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 clich├ęd 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.
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