Friday, 27 February 2009

In which I read some Tolstoy (in translation of course)

I was given a book of Tolstoy stories yesterday. The first story was Father Sergius, which has one completely shocking scene but for the rest is rather dull with its emphasis on religion and duty (most of which is self-imposed). The next story was Master and Man which was excellent. It really gives you a feel for the time and the place and concludes with an amazing transformation. Lastly was Hadji Murat, which I am still reading. It's set in the 1850s and it's rather depressing to learn that even then the Russians and the Chechens were fighting. I'm not sure yet where the story is going but apparently it is based on a historical character.

Hadji Murat was preceded by an introduction provided by the translator. I've left that till after I've read the story though as I think that if it's well written the story will provide you with enough of the context to be able to understand it. I'll read the introduction later to fill in any gaps I was wondering about.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

In Which my Inferior Performance on Ice leads to Book Purchase

We went ice skating last night and while I managed to skate round all right, I was definitely rather wooden *blushes*

So I did what any reader would do - I ordered a new book to address the problem. Here it is: Ice Skating: Steps to Success. I'll let you know if following the instructions leads to any improvement at all.

In the meantime, here is a link to Prancing on Mice. Go Ray!

The Brontes by Flora Masson

This is a biography of the Bronte family. It's only 92 pages long so leaves you wanting to know more about some of the incidents mentioned, but overall it is a very good introduction. The story of the Brontes is so well known of course that you will find yourself recognising each of the scenes as they take place.

The book itself is an old one, published in 1914. It's funny that the author thinks the Brontes will come to be underrated. She writes "Charlotte Bronte and her family have taken their place, once for all, among the literary enthusiasms of a bygone age". Of course she has been proved very wrong!

Day 141; Book 140.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

The Opposite of Serendipity

It was serendipitous* when I came across the wonderful Augustus Carp a couple of days ago. It was the opposite of serendipitous, whatever that might be, when I came across Love and Mr Lewisham by H G Wells, and Robert E. Lee by John Drinkwater. Fired by my earlier success, I took them home, only to be bored by Love and Mr Lewisham. It was dated and it was dull. This was H G Wells: I wanted Martians, I wanted time machines, I even wanted absconding shopkeepers. What I got was a man who wants to become a success, and gets married and becomes mediocre instead. Yawn. Robert E. Lee was a play about the Confederate general. I was hopeful about this, having enjoyed several plays from the 20s and 30s, which seems to be something of a golden age for British theatre. Wrongo! This was contrived and cheesy, the gloom only relieved by some unintentional humour as the author attempts to hint at great battles on a tiny stage. Crack! Yet another character is offed by a sniper's bullet. I sniggered as they toppled with monotonous regularity. There was also a dreadful "witty" character with a banjo. Avoid, gentle readers!

*although perhaps not THAT serendipitous that your intrepid reader should find a good book, considering I was wandering among the stacks at the time ...

Day 140; Book 139

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Augustus Carp Esq.

I came across this brilliant book yesterday by accident. I'm afraid I had never heard of it before but apparently it is a cult comic novel, first published in 1924. Augustus Carp is smug and self-satisfied, horrible but hilarious. Unlike Mr Pooter you don't sympathise with him at all and in fact you are full of glee anytime something goes wrong for the awful man.

It's a funny thing about cult books or films. You want to talk about them with other people, but on the other hand you don't want too many people to get to know about them ...

Day 139; Book 137

Monday, 23 February 2009

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

Actually it was Friday night to Sunday morning, but that wasn't a book title.

I finished The Poisonwood Bible and can really recommend it. If you like the dense, literary style of Snow Falling on Cedars, you will probably like this one. My only complaint is that I think the book is too long - and not just because it took me three days to read! I would like to have seen the story concluded after the family has to leave Kingala. Instead it continues for several decades as the girls grow up - material which would have been more suited to a sequel, I felt.

Mr F had kindly bought me a book which he spotted in the village shop, Panic by Jeff Abbott (which had a rave review from Harlan Coben). It plunges right into the non-stop action, gradually reveals secrets from the past and has a surprising ending - but too much of it was about espionage to suit me.

I went back to crime with Indemnity Only by Sara Paretsky. This is the first of the V I Warshawski detective series. The story was good with the mystery gradually revealed but it seemed a little dated to me. It was written in 1982 and the poor woman had to do her detecting without even a mobile phone or a computer, but it was more the self-consciously feminist style which seemed from another age. A woman private eye wouldn't be such a big deal these days (which of course shows how much things must have moved on) but V I Warshawski seems to have to act deliberately macho to keep her foothold in a man's world.

Day 138; Book 136

Tee-Shirt Texts

Over on The Genteel Arsenal, children's librarian Book Pusher has had the great idea of "dedicating her chest to literacy!" The idea is to wear appropriately-adorned tee-shirts to fit in with the library's current reading theme. I feel a literary tee-shirt hunt coming on, or perhaps with a badge I could just timidly dedicate my lapel.

Friday, 20 February 2009

A Book a Night, or the Year of Sleeping Dangerously

I couldn't sleep again last night so I made lots of progress with The Poisonwood Bible and should finish it tonight. It's excellent! The language is poetic yet accessible with some unusual and clever use of words, and it has humour, history, politics, relationships, characters who develop and tragedy too. Thank you to Catriona who lent this book to me. Here is a link to the book on the author's website.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

1000 Novels Everyone Must Read

... as chosen by the Guardian. Click here to see their list. I'm going to print it to see how many I can tick off! I was encouraged to see I had read the very first book, Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, but sadly there was a very long gap after that. Lists, checking things off, what's not to like for a cataloguer and book fan?


Does ANYONE like them and find them funny? Apart from other clowns?

I've just read in Foyle's Further Philavery that the word coulrophia means a morbid fear of clowns, and Foyle points out that research research shows visits by clowns to children in hospital has a detrimental rather than a cheering effect! Eek!

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

In progress! It's 600-odd pages so as I didn't start it until 9.00 last night I won't be able to report on this for another 2 or 3 days. So far, so good though: it starts in a very dense, lyrical style, but then the style varies depending on which character is speaking. It's set in 1959 and a minister and his wife and 4 daughters have gone to the Belgian Congo for a year ... what will happen and how will they all get on?

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

How Clever

Look at what someone on Craftster has made. It's a very stylish coffee table created from a very grotty coffee table. Scroll down to see table crime converted to table design. I want one!

Bad Medicine: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Distance Healing to Vitamin O, by Christopher Wanjek

This is reminiscent of Bad Science by Ben Goldacre, but written about medicine particularly rather than science in general, and from an American rather than a British perspective. The author is witty as well, but nobody is as funny as Ben. The book was quite long, but as I kept waking up last night, I finished it in installments!

Did you know you could still be killed by the Black Death ... in America? That the organic movement has been so hijacked by big business that you would be better buying local than buying organic? That Rambo would be completely deaf after firing all those guns? For these and miscellaneous other facts about health, then read this book.

Day 133; Book 133

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Memorial to Fife Members of the International Brigades



I knew there was a memorial in Kirkcaldy to the Fifers who had fought in the Spanish Civil War, so I looked out for it when I was there recently. I wished I could have given it a clean up, but you can still make out names and home towns in the photograph above. Touchingly, flowers had been left at the memorial, even all these years later.

The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey

This is a mystery novel written just after the Second World War. Josephine Tey expertly creates the atmosphere of a small country town, which never again seems quite so cosy to the solicitor hero after an accusation is made against two local ladies. Apart from the odd aside about the "lower orders", the novel is surprisingly modern in tone. Books of the 40s and 50s can often seem oddly old-fashioned to us in language and ideas, whereas Victorian books do not have that same strangeness of tone. Perhaps it is because we expect that difference with the Victorians, but feel that we are close enough in time to the post war world to be surprised how different it actually was.

My book last night was originally going to be The House on the Borderland by W H Hodgson which looks like a fantasy/horror tale ... but I couldn't make any headway with it at all and gave up after the first chapter. Let me know if you think I should have persevered!

Day 132; Book 132

Monday, 16 February 2009

Iluvwords Now Reading Dangerously

Elisabeth of Iluvwords is now reading a book a day! A buddy, a pal, a fellow nutter ... hooray!

Le Weekend

I stayed up late on Friday to finish Linwood Barclay's Too Close to Home (an impulse purchase). Yes, it was rather in the style of Harlan Coben but worthwhile in its own right with a well-constructed tale of dangerous secrets gradually being revealed. Like Coben, Barclay has an easy style and an unconventional hero.

Next up was Heavenly Date and Other Stories by Alexander McCall Smith (the author of the Ladies' Detective Agency stories among other things). I liked most of these short stories although some were rather sad - but I loved the one about the crocodiles which was everything a short story should be! (I can't tell you any more but it is well worth reading).

The Barretts of Wimpole Street by Rudolf Besier is the script of the play first performed in 1930 and later famous as a film with Charles Laughton as the terrifying Papa. Once again it is beautifully constructed with every speech counting and all building towards the conclusion.

For some light relief I read The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith. Despite being written in 1892, this novel in the form of a diary is surprisingly modern. Pooter, our hero, comes across at first as dull and pompous, but just like Adrian Mole 90 years later, we soon find ourselves rooting for him and sympathising with his misfortunes (while laughing at them as well of course). In the days before teenagers were even invented, he has his very own "Kevin". I had to laugh when his son takes him out in his hired horse and cart (which he can't really afford) and terrifies Pooter with his driving! Plus ca change ...

Teenagers of another world altogether feature in the last play I read, Another Country by Julian Mitchell. This was first produced in 1981 and was also turned into a film with the inspired casting of Rupert Everett as Guy Bennett and Colin Firth as Judd. Bennett is gay; Judd is a Marxist, and both are outsiders at their Eton-like school. Bennett suffers more as he hadn't realised just how excluded he would become: after all, dalliance with a homosexual lifestyle was quite accepted among the boys, most of whom were however hypocricital when it came to the image of the school. There were hints at the end of Guy turning to espionage later as the ultimate outsider. Of course if I had read about the play beforehand I would have realised that in fact it is about the spy Guy Burgess so those hints were hardly out of place.

Day 131; Book 131

Friday, 13 February 2009

Linwood Barclay

Just passed the bookshop and on their half-price display they had Linwood Barclay's new hardback, Too Close to Home. This time I couldn't miss the blurb and it looked really good: "What if your next door neighbours were all murdered?" (It said). "And what if you found out the killers went to the wrong house?" Oooooh! And then I noticed it said, "If you like Harlan Coben you'll like this ..."

Should I go back to the shop at teabreak? Answers on a postcard please ... And why is there a funny gap beneath this post? Answers, etc ...

Day 128; Book 126

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Money-saving "Tips"

DON'T waste money on expensive iPods. Simply think of your favourite tune and hum it. If you want to "switch tracks", simply think of another song you like and hum that instead.

DON'T waste money on expensive paper shredders to avoid having your identity stolen. Simply place a few dog turds in the bin bags along with your old bank statements.

HOMEOWNERS: Prevent burglars stealing everything in the house by simply moving everything in the house into your bedroom when you go to bed. In the morning, simply move it all back again.

SAVE money on expensive personalised car number plates by simply changing your name to match your existing plate. - Mr. KVL 741Y.

DON'T waste money buying expensive binoculars; simply stand closer to the object you wish to view.

AN empty aluminium cigar tube filled with angry wasps makes an inexpensive vibrator.

SAVE electricity by turning off all the lights in your house and walking around wearing a miner's hat.

HOUSEWIVES, the best way to get two bottles of washing-up liquid for the price of one is by putting one in your shopping trolley and the other in your coat pocket.

OLD telephone directories make ideal personal address books, simply cross out the names and address of people you don't know.

SAVE on booze by drinking cold tea instead of whisky. The following morning you can create the effects of a hangover by drinking a thimble full of washing up liquid and banging your head repeatedly on the wall.

SAVE a fortune on laundry bills. Give your dirty shirts to Oxfam, they will wash and iron them and you can buy them back for fifty pence.

OLD people, if you feel cold indoors this winter, simply pop outside for ten minutes without a coat, when you go back inside you will really feel the benefit.

CAN'T afford contact lenses? Simply cut out small circles of cling film and press them into your eyes.

WHY pay the earth for expensive jigsaws? Just take a bag of frozen chips from the freezer and try piecing together potatoes.

MIX tea with coffee, and leave in the fridge to cool. Hey presto! Toffee.

MAKE your own inexpensive mints by leaving blobs of toothpaste to dry on a window sill. Use striped toothpaste to make humbugs.

SHOPPERS, when buying oranges, get more for your money by peeling them before taking them to the counter to be weighed.

WOMEN: Don't waste energy faking orgasms. Most men couldn't care less anyway and you could use the saved energy to Hoover the house afterwards.

In Defence of P G Wodehouse by George Orwell

This essay was written in 1945. In it Orwell defends P G Wodehouse from the vilification which was heaped on him after he, as a German captive, made broadcasts on the radio in Berlin. Orwell makes his case well for Wodehouse as a political innocent and unwitting tool of the Nazis.

However the most interesting paragraph for me is the end one. Part of it states that, "Few things in this war have been more morally disgusting than the present hunt after traitors and Quislings. At best it is largely the punishment of the guilty by the guilty. In France, all kinds of petty rats -- police officials, penny-a-lining journalists, women who have slept with German soldiers -- are hunted down while almost without exception the big rats escape. In England the fiercest tirades against Quislings are uttered by Conservatives who were practising appeasement in 1938 and Communists who were advocating it in 1940".

In effect it would seem that punishment is often heaped upon those whom it is easier to punish. I think this has relevance to today's culture of political correctness. Perhaps I should say, of excess political correctness, because of course it is right that offensive language should not be used and that people should not be discriminated against. However when you get cases like children being removed by the social services from caring parents of low IQ, while in other cases those known to be guilty of abuse or neglect are allowed or even encouraged to keep their children, it makes you wonder if discrimination is being practised here in the very name of political correctness. Or you get the case of a woman being fined for putting the wrong rubbish in her bin, while as Orwell says above, "the big rats escape". Some bankers have caused havoc, for example, yet seem to be rewarded by bonuses.

What do you think?

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson

I finished my Spike Milligan books last night and went on to One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson (lent to me by Caroline). As you know I try to avoid reading the blurbs on books. The good thing about this is that any surprises are never spoiled; the bad thing is that occasionally I get completely the wrong idea about books. I THOUGHT this was going to be a romance. Happily, so far (and I've only read a few chapters) it has turned out to be set during the Edinburgh Festival and involves humour, murder, attempted murder, sexual shenanigans and two larcenous schoolboys from Gillespie's. I can't wait to read on! As usual I have come in to the middle of a series, and now I must find the other books.

Day 126; Book 125

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

New Feature!

If you scroll down you will see on the left a nice wooden bookcase! I've been adding the books I've read to it and you can go forward and backward to see them. A neat feature is that you can hover over a book and details of that book will come up (most of them have a synopsis). This is a blog widget from Shelfari. While I was looking on Shelfari for my books, I came across this one which sounds fascinating: Subversive Cross-Stitch!

Spike Milligan

Last night I read Spike Milligan's Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall. This is the story in hilarious form of his call-up and early army service as a gunner. The next volume, Rommel? Gunner Who? wasn't available in the library. I have read this several times already so I went straight on to Monty: His Part in my Victory, and finally I read part of Mussolini: His Part in my Downfall. Each of the books has laugh-out-loud moments, often featuring the quick-fire repartee of Milligan and his army mates. Black humour abounds, along with a great sense of camaraderie. The tone gradually darkens however and not just because of the ongoing war. Milligan was a sufferer from terrible depression and there are hints of a breakdown to come.

Day 125; Book 124

Monday, 9 February 2009

I am a Hemingway convert

... at least to For Whom the Bell Tolls. I have to admit that I think it's a masterpiece. It's a tragic story but one with flashes of humour. The different characters are skillfully drawn and although the action takes place over only 3 days, the scope is much wider with individuals giving their own histories or thinking about things that have happened in their lives. I definitely recommend this book. It wasn't a book-a-day for me, as it took more like 2 and a half days to read - but it's worth taking the time to read it.

My next book was Robert Capa: the Definitive Collection by Richard Whelan. This was a huge tome featuring all of Robert Capa's best and most well-known works, from the early 1930s to just before his death in Indochina after stepping on a landmine. He took the famous "Falling Soldier" photograph of a Spanish loyalist militiaman. I love photography books - but I have to say I prefer photojournalism to anything more "arty".

Next I read Tobin: Evil Beyond Belief by Annabelle Love. This was a 100-page publication given away by a daily newspaper. It was well-constructed, bringing together Peter Tobin's life, terrible crimes and ultimate capture and imprisonment. However I felt the victims deserved a better-quality book. The tone in parts was sensationalist, and could not compare in any way with the works of such true-crime writers as Ann Rule or Jerry Bledsoe, with their psychological analysis and evident empathy for the victims. The breaking-down of the text into a paragraph for each sentence made it seem very "jerky" to read.

Finally I read a children's book, Mistress Masham's Repose by T H White. T H White is the author of The Once and Future King, which retells the Arthurian legends. Mistress Masham's Repose is one of those children's books with plenty for adults as well. I am sure there are very bright children who would pick up on White's use of language and historical and cultural references in this book, but I would imagine that these aspects would mainly appeal to adults, while the little people, a cruel governess, the spirited little heroine and her nocturnal adventures would be enthralling for children. There are humorous aspects for both age groups however. White's story of the Lilliputians who came to England is original (Mary Norton's The Borrowers was not published for another 5 years). I wonder if this has ever been a film?

Day 124; Book 122

Friday, 6 February 2009

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

I'm in the middle of this so can't count it as read yet. It was on my bookshelf but I only remember the start so maybe I hadn't read past that. I didn't like the start, certainly. I've read on now though and I'm really enjoying it and can't wait to get back to it. Hemingway is writing about the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, but he has not shrunk from describing the atrocities committed on each side. Having suffered through The Old Man and the Sea, I wasn't particularly keen to read Hemingway again, and I didn't like his macho image. Despite this, his basic humanity comes through in his understanding of the characters. I may read more of this author now (which would increase my reading of American literature).

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Rocket! The Ubiquitous Leaf!

Have you noticed that rocket is taking over the world? Or at least the ready-made salad world? I have to confess that when I was a girl I had never even heard of rocket. Salad was lettuce (the ordinary kind), tomato and cucumber, served with salad cream. Yum! Nowadays even the rabbits seem to demand fancy salad leaves (iceberg is actually bad for them). Next time you buy a salad, see if it has rocket in it!

Heart of Spain: Robert Capa's Photographs of the Spanish Civil War

I recalled this book last week from the library when I was reading George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia. Capa's photographs, taken from the anti-fascist side, cover most of the period of the Spanish Civil War, except for some months after his girlfriend Gerda Taro was accidentally killed. As a result they go right from the euphoria of the early days of the peoples' militias, including photographs of women on the front line, to the very last days of the war when refugees were fleeing Spain to an uncertain welcome in France. Some of the most touching photographs show the disbandment of the International Brigades, and others the former Spanish fighters interned in France. The photographs are accompanied by comprehensive text studies of the war.

Day 120; Book 118

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

The Skeleton in the Closet by M C Beaton

This seems to be a stand-alone novel by the author of the Agatha Raisin series. The hero, a bit of a social misfit through the fault of his parents, finds himself with money and a mystery to solve. The writing is of M C Beaton's usual standard and her main characters are attractive but after feisty Agatha any other characters will be a bit of a let-down. To paraphrase Dr Johnson rather drastically, this book is worth reading, but not worth going to buy!

Day 119; Book 117

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

A Wedding in December by Anita Shreve

This was well written, cleverly constructed, had a bit of a revelation and a happy-ish ending ... but was ultimately depressing! I didn't really care for the characters, even the "good" guys, and I don't think I'll be reading any more of Anita Shreve's books (which is a shame because there are lots of them). It's tending towards the literary end of fiction so it was a satisfying read in some respects, but just not for me.

I've just bought The Skeleton in the Closet by M C Beaton so hopefully that will be more to my taste. I think it's a stand-alone mystery; I looked at her Hamish Macbeth series but as the first volume wasn't in stock I decided to wait until I could get that.

Day 118; Book 116

Monday, 2 February 2009

Time to Depart by Lindsey Davis

This is another in the series featuring the Ancient Roman detective, Marcus Didius Falco. As usual it mixes crime with the wisecracks of our hero, as well as humour involving his extended family and romance with his aristocratic girlfriend Helena Justina. We also learn about Roman history along the way, which is nice and painless!

Day 117; Book 115

The Bodies left Behind by Jeffery Deaver

I'd read all of Jeffery Deaver's books except this one, so I was very pleased to come across it at a discount (I paid £8 for it and it's still in hardback). If you haven't read this author yet I really recommend him. Some of his books are stand-alones, like this one, so they can be read in any order. Some are part of a series, like the Lincoln Rhyme books. Lincoln is a quadriplegic forensic investigator who solves murders by deduction; if you want to read this series the first book is The Bone Collector. (The Bone Collector is also a film, but the book is better). Deaver is the master of misdirection, known for the unexpected twists and turns of his plots. Most of his books are real page-turners.

The Bodies left Behind is another exciting book, well worth reading and with well-drawn characters. Having read all of Deaver's books, I picked up this time on a couple of the twists. However despite expecting these twists I was still completely misled on most occasions! The only thing that annoyed me was that this edition had quite a few typos, which forced me to read some sentences several times to get the meaning. Grrr!