Monday, 30 April 2012

The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson (4/5)

The back says: In 1979 a secret unit was established by the US Army. Defying all known military practice – and indeed the laws of physics – they believed that a soldier could adopt a cloak of invisibility, pass cleanly through walls, and, perhaps most chillingly, kill goats just by staring at them. They were the First Earth Battalion. And they really weren’t joking. What’s more, they’re back and fighting the War on Terror. So unbelievable it has to be true – this is the real-life account that inspired the film. 

I say: Oh deary me.

*puts on tinfoil hat*

I vaguely remember a work colleague telling me that he was going to see a film about men who stare at goats, and me laughing in response, not paying it any further mind. So, when I came across this in the book store a few weeks ago, I thought I’d buy it. And glad am I that I did.

Supposedly this is all based on the truth, and that is as far as I am going to go in regards to the credibility of the stories in this book.

This is, essentially, every conspiracy theorist's dream.

Ronson talks about men who are able to kill goats (and hamsters) simply by staring at them, people who are able to see what’s going on in other parts of the world, soldiers using sound and light to torture their prisoners, and so on and so forth. Some of these stories are way out there, whereas others are of things that have been confirmed and documented, and it’s up to reader to decide how much of it they want to believe.

One of the main reasons why this was so interesting to me was that when I was younger I wanted to be a soldier. But due to health issues, that was never going to happen, so I studied war instead. It sounds weird saying that war fascinates me, but it does – the way human beings behave; and the way they justify their actions and thoughts – and since one of my goals in life used to be a part of a think tank, I loved all the alleged military secrets unveiled.

Even if you’re not interested in war or the military, this is still a fascinating read, full of absurdities and humour. And although the insanity levels hit such extreme highs I couldn’t help but laugh at them, I can’t get away from the fact that this book is also very unnerving.

*adjusts tin foil hat*

Aside: I saw the film and it was bad. Really bad.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Black Jesus by Simone Felice (2.5/5)

The back says: A young marine returns home from Iraq, blinded and scarred by a roadside bomb and harbouring a terrible secret. He saw something in Iraq that can never be erased and the knowledge of it is slowing driving him mad. Called Black Jesus by his fellow soldiers on account of his name being Lionel White and his birthday being Christmas Day, he has returned to his decaying home town to sit in the back of his mother's junkshop, drop Oxycontin and try to forget what he knows. Into his life one day rides Gloria, a young dancer with a mysterious past and shocking injuries of her own, who is fleeing darkness and violence of a different kind. Together they might just be able to make one life whole again.

Part love story, part protest at the broken promises lying at the heart of the American Dream, Black Jesus is a passionate, twisted hymn to the marginalised and forgotten.

I say: I need to start off by saying that I knew when I bought this book that I probably wasn’t going to like it. But it was all in the name of pushing my reading boundaries and trying literature that I’m usually prejudiced against.

I like reading about war, and even the aftermath of war, so that’s not an issue. What I don’t like reading is when, what I perceive as, the author’s negative opinions about war are so blatant that they overshadow the entire story. It felt like I was constantly being hit over the head that war is bad and see how it destroyed this young man’s life every time Black Jesus was mentioned.

It was just too much.

Gloria’s story started out interesting enough, but as soon as she met Black Jesus she was sucked into that vortex of sentimentality (for lack of a better word) and started to bore me.

However, it was a quick enough read that alternated between first following Black Jesus and Gloria, and then life in Gay Paris, NY (where they live) and life in Venice Beach, CA (where Gloria escaped from). If I had to choose, I would rather have had Felice write about the junkie Bebop who walked the streets of Venice Beach playing his recorder. Now that was a man who probably had stories to tell.

So yeah, 2.5/5 because I enjoyed the parts with Bebop and some of the people in Gay Paris (them removed I would probably have given it 1.5/5).

Thursday, 26 April 2012

The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahimi (3/5)

The back says: A young woman prays at her husband's bedside as he lies in a coma with a bullet in his neck. From outside come the sounds of tanks, gunshots, screaming and, most terrifying of all, silence. Inside, her two frightened daughters call to her from the hallway.

As she tries to keep her husband alive, the woman rages against men, war, culture, God. Even as her mind appears to unravel, she becomes intensely clear-sighted. Now is her chance - her first ever - to speak without being censored. Her husband's body reminds her of the legend of the patience stone, a stone that hears all confessions until it explodes, and finally, spurred to new heights of daring, she spills out her most explosive secret.

I say: This was, in a way, one of the most powerful stories I’ve read in a long time. The way that Rahimi lets us in to the depths of the young woman is heartbreaking and strengthening in equal measures, but at different times. The prose flows in intervals of extreme lows and even lower lows, and it is somewhere in between her past and present that I find my emotions disintegrate and I simply go cold.

Maybe this is a defence mechanism on my part, or maybe it’s too much on Rahimi’s part.

I’ve read stories similar to this before, and one of the things that have enabled me to read about atrocities is the atmosphere created by the prose. Rahimi writes in short staccato sentences, and as long as we are following the woman’s movements in the room, I almost hold my breath. Her, as yet, unknown past and her feelings of anxiety are almost tangible as she takes care of her husband to the best of her ability.

But then she starts talking of her past and it is somewhere in that bitterness that Rahimi loses me completely. Her actions, however justifiable one may see them, disgust me and I find it hard to connect the dots that led her there. I know that it is not for me to judge, but at the same time I can’t help it. And when the end comes, horrifying as it is, I feel a sense of relief.

For her.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Butterfly by Sonya Hartnett (2.5/5)

The back says: Awkward, alienated, angry teenager Plum looks in the mirror, and hates what she sees. No one appreciates her - least of all herself. But when a beautiful, sophisticated neighbour invites Plum over, things change. Plum learns how to be different.

But the new Plum confuses people. Her friends treat her differently. Her brothers and parents don't know what to make of her. And for Plum and her new mentor, the transformation has unforeseen consequences that neither will ever forget...

I say: It’s been a while since I read this and the memory I have of it isn’t very pleasant. I quite like reading YA when it’s well written and has an interesting enough plot. Unfortunately this didn’t.

Or rather, it started out well enough but then became slightly absurd.

At first I sympathised with Plum. She considers herself to be ugly and fat, and the girls she hangs out with at school don’t like her and treat her really badly. At home, she feels like nobody is listening to her, and spends her time in her room touching different objects and repeating some weird incantation.

In other words, your quite typical misplaced, nobody-understands-me, youth.

It is when she becomes friends with the neighbour and starts babysitting her son that I feel the plot starting to go off the rails. I honestly don’t understand Hartnett’s intentions with this friendship at first, as everything comes across as contrived. And it’s not until the end that I realise why she made these two people become friends, and when that became clear I was already checked out of the story, but it still annoyed me.

It’s like she introduced them just so that she would be able to make some sort of punch line at the end.

I don’t have that much to say about the writing; it got the job done. I’m giving it a 2.5/5 because there were some instances with Plum’s brothers that I actually enjoyed, as well as the fact that Hartnett did a good job on depicting how cruel girls can be.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys (4/5)

The back says: In 1930s Paris, where one cheap hotel room is very like another, a young woman is teaching herself indifference. She has escaped personal tragedy and has come to France to find courage and seek independence. She tells herself to expect nothing, especially not kindness, least of all from men. Tomorrow, she resolves, she will dye her hair blonde.

I say: This novella starts off with the first two stanzas of a poem by one of my favourite emo poets Emily Dickinson:

Good morning, Midnight!
I’m coming home,
Day got tired of me –
How could I of him?

Sunshine was a sweet place,
I liked to stay –
But Morn didn’t want me – now –
So good night, Day!

And just like that I was sure to love this; and also because I loved her prose in Wide Sargasso Sea. However, this novella was something completely different.

As we follow Sasha around Paris, she reminisces about the previous times she spent in Paris, the people she met and the impact they had on her life. She’s had a lot of disappointments, but to simply say that she is depressed would be an understatement, if not a plain oversimplification. At times she is beyond depression, at others she shows emotions similar to happiness, but mostly she’s quite monotonous and appears to simply be doing things because they are expected of her. She goes on the trip after a friend in London insists she goes back to Paris on holiday, and even that gesture feels like she is somehow trying to please her friend;

which later on appears to be flaw in her character.

Or maybe it's naiveté.

There is nothing I love more than broken people, and Rhys has managed to create one of the loneliest characters I’ve ever encountered. And I love it. The way she thinks, the things she says, the way she acts up until the very end. As much and as clearly I think I understand that ending, a part of me is not happy with it all, while another part of me is.

It was heartbreaking.

So why the 4/5? Because there is so much French in here I almost lost my mind. I understand that they are in Paris and occasionally speak French, but there were no translations and it became tedious having to google the phrases – and so after a while I just couldn’t be arsed anymore and simply took it for what it was. Perhaps the next time I read this I’ll have more patience and it’ll offer a new dimension to the story, but for now I’m happy with what I got.

Well, satisfied.

Needless to say, I’m going to order the rest of her works.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Middlemarch by George Eliot (4/5)

The back says: Middlemarch is a complex tale of idealism, disillusion, profligacy, loyalty and frustrated love. This penetrating analysis of life in an English provincial town during the time of social unrest prior to the first Reform Bill of 1832 is told through the lives of Dorothea Brooke and Dr Tertius Lydgate and includes a host of other paradigm characters who illuminate the condition of English life in the mid-nineteenth century.

I say: It took me a while to get into Eliot’s language and what initially seemed like rather tedious town life and annoying opinions from the narrator. Once I got further into the story of Dorothea and her marriage I started liking it, but then we were introduced to the other townspeople, and I had to struggle my way through their lives. I generally don’t like books where we follow a lot of different families that intermingle in a town full of gossip and other such nuisances.

To be honest, all of the characters in this book annoyed me.

So then why am I giving this a 4 out of 5?

Well, mostly because Eliot does a rather great job of describing life in 1830’s England. The way she details just how little power, choice and say women had in their own lives; first pleasing their parents and later their husbands. I also liked how she portrayed the issue of class without having it come across as though she had some sort of agenda. Although a lot of the problems and issues that were addressed in this novel were presented, in my opinion, rather unremarkably, I have the utmost respect for Eliot for writing this novel, and I am glad that I struggled through it.

If I were able to remove all the annoying comments from the narrator this would have been so much more to my satisfaction (not to mention the quotes at the beginning of each chapter). Things like this:

“We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time; keep back the tears and look a little pale about the lips, and in answer to inquires say, ‘Oh, nothing!’ Pride helps us; and pride is not a bad thing when it only urges us to hide our own hurts – not to hurt others.” – p 57

It just irks me.

So yeah, another one of my 100 Classics Challenge read that I never would have touched if not for that challenge.

So thanks, I guess.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Kaddish for an Unborn Child by Imre Kertész (5/5)

The back says: The first word in this mesmerizing novel by the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature is "No." It is how the novel's narrator, a middle-aged Hungarian-Jewish writer, answers an acquaintance who asks him if he has a child. It is the answer he gave his wife (now ex-wife) years earlier when she told him that she wanted one. The loss, longing and regret that haunt the years between those two "no"s give rise to one of the most eloquent meditations ever written on the Holocaust. 
As Kertesz's narrator addresses the child he couldn't bear to bring into the world he ushers readers into the labyrinth of his consciousness, dramatizing the paradoxes attendant on surviving the catastrophe of Auschwitz. Kaddish for the Unborn Child is a work of staggering power, lit by flashes of perverse wit and fueled by the energy of its wholly original voice.
Translated by Tim Wilkinson

I say: Sometimes I just know from the first sentence of a book that I am going to fall madly in love with it and its author. And that is exactly what happened with Kaddish for an Unborn Child. I hesitated over typing up the first sentence at first (and you’ll notice why below), but decided that I cannot quite explain what magical spell Kertész has put me under.

“No!” I said instantly and at once, without hesitating and, virtually, instinctively since it has become quite natural by now that our instincts should act contrary to our instincts, that our counterinstincts, so to say, should act instead of, indeed as, our instincts – I’m joking, if this can be regarded as a joking matter; that is, if one can regard the naked, miserable truth as a joking matter, is what I tell the philosophers approaching me, now that both he and I have come to a halt in the beech wood, beech coppice, or whatever they are called, stunted, and almost audibly wheezing from disease, perhaps from consumption; I must confess to being a dunce about trees, I can recognize only pine trees instantly, on account of their needles – oh yes, and plane trees as well, because I like them, and even nowadays, even by my counterinstincts, I still recognize what I like intuitively, even if not with that same chest-thumping, gut-wrenching, knee-jerking, galvanizing, inspired, so to say, flash of recognition as when I recognize things I detest. – p 1/2

I love that sentence. 

And yes, the entire novel is filled with them; long, repetitive, winding and sometimes almost unintelligible sentences of every significant thing that has happened to the narrator. Despite the fact that I probably should have gotten annoyed of the excessive use of “so to say,” it actually made the narration all the more believable, and I loved being inside of the narrator’s head.

He writes this kaddish for his unborn child in single night, explaining all the reasons why he could never bring himself to father a child into his world. Throughout the novel he comes across as painfully honest, and with that, wearingly melodramatic at times. He has all of these things that need to be said and he hasn’t yet figured out the proper way to say them but refuses to let that stop him.

Like I said, there is a lot of repetition here.

Apart from the fact that I love melancholy stories, there is a lot of philosophical pondering going on. The narrator seems to be caught between an absolute knowledge of who he is, what he thinks and wants, yet I sense this, somehow desperate, desire to reason with his past as an explanation to his present. He has issues with his childhood, his parents, his “Jewishness”, his surviving the Holocaust, amongst others, and he presents them in such a lyrical prose I could stay lost inside his head for days. In fact, I’m already looking forward to reading this again – as well as other works by Kertész.

This is, without a doubt, one of the best books I’ve ever read.