Saturday, November 12, 2011

11/22/93, Stephen King

Before reviewing this book, I freely confess that I pre-ordered this goodie, and that I'm a die-hard King fan.  I think he's one of the greatest American writers working today, with his smooth sociological captures of slice after slice of American life, and American fears.  In fact, I'd probably go so far as to say he's my favourite author.  So I was keen to get stuck into this book.

But I just didn't love this.  Sure, Under the Dome was wordy, and underwhelming (it felt all too same-y to me, like nothing new had been said), but I rollicked through it.  King's opus about the Kennedy assassination (now with more time travel!! [TM]) mostly just dragged. 

Some bits, I loved.  But they were few and far between in a book that should have been a novella at most.  And this is from a woman who scoffs at the usual "King needs an editor" comments.  I love the wordy details of King's worlds.  I love the minute details, the small, almost private insights.  The complicated tie-ins.  11/22/93 needed a good edit.  Down to a quick 250 page "novella" at least.

So, what' it all about?  In a spoiler-free way, the plot goes thus: Jake Epping, a mild-mannered teacher from middle America, is introduced to a "time bubble" that allows a traveller to go back to an exact date and time in 1958.  And to step forward again, exactly 2 minutes after they left in the present time.  Trick is, every time you travel, it's a "reset" - back to the same time and place, as if you'd never been there before.

So, as you can tell from the novel's title [I can't resist pointing out that in Australia, the title would be 22/11/63], the novel centres around Jake's efforts to prevent the Kennedy assassination in Dallas, thus *saving America*, and so forth.

Okay, great idea!  But it was a long, long, long way to get there.

**Major SPOILERS follow**

There are three main arcs to the story: the first is an "I'm going to kill a murderer to prevent them doing the deed and killing their family," story.  This serves as our set up for being able to do the same to Lee Harvey Oswald when the time comes.  This part of the book was a gripping tale, and has some loose tie-ins to Derry and it's previous characters.  It felt like a traditional King "horror that lies within us" story, and as such, was probably the most successful part of the book, for me.

The second main arc is Jake's long journey to Dallas, via teaching in a small-town and falling in love with a woman with a crazy ex, while keeping very close tabs on Oswald in minute (and I mean minute) detail.  Parts of this arc just sing, the small town life, the love story - this is one of the things I love about King: he sees the nuances of human action and relationships, and manages to communicate them to us.

Parts of this section just drag, though, and in some of the tiny details about Oswald's life I had to stop myself from skimming [sacrilege!!  And I LOVE Stephen King!].  I think this dragging feeling might be due to the effort to make the details as accurate and well researched as possible.  And that the whole section should have been shortened to about 50 pages, instead of the hundreds that it ran to. It didn't make for gripping story-telling.  I did learn more about Oswald and his life and motivations, but parts felt more like a dry historical tome than a novel.

The third (and briefest) arc is the return to current times to see what happened as a result of Jake/George's meddling.  This was under-done.  There was an unconvincing and convenient conversation about time travel with an observer-type, that frankly if it had happened sensibly at the first trip Jake took would have prevented the whole novel from happening.  There was an easy-out "bad" society description (*look, society is bad and kids are mean to people, and also...pollution!*), and some of the decisions taken on the world stage if Kennedy had lived felt false, and were skipped over as a kind of "time travel causes bad stuff, just coz it does! effect.  Disappointing.  After all the details and effort of telling a time-alteration story, why not dwell more convincingly on what might happen next?  The convenience of the "don't meddle with time, it's bad, okay?" plot-line was shallow and disappointing.  I wanted a more nuanced finish: what would really have happened?

I would far rather King has wrestled with the issue of traveling back to save the woman he loved, at the expense of everything else, than get out of time-travel jail free with a "whoops, causes harmonic issues, thing turn out badly," woo-woo ending. 

Overall, this is one of the only King books I've been disappointed in.  Read it if you're a King fan, or a Kennedy buff, otherwise this might be one to skip.  By the end, I was too frustrated and full of plot critique to enjoy the moderately decent end.

6/10.
Read on Kindle for iPad.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Book Party!

Earlier this week, I held a book party.  What's a book party you ask?  It's a happy occasion I made up, where you're getting rid of about half your books and need a prodding helping hand.  Why might I need a hand? 

Well, here is what my books used to look like:


This is Lolly "catching a possum", a year ago, but shows a fair few of my books, there's another four bookcases you can't see in this shot, and some more upstairs (and a few boxes we didn't unpack).  Yup.  Ahem.  Kind of a lot. 

Here is what the precious-es have looked like since April, when we packed them (loosely speaking) and schlepped them upstairs.


Hmmm...

Our long ongoing renovation meant we were going to store heaps of books til we moved, but then decided that we had a gazillionty of them in digital form, and we should *gasp* get rid of the hard copies.  This took me months of thinking on it to agree to.  I LOVE books, and always loved having them out, I want a giant library one day.  But, really?  Books take up space, most of these books we will never read again, some were just plain crappy, and most of them I can read online, often for free.  So, I really had to think about why I was keeping them round at all.  Why is it we need to display things like books for public consumption?  Or our own consumption. And why is this tied to our self-concept so tightly (in my case, that is). 

Anyhoo, navel-gazing aside, you can see why I might need a hand sorting them.  The pile is huge, and the mental issues, likewise.

So, I asked some lovely friends and their kids to come over to play, to lend a hand, either physically or in moral support, and now the books look like this:

Books to keep, and collectibles

Kids books (to go back out on shelves) and DVDs.

So, thanks, muscly friends (both physically and morally), for helping me do a task I was really struggling with.  And making it a good day. 

Also posted at Memo To Self, my 'life' blog!


Saturday, October 1, 2011

Now with more zombies!

Did you know...that when life is busy, and maybe hard, but mostly just life, possibly with a capital L, that reading gets short attention, and blogging about reading, even shorter.

And did you also know, that if you're me (so, okay, you possibly didn't know this) that when things are...hard...or let's say, life-like, that you get stuck in a reading rut, and stick somewhat stubbornly to genres and books that involve as little thought as possible?

Because that would totally explain why I've read nothing but zombie-post-apocalyptic books since...hmmm, April or so, rather than my 1001 list goals, or, indeed, anything other than books with the undead in them.  There must also be blood and brains. 

There is some wonderful psycho-analytic post in here about why zombies are the flavour of the year, and why I have such an undying love for the post-apocalypse, but that post shall wait for another day [or quiet possibly never].  I think it has something to do with the fact when you're dealing with shit all day, reading anything with real life in it is just. too. much.

Zombie guts are better. 
coz I am, totally, I've read ALL the books.
I'll review some of them, though.  Soon!

 [image credit]


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

World War Z, Max Brooks

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, is a startlingly clever read, using a series of oral-history interviews with a range of World War Z survivors from around the world to illustrate a whole lot that is wrong with our current society: the attitudes and actions of the conservatives in the West; class and racial divisions; terrorism; environmental degradation; the inherent selfishness of our surburban lives; the weaknesses of capitalism; our attachment to objects and technology; and...but wait there's more [steak knives!].

You can read this book as a macabre adventure tale of the zombie rise and epic human resistance, told in riveting vignettes.  And as a powerful critique of how humanity is facing our current crises and divisions, and how that might work out for us...or not.

There is some classic post-apocalyptic insights into the human soul here, some detailed and fascinating characterisation, as well as sweeping political summary and critique.  The chilling "last stand" at Yonkers (complete with press pandering and the futility of mass armament in the face of terror[ism]) is pretty masterful stuff, as is its counterpoint, the heroic and mechanically awful battle at Hero as America reclaims itself. Another of my favourites was the close telling of one air-woman's story, trapped behind the lines and increasingly desperate; and the tale of a blind warrior in Japan and his faith in the core of his country. 

There are women warriors, child warriors, blind warriors, armies in the "third" world, struggles in China, the novel takes us around the globe, big and small, working through the "history" of WWZ, from the first gory rise of the Zombie virus (cleverly mirroring the supposed development and reaction/lack thereof to HIV) and its spread, to the collapse of civilisation, to the rallying and defence, to the "victory" stages where the threat is largely defeated and humanity is cautiously peeking out from under the covers. 

I really liked this book, in it's simplicities and it's complexities.  I'll be reading it again soon to pick up more of that juicy social and political critique layer.  Be warned before reading: there is some full on zombie slaughter, it's not for the faint of stomach.

9/10

Another read on Kindle for iPad.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Far North, Marcel Theroux

Far North is another post-apocalyptic novel that focussed on life after *it* happens, *it* in this case is some kind of environmental/economic/social collapse.  Our narrator, Makepeace, is the last "constable" of a dead city in the wastes of Siberia, a city/town that had been settled as an escape from society by (apparently) mostly Westerners. Makepeace is alone, other than random travellers passing through.  The book tells of Makepeace's life and travels, searching for others (or the dream of what others would be like).

I really enjoyed the first part of this book, it was gripping, sensitively told, harsh, but intriguing.  Unfortunately, after this first section, it seemed like a different book.  Makepeace decides to leave the city, and journey in search of others.  The strange things that happen, and the pretty much utter hopelessness of the few humans who remain sat oddly against the basic humanity/goodness of the narrator.  It was as if everyone else became souless, cruel, and capable of anything.  Sure, I'm sure some people would be like this, and telling these stories is part of what makes post-apocalyptic and dystopia literature fascinating.  But, everyone?  The book becomes an unremitting tale of horribleness and tragedy.

And [spoilers] some of it was just unbelievable.  I simply didn't get the whole "prisoner" (really, slaves) camp deal.  The narrator was so matter-of-fact about it, it was almost literally "and then I lived in the prison camp for 5 years."  Oh, okay then.  I also don't believe that a woman could live for five years with the dire scum of humanity as described and not get raped.  Sorry.  Even if she had a knife. 

The whole issue of slavery, including that some people had apparently "volunteered" for slavery was not dealt with sufficiently.  It's a big deal, one that wasn't extended or explored.  Elements of the characters were unbelievable.  One of the slaves was (supposedly) a surgeon before the collapse.  Really?  Why didn't he just tell someone and bargain his way out?  Why were none of those essential skills not regarded as relevant or worthy of trade? I can't imagine a post-collapse society that wouldn't highly value a doctor (!!).  The book was littered with this kind of incongruity.  Like, what happened to everyone?  Why did everyone just disappear?  Didn't the narrator have any friends?  Where did they go?  How did they die? 

The treatment of the indigenous peoples in the novel was also problematic.  It was made clear that the settlers in the narrator's city weren't Russian (the city is in Siberia), or native to the region.  It seemed they mostly came from America.  The local indigenous people, all of whom seem to be living quite alright thanks very much, despite the collapse of "civilisation", are portrayed as drunk, violent, and don't even figure on the narrator's radar, other than a very occasional source of trade.  Even given that poor portrayal, the narrator's lack of interest in them is just odd.  If you were the only person alive in a city, and there was a perfectly functional community near you, wouldn't you be interested in them?  In making ties to them, trading, learning things?  Joining them??

Gender was the other main issue with the book.  Sure, for the first few chapters Theroux is playing with gender and identity, and we're supposed to be suitably surprised when Makepeace turns out to be a woman.  I guess we're supposed to feel that way because women aren't competent at surviving...or something...and the narrator is.  So *gasp* a woman!!  Wow, that's super special because she can hunt and chop wood and live alone and shot someone!  Who would-a thunk it!  I get what the author was going for, but didn't like it.  I'm generally not suprised when women are competent human beings. 

The other main gendered issue was that the novel turned out to be a kind of rape revenge book, and there was just something, some essential quality of experience, that I felt was missing in the book. The twists at the end seemed too contrived and worked out too simply.  The narrator just didn't seem as bothered by the sudden appearance of her rapist as you might expect.  It all sat a little oddly.

Look, I liked some of the book, some of the writing was compelling, and the first part was just great.  I wish it had continued in that vein. It just didn't work for me as a whole.  Some great ideas, but too much not explained or fully realised in the text. Worth a read if you're interested in the genre, otherwise give it a miss.

6/10

This was a Kindle for iPad read.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Passage, Justin Cronin

I like The New Dork Review of Books, and just before the rapture was scheduled, read his post on the best of the post-apocalyptic books.  Now, I love me a good end of the world story!  The Stand (Stephen King) is one of my go-to books, and I've read fairly widely in the field over the years.  But not lately, which is why there were several grand suggestions in the NDR list and comments I thought I'd try out.  So I'm blaming him for the reading jag I've been on since. 

The Passage was the first of my post-apocalypse reads, I finished it off in short order on our recent holiday.  I figured it would be a good last read in case of rapture ;)

The Passage is the first in a series (three, I think) of books by Justin Cronin about the fate of humankind after a virus gets loose and kills nearly everyone...by turning them into vampires (not a spoiler, this is made pretty clear in the very first pages of the book).  Don't let the immediate eye-roll of "vampires" put you off.  These are not sparkly, well-dressed debonairs.  Think more 28 Days Later over Twilight.  The Passage is a tale of surviving in the face of a weird virus that meant the end of the world story, not a teen romance. 

The book starts with some of the story of how it all happened, then, kind of disappointingly, skips ahead 100 years to focus on a small settlement eking out a living under lights.  I say disappointing because one of the bits I love in this kind of book is the slow descent into madness of civilisation, and the unravelling of our illusions of behaviour, which I felt was pretty much skipped in this novel. Those are still key themes, of course, isn't that the point of a rollicking post-apocalyptic novel?  Telling us how many of our dearly held beliefs about ourselves and our limits are (or might be) illusions?  But the close telling of the decline was skipped in this one.  *sad face*  Instead, after the initial outbreak, our story skips to a small, fractured community living behind walls and thinking they are the only ones left in all the world (read: America). 

The Passage focusses on the fate of one girl, Amy, infected with a "pure" strain of the virus (also not really a spoiler, her fate and role is foreshadowed very early in the book), and destined to play some central role in the climax of the virus-infected vs normals.  The bulk of the book is a crossing the wilderness story, some of the survivors set out to travel back to where the virus all began, and tells what they encounter on the way.

The swap between the immediate-aftermath novel and the 100-years-later novel was more than a little jarring, despite the journal entry that was meant to transition us gently.  I had become very involved in the central story of Amy and her companion, this was rapidly wound up (too rapidly I think) and replaced with a whole new world and cast to acclimatise to.  It felt like two separate books, and only started to tie back together in the final chapters.  While I enjoyed both parts of the book, it suffered from the lack of a transition phase, and the first part of the book was brought to too quick a finish.  This missing phase could have taken us through more of the collapse of civilisation, some of the efforts of survivors, maybe some vignettes to get us through to the next phase of the action. 

The Passage is well worth a read.  It's a gripping page-turner, a medical emergency and survival story, followed by a journey across the wilderness in the face of overwhelming odds, with a dash of light at the end of the tunnel.  It's bleak, but not hopeless.  If you like a tale about the end of the world as we know it, or enjoy a virus/vampire book, or liked The Stand, or just want a good story that's well written about the darknesses (and lightnesses) of the human soul, pick up a copy!  I'm looking forward to the release of the next installment...

8/10

This was a Kindle for iPad read.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Herland, and With Her in Ourland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, probably best known in a literary sense for her short story, The Yellow Wallpaper, wrote a quite startling two-part novel about a feminist utopia, heavily critiquing society along the way.  While some of her ideas are a product of her time (it's a little bit eugenics, and she's not up with intersectionality in her examination of oppressions), Herland, and the second part, With Her in Ourland, is a riveting read that has much to offer a [post?]modern feminist.  I found this one on the fab Year of Feminist Classics blog, their post on Herland is here.

Herland was published in parts in Gilman's self-edited periodical in 1915.  The book's pretext is the discovery, by three male explorers, of a cut-off and isolated land populated only by women, that has existed for over 2000 years.  Their subsequent behaviour and adaptation (or lack thereof) within this society during their stay allows Gilman to explore this utopia, which in turn is the vehicle for her to provide some stark and powerful critique of her [our] own society.  The story is narrated by one of the explorers, Van Jennings, a sociologist (see, what's not to love!).  Van takes an enlightened road of reluctant acceptance, while the other two men either capitulate totally (which seems to be taken as weakness), or react violently against the female utopia (which is condemned).

The focus of the utopia is a central idea of motherhood, backed up by a community-based semi-tribal social system.  Critique is often levelled at Gilman's idealisation of motherhood in Herland, but if taking motherhood as an organising social force, I pretty much agreed with her.  The birth, education and value of children in our society seems tragically poorly valued to me.  If the concept of "motherhood" here is less about the "inate" desire of every individual woman to have a child [problematic], and more about the role, value, and all round key importance of motherhood [/parenthood] in general as a social institution, then yeah, I'm pretty much there with her.  A society built around the treasuring of the next generation can't help but be better than this one.  Right? 

With Her in Ourland is published as the sequel to Herland, though arguably it is simply the second part of that work.  Published serially in 1916, it tells of the return of two of the explorers to "Ourland" society, accompanied by one of the Herlanders.  This volume moves from utopia to dystopia, and is mostly conversations and observations between Van [explorer sociologist] and Ellador [the Herlander].  They tour the globe, from war-torn Europe, to disaffected America, providing a powerful and insightful commentary on the world of the time. The bulk of the book is focussed on America, as both a hope and a disappoinment.

Herland is the stronger of the two books, with what is more recognisably a narrative.  Ourland becomes pretty much a series of sometimes dry essays in conversational form, and though I thorougly enjoyed them, I freely confess that I am a sociologist by trade and this might have been a telling factor.

Both works have lapsed into obscurity, though Herland was republished in the 1970s, and is more widely available today.  Both books have been critiqued in recent years, largely for Gilman's treatment of other social issues, including race, religion, and the "natives" referred to throughout.  As a product of her time, though, Gilman's take on racism remains liberal. The other main sticking point for me was the complete lack of womens sexuality in the book, the women were asexual.  Bit of a flaw, there [!!].  It was part and parcel of her idealisation of Woman. 

While written in 1915/16, many of Gilman's insights remain uncomforably current.  Here are some interesting quotes:
A neat description of the sociological imagination: "...I didn't care what it was they talked about, so long as it connected with human life, somehow.  There are few things that don't." Herland: 147 of 8636.

"[Herlanders]...were strikingly deficient in what we call "femininity."  This led me very promptly to the conviction that those "feminine charms" we are so fond of are not feminine at all, but mere, reflected masculinity - developed to please us because they had to please us, and in no way essential to the real fulfullment of their great process."  Herland: 1538 of 8636.

It remained true that the Church, any church, in any period, had set its face against the people's learning anything new; and as we commonly know, had promptly punished the most progressive.  With Her in Ourland, location 1368 of 2550.

"Here you are, a democracy - free - the power in the hands of the people.  You let that group of conservatives saddle you with a constitutions which has so interfered with free action that you've forgotten you had it.  In this ridiculous helplessness - like poor old Gulliver - bound by the Lilliputians - you have sat open-eyed, not moving a finger, and allowed individuals - mere private persons - to help themselves to the biggest, richest, best things in the country."  With Her in Ourland, location 1716 of 2550.

On the home/family structure: "What do you want done?" I asked, after a while.
"Definite training in democratic thought, feeling and action, from infancy.  An economic administration of common resources under which the home would cease to be a burden and become an unconscious source of happiness and comfort.  And, of course, the socialization of home industry."  With Her in Ourland, location 1728 of 2550.
Interesting stuff!  I'd recommend both works as powerful critiques of the society of the time (and, let's face it, most of this stuff remains awfully current), and as important works in the feminist canon.  Herland in particular is the more accessible work, and available free in various formats.  Pick up a copy!

8/10


Herland is available at Project Gutenberg.  It was a Kindle for iPad read.

With Her in Ourland is available in a special edition, which was relatively pricey on Amazon (but I'd already commited to read it, so had to pay up!).  It was a Kindle read for iPad.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Dead Reckoning, Charlaine Harris

I've enjoyed the quick-reading frolics of the True Blood books (and am a big fan of the TV Series), and always read along when a new one comes out.  It feel nicely into my "let's not strain my brain" books which is all I've managed lately. Sure, Dead Reckoning furthers the series' story (kind of) and there's the usual sassy Sookie (though now, apparently, with less sass), complete with supernatural adventures, and sexy vamps.   But this installment falls very flat.

Plotwise, well, if you haven't read the series yet, you're probably not interested.  If you're a fan of the series, there are no big reveals here, things are plodding by as usual (though Bill and Eric seem to have swapped personalities).  So, I'm just gunna whinge in a spoiler-y way: The whole Pam sub-plot was just odd, completely out of the blue, and seemed to go nowhere and serve no purpose.  There was yet another evil boss vampire to vanquish.  There was a WTF moment with Alcide.  The faerie stuff was all over the place, and didn't mesh with the rest of the plot. Why was Hunter in this at all?  WTF was going on with the whole de-bonding thing?  The whole book was jumpy and lacked cohesion, and there were more unnecessary subplots than I can list (yes, there were more than those above). 

This book feels like Harris is just phoning it in.  Dead Reckoning was wooden, predictable, more than a tad confused, and not at all original.  Even Sookie was not on her game, I like her more tough and sassy and less Christian moralistic and weepy.  The True Blood series has been a nice addition to the vampire/supe canon, but this installment was lacklustre.  Sure, we've all still gotta read it, and I may as well confess I'll still read the next one, too, when it comes out, but it wasn't as fresh as the rest of them (mostly) are.

Verdict: more than a tad stale.  Only read it if you've got this far in the books already (and we all know you just have to keep going, no matter what).

Oh, I read this great review on Goodreads while looking for a picture of the cover, and can't resist a link.

5/10

This was a Kindle for iPad read.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

What do you read when you're not reading a book?

Blogs, of course!  It's trite but true to say that sometimes that ubiquitous "stuff" gets in the way of blogging, and reading.  I've read a grand total of two and a half books in the past month, and all of those were only 200 pages or so.  By which I mean I've read hardly anything.  Life had other plans.

But, I can still be spotted gadding about reading stuff on the iPad, so what on earth has distracted me during those dull quiet parenting moments?  

Why, blogs, of course! I sometimes worry at the number of blogs I'm subscribed to/following, it's nearing 400 *gasp*!  Here are a few gems from my feedreader:

I always get an interesting evening's clicking out of the link round ups at Kittling Books.

I love the poetry and life at a moon worn as if it were a shell; the thoughtful and insightful perspectives on children, development, and play at Teacher Tom, and the awesome sociological insights at Sociological Images.

I'm enjoying reading along with A Literary Odyssey, The Trick is to Keep Reading, and the New Dork Review of Books.

As for life, I want more of this:

MORE
And less of this:
LESS!!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

On book blogging slackness...

Hmmm....Could this be a reason?


We moved all the books into the new library space.  It's going to be a family room/library area (yay!) but currently looks like this.  You can see my TBR pile if you embiggen the picture, it's in the green clothes basket on the far left.  :D

Though I have no excuses for not posting anymore, as we finally put out study together again (slightly untidy still, here, but you get the idea).  Far side is me, near side is teenager.


Interesting times!  I'm planning on rehoming a LOT of books, most that I now have in digital format, and lots we just won't read again.  It'll be hard, I used to have 14 bookcases of books, with several more boxes in storage, and we now have 6 bookcases out (and some will go to storage, young adult and kids for when Lolly wants them, some of my professional library).  That's a LOT of culling to be done.  Wish me luck!

Friday, April 29, 2011

Ruth Readalong (Elizabeth Gaskell)

I haven't read Ruth yet, it's one of the few Gaskell works I have left to read, so this read-a-long at Gaskell Blog sounds ace, care to join up?


The annotated discussion starts May 15!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Lost in a Good Book, and the rest of the Thursday Next Series, Jasper Fforde

Lost in a Good Book was, as Jasper Fforde shares on his website, an unplanned sequel, demanded by his publishing company.  So, it takes a different angle to the first book, much expanding the available world to explore.  Basically, it is possible to jump into fiction, or Bookworld and bookjump between fiction.  Thursday Next becomes involved with Jurisfiction, the fiction policing agency.

This is a whole world of awesome right here, and Fforde explores it with style.  I love the bookworld, and Jurisfiction is just a genius idea for exploring it.  Any book that can convincingly include Miss Havisham as a main character has my vote.

I love the political and social commentary in the alternate Britain "real" world, too.  The Goliath Corporation is particularly awful (ly hilarious).


I've cheated somewhat by smooshing the rest of the series into this review.  Once we get to Lost in a Good Book, we've got the gist of the rest of the series from here [which are: The Well of Lost Plots; Something Rotten; First Among Sequels; One of Our Thursdays is Missing].

What more to say?  These are great fun, smart, witty, page turners, with plenty to think about and feel cool about knowing (did I mention there are classics littered all through these?).  Most bookish peeps are going to enjoy them, though you don't have to be bookish to like Fforde's style.  Thursday Next is one awesome heroine, she's smart, funny, and solves everything.  In the series she also has kids.  So it's quite the feminist win, too.

Read 'em.  They're fun.

7.5/10 overall (none are as awesome as the first).

These were a range of purchased "real" books, and Kindle ereads.

[All pics are from Jasper Fforde's site, click through to view]

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Eyre Affair, Thursday Next Series, Jasper Fforde

I've been reading the Thursday Next BookWorld series as some great bookish entertainment for the past few weeks, when reading has been slow and life has been busy.  The Eyre Affair is everything the blogosphere says it is, witty, entertaining, literary, laugh-out-loud funny.  If you haven't read this already, put it on your list.  And click here for Fforde's site [seriously, click there, it's hilarious].  Take note that the book contains total spoilers for Jane Eyre, so if by chance you've not got to that one yet, and want to be surprised, don't read The Eyre Affair. 

I don't have a lot to add to a strong recommendation to read this one, really.  It's a snappy, clever book set in an alternate reality Britain, where book people are real.  The central character, Thursday Next, works for a Special Ops unit in Literary Detection.  The classics are front and centre in this version of reality, and when circumstances unfold that threaten the very existence of Jane Eyre (from the novel, that is), it's high crime indeed. 

Definitely check it out. Fforde is a prolific author, and has a number of other series I'm going to check out, his style is witty, well read, and snappy, reminded me of Hitchhiker's Guide.  Good stuff, and British not American, which is nice to see occasionally.  (Is it just me, or do all the best comedies come from the UK?).

This was a library read.

9/10 for a great idea, snappy plot, clever dialogue, and awesome use of the classics.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Memory Lane: Dune, Frank Herbert

What are the books that stand out the most in your memory?  Your favourites?  That you re-read?  That you most wish you could chat to others about?  I'm reminiscing about some of my faves here. 

memorylane


Let's start with the book I've read most in my life, on average I'd say I'd read this once a year at least since I first cracked it's spine (yup, I'm a spine bender) when I was 12.


What's not to love?  Dune is sweeping saga of family, love, betrayal, triumph over oppression, and giant worms that live in the sand.  I still love it's adventure, deep philosophy, and escapist magic.  If you haven't tried it yet, give it a go.  It's the original and the best.


[image source 1]
[image source 2]

Monday, April 11, 2011

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Seth Grahame-Smith

85% Austen, 15% zombie, this mash-up of the original book was published in 2009. Did I read all of it, yup.  Did I love it, ummm...it was alright, but relying on the strength of Austen to get you through is simply not enough.  I think this kind of book actually has potential to be a lot of fun, and yes, I got some laughs out of it as it stood (mostly the first few chapters, the mix-up of genres is lovely and fresh here), but I felt the author just didn't work hard enough for those laughs.  I know this is comedy, but why not take it another level, be smarter about it, weave it in a litte closer.  Too much of it felt like what it was, paragraphs added to another book.  Adding more backstory, making it more consistent, showing some more of the brilliance of the original, would have got my admiration more than some zombie story added in, and sometimes sitting awkwardly, waiting for laughs.  It went on too long, basically.  The initial idea is great, you enjoy the first few chapters, then it feels too much like the author went "oh, and now I've gotta keep this going for another 200 pages, crap!"

I know, I know, perhaps I cared too much, but I've read some great humourous work over the years, some smart stuff, and I wish one of those writers had got their hands on this idea.  I'm not sure I'll bother with any of the other mash ups, this is a cute idea, probably only worth a short story length of attention, that had some promise but relied too heavily on the brilliance of Austen to see it through. 

5/10 (with a 10/10 for the original idea itself, which is hilarious, well worth reading the first few chapters for the initial chuckle, then putting it down at that).

Another eRead on Kindle for iPad.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Return of the Soldier, Rebecca West

I've been busy of late, and away with family, here's a post from a book I read last month!  I'm back to normal now, here's to more posting!

The Return of the Soldier was an unexpected book, a moving story about the tragedy of war and lost love.  Another author I'd never read, but who is just so amazing that I've already ordered more of her work.  Rebecca West is a great find, and given she's a major feminist literary figure, again, I'm kinda embarrassed that this is my first encounter with her!

The Return of the Soldier is one of her first novels, published in 1918, it is a beautifully told story of a "shell shocked" man, who develops amnesia, thinking that he is only 20, and in love with a woman other than his wife.  Our narrator is There is some shocking classism in this book, at first I was a tad jaw dropped over it, but as the book goes on, quickly realised that this was an essential part of its message.  The woman Chris thinks he is love with is now a middle-aged married woman who is barely middle class (apparently) and the scathing descriptions of the narrator were pretty grating at first.

This book is really about love, responsiblity, and the horror of war.  The importance of class in the novel is smoothly explored, from the jarring descriptions at the start, to the narrator (Chris' cousin, Jenny) coming to side with Margaret (the long lost love).  This is a beautifully written novella that was an unexpected joy, highly recommended!

8.5/10

This was an eread on Kindle for iPad.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Do I HAVE to? 5 "Have To " Books of 2011

Using only my own criteria, I'm also doing a list of 5 books per year that are unappealing to me, but that I think are "necessary" to read.  This is totally my own opinion, but I feel books like War and Peace are contributing something, more generally as well as to me personally, and are therefore worth a read, even though it can seem slow and painful.  I also anticipate that some of my "have to" reads will be suprising favourites, too (or at least I hope so!).

Here are my "have to" books of 2011:

1. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy - READ!
2. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (I'd normally not do two from the same author in one year, but there's another readalong later in 2011 for Anna and I found this a great way to get through War and Peace, so am signing up)
3. Candide, Voltaire (I know, I know, a classic, I've had a copy on my bookshelves for about 20 years and have just never been interested, despite being a mad classics fan).  READ!  I'm totally rocking this already!! 
4. Last of the Mohicans, Cooper (likewise)
5. Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky (I'm a legal sociologist who has never read Crime and Punishment.  The shame!)

*sigh* so there are my HAVE to reads for 2011, wish me luck with the next 3.  I'm hoping none of them will fall into the Poke Your Eye Out category.  I prepared this jaunty patch, just in case....

Monday, March 28, 2011

A pause...

Not much reading, or posting, the past few days, it's birthday central in Casa Selene at present, and things are a tad hard...

On birthdays.

I'm reading a lighter series at the moment, and will be back after a good coffee and a lie down ;)  I've got a couple to review I haven't done as yet, and will post them later this week.  'Til then!...

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath's only novel, is a famous exploration of mental illness and recovery, made more famous by the author's suidice only weeks after its first publication in 1963.  It is a thinly disguised autobiography, from an earlier period of Plath's life during which she had a breakdown.

This is a compelling book, the disintegration of Esther Greenwood is beautifully rendered in Plath's prose as she moves further and further into depression and "madness,"  and eventually, into recovery.

The Bell Jar is a feminist landmark, Plath's reflections on work, marriage, motherhood, and a creative life, issues that Plath herself never resolved in her own life and work:
"And I knew that in spite of all the roses and kisses and restaurant dinners a man showered on a woman before he married her, what he secretly wanted when the wedding service ended was for her to flatten out underneath his feet like Mrs. Willard's kitchen mat.  [....]  So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state."
The Bell jar is a testament of illness (and recovery), though the recovery part is cast into shadow by Plath's own suicide.  I just couldn't get past my "real life" knowledge about her as a person, especially at the end of the book, and knowing the novel is basically autobiographical.  

The Bell Jar is a coming of age story, and a finely drawn portait of its time, the crushing expectations of women, and of creative expectations of the self.  It's a poetic and tragic read.  Books like this take it out of you, but are worth it.  I'm not really a poetry person, but have added Plath's work to my to be read pile.  It's just ultimately tragic that she felt so desolate that she took her own life. 

8.5/10

An e-read on Kindle for iPad.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Candide, Voltaire

In more shameful confessions, I've also never read any Voltaire.  This was a short and sweet beginning.  I liked the melodrama and pathos of Candide.  It was wryly humourous and had a fantastic sarcasm and lightness to it that I honestly wasn't expecting.

Candide is a striking novella, written in 1759, about the improbable adventures of a young man, accustomed to luxury, thrown into a variety of unpleasant situations and crises.  Characters die, come back to life, reunite, and philosophise about their situations endlessly.  It's a sarcastic piece, ridiculing the philosophy of optimism in particular:
"Yes," said Candide, "and I have seen worse that all that; and yet a learned man, who had the misfortune to be hanged, taught me that everything was marvelously well, and that these evils you are speaking of were only so many shades in a beautiful picture."
I pretty much liked it, it's a tad heavy in some parts, but I think my perception of this was more due to when it was written, it's hard for a novel written in the 1700s to not be tad ploddy in parts to a modern eye.  Overall, the humour and wit is worth it. 

On the army:
"...a million of regimented assassins traverse Europe from one end to the other, to get their bread by regular depredation and murder, because it is the most gentlemenlike profession."
 On poets and their reputation:
"Ignorant readers are apt to judge a writer by his reputation.  For my part, I read only to please myself.  I like nothing but what makes for my purpose."  Candide, who had been brought up with a notion of never making use of his own judgment, was astonished at what he heard...."
It's an improbable book, with a moral ending.  Worth a read.

7/10

This was a free ebook on Kindle for iPad.  The translation was lovely. 

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson

It's frankly embarrassing that I have never read this novella.

This book suffers from modernity (or is that postmodernity, I can never decide).  That is, I have been so massively exposed to far worse and more terrible, violent, and horrific tales just in getting out of bed of a morning, that the novella just failed to thrill me.  Reading it was more of a chore than a pleasure.  I just didn't feel it.  I think there are scarier things on Nick Jr.  Culturally, we've moved on.  I also think we've embraced our darker sides more openly than in the era this was written, so someone being self obsessed, interested in (presumably) sexuality and experience is not the jaw dropping horror it may have been in yesteryear.  I know, I exaggerate, but still, popular culture has moved on. 

I get that the novella is a lesson in suppressing the self, and the strength of - okay, I can't resist - the Dark Side.  But overall, I prefer the Star Wars "there's always hope for you in the end, even if you're a homicidal Sith Lord and killed a whole bunch o' people and cut of your son's hand and stuff" brand of lesson, than the "I guess it just went bad, whoops, there you go don't go and do bad stuff, peeps," brand of Dr Jekyll.

Is this review frivolous?  Perhaps.  I blame that potion I drank earlier...

I found the lack of insight of Jekyll/Hyde simply frustrating.  This was something he decided to do to himself.  He kept at it out of some moral passivity that was annoying, killed someone, felt bad, tried a bit harder, but ultimately seemed to blame the fact he ran out of some kind of salt for his complete reversion to his 'evil' self.  Some finer moral reflections on these actions might have been nice.  And the message that, if indulged, our "baser" instincts lead straight to some kind of evil takeover is a tad simplistic and naive for my liking.

One to read, though, definitely.  It's important in the very shaping of the stories we now take for granted, and I'm very aware that I'm reading this work from a particular cultural and social position.  For that reason, it gets -

7/10

Another Kindle for iPad e-read, this one was free, there are heaps of free and 99 cent versions of the classics out there!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Committed, Elizabeth Gilbert

Elizabeth Gilbert's thoughts and explorations on marriage and committment, which I read very early this year but hadn't reviewed til now.

Committed could be called a pop-sociology book, so in that sense, I liked it, though the sociology was a tad light on, and freely mixed with personal reflections or opinions of her friends (but that's the intellectual snobbery in me, perhaps.  I am a sociologist, after all, so mea culpa!). Gilbert has some interesting insights into marriage, paired with her personal story, so the book is a decent read, if frustrating and somewhat disjointed at times.

Gilbert is fundamentally ambivalent about marriage as an institution, and seems to go to a lot of effort to convince herself otherwise, when, to be honest, she could just have got married (or not) and been done with it.  The ridiculous requirements of the US government can't be helped, if you need to get married, then perhaps you just should. 

So, I found the agonising premise of the book, needing to somehow be reconciled to marriage as a whole in order to get married, puzzling.  To be honest, if I'd come out of an exploration of marriage feeling as Gilbert did about it, I wouldn't have been getting married.  Because let's face it, they only got married because they were forced to by US immigration laws.  The happily ever after feel of the ending of the book (which, of course, ends in marriage!) didn't match the questing tone of the rest of the work. It felt a bit like a cop out.

But, I enjoyed the book overall, though it's not as compelling as Eat, Pray, Love.  For those of us who have called a truce with marriage (I have been married twice, despite a lack of faith in it as an institution, and having some very serious issues with being married when others are not permitted to be) it's a decent read that raised many of the issues I've had with marriage myself. Probably worth a read if these issue mean something in your life, but I'm unlikely to re-read this one.

6.5/10

This was a IRL book! 

Elective Affinities, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Embarrassingly, I'd never read any Goethe, so decided to start with Elective Affinities, as it's short and sweet.  Elective Affinities is Goethe's third novel, and also one of three of Goethe's books on the 1001 list.

Elective Affinities is Goethe's attempt to explore human relationships, and marriage in particular, using the laws of chemistry as a...muse?, inspiration?, recipe book?, well, something of that sort.  Published in 1809, it was quite controversial at the time (and since) for what many perceived as immorality and the encouragement of divorce, though apparently many critics (and me!) can't actually decide if Goethe came down in the end on the side of the "sanctity" of marriage, or the pragmatism of divorce - at least, the destiny of true love.

The main characters, Eduard and Charlotte, have married late in life after their first partners have died.  They (for some reason) decide to ask Eduard's friend, the Captain, and Charlotte's neice and ward, Ottilie, to come and live with them, with predictable (apparently, this being the point) results.  Bonds are broken, new bonds are formed, apparently there is nothing to be done (or is there?).  This is, apparently, a double displacement reaction in chemistry.  Sounds thrilling, yes?  Perhaps not.

I'm not sure if Goethe was sure what moral lesson he was going for here, if any, but it seemed to me that the book was a tale of the inevitability of fate, coupled with the efforts of individuals to change it (or not).

 I can't resist quoting the blurb from a critical work on the book:
"From the time of its publication to today, Goethe's famous novel The Elective Affinities (Die Wahlverwandtschaften, 1809), has aroused a storm of critical confusion. Critics in every age have vehemently disagreed about its content (whether it defends the institution of marriage, radically supports its dissolution, or even whether it is about marriage at all), its style (whether it is romantic, realistic, modern, or postmodern) and its tone (whether it is tragic, anti-romantic, or ironic).
"[....]  Readers fiercely debate the role of the chemical theory of elective affinities presented in the novel. Some argue that it suggest a philosophy of nature that is rooted in fate. Others maintain that it is about free choice. Others believe that the chemical theory is merely a structural device that allows the author to foreshadow events in the novel and bears no relevance to the greater issues of the novel."
So, no great suprise that the novel is somewhat confusing and not easy to interpret.  Personally, I felt it was more about the effect of free choice impeding the "natural order" of things, the elective affinity between those who are "meant to be." When the characters refuse to follow the dictates of chemistry, a whole heap of bad stuff happens to them.  So the lesson seems to be: get in line with fate or get out of the way.  Except a tad more poetic and lyrical and stuff.

Okay, I didn't love it.  I found myself actually saying aloud as reading it, "this book is just odd!"  I just couldn't get into it, didn't find it convincing, and didn't get anything much out of it.
I understand that Goethe is telling us something about relationships, now with more chemistry [TM!], but the characters weren't compelling, the relationships seemed one-dimensional and unbelievable.  I didn't love that one of the main love interests was the neice of Charlotte, that Eduard had known as a small child, and was dependent on them, and still at school (!!).  I was [spoiler alert] also just jaw-dropped at the sudden killing off of Charlotte's child!  That, and the utter selfishness of the four main characters just made it an unpalatable read for me.

I have to admit, though, that I've since been interested in reading about interpretations of the book, (probably because I wasn't too certain of my own).  I was also fascinated to read that Max Weber took his concept of Elective Affinites in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, from Goethe's book!  I've always had a soft spot for Weber.

So, read it, it's interesting, and you'll find yourself thinking about it afterwards.  But not a fabulous one to just read.

6.5/10

This was an e-read on Kindle for iPad, though make sure you get the Oxford World's Classics edition, this is a good translation by David Constantine (I hate to think what a bad translation would do to this book!).  It was only a few dollars from Amazon, and the only decent translation in e-book form I could see there.

Ref: Goethe's Elective Affinities and the Critics, Astrida Orle Tantillo (2001), see here for a full reference and extracts.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

What Maisie Knew, Henry James

I found myself reading What Maisie Knew because it's a book about shared custody.  I'm a stepmother to two kids who have been in shared care (one is now majority with us) for nearly 8 years.   I was interested to read a take on custody from the point of view of the child, as well as the historical differences, as Maisie was published in 1897.  Not to mention that I'm a bit of a Henry James fan.

 Here's where I confess that I like Henry James. But OMG, is he wordy.  This one suffered from a severe lack of full stops.  I know, I know, that's one of his "things", but still, I found The Ambassadors and Wings of the Dove far easier reads than Maisie, so it seemed particularly bad here.


What Maisie Knew follows the story of Maisie's life as she is landed in shared care between two equally crappy parents, and her subsequent relationships with her step-parents and governess.  As Maisie grows from a child of around 6 into a teenager, so does what she "knows."  This growth is the real point of the novel.  I also thought it was a powerful comment on the casual cruelties of parenting.


"She was divided in two and the portions tossed impartially to the disputants.
[...]
"What was clear to any spectator was that the only link binding her to either parent was this lamentable fact of her being a ready vessel for bitterness, a deep little porcelain cup in which biting acids could be mixed.  They had wanted her not for any good they could do her, but for the harm they could, with her unconscious aid, do each other."
At times this book just brilliant, the development of and insight into the central character (and what she "knew") from child to teenager is remarkable.  Some of the insights into divorce and it's uglier effects on children were painfully true.  The constraint that Maisie has, and feels, especially in the early parts of the book, as she is constantly silent and observing, was beautifully captured. [That sentence was positively Jamesian in it's many clauses!]  
"She puzzled out with imperfect signs, but with a prodigious spirit, that she had been a centre of hatred and a messenger of insult, and that everything was bad because she had been employed to make it so.
"Her parted lips locked themselves with the determination to be employed no longer.  She would forget everything, she would repeat nothing, and when, as a tribute to the successful application of her system, she began to be called a little idiot, she tasted a pleasure new and keen."
At other times this book was just too long, too involved, and too essentially unbelievable.  The whole step-parents romance and successive runnings off was just too overly dramatic for me.  It was where my interest flagged.  I felt the sections to do with her parents were far more relevant and alive.  I just noticed that all the sections I highlighted were from the first 50% of the book, nothing afterwards, and this is just where the action moves from her parents to the step-parent/parent/confusing romances and meetings and running away a lot last half of the book.

Overall, the book felt like an over-developed novella.  I also didn't find Maisie a terribly sympathetic character, she was a tad lacklustre, and I would have liked some more anger and grief from her.  More like the passage I quoted above, and less of the "dragged along in the whirlwind" feel she had for much of the book.  I also thought the central character of Mrs Wix was one dimensional, and her "love" of Sir Claude was an unnecessary distraction the book could do without.  The Countess as a figure of horror, largely because, as far as I can tell, she's black, sat pretty uncomfortably for me.

The long conversations and sometimes minute details weighed heavily in the final section, though the tension of this lack of decision was finely done, I was mostly just glad it finished.  The ending was unsatifying, and too many practical questions were left unanswered (like, what did they live on!).

All in all, while I'm a fan of Henry James, this one fell a tad short for me.  It was too convoluted and felt like it wasn't edited closely enough, for my liking.  I'd consider myself pretty fluent in 'James'', but had to re-read several sections, they were so confusing.  Some parts of this book sing, but some fall flat.

Read it if you're interested in custody of children after divorce, or if you're a James fan.  Probably skip it otherwise.

6.5/10

There are four Henry James novels on the core list: The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, Portrait of a Lady, and What Maisie Knew.  This was a e-read, on Kindle for iPad.  5BBR2AG3E7XG

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Homo Faber, Max Frisch

Wow, just wow.  You know, finding this kind of book is exactly why I wanted to do this 1001 thing in the first place.  I can't really imagine how I would have stumbled across Max Frisch otherwise, and I am just so glad I did!

Homo Faber [Man the Maker] is a book about the realities of life, against a backdrop of plotted unreality: plane crashes, incestuous affairs [echoes of Oedipus Rex are loud and clear here], jungle explorations and other oddness.  In the face of coincidences that it is unnecessary to believe in, Frisch tells his story of ordinary mystification in the face of life.  The title character gradually disgards his practical masculinities in the face of mortality, his own and that of others.  His life unravels, as he wanders back and forth in the face of meaninglessness and death.  The scale of his errors and tragedy is simply the stage for the small and very human reflections of a human being confronting their own mortality and meaning.

The convolutions of plot are the disintegration of his carefully constructed reality, the collapse of his rationalist/technologist world view. You don't have to believe them, they are waystations in the journey Frisch takes you on.  

It was published in 1957, so there's some wincing in the face of the roles/opinions of women of the time, but surprisingly little, I think because Frisch treats the central female characters as full human actors.  There were some gems of reflection in here about gender relations and construction:
The man hears only himself, according to Hanna, therefore the life of a woman who wants to be understood by a man must inevitably be ruined.  According to Hanna.  The man sees himself as master of the world and the woman only as his mirror.  The master is not compelled to learn the language of the oppressed; the woman is compelled, though it does her no good, to learn the language of the master, she merely learns a language that always puts her in the wrong.  Hanna regretted having become a Ph.D.  As long as God is a man, not a couple, the life of a woman, according to Hanna, is bound to remain as it is now, namely wretched, with woman as the proletarian of Creation, however smartly dressed.
Which is essentialist, sure, but nevertheless, awesome!

This book has wit, beautiful prose, and a real visceral feel to it.  It's modern, despite being nearly 60 years old.  It is haunting, and will definitely stay with me.  

On finishing this I bought two more of Frisch's books, I had to order hard copies as they aren't on Kindle, so I'm looking forward to their arrival!

This was an e-read on Kindle for iPad.

9/10

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Randoms and Rules and Such, and Poke Your Eye Out Substitutes

I'm just starting out on this 1001 Books project, and working it out as I go.  As most of my IRL books are packed up, I'm mostly using ebooks at the moment, and am suffering from overchoice!  That's a new word I made up to express how there are just too many damn books.  How on earth do I pick one to read next?  Other than attacking War and Peace *sigh* I have just been bouncing around collecting (mostly free) ebooks from the list, then mutely contemplating which to read next, stuck between choices.

I've always been a reader based on gut feelings, I tend to read in genre's that last several books, then naturally and slowly transition to another genre, and so on.  This involves a lot of staring at my bookcases.

Part of the reason I'm doing the 1001 book challenge is just that, to challenge myself.  I've read a LOT of books in my life.  Before having kids, I was up round 250 a year, and that wasn't including books for work (I'm an academic).  I read fast (not speed reading, just fast), my Dad timed me at around 100 pages a hour.  Yes, I am taking it all in (*roll eyes*).  But I found myself in a rut, reading the same kinds of books, looking too much for mind-numbing and not enough at the kind of challenge I really enjoy, something with a bit of deeper meaning in it.  To me, good reading includes both types.

So, I've been stuck.  I read over at 2606 Books and Counting that Falaise was using a random number generator to choose his 1001 list books, and it struck me as a good idea to get some coverage of books I'm not likely to choose on preference alone.  So I used one to generate 20 books that I'm comitting to read this year, in addition to whatever I choose more naturally from the list.  I used the core list on Arukiyomi's excel list.

Here they are:


265      Sometimes a Great Notion, Ken Kesey
     
316      Homo Faber, Max Frisch
     
432      They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, Horace McCoy
     
367      The Case of Comrade Tulayev,  Victor Serge
     
194      Patterns of Childhood, Christa Wolf

387      Christ Stopped at Eboli, Carlo Levi

460      The Times of Indifference,  Alberto Moravia

428      At the Mountains of Madness, HP Lovecraft [READ]

273      The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, le Carre

366      The Garden Where the Brass Band Played, Simon Vestdijk

53       How Late it Was, How Late, James Kellman

602      King Lear of the Steppes, Ivan Turgenev

473      Remembrance of Things Past, Proust

629      Walden, Henry Thoreau

678      Vathek, Willam Thomas Beckford

291      Solaris (READ)

594      The Enchanted Wanderer, Nikolai Leskov

159      Wittgenstein’s Nephew, Thomas Bernhard

42       The Unconsoled, Kazuo Ishiguro

421      Out of Africa (READ)

SUBS

567      Tess of the D’Ubervilles (READ)

205      Dusklands, J M Coetzee

106      Oscar and Lucinda (READ)

412      Rebecca (READ)

447      Cold Comfort Farm

86      Amongst Women, John McGahern

I was pretty happy to see Unconsoled on here, as I enjoyed Never Let Me Go so much, and also happy to see Cold Comfort Farm, bizarre as I'd just bought a copy!!

Okay, this list made me realise I am just not going to get through all the 1001 list books.  I need some free passes, substitutes, or something!  Again, stealing from 2606 and counting, I think I'll use some kind of get out of jail card, subbing in books on different lists.  Because I have to say that Christ Stopped at Eboli, and The Case of Comrade Tulayev, in the synopses I read, just make me wanna poke out an eye.  Life is too short to read stuff that absolutely doesn't appeal, right?

I don't want the 1001 list read to be a total chore.  I chose to do this as an exploration of the novel, and exploration I can share with others who are reading the list, or who have heard of the list.  Whether I totally agree with all the selections or not (it's not, but isn't everyone's answer not?), it's a widely recognised collection of some of the greatest novels ever written.  I've never seen a review that completely negated that.

But there are some books on there I just don't want to read, and unlike War and Peace, which I can see the point of, just don't seem to me to add anything to my explorations.  So I'm reserving the right to substitute books.  As I'm reading from the Core list at the moment, I reserve the right to substitute in books that have not made it on all the lists instead.  I'll post about it when I do, giving my reasons.

There, that'll save me poking out an eye, or two!

Sorry, couldn't resist this:

These books shall now be referred to as the "Poke Your Eye Out Substitutes".  That is all.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Cranford, Elizabeth Gaskell

Okay, turns out this was a re-read!  I had a suspicion that some of these might turn up: if I wasn't 100% sure I'd read a book on the 1001 list already, I left it marked as unread.  I was fairly sure I'd read Cranford, I'm an Elizabeth Gaskell fan, and wasn't sure how I could have missed it, but couldn't remember anything at all about it!

This definitely shouldn't be taken as a negative about the book, which is a fine one, perhaps more of a memory trick I played on myself, or that year I may have read a lot of Gaskell, or something.   Pays to write books down...I guess!

Cranford is a finely drawn portrait of small town life, or a slice of that life, in particular of the women of a certain class.  It's told from the point of view of an 'insider' visitor who participates in the story, a loosely disguised version of Gaskell herself.

Gaskell is a keen and wry observer of human interaction, and captures the lives of these women so beautifully, sensitively, but with a perfect sense of amusement about it all that made me smile through the whole work.  In parts it is painfully sad, the lives of these women are so limited, and in some cases, tragic.  Gaskell perfectly captures this contained life, while showing that the inner lives and kindnesses of this tightly woven community are expanded, despite the constraints of their circumstances.

As a history of women, it's a powerful one.  I had a sense of horror that this was all I could have expected from that world and that time, this limited and constrained existence, set about by rules of action that are so different from what women of my own "class" get to expect today.  Of course, we have just as many social rules now, but then, it was so small, geographically and socially, women were unable to be strong social actors, to act to change their circumstances, other than within the boundaries set (like marriage, the actions of relatives, or the kindnesses of friends).  Forbidden so much, to both rise or fall, they were trapped like bugs in amber.

Gaskell's writing perfectly matches this constraint, her wry observations, and clear sympathies and admirations, this is a powerful read, disguised as a small story about some women of the middle class who live in the small village of Cranford.  Well worth a read (or a re-read, as the case may be!).

The discussion of Cranford at Gaskell Blog is well worth a read, it adds much to the story.

8.5/10

Friday, March 4, 2011

Unbearable Lightness, Portia de Rossi

I'd been eyeing this one for a while, as I mentioned, I'm a bit of a collector of memiors about eating, and disordered eating, and what it means in a person's life, so was keen to read this memoir. 

This is a gripping read, de Rossi's explorations of the thinking involved in spiraling down into the terrible realities of disordered eating is spot on, and harrowing.  I liked her writing style, how much of it was written from that space of strange thinking, where your messages about fat and beauty, and your own actions are so jumbled and wrong, but seem so linear and commonsensical when you are within it.  I like when memiors of mental illness capture that world, the odd world that to the person seems so sensible and real.  It made the book a page-turner.

I read it while suffering from a terrible plague that my partner bought home with him from America (thanks darling!), and read this book in a day while suffering on the couch, next to my sick 2 year old, in front of Nick Jr.  Perhaps this added to my overwhelming impression of illness from this book, which de Rossi has captured so well, illness disguised as the right thing, the attractive thing, the successful thing.  We all need to re-read the Beauty Myth, like de Rossi, on my first reading of Naomi Wolf's book, I wondered how I could have been such an idiot to "fall for it".  Of course, it's not us as individuals that should be blaming ourselves, it's the society we are part of.  But it's easy to blame ourselves, to hold ourselves as responsible.  As individuals, we are all supposed to be able to somehow overcome our backgrounds, our societies, or at least that's the rhetoric we buy into.  But none of us escape our social systems, no matter how aware of them we are.  Eating disorders are a case in point.  They are, on the surface, all about the individual.  Of course, they are really about our society.  It's a neat trick to get us to blame ourselves. 

There are some chilling scenes in this memior, what sticks in my mind is her fitting for a Loreal commercial, where de Rossi is humiliated publicly for not fitting into the size 4 skirts offered her, this was obviously a big trigger for the final stages of her eating issues.  Also, the loneliness of her home gym, and the messages she wrote herself on the walls.  Her frantic running up and down the apartment stairs, forgetting her dog, to work of some gum (!!) she ate while starving.

I would like to read more about her recovery, this part of the book felt skimmed over, like she hadn't finished with it yet, or perhaps it was too personal.  I wish this aspect of the book had been more fully explored, and showed more clearly the differences between disordered thinking and "normal" thinking, exploring those ideas a little more. It felt too skimmed over.  I would like to know more about how her weight gain affected her career, because no matter how tabloids might villify anorexic celebrities, they still represent the "unattainable ideal" held up to women in this culture.  How did recovery affect her roles, magazine covers, and modelling?  Or is recovery actually being able to let this go, because those ideals just ARE unattainable, if you're "normal"?

I definitely recommend this book, it's powerful, and would be a good read for young women starting out in all this, too.

I read this in trade paperback, it was nice to read a "real" book again!

8/10

[Image credit - here - this blog, this is not a diet, is just great!]

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

War and Peace - Read Along Check In #4

I have found War and Peace a challenge.  I understand it's awesomeness, and appreciate Tolstoy's purpose, but simply find it long, tedious, full of diversions in which I'm not interested, and containing far too much of the War.

In fairness, some parts of this book were inspired, and I enjoyed some of the more philosophical reflecitons on the nature of war, death, and love interspersed throughout.  I liked some of the social reflections, the parties and intrigue.  The characters grew and expanded, I particularly liked Nicholai/Nicholas Rostov here, and also Mary/Marya, and their relationship.  Pierre remained a frustrating favourite, I kinda wanted him to just snap out of it.  It sucked that Helene died with little or no exploration, that was obviously a plot device, clumsy.

There were patches I actively didn't like: the wolf hunting scene (that was a WTF moment); the overall portrayal of women, they never quite reached the real world image that was true of some of the male characters, even the central women stayed as stereotypic, seeming to lack that final acceptance of women as actual human actors required to make them fully real; the long descriptions of politics and tactics littered throughout - in trying to be an accurate history, Tolstoy parted ways with having a good story.

What do I think of the book.  Long.  Wordy.  Detailed.  Slow.  Mixed with moments of beauty, grand ideas, and close characterisation (for blokes).  Overall, I didn't like it, but the book itself as a reading experience will stay with me for a long time.  I'm glad I read it, and I'm also glad it's over.

Thank you, Allie, at A Literary Odyssey, for hosting this as a readalong, I never would have finished it otherwise!!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Moorland Cottage, Elizabeth Gaskell

I really enjoyed this short and sweet novella.  I'm a bit of a Gaskell fan, so it wasn't difficult to like.  The best part was doing it as a readalong at Gaskell blog, with all the lovely details this added to each chapter.

This is a simple story, with some unproblematially good (and bad) characters, and a bit of melodrama thrown in.  It's a quiet story, despite some of the big action in it.  A nice time-passer, but no North and South.  I think I like Gaskell more when she holds forth a little, and explores people and situations in more detail.  Moorland felt more like a practice story.

A couple of favourite quotes: I especially liked this reference to Australia, '"But, Maggie, I don't give up this wish of mine to go to Australia - Canada, if you like it better - anywhere where there is a newer and purer state of society."'  That's us Down Under: newer and purer! ;)

And this on the law: "Frank had entertained some idea of studying for a barrister himself: not so much as a means of livelihood as to gain some idea of the code which makes and shows a nation's conscience..."  Which is almost exactly why I like the law, and one of the reasons I studied it (though, I digress, I am more interested in how law is enacted - as in lived, not as in passed by a governing body - as compared to how it is encoded, but I do like encoding as a reflection of a social standard or norm).  /end digression :D

This was a delightful little novel, definitely worth a read, particularly if you're a Gaskell fan.  The characters are charming, the messages are simple, but complex enough to hold interest, the ending is happy (mostly).  If you're not expecting more, then you'll like it.  Good for a rainy day.

6.5/10

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

What an amazing book!  Never Let Me Go is so subtle and tightly wound, Kazuo Ishiguro crafts an amazingly real and chilling world, so close to our own.  His writing draws this line of narrative where everything is contained, oppressed, obedient, and doomed.  Well, doomed is too exuberant.  There's doom coming for each of them, but doom is too emotive a word for the passive acceptance of the horrible slow death that waits for all the characters.


Most of the novel is a finely told story of love and friendship among children and teens as they transition into adulthood, with the added twist of the dystopian wider situation they are all in.  As a tale of teen-dom and childhood, it's an impressive portrayal of that difficult and fraught time.  Ishiguro has captured the difficulties and casual cruelties of those friendships, particularly for girls.  Kids are cruel, and are the best enforcers of social norms and behaviour out there.  It's a big part of learning society, and this has been closely observed by Ishiguro.  The opressive and secretive, yet everyday nature of their childhood in Hailsham, at first glance a boarding school, does its work indoctrinating all the children to their "duty" as donors, keeping themselves and each other in line.  This eventually makes them all turn up, repeatedly, for their slow deaths. 

I could tell it was going to end badly, and it did.  This matched the contained tone of the rest of the book, it was simply obvious, and could not be struggled against.  Finishing the book was like waking up, it was so convincing and oppressive.

I've been thinking a lot about this novel since finishing it, which in my opinion is a sign of a great book.  I wanted to struggle on behalf of Kathy and Tommy, I wanted one of them to rebel, try to escape, make a wider appeal to the society that was doing this to them, something!  The passivity that binds the book together, making even the appeal for a "deferral" to Madame seem a struggle too great, was frustrating, but intentionally so.  And while we would all like to think, as readers, that we would be different, try to escape, change the mind of society, or something, the truth is that in the same situation, with the same background, how many of us would do the same as Ruth and Kathy and Tommy?  Their fate just is.  No point struggling. 

Never Let Me Go is a powerful statement about what becomes acceptable in society, and how social indoctrination works on each of us.  It's not really about the horror of donation, or the morality and issue of cloning, or any of it's dystopian elements.  This book is about how society works on us, and how we work on each other.  It is about how, at the heart of it, we humans do this to ourselves.

I really liked this book.

9/10

Another one not on the current, or the core list, it was on the 2006 list, so that kinda counts?  I don't think it should have been removed, I was very impressed.  I read this as an ebook on Kindle for iPad.

ETA - I was googling reading reviews of this book, and found this list of Books that made a difference to Kazuo Ishiguro, at Oprah magazine, complete with Ishiguro's explanations, worth a look!