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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.

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

Story:
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.

Review:
This story is tol…

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…

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 applyi…

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 wr…

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 …

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.

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)

Story:
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.

Review:
This interesting thriller is obviously inspired by the 1973 oil crises, and David…

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

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 psycholog…

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…

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.
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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…

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 Myster…

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 ses…

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?