Saturday, 23 February 2008

Fugitive Pieces

Title: Fugitive Pieces

Author: Anne Michaels

Number of pages: 304

Started: 16 February 2008

Finished: 23 February 2008

Opening words:

Time is a blind guide.

Bog-boy, I surfaced into the miry streets of the drowned city. For over a thousand years, only fish wandered Biskupin's wooden sidewalks. Houses, built to face the sun, were flooded by the silty gloom of the Gasawka River. Gardens grew luxurious in subaqueous silence; lilies, rushes, stinkweed.

Plot summary:

The stories of two men from different generations whose lives have been transformed by war. A young boy, Jakob Beer, is rescued from the mud of a buried Polish city during World War II and taken to an island in Greece by an unlikely saviour, the scientist/humanist Athos Roussos.

What I thought:

I enjoyed this book. It was very well written and I think you could tell that it was written by someone who was previously better known as a poet. This book had some great sadness in it, but was also a book about rescue as well. It was a book that also made me think about God and why some people believe and others might prefer to believe that no God exists – because the evil that some people do is best not seen as part of some “bigger picture”. Interesting, challenging book.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Brideshead Revisited

Title: Brideshead Revisited

Author: Evelyn Waugh

Number of pages: 331

Started: 10 February 2008

Finished: 15 February 2008

Opening words:

When I reached 'C' Company lines, which were at the top of the hill, I paused and looked back at the camp, just coming into full view below me through the grey mist of early morning. We were leaving that day. When we marched in, three months before, the place was under snow; now the first leaves of spring were unfolding. I had reflected then that, whatever scenes of desolation lay ahead of us, I never feared one more brutal than this, and I reflected now that it had no single happy memory for me.

Here love had died between me and the Army.

Plot summary:

The most nostalgic and reflective of Evelyn Waugh's novels, "Brideshead Revisited" looks back to the golden age before the Second World War. It tells the story of Charles Ryder's infatuation with the Marchmains and the rapidly-disappearing world of privilege they inhabit. Enchanted first by Sebastian at Oxford, then by his doomed Catholic family, in particular his remote sister, Julia, Charles comes finally to recognize only his spiritual and social distance from them.

Plot summary taken from Amazon

What I thought:

I enjoyed this book and thought there were some very amusing moments in it, despite it also dealing with some rather more serious issues. I thought there were several parallels with The End of the Affair – they both had a strong Catholic thread running through them and how that affected people’s view of the world and relationships (read the page immediately before the epilogue and you should see exactly what I mean). I think ultimately it was a book about people looking for peace and happiness and how they found it all so elusive.

“Now we shall both be alone, and I shall have no way of making you understand.”

“I don’t want to make it easier for you” I said “I hope your heart may break; but I do understand”

Saturday, 9 February 2008

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Title: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Author: Agatha Christie

Number of pages: 368

Started: 7 February 2008

Finished: 9 February 2008

Opening words:

Mrs. Ferrars died on the night of the 16th 17th September a Thursday. I was sent for at eight o'clock on the morning of Friday the l7th. There was nothing to be done. She had been dead some hours.

It was just a few minutes after nine when I reached home once more. I opened the front door with my latch key and purposely delayed a few moments in the hall, hanging up my hat and the light overcoat that I had deemed a wise precaution against the chill of an early autumn morning. To tell the truth, I was considerably upset and worried. I am not going to pretend that at that moment I foresaw the events of the next few weeks. I emphatically did not do so. But my instinct told me that there were stirring times ahead.

Plot summary:

Roger Ackroyd knew too much. He knew that the woman he loved had poisoned her brutal first husband. He suspected also that someone had been blackmailing her. Now, tragically, came the news that she had taken her own life with a drug overdose. But the evening post brought Roger one last fatal scrap of information. Unfortunately, before he could finish the letter, he was stabbed to death!

Synopsis taken from Amazon.

What I thought:

I enjoyed this book, although it probably does not hold the same surprises to those who are familiar with how Agatha Christie mysteries tend to turn out. I wasn’t entirely surprised by the ending, but it was a good read nonetheless.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

If not now, when?

Title: If not now, when?

Author: Primo Levi

Number of pages: 281

Started: 1 February 2008

Finished: 6 February 2008

Opening words:

"In my village there weren't many clocks. One on the church steeple, but it had stopped years and years ago, maybe during the Revolution. I never saw it working, and my father said he hadn't either. Not even the bell ringer had a clock."

"So how was he able to ring the bells at the right time?"

"He would listen to the time on the radio, and he would judge by the sun and the moon. For that matter, he didn't ring every hour, only the important ones. Two years before the war began, the bell rope broke. It snapped near the top; the stairs were rotten; the bell ringer was an old man, and he was afraid to climb up there and put in a new rope. So after that he announced the time be shooting a hunting rifle into the air; one shot, or two or three or four. That went on till the Germans came. They took his gun away from him, and the village was left without any time."

Plot summary:

If Not Now, When? is the English title of the Italian novelist Primo Levi's 1982 novel, Se non ora, quando?.

It recounts the fortunes of a group of Jewish Soviet partisans in Nazi-occupied Russia and Poland during World War II. The group struggle to survive and continue their fight against the Germans. The partisan band reaches Poland and then German territory before the surviving members are officially received in territory held by the Western allies as Displaced Persons. Finally, they succeed in reaching Italy, on their way to Palestine, to take part in the construction of the Jewish national home there.

Synopsis taken from Wikipedia.

What I thought:

I quite liked this book, but probably should have found it more profound than I did. In some ways I just found it hard to relate to, but at points it was moving and showed some of the suffering of Jews during the war.

Friday, 1 February 2008

The Day of the Triffids

Title: The Day of the Triffids

Author: John Wyndham

Number of pages: 272

Started: 29 January 2008

Finished: 1 February 2008

Opening words:

When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.

I felt that from the moment I woke. And yet, when I started functioning a little more smartly, I became doubtful. After all, the odds were that it was I who was wrong, and not everyone else-though I did not see how that could be. I went on waiting, tinged with doubt. But presently I had my first bit of objective evidence-a distant clock struck what sounded to me just like eight. I listened hard and suspiciously. Soon another clock began, on a hard, decisive note. In a leisurely fashion it gave an indisputable eight. Then I knew things were awry.

The way I came to miss the end of the world-well, the end of the world I had known for close on thirty years-was sheer accident: like a lot of survival, when you come to think of it. In the nature of things a good many somebodies are always in hospital, and the law of averages had picked on me to be one of them a week or so before. It might just as easily have been the week before that-in which case I’d not be writing now: I’d not be here at all. But chance played it not only that I should be in hospital at that particular time, but that my eyes, and indeed my whole head, should be wreathed in bandages-and that’s why I have to be grateful to whoever orders these averages. At the time, however, I was only peevish, wondering what in thunder went on, for I had been in the place long enough to know that, next to the matron, the clock is the most sacred thing in a hospital.

Without a clock the place simply couldn’t work. Each second there’s someone consulting it on births, deaths, doses, meals, lights, talking, working, sleeping, resting, visiting, dressing, washing-and hitherto it had decreed that someone should begin to wash and tidy me up at exactly three minutes after 7 A.M. That was one of the best reasons I had for appreciating a private room. In a public ward the messy proceeding would have taken place a whole unnecessary hour earlier. But here, today, clocks of varying reliability were continuing to strike eight in all directions-and still nobody had shown up.

Plot summary:
The triffids are a monstrous species of stinging plant; they walk, they talk, they dominate the world. The narrator of this novel wakes up in hospital to find that, by missing the end of the world, he has survived to witness a new world. But the new world that awaits him is fantastic and horrific.

Synopsis taken from Amazon.

What I thought:

I already wrote about this over at my other blog, so I shall repeat it here:

I finished reading The Day of the Triffids on Friday and thought it was excellent. I would never have read it were it not for my new found quest to read a whole variety of books over the next year or so. I am now reading “If not now, when?” by Primo Levi, which is going ok, but hasn’t immediately grabbed me.

Anyway, Day of the Triffids was well worth a read and told the story of the aftermath of a comet shower which left most of the population of the world blind. The only people who weren’t were those who happened not to see the comet shower, such as Bill Masen, the main character in the book who was in hospital with his eyes bandaged due to an eye injury caused by a Triffid.

When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.

It is, in itself, just a good read and you can read it for the story telling power of it. But I thought it also raised a whole load of interesting issues about society. First of all was the expectation that the government, emergency services etc would be there to take control of the disaster. Only because each of those resources relies on people and they are no more immune from the ill-effects of catastrophic disasters than anyone else, they weren’t there to help.

What also struck me, which admittedly was at least in part because the main character was sighted and we were following his account of what happened, was that if you put yourself in the position of what you would do, you assume that you would be amongst the sighted. But given that probably 99% of the population was blind chances are that you would actually be amongst them.

Various ethical dilemmas came up as well. There were sighted people who saw their first and primary duty as to help those who were blind. There were other sighted people who saw that the ideal was to help those who were blind but that the sheer scale of it was beyond being able to save anyone if they did that, so they had to make a tactical withdrawal and focus on the vast minority who might make it. Then there were those who either killed themselves out of despair at what had happened, particularly their ability to cope with instant blindness or the sighted who built their own barricades and would allow no-one to get close in case they took the little that had been scavenged.

You know, one of the most shocking things about it is to realise how easily we have lost a world that seemed so safe and certain.

There was also the view of the law. Given that the entire infrastructure had been destroyed. Did it become ok to break into shops and houses in order to obtain items to ensure at least basic survival? Also given that there was no longer anyone in authority, what kind of society was ahead? Did people want to rebuild the same social order as before based on the same laws and morals and cultural practices – or was it time to start again, to take a pragmatic view that with so few people repopulating England, having a viable population that allowed time for some to think and to plan and not just toil was more important than say marriage laws (taking into account this book was written in 1951). Really fascinating thinking about which decisions you would make – assuming you were one of the few that was fortunate (if that is the right word) enough to have survived.

Until then I had always thought of loneliness as something negative-an absence of company, and, of course, something temporary. That day I had learned that it was much more. It was something which could press and oppress, could distort the ordinary and play tricks with the mind. Something which lurked inimically all around, stretching the nerves and twanging them with alarms, never letting one forget that there was no one to help, no one to care. It showed one as an atom adrift in vastness, and it waited all the time its chance to frighten and frighten horribly-that was what loneliness was really trying to do; and that was what one must never let it do.

There was also the issue of how do you cope with losing all your support, all those things that you thought would always be there – from basic utilities, to your home, to your friends and family. Instead you have to find safe places away to start again and build relationships with people who you never even knew existed before disaster struck. You have to work out whether you can trust people who are in as equally a desperate situation as yourself – is it better to work together or to rely only on your own resources? If you only rely on yourself, what a way to face a new world where you have to rely on tilling the land and with no outside communication and no-one to rely on. Food for thought.

It did end on a note of reasonable hope, but also didn’t have a nice happy ending – which would have been rather an unsatisfying end actually.

It was a really good book and was not what I would think of as science fiction, but more taking every day life and saying “what if...?”. If you want to read it, the text is online here – but I think it must have been optically read and that the reader had trouble telling the difference between “b” and “h”! Also, don’t print it because it would be about 150 pages. If you get the chance give it a go and let your mind start to imagine...