Sunday, May 31, 2009

bookmark of the week

My nephew kindly keeps buying me bookmarks and this one comes from the roman baths at Caerleon in Wales. The bookmark shows a line drawing of the remains of the amphitheatre and a Roman solider. A fine addition to the collection.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Catching up

The week ahead is going to be one where hopefully I crank out some reviews.Got a lot to catch up on with 12 books having been read since the last review went up on the blog.

Going to start Monday, unless something goes wrong.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Breakfast of Champions - post II

As Trout gets closer to meeting Hoover the sense of impending doom is stoked up by Vonnegut. The stupidity of truck companies named after immovable objects like pyramids and the yearning that those he hitchhikes with have for some knowledge that somewhere someone is happy is pitiful.

What makes something bad almost inevitable is the state that Hoover starts to get himself into finding the ‘bad chemicals’ in his brain make him lose his grip on reality.

There is a great line in a discussion between Dwayne Hoover and his mistress Francine that shows just how difficult it must have been for someone who feels that the consumerism and hollow society around them is killing them:

“We could go to some other city,” said Francine.
“”They’re all like here. They’re all the same,” said Dwayne.

She then suggests he meets someone different, someone like Trout, without of course understanding that the consequences could be quite serious for someone on the edge of their sanity.

More next week...

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Breakfast of Champions - post I

It took me a criminally long time, well after Slaughterhouse 5 and the Jail Bird, to finally 'get' Vonnegut and now having understood it, then it is simply a race against time to read as much of his work as I can afford to acquire.

The combination of humour, sci-fi but also a very strong but subtle commentary on world affairs is done in such a way that it feels as if once you appreciate it you have somehow landed membership of one of the coolest clubs around.

What adds to the experience here are the author illustrations. Little line sketches in pen that actually connect with the text in a way illustrations often fail to do. They add to the sense of disconnection between ordinary things and completely strange reactions they cause.

At the centre this is a story of two men who are travelling to meet each other and have an impact on each other's lives. One is a lonely science fiction writer Kilgore Trout and the other is millionaire businessman Wayne Hoobler. The influence of Trout on Hoobler is going to come at a time when the businessman has already lost his grip on reality.

But of course the point here is a wider one about what is reality anyway in a country where odd things seem to be hard wired into the norm.

That is the gift of Vonnegut because he gets you to see things with a different eye. As you laugh you also start to think.

More soon...

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Russian Interpreter - post III

Whatever story has been spun on Manning becomes largely irelevant as he finds himself in prison enjoying some of the confusion and misery inflicted by the Soviet state on millions of its own people. Did the book that was handed out by the Englishman contain a microdot or royalties for a censored Russian writer? Whatever the truth is never really established with the money being far too much to fully cover the writer and royalties explanation.

After a spell in prison Manning is whisked straight to the airport to be sent home. As he sits on the plane about to leave Proctor-Gould comes stumbling up the aisle and as he sits down next to him as they take off and Moscow dissapears below the lies, confusion and deceit starts all over again.

A review will follow soon...

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Russian Interpreter - post II

With Manning now working for Proctor-Gould the student finds himself taken further away from his studies and he is introduced to the mysterious and flirtatious Raya who seduces Manning but only to get to Proctor-Gould. That leaves Manning, who works for Proctor-Gould as a translator in the odd position of having to translate love messages between the pair.

But Raya becomes a problem stealing the belongings from Proctor-Gould's hotel room and stumbling across a secret that involves the books that the English businessman hands out to Russian friends. In that collection of books there is something important enough for the businessman to resort to breaking and entering and to lie to his friend Manning.

As Raya is exposed as a thief and exits stage left the spotlight falls on the two friends and their relationships becomes clouded by the distrust that seems to pollute the Russian atmosphere. Is Proctor-Gould some sort of spy and why does he keep lying to Manning? Is it to protect his friend or implicate him further?

More tomorrow...

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Russian Interpreter - post I

At the heart of this story there are two characters. Manning is a student studying for his PhD and Proctor-Gould is some sort of cultural enterepeneur who has a passion for Russia.

The story starts with Proctor-Gould looking for Manning and in the time it takesfor that to happen you are filled in on the students life. He is frustrated by his studies, bored with Russia to the extent he dreams of getting away and keeps friendships with his minder at the university Sasha and a friend Katya who seems to be a victim of the regime.

But this is clearly not Stalinist times as there are references to the country no longer having a cult of personality so yu are left to assume it must be 1970s or 1980s because it is still cearly in the period of the cold war.

One slight problem from the start is that this feels like so many other books set in Russia and as a result it is quite hard to take it seriously. It feels like a parody without intentionally meaning to be one.

More tomorrow...

Sunday, May 24, 2009

bookmark of the week

I am waiting to scan this but I have picked up a couple of magnetic bookmarks at Waterstones promoting Beatrix Potter's books. The clever thing about the bookmarks, which promote books including the Squirrel nutkin, is that they have an illustration of the cover on the front, details about publication and the story on the back and then further details of Potters life on the inside. Packed with information and very well done.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The ingredients of a good bookshop

one of the joys of browsing bookshops is the opportunity, if the shop is well done, to encounter suggested reads. I'm not talking about the 3 for 2 at the front of Waterstone's but the clever way that some books are put front-facing and how when publishers update their editions they get used in displays.

So it was without difficulty I gravitated to Breakfast of Champions which is part of the Vintage Classics range. A great cover and a crisp and clean design. But so few bookshops seemed to have it opting instead for Slaughterhouse 5 and Cats Cradle at a push. Along with layout, subtle book positioning and choice are the other ingredients of a good bookshop.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Cats Cradle - post III

The feared end of the world comes in the most comical way imaginable with an ice-nine victim sliding down a broken castle parapet into the ocean. But that is the power of Vonnegut because the point he is making is that the end of the world could come as a result of idiocy. In fact it is almost inevitable if you give power hungry amateurs the power to destroy the world then they will potentially do so without even thinking about the consequences.

Although this would have no doubt have been read differently at the height of the cold war when not only was the end of the world possible but also seems likely with Cuba, Kennedy being shot and the Russians up to all sorts. But there is also a flip here about the fact that this is science fiction with the made up religion and the island republic in the Caribbean but at the same time it is satire. What makes it so readable is the humour. Despite the doom and even the death this is all done with a wicked smile. I guess you have that choice of either laughing or smiling and maybe doing the latter is the best thing to do, even in the face of total destruction.

A review will follow soon...

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Cats Cradle - post II

Vonnegut starts to leave the original idea of a writer putting together a book about the normal things that were happening on the day the atom bomb was dropped in the second world war and instead starts to weave together a story around ice-nine, the invention of the late Dr felix Hoenikker, one of the founding fathers' of the atom bomb.

As Vonnegut starts to chase up the leads of the Hoenikker family and starts to pull together the story of the invention of ice-nine there is a distinct gap between the care-free and laid back characters of the 1960s and the sheer horror or the potential invention that could freeze the water on the planet and make the atom bomb look like an very isolated incident. Vonnegut's narrator remains slightly cool with the knowledge and allows coincidences and plot developments to happen around him without too much comment or involvement but you sense that the show down is coming with the Hoenikker children, who each have a chunk of the deadly ice-nine.

More tomorrow...

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Cats Cradle - post I

I didn’t really get the humour of Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse 5 partly because it wasn‘t that funny a thing the Dresden bombing.

But you get the humour here and it makes the alien excursions with Slaughterhouse much more understandable. It’s as if the wanderings into the bizarre are a very visible shorthand to remind the reader that not only is this fiction not fact but that reality can be strange anyway. He is challenging the reader to think.

Not only to think but embrace characters that are often unusual being either too tall, too short or too clever.

But underneath it all there is a real sense of the dangers of science. The atom bomb is the most visible example but the idea of Ice-9, a chemical that can freeze water regardless of the conditions and temperature, shows how dangerous science and the ideas of scientists can be in a cold war context.

More soon…

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Slaves of Solitude - post V

It is with some relief that the balance of power swings and you sense that it would have been a difficult book to have tried to have got a mass audience for had Roach lost out in her battle. She almost does though as the dual enemies of Vicki the german lodger and Mr Twaites the old bully team up together to make her life uncomfortable.

Vicki even seems to steal her man the lieutenant who Roach has briefly dreamed of escaping with. But as she gets harder things start to go her way. This is when Hamilton is at his best because having had characters like Mr Prest on the fringes he chooses now to bring them in for a brief cameo with important results.

The book ends with hamilton voicing the view that all those caught up in the war deserved to be pitied. Roach has survived the assualt on mediocrity and finds that back in London she sees with fresh eyes and can breathe again. A feeling that many of us can only dream of.

A review will follow soon...

Monday, May 18, 2009

Slaves of Solitude - post IV

There is a brilliant moment when Hamilton has you alongside Miss Roach asking the same questions she does about whether or not she is imagining the hatred of her German friend. is she over reacting? Has she blown petty things out of proportion?

You never feel she has but it hangs in the balance for quite a while and it is not until a catalogue of slights stacks up that you know for sure that Miss Roach is right and the German woman has it in for her.

By then the atmosphere in the kettle drum that is the Rosamund Tea Rooms is causing discomfort and distorting the reality of Roach and the other guests. It questions the assumption that those at home were getting away with out suffering and shows that when liberties are denied you because of fear or rationing the costs can be high.

You are rooting for Roach but fear that she will lose her own war against Germany.

More tomorrow...

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Running to spread the gift of reading

After looking round for a while to find a charity that I feel comfortable pounding the streets of London for this July in the London 10k I have settled on Book Aid International.

They provide books to people who couldn’t dream of getting them in sub-Sahara Africa and if you view spreading the gift of reading as a vital activity then this is really a very worthy cause.

If you feel like sponsoring me on my run then please click onto

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Slaves of Solitude - post III

There is a different feeling with this book to Hangover Square because the threat is not as clearly defined from the start. There is no immediate Netta here and you sense that far from being ill at ease with one individual it is the world that scares Miss Roach.

But the figures of the German vet’s secretary Vicki emerges as someone that initially had been befriended by Miss Roach but someone who is now more than able to exert her position.

She does this by taking the initiative and getting herself installed at the boarding house, making a connection with Miss Roach’s American love interest and in some respects siding against her friend in the battle against the old grump Mr Thwaites.

As she tried to rationalise her growing sense of unease to herself Miss Roach ends up convincing herself that her fear and dislike of Vicki is groundless. But as the reader you sense she is right to feel uneasy.

More soon…

Friday, May 15, 2009

Slaves of Solitude - post II

They always say that writers should write about what they know and you can tell that Patrick Hamilton knows a great deal about pubs.

As Miss Roach gets involved with an American based nearby she is dragged into the pub on a regular basis where she is given large gins and kissed by the drunk solider. She is both afraid but excited and she views the relationship as one means of escaping from the dreary world of the boarding house.

Where Hamilton is excellent is building up a detailed picture of a very small world – in this case the boarders at the Rosamund Tea Rooms – and as a result being able to transmit the significance of what otherwise would appear trivial and mundane.

Therefore you realise just how desperate she is to escape from her situation and her life, penned into the suburbs because of her fear of the blitz.

More tomorrow…

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close - post IV

The conclusion of the book is very moving and in a way having penned this the author should have stepped back and realised that real emotions don’t need to be adorned by lots of clever literary devices.

In many respects this reminds you of Gunter Grass and Georges Perec as the child walks through the city and the odd quest for the lock for the key continues.

When it ends it does so in a way that is straight. The oddness is stripped back and the grandparents, which remain strange until the end, fade out of the picture.

If there is one thing that you take away from this very strongly it is the sense that death and grief are illogical and unfair. That the sense of loss from something as horrific as the Two Towers can never be forgotten. But also the need for communication and the letters and words that the dead leave behind for the living are vital for those seeking comfort.

A review will follow soonish…

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close - post III

As the dual stories of the disaster in New York with the twin towers and the bombing of Dresden in the Second World War open up there is a clever overlap of the story lines between generations.

The link is the grandmother but as the grandfather comes back on the scene she is often communicating with him when Oskar believes she is talking to him. You only start to get the sense of overlapping and clever interweaving as the story unfolds.

It bugs slightly that the grandfather is unable to talk and writes everything down. Okay it is a response to grief but it makes an already heavily stylised book kilter too much in the direction of being too clever for its own good.

What keeps you going is not just the interest in finding out how Oskar’s search for the owner of the key ends but also how the child comes to terms with the loss of his father. Put his weirdness, again overdone, to one side and there is someone in a great deal of pain here.

Last chunk tomorrow…

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Slaves of Solitude - post I

Although its only a little bit of a way into my Patrick Hamilton book you can tell already that he is a master5 at creating characters that appear to be vulnerable and bullied.

In the case of hangover Square it was the lonely love struck figure of George Bone and in Slaves of Solitude Miss Roach steps off the train into the forlorn world of boarding houses to escape war torn London.

She is tyrannised by an old man who picks on her at dinner in the communal dining room and seems unable to assert herself in any situation. Even as the first tentative steps are taken in forming a friendship with an American solider dining in the same boarding house she folds in the face of the pressure to drink and when she finally attempts to leave it is with great embarrassment.

He manages to weave together an impression of a suburban town that is swathed in blackout and behind the empty streets and the quiet church there is the sense of something sinister.

More soon…

Monday, May 11, 2009

Extremely Loud & Incredible Close - post II

With echoes of the sort of literary devices used by the likes of Georges Perec to help shape the story the main character Oskar decides to track down every Black in New York. Armed with his key he needs to find the lock for and his own confidence he manages to encounter various people all sharing the surname Black.

What makes the story engaging is not just the question of what he will discover but the weaving in of the back story of his grandparents and the illustration through the meetings with various people what family and memories are all about.

With the gaping hole left where his father used to be Oskar struggles to fill it, along with the thousands of others in a similar situation, but you sense that as he comes across other stories and other causes of regret and sadness he might at least be able to put his own loss into some sort of greater perspective.

More tomorrow…

Sunday, May 10, 2009

When the TV is almost as good as the book

It’s not often that a televised version of a book gets a thumbs up but one episode into the Channel 4 version of Dance to the Music of Time and its looking like a winner.

The series, which is on DVD, was shown years ago and manages to weave together several books into each episode in a way that allows the story to flow and develop in a surprisingly good way. In that respect it is similar to last year’s Radio 4 adaptation which managed to roughly cover three books per episode.

Although it’s a different from the book in its own way it’s an experience that provides just as much enjoyment. The screen version has been written with real sympathy and where there are omissions you hardly notice them.

Looking forward to watching the rest of the series.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Extremely Loud & Incredible Close - post I

before anyone starts thinking that I am on some sort of themed reading exercise at the moment with Falling man and now this please let me explain this came highly recommended and for once it was in stock in the local bookstore so that's how things happened.

Along with the recommendations came the comment that this is highly stylized. It doesn't take long to realise that the comment was made in regards to the production of the text as well as the narrative structure. The insertion of colour, photographs and pages with just single words is different.

There are moments you think of Tin Drum by Gunter Grass because of the name Oskar and the tambourine he plays and his oddities. Then of course there are other occasions you think of Falling Man, particularly those passages about grief and the feeling of alienation.

One thing that emerges as way of hooking you in is the idea of the mystery left by the father for the son. The back story explains they both liked to play games and set each other mysteries and perhaps in death Oskar's father has set his son the hardest one yet.

More Monday...

Friday, May 08, 2009

Cosmopolis - post II

Once I started to treat this as science fiction (thanks Brandon for that advice) with out a desperate search for hooks of reality I could hang the narrative from it became a lot more enjoyable. The movement towards the climax becomes a series of episodes that raise the debate about capitalism and mortality.

Eric Packer in some respects reminds you of the characters in Falling Man in the sense that he is sketched out with enough back story to make it work but not the sort of chapter and verse that 19th century literature likes to go in for. As a result you read with a certain degree of detachment and can take in the story as a neutral observer rather than a reader that has invested in the life of a character.

The thoughts that yoiu are left with after this book are about the irony that even those you depose can have good advice and the feeling that those at the top of the capitalist tree can easily fall to the ground and once again become ordinary. If anything they are even more ordinary than the rest of us who have normal lives and it is the trappings of success that make them seem different.

A review will follow soon...

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Cosmopolis - post I

After reading the Falling Man you start to become immersed in the DeLillo style. That style uses characters that are not particularly deep but stand for something larger than themselves as a way of making statements.

Key to this is Eric Packer, a 28 year old multi-millionaire who has made a fortune through the stock market and now glides through the streets of Manhattan in a limousine surrounded by body guards.

He displays a fear of death with his daily doctor appointments yet seems to seek out the adrenalin that comes from knowing his life is in danger. He searches for answers from his colleagues yet he is never really listening. He craves sex yet is unable to get it from his wife.

There are more contradictions but one of the most obvious is the gap between the rich and the poor. It emerges that an ex employee is planning to kill Eric after being dismissed from Packer Enterprises and the boom is building towards that confrontation.

In some respects it reminds you of Saturday by Ian McEwen because it is telling a story of one individual on one day but the sense of time is not as clearly defined here.

As he glides around in his car the sense of real life, where people work in offices and go for lunch breaks at set times, is suspended and that adds to the disorientation.

More tomorrow…

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Falling Man - post III

The sense of disorientation continues to impact the characters years after the two towers have come down with Lianne summing up the feelings of a cit. She moans at one point to her husband Keith, who was in the towers when they were attacked, about the fact she is the one who has gone berserk but she is just displaying the anger and sense of loss more visibly than he is.

The family, which is held together more by memories and habit, continues to plod on but there is a craving to get back to normal. The problem is that can anyone ever get back to normal? With the fundamentalism now out in the open and the consequences of the hatred forcing changes in behaviour it is a very substantial question that DeLillo leaves you pondering.

Although some of the characters are sketchy and some, like Martin the former German terrorist, feel shoe-horned in to challenge the argument, overall this works. The last few pages in particular are incredibly powerful.

A review will follow soon…

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Falling Man - post II

As Keith starts an affair with a fellow survivor and Lianne starts to probe the minds of a group of Alzheimer’s patients there are questions asked about support. Who is there to reach out too in a crisis? Is it better not to be able to remember?

There is also a sense of foreboding with children looking up at the sky waiting for more planes to come and the far from innocent confusion about Bin laden being Bill Lawton.

But there is also a battle being raged between those who are intelligent and articulate and those reacting to the terrorists in a much more emotional way. The fight between Lianne’s mother and her lover is one that is being sounded all over the city. As they clash over the rights and the wrongs of a belief that involves killing and suicide.

At the end of the first part and the second DeLillo is picking up the story from the view point of the terrorists. The brief insight into the world of training camps, religious fundamentalism and hate are chilling.

More tomorrow…

Monday, May 04, 2009

Falling Man - post I

There is something about picking up a book that is so clearly linked with the terrorist attack of the two towers being attacked in New York. What you worry about is the raking up of the past and the details. Although there are hundreds of stories that are no doubt let to tell you wonder about the merits of telling them.

So it is with those sorts of feelings running through your head that you start this story that kicks off with the towers coming down and the dust and destruction. But what makes it possible to enter into events is the focus on an individual family. An estranged wife and husband Lianne and Keith are brought back together as a result of his direct involvement working in the two towers.

He acts as a physical reminder of what has been lost, with his poker nights gone forever and his former life in tatters, and the family by extension fulfil the role of a sounding board reacting to the fear and the anger following the attacks.

DeLillo is dropping little concurrent stories throughout which are all symptoms of the same collective response to the horrific events. They all add to the noise as the story goes forward.

More tomorrow…

Sunday, May 03, 2009

bookmark of the week

Having only just restarted doing my bookmark of the weeks I received a bumper crop from Warrenville Public Library, one place I have to visit at some point in the next couple of years. Thanks to my mother this arrived in the post with a couple of others and although my dates are out (it takes time to come via air mail and library week was April 12-18) this is a great bookmark celebrating the event.

Great idea and great bookmark.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Anansi Boys - post III

It is quiet a task trying to summarise this book. So what I will say is how well the plot was constructed bringing together all the various strands in the one geographical location and how the oarallel worlds managed to collide just at the right moments.

What keeps you reading this story, which verges on the bizarre on occasion, is the humour and the confidence. You know that Gaiman must have enjoyed bringing this all together and making the story of spoiders, gods and long lost brothers work out to its conclusion.

There are momebts that have you smiling and others that are disturbing and worthy of a scene from a horror flick. But overall it is with a sense of well being you turn the final page and conclude this fantastical tale. In its role as the first Gaiman I have read it ceetainly wikll act as a spur to encourage me to try more of his work.

A reviuew will follow soon...

Friday, May 01, 2009

Anansi Boys - post II

Having not read any Neil Gaiman before this was the only book my local library had so was the only realistic place to start without shelling out some money.

You start thinking that although incredibly imaginative and clever with the magical references this is a written version of a Doctor Pepper advert. What’s the worst that could happen? Turns out to be plenty when Fat Charlie summons his brother.

Once installed in his home Spider manages to help Charlie lose his job, threatens his relationship with his fiancé and takes over his home. Quite whether or not Charlie will manage to get his life back depends it seems on his willingness to embrace the strangeness that surrounds his late father and brother.

Trying to crack on with this because it is due back at the library tomorrow so that deadline is a great motivational tool.

More tomorrow…