Monday, 25 February 2013

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo (3.5/5)

First published: 1862
Original title: Les Misérables
Original language: French
Translation to English by:
Isabel F. Hapgood, 1887 & Charles E Wilbour, 1862
Page count: 1463 & 987


The back says: One of the great Classics of Western Literature, Les Miserables is a magisterial work which is rich in both character portrayal and meticulous historical description. Characters such as the absurdly criminalised Valjean, the street urchin Gavroche, the rascal Thenardier, the implacable detective Javert, and the pitiful figure of the prostitute Fantine and her daughter Cosette, have entered the pantheon of literary dramatis personae.

I say: I alternated between the two translations because I downloaded the first one from Project Gutenberg and had mistakenly only bought Volume Two of the Wordsworth Ed of the other translation.

I preferred the second translation, but I won’t swear by it.

Having said that, I sort of enjoyed this ridiculously long novel, but essentially had the same issue with it as I had with War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy – there’s just too much digression from the story itself to focus on history. I understand giving some history of Paris/France, but Hugo went into such inane depth on so many occasions I wanted to pull my hair out. It was boring beyond words and it took away too much attention from the story.

Another thing that annoyed me was the narrator’s constant jibes at Voltaire. You don’t like him; we get it; so stop mentioning him all the time.

Gah.

The story itself is probably about half the book and is filled with so many characters that commit so many mistakes I can’t even begin to know where to start. Essentially, they’re all idiots, and the only person with any redeeming qualities is Vajean. Oh, and the adorably hilarious Gavroche.

Everyone else was more trouble than they were worth.

Although I do pity Fantine her unfortunate demise; she brought it all on herself. She’s supposed to be the misfortunate mother who gives up everything for her daughter Cosette, whom she loves so much she abandoned her to people who abused her to no end, and only started weeping over her when she found out she was dying.

Ugh.

I could go on for days about this, but since it’s mostly negative I’m not going to bother. The reason this is getting a 3.5/5 is because of Valjean and the heart-breaking end that made me despise Cosette and Marius after having quite liked them up to that point.

It was Valjean’s despair that I loved more than anything.

Although I am not too fond of his writing in this, I must give Hugo due credit for weaving all of these people’s lives together in a rather masterful way. If he had only lessened the sentimentality of the lovers, the improbability of the escape in the sewers, the over-familiar narrator, the rambling history lessons and the constant jibes at Voltaire, I may have enjoyed this a whole lot more.

Also, I seriously doubt I’ll watch any of the film versions because it’s all just much ado about nothing, to be honest.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Freedom

I had my exam for the course dealing with literature from Antiquity to Romanticism and I couldn't be happier. This course has taken up so much of my life reading time it's not even funny. Words cannot even begin to describe how excited I am that I now can read books that *I* want to read.

I just hope I pass the exam...

Aside: Yes, I still hate Odysseus and Augustine (in the field of literature, in war theory he's all right - why is he in every the two fields I study, though?) the second time around.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

The Master of Petersburg by J. M. Coetzee (3/5)

First published: 1994
Page count: 250


The back says: The Master of Petersburg is Dostoevsky, and the events described are both the background to and the subject of The Devils. In 1869 he returned secretly to Petersburg just as the police were rounding up the Nechaev gang, a student anarchist movement notorious for having murdered one of its own members... Now Coetzee has insinuated himself into the cracks between the known facts and the fiction, to produce a stunning account of the relation of writers to events. He has also written a moving account of a father’s painful adjustment to the death of his son...
I say: I have this habit of not reading the synopsis of books before starting to read them because I want to be surprised. Therefore, I had no idea what The Master of Petersburg was about when I started reading it, however, it became clear after a few pages that it was about Dostoevsky and the murder that I had previously read about in The Devils.

Yay, for my having read Dostoevsky’s novel prior to this one as it adds another dimension.
Coetzee’s writing in this novel is very sparse and often feels like a pale imitation of Dostoevsky. He is, after all, trying to write as the man, but it feels coerced and insincere. I don’t know much about Dostoevsky’s personal life, nor am I very interested in it, as I fear that reading about him will affect my views on his writing. So, I can’t really comment on how authentic his voice is, but he does come off as a little bit dense.

Dostoevsky travels back to Petersburg to collect the things his son, who is believed to have committed suicide, left behind. However, when he arrives he gets caught up in his grief and an obsession with his son’s landlady and daughter. Dostoevsky soon finds out that his son was a part of an anarchist movement and explores the possibility that they murdered him.
The parts that I enjoyed the most were the ones describing and depicting Dostoevsky’s grief over his son. It becomes clear as the story unfolds that they had a strained relationship, and the regret of losing someone you barely took the chance to know is palpable.

What I had more trouble with was the storyline about the anarchist students that Dostoevsky encountered when trying to unearth what really happened to his son. I realise that this is the starting point of the story that Coetzee decided to flesh out, but few elements were believable. There are a few twists at the end that I saw coming quite early on, but still brought a deeper layer to the novel.
This is the second book I’ve read about Coetzee, and although I may be unwilling to admit it, perhaps I am a tad more sensitive about the picture I’ve created of my Dostoevsky.

3/5 because it is what it is and, sadly, not much more.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (2.5/5)

First published: 2007
Page count: 209


The back says: 'Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance? Ah, I see I have alarmed you. Do not be frightened by my beard. I am a lover of America...'

So speaks the mysterious stranger at a Lahore cafe as dusk settles. Invited to join him for tea, you learn his name and what led this speaker of immaculate English to seek you out. For he is more worldly than you might expect; better travelled and better educated. He knows the West better than you do. And as he tells you his story, of how he embraced the Western dream - and a Western woman - and how both betrayed him, so the night darkens. Then the true reason for your meeting becomes abundantly clear...

I say: I am in two minds about this novel; on the one hand I think it’s excellently written with a beautiful and alert prose; but on the other hand I find it very self-important and predictable in its prejudice. It pretty much does what it says on the tin and in a lot of ways I’ve heard and read this story before – especially in the post 9/11 world and I find it immensely wearying.

Asian man, in this story Pakistani, moves to America and loves it at first but then becomes aware of how different he is and starts resenting the country and its people.

Sigh.

Hidden amongst the muddle of expectable tropes is a sprinkling of very astute observations about the way America is perceived portrayed (I cannot fully comment as I have never been there), whether it be based on reality or not. At the same time there are so many stereotypes that the narrator goes from fleshing out his character to to reducing it to a caricature.

“I thought about this. As I have already told you, I did not grow up in poverty. But I did grow up with a poor boy’s sense of longing, in my case not for what my family had never had, but for what we had had and lost. Some of my relatives held onto imagined memories the way homeless people hold onto lottery tickets. Nostalgia was their crack cocaine, if you will, and my childhood was littered with the consequences of their addiction: unserviceable debts, squabbles over inheritances, the odd alcoholic or suicide. In this, Jim [his boss] and I were indeed similar: he had grown up outside the candy store, and I had grown up on its threshold as its door was being shut.” – p 81


I like Hamid’s prose and I wouldn’t mind reading more of his work. However, this novel left me feeling a combination of meh and annoyance. Maybe it’s because of the way the narrator is constantly talking down to the American or just the general way he is presented. I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is other than saying that it was a disappointing read.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

The Stomach Flu & The Annual Book Sale Crazy


I've had the stomach flu the past few days, hence the no posting and no reading. All I do is lie in bed watching the Golden Girls and feel sorry for myself in between trips to the bathroom. Ugh. Every time I get sick I swear I’m on the verge of death, and today is no different.
 
However, the annual book sale in Sweden is about to start (26 February) but all the online retailers offer you a chance to book titles in advance, which is what I’m doing right now.
 
Last year I went a little very crazy, and this year gave myself a budget of 50 books or €200; which I think I may already have broken.
 
It’s obvious I need to re-think this a tad, especially since I’m off to Dublin and Belfast at the end of the month. Oh, and also because I already own 268 books I haven’t read yet.
 
Yes, expect a very remorseful post about how I really need to be on Hoarders lock myself in the house to read (if only I didn’t have that whole uni thing getting in my way).

 

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick (4/5)

First published: 2008
Page count: 289


The back says: Imagine that your life is a film directed by God. A romcom, obviously, complete with happy-ever-after ending. Before the credits roll, there will, of course, be tears, tantrums and misunderstandings, but you know you’ll get there – and get your girl – in the end.

Welcome to Pat’s world.

It’s a world of silver linings and true love, but also a world where God makes movies and Kenny G lurks in your attic – and when Pat inadvertently befriends the tragic Tiffany, he begins to question whether or not he might just have got the genre wrong.

I say: I really adored this book; it was tragic, funny, confusing, sad, really original and just plain delightful.

Pretty much everything the film wasn’t.

So, we meet Pat on the day that he is being released from a mental institution, thinking he’s only been there a few months and hoping to get well enough to get back with his (in his mind) wife, Nikki. We find out straight away that he’s done something which has brought about “apart time”, but we’re not clued into what exactly it is. Everyone around Pat seem reluctant to talk about Nikki and what happened, so he spends his days working out and focusing on becoming a better person. He moves back in with his parents; his mother bending over backwards to make sure he takes his pills (which he doesn’t) and his father ignoring him.

A part of the deal for his release is that he has to see Dr. Patel every Friday for therapy. At first he’s reluctant but quickly realises that Patel isn’t like the other psychiatrists and actually listens without judging.

There’s also Tiffany, Pat’s best friend’s wife’s sister, who has some serious issues of her own – one of them being following Pat on his daily runs. They soon become friends, and Tiffany promises to get Pat in touch with Nikki if he agrees to perform in a dance competition with her.

And then we have Kenny G – the most hilarious part of this novel due it its total randomness. Pat is afraid of Kenny G (or Kenny 6 as my old boss used to insist) and every time he hears “Songbird” he goes berserk. It’s really quite sad when we find out why he’s so afraid of him, but in the meantime we get gems like this:

“After I returned to New Jersey, I thought I was safe, because I didn’t think Kenny G could leave the bad place, which I realize is silly now – because Kenny G is extremely talented and resourceful and a powerful force to be reckoned with.” – p 34

I guess the main reason this is hilarious is because Kenny G is as cheesy as they come, but goodness me did I laugh out loud.

The Silver Linings Playbook is basically Pat’s diary that he’s keeping in order to be able to show Nikki all the progress he’s making during “apart time.” I found it very endearing, but also heart-breaking, the way that Pat has almost been reduced to a child’s mentality. He’s trying really hard to focus on getting better and controlling his outbursts, but because he initially refuses to take his medication, improvement is slow. Adding to that the confusion of trying to come to terms with the fact that he hasn’t been away for a few months, but rather for a few years, I really felt for Pat. The one thing that keeps his father in the same room as him is football, and even that’s confusing because all of the players he knew are no longer a part of the team. His brother functions as a link between what Pat thinks he knows and what’s actually going on, and I liked their relationship.

I read this in one sitting because I got so caught up in the story and wanted to find out what Pat had done to land him in “the bad place.” Also, it was hilarious, and not just Kenny G, but Tiffany had some kooky ways about her that were awesome. The ending was perfection and the only reason this isn’t getting a full 5/5 is because there was so much football talk that I could have done without.

Aside: I tried watching the film, but could only manage half of it. Now, I know the cliché about the book always being better, however in this instance they ruined the beauty of the story; i.e. replacing the Kenny G song with a Stevie Wonder song. Ha! But in the film version they give away the reason Pat was in the hospital right away taking away a lot of his confusion which was quite integral to the plot in the book. They also have his father talking to him, which again was a huge issue in the book; Pat being ignored and trying everything to get his father to simply acknowledge him. And blah blah blah... nobody really cares what I think about this – not even me – so I’ll just stop here.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

All You Can Eat by Robin Hemley (3/5)

First published: 1988
Page count: 180


The back says: Nothing. Just quotes from different magazines.

I say: There’s not really that much to say about this collection, to be honest. All of the stories have some element in them that’s a little bit odd; not in an absurd way but more towards strange or weird. Hemley does a nice job of incorporating this oddness into everyday situations without turning the stories into a charade – it’s more that little thing that happens that makes you go

“wait a minute...”

That was the best part of these stories because without it they were rather bland and unremarkable – I’ve already forgotten what most of them were about – and the same goes for the prose, unfortunately. I didn’t dislike reading all of the stories, nor did I particularly enjoy all of them; they kind of left me with a sense of meh.

The stories I do remember and enjoyed were: The Mouse Town, Clues, Digging a Hole.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Devils by Fyodor Dostoevsky (5/5)

First published: 1872
Original title:
Бесы, transliteration: Bésy, ”demons”
Original language: Russian
Translation to English by: Constance Garnett, 1916
Page count: 694


The back says: In 1869 a young Russian was strangled, shot through the head and thrown into a pond. His crime? A wish to leave small group of violent revolutionaries, from which he had become alienated. Dostoevsky takes this real-life catastrophe as the subject and culmination of Devils, a title that refers the young radicals themselves and also to the materialistic ideas that possessed the minds of many thinking people Russian society at the time.

The satirical portraits of the revolutionaries, with their naivety, ludicrous single-mindedness and readiness for murder and destruction, might seem exaggerated - until we consider their all-too-recognisable descendants in the real world ever since. The key figure in the novel, however, is beyond politics. Nikolay Stavrogin, another product of rationalism run wild, exercises his charisma with ruthless authority and total amorality. His unhappiness is accounted for when he confesses to a ghastly sexual crime - in a chapter long suppressed by the censor.

This prophetic account of modern morals and politics, with its fifty-odd characters, amazing events and challenging ideas, is seen by some critics as Dostoevsky's masterpiece.

I say: To say that I understood everything in this novel would be a blatant lie, because I didn’t. Far from it. I don’t know enough Russian history to make such claims. However, that didn’t take away anything from the pleasure I had of reading this. If anything, it’ll enhance the experience when I re-read this in the future,

because we all know I will.

This novel is confusing in a lot of ways, partly because there are so many different characters (as always with Dostoevsky) and partly due to the history issue and all the different philosophical and political ideologies. Oh, and the constant French that they never bother to translate so I have to read with Google translate by my side.

I hate that.

Once you get past those issues (hint: you don’t) this is an amazing story told in such an amazing way. One of the reasons I love Dostoevsky is due to his ability to entwine all the characters’ lives in the most detailed of ways, making every minute occurrence or utterance important in the coming events. He masterfully weaves in the history, philosophy and political views of the characters without it interfering with the flow of the prose. Yes, there are a few lot of monologues, but for someone who is interested in these subjects it’s a delight to read.

And there’s humour in here, as well.

So, what’s the story? In short it’s about Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky trying to start a segment of revolutionaries in the area. He is desperate to get Nikolay Vsevolodovich Stavrogin to join and tries pretty much everything from bribery to extortion to make this happen. At the same time we are introduced to all the other revolutionaries, as well as their families and other townspeople.

Basically, there’s one of every kind in here.

Anyone who knows me (or reads m reviews) knows that I love philosophy, and especially existentialism and absurdism, so this novel was all the more interesting to me because it was full of discussions about it. I really enjoyed reading the philosophy of Alexei Nilych Kirilov which was that a man can only be free when he no longer fears death, and he can only prove this by killing himself, and by doing so becoming a god. It’s very absurdist and my beloved Albert Camus discusses this in his essays. Another element that I really enjoyed was the ways in which Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky manipulated and played with everyone – it was fascinating how he got away with it.

The Devils (demons) in this novel are all the different –isms that the characters adhere to and that lead them astray in life. Wiki has an outline of them all (for anyone who cares to know more in depth) and I’ll just round off by saying that I could easily start reading this again right now, and I am looking forward to meeting all these people again.