Monday, 28 March 2011

Goodbye to Berlin

Title: Goodbye to Berlin

Author: Christopher Isherwood

Number of pages: 256

Started: 18 March 2011

Finished: 28 March 2011

Opening words:

From my window, the deep solemn massive street. Cellar-shops where the lamps burn all day, under the shadow of top-heavy balconied facades, dirty plaster frontages embossed with scrollwork and heraldic devices. The whole district is like this: street leading into street of houses like shabby monumental safes crammed with the tarnished valuables and second-hand furniture of a bankrupt middle class.

Plot summary:

Written as a connected series of six short stories the book, first published in 1939, is a brilliant evocation of the decadence and repression, glamour and sleaze of Berlin society. Isherwood shows the lives of people at threat from the rise of the Nazis: Natalia Laundauer, the rich, Jewish heiress, Peter and Otto, a gay couple andthe "divinely decadent" Sally Bowles, a young English woman who was so memorably portrayed by Liza Minnelli.

What I thought:

I really enjoyed this book. It was a series or short stories that formed a novel of sorts and was a really well written tale of Berlin in the 1930s. The short story about Sally Bowles, in particular, was a really beautifully written story and you felt the narrator’s loss at the end.

I found this novel far superior to its forerunner “Mr Norris Changes Trains” and each of the short stories were good enough to stand alone or as part of the collective. It was a very good and poignant read.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

The House of Mirth

Title: The House of Mirth

Author: Edith Wharton

Number of pages: 368

Started: 8 March 2011

Finished: 17 March 2011

Opening words:

SELDEN PAUSED in surprise. In the afternoon rush of the Grand Central Station his eyes had been refreshed by the sight of Miss Lily Bart. It was a Monday in early September, and he was returning to his work from a hurried dip into the country; but what was Miss Bart doing in town at that season? If she had appeared to be catching a train, he might have inferred that he had come on her in the act of transition between one and another of the country-houses which disputed her presence after the close of the Newport season; but her desultory air perplexed him. She stood apart from the crowd, letting it drift by her to the platform or the street, and wearing an air of irresolution which might, as he surmised, be the mask of a very definite purpose. It struck him at once that she was waiting for some one, but he hardly knew why the idea arrested him. There was nothing new about Lily Bart, yet he could never see her without a faint movement of interest: it was characteristic of her that she always roused speculation, that her simplest acts seemed the result of far-reaching intentions.

Read the whole book here.

Plot summary:

Its heroine, Lily Bart, is beautiful, poor, and unmarried at 29. In her search for a husband with money and position she betrays her own heart and sows the seeds of the tragedy that finally overwhelms her. The House of Mirth is a lucid, disturbing analysis of the stifling limitations imposed upon women of Wharton's generation. Herself born into Old New York Society, Wharton watched as an entirely new set of people living by new codes of conduct entered the metropolitan scene. In telling the story of Lily Bart, who must marry to survive, Wharton recasts the age-old themes of family, marriage, and money in ways that transform the traditional novel of manners into an arresting modern document of cultural anthropology.

What I thought:

The first thing to say about this book is that you need to understand the context of the title. This book is not some whimsical tale, which is not to say that it is some depressing read, but don’t be misled by the title. The title comes from Ecclesiastes – “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth”.

That said, in some ways this is quite a light book in places, but it is also the tale of a woman in New York Society that just does not get what it is that she wants out of life and ultimately her lack of judgement is her downfall.

It’s an interesting read, but one that I found a bit laboured in places. However, this is not my first choice of literature so it is not generally the sort of book that I would be automatically drawn to. I found the ending touching and a fitting end to the tale.

Monday, 7 March 2011


Title: Pompeii

Author: Robert Harris

Number of pages: 396

Started: 1 March 2011

Finished: 7 March 2011

Opening words:

They left the aqueduct two hours before dawn, climbing by moonlight into the hills overlooking the port—six men in single file, the engineer leading. He had turfed them out of their beds himself—all stiff limbs and sullen, bleary faces—and now he could hear them complaining about him behind his back, their voices carrying louder than they realized in the warm, still air.

“A fool’s errand,” somebody muttered.

“Boys should stick to their books,” said another.

He lengthened his stride.

Let them prattle, he thought.

Already he could feel the heat of the morning beginning to build, the promise of another day without rain. He was younger than most of his work gang, and shorter than any of them: a compact, muscled figure with cropped brown hair. The shafts of the tools he carried slung across his shoulder—a heavy, bronze-headed axe and a wooden shovel—chafed against his sunburned neck. Still, he forced himself to stretch his bare legs as far as they would reach, mounting swiftly from foothold to foothold, and only when he was high above Misenum, at a place where the track forked, did he set down his burdens and wait for the others to catch up.

Read a longer extract here

Plot summary:

A sweltering week in late August. Where better to enjoy the last days of summer than on the beautiful Bay of Naples? But even as Rome's richest citizens relax in their villas around Pompeii and Herculaneum, there are ominous warnings that something is going wrong. Wells and springs are failing, a man has disappeared, and now the greatest aqueduct in the world - the mighty Aqua Augusta - has suddenly ceased to flow. Through the eyes of four characters - a young engineer, an adolescent girl, a corrupt millionaire and an elderly scientist - Robert Harris brilliantly recreates a luxurious world on the brink of destruction.

What I thought:

Robert Harris is one of those authors that I am still unsure about. His books are set in interesting and compelling times in history (mainly fairly modern history) and have all the elements of a good read, but sometimes I feel that they lack that final element to really draw me in. What that final element actually is, I find hard to say, but whatever it is means that, for me, some of his books lack the ability to be a really gripping yarn.

This book was set in the days immediately surrounding the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD, and knowing that the volcano is going to erupt regardless of all the plot that was going on around it did help to build suspense. It was a decent read, but the jury is still out on this author.