Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Book #63

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

For 15-year-old Michael Berg, a chance meeting with an older woman leads to far more than he ever imagined. The woman in question is Hanna, and before long they embark on a passionate, clandestine love affair which leaves Michael both euphoric and confused. For Hanna is not all she seems. Years later, as a law student observing a trial in Germany, Michael is shocked to realize that the person in the dock is Hanna. The woman he had loved is a criminal. Much about her behaviour during the trial does not make sense. But then suddenly, and terribly, it does - Hanna is not only obliged to answer for a horrible crime, she is also desperately concealing an even deeper secret.

I found this novel quite odd. It begins as a tale of a boy's coming of age and sexual awakening and then slowly evolves into a far more philosophical endeavour that ponders ethics, guilt and moral responsibility in relation to the atrocities of the Holocaust. It almost felt like two completely different works.

The characters, I felt, were a bit thinly weaved. I felt very little sympathy for anyone, and I could barely relate to any of them. I also found Michael and Hanna's relationship to be quite disgraceful, and couldn't open myself up to appreciate it as a proper loving relationship. Our narrator describes it beautifully, never seeing himself as a victim of paedophilia, and this blatantly affects him later on in the novel.

The book dives headfirst into the depths of human brutality. It poses some quite melancholy questions on human nature, and also makes me wonder what Schlink was trying to convey through the novel. I can't really come to a conclusion on this one, but at the same time I'm wondering whether I'm supposed to. Perhaps the book is more concerned with the process involved in reaching a conclusion. I can't decide. However, I did like that the book didn't focus on good or evil, but rather the middle grey area in between those extremes that holds things such as morals and ethics.

I'm not sure I'd recommend this generally, but I'm definitely going to give it another try at some point and see if I can pick up anything I've missed such as symbols or recurring themes. It seems like a good novel to closely study, and I feel I may have missed a good few hidden secrets.

63 / 66 books. 95% done!

Friday, 24 September 2010

Book #62

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

Nine-year-old Oskar Schell is an inventor, amateur entomologist, Francophile, letter writer, pacifist, natural historian, percussionist, romantic, Great Explorer, jeweller, detective, vegan, and collector of butterflies. When his father is killed in the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Centre, Oskar sets out to solve the mystery of a key he discovers in his father's closet. It is a search which leads him into the lives of strangers, through the five boroughs of New York, into history, to the bombings of Dresden and Hiroshima, and on an inward journey which brings him ever closer to some kind of peace.

Extremely Sad and Incredibly Beautiful. I really, really loved this book. It's absolutely one that I'm going to start recommending to everyone I speak to. I think it's a very brave subject for Foer to have tackled, but I am certainly glad he did. He's done it in a gorgeous way, and it's one that will most definitely stick with me for a good while yet.

Oskar's journey throughout these pages is truly wonderful. He goes through a terrible bereavement process, makes the mistake of bottling up secrets, but in doing so embarks on a long quest. He doesn't do this for the end result, but to feel somehow closer to his father by doing it in his honour. His grieving methods and the fact that he was grieving in the first place really broke my heart.

I have already picked up some of Oskar's sayings and have begun to incorporate them into my daily vocabulary without really realising. He says he has "heavy boots" if he's feeling sad, and when he's talking about something quite academic or above his assumed level of intelligence, he talks about the subject, then adds, "which I know about". He is so gorgeous to me.

The narration skipped in places from Oskar, to his paternal grandparents. The typography changes with each of the narrators, which is something I typically enjoy. These changes show personality and at times the mental state of the narrator. The part I enjoyed most was where Oskar's grandfather was writing his story and was running out of space quickly in his notebook. He had to write smaller, and put his words more closely together. Quite soon, all of the words were on top of each other, and all I was left with was a page of illegible black ink.

I also liked how the story slowly came together. Although I felt the twist was slightly disappointing for Oskar, I had had a slight niggling feeling that perhaps Foer would end the novel in more of a trite manner. I was wrong, and I'm glad I was in this instance.

The climax of the book moved me more than I ever could have expected. It was written in such an identifiable way, and because I had already fallen in love with everyone in the novel (even Stan the doorman, and Gerald the limousine driver), I found myself to be wearing very, very heavy boots. I'm not ashamed to say that I cried big tears, because I think it's a wonderful thing when a writer can evoke such emotion in a person.

I'd love for everyone to have read this book. It's exactly what it says on the cover - extremely loud and incredibly close.

62 / 66 books. 94% done!

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Book #61

The Last Godfather: The Life and Crimes of Arthur Thompson by Reg McKay

One dark night in London during the 1960s, the city's famous twins in crime, the Krays, were holding court in their busy nightclub when they were told somebody wanted to see them. This in itself was audacious enough but what happened next simply beggared belief. There, on the Krays' home turf, the stranger who had made this bold request pulled a sawn-off shotgun from under his coat and demanded that Ron kiss his brother Reg's arse. As Ron knelt and complied with what he'd been asked to do, the grim-faced man smirked and, in a strong Glasgow accent, announced, 'Ma name's Arthur Thompson - ye'll remember me!' Backing out and still holding the gun, Thompson jumped into a waiting cab and sped off through the streets of London This is the opening of The Last Godfather, the true story of Arthur Thompson as it has never been told before.

I wasn't too excited about reading this as the last non-fiction book I'd read about Glasgow crime wasn't too exciting. This, however, was really good.

It was very clear, concise, and easy to read. I tend to find that a lot of non-fiction crime books get really bogged down with details, but this was a lot more about personality, and was written almost as fiction. It gives a good idea of what kind of people the characters really are, and the crimes become more shocking as a result of this.

However, there were a lot of areas where I was suspicious that I was reading fiction. There were instances where McKay had laid out dialogue that only the people who had been there would have known, and these were people were either dead, or the type whom I doubt would have submitted to an interview for this novel. Although this made the scenes more real, I felt a bit cheated.

Also, a lot of this book is dedicated to Paul Ferris and not Arthur Thompson. On closer inspection I've found out that Reg McKay is a friend of Ferris's, and that in fact this book is a retaliation! This is news to me, and very, very interesting.

All this aside, it is a good read, particularly if you're from or are familiar with Glasgow.

61 / 66 books. 92% done!

(A wee note to apologise - I struggle quite a bit when reviewing non-fiction. I know this review isn't up to standards, and it's for this reason! Hopefully I'll improve soon, any tips would be helpful!)

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Book #60

Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom

Maybe it was a grandparent, or a teacher or a colleague. Someone older, patient and wise, who understood you when you were young and searching, and gave you sound advice to help you make your way through it. For Mitch Albom, that person was Morrie Schwartz, his college professor from nearly 20 years ago. Maybe, like Mitch, you lost track of this mentor as you made your way, and the insights faded. Wouldn't you like to see that person again, ask the bigger questions that still haunt you? Mitch Albom had that second chance. He rediscovered Morrie in the last months of the older man's life. Knowing he was dying of ALS - or motor neurone disease - Morrie visited Mitch in his study every Tuesday, just as they used to back in college. Their rekindled relationship turned into one final "class": lessons in how to live.

Mitch Albom is one of my favourite authors. His novels always blow me away, and I'm a bit embarrassed that it's taken me so long to get around to this one since it's quite clearly a subject that's very close to his heart. I'm almost at a loss as to how to begin this review, as I can't seem to put my thoughts in order. It was wonderful.

Morrie is a remarkable character, and incredibly open with everyone in his life. He cries openly, asks to hold hands with people he loves, and in doing this inspires people not to hold back, to do things before it's too late. He also never missed an opportunity to help someone, or to make a difference. This would seem trite to me had the novel been fiction, but this man did all of these things. This book is non-fiction, and his biography.

I can't describe how inspirational this book was to me. It advises you not to hold back, to enjoy life and your own emotions to the full, without letting anything get the better of you. It teaches you to experience your emotions entirely, but also how to detach from them before letting them consume you.

Morrie's life lessons were laid out in such a way that I was able to completely absorb his opinions on different aspects of life. Mitch visited Morrie every Tuesday until his death, and every Tuesday they discussed a different matter. Love, forgiveness, emotions and family were each devoted a Tuesday to ensure nothing was missed, and everything was talked through.

Mitch Albom's writing style throughout the book completely gives away his sheer compassion for this man who taught him so much. His in-depth descriptions of Morrie and his past, even his childhood, really show how deep a friendship they had, and how well they knew each other.

I really feel this book has helped me to take a look at myself and how I'm living life. I have learnt an amazing lesson, and already I want to read through it again just to see how I'm doing. But I'll do that maybe a bit later, to see how I feel about the book at a future date.

I consider this a must-read.

60 / 66 books. 91% done!

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Book #59

Holes by Louis Sachar

Stanley Yelnat's family has a history of bad luck going back generations, so he is not too surprised when a miscarriage of justice sends him to Camp Green Lake Juvenile Detention Centre. Nor is he very surprised when he is told that his daily labour at the camp is to dig a hole, five foot wide by five foot deep, and report anything that he finds in that hole. The warden claims that it is character building, but this is a lie and Stanley must dig up the truth.

I really enjoy reading light, young adult novels from time to time, and this was a particularly good one. There wasn't much at all that I didn't like about it, and I finished the book with a lovely little feeling coursing through me.

It's an inspiring wee story. Our protagonist - the palindromically named Stanley Yelnats - is convicted to a juvenile detention centre for a crime he did not commit. His punishment, along with the other young offenders, is to dig holes in the desert

Sachar's writing style here is fairly simple, but he jumps between past and present with such ease that you're barely aware it's happened. The young characters were extremely developed, and felt incredibly real, but the adult characters could have done with some more background. However, this might be reflective of the kids knowing lots about each other in the detention centre, but seeing the adults as mysterious. I can't decide.

My favourite thing about the book was that events that had happened in the past were able to be resolved by the younger generations. It was really lovely.

I really feel that the underlying message of this book is that you can overcome anything that's thrown at you, and the fact that this message is aimed at young adults makes it amazing. The ideals of justice and injustice were also rammed home quite a bit here, with the story referring back to these themes constantly.

I think both old and young people can take a lot from this book and find a character to relate to. It is an easy, quick read for someone of my age and level, but it's more than worthwhile.

59 / 66 words. 89% done!

Monday, 6 September 2010

Book #58

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

"I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of l974. . . My birth certificate lists my name as Calliope Helen Stephanides. My most recent driver’s license...records my first name simply as Cal."

So begins the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides and three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family who travel from a tiny village overlooking Mount Olympus in Asia Minor to Prohibition-era Detroit, witnessing its glory days as the Motor City, and the race riots of l967, before they move out to the tree-lined streets of suburban Grosse Pointe, Michigan. To understand why Calliope is not like other girls, she has to uncover a guilty family secret and the astonishing genetic history that turns Callie into Cal, one of the most audacious and wondrous narrators in contemporary fiction.

I'd like to begin by noting that it took me almost two weeks to read this book, which must be some sort of record for me. It was quite epic.

It's essentially about the narrator being a hermaphrodite, and this sounds freakish to begin with, but it is actually a lot more than that. It traces Cal's family over almost an entire decade, beginning in Greece and Turkey and ending in Detroit years later.

Cal is lovely as a narrator. His honesty seeps out of every word, endearing us to him almost immediately. The things he confides in us - the family secrets, the innermost thoughts of each character - each of these draw him into us emotionally as though he's an old friend.

I can't remember ever reading something so heavily detailed. The intricacy of Eugenides led me almost into not just imagining, but tasting and smelling the story too. It's beautiful in this way, but there is also beauty in the novel's rawness. There are tragedies, but with these come hope too.

The amount of research that must have been put into this tome is overwhelming. Eugenides uses medical jargon, ancient Greek, mythology and political, social and historical events to reel readers into his world. It really is incredible.

It's definitely a slow burner, but in this case I find it incredibly appropriate. It's almost like a saga; the characters are people you know and love. It feels like it lasts a lifetime, and in many instances, it does.

I'd love to recommend this to people if I didn't think they'd give up on it. Please, please, pick it up and persevere, it really is a masterpiece.

58 / 66 books. 88% done!