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Train Dreams
Train Dreams
by Denis Johnson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

5.0 out of 5 stars That time gone forever, 27 Feb. 2015
This review is from: Train Dreams (Paperback)
This novella which contrives to pack more into 115 pages than many a rambling, self-indulgent saga, captures the lives of Americans living on the harsh yet beautiful frontier of the north-western states in the first half of the twentieth century. The main character is Robert Grainier, a simple, semi-literate casual labourer who repairs railroad bridges and hauls forest timber. A brief period of personal happiness with an acre of land in the Moyea Valley, a wife and baby daughter, is destroyed by a ferocious forest fire. Yet, Grainger finds the dignity and resilience to rebuild a life which may seem insignificant, but forms part of the great wave of human effort to settle a continent. This is what gives an ostensibly sad book a note of optimism.

Although he spends most of his life in mourning, there are frequent touches of humour – comic scenes arise unexpectedly, as when he agrees to help a disreputable friend, who wants to assist a widow in moving house so he can lay hands on her money – , lurking superstitions about "wolf-girls" and touches of the surreal fed by the scale of the surrounding wilderness, contact with the local Kootenai Indians, and the nocturnal howling of wolves and coyotes, which Grainger begins to copy to gain a sense of release. There is a keen sense of nature, as when Grainger notices " it was full-on spring, sunny and beautiful. and the Moyea Valley showed a lot of green against the dark of the burn. The ground was healing....A mustard-tinged fog of pine pollen drifted through the valley when the wind came up".

The strength of the book lies in the quality of the clear and vivid prose, which struck me as poetical before I knew that the author has won prizes for his verse.

Here is a description of the aftermath of the fire, which you may appreciate if you have visited areas like the Yellowstone National Park:

“The world was gray, white, black and acrid, without a single live animal or plant, no longer burning yet still full of the warmth and life of the fire….he felt his heart’s sorrow blackened and purified, as if it were an actual lump of matter from which all of the hopeful, crazy thinking was burning away. He drove through a layer of ash deep enough, in some places, that he couldn’t make out the roadbed any better than if he’d driven through winter snows”.

I would place Denis Johnson on a par with Cormac McCarthy, but without the brutality.


Delicacy: Film Tie-in Edition
Delicacy: Film Tie-in Edition
by David Foenkinos
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.09

3.0 out of 5 stars The risks of happiness, 27 Feb. 2015
Beautiful Nathalie, whose kneecaps alone make men swoon, has an idyllic marriage to handsome high-flier François, a burgeoning career in her own right, and the sense of proportion to rise above the jealousy of work colleagues. What could go wrong? Yet, "Such happiness can make you afraid". Disaster inevitably strikes. The rest of this light romance is the tale of Nathalie first failing to come to terms with sudden bereavement, then finding unlikely happiness with a man whom her scandalised colleagues regard as totally unworthy.

There is plenty of wry humour in this story, and some moving insights into grief, as when Nathalie is struck by the placement of a book mark: the pages before belong to the time when François was still alive, those after to when he ceased to exist - to such a degree that she might have imagined him.

Although David Foenkinos seems capable of writing what you might call "literary fiction", he seems to be playing to the gallery here with some gimmicky formulae, such as interspersing the main text with short chapters, some only a sentence in length, by way of digression. For instance, after a passing reference to astrology, Chapter 34 is a list of Nathalie's small work team - most of whom we never meet - and their star signs. On another occasion, after a character has punched someone, a "chapter" gives us the result of one of Mohammed Ali's matches.

More serious charges are that the somewhat two-dimensional characters seem to fall in love out of lust or emotional neediness, and that the author tends to tell us what we should think about them rather than reveal it.

This is an easy read in French with some useful idioms, but if French were my native language, I would not wish to spend time on "La délicatesse", nor would I bother with it in translation. It has lent itself to a light-weight film starring Audrey Tautou, but the fact I cannot remember how its plot varies from the original book speaks volumes.


LA délicatesse
LA délicatesse
by David Foenkinos
Edition: Perfect Paperback
Price: £16.44

3.0 out of 5 stars The risks of happiness, 27 Feb. 2015
Beautiful Nathalie, whose kneecaps alone make men swoon, has an idyllic marriage to handsome high-flier François, a burgeoning career in her own right, and the sense of proportion to rise above the jealousy of work colleagues. What could go wrong? Yet, "ce bonheur pouvait faire peur". To make a drama out of such a blandly happy beginning, disaster inevitably strikes. The rest of this light romance is the tale of Nathalie first failing to come to terms with sudden bereavement, then finding unlikely happiness with a man whom her scandalised colleagues regard as totally unworthy.

There is plenty of wry humour in this story, and some moving insights into grief, as when Nathalie is struck by the placement of a book mark: the pages before belong to the time when François was still alive, those after to when he ceased to exist - to such a degree that she might have imagined him.

Although David Foenkinos seems capable of writing what you might call "literary fiction", he seems to be playing to the gallery here with some gimmicky formulae, such as interspersing the main text with short chapters, some only a sentence in length, by way of digression. For instance, after a passing reference to astrology, Chapter 34 is a list of Nathalie's small work team - most of whom we never meet - and their star signs. On another occasion, after a character has punched someone, a "chapter" gives us the result of one of Mohammed Ali's matches.

More serious charges are that the somewhat two-dimensional characters seem to fall in love out of lust or emotional neediness, and that the author tends to tell us what we should think about them rather than reveal it.

This is an easy read in French with some useful idioms, but if French were my native language, I would not wish to spend time on "La délicatesse", nor would I bother with it in translation. It has lent itself to a light-weight film starring Audrey Tautou, but the fact I cannot remember how its plot varies from the original book speaks volumes.


La Delicatesse
La Delicatesse
by David Foenkinos
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.90

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The risks of happiness, 27 Feb. 2015
This review is from: La Delicatesse (Paperback)
Beautiful Nathalie, whose kneecaps alone make men swoon, has an idyllic marriage to handsome high-flier François, a burgeoning career in her own right, and the sense of proportion to rise above the jealousy of work colleagues. What could go wrong? Yet, "ce bonheur pouvait faire peur". To make a drama out of such a blandly happy beginning, disaster inevitably strikes. The rest of this light romance is the tale of Nathalie first failing to come to terms with sudden bereavement, then finding unlikely happiness with a man whom her scandalised colleagues regard as totally unworthy.

There is plenty of wry humour in this story, and some moving insights into grief, as when Nathalie is struck by the placement of a book mark: the pages before belong to the time when François was still alive, those after to when he ceased to exist - to such a degree that she might have imagined him.

Although David Foenkinos seems capable of writing what you might call "literary fiction", he seems to be playing to the gallery here with some gimmicky formulae, such as interspersing the main text with short chapters, some only a sentence in length, by way of digression. For instance, after a passing reference to astrology, Chapter 34 is a list of Nathalie's small work team - most of whom we never meet - and their star signs. On another occasion, after a character has punched someone, a "chapter" gives us the result of one of Mohammed Ali's matches.

More serious charges are that the somewhat two-dimensional characters seem to fall in love out of lust or emotional neediness, and that the author tends to tell us what we should think about them rather than reveal it.

This is an easy read in French with some useful idioms, but if French were my native language, I would not wish to spend time on "La délicatesse", nor would I bother with it in translation. It has lent itself to a light-weight film starring Audrey Tautou, but the fact I cannot remember how its plot varies from the original book speaks volumes.


Wolf Hall [DVD]
Wolf Hall [DVD]
Dvd ~ Damian Lewis
Price: £16.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Fain would I rise ...., 26 Feb. 2015
This review is from: Wolf Hall [DVD] (DVD)
Henry Vlll's reign is one of the most intriguing periods in popular history but to appreciate Hilary Mantel's work requires a good understanding of the issues involved. The director Kosminsky has maintained her approach in providing little by way of explanation, and does not make clear the roles, let alone the names (which at least you get in the books), of many of the minor characters. The likely resultant confusion may well be more of a reason for viewers to turn off than the difficulty of identifying charaters in the flickering candlelight.

Kosminsky has managed to compress two quite hefty novels into six one hour episodes yet still maintain a slow pace because the books consist largely of description and Cromwell's internal reflections rather than action. The director has replaced descriptions with the use of authentic sets in Elizabethan dwellings like Montacute combined with painstaking attention to period detail - perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the series. Cromwell's thoughts have been handled with short flashbacks and the watchful, miss-nothing stares and glances of which Mark Rylance is a past master. Perhaps the puzzle as to what he is really thinking is part of the drama. Is he sizing Jane Seymour up as a malleable and hopefully fertile substitute for Anne Boleyn, or as a wife for himself, so that Henry's interest in the girl comes as a blow? Brilliant though he is, Rylance seems just too wiry, playful and sensitive to play the beefy, calculating brute we see emerging from the shadowy background of the famous Holbein portrait, but no doubt this is legitimate dramatic licence.

In a perhaps intentionally "stagy" film production, Kosminsky has been true to Mantel's interpretation of Cromwell, if anything developing some of the characters more clearly through his tighter format. So, we see Henry becoming a capricious tyrant, although his sense of vulnerability over the lack of a son evokes our sympathy, surrounded as he is by scheming nobles. Similarly, Anne Boleyn's vicious bitchiness is ever more obviously a cloak for her own insecurity and growing sense of panic with each miscarriage, and at the end she goes to her death with a dignity that commands respect. Cromwell himself appears more ruthless as the plot progresses, prepared to twist and fabricate evidence and showing vengeance in making victims of men against whom he has a grudge, such as the young noblemen who mocked his former master Wolsey so cruelly in a masked play. But he too has become trapped in his role as the King's fixer, with no real choice other than to do Henry's bidding. It was an unpleasant surprise to find Thomas More, the saintly "man for all seasons", portrayed as a cruel bigot in Mantel's book. If anything, Kosminsky makes him rather more sympathetic, greatly reducing the trial scene which forms the climax of the book, to focus more on the interplay between More and Cromwell: the former wearily unable to sacrifice his beliefs, even to regain his freedom and home comforts, the latter giving vent to a rare burst of real feeling to express his anger over More's own persecution of reformers, yet still privately regretting the demise of someone he has admired from his poverty-stricken boyhood, although the privileged More does not admit to remembering him from then at all.

I understand why the series has been so highly praised, but feel it would have made more of an impact in a feature-length film, or a two-parter, like the recent stage play. For me, Wolf Hall as a book has a contrived quality, a hollow heart, which is inevitably reflected in this filmed version.


Capital in the Twenty-First Century
Capital in the Twenty-First Century
by Thomas Piketty
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £25.39

3.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating topic, frustrating delivery, 23 Feb. 2015
The Industrial Revolution saw an increase in inequality resulting from increased capital accumulation by the wealthy. The economist Kuznets misread the evidence in arguing that an "advanced phase" of industry would lead to a more equal spread of wealth, for "the sharp reduction in income equality in rich countries between 1914-1945 was due to the violent economic and political shocks resulting from two world wars.... The resurgence of inequality after the1980s was due to political shifts as regards taxation and regulation of finance". Piketty aims to enhance his academic credentials by analysing and presenting a vast amount of data between 1700-2010 to explain the above more fully and to support his central thesis that there is no natural, spontaneous process to prevent destabilising, inegalitarian forces from prevailing permanently.

At first, the style seems very clear, well-translated, with minimal use of obscure formulae beloved by economists and graphs which relate to actual numbers on the axes rather than indicate trends, although Piketty admits that such complex data over long periods of time comes with many caveats. He tends to reiterate points, which apart from reinforcing learning helps readers who wish to dip into chapter sections. However, such repetition adds significantly to the length of the book.

Length seems a major problem. If I were an economics student, I would not wish to trawl through so much verbiage to glean the useful nuggets of knowledge. As a general reader, although the history of wealth distribution is quite interesting, I am most concerned about the final section on regulating capital, that is, the reduction of destabilising inequalities of wealth in this century. Here, I find the author skirting round the problem in a woolly and diffuse fashion, as in the single 25 page chapter (out of 577 pages, excluding notes) in which he considers aspects of "A Global Tax on Capital" which he introduces, not for the first time, as a utopian idea "which it is hard to imagine the nations of the world agreeing to any time soon". Other chapters in this section each go off at a tangent without being clearly related to the book's central theme of "capital", such as Chapter 14, "Rethinking the Progressive Income Tax" which is confined to examples from the US, France, Germany and Britain .

The author's heart is in the right place but since the arguments for redistribution are controversial, they need to be thought through and presented more strongly. A shorter book would have been more effective: the first part his research, the second his reasoned case. How many of the purchasers who made this a best-seller have actually read it?


To Kill A Mockingbird: 50th Anniversary Edition
To Kill A Mockingbird: 50th Anniversary Edition
by Harper Lee
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.49

4.0 out of 5 stars Not much left to learn except for algebra, 22 Feb. 2015
The better to appreciate Harper Lee's recently discovered prequel to this celebrated classic about life in segregated 1930s Alabama, I decided to reread it. I was surprised to find that the dramatic trial in which principled oddball lawyer Atticus Finch provides the convincing defence of a black man accused of rape, which only a prejudiced white jury could reject, forms a relatively small section of the novel.

I now see the book as a C20 female American writer's response to Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, for at its core lie the attempts of feisty tomboy Jean Louise, nicknamed Scout, to understand the contrary adult world in which people speak one way and act another and the confusing social divisions in the inward-looking, gossip-ridden, tightknit factions of the backwater community of Maybury. Some of the escapades of Scout and her brother Jem are entertaining, I was fascinated by the Southern turn of speech and vivid portrayal of small-town life in another age.

And yet, like some other recent reviewers, I was not impressed to the degree I had expected and hoped. The whole business of the childrens' obsession with catching sight of their reclusive neighbour Boo Radley becomes wearisome, although I admit that it proves relevant to the denouement - a tale which often seems clunkily plotted and rambling manages to pull the threads together for a satisfactory conclusion.

Although dealing with an adult subject, everything is seen from the perspective of a child between the ages of six and eight. Thus Scout frequently misconstrues the situation, which may be amusing for a more mature reader who is "in the know" although this can get tedious after a while. The problem for me is that, despite her fear of hot steam ghosts and penchant for sugar sandwiches, Scout often seems to have too precocious a grasp of vocabulary and thoughts too sophisticated for her age, which is a common problem with a first person narrative, although admittedly in this case there is the excuse that she is writing years after the event, able to put an adult construction on matters and to employ dramatic licence to recreate detailed conversations word for word.

So it is that I found the story funny and moving, yet at the same long-winded, corny and sentimental at some points and think that for the greatest impact it needs to be read for the first time by teenagers untroubled by the pros and cons of good creative writing.


To Kill a Mockingbird
To Kill a Mockingbird
by Harper Lee
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Not much left to learn except for algebra, 22 Feb. 2015
This review is from: To Kill a Mockingbird (Paperback)
The better to appreciate Harper Lee's recently discovered prequel to this celebrated classic about life in segregated 1930s Alabama, I decided to reread it. I was surprised to find that the dramatic trial in which principled oddball lawyer Atticus Finch provides the convincing defence of a black man accused of rape, which only a prejudiced white jury could reject, forms a relatively small section of the novel.

I now see the book as a C20 female American writer's response to Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, for at its core lie the attempts of feisty tomboy Jean Louise, nicknamed Scout, to understand the contrary adult world in which people speak one way and act another and the confusing social divisions in the inward-looking, gossip-ridden, tightknit factions of the backwater community of Maybury. Some of the escapades of Scout and her brother Jem are entertaining, I was fascinated by the Southern turn of speech and vivid portrayal of small-town life in another age.

And yet, like some other recent reviewers, I was not impressed to the degree I had expected and hoped. The whole business of the childrens' obsession with catching sight of their reclusive neighbour Boo Radley becomes wearisome, although I admit that it proves relevant to the denouement - a tale which often seems clunkily plotted and rambling manages to pull the threads together for a satisfactory conclusion.

Although dealing with an adult subject, everything is seen from the perspective of a child between the ages of six and eight. Thus Scout frequently misconstrues the situation, which may be amusing for a more mature reader who is "in the know" although this can get tedious after a while. The problem for me is that, despite her fear of hot steam ghosts and penchant for sugar sandwiches, Scout often seems to have too precocious a grasp of vocabulary and thoughts too sophisticated for her age, which is a common problem with a first person narrative, although admittedly in this case there is the excuse that she is writing years after the event, able to put an adult construction on matters and to employ dramatic licence to recreate detailed conversations word for word.

So it is that I found the story funny and moving, yet at the same long-winded, corny and sentimental at some points and think that for the greatest impact it needs to be read for the first time by teenagers untroubled by the pros and cons of good creative writing.


Wild [DVD]
Wild [DVD]
Dvd ~ Reese Witherspoon
Price: £13.50

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Call of the wild, 21 Feb. 2015
This review is from: Wild [DVD] (DVD)
"Wild" opens with Cheryl Strayed hiking the arduous 1100 mile Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada with a monstrous backpack, feet bloodied by ill-fitting boots, never knowing whether the next incident will be a mishap or encounter with an act of kindness or passing friendship. The film is based on the best-selling real-life memoir of a woman who embarked on this challenge as a way of "saving herself" after a failed marriage, destroyed by her descent into drug addiction and promiscuity. The reasons for this decline - although she comes to regard it as part of the process of developing -, in particular the sudden loss of the person she loves most, are gradually revealed. We learn about her past in a series of flashbacks, some so fleeting as to be almost subliminal. Despite abandoning college, Cheryl has a deep love and knowledge of poetry and literature, some of which she cannot bear to discard to lighten her pack. The literary messages she leaves in the books stored en route - intended to keep track of walkers - make a deep impression on other hikers even the rowdy threesome of boys she meets towards the end. Apart from the mixture of poignancy and humour, the scenery is remarkable, with dramatic changes of both topography, from mountain and crater lake to grassy plains, and climate - hot sun, drenching rain and snow. I was also struck by the emptiness of the wilderness, as Cheryl seemed to hike without seeing another soul for days on end, only to have the odd sudden intimate encounter, sometimes uplifting, occasionally a menacing reminder of her vulnerability.

Reese Witherspoon puts in an excellent performance as Cheryl - despite being in her late thirties, she retains a youthful, girlish quality. Laura Dern is also very effective as her inspirational mother with an indestructible love of each new day of life.

My only reservation is that, in changing the facts of Cheryl's past life a little perhaps to make the plot tighter, sadder and more dramatic, some areas of confusion have been introduced unnecessarily, which I found annoying.


The Emigrants
The Emigrants
by W. G. Sebald
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

4.0 out of 5 stars "What a true work of art looks like", 20 Feb. 2015
This review is from: The Emigrants (Paperback)
Like the recent French Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano, author W.G. Sebald was preoccupied with memory, nostalgia for the past and a haunting sense of loss. In a superb, sensitive translation from the German, "The Emigrants" comprise four freestanding sections, each recording the life of a man forced to leave Germany at some point in the last century, either to find employment in the States or to evade Nazi persecution.

Sebald has a very distinctive style, often described as dreamlike - and in the course of his meandering he sometimes resorts to recalling in detail real or imagined dreams, and tends to merge plain fact with probable invention. Slotted into the text to illustrate points, the frequent small, grainy photos of people, houses, scenery and objects are in some cases evocative and compelling, in others just quirky, such as a couple of keys for opening a cemetery gate, which in fact do not work. The first person narrator often finds out about his emigrants through the memories of others - perhaps emigrants themselves - but slots their commentary into his text without any inverted commas, creating in the process a stream of consciousness.

Opinions will differ, but I was most impressed by the final section on "Max Ferber". for which I would give five stars. In this, Sebald reveals himself to be an immigrant: a young German postgraduate student who came to Manchester in the `60s and found that he preferred not to return permanently to his homeland with its amnesia over the recent guilty past. Sebald "never ceased to be amazed by the completeness with which anthracite-coloured Manchester, the city from which industrialisation had spread across the entire world, displayed the clearly chronic process of its impoverishment and degradation". But the most moving part is his friendship with the reclusive Jewish painter Ferber, who was sent on a flight to England by his once wealthy parents before they were themselves deported. Ferber inspires some of the author's most magical prose. The artist's method was to apply paint in a thick layer, only to spend hours scratching it off, leaving "a hardened and encrusted deposit of droppings mixed with coaldust..in places resembling the flow of lava". Ferber "never felt more at home than in places where matter dissolved, little by little into nothingness." He reflects: "I gradually understood that, beyond a certain point, pain blots out the one thing that is essential to its being experienced - consciousness - and so perhaps extinguishes itself". Ferber gives to Sebald the journal kept by his mother, which the author incorporates into his account - how much of this he actually writes himself is unclear. In any event it is a fascinating description of an ordered, carefee life in the one-third German village of Steinach at the start of the C20, all the more poignant since, "It goes without saying there are no Jews in Steinach now".

This strange account of people damaged by loss has the power to alter one's perception of life and is worth rereading for the quality of the writing and the insights expressed.


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