2004: Summary

Audio: 10 books. Recommended are The Mayor of Casterbridge One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and A Short History of Nearly Everything. Avoid Underworld (abandoned) andSnow Crash.

Paper: 19 books. Recommended are Beloved, Amongst Women, The Virgin Suicides and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Avoid The Dante Club (abandoned) and those Lemony Snicket books.

I was lucky or well directed this year and read hardly any dross. Mind you, given the scarcity of any actual books means that even one or two bad books are a significant percentage. Looking back, my reading rate is on a par with 2003, so at least I'm not getting any worse.

I have started Ulysees, A Season with Verona and Great French and Russian Short Stories Volume 2 (an audiobook) and while I may not finish either of the last two, I don't (yet) consider any of them to be abandoned, merely postponed.

In the next few days I plan to go around the house, rounding up unread books and placing them by my bed for consumption. I also have a shit load of audio books to listen to and I probably should suspend my Audible subscription for a while. In any case I intend to polish off the books in the house before purchasing more this time.


Bill Bryson: A Short History of Nearly Everything

I misunderstood this title. I thought the book would be about, er, stuff. Just random things that the author was interested in. I have no idea why I thought this, but I was wrong; the title can be taken much more literally. It starts with the earth and the solar system, and moves through physics, chemistry, geology, biology and anthropology. There's plenty of stops along the way and lots to absorb. I kind of zoned out on the biology bits and was much more interested in the odd, driven  people who made discoveries and stumbled on brilliant ideas and usually dies unrecognised and penniless.

In the section on plate tectonics and volcanic activity, Mr. Bryson does point out the mankind is much more likely to be devastated by forces from within the planet than by being struck by a meteorite, and indeed recent events bear this out somewhat. Civilisation is paper thin, really. Start working on your post apocalyptic skills now, folks.

Anyway. Interesting book. Not overly clever. Excellent reader.


Toni Morrsion: Beloved

Generally (as noted before) I grow impatient with books that refer to past events obliquely and slowly leak out the facts as the story progresses, but in this case I didn't mind. In fact many of the events in this story are so heartbreaking that I wasn't sure I wanted to know any more about what happened to any of these people. I have no factual reason for knowing whether or not events like those described in the book happened, but the way they are presented is so true, that I feel they must have.

When I bought this book, Roisin had just been born and Sally questioned whether it was wise to read it with a newborn in the house. I didn't know, but I didn't get around to reading it then anyway. I see now why she asked, but I don't know if reading it when your daughter has just learned to crawl (crawling! already!) is any better.

Tragic, magical story. Beautifully written.


John Banville: Ghosts

It's a little sad that this took me two months to finish, but I haven't been reading (or listening) to much recently. I'm a fan of Mr. Banville's, but I can't really explain why. I comes down to absolutely loving The Book Of Evidence which I read a long time ago. That and The Untouchable. I hated Mefisto. This is much more like the latter than the former and while I didn't hate it, I really didn't get it either. I don't like books that tease much. You know, the ones where Some Big Event is hinted at and you have to scurry to the end of the book to find out what it is. I don't have enough patience to relax and enjoy the scenery along the way, I just want to know what happened. As a result this book was largely unfulfilling.

I like the internal voice and the slightly grubby feel to the story, but I really didn't understand what went on. Really. At all. I suppose (although it may be wishful thinking) that if I had paid it more attention then the subtleties of the plot would not have escaped me, but  I'm not going back to find out.


Patrick O'Brien: Post Captain

I liked this well enough. Some of it was suspect as I am not convinced about the romance element nor the escape from France, but thankfully our heroes end up at sea eventually and the book benefits greatly from it. I don't know if I'll ever read another in the series, but I just might. The friendship between the two main characters is sufficiently interesting for me to want to see how it evolves. It's the soap opera effect I guess.


Mark Twain: Huckleberry Finn

There was some discussion about the great American novel elsewhere, and this book came up as a contender. The reason being that it addresses the essential thing in American history -- slavery. And while we are expressly warned by the author that

persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot

Huck's internal wrestling with the conflict between what he knows to be true about niggers and what he feels is right for Jim is the backbone of this book. This is however, completely fucked by Tom Sawyer's entrance in the final section and I don't care what Tom may be a metaphor for or what he's supposed to represent, he deserves to be kicked very soundly.


Mark Twain: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

This story has plenty of moments that have made it into the mainstream -- whitewashing the fence, David and Goliath! -- but the main story of Injun Joe and subsequent events doesn't seem to have been absorbed so readily. Perhaps that's because they are less applicable to recent times. Many of the things that happen to Tom have happened since and will happen again to other children but the more fantastic events that unfold in the latter half of the book hardly will.

I liked this reading but I wondered how it would sound to an American. The accents could all be totally off for all I know.


Matthew Pearl: The Dante Club

If I don't like a book by the 50th page, it gets abandoned. I gave it the fifty pages. It's gone.

I think that it just reminded me too much of The Alienist.


Maya Goldberg: Bee Season

This book started off innocently enough. A girl is unexpectedly good at spelling bees and her father tries to train her for spelling greatness. The rest of the family have their own problems and the family unit disintegrates. But these are not by any streatch if the imagination, ordinary people. They struggle with their sense of self and their creator.

I had an uncomfortable few chapters as the father imposes his sense of how his daughter should be upon her. This, slightly different, portayal of a 'pushy parent' made me re-evaluate my dealing with my own children and it was this I was most interested in reading about. But it was not to be, and the direction the book took did not do anything for me in the end.


Salman Rushdie: Haroun and the Sea of Stories

Salman Rushdie's magical style is applied to a story about a story teller who loses his ability to tell stories through the careless words of his son. How he gets back this ability, and what happens on the way is fairy story stuff, but newly shiny and sparkly in some indefinable way. Rushdie's style comes through and it's nice to have the more fantastic side of his story telling be given more room to work.


Tomas Hardy: The Mayor of Casterbridge

This story is a good one but it's extremely intriguing beginning is somewhat diminished by what comes afterwards. The act the main character (the Mayor) carries out does set in train the following events (and somewhat underlines certain aspects of his character) so that what occurs follows from this beginning. But the outrageousness of the act does not seem to impact on the life of the Mayor as much as you would expect. And when he takes up drinking again, having foresworn it for twenty one years, one expects it to have a greater impact on his situation than it does.

Having listened to both this and Far From The Madding Crowd, I find Hardy clever at creating characters that are multi-dimensional with both admirable and hateful aspects to their character.


Lemony Snicket: The Slippery Slope

I'm tired of Mr. Snickett. I though that he'd managed to give impetous to this series a few episodes ago, by changing the formula somewhat, but not enough. Even my daughter is finding this all too repetitive. Talk about milking the series. Feh.


Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird

Over 30 million sold worldwide. I guess you don't need me to tell you what a great book this is. The movie's not bad either.


 Jeffrey Eugenides: The Virgin Suicides

This was described as an up-to-date Holden Caulfield, but I'd rate it much higher than that. Catcher in the Rye meant nothing to me, but this book articulates the internal workings of a male teenage mind much better. The way in which the eponymous tragedy isn't really the central focus of the boy's (and, perhaps,  the town's) obsession with the girls, feels very true, although the statement of this fact towards the end of the book sounds a little self serving.

I'm interested in seeing the movie now as I'd like to see someone else's interpretation.


John McGahern: Amongst Women

This made me a little uncomfortable. I know men like Moran. I know fathers like Moran. I feel that it's very Irish, but it may be just as easily Austrian or Azerbaijani. I find it hard to talk about this book, but it's very good. If by good you mean unsettling.


Don DeLillo: Underworld

No thanks. I abandoned it at the end of the second segment. It might have been ok if the reader hadn't read as if every word was dripping with meaning and portent. The baseball story was interesting, but after a while I lost track of which middle-aged man was wrestling with his past or his conscience, so I gave up. I really did not care one whit about any of them.


Louise Fitzhugh: Harriet The Spy

Sometime you have to lie. Yes indeed. Harriet, for all her observation and note taking, seems a little slow on the uptake, but we'll forgive her. She is, is some ways, an architypal online journalist. Relaying all her observations without understanding the potential for hurt. A lesson to us all, perhaps.


Ann Patchett: Bel Canto

Beautiful song in Italian, it seems. A so-so read. I really had high hopes for this as I liked the way various characters were introduced, but the states of mind they found themselves in and the lack of resolution made it all very anti-climatic. I was annoyed by the idea that opera was such a powerful force that all in the house were spellbound by it. I was annoyed that the singer, diva, prima donna was tolerated and loved so much. I'm sure there was some sort of metaphor thing going on that I didn't pick up on, but she could have been played by Whitney Houston a la The Bodyguard.


Ken Kesey: One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest

We all know the movie, with Mr. Nicolson in full flight, but this doesn't spoil the book necessarily. As the story is told in the first person by the chief, we get to see more of his inner demons and fears. It all hovers on the edge of plausibilty and the cruelty and the manipulation feel horrible but not unlikely. Much of the truly horrible stuff is done lightly, almost casually, and without much in the way of gory detail.

A good book, and a good reading.


Stefan Fatsis: Word Freak

A book about competitive Scrabble. It's an introduction to an interesting world -- one where people who aren't native in the language can compete in the world event. Because, it's not about vocabulary; it's about knowing the words. Which is different. Along with this book, I bought the official Scrabble word book, which is page after page of words with no definitions. Because what they mean is irrelevant. Ultimately Scrabble is not about words, but about pattern matching. Which spoils it a bit for me.

The book was a bit frustrating if you hoped (as I did) to pick up any tactics. There're hints, but not a lot of solid advice. Towards the end when the author attempts to win the 2nd division in the nationals he describes the end game of one particular game which explains where you have to get to to be a good player. And that was worth knowing. The rest of the book was a little off putting and the games of Scrabble I've played since haven't been that much fun. And I don't know how this book has made it so.


Neal Stephenson: Snow Crash

Having read and enjoyed The Cryptonomicon, I wasn't expecting this to be quite so cyberpunky. And I really have a low level of tolerance for that sort of stuff. Cool hacker dudes create complex virtual worlds that are completely under their control. It didn't help that the beginning is almost exactly the same as the beginning of William Gibson's Virtual Light. Guy has drone job. Guy fucks up. Guy gets involved with courier. Ok, so she's a bike courier in Virtual Light, but similar enough. And the interminable conversations with the librarian about ancient religions. Very dull. Couldn't recommend it,


Michael Chabon: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

I love many things about this book. I like its size and shape. I like its font. I like the words contained therein. I can only quibble about two metaphors (or were they similes?). This is a great book. The opening section set in Prague is a jewel. It's just lovely. The rest of the book lives a little in its shadow, but survives the comparison. My reading of this was interfered with a little by my leaving it in someone else's car. Getting it back was great, but I'd lost a little momentum.

I loved this book. Really.


Truman Capote: Breakfast at Tiffany's

Reading this with a picture of Audrey Hepburn in my head and two lines of the stupid song going 'round and 'round my brain was not the most pleasant experience. Not Mr Capote's fault, I grant you, but still.

It felt slight; insubstantial. That might only be because it's short, but the other short stories in the book seem to be more effective. Knowing nothing about Capote, the difference in style of the main story with the others came as a bit of a shock. I always associated Capote with sophisticated Manhattan life and the less than urban content of the shorter stories was unexpected.


Caleb Carr: The Alienist

This was like Sherlock Holmes fanfic. Set in the late 1800s in New York, an unofficial investigation is set up to track down a gruesome serial killer. The narrator was a sort of a Watson character and the leader of this merry band a bleeding edge psychologist. The most irritating aspect of this book is the same thing that I hate about Sherlock Holmes. The investigative genius knows all the answers but will never divulge them until after all the action. Hinting at ideas and desiring others to follow blindly while the underlings complain but cannot deny the towering intellect.

Admittedly this is subverted later in the book, but not sufficiently to redeem it.


Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampadusa: The Leopard

A short (190 pages) novel about the passing of feudal nobility in Sicily. The passing of power from the old to the new is witnessed from the Prince's point of view and the gradual and barely perceptible changes make up the eight or so episodes that chart the demise. It's very good, and while the language can be a bit convoluted at times, it's well worth it. What it says about growing old and becoming less relevant can be a bit frightening, and the author (himself a Duke and Prince of the locality) understood the archaic nature of his heritage.


Neil Gaiman: American Gods

Almost, but not quite. I'm sure that somewhere in there, there was a thread tying everything together with the idea that gods die out in America because it's infertile ground for them, or something. I'm not sure if Mr. Gaiman thinks this is a good thing or not, or even if it's just, you know, a story. There's some undeniable craft in there -- some of his characters are interesting and some of the dialog is good -- but the little things are better than the big ideas. And all those little stories that interrupted the main one get a little grating and repetitive after a while.


Terry Pratchett: Night Watch

Eh. I have liked other discworld novels better. This one didn't have the charm of Men at Arms which was funny and sad. This was a bit jaded feeling and didn't have any of the crackle and wit that the aforementioned has or (my current favourite) Mort.

Go here for a cool suggested reading order.


Charles Dickens: Great Expectations

Having enjoyed (hugely) A Tale of Two Cities, I obtained this from Audible too. Same reader, same author; how could I go wrong? And I didn't. He's a great story teller and his massively descriptive passages are really good. But he can really write sympathetic dialogue. Some scenes could have been axed without affecting the story but in most cases the overstatement worked better than the understatement might have. The contempt he held for the middle classes is quite palpable and his portrayal of those that would become known as the bourgeois is very cutting.

This recording was interesting in that it finished with the published ending and then gave the original one that Dickens was talked out of. I preferred the original one


Nick Hornby: 31 Songs

I read this in one go last night (I'd had a quadruple espresso and couldn't sleep). The premise is that Mr. Hornby takes 31 songs and talks about why they're important to him (or were). He talks around the songs in most cases; talking about what's important about pop music in general before saying why this particular song fits that category. It's a more readable version of The War Against Silence (I find Glenn a little too opaque most of the time).

I have a weakness for books that are about the importance of music, as I believe that it is -- very important -- but I haven't got a coherant reason why. Mr Hornby does a decent job of explaining this and answering the criticism that new music isn't new any more. Well he doesn't anwer it, so much as say 'so what?'.

The project peters out at the end for while he says at the beginning that being positive is harder than being negative, his examination of the top ten albums from the Billboard 100 chart is limp, due to the way he snarks (ever so slightly) at them.


Sue Miller: While I was Gone

A slightly unsatisfying book. The premise was interesting and some of the emotions expressed felt real; but ultimately it was unfulfilling. The night I finished reading it, I had to pick it up again and re-read the last couple of pages to see if I really had finished it as I couldn't remember there being much of a conclusion. Perhaps that's the point; perhaps life doesn't get tied up neatly. I couldn't recommend this book though.

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