19 July 2014

Before I forget: June's haul of books

Count: 17 (one not pictured because it's a leaflet with no printing on the spine).
Out of which I have already read: 2 (The Widow Clicquot and All Venice).
Previously read: 2 (Eats, Shoots & Leaves and Unnatural Selections, which turned out to be featured almost in its entirety in the Far Side Gallery 4, which I bought last month).


17 July 2014

Review: Arnaldur Indriðason: Skuggasund (Potential title translation: Shadow Channel (source: Wikipedia))

This is a "crimes of the past revisited" story, something Arnaldur has done before in several of his other books (e.g. Silence of the Grave, The Draining Lake and Strange Shores). Told in chapters alternating between 1944 and the modern day, it tells the story of how the murder of an old man sets a retired police detective on the trail of another, unsolved, murder that happened during WW2 in Reykjavík. This is not a detective Erlendur story and does not feature either of his two closest collaborators on the police force but instead introduces a new character, a recently retired detective named Konráð.

I don't know if the English title given for this book in the Wikipedia entry on Arnaldur and elsewhere on the web (except that literature.is gets it (almost) right), is the one that will be used for the eventual translation, but to me it looks suspiciously like a Google Translate blooper. Skuggasund actually means "Shadow Alley" and is the name of a street in Reykjavík, behind the National Theatre. Near the beginning of the story an Icelandic girl and her American serviceman boyfriend stumble upon a body at the back of the theatre and the man sees someone standing on the corner of the eponymous street. I will post the eventual  English title as soon as I find out what it is.

This is a plot-driven story for the most part. We get to know some background information about the characters, but almost all of it is pertinent to the story in some way, like the descriptions of what they look like, which are important for reader visualisation, and little details that allow us to see them as fully developed characters, but the personal lives and problems of the detectives don't intrude into the story like they sometimes do in the Erlendur books. This is a good thing, in my opinion, because I have always thought that Arnaldur wasn't very good at making his detectives interesting. The only protagonist in any of his books (of those I've read) that has a (semi-)interesting private life is Erlendur, and that's because the others are just so normal, and normal is very hard to make interesting.

The two stories unfold bit by bit, with the historical and modern detectives discovering the same information at different times and puzzling out what happened using different methods. As in all of the books by Arnaldur that I have read, the story really makes one think about justice and how criminals often manage to escape it even when they're found out, while innocents suffer and potentially useful lives are cut off, because Arnaldur's victims are rarely stereotypical "deserved to die" types.

SPOILER WARNING

06 July 2014

Desert Island Books 2014

In 2008 and again in 2011 I posted my choices for Desert Island Books, i.e. books I would take with me for a year’s stay alone on a desert island. Since three years went by between these two posts and another three years have gone by since the second one, I thought it was time to do a third such list.

To recap the rules:
There can be more than one book in a volume, but I can only choose 10 volumes plus a book of national importance to my culture and one religious book. My previous choices in these categories were the Icelandic Sagas and the Mahabaratha in 2008, and in 2011 I again chose the Sagas and the religious book was the Koran.
My culturally important book for 2014 is yet again the Sagas (I have read one of them since last time), and the religious book would not be a book of religion (like the Bible or the Koran) but one about religion or the lack thereof - title not decided yet but God: A Biography by Jack Miles comes to mind.

As in 2011, I did not look at the previous lists before I drew up this one. In the order I thought of them:

  • The Oxford Companion to the English Language. Grammar and literary history in one neat package.
  • Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. For some drama and romance.
  • One of my Discworld omnibuses, probably the one containing Pyramids, Small Gods and Hogfather or maybe the one containing the first three City Watch books. For some humour and to have reliable fall-backs if I don’t like the ones I haven’t read yet.
  • Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. I keep meaning to read it.
  • The Iceland’s Bell trilogy by Halldór Laxness (I’ll have to hand bind them into one volume since I don’t think there is an omnibus edition available). I thoroughly enjoyed the first book and think it is time to reread it and read the others.
  • Sögur íslenskra kvenna 1879-1960. This is a volume that I keep intending to read and keep putting off because it’s such a large book. It contains a number of short stories and some short novels written by Icelandic women.
  • The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley.
  • Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset. The Icelandic translation because I don’t fancy having to take a Norwegian dictionary as one of my books.
  • Don Quixote by Cervantes. Another big book, one I have been intending to read for the last 15 years or so. An English translation, critical edition.
  • Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin. I figured I had to bring one work of non-fiction and this has been on my TBR list for a long time.
  • If I could smuggle in one more book, it would be The Norton Anthology of English Literature (one-volume of it).

And now to look at the old lists to see what has changed and what has not:

2008 list
2011 list

I first thought to include Dalalíf by Guðrún frá Lundi (a long historical novel), as in the previous two lists, but after making my first draft of the list I found a copy of the first volume and started reading it and decided that I didn’t really want to finish it. Therefore the Sagas are the only book on all three lists. Instead of Dalalíf I chose The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. If I had to replace the Sagas, I would choose a Tómas Guðmundsson poetry anthology or a Jónas Hallgrímsson prose anthology.

The Norton Anthology which I almost included on this year’s list was not on the 2011 list but was included in the 2008 list. Same goes for Small Gods, plus there is an unspecified Terry Pratchett omnibus on the 2011 list.

Two books that were on both previous lists did not make the grade this time: The Once and Future King by T.H. White (one Arthurian novel is enough, I think), and The Arabian Nights. Both might reappear on the next version of the list.

I have only finished one of the previously listed books that I had not read before: London, the Biography. Pitiful, I know, but my interest fluctuates and new books come into orbit all the time.

So, Dear reader, do you have a current list of desert island books?

03 July 2014

Reading report for June

I read a total of 17 books in June. 6 were rereads and 7 were TBR. The genres included romance, travelogue, history, geology, biography, fantasy, true crime and visual humour.

I reached the 100 books mark around mid-month, meaning that if I keep up the current rate of reading I will finish just over 200 books in the course of the year. I also read the 30th TBR book of the year, putting me on course and boding well for the completion of the challenge.

The stand-outs of the month were Krakatoa and The Kon-Tiki Expedition, closely followed by The Nonexistent Knight and Medicine Road. I bought all four books on clearance sale at one of the charity shops I sometimes visit.

Krakatoa is one of those juicy history/science books that I love to read, and it doesn't hurt that it was written by Simon Winchester, whose writing never fails to please me. The subject of the book is the explosion of the Indonesian volcano Krakatoa, the lead-up to the event and the aftermath. Winchester is a trained geologist and clearly interested in the subject, and manages to make the complexities of volcanic activity and tectonic movements understandable for a layperson.

The Kon-Tiki Expedition is Thor Heyerdahl's first-hand account of his epic journey by raft from Peru to Polynesia in 1947. I read an English translation I came across in a charity shop, but when I was about 2/3 finished with it I found a copy of the Norwegian edition. However, I decided to finish it in English because otherwise I might be liable to remember it as two separate stories. The Norwegian edition has many more photographs and also illustrations and artwork by one of the expedition members, so I'm keeping both.

The Nonexistent Knight and Medicine Road are both accomplished works of fantasy, one a humorous medieval tale of knights on a quest and the other a gorgeously illustrated romantic story of mythical beings in modern south-west USA looking for love and trying to break a spell.


The books:
  • Þjóðsögur frá Eistlandi (Estonian Folk Tales). Folk tales.
  • James Bowen: A Street Cat Named Bob. Memoir.
  • Italo Calvino: Riddarinn sem var ekki(The Nonexistent Knight). Fantasy, historical novel.
  • Jennifer Crusie & Bob Mayer : Agnes and the Hitman. Romantic suspense. Reread.
  • Kate DiCamillo: Because of Winn-Dixie. Children’s book.
  • Georgette Heyer: The Unknown Ajax. Historical romance. Reread.
  • Georgette Heyer: The Nonesuch. Historical romance. Reread.
  • Thor Heyerdahl: The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By raft across the Pacific. Travelogue.
  • Elizabeth Kaye: Lifeboat No. 8: An Untold Tale of Love, Loss, and Surviving the Titanic. History.
  • Charles de Lint: Medicine Road. Fantasy.
  • Nancy Mitford: The Pursuit of Love. Novel.
  • Derek Pell: Doktor Bey's Book of Brats. Humour (mostly visual).
  • Nora Roberts: Jewels of the Sun; Tears of the moon; Heart of the sea. Paranormal romance. Rereads.
  • Ferdinand von Schirach: Glæpir (Crime). True crime.
  • Simon Winchester: Krakatoa: The day the world exploded: August 27, 1883. History.


23 June 2014

Enough with the shaming already!



Just because you like highbrow, it doesn‘t entitle you to shame others for reading what you consider lowbrow.

You might be tempted to say "At least they're reading", but that would be wrong too. They have the right to do whatever they fucking want to with books: read them, ignore them, use them for decoration, use them for toilet paper for that matter.

22 June 2014

Reading report for May

I read 17 books in May, a mixture of first-time reads and rereads, all but two of which were fiction. The rereads were the Jennifer Crusie books and the YA Terry pratchett novel Nation, which I picked up second hand in May and reread before adding it to my keeper shelf.

There was an unusual (for a single month) number of books I rated 4 or more stars (out of a possible 5) so I decided to include the star rating I gave each first-time read. Keep in mind that the enjoyment I got out of the book tends to weigh heavier than the quality of writing, style and narrative, so you might see some ratings that surprise you. Sometimes these components come together into something sublime, which is when I find myself compelled to give more than the top rating of 5 stars. In any given year only a handful of books gets this 5+ rating, but the ones that do always end up – when I own the copy I read – on my keeper shelves, or – when I don‘t – I end up buying a copy, and vigorously recommend the book to my friends, family and coworkers.



The standout for May was I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven, which I reviewed yesterday. I must also mention another classic, Stephen Crane‘s The Red Badge of Courage. It’s an excellent psychological study of a young soldier during his first battle. Unfortunately I never completely connected with the protagonist, so it didn’t perhaps get from me the score it might have deserved, but that’s how it goes. I also enjoyed the Griffin & Sabine trilogy by Nick Bantock, not because of the story (which is actually rather trite) but because of the packaging, which is fantastic.

The books:
  • Nick Bantock: Griffin & Sabine. Mystery, art book.4 stars.
  • Nick Bantock: Sabine's Notebook. Mystery, art book. 4 stars.
  • Nick Bantock: The Golden Mean. Mystery, art book.3.5 stars.
  • Stephen Crane: The Red Badge of Courage. Novel, war, coming-of-age. 4 stars.
  • Margaret Craven: I heard the owl call my name. Novel. 5.5 stars.
  • Jennifer Crusie: Anyone but you, Welcome to Temptation, Crazy for You, Strange Bedpersons, Bet Me. Contemporary romance. Reread.
  • Jennifer & Bob Mayer Crusie: Don't look down. Romantic suspense. Reread.
  • Julia Delaney (ed.): Chocolate: York's Sweet Story. History, summary (brochure).
  • Terry Pratchett: Nation. YA, alternative history. Reread.
  • Nora Roberts: Morrigan's Cross, Dance of the Gods, Valley of Silence. Romantic fantasy. 3.5 stars.
  • Sverrir Kristjánsson & Tómas Guðmundsson: Í veraldarvolki. (English: Adrift in the World). Biography. 3 stars.



21 June 2014

Review: I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven

This is perhaps a bit of overload, as this novel is considered a modern classic and has been heavily reviewed, discussed and dissected. There are even study guides. However, I felt I needed to say something about it because it's such a lovely story.



This exquisite short novel is about a young anglican priest sent to a native outpost in the wilds of Canada and describes in lovely, elegaic prose how he becomes, with his patience and non-judgmental attitude towards his parishoners, accepted as part of the native community. Because we are told right from the beginning that he is dying and doesn‘t know it, this book could so easily have become a tear-jerker, but it isn‘t (I probably would have cried anyway if I‘d read it as a teenager full of raging hormones). It is open (and dry)-eyed about death and doesn‘t preach religion as books about religious persons have an unfortunate tendency to, but yet gives one a deep sense of faith, fatalism and acceptance. The message is that in order to accept death, one muct first learn to live and to accept life with both the good and the bad. 

It is also a perfect example of a story brought to its logical conclusion, one which, to some, might seem unfair or unhappy, but to my mind could not be bettered. Although the execution of the ending is somewhat unexpected, it does not feel tacked-on, clumsy or wrong (on that subject refer to my reviews of My Sister‘s Keeper and The Elegance of the Hedgehog) and deftly avoids the shmaltzy, pathetic or over-dramatic death scenes that have plagued some other literary novels I have read. The death scene is unemotional, sketched in few details, and somehow just right. 

If the book has a fault, it is that of seemingly glossing over the problems of the native community, but since it isn‘t supposed to be a novel about social ills but about a personal journey, this is a minor fault. If one pays attention, one can find a deep sorrow and sympathy for these people who are slowly but inexorably being uprooted from their native culture without being transplanted wholly into the white man‘s culture. 

5+ stars.

18 June 2014

May's haul of books

It's official: I'm buying books again. Why, after the book-buying ban, all the culling and the TBR challenge and all that?

Well, buying second-hand books is a cheap form of retail therapy (especially when the charity shop is having a clearance sale) and as I don't need any more clothes at the moment I need something else to shop for. Also because I culled some books I didn't want to keep and let go some stuff I had no use for that was cluttering up precious shelf-space in my apartment and I again have shelf-space for books.

But I'm not just buying any old books. I'm being fairly picky and not buying as much on speculation as I used to (I was using the charity shops and second hand shops like libraries when the book-buying mania was at its worst) and I'm buying more large format and coffee-table books, and novels in hard covers in preference to softcover novels, and more non-fiction than fiction. Basically books I think I might definitely want to keep, books that are expensive to buy new (and that I know I'll want to keep), and books that will look good on my coffee table and make for nice browsing.

Below is May's haul, guarded by my cockatiel, Ljúfur. His friend, Quasimodo, flew off when he saw the camera, and you can see that my poor, flightless baby is straining to see where his friend has gone.

I was so happy with the haul that I have already read four of them and am close to finishing the fifth. Click on the image to see it full size.


22 May 2014

Bless his little heart!


Yet another privileged male rants about women and their love of romance novels, apparently based on reading two books, and promptly gets taken down by clever, articulate women people. By the way, if anything, some of the responses in the comment section beneath the original article are even better than the SMTB post and the accompanying comments (albeit not as stingingly funny).

(By the way, I have a low opinion of Fifty Shades of Grey, but I wouldn't dream of saying anything negative about the people who enjoy it. What you enjoy is not what you are - if it was, I'd have been diagnosed with dissociative personality disorder years ago).


12 May 2014

The monstrous country house to end all monstrous country houses?

I spent a considerable time looking for interior and exterior photos of a house or houses to accompany this description, but I finally gave up. And no wonder:

        It was an astonishing building. A Victorian architect, fortified and encouraged by the Ancred of his day, had pulled down a Queen Anne house and, from its rubble, caused to rise up a sublimation of his most exotic day-dreams. To no one style or period did Ancreton adhere. Its façade bulged impartially with Norman, Gothic, Baroque and Rococo excrescences. Turrets sprouted like wens from every corner. Towers rose up from a multiplicity of battlements. Arrow slits peered furtively at exopthalmic bay-windows, and out of a kaleidoscope field of tiles rose a forest of variegated chimney-stacks. The whole was presented, not against the sky, but against a dense forest of evergreen trees, for behind Ancreton crest rose another and steeper hillside, richly planted in conifers. Perhaps the imagination of this earlier Ancred was exhausted by the begetting of his monster, for he was content to leave, almost unmolested, the terraced gardens and well-planted spinneys that had been laid out in the tradition of John Evelyn. These, maintaining their integrity, still gently led the eye of the observer towards the site of the house and had an air of blind acquiescence in its iniquities.

...

     The interior of Ancreton amply sustained the promise of its monstrous façade. Troy was to learn that “great” was the stock adjective at Ancreton. There was the Great West Spinney, the Great Gallery and the Great Tower. Having crossed the Great Drawbridge over the now dry and cultivated moat, Troy, Fenella, and Paul entered the Great Hall.

     Here the tireless ingenuity of the architect had flirted with a number of Elizabethan conceits. There was a plethora of fancy carving, a display of stained-glass windows bearing the Ancred arms, and a number of presumably collateral quarterings. Between these romped occasional mythical animals, and, when mythology and heraldry had run short, the Church had not been forgotten, for crosslets-ancred stood cheek-by-jowl in mild confusion with the keys of St. Peter and the Cross of St. John of Jerusalem.

     Across the back of the hall, facing the entrance, ran a minstrels’ gallery, energetically chiselled and hung at intervals with banners. Beneath this, on a wall whose surface was a mass of scrolls and bosses, the portrait, Fenella explained, was to hang. By day, as Troy at once noticed, it would be chequered all over with the reflected colours of a stained-glass heraldry and would take on the aspect of a jig-saw puzzle. By night, according to Paul, it would be floodlit by four lamps specially installed under the gallery.

     There were a good many portraits already in the hall, and Troy’s attention was caught by an enormous canvas above the fireplace depicting a nautical Ancred of the eighteenth century, who pointed his cutlass at a streak of forked lightning with an air of having made it himself.

...

     ...an enormous drawing-room which looked, she thought, as if it was the setting for a scene in “Victoria Regina”. Crimson, white, and gold were the predominant colours, damask and velvet the prevailing textures. Vast canvases by Leader and MacWhirter occupied the walls. On each occasional table or cabinet stood a silver-framed photograph of Royalty or Drama.

From Final Curtain by Ngaio Marsh.