Sunday, February 28, 2010

Month review - February

It's been a strange month with the momentum of January dipping a little bit as the weeks went on. February is always a challenge because of the shorter number of days but also the half term that takes you out of the running with the kids for a couple of days.

Having said that I did enjoy the reading this month and particularly the Unnamed by Joshua Ferris and the Woman in Black by Susan Hill which I reread after a break long enough to forget all the main points of the story.

Given the chance hopefully March will be a good reading month. Not really sure what lies ahead but would like to get some sort of theme going to help those moments of indecision between reads disappear for a while.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

bookshops worth a visit - Foyles, London

At one stage I had a plan to buy a book from every bookshop in london and I still aim to visit a lot more of the ones I am yet to discover but it would be difficult not to wind up at some point at Foyles.

The bookshop has it's own history and when you go inside you feel as if you are stepping into a cathedral of reading for those who appreciate the printed word. In many respects it is just like any other large store once you get past the aura but for that feeling of being a special place to buy a book it is still worth making the effort to go and visit.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Status report

A bit of catching up to do as tonight saw another book read but not yet blogged about.

Aware that reviews need to be posted for Strength in What Remains as well as The Woman in Black.

Woman in Black was able to get the hairs on the back of the neck going up not something I have experienced for a long time with a book and although it was unsettling a wonderful advert for the power of good writing.

The ambition now is to see if Bel Ami, which I've barely started, can be really chipped away at over the weekend.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Thoughts at the half way point of The Woman in Black

It has been a long time since anything ghostly set the hairs on the back of my neck up but already by the half way point in this book it has happened once and the prospect of it happening again are very high.

Hill weaves in a well crafted story. You know that the narrator survives because after all he is relating this story many years later but you also sense that he managed to get through his experience by a narrow margin.

Set against a backdrop of a simpler world the junior solicitor Arthur Kipps accepts the task of heading off into the back of beyond for his employer to catalogue the papers of one of their elderly and deceased clients. he arrives to find a village unwilling to talk about the house on the coastal flats, cut off by the high tide, and not prepared to help him deal with the task of getting to grips with the late Mrs Drablow papers.

The brave Kipps heads out to the house alone to try and deal with things but the strange events start to happen and you fear for his sanity as well as his life...

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Five Dials

Forgot to take a book with me on the train today but averted a potential reading crisis by dipping into my print outs of the excellent and entertaining Hamish Hamilton Five Dials magazine.

Packed with short stories and interesting thoughts about fiction the free magazine is worth a download if you get the chance.

Some of the highlights I read today included a Guy De Maupaussant story in the Parisian issue (Number 8) and the thoughts of David Shields about fiction (issue 9).

Great quote from A Parisian Affair by De Maupassant which shows just how brilliantly he is at using a few words to paint a vivid scene is this:

"She ran from the room, flew down the staircase and flung herself out into the street.
Down it an army of sweepers was sweeping. They swept the pavements and the cobblestones, driving all the litter and filth into the stream of the gutter. With the same regular movement, like reapers in the field, they swept up all in a wide semi-circle ahead."

Also left pondering the view point of Shields in issue 9:

"I'm not drawn to literature because I love stories per se. I find nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived and essentially purposeless. I can never remember characters' names, plot developments, lines of dialogue, details of setting. It's not clear to me what such narratives are supposedly revealing about the human condition."

Monday, February 22, 2010

Thoughts at the half way stage of Strength in What Remains

For the first half of this book you are gripped by what you believe to be a well researched by fictional account of a man's journey from the slaughter of the Rwandan civil war to carve out a life in America.

Against the odds Deo, who's story is told by going back and forth in time, manages to escape the Hutu attempts to massacre the Tutsis people and gets to New York. There through a string of friendships he manages to get the support he needs to escape sleeping rough in Central Park and get back into education.

The chapyers that deal with the moment when the attacks started are harrowing and the images that are described, corpses floating down the river and families slaughered in the woods, stick in your mind.

But Deo, who is essentially an honest and giving person, survives and is able to rebuild his life because of the support of others who recognise his qualities.

But as you move into the second half of the book you realise this is not fiction but a well written retelling of a real story.

The second hald looks like Kidder will bring the story up-to-date.

Review will follow soon...

Sunday, February 21, 2010

bookmark of the week

Recently had a day trip to Winchester and the town is famous for a couple of things that are shown on this bookmark. The first is the cathedral and the second main one is a connection with Alfred the Great. It also has a couple of good little bookshops that are well worth going to visit.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

bookshops worth a visit - Blackwells, Cambridge

when I lived in Cambridge as a child the large bookshop full of clever students looking for inspiration was Heffers and although it is no longer Heffers after being turned into a Blackwells it still has the same vibe.

Cambridge has always been a city of bookshops, one less since Borders closed, because of the number of people on the look out for a good book and this picture brings back happy memories for me.

Friday, February 19, 2010

book review - The Unnamed - Joshua Ferris

"She had followed him from the courthouse steps across the Brooklyn Bridge. He shied his suit coat and his buttondown in the heat without stopping, without the least concern for how he looked to those he passed: a crazy man possessed. She picked up his discarded clothes and followed him into the heart of the borough. She trailed behind him, ready to seize on his first false move, at any subtle sign of fakery, but he never halted, he never paused. The city was a wading pool of cement heat. The buildings bleating with glare, the sidewalks pulsing with sunlight. The bus exhaust and then interminable miles made the long walk unbearable. But he never stopped. She watched him slog inside the KFC and collapse.
Now she looked at him with tears in her eyes. 'I'm sorry I didn't believe you,' she said."

Perhaps this is how American literature, post 9/11 and against a backdrop of an ongoing war on terror, is going to feel with a sense of disorientation and uncertainty at the heart of stories flowing from the pens of the likes of De Lillo, Roth, Safran Foer and of course Ferris.

Tim Farnsworth is a successful lawyer who lives in a house with 8 beds but just one wife and an overweight largely ignored daughter. He is selfish, self obsessed but on the face of it he is living the American dream but of course that's just on the face of it. Underneath Tim has a problem that no one seems to be able to fully understand from either a mental or a physical angle - his legs start moving and he has no control over them and cannot stop walking. He gets up in the middle of the night and then in the daytime and starts walking miles and miles until he collapses and sleeps. His wife Jane waits for the call to come and collect him from park benches, under bridges and the more than occasional police station.

As time goes on and the bouts of walking ebb and flow then return permanently he walks out not just on his job and his home but finally walks out on his wife, daughter and his sanity.

You never quite know why he is walking he has sought the medical advice of experts all over the world, Money is no object and he ploughs thousands into treatments but no one has a name for his condition and as a result he has to hide it from colleagues and all but his wife and daughter. The strain it puts on the family increases each time he has a bout of the walking condition.

The same sense of bottled despair that comes across in De Lillo's The Falling Man is on display here as you follow Tim as he pushes everything to one side in order to concentrate on battling his demons. His grief is a very personal one and he cannot explain to those around him why he has to deal with it alone and in the way he chooses. He causes hurt, heartbreak, frustration but not too much anger. In many way's the anger fails to appear because Tim is a victim just as much as those around him. No one really understands what is going on. This is an age of widespread uncertainty.

The experience of reading The Unnamed is nowhere near as difficult as you expect when you first pick up the book and start to get to grips with the subject. Just as with Then We Came to The End there is a humour here mixed in with raw pain and Ferris deliberately mixes up the pace. In Then We Came... he broke up the flow of the redundancy hit advertising office with the story of the boss and her battle against cancer. Here the pace is inverted with the story chugging along fairly steadily until Tim breaks free of the shackles and conventions of trying to live normally and keep a job going and starts to have a a full blown mental breakdown. Instead of it being a period for calm and reflection this is instead a section of the book that speeds the action up and delivers despair and the brutal effects of the illness in graphic detail.

Strange things are happening, almost like the biblical plagues with bees in their hundreds dead in the park and the birds dropping dead from the sky. This is a time of bleak portents with storms and tornado's coming when they are out of season. People who appear to be normal and in control slid into alcoholism, develop sexual quirks that wind up in courtrooms and behind the suits and ties most share the same uncertainty felt by Tim

"What is the rational explanation for the bees, Tim? The blackbirds? The fires? The floods? Do these things happen by accident, too?"

What drives Tim is never really made clear but he is a man wandering a country that doesn't seem to understand anything other than success. As the story unfolds a rich man is framed for the murder of his wife, the head of a law firm rejects the company of his own children to chase the dollar and the ill and strange are feared. As Tim finds when he crosses the barrier of respectability those who are homeless and different are the unnamed and treated differently. They are almost invisible to the successful as Tim finds when he comes across an old partner at the law firm years after his walking took over completely and when he meets the law on his travels.

"The cop looked at him. 'You got some place to go, wise guy?'
With a crude and mechanical deliberation he opened the wallet in his lap and removed a crisp sheaf of newly minted hundred-dollar bills and made their edges flop between his fingers. 'I can go anywhere I want.'
'Then get there,' said the cop.
'Your concern for my well-being is touching.'
The cop started to walk away.
'One might as well as if the State, to avoid public unease, could incarcerate all who are physically unattractive or socially eccentric,' he called out."

Ferris is writing about a country that has been walking into war and away from peace ever since the twin towers came down and often without knowing quite why it is doing so. As it marched into Iraq then Afghanistan was it doing so in the same automatic way that Tim Farnsworth strode down the highways? Maybe that is too literal a metaphor but it is the one that will stick in the mind. What drives America? It is an unnamed fear and anger stemming from an event that is still almost impossible to comprehend.

Two books in is Ferris "the great man of American letters" the cover lines make him out to be? Perhaps the field is opening with Updike, who's Rabbit Run echoes through this book, sadly gone and other big names reaching the end the next generation is standing up and is clearly there to be counted.

What keeps you reading a book that at moments is very close to tipping over the edge of the unbelievable is the characterisation. You do want to know what happens to Tim, his wife Jane and their relationship. making you care about that, just like he made you care about a bunch of people in a Chicago ad agency is his great skill.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Book review - The Belly of The Atlantic - Fatou Diome

"The urge to return to the source is irresitable, for it's reassuring to think that life is easier to grasp in the place where it puts down its roots. And yet, for me, returning is the same as leaving. I go home as a tourist in my own country, for I have become the other for the people I continue to call my family."

Having read the witty but also bleak books about the life of Algeria immigrants in the Parisian suburbs by Faiza Guene this book echoed those themes but came from a slightly different angle.

This story was being told by a narrator based in France but it concentrated on the dreams of her younger brother and his Senegalese friends who dreamed of living in France. Despite what they were told by those who knew what really happens they were blind to the racism and poverty waiting for them. They looked at African football stars playing in France and thought they could follow in their footsteps.

For the narrator living in France having to work as a cleaner just to make a living and constantly being subject to racism and government bureaucracy designed to make life difficult the position was even harder.

She was not accepted in France but neither was she at home anymore in Africa. There the expectations were that she would be rich, share her success and allow others to fly away to a better life on her coat tails.

There are some very clever lines in this book that stay with you and must have made the author smile as they went down on the page. But there is also a fair amount of repetition about the dangers of dreaming of a better life outside Africa. The story of the footballer who failed to make the grade and was abused and managed to finally get home a broken man is one that stays with you but that theme is then underlined again and again.

But if a book is there to make you think, see the world from a different perspective, then this succeeds because it makes you wonder just what the impact of the likes of Drogba, the Chelsea playing striker, have been on the kids dreaming of a better life back home in his native Africa.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Reading the week ahead

The main aim is to read the latest from Joshua Ferris The Unnamed, which I want to have finished by the end of the week. It would also be great if I was able to squeeze in Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder which looks to be a reportage type story of a man facing his past as he escapes from the bloodshed of Rwanda.

At the start of the year one of the ambitions was to read a couple of books a wekk but each time I work from home my reading dips almost to zero, because I read on the commute to work. So as half-term is this week and I have thursday and friday off it's looking like a tall challenge.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

bookmark of the week

This is one of those magnetic bookmarks that is one of a series. I already own one of the others but have very fond memories of Paddington from watching the television programmes as a child and having the books read to me so adding this to the collection was no great hardship.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

bookshops worth a visit - Mr B's, Bath

In my second part of recollections about great bookshops in bath have to mention Mr B's which has a fantastic selection, great vibe and a shop that you will not forget with its quirky design touches. I could have happily gone bankrupt in this shop.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Discovering the Oulipo

Occasionaly you get one of those 'ahhhh so that's it' moments in life when something that you didn't quite understand becomes clear.

In this case the story starts with Georges Perec and Life a Users Manual and then much more so with A Void. What was it all about writing a book without using the ltter 'e' seemed to be a literary challenge.

But as a result of buying and starting to read McSweeney's issue 22 the scales have fallen from my eyes and the word Oulipo now emerges explaining not just what Perec was up to but also other writers.

What a great resource McSweeny's is not only to provide me with information but to bring a literary movement that has been knocking around since the 1960s right up to date.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

book review - The Locked Room - Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

'Don't you ever read detective stories?'
'I read tons of them. Anything. And forget most of it as soon as I've finished. But that's a classic. A room locked on the inside...'

By the eight book in a series of ten you start to fear that perhaps the initial high standards might have started to wear off. There is that worry that the characters that seemed so fresh at the start are by now hitting the boundaries of the descriptions their authors have written for them.

Those fears are totally understandable but utterly irrelevant with The Locked Room. Far from dipping in terms of quality Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo open the shoulders here and display a confidence about their world and their ability to deliver solid characters as well as well written plots. Martin Beck, the man who after all lends his name to the series, plays second fiddle here.

But what is fresh about the Locked Room is the injection of humour with some passages being almost Tom Sharpe like in the way the police descend into farce trying to catch bank robbers. The chief of police who leads an anti-vietnam march straight into a crowd of football hooligans is just one of the images that lingers.

At the heart are the parallel stories of the bank robbery that opens the book and the discovery of a dead man in a locked room who had suffered a shot to the stomach.

Police incompetence riddles both cases with Beck often expressing exasperation with his colleagues more than with the challenges of tracking down smart criminals. It is the ability to bring in the social and political background that makes the books from Sjowall and Wahloo so different because you are given an insight into a Sweden in the early 1970s, a society that dislikes the police and has political leanings towards the left. The witness who deliberately invents a get-away car does so to hinder the police and aid those he sees as fighting against society.

The other great skill in the Beck series is the way that along with the hard graft of policeman and women like Beck out there on the streets there is the way that luck plays a crucial role. They never overplay it and on the tightrope of keeping the reader believing you are always kept on the right side of falling into disbelief.

Onwards to the last couple in the series.

Monday, February 08, 2010

book review - The Man Who Knew Everything - Tom Stacey

"Few who patronised the Darwish did not know Gran Jones, and virtually every permanent resident of the island, native and expatriate alike, knew of him."

At the start you can't help but think of Graham Greene and his tales of hacks stuck out in remote places living on the expenses provided by newspapers based back in Blighty as they struggle with lives that are falling apart. But as you read deeper into the book that feeling starts to disappear.

What makes this different is the central character Granville Jones who is not only old, alone and at one point soaked in his own urine after a stroke but clearly is not benefiting from being the man who knew everything.

If anything it is what he doesn't know that has landed him in trouble with his marriage falling apart, his position with the rest of the world shrinking as he becomes more and more marooned in his house in a remote Arab state. But his reputation is based on the friendships and relationships he established years ago.

So when a major story happens on his own patch, one he initially misses altogether, the question really becomes one of whether or not Jones has the appetite to go for the big story one last time. The fact he does is more down to a sense of wanting to find out what has happened to the ruler, someone he knows, as the result of a coup. But as he gets one of the biggest stories of his life the competitive urge kicks in.

As he struggles to file a story that will discredit the coup and change history and restore his friend the Emir to power Jones slips away.

This book in many ways is a swansong for those glory days of the foreign correspondents and those hacks who went all over the world in the hunt for the story. They are still out there but in the web age it is not the same and the world Stacey describes here seems to have gone forever.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

bookmark of the week

This was sent to me a while ago by a fellow blogger and good friend Stuart Allen who slipped it into a book he sent me. Whenever I see it thoughts turn to him and his generosity.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

bookshops worth a visit - Topping, Bath

one of the advantages of having family in Bath is that it provides a chance to go to a couple of great bookshops. Topping is the first selection and there will be another next week. What has to be said about this bookshop is that as well as having a great selection, it has all of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past as an example, it has a wonderful ambiance. It also hosts numerous writer events, none of which I am yet to get to but it is on the do list.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Thoughts at the half way point of The Locked Room

There is a great deal more humour in this book than some of the others in the Martin Beck series and there is incredible confidence being shown by the authors.

It's hard to imagine anyone effectively sidelining the main character for half of the story as the action focuses elsewhere but this is what they do with Beck who as a result cuts an even lonelier figure.

In a tale dominated by bank robberies and blundering officials Beck concentrates his mind on working out just who killed the man in the locked room.

Review on completion soon...

Thursday, February 04, 2010

book review - A Dreambook for Our Time - Tadeusz Konwicki

“Your sick,” he said, quietly. “You see everything in unnatural proportions and in weird associations. You suspect people of having complexes they don’t have. Please look at them, living their own lives, now better, now worse, they love or dislike one another, they work or idle, are sad and cheerful. But they’re normal. They’re healthy. It’s you who is sick.”

One of the most basic things you look for as a reader embarking on the journey of a fresh book is for the signposts that the author has decided to use to help you on the journey.

Is the book split into parts, long or short chapters or in this case none at all has a bearing on the experience. Clearly here the effect that was being aimed at was a stream of consciousness. As the main character Mr Paul drifts in between dreams, memories and the present the fact there are no breaks in the narrative is meant to make that effect feel more powerful.

Sadly for me it just didn’t work and it would be difficult to see it having the desired impact unless read at one sitting. But aside from the style the story itself is a tale of loss and that does get through and sticks with you.

Before concentrating on the main character look at the situation he is living in and the people around him all are scarred by the past in a small polish village. He is in a valley dominated by a forest and river where a partisan leader is reputed to live even though the war ended many years before. The woods are full of ghosts anyway with an abandoned German bunker that was being built by Hitler, graves of those killed by the Red Army and the memories of the villagers who sought shelter there in times of occupation.

But the forest is now turning against the valley with engineers and machinery turning up with plans to dam the river and flood the valley. The past will be sealed under water and the shadow of that forthcoming flooding hangs over everyone.

The book starts with the main character coming round from an attempted suicide, although even that remains slightly vague with his reasons for taking poison never really unfolding. Surrounding the ill man on the bed is a cast of oddballs all with their secrets. Count Pac, who denies his aristocratic heritage, is arguing with the partisan Krupa who is denying he is a Jew. Then there is the railwayman who is struggling to talk of the past and the horrific deaths of his wife and children.

But the main focus is of course on Paul and his battle to come to term with his own past. As he unravels his own memories he reveals a life as a partisan, killer and a loner living in the woods fighting the Germans and trying to find a place to settle after rejecting his parents.

As he talks of leaving the village he believes he has met a figure from his past but as he tried to get closer to resolving history it slips away from him. Even his attempts at some sort of future happiness escape from him.

As you stand back from it you start to widen the story to summarise the feelings of a nation. Invaded and fought over by the Germans and Russians the Poles are left wondering just where they stand. Where is safe and what land can be called home? Everywhere you look there are ghosts and the actions of the living intertwine with those of the dead.

A difficult book to get through and one that at moments seems to be going down a dead end but as the train pulls away from the station and alone Paul has to decide about his future you do feel engaged and you understand the predicament of someone haunted by their own history.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Thoughts at the halfway point of The Man Who Knew Everything

One of the problems with this book is that it reminds you of some many others. You think of Our man in Havana, The Quiet American by Greene and it also sparks off other memories of films. But putting that familiarity to one side the story does slowly start to creep up on you.

Trying to identify with an aged hack who has based himself on a small Arab nation is not something that comes naturally but underneath the old exterior the desire to get the story out still seems to be there.

In many ways it is describing a lost world of foreign correspondents, Fleet Street and newspapers of the old school. Waiting to see how the second half develops.

Review soon…

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Thoughts at the halfway point of A Dreambook for Our Time

This book takes a while to get going partly because it has such a disorientating start. The lead character emerges from a poison induced coma to find that he is surrounded by the villagers from a small Polish town.

The year is in the early 1960s but for those in the village it could easily be further back in the past as most have an existence dominated by the shadow of the Second World War. The village is also dominated by the nearby woods which are reputed to be the hiding place of a partisan leader as well as the burial ground for war victims. Hitler started to build a bunker complex there and the memories of the events of the war are supported by the physical reminders.

So it is no surprise with all the memories and the general looking back to the past that the main character starts to unfold his own memories. Just what he is doing in the village is unclear but he seems to be looking for someone and the woods and the partisan leader hold the key. But he is also influenced by the experiences of those around him and he seems to be searching for someone he knew in the war.

Full review soonish…

Monday, February 01, 2010

book review - The Story of Mr Sommer - Patrick Suskind

“...I’d just been watching a man who all his life was on the run from death.”

Sometimes books should stand out against the conventional novel offering an experience that is different but just as valuable. The reason why this book first stood out in a shop that displays its books stacked up on a circular table was because of the illustration on the front and the quality of the paper.

This tale of growing up is interspersed with lovely illustrations that at first make you mistakenly think that this is a children’s book. Its audience is squarely adult with the tale of growing up in a village in Germany one that has its lighter moments but also has a darker side.

What you find as a reader going through the collection of anecdotes that are linked with the background presence of Mr Sommer is that you find yourself nodding with not necessarily the same exact memories but certainly the same feelings of inadequacy that the young author feels as he tried to deal with girls, bitter old piano teachers and the demands of his TV loathing parents.

The main focus of the story is the elusive and mysterious Mr Sommer who spends his time strolling round the countryside walking constantly inviting both childish ridicule as well as adult suspicion about what is his driving force. Is he claustrophobic or is he running away from a dull marriage? You don’t find out for a long time that he is running away from death in perhaps the only way he knows how a very literal escape.

Although there are a few anecdotes here with the family, bicycle and piano teacher being unwrapped next to the Sommer overarching story it is the sense of change as the main character grows up that unites them all. He is writing about a period when television is just emerging, cars are starting to crop up on the roads and the isolation of the little villages is coming to an end. In many senses Sommer is a character that is stuck in the past opting to walk and refusing the chance to get a lift in a car and spurning possessions.

The ending is a very sharp reminder that some events can shape a life forever and some of the moments of extreme tragedy we witness as children can imprint on our minds and stay there influencing thoughts about the world.