Wednesday 30 September 2009

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Apparently "The Book Thief" is classed as a young adult, even a children's book, in the USA, but it wasn't written as such and certainly I've thoroughly enjoyed it a very long way away from young adult years..

The story is set in wartime Germany and gives an insight into ordinary people's lives.  It is narrated by Death, which may sound morbid, but this Death is afraid of humans and wonders how they can be capable of so many glorious things as well as such ugliness.  And that really is one of the main themes of the book, along with death of course, the Second World War, and the conflict of ordinary people with the society they live in.

It's the story of Liesel, who has to be fostered when her own parents are taken away to a concentration camp for being Communists.  Her brother dies before they reach their foster parents and she steals a book, a grave digger's manual, even though at that time she couldn't read.  It's the story of the books that pass through her hands, and the story of how she survives the events of the war.

There isn't, in truth, a great sense of place, but there most certainly is an all-enveloping feeling of being immersed in the time.  This is such an important part of Germany's history, I would happily recommend the book to anyone planning to visit Germany.

Tuesday 16 June 2009

White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

An eye-opening story set in modern India, a country of start contrasts between rich and poor, between the Light and the Darkness, between men with fat bellies and men with thin bellies.  It's a rapid and easy read - cynical, provocative, and entertaining.

The format of the book is a series of emails sent by the narrator to a Chinese head of state due to visit India, to explain the truth about being an Indian entrepreneur.  In essence, it's a very moral tale, it exposes corruption in all its forms, the extraordinary poverty in an upwardly mobile society, the blurred moral boundaries.  In spite of it all, I have a lingering sympathy for Balram.

In India, 76% live below the poverty limit of $2 a day, compared to 73% in Sub-Saharan Africa.  People forget this, probably because there is the "new" India, the world of technology and entrepreneurs, the world that Balram wants to join.  It is this contrast that is brought out so very well in the book.
The dreams of the rich and the dreams of the poor - they never overlap, do they?
See, the poor dream all their lives of getting enough to eat and looking like the rich. And what do the rich dream of?  Losing weight and looking like the poor.

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Monday 1 June 2009

Extra Virgin by Annie Hawes

A very enjoyable read, but it didn't flow very smoothly, nor was it a page turner.  I thought the descriptions of local people and life in the village very interesting and not too patronising or over-romanticised as so many are in this type of book.  In my view it was much better than Under the Tuscan Sun which had a very self-satisfied tone that I didn't like.

I would have liked more information about Annie and her sister - it was a bit of a mystery how they transformed from holiday workers on the rose farm into part-time residents, or did I miss something?  What did they do in England and how were they able to travel back and forth so often?  I imagine the reason was to maintain some privacy, but it bothered me somehow.

The structure seemed to me to be a little odd. At first I thought it was going to be a description of a single year, only to realise that it was progressing through the years as well as the seasons. At times that gave a confusing/disjointed impression and it made it hard to follow in places.

Nevertheless it was a very entertaining read and one I would recommend to anyone interested in Italy.
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Saturday 25 April 2009

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

 This book is an excellent crime novel set in Sweden. I have read a number of Henning Mankell's novels but this is very different. It's a gripping and fast read, a little graphically brutal here and there, though not excessively.  By that I mean I was able to skim over those parts, enough to realise what was happening but not enough to give me nightmares!  The translation is excellent in that you truly aren't aware that that the book wasn't originally written in English.  That's not often the case, sadly.

I enjoyed the picture it gave of Swedish life, in particular rural and island life.  I have a firm picture of  Hedeby, picturesque villages and summer cabins, so unlike the melancholy and brooding of Mankell's Sweden.

Thursday 19 February 2009

Paris in the Fifties by Stanley Karnow

This book is neither about Paris nor set in the fifties, for the most part.  I rarely consider giving up on a book, but in the first few chapters, I was sorely tempted.  It seemed to be nothing but a recital of all the celebrities and intellectuals that Stanley Karnow had met during his time as a foreign correspondent in Paris.

I'm really glad I didn't put it down though, because it improved immeasurably after those first chapters.  Most of the paragraphs have a theme, such as the history of the guillotine, Ho Chi Minh and Vietnam, Algeria, and as a whole gives an interesting and readable view of France and French culture.

Saturday 14 February 2009

Driving over Lemons by Chris Stewart

A light and easy read, perfect for a holiday in Spain and Andalucia in particular.  Chris Stewart, one-time drummer with Genesis, has a pleasant style and brings alive his search for his dream of a different lifestyle in the heart of the Spanish countryside, well away from the coastal "ex-pat" areas.  There is plenty of local colour without its being sentimental.

This is not great literature, nor does it pretend to be.  Definitely one to read when concentration might be difficult.  When I come to look back on the book, it's quite hard to say a great deal about it.  It's not entirely unlike Peter Mayle's "A Year in Provence" but I find the humour less at the expense of the locals than Peter Mayle's. 

There are two follow-up books - "Parrot in the Pepper Tree" and "The Almond Blossom appreciation Society".  I probably wouldn't want to read them in quick succession, but I will read them over time.
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Thursday 22 January 2009

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

This book has been sitting sadly and reproachfully on my shelf for over a year.  Why I didn't pick it up earlier, I really don't know.

It was an enjoyable read - with reservations.  It was easy enough to become involved in the story which moved swiftly along, easy to read and also enlightening.  It seemed to give a fascinating insight into lives, especially of women, during the troubled years before, during, and shortly after the influence of the Taliban, how the everyday lives of ordinary Afghani people were affected.

I have two main reservations though, even while recommending it.  The first is that Khaled Hosseini felt the need to explain the politics of the situation, the fighting between the different warlords and their followers.  That was fine but he did it by having the characters discuss what was happening, and it just didn't ring true. 

"And he's fighting Hekmatyar, of course, who has the support of the Pakistanis.  Mortal enemies, those two, Maassoud and Hekmatyar.  Sayyaf, he's siding with Massoud. And Hekmatyar supports the Hazaras for now."

My eyes glazed over during these passages: too many names I found difficult to remember.

The other reservation was that the characters were either black or white with nothing much in between:  Rasheed was too bad with no redeeming features, Tariq too good.  People are normally made up of so many different shades.  The women were rather better drawn but I still didn't feel I knew them, I didn't know how they thought. 

Don't let my reservations put you off though.  All round it was an easy and enjoyable read.  In spite of the tragedies of Afghanistan, the book ends on an optimistic note.  The real tragedy is that the optimism for the future of the country hasn't yet been fulfilled.
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Friday 2 January 2009

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

Synopsis from Amazon
Griet, the young daughter of a tilemaker in seventeenth century Holland, obtains her first job, as a servant in Vermeer's household. Tracy Chevalier shows us, through Griet's eyes, the complicated family, the society of the small town of Delft, and life with an obsessive genius. Griet loves being drawn into his artistic life, and leaving her former drudgery, but the cost to her own survival may be high.

I've found it difficult to review this book because although I found it easy to read and quite enjoyable, I was left with the feeling something was missing, the mystery and genius in the painting perhaps. The characters didn't seem well developed and really, neither did the storyline. In the synopsis above it mentions life with an obsessive genius - well it was hardly touched upon and Vermeer's character was possibly the least well-drawn. The child Cordelia seemed contrived, and the plague appeared to be thrown in almost as an afterthought.

Saying all that though, I cannot deny enjoying it, I just think it has been hyped up and hasn't lived up to my expectations.  I read it in just a few hours - it is a very short book. And it has definitely made me more interested in Vermeer's art, and in Delft.

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