Thursday, 31 December 2009

update December 2009

Happy Christmas to you all (and a merry new year!)

You will see below that I did indeed complete the 50 book challenge. Hoorah! But a few targets for next year:

1) Read more French books. Given that I've been living in France for the entirety of 2009, for only 8% of the final count to be in French is frankly an embarrassment.

2) Be better at reviewing books more immediately. Terrible of me, since the whole point of this blog is to review books, to have 10 books that I read in 2009 still (at the time of writing) needing to be reviewed.

3) Aim for 100 in 2010!

# of books read in December: 3

Final total: 60

1. You Are Here (Bremner, Bird and Fortune)
2. Le Dossier: How To Survive The English (Sarah Long)
3. Du phonographe au MP3 (Ludovic Tournès)
4. Where Angels Fear To Tread (E. M. Forster)
5. Born on a Blue Day (Daniel Tammet)
6. The Tale of Genji (Lady Murasaki; tr. Arthur Waley)
7. The Comedy of Errors (William Shakespeare)
8. The Golden Gate (Vikram Seth)
9. Al Capone Does My Shirts (Gennifer Choldenko)
10. A History of Modern Britain (Andrew Marr)
11. The Power and the Glory (Graham Greene)
12. Le CV de Dieu (Jean-Louis Fournier)
13. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Jonathan Safran Foer)
14. The Music of Silence (Andrea Bocelli)
15. Love (Toni Morrison)
16. Class: The Secret Diary of a Teacher in Turmoil (Jane Beaton)
17. The Wives of Bath (Susan Swan)
18. The Penelopiad (Margaret Atwood)
19. The Queen and I (Sue Townsend)
20. Molly Fox's Birthday (Deirdre Madden)
21. Daisy Miller (Henry James)
22. The Rules of Attraction (Bret Easton Ellis)
23. Gods Behaving Badly (Marie Phillips)
24. Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons)
25. The Crucible (Arthur Miller)
26. The British Museum is Falling Down (David Lodge)
27. them (Joyce Carol Oates)
28. Flaubert's Parrot (Julian Barnes)
29. Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years (Sue Townsend)
30. Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury)
31. Tears of Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and its Aftermath (Michael and Elizabeth Norman)
32. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Tennessee Williams)
33. Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood)
34. Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck)
35. The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath)
36. The Nigger of the Narcissus (Joseph Conrad)
37. The Past is Myself (Christabel Bielenberg)
38. The Road Ahead (Christabel Bielenberg)
39. The Other Hand (Chris Cleave)
40. Conference at Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons)
41. The Rules of Engagement (Anita Brookner)
42. Cat's Eye (Margaret Atwood)
43. Three Men In A Boat (Jerome K Jerome)
44. La grammaire est une chanson douce (Erik Orsenna)
45. The Kabul Beauty School (Deborah Rodriguez)
46. Bonfire of the Brands (Neil Boorman)
47. One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (Ken Kesey)
48. Hotel du Lac (Anita Brookner)
49. Girl Meets Boy (Ali Smith)
50. Exercices de style (Raymond Queneau)
51. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Marina Lewycka)
52. Weight (Jeanette Winterson)
53. Long Way Down (Nick Hornby)
54. The Woman in White (Wilkie Collins)
55. Choir Boy (Charlie Anders)
56. The Rain Before It Falls (Jonathan Coe)
57. Deaf Sentence (David Lodge)
58. 31 Songs (Nick Hornby)
59. The Thief Lord (Cornelia Funke)
60. Dear Fatty (Dawn French)

Average number of books per month: 5

% by male authors: 64%
% by female authors: 36%

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Dear Fatty (Dawn French)

--The blurb--
"Dawn French is one of the greatest comedy actresses, encompassing a vast and brilliant array of characters. Loved for her irreverent humour, Dawn has achieved massive mainstream success while continuing to push boundaries and challenge stereotypes. This title chronicles the rise of this complex, dynamic and unstoppable woman."

--The review--
The barrage of criticism directed at the cult of the celebrity autobiography is a thoroughly comprehensible one: the profession of ghostwriting is not one that people necessarily want to feed to due its dubious moral quality, especially since it often still results in a low standard of writing, and in any case, is the aspiration to and admiration of celebrity status really something that's worth encouragement?

In Dawn French's case, she is something to aspire to, and her autobiography is certainly worth reading (especially, as is indicated by the quality of the writing and the lack of thinly-veiled acknowledgements, it was almost definitely written by her). The epistolary format is an original method of approaching the autobiography task and gives this tome at least one reason why it stands out on the shelf. Equally, as well as addressing the usual suspects (friends, family, and famous colleagues), French also writes to a few more unusual choices, including Madonna.

Lamentably, though, the Madonna letters were the weakest; while reading, one has the impression that these particular letters would be far more amusing if you were listening to French reading them rather than just reading them on your own in your head, so this could be a legitimate reason to recommend the audiobook over the print version. Refreshingly little time is given to The Vicar of Dibley, with French spending an equal amount of time on all of her various exploits, including her childhood and on her poignant attempts to conceive. The personal and professional aspects of the autobiography are well-blended (and not just because of French's well-known marriage to other famous comedian, Lenny Henry).

French's humour also, predictably, comes into full force, with the passage about babysitters' apologies being a surefire laugh-out-loud moment. She successfully manages to blend this humour with poignancy and high-quality writing to create a really excellent autobiography which should be stocked at the front of every bookshop's celebrity section (and if those by Jordan and other such ilk could languish in the bargain bin - or recycling bin - that would be great too).

Sunday, 27 December 2009

The Thief Lord (Cornelia Funke)

--The blurb--
"Winter has come early to Venice. Two orphaned children are on the run, hiding among the crumbling canals and misty alleyways of the city. Befriended by a gang of street children and their mysterious leader, the Thief Lord, they shelter in an old, disused cinema. On their trail is a bungling detective, obsessed with disguises and the health of his pet tortoises. But a greater threat to the boys' new-found freedom is something from a forgotten past - a beautiful magical treasure with the power to spin time itself."

--The review-- 's description of this novel invites you to "imagine a Dickens novel with a Venetian setting" in order to get a sense of The Thief Lord, and this is both an intriguing and accurate description, even though any feelings of trepidation and/or cynicism experienced upon starting to read are certainly understandable. It is, after all, just a kids' book. However, this particular kids' book exceeds expectations: the characters are realistically sketched, the writing is sublime, descriptive, vivid and accessible, and these things combined with the unique plot and setting make this a riveting read (and, for adults, a quick one too).

Funke's Italian is also accurate and used to good effect, without seeming pretentious or precluding understanding (though she does also include a glossary in the back of the book in order to be extra helpful); the vocabulary used is also suitably stretching without being offputting. However, in contrast, there are some careless clangers dropped in English that were obviously not picked up by Funke's editors. This is easily compensated for, though, by the fact of pace being kept tight and chapters being kept short, which facilitates reading even without the virtues of Funke's skilful imagery and characterisation. The cast of characters is varied but small, and each has their role to play in the storyline. They come and go like shadows, but all loose ends are tied up by the novel's end (and with quite remarkable cleverness at that - not just in the field of children's literature, but generally).

Better than this, though, is that almost Roald Dahl-style, every character gets their just desserts. Upon closing the book, there are no more questions left to be asked; the reader is assured that Fate has had its way and that justice is appropriately dispensed. We no longer wonder what will happen to the novel's main characters, but we do wonder what is next for Cornelia Funke, as more of her work sets sail for the harbour of children's literature that is set to echo down the ages.

Other works by Cornelia Funke
Inkheart (2003)*
Dragon Rider (2004)
Inkspell (2005)*
When Santa Fell To Earth (2006)
Ghosthunters and the Incredibly Revolting Ghost (2006)¨
Ghosthunters and the Gruesome Invincible Lightning Ghost (2006)¨
Igraine The Brave (2007)
Ghosthunters and the Totally Moldy Baroness (2007)¨
Ghosthunters and the Muddy Monster of Doom (2007)¨
Inkdeath (2008)*

*part of the Inkworld trilogy
¨part of the Ghosthunters series

Thursday, 17 December 2009

31 Songs (Nick Hornby)

--The blurb--
"Here, Nick Hornby writes about 31 songs - most of them loved, some of them once loved, all of them significant to him. He begins with Teenage Fanclub's "Your Love is the Place that I Come From" and ends with Patti Smith's "Pissing in a River", encompassing varied singers along the way, such as Van Morrison and Nelly Furtado, and songs as different as "Thunder Road" and "Puff the Magic Dragon" (reggae style). He discusses, among other things, guitar solos, singers whose teeth whistle and the sort of music you hear in the Body Shop."

--The review--
As was noted in the previous review of Nick Hornby's work on this blog, he often keeps readers on their toes with his subject matter. He's just not the kind of writer who'll be bringing out "About A Boy 2: The Sequel" at some time in the future. Not that this precludes writers who do do this (such as Tony Parsons, or Helen Fielding, or Sue Townsend, or JK Rowling...) from being good or successful writers; Hornby is just a different kind of writer. This particular venture stays away from fiction altogether, choosing to instead explore songs that have figured highly in the author's life so far.

This is a risky strategy on multiple levels. Alongside the obvious point that some of Hornby's favourites listed in this book (I'm thinking particularly of relatively contemporary favourites, such as Nelly Furtado's "I'm Like A Bird") may quickly date and possibly also become superseded by other, more contemporary choices, a more serious pitfall may lie in the fact that such a book may be of quite a personal nature - and, more than this, be so specific to Hornby himself that readers may fail to find in it much in the way of relevance or value to their own lives.

Upon starting the book, however, this quickly ceases to be a concern (the only risk being one of envy at Hornby's clearly eclectic music taste). While reading through the book and feeling Hornby's enthusiasm for the songs he writes about does make you want to listen to them to hear what he's talking of for yourself, in a strange way it doesn't actually matter which songs are being discussed, for the dominant themes being discussed are the life lessons that the author has taken from them - and we all have songs that have made us feel this way. Even though there are poignant personal moments featured that clearly are specific to the writer, such as the disabilities of his son, this does not detract from the book's universal appeal - rather, it lends it a more interesting extra dimension in a book that is already seriously multifaceted.

Its structure - a series of short essays - makes it easy to pick up and put down again according to a reader's whims, and in typical Hornby fashion, the quality of the writing is high. If any improvements could be made, it would be for Hornby to take a leaf out of Alex Ross's book - the author of And The Rest Is Noise links the reader to a website that features all of the tracks that are talked about. Because regardless of a book's universality, it's pretty rare for any book to douse the flame of human curiosity.