Sunday, 31 August 2008

TITLE: THE TURN OF THE SCREW AUTHOR: Henry James DATE PUBLISHED: 1898 DATE READ: August 2008 NOTES: Ostensibly a ghost story set in late Victorian England but The Turn of the Screw a strange little book that leaves the reader with more questions than answers. A governess is put in charge of two young children who seem to be “good” but perhaps are not nearly as innocent as they seem. She begins to see visions that she is convinced are filled with evil and wanting to capture the children. But it is debatable as to whether she really sees the ghosts or whether she is hysterical. There is also a strange sub-Freudian relationship between the governess and the boy, Miles. Being a reading group choice, this is not the sort of book I would normally choose to read. I can’t say I enjoyed it particularly – I especially didn’t like James’ long sentences! However I can understand how this work has given rise to so much discussion and criticism and to subsequent works such as film and opera.

Monday, 25 August 2008

TITLE: LOLITA AUTHOR: Vladimir Nabokov DATE PUBLISHED: 1959 DATE READ: August 2008 NOTES: For as long as I can remember I have resisted reading Lolita. But because it is so often referred to as a “classic” I felt in the end I should put aside my prejudices and tackle it. In many ways it is as I expected it to be. It is not a comfortable read and the unreliable narrator continually beguiles and tricks us. Humbert claims to love Lolita deeply but at the same time reveals the damage he is doing to her. The narrative is made even more intriguing by its attitude to Lolita – neither “innocent” nor “pure”. Nabokov’s language is superb – he revels in word play and the book is filled with literary allusions. The road trip across America is brilliantly seen through an outsider’s critical eye. I can see how Lolita has enthralled and irritated so many readers. It is in turns sad, subversive, funny and creepy.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

TITLE: THE GOOD PLAIN COOK AUTHOR: Bethan Roberts DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: August 2008 NOTES: Set in a (large) country cottage in 1936 the story tells of 19 year old Kitty joining the somewhat Bohemian household of Ellen Steinberg and her live-in lover George Crane. Each has a daughter who act like sisters and further enliven the house. Kitty is both fascinated and in awe of her employers. The story progresses slowly – this is not necessarily a criticism as life in a country house in the 1930s probably moved at a very sedate pace. The themes of country house living and master-staff relationships are somewhat well worn and this book does not add a lot. I found myself waiting (and hoping) for something cataclysmic and life-changing to erupt at any moment – but it never does. On the positive side Kitty, Ellen and the girls were all well drawn. George Crane much less so. His interest in communism was very vague (but perhaps the writer did this deliberately to reveal his shallowness?) Although the era was evoked through clothes, food and music there was very little reference to what was happening in the wider world. A communist may well have had something to say about Hitler being in power, the Spanish Civil War or the Blackshirts marching in London. Nonetheless this is a pleasant summer read.

Monday, 18 August 2008

TITLE: RANDOM ACTS OF HEROIC LOVE AUTHOR: Danny Scheinmann DATE PUBLISHED: 2007 DATE READ: August 2008 NOTES: The best thing about this book is probably its intriguing title (though I don’t actually know what “heroic love” is!) All in all a bit of a mixed bag. The book has two strands – one starting in 1992 and one in 1917. The modern strand tells of Leo and his girlfriend Eleni who dies in a bus accident in Ecuador. Her death devastates him and he is left grieving and filled with guilt. I found it hard to relate to Leo and all his weeping and wailing…. (all very irritating) He subsequently finds inspiration from a wacky physics lecturer, Robert. However rather than finding Robert inspirational, I think he is the sort of person you would cross the road to avoid. The earlier section told the story of Moritz conscripted to fight against the Russians in WW1. He is captured and sent to a Siberian prison camp from where he escapes and makes his way back home buoyed up all the way by the hope of meeting up again with the girl he left behind. Because so little has been written in English about this aspect of the war I found it quite interesting – but the writing fails to rival other WW1 works. One problem (for me) was the fact that there was so little differentiation between the two narrative voices. The two narratives eventually merge – as you know all along they will. All a bit sentimental and touchy feely! MEMO: Don’t read any more books with a Richard and Judy sticker on them!

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

TITLE: CHICAGO AUTHOR: Alaa Al Aswany DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: August 2008 NOTES: Chicago takes us into the world of the University of Illinois Medical Centre where we meet a range of staff, students and their partners. Many of the students are Egyptians as are two of the professors. The characters quickly come to life: Rafat Thabit claims he has shaken off his Arab past and is now a fully fledged flag-waving US citizen. Muhammad Salah is a generous, kindly man who has never got over leaving his first love behind in Egypt. John Graham is a professor with a left-wing political past who still claims to hold liberal credentials. Shaymaa tries to be a good student and a devout Muslim but wants a loving relationship. Tariq is handsome and hard-working but very egocentric. Ahmed Danana is greedy, corrupt and manipulative. Into this mix comes a new student Nagi who is idealistic and strongly opposes the Egyptian regime. The characters collide and interact and the narrative moves towards a climax of a visit by the Egyptian president. This is supported by some people, opposed by others. But nothing in Chicago is quite what it seems. There are no heroes – all the main characters are flawed. The two “baddies” Danana and security officer Safwat Shakir are unremittingly corrupt, cruel and unpleasant – almost like cartoon characters. Unfortunately, they were both all too believable! And throughout the book is the pervading presence of modern Egypt which none of the characters is able to escape from. Although there is much affection for the country Al Aswany doesn’t flinch from describing the torture, the corruption and the stultifying religious attitudes. A great read. You know you are in the hands of a natural storyteller.
TITLE: BELOVED AUTHOR: Toni Morrison DATE PUBLISHED: 1987 DATE READ: August 2008 NOTES: Beloved recounts the slave experience in the late 19th century in the southern states of America. It is a complex, multi-layered work with the time switching backwards and forwards as the details of the tale are gradually revealed to us. A challenging work that leaves the reader pondering over many aspects. Among the themes explored are memory and forgetting, sexual and physical abuse, child murder, the deliberate destruction of the slave families leaving parents fearful of becoming attached to their children in case they are snatched away from them. Morrison (cleverly) depicts the main slave owners in the narrative, the Garners, as well-meaning people. But the writing makes clear that there can be no such thing as a “good” slave owner. Morrison makes us work hard….. but it is a rewarding, magical read that will stay with you long after.

Sunday, 3 August 2008


AUTHOR: Khaled Hosseini


DATE READ: July 2008

NOTES: This is the story of two Afghan women from 1970s to the present day. Hosseini is a masterful story-teller and we are quickly drawn into the lives of Mariam and Laila as they try to survive during times of great political and social upheaval, war, hunger and disease. As co-wives they gradually draw closer together and gain comfort and security from each other’s company and, in time, courage to stand up to a brutal husband. We come to know the characters of Mariam and Laila but most other characters (such as Tariq and Rasheed) remain somewhat one-dimensional. I also felt that it was odd that the two women appeared to have no social interaction of any sort with other women in the neighbourhood. It’s a very fast, easy read and I did want to know how everything was resolved at the end. However after finishing the book it all felt a bit unsatisfactory and I didn’t feel I had learned anything new about the lives of the Afghan people.

I would certainly recommend A Thousand Splendid Suns to anyone who only knew a little about the situation in Afghanistan and who wanted an untaxing read.