‘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.

‘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?

‘The Blue Summit’, R. Taguchi

There’s a stillness here that’s like the stillness you find in the snowy, bleak plains of Siberia.
— Taguchi, Randy (2012-11-20). Fujisan (p. 3). AmazonEncore. Kindle Edition.

I read ‘The Blue Summit’ as the first of the three short stories in Randy Taguchi’s book ‘Fuji-san’. This book has taken Mt Fuji as the central theme as far as I can see after having read the first story and the introduction, and tries to present a few narratives around this central character. I originally thought that it sounds like quite a good idea — after having read the first story, I am no longer as confident.

Why I am not as confident is that the story felt forced. It was certainly interesting, but I also felt that it didn’t have flow as I expected a story to have. Reading it felt like reading something the author wrote because he had to write it — not because the story wanted to be told. In general, I am not a fan of authors who write like that.

Maybe this feeling was as prevalent because the story tried to be more serious than it should have been. By this I mean that while the story was serious, my main problem is that this seriousness felt forced — as I mentioned in the paragraph above. I think Mr Taguchy would have done far better if he had tried to write a somewhat lighter story.

It is not even that the author writes badly — there is a lot of material in this story that could be considered “quotable”. It’s just that I don’t get the feeling that these words enjoy having been put down on paper, and that certainly diminishes the joy I get from reading them.

And that is part of the reason why I’ll read someone else next. I’ll get back to the two remaining stories in this book for they are not long and I want to take a look at them, but before that I’ll read something that I know wants to be read.

As far as words go, there are two kinds in my book: words used for conveying some meaning, and words used for other purposes. I am able to understand words used for conveying one matter or another, but I am unable to understand words used for any other end. Or it may be that I refuse to understand.
— Taguchi, Randy (2012-11-20). Fujisan (p. 17). AmazonEncore. Kindle Edition.

 

EDIT (30/06/2013): I somehow managed to write the author’s name down wrong in the title. This unfortunate error has been fixed now.

‘J. Edgar’

John Edgar Hoover seems to have been a very interesting man — he more or less created the Federal Bureau of Investigation along with its criminal science methodology as well as the administrative processes. However, the man also had a different side: one of craving power and one ready to go to all lengths to keep himself in the top. For Mr Hoover, there was nothing else except the top.

Clint Eastwood’s movie, ‘J. Edgar’, wishes to bring light to this man, and I would say he succeeds quite well. Throughout the movie, we are introduced to a young J. Edgar who is building the Bureau while being kept in the loop of the story by the old J. Edgar — with the old man juggling Presidents and Attorney Generals to keep himself at his ‘meant’ position.

What I maybe appreciated most in the entire movie was the scene near the end where Clyde Tolson and J. Edgar Hoover were talking about the book that the Director recited for the majority of the film. That scene is a perfect introduction to the question of what is truth and how we find it, and it serves as a warning to anything we may learn from others: for inevitably there has been some sort of bias in the story and it can be quite difficult in trying to figure out where that bias lies.

I am also quite taken in by the way ‘loyalty’ was portrayed in this movie. Nearly any action could be taken as a betrayal by the man in charge, so how would truthfulness and honesty be known? Can we even talk of loyalty in a situation like this? It would seem to me that a man who is as J. Edgar was portrayed in the movie would have a few really good friends — and in these his trust would be unlimited. And, yet, that is not quite what we see: at different points he still mistrusts everyone around himself, and I think that to be a refreshing look.

For it is a look of fear. With nothing set in stone, everything can change at the press of one button or the mention of one word. It is not often that the main character is both as strong and as paranoid as the one we have in this movie, and I think that makes for a very positive difference when watching ‘J. Edgar’.

‘Black Wind’, C. Cussler

I generally find that mentioning the better parts about books is the way forward. Unfortunately, while I really do enjoy Clive Cussler, ‘Black Wind’ wasn’t really for me — and by that I mean that it was weak. Sure, Mr Cussler’s works are generally predictable but they are also usually a lot of fun. I am not certain I would use those terms about ‘Black Wind’. Something gave way here.

I read this one just slightly after ‘Arctic Drift’ and I have to say that there is a very marked difference between the two books. I haven’t yet commented on the other one, but I probably will at some point in the not too distant future. Until that time, I would say that if one is interested in the adventures of Dirk Pitt, it would be probably best to try something other than this book.

I am not quite certain why I found the book this weak, but the plot — a crazed Korean magnate who wants to destroy the American power base while uniting the Koreas under a singular leadership with the occasional use of WMDs — suffered a bit under the pretense that it wanted to be more. Sure, it was just as ridiculous as the average Dirk Pitt novel and I did not mind that — but it could be that this time round the villain was a bit too dark and evil. A bit too unbelievable perhaps…

I am not certain that was the actual problem, but if I had to guess the main setback I think I would go with that option. As an aside, Goodreads shows that ‘Black Wind’ does have one of the lower ratings (though still quite high at 3.77) of Mr Cussler’s books so maybe it is not just me who found this one the weaker link.

I will however point out that the naval knowledge gained by reading this is superb — the Imperial Japanese I-400 submarines are a very important character, and I was quite surprised to learn about their aerial capabilities. Something that people don’t really expect from submarines, I guess…

Overall, I would say that reading this book will be a good addition to the Mr Cussler Reading List, but there is no reason to expect it to be the best of the author you’ll read.

‘One Day’, D. Nicholls

He wanted to live life in such a way that if a photograph were taken at random, it would be a cool photograph.
— Nicholls, David (2009-07-23). One Day (Kindle Locations 150-151). Hachette Littlehampton. Kindle Edition.

Having recently commented on ‘Starter for Ten’ with the main thought that I liked ‘One Day’ better, it is only fair of me to actually say why my mind makes it so. Hence, my thoughts on this novel.

To start out, I think that ‘One Day’ is made brilliant by the way we’re taken into the story. This method is taking one day from a number of years showing how the relationship between the two characters progresses. For some reason, it reminds me of Thornton Wilder’s ‘The Ides of March’ that has a letter-structure which immediately appealed to me when I read that book (that was years ago though). ‘One Day’s day-by-day approach is something very similar in many ways, and I think I might just be incredibly biased towards these somewhat more innovative ways of storytelling. So, I’d say that it could be worth approaching this part of my praise with a pinch of salt…

From the above, the reader can take away that I am very appeased by the way the story has been built. And that is true with more than the style and method employed — the way in which Mr Nicholls manages to include letters, postcards, and thoughts in the story is quite remarkable. To bring a rather bad example, if something in a letter of his character’s gets crossed out, that fact remains there (for us). Which is, after all, what actually happens. The thought was there, only in a maybe censored for the other people (but how often is it actually censored for the others?).

To jump back to an earlier point, it could be that the comparison with ‘The Ides of March’ is a bit more apt for the return and rehash of events that slowly comes to pass. Yes, we go onwards in time, but we also go back. In the end, we learn of the day that Dexter and Emma could have had, and we learn of what they had. And that discovery is very much to my liking. It is built in a climatic and beautiful way, and I believe I can appreciate that in a novelists style.

I also don’t think I’m wrong if I say that the characters here feel more real to me than in other works by Mr Nicholls that I’ve read. It could just be that I can better relate to their human search in a life after university, but there’s certainly something appealing for me there. There’s the question of what shall I do tomorrow, and how shall I do it with. And those questions are always worth asking.

Anything else I should note? Probably… Namely, I’ve heard that some people have not quite always appreciated the ending for this book. I understand the wish to not like it… but I would also say that it feels believable for me. It builds on another way of looking at life, and that way should remind us of what every day is there for.

What is your tomorrow for?

He’s a better person when she’s around, and isn’t that what friends are for, to raise you up and keep you at your best?
— Nicholls, David (2009-07-23). One Day (Kindle Locations 2382-2383). Hachette Littlehampton. Kindle Edition.

‘Starter for Ten’, D. Nicholls

David Nicholls is an author with whose works I have been acquainted with for a while now. I’ve read ‘One Day’ and ‘The Understudy’, so it was only natural that ‘Starter for Ten’ would come by my way sooner or later. It might be that having read ‘One Day’ previously made me somewhat biased to the action in ‘Starter for Ten’, but I’ll get into that in a moment.

Overall, my impression of the book was favourable. But exactly how favourable? After reading the novel, I don’t think there were many other ways it could have ended. Which is not at all to say that I am pleased with how it did. I was hoping for a non-real ending, something that would feel more Mr Nicholls than it did here. But, as I said, I am generally pleased (with some reservations) with how things went for our main characters.

I am afraid to say that the beginning of this book was very slow, and this probably impacted on my overall impressions. I was expecting more, and I was expecting it to be better — faster. I wasn’t expecting a very can’t-be-bothered introduction into university life that could have been pulled off in a better way with more style. I was probably hoping for something more along the style of ‘One Day’, which might show how much of a bad first Mr Nicholls novel it is — it makes me want more, and wanting more isn’t really going to happen unless it is meant to be.

I did enjoy the premise of the show, ‘University Challenge‘. These questions on what is going to happen and what has happened in the past, and a character trying to be the best at answering these when he clearly isn’t. But he isn’t the best because he doesn’t try — it is more that circumstances conspire to act against the poor fellow. And that I think even I can sympathize with…

What I have less patience for is the general university getting-drunk-and-living-it-large style. In my mind, people should know better. So, it could simply be that the main character here was not very likable for me. I am slightly hesitant to delve further into this for I cannot place the feeling that this book effectively created for me, and that means that any comment I make will be slightly wrong.

What I do know is that if I had to choose a David Nicholls book to reread now, that book would be ‘One Day’. Or ‘The Understudy’. It would not be ‘Starter for Ten’. Before I’ll try it again (which will probably happen at some point) I want to give this period of time some rest so that maybe the university feels more real than it does right now. Maybe there will be an added sense of depth that will come with the passing of time…

‘Siddhartha’, H. Hesse

Mr Hesse (or rather, H Hesse) was a unique writer in many ways. I think he took writing to the very depths of the art it is, and thereby managed to produce books which are as good as they are because they are the portraits of what the innermost reaches of his soul believed.

I have read a few of his works, starting with ‘Siddharta’ and ‘Steppenwolf’ but also including ‘The Journey to the East’. Of these I prefer ‘Siddhartha’ best and ‘The Journey to the East’ comes second. And yet, I have been always unable to finish that book in one go — it has some sort of a block midway through when the characters go mad (metaphorically rather than actually mad) and my concentration on that book lapses and I go on to something else. I think it has happened thrice when I’ve tried to read the book, and I cannot explain it very well. But I think this effect is a good show of how much soul and depth can be found in H Hesse’s works.

And this soul is also present in ‘Siddhartha’. The book was introduced to me as the one with the answers to all the questions there are, and I doubted it very much then. After reading it, I wouldn’t be so sure. I think I might have read it a good five-six times by now, and there is something new in there that waits to be found every time I read it again. It might even be that I enjoy the same passages and thoughts but the way I react to them has changed. The thoughts I get have slightly changed. And the way I understand our Siddhartha’s actions has changed.

Of the characters present, I am amused by Govinda and Vasudeva — and I definitely do not mean that in a bad way. No, I am rather amused by the child-likeness of Govinda while I am impressed by the thoroughness of his search for answers. And I think that the thought of a friendship as deep as between Siddhartha and Govinda talks to me on a level entirely its own. And of Vasudeva, he is a saint, what more can be said… I have often thought how it would feel to be a ferryman while reading his passages, and I do not doubt that in another life it would have been a very good fate. Assuming I had had the skill to appreciate it…

‘Siddhartha’ truly is a book for which I have only praise. Unfortunately I have not tried to read it in German (for it is not as if I read German…) so I have only experienced it in Estonian. For some reason, the style that Hesse employs here does not seem one that can well be brought into line with the English syntax although I have only seen one translation thus far (and that I skimmed briefly and did not read). So, it could be that the language has played some part but maybe not. Hopefully not, and an English read (that I will get around to someday) will be just as good and thought-inspiring.

To finish, I would hope that more people go to take a look at ‘Siddhartha’ for H Hesse did not set his words into line in such a beautiful poetic way for no little reason. He wanted to touch the reader’s soul, and he certainly touched mine. I am sure that if you let him, he’ll do the same to yours.

‘The Client’, J. Grisham

‘The Client’ turned out to be the second book by Mr Grisham that I took up, and I don’t think I regret the choice. There is so much going on in this book it is slightly difficult to follow months after reading it, but one thing I do know: I enjoyed the read and I will probably go through it again. I will be better able to evaluate the nuances present in the book after I do, I would think. But even before that, I can say a thing or two about the novel.

Firstly, I liked it. I enjoyed the premise of a small boy in trouble, and a lawyer being one of the few people who could help him. I enjoyed the child’s struggle to find a suitable lawyer for himself — plus, how/why end up with Reggie Love of all people? I took it to be a sign of how people allow themselves to be approached which I guess is also how Mr Grisham meant it to be taken. The fancy suited lawyer that was all around a crash victim didn’t want anything to do with a child, for the simple reason that he was a child. Ms Love took the time to listen and to see what the story was about, and that is to be appreciated. There should be more people like that about.

Secondly, I enjoyed the book. Mind Mark Sway, he does get a bit annoying and flippant at times, but then again he is a young person with a variety of interests, and getting killed doesn’t really feature within those interests. I can’t fault him for that. What I can fault him for is taking a very long time to make up his mind, but he was in a bit of a tight spot. It’s rather difficult to root for the lawyer and the client while not rooting for the law or the criminals — and, yet, this is what ‘The Client’ made me do. The Feds weren’t my favourite people here, and the criminal syndicate was outright silly (believably silly, that is, but in the way that I did not want them to succeed). I was left with the young Mark and Reggie Love, and I didn’t really mind that.

In the end, this is a story of making up one’s mind. But how can that be done if there’s so much going on all the time? What are the acceptable threats that one should face? What are the threats one should allow family to face?

I guess that picking up the book is a start in figuring those out.

‘1Q84: Book 3’, Haruki Murakami

I have also managed to finish the series by Haruki Murakami, ‘1Q84’ (serialized novel sounds better, maybe?). I found the timing to be very good since he has now published a new novel (only in Japanese thus far, I believe, but my interest in reading it has soared due to ‘1Q84’). But, before that, where do we go from the multiple threads that Books 1 and 2 took us to?

“Well, with facts what’s important is their weight and accuracy. Warmth is secondary.”
— Murakami, Haruki (2011-10-25). 1Q84: Book 3 (p. 97). Random House UK. Kindle Edition.

I found that I enjoyed Book 3 somewhat more. Now, this could have simply been the unraveling of all of the different threads and the conjoined ending that the author devised for this mysterious world, but I would also like to think that it was something more sublime. After all, the sense of mystery is there as long as we are in 1Q84. The two moons, and the people who see things that shouldn’t exist.

Maybe I was most surprised by the author bringing Ushikawa-san into the point of view character list. What I do know is that if I didn’t like Ushikawa very much in the first two volumes, then here he was brilliant. I enjoyed his chapters, and I wanted to know more of what went on in his mind. How his work got done meant so much (both to him and to me) and Mr Murakami brought that across very ably — I would probably not be lying if I said that Ushikawa turned out to be my favourite character in the entirety of ‘1Q84’.

Obviously, there is something appealing about the simplicity of Tengo and the charms of Aomame and the variety of lesser characters we see (including Komatsu, Tamaru and Fuka-Eri), but Ushikawa’s special. He brings the mystery alive. He makes the mystery a mystery. And then there is the moment when he understands that there is more in this world than just a single moon…

There is very little else to be said without revealing too much of what goes on — and though it did take me a while to read (for some reason I seem to read Mr Murakami very slowly), there is plenty here that does happen, so I would rather not ruin anything with further spoilers.

Read the book, feel the book. It is worth it.

“To rephrase Tolstoy’s famous line, all happiness is alike, but each pain is painful in its own way.”
— Murakami, Haruki (2011-10-25). 1Q84: Book 3 (p. 303). Random House UK. Kindle Edition.