Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson

Confession time: I asked for this book for Christmas thinking I was asking for something different but equally snow and crime themed. However I was not disappointed with my accidental choice.

Snow Falling on Cedars is a 1950s whodunnit set on a small American Island, San Piedro, off the coast of Chicago. At the centre of the mystery is Kabuo Miyamoto, a Japanese-American man accused of murdering Carl Heine on a September night while they were both off-shore on separate fishing expeditions. The evidence seems pretty damning but with Kabuo maintaining his innocence the islanders are settling in for a lengthy trial.

This is a story which spans decades telling the stories of the islanders not only during the trial but also the story of the war that shaped their community and changed everyone’s lives forever.

I’ve read stories of life on the front line before but something this book included that I only had the vaguest idea about was the treatment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. Within days of the attack on Pearl Harbour public opinion began to turn against the Japanese community on San Piedro and just weeks later they were rounded up and shipped off to camps where they were to spend the rest of the war. This was the case for up to 120,000 people of Japanese descent who were residents of the USA between 1942 and 1946 because their loyalty was seen as divided – after all, ‘A Jap’s a Jap’ so said Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, head of the Western Command and the man in charge of the internment. As I say I was vaguely aware that this had occurred but it was kind of hard to believe and seeing it happen to characters I felt I knew brought it home that this was a real thing that happened to 1000s of people. That fact still blows my mind but a part of me is surely better off for knowing it.

But I digress. Guterson’s writing is a little long-winded at times and the plot chopped and changed seemingly at random but on the whole I liked his characters and I did enjoy the fact that he keeps you guessing until the very last minute.

But above all this book left me with a hankering for snow and strawberries. Probably not a combination I’m going to see anytime soon.

33. The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett

The Pillars of the EarthMan builds cathedral. Hardly the most exciting premise for a book huh?

So it’s probably just as well that Follett’s 1989 masterpiece is about so much more than just the combining of bricks and mortar. Spanning 29 years in the 12th century, The Pillars of the Earth follows all the major players in the building of the (sadly fictional) Kingsbridge Cathedral – from the righteous Prior Philip and his Master Builder Tom to the despicable William of Shiring who does all he can to disrupt Philip’s plans.

That’s the plot really except it’s about much more than just the building of the cathedral. Throughout the 29 years people die, they get tricked into bad marriages, they become business leaders and they lose everything they have. Children are born and raised, pilgrimages are made and behind it all a civil war rages which periodically forces monks and earls alike to choose allegiance to a potential new monarch.

So as you can see there’s a lot going on in this 1076 page novel which definitely makes up for the occasional two page description of a new style of wall. I’ll admit that when Follett goes into depth on the actual building work (which doesn’t happen all that often), I did tend to skim read a little apart from one very exciting section where a young builder invents the flying buttress!

Notre Dame

Pictured above you can see an excellent example of the use of the flying buttress on the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. They’re the kind of arches on the outside which are used to support the walls from the outside. I have a friend who, when we went to Brussels, spent a lot of time pointing out this particular architectural feature so to read a story of someone inventing it was very exciting for me!

I have to say that I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book and I would say a major part of this was down to the language used. Although it’s set in the 12th century, the writing and conversation is relatively modern – there are no ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s – which I’ve seen some review complain spoils the realism but for me it’s about making the time period accessible. The prose isn’t entirely modern but it’s up to date enough that the writing isn’t intimidating which I find to be a problem with other books set in the same period. I know language has changed a lot over the last thousand years and that the way this book is written isn’t the way people would actually have talked at the time but if I’m going to commit to reading over a thousand pages, I don’t want to have to read every sentence twice to be sure I know what it says!

My main regret with this novel is that Kingsbridge is a fictional town so I’ll never be able to visit the wondrous creation of Tom et al but Pillars of the Earth was certainly a masterclass in the lives of 12th century folk as well as a very entertaining saga telling tales of both everyday people and the upper echelons who ruled life in the 1100s.

Big Brother, Lionel Shriver

Big BrotherI was all prepared to pan this book, I was mentally accumulating scathing reviews of the horrible, one-dimensional characters, the boring diatribes about the superfluous nature of food and the frankly lacklustre plot. In fact I held forth on this subject just last night when my housemate asked me what I was currently reading.

But then I reached page 390 and everything changed (which is very nearly an incredibly clever thing given the momentous significance of the figure 380 to the book’s central premise). For a brief moment everything I had thought about this volume was turned on its head and I had a series of revelations and emotions which I had not expected. And then, sadly, it ended just a shade too far back into preachy and leaving me curiously unable to decide on a final thought.

In brief the story centres around a group of people with improbable names – Edison Appaloosa, Pandora Halfdanarson, Fletcher Feuerbach – in a small Iowa town where everyone’s friends with the guy serving at the coffee shop (maybe Iowa’s really like that, I have no idea).

A depressed Edison flies in from New York to visit his sister Pandora and, realising that he’s put on a few more pounds than is healthy, she vows to get him back to the slim, happy chap she’s always looked up to. To be honest with you, as plots go I find this one a little…thin, if you’ll excuse the pun. Add to that Edison’s relentless monologues on jazz which drive his family (and readers) crazy and Pandora’s interminable quest to decide if there’s any point or enjoyment to food and it left me really cold. Not to mention Pandora’s moping over her, frankly vile, husband Fletcher.

I picked this book up because I remember reading an interview with Lionel Shriver where she complained that everyone always wants to talk about Kevin (see what I did there?) and never about her other works. ‘Fair enough’, I thought, ‘I really enjoyed Kevin so I should give something else a go.’ I don’t want to say that I regret that decision because that wouldn’t be entirely true – Big Brother DID make me think, not about food or obesity and definitely not about jazz but about….family maybe and the lies we tell ourselves to get by. That twist may have come a little too late to save my opinion of the book but I have to admire Shriver’s gift for taking you by surprise and switching things up.

Interestingly, while writing this review I checked out Shriver’s Wikipedia page and discovered that this book is essentially about her own brother who was morbidly obese and died a few years before Big Brother was published. That little titbit gives the whole think a new edge and makes it just a little bit more moving.

Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood

Sadly I don’t think Margaret Atwood and I are meant to be. I was really excited about The Handmaid’s Tale but then it didn’t really do it for me and now Alias Grace hasn’t really been a winner either. It’s a shame because she writes tales that should be perfect for me and so many people I know (and whose literary opinions I respect) have such wonderful things to say about her but it just doesn’t seem to be working out for us. Anyway, let’s turn to Alias Grace

I too this picture in May but I only finished reading a couple of weeks ago.

I too this picture in May but I only finished reading a couple of weeks ago.

It took me FOREVER to read this book (7 months to be precise). Partly because it was far too heavy to carry around with me and partly because I just didn’t get it most of the time I was reading.

A friend from work who had previously lent me two books that I really enjoyed loaned me her copy of Grace with the accolade that “it’s the only book she’s ever read twice”. So I was devastated to realise I didn’t like it when I started reading. I think a large part of my early dislike was due to the format of the writing. The first chapters are presented as letters between characters we don’t yet know and newspaper reports about events which happened prior to the book’s beginning. I find that this kind of format is tricky to get right and quite often I’m turned off by this style of writing which is what happened here.

Happily a large part of the book is actually written as prose from the point of view of Grace, a young woman who finds herself (wrongly?) imprisoned for the murder of her employer, or one of the doctors who is trying to establish her guilt or innocence. This is where the book took off for me – especially in its poignant accounts of Grace’s past sufferings and by the end I was actually gripped. I’m not going to give it away because I guess it’s at the back for a reason but when I turned the final page and read the author’s note the book took on a whole new level and for once I really wish that I’d seen that first.

I find it hard to say whether or not I’d recommend this book but on balance I’m glad I read it, take from that what you will!

Post 152: In which I again promise to revive this blog

And who knows, maybe this time it will stick.

I’ve not published anything here since the end of May which is ever so slightly ridiculous especially since it seems that there are still people reading what I wrote all that time ago and I even had a recommendation for an Azerbaijani book a few days ago which I plan to look up as soon as I’m done with this post.

It’s true that I have also been neglecting both of my literary challenges as well I favour of a reasonable amount of re-reading and new novels so I’m also getting back on one of those horses: I went on holiday twice this year so I’ve just ordered a book from each of the countries I visited – one from Denmark (Miss Smilla’s Sense of Snow) and one from Czech Republic (The Unbearable Lightness of Being). I also visited Germany and Sweden but I’ve already got them ticked.

I don’t really have anything of note to say beyond that because the main bookish thought I’ve had recently has been discovering that I don’t really like some of my all time favourite books from my adolescence and I’m too sad about that to expound on it right now.

Hopefully I’ll see you soon…

Bout of Books – Wrap Up

So I’m a whole week late with this post but good things come to those who wait right?! Also I was like a social butterfly last week, dancing from engagement to engagement – there were bridesmaid dresses to be bought, emigrations to be toasted and softball matches to be won which left precious little time for blogging. But enough of all that here’s my progress for days 6-8.

Day 6 (Friday): I needed a new tube book for Friday and I chose Mr Mercedes by the incomparable Stephen King. I had made myself a promise to ration King’s books but with IT also sitting on my bookshelf it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen any time soon! Unfortunately, due to yet another social engagement, I was only able to do any reading on my morning commute so I only got through 43 pages on Friday.

Day 7 (Saturday): Saturday was an absolutely glorious day so I took Mr Mercedes to a local park and lay on the grass in the bright sunshine to read about some dark goings on. I was there for several hours, got my first sunburn of the year (note to self, buy suncream) and COMPLETED Mr Mercedes (363 pages). It was different to any of King’s books that I’ve read before as there was no supernatural element at all, it was a straightforward detective novel but with King’s effortless storytelling and guy-next-door characters.

 

Mr Mercedes goes to the park

Mr Mercedes goes to the park

On Saturday night my childhood dreams came true when I went to see S CLUB 7 at the O2 in London. It was like the biggest and bestest S Club karaoke you can imagine and I loved every second of it (but didn’t get any more reading done).

Day 8 (Sunday): Sunday was another beautiful day so I returned to my favourite local park this time with Alias Grace for company. Alas the warm sun on my back coupled with the excitement of the previous day and the fact that I’m still not really loving Grace meant that I didn’t get much further than 33 pages before I fell asleep! After that laziness won out and I was done with my very first read-a-thon.

Alias Grace on the water

Alias Grace on the water

Which gives my totals for the week:

100 Days to Victory: 189 pages COMPLETED

Alias Grace: 263 pages

Mr Mercedes: 405 pages COMPLETED

Total: 857 pages

And so, while my main goal, which was to finish Alias Grace, goes uncompleted, I am significantly further along than I had been and there’s only 140 pages left to go. But not only that, I’ve found that I’m actually enjoying Grace much more than I had been which was one of the secondary goals of my read-a-thon.

I said right back at the start that I don’t feel like I’ve really been enjoying reading lately and that I’ve been struggling to find something I can get my teeth into but I think that Bout of Books has helped me get over that for which I am incredibly grateful!

Day 5: Bout of Books

I wasn’t sure I’d have an entry for Thursday as I was supposed to be playing in a softball match but alas the beautiful May weather we’d been having all week took a sudden change for the rainier and the match was cancelled.

So instead I headed home to set up shop with 100 Days to Victory in place of Alias Grace. While 100 Days is officially my tube book, it had got to a point where I was too close to the end to stop (plus I accidentally read a few pages ahead and had to know how what I read came about). And a couple of hours later….BOOK COMPLETED.

It was a very bittersweet ending, 100 Days is a factual account of 100 keys days in the First World War and it was a fascinating though emotional read. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in finding out more about WWI, especially those who are less interested in detailed military descriptions but want to get an overview of the war with an emphasis on real human stories.

100 Days to Victory on a grey day

100 Days to Victory on a grey day

Page count:

100 Days to Victory: 84