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Mr. S. D. Halliday "Assistant Professor of Economics" (Northampton, MA, USA)

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Everything is Illuminated
Everything is Illuminated
by Jonathan Safran Foer
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

3.0 out of 5 stars Funny, but trying in parts, 18 Jun 2009
Previously, I read Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and I thought it fantastic. Consequently, I read Foer's books in reverse order. I did not enjoy Everything is Illuminated as much as I had hoped I would.

The author conjures three different wisps of a story: the first involves letters sent from Alex, a Ukrainian teenager working in his father's tour business, to Foer. The second comprises Alex's recounting of Foer's quest to discover his grandfather's origins in the shtetl of Trachimbrod. These two strains succeed well, driven mainly by Alex's strange yet systematic errors in English because of his abuse of a thesaurus. As Alex comments, "I fatigued the thesaurus you presented me, as you counseled me to, when my words appeared petite, or not befitting." The third strain didn't appeal to me at all. Foer tries to invoke a kind of magical realist history of Trachimbrod, of his grandfather, and of his ancestors. I found it weak. I inevitably wanted to read past these sections to arrive at the sections when Alex wrote his letters, or wrote his own stories for Foer. The third strain made it seem like Foer was trying to be clever, trying to ruminate too obviously on themes of memory, dream, and sexuality. Consequently, I did not enjoy Everything is Illuminated as much as I enjoyed Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

That said, in conversing with my wife about this book we found the humour and poignancy conveyed by Alex's sections to have achieved their intentions - we both laughed out loud while reading Alex's sections of the book. I would have given this book four stars had I not become so annoyed with the sections on Trachimbrod's history.

The Writing Life
The Writing Life
by Annie Dillard
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.50

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful, fulfilling, but not an instruction manual, 18 Jun 2009
This review is from: The Writing Life (Paperback)
Annie Dillard, author of several fiction and non-fiction books, has been recommended to me numerous times by many authors, the first of which was Deirdre McCloskey in her Economical Writing. As with many things, intention finally met reality and I was content.

Dillard meditates on the processes of writing, doing so without sentimentality or harshness. She imparts the lore of writing, showing the toil required to obtain quality: the labour to unearth the ore, the vision to ensure its purity, the sweat of crafting and re-crafting.

The book enchanted me, it compelled me to read it. I was meant to be studying for exams or to be writing myself, but instead I began to read it. It was not difficult - I used it as a break time pleasure. The book is slim, it curves alluringly in your hand when you read it. It demands to be read. I had about ten pages to go while I was in bed reading, but I realised that in my fatigue I was missing some of the rhythms, losing the lyric in the prose. I put it aside until the next morning when I sat outside to read the last few pages in the morning sun. What a pleasure. What a joy. What a reminder of the burden and the privilege of writing.

One caveat for those who might misconstrue the title, the blurb, or the other reviews. This book is not an instruction manual. Dillard does not delineate the 'rules' of writing, or provide advice to the novice author. She documents her processes, the events that affected her writing, and the conversations that catalysed changes in her thoughts or perceptions of the world and of writing. Do not buy this book if you want a 'do's and 'don't's of writing.

Writing About Your Life: A Journey into the Past
Writing About Your Life: A Journey into the Past
by William Zinsser
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.21

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Pleasure and Edification, 18 Jun 2009
With Writing About Your Life - a pleasurable and instructional book - Zinsser brandishes his skill with words, while exposing the practice required to hone such skill. He focuses on writing memoir. He maps the challenges you face when writing a memoir and he provides tactics to avoid common problems, to improve your focus, and to clarify your intentions. He makes a case study of several texts along the way, drawing on his own writing and his experiences interviewing other writers such as Frank McCourt, Annie Dillard, Toni Morrison, and many others. The book is well-rounded, incorporating Zinsser's peculiar take on a life lived well, on God, on writing as career and passion, and on appreciation of commonplace beauty. This is the second book by Zinsser that I've read and I plan to read his other books. In particular, he refers to a book he edited, Inventing the Truth: Art and Craft of Memoir, in which several writers contribute their opinions and advice on writing memoir (including those authors listed above), which I now intend to read.

I am not centrally interested in writing memoir, but I am motivated, for personal pleasure, to write semi-autobiographical fiction and biography of my extended family. Zinsser's Writing About Your Life contributes valuably to that pursuit as much as it does to memoir-writing because many of the same strategies and insights remain true. Moreover, the strategies would hold for poetry in which I might choose to focus on those close to me: getting the facts right, keeping the images accurate and concrete, evoking the sound, smell, and sense of a place, or a person makes all the difference in the condensed purity of a poem. Most crucially, Zinsser advocates writing honestly and without judgment, or, if you choose to judge those about whom you write, then do so humbly and forgivingly. He laments the plethora of memoir-cum-attacks written in the 90s when people profited off of the pain of their families, with Jerry Springer-inspired TV action to promote their books. He argues that this kind of memoir is best left behind. Write honestly, faithfully, and forgivingly (of yourself and others) and you will have a beautifully written book.

I saw upon searching online for Writing About Your Life that Zinsser has a new book, Writing Places, which was published on June 1st in the UK. I will probably wait for the paperback to be released, before I read it. I will review it and tell you whether it lives up to his previous standards of writing.

Beethoven: Piano Trios - "Archduke" & "Ghost"
Beethoven: Piano Trios - "Archduke" & "Ghost"
Price: £6.99

28 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Phenomenal - one of the best trios, 6 Jun 2009
I have several recordings of Beethoven's Archduke and Ghost trios. This recording by the Beaux Arts Trio cannot be contested as the best recording of those that I have heard. They play effusively, yet are reserved when the music demands it. Their touch is light, yet potent. Pressler's piano is superb, and Cohen and Greenhouse's strings complement the piano so considerately that you feel you are aurally witnessing the most intimate of conversations, which then grow, burst out and enrapture you.

If you are a novice to classical music then this CD makes beautiful listening and a good introduction to Beethoven's chamber music.

Children Of Dune [DVD]
Children Of Dune [DVD]
Dvd ~ Alec Newman

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Better than the Dune Mini-series, 6 Jun 2009
This review is from: Children Of Dune [DVD] (DVD)
A much better contribution than the Dune TV series, Children of Dune has high quality acting, decent direction, and a beautifully composed sound track. If you are a fan of the books, then they capture some of the essence of Herbert, while also creating an independent film that is worthwhile in its own right. Although the effects (relative to, say, the Battlestar Galactica miniseries) are not phenomenal, they are still of a sufficiently high quality to add to the ambience and to supplement the storyline well.

James McAvoy and Jessica Brooks act the twins well, capturing both their closeness and the strange frisson of attraction that exists because they are pre-born and their parents inhabit them. Ian McNeice is on top form as the Baron Harkonnen. I expected more, however, of Susan Sarandon. I thought that Alia could have been better cast. Brian Tyler's Children Of Dune sound track is really phenomenal, and I would recommend buying it purely for the Inama Nushif track (the montage track toward the end of the first episode of the miniseries).

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it has a solid place in my collection next to the DVDs of the Dune miniseries.

A People's History of the United States: A Lecture at Reed College
A People's History of the United States: A Lecture at Reed College
by Howard Zinn
Edition: Audio CD
Price: £8.33

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Power of Collective Action, 30 May 2009
Howard Zinn set out to produce an alternative representation of the history of the United States in this landmark, and rather (in)famous book. (Some) Conservatives detest it. Leftists (tend to) love it. That said, some of his most vociferous critics are on the left. Zinn makes the point that most histories are often about Big Men, normally White and Christian. But, there have been many other big people involved, women, men, black, white, hispanic, native American, LGBT, and more. He believes that a great gap exists in most American histories of the activities of the 'people' qua public, and that many historians ignore collective action as a driver of change. I sympathise with this view. As much as single people matter, there are many who fall by the wayside having done their bit, others who continue to work in the shadows, who write (and send!) letters, raise money, carry placards, and generally show their discontent with the status quo.

What makes the book even better is that Zinn is quite up front about the failings of the book, he knows and admits that he predominantly ignores the 'big people' (though he recognises their occasional follies and successes). Zinn admits too that in earlier editions of the book he didn't pay sufficient attention to LGBT people and to their suffering, their mass movements. But, having done so, he gives us access to a story of collective action and mobilisation that is remarkable, and that distinguishes the book from many other histories that I have read. The audiobook only covered the second half of the print book, which focused on the 20th century and its movements in the US.

What made the audiobook even more enjoyable was that Matt Damon read it, and he was a better reader than I expected him to be - the Harvard dropout continues to entertain and learn it seems. Anyway, I would definitely recommend this book, but with a caveat, make sure you read (or listen to) other histories of the US that focus on the 'big men' (mostly DWMs), or histories that provide more conservative views on the country and its peoples. With History, who tells and what they tell as a consequence are very important. If you have only read 'big people' and conservative histories, then be sure to read this as an important complement.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 4, 2010 6:34 PM GMT

by Sebastian Beaumont
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.93

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Easy and Intriguing - just what I needed, 30 May 2009
This review is from: Thirteen (Paperback)
I devoured Thirteen in two days. It was exactly the kind of book that I felt like reading when I read it. Good place, good time.

Anyway, Stephen Bardot, a taxi-driving, failed businessman reflects on the world while driving his taxi. The world, time, and space, however, seem to do strange things once he has reached a dreadful enough level of fatigue: plastic bags become rabbits in a sideways glance, a house, once there, disappears. But the people he meets in this alternative reality seem to be present in his own world, to be recognised by people he knows to be real, to be able to affect him in ways that he didn't believe possible. Having read it so quickly, I almost feel like I should go back and re-read it to see if there are clues I missed, hints dropped that I did not pick up.

One of the few things I did not like about it was the author's use of italics on words that did not I believe require them. The ways he constructed the sentences naturally gave the words emphasis, then he gave them additional emphasis with italics. I didn't get it, I don't get it.

The book was recommended to me by Amazon's 'you liked that book, you might like this one' algorithm. I like Haruki Murakami's work, and consequently Amazon recommended Beaumont's Thirteen. Have a look for it if you appreciate books combining the surreal with a psychological drama.

by Roberto Bolano
Edition: Hardcover

6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Unfinished, 30 May 2009
This review is from: 2666 (Hardcover)
I didn't finish it. I reached the second last section of the book and I couldn't read the phrase, 'She was anally and vaginally raped' any more. I understand that Bolano tried to depict the different hues of corruption - personal, political, thematic, and others. But, I couldn't find the will to continue reading. This didn't worry me too much. I enjoyed the second and third sections of the book, but the first and the fourth? No. I didn't get to the fifth. I also believe that the book generally required more serious editing, it required someone to examine it, cut it, shape it. Bolano didn't live long enough to do it himself. I believe that the point (as much as it could be isolated) could have been conveyed in many fewer words and with more grace. I can neither recommend nor discourage the reading of 2666 - any pleasure from this one is probably (and largely) intellectual. It wasn't enough for me. I admit that I was disappointed after all the hype. Oddly enough, from the reviews I read it seemed much better received in the US than it was in the UK.

The Right Stuff
The Right Stuff
by Tom Wolfe
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

5.0 out of 5 stars The Best Stuff, 30 May 2009
This review is from: The Right Stuff (Paperback)
Whenever I mention this book to someone I seem to get the response, "It was such a great movie." Well, even if the movie was good, it can't be as good as the book.

Wolfe commands 'the long sentence' (OK not Joyce-length, but long enough) while maintaining rhythm and pace, and driving you on to whatever comes next. The Right Stuff retells the stories of US space flight's early days, of the worship of those who became astronauts, of how they came from flight jockey stock. Wolfe shows us how the astronauts' history motivated them to do as much as they could to incorporate piloting into the space program, when what many scientists wanted instead was rats pushing levers.

The book holds importance because of its relevance as an historical text, and because of its literariness. Wolfe's writing makes what might have been just a somewhat interesting story into a mythic tale of courage, training, perseverance, and 'the right stuff'. William Zinsser refers to the book in his On Writing Well, where he marvels at Wolfe's abilities with the long sentence. Zinsser quotes Wolfe as the exception to the 'brief and clear' general rule. Zinsser was correct, Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff is the exception that proves the rule.

Essays of E.B. White (Perennial Classics)
Essays of E.B. White (Perennial Classics)
by E.B. White
Edition: Paperback

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Moments captured, nature enshrined, and joy delivered, 30 May 2009
I have seldom come across a book of essays that I want to read, re-read and read yet again. E.B. White's collection left me wondering if I could ever construct a piece of writing, essay or otherwise, to compare to the worst (least good?) in this collection. I think it unlikely. His writing conjures clear and beautiful images. With detailed descriptions of sounds and moments he brings his experiences to the present, to the moment when you read the essay and find yourself immersed in New England, or New York, or Florida. I found so many quotes in the novel that I wrote down either in my journal or on scraps of paper, laughing all the while, intrigued and hoping I could find essays or articles into which I could insert his crystalline depictions of moments, sentiments, and behaviours. I cannot recommend this book enough: find it, read it, realise how your writing can improve having read it.

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