Friday, 30 September 2011

The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers (4/5)

The back says: Once there was a girl whose life was filled with wonder...

I say: I bought this because I really liked the cover.

Yes, that's why we buy things sometimes. 

It's a story about a girl who one day puts her heart in a bottle to keep it safe. After a while she realises that things aren't as amazing as they used to be, but she can't get the heart out of the bottle.

I thought it was a cute little tale, even though it was obviously not written for me. More than the story I loved the illustrations. This is the first book I've bought by Oliver Jeffers, but I'm definitely going to buy more of his works.

And then I'm going to try these out on my nieces to see if they're a hit. Their English isn't the best, so I'll have to translate into Swedish, but this'll be a part of my master plan to get them to understand more English so that I can read to them in that language rather than Swedish.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

BTT: Loud


1. What do you think of reading aloud/being read to? Does it bring back memories of your childhood? Your children’s childhood?
2. Does this affect the way you feel about audio books?
3. Do you now have times when you read aloud or are read to?

1. I don’t mind being read to if it’s just a few beautiful/interesting lines or a paragraph. Anything more than that makes me restless. On the other hand I love reading to my nieces – and they love hearing it because I do all the voices and things. When I was a kid I loved it when my mother read to me; her voice was so soothing. When they read to us in school I always fell asleep.
2. I had a period in my teens when my eyes hurt all the time so I had to listen to audio books. Now that my eyes are fine again (more or less), I just love and cherish the fact that I’m able to read, so I don’t listen to audio books and honestly can’t see myself ever doing that as long as I can see well enough.
I love looking at words - same as I love holding a book - there's a feel to it that I can't describe.
Also, I prefer my own inner voice – yes, I’m narcissistic like that. When I read, I like to stop and offer little asides to myself, like “why is she doing this?” “this is not going to end well,” “please, don’t say/do that” etc. and I doubt I’d be able to do that while listening to an audio book.
3. I read poetry aloud, and I like hearing poetry being read. Other than that I only read to my nieces.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

What's in a Name...?

I'm currently reading The Book of Human Skin by Michelle Lovric (about halfway through and loving it), and in it they speak of Tupac Amaru II, leader of an indigenous uprising in 1780 against the Spanish in Peru.

This guy:



Now, I grew up listening to Tupac Amaru Shakur, the rapper/actor.


This guy:


The latter was named after the former, which is all well and good, except for the fact that I have to do a double take every time I read the name. It's in no way drawing any attention away from the plot – which, by the by, is so well-written I’m almost gushing – but I just find names funny that way, and obviously felt compelled to share this non-information.

Oh well... as you were.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Mmm… Monday: William Wordsworth, Part the First

My defective and selfish brain has gone off on holiday again and left my unstable emotions in charge, which usually means that it will end in tears. Yay! I’ve spent the morning making proper acquaintance with future regrets, and somewhere in that haze of too much vodka over the weekend and a Monday that came much too early, I stumbled into the beauty of William Wordsworth.


She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways

She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love:
 
A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
--Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.
 
She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!


Those last two lines will be the death of me one of these days. This is one of the Lucy poems that Wordsworth wrote, and my favourite. It all lies in the simplicity of the prose, the fact that we don’t find out that she’s dead until the penultimate line, and how that affected the narrator.

Beauty.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Quote of the Week

"I find television to be very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go in the other room and read a book." 

- Groucho Marx

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Candide by Voltaire (4/5)

The back says (I downloaded this from ManyBooks.net and they say): Widely considered to be one of the most significant works of the Western canon, Voltaire's novel tells the tale of its naive protagonist Candide, taught to believe in optimism. Candide undergoes a series of extraordinary hardships, parodying many adventure and romance cliches.

I say: I can't believe I waited so long to read this. The humour and satire in this had me laughing out loud in a lot of places – it was all so ridiculously over the top, I can't help but have fallen in deep, passionate, crazy love with Voltaire.

The story starts off with naïve and honest Candide who is kicked out of the palace for kissing Cunegonde, and then travels the world encountering all the absurdities one could ever think of – and then some. He is beaten, whipped, robbed, imprisoned – you name it, and I’m sure it happened to him at some point. But throughout all of his misfortunes he continues to search for his Cunegonde, with whom he believes his happiness lies, all the while declaring that everything is for the best.

A relentless optimist.

Voltaire is very good at hilariously poking fun of pretty much everything; religion, philosophy, art, society, legends, and even though I’m not familiar with even half of the philosophers mentioned, I did get the gist of it. The edition I downloaded came with much needed footnotes, and I found myself googling all of the people mentioned to make sure I understood what exactly was being satirised. I’m sure a lot of it went over my head, but I’ll be looking at these people in more depth later (and most definitely return to Candide).

As funny as this was, there was a point where I thought Voltaire took it a tad too far, and the humour was lost in all the ridiculousness. I’m all for silly adventures and nonsensical mishaps, but all in moderation. I must say that I’m surprised at how comically Voltaire described some of the misfortunes – I’m talking about the graver ones, like rape, murder, and slavery – and I felt a little bad for laughing out loud, but his wit is just amazing.

So yeah, a 4/5 because it was a little bit too much.

And I shall finish with this beautiful quote:

What is this optimism?” said Cacambo.
Alas!” said Candide, “it is the madness of maintaining that everything is right when it is wrong.” – p 33

Friday, 23 September 2011

Things Falls Apart by Chinua Achebe (3/5)

The back says (my edition has parts of a review from the Observer for who knows what reason): ”... The story is the tragedy of Okonkwo, an important man in the Igbo tribe in the days wen white men were first appearing on the scene... Mr Achebe's very simple but excellent novel tells of the series of events by which Okonkwo through his pride and his fears becomes exiled from his tribe and returns, only to be forced into the ignominity of suicide to escape the results of his rash courage against the white man... He handles the macabre with telling restraint and the pathetic without any false sense of embarassment.”

I say: I liked this at the start, but the more I got to know Okonkwo, the less I liked him, and consequently this novel. He was a misogynistic bully that thought far too much of himself and his abilities, and it was a downright bore following him. The only redeeming factor of this book was the ending and the fact that I'll be discussing it for a long time to come.

I wasn't very impressed by Achebe's writing; it's all very commonplace. He kept using Nigerian words for things, which I don't particularly like, but there was a dictionary at the back of my edition and I learned the words after a while. There were a few witticisms scattered about, and I do like proverbs, so that was enjoyable.

The thing about this novel that took me by surprise is that the white man didn't arrive to the story until the last 50 pages. Everything up until then was Achebe describing village life and Okonkwo pretty much abusing anyone who crossed his path. The story did pick up a bit when the missionaries showed up, but it was all so very biased it just rubbed me the wrong way. Maybe it's because I had already checked out of the story by then, and just wanted it all to end -

which it did with a bang.

Now, that ending is a whole nother issues. It seems as though I was waiting for it, and then when it finally arrived I almost felt as if I'd missed it. It felt rushed and maladroit – almost as if Achebe himself grew bored with his creation and wanted to wash his hands off it.

But then I took some time to let it marinate, and it seemed to me somewhat just.

I had to think for quite a while how to grade this book because the story itself and the execution is a 2, but then the moral of the story is a 4. I'm glad that I read it (I think) and Achebe brings up a lot of issues for further discussion, but I'm still torn. We'll settle for a 3 for now and then I might change it later on.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

BTT: In Public


Do you carry books with you when you’re out and about in the world?
And, do you ever try to hide the covers?

I only carry a book with me if I’ll be somewhere I know I’ll have a long wait.
Note: anything more than 5 minutes equals a long wait.
And I can’t think of a cover that I’ve ever hidden. I do prefer removable dust jackets so that people won’t feel compelled to talk to me about what I’m reading. I’m not a fan of that.
A few years back when I was reading Crime and Punishment this woman came up to me and started talking about it and goes "have you gotten to the part where *this* happens?"
My reply: "Errr, no... but thanks for spoiling it for me."
Honestly, some people...

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

The Other Hand by Chris Cleave (4/5)

The back says: We don't want to tell you what happens in this book. It is a truly specieal story and we don't want to spoilt it.

Nevertheless, you need to know enough to buy it so we will just say this:

This is the story of two women.

Their lives collide one fateful day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice.

Two years later, they meet again – the story starts there...

Once you've read it, you'll want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don't tell them what happens either. The magic is in how it unfolds.

I say: I knew I was going to somehow fall in love with this when I read the first paragraph:

“Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl. Everyone would be pleased to see me coming. Maybe I would visit with you for the weekend and then suddenly, because I am fickle like that, I would visit with the man from the corner shop instead – but you would not be sad because you would be eating a cinnamon bun, or drinking a cold Coca Cola from the can, and you would never think of me again. We would be happy, like lovers who met on a holiday and forgot each other's names.”

Maybe it's because I had the same thoughts in my youth, but most likely because I knew this story was somehow going to break my heart.

Which, of course, it did.

I didn't know anything about this when I started reading, so I’m thinking that I’ll heed the synopsis and not say what happens other than it was powerful – and it made me cry.

Several times.

The American version is called Little Bee, which is what the African girl names herself on a fateful day in Nigeria, and I fell in some sort of love with her. Although there was a lot of her thoughts and actions that I didn't quite comprehend, I’m unable to judge considering what she had been through. So much of what she said shattered me completely, like this:


“In the immigration detention centre, they told us we must be disciplined to overcome our fears. This is the discipline I learned: whenever I go into a new place, I work out how I would kill myself there. In case the men come suddenly, I make sure I am ready.” - p 68
Just imagine what would make a teenager think in along those lines.

The narrative alternates between Little Bee and Sarah, the woman she met on that fateful day, and although it was ok being in Sarah's head, it got a bit much at times. I wanted to know more about how they related to each other, and was uninterested in her love affair. It all felt very contrived – like a filler – and I can't see why it was even a part of the story. Ultimately it made me like her less. She did redeem herself in the end, but by then I had lost interest in her and her selfish ways.

Although I did enjoy Little Bee's parts, and I can understand why Cleave chose to write it the way he did, it got annoying. Sarah's parts made no impression whatsoever . In the end, if this had only been told in the former's voice (or if Sarah hadn't been so disagreeable), I would have loved it so much more, but it's such a powerful story I can't give it anything less than a 4.

Aside: This was in the YA shelf in my library, but I'm not sure I'd classify it as such - at least not Sarah's parts.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (3.5/5)

I downloaded this from Project Gutenburg and the synopsis on goodreads says: First published in 1870, Venus in Furs gained for its author both notoriety and a degree of immortality when the word "masochism" – derived from his name – entered the psychiatric lexicon. The novel describes the sexual obsessions of Severin von Kusiemski, a European nobleman with the desire "to be the slave of a woman." Severin finds his ideal of voluptuous cruelty in the merciless Wanda von Dunajew.

Not simply a lurid tale of sexual perversion, nor a Victorian fantasy of antique decadence, Venus in Furs is a passionate and powerful portrayal of one man's struggle to enlighten and instruct himself and his world in the realm of desire. Influential on Freud, Thomas Mann, and Arthur Schnitzler,
Venus in Furs remains a classic literary statement on sexual submission and control.


I say: This is a book within in a book. It starts off with an unnamed narrator having a dream about talking to Venus who is wearing furs. While visiting a friend, Severin von Kusiemski, he sees a painting depicting his dream. In order to explain this painting, and deter him from his desire for Venus in Furs, Severin gives him a copy of his manuscript entitled Memoirs of a Suprasensual Man.

I’m a bit torn as to how I feel about this novel. On the one hand I liked the way Sacher-Masoch dealt with Severin’s submission; the way he conveyed exactly what it was that he was looking for and desired from Wanda. On the other hand, there was a point near the ending of the manuscript that completely did me in.

As they always do.

The ending of the novel, though, summed it up quite nicely.

I have to admit that I’m a still a tad confused about Wanda and her role as a mistress. In the beginning she says that she doesn’t want to whip Severin, but then as soon as she’s gotten a taste for it, she’s ruthless. And not just in her punishments, but in her actions. Yes, I do understand that Severin wanted this treatment, but there’s a point at the end (the one that did me in) that completely changed my view of her – and the novel.

There’s a moral to the story (that I won’t spoil) and I get what Sacher-Masoch was saying, I suppose I just wasn’t ready for it. I like having my heart broken by books – the sadder the ending the better – but I can’t stand cruelty and hopelessness.

Aside: I felt the same way now when I finished reading The Story of O by Pauline Réage.

Having said all that, I did enjoy it. Sacher-Masoch’s style of writing was easy and pleasant enough, and sometimes even a little witty. There were a lot of good quotes in there concerning love and the relationship between men and women, so I’m thinking that I’ll be reading this again at some point.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Mmm... Monday: William Carlos William, Part the First

I'll let William Carlos William explain how I feel today.

Landscape With The Fall of Icarus

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling
near

the edge of the sea
concerned 
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings' wax

unsignificantly
off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Quote of the Week

"I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us."
 

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen (4.5/5)

The back says: Dr Leo Liebenstein is rather impressed with the woman in his apartent pretending to be his wife. The grass-scented hair, the Argentinian accent, even the way her hip turns slightly inwards at the top she's fooled everyone, it seems, but him. This Reama brought home a small russet puppy – and his Rema doesn't like dogs.

And so begins Leo's quest to find his 'real' wife. Together with his psychiatric patient Harvey – who's utterly convinced he's a secret agent responsible for the weather – he strives to solve the mystery of Rema's disappearance. Soon Harvey's delusions seem less like and illness and more like plain old common sense to Leo – but not, unfortunately, to everyone else. As realities collide with each other and begin to break down, Leo knows everything will be fine if he could just get rid of this headache.

I say: This was far better than I had anticipated, and I’m not even quite sure how to rate it. A part of me wants to give it a full 5/5, but another is happy with the 4.5. The main reason is that there are a lot of meteorological expressions, and being that I’m not too interested in that field of study, there were a few passages that got a tad too technical for my liking. However, I do understand why they were there, and they weren’t even hard to understand, but even so; that is my main only issue.

Really.

I loved being inside of Leo's head. His thought process was exceptionally riveting and oddly hilarious, especially the further along he tumbled. He was so calm and calculated convinced of his truth, and being a psychiatrist himself, obviously knew exactly what he needed to look at to prove his point.

So he thought.

Galchen is a very talented writer, and I really liked the subtle beauty to the prose. Leo truly is a fascinating man and, because it's a first person narrative, very convincing – at first, it's only when he interacts with other people that I started thinking something was amiss. Well, apart from the whole deal of his wife being someone else, but that could very easily happen. I was impressed by the way Galchen had Leo spiralling down quite slowly because he was trying to be rational about it, and then it had all accumulated and we were given clues at to, roughly, how long this had been going on – and how deep it actually was.

I also thought it was a nice touch that the professor of meteorology, Tzvi Gal-Chen, that they were so obsessed with is based on Galchen's father, complete with pictures and all.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

BTT: Replay


Have you ever finished a book and loved it so much you went right back and started re-reading it again?
(And obviously, if so, we want titles!)

Yes, my favourite book Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman.

Every time I get to the end I gasp, hold my breath as my heart stops beating for a few seconds, and try to convince myself that this is fiction and not real life. But my heart is so broken that I can’t do anything for a few minutes but stare at the cover.

Then I open it up and start reading all over again.
I have promised told myself not to read it again until December, and it’s gotten so that I’ve had to put the book in a drawer so that I won’t have to look at it and be tempted.
Yes, it’s that bad.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller (3/5)

The Back says: On its New York premiere in 1949, Death of a Salesman was hailed as the first great play to question the American consumer dream, and it remains a classic study of failure. Willy Loman, the sixty-year-old Brooklyn salesman who says 'I still fell – kind of temporary about myself', has become an archetypal image of devouring insecurity, of the human capacity for self-deception and, through the drama of his family quarrels, of the ways in which the flaws of one generation are imprinted on the next. Perhaps Miller's most remarcable achievemnt is to have furnished his shifting and inarticulate hero with an unforgettable individual existence.

I say: I have mixed feelings about this; I like the message Miller was trying to convey, but I’m not particularly fond of the way he went about it. It was too ordinary for me – and yes, I do understand that that was the point, but I don’t like it.

Willy Loman is pathetic. I can’t think of a better word to describe him; and not because he’s a failure, but because of his inability to see things for what they are, which is why he’s a failure.

There’s some sweet irony in there somewhere.

Everything in his life is built on lies; so much that nobody around him dares tell him the truth. They’re all walking on eggshells in fear of him blowing up, and he’s completely incapable of seeing that. So of course he’s going to get stuck in the past, reliving the most pivotal moments of his life, trying desperately to figure out what went wrong so that he can shift the blame on somebody else.

It could be argued that this is due to some latent legacy from his father, as well as an inferiority complex as a reaction/consequence of his brother’s success, but the man is 63 years old. He has managed to pass on (or create) this “legacy” to his ridiculously naive youngest son Happy, but not his oldest, Biff, who is now capable of seeing right through him. Combine this with his passive wife; it’s no wonder that the family is so dysfunctional.

It’s clear quite early on how this is going to end (I mean, look at the title), and I was curious to see how Willy was going to redeem himself.

Spoilers after the jump...

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai (3/5)

The back says: Lucy Hull, a young children's librarian in Hannibal, Missouri, finds herself both kidnapper and kidnapped when her favourite patron, ten-year-old Ian Drake, runs away from home. The precocious Ian is addicted to reading, but needs Lucy's help to smuggle books past his overbearing mother, who has enrolled Ian in weekly anti-gay classes.

Lucy, a rebel at heart beneath her librarian's exterior, stumbles into a moral dilemma when she finds Ian camped out in the library after hours with a knapsack of provisions and an escape plan. Desperate to save him from the Drakes, Lucy allows herself to be hijacked by Ian. The odd pair embarks on an improvised road trip from Missouri to Vermont, with ferrets and an inconvenient boyfriend thrown in their path. Along the way, Lucy struggles to make peace with her Russian immigrant father and his fugitive past, and is forced to use his shady connections to escape discovery.

But is it just Ian who is running away? Who is the strange man on their tail? And should Lucy be trying to save a boy from his own parents?

I say: This sounded like it would be a good read since I read a review that it was a book about reading, which I adore. Unfortunately Makkai took it all so far I lost interest and in the end was just reading to get to the end, which is actually shame because I somehow feel like it could have been really good.

Initially I liked Lucy. She seemed easy-going enough without being flaky; a little witty and being inside her head space was pleasant. But then she finds Ian in the library, tries to take him home but he starts crying and making excuses and demands which she agrees to. This is where the story lost me the first time because I refuse to believe that anyone, let alone a 26 year-old librarian, would cave to the demands of a ten-year-old and take him out of his town, his state, and beyond.

The road trip itself was highly unbelievable. And yes, I know that this is fiction, but even so. The characters were all a farce, even the father – and I actually liked him – in fact, I may have to go so far as to say that the entire novel was a farce because then I wouldn't be as annoyed with it.

But somehow I don't think so.

That narrator that suddenly popped up out of nowhere to let us know how much they'd eaten over the week. That whole Christian anti-gay priest and nonsense. The guy in a suit with dark glasses that was following them. The fact that she was seriously contemplating taking the boy with her over the border to Canada.

...

I honestly think that Lucy had some kind of mental instability because her reasoning capacity was just not all there.

What I did like about this was the father and his stories about Russia (since I’m obsessed with that country), and I liked the end. Not just because it ended, but Makkai did write something there that I have thought a lot about myself and therefore resonated with me.

“I'd wanted, in those later lists, to include something more directly helpful, some books that would tell a sixteen-year-old how to reason with the father who wanted to throw him out, or the mother who insisted he was going to hell – but all I knew were novels. It gave me pause, for a moment, that all my reference points were fiction, that all my narratives were lies.” - p 319
I wanted to give this nothing out of five since Makkai gave away the ending of two novels I haven't read yet, but that would just be petty. I do like the way she writes; very humorous at times, and it's a shame that the story was so implausible.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Mmm... Monday: Charles Baudelaire, Part the First


Today has been an extremely long and annoying day, and right now I can think of nothing better to soothe my aching head than a little green tea and a lot of Baudelaire. This is my favourite.

The Ghost

like angels with wild beast's eyes
I shall return to your bedroom
and silently glide toward you
with the shadows of the night;


And, dark beauty, I shall give you
kisses cold as the moon
and the caresses of a snake
that crawls around a grave.


W
hen the livid morning comes,
you'll find my place empty,
and it will be cold there till night.


I
wish to hold sway over
your life and youth by fear,
as others do by tenderness.


 
This translation is by William Aggeler, whom, in my opinion, did it best.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Diary of a Madman and Other Stories by Nicolai Gogol (4/5)

The back says: This collection offers an excellent introduction to the author's works. Opening a door to his bizarre world of broad comedy, fantasy, and social commentary, the title story portrays a petty official's mental disintegration as he struggles for the attention of the woman he loves. Set during the repressive rule of Nicholas I, it satirizes the bureaucratic excesses of the era. Additional tales include “The Nevski Prospect,” a portrayal of the feverish pace of St. Petersburg street life, and “The Portrait,” a gripping depiction of a souls perdition.

I say: I fell in love with Gogol after reading Dead Souls earlier this year, and I’ve really been looking forward to reading more of his works. Having done that now, I think that this may very well turn into an obsession.

Diary of a Madman (5/5) was hilarious, and I was literally laughing out loud at so many places. It was just so absurd with talking and letter-writing dogs, a clerk whose job is to mend pens, and a Spain without a king. As much as I want to give a plot outline it seems a tad spoilery since it's such a short story, so one will have to take from that what one wills.

The Nevski Prospect (4/5) starts out with the narrator telling us about that street in St Petersburg; giving an exquisite account of all the goings on. If you like to sit at a café and people-watch (like me) the first part of this story will please you, because that's exactly what it felt like. While observing the street we come upon two men who happen to see two women. They each pursue one woman with completely different outcomes – one far more severe than the other.

And then finally The Portrait (3/5) which is about a portrait that causes the owner great distress. I can't really say any more as that would give away the entire story, but I did enjoy the beginning and the end. There was a few things in the middle that I thought were a tad drawn out and quite unnecessary, and it ended with slight predictability.


All in all it was a nice collection with humour, satire, a little bit of horror and (in my opinion) a slightly cynical moral - pretty much what I adore. I’m definately looking forward to reading more Gogol as I'm now starting to fully grasp the distinctness of his prose and how much he has influenced other Russian authors.

Quote of the Week

"It is childish to study a work of fiction in order to gain information about a country or about a social class or about the author."

Vladimir Nabokov

Thursday, 8 September 2011

The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce (4/5)

I picked this up over the weekend just because of the title and I’m glad I did. It's exactly what it says on the tin – well, maybe not really; we can't ever be truly sure that the devil has a dictionary. So, in more clear terms, it's a dictionary full of amusing (read: satirical) definitions.

A few of my favourites are:

absurdity, n. a statement of belief manifestly inconsistent with one's own opinion.

apologise, v.i. To lay the foundation for future offence.

bore, n. A person who talks when you wish him to listen.

grave, n. A place in which the dead are laid to await the coming of the medical student.

ignoramus, n. A person unacquainted with certain kinds of knowledge familiar to yourself, and having certain other kinds that you know nothing about.

philosophy, n. A route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.

riot, n. A popular entertainment given to the military by innocent bystanders.

ugliness, n. A gift of the gods to certain women, entailing virtue without humility.

year, n. A period of three hundred and sixty-five disappointment.


This has definitely wetted my appetite for some more Ambrose Bierce.

Note: I couldn't find a picture of the edition I have (a nice red leather bound), so this one will have to do.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive by Steve Earle (4.5/5)

The back says: Doc Ebersole lives with the ghost of Hank Williams – not just in the figurative sense, not just because Doc was one of the last people to see him alive, and not just because Doc is rumoured to have given Hank the final morphine dose that killed him.

In 1963, ten years after Hank's death, Doc is himself wracked by addiction. Having lost his licence to practice medicine, his morphine habit isn't as easy to support as it used to be. So he lives in a rented room in the red-light district on the south side of San Antonio, performing abortions and patching up the odd knife or gunshot wound.

But when Graciela, a young Mexican immigrant, appears in the neighbourhood in the search of Doc's services, miraculous things begin to happen. Graciela sustains a wound on her wrist that never heals, yet she heals others with the touch of her hand. Everyone she meets is transformed for the better, except, maybe, for Hank's very angry ghost – who isn't at all pleased to see Doc doing well.

I say: This book was recommended to me by Amazon shortly after I bought Bright's Passage by Josh Ritter. Usually I tend to ignore Amazon's recommendations, but the title of this novel was just too good to pass me by, so I read the synopsis and thought 'oh absolutely yes'. I had never heard of Steve Earle before, and vaguely knew a few Hank Williams songs, but that didn't stop me.

And I’m glad it didn't.

I absolutely love this. Almost everything about it was perfection. Earle's simple and poignant prose somehow managed to turn these otherwise dreary surroundings into something beautiful, and magical. He made me believe that all these seedy characters, who may have had one or two good qualities, would be able to turn their lives around with just the help of a girl. More than anything, he handled the problems of San Antonio (drug abuse, prostitution, abortion, extortion, hopelessness, etc.) in an achingly straightforward and unapologetic way – everyone was a victim of something, but nobody blamed anyone else.

And that caught me off guard.

Since I don't know anything about Hank Williams, I wouldn't be able to say if his ghost in this novel was anything like he was in real life. Nevertheless, I like how angry and frustrated he was portrayed; the way he was scheming and begging, and just making a nuisance of himself. Since we're never told outright why he's attached to Doc, all these little flashbacks and comments that he had, made the story so much richer.

Was it a guilt on Doc's part and accusation on Hank's?

Or regret on Hank's part and the search for redemption on Doc's?

And how did Graciela really fit into the puzzle?

Although I did love the Mexican mythology/spirituality/religious belief that was a big part of the novel, there was an instance with a priest that I felt was a bit out of place. That's the reason why this get a 4.5/5 instead of the full 5 – it just felt a little contrived and didn't flow naturally with the story.

So, I guess now I’ll have to check out Steve Earle's music, because if he can write a novel like this, I wonder what he can do with added music. He also has a collection of short stories, Doghouse Roses, that I’m going to have to dig into. Hank Williams may also beckon a closer acquaintance.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (3.5/5)


The back says: Humbert Humbert is a middle-aged, fastidious college professor. He also likes little girls. And none more so that Lolita, whom he'll do anything to possess. Is he in love or insane? A silver-tongued poet or a pervert? A tortured soul or a monster?... Or is he all of these?

I say: I am not sure how I feel about this novel, there are a lot of conflicting emotions going on inside me right now. On the one hand I can recognise it for the masterpiece that it invariably is, but at the same time it made me extremely uncomfortable.

As it should.

The novel starts off with a foreword letting us know that the following pages contain notes written by Humbert before his death in prison. In the notes Humbert tells us of how he falls in love with his landlady's daughter Dolores, whom he dubs Lolita. After his landlady falls in love with him and asks him to leave, he marries her in order to stay close to Lolita. The mother wants to send her to boarding school and Humbert contemplates murdering her. However, before he works up the nerve she is killed and he takes Lolita with him on a trip across America, where they live like, in his mind, lovers.

There are a jillion different interpretations of this novel (that I’m not going to present here), and I have to say that I’m glad to have finally read it so as to form my own opinion of what/who Lolita is/was. As Humbert describes in the beginning:


“Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitching travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and those chosen creatures I propose to designate as “nymphets.” - p 15
And then he goes on to say:

“A normal man given a group photograph of school girls or Girl Scouts and asked to point out the comeliest one will not necessarily chose the nymphet among them. You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine (oh, how you have to cringe and hide!), in order to discern at once, by ineffable signs […] the little deadly demon among the wholesome children; she stands unrecognized by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power.” - p 16
And that right there was the reason why this made me uncomfortable; reading Humbert's rationalisation of his 'condition' (if you will) and the way the he felt that Lolita was coming on to him. I have to confess here that I was reading this as satire (because, well, seriously), and that still didn't make it less uncomfortable. However, the amusing part is that Humbert considers himself sick and wrong in what he's doing to Lolita, and yet he claims that he cannot help himself because he loves her so much. He continuously hurts her and then buys her presents to mollify her. In all this he recognises there will come a time when she will leave him (he even wonders why she hasn't done so yet), and tries his hardest to make an escape impossible. It's this cool and calm calculation that gave me chills – the fact that Humbert is a learned and intelligent man and knows exactly what he's doing.

But enough about him and on to Nabokov. This is the first I’ve read by him, and as much as I appreciate and adore his love of language and turn of phrase, it became a tad too much at times. Perhaps it is Humbert I should be annoyed with; the way he was describing the different places they visited was nice for about a page or two, but then it became tiresome. Nabokov being Russian was quite evident in the wit and humour, and even the excessive use of French.

[Aside: I hate it when they don't translate the French, and yes, I know that he wrote this in English, but is a little footnote really too much to ask – I don't want to have to sit in front of my computer and google translate while I’m reading.]

So yeah, I'll give this a 3.5/5 because the language was simply too much for me; there were too many instances of Humbert veering off into tediously descriptive memories. Also, as great as this novel is for a literary discussion, I still can't shake the fact that it made me uncomfortable, and I doubt that I’ll want to read it again.




Monday, 5 September 2011

Mmm... Monday: Alice Walker, Part the First

This summer a couple of friends of mine let me down something awful, and the only comfort (if you can call it that) I could find was in this poem by Alice Walker. Someone said to me that it was frightfully dismal, but I love it.

Expect Nothing

expect nothing. live frugally
on surprise.
become a stranger
to need of pity
or, if compassion be freely
given out
take only enough
stop short of urge to plead
then purge away the need.

wish for nothing larger
than your own small heart
or greater than a star;
tame wild disappointment
with caress unmoved and cold
make of it a parka
for your soul.

discover the reason why
so tiny human midget
exists at all
so scared unwise
but expect nothing. live frugally
on surprise.


This starts off in the most perfect of ways; “expect nothing,” which is exactly what my mother has said to me all my life, but I apparently haven't managed to master yet. And the part that really gets me every time is “wish for nothing larger / than your own small heart / or greater than a star.”

If only.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Quote of the Week

"An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere."

Friday, 2 September 2011

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (4/5)

The back says: War and Peace is a vast epic centred on Napoleon's war with Russia. While it expresses Tolstoy's view that history is an inexorable process which man cannot influence, he peoples his great novel with a cast of over five hundred characters.

Three of these, the artless and delightful Natasha Rostov, the world-weary Prince Andrew Bolkonsky and the idealistic Pierre Bezukhov illustrate Tolstoy's philosophy in this novel of unquestioned mastery.

This translation is the one which received Tolstoy's approval.

I say: I was wondering where to even begin to explain my feelings about this (in case you haven’t been reading my spoilery book by book reports), and I think this pretty much sums it up:

Before reading it I felt like it was something I should read. While I was reading it I thought I’m finally reading it and I’m loving it and hating it in intervals. After reading it I kind of wish I hadn’t read it because now all the magic is gone, and it wasn’t really all that I thought it would be.

The story itself was really good and interesting and I loved it up until about chapter 13, and not because it didn’t go the way I wanted it to, but because it felt like Tolstoy didn’t really care anymore. He wasn’t describing their lives with the same fervour as before, choosing instead to focus more on the war. I’m not complaining because the book is called War and Peace, I’m just saying that it was sad to take me into their lives and have me caring for them and then somehow start slipping in the details.

Maybe he got bored of them, what do I know – except that the way he ended their story was not to my liking at all.

The “war part” of the book, on the other hand, I really enjoyed. At times, I should confess; sometimes it got a tad boring – mostly when Tolstoy was trying to disprove and discredit all other historians. Which he did a lot.

A very lot.

Now, I have to point out that I don’t know if Tolstoy was a historian himself, or much about War and Peace, since I make a point not to read up too much on books before I read them as I want to form my own opinion. So perhaps everything that Tolstoy claimed and argued is correct – I’m not touching that. What I will touch upon is that I was thoroughly intrigued by the war and found myself reading up on the details on Wikipedia (I know) as I was reading, just to get a proper feel about it all (especially the battle of Borodino). I studied war (my thesis was on terrorism and insurgency) so it got extremely interesting when Tolstoy started arguing that it was guerrilla warfare.

But enough about that.

I do love the way Tolstoy writes, although I stand by the opinion that this could have done with a huge edit because there was so much in there that I could have done without. There were a lot of guffaws, because he is a witty writer; and a lot of anxiety because he just draws you so deep into the story you forget everything else. However, the main thing I’m going to remember is probably the names.

So many names.

A seemingly endless array of names.

And just as I’ve learned to pronounce them we never hear of them again.

In conclusion then (because I could go on for days), I wish I had never heard of this before reading it; that I didn’t have such huge expectations, because maybe then I wouldn’t have been left with this slight feeling of disappointment. Not that it was bad, but because I naively thought it was going to change my life, which it didn’t.

Not in the slightest.

The “story” would probably get a 3.5/5 and the “war analysis” a 4.5/5 so we’re compromising this into a 4/5.

War and Peace: Books Thirteen to Fifteen, Plus Epilogues

The last spoilery War and Peace post.
Book Thirteen:
There is confusion in the Russian troops. They start advancing.
Napoleon enters Moscow and tries to set up a semblance of order, urging the Russians to return and promising peace. However, the looting and burning continues.
Pierre is finally feeling peace and calm in the shed he’s held prisoner. The French army is leaving Moscow and the prisoners are taken along.
Book Fourteen:
Tolstoy talks military strategy and asserts that the Russian army engaged in partisan/guerilla warfare against the French.
Petya is sent with a message to Denisov’s and decides to stay. He is killed at battle the following day.
Pierre is rescued by Denisov’s party.
Tolstoy argues why the Russian army didn’t destroy and capture the French as they were retreating.
Book Fifteen:
Princess Mary postpones her return to Moscow in order to console Natasha when she hears of her brother’s death.
Upon being freed, Pierre goes to Orel where he falls ill for three months. When he returns to Moscow he goes to see Mary and finding Natasha there, he realizes that he loves her. And she loves him.
Epilogues:
We find out the fate of our characters (which I'm not going to post in case somebody doesn't want to know how it all ends) in the first part, and in the second Tolstoy spends time talking about power, war, and freedom amongst other things. He does bring up a lot of good points, but to dissect them here and now would take far too much time and energy.
I have to say that I am a tad disappointed at the latter part of this book. Perhaps I was expecting something different, or maybe even more, but it all sort of fell flat.
Ah well, I’ll explain further in the full review.