Thursday, 18 January 2007

Wet and Windy

The weather is pretty lively here at the moment. Winds gusting up to eighty miles per hour and all the plastic garden furniture upside down in the middle of the lawn. Our garden looks particularly sad in wintertime - not that it's a riot in the Spring or Summer, as we have neglected it over the past few years. Maybe that will change this year, I don't know.

I have nearly finished "The March" only about another twenty pages to go. I have found it a very easy read, with each chapter dealing with a different character as we follow the impact that Sherman's march has on the countryside and the Union and Confederate forces. On the whole I have enjoyed it and will have more to say when I (hopefully) finish it today.

I went to the library yesterday and borrowed a couple of books. I don't know if I will read them both as one I specifically borrowed for C. to read. She had just finished David Nicholls: Starter for Ten which she greatly enjoyed and I thought she might like Marina Lewycka: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. So last night I asked her to read aloud the first few pages to me and we both agreed that it grabbed your interest right from the start and looked a very entertaining read. I have found that C. really enjoys reading aloud and it is a good way of quickly recognizing whether she is going to like the book or not. As English is her second language it is important for her to feel comfortable with it. The other book I borrowed was James M. Cain: The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce, and Selected Stories. I love the films of "Double Indemnity" and "Mildred Pierce". However, I am not quite so keen on either movie version of "The Postman Always Rings Twice". Anyhow, I started "The Postman Always Rings Twice" last night and found the style of writing somewhat clumsy. I was having to read sentences more than once in order to make sense of them. This, together with lines of dialogue not being obviously attributed to a particular character, made it seem more difficult that it should be. We shall see.

Monday, 15 January 2007

Back to Work

I was off sick from work last Thursday and Friday. One migraine followed the other and that's only happened to me once before. Sometimes I try and sleep the migraine off but it never works. The headache just comes back when I wake up. It does not seem to want to be avoided. This time I think the trigger was monosodium glutamate which was present in something I had eaten and I hadn't realized it. The monosodium glutamate ones are definitely the worst migraines I have experienced.
All of which means that I did no reading for these two days plus the whole of the weekend. Family celebrations and shopping intervened.
My brother loaned me the autobiography of Colin Wilson : Dreaming to Some Purpose, which he highly recommends. About forty or so years ago my brother started to read everything Colin Wilson had published and some years later I followed suit. I remember in particular being impressed with "An Introduction to the New Existentialism". But after a while his interests: the occult, criminality and so on, became a little too esoteric for me. So it will be interesting to see how he charts his writing career in this book.

Wednesday, 10 January 2007

We have Lift-off

Last night I finished "The Sportswriter". So it's my first book read in 2007. I grew very fond of the narrator, Frank Bascombe. He was a man who was, I felt, somewhat adrift in his life. Recent tragedy in his family still hung over him like a cloud. He still maintained a relationship with his ex-wife, but it was on a formal footing and sometimes a little strained. His current girlfriend did not seem to be on quite the same wavelength as him and I could not see him ending up with her. We accompany Frank over the Easter Weekend on an assignment to interview an ex-footballer, meeting his girlfriend's family at Easter Day lunch and having a heart-to heart talk with a fellow member of the town's Divorced Mens' Club. Frank struck me as a guy whose expectations of life are pretty low - he has been dealt blows and survived. I intend to read the other parts of the trilogy - hopefully this year.

So, this morning I plunged in straightaway to "The March". I have, by the way, been reading in other blogs rave reviews of Nabokov's "Lolita". I am definitely going to have to read this, particularly as some bloggers are calling this one of the best books ever written.

Monday, 8 January 2007

Sorting Things Out

I have spent some time re-doing the layout of this blog and adding stuff to the sidebar. I am finding it great fun and the template is easy on the eye and makes the content pleasant to read (if you are so inclined).
As can be seen from the list of books I read (or remember having read) last year, I enjoy thrillers and mysteries (Vine, Connelly and Camilleri) as well as the more popular current literary authors (McEwan, Banville, Ishiguro and Atwood).

Of the two Barbara Vine novels I read last year "The Chimney Sweeper's Boy" was, I thought, superior to "The Minotaur". Each story had a memorable main character but I felt that Gerald Candless in "The Chimney Sweeper's Boy" was a more rounded creation than Mrs Cosway in "The Minotaur".

Michael Connelly can do no wrong for me. His books grab you from the outset and don't let you go until the end. I preferred "The Lincoln Lawyer" to "The Poet" which I also read in 2006. Although "The Poet" had an ingenious plot I was not quite convinced by the book's ending. This, however, is a very minor quibble.

Camilleri ("Excursion to Tindari", "Voice of the Violin")is an author whose detective (Inspector Montalbano) is based in Sicily. Montalbano is a wonderful creation: a man who is laid back, enjoys his food and mouth-wateringly describes his meals, supervises his squad with an iron fist (albeit in a velvet glove) and solves crimes of amazing intricacy. He has to deal at times with the local Mafia and his even more demanding superiors. He has a long-term girlfriend who lives in a different part of Italy and only seems to visit him once in a blue moon. There is clearly some reluctance to commit on his part; he loves his job and one feels that being single gives him the freedom to be able to do it to the best of his ability. He is looked after by a elderly housekeeper who regularly leaves him dishes, lovingly prepared, in the refrigerator. Sicily comes alive for me in these books.

The Lionel Shriver ("We Need to Talk about Kevin") was extremely impressive, although I had already guessed some of the revelations in the latter stages of the book. I thought the character of the mother (the narrator) was beautifully drawn; at times sympathetic and at other times maddening. We were encouraged, I felt, to look down on the father and his ineffectual attempts to excuse his son's behaviour. Kevin himself remained an enigma and, indeed, how can a personality such as his be easily explained?

"Espresso Tales" was a book I had to read, having been highly amused by the first volume of these stories: "44 Scotland Street". The characters are lovingly created, and the gentle, ironic humour with which the episodes are told brings a smile to your face even when read on a cramped underground train in the rush-hour. Amazing to think that each chapter appears daily in "The Scotsman" newspaper.

Margaret Atwood's "The Blind Assassin" can seem a daunting read when you first glance at it. However, I was intrigued by the opening paragraph when I first spotted it in Ottakers bookshop in Bury St Edmunds. I didn't buy it straight away though. I just kept it as a title in reserve in the back of my mind. When I eventually did buy it it took me about three weeks to get through. I am glad I persevered. Books that take a long time to complete often stay with you longer because of the length of time you spend in the company of the characters; and so it was with "The Blind Assassin". It was sad to finish it, and the story of the two sisters and the book published posthumously by one of them that becomes a sort of underground classic has remained with me long after.

I loved Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go". It is written in a deliberately simplified language that takes a bit of getting used to. I found it extremely poignant in a similar way to the author's "Remains of the Day". Both novels seem to speak of missed opportunities and characters who, whilst not being weak, are somehow powerless in the face of circumstances outside their control and also elements of their own personalities that they cannot change. The England that the characters grow up in is only hinted at: there are no long-winded explanations as to how the circumstances of the novel came into being. Ishiguro is not writing science-fiction. We simply accept that things are as they are. A wonderful book.

John Banville's "The Sea" was written in language that made me want to roll the words and sentences around in my mouth, so beautiful was it. It would seem ideal for an an audio-book read by someone with a great speaking voice. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

I like Ian McEwan's work - there are only a couple of his novels that I haven't read. I thought "Atonement" was masterly, and for a long time after I had finished it I could not describe the plot without being moved afresh. "Saturday" is brilliantly written. It is easy to read and the highlights of the book are his descriptions of a game of squash and an operation on someone's brain. It is evident that McEwan took great pains to research these two events thoroughly and it shows. In fact, I felt that the book almost verged on a demonstration of brilliant writing technique. A sort of masterclass. The conclusion of the book reminded me strongly of conclusions from his other novels, only in this one I found it even less believable than other times.

Sebastian Faulks' "Human Traces" was recommended to me by a friend. It was the first book I had read by this author who I know is highly regarded. The subject is about two friends: one French and one English, who at the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century, become doctors and set about the problem of treating mental illness. Real figures from the world of medicine are mentioned in passing, although the two main protagonists are fictional. Both men approach the problem of treatment from slightly differing standpoints, collaborate in the building of a sanitorium, fall out, reconcile, present their papers to various august medical bodies and so on. Faulks describes their individual theories in painstaking detail as they propound their theories to audiences in England and abroad. I found that the descriptions of the cases and the treatment of patients very convincing. What I found less convincing was the depiction of the emotional lives of the two friends, their marriages and private lives which I felt halted the flow of the scientific storyline.

Saturday, 6 January 2007

Opening Blog

This Blog will be, or is intending to be, about books I have read and am intending to read, and films I have seen at the cinema. I hope it will be updated regularly and will be of some interest to people other than myself. I have been reading other people's blogs over the past few days that have had to do with books, and I picked up some ideas about what I found interesting and what I would like mine to be like.
I have never kept a diary or journal before, so this has something of a New Year's Resolution about it. I have been doing a lot of reading lately but when I look back and try and remember some of the books and my opinions about them I find it difficult. So this blog will be in the form sometimes of an aide memoire. Reading of people who get through one hundred plus books a year I wonder how they manage it. In fact, I wonder how they manage to read more than one book at a time. To me that it is strange. I like a book to envelope me, to absorb me completely to the exclusion of everything else. I can't get to grips with the idea of switching between novels, it seems too much like using the remote-control to switch between two movies when one movie has an ad break.
So, let's make a start. For Christmas I received Alan Bennett's "Untold Stories". I had never read any Alan Bennett before this and I approached it with a sense of slight disdain. All I had ever come across of Alan Bennett's seemed to be plays starring aging actors, the majority of them female, in face-to face conversations with the camera. The plays were not so much depressing as vaguely irritating. The characters were all from the North of England and seemed to deal with the minutiae of living, gossip and growing old. At first glance "Untold Stories" seemed as if it would follow this line. But as I read the opening piece that deals with his Mother and Father and Aunts I was strongly reminded of my own parents. At a certain point, his description of the old people's home where his Mother spent her last years moved me unexpectedly and deeply. My wife was reading it out loud (she was alternately reading extracts from her own book and this one) and had to stop as she was choking up with emotion. It's strange how that can happen. Anyway, we came to the end of the first part of the book and I decided not to continue with the diaries. "Untold Stories" is a big book and seems to be a compendium of various writings Bennett has done over the years - as such it does not need to be read as one continuous work. So I have put it to one side; possibly to be resumed, possibly not.

I used the first of the book tokens I received at Christmas to buy Richard Ford's "The Sportswriter". I had read some good things about this writer and this is the first book in a trilogy he has written. The other two books are "Independence Day" and "The Lay of the Land".
The book seems to grab me in fits and starts. Some chapters are really good, whereas others I am finding drag slightly. I think that the chapters that deal with the present time are more interesting whereas the chapters in which the main character, Frank Bascombe, tells us about his past, seem less engaging.
Over the weekend I spent some more book tokens on four books to which I am really looking forward: William Boyd's "Restless", E.L. Doctorow's "The March", Georges Perec's "Life: A User's Manual", and David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas".

Enough about books for now. As far as movies are concerned I haven't been to see anything yet and I must say that it seems a pretty poor start to the year as far releases are concerned. I didn't fancy the Clint Eastwood Iwo Jima movie nor the Ben Stiller Museum one. I was looking forward to "Perfume" directed by the guy who made "Run, Lola, Run", but the reviews were so mixed I just couldn't summon up the enthusiam in the end. The subject matter was such that I needed unanimously good reviews to prompt me to go. Also, my wife (I will call her 'C' from now on) was not too keen on going in the first place, so it was always going to be an uphill struggle to get her to go with me.

Just after the New Year I went, with great anticipation, to join the local library near where I work. I love libraries - in fact, my first job after leaving school was in a library. So in I went, armed with my utility bill, which seems to be for us Brits the equivalent of the identity card. The signing-up procedure was very quick and while the library assistant tapped away at the computer keyboard entering my details I looked at the stacks in the distance and envisaged myself wandering for hours on end choosing what to borrow.
The formalities over, I was issued with my card and my PIN number (to be used if I wish to reserve or renew books over the phone). I then entered the library proper and - what a disappointment! The fiction hardbacks and paperbacks are arranged on a circular perimeter wall which means that A and Z are a long way from each other. Now I am the sort of person who does not go into a library with a clear idea of what to borrow. I remember the names of authors and books as I wander around. This is a random remembering, so while I am browsing in the T's I think of a book by Margaret Atwood that I would like to look at. In this library that involves a whole trek from one end of the library to the other. And then there is the question of the tables that seem specifically set aside for the use of students of all ages to use. These tables leave very little room between the back of the student sitting studying and the stack that I am intent on browsing. As a consequence I feel inhibited squeezing my way along looking at the top three rows of books and conscious that if I try to bend down to view the books on the lower three rows I will probably bump into the chair behind me and disturb the student studying. I have nothing against people using the library for the purposes of study but when they sit on the floor in front of stacks scribbling into notebooks or leave their coats and rucksacks on the floor behind their chairs so that it becomes an obstacle course walking from one stack to another, I confess that I become somewhat frustrated.
There is no one browsing the stacks and there are no chairs separate from tables where people can just read books. Bookshops can provide armchairs, so why can't this library? It doesn't seem to be laid out for the benefit of the book-borrowers. There are large floor areas filled with racks of compact discs and DVDs. Special racks advertise book promotions: Arabic writing, Britain in the 60's etc. and no one seems interested. Have libraries forgotten about what their role should be: allowing people to borrow books and read for free?
I then had a look at the selection on offer, and it was pitiful. Browsing for books on Chess, I see that half the books on the shelves are not available for borrowing. They are treated as reference books, for some reason which I cannot understand. How can a book of chess games not be allowed out of the library? In order for this book to be of any use it needs to be used in conjunction with a chessboard and how many readers are going to bring that into a library?
I looked in vain for books by Richard Ford, Margaret Atwood, Salley Vickers, and Chekhov's Seagull. Is everything that I am interested in out on loan?
The City of London library in the Barbican was so much better than this that I am almost tempted to make the long underground journey on Saturdays in order to see a decent selection of titles, decently laid out. But this is not going to happen - I will just continue buying paperbacks and every now and again visit my new library to see if the situation has improved.