Friday, July 30, 2010

Book Blogger Hop

Book Blogger Hop
It is time for the Book Blogger Hop which is hosted by Crazy for Books every week.  Please check out out the Crazy for Books blog for more information.  This week's question in the hop is:

Who is your favourite new to you author this year? 

Great question and for me there is no contest, because this year I read a novel by  Colm Toibin.  You can read my review of his brilliant novel about Henry James "The Master" here.

Enjoy the hop and the weekend!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo

I enjoyed Cosmopolis for Don DeLillo's slick writing.  But I found the story to be weird, wild and not altogether satisfactory.  The premise for the story is a fascinating one.  The action takes place during a single day in the life of multi billionaire market investor Eric Packer on a day in April 2000.   We follow Eric as he leaves his 40 plus room luxury New York apartment in his white stretch limousine as it makes its way through the streets of down town Manhattan, where his first order of business for the day is to get a haircut.  But this of course is no ordinary day and in fact becomes Eric's ultimate day of reckoning so to speak, and the hair cut is a very long time in coming.

What follows is a very strange tale as we get to know Eric and his world a whole lot better.  The limo itself is marble floored and cork lined (to keep out the traffic noise) and houses a mind boggling array of screens which display market and currency information.  Different employees and advisors pop in and out of the limo to discuss business with Eric.  Eric also keeps his daily doctor's appointment with his doctor in the back of his limo.  You see for all of Eric's narcissistic brilliance he is paranoid about his health and subjects himself to a daily prostate examination.  I told you this was a weird one!  And that is only the beginning. 

Eric alights from the limo at various times during the day for meals and apparently random sexual hook ups, sometimes with his new wife and sometimes with other of his female associates.  The guy has some stamina.  While all of this is happening, Manhattan has virtually shut down due to  violent anti capitalist protests and the large scale funeral of a much celebrated Sufi rapper.  Eric's body guards are also highly tensed because there have been reports of a credible threat on Eric's life.  Yes, it is seriously all happening in this book.

As I said earlier I really like DeLillo's writing.  He has a truly beautiful and unique writing style that is deceptively simple and full of movement.  DeLillo also uses some interesting literary devices in this novel that I enjoyed.  The image of rats recurs throughout the novel.  The rat appears to symbolise the whole flow and mood of the story.  Again it is odd but effective.  There is a constant hinting at redundancy of things and concepts and this too reveals itself to be very significant for Eric who has built his fortune on anticipating what is going to be relevant next.  It would seem this has become his undoing as now everything feels passe to him and without meaning.

But by the end I was disappointed.  I think partially because the character of Eric is so unlikable and implausible and partially because this epic,  kaleidoscopic montage of a day doesn't really seem to mean all that much once it reaches its grim and dramatic conclusion.   I was also disappointed because I enjoyed DeLillo's The Body Artist very much.  The Body Artist comes together as a glorious whole and I found I could really engage with it.  Cosmopolis,while I found worth reading for the expert writing, left me wanting.  I couldn't engage with the outlandish characters and found it altogether too unreal and grim.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Teaser Tuesday: The Little Prince

Teaser Tuesday is a fun meme hosted by MizB at Should Be Reading.  All you have to do is open your current read to a random page and provide two teaser sentences from that page.  Be sure not to give away any spoilers and include the name of the book and author so others know what you are reading.

Mine for this week is from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery:

When you are trying to be witty, you are apt to sometimes wander from the truth.  I have not been altogether honest in describing the lamplighters.  p. 57

Monday, July 26, 2010

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

It's Monday! What are you reading? is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey

I have just finished Daisy Miller by Henry James.  Review is here.  I am working my way through Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo.  And I have started The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery after a trusted bookish friend recommended it as a must read. 

I look forward to starting North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell soon as it arrived from Book Depository last week.  Happy reading!

Daisy Miller by Henry James

Daisy Miller is a novella by Henry James and was first published in 1878.  I thank Mel U at The Reading Life for recommending it to me as one of the more easily digestible of James's works.

Daisy Miller is a bright, lively and enjoyable read.  Daisy is a  wealthy American young lady holidayimg in Europe with her younger brother and mother.  She comes across Winterbourne, a more cultured compatriot while holidaying in the Swiss resort town of Vevey.  It is Vevey, on the shores of Lake Geneva that is depicted on this very sweet book cover, by the way. 

Winterbourne is introduced to Daisy by her younger brother Rudolph who is nine and quite adorable.  Winterbourne is instantly captivated by her beauty, freshness and apparent lack of guile or affectation.  When Winterbourne learns that Daisy and her family will be passing the winter in Rome he makes sure his plans also take him to Rome.  When Winterbourne arrives in Rome he learns that Daisy has been getting about with all and sundry and generally scandalising the other Americans with her carefree behaviour.

Even though the tone of the novel is largely bright and breezy, I do feel that James is trying to make some serious comment about the stifling social morays and expectations of the times, especially with regard to   what was deemed acceptable behaviour for young unmarried women.   The snobbish character of Winterbourne's aunt, Mrs Costello is priceless as she condemns Daisy and her family: 

"They are very common," Mrs Costello declared.  "They are the sort of Americans that one does one's duty by not - not accepting." p.19  And later

"They are hopelessly vulgar, " said Mrs Costello.  "Whether or no being hopelessly vulgar is being 'bad' is a question for the metaphysicians.  They are bad enough to dislike, at any rate; and for this short life that is quite enough." p41

So you see, poor free spirited Daisy Miller does not stand much of a chance in this social environ. 

The novella is loaded with wonderfully drawn characters.  From the well meaning social matrons who endeavor to save Daisy's honour by unceremoniously turning their backs on her, to the handsome Italian suitor that also catches her eye.  Daisy's mother is an insipid hypochondriac, while Winterbourne whose perspective we largely see the story from, is sophisticated, well meaning, but also lacks a certain type of courage.  And then there is Daisy herself.  She grew on me as the novel went along. The main tension in the narrative derives from the question of her character. 

Daisy Miller is delightfully readable, there is none of that convoluted prose that seems to be a hallmark of James's later work, and the characters are wonderful. I definitely recommended it.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Teaser Tuesday: Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo

Teaser Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by MizB at Should Be Reading.  All you have to do is open your current read at a random page and share two sentences.  Please avoid spoilers and include the name and author of your book so others can make note or the book if they wish.

Mine this week comes from Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo.  I have just finished The Body Artist by the same author and was fascinated by this author's style so have embarked on another of his novels.  This teaser is from page 43 of Cosmopolis:

He looked past Ingram while the doctor listened to his heart valves open and close.  The car moved incrementally westward.  He didn't know why stethoscopes were still in use.  They were lost tools of antiquity, quaint as blood-sucking worms.   p43

Cosmopolis is very different to The Body Artist.  It has a sparse coldness to it that is quite unsettling.  Hopefully I will finish it and have a review up over the next few days.

The Body Artist by Don DeLillo

The Body Artist is an exceptionally fine novel.  Original is an understatement in the case of this book. DeLillo is undoubtedly a word artist and I am only sorry that I have not read him sooner.

I picked up this book after hearing a Don DeLillo short story called Baader-Meinhof being read on a New Yorker fiction podcast a few months ago.  The atmosphere created in the short story was mesmerising and so I made a note to find other work by DeLillo.

The Body Artist is about Lauren Hartke who does performance art with her body.  This is the sort of novel that unfurls slowly and unexpectedly so I am loathe to go into any detail about the plot or even the major themes.  I will say I was captivated from the first page and literally did not put the book down until I had completed it.

DeLillo's style is so different to anything I have read before.  In someways it is more like poetry, in that it draws the reader into single moments.  Time slows down in some ways and I felt hypnotised by the beauty and experience of everyday things.

He bit off the stem and tossed it toward the sink.  Then he split the fig open with his thumbnails and took the spoon out of her hand and licked it off and used it to scoop a measure of claret flesh out of the gaping fig skin.  He dropped this stuff on his toast - the flesh, the mash, the pulp - and then spread it with the bottom of the spoon, blood-buttery swirls that popped with seedlife.  p15

The moment to moment intimacy of the prose really drew me in and held me fascinated.  The narrative is told in third person and mostly from the the perspective of the body artist.  For me the magic is that from observing and experiencing the routine day to day moments as Lauren the body artist does, we experience who she really is at a very intimate and meaningful level.  The journey is quite weird at times.  The body artist is no girl next door type.  DeLillo captures what I imagine to be the essence of someone with artistic sensibilities in a way that I have not read before.

I admire what DeLillo has achieved with The Body Artist.  Most novels are largely cognitive experiences, that is, we form mind pictures and our emotional reactions are largely thought based.  The Body Artist, like a good piece of art, is experienced first and the thoughts come later.  I know this book will not be for everyone.  You have to sort of surrender yourself over to experiencing a story in a different way.  DeLillo plays around with language and dialogue and again you are invited to just go with this and feel. 

The experience of this book feels very personal.  In the hectic hurly burly of life, where most of us survive and thrive by identifying as thinkers first, I feel that DeLillo is challenging us to slow down and fully inhabit our moments.  The body artist shows us how.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Dead Spy Running by Jon Stock

I have been away and picked this one up to read on the plane.  I am very particular when it comes to reading while travelling on planes.  The book needs to be easy and gripping so as to distract me from the bumping around, slight claustrophobia and noise of plane travel.  I usually end up with a spy novel or other thriller.  Dead Spy Running by British author and journalist Jon Stock is no literary masterpiece nor does it set out to be.  It is however a taut modern espionage drama and I really enjoyed it.

The story opens with disgraced and suspended MI6 agent Daniel Marchant running the London Marathon with his girlfriend, Leila who is also a British secret agent. Marchant spies (sorry I couldn't help myself) a runner who appears to be wearing a belt laden with explosives.  In his efforts to save the US Ambassador who is also participating in the marathon and countless others from being killed, Marchant manages to further discredit himself, and finds himself hunted by intelligence agencies from both sides of the Atlantic.

As with most books of this ilk, the characters are paper thin.  But it doesn't really matter.  The sense of place is good.  The story mostly takes place in London and Delhi.  Stock captures the essence of both places well, especially the dirty heat and bustle of Delhi.   Stock uses clever plot devices to keep the pace up and the readers interest piqued.  The action switches between the spies on the ground to the spy chiefs of the various international agencies wrestling for dominance.  Many of the chapters end in a breathless cliffhanger.

The story is set post London underground bombings and so features modern tensions and "enemies."  The plot does all of the spy stuff well: disguises, tailing and counter surveillance, and answered any questions I might have had about water boarding and what it entails.

I do not know why spy novels continue to captivate me.  The first I remember reading and loving was Ken Follett's The Man From St Petersburg.  The best I have read in recent times is William Boyd's Restless.   I can only speculate that there is something about maintaining a dual identity that is universally appealing and thrilling at some level.  Dead Spy Running is not exceptional or life changing, but it delivers what it intends: a fast paced, cleverly plotted story that is pretty much guaranteed to keep the pages turning during even the most tedious flight.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

"Bliss" by Peter Carey

Bliss is by Australian author Peter Carey and was first published in 1981.  I really had to wrestle with this book for about the first third of its length and I think it is pretty safe to say that if I was not blogging about books I would probably have abandoned all efforts to try and get through it.  I am very glad I persevered, if only for reasons of pride originally,  because this is a truly unique reading experience that will stay with me for some time.

The premise that begins the novel is simple enough.  Harry Joy, a successful advertising executive dies on his front lawn from heart failure.  Harry witnesses his own death and is brought back to life through medical intervention.  What unfolds is the truly strange journey of Harry trying to make sense of his life.

Bliss can be described as a modern fable.  The settings and characters in Bliss are painfully real.  But there is a surreal mythical cast to the whole narrative.  It is like we see much of what is happening through a fugue.  You can see the immediate action clearly enough but everything else is very blurred at the edges.  I found this unsettling.  The tone changes towards the end of the book and more depth is given to descriptions of place.  I am sure this is all very deliberate as Harry, after much torment, comes to find his own sense of place.

This is a difficult novel for many reasons.  One that stands out for me is that most of the characters, including Harry I found to be unlikeable and distasteful.  Again I am sure this is part of Carey's point.  After all, for most of the novel Harry believes he is in hell.  Harry's wife and children are awful.  I could go on and on about this but I won't.  Except to say that I ended up feeling that perhaps Bettina, Harry's desperate, frustrated and mercenary wife was not supposed to be interpreted as a real person after all.  Maybe she is meant to be seen as everything that is wrong with a society that is hell bent on a consumerism frenzy.  To this end I found it interesting to note that the novel was published in the early 1980s and perhaps Carey is predicting the greed fuelled financial crash of that decade.

One of the things that kept me going through this dark strange tale was Carey's seriously beautiful and accomplished writing,  For instance:

There was toughness in Harry Joy you may not have yet suspected, and although he appears, lying between the sheets of his hospital bed, surrounded by food and friends, to be mushy, soft, like a rotten branch you think you can crack with a soft tap of your axe, you will find, beneath that soft white rotted sapwood, something unexpected: a long pipe of hard redwood which will, after all, take a good saw and some sweat if you are going to burn it.  p36

And this insightful use of simile and metaphor just goes on and on throughout the book to breathtaking effect:

Yes he had been happy.  Of course he'd been happy.  But he had always been happy in the expectation that something else would happen, some wonderful unnamed thing which he was destined for, some quivering butterfly dream soaked in sunlight in a doorway.  p.45

I mean, who can write like that?  Isn't it to die for?

There are many elements to this story.  Too many to try and cover here.  It has the quality of a genuine adult fairy tale or fable.  I found combining the adult with the fairy tale style disturbing at times.  It is like a fairy tale because awful things happen suddenly, without preamble, as in children's fairy tales.  There are also strong strains of good, evil, and hoped for redemption, that feel like a moral story or fable.  Some of Carey's descriptions are not for the faint hearted.  I found myself a bit "grossed out" occasionally as he graphically depicts the more base side of some of his characters.  Again I am sure this is done deliberately to unsettle the reader.  It adds to the "hell" experience I am sure.

The appearance of the character of Honey Barbara does provide a needed lift to the story.  Honey is in many ways the antithesis of all that is wrong in Harry's sordid, soft and safe existence. 

I think that Carey is trying to say something profound with this novel about the struggle that plays out in all of us.  And not just inside us, but between our inner desires and the complexities of the competitive world we live in.  I feel that he largely succeeds with this.  However, for this reader, some of the elements were just a bit too stark and ghastly for me to want to fully embrace.  It is not the most enjoyable reading experience I have had recently but I would recommend it to those who are wanting to experience some excellent writing and perhaps be pushed a little outside of their usual zone of comfort.  Bliss,  Peter Carey's first novel, is an audacious and original piece of top quality literature.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

A Short Story on Sunday: The Open Window by Saki

Short on time? Or feed up with your current read?  I am and going through a bit of a reading slump.  I often turn to short stories to cleanse my reading palate so to speak.  I thought I would aim to review some of my favourite individual stories and collections over coming Sundays.

The first short story I remember reading and loving is The Open Window by Saki.  H H Munro wrote under the pseudonym of Saki and he is an absolute short story master.  For me The Open Window is everything a good short story should be:  it is short to start with, only a couple of pages, and is insightful and above all entertaining.  I found a copy online if you are interested in reading it.    I read this one originally as a teen and it inspired me to read more short stories.

A couple of months ago I bought The Collected Short Stories of Saki from the Book Depository for a couple of dollars.  It is a wonderful collection and I dip into it when I want a break from my current read.  His style is a bit like PG Wodehouse or Somerset Maugham.  There is lots of cutting social observation, mixed with humour.  Another good one from the collection is "Sredni Vashtar."  This story follows a common theme amongst some of Saki's stories.  Namely the plight of a child who has lost his parents and is raised by one or more unkind relative.  My understanding is that this mirrors Munro's own experience as a child.  Here is a taste:

Conradin hated her with a deperate sincerity which he was perfectly able to mask.  Such few pleasures as he could contrive for himself gained an added relish from the likelihood that they would be displeasing to his guardian, and from the realm of his imagination she was locked out - an unclean thing, which should find no entrance.    p.117 of The Collected Short Stories of Saki

There are well over 100 short stories in this collection and I have not read them all.  But I enjoy picking them up from time to time for something different.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Book Beginnings on Friday 2nd July

Book Beginnings on Friday is a meme hosted by Becky at Page Turners.  All you have to do is share the opening sentence of you current read making sure that you share the title and author so others know what you are reading.

Mine for this week comes from "Bliss" by Peter Carey.  Yes I am still reading this book.  And while I believe that it's beginning could arguably be one of the best book beginnings in the land, getting through the rest of this novel is starting to wreck my head.

Harry Joy was to die three times, but it was his first death which was to have the greatest effect on him, and it is this first death which we shall now witness.