Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

This is the first book I’ve read from Kate Atkinson so I was uncertain what to expect. True to what I’d heard, it is a really good book, although I will add the caveat that you probably shouldn’t read it if you’re depressed. It might tip you over the edge.

The story itself is wound around Ruby Lennox, a girl born to a middle class family in the early 1950s. However, it’s not restricted to Ruby, but bounces around between the generations of her family, from her great grandmother’s time, to her. Each episode is followed, not by its sequel, but sometimes its prequel or another event entirely. The style reminds me of Virginia Woolf or Daphne du Maurier, only more modern. Most of the book is simple narration and all of it is written from the perspective of a third person omniscient narrator. It’s as though you’re sitting on the porch listening to an ageless person who watched all the happenings of each generation as they happened tell you about them as they occur to them instead of in a linear fashion. The descriptions are vivid and very realistic. You feel as though you’re there as you listen to the stories.

I found the story a very sad one from beginning to end, perhaps because it is so very close to the truth for most people. You see generation after generation enter the world with high hopes and wind up something completely different than they expected. Only rarely do they come anywhere close to meeting the hopes and dreams they had for themselves. Life gets in the way of their dreams at every twist and turn, partially due to uncontrollable outside influences, but even more sadly, partially because the characters make so many decisions without really knowing what they want and cannot see the consequences of the decisions they make, even though they’ve watched their parents suffer from the same mistakes all their lives. The novel really drives home the feeling we all have that “that just can’t happen to me”. We all think we’ll be so different from our parents, but are we really? Is it because we’re human and human’s are just like that, or is it because our parents teach us to become like them? Or, do we make the same mistakes because we’re afraid of making new ones which might be worse?

The other thing the book drives home is the sadness and the real cost of war. Ruby’s family has lived through both WW I and WW II and has watched many of their family and friends die fighting. Again, you see the young men with all of their potential and hopes lose them to war. The longer they survive, the more they are aware that their luck must be running out and they reconcile themselves to death instead of hoping for the future. Again the descriptions are vivid and make the reader feel as though they are there watching the fate of these young men. It’s all terribly, terribly sad.

Despite all of the sadness and depressing thematics, the novel is very human in the sense that hope reigns throughout. There’s always the hope that things will get better as they change. There is always the hope that things will turn around. I don’t want to give the impression that the book is terribly heavy and depressing, because it is, but it isn’t. Atkinson breaks the novel up by flitting about from childhood memories to scenes later in life and the sometimes quite sarky comments her characters make give the book an element of humour that lightens it up. She keeps some of the family secrets back and only lets them out one by one as the novel goes by, lending an air of secrecy and things left unsaid to the whole of the family. You always know there’s more to come, you just have to be patient and wait for it to show itself when the time is right.

All in all, I give this one a 5 out of 5 for being a poignant, well written, very human story.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Martin Chuzzelwit by Charles Dickens

Having heard that Dickens considered this book one of his best works, I was quite looking forward to reading it. It’s always interesting to see what an author likes best out of his own works as it gives a bit of insight into his own personality, only in this instance, I can’t quite put my finger on what he must have liked about it, or not for certain anyway.

The book is actually not just about Martin Chuzzelwit, but about the extended Chuzzelwit family. Martin Chuzzelwit the Senior is simply the head of the family who sets events in motion. Much of the book is about the how the characters deal with what Martin Sr. has put into motion. The whole story becomes very complicated with all of the characters who are involved. It can be a bit difficult to remember who is related to whom and how and if not related, how are they involved in the story. As much as I’d love to go into all of the characters and who is who and related to whom how, it would take an age to do so, so I’ll just refer anyone who’s interested to the Wiki page (Spoiler warning! where there’s already a good list.

The short version is that Martin and Anthony Chuzzelwit are two wealthy brothers who both lose their trust in humankind as they assume that everyone is out after their money. Such is Martin’s fear that he hires a young girl, Mary, as a servant and pays her well with the understanding that as soon as he dies, she will get no more out of him. This is supposed to ensure that she puts all her efforts into making sure that he lives as long as possible. He trusts none of his relatives because he “knows” that they want him dead so they can inherit his money. Unfortunately, Martin Sr.’s grandson, Martin the younger, falls in love with Mary and intends to marry her. That would, of course, destroy Mary’s disinterestedness in Martin Sr.’s will, so he disinherits Martin the younger who must then go off and seek his fortune alone, ultimately leading him to abandon England for the United States to try his fortune there.

The story’s villain is Mr. Pecksniff, a cousin of the Chuzzelwits who uses their mistrust of others and the absence of Martin to insinuate himself into a place of importance in old Martin’s life. He sucks up and brown noses Martin Sr. to the point of becoming an emetic. Both Pecksniff and his two daughters are a cause of outrage to the reader as he goes about promoting himself, especially by defaming honest people, whenever he feels it will be to his advantage. His is literally prepared to do anything to secure his own comfort, and is introduced into the story as a “teacher” of architecture who actually passes off his pupil’s work as his own and gleans both credit and money for the work. His character becomes more and more devious and audacious as time passes and he feels himself more secure in receiving an inheritance from Martin Sr.

There are many, many side and sub plots in the novel and it eventually begins to bounce back and forth between the US and England. The US does not come out smelling of roses, however, Dickens was very careful about printing his own comments about the American episodes with the novels. He begs his audience to take the book as fiction and to forgive him for his rather exaggerated portrayal of the more negative traits of the Americans. He was actually quite fond of the country and it’s people, but it did serve his purpose in making certain points about Martin the Younger’s personality and character development. My only qualm with this was that he should have put it at the beginning of the novel and not at the end, at least in all printings of the book which took place after completion of the series (This was another of Dickens’ serial works. He didn’t intend to send Martin to America from the outset, but changed his mind after the first parts had been published.).

Did I like the book? Yes and no. I found that some parts dragged and some were really suspenseful. Many of his larger than life characters really got on my nerves, specifically I would have liked to smack the Americans for being so annoying and Martin the Younger for being so stupid and gullible. Pecksniff really gets up your nose on occasion too. Still, it’s a good work and I’m not sorry to have read it. I’m giving it a 3 out of 5 rating, 2 points lost of annoying characters and occasionally dragging bits.

In my bid to finish all of Dickens’ works I still have the following to read:

The Old Curiosity Shop
Dombey & Son
Hard Times
Our Mutual Friend
The Mystery of Edwin Drood

I’m curious how I’ll like these in comparison. I’ll be sure to let you know when I’m done with them :0)

Sunday, 23 August 2009

The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud

The Amulet of Samarkand is the first book in the Bartimaeous Trilogy. It's a children's/early teens book, but was really imaginative and a lot of fun. I just finished it and loved it. It's one of those books I would classify as the candy of reading. OK, maybe the fruit of reading. Candy isn't good for you, but reading always is, no matter how fun and quick a read.

The main character is Nathaniel, a young boy who was given up to the magicians at the age of 6 to become a magician's apprentice. Unfortunately for Nathaniel, his new master is at best a mediocre wizard and isn't really very keen on taking him on. Arthur Underwood would much prefer to live a quiet life and concentrate on climbing the ministry ladder than to bring up someone else's child and to teach him magic. Nathaniel, feeling cheated, neglected and alone, finally decides to take his education into his own hands, which ultimately leads him on a hectic and dangerous chase around London when his plans backfire on him.

The London Nathaniel lives in is not like the London we all know, or a Muggle London, if you will. It's something like a parallel world, like the England Lara of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. Some things are the same, but not all. The first major difference is that magic is an integral part of life in Nathaniel's London, where the Magicians are the aristocracy of society. They hold most powerful positions in the ministry and the look down on commoners as, well, common. The reasoning is that magicians are powerful, they protect the people from foreign magicians and they are better educated than the commoners, therefore they are better. Nathaniel is learning to be just like them as he grows up in this world, only there are still notable differences in his attitude. He still has a sense of honour and decency that the older magicians seem to have lost completely. However, he has still lived in that world all his life and knows he must play by it's rules to save his own skin.

The books starts off with Nathaniel, age 12, summoning up a djinn, Bartimaeous, to help him with his plans of revenge against a magician who humiliated him. Bartimaeous provides a lot of comic relief in the book. He's sarcastic, scornful, haughty, and although he portrays himself as being rather on the evil side, he's soft-hearted all the same. He's not pleased at being summoned up to serve a magician, and least of all a magician of such tender years. However, Nathaniel proves himself to be more knowledgeable than anyone would have thought and the two become bound together for better or for worse, literally. The only thing they can do in the end is help each other, or perish trying. This leads them running across London and Southern England trying to halt an evil plot which Nathaniel's original plan unwittingly uncovered.

Like I said, I was tempted to call this book reading candy because it was so fun and exciting, however, on reflection, there really is a lot of food for thought in it. First of all there's the whole subject of social superiority, which is blatant and rampant in Nathaniel's world. Usually in books of this type, there would be one person of exceptional moral standing guiding the young hero down the right path, but here, there just is no such person. All magicians are for themselves. There is no greater good or right path except the Machiavellian one. So basically Nathaniel's development into a hopefully morally upstanding person is left up to himself and his innate sense of right and wrong. Also, as magicians look upon djinns, imps and all creatures from "the other world" as their own personal slaves to be summoned up and bound at will, there is point of slavery. Will Nathaniel grow up thinking this is fine as it is or will he ultimately try and change it? The first book leaves these questions open and it will be interesting to see how he turns out. Finally, Stroud didn't dumb down the vocabulary for children, which impressed me. All in all, I think kids could learn a lot from this book while having fun at the same time. I know I'd recommend it to anyone with kids between the ages of 11 up.

For it's outstanding merits all around, this one gets a clear 5 out of 5 rating.

Friday, 21 August 2009

100 Books + a Meme

Well, I reached 100 books for the year. I was kind of hoping to finish 150, but I'm not sure I'll make it, inasmuch as I'm not likely to read much in December when I go home an visit my family. Somehow they take it ill when you've got your ear buds in or your nose in a book when you only see them once a year. Funny that...

Trish put up the Honest Scrap meme on her blog and “tagged” everyone. According to Trish and Lisa, who originally tagged Trish, "The "Honest Scrap" award requires me to tell my readers 10 true things about me and then pass it on to 10 more blogs."

10 Things:

1. I make a pot of tea in the morning at work and it usually lasts me most of the day in summer. It goes cold and I still drink it. In winter I usually manage the first pot hot and then go on to make a second pot which eventually goes cold.

2. I would love to have a really clean house all the time. I used to clean every day so that it would stay clean and I wouldn’t be embarrassed if someone dropped by. I can’t be bothered anymore. I clean at the weekends and maybe do the floors a second time in the middle of the week if the weather has been nasty and the animals brought in more than the usual amount of dirt/hair.

3. I used to iron my bed sheets. It’s a lovely feeling, but somewhere along the line I became too tired to deal with it and haven’t ironed anything in 6 months. I find I can live with this.

5. I can be really quite, but also really obnoxious. I’m surprised my friends put up with either.

6. I don’t actually own a sofa like normal people. I have a single bed with pillows on it. It’s one of my most favourite pleasures at the weekend to lie down and read until I fall asleep, then nap for a couple of hours. This does not help motivate me to actually purchase a real couch.

7. I have the world’s worst body temperature regulation. Actually, I don’t think I have one at all. I’m either too cold, or too hot, but rarely just fine.

8. I keep swearing I will not get more dogs once the current ones are no longer. No one believes me, but I really hope I can stick to it this time. I love my dogs, but between work and walking the dogs, I no longer have a life.

9. Even though I know they are seriously ugly, I wear Crocs 95% of the time because they are comfortable and don’t make my feet hurt. I have tendon problems in my feet so it’s difficult to find shoes I can wear long term.

10. I’ve been on a classics book binge for the last couple of years. I got tired of not understanding casual references to books and decided to remedy it. I have to admit that I would not have made it through many of them had they not been in audio format. Having said that, I’ve also found some great books that I will love forever.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Steig Larsson

Fabulous book. Fabulous. Loved it. The only negative thing I have to say about it is that it's very intense and intense and probably not a good book to read if you're otherwise stressed. That's not actually a negative though, just an observation.

The book is a continuation of the Mikael Blomkvist's and Lisbeth Salander's relationship/adventures/lives after the Wennerström Affair and their historic investigation into the Vanger family and the disappearance of Herriet Vanger in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Lisbeth, a slightly odd person with possible Asperger's Syndrome and/or other psychological and social difficulties, distances herself from her friend Blomkvist and vanishes into thin air. Blomkvist doesn't give up trying to contact her despite her obvious desire never to see him again. Suddenly, two of Blomkvist's friends and business parters are murder and Salander is implicated and it become more important than ever for Blomkquist to find his anti-social hacker friend.

Larsson does such a good job at making Salander so very likeable despite her obvious dislike of people in general, that you really become quite afraid for her. I found myself quite emotionally involved in this book, rooting for Salander and Blomkvist all the way. There are so many twists and turns in the story that it's impossible to see how things will develop, which keeps you constantly on the edge of your seat. It only took me two or three days to read this, despite being quite a long book. It's one of those where you've just got to know what happens next, so you can't put it down. This one gets 5 out of 5 for plot, likeable characters and readability.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

This book scared me witless and I sort of formed a love-hate relationship with it. I loved it because of the points it made, but hated it because it forced me to contemplate things which are, to me, unthinkable.

Montag is a fireman, but not like the firemen we know. His job is not to stop fires, but to start them. He burns books for a living. The setting is Earth in the future and books have been banned. All books. There are hints that there are technicalities governing the ownership of books, but practically speaking, all books are considered illegal and must be burned. The premise is that books and being well read inspire people to think they are better than others, in turn making those with lesser education feel bad about themselves. Negative feelings of self-worth are no longer tolerated in a society who wants to feel happy, happy, happy all the time. Therefore, anything that contributes to someone else feeling bad, must be done away with.

The scary part about this is that the way Bradbury set it up, and the way that society has developed since he wrote the book, it is actually a conceivable situation. As I was reading, I was constantly trying to reassure myself that neither I, nor my fellow book lovers, would allow such a sacrilege: we would fight to the death to retain our books and the right to read them. The question is, would there be enough of us to stop them from doing it? Are there really enough readers? I know that many, many people love to read, but what about all of those who don’t? There are probably more people out there than we know who haven’t picked up a book since they got out of school.

Comforting is the thought that so many people’s livelihoods are dependant on the publishing industry. To forbid the written word would decimate the economy, even in this day and age. Publishers, book shops, librarians, universities, shipping agents, printing houses, editors, certain web-cites would all be out of business if we were to ban books. That’s a lot of people if you think about it. Financially I think it would be impossible. Despite this being a comfort to those who love books, I can’t help but think there’s still something fundamentally wrong about a society who uses financial viability to validate the importance of the written word. It’s a fact of life, but it still seems quite oxymoronic to me.

Even better than the book was Bradbury’s afterward where he tells of many people’s (publisher’s) attempts to edit his books so that they would be acceptable to everyone, i.e. removing all references of God or minorities so that no one would be upset by the content. I hope he asked them if they had actually READ his book, although even if they did, they obviously didn’t get the point. Bradbury points out that the constant editing and re-editing of books is exactly the sort of thing that would facilitate a society as Bradbury describes in Fahrenheit 451. He points out that “blacks don’t like Twain and whites don’t like Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (paraphrasing there). What’s the answer? Do we get rid of both so everyone is happy, or do we keep both and teach from them so that everyone can learn why someone else would have a different point of view? Would we even be happy if we were always “happy”, i.e. if nothing ever upset us, or would our happiness disappear through lack of contrast?

There’s a lot of material in this book for discussion and I came away feeling like I’d like to make it compulsory reading for all schools. There’s much that can be learned from looking at the consequences, albeit fictional, of well-meaning but ill informed intentions based on short term results.
Loved the books and thus, 5 out of 5.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Once again, there are other books I should be reviewing first, but I just finished this on Sat. and want to get my thoughts down before they disappear.

Plot: The unnamed heroine of the novel is a companion to an older American lady in Monte Carlo when she meets and falls in love with Mr. de Winter. I refuse to say anymore about the plot since I really think it would spoil the book for others. I read it cold and am glad I did. Actually, if you haven’t read it, but plan to, stop after the first three sentences of the next paragraph and go read the book. It’s better that way, trust me.

I loved this book. It’s brilliant. Du Maurier is a genius. I don’t just say that because she writes a great story, which it was, but because she is a master at language. Her writing style is similar to Virginia Woolf, only with much more structure. As I was reading this book, the language, always so soft, floating, diaphanous, made me feel pleasant and happy, even though I knew there was disaster must be coming. It was a bit like being a leaf which is gently blown along the path by a late summer breeze, lazy and content, yet with the knowledge that disaster will and must strike sometime in the future. It could come in the form of an early winter, or linger on until late November before the catastrophe happens, yet all the time you know it will. You’re not quite sure if you should sit back and enjoy the ride and the lovely breeze, or try and prepare yourself for the coming evil.

For me it was the direct contrast between the oh so beautiful language and the not so beautiful actions of some of the characters that heightened the sense of impending doom -throughout the book really, but especially upon the return to Mandalay. Mrs. Danvers, for example, is never overtly evil, yet she is one of the most innately evil characters I’ve ever come across. Du Maurier’s contrast between the language and the actions rather heightens than dampens Mrs. Danvers subtle hostility and vicious menace. The evil is there, weaving its way between the lines as if poisoning the book while the reader is pleasantly carried onwards through the story.

Granted, I did often feel like slapping the heroine and telling her to grow a backbone. However, after having finished the book, I’m not so sure that would have done her any good. More intelligence and less naïveté, on the other hand, would have helped. It was painstakingly obvious that De Winter and his wife needed to have a serious conversation about Rebecca, yet they both, to their own detriment, avoided doing so. However it was this undercurrent of things unsaid and things unknown that kept the book from becoming solely a beautifully written narrative and turned it into a fascinating mystery.

Overall, 5 out of 5 for this one. Loved it and will surely read it again.