30 October 2009

Review of The Prime of Miss Jean Brody

Originally published in 2 parts, in April and May 2004.
Book 14 in my first 52 books challenge.

Author: Muriel Spark
Published: 1961
Where got: second hand shop
Genre: Literature, satire

I seem to have a knack for choosing books that have been made into movies. I wonder why?

This week's choice was made into a memorable, if rather stagy, movie, starring the wonderful Maggie Smith.


Don't say I didn't warn you!

The book is about a teacher at a private girl's school in Edinburgh (Scotland) who has her own special ideas about education. She strives to turn out girls who are liberated and free thinking - or what she thinks is liberated and free thinking. Her behaviour and teaching methods are far from orthodox in the conservative environment of the school. She makes enemies among the other teachers and the headmistress is constantly trying to find an excuse to get rid of her. Her closest allies are a group of her students, six girls known as "the Brodie Set" among the other teachers and students of the school. The story is about her relationship with the girls and how the girls' perceptions of her change as they get older, and how in the end one of them betrays her fascist political ideas to the headmistress, causing her to be forced into early retirement.

This is in many ways a good story. Jean Brodie is a memorable character, somewhat unsympathetic and utterly real and understandable. She is the kind of teacher who can be a blessing or a curse, depending on how you look at it. A blessing because she readily diverges from the set curriculum to tell her students about foreign countries and other interesting subjects, and a curse because she does so much of it that learning is mostly done at home and can be reflected in bad grades. Her teaching seems to consist mostly of telling the girls about her life and travels and trying to mould each of them into the persons she believes they are destined to become. The girls seem to love her unquestioningly and form a protective shield between her and the headmistress whose attempts to get something on her become ever more desperate as the narrative continues. We are told almost from the start that she will be betrayed by one of her own girls, and when the betrayal happens, it is quite understandable why the girl did what she did, although you still feel sorry for Miss Brodie.

The narrative jumps backwards and forwards in time and is somewhat disjointed at times. It took me quite some time to figure out the age of Miss Brodie, and sometimes it wasn't clear how old the girls were either (not that it matters much).

Rating: A decent read, nothing earth-shattering, but worth taking the time. The movie is better (in my opinion) even though it is a bit stagy - Maggie Smith captures Miss Brodie perfectly. 3 stars.

28 October 2009

Wednesday reading experience #43

Read an epistolatory novel.

These are novels written as a series of documents, e.g. letters or e-mails, blog entries, historical documents, reports, reviews, excerpts from books, newspaper clippings and diary entries. Basically anything that is traditionally written or typed, used without any connecting passages to form a narrative. It enables the author to let the characters (or a chosen number of characters) express themselves directly without having a narrator tell the story.

I have already recommended reading fictional diaries, which form part of the epistolatory genre, so a different epistolatory form is recommended.

Here are some that I have enjoyed:
  • The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. Written as a series of accounts of the theft of a precious stone, using different styles and voices.
  • Letters to Alice, Upon first reading Jane Austen by Fay Weldon. What the title says, plus much more besides.
  • Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos. A novel told entirely in letters between the characters.
  • The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. A correspondence between a young demon and his "uncle" Screwtape, a senior demon.
  • The Boy Next Door, Boy Meets Girl, and Every Boy's Got One, by Meg Cabot. These are frothy and fun romances, written as a series of e-mails between a number of people.
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker. Written as a collection of letters, diary entries and other writings.
  • Daddy Long-Legs and Dear Enemy, by Jean Webster. Two entertaining romances told entirely in letters.
  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker. Letters between two sisters that tell a heartbreaking but also eventually heartwarming story.

I didn’t particularly like this next one – I thought it could have done with some serious editing – but many loved it, so I think it’s worth a mention:
  • The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

On my reading list I have:
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
  • Pamela by Samuel Richardson
  • The Sorrows of Young Werther (Die Leiden des jungen Werthers) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  • The Griffin and Sabine Trilogy by Nick Bantock
  • The Documents in the Case by Dorothy L. Sayers
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
And here is a list with even more:
Wikipedia list of epistolatory novels

27 October 2009

Holiday notice

I am off to India for the next 5 weeks. During that time it is unlikely that I will post anything new, but there will be some automatic postings, including the Wednesday reading experiences for the whole time.

25 October 2009

Top mysteries challenge review: The Murder of the Maharajah by H.R.F. Keating

In keeping with my India-oriented reading I chose a Top Mystery that takes place in that country, not long before the end of the Raj when Maharajahs still had some power (even if it was dependent on British support).

Year of publication: 1980
Genre: Mystery, cozy
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Police officer
Setting & time: The fictitious state of Bhopore, India; 1930.

The immensely rich Maharajah of Bhopore is murdered and several people had the means, motive and opportunity (or at least two out of the three), to have done it. Due to an impending visit by the Viceroy of India, the Resident Adviser calls in District Superintendent of Police, Mr. Howard, and presses him to solve the case quickly, because if the murderer turns out later to be the heir to the throne, it isn’t good for the Viceroy to have met him. Howard sets out to methodically investigate the case, and in a reconstruction at the end makes some interesting and startling revelations.

Keating has taken the classic country house (or small village, desert island, cruise ship, etc.) mystery and set it in the exotic location of a maharajah’s palace in India, but it is in every detail still a classic “limited location - limited suspect group” whodunnit.

While the detective is a police officer, he does not have the backup of other policemen or forensics specialists, and does not interrogate people police fashion, rather using the methods of elimination and observation used by non-police detectives across the genre, so this can not be classed as a police procedural.

The writing is straightforward, with touches of humour here and there. The main characters are just barely brought out of the realm of stereotype by being given small personality quirks or distinguishing traits, but are still recognisable as reliable old types: the trusted retainer who may not be so trusty, the older woman with something to hide, the hothead, the male and female love interests, the dashing but not too bright young man, the quiet and dedicated detective, the spoilt young man suddenly forced into a position of responsibility, the mysterious woman who may have something to hide, the gold-digger, the reader stand-in, etc.

What makes this a bloody good mystery is then not the characters, but the plotting, the twists, turns, red herrings and an excellently imagined macguffin.

Now I think I will go and put the Inspector Ghote mysteries by Keating on my BookMooch wishlist. Maybe I'll be able to find some of them in India.

Rating: A very good mystery that will keep all but the most observant readers guessing until the very end. 4 stars.

Books left in challenge: 87.

Place on the list(s): CWA #97
Awards and nominations: 1980 Gold Dagger Award.

23 October 2009

Review of The Gentle Tamers

Originally published in 2 parts, in April 2004.
Book 13 in my first 52 books challenge.

Entry 1:

Full title: The Gentle Tamers: Women of the Old Wild West
Author: Dee Brown
Year published: 1958/1981
Where got: second hand bookshop
Genre: Social history, women, pioneers

This looks like a promising piece of women's history. If we were to go by the history books we read in school, it would seem that men single-handedly settled the western parts of the United States. This is of course not so - women did their share of the work and had a great deal of civilizing influence on the men. I'm looking forward to exploring the west with them, through this book.

Written by the author of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Entry 2:

The Gentle Tamers is a collection of true stories about the women of the wild west. Some who are included are true pioneers, like Janette Riker, who survived a harsh Montana winter alone in a covered wagon, others are included because a history of women in the Wild West wouldn't be complete without them, like Calamity Jane. The stories are not told in a straight timeline, but are collected into themes which include chapters on the dangers of the pioneer trails (which included bad weather, food shortages, epidemics and attacks by natives), fashion and finery, gatherings and entertainment, to name a few. Some of the women in the book are heroes while others are victims. There are army wives, wild women, educators, settlers, entertainers, suffragettes, prostitutes and various other kinds of women. Some have a remarkable history of their own, others are included because their experiences are representative of the experiences of women of the time. All of them are treated with respect, although the author does make the occasional subtly sarcastic remark about some of them. Their stories are told in a simple, straightforward style with a number of quotations from the original sources that give the narrative colour and depth.

The text is well written and informative, and there is an extensive bibliography at the end for those who wish to do further research into the subject. No attempt is made to put forward any kind of thesis on the subject - this is simply a collection of stories about real women, a popular history that is first and foremost meant to entertain.

Rating: A fun and interesting read about the lives of women, ordinary and not so ordinary, in the Wild West. 5 stars.

I can't leave out one endearing thing about this particular copy: it has an inscription in it. I bought the book in a second-hand shop in Hamburg, Germany. On the inside front cover there is a sticker indicating that it was originally bought in the Boot Hill Museum in Dodge City, Kansas, USA.

The inscription reads:
My dearest woman of the new Wild West, Maybe you find the time in the Old World to read this book, to help remind yourself that the women of the New World had the same problems and struggle, like you may have. But of course they havenot had me.
Yours (The signature is unreadable)

I love books that have a history of their own.

21 October 2009

Wednesday reading experience #42

Challenge your prejudices some more: Read a book that you have panned or derided without actually having read it.

Some frequently panned books that come to mind include novels by Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer, Nicholas Sparks and Danielle Steel. Others include such famous and/or infamous works of the more distant past, like philosophical and religious writings of all ages and eras, Marx’s Communist Manifesto, Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, and anything by the Marquis de Sade. Of course you should choose one that you have prejudices about.

Whether your prejudices are rebuffed or confirmed, you will at least now be able to pan or praise the book in question without hypocrisy.

18 October 2009

Books I have enjoyed, pt. 1

About 10 years ago, as I waited in a Canadian airport lounge for my flight to be announced, I found some unused Canadian currency in my pockets and went to browse in the airport stores to find something on which to spend the money. I chose a small bottle of Canadian maple syrup, and then decided to get a book to read on the plane. Among all the usual bestsellers and other typical airport books, I found a small shelf of Canadian literature and gave it a browse. One of the books I picked up had a whimsical image on the front, of a block of small shops. The title was Home from the Vinyl Café and the author was Stuart McLean. I opened the book and found myself engrossed in reading a story of a hapless husband charged with cooking the turkey for the family's Christmas meal and running into all sorts of difficulties, starting with forgetting to buy the turkey.

I promptly bought the book and read most of the short stories therein on the flight home, with frequent giggles and stifled laughter. The stories revolve around a record-store owner named Dave, his wife Morley and their two children, and their adventures and mishaps. They apparently feature frequently on McLean's radio show, which I would love to listen to. Ever since I bought the book I have pulled it off the shelf occasionally to read a story or two. I even translated the story of Dave and the turkey as a project in one of my translation classes. I give it a great big thumbs up.

From the information in the book I knew there was a previous book, Stories from the Vinyl Café, but I gave no further thought to it until I was building my wish list on BookMooch. I entered it into the list, and some months later it popped up. I promptly mooched it, but for some reason I didn't read it right away. Now I have and I enjoyed it just as much as the previous collection, although none of the stories stood out as much as the turkey story did. It was also fun to read about Dave and Morley's friends and neighbours, some of who got stories of their own in the book.

17 October 2009

Review: Holy Cow!

Author: Sarah MacDonald

I am heading to India at the end of the month, and have been doing a lot of reading about various places I might visit. I had this one unread India travelogue in my TBR stack, and decided to read it to whet my appetite.

This is the story of how MacDonald returned to India after having left it over a decade earlier, wowing never to return. But fate plays funny tricks on people: her boyfriend, a broadcast journalist, was stationed there and she quit her job and moved to Delhi to be with him. She was not a religious or spiritual person when she arrived, but a fortuneteller's prophesy set her off on a search of spirituality among the many religions of India, and in the main the book is about this search. Each religion and spiritual experience is examined - often extremely superficially, I thought - and she takes away something good from each of them, but eventually rejects them all because none is perfect for her, finally finding the peace she is looking for within herself.

It's an interesting book and she had some experiences I can relate to, but the search for spirituality and religion is too much of an obvious gimmick for it to come across as entirely sincere. The book is entertaining - especially the passages about the spookily accurate fortune-tellers (even if they read like fiction) and about the living saints and their followers - but ultimately rather empty. You will find no new revelations about India in there, only a light read to while away a couple of hours.

16 October 2009

Review of Seabiscuit

Originally published in 2 parts, in April 2004.
Book 12 in my first 52 books challenge.
If you're wondering about no. 11, it was The Wordsworth Dictionary of Idioms. I did not feel it was worth republishing.

Entry 1:

Full title: Seabiscuit: An American Legend
Author: Laura Hillenbrand
Year published: 2002
Where got: book store
Genre: History, biography, sports

This book is about a famous American racehorse and the men whose belief in him took him from the lowest rungs of the racing world and right to the top.

I am not particularly interested in sports, and know next to nothing about horse racing, so this is not a book I would have picked up if it had not been for the fact that it has been made into a film.

As a teenager I enjoyed a film about another famous racehorse, Phar Lap, and so when Seabiscuit hit the cinemas I decided this was a film I wanted to see.

Well, somehow I managed to miss it. However, after watching a National Geographic documentary about Seabiscuit, I decided I would read the book to tide me over until the film comes out on video. So far I have not been disappointed.

Entry 2:

It's rare to find a history book that is as readable as Seabiscuit. One history book I have already reviewed, Cod: A biography of the fish that changed the world tries and fails, perhaps because the author simply isn't as accomplished a writer as Laura Hillenbrand, the author of Seabiscuit. Hillenbrand's writing seems effortless and she manages to hold the reader's attention throughout the book.

Of the two parts of the book, the second is the most gripping. In the first part Hillenbrand is introducing the people and animals involved in the story and laying out a description of American society in the first decades of the 20th century. This will at first seem somewhat longwinded, simply because of the wealth of information she has chosen to bring into the narrative.

In the second half of the book, which is mostly about the preparation for Seabiscuit's greatest race, it becomes clear that without all the information in the first half of the book, it would not have been as good a narrative. Her detailed descriptions of the racing practices of the era and the horrible situation of the jockeys (who had no union and hardly any human rights), of Seabiscuit's noble lineage and the character portraits and short biographies of Seabiscuit, owner Howard, trainer Smith and jockey Pollard before they came together, bring into the narrative a sense of continuity and a deeper understanding of what the race meant to these men and to the thousands of admirers of the "Cinderella horse".

There are some profoundly sad moments in the book (jockeys and horses being injured or dying), but also occasions for laughing out loud - especially in the description of Seabiscuit's appearance and habits and Smith's mischievous sense of humour and his war with the press.

Rating: Very well written biography of a horse and the men who believed in his abilities and made him a star among racehorses. Recommended for anyone with an interest in American history, sports or horses. 5 stars.

14 October 2009

Wednesday reading experience #41

Read THAT book.

You know the one I mean: the one every one of your friends has read, or the one you promised someone you would read, or the one that you want to have read but don’t particularly want to read, or the one that you have desperately wanted to read just about for ever but haven’t because it daunts you because of its size or its reputation.

THAT book can be just about any book ranging from Twilight to War and Peace, so I would love to hear what you would choose and for which of the above reasons.


When I have finished my current reading challenges I am planning to tackle a tome that is the embodiment of THAT book for many people: James Joyce's Ulysses. I want to do this to challenge my prejudices about Joyce, whose short stories were apt to put me to sleep when I was studying him in modern literature at college. It is also one of those books that any literary snob worth her salt wants to have read, and I dearly want to be able, when said snobs start talking about Ulysses, to be able to tell if they have really read it or if they are pretending. Evil of me, maybe, but just think of the possibilities for pulling one over on a lit snob. The particular snobs I have in mind find my taste in detective novels and romances deplorable, and I would love to challenge their prejudices about romance and mystery readers.

It has occurred to me that I shouldn't be calling this feature reading experiences, but rather reading prompts, but I guess it's too late to change it now. If I decide to continue it next year I'll probably rename it.

13 October 2009

Top mysteries challenge review: The Game, Set & Match trilogy by Len Deighton

I suddenly realised that I had not yet posted my review of Deighton’s trilogy, so here it is:

While I listed these books separately on my TBR list, the trilogy is listed as one book in the CWA list, so I will be reviewing them all together. Each book gets a brief synopsis and a very short review, and then I will review the common points together. I will try not to drop serious spoilers in the synopses, so they will necessarily be rather telegraphic, but if you have not yet read these books you probably should avoid this review anyway.

Published: 1983-5.
Genre: Espionage thriller.
Type of investigator: MI6 agent.

Title: Berlin Game:
Setting & time: London and Berlin, contemporary.

Agent Bernard Samson has been doing desk work for 5 years but his superiors in MI6 want him to go out back in the field to convince a frightened spy in East Germany to stay in place for a while longer. The man is convinced that Stasi or the KGB are about to discover his identity, and the only person he trusts to smuggle him out is Bernie. While he is considering whether to accept the mission or not, Bernie noses around and discovers that a high-ranking agent may be a mole, but finding out just which agent is going to be a tough job.

Review and rating:
A thrilling and twisted tale about intelligence and counter-intelligence, agents and double agents, trust and friendship, doubt and double-crossing. 4 stars.

Title: Mexico Set:
Setting & time: London, Berlin and Mexico City, contemporary.

A known KGB agent is spotted in Mexico City, and MI6, eager to recover its dignity after the defection of an important member of its staff over to the Soviets, send Bernard Samson to try to convince the man to defect. Samson isn’t too keen on the idea, but he needs to prove his loyalty, and so begins a complicated set of manoeuvres that can lead to either success or disaster.

Review and rating:
This excellent sequel to Berlin Game has narrator Bernard Samson trying to outmanoeuvre an enemy agent who knows him almost as well as he knows himself. 4+ stars.

Title: London Match:
Setting & time: London and Berlin; contemporary.

Story: Bernard Samson becomes filled with suspicion after an encounter with a Soviet agent, thinking that perhaps the double agent who fled to the East in book one wasn’t the only Soviet agent working inside MI6.

Review and rating: This final book in the trilogy follows Bernard Samson as he tries to discover if one of his superiors is a Soviet double agent, and re-build his private life at the same time. The weakest of the three books. 3 stars.

Review for the trilogy: All three books are well written and full of twists and turns, double (and triple) crossings, suspicion, fear, hatred and suspense. Deighton is clearly a master of suspense, and manages to make the secret services and the scheming that goes on within them believable and realistic, at least to someone like me who knows little about the subject. Unfortunately the very good second book in the trilogy is a hard act to follow, and the third book, which should be the strongest, doesn’t quite deliver, although it does complete the plot that began with the first book and suggest that the game is just beginning, thus paving the way for the second Bernard Samson trilogy.

All-over rating: A fine series of spy thrillers that deliver suspense and betrayal galore. 4- stars.

Books left in challenge: 88

Place on the list(s): CWA 58.

09 October 2009

Review of The Book of Intriguing Words

Originally published in 3 parts, on March 28 to April 3, 2004.
Book 10 in my first 52 books challenge.

Entry 1:

Full title: The Wordsworth Book of Intriguing Words: The insomniac's dictionary of the outrageous, odd and unusual
Author: Paul Hellweg
Published: 1986 (as The Insomniac’s Dictionary)
Where got: University Student Bookstore
Genre: Dictionary, glossaries

I'm studying for exams and writing final essays for the next three weeks, so during that time I'm going to review some of the reference books I use in my field of study. To make it more fun, I'm going to pick some of the more unusual reference books in my library.

As a student of translation I am naturally interested in etymology, semantics and semiotics. This book is not only a nice way of finding unusual words, their meanings and origins, but it is also quite short for a dictionary and fun to read.

Entry 2:

Being a confirmed logolept, I like to collect words, and this dictionary was a windfall for me because it has plenty of unusual ones. Unlike regular dictionaries, it is not one long alphabetized list, but rather a series of chapters containing glossaries of words relating to a specific subject or theme. Naturally enough, the first chapter is all about word-words, all of them beginning, naturally enough, with the prefix logo.

It goes on from there, covering insomnia words, phobias and manias, killing words, types of divination, forms of government, eponyms, portmanteaus and acronyms, long and short words, interesting words no longer in use, consonant only words, word play, love, sex and marriage words, unusual words that don’t fall into any specific category, and three chapters on animal words: animal adjectives, names for baby animals and collective nouns for groups of animals.

It was in this last chapter that I found out that a group of ferrets is known as a business and a group of ravens as an unkindness. I don’t know when I’m going to be able to put this knowledge to use, but never mind, it’s still fun to know.

Seriously, the book HAS come in handy, especially the chapters on phobias and manias, and it is valuable for Scrabble players when all they have left is consonants.

Speaking of reference books: I recently discovered Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, and am planning to dupe my parents into giving me the updated Millenium Edition for my birthday. This wonderful book is full of fascinating and often completely useless information.

Entry 3:

A fun and fascinating collection of eclectic glossaries. Especially interesting for people who love unusual words, and handy for those who wish to increase their vocabulary. Too bad it's so short. 4 stars.

07 October 2009

Wednesday reading experience #40

Now that you have become firmly familiar with the diary form, both in reality and fiction, why not try keeping one for a while?

This may look like a writing assignment at first sight, but I’m getting to the reading part:

Read your journal at the end of the journalling period, and again in 5, 10 or 20 years time. Annotate it if you feel like it.

Alternative suggestion: If you are a regular journal/diary writer, have you ever read your old ones? It can be like meeting a total stranger who is sort of familiar, but sort of not, and it’s interesting to read about how you saw or reacted to something back then versus the way you see or remember it in retrospective.

I have occasionally dipped into my travel journals from years past, and have often been surprised at what I have found in them. I have been amazed by the prejudices I held, the opinions I had, the way I handled a situation, how immature I was. I still cringe every now and then when I take one of these nostalgia trips, but even though they are "only" travel journals and therefore irregular, I can still see how I have grown and changed and matured by reading them.

03 October 2009

Reading Larsson

I am about 90 pages into the English translation of the second volume in Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy, The Girl who played with Fire. It's a slow beginner, but the main storyline seems to be kicking off.

I take grave exception to all the [insert expletive of choice] product placements in the beginning chapters of part 2. Who cares whether Lisbet Salander bought Bonde or Billy bookcases? Or what was the brand name of her sofa or her coffee table? It isn't even necessary to list what she bought - surely it would have been enough to say she went shopping for new furniture at IKEA and brought back just about everything she needed for her new apartment? The whole thing reads like a combination of an IKEA advert and instructions for a movie set designer.

Earlier in the book there are several other such lists that, although not as heavy on the product placement, do make the book longer without mattering to the story.

If anyone who has read the book in Swedish reads this, could you please post a comment and tell me if the characters, including Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander, are almost always mentioned by their last names in the original? It's annoying as hell and makes them less sympathetic and I want to know which one to blame: the author or the translator.

02 October 2009

Review of The Loved One

Originally published in 2 parts, on March 24-26, 2004.
Book 9 in my first 52 books challenge.

Author: Evelyn Waugh
Published: 1948
Where got: second-hand bookshop
Genre: Social satire

I first saw the movie as a child and again recently on TCM. I had no idea it was based on a book until I started reading about the film on IMDb, and when I found the book I immediately bought it in anticipation of a good read.

Here are a couple of links to information about the author and his books:

Evelyn Waugh: The best and the worst
Evelyn Waugh (includes a bibliography)

The novel tells the story of Dennis Barlow, a poet and ex-pat Englishman who has managed to make himself a nuisance to the stiff upper-lipped Englishmen of Hollywood by taking a job at a funeral home for pets - something that "just isn't done" by Englishmen Abroad. When arranging the funeral of a friend at Whispering Glades, a fancy and extremely kitsch funeral home, he meets a young cosmetician by the name of Aimée whose job it is to apply make-up to the faces of the dead in order to make them look presentable to the living.
Their budding romantic relationship is described with subtle humour. Aimée is quite beautiful and outwardly different from other American girls Dennis has met, but her lovely exterior belies her empty-headedness and ignorance. Aimée is very unsure of herself and writes regularly for advice from Guru Brahmin, a newspaper agony aunt whose real name is Mr. Slump. Not really aided by the Guru's advice, she has a hard time deciding between Dennis and her other suitor, Mr. Joyboy, the senior mortician at the funeral home. Things start to heat up once both suitors start playing dirty. Death and the rituals connected with it suffuse the novel from beginning to end.

The Loved One is a dark and often quite subtle satire, even becoming quite morbid at times. It deftly satirises the movie business, the funeral industry, American society and Americans in general. Mind you, Dennis Barlow is no paragon of virtue...

Sometimes the satire becomes quite obvious, like whenever Waugh starts describing Americans in general - his description of the uniformity of American women is sneeringly bitter and quite funny:

"Dennis at once forgot everything about her. He had seen her before everywhere. American mothers presumably knew their daughters apart but to the European eye the Mortuary hostess was one with all her sisters of the air-liners and the reception-desks. She was the standard product. A man could leave such a girl in a delicatessen shop in New York, fly three thousand miles and find her again in a cigar stall in San Francisco and she would croon the same words to him in moments of endearment and express the same views and preferences in moments of social discourse."

It's hard to tell if Waugh is being sarcastic here or if he really feels this way about American women. (Yes, I know this is a novel, but there are certain indications in Waugh's life story that in this book he was lashing out at American society in reaction to being frustrated by American film-makers who had optioned his book, Brideshead Revisited for a movie).

Rating: A dark, subtle and funny look at life, death and what comes after. 4 stars.

01 October 2009

Reading report for September 2009

I only finished 13 books this month, which would have been about average for most years except this one. Since I read 20+ books every month of the year up to now, this is actually quite far below average, but I‘m not worrying. After all, one needs to have a social life too.

In the challenges, I read:

3 Icelandic books:
Benedikt Gröndal: Sagan af Heljarslóðarorrustu - a literary parody that tells the story of the battle of Solferino as if it were an Icelandic Saga.
Páll Líndal: Reykjavík 200 ára - a short 200 year history of the city of Reykjavík, mostly told in photographs.
Þórarinn Eldjárn: Sérðu það sem ég sé - a collection of quirky short stories from one of Iceland‘s best short story writers.

TBR challenge:
John Berendt: The City of Falling Angels - a combination of travel book and the history of the fire that destroyed the Fenice opera house in Venice.
Dashiell Hammett: Red Harvest (also a Top Mystery read) – a brutal crime thriller.
Betty MacDonald: Onions in the Stew - funny memoir.
James/Jan Morris: Heaven's Command - history of the British Empire during Victoria‘s reign.
Lily Prior: La Cucina - romantic novel about a woman‘s love affair with food and a man.
JD Robb: Portrait in Death - futuristic police procedural.

Top Mysteries Challenge:
Len Deighton: Mexico Set and London Match - spy thrillers
Dashiell Hammett: Red Harvest (also on the TBR list)

And non-challenge:
Adam Jacot de Boinod : The Meaning of Tingo - a dictionary of interesting words expressing things English can not express in one word. I have been reading it in the bathroom for several weeks.
Lynn Viehl: Shadowlight - romantic urban fantasy.

I don‘t know how much reading I will be able to do in October, as there are big changes afoot in my life. Either I will do hardly any reading at all, or I will do nothing but read and cook and sleep. I have just lost my job, which sucks, but I am financially in a good place for 6 months at least, and I plan to take a holiday before I begin to search for a job.

I may – and this is still just a possibility – be going off travelling for a while. If anyone has a copy of the latest or next-latest issue of Lonely Planet India, I am willing to exchange it with the latest Lonely Planet Egypt.