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Archive for the ‘888 Challenge’ Category

I am a book aficionado, and therefore I tend to avoid seeing movies which are based on books. Actually, as you probably already know I tend not to watch TV much at all, and I don’t like having my own imagination curbed by what is shown on the screen. I tend not to like books which have a picture from the film as a cover, although Breakfast At Tiffany’s strangely didn’t trouble me – partly because I had never seen the film and partly because the character of Holly Golightly in the book was so unlike Audrey Hepburn to me that I had to paint her differently.

We discussed this book in our reading group last night and we were polarised. Many of my fellow book group members found the stories depressing and unpleasant, dealing with unsavoury topics such as prostitution and under-age marriage. Oddly, I had viewed the main story as well as the three other stories in the book – House of Flowers, A Diamond Guitar and A Christmas Memory – as being quite uplifting. I adored Holly’s abandon and flippancy. I adored her need for freedom and her embracing of adventure. Yes, I could see that underwriting this all was the opposing theme of the need for stability, but she just made me smile.

Apparently, Holly Golightly was the fictional embodiment of Capote’s own thoughts and philosophies. As a 5ft 4in, openly homosexual eccentric with a very distinctive high-pitched voice and odd mannerisms and dress sense, Capote understood the struggles with social convention that Holly battles with. In his later life, Capote turned to alcohol and substance abuse to cope with these struggles and his “red” moods or depression. The fact that Holly seemed to cope with them by searching for further adventure could in some way be seen as sad, but to me it seemed that she refused to let go of what it meant to be alive.

The other three stories can also be seen as depressing or joyous, depending on your viewpoint. I read House of Flowers as being about falling in love, and choosing to stay that way when even temptation returns. A Christmas Memory appeared to be somewhat autobiographical, and the description of a wonderful Christmas tradition in the face of poverty was lovely. Granted, A Diamond Guitar was the one story of the four which was unhappy, but it was nevertheless written in a way which caused to you to think.

Considering Breakfast at Tiffany’s was released in 1958, the themes of homosexuality were difficult ones to face at the time. This explains why the main character was so sanitised for the Hollywood version. Perhaps if the film was remade today, the screenwriters may not shirk away from exploring aspects that Capote clearly meant to address? Although even so, I would still prefer to read the book.

There are a couple of alternative reviews which I have found which are worth a look at.
http://tickettoanywhere.blogspot.com/2008/03/breakfast-at-tiffanys-by-truman-capote.html
http://kimbofo.typepad.com/readingmatters/2006/01/breakfast_at_ti.html

Rating: 7/10
ISBN:
Publisher: Penguin
Year:
Date Finished: 27 May 2008
Pages:
Challenges: 2/8 of Category 2 – American Fiction for the 888 Challenge

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It is said that In Cold Blood is the first and finest of the genre of true crime novels, and if it was first, I don’t know, but it was certainly fine. It told the story of the horrific murder of the Clutter family in 1959 by two ex-cons, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. One night, the two entered the Clutter house and shot Herb, his wife Bonnie and his two children, Nancy and Kenyon, with a view to robbing them. The perpetrators left the bloody scene with just under $50.00, a radio and a pair of binoculars.

Unlike most fictional crime novels, there wasn’t an enormous amount of suspense leading up to the event, and at no time did you not know who it was who had committed the crime. Even the motive was established by half-way through the book. Because of this, it should have been a difficult read, and Capote did take great pains to include long descriptions, testimony and psychological assessments, which made for some dense writing at times. And yet, the book was incredibly compelling. The author had spent years meticulously researching and interviewing in order to achieve the thoroughness of In Cold Blood and that most definitely shows. His writing style drives you forward, if for nothing else but to try and understand.

I found that Capote was extremely impartial in his writing. His presence was never once felt. He didn’t pass judgement, nor did he deliberately arouse sympathy or hatred, which made it very unusual to read. Despite the horror of the crime, Capote’s research had exposed both killers to be flawed and yet altogether human individuals. You couldn’t hate them. Indeed, as several of the characters who came across the pair when they were incarcerated said, the worst you could feel was pity. Of course, being a true crime novel, it was very satisfying hunting around on the internet for photographs of the key players. Yet the photos did not change the impression that the author had given.

This is a masterful work, exploring the combined incomprehensibility and familiarity of the human mind.

Rating: 8/10
ISBN: 978-0-14-1418257-5
Publisher: Penguin
Year: 2000
Date Finished: 27 May 2008
Pages: 336
Challenges: 1/8 of category 2: American Authors for the 888 Challenge

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Have you ever wondered whether a black cat crossing your path really brings you bad luck? How about what the funniest joke in the world is? Are you really connected to Sir Richard Branson by just six degrees? And how can you tell whether someone is actually lying? Richard Wiseman seems to spend his life cogitating over these kinds of questions, but unlike all the rest of us, he then decides he is going to find out what the answer is for once and for all.

Quirkology is a fabulous collection of Richard’s experiments, many of which produce some true surprises. His book successfully brings the fun into science and makes you think about those odd little aspects of life which we take for granted or believe without question. I just love his audacity in his search to find the truth. I have seen Richard speak and watched him perform his magic tricks (he is a magician as well as a scientist) and his book reads exactly like he speaks in person. It is entertaining, engaging and informative all at the same time. It’s a tough book to put down, and if you are ever looking for fascinating after dinner conversation or trivia, this is definitely the book to turn to.

If offered a jumper which had been rubbed in dog poo but not thoroughly laundered, or one which had been worn by a serial killer and thoroughly laundered, which would you prefer to put on? What do you think the majority of people said?

The one point I laughed out loud? Soon after he had been talking about Freud, the following line appeared

“Although Freud claimed to be a scientist, many of his ideas are completely untesticle”

Freudian slip perhaps? Or a deliberate ploy to see if you were paying attention. In either case, I absolutely loved this book and am looking forward to a sequel.

Rating: 9/10
ISBN: 978-0-230-70215-8
Publisher: Macmillan
Year: 2007
Date Finished: 3 May 2005
Pages: 298
Challenges: 4/8 of category 6: Science and Scepticism; W from the A-Z Challenge

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A century ago, the art of letter writing was dominant. Correspondence formed the most effective way to communicate, and people wrote letters with the frequency that people write emails today – but perhaps with more thought, more feeling and more emotion than the technological form into which letter writing has evolved. Letters From a Lost Generation provides a heart-wrenching example of how letters can bring people to life again. As a reader, you feel like you are usurping on some of the most touching, private moments of the writers’ lives. It makes you feel incredibly privileged, but it also ensures that you experience all of the emotions which passed between the correspondents.

This book is a collection of letters between Vera Brittain, a VAD during the First World War, and her fiance, Roland Leighton, her brother Edward Brittain, and two of their friends, Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow. Unlike any of the fictionalised accounts of the Great War, this book was all the more poignant because the words were written whilst the war was raging. Tragically, one by one, all four of the young men are killed. The style of the book means that as a reader, you are acutely aware of when their voices fall silent. It is as if you are seeing it all through Vera’s eyes, and feeling her anguish.

The infant relationship between Vera and Roland is the one I found most tragic. The two were so young and had barely had the chance to get to know one another. I remember feeling a similar feeling of loss when I read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. It was a sense of anger at the sheer waste. A waste of years, a waste of love and a waste of the future. The first half of this book is dominated by the correspondence between the two, and when Roland is killed, one day before he was due to return home on leave, I had to put the book down in tears.

The book’s themes are pride, loss, maturing and change. All of the key players start out young, idealistic and eager. But as their letters show, this deserts them little by little as the reality of war starts to show. And yet, as public school graduates, officer classes, none fully allow despair to slow them. All of them bravely face their own deaths in their individual ways. Vera acts as their rock and confident, staying with them until their short lives are terminated.

I would be hard pressed to find a more personal account of World War I.

Rating: 9/10
ISBN: 0-349-11152-9
Publisher: Abacus
Year: 1998
Date Finished: 30 April 2008
Pages: 415
Challenges: 5/8 of category 7: Books with WWI as a theme for the 888 Challenge

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Child 44 is Tom Rob Smith’s first novel, and it is an incredible way to launch one’s career as a suspense writer. Set in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and connected with real events, the book is intensely disturbing and totally gripping at the same time. What struck me most was how terrible the life was for every citizen of the Soviet Union under Stalin. It was like a different world and it was a wonder that people survived through it.

The story follows the fall of Leo Demidov, who holds a high ranking position in the MGB but becomes the object of hatred of one of his subordinates. His fall from grace finds him investigating a murder in a country where officially murder did not exist. Crime was an aberration which was generally ignored or brushed aside without even the semblance of justice, for fear that its presence would question the perfection of the Communist ideal, where because everyone was equal, crime was unnecessary and therefore was naturally eliminated. But idealistic Communism is an impossible proposition when faced with the worst aspects of human nature, and the crimes Leo finds himself faced with are callous, horrific and terrifyingly regular.

This book oozes paranoia and suspicion, which is why it is so disturbing. It seems that within Soviet Russia, there was no such thing as trust, friendship or love because a simple word to the authorities spelt doom for anyone, irrespective of innocence or guilt. The state apparatus apportioned guilt to anyone who did anything even slightly suspicious. If you looked the wrong way at the wrong person, it could mean death. If you treated a pet belonging to a foreigner, you were a spy. If you even thought negative thoughts about the regime, or were indiscreet enough to mutter them, your future generally comprised of hard labour in a gulag, or execution.

Irrespective of the bravery of Leo and his wife beneath such a hostile regime, the message that stood out so strongly for me in this book is that without trust, without care of another and for another, without confidence, then human life is simply a shadow. It is almost not worth existing, when your entire life is spent wondering whether a misplaced word would result in your arrest. This story is the tale of the absolute worst of human nature. It is brutishness, selfishness, paranoia, hatred, fear and vindictiveness laid bare. I am only pleased that as the story progressed, some of the better sides of human nature began to show out otherwise it would have made for grim reading indeed.

I had to suspend my disbelief a little for the ending. After the man hunt mounted to catch Leo and Raisa, I felt it ended a little suddenly and a little more tamely than I would have thought. I can see that the author has left a couple of hanging threads for the next novel in the series which is fine, but after the pace and excitement of the whole novel, without giving a spoiler, the final pages fell a little bit flat for me. Also, I found myself a little irritated by the style of the dialogue. Rather than

“putting conversation in inverted commas, as is normal”

the conversation was written

– In italics and not marked in inverted commas

Just like uppercase letters are generally read as shouting, in my mind the dialogue throughout felt like it was being whispered or spoken a long distance away. Although perhaps that was the intention.

This is not to detract from an incredibly exciting book and a fantastic first novel. I’ll be on the lookout for this author in the future.

Rating: 8/10
ISBN: 978-1-84737-127-0
Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK
Year: 2008
Date Finished: 23 April 2008 (at 3.00am!)
Pages: 469
Challenges: 4/8 Category 1 of the 888 Challenge: Crime Fiction; S from the A-Z Challenge; 2/8 from The Pub Challenge

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Quite often, the books I read will make me wish I could live more than one lifetime in order to pursue all of the different careers which spark my interest. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson was one of those book. The difference with this book is that rather than an alternative career path, this one found me wishing I could pursue 10 or 15 other career paths because they all sounded so interesting and all left me wanting to know more.

Bryson sets himself no small task with this book. His idea is to describe in as much depth as possible, the origins of the earth, life and science, traversing over astronomy, geology, astrophysics, physics, chemistry, genetics, evolution, biology, zoology, anthropology and a huge armload of other scientific fields which make this planet so utterly fascinating and amazing to be a part of. He writes in a very accessible style, so even as he is trying to describe Einstein’s Theory of Relativity or the still contentious string theory, the reader never feels alientated. Within less than 500 pages, you can begin to grasp the very basics of quantum theory, the theory of the Big Bang and evolutionary selection, all things which every living person on earth should know to give them a better understanding of the world around them.

I am always impressed by Bryson’s exhaustive research. Even though he hasn’t set out to write an academic text, he appears to have made every effort to verify his facts as well as give personality to the characters who have helped the human race build their scientific knowledge to now. Granted, I am sure there are many glaring gaps and many individuals who may have been missed in his narrative. Granted, there is undoubtedly poetic licence in Bryson’s anecdotal personalities. But the poetic licence is necessary to turn this book into an enjoyable read, whether you have a scientific background or not.

I took immense pleasure in being reminded of my high school chemistry in the chapters about the elements. But I think what surprised me and pleased me most of all about A Short History of Nearly Everything is the realisation of how little we know. Not just how little I know as an individual, but how little we know as a race. I think common perception is that we have mentally conquered much of the earth and universe. In fact, we have barely breathed on the surface. And that is what makes it all the more exciting. As a new, tiny piece of knowledge is achieved, one more mystery is resolved, and two more mysteries arise. What an amazing field to be involved in.

Rating: 9/10
ISBN: 0-385-40818-8
Publisher: Doubleday
Year: 2003
Date Finished: 11 April 2008
Pages: 423pp (not including bibliography and notes)
Challenges: 3/8 of Science and Skepticism category.

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Sham

I spent much of this book in a state of some confusion. I wasn’t confused because I didn’t understand the subject matter – rather my confusion came from my feelings towards it. Much of the book I agreed with strongly, but other parts I didn’t agree with at all. To be fair, this paradox lends the book its interest and ensures it is a success because it really drove my to think about why I was reacting towards it the way I was.

Steve Salerno is a journalist who discovered that the acronym of the Self-Help and Actualisation Movement was SHAM. This serves well to outline what his expose is all about. His basic thesis is that with the growth of the ‘self-help’ industry in America, the result has been a nationwide helplessness, selfishness and imprisonment in a vicious cycle of feeling awful, being given hope and then feeling awful again. He deals with the self-help movement in general and with Dr Phil, Tony Robbins and Alcoholics Anonymous in particular. Salerno identifies that all of the movements are either based on the premise that everyone is a victim (in other words, everything that happens to you in life is someone else’s fault – you are completely blameless) or that everyone is empowered (in other words, no matter what your actual talents, skills and capacity you have a right to be the best and no-one has any right to stop you). Perhaps these might have been valuable premises to start with, but Salerno argues that the result is a society which is litigious to the point of stupidity, the destruction of families due to artificial blame and the complete exoneration of any responsibility for one’s own life on the one hand, and the destruction of any kind of competition (to the point that competitive games can no longer be played in some schools), the false building up of people’s hopes and the cotton wool mentality that nothing bad can ever happen to you if you just believe on the other.

I found myself agreeing with much of this. Perhaps it is an indication of my age, but I cannot see how a total elimination of any form of competition or grading in schools can be a good thing. I also found myself growing angry as Salerno outlined the result of this mentality of “it’s not my fault, it is the fault of my family/upbringing/illness/society/the banks/my boss/my dog…”

And yet, I don’t see ‘self-help’ as all bad. What I see is bad is when it is taken to the extreme that it has been. Self-awareness and honesty is a valuable trait. Of course, I don’t see blaming the whole world for your misfortunes as being particularly honest, but I do think the understanding yourself and how you think is vital to get along in life. Salerno seemed to switch, sometimes even mid-sentence, from exposing the extremes of self-help to exposing simple self awareness as a bad thing. Unfortunately, despite the value of much of his argument, I found this weakened it somewhat and I came away not being as convinced as I could be.

The other fault I found was that this book was devoted to exposing how bad things had become, but spent very little time on suggesting some possible solutions. Granted, it may be almost impossible now to reverse the damage that the self-help movement may have caused. And more so, with the amount of money that the movement makes each year, I doubt it is going to change in a hurry. But, I have always thought “If it worked, then why would you ever need to buy more than one book?”. Fortunately for the movement, it doesn’t work, and so people will continue to spend seeking the holy grail of happiness while all the time steering themselves away from it.

It makes for disturbing reading and it definitely makes you think but a little more consistency wouldn’t have gone astray.

Rating: 5/10
ISBN: 1-85788-380-2
Publisher: Nicholas Brealey Publishing
Year: 2005
Date Finished: 4th April 2008
Pages: 263
Challenges: 2/8 of category 6 – Science and Skepticism (I relent – I’ll use the American spelling) of the 888 Challenge.

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