No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, January 31, 2005

#10: Last Breath: The Limits of Adventure -- Peter Stark

Splendidly gory book about the medical details of various deaths -- hypothermia, drowning, altitude sickness, jellyfish stings ...Picked this up in the remainder shop on Saturday and had finished it by Saturday night. Each chapter's a fictionalised account of a death, or near-death: Matt, who decides to walk the rest of the way after his car breaks down at night on a snowy mountain; Phil, stranded on a sailing voyage with only Steller's Journal of a Voyage with Bering, 1741-2 for reading material, and no Vitamin C to hand; Mary, who fancies a swim even though there's no nets around the beach ... The author is an extreme-sports enthusiast, and his descriptions of the thrills of climbing, white-water kayaking, desert travel etc are extraordinarily vivid. There's also a spiritual element to the book: the mountaineer who succumbs to altitude sickness is sent on her way with a whispered reading of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and the journalist stranded in the desert is haunted by his encounter with a Sufi master. A surprisingly gripping read, rich in medical and historical detail (what happens to your lungs if you ascend too fast from a dive: 'more and more air bubbles raced from his [ruptured] lungs to his heart until it beat only a bloody foam', ewww) and excellent research material for anyone writing about violent deaths. He copped out on the climbing story, though.

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#9: Eva Peron -- -- Alicia Dujovne Ortiz (trans Shawn Fields)

Had an urge to watch Evita (the movie, which I've never seen) recently: couldn't, so read this instead. The first cassette I ever bought for myself was the original Broadway cast recording of Evita, and I know the songs on that by heart: read a couple of biographies in my teens, too. This one is far more critical of the whole Evita-myth, and Peronism, and Argentinian politics in the post-war period. Also covers the mutilation of Evita's embalmed corpse, and Nazi gold smuggling. I have a major problem, though, with the translation: all too often it's word-for-word from the original Spanish, which is quite emotive and idiomatic, and there are phrases that I assume to be Spanish idioms that simply don't make sense. Also (pet peeve) Mr Fields thinks the past tense of 'shine' is 'shined'. Interesting, but not a pleasure to read.

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#8: 31 Songs -- Nick Hornby

Not just any 31 songs -- and not, in fact, 31 songs that I know, though obviously I recognise quite a few of 'em -- but 31 songs that illustrate parts of Hornby's life. I'd expected 31 distinct essays on memory, feeling, appreciation, context etc: but, especially in later chapters, there's a sense of narrative. Particularly moving are the chapters which discuss Hornby's autistic son, and his experience of music: these might be sentimental if Hornby didn't write with such clarity. He's witty and critical, intelligent and wry, and sometimes even rude, about the songs and the musicians. Has a lovely turn of metaphor, too: Nick Cave plodding his way through As I Sat Sadly By Her Side 'as if he were eating an overfilled plate of decent but plain food at a grandparent's house'.

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#7: The Grand Tour -- Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

Sequel to Sorcery and Cecilia, the prototype Regency-romance-with-magic. I didn't enjoy this quite as much as the first novel, but the plot's rather bigger, dealing with a European conspiracy and a set of magical objects. Some lovely observation, though it doesn't have the Heyeresque social-comedy feel of its predecessor. Kate and Cecy's travels around 19th-century Europe are fascinating, and historically credible: magic as a way of dealing with flea-ridden beds ...

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#6: The Book of Dead Days -- Marcus Sedgwick

The 'dead days' are the days between Christmas and New Year, when I started reading this. It's a YA novel, quite dark, and the first volume of a series. The protagonist ('Boy') is servant to a magician who's under a curse. The setting's a dark, Baroque city, rather Italianate and 18th-century but with elements of both fantasy and science -- electricity regarded as a dark art, etc. The writing's terse and choppy and quite well-paced, but I found the setting much more interesting than the events. A tendency to paint characters in black and white, too, though that leads to assumptions (by characters and readers) that are proved incorrect. Not desperate to read second volume.

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#5: A Time of Angels -- Patricia Schonstein

Oddly reminiscent of The Vintner's Luck (Elizabeth Knox) which is one of my favourite novels. Another novel about cause and effect, really, and the interconnectedness of three generations of Italian emigrants in South Africa. On the way, it includes fine art, the Holocaust, religion, story-telling, plastic surgery, infidelity, clocks, Italian cooking and conscription. Quite a dark novel, and I read it twice in an attempt to make sense of the ending. Beautifully written, full of sensual impressions: not a book to read without good food to hand! It's likely to stay in my mind for a long while.

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#4: The Time Traveller's Wife -- Audrey Niffenegger

Only finished this last night and am still thinking about it. Niffenegger explores all the classic time-travel themes: can a time-traveller change history? How does time travel work? What about cause and effect? Any profit in it? What happens when you know your fate? And a few others that I hadn't thought of but won't detail here. At least one scene feels very much like an afterthought and doesn't seem necessary for the story. The protagonists, Henry and Clare, are fascinating and three-dimensional, and the supporting cast isn't bad either. But the last few chapters seemed to lose focus.

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#3: Long John Silver -- Bjorn Larsson (trans. Tom Geddes)

Pirates, arrrrr! I've had this for ages and only just got around to reading it. The translation is excellent, e.g. unnoticeable, though I did wonder how the pirate-speak read in the original Swedish. This novel tells the story of Long John Silver in suitably swashbuckling prose, yet there's more depth to it than that: plenty of philosophising on the nature of freedom, the evils of slavery etc, without the author imposing a modern mindset upon his characters. Presents Silver as a real-life pirate and gives a very credible and witty explanation as to why he never made it into Captain Johnson's A History of the Pirates: excellent cameo appearance from Defoe, who discusses literature. Also plenty of rum, treasure, plundering and misbehaviour.

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#2: Earthly Joys -- Philippa Gregory

The fictionalised life of John Tradescant the Elder, gardener to Charles I, the Duke of Buckingham and Robert Cecil. A great deal of historical info-dumping here: the prose was rather dry. She does bring to life a whole outmoded -- almost feudal -- notion of service to one's lord, right or wrong. The characterisation of Tradescant is brilliant, but the backdrop felt two-dimensional, even when describing his travels to Russia and the Netherlands. Am tempted, though, to read the sequel (Virgin Soil) just for the historical aspects: Virginia in the early days.

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#1: According to Queeney -- Beryl Bainbridge

Dr Johnson's later years, and his friendship with Hester Thrale. Bainbridge is an astute observer of the little details, and how they become altered in one's memory. The title's a misnomer though: it took me a while to figure out why I felt off-balance, but it may be to do with the way that point-of-view changes throughout: not just between chapters but even within the same paragraph. The sort of historical novel that I'll keep for reference but not for reading pleasure.

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