11 December 2009

Bel-Ami (Guy de Maupassant)

I shall start with a disclaimer: I am not approaching this review from a particularly objective point of view. As stated in an earlier post, I am in my happy place- Bath. Well, near Bath, but for the sake of anonymity I shall not name the tiny hamlet I am currently residing in. Furthermore, I am wrapped in the world's largest, baggiest jumper, drinking a mug of coffee and eyeing in the mirror the image of myself leaning against a walking stick carved like a swan. Needless to say, I am in a serene mood and disinclined to engage in much slating of literary ability at this moment.

That is all slightly redundant considering I am reviewing Bel-Ami, Guy de Maupassant's novel about a charismatic young veteran soldier who rises to the highest circles of the Parisian bourgeois with the help of several powerful mistresses. The classic has undoubtedly stood the test of time and creates a memorable, if totally unlikeable protagonist in Georges Duroy. I shall get to my main quibble with the text in a moment and instead concentrate on the positives for now.

Although 'a scoundrel' in very sense of the word, the reader cannot help cheering on the meteoric rise of Duroy. He uses the women in his life without a thought for their happiness or sense of self. He tosses one aside for another with little compunction. Duroy happily claims any credit for his successes, although most of the time they come about as a result of the labours of his wife or mistress at the time. However, when a character is so deliciously self-involved it is easy to see there is no malicious intent behind his actions. Duroy acts only for himself and the toe-stepping that occurs is merely a consequence of these actions rather than a driving motive.

Because I came away from the text with a slight feeling of derision for all the women Duroy uses I suspect the text was subliminally rather misogynistic. Considering the time in which it was written I am not surprised or even annoyed about this. Nor am I much riled by the depiction of Duroy's peasant parents. They are described in a scornful tone and their surroundings are much ridiculed which can only be attributed to Maupassant's ignorance due to his aristocratic upbringing.

No, my main issue is that the book is quite obviously poorly translated. There is no way the story of Georges Duroy would have lasted as an enduring classic if the original French version were written in the basic manner in which the English version stumbles along. After doing some research on Douglas Parmée I find that he is a well-respected translator of French literature. I, however, remain underwhelmed by his abilities. I finished the novel and enjoyed it on the strength of the plot and characters but felt I was perhaps only being shown the basics of what is a much richer story in the original language.

Still, absorbing and insightful, Bel-Ami is worth a read and, if you speak French, most probably a MUST READ.

Rating: 7/10.

08 December 2009

Dyslit: In Conversation

Jamie: Have you ever read ‘The Razor’s Edge’?

Anna: Maugham right?

Jamie: Yep.

Anna: No.

Jamie: You should read it.

Anna: Maybe. I don’t normally read book recommendations. It’s the ultimate act of superiority, putting yourself in cahoots with the author, both of you saying, I know what’s best.

Jamie: That’s not…

I think you’d like it, is all.

Anna: Why don’t you paraphrase it for me?

Jamie: I can’t remember the whole story. I read it years ago.

Anna: No, just the bit that you felt I might relate to.

Jamie: Larry… rejects society, materialism, everything, in search of some transcendent meaning to life.

Happiness, without the jewellery I guess.

I think the reader is meant to assume he finds happiness in the end. I don’t think he does, because he’s constantly onto the next thing, always looking ahead. Never in the present. I don’t think you could ever be happy, living like that.

Anna: Maybe it’s not his lifestyle, but the fact that Sophie’s dead. Perhaps he can’t be happy without her.

Jamie: What was the point of that? Cheap thrills?

Anna: Sorry. Don’t listen to me. I don’t know the first thing about literature. The only thing I know about it is most of the time, you should avoid reading it.

Jamie: Rubbish.

Anna: It doesn’t open you up, it shuts you in. You can’t think for yourself when you've got Proust, Maugham, Kerouac all in your head.

Jamie: So you’re saying you’d like to live an uninformed life.

Anna: Yes.

Jamie: With no regard as to how that would affect intolerance, religious persecution, the ability to learn from our historical mistakes…

Anna: Why not? Within reason of course. Acumen-tested.

Jamie: What? You have to be intelligent to be uninformed?

Anna: Yes.

Jamie: And in this veritable utopia, where are you?

Anna: Uninformed.

Jamie: Naturally.

(a pause)

Where am I?

Anna: Where do you want to be?

Jamie: Uninformed.

No, informed.

I don’t know.

Anna: Well, it’s irrelevant where you want to be. You wouldn’t have a choice. Imagine if people did.

Jamie: Culpability as a reason to oppose free will.

Anna: Something like that.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (David Wroblewski)

Earhart gave me the push towards this novel and it is probably the best recommendation she has ever given me. We enjoy the same books, but the novels that we absolutely LOVE are always quite different. Of course, the reason I loved this so much is probably because Earhart hasn't actually read it. She just sold it to a bunch of unsuspecting customers when it came out last year.

When I first started reading Edgar I thought to myself "Wow, this is similar in feel to The Outlander." I felt most chuffed when I reached the end of the novel and found an interview with David Wroblewski and Gil Adamson who WROTE The Outlander. I am brilliant.

Edgar tells the story of a young boy who lives on a dog farm with his parents. I'm not sure dog farm is the right term, but it is so much more than a kennel. Edgar's parents raise a special breed of dog- Sawtelle dogs. These dogs are a mix of dogs that Edgar's paternal great grandfather "liked the look of". Whenever he saw a dog that was particularly intelligent and aware he would buy it and breed it into his line of dogs, creating this super race. Combined with a special training technique the family have honed over the years, Sawtelle dogs are highly valued around the country.

Edgar, who was born mute, has a very strong bond with the dogs, probably due to his inability to speak. This bond proves his saving grace when his uncle Claude arrives, fresh out of prison, to live with them. This family reunion ends in tragedy and Edgar is forced to flee into the surrounding forest, several of the dogs following at his heels. What follows is weeks in a relative wilderness as he comes to terms with what he must face back home.

The book is startlingly beautiful. Nothing seems quite real. The characters are slightly heightened; the forest is awesomely majestic and lonely; Edgar's relationship with the dogs seems unearthly, supernatural even. The book clutched at all of my senses, clawing me in to the drama. Wroblewski structured the novel in five acts, like a play, and you can see what this has done to the feel of the story. Slow reading builds to a frenzied turning of the pages as Edgar and Claude are propelled towards a terrible yet magnificent denouement.

The novel has been compared to Macbeth but I see bits of King Lear and even Romeo and Juliet in there as well. Suffice to say Wroblewski most probably found himself inspired by the Bard, a worthy foundation for any novel!

No matter what accolades I give The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, I don't think I can sum it up better than Stephen King's review: "I flat-out loved this book." I did too Stephen.

Rating: 9/10.

New Moon (Stephenie Meyer)

I am already grinning to myself and have yet to write anything.

I just went to see New Moon, the second film of The Twilight Saga.

Ahhh. Where to begin?

I feel I should start with saying that this film is probably 300% better than the first film. (Review here). The new director has obviously not insisted on an insipid blue wash and allows the actors some actual screen time to emote, rather than racing the camera around them psychotically.

However, the film still suffered from the same problem that the Harry Potter films (especially the early ones) had- they are virtually incomprehensible to someone who has not read the novels. I mean, you could understand what was going on. But you would be pardoned for being under the impression that the books are eratically plotted, totally vacuous and remarkably two-dimensional. Not the case (well, not ENTIRELY the case).

The Twilight books are not GOOD... but they are a phenomenon. These books are the pinnacle of guilty pleasure reading. Odd, dangerous, melodramatic and ultimately supremely fulfilling. The films pale in comparison.

Yet still, as I mentioned before, this film was a vast improvement on the first. I almost fell out of my seat when Taylor Lautner appeared on screen, thirty pounds heavier than in the first movie. That, in itself, made the 8 pounds and unimpressive popcorn worth it. Add to the mix the fact that Robert Pattinson was given about three lines and five minute of screen time to sulk and you'll see the movie was positively five star compared to Twilight.

There's been a lot of press about the books as outlets for Stephenie Meyer to publicise her Mormon beliefs and racist, Aryan views. There's probably a lot of truth to this. The portrayal of the Quileutes is definitely questionable and Edward as the supreme enforcer of familial values and chastity is quite unnerving when combined with the stalking, controlling behaviour and omniscience Meyer depicts as charming, loving behaviour.

None of which appears with any sort of prominence in either film. Bella is far more in control in the films and Edward highly ridiculous compared to his written persona. Bella can dismiss him with a withering "Just... shut up." Edward slumps against a wall, defeated. Pathetic. In addition, you can see that the producers seem to be keeping abreast of political correctness. Even if they are from Utah.

At least the books offer some escapist fun. This film is redeemable only as an homage to Jacob Black's amazing abs.

Traipsing back from the hinterlands...

I feel I may have already used that Waugh reference on another post and if so, I apologise. Full marks and a box of reindeer shortbread to the person who finds the post. It does, however, fit rather well with what I want to write.

I have been remarkably remiss at updating recently. Earhart's excuse is that she is reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men fame) and is sinking slowly into that quicksand-filled quagmire of reading a book slowly out of dislike yet being unable to put it down because it is nonetheless strangely compelling. Thus, she may not surface for awhile. I have no such excuse, merely that once I stop blogging for a few days it turns into a mountain to surpass when I attempt to begin again.

Today was my last day of work for the year (thank every denominational being ever to be suspected of existing) and I now have three weeks to do naught. I am off to Bath tomorrow, which is my happy place. You know that clichéd therapy technique where they tell you to imagine your happy place with palm trees and Adonis under a waterfall etcetera? My happy place ACTUALLY exists and I go there ALL THE TIME. (Smug, self-satisfied smirk).

A week there and then off to Norway for the coldest Christmas of my life, although seeing friends makes that all worthwhile. Which is all an incredibly long-winded way of saying that I am going to post several entries tonight because I'm not sure when I shall next have the opportunity. I have quite a few things I've been meaning to blog about for awhile so hopefully I will get it all done.

First on the agenda- this article today from the Guardian. In a surprisingly upbeat tone for such a negative idea, Sam Jordison questioned what books would be on a list of the worst novels of the decade. Ian McEwan gets stabbed quite a bit both in the article and the comments. I agree with the criticisms of Saturday but what the hell was wrong with On Chesil Beach?

Vernon God Little gets much abuse in the comments to which I can only say CLEARLY the peanut gallery were posting on the website today. RIDICULOUS. That novel is a little slice of genius pie. An anomalous use of language does not make a book poorly written. What do you think Shakespeare was doing you philistines?

24 November 2009

Belated Holiday Reading

This post should be titled very very belated holiday reading since the holiday was over about a month ago... but anyway...

Plane journey began with The Brightest Star in the Sky by Marian Keyes. Possibly the perfect aeroplane book: it doesn't require much concentration, nice big print, can be understood even after twenty hours of being awake and confined to less than one metre square. Was a bit weird to be honest - Marian has gotten stranger with her past few books, although she does it well. Who would have thought I would grow to love a cross-dressing romantic lead? Alcott is still unconvinced in that department.

Moved onto a bit of Murakami loving - Sputnik Sweetheart, one of his more normal ones, followed by Underground, his non-fiction work on the Sarin attacks on the Japanese metro in 1995. Not your traditional holiday reading I grant you, fantastically interesting if a little heavy at times. It probably helps that I love everything that Murakami has ever had anything to do with...

The Summer Book by Tove Janson I have already reviewed whilst away. So just go here to save me repeating myself.

Three Men on the Bummell by Jerome K. Jerome - I don't think words can express how hilariously funny I find this book - I would end up just writing passage after passage verbatim until the whole book had been typed out. So just read it. Seriously. It is hilarious and witty.

And Another Thing... by Eoin Colfer is the sixth in the Hitchhiker's Guide Trilogy, but NOT by Douglas Adams. Obvisously. 'Cause he's dead. And I just said it was by Eoin Colfer. Very enjoyable, a worthy end to the series - I think Colfer was a great choice for the job. My only problem now is where to shelve it... with the rest of the series or with my Colfers?

Finished up with the absolutely enchanting Cheri and La Fin de Cheri by Colette. I've previously read the Claudine series, but these were much more enjoyable. And MUCH better than the film, although as far as film adaptations of books go, not bad.

Not too shabby a selection as far as holiday reading goes.

16 November 2009

I enjoy convalescence. It is the part that makes the illness worth while.

I have bronchitis. Which sucks. I was already feeling unwell and then my social weekend seems to have been the final nail in the coffin. It feels like I have constricting metal bands around my chest which makes it hard to drag myself out of bed, let alone write book reviews. I have one of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle pending and I have just finished Bel-Ami and know exactly what I want to write, it may just take me awhile to write them.

You never know, the sister may grace us with a review, but otherwise it might be a bit slow around here for a couple of days. I have a very exciting visitor coming to London this weekend and I have to be in tiptop shape for him so I am trying to stay in bed and rest as much as possible-when I don't have to go out in the freezing cold for swimming lessons and football matches. Sympathy is unnecessary but welcome all the same (as the title of my post and subsequent concurrence with Shaw would suggest). Especially as no one in my house cares that I am sick as long as I keep the coughing down at night so as not to disturb them.

On that note, with violins plaintively playing a wavering tune in the background, I bid you good night. Oh, and check out this article here and join in the discussion for Books of the Decade if you're interested.

10 November 2009

Dyslit: The Year of the Flood

So yes yes yes- I've been gone about a million years. Apologies.

Aside from getting used to being back at work and not flitting around Wales clutching my first edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (yeah... that's right. FIRST EDITION), I have been slowly slowly savouring the new Margaret Atwood.

A few months ago I reviewed the amazing Oryx and Crake as part of our dyslit section. Cut to August this year and my discovery that Margaret has written a follow on of sorts - you can imagine my nerdy excitement. Same plague stricken earth with a wiped out population, this time with added religious cult!

The God's Gardeners are a spiritual following devoted to the melding of science and religion. They believe in the preservation of all animal life and have a complete aversion to any written records. Their leader, Adam One, is an enigmatic preacher... with something kind of shifty going on. Since I am only three quarters of the way through the book I'm not sure what exactly he is hiding but I am suspicious all the same. The story is told by two different women, Toby and Ren, both from the Gardeners. Toby survived the plague by locking herself in a day spa filled with edible 'organic treatments'. Ren, an exotic dancer, was in quarantine when the plague struck, having been bitten, luckily enough, by one of her over excited clients. At first the characters seem completely unconnected to the original cast of Oryx and Crake, then halfway through the appearance of a young man named Glen (later re-named Crake) almost made me fall off my chair in excitement. The way Margaret has connected this story to her earlier one, weaving tiny details into the background is nothing short of amazing. Even though I'm not finished yet, I don't think I am remiss in saying it is just as good as Oryx and Crake.

Oryx and Crake was the first Margaret Atwood book I read, and I remember thinking to myself over and over 'This is SO weird and amazing'. After almost reading her entire backlist, she still dazzles me with this new offering. And take a look at the author photo from the book jacket- how could you think this woman would produce anything short of brilliant madness?

09 November 2009

Jasper Jones (Craig Silvey)

Today is the 20 year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and mention of the wall always reminds me of a story my mother told me years ago. She was travelling through Europe and stopped at the border between West and East Berlin. The car was searched, as were her bags. Amongst her possessions was a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird. The guard held it up and scrutinised it, flipped through the pages. It was banned in the East, for obvious reasons. I don't know whether my mother knew this and packed it anyway with her typical "They can't tell me what books to carry around for God's Sake" attitude or whether she really had no idea the book was banned. I am inclined to go with the former. At any rate, the guard decided the book was harmless and let my mother enter. Once there she decided to leave the book at the place where she was staying, her little rebellion against the regime.

To Kill A Mockingbird is my favourite book in the world. I am aware I hardly hold the monopoly on this thought but I don't care. I'm happy to be merely one in a group of millions. I'm not going to bother you with a review either, as I'm sure those who have read it need no convincing of its greatness and those who haven't just need to know they have a treat in store for them. But I am going to review Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey, which came out this year.

During the summer of 1965 in a small town called Corrigan, Charlie Bucktin is pulled into a murder mystery involving Jasper Jones, the town scapegoat. The Vietnam War hangs over the town, anxiety making the heatwave even worse. Cricket, sweets, girls and books act as diversions but ultimately Corrigan's corrupt, racist core begins to seep through. The disappearance of the Shire President's daughter turns out to be just one in a number of dark secrets the town is hiding.

I'm hesitant to say this is an Australian version of To Kill A Mockingbird, although that is obviously what it is. Charlie's father is compared often to Atticus Finch, Charlie's friendship and conversations with his best friend Jeffrey draw on the conversations Scout and Jem had, Mad Jack Lionel is Corrigan's Boo Radley. Jasper Jones, the innocent blamed for the death of a young girl, is half-Aboriginal and whilst the racism he encounters is far more underhand than that exhibited in the deep South in To Kill A Mockingbird, it is ever present nonetheless. I'm hesitant though, to make these comparisons, because I want this book to be judged on its own merits. Silvey captures the essence of the small Australian town beautifully and the character of Charlie is wonderfully written: honest, intelligent, witty, with all the erratic whims and prejudices of the young.

However, the most erudite point I want to make about this novel is that it made me think about those monstrous and momentous events in history that so often seem to happen elsewhere and not to us in Australia. Great novels are written about these events, these times, and then, decades later, an Australian author will write their own version of it. I have come to the conclusion this is not a bad thing, it is a truly positive thing. We could so easily remove ourselves from the rest of the world, snug in our knowledge that we are far away from the dangerous world. We could fail to care that it is 20 years since the Berlin Wall fell, feeling, perhaps, that it had nothing to do with us. That is why it is glorious when we do care, when we do feel emotion, feel outrage on behalf of another culture, experience joy when something momentous occurs elsewhere. Just because we are geographically removed does not mean we have to be emotionally removed.

This is why I loved Jasper Jones. Not only did the characters resonate, the dialogue amuse, the plot intrigue, but Craig Silvey reached out to the American literary canon, referenced it and then made it a relevant piece of Australian fiction. It could have failed abysmally, but it didn't.

Rating: 9/10.

03 November 2009

Fine Just The Way It Is (Annie Proulx)

Annie Proulx makes horrendous people, places and events FINE JUST THE WAY THEY ARE. This is her process, her tool, her particular brand of magic, and I never would have spotted it if she hadn't named her last collection of short stories just that.

Admittedly, I have a warped view of what is horrendous. To me, bad coffee is insufferable. Having lunch with someone and not getting the good seat (against the wall) is intolerable. Living without my hair straightener is INCONCEIVABLE. So naturally, I find these stories of poor and broken people in Wyoming cruel beyond all mortal comprehension, because I'm high maintenance and disgustingly entitled in my outlook on life.

Yet still, I rooted for them. I was happy for them, devastated for them. These, the people described as ugly, poor, unlovable, selfish, racist, stupid... utterly pedestrian. Proulx does not bother to take the easy route and write stories about the innocent, the intelligent, the fair and good. Any person would prove to be interesting under scrutiny. Worthy of our time, our eyes, our $22.95. How then, do writers differentiate between those who are passed over and those who deserve their own worded spotlight?

They choose the beautiful, the well-structured, the desirable people to write about. And I'm not talking about the desirability a husband sees in a wife who has a saggy stomach and discontented attitude radiating from beneath a hairstyle long out of fashion and powdered at the roots. Or the girl with average looks and average brains being charmed by the boy whose speech is clogged with the unfortunate spittle that plagues the over-salivating.

Those are the people whose stories are harder to write and still generate empathy with the reader and thus they are so often the people without a strong literary presence. Which is stupid, because when a writer does bother to create a character who is hard to like and rough around the edges it normally becomes as artful as Don Quixote, the book an ode to imperfection, beautiful through the simple fact of its existence.

That's what Annie Proulx does and then she goes one step further. She neglects to include any action whatsoever in her stories. Each event is constructed as a past occurrence, mentioned in passing by one character or another. At any one time, nothing is really happening. Snippets of family mystery, suspense, skeletons are hinted at, but the writing quickly moves on, choosing to focus instead on a wife musing about her dinner plans. It takes a serious talent to keep us engaged through all this, yet we find ourselves also weighing up the beef and pork options. Because she's just that damn good.

I must apologise for the wordiness and general pretension of this review. I have been embroiled in a big fight with a large pile of torn newspaper and glue for two days trying to make an acceptable model of a dolphin for a Year 4 Art Show. Because I have about a teaspoon of artistic ability in my entire genetic makeup... this has been a trying, exhausting time. I felt the need to prove I could still string a sentence together, having failed spectacularly as a sculptor.

Rating: 9/10.

02 November 2009

Le Prix Goncourt 2009

Marie Ndiaye has won France's most prestigious literary prize for her novel Trois Femme Puissantes. Having just recently discovered a love for Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio (who won the Nobel Prize in 2008) I am now craving another slice of the French literary pie. I think I'll try and find a copy of this in English. Earhart can show off and read it in French.

The Heretic's Daughter (Kathleen Kent)

I have this thing about the Salem Witch Trials. It's like my thing with the Amish. I'm don't want to BE Amish, I'm just overly and unnaturally fascinated with them. Salem- I don't wish I'd lived during the trials (with my hair and no straighteners available I'm sure I would have been scruffy enough to create suspicion) but I LOVE reading about it.

I bought this in Hatchards (LOVE this bookshop, want to get married and live and DIE in this bookshop) on Earhart's recommendation. Apparently she sold it to loads of customers last Christmas, not having actually read it herself. We both read it during Earhart's London visit and the sister, having read it first, insisted she would do the review. Well, I am ignoring that and doing the review myself because she has a lot on her plate at the moment and I have to work hard to come up with enough things to do to avoid filling out uni applications.

I know it sounds like Earhart and I did nothing but read whilst she was here on her three week visit, but we did talk to each other! We ate and drank a lot as well. And we spent a seriously enjoyable two hours in Wales sitting in armchairs, eating strawberry sours and quizzing each other from a Film Trivia Book we bought for 50p. Exciting stuff.

I digress... back to the book. Which was so unremarkable I have to go grab it off the shelf to remind myself of the title. Ah yes, The Heretic's Daughter. Meh, meh, meh. I have trouble feeling sympathy for a woman who is hung as a witch when she spends her time physically and emotionally abusing her children.

Sarah, the 'heretic's daughter' as it were, reminds me slightly of a Joanne Harris character. She is wilful and troubled and hard to like and the relationship with her mother Martha seemed overly reminiscent of the tempestuous relationship between Framboise and her mother in Five Quarters of the Orange. Although, not nearly as well-executed.

There is also some mysterious red book with the history of Sarah's father in it which is mentioned once and then all but forgotten. Sarah is allowed to read it when she comes of age, but she never tells us what is in it. A ridiculous and redundant side-plot.

The writing does the job (the job being the telling of an average plot and detailing of average characters) and that's it. If you're in the market for some mildly compelling and clichéd historical fiction, this is it.

Rating: 5/10.

A Confederacy of Dunces (John Kennedy Toole)

I arrive at beginning this review feeling conflicted. Not, it must be stressed, as to the quality of the novel, but rather at how one goes about reviewing a book so transcendentally... loud.

Mmm, that's right, LOUD is the word I have come up with to describe John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. I toyed with 'brilliant', contemplated 'glorious torrent of cynical social commentary', seriously considered 'rich in passion, laid on thickly with Toole's impressive voice, seasoned with insight and spiced with humour; the book is obese with ambition and serves up a literary dish fit for a king.'

However, I settled on 'loud'.

What other adjective should one use when talking about a book that shouts its revolted social commentary at such decibels? When our hero can be spotted from a satellite, not only because of his size but also because of the voluminous white hot dog vendor smock he wears, surely the best word for him is 'loud'? When the mention of Ignatius J. Reilly inspires giggles and nervous tension in the same breath; when each of the supporting cast beats me over the head with their incessant bleatings that serve to brand every one of them on my memory indelibly... that's BLOODY LOUD.

A Confederacy of Dunces is about nothing and because of that, it is about everything. You know those books that have a hook- making them easy to sell to the undiscerning buyer. "It's about a salmon fishing project in the Yemen. I know right? HAHAHAHAHAHA. That's $22.95." Alternatively: "It's not girly! I mean, I know the cover is hot pink, but it's a retelling of A Room with a View! Obviously you've read that, right? Would you call E.M Forster chick-lit? WOULD YOU? Exactly. That's $22.95".

If I tried to sell A Confederacy of Dunces, I would revert to one tactic and one tactic only: "New Orleans in the 1960s. An obese hot dog vendor with three University degrees and an inflated vocabulary. A crumbling pants factory whose employees are drunk/ancient or delusional. A seedy nightclub whose owner distributes pornography to orphans. TRUST ME."

The novel, in my opinion, is made even more compelling with the foreword written by Walker Percy. He explains that Toole's mother contacted him in 1976 with this manuscript. Her son had killed himself and left it behind and she was determined to get it published. Who was this young man who wrote such a masterpiece? I can't help feeling that many of Ignatius' thoughts on the human condition and the depravity of society are mirrors of what Toole himself may have been thinking, caught in a web of depression that would ultimately end his life. At times Ignatius exhibits an obstructed self-hatred; when denying a customer a hot dog he asks- "Are you unnatural enough to want a hot dog this early in the afternoon?" ignoring the fact he has just consumed three himself. (I know this is not an overly obvious example of self-hatred, there are others, but this was the only one I could find. It's a big book!) It saddens me to think of Toole, perhaps subsumed with self-hatred, churning out the pages of Dunces in an attempt to expurgate and externalise the self-scorn he contained within.

On a slightly removed yet still related note, it's great to meet a new friend who enjoys reading, even more so to discover said friend is not a moron and has seriously stellar taste in literature. I'm always a bit wary when people start recommending books to me. My default position is that I know more about books than most people and if you're recommending a book to me I've never read then it probably isn't any good and I've skipped it for a reason. This new friend, having talked up Toole's novel, has now been elevated to position of a Person Whose Recommendations I Can Trust. Which is always nice in these uncertain times.

Rating: 10/10.

28 October 2009

The Return

I am in the process of dragging myself back from the hinterlands of reality after having farewelled Earhart and escaped to Bath for a few days in hopes of ignoring the fact she has left me alone in this cesspit of sin and depression... London.

Another week and things are looking happier- I find London quite palatable again and feel I should catch you all up on my literary endeavours over the past few weeks. Most importantly- the books we snagged for next to nothing in Hay on Wye!

I found three first editions of Evelyn Waugh (not Brideshead unfortunately), a first edition of Thornton Wilder's The Ides of March (tucked in the front cover were newspaper reviews from 1948, the year it was published) and a first edition of A Girl of the Limberlost. I'm sure Earhart will wax lyrical on her purchases when she emerges from the pile of book reviews she has to do for other publications.

First and foremost I must post a review of A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, which I have been threatening to do for weeks.

Whilst I am editing that and overseeing a rather violent and clumsy ballet rehearsal which is going on in the living room you should allow your attention to be diverted here. If you have never discovered Asterix, his golden jubilee would seem the perfect opportunity.

07 October 2009

Booker Prize 2009

Hilary Mantel has won the Booker Prize for her novel Wolf Hall. Click here to read my earlier post on the Booker where I decided Mantel would definitely NOT win. It is an insightful post.

I will write no more on the subject because I am in bed, although it is the early hour of 7:51 pm. I am finishing up John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces and I have not been this excited about a book since Vernon God Little. Stay tuned for a sickeningly positive review.

Guilt + The Summer Book

So...I kind of thought since we were in Paris/I am in London that maybe posting would slow down. Ducked into an internet cafe to escape the downpour this afternoon, clicked on the blog and saw the seven million book reviews Alcott has done whilst I've been wandering around with my head in the French clouds. Oops. Feeling guilty now. So I bring you... The Summer Book.

Not heard of it? Shame on you. It is a classic in Sweden! Tove Jansson (who I love love love) is the author of the amazingly fantastic Moomintrolls series (both the books and the comic strip). If you haven't heard of the Moomintrolls, then shame on you AGAIN - basically they are small, round hippo-like creatures who have ridiculous adventures. The books are for children... the comics not so much.

The Summer Book, which is about real people (not Moomintrolls), is a book for grown-ups which enchanted me from the start. The book is made up of short encounters between Sophia and her Grandmother over various summertimes on the island where they live. One summer Grandmother carves animals out of bark and wood and leaves them in the magical forest. Another someone new moves onto the island (!) and Sophia and Grandmother break into the new house. Sounds odd, but it is truly magical.
Gently philosophical, almost in the same way as The Little Prince, this is a very calm book to read, and a real treasure.

I realise this review is super short, but fear not...I have just started Three Men on the Bummel (follow up to the hilarious Three Men in a Boat) and am laughing already. Stand by for review.

06 October 2009

Paris and How To Be Topp

Earhart and I had the most wonderful time in Paris, being cultural etc. I am not really allowed to speak French when I am with my sister. She rolls her eyes and looks pained whenever I open my mouth. Apparently all my phrases are seriously dated- I tend to say the equivalent of "That's so nifty!" instead of "Cool!" and I am more likely to ask how the time is feeling instead of the more useful (yet so predictable) "What is the time?"

The most ridiculous thing that happened to me over our French weekend occurred in a bistro on Sunday afternoon. Having excused myself to go to the bathroom I came back to the table and sat down, feeling a bit bemused.

"I haven't used a squat toilet since Japan." I said, giggling slightly. "It was a bit tricky."
One of the other girls we were with looked at me strangely. "It's just a normal toilet." she protested, confused.
We went up to investigate and... I now know what a french urinal looks like.

Which is why Shakespeare and Co is such a haven for me. Any bookshop is a joy to be in, but an English bookshop surrounded by a sea of mostly incomprehensible conversations is truly an oasis of calm. The bookshop opposite Notre Dame was our first stop when we arrived in Paris and we wandered around for a good long while, soaking in the ink and paper (pretentious but true). I considered purchasing many things (it seems I am ridiculously uneducated when it comes to Orwell- he didn't just write three books! Who knew?) Ultimately, however, I parted with only a small denomination of euros for a book I have heard much about but never read: How To Be Topp: A guide to Sukcess for tiny pupils, including all there is to kno about SPACE.

I had been told by a very reputable source in Bath that this book was brilliant and hilarious and thus I opened it with excitement. 45 minutes later (it is not long) I closed it, a fixed smile on my face. I had laughed out loud in several chapters and a chuckle was kept ever ready. However, I confess I was DETERMINED to find the book funny and charming and thus forced the laughter out of myself.

I do not blame the book nor the source. I feel that the book is much more relevant for a boy who went to private school about 40 years ago. I'm sure said boy (now a man) would be clutching his sides in stitches of laughter, gasping for a glass of water. Thus, I shall send this book to my father. I am certain he will find it most amusing. If not, I shall at least get some brownie points for sending him something. He will be touched that I purchased naught for myself in Shakespeare and Co but thought immediately of my darling pater and how much he would enjoy this book.

I only hope his assurance that he reads the blog every day is a fib.

Rating: 7-9/10, depending on reader demographic.

01 October 2009

Restless (William Boyd)

This was a very tolerable read. I know that sounds lukewarm but it's actually quite positive compared to the review I was composing in my head before I had even started William Boyd's Restless. This is because it came out at around the same time as Paul Auster's The Brooklyn Follies. I detested The Brooklyn Follies and because Boyd's novel had the unfortunate luck to come out in the same month they are now intrinsically linked in my mind.*

Nonetheless, I was moved to pick it up the other day from a box of books advertised for 50p in Clapham. I came away feeling most pleased with myself, having grabbed Helen Garner's The Spare Room, John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces and something else I have now forgotten the name of. The universe, it seems, was telling me to read Restless.

As I've already said, not a bad read at all. Instead of the cosmopolitan mid-life crisis I was expecting I was pleasantly to find that it was actually a WW2 espionage 'thriller'. I say 'thriller' because the action/adventure part was a bit geriatric. The most exciting thing that happens is a Mexican policeman gets stabbed in the eye with a pencil.
As a relatively anxious person I don't look normally head for the thriller section of a bookshop. If I'm going to be scared I want it to be supernatural so I know there's absolutely no chance whatsoever it could actually happen to me. So I'm not complaining that this didn't have me cowering in terror from the shadows in my loft. I'm just being pedantic and saying that Time Out's comment that it is "heart-stoppingly exciting" would indicate that the reviewer didn't actually read the book.

I particularly liked the way the novel was structured- in ambience as well as tense. The story switches between a young woman who is recruited by the British Secret Service at the beginning of WW2 and her daughter, decades later, whom she enlists to help settle old ghosts. Eva Delectorskaya as an old woman fearing her past demons adds a surreal menace to the text. As the reader I had trouble believing that anyone would actually go after a grandmother who spends all of her time gardening. It is her rising paranoia rather than any actual events which propel the drama along.

Boyd's main problem seems to be his inability to adopt the female mindset and write, realistically, from the point of view of women. Ruth (the daughter) is strong and independent but comes across as cold, which I don't feel is at all deliberate on Boyd's part. Eva as the young, beautiful spy is a mere caricature, sort of like a particularly intelligent Bond girl. Had Boyd managed to inflate these characters into a three-dimensional state the novel could have been quite a bit better. As it stands, it is merely a non-trashy historical fiction novel with some mildly exciting action halfway through.

Rating: 7/10.

* I THINK. I could be wrong and they came out at completely different times. Maybe their covers are the same colour.

30 September 2009

The Spare Room (Helen Garner)

I apologise for having promised this review for a few days now and not delivered. I am generally of the opinion that if you promise to do something enough times people will assume you have actually done it. Unfortunately, on a blog where the evidence of having posted a review is the physical manifestation of said review things get a bit trickier. Thus I have had to bite the bullet and write the bloody thing.

Why am I dragging my feet on this review?

Because I KNOW it's brilliant. Garner is a superb writer and her prose seems effortless, organic even. I imagine Helen wafting around her house, putting on the kettle, writing a few sentences, drifting into the garden and weeding for a bit, writing a few more sentences as she passes by her typewriter to make lunch, calling a friend and mindlessly jotting down ideas on a pad of paper next to the phone... almost as if it comes so naturally to her that she needn't interrupt her life to write.

The Spare Room is about a woman named Helen (an extremely subtle hint that this is not really fiction) who has a friend come to stay for three weeks whilst she undergoes cancer treatment at an alternative therapy place in Melbourne. Helen, pragmatic and sensible, is unable to understand why her friend Nicola will not accept the fact that she is dying and instead insists upon putting her body through brutal coffee enemas and vitamin C injections.

Hideous, gut-wrenching stuff and the novel is short, to pack that much more of a punch. Helen's frustration reads as a diary entry, inviting the reader to experience everything as vividly as if they too were in the room. I was going to call the reader the 'voyeur' and then I looked the word up to work out how to use it properly as a non-continuous verb and realised that the most common definition for 'voyeur' is someone who gets sexual pleasure from watching people having sex from a secret vantage point! Am I the only one who didn't know that?

This honesty and generosity relates to what Martin Amis said recently in Spain when talking about ageing writers: "... worst of all are the novelists who have fallen out of love with the reader.... You present yourself at your most alive; you want to give the reader the seat nearest the fire, the best wine and food." Garner is definitely still placing her readers in uncomfortably warm seats.

So then why, you ask, was I so reluctant to write this review?

Because I STILL didn't like the book. As a comment on the human condition it was insightful and moving. I'll admit that I did feel a connection to Helen- I too can get extremely frustrated with people who don't do things the right way (my way). But I put down the book knowing that I would never again feel the need to revisit it and that's my mark of a REALLY good book- how much I'm looking forward to picking it up again.

Rating: 8/10.

Bonnet Rippers

I'll admit to not having read an Amish novel in awhile. In fact, looking at the Categories list, it appears I have only reviewed one Amish novel all year. In my defence, for all my self-professed enthusiasm and fascination for the Amish, in recent years there haven't been that many novels that aren't rubbish or insufferably religious.

However, it seems this is no longer the case! Having just read this article I am now adding several new Amish titles to my reading list.

This wasn't the only weird article on the Guardian Books website today. In a terrible piece of blasphemy Wayne Gooderham compared Holly Golightly to Jay Gatsby in drag (I'm offended for Jay rather than Holly). Things went from bad to worse when I saw features on both Sarah Palin and Jeffrey Archer. I closed down the site and made myself a bowl of chopped banana with a shot of coffee poured over it.

Breakfast heaven.

29 September 2009

The Mistress (Martine McCutcheon)

Oh god this was horrendous. Not in a good way. I didn't feel the guilty, glorious satisfaction I fully intend to feel when Bai Ling's autobiography Nipples is released. I don't know if she has a publishing deal yet but I can't wait to get my hands on a copy of what I feel is going to be a phantasmagorical masterpiece.

No, no, poor old Martine McCutcheon, on the other hand, has merely produced a truly awful piece of pedestrian drivel, catering to the lowest common denominator. It reads like it was written by a thirteen year old who takes remedial English. I don't blame the thirteen year old. She doesn't know any better. She's never read an entire book before! The fault, Your Honour, lies with the publisher, Pan Macmillan. Who, interestingly enough, decided to release the first chapter of The Mistress online... which can only serve to severely diminish sales. P-Mac? You need a new marketing team.

The heroine Mandy immediately proves herself to be an intelligent, insightful character. Through McCutcheon's masterful grasp of the English language we are introduced to Mandy as she is getting ready for a big night out to celebrate her thirtieth birthday. In the cab on the way to her party she waxes lyrical on London's appeal: "... it felt to Mandy like the most exhilarating city in the world, with the speed of New York, but the history of a Paris or a Rome."

Any Paris, any Rome. Just one of them.

Mandy soon feels a burning sensation on the side of her head when she gets to the party. I was excited, thinking that the candelabra at the Wolseley had set her shining dark mop on fire, but it turns out to be a guy, staring intently at her from across the room. Cue guy meets girl plus obstacles scenario... yadiyadiyada... he's married, with two beautiful boys, sob. I'm welling up. Wait! Mandy can't deal with this right now! Her birthday cake is coming out!

If you want to read the entire chapter, click here. If you want to pre-order The Mistress (the first in a series of three!!!) get in your car, drive to a Thames or a Nile and THROW YOURSELF IN.

Martine, dearest, you cannot write. If you need some cash, may I suggest getting a job as Gordon Brown's secretary? I'm sure he'd have you. He knows you're qualified.

Rating: 2/10.

Remember, 1/10 is saved for books that actually CAUSE HARM. Despite McCutcheon's best efforts, this is no Mein Kampf.

Why would you want to read when you've got the television set sitting right in front of you?

Tim Minchin has been asked by the RSC to turn Matilda by Roald Dahl into a musical. Read full article here. Whenever I see him on shows like Buzzcocks I find Minchin incredibly annoying, but the fact that he actually looks like a Quentin Blake illustration is a massive point in his favour. It could be fabulous... or it could suck.

There seems to be a reinvigorated enthusiasm for Dahl at the moment, what with Fantastic Mr Fox coming out this year as a film. Earhart thinks this will be a novel butchering of epic proportions. I don't agree. Hello??? George Clooney!

Later today: Helen Garner's The Spare Room.

24 September 2009

Small Wars (Sadie Jones)

I am trying to create the perfect ambience to write this review, as I have been putting it off for a week and I think that perhaps it is my writing environment that is the problem. I am snuggled on the couch with coffee and a blanket- temper and temperature have been catered to. I have changed my wallpaper to an Antoni Tàpies painting to imbue me with inspiration and superimposed a picture of Daniel Craig on it to make it more interesting. Radiohead's Exit Music (For a Film) is playing to suppress my mood in hopes of directing my concentration to the task at hand.

Small Wars by Sadie Jones...

Is it well-written? Without a doubt. Jones has a deft, no-nonsense approach to her writing. She comes across as an incredibly creative and articulate author who has no patience for flowery prose. Her writing always seems to have been reined in to within an inch of its life, yet still, determinedly, beautiful sentences blossom on the page.

Is it compelling? Sort of. Like Ian McEwan, Jones has a knack for creating tension from the most inane of moments. Was she able to twist my stomach with anxiety and excitement like McEwan does? No. However, maybe she wasn't going for the clamorous, institutionalised menace that McEwan favours. Maybe Jones was AIMING for soft core tension.

Is is predictable? No... to her credit it is not. I picked the extramarital affair within the first couple of chapters and felt a rising scorn for this second offering from Jones. Compared to The Outcast I was preparing myself to be most disappointed with this follow up. Then, suddenly, OUT OF THE BLUE, the plot does an abrupt 180 and the reader is left scrambling to work out what just happened.

I think the main problem I have with the novel is tempo. It has a relatively slow and uneventful story line throughout and then a huge amount happens within about 15 pages. And then it ends. The denouement I also have a problem with. Is it ambiguous or is it lazy?

If pressed to tell you what the book is actually about I can't sum it up in a way that sounds interesting. Hal Treherne has been posted to Cyprus in 1956. His young wife Clara and their twin daughters join him. Mild tension ensues. This inane synopsis should not deter you. If pressed to produce a blurb of In Search of Lost Time I would probably come up with something similarly lacklustre.

That's not to say I think Jones is on par with Proust. But you get my drift.

All in all, a good, solid novel, lacking the raw intensity of The Outcast but perhaps, instead, demonstrating a more polished writing style. Whether or not this is a good thing... sigh. I don't know.

Rating: 8/10.

My Cold and the Nobel Prize

Good morning dearly devoted readers. I have been convalescing after suffering dreadfully from a revolting cold which I fear may be a harbinger for winter miseries to come. Fortunately, the dreaded swine failed to claim me but I am still determined to spend the next week as close to my bed as possible. This is because Earhart will be arriving shortly and I refuse to be sick for her visit.

In light of my self-imposed laying up I am going to endeavour to catch up with all my book reviews. I hope to post several today, so stay tuned.

If anyone is interested, here is a link to a Guardian article on Amos Oz as the most likely candidate to win the Nobel Prize for Literature this year. Well, the person the bookies are supporting anyway. Remember, the Nobel Prize is awarded for a body of work, not for a single novel. Once nominated, a candidate remains nominated, therefore each year the winner is chosen from an ever increasing list.

13 September 2009

This Side of Paradise (F.Scott Fitzgerald)

Often after I have finished a book I take a few days to ruminate on the characters I have just given free passage into my subconscious. They all reside in a particular space in my brain- I call it the Syd Barrett Memorial Room. 'Tis a wonderful place; its only problem being it IS located right next to my memory room, and the adjoining door does not lock.

This has proven embarrassing over the years. I will be entertaining a group with an anecdote and be interrupted with- "That wasn't you, that was Huckleberry Finn, YOU EGOTISTICAL FREAK." Having been berated thusly I will shake my head vigorously, which looks to be a denial but is, in fact, me merely trying to get everyone back into their proper rooms.

As you can see, this adjoining door which does not lock has been problematic. In fact, 'adjoining door' is incorrect. It is more of a swinging half-door, like those you see in old-fashioned saloons. Sharon Stone often strides through it wearing chaps, dragging a be-chained Russell Crowe behind her. I must stress they belong in neither room, but have wandered over from the 'Career Aspirations' part of my brain.

I digress.

ANYWAY, in the SBMR all the characters I have ever met lounge about haphazardly. Those that are hazy around the edges are people who left little impression on me. Those with sheets draped over them were extremely memorable for terrible reasons and I have tried my best to forget about them (the more enterprising have cut holes in the sheets so as to retain a certain amount of vision and dexterity).

My favourites are those normally to be found at the bar. Vernon God Little is always hanging around the door to the Gents. Jo March and Olive Kitteridge do not get along AT ALL and tend to stand on opposite sides of the room. Aloysius normally takes refuge under a chair so as to avoid unwanted cuddles.

And everyone defers to Gatsby... including myself when I am able to get away from the incessant nothingness that is my life. He stands to the side of the room, drink in hand, never taking a sip. He is tall and commanding; a chilly heat permeates from his person. No one can take their eyes off him, but no one can talk to him.

Just recently, Amory Blaine from This Side of Paradise has been admitted into the SBMR. He shares a father with Gatsby, as well as a certain poise, smoking jacket, 'man about town' air. But he stumbles where Gatsby stands tall. He is drunk when Gatsby remains sober. He falls to pieces when his love is spurned. But worst of all, his courage is shown only through the supremely self-indulgent journey he takes and his final realisation: "'I know myself,' he cried, 'but that is all.'"

Great Amory. Compare yourself to Gatsby, who sacrifices his reputation and livelihood for the girl (who doesn't deserve him it must be added) and ultimately forfeits his life. You, Amory, have moped for 254 and a half pages and the only admirable thing you've done is taken the rap for your friend who was entertaining a lady in his hotel room.

Because some of their characteristics are similar I suspect Amory may have been a young, rough prototype for Fitzgerald's greatest character Jay Gatsby. Gatsby also had his flaws and weaknesses, but they merely served to strengthen his character's attractiveness rather than render him useless and pathetic. In fairness, this was Fitzgerald's first novel and he's done a bang-up job- it's intelligent, witty, memorable and passionate. But compared to the elegance and restrained desperation of The Great Gatsby it is clear Fitzgerald perfected his craft over the years.

Rating: 7/10.
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