Monday, 27 June 2011

Slaughterhouse 5

Title: Slaughterhouse 5

Author: Kurt Vonnegut

Number of pages: 192

Started: 23 June 2011

Finished: 27 June 2011

Opening words:

All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn't his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I've changed all the names.

Plot summary:

Prisoner of war, optometrist, time-traveller – these are the life roles of Billy Pilgrim, hero of this miraculously moving, bitter and funny story of innocence faced with apocalypse. Slaughterhouse 5 is one of the world's great anti-war books. Centring on the infamous fire-bombing of Dresden in the Second World War, Billy Pilgrim's odyssey through time reflects the journey of our own fractured lives as we search for meaning in what we are afraid to know.

What I thought:

This was an anti-war book mixed with some science fiction mixed with a tale of revenge. It was a decent read, although not entirely memorable...

Thursday, 23 June 2011

The Good Soldier

Title: The Good Soldier

Author: Ford Madox Ford

Number of pages: 352

Started: 20 June 2011

Finished: 23 June 2011

Opening words:

THIS is the saddest story I have ever heard. We had known the Ashburnhams for nine seasons of the town of Nauheim with an extreme intimacy—or, rather with an acquaintanceship as loose and easy and yet as close as a good glove's with your hand. My wife and I knew Captain and Mrs Ashburnham as well as it was possible to know anybody, and yet, in another sense, we knew nothing at all about them. This is, I believe, a state of things only possible with English people of whom, till today, when I sit down to puzzle out what I know of this sad affair, I knew nothing whatever. Six months ago I had never been to England, and, certainly, I had never sounded the depths of an English heart. I had known the shallows.

Read the whole book here

Plot summary:

Set before the First World War, it tells the tale of two wealthy and sophisticated couples, one English, one American, as they travel, socialise, and take the waters in the spa towns of Europe. They are playing the game in style. That game has begun to unravel, however, and with compelling attention to the comic, as well as the tragic, results the American narrator reveals his growing awareness of the sexual intrigues and emotional betrayals that lie behind its façade.

What I thought:

I always have a dilemma about reading “classics”. They are forever in my mind connected with having to read books for school. They are therefore not my ideal genre. Unfortunately, this book did nothing to redeem this genre for me. I found this book hard work to read and found it difficult to empathise with the characters. It had an intriguing premise behind the way the story was told, but for me it was not a book that I really enjoyed.

Monday, 20 June 2011


Title: Shadow

Author: Karin Alvtegen

Number of pages: 320

Started: 14 June 2011

Finished: 20 June 2011

Opening words:

‘When you hear the tone – ding-a-ling – it means it’s time to turn the page. Now we’ll begin.’

The voice on the tape had changed. It almost sounded like a man now, although he knew it was a lady. Once again he opened the Bambi book to the first page and listened to the story on the tape player. He knew it by heart. He had known it for a long time, but today he’d listened so many times that the lady’s voice was beginning to turn dark.

It had begun to grow dark around him as well; not as many mammas and pappas with kids and balloons were coming by any more. He was hungry. The buns he’d been given were all eaten up and the juice had made him want to pee, but she had told him that he should stay here, so he didn’t dare move. He was used to waiting. But he really had to pee now, and if she didn’t come and collect him soon he might wet himself. He didn’t want Mamma to get that look. The one that made him hurt and sometimes made her leave him alone in the dark. He put his hand on the sore spot he’d got yesterday when he didn’t want to go with her. Her eyes had turned so angry and she’d told him he was being naughty. And then his back had hurt. She wanted to go to that house so often. First take the bus and then the long walk. Sometimes she stayed with him out there, but sometimes she was gone for a long time, and he wasn’t allowed to bother her. There was a strange house of glass in the garden where it was rather fun to play, but not all the time and never alone. There was a little shed with wood in it too, where he could carve things even though he wasn’t allowed to play with knives. Sometimes she took such a long time it got dark. Then the ghosts came creeping out, and the thieves. The knife in the woodshed was his only protection. And the magic floorboard with the dark spot that looked like an eye. If he stood on it with the knife in his hand and sang ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’ then they couldn’t get at him. Before, she used to say they were going to live in that house someday, not in the glass house or the one with the wood, but in the big one, and then he would have his own room. Everything would be all right then, she said.

Read the whole book here

Plot summary:

In a nondescript apartment block in Stockholm, most of the residents are elderly. Usually a death is a sad but straightforward event. But sometimes a resident will die and there are no friends or family to contact. This is when Marianne Folkesson arrives, employed by the state to close up a life with dignity and respect. Gerda Persson has lain dead in her apartment for three days before Marianne is called. When she arrives, she finds the apartment tidy and ordered. Gerda's life seems to have been quite ordinary. Until Marianne opens the freezer and finds it full of books, neatly stacked and wrapped in clingfilm, a thick layer of ice covering them. They are all by Axel Ragnerfeldt, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, with handwritten dedications to Gerda from the author. What story do these books have to tell, about Gerda, and more importantly about Ragnerfeldt, a man whose fame is without precedent in the nation's cultural life, but seldom gives interviews?

What I thought:

This was a return to some Scandinavian detective fiction for me, and also a return to reading a novel by Karin Alvtegen. This was a readable book, with a decent plot. That said, I thought it was very complicated in places and meant that at times you had to concentrate to keep up with who was who etc. However, it was also a crime novel that tried to get below the surface and was a book that wasn’t just about unravelling a mystery or two but also dwelt a bit on what makes people tick and do they things that they do. At times it was a sad read and wasn’t just about suspense and trying to shock the reader.

Whilst I think I preferred the previous book I read, there is a quality to Alvtegen’s books that makes me want to read more of her work.

Monday, 13 June 2011

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Title: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Author: Haruki Murakami

Number of pages: 180

Started: 12 June 2011

Finished: 13 June 2011

Opening words:

There’s a wise saying that goes like this: A real gentleman never discusses women he’s broken up with or how much tax he’s paid. Actually, this is a total lie. I just made it up. Sorry! But if there really were such a saying, I think that one more condition for being a gentleman would be keeping quiet about what you do to stay healthy. A gentleman shouldn’t go on and on about what he does to stay fit. At least that’s how I see it.

Read the book here in slightly oddly laid out form.

Plot summary:

In 1982, having sold his jazz bar to devote himself to writing, Murakami began running to keep fit. A year later, he’d completed a solo course from Athens to Marathon, and now, after dozens of such races, he reflects upon the influence the sport has had on his life and on his writing.
Equal parts travelogue, training log, and reminiscence, this revealing memoir covers his four-month preparation for the 2005 New York City Marathon and settings ranging from Tokyo’s Jingu Gaien gardens, where he once shared the course with an Olympian, to the Charles River in Boston.
By turns funny and sobering, playful and philosophical, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is a must read for fans of this masterful yet private writer as well as for the exploding population of athletes who find similar satisfaction in distance running.

What I thought:

I am a fan if Murakami, but not of running, so this book was appealing in some ways, but not in others. As it turned out, it was a very engaging read. Murakami has a very simple style that is easy to read. His reflections on his life and motivations was really interesting, and not having an interest in running was no bar to enjoying this book. I should also say that it not only covers running but various other aspects of his life, including his writing.

This is a very readable book, but I would recommend reading his fiction before reading this book, in order to get the most out of it. A quite delightful read in many ways.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

The First Person and other stories

Title: The First Person and other stories

Author: Ali Smith

Number of pages: 224

Started: 11 June 2011

Finished: 12 June 2011

Opening words:

There were two men in the café at the table next to mine. One was younger, one was older. They could have been father and son, but there was none of that practised diffidence, none of the cloudy anger that there almost always is between fathers and sons. Maybe they were the result of a divorce, the father keen to be a father now that his son was properly into his adulthood, the son keen to be a man in front of his father now that his father was opposite him for at least the length of time of a cup of coffee. No. More likely the older man was the kind of family friend who provides a fathership on summer weekends for the small boy of a divorce-family; a man who knows his responsibility, and now look, the boy had grown up, the man was an older man, and there was this unsaid understanding between them.
I stopped making them up. It felt a bit wrong to. Instead, I listened to what they were saying. They were talking about literature, which happens to be interesting to me, though it wouldn’t interest a lot of people. The younger man was talking about the difference between the novel and the short story.
The novel, he was saying, was a flabby old whore.

Plot summary:

Distinguished by Smith's trademark ability to unearth flashes of truth and depth in the everyday, The First Person and Other Stories sparkles with warmth and humanity. In one story, a middle-aged woman conducts a poignant conversation with her fourteen-year-old self. In another, an innocent supermarket shopper finds in her trolley a foul-mouthed, insulting, yet beautiful child. And in a third story that challenges the boundaries between fiction and reality, the narrator, 'Ali', drinks tea, phones a friend, and muses on the surprising similarities between a short story and a nymph...

What I thought:

I don’t generally read short stories, so this is not a very familiar genre to me. It was a book made up of a range of tales, looking at every day events, and drawing the detail, or more surprising aspects, out.

It was well written, and not only told some good tales, but also reflected on the nature of writing and what makes people tick. A good read.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Portnoy's Complaint

Title: Portnoy’s Complaint

Author: Philip Roth

Number of pages: 274

Started: 6 June 2011

Finished: 10 June 2011

Opening words:

She was so deeply embedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise. As soon as the last bell had sounded, I would rush off for home, wondering as I ran if I could possibly make it to our apartment before she had succeeded in transforming herself. Invariably she was already in the kitchen by the time I arrived, and setting out my milk and cookies. Instead of causing me to give up my delusions, however, the feat merely intensified my respect for her powers.

Plot summary:

The famous confession of Alexander Portnoy who is thrust through life by his unappeasable sexuality, yet held back at the same time by the iron grip of his unforgettable childhood.

What I thought:

This book was in effect a monologue given by Portnoy to his therapist explaining his life. This mainly centred around his mother, and (not always connected fortunately) his various sexual issues. It was an amusing book and had some very funny moments. I actually saw someone else reading this book at the same time as I was, but resisted the urge to ask him what he thought of it.

It was a diverting read, although perhaps not one of Roth’s most memorable.

Monday, 6 June 2011

The Collector

Title: The Collector

Author: John Fowles

Number of pages: 284

Started: 2 June 2011

Finished: 6 June 2011

Opening words:

WHEN she was home from her boarding-school I used to see her almost every day sometimes, because their house was right opposite the Town Hall Annexe. She and her younger sister used to go in and out a lot, often with young men, which of course I didn’t like. When I had a free moment from the files and ledgers I stood by the window and used to look down over the road over the frosting and sometimes I’d see her. In the evening I marked it in my observations diary, at first with X, and then when I knew her name with M. I saw her several times outside too. I stood right behind her once in a queue at the public library down Crossfield Street. She didn’t look once at me, but I watched the back of her head and her hair in a long pigtail. It was very pale, silky, like Burnet cocoons. All in one pigtail coming down almost to her waist, sometimes in front, sometimes at the back. Sometimes she wore it up. Only once, before she came to be my guest here, did I have the privilege to see her with it loose, and it took my breath away it was so beautiful, like a mermaid.

Read the whole book here.

Plot summary:

Withdrawn, uneducated and unloved, Frederick collects butterflies and takes photographs. He is obsessed with a beautiful stranger, the art student Miranda. When he wins the pools he buys a remote Sussex house and calmly abducts Miranda, believing she will grow to love him in time. Alone and desperate, Miranda must struggle to overcome her own prejudices and contempt if she is understand her captor, and so gain her freedom.

What I thought:

This was a very readable book. I had to read a John Fowles book at school – the French Lieutenant’s Woman – and this did not endear him to me. This is not necessarily a reflection on that book, and might simply be that I hated reading set texts at school. However, this book was much better than expected. It was a tale of a man who wins the pools and then takes captive a young woman he has been fixated with.

It was a good read and it was, at times, difficult to know how to feel about the characters because there was no sense in which I felt it was ok to kidnap someone, but he had a sad and mixed up life and from that perspective I felt for him. This book precedes more recent takes on this type of book, such as Room, and I think is well worth a read if you want to read a light, and yet serious take on this theme.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011


Title: Seeing

Author: Jose Saramago

Number of pages: 307

Started: 25 May 2011

Finished: 1 June 2011

Opening words:

Terrible voting weather, remarked the presiding officer of polling station fourteen as he snapped shut his soaked umbrella and took off the raincoat that had proved of little use to him during the breathless forty-meter dash from the place where he had parked his car to the door through which, heart pounding, he had just appeared. I hope I’m not the last, he said to the secretary, who was standing slightly away from the door, safe from the sheets of rain which, caught by the wind, were drenching the floor. Your deputy hasn’t arrived yet, but we’ve still got plenty of time, said the secretary soothingly, With rain like this, it’ll be a feat in itself if we all manage to get here, said the presiding officer as they went into the room where the voting would take place.

Plot summary:

On election day in the capital, it is raining so hard that no one has bothered to come out to vote. The politicians are growing jittery. What's going on? Should they reschedule the elections for another day? Around three o'clock, the rain finally stops. Promptly at four, voters rush to the polling stations, as if they had been ordered to appear. But when the ballots are counted, more than 70 percent are blank. The citizens are rebellious. A state of emergency is declared. The president proposes that a wall be built around the city to contain the revolution. But are the authorities acting too precipitously? Or even blindly? The word evokes terrible memories of the plague of blindness that had hit the city four years before, and of the one woman who kept her sight. Could she be behind the blank ballots? Is she the organizer of a conspiracy against the state? A police superintendent is put on the case.

What I thought:

This book was a follow on of sorts from Saramago’s book “Blindness”, although it can be read in its own right. The plot surrounded the consequences of elections where the vast majority of votes cast were blank. It was an interesting concept and had some intriguing moments, but I felt that this was not one of Saramago’s better books. It didn’t seem to have the same depth of plot or story progression that others had.

It did however follow his normal style – little regular punctuation, the narrator stepping in to overtly comment on things, and the slightly philosophic discussion of the plot as it unfolds. So if you like his other books, I would suggest giving this a go. But if you have not read any Saramago before, I would recommend starting elsewhere.