Saturday, 31 December 2011

Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas De Quincey (1.5/5)

The back says: In this remarkable autobiography, Thomas De Quincey hauntingly describes the surreal visions and hallucinatory nocturnal wanderings he took through London-and the nightmares, despair, and paranoia to which he became prey-under the influence of the then-legal painkiller laudanum. Forging a link between artistic self-expression and addiction, Confessions seamlessly weaves the effects of drugs and the nature of dreams, memory, and imagination. First published in 1821, it paved the way for later generations of literary drug users, from Baudelaire to Burroughs, and anticipated psychoanalysis with its insights into the subconscious.

I say: Ugh. Another slow and painful read courtesy of that 100 Classics Challenge. Although not entirely; I’ve actually wanted to read this for a few years but never gotten around to it.

And now I wish I never had.

The prose in this was brutal (for lack of a better word); just chockfull of hyperbole, literary/historical references (which I usually don’t mind in moderation), rambling sentences and Greek and Latin words/phrases thrown in there for good measure. De Quincey kept changing topics so many times I forgot what it was I was reading about – and why I was even bothering.

And his life was so tiresome.

“This is the doctrine of the true church on the subject of opium: of which church I acknowledge myself to be the only member--the alpha and the omega [...].” – p 24

I think this sentence very accurately sums up the entire reading experience; De Quincey thought very highly of himself (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and obviously felt like everything he wrote down was of great interest to the reader; and some of it was, it just felt very contrived. He first made excuses for his drug use (he had a bad stomach and the pharmacist that sold him his first dose was planted there just to lure him in) and then he contradicts that by saying that there was no one to blame but himself.  


Here was a panacea, a [greek word which google tells me translates into: pharmakon nepenthes] for all human woes; here was the secret of happiness, about which philosophers had disputed for so many ages, at once discovered: happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat pocket; portable ecstacies might be had corked up in a pint bottle, and peace of mind could be sent down in gallons by the mail-coach. – p 22/23
This was, I believe, after his first taste.

I knew nothing of De Quincey before reading this and now I feel I know far too much. I found the parts where he talked about the consequences of opium use interesting, but everything else: not so much. Oh and I almost forgot what really got on my nerves; the overfamiliarity with the reader.

Gah.

Friday, 30 December 2011

The Karamazov Brothers by Fyodor Dostoevsky (4/5)

The back says: As Fyodor Karamazov awaits an amorous encounter, he is violently done to death. The three sons of the old debauchee are forced to confront their own guilt or complicity. Who will own to patricide? The reckless and passionate Dmitri? The corrosive intellectual Ivan? Sure not the chaste novice monk Alyosha? The search reveals the divisions which rack the brothers, yet paradoxically unite them. Around the writhings of this one dysfunctional family Dostoevsky weaves a dense network of social, psychological and philosophical relationships. At the same time he shows – from the opening ‘scandal’ scene in the monastery to a personal appearance by an eccentric Devil – that his dramatic skills have lost nothing of their edge. The Karamazov Brothers, completed a few months before Dostoevsky’s death in 1881, remains for many the high point of his genius as novelist and chronicler of the modern malaise.

Note: I am aware of the fact that the title is mostly translated as The Brothers Karamazov. And this is translated by Constance Garnett.

I say: I can’t even know where to begin to review this book because, as seemingly always with these 800+ paged books, some of it I loved and some of it I didn’t love so much. I loved most of The Brothers Karamazov, so I’ll start with what kept this from getting the full 5/5.

First off, pretty much the entire section with Father Zosima. Although I can understand why Dostoevsky felt the need to put his story in there, it was boring because it was so full of religion and philosophy that wasn’t presented in an appealing way – in my opinion. I don’t mind reading books about philosophy or religion, but I felt like it was laid out a tad too thick.

The same goes with the closing arguments of both lawyers at the end of the trial. Far too many words and opinions and rehashing of events that we had already witnessed.

I could easily have removed 300 pages from this book without taking away anything from the plot.

And then unto what I loved, which was everything else. It’s weird to say that I love Dostoevsky’s writing since I’ve only read this, Poor People and Crime and Punishment (and that was years ago), but I really fell in love (again) with his style in this one. The way that he weaves all these characters’ lives together is amazing because it’s so unexpected. He’ll talk about a chance encounter with someone, and then a few chapters later start focusing on that person, and I kept asking myself why he’s focusing on someone that he previously merely mentioned, and then he reveals how integral this person actually is to the plot.

And then there’s that Russian wit – my, how I love it.

But to speak of the story itself, and the brothers Karamazov in particular; I loved the differences between them. My favourite was Alyosha, who at first came across as naïve and unworldly, but later on proved to know more of the world outside the monastery than we were lead to believe in the beginning. I strongly disliked both Dmitri and Ivan up until the very end; primarily because they were both so blinded by their own selfishness that they failed to recognise the consequences it brought on the rest of the family.

Although, I have to admit that Dmitri’s tendency to beat up anyone for no particular reason and then coming up with the most inane excuses was quite amusing.

Aside: I wonder what that says about me as a person.

And Fyodor Karamazov had no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Oh, and yes yes yes to the Devil – he was a breath of fresh air.

I must say this, though, all of the female characters annoyed me, and I can’t quite put my finger on why. They all felt very stereotypical; like I could exchange them for any other female characters in other Russian novels and no one would notice.

It’s weird, that – I’ll have to do some research...

It feels like I’ll be moving into essay territory if I start talking about the religious and philosophical aspects of the novel, so I don’t really want to go there – even though I do. There are so many different opinions and schools of thought thrown in there that I think this book would be beneficial to anyone who’s interested in either of those fields. Like I said previously, in some chapters it takes up too much space, but throughout most of the novel it’s presented in a nice and integral way to the plot. I wrote down quite a few notes and quotes that I look forward to returning to in the future.


“People talk sometimes of bestial cruelty, but that's a great injustice and insult to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel. The tiger only tears and gnaws, that's all he can do. He would never think of nailing people by the ears, even if he were able to do it.” – p 178
And, as always and in conclusion, I love reading about Russia and Russians and their way of life and thinking – even if it is fiction.

I definately look forward to reading more Dostoevsky.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (5/5)

The back says: Streetwise George and his big, childlike friend Lennie are drifters, searching for work in the fields and valleys of California. They have nothing except the clothes on their back, and hope that one day they’ll find a place of their own and live the American dream. But dreams come at a price. Gentle giant Lennie doesn’t know his own strength, and when they find work at a ranch he gets into trouble with the boss’s daughter-in-law. Trouble so bad that even his protector George may not be able to save him…

I say: Woah. What an absolutely brilliant ending. Even though I could sense from the beginning that this wasn’t going to be a cheerful story, I didn’t guess the end until we were right there.

Perfection.

I’ve only read one novella by Steinbeck before, and that was The Pearl when I was about twelve and I remember loving it for its simplicity – mind me, this was years ago and I was a pretentious child so maybe it wasn’t so simple – and the first thing that popped up in my head when I was reading Of Mice and Men was its simplicity; of language, of character, of setting, and of, in a way, ending. Steinbeck pretty much lets us know that this is how things are and that’s that.

Except it’s not.

There’s so much more underneath.
Crooks stared hopelessly at her, and then he sat down on his bunk and drew into himself.
She closed on him. “You know what I could do?”
Crooks seemed to grow smaller, and he pressed himself against the wall. “Yes, ma’am.”
[…]
Crooks had reduced himself to nothing. There was no personality, no ego – nothing to arouse either like or dislike. He said, “Yes, ma’am,” and his voice was toneless. – p 91
There is just so much wrapped into that seemingly insignificant encounter that it breaks my heart, and I love the tiny morsels of history that Steinbeck offers before laying it out. And not just with Crooks, but with all the characters. It’s like he’s slowly baiting us throughout the story, letting us know that something is going to happen (and making sure we follow) and when it finally does, we slowly look back at the steps that led us there and realise that

just because it was inevitable doesn’t make it any less shocking.

Another future re-read.

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (1/5)

The back says: First published pseudonymously in 1764, The Castle of Otranto purported to be a translation of an Italian story of the time of the crusades. In it Walpole attempted, as he declared in the Preface to the second edition, ‘to blend the two kinds of romance: the ancient and the modern’. He gives us a series of catastrophes, ghostly interventions, revelations of identity, and exciting contests. Crammed with invention, entertainment, terror and pathos, the novel was an immediate success and Walpole’s own favourite among his numerous works. His friend, the poet Thomas Gray, wrote that he and his family, having read Otranto, were now ‘afraid to go to bed o’ nights’.

I say: This was yet another painful reading experience that I had to force myself through due to that damned 100 Classics Challenge. I pretty much felt the same way about this as I did The Turn of the Screw and I’ve realised that so called gothic ghost stories are just not my cup of tea.

More like my kryptonite.

I wasn’t too annoyed with the archaic language – I can read that fine enough – but the way this was written with no quotation marks or anything just confused and irritated me to no end.


-Well, well! Said Manfred; proceed. When we came to the door of the great chamber, continued Jaquez, we found it shut.-And could not you open it? said Manfred. Oh! yes, my lord, would to heaven we had not! replied he.-Nay, it was not I neither, it was Diego: he was grown foolhardy, and would go on, though I advised him not-If ever I open a door that is shut again-Trifle not, said Manfred shuddering, but tell me what you saw in the great chamber on opening the door. - p 35

Seriously.

It just made my eyes weary.

The story was boring, there was no horror anywhere, and all the women were nothing short of sheer nuisances. If they weren’t fainting, they were talking nonsense and exciting themselves for no particular reason – there was just so much excessive drama. But then again, maybe this is how women acted in the olden days – what do I know?

And what do I care?

Mind me, the men were no better; Manfred and his irrational fury, Theodore and his uncanny goodness, and the Father with his deceitful ways; they were all such absurd caricatures I couldn’t take any of them seriously.

And maybe I wasn’t supposed to…

Meh.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Anagrams by Lorri Moore (5/5)

The back says: Gerard sits, fully clothed, in his empty bathtub and pines for Benna. Neighbours in the same apartment building, they share a wall and Gerard listens to the sound of her toilet flushing. Gerard loves Benna. And then Benna loves Gerard. She listens to him play piano, she teaches poetry and sings at nightclubs.

As their relationship ebbs and flows through reality and imagination, Lorri Moore paints a captivating, innovative portrait of men and women in love and not in love. The first novel from a master of contemporary American fiction, Anagrams is a revelatory tale of love gained and lost.

I say: I loved this. I truly did. I picked it up because I was randomly watching and interview with Robbie Williams and he mentioned this in relation to his life (or something of the sort) and I was intrigued.

I have to admit that the first part confused the hell out of me. I couldn’t understand what was going on or how or why, but after a while I stopped thinking and just took it for what it was. Once we got to the second part, the first made sense and I was in awe of Moore’s way of telling the story –

the way she started it out with such disorder.

Me loving this novel is, in a way, a bit weird since I didn’t particularly like Benna. I can’t really put my finger on why; she was selfish, needy, inconsiderate and at times manipulative – but she had her reasons. A part of me sympathises with her, but another just wanted to her to grow up.

“Basically, I realized, I was living in that awful stage of life from the age of twenty-six to thirty-seven known as stupidity. It’s when you don’t know anything, not even as much as you did when you were younger, and you don’t even have a philosophy about all the things you don’t know, the way you did when you were twenty or would again when you were thirty-eight. Nonetheless you tried things out [...].” – p 16

I have to admit that I recognised a lot of myself in her, and maybe that is the main reason why I didn’t warm to her – it was all a bit too close to home.

“Whenever I’m furious, the only vocabulary I can come up with are words that have been spoken in the last thirty seconds. My sentences become anagrams of the sentences before.” – p 129

Amidst all these quotes I have to comment on Moore’s brilliant writing. I love the way she let us into Benna’s head and in that way blurred the line between reality and daydreams. There were several times when I had to ask myself if she had a mental disorder or if she was just a bad escape artist; and one of the reasons why I love this is the fact that it’s never spelled out; that we can each take from it what we will.

“Meaning, if it existed at all, was unstable and could not survive the slightest reshuffling of letters. One gust of wind and Santa became Satan. A slip of the pen and pears turned into pearls.” – p 130

“And how did this happen? I never know how anything happens.” – p 190

Once again, I stumbled upon a book that I just wanted to start reading all over again as soon as I had finished it. I am looking forward to re-reading this in the future to see how I feel about Benna then. As much as I didn’t like her, or even understand her, how can I not want to spend time with someone who utters the sentiment:

“Life is sad. Here is someone.” - p 126

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Christmas Cards

I received two Christmas cards today, for the Book Blogger Holiday Card Exchange. A tad late, but I blame the post office for that. I was a bit bleak over the fact that I’d only received 3 cards this year, and then I got two really cute ones of snowmen. My camera is broken so I can’t take pictures and the one on my mobile takes such blurry pictures it’s not even worth it.

The card from Suzanne (Bibliosue) came with a really nice bookmark (which is awesome since I only have two because I keep losing them – and I’m not sure I’m even going to use this one cos it’s bound to fall out).

And the card from Cassandra (Indie Reader Houston) was handmade and quite epic (I’m stealing this idea for next year). Apparently the snowman’s body is salvaged pages from a water-damaged book of poetry by A. E. Houseman, and the three stanzas I can read are really good, so that’s been added to my reading list.

I feel like a bum for just buying my cards now; it was my first year and I wasn't sure how elaborate to go. But next year and actually think this through a bit more and not just take the safe and easy way out.

Shame on me.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

"To Get Through This Thing Called Life..."*

I've been working my ass off at the office, and when I get home I'm too tired to do anything but eat and sleep.

I'm currently reading The Karamazov Brothers by Fyodor Dostoevsky and loving every minute (now that we're done with Father Zossima).

I may still manage one of my challenges for this year, which was to read 100 books (40% classics and 10 Swedish books). I pretty much gave up on the other challenges a few months back, but that's how it goes.

So Happy Holidays for anyone who may chance by this. Wishing you all the best, and should I not return prior to the New Year (I'll be off to Gothenburg) - have a pleasant beginning to it.

*Quote from Let's Go Crazy by Prince

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote (2.5/5)

The back says*: Breakfast at Tiffany’s (and three more delightful stories) lights up the other face of the writer who surprised the world with In Cold Blood.

This is the enchanting tale of Holly Golightly, the unforgettable good-time girl, as the whisks us into her world of glamour and bright lights and is off before we have time to decide if she really belongs.

I say: I wasn’t at all impressed with this collection of short stories, and I’m not sure why. It might be that Capote’s writing doesn’t do it for me, but it may very well be that the stories didn’t really appeal to me. I’ll be reading more of his work to find out which it is, even though I really don’t care –

which is never a good sign.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (2/5)
I’ve never seen the film, nor have I ever felt the inclination to do so. Whenever people gush about something I get suspicious and avoid it, and in a way I wish I had avoided this. However, it was a part of my 100 Classics Challenge and I was hoping to fall in love with it the same way everyone else seems to have,

But I didn’t.

At all.

In fact, this novella annoyed me. Holly was flighty and irritating and I found absolutely nothing about her either enchanting or endearing. She was a flake – and a very selfish one at that. My understanding is that we’re supposed to feel something for her because of her childhood, her insecurities and inability to connect with people, but honestly, no.

Just no.

The narrator bored me and it didn’t feel like the story was going anywhere. It starts out interesting enough with the narrator and the barman trying to figure out what happened to Holly, but as he unfolded the story I kept waiting for the magic that never was to come. She bought him a birdcage – that’s as far as the niceness go.

Supposedly the film is different from the novel and maybe someday I’ll get around to seeing it.


House of Flowers (2.5/5)
I can’t even know what to say about this other than it started out interesting and then sort of fizzled out into nothing. If felt incomplete, in a way; rushed. If Capote had spent more time turning this into a novel I may have enjoyed it, because the premise is good. As it stands it just left me with a sense of meh.

A Diamond Guitar (2/5)
I felt the same about this story as I did House of Flowers – it could have been good, but there was just something missing and in the end it was all meh.

A Christmas Memory (3.5/5)
This was easily the best of the stories; a seven year old boy and his sixty-something cousin bake Christmas cakes, fetch a Christmas tree and make each other kites. It was a sweet and tender story – very endearing – and the only one I can see myself re-reading in the future. The end was perfection.

*I have a really old edition that I found in the thrift store and I haven't been able to find a picture of the cover online, so I just picked the first cover that showed up on google images.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Half Blood Blues by Edi Edugyan (5/5)

The back says: Chip told us not to go out. Said, don’t you boys tempt the devil. But it been one brawl of a night, I tell you.

The aftermath of the fall of Paris, 1940. Hieronymous Falk, a rising star on the cabaret scene, was arrested in a café and never heard from again. He was twenty years old. He was a German citizen. And he was black.

Fifty years later, Sid, Hiero’s bandmate and the only witness that day is going back to Berlin. Persuaded by his old friend Chip, Sid discovers there’s more to the journey than he thought when Chip shares a mysterious letter, bringing to the surface secrets buried since Hiero’s fate was settled.

Half Blood Blues weaves the horror of betrayal, the burden of loyalty and the possibility that, if you don’t tell your story, someone else might tell it for you. And they just might tell it wrong...

I say: I loved everything about this, and it’s definitely one of the best reads of this year and I’m actually already looking forward to re-reading this.

I usually don’t like novels written in vernacular, but there was something about Edugyan’s masterful writing that made me forget about the grammar – it felt like Sid was sitting next to me telling me this story. It was all so exceptionally vivid that I fell deep into their world I didn’t want to let go –

didn’t want to let them go.

There are so many elements touched upon and emotions invoked by this novel that I find it near impossible to define. The fear, the courage, the selfishness, the love, the betrayal, the searching for redemption; all of it splayed across the pages in uneven syntax that we dissect through the eyes of a broken man.

“I was crying soundlessly. I dragged my damn face against my sleeve, feeling ashamed. I ain’t never thought fear had a taste. It does. In that small darkness it was a thing filling my nostrils, thick as sand in my throat, and I near choked on it.” – p 114

It’s a careful and slow journey that begins at the end and fretfully bound by regret unravels the road that lead there, while desperately trying to hold a steady grip on the present. It's so much more that the racial issues and Nazism, it so much larger than jazz and it's so much harder than betrayal.

It’s pure magic.

I could quite easily just start reading this again, but I’m going to wait a few months; get to that place where I remember the emotions and the story, but have forgotten the details and then relive it all over again.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Mmm… Monday: Sylvia Plath, Part the Third

I walked to work in the rain this morning. It was dark and drizzling when I left the house and started pouring after about five minutes. I should have done the smart thing and taken the bus, but I love walking in the rain. In the summer, autumn and spring rain, I should add. Not this cold winter abomination. And not for the entire 45 minutes it takes to get to work.

Furthermore, it’s just been one of those days. I’m convinced that I’m going to fall ill from all this madness and a week in bed would be most welcome.

Until then, I’ll let Sylvia soothe me.


Admonition

If you dissect a bird
To diagram the tongue
You'll cut the chord
Articulating song.

If you flay a beast
To marvel at the mane
You'll wreck the rest
From which the fur began.

If you pluck out the heart
To find what makes it move,
You'll halt the clock
That syncopates our love.


This is all very self-explanatory and in short, exactly how I feel.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Quote of the Week

"I've always believed in writing without a collaborator, because where two people are writing the same book, each believes he gets all the worry and only half the royalties."

- Agatha Christie

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

When We Dead Awaken by Henrik Ibsen (3/5)

I downloaded this from Project Gutenberg, who never have any synopses and I couldn't find one that wasn't full of spoilers, so I’m going to be lazy and refer to Wikipedia. 

I say: I really want to see this on stage because I’m convinced that I’ve missed something. This is the second play I’ve read by Ibsen, the first one being A Doll House, which I thought was ok, but now I’m wondering

do I not like Ibsen or do I just not understand him.

The reason I read this was because of the title, I like dark imagery, and there was quite a bit of that in here. Irena is convinced that she died when Professor Arnold Rubek finished using her as his muse, and is now walking around as a living dead. In a way, she was my favourite character, not just because of her melancholy but because she seemed to be the only one who really knew what she wanted -  

apart from maybe Ulfheim but who cares about him.

I wasn’t quite able to decide if Irena was really mad or just very emo pretentious suffering for the sake of it. Either way, she had the best lines. Gems like this:

PROFESSOR RUBEK [Sadly and earnestly.]: There is something hidden behind everything you say.
IRENE: How can I help that? Every word is whispered into my ear.

It’s been a few months since I read this, and my memory being what it is (i.e. nonexistent), I don’t really have that much more to say about the other characters. I recall Maia as coming across as spoiled and childish and Professor Rubek as cold and distant, but who knows really.

I’ll forever be on the lookout for this being performed on stage as I’m convinced that I’ll be able to better understand it then – it’s how it usually works with me. I may also read it again in a few months to see how I feel about it then.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Mmm… Monday: Emily Dickinson, Part the First

I’m tired. So very tired. Not just due to lack of sleep, but it’s been a lot lately. I haven’t rested properly since coming back from England, there are so many things going on at the same time that I don’t want to deal with, and I’m just not where I want to be in life. Or maybe not so much that, as I’m not doing what I want to do with my life.

It’s an Emily Dickinson day. Of course.

The Chariot

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school where children played,
Their lessons scarcely done;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then 't is centuries; but each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses' heads
Were toward eternity.


I love everything about this, but especially the two first and two last lines. They all give me a sense of hope that I cannot quite explain. Or maybe it’s just the emo in me that has taken control over my senses.

And we carry on.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Quote of the Week

"Let books be your dining table,
And you shall be full of delights.
Let them be your mattress,
And you shall sleep restful nights."



- Author Unknown (or attributed to St Ephrem the Syrian)

Thursday, 1 December 2011

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (1.5/5)

The back says: This is the magical story of Santiago, a shepherd boy who dreams of travelling the world to seek the most wonderful treasures known to man. From his home in Spain, he journeys to the markets of Tangiers and, from there, into the Egyptian desert, where a fateful encounter with the alchemist awaits him.

I say: I’m going to make this short because it feels like I’ll be repeating what I wrote about Coelho when I reviewed Veronika Decides to Die, and I honestly cannot be arsed.

Paulo Coelho is just not for me.

I had doubts when I started reading The Alchemist, but I tried to keep an open mind about it.

Honestly.

I didn’t think about getting annoyed with the language or the story, but just to focus on letting everything run its course in its own time.

That lasted until page eight where this was written:

“The heat lasted until nightfall, and all that time he had to carry his jacket. But when he thought to complain about the burden of its weight, he remembered that, because he had the jacket, he had withstood the cold of the dawn.

We have to prepare for change, he thought, and he was grateful for the jacket’s weight and warmth.” 

I told myself “don’t get annoyed, it’s just the one thing.” And I trudged on all the way to page thirteen and this:

“Another trick, the boy thought. But he decided to take a chance. A shepherd always takes his chances with wolves and with drought, and that’s what makes a shepherd’s life exciting.”

After that I just couldn’t read this with an open mind, and I will come right out and say that I hate this book. No, actually I don’t hate it – hate requires energy.

I nothing this book.

It’s stupid, contrived, insulting, and just plain awful. In a way it feels like Coelho was going out of his way to write a profound fable, but instead of just focusing on one main moral (or even a decent enough storyline), he just threw in everything he’d ever heard about anything.

It was a mess.

The only good thing about the story was what the boy found when he got to the pyramids. Was that a spoiler to say that he got there?

Whatever.

Needless to say, I will never read another Coelho book unless my life depends on it. And even then I’ll need a few hours to think about it.