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Forty Stories
Forty Stories
by John Updike
Edition: Paperback

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Sad and beautiful stories of American suburbia, 28 Dec 2004
This review is from: Forty Stories (Paperback)
Updike's "40 Stories" is a selection of short stories taken from other compilations of short stories published between 1959 and 1972. It is the first Updike that I have read and I will definitely be reading more in the future.
The stories are (loosely) arranged to reflect the growth of their central characters. The first section ("Olinger Stories") concentrates on the pains of growing up, and the first exposure the sadnesses of the world, and to the confusions that dog our existence. The second section ("Out in the World") focuses on adolescence, and the rites of passage that attend the transition from childhood to adulthood. The final section ("Tarbox Tales") is a melancholy reflection on the disappointments of being an adult. The themes underpinning many of the stories in the book are religion and sex, but the collection delves much deeper than these, right into the heart of American life, which is made to seem both insane and mundane in equal measure. Updike gives the impression of someone ill at ease with his world, yet perfectly poised to chronicle his own sense of bewilderment and antipathy. The prose is beautiful and heartbreaking, and Updike seems to be both in love with the world and simultaneously let down by it. This is not an especially happy read, but it is not without hope. I am a big fan of short stories, and "Forty Stories" goes right to the top end of my list. It is beautiful and sad in equal measure, and Updike's prose is right up there with the best of twentieth century American writers. Definitely a strong recommendation from me.

by Joseph Heller
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An absurd masterpiece, 28 Dec 2004
This review is from: Catch-22 (Paperback)
Heller's 'Catch-22' is one of my favourite books, and probably the one I have read the most times in my adult life. It is a brilliant indictment of twentieth century life, an absurd masterpiece, touching and grotesque and, in places, very funny.
The book is set on the island of Pianosa in World War II, where Yossarian, a bombadier in the US Air Force, is trying his best to survive, and is labelled crazy for doing so. His squadron is peopled by a wonderful cast of characters, each of whom has their own approach to getting through the war, each of which seems equally crazy. Indeed 'crazy' is one of the most used words in the book, and the one that, by the end, we realise has least meaning. Everyone in the book has a unique way of approaching the problems facing them, and a unique way of assessing the success (or otherwise) of their aims. Yossarian stumbles through it all confused and frightened, but with a perspective as sane as anyone else. Although the story meanders (in both structure and time) Heller never loses sight of his objectives, and every chapter and story illustrate the madness perfectly.
This is not an anti-war novel, it is a novel about life, and how absurd it is however we try to get through it. It is also not a comic novel in the traditional sense. Heller often stressed that the humour was always there to make you think, not to make you laugh, although it frequently does both. Heller frequently makes you laugh then brings you down to earth with a jolt. The horrors of war (and of life) are never far away and the highs are always tinged with bitterness in a way that only truly great writing can manage. He is also not afraid of abandoning his absurd style for more disturbing images, such as Yossarian's walk through a foetid Rome in 'The Eternal City' or the final spilling of Snowden's secret, yet this is never done mawkishly or with over-sentimentality. This book gives you lots of reasons to despair, but some to hope, and many to laugh. It is epic in scope, unrelenting in its message and utterly wonderful. The twentieth century in 500 pages. Read it.

A Confederacy of Dunces (Penguin Modern Classics)
A Confederacy of Dunces (Penguin Modern Classics)
by John Kennedy Toole
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

13 of 28 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Farcical and pointless, 28 Dec 2004
The blurb for Toole's 'ACOD' promised a story about a man who was out of step with the 20th century, who eschewed its priorities and morals, and who refused to fit in with the wrong-headedness of modern life. This intrigued me because I have enjoyed many books in which the protagonist refuses to conform to the accepted norm ('Catch-22' springs immediately to mind). However, I was extremely disappointed.
The story is that of Ignatius Reilly, a work-shy layabout who lives in a perpetual squalor, longing for the return to a more medieval way of life in which the educated didn't have to get involved in vulgar work. He is forced to seek work to pay for damage his mother caused while drink driving. Reilly's inability to cope with the modern workplace results in a series of lost jobs, all in farcical circumstances. His naivety in interactions with others leads to his unwitting involvement in a pornography distribution racket, again with a typically farcical outcome. The book finishes with many of the seemingly random threads tying Reilly down becoming intertwined in the most improbable ways, and Reilly seeking safety in the pursuit he finds most vulgar of all: woman.
The problem I have with this book is that Reilly is an idiot. He is not a misunderstood genius, he is not born for another century, he is simply an idiot who screws up everything he tries to do. He lies and cheats, showing that he is perfectly capable of understanding his mistakes, of which he makes many. He doesn't try to avoid 20th century life because he doesn't understand it, but because he is lazy and misanthropic. This means that the whole book, rather than being about a man out of step with the world, becomes a farce in which a rather distasteful character blunders from one set piece to another in Frank Spencer-esque fashion. It is not clever in the slightest and, to be honest, given that it is just a comic novel with no depth, it is not even particularly funny. It is peopled by a cast of poor caricatures, none of whom is fleshed out enough to garner any sympathy whatsoever. I realise that much praise has been heaped on 'ACOD', but I'm afraid I just didn't see what the fuss was about. I didn't enjoy this book at all and, unless you are an aficionado of comic farces, I don't think that you will either.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 19, 2011 12:35 PM BST

by Eduardo Berti
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.60

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A novel approach to a novel, 13 Dec 2004
This review is from: Agua (Paperback)
'Agua' begins as the story of Luis Agua, a travelling advocate of the new invention of electricity. He comes to the Portuguese village of Vila Natal, where he becomes embroiled in the strange goings on of the occupants of the village castle, one of whom (Antunes) is recently deceased and the other (his widow, Fernanda) is trying to fulfil an awkward clause in his will in order to inherit her share of the wealth. As more characters are introduced, the truth behind the history of the castle and its wealth becomes murkier, and the very identity of the major characters is called into question.
This short plot description may sound hackneyed, and to a certain extent it is. Mysteries of family history are not uncommon things in literature. Berti's short book is set apart by its structure, rather than content. Although it is named after Luis Agua, the book is not his story. Initially we think that he is the protagonist, then the focus switches to Broyz, Fernanda's suitor. Just when we think that he is the important character, the story becomes that of Alma, the only servant willing to stay at the castle. Then the focus switches again, to Acevedo, an old family friend. The reader gradually realises that each of these has a role to play in the mystery of the castle, and by telling the story of each Berti builds a vision of Vila Natal that would be impossible (or unlikely) from the perspective of a single character.
Much as I admire Berti's attempt to steer away from a clichéd mystery, where a single sleuth gradually unearths clues that leads to the truth, the unusual structure of the book did detract from it for me. Although it meant that everything could be more plausible, it also meant that it was difficult to get stuck in to the story from the perspective of a single character. Without much empathy for any one individual, it became hard for me to care much about what was being revealed, and the unravelling of the mystery became a somewhat pedestrian retelling of an elaborate (though not unexpected) plot. Having said that, 'Agua' deserves a lot of credit for the unusual way in which the mystery is built up and eventually revealed. I just prefer a narrative that centres more on a single interesting character rather than skipping between many less distinctive ones. It is worth a read for its interesting approach, but the story itself failed to make much of an impression on me. Not one to rush out and buy, I think, but definitely one that is worth a look at if you get the opportunity.

The Consolation of Philosophy (Oxford World's Classics)
The Consolation of Philosophy (Oxford World's Classics)
by Boethius
Edition: Paperback

6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An amateur's opinion, 18 Nov 2004
I have been an interested amateur when it comes to philosophy for a while, an interest which mostly manifests itself in reading the odd popular text book or Umberto Eco novel. When I came across a reference to Boethius' 'TCOP' I was sufficiently intrigued to give it a go.
Boethius' was prominent in the court of Theodoric, probably the most powerful man in western Europe following the end of the Roman Empire in c.500 AD. However, Theodoric had Boethius locked up (probably unfairly) as he became paranoid that the Eastern Empire was plotting to overthrow him. 'TCOP' was written in prison by Boethius to explain why he, a good Christian, had apparently been abandoned by Fortune and God, and left to die by execution (which he eventually did). It takes the form of a dialogue between Boethius and Philosophy, in which the latter explains the workings of God and his system of rewards and punishments, and why it doesn't always match up to Man's expectations.
The introduction does an excellent job of framing the political, religious and philosophical milieu of the time, explaining both why Boethius ended up where he did and the belief system (neo-platonism) that his dialogue is rooted in, priming the reader to understand everything that follows. However, I think that it would not be accessible without a little knowledge of early medieval philosophy, meaning that this is not a good place to start if you are interested. I don't know much, though, and I got on just fine. This part of the book gets a big thumbs-up. Unforunately, the dialogue itself doesn't. Criticising it as a piece of literature, rather than philosophy, I found it a little dull. It is not really a dialogue, so much as a monologue by Philosophy punctuated by the odd 'I see now' from Boethius. It is interesting to see the logic used at the time, but this is a rather dry account, probably because the two people involved in the dialogue agree with each other more-or-less entirely, which always makes for dull conversation. It is only short, and not particularly a struggle to read, so I wouldn't discourage anyone from giving it a go, I just won't be rushing back to read it again.

by Umberto Eco
Edition: Unknown Binding
Price: £15.67

4.0 out of 5 stars A nother great big lie from Umberto Eco, 30 Sep 2004
This review is from: Baudolino
'Baudolino' is the story of one man's story. Baudolino is a traveller from Italy who winds up in Constantinople as it is being sacked by Christian pilgrims from the west. He meet Niketas, a local historian, and starts to recount his life story, an improbable tale that takes him from the swamps of northern Italy to the court of the Emperor Frederick, to Paris, the orient and finally Constantinople itself. On his journey Baudolino seems to play a part in almost every major event in twelfth century Europe, including Frederick's wars in Italy, the finding and losing of the holy grail, the forging of the shroud of Turin, the writing of Dante's 'Divine Comedy', the creation of the myth of Prester John, the discovery of John the Baptist's head and the death of the Emperor. Everything we learn about Baudolino we learn from his conversation with Niketas, and the only thing we can be sure of is that Baudolino is a liar.
'Baudolino' is a wonderfully clever book, as is everything of Eco's that I've read. The story contains layers of falsehood that leave the reader, and all the characters involved, struggling to work out the true story, if there is one at all. This is a theme that has cropped up in 'The Name of the Rose' and 'Foucault's Pendulum', but here it is the focus of the whole book. Firstly, Baudolino is constantly referred to as a liar by other characters (and himself) establishing his lack of trustworthyness. Then some of the lies become reality, such as the myth of Prester John's kingdom, which Baudolino spends years searching for, despite the fact that he made most of it up in Paris. This journey is studded with fantastical encounters with mythical creatures, clearly made up by Baudolino. Then there is the possibility that the whole thing is a lie, told to Niketas by Baudolino, and none of it need have occurred at all. And finally we have the grand liar himself, Umberto Eco, winking at us from the final pages. It is an exploration of the interaction between myth, storytelling, the modern novel and how lies become the truth, and is constructed in a very clever, scholarly and thought provoking way.
Although I am a big fan of Eco, none of his books have quite succeeded in blending history, philosophy and a good story as well as his debut 'The Name of the Rose'. This is no exception, and the story meanders somewhat aimlessly across a medieval european landscape, serving more as a device to introduce ideas and scenarios than as the point of the book itself. I think that a lot of readers will find this frustrating, as there is no real storyline to follow, and no real narrative crescendo at the end. As usual, Eco doesn't make many concessions to any lack of knowledge on the reader's part, meaning that some awareness of medieval philosophy and religion is probably very helpful for understanding what is going on. If this puts you off at all, then I think that you should leave this book well alone. As far as I am concerned, it is another top drawer effort from one of the masters of cerebral (if not accessible) literature.

For the Good of the Cause
For the Good of the Cause
by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting dissection of a goood short story, 26 Sep 2004
'FTGOTC' contains a single of Solzhenitsyn's short stories, and it wasn't until after buying the book that I realised it was one that I had read elsewhere, in 'Stories and Prose Poems' to be precise. However, this wasn't as much of a disappointment as you might think, because the introduction and appendix gave me a whole new perspective on Solzhenitsyn and his struggle in post-Stalinist Russia, and the story itself.
The story is very simple, as with all his prose that I have read. A group of schoolchildren have worked tirelessly to build themselves a new technical college, because the old one has become cramped and dilapidated. However, as they finally prepare to move in, they find that the local government have reassigned the new building to a new national institute instead. There is some implied shady dealing from Khabalygin, the man who has promised the building to the technical college, but stands to gain from the institute. There is also the appearance of block-headed bureaucracy in the shape of Knorozov, a local official.
The story was written and set in the USSR after Kruschev had renounced Stalinism in favour of less centralised government. However, Solzhenitsyn's story suggests that these reforms hadn't been entirely successful, and contrasts the Leninist approach of the teachers and Grachikov (which could be summarised as being for 'the good of the people') and the more Stalinist approach of Knozorov and the bureaucrats ('for the good of the cause'). It was for this assertation, that Kruschev's USSR was not as Leninist as it claimed, and had failed to repudiate its Stalinist heritage, that Solzhenitsyn got into trouble with the authorities.
The introduction to the story gives a brief outline of Solzhenitsyn's life and work, before giving a historical sketch of the controversy surrounding this story in particular, including reference to a printed debate about it in the Soviet literature. The appendix actually reproduces these letters. I found this valuable for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it helped put the story in perspective, giving a contemporary Soviet perspective view of how literature and ideology interact. Secondly, it shows how the debate was carried out in public, which wasn't quite as draconian or secretive as I had imagined.
In short, the story itself is a very well written comment on 1960s USSR. If you want to read it along with other of his classic short stories, then buy 'Short Stories and Prose Poems', and not this book. If, however, you prefer a single short story to be very nicely explained, dissected and put into context 'For the Good of the Cause' is a very good place to go.

The Sorrows of Young Werther (Classics)
The Sorrows of Young Werther (Classics)
by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

10 of 29 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Overwrought and unbelievable, 24 Sep 2004
'TSOYW' is touted as being one of Europes first tragic novels. It follows the story of Werther's love for Lotte, a love that is doomed to be unfulfilled because she is marrying another man and, though she loves Werther in return, her feelings are less passionate than his. Werther's growing passion is mirrored by his growing hopelessness and his increasingly obsessive behaviour, and he spirals towards despair and suicide.All of this is recorded in a series of letters written by Werther and, latterly, by the reports of a local official.
Unfortunately this book completely failed to move me, and any initial sympathy I felt towards Werther was lost as the florid and romanticised prose stretched all credulity regarding his state of mind. His feelings on meeting and falling in love with Lotte are well told, and do have a tragic beauty about them. The realisation of falling in love and the silly behaviour that follows will be recognisable to many people. However, when these feelings become darker, as Werther realises that he has no hope, his letters become overwrought with ridiculously flowery prose that reads more like a poet trying to write about a glorious romantic suicide than a young man actually experiencing one. I found it utterly unbelievable, and subsequently lost interest in Werther and the book. The final few days are strung out into an eternity of romantic musings which, again, was more like an attempt at poetry than he thoughts of a dying man. Immature as it may sound, I really was wishing that he would just get on with it.
I'm sure that this book has an important place in European literature and, correctly in context, is a classic, but its content was completely unbelievable and its style lost me, and I won't be reading it again anytime soon.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 5, 2010 8:27 PM GMT

Pedro Páramo (Five Star)
Pedro Páramo (Five Star)
by Juan Rulfo
Edition: Paperback

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Truly haunting, 22 Sep 2004
I think that the word 'haunting' is an overused cliche when it comes to describing books, but it could have been invented for 'Pedro Paramo'. The story initially follows Juan Preciado, who has been sent by his dying mother to see the father he has never met: Pedro Paramo. Preciado journeys to Comala, the town where his father lived. When he arrives there he finds a village of the damned, full of dead souls unable to find peace. Through his interactions with these spirits, he learns of his father's monstrous past, and how his actions have led to the townspeople being repeatedly refused absolution by priests and bishops, resulting in their purgatorial state.
The book requires a lot of concentration. The narration slips between present and past events, and narrators frequently interchange, so that it can be hard to follow whose story you are currently reading. Despite its length (100+ pages) I wouldn't describe it as an easy read. However, this structure is one of the strengths of the writing, because it adds a very ghostly, surreal air to the narrative, and as a reader I felt like I was drifting through the events in Comala, becoming one of the spirits haunting the town. The spirit of damnation pervades the book, and it is relentlessly grim. Again, this purgatorial feeling enhances, not diminishes, the narrative, in my opinion, creating one of the most atmospheric books I have read. The reader is invited to look down on a vision of hell, full of characters who you feel have earned their damnation. Because of all this, it is not what I would describe as a particularly fun read, but I wouldn't hesitate to recommend 'Pedro Paramo' as a beautiful and haunting piece of literature.

Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid (Picador Classics)
Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid (Picador Classics)
by Malcolm Lowry
Edition: Paperback

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Unpolished but still excellent, 19 Aug 2004
'Dark as the Grave...' is one of Lowry's many unfinished novels, which were intended to be combined into a seven book opus detailing his life. Sadly, only 'Under the Volcano' was finished and published from his later work. 'Dark as the Grave...', published long after Lowry's death in unfinished form, shows why this was a literary tragedy. It is a fictionalised autobiography in which Lowry (under the guise of Sigbjorn Wilderness) returns to the Mexican town in which he had nearly destroyed himself a decade earlier (the events described in 'Under the Volcano'). He makes the journey ostensibly to show his new wife the scenes described in his book, but it soon becomes apparent that he is battling to prevent himself slipping back into the alcoholism and self-destruction that he had left Mexico to escape. Like the Consul in 'Under the Volcano', Wilderness is forced to choose (again) between self-destruction and redemption.
'Dark as the Grave...' reads very much as a sequel to 'Under the Volcano', so the most obvious comment is don't read this book without having read the other first. There are so many references to that book, and the events that it describes, that I suspect it would make little sense without some knowledge of it. Having said that, 'Dark as the Grave...' is an excellent book, full of the humour and despair that Lowry does so well. It is, in places, rambling and messy, as you might expect from an unfinished book, but a dark, apocalyptic style is very much in evidence. The mystical, diabolic elements are all here (such as the search for the angelic Martinez and the meeting with the demonic Stanford, which becomes a metaphor for Wilderness' trip to Mexico) which lend gravitas to one man's drunken battle with his past. In short, everything in Lowry's writing that made 'Under the Volcano' a classic can be found here, and this book is almost as good. Don't be put off by the label 'unfinished', because the narrative is complete and the book makes sense as a complete piece. I think that 'unpolished' would be more accurate than 'unfinished'. If you liked 'Under the Volcano' then 'Dark as the Grave...' is definitely a book you should try. If you haven't read 'Under the Volcan' then don't read this one just yet.

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