Tuesday, 30 June 2009

The Great Gatsby

Title: The Great Gatsby

Author: F Scott Fitzgerald

Number of pages: 144

Started: 28 June 2009

Finished: 30 June 2009

Opening words:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since.

"Whenever you feel like criticizing any one," he told me, "just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had."

He didn't say any more but we've always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence I'm inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men. Most of the confidences were unsought--frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon--for the intimate revelations of young men or at least the terms in which they express them are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions. Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.

Read the whole book here or here.

Plot summary:

Jay Gatsby is the man who has everything. But one thing will always be out of his reach ... Everybody who is anybody is seen at his glittering parties. Day and night his Long Island mansion buzzes with bright young things drinking, dancing and debating his mysterious character. For Gatsby - young, handsome, fabulously rich - always seems alone in the crowd, watching and waiting, though no one knows what for. Beneath the shimmering surface of his life he is hiding a secret: a silent longing that can never be fulfilled. And soon this destructive obsession will force his world to unravel.

What I thought:

I really enjoyed this book. It was a relatively short read that looked at a decadent life and its ultimate end. It was touching and poignant in places and I found the conclusion remarkably moving. It was well written with an engaging plot and had some wry observations on life. A remarkably affecting book that will stick with me for a while – and one I might revisit one day.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

The Name of the Rose

Title: The Name of the Rose

Author: Umberto Eco

Number of pages: 502

Started: 17 June 2009

Finished: 27 June 2009

Opening words:

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. This was beginning with God and the duty of every faithful monk would be to repeat every day with chanting humility the one never-changing event whose incontrovertible truth can be asserted. But we see now through a glass darkly, and the truth, before it is revealed to all, face to face, we see in fragments (alas, how illegible) in the error of the world, so we must spell out its faithful signals even when they seem obscure to us and as if amalgamated with a will wholly bent on evil.

Plot summary:

The year is 1327. Franciscans in a wealthy Italian abbey are suspected of heresy, and Brother William of Baskerville arrives to investigate. When his delicate mission is suddenly overshadowed by seven bizarre deaths, Brother William turns detective. He collects evidence, deciphers secret symbols and coded manuscripts, and digs into the eerie labyrinth of the abbey where extraordinary things are happening under the cover of night. A spectacular popular and critical success, "The Name of the Rose" is not only a narrative of a murder investigation but an astonishing chronicle of the Middle Ages.

Summary taken from the back of the book.

You can hear Umberto Eco talk about the book here.

What I thought:

I am beginning to wonder if I will ever again find a book that I can say I have enjoyed reading because I seem to have had a real run of books that I didn’t really enjoy. I didn’t hate this book, but I just didn’t really enjoy it. I thought it was rather lengthy and had a lot of Latin and religious ritual and whilst there was murder here and there, the murder plot was not enough to give me any sense of really wanting to know what was going to happen next. I didn’t get a sense of suspense or mystery (unless I saw it as a kind of divine mystery because of all the religious debate that took place in the book). I don’t think historical thrillers are really the book for me. It was well written and had some parts that were fairly engaging, but overall, I found it hard to find the motivation to keep going to the end.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

The Shadow-Line

Title: The Shadow Line: A confession

Author: Joseph Conrad

Number of pages: 160

Started: 14 June 2009

Finished: 16 June 2009

Opening words:

Only the young have such moments. I don't mean the very young. No. The very young have, properly speaking, no moments. It is the privilege of early youth to live in advance of its days in all the beautiful continuity of hope which knows no pauses and no introspection.

One closes behind one the little gate of mere boyishness-and enters an enchanted garden. Its very shades glow with promise. Every turn of the path has its seduction. And it isn't because it is an undiscovered country. One knows well enough that all mankind had streamed that way. It is the charm of universal experience from which one expects an uncommon or personal sensation-a bit of one's own.

The whole book is available for free download here.

Plot summary:

A young and inexperienced sea captain finds that his first command leaves him with a ship stranded in tropical seas and a crew smitten with fever. As he wrestles with his conscience and with the increasing sense of isolation that he experiences, the captain crosses the “shadow-line” between youth and adulthood. In many ways an autobiographical narrative, Conrad's novella was written at the start of the Great War when his son Borys was at the Western Front, and can be seen as an attempt to open humanity’s eyes to the qualities needed to face evil and destruction.

What I thought:

I am just not a fan of Joseph Conrad. I found this book very tedious and it was a real slog to get through it. I thought his sentence structure and general writing style was a bit obscure and it meant the book didn’t flow very well. The majority of the book is actually a massive introduction and notes explaining some of the text, so it was only about 100 pages long, but it felt like it was much longer.

I have previously read “Heart of Darkness” and didn’t like that either, so perhaps Mr Conrad is just not for me. This probably shows I have no discernment at all, but I shall just have to live with that.

Sunday, 14 June 2009


Title: Fateless

Author: Imre Kertesz

Number of pages: 262

Started: 6 June 2009

Finished: 14 June 2009

Opening words:

I didn't go to school today. Or rather, I did go, but only to ask my class teacher's permission to take the day off. I also handed him the letter in which, referring to "family reasons," my father requested that I be excused. He asked what the "family reason" might be. I told him my father had been called up for labor service; after that he didn't raise a further peep against it.

Read the first chapter here or the entire book at Google Books.

Plot summary:

Kertesz ( Kaddish for an Unborn Child ), who, as a youth, spent a year as a prisoner in Auschwitz, has crafted a superb, haunting novel that follows Gyorgy Koves, a 14-year old Hungarian Jew, during the year he is imprisoned in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Fighting to retain his equilibrium when his world turns upside down, Gyorgy rationalizes that certain events are "probably natural" or "probably a mistake." Gradual starvation and what he experiences as grinding boredom become a way of life for him, yet Gyorgy describes both Buchenwald and its guards as "beautiful"; as he asks "who can judge what is possible or believable in a concentration camp?" Gyorgy also comes to a sense of himself as a Jew. At first, he experiences a strong distaste for the Jewish-looking prisoners; he doesn't know Hebrew (for talking to God) or Yiddish (for talking to other Jews). Fellow inmates even claim Gyorgy is "no Jew," and make him feel he isn't "entirely okay." Kertesz's spare, understated prose and the almost ironic perspective of Gyorgy, limited both by his youth and his inability to perceive the enormity of what he is caught up in, give the novel an intensity that will make it difficult to forget. One learns something of concentration camp life here, even while becoming convinced that one cannot understand that life at all--not the way Kertesz does.

What I thought:

This book was ok, but not one of my favourite reads of late. It didn’t really engage me and I found that I could read quite long passages and not remember a word of it. This book was semi-autobiographical, but I didn’t feel entirely convinced by it. I feel sort of bad for saying that, particularly given that it was about the Concentration Camps, but it just didn’t feel entirely authentic to me. There is also an irony in saying that given that part of what the book shows is people disbelief about what took place in the camps. I believe the things that happened, but somehow this book didn’t convince me of them.

Friday, 5 June 2009

The Speed of Light

Title: The Speed of Light

Author: Javier Cercas

Number of pages: 278

Started: 1 June 2009

Finished: 5 June 2009

Opening words:

Now I lead a false life, an apocryphal, clandestine, invisible life, though truer than if it were real, but I was still me when I met Rodney Falk. It was a long time ago and it was in Urbana, a city in the Midwest of the United States where I spent two years at the end of the eighties. The truth is that every time I ask myself why I ended up precisely there I tell myself I ended up there just as I might have ended up anywhere else. Let me explain why instead of ending up anywhere else I ended up precisely there.

See a review and some further links here.

Plot summary:

An aspiring young writer from Spain begins work as a teaching assistant on a Midwestern campus and finds himself sharing an office with Rodney Falk, a taciturn Vietnam veteran of strange ways and few friends. But when Rodney suddenly disappears the narrator becomes obsessed with discovering the secrets of his past.

Why do people fear Rodney? What traumatic event happened at My Khe during the war? And, when the narrator’s life takes a terrible twist, is Rodney the only person in the world who can save him?

What I thought:

I enjoyed this book. It was dark in places, but also a fairly easy read. It wasn’t a particularly memorable book, but it was enjoyable while I read it. It did suffer from the same issue as another book I recently read – exceptionally long sentences. At times this affected the flow, but it did also help to emphasise the point at times. I would read another one of his books.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Sputnik Sweetheart

Title: Sputnik Sweetheart

Author: Haruki Murakami

Number of pages: 229

Started: 29 May 2009

Finished: 1 June 2009

Opening words:

In the spring of her twenty-second year, Sumire fell in love for the first time in her life. An intense love, a veritable tornado sweeping across the plains-flattening everything in its path, tossing things up in the air, ripping them to shreds, crushing them to bits. The tornado's intensity doesn't abate for a second as it blasts across the ocean, laying waste to Angkor Wat, incinerating an Indian jungle, tigers and all, transforming itself into a Persian desert sandstorm, burying an exotic fortress city under a sea of sand. In short, a love of truly monumental proportions. The person she fell in love with happened to be seventeen years older than Sumire. And was married. And, I should add, was a woman. This is where it all began, and where it all wound up. Almost.

Read the first chapter here.

Plot summary:

Haruki Murakami, the internationally bestselling author of Norwegian Wood and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, plunges us into an urbane Japan of jazz bars, coffee shops, Jack Kerouac, and the Beatles to tell this story of a tangled triangle of uniquely unrequited loves.

A college student, identified only as “K,” falls in love with his classmate, Sumire. But devotion to an untidy writerly life precludes her from any personal commitments–until she meets Miu, an older and much more sophisticated businesswoman. When Sumire disappears from an island off the coast of Greece, “K” is solicited to join the search party and finds himself drawn back into her world and beset by ominous, haunting visions. A love story combined with a detective story, Sputnik Sweetheart ultimately lingers in the mind as a profound meditation on human longing.

What I thought:

This was a really good book. It was well written and had an engaging plot. I found it engaging, and moving in places. It was a sad book in many ways, but drew you in and made you want to find out what happened. A touching book that looked at loneliness and relationships and in some ways gave a sombre view of the world, but was well worth reading. I would definitely read more of his books.