31 January 2011

Interpreter of Maladies

Originally published in February 2005, in 2 parts. Book 52 in my first 52 books challenge.
Edited out some stuff unrelated to the review.

Author: Jhumpa Lahiri
Year published: 1999
Pages: 198
Genre: Literature, short stories
Where got: Second hand

This book had been waiting on my TBR shelf for nearly a year when I finally read it. I had forgotten about it until I visited the Lonely Planet online forum, the Thorn Tree, like I do 2-3 times a week. On the Women’s Branch there was a book discussion going on, and the original poster and several others highly recommended this book. I thought, “Hey, I have this!” and decided there and then that it was about time I read it. Looking over the list of books in the 52 books challenge, I realised I had not read any short stories, so it was perfect to end the challenge with this short story collection. It won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 2000.

Reading progress:
I have been reading 1-2 stories from Interpreter of Maladies per day, and now have four left. The stories belong to the "slice of life" school of short story writing, and describe chapters in the lives of the characters. They are very well written and explore all kinds of issues and feelings. Some are about Indian expatriates in America, others are about Indians in Calcutta.

Finished the last of the short stories today. They are skilfully written glimpses into the lives of ordinary people. Several have in common a sort of longing or wistful nostalgia for something that is never defined in words and which the characters sometimes don’t seem to know themselves. Three out of the nine stories are told in the first person, each of them in a different voice, and the remaining six are 3rd person narratives, each told from the point of view of one person, often someone who doesn’t quite know what is going on with the other character(s). There is subtle humour in some of the stories, while others are serious. Some portray kindness, others cruelty. The unifying theme, apart from most of the characters being Indian, is that of human relations, interactions, cross-purposes and misunderstandings. Out of the stories, the final two are my favourites. Both are funny, although in quite different ways. One, which is a kind of parable, made me smile, the other made me laugh out loud. All in all, I liked all the stories, although of course some are better than others.

Rating: An excellent collection of short stories about Indians and being Indian, home and abroad. 4 stars.

This is the last of the original 52 books reviews. For an unforeseeable number of coming Mondays I will continue to post old reviews from that abandoned blog until I run out of them.

30 January 2011

Frankfurter Buchmesse 2011 Challenge: Þar sem djöflaeyjan rís by Einar Kárason

I decided to review this book even if I didn’t read it in January because, frankly, I haven’t been to the library all month and it suddenly dawned on me that I only have 3 days left to do a Buchmesse review for January.

Genre: Generational novel
Year of publication: 1983
Setting and time: Reykjavík, 1940s to 1960s
English title, translator and year of publication: Devil's Island; David MacDuff and Magnus Magnusson; 1999
German title, translator and year of publication: Die Teufelsinsel; Marita Bergsson; 1997

This story covers, in realistic detail, a couple of decades in the life of an Icelandic working-class family in the years following the Second World War. Shortly after the end of the war they settle in a house in the middle of a neighbourhood of Nissen huts left behind when the American occupation ended. These neighbourhoods were seen as slums, but they were a much-needed solution to a housing problem caused by the hundreds of people who left their homes in the countryside and small towns and headed to the capital in search of jobs and better lives. The building industry wasn’t coping with the influx and so these people ended up living, often for many years, in the increasingly decrepit huts until they could find better places to live.

The particular family this book is about were a large and exuberant bunch and there was much drama and much that was funny that is described in the story. The central character is Baddi, grandson of matriarch Karolína, a young man raised in America who is sent back to Iceland apparently to keep him out of trouble, but he manages to find plenty of it in the old country.

Einar Kárason is one of Iceland’s most loved authors. His style is frank and funny and he pulls no punches in this semi-fictional novel, which is based on real people and real events. This is the first (and best) in a trilogy of books about several generations of this family, but can be read as an independent work (it will have to be in English, since it’s the only one of his books that has been translated into that language).

Although it was published over 10 years ago in translation, it is well worth seeking out. 5 stars.

There is a movie, directed by respected Icelandic director Friðrik Þór Friðriksson and the script written by the author. It leaves out a lot of detail and side stories and is in no way a complete reflection of the story told in the book, but it's good nevertheless.

29 January 2011

List Love 7.2: Children’s books I have fond memories of, part II of II

Continuing from my posts on Tuesday and Thursday:

It is interesting to note that most of the books I loved best when I was a child were fantasies. Some of these I still occasionally pick up and read.

Fantasy by Astrid Lindgren:
The Brothers Lionheart. About 2 brothers who are reunited after death in a fantasy world where an evil warlord armed with a dragon has part of the land in thrall and is trying to invade the free parts.

Mio, my Mio. About an orphan who discovers that he is really a prince. He ends up fighting an evil knight who steals people and animals from his father’s kingdom.

Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter is a more lighthearted story about a girl who grows up as the only child in a group of rowdy robbers, and finally finds a friend when she meets a boy, the son of the leader of another group of robbers. All sorts of mayhem ensues when the two robber kings start fighting for territory and the children decide to teach the adults a lesson.

I was never very fond of the Pippi Longstocking books, perhaps because I was already in my teens when I first read them.

The Village that Slept by Manique P. de Ladebat.
Two children who have survived a plane crash in the Pyrenees have to make it on their own for about 8 months, in an abandoned village. I borrowed it repeatedly from the library when I was a child and teenager, and have been looking for a copy to buy for several years.
Since I wrote this, I was able to re-read it, and although it’s an enjoyable enough story, I don’t think I will bother to try to find a copy to own, unless one day I have children I can read it to.

A fantasy novel by Peruvian author Carlota Carvallo de Nunez, for which I have not been able to find an English title. In Spanish it’s Rutsi, el pequeno alucinado. It is the story of an immortal jungle spirit who wants to experience being human, so he takes on the form of a young boy and has all sorts of adventures as he travels from jungle to village to city and back to the jungle. It transported me into a world full of wonder and magic.

I am David by Anne Holm.
I was about 12 when I read this beautiful story of a young boy who escapes from a prison camp in Greece and makes his way across the continent to Denmark, finding his destiny along the way. I still pick it up occasionally when I want to read something that will make me feel good.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
Another favourite that I discovered at the library and borrowed over and over again. About a young orphan girl who finds a hidden garden and discovers she has a hypochondriac cousin. Together they make over the neglected garden and bring joy and happiness to themselves and the boy’s father. I didn’t read A Little Princess until I was an adult, but would probably not have liked it as much as a child - Sara is so incredibly good and perfect, and I hated such characters in stories.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. Fantasy.
I was in my mid-teens when this one came out in Icelandic. Another book belonging to my brother that I wanted for myself. It’s just as related to fairy-tales as The Hobbit is, and an added bonus is the echoes of one of my favourite tales by Hans Christian Andersen: The Snow Queen. I also recommend the rest of the series.

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende. Fantasy.
About a boy who is transported into a fantasy adventure through the book he is reading. A wonderful story about the power of a good book. Later, when I was in my teens, I discovered Momo, which I like even better.

Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery. I read it and two of its sequels as a child and loved them all. Anne is still among my favourite comfort reads.

The Doctor Dolittle books by Hugh Lofting. A series that combines travel, adventure and fantasy, but has come to be considered politically incorrect due to its offensive portrayal of Africans.

The Tom Swift books by Victor Appleton.My father owned translated versions of several of these books and I enjoyed reading them, although even as a child I found the translations to be rather idiosyncratic. Some of the sci-fi stuff had very confusing names in Icelandic. For example the super-helicopter that appears in at least one of the books was called a "kopti" in the translation, derived from the copter in helicopter, whereas the word I was used to is "þyrla", so it wasn't until I was older that I realised what a "kopti" really was. 

Dear Reader:
Please post the titles of your favourite children’s books in Comments. I still like to read children’s books and I am always on the lookout for new ones.

28 January 2011

Friday night folktales: The Bakki-brothers on the go

Read part one.

Read part two.

Whenever one of the Bakki-brothers needed to go somewhere, they would all go together. Once they went on a three day journey and had travelled for 2 days when they remembered that they had intended to borrow a horse for the trip. So they turned back, borrowed the horse and set off again.


Once when the lease for the farm was due the brothers visited the widow who owned the land and paid the lease. They spent the night at her farm and then headed for home, which was a long way off.

When they were more than halfway home one of them spoke up and said: “Well, Gísli-Eíríkur-Helgi, now I remember that we forgot to ask the good woman to send us off in God’s peace. The other two agreed and so they turned back and asked her to send them off in God’s peace. She did, and off they set again, but when they were halfway home they remembered that they had not thanked her. Not wanting to be ridiculed for not having any manners, they turned around again, met the widow and thanked her cordially before setting off and finally getting home.

Quotation of the day

The best part of the fiction in many novels is the notice that the characters are purely imaginary.
Franklin Pierce Adams (1881-1960)

27 January 2011

List Love 7.1: Children’s books I have fond memories of, part I of II

In continuation of my last Top Ten Tuesday post, on books I wish I had read as a kid, I decided to repost a reworked book list from my old blog. It is on two parts, and part 2 will be posted on Saturday.

Meet the books that shaped my reading habits.
These are the books that moulded my reading habits and affected my future reading preferences. Some of them are still favourites but others I haven’t read in years.

I first read all of these books in Icelandic, and later some of them in the original languages. All were originally written in other languages, and nearly all of them are available in English, in some version. I haven’t bothered with my favourite Icelandic children’s books because very few (if any) of them have been translated into English, although several have been translated into German and one or more Scandinavian languages. Therefore you will not find on this list any books by Guðrún Helgadóttir or Ármann Kr. Einarsson, to name two Icelandic authors I liked, although I read them none the less.

Surprisingly, considering my interest in detective fiction, there are no Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys books on this list. Instead of delving into those, a number of each having been translated into Icelandic, I went straight from Enid Blyton to Agatha Christie and didn’t make any YA stops in-between. I have yet to open a Nancy Drew book, and have only read one Hardy Boys book, and that was only a couple of years ago, to fact-check The Arctic Patrol Mystery, which takes place in Iceland. But on to the books:

The Tales of Hans Christian Andersen. Fantasy/adventures/parables.
I was given these before I could read (actually, I think they were a christening present) and loved to have them read to me. Later, when I could read for myself, I devoured them and got to read the tales my parents thought were too dark for a little kid. Still later, when I got a copy in Danish, I discovered that the Icelandic translator had taken all sorts of licence with the tales. I have long been planning to finish reading them in Danish, but somehow never got round to it.

Aesop’s Fables. Fables/parables.
I enjoyed reading these delightful tales long before I knew what a fable was. The edition I have is full of pictures and enjoyable to look at as well as to read.

The Cat in the Hat and The Cat in the Hat Comes Back by Dr. Seuss. Picture books with rhymes.
How I envied my brother those books when we were children! The Cat in the Hat was able to make as much mess as he pleased - and able to clean it up and make it look as if nothing had happened. Being good little kids, we rarely did anything that destructive, but that didn’t mean we didn’t want to. It was fun to sit and read the books to him while we both looked at the pictures and dreamed...

The Moomintroll books by Tove Jansson. Fantasy.
Probably the first pure fantasy novels I read. These are wonderful books about the Moomintroll family and their friends and neighbours and their adventures. My favourite was Comet in Moominland, which is actually a rather dark story.

Enid Blyton’s Adventure books (and to a lesser extent, the Five Find-Outers and the Famous Five). Mystery, adventure.
My favourite was The Valley of Adventure. I always disliked how wimpy the girls in those books were, and always identified myself with the boys. I loved the exotic locations these kids would find themselves in, and these books are possibly the beginning of my interest in both travel literature and mysteries.

A children’s version of the first two books of Gulliver’s Travels - that’s the ones about Lilliput and Brobdingnag. Fantasy.
To my knowledge, the full novel has never been translated into Icelandic, and the children’s versions have had most of the satirical bite taken out of them by well-meaning editors who have reduced them to simple tales for children. [Edit: There is now a translation which was nominated for the Icelandic Translation Award in 2012.]

Norse and ancient Greek myths.
The books I first read (and still own) in this genre are wonderfully illustrated versions for children that are (sadly) long out of print, but for adult reading I recommend the perennial Bulfinch’s Mythology, especially for the Greek/Roman myths. I also read and loved the Gylfaginning part of Snorri’s Edda, which is the main source of the Norse mythology you find in modern books on the subject.

The Mary Poppins books by PL Travers. Fantasy.
I read at least four of them and loved them all. Mary is such a wonderfully proper and yet wacky character that you can’t help liking her. The dark overtones completely went over my head.

The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien. Fantasy.
I was 8 when The Hobbit came out in Icelandic, and it cemented my lifelong liking for fantasy. I had cut my reading teeth on fairy tales, legends and myths and this was a natural continuation of that process. Although there are no children in the stories, both hobbit and dwarves are no bigger than children, and their behaviour is rather childish at times, which makes them appealing to children. An added pleasure is Tolkien’s style which is simply sparkling with good humour.

A Bear Called Paddington and its sequels, by Michael Bond. Fantasy/alternative reality. The adventures of the well-meaning but clumsy Peruvian bear and his English family. My brother owned the books, but I read them.

Continued on Saturday.

26 January 2011

Top Mysteries Challenge review: The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

This is a triple challenge book for me: A Top Mystery, a TBR book and a What’s in a Name read. I can now strike out the “size” title in the last one.

Genre: Hardboiled detective story
Year of publication: 1939
Setting & time: The Los Angeles area, USA; contemporary

Private detective Philip Marlowe is hired by elderly General Sternwood to look into a blackmail attempt, but more may be at stake. The General’s older daughter thinks he has been hired to find her husband, who has been missing for several weeks, and the younger daughter wants to have some fun with him and will not take ‘no’ for an answer. Before long, Marlowe has uncovered some criminal goings-on, including not only blackmail, but also gambling, illegal pornography and murder.

Raymond Chandler was a master storyteller, and also had a way with words and poetic and startling turns of phrase pop up from time to time, usually when Marlowe is contemplating things. Characterisations are simple but just escape being flat, but the narrative is plot driven and so not much time is spent on drawing up the characters. I found the story so clearly episodic that it was like reading a collection of closely interconnected short stories rather than a novel, but in the final episode everything was tied up and the final missing pieces fell into place.

I really, really liked this story. Marlowe is a contradictory but likable character with a clear voice and an interesting outlook on life. He is philosophical and poetic, stoical and has good control over his emotions and reactions and only uses violence as a last resort, something I find very appealing after having read many, many stories where brawn is made to stand in for brains. The story, despite its episodic nature, is gripping, but not so much that one needs to finish it in one sitting. The breaks are pretty distinct and make good stopping places.

One can see so much in this story that has been imitated, reversed, parodied and played with in later writings, much of which is not an improvement on the original. One can also see how Chandler has taken the work of his predecessors in the hardboiled genre and polished it, in some instances by smoothing and in others by sharpening. His outlook seems to be generally positive, which makes this story seem less dark than, for example, Hammett’s fatalistic The Maltese Falcon or the cynical The Glass Key, and that difference is made by Marlowe, who, while given to occasional bouts of morose contemplation, nevertheless comes across as a generally upbeat character. 5 stars.

Books left in challenge: 69
Place on the list(s): CWA # 2; MWA # 8
Awards: None I know of

25 January 2011

Meme: Top Ten Books I Wish I'd Read as a Kid

The Top Ten Tuesdays meme is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. Show your appreciation by clicking on this link and checking out some more book lists on the other participating blogs.

This is a tough one, since I didn’t really read English at any kind of proficiency until my teens, so I really should list Icelandic books. However, few if any of my readers will have heard of any of them, so instead I will list books in English I wish I could have read as a kid. Some were available in translation, so theoretically I could have read them, while others were not.

(Later I may draw up a list of children’s books written after I grew up which I would love to have read as a child).

  • Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. Such a wonderful children’s book. I hope it gets translated so Icelandic kids can enjoy it.
  • Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce. I loved the movie and liked the book and would have liked to have discovered it as a child.
  • A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I loved The Secret Garden, which I did read as a child, but I was an adult when I read this one and I found the little princess just too much of a goody two-shoes to like her. I would love to have been able to form an opinion of it as a child.
  • At least one Nancy Drew book. They were available in Icelandic translations, but somehow I came to think they were about some wussy, fuzzy girl and never read them. Still haven’t, but maybe I should sample one.
  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. Read it as a teenager, liked it then, would in all likelihood have loved it as much as The Hobbit had I read it earlier.
  • Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren. I didn’t like Pippi when I read the books as a teenager, but I loved everything I read by Lindgren as a child. Ergo, I probably would have loved Pippi as well.
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle. It is a very good introduction to science fiction and just overall a good book.
  • Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume. I think I was agnostic from the time I could think rationally, but I didn’t dare admit it until I was an adult. This book might have helped me see it was okay to say it out loud.
  • Anything by Roald Dahl, especially Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I still haven’t read Matilda, but love the movie, and the other I liked when I read it not many years ago, but I would really have loved it as a child.
  • I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. This is a good read for older kids, especially girls. I loved it as an adult but it would probably have become as much of a treasure to me as Anne of Green Gables did had I read it when I was younger.

A quotation for today

"A book burrows into your life in a very profound way because the experience of reading is not passive."
Erica Jong (1942- )

24 January 2011

Seed Leaf Flower Fruit

Originally published in February 2005, in 2 parts.
Book 51 in my first 52 books challenge.
Slightly edited.

Author and illustrator: Maryjo Koch
Year published: 1998
Pages: Not numbered
Genre: Art, nature study
Where got: Bookstore

I first came across Maryjo Koch’s nature study books on a visit to the USA. All four books, Bird Egg Feather Nest, Seed Leaf Flower Fruit, Pond Lake River Sea, and Dragonfly Beetle Butterfly Bee were available, but I had already spent all my shopping money on Christmas presents and decided to put them on my whish list and buy them later. Sadly, since then they have all gone out of print, which is why I was happy to find Seed Leaf Flower Fruit and Bird Egg Feather Nest at a second-hand store recently, in near perfect condition and at a great price. I bought them both. I had to flip a coin to decide which one I would review here. I hope I will be able to get my hands on the other two before too long. They come up occasionally in auctions on ebay, and I have every intention of aquiring them both.

Seed Leaf Flower Fruit is a sumptuous collection of beautiful illustrations, information and thoughts about plants, all hand-lettered and looking like the sketch book of an artistically talented gardening enthusiast.

This is a gorgeous book, an eccentric, rambling and captivating nature study. As the title suggests, the theme is plants. Instead of concentrating on one aspect or type of plant life, Koch has chosen to go for the pick-and-mix method, and has produced a book that jumps from one plant type/species to the next, while still managing to convey the basics of plant biology in simple and concise language. The book is hand lettered, which may make it difficult for younger children to read, but children and adults of any age can enjoy the glorious pictures. The main text is written in capital block letters, while the names of plants and other things in the pictures are written in near-illegible longhand that sometimes is so faint that coupled with the bad handwriting it is almost impossible to read (probably a printing error). This is the only real complaint I have about the book.

Rating: A gorgeous book for nature and art lovers. 5+ stars.

Maryjo Koch's website

23 January 2011

List Love 6: Top 10 politically incorrect kids books

I am in a reviewing slump at the moment, so here is a bit of list love:

Top 10 politically incorrect kids books

I came across this list when I was researching the Dr. Dolittle books by Hugh Lofting (which I loved as a child), and thought it would be interesting to take a look at them. I think when adults read children’s books, they tend to forget that children generally don’t read much between the lines of books, and pretty much take a situation at face value. I know that when I was a child, I never noticed any racism in any of the books in this list that I read at that time.

Little House on the Prairie - Laura Ingalls Wilder
Politically incorrect because: it is offensive to Native Americans.
I have read this one, but it was so long ago that I don’t feel up to commenting on it. I do remember that I liked reading these books as a child/teenager, but I didn’t love them.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain
Politically incorrect because: it is offensive to black people, due to racist terms and mentions of slavery.
While the language and attitudes towards black people described in the book are offensive, the text itself does not feel racist to me. The book tells me how white people at the time thought and spoke of black people, but it does not tell me that this is right and I should do the same, and in fact does quite the opposite by showing the prejudiced folks as bad or stupid. Jim is a sympathetic, sometimes even heroic, character, and we must remember that when Finn calls him by the infamous N-word, he isn’t being racist as such, he is simply using a term someone of his race and class would have commonly used for a black person (I also realise that this knowledge doesn’t make it any easier for black people to read the book because the casual way in which the damn word is used jumps out at you). While Jim is superstitious and uneducated it is because he was never given a chance to be anything else and not because Twain wants us to think black people are stupid.

Kim - Rudyard Kipling
Politically incorrect because: its endorsement of British colonialism in India.
I haven’t read this one, but it think it is telling that many Indians, including two I know personally, love this book and seem to find it charming rather than offensive.

The Story of Babar: The Little Elephant - Jean de Brunhoff
Politically incorrect because: it appears to justify French colonialism.
I haven’t read the book, only seen the cartoons, so I can’t really be a judge of this one. But, for heaven’s sake: it’s about animals that wear clothes and talk and behave like people, and unlike Animal Farm, it was written for young children. Exactly how much of the supposed subliminal message do people think kids are going to absorb?

Noddy Cheers Up Big Ears - Enid Blyton
Politically incorrect because: it is offensive to black people because of the golliwogs, and some have seen an endorsement of homosexuality in it.
My brother was given some of these books when I was a child. I hated Noddy because I thought he was so dumb, but any supposedly offensive content went completely over my head. Except for the Golliwogs. See more on those below.

The Story of Dr. Dolittle - Hugh Lofting
Politically incorrect because: it shows Africans as generally simple and even stupid. (A later book in the series promotes the "noble savage" stereotype of Native Americans).
This is an interesting one. I never saw any racism in them until it was pointed out to me in later years. The African characters were, to me, simply different, and maybe not very sensible people, but I was too young to realise that this was supposed to have anything to do with skin colour. The problem, however, isn’t just one of racial stereotyping, it is one of general and rampant anglocentrism - which can be said to plague a lot of books by a lot of British authors. Everyone who isn’t English is inferior in some way, and in fact, any Englishperson will always be inferior to the noble doctor and to most of his animals as well.

The Story of Little Black Sambo - Helen Bannerman
Politically incorrect because: The term Sambo and the illustrations in the original book.

Here, it seems to me it was mostly the illustrations that were considered offensive, plus of course the Sambo name, which has negative racial connotations. When I read it as a child, I didn’t see Sambo as a real black boy – I saw him as a black doll, because of the way he was drawn in the Icelandic version.

The Three Golliwogs - Enid Blyton
Politically incorrect because:  the depiction of the golliwogs.
Another case of offensive illustrations, and of course the word “golliwog” has negative racial connotations. I don’t remember what the golliwogs were called in Icelandic, but I don’t remember it as being a racist term. I did think they were ugly, but never connected them with black people, possibly because the stories were all about live toys and not "real" people.

Tintin Au Congo - Hergé
Politically incorrect because: of its depiction of Africans.
When I first read this I was old enough to find the appearance of the Africans in the book distasteful – I thought it was not a nice interpretation of black people when compared with the white people in the story.

And Then There Were None (Originally: Ten Little Niggers, then Ten Little Indians) - Agatha Christie.
Politically incorrect because: of the the original title and the inclusion of the rhyme.
I didn't know this was considered a children's book, but maybe the person who compiled the original list couldn't find any others? Or perhaps they confused the Christie book with the original rhyme (which, by the way, is very racist because of its use of the word 'nigger'). The Christie book isn't racist (unless you consider it racist to not have included any non-white characters in it), apart from the original title and the inclusion of the rhyme, which has been toned down in later editions by substituting the"Ten little Indians" version for the original.

22 January 2011

Quotation for today

My personal definition of hell is to be trapped somewhere without anything to read!
Rosefolly (Reader's Paradise forum)

21 January 2011

Friday night folktales: The Bakki-brothers and old Brownie

I don't think the following story is supposed to be funny. In fact it is rather tragic. It seems to be included to prove that the brothers were indeed dumb, dumber and dumbest. Of course, when a modern, educated person reads all these stories, they don't see inexcusably stupid people to be judged and ridiculed like their contemporaries did, but rather a trio of men who had lower than average IQs and really needed help they didn't get.

As well as inheriting the farm, the Bakki-brothers also inherited old Brownie, their father’s mare.

Once there was a great storm and the brothers were afraid that Brownie would be blown away, so they gathered up a quantity of rocks and piled it up around her and on top of her, as much as would stay put. After that the mare neither blew away nor indeed ever stood up again.

Copyright notice: The wording used to tell this folk-tale is under copyright. The story itself is not copyrighted. If you want to re-tell it, for a collection of folk-tales, incorporate it into fiction, use it in a school essay or any kind of publication, please tell it in your own words or give the proper attribution if you choose to use the wording unchanged.

20 January 2011

Book lover's thanksgiving


I GIVE humble and hearty thanks for the safe return of this book which having endured the perils of my friend's bookcase, and the bookcases of my friend's friends, now returns to me in reasonably good condition.

I GIVE humble and hearty thanks that my friend did not see fit to give this book to his infant as a plaything, nor use it as an ash-tray for his burning cigar, nor as a teething-ring for his mastiff.

WHEN I lent this book I deemed it as lost: I was resigned to the bitterness of the long parting: I never thought to look upon its pages again.

BUT NOW that my book is come back to me, I rejoice and am exceeding glad!

Bring hither the fatted morocco and let us rebind the volume and set it on the shelf of honour: for this my book was lent, and is returned again.

PRESENTLY, therefore, I may return some of the books that I myself have borrowed.

(Christopher Morley, The Haunted Bookshop)

19 January 2011

New auxiliary blog

I have started a new blog as an auxiliary to this one. I will be posting stuff on it that is book related but doesn't exactly belong on this one, like author bibliographies and lists of book series showing which books I have read, links to other readers' reviews of the books I have been reading, themed TBR lists, and so on.

It is mostly meant to be a memory tool for me that I can access from anywhere that has an Internet connection, but I would love to hear your comments on the lists, which books you have read, which ones you recommend and which ones you don't, and so on. It's called This'n That.

18 January 2011

Shotgun by Ed McBain

Genre: Police procedural
Year of publication: 1968
Series and no.: 87th Precinct, # 23
Setting & time: Isola, a fictional city in the USA, based on New York; contemporary

When I get tired of reading long detective stories I know I can always turn to Ed McBain. His books are generally (although not always) short, yet he still manages to put into them as much detail as some other authors need three times as many pages to convey. In Shotgun Carella and Kling investigate a gruesome double homicide by shotgun, while Meyer and his partner handle an unusual and mysterious stabbing of a woman in her apartment.

McBain wrote a spare style stuffed full of information and knew how to get across an amazing amount of information in a simple conversation, of which there are several in this story. He also managed to tell stories that were darkly funny, thrilling and interesting. The stories are also realistic. Most of the investigations described in the books are solved by good solid investigative work, coincidences that help the detectives along are never improbable, and it is usually by persistence that the cases are solved, rather than by leaps of logic, just like what one imagines real police work to be like. I like McBain’s work for these reasons and several others.

I have yet to come across an 87th Precinct book I didn’t like, and this one is no exception. 4 stars.

P.S. I have started reading my first non-87th Precinct McBain book. It will be interesting to see how it compares. Since it’s a “What’s in a Name” challenge book, there will be a review.

17 January 2011

Four Hundred Years of Fashion (Victoria and Albert Museum)

Originally published in January and February 2005, in 2 parts.
Book 50 in my first 52 books challenge.

Editor: Natalie Rothstein
Text: Madeleine Ginsburg, Avir Hart, Valerie D. Mendes, et al.
Photographs: Philip Barnard
Year published: 1984
Pages: 176
Genre: History of clothing styles
Where got: Public library

I was planning to read a Danish book titled Krop og klær: Klædedragtens kunsthistorie (In English: Body and clothing: The art history of dress) for this week’s review, but leafing through it I realised I could never finish it in one week AND enjoy it, because it’s been a while since I’ve read anything more complicated than craft magazines in Danish, and there is a fair amount of technical vocabulary in it that requires the use of a dictionary. I did want to read something about textiles, and picked up this overview of dress history as seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Dress Collection. It is published by the museum and contains a large number of photographs of clothes from the collection, with historical overview, description of each item of clothing, and a glossary of clothing terms.

During my last two visits to London I had plans to visit the V&A, but both times I had to cancel. This book will hopefully compensate just a little.

Victoria & Albert Museum fashion collection

First of all: I was unable to read the entire book. Some #$%&$ biblioclast has torn out several pages, which is always a risk with library books.

The book is a museum catalogue of sorts, a description of fashions in clothing and accessories as seen in the V&A’s costume collection. The photographs are beautiful and the text describes the general fashions of each time period and specifically the clothes in the photos. What I missed were close-ups of details in the clothes, like stitching, embroidery and trimmings, but the book is not meant to be a precise costume history, but merely an overview. I have learned a whole new vocabulary from reading it, all words descriptive of clothing and parts thereof.

This book is interesting for people who would like to know more about costume history in general, and may be of some help to people who like to make accurate recreations of historical costumes, as there is information on the fabrics and materials used for the clothing. The best thing about the book (in my opinion) is the photographs of the costumes. They are shown to advantage, but unfortunately each costume is only shown from one angle, so that while you can admire a dress from the front, back or side, you don’t get to see it from other angles. The manikins the clothes are hung on are a bit spooky: expressionless and ivory white, they stare into space with empty eyes, but they do add verisimilitude by filling out the clothes and displaying the appropriate accessories, such as shoes, fans, parasols, hats and jewelry, and also hairstyles. It’s a pity they are so ghostly - but they do look slightly more normal in the black and white photos.

Rating: A beautiful coffee-table book for costume enthusiasts.

15 January 2011

Top Mysteries Challenge review: The Firm by John Grisham

Genre: Thriller
Year of publication: 1991
Setting & time: Mostly Memphis, Tennessee, with brief stops and other places around the USA, and the Cayman Islands; contemporary

Rookie tax lawyer Mitch McDeere accepts a lucrative job offer from a prestigious law firm, but finds out to his dismay that all is not what it seems within the firm. Caught between a rock and a hard place, he has to use his wits and find a way out of the hole he has dug himself into.

Review: Many years ago I overdosed on John Grisham novels and swore I would never read another of his books again, but since I have committed myself to finish all the books easily available to me that are on the challenge list, I knew that sooner or later I would have to tackle The Firm. When I started reading it soon became apparent that distancing myself from Grisham had made me forget what it was in the first place that I had disliked about the books.

The Firm is a hugely enjoyable thriller, even if the protagonist is a bit too perfect, a bit too smart. Grisham does a good job of slowly increasing the pressure in the narrative until it hums with tension, and then he lets go, spinning out a tense and thrilling climax and a satisfying, if unrealistic, ending. The characterisations are scant, except for those of Mitch and his wife, but he manages to avoid stereotyping, which can be difficult in a plot-driven narrative like this one. Altogether a fine thriller, although I had to laugh when I got to the ending, because that was when I remembered what annoyed me about at least one of the books I read during the aforementioned Grisham binge: the hero and heroine relaxing on a tropical beach with cold drinks and the promise of sex in the air. I don’t remember why it annoyed me so, but it did, but I didn’t let it affect my rating of this novel. 4 stars.

Books left in challenge: 70
Place on the list(s): MWA 42
Awards: None I know of

Lynn Viehl: Night Lost

Genre: Urban fantasy/paranormal romance
Series and no.: Darkyn, # 4
Year of publication: 2007
Setting & time: Rural France, England, Ireland and the USA; contemporary

Darkyn lord Gabriel Seran is the prisoner of the Brethren, a religious sect dedicated to eliminating the Darkyn. Chained to a cross and walled in down in the basement of an old chapel on the grounds of his former estate in France, he feels abandoned by the other Darkyn, but is honour-bound to protect their secrets. Meanwhile, burglar Nicola Jefferson is searching for a particular relic in the chapels and churches of Europe while stealing such treasures as she finds and selling them to finance the search. She has also freed a number of imprisoned Darkyn, but when she frees Gabriel something feels different. Meanwhile, the Darkyn king has imprisoned Dr. Alexandra Keller (If Angels Burn) in his stronghold in Ireland, forcing her to search for a cure for the affliction that is slowly turning him into a mutant. Her lover, Darkyn lord Michael Cyprien, is hell-bent on rescuing her, even if it will cost him his life.

This is a much more focused and less muddled narrative than in the previous book, Dark Need, but again I have a problem with the beginning of the love story. The protagonists behave in a particularly brainless fashion by jumping each other’s bones without practically any reason at all while they are in great danger of being discovered by the Brethren. Even with the dream sequences that are supposed to explain the instant attraction, it is still not believable. However, the sex/love scenes in this book are very romantic and the twist near the end is completely unexpected but logical. Over all, I enjoyed this one more than the last one, so it gets 3 stars.

14 January 2011

Friday night folklore: The Bakki-brothers and the keg

Every nation has stories about fools and simpletons and their antics. The Bakkabræður or "brothers from Bakki" stories are an Icelandic example. In the weeks to come I will be posting one Bakki-brothers story every Friday.

Long ago, on a farm called Bakki in Svarfaðardalur there lived a farmer who had three sons: Gísli, Eiríkur and Helgi. They were famous far and wide for their stupidity and their antics were a source of fun for the neighbours. 

Once, when the brothers were almost grown men they rowed out to sea with their father to do some fishing. The old man was suddenly taken ill so he had to lie down to rest.

They had brought with them a keg of whey mixed with water (a traditional refreshing drink). The old man called out after a while to his sons, asking for the keg. 

Then one of them said: “Gísli-Eiríkur-Helgi (which is what they used to say when one of them spoke to one of the others), our father calls for the keg.”

The second one repeated after the first: “Gísli-Eiríkur-Helgi, our father calls for the keg,” and this was taken up by the third brother. They repeated this over and over until the old man was dead, since none of them understood what he wanted the keg for. Since then it has become a saying “að kalla kútinn” (“to call for the keg”) when someone dies. 

The brothers then headed for land, trussed up the old man’s body and tied it to the back of an old brown mare that had belonged to him and sent the mare off with the body, saying that old Brownie would know where to go. 

Later they found Brownie again but without the body, and so were certain that she had taken the old man where she was supposed to take him, so they didn’t bother to find out what had happened to the body.

They inherited the farm from their father and farmed the land and were called after the farm and were alternatively called the Bakki-brothers or the Bakki-fools. 

Copyright notice: The wording used to tell this folk-tale is under copyright. The story itself is not copyrighted. If you want to re-tell it, for a collection of folk-tales, incorporate it into fiction, use it in a school essay or any kind of publication, please tell it in your own words or give the proper attribution if you choose to use the wording unchanged.

Libraries and librarians

Book collecting and the building-up of great libraries is as much a matter of the heart as a matter of the head. The man who is all heart and no head would be a very bad librarian. But the man who is all head and no heart is a very dangerous librarian. 
Randolph G. Adams (1892-1951)

13 January 2011

Lynn Viehl: Dark Need

Genre: Urban fantasy/paranormal romance
Series and no.: Darkyn, # 3
Year of publication: 2006
Setting & time: Miami, Florida, USA; contemporary

Homicide detective Samantha Brown is a dedicated police officer living with the memory of a shooting that nearly killed her and is plagued by the fear that the colleague who was stalking her, and who she is certain was behind the shooting, will come back to finish the job. She meets the mysterious Lucan when the only clue to a horrific murder is a replica of a medieval cross bearing his name. Lucan, once a powerful Darkyn assassin and now a nightclub owner in Miami, is immediately attracted to Samantha, but he has a job to do and can’t allow himself to love her. Additionally there is a mutated, insane Kyn on the prowl and the religious fanatics who pose a threat to the Kyn are nearby and preparing to attack.

Lucan was a minor villain in the first book, If Angels Burn. He has a powerful talent: he can kill any living being with a touch, and when he loses his temper, glass cracks and breaks all around him, making him a very popular client with local glaziers and glass manufacturers. Having been dreaded and even hated by humans and other Kyn alike, Lucan doesn't like anyone getting close to him but uses human women for sexual relief. Samantha, however, awakens in him feeling he thought long dead, to begin with because she is the spitting image of a woman he once loved, but later he learns she is a totally different character and begins to love and respect her for those qualities rather than the resemblance to his long dead love. Samantha has trust issues, yet almost immediately trusts Lucan and even when he has betrayed that trust she still trusts him because she loves him, apparently because he is such a wonderful lover. This does not feel right. It seems as if one hit to the libido is enough to make the woman forget everything she believes in and cure her of a long-held anxiety problem.

For these reasons and others I didn’t enjoy this book as much as the previous two. This story is less focused and the plotting is somewhat disjointed and confusing, and it is saying a lot about a book when a side character (Sam's young neighbour) is more interesting than the protagonists. Therefore I can only give it 2 stars.

12 January 2011

List love 5: The most disturbing novels I have read

When I was posting about my Halloween-themed reads, I mentioned that I was planning to make a list of disturbing books. Well, here it is. As you can see, there are no outright horror novels on the list - instead they are mostly thrillers and suspense novels, the kind that can play endlessly with one’s imagination because one always tends to imagine things as being worse than they really are. A good writer can scare the living daylights out of the reader merely by using suggestion.

  • We have always lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. A tale of mental disintegration and murder, it is disturbing on several levels, from the cheerfully manipulative unreliable narrator, to the evil cousin, to the townspeople who turn into a lynch mob in the flash of a moment. Most of all, the atmosphere just keeps getting more thickly oppressive and creepy with each new chapter.
  • The Wasp Factory by Iain M. Banks.The protagonist lives in a world of his own making, with strange but logical rules that seem perfectly normal to him, but scary and disturbing to the reader. Now that I think about it, I am pretty sure Banks was under the influence of We have always lived in the castle when he created this character, although the story is totally different.
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. Such a very bleak view of the future, one that seems ever more possible as it becomes more and more difficult to hide from the electronic media and a Big Brother of sorts is indeed monitoring people.
  • The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. Were the ghosts real or were they imaginary? Freaky either way, because if they were, the nanny had every reason to react as she did, and if they weren’t, the kids were manipulative little monsters. Mostly the atmosphere is just thickly oppressive and creepy.
  • The Legend of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Bad ghosts or crazy person imagining things? Hard to tell, but deeply disturbing either way, and again the atmosphere plays a big part.
  • Perfume by Patrick Suskind. The protagonist is a sociopathic serial killer and yet you actually like him or at least root for him.
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell. Another dystopia novel that shows a disturbing look at human society acted out by animals.
  • The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty. The passage with the crucifix was enough to guarantee a place on this list, but again the atmosphere makes it disturbing.
  • Psycho by Robert Bloch. Today I would probably find it quite tame, but I was 12 when I read it and was afraid to sleep with the light off for weeks afterwards, out of a fear I would have a nightmare (I associated nightmares with darkness).

Furthermore, I suspect that if I were to read the Lord of the Flies I would probably add it to the list, at least if it is anything like as disturbing as the movie.

10 January 2011

Hear! Hear!

Even when reading is impossible, the presence of books acquired (by passionate devotion to them) produces such an ecstasy that the buying of more books than one can peradventure read is nothing less than the soul reaching towards infinity … we cherish books even if unread, their mere presence exudes comfort, their ready access, reassurance.
– A. Edward Newton (1863-1940)

Murder Mysteries

Originally published in January 2005, in 2 parts.
Book 49 in my first 52 books challenge.

Story: Neil Gaiman
Artwork: P. Craig Russell
Year published: 2002
Pages: Not numbered
Genre: Graphic novel
Where got: Public library

Have I mentioned that Neil Gaiman is one of my favourite authors? The first book I read by him was Stardust, a fairy tale that reminded me of Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. Earlier I had read Good Omens which he wrote in collaboration with Terry Pratchett, and loved it. It is, in fact, one of my perennial reads. Gaiman’s prose is very visual, and translates well into the graphic novel form (I would love to see American Gods made into a graphic novel). This appears to be a stand-alone short story.

The Story:
Three stories are told simultaneously: the framework story of the storyteller, telling the story of how he was once stuck in L.A. due to bad weather at his destination and met a (possibly) crazy old man who claimed to be and angel and told him the story within the story, of the first crime committed in Creation: the jealous murder of one angel by another. The title of the story, Murder Mysteries, comes from the fact that the angel telling the story was the one sent by the Creator to investigate the murder and punish the murderer. The punishment meted out, it is suggested, was the prelude to the fall of Lucifer.

Technique and plot:
Being a graphic novel, the story is mostly told in images, and so is a short read. Most of the time goes into looking at the artwork. The graphic form is, of course, exceptionally well suited to the fantasy genre, and the artist has done a good job of representing angels, although I wonder why they all have to look like handsome, muscular and nude (but genitalia-free) men. Possibly it has to do with auto-censorship and the fear that the books would be outlawed to sex shops should a naked female breast be seen. Or possibly it has to do with artistic tradition. We would, after centuries of being shown them in art, expect angels to look like beautiful men, nude or clothed.

Images of Heaven alternate with images of Los Angeles at night, one place being bright, shiny, new and intimidating and the other dark, worn, and boding.

The L.A. artwork is realistic, with muted colours, and the Heaven artwork is fantastical, a collusion of abstracts and unreal-looking buildings, plants and whatnots in riotous colours.

Some may find the story repulsive because of images of angels making love, and others may find sacrilege in it. God (here called “Lord” or “The Name”) is not exactly shown as the bearded and paternal old man one is used to from Sunday school…

Rating: A sad little murder story with a sting in the tail. 3 stars for the story, 3 stars for the artwork = 3 stars overall.

07 January 2011

Friday night folklore: The Vengeful Finn

For some reason, Finns and Lapps were, in the old days, considered by Icelanders to be the most powerful of sorcerers. Here in one story of a Finnish sorcerer.This story is unusual in that usually the foreign sorcerer is completely thwarted by an Icelander, but  here he is only partially thwarted, and that by the advice of a friendly Norwegian.

The fever mentioned in the story is some kind of very contagious and lethal disease that affects both cats and dogs, but I have seen a similar story that gave these events as the explanation for the arrival of rabies in Iceland (which has since been eradicated).

Eyrarbakki is village on the south coast of Iceland that was a trading center for several centuries. As often happened, a merchant ship arrived and one of the crew was from Finland. He had some merchandise that he was selling, among other things an empty bottle. He wanted more for it than a regular bottle would sell for and no-one seemed interested in buying it. 

Eventually he had an offer for the bottle. The buyer said he would come by the next day to pick it up and pay for it, since the bottle was aboard the ship, which was moored off shore. The next morning the Finn brought the bottle ashore, but the Icelander had changed his mind. 

This resulted in a noisy argument between them and finally they started pushing each other around, the Icelander driving the Finn backwards. He grabbed the bottle and threw it, hard as he could, down onto the sea-cliffs, but the bottle bounced and landed farther away, unbroken, as it was made of flexible glass. The Icelander noticed this and snatched up the bottle and left with it without paying a thing for it. 

Later that summer the ship sailed back to Norway. The next spring it returned, and the Finn was still in the crew. He brought another bottle and asked the Icelanders to sell him milk to fill the bottle, from local women and cows. However, the ship’s captain warned the people not to do it but sell him instead milk from a bitch and a cat, which they did. 

The gleefully happy Finn went back to Norway with the ship, taking with him his bottle full of milk.

Once he reached Finnmark he visited his aged mother, who was a witch. She took the bottle with the milk and started cooking it in a water-bath, and continued to cook it until the end of the month of Góa (early March in the Gregorian calendar). Then barking and meowing stared coming from the pot, which so shocked the old woman that she ran out and killed herself over having been so basely fooled. 

The next summer her son took the bottle with him to Iceland and this caused a serious epidemic among the cats and dogs of Iceland, which died in their hundreds.

Copyright notice: The wording used to tell this folk-tale is under copyright. The story itself is not copyrighted. If you want to re-tell it, for a collection of folk-tales, incorporate it into fiction, use it in a school essay or any kind of publication, please tell it in your own words or give the proper attribution if you choose to use the wording unchanged.

06 January 2011

All about bookmarks

I just discovered a great blog about bookmarks that is full of links to information about bookmarks and bookmark collecting and other things about bookmarks: Bookmark Collector.

There are plenty of  links to instructions on how to make various kinds of bookmarks, which I am in the process of exploring.

A Quotation for Today

"Luckily, I have trained myself over the years never to go anywhere without something to read, just in case someone turns up late, the meeting ends early, or I'm inadvertently imprisoned for thirty-five-years and put into solitary confinement. I'm actually quite worried about those people you see on long train journeys with nothing to read, just staring blankly into the middle distance. What the hell is going on in their heads, then? Perhaps they've got excellent memories, and they‘re just remembering a particularly good book they once read, which saves them having to carry one round. Because there‘s a danger in carrying a book round: you might leave it somewhere before you've finished it. I once left my copy if Get Shorty in the back of a drunken farmer‘s Jeep in Costa Rica when I was only two-thirds of the way through, and it completely ruined the trip. The rainforest is a much duller place without Elmore Leonard."

From McCarthy's Bar by Pete McCarthy.

05 January 2011

About reading challenges in general

Apropos of my last post, I decided to post some thoughts about reading challenges. After having done one or more reading challenges per year since 2004, I like to think there are a few lessons I have (finally) learned about making/choosing ones that can be followed with enjoyment and relative (but not too much) ease. There are three principal rules I have found that work for me:

  • Make it simple
  • Make it enjoyable
  • Make it new 

The fourth, unwritten, rule is of course to make it challenging.

I have noticed that I tend to be somewhat overambitious when I think up a new reading challenge for myself. I often begin by making things too complicated, either with too many rules, overly complex rules, or too many books. Everything goes well for a couple of months and then either my enthusiasm begins flagging or something comes up that puts a spanner in the works and throws me so far off the track that it’s difficult to get back on it. This is why rule no. 1 is to make it simple. Too much of anything (rules included) just complicates things.

Rule no. 2, to make it enjoyable, is very important. As I have said before: life is simply too short to spend it reading books that don’t interest you. This of course only applies to reading for fun – I think we all know that even when studying something we are really interested in, we still occasionally have to read uninteresting, dull or dry books. That can’t be helped, but doing this in your free time reading is folly.

Rule no. 3, to make it new, is simply common sense. It’s not a challenge to just read something you would have read anyway in the given time. This even applies to challenges to achieve a certain page or book count, because presumably you are challenging yourself to read more than before.

Auxiliary rules may be added as needed. For example, most of my reading challenges have had a deadline, usually a year. However, I have come to the conclusion that while a deadline is good, so is having plenty of time so that I can take a break from the challenge if necessary, and not to have absolute rules so I can alter it if it begins to feel too much like a chore.

Another good auxiliary rule is to have a theme. It just escapes being a principal rule because sometimes people challenge themselves to read a certain number of books or pages in a given amount of time, which is a goal rather than a theme. The theme could be short stories, biographies of a particular type of person (e.g. spies, famous composers or royal mistresses), a specific genre, or a specific era in time.

Another auxiliary rule (that I already mentioned above) is to have a goal. Goals are always good. 52 books in 52 weeks is a goal, and so is reading all of Dickens, finishing the 20 oldest books in your TBR stack, or becoming an expert on a certain topic through reading.

If the reading challenge is an ambitious one, having a reading plan helps. This could be a general plan, such as “I’ll read one short story per day for a year, using any or all of these books” or a specific one like “I will read the 52 books on this list in the same number of weeks”.

But the most important rule of them all is to be flexible. This means to be prepared for set-backs and to be ready and able to alter the challenge if it’s proving too difficult or too easy.

Take the short story challenge I just finished. It’s a daily reading challenge and I found that some days it was hard to stick to reading only one story per day, and on other days it was incredibly difficult to tear myself away from a gripping mystery or an entrancing travelogue to read a short story that might or might not turn out to be a complete mood dampener.

The daily reading challenge I set myself in 2008 was to read one single book (The Faber Book of Diaries) in the course of a year, never more than 2 pages at a time, with no blogging. Simple and easy (also enjoyable, meaningful and new), this made it very easy to catch up after my two setbacks of the year: the week-long Easter holiday when I forgot to pack the book, and the 5 weeks in India when I didn’t want to bring it for fear of losing it.

In the daily challenge the stories I read ranged in length from a couple of pages (my arbitrary minimum set length), to 40+ pages (50 p. was my max. limit), and had I done it in 2008, I would have had to give it up when I decided to go to India.

In the beginning I made the following rules:

  1. Read from all of my short story collections and fairy tale collections (about 50 all in all).
  2. Never read more than one story from each book in the same week.
  3. Finish as many of the short collections as possible.
  4. Never read the same author or genre two days in a row.
  5. Do not count re-reads as part of the challenge.
  6. Mention every single story on this blog

My goals in creating the challenge were to:
  • add new authors, new genres and new countries to my reading repertoire
  • finish off a number of TBR challenge books
  • create content for the blog

Then came Easter, and – optimist that I am – I didn’t pack any short story collections for my annual spring migration back to the parental nest, thinking I remembered them having enough short story books to keep me busy. Of course it completely skipped my mind that I have read almost every single book of fiction in their collection, excluding only the gloomiest pieces in my mother’s collection of Icelandic literature, and – the important part – neither of them much likes short stories, so there is a dearth of such books in their home library...

This set me back by a good 9 days, and while in theory it should have only taken me 8 days of reading 2 stories per day to get back on the wagon, for one reason or another it ended up taking me a month to catch up. This was because the challenge had become a chore.
It was while I was struggling to catch up that I realised that once again I had made a challenge too complicated. Reading challenges are supposed to be fun, after all, so I ruthlessly cut down the rules until only 2 remained, numbers 5 and 6, and decided to focus on finishing the single biggest book, page by page. This removed the sometimes frantic search for the perfect story to read each day, and I was much happier as a result.

Of course these rules are made to be broken – it is, for example, doubtful that a challenge to read every book on a public list, e.g. Harold Bloom’s Western Canon list or any of the Top 100 Best Books of [insert era, genre or country] lists, can ever be completely enjoyable, and likewise it can become quite complicated to follow a list if the books are out of print and unavailable in the nearby public libraries, like is the case with my Top Mysteries Challenge. I expect to run into problems with that challenge in 2012 because some of the books are out of print and not available from the local public libraries.

The bottom line is that a challenge should be challenging, but not too challenging.

04 January 2011

Meme: Top Ten Books I Resolve To Read in 2011

The Top Ten Tuesdays meme is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. Show your appreciation by clicking on the link and checking out some more reading resolutions on the other participating blogs.

This is actually more of an “I would like to finish” list than a resolution - I have stopped making those.

  • Douglas Adams: Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. I like the Hitch-hiker’s Guide series, so I really should read this one and see if I like it as much.
  • R. Broby-Johansen: Krop og klær. Illustrated costume history, in Danish. It’s a subject I am interested in and I have had the book for several years, but for some reason never read it.
  • Charles Darwin: Voyage of the Beagle. Third attempt...
  • Amelia B. Edwards: A Thousand Miles up the Nile. I need to finish this one.
  • Neil Gaiman. Anansi Boys. Bought it soon after it came out and never read it, which is surprising because I like Gaiman's work.
  • Gregory Maguire:Wicked. Got it for my birthday years ago but never managed to work up the enthusiasm for reading it.
  • Mervyn Peake: Gormenghast. I read Titus Groan several years ago and started this one, but put it on the back-burner for some reason I have forgotten.
  • Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen: The Science of Discworld III: Darwin's Watch. It has been waiting for too long to be read, considering the trouble I went through to get it (BookMooch with endless customs hassles).
  • Paul Scott: The Jewel in the Crown. It’s time I started reading the Raj Quartet. I loved the TV mini-series and I expect I will love the books as well.
  • More non-fiction in general. I have loads of interesting non-fiction books sitting on my shelves unread.

My reading challenges in 2011

As my regular readers may know, I considered a number of reading challenges for 2011. In the end I decided to do two year-long ones with numerous books: my very own Top Mysteries and TBR challenges.

I am stepping up the TBR challenge with the goal of reducing my TBR stack to below 850 books before the end of the year. The rules are, as before, that the stack can be reduced by reading and by culling and the books allowed for the challenge are the many, many books I have accumulated over the years but never read, provided I have owned them for more than a year. Furthermore, I will be unable to do this unless I cut down even more on my book buying. I plan to focus especially on non-fiction and on further reducing the number of my unread short story collections.

In the Top Mysteries Challenge I am planning to read 2 books per month, averaged over the year.

I will also continue the Frankfurter Büchmesse Challenge until the book fair starts in October.

Additionally, I’ll take part in some smaller challenges (6 books or less) organised by others, but only ones I can combine mostly or entirely with one or both of the other two. I am joining the What’s in a Name Challenge, level 1 of the The Read-A-Myth Challenge and level two of the Gothic Reading Challenge. I may add additional mini-challenges after I finish these.

03 January 2011

Encounters With Animals

Originally published in January 2005, in 3 parts. Book 48 in my first 52 books challenge.

Author: Gerald Durrell
Year published: 1958
Pages: 180
Genre: Memoirs, animals and animal collecting
Where got: Bought it somewhere

This is a collection of essays about animals that naturalist Gerald Durrell recorded for the BBC in the 1950’s. Some of the essays are original material, and some are about animals he had written about before in his books, so this will be partly a new reading experience for me and partly a return visit to old friends (I've read about 90% of Durrell's non-fiction books). Part of the book is about animal habitat and animals in general, part is about specific animal characters (some or all of which he has written about in his other books), and part is about interesting people.

My love-affair with Gerald Durrell’s books
It’s strange to read Gerald Durrell’s wonderful books knowing that he hated writing and only did it to finance his animal collecting expeditions and his zoo. It certainly does not show in his writing (well, at least not his early writing. Some of his last books feel a bit rushed). His style is beautiful and he had the gift of being evocative in his descriptions of animals, people and places. To read his description of a bower bird decorating his bower for a non-existent mate and a bird of paradise displaying his singing and dancing skills in front of an unappreciative audience (Encounters with Animals) is in some ways a more alive experience than watching the same scene unfold in a nature documentary.

I was ten when I first read Durrell’s classic memoir, My Family and other Animals, and I have read it approximately once a year since. It was brilliantly translated into Icelandic and the translator was able to capture perfectly the style and humour of the original. It was 6 years before I read another one of his books (in English), and after that I was hooked. So was my mother, and between us we own most of his non-fiction books, and a couple of his novels.

Durrell is one of the authors who awakened in me the desire to travel to exotic places. I know of course that the countries he describes don’t exist any more as he describes them, and although I get a glint in my eye whenever someone mentions the Greek island of Corfu (the setting for My Family and other Animals), I am not sure I want to visit it, knowing it has become a tourism magnet and party island. I would much rather keep the unspoilt, pre-WW2 image of it.

Patagonia (The Whispering Land), which at the time of Durrell’s visit was relatively unspoilt and certainly not a tourist destination, is now a popular place for backpackers to visit, thanks partly to Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theraux. I do want to visit it, but I fear the magic Durrell found there may be gone. Guyana (Three Singles to Adventure), Cameroon (The Bafut Beagles, The Overloaded Ark), Paraguay (The Drunken Forest) and Mauritius (Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons) are all on my “want to see” list and so is the more mundane destination of Jersey (Menagerie Manor, The Stationary Ark). I would not have considered any of these places as desirable destinations (well, maybe Mauritius) if Durrell had not described them so beautifully.

Gerald Durrell tried his hand at writing novels, but they were not in the same league as his non-fiction. Rosy is my Relative is a funny and farcical book, based on true events, and the best of his novels that I’ve read. Big brother Lawrence was the family novelist, and has left his tracks in British literary history. Gerald will be remembered for his autobiographical naturalist/travel books, and it remains to be seen which brother will be the more enduring author.

As I mentioned earlier, this is a collection of essays/scripts for talks which Durrell recorded for the BBC. It is about animals, places and people that he has come across, and starts out with two descriptions of animals and their habitat, goes on to discuss animal courtships, architecture, warfare, inventions and endangered animals, specific animals Durrell met and liked, like The Bandits (kusimanses), Sarah Huggersack (anteater), Wilhelmina the whip-scorpion and Pavlo the marmoset, and ends with two portraits of people Durrell met on his travels.

Technique and plot:
Durrell was a born storyteller. He wrote beautifully and evocatively about subjects dear to him, among which were animals, nature and nature conservation and interesting people. This book gives a taste of each subject, and would, I think, make a nice introduction to Durrell for someone who has not read anything by him before. It is the best of his collections that I have read, as it has a theme even if it is not a single story. The other collections contain essays and short stories that have too widely different subjects to be really good.

Rating: A good introduction to Gerald Durrell’s writings and a good read for amateur naturalists and children who are interested in nature and animals. 4 stars.

02 January 2011

Progress report for December and tentative reading plan for January

Of the books I planned to read in December, I finished the 5 TBR challenge books plus one more. I only finished 1 Top Mysteries challenge book and neither did I finish the third top mystery, The Woman in White, which was also to have been my Chunkster Challenge book for the month. The Buchmesse challenge read was 101 Reykjavík, a comic novel by Hallgrímur Helgason.

In the latter part of the month I found myself unable to concentrate on any but short reads that didn‘t require the concentration needed for a long and detailed novel like The Woman in White or a dense read like Lark Rise. As I have already mentioned, I lost two close relatives in quick succession in December. After the first death I focused on short reads that didn‘t require much concentration and were unlikely to set me off crying, which is why I avoided Dickens.

In January the plan is to continue the TBR challenge, the Top Mysteries challenge and the Buchmesse challenge. I will be posting about other challenges soon.

I don‘t have any books lined up for January and will let chance decide what I read, both in and outside the challenges.

I am currently reading The Windows of Brimnes by Bill Holm (lovely writing about Iceland and Icelanders) and McCarthy‘s Bar by Pete McCarthy (uneven but occasionally funny), and on my next long car ride I plan to finish the audio book of Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris, which is an excellent book when you need cheering up.

01 January 2011

Reading report for December 2010

A very Happy New Year to my readers and casual visitors!

Here is the final reading report for 2010. I will be doing my yearly report soon.

Of the 11 books I finished in December, I started 7 in December. The rest I had been reading for various lengths of time. The actual page count is probably not impressive, but as I am not striving to finish a particular page or book count, it doesn‘t really matter.

6 of the month‘s finished books were TBR challenge reads. 1 was a Buchmesse Frankfurt challenge read, and 1 a Top Mysteries Challenge read and 4 were not part of any challenge. I failed to finish a second Top Mystery and my last Chunkster challenge book.

I lost two close relatives in December and found light literature the best books to read under the circumstances. First to go was one of my maternal aunts, on the 15th, and then my maternal grandmother, who passed away on December 23rd. I found books to be somewhat of a comfort, but most of all I was happy to be able to spend time with my family. Christmas was subdued, but it was still Christmas, just without the customary phone call to thank my gran for the presents. Today, January 1st, a third close relative died, my maternal great uncle, whose death was unexpected, unlike those of my gran and aunt, who had both been ill for some time. After all this, I find myself spiralling into my annual mid-winter depression a little earlier and faster than usual, but so far I am coping by staying busy and accepting all the support my family can give. In the weeks ahead I will probably be turning to the old familiar perennial rereads for comfort. I may also post a little less regularly for a while. But enough about me, here is the book list:

  • Jennifer Crusie, Anne Stuart & Lani Diane Rich : Dogs and Goddesses. Romance, alternative reality, paranormal/supernatural
  • Roald Dahl, ed.: Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories. Short stories, supernatural
  • Hallgrímur Helgason: 101 Reykjavík. Novel, lad lit
  • Dashiell Hammett: The Glass Key. Crime novel, noir
  • Ngaio Marsh: Tied up in Tinsel. Murder mystery, country house
  • Terry Pratchett: The Fifth Elephant. Fantasy (reread)
  • Various: Malice Domestic II. Short stories, crime
  • Various: Girl's Night In. Short stories, mostly romance
  • Various: Mystery For Christmas. Short stories, crime
  • Lynn Viehl: Dark Need and Night Lost. Urban fantasy, romantic