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wandering_ through my book stacks 2

Club Read 2010

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Aug 15, 2010, 7:16pm Top

Continued from this thread.

Aug 15, 2010, 7:21pm Top

109. Dirt Music by Tim Winton

How/why acquired: passed on to me by a friend.

What do you do when your luck runs out?

Some people let their lives become a bitter search for revenge. Others decide to defy fate: "Russian bloke told me once. Said we all die. But you might as well die with music. Go out big."

Georgie Jutland has lived a chequered but adventurous life, fleeing from her family's bourgeois respectability. She's been as fearless about discarding men as she has about changing continents. But one day, she concludes that her luck has run out. She has lost the tough detachment she needed for her career as a cancer nurse. She has landed, like driftwood, in a feudalistic township in the brutal landscape of Western Australia. And without the self-confidence, her defiant brashness is starting to feel like empty bravado.

The man she's currently with is Jim Buckridge, a widower and the king of his lobster-fishing town. He no longer rules with vindictive violence, as he did when he was younger and as his father did before him. They do not love each other, but they have found an equilibrium, although it gives Georgie less and less of what she needs. Then one day, in a spirit of self-destructiveness, she has a sexual encounter with a local ne'er-do-well, the polar opposite of Jim and a man seen by the townsfolk as coming from a family tainted with bad luck.

This is a fantastic, complex read, about confidence, luck and coming to terms with the past. The landscape is almost a character in the book, described with lyrical beauty but inhospitable to human life. The writing is as vivid, spare and harsh as the landscape, with sentences whose significance you only realise pages later. There is real evil present in the town, but all the main characters are, to some extent, comprehensible and therefore forgiveable (not an easy call given some of the dynamics involved).

Sample: He can't admit it to himself but the sight has jolted him. Four figures suddenly out there across the yard with its perimeter of gutted vehicles. He walks barefoot back to the house with his mind knocked out of neutral.

Recommended for: anyone looking for a powerful, if bleak, read.

Aug 15, 2010, 8:44pm Top

Fabulous review of Dirt Music, wandering_star; I've thumbed your review, and added this book to my wish list.

Aug 16, 2010, 2:38pm Top

I loved Dirt Music too; your review really brought it back. I was given it by an Australian friend several years ago to read while I was recovering from an operation and I was blown away by it. I've read several other Tim Wintons since and I've enjoyed them all, but Dirt Music and the fabulous Cloud Street are my favourites so far.

Aug 17, 2010, 7:59am Top

Thank you for your comments and thumbs!

I followed this up with an equally good but completely different read: 110. Lighthousekeeping by Jeanette Winterson.

How/why acquired: haven't read any Jeanette Winterson for a while but this was recommended by a friend.

Silver, an orphan girl, is apprenticed to Mr Pew the lighthousekeeper. Pew, blind and ancient, is a great teller of stories about the village's history. His tales focus on Babel Dark, a Victorian priest with a mysterious double life, who is unnerved by his discussions with Darwin (and discovery of a cave of fossils) and may have inspired Robert Louis Stevenson's most famous creation(s). At some point, round about the time that the decision is made to automate the lighthouse, the reader realises that the stories are actually about the many layers of our pasts, our lives, our various stories - and above all, the way that love both creates, and is built of, layers of memories.

I started out thinking that this could be described as magical realism, but actually it's more like poetry - a flood of metaphors and interlinked ideas, sometimes elliptical.

Sample: You were chopping vegetables and telling me about a day in Thailand when you had seen turtles hatch in the sand. Not many of them make it to the sea, and once there, the sharks are waiting for them. Days disappear and get swallowed up much like that, but the ones like these, the ones that make it, swim out and return for the rest of your life. Thank you for making me happy.

Recommended for: someone looking for a deceptively light read.

Edited: Aug 17, 2010, 8:45am Top

A Ship Made Of Paper by Scott Spencer

Well. This comes garlanded with praise, from the likes of Joyce Carol Oates and Anne Tyler. But it wasn't a good fit with me. I'll tell you why.

Scene 1: Daniel is driving his girlfriend's daughter Ruby to school. He's in love with Ruby's best friend's mother, Iris. Iris is black.

Scene 2: Daniel and Iris go for coffee. We learn that Daniel left his high-powered job in the city because, after unsuccessfully defending a drug dealer, he was threatened by the drug dealer's associates, and became terrified of all black people. The waitress deliberately fails to serve Iris. Daniel doesn't notice.

(do you think that race might, potentially, be a theme of this book?)

Scene 3: Daniel goes to his office, where his parents have made an appointment to come in and tell him that they are leaving all their money to a wild animal centre. One of their reasons is that Daniel has always been so sensible, they have never really needed to worry about him.

(how callous, to tell him this in his office! what a dessicated background he comes from. And is that a hint that he might not end up being so sensible?)

Scene 4: Daniel goes home. His girlfriend, Kate, is watching (can you guess? .....) the OJ Simpson trial.

I managed a few more pages after this but I was talking to myself like a bag lady (see parentheses above) and when the first chapter ended I decided that for my own sanity, I had to put it aside. It may well get much better.

I have nothing against books dealing with important issues, but I just felt like I was being hit over the head with a sledgehammer, and I couldn't help thinking longingly of Dirt Music, where it was only about halfway through the book that I thought that perhaps luck was a theme, and after that started to notice the number of times it was referred to.

Aug 17, 2010, 4:59pm Top

I thumbed up your Dirt Music review, but it was your coda to the A ship Made of Paper review that made me put it on my wishlist. Thank you.


Edited: Aug 21, 2010, 5:18am Top

111. Brandenburg by Henry Porter

How/why acquired: I like the author.

East Germany, the dying days of the Honecker regime. Rudi Rosenharte is an art critic and ex-Stasi officer. No fan of the regime, he is nevertheless pressed back into service to make contact with one of his former agents. To make sure he complies, the Stasi have arrested his twin brother and detained the brother's wife and family. The brother's health and spirit have already been broken during a previous period of imprisonment, so all Rudi wants to do is to get him and his family out of East Germany. In pursuit of this aim, he draws in four different intelligence services, in a satisfyingly twisting adventure.

The thing that lifts this above the formulaic is its depiction of the tail end of the East German regime - in particular the very real brutality and terror of the survelliance state (Porter currently campaigns against increased surveillance and other encroachments of civil liberties in the name of counter-terrorism), and the delight and incredulity at the sudden crumbling of the system - rapidly replaced by some tough questions when the East Germans stream across into West Berlin and see the incredible plenty there.

Sample: It was then that Harland understood. Griswald was playing himself, an inquisitive CIA officer who had happened upon someone working at NATO with no obvious reason to be in Berlin. He was giving Jessie the once over and in so doing, providing her a story for the following day. And Jessie, being no slouch in these matters, had grasped the tactic immediately and was responsing with a combination of reluctance and guilty compliance that the Stasi could not mistake.

Recommended for: fans of spy novels but also anyone interested in revisiting the events of November 1989 - it's made me want to read more about the fall of the USSR.

Aug 21, 2010, 5:30am Top

112. Far Away And Long Ago by WH Hudson

How/why acquired: the result of a happy browse through the Eland catalogue (they specialise in well-written, out-of-print travel writing and also published Journey Into The Mind's Eye which I read earlier this year).

This is a remarkably vivid and lyrical description of a boy growing up on the pampas in mid-nineteenth century Argentina: "just a little animal running about on its hind legs, amazingly interested in the world in which it found itself". Most of the book is his memories of nature's wonders and beauties, as well as tales of life on the pampas and his own hair-raising adventures (typhoid fever, learning to shoot at the age of ten, letting his elder brother practise knife-fighting on him). It's a pity thought that a man with such acute powers of observation and sensitivity to the natural world around him was jarringly of his time in his attitudes to people of other classes and races, so occasionally you are jerked out of the lyricism by something really quite offensive.

Sample: But the blossoms thickly covering every twig annoyed the parrots, as they could not find space enough to grasp a twig without grasping its flower as well; so what did the birds do in their impatience but begin stripping the blossoms off the branches on which they were perched with their sharp beaks, so rapidly that the flowers came down in a pink shower, and in this way in half a minute every bird made a twig bare where he could sit perched at ease.

Recommended for: readers who enjoy nature writing, of course, but I think the vividness and immediacy of the writing deserve a wider audience too.

Aug 21, 2010, 6:18am Top

113. The Rector's Daughter by FM Mayor

How/why acquired: recommended by Susan Hill in Howard's End Is On The Landing

This is a remarkable and interesting book, but it's not easy for me to describe how I feel about it.

Mary, the rector's daughter, is a character familiar to us from late Victorian and early twentieth-century British fiction, the awkward, reserved, bookish spinster. Her mother died young, and her father is Casaubon-like in his intellectual snobbery and emotional disconnection. His overbearing influence and Mary's lack of skill with society social events mean that her life is very constrained. The tone of the book too is familiar - a dry, light social comedy approach to facts which are in fact quite poignant.

At least, that's how it starts. As you read on you realise that the focus of the book is on Mary's emotional life, which is nowhere near as limited as the observer might imagine. However, it is a little bleak. Misunderstandings, careless social slights, and self-denial abound.

The book is extremely well-written - and manages to see sympathy in, I think, every character. Mary's father, for example, does love his daughter, but he is not comfortable expressing any emotion and so it comes out in a sort of overbearing fussiness and dependence. He may crush her spirit - but it's because he is set in his ways and unaccustomed to having any of his prejudices challenged.

Normally I really appreciate it when a writer can do this. But here, it jarred slightly - whatever their internal motivations, people's careless neglect or rudeness to Mary had such sad and lasting impacts on her life. Also, her own dutiful, mute self-denial is very Victorian, but by the end I felt that this attitude was really a crime - even if Mary herself drew contentment from the fact that she was a support to her father, it was hard to see her life as less than a sad waste.

So, in summary, a very well-written book but slightly less than an enjoyable read for me because it was, in the end, too sad.

Sample: Canon Jocelyn's courtesy froze the circle around him, but if not enjoyed at the time, his guests felt afterwards they had been in distinguished society.

Recommended for: I think fans of Persephone books would enjoy this, as long as they weren't expecting something uplifting.

Aug 22, 2010, 1:17am Top

Well, sublime to ridiculous with my next read, 114. A.L.I.E.E.E.N.: Archives of Lost Issues and Earthly Editions of Extraterrestrial Novelties by Lewis Trondheim. This purports to be an alien comic book, found by chance and reproduced for earthlings to read (singe marks on the page edges and all).

What you get is a series of interlinked stories, populated by creatures halfway between cartoon animals and aliens. There is dialogue, but of course it's in alien - but nevertheless it's generally possible to work out what's going on. Although, I suppose, that assumes that we and the aliens share a similar emotional system: in the story where one creature is trying to help others and keeps causing terrible accidents, we think that he goes off at the end to somewhere that is lonely but he can be sure that he will bring no harm to others. But perhaps that's not what is happening at all.

I think how much you enjoy this book would depend how much you were prepared to go with the idea that it's an insight into an unknown alien civilisation. One of the other LT reviewers said they re-read the book with different assumptions: that it was for children, that it was a subversive underground comic, and so on. I personally was a bit put off by the grosser aspects - horrible bloody injuries, an unstoppable tide of shit.

Recommended for: I think people who are interested in the genre of comics/graphic novels would get the most from this.

Edited: Aug 22, 2010, 1:32am Top

115. Under The Sun by Justin Kerr-Smiley

How/why acquired: Do you ever, on finding an interesting independent bookshop, feel like you want to buy a book from them to show your support? I do - a lot - and that's how I ended up with this (although the support didn't work, since the bookshop - Crockett & Powell near Waterloo station - has since closed down, unfortunately).

This is about an unlikely friendship which grows up between a shot-down RAF pilot and his Japanese captor on a tiny island in the Pacific at the very end of World War Two.

Some interesting ideas (eg the two men are both drawn to the mystical side of their respective religions, and find some common ground there).

Unfortunately, the writing is EXTREMELY pedestrian: it's not terrible, but no thought seems to have gone into it - how the story should be revealed to the reader, how to develop the men's friendship in a plausible way, how to pick the right words, to show rather than tell, or indeed to punctuate properly. Pity.

Sample: The pilot went back to his corner and thought about his predicament. Plainly he must try and escape, but how? As the prisoner entertained such thoughts of freedom he heard voices and the sound of bolts being drawn aside.

Recommended for: um... probably not.

Aug 24, 2010, 8:59am Top

116. A Month In The Country by JL Carr

How/why acquired: I think it was kiwidoc's review which put this on my wishlist.

1920, Yorkshire. A man called Birkin arrives in a small village in the pouring rain, and tramps up to the local church, where he beds down. It turns out that he has been asked to restore a medieval mural there - rather against the will of the vicar.

Birkin feels a bit of a misfit when he arrives, but then he does anywhere - suffering both from his experiences of the war, and from an unhappy marriage. (There are also glimpses of the social changes triggered by the war which would eventually make everyone over a certain age feel slightly unsure of the ground under their feet.)

But gradually he acquires some allies in the village and starts to feel in place there - even if only for a few brief summer months: it turns out that the story is being narrated from many years later, when this was a golden memory, melancholy only because it was so far in the past.

This is a deceptively simple read, with a lightly humorous and sometimes bittersweet tone: not much may actually happen, but there are many subtle touches which cumulatively make this a beautiful and moving book.

Sample: Sometimes, listening to music, I drift back and nothing has changed. The long end of summer. Day after day of warm weather, voices calling as night came on and lighted windows pricked the darkness and, at day-break, the murmur of corn and the warm smell of fields ripe for harvest. And being young.

Recommended for: anyone who enjoys this sort of subtle, psychological literature.

Aug 24, 2010, 9:20am Top

117. Invitation To The Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann

How/why acquired: when I was a teenager I was practically obsessed by the green-spined Viragos in the bookshop, and I remember looking at this longingly many times. How nice, twenty years later, to have a copy dating from that era, with the same cover that I remember.

This story takes place over two days: the seventeenth birthday of shy, awkward Olivia Curtis, and the day a week later when she goes to her first ball, along with her more beautiful and poised elder sister Kate.

Olivia's thoughts before the ball are all occupied with young men, and what sort of impression she will make on the other ball-goers. (The Curtises are well enough off, but definitely below the level of the aristocratic hosts, and Olivia is not confident in this new social environment). But at the end of the evening, perhaps the most significant change is a subtle shift in her previously closely intimate relationship with Kate.

As I was reading the first part of this book (Olivia's birthday) I thought that perhaps I should have been reading this when I was a teenager myself. I think maybe the book suffered slightly in comparison to The Rector's Daughter and A Month In The Country, which both have much deeper emotional force. But when I got to the ball itself the book really drew me in - I felt the nerves, the pain of each social slight, but also Olivia's confidence when interactions went well.

I was surprised though that this, like my last read, took place in 1920. While A Month In The Country is overshadowed by the Great War, the social scene in Invitation To The Waltz seems untouched by it - there is only one incident, late in the story, which gives away the fact that this is after the war.

Sample: The patches of colour splashing one's wardrobe's life history were as rare, now one came to think of it, as roses in December. Each one remained vivid in memory: isolated accidents, shocks of brightness: a crimson ribbon slotted through an early white party frock, exciting, evoking again the drop of blood of the fairy story piercing the cold, blank, startled snow, piercing her smooth mind indelibly, as she read, with sudden stain; an orange Liberty scarf on a straw hat; a curious coat of violet frieze that winter of wearing half-mourning for Mother's father. Now that I'm grown up and can choose my own clothes, I'll wear bright colours always.

Recommended for: anyone who can remember or imagine being a teenage girl.

Aug 24, 2010, 12:02pm Top

ok... a lot to catch up to here. I'm on post 2....now 5. Your Lighthousekeeping review isn't posted? but, then I can't thumb. It's A lovely review.

Aug 25, 2010, 8:33pm Top

Aw, thanks! I hadn't posted it because there are lots of Lighthousekeeping reviews and my one was pretty short... but it's up now.

Aug 25, 2010, 8:37pm Top

Thumbed! :)

Aug 26, 2010, 6:56pm Top

Lovely review of Invitation to the Waltz!

Aug 27, 2010, 8:26am Top

I'm finally caught up. I'll echo Jane, your review of Invitation To The Waltz is excellent (although the recommendation doesn't quite work for me).

Aug 27, 2010, 9:40am Top

Maybe it could help you imagine...

Aug 27, 2010, 9:59am Top

:).... not going there

Aug 28, 2010, 11:27am Top

118. Kanthapura by Raja Rao

This short but impactful novel tells of life in an Indian village in the last years of the Raj, and the way that Gandhi's thought arrives in the village (through a young man called Moorthy, who sees the Mahatma speaking and is inspired to give up his 'foreign' ways and bring the message to his village) and gradually spreads. It's not universally popular - some of the villagers don't see that 'politics' affects them - and many of the powerful respond with financial pressure ("Well, well, he said to himself, every squirrel has his day, and now for every Congress member the interest will go up to 10 and 20 per cent") and even violence. And yet, the message continues to inspire the villagers. One of the many interesting things in the book is how the villagers' response is linked to religion - some of them treat Gandhi as a god, for example, and after acts of Satyagraha (non-violent resistance) the villagers feel the same euphoria as they do after taking part in temple ceremonies at religious festivals.

It will sound horribly shallow to say that this book looked as if it was going to be hard going! - apart from the subject, my copy has tiny print crammed closely together on the page. But it was anything but - it has a very story-telling style (the narrator is an old woman of the village) which rushes on, bringing in all sorts of detail of character and surroundings, making it very vivid.

Sample: Thus it deliberated, the Congress Panchayat, till the cattle came home, and when we had lit the lamps and had given a cold meal to the children, we took our baths and went to the temple, and there was Seenu in the sanctum and he would tell us nothing, and when he went up the Promontory and blew the conch, people came - men, women, children - and the pariahs and the weavers and the potters all seemed to feel they were of one caste, one breath.

Recommended for: anyone interested in Indian history. Perhaps not for an introduction to the subject, as without any background it would probably be quite hard to understand what was going on.

Aug 28, 2010, 11:38am Top

119. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, audiobook, unabridged, read by the author.

How/why acquired: after bobmcconnaughey mentioned that there were audiobooks of Neil Gaiman reading his own work, I just had to head over to audible.co.uk...

I don't usually read much YA but I do like Neil Gaiman's work (especially American Gods) and a friend had been recommending this to me. It is the story of a young boy who grows up in a graveyard, looked after by the ghosts (and a few other beings) who took him in as a baby to protect him from a mysterious man who was trying to kill him. A good story, aided by Gaiman's reading - he does menacing extremely well (although the accents are a bit dodgy).

Recommended for: any fan of light fantasy, and particularly for readers who like books where a little bit of magic or supernatural things take place in the modern world.

Aug 28, 2010, 12:18pm Top

120. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

How/why acquired: I loved Number9dream.

This book contains six stories, stacked inside each other like Russian dolls - a nineteenth-century exploration journal, 1920s letters from a gilded youth, a hardboiled mystery, an indescribable 1970s British grumpy-old-man narrative, a science fiction piece and finally a dystopia - which has come full circle from the earliest piece, returning both to the Pacific Islands and to the Hobbesian anarchy of tribal fighting and civilisation narrowly holding on.

There are occasional echoes of the stories in each other - saving someone's life who then saves yours, for example - but stronger are the common themes, freedom, enslavement, "progress", man's inhumanity to man.

It's certainly interesting, and it's certainly clever. Other reviewers have said that each story could stand very well on its own. I am not so sure - I found myself irritated by the pastiches and tics for at least some of the time in each story, hurrying on towards the next in the way that you sometimes do in a book with interleaving stories where one is dragging. Perhaps it's because I had extremely high expectations for the book - or perhaps it's because, as I realised when I got to the end, that the book is in some ways a polemic, which may have reduced its subtlety if not its force.

I don't suppose anyone needs to be reminded, in a week that has seen that sickeningly horrible news story about the Sri Lankan maid in Saudi Arabia, that there is terrible cruelty in the world, or indeed that the strong and powerful prey on the weak. But Mitchell's cry for action at the end of the book is powerful - if we believe that the world is merely exploitation by those who can of those who can't resist, and behave as if we believe so, that's exactly the world we will get. But if we can behave as if we believe that there is the possibility of a better world, peaceful sharing of "the riches of the Earth & its Oceans", then that too can happen - it won't be easy, but "what is any ocean but a multitude of drops"?

That said, for me this was a book to admire more than to enjoy.

Sample: I'll have to give you two, since there is so much variety in the book:

The breeze was fragrant with pollen and sap; clouds scrolled. Once-genomed moths spun around our heads, electron-like; their wings' logos had mutated over generations into a chance syllabary.

I asked if the Indians worked of their own free will. "Of course!" exclaimed Mrs Horrox. "If they succumb to sloth, they know the Guards of Christ will punish them for it."

Recommended for: despite what might seem like a lukewarm review, I would recommend this to friends - because it's an interesting read and because I think it's memorable, partly because of the message.

Aug 28, 2010, 2:08pm Top

Kanthapura sounds quite interesting. I haven't heard of it or the author. Also, interesting take on Cloud Atlas - Mitchell, I need to read him sometime...

Aug 28, 2010, 4:19pm Top

The more I read about Mitchell the more I think I will not read him entirely voluntarily. If someone else brings him up at my book group, I'll go along with curiosity intact, but I don't think I'll put him on my wishlist. Thank you for your take on him and especially for providing the quotations.


Aug 30, 2010, 7:03am Top

I think I need to get Ghostwritten next and see what I think of that - as I say, I thought Number9dream was amazing.

Aug 30, 2010, 8:08am Top

>22 wandering_star: Kanthapura is going on my wishlist right now. Just the kind of book I like.

Edited: Aug 30, 2010, 9:02am Top

121. The Marx Sisters by Barry Maitland.

This is the first in a series of mysteries which I've seen recommended here on LT. It deals with three elderly sisters who live together in London, on a small lane which somehow retains a flavour of days gone by. One of them dies - is it natural, suicide or murder? (Of course, for the murder option, there are at least three or four possible motives, of varying degrees of plausibility).

Good for passing the time, but not much more than that: it seemed like the book couldn't decide if it was a police procedural or a cosy mystery, and the quaint location for the mystery made me feel that it was a bit London-for-tourists (even though the author is British). Also, it seemed a bit pointless to have one red herring that was given away as such by the title...

Sample: 'Oh dear, am I a parasite too?' Kathy laughed. 'No, you are part of the repressive apparatus of the ruling class, my dear, with which it maintains its grip upon the means of production and distribution and alienates the proletariat, naturally,' said Peg, beaming at her.

Recommended for: someone in the mood for a cosy mystery.

Sep 4, 2010, 12:15pm Top

122. Kim by Rudyard Kipling - I enjoyed this, much more than I was expecting to. The story of a young English boy who can pass for Indian, and makes use of this, his language skills and street smarts to his advantage, this seems to have inspired many later spy stories. It's a cracking adventure and the Indian setting is vivid and affectionate. I also seem to have a bit of a crush on Kim (it's all right, he's an adult by the end of the book).

Sample: The voices of early evening had settled down to one soothing hum whose deepest note was the steady chumping of the bullocks above their chopped straw, and whose highest was the tinkle of a Bengali dancing-girl's sitar. Most men had eaten and pulled deep at their gurgling, grunting hookahs, which in full blast sound like bull-frogs.

Recommended for: fans of spy stories or any good adventure story.

Sep 4, 2010, 12:30pm Top

123. Mrs Tim Of The Regiment by DE Stevenson.

How/why acquired: I liked Miss Buncle's Book by the same author. Also, this is one of a series of similar books published by Bloomsbury in lovely covers, and I'm a sucker for well-designed collections like that.

This is one of those mid-twentieth century, light humour with a female focus books which are growing in popularity again, perhaps led by Miss Pettigrew and Miss Buncle from the Persephone stable. I do enjoy them - they are fun and escapist without the mercenary sex-and-shopping aspects of much modern-day chick lit. But the ones I like best have a little bit of steel or sadness beneath, and this one was pure froth.

It's the story of six months in the life of an officer's wife, apparently heavily based on Stevenson's own diary and experiences. She tussles with her budget, tries to manage good relationships with her husband's superiors, manages a hair-raising move to Scotland with the attendant confusions that brings. I found it a little too self-consciously funny.

Sample: Grace McDougall gradually wins the colonel to a better mood by flirting with him outrageously; but this annoys both Mrs Benson and Captain McDougall, so things are not much improved. The souffle does not turn up at all, its place on the menu is taken by a few cheese straws which I know have been mouldering at the back of the kitchen cupboard for about three weeks, but which look nice, having been dusted thoroughly and reheated.

Recommended for: a fun, light, forgettable read.

Edited: Sep 4, 2010, 12:51pm Top

124. Your Blue-Eyed Boy by Helen Dunmore

How/why acquired: I loved Dunmore's The Siege.

I read this now for the controversial books read, ie books which have a big divergence of opinion in the ratings they have been given.

I can see why this book is on the list - it's very well-written and well-crafted, but the subject matter is discomforting and a key event strains credulity, or at least it does if you ignore the hints scattered through the book that there are times when some people, subconsciously or not, deliberately seek out failure.

Simone is a district judge, married to an architect. To the world outside they are to be envied, with their well-paying professional jobs. But Donald's practice failed and all Simone's salary is going to service his debt. The new dynamics of the relationship are jarring, especially as they had to move to a new home far from London, and Simone works harder and sees the family less. Donald is alternately despondent and clutching at crazy ideas to set them back on their feet. Every day at work, Simone sees people whose nice, ordinary, safe lives have fallen apart - because of one slip, one bad decision, the dice falling the wrong way. Then one day, she starts to receive odd and potentially menacing letters and phone calls from a man she knew twenty years before.

The book seems to be about the impermanence of well-being, the thin veneer of normal life. It goes back further than the Vikings who used to haunt Simone's stretch of coast: "These men coming inland, across the cleared ground, moving quietly in spite of their weight. Such things have always been happening. Sometimes they stop for a while, but they start up again before long. If you happen to be born in one of those happy times when nothing's happening, then the change can be a real shock".

Sample: I want this day never to begin. I want them all to stay like this, Donald, Joe, Matt, floating in and out of sleep as the house floats on its foundations above the marsh. I want them to believe they're safe.

Recommended for: readers who appreciate good writing, and who don't mind being unsettled.

Sep 4, 2010, 1:38pm Top

Interesting review of the Dunmore. I loved The Siege and The Betrayal but definitely did not like With Your Crooked Heart. This one sounds intriguing, though.

Sep 4, 2010, 6:04pm Top

Great reviews of Kim and Your Blue-Eyed Boy; I'll be on the lookout for both of those. I'm looking forward to reading The Siege and The Betrayal in the next few weeks.

Oct 4, 2010, 8:28am Top

Oh dear, a month since I last updated! I'm going to have to keep the reviews pretty short to have any chance of catching up.

125. Vibrator by Mari Akasaka. Thirtysomething journalist Rei, strung out on drink, drugs and self-harm, picks up a trucker and goes on a road trip with him. Better than that makes it sound, but still not really my cup of tea.

My mind just wants me to hurry up and give it some booze; there's a second mind doing whatever it can to annoy the first - these people in my head don't get along. The one trying to piss off the one who's begging for booze isn't concerned or anything, she's not trying to hold her back, that's not it; she's just being nasty.

Recommended for: fans of Catcher In The Rye-style, why-are-we-considered-abnormal-when-it's-the-world-that's-messed-up type stories.

Oct 4, 2010, 9:25am Top

Justine, Book 1 of The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell.

The most difficult book I have ever finished. I am certain that Durrell was trying to say something about love, the relations between people, memory - and also that he was trying to say something about literature. No hope, though, of telling what exactly it was he wanted to say.

Unfortunately I found the experience of reading this rather like driving in heavy traffic - every so often you find a bit of open road and you can take off at speed, and it's a great feeling ... but all too soon you are stopping and starting again.

Somewhere in the heart of experience there is an order and a coherence which we might surprise if we were attentive enough, loving enough, or patient enough. Will there be time?

126. Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon. Washed-up, drug-addled writer struggling with a magnum opus which just keeps getting longer and juggling several women embarks on lost weekend with hellraising agent/friend. I much prefer Chabon's surreally-edged work to his earlier, realistic stuff.

I was appalled to see, after five years' exposure to the unstable isotopes of my love, how many of her hopes Sara Gaskell still entrusted to me; how much of her faith there remained for me to shatter. I could I tell her the terrible things I had to tell her? Your dog is dead. You have to get an abortion.

127. Beat The Reaper by Josh Bazell. Page-turning thriller about a martial-arts-expert ex-mafia-hitman doctor (got that?). Very black, and to start with very funny, although it got too grotesque for my tastes after a while. Would suit readers who don't find Carl Hiaasen edgy enough anymore.

I should say here that being chronically sleep-deprived is so demonstrably similar to being drunk that hospitals often feel like giant, ceaseless office Christmas parties.

128. The Lambs Of London by Peter Ackroyd. The lunatic, the lover and the poet,/ Are of imagination all compact. Historical tale, based on a true story involving the mysterious discovery of Shakespearean papers, exploring the power - positive and negative - of the imagination. I flicked back through after the denouement and found it to be studded with clues.

'Mary slipped and fell. We were by the Thames at that time.' 'Whatever were you doing by that river?' 'Exploring Southwark.' 'Exploring Southwark?' It might have been located on the Russian steppes. 'In search of Shakespeare.'

Oct 4, 2010, 9:36am Top

Balthazar, AQ2. A re-examination of the time and events covered in Justine in the light of new information. The narrative is much less fragmented than in Justine, although the "gigantic idiosyncracies" of the human heart are still the subject - and the strange way that not just love but even lust are rooted in the psyche rather than the body.

In my mind's eye the city rose once more against the flat mirror of the green lake and the broken loins of sandstone which marked the desert's edge. The politics of love, the intrigues of desire, good and evil, virtue and caprice, love and murder, moved obscurely in the dark corners of Alexandria's streets and squares, brothels and drawing-rooms - moved like a great congress of eels in the slime of plot and counter-plot.

Mountolive, AQ3. Another revisiting of the time covered by the previous two books, this time with a focus on the external rather than the internal life - politics, not love. And yet, this reveals the true facts underlying some of the original mysteries of the story, which seemed to be about nothing but love.

Enjoying each book more than the previous.

They were soon to be drawn along ways not of their choosing, trapped in a magnetic field, as it were, by the same forces which unwind the tides at the moon's bidding, or propel the glittering forces of salmon up a crowded river - actions curving and swelling into futurity beyond the powers of mortals to harness or divert.

Oct 4, 2010, 9:46am Top

I have been thinking about rereading The Alexandria Quartet, which I last read some 35 years ago just after college: I loved it then, but I'm sure I missed a lot. Your reviews are encouraging me to do that, but there are a lot of books I've been planning to read first, so I'm not sure when I'll get around to it.

Oct 4, 2010, 7:35pm Top

It seems to me the best way to read The Alexandria Quartet is twice, in immediate succession. But I can't imagine the time commitment you would need to set aside to do that! Or perhaps to read it once but with some careful diagramming of the story... I do think the way the layers pile up and shift your perceptions of the story is one of the amazing things. I am also sure I missed a lot - there were long passages, especially of Justine, where I didn't really understand what Durrell's point was.

Edited: Oct 4, 2010, 7:53pm Top

Failed to finish:

Zoli by Colum McCann. The life of a gypsy poet, brutality and prejudice but lyrically told (I found the style distancing).

Uprising by Scott G Mariani. Interesting premise - vampires live among us with the help of modern drugs like Solazal (so they can endure sunlight) and Vambloc (helps victims recover from bites and forget the attack). But the Traditionalists want to return to the old ways, and will take on the Vampire Feds. Unfortunately the style is full-scale airport thriller tripe - everyone is gorgeous, sinister, glamourously dressed in designer cashmere, or all three.

In Pale Battalions by Robert Goddard - the dark secrets of an aristocratic family.

Oct 4, 2010, 7:57pm Top

129. Turing's Delirium by Edmundo Paz Soldan. A world recognizably close to ours, also recognizably moving towards cyberpunk. Questions of power, resistance and the possibility of staying neutral in a world of moral crisis. Good, but didn't quite come together in the end.

She looks out at the windows illuminated in other houses, portals to other worlds, so similar to and different from her own. Someone is watching a soccer game on TV, logging on to Playground, printing porn photos from sexo.com, visiting Subcommander Marcos's Web site, reading in bed, hacking a virtual casino, calling her boyfriend on her cell phone, writing a poem on a laptop, burning a CD, looking sadly at a postcard from New York where the Twin Towers can be seen in the distance, listening to a concert on rollingstone.com.

Oct 4, 2010, 9:29pm Top

>40 wandering_star: oh, I loved Zoli, too bad you found it off-putting.

btw, I like that you include an excerpt with your comments.

Oct 6, 2010, 10:46am Top

Avaland, I very often have problems with books that take that sort of lyrical, stepped-back approach - the things I find most interesting to read about are people's reactions to each other, the complex emotions and the way one action triggers the reaction from someone else... so I prefer things with a bit more actual detail, I guess.

130. The Boys In The Trees by Mary Swan. Late nineteenth century; a vicious crime and the ripples it sends through a small community - and also the echoes of its tale of financial worries and family woes within the other families of the town. A slow burner.

Hold the small button in the palm of a hand, half remembering a passed-down story, and put it into another container, a jar, maybe, for safekeeping. Doing that, but at the same time wondering if there really was a story, thinking that even if there was, it might not have been true.

Gould's Book Of Fish by Richard Flanagan. I first tried to read this seven years ago - at the second attempt I still found the sheer crazed density of metaphor an obstacle to my comprehension and enjoyment...

131. Being Light by Helen Smith. A romp, about how the lives of a group of eccentric Londoners intersect after a freak accident in which a man is blown away on a bouncy castle. I enjoyed it, but I felt as if there were several chapters missing just before the end, as if Helen Smith had a deadline looming and simply skipped to the final scenes.

'Do you think that was maybe your one chance to live valiantly?' 'I didn't see it like that at the time. I just put the phone down. Anyway, I don't want to live valiantly, I want to live knowing I haven't missed out on the party being thrown by all the other people who are living valiantly.

The Years Of Rice And Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson. 700 years of counterfactual history - what if almost the whole population of Europe had been wiped out by the Black Death? Very interesting ideas, but unfortunately often a bit of a slog to read.

132. The Twelve by Stuart Neville. A former IRA hitman seeks to rid himself of the ghosts of the people he has killed. I was interested in reading this after a visit to Northern Ireland last summer in which I realised the extent of the tensions which remain between the communities (for example, the "peace lines" or separation barriers in west Belfast where the communities back on to each other are still gated off during the night). This is both a gripping thriller and a (bleak) portrayal of the new Northern Ireland.

A riot is like a fire. It has a life of its own, and does what it will. But it can be fanned or quelled. Fegan knew that as well as anybody. The police and the kids were the kindling, paper and dry wood. Men like Caffola were the naked flame, ready to set them alight.

Oct 6, 2010, 4:15pm Top

I loved The Boys in the Trees; glad you enjoyed it too.

Oct 8, 2010, 9:53am Top

It was an interesting read, not least because it turned out to be about something completely different from what I had been expecting!

Oct 8, 2010, 5:46pm Top

>43 wandering_star: Robinson is always a slog, isn't he? And yet I've got 2 more of his for the 1111 challenge: Green Mars (the final in a trilogy) and Antarctica. I recently gave up on Forty Signs of Rain and yet have The Years of Rice and Salt on my Kindle to read.

Oct 8, 2010, 10:45pm Top

Oh, dear, that doesn't sound good. I just picked up Forty Signs of Rain. Although, while I found The Years of Rice and Salt kind of a slog, too, I remember quite liking Antarctica.

Edited: Oct 9, 2010, 5:07pm Top

I remember really liking the Green Mars series, but it's been a long time since I read it...

In a TITANIC effort of self-control today I managed to buy only six books from The Strand - The Taqwacores, Tree Of Smoke, Time And Again (hello TIOLI group read), Graceland, The Pilgrim's Rules Of Etiquette and the Best American Short Stories '08 (selected by Salman Rushdie). Trip to NYC going extremely well - the weather is perfect and I am managing to catch up with all my friends. I have also walked past St Mark's bookshop, although not gone in yet (I wanted to go to the Strand first).

Oct 10, 2010, 12:03pm Top

>47 bragan: I'll be interested in what you think of Forty Signs of Rain. I just couldn't get excited about it.

Oct 10, 2010, 10:20pm Top

Not sure when I'll get around to it -- actually, I just ordered it and haven't even gotten it yet -- but I'll be sure to review it when I do.

Oct 11, 2010, 6:27pm Top

133. Faith Fox by Jane Gardam. I acquired a number of books by Jane Gardam after seeing several LT raves about her. I just didn't get the first one I read - Queen Of The Tambourine - so I started this with a certain amount of negative expectations. But it won me over, being first witty, then wise, and finally rather moving in its depiction of all sorts of different kinds of love, and grief.

Everyone knew that Pammie had true and deep affections. Pammie often said so herself and discussed them. And she had a huge sense of duty (likewise).

134. The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Hmm. I think I suffered from knowing too much about this book - I found it extremely underwhelming.

It would cost them some effort to get there. Take their blankets. Hide the cart someplace along the road. They could reach it before dark but they couldnt get back.

Edited: Oct 11, 2010, 7:19pm Top

I like St. Mark's Bookshop, but I love Book Culture, an independent bookstore that is affiliated with Columbia University. The original store is on W. 112th St, between Broadway and Amsterdam Ave, and is easily accessible via the 1 train, which stops at B'way & 110th St. Book Culture has a fantastic supply of literature and nonfiction, with a great selection of used books upstairs, and it's replaced Strand as my favorite NYC bookstore. I like the neighborhood, as Columbia University is a few blocks north on B'way; Tom's Restaurant, which was made famous by 'Seinfeld' (can you get that show in the UK?) is on the corner of B'way and 112th St; and the famed Cathedral of St John the Divine is on Amsterdam between 110th (Cathedral Pkwy) and 113th St.

Oct 11, 2010, 7:14pm Top

Rebeccanyc also recommended Book Culture! I will try to make it up there (I am staying near Washington Square).

Edited: Oct 11, 2010, 8:55pm Top

52 - That's my neighborhood! And Book Culture is also a favorite of mine. Another that's nearby is Westsider Books on Broadway between 80th & 81st, great used bookstore that I want to move into. Another great one is Idlewild Books (19th St between 5th & 6th Ave) which shelves everything by country and has an entire NYRB's table. Pretty near Washington Sq wandering_star. :)

ETA: 51 - The Road left me cold as well.

Oct 15, 2010, 8:52pm Top

I liked Book Culture, and I can completely understand why you prefer it to the Strand - for me it was a good browser's bookshop. But oh, Idlewild Books! That's close to my idea of a perfect bookshop, or at least a perfect small bookshop. The shelving-by-country reminded me of Daunt Books in London, my idea of a perfect large bookshop - have you been there?

I especially liked the little labels under some of the books. I had to buy The Child Garden when I saw this:

The guy working there also said that it was one of the best books he'd read recently. I also picked up Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio and a discounted copy of the NYRB The Queue, recently positively reviewed on LT.

In Book Culture I bought the latest Lapham's Quarterly, with the theme of The City; in St Mark's Your Republic Is Calling You and The East, the West, and Sex: A History of Erotic Encounters; and in a second-hand bookshop on the street where I was staying, Galore and Charlie Chan Is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction. Not a bad haul!

Oct 15, 2010, 9:11pm Top

Wow. The Child Garden has been on my TBR Pile for ages. I'm thinking I may need to move it up!

Edited: Oct 16, 2010, 10:08am Top

Idlewild Books is a little off my usual beaten path, but I get their e-mails, and have always planned to go. And, I just realized that if I take a different route home from the family birthday party I'm going to this afternoon, I could stop by. Thanks for reminding me! Glad you had fun in NYC.

Oct 16, 2010, 8:22pm Top

Hope you have fun! Yes, New York was fantastic, the weather was perfect and I certainly won't be leaving it 15 years until my next visit...

Anyway, now that I am back in one place for almost a whole month, I think I am caught up enough to go back to writing proper reviews.

135. A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry.

How/why acquired: newspaper review.

WWI as experienced by a naive young Irish private - the confusion and chaos, the sheer bloody horror of trench warfare. An important backdrop to the story is the 1916 Easter Rising, the way that it divided feeling within the regiment (and within families), and its impact on the way that Irish soldiers were perceived. Very well-written, but unrelentingly grim. In fact, I think if it had been less well-written there would have been elements which a reader would have objected to as deliberately tear-jerking, but as it was I just read on, heartbroken.

Here and there along the supply trenches, men found birds that had collapsed, small black deaths in the snow. They didn't pray any more for salvation, forgiveness or rescue, just that the tea would be hot when it reached them.

Recommended for: people who appreciate good writing and will be able to deal with the grimness.

136. Time And Again by Jack Finney.

How/why acquired: LT recommendation.

A young man is approached by a mysterious US government agency, who say that he has exactly the qualities they are seeking for a special project - but he needs to sign up before he can find out what exactly it is. It turns out to be time travel - and he requests a chance to try 1880s New York, to look into a mystery from his girlfriend's personal history. Once there, though, it proves difficult to remain only an observer.

This was a lot of fun to read - especially since I'd just spent most of a week wandering around Lower Manhattan and so I could picture the streets and addresses mentioned. However, despite the enjoyable twist at the end, I don't think it matches up to Connie Willis's Doomsday Book, another tale of scientific time travel gone wrong.

The consequences to the future of interference with the past? I shrugged: there were always consequences to any future of every act in the past. To affect the course of an event in my own time was to affect still another future unimaginably, yet we all did it every moment of our lives.

Recommended for: holidays in NYC; fans of time travel books and light reading for anyone who enjoyed Doomsday Book.

Edited: Oct 17, 2010, 1:19am Top

137. Damned Good Show by Derek Robinson

Damned Good Show follows 409 Squadron, Bomber Command, through the early years of World War Two.

Part One is set mostly during the period of the phoney war, with boredom and frustration the dominant emotions. The two biggest personalities of the squadron are Silk and Langham, good fliers but also the sort of pranksters who on a weekend off will "borrow" another airman's fancy car and gatecrash a wedding at the Ritz. Towards the end of Part One the real fighting starts, though, and their exuberance cannot protect them from the psychological impact of their comrades' deaths and their own near misses.

Part Two takes place at the tail end of the Blitz. Here, the main theme is truth as a casualty of war. The men tend not to refer to the terrible things they have seen (an understandable piece of self-preservation); senior officials are deliberately over-optimistic about success rates; crews always return from a raid swearing that they hit the target; and the debriefers accept their word despite all sorts of inconsistencies. In Part Two, the deadpan black humour of Part One gradually leaches away, eventually surviving only in what Silk says - he's one of two characters that speak the truth, the other being a university lecturer-turned-intelligence officer named 'Skull' Skelton who is kicked out of squadron after squadron for his honesty.

'You make life bloody difficult for me,' Duff said. 'It's hellish hard work trying to boost morale when you come back and tell everyone the squadron just bombed Zurich.'
'I would never say that. I might say we missed Zurich.'
'Morale is crucial. And you keep chipping away at it.'
'Listen...' Silk eased his backside. 'Night after night, op after op, crews tell Bins and Skull, yes, they found the target and yes, they hit the target. You know that's not always true.'
'And the crews know it. They know who the bullshit-merchants are. How many Wimpys completely miss the target? Ten per cent? Twenty? Thirty?'
'No, no,' Duff said. 'That's incompatible with good morale. If my crews start to think their efforts are wasted, they'll stop trying. Confidence and efficiency go hand in hand. Determination is half the battle.'
'Jesus,' Silk said. 'You sound like Henry the Fifth on Benzedrine.'
'Never mind what I sound like. These chaps have got to believe in success before they can succeed. Don't you see that?'

The theme which stretches through the whole book is waste. Pilots, inexperienced, terrified or simply under great pressure, make mistakes. They have to fly so high to avoid German anti-aircraft fire that they can barely see where they are, never mind find the target. With poor visibility they depend on 'dead reckoning', easily thrown out by winds which are a different speed or direction than predicted. So only a small proportion of bombs find their target. And yet, deaths and injuries are commonplace - and told here without fanfare or emotion.

Diamond turned north, hoping to escape the weather, but the weather went north, too. He tried to climb above it, and the wings iced up. The more he climbed, the worse the ice, until the Wimpy was labouring. He had to go back down into the muck. The port engine packed up and now he couldn't maintain height even if he wanted to. He was searching for a hole in the cloud when he scraped the top of a Yorkshire hill that should have been thirty miles away, and he terrified himself. Ten seconds later he flew into another, bigger hill.

As Skull says, "Death as the price of triumph is one thing. Death as the cost of failure is obscene".

'D'you want a parachute?' Silk asked. 'If it doesn't work, you take it back and they give you another.' He gently steered Rollo out of the room. 'Very old joke, that. Past its best.'

Recommended for: I think a lot of people who would enjoy this book would never pick it up in a shop. It's published (in the UK at least) by Cassell Military Paperbacks, the cover picture is of a squadron posed in front of a bomber, and a scan of the cover would not necessarily reveal that the title is heavily ironic (it's what the group captain always says at the end of a post-raid debriefing where of course all the crews hit the target). I would recommend it quite widely.

Oct 17, 2010, 4:09pm Top

Damned Good Show is not readily available and is often expensive where it is. I just ordered the cheapest one I could find at Abe Books; prices escalated rapidly from what I'm paying. I wonder why it might be worth one or two hundred dollars.


Oct 17, 2010, 8:53pm Top

>55 wandering_star: I really enjoyed The Child Garden back when I read it (the Iron Age?). My husband read the more recent Ryman, The King's Last Song and loved it.

And welcome to the club of underwhelmed readers of The Road:-)

Oct 18, 2010, 9:46am Top

#60 - goodness. It might also be worth looking for his other novels if you can't find this one - from what I have read in the reviews they take a similar approach.

Oct 18, 2010, 5:02pm Top

It's on its way to me via standard mail for $7.88 total. I grabbed it at that price because most of the other prices were way out of sight. I liked the subject; I don't know enough about the author to know that I want any of his other books, and I have plenty of unread novels in my house.

Thanks for your description of it.


Oct 18, 2010, 8:13pm Top

138. The Sound Of A Wild Snail Eating: a true story by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

How/why acquired: reviewed here (and then very kindly posted to me) by LT member BlackSheepDances.

This slim but charming volume really is about snails, which turn out to be remarkably interesting beasties. (I used to loathe them until one day I saw one sitting on top of my compost bin, chomping happily on a fresh leaf. It was impossible to dislike the creatures after seeing one enjoying its lunch.)

Elisabeth Tova Bailey spent several years suffering from a severe illness which left her unable to sit up, read, or even listen to any music more polyphonic than Gregorian chant. One of her visitors, one day, brings her a pot of violets with a small snail in it, and she becomes fascinated by watching the snail going about its business. After her recovery she followed up the fascination with some research, which produced this book - a mix of her own observations and the existing scientific knowledge about snails.

I will confine myself to a couple of snippets from the book - for example, snail slime is far more than just an aid to locomotion. Almost one-third of a snail's energy goes into producing slimes, different ones for moving, healing itself (eg rebuilding its shell if it becomes cracked), looking after its eggs, defending itself, and of course, courting and mating. And that's an even more amazing sequence - some snails actually produce within their bodies small arrows of calcium carbonate, and at one point during foreplay the two animals shoot these arrows into the bodies of their potential mates. The shape of these arrows varies between species, as well as the number which is produced. It's thought that the dart transmits pheromones. Oh, and I don't think my use of the word 'foreplay' was exaggerated: in the first stage of the mating process, "the snails draw slowly closer, often circling each other, smooching, and exchanging tentacle touches".

Another pleasure of the book is the snail-related quotations from books and poetry (often haiku - snails must be one of the recognised season words), my favourite being the following, from 1881: The {snail's} tentacles are as expressive as a mule's ears, giving an appearance of listless enjoyment when they hang down, and an immense alertness if they are rigid, as happens when the snail is on a march." (I like this not just because of the idea of a snail on the march, but also because of the hours of careful observation that the quote suggests.)

The loveliest haiku is at my feet/ when did you get here?/ snail.

And (particularly as I am still in the depths of the Alexandria Quartet) I appreciated the following quote from My Family And Other Animals (after the young Gerald describes the mating habits of smails, including their hermaphroditism) rather more than I had done when I first read the book as a 12-year-old: "Good God," cried Larry. "I think it's unfair. All those damned slimy things wandering about seducing each other like mad all over the bushes, and having the pleasures of both sensations. Why couldn't such a gift be given to the human race? That's what I want to know."

Tova Bailey occasionally compares her own situation to that of the snail - in particular, the fact that her illness has made her seem invisible or unimportant to the outside world, in the same way that snails are ignored. She also notes that as she starts to recover and gains more energy, observing the snail suddenly starts to require patience. This is not a book about illness, but it is a book about valuing, and paying attention to, the smallest aspects of life.

Sample: The snail loved the mushroom. It was so happy to have a familiar food, after weeks of nothing but wilted flowers, that for several days it slept right next to the huge piece of portobello, waking throughout the day to reach up and nibble before sinking back into a well-fed slumber.

Recommended for: anyone not too intolerant of snails, or of whimsy, to appreciate it.

Oct 19, 2010, 9:18pm Top

lovely review -- I think I'll try to find a snail to watch.

Oct 19, 2010, 10:06pm Top

A Long Long Way sounds like a great book. Thanks for posting such a thorough review. I have added it to my wishlist.

Oct 21, 2010, 2:59pm Top

Wandering - great review of Damned Good Show.

Oct 23, 2010, 9:46am Top

It was impossible to dislike the creatures after seeing one enjoying its lunch.

Also impossible to resist this book after your review. Really looking forward to it.

Oct 31, 2010, 4:46am Top

Clea, the fourth book of 139. The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell.

I do not in any way feel qualified to give a 'review' of this book, but here are some thoughts.

First of all, some of the difficulties I had:

- a major theme of this book is literature, what it should be, how it fits into life. But without knowing very much about the literature, and literary debates, of the time it was written, I felt a lot of this was going over my head

- I also had what might be called 'political' difficulties with some of it. For example, the angle on women. Take this passage:

She was, like every woman, everything ... that the mind of man wished to imagine. She was there forever, and she had never existed! Under all these masks there was only another woman, every woman, like a lay figure in a dressmaker's shop, waiting for the poet to clothe her, breathe life into her. In understanding all this for the first time I began to realize with awe the enormous reflexive power of woman - the fecund passivity with which, like the moon, she borrows her second-hand light from the male sun.

As a female reader, I just don't know what I am supposed to do with these words. I acknowledge that in many ways the book is about the way its narrator, Darnley, views the world: but there is also clearly a lot of Durrell in Darnley. I think that this was an obstacle to me in processing what the book has to say about another of its major themes, love.

I say this because one of the books I have been reading simultaneously with AQ is Andrea Lee's Interesting Women, short stories which often touch on some of the irrationalities and complexities within relationships. There was a particular interaction which happened in one of the earlier books of AQ, and when I read it I thought 'this is ridiculous - no woman would ever behave like that'. A few days later, almost exactly the same interaction took place in one of Lee's short stories, yet this time I found it credible, probably because the story was told from the woman's point of view.

Another issue for me was that, knowing a lot about expat life, I recognised that the book's view of Egypt was very much that of an expat (it was interesting how similar people's points of view can be today, in terms of what is seen and not seen). So this undermined the resonance of the portrayal of Alexandria, which I can imagine would be a strength of the book for other readers.

Now on to the good:

- the structure of the book is amazing - the way that with the emergence of new facts, your whole perspective shifts. I wished that I'd kept some sort of diagram of each book on tracing paper so that I could layer the new information over the top.

- every so often, the expressiveness of the writing just brings you to a stop. Early in book two (Balthazar), after Darnley has learnt the information which shakes everything up, he says,

...not that anything I wrote about them is untrue, far from it. Yet when I wrote, the full facts were not at my disposal. The picture I drew was a provisional one - like the picture of a lost civilization deduced from a few fragmented vases, an inscribed tablet, an amulet, some human bones, a gold smiling death-mask.

The most beautiful line in the book strikes me every time I read it over: ...weighed down by something as heart-breaking as the post-coital sadness which clings to every endearment, which lingers like a sediment in the clear waters of a kiss.

Every book has at least one major set-piece scene (the duck shoot, the ride in the desert, the masked ball) where the whole scene is full of language like this. And I think that's what kept me reading in the end.

Would I read it again? I think so. I'm not sure when, though. Ideally I should read it again quite soon while the changes of the story are still fresh in my mind, to look for clues in the earlier narratives. But I am not sure I will manage to pick it up again for a while...

Nov 1, 2010, 8:16pm Top

140. The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund De Waal

How/why acquired: a birthday present.

This is an unusual family memoir, told through the medium of the history of a collection of netsuke which the author inherited from his great-uncle. Their story moves from Paris to Vienna and on, taking in the birth of Japonisme in Paris (de Waal's great-great-grandfather, who acquired the collection, was also an early champion of the Impressionists) and the fall of the Hapsburg empire. The sources of de Waal's research include not only family documents but also glimpses through literature - as important social figures, his ancestors were inspiration for fictional characters from Proust to Joseph Roth.

They were also Jewish financiers, and so this is also a story of the sad history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century anti-semitism, Dreyfus in his great-great-great grandfather's time, Nazism in his great grandfather's. It's a very personal, emotionally-charged viewpoint, as de Waal gradually discovers the history and imagines what it was like for his family.

He cannot go to his cafe, to his office, to his club, to his cousins. He has no cafe, no office, no club, no cousins. He cannot sit on a public bench any more: the benches in the park outside the Votivkirche have Juden verboten stencilled on them ... He cannot go on a train: Jews and those who look Jewish have been thrown off. He cannot go to the cinema. And he cannot go to the Opera. Even if he could, he would not hear music written by Jews, played by Jews or sung by Jews. No Mahler and no Mendelssohn. Opera has been Aryanised. There are SA men stationed at the end of the tram line in Neuwaldegg to prevent Jews strolling in the Vienna woods.

I had actually been expecting this book to be more about the netsuke themselves - I love netsuke, and de Waal, who is a potter (you can see some of his work here) writes fantastically well about the look and especially the tactility of the netsuke. But I couldn't be disappointed when the story turned out to be about something else - it was too good.

There are some lovely pictures of the netsuke here.

Sample: What was it like to have something so alien in your hands for the first time, to pick up a box or cup - or a netsuke - in a material that you had never encountered before and shift it around, finding its weight and balance, running a fingertip along the raised decoration of a stork in flight through clouds?

Nov 1, 2010, 8:21pm Top

The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has a nice online exhibition of some of its netsuke.

Nov 3, 2010, 10:16am Top

141. The Cruellest Month by Louise Penny

How/why acquired: I read Still Life, the first in the Three Pines mystery series, this summer (following great LT buzz) and really enjoyed it. This is the third in the series but I found it on a swap shelf so quickly snapped it up!

However, I didn't enjoy this one quite so much. It may be because the first one was so different from anything else I had read, whereas this one had many of the same themes/elements of the first one. I did keep thinking that Penny's style would be pretty easy to parody - just have everyone carrying soft, flaky croissants or a good pâté, and being warm and wise...

That said, none of this stopped the book from keeping me up late turning the pages - but I think I'll wait a while before picking up another in the series.

Sample: Any other senior officer in the Sûreté would think this not only weakness, but folly. But Gamache knew it was the only way he could find a murderer. He listened to people, took notes, gathered evidence, like all his colleagues. But he did one more thing. He gathered feelings. He collected emotions. Because murder was deeply human.

Recommended for: someone who'd like to spend a day or two curled up in the glowing world of Three Pines (and what, after all, is wrong with soft flaky croissants?)
142. Aya Of Yop City by Marguerite Abouet

This is a graphic novel set in 1970s Ivory Coast, where Marguerite Abouet grew up (she moved to France at the age of 7). I hadn't realised that it was the second book of the series - I thought it was the same as the first book, confusingly titled Aya. But this wasn't a problem in terms of enjoying the read.

It might explain, though, why Aya features comparatively little in the book considering she's the title character. The book is just as much about the stories of her friends - Adjoua, whose new baby looks nothing like her fiance Moussa, and Bintou, who thinks she's struck it lucky with her new, Parisian boyfriend. Another storyline takes in the Sissokos, a wealthy family and the father's struggles to keep the factory profits up and get his layabout son to work.

I really enjoyed reading this. It always amazes me with graphic novels how much can be conveyed in relatively few words, and this was also the case here. The relationships, the stories, the people all come through very strongly. There is a nice line in Ivorian proverbs: "despite its haste, the fly will wait until the crap comes out." And I liked the pictures of Ivorian life - there are nice full-page scene setters like a market scene or the palaver tree in the village.

Points deducted, however, for the fact that the book ends right in the middle of most of the story threads, - and as far as I know the third in the series has not been translated!

Recommended for: a fun, light read.

Nov 6, 2010, 10:42pm Top

143. The Mark Of The Angel by Nancy Huston

Paris, 1957. Raphael, a young, talented musician falls head over heels for his new German maid Saffie, only discovering after the wedding that what he had taken for an enchanting inner stillness is in fact mute indifferent passivity. In the background, the inhumanities of the Algerian war form a counterpoint to the horrors of World War II, an inevitable backdrop to this Franco-German romance which means that Raphael's mother refuses to acknowledge the marriage and that Saffie occasionally wakes up screaming. But then one day, something happens which means that Saffie starts to engage fully in her own life. The only problem is, this has nothing to do with Raphael.

(By the way, there is a major spoiler on the back cover of the US Vintage International edition which gives away what this thing is.)

The theme that brings the two parts of the story together is how people deal with unpleasant facts - the title refers to the groove between your nose and your mouth, "where the angel puts a finger on the baby's lips, just before it's born - Sshh! says the angel - and the baby forgets everything. All it learned before, up in paradise - forgotten. So it can come into the world innocent..."

The thing I liked best about this book was the authorial voice, sardonically conversational and counterpointing the emotionality of the story. But overall I found it much too stylised - the characters being symbols of things rather than real people.

Sample: This is no ordinary baby, I promise you. The chubby pink slobberers whose strollers crowd our city parks are just as repulsive to me as they are to you. But this baby... no, seriously, this one's different. He's... I'm not sure how to put it... Even though he's no bigger than your two fists stacked on top of each other... he's already someone. Look how rapidly he's breathing. Look at the black tufts of hair sticking up every which way from his damp head. Look at his emaciated little face, with its astonishingly expressive surfaces and angles. Look at the green glints coming from his dark eyes through the half-open slits of his eyelids. At the age of only thirty minutes, this little boy already radiates an exceptional sensitivity.

Nov 7, 2010, 11:15am Top

I read a book by Nancy Huston earlier this year (Fault Lines), and was also struck by the way her characters are more symbols than real people, like she has a message to get across more than a story.

Nov 9, 2010, 6:50pm Top

That's interesting. I think it was a glowing review of Fault Lines that made me pick up The Mark Of The Angel. Did you enjoy it anyway? I don't think it's a fatal flaw if the book is good otherwise, although I do find it quite an obstacle!

144. Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd (a Persephone book)

If you had been a castaway on a desert island, miraculously saved and returned home from the dead, how do you think your friends and family would greet you? With love, sympathy and open arms? According to Miss Ranskill's experience, well, that's not exactly what would happen. Of course, a complicating factor for her was that she fell off the ship just before the outbreak of World War Two, and returned to an England deep into rationing, air raids, blackouts and so on, none of which she had any idea about.

Another complicating factor, as far as I am concerned, is that everyone in this book is either lovely or horrid - horrid meaning that they are self-righteous and snobbish, that they don't think about anything other than their own experience, that they hector and criticise, that war has only brought out their worst features (overbearing jolly-hockey-stickness, say, or a tendency to grumble). The majority of Miss Ranskill's friends and acquaintances fall into this category, and since she herself is clearly lovely (unconventional, spirited) I can't imagine that she liked them that much before the war either.

There is quite a lot of deadpan humour in these encounters - for example, the way that people only ask about her desert island experiences because they want their own views confirmed (Miss Blake, a keen gardener, was disappointed that Miss Ranskill had not brought any plants back with her. Miss Stocks, whose favourite topics were adolescence, inhibitions and the problems of unmarried mothers, was annoyed that there had been no assaults by savages), or the way that Miss Ranskill scandalises her sister by eating dry bread for 6 days and then slathering the whole week's butter ration on one slice of toast ("You must see it's better to behave as if there wasn't a war for one day in the week?" But Mrs Phillips and Edith did not see).

I also found this quite a sad book in parts - not only are Miss Ranskill's dreams of a warm and loving welcome home shattered, but her positive memories of life on the island are almost spoilt by people's prurience, snobbery and persistent misunderstanding (also cast away on the island was a carpenter, a kind, wise and gentle man, but not a gentleman which is what most of her friends seem to care about).

This made it a bit of an uneven read for me - the combination of this poignancy with the rather broad satire. And I think a better book would have nuanced the lovely/horrid division a bit more. But still an enjoyable read.

Sample: She looked at the collection of ornaments on the mantelpiece, appraising not their worth but their power of usefulness on a desert island. Those blackwood elephants would have come in handy, their tusks could have prised small fish from their shells, the lace curtains could have been turned into fishing-nets and the fire-shovel would have made a spade.

Nov 9, 2010, 6:56pm Top

Tomorrow is my Thingamaversary - 4 years! I had been hoping to take the afternoon off work to read, in celebration, but it's all a bit busy at the moment so I will be trying to come home a bit early tonight instead. I'm planning to read a book which I would not have heard of, or own, if it wasn't for LT - The Imperfectionists which Black Sheep Dances kindly sent to me (along with the snail book).

Nov 9, 2010, 7:58pm Top

Salutations on your Thingamaversary! The Imperfectionists will be a suitable celebration, being an almost entirely perfect book.

I hated, hated, hated Fault Lines (that said, I did read the entire book). It was both preachy and improbable. She writes well, though.

Nov 9, 2010, 8:14pm Top

Sounds like a great celebration! A copy of The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating was "likely in stock" at a nearby bookstore the day I read your review, and the clerk and I went through the memoir shelves book by book trying to find it :( So now I have it from amazon and am dipping in and out, trying to make it last. Enjoy The Imperfectionists!

Edited: Nov 12, 2010, 9:43am Top

145. The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

Well, I didn't manage to give this book a long, uninterrupted period of time as planned, but even so it was great - a good book to mark the anniversary with.

This is the story of a failing international newspaper, based in Rome, and the lives of various members of its staff. I would see it as a collection of linked short stories, and each one of the stories was killer - dealing with a wide range of different personalities, styles and moods, all backed with a strong understanding of complex human motivations. In one story, the pernickety corrections editor is given unexpected perspective on his life by the visit of an old friend. In another, a newbie journalist is taken advantage of on an epic scale. And then there are the romances, none of them what you would call, exactly, happy. All the stories are acutely observed and witty; some are poignant; all are interesting.

Sample: Arthur's cubicle used to be near the watercooler, but the bosses tired of having to chat with him each time they got thirsty. So the watercooler stayed and he was moved. Now his desk is in a distant corner, as far from the locus of power as possible but nearer the cupboard of pens, which is a consolation.

Nov 12, 2010, 9:55am Top

PS that quote reminds me of a Dilbert cartoon which someone had posted up by the tea point in my friend's office.

Boss - People are our fifth most valuable resource.
Minion, later - What's our fourth most valuable resource?
Answer - Teabags.

Nov 14, 2010, 5:54am Top

>72 wandering_star:, I've just got Aya out of the library, sounds like it will be a good read.

Dec 5, 2010, 6:29am Top

Back after three weeks of various work-related travel, with my book notes in quite a bit of disorder. I'll do my best though...

146. The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall

How/why acquired: I'd looked at this book a lot because of the fantastic title (intriguing and memorable), but sustained good comments on LT about the author finally persuaded me to get a copy.

The Electric Michelangelo is the story of Cy, a dreamy boy who becomes a tattooist - not exactly by accident but not exactly by choice either. It's more by the force of will of Eliot Riley, master tattooist extraordinaire who chooses Cy to be his apprentice. Riley is a force of nature, a fighter and drinker only at peace with a tattooing needle in his hand. "He had a visage that was photographic, not attractive in its looks but memorable, bringing back images of it during previous meetings with a flash of the brain's bulb and the fizzle of recollection like burnt celluloid." In the second half of the book, Cy leaves Morecambe Bay and winds up with his own tattoo booth on Coney Island, and forms a relationship with Grace, a circus performer who is as fierce and strange as Riley, in her own way.

As a tattooist, Cy sees a bloody and brutal world: not just the nonconforming milieu of Coney Island folk, but the stories with which people explain either the marks already on their bodies or the ones they ask him to put there. (An important, and fascinating, theme of the book was the symbolism of drawing on the body - and what events or elements of their lives people choose to mark.) Some of these stories are actually quite hard to read. At other times the book is fascinatingly grotesque, like a Victorian museum of oddities. But it can also be surprisingly lyrical and even tender, in the relationships that Cy has with his mother, Riley, and Grace. An excellent read.

Recommended for: every reader with a strong enough constitution to deal with some of the more brutal stories.

Dec 5, 2010, 6:41am Top

147. Sun And Shadow by Åke Edwardson - a Scandinavian serial killer police procedural, which I didn't find especially effective.

The Gathering by Anne Enright, a depressingly unflinching portrayal of an Irish family - I didn't bother finishing it.

148. One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson - abridged, audiobook. I really enjoyed this (again, Jason Isaacs does a great job as reader) - and felt the story hung together better than the first book in the series.

Edited: Dec 5, 2010, 7:27am Top

149. Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi

How/why acquired: an Early Reviewer book.

Pereira is a journalist living in Lisbon under the Salazar regime. Late on in his life, a series of events leads him to question his lack of political engagement. The title of the book refers to the fact that the story is told in the reported third person, with frequent use of the phrase 'Pereira maintains'. The overall effect of this is to suggest that this is Pereira subsequently seeking to explain or justify his actions, although sometimes I found it quite irritating - in particular because it seems to crop up at random intervals, including in contexts where you can't imagine anyone denying the statement (and so Pereira has no need to 'maintain' the point): eg "Marta took off her hat and laid it on the table. From beneath it cascaded a mass of rich brown hair with reddish lights in it, Pereira maintains."

(I notice that in the US it was translated as 'Pereira Declares', which might have read better, although as a phrase it makes me think irresistibly of cricket).

Anyway, with that caveat, the story was interesting. Overall this is a book of subtle power - perhaps too subtle as I did feel in the end that it was less than the sum of its parts.

Sample: Pereira left him and clambered breathlessly up the Rua da Imprensa Nacional. When he reached the church of San Mamede he crossed himself, then dropped onto a bench in the little square, stretched out his legs and settled down to enjoy a breath of fresh air. He would have liked a lemonade, and there was a cafe only a few steps away. But he resisted the temptation. He simply relaxed in the shade, took off his shoes for a while and let the cool air get to his feet. Then he set off slowly for the office revolving many memories.

Dec 5, 2010, 8:14am Top

150. Everything Bad Is Good For You by Stephen Johnson

This book is subtitled "why popular culture is making us smarter". I remember years ago seeing the title and scoffing - that was back in the days before I became a big fan of Stephen Johnson (another sign of my unfortunate late-adopter tendencies). Of course, this is an intelligently-argued book which is not as controversial as the title suggests and which makes some very interesting points.

I'm going to try and sum those points up fairly briefly - tricky as there are so many interesting examples and notes that it's tempting to precis the whole book.

1. In a nutshell, Johnson is arguing against the tendency to see the modern popular culture (with increased time spent online or using electronic entertainment of one sort or another) as a simple decline from the golden days of intelligent, family-based entertainment - a mental atrophy. He is not saying that the decline in reading is a good thing - far from it - but he is saying that new skills are acquired and developed through new forms of entertainment. (He also steers clear of the 'moral decline' argument, pointing out simply that one person's moral decline is another person's increased realism).

2. Increasingly, modern forms of entertainment are complex in the sense that the "rules" are not clear from the start. This is certainly the case with computer games, where the player starts with some basic instructions and some sense of overall objective, but then has to learn the techniques by trial and error.Non-gamers usually imagine that mastering a game is largely a matter of learning to push buttons faster... but for many popular games, the ultimate key to success lies in deciphering the rules, and not manipulating joysticks. Johnson extends this to the ability of digital natives to figure out systems on the fly - not just "superficial technical knowledge" but a "talent with great real-world applicability".

3. Even non-interactive forms of entertainment are far more complex in structure than they were thirty years ago - in terms of the number of storylines and the amount of information that the viewer has to work out for themselves. Starsky & Hutch, for example, had basically one storyline per show (with a framing device); in 1980, Hill Street Blues was the first popular show to interleaf multiple storylines (and the test screening of the pilot brought complaints from viewers that it was too complicated); and now, a programme like The Sopranos follows a dozen distinct threads in an average episode, with a single scene sometimes connecting to two or three threads at the same time. Similarly, the social networks in modern television are far more complex: Johnson compares Dallas (basically, one family, with each episode broadly comprehensible if you come to it fresh) with a show like 24 (four 'families' and no hope of reading the social connections from one episode alone).

Johnson argues that this came about at least partly because of the changes in how TV shows are consumed - if you only had one chance, ever, to see a particular episode, it needed to be simple to keep you watching. But now, if you want to sell the re-runs and the DVDs, you need a show that rewards greater engagement - where you might spot things on a new viewing that you didn't notice before. It also benefits from the ability to re-watch - and of course, to critique and analyse on the internet.

4. Even something as sneered at as reality TV gets the Johnson treatment. First of all, he points out that they should be compared to other popular programming of the past, eg gameshows, rather than to another form such as documentary film - is there a clear 'decline' from The Price Is Right to Survivor? Not only do modern reality shows often follow point 1 (ie the rules are not clear right from the start), but - Johnson argues - they can engage the viewer in analysis of social networks and interactions. If you take reality programming to be one long extended exercise in public humiliation, then the internal monologue of most viewers would sound something like this: "Look at this poor fool - what a jackass!" Instead, I suspect those inner monologues are ... participatory, if only hypothetically so: "If I were choosing who to kick off the island, I'd have to go with Richard." You assess the social geography and the current state of the rules, and you imagine how you would have played it, had you made it through the casting call. The pleasure and attraction of that kind of involvement differ from the narrative pleasure of the sitcom: the appeal of Happy Days doesn't come from imagining how you might have improved on the pep talk that Fonzie gives Richie over lunch at Al's.

While I don't agree with everything Johnson says, he makes a persuasive argument overall. And I have long felt intuitively that a generalised decline is much less likely than the option that people are getting worse at some things but also getting better at other things. I have a good friend who is Sri Lankan and teaches at a UK university. When she first started there, she was shocked at the level of written skills, much lower than she was expected, but also amazed at the quality of visual design and layout of more project-based work.

Dec 5, 2010, 7:57pm Top

82 - Sounds interesting. There was a great piece in a recent read (Where We Know: New Orleans as Home) about tatoos people got after Katrina and their use as a coping mechanism.

Dec 6, 2010, 9:49am Top

>85 wandering_star: terrific comments! Brings to mind the emphasis on problem-solving eg in education and workplaces.

Dec 7, 2010, 7:37am Top

#86 - that sounds very interesting. I'd never thought about the symbology of tattoos apart from the obvious (ie in specific subcultures such as navy, Russian criminals etc) - although the main reason that I never got a tattoo is that I wanted something which would be meaningful to me, and I could never decide what that might be.

151. A View From The Foothills by Chris Mullin.

Chris Mullin's career (Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, 1997–99 and Parliamentary Under-Secretary in three different departments between 1999 and 2005) may have been invisible to all but the nerdiest observers of British politics. But despite, or perhaps because of this, his diaries (covering 1999-2005) are both entertaining and highly informative.

Like most junior ministers, Mullin held some hopes of higher office - but he also feels profoundly uncomfortable in the role.

This is for (at least) two reasons. Firstly, that he is far from being an apparatchik: in these diaries, at least (which come across as some of the least self-serving political memoirs I have ever read) he seems like someone who genuinely considers the merits of every argument, rather than a knee-jerk reaction in either direction.

Secondly, because as chairman of the Home Affairs Cttee he had real power to hold the government to account, which he has sacrificed for the empty pomp of the junior minister's role. After commenting on a report about cluster bombs in Kosovo, still regularly causing injuries, he comments, "Were I still on the parliamentary committee, I could confront him {Tony Blair} with it, but of course such matters are now far outside my remit. I must be silent. What a useless specimen I have become."

Mullin writes entertainingly about the oddities of being junior minister, a role where you may have to stand up and defend the government on a wide range of issues while having a tiny amount of influence over any of them:

Today I have addressed a conference of industrial water users in the City, spent an hour and a half in committee debating an Order on aircraft training regulations, addressed the all-party animal welfare group on the regulation of zoos and circuses and held a half-hour telephone discussion with EU Commissioner Neil Kinnock about how to defuse the row between Britain and the US over hush kits. None of these are subjects I know anything about. I live from hour to hour, never staying with any subject (except air traffic control) long enough to learn anything useful, praying that I can retain just sufficient information from the briefing to enable myself to bluff my way through without humiliation. As soon as it is no longer required, I press the mental delete button and the information is wiped from my mind, lost beyond recall. This is how it is every day. No wonder barristers flourish in this environment. I am beginning to lose my identity. Who am I?

The diaries are also an interesting perspective from a sceptical insider into the Blair government, although I would hesitate to recommend them on that basis as really, they are so much more than that.

Dec 7, 2010, 8:17am Top

152. The Ordeal Of Elizabeth Marsh by Linda Colley

How/why acquired: saw in shop.

An individual's desire to migrate, John Berger has written, is often 'permeated by historical necessities of which neither he nor anybody he meets is aware'.

Who was Elizabeth Marsh? A mid-eighteenth century woman, conceived in Jamaica, born in England, growing up in the Mediterranean, and as an adult voyaging (involuntarily) through Morocco, planning to emigrate to Florida, and finally ending up in India. In many ways an unusual life story, yet Colley manages to use her to illustrate the wider historical forces of the time, picking up many themes from this first age of globalisation which echo our own time: the world is shaped by networks of connections and commodity flows rather than state boundaries, there are overlapping personal identities, and fears about conspicuous consumption - even a banking crisis. (This comparison is lightly worn, though - the book is really about its own time and not ours, although it did make me think about the comparatively short historical timespan of a world made up of states, however formative that is to our current world view - since this is exactly the period where states were growing in power and the ability to control information, money and people, and this is one of the forces which comes up several times in the story.)

The narrative zooms in and out of different levels very effectively. In one passage, narrating what happens after Elizabeth is kidnapped and taken to Marrakech, we hear they are to be kept as hostages until Britain agrees to establish a consul in Morocco. This draws back into the ruler Sidi Muhammad's foreign policy (to develop links with the rest of the world - he was the first Muslim ruler to acknowledge America's independence); the reasons for it (to develop commerce); and the reasons for that choice (demographic differences with other powers of the time such as China and India); what this represents about the globalisation of the era; and what this says about Sidi Muhammad himself (including his attitude to women, which brings us right back to Elizabeth). All in the space of two or three pages. There are many other asides where Colley adds very illuminating context and background to things that I was already aware of - just why cotton was so important to the world economy, for example, or the importance of minor social ritual to Britons in India.

There were occasional moments when I felt that Colley was squeezing too much into this book, but for the most part, it was very well done: clear, readable and thought-provoking.

What about Elizabeth herself? The sources covering her life are scattered and leave some gaps - indeed, one of the smaller themes of the book is how individual lives end up in the archives. After the kidnapping, Elizabeth's (male) companions petition the powerful to come to their assistance. "Elizabeth Marsh by contrast has no contacts with powerful males at this stage of her life, and so writes only to her parents. Consequently her letters, unlike most of the others, do not survive."

But fortunately, Elizabeth told her own story twice - in a book about her experience of being kidnapped, and another about her peregrinations around India. She did this despite the social pressure against it: one writer of the time had commented "It's very unnatural to love those {women} who ... are of a bold, impudent deportment ... Courage in that sex is to me as disgustful as effeminacy in men". But Elizabeth was forced into it by financial pressures (another interesting thing about this narrative is that it covers the 'precariat' rather than the wealthy, and particularly how they navigated the world by appealing to and developing links with men of power).

Fascinating, and highly recommended.

Dec 7, 2010, 9:39pm Top

I can't resist this one -- just ordered it from Amazon -- all this cultural encounter stuff just draws me in.

Dec 9, 2010, 8:45am Top

I've had that book for several years but haven't read it yet -- now, after you review, I will have to dig it out.

Dec 18, 2010, 2:30am Top

I'd love to know what you both think of it.

153. The Weed That Strings The Hangman's Bag by Alan Bradley

How/why acquired: the first book in this series has had some rave reviews on LT. This is the sequel and was discounted in my local bookshop.

A cosy mystery, with an unusual sleuth (here 11-year-old Flavia, poised, precocious and expert in poisons)? In principle, that's definitely the kind of book I might like. But as ever, what's important is not the genre but how well it is done, and I must say that despite the satisfying baroqueness of the crime and cast, I found the book as a whole a little bit too arch for my tastes.

Sample: God blind me with a fish fork! Aunt Felicity's train was due to arrive at five past ten and I'd completely forgotten about her! Father would have my guts for garters.

Edited: Dec 18, 2010, 3:06am Top

154. Kith And Kin by Stevie Davies

How/why acquired: an intriguing review by charbutton earlier this year.

Mara Evans specialises in 'phantom pain', a phenomenon which happens when someone has lost a part of their body but still feels pain (sometimes very intense) in the lost limb. Like her patients, a part of Mara is missing, and has been for the decades since her beloved cousin Francesca died. Unlike them, she has successfully blocked out any pain by pretending the hole is not there - at least until she has to return to South Wales and confront her memories.

Mara, Francesca and another cousin, Aaron, grew up together, intensely close. Their three branches of the family were both tight-knit and warring, with divisions between the branches, within each family, and between the generations - particularly as the sixties turned the world upside down and the youngest members discovered idealism and rejected convention. Sadly, they also experienced the real dark side of the hippy dream (I could understand quite easily why Mara might want to block the memories out) - but even so, looking back, Mara is tensely conscious of how much she has accepted the compromises of adult life.

This is a complex book, in both its densely layered themes and its view of human nature. One of the most remarkable things was its ability to portray the tugs and contradictions of family love - the fluidity of the feelings you have for those who are closest to you. I really enjoyed reading it.


It was a novelty to take this fleeting pleasure in my own physique. I'd run along the seafront afterwards and get chips. She couldn't run. She wasn't free to wander off when she felt like it and eat chips on the seafront. She had a ball and chain.

Or an anchor.

For now Frankie reached across and cupped Zack's head with the palm of her hand; and the melt on her face was intense and exclusive. Frankie had come home, while I was still adrift.

'Who is the father, actually?'


Dec 18, 2010, 7:56am Top

Nice review of Kith and Kin, wandering_star. I've thumbed your review, and added this book to my wish list.

Edited: Dec 23, 2010, 10:42am Top

155. Time On My Hands by Peter Delacorte

This book is similar to Time And Again which I read a couple of months ago - an ordinary man is mysteriously selected to trial uncertain time-travel technology, with a view to changing history. But it's not as simple as that - particularly when you fall in love (who knew that women were so much better in the past?). Here, though, it's not 1880s New York, but 1940s Hollywood - and very entertaining it is too. I liked this at least as much as Time And Again, although this one seems to be much less well-known.

Sample: According to my floppy disk, in that other 1938 Lithorome had paid $27.80 to win; this time around he paid $27.60. I had an anxious moment - not for the twenty dollars uncollected; that I knew I could recoup anytime. Rather I worried whether, like Godzilla lumbering obliviously through Tokyo, I might not have stepped on someone else's life. I'd cost an unknown number of bettors a tiny percentage of their winnings. Had I deprived someone of the extra money he needed to pay his mortgage, buy an engagement ring, settle with his bookie? Probably not, I decided.

Dec 19, 2010, 8:48am Top

156. Proust And The Squid by Maryanne Wolf

Brains are amazing.

One of the most fascinating aspects of modern neuroscience (for a pop-science consumer like me) is that we are increasingly learning that things which seem very simple can actually involve multiple parts of the brain working in co-ordination. Apparently Capgrass syndrome, in which people believe that a close family member has been replaced with an identical imposter, comes about because the bit of brain which recognises that person is working, but the bit which provides the emotional connection has gone awry. Equally, it's only around the age of six that children can understand a phrase like 'left of the blue wall', and if you knock out an adult's language-processing ability by making them repeat nonsense phrases while they do the exercise, they can't locate something that's 'left of the blue wall' either.

The relevance of all this is that Proust And The Squid is about what actually happens in our brains while we read, and it turns out to be tremendously complex. For readers of English, three different parts of our brains are involved in simply processing the words in front of our eyes (for more regularly-spelled languages like Spanish, it's two and for logosyllabic languages like Chinese or, apparently, ancient Sumerian, it's four).

Even more incredible is what happens immediately after that. If we read a random collection of letters, say 'mbli', the brain processes the letters then goes quiet; if it's a real word - like 'limb' - all sorts of connections start to fire. "The difference between the two arrangements of the same letters ... was almost half a cortex." In fact, at one point in this fascinating book, Wolf describes the brain processes which take place in the first half a second after a word is read. It takes eight pages.

And as fluent readers, we do this so quickly that we also have the mental space to think about what we are reading means - not just word + word + word + word. One of Wolf's points, in fact, is the way that reading helps the mind to open doors, to fire off other connections and thoughts. It's entirely appropriate, therefore, that this book made my mind spark trains of thought like fireworks.

One note: Wolf is not a popular science writer but an expert in the subject who is trying to write accessibly. She does so very effectively, partly because she can make the subject so fascinating. (I found the third part of the book, which deals with dyslexia, the most 'sciencey', probably because I was less interested in it than the first two - about the history of written language and then about the brain processes).

She also draws interesting conclusions from the science about childhood education, for example the long-term impact of 'word poverty' (by the age of five, some children from impoverished-language environments have heard 32 million fewer words than the average middle-class child) - important information for our educators in a week where it was discovered that almost 10% of eleven-year-old boys in the UK have reading problems.

I could keep going for hours with interesting thoughts from this book, but instead I will suggest that you read it yourself!

Dec 19, 2010, 9:20am Top

That one's been on my TBR Pile for a while now. I really must get to it soon, as it sounds absolutely fascinating.

Dec 19, 2010, 9:38am Top

Fabulous review of Proust and the Squid, wandering_star! Rachael (FlossieT) loved this book too, so I'll have to put it at the top of my post-Christmas wish list.

Dec 19, 2010, 10:50am Top

>96 wandering_star:-98, God me too. How in the world am I going to stick to austerity measures and reading off-the-shelf in 2011 if you people all keep reading such good books? :)

Dec 19, 2010, 6:44pm Top


Dec 23, 2010, 10:53am Top

157. Bricks And Mortar by Helen Ashton

How/why acquired: this is a Persephone, so I must have picked it up during one of my raids on the shop...

This is the story of what you might call an averagely unhappy marriage, contracted in haste between a sweet but clueless man and a sweet but self-centred woman (and engineered almost entirely by the woman's overbearing mother, who wants to see her daughter safely married off).

It starts off as a sort of social comedy, as the mother plots, plans and gets her way. This part was very funny, although you already felt sorry for the young man. But as the book develops it turns out that the tone at the start was rather misleading. The story of the marriage itself is far more bitter than sweet - even though they end up loving each other dearly, they really have nothing at all in common.

Downsides to this book were that the storyline had a tendency to be a bit predictable; and that it was a bit of a gallop at times, covering over 40 years in 300 pages. But despite that, I enjoyed the read - it was written with many subtle touches which made the characters really live.

Sample: Martin nodded gravely. He was appalled and fascinated by his prospects, they gave him what in those days he regarded as a sleepless night. Lady Stapleford had kept him cunningly at a distance all that evening and shown him Letty talking to a couple of newly-arrived friends from England, too busy to notice him; she had taken the girl up to bed with only a public good night, and had left him to fret himself into a fever at his window, staring, through long hours of the hot September moonlight, at the shining roofs of the city and the motionless cypresses on the Palatine Hill, and trying to realise what was happening to him.

Dec 27, 2010, 6:05am Top

158. Some Hope: A Trilogy by Edward St Aubyn

How/why acquired: recommended by two of my friends

Some Hope was originally published as three novellas, each one a snapshot of a period in the life of Patrick Melrose. In the first, Never Mind, Patrick is a young boy and the focus of the story is on his monstrous father; in the second, Bad News, that father has just died and Patrick is in his early twenties; and in the third, also called Some Hope, Patrick is coming up to thirty and is also, perhaps, coming to terms with the difficulties of his early childhood.

The story is a bit of a triptych, with books one and three both structured around a social occasion and sharing similar themes (gossip, bitchiness, social power dynamics), while book two focuses much more on Patrick himself and what's going on inside his head.

In the first few pages of the first book, as we are being introduced to the unhappy marriage of Patrick's parents, the following lines appear:

When she had met David, she thought that he was the first person who really understood her. Now he was the last person she would go to for understanding. it was hard to explain this change and she tried to resist the temptation of thinking that he had been waiting all along for her money to subsidize his fantasies of how he deserved to live. Perhaps, on the contrary, it was her money that had cheapened him. He had stopped his medical practice soon after their marriage. At the beginning, there had been talk of using some of her money to start a home for alcoholics. In a sense they had succeeded.

That last sentence is a perfect example of the way that this book makes you gasp - at once with horror and with admiration for the subtlety of the writing. On the following page - after Patrick's mother shakes off her hangover jitters with a handful of uppers and downers ("the yellow pills for keeping her alert and the white ones for taking away the dread and panic that alertness brought with it"), we see her "recognizing herself in the mirror for the first time that day". At this point I knew that it would be a gruelling but breathtaking read, and that's what it turned out to be.

There were times when I felt the book was suffering from diminishing returns. In particular, much of it is a vicious skewering of the British upper classes, and at moments I felt I just couldn't be bothered to be plunged back into the obnoxious idiocy of this snobbish world. But then the quality of the writing would make me smile - we are introduced to one character like this:

Kitty Harrow, at home in the country, lay in bed propped up by a multitude of pillows, her King Charles spaniels hidden in the troughs of her undulating bedspread, and a ravaged breakfast tray abandoned beside her like an exhausted lover.

Within this context, we have the story of Patrick himself - sometimes awful, sometimes funny, sometimes infuriating, sometimes even moving. I don't want to talk too much about what happens to avoid spoilers. But I found myself stretched in all sorts of different ways while reading this. Very good.

Sample: As he grew uglier and more famous, so the instrument of seduction, his speech, and the instrument of gratification, his body, grew into an increasingly inglorious contrast.

Dec 27, 2010, 6:17am Top

159. London Bridges by Jane Stevenson

This was a re-read, inspired by Chatterbox's TIOLI challenge to re-read a sentimental favourite in order to introduce it to LT friends. I was a little apprehensive to pick this up, since it's almost 10 years since I read it, but it turned out to be even better than I remembered!

So, a review:

A young lawyer, who is not paid as much as he believes he is worth, stumbles across some information on a fabulously valuable bequest - priceless antiques and a large plot of land in an up-and-coming part of London - which has never found its rightful owner and which only he (and soon another similar lawyer, an ally of his) is aware of. At the same time, however, an unlikely group of people - a Byzantine scholar, an Australian pharmacist and graduate student, an activist specialising in London's public spaces, an archaelogist who's just turned up a Greek memorial fountain - are following their own trails which may eventually lead them to the same information.

It's based on a huge coincidence of course, but a complete delight to read - for the plotting, the catty prose, and the underlying heart (what the good guys all have in common is that they are interested, in one way and another, in community, and it's this which does in the selfish plots of the baddies).


Sample: The idea of going back to work after a sabbatical is generally depressing, but on the other hand, a triumph's not a triumph until you've got someone to share it with - and Sebastian was further of the opinion that you really get the joy of it when you know full well that some of the people congratulating you are choking on their own bile.

Dec 27, 2010, 8:30am Top

>93 wandering_star: - glad you enjoyed it!

Dec 28, 2010, 7:48pm Top

Nice reviews lately, particularly of Proust and the Squid.

Dec 29, 2010, 8:23am Top

160. Bomb, Book And Compass (also published as 'The Man Who Loved China') by Simon Winchester

When I was at university I used to love taking one of the volumes of Needham's Science And Civilisation In China down from the shelf and paging through it, marvelling at how comprehensive it was and also how easy to read. (For anyone who has not heard of it, it covers not just science but also religion and the history of every technology ever invented or developed in China, from ploughs to navigation devices to porcelain to injections. This book tells us that Needham originally thought he could fit everything into one volume, later revised to seven. It's currently twenty-something volumes and counting.)

I also used to say that this masterwork was what put me off being an academic, as after all, what is the point if you can't produce something so towering? (In truth, I would have been a terrible academic, since I need lots of tight deadlines in order to do anything, but it still sounds good).

Well, it turns out that not only was Joseph Needham the author of this seminal work, but he was also a man of tremendous energy, interest and personality, who moved through fascinating times - he lived in China while other parts of the country were occupied by the Japanese, and his job (as well as his personal interest) brought him into contact with a wide range of Chinese scientists, craftspeople and engineers who were somehow managing to do their work sometimes despite a serious lack of supplies. His devotion to this work almost had him trapped by the Japanese (when he delayed fleeing when their troops were on the way so that he could visit a tungsten mine).

When he returned to Cambridge, he had enormous quantities of books, clippings, letters, pictures, monographs, and scribbled notes (such as "How much did Ancient Egypt influence the design of the Chinese junk? Perhaps FH Wells in China Journal of 1933 has the answer?"), so it's easy to see how his work could mushroom.

This book is very much on the popular end of popular history, and when I first started reading it, this made me gnash my teeth a bit and mutter things about footnotes (not enough) and cliches (too many). But I was soon drawn into the story, which is well-told, and thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I still think there were complexities in Needham's character which merited something deeper than the jolly-japes treatment he gets here (for example, an angry memo by a colleague complaining about Needham putting his mistress on the official payroll mentions his 'god complex'). But this was an excellent introduction to this man, his work and his times (all of which were fascinating).

Sample: The site is called Dujiangyan. As an irrigation project, it may not seem to deserve being ranked alongside the Pyramids or the Taj Mahal, but it is actually one of mankind's more extraordinary achievements. Needham liked to quote, approvingly, the ancient Roman engineer Sextus Julius Frontinus, who wrote famously in the first century after Christ that his aqueducts were indispensable, and would be remembered long after 'the idle pyramids, or the useless, though famous, works of the Greeks'. Needham liked this quotation not simply because Frontinus was right about the Egyptians and the Greeks but also because his achievements in Rome had been made three full centuries after those of Li Bing in China.

Dec 29, 2010, 9:19am Top

At the end of the year, it's time for me to go through the pile of half-finished books and decide which ones won't be accompanying me into 2011. There are three:

The Boat by Nam Le. In the first of this collection of short stories, a Vietnamese-American creative writing student complains about people wanting him to write about Vietnamese issues when he wants a much larger palette. In the rest of the stories he starts to demonstrate that palette. I don't think that the reason this book didn't grab me was that I was expecting something more 'Vietnamese'... but I can't explain why it didn't. Each story is very well written, but halfway through I just put the book down, and now the stories don't really exist in my memory - I can remember vaguely what they were about, but that's it.

The Queue by Vladimir Sorokin, an experimental novel about a seemingly endless (and almost motiveless) queue in Soviet Russia, told through the voices of the people queuing. More interesting to hear about than to read.

No Country For Young Men by Julia O'Faolain. I loved the same author's The Women In The Wall in 2009, and I feel that this is probably an equally good book. Set in contemporary Ireland, it seems to be about the influence of history and memory, the relations between Ireland and the US, and many more things. But I somehow lost the trail of what was happening fairly early on, and never really managed to get it back for more than a few pages at a time.

Dec 29, 2010, 3:01pm Top

You've done justice to The Man Who Loved China. My church book group will discuss the book a week from tonight. I found Winchester's writing to be marvelously fluent; I've read a couple of other books by him and wasn't surprised by that. But the book could have been richer. As you say it could have gotten deeper into his character. What I missed was more talk about Chinese technology and more talk about the development of the masterwork, how it went to multiple volumes or how it is organized, for example.


Edited: Dec 29, 2010, 4:04pm Top

I more or less agree with you about The Queue. I was very impressed by how Sorokin could bring out the individual voices of the queuers entirely in unattributed dialogue and make the reader experience the boredom, frustration, and futility of the queue phenomenon, but I'm not sure I enjoyed it.

Dec 29, 2010, 8:55pm Top

#108 - yes, exactly. Also, Winchester talks in the introduction about how Science & Civilisation completed changed Western views of China, but there was actually nothing about that in the rest of the book.

If you are interested in more on the technology, Mark Elvin's The Pattern Of The Chinese Past is good - see this wikipedia article for information on his argument.

Dec 29, 2010, 10:13pm Top

Thank you. I've put that on my wishlist, but there's no telling when I'll get to it.


Jan 1, 2011, 1:02am Top

Last two books of the year...

161. My Father's Wives by Jose Eduardo Agualusa

At her mother's deathbed, Laurentina finds out that she is not her parents' child. In the maternity hospital in Mozambique, her mother gave birth to a stillborn baby, and then adopted the child of the unmarried woman who gave birth in the next room. Her father was a mulatto Angolan musician named Faustino Manso.

Laurentina promptly takes off for Angola to trace her roots, taking her boyfriend Mandume (born to Angolan parents but identifying as Portuguese). She arrives just in time for Faustino's funeral, but there she is able to meet her extended family, including Bartolomeu, a writer and filmmaker who is so light-skinned that his ID card classes him as 'white', although his full brother is classified 'black'. Bartolomeu persuades her to travel with him and make a documentary of Faustino's life, interviewing his friends, the musicians who played with him, and above all his seven wives and eighteen children, in various cities across southern Africa.

The story is narrated in turn by different people - Laurentina, Mandume, Bartolomeu, their driver Pouca Sorte (a man with a mysterious past of his own) and an unnamed speaker who is travelling around southern Africa writing Laurentina's story.

You might already be able to tell from this synopsis that one of the themes of this book is identity - how your skin colour, race, places of birth and residence, parentage and family history influence how you see yourself and how others see you. Another is the way that stories are created from different elements of truth (elements from the writer's adventure find their way into Laurentina's).

There are a lot of interesting things in this book relating to the first theme. Unusually, it portrays migration as being something that went in all directions, rather than simply towards Europe. People in this book end up in all sorts of places different from where they started, or perhaps they go one way and then come back another. It's also good on the contingency of identity in different situations. One of the people that Laurentina talks to for the film tells the story of his wife, "a mestiça like him - chose to get herself classified as white and abandoned him with four children in his arms. I was struck by a phrase he used several times: 'after my wife became white'. He'd say it without irony, with the same tone you might use to say, 'after my wife put on weight'. It was just the statement of a fact." Laurentina and Mandume too are challenged in the way they see themselves in the course of their journey, for many different reasons.

The second theme, however, I found less successful. It did fit with the first theme, but the way that it was used made the story feel very fragmentary, and this made it much harder to engage with the story. It's a pity, since there is such a lot of interesting stuff within the narrative. I will keep this book and probably read it again, but I didn't enjoy it in the way that I enjoyed Agualusa's The Book Of Chameleons, which was one of my favourite reads of 2008.

Sample: "From Timor?" "You find that strange? My father was Portuguese. Anarchist-unionist. Salazar sent him to Timor, exiled, like so many others, and he married a Timorese woman and had five children. I'm the oldest." "And how did you end up here?" "End up? I didn't end up. I just stopped. Like a car that runs out of petrol in the middle of the road. This is the middle of the road between nowhere and no place at all."

Jan 1, 2011, 1:15am Top

162. Earth And Ashes by Atiq Rahimi.

This is an short and simply-told story about a man in Soviet-era Afghanistan, travelling on a tragic errand. It is extremely powerful and haunting.

Sample: Put the box back. Think of something else. Look at something else.

You put the tin back into one of your pockets. You draw your hand over your grey-streaked beard, then clasp your knees and stare at your tired shadow which merges with the orderly shadows cast by the railings of the bridge.

Jan 1, 2011, 1:23am Top

Top ten reads of the year, in no particular order:

Cooking With Fernet Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson
The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Three Dog Night by Peter Goldsworthy
Surveyor by GW Hawkes
The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall
Women In The Wall by Julia O'Faolain
Dirt Music by Tim Winton
Evening Is The Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan
Remind me who I am, again by Linda Grant
Alice In Sunderland by Bryan Talbot

I think this is skewed more towards the later reading, since that is fresher in my mind...

For more details on my top reads, please see the first posts in my 2011 thread!

Group: Club Read 2010

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