Category Archives: Books I’ve Read

101 Books to Read Before You Die – Fugitive Pieces

It’s hard to approach a book that I’ve declared my favourite book ever, a book I read once two years ago and haven’t had the courage to pick up again, despite buying my own copy and buying a copy as a gift for a friend. It would probably be easier to write about some of the books I’ve read repeatedly; I must have read some of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novel four or so times and I’ve made a habit of re-reading the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy every few years, but that’s different. Those are books that I’ve enjoyed and influenced the way I’ve thought and the essence of I am, true, but Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels was more. The Guide and Discworld were novels that set me in a certain direction, they took the flowing river of my mind and diverted it, set it on a course of humour and absurdity, added to its flowing currents. Reading the Fugitive Pieces was uncovering a something that I’ve never known within myself; striking a subterranean lake of cool, refreshing water bursting to the surface, unexpected, overwhelming, liberating.

 And painful. At times I would read a paragraph and decide that that would be enough, that that would be all I could take at this time. I don’t think I could review this book normally; as if while  describing the novel I would have to write as beautifully and deeply as the novel itself to do it justice; So I’ll say a few quick words and then end off. It’s a novel about loss, and coming to terms with that loss. It’s a novel about the parts of ourselves that we are yet to find, and how we find them. Split into two pieces, telling the stories of two different men, I was initially unsettled at the harsh division between the storylines, but in retrospect they serve a purpose

 And that’s all I’m going to say about it for now. I’ll more than likely return to this book, slowly, cautiously feeling my way back in and when I did I’ll post snippets of it up on the blog. But not too long a quote. I don’t think I could take that.

 But sometimes the world disrobes, slips its dress off a shoulder, stops time for a beat. If we look up at that moment, it’s not due to any ability of ours to pierce the darkness, it’s the world’s brief bestowal. The catastrophe of grace.

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Time Traveler’s Teaser

I can’t describe the deep, deep pleasure I take from the fact that Eric Bana has gone from playing a time-travelling alien in Star Trek to a time-travelling librarian in The Time Traveller’s Wife. It’s those sort of neat parallels that provide a lot of joy in my life. Here’s a snippet of the book before the movie (which I hear is rubbish) gets released (here in SA):

“I bet I can guess your favourite bird.”

He shakes his head and smiles.

“What’ll you bet?”

He looks down at himself in his T-Rex shirt and shrugs. I know the feeling.

“How about this:  if I guess you get to eat a cookie, and if I can’t guess you get to eat a cookie?”

He thinks it over and decides this would be a safe bet. I open the book to Flamingo. Henry laughs.

“Am I right?”

“Yes!”

It’s easy to be omniscient when you’ve done it all before. “Okay, here’s your cookie. And I get one for being right. But we have to save them ‘til we’ve done looking at the book; we wouldn’t want to get crumbs all over the bluebirds, right?”

“Right!” He sets the Oreo on the arm of the chair and we begin again at the beginning and page slowly through the birds, so much more alive than the real thing in glass tubes down the hall.

“Here’s a Great Blue Heron. He’s really big, bigger than a Flamingo. Have you ever seen a hummingbird?”

“I saw some today!”

“Here in the museum?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Wait ‘til you see one outside – they’re like tiny helicopters, their wings go so fast you just see a blur…” Turning each page is like making a bed, an enormous expanse of paper slowly rises up and over. Henry stands attentively, waits each time for the new wonder, emits small noises of pleasure for each Sandhill Crane, American Coot, Great Auk, Pileated Woodpecker. When we come to the last plate, Snow Bunting, he leans down and touches the page, delicately stroking the engraving. I look at him, look at the book, remember, this book, this moment, the first book I loved, remember wanting to crawl into it and sleep.

“You tired?”

“Uh-huh”

“Should we go?”

 “Okay”

 

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101 Books to Read Before You Die: Spud

Like so many young men, my relationship with my father is an interesting one. I’m often of the opinion that my father is a little disappointed that I wasn’t the sport playing, rock-climbing type. I’m pretty sure that spending time reading history novels and blogging doesn’t compare with the veld-exploring lifestyle of my father and his 4 brothers in Phalaborwa of all places. So it was that he returned from the Monday Library Trip with the first two books in the Spud Series and the declaration that “Here are some real books.”

 For those of not living in South Africa, or for those South Africans who have been living under a literary rock for the past 4 years, Spud is the story of 13 year old John Milton and his first year at an unnamed boy’s boarding school in Natal (Which is probably Michaelhouse since that’s where the author went) in 1991. It’s a first person diary entry style of writing, which serves to grounds the reader solely in the mind of protagonist.

 I can see how Spud would fall into my father’s conception of a real book it’s South African. It’s to do with boys being boys. I think my dad thought there would be a little more swearing than there was. None of these serious, epic novels riddled with metaphors and allegories and long poetic passages about destiny. This is a book about boys doing boy things like shooting pigeons, farting, talking about girls and disobeying teachers. I moderately enjoyed the book. The problem was I kept thinking about Iron Love by Marguerite Poland which is also a book about a boy’s school, but one which is definitely riddled with metaphors, allegories and long poetic passages about destiny. It seems I will never escape my intellectual elitism. Nevertheless. The book wasn’t terrible. I did enjoy the little meta-jab at The Diary of Adrian Mole Series. The characters were enjoyable and the book is good for more than a few laughs. There are a couple of passages of a sexual nature, but these are teenagers we’re dealing with here, so there kind of had to be.

 While its position on the list is probably more indicative of the massive hype that existed at the time the list was being compiled than its innate literary quality, but the fact that hype existed at all gives some weight to the notion that the book is at least competent. And it is that. As I put the novel down, I was happy that I’d read, happy that a little piece of youthful excitement had been rekindled in my heart, happy that the South African phenomena wasn’t merely unfounded hype.

 But not so happy that I’ll start reading the next one.

 There’s talk of a movie being mad which might even star Monty Python alum, John Cleese as the Guv. I would watch that.

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Classic Post: Little Women

Early in 2007 Exclusive Books published a list of 101 Books to Read Before You Die. The list was compiled by the votes of ordinary book readers and therefore subject to the usual failing of Democracy: that the votes of people with no taste count the same as the more discerning individuals among us. As such, I’m sure that a number of novels benefitted from being more recently published and certainly some owed their position more to populism and controversy than literary merit. What we have then is a list of 101 books that a majority have found worthy of recommendation, which in itself is nothing to sneeze at. Being from a literary-minded family (my sister and I were often told to stop reading at the dinner table and for heaven’s sake go get some fresh air) the kin and I set out to read these novels. On the whole, this has been a beneficial endeavour. I have discovered authors and works that have grown my love of reading and the joy of books. I will attempt to write a little something (in no particular order) of my experiences of and with these books.

Little Women by Louisa M. Alcott

In Germany 1864, Max Weber was born.  He would later be educated at the University of Heidelburg in law, economics and economic history. These interests would lead him to the new field of Sociology. His first subjects, Ancient Agriculture and Medieval Trade developed into an interest in how religious convictions shaped economic behaviour. This inquiry was to lead to his magnum opus, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Here, Max argued that the industrial explosions of the 16th Century were due to Calvinist thought; that a man must work hard to live up to the salvation given him by God, that idle hands do the Devil’s work and that frugal living is the duty of every Christian. Later on, Miss M. Alcott decided to take the same idea, simplify it a little and teach it to little girls everywhere.

The novel in question deals with the lives of Jo, Mary-Anne, Beth and the little stuck-up one whose name I can’t remember, but which might begin with an A. Since Jo is the only character of real import, I’m just going to call the rest Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottentail. Jo, Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottentail are all young girls in America in the 1800’s. Papa is off to war (um, the Crimean maybe?) and Mama is left to care for the young girls. Flopsy, the eldest, is very pretty and will have to deal with falling in love and what it means to run a household; Jo is the tom-boy one and it is her friendship with the rich boy next door which forms the crux of the novel; Mopsy is the good little girl who only wants to stay at home and do some knitting or other womanly work; Little Cottentail is the youngest and is wont to use large words often getting malapropisms all down her shirt. Through each chapter they learn that if they just work hard to be humble, diligent, hard working, godly women then everyone will love them and they will find happiness with a kind and loving man.

To a 22-year-old male, Little Women reads like a Protestant polemic. Every chapter seems to end with a call to piety and a diligent life. There’s even an encounter with a French Catholic maid; her strange ways contrasted with the humility of the girls’. This is not to say that I won’t read this to my little girls when I have some. These are all things I believe in. Yes, even the ones that might be branded slightly ‘sexist’ in this day and age. It’s just that I’m a little too old and cynical to let a one-sided view get away with it. After much thought though, I reached a different conclusion from my initial mild distaste. This is a book for 12-year-old girls and there should be room enough in this great big world of ours for books that simply present a way of living with no apologies or explanations as to its position in a society of relativists and 22-year-old cynics. Its sweet, it’s naive and that’s okay with me. 

Little Women is ranked #60 on the Exclusive Books 101 Books to Read Before You Die

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Classic Post: The Blind Assassin

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

MAYBE A SPOILER ALERT: It is not my intention to give away any of the important plot points in this novel and so I won’t, but at the heart of this book is a mystery and I’d feel pretty bad about giving unintentional clues, so judge for yourself if you want to continue.

I know I said I was staying away from novels with war in them, but I found The Blind Assassin in the good ol’ Town Library and had to take the opportunity before I ended up at University again. The B A is not really about war, although a story revolving around the lives of a prominent Canadian family spanning the entire 20th century has to deal with the two most catastrophic events of that period, so there is quite a bit of war talk, people going to war, people staying behind and general war-liked unpleasantness. The book doesn’t really span the entire 20th century. There is a lengthy catch-up of the Chase family history 1900-1916, then the story hits upon its major players, sisters, Laura and Iris. The majority of the book plays out in the gap between the wars as told by the elder sister alive in Port Ticonderoga, Canada, 1998. So, almost like the whole century.

If there’s one thing I enjoy in a novel, it is an invitation to solve a mystery. Smack out of the gate the Assassin plops a mystery in your lap. “Just Ten days after the war ended, my sister drove a car off the bridge.” That’s line one. This is not going to be a cheery novel. An invitation is extended the reader to solve this mystery.  At your disposal are three types of information: The memoirs of the Iris, newspaper clippings concerning the events of the lives of the sisters and chapters from the titular The Blind Assassin, a novel written by Laura Chase and supposedly providing details about her life. Not to give you an impression that this is some sort of cerebral exercise, some sort of literary Cluedo; the mystery unrolls in a pretty much normal manner, but throughout there is the knowledge of the death to come. Mmmm, that’s a great sentence. And so my little mind whirred and ticked all the while trying to figure out the puzzle of why Laura Chase seemingly committed suicide. Who is the mystery man in the novel? Why did Iris’ husband (apparently) kill himself a few years after Laura’s death? I was pretty chuffed with myself at unravelling the mystery about half way through the novel, so it came as something of a surprise when the book flat out told me that it wasn’t really impressed that I’d figured out something so blindingly obvious and that that was blatantly not all folks, so keep reading, you pompous pseudo-literate lemming. Or something of that nature. Anyway, there was more than one twist in the tail.

The book is great fun. The three different sections of the book are all complementary and entertaining (being a bit of a science fiction geek, I enjoyed the planet Zycron adventures a bit more than most), the characters are great and eccentric with some truly disturbing moments (“Why did you paint my face blue in this picture? ‘Cause you where asleep” trust me, its scarier when you read it) There’s a little bit of sex, but it’s nothing a little judicious paragraph skipping won’t protect you from. All in all, a good read and only one war orphan.

The Blind Assassin is ranked #65 on the Exclusive Books 101 Books to Read Before you Die.

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Classic Posts: The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

(I’m in the process of changing blogs and there are a few posts I didn’t want to leave behind. This one was particularly well received on the old site)

After reading the Book Thief by Marcus Zusak I have reached a decision. I will not be reading any more books set in World War II for a long time. Light-hearted fun is usually not on offer in these books. Nor are care-free lives or rollicking action adventures. Instead, what you get is sadness, turmoil, war and Jews. There are always Jews. The Book Thief is, despite all these heavy topics, a good book. At times funny, often heart-breaking the story of little Liesel Meminger is one that will probably touch your heart and definitely stay with long after you’ve read it.

The story, narrated by Death (we’ll get back to that in a moment) follows the aforementioned little German girl as she is dropped off at her Foster parent’s home in Tiny Town, Germany. There she meets her new family, the loving ‘Papa’ and foul-mouthed yet caring ‘Mama’. Okay, you’ve probably heard that set-up before, but as you’re reading it doesn’t really bother you, because it’s well written. The father-daughter relationship is one of the sweetest you’ll read and there are numerous other characters of German Land are all endearing and/or humorous. And then comes 1939. There’s a lot of sadness which only escalates when Max the Jew shows up. Through it all Liesel discovers life through her friendship with ill-fated German boy, Rudy, the ever-loving Papa and the pages of her novels, many of which are stolen. I’ve always had a soft spot for novels where the hero/heroine discovers the joy and meaning of life through words (see Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels, one of my favourite novels) and The Book-Thief does it competently, pulling the heart-strings at the right moments, gifting you with moments of humour when things get a little too dark and leading you to become emotionally invested in the characters.

There are little niggles. Using Death as a narrator may have sounded like a good idea in writing class, but there is little reason to have the Grim Reaper telling the story. His occasional insertions into the story line could easily enough be accommodated by an ordinary narration and the truth is, Death as a character is just not that compelling. He’s sad when little kids die, war is a busy time: these snippets of arcane law are the type of things you can expect from Mr Zusak’s Death. Maybe I’ve just been spoiled by the impeccable Mr Pratchett’s Death who actually has a personality and who I wouldn’t mind having a conversation over a cup of tea with and who SPEAKS LIKE THIS, which is infinitely cool. But it’s really only a small niggle. World War II attracts sad novels like a pretty girl attracts pimply teenage boys , but The Book Thief is one of the good ones. I just need to make sure I stay away from any novels set in WWII for a while.

(The Book Thief was one Exclusive Books’ Top Ten Most Popular Books of 2007)

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