What I choose to read…

I’ve been away from this blog several months now. There was a time when I would review every book I read and post something new every day. I stopped because it felt like I’d run out of things to say and I wanted a little break which turned into a long one.

Anyway, I’m back because once again I have things I want to share and over the past week in particular, I found myself composing blog posts in my head. There’s been one thing on my mind a lot lately, and that is a significant change in my reading habits.

I say on the ‘about me’ page of this blog that

“I read a lot of books, mostly nonfiction…memoirs, biography, history, science, nature, travel and books about food. I don’t usually read fiction, but I will make an exception every now and then.”

That was very true when I wrote it three years ago. And it had been true for nearly twenty years at that point. But over the last three years I have found myself reading fiction more often than not.

It wasn’t a conscious decision to read more novels. It was something that just happened. I started this blog and then I was reading other book blogs and listening to book podcasts and picking up recommendations…

Reading and listening to other readers gush about certain books made me want to read them. And a lot of the books that I was hearing about were novels. The more I heard about these books and these writers, the more I realised how circumscribed my reading life has been.

I’ve always been quite open when it comes to non-fiction. I don’t stick to authors I know. I’m willing to pick up any book that sounds interesting and really, it is the subject that matters more than the author. As long as the writing is good and the subject is intriguing, I’ll read pretty much any writer.

But my fiction reading has been rather limited. In the sense that mystery novels meant Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen, thrillers began with Alistair MacLean and then there was Arthur Hailey and Jeffery Archer. Science fiction was Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov.

Fantasy meant Tolkien and Pratchett until I finally picked up the Harry Potter books. Throw in Wodehouse and Jane Austen and I’m done. That has been the sum of my fiction reading in the past. And I never considered how limiting it was because I didn’t read a lot of fiction anyway.

So there I was hearing about all these books and so many authors that I’d never heard of, who apparently wrote some very good books and I realised that I was missing out. My ‘I don’t read a lot of fiction’ stance started to sound a bit stupid. I mean why ever not? Why do I not read fiction? I had no good reason to offer other than…habit, perhaps.

So I started picking up a few of these books. The first book that I picked up because I heard about it on the radio was The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett. Then I read The Martian by Andy Weir. Then there was A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving and Stardust by Neil Gaiman. All four utterly brilliant books that made me pick up others along the way and caused a fundamental shift in the books I choose to read.

I can no longer say that I read a lot of books, mostly nonfiction. I read a lot of books, period.

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Book Review : A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

owen meany

“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice. Not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God. I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”

These are the words that A Prayer for Owen Meany begins with. It is a wonderful beginning…it made me want to dive right in and read the book. And I’m glad I did, because it is brilliant. It is one of the best books I have ever read and very likely, one of the best books ever written. It is a fantastic story, the kind that worms its way into your heart and settles there. It has characters that are beautifully drawn out and the writing is sublime.

This is a long book (over 700 pages) and it has plenty to say…about religion, Christianity in particular, about faith and what it means, about politics, what it means to be an American, about war and its consequences and about a country that seems to have lost its way. It is a book packed full of ideas and yet, it is a very human story.

At its heart, this is a story about friendship…between the narrator, John Wheelwright, who considers himself to be rather an ordinary guy and his best friend, Owen Meany who is the most remarkable person that the John has ever known. He is also the most remarkable person that I have met within the pages of a book. And I use the word, person, because Owen Meany is real to me.

The book is set in two places, New Hampshire and Toronto and it is goes back and forth between two points in time. The first is in the 60’s when John Wheelwright and Owen Meany are both eleven years old. They have already been friends for a several years. The second is the late eighties when John is living in Toronto, missing his friend, remembering him, struggling with his faith and trying to make sense of his life.

The first quarter of the book is focused almost entirely on the early part of John and Owen’s lives. It begins when they are eleven years old, when John loses his mother in a tragic accident. He doesn’t know his father because his mother never told him who he was. The story then goes a little further into the past when John was six years old and then goes on to talk about how his mother met his soon-to-be step dad, Dan Needham.

It explores the growing friendship between the two boys and the way Owen slowly becomes a big part of John’s family. John’s mother is particularly fond of the boy who is tiny for his age. He looks like a five year old when he’s actually eleven. His smallness is one of the most striking features about him.

And then there is his voice. The author tells you that it is a unique voice. Some of the characters in the book find it disturbing and at one point, a speech therapist describes it as a voice that is perpetually set to scream. And the reader is always aware of this voice because the writer has chosen to capitalise every word that comes out of Owen Meany’s mouth. This, I thought was a very useful device, because the voice is important.

Owen’s size and his voice are the most immediately noticeable things about him, but as you get to know the character, you realise that he’s extremely intelligent, opinionated, very sure of himself and very strong in his faith. He has no doubts about God, religion or his place in the world. I found myself envying his certainty. Faith is a tricky thing to write about. It can easily become preachy and just plain annoying, but John Irving never lets that happen. Owen’s faith is beautiful, it is touching and seeing him as we do, through the eyes of the narrator, it is impossible not to love him.

Owen has the most interesting ideas and opinionated though he is, he’s usually right. And this is brought out beautifully through the book. So the story begins when the two boys are eleven years old and then it goes back a bit to when they’re both six and just starting to play with each other and then John meets his step-father, Dan and a few years later his mother and Dan get married.

And then his mother dies in an accident and he has to deal with that. Owen is involved in this accident as mentioned in the opening sentences of the book, but how, I will leave for the author to tell you. What follows are the many years of growing up when John is adopted by his step-dad and he has to make his way through school which is a struggle for him because he’s dyslexic and no one has cottoned on to that…

Owen is with him all the way, lending his unique perspective to everything that happens to John and helping him in every way he can. He’s the one who figures out that John is dyslexic and he teaches him a few tricks to help him with his reading. He teaches John how to study, he helps him with his homework and he shows him how to write his papers. And John in turn is Owen’s biggest support. They go from the local high school to Gravesend Academy, they experience all the pangs of adolescence, all the trouble and confusion of growing up…

Through all this, we get glimpses of John all grown up and living in Toronto where he’s now a school teacher, teaching English. Reading is his life now as much as religion. We’re told that he thinks fondly of his friend and that he misses him a lot, though why, you won’t find out until the end of the novel. It is a long book, like I said, but it never feels tedious or drawn out. The pacing is perfect and the writing is incredible. Even when the characters are doing nothing more than watching Liberace on TV, it is all very engaging, somehow.

This is the story of two boys and their shared experiences, growing up and as such, it could’ve been very, very ordinary. What it is, is an extraordinary tale of courage, faith, love and friendship. And it is all due to the unique genius of John Irving. This book is an experience and it is impossible to read it and come out unchanged. It is a very special book and it will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Why our future depends on libraries, reading and day dreaming…

I came across this article in The Guardian. It is a (longish) excerpt from the Reading Agency annual lecture on the future of reading and libraries given by Neil Gaiman. 

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/15/neil-gaiman-future-libraries-reading-daydreaming?CMP=share_btn_tw

Book Review : The Clothes They Stood Up In by Alan Bennett

The Clothes...

This is another novella, running into just over a hundred pages. Alan Bennett is quite the master of this form, I have to say.  This story, like The Uncommon Reader is just the right length. It wouldn’t have worked as a short story or as a novel. This is the story of a couple, Mr and Mrs Ransome who find their rather sedate and predictable lives disrupted by a completely unexpected event.

They go to the opera one evening and they come back home to find that they have been robbed, or so Mrs Ransome says. “Burgled,” Mr Ransome says, because people are robbed and homes are burgled and being a lawyer, he likes to be precise.

But neither of them is quite right, because burglars pick and choose, they don’t take everything. And whoever it was, took everything, every last thing including the drapes and the carpets. They took the casserole that was being kept warm in the oven…they even took the toilet paper rolls from the bathrooms.

At one go, the Ransomes lose everything. How does one cope with a situation like that?

The Ransomes are a wealthy, middle aged couple who are set in their ways and are perhaps a little bored of the endless routine of their lives. The burglary (for lack of a better word) shakes them up. All of their stuff is insured, so it’s not the shock of financial loss, it is the shock of losing all the things that they’ve built their lives around, even the things that they’ve never really used.

They begin to shop for a few necessary items while waiting for the insurance money and Mrs Ransome finds herself shopping in the local Indian store instead of the high street and discovering a lot of interesting things at her doorstep that she’d never thought to explore before. And as the days go on, she begins to find the loss of all her possessions strangely freeing.

Mr Ransome has one great love in his life and that is Mozart. He likes to listen to Mozart every evening. He bemoans the loss of his sound system until he realises that he can now buy a new, more state of the art system. So in their own way, they both come to terms with the sudden loss of all their possessions.

But losing all their stuff makes them rethink their lives a little bit. particularly Mrs Ransome who begins to realise that she’s been living in a box all these years, confined by stuff.She finds herself wanting to change her life, do something different with it.

As the novel goes on, Bennett explores the relationship between Mr and Mrs Ransome, the rut that it is stuck in, and he brings to light a whole lot of little lies that they’ve been telling themselves and each other for years. All long-term marriages have an element of deception in them, I guess. It’s rarely anything big, it’s just a lot of little things that couples hide from each other, or think they are hiding.

This book is an exploration of marriage, of long term relationships and of our unfortunate tendency to define ourselves by the things we own. The book is funny (I don’t think Alan Bennett can write without humour) and it is thoughtful and poignant. And Bennett brings to this book that unique blend of gentleness and irony that is so characteristic of him.

This is a very good book, a must read.

Book Review : The History Boys by Alan Bennett

history boys the

I just finished reading the book. It’s a week since I saw the movie and I was knocked off my feet. I’ve been knocked off my feet again. It’s a brilliant play, it is incredibly well written and it got under my skin in a way that little else has done in all my years of reading. It made me smile and it made me laugh, but it also broke my heart a little.

It’s a fairly lighthearted story on the surface. It raises important questions about education and what it’s for and so on, but it has lots of layers and characters who are charming while being all too human. The characters are flawed and they feel very real. You read the play and you can’t help but feel that yes, this could very well have happened somewhere, sometime.

The story is set in 1983 and it is set in a state school called Cuttler’s in Yorkshire. It is a story about eight boys who’ve just got their A level exam results. They’ve all done well and they’re getting ready to take their university entrance examinations. The headmaster is keen that they try to get into Oxford or Cambridge. They have one term left before they have to take the exams and they are all going in for history.

Their teachers are teaching them the way they always have. Mrs Lintott teaches History and Mr Hector teaches Literature and Language, or  General Studies as the headmaster calls it. These teachers don’t see the point of these kids trying for Oxford and Cambridge. They studied at Durham and Sheffield, universities that are less esteemed, but they got a good education nonetheless.

As far as they are concerned, which university the kids go to, has nothing to do with how well they learn or where they end up, in the future. But the headmaster is keen on Oxford and Cambridge, so he hires a new teacher, a Mr Irwin who is young and who, unlike the other teachers did actually study at Oxford.

His brief is to get these kids into Oxford or Cambridge by whatever means he can. He meets the boys and he realises that he doesn’t actually have to teach them anything. They know everything they need to know and more. Both Hector and Mrs Lintott have made sure of that.

But their approach, particularly Hector’s is the kind that believes in knowledge for knowledge’s sake or as he says in the beginning of the play, “All knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use.” He’s quoting A E houseman here. Hector’s mission in life is to give the boys a love of literature and reading.

He makes them learn poems and songs by heart. There is a very interesting exchange about poetry in the play (between Hector and one of his students) that I will quote here:

Timms : Sir, I don’t always understand poetry.

Hector : You don’t always understand it? Timms, I never understand it. But learn it now, know it now and you’ll understand it whenever.”

Timms : I don’t see how we can understand it, sir. Most of the stuff that poetry’s about hasn’t happened to us yet.

Hector : But it will, Timms. It will. And when it does, you’ll have the antidote ready! Grief, Happiness. Even when you’re dying. We’re making your deathbeds here, boys.

He doesn’t care for exams, seeing them as the arbitrary things they are. He’s trying to equip his students for life, or so he believes anyway. Irwin, on the other hand is all about the exams. He goes about teaching the students short cuts and tricks to get the examiner’s attention.

He talks about Stalin in one scene and he says that everyone knows that Stalin was a monster, but if you want to stand out from the crowd then find something to say in his defense…dissent for dissent’s sake, not because you truly believe in it, but because taking a position that is different from the rest means that you will stand out, you will get noticed.

So the book is basically about these two teachers and their approach to teaching. Everybody wants a teacher like Hector, but Hector will not help you pass exams and you do need to pass exams. Examiners are not going to care how much literature, poetry and history you know. They care about the questions and the answers, do you have them or not.

The play doesn’t attempt to answer this question, it just puts it out there. It’s something for the audience to think about and mull over. If this was all, the play would be good. What makes it great is all the sub plots…the stories of the students and the teachers:

A Jewish boy who is small and who never feels like he quite fits in with the others because he matured late and because he’s gay. And he’s in love with another of the boys who of course, doesn’t care for him.

Another boy who is a devout Christian and holds fast to his faith while missing out on a lot of stuff that is normal for boys his age.

And another who has a girlfriend, but doesn’t let that stop him from hitting on Irwin who happens to be gay.

And of course Hector, who though a brilliant teacher, is a bit of a creep. He gives the boys rides on his motorcycle while reaching back every now and then to lay a hand on their knee or to grope them even. He never takes it any further and the boys just groan or roll their eyes at him. They are all eighteen years old and they are well able to take care of themselves, so he’s not a real threat to them and he knows it. They don’t like what he does, but they put up with him anyway.

The crux of the play, though, is that question about education, what it is and what it’s for.  The final scene is a round up of all the boys and what they’ve done with their lives. One of the boys gets into Cambridge, but it doesn’t work out for him because he put so much into getting there, that once he was there, he had nothing left.

They all went to Oxford or Cambridge, something that no one from their school had ever done before. They were all smart and full of life when they were at school, they were special, but none of them ended up doing anything extraordinary with their lives. So what was all that effort for really?

Like I said, the play raises a lot of interesting questions. It has a wonderful set of characters that you can’t help but love. It is funny, sarcastic, witty and poignant. It will stay with you long after you’ve read it because it is full of insights into life and literature, learning and being. It is full of quotations, songs, poems, dialogues from movies and other plays even…all of them interesting and all of them special.

But the words that will stay with me the longest are Bennett’s own. Here is my favourite dialogue in the play:

The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and peculiar to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, someone even who is long dead. and it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours…

 

Book Review : A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C Clarke

I have been on a bit of a science fiction trip ever since I read The Martian. I read 3001 The Final Odyssey soon after and then I went back to read 2001…and 2010…, the first two books in the Space Odyssey series and I have discovered once again the genius of Arthur C Clarke.

He is a wonderful writer with the ability to create interesting characters and to write engrossing stories with intricate plots and the kind of plot twists that keep you reading. But his great strength as a writer of science fiction is his ability to imagine believable futures.

A lot of fantastic things happen in his stories, but the situation of the characters and the kind of world that they live in is nearly always the kind of world that ours might very easily evolve into. He is often idealistic in his assumptions that humans will finally put aside their petty grievances and attempt peace rather than war, but I don’t think idealism is a bad thing in a writer. The way I see it, if we are going to imagine a future, why not imagine a good one, why not imagine that humanity will make sensible choices instead of stupid ones?

image

So this book, A Fall of Moondust, is set on the Moon, in a future in which humans have gone beyond the Earth and have settlements on most of the planets and sattelites in the solar system. They have in fact, been living on the moon long enough to have had people born there.

But most people still live on Earth and the Moon is a popular travel destination. And one of the tourist attractions on the Moon is a trip on the Selene, a hovercraft, the moon’s equivalent of a tourist bus. One of the attractions on the tour is the ‘Sea of Thirst’.

This is a fictitious location on the Moon. It is supposed to be a flat plane covered with fine dust which flows almost like water. The Selene and it’s crew have crossed the ‘Sea of Thirst’ many, many times. But on this particular trip, there is a moonquake that occurs, causing an underground cavern to collapse. The Selene goes under the dust and is trapped. It has to be rescued.

The entire book is about this rescue mission. It is a classic premise and it plays out like any good thriller. There are interesting characters, difficult situations, a whole lot of problems and a great deal of intelligent problem solving…all of it based on real science.

This is hard science fiction (a term that I learnt recently.) It just means science fiction with an emphasis on scientific accuracy and technical detail or science fiction with a good deal of real science in it (which is what I used to call it in my head until I learnt that there was an actual term for this.)

The book begins with the moonquake and the ship getting trapped under all that dust. We see the passengers and the crew on the ship and their attempts to cope with the situation. On the other side are the scientists and the crew involved in the rescue and the problems they face in dealing with the peculiar nature of the Moon.

When the Selene goes underground, for example, the dust covers it right up and goes back to being as smooth and undisturbed as before…something that would never happen on Earth. And the dust itself is so weird. It is not solid, like mud and not liquid like water. And there’s tons of it that has to be moved somehow and twenty-two people on the Selene who have to be dug out of there.

Arthur C Clarke begins with an interesting premise and he delivers a book that is interesting and engaging. It feels real enough that after a while you start to think that ‘Calvius base’ is a real place and that there are real people living and working on the moon…it is not a brilliant book, but it is a good one and it is definitely worth reading.

Book Review : 3001 The Final Odyssey by Arthur C Clarke

3001

This the fourth and final part of Arthur C Clarke’s Space Odyssey series and in my opinion, it is the most disappointing.  I have a lot of mixed feelings about this book. I loved the premise and I found the first half of the book very engaging, but then it completely lost it’s way and towards the end, I was reading just to find out how it would all be explained.

This review will probably not make any sense to someone who hasn’t read the first two books in the series. I apologise for that, but it is a complicated story and a bit too long to go into here. I will say though, that 2001 A Space Odyssey and 2010 Odyssey Two are utterly brilliant and a must read for anyone who likes science fiction.

So, Back to 3001 The Final Odyssey. The book begins with a space ship finding Frank Poole (one of the astronauts to go on the original discovery mission in 2001.) He was presumed to be dead, but it turns out that he was frozen and therefore still alive. He’s rescued and revived. The year is 3001 and Frank wakes up to find himself living in a world that is a 1,000 years after his time.

The first part of the book deals with him learning about this new world and trying to find his place in it. This part of the book is very interesting. I like the way Arthur C Clarke has imagined and presented the beginning of the 30th century. It is all very plausible and yet it is intriguing and the reader finds himself discovering all the new and wonderful (and sometimes not quite wonderful) changes along with the protagonist.

Then the focus turns to Europa. Poole makes a trip to Europa and contacts his old ship mate Dave Bowman who was turned into a creature of pure energy by the end of the first book. Poole talks to him and tries to make some sort of contact with the Europans….

The story is quite interesting up to this point and then it jumps ahead 15 years in which time Poole apparently gets married, has kids and then gets divorced. And one fine day he gets a strange message from David Bowman saying that humanity might be in danger. The how and the why are never explained. We’re just told that the monolith on Europa which has been inactive for a thousand years is suddenly receiving a lot of messages and instructions and that Bowman can only guess that it is threat and humanity has to somehow find a way to save itself.

I won’t go into any more detail because I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone. All I will say is that I wish this book had lived up to all the potential that it promised in the first few chapters.

 

 

Book Review: Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

9780007586356 This is a book that might be described as experimental fiction. It is a novel written entirely in letters. That is hardly new, but these are all recommendation letters.

The main character is Professor Jason Fitger. He teaches creative writing at Payne University. He has been teaching for many, many years now and a good part of his work life is taken up with these letters, recommending students for jobs or fellowships, recommending colleagues for promotions and so on.

As any academic knows (I used to be one, so I can definitely relate) writing recommendation letters is a somewhat tedious part of your work. And it seems that Professor Fitger has just about had it. He is so sick of the whole business that he starts adding his own touches to what are essentially form letters.

There is humour, irony and sarcasm as he pokes fun at his students, their prospective employers, the university and the system. But there is sadness here too and genuine warmth as he tries to help a deserving student. As the letters go on, you start to see glimpses of the Professor’s own life, his hopes and ambitions, his mistakes and his regrets.

It is a beautiful book. It is touching and thought provoking. It makes you wonder about students and education and the what and the why of it all. How can you possibly tell a coherent story in recommendation letters? I thought when I first heard about this book. Well it seems you can. It is incredibly hard to do, but Julie Schumacher has definitely pulled it off.

Terry Pratchett is one of the most brilliant writers that I have ever read…

Terry Pratchett

It was sad to hear of his death. He was a wonderful, wonderful writer, one of those rare people who could write a story that had brilliant characters and an engrossing plot. He wrote books that were outrageously funny, but not frivolous in the least. And he would make you think even as he was making you laugh.

I was introduced to Terry Pratchett by a friend when I was maybe nineteen years old. I hadn’t read any fantasy fiction at that point and I had no idea what to expect. The book I took home from the library that day was Interesting times. 

Intersting times

I was completely taken by the cover. It was so weird and interesting. There just has to be a good book in there, I thought. The book was unlike anything I had ever read before and it completely blew my mind. It is by no means Terry Pratchett’s best book, but it is a very good book. I had no idea until then that  a book could be so clever.

I went back to the library and picked up another of his books, Wyrd Sisters. And this is without a doubt one of his best books. It is a parody of Shakespeare and the Globe theater and Macbeth and conniving dukes who kill kings for the throne, but are caught in the end.

A lot of his books are a parody or satire on something in the real world like opera and rock and roll, fairy tales, news papers, film making and so on. And they are so well done. What gets me every time is just how smart the books are.

Most of Terry Pratchett’s books are set in the Discworld, a magical world that is balanced on the backs of four elephants which are in turn standing on the back of a giant tortoise called The Great A’Tuin. In Pratchett’s words,

“The world rides through space on the back of a turtle. This is one of the great ancient world myths, found wherever men and turtles were gathered together; the four elephants were an Indo-European sophistication. The idea has been lying in the lumber rooms of legend for centuries. All I had to do was grab it and run away before the alarms went off.”

Terry Pratchett was just thirteen years old when he sold his first story. He used the money he made from that to buy his first typewriter. Ten years later, his first novel, The Carpet people was published. The Colour of Magic was the first Discworld novel to be published. It came out in 1983.

There have since been more than forty books in this series. His books have been translated into 36 different languages and have sold over 60 million copies. Terry Pratchett was awarded the OBE in 1998 and he was made a knight in the New Year Honours list of 2008. He received the honour for services to literature.

In addition to Fantasy, Terry Pratchett has written science fiction and horror as well.  But fantasy was his preferred genre. According to him,  “Fantasy…is about seeing the world from new directions”. His writing certainly lived up to that belief.

 

 

 

Trivia : Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Douglas Adams

Today is the birthday of Douglas Adams. He was born in Cambridge, England in 1952. He studied literature and spent many years struggling to make his mark as a writer.

He had nearly given up hope when in 1978 BBC radio accepted an outline of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for a radio comedy. He wrote 12 episodes for the radio series, which was a big hit.

It was nominated for a Hugo award and it is the only radio show ever to make it to the shortlist. It was nominated in the category “Best Dramatic Presentation” and it lost to Superman, the movie.

The success of the radio show resulted in an offer from a publisher and the show turned into a book. When the book came out, it went straight to number one in the UK Bestseller List and in 1984 Douglas Adams became the youngest author to be awarded a Golden Pen. He won a further two (a rare feat), and was nominated – though not selected – for the first Best of Young British Novelists awards.

Hitchhiker

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the first in a series of comic science fiction novels that have sold over 15 million copies and have been translated into more than 30 languages.

The idea for the book came to Adams when he was backpacking through Europe at the age of 19, lying drunk in a field with his tour book called the Hitchhikers Guide to Europe. He said it occurred to him then that somebody ought to write a hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy.

The book is about an Englishman named Arthur Dent and his alien friend Ford Prefect who has been posing as a human (and an out of work actor) for nearly 15 years.

He comes to find Arthur seconds before the Earth is demolished to make way for a galactic freeway. Arthur is plucked off the planet by Ford who is in fact, a researcher for the revised edition of
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Together this dynamic pair begin a journey through space aided by advice from The Hitchhiker’s Guide (“A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have”) and a galaxy-full of fellow travelers:

Zaphod Beeblebrox–the two-headed, three-armed ex-hippie, Trillian, Zaphod’s girlfriend (formally Tricia McMillan), whom Arthur had tried to pick up at a cocktail party once upon a time zone; Marvin, a paranoid, brilliant, and chronically depressed robot and Veet Voojagig, a former graduate student who is obsessed with the disappearance of all the ballpoint pens he bought over the years.

The book was followed by four others, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Life, the Universe and EverythingSo Long and Thanks for all the Fish and Mostly Harmless.

Book Review : The Martian by Andy Weir

I have just finished reading a remarkable book, a truly brilliant piece of writing and I cannot stop talking about it. I heard about The Martian several months ago. I heard a lot of good things and I got the book, but somehow, I never got around to reading it.

I picked it up three days ago and it started a bit slow, but then it took off and it was such a wonderful experience. The key word being experience. It wasn’t just a book that I was reading. It was a world that I was transported to, a world that felt so very real that it was hard to believe that this was a story. This had to have happened somewhere, I kept thinking. The martianI could continue gushing, but I will stop so I can tell you about the book. The Martian is set sometime in the future and it centers around a manned mission to Mars, the Ares 3 that goes horribly wrong.

A team of six astronauts have landed on Mars and they are going about their regular duties when on the sixth day of their month-long mission, they are hit by a huge storm that makes it unsafe for them to stay on Mars because if their spaceship is damaged, they will not be able to return to Earth.

They are leaving when the communication dish is ripped apart and one of the astronauts, Mark Watney is stabbed by the antenna. He falls off their path and disappears into the storm. His life sign readings shut down and his colleagues conclude that he is dead.

He wakes up a couple of hours after they have left and well, there he is, stranded on Mars, injured,  not dead. But with little hope for survival. The next ship to Mars isn’t scheduled to arrive for another four years. He has no means of communicating with Earth, he is going to run out of food in a few months time and no one knows that he is alive.

This would be a thoroughly depressing scenario if it wasn’t for the fact that Mark Watney is a very resourceful guy who is determined to survive. He’s a botanist and a mechanical engineer and he comes at every situation with the attitude that he can figure out what to do if only he thinks about it.

It also helps that he has a sense of humour and he’s willing to try pretty much everything. NASA does figure out that he is alive and they try to help. They have their own set of disasters and difficulties, but everyone is trying really hard and there’s a ton of creative and sometimes dangerous problem solving.

The book has a tight story line. It starts a bit slow, but it is engrossing and you literally do not want to put it down. The characters are all very well fleshed out, particularly the protagonist. He’s smart and funny, irreverent, but serious in his own way. A good part of the story is told in the first person, in the form of Watney’s daily log entries and that really helps set the tone.

There is a lot of action, obviously, and it so well written that you can practically see it happen. There is also an economy of words here that I truly appreciate. The novel is only 289 pages long, but the story has a scope that belongs in a much longer work.

What endeared the book to me the most is that it is science fiction based on solid science fact. There is a lot of science in this book and it is all explained, so that the action, the events and the characters’ choices make sense. You follow the reasoning and the logical chain of thought and it is stimulating.

What makes it even more remarkable is that this is the author’s first book.

Book Review : The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

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This was my Wishlist Wednesday book last week. It is a book about books, so I knew that I would like it. But unlike most books of this genre which tend to be non-fiction, it is a novel and it features a very real person, the Queen of England who is the uncommon reader in the title.

It begins one afternoon when the Queen is out walking with her dogs and she stumbles upon a mobile library. She gets talking to the librarian about his books and she feels obliged to borrow one. The Queen has never really been a reader. She has read a lot, but most of it was required of her, so she has never experienced reading for pleasure. This book is about her discovery of what it means to be a reader.

It is a premise that is going to appeal to any serious reader and Alan Bennett does a wonderful job of bringing it to life. Queen Elizabeth II feels very real and she comes across as such a charming person, intelligent, interesting, witty and sometimes snarky. As one reader said, we end up hoping that this is the person that she really is. No one knows, of course, but it is nice to think that this portrait of hers might be close to the truth.

She’s eighty years old and she’s never been interested in reading or had any other hobbies because, “hobbies tend to exclude. It is her job to take an interest, but not to be interested herself.”

She borrows that first book out of a feeling of obligation. It is a novel by Ivy Compton Burnett. She finds it hard going, but she reads it all the way through because,

“…That was the way one was brought up. Books, bread and butter, mashed potato—one finishes what’s on one’s plate.”

When she goes back to return it, she feels obliged to borrow another book. This time she picks up Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, which turns out to be a fortunate choice, because she enjoys it thoroughly.

Then she reads the sequel and she picks up a couple of other books and she quickly discovers how one book leads to another and then another, opening doors to all sorts of interesting ideas.

She is accompanied in her reading by Norman Seakins a young man who works in the palace kitchens. She meets him in the mobile library on that first day and she befriends him. She has him promoted to serve on her own floor much to the chagrin of the rest of her staff who think he’s not “dolly” enough to be in that position.

The Queen thinks that Norman is quite the find because unlike most people he is not intimidated by her and he doesn’t hesitate to voice his opinion. He finds books for her, on the internet, in the London Library and so on and they read and they talk about the books they are reading.

There is one particular scene when the Queen is up in Balmoral for the summer and she and Norman are reading Proust…

“It was a foul summer, cold, wet and unproductive, the guns grumbling every evening at their paltry bag. But for the Queen (and for Norman) it was an idyll. Seldom can there have been more of a contrast between the world of the book and the place in which it was read, the pair of them engrossed in the sufferings of Swann, the petty vulgarities of Mme Verdurin and the absurdities of Baron de Charlus, while in the wet butts on the hills the guns cracked out their empty tattoo and the occasional dead and sodden stag was borne past the window.”

It is such an evocative scene.

Not everyone is pleased by the Queen’s reading, though. Her absorption in books makes her less willing to bear with the tedium of all the events and ceremonies that she’s supposed to preside over. It makes her less particular about her clothes and her jewelry. It renders her perpetually late. But worst of all, she begins to ask all her visitors what they are reading and as one of her equerries puts it, “most people aren’t reading anything, the poor dears.”

The more she reads the more the Queen realises how little she knows of literature and how much catching up she needs to do. She regrets all those times when she’d met writers like T S Eliott,  E M Foster and Walter de la mare and had nothing to say to them because she hadn’t read anything that they had written…

This is a charming book. It is a novella, a mere 120 pages long. But Alan Bennett has packed an astonishing amount of story, character and detail into those 120 pages. The writing is beautiful. It is witty, sharp and very engaging.

This is one of those rare books that drew me in so completely that the world disappeared for a bit. I would have read it in a single setting, if I’d had the time. As it is, I read it in two. And when I finished, I wanted to start over.

Book Review : Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett

The first Terry Pratchett book that I read was Interesting Times. That was nearly 17 years ago. I had read a lot of science fiction by then, but I hadn’t read any fantasy or speculative fiction and this book (which is by no means Terry Pratchett’s best) pretty much blew my mind.

It was sharp and clever and funny and it had such wonderful characters. I feel in love with the Discworld and all it’s madness and I wanted more of it. So I went back to the library and I found a long list of titles. I read Equal RitesWyrd Sisters, Witches AbroadSmall Gods, Soul Music and so many others.

I liked all of them, but Wyrd Sisters is one of my favourites. In fact I love all of Terry Pratchett’s books featuring the three witches. So this was a re-read but it’s been so long since I read it first that I had forgotten most of it and it read like a fresh book.

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It kept me engrossed all through and I was taken again, but how clever the book is. This is Pratchett’s take on Shakespeare, complete with a theatre called the Dysk and a performance of Macbeth featuring three very real witches, a murderous Duke and his scheeming wife.

There is a fool who is sick of being one, the ghost of a King who has been murdered and a play that is put up to prove the innocence of the Duke who murdered the King, but ends up exposing him instead. So it is a bit like a performance of Macbeth, in the middle of Hamlet.

Through all this there are the three witches who save the dead King’s son and meddle with time and everything else to get the Duke off the throne and crown the real King.

It is such an engrossing book, an absolute romp from start to finish. If you like Terry Pratchett, you will love this book. And if you haven’t read him before, this book is a great place to start.

Why would you read the same book again?

I often hear people saying that they don’t re-read books, either because they don’t see the point or because they don’t want to waste time on a book that they’ve read already when there are so many other books to read.

Like any serious reader, I too wonder how I am ever going to find the time to read all the books I want to read. I know that I could read so much more if I didn’t keep going back to the books I love. But then I like going back to them.

I fall in love with a book every once in a while and it feels like such a tragedy when the book ends. I can’t bear the idea of putting it aside and never looking at it again. I have to read it and relive it a few times before I feel like I have experienced it properly.

I have been re-reading books ever since I was a kid. Whether it was Little Women , Anne of Green Gables, King Solomon’s Mines or Around the World in Eighty Days…Each of these books was a world that I enjoyed tramping about in and I was always game for a return trip.

The list of books on my ‘to be re-read’ list has morphed and changed over the years but the list itself is a constant. At the moment, it includes books like Arthur C Clarke’s Space Odyssey series and several of his other books, Aldous Huxley’s Island, Jane Austen’s Persuasion, David Grayson’s Adventures in Contentment and so on…

And then there are writers like James Herriot, P G Wodehouse and Terry Pratchett, Agatha Christie and Helene Hanff, all of whose books I will happily read again and again.

I go into a familiar book knowing exactly what happens and that is the very thing that makes it so much fun the second time around. I enjoy the book more because I don’t have to worry about what happens next. I can focus on the characters and the dialogue and enjoy the words and the world that they help create.

Perhaps I should admit here that people and characters matter more to me than plot and action. Maybe that is why I like memoirs so much. And my favourite kind of novel is one that has characters with depth and substance, characters that I can truly care about.

While I loved a lot of the books that I read as a child, the first character that I fell in love with is Elizabeth Bennett with Mr Darcy being a close second. I must have been around fifteen years old when my great-grandmother gave me her copy of Pride and Prejudice and told me that it was her favourite book.

It didn’t take me long to understand why. I have read it many times since and yet each time I am caught by the characters and their world and I read feverishly until I stop myself and try to go slow in an effort to make the book last a little bit longer.

The next book that I fell that crazy in love with was 84 Charing Cross Road.. The author, Helene Hanff used to re-read books all the time. She says in The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, another beloved book, that,

“While other people are reading fifty books, I’m reading one book fifty times. I only stop when at the bottom of page 20, say, I realize I can recite pages 21 and 22 from memory. Then I put the book away for a few years.”

I’ve had to put 84 Charing Cross Road away for that very reason. But I enjoyed living in that book. It was my first encounter with someone outside my family who was as crazy about books as we were.

Reading a book is more than just entertainment or a way to pass the time. It is an experience and some books are so good that I have to go into them again and again just to live in that world for a bit.

But it is true that all books are not as good the second time, even the well-loved ones. Some books hold a magic for us because of a particular time or place in our lives when we read them, a magic that cannot be recreated a second time.

I think this is particularly true of the books we read as children. I discovered this recently, when I tried to read King Solomon’s Mines. I have such fond memories of this book and I was sure I would enjoy reading it again…I didn’t. I couldn’t even finish the book. And it made me feel awful, like I’d gone and messed up a wonderful memory.

And then there are books that suffer from over-exposure like The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series. I love these books and I have read them both a couple of times.

But I’ve seen the movies so many times, thanks to my kids who were obsessed with both of these series and would watch nothing else for months on end that it is going to be several years before I can go back to them and find them fresh again. But I know I will go back to them someday and that I will enjoy them thoroughly.

If I love a book, I will read it again. I have to read it again. Not doing so is like throwing away a treasure after holding it just once. Or to quote Anne Fadiman who put together a whole book called Re-readings,

“…the reader who plucks a book from her shelf only once is as deprived as the listener who, after attending a single performance of a Beethoven symphony, never hears it again.”

Nightfall the short story and Nightfall the book by Issac Asimov and Robert Silverberg

In my post about Issac Asimov last week, I mentioned that he wrote a short story called Nightfall in 1941 which is still considered one of the best science fiction short stories ever written. I looked it up and I was intrigued by the premise. The story is set on a planet called Lagash which has six suns. Since one or the other of their suns is always up in the sky, the people of Lagash have never known the night or darkness in any form.

In fact, darkness is one of their phobias, an experience that most of them simply cannot handle. Now for the first time in 2049 years they are going to experience darkness (cause by an eclipse which happens every 2049 years, a fact that their scientists have only just discovered.) They are a bit disturbed to find that their prediction coincides with that of a religious cult called the Apostles of Flame who have been preaching about the coming darkness and urging people to join their cult to save themselves from the darkness…

The story begins on the night of the eclipse. The scientists of Saro University are ready with their instruments and their computers. The Apostles of Flame are busy fanning fears. But the people of Lagash do not believe either the scientists or the Apostles. They are simply unable to conceive that such a thing as nightfall can happen…and then the eclipse begins.

It is a dramatic story and it is told very well. The people of Lagash are very much human. They don’t feel alien at all. They even refer to themselves as mankind, which is a bit of a let down when you’re reading a story that is supposedly set on another planet. But despite this and despite a couple of plot holes, Asimov tells an engaging story with multiple plot lines all of which come together very well. He builds a complete tale with a history and a very believable back story.

The characters are not very well fleshed out, but that does not matter because the story is driven by plot and action rather than the characters. It was a perfectly enjoyable read.

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I can see why Robert Silverberg thought there was enough material in it to turn it into a book. Nightfall the novel was written in 1990, so in some ways, it is more sophisticated than the short story. Silverberg takes the very briefly sketched out back story in the original and fleshes it all out. This part of the book is very interesting. I enjoyed seeing the back story laid out in such detail.

He also fleshes out the characters and adds some new ones. I was glad of this for most part except when he brought in a romance towards the end that felt out of place and down right awkward at times. The characters are also a bit more emotional here and while that adds to the story in some places, it also takes away.

Silverberg sticks to the story laid out by Asimov until the eclipse. He even uses Asimov’s words and descriptions, particularly in the sequence leading up to the eclipse and right after.  Asimov’s story ends soon after the darkness sets in. He gives you a hint of what is to come and stops, letting you imagine the rest.

Silverberg tries to continue the story and this is where the novel breaks down. It becomes tedious and needlessly descriptive. The same events are gone over by a whole bunch of people, so it is repetitive as well. The plot meanders along with the characters and you begin to wonder of there is an end in sight.

I was bored by this point, but I kept reading because I wanted to know how it would all end. The resolution was not lame perhaps, but definitely disappointing.

 

Reader’s Block and a couple of reviews

I have been away from this blog for over two months. Some of it was life getting in the way, but mostly it was a lot of not reading. Sometimes I get into this rut when for whatever reason, I can’t seem to find a single book I like. It seems absurd, considering how many books I have that I still haven’t read, but for whatever reason, I just can’t seem to get interested in anything.

The last book I mentioned here was Dearie by Bob Spitz. It was interesting and I read it through, but only because the subject (Julia Child) was interesting. The writing was not. The book was at least a 100 pages too long. It could’ve done with tighter editing and and a more interesting manner of presentation. There is a wealth of research here, but it is poorly organised and a lot of times it felt like an information dump rather than the story of somebody’s life…

Anyway, I couldn’t read anything for a few days after I finished this. Then I picked up The Apple Orchard by Susan Wiggs. I had never heard of this author before and I didn’t know anything about her style of writing. I only picked up the book because it had an interesting premise and a lot of good reviews.

The book started well and it drew me in, but somewhere around the middle it began to unravel.  The story has a complex plot and it deserved a far better resolution than it got. A lot of the conflicts which had been built up rather well, were resolved, with what I thought was unrealistic ease. Towards the end, I was only reading it because I wanted to find out how it all ended…

Since then I haven’t been able to settle on anything to read. At least until a couple of days ago. I am now reading and thoroughly enjoying Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr. I am only sixty pages from the end, so I will be done by tonight and I should be able to post a review tomorrow.

 

Book Review : Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie

I finished reading this book two days ago. I read it in a little more than a day, ignoring any and all chores that I could, just so I could keep reading…I love it when a book grips me that much.

I have read this book before, but the last time I read it, I was 16…that was 21 years ago. I remember it as a book that I thoroughly enjoyed, but I did wonder if I would like it as much this time around.

I did. I thought the resolution was a bit implausible…not the solution to the mystery, but the manner in which it was revealed…barring that, I loved everything.

The plot was brilliant and the story was full of clues, false trails and surprises, the way a good detective story should be. But what I noticed this time around was the characters. They were all so well crafted each with their own set of perfectly plausible motives for doing what they do.

When we think of Agatha Christie, we think about plot and action and lots of clever writing. All of that is very much in evidence here, but so is her ability to create believable and some genuinely likeable characters.

The story is set in a school called Meadowbank. It is one of the best girl’s schools in England, the last place that anyone would associate with murder. And yet one night, just a week into the summer term, the new games mistress is found murdered in the sports pavilion. The police are trying to solve the crime, but there are too few clues and a complete absence of motive.

Just a few days later, one of the students is kidnapped. She’s not a regular student, she’s a princess and she’s from the small middle eastern kingdom of Ramat, which has recently had a revolution in which her cousin, the former ruler of Ramat was killed.

Before there is any proper investigation of the kidnapping, a second murder happens. Another of the teachers is killed…in the sports pavilion. What is  so special about the sports pavilion? What is the connection between the Revolution in Ramat and the murders in at Medowbank? No one can make head or tail of it.

There are rumours about jewels that were smuggled out of Ramat just before the revolution, there's blackmail and secrets a plenty. And one fifteen year old school girl who figures out one part of this mystery and realises that her life is in danger. She runs away from school and goes to Hercule Poirot looking for help and advice.

He brings her back to the school and he slowly figures out exactly what happened and why. The book is an absolute romp from start to finish.

Flashback Friday : 2001 A Space Odyssey

Flashback Friday is a meme hosted by Bookshelf fantasies  focusing on showing some love for the older books in our lives and on our shelves.  wpid-9781857236644.jpg This is another wonderful book that I read as a teen. It is the first science fiction book that I ever read and it opened up a whole new world of thought and ideas that I hadn’t known existed. Arthur C Clarke immediately became one of my favourite writers and he still is.

This book was written in 1964 (four years before the first moon  landing). It was conceived as a movie before it was thought of as a book. Stanley Kubrick apparently approached  Arthur C Clarke and told him that he wanted to make “the proverbial good science fiction movie” and that was how 2001 came to be.

It is based on a short story that Clarke had written a few years earlier called The Sentinel and the book and the movie were created almost in tandem. But there are a few small differences between the two and the three sequels follow the movie and not the book.

The story begins when an ancient artefact is found under the surface of the moon. The moment it is brought into the sunlight, it lets out a loud radio signal aimed directly at Saturn and then it becomes completely unresponsive. The scientists on the moon believe that there must be something on Saturn, a device or a machine that the radio signal was intended for.

And so they set up a manned mission to Saturn. Things are very peaceful in the beginning, but soon they start to go wrong. HAL, the on board computer, goes rogue and kills all the crew members except one…the captain, David Bowman.

He shuts off the computer and takes manual control of the ship and he is all alone when he comes face to face with another artefact…a gigantic monolith which is the shape as the one on the moon, only many, many times bigger…he enters the monolith and finds a universe that he could never have imagined…

It is a gripping tale and it is told very, very well…

Flashback Friday : Island by Aldous Huxley

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Flashback Friday is a meme hosted by Bookshelf fantasies  focusing on showing some love for the older books in our lives and on our shelves. 

My pick for this week is Aldous Huxley’s Island. The synopsis goes somewhat like this:

In Island, his last novel, Huxley transports us to a Pacific island where, for 120 years, an ideal society has flourished. Inevitably, this island of bliss attracts the envy and enmity of the surrounding world.

A conspiracy is underway to take over Pala and events begin to move when an agent of the conspirators, a newspaperman named Will Faranby, is shipwrecked there. What Faranby doesn’t expect is how his time with the people of Pala will revolutionize all his values and — to his amazement — give him hope.

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I must have been eighteen when I read this book. It got under my skin the way all good books do. It stayed with me long after I read it and I drew me back to it again and again. Island is a novel, but it is so much more than that. It is a book of ideas… about living and it grabs you and makes you think.

The story is set on a fictitious island called Pala. This is a place that is largely cut off from the rest of the world. The remarkable thing about this island, is that it is, quite literally, a happy place.
Pala is a country whose government, economy and society are all organised in way that promotes maximum human happiness. This was Huxley’s vision of a Utopia and unlike other such visions, it isn’t filled with irritatingly idealistic folks, but with real people with real problems.

It is not a utopia because it is a place without problems. It is a place where people have learnt to deal with their vices and their unhappiness in a rational manner. The basis of their lives is Buddhist, but they are not steeped in religion, nor do they follow it slavishly.

They believe in paying attention to life and living it moment to moment, accepting both the good and the bad and and not  yearning for something they cannot have. Given the circumstances of their lives, they try to be as happy as possible.

Will Farnanby, the protagonist, is a journalist, hardened by his experience of life. He finds himself shipwrecked on Pala after an accident. He’s injured and he has to stay on the island for a couple of weeks as he slowly gets better. He meets a few people and talks to them and begins to get to know their way of life which is unlike anything he has ever seen before.

He begins by being skeptical, but he’s open minded enough to observe and listen to what the people of the Pala tell him about their way of life and their beliefs and much to his surprise, he finds himself thinking that this way of life could actually work and that human beings are maybe, not so bad after all.

This is a book that is a bit heavy on ideas and philosophy and there are times when you have one character talking for nearly three pages. But the ideas are so unique and interesting that I didn’t mind at all.

I’ve read this book many times over and it continues to amaze me. It has a wisdom and a breadth of vision that is incomparable.

Review: Mr Darcy’s Diary by Amanda Grange

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This is yet another reworking of Pride and Prejudice and it is the best that I have come across so far. It is,  as the title says, Mr Darcy’s diary. It is his side of the story and because it is told in the first person, we get to see and hear his thoughts as well as his words and actions. The original tells you nothing at all about Darcy’s thoughts, so this required quite a bit of imagination and I think Amanda Grange pulled off very convincingly.

There is a lot of the story in Pride and Prejudice that happens off screen, as it were…Wickham’s attempt to elope with Georgiana, Darcy’s attempts to find Wickham and Lydia, Lady Catherine trying to convince Darcy to give up Elizabeth and most importantly, Darcy’s change of heart as he begins to realise just how badly he had behaved while proposing to Elizabeth…all of these scenes are fleshed out here. And done well, at that.

Unlike Austen, Amanda Grange does not stop at the point when Darcy and Elizabeth get married. She gives us a look at their life in Premberley, their life as a couple which I liked quite a bit. There is also a surprising and an entirely satisfying new pairing.

But I found myself wondering as I read this if it could be a stand alone novel, if someone who hadn’t read Pride and Prejudice could read this and understand all of the goings on and get a flavor of the original. Honestly, I don’t think so. It works well as a companion volume, it is complimentary to the original, but it cannot stand alone.

Amanda Grange has been very faithful to Austen and she has not deviated from the original except to make a couple of small additions. The characters are much the same, though I think she softened Darcy a little. Both the language and the tone of the narrative recall the original…

I have one complaint, though. One of the things that made Pride and Prejudice so special was the character of Elizabeth Bennett. She is so vividly written. She gets a bit lost in this book. We hear a lot about Darcy’s admiration for her, but we only hear her in the dialogue which she has with him or someone around him and that is just not enough to paint the vivacious picture of her that Austen did.

Nonetheless, it was a thoroughly enjoyable read.