising the question of whether or not it was better to die quickly and relatively painlessly instead of living in the hope of being rescued and finally losing your mind?

Of course the essays that have been written on those questions are probably legion. I personally like to think that it is a case of the former, bearing in mind my recollection of Lord of the Flies, with Christopher Martin showing that in the space and forced confinement of being shipwrecked we all have to face our demons, which are lying in us all.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

book review: The Weir of Hermiston

The result of reading a book that is not finished is to hand you the chance to get an insight into the mind of a storyteller at work. Where Robert Louis Stevenson was going to take this story is left on a cliff-hanger, caused by his death, but trying to work out your own ending leaves you to search the story and the characterisation for clues.

Ultimately if you go in for happy endings then you could have imagined a Romeo and Juliet type story developing between the Laird of Hermiston’s son Archie and the neighbouring family’s daughter. But with the Laird a notorious hanging judge and bitter widower it could easily end as a tragedy with Archie, already banished to the country estate, under more pressure to conform to his father’s wishes.

Either way it was adding up to become a great ending after having already established itself as a well crafted story. Archie, the sole off-spring of a union between a pious solitary woman and an ambitious lawyer, who becomes a hanging judge, ends up in trouble for expressing his anti-corporal punishment views. This brings the young man’s legal career to an end and puts him on the wrong side of a few of his friends in the legal community.

Once banished to his father’s country estate where he is surrounded by women, both the housekeeper and the delights of the neighbours family, he becomes even more solitary. Having set a course of suffering his punishment he determines to put his back into the estate and then he meets and falls in love with Kirstie.

Things are going slowly but surely until the arrival of an acquaintance from Edinburgh who is down on his luck and keen to exploit Archie. He discovers about the love affair and threatens to use it to destabilise father and son relationships even further.

At the point where the pen rested Archie has met up with Kirstie with the intention of breaking off the blossoming affair in order to protect them both from gossip and intrigue. She doesn’t understand and is wounded by his apparent concern about others.

That’s where it stops but as already mentioned it could head in various directions and is so well crafted that whichever turn it took it would no doubt have been a pleasure to have continued on with it. Love no doubt would have conquered and the hanging judge would have met his match in a showdown with his son and hopefully the hanger on sucking the goodwill out of Archie would have had his comeuppance.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Consolations of Philosophy - post III

The great thing about this book is the sympathetic way it is written. Clearly de Botton knows his stuff but wears his learning lightly and takes you into some pretty complex areas without making it seem as if you are sitting through a philosophy lecture.

At the end of the book you are left with not just a clearer understanding of what some of the great names stood for, particularly Nietzsche, but also how great minds have grappled with problems in the past. There are some lessons to be learnt but the main take-away seems to be around the idea that when you look up at the stars and wonder what it is all about you are far from alone in doing so.

From Schopenhauer you learn that love is an odd process that when successful ties together opposites that will create balanced off-spring. For the parents their happiness after that act is not expected or likely.

“The coming generation is provided for at the expense of the present.”

From Nietzsche you learn never to give up and to exploit suffering to reap the rewards further down the line. He criticises anything that encourages you to accept the status quo and give up.

“The emotions of hatred, envy, covetousness and lust for domination [are] life-conditioning emotions…which must fundamentally and essentially be present in the total economy of life.”

A review will follow soon…

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Laughing Policeman - post III

The cases of both the current murder and the previous ones unravel with cars being the key to the later and the occupant of one of the seats near the dead policeman another. With those pieces of the jigsaw the pace quickens and the conclusion draws nearer.

Just like the other books written by this husband and wife team the touches of detail are the things that make it all so believable. Characters that are bit=part players get depth and those that are centre stage like Beck become deeper with his marriage and health both deteriorating again through this book.

The relationships between the police officers are also something that is just right and totally believable with the stress of the case forcing them at each other’s throats.

A review will follow soon…

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Laughing Policeman - post II

This is just like the first three books in the Martin Beck detective series but only better with a gripping plot and twists and turns that make you suspect that the wrong police colleague has been killed in the opening chapter and that the wrong sort of crime has been committed for much of the first half of the book.

It is only when the connection is made by Beck and colleagues with the work the dead policeman might have been engaged with, that things start to become slightly clearer and the pace increases. Linking the current bus murder with an unsolved murder from almost two decades earlier suddenly makes things a great deal more interesting and complicated.

Characters suddenly appear that like to do a lot of unusual laughing that also tips you the wink that things are heading in the right direction.

More tomorrow…

Friday, August 15, 2008

Finding it hard to read and blog

let's face it one of the last things you can do on holiday with young children is relax and secondly it is not always possible to find a computer so please bear with me over the next few days.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

book review - spies

Writing a story that is looking back through the memories and eyes of a child is fraught with danger because there is a thin line between being patronising and dumbing down or alternatively giving the character too much of an adult like insight.

Michael Frayn
treads that line fantastically partly helped by the technique of returning occasionally to the present date for a reality check before diving back into the memories.

The fact that as a reader you are often slightly ahead of the plot is not the point because this is really about how a young boy reacts to the atmosphere of living in a normal cul-de-sac in the middle of the war.

His friendship with the affluent and pampered single child Keith is key to the story as a youthful Stephen is led by his domineering friend into believing that his mother is a spy.

Stephen takes the game more seriously than his friend and they follow his mother around discovering not that she is a spy but that she is protecting her brother-in-law, eho has deserted from the air force. The reader realises that long before Stephen does but where Frayn leaves you guessing is with the fallout of such a relationship. The results are a marriage that seems to implode, a friendship that ends and a growing up experience for the main character that he never forgets.

The book is uncomfortable on occasions, incredibly well observed and casts a different light onj a wartime experience. The idea that we all have secrets to hide and things that if watched and logged would appear odd to the rest pf the world is universal and there is a powerful reminder here that it is often the innocent who unwittingly find the guilty.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Laughing Policeman - post I

If you are on holiday then one of the types of books that is going to appeal is a cracking thriller. This book, the fourth in nthe Martin Beck series of ten novels, gets going instantly and with a bus crashing full of dead bodies, including one of Beck's best friends you are gripped by page 20.

This is maybe not everyone's idea of a good poolside read but at least when you put it down your head is racing with questions and you know that it will be straight back into it even after a break of a day or two.

More to come...

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Consolations of Philosophy - post III

Using the atory of Montaigne the idea of inadequacy is covered with the philosopher being one who at first felt intimitaed by the great works that had preceded him but then he chose to write about those inadequacies and the result is a catalogue of normality that we could all refer to.

Dare I say it I particularly liked his thoughts about academic books with Montaigne commenting that most were boring and too difficult to get through.

Things then move to look at love and the introduction to Schopenhauer introduces you to a charater that is surely one of the first Cure fans in existence well before his time. But more on that later....

Monday, August 11, 2008

book review - unconditional surrender

At the end of this trilogy you have several thoughts about the overall lessons that can be learnt from the experiences Evelyn Waugh’s characters have in the Second World War.

If there is an overall take-away from this final book in the Sword of Honour trilogy it has to be that war along with fate produce their own winners and losers. As the war enters its final phase there are several key characters that develop a sense of fatalism that is referred to by those around them as a death wish.

One of the first to get her wish granted is Guy’s ex-wife who is remarried to her former husband as he is the only one who will bring up the child she is expecting after her liaison with Trimmer. A V2 rocket does for both Guy’s ex-wife and Uncle.

Another character determined to die before the fighting stops is Colonel Ritchie-Hook who decides to try and storm a rebel outpost in Yugoslavia and receives a bullet in the head for the trouble.

But key among those that seem to have slipped into a state of taking whatever life throws at them – unconditional surrender – is the main character Guy. Churned through the system until he is eventually posted out to be a liaison officer with the rebels in Yugoslavia Guy loses heart as he starts to see the way that Jews are being treated by their liberators and how corrupt the post-war regime is going to be, displaying signs even in its infancy.

The results of his neutral attitude is not only to be widowed as his wife dies but to return to an England that he has mixed feelings about. He sells his property in Italy and remarries and in the final scene is seen to be one of the winners of the war.

As he meets his brother-in-law, who has since lost his seat in parliament in the great Attlee victory, he is referred to as lucky because of his marital happiness and the money he has received from relatives and the sale of property.

The irony is of course that Guy wished for none of those things and it was possibly because of that situation he was granted some of them when more competitive contemparies aimed high and lost out.

Over the course of the three books there is nothing gripping you making you read on and although Guy is a pleasant enough character his semi-strict Catholicism and background of relative luxury are things that do undermine your support for him.

But this is not so much a trilogy about one particular character or war story but of a time and a generation and social set that went to a war that often frustrated them, hadn’t got a place for them and ultimately tore some of them away from the positions of privilege they had enjoyed pre-1939.

The story is told with subtly and it is only in the last few pages you get the chance to make that conclusion and pull it together. As a result the second book feels a bit like treading water and the third takes a while to get to its conclusion.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Going off bookmark hunting

Well the holiday is almost here and so rather than post up some old bookmark I leave this post blank of an image with the promise that in the next couple of weeks some new bookmarks from my travels will appear.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

The challenges of packing books

My holiday is almost here and already the problems squeezing more than one or two books in the luggage have risen up. This is the only time of year I can picture the advantages of having an e-book capable of storing hundreds of titles. Mind you get that near the pool and your investment of several hundred pounds is quickly and literally up in smoke when the water hits the screen.

Maybe there’s a chance to squeeze another paperback into the hand luggage?

Friday, August 08, 2008

Penguin Lost - post IV

Finally Misha returns and the complex ending is set up with Viktor managing to leave everyone happy as he sets off to release the penguin back into the wild and escape from his own past. The scene where he throws his typewriter out of the window to smash on the concrete below is used to break with the past and the evil he has done.

He manages to become a saviour and friend to the mafia boss who used Misha as an extra at funerals and he steps back to allow the love to blossom between his new lodger and Nina. Sonya meanwhile is a constant voice of conscience in the hunt for Misha and is the one who pushes Viktor to keep his promise about releasing him back into the wild.

At the end of this book you realise some powerful things have been said about corruption, the cheapness of life and the hollowness of success but it has been done in such a downbeat and quirky way that you never felt lectured too and it leaves you with a desire to read more of this author’s work.

A review will follow soon...

Penguin Lost - post III

There is a scene where having given a group of orphans presents to celebrate new year Viktor then suggests taking them all to McDonalds. The woman in charge of the group is so overcome with happiness she cannot speak.

It vividly shows the contrast in between the rich and the poor in a country that is full of violence and corruption. In between the violence Viktor clings onto the quest for his penguin and that seems to set him apart from those that are motivated more by greed or power.

Having returned from Chechnya Viktor is without his penguin but back home to a world of political fixing and the odd home life of Sonya and Nina. He doesn’t seem to love either of them a great deal but does feel guilt towards Misha the penguin he last saw in a dog kennel eating gruel in Chechnya.

More tomorrow…

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Consolations of Philosophy - post II

The great thing about this book is that if you want it the evidence is there to try and help you accept a failed life. I say failed but maybe a better word would be average. Learning that various philosophers faced the big questions and formulated various responses is surprisingly easy to digest and quite uplifting.

So for example Epicurus can help teach you that money and wealth are not the be all and end all and actual wealth comes from friendships, self-reliance and having the space to think.

Follow that up with a guide to dealing with frustration from Seneca and you have already got a collection of self-help modules that should help you control anger and frustration.

I particularly liked the line: We will cease to be angry once we cease to be so hopeful.

That in a nutshell is the problem the hope is still there. I’ll leave you with those thoughts until tomorrow…

Penguin Lost - post II

In some ways the main character of this story – Viktor – reminds you of James Bond in the sense that he swims with some pretty nasty sharks but continues to come out the other side with luck on his side.

The satire comes thick and fast as Viktor plays his role in the run-up to the election. In the end a bigger player comes in and puts pressure on Viktor’s protector to pull out of the race much in the same way it seems to happen every day in Russian politics.

There is a real sense that everyone is stepping on each other’s faces and climbing on their backs to get power but once they have it then it is ripped from their grasp as accidents and odd scandals overcome them.

Back to the story Viktor has tracked his penguin down to Chechnya and he ends up going after him into the war zone. Even here there is dark comedy as a gas pipeline is siphoned off to be used as an illegal but busy crematorium.

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

When the reading stops...

When bad things happen it is often not only time that is not there but it is hard to concentrate on reading. Something rather sad but common has happened and as a result the last two days have not seen me turn a page. I hope to pick up a book tomorrow but for not right now.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Goodbye to the man who gave us One Day...

One of the more remarkable books I was forced to read at school was One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Although it was grim reading it made such an impression – the idea that people who had done next to nothing wrong could be sent to work in the gulag – that it sparked an interest in Russian history that has never left me.

Waking up to news of his death it had to make you smile to think that one of the first in line to pay a tribute to the writer was Mikhail Gorbachev. Even if you read none of his work his life story alone would chart the ups and downs of Russian politics and that continues even with his death.

Although some people say he lost his way in the last few years, and politically got it wrong, remember One Day and some of his other work and remember how much a by-word his surname was for literary dissidence and that is what he deserves to be remembered for.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

bookmark of the week

One of the most common forms of bookmarks must be tickets. I use train tickets fairly often. But after a trip on the Greenwich Wheel today will slip on of my ticket stubs from that smaller version of the London Eye into my paperback choice tomorrow.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Holiday reading choices

at this time of year thiughts always turn to working out what reading to take on holiday. You either take a weighty tome that will fill the fortnight or a collection of books to pass away the hours (minutes if you have children) that you will get reading.

Then of course you have to consider the choice of book. If you go for something heavy then it might spoil the mood or something too superficial won't make you feel like you have done anything worth while.

My list hopefully combines some pleasure reads as well as some more demanding ones:

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie - might be too long for a holiday read but can get stuck into it. Never got round to reading the 'Booker of Bookers' so this is a good opportunity.

The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo - the fourth book in the Martin beck detective series this should fly by and is pure fun.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy - meant to be his most voilent but one of his best so depending on how crazy the kids drive me his might be an appropriate form of release

Finally, The Swiss Family Robinson eluded me last year but as I am going to Switzerland again it seems destined to find some space in the suitcase.

I know other people might take more books and believe me i would like to but with two young children and no threat of school or pre-school to get them into a bedtime routine my chances of reading will be squeezed into just a few minutes each day.

Maybe the chance of a reading holiday will come when I've retired?

Friday, August 01, 2008

Penguin Lost - post I

Sometimes sequels start and feel like a completely different book with time being taken before the characters of the past are reintroduced. Withy this book it feels as if just a minute or two have passed since the moment Viktor stepped on a plane and flew to the Antarctic to escape the mafia.

Almost as quickly he is back in Kiev and searching for a trace of his penguin Misha who he abandoned. He doesn’t find him but meets another mafia boss willing to pay and protect him for his services, this time as an election adviser, and Viktor starts to look for Misha.

The trial on the penguin leads to Moscow but in the meantime his old flat has been taken over by the impostor who wrote his obituary and any relationship he might have had with Nina seems to have gone completely.

More Monday…