Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Book #17 Joe Gould's Secret by Joseph Mitchell

Joe Gould's Secret

This book, a biography not a novel, was recommended by the writer Clare Allan at the same readers event I refer to in my last post. It is now out of print, but can be picked up for a penny plus postage on Amazon.

Mitchell, a writer comes across a homeless man in the Village in New York. Gould who would be described as a tramp or hobo in today's vernacular, is somewhat kindly and exotically described as a Bohemian, after the style of the artists and poets of the era. Gould himself is working on a book, an Oral History reflecting contemporary life in New York through the conversations of its inhabitants. He is celebrated by some of the greats of the day, for example E.E Cummings is a personal friend, but lives a very odd lifestyle subsisting on handouts, black coffee, cigarette butts, fried eggs and ketchup.

I was a little frustrated to discover there were two parts to this book, Joseph Mitchell's original profile for the New Yorker called 'Professor Sea Gull' and then 'Joe Gould's Secret' an expanded biography of Gould, but one which unfortunately and unbeknownst to me repeats some of the same anecdotes from the Professor Sea Gull section which I'd thought was the beginning of the book. I think its still important to read Professor Sea Gull, because the moment Joe Gould's Secret expands from follows the aftermath of the publication of that initial profile.

I had further problems with Joe Gould's Secret. I didn't much care for Gould himself, a man I found to be a conceited bombast, and I didn't much care for his biographer Mitchell either. Although I entirely understand the reasons why Mitchell got fed up with Gould and ultimately found him a nuisance; it must be remembered that Mitchell was the one who tracked Gould down, got involved in his world and used his story for professional gain, not once, but twice.

This book with both the profile and the biography is just 187 pages long, but I found myself page counting calculating how long I had left to go, which is to me, a REALLY BAD SIGN. Although, it's cover and inner page are littered with quotes praising it. Clearly the book has fans, so if you like stories about real life folk, you may like this. I'm afraid I didn't really. 5/10

Monday, 28 March 2011

Book #16 The Story Of Lucy Gault by William Trevor

The Story Of Lucy Gault

The Story Of Lucy Gault was shortlisted for The Booker Prize in 2002, which was won by 'Life Of Pi' by Yann Martel. Personally, I infinitely prefer this book. It was recommended at a Readers Day in January of last year and I bought it then with a number of other books. I have found I think over the years that if you buy one or two books you are more likely to read both but when you buy a boxful, ones get left aside. I do so like getting a big box from Amazon though it's like Christmas!

This is a difficult book to review without massively spoiling the plot so I'll have to be careful.
The story begins in 1920's Ireland. The Gault family are Protestant landowners with British connections, a dangerous combination in Ireland in the twenties. Captain Gault and his wife decide they must leave, but their young daughter Lucy does not want to go and decides she will make them change their minds.

What happens next is not the obvious, but her decision has tragic and lifelong consequences for all concerned, and not the sort of tragedy that heals with time, but a daily, pulsing, presence. The kind that makes people tell the story to each other at the mere mention of her name.

In the years that follow the characters live in something like suspended animation. Time moves on, events occur, the world changes but they do not. A relatively short book by my standards, the book is probably the better for its brevity, Trevor has a vision and executes it well.

This book is a novel about tragedy, grief, guilt, responsibility, solitude and love. Above all, it is profoundly sad, not in a way which makes you sob but in a way that makes you ache. Although this book will not become a favourite, the memory of it is going to stay with me for some time. 7/10

Book #15 Notorious by Roberta Lowing


They say you shouldn't judge a book by it's cover, but I'm afraid I did with Notorious. It's cover is stunning, intricate red and gold lines, surrounding a blue oval cut out in it's centre. The lettering of the title also looks like what Notorious means. I also like the word Notorious, the sound and all that it implies.

I bought this book in Borders in Christchurch, New Zealand
(Yes, they still have Borders there : extreme jealousy)

It was published by an Australian publisher, Allen & Unwin and is the work of an Australian writer. A check by me has found it to be unavailable on Amazon UK, but available on Amazon USA, so that's where the link at the top leads to.

As a debut novel this work deserves praise, a LOT of hard work has gone into it, and debut novels are normally not expected to be of this quality.

The main protagonists are Australian, a man going by the alias John Devlin and a woman who remains nameless throughout the novel. The action however bounces us through Poland, Morocco, Fifties Italy, Present Day Italy and Borneo, before bouncing us back again around these locations. The author also plays with the chronology of events so that the reader has occasional difficulty, at least I did, keeping track.  

I respect the fact that Lowing does not hold your hand through this novel, or spell anything out, generally I prefer it that way, but, having completed it I'm not sure if the conclusions I have drawn are the correct ones, perhaps that was intentional. If there is one thing this book cannot be accused of, it cannot be accused of lacking mysteriousness.

The entire novel from it's beginning prologue is a mystery. Why is the nameless woman being hunted? Just what did happen to her missing brother? What is the exact relationship between the woman and Devlin? And why, oh why, is that book authored by Arthur Rimbaud so significant? I got to around page 300 before I figured that out and wanted to kick myself.

The descriptive prose weaves a rich tapestry both of location and character, sometimes feeling rather more like poetry, and though we don't know the characters real names I felt that I knew them better than some characters in other novels whose names I did know.

Where I do have a slight criticism is in the dialogue, the woman almost always speaks in a poetic, philosophical, enigmatic way. Many of us experience the phenomena of analysing a past conversation and coming up with a clever answer which we "should have said". This woman always seems to have the clever answer, which I found artificial in a way. It is very pretty to read however.

The books last section reveals a twist/coincidence which I found rather unlikely if I'm honest. A bit like the happy coincidences of certain 19th century novels (I'm looking at you Jane Eyre and Great Expectations) The existence of this strange coincidence though, acts as a way of taking all the strings of the novel and tying them together in a way that is clever. Well, it's clever if I've understood the end of it correctly!

I think that this book is intriguing in every way and has a real sense of the atmosphere of all its locations, making you feel as a present observer, which is a genuine skill. I think however that the lack of a direct and clear explanation of all the things left untold, will definitely frustrate many readers. 8/10

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Book #14 The Keys Of The Kingdom by A.J Cronin

The Keys Of The Kingdom

I read an extract of this book last August, preceded to buy the novel that Autumn, took it on holiday in the Winter and never actually read it, so along with a couple of other books, I was  determined to "do" it.

Hodder reprinted a series of older books that had maybe been forgotten over time The Keys Of The Kingdom among them, and labelled them 'Great Reads' and several others on the list have aroused my curiosity, so they are probably coming soon to a blog near you. What did I think of this one?

Firstly, the novel misrepresents itself "The Bestselling Novel Set in China..." It's slightly over 400 pages long, the first 200 pages are not set in China and neither are roughly the last 60. Excuse me for being a pedant, but that's a novel where the action goes to China for a bit of it if you ask me.

I preferred the earlier part of the novel, dealing with the childhood of Francis Chisholm the novel's protagonist, who later, due to a combination of circumstances enters the priesthood.

Now this novel was published in 1941, before Vatican II, and behaviour which personally I find normal and commendable in a priest is classed as 'renegade' and 'difficult', and you feel very sorry for Father Chisholm, who against some of the other priests featured feels like the only genuine Christian. He has a well rounded belief system coloured in part by exposure to Protestantism in his youth, atheism among his friends and later the writings of Confucius in China. I don't know whether Cronin did this purposely to please allcomers to the novel.

What makes the novel different from The Vintner's Luck, is while God has a distinctly personal feel in that novel, I felt the tradition, dogma and bigotry of the old church seeping through the pages of this novel, with the exception of Chisholm himself.

But here also, I have issue, Chisholm, particularly in the China segment is presented almost as a saint. He is the ultimate, the perfect priest, but I find to deny him anything much in the way of weakness, vice or sin is somehow to deny him humanity.

Despite this the novel is eminently readable and you don't finding yourself slogging at it willing the end to arrive. In it's earlier section Cronin deals with a crime, that he couldn't have possibly been frank about in his era without risking controversy or censorship, with great skill, so that the reader is fully aware of what has taken place without the gory details being spelled out. I feel that this is the mark of a good writer. However, I was surprised at the seemingly automatic and total forgiveness shown to the culprit, though he is shown to have received divine rather than human retribution.

Overall I think I would give this book a 7/10

Friday, 25 March 2011

Book #13 The Vintner's Luck by Elizabeth Knox

The Vintner's Luck
Unlucky Number 13. Or not.

I found this book in a strange shop in Akaroa, New Zealand which sold everything from gollywogs to fudge. I was keen to read a book by a Kiwi author and my sister suggested Elizabeth Knox. I had hoped to read a book set in New Zealand, but in fact The Vintner's Luck is set in the vineyards of 19th Century France.

I am really loathe to even mention this book in the same sentence as One Day, let alone compare the two as though they were equals but the basic premise is the same.
When he is 18, Sobran Jodeau gets drunk, and stumbles across an angel, from there Sobran and the angel Xas meet each year on one day, the 27th of June for many years.

When I initially attempted to read this book, carting it from motel to motel, I found it odd, and couldn't get into it. Though its chronological, the jump from June to June made it feel disjointed as though a natural progression was missing. However, I decided that in my iPad addiction I had left paperbacks I had bought unloved and unfinished and decided I should finish them before getting any more electronic books.

I'm glad I did, the initial oddness i felt faded the more I read it, and I came to feel passionately that this was a book of beauty, a gem with a lyrical, magical quality to it. It's uniqueness and originality in every respect seems to make it defy normal descriptions. The juxtaposition of the human and the divine, the elements that seem to be inspired by Paradise Lost. The warm believable love, the dark secrets and mysteries, the allusions to insanity and even to evil, make this book although couched in the reality of wine production seem like a fairytale for adults, and an extraordinary one that.

I tend to like anything that inspires theological or philosophical thought, and whilst I recognise this isn't for everyone, I still think there's so much more to The Vintner's Luck , something for everyone. I would tell anyone turned off by the idea that it is about an angel, and therefore possibly religious to think again, as by not reading it for that reason you would be losing out on what I felt was a rich even sensual experience.

Read this book. 10/10

Book #12 Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Her Fearful Symmetry

Welcome to the "difficult second novel", when you've had a seriously massive hit with your first real novel, 'The Time Travelers Wife' (note intended for cave dwellers and well, time travellers) where on earth do you go?

It's tough as the weight of expectation is upon Niffenegger, and I expect many people picked up this book in the hopes of a new Time Travelers Wife, and were sorely disappointed. Not so me, if it had been a story with a similar feel to the former, I would have felt the author had just been and churned it out, and thought her initial success was a fluke and she lacked talent and imagination. This new novel proves she has both those qualities.

For me, though I will not have the same affection for it as I do its predecessor it is neither a greater nor a lesser book, it is more a shift sideways.

The novel has three strands to it, I suppose. The first is a study of the complex nature of the relationship of twins, particularly identical twins, and how that relationship can be at once joyful and suffocating. It focuses on two sets of twins, Edie and Elspeth Noblin and Edie's daughters Julia & Valentina Poole, who are similar in their problems yet different too.

The novel begins with the words 'The End', Elspeth's end, her death, and the novel begins from there, which reminded me of a line from a TS Eliot poem 'in my end is my beginning', because Elspeth's death is the catalyst of the first chain of events.

Elspeth leaves her estate to her nieces, who she has never met and who are barely aware of her existence. It is clear that at some point in the past, something happened between Edie and Elspeth, their relationship irretrievably broke down and despite being twins, they never saw one another again.
Julia and Valentina's relationship is overly interwoven, with Julia controlling what choices they make as a duo never as individuals, and, Valentina fragile and timid, unable to strike out alone.

The second strand of the book is three interlocking love stories. The first is Elspeth and her lover Robert, their tale being told partly through Robert's memories, and partly by Elspeth herself. The second is Martin and Marijke, their upstairs neighbours, which I wondered if it was included solely for light relief from the rest of the novel, and the third is Robert and Valentina, after Robert becomes drawn to her following Elspeth's death.

The third strand is what gives the novel it's uniqueness, it's a ghost story as well as a love story, Elspeth's ghost is trapped in her flat, and with the Highgate Cemetary in London serving as the novels backdrop, there is a clear attempt to add Gothic flair to the novel, which sometimes succeeds.

The novel is in so many ways about death, the death of relationships, the feeling that you are dead inside, the idea of being alive but not really living, and death and the afterlife itself, but it's still a very alive book.

The final third of the book brings with it two almighty twists, one of which there are earlier hints of and the other which shocks, at least it didn't occur to me personally that it was coming, and so that added to the novel's enjoyment for me, despite a more than passing nod to 'Beloved' by Toni Morrison.

I probably will never read this book again, but I would recommend it, just don't come looking for a Henry DeTamble and a Clare Abshire, you won't find them here. 8/10

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Poem #1 - Risk

To laugh is to risk appearing the fool.
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.
To reach for another is to risk involvement.
To expose your ideas, your dreams,
before a crowd is to risk their loss.
To love is to risk not being loved in return.
To live is to risk dying.
To believe is to risk despair.
To try is to risk failure.
But risks must be taken, because the
greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.
The people who risk nothing, do nothing,
have nothing, are nothing.
They may avoid suffering and sorrow,
but they cannot learn, feel, change,
grow, love, live.
Chained by their attitudes they are slaves;
they have forfeited their freedom.
Only a person who risks is free.

~ from page 147 of the book "Addiction by Prescription"
by Joan Gadsby ~

Because of a personal situation that occurred today, I remembered this poem I first heard 10 years ago, on the TV programme 'Castaway 2000' which was on the BBC. I think everyone is at times afraid to take the harder path, to take a risk, and I hope that I can read this poem, remember this poem and make a choice to be brave.

Book #11 The Corner by David Simon and Ed Burns

I wasn't looking to read another non fiction so soon, but I'd had The Corner on my Kindle app for a while, and it just sort of looked at me and I thought why not? The book itself in physical form is a doorstop, a paperweight, a tome, it's MASSIVE, and the handy thing about it being in electronic format is I didn't have to lug it around with me or have it weighing me down as I fought with it in order to actually keep reading!

I chose to read The Corner for two reasons:

1) I loved the HBO series The Wire, which itself was written by the same guy that wrote The Corner. I actually love The Wire so much that it's theme song is the ringtone on my mobile phone (cell)

2) Somebody I admire and respect, also a big fan of the Wire had over the previous year recommended it to an almost evangelical degree

so it's basically been hanging out, waiting its turn.

The book is so long and I spent so much time hunched over reading it, that I now, two days after finishing it have a pretty uncomfortable crick in my back, be warned.

The Corner is an astonishing piece of journalism, take one street corner, watch it for 12 months and write about events there, on my street corner or most street corners this would make a pretty dull premise and a pretty dull book. Not this street corner.

The Corner focuses on an area in Baltimore, were drug dealing is open and rife, the lives of its citizens perilous and short, if the bullet doesn't get you then the dope will. The conditions they live in have rightly been termed Dickensian with its citizens not only poor but living in absolute poverty.

My difficulty with The Corner was that although I loved the stories of DeAndre and Gary, Fat Curt and Blue, Fran, Ella Thompson and a motley crue of characters worthy of Dickens, I found the points at which the narration turned from these characters to Simon and Burns discussing the wider issues at large tough going.

This was because having already seen The Wire, I had as a viewer reached many of the conclusions which the authors spell out, I understood how the decline of blue collar jobs had contributed to neighbourhood decline, how when kids start small time drug dealing at 13 and 14, the education system has little to offer them that in any way resonates with or resembles their lives outside the schoolroom. How the war on drugs will never be won when those caught dealing or in possession return to the Corner with a suspended sentence, the prisons overcrowded, and even when they don't, there's always somebody ready to replace them.

As a wider issue those trying to make solutions, are making middle class solutions for problems and communities they don't understand, and some excellent points are made about the hypocrisies entailed.
Particularly the political candidate who held up The Corner on camera saying he would solve these problems, to be told that the essence of the book states the problems are beyond solution and was forced to admit he hadn't read it.

But, in the reading, as opposed to in the watching, I felt patronised, as though as a free thinking individual I wouldn't have the ability to look at all the sides and myself reach the same conclusion without Burns and Simon telling me their conclusion. I felt lectured to a degree.

But I did enjoy the human stories of those beaten by The Corner and those who beat the odds to survive it, and their stories are still in my head, and I wonder now fifteen years after the work was published, just how they're all doing. It is a great work of journalism, and must have taken the authors some time to write, and like Skloot in her book, also set in Maryland to gain the trust of those whose lives they placed under a microscope    8/10

Book #10 Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go

I saw the trailers for the film version of Never Let Me Go before I'd read the book, and found them off-putting to be honest, it seemed like a drab and drearfest and Keira Knightley is in it...but, when staying with two university friends in London, they both recommended it and themselves had yet to see the film adaptation.

What I like about the book is it's subtlety, Kathy H as the books narrator doesn't throw into your face all the background information at once, allowing you to discover it for yourself by degrees which I think shows great skill from Ishiguro. I rather wish I hadn't seen the trailer for the film as I would have known less of what the plot entailed whilst reading it, and what future awaited the 'Students Of Hailsham' which had I not been aware of I would have come to the book blind about. This is a shame for me as a reader because if you don't know, the book truly makes use of your curiosity as a reader and the art of sinister suspense.

Why are the students always at Hailsham? Why haven't they got parents? Why are they repeatedly told that their lives have been chosen for them and that their courses are set?

The book is very sad if you think about the way in which the characters hold on to their hopes and dreams and mythical legends of what chances could be if only you could ask the right person and prove the right thing, and in some ways the characters remain innocent in spite of their brutal reality.

What I did question after reading the book, is why none of them tried to "Do a Winston Smith" the hero of 1984 and stick two fingers to the system and leave it? Why did they blindly accept their fate? Was it because they were so indoctrinated as children it never occurred to them? And if so, that's another scary thought about the power to influence young minds.

This book is on reflection really good, and I think I would have a greater opinion of it had not the general concept been spoiled for me by knowledge of the film prior to reading it, so if you haven't seen the film, don't, read this first, and if you don't know what the film is about, try your best not to find out. 9/10

Book #9 The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund De Waal

The Hare With Amber Eyes

I'm not someone who generally reads non fiction but this was my second non fiction book of the year so far. It had simply caught my eye, I had seen it shooting up the Amazon chart, seen it promoted at Waterstones, liked the sound of the title, and bought it with no real idea of what it was about.

On the surface it traces the history of an heirloom passed on to De Waal from his Uncle, but it is really more of a wider tale of inheritance and loss. The heirloom in question is a collection of Japanese netsuke, I was unsure about what these actually were until I looked it up, thinking they were somehow like the crystal owl figure my Nana had on her mantelpiece when I was young. The netsuke are in fact like artistic buttons, used for belts and kimonos, but each has a different scene or animal engraved on to it.

As De Waal traces the path of the netsuke through his family, so too does he trace his own roots and his own ancestry and it is De Waal's personal journey as he does so that involves the reader far more than the netsuke themselves. It is a sort of 'Who Do You Think You Are?' with an heirloom as the celebrity, and the man investigating his family doing it the hard way rather than having it done for him.

You feel his personal connection to his past as he stands looking at the home of his ancestors The Ephrussi Family in Paris, the buildings now used for other purpose. The story begins with Charles Ephrussi, a spare son not needed to follow into the banking business of his family, and allowed to pursue an interest in art, becoming friends with many of the great artists of his era; who buys the netsuke after a craze for Japanese art becomes popular.

As he uncovers their story he uncovers a history of flagrant Anti-Semitism in Europe that is truly shocking, long before the rise of Nazism, but as we follow the path of that history, we inevitably reach the events of the Thirties and Forties of the last century, but how did his family survive? And just how  did they manage to hold on to their netsuke?

The Hare with Amber Eyes, is not just a family saga, but a story of hope, and how an object or a collection of them comes to symbolise that hope. It is an unusual story that I'm glad I read, and that I think that many would enjoy, and i think its current presence on the Amazon bestseller list is justified. 8/10

Book #8 - The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

The Corrections

This post should really be called 'The Problem with The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen" - I haven't finished it and have at present left it dangling in mid air in what is pretty early days of the novel.

It first caught my attention when I read that Oprah Winfrey had tried to select it for her Book Club and had been flatly refused by Franzen, saying he didn't want it to be included among books which he saw as "schmaltzy" and overly sentimental. At some point, he had a change of heart, no doubt realising that an Oprah recommendation creates a massive bump in sales, and has more recently allowed his new work Freedom to be part of Oprah's Book Club. For some reason I got it into my head that The Corrections must be one of the great American novels, and decided I must read it at some point. That point came and although the novel is meant to be about a woman trying to get her three children home for Christmas, I have thus far only read about Chip, one of the sons, a university lecturer who has lost his job following an ill advised relationship with a student and is trying to get a novel published.

The writing is terrible, truly truly terrible, and my tipping point with it came during a sex scene in which a woman was first described as having B.O stuck to the synthetic fabric of her clothes and then her vagina described as a warm affectionate rabbit springing forth. Dire.

So, I gave up the Franzen, but it still sits there on my Kindle like a rebuke. Haha, you haven't finished me, I beat you!!  But part of the challenge that I've now given myself, partly because of the Franzen and partly because I'm just anal that way, is that I have to finish all the book for it to count. So, one day when I feel like I can brave it, I shall return to The Corrections and tough it out. If anyone is reading this, and has read the book and can give me hope that it improves please do. Eventually I will update this post with a full review :-)

Book #7 The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

The Uncommon Reader

I did Alan Bennett for A Level, specifically the Talking Heads monologues: The cream cracker under the settee, the drunk vicars wife, the woman trying to hide the fact her daughter is mentally ill, the woman writing poison pen letters; they're the ones I remember but I don't think that's all of them.

The Uncommon Reader isn't a novel, it's more a short story or a novella. It has a whimsical pretext, the lead character is The Queen. Not some fictional queen our current queen, and yet it is a fictional story that Bennett has written about her, and a fictional portrait of her as a person, which makes it slightly odd yet interesting: It makes you automatically wonder if The Queen has read it and what she thinks of it, but that's something no one knows, if The Queen is A Reader and what she reads if she reads and that's the whole pretext of the story.

A mobile library comes to Buckingham Palace and the Queen, out for a stroll decides to venture in. From that one trip, she begins to read, a whole variety of things and 'gets into reading'. A servant she comes across in the mobile library helps her with her endeavour, and the two form an unlikely friendship....

This is a lovely little story which doesn't last long but does make you smile, and is worth the hour or so of your time it would take to read. 8/10

Book #6 Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

 Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited, or rather Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred And Profane Memories Of Captain Charles Ryder to give it is proper title is a known "classic". Though it was mentioned by Lawrence Llewellyn Bowen on 'My Life In Books' I'm not someone eager to take reading recommendations from the foppish one off of Changing Rooms as snobby as that may sound. I think it was him anyway it could have been the Mitford sister. What I did think was 'Oh yes, Waugh, I keep meaning to read Waugh and never have' and so I downloaded Brideshead Revisited.

Captain Charles Ryder and his company come across a stately home whilst on exercise, encouraged to see it by one of his men he replies 'I've seen it before' and the rest of the story takes place as a flashback.
Early in his university career Ryder befriends Sebastian Flyte the second son of Lord Marchmain, a man living in exile in Italy, having left his staunchly Catholic wife. Flyte brings him to visit their home and from there Charles visits become regular and he becomes intricately linked to their family.

Brideshead Revisited is of course now forever associated with the Eighties TV adaptation starring Jeremy Irons & I have to say without knowledge of it I would have been hard pressed to know what causes Sebastian's decline, Waugh of course could not have made the reasons explicit in the era in which he wrote, and a small, subtle clue is only given by Ryder towards the end of the novel when he is involved in a relationship with Sebastian's sister.

Although I love the drawing room society culture of Nineteenth Century literature, like Austen say, there was something about Brideshead that I thought was elitist and off putting, I didn't really care about them and I found them rather shallow. At the conclusion of the book, after the final event that Ryder shares with the family, I closed the book and I said : "The lesson apparently in this novel is : Catholicism ruins lives!!!" which is a strange conclusion to make because Waugh was a committed Catholic and i'm not sure that's the moral of the tale he would  have wished readers to take.

I think its "worthy" as in worth reading but again, I was disappointed as I'd heard it and Waugh mentioned so often over the years that I'd hoped to sink into a book which would forever stay with me and become a book that I wouldn't want to end and that experience didn't happen for me. I feel like maybe I "missed something" as you often do when you don't love a classic. Shame, really. 6/10

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Book #5 The Art Of Racing In The Rain by Garth Stein

The Art Of Racing In The Rain

This book was one of Clare Balding's picks on 'My Life In Books', and, I was somewhat unsure about it, thinking "it's a book about a dog" but it's so much more than that really, beautiful and moving in a way that 'One Day' just wasn't.

The dog, Enzo, is the novels protagonist with events being told from his perspective. Enzo prides himself on being almost human, and we read the real feelings he has that as a voiceless dog he cannot share with the world. He is owned by a young couple Denny and Eve, who later have a little girl but when things start to go wrong, and Enzo's sense of smell tells him Eve is sick, he cannot tell his owners

As a series of dreadful events begin to change Denny's life, it is Enzo who remains the constant, a true man's best friend. I've never owned a dog, but i think anyone who has will fall in love with  Enzo, I fell in love with him without being a dog lover. A truly lovely read, I think it's the best book I've read so far in this challenge.

Book # 4 One Day by David Nicholls

One Day

After a short break after The Finkler Question, I decided to pick up some recommendations from Anne Robinson's 'My Life In Books' on BBC2. On the first episode Richard Bacon recommended One Day by David Nicholls. His summary made it seem really interesting, two people, one day, twenty years  with the book checking in on One Day for each of those years.

The book also has rave reviews from everyone from Kate Mosse to Nick Hornby, and is covered with things such as 'Moving' and 'Heartbreaking'. Promising.

After I started the book, I briefly confused the author with David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas, which I haven't read rather than the author of Starter for Ten which I had previously read some years back and mostly enjoyed, that cleared up I got on with the book!

The relationship between Dexter and Emma seems rather implausible to me, a twenty year friendship apparently blossoming from a one night stand at the end of their university careers where they had 'seen each other around' but never really been friends.

From there Emma works a series of dead end jobs before becoming a teacher and Dex somehow stumbles into a TV career presenting a number of trashy shows likely to be found late at night on cable channels, their relationship developing and changing over the years.

I have to be honest and say that given the reviews and the talk I expected far more from this book than it delivered me. I felt like I had read this kind of story repeatedly in many different forms and though the concept was original the content and execution was not. I do believe that some people would enjoy it and I wouldn't criticise them for it.

I'm someone who likes 'When Harry Met Sally' I like stories of people who don't realise that their 'One' is staring them in the face, but I've also read chick lit, and I've read better versions of this story by authors not so respected like the husband/wife writing duo Josie Lloyd and Emlyn Rees in their book 'The Boy Next Door' or practically any Marian Keyes, who although they aren't that respected or praised are sometimes great for a rainy Sunday or just when you feel like something 'light'.

Also, I found Dexter pretty obnoxious, and Emma, a character I still didn't feel like I 'knew' by the end of the book. Overall, I was disappointed by it, sorry Richard Bacon, 6/10

Book # 3 The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

The Finkler Question

As an avid reader its almost obligatory to make sure you read the latest Booker Prize winner. In the past I have struggled with their choices. I never "got  into" Life Of Pi, or The God Of Small Things or Vernon God Little but last year Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel blew me away. I absolutely loved it from start to finish and its storyline dovetailed in nicely to my love/hate relationship with Phillipa Gregory's royal dynasty novels, the quantity of which is plenty, the quality of which goes up and down.

Prior to reading The Finkler Question I had already read Room by Emma Donoghue one of the losing novels, and was divided in my opinion of it, whilst it was a compelling read, a true "page-turner", I had a constant nagging question in my mind about whether it wasn't slightly exploitative of the true life stories of the Fritzl family & of Natascha Kampusch from whose experience the genesis of the idea of the novel clearly comes. So, for me, Room wasn't a winner, would I agree with their choice of the Jacobson?

Julian Treslove is the novels hero or rather anti-hero, having led rather a mediocre life in which he has been successful neither professionally or in his personal life, being able to woo women but not being able to sustain a relationship.

He regularly meets and dines with his old school friend Sam Finkler and their former teacher Libor when one night he is mugged after leaving Libor's house. His attacker is a woman, something which later causes his sons much mirth, but during the attack he first thinks she knows him as she seems to use his name, but then he realises she has called him a Jew.

The attack serves to send Julian on something of a quest, could he be Jewish? Did the woman recognise something elemental in him?

Both Libor and Finkler are Jewish, and in his mind Julian has always felt something of an outsider feeling unable by his lack of Jewishness to contribute to conversations which relate to Jewish history or more modern issues facing Israel etc .

Finkler a Jewish man uncomfortable with his identity to the extent that he labels himself an Ashamed Jew, comes to represent all Jews for Treslove thus The Jewish Question becomes "The Finkler Question" & Jews become "Finklers"

This is supposed to be a comic novel thats how its billed, but personally I find a lot of pathos in it particularly for Julian, a man who has grown up in his friend Finkler's shadow, and is searching for an identity of his own.

He begins a relationship with Hephzibah, a Jewish woman which at first seems a positive step.  It is here in a conversation between Finkler & Hephzibah that I find myself being able to identify personally with the novel. I've tried to relocate it in the book and i can't. Essentially, Hephzibah says something about the impact of being Jewish on her identity and outlook, and raised Catholic I found myself entirely agreeing with the essence of her experience and point by substituting the word Jew for Catholic, and what is like to be a Catholic.
Julian Treslove spends the novel going about pointing out how "Finklers" are other than him and how he will never get it right with them. The message that I took from the book, is that it is Julian himself who is other and different and not the community with which he becomes obsessed.

Is it funny? Not to me no. Is it strange? Yes! Is it worth reading? Maybe, but I will be in no rush to recommend it, having read so much there are books which always spring to mind when someone asks for a recommendation & I doubt The Finkler Question will ever be among them. Is it worthy of the Booker? I don't know, I haven't read C, The Long Song or that other one yet! 6 or 7/10

Book #2 The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks

Having decided over Christmas that I had a shortfall in my general knowledge regarding Science i took a wander round the Popular Science section of Waterstones. This book caught my eye, mainly for its strange and unusual title, which sounded more like it belonged in the fiction section. A sign of our times, I didn't buy it in the store but went home and downloaded it using the Kindle app on my iPad (!!) I wasn't too sure what I was going to be reading but I was intrigued.

The book certainly is not fiction, and tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman from Maryland who was dying of cervical cancer and from whom cells and samples were taken without her knowledge or informed consent which was the norm in the 50's particularly among black patients.

Those cells grew and came to be known in the science world as He-La, and the story of the woman they came from became lost. The contribution of He-La to modern science is enormous, the cells have been used in the polio vaccine, cancer research and were even taken into space. Hence, her immortal life

But Skloot's book is most definitely not the story of the clump of cells referred to as He-La and their contribution to Science, it is the story of their donor Henrietta ever overlooked in the history of those cells, and particularly the impact this scientific use has had upon her husband and children.

What follows is a moving tale of an uneducated family from a poor neighbourhood whose relationship to the He-La phenomenon has been forgotten and overlooked. Despite the millions of pounds He-La research has generated her family cannot afford to see the doctor when they are ill, and the idea that their mothers DNA is still living in laboratories throughout the world frightens them, they don't understand the science, and nobody's ever explained it.

This book is not only a testament to Henrietta Lacks and her family, but the Herculean work done by the author, particularly to gain the trust of the family deserves respect. A unique piece of work marrying modern science and a true human interest story, I believe that everyone will find this book (despite it being non fiction and about Science) to be engaging in the same way as a novel or a biography. It is extremely well written and deserves an 8/10 from me

Book #1 - Monsters Of Men by Patrick Ness

Monsters Of Men

Monsters Of Men in the final book in the Chaos Walking Trilogy by Patrick Ness. It's virtually impossible to write about Monsters Of Men on its own without spoiling the entire trilogy for those who haven't read it, so instead I'm going to write about the trilogy as a whole. The first book, The Knife Of Never Letting Go was read by a friend of mine who came by it through work and enthused about how great it was, I eventually got round to reading it late last year as part of my holiday reading. The Chaos Walking Trilogy to my understanding, is marketed at teenage boys in the Young Adult section of libraries and book shops. I'm a 29 year old woman with an English degree specialising in the Classics, and I thought this trilogy was utterly fabulous to a degree that I have a writers jealousy at not having written it myself. In the first book 'The Knife Of Never Letting Go' we are introduced to Todd, the last boy left in his town, Prentisstown, all the other boys having past the age of 13, the age at which a boy becomes a man in his community, and finally his birthday is approaching.

Through the writing we learn that Todd and his community are settlers from our own planet earth, who have come to a new planet and colonised it. We learn that when they arrived, three things happened:

a) Some kind of virus wiped out the female population leaving only the men left alive

b) The effect of the virus on the men and the animals meant that all their thoughts could be heard, the sound of all their thoughts creates The Noise, a permanent collective buzz in their community.This affords no man privacy or secrets. Comically, The Sheep, mostly say 'Sheeep' and Todd's dog Manchee doesn't say much more than 'Todd' and 'I need a poo' but you understand the oppressive nature of having no private thought for all concerned.

c) Following their arrival the humans had a war with the indigenous population The Spackle which they successfully won.

And then, just as he approaches manhood, Todd comes across a surprise in the marshes...it's a girl...a human girl.   

And so, the trilogy begins. Although I can't say much about this book, Monsters Of Men, what I can say about the overall trilogy is that its fantastic and compelling, making you desperate to read the next book once you've read the first, an example of how dystopian fiction can be done for young people, I've never read anything like it in that age group. I found Monsters Of Men slightly disappointing for certain reasons and so can only give that book 7/10 but the entire trilogy is a 10/10 MUST READ.

If you have teenage children, get it for them and sneakily steal it, and if you don't just get it anyway!!!

Roz's Reading Challenge

So, I'm a reader, I'm known for being a reader,  I've always been a reader, but it's a solitary pastime and when I read books like others, I often want to share what i thought about them, but maybe the people you know aren't into reading, or if they are, just aren't into the same books as you are, and never will be. Then, two things happened, I realised I'd read 10 books since the start of the year, and then one of my followers on Twitter asked me to recommend some books for his holiday. I had tried to start a blog before and failed, I didn't know what to write about, but then I realised what I do know about is reading so I decided to read books and then review them, recommend them or tell others to steer well clear.

Having read 10 since January, I decided I'd challenge myself to 100 books between now and December 31st, counting the 10 I'd already read.

I'm known for a diverse taste in books but I've never really been a reader of non-fiction, but this year have surprised myself by having already read 3 non fiction books, so my aim is to :

a) Feature a diverse selection of books, fiction, non fiction, novels, short stories and poetry
b) To not deliberately read short or easy to read books in order to make up my numbers, it's got to be a real challenge.
c) Finish EVERY book no matter what, even if I've taken a dislike to it, if it isn't finished, it doesn't count!

So with 10 books already read, I need to get on with the business of reviewing. It's harder to review a book when it's a while after you've read it, because after you've JUST read it or are in  the middle of  it thoughts about it are fresh. So please bear with me on the early reviews.....