Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Month review - June

Really enjoyed June from a reading perspective. Six months into the year and firmly settled into a pattern of reading seven books a month with the occasional eighth one creeping in as it did this month.

There was a good mixture in the month of some books that have been around for a while, life of Pi, and others that are just hitting the bookshelves including the Peile and the Baxter.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Repeat it Today With Tears by Anne Peile
Sabra Zoo by Mischa Hiller
All My Friends are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman
Amulet by Roberto Bolano
Black Water Rising by Attica Locke
Stones in a Landslide by Maria Barbal
A Preparation for Death by Greg Baxter

In terms of foreign lit Sabra Zoo was wonderful and Bolano's Amulet gave me an insight into his writing that I had missed in reading 2666. Stones in a Landslide was a moving story of love and loss against the background of the Spanish Civil War.

Hoping July will be as good if not better. Onwards and upwards.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

book review - A Preparation for Death - Greg Baxter

"I have always dreamed of a book with a last chapter that was unnecessary, that went on too long, that took place somewhere else, with other people, and left the old story to flap about in the breeze. I am not in search of a self. I am leaving one behind. I plan to cast the self who came here into oblivion - the author of this book, who has nothing more to say."

The best way of describing this is that it is akin to strapping yourself into a rollercoaster and heading off for a journey at speed with some ups and downs and some bits that are just plain disturbing.

A prologue explains that the author, a journalist with little job satisfaction and a creative writing teacher, was heading for death on a cocktail of cigarettes, late nights and alcohol. he set out to write down stories about his life as some sort of cleansing exercise almost as a last will and testament of his belief in his talent.

With one book under his belt, which had never been published and a second he hadn't even bothered to try and get accepted, Baxter was clearly heading nowhere fast.

There are broadly two types of stories in this book, which feels like a short story collection built around the central theme of the writer trying to emerge despite everyone including himself giving up on him. the stories that work better are those about his background in Texas and his family. The story of his attempts to make it at a Southern writers conference and the off behavior of his parents are written with great insight. As are the chapters covering his search for his European family history and the final chapter set in Vienna with his relations.

the chapters that don't work so well are those dealing with his life and existence in Dublin. On occasions the descriptions leak into pornographic magazine territory with candid descriptions of his sexual antics. His loathing for his job is funny, particularly if you share his views on that subject, but the slide into self destruction is perhaps a bit too strained after a while.

The idea that this is a series of stories, thoughts and a life being described before it ends just about holds it together. what will be more interesting is what comes next because having proved to the world he can write what will Baxter do next for his theme? I suspect the idea of sitting down and writing when he is very much alive will produce something that is perhaps more rounded than this and that will be a book worth looking forward to.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Thoughts at the half way point of A Preparation for Death

There are some things that really chime with me with this book. Firstly the author is stuck on a trade magazine dreaming of better things. Secondly he wants to turn his dreams and energies into becoming a writer.

But the results so far are a bit up and down. This reads like a collection of short stories that are occasionally echoes of things that have gone before because of the characters popping up again. But the result of the short story collection nature of it is that of course some chapters stand out more than others.

Where Baxter is strong is in describing his attempts to emerge as a writer back in Texas before he moved to Dublin. The action set in Dublin is where some of those dreams have hit the buffers so the tone is darker.

But as he explains in his preamble this book in a way saved his life, showed him just what was possible and how he could make it as a writer, so possibly the second half will have a rather more upbeat tone.

Review to follow soonish...

Sunday, June 27, 2010

bookmark of the week

This is a promotional bookmark for Horrid Henry. He is a boy who tends to say things about teachers you might think but not say out loud and get into scrapes and pranks that leave him in trouble. All good fun and an hit with children everywhere,

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Reading aloud

Parents are encouraged to read to their children because it plants the seed of love for the written word but I'm going to have to confess it's hard pre five to get that excited reading out Spot goes to the Zoo.

But once they hit five and above you start to enter a magical world of Dragons, adventures and strange characters like Mr Gum.

Over the course of this year I've been reading books in the following series to the kids and can recommend them all.

Dinosaur Cove by Rex Stone
Two boys find a magic cave that leads them back to a forgotten land full of dinos. Each book concentrates on them discovering another part of the world they have found as well as meeting a new kind of dino.

Beast Quest by Adam Blade
A series of thirty odd books about the adventures of Tom and his friends as they try to fight the evil wizard and release the mythical beasts from the curse the black wizard has put them under.

You're a Bad Man Mr Gum by Andy Stanton
These book are crazy and the kids love them. Mr Gum is a horrible man who wants to crush fun wherever he can but Polly always seems to be on hand to save the day.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

book review - Stone in a Landslide - Maria Barbal

"I know now that the happiest period of my life began about then, even if, if truth be told, the bad times were waiting behind all the laughter."

There are stories about the Spanish Civil War told from the viewpoint of those fighting in them, Homage to Catalonia and Farewell to Arms spring to mind, and there are others that reveal stories of those imprisoned and caught up with them, the wonderful Carpenter's Pencil by Manuel Rivas is an example.

But this is something different again and comes from an angle that shows not only how the war tore families apart but also how it provided those driven by petty jealouses with a terrible chance to settle old scores. The tension that exists in isolated villages is given a dangerous outlet as people pick sides and are labelled as heroes or terrorists.

This story is told from the view point of Conxa who leaves her home village at the age of 13 and travels to stay with her childless Aunt and Uncle. She lives with them working and growing on their land and falls in love with the maverick figure of Jaume who offers a touch of the exotic with his travels and a breath of fresh air as he yearns for change.

They have two children and seem happy enough until Jaume starts to get excited about the chance to change the system and ends up being identified with those that wind up on the anti-Franco side. The politics is kept to the minumum because the story is told through the eyes of a woman who knows only the changes in her husband and senses the danger that they might bring.

As the war comes to the village and the door of their home Jaume, along with others, is taken away. The powers that be then come for Conxa and her daughters and they enter a period of captivity made worse by the drip feeding of rumours about the execution of Jaume and the others.

Conxa returns to the village a widow but not seeking revenge. She has lost her soul mate and lost her innocence. As she slips into old age and loneliness she reflects on just what happened and how she misses Juame. The cost of war for those left at home and left alone is rarely captured so powerfully as it is in the character of Conxa.

In some ways this is a coming of age tale that happens to include the bitter twist of war. The narrative voice is the feature of this story that is something you will remember long after the book has been put to one side. The way that Peirene Press has produced this book with the presentation being delivered so beautifully it is one of those books that have that magical quality indicating even before you start reading that this is going to be something special. It did not disappoint.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

World Literature Weekend - Central Europe

The second session from Sunday's World Literature Weekend event held by the London Review Bookshop provided a chance to have a debate about a wide area - Central Europe.

Penguin has recently published a ten book series under the umbrella the Central European Classics and the series editor Simon Winder was flanked by several translators Michael Hofmann, George Szirtes and Tomáš Zmeškal to talk about what it meant to be central European when the books that covered the start of the last century up to around the end of the second world war and what it means now.

There were several conclusions that are worth capturing and sharing here.

The first, and once you think about it one of the most obvious, is that most of these writers were describing a world that no longer exists. Winder talked about one writer who had not only the name of his home ton changed but his entire country subsumed into another.

Add to that the quite widespread phenomenon of having cultures that hated each other tightly packed together and you had a melting pot of languages, migration both voluntarily and compulsory as well as war.

This produces an almost dream like quality to most of the writing where the world's that the writers inhabit are often imagined and fluid. That is a theme that the assembled speakers agreed went through the classics series.

The second theme was around the idea of an anti-state position. Michael Hofmann said that at first he didn't understand why Thomas Bernhard had been included until he came to look at it from this anti-state point of view. he said that during his writing career Bernhard was racked on the knuckles with writs and legal actions but had been slightly further east he would have been imprisoned and much more heavily censored.

Finally when it came to looking at the future there was a feeling that central Europe was potentially re-emerging having been squeezed out of common parlance after the end of the second world war. With the collapse of the Austro Hungarian Empire, then years later the spread of Soviet satellite states Europe became divided into East and West with not a great deal of room for the Central states to have their own identity in the middle.

That could potentially change as the political geography of Europe changes. The writers in the series are still read by their native Czech and Hungarian readerships and there was a sense that the world and mentality that emerges through the pages of the books in the Penguin series could come out of the shadows once more.

Monday, June 21, 2010

World Literature Weekend - Yekaterina Grossman

Having been lucky enough to get to the London Review Bookshop World Literature Weekend at the British Museum yesterday I wanted to provide my thoughts and views from the two sessions that I attended.

The first session provided a chance to hear from a living relative to one of Russia's greatest 20th century authors, Vasily Grossman. I will post thoughts on the second session tomorrow.

His daughter from his first marriage, Yekaterina Korotkova-Grossman, was in London for the first time to talk not just about her father and his work, but also her own memoirs of growing up in a Soviet world during and after the traumatic Second World War.

She was joined by the translator of her father's work, most recently Everything Flows, Robert Chandler who is also an authority on the work he has spent a great deal of time and energy translating.

Grossman is well known for the masterpiece Life & Fate (my review from a while ago is here) covering the horrors of the Second World War and the events in Stalingrad. The battle is a backdrop but the real fight here is not for control of buildings and a city but of your own mind and the position to be able to speak your mind without fear of attack.

Yekaterina recalled the devastation that her father felt when he tried and failed to get Life & Fate published and how years later when she tried to get support from writers and the authorities for publication how most of them did not have the guts or the gumption to support her.

It was eventually published in Russia in 1988 and became a 'must read' book with some of the same publishers that had turned it down using the poor excuse of thinking this was a different book from the one they originally read as a way of saying they had not quite understood what they potentially were working with.

There were then questions around his other work with Everything Flows and For a Just Cause both being mentioned as books that have moments that rival Life & Fate.

Chandler said that a great deal of Grossman's sophistication, particularly with historical writing, had been overlooked and deserved to be recognised.

But the session really belonged to Yekaterina. Speaking occasionally in English but with great fluidity and humour when she returned to her native Russian she painted a picture to the audience, via her translator, of a childhood in a poor world that was also a fickle one.

Waves of antisemitism washed over her father and she told of her experience as a teacher who was attacked by colleagues who accused her father of being a coward for not repenting and admitting he was wrong. She rightly argued it was a cowards way out to tow the party line.

She said that her father might be associated with writing about some of the most horrific events in Russian history but he was essentially an optimist and thought human beings could improve themselves. His optimism she said was higher than those people currently living in Russia.

She has written one volume of her memoirs and is working on another at the moment to cover the years she lived in Tashkent. She has that ability to describe so well a lost world. A world that was full of fear and poverty but one that was incredibly interesting.

As she said of her experience of reading her father's work for the first time it described , "a poor world but you wanted to live there".

Sunday, June 20, 2010

bookmark of the week

This bookmark came with a certificate to tell me my son has had a poem published in a book. It is a bit of a gimmick to get parents to part with their money but it's a very good gimmick that is going to work. This bookmark helps sway you because it acts as a reminder to order.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Thoughts at the halfway point of Stone in a Landslide

Gently but masterfully you find yourself being taken by the hand into a world of rural Spain in the early years of the 20th century.

The main character Conxa is being sent from her village to the home of her aunt and uncle in an attempt to provide her with a better chance in life and for the teenager it is the furthest she has ever been from home. Once she has left she knows that she will never go back.

As the pages turn the years go by and the teenager becomes an essential part of the household and falls in love with the son of the blacksmith. Some disapprove of the match, particularly after Conxa turns down the hand of the son of one of the richest landowners, but her heart is set and she manages to get her wish.

Beautifully written with little phrases that you will not easily forget very much looking forward to the second half. A review will come next week...

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A weekend celebrating foreign fiction begins

The London Review of Books World Literature Weekend kicked off tonight with a get together in the bookshop in Bloomsbury.

Among the translators, journalists and bloggers were a couple of authors who will speaking over the weekend. One of the translators was asked to speak and she reminded the assembled audience of the importance of bringing foreign literature to a British audience.

She said that only around 2-3% of translated works were published in Britain each year compared to around 50% in France. We have a long way to go to catch up.

I'm attending two sessions on Sunday afternoon and will report back on those. Any fears that those sessions might end without spending some money on the relevant books was calmed by a member of staff who pointed out the LRB will be open for signed sales after the sessions.

Roll on WLW 2010.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The presentation that let's you know it's special

Some books are put together with such care that just the experience of opening up the covers is a pleasure in itself. Even before you read the words that have been printed with such care on the page.

That is the experience of picking up Stone in a Landslide published by Peirene. The book offers a great combination of simplicity but wonderful presentation. There are a few publishers making the effort to do this and it really does make a difference because you want to pick it up and get into it.

You know that what's inside is going to be special because those responsible for bringing it to life so clearly feel that.

Looking forward to reading Maria Barbal's Stone in a Landslide later this week.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Thoughts at the halfway point of Black Water Rising

Even at the half way stage there are several things that you can say about this book.

Firstly the writing is tight and clever with a number of plotlines going on in a manner that reminded me of American Tabloid by James Ellroy.

Second, the combination of guns, death and corruption is as good as you will find anywhere from Chandler through to Mosely.

Finally, for a refreshing chance a book emerges that is not set in the 1930s or using the backdrop of the troubled 1960s and reminds the reader that bad things also happened in the 1980s. Apart from bad haircuts, a fair amount of awful music there was also plenty of bad things going on against the civil rights movement.

Locke pulls you in with her main character the slightly off the tracks but trying to do better now Jay Porter who manages to get himself into something dark the minute he pulls a woman out of the murky depths of the Bayeou that crawls through Houston.

From that point you want to know what happens now only to the woman, but to Jay's marriage, his business and to his community. Good stuff.

A review will follow soon...

Monday, June 14, 2010

book review - Amulet - Roberto Bolano

"I felt as through i was being wheeled into an operating room. I thought: I am in the women's bathroom in the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature and I am the last person left. I was heading for the operating room. I was heading for the birth of History."

What happened in Mexico in 1968 is often overlooked as the other worldwide events of that year jostle for attention. Students across the world protested in May that year with Paris in particular taking centre stage in the movement against the ancient regime. Elsewhere Martin Luther King was assassinated and the Vietnam war was raging.

In Mexico the response to the student protest and the threat it might derail the Olympics was a crackdown that included the Tlatelolco massacre where student and civilian protesters were massacred in Mexico City. That is the background to Amulet which charts the impact of the crackdown on the students from the view point of a slightly detached but intimately involved observer.

Auxilio Lacouture is a Uruguayan who moves to Mexico and dedicates her life to seeking out poets both those that have been discovered and found fame as well as those that are yet to make an impact. She refers to herself as the mother of poets and moves between the homes of writers and the university literature department where she spends a great deal of her time.

The moment that changes everything is the storming of the university by the army and the 12 days that Auxilio spends hidden in the toilet while the students and lecturers are carted off into poi lice vans and for some to beatings and captivity.

As she looks up from her book of poetry she was reading in the toilet stall and realises something has changed she starts to wander free from her physical location through her memories. But she sees things that are yet to happen and meets people that have long since died creating vivid meetings that exist in her mind only. The hallucinatory journey creates a flavour to the writing that makes it difficult to pin down exactly what is happening.

As a result to a degree you let it wash over you with the end result that you feel as a reader how acutely things have changed as a result of the repression. The watershed in terms of history and attitude means that some of the poets she dreams of will never become the people they should and those that have died will never have to see what Mexico has done to its own children.

The final scenes, which again bring back the sense of a hallucination, are incredibly powerful reminding you that those that die for a cause not only go to death with those beliefs but because of their example leave an indelible mark that is there for all to see. That is the amulet that is passed from one generation to the next.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

bookshop of the week

Not sure if I have done this one already but it is worth a repeat. Will be here next weekend for the World Literature Weekend which is also incredibly interesting, and a good excuse to buy books.

The shop is a book lovers dream with well stocked shelves and helpful staff providing an oasis in Bloomsbury. If you ever go to The British Museum for a day out then its only a quick walk away and well worth a visit.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Thoughts at the halfway point of Amulet

"This is going to be a horror story. A story of murder, detection and horror. But it won't appear to be, for the simple reason that I am the teller. Told by me, it won't seem like that. Although, in fact, it's the story of a terrible crime."

Don't be fooled by the idea that just because a Bolano book is shorter than the epic 2666 it is less of a challenge. You need all your concentration here and a mind that is quick to pick up on the facts that are given to you. Miss the fact that this story is set against the background of 1968 repression in Mexico and you are in trouble.

In some ways it helped having read a few years ago, and vaguely remembered the dealings with Mexico, in Mark Kurlansky's book 1968. That account of a fairly radical year gave me the ability to come to this book with the knowledge that some fairly horrible things were carried out in Mexico in the late sixties as the leaders of the day looked to crush any form of opposition. With the Olympics going to the country the last thing the leaders wanted were public displays of unrest and the universities were targeted to snuff out any potential student opposition.

Bolano puts his main character, a woman who hangs around with poets and professors in the literature department, bang in the middle of that action with her being the last one left inside the university as the army mounts a raid.

As she struggles to understand what is happening around her mind starts to travel through the past and the future.

A review follows soon...

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A forehead slapping Bolano moment

Had one of those forehead slapping moments today when the writing of Roberto Bolano started to make a great deal more sense.

What has helped me unlock it is by starting to read the Amulet. Here is a book that concerns a specific event, the terrible events in Mexico in 1968 where opposition was silenced with torture cells and bullets.

But the story unfolds with a woman who moves to Mexico and starts to hang around with poets and literature professors. She finds herself the last one in the University as the army lay siege to the building as she is distracted reading poetry on the toilet. So far so good.

Of course things aren't quite as simple as that with the action of 1968 surrounded by memories and speculations about poetry, teeth and Mexico.

And that's when I realised that the point being made is how art reacts to life and how poetry interacts with not just the mundane but the brutal. In 2666 there are several things going on but one of them has to be about the way Mexican society is being torn apart by drugs and how intellectuals are not immune from it. Their search for a reclusive author would have ended in a court room as the German writer became intertwined through his extended family in some killings in Mexico.

In a way it has made me appreciate and understand 2666 a great deal more. perhaps it would have been better to have read The Amulet before but that's the way reading unfolds sometimes.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Reading and writing

Years ago I was told an anecdote about a journalist on the Daily Telegraph who was asked by his editor "have you read the story?" to which the hack replied "I can either write for this paper or read it, which would you prefer?"

Feeling a bit like that at the moment as I'm head down concentrating on the reading and sure enough when you let the reviews slide a bit the reading you are able to do seems to speed up a little bit.

But I'm all too aware that the days slip by without a post and more importantly that pile of books that need to be reviewed just gets longer. So after the next book, this is a mantra coming up, I intend to sit down and do some reviews. Just one more book and then things should get going ;)

Monday, June 07, 2010

book review - Repeat it Today With Tears - Anne Pelie

Got to start by putting my cards on the table. I'm a prude. Yes that's right I struggle with reading sex scenes in books. It makes me feel uncomfortable and I know that's my problem not the authors but that's just the way it is. Put it down to a religious upbringing or something.

So it was with a deep breath that I allowed myself to be taken into this story of incest between a father and a daughter. I'm not going to try and fudge it I didn't like the sex scenes.

But this is not just a book trying to court some sort of shock value and there is something quite important being raised here about the sense of damage and how someone can long for a love so much that the lines between a paternal and sexual relationship blur.

The relationship takes up the central action of the book but there is the build up as Susanna sets out to discover her father and the post collapse of the affair that make this a study of an individual woman growing up and falling apart.

As well as the father and the daughter the other main character is 1970s Chelsea which is described so well this is almost like a historical travelogue at points allowing you to walk through a lost world full of colourful characters and real possibilities as the young dreamed of changing their lives and their parents partied and bed hopped their way out of boredom.

Neither the father or the daughter come out of this in a good position with one dead and the other institutionalised. But beyond the shocking incest the way that Peile handles the impact on Susanna is what makes this book keep your attention. The search for love takes her to places that really she shouldn't have gone but it is her fear of rejection and the need to be possessed by a love so strong it fills in all the gaps of her childhood that drives her to make a fatal decision.

Even afterwards it is the loss of that love that returns her to someone who is clearly mentally damaged. She had been all along but when there was hope of finding her father and filling the gap it remained hidden. With him gone she can never be healed.

I might have struggled with this book and found some of it deeply disturbing but in some senses literature should be challenging and brave enough to go to to the dark places and see what's lurking in the darkest corners. In that sense Peile has managed to deliver.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

bookmark of the week

There is a Russian magazine celebrating that country's art, literature and culture that I have picked up in the past. Rossica produced a wonderful edition celebrating the 300th anniversary of St Petersburg and is also involved with an annual Russian translated literature prize. This bookmark must have come with a magazine from a few years ago but is a welcome reminder of why it is worth picking up old issues and ordering some new ones.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Thoughts at the half way point of Repeat it Today with Tears

Right here we go. Susanna wants to find her father, she wanders the streets of 1970s Chelsea edging closer to escaping from her mother and her dreary boyfriend and landing a place at Oxford University.

But first there is satisfying the urge to find her father, the man who abandoned her as a child. She heads out to track him down and when she does she makes the choice of not revealing who she is. For the old lady killer this seems to be one love affair that he can't believe is happening and he enters into it as a lucky lamb walking to the slaughter.

The slaughter it might well turn out to be as this can surely only end one way in trouble. it makes uncomfortable reading but the description of 1970s London is fantastically conveyed and the eye for character is spot on.

A review will follow on completion of the book...

Friday, June 04, 2010

book review - Life of Pi - Yann Martel

"So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can't prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?"

Surely the measure of a good book is that the writer can take you into an almost unbelievable situation but do so in such a confident way that you allow yourself to be carried there with your imagination not only intact but enhanced by the experience.

Back in the pre-children days when I went to see films that had a rating of more than a PG I used to sit in the dark and remember my old English teacher talking about suspending my disbelief. That phrase returned to my mind when reading Life of Pi.

In fact the book sparked various memories with the first part of the book about a childhood in India reminding me of Rushdie's writing. The middle section had me remembering Pincher Martin being shipwrecked and trying to survive on a rock by William Golding and other parts also brought up echos with a remote acidic island in the Pacific being almost a scene from a Ballard world.

But of course the way that they are all mixed together is down to Martel and he carries you through brilliantly.

The first section introduces you not only to the main character Pi, who grew up with the name Piscine Patel which caused him problems as he was known as "pissing' at school so he changes it to Pi. He lives with his brother and parents in India enjoying the life of a zoo owners son so he is surrounded by animals and understands how the animals behave in captivity. He sets out to search for God and manages to get involved with Hinduism, Christianity and become a Muslim. This causes a few problems but highlights how fervent Pi's search for truth has been.

His religion is put to the test in the second part of the book when the boat taking his family and a few of the animals to Canada to start a better life is sunk leaving Pi and an assortment of animals clinging to life in a lifeboat. On board is a zebra with a broken leg, orangutan, hyena and a tiger. The tiger is called Richard Parker, after a cock-up with the naming papers when he was captured, and after the animals start feeding off each other it ends up with just Pi and Richard sharing the boat. They share that small space, each holding onto each other's territory, for 227 days until the boat arrives on the shores of Mexico.

The final section deals with a couple of Japanese insurance agents who have been sent to quiz the sole survivor of the sunk ship over what might have happened. Their notes contain a great deal of humour and ask of Pi most of the questions the reader would want to know. Were the animals really there or was it an allegory for human behavior. To satisfy their need for something they can understand Pi gives them a story where the animals are human characters from the boat. But what really happened is the question that returns to the belief in God. You can argue all you like that something is not true but if you have faith, well then things are different.

I know some people will have struggled with the book because of its mixture of symbolism, soul searching and oddness but those that read it as a self contained story and not as something that is a springboard to encourage further thoughts in the reader are limiting the experience by setting their own boundaries.

In some ways the story is fantastic and the details of the routine to survive are sometimes edging the limits of your reading tolerance but those are minor faults with a book that takes you as a reader on the most wonderful journey. Apart from the second section possibly going on to long I enjoyed the book immensely and can see why it won the Man Booker.

Pi ends telling the Japanese agents that they will not come across Richard Parker because he has hidden himself where he can never be found. That is a hope that perhaps lies in all of us that our inner tiger can be contained and kept at bay.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Thoughts at the half way point of Life of Pi

One of the joys of being an avid reader is that you are never short of books to read. Particularly when it comes to catching up on things that you might have missed out on that become topical.

A great example is Life of Pi which passed me by but has become firmly fixed on the radar as a result of the latest Yann Martel. With Martel's latest Beatrice and Virgil getting a very rough ride from the critics it seemed like a very good idea to read the book they all hold up as being a high point in his career that he has been unable to recapture with Beatrice and Virgil.

Books often remind you of other reads so the Indian childhood of Pi reminded me of Midnight's Children and the struggle to survive once he had been cast adrift on the Pacific kept bringing back memories of Golding's Pincher Martin.

The idea of a boy being stuck at sea with a tiger is one that would test a writer particularly when the scenes are played out over a hundred or so pages. But Martel puts you on the boat and manages to keep you there. It will be interesting to see what the story is in aid of and that keeps you going.

A review will follow soon...

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The month in review - May

May turned out to be an odd month real stops and starts. Managed to read two books in a couple of days on a flight and then nothing for a week and a half. Still managed to be very good overall and a good month hitting the topical button with the David Mitchell and the discover something new button with The Cuckoo Boy and reminding myself, if that's needed of the power of something a bit older with the William Maxwell.

The Elephant had me laughing in places and the Carpenter's Pencil reminded me of a Pan's Labyrinth type world of dreams, love and brutality. As for Young Hitler well it came as not a great deal of surprise to find out he wasn't a good person to know even before he got into power.

Young Hitler by Claus Hant
Natasha by David Bezmozgis
The Elephant by Slawomir Mrozek
The Carpenter's Pencil by Manuel Rivas
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell
The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa
The Cuckoo Boy by Grant Gillespie
They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell

One point of trivia is that out of the eight books read more than half started with 'The' in the title. Just noticed that.

Hoping next month will carry on in the same vein. Managed to get it to a level where 7/8 books are being read which is great. Should mean a healthy total for the year as a whole.

Onwards and upwards...

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

book review - They Came Like Swallows - William Maxwell

"It's about your mother," she said.
Her voice sounded hoarse, as if she had a cold.
She began to rock back and forth, back and forth, until her eyes covered over with tears. Robert turned and went out of the room.

Trying to describe this book after wards to a friend the best way was to describe it as looking at a family portrait from a distance and then noticing all the details when you went close.

So in this case the m other would be at the centre flanked by her husband and her sons but as you get up close you might notice Bunny the eight year old standing close to his mother and pulling on her sleeve for attention. Take a closer look at the brother Robert and you would see he has one leg slightly shorter than the other and you might correctly assume this was the result of a childhood accident. He would stand slightly further from his parents trying to assert his independence at the ripe old age of 13.

The father might look slightly aloof. More concerned with the bigger picture and work and war he has that look that shows he loves his wife but takes her presence in his world totally for granted. As for Elizabeth Morrison herself the matriach is pregnant and doesn't have long to go and displays signs of knowing just how fundamental her position is in the family. A look can cut her children down and a soft words can puff them up. She might also on closer inspection have a slight look of fear in her eyes.

You might put that fear down to the forthcoming pregnancy but it might just be because of the Spanish influenza and the knowledge that the illness that her husband is relatively quick to dismiss is sweeping across the country with her in its sights.

As tragedy engulfs the family Maxwell delivers brilliantly perceived portraits of the family members and hints and then shows the impact of loss on their lives. The final scenes are incredibly moving but done with such a sense of naturalness that the human reaction is a universal one he is describing.