Pelagia & The White Bulldog

•May 28, 2009 • 1 Comment
Pelagia & The White Bulldog (Image from Amazon)

Pelagia & The White Bulldog (Image from Amazon)

At first it may seem that this will be a hard book to get through in terms of readability. This is not the case. The narrative voice in this book by Boris Akunin effortlessly moves the reader along. There is just enough description to familiarise the reader with the setting of rural 19th century Russia. Andrew Bromfield has done a great job of translating it from the original Russian.

The book is the first in a series of crime fiction novels by Akunin. Pelagia is a clumsy but intelligent nun in a rural town in Russia who has a gift for solving mysteries. Her partner in this venture is none other than the Archbishop of the region who inadvertently gets the credit and reputation for the crimes and mysteries solved by Pelagia, thereby having more people petition him constantly to help them. Though the Archbishop tries his best to give the nun the credit, the social attitudes of the time conspire against him and Pelagia herself is rather content for others to not know about her adventures.

There is a lot of Orthodox Christianity described in this novel as well as philosophy but it in no way detracts or offends the reader. It exists as a framework for the constraints under which the Archbishop and nun operate and also describes the attitudes of State, Church and society.

Pelagia’s gift is that of keen observation. Something of benefit to her is that others often see her as unassuming or part of the furniture, thereby allowing her to see more of what goes on. This novel starts out with a simple request on the part of the Archbishop’s aunt who asks him to find out who has murdered her bulldog. Too busy to go himself, he sends Pelagia who soon finds herself caught up in a case that by the end of the novel has involved blackmail, theft and several murders (both dog and human) not to mention a lot of corruption that threatens the delicately balanced political nature of the rural town and district. Scandal and twists abound greatly, this is not necessarily a tame read despite the religious natures of the protagonist and her partner. Instead, their religious nature allows them to take an objective view of events which is what helps them solve the mystery in the first place.

At the end of the novel is a courtroom scene that can remind one of the Perry Mason novels. The novel ends with the promise of more cases and mysteries to come and describes perfectly the continual hassle of fixing other people’s problems that the Archbishop (and thereby Pelagia) know of as part of their lives. It may seem obvious as to who the villain is to the reader from the start as the narrator and other characters have no qualms about describing the nature of evil but villain though he is, the end of the novel finds him merely chased out of town while the actual murderer has a different fate. Being as villainous as he is, he makes for the best red herring I have ever come across in a mystery/crime novel, which is one of the many reasons I love this book.

The mystery twists and turns, the actual case is extremely bizarre and slightly gory, the protagonists are completely unexpected and the main villain for most of the book, though evil, is a red herring. Go get this book now, it is an absolute gem.

– Marisa Wikramanayake


May We Borrow Your Husband? (1967)

•May 2, 2009 • 1 Comment
May We Borrow Your Husband? By Graham Green @

May We Borrow Your Husband? By Graham Green @

If you have never before read Graham Greene, then you need to read him now.  With the same sense of humour as P. G. Wodehouse and the same innate curiousity about sex, gender and social mores as Oscar Wilde, he delights in this collection of stories – May We Borrow Your Husband? and other comedies of the sexual life – published in 1967.

These are stories about sexuality, about obessions and desires, about the often confused way in which we go about interacting with people we love or lust after.  Most of these stories are recounted via the first person narrative – usually a middle aged man observing others – which makes you feel even more so than usual that this must have been what was on his mind at the time.

Greene is not shy about discussing stereotypes as they exist or about lampooning people who live up to them or use them liberally. He does so to show the reader the inanity of what we do and that quite often our emotional feeling and behaviour is not borne out of logic or the reality of a situation no matter how much we would like to believe it is.

In fact he portrays how we view the world through our own biased rose coloured glasses. “My publisher. He said he hadn’t read a first novel in the last ten years which showed such powers of observation.” says the young woman in one of the best stories: ‘The Invisible Japanese Gentlemen’. She later on discredits herself admirably at the end by failing to notice the Japanese men in the restaturant. Greene’s narrator sets the story up for us and allows the characters to show themselves. The woman excited but failing to see the reality of her situation while her fiance genuinely alarmed but reserved attempts to detract her from building castles in the sky. She accuses him of not paying attention to what she is saying and not being as observant as she is but at the end as they walk out the door, he muses: “I wonder what all those Japanese are doing here?” to which she replies: “Japanese? … What Japanese, darling?” .

Up until the end of the story, the narrator’s opinion of the two is not confirmed. The reader sees hints but cannot fully believe in the narrator’s characterisation of the couple. This is common in most  of Greene’s short stories. He almost always ends on a note of pathos. You sympathise, you pity but you do not feel that anything has been taken away from the experience of reading the work. In fact, only two stories in this collection end on a happy note: ‘A Shocking Accident’ and ‘Awful When You Think Of It’ .

More importantly, you often go: “Oh, my, I know someone who thinks/feels/behaves/acts just like that!”

My personal picks out of this collection are: ‘Awful When You Think Of It’, ‘The Invisible Japanese Gentlemen’ & ‘Two Gentle People’ . A slight warning however: do not be offended by any stereotypes you come across as Greene describes rather than opines and ‘The Over-Night Bag’ may seem rather macabre to some. In fact, I have to read it again to understand it fully.

I am very much a Graham Greene fan now. Enjoy and post your own two cents in the comments.

– Marisa Wikramanayake

The Book Meme

•February 2, 2008 • 2 Comments

   This was nicked from the fabulous A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook.

Which book do you irrationally cringe away from reading, despite seeing only positive reviews?
That would be usually anything in the top bestseller list at the moment and especially anything that certain kinds of people foist on me and say “You must read this – everyone who has read it loves it!” I figure if everyone loves it, it must be a) something we all know about already and therefore not really entertaining or worth learning and b) someone such as me should rebel.

If you could bring three characters to life for a social event (afternoon tea, a night of clubbing, perhaps a world cruise), who would they be and what would the event be?
I can’t really imagine who I’d want to bring back. I’ll have to think about that one.

(Borrowing shamelessly from the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde): you are told you can’t die until you read the most boring novel on the planet. While this immortality is great for awhile, eventually you realize it’s past time to die. Which book would you expect to get you a nice grave?

Silas Marner by George Elliot. I love her but I hate that book.

Come on, we’ve all been there. Which book have you pretended, or at least hinted, that you’ve read, when in fact you’ve been nowhere near it?

I have aspired to read James Joyce but never read any of his work. I have also pretended to read a few books for class simply because of time issues – books such as Tree Of Man and Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors.

As an addition to the last question, has there been a book that you really thought you had read, only to realize when you read a review about it/go to ‘reread’ it that you haven’t? Which book?

Probably would be a Greek/Roman history/philosophy book. I learnt most of it via osmosis growing up and even though I might get it right, I have only actually read a few of the books. It probably would confuse others andI probably wouldn’t notice their confusion.

You’ve been appointed Book Advisor to a VIP (who’s not a big reader). What’s the first book you’d recommend and why? (if you feel like you’d have to know the person, go ahead of personalise the VIP)

Probably Life Of Pi by Yann Martel, The Thursday Next Series by Jasper Fforde and the complete works of Lewis Carroll. Once the VIP gets his head around the concept of nonsense and absurdism, I figure he or she would be ready to tackle anything else.

A good fairy comes and grants you one wish: you will have perfect reading comprehension in the foreign language of your choice. Which language do you go with? I am going to pick two languages. French because despite there being translations I want to read in the language. And Sinhala because I feel there jsut might be the possibility of finding a lot of fictional stuff that I like in the vast body of literature in that language.

A mischievous fairy comes and says that you must choose one book that you will reread once a year for the rest of your life (you can read other books as well). Which book would you pick?

Ooooh. There’s lots of books I would willingly reread for the rest of my life that way. I probably vend my way through the Complete Works of Lewis Carroll twice a year on average any way. How about Jean Paul Sartre’s What Is Literature?

I know that the book blogging community, and its various challenges, have pushed my reading borders. What’s one bookish thing you ‘discovered’ from book blogging (maybe a new genre, or author, or new appreciation for cover art-anything)? I have been blogging for ages but I am new to the book blogging community. No one has really recommended a book to me that I haven’t read or described one as such that I feel I should try yet.  I guess I am still waiting for someone to notice I am around. 😀 I read so much and so fast that I find my books almost everywhere and so I never have found anything on the book blogs I have visited so far yet – not that I have visited much anyway.

That good fairy is back for one final visit. Now, she’s granting you your dream library! Describe it. Is everything leatherbound? Is it full of first edition hardcovers? Pristine trade paperbacks? Perhaps a few favourite authors have inscribed their works? Go ahead-let your imagination run free.

Chaise lounges. My french escritoire in a corner. Floor to ceiling bookcases with a ladder on wheels. Sections for each genre and I don’t want my library to be one room, I want it to be the entire house. So that inbetween cupboards and the like there are shelves for books – cookbooks in the kitchen and so on. I wouldn’t mind having antiques or collectibles but I would leave them on the shelves to be used as they were meant to be (though perhaps with gloves on while I did so).  I’d put them in cases if they were in danger of falling apart. And I’d want people to use my library – to borrow books and read while they were in my house.

Pass the meme on. 😀

What was the most annoying book you ever read?

•February 2, 2008 • 4 Comments

I have been asking a lot of people this question lately and quite surprisingly this is the question that gets people talking. If you were to ask someone what their favourite book was/is, the response would run from the title to a paragraph. Play the annoying card and you get people telling you huge stories, describing the book in detail as well as their emotional and physical reaction to it. They can and do go on for hours.

But then they turn the question back onto you: “So what was the most annoying book you ever read?” I don’t know how to answer that. Generally if I pick up a book in a store and get annoyed by it, I put it down and forget about it till I next walk into a store or library and see it on a shelf and then my mind registers that I hated it before. The point is you rarely read an annoying book through unless you have to do so for a class, though some people I talked to claimed that the books they had found annoying were also rather deceptive in that they were somehow convinced it would get better as they read on.

So wracking my brains for a book that I had read through to the end that annoyed me was hard though you’d think that it would be much easier since I would otherwise not picked it up at all. Eventually I came up with a list of them.

H Rider Haggard’s King Solomons Mine and She come to mind immediately. For some reason when I first read them as a teenager, they annoyed and bored the life out of me but I read them through. I think it was the first time my inner feminist roared in protest.  But I never got annoyed by any other books in the same sort of vein, just Haggard.

And as much as I love most of Oscar Wilde’s writing, I just could not wait to finish The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Dorian Gray as a character annoyed me from the very first time he was mentioned. I guess that is as valid a reaction to the novel as anything and while I understood that he was meant to be a flawed doomed and a completely unlikeable character, I wanted to throw the book across the room.  The only thing that prevented me from doing that was the fact that it was the Complete Works of Oscar Wilde and so I felt bad about having to treat all his work that way.

The other book I absoultely hated was P.J. O’Rourke’s Holidays From Hell. His tone of disgust that things in anywhere other than the US were so different was way too patronizing for me to handle. I wanted to be right there putting him straight on all the misguided assumptions he was making about the places he had been to. But I guess that’s part of the risk of reading travel books – people might just say something you don’t like. 🙂 Nevertheless, the display of his ignorance of world history, culture and politics though he claims to be a political pundit left me wishing I hadn’t wasted the time  and effort of reading him. And now I am even going off Bill Bryson because it seems like he has started to whine and whinge a lot lately.

So what was the book that annoyed you the most? And do you agree or disagree with any of my choices?

The Book of Lost Books: An Incomplete History of All The Great Books You’ll Never Read (2006)

•June 5, 2007 • Leave a Comment

I have to admit that at first when I picked this up – I thought it was going to be a book sized rant on novels that everyone claims to have read but haven’t actually touched – such as Ulysses by James Joyce.

The idea proposed was scary. Who wants to think about all the great stories and ideas one would have missed out on because the authors died or were discouraged from writing them or once written the stories were lost or destroyed? We want to think that literature survives forever. For those among us who are bibliophiles, be us writers or readers, we want to think that literature is what gives us purpose in life. This is why we are here. But it doesn’t last.

Perhaps that is a good thing – perhaps we would run out of ‘original’ things to write about if some of the last writing on certain topics weren’t destroyed for all eternity. However now, Stuart Kelly makes us face a long and what he reminds us as being an incomplete list of all the literary works that we know to be missing. He also reminds us that there is no doubt a huge body of work that we don’t even know the exact existence of in order to begin looking for it or commiserating its loss.
Continue reading ‘The Book of Lost Books: An Incomplete History of All The Great Books You’ll Never Read (2006)’

The City Of Dreaming Books (2006)

•June 3, 2007 • 1 Comment

        It has been awhile since I have actually read a book that reminds me so much of Lewis Carroll’s work but Walter Moers’ work does.

When I first picked this book up in the bookstore three doors down from my flat, I wasn’t expecting much more than a children’s book would possibly offer. Weird monsters and creatures and a lot of the kind of gory and wonderful stuff that people assume children like. And yes there was a little bit of that. But there was also a lot more.
Continue reading ‘The City Of Dreaming Books (2006)’

Walter Moers (1957 – )

•June 3, 2007 • Leave a Comment

Birthdate: 24th May 1957
Nationality: German
Best known for: His comic characters and more recently the Zamonia series.

He has published work since 1984 and his best known work is to do with the German comic characters “Little Asshole”, “Old Curmudgeon” and “Adolf, the Nazi Pig”. He hates being photographed and very rarely gives interviews. Since 1985, he has been publishing books for children.
Continue reading ‘Walter Moers (1957 – )’