Thursday, 25 April 2013

The Beggar's Opera by John Gay (3/5)

First published: 1728
Page count: 128


GoodReads says: ‘Whore and rogue they call husband and wife:
All professions be-rogue one another'

The tale of Peachum, thief-taker and informer, conspiring to send the dashing and promiscuous highwayman Macheath to the gallows, became the theatrical sensation of the eighteenth century. In The Beggar’s Opera, John Gay turned conventions of Italian opera riotously upside-down, instead using traditional popular ballads and street tunes, while also indulging in political satire at the expense of the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. Gay’s highly original depiction of the thieves, informers, prostitutes and highwaymen thronging the slums and prisons of the corrupt London underworld proved brilliantly successful in exposing the dark side of a corrupt and jaded society.

I say: I found this play somewhat hilarious, but perhaps for all the wrong reasons. There were so many uncalled for insults that made me guffaw and snicker and really wonder if Gay intended them to be funny or if I just have a sick sense of humour.

Oh how I wish I could see this on stage.

The gist of the story is that Peachum’s daughter Polly says that she’s married to highwayman Macheath – much to her parents’ chagrin, so they intend to have him hanged so that Polly can inherit whatever he owns. While in prison it is found out that Lucy Lockit, the jail keeper’s daughter, also claims to be married to Macheath. Lucy helps him escape and then Peachum and Lockit try to find out how to get rid of him in order to save their daughters.

All in all it was a rather entertaining plot, although I was annoyed by the interrupting songs after every few seconds of dialogue. Songs are always annoying when read, but they were short and witty. One thing that really annoyed me was the abundance of ‘wench’, ‘slut’, ‘hussy’ and other such degrading terms for the female characters. It was told from a very male chauvinistic point of view, which I found a tad grating (but could almost overlook considering how long ago it was written).

In my passionate research google search I found a few versions of this on YouTube, so I may well sit down and watch one of them someday.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Jag Sköt Paulo Coelho av Staffan Vahlquist (4.5/5)

Publiceringsdatum: 2008
Antal sidor: 85


Baksidan säger: En man i trettioårsåldern försöker starta om i en ny stad. Han arbetar en tid som lärare, men när han oväntat får ett arv säger han upp sig för att istället ägna sig åt ett filosofiskt projekt. Uppgiften visar sig vara övermäktig. Han försjunker i grubblerier, blir deprimerad och tappar så småningom helt kontakten med det omgivande samhället. Och en dag tar arvet slut. Efter en period av misär och utanförskap får han dock chansen att komma tillbaka, då han erbjuds ett jobb på en bokhandel. En sista chans, som inom kort ska förvandla en ansvarskännande medborgare till mördare.

Jag säger: Jag plockade upp den här pga. titeln då jag, som huvudpersonen i historien, känner ett starkt förakt för Paulo Coelho och ville egentligen veta anledningen till varför någon skulle vilja mörda honom.

Utöver det att han skriver avskyvärda böcker.

Boken börjar med att berättaren låter oss veta att han ”möjligen är en ond människa, men jag är inte sjuk. [...] Den här skriften är således ingen dåres försvarstal och inget försök till urskuldande. [...] Juridiken ger samhällets version av brottet, detta är brottslingens.” Sedan får vi veta varför han väljer att inte fortsätta som lärare, hur han hamnar i sin depression och förlorar tron på samhället och dess invånare.

Det är väldigt mycket existentiella tankar som han grubblar på; samma tankar som jag själv haft och som ofta leder längre och längre bort från samhället. Han försöker förgäves hitta en lösning på sina problem och det är först när han blir nästintill hemlös som han lyckas slå dem åt sidan och bara ”leva”. Efter ett drygt år av någorlunda harmoni läser han Alkemisten av Coelho ”som med de mest tillåtande ögon var den mest sliskigt romantiska, pretentiöst kvasireligiösa smörja” han någonsin läst och bestämmer sig för att mörda honom så att författaren inte kan lura några fler människor med sina böcker.

Jag måste erkänna att jag skrattade gott och igenkännande i hans arga beskrivningar och hat mot Coelho. Det var roligt att läsa om en protagonist som är (någorlunda) påläst om filosofi kritisera Coelho från en intelligent ståndpunkt – och med lite humor. Trots detta måste jag säga att jag inte enbart gillar novellen för att jag håller med berättaren, utan mest för att han presenterar sina argument och handlingar på ett tydligt och klarsynt sätt.

Nej, jag tycker inte att mord är en acceptabel lösning, men jag förstår hur han hamna där.

Detta är Vahlquists debut och jag ser framemot att läsa mer av honom i framtiden.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Against the Grain by Joris-Karl Huysmans (2/5)

First published: 1884
Original title: Á Rebours
Original language: French
Translation to English by: John Howard
Page count: 18


The back says: A Rebours, Against the Grain or Against Nature in English, is an 1884 novel by Joris-Karl Huysmans. Anti-hero Jean Des Esseintes despises the bourgeois society he lives in and withdraws into the aesthetic and artistic ideals that he has created.
Believing the novel would be rejected by both critics and public, Huysman declared: "It will be the biggest fiasco of the year - but I don't care a damn! It will be something nobody has ever done before, and I shall have said what I want to say...” The novel did receive great publicity on its release, but even though it was heavily criticized it also became influential with a new generation of writers and aesthetes.

I say: Goodness me, how I have struggled with this short little novel. It was so dull it kept putting me to sleep after a couple of pages, so I turned it into my cannot-go-to-sleep-so-I-shall-read-this-as-I-know-it-will-put-me-to-sleep novel for about 3 months.
The reason I kept at it?

That damned 100 Classics Challenge (and my inability to admit defeat).
Des Esseintes moves into a mansion outside of Paris and spends his days wasting money and being a bore. He glues emeralds and diamonds on a turtle because he wants to.

He’s that type of brat.
Then he spends a great deal of time talking about his extravagant parties with prostitutes, the minute details of how he decorates his rooms (wall to wall carpeting on the second floor so he doesn’t have to hear the servants walking around), and has long, intricate monologues about literature. This was the only part that I found entertaining – well, as long as he was talking about people I knew or had heard of – but he did take it a bit too far.
I fear this is what I sound like when I talk about my favourite literature.

Unfortunately he suffers from one ailment after the other and thence has to talk about the various remedies he takes. At the end of the novel he gets so sick he cannot even keep his food down.
Gasp. Horror. Why.

More than anything this novel is about decadence and snobbery to the nth degree. Although I must admit to a bit of jealousy since it is my dream to retire to some obscure place away from people and just spend my days reading; I hope I shall never become des Esseintes. It was all just too much, and too much for the sake of being too much. Huysmans may be a gifted writer but it was all lost in the tedium and abundance of opulence.
A little goes a long way.

Supposedly this is the novel that leads to Dorian Gray’s downfall, but it’s been years since I re-read that last and perhaps it’s time I did so.
2/5 because it bored me to sleep and I didn’t really get that much out of it (apart from a few poets and writers I had never heard of).

Monday, 22 April 2013

Boken om Blanche och Marie / The Story of Blanche and Marie av Per Olov Enquist (2.5/5)

First published: 2004
Original title:
Boken om Blanche och Marie

Original language: Swedish
Translation to English by:
Tiina Nunnally
Page count: 258


The back says: In 1878, Blanche Wittman was committed to Salpetriere Hospital as a hysteric and placed in the care of the famous M. Charcot, who regularly displayed her, in a cataleptic state, before a public audience. Over time, the nature of her participation in these demonstrations changed; she graduated from patient to assistant and on leaving the hospital, was hired by Marie Curie to work in her Paris laboratory. On 17 February 1898, radium was discovered and Blanche's exposure to it necessitated the amputation of all her limbs, save one. As for Marie, her husband and collaborator Pierre was weakened by illness and subsequently killed having wandered in front of an oncoming horse and cart. Following this, she embarked on an ill-fated love affair, which, in 1911, almost cost her the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Using Blanche's notebooks - 'The Book of Questions' - Enquist deftly weaves fact and fiction in a powerful tale of scientific discovery, death, art love and the extraordinary relationship of two remarkable women at the dawn of a century of tremendous change. The Story of Blanche and Marie was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

I say: I read this in Swedish for uni, but would have gotten around to reading it eventually as I’ve seen the title quite a few times. However, I’m not sure I would have finished it if it weren’t for the fact that we’re discussing it tomorrow.

It just didn’t grip me at all.

At the moment we are discussing faction (novels that are a combination of facts and fiction) and this is a typical factional novel. The narrator tells us that he has found Blanche’s notebooks about love, and then proceeds to retell her story with quotes and rather annoying comments of his own. I’d never heard of Blanche, but of course knew who Marie Curie was, and at first I thought this was going to be an interesting read, but it turned out to be surprisingly boring and I am going to blame it all on the writing because both women lived very fascinating lives - Marie won the Nobel Prize twice and Blanche went from being a ‘hysteric’ treated by J. M. Charcot to working for Curie and ended up losing all of her limbs bar her right arm (which is how she kept her diaries) - but Enquist’s writing was so disjointed and dreary it made them both seem uninteresting.

Which is a feat in itself.

The narrator kept harping on about the notebooks and how Blanche was searching for the meaning of love, and then inserted Marie’s life and affair and now she’s in England hiding with the suffragettes in London, and here is Blanche at the hospital being hypnotised, and now a quote from Einstein about Marie, and oh dear Freud apparently stole Charcot’s work, and here’s Blanche left alone in a wooden box on the floor...

It was all just too much for me.

Having said that I did learn a bit more about Curie and Charcot and the historical facts were interesting; it was the fictional parts and the presentation I had a problem with.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Wish Her Safe at Home by Stephen Benatar (2/5)

First published: 1982
Page count: 263


The back says: Rachel Waring is deliriously happy. Out of nowhere, a great-aunt leaves her a Georgian mansion in another city and she sheds her old life without delay. Gone is her dull administrative job, her mousy wardrobe, her downer of a roommate. She will live as a woman of leisure, devoted to beauty, creativity, expression, and love. Once installed in her new quarters, Rachel plants a garden, takes up writing, and impresses everyone she meets with her extraordinary optimism. But as Rachel sings and jokes the days away, her new neighbors begin to wonder if she might be taking her transformation just a bit too far.

I say: I cannot recall who recommended this to me – which is a shame because I’d like to punch tell them their sense of humour is not the same as mine. This was not funny at all. Actually, it was rather tragic. I felt so sorry for Rachel that it was painful being inside her deluded and crazy head. It was also a very implausible transformation. Perhaps this could serve as a study in insanity of the sort that’s always lurking beneath the surface and is only waiting for that one chance to spring into being.

Rachel’s chance being the house she inherits.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I read this and all that I am left with is Rachel thinking that people are flirting with her, and pretending to be some grand old dame. Everything in her life thus far has been a failure and as she reminisces it becomes clear that her mother had a hand to play in it – it’s always the mother, isn’t it – but also that her memories aren’t very reliable since she sees herself in a completely different, and beautifying, light.

She also finds out that a writer used to live in her house, finds his work and later a painting of him in a local shop; both of which she buys and becomes obsessed with. She hangs the painting in her house and then pretends that he is her lover.

She even buys a wedding dress...

I suppose that this could all be considered humorous, but like I said, to me it was just tragic. Unfortunately I found the writing to be rather dry and affected, especially when Rachel was remembering her childhood, which didn’t help much. Her entire back story was somewhat predictable and unimaginative whereas her present was too imaginative; her madness didn’t seem genuine.

And her last conversation with her gardener was too over the top, it spoiled what little I thought of the novel up to that point.

So yeah, 2/5 due to all of the above.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

The Old Man and Me by Elaine Dundy (3/5)

First published: 1964
Page count: 248


The back says: There’s love, and there’s revenge. Betsy Lou Saegressor is bent on revenge. Her father is dead and, to top it off, the vast fortune that should have been hers has somehow ended up in the bank account of the legendary and elusive Englishman, C.D. McKee.

So Betsy sets out from New York to seduce and betray him. C.D. is fat and ugly – but boy is he sexy. Betsy follows him through the night clubs of London, grooving to jazz, smoking hash – and plotting murder.

I say: Well, colour me disappointed and lock me in the cupboard (no, I have no idea what that means). I was duped into believing told that this was going to be a funny novel that would keep me entertained for a while, but once I started reading I kept looking out for the fun and found none.

Anywhere.

It would be easy to say that it was merely not my cup of tea, but there really wasn’t anything even remotely funny in there. Oh yes, I will admit to recognising a few witticism throughout, but nothing that made me laugh – or even smirk. The main problem I had was that the storyline wasn’t convincing enough to be good, and not absurd enough to be funny. It was just kind of meh.

Betsy moves to London to seduce and kill the man who married her father’s widow, C.D. McKee, who also inherited all of the money that should have been hers. After a few weeks she stumbles upon a club where she hears his name, and decides to spend her nights there in hopes of meeting him. After a week she meets people who claim to know him and soon enough Betsy meets and starts dating McKee.

Oh, and she uses a fake name Honey Flood and pretends she’s a socialite whose had a breakdown in America and is in London for some therapy.

Plausible, I suppose.

Anyhoo, McKee is an upper class Brit who loathes anything not belonging to that sphere – and yet he insists on dating Betsy, criticising everything American about her. I suppose their banter and little quips about the other’s nationality were meant to be endearing and cute, but I merely found it either obnoxious or just plain offensive. Dundy did paint a rather accurate portrayal of the British upper class - as far as my experience goes (which isnt very far, I admit) – and that’s where some of the witticism lay; in Betsy’s analysis of them.

“The shabbier they look, the richer they are.”
 
It’s quite amazing (or is that amusing) that this is still true today.

All in all it was an ok read – not my cup of tea (to stay British), but I’m sure a lot of people enjoy it well enough for it to be considered a modern classic.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore (4.5/5)

First published: 2002
Page count: 512

The back says: The birth of Jesus has been well chronicled, as have his glorious teachings, acts, and divine sacrifice after his thirtieth birthday. But no one knows about the early life of the Son of God, the missing years - except Biff, the Messiah's best bud, who has been resurrected to tell the story in this divinely hilarious, yet heartfelt work 'reminiscent of Vonnegut and Douglas Adams' (Philadelphia Inquirer). Verily, the story Biff has to tell is a miraculous one, filled with remarkable journeys, magic, healings, kung fu, corpse reanimations, demons, and hot babes, Even the considerable wiles and devotion of the Saviour's pal may not be enough to divert Joshua from his tragic destiny. But there's no one who loves Josh more - except maybe 'Maggie,' Mary of Magdala - and Biff isn't about to let his extraordinary pal suffer and ascend without a fight.

I say: Oh my, the blasphemy is abundant in this utterly hilarious read, and even if I still were religious I would have enjoyed this. The humour is very silly, but also immensely clever and I was literally laughing out loud almost all the way through – as well as shaking my head at some of the explanations Moore offered to the life of Christ.

Or Josh, actually.

The one thing that impressed me the most was the research Moore had done prior to writing this; I’m not sure why, but I initially thought that this was just going to be a sarcastic novel about Jesus’ Joshua’s life, but there was a lot of historically (and biblically) correct facts in there. Another thing that also impressed me was Moore’s explanation of how Josh became the peace loving person he was; by travelling across Asia and studying the teachings of monks and other learned people – including becoming invisible and learning kung fu; although he never hit anyone.

Of course.

The story is told by Biff, who is extremely devoted to Josh, and also somewhat of a slacker. His ambition in life is to become the village idiot, but he overlooks that in order to follow and look after Josh, who is trying to learn how to become the messiah. Biff is very outspoken, slightly stupid intellectually challenged, but has his heart in the right place; which is what makes this such an endearing story in between the laughs. I just couldn’t help but fall in love with him and his bad mouth.

Seriously, there’s a lot of swearing here.

Oh, and Biff is also locked in a hotel room with an angel while he writes his story, which offers that lovely meta-ness that I adore, and also some rather humorous dialogue between the two who seem to hate each other. I might add that the angel is addicted to watching TV, which in itself is a serious wtf-inducing element.

So yeah, 4.5/5 because there were some things that I thought were a little over the top (like the swearing), but I will most definitely re-read this again (and perhaps right before Easter, like I did this year). This is also the second Moore book I’ve read, the first being A Dirty Job (which I didn’t think was as funny as this one) and I think I will be buying his other works in the near future.


Friday, 5 April 2013

Friday Funs

I was meant to start making dinner about 40 minutes ago...

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Pengar / Money by Victoria Benedictsson (3/5)

First published: 1885 (under the pseudonym Ernst Ahlgren)
Original title:
Pengar
Original language: Swedish
Translation to English by: Sarah G Death
Page count: 200


The back says: Set in the rural landscape of Southern Sweden where she lived, this is Victoria Benedictsson's first novel (1885). Selma Berg, a complicated heroine whose fate has much in common with Madame Bovary, develops from a naive girl into a woman desperate enough to destroy her respectability by leaving her husband. She is forced to give up her dream of going to art school when her uncle persuades her, at sixteen, to marry a rich older squire who is an incurable womanizer. Profoundly shocked by her wedding night and by the mercenary nature of the marriage, she finds herself trapped in a life of idle luxury. Her only pleasure is her friendship with her cousin Richard. Their mutual regard seems destined to lead them into adultery, but Selma resists, and chooses instead to break away in a search for self-fulfillment.

Money's qualities of naturalism and implicit feminism place it firmly within the radical literary movement of the 1880s known as Scandinavia's Modern Breakthrough. Trapped in an unhappy marriage, Victoria Benedictsson committed suicide after her lover, the critic Georg Brandes, criticized her second novel.

I say: I read this in Swedish for uni and probably would never have picked it up if I wasn’t forced to. The main reason being that I simply cannot stand women like Selma, i.e. these so called heroines marrying men they don’t love, commit adultery and then blame everyone but themselves – I’m looking at you Madame Bovary, Catherine Earnshaw, Tess of the D’urrstpids, et al – granted, Selma doesn’t commit adultery, but even so.

Now, I understand that this is a critique of Swedish law, which severely discriminated against women, and that is the main reason this novel gets a 3/5 because, in the end, Selma refused to see herself as a victim. It’s true that, prior to that, she wanted to please her uncle by marrying a wealthy man, but she did have a choice and she rather relished in turning up her nose to those who had looked down on her before.

She was only 16, so the naïveté is acceptable, I suppose.

Other than the early marriage, the predictability of falling in love with her cousin and then breaking free of her husband, this was a rather meh read. It was short and thought-provoking, with a statement that overshadows the story.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (3.5/5) [re-read]

First published: 1899
Page count: 260 (the story itself is probably a mere 90 pages, but I had to read the nonsense before and after it)


The back says: Heart of Darkness tells the story of Marlow as he travels upriver in central Africa to find Kurtz, an ivory agent as consumed by the horror of human life as he is by physical illness.

I say: First of all, I hate this. Really, really hate it and have since I first read it back in 2000 for uni. Coincidentally (not really) I re-read it now for uni and I still hate it.

Possibly more than before.

I have just handed in an essay about this, which means that I am sick and tired of it, and therefore this review will be very short because I can’t be arsed am going to watch some Law & Order: SVU to get my mind off “the horror. The horror.”

Yeah, I went there.

So, before anyone gets me wrong, this is a very well-written work and Conrad has an amazing command of the English language – and hyperbole – and the imagery really draws you into that boat going deeper into the Congo. The story itself is layered in such a way that one could discuss it for all eternity (and some people have), so that is the reason this gets a 3.5/5. It’s thought-provoking and elicits strong emotions, which is always a nice thing. However, most of those feeling are, for me, negative.

Which is why I hate it.

Imperialism, racism, the white man’s burden, and so on and so forth until my migraine blossoms up and I just want to cry. I don’t like Conrad’s agenda with this and I don’t like the seemingly sneaky way he goes about it. I say “seemingly” because some people just don’t seem to see or get it.

Linguistics, people – study it. I did and it ruined enhanced my reading.

So, yeah. That’s my review.