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Archive for December, 2010

Well it’s that time of year isn’t it?  When we all have a look back at the year that was and pick our favourites.  I read a total of 47 books this year.  Not too bad, but I would have liked to have got nearer 52.  Still, I’ve had other projects on the go this year. 

Anyhow, without further ado, here’s my top five reads for 2010:

1.  The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa – an absolute must read, sublime stuff.  See my musings.

2. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens – no need to explain this choice.  See my musings.

3. Remembering Babylon by David Malouf – a very Australian story by one of Australia’s best.  See my musings.

4. The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – a difficult masterpiece.  Musings here

5.  Storm Boy by Colin Thiele – I didn’t review this ‘long’ short story; an Australian classic. 

There were plenty of other highlights including: Wanting by Richard Flanagan; Gilead by Marilynne Robinson; Lights Out in Wonderland by the irrepressible DBC Pierre; and finally, A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz. 

2010 Reading Challenges summary: I enjoyed quite a few of the challanges this year.  They are a great way of forcing you to seek out books and authors you wouldn’t otherwise get to.  The details:

I added a healthy 11 books on the 1% Well Read Challenge, based on the ‘1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die’ list. 

I successfully completed: the Aussie Author Challenge of a ‘Fair Dinkum’ 8 books; the ‘Ten Awards’ Challenge; and, the ‘Classic Snack’ of a paltry 4 classics.

My progress on the others was a little less than desired.  I had fun with the Global Challenge: to read two books from each continent with a preferable mix of more than one author from each.  I achieved North and South America, Asia, Europe, and Australisia, but failed with Africa.  One to recitfy next year.   

Goals for 2011: I’ll try and sneak in a few more classics.  I anticipate reading some more historical fiction.  And, of course, plenty more Australian novels and a good geographic spread of internationals – including Africa!  I’ve found myself reading a few history books this year and that will continue alongside the historical fiction.   

What were your favourite reads of 2010?  And what are the books at the top of your TBR pile for 2011?  Do share. 

Wishing everyone a wonderful 2011,

The D!

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In a lovely moment of serendipity I came across the following quote by E.M. Forster just after I started reading Steve Toltz’s 711-page A Fraction of the Whole:

“One always tends to overpraise a long book because one has got through it.”

What then should I make of Toltz’s epic?  Should I temper my natural inclination to praise such a long book?!  How can I do that?  I’ve tried, but every time I think that maybe I’ve found a reason to dislike it ever so slightly, I am overwhelmed by instant regret and swamped by all the positives.  It really is a case of more is more.

I won’t try to summarise the plot, but it’s a ripping good ‘yarn’, narrated by both Jasper Dean and his father Martin – the most hated man in Australia – whose brother, Terry, is a modern hero of the Australian public in a Ned Kelly kind of way, someone who has endeared himself to all by ridding us of cheating and corrupt sports stars.  Martin on the other hand is a bit of a hopeless philosopher, with a bi-polar-style persona that veers from introverted depression to mania filled with ideas, such as his plan to make everyone in Australia a millionaire.

It is a very funny read.  There are so many jokes that quoting a few here is surely apt to do the whole injustice, but I’ll give it a go.

Martin, a professed atheist, says (p34) that he has an “inability to make a leap of faith … Sorry, Lord.  I guess one man’s burning bush is another man’s spot fire.”

Then there is the hilarious dissecting of the games played at children’s birthday parties (p50-51).  Pass the parcel is a “game of greed and impatience.  I caused a stir when I stopped the game to read the newspaper.”  Musical Chairs is another ‘cruel game’, whose “tension is unbearable … the children’s faces are contorted in terror” … The game is an analogy for life: there are not enough chairs or good times to go around, not enough food, not enough joy, nor beds, nor jobs nor laughs nor friends nor smiles nor money nor clean air to breathe … and yet the music goes on.”

Fortunately for us readers, there are enough laughs to go around in this towering burlesque.  There is the town suggestion box, one of Martin’s great ideas, which initially brings the town together to hear its oracle-like suggestions, such as Martin’s own idea to build an observatory.  But in the end, the townsfolk begin to make suggestions about other townsfolk and what they should do to improve themselves and the whole town unravels into a sniping mess.  The observatory is built and is a success at first, but ends up starting a raging bushfire which destroys the town after its uncovered mirrors focus the sun’s rays onto the surrounding forest!

Later, we get to see the creation of ‘The Handbook of Crime’ written by Terry West, a career criminal who the brothers befriend in the local jail.  Martin edits the book, dividing it into two sections: Crime and Punishment(!).  There are chapters entitled: “Motiveless Crimes: Why?; Armed Robbery: Laughing All the Way from the Bank; Crime and Fashion: Balaclavas Are Always In; The Police and You: How to Spot a Crooked Cop by His Shoes.”

It just goes on and on, spiralling from Poland to Sydney to Paris to Thailand.

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2008, A Fraction lost out to Aravind Adiga’s hugely successful The White Tiger.  Of the other four shortlisted novels that year, I’ve also read Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture: see my review here.  I liked both of these books, but neither is as good as A Fraction.

I found the ending a little ponderous, Jasper Dean, our narrator admits as much, trying to come up with something insightful to summarise the life of his father and life itself.  It’s almost as if Toltz couldn’t summarise the previous 700-odd pages.  But who cares?  It’s a wonderful first novel.  Make the time for it.

A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz

Penguin

2008

ISBN: 9780143009528

711 pages

Source: The Bookshelf Rainbow (aka: personal library).

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A New York Times Bestseller, The Devil in the White City is an historical book that examines the obsessive nature of two men against the backdrop of the World’s Columbian Exposition (known as the World Expo these days) in 1893 in Chicago.  The White City of the title is the astounding neo-classical city created out of nothing for the World Fair as overseen by the architect Daniel Burnham (who designed the Flatiron Building in New York amongst many others).  The other focal point of the book is a man by the name of Henry H. Holmes who lived in the ‘black city’ of Chicago and was one of the worst serial killers (and one of the earliest) of the time.

It is certainly an interesting juxtaposition, this sense of creation on the one hand and destruction without remorse on the other.

What interested me more were the wonderful historical facts that came out of the Fair and the lives of the people who built it.

The book opens with Burnham later in life on his way to London aboard the RMS Olympic.  It is the night of the sinking of the Titanic and he is sending a letter to a man he worked closely with at the Fair.  Needless to say, the man didn’t receive it.

But to the Fair!

Walt Disney’s father, Elias, worked on the construction of the White City.  It is suggested by Larson that Walt’s Magical Kingdom might well had been inspired by the real thing.  There is certainly enough evidence to suggest a world that few people could have possible imagined at the time.  Frank Lloyd Wright was charmed by the wooded island which housed the Japanese temple exhibit, an island that may have inspired his own later architectural endeavours.

The Fair was built on the premise that it had to outdo the Paris Expo of 1889 which gave to the city of light and to the world, the iconic Eiffel Tower.  Chicago – and by association the USA – wanted something to outdo the tower.  Eiffel even offered his services to build a tower for Chicago, an offer that was declined relatively quickly.  Burnham decreed it should not be a tower.  Cue: Mr Ferris and the first Ferris Wheel, something that captured the imagination of the public like nothing before, and of course, it gave people a bird’s eye view of the most majestic skyline in the world.

There were other notable facts that show how history turns.  Take for instance the battle between the direct current of Edison and the alternating current of General Electric.  The later, coming in with a more competitive bid, won the right to light the Fair Grounds and the incandescent bulb, powered by alternating current was pushed to the forefront of the electrifying of the modern world.

The grounds of the fair were designed and constructed by Frederick Olmstead, the man of New York’s Central Park fame.

The miracles are that both obsessions were realised; first, the White City was built in the way it was, providing a year’s worth of delight to a city and pride to its people; and second, the devil, H.H. Holmes, got away with so much for so long, including the gruesome murders of children.

The book is a very interesting read, particularly if you’re a history buff.  For me, I’ll try to remember the White City rather than the Black.

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

Crown Publishers – New York

2003

ISBN: 9780609608449

447 pages (including bibliography & references).

Source: The Bookshelf Rainbow (aka: personal library).

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