Friday, 28 August 2009

A Farewell to Arms

Title: A Farewell to Arms

Author: Ernest Hemingway

Number of pages: 293

Started: 25 August 2009

Finished: 28 August 2009

Opening words:

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterwards the road bare and white except for the leaves.

Plot summary:

In 1918 Ernest Hemingway went to war, to the 'war to end all wars'. He volunteered for ambulance service in Italy, was wounded and twice decorated. Out of his experience came A Farewell to Arms. Hemingway's description of war is unforgettable. He recreates the fear, the comradeship, the courage of his young American volunteer, and the men and women he meets in Italy, with total conviction. But A Farewell to Arms is not only a novel of war. In it Hemingway has also created a love story of immense drama and uncompromising passion.

What I thought:

I quote enjoyed this book. It was certainly very readable (but also rather tragic in places) and had a decent plot. However, I found parts of it rather unconvincing. For example, I never felt very convinced by the character Catherine, who I could only ever imagine as a very stilted character in a 1940s film). The book was better than I expected, but I was not entirely convinced that it deserves the praise if often receives.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Kafka on the Shore

Title: Kafka on the Shore

Author: Haruki Murakami

Number of pages: 506

Started: 17 August 2009

Finished: 24 August 2009

Opening words:

The Boy Named Crow

So you're all set for money, then?" the boy named Crow asks in his typical sluggish voice. The kind of voice like when you've just woken up and your mouth still feels heavy and dull. But he's just pretending. He's totally awake. As always.

I nod.

"How much?"

I review the numbers in my head. "Close to thirty-five hundred in cash, plus some money I can get from an ATM. I know it's not a lot, but it should be enough. For the time being."

"Not bad," the boy named Crow says. "For the time being."

I give him another nod.

"I'm guessing this isn't Christmas money from Santa Claus."

"Yeah, you're right," I reply.

Crow smirks and looks around. "I imagine you've started by rifling drawers, am I right?"

I don't say anything. He knows whose money we're talking about, so there's no need for any long-winded interrogations. He's just giving me a hard time.

Plot summary:

Kafka on the Shore follows the remarkable journeys of two characters: Kafka, a 15-year-old boy who has run away from home, fleeing the dark Oedipal prophecy foretold to him by his father; and Nakata, a middle-aged man who, having survived an eerie event as a child, is left with a seriously diminished intellect, the ability to converse with cats, and a shadow which is 'a bit faint'.

Fish and Leeches rain from the sky, and Colonel Sanders takes a break from fried chicken to act as a pimp for a Hegel-spouting girl of the night as the individual quests of Kafka and Nakata are drawn gradually together.

For some reading group questions look here.

See more on the Random House website (with music added).

What I thought:

I enjoyed this book. It was like reading a mystery unfolding and two parallel plots ran throughout the book, which intersected at various points. It also had some rather bizarre elements – such as talking cats – that added to the plot. It was an interesting and engaging read and was an exploration of a search for identity, with a bit of humour thrown in. A good read.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

The Rules of Life

Title: The Rules of Life

Author: Richard Templar

Number of pages: 219

Started: 2 August 2009

Finished: 16 August 2009

Opening words:

For reasons that are too long and complicated to go into here, I had to live with my grandparents for a couple of years when I was very young. They, like many of their generation, were hard-working, contented sort of people. My grandfather had taken early retirement owing to an industrial accident (a lorry-load of bricks fell on his foot), and my grandmother worked in a large department store in London. Having me dumped unexpectedly on her for a while obviously caused logistical problems. I was too young for school, and my grandfather wasn't to be trusted to look after me at home (men didn't look after children in those days . . . my, how things have changed). Her solution was to tuck me under her wing—on some days physically as well as metaphorically, as she smuggled me past managers and supervisors—and we went to work together.

Now going to work with "Nan" was fun. I was expected to keep quiet and still for long periods and, because I didn't know any different, assumed this was normal. I found that by watching customers—often from my safe refuge under a huge desk—I could pass the time quite happily. Thus was born an immense appetite for people watching.

You can read a list of the Rules here

Plot summary:

Some people seem naturally good at it. Life that is. They seem to sail through, being successful and happy and everything always seems to fall into place. We all know a few of them - those rare people who are happy and positive and make things happen; they have a loving family, great relationships, a supportive network and work they enjoy; they generate goodwill wherever they go and always seem to know the right thing to do -- and then do it. They balance their lives without us ever seeing them frantically juggling, much less let it all drop in a mess on the floor. They are happy and successful, with diverse interests and a zest for life. How on earth do they do it? For most of us, some of the time life can be a bit of a struggle. People are difficult, things don't go our way, there's too much to deal with and we don't know how to make it all alright again. What is it that they know, that we don't? They know the Rules of Life. A simple set of principles that if followed, will hugely increase your chances of more things going your way, and that will guide you smoothly out of the tricky times when they happen. Rules of Work worked. Live the Rules of Life.

What I thought:

The first rule about Fight Club is that you never talk about Fight Club, and so it goes with the Rules of Life. Rule number one is that you never tell people that you have read the book. So clearly by reviewing this I am breaking the rules already…

I like things that help you to break down complex issues into its more simple parts, and I think it is fair to say that life can be quite complex. This book is not going to change the world, and it doesn’t claim to be able to do that, but it is a useful tool to maybe make you think about how you live your life – and if you can do it a bit better.

The style of the book will either suit you or it won’t and, as there are 100 rules, you need to be able to pick out the ones that are most relevant or can make the most difference in your own life. Personally, I think there is no harm (and in fact the potential for much good) to be reminded that we should maintain good manners (rule 38), that we should change what we can change and let go of the rest (rule 16) or that we should be nice to our partners (rule 53). If you look at those and think they are pretty obvious then ask yourself if you actually do it and if you don’t then this book is a gentle reminder that encourages you to actively think about these things.

Will it change my life? No, but it might make me a bit more considerate.

The Optimist

Title: The Optimist: One man’s search for the brighter side of life

Author: Laurence Shorter

Number of pages: 325

Started: 11 August 2009

Finished: 16 August 2009

Opening words:


Summer, 2006.

I was still in bed.
Sunlight beamed through the curtains, flickering as a neighbour’s car pulled out of the drive. I looked at the humps of my arms under the covers. They felt lethargic and heavy. A car revved up outside. I pictured the BMWs and Mercs along the street, beaded with dew, ready to be driven to their places of work by people who leapt out of bed every morning. How did they do it? I stared hopelessly at the ceiling.
What was wrong with me?

Plot summary:

When it comes to bad news, we’ve never had it so good.

Laurence Shorter is feeling anxious. Every time he opens a newspaper or turns on the radio he finds another reason to be tearful. It’s time to make a change. It’s time to be optimistic!

His plan is simple:
1. Learn how to jump out of bed in the morning.
2. Secure personal happiness.
3. Save the world.

The Optimist charts Shorter’s ambitious, year-long, international quest to seek out the world’s most positive thinkers, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Jung Chang, Matthieu Ricard, California’s renowned Surfing Rabbi, and Bill Clinton. But optimism doesn’t come easy, and Shorter’s resolve is tested at every corner: by a flagging career, a troubled love affair, and his ever-pessimistic dad.

The Optimist is a hilarious and ultimately life-affirming stand against the grind of everyday strife, packed with reasons to be cheerful.

What I thought:

I was hoping for a somewhat light-hearted look at the nicer side of life. I can’t say that is how I would describe this book. I found it a somewhat self-indulgent quest for a man to try and get his somewhat unwilling female interest to go out with him. Along the way he spoke to lots of famous and not so famous people and then seemed to mock them a bit. I wasn’t very keen on that given that these people openly discussed their lives and philosophies and I felt that the author was slightly mocking them – or at least using what they said for comic effect. I am not sure that I like that trait.

I found the book a bit pointless and never really came to any conclusions so, like I said, I just found it quite self-indulgent.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009


Title: Vertigo

Author: W.G. Sebald

Number of pages: 263

Started: 7 August 2009

Finished: 11 August 2009

Opening words:

In mid-May of the year 1800 Napoleon and a force of 36,000 men crossed the Great St. Bernard pass, an undertaking that had been regarded until that time as next to impossible. For almost a fortnight, an interminable column of men, animals and equipment proceeded from Martigny via Orsières through the Entremont valley and from there moved, in a seemingly never-ending serpentine, up to the pass two and a half thousand metres above sea level, the heavy barrels of the cannon having to be draged by the soldiery, in hollowed-out tree trunks, now across snow and ice and now over bare outcrops and rocky escarpments.

Plot summary:

Part fiction, part travelogue, the narrator of this compelling masterpiece pursues his solitary, eccentric course from England to Italy and beyond, succumbing to the vertiginous unreliability of memory itself. What could possibly connect Stendhal's unrequited love, the artistry of Pisanello, a series of murders by a clandestine organisation, a missing passport, Casanova, the suicide of a dinner companion, stale apple cake, the Great Fire of London, a story by Kafka about a doomed huntsman and a closed-down pizzeria in Verona?

What I thought:

I was not a fan of this book at all. People rave about it and see deep meaning in it. I do not. As soon as I opened the book I felt slightly conned. It was the double line spacing that did it. It made me feel like someone had tried to make the book look much longer than it actually was – and without such things it would have been nearer 100 pages long.

I never really got into it though. I found that I read the words but never really engaged with any sort of plot. There were very occasional moments that caught my attention, but they were few and far between.

Would I read any more Sebald? Despite what I have said, I possibly would. I feel as though I should see more to this author than I have so far and so should perhaps give him another go. We shall see...

Friday, 7 August 2009

The Robber Bride

Title: The Robber Bride

Author: Margaret Atwood

Number of pages: 564

Started: 27 July 2009

Finished: 7 August 2009

Opening words:

The story of Zenia ought to begin when Zenia began. It must have been someplace long ago and distant in space, thinks Tony; someplace bruised, and very tangled. A European print, hand-tinted, ochre-coloured, with dusty sunlight and a lot of bushes in it- bushes with thick leaves and ancient twisted roots, behind which, out of sight in the undergrowth and hinted at only by a boot protruding, or a slack hand, something ordinary but horrifying is taking place.

Plot summary:

Zenia is beautiful, smart and greedy, and by turns manipulative and vulnerable, needy and ruthless. She is also dead. Just to make sure, Tony, Roz and Charis are at the funeral. But five years on, the unthinkable happens - Zenia is back.

What I thought:

This was a Margaret Atwood book that I actually liked the whole way through. It is the tale of a woman who her friends thought had died, much to their relief her having wreaked havoc in each of their lives, and yet one day she reappears. The books tells the tale of this woman, Zenia, and gradually the story of her somewhat devilish impact on the lives of others comes to the surface.

I think I preferred this to a lot of Atwood’s other books because it stayed grounded in reality and I also liked seeing the pieces of the jigsaw coming together to explain how a deceased woman could in fact still be alive and why this was such alarming news to those she had left behind. A good read.