Monday, 30 June 2014

The Abyssinian Chronicles by Moses Isegawa (4/5)

First published: 1998
Page count: 462

The back says: The voice we hear is that of Mugezi, a quick-witted, sharp-eyed man whose life encompasses the ancient and the modern, peace and insane violence, despotism and democracy. Born in a rural village in the early 1960s, coming of age in the capital city of Kampala, he serves in the army, marries, divorces, and in 1985 emigrates to the Netherlands. Through him we witness the quotidian richness of Ugandan life as well as the most brutal political horrors. Revolution, and the reign of Idi Amin and its chaotic aftermath, act as the backdrop to Mugezi’s life and to the wider drama of family, friends, and foes, in both Uganda and the Netherlands.

I say: When I started reading this I was gushing about it to anyone willing to listen (which was basically my mother, bless her) and now that I have finished it I am no longer quite sure how I feel.

This is what happens when a book starts of as a brilliant masterpiece that sadly fizzles into mediocre in the end.

The first 300 or so pages are the makings of a family tale of epic proportions. We have three generations that are trying to navigate through life in Uganda to the best of their abilities, using fanatical religion, witchcraft, politics, love, hate, blackmail and pretty much anything to get what they want - and to keep their enemies from having it. As our narrator we have Mugezi (who starts out as one of the most sympathetic and lovable characters I’ve even encountered, only to end up disappointing me) weaving in out of his family’s history and future in a seemingly haphazard fashion that allowed opinions about circumstances and characters to change as we were given more and more information. His mother (one of the worst characters I’ve ever read) hates him and beats him mercilessly, while his father tries his best not to interfere. Rarely have two characters brought out so much anger and frustration in me as Mugezi’s parents did.

The despots, as he calls them.

After about 300 pages or so the story lost my interest nearly completely. I saw a boy and young man that I admired turn into a man that I didn’t like. Understandably, people change along the way, but it felt like the essence of Mugezi disappeared, and consequently I no longer cared what happened to him. His life in the Netherlands transformed this beautifully humorous tale into any other story about the life of the migrant.

I was disappointed.

Prior to that, though, this is one of the best stories I’ve encountered. For me, it may be an imagined nostalgia of a Uganda I never got to experience – a Uganda that my parents have spoken so often about – that made me fall so much in love with it, but it is also Isegawa’s stunning prose and hilarious observations. It’s been a long time since a book made me laugh out loud as much as this did.

Or hate as intensely.

So, 4/5 because of the disappointing end and I genuinely feel like reading it all over again right now.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Pulp by Charles Bukowski (3/5)

First published: 1994
Page count: 186

The back says: My eyes were blue and my shoes were old and nobody loved me. But I had things to do. I was Nicky Belane, private detective.

I say: I have no idea what the hell I just read.

I had no idea what the hell I was reading while reading.

I laughed a few times because Belane had some really good comebacks – he is a funny guy – but mostly I just mentally scratched my head and kept on in the hopes that all would be revealed in the end.

And it was.

But to what effect?

*insert first line of this review*

Belane is a private detective that gets a few cases during the 186 pages. The first one by Lady Death who wants him to find out if the guy who hangs out at a local book store really is Celine. The second case is from a friend wanting Belane to locate the Red Sparrow. Third case is from a man wanting to find out if his wife is cheating on him. And the fourth and final case is Celine wanting Belane to find out why Lady Death wants to know if he really is Celine.

Oh, wait. There was a fifth case of a man wanting Belane to help him get rid of an alien that has complete power over him.

Yeah.

In between trying - i.e. pretending – to solve these mysteries Belane drinks, gambles, tries to get laid and fights. Somehow I found him endearing for all the wrong reasons and I believe I may be falling for Bukowski’s eternal anti-hero. Yes, he’s an ass, but at least he’s honest about it.

And funny.

3/5 because I still have no idea what the hell I just read, but it was somewhat entertaining still.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

The Misfortunates by Dimitri Verhulst (3.5/5)

First published: 2007
Original title: De helaasheid Der Dingen
Original language: Dutch
Translation to English by: David Colmer, 2012

Page count: 200


The back says: Sobriety and moderation are alien concepts to the men in Dimmy's family.

Useless in all other respects, his three uncles have a rare talent for drinking, a flair for violence, and an unwavering commitment to the pub. And his father Pierre is no slouch either. Within hours of his son's birth, Pierre plucks him from the maternity ward, props him on his bike, and takes him on an introductory tour of the village bars. His mother soon leaves them to it and as Dimmy grows up amid the stench of stale beer, he seems destined to follow the path of his forebears and make a low-life career in inebriation, until he begins to piece together his own plan for the future...

I say: This was a far more disturbing read than I had anticipated, and since it is semi-autobiographical I feel a tad reluctant to say too mean things about the people involved. Not that I have that mean things to say, it’s just that the entire family made me uncomfortable and saddened. All that constant drinking and blatant disregard of anything or anyone outside of it showed a family that I am glad to not have been born into. Sure, they all did love each other, but even so.

Eating raw mince with maggots in it...

I didn’t like any of the characters or their escapades, in fact, the only thing that kept me reading was the writing itself. Verhults does an excellent job of describing the dismal living conditions with the uncompromising family pride that lead to brawls over the most mundane of things. They knew that they were not upstanding citizens – nor had they any desire to be – yet they didn’t want anyone to comment on their way of life.

Understandable foolish pride.

The novel is constructed as short stories telling what I assume to be the most significant events in Dimitri’s life, not following a chronological order, which I greatly approve of as it gave a bit of relief from the more miserable episodes. There was, what I believe to be, attempts at levity or even humour, but I was not amused.
 
The novel has also been turned into a film with the same title that I'll most likely never see.
 
3.5/5 mostly because I enjoyed Verhulst’s style of writing.

P.S. I love that cover.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

The Afterparty by Leo Benedictus (2/5)

First published: 2011
Page count: 392

The back says: Literary agent Valerie Morrell receives an email from prospective author William Mendez, containing the first chapters of a promising new novel. Mendez's book tells the story of an April night, when a nervous, nerdy journalist takes his boss's invitation to an A-list party and meets a reclusive film star, his junkie supermodel wife and a wide-eyed pop singer.

Valerie is hooked by the scandalous tale of decadence, drugs and disasters, but as the book unfolds, chapter by chapter, email by email, building to a terrible climax, a parallel story emerges - of an author with an unusual, almost unreal, desire for anonymity. Who is William Mendez? And whose tale is he really telling...

I say: What an utterly tedious read this turned out to be for several reasons.

One. Benedictus does that which I rarely enjoy; he inserts himself into the novel and gives himself extremely high praises. He calls the novel post-post-modern, a new kind of novel that is not metafiction but hyperfiction. It made me want to heave.

Two. The storyline isn’t that interesting or even convincing. I only have myself to blame for this because I have little, if any, interest in the lives and parties of celebrities, but I trudged on due to the promise of impending disaster.

Three. The back and forth emails between Morrell and Mendez annoyed me and felt like a contrived plotline with the only function of giving Benedictus leave to praise his own work.

Four. The tweets at the end of the novel that I didn’t even read because why the fuck would I?

Sometimes I read novels that I wind up liking even though they are poorly crafted, and sometimes I read novels that are brilliantly crafted but boring. Since my main field of study in literary science is metafiction, I found the premise of Benedictus’ novel interesting - albeit nowhere near as ground-breaking and he believes – and it would only be as a literary tool that I would ever revisit it. Beyond that, I do understand that this is satire and Benedictus making some sort of statement about celebrity culture and whatnot, and I am aware of all the praise it has been getting, but that means little to me when I find the writing average and grossly overshadowed by the narcissism.

2/5 which could have been more if only he had kept his self-love out of it.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northum (5/5)

First published: 1853
Page count: 205

The back says: A powerful and riveting condemnation of American slavery, 12 Years a Slave is the harrowing true story of Solomon Northup who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, enduring unimaginable degradation and abuse until his rescue twelve years later. Tricked by two men offering him a job as a musician in New York State in 1841, Solomon Northup was drugged and kidnapped. His life is jeopardy, he was forced to assume a new name and fake past.

[The rest contains spoilers, highlight if interested] Taken to Louisiana on a disease-ridden plague ship, he was initially sold to a cotton planter. In the twelve years that follow he is sold to many different owners who treat him with varying levels of savagery; forced labour, scant food and numerous beatings are his regular fare. Against all odds, Northup eventually succeeds in contacting a sympathetic party and manages to get word to his family. The ensuing rescue and legal cases are no less shocking and intriguing than the rest of the tale. A true-life testament to tremendous courage and tenacity in the face of unfathomable injustice, Northup's account also provides a rare insight into a murky past being meticulous first-hand recordings of slave life.

I say: Wow. This was such a powerful read that I am finding it hard to even write a proper review. I first heard of this novel when thefilm with the same title came out – well, almost the same title as the original novel was called Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, citizen of New York, kidnaped in Washington city in 1841, and rescued in 1853, from a cotton plantation near the Red River in Louisiana.

Quite the mouthful.

Without going into any details, this is a harrowing and heart-breaking story that brought tears to my eyes on more occasions than I dare count. It was very well-written, in a rather matter of fact way, and I believe it’s this detachment that unsettled me because it felt like Northup had to stick to the facts so that people would believe him. I may be wrong here, and he does comment on the things and people that happen to him and his reaction and feelings to them, but foremost it’s a retelling of events.

Horrible events.

I am in awe of Northup for his insight into human nature, his intelligence and his ability to forgive and look beyond evil. In spite of all the anger I felt when reading – and after reading – there is a colossal lesson in here for me about perseverance, love and strength.

I have waited to see the film because I like reading the book first, but I am now dreading it, to be honest. I have such a hard time with all things related to slavery, but still force myself to do it because I want to know – and feel – even the darkest parts of human history.
 
5/5 because I love it.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame by Charles Bukowski (4/5)

First published: 1974
Page count: 232

The back says: Nothing, but in the introduction he writes: The poems in the first three sections of this book are from the years 1955-1968 and the poems in the last section are the new work of 1972-1973. The reader might wonder what happened to the years 1969-1971, since the author once did vanish (literally) from 1944 to 1954. But not this time. The Days Ran Away Like Wild Horses Over The Hills (Black Sparrow Press, 1969) contains the poems from late 1968 and most of 1969, plus selections from five early chapbooks not covered by the first three sections of this book. Mockingbird Wish Me Luck (Black Sparrow Press, 1972) prints poems written from late 1969 to early 1972. So, for my critics, readers, friends, enemies, ex-lovers and new lovers, the present volume along with Days and Mockingbird contain what I like to consider my best work written over the past nineteen years.

I say: I have read poetry by Bukowski before, but without paying it proper attention. For whatever reasons I get him mixed up with William S.Burroughs – not being knowledgeable about either of their work – so I decided to borrow some of the former’s work from the library in an attempt to grasp what he wants to say.

I’m equal parts impressed and confused.

Four things that Bukowski keeps talking about: gambling (horses in particular), drinking, women and the meaning of life and death. The first I have zero interest in, the second intrigues me, the third fascinates me and the last is what I relentlessly obsess about.

Bukowski’s gambling is portrayed as the least of his problems; he wins some, he loses some and that’s all there is to it. His drinking and his women, on the other hand, are both complicated parts of his life because he cannot stay away from either. They’re both addictions that he appears to take at face value. Sure, some women manage to get close and it’s interesting to read why, but in the long run they all leave him.

Or he leaves them. 

the tigress

terrible arguments.
and, at last, lying peacefully
on her large bed
which is
spread in red with cool patterns of flowers,
my head and belly down
head sideways
sprayed by shaded light
as the bathes quietly in the
other room,
it is all beyond me,
as most things are,
I listen to classical music on the small radio,
she bathes, I hear the splashing of water.

I was surprised to find that I enjoyed the poetry in this collection because I thought that it would be vulgar and coarse and portraying things I’d rather not think about. However, the majority is beautiful and poignant, revealing a very broken man – and men, and women. There is a vulnerability behind the roughness that mingles perfectly with an intelligent observation of the world around him, and I find that the poems with the fewest words are the ones that move me the most.

i met a genius

I met a genius on the train
today
about 6 years old,
he sat beside me
and as the train
ran down along the coast
we came to the ocean
and then he looked at me
and said,
it’s not pretty.

it was the first time I’d
realized
that.
 

4/5 because the collection wasn’t perfect, but I will be reading more of his works.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Flora och Bellona av Erik Axel Karlfeldt (3/5)

First published: 1918
Page count: 86

The back says: Nothing. It is a collection of poetry by Erik Axel Karlfeldt.

I say: I read this in Swedish and am writing the review in English because  I believe it has been translated into other languages.

During my first year of studying literary science we had to read a lot of classic Swedish poetry, which made me quite quickly realise that I don’t particularly like it. The language is old-fashioned and I often find the rhyming tiring.

Having said that, I must admit that Karlfeldt didn’t bother me that much.

Nature seems to play a big role in this collection and he paints vivid pictures that surprisingly evoke memories of my own summers. The imagery is at times brilliant – and others predictable – and his metaphors and similes are on point. Most poems end on a melancholy note, which is something that I truly enjoyed.

According to Wiki, Flora och Bellona was published in the fall of 1918 and the following year Karlfeldt was offered the Nobel Prize in Literature, which he refused. Oddly enough he was awarded the prize posthumously in 1931 - which I find a bit cheeky – thus making him the only person who has been awarded the prize after his passing.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers (4/5)

First published: 1951
Page count: 78

The back says: The Ballad of the Sad Café is set in a small town in Georgia and tells the story of Miss Amelia, a lonely somewhat eccentric storekeeper. Her unrequited love for the crippled Cousin Lymon helps her to become a kinder person, and the whole town benefits from the café she then opens. Unfortunately, Miss Amelia’s past catches up with her, bringing with it tragic consequences.

I say: This was an unexpectedly dark read. Possibly because I cannot recall where I heard about it or why I felt compelled to read it.

However, I am glad that it fell my way.

Amelia is a stern owner of a store in a small town where she is somewhat respected and feared by the townspeople. Earlier on in her life she was married for ten days, which ended in disaster, and after which she kept everyone at bay. That is until a “hunchback” shows up one day claiming to be her cousin. Much to everyone’s surprise, Amelia takes him in and through him and his desire to socialise turns the store into a café.

Now, everyone in town talks about her being in love with him, which I don’t necessarily disagree with, but I do not think it’s a romantic love so much as a deep friendship and gratitude towards someone who brings out the best in us.

We are told quite early on that it is going to end in disaster, which automatically means that I start looking for clues in everything. There’s a languidness to the story with sinister undertones that I really enjoyed and that kept me on my toes. Somehow I simultaneously expected the end to be worse and yet not as bad, meaning that the consequences were harsher than the event itself. The implications were a tad dark, even for me, and it left me rather dispirited. In a strangely pleasant way, I should add.

I like having my emotions jarred.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Time Regained (In Search of Lost Time, Vol 7) by Marcel Proust (4/5)

First published: 1927
Original title: Le Temps Retrouvé
Original language: French
Translation to English by:
C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin (revised by D.J. Enright)
Page count: 361


The back says: Nothing, but this final volume deals with World War I, a party at the Prince de Guermantes’ and the narrator philosophises on time and memory.

I say: This volume brought out an abundance of emotions that I wasn’t sure how to deal with. It’s been a rather long journey for me, this epic, and Time Regained feels like such an apt title because it made all the struggles worth it.

Well, maybe not the whole Albertine debacle.

We learn in this final instalment that the narrator has spent some time in an asylum and as he is walking the streets of Paris he reminisces about the events that have led up to this point. World War I is mostly described from the viewpoint of those still in Paris juxtaposed with news from the front relayed by newspapers and old friends who have been drafted. I found this in equal parts interesting and tiring because I wanted to get on with the story; to get to a conclusion.

On his way to a party at the Prince the narrator stumbles on a paving stone outside which releases a memory from Venice, similar to the memory the madeleine released at the beginning of this story. While inside he has two more memories and as he starts discussing time and memory I am once again reminded of why I fell in love with Proust; the language used to describe the indecipherable essence of time and memory is beyond beautiful and vibrating. He is trying to grasp and make sense of something that essentially is beyond understanding - because does anyone truly know how time and memory function? - and it is his resilience that I so genuinely admire.

Having been away from society for quite some time, the narrator is surprised at the change in his former acquaintances, as well as the change they perceive in him. He realises, almost by surprise, that he is no longer a young man, which I thought pointed to his lack of self-awareness that has always bothered me. However, this realisation brings about some more philosophical thoughts about his time changes us both physically and internally. Most of his old friends are now different people, as is he, and the contrast between the way he knew them then to how they appeared to him now was fascinating.

The novel ends with the narrator outlining the novel he is going to write and how it may be received; how are these people going to react to the way he will portray them? I found this to be a very nice touch, especially the reasoning behind how a novel is to be read.

When I started reading the first volume I kept notes of all the brilliant and beautiful quotes, but since I cannot find my book of quotations and I hate markings in books, I don’t have any readily at hand. Somehow this doesn’t very much bother me at the moment because I am convinced that I will re-read these books again (apart from the ones with Albertine). It will be quite a few years before I return to them, but return I most definitely will.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

The Fugitive (In Search of Lost Time, Vol 6) by Marcel Proust (3.5/5)

First published: 1925
Original title: La Fugitive
Original language: French
Translation to English by:
C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin (revised by D.J. Enright)
Page count: 258


The back says: Nothing, but this volume deals with the aftermath of his separation with Albertine. There are also a trip to Venice, a couple of marriages and society problems.

I say: I enjoyed this more than I thought I would after finishing The Captive, however, it would have been so much better had Proust been able to finish it. Not merely because he could have corrected the mistakes, and there were quite a few of them, but also because it doesn’t feel fleshed out properly both in plot and language.

Which is extremely disappointing.

Albertine leaves Marcel at the end of The Captive and the first part of The Fugitive deals with his coming to terms with her departure. He was very whiny in the beginning, and I was annoyed – as per usual – by his game playing and neurosis. However, whenever Proust was describing the dealing with loss and betrayal, I found myself nodding in agreement and slowly falling back in love with him.

He became again the Proust of the first three volumes.

Later on we are reintroduced to Gilberte, which was nice, but this was one of the plotlines that I found unsatisfactory. The same goes for his trip to Venice, and the marriages. Once again we were also given details of the families and their history and quarrels – which still doesn’t interest me because they’re all ridiculous – and because it was so long ago I finished the first three volumes, it was hard for me to remember exactly what had happened.
 
All in all, I find it hard to review this without going into too deep details, especially since it was meant as the second part of what is known as Le Roman d'Albertine (The Albertine Novel). In that context Marcel grows up in this volume - I think - or at least becomes less disagreeable. Essentially he is a person whom is at his best when he is not in love/a relationship because he equates love with unhealthy obsession, and I am actually looking forward to seeing how this story is concluded.

So yeah, 3.5/5 because even though it is unfinished and full of mistakes it had so much potential.