29 April 2009

Wednesday reading experience #17

If you mostly read classics, try reading a modern novel published in the last 20 years or so.
Or, if you mostly read modern novels, try a classic, preferably one published more than 100 years ago.

Was it as good or bad as you expected? Was it perhaps worse? Or better?
After this, will you be reading more classics/modern novels, or will you stick to reading what you have always read?

In the last couple of years I have been reading mostly books published in the 20th and 21st centuries, but I have promised myself that I will read more classics this year.

28 April 2009

Top mysteries challenge review: The Beast Must Die by Nicholas Blake

Two interesting facts about the author: Nicholas Blake was the pseudonym of Cecil Day Lewis who was Britain’s poet laureate from 1968 to 1972, and he was actor Daniel Day-Lewis’s father.

Neither fact has any bearing on the following review – I just happen to like trivia.

Year of publication: 1938
Genre: Mystery
Type of investigator: Amateur sleuth
Setting & time: Gloucestershire, UK; 1930s contemporary

Full of grief for his son, killed by a hit-and-run driver, mystery writer Frank Cairnes hatches a plan to track down the driver and murder him, writing his plan down in his diary. A coincidence gives him a clue to the identity of the driver and under the pseudonym he uses for his detective writing he manages to get an introduction to the man, but he can not be sure he is the driver. When the man is murdered, Cairnes seeks the help of amateur sleuth Nigel Strangeways to prove his innocence, the incriminating diary having fallen into the hands of the police.

This story is told by two narrators: the prime murder suspect himself, in a first-person diary leading up to the murder, and a third-person omniscient narrator who tells the remainder of the story, first briefly from the outside and then exclusively from the point of view of sleuth Nigel Strangeways. It is then up to the reader to decide/discover if the first-person narrative is a reliable or unreliable one. The reader is on an even footing with Nigel and the police the whole time, knows all they know and has the same opportunity to solve the case. Some may succeed ahead of them and some may not, for the plot is fiendishly clever and twisted, in the puzzle plot tradition.

Blake is a bit prone to using stereotypes, e.g. the downtrodden wife and the proud old matriarch, which is a bit annoying, but that can be forgiven when the plotting is as good as it is here. Only one thing, besides the stereotypes, marred my reading pleasure: it has the ending that I loathe, for which I withdraw 1/2 point from it.

Rating: A brilliant classic puzzle plot mystery. 4 1/2 stars.

Books left in challenge: 106.

27 April 2009

Review: Blue Highways: A journey into America by William Least Heat Moon

Year published: 1982
Genre: Travelogue
Setting & time: USA, 1978

This book often makes it onto lists of best or favourite or recommended travelogues, and seems set to become a classic of the genre. Much like Steinbeck's Travels with Charley, to which it has been likened by some reviewers, it provides a snapshot of small-town USA as it was at one point in time.

In the wake of a divorce and the loss of his job, which precipitated an existential crisis, Moon set out to travel around America by the small roads - the ones traditionally marked with blue on old highway maps. The journey became one of discovery, not just of himself, but of small-town America. He especially sought out small towns with unusual names and asked around until he found people willing to tell him how they got their names, some of which makes for fascinating reading. He was always on the lookout for interesting people to talk to, and recorded the conversations which made it possible for him to quote them verbatim in the book (although some seem too apt to the purpose of the journey to be true).

While this book is in some ways similar to Travels with Charley, I also think it has certain things in common with Larry McMurtry's Roads which I
previously reviewed. While at first sight the two may seem like diametrical opposites, Roads being about fast travel along fast roads and Blue Highways about slow travel along slow roads, they actually have quite a lot in common, e.g. both being the results of a personal crises and both being fueled by a love of driving, of travelling, and of America. I see the two as companion pieces of sorts and recommend reading them back to back.

Rating: A modern classic of the travel genre and an interesting snapshot of small-town USA in the 1970s. 4+ stars.

25 April 2009

Reading journal: Crime and Punishment by Fjodor Dostojevski. Entry 5: Conclusions and a few final words.

I got so caught up in the story that I decided not to stop to write notes about parts 5 and 6 and instead went on to finish the story. Therefore I don’t have any notes or thoughts on future developments, but here are my conclusions:

  • While the main thread of the story is predictable – man commits crime, man tries to avoid suspicion, man breaks down and confesses – the parts that flesh out the narrative are not all so predictable. What really makes this such a brilliant story is not the main story itself but the characters and their interactions and dialogues. Each character is unique and separate and there is no danger of ever getting them confused with each other. Raskolnikov, for example, is brilliantly conceived, and one can easily see how someone with his pride, arrogance and tendency toward depression would be adversely affected by his circumstances and commit a crime. It is equally plausible how he can then be driven to confess by an older man like Petrovits, experienced in applying psychology to squeeze confessions out of hardened criminals, which Raskolnikov is definitely not.

  • Although the incarceration of Raskolnikov at the end might be considered to be the punishment of the title, the real punishment is of course his realisation that he is not the great man he thought himself to be, which is why he gives himself up to the police in a quest for some peace of mind. He has no regrets for the death of the old woman, considers her a necessary part of his experiment to find out if he really is a great man or not. He does not find peace of mind in the punishment meted out to him, but rather in the realisation that he loves Sonja, who has loved him almost from the first.

  • Lots of death in various forms: Murder, suicide, accident, illness, lack of will to live. Surprisingly, while some of the deaths are quite wrenching to read, the story is not depressing, perhaps because it ends on a note of hope, but also because one sees that the characters are expendable and their deaths are necessary for the plot.

The question now is: does this book really belong on a list of best crime novels?
On the surface it is certainly about a crime, but underneath it is an examination of human emotions, of character, of what drives people to extremes, and how people react to abnormal circumstances, so isn’t calling it a crime novel reducing it to a mere entertainment, a book to take to the beach?

Some of the best modern psychological thrillers and crime novels are exactly about those same themes, even when they don’t approach C&P in literary quality. It would be quite easy, I think, to pare C&P down to a sleek psychological thriller. It would certainly lose some of the literary quality, but the core story would still be about Raskolnikov and his crime, his mental anguish over it, and his eventual incarceration, so therefore I think the answer to the question is a definite “yes”. I am no expert on world literary history – all I have studied is Icelandic and English lit – but I think this may just be the prototype for the psychological criminal novel.

I even want to read it again some time in the future, which is not something I can say about many of the crime novels and mysteries I have read, however good they have been.

Rating: A masterpiece of literature and a great read. 5+ stars.

Books left in challenge: 107.

24 April 2009

Review of Heat by Bill Buford

Subtitle: An amateur’s adventures as kitchen slave, line cook, pasta-maker, and apprentice to a Dante-quoting butcher in Tuscany.
Year published: 2006
Genre: Memoir, food writing
Setting & time: New York, USA, and Tuscany, Italy; starting in 2002

Bill Buford became obsessed with learning to cook like a pro and on the basis of his friendship with celebrity chef Mario Batali was accepted into the kitchen of one of Batali's restaurants, Babbo, as an assistant, working his way up to line cook in about a year. Then he became obsessed with learning to make perfect pasta, and went to Italy to learn. Then he became obsessed with meat, and again went to Italy and became an apprentice to a butcher in Tuscany. The story of this journey is interspersed with snippets of Batali’s biography, stories about Babbo kitchen antics and politics, discussions about food and excursions into Italian culinary history.

Here is a guy who is just as obsessed with food as Jeffrey Steingarten, but instead of writing articles about it, he has written a book. Buford is a skilful writer and is able to be self-deprecating without becoming clownish about it (which I absolutely hate). He also doesn’t spare anyone else when they deserve it.

Celebrity chef Mario Batali comes across as a larger than life figure in the hands of Buford, who obviously likes him very much, but without worshipping him. For a while I thought the book was shaping up to be a sort of biography of Batali, interspersed by recollections of Buford’s friendship with him, but then Buford changed directions and started writing about his experiences in Italy, first as a pasta-making apprentice and then as an apprentice in an old-fashioned butcher shop in Tuscany, which I found to be the most interesting part of the book.

However, the descriptions of working in the kitchen of one of New York’s best restaurants were by no means boring. The kitchen, which is organised in ranks almost like a military organisation, seems to have been staffed with a collection of big egos, some of whom seem to have enjoyed abusing the lower ranks. Some of the descriptions of the kitchen practices and treatment of food rival the ones in Antony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential in their ability to gross out the reader. These two books have convinced me that the less one thinks about what could be going on in a restaurant kitchen, the better one can enjoy one’s meal.

Ultimately, although Buford writes much about Batali and others, this is his story, and it makes for interesting reading. It seems clear to me that Buford was either going through an existential crisis of some kind, which made him quit his job to pursue unpaid apprenticeships in careers he clearly had no intention of entering, or that his intention right from the beginning was to have those experiences so he could write a book about them. Perhaps both notions are right. Whatever the truth is, the book is interesting and entertaining and full of information any foodie will enjoy.

Rating:3+ stars.

23 April 2009

Reading journal: Crime and Punishment by Fjodor Dostojevski. Entry 4.

I’ve taken a long break from the book, but I hope not so long as to affect my memory of what I have already read. I have just a few notes on this part:

  • Svidrigelof is definitely planning something. At first he tells R that he wants to court and marry Dunja, and then when R does not take kindly to that, he changes tack and says he wants to give her some money but will then leave her alone and marry another woman. Then he appears again, listening in on a conversation between Sonja and R. I think he may try to blackmail R, either for money or for help in winning Dunja's hand (he does seem to have honorable intentions towards her now that his wife is dead).

  • As I had guessed (and hoped) Dunja has broken her engagement with Lusjin, and seems to be beginning to fall in love with Rasumikhin, who has proven himself to be a thoroughly decent person.

  • Petrovits has started trying to confuse R into confessing or giving himself away somehow, using psychological methods, and has even described his method to him. R’s behaviour in Petrovits’s office is such that one would either take it as a direct evidence of his guilt, or of his madness. I am pretty certain that Petrovits knows that R is the murderer, but either can not arrest him for lack of solid evidence, or will not arrest him because he wants him to confess of his own free will.

  • It seems I was right about Sonja – R visits her, finds out she knew Lisaveta, and promises to tell her who murdered her.

  • Lusjin has been thoroughly confirmed as being pompous, arrogant, and silly. His attachment to Dunja arose because he desired to marry a woman who was educated and cultured but poor, so that he would always have someone to worship him for saving her from her situation. I wonder if he will try to win her back?

22 April 2009

Wednesday reading experience #16

Find a book that has been adapted into a film. Read the book, watch the film (or vice versa) and compare the two.

What did you think was better in the book?
What did you think was better in the film?
Did the film change the storyline significantly?
Did it add anything?
Did you agree with the casting?

I plan to do this with one of the Top Mysteries challenge books and will blog about it when the time comes.

19 April 2009

Top mysteries challenge review: The Sun Chemist by Lionel Davidson

Year of publication: 1976
Genre: Thriller
Type of investigator: Amateur
Setting & time: London, England, and Rehovot, Israel; 1970s.

(Note: links will open in new windows)

The narrator, historian Igor Druyanov, is in London, peacefully editing some of Chaim Weizmann’s personal papers when scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot discover that Weizmann may have discovered how to use the ABE process (which Weizmann helped discover) on potatoes to produce a cheap high-octane fuel that can replace gasoline. Immediately it becomes apparent that someone is trying to get hold of Weizmann’s formula. Igor goes to great lengths to
a) find the formula among Weizmann's papers, and
b) prevent it from falling into the wrong hands,
which, it is hinted at, are those of the big oil-producing countries or companies which would naturally not want the invention to become known to the world.

This interesting thriller is obviously inspired by the 1973 oil crises, and Davidson has skilfully woven together fact and fiction into story about what might have happened if such a biofuel had been discovered at the time. Biodiesel and several other biofuels had actually been invented by that time, but I guess either Davidson didn’t know about them, counted on his readers not knowing about them, or possibly those fuels were at that time so expensive to produce that they couldn’t rival fossil fuels. The blending of fact and fiction has produced a story that could be true – one that most readers, even today, 30 years after it was written, would wish were true.

Unfortunately I couldn’t get into the story. I read about half the book before Easter and then kept putting it aside in favour of other books, simply because I found it long-winded and even rather boring at times. Possibly a big part of it was the first-person narrative. I found Igor to be an uninteresting character, and therefore I found his first-person narrative boring. I even found myself skimming over the detailed final chase sequence, which, while admittedly atmospheric, was too wordy.

The plotting is very good and quite intricate, but without an interesting protagonist to cheer on, I just couldn’t get interested enough to find the story enjoyable as a whole.

An interesting story that gets bogged down by wordiness and a boring protagonist. 2+ stars.

Books left in challenge:
According to my latest attempt at counting how many I have left, it’s 107.5 (I'm still reading C&P).

15 April 2009

Wednesday reading experience #15

Read a book of myths, legends and/or folk-tales of your country or culture and see if you can find some familiar stories. Think about how these stories have influenced the literary heritage of your country or culture.

On a related note - it's fun to see how modern authors have spun their own versions of the old yarns. A fantasy novel that I read some years ago was, for example, a great modern version of the Sleeping Beauty* myth, and many romances are twists on one or another of the happily-ever-after myths (e.g. Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty). Another example is that all the names of the dwarves in JRR Tolkien's books and some of the names of other characters come straight out of Nordic mythology, and many of the stories he tells have a basis in myths or folk-tales. And of course one shouldn't forget all the novels based on the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

*Enchantment by Orson Scott Card

13 April 2009

Reading journal: Crime and Punishment by Fjodor Dostojevski. Entry 3.

  • Things are now getting really interesting. The story is about halfway told and the plot thickens as several turning points are reached one after the other. R seems to be recovering from his fever, but his mind is still in turmoil. The main turning points I have recognised as such are:

    • Sonja appearing on the scene and meeting R’s mother and sister – even though she has done little so far, she is presented in such a way as to suggest that she is an important character;

    • Dunja seems to have decided to break off her engagement with Lusjin, possibly because she has seen that her brother does not condone the marriage, but also possibly because she has realised it would be a kind of prostitution if she did marry him;

    • A second detective, Petrovits, has turned up and like Sametof he seems to be convinced that R is the murderer. It remains to be seen if he “solves” the case, i.e. finds proof and arrests R, or if R’s conscience drives him to confess. Petrovits is clearly a detective of the psychological school and has already started playing head games with R.

    • Finally, there is the appearance of Svidrigelof, a man described in a letter from R’s mother in Part 1 as Dunja’s ardent admirer, a married man for whom she worked and who wanted to make her his mistress, causing both women to be socially ostracised until it was made clear that Dunja was innocent of any wrongdoing. In an earlier chapter in this part of the book R’s mother and sister had mentioned that his wife had died of a stroke caused by him beating her, and now he turns up out of the blue and visits R. I smell something fishy.

  • Rasumikhin is clearly in love with Dunja, and she seems interested in him – this may lead to happiness or doom.

  • The thinking behind the murder is becoming clearer – R had, some time before the narrative starts, published an article in a periodical about how some unusual men, great men with great ideas beneficial to humankind, could be excused for having killed others to set their plans in motion and introduce their great ideas to the world. While it is not said in so many words, it is clear from the portrait the narrator has already painted of R that he considers himself one of these great men. The plan or idea has only been hinted at, but clearly he needed money to set it in motion, and was able, through his idea of himself as a great man, to convince himself that the old woman deserved to die so that others would live. That he thinks to himself that he is more insignificant than his victim is interesting – the brutal reality of the murder clearly clashes with his ideal. Another interesting point is his thinking that he has hardly considered Lisaveta at all, which the reader knows is not true. That murder, unexpected and unplanned for, is, I think, the one that has caused much more turmoil in him than the death of the old woman.

08 April 2009

Wednesday reading experience #14

Find a genre you have never read anything in and become acquainted with it.

I devoted part of my first 52 books challenge to discovering genres that were new to me, and I have not regretted it.

07 April 2009

Reading journal: Crime and Punishment by Fjodor Dostojevski. Entry 2.

I will make this short, since I don’t have many comments on this part of the book.

  • This part of the novel is an emotional roller-coaster. It starts with Raskolnikov’s wild attempts to destroy all evidence of the crime and his feverish panic when called in to the police station for an interview (over an unrelated matter), descends into pathos when his fever is described, although whether it is caused by real illness or is merely a psychosomatic effect of his shock and guilt after the murder is left up to the reader to decide (probably a mixture of both). Then there is a comic interlude when his prospective brother-in-law Lusjin arrives and both the reader and Raskolnikov discover him to be vain and pompous, both of which Raskolnikov mocks loudly but the man either does not understand or pretends not to. There follows another slip into almost mad despair with suicidal thoughts, followed by a very sad and pathetic scene which nevertheless lifts Raskolnikov’s spirits. Raskolnikov’s despair and guilt are never far away, however, so that one feels almost guilty for laughing at the funny parts. All of this is brilliantly done and never feels overdramatic.

  • That another man’s death should make Raskolnikov decide not to give himself up to the police creates a great opportunity for a dramatic twist in the narrative. It seems to me that his apparent decision to do something for the dead man's family could either lead to his redemption or his doom.

  • Marmeladof has resurfaced, if only briefly. His daughter Sonja has been introduced, and in a way that makes me think she will play some part in what is to come, either as Raskolnikov's love interest or his conscience made flesh.

  • I also have a feeling about Dunja, Raskolnikov’s sister, and his friend Rasumikhin – that there might be a romance in the cards, or at least unrequited love.

06 April 2009

Ankh-Morpork? No, just Wincanton, UK

Hehe. I really like this: Town names streets after Terry Pratchett's Discworld books.

There must be other examples of towns and cities taking up street names from fictional works. If you know of one or more, please drop me a comment.

03 April 2009

Reading journal: Crime and Punishment by Fjodor Dostojevski. Entry 1.

Note that the spellings of the Russian names that I use here are the ones used in the Icelandic translation, and may be different from the way they are transliterated into English.

Part 1 of the book is about the titular crime and what leads the protagonist, Raskolnikof, to commit it.

  • The leading-up to the decision to commit the crime is the result of a state of mind that seems to be caused in equal measure by hunger, desperation and pride, and possibly also love for his family, that come together in Raskolnikof‘s mind to convince him that what he is planning is the right thing to do. The way Dostojevski describes the reaching of the decision, from the idea (conceived in a nightmare) to the planning to finally making his mind up to go ahead, is nothing short of brilliant. By describing it in a non-linear way, giving it out piecemeal so that the reader has to be on the alert the whole time if they want to fully understand what is going on, he creates tension that feeds into the stress and fear of Raskolnikof as he sets out to carry out his murderous plan. There is a sick kind of logic to the whole decision-making process that makes one understand why and how Raskolnikof reaches this decision, and even though I find his actions repulsive, I can’t help but sympathise with him on a certain level while finding him repugnant on another.

  • Raskolnikof seems to be convinced that he can live with the murder on his conscience, having convinced himself that the old woman deserves to die and he deserves her money, but when he actually does do it there is a snag and he finds himself committing a second murder to cover up for the first and ends up killing an innocent and blameless woman. I have a feeling that this is going to be his downfall. He has not rationalised the killing of the second woman to himself, and I think his conscience will start bothering him before long.

  • The beginning of the story has the hallmark of a moral tale. The crime being over already, I have the feeling that this is not going to be a story of punishment in the legal sense, but rather one of the punishment visited on the guilty either by fate or by their own conscience, or perhaps both.

  • There is an interesting interlude early on with a drunkard named Marmeladof who tells Raskolnikof the story of his daughter who was forced by her stepmother to prostitute herself to keep the family fed and housed. This can be seen as an equally desperate but more honest sacrifice of the sort Raskolnikov’s mother and sister are preparing to make for him by the sister’s marriage to a rich man she does not love, and who, from the descriptions in the mother’s letter to her son, seems to be not altogether a nice person. It will be interesting to see what comes of this. I have a suspicion that Marmeladof will pop up again, and possibly his daughter as well.

02 April 2009

Reading report for March 2009

I have amazed myself again by reading a total of 22 books in one month. By the 18th it looked like I would manage, without having planned it, to read a book a day in March. That’s when I decided to slow down for a few days to rest my eyes. I’m happy I did, because while reading is good, so is spending time with friends and family.

Besides that, I had my tax report to turn in. It was unusually complicated this year, as I had five sources of income to report besides my regular salary, including a grant, some per diem money and my freelance translation work. Some of this was tax-deductible while some wasn’t, and some was tax-free and some was not. Sometimes, especially come tax-time, I think this freelance business is really too complicated to bother with, but now all I have to do is look at my new car and think "I wouldn’t have this if it wasn’t for my freelance work", and it stops being a problem.

The challenges are rolling along on schedule or better. I finished:
5 Top Mysteries challenge books,
4 Icelandic books, and
6 books that had been in my TBR stack for over a year, plus 3 more that I have owned for less than a year.

I am still accumulating new books slightly faster than I can read and cull the old ones, mostly because books from my vast wishlist keep becoming available on BookMooch.

Books I read in March:
Annette Blair: The Kitchen Witch (romance)
Meg Cabot: All American Girl (young adult book)
G.K. Chesterton: The Man who was Thursday (novel)
Joseph Conrad: The Secret Agent (psychological thriller)
Edmund Crispin: The Moving Toyshop (mystery)
Colin Dexter: The Dead of Jericho (mystery)
E.M. Forster: A Room with a View (classic romance)
Mark Hebden: Pel and the Faceless Corpse (mystery)
Patricia Highsmith: Strangers on a Train & The Talented Mr. Ripley (psychological thrillers)
Pico Iyer (issue editor) & Jason Wilson (series editor): The Best American Travel Writing 2004 (collection of travel articles)
Stieg Larsson: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (mystery thriller)
Cathie Linz: Between the Covers (romance)
Rory Maclean: Stalin's Nose (travelogue)
MasterCard Iceland: Umhverfis jörðina með MasterCard (travel guide, promotional)
Frances Mayes: Under the Tuscan Sun (fixer-upper memoir/travelogue)
Ruth Rendell: A Judgment in Stone (psychological thriller)
Stefán Jón Hafstein & Kristinn Jón Guðmundsson: New York! New York! (being there story/travelogue)
Fred Vargas: The Three Evangelists (mystery)
Pat & Dennis Welch (text); Mike Dowdall & Pat Welch(images): Humans (humour, comic book)
Yrsa Sigurðardóttir: Þriðja táknið (Last Rituals) & Sér grefur gröf (My Soul to Take) (mysteries)

Next month’s upcoming reads include 5 more Top Mysteries challenge books that I have on loan from the library and need to return before the end of the month. I plan to read fewer mysteries in April than I did in March and concentrate more on other types of novels and on non-fiction. I hope to take at least half of what I read in April from the TBR stack.

Reading journal: Crime and Punishment by Fjodor Dostojevski. Introduction.

Dostojevski’s Преступление и наказание (transliteration: Prestupleniye i Nakazaniye) or Crime and Punishment, was first published in 12 monthly instalments in a Russian literary magazine in 1866. It was almost immediately recognised for its literary value, and has become part of the literary canon, not only in Russia but in the whole of the Western world.

This is one of those classics that people who wish to be considered highly literate and well-read will proudly tick off their To Be Read list. I, on the other hand, am reading it because it's part of my mystery-reading challenge. Since it is often mentioned in the same instance as the epic War and Peace I expected it to be much longer than it tuned out to be: only 496 pages in the Icelandic translation, and not with particularly small lettering either. It is divided into six parts and a short epilogue, and I am going to read it in six sessions. I will try to write some thoughts and speculations and possibly analysis after each session.

Since this is a classic and not a newly published book like the book I journalled previously, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I am not going to try to hide what happens but will discuss the book as if I were writing to someone who has already read it and has asked me for my thoughts about it.

Source: Wikipedia. Retrieved April 1, 2009, 19:45 GMT.

01 April 2009

Wednesday reading experience #13

Visit a place you have read about in a book and compare it with the book’s descriptions.

What place did you choose? What was the outcome? Was it more or less interesting than the book made it out to be? Was it different from what you expected?