Book Diary Special – ‘Perfidia’ by James Ellroy

Friday 12th September – paused Friday 3rd October

Hmmmm. What to write? I don’t want to say too much as I am less than a fifth of the way through the book, and so there is plenty of opportunity for me opinions to change. However, I can’t get away from the fact that I am disappointed with it. I’m beginning to come around to the idea that James Ellroy’s best writing is at least a decade in the past, if not actually over two decades ago. I remember finding ‘Blood’s a Rover’ an underwhelming and overly political, overly wordy conclusion to the Underworld USA trilogy, and ‘Perfidia’ seems to have picked up in the same vein. The biggest flaw I can see so far is that it seems that Ellroy has written the book simply to crowbar as many of his favourite characters from previous novels into the same narrative as possible. Not only that, but he is revising their histories and insodoing slightly undermining the strength of the previous (and better) work. Finally, his preoccupation with making the majority of his characters as flawed and compromised as possible only serves to make the suspension of disbelief more challenging.

* * * * *

Resumed 18th October – Sunday 2nd November

I wrote the above before pausing the book and moving on to a couple of quicker reads. I then reluctantly went back to ‘Perfidia’ and a very strange thing happened: it all clicked. Suddenly, the characters weren’t as frustrating, the prose wasn’t so overwrought and I zipped through the remaining 550 pages at a much faster rate. In fact, the last 300 pages were read inside about 72 hours as my enjoyment snowballed.

The thing that I found most impressive (and I expect I will continue to be impressed by) was the consistency with the later books. I am looking forward to the next three editions of this quartet to see just how James Ellroy ties the various threads of his imaginary Los Angeles together so that the lives of these recurring characters arrive at the points they should be come the start of the novels in the later (set) LA Quartet. Given his ability to weave half a dozen threads together in each novel, I’m confident that this is well withing JE’s grasp.

Despite its great length, I will definitely re-read this – probably embarking on an epic string of Ellroy upon the publication of the final volume, and maybe even tying it in with the first Quartet for an even more ambitious 8-book chronological extravaganza.

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Book Diary – September and October 2014

‘Intrusion’ by Ken MacLeod

Saturday 6th September – Thursday 11th September

This was a leaving present from Lili, and came highly recommended. In the end, I think I read it in about five large chunks rather than steadily and consistently. While I don’t think Ken MacLeod is a brilliant writer, he had some great ideas and managed to make the book very readable. The future society he created was very convincing and there were some original ideas in there too, for example the idea that trees had been genetically modified to process more greenhouse gases and so were causing the climate to change just as dramatically as it is in reality, but instead it was making the planet colder, not warmer. If this book had a weakness it would be the ending. It was hard to predict where the book was going, but when the ending came it came suddenly and seemed a little contrived and vaguely explained. However, I was reading late at night, so it could be the case that the last couple of chapters would be better served by a second reading. That shouldn’t detract totally from what was otherwise an entertaining and diverting novel.

‘The Treasure Hunt’ by Andrea Camilleri

Saturday 4th October – Friday 10th October

Taking a break from ‘Perfidia’ I decided the best plan was to whizz through a Montalbano novel as these provide a refreshingly light read whenever called upon.

This was no different, and though it took me a whole six days to read, this was more down to the lack of opportunity to read at work than the readability of the book itself.

‘A Season with Verona’ by Tim Parks

Saturday 11th October – Friday 17th October

Having enjoyed the break from Perfidia, I decided to read another. I picked this out from the pile of unread books as it pandered to my interest in both Italy and Italian football. Clearly, I got through it very quickly – 450-odd pages in less than a week. However, that shouldn’t disguise the fact that it was a disappointment.

I think the author was aiming to write a travel book about football, and in both cases he falls short. In all honesty, the book is neither fish nor fowl. It’s not a fly-on-the-wall account of the Hellas Verona season, nor is it an undercover-reporter style account of Tim Parks’ travels with the hardcore Hellas supporters. Nor for that matter is it an examination of the regional peculiarities of Italy seen through the lens of football.

After a while, I came to the conclusion that this was a diary, even though it isn’t presented as that. What frustrated me even more was that while the author attends every match, there are a handful of games where the performance is so bad that he simply mentions that he doesn’t want to dwell upon them and so they aren’t discussed. Overall, a book for which I had high hopes and was disappointed. I’m not sure I’d bother reading it again.

Book Diary – August 2014

‘L.A. Confidential’ by James Ellroy

Friday 1st August – Tuesday 12th August

Taking a break from ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ and in preparation for the imminent publication of ‘Perfidia’, I decided to treat myself to a James Ellroy. I re-read my favourite, ‘White Jazz’ a couple of years ago, so I was then torn between either ‘L.A. Confidential’ and ‘American Tabloid’ – and as you can see, ‘L.A. Confidential’ won.

It’s difficult to properly articulate what a brilliant writer James Ellroy is. I think I may have tried before, but I probably failed then and will fail again now. The only reason that he is not head-and-shoulders above all others in my esteem is because his early novels are not all that amazing. However, nobody can make neon-tinted sleaze seem so gloriously admirable as JE. ‘L..A. Confidential’ is a prime example. Anyone who has seen the film will be familiar with elements of the story, but despite that film’s 18-rating, it barely scratches the surface of the depravity and cruelty of the novel, and yet there are few books I have read that can match this for sheer excitement and readability.

‘The Shock of the New’ by Robert Hughes

Thursday 24th October 2013 – Wednesday 3rd September 2014

Feeling arty, I decided to take a break from the procession of Zens in December and get my teeth into something more challenging and educational.

In the end, it took me a long time to read the book. The first few chapters were slow and heavy going, and it was only when I resumed reading in August 2014 that I finally made some rapid progress.

This is often the case with more ‘intellectual’ books. The early pages are establishing the context for everything that follows, and so often contain a lot of disparate information (or so it seems at first).

I’m also concerned that most of the information went straight through my head without registering too closely on the brain as it passed. There is almost too much to take in and too much competition for an already stretched attention budget when reading in the environment of a workplace kitchen at lunchtime.

Book Diary – July 2014

‘August Heat’ by Andrea Camilleri

Thursday 10th July  

Finished inside a day! And a work day at that.

As this is the fifth or sixth Montalbano book I’ve read, there isn’t a great deal more I can add to what I’ve already written. Suffice to say, the books are an absolute pleasure to read despite their often sleazy subject matter. It’s no surprise that I’ll be following this with another straight away (although this is influenced by the impending library deadline to a certain extent).

‘The Track of Sand’ by Andrea Camilleri

Friday 11th July

Two days, two books. I’m on a roll! It’s unlikely that I will continue at this rate though.

 

‘The Architecture of Happiness’ by Alain de Botton

Sunday 13th July – Sunday 20th July

I probably profess to like a great number of things, greater than I can possibly devote enough time to in order to sustain a decent level of interest. However, despite this I will now claim to like architecture. One of the best bits of a trip to London is looking at the new, modern blocks of apartments rising from the ground as the train passes through Stratford and the like. I have also been known to watch repeats of Grand Designs, so what more evidence would I possibly need to provide that I Like Architecture?!

It’s this interest which prompted me to borrow this book from the library and I was richly rewarded. It’s not a long book, and many of its 267 pages are occupied with photos literally illustrating the point Alain De Botton is making. Despite that, there are a lot of interesting points raised and thoughts provoked.

He has some very interesting theories regarding attractiveness, the meaning of the home, fashion and our duty to replace the natural beauty of the countryside with something more attractive rather than endless mass-produced identikit homes. As somebody who has occasionally entertained the idea of building his own home, this book gave me a lot to think about.

‘The Apple’ by Michael Faber

Sunday 20th July

Following on from ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ comes this collection of short stories.

Now, I’m not normally a fan of short stories. I often feel that if the idea were good enough it would be written into a full-length novel and as such many books of short stories are little more than collections of half-formed ideas and unfinished work – closer to a sketchbook than the finished canvas of the novel.

However, this book is somehow different. Each story really is a story and despite being a little different from what I am accustomed to reading, I really enjoyed it. In fact, in a bout of insomnia, I finished the book in one evening. I would definitely recommend this to anyone, but especially those who have read ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ as I think the background knowledge does add something to the enjoyment of the shorter stories.

 

Book Diary – May/June 2014

‘Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football’ by David Winner

Wednesday 28th May – Sunday 1st June

As can be seen from the fact that I read this book inside five days, I enjoyed it. However, it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting.

There was very little in the way of a history of the clubs and football in the Netherlands. Instead, it was a series of interviews with ex-players, mostly involved in the legendary Dutch/Ajax teams of the early 1970s which discussed specific events and subjects which influenced the footballing ‘personality’ of the Dutch team; how Dutch society had changed since WW2 and how this was reflected in the football; and where the national team went from there. In that sense, it had more in common with something like Jonathan Wilson’s ‘A History of England in Ten Matches’ than a straighforward historical account.

As a result, it was an interesting book but at the same time felt like a brief overview of something more detailed.

‘The Patience of the Spider’ by Andrea Camilleri

Tuesday 3rd June – Friday 6th June

As always, in the aftermath of a long book, I wanted to zip through a couple of quicker volumes. After Brilliant Orange I was tempted by another football book, Calcio, but opted for something equally Italian but less testing on the brain.

In this case, I chose another Montalbano novel, and as always I enjoyed it. It was the perfect alternative to a long, in-depth story. I’m always impressed by how Andrea Camilleri manages to squeeze so much story into so few words.

‘Watchmen’ by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Friday 6th June – Sunday 8th June

Having seen the film and heard very good things about this book, I decided to give it a go. As you may have surmised from my love of Tintin and my reading of Waltz With Bashir a while ago, I’m quite open to the idea of graphic novels as a form of story-telling.

First of all, I was impressed by how closely the film had followed the book. At the time it was criticised for following it too closely but for me that is rarely a problem.

Secondly, I was struck by how bleak the book was. The film wasn’t the usual superheroes-in-primary-coloured-spandex fare, but the book is significantly darker even than that. There is little in the way of hope or optimism, and many of the characters end the book compromised by the unfolding events. I was also impressed by how well the characters were conveyed to the reader through nothing more than dialogue and some pretty standard comic book drawing.

All in all, a very satisfying read, though not one to lift the spirits.

‘Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith

Sunday 8th June – Sunday 22nd June

Another novel whose reputation preceded it, I picked this up at a bargain price several months ago having heard good things from several sources. Fancying a change from football books or anything intellectual/educational, Emma helped me plump for Gorky Park.

I finished the book feeling ever so slightly uncertain. This can probably be explained by the fact that the novel doesn’t follow the traditional detective-story path and kept me guessing throughout. Also, I must be honest and say that my attention span has not been at its best recently and so there is a chance that I was kept guessing by my inability to follow a marginally more complicated plot than usual rather than because the book was overly cryptic.

One thing was for certain, Tom Rob Smith had replicated several elements of this story in his Child 44 and Secret Speech novels. Having read these first, I think Gorky Park lost something of the credit it deserved for originality and so my feeling for it are perhaps not as positive as it deserves. I would like to think that in a few years time I will pick it up again and re-read it and hopefully appreciate it more.

‘Calcio – A History of Italian Football’ by John Foot

Monday 23rd June – Wednesday 9th July

A very interesting but slightly flawed account of football in Italy.

This was much more the sort of book I was expecting when I read ‘Brilliant Orange’ at the end of May, covering everything from the histories of various famous clubs to the nature of the media coverage and even some notable referees.

The problems come from the way the book is organised. Rather than tell it as a linear history he splits it by subject which means that at times he is obliged to reference the same anecdote one multiple occasions. Secondly, several of the accounts of the older players and clubs are very brief and based almost entirely on rather laboured folk tales. Clearly, John Foot cannot be blamed for a lack of reliable evidence in these cases.

Where the book is at its best is when dealing in greater detail with more recent events such as calciopoli and the World Cup successes in the 1982 and 2006 competitions and the creative accounting which has kept some of the biggest clubs afloat in recent years.

It’s these better sections which make the book well worth reading, and a fascinating insight into a footballing culture which is so different from England’s in many ways.

Book Diary Special – The Lord Of The Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

Saturday 19th April – Tuesday 27th May

As a bit of a holiday treat, after finishing the latest section of ‘The Embarrassment of Riches’ and with a week in Amsterdam looming, I decided it was time to treat myself, and so returned to possibly my favourite book of all time – The Lord Of The Rings.

As a teenager, I read this book every summer holidays from the age of eleven onwards. However, it is probably the best part of a decade since I last read it, possibly more. As a result I was more familiar with the films than the books even though I didn’t realise it until I was deep into the books.

The book itself is just as wonderful as I remembered, though I will admit that I found the very end a bit of a drag. I’d also forgotten how hierarchical the society was (Sam is much more of a servant to Frodo in the book than he is in the films), but I can only assume this is an (un)conscious reflection of the society at the time Tolkien was writing. I also found that the style of the prose changed from chapter to chapter, which made me wonder if it was written at vastly different times and then stitched together later.

The greatest thing about the story is how it could still entrance me even though I am probably more familiar with the story and the book itself than any other.I still find the Black Riders creepy and the book retains its tension despite repeated reading.

I was also suprised how much it makes me want to live in Middle Earth. Even though the times are dark and the events of the book change many things irrevocably, I can’t help but think that there is something appealing about the whole place.

Book Diary – March and April 2014

‘The Voice of the Violin’ by Andrea Camilleri

Sunday 9th March – Monday 10th March

After the lengthy tome that was ‘Nobody Ever Says Thank You’, I decided that what was needed was a quick read, a lightweight bit of escapism. This arrived in the form of a Montalbano novel. The only downside was that this meant I had skipped from book one to book four of the series – anyone who knows me will know that I don’t like reading series’ out of order.

However, one of the good things about the Montalbano series which is true of both the books and the TV episodes is that while there is an ongoing story in the background (Salvo’s up and down relationship with Livia etc.), it rarely plays a crucial part in the plot of a specific novel and so it is possible to read them out of order without spoiling any major developments.

As with the others I have read, this is a well-written piece of sunny escapism despite the grim tale being told. While these will never be considered great literature, it was a very welcome change of scene and pace from ‘Nobody Ever Says Thank You’.

‘The Embarrassment of Riches – An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age’ by Simon Schama

Tuesday 11th March – paused Wednesday 26th March, resumed Sunday 30th March, paused Wednesday 11th April

After reading the introduction, I was dreading the prospect of facing another six hundred pages of this book. However, once into the text, things improved quite a bit.

As you will have noticed, I did pause it a couple of times and moved off onto something lighter. This shouldn’t be taken as a criticism of this book, which was very interesting.

What I love most about reading books such as this

‘The Terracotta Dog’ by Andrea Camilleri

Thursday 27th March – Saturday 29th March

I paused ‘The Embarrassment of Riches’ at the end of the first chapter, having found the latter portion of that section a little over my head. For something lighter, I turned to another of the Montalbano novels.

To be honest, I could repeat many of the comments in the write-up of ‘The Voice of the Violin’, but I won’t, if only in the name of brevity and originality. It ticked all the same boxes and provided a nice relief from the slower progress of Simon Schama’s book.

Tintin: The Art of Herge

Sunday 13th April – Wednesday 16th April

It’s probably a little misleading to say that I read this book, as over three quarters of the pages are covered with illustrations rather than text. This would explain how I managed to work my way through over four hundred pages inside three days.

This is, without doubt, one of the most wonderful books I own. As regular readers of this blog might know, I am a big fan of Tintin and Herge’s art, and so to have a book filled with everything from rough sketches to perfect reproductions of frames from the books is a joy in itself. The text is interesting and informative without going into too much detail and distracting from the main focus which is of course the art. Even though this is a companion to the Musee Herge and so probably is in effect the museum in paper form, it has made me more keen to see it in the flesh rather than less so.