Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Magnificent Bastards by Rich Hall (4/5)

The back says: Comic genius Rich Hall introduces a series of magnificent bastards and lost souls in this hilarious collection of tall tales.

Meet the man who vacuums bewildered prairie dogs out of their burrows; a frustrated werewolf who roams the streets of Soho getting mistake for Brian Blessed; a smug carbon-neutral eco-couple; a teenage girl who invites 45,000 MySpace friends to a house party; the author of a business book entitled Highly Successful Secrets to Standing on a Corner Holding up a Golf Sale Sign; and a man whose attempts to teach softball to a group of indolent British advertising executives sparks an international crisis.

I say: Once again the brilliant writing of Rich Hall has got me in stitches and shaking my head at the same time. We once again meet an array of confused, conceited and sometimes cruel people that either can’t seem to catch a break or simply don’t want one.

One of my favourites was Werewolf in London in which we follow a werewolf trying to get dinner somewhere in Soho in London, something that turns out to be a lot more problematic than it sound. He can’t uses chopsticks and the waiter gives him tableware made out of silver, a little later on he gets mistaken for Brian Blessed (whom we love) and goes along with it, but my favourite part was the hilariously accurate description of Soho at night.

“[...] a nonstop procession of alcohol-drenched cretinoids, lager-sozzled wage slaves, shrieking gaggles of suburban hen-party sluts in short black dresses looking like they’re being swallowed by a mamba snake, forlorn shopping sociopaths with their accumulated Primark purchases, guttural Eastern European gangsters, louche pimps, skunkweed hustlers, neckless club bouncers with advancing foreheads, vaguely trollish cab drivers, gypsies peddling carcinogenic roses, grifters, drifters, thugs, lurid fluorescent drag queens, fluttering swarms of mosquito-like gays, gutter-crawling winos, the stagnant slime of a crumbling civilization laying itself at the foot of an open doorway promising ‘models’ three flights up [...] a chunderous parade of human rodentia. And yet, I’m the freak.” – p 86

There’s a certain sense of poetry in the way this werewolf looks at people, and also the reason he doesn’t bother them. “As a werewolf I am obliged to mutilate someone, but frankly, I have such a low view of humankind – particularly on theses streets – that I can’t be bothered” (p 86).

I love it all.

Although I know that some of the stories are built on personal experiences and truths, the way Hall takes them all that inch too far – making you wonder where the truth ends and the additives begin – is what makes this stand out. His sense of humour is raw, sarcastic and very intelligent (in spite of how low-brow it sometimes may come off ) and it’s clear that he’s a keen observer of life and people. Being American and having lived in England for years he brings a nice twist to his stories; a sometimes American view on English behaviour and vice versa.

4/5 because all of the stories weren’t as hilarious and/or profound as the rest, and I’d be the first in line if Hall decided to write a full length novel, because his writing is just brilliant.

Favourite stories:  Fifty-Cent Words, Tennessee Basketball, Werewolf in London, Golf Sale, Emily’s Arrival, Musical Ephemera, Sealed.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Candide by Voltaire (4/5) [re-read]

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: It’s a little over a year ago I read Candide for the first time (review found here) and if it was up to me I’d have waited a while to return to it. But alas, uni once again dictated my reading and I had to dive back into the world of satire and folly.

Not that there’s much to complain about, really.

I didn’t laugh as much, or as hard, this time around since it was all pretty fresh in my mind (and also because I had to analyse it and was paying closer attention to detail). One thing that was better this time around is that I was more familiar with the people and events being satirised, and so those references were easier understood – which was a huge relief as it brought forth another and deeper dimension to the work. It also helped that I read up on my Voltaire history, but it’s not a requisite, really.

As always with my uni-reads I’m wracking my brain to find something non-analytical to say (since I doubt that anyone is really that interested in the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, whose work Voltaire was deriding, or what insight on existential conditions Voltaire wanted to give us).

It so much easier reviewing books I haven’t read or analysed before.

Having said all that, I still think that this is an excellent piece of literary work and I would urge everyone to read it. Even if you don’t want to go too deep into the entire thing, it’s still funny, absurd and just a pleasant short detour from everyday life.

 

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (5/5) [re-read]

The back says: Crime and Punishment is one of the greatest and most readable novels ever written. From the beginning we are locked into the frenzied consciousness of Raskolnikov who, against his better instincts, is inexorably drawn to commit a brutal double murder. From that moment on, we share his conflicting feelings of self-loathing and pride, of contempt for and need of others, and of terrible despair and hope of redemption: and, in a remarkable transformation of the detective novel, we follow his agonised efforts to probe and confront both his own motives for, and the consequences of, his crime. The result is a tragic novel built out of a series of supremely dramatic scenes that illuminate the eternal conflicts at the heart of human existence: most especially our desire for self-expression and self-fulfilment, as against the constraints of morality and human laws; and our agonised awareness of the world's harsh injustices and of our own mortality, as against the mysteries of divine justice and immortality.

Translated by: Constance Garnett

I say: I have just re-read this for my Existentialism course, and even though I wasn’t in the mood for being inside of Raskolnikov’s head, I was genuinely surprised at how easily I was drawn into the story. Obviously it was nothing new to me, but I still found myself noticing a few things and thinking harder about others this time around – probably because I now have to write an analysis of it, but even so.

I can’t say that it was better this time around, it was just different.

One of the reasons I love Dostoevsky is because of the psychological elements of his novels; they’re all so much more than just a story; they make you think about life and morality and how you relate to it. Understandably I had existentialist ideology in my head while reading it, and it’s fascinating how often and extremely Raskolnikov changes during the course of the novel. He goes from anger to pride to indignation to sorrow to remorse to glee to pretty much every human emotion possible, and I found myself both loathing and loving him in equal measures. I loathed him for his conceit and I loved him because I understood him and his inner struggle.

Essentially he loses everything he thought himself to be.

Reluctantly, mind you, but who among us would give it all up so easily?

It’s a weird concession to make but I love the depiction of the poor in old Russia – and not in a romantic way, but in a sordid form of fascination. The way Dostoevsky describes the old, dirty and torn clothes, the meagre diet, and the inability to really pull yourself out of a slump once you’ve fallen deep enough. It’s like a sad love song to me and I simply cannot get enough of it.

Another thing I can’t get enough of is all the discussions they have about life, politics, the law, and crime and punishment (zing). Dostoevsky creates characters that represent different philosophies and pegs them against each other forcing the (attentive) reader to, not so much take sides, but acknowledge and (hopefully) address their own beliefs in the discussions.

Well, I could go on and on about this but shall refrain from doing so as I have a paper to write. I knew the first time I read Crime and Punishment that it would be one of the books that I will continue to return to my entire life as so much of your interpretation depends on where you currently are in life. You take different things with you every time you read it, or you deepen your convictions and begin to look at the world in a different way. And yes, this did significantly rock my world the first time I read it, and now it’s once again made me think hard about my life philosophy (and it doesn’t help that I’m analysing Kierkegaard and Sartre as well).

This is a masterpiece of epic proportions.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Cirkeln/The Circle by Mats Strandberg & Sara Bergmark Elfgren (2.5/5)

The back says: One night, when a strange red moon fills the sky, six school girls find themselves in an abandoned theme park, drawn there by a mysterious force. A student has just been found dead. Everyone suspects suicide. Everyone - except them. In that derelict fairground an ancient prophecy is revealed. They are The Chosen Ones, a group of witches, bound together by a power, one which could destroy them all. But they soon learn that despite their differences they need each other in order to master the forces that have been awakened within them. High school is now a matter of life and death. Because the killing has only just begun.

I say: I had to read this for my YA course at uni, and although I read it in Swedish I thought I’d write the review in English since it has recently been translated. This was everywhere in Sweden last year – probably because it’s the first YA fantasy book of this genre written in and about Sweden. A lot of the English post-apocalyptic and paranormal YA novels have been translated into Swedish and been extremely successful, so this was bound to happen.

Too bad it happened in such a disappointing way.

Before I say anything else, I am not much for fantasy and I rarely read books with paranormal elements. I have picked up a few of these this year in a bid to expand my reading and stop being so prejudiced, but truth be told, it’s not really my cup of tea. Therefore, my review of this will be rather biased.

The first thing that annoyed me about The Circle was that there are so many different narratives going on. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with so many main characters having so much say, and it was confusing. What didn’t help matter was that we had all the teenage stereotypes represented; the goth, the emo, the nerd, the fat one, the promiscuous one, the popular one, and there may have been someone else in there I have forgotten. They all speak and act in the same way these characters always do and it bored me.

Another thing that almost made me violent was that they had stolen been so inspired by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Now, I love me some BtVS and take pride in knowing a hell of a lot more about the series than might be considered socially acceptable, so I can pinpoint exactly to who, what, where, when, why and in which corresponding episode. When we were having a discussion about this at uni I pointed out all the similarities and my fellow students were really shocked that this book had so many similarities. I could list them all here, but they are too many and I really can’t be arsed.

Also, I may ruin it for anyone who hasn’t watched Buffy.

Finally, the plot was boring and full of clichés. Honestly, it’s almost embarrassing that the Swedish press was calling this new and fresh when they’ve just cherry-picked from random mythology and pop-culture. The only reason this is getting a 2.5/5 is because it has an interesting whodunit that I didn’t see coming – but then I never do; I spend my time being annoyed over poor language and bad writing.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Two Plays by August Strindberg

August Strindberg is one of the great literary figures of Sweden and most of them love him beyond reproach. This year it’s the 100 year anniversary of his death and at the beginning of the year I was going to read all of his works, but after reading these two plays I remembered that I take issue with a lot of it, so I decided to save myself the trouble. He was, undoubtedly, a great writer, but there are so many gender issues in his work it becomes exhausting. I am not going to go into whether or not he hated women (it's been done to death), although I do find it interesting that everyone focuses on that and forgets that he was an anti-Semite and a racist.

Blah blah blah...
 
I should mention that I read these in Swedish and am yet to read the English translations, but I take it they're the same.

Fröken Julie/Miss Julie (2.5/5) is a sentimental tragedy about Miss Julie who has an affair with her servant Jean. There are a lot of issues and symbolism in this play, and having dissected it for school when I was 13, 16 and again this year at uni, I think I’ve had pretty much enough of these two. Strindberg deals with age, class, sex, morality and seen in the right light it is a good play, I’m just so sick and tired of it.

I’m giving it a 2.5 because they mostly talk and not much really happens, the characters are very stereotypical and the end always annoys me.

Fadren/The Father (4/5) is one of his better plays and also the most played one. It’s about a lady who, in order to be able to decide her daughter’s future, sets about to convince the doctor and priest (her brother) that her husband is insane, thus making her responsible for the child. At this time in Sweden the wife had no say concerning the children, so she resorts to saying that the daughter may not even be his. However, she then turns around to the doctor and priest and says that a proof of his insanity is that he doesn’t believe that it’s his daughter.

I’m not going to say anything else as that would be spoilery, but I really like this play because it gives us a glimpse of what Swedish society and law looked like in the late 1800s. According to the husband’s will, the wife will get nothing in the event of a divorce or if he commits suicide. He is convinced that the wife is only after his money and is using the daughter as an excuse, and I tend to agree with him; everything that she says and does points to this, and I truly felt sorry for the husband.

There’s a lot of psychology going on in both of these plays, and like I said, Strindberg was a great writer even though he wasn’t the most subtle of writers. However, there are always a lot of interesting issues in his plays that one could discuss for days – or, like in my case, year after year after year...

Monday, 19 November 2012

Cancer Ward by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (5/5)

The back says: One of the great allegorical masterpieces of world literature, Cancer Ward is both a deeply compassionate study of people facing terminal illness and a brilliant dissection of the ‘cancerous’ Soviet police state. Withdrawn from publication in Russia in 1964, it became, along with One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a work of that awoke the conscience of the world.

Translated by: Nicholas Bethell and David Burg

I say: Every once in a while I have the fortune to come across a book that I fall so deeply in love with I just want to spend an entire lifetime re-reading it, and this is one of those books. I cannot even begin to explain how utterly perfect this masterpiece is without allocating about an hour of my time for the introduction, but I shall give it a try.

As the title indicates, the majority of the story takes place in a cancer ward in Soviet Uzbekistan, and we get to follow a group of cancer patients and the staff as they try to get well. There are quite a few characters in this story, but the main protagonists are Kostoglotov (which is said to mean bone crusher) an exiled former soldier and Rusanov, a government officer suffering from lymphoma and enters the hospital with a huge tumour on his neck. The two do not get along and spend a lot of time having hilarious, and serious, arguments about pretty much everything.

Considering that my copy is 570 pages I cannot really get too deep into their conversations, but despite their humour they were extremely thought-provoking.

The most interesting aspect of this novel is the critique and satire of Soviet and their procedures. The entire hospital is, of course, an allegory for the state and I love the way that Solzhenitsyn pokes fun of the treatment of the cancer patients while keeping that serious undertone. Most of the patients consider a bed in the cancer ward as a death sentence, and even when they are released it’s so that they won’t die in the hospital and ruin their statistics. They are given endless medication and radiation treatment, even for cases that are useless, and the doctors and nurses refuse to tell the patients what’s wrong with them or what the treatments are for.

The entire cancer ward was so absurd and mindboggling it’s difficult to imagine a state functioning in that way. But then the more Russian literature I read the more plausible it all gets.

I love this beyond reproach; the humour, the satire, the despondency, the language, the everything. As always with books I fall in love with, I will be singing its praises to everyone I encounter and I am already looking forward to re-entering the cancer ward.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

The Hallowed Ones by Laura Bickle (3/5)

The back says: If your home was the last safe place on earth, would you let a stranger in?

Katie is on the verge of her Rumspringa, the time in Amish life when teenagers are free to experience non-Amish culture before officially joining the church. But before Rumspringa arrives, Katie’s safe world starts to crumble. It begins with a fiery helicopter crash in the cornfields, followed by rumours of massive unrest and the disappearance of huge numbers of people all over the world. Something is out there... and it is making a killing.

Unsure why they haven’t yet been attacked, the Amish Elders make a decree: No one goes outside their community, and no one is allowed in. But when Katie finds a gravely injured young man lying just outside the boundary of their land, she can’t leave him to die. She refuses to submit to the Elders’ rule and secretly brings the stranger into her community – but what else is she bringing with him?

I say: I ordered this book because it was said to be scary and since I am intrigued by the Amish it seemed like a good thing to read for Halloween. Unfortunately, Amazon were being their usual annoying selves so it didn’t arrive until last week, but it doesn’t really matter since it wasn’t scary at all.

Not even a little.

I was hoping for the suspense to kick in, but it never really did. There were a lot of key elements that Bickle provided, but she didn’t really give enough information, or create enough of a mystery for me to want to focus on them. Like Herr Stoltz – the Hexmeister, who went around painting signs on things in order to keep evil out – we realise early on that he will be critical to the plot, but at the same time he doesn’t make enough of an impact when he pops up to pay attention to. The same goes for the stranger that Katie brings in and her “love life.”

It all felt a bit too contrived.

None of the characters were really believable, or even fully developed; this is Bickle’s first young adult novel and it felt like she had ticked off all the features the characters of successful YA novels have and made her own puppet show out of them.

It also felt like she had watched The Village one too many times.

Another thing that bothered me was the forced way Bickle tried to portray Amish life. Katie’s voice is not convincing as an Amish girl but reads more like someone who has read up about the Amish trying to write in the voice of an Amish girl. This was really unfortunate since the Amish angle was the one I was most looking forward to.

Having said all that, I give this a 3/5 because as far as YA novels go I guess it got the job done. It got more interesting towards the end when things actually started happening and I wasn’t able to figure out the mystery beforehand, and that was a nicely done.

So yeah, if you want a bit of fluff to while away a few hours, this should tide you over.
 
As I suspected, and just had confirmed at Bickle’s website, this is part one of a trilogy that I will not pay any more attention to.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1/5)

GoodReads says: Who has not dreamed of life on an exotic isle, far away from civilization? Here is the novel which has inspired countless imitations by lesser writers, none of which equal the power and originality of Defoe's famous book. Robinson Crusoe, set ashore on an island after a terrible storm at sea, is forced to make do with only a knife, some tobacco, and a pipe. He learns how to build a canoe, make bread, and endure endless solitude. That is, until, twenty-four years later, when he confronts another human being. First published in 1719, Robinson Crusoe has been praised by such writers as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Samuel Johnson as one of the greatest novels in the English language.

I say: This is one of the worst books I have ever read. Knowing me, I’m sure that’s not saying much, but it still needs to be uttered.

I passionately hate this book.

Which is rather sad, because I read this when I was younger and had nothing but fond memories of it. I realise now that I read a simplified version where they had removed all of the sordid details. And I by sordid I mean racism, imperialism, an overt Christian agenda, and just plain boring.

It took me well over a week to finish this because every time I picked it up, I would read a few pages and nod off.

I wrote an analysis of Robinson where I slated him completely for being a selfish, conceited, racist and downright idiot of a person. He takes credit for surviving on the island when all he did was repeat things he’d seen done while living in England, Africa and South America. The reason he’s stranded on the island is because he wants to help some South Americans sail to Africa to bring back slaves.

Serves him right, except he should have drowned.

I mean, for serious. Do we really want to herald this man as a hero? The same man who doesn’t care if the “savages” on the island kill and eat their own kind, but woe betide them if they try to eat a white man – oh no, then they’ve gone too far and Robinson kills them all. Then he makes Friday his slave and makes him call him “Master.” And this is after spending 24 years whining about how he wants a companion to talk to.

Pardon my French, but fuck Robinson Crusoe.

He finds religion while on the island and then uses that to justify whatever heinous action he feels like doing. He’s a vile murderer who also slaughters animals all willy-nilly because of his total lack of common sense. The expression “monkey see, monkey do” just about sums him up until he finds religion and through it his own sense of superiority.

I don’t believe in burning books but I won’t deny the satisfaction I’d get out of witnessing the pages of this twaddle set alight.

Mad?

Me?

Why I’d never...
 
I'd comment on the writing but it seems rather redundant since it put me to sleep.

Friday, 9 November 2012

When Uni Gets in the Way

I haven’t been able to read what I want for quite some time now. Uni is not so much kicking my ass, but maybe spanking me a tad too hard. I loved the drama course, but that is now finished and I am stuck reading Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe for the Existentialist course and it’s killing me slowly.

It’s freaking terrible.

And I somehow have had fond memories of that book, but I have now come to realise that’s mainly because I read a revised children’s version of it. This original book is too detailed and boring, but I am convinced to stick with it.

Come what may.

Meh.

I’m handing in my analysis on Monday, so not much more time left to suffer. And I also have to re-read and analyse Candide by Voltaire this weekend.

Grrrs.

In other uni news I am now doing a course in children’s and young adult books, which is semi-interesting and semi-boring. I like the history of the children’s book and I like YA, but I slowly start twitching every time they bring up Robinson Crusoe and how important and revolutionary it was for literature.

I want to read some Russians and some Proust and maybe some old-timey Brits.

So yeah, I’ll try to get all the reviews for the plays done this weekend – I just got so bored of them after having analysed them to death. It’ll be short reviews, and I will be done with Crusoe (I hope) and Candide, and the joy of reading shall once more return to me.

Right.
 
As you were.

Monday, 5 November 2012

The Afterlife by Donald Antrim (4/5)

The back says: Donald Antrim's mother Louanne was a difficult woman: an operatically suicidal, chainsmoking, delusional alcoholic who even when sober believed that her cat Merlin was a descendant of the Arthurian necromancer. Seeing his own life bound up in her relentless deterioration, Donald Antrim embarks on this strange, marvellous memoir in an attempt to make sense of his mother and her legacy.

A series of tragic-comic adventures in psychological dysfunction, Antrim's personal journey takes him wandering across the Southern states of America, tracing the bust-ups, reconciliations, and migrations of his warring parents. Gradually he unpicks the stories of his childhood, and the characters: his handsome sportsman uncle; his hardworking, bewildered Episcopalian grandparents; and his mother herself - alarming, melodramatic, manipulative, reckless and brave. This is a vivid, unmissable Technicolor slideshow of a memoir.

I say: This was such a great read – and I don’t usually like to read memoirs. The reason I picked it up was because earlier this year I read The Verificationist by Antrim and I came across this one and thought ‘why the hell not?’ He is an amazing author, so why not give this memoir a go.

And I’m incredibly glad I did.

It starts off with Donald wanting to buy a new bed, and throughout his search for the perfect one he relates this undertaking to his relationship with his mother. It probably sounds weird to anyone who hasn’t lost someone close, but I find that I tend to do the same thing on occasion – one very simple and normal thing brings about memories of someone or something that happened before in your life. After that the narrative weaves between Donald’s memories of his mother, and family, and his own life. He talks at one point about his mother’s boyfriend who wanted Donald to help him look for a painting that he was obsessed about, and in that memory lays a lot of information of what his relationship was with his mother.

It’s a very tender book, but at the same time it’s not sentimental, and contains a lot of humour.

There is so much to explore in this book because Donald’s relationship with his mother was rather complicated, especially towards the end, and I am kind of in awe of him for writing it in such a candid way. The prose is beautiful due to its stark and unapologetic honesty; he’s not trying to glorify or vilify his mother, he’s just telling us how and what he thought of her – and life with her, which was far from easy.

Maybe I’ll start reading more memoirs after this because I truly connected with the way he defined his love for his troublesome mother, and even though it has nothing to do with me, I still really felt for and with him.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Deaths for the Ladies (and other disasters) by Norman Mailer (1.5/5)

I say: This is a collection of poetry that Mailer wrote while drunk and decided to put out when he sobered up. At least that’s how he explains it in the introduction.

I didn’t like this collection.
at all.
In fact
it
reminded
me
of my
own
basic
poetry
when I was
Twe
lve.

That is pretty much the entire outline of his poetry and it was annoying. He did say in the introduction that he had found scraps of papers in his pockets and wherever, I’m thinking he had no recollection of writing them while drunk, and he genuinely thought this was a great collection and that all the poets would hail him as the next big thing.

Well, that didn’t happen.

Nobody cared about this collection and those who cared enough to read it panned it.

Brutally.

Basically it’s just a lot of random thoughts written down, repeated and made longer, without any finesse, flavour or clear object. You can tell that Mailer was on something when he wrote this. However, there were about three poems that I liked and also a couple of longer prose pieces for Hemingway that I enjoyed and that made me think that perhaps I should read his novels before judging him.

It’s not the worst poetry I’ve ever read, but it’s not far from the bottom.