Sunday, 27 June 2010

The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Title: The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Author: Leo Tolstoy

Number of pages: 106

Started: 26 June 2010

Finished: 27 June 2010

Opening words:

In the large Law Court building, during an adjournment of the Melvinsky trial, the members of the bench and the Public Prosecutor had come together in the office of Ivan Yegorovich Shebek, and the conversation touched on the celebrated Krasovsky case. Fyodor Vasilyevich argued vehemently that it was beyond their jurisdiction, Ivan Yegorovich had his own view and was sticking to it, while Pyotr Ivanovich, who had kept out of the discussion at the outset and was still not contributing, was perusing a copy of The Gazette which had just been delivered.

‘Gentlemen!’ he said. ‘Ivan Ilyich is dead.’

‘Is he really?’

‘Here you are. Read it yourself,’ he said to Fyodor Vasilyevich, handing him the paper, fresh off the press and still smelling.

There was an announcement within a black border: ‘It is with profound sorrow that Praskovya Fyodorovna Golovina informs family and friends that her beloved husband, Ivan Ilyich Golovin, Member of the Court of Justice, passed away on the 4th of February this year, 1882. The funeral will take place on Friday at 1 p.m.’

Read a longer extract here.

Plot summary:

Ivan Ilyich is wasting away. He lies alone, dosed up on opium and deceived by doctors, haunted by memories and regrets. His friends come to see him, their faces masks of concern. His faithful servant tends to his every need. But as he forces down false remedies and listens to empty promises, Ivan grows aware of one terrible truth.

His wife and his children are not awaiting his recovery.

They are waiting for him to die ...

What I thought:

This was a very readable book. It started in good humour, but took on more sober tones. It was ultimately a book about death, as the title suggests, but was not depressing – it was more of a reflection on life, and a way of seeing our place in it.

This book is well worth a read, and at just over 100 pages, you can say that you have read a Tolstoy book in under two hours. Let this book see if it can tempt you to read some of his rather longer tomes.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Falling Man

Title: Falling Man

Author: Don DeLillo

Number of pages: 246

Started: 22 June 2010

Finished: 24 June 2010

Opening words:

It was not a street anymore, but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night. He was walking north through rubble and mud and there were people running past holding towels to their faces or jackets over their heads. They had handkerchiefs pressed to their mouths. They had shoes in their hands, a woman with a shoe in each hand, running past him. They ran and fell, some of them, confused and ungainly, with debris coming down around them, and there were people taking shelter under cars.

Plot summary:

There is September 11 and then there are the days after, and finally the years.
Falling Man begins in the smoke and ash of the burning towers and traces the aftermath of this global tremor in the intimate lives of a few individuals. Theirs are lives choreographed by loss, grief and the enormous force of history.

What I thought:

What to say about this book? I think, primarily, that I wasn’t a fan. I found the book a bit pretentious and as though it was trying to be profound, but didn’t quite succeed in doing it in a way that was credible or appealing.

I didn’t really feel as though the book had a purpose as such and that it rather drifted without making any real point. It wasn’t a book that I enjoyed particularly, it was based on a very sensitive issue – the 11 September attacks on the US – but I feel the book lacked substance or any real meaning.

Monday, 21 June 2010

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Title: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Author: Milan Kundera

Number of pages: 305

Started: 17 June 2010

Finished: 21 June 2010

Opening words:

The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that every¬thing recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence it¬self recurs ad infinitum! What does this mad myth signify?

Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing. We need take no more note of it than of a war be¬tween two African kingdoms in the fourteenth century, a war that altered nothing in the destiny of the world, even if a hundred thousand blacks perished in excruciating torment.

Will the war between the two African kingdoms in the four¬teenth century itself be altered if it recurs again and again, in eternal return?

It will: it will become a solid mass, permanently protuberant, its inanity irreparable.

If the French Revolution were to recur eternally, French his¬torians would be less proud of Robespierre. But because they deal with something that will not return, the bloody years of the Revolu¬tion have turned into mere words, theories, and discussions, have become lighter than feathers, frightening no one. There is an in¬finite difference between a Robespierre who occurs only once in his¬tory and a Robespierre who eternally returns, chopping off French heads.

Let us therefore agree that the idea of eternal return im¬plies a perspective from which things appear other than as we know them: they appear without the mitigating circumstance of their transitory nature. This mitigating circumstance prevents us from coming to a verdict. For how can we condemn something that is ephemeral, in transit? In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.

Plot summary:

A young woman in love with a man torn between his love for her and his incorrigible womanizing one of his mistresses and her humbly faithful lover--these are the two couples whose story is told in this masterful novel. In a world in which lives are shaped by irrevocable choices and by fortuitous events, a world in which everything occurs but once, existence seems to lose its substance, its weight. Hence, we feel "the unbearable lightness of being" not only as the consequence of our private actions, but also in the public sphere, and the two inevitably intertwine.

What I thought:

Hmm, what did I make of this book. In some ways, it was a bit like War and Peace meets Paulo Coelho. This is probably not the strongest recommendation. The War and Peace bit because the way The Unbearable Lightness was written in places reminded me of it – things about coincidence and whether people are really in charge of their own destiny. It was also a sort of philosophical book – and I thought some of the philosophy was somewhat questionable and made assertions that if you thought about it for a few moments you would realise was completely based on flawed thinking.

The book was readable though and I feel as though I have read another of those books that people talk about and nod profoundly when it is mentioned. But I don’t really think that it lives up to its reputation.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

The Story of Lucy Gault

Title: The Story of Lucy Gault

Author: William Trevor

Number of pages: 228

Started: 14 June 2010

Finished: 16 June 2010

Opening words:

Captain Everard Gault wounded the boy in the right shoulder on the night of June the twenty-first, nineteen twenty-one. Aiming above the trespassers' heads in the darkness, he fired the single shot from an upstairs window and then watched the three figures scuttling off, the wounded one assisted by his companions.

Plot summary:
Summer, 1921. Eight-year-old Lucy Gault clings to the glens and woods above Lahardane - the home her family is being forced to abandon. She knows the Gaults, as Protestants, are no longer welcome in Ireland and that danger threatens. She is headstrong and decides that somehow she must force her parents into staying. But the path she chooses ends in disaster.
One chance event, unwanted and unexpected, will blight the lives of the Gaults for years to come and bind each of them in different ways to this one moment in time forever. Trevor's novel, shortlisted for both the Booker and Whitbread Prizes, beautifully evokes rural Ireland and the tensions existing there, but also delicately portrays the terrible impact of mere chance on our lives.

See an interesting book group discussion on the book here.

What I thought:

I am not really sure about this book. It was well written and the words flowed off the page. It was a book that also had an underlying sadness to it and (without revealing the major part of the plot) you really wanted the situation to get resolved because things could have been so different if it wasn’t for a few actions that came together.

I thought the characters, particularly Lucy Gault, perhaps lacked a bit of depth and that the book would have been enhanced by a bit more reflection on how she felt about and dealt with things. But it was a readable book and I would be interested in reading another of William Trevor’s books.

Monday, 14 June 2010

The Moonstone

Title: The Moonstone

Author: Wilkie Collins

Number of pages:

Started: 30 May 2010

Finished: 12 June 2010

Opening words:

Extracted from a Family Paper

I address these lines — written in India — to my relatives in England.

My object is to explain the motive which has induced me to refuse the right hand of friendship to my cousin, John Herncastle. The reserve which I have hitherto maintained in this matter has been misinterpreted by members of my family whose good opinion I cannot consent to forfeit. I request them to suspend their decision until they have read my narrative. And I declare, on my word of honour, that what I am now about to write is, strictly and literally, the truth.

The private difference between my cousin and me took its rise in a great public event in which we were both concerned—the storming of Seringapatam, under General Baird, on the 4th of May, 1799.

In order that the circumstances may be clearly understood, I must revert for a moment to the period before the assault, and to the stories current in our camp of the treasure in jewels and gold stored up in the Palace of Seringapatam.

Read the book here or get it sent to you in 283 parts here.

Plot summary:

On her eighteenth birthday, beautiful Rachel Verinder receives a present like no other—an enormous, glittering, diamond. Little does she know that this legendary stone will bring with it a world of mystery and danger. Snatched from a sacred statue in India, the diamond is the subject of an intense worldwide search by priests whose ultimate duty is to find and restore the stone to its rightful place. The stone seems to hold strange powers beyond mere beauty, perhaps even a curse that travels with it. The sparkling Moonstone belongs to Rachel for one night only before it is stolen in the night, but a storm of grief, misfortune, and even madness follow in its wake. Who has taken the precious gem? Can the stone be found and returned to its rightful owners in time to stop the mysterious forces that threaten to tear apart Rachel's life and happiness?

What I thought:

When I first opened this book, one of the first things I read was a reference to Robinson Crusoe (it’s referred to at the start of the first chapter, which is after the prologue above). So I decided to put down this book and read Robinson Crusoe first. I like the interconnectedness of books and I often find themes echoed in entirely different styles of books or things or other books referred to. I like to keep an eye out for such things because it is interesting to see how books and ideas are so often linked.

Anyway, I put off reading The Moonstone to read Robinson Crusoe, a book I did not much enjoy. The Moonstone seemed to start a bit slowly, mainly because I was not the biggest fan of the initial narrator, who himself was a big fan of Robinson Crusoe. However, as the story unfolded, I found the book to be much better and more engaging than I had first thought. There were passages that kept me totally engaged and many a stop passed on the tube (where I do most of my reading) without me even being aware of them.

It was a great read, despite what seemed to me to be an unpromising start. I have mixed feelings about Wilkie Collins books – I loved The Woman in White but loathed Armadale. Despite my nervousness at reading this book, it came up trumps and has restored my faith in the author – who I am sure will rest much easier as a result…