Categories
2009 Memoirs

The Russian Countess – Edith Sollohub

Edith Sollohub was the daughter of a high ranking Russian diplomat, living in luxury on a large estate in St Petersburg. Her lavish lifestyle was brought to a halt by the Russian Revolution of 1917. Edith was separated from her family and had to endure imprisonment, hunger and loneliness. The Russian Countess is her memoir, giving detailed descriptions of her life as a child and her miraculous story of survival through the hardships of War.

I don’t read many memoirs, but the true story of a Russian Countess forced into unimaginable hardship really appealed to me – I find discovering how real people cope with a tradegy a fascinating subject.

The book was packed with photographs and documents which enriched the reading experience for me. It was lovely to see her family growing up!

The pace of the book was very slow. The story sometimes got lost as every person and tiny event was described. It was beautifully written, but at times I found the wordiness and intricate details too much.

Edith’s early life on the estate bored me. Stories of parties, dance lessons and numerous hunting trips held little interest for me. Her fascination with guns was especially alien to me and I often found my mind wandering from the page when she started shooting furry things. 

The book improved as things started to go wrong for her:

Strangely enough there was a certain lurid attraction in this complete disorganisation where everyone depended only upon his own self, his ingenuity, his courage, and frequently also upon his sense of humour or sporting spirit. Maybe in saying this I am expressing the feelings of those who were still young at the time and who had been smiled upon by fortune until then.  

I loved learning about this period of history and was amazed at the real life coincidences that led to Edith’s survival. Truth sometimes is stranger than fiction!

If you are interested in Russian history then this is a valuable resource. The small details in this book are the sort that get lost over the years and so it is great that these memoirs have been preserved and published after all this time, but I do think this book might be too specialised for the average reader.

Categories
1990s Chunkster

I Know This Much is True – Wally Lamb

I Know This Much is True had been on my bookshelf (along with most of Wally Lamb’s other books!) for several years, but the fact that it is 900 pages long meant that kept getting pushed down the pile.  

I finally decided that it had sat there for too long and so made the effort to start it. I am really pleased that I did as it is a fantastic book.

I Know This Much is True follows Dominick, one half of a pair of twins growing up in a small town in Connecticut. Dominick’s twin brother, Thomas, develops paranoid schizophrenia and we see how this affects Dominick’s life.

It seems strange to sum up a 900 page book in so few words, but the plot is quite simple. Instead of a complex plot we get a complete insight into how Dominick’s thoughts and feelings change throughout his life. We see him struggle to juggle love for his brother with frustration and guilt and by the end of the book I felt as though I could predict his actions. I don’t think I’ve ever known a character in literature so well.

The book gripped me from the very start. Dominick’s complex relationships and inner thoughts touched my heart.

All my life, I had imagined the scenario in which my father would, at last, reveal himself to me. As a kid, I’d cooked up cowboy dads, pilot fathers who made emergency landings on Hollyhock Avenue, hopped from their planes, and rescued us from Ray. Later, I had cast gym teachers, the man who owned the hobby shop downtown, and even benign Mr. Anthony across the street as potential fathers: the real thing, as opposed to the intruder who had married my mother and installed himself at our house to make us miserable.

It took me over a month to finish the book, but it never dragged. My only complaint was that the story-within-a-story didn’t really work for me. I loved Dominick’s voice so much that any deviation had me itching to get back to his narrative.

Many people moan that the ending was too neat, but I loved the way everything was resolved.  It would seem strange to learn so much about one person and then not know what happened to them.

Overall I thought that this was a moving insight into the way mental illness affects the family of the sufferer. Highly recommended.

Thoughts of other bloggers:

It’s a complex, deep, and moving book that you won’t soon forget. Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin’?

But most of all, just too many awful things happen to Dominick that it stops being believable…. Regular Rumination

…. requires patience to wade through, but is well worth the journey. Caribous Mom

Did you enjoy I Know This Much is True?

Which Wally Lamb book do you recommend I read next?

Categories
Uncategorized

Songs from the Other Side of the Wall – Dan Holloway

 

Dan Holloway has been a regular commenter on my blog for a long time. I was aware that he’d written a book, but it wasn’t until I heard that it was a hommage to Murakami’s Norwegian Wood that I decided to buy a copy. I hadn’t read Norwegian Wood at the time and so decided to put Songs to one side until I’d completed Murakami’s book. Unfortunately due to its gentle nature Norwegian Wood turned out to be my least favourite Murakami, but I was still keen to see what Dan Holloway’s writing would be like.

Songs from the Other Side of the Wall centres on Szandi, an 18-year-old artist living with her girlfriend, Yang, in Budapest. Szandi’s English mother abandoned her as a baby, leaving her father to raise her on a 300-year-old Hungarian vineyard. This means that Szandi finds herself torn between East and West. The book is basically a coming-of-age story about one young woman trying to decide where she belongs in the world.

I belonged neither in the West nor the East, neither with Mum nor Dad. For a few minutes it felt like I existed not in but alongside the world. I travelled through the space where everyone else lived and breathed and laughed and cried, only I was in a parallel universe, like theirs in every way except I was the only person there. The two worlds spent eternity almost but not quite brushing against each other – hearing the occasional whisper from somewhere they couldn’t quite place; but never leaving even the smallest footprint on each other.

The pace of the book was quite slow, with everything described in beautiful, vivid detail. This was both a positive and a negative for me. At times I was completely immersed in Szandi’s world, loving the details. This was especially true for the sections that took place on her father’s vineyard – my love for wine and good food was rewarded with some of the most mouth-watering descriptions of food I have ever read. Unfortunately I don’t have a real interest in art or music and so these sections were lost on me. Song lyrics, descriptions of concerts and sculptures all failed to interest me, but I can see that art lovers would probably adore them.

For much of the book Szandi is traumatised by the death of a woman called Claire. Claire was crushed during a riot in Romania, her death recorded and distributed on the Internet. The Internet plays a big role in this book, with Szandi’s blog making frequent appearances. I found that I lost interest whenever her blog was shown. It was an accurate reflection of blogging, but when reading a book I just don’t care about the comments of random people and I found that the Internet messaging lacked emotion and ruined the flow of the story for me. If anything can be learned from this it is that we should stop blogging and concentrate on living in the real world! 

Overall I’d say that there are a lot of fantastic sections in this book. It is a complex, literary novel with many layers, but I’d only recommend it to people who enjoy reading about art and music.

If you are interested in reading Songs from the Other Side of the Wall you can download it for free from Dan Holloway’s website. Details of how to buy a paperback copy are also listed there.

Dan Holloway is launching his new book on 7th July in London. Entry is free and the good news is that the first five people to mention my blog will recieve free copies of Songs and his new poetry collection.

Have you read Songs from the Other Side of the Wall?

Have you found a book that makes blogging interesting?

Categories
Other

The TV Book Club: Summer Reads 2010

The TV Book Club has recently revealed the books that will be featured on their Summer Reads series.

The eight books are:


The Help – Kathryn Stockett

The Man Who Disappeared – Claire Morrall

The Legacy – Katherine Webb

The Bed I Made – Lucie Whitehouse

Stone’s Fall – Iain Pears

Ellis Island – Kate Kerrigan

The Devil’s Acre – Matthew Plampin

The Weight of Silence – Heather Gudenkauf

Which ones will I read?

I have read two of the books already:

The Help – Kathryn Stockett stars4h

Stone’s Fall – Iain Pears  stars51

Both featured on my Best Reads of 2009 list, which is a very promising start to this season’s TV Book Club.

The other two books that immediately jump out at me are:

The Weight of Silence – Heather Gudenkauf

The Man Who Disappeared – Claire Morrall

Both sound like my sort of thing, so I’ll probably read them at some point. I don’t think I’ll read the entire list this time – I’ll be concentrating on the Booker long list instead!

The series begins on Sunday 27th June on More 4, when they will be discussing The Help.

What do you think of the selection?

Have you read any of the other books? 

Categories
2009 YA

Marcelo in the Real World – Francisco Stork

My oldest son has Asperger’s Syndrome and so I am always on the look out for books that talk about the condition. I heard a few people raving about this book and so I bought a copy straight away.

Marcelo in the Real World is about a seventeen-year-old boy called Marcelo who has an Asperger’s-like condition. Marcelo has spent his life in a special school surrounded by people who understand his problems. His Dad decides that it is time for Marcelo to enter the ‘real world’, to break out of his protective shell and deal with every day life; so he gets him a summer job in the mail room of his law firm. We see how Marcelo copes with his difficult new surroundings and learns to make real desicions for the first time in his life.

Marcelo in the Real World is a really sweet book. It is light, easy to read and heart warming. I don’t know much about teenagers with Asperger’s, but it appeared that the book had been very well researched. It gave a detailed insight into his thought processes and it helped me to see the world from the eyes of someone with the condition.

If I stop to take in every word I see, I will never get to the courthouse where I go almost every day to file documents.
It is the same with sounds. It seems that most of my brain needs to be turned off in order to function effectively. Hundreds of people have no problem assimilating different sounds. They walk and talk on cell phones. They dodge cars while having conversations.

Marcelo has a special interest in God and so there were a number of religious discussions, mainly relating to sin, relationships and sex. I’m afraid I’m not a big fan of religious discussions, but they did help to illustrate Marcelo’s innocence and so I could tolerate them in small doses!

The story was quite simple and to be honest I don’t think I’d have enjoyed it if I hadn’t had a special interest in the subject matter. I prefer my books to be a bit darker and not so sentimental.

This book gives a fantastic insight into the problems faced by people who suffer from Asperger’s and so I am encouraging all my friends and family to read it. I would love everyone to read it, just so they understand my son and others like him slightly better, but I suspect that many people will find it too sweet and cheesy for their liking.

I like these books about autistic children and young adults because they take some of our basic assumptions about the world and how it works and shake them upside down. Semi Colon Blog

I loved that this is a complex novel and a beautiful one. Becky’s Book Reviews

I couldn’t put it down. Jenny’s Books

Marcelo was filled to bursting with emotion and feeling and discovery. Regular Rumination

Categories
2010

Our Tragic Universe – Scarlett Thomas

I loved The End of Mr. Y– the blending of science with a fast paced plot produced a book that both informed and entertained me. I was excited to see that Scarlett Thomas had a new book out – especially once I saw that it shared the same gold lettering and mysteriously black page edges! Unfortunately Our Tragic Universe wasn’t in the same league as The End of Mr Y, but it did have many enjoyable sections.

Our Tragic Universe begins with Meg, a genre fiction writer, trying to review a book which claims that we will all be resurrected at the end of the world. Meg has complex relationships with all her friends and family, but most seem willing and able to hold interesting philosophical discussions with her. The book centres on these discussions, as Meg tries to understand the world around her. I loved reading all these little bits of philosophy:

I thought about the woman who couldn’t leave her house because she’d seen the Beast in her garden, Would she starve? If so would it be because she was too rational, or too irrational?

I know very little philosophy, but had heard of some of the examples before. I have a suspicion that anyone with a knowledge of philosophy would be familiar with many of the arguments already. 

Many of the discussions focused on the role of a story – whether life is a narrative or if books can be good without a beginning, middle or end. Our Tragic Universe seemed to be challenging these notions by reflecting life. The book had no plot and was just a series of scenes which were interesting on their own, but I found I was craving that narrative drive.

Meg was a realistic, lovable character, but I wish that the plot had some forward momentum. A few plot points were introduced, but the majority were left unresolved – again mirroring real life. The book makes a good discussion starter, but I finished the book feeling a little let down by the lack of any real events. Perhaps this says more about my expectations as a reader, but I do like my books to have a beginning, a middle and an end.

Overall I recommend this book to anyone looking for something a little bit different, but don’t expect a fast paced narrative or a clean resolution to anything!

The thoughts of other bloggers:

I enjoyed trying to make sense out of it. The Truth About Lies

…and although this novel did give me the warm and fuzzies, it’s a pretty sharp and observant treatise on contemporary life. Chasing Bawa

I can appreciate that Our Tragic Universe is very good at what it does – as I said earlier, though, liking it is a different matter. Follow The Thread

Have you enjoyed any books without a beginning, middle or end?