1980s Books in Translation Classics Film

I Served the King of England – Bohumil Hrabal (Book and DVD)

 Translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson

I Served the King of England was the Claire’s choice for Savidge Reads’ and Kimbofo’s book group, but we all agreed that it wasn’t anything special. We were surprised that it featured on the Guardian’s 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read list, as we felt that it failed to provide anything particularly special or unique.

The book follows the life of Ditie, a short man with big ambitions. Beginning in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s, we follow his career as makes his fortune working in hotels. His observations are both bizarre and mildly amusing, but I failed to see the point of them. Ditie’s life is then changed drastically when the communists come to power. I won’t spoil the last part of the book for you, but you can imagine that life during WWII will not be as light and amusing as the first half of the book. The weirdness continues, but it is shadowed with a darker, more threatening atmosphere.

The problem with the book was that it failed to engage me. I was laughing at it, rather than with it and scenes which should have been shocking, failed to affect me. The book just passed me by, without letting me become emotionally involved.  

The ending annoyed me a lot. It came over as very preachy, over explaining the moral message that the author hoped to teach us in writing the book. It was the only time that the book had managed to evoke an emotion in me and I felt patronised and used.

Confused at why this book was so highly regarded I did a little bit of research and discovered that the film had been well received, so decided to order a copy.

The film turned out to be a lot better than the book. The order of everything was changed, so that the shocking war scenes were placed next to the light humour of life in the hotel. This meant that the power of each scene was enhanced. I immediately saw what the author had been trying the achieve, but also why he had failed. Some of the story line was changed (no baby + different ending, for example), but I thought these were all improvements to the story. I would place this in my top 50 films of all time (the book won’t get close!)

I highly recommend the DVD to anyone who likes to watch foreign language films., but the book is nothing special.

Book: stars3h

DVD: stars4h

2000 - 2007 Chunkster Historical Fiction

Labyrinth – Kate Mosse

Labyrinth had sat on my shelf for a long time, but for some reason it never stood out, so I kept reading other things. I then spotted that Kate Mosse was talking at the Cheltenham Book Festival, and so decided this was the incentive I needed to finally get round to reading it.

Labyrinth begins with a girl discovering a hidden cave while helping on on archeological dig in the French Pyrenees. The story then flips back to the 13th Century and follows a young girl who is living in the beautiful walled city of Carcassonne, France.

Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy reading it. The characters failed to engage me and the writing seemed be be of poor quality. I kept thinking of Timeline by Michael Crichton, which managed to make time travel back to feudal France, thrilling, thought-provoking and exciting. This book felt inferior in comparison.

It took a lot of effort for me to get to page 160, when I decided that I couldn’t take it any more. The thought of wading through another 500+ pages of below average writing was just too much for me.

I then went to hear Kate Mosse interviewed by Sandi Toksvig at the Cheltenham Book Festival. It was the best author interview I have ever seen. The two are good friends in real life and their warm friendship came across. Both were enthusiastic, intelligent and witty – I could have listened to them all day! Kate talked about her love for literary fiction and her passion for research – she likes to write really slowly, taking 5 years to complete Labyrinth.

Kate Mosse came across as an amazing woman. She co-founded the Orange prize and was named European Woman of Achievement in 2000 for her contribution to the arts. I have great admiration for her and the passionate discussion inspired me to give Labyrinth another try.

With renewed excitement I picked up Labyrinth again. I managed another 10 pages, before coming to the conclusion that Kate Mosse is a fantastic woman, but not an author I’ll be reading again.

If you’re after an amazing story set in Carcassone, try Timeline!



Did you enjoy Labyrinth?

Do you love Timeline as much as I do?

Other Recommended books

Recommendations from a non-blogger #2

You may remember the wonderful guest post in which Heidi recommended her favourite books. I loved it so much, that I would like to make this a regular (monthly?) feature on my blog.

This month I’m featuring Susan, another regular reader of my blog. Susan has lived in Texas all her life. She is a retired teacher sharing an apartment with 2500 books.  She spends much of her time reading — about 80 to 100 books year.

Here are her favourite books: 


Regeneration by Pat Barker  

Dr. W. H. R. Rivers is one of my favorite fictional/historical characters.   I love the other two books in the trilogy as well, but my interest in the poetry of that period always brings me back to this one.


Annie Dunne by Sebastian Barry   

The contrasts are startling . . . light and dark, young and old, the ancient ways and the hints of modern times, the deformed old hag of a woman and Sebastian Barry’s graceful, lyrical prose.   My favorite thing about the book is that the mysteries involving the children are never solved — there is no sentimentality here, no false happy ending.   Who but Barry could tell this story?   The older I get, the more the story means to me, the closer I feel to Annie, the more grateful I am to Sebastian Barry for giving us this beautiful story.


The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Didion’s writing — her distinctive literary voice — has been part of my world since I read Play It As It Lays in 1971.   I was just out of college and that book, together with Didion’s essays, had a profound influence on my literary taste and outlook.   Now, all these years later — as I face the death of my parents and my own problems with aging — there is Didion again with this gift of a book to light my way.


The Periodic Table by Primo Levi

Levi the chemist and Levi the master storyteller and Levi the Holocaust survivor combine to give us twenty-one tales — each named for a chemical element — that weave memoir and imagination and humor and terror and science and remembrances of friends long departed.  These stories aren’t easy — you have to work at them sometimes — but the rewards are beyond measure.


So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell

This is a book about the hold that the past has over us, the way the fragments of childhood memories and dreams haunt us long after we are grown and life has taken us — or so we thought anyway — far from home and the child we used to be.


The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu

The main character is Sepha Stephanos, an Ethiopian immigrant to the United States.  He has come to that place where all immigrants must come — that threshold where he is neither Ethiopian nor American.   The neighborhood he lives in, like the young man, is caught between cultures  — an old, rather poor part of Washington, D. C., that has been discovered by the developers who are evicting the poor and creating lofts and houses for a wealthier clientele.   Sepha’s relationships — with the customers in his small grocery store, with a wealthy woman who has moved into one of the new houses, with the woman’s biracial daughter, and perhaps best of all, with other young immigrants from Africa — reveal so much about him, and about all the people who struggle to find a home, to make a place for themselves.   The young author has taken on so much in this first novel and the result is a brave book, a work of incredible beauty.  


The Habit of Being by Flannery O’Connor

I owned this book for many years before I found the nerve to begin.  I feared that the collected letters of a writer whose work I barely knew would be tedious and full of references I wouldn’t understand.   Eventually I set myself the task of reading a few of the letters each day.   Rather quickly it came to be my favorite part of the day and though there were times I wanted to go ahead and read them all in one weekend, I realized how lost I’d be without her letters to inspire and delight and illuminate, so I continued to ration them, five or six a day.   In a way, I think Flannery became my best friend for awhile and I missed her terribly when the letters came to an end.   She died in 1964 at age 39.  


The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

This is a story about memory and family and numbers and — please don’t let this put you off — baseball.   The numbers and baseball are important but not in the way you might think.    What matters here are the characters and the bond they develop despite an enormous challenge they must overcome every 80 minutes. A beautiful book. 


Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan

It’s just what it sounds like: the local Red Lobster is closing and the manager and his staff are dealing with their regular duties, customers, a snowstorm, the Christmas holidays and their feelings about being unemployed or demoted or having to change jobs.   Not much of a story really and yet I admire this book so much.  I think Stewart O’Nan captures the reality of such a place and of the people who work there.   There’s no condescension in this book, just quiet empathy.  


One Writer’s Beginnings by Eudora Welty

This is a lovely remembrance of the early influences on the career of a great American storyteller, her own account of how she developed as a writer.   The three parts of the book are:  Listening, Learning to See, Finding a Voice.   The passage in part one about Eudora as a little girl, sitting on the stairs buttoning her shoes, listening to her parents — one upstairs, one down — whistling to one another, is amazing,  something I go back to again and again.

This is a fantastic list, but although many are buried in my TBR pile, I haven’t read any of them yet. I will make the effort to seek out as many as I can and make reading them a priority.

Thank you so much Susan!

Have you read any of the books on this list?

Are any in your top ten list?

2009 Chunkster Historical Fiction Mystery Recommended books

Stone’s Fall – Iain Pears

Let me start by saying that this is my favourite book of 2009 so far – I was completely unprepared for how much I would love this book.

The premise is quite simple: Why did John Stone die, falling out of a window at his London home? The story is a complex mystery, beginning in London in 1909 and gradually revealing the truth by going back in time – first to Paris in 1890, and finally to Venice in 1867.

The book is cleverly constructed so that in the first section John Stone has just died and all the information about him is vague and contradictory. In the second section he becomes a character, so we begin to build a better picture of him and in the final section he is the narrator, so we finally find out the truth about his fascinating life.

I did not want power or wealth for themselves, and did not in the slightest desire fame. But I wanted, on my death, to be able to expire feeling that my existence had made the world a different place.

This is a literary mystery, so the pace is quite slow and at nearly 600 pages it isn’t a quick read, but the length was necessary to create the vivid world and fully formed characters. The astonishing twists were reminiscent of Fingersmith and I am sure I will remember this book for a very long time.

The espionage and financial aspects of the book meant that I thought it would appeal to men more than women, but while I think this is probably true, I am a woman and it is my book of the year! I admit that there were a few sections where the financial implications of events went over my head, but I was quickly brought back to the gripping plot by another development.

This book has everything – a multi-layered complex plot, fantastic characters and a compelling mystery.

Highly recommended to lovers of suspenseful literary fiction.



I haven’t read anything by Iain Pears before, but after the success of this one I am definitely going to track down all his books.

Have you read anything by Iain Pears?

Which of his books is your favourite?



The Dog who Came in from the Cold – Alexander McCall Smith (Chapters 1 – 23)

corduroy-logo_1__1468322fWe have now been treated to a month of Alexander McCall Smith’s new online novel The Dog Who Came in From the Cold, so I thought it was time to reflect on my experience.



I am listening to the podcast, narrated by Andrew Sachs. This is the first time I have listened to a book in serial form and I am very impressed at how well it is working. I much prefer listening this way, as I found that reading Corduroy Mansions over the course of a few days, was just too much – there were too many snippets of information to be able to digest any of them properly.

Listening to just a few minutes each day gives you plenty of time to ponder each weird, but wonderful insight into these peoples’ lives. Andrew Sachs is a very good narrator, making each section easy to listen to.

As with Corduroy Mansions, this new book is more a series of character observations than a novel, but I was surprised by the recent development in The Dog who Came in from the ColdCorduroy Mansions dealt with very normal, often mundane activities,

WARNING SPOLILERS! Highlight text to read

so the introduction of spies was a bit of a shock for me. I’m not sure that I know where it is going , but I like that, and hope the book continues to deviate from the lives of average people.

I also loved the little snippets of information in each chapter – some of which I struggled to believe, so I actually took the time to look up. I think the most surprising fact was that the hedgehog was a symbol of gluttony in Western art and while seeking out that information I discovered that the bat, the toad, and the pig are also symbols of evil or gluttony in Western art.

I look forward to discovering where this story is going and getting to know all the characters in greater detail.

Have you enjoyed the first month of The Dog who Came in from the Cold?

What has been your favourite thing so far?

2008 2009 Books in Translation Chunkster Other Prizes Recommended books

2666 – Roberto Bolaño. Part 5: The Part About Archimboldi

Steph and Claire are hosting a read-along for the highly acclaimed book, 2666, by Chilean author Roberto Bolaño. The novel is 900 pages long, and divided into 5 parts. We are reading one part a month.

Here are my thoughts on Part 5: The Part About Archimboldi

After nearly 6 months I have finally finished 2666! It took me a long time to decide if it was worth the effort – this book has confused me, bored me, and amazed me in equal measure.

I have learnt that Bolaño cannot be predicted and so I had no idea what to expect in this final section. What I found was an enjoyable novel, similar to part 3, in that it could be enjoyed independently. It was easy to read and beautifully written, but as an ending to this colossal book I was a bit disappointed. The explanations for some of the initial mysteries were very mundane and the majority of questions were left unanswered. I don’t mind ambiguity at the end of a book, but I had expected a few revelations and some clever twists. I was left feeling very deflated and a feeling of “is that it?” Hopefully Part 6 will be released soon and will have a much more satisfactory climax.

As a standalone novel, Part 5 was very good. I loved learning about Archimboldi and reading the rich descriptions of his family. I was hooked from the first sentence:

His mother was blind in one eye. She had blond hair and was blind in one eye. Her good eye was sky blue and placid, which made her seem slow but sweet natured, truly good. His father was lame. He had lost his leg in the war and spent a month in a military hospital near Düren, thinking he was done for and watching as the patients who could move (he couldn’t!) stole cigarettes from others.

As with the rest of the book there were also a lot of deeper, more philosophical quotes:

That night, as he was working the door at the bar, he amused himself by thinking about a time with two speeds, one very slow, in which the movement of people and objects was almost imperceptible, and the other fast, in which everything, even inert objects, glittered with speed. The first was called Paradise, the second Hell, and Archimboldi’s only wish was never to inhabit either.

I am very intrigued about why Heaven is slow. I always thought Heaven was perfect and can’t understand why he would say this. Can anyone enlighten me?

There is so much to discuss in this book that I am sure you could study it for years and still have more to uncover. The big question is whether I recommend that you read it and that is a very difficult question to answer. A quick glance as my ratings for each section would probably put you off this 900 page chunkster.

Part 1: The Part About the Critics  stars3h

Part 2: The Part About Amalfitano stars3h 

Part 3: The Part About Fate stars41

Part 4: The Part About the Crimes stars21

Part 5: The Part About Archimboldi stars41

I think this book should be approached with caution. I don’t think I would have made it to the end without the support of the other readalong participants:

RichardEmily, Frances,  Gavin, Isabella, Lu, E.L. Fay, and the wonderful hosts Steph and Claire.

It is a confusing, and at times overwhelming book, but I think it is also the sort of book which grows on you. I think that this book will remain with me, with my appreciation for it growing all the time. There are so many layers and little details which bubble to the surface weeks/months after reading it. I don’t think I will ever discover the point of this book, but I don’t think it matters. This book is a masterpiece, which will become a classic. For that reason I have to award it:



I have no idea how that happened when I struggled with so much of it, but I can’t deny the power this book has had on me over the last six months. I highly recommend this book to anyone that loves literary fiction. I promise that is is worth it in the end.

Do you think this book will still be read 100 years from now?

Do you recommend it to others?

If you haven’t read it, do you think you will attempt it?