Reviews & Rants - Blogging about books, authors, and generally
I am throwing in the towel @ 30% because my TBR is way too big to waste time on books I simply cannot enjoy.
What is even more aggravating than actually having bought this one (rather than borrowed from the library) is that there were elements that should have made this book great:
1. The setting: The books starts in the Reading Room at the British Museum. It is one of my favourite places. It has lots of atmosphere. The first murder takes place there. In public, but without any one noticing.
This should have made for a great locked room type mystery.
Instead, there is hardly any scene setting, and the little that is there does not describe anything about the museum or the reading room. Why set it in the Museum then? Why not an indistinguishable coffee house? Or a park?
Also, there is no atmosphere. None! Most of the book seems written in pretty flat dialogue. We don't even get to know any of the characters other than by name and occupation.
2. There are lot of tips of the hat to Sherlock Holmes in this book: A character caller Mr. Henry Baker like in ACD's Blue Carbuncle, the British Museum (which is also mentioned in Blue Carbuncle), and later on (I skip read to the end) the action takes us to Dartmoor where a prisoner escaped (Hound of the Baskervilles much?). Could this be more Sherlockian?
Yes. Yes, it could! Why did the author stop at nicking ACD's characters and settings? Why could he not have copied some of ACD's style, too? It would have infinitely improved this book.
I completely gave up on the book when I got to the following:
In a few minutes he was speaking to the inspector in charge of the City police station at Oxford, and he explained his need for information, having first given the secret police sign which indicates that a fellow limb of the law is making the enquiry.
A secret police sign?!?!? WHY??? They're not even under cover!
This makes no sense.
There was more that made no sense - like the first officer on the scene declaring the cause of death to be poisoning by cyanide. Surely, they must have had some protocol even in 1938 when this was written.
Anyway. Good riddance.
I don't know what it was with this book, but after reading Corvus this one just paled in comparison. Woolfson seemed to repeat some of the stories in Corvus (or at least make reference to them without further explanation) and seemed to jump all over the place.
Birds have arrived, the chosen and the unwanted, the damaged, the accidentally displaced from nests. They have stayed, or gone, leaving, all of them, their own determined avian imprint, entirely unrelated to size or species, and with each has been established an enduring sense of connection, one that extends far, towards a world, a life, a society, of which once I knew nothing at all.
Of all of them, it has been the corvids, the rook, magpie and crow, who have altered for ever my relationship to the rest of the world, altered my view of a hierarchy of form, intellect, ability; my concept of time.
I have no idea how I found this book, but since it tells of the author's life with a rescue rook named Chicken and both live only a few minutes across the city, I had to read this.
I like ravens, crows, rooks, magpies, etc. They have always seemed to me to combine an underestimated intelligence with and equally under-appreciated sense of quirky, whimsical fun.
Anyway, Corvus tells the story of how the author has come to adopt doves, rats, parrots, Chicken (the rook), Spike (a magpie), and Ziki (another crow).
The main character - if that is fair to say - was Chicken.
We named her, a choice probably now too prosaic, too frivolous for the dignity she’s attained. It was derived from a piece in the edition of the New Yorker I was reading at the time, mention of a drag artist called, I think, Madame Chickeboumskaya. Thus, she is Chicken.
Woolfson uses her stories of Chicken to tell of the various things she's learned about rescuing birds, and the differences between the different birds that she has encountered. Her love for living beings, irrespective of species, is thought-provoking, and her knowledge of the local history of Aberdeen, the Shire, and the different birds in the area, is fascinating. Her biggest love are the members of the crow family and the book imparts many a fact about them by anecdote:
Not only do they recognise one another, corvids can recognise individual humans, and there are countless stories of people involved in crow research of one sort or another being singled out from among large, busy crowds to be personally, individually subjected to harassment, a kind of revenge, no doubt, for what crows appear to regard as unwarranted scientific attention.
But Woolfson also injects some humour into the book. As she's in an unusual situation, she also recounts several encounters with neighbours, tradesmen, friends and family who, over the years, have had to get used to feathered family members.
It didn’t take long for us to realise that our love of corvids was not universal. The girls’ friends in particular regarded us as an outpost of the Addams family, intriguing, strange, potentially sinister. The only grounds for their view (as far as I know) was the presence of Chicken.
As I mentioned, the author lives in Aberdeen. Many of her descriptions of the city are very familiar to me. Yet, I also loved learning new things about those locations. I recently had cause to spend time in the vicinity of Aberdeen Grammar School, a rather impressive building of Baronial style. I have often wondered about the reason for Byron's statue in the front of the building, but never enough to look it up.
Woolfson came to my rescue there - and of course adds some crow related information, too:
I pass a statue of Byron every day. For a brief time in 1794, he attended Aberdeen Grammar School when he was living here with his mother. Despite the brevity of his sojourn, his statue stands in bronze-robed solemnity and magnificence in front of the school’s splendid granite façade. As I pass, I salute the man. I am unmoved by Lady Caroline Lamb’s famously damning designation of him, because nothing can alter the fact that it speaks well of a man when he cares about his pet crow’s toe.
But, back to Chicken: She sounds like a brilliant bird, the kind of feathered companion that I have only encountered in one other bookish adventure - the Thursday Next series. What was more, there is one memory that Woolfson shares that very much moved me because it reminded me so much of Pickwick, my beloved fictional Dodo.
I loved that part. Not only because of the event itself but also because it showed Woolfson's appreciation for the peculiarity of her situation. It comes across in other parts of the book, too, when she describes how the things we can see everyday - if we choose to look! - may actually be rather special.
I am not a twitcher but I do like to look at birds and other animals around, even if I can't name them. So, when Woolfson ventures to describe her attempts at seeing other wild birds in this area, I took notes - especially of when not to try and find pink-footed geese!
We turn down the road towards the Loch of Strathbeg and park under the awning with its wooden stanchions. We are the only people here. It has felt intermittently today as if we’re the only people anywhere. There is a farm building, now converted to a hide. We look out of the broad windows over the loch. The literature on the table tells us the facts, the numbers, that 20 per cent of the world’s population of pink-footed geese are to be found here at this time of year. On this particular day, though, they’re not. I don’t know where they are, the 20 per cent (which is many, many geese. On some days, thirty thousand.) I don’t know where they’ve gone but they’re not here. The loch is empty. Like us, they have gone out for the day. No one, no bird, stirs. There are no whooper swans, no wigeon, no teal. As bird watchers, we have failed. The grey water and reeds are stirred by wind. There are no geese.
I really enjoyed Corvus. I loved Woolfson's descriptions of Aberdeen, I loved her enthusiasm for wildlife, for protecting habitats, her advocacy for much maligned species. It is not just Chicken, and rooks/crows in general, that she tries to rehabilitate from a bad reputation. She also turns her enthusiasm to starlings and pigeons - tho, I learned that doves are essentially vicious, and she obviously does not even mention the Aberdonian seagull (thieving spawn of the devil!) who are universally acknowledged to be beyond redemption. ;)
There is another member of the corvid family that the author "adopted" - Spike the magpie. This was another section I really enjoyed because, other than the myths of folklore, I knew very little about them, even though I often delight in watching a pair of magpies from my kitchen window.
In a book on the wildlife of this city I read that, for a long time, there were few magpies in Aberdeen. They began, it is suggested, inhabiting suburban locations in the late 1940s, moving over the decades to establish themselves in urban parks and gardens. Where were they before that?
I had no idea their nesting in the city centre was only as recent as that. When watching the two that nest in the garden at the back of my building (together with some other birds), it seems like this is their natural environment and like they have never been anywhere else.
‘Thieving’. ‘Aggressive’. ‘Cursed’. What was it about this bird? Could it be as simple as the fact that magpies are black and white? It seemed too much for one small bird to bear, all that’s contained, all that’s implied in the cultural and religious canons of Western civilisation, the symbolic, iconographic poles of culture and ideas: black and white. Heaven and earth, life, death, good, evil, light, darkness, all things fundamental, elemental, reductio ad absurdum, a universe of fears combined to obscure the evolutionary process that delivered this startling bird into a world that appears still unready for it.
Chicken does not like to be ignored. She’ll pull insistently at the legs of my jeans as I cook or iron. She’ll try to knock the book from my hand if I don’t pay her attention, pecking at my sleeve or elbow to invite me to talk. Often she’ll burst, like the alien in Alien, through my newspaper, leaping on to my knee as I sit trying peaceably to read.
Esther Woolfson - Corvus: A Life With Birds
The upshot of it was, that Rosanna Spearman had been a thief, and not being of the sort that get up Companies in the City, and rob from thousands, instead of only robbing from one, the law laid hold of her, and the prison and the reformatory followed the lead of the law.
Collins having a dig at bankers. I love it.
"I am not superstitious; I have read a heap of books in my time; I am a scholar in my own way. Though turned seventy, I possess an active memory, and legs to correspond. You are not to take it, if you please, as the saying of an ignorant man, when I express my opinion that such a book as ROBINSON CRUSOE never was written, and never will be written again. I have tried that book for years—generally in combination with a pipe of tobacco—and I have found it my friend in need in all the necessities of this mortal life. When my spirits are bad—ROBINSON CRUSOE. When I want advice—ROBINSON CRUSOE. In past times when my wife plagued me; in present times when I have had a drop too much—ROBINSON CRUSOE. I have worn out six stout ROBINSON CRUSOES with hard work in my service."
Well, The Moonstone is off to a great start. :D
(@MbD: I believe the Librivox narration will work well.)
... my current reads, none of them are books I can enjoy when on the go or, indeed, on the commute.
So, I am looking for an audiobook to go play in the car on the way to and from work.
My shortlist of potential commuting reads are: The Moonstone, The Portrait of a Lady, Vera, or Indiana.
Does anyone have any thoughts on them?
I am looking to source them from Librivox, mostly because I can just leave the memory stick in the car and it will pick up at exactly the same location where I got to previously... the simple things...
"A rook, Corvus frugilegus, named by Linnaeus in his great work Systema Naturae, a name meaning "food-gathering". (I had hoped it meant "frugal" because I enjoyed the idea of her being part of the tradition of rural Scottish frugality, but apparently it does not.) I say "her" but there was no method we knew of to identify her sex. We designated her female arbitrarily, discovering only last spring, when for the first time at the age of sixteen she laid two eggs, that we were correct.
We named her, a choice probably now too prosaic, too frivolous for the dignity she's attained. It was derived from a piece in the edition of the New Yorker I was reading at the time, mention of a drag artist called, I think, Madame Chickeboumskaya. Thus, she is Chicken."
Esther Woolfson - Corvus: A Life with Birds
Bank account: $215
Many thanks to Obsidian Blue and Moonlight reader for hosting this game. It was so much fun! Both playing and watching everyone else's updates - a special shout out to Magnetic Monkey and Penni, who have been quite the entertaining duo.
My personal goal for this game was to tackle my TBR shelves, both physical and electronic, and try and read as many books that I already own as I could.
In that, I think it has been a resounding success. I managed to read
40 books. Which added up to an amazing 12205 pages! And I loved many of them. Even ones that were outside of my normal reading comfort zone - Hello Sci-fi! and time travel.
In fact, I managed to re-connect with one of my favourite childhood authors - Jules Verne. Not that Verne is a children's author. I just happen to have had my first encounter with Verne when I was a child. Now I want to read more of his works. They are just amazing!
Overall, not all of the books I have read over the game have been impressive. There have been 3 DNFs, and all the books together averaged a 3.36 rating.
However, there were some honourable mentions which I have linked above.
The Thorn Birds, Howards End, and Journey to the Centre of the Earth were re-reads, so the most surprising or best discoveries of the last three months have been Making History by Stephen Fry and The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulff.
Again, many thanks to OB and MR and to all the other BLikers who have taken part or cheered from the sidelines. You all rock!
Below (after the page break) are all my game updates.
Should murder make sense? Mr Entwhistle wondered. Academically the answer was yes. But many pointless crimes were on record. It depended, Mr Entwhistle reflected, on the mentality of the murderer.
This was my first time reading After the Funeral, but, of course, it is the story that is loosely used as the story in Murder at the Gallop, that classic Marple film starring the incomparable Margaret Rutherford.
This is all wrong, of course. After the Funeral is a Poirot mystery, not a Marple.
But other than this, the main plot is the same: a family gathering, a vague accusation, a brutal murder.
Poirot joins the plot relatively late, and then potters about as Poirot does.
Which brings me to following: Poirot is the worst person to ever try and disguise himself. This is not the first time he does it, and every time I've seen him do it, it is just ridiculous.
Surely, Christie wrote this "disguise" malarkey as a bit of fun with the oh so famous and infallible Belgian.
And his name isn’t Pontarlier – it’s Hercules something.’ ‘Hercule Poirot – at your service.’ Poirot bowed. There were no gasps of astonishment or of apprehension. His name seemed to mean nothing at all to them. They were less alarmed by it than they had been by the single word ‘detective’.
After the Funeral is a fairly standard Poirot story, not the best, not the worst. There are a couple of things that do not work, like Poirot's attempt at making people confess to him. That was just plain silly.
However, I liked disliking most of the characters. It's a bit of dark satire, more than a murder mystery, but it isn't as good as other Poirot stories.
Waking up begins with saying am and now.
That which has awoken then lies for a while staring up at the ceiling and down into itself until it has recognised I, and therefrom deduced I am, I am now. Here comes next, and is at least negatively reassuring; because here, this morning, is where it had expected to find itself; what’s called at home. But now isn’t simply now. Now is also a cold reminder; one whole day later than yesterday, one year later than last year.
Every now is labelled with its date, rendering all past nows obsolete, until – later or sooner – perhaps – no, not perhaps – quite certainly: It will come.
For its brevity, this book is packed with ideas and story. It's such a fine example of an author making every word count.
Making things count is also on the mind of George, our MC, who is trying to come to grips with life after the death of his partner, Jim. Right from the start of the book, he is looking for a way to emerge from his loss and live again as a single man. But in a setting where he cannot be openly himself, where he even feels like his best friend does not understand him, it is difficult for him to express himself and to be acknowledged. Instead, he feels invisible.
‘You’re going to walk home like that? Are you crazy? They’d call the cops!’
Kenny shrugs his shoulders good-humouredly.
‘Nobody would have seen us. We’re invisible – didn’t you know?’
Invisibility is a theme in that run through the book from George's bathroom window a few pages from the start to the invisible inner workings of his heart at the end of the book.
It's an invisibility that is heartbreaking: George's expression of shock and grief at learning of Jim's death gets mistaken for ambivalence, and even when he breaks down at his friend Charlotte's it happens under the cloak of darkness. No one sees him. No one sees Jim.
Christopher Isherwood is one of the writers that I would like to read more of. I had mostly thought of him as the creator of Sally Bowles and the Berlin novels that inform so much of our pop culture view of the 1920s, but this 1960s novel of his makes me really want to revisit the Berlin novels from the point of looking at his writing. I really loved how much he could make happen in a such a concise way.
But is all of George altogether present here? Up the coast a few miles north, in a lava reef under the cliffs, there are a lot of rock pools. You can visit them when the tide is out. Each pool is separate and different, and you can, if you are fanciful, give them names – such as George, Charlotte, Kenny, Mrs Strunk. Just as George and the others are thought of, for convenience, as individual entities, so you may think of a rock pool as an entity; though, of course, it is not.
The waters of its consciousness – so to speak – are swarming with hunted anxieties, grim-jawed greeds, dartingly vivid intuitions, old crusty-shelled rock-gripping obstinacies, deep-down sparkling undiscovered secrets, ominous protean organisms motioning mysteriously, perhaps warningly, toward the surface light. How can such a variety of creatures coexist at all? Because they have to. The rocks of the pool hold their world together. And, throughout the day of the ebb tide, they know no other.
Ever since Summer-time had been inaugurated a few years before, it had been one of the chronic dissensions of Tilling. Miss Mapp, Diva and the Padre flatly refused to recognize it, except when they were going by train or tram, when principle must necessarily go to the wall, or they would never have succeeded in getting anywhere, while Miss Mapp, with the halo of martyrdom round her head, had once arrived at a Summer-time party an hour late, in order to bear witness to the truth, and, in consequence, had got only dregs of tea and the last faint strawberry.
Ah, Miss Mapp and her merry band of villagers who are too refined to ask indelicate questions and therefore thrive on the misunderstanding that is fuelled by assumptions, gossip, and the hard of hearing.
There is again much to love about the characters and their adventures such as the interaction between eccentrics who are trying to outperform each other only to realise that they also need each other as a respective audience.
In this second book of the Mapp & Lucia series, a little too much whisky and a little too much eagerness for drama takes the story to its heights when a duel is arranged.
As much as I enjoy parts of the stories, they lack the pace that would make them something I could look forward to. The pace is injected in the dramatisations, but in the books I find the lack of plot development is keeping my enthusiasm at bay. Had the books the same spark as the tv dramatisations, I would liken the stories to Wilde's Importance of Being Earnest, which is what I had to think of a few times when reading about the exploits of Captain Flint and Major Puffin, and their supposed rivalry for Miss Mapp.
“If your status in Tilling depended on a reputation for bloodthirsty bravery,” he said, “the sooner it was changed the better. We’re in the same boat: I don’t say I like the boat, but there we are. Have a drink, and you’ll feel better. Never mind your status.”
“I’ve a good mind never to have a drink again,” said the Major, pouring himself out one of his stiff little glasses, “if a drink leads to this sort of thing.”
He sat down by his table and began to think things out.
He told himself that he was not drunk at all, but that he had taken an unusual quantity of whisky, which seemed to produce much the same effect as intoxication. Allowing for that, he was conscious that he was extremely angry about something, and had a firm idea that the Major was very angry too.
“But woz’it all been about?” he vainly asked himself.
“Woz’it all been about?”
E.F. Benson - Miss Mapp (Lucia Book 2)
I picked Angels in America as my last Friday read and I am having to abandon it for the purposes of BL-Opoly. I like what I am reading but it is taking me forever, ... and it requires a certain mood and focus to read it.
And mood and focus have gone out of the window this week because I have been crazy busy at work with meetings and after-hour requirements. I had very little time for reading and, of course, I also missed the live screening of Part II of Angels in America performed at the NT. :(
Anyway, I will pick a new Free Friday Read - something more light-hearted: Miss Mapp by E.F. Benson.