Thursday, 29 March 2012

The Bridge of San Luis Rey

Title: The Bridge of San Luis Rey

Author: Thornton Wilder

Number of pages: 127

Started: 28 March 2012

Finished: 29 March 2012

Opening words:

On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travellers into the gulf below.

Plot summary:

An ancient bridge collapses over a gorge in Peru, hurling five people into the abyss. It seems a meaningless human tragedy. But one witness, a Franciscan monk, believes the deaths might not be as random as they appear. Convinced that the disaster is a punishment sent from Heaven, the monk sets out to discover all he can about the travellers. The five strangers were connected in some way, he thinks. There must be a purpose behind their deaths. But are their lost lives the result of sin? ... Or of love?

What I thought:

This book is one that people speak highly of. It won the Pulitzer prize in 1928. It is quoted by many, including Tony Blair at the 11 September memorial. It has an interesting premise. A philosophical bent to it. All wrapped up in a mere 127 pages.

But, for me, somehow it didn’t measure up. I didn’t find the book very engaging. I didn’t really feel there was much purpose behind it. Somehow, this book failed to register much with me at all. I believe I am likely to be in the minority on this, but despite its pedigree, this book did little for me, except take up a couple of hours of my life.

Monday, 26 March 2012

The Grapes of Wrath

Title: The Grapes of Wrath

Author: John Steinbeck

Number of pages: 476

Started: 19 March 2012

Finished: 26 March 2012

Opening words:

To the red country and part of the grey country of Oklahoma the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The ploughs crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the grey country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the grey country.

Or if you’re looking for The Great Gatsby told in one minute, here’s the place to look (and it’s remarkably accurate!).

Plot summary:

Set against the background of dust bowl Oklahoma and Californian migrant life, it tells of the Joad family, who, like thousands of others, are forced to travel West in search of the promised land. Their story is one of false hopes, thwarted desires and broken dreams, yet out of their suffering Steinbeck created a drama that is intensely human, yet majestic in its scale and moral vision; an eloquent tribute to the endurance and dignity of the human spirit.

What I thought:

This is a book I have somewhat avoided as I was nervous that this might be a bit school set text like. Given that this is a book that has been banned by US schools on a number of occasions that is perhaps a curious thought. As it turned out, this was a well-written, although rather depressing, tale of 1930s American life.

This was no rags to riches tale, instead it showed the hopelessness that faced some who sought a better life when the life they already knew was taken from them through bank foreclosures.

It was a well-crafted story and some of the “interlude” chapters were brilliant stand alone pieces that gave a momentary glance at some aspect of 1930s life. The story was about a journey searching for something better and showed the power of the banks and of those who try and break collective action and who allow “market forces” to lead the way. A story for our time.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

The Killer's Art

Title: The Killer’s Art

Author: Mari Jungstedt

Number of pages:

Started: 14 March 2012

Finished: 18 March 2012

Opening words:

Two seconds. That was all it took to destroy him. To tear his life apart. Two pitiful seconds.

The malevolent thoughts that raced back and forth in his head at night refused to let fo. For weeks they’d been keeping him awake. Not until the borderland between night and day did he finally slip into a liberating slumber. He could escape his thoughts for a few hours. Then he woke up again to the hell that had been forced upon him. A lonely, private inferno that raged beneath his controlled exterior. Sharing it with anyone else was impossible.

It was during these two seconds that he had fallen headfirst into the blackest abyss. Never would he have imagined that the truth could, be so merciless.

It took a while before he understood what he had to do. Slowly and irrevocably the realisation had crept in. He would have to set to work on his own. There was no going back, no back door that he could slip through and pretend to the world and himself that nothing had happened.

Plot summary:

A cold Sunday morning, a man is found murdered and hanged in one of the entrances of the old wall that surrounds Visby, the capital of Gotland. The victim is none other than art gallery owner Egon Wallin, who the evening before held a successful opening for a Lithuanian artist. Soon after starting his investigation, Inspector Anders Knutas soon realizes that Egon Wallin was on the verge of leaving Gotland and his wife of 20 years behind – but for what? When the famous painting “The Dying Dandy” by Nils Dardel is stolen in Stockholm, disturbing links to the murder of Egon Wallin are slowly surfacing, taking us right into the exquisite art world and into the homosexual underworld of prostitution and drugs. This is the fourth installment in the Anders Knutas series.

What I thought:

This was the fourth of Mari Jungstedt’s books that I have read, and it continues the Inspector Knutas series. This was a readable book that developed some characters from previous books in the series. Whilst some regard this as one of the better ones in the series, I wasn’t quite so convinced. I felt the plot was based on some fairly seedy stereotypes of male homosexuality and did not do much to show any redeeming characteristics. I wasn’t entirely satisfied by using that as a plot device. It was a decent enough stepping stone to the next book in the series.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Tickling the English

Title: Tickling the English

Author: Dara O’Briain

Number of pages: 310

Started: 7 March 2012

Finished: 12 March 2012

Opening words:

It was about one in the morning. I was in the passenger seat of a rented car on the M4. The car was being driven by a man called Damon. We were heading back to London after I’d done a gig at a theatre called the Playhouse in Weston-super-Mare.

The night had been a huge success, thanks mainly to the audience, who were chatty and interactive. In particular, there was a man called Chris who had an answer for everything. He told us how his appendix ‘went away’. He told us about the game he plays with his step-son where he lays a hammock on the ground and attaches one end of it to his car, the other to a tree. Then he accelerates away, tautening up the hammock and firing his step-son into the air.

Read a longer extract here.

Plot summary:

Nostalgia, identity, eccentricity, gin drinking and occasional violence... these are just some of the themes that stand-up comedian Dara O’Briain explores in Tickling the English.

O’Briain moved to England many years ago, but when he takes his show on tour around the country - from deserted seaside towns and remote off-shore islands, to sprawling industrial cities and sleepy suburbs - it's clear to him that his adopted home is still a bit of an enigma.

Why do the English pretend to be unhappy all the time?

Why can't they accept they rank about 5th, in everything?

And what's with all the fudge?

But this Irishman loves a challenge; he's certainly got the gregarious personality and the sure-fire wit to bring down the barriers of that famous English reserve, and have a good old rummage inside. Swapping anecdotes with his audiences and spending time wandering in their hometowns, this nosy neighbour holds England up to the light while exploring some of the attitudes he brought over here with him too.

As Dara goes door-to-door in search of England in this part tour diary, part travelogue, the result is an affectionate, hilarious and often eye-opening journey through the Sceptred Isle.

What I thought:

I like Dara O’Briain and am in fact going to see him at the Hammersmith Apollo later in the year. This book gave his observations about the English picked up from touring around the country (and to Ireland). The book was amusing, although not generally laugh out loud funny. I liked his observations about the English, although I suspect if I was of a difficult political persuasion, I might not have been quite so enamoured with what he said. I think there is a lot of truth in what he said about how we will always find the negative in even the best of news – and this reminded me why I often don’t bother to read newspapers.

It was a decent enough read, but Dara O’Briain on the stage is more amusing than on paper.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

The Power and the Glory

Title: The Power and the Glory

Author: Graham Greene

Number of pages: 240

Started: 2 March 2012

Finished: 6 March 2012

Opening words:

Mr Tench went out to look for his ether cylinder: out into the blazing Mexican sun and the bleaching dust. A few buzzards looked down from the roof with shabby indifference: he wasn't carrion yet. A faint feeling of rebellion stirred in Mr Tench's heart, and he wrenched up a piece of the road with splintering fingernails and tossed it feebly up at them. One of them rose and flapped across the town: over the tiny plaza, over the bust of an ex-president, ex-general, ex-human being, over the two stalls which sold mineral water, towards the river and the sea. It wouldn't find anything there: the sharks looked after the carrion on that side. Mr Tench went on across the plaza.

Plot summary:

During a vicious persecution of the clergy in Mexico, a worldly priest, the 'whisky priest', is on the run. With the police closing in, his routes of escape are being shut off, his chances getting fewer. But compassion and humanity force him along the road to his destiny, reluctant to abandon those who need him, and those he cares for.

What I thought:

This tale of a priest on the run from the Mexican authorities was an interesting tale. It, perhaps unsurprisingly, falls into the category of Greene’s Catholic novels and shows the very human side of the church’s priests.

The anonymous “whisky priest” was on the run for years, and despite occasional opportunities to forever escape his life on the run, he could not run away from his sense of duty and need to minister to people despite it putting his life at risk. This might make him sound like a brave man, and yet I don’t think that bravery is what it showed. I think perhaps his Catholicism and priesthood was so much a part of him that no other option was available but to do his duty. He knew his own flaws, but also his vocation – and those two things were clearly very inconsistent parts of his life.

An interesting read that got better as the book progressed and the character unfolded. A thought provoking read.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Borkmann's Point

Title: Borkmann’s Point

Author: Hakan Nesser

Number of pages: 321

Started: 25 February 2012

Finished: 1 March 2012

Opening words:

Had Ernst Simmel known he was to be the Axman's second victim, he would no doubt have downed a few more drinks at The Blue Ship.

As it was, he settled for a brandy with his coffee and a whiskey on the rocks in the bar, while trying unsuccessfully to make eye contact with the bleached-blond woman in the far corner; but anyway, his heart wasn't in it. Presumably, she was one of the new employees at the canning factory. He had never seen her before, and he had a fair idea about the available talent.

To his right was Herman Schalke, a reporter on de Journaal, trying to interest him in a cheap weekend trip to Kaliningrad or somewhere of the sort, and when they eventually got round to pinning down his last evening, it seemed probable that Schalke must have been the last person in this life to speak to Simmel.

Always assuming that the Axman didn't have some message to impart before finishing him off, that is. Which wasn't all that likely since the blow, as in the previous case, had come diagonally from behind and from slightly below, so a little chat seemed improbable.

Read a longer extract here.

Plot summary:

Borkmann’s rule was hardly a rule; in fact, it was more of a comment, a landmark for tricky cases . . . In every investigation, he maintained, there comes a point beyond which we don’t really need any more information. When we reach that point, we already know enough to solve the case by means of nothing more than some decent thinking. Two men are brutally murdered with an axe in the quiet coastal town of Kaalbringen and Chief Inspector Van Veeteren, bored on holiday nearby, is summoned to assist the local authorities. The local police chief, just days away from retirement, is determined to wrap things up before he goes. But there is no clear link between the victims. Then one of Van Veeteren’s colleagues, a brilliant young female detective, goes missing – perhaps she has reached Borkmann’s Point before anyone else . . .

What I thought:

I was intrigued by the idea behind the title of this book and so was looking forward to reading it. Somehow it didn’t quite live up to expectations, although it wasn’t a bad read. I thought that the Van Veeteren character had no sense of urgency about him. When there was a possible breakthrough in the case, he always had more urgent things to deal with, such as getting his car fixed so that he didn’t leave his stereo unattended. Whilst this would be seen as a quirky side to the novel, I thought it detracted from the sense of tension that could otherwise have been built.

I would give another of his books ago – and much to my annoyance, I have subsequently found that this was not actually the first in the series (although the first translated into English). I will now read the novel that is prior to this one to see how that sets up the series.