December 30th, 2012


#42: Not so Bella. No, not THAT Bella. Oh, never mind.

bellatuscanyTwo days and nine synopses to go. Man...

Well, this one, at least, I can make brief. I was pleasantly entranced by Frances Mayes's Under the Tuscan Sun this summer; it was a true appreciation of a new landscape and living according to the rhythms of nature, wrought in lushly beautiful prose. I took the opportunity, then, to read her next book, Bella Tuscany - which, it turns out, is less about making a home in the celebrated region and more about driving around Italy to shop and dine.

Unfortunately, Mayes falls into the trap that she deftly avoided with her first tale of moving abroad and buying an eight-figure manor: Bella Tuscany comes across as a celebration of wealth instead of nature. It still has choice moments, mind, but most of the book is preoccupied with where Mayes and her husband go, what they can buy, what's going on in their jobs, etc. Instead of learning to make accommodations for and appreciate an environment that moves on its own terms, Bella Tuscany is about how money enables Mayes et al. to be the masters of their domain. There's still plenty of beauty to be had  -  the author meets many memorable restaurateurs and artisans in her journeys  -  but Mayes's perspective is more self-absorbed; when she encounters along the road on Easter weekend some prostitutes she learns were lured from Algeria under false pretenses, she can only idly speculate that there were "one for each station of the cross, were there?" in a way intended to invite marvel at her perceptiveness but which elicited from me only an "oh, please." Perhaps still worth a look if you loved Tuscan Sun, but don't go in expecting much, and prepare to roll your eyeballs.
book and cup

#133 Thomas Hardy - Thomas Hardy and Florence Hardy (1928)

As regular readers of this blog may be aware I am a great fan of Thomas Hardy. I will shortly be embarking on my fourth reading of The Mayor of Casterbridge for my on-going Hardy reading challenge. I was therefore looking forward to reading this book, not at all sure why I had left it so long.
Possibly one of the most interesting and intriguing things about this book is its rather odd history. The authorship is now firmly credited to be that of Thomas Hardy himself and his second wife Florence Hardy. However that was not what was originally intended. First published after Hardy’s death it was presented to the world as a biography, written by his wife Florence. Written in the third person, containing many letter and diary extracts it has the appearance of a biography. However within a fairly short period of its publication, it was generally accepted that it was in fact almost entirely the work of Thomas Hardy himself. Florence Hardy is credited with some of the early parts of the finished book, as well as some later insertions. So it is obvious that Hardy fully intended to practise what many have seen as a deceit in the publishing of his life. Presumably he wanted to exercise full control over what was left behind.
I found reading this book a very mixed experience – there were parts I enjoyed a lot, there were parts I found rather tedious and overall I found it quite frustrating. Hardy the man remains very much in the shadows. I did find it very peculiar to read excerpts of Hardy’s letters and diary entries obviously written in the first person – and therefore presented to us the reader as “straight from the horse’s mouth” interspersed with the 3rd person voice of the “biographer” who we now know to have been Hardy himself. I did enjoy the sections about Hardy’s early life and strangely his later life – which I found rather poignant. I also enjoyed reading some of Hardy’s diary entries and letters and some of things pertaining to the novels I found fascinating – although sometimes frustratingly brief despite this book’s length. The writer that emerges is a surprisingly unambitious man, although often irritated by criticism; he was frustrated by how his poetry was received, once he had finished with prose completely after publishing The Well Beloved. Hardy was a poet at heart, it was something he had always written, this was something his readers at the time were largely unaware of; some saw his sudden switch to poetry as peculiar and didn’t treat it seriously at first.
I suppose the Thomas Hardy I carry with me in my head and my heart – is the young man who wrote Under the Greenwood Tree – the young many who travelled to Cornwall and there met his first wife Emma.
When I set out for Lyonnesse,
A hundred miles away,
The rime was on the spray,
And starlight lit my lonesomeness
When I set out for Lyonnesse
A hundred miles away.
What would bechance at Lyonnesse
While I should sojourn there
No prophet durst declare,
Nor did the wisest wizard guess
What would bechance at Lyonnesse
While I should sojourn there.

When I came back from Lyonnesse
With magic in my eyes,
All marked with mute surmise
My radiance rare and fathomless,
When I came back from Lyonnesse
With magic in my eyes!
It is hard to remember that he was also a man who lived through the First World War. Along with other literary giants of the time, Hardy was asked to attend a conference at the time the war broke out. The conference was intended to aid with the organisation of public statements by well-known men of letters. In the 1920’s Hardy was an elder man of letters who a visiting manager of the Oxford Dramatic society met with, and remembered..

“There was in him something timid as well as something fierce, as if the world had hurt him and he expected it to hurt it him again. But what fascinate me above all was the contrast between the plainness, the quiet rigidity of his behaviour, and the passionate boldness of his mind, for this I had always believed to be the tradition of English genius, too often and too extravagantly denied”

I will continue to love Hardy – but I can’t say I find him a reliable chronicler of his own life. There is too much missing, no doubt they are things he considered too private to talk about – and yet because of that he remains still something of an enigma for me.

Books 61 - 70.

61. St Edith Stein – Essential Writings (a selection)
One gets a clear picture of how smart she was, and in a way also the spirit of that time (start of the 20th century). Gave me some new things to think.

62. Woolf – Orlando (Finnish translation)
The movie is good but I find this book even better; love the language of it. :)

63. Brite – Lost Souls
64. Brite – Drawing Blood
Decided I had to read some of the earlier stuff of this writer, and both were good, intense, atmospheric horror, very much worth reading.

65. Pavone – The Expats (borrowed)
Probably a good thing I just borrowed this, but still worth a read. You do have to be able to stand the regular flashbacks to enjoy it.

66. White (ed.) – Early Christian Lives
Early saint bios, some details no doubt a bit exaggerated but liked it anyway.

67. Wilder – The Bridge Of San Luis Rey (library)
Easy read but not really inspirig - it's probably better if you borrow it first.

68. Sexton – The Complete Poems (library)
A lot to read, nearly 600 pages. Liked some of the poems but the rest were not really my thing, though I think I gained some insight on her.

69. Midgley – Heart & Mind: The Varieties Of Moral Experiences
Had to concentrate a bit but I did like it a lot; I need to read more of her stuff.

70. Connell – Praying With Mary: A Treasury For All Occasions
While I've read more thorough prayer books before, this is a cute and good-starting-material kind of a book. Worth it :)
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25. Icon by Frederick Forsyth

Title: Icon
Author: Frederick Forysth
Publisher: Bantam Books
Year: 1996
# of pages: 567
Date read: 7/2/2012
Rating: 3*/5 = good


"Summer 1999. Russia stands on the threshold of anarchy. An interim
president sits powerless in Moscow as his nation is wracked by famine
and inflation, crime and corruption, and seething hordes of the
unemployed roam the streets. For them, only one man holds out
hope. The striking voice of Igor Komarov, waiting in the wings for the
presidential election of January 2000, rings out over the airwaves,
mesmerizing the masses with the promise of law, order, and
prosperity--and the return to glory of their once great land.

Then a document falls into the hands of British Intelligence. Quickly
dubbed the Black Manifesto, it outlines Komarov's secret plan for the
regime as autocratic and evil as Hitler's Third Reich. Officially the
West can do nothing, but in secret a group of elder statesmen sends the
only person who can expose the truth about Komarov into the heart of the
inferno. Ex-CIA agent Jason Monk has a dual mission: to stop Komarov,
whatever it takes, and to prepare the way for an icon worthy of the
Russian people.  But to do this, Monk must stay alive--and the forces allied against him are ruthless, the time frighteningly short...

Frederick Forsyth, the unparalleled master of the novel of
international intrigue, could create this riveting thriller, as timely
and unsettling as tomorrow's headlines." -- from the first page insert.

My thoughts:

I enjoyed this fast-moving thriller with its mix of real and fictional
events. I especially liked the twists and turns with surprises around
almost every corner.


25 / 100 books. 25% done!

8529 / 30000 pages. 28% done!

#43: Here's a lullaby to close your eyes. Oh, wait.

All right, so: in posting my review of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, I noticed that the community had a "fanfiction" tag - which, indeed, some members had used to add nonpublished fanfics of suitable length to their count. So I thought: hey, *I'm* steeped in otaku things; have I read any book-length fanfics? Well, yes, but not in a very reputable way: during my recent trek through the game Silent Hill: The Room, I had stumbled across the discovery that my own birthday was considered a holiday to the surprisingly large number of fans who like to pair the protagonist and antagonist romantically. Weird pairings are no stranger to fandoms, but this seemed particularly weird, as one party has all the emotion of (to steal from other quarters) the lead in a Sartre novel and the other has significant sartorial and hygiene issues - and even the most obsessive shipping fandoms don't tend to have holidays. In poking around to see what became of this, I actually did discover a couple stories that did some interesting things characterwise, one of which did hit the word count of a novel.

I paused at including a fanfic in my count. Looking at my list, though, I had to ask myself: could I at all justify omitting this story from a list that includes such august company as The Gift of Fear? Back came the answer: Christ, no. So let's go on this adventure, comm.

[Cutting for vague spoilers about the premise of & one of the endings to Silent Hill 4, or just for the sake of those who don't wanna read paragraphs about Silent Hill 4]

All right, so the fic is Impaired, by an author pseudonymed Gaia Faye, and it opens after the game's worst ending. Protagonist Henry finds himself resurrected by the cult that makes the town of Silent Hill its home - with a unique connection to the dark god it dearly wants to resurrect. Henry's the unwilling conduit through which said god will speak, and to facilitate his role, he's been blinded to minimize the resistance he can offer and given divine immunity from physical wounding to - well, it's supposedly a blessing, but it's really so that he won't off himself and deprive the baddies of their god's word. He's also being guarded by Walter Sullivan, the killer whose mind and sorry history Henry came to know through the events of The Room and who's latched onto Henry as a source of empathy. Nominally a venerated prophet but in reality a prisoner, Henry has to overcome his new disability and find a way to prevent himself from bringing about hell on earth.

The plot of The Room has been switched around a bit to accommodate the premise: whereas Sullivan's murders were originally part of a grand, largely one-man plan to allow him to withdraw from a world that had given him little but pain, here they're just another in a series of schemes to resurrect the god Silent Hill's cult wants to bring back in every other game, with Sullivan as a mere subservient cog. Much of what distinguished The Room - the realms that sprang from the villain's damaged mind; the idea that those he killed lived on in undeath in this mindscape; the pervasive isolation of the plot, which in the game hinged primarily on three characters - has been dispensed with, and I won't say I didn't miss it.

I will say, though, that this is the first time I've been interested in Silent Hill's cult business, which I usually find trite and hokey; I find the series far better when it sticks to psychological horror, which the series at its peak does better than most any other game on the market. The author's good at writing original characters, though, most of them members of the cult, and we see through them how a person could plausibly find comfort in its madness; like other, far saner religions, it offers a sense of purpose in an apparently directionless world and the promise of something better waiting beyond it. It's given a bit more dimension here than the kill-blood-rust of the games while still remaining evil. Despite my ultimate issues with the denouement, the story also effectively captures an overwhelming feeling of abandonment and emptiness - when everything you depended on leaves you, and all the promises of wonder and love and greater meaning go dry like ash in your mouth.

I'd also give high marks to the author for understanding Sullivan a great deal, a villain notable for his bizarre lack of malice even as he chased down The Room's protagonists to send them to their deaths. The subplot about Sullivan's affection for Henry understands the basic tragedy of the man: someone who hasn't had the good entirely beaten out of him and whose love is genuine but to whom violence comes so easily that he can't function in a human relationship. It's remarkable in that it features plenty of emotional connection, or attempts at emotional connection, yet no whitewashing of Sullivan's problems or unrealistic reciprocity on Henry's part; it's remarkable in how much it refuses to pander.

The story's also good at the small moments, like when Henry, a photographer by hobby, sadly feels for his camera and then, after a bit of reminiscing, bashes it angrily to bits, bitter that he'll never take another photograph. Or when Henry, desperate for comfort, ends up listening to an old cast recording of A Chorus Line from when he was in college, and Sullivan comes in and comments curiously on how he knows this song. This would be in other hands fodder for cheap jokes about musicals, but it turns into a reflection on the weird glancing connections that can occur between the most disparate of people.

I actually thought it was a neat turn to bring in a character from another installment in the series, but the character ultimately takes over the narrative; Henry and Sullivan end up as bystanders in their own story, and Henry in particularly dearly needed more agency. The ending's not really worthy of what's gone before and is too cruel for my tastes to Henry and Room secondary lead Eileen and even Sullivan. It reaffirms my belief that The Room is best as an isolated, three-person story, but the author is undeniably ambitious and does a lot of interesting things well.

#44: How St. Patrick saved the glorious Roman civilization, no thanks to those no-good Irish

cahill-irish-savedSo I appear to be 0-for-2 in Ireland books. Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization is, like Guns, Germs, & Steel, held up as a modern pop-history classic; I first encountered it in the pages of the mom-and-pop-gift-guide Wireless catalog. Despite the nationalistic title, though, the book is not about Ireland. The first half of the volume is instead dedicated instead to ancient Rome and Cahill detailing why it was the most awesome civilization ever. I'm personally not all that enamored with ancient Rome, so this was an unpleasant bait and switch for me. (Cahill's arguments - hey, at least they weren't ancient Greece, with all the pederasty, amirite - did not do much to move me.)

Most of the second half of the book was dedicated to a mini-biography of St. Patrick, he whom Cahill credits with single-handedly saving Western civilization through the introduction of Christianity to its "warrior children" (as Cahill repeatedly and condescendingly labels the Celts). Ireland is important only so far as it provided mainland European monks a far-flung place to settle and transcribe books relatively unmolested by Goths and Vandals and what have you; while there were some notable Irish monks, the Irish as a whole are generally viewed as stupid, uncultured savages who need the Real Europeans to keep them in line. Meanwhile, though St. Patrick does indeed seem an exceptional man who lived an extraordinary life, a) l'état c'est pas lui, b) he needs a full-length biography to really do his life justice, and c) I'm not sure I trust Cahill's account of his life. Cahill alludes, for example, to a few controversies concerning St. Patrick's life but fails to give us the full story - he simply papers over concerns with personal assurances that the worries are unfounded. I recall better biographies like Undaunted Courage, where Stephen Ambrose clearly has great admiration for Meriwether Lewis yet does not shy from detailing the few mistakes made in his command; he trusts that his reader can still respect a less-than-perfect human being and not see one mistake as irretrievably spoiling the whole. (Furthermore, I'm under the impression - and please correct me if I'm wrong here - that St. Patrick's legacy in Ireland is not looked upon as unilaterally beneficial nowadays, considering the bits of ancient Celtic religion his Christianity displaced; if so, Cahill completely elides any such complexity.)

Though How the Irish is short, I'm kind of surprised the Wireless crowd has the patience for it - it's poorly paced and doesn't get around to its main subject until the next-to-last chapter, which takes a very brief look at the inner workings of monasteries and how they actually went about preserving literature and artworks. I found this material quite interesting, but it wasn't long before Cahill moved on. This subject cries out for a more skilled author, yet I fear that this volume has become the definitive - if far from the most informative - treatment of the subject.

#45: Nemesis is long delayed sometimes, but it comes in the end.

nemesisI've read about ten Agatha Christie mysteries so far, but Nemesis was my first Miss Marple. Like a favorite fussy grandma, it takes a bit to get around to the point, on both a micro and macro level: the lead character herself can be easily distracted for a page or so by a stray remembrance of a deceased neighbor, a remiss errand, or an unhelpful nurse, while the plot takes a good long time to get into gear. It opens with Miss Marple (at length) noticing the death of a wealthy gentleman with whom she ahd struck up a quick friendship on a recent trip; later, she receives notice from his lawyers that said friend has posthumously requested her assistance, to be repaid with substantial financial remuneration, on a matter whose details remain completely undisclosed. Marple takes the case but remains in the dark, following mysterious instructions left behind by Rich Friend with no clue as to their purpose. Her first assignment is to join a homes & gardens tour group, of all things, and while several of her fellow tourists seem fishy, Marple has no idea what her late friend wishes her to see or investigate.

Eventually, the vagueness becomes a problem; the "what do we do now?" portion of the proceedings extends too long, and when the trip fetches up into Rich Friend's apparent intended destination, the narrative kind of bogs down, as the locale is unintriguing. Meanwhile, keeping track of the twenty or so different tour members is kind of a pain, and I passed much of the beginning-middle section in a miasma, unaware of what was really going on. Matters eventually fall into focus, but while the mystery's not disrespectable, it's a little too easy to figure out what's going on - though modern readers might have an easier time of it than ones contemporary to the novel's 1970 release date. There is a strong scene where Marple, frail and in bed, proves more than the equal of a hale and murderous opponent through sheer inner strength - but there're also bits I gather are de rigeur for late Christie (Hallowe'en Party had them, too) where the author through character surrogates laments on the leniency we have toward criminals ever since that pesky psychology came into the judicial system, or how "girls...are far more ready to be raped nowadays than they used to be". Dammit, Agatha. Nemesis ain't horrible overall (despite the presence of above horrible comments), and one of the paperback covers provided me with a nice icon, but there're better stops you can make on your own Christie tour.

Books 173-175: The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins

Book 173: The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games #1).
Author: Suzanne Collins, 2008.
Genre: Science Fiction. Dystopian. Young Adult.
Other Details: Paperback. 454 pages.

In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. Each year, the districts are forced by the Capitol to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the Hunger Games, a brutal and terrifying fight to the death – televised for all of Panem to see.

Survival is second nature for sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who struggles to feed her mother and younger sister by secretly hunting and gathering beyond the fences of District 12. When Katniss steps in to take the place of her sister in the Hunger Games, she knows it may be her death sentence. If she is to survive, she must weigh survival against humanity and life against love.
- synopsis from publisher's website.

After finally watching the DVD of the film adaptation I realised that I needed to find out what happens next and so retrieved the trilogy from my TBR pile. I am glad I did as it was very enjoyable, fast-paced novel. Katniss' narration made me fall more in love with her as a character. I can now see why people have been so enthusiastic about the novel. I finished it in a single sitting and moved on to 'Catching Fire' the next day.

Book 174: Catching Fire (The Hunger Games #2) .
Author: Suzanne Collins, 2009.
Genre: Science Fiction. Dystopian. Young Adult.
Other Details: Paperback. 472 pages.

The nature of the story means it is almost impossible to say too much about the plot of the second and third books in the trilogy without spoilers. Having said that I was quite impressed in terms of the twist Collins introduced that ensured an even greater level of threat to her protagonists than in 'The Hunger Games'. The political underpinnings of the society are explored in more detail and the use of human suffering as entertainment and control also highlighted. After reading this trilogy I'm not sure I could watch reality shows with quite the same sense of them being 'mostly harmless'.

While 'Catching Fire' had a fairly slow start it was quite deceptive though gave me the opportunity to my breath before piling on the action and shocks right up to the last page. I am glad that I came to this series after the books were all published as it would have been agony to wait a year for the final instalment.

Book 175: Mockingjay (The Hunger Games #3).
Author: Suzanne Collins, 2010.
Genre: Science Fiction. Dystopian. Young Adult.
Other Details: Paperback. 455 pages.

In the final novel I felt that Katniss' narration did not serve the story as well as it did in the first two as quite a few events took place outside of her experience and the stress of the situation she finds herself in impacts a lot upon her state of mind. I'm not sure if this is why I didn't feel it quite as compelling as the first two in the trilogy. It was still quite a powerful story and I could appreciate its popularity for both young adults and older readers. There was a satisfying sense of completion to it.

I am glad that I bought the trilogy in a matched set as I felt its cover artwork was very striking.

Scholastic Press Official Website for 'The Hunger Games' - there is a video for each book and links to sample chapters.