Wednesday, 27 April 2011

The Reivers by William Faulkner

This is my first William Faulkner book. I know very little about him, in fact looking at the list of his published work the only title I recognised was The Sound and the Fury. I do know that he is a giant of American literature so when I saw this in a library sale I decided to give it a try.

The story is told by a grandfather, Lucius Priest, to his grandchild about an adventure he had in 1905 when he was eleven years old. Lucius and a man named Boon Hogganbeck stole Lucius' grandfather's car. They drove out of Mississippi to Memphis along with another man, Ned, who has stowed away with them. They are going to meet Miss Corrie, a prostitute who Boon is in love with. They stay at a brothel run by a woman named Miss Reba.

In Memphis Ned swaps the car for a horse (Lightening), much to the horror of Boon and Lucius. The only way to get the car back (and to have it home before Grandfather returns from his trip) is to win it back in a horse race. Lightening has to beat a horse it has already lost to twice. Ned is sure it can do it, the others are more sceptical.

There was plenty I liked about this book. I enjoyed the style which was very much that of an old person telling a story, getting lost in his memories, going off a tangents and trying to teach his grandchild something in the process. It was also interesting about the early days of cars. There was one set piece that I particularly liked. In the early days of cars the country roads were not really equipped to handle them. On the way to Memphis, Boon, Lucius and Ned meet a very entrepreneurial man who has stationed himself by a boggy piece of road. He uses his mules and plough to make the road impassable and then charges drivers to pull their cars out when they inevitably get stuck.

I think what stopped me from wholeheartedly enjoying this book was that Ned's swapping the car for the horse was so inexplicable that I couldn't really take the story seriously after that. The real reason for the swap is revealed near the end of the book, but it was too late for me by then. I would've preferred to know earlier. I will definitely read more Faulkner, and I will re-read this one at some time in the future.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Secrets of the Arabian Nights - BBC

I watched this excellent tv programme about the history of the stories of the Arabian Nights. I knew very little about them, apart from knowing that Aladdin and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves were among them.
Apparently many of the stories are over 1,000 years old. For much of that time they were not written down but travelled and were told along the trade routes in the Middle East. Gradually over the years they were put down on paper. Then in the late 17th century a French traveller in the region, Antoine Galland took some of the stories back to Paris and published them. They were an immediate sensation at a time when people in Europe knew very little about the Middle East. When they were published in London a few years later they sparked a fashion for oriental interior design and dress.

What I didn't realise was that they were not originally children's stories, but were in fact very sexually explicit. In the 19th century they were censored by the Victorians to make them more family friendly. They are still controversial now. Earlier this year an Egyptian publisher produced an unabridged version and some religious groups have pushed to have it censored. The publisher even received death threats. However the Egyptian courts have allowed the book to be published uncensored saying that it is 'one of humanities greatest treasures.'

The programme was presented by Richard E. Grant who was an enthusiastic and friendly guide. It's still available on iplayer for a couple more days and I would recommend it to anyone who has access to it.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson

I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo ages ago and loved it. But such is the wealth of choice on my TBR shelf it has taken me until now to get to the sequel.

In this story Lisbeth Salander comes back to Stockholm after over a year away travelling. She has broken all contact with the journalist Mikael Blomkvist and sets about making a new life, buying an apartment, furniture from IKEA and a second-hand car, just like a normal person. But Salander is not normal, she is obsessively secretive about herself, doesn't let anyone know her new address, buys the apartment under a false name and still sometimes goes about in disguise.

Meanwhile, at Millennium magazine, Blomkvist and his colleagues are preparing a special edition about the sex industry. This involves making contact with some very unsavoury and dangerous individuals.

The two stories collide when two people who are providing most of the information for the Millennium special edition are murdered and Salander is implicated in their deaths.

I enjoyed this book just as much as the first. It moves along at a cracking pace, and packs in the information. There were a couple of times I had to refer back to check something I'd missed at first read. I thought that Blomkvist took a back seat and it was more Salander's story.

It seems a bit redundant to recommend a book which is an international best seller and phenomenon, but I do anyway.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

After commenting on another blog recently that I never read sad books, what do I go and do? That's right - read a sad book.

This story has two narrators. The first is Roseanne McNulty, a woman who has spent the last 60 years in a mental hospital in Ireland. Roseanne decides to write down the story of her life. She keeps this record a secret, hiding it under a loose floorboard in her room. She writes about her childhood and her close relationship with her father. Then about her period of independence in 1930s Sligo when she worked as a waitress and went out dancing with her friends. Then her marriage to Tom McNulty and on up to the events which led to her being committed to the asylum. The terrible background to all this is the Irish Civil War and the hatred and brutality that went along with it. Also very clear is the power of the priests - Roseanne is not Catholic, which is not in her favour.

The second narrator is Dr Grene, who is in charge of the hospital in which Roseanne is a patient. The hospital is going to close and Dr Grene has to decide which patients will go into the community and which will be transferred to the new, purpose built hospital. He becomes fascinated by Roseanne. He claims to need to find out about her background in order to decide on her future. But clearly a woman of 100 years old who has spent over half her life in an institution is not going to live in the community, the new hospital is the only place for her. There is some other, perhaps sub-conscious reason why Dr Grene is trying to solve the mystery of Roseanne.

Roseanne's story is tragic, but her voice is beautiful, lyrical and articulate. As the story progressed I wondered about the accuracy of her memories. Is she just remembering what she wants to remember? Or perhaps her mind is protecting her from dreadful truths. Similarly with the official records. Are they truthful or are they the work of people who would say anything to get Roseanne committed?

I thought this was an excellent and thought provoking book - despite being sad.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Victory of Eagles by Naomi Novik

When I was a teenager I read and enjoyed Anne McCaffrey's novels about the Dragonriders of Pern. I thought my dragon days were long behind me until a year or so ago when I discovered the books of Naomi Novik. She writes about an alternative world in which dragons are real. They are intelligent creatures who can speak, reason and form very definite opinions. Each dragon has a human captain and a close bond develops between the two. The books are set at the time of the Napoleonic Wars and dragons are used as weapons by both the British and the French.

Victory of Eagles is the fifth in the series. The main characters (in the other books as well) are the dragon Temeraire and his captain Will Laurence. Temeraire is a young dragon, I think he speaks and acts like a precocious ten year old. He is highly intelligent, and also highly prized because he is a Celestial. Celestials come originally from China and Temeraire is the only one in the British forces.

At the beginnning of this book Temeraire and Laurence are in disgrace and have been separated. I won't say why they are in disgrace because it would be a spoiler for the previous book. However the British government is forced to bring them back together as Napoleon's forces threaten invasion - Temeraire is too valuable a weapon to sit on the sidelines, and he will not fight without Laurence.

I think this has been my favourite of the series so far. I've always thought that Laurence has been a bit of a goody-goody but being in disgrace shows him in a new light. He is torn between his duty and what he knows is morally right. And the character of Temeraire changes as he realises that his actions affect the lives of others, and not always in a good way.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin

This isn't a book for those who like their crime fiction watertight and co-incidence free. It's the kind of book where you just have to jump in and accept anything that comes along. If you can do that, then I think you'll find it's a really fun read.

Richard Cadogan goes to spend a few days in Oxford. He discovers the corpse of a woman in the upstairs flat of a toyshop. There is someone else in the flat and that someone knocks Cadogan unconscious. When he wakes several hours later he escapes from the flat and goes for the police. However, when he returns with the police, not only is there no corpse, there is also no toyshop! The police dismiss his story a result of his bang on the head. Cadogan then goes to see his friend Gervase Fen, a Professor of Literature at Oxford University. Fen believes his friend's story (I'm not sure I would've) and together they investigate.

I found the character of Gervase Fen very appealing. Probably he would be infuriating in real life, but in the pages of a book his disregard for his responsibilities and his enthusiasm and curiosity are entertaining. I also like that the characters seem to know they're in a book. At one point Cadogan is trying to persuade Fen to go to the police and says;
If there's anything I hate, it's the sort of book in which the characters don't go to the police when they've no earthly reason for not doing so.

There are literary references scattered throughout, for example, the crime centres around an Edward Lear nonsense poem. And one of the chapters is called 'The Episode of the Indignant Janeite' and involves a drunk man who bores Cadogan and Fen to tears with his defence of Jane Austen's novels.

I think this is a light, fun read for when you're in the mood for something not too challenging. It's one of a series, the first of which is called 'The Gilded Fly'.

Friday, 15 April 2011

New books

These arrived from ReadItSwapIt.

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
Ashenden is the only Maugham I have read. I really enjoyed it so I don't know why I haven't read more. In my mind he's alongside Graham Greene, another author who I like, but haven't read a great deal of.

Violet to Vita: The Letters of Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West
Reading Decca reminded me how much I love collections of letters and diaries. All I know about these two is that they were connected to Bloomsbury. I enjoy reading about Bloomsbury, so I'm sure I'll enjoy these. The quote from the Guardian says that they are 'Fiery, intelligent, full of Sturm and Drang'.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Drood by Dan Simmons

I love the premise of this book. It is narrated by Wilkie Collins, author of The Woman in White and The Moonstone and friend of Charles Dickens. It spans the five years from Dickens terrible experience at the Staplehurst Rail Disaster in 1865 to Dickens' death in 1870.

Following the railway accident Dickens tells Collins that at the scene he had met a grotesque figure named Drood. He believes that Drood was responsible for the crash and is determined to find him and bring him to justice.Collins, a sickly, fragile man, who cannot match Dickens' energy, doesn't want to get drawn into this quest, but seems to find it impossible to refuse Dickens

We see the whole story through the eyes of Wilkie Collins. He is a bitter, resentful and self-absorbed man whose overwhelming jealousy of Dickens informs almost everything he does. The hunt for Drood takes them to Undertown, a shadowy maze of sewers and crypts where a vast community of outcasts and criminals live. This descent into darkness reflects Collins' weakening mental state. He is hopelessly addicted to laudanum and we are never sure the things he sees or says are real or the result of laudanum visions.

The novel is peopled with characters from real life. Catherine Dickens and Ellen Ternan are there, as well as Dickens children. Wilkie Collins' convoluted personal life is described. One of the main characters is Inspector Field, the real life policeman on whom Dickens based the character of Inspector Bucket in Bleak House. I couldn't say how accurate the historical parts of the novel are, but there is certainly a lot of detail.

At almost 800 pages this is a huge book, but it kept my attention throughout and I would recommend it.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford. ed Peter Y Sussman

Part 2

I finally finished this a week or so ago. Overall a really good read. I was left with a great sense of admiration for Jessica Mitford. She made a life for herself quite separate to the Mitford industry. She seemed completely fearless in championing the causes she believed in. I think what I admired most was her willingness just to plunge in and get involved. Her background did not prepare her for the life she ended up leading, but she had a lot of self belief and educated herself. Her book on the funeral industry, The American Way of Death, made her a lot of enemies, and she dealt with them by simply facing them down. This is an extract from a letter to her agent after she'd given a talk at a seminar for funeral directors;

After my talk, the first question set the tone: 'How much money did you make from The American Way of Death?' 'Absolute tons,' I answered, 'So much I can't even count it - it made me fortune.' Audible groans from the crowd. 'Next question?'

The middle part of the book is primarily concerned with Decca's own books and journalism and her researches into the funeral industry, the prison system and maternity care. Her correspondents included Maya Angelou, Hillary Clinton and Katherine Graham. Her most regular correspondent within the family seems to have been her sister Deborah, the Duchess of Devonshire. Even they had their spats though, most notably when a family scrapbook went missing from the Duchess' home, Chatsworth and she strongly believed that Decca had taken it and used its contents in one of her memoirs.

The letters towards the end of her life contain more reminiscences, often in reply to people writing books about one or other of the Mitfords. She seemed to mellow a bit in her old age. I have to admit that for all I admire her I think I would've found her a bit intimidating. She seems like she was quite demanding and, being quite thick skinned herself, she wasn't very sensitive to the feelings of others.

Finally, I love the cover of this book. The red cover and the font are reminiscent of Soviet propaganda posters, which of course is appropriate because of Decca's membership of the Communist Party.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler

This one was a bit of a mixed bag for me. I thought it got off to a slow start, then I loved it, up until the end, where I thought it just sort of petered out.

As is obvious from the title it centres around a book club which is working its way through the novels of Jane Austen. There are six members of the group who take turns hosting. We learn about the lives of each character when it is their turn to host, and their lives are in some way linked with the book they are discussing. I have to admit my Austen is a bit rusty (something I intend to remedy this year) and I only really got the connections for the Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey. But I think you could have never read any Austen and still enjoy the book.

I think my favourite character was Prudie (Mansfield Park). She is a young woman teacher, happily married to Dean, who loves her and treats her well. She would seem to be well set up in life but is strangely dissatisfied. I thought she was quite a complex character.

One thing which started off puzzling me, then began irritating me was the narration. It's first person, and the narrator says that he/she is a member of the book club. But then goes on to describe all six members in the third person and knows everything about them. So who is the narrator - the ghost of Jane Austen?

But all in all a good read and one that I would recommend.