Sunday, 31 July 2011

One Hundred Strokes of the Brush Before Bed by Melissa P. (5/5)


The back says: Translated into over thirty languages, One Hundred Strokes of the Brush Before Bed has sold over two million copies: on publication in Italy, its readers received a ‘remain chaste’ warning from the Pope. Melissa P.’s autobiographical novel recounts a Sicilian schoolgirl’s erotic adventures. ‘I want love, Diary,’ she writes just before her fifteenth birthday. ‘I want to feel my heart melt, want to see my icy stalactites shatter and plunge into a river of passion and beauty.’ Love may be hard to find, but sex waits at every turn, and Melissa seldom says no. Told with brutal frankness, mixing the coming-of-age novel with Gothic romance, Melissa P.’s narrative is a frustrated search for love in a pornographic world: it is The Story of O for our times.

I say: First of all, I don’t really get calling this “The Story of O of our time” because it’s nowhere near it. I’m inclined to think that the comparisons stem from the straightforward nature of the revelations and the elements of sexual submission and dominance.

Few things in this short novel shocked me. In fact, more than anything it left me feeling sad.

Incredibly sad.

I mean, Melissa describes her first sexual encounter as such:


“I lost it between sheets that were too cold and beneath the hands of someone who devours my very heart, which has now stopped beating. Dead. I do have a heart, Diary, even if he doesn’t notice it, even if perhaps no one ever will. And before I open it, I shall give my body to any man who comes along, for two reasons: because in savouring me he might taste my rage and bitterness and therefore experience a modicum of tenderness; and because he might fall so deeply in love with my passion that he won’t be able to do without it. Only then shall I give myself utterly, without hesitation, without restraint, so as not to lose the tiniest scrap of what I have always desired.” – p 19
I don’t want to turn this into a comparison, but O in The Story of O wasn’t dealing with the same issues as Melissa – as far as I know. The foundation of D/s relationships (and I’m no expert, so don’t quote me) is built on trust and mutual respect (even though I was shocked when I first read The Story of O, it was always made clear that O knew exactly what she was getting herself into – and welcomed it). The reason Melissa starts giving herself to any man who shows interest is because the very first man she ‘loved’ only wanted her body, and so she thinks that the only way she can access love is through her body.

This is my high school psychology kicking in.

The reason why I find this story so sad is because it’s so very common. I went to school with Melissa’s, I even still know a few Melissa’s. The heartbreaking thing is that she thinks that she is in control – and a lot of the times, she is – but these men push her to do things that she admits later that she wasn’t really willing, or wanting to do. It’s the constant search for love in all the wrong places that leads her further and further down a path she knows she doesn’t really want to walk.


“A touching scene at the cinema never touched me, a powerful song never moved me, and I’ve always only half-believed in love, thinking I could never actually experience it. Yet I’ve never been cynical. No, the fact is that nobody ever taught me how to express the love I kept hidden inside, concealed from everyone. It was somewhere, it needed to be tracked down. I tried, flinging my desire into a world from which love was banished. And nobody, I mean nobody, blocked my path, saying, “No, little one, you can’t enter here.” – p 116

Sure, this is an erotic novel with candid details of her encounters with men (and a woman), but it doesn’t read in the way erotic novels usually do, i.e. barely any plot and just smut. There is a story in here, and reason I love it is because of the journey that Melissa takes. She’s neither naïve nor stupid - but actually intelligent and mature - just very misguided, which is all extremely evident in the way that she describes her emotions, encounters, and dreams for the future.

And also what makes this all the more sad for me.

Quote of the Week

"The oldest books are still only just out to those who have not read them." 

- Samuel Butler

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (5/5)


The back says: In Orwell’s frightening vision of the future, society is under the control of Big Brother. Every aspect of life is closely monitored, while any hint of unorthodoxy is ruthlessly suppressed by the Thought Police. The Ministry of Truth, where Winston Smith works, is the Party’s propaganda machine. A secret rebel, Winston yearns for liberty and finds new hope when he falls in love with the earthy, uncomplicated Julia. Instead he discovers a nightmare world of terror where the price of freedom is betrayal.

I say: I can’t even know what to say about this, because it had my mind working overtime throughout the entire read. I do realise that I’m very late to the party (pun totally and nerdilly intended), and I can’t help but wish that I had read this sooner.

Much sooner.

I know that I use the expression a lot, but I seriously can’t even know where to begin to dissect this because it contains so many layers. Big Brother watches over everything and everyone, and any anomaly is swiftly ‘taken care of’. As always with these types of dystopian novels, we follow a person who not only finds something wrong with the system, but is also desperate to free himself of the bondage, as it were. In this case Winston Smith. He works at the Ministry of Truth were he changes newspaper articles to make sure that Big Brother is always right and making it impossible for anyone to prove dfferent. He begins a relationship with Julia, falls in love, and in doing so tries to find a way out of Big Brother's reach.

That is probably as far as I can go without giving away any spoilers.

Like I said, there are so many layers within this novel that warrant discussion and analysis and there is no way I can possibly do that here and now. I’m actually yearning to re-read it just so that I can get a clearer picture of everything. To say that I love it would be an understatement; everything from Winston’s naiveté (if I may) and blind obedience to his realisation (more than discovery, since he’s always sensed that something wasn’t right) of the truth and later on the road to and price of freedom. It was downright disturbing the way that the state was training children to be obedient little spies that would turn in their own parents for the simplest of crimes, like talking in their sleep. Not to mention the absolute control that Big Brother had.

Over everything.

In the beginning of the book we are introduced to the three slogans of the Party (those who control Oceania, the part of the world Winston lives in): “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength” (p. 6). But because the people are forbidden to think for themselves, or question anything, these three paradoxes become as self-evident and natural as the posters seen everywhere with Big Brother’s face declaring that “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU” (p. 4). And it’s not until Winston finds out the true meaning behind those words that the world he lives in finally makes sense.

I have to say that what I really loved was when Winston finally came to the conclusion that: “Being in a minority, even a minority of one, did not make you mad. There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.” – p 226

Friday, 29 July 2011

Book Buying Ban, Part the Second

I put myself on a book buying ban earlier in the year (March, April or May - I can't remember) where I didn't allow myself to buy any books, simply because I have too many - I know, that's not really possible, but bear with me. My problem is that when I have too many options I get confused and in panic run out to find a completely different and unrelated option.

Seriously, it took me an hour to figure out which book I was going to read next (I've been reserving Jude the Obscure for the office because it's Thomas Hardy and he always feels like work - although I must say Jude isn't nearly as annoying as Hardy usually is).

Right now there are 16 library books on my night stand and I can't even begin to count how many of my own books are stacked on the floor.

It's ridiculous, really.

So, I will therefore not buy any books in August.

And the only books I'm allowing myself to check out of the library are the ones that I've already had them order and reserve for me - only two.

So, for the next 31 days I have to make due with what I have, which is a good thing since I'm consciously hiding some of the books that I've had for eons but really don't want to read or look at. Obviously, this means that when I go to drop of some old clothes at the thrift store tomorrow I'm going to pretty much buy every book in sight.

That seems fair.

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett (3/5)

The back says: Had the dogs not taken exception to the strange van parked in the royal grounds, the Queen might never have learnt of the Westminster travelling library’s weekly visits to the palace. But finding herself at its steps, she goes up to apologise for all the yapping and ends up taking out a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett, last borrowed in 1989. Duff read thought it proves to be, upbringing demands she finish it and, so as not to appear rude, she withdraws another. This second, more fortunate choice of book awakens in Her Majesty a passion for reading so great that her public duties begin to suffer. And also, as she devours work by everyone from Hardy to Brookner to Proust to Samuel Beckett, her equerries conspire to bring the Queen’s literary odyssey to a close.

I say: I wanted to like this far more than I did. Books about reading tend to catch my attention because I can recognise myself in the love of reading, and I often get new titles to add to my endless TBR pile. However, the narrative has to somehow be interesting enough for me to stay interested – otherwise it’s just a book chronicling someone’s reading habits, which is boring.

I want to know how the books make the person feel – not simply that they read them.

Unfortunately, this little novel did the latter more that than the former.

It was a nice premise for a book, but it didn’t do it for me. First of all, the Queen bored me to tears – or was it the plot? She starts reading, falls in love with it and of course wants to talk to everyone about it, but they don’t want to hear it (been there… actually, still there, hence the blog). Thus far I’m on board, because the Queen had some really nice thoughts and opinions going through her head about reading that I think any avid reader would agree with (heaven knows I’ve tried to explain this to my non-reading friends who simply refuse to get it).

“Once I start a book I finish it. That was the way one was brought up. Books, bread and butter, mashed potato – one finishes what’s on one’s plate. That’s always been my philosophy.” – p 6

“Books are not about passing the time. They’re about other lives. Other worlds. Far from wanting time to pass, Sir Kevin, one just wishes one had more of it.” – p 30

“You don’t put your life into books. You find it there.” – p 104

But then those around her try to get her to stop reading through various schemes; her private secretary, Sir Kevin Scatchard, explaining it thus:

“To read is to withdraw. To make oneself unavailable. One would feel easier about it if the pursuit itself were less… selfish.” – p 45

And then I’m obviously not going to give away the ending other than the fact that I found it disappointing. I’m going to end this list of quotes review with a few words that I’ve thought many a time (latest when I was on vacation and couldn’t wait to get home to read – I know, I know).

“It was reading, and love it though she did, there were times when she wished she had never opened a book and entered into other lives. It had spoiled her. Or spoiled for this, anyway.” – p 62/63

Truth.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

BTT: Night Owl


What’s the latest you’ve ever stayed up reading a book? Is staying up late reading a usual thing for you?
I've stayed up all night reading books - and then all morning too. In fact, it's a very reoccuring thing for me. I'm a night person, and prefer to do pretty much everything at night; reading, studying, cooking, cleaning - everything. Unfortunately, I live on the second floor in an apartment building, so hoovering at 2am isn't very much appreciated.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

The Dead-Tossed Waves by Carrie Ryan (3.5/5)

The back says: Gabry lives a quiet life, secure in her town next to the sea and behind the Barrier. She’s content to let her friends dream of the Dark City up the coast while she watches from the top of her lighthouse.

Home is all she’s ever known and all she needs for happiness.

But life after the Return is never safe and there are threats even the Barrier can’t hold back.

Gabry’s mother thought she left her secrets behind in the Forest of Hands and Teeth but, like the dead in their world, secrets don’t stay buried. And now, Gabry’s world is crumbling.

One night beyond the Barrier…

One boy Gabry’s known forever and one veiled in mystery…

One reckless moment, and half of Gabry’s generation is dead, the other half imprisoned.

Now Gabry knows only one thing: if she had any hope of a future, she must face the forest of her mother’s past.

I say: I can’t even know what to say about this that’s any different from what I had to say about the first book, The Forest of Hands and Teeth. I pretty much had the exact same problems with the writing; it goes from boring to action to boring to action on a continuous loop – there’s hardly any middle ground, and I really don’t like that. Thus not stating that I need a novel to have a huge build-up to one great action scene, but Ryan’s writing is just so uneven I became less and less interested as it progressed. It’s like when you’re watching a bad thriller and you hear the music get louder as things move in slow motion and then…

(dun dun dun)

it’s just a shadow.

Over and over again.

The plot is an entirely different issue. I just have no idea what is going on with this book. It’s only 400 pages and yet Ryan manages to cram in so much action and plot twists and love affairs or non-love affairs and abandonment and imprisonment and death and life and

it’s. Just. So. Exhausting.

And here’s why: everything happens in one go. And then nothing happens for a few pages and then another jillion things happen.

But I’m repeating myself [oh, the irony].

What’s good about this sequel is that it introduces some new and interesting characters. Some of the plot is interesting, especially everything about the Return and how the ‘disease’ came about. To be honest, that’s the main reason I’ll keep reading because, of course, there’s a third book out now, The Dark and Hollow Places, which will, no doubt, follow the same formula. The annoying thing, for lack of a better expression, is that when it’s good it’s really good, but when it’s not it’s…

well, not.

Either way, I’ve asked the library to order it for me (and everyone else, I guess, but I get to read it first - huzzah), so it’ll probably be another couple of weeks for them to laminate it and such. I really want to like these books because I love the premise, but there's just so much drama.

Less drama and more answers, please.

Aside: It’s really hard for me to invest in these books because Ryan writes such utter spoilers all over the place. Her plot twists are more like soap opera twists, and I’m sincerely hoping that The Dark and Hollow Places is the last book. However, since it doesn’t say anything on her website about the third book being the last, methinks there might be more.

Monday, 25 July 2011

So Much Work

Ugh.

I was keeping track of my books on Living Social, but now they have gone broke (or something) and I have to move everything over to Library Thing. I used LT a few years ago, but got annoyed because of something or other (you never quite know with me) and I was going to use Good Reads, but the site wasn't working and blah blah blah...

So much work just to keep track of these damned books.

I don't know which is better of LT and GR - I just need a nice and clean and hasslefree place to track my books. So far LT is doing a fuckawful job of updating from my spreadsheet and I'll have to spend time that I don't have on changing the covers (because I'm anal like that), so I may skip over to GR and see what's cooking.

Also, whomever took the username FBT on LT is going to get stalked by me. Can you do that there?

Rant, whine, bitch.

I'm done.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (4/5)

The back says: London, at the end of the First World War, basks in the summer heat, Clarissa – Mrs Dalloway – prepares for one of the charming parties.

Yet as the evening approaches, the unexpected arrival from India of her first lover Peter Walsh, triggers vivid memories of the past until, piece by piece, Clarissa brings to the surface the story of her life, of childhood dreams, and the row so many years ago that precipitated her uneventful marriage.

She is suddenly and startingly aware of the force of life going on around her; of Septimus Warren Smith going quietly mad with shell-shock; of her daughter Elizabeth, almost a woman, and of Peter, unaltered, yet changed as she feels herself to be. In Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf reveals the differences in the way people think and see and treat one another, brilliantly evoking the feel of the time and, through the eyes of each character, the feel of life itself.

I say: For some reason I love Virginia Woolf. I’ve been fascinated by her life and her death for years, and so it’s weird that it’s actually taken me this long to read anything by her. Or not, really; I was afraid I’d be disappointed.

But I wasn’t.

I really like her style of writing; the long lyrical sentences and the poetic prose that draws you into a sort of dreamlike state on this one quite ordinary day. In the beginning I didn’t know what to expect; the synopsis didn’t really mean anything to me, and it was, in the end, Woolf’s writing that made this enjoyable for me because, to be honest, the really isn’t much of a story here. And that’s fine – it’s all about what lies underneath, and it’s that subtlety of emotions and hints at past and future behaviour that drew me in deeper.

For a novel called Mrs Dalloway I was quite surprised to find out how much the narrative focused on the other characters as well. Sure, all of the stories connected in some way, and this is in no way a critique; it was just surprising.

I usually take notes when I read books, but for some reason I didn’t do that while reading this, which is a shame because I’m longing for quotes. Either way, I’m looking forward to re-reading it in the future so that I can dissect it properly and spend hours thinking about all that’s left unsaid between and by the characters.

Mmm... Monday: Federico García Lorca, Part the First

I was watching Little Ashes again the other day with a couple of friends and have since not been able to get my mind off Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí. It’s always the same when I watch that film; it breaks my heart.

And I love it.

Today’s poem is by Lorca and the first time I hear it was in the film, and it just blew me away. Only the last stanza is in the film, and reading the entire thing for the first time turned it into something completely different for me.

The Dispute*

Halfway down the steep ravine
blades from
Albacete
,
lovely with the other's blood,
are glistening like fish.
Against the bitter green,
a card-hard light
traces raging horses
and riders' silhouettes.
Sitting in an olive tree,
two old women weep.
The bull of the dispute
is driven up the walls.
Black angels were bringing
handkerchiefs and melted snow.
Angels with enormous wings
of blades from
Albacete
.
Juan Antonio from Montilla
tumbles down the incline, dead,
irises across his body,
a pomegranate in his head.
Now he rides a flaming cross
along the road of death.
         
The judge comes through the olive grove
with the Civil Guard.
The seeped-out blood is moaning
mute song of the serpent.
«Civil Guardsmen, Sirs,
it was just the usual thing:
four Romans dead
and five Carthaginians».
         
The afternoon, gone mad
with figs and heated sounds,
swoons and falls upon
the riders' wounded thighs.
Black angels were flying
on the western breeze.
Angels with long braids
and hearts of soothing oil.


This: “The afternoon, gone mad / with figs and heated sounds, / swoons and falls upon / the riders' wounded thighs.”

It’s magic.

*Translated by Will Kirkland

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Holiday

I'm off on holiday for 11 days to Malmö, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and back, so there'll be no posting during that time. I'm going to try not to blog any BTT from my phone because that would just be silly (even though I love reading what people think about reading).

So yeah, I'll be spending a total of about 13h on various trains on my own, and I'll hopefully be able to get my read on there (please, don't let there be any screaming kids - or adults, for that matter - around).

In sort of literary linkage I'm hoping to have enough time to go see Hamlet's castle and ask random strangers if they'd like to play Questions. Whomever of these poor tourists gets that reference will be kidnapped my new best friend.

Alrighty then, as soon as my phone (why so slow, Sony Ericsson) is fully loaded with my travel music (sounds like indie, electro, jazz, blues, and some folk) I'll be off.

Laters, taters.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway (3/5)


The back says: Henry Morgan was hard, the classic Hemingway hero. He had to be hard, rum-running, gun-running and man-running from Cuba to the Florida Keys in the Depression. He ran risks, too, from stray coastguard bullets and sudden doublecrosses. But it was the only way he could keep his boat, keep his independence, and keep his belly full…

I say: A part of me kind of liked this, another part didn’t like it at all, and a third is wondering if most of it didn’t just go straight over my head.

I didn’t like Henry at all. Everything about him rubbed me the wrong way, because he was the eternal victim. I can’t stand people like that. He killed, robbed, smuggled and double-crossed his friends in cold blood and thought nothing of it, because “a man shouldn’t have to go hungry.” That was his excuse for everything he did.

Seriously.

The only redeeming quality he had was that he was committed to taking care of his family, and maybe once or twice he did think about the wellbeing of his friends before his own profit. Other than that, there was nothing. Maybe he was the product of his environment, because he did have a few misfortunes happen to him, but that’s not a valid excuse to me.

I’ve liked the other works I’ve read by Hemingway (mostly short stories), and I do like his style of writing. However, there are so many characters in this book that I haven’t the slightest idea why they were there, what they were supposed to represent and why I should even care. It’s like a kaleidoscope of random lives and no matter how I twist and turn; I can’t make any sense of them. When there are only about 20 pages left, we’re introduced to all these new characters on a yacht, and then that’s it – nothing more.

For why?

I really miss my old English Lit teacher now; he loved Hemingway and would have done an excellent job of explaining this to me, because honestly…

At least the ending was fair enough.

The reason this gets a 3 and not 1 is because the core story about Henry was interesting, regardless of his bastardly ways. If the focus had remained on him, this would have gotten an easy 4.

Aside: Racial slurs really rub me the wrong way, and this story had far too many for my liking.

Monday, 11 July 2011

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov (3.5/5)

The back says: They mustn’t harm a human being, they must obey human orders, and they must protect their own existence… but only if doing so doesn’t violate rules one and two. With these Three Laws of Robotics, humanity embarks on perhaps its greatest adventure: the invention of the positronic man.

Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot launches readers on an adventure into a not-so-distant future where man and machine struggle to redefine life, love and consciousness itself. For the scientists who invented the earliest robots weren’t content that their creations should remain programmed helpers, companions, and semisentient worker-machines. And soon the robots themselves, aware of their own intelligence, power, and humanity, aren’t satisfied either. Now human men and women find themselves confronting telepathic robots, robotic politicians, robots gone mad, and vast robotic intelligences that may already secretly control the world in the next great evolutionary struggle for survival. And both man and robot are asking the same question: What is human? And is humanity obsolete?

I say: A few years ago I saw the film adaptation (of sorts) of I, Robot and liked it. Strangely enough, I never seem to learn that films and books are not the same thing, because I was expecting something completely different.

This is a collection of nine (9) short stories about robots and humans/humanity that are presented by robopsychologist Dr Susan Calvin to an unnamed reporter who is writing about robots. All of the stories involve robots that have something wrong with them and depend on humans to fix them, with a heavy dose of morality.

Seriously, I felt like shouting “MESSAGE” somewhere around the end of each one of them.

Thus not saying that it was a bad thing, I just thought that it was a tad too much in some of the stories. Also, I did pick up on a few misogynistic commentaries from the narrator – not sure what that was about.

Either way, Asimov does present a lot of interesting ethical questions/dilemmas that not only apply to the relations between human and robot, but between people in general. I found the discussion that arises from the stories more interesting than the stories themselves, but that’s just me.

Favourite stories: Catch That Rabbit, Liar!, Little Lost Robot and Evidence.

Mmm... Monday: Sylvia Plath, Part the First

I was listening to The Antlers yesterday (it was one of those days) and, of course, came upon their song Sylvia with the most epic of choruses:


So, for today I figured I’d read some Sylvia Plath poetry – you know, to stay in the moment.

Bluebeard

I am sending back the key
that let me into bluebeard's study;
because he would make love to me
I am sending back the key;
in his eye's darkroom I can see
my X-rayed heart, dissected body:
I am sending back the key
that let me into bluebeard's study.


I love the simplicity of this, especially these two lines “in his eye's darkroom I can see / my X-rayed heart, dissected body.” If only it were as easy as to just send back the key...

Aside: If you haven't already, run out and get The Antlers' debut album, Hospice. I swear, you won't regret it. It's magic and will break your heart. And while you're at it, get the second album, Burst Apart, too. You might as well...

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (5/5)

The back says: Far in the future, the World Controllers have created the ideal society. Through clever use of genetic engineering, brainwashing and recreational sex and drugs all its members are happy consumers. Bernard Marx seems alone in feeling discontent. Harbouring an unnatural desire for solitude, and a perverse distaste for the pleasures of compulsory promiscuity, Bernard has an ill-defined longing to break free. A visit to one of the few remaining Savage Reservations where the old, imperfect life still continues, may be the cure for his distress. Huxley's ingenious fantasy of the future sheds a blazing light on the present and is considered to be his most enduring masterpiece.

I say: I really loved this, mostly because it made me think. I’m a sucker for things that make me think.

The beginning of the book was a tad tedious, with the overly scientific explanations of how children were created. I do understand the importance of knowing this, but it made me hesitant about the rest of the novel. But fear not, as soon as that was over and done with, and a plot was introduced I thoroughly started enjoying myself.

As horrifying (yes, really) as Huxley’s Brave New World was, I couldn’t help but kind of like it; the thought of everyone being satisfied with what they had and never striving for more; the fact that if things got too much they popped a few pills and went on “vacation”, how there were no marriages/relationships or children to care about.

It was, in a sense, a perfect utopia.

That is, if you overlook the brainwashing, manipulating of embryos, the quite blatant drug addiction and inherent inequalities in the society.

Bernard doesn’t feel at home in this world, and makes little, if any, attempt to cover up the fact. He goes off to a Savage Reservation and returns with a “savage” named John, who is desperate to know this other world that his mother has spoken so fondly of (maybe it’s a spoiler to say who the mother is, so I won’t). However, as always with these things, Bernard is faced with a different kind of internal struggle upon his return, while John is trying to understand the workings of this new society and people.

I thought it was very blatant where it was all going, and although parts of my predictions were right, there were a few curveballs thrown in there. The ending was, for once, exactly what I was hoping for – however weird that makes me sound.

I feel like I could, quite literally, talk about this book for days (and actually have). There were so many noteworthy quotes and ideas and opinions that really sent my head reeling, but I shall sum it all up with John quoting Miranda’s speech in The Tempest by William Shakespeare:

“Oh brave new world that has such people in it.” – p118

Aside: Supposedly Huxley plagiarised a number of other books when writing Brave New World, but I’m not going to get into all that because, quite frankly, I can’t be arsed with the research right now – I’ll leave that to the scholars (or until I’ve read all the books mentioned).

Quote of the Week

"Books are a refuge, a sort of cloistral refuge, from the vulgarities of the actual world." 

- Walter Pater

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Bright’s Passage by Josh Ritter (4.5/5)

The back says: Josh Ritter’s first novel is a wondrous, suspenseful, and uniquely affecting story of the journey taken by a father and his infant son.

Henry Bright is newly returned to West Virginia from the battlefields of the First World War. Griefstruck by the death of his young wife and unsure of how to care for the infant son she left behind, Bright is soon confronted by the destruction of the only home he’s ever known. His hopes for safety rest with the angel who has followed him to Appalachia from the trenches of France and who promised to protect him and his son.

Together, Bright and his newborn, along with a cantankerous goat and the angel guiding them, make their way through a landscape ravaged by forest fire toward an uncertain salvation, haunted by the abiding nightmare of his experiences in the war and shadowed by his dead wife’s father, the Colonel, and his two brutal sons.

I say: I make no secret of the fact that I love Josh Ritter and consider him one of the greatest songwriters ever, so it was with part excitement and part apprehension that I started reading this – excitement because it’s Ritter, and apprehension because the synopsis above sounds nothing like what I usually enjoy reading.

But I’m nothing if not adventurous.

The narrative weaves between the present; in which Bright’s wife has just died in childbirth and is faced with his newborn and an angel, that is housed inside his horse (yes, really), telling him what to do, and flashbacks from his time before and during the war. I know that this sounds really absurd, which of course it is, but somehow Ritter makes it work. I am about to hand out an immense compliment here in saying that Ritter’s casual style of writing reminds me of Albert Camus (whom I, coincidentally, also love) in several places; and at others, it’s so distinctly Ritter it’s almost tangible.

One of the things that attracted me to Ritter’s music is his lyrical, dare I say, genius. He’s a prolific storyteller with an amazing way with words and haunting imagery.

But enough of my gushing.

Bright’s Passage was heartbreaking, funny, confusing and even a tad uncomfortable. Ritter did a great job of puzzling together the story and the characters, and even though there were a few instances where I thought it was going in a dreary direction, I quickly realised that I had underestimated everything that makes Ritter so great at what he does.

The ending was such perfection; I can’t even know what to say.

I would love to have been able to give this a full 5/5, but I must admit that there were a few instances of sentimentality and predictability towards the end that I didn’t quite like. There was nothing wrong with this, and it's actually quite beautiful, but it's just not what I like.

Friday, 8 July 2011

The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy (5/5)


The back says: By the time he dies, Ivan Ilyich has come to understand the worthlessness of his life. Paradoxically, this elevates him above the common man, who avoids the reality of death and the effort it takes to make life worthwhile. In Tolstoy's own words, "Ivan Ilyich's life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible."

I say: I loved this, and somehow I don’t really know why. It’s hardly original or groundbreaking or even surprising, but there’s something about the way Tolstoy treats the slow demise of Ivan Ilyich that makes this perfection.

It’s all remarkably self-evident and yet unexpected at the same time.

Ivan falls ill and nobody knows what’s wrong with him. He sees doctor after doctor and as his health deteriorates, his family looses patience with him, which causes him to take a good look at his life. He doesn’t understand why he should meet this awful end since he has, in his own mind, done everything ‘properly’ and according to what society demands. However, the more he thinks about it, the more he realises that maybe he hasn’t been as happy as he always presumed.

I think the reason why I loved this is because it is my greatest fear; waking up one morning and feeling/realising that I’ve wasted my life. Although I've never feared death, I've always wanted to know that I did all that I wanted to do, as opposed to all that I could do. I think that is the problem that Ivan faces in the end. That, combined with witnessing his family grow tired and resentful towards him; them, who he did everything for. I think Tolstoy did a great job in describing the frustration and hopelessness that came with it all.

I kept thinking about Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night by Dylan Thomas and how Ivan spent so much time 'raging against the dying of the light' only to, in the end, realise that going gently isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Did I just give away the ending there?

Meh.

It doesn't really matter since it's all about the context. Also, it's such a short read and more about how we personally reflect on life/living and death/dying.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

BTT: Dog Days


Since my dog is turning 10 today … what animal-related books have you read? Which do you love? Do you have a favorite literary dog? (Snoopy, anyone?)
I’m not big on animals in general (unless I’m allowed to argue that Man is an animal; which I will, given the chance - but then I'm not big on Man either), so reading about them isn't something I consciously do.

I’m currently reading Bright’s Passage by Josh Ritter and in it there’s a talking horse that’s an angel, but it's hardly animal-related.

Earlier this year I read Animal Farm by George Orwell and Pigtopia by Kitty Fitzgerald, and I suppose those are the only ones I can say were animal-related.

I seriously can’t think of a single animal-related book that I love – I can barely think of one at all. I don’t really like dogs, and was going to say Cujo by Stephen King, but I never read the book, just saw the movie.

Aside: Thanks ever so little for the title of this week's BTT because now I'm sure to spend the rest of the day singing Dog Days Are Over by Florence + The Machine... "happiness hit her like a train on a track"

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Eight White Nights by André Aciman (4/5)

The back says: Eight White Nights is an unforgettable journey through that enchanted terrain where passion, fear, and the sheer craving for love and to show love can alter who we are. A man in his late twenties attends a large Christmas party in Manhattan, where a woman introduces herself with three words: “I am Clara.” Over the following seven days, they meet every evening at the same cinema. Overwhelmed yet cautious, he treads softly and won’t hazard a move. The tension between them builds gradually, marked by ambivalence, hope and distrust. As André Aciman explores their emotions with uncompromising accuracy and sensuous prose, they move both closer together and further apart, culminating in a final scene on New Year’s Eve charged with magic and the promise of renewal.

I say: I can’t even know what to say about this… Or, well, actually I can, I just really don’t want to, but will anyway. The truth of the matter is that I’m disappointed.

Very much so.

And yet, at the same time, I’m not. If this had been a novel by anybody else, I’d have loved it. But because it’s by Aciman, who wrote my favourite book, Call Me By Your Name, I’m disappointed. Maybe this is unfair on my part, but I just expected so much and even though I was given a whole lot,

I wanted everything.

Here’s the thing; Aciman’s prose is so ridiculously beautiful I found myself clutching my heart and gasping (yes, I actually do those things) throughout the novel. His way with words; the way he dissects an emotion/event/place with such stupefying splendour and presents it without any airs is so beyond anything I’ve ever encountered outside poetry, I simply cannot get over it - or get enough of it. He notices things about life that he unpretentiously offers in such a way that it feels like he’s saying “this is the way things are, how could you not have noticed it before?” Like this:

I’d never spoken about him. Would I remember to think of him again on our way back? Or would I choose to hate myself for burying him with a second death, the death of silence and shame, which I already knew was a crime against me, not him, against truth, not love. The wages of grief are paid in large bills and, later, in loose change; those of silence and shame no loanshark will touch. – p 150

I am in literary love with him.

The reason why I was disappointed by this is because I didn’t really like the two main characters, the nameless narrator and Clara. At first I found them intriguing, especially Clara, then I found her to be obnoxious and conceited while he was still nice, and once she became likeable, he started annoying me. There was just so much game playing going on between them, and the neurosis going on inside his head really got annoying at one point – even for him (without giving away any of the plot) – it was exhausting.

Just be natural, a voice said.
Which is what?
Be yourself.
Meaning?
Being myself was like asking a mask to mimic a face that’s never been without masks. How do you play the part of someone trying not to play parts? – p 167

There was just too much of that in the book for my liking. And then, unfortunately, I didn’t like the end, but that’s because I like books to end a certain way and if they don’t, I get all disappointed.

So yeah, 4/5 is the most I can give this while I sit here hoping that Aciman will continue to write for all eternity. Or at least for as long as I live. That’s not too much to ask. It really isn't.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Mmm... Monday: Giacomo Leopardi, Part the First

The narrator in Eight White Nights by André Aciman referred to this poem, To Himself by Giacomo Leopardi, which I’d never heard of and obviously had to look up. There are, as always with these things, countless translations, but I chose this one, as I found it to be the most appealing (and because a quick “research” of translations of Leopardi revealed that J G Nichols supposedly is accurate – I’ll look into it deeper when I decide to buy a copy of Leopardi’s work).


Now you must rest for ever,
My weary heart. The last deceit has died,
I had thought everlasting. Died. I feel
Not hope alone, desire
For dear deceits in us has come to fail.
Now rest for ever. You
Have throbbed sufficiently. Nothing is worth
One beat of yours; nor is it worthy sighs,
This earth. Bitterness, boredom
Are all life is; and all the world is mud.
Lie quietly. Despair
This final time. Fate granted to our kind
Nothing but dying. Now despise yourself,
Nature (the brutal force
That furtively ordains the general harm),
And this infinity of nothingness.


It’s very depressing, this poem, but I am violently in love with it. Especially this: “Nothing is worth/One beat of yours; nor is it worthy sighs”.

Swoon.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Quote of the Week

"My test of a good novel is dreading to begin the last chapter." 

- Thomas Helm

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Beloved by Toni Morrison (4/5)

The back says: It’s the mid 1800s. At Sweet Home in Kentucky, an era is ending as slavery comes under attack from the abolitionists. The world of Halle and Paul D. are to be destroyed in a cataclysm of torment and agony. The world of Sethe, however, is to turn from one of love to one of violence and death – the death of Sethe’s baby daughter, Beloved, whose name is the single word on the tombstone, who died at her mother’s hands, and who will return to claim retribution.

I say: I’ve seen the film adaptation twice, but always missed the beginning and thus been confused, so I was a little apprehensive about reading it, but to my surprise I loved it.

First of all, I love Toni Morrison’s writing; her prose is always so powerful and sometimes on the verge of poetic. Beloved was no exception.

The narrative weaves from the present to the past and between the different characters in what I dare call a masterful way. The only part of the novel that I really didn’t care for was when we were inside of Beloved’s head. I understand what Morrison was doing, but for me, it would have been better if her thoughts had remained a mystery.

When I watched the film there were two places that made me cry, and it was interesting to see that I cried at the exact same places when reading this; both involving Denver, the daughter that lived. To me, she was the strongest character in this novel and the one person that shed some serious light in this dark, and quite frankly, horrifying story (aside: Kimberly Elise portrayed her with such excellence in the film). I mean, this.

"All the time, I’m afraid the thing that happened that made it all right for my mother to kill my sister could happen again. I don’t know what it is, I don’t know who it is, but maybe there is something else terrible enough to make her do it again. I need to know what that thing might be, but I don’t want to. Whatever it is, it comes from outside this house, outside the yard, and it can come right on in the yard if it wants to. So I never leave this house and I watch over the yard, so it can’t happen again and my mother won’t have to kill me too." – p 205

I find it hard reading about slavery, but I like (as much as one can use the word ‘like’ without sounding stupid) the way that Morrison deals with it, and the consequences it had on all the characters in Beloved. A lot in the novel is brutal, but a lot of it is also beautiful and promising. There are so many great quotes and passages that I look forward to reading again in the future.

Aside: My favourite quote from the film “Just cos you can’t see no chains, doesn’t mean they’re not there,” isn’t actually in the book.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Oh, Come On: Asocial Ramblings


I picked up Eight White Nights by André Aciman yesterday (threw poor Mrs Dalloway to the side to start reading it) and have only gotten as far as 117 pages. People keep interrupting me; demanding my presence, opinion, attention and other such nonsense.

I just want to read.

I'm desperately trying to be a recluse, but they won't let me.

It's probably wrong that I'm more interested in these fictional characters than those in my real life, at the moment, but it's just that Aciman writes so beautifully. I'm expecting this to end badly - hoping it'll end badly; preferrably in utter heartbreak. Eight White Nights is, so far, nowhere near as magical as Call Me By Your Name, and right now it's more Aciman's words that the plot itself.


In other book related news, my copy of Josh Ritter's debut novel Bright's Passage has been shipped. It was released Tuesday and I hate that it took them three whole days to send it (the horror), but considering that I won't be doing much reading for the rest of the weekend, it's whatever really.

Note: I love Josh Ritter. I see him live once a year and have one of his song titles tattooed on my arm (to appear less as a stalker, I'll point out that I also have a song title from Turandot by Giacomo Puccini on the wrist of my other arm), so obviously I'm ridiculously excited about this book. And also apprehensive that it'll be bad. 

But enough pontification (I love that saying), I have some more reading to do.