Monday, 24 March 2014

The Best People in the World by Justin Tussing (4.5/5)

First published: 2006
Page count: 336
The back says: Thomas, a seventeen year old with the face of an angel, is living with his parents in a house that has begun to feel crowded; Alice, his high-school teacher and first love, is getting calls from her violent ex-husband; and Shiloh, a survivor of a life lived on the fringes, has seen his shack swept away by the mighty Ohio river.

They run away together, in pursuit of an ideal that none of them are quite able to define, eventually finding shelter in an abandoned farm house in the hills of Vermont. But as the chill of autumn sets in, dependency and deprivation start to take their inevitable toll on each relationship, and Thomas begins to see this time – when he was with ‘the best people in the world’ – come to an end.

I say: Not since Bella Swan, then Tess of the d’Urbervilles and finally Jane Eyre has a female character annoyed me to such an extent as Alice did.

Gah.

She made me violent.

And now that I have gotten that out of the way I will continue on to say that I fell in love with Shiloh, felt compassion for Thomas’ misguided youth and kindness, and just hated Alice. The way that the three of them found each other makes more sense than the synopsis had me believe – somehow Tussing made it all seem so natural and evident – and yet at the same time there was an underlying sense of doom in everything they said and did. Usually this sort of thing annoys me, but here it felt inevitable and therefore acceptable.

I desperately wanted to know what would ultimately break them up, and simultaneously didn’t want to see an end that was destined to be painful.

Never had I imagined the deceit that would unfold.

The story is told by Thomas, looking back at that time in his life, and at first it took me a while to get into the prose. I wouldn’t go so far as to call Thomas surly; maybe that is how 17 year-old-boys can be – I wouldn’t know – but there was a naivety to him that vexed me. Thankfully there were a few times that Thomas, in the present, commented on his lack of insight at that age that felt genuine, and he did seem to live rather sheltered life.

Having made my peace with Thomas’ trying inner voice, I later came to appreciate the way Tussing allowed the reader to witness his growth. It’s the relationships he forms with Alice and Shiloh that breaks this story away from the usual coming of age voyages; and ultimately his innocence is the reason why it works.

At times it was beautiful, more often it was infuriating, but always engaging and within the realm of possibility that I enjoy watching others walk. I was lost in their world, wanting to stay there a little bit longer with each chapter read, yet hoping the end would soon arrive to release us all.
 
4.5/5 because of the chapters with the two men travelling looking for miracles, which felt contrived.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck (2.5/5)

First published: 2008
Original title: Heimsuchung
Original language: German
Translation to English by: Susan Bernofsky, 2010

Page count: 150


The back says: By the side of a lake in Brandenburg, a young architect builds the house of his dreams - a summerhouse with wrought-iron balconies, stained-glass windows the colour of jewels, and a bedroom with a hidden closet, all set within a beautiful garden. But the land on which he builds has a dark history of violence that began with the drowning of a young woman in the grip of madness and that grows darker still over the course of the century: the Jewish neighbours disappear one by one; the Red Army requisitions the house, burning the furniture and trampling the garden; a young East German attempts to swim his way to freedom in the West; a couple return from brutal exile in Siberia and leave the house to their granddaughter, who is forced to relinquish her claim upon it and sell to new owners intent upon demolition. Reaching far into the past, and recovering what was lost and what was buried, Jenny Erpenbeck tells a story both beautiful and brutal, about the things that haunt a home.

I say: This was a rather painful exhausting read that I had to fight my way through. It started out interesting enough, but then quickly descended into too many detailed descriptions of the gardening and work being done on the property.

Why would anyone care about the precise measurements or how often the garden was watered?

Nonsense.

Furthermore the entire text was too repetitive. Espenbeck would literally repeat the same sentences and passages several times on the same page. It was not beautiful and did not cement what was being communicated, but merely served to annoy – especially considering how short the novel is.

Having said all that I liked the idea of the house being at the centre of so many lives. Each person has their own chapter, and they’re all tied together by the only constant; the gardener’s chapters - positioned between the other chapters and annoying the hell out of me – showing the house and garden from a rather neutral point of view. Some of the chapters were interesting and even emotionally powerful, but unfortunately they were eclipsed by the prose, which is a shame because Espenbeck had a nice way of entangling all the people who visited the house.
 
So, 2.5/5 more because of what could have been than what was.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad (3.5/5)

First published: 1907
Page count: 304

GoodReads says: Mr Verloc, the secret agent, keeps a shop in London's Soho where he lives with his wife Winnie, her infirm mother, and her idiot brother, Stevie. When Verloc is reluctantly involved in an anarchist plot to blow up the Greenwich Observatory things go disastrously wrong, and what appears to be "a simple tale" proves to involve politicians, policemen, foreign diplomats and London's fashionable society in the darkest and most surprising interrelations.

I say: This must have been the fifth time I started reading this, and if it weren’t for it being on my completely ignored 100 Classics Challenge, I would never have finished it. And what a shame that would have been.

Somewhat.

As may be deduced from that initial sentence, this was a very slow start for me. A lot of information about Mr Verloc and his family – too much information, I later found out – and I was glad that I had never read the synopsis before picking this up, because it’s not the type of book I enjoy. And I didn’t really enjoy it, but had to keep forcing my way through, which is sad because it could have been a good read.

Conrad has a way with words (though somewhat repetitive with certain phrases) and the ability to build up excitement only to have it all fall a shambles in ridiculous conclusions. Considering all the information and details we were given, it was disappointing to find that most of it went absolutely nowhere. So, hat’s off to Conrad for tricking the hell out of me.

3.5/5 because there were a lot of curious beginnings, but most of them fell flat.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

The Fatal Eggs by Mikhail Bulgakov (3/5)

First published: 1925
Original title: Роковые яйца
Original language: Russian
Translation to English by: Hugh Alpin, 2003

Page count: 102


The back says: [Super-spoilery, so highlight at own risk]Quite by chance, Professor Persikov discovers a new form of light ray whose effect, when directed at living cells, is to accelerated growth in organism. But when this ray is shone on the wrong batch of eggs, the professor finds himself both the unwilling creator of giant hybrids, and the focus of a merciless press campaign. For it seems the propaganda machine has turned its gaze on him, distorting his nature in the very way his ‘innocent’ tampering created the monster snakes and crocodiles that now terrorise the neighbourhood.

I say: As almost always with authors I have already read, I didn’t read the synopsis before starting this, and glad am I of that, since it pretty much gives it all away. Thus not saying that I wasn’t able to predict what was going to happen before it did. Supposedly this was “inspired” by H. G. Wells, which is going to be my excuse for not liking it.

*shade*

But seriously, the prose was stiff and at times too scientific for my liking; it was presented in the form of a news report, with a detachment that I didn’t appreciate. In a lot of ways, this detachment serves a certain purpose, especially if one looks upon it as a satire and political allegory of the Russian Revolution (of course). Therefore I am of two minds; on the one had I didn’t very much enjoy the writing, but on the other hand I understand the satire – even if it wasn’t as subtle as I prefer my satire.

As always with Bulgakov, there were a lot of humorous and absurd incidents, not to mention bizarre characters. One really good thing with this edition is that it had notes at the back explaining all the things that would have gone over my head.

3/5 because it was a worthwhile read, but ultimately nothing special.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Amulet by Roberto Bolaño (4/5)

First published: 1999
Original title: Amuleto
Original language: Spanish
Translation to English by: Chris Andrews, 2006

Page count: 184


The back says: Auxilio Lacouture is trapped. For twelve days she hides alone in a lavatory on the fourth floor of the university. Staring at the floor, she begins a heartfelt and feverish tale: she is the mother of Mexican poetry.

I say: I expected this to be a tale about Auxilio being trapped in the lavatory for twelve days and reminiscing about her life prior to that incident. However, it was hard to tell exactly from which point of time it was told, veering indiscriminately from before, during and after that imprisonment, and somehow this made the tale more powerful and magical.

Unfortunately, I do not know enough of Roberto Bolaño to give an opinion on the character Arturo Belano being his alter ego, the fact that he refers to his magnus opus 2666, or that Auxilio has her own 10-page chapter in the novel The Savage Detectives. Therefore, for me this is a first-person stream of consciousness (which I love) that begins as such:


This is going to be a horror story. A story of murder, detection and horror. But it won’t appear to be, for the simple reason that I am the teller. Told by me, it won’t seem like that. Although, in fact, it’s the story of a terrible crime.


And continues to follow the self-proclaimed mother of Mexican poetry, and what I loved the most was the depictions of her time spent with the young poets of Mexico and Latin America – and her namedropping of Ché Guevara.

Mind me, the only name I recognised was Federico Garcia Lorca (whom I adore).

There is something authentic about the prose that made me want to believe every word. Perhaps it was the combination of adding actual people and the fact that the occupation of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) was a historical event that I knew nothing about (an appreciated unexpected lesson in history reading this novel).

4/5 and now I’ve bumped up 2666 a few spots on my TBR-list.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

The Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov (5/5)

First published: 1925
Original title: Собачье сердце, Sobach'e serdtse
Original language: Russian
Translation to English by: Michael Glenny, 1968

Page count: 128


The back says: A rich, successful Moscow professor befriends a stray dog and attempts a scientific first by transplanting into it the testicles and pituitary gland of a recently deceased man. A distinctly worryingly human animal is now on the loose, and the professor’s hitherto respectable life becomes a nightmare beyond endurance. An absurd and superbly comic story, this classic novel can also be read as a fierce parable of the Russian Revolution.

I say: This is a masterpiece of magnificent proportions. Everything about it was perfection, and I genuinely want to start reading it all over again right now.

But I’ll save it for when some of the plot isn’t so clear in my head.

As the synopsis says, Professor Preobrazhensky picks up a stray dog, Sharikov, and after having fatted him up enough (or maybe he was just waiting for a corpse) he transplants the dead man’s testicles and pituitary gland into the dog. After a short while the dog transforms into a man that starts to wreak havoc in the professor’s home.

What I loved most about this, apart from the humour and absurdity of it all, was the allegory of not just the Russian Revolution, but of the social structures of modern society and the struggle for, and abuse of, power. Its masterfulness lies in the fact that it lends itself to fit more than just the one framework.

And it’s hilarious.

5/5 because this is the reason I am so obsessed with the Russians (and need to read more of them).

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Memoirs of a Porcupine by Alain Mabanckou (4.5/5)

First published: 2006
Original title: Mémoires de porc-épic
Original language: French
Translation to English by: Helen Stevenson, 2011

Page count: 154


The back says: ‘So I’m just a wild animal, men would say, since they only believe what they see, but for years I was the double of Kibandi... I carried out my orders to the letter, even though towards the end I began to step back a bit, thinking we were digging out own graves, but I was stuck with my role, as a turtle is lumbered with his shell... Kibandi died the day before yesterday, so here is my confession...’

All human beings, goes an African legend, have an animal double. Freed of his master, this porcupine is ready to tell all in his memoir. With sly references to Poe, Hemingway and Faulkner, Mabanckou teases and plays with African folklore.

I say: What a wonderful and unexpected tour de force this was.

A dark fable about a man’s descent into conceit and violence told by his double, a porcupine, to a tree.

Yes.

However random that sounds, this was poignant, thought provoking and full of humour. The legend says that there are two types of doubles, peaceful and harmful, and this porcupine is a harmful double, meaning he can do harm to any person his human points out. After going through a ceremony with his father, Kibandi is connected with the porcupine, who lives in the woods with his kind until he hears the calling. One of the harms that a double can do is to “eat” – i.e. kill – another human being, and when Kibandi’s father is suspected of 99 deaths in the village, and finally hunted down and killed, Kibandi and his mother move.

The porcupine tagging along, of course.

While waiting for Kibandi to call for him, the porcupine learns to read and amuses himself with books and musings on the differences between men and animals. Soon enough Kibandi feels wronged by someone and summons his double for revenge.

Dun dun dun...

There are no periods in this entire novel, only commas, which annoyed me at first but I quickly got over it, even though I sometimes had to re-read a few lines to mentally insert a full stop in order to make sense of what was being said. The prose is best described as a simple elegance; it flows with ease, but is linguistically imaginative.

I fell in love.

Although I have previously noted that I am not a big fan of magical realism, Mabanckou makes this work beautifully, weaving Congolese folklore and modernity. It’s an allegory of what the notion of invincibility can lead to – simply put – and how people often fail to learn from history.

4.5/5 because of the silly and extremely unnecessary Appendix.

Monday, 10 March 2014

The Amen Corner by James Baldwin (3.5/5)

First published: 1954
Page count: 126

Goodreads says: For years Sister Margaret Alexander has moved her Harlem congregation with a mixture of personal charisma and ferocious piety.  But when Margaret's estranged husband, a scapegrace jazz musician, comes home to die, she is in danger of losing both her standing in the church and the son she has tried to keep on the godly path.

I say: I’ve been meaning to read James Baldwin for year, so imagine my delight when stumbling upon this play in the used book store earlier today. As I was waiting in line I started reading it straight away and finished it directly when I got home. Not so much because it was that engrossing, but more to see if my suspicions about the conclusion would prove accurate.

They were.

Unfortunately.

What I really liked about this is Baldwin’s very accurate portrayal of church life; the jealousy, the gossip, the judgement. It was a nice to see a female preacher, which brought about prejudice about what the congregation really thought a woman’s place was, and how they came to question what had truly caused Margaret to become so pious. In the same way that they questioned her authority to tell the parishioners what to do when her own son wouldn’t listen to her.

The impact of the play lays in the implications of all the character’s actions; some of which I strongly dislike, and other which I find rather cliché. I can’t really go into any of them without being too spoilery, but I will say that I am bearing in mind that this play was written in a far different time than I live in today, so my judgements should be restricted. I did admire Margaret until the third act, which is when she did what I expected her to do, but was hoping she wouldn’t.

Ah, well...

3.5/5 because it’s a thought-provoking play that brought back a few memories from growing up as the daughter of a priest. I’d love to see this on stage and bask in the air of church gossip from a safe distance.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Rhyming Life and Death by Amos Oz (2/5)

First published: 2007
Original title: Haruzei Hahayim Vehamavet
Original language: Hebrew
Translation to English by: Nicholas de Lange, 2009

Page count: 155


The back says: An unnamed author waits in a bar in Tel Aviv on a stifling hot night. He is there to give a reading of his work but as he sits, bored, he begins to conjure up the life stories of the people he meets. Later, when the reading is done he asks a woman for a drink. She declines and the author walks away, only to climb the steps to her flat, later that night. Or does he? In Amos Oz's beguiling, intriguing story the reader never really knows where reality ends and invention begins...

I say: This could have been so much better than it was because the premise of the work was good, but I found the execution to be lacklustre and repetitive. It was only 155 pages and I was already bored before I’d even read half of it, and continued simply because it was so short.

Also because I rather enjoyed Scenes from Village Life and was hoping for at least a nice ending.

But no.

The writing is simple and somewhat poignant at times - Oz certainly does know how to draw characters - but I didn’t find it engaging. We follow the Author around as he makes up stories about the people he sees, and yet none of it profoundly makes any sense. Yes, I understand that we are witnessing the writing experience of the Author, but so what?
 
Meh.

2/5 because none of it really goes anywhere, and all the alternative storylines presented one after the other irritated me.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Scenes from Village Life by Amos Oz (3.5/5)

First published: 2009
Original title: Tmunot Mihayei Hakfar
Original language: Hebrew
Translation to English by: Nicholas de Lange, 2011

Page count: 265


The back says: A teenage son shoots himself under his parents' bed. They sleep that night unaware he is lying dead beneath them.

A stranger turns up at a man's door to persuade him that they must get rid of his ageing mother in order to sell the house.

An old man grumbles to his daughter about the unexplained digging and banging he hears under the house at night.

As each story unfolds, Amos Oz, builds a portrait of a village in Israel. It is a surreal and unsettling place. Each villager is searching for something, and behind each episode is another, hidden story. In this powerful, hypnotic work Amos Oz peers into the darkness of our lives and gives us a glimpse of what goes on beneath the surface of everyday existence.

I say: This is a collection of 8 short stories focusing on different inhabitants of the village Tel Ilan, who all know each other and therefore have little cameos in each story. Although one could read each one independent of the others, you get a few specs of extra information if one reads them in order.

As was intended.

There are certain parts of Oz’s prose that reminded me of The Fall by Albert Camus in that there was something ominous lurking underneath everything being said and reported which forces the reader to pay extra attention. However, at the end of The Fall Camus reveals what lies at the basis of the narrator, Clamence’s monologue, Oz is not as generous – and that is one of the reasons I enjoyed it.

All of the stories end on a haphazard note, which I love because it makes you think what happened beyond the invisible imagined ellipsis.
 
I must add that one of the reasons I bought this was because I was interested in the story about the boy who shoots himself under his parents' bed; Singing. So it was a disappointment to find out that this story had little to do with the suicide, which was more of an aside.

Either way, 3.5/5 mostly because of the similarities with The Fall and because Oz left me wanting more.

Favourite Stories: Heirs, Digging.