Books from June and July, 2008

This is part of a series of wrap-up posts I’m making for books that I read, for which I noted down my rating and the date I finished them, but for which I didn’t write any reviews at the time. This will therefore have the list of books and my ratings, along with comments on what I remember thinking of the books.

This is for June and July 2008, the summer before I moved to Edinburgh for university.

The Adventures of SallyThe Adventures of Sally by P. G. Wodehouse
Publisher: Herbert Jenkins
Released: October 17, 1922
Pages: 272
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When Sally Nicholas became an heiress, she had to cope her brother's wild theatrical ambitions and the defection of her fiance, his replacement being a strangely unattractive suitor. A trip to England only made things worse, but then a piece of speculation might just offer a happy ending.

The Adventures of Sally was a relatively standard Wodehouse read (oh dear, I seem to be at the point where I’m invoking “standard Wodehouse”). It’s a good book, by all means, but after The Luck of The Bodkins it was hard for it to live up to my expectations.

TrainspottingTrainspotting by Irvine Welsh
Series: Mark Renton #2
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Released: August 16, 1993
Pages: 430
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The bestselling novel by Irvine Welsh that provided the inspiration for Danny Boyle’s hit film Choose us. Choose life. Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose cars; choose sitting oan a couch watching mind-numbing and spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fuckin junk food intae yir mooth. Choose rotting away, pishing and shiteing yersel in a home, a total fuckin embarrassment tae the selfish, fucked-up brats ye've produced. Choose life.

I believe Trainspotting more than qualifies as a classic. It’s quite literally a tough read – written mostly in a Scottish dialect which takes quite a long time to get used to. I remember reading this, having just checked it out from the library, sitting in the library in Stavanger City Centre, being a few chapters in and going “how am I supposed to read this?”. After the third chapter I started again from the beginning, and, having gotten used to the dialect in which the book is written by that time, I actually managed to pick up what was going on.

The book is great, but gruelling at times. This is one of very few books which I had to put down a couple of times, once because of very graphic descriptions of violence, and the other time because of… well… grossness. However, it is a very good book.

Life of PiLife of Pi by Yann Martel
Publisher: Knopf Canada
Released: September 11, 2001
Pages: 460
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Life of Pi is a fantasy adventure novel by Yann Martel published in 2001. The protagonist, Piscine Molitor "Pi" Patel, a Tamil boy from Pondicherry, explores issues of spirituality and practicality from an early age. He survives 227 days after a shipwreck while stranded on a boat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

I think Life of Pi was one of the first books I read purely because it was on the “1001 books to read before you die” list (a list which heavily dictated my reading choices this, and a few of the following, summers), so I went into it blind, not knowing anything about it other than the title.

It was unlike anything else I’d read – a contemporary fantasy which conjured up cinematic images in my mind quite unlike any other books I’d read up to that point. This was long before the film came out, so had it not been for the 1001 books list, I probably wouldn’t have come over this book. This is one of several books I’d use as a counter-argument to the “why would you read books off a list?”-point. Exposure to new things you otherwise wouldn’t have been exposed to can be a great thing, and worth it for the occasional gems it can throw at you. Like this.

The Killer Inside MeThe Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson
Publisher: Fawcett Publications
Released: January 1, 1952
Pages: 244
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Everyone in the small town of Central City, Texas loves Lou Ford. A deputy sheriff, Lou's known to the small-time criminals, the real-estate entrepreneurs, and all of his coworkers--the low-lifes, the big-timers, and everyone in-between--as the nicest guy around. He may not be the brightest or the most interesting man in town, but nevertheless, he's the kind of officer you're happy to have keeping your streets safe. The sort of man you might even wish your daughter would end up with someday.

But behind the platitudes and glad-handing lurks a monster the likes of which few have seen. An urge that has already claimed multiple lives, and cost Lou his brother Mike, a self-sacrificing construction worker who fell to his death on the job in what was anything but an accident. A murder that Lou is determined to avenge--and if innocent people have to die in the process, well, that's perfectly all right with him.

In The Killer Inside Me, Thompson goes where few novelists have dared to go, giving us a pitch-black glimpse into the mind of the American Serial Killer years before Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy, and Brett Easton Ellis's American Psycho, in the novel that will forever be known as the master performance of one of the greatest crime novelists of all time.

Having retrieved this book from the library, I was somewhat fascinated by the cover. To this day this is one of my favourite covers for any book.

Anyway, not wanting to judge the book by the cover, I read the book as well, and it is a good one! An original, pleasing, peace of crime writing. I can easily see how and why it’s considered a classic.

In Watermelon SugarIn Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan
Publisher: Four Seasons Foundation
Released: June 14, 1968
Pages: 144
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iDEATH is a place where the sun shines a different colour every day and where people travel to the length of their dreams. Rejecting the violence and hate of the old gang at the Forgotten Works, they lead gentle lives in watermelon sugar. In this book, Richard Brautigan discovers and expresses the mood of the counterculture generation.

In Watermelon Sugar is a book I can’t see myself ever having read had it not been for the 1001 books list, and I’m glad I did. I’m not sure it can be considered a story as such… It’s more like a literary version of the confusion instilled by a film like Eraserhead. In very glad to have read it, and it’s certainly something out of the ordinary.

The Body ArtistThe Body Artist by Don DeLillo
Publisher: Scribner
Released: February 6, 2001
Pages: 128
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In whatever form Don DeLillo chooses to write, there is simply no other American author who has so consistently pushed the boundaries of fiction in his effort to capture the zeitgeist. In The Body Artist, DeLillo tells the hallucinatory tale of performance artist Lauren Hartke in the days following the suicide of her husband, filmmaker Rey Robles. Finishing out their lease of a rented house on the coast, living in a self-imposed exile, Lauren discovers a mysterious man in the bedroom upstairs who is able to repeat -- verbatim -- entire conversations she had with her husband before his death but does not seem to know his own name or where he happens to come from.

DeLillo's emphasis on behavior and the inadequacies of language in The Body Artist will remind readers more of his plays (Valparaiso, The Day Room) than of his novels, and yet, in just a few pages -- 128, as compared to the sweeping, masterful Underworld's 800-plus -- DeLillo still manages to draw a rich portrait of contemporary American life in all its quotidian glory. Describing Lauren in the kitchen on the morning her husband will commit suicide, he writes, "She took the kettle back to the stove because this is how you live a life even if you don't know it." In this opening scene, Lauren and Rey silently struggle to assign meaning and relevance to an ordinary moment. They have a routine; they know what comes next. But they can't say what it is. They seem cut off from their own actions. How do you articulate the emotion that accompanies eating breakfast with your spouse? As Rey puts it, "I want to say something but what." When they finish eating, Rey drives to his ex-wife's apartment in Manhattan to kill himself.

The question remains open as to whether or not the strange man (whom Lauren affectionately names Mr. Tuttle, after an English teacher of hers, when she finds him upstairs) exists at all, or if he is merely a figment of her imagination. But Mr. Tuttle's origins are entirely beside the point. He has no origins. He defies description. He is neither old nor young. "Maybe this man experiences another kind of reality where he is here and there, before and after." And leave it to DeLillo to connect this enigma to the Internet. There is a live, 24-hour web site Lauren enjoys viewing: It shows an empty road in Kotka, Finland. Occasionally a car drives by or a person crosses the screen, but generally nothing happens. Lauren is fascinated by the notion that across the globe, at this very moment, this is happening, an episode "real enough to withstand the circumstance of nothing going on." This may also be the best way to describe The Body Artist, a book in which "it all happens around the word seem."

In DeLillo's unique brand of lucid, albeit elliptical, prose, The Body Artist addresses the very questions Gauguin inscribed on his famous painting: Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going? Lauren Hartke answers these questions by transforming the absurdities of her daily life -- that hours can seem long or short and still be hours; how a thing can look like something other than itself -- into a beautiful, suggestive live performance. Through her art, Lauren transcends the limits of language and body, approaching an understanding of her husband's death and more clearly discerning her own original nature. And in a brilliant act of spiritual ventriloquism, DeLillo, "the poet of lonely places," dresses himself up in this character, placing us in the extreme situation of her search for an experience of meaning she can call living.

Ok… I remember finding this book in the library, and I remember handing it back in, but oddly enough I can’t remember anything about it at all. That makes for a terrible review, I know, but I really can’t remember anything from this book, even when reading the synopsis. I might have to re-read it to be able to call this a book review at all, but hey, who reads this thing anyway? If anyone contacts me complaining about this paragraph, I will re-read it.

Carry on, JeevesCarry on, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse
Series: Jeeves #3
Publisher: Herbert Jenkins
Released: October 9, 1925
Pages: 273
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Meet the inimitable gentleman's gentleman, Jeeves... From the moment Jeeves glides into Bertie Wooster's life and provides him with a magical hangover cure, Bertie begins to wonder how he's ever managed without him. Jeeves makes himself totally indispensable in every way, disentangling the hapless Bertie from scrapes with formidable aunts, madcap girls and unbidden guests. His ability to dig assorted fellows out of sundry holes is nothing short of miraculous. In short, the man is a paragon.

An intersection between Wodehouse, which I wanted to read anyway, and the 1001 list, this is a standard Jeeves story. Like a reliable, hot, bath of effortlessly, silly, British humour.

Why Didn't They Ask Evans?Why Didn't They Ask Evans? by Agatha Christie
Publisher: Collins Crime Club
Released: September 1, 1934
Pages: 217
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When Bobby Jones found a dying man at the foot of a cliff beside a golf course, he stood in the shadow of his own death. But Bobby was lucky — lucky to escape being poisoned, and lucky to have the quick-witted Frankie, otherwise known as Lady Frances Derwent, to help find the would-be murderer. Their only clues: a photograph and the dead man's last words: Why didn't they ask Evans?

An intersection between the 1001 books list, and Agatha Christie, which I wanted to read anyway. I wouldn’t say that this is the best of the Christie books, but it’s fairly representative, up until the ending. I can’t say much more than that without venturing into spoiler-territory.

In Cold BloodIn Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Publisher: Random House
Released: January 17, 1966
Pages: 343
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On November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, four members of the Clutter family were savagely murdered by blasts from a shotgun held a few inches from their faces. There was no apparent motive for the crime, and there were almost no clues.

As Truman Capote reconstructs the murder and the investigation that led to the capture, trial, and execution of the killers, he generates both mesmerizing suspense and astonishing empathy. At the center of his study are the amoral young killers Perry Smith and Dick Hickcock, who, vividly drawn by Capote, are shown to be reprehensible yet entirely and frighteningly human. In Cold Blood is a seminal work of modern prose, a remarkable synthesis of journalistic skill and powerfully evocative narrative.

True Crime way, way, way before True Crime became cool. It’s a really interesting book about a really interesting story. It never really gripped me though, which was probably my fault. From what I read about it before reading it I’d expected it to be a bit more immersive. Instead it’s essentially a well-written documentary about what happened, which I’d probably appreciate more if I were to re-read it today than I did back then. I think the problem is that I expected a “based on true events” story, and got a story about true events instead.

A Study in ScarletA Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle
Series: Sherlock Holmes #1
Publisher: Ward Lock & Co
Released: January 1, 1887
Pages: 123
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'There's a scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.'

From the moment Dr John Watson takes lodgings in Baker Street with the consulting detective Sherlock Holmes, he becomes intimately acquainted with the bloody violence and frightening ingenuity of the criminal mind.

In A Study in Scarlet , Holmes and Watson's first mystery, the pair are summoned to a south London house where they find a dead man whose contorted face is a twisted mask of horror. The body is unmarked by violence but on the wall a mysterious word has been written in blood.

The police are baffled by the crime and its circumstances. But when Sherlock Holmes applies his brilliantly logical mind to the problem he uncovers a tragic tale of love and deadly revenge . .

This is one of those books that everyone should just read, for the cultural understanding of Sherlock Holmes if nothing else. It’s also one of the better ones, and I do prefer the full stories, like this one, to the short stories.

Our TownOur Town by Thornton Wilder
Publisher: Coward-McCann
Released: January 1, 1938
Pages: 181
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Our Town was first produced and published in 1938 to wide acclaim. This Pulitzer Prize-winning drama of life in the small village of Grover's Corners, an allegorical representation of all life, has become a classic. It is Thornton Wilder's most renowned and most frequently performed play.

I bought this for school, and ended up not needing to read it. Seeing it on my shelf some years later I figured I’d read it anyway, and what do you know, it’s quite enjoyable! As far as classic American Plays go, I still prefer Death of a Salesman, but this is one of the, unfortunately quite few plays, which I was able to read and truly enjoy in written form the same way as I would with a story.

The Book ThiefThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Publisher: Picador
Released: September 1, 2005
Pages: 592
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It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will be busier still.

By her brother's graveside, Liesel's life is changed when she picks up a single object, partially hidden in the snow. It is The Gravedigger's Handbook, left behind there by accident, and it is her first act of book thievery. So begins a love affair with books and words, as Liesel, with the help of her accordian-playing foster father, learns to read. Soon she is stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor's wife's library, wherever there are books to be found.

But these are dangerous times. When Liesel's foster family hides a Jew in their basement, Liesel's world is both opened up, and closed down.

In superbly crafted writing that burns with intensity, award-winning author Markus Zusak has given us one of the most enduring stories of our time.

A Christmas present, and read during a holiday at the cottage. This is, simply, a great book. It’s one of the first book I remember feeling properly emotional when reading, and it’s a fantastic piece of storytelling. It’s sad, it’s a little dark, but it’s really, really, good.

The Sign of FourThe Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle
Series: Sherlock Holmes #2
Publisher: Spencer Blackett
Released: February 1, 1890
Pages: 129
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'You are a wronged woman and shall have justice. Do not bring police. If you do, all will be in vain. Your unknown friend.'

When a beautiful young woman is sent a letter inviting her to a sinister assignation, she immediately seeks the advice of the consulting detective Sherlock Holmes.

For this is not the first mysterious item Mary Marston has received in the post. Every year for the last six years an anonymous benefactor has sent her a large lustrous pearl. Now it appears the sender of the pearls would like to meet her to right a wrong.

But when Sherlock Holmes and his faithful sidekick Watson, aiding Miss Marston, attend the assignation, they embark on a dark and mysterious adventure involving a one-legged ruffian, some hidden treasure, deadly poison darts and a thrilling race along the River Thames.

Another classic Holmes, though quite a short one. Not much to say other than that this is Sherlock Holmes, and that you should probably read it.

The FirmThe Firm by John Grisham
Publisher: Random House
Released: February 1, 1991
Pages: 501
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When Mitch McDeere signed on with Bendini, Lambert and Locke of Memphis, he thought he and his beautiful wife, Abby, were on their way. The firm leased him a BMW, paid off his school loans, arranged a mortgage, and hired him a decorator. Mitch McDeere should have remembered what his brother Ray-doing fifteen years in a Tennessee jail- already knew. You never get nothing for nothing. Now the FBI has the lowdown on Mitch's firm and needs his help. Mitch is caught between a rock and a hard place, with no choice-- if he wants to live.

The Firm was lying around at the cottage, and I picked it up for a holiday read. Having not liked The Last Juror that much, this was a pleasant surprise. It’s quite light, doesn’t stick with you at all, but is an easy fast-paced, enjoyable, shallow thriller.

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