Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

In New York August 1974, a man is tightrope walking between the newly built Twin Towers. At the same time the lives of strangers are going on below and include a radical Irish monk working in the Bronx, a Upper East Side housewife reeling from the death of her son, a drug-addled young artist and a prostitute who is trapped in her situation. The novel uses the chapters to focus on each character as each of their lives ‘spin’ towards each other.
Let the Great World Spin is a great read, the author manages to tie up all the various threads in each of the storylines without making the novel seem forced or contrived. The characters all carried their own burdens and the life’s of the rich, poor and tragic are well drawn without being sentimental. The author does not try to deliberately pull on the readers heart-strings or push some kind of agenda (which given the characters and setting would be very easy to do) but instead lets the lives’ and the stories play out and the characters fall where they fall.

Overall while it’s not a novel that I would read again, it was very enjoyable and I would read more of this authors work.
Verdict 4/5
Posted by Jess

Thursday, 22 March 2012

The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy

Not all of Tolstoy's works were the size of War & Peace as this rather short novella demonstrates. The Kreutzer Sonata begins with a man on a train (because most Russian novels have to involve a train ride at some point) telling the story of his marriage to a rather shocked passenger. The whole affair turns out to be a melodramatic, dark little tale about a couple that can't live with each other but then can’t seem to live without each other either.
Jealousy and lust dominate the bitter marriage of the protagonist and of course it’s not going to end well at all. The story takes the couple down a more and more tragic route before leading to the eventual violence which is described in quite a vivid way.

Tolstoy manages to stick in his views on marriage in general (bitter much!) which now seem outdated from a modern perspective (only men have sex drives apparently) Unfortunately I fear that Tolstoy wanted the reader to come away from this having learned some kind of lesson and if this is the case then the reader should promptly ignore it, but if you like your fiction tragic and dark there is still a lot to be gained by reading this.
Posted by Jess

Sunday, 18 March 2012

My Antonia by Willa Cather

I’d seen My Antonia featured on several lists of ‘best American fiction’ so decided to give it a read. It was my first Willa Cather book and I picked it up knowing little about it.

My Antonia is difficult to define. Some might say it’s a book about growing up, about love, romance or maybe relationships. Personally I see it as all four tied together in the barren setting of 19th century provincial Nebraska. The story focusses on the lives of the people who live in or near the small prairie town of Black Hawk, in particular the narrator, Jim Burden. The Antonia of the title is Antonia Shimerda, a Bohemian immigrant who settles at a farm in Black Hawk with her family.
There are many characters, all interesting and compelling in their own way. Some are written about in more detail than others but there are no weak spots in this respect, some characters come and go but all of them have a story to tell.

The book is bursting with nostalgia not just for a childhood spent but about the older, simpler days on the frontier. I was utterly taken in by the story which is in turns sad and uplifting (just like life which it reflects so well) there is plenty of excitement intermingled with moments of prose and reflection which I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

The book is short but I found it felt like it was much longer, this isn’t a criticism but rather saying that Cather created such a rich, detailed and enthralling book that you feel it lasts longer than it does. I still don’t know how she managed to squeeze in so much content in such an unhurried way.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say it is a masterpiece and now a firm favourite.


PS Jess has asked me to put in a line letting you know that we have finally worked out how to remove the new word verification used by blogger

Friday, 9 March 2012

We'll be back...

Hi folks,

We're off on holiday to Wales for a week so we won't be blogging until our return. We will have limited internet access so we'll keep up to date with other literary blogs.

Chris and Jess

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Green Hills of Africa by Ernest Hemingway

When Hemingway wrote Green Hills of Africa he was already an established writer with seven books under his belt. This work is said to be autobiographical with Hemingway himself asserting at the beginning of the book ‘Unlike many novels, none of the characters or incidents in this book is imaginary’. However Hemingway was notorious for exaggerating or encouraging exaggeration of his own achievements in order to build up the masculine imagery surrounding his persona. He mentions this himself during the book when his fellow huntsmen tease him about his bragging.

Arguably the main subject of this short read is hunting, with Hemingway chronicling the events of an African hunting trip he took with his then wife in 1933, which some modern readers will find unpalatable. I didn’t think the hunting would bother me but at times I was aware of the sheer senselessness of the activity particularly when Hemingway was butchering rhinos and lions for no other reason that the thrill of the chase and the trophy at the end of it. Hemingway himself said that he never felt bad about killing the animals but he didn’t like making them suffer.
The book is slow to get started and I didn’t find what I considered to be a classic Hemingway line until about halfway through the book but it does pick up the pace towards the end. The story moves at a reasonable speed but I felt at times it could have been more interesting. Ultimately I found Hemingway’s prose and observations about his own state of mind more enthralling than the slaughter of (largely) defenceless animals.

There are sadder, seedier sides to the book and fans of Hemingway will not be surprised to read that alcohol is an ever present apparition and it isn’t long before Hemingway the hunter is knocking back the beers whilst at camp, on his way back to camp and even while still on the trail of his quarry. I’m not surprised when he states at times he needs four or five attempts to kill his prey, it can’t be easy shooting when drunk. I think it was very telling, and tragic, that Hemingway wrote about beer with more love, affection and attention to detail than his own wife.

There is some racism and Hemingway does take a sexist attitude towards his then wife Pauline Pfeiffer who, for some obscure reason, he refers to throughout the book as P.O.M (Poor Old Mama) and behaves in a patronising, dismissive manner towards her calling her ‘little woman’ but it is important to keep it in perspective and remember the book was written in 1935, not exactly the most enlightened period in history.  

Overall I enjoyed it but I wouldn’t recommend it as a first Hemingway book.
Final verdict 3/5

By Chris

Monday, 5 March 2012

Evelina by Frances Burney

Frances Burney was an English novelist and playwright and is well known for inspiring Jane Austen. Evelina was first published in 1778 and while her novels were very popular during her lifetime, her diaries which detailed eighteenth-century life were more favored by critics and are still used by scholars.  William Makepeace Thackeray is reported to have drawn on her diaries, while writing the Waterloo sections of Vanity Fair.
Evelina is a young girl who has been brought up in the country away from society, at 17 she is suddenly introduced into London and the novel follows her na├»ve misunderstandings and adventures. I can certainly see similarities with Austen’s work and indeed I would say that anyone who enjoys one would enjoy the other, but if I were to compare I would say that Austen is much tamer.

Large parts of Evelina read almost like a tourist guide to eighteenth-century London or Bath. How society works, who you should reject or accept a dance from, the places to go and what to do once you get there are all detailed as Evelina describes her first experiences of this world. This works wonderfully for a modern reader as we are not left to assume anything or need any knowledge of that time period or society.
However while Austen’s high society may act (with mostly) perfect decorum and manners, Burney’s world portrays one where some men will act like complete predators with only one thing on their mind fully taking advantage of woman and their positions. While Burney is very careful to control her characters and to not let things go too far, it says a lot for the women in the novel who has to hang onto their self-respect and reputations in the face of shocking sexism, unwanted sexual advances and in one case blatant cruelty.

There are some very funny moments and the romantic arc all comes right in the end as expected but it’s the comments on the treatment of women and the insight into that society that will ensure I read more of Francis Burney.

Posted by Jess

Saturday, 3 March 2012

The Double by Jose Saramago

While watching a rented video, Tertuliano Maximo Afonso is shocked to notice that one of the extras in the film is identical to him in every physical detail. Unable to forget this actor he embarks on a secret quest to find his double which takes both Afonso and his doppelganger down some dark paths, leading each one to question ‘who is real and who is the copy’.

After reading Blindness I was fully prepared for Saramago’s style of writing which is dense, large parts are written as a stream of consciousness and there are few paragraphs breaks and no quotation marks. The result is conversational and witty although I did find that because The Double is not nearly as plot driven as Blindness it did drag in some parts.

The appeal of Saramago for me are his ideas and the concepts he attempts to convey. The double is a great concept and the mystery and the more philosophical aspects of the novel as well as the writing kept me engaged until the end. This may not be the easiest read but there are twists right up to the end and it played on my mind for weeks afterwards.


Posted by Jess