The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

The MiniaturistWell done, Jessie.  There is no two ways about it.  I enjoyed this book.

What is puzzling me is how it came about that I read it.  It turned up at the library one day as something that I had placed a hold on many weeks before.  I had obviously read about it somewhere but I can find no trace of it in the blogs which I read regularly.  So whoever it was who gave me just enough information about the book to make it enticing, I thank you.

A young country girl comes to Amsterdam as the wife of an older man.  It is the 17th century and she enters an established household of husband, stern sister-in-law and a couple of servants.  She comes with no secrets but with her intelligent observant mind she soon becomes aware of the atmosphere of secrets in the house. Over the course of the book the secrets slowly unravel and the bride is gradually absorbed into and becomes a trusted member of  the household.

This is all set among burghers and merchants, Guilds and Church, the wharves and canals of C17th Amsterdam.   There is also a slight tinge of the supernatural  with a miniaturist making tiny models for a miniature house. This merely heightens the tension.  But it is the people in the house who dominate.

Jessie Burton writes beautifully but much as I love my British History it is such a pleasure to get away from Kings, Queens and the aristocracy.  They have been so done to death.

I prefer the stories which move away from the well documented “upper classes” and tell us stories about the remaining  great majority of the people. Books like “Year of Wonders” by Geraldine Brooks and  “Harvest” by Jim Grace, both about villagers dealing with unusual circumstances.  And this time a young bride dealing with unusual circumstances.

Soon after i started reading I started wondering if this debut novel is on one of lists of books being considered for a prize.  I feel it is worthy of being there.

This book is also a good advertisement for telling a story chronologically. None of the annoying habit of leaving a story hanging and  going back in time to give us large swag of explanations instead of just dripping information  into the story as needed..

I’ll say it again, Well done, Jessie  I look forward to your  next book.

 

The Arsonist by Sue Miller

A funny thing happened on the way to the iPad.

I had downloaded Sue Rimingtons “Close Call” from my local library.  It had been sitting there for a couple of days and I was looking forward to it.  So I tapped the icon to open it and had a moment of confusion.  Something was wrong.  I closed the book then re-opened it with the same result.  The header said I was to read the book of my choice but the content was different.  And so it was page after page.  Somehow the wrong book had downloaded with the right header.  See what I mean.

sue miller - the arsonist

It was out of library hours so I couldn’t do anything about the mistake so I started to read this unsolicited book and got a pleasant surprise.  The Arsonist by Sue Miller turned out to be a well told and interesting story.

There is a well blended mixture of aid workers in Africa, life in a small country American community, retirement, Alzheimer’s, an arsonist at work, producing a small town newspaper, the divisions which occur in a town over local issues, and of course, a love story to tie all threads together.

I found it quite seamless as it moved from setting to setting with different combinations of characters.  There was never any confusion as to the people being written about and that to me is one of the most important skills that an author can have.  To use as few words as possible when introducing a character but words so well chosen that you immediately have a mental image of the person

In one of the threads the character who is showing signs of Alzheimer’s Disease is very believable, gradually showing more signs of the progression of the illness.  The author mentions Philip Larkins’ poem “The Old Fools”.  I found it interesting how she just casually wove the name into the story.  I wonder if it was her way of saying, Hey Reader, it’s time you learnt a bit more about this subject.  It wasn’t until I had finished the book that  I decided to check this out .found a whole Bibliography of Alzheimer’s in Poetry.

Larkin begins …..

What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It's more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can't remember
Who called this morning? Or that, if they only chose,
They could alter things back to when they danced all night,
Or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some September?
Or do they fancy there's really been no change,
And they've always behaved as if they were crippled or tight,
Or sat through days of thin continuous dreaming
Watching the light move? If they don't (and they can't), it's strange;
			Why aren't they screaming?

Some writers think that Larkin is showing compassion.  I fail to see it.  I find him incredibly cruel.  When our children are growing we take great pride in every little step that takes them closer to adulthood.  We are patient with them (well most of the time) and respect the fact that they are going through a learning experience.. And  I hope most of us show respect and compassion to those who are going through what might be thought of as a rather disorganized reverse procedure,  where both mind and body  start losing the physical and mental skills learned so long ago.

I say Well Done, Sue Miller.  I haven’t read  any of your books before but I would definitely like to read more.  Meanwhile the Library is still trying to work out what happened to my book of choice.

December – From the Libraries – Nesbo, Galbraith, Rankin, Mankell, Hornby and Miller

Some months are good for reading and some aren’t. When you’re enjoying a book you can find plenty of time for reading but if the pages are dragging then daily reading time dwindles. December was a good month and here are my reactions   You can find out more about the stories elsewhere in WordPress blogs, written by people who specialize in doing that.

Police by Jo Nesbo

I was just finishing this book at the beginning of the month.. You either like crime novels or you don’t.  You either like translations of Scandivian crime novels or you don’t.  I do, and this book was no exception. And a lot depends on the translator to produce a fluid translation in the new language. This was the tenth book in the Harry Hole series and didn’t disappoint.  I’ve been interested to note that  Nesbo is now working on a couple of new novels under the nom-de-plume of  Tom Johansen.

Cuckoo Calling by Robert Galbraith aka J.K.Rowling

I go to the library to collect books that I have decided I want to read but I always have a quick look at the Returned Books Shelf.  You never know what you might find there.  On one such day Cuckoo Calling was displayed prominently.  Now I am full of admiration for J.K.Rowling for her ability to write books that children want to read.  But I found her first adult novel, Casual Vacancy, very disappointing and had decided never again !  Famous last words. There it was, sitting on the shelf mocking me, Cuckoo Calling, so down it came.  And the inevitable happened, I just loved it.

That wasn’t my reaction in the first three pages where she set up the crime which is going to need solving.  My prejudices were there and I was muttering words like Adjective Junkie, and, Any High School kid could do better than that. Bees humming AND buzzing in the same sentence,  Not the bees that I know.   But once she starts the real story she is off and running, a real story-teller.

There is the suitably dishevelled, highly intelligent but damaged detective, struggling to make a living.  He is assisted by a delightful, resourceful and tactful Secretary who he gradually comes to realize that he couldn’t do without. (I’ve already cast the delightful Scottish actress Kelly McDonald in the role of the Secretary ! )  It sounds familiar, doesn’t it and I wonder if Rowling had a smile on her face some of the time while writing.

The end is such that further stories could be written.   How they would fare I do not know as even though I enjoyed the books the characters don’t have the depth, that you find in a Henning Mankell or Jo Nesbo book,  which you need for a lengthy series.

Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin

Knots and Crosses is another  random choice book, displayed front and centre on the Returned Book shelf,  just waiting to be taken home for a visit.  Over the years I have seen TV interpretations of the Rebus series.  I remember enjoying the series when John Hannah played Rebus but when a different actor took over the role they became just another cop show of no particular interest, I even read a couple of the novels.  But that is all in the past and the details were fading from the memory  so I was a bit amazed when I found myself enjoying Ian Rankin’s first novel far more than I expected to.  Rankin’s words and my imagination renewed my interest in  the characters I remember seeing  on the small screen. Further interest came from filling in the earlier life of Rebus.

The Pyramid by Henning Mankell

This book got renewed twice at the library before I finished reading it. This was possible as it is a series of five  shorter Kurt Wallander mysteries which progress through his life from his beginnings as a detective, through his marriage, fatherhood and  the breakup of his marriage. But it wasn’t written until eight of the main Wallander mysteries had been written and helped to fill in the back story.

As well as wallowing in crime stories there were a couple of light pieces from the library on my mini ipad, used for late night or coffee shop reading.

How to be Good by Nick Hornby – a bit of fluff

Lovesong by Alex Miller  With an inter-country marriage how do you cope with the family ties pulling in different directions.

One thing I don’t lack is a choice of bookmarks for each of my reads.

Bookmarks 2

1 book + 1 bread knife = 2 books

half a book 5This is my favorite 3-6 pm radio program,  Always entertaining and informative.

Today Raf came out with the statement that he had become tired of trying to read The Luminaries in bed because of its size.  So he got up the next morning, took the bread knife and cut it in half to make  two manageable books.  Later he was to stick them back together with gaffer tape.

half a bookUnfortunately for me I was reading, or trying to read, a library copy, so couldn’t follow his example.  I was allowed the book for two weeks and could only read it by sitting at a table holding the book open with two hands, which doesn’t put you in a receptive frame of mind for reading.  To me the book would have been more enjoyable if half the words had also been removed.  Somewhere in there is quite an interesting story lost in the a world of cumbersome writing as well as the unwieldy physical size.

I was only hald way through the book when library return day arrived and I had no intention of mentioning it untl this delightrful segment from Raf today. I don’t know whether or not he enjoyed the book but he got people talking about the fattest books they’ve ever read and that was fun.

half a book 4half a book 2half a book 3

At the moment the fattest books on my bookshelf are the Complete Works of Shakespeare and  the Complete Plays of Bernard Shaw, but I don’t think I would want to read those in bed.

Seriously though, being comfortable is all part of the reading experience, the pleasure of immersing yourself in a good story.  And part of the pleasure is the sheer feel, smell and appearance of the book,  But there’s always time for having a bit of fun with a book too, like cutting it down to size !

Secrecy by Rupert Thomson

“He came on a November day, a cold wind blowing, the fields soaked with rain.”

With this first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page, then the second page , I knew I was starting a book I would enjoy

Apart from Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel I haven’t found much to interest me in period stories set in Italy, such as Medici stories.  But this rather tragic tale is unforgettable.

I hadn’t heard of it until one night recently it was discussed on the Book Show on Australian ABC TV and now having read the book I went back and watched their comments again more carefully.  To them it seemed the love story was secondary to the Gothic, the darkness, the evil, the religion and politics.  But I’m a people person and the meeting and the gradual involvement of the sculptor and the beautiful young girl was what it was all about. .  It is set in the less affluent parts of Florence  and the countryside with the brief ventures of the sculptor into princely circles.

Because it was set in late C17th Italy how a relationship developed depended on the laws and the morals of the time., and this historical background floats along underneath the characters of the story.  There are also some fine descriptions of how sculpture in wax was done in those times and some unforgettable minor characters along the way.

Then there are the secrets.  We all have our little secrets which we don’t reveal to casual acquaintances. And it is these secrets held by different characters  in the book which lead the story to its conclusion.

It wasn’t until I had finished the book that I found out that Zumbo was a real person who spent his life fleeing foom his home in Sicily.  He really did make the wax sculptures depicting the plague. This has made the book even more fascinating in retrospect.

The boy-girl story and the secrets were but the dominant factors of the book to me.  I enjoyed the background, it was a necessary part of the story, but it wasn’t the story itself.

But, I found a different interpretation of the book in the Australian ABC TV’s Book Club.  For the discussion the three regulars were joined by authors Junot Diaz and Sarah Dunant.  I don’t think I’ve read anything by either of them but after listening to them talk I certainly intend to remedy that.

The background seemed to be everything to them -evil, hell-hole, darkness, gothic, pious, sordid were some of the words they used.  True, but what did they expect in C17th Florence and was it very different to what is happening in different parts of our world and which we read in our papers and hear on the TV news each night.

I don’t think the panel made any mention of the title, Secrecy, which is such an  important part of  the story.  As secrets are revealed so are actions determined.  Knowledge determines how we react to a situation.

Soo…we all liked the book, but with different interpretations and  for different reasons. My appreciation of the book was enriched by listening to these two discussions, the first from the ABC Book Club and the second from an interview with the author Rupert Thomson.

The Man Booker Advertising Agency

Why do we read.  Sometimes we’re looking for facts.  Sometimes it’s for the sheer beauty of the writing that sends shivers up our spines and stops us in our tracks, unable to continue as we have to stop and savour the moment.  Sometimes it’s the story that’s being told, moving along at a good pace.  Or it might be that the book is providing us with food for thought, that it relates to our own life and experiences.

One reason we do not read is to get utterly and thoroughly bored. And that is what has just happened to me with  Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies . I struggled  to get half way through it.  At least that is further than I got with Wolf Hall.  So I’ve thrown it out I hope it gets ripped and smashed and torn and ground and re-cycled into something useful. What a waste of time and paper.

There will be a lot of people who disagree with me, but there are also many who agree..  Except  for a few exceptions I cannot stand the books that are chosen as the winner of the Man Booker Prize

If I had read the Background page of the Man Booker web site  I would have found among its aims that ‘The real success will be a significant increase in the sales of the winning book‘ .  An emphasis on getting money for the author.  That is quite shameful and has nothing to do with good literature. Look Ladies and Gentlemen, we have given this book a prize.  Go forth and spend your hard earned dosh on this book

Another of the original aims of the prize was to ‘ increase the reading of quality fiction and to attract the intelligent audience…’  That is so patronizing.  You want to what ???  Increase my reading of quality  fiction? Quite frankly I don’t think you actually know what quality fiction is.  With each new edition of a dictionary new words are included, words that have entered the vocabulary and are in common usage,  Surely the same thing applies to good literature.  People read,  People talk. People recommend books to one another.  This is where good  literature is decided.  Listen to what they’re saying in  the libraries, in the book clubs.

When I decided  that I couldn’t stand another minute of  Bring up the Bodies I felt humiliated.  I felt small. I felt useless because I am bored and don’t have enough intelligence to appreciate this wonderful, wonderful book.  She does write a very pretty sentence, with everything in its right place,.  Then another pretty sentence.Then another pretty sentence, and so on and so on.  But the content is so bland and so uninteresting.   Perhaps she should read some Julian Barnes or Ian McEwan or David Mitchell and take some lessons. Yes, I know, I couldn’t do what she does.  But I am a reader,  not a writer.

Who chooses  the wnner ? The judges include critics, authors and academics but sometimes include poets,  politicians, journalists, broadcasters and actors. And then the web page goes on

This ‘common man’ approach to the selection of  Man Booker juries is , I believe, one of the key reasons why ‘the intelligent general audience’ trusts the prize..”

I would like to think that every member of those common man professions would take objection to being classified in such a manner. As for me, never again will I allow myself to be manipulated by this advertising scheme masquerading as the Man Booker Prize.

I shall now wait for the world to fall down around my ears for being such a heretic.

See for yourself       http://www.themanbookerprize.com/background

Julian Barnes (and Van Loon)

Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

My father owned a book called Van Loon’s Lives originally published in 1942 and it was one of my early reading experiences.  In  it the author invites pairs of famous people for dinner.  It didn’t matter if the guests lived in different centuries, this was a beautiful fantasy where a conversation could be constructed between very different people. Think of Sir Thomas More with Erasmus, Beethoven with Napoleon,  Mozart with Hans Andersen , Plato and Confucius, Chopin with Emily Dickinson.  I don’t know how the book would fare these days but for me it was a wonderful potted introduction to famous people in history. It’s back on my reading list after all these years.

I was reading a 1954 reprint of the book.   The endpapers show the supposed setting for the dinners.

Van loons lives

It was brought back to my mind when I started reading Julian Barnes’ “Levels of Life”.  As he started telling me about the early experiments with ballooning I found myself thinking I like this bloke.  I’d like to be at a dinner party where he is a guest. And hence Van Loon’s Lives !

I picked this book to read as I had so enjoyed his “Sense of an Ending”.  I get such a feeling of calm from his writings.

Levels of Life

But it’s an unusual book. Of just 118 pages I could call it a pot-pourri.  It starts off with stories of the early experiments with ballooning, the early adventurers escaping from the pull of the earth and an 1858 attempt at aerial photography.  We also learn a lot about the actress Sarah Bernhardt which you possibly hadn’t heard before, and then it moves on to his grief at the death of his beloved wife, Pat Kavanagh. For someone who normally lives a very private life, he is very revealing about his loss and its effect on his life.

At one stage his attitude to Death is “ It’s just the Universe doing its stuff.”  I like that.  It stacks up well against the usual condolences which are proffered. .  The Universe doing its stuff.  When we disintegrate do we break down into atoms or something smaller like an electron or a proton ?  I can visualize all my little bits and pieces floating around the Universe and hopefully one day in the distant future one of them will be re-cycled and become a part of a brilliant scientist or artist, writer or singer, pianist or doctor, someone who contributes strongly to their community.  Note that I didn’t include a Member of Parliament!

He appears to have no dependants, no going out each day to a regular job- is he alone too much with his grief ?  Would he have coped differently with  a fixed income and three children at school  That word LOVE needs a lot of consideration.  I felt there was so much dependency there,  Where is the borderline between Love and Dependency ?

Make sure you know the dictionary definition of uxurious before you start the book – excessively fond of your wife. .  He has a thing about people who don’t use the same meaning as he does, but then again he was a lexicographer for a while.

The copy of the book which I have read was published by Jonathan Cape.  I found it strange that it didn’t contain a list of the author’s previous publications.  When I enjoy a book one of the first things I do is go to the front of the book to find out what else he/she has published.

Since finishing the book a week or so ago I am still picking it up and opening it at random to read a paragraph or too.  I need to re-read the whole book. In the meantime, look what I found in Van Loon’s Lives – a lovely old bookmark.   British Commonwealth Day began in 1958, replacing Empire Day.

Commonwealth Day Bookmark