Revisiting Old Favourites

0694523445.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy ★★★★⅞
Series: The Border Trilogy (Book 1)
Edition: Harper Audio (2004), Unabridged MP3; 9h46, Narrated by Frank Muller
Original publication date: 1992

I finished All the Pretty Horses last night and really loved revisiting this book after several years, as part of what we’re calling the American Authors Challenge over at LibraryThing, where we each pick a book by a chosen American author every month, though I adapted it a bit to fit in books I already own. We had Willa Cather in January, for which I read O Pioneers! Then in February we had William Faulkner, and I chose As I Lay Dying, which I have in a lovely Folio Society Edition, but as it turned out, I wasn’t at all in the mood for difficult reading last month, and I gave up on it early on. This month we’re featuring Cormac McCarthy, and I’ve been wanting to complete his Border Trilogy for a long while, but let too much time pass since I read the first book and felt I needed to refresh my memory before moving on. The audio version worked very well, with Frank Muller giving lots of colour to these characters. Not only that, but he gave such a sensitive reading that he made the gorgeous passages describing the cinematography, scenery, lighting and supporting characters and ‘extras’ very vivid. I use movie jargon quite on purpose because there’s something about McCarthy’s prose that brings up clear images in my mind of what he’s describing, very much like a cinematic experience, and I say this as someone who has not seen the movie version, and also as someone who rarely can imagine the scenes described in books, which might be surprising given I’m a visual artist, but so it is. I also couldn’t help but feel this story was closely connected with another beloved Western story, Brokeback Mountain, because of how attune we are to these young boys even though we are never told how they are feeling or processing events, and rather shown with, in the case of John Grady Cole, rather less than more dialogue. Though of course being shown rather than told is the mark of a good writer. The other connection to that other book was that I have seen the movie version of Brokeback Mountain and kept imagining our young hero John Grady as Heath Ledger and the way he portrayed Ennis del Mar, with a similar kind of reserve and perhaps similar looks as well, very attractive, but not in the last self-consciously so and a bit of a scamp.

For those who are not familiar with the story, it is about two boys, ostensibly cousins, both sixteen, sometime in the late 40s leaving home on horseback from their impoverished Texas lives, and in John Grady Cole’s case, a broken home, to make their way to Mexico to seek work. On their way there, he and Rawlins are joined by a young boy who claims his name is Jimmy Blevins (the name of a radio personality). He also claims to be sixteen but is probably no more than thirteen and riding atop a huge bay horse which seems much too fine a specimen to belong to him, and they suspect the boy has stolen him and will probably only bring trouble, so want nothing to do with him. But Blevins follows them doggedly until they are forced to accept him as a travel companion. Eventually the boys lose Blevins along the way (to reveal more would be a big spoiler) and find employment on a large ranch owned by a wealthy, old money, and therefore powerful family. He falls in love at first sight with the owner’s daughter, and his love is very much requited, so that the two quickly become lovers. The girl’s great-aunt holds the reins in the family and soon warns off John Grady, though in a most civilized way, by first inviting him to play a game of chess during which she tells him part of her life story, of having been educated in France and being a thinking woman, difficult to accept in society in her days. Of course, he doesn’t heed her warning and soon enough the boys are arrested under a charge of horse theft and sent to the worst kind of Mexican penitentiary, where they are forced to rely on their survival skills.

I hadn’t been as conscious of how much of the story rides on the aunt in the first reading, when I was concentrating on the story from the boy’s point of view and mostly saw Jimmy Blevins as the pivot to the all the major events, but now I see clearly he and the aunt are the two poles in this world, both pulling and pushing our two young friends along difficult paths. Another thing I noticed this time is how almost unbelievably clever and accomplished John Grady is, which is something I took completed for granted on first reading. He’s skilled with horses, which he has a great affinity for, and knows how to break and earn the trust of even the wildest creatures in record time, to the admiration of all the ranch workers and locals who congregate to watch him at work, which in itself is believable enough. But when comes time for him to defend himself and survive against the worst kinds of odds, he almost turns into a Western version of James Bond, which is of course a slight exaggeration since there are no gadgets or tricks or explosions or superhuman villains, but at the same time the feats he manages to accomplish against the direst of circumstances seem almost miraculous. Though of course in the deft hands of McCarthy, it is all very much in the realm of possibility, if one assumes that the boy is probably blessed with an good dose of intelligence and above average common sense when faced with immediate danger, along with the love of a young and beautiful woman. I would also throw in he’s probably got a good star watching over him, to make up for his raging hormones. Such things do happen and usually make for great stories, as evidenced by some the best mythological tales, which must have their roots in actual occurrences and almost, but not quite superhuman heroes, whose fates rest on the wills of the gods.

I remember reading from a softcover edition the first time and at first being a little bit daunted by McCarthy’s stream of consciousness style*, featuring very little punctuation as that style tends to do, but after the first couple of initial pages, which I read over more than once to get used to the tone and rhythm, it flowed very naturally and it was easy enough to let oneself float along in his stream and let the story take hold of the imagination. Does it sound like I loved this novel? That’s because I did, and I’m very happy I revisited it before moving on to the next book in the Border Trilogy, which I hope to do in near future while this one stays relatively fresh in my unreliable-at-best memory.

Heath Ledger

Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain came to mind as I was reading this, minus the homosexual overtones.

 

* And speaking of my unreliable-at-best memory, as an afterthought and just before hitting ‘publish’ for this post, I thought I might search my now 7-year old blog to see if I’d written anything about this novel before, and sure enough, found this, which I’d obviously completely forgotten about. Seems it took me more than ‘a couple’ of pages to get into the flow of things and I was in fact practically about to give up about 40 pages in. One thing’s for sure, my complaints about the writing style don’t hold at all for the audiobook version, where the narrator makes everything perfectly clear by giving each character his own speech mannerisms.

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Most Memorable Reads of 2013

Given I’ve read close to 160 books this year (158 to be exact), I found it almost impossible to narrow my list down to just ten books. Besides, why should I? I’ve been lax about writing reviews this year, so thought I’d just write a quick line or two about each of my 31 choices explaining why they were especially memorable to me. They are listed in reading order:

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris ★★★★½
Faber & Faber (2012), Paperback, 440 pages.
Because an unreliable narrator done this well always makes me want to go right back to the first page and start all over once I’ve finished the book.

The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay ★★★★★
Bolinda Audio (2006), Unabridged MP3, 21h34.
Because one little guy’s dreams of glory as a boxing champion to make reparations for a whole nation makes for a captivating read in Courtenay’s hands. He’s a bestselling author in Australia, but apparently little known everywhere else. Aussie actor Humphrey Bower narrates all Courtenay’s books and is a real pleasure to listen to. 


84, Charing Cross Road
by Helene Hanff ★★★★★
Penguin Books (1990), Paperback, 112 pages.
Because these genuine written exchanges between a quirky American writer and a very English London book vendor in postwar years make for every book lover’s delight.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (3rd reread) ★★★★★
The Folio Society (2012), Hardcover 336 pages. Illustrated by Anna and Elena Balbusso. Because rereading one of my all-time favourite novels from a gorgeously illustrated Folio Society edition started me on avery expensive, but highly satisfying craze.

Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim ★★★★★
Blackstone Audiobooks (2006), Unabridged MP3, 3h47. Narrated by Nadia May.
Because von Arnim made me, a city bound dweller, fall in love with her garden as well as her feisty character. The perfectly adequate audio version compelled me to search high and low for a beautiful vintage collector’s edition and I was rewarded with this little jewel from the MacMillan Company (1901), first American edition. 

Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin ★★★★½
Harper Audio (2013), Unabridged MP3, 7h39.
Because reading this story set in ’70s San Francisco was like getting acquainted with the roots of everything the 80s pop culture of my childhood and youth became for the rest of the world. Frances McDormand narrates this audio edition; quite a treat. 

Good Behaviour by Molly Keane ★★★★½ Folio Society (2011), Hardcover, 240 pages. Illustrated by Debra McFarlane.
Because reading about the misadventures of the Irish St Charles family whose prime concern is keeping up appearances, as seen through the lens of Aroon St-Charles, the unlovely and ungainly heroine, made for a gripping ride as they all descend from riches to rags

Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuściński ★★★★½
Folio Society (2012). Hardcover, 248 pages.
Because Kapuściński’s love letter to Herodotus’ The Histories made me want to get better acquainted with the ancient historian and read more works by them both.

Middlemarch by George Eliot ★★★★½ Naxos AudioBooks (2011), Unabridged MP3, 35h40.
Because it’s a classic love story and social commentary about a small English community peopled with fascinating characters I hope to revisit again and again. This audio version is narrated by the Divine Juliet Stevenson, but I’ve got a Folio Society edition standing by for future rereads. 

Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin ★★★★½
Folio Society (2012), Hardcover, 280 pages.
Because it’s a captivating tragic story about unrequited love complete with a duel to the death. Because it’s told in verse, yet still reads like a gripping novel. The Folio Society edition illustrated by the Balbusso Twins is to die for. And the Opera version by Tchaikovsky isn’t bad either. (A short editorial)

Le fantôme de l’Opéra by Gaston Leroux ★★★★½ Le Livre qui parle (2005), Unabridged CD, 10h.
Because I finally got to discover the mysteries of the Phantom and the story had more intrigue to offer than I could ever have hoped for.

Black Mischief by Evelyn Waugh ★★★★½
AudioGO (2010) Unabridged MP3, 6h49.
Narrated by Michael Maloney.
Because it’s a hilarious send up about an African emperor’s misguided attempts to bring his country into the modern age, and everything that can go wrong does so with a vengeance. Waugh is so brilliant I want to read everything he’s ever written.

Jumping the Queue by Mary Wesley ★★★★½
AudioGO (2011), Unabridged MP3, 5h36.
Because Mary Wesley had a talent for creating fascinating characters and made me deeply care for an old woman intent on suicide, and not find ridiculous that she fell in love with a much younger suspected matricide. Wesley, who started writing in her 70s and became a huge success is an author worth discovering. Anna Massey, one of my favourites narrates this edition.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (reread for Coursera The Fiction of Relationship course) ★★★★½
White’s Fine Editions (2010), Hardcover, 448 pages.
Because that crazy woman in the attic makes Rochester’s unforgivable behaviour almost understandable.

The Potato Factory by Bryce Courtenay ★★★★★
Bolinda Audio (2005), Unabridged MP3, 23h27.
Because it tells the story the real life Fagin, the criminal Ikey Solomon, and while it doesn’t make him the least bit more likeable, it turns him into the centre of an epic tale you can’t help but be carried away with.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare ★★★★½
Sterling Signature (2012), Hardcover, 456 pages.
Because I finally got to discover for myself what the big deal is, and the Prince of Denmark had no difficulty transcending his own fame. This gorgeous edition features cut paper illustrations by artist Kevin Stanton.

The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibin ★★★★½
McClelland & Stewart (2012), Kindle Edition, 112 pages and Simon & Schuster Audio (2013), Unabridged MP3, 3h07.
Because Tóibin presents us with a completely believable Mary who has a mind very much her own. It made for a compelling and very short read, but then was worth revisiting on audio, if only because Meryl Streep as Mary is a something you don’t want to miss.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos ★★★★★ Frémeaux & associés (2001). Unabridged MP3 CD.
Because I was one of the many fans of the movie when it was originally released and found the book told in a series of letters delivered that much more intrigue and obscenely irresistible cruelty. The audio version featuring a cast of over 10 actors is a real treat, but I supplemented that with a Bibliothèque de la Pléiade edition featuring fascinating essays and additional notes. 

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry ★★★★★
Phoenix Audio (2000), Unabridged MP3, 36h11. Narrated by Lee Horsley.
Because even though I wasn’t all that keen initially on reading a Western story about a cattle drive, once I read this book I just wanted to—and did—stay on with the characters for three more novels.

Harvest by Jim Crace ★★★★½
Hamish Hamilton (2013), Hardcover, 224 pages.
Because this one man in this tiny isolated community in the middle ages seem to express the pain all of humanity has faced since the dawn of the industrial age.

Music & Silence by Rose Tremain ★★★★¾
New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (2000), Paperback, 464 pages.
Because this story is about a musician in King Christian’s IV’s Danish court in the 17th century and introduced me to a world I wasn’t familiar with. Because the lutist is a beautiful and idealistic man who falls in love with a lovely young maiden. Because in stark contrast, King Christian is mad and his wife is a manipulative wench who makes Pretentiousness Somehow Appealing.

Le Comte de Monte-Cristo by Alexandre Dumas père ★★★★¾
Livraphone (2008), Unabridged MP3 CDs, 49h50.
A man who becomes almost godlike in his quest for vengeance. Epic. Classic. Mythical. Legendary. Bring on the superlatives. Dumas stole from Arabian Nights and created his own Masterpiece.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding ★★★★¾
Random House Audio Publishing, (2002). Unabridged CD. Narrated by Martin Jarvis.
Because over 30 years after seeing the movie, this dystopian tale about children run amok on a desert island still has the power to chill and enthrall, and then some. I’m treating myself to the Folio edition illustrated by Sam Weber. 

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev ★★★★½
Tantor Media (2010), Unabridged MP3, 8h16.
Because Turgeniev made his nihilistic anti-hero Bazarov the centre of an outstanding commentary on family, social struggles, love and friendship, all in one very small package that leaves you with plenty to think about. My full review here. 

An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris ★★★★½
Random House Audiobooks (2013), Unabridged MP3, 16h03. Narrated by David Rintoul.
Because Harris presents the Dreyfus affair from the point of view of a man who initially condemned him, and then became one of his most ardent defenders, and does so in a way that has you on the edge of your seat even though the outcome of the affair is well documented. Really liked David Rintoul’s narration.

91AFB7e1SpL._AA1500_Dragonwyck by Anya Seton ★★★★½
Chicago Review Press (2005), Paperback, 352 pages.
Because the Gothic and Tragic elements of this story about a young farm girl invited to stay with her supremely wealthy cousin were absolutely overpowering (in a good way) and made for a truly delightful reading experience. The Joseph L. Mankiewicz movie version starring Gene Tierney and Vincent Price did a good job of capturing the mood, but could not encompass the richness of the novel. Mariner Books have recently published new editions of a selection of Anya Seton’s novels featuring lovely cover designs (as shown) also available as eBooks. (Recent review here)

An Elephant in the Garden by Michael Morpurgo ★★★★½
Harper Collins Children Audio (2010), Unabridged MP3, 4h18.
Because I feel a soul connection with elephants, though I’ve never laid eyes on one in the wild, and this WWII true story about a zoo elephant who saves a family from the utter annihilation of Dresden really is very affecting. (Recent review here)

The Man of Property by John Galsworthy ★★★★½
Blackstone Audio (2006), Unabridged MP3, 13h49. Narrated by David Case.
Because the first novel in the Forsyte Saga makes clear that the Forsytes are everywhere to be found, and though it is set in late 19th century London, Galsworthy perfectly captured the mentality of the upper middle-class which is still prevalent today, with captivating characters and a story I definitely want to keep following. Narrator David Case aka Frederick Davidson has an unbelievably snooty delivery which often puts me off, but sometimes works very well, as with this novel. With time I intend on completing not just the Forsyte Saga, comprising three books and two interludes, but the complete Chronicles, which includes nine books and four interludes. (Recent review here)

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini ★★★★★
Riverhead Trade (2008), Paperback, 432 pages.
Because Hosseini has a unique talent for telling unputdownable horror stories about the trials of the Afghan people (in this case two women) filled with outrageous violence on an individual and social scale, yet always reminding us that as long as there is love, any kind of love, there is always hope.

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson ★★★★½ Vintage (1995), Paperback, 460 pages.
Because through the telling of one Japanese American man’s struggle to find justice in a small island community which has convicted him because of his heritage, the pain of an entire post-WWII nation is revealed with unique beauty. (Complete review here)

Morality Play by Barry Unsworth ★★★★½ AudioGO (2012), Unabridged MP3 5h34. Narrated by Michael Maloney.
Because it’s a damned well written little novel set in the Middle Ages of plague and widespread fear about a young cleric on the lam who joins a troupe of actors, in and of itself a dangerous and unsanctioned move. But then the troupe decides to enact the play of a murder which has just occurred in the village to draw in the crowds and in the process uncover dangerous secrets that might doom players of the troupe and the real life act alike. Read with a rushed, breathless delivery by Michael Maloney which suits the first person narration very well. 

For Lovers of Creatures Big and Small

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell ★★★★★
(Read for October Take It Or Leave It Challenge #1: read a book picked by using the Random Tag Generator – tag: zoology, and 12/12 Challenge #10: Beyond Fiction)

To begin, I should say I fell in love with this book before I’d even read the first page.

First, there was the fact that it was set in Corfu in the 1930s. I spent five glorious months living in Greece (in Crete actually) and was relishing jumping into this tale about the unusual Durrell family* making their home on a Greek island, where I could all too well imagine the quality of the light, the taste of the figs and grapes, the accent of the locals as they muddled their way through approximate English, the goats hopping along rocky outcroppings and the sound of their clanging bells and poignant bleating, the twisted ancient olive trees, the multitudinous variations of blues of sea and skies…

Then, there was the promise of all kinds of strange creatures, and fascinating descriptions of their physical attributes, behavioural characteristics and social habits. Four legged creatures, winged creatures, creatures with pincers and claws, creatures that live under rocks, creatures that hunt in the dark, creatures with homes on their backs, not to mention the two-legged creatures that were family and friends, all of which could be made to live in a home (at least temporarily) or put into jars for closer observation.

Not least, there was the cover of the new Penguin Essentials edition with it’s beautiful and fun illustration by the very talented Scottish artist Brian Cairns in a style that speaks to me as a big kid and lover of creatures big and small, and as an artist and designer too of course.

But what earned this book the distinction of earning a full five-star rating (the 4th book out of nearly 150 read so far this year, making it part of a very exclusive 2.72% club) was the fact that from the first page to the last, my expectations were not only met, but exceeded, provoking laughter and much delight and happiness. My only regret is that I did not discover Gerald Durrell in my childhood and teens, which might have set the course of my entire life in a very different direction. Thankfully, it’s never too late to discover a kindred spirit, or the value of finally finding one’s own ideal kind of comfort reading.

Best of all? There are two more books in the Corfu Trilogy and Gerald Durrell penned a great deal of other amusing zoological tales besides to finance his extensive conservation efforts. The wonder is he claimed not to enjoy writing and doing it only for the money, which hardly seems believable given how much humour and charm he exudes.

* Lawrence Durrell aka “Larry” (author of The Alexandria Quartet, currently sitting on my shelves) was little Gerry’s oldest sibling.

Too good to send away?

I got this gorgeous set of Puffin postcards a little while ago, fully intending to make use of them in the traditional way and send them out around the world. Only trouble is, I like these cards showcasing 100 of their book covers over the last 75 years too much to part with them. I’ve visited a few bloggers who’d purchased this set too, and this seems to be a common problem. I’ll therefore mostly be using them as bookmarks, though I might find it in me to part with a few. If and when I get a second set! :-)

Pics by Smiler

Favourite Reads of 2011: Part Two

Not so very long ago, I didn’t know there was such a thing as “genre fiction”. Truth be told, I’m still not exactly clear on that concept. I’ve always been an equal opportunity reader, so to me, a book is a book is a book. Then I joined LibraryThing where I became obsessed with cataloguing and tagging each book I’ve ever read or owned (or at least the few that remain in my memory) and assigning them to various categories, such as genres. Tagging has become a strange passion of mine—it’s a sort of meditation; I derive great satisfaction from putting things into categories—sort of like that toddler game of trying to fit squares, triangles and circles into the corresponding slots. I’m as systematic as I can be about tags, though I’ve not refined my system to the point where I can find a perfect single tag for any one book; “more is more” has been my system so far. That would be nearly impossible—books are much like the people who write and read them and tend to have utter disregard for categories. Not so in the case of formula books, such as Harlequin romances (which I haven’t read since the age of 14 and don’t intend to read ever again), or the latest paint by number thriller of course, which are of no concern to us here. Some categories, such as “Classics” have nothing to do with genre. There are many opinions on what constitutes a classic. Here again, I’m quite liberal in my tagging, but for our purposes here, I’ve limited the definition to: novels written before the 20th century. Beyond that, all hell breaks loose, and you are just as likely to find the same book fits into ALL the categories—according to my less than perfect tagging system that is. In any case, here are some of my favourite reads beyond contemporary literary fiction, sorted out into categories, for better or for worse. All links lead to my reviews. 

Continue reading

Favourite Reads of 2011: Part One

It’s been quite a bit of work coming up with this list. For one thing, I had a lot of books to choose from, with a total of 287 books completed in 2011. I have a rating system which did help choose the top of the crop, but as time goes by, some books linger more than others, as they each evolve differently in our minds and in our hearts. For instance, a five-star read (out of five)—a rating only handed out to 15 books completed this year, or a mere 5%—means  the book takes a proud place among my all-time favourites, and that I’m likely to read it again and again. These are books that resonated with me in an exceptional—and very individual way. Then there are the 4.5 star reads, which are no less excellent; these are books I truly loved and may want to revisit again; a four-star read is one I loved, and made for a worthwhile journey, though we’re likely to part as just friends. Of course, none of this is set in stone, but my selections for these upcoming “Best of 2011” lists are all books I can recommend wholeheartedly. Why did’t  I narrow it all down to just ten or twenty books? Because I wanted to share the wealth and because there is no editor forcing me to do so; I don’t have to worry about a punchy magazine cover line—“Smiler Trends the Top Ten”—type thing. So there you have it. All links lead to my reviews. Continue reading

Neat Dog Trick #273

A Puppy Bookmark: how clever is that? Now I’m thinking I should teach this trick to Coco. He lies by my side or right on top of me when I’m reading anyway, and this could really work with larger tomes to avoid wrist sprain.

FYI this is also quite literally a placeholder while I slave away at my Best Of/Worst Of list of 2011 books, which I can’t seem to whittle down enough to make for a short & sweet post. So expect a long and detailed one. In other words: a book lover’s delight.

This photo was found here.