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‘A Kiss Before Dying’, I. Levin

I can remember reading ‘The Boys from Brazil’ sometime last year. I never thought much else of Ira Levin although I really enjoyed that book. Yesterday, it was time to choose another one, and for some reason my pick fell on ‘A Kiss Before Dying’. The author, again, Ira Levin.

I enjoyed his previous book I read very much—indeed, so much that I had to wonder why I had not written a word on it last year when I finished the title. I wish I knew… However, I definitely wanted to offer a few thoughts on this one.

Ira Levin’s quality, compared to other thriller writers (such as John Grisham), seems to be very good at making us think twice of who we want to come out on top in this particular engagement. Admittedly, I have only read two or three of Mr Grisham’s books, but in those I always rooted for the ‘victim’. I wanted them to escape, and them to ‘win’. With Mr Levin, this simple question is more complex.

The character of the detective in ‘The Boys from Brazil’ was so evil and repulsive and autocratic in itself I did not want him to win. The victims in ‘A Kiss Before Dying’ speak to me on a personal level, however. I wanted them to not die. It was not fair they perished while the murderer lived. Plus, some of the plot twists that came up, I could not have predicted them despite all the books I have read.

The murders in ‘The Boys from Brazil’ did not happen because of personal gain or evil motives.  The murders in ‘A Kiss Before Dying’ happened exactly because of that. Maybe that makes all the difference. I am unsure. All that I know is that it is Mr Levin who made it appear so. Maybe I should feel it for the detective who tries to impose his own black-and-white on the world, and maybe I should feel it for the impoverished man who wants money. I don’t really know.

What made me most sympathetic to the cause of the people in this book was that halfway through the second part, I realised that I did not know who the killer was. The writer had played it well. I immediately appreciated the book that much more. Much like yesterday when I mentioned the importance of characters whose name is not mentioned by the writer, the second part in this work used a similar device. It was something different from the usual and for that it truly deserved my gratitude. There are too many ‘usual’ books.

As the Introduction to the edition I read said, it “It’s not fair.” The culprit in this book might have been that for the reason that the same Introduction postulates, “He hates women.” I really can’t say. The book might make one think different. All that I know is that I have a few friends who would enjoy this book, and that I thought of a few for whom this book might be a good gift. The lines flew by, and their tone made them that much more important.

As it is, I can predict what is to happen in some of the scenes and yet I cannot believe Mr Levin goes on with it. The foreword echoes these thoughts. Or maybe it precedes them. It was written beforehand, after all, even if I did not read it. But that’s that. For now, pick up a book by Ira Levin. Read that book. Think of that book.

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‘The Inn at the Edge of the World’, A. Ellis

I chose this book after my previous one because of the name. The name looked promising; I thought I had found a dramatic piece to read. Having finished it, I am less certain in that point, but I have to admit that I enjoyed the book.

For me, the title, ‘The Inn at the Edge of the World’, creates an image of an old house at the very edge of a cliff, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean (and I think it would be the Atlantic even if we were to talk about an American book with the same name). I was slightly mistaken since this inn has been placed on an island in the Hebrides. That setting, however, might be slightly more suitable! It certainly does justice to the image of the edge of the world (or civilization).

There are many interesting things going on in this book, but what disturbs me most is the ending. I didn’t think it logical or character-specific (for one of the two, at least). But, in a way, I suppose I understand it. It is, however, synonymous with a book that never describes the people in it in too much detail — always glossing over the details that could matter in understanding.

I would also say that it is worthy keeping in mind the good advice that if an author has not named a character, there must be a reason for it. And in this book there are a few who are without names, so I would suggest people to keep an eye out for that.

One of the impressions I got was that the author very much wanted to write a book about Gordon herself. Is the echo of the man in this work a show of respect and understanding? In many ways, I think it is, for such a literary device is splendid when used properly (and whatever mistakes in characterising people the author may have done, the passages that refer to Gordon are wonderful). Indeed, the way that the intermixed passages pique interest in the man is actually very artfully composed — for some reason it feels that more thought has gone into these lines than into the rest of the book.

So, I would say that in case you want to think of the Hebrides or Gordon, read this book.

However, firstly a word of warning. One part of this book I found very suffocating was the very old fashioned moral and social structure that the characters seemed to be upholding in their minds. The innkeeper is a good example and so are a few of the guests. At times, I nearly found that too much, an echo of times that should have disappeared. Yet, the words and lines felt so strong and real and intended…

In many ways, perhaps, I dare add as a final comment, the book serves as a reminder that we all want to escape every now and then. We want to do something unexpected, out of the ordinary. How many of us go through with those thoughts?

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‘Cloud Road’, J. Harrison

This book started out very slow — my thoughts on its quality ranging from one extreme to the other. After all, how can we describe the wonders of the Andes in mere words? Especially with the skill the author was displaying to begin with. But, and this is the crucial issue, the author’s style changed half-way through the book and that was definitely for the better.

First, I’ll add that Mr Harrison included a very helpful number of comments on the areas he passed through, musing over their history and politics when he could. In a way, therefore, this book acted both as a history of the Tahuantinsuyu as well as the people there — something far different from the single-minded travel writing I had expected. And that was a very good change for not only did I learn plenty of the history of the places, I would now know to look at these places were I to go to Peru. In a way, therefore, it was not so much as a travel book than a guide, and that side of the book really does need to be praised.

The style of the author was excellent in the last three sections of the book. I do not know what changed, but the tone became more resigned and therefore more powerful. If an author is unwilling to write of how things are, then the words feel forced and the story suffers. But, as soon as Mr Harrison got past the first obstacles of that kind, his prose took on an eloquent form, intermixed with humour and tangents on geography/history/politics.

That is one of my main reasons for liking this work as much as I do. Especially since based on the beginning of the book I was doubting whether there would be value in reading it to the end, but I am very happy I did so.

The one other aspect that the author describes which is not usually seen in travelogues are the emotions that he goes through. I believe that this is part of what makes the book feel more real. These emotions also guarantee that there are more stories than the one of the walk down the Inca’s Royal Road, and I found it interesting to try to figure out what would happen. Therefore, I have to say that in many ways there was only one way this book could have ended.

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‘Bride. Russian Beauty’, W. Kandinsky

Bride. Russian Beauty.

I found an interesting initiative on Facebook where the works of artists are trolleyed around to display more art of all kinds. The artist I ended up displaying to everyone was Wassily Kandinsky and since I had not heard of him before today (to the best of my memory), I ended up scrolling through his works. ‘Bride. Russian Beauty’ captivated my interest for that split second I need to make that decision, and there it is. My first glance on it was interested but not that committed. By now, I think it is a very interesting work with great depth and emotion.

In many ways, this scene is very much alive. It displays the emotion mentioned above and depth of feeling. There is beauty and strength, and yet the infinite Russian sadness exists. And, I think that this is in many ways the point of the image. Beyond that, I do not want to put to words what I see in the picture, since I think that would destroy the image. But, I trust that you, the reader, can look at it as well as I can — and you can see if you sense any of what I have just described.

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Amazon’s 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime

Since I could not think of much else to comment on right now (too many thoughts and too few anchors, if that makes sense), I decided to comment on the recently posted list by Amazon on 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime.

I have said this before, but I generally abhor lists of these kinds. They are not constructive, nor are they helpful when choosing a book for tomorrow’s reading. They are simply lists of things a person is meant to achieve because someone (in this case, Amazon) says so. This list has been created by similarly random rules (and even if somehow democratic, I am not certain that would create a more representative or better list of books).

Now, probably on one fine day in the distant future, I will make a list of this sort myself, but before that day I would rather recommend books I know to people on an individual basis. I think this is a better approach since people’s personal approaches to topics also detail that different books apply to different people. And people don’t need to read a hundred books aimed at everyone. They need to find and read and enjoy the five (ten?fifteen?) aimed at them. So maybe that should be our next goal?

Back to the topic at hand. What do I think of this list? It is certainly an interesting one. I have not read the majority of books there… I have read eight, I think. Closer inspection might bring that number to ten, but the two are not firm enough in my mind that I would say I have read them.

Of these eight, not all are what I consider good books (‘On the Road’, while maybe good in a practical sense is truly bad in a technical one). In my opinion, some of the listed are not the best books by the writer (‘The Silmarillion’ is of a higher quality of writing than ‘The Lord of the Rings’), and some others are very ‘compulsory’ (‘Lolita’, ‘Catch-22’, ‘The Catcher in the Rye’). That does not necessarily mean they are good or bad, but rather that they feature in nearly every list. In many ways, ‘Ulysses’ (which Amazon has ignored) is part of lists largely for the reason that people think they should have read it. And people really don’t need to read things they don’t like when there is plenty of what they would like out there.

A list, if I were to compile one, would probably include more science fiction titles but I cannot pinpoint the ones I would choose. Also, probably more German and Japanese writers as well (and I do not think I would ignore Borges) as they do generally seem to be underrated by the Western (well, Anglo-American) populations. But, it would be a list as every other list and have its great built-in weaknesses.

And that leads me to conclude that as little as I like lists, their probably benefit has been achieved if they have managed to make one more person who was not reading before to pick up a book. Either from that list of a hundred, or from their own bookshelf, or from a friend they know. Let us all go and read!

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Royal Navy: Steam, Steel & Dreadnoughts

There are many comments I could make about this series, but I think the major point that I will make is that it is average all round. Average, or even below that. Now, I am generally well versed in the 18th and 19th century naval histories, and that led me to think that this program could provide for a general overview of the entire history of the Royal Navy. I was mistaken.

Why was I mistaken would be the question to answer, but I’ll first describe what the series was made up of. The episodes concentrated on the history on a periodical basis. The first episode started by looking at the period from 1500 to 1599, the following ones continued by looking at 1600 to 1805, 1806 to 1918, and lastly 1919 to the ‘Present Day’. So, there exists a continuity in time that tries to demonstrate how and why changes took place in the Royal Navy. But, the way in which this happens is very haphazard.

The Anglo-Dutch wars are covered in good detail as is Trafalgar and Jutland. Sir Francis Drake’s adventures including Gravelines are also quite well documented. But what is entirely missing is the notion that anyone else could have been the source of the triumphs of Nelson, and this is the case generally throughout all the episodes. Neither is his victory in Copenhagen mentioned. Thankfully, Jellicoe’s actions in Jutland are supported by the narration although that wording is still weak. In many ways this series could instead be called “Nelson’s Navy”.

And that is where my misgivings start. Nelson was one of the finer admirals of the Royal Navy, but the show completely ignored that Nelson would possibly not have been in the position he was in had he not served under John Jervis in his earlier days. Nor do they mention the great and innovative victories by the same sir John. Lord Howe is completely ignored though he was the first of the admirals in the Revolutionary War to bring home a resounding victory. Likewise, his negotiations with the sailors were very important. A further event which I felt should have been mentioned was the trial of Admiral Byng. In many ways, that trial had to distinctly alter how officers felt about their duty.

And if I now take into account these inaccuracies (or, rather, omissions) in the period with which I am most familiar, the question becomes naturally what has happened to the periods that I am not as familiar with. The authors could have omitted similarly important or tradition-building events, and I would not have a clue. Which is, in the end, the main reason for me being disappointed by this series.

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