Books of the month – January 2012

I read a lot.  On the train, last thing at night, in lunch breaks or just when the opportunity arises, you will often find me with my head in a book.  It sometimes seems inconceivable that there are any books on my shelves which have not yet been read, but somehow there are.  Their ranks get topped up from time to time due to eye-catching titles in charity shops, exciting new publications or just general moments of weakness.  And then there are library books, whether from my place of employment or the public library (using the latter a lot more now, as they need the circulation statistics a lot more than university libraries do).  One of my goals for the year (in addition to sticking to my church’s scheme to read the Bible in a year) is to finish all those unread books, including one or two which were shamefully abandoned part way through.  However, of the books I finished during January, only two can claim to be from the “to be read” backlog.  So, what have I read?  Why did I read it?  And what did I think?

Snuff by Terry Pratchett.

The latest Discworld book, a Christmas present from my parents (who love Terry Pratchett, because his existence helps ease the tricky problem of ‘What on Earth might the Singing Librarian want for Christmas?).  This one focusses on one of the most popular characters in the ongoing series, Samuel Vimes, commander of the City Watch.

It isn’t, to be honest, one of the best Discworld books, but it does have its moments of brilliance, nearly all of them involving Vimes’ butler Willikins, who essentially steals the book.  The main theme of the story is racism, though as this is comic fantasy, we’re talking about racism against goblins, who are deemed not to be ‘people’ unlike humans, dwarfs, trolls, vampires and the many other walking, talking denizens of Ankh Morpork.  It is not subtle about the theme in the least, but there are some things that we shouldn’t really be subtle about.  This is an enjoyable read.

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

This month’s book group choice, chosen as a potential entry point into the Chronicles of Barsetshire, The Warden proved not to go down brilliantly with everyone.

At heart, it is a character study of a man caught in the middle of a scandal, who wants to do the right thing, but finds it increasingly difficult to work out what the right thing is or whether his superiors in the church even care about rights and wrongs.  Although his particular issue seems somewhat obscure today, the relevance of the story is clear in a climate of bankers’ bonuses, pay deals for workers who have a tangential connection to the Olympics and other news stories concerning morality and income.  I found myself sympathising with the eponymous Warden, and loathing the pompous Doctor Grantly, who is more concerned that the church appear to have been right all along than with questioning whether this particular instance is right.  If for no other reason than to see whether he falls from grace in future, I plan to investigate at least the next book in the series, though probably not for a while.

Guys and Dolls and other stories by Damon Runyon

I picked this one up from the library last term simply because I will be performing in a production of the musical Guys and Dolls in May.  I wanted to read the stories featuring the characters from the show, which I did, but then found myself wanting to read the rest of the tales.  Several renewals later, I finally did so.

The stories, set in the Broadway area, feature a cast of gamblers, small-time crooks, showgirls and other not-so-desirable members of New York society.  They are told by an unnamed narrator, who rarely takes any active part in the stories he relates, claiming often to be a completely innocent observer.  Their style is unique, being told in the language of the people he describes and sticking to the present tense.  There is no past or future, just an endless now.  I imagine that many readers would find the style infuriating, but for me it is part of the charm of Runyon’s writing, which soon got under my skin.  These stories are funny, engaging and just the right length, never trying to sustain a concept or character for longer than they deserve.  They are genuinely delightful with their larger-than-life characters, crazy events and realistic(ish) whimsy, and I plan to read more of them.

Showcase Presents Booster Gold by Dan Jurgens (and others)

This is a collection that reprints the complete original series that introduced the character of Booster Gold during the late 1980s.  I encountered the character much later, when he had become a key member of the Justice League.  Although I haven’t bought new comics for some time now, I was intrigued to see how the character originated.  The collection is not new, and has been sitting waiting for me to read it for a year or so.

Created, written and (mostly) drawn by Dan Jurgens, Booster Gold the character is very much a product of his time, a hero concerned with merchandising, public image and other aspects of the corporate world.  The shifts of time have made him relevant again, in many ways – the exploitation of fame, and using acts of public service for self-centered ends are certainly hot topics these days.  As a result of the clash between altruism and profit, Booster isn’t always a sympathetic lead, in fact he often comes across as a bit of a jerk.  However, I was pleasantly surprised by how much his character changes over the course of the series reprinted here, and by how organic the change is – Booster is surprised by some of his actions and reactions later in the series, but the reader isn’t.  Dan Jurgens’ art, seen here in black and white, is crisp and clean, a style of illustration I really like.  The only time that the absence of colour is a particular problem is during an appearance of the colour-themed villain Rainbow Raider – it’s quite hard to tell when he has drained the colour from someone or something, for instance.  The supporting cast of the series help keep it readable even when Booster is at his most egotistical and insufferable.  Each has a distinct personality and look, though one of them is derailed late in the series due to the necessity of finding a traitor to tie in with the Millennium event which was going on across the DC Universe at the time.   For the most part, the comics reprinted here still hold up well 25 or so years after they were written and drawn.

Hood by Stephen Lawhead.

This has been sitting waiting to be read for a long time.  I’d have bought it because I have read and enjoyed many of Lawhead’s other books, particularly the Song of Albion and his cycle of 5 novels based on Arthurian myth.  His writings are often found in Christian bookshops, because he makes no secret of his faith and explores Christian themes in his work, and it was probably there that I first encountered him.

Hood is the first of a trilogy which offers a new interpretation of the Robin Hood legend.  Lawhead takes Robin out of Sherwood forest, placing him in Wales a short time after the Norman conquest of England.  There is some argument in an afterword that this could well have been the character’s original context, since the ties to Nottingham came relatively late in his history.  Here, he is Bran – a Briton, son of a king who was slain by a party of Norman knights.  Bran is himself believed to be dead, but survives and reluctantly begins a campaign to help his people who are being oppressed by the foreign interlopers.  There is plenty of action, plus some philosophical musing.  It is refreshing to see a version of Robin Hood who is less obviously heroic than he’s often shown to be. though still a sympathetic character.  However, it is the various churchmen who prove more interesting to read about.  There is, inevitably, a Tuck, who is in some ways the designated comic relief, but is also the most multi-faceted of the major characters.  His brashness contrasts with the gentleness of naive Asaph, who is ousted from his position with Bran’s people and the ungodliness of Hugo, incoming Norman churchman who is in the church for political and monetary gain rather than for any love of either God or men.  The writing really shines when it is focussed on the cruelties and injustices committed against the Britons – for Lawhead, the abuse of power may well be the greatest of crimes.  The next book in the sequence is Scarlet.  I will be tracking it down.

The Library of Gold by Gayle Lynds.

This one came from the public library.  If you were to suggest that I chose it due to the presence of the word ‘library’ in the title, I’m afraid you would be absolutely right.  I haven’t read every novel set in or featuring a library, but every so often, it just happens.  Do nurses pick up books with hospital in the title?  Or lawyers gravitate towards the word court?  It’s entirely possible I wouldn’t have picked it up under its other title, The Book of Spies.

Anyway, this book belongs in the genre of ‘vaguely academic thriller’, a genre popularised by The Da Vinci Code.  All the hallmarks of the thriller are there – mortal danger, ambiguous loyalty, a worldwide conspiracy and a disguise or two.  But the conspiracy is covering up something vaguely academic, in this case the “Library of Gold”, a collection of beautiful books which may or may not be languishing somewhere beneath the streets of Moscow.  Here, a book from the Library has been discovered, along with claims that the people who own/run/hide it are involved with Jihadist goings on.  And so begins a chase around much of Europe for our plucky hero and heroine while their CIA contact struggles with various problems back home.  Although the clues require arcane cultural, linguistic and historical knowledge to solve, much of the focus is on the spy-vs-spy stuff which I understand is the author’s forte.  Like most thrillers, this is a page turner.  Eventually.  And thankfully the author doesn’t claim that the fate and contents of the Library of Gold as presented in the novel are anything other than (well-informed) fiction.  Unlike many titles in the genre, the characters here are more than paper thin, though the most interesting is definitely a secondary character called The Carnivore.  I’d certainly be more inclined to read more books featuring him than Judd and Eva, the protagonists (and indeed, I could do so if I chose).  I didn’t love the book, nor did I hate it.  It passed the time, and was better than some of the “run around the world following clues to something old and amazing” books I’ve read before.

Some Like It Hot by Tony Curtis with Mark A Vieira.

A Christmas present from my sister, this is Curtis’ account of shooting my favourite film.  I read quite a lot of “behind the scenes” books, but they’re generally about theatre, so this was a little unusual.  I was introduced to Some Like It Hot at university, as part of a module on farce, and I have lost count of the number of times I’ve seen it since.  The film is sensationally good – writing, performance, direction and the look of the piece all combine to create sheer magic.  So I was quite intrigued to read this first-hand account of what went on before, during and after making this legendary piece of cinema.

The book offers fascinating glimpses into the working methods of writer/director Billy Wilder and many insights into the insecurities of stardom.  Although the book isn’t always structured brilliantly, the writing is disarmingly engaging and it is intriguing to see that Tony Curtis is honest about his own shortcomings, flaws and wrongdoings.  The book’s subtitle is ‘Me, Marilyn and the Movie’, and much of the text is given over to discussing Marilyn Monroe – her character, her beauty, her talent, her relationship with Curtis, and most of all her frustrating ways on set.  She overshadows all the other people involved with making the film, but you get the impression that was the way things were – if Marilyn was in the room, nobody would be looking at anyone else.  I’m glad I’ve read this book, and will read it again, but I’d also like to read another perspective on the same story.  Helpfully, the book has a bibliography, which I plan to investigate.

+ + + + +

So, seven books published in three different centuries spanning all sorts of genres and of varying quality.  Between them, they have added several books to the list of things I’d like to read at some point.  February’s list is likely to be shorter, as I’m determined to finish The Count of Monte Cristo, which is almost as long as all seven of the above-mentioned books put together!

January’s best book of the month?   Guys and Dolls and other stories.

  1. March 11th, 2012

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