Tuesday, 27 May 2014

The Captive (In Search of Lost Time, Vol 5) by Marcel Proust (3/5)

First published: 1923
Original title: La Prisonnière
Original language: French
Translation to English by:
C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin (revised by D.J. Enright)
Page count: 379


The back says: Nothing, but this volume deals with the narrator’s relationship with Albertine in Paris. There is also a party at the Verdurins which ends in M. de Charlus being ostracised from society.

I say: I actually started reading this when I finished Sodomand Gomorrah in August last year, but gave up around 100 or so pages in due to boredom. However, having had it stare at me all this time I decided to finally finish it.

And it was laborious.

I started from the beginning because I could barely remember anything, but it soon came back to me.

Unfortunately.

I cannot stand the narrator (who for the first time refers to himself as Marcel) and his relationship with Albertine, and since about 300 of the 379 pages are dedicated to it, I genuinely wanted to cry out of frustration. Marcel claims not to be in love with her, but he gets infinitely jealous and has her every move watched – with good reason, mind you – and despite his endless reasoning I cannot for the life of me understand why he clings to her. They made each other miserable and as a consequence made me miserable. Of course, this volume is called The Captive, and still I never expected it to be as tedious as this.

The only reprieve is when Marcel visits the Verdurins and we are witness to some intrigues in their circle.

Proust passed away in 1922 so this volume was revised and published after his death and in my volume errors are pointed out in the notes; some of which include a character being referred to as dead by one of the guests and later is said to still be alive, and Albertine referring to an earlier conversation that the reviser decided to axe from the manuscript. I am not going to go into much more of this because apparently the next volume, The Fugitive, is said to be even worse.

Yay!

Reading back to my earlier reviews I can see that I started disliking the narrator in the second volume and I am now bordering on hating him. I am desperately hoping that he’ll shape up, but I am not holding my breath.

3/5 because Proust is amazing at describing any emotion that does not refer to to Albertine. This is by far the weakest of the volumes, which scares me because those were my exact sentiments after finishing Sodom and Gomorrah.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (4.5/5)

First published: 2013
Original title: -
Original language: Russian
Translation to English by: Joanne Turnbull with Nikolai Formozov, 2013

Page count: 230


The back says: The stakes are wildly high in Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s fantastic and blackly comic philosophical fables, which abound in nested narratives and wild paradoxes. This new collection of eleven mind-bending and spellbinding tales includes some of Krzhizhanovsky’s most dazzling conceits: a provincial journalist who moves to Moscow finds his existence consumed by the autobiography of his room’s previous occupant; the fingers of a celebrated pianist’s right hand run away to spend a night alone on the city streets; a man’s lifelong quest to bite his own elbow inspires both a hugely popular circus act and a new refutation of Kant. Ordinary reality cracks open before our eyes in the pages of Autobiography of a Corpse, and the extraordinary spills out.

I say: This collection of 11 short stories generated love and confusion in equal measures, and I am still not entirely sure what it is I’ve read.

Thankfully.

I love the absurd, which is one of the main reasons I bought this, and I was overjoyed that each story has an element of it; albeit more prominent in some stories than others. The summary above lists three of the synopsis of three of the stories, but there is also the story of the past loves of a woman meeting inside of her pupil, and a scientist who invents a way to harness energy from people’s resentment. All the while I was reading I kept wondering where Krzhizhanovsky got these ideas and how he managed to present them in a way that made perfect sense.

Because all of the stories do make some sort of sense, even if they really don’t.

It took me a while to get into the prose of the first, and title story, which initially felt a bit academic and overformal, but a few pages in and I was amazed at how intelligently Krzhizhanovsky is able to turn a phrase. Some of the stories were more profound and linguistically challenging than others, but there were so many sentences that I had to read two or three times because they gave me goose bumps, and as a lover of language I want more of this:


Everyone can forget. Everyone – but the one forgotten.
- p. 61

Swoon.

I must order all of his works, most of which were published after his death.

4.5/5 because a couple of the stories weren’t as great as the others.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

A Country Doctor's Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov (3.5/5)

First published: 1925, 1926, 1927, 1975
Original title: Записки юного врача
Original language: Russian
Translation to English by: Michael Glenny, 1975

Page count: 158


The back says: Brilliant stories that show the growth of a novelist's mind, and the raw material that fed the wild surrealism of Bulgakov's later fiction.

With the ink still wet on his diploma, the twenty-five-year-old Dr. Mikhail Bulgakov was flung into the depths of rural Russia which, in 1916-17, was still largely unaffected by such novelties as the motor car, the telephone or electric light. How his alter-ego copes (or fails to cope) with the new and often appalling responsibilities of a lone doctor in a vast country practice — on the eve of Revolution — is described in Bulgakov's delightful blend of candid realism and imaginative exuberance.

I say: In some ways I loved this, and in others was a tad disappointed, which has more to do with my expectations than the stories themselves. These are nine short stories that Bulgakov wrote about his experiences as a young doctor being sent out to work in a remote location in 1916-18. In the introduction Michael Glenny says that they were published serially between 1925 and 1927 in two monthlies, one general and one medical. Bulgakov intended to publish them in a separate book entitled The Notes of a Young Doctor, but unfortunately passed away before doing so. 6 of the stories were published in 1966 in an edition of Bulgakov's Collected Prose, and the additional 3 stories were translated from photostats of copies of the medical journal by Glenny and published in 1975.

Basically, it’s a semi-biographical work.

I am not a squeamish person, which is a good thing because there were a few maladies described that were less than pleasant. Bulgakov mixes medical jargon (of the time) with humorous remarks, excursions and descriptions, making this a lighter read than it could have been without infringing on the seriousness. He is a new doctor who soon realises that he knows next to nothing about the problems that the villagers bring, and even runs off to his office to consult his medical books while the patient is waiting in the operating room.

Knowing that this is based on his real experiences makes me love and respect him even more.

That being said, what I really missed here was the absurd that Bulgakov brings to his works, the real reason I fell in love with him. Naturally, the absurd has little room in stories like these. Also, they were written in the 1920’s before illness caused him to abandon his medical career.

3.5/5 and I will re-read these at some point (which is a given with Bulgakov).
 
*The copy that I have is an issue by Fontana from 1976 and I couldn't find the cover online, so the picture above is of the DVD of the TV series based on these short stories called A Young Doctors's Notebook starring Daniel Radcliffe (whom we adore) and Jon Hamm. And now that I have finally read it, I shall watch it (and hopefully not be disappointed).

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

The Skating Rink by Roberto Bolaño (2/5)

First published: 1993
Original title: La Pista de Hielo
Original language: Spanish
Translation to English by: Chris Andrews, 2009

Page count: 181


The back says: When Nuria Marti, the beautiful Spanish figure skater, is suddenly dropped from the Olympic team, a besotted admirer builds a secret ice rink for her in the ruins of an old mansion on the outskirts of their seaside town. What he doesn't tell her is that he paid for it using embezzled public funds. Such deceit is not without repercussions, and the skating rink soon becomes a crime scene...

Rife with political corruption, sex, jealousy and frustrated passion, The Skating Rink - narrated in turn by a corrupt and pompous civil servant, a beleaguered romantic poet, and a duplicitous local entrepreneur - is a darkly atmospheric tale of murder and its motives.

I say: Well, this was a boring disappointment. After having read Amulet a couple of months ago, I was happy to start reading The Skating Rink. Unfortunately, the feeling of joy didn’t last very long because this was so boring I kept falling asleep. I had zero interest in any of the characters, the plot or even the prose, and I merely kept on reading because that’s what I foolishly do.

I continue to read things that don’t interest me.

The synopsis makes the novel sound far more interesting than it is; which is three men re-telling their boring lives that are all connected through living in the same town and the skating rink. There is no dark atmosphere, rifeness of political corruption or frustrated passion, although there is sex and jealousy.

Both incredibly dull.

2/5 and we won’t be reading 2666 anytime soon.

Monday, 19 May 2014

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (4/5)

First published: 1860
Page count: 649
 
The back says: ‘There, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from heaven, stood the figure of a solitary woman dressed from head to foot in white garments.’
 
Thus begins the action on a lonely moonlit road in north London of what is still the greatest mystery thriller in the English language.
 
A close friends of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins aspired with him to be a story-teller and social reformer: but it is undoubtedly as a great master of melodrama that he achieved his greatest success. When The Woman in White first appeared in 1860 it caused enormous excitement, and it has never lost its power to entertain and enthral.
 
The intricate plot, brilliantly orchestrated, filled with suspense and a cast of carefully located characters – among them Count Fosco, the Napoleonic villain whose corpulent figure and eccentric habits add superb actuality to his role – all combine in a story of confused identities whose unsuspected surprises and dramatic compulsiveness make it impossible to put down.
 
I say: I knew nothing about the plot when I picked this up, which is a good thing because I don’t really enjoy Victorian novels, “sensation novels” or mystery novels, and The Woman in White is considered to be one of the first of the two latter. However, I didn’t hate it as much as I thought I would.
 
In fact, I didn’t hate it at all.
 
Not really.
 
All in all it was in interesting story, but it was far too long, with far too many inane details and plot twists that I could easily have done without. Towards the end of the novel – and there was a time when I wanted to quit, but pressed on due to my seemingly endless 100 Classics Challenge – I kept reading because I wanted to find out what the secret was, and was tremendously disappointed when the revelation came. Not to mention the unbelievably silly progression and culmination of Count Fosco’s part of the story.
 
Come on...
 
The novel starts with a preamble by Walter Hartwright letting us know that the story will be told by several narratives, which I instantly knew was going to annoy me.
 
Which it subsequently did.
 
The majority of the characters in the novel are asked by Hartwright to tell their side of the story in letters, apart from Marian, whose diary is used. I am not too averse to this way of telling a story, and I think my dislike of it here has more to do with my dislike of Hartwright. The best narratives were those of Marian Halcombe and Mr Fairlie; Marian because she was observant, intelligent and gave just enough information needed without going into too long ramblings, and Mr Fairlie because he was such a silly man. Hartwright was the archetype of the character that wearies me with his sentimental nonsense and inability to know when to stop. He does get a little bit more tolerable towards the end, but I still couldn’t stand his narrative.
 
Having zero interest in the Victorian era and the tendency to get worked up about the social injustices women had to face made this a frustrating read. Laura Fairlie was the female version of Hartwright – of course – and, rather needless to say, I didn’t like anything much about her. Sir Glyde was you stereotypical villain and Marian was the ugly sibling that was strong and full of character because no man would ever want her. To cut this short, all characters were stereotypes, apart from Count Fosco who brought some flavour to the story.
 
All in all, I give this 4/5 because it is well-written and intriguing up to a certain point.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Vallfart och Vandringsår av Verner von Heidenstam (2/5)

First published: 1888
Page count: 76

The back says: Nothing. It is von Heidenstam’s debut collection of poetry.

I say: I read this in Swedish and am writing the review in English because I assume it’s been translated (I’m too lazy and disappointed to google research).

Every challenge I’ve ever started has at one point led me to a book that made me reconsider everything.

This is one of those points, and one of those books.

Although it is only 76 pages most of it bored me to tears and regret. The archaic language, the symbolism, the historical and religious figures and imagery, the rhyming – ah, the rhyming did my head in.

I would very much like to give this a 1/5, but that would be very unfair because von Heidenstam is a gifted poet, I just can’t stand his writing, so I’m compromising it into a 2/5 and vowing never to speak of it again.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Nomad av Harry Martinson (2/5)

First published: 1931/1943
Page count: 103

The back says: Nothing. This is a new edition with new poems and illustrations by Torsten Billman.

I say: I have heard the name Harry Martinson more or less my entire life, but never paid him much attention - although I do recall reading one of his poems when I was studying literary science at uni – and the reason I decided to pick up one of his collections is because he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1974.

As with Nelly Sachs, I read the poems in Swedish, but since they have been translated into English I will write the review in English.

Although it will be a short one.

I did not like this collection at all, mostly because I didn’t understand what he was trying to say. There were no emotions that I could decipher and it all read much like an inventory of events that someone decided to write down.

For whatever reason.

The language was archaic and stiff, the imagery bland and the most pleasure I got out of it was looking at the illustrations. Having said that, Martinson did get a few sentences here and there right, but all in all this style was not for me. I did borrow another collection, Aniara, from the library that I may give a go (it was published in 1956 so his style may have evolved in that time).

Quite noteworthy of Martinson (and Eyvind Johnson whom he shared the prize with in 1974) is that they were both members of the Nobel panel at the time that they won, which lead to a lot of controversy and was the reason he committed suicide in 1978, finding it hard to handle the criticism.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Feed by M. T. Anderson (3/5)

First published: 2002
Page count: 320

The back says: “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”

Titus doesn’t think much of the moon. But then Titus doesn’t think much period. He’s got his “feed” – an internet implant linked directly into his brain – to do his thinking for him.

Then Titus meets Violet, a girl who cares what’s happening to the world, and challenges everything Titus and his friends hold dear. A girl who decides to fight the feed...

I say: I liked the premise of this novel far more than the novel itself, and the main reason was that I found the execution extremely lacking in most areas. The first, and main, issue was the language. I suppose that Titus and his friends are around 16 since they can drive, but are not old enough to drink, and their immaturity was grating. Every other word was ‘like’ coupled with slang that Anderson had invented that felt contrived and lacklustre. They were all spoiled brats who were only interested in the latest fads, partying and getting high.

I was simply too old for this.

On the moon they meet Violet and [potential half-spoilers, highlight to read] they take her with them to a club where they wind up being hacked by some old man. The result of the hack is that they wind up in the hospital with their feeds disconnected so that the authorities can clear it of any viruses. As expected, the quiet of the real world distresses them, and as soon as they get their feed back and return to earth they’re back to their old tricks.

All except Violet.

What I liked about this was the way the feed was presented as an integral part of Titus’ and his friends lives. They had it installed from birth and it was literally having the internet in your head, allowing you to order anything you wanted but also with annoying pop-ups that changed based on what there was to offer in your current location. The feed would also make a profile of your purchases, habits, and emotions in order to market certain things to you. The way that Anderson was trying to convey this was by interrupting the narrative with fragments of news and commercials. I kind of liked this, but it was so transparent what the message was it annoyed me.

Another thing that annoyed me was the descriptions of the city; they made little sense and it felt like all the emphasis had been placed on the feed that the surroundings didn’t matter. I do understand that we are inside Titus’ head and he may not acknowledge the surroundings since he is used to them, but no, I still find this world to be completely implausible and that ruined it for me.

So yeah, 3/5 because it was a quick enough read, but could have been so much better.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Dikter av Nelly Sachs (4/5)

First published: 1967
Original title: -
Original language: German
Translation to Swedish by: Olof Lagerkrantz, Erik Lindegren, Gunnar Ekelöf, 1967

Page count: 93


The back says: Nothing. These are selected poems from her previously published collections.

I say: I read a Swedish translation but will write the review in English because, I believe, her poetry has been translated into English, but I was only able to get the Swedish translation from the library.

Prior to my plan of reading works by all the recipients of the Nobel Prizein Literature I confess I hadn’t heard of at least half of them; Nelly Sachs included. So, I bought a book about all the prize winners up until the year 1985, read a bit about her and started with this collection.

Being a Jew in Germany at the start of the century is at the centre of the majority, if not all, of the poems in this collection. Death, persecution, and fear are the constant companions to Sachs’ words, and it is intriguing how she folds and bends them into different shapes. It is the death of the child, of his parents, of neighbours, and also a death threatening – promising – to come, but never does.

There were passages that I didn’t understand and passages that gave chills and made gasp. The imagery is dark, and I love the juxtaposition of the surrounding nature and the emotions inside the characters, and the ingenious similes. The only problem I had, and the reason I’m not giving this a full 5/5 is that some of the language was archaic and therefore somewhat stilted and trying, and I could also sense the difference between the three translators.

What I'll do now is look for a translation by a single person and continue my discovery of this amazing poet.

This collection of poems was published a year after she received the Nobel Prize in Literature (shared with S. J. Agnon). Sachs escaped Nazi Germany to Sweden in 1940 and exact copy of her apartment, complete with all her belongings, can be seen at the Royal Library in Stockholm (I must go there).

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Hello Kitty Must Die by Angela S. Choi (3/5)

First published: 2010
Page count: 250

The back says: Meet Fi. A 28 year old lawyer with a six figure salary and an 80 hour working week, Fi has no intention of being another pretty, passive Hello Kitty type, stuck on a conveyor belt of kids, cooking and cleaning. It's just a shame her parents won't stop setting her up with undesirable men.
Meet Sean. Fi's childhood best friend and teenage delinquent, he's now a very successful surgeon. But there's something you should know about Sean. Some men cook in their spare time, others play sport. Sean kills people.
Meet Freddie, Fi's blind date. Poor Freddie. This
really isn't going to end well...

I say: Fast paced, increasingly disturbing and occasionally funny, I read this in one sitting while continuously asking myself what the hell was wrong with these people.

Fi’s father is constantly trying to set her up with Chinese men that she has no interest in. In fact, she has no interest in dating at all. However, she gets bullied into one date after another, and after confessing to Sean about her troubles, he decides to take matter into his own hands.

Literally.

Of course, things escalate and before Fi knows it, they have gone too far and she has to find a way to end them.

Dramatic pause.

None of this was believable, but I don’t think it was meant to be either. At the core of it all is that Fi hates Hello Kitty and uses her as symbol of all things she doesn’t want in life. Hello Kitty has no mouth and is therefore forever silent, she has a bow in her hair to project femininity and the desire to look good, and other things that I can’t remember. I understand Fi rebelling against this ideal as a young Chinese woman in America trying to live independently without disappointing or dishonouring her parents who want her to lead a more traditional life, i.e. get married and have kids as soon as possible because at 28 she was already too old.

Of course.

I decided to approach it all as satire and as much as I enjoyed Fi’s father’s constant comments about lipstick and his meddling in her life, the killings ruined the novel for me.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

The Go-Away Bird by Warren FitzGerald (4.5/5)

First published: 2010
Page count: 277

The back says: Clementine is a young girl who loves to sing. Ashley is a singing teacher.

Clementine has seen things in her native Rwanda that no child should ever be allowed to see. Ashley’s troubled London childhood has left him vulnerable.
 
The Go-Away Bird is the story of how they meet and what happens to them thereafter. It is a story of how love can heal.

I say: This was a slow start for me, and I nearly gave up after a couple of chapters. I found Ashley’s story more interesting than Clementine’s, which felt contrived and unconvincing. But because I have a love for Rwanda, and even though I knew where this story was going and how it would make me feel, I kept reading.

And I am glad that I did.

Clementine and Ashley tell their stories in alternating chapters, Clementine’s starting a few days prior to the genocide and her talking about starting a new school. Ashley is a few days after the start and the genocide is present through his reading of newspapers and watching the news. I studied the genocide when I was at uni, so none of the information was new to me, but it was important that FitzGerald made those little incursions for the benefit of the readers unaware of the atrocities.

This is a tearjerker – of course – and sentimental and unlikely, but somehow FitzGerald made it work. Once the two main characters meet and form that special bond, I was simultaneously dreading and anticipating the inevitably heart-breaking end. And although it was heart-breaking, it was also hopeful and sweet.

4.5/5 because of all the emotions.

P.S. If you want to read more about the genocide in Rwanda read We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families:Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch, which is non-fiction and amazing.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Post Office by Charles Bukowski (3.5/5)

First published: 1971
Page count: 160

The back says: Henry Chinaski is a low life loser with a hand-to-mouth existence. His menial Post Office day job supports a life of beer, one-night stands and racetracks. Lurid, uncompromising and hilarious, Post Office is a landmark in American literature.

I say: For some reason I don’t really have that much to say about this, and I find that rather odd. Perhaps it is because I didn’t so much enjoy the novel itself as its message – if one should even call it a message.

Its stark reality.

Henry starts working at the post office as a temp, showing up each morning not knowing which route he is going to be given – or if he’s going to be given a route at all. His boss hates him and therefore only gives him a route if he has to, and then it’s the toughest one. Henry chugs along, and encounters all sorts of people while trying to deliver their mail. He has affairs, fights, gets stranded in the rain, and also rapes a woman. I didn’t really comprehend what happened there, because thus far he seemed like a decent enough man; granted he was drinking all night, gambling at the racetrack and cursing, but that doesn’t necessarily make a person bad in my book.

The rape, however, threw me off...

[Spoiler, highlight to read]

After a while he is offered a permanent position which he later turns down. His girlfriend leaves him, he finds a new one and moves towards a new life with her. Eventually, he is back at the post office again – this times sorting the mail – and with a boss and supervisors that hate him.

In a couple of ways I felt sorry for Henry, but mostly I don’t think he warranted much sympathy because he was living a life of his choosing. He didn’t so much hate his job as he did his superiors, and that is something I believe a lot of people can relate to; not being able to get the job done properly because someone is constantly harassing you.

The prose was candid, intense and full of profanity – as one would expect of Bukowski. This is the first novel I’ve read by him, only having read his poetry before, and I will give him another go.