“Changing Places” by David Lodge

Too many of my friends are academics, so when I spotted a comic novel about them on the 501 list, it leaped into my To Be Read pile. This 1970s tale concerns meek “English Lit” lecturer Philip Swallow, from a small university in the UK, doing a job-swap with Morris Zapp, a Lotus-driving ladies man professor from a prestigous unversity in the US. Each man becomes entangled in the other’s life – drawn into faculty politics and affairs of the heart. The novel follows the chaos which ensues.

Set at time when women’s rights were a fiery topic it’s not surprising to find issues from that era cropping up. Although as a modern reader I thought it would have been more interesting to show one of the academics being a woman, particularly as both Philip and Morris appear pretty clueless about the female of the species.

Amazingly, the differences between the UK and US university systems which Lodge lampoons in the story still remain largely in place. Quibbling over the placement of a question mark (or query mark?) hasn’t changed. Relationships haven’t changed much either, as proven when the two academics are drawn into various relationships with wives and students. Hence the novel hasn’t dated as much as I thought it might have since publication in 1975, although I don’t recall anti-war protests on campus during my undergrad days.

Like Edmund Crispin’s “The Moving Toyshop” this novel delights in literary jokes – a character mocks epistolary novels in a letter in a novel, for example. He isn’t above slap-stick either. I loved his elevator chase scene. Like Melville’s “Moby Dick” Lodge enjoys trying out different forms within the story so don’t be too surprised when he slips into screenplay format or press releases.

Did I enjoy “Changing Places”, yes, although at times the prose veers towards pompous and preachy. Who might enjoy this short novel (234 pages)? Anybody who studied English at university, in fact anybody who studied any subject and likes the idea of seeing what really goes on behind the closed doors of their lecturers’ offices. Although they’re not all as outlandish at Swallow and Zapp, honest.

(Read August 2013)

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“Moby Dick; or The Whale” by Herman Melville

“Moby Dick; or The Whale” was one of the novels on the 501 list that I anticipated reading with pleasure. After all, it’s one of the Great American Novels and it opens with one of the most recognisable lines – “Call me Ishmael”. When originally published in 1851 it met with mixed reviews and now I can see why.

It’s a sailor’s tale of a sperm whale hunting voyage around the world on the Pequod, captained by Ahab. As Melville spent 18 months aboard a whaling ship the nautical elements of the tale ring true. The cast of characters on land and at sea are varied and believable. Yes there’s a few salty old sea-dogs but few stereotypes and the dialogue, even when veering into slang and accents is always readable and entertaining. The most compelling character is Captain Ahab himself, a man driven to dangerous extremes in his desire for revenge on the whale which took his leg on a previous hunting trip.

What I hadn’t expected, however, was the amount of the novel which takes place on land (as Ishmael wittily describes his need to go to sea as a cure for his depression and befriends an exotic harpooner), the sheer length of novel which would pass before we meet Ahab, or the fact that in a 514 page novel (in my ebook edition) that it would only be in the final 20 pages that we would cross paths with Moby Dick himself who was inspired by various real encounters with aggressive bull whales.

As the voyage proceeds the ship encounters various dramas such as a typhoon off Japan, the increasingly deranged behaviour of the captain, the daily danger of their trade, and a series of meetings with other ships who have encountered the white whale. Their increasingly awful stories serve to underline the insanity of Ahab’s vendetta which doesn’t abate even when they meet a ship burying the whale’s latest victim.

Melville shows considerable skill with language and I loved the chapters which he wrote as scripts. So when I, finally, reached the last twenty pages and the whale, I thoroughly enjoyed the ending.

Did I enjoy this classic? Yes and no. The drama of the core story was excellent and his beautiful and varied use of the English language was a joy to read, however it was a struggle to finish and when I mentioned this to other keen readers I found many who started it but gave up. Incorporating so much detail on the anatomy of the whale and the means of hunting it slowed the pace terribly and rendered large sections of the novel dull.

I can happily read long novels of this period bu does anybody really care anymore exactly how the harpoon rope is made, stored and coiled? I love travel stories, I adore anything to do with the sea and I am interested in wildlife and social history of this period but every time he headed off on another lengthy aside filled with references to obscure books about whaling I could feel the life draining out of me. Yes, some of it was fascinating and perhaps at the time of publication it exposed the dangers of whaling to the fishermen (not to mention the poor whales) but overall, despite the brilliant writing, I did not enjoy this novel.

(Read June-July 2013)


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“The Moving Toyshop” by Edmund Crispin

Do you like the detective novels of Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy L.Sayers? Then you should try Edmund Crispin’s work. Despite being a bit of a detective addict in my teens and keen reader of modern thrillers by authors like Deaver, Rankin, and Connolly I had never heard of the Oxford don called Genvase Fen until I read “The Moving Toyshop” for the 501 list.

First published in 1946 the book’s plot had plenty of red herrings and plot twists plus a satisfyingly logical conclusion. I certainly wasn’t expecting that when the poet Richard Cadogan found a murdered woman in a flat above a toyshop and then couldn’t find the toyshop again the next morning. I won’t spoil the solution by sharing it, but it is a good one.

The story is shot through with genuinely funny asides about Oxford life, publishing and writers. His one-liners are brilliant and the descriptions of characters are so cutting you’ll bleed.  In fact I couldn’t help being reminded of Jasper Fforde’s amazing literary detective books because they share a passion for literary wit. At one point, during a car chase (because of course, like Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, Fen travels in a beautiful motor car), a character says they should go left because Gollanz is publishing the book and elsewhere Fen teases the author about his inability to create good titles. It’s a pacy detective book (205 pages), with plenty of brains, that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Edmund Crispin, real name Robert Bruce Montgomery, wrote nine novels and two collections of short fiction featuring Fen and I will now be looking for the rest of them. My only caveat is to have a good dictionary to hand as Crispin isn’t afraid to expand your vocabulary.

(read January 2013)

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“Candide” by Voltaire

All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Or is it? In this 1759 philosophical fable, French author Voltaire examines the theory of Optimism and finds it wanting. At just 85 pages this is one of the shorter books on the 501 List, although my edition included a few other stories by Voltaire which I also enjoyed.

The tale follows a young man called Candide on a variety of adventures around the world, including a stop in an utopian Eldorado. As he learns about the world and the people in it, he is educated and enlightened about what really matters in life. The tale was placed on the list of banned books by the Vatican in 1762 and Voltaire kept no manuscript copies or mentions of the story in his journal and letters so that he could avoid arrest. I was expecting a scandalous tale.

Of course what was scandalous in the past isn’t always so in the present. But I’m not surprised he rattled a few cages as the increasing desperate straits of Candide’s fall from life in a castle to slavery, conscription, shipwreck etc illustrate a clear satire on philosophical systems in general, and optimism in particular. Having read Jean Jacques Rosseau (an enemy of Voltaire’s) elsewhere on the 501 list I can see that the 1700s French took their philosophical arguments very seriously indeed. His criticisms of various clergymen in the story won’t have made him popular in the Vatican and his criticism of the aristocracy won’t have won him any friends either.

Although this book is 250 years old, it still has plenty to say that applies to modern life and should be on the must-read-list of any student of philosophy. As for the rest of us, well it’s short and rather funny in places.  I’m happy to recommend it as an entertaining and though-provoking read.

(read December 2012)

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“Mary Poppins” by P.L. Travers

One benefit to reading the 501 books is that my friends all know what to buy me for birthdays – books from the list. This one did double service as I read it aloud to my kids so I can give their feedback too.

As with many books which have also been made into films, there’s a large number of changes made between the two versions of the same story. There’s little bursting into song, for a start! But in this case I preferred the film.

I think this was because I couldn’t warm to Mary. She’s depicted as efficient but incurably vain. She never admits to any of the magic stunts she pulls off, and crucially, I found it dull to read aloud. I caught myself editing the text as I went along – trimming boring passages. Each chapter stood alone as an “episode” so there was little ongoing narrative or character development. Apart from a couple of minor characters (the bird lady and the uncle who takes tea on the ceiling) there wasn’t even much by the way of fun dialogue to act out for the children. So for me, this was a fairly ordinary read and wouldn’t go on the “beloved children’s books” shelf.

However, my kids loved it. So perhaps I’m just showing my age. They adored her and begged for a chapter each night. They too have seen the movie and when pressed for a preference insisted that both were brilliant.

For those of you who do like Mary, the good news is that P.L. Travers wrote five other Mary Poppins books after the first one.

(read August 2012)

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“The Age of Cathedrals” by Georges Duby

I visited my first cathedral aged ten. I remember three things about it; 1) the vast height, 2) my uncontrollable hiccupping spell which interrupted the guide’s tour every 3 seconds, and 3) being bought a book about cathedral architects on the way out. It was in Portugal on holiday with my family and I’d already read all the books I’d brought with me. The cathedral book was the only English-language book my parents could find for me. I didn’t mind. It contained a dramatic account of an architect betting his life that his vaulted ceiling would hold and sleeping under it to prove his point.

Since then my knowledge of cathedrals has increased via visits to St Paul’s in London, Malta, Notre Dame and St. Chapelle in Paris and more. So when I spotted “The Age of Cathedrals” on the 501 list I decided to improve my architectural trivia base.

Duby’s book, which I had to source second-hand from Oxfam, was written in the 1960s and covers 980-1420 so includes Romanesque and Gothic buildings. What I hadn’t realised was that it covers a lot more than just architecture. It’s a social history of the world surrounding the cathedrals. Why were they built? By whom? With whose money? As society emerged from feudal times and edged towards the Italian renaissance, it was a time of huge flux in religious beliefs and in the power structures of the world, not to mention the Crusades and their influence on faith, populations, and economies.

The book is packed with facts about life of the time. Although I had understood that the carvings around church doorways were meant to educate an illiterate poor, I had no idea how influential cathedrals were in fighting particular heresies, or rival dogmas, of their day. Duby doesn’t limit himself to cathedrals and social history either as he shows how the art of cathedrals led to free-standing sculptures, commissions for secular patrons and beyond. Did you know that the first portraits sprang from effigy tombstones or that the first painted landscape was to illustrate Good Governance on a municipal building in Siena?

The book is fascinating but I would have a few quibbles about it. 1) the illustrations in my edition were only referenced in the final chapter and all located at the back. 2) Georges Duby is French and I would know that even without reading his author bio because he barely mentions the work of Irish and Scottish monasteries in preserving religious art in the years up to 980. In fact it nearly kills him to admit that the artistic torch later passed on to Italy for the renaissance. 3) the book took me months to read (interspersed with other novels) because the information is so densely packed that I barely managed ten pages at a time before needing a break.

So who would like this book? Any reader with an interest in European history, art, or art history. But be prepared for a long and detailed read. This is not a page-turner, but you will learn about the origins of art in Europe, and much more. If you want something lighter, try Ken Follett’s excellent “Pillars of the Earth” fictional, but well-researched, novel about the building of a cathedral in England during the same period.

(read June-September 2012)

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Giving Away some of the 501 Books


I’ve been reading my way through the “501 Books you Should Read” list for a while now and my house is already pretty full of books. So I want to give some of them to readers of this blog. I’ll pull 3 commenters from the proverbial hat on Monday 1st of October – winners can then choose, in turn, from the list below.

Until then, put a comment on this post and I’ll count you in. Open worldwide, but I will use the cheapest postage available so the books may take some time to travel from Ireland to your location.

Good luck!



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“Dead Man’s Chest” by Nicholas Rankin

As a fan of Robert Louis Stevenson’s writing since childhood and as someone who is fascinated by lighthouse history (RLS came from a long line of rather famous lighthouse engineers) I was delighted to find this book – subtitled “Travels after Robert Louis Stevenson” – on the 501 list. I bought it and set it aside for my summer holidays. I thought reading it on the coast would be appropriate.

Unfortunately, instead of transporting me to the many exotic locales of RLS’s life and work, the book tried to be part modern travelogue and part biography and for me at least, fell between two stools. It left me wishing Rankin had just written a straight biography of RLS and left the descriptions of tropical islands and darkly lit old houses to RLS himself.

Having said that, any fan of RLS’s writing will find lots of great information about the author here. His disbelief in God nearly broke his father, he was closely related to Graham Greene, his 1892 novel “The Wrecker” was one of the first to use a telephone call as an integral part of the plot, and most depressingly for any novelist – he wrote “Treasure Island” at the rate of one chapter per day and it has never been out of print since.

As for “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”. It took a mere six weeks from idea to manuscript delivery and interestingly was written when Carl Jung was 10 and Sigmund Freud was only 29 and barely begun on his life’s work. I was also impressed to discover that Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific (more than 40 islands visited) helped confirm his political opinions. Despite declining health he tried his best, as a then wealthy and well-known writer, to raise their issues back in Europe.

Nicholas Rankin tries in this 352 page book to follow in the footsteps of RLS from birth til death. At times he succeeds in evoking a sense of the world where RLS lived and created. But I think he allows himself as narrator too large a role. I found out too much about his own opinions of people, nations, and customs and the book lacked interviews & contact with those who actually knew RLS or his family. But it’s an honest effort (despite at times simply skipping certain locations because they don’t suit him to visit) and will fascinate any keen reader of RLS’s amazingly varied and prolific writings – three of which are on the 501 List.

(read July 2012)

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“The Leopard” by Tomasi di Lampedusa

As someone who hasn’t visited Sicily but who loves Italy and has an interest in history, “The Leopard” was a fascinating glimpse into the lives of Sicilian nobilty around the time of Garibaldi and the unification of Italy.

The tale, written by a modern descendent of Sicilian nobility in the 1950s, is based in thinly disguised real places and on some real events. It follows Don Fabrizio, the Leopard of the title. His family’s crest is the leopard and he is definitely the alpha-male of his tribe. But the political upheavals of 1860 onwards cause him to rethink everything about his privileged existence. He tells his friend “we live in a changing reality to which we try to adapt ourselves like seaweed bending under the pressure of the water.”

He struggles to live with the changes thrust upon him and it’s hard for a modern, non-aristocratic reader, to understand when he thinks someone wearing the wrong suit to dinner is more traumatic than Garibaldi’s landing on the island. However, having watched and read plenty of English upper-crust dramas from the 1860s, this concern was hardly unique to Italian nobles.

Fabrizio is ultimately a character I had to empathise with, regardless of his upbringing and his constant infidelities. The book covers half of his lifetime and we get to see him changing with the times, to the point where he’s happy that his nephew marries for money and to get ahead under the new regime. Others around him “stick in the mud” but he’s wise enough to learn. The book ends shortly after Fabrizio weighs up the balance sheet of his life in his dying moments and it was with a definite sense of leaving a warm, elegant, stay in another era that I laid down the novel.

I recommend this novel to any fan of Victorian English literature and to anyone who enjoys family sagas. The heat of Sicily radiates from every page.

(read May 2012)

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“Vendetta” by Michael Dibdin

I love a good character name. I think English author Michael Dibdin was on fire the day he came up with a Venetian detective called Aurelio Zen.

In fact the character’s name was so striking, I’d forgotten the author’s name and that I’d already read an Inspector Zen mystery. As I’m currently reading my slow way through St. Augustine’s “Confessions” and Duby’s “Age of Cathedrals” for the 501 List, I was delighted to find a quick read in “Vendetta” on my local library’s shelves.

The basic story is that Zen is given a case on Sardinia to re-investigate. A quadruple murder has taken place of a crooked property developer and friends, in his top security villa. Because of the victim’s political links, Zen needs to find a culprit that will keep the spin-doctors happy and him from being reassigned to potentially terminal Mafia territory. Meanwhile he’s being followed, a man he jailed incorrectly earlier in his career is out for blood, he’s struggling to deal with his cantankerous mother, and his growing romantic interest in a happily-married colleague isn’t making life easy.

There’s more than one vendetta at work during the plot and Dibdin does a great job of depicting the Sardinian small town attitudes towards revenge and the government. As someone who loves Italy I really enjoyed the details of Zen’s day – from his early morning coffees to the traffic in Rome. Zen’s methods, once the case  gathers momentum, are inspired. He goes undercover as a Swiss property agent, loses a tail in the maze under the Forum, and manages a slow-speed chase by using gravity, rather than an engine, when his car is disabled.

However, I can’t see why this book was included on the 501 List. I read a lot of thrillers and murder mysteries and this one doesn’t stand out for me as “special”. It doesn’t introduce forensics like Cornwell or Deaver, sheer pace like Patterson, legal twists like Grisham, country house murders like Christie, or dark humour like Brookmyre. It’s a good mystery, don’t misunderstand me, but I can think of others who deserve a place on the list more.

Curious, I checked out Dibdin online and apparently he was known for revealing the corrupt underside of modern Italy and for Zen being an anti-hero. Perhaps that was fresh and new in 1990 when “Vendetta” was first published and explains his inclusion. Either way, “Vendetta” is a good read, perfect if you’re packing for an Italian holiday.

(read June 2012)

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