Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween

Happy Halloween everyone. A good excuse to eat some sweets and look slightly more stupid than usual.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Chilling tales

At this time of year, with the clocks going back and the cold dark nights enveloping you as you head home from work it’s a good time to think of scary stories. One of this week’s bedtime reads has been the Virago Book of Ghost Stories. This collection of short stories has got some great ones to leave you wondering if it’s a wise idea to keep the light switched on.

One of the books that came free with The Times this week has been lost Hearts and Other Chilling Tales by M R James. Looking forward to dipping into that and some more of the Virago collection over the next few nights and weeks.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Opting for the shorter stuff

As a result of twitter this year has been one experiencing contact with a different collection of book bloggers. It has been great not only to make additions to the blog roll but also to get the views of other people.

One very interesting post, because a real valid point is being made, comes from Rob over at the Fiction Desk who asks the question whether the pressure to produce regular comments on blogs will lead more bloggers into reading novellas and short stories.

Personally I have been saying I plan to do just that partly with tongue in cheek but also because the pressure to keep reading and posting had been highlighted when you get sidelined with big books like 2666 and Wolf Hall. Perhaps next year I will be one of those following the predicted pattern set out so succinctly by the Fiction Desk.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Looking a gift horse down the throat

It has been great this week to get some free books with The Times but I’m afraid at the risk of looking a gift horse in the mouth a slight complaint has to be registered.

One of the problems is that the offers, which have been running now for three weeks Monday to Friday in the paper, are never advertised in places I see them and secondly you can only get the books in select venues – large Sainsburys, WH Smiths and M&S Food. It is all too ad hoc. As a result it is very easy not only to miss a book but upset your friends by mentioning how happy you are to have got one.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Wolf Hall - post II

Right time to get back into Wolf Hall and pick up the story of Cromwell and his master Cardinal Wolsey. The Cardinal seems to be being played a bit by King Henry with the public face seeming to show scorn but privately the mission to gain some influence over the Pope continuing.

Meanwhile for Cromwell, who suffers the loss of his wife, life carries on with him being deployed aboard in a rather cack handed way to test the waters in France and further afield to find out the standing of the King and the look of the political landscape.

In a way although his relationship with the Cardinal is one that serves him well you sense that he is starting to outgrow it and as the position of Wolsey becomes slightly more uncertain Cromwell has to look to his own future ensuring he has an exit plan.

More soon...

Monday, October 26, 2009

D-Day - post II

This is one of several books that has been opened and started but not really got underway. There is no obvious excuse for that because the writing is not difficult to digest and the narrative is hardly lacking in action.

One of the problems perhaps is the names that crop up with numerous military officials weaving through the story of the D-Day landings. Luckily you can stick with the main thrust of what is happening, that was the case with reading Stalingrad, and Beevor doesn’t wait too long getting into the actual invasion.

Having reached the part where the Americans land on Omaha beach the credit has to go to Beevor for managing to weave a narrative that is both factual but in its own way as gripping as the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan. We all have a rough idea of what happened but telling us, largely from the perspective of the foot soldier, is a great way of illustrating what it was like to go through the hailstorm of bullets and bravely struggle up that beach to take control of the Normandy coastline.

More soon...

Sunday, October 25, 2009

bookmark of the week

This is a magnetic Wallace and Gromit bookmark. I'm a great fan on W&G and there is something quite appealing about the merchandise. It is not too tacky.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

No boasts over book totals this year

The idea of boasting about how many books you have read might seem to be a bit crude but for those that rank the activity as their main hobby and one of their main sources of enjoyment it does matter.

As a result of technology it is possible to see very quickly just how many books you have read in a year and compare them to previous year’s lists you have made. It is also possible of course to go and do the same thing at several other blogs. That last exercise can be fairly depressing sometimes but of course we all have different demands on our time.

This year is not going to be a good one in terms of books consumed but I am starting to feel that it is a very important one in terms of reading lessons being learnt. So putting totals to one side there is still reason to smile and look forward to a positive year.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Glass Room - post V

What I might not have mentioned in all the thoughts about this book over the course of this week is just how much sex dominates. The glass room seems to be a magnet for sexual activity with doctors, yoga teachers and soldiers all being aroused to action in that space. Sex is part of life but I’m a bit of a prude and so will limit my comments on that side of the novel other than to say some of it is important for plot development and some of it isn’t. The stuff that isn’t could have ended up on the cutting room floor.

The sense of the house surviving all that has happened around it despite being made of glass is perhaps the most important image here. Something built with high design values and a determination to be different survives all that is thrown at it. In the end it is almost comical with the communist housing committee trying to decide what to do with the building. The building survives but so does its power to change people, to liberate their minds, in that space made of glass.

Anyway without giving away any endings or anything the various loose ends caused by war and the spreading out of the main characters as a result of the war are tied up. Some of it feels slightly too neat but as a reader you are grateful for things coming to a conclusion in the way that they do.

A review will follow soon....

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Glass Room - post IV

As the family leaves the house the story of the glass room is told via those that stated behind with it initially being taken over as a base for a scientific research programme with Nazi goons measuring skulls and vital statistics looking for a way of identifying Jews. But as the war switches back and forth it moves to a point where the house has been vacated and the Red Army is coming closer.

All the time the glass room and the modern architecture manage to wow the occupants whether they be Nazi’s, war beaten communists or the locals who manage to get inside to have a look around. All the time Viktor’s family struggle to leave Europe and head to Cuba on their way to America. Viktor’s affair is discovered and the marriage is shattered by the distrust. But just like the bombed windows in the glass room it remains to all intents and purposes intact.

Back at the glass house the last few friends of Viktor have been rounded up and taken to the camps and the City and the house are now under the shadow of Stalinism and another period of history begins.

More tomorrow...

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Glass Room - post III

With Austria taken over by Hitler and the refugees starting to come through to the Czech Republic the Nazi threat is now just 50km from the Glass House.

As a Jew, Viktor seems to be more acutely aware of what is potentially coming in terms of hate and he starts to plan for an evacuation to Switzerland. But most of those around him seem to be acutely unaware of what will happen believing that humanity will prevail.

Faced with the reality of the refugees and for Viktor with his own mistress from Vienna standing telling her story in his living room the fear of what might happen starts to become a reality and the family plan to leave the glass room and head for the sanctuary of Switzerland. Before they go there is the opportunity for both husband and wife to be unfaithful in the house and for the memories of the glass room to become impregnated with regrets even before the house is vacated.

More tomorrow...

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Glass Room - post II

The storm clouds are gathering not just in terms of European politics, with the rise of Hitler, but also perhaps in the relationships of the key characters.

In a book that starts slowly sex becomes a theme that overtakes the architecture as Viktor enjoys his Viennese mistress, Liesel dabbles in a bit of Lesbianism and elsewhere most of their friends seem to be at it as well.

Meanwhile the glass house has been completed and stirs debate about modernism and domestic versus work spaces. The owners are happy inside and enjoy the experience of wowing their friends and neighbours.

But as Hitler comes to power and the signs of the swastikas and brown shirts spread to the edges of Viktor’s world he starts to prepare for the worst moving funds to Switzerland. The unease he feels in his relationship with the mistress is an extension of the unease many are feeling across central Europe.

More tomorrow…

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Glass Room - post I

This is another book that was in the running for the recent Booker prize and my god fortunate is to work with colleagues who care enough about contemporary literature to pop out and buy books like this they are then happy to share and pass on.

As the story starts to unfold of the Czech husband and wife and their home designed by an Austrian architect you know that things are going to get difficult because these are the inter-war years and there is already tension in the air.

However the focus of the honeymooners is to commission the Austrian architect to build their home after they meet him in Venice. They set about getting him to design what he describes as a space with a glass room that is somewhere the couple can make their own environment living in natural light.

At parts you expect Kevin McCloud to start narrating the progress of the build as the action moves to the hillside where the work will take place.

You know that the peace that exists on the hillside where their home is being constructed will not last for much longer and you are already starting to wonder what will happen to the house and the people who will live and work in it.

More tomorrow....

Sunday, October 18, 2009

bookmark of the week

Every year in the US the libraries put together a list of banned books and encourage readers not only to find out why they were banned but to explore them for themselves. This bookmark accompanied a promotion run many years ago along similar lines by the Independent. It's interesting going through the list.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

How long to prove it's worth it?

When you pick up a book it’s interesting to see how long you give it to prove its worth. I usually let things go until around 100 pages and if by then it is failing to grab you in any way you grit your teeth and start to think of the gruelling task ahead or abandonment.

I have never really abandoned a book just put it to one side and waited for the mood to come that will help me reengage with it but it is a prospect that is becoming more of an important question to consider.

The reason is that if a book has lost you then does it deserve to be read? I’d like to believe there are lessons to be learnt as a reader and a potential writer one day from every book but sometimes they can be slim in the extreme.

As the end of this year draws near and it ranks as one of those with the fewest books personally read the question of when and if to bail out on a book is one that is going to demand an answer to avoid a repeat in 2010.

Friday, October 16, 2009

maybe time for a refresh?

The look and feel of the blog hasn't changed for a couple of years and I'm thinking that maybe it's time to have a look at what the options are for improving the look and feel of it. The dots seemed to be one of the best choices available at the time but Blogger has probably improved the choices since then and made it easier to make things look more compelling.

Keep an eye on the blog in the next few weeks to see if I have the guts and the gumption to make any changes. I'd like to but we will see.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Journey to Nowhere - post III

You know when someone is angry because they become repetitive but this book starts to get to its central theme when Eva recalls the conversations she had with the old housemaid Edith about Palestine.

The lonely woman was left in Berlin at the end of the war with nothing so proved to be an easy target for the Zionists who took her away to Palestine. But the country was full of different groups that hated each other.

Figes then goes onto talk about the history of the Jewish state and her dislike of it. This is brave writing because of course as a Jew she cannot be easily shot down in flames for being anti-Semitic so presumably other charges were levelled against her. But the idea that hate is at the bottom of most of Palestine is a difficult one to get to grips with.

At the end of the way no one seemed to know what to do with the millions of displaced people that had been created as a result of the war and the holocaust. Palestine became a dumping ground that allowed other countries to consider their obligations met. It perhaps never really answered or solved the problem and as a result continues to provide debate until the present day.

A review will follow soon...

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Journey to Nowhere - post II

As the relationship between Eva and the old housemaid Edith is reopened the story of what happened to those Jews that stayed in Berlin through the war is told in all its harrowing detail.

What emerges is a picture of ad hoc kindness with fellow Germans helping out. Some were motivated by kindness, others by bitterness towards the war and in the final days those looking for a good deed as a way of saving their own skin.

Eva exists in a post war world where her mother seems to have turned into a rather horrible person, Edith is a lonely figure and for Eva herself she is trying to make sense of it all.

More tomorrow...

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Life of Monsieur Moliere - post V

So this biography written by one writer with a great deal of passion and care about another comes to an end.

The role of the King is vital throughout Moliere's life with the patronage of the monarch needed on the numerous occasions where he manages to provoke the rage of various sections of the aristocracy.

But what is clearly amazing is the sheer volume of work that the playwright managed to produce. Not only that but the quality of his comedies were such that they have of course let the name Moilere live on through history.

The postscript at the end by Bulgakov is sad in that he know he will never get to Paris to see the monument of his hero. In many ways Bulgakov also had an existence dominated by a King the problem is that his was not so supportive and in the end almostr crushed the writer.

A review will come soon...

Monday, October 12, 2009

Journey to Nowhere - post I

Wolf Hall is calling me as it sits there almost shouting out ‘600 pages are not going to read themselves’. But before we get to that...

This is another book sent by a kind twitter friend and again it is not something I would normally rush out to buy. The reason is that as a reader of fiction or history the memoir tends to fall between those two categories. Having read some memoirs earlier this year a return to fiction was something more favourable.

But once you start reading this well crafted book you perhaps realise that the success of the memoir is in the telling. Eva Figes focuses on the story of a housemaid Edith and what happened to her as she lost touch with Eva’s family as they fled the Nazis.
Edith went to Palestine but then wrote asking for her old job back with the family who now lived in London. The return of Edith is a chance for Eva to tell of the years since her escape from Berlin in 1939 and the impact on her and her family.

A very honest but so lightly written account exposes her problematic relationship with her mother and the dangerous times they fled in Germany. The world of wealth and grandparents living round the corner was shattered forever. But what seems to have been true for Eva and her parents in particular is that the war never stopped.

You wait for Edith’s arrival and the rest of the story of what happened to those that escaped the holocaust to be shared.

More later this week...

Sunday, October 11, 2009

bookmark of the week

Everytime I go through Paddington station for work I see the little Paddington stall and think of the bear. I enjoyed watching the TV series as a child and have all of the books with the exception of the latest. This is a magnetic bookmark, like they nearly all are these days purchased if I remember rightly from WHSmith in Paddington station.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Life of Monsieur Moliere - post IV

Pushing it too far, with the backing of the King who seems to be happy to see Moliere score a few points as he goes down in flames, fortune starts to run out for the famous writer.

On a professional front he reacts rather childishly to criticism of his play and writes a response that then sparks similar plays that provide those looking to fan the flames of a spat between Moliere and his enemies with plenty of ammunition. But of course Moliere goes further and doesn’t just round on the critics but goes for those that have up to that point been neutral towards him.

On a private front he marries someone who is suspected of being his own daughter after a determined courtship only to find once he has his bride home that their relationship is doomed. His personal life becomes one of suffering.

After years of success the reaction to his embroilment in arguments with critics and other actors shows just how thin the veneer of regard was for Moliere. But he has taken up his pen and saved the day and you sense he will do so again.

More next week...

Friday, October 09, 2009

The Life of Monsieur Moliere - post III

What starts to become clear about Moliere is just how talented he was not just in penning comedies that were box office hits but in terms of the relationships he made. By befriending the King’s brother he was able to keep at bay his critics and get plays published and performed despite complaints.

His days of travelling were behind him and he settled into Paris lampooning on stage the women with their social salons and the cuckolded husbands of the very rich. He managed to keep the King laughing even when he went for Dukes. Of course because of the author you are perhaps trying too hard to draw parallels with Russian society but you can well imagine the dependence that an author of plays or novels would have on the King (Stalin) and his court.

But he was not a young man and it had taken years for him to find this success and Bulgakov, who continues to have a friendly and in obstructive touch, points out the growing tensions in French society.

Once you reach the top there is of course only one way to go...

Thursday, October 08, 2009

The Life of Monsieur de Moliere - post II

What you have to admire about Bulgakov and his treatment of this biography is the light touch. He manages to get from birth to 30 in as many pages but chooses the facts to concentrate on very carefully.

It is perhaps a consequence of the fact that Moliere himself did not appear until he left home and turned his back on his father’s world of being court upholsterer. The young actor headed out into the highways and byways of France determined to make his name with his troop.

The moment of truth came after his attempts to play tragedies were disastrous so he switched to comedies, which he started to write himself. That was the key, the decision not just to write but to act to his strengths, and it started to turn his fortunes around.

The other stylistic touch that you appreciate from Bulgakov is the way he throws in all the information he has at hand without making it stodgy. In that respect it reminds you of the Shakespeare biography produced a couple of years ago by Bill Bryson.

More soon…

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The Tenth Man - post II

It seems like a long time ago since the first half of this book was read but you pick it up and delve straight back into the tight relationship between the former prisoner of war and the sister of the man he traded death with at the loss of his fortune.

Just as you think you know where the story is going, into some sort of love story that is cast right open with his confession of true identity, Greene brings in a third character and takes it in a slightly different direction.

His writing is so economical that you are given the chance to concentrate mainly on one person. Even then a lot of it is brush strokes with you as a reader filling in the gaps. Sometimes just a simple sentence is left with you racing ahead to work out the consequences.

A review will follow soon...

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Everything is Illuminated - post V

Have no fear the ending will not be revealed. What can safely be said is that the last third of the book is much more enjoyable than what precedes it. The reason perhaps is because some of the rambling about myths and legends is cut out and real life, which is compelling enough in time of war kicks in.

As the different strands of the story come together the humour drops off and the harsh consequences of the decisions made in war come back to haunt the leading characters.

This starts feeling very much like a personal quest but by the end it is a story that applies to a generation rather than just the one individual family.

A review will follow soon...

Monday, October 05, 2009

Everything is Illuminated - post IV

As the book settles down and gets past the half way mark you are juggling three time periods. The life of the grandfather who shortly after his marriage was to face the Nazis sweeping through the village. The current day search for the story of his escape and the interaction between the interpeter and the author in letters written at stages commenting on the discoveries made as they search for the truth about the past.

Part of the problem is that before any of the stories really opens up and grabs you the time shifts and you go forwards and backwards. The past does inform the present but it does feel sometimes as if the action has not been given the chance to breathe.

You know that the intertwining of the different periods is going to be key to the book and the structure is as important as any of the main characters but perhaps the reaction to that is the reader's choice. You either love it and view it as being very clever or you see it as perhaps over worked and a structure that breaks the continuity.

More tomorrow...

Sunday, October 04, 2009

bookmark of the week

Having spent the day yesterday at the British Museum learning about all things Egyptian this was one of the only bookmark's to do with that era. Having said that it is an interesting idea that is going to be quite useful for my son as he dabbles with Egyptian themed projects as part of his history homework this year at school.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

book review - The Twelve Chairs - Ilf & Petrov

“I sewed my jewels into the seat of a chair.”.....
“What? Seventy thousand roubles worth of jewellery hidden in a chair! Heaven knows who may sit in that chair!”

You get used after a while to Russian novels having a tragic and bleak style so when this starts with the reader looking over the shoulder of Ippolit Matveyevich as he trudges from the poverty of his home to the registry office where he is tasked with filling in ledgers all day you expect the usual.

But very quickly the conventions are broken and the deathbed confession from his mother-in-law that she hid the family jewels in a chair in the old house sets him off on a chase across Russia. He is not alone because the dying woman also felt the need to confess to the priest.

So begins a chase for the 12 chairs, with the one that holds the jewels, that takes the priest and Ippolit across Russian and into bizarre situations. The priest will ultimately betray all that his position seems to stand for as he is consumed by greed and end up as a comical figure howling at the moon but for Ippolit the journey is slightly more complex and his destination a more sobering one.

As he heads back to his former home he is bullied by a chancer, Ostap Bender, who managed to bully the older man into a position of not only revealing the quest for the jewels but of agreeing to halve the value of the gems. So the mismatched pair set off conning and conniving their way through the provinces and in to Moscow looking for and finding chair after chair of the original twelve.

There is real humour here but the targets are cleverly selected. A priest who is quick to exploit a death bed confession and sell his robes to fund a treasure hunt is also followed by would be Tsarists who scare themselves to death plotting an overthrow of the communists. These are targets that the censors would have approved of.

But between the cracks you are left asking yourself why would people be prepared to drag themselves across Russia for jewels and that perhaps is where the satire really lies. A clerk and a con man that have both known better times are really on the hunt to recreate those days of the past. Wealth will of course overcome the hurdles not just of poverty but the day to day problems put in your way by a state that limits your living area and is expert at creating an atmosphere of misery. Everyone has a secret, a desire to blossom in a place where to do so brings danger, and throughout the book the characters line-up dreaming of a better future.

What makes this a memorable read is not just the humour and the well plotted treasure hunt. Even as it becomes obvious it will be the final chair they find that will hold the answer you stick with it to see the outcome. This is a novel that paints a picture of not only greed and money lust showing how it can lead to madness and murder but in its own way holds up a mirror to a society in the 1920s that was scared, dreamt of the past and where the ultimate treasure was the almost completely intangible personal freedom.

Friday, October 02, 2009

The Ancient Shore - post II

The second half of the book focuses on one episode suffered by the photographer Francis Steegmuller. He recounts how the mistake of letting down his guard for just a moment allowed a moped riding bag snatcher to sneak in and grab his bag. He didn’t let go and was dragged along the cobbles.

What happened next is used to illustrate not just the generous character of Neapolitans but also the very essence of the place. Crime is accepted but disliked and as he travels to the hospital he benefits from the wisdom shared by those that have lived through it before.

He is patched up and recovers but mentally he has been not just a victim but had his love of Naples tested to a degree that perhaps most foreigners would fail and walk away from.

But he resolves to come back and even retraces his steps. The friendships made in the moment of great stress are still there and as an example of a city surviving and adapting to the most difficult circumstances the story of the attack serves its purpose very well.

The book is then closed with some comments about the love affair that the city has sparked off for Hazzard and numerous others. Makes you want to pack your bags and head to the City to see the sights.

A review will follow soon...

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Ancient Shore - post I

One of the joys of twitter has been the chance to hear what other people like reading and then occasionally be lucky enough to be sent a book that has inspired someone.

That happened with The Ancient Shore a memoir and travel journal written by two voices, both foreigners to Naples, who had adopted the city and dived deep into its history and tried to describe the magic that had enchanted them.

The first section is by Shirley Hazzard who weaves in her own story moving to the Italian City in the 1950s with the history of the famous city. The city had acted as a beacon for artists of the past with the likes of Oscar Wilde and Henry James enjoying spells in the city. But to the modern reader the city is most linked with corruption, crime and a sense of faded glory.

Hazzard manages to take you through the past and the present but still instill a sense of wonder at the city making the wise remark that you have to live somewhere to really get under the skin and travel guides and pictures books can only take you so far.

That might be the case for the usual guide book but this slim volume manages to convey a feeling that is inspirational.

More tomorrow...