Friday, 29 June 2012

The Short Reign of Pippin IV by John Steinbeck (3/5)

The back says: The Short Reign of Pippin IV displays a wonderful new vain of Steinbeck’s genius. It is the madcap story of a little Frenchman who did not want to be king; of his film-mad and bosomy daughter Clotilde; and of his chief adviser – a wise nun who learned about life as a nude in the Folies Bergere.

I say: The French governments want to give the Communists a monarchy to revolt against, so they chose Pippin to be king, as he is rumoured to be from a royal family. Pippin agrees against his will, but is displeased at the lack of privacy. He dresses up as a plebeian and goes around making enquiries about what the people think of the king. All according to plan, Pippin is eventually dethroned and goes back to the life he previously lead.

As far as satire goes, I suppose this would suffice; but I really didn’t find it to be particularly humorous or really all that clever, to be completely honest. There were a few witticism sprinkled throughout, but most of the jabs at the French (and other nations as well) felt rather puerile. All of the characters were exaggerated to a point of sheer folly, and the only ones I enjoyed were Pippin (at times) and his uncle, Charles Martel.

In fact, Marcel trying to sell off his fake paintings to unsuspecting tourists was the only amusing part.

Nevertheless, I like Steinbeck. He has a distinct way of describing the essence of people and of human emotions, which I have to say I missed in this. Granted, this is the first satire, or even humorous novel I’ve read by him, so perhaps I should stick to his more serious works.

Having said that, satire is based on some form of truth and there were a few quotes in the novel that made me think.

“It is the tendency of human beings to distrust good fortune. In evil times we are too busy protecting ourselves. We are equipped for this. The one thing our species is helpless against is good fortune. It first puzzles, then frightens, then angers, and finally destroys us.” - p 108

This is a quote that I could discuss for hours, so I am not even going to start. It was just to illustrate that even though I wasn’t too impressed with this novel, it did have its highlights.

*This is my sixth entry in The Classic Bribe Challenge (which is an additional incentive for me to work on my 100 Classics Challenge that’s been going on for a tad too long).

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Jesus’ Son: Stories by Denis Johnson (4/5)

The back says: Jesus’s Son is a visionary chronicle of dreamers, addicts, and lost souls. These stories tell of spiraling grief and transcendence, of rock bottom and redemption, of getting lost and found and lost again. The raw beauty and careening energy of Denis Johnson’s prose has earned this book among the classics of twentieth-century American literature.

I say: I always say the same thing at the beginning of all reviews of short story collections; that I find it hard to write reviews. However, this time it’s not so difficult because all these stories were about the same person, only referred to as "Fuckhead," and so became like frenzied chapters in his life of alcohol, narcotics, violence, accidents and criminality.

Over and over again.

And that’s pretty much what these stories feel like; as if moving in a circle of addiction, fights, dreams of doing better, random happenings, and back again to the addiction. Or maybe we never actually leave the addiction. Through the narrators eyes we see different characters and scenarios, but the one thing that brings them all together is the desire to be somewhere else; whether spoken out loud or a subtlety beneath the words.

It made me uncomfortable and compassionate all in one go.

What I really like is Johnson’s stark prose; unapologetic but without a sense of melodrama. There’s no introduction, we’re just flung straight into this world and left to our own devices – voyeurs of something abysmal and captivating – and somewhere in this naked portrait of broken people I find a sense of beauty and purpose.

A few of these stories will stay with me for some time to come, and I look forward to reading more of Johnson’s work.

Favourite stories: Car Crash While Hitchhiking, Emergency, Steady Hands at Seattle General, Beverly Home.

*This is my fifth entry in The Classic Bribe Challenge (which is an additional incentive for me to work on my 100 Classics Challenge that’s been going on for a tad too long).

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

This was just too good not to share

Also, if I liked Starbucks I'd do the same thing. But I guess I could do it at the deli.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

How to be and Alien by George Mikes (4/5)

The back says: George Mikes says ‘the English have no soul; they have the understatement instead’.

But they do have a sense of humour – they proved it by buying over three hundred thousand copies of a book that took them quietly and completely apart, a book that really took the Mikes out of them.

I say: I found this in a used book store the other day, and it was just too charming not to buy. The word ‘alien’ in this context means foreigner, and in the Preface to the 24th Impression Mikes writes that “this was to be a book of defiance. [...] I expected the British to rise in wrath but all they said, was: ‘quite amusing’. It was indeed a bitter disappointment.”

As with most books that set out to mock a nation of people, the humour in How to be An Alien lies in its truths. Sure, a lot of it prejudices, or things that Mikes has experienced and therefore takes as truths, but his sarcasm and apparent ridicule makes it impossible to take him seriously. Being Hungarian himself, he compares the English to the people of continental Europe. On the subject of Sex he writes:

“Continental people have sex life; the English have hot-water bottles.” – p 29

One of my favourite chapters was the one entitled How to be a Particular Alien: A Bloomsbury Intellectual, which is basically what today is referred to as a hipster. It was funny the way he cut right through them and also how much is still relevant today.

“Always be original! It is not as difficult as it sounds: you just have to copy the habits and sayings of a few thousand other B.I.” – p 57

However, I think that the chapter that got the most laughs and nods of recognition was the one entitled How to Plan a Town. There’s too much hilarity to write down, but I just have to share some of my favourites (and ones that my friends and I genuinely complain about when we’re in England):

“You must understand that an English town is a vast conspiracy to mislead foreigners. You have to use century-old little practices and tricks.

1. First of all, never build a street straight. The English love privacy and do not want to see one end of the street from the other end. Make sudden curves in the streets and build them S-shaped too; the letters L, T, V, Y, W and O are also becoming increasingly popular.
2. Never build the houses of the same street in a straight line.
4. Give a different name to the street whenever it bends; but if the curve is so sharp that it really makes two different streets, you may keep the same name. On the other hand, if, owing to neglect, a street has been built in a straight line it must be called by many different names [...].
6. Street names should be painted clearly and distinctly on large boards. Then hide these boards carefully. Place them too high or too low, or even better, lock them up in a safe in your bank, otherwise they may give people some indication about the names of streets.” – p 74-76

I really love this little book and it’s the perfect gift to give to some moving to England, or an Englishman with a sense of humour.

*This is my fourth entry in The Classic Bribe Challenge (which is an additional incentive for me to work on my 100 Classics Challenge that’s been going on for a tad too long).

Monday, 25 June 2012

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (2/5)

The back says: Thackeray's upper-class Regency world is a noisy and jostling commercial fairground, predominantly driven by acquisitive greed and soulless materialism, in which the narrator himself plays a brilliantly versatile role as a serio-comic observer.

Although subtitled A Novel without a Hero, Vanity Fair follows the fortunes of two contrasting but inter-linked lives: through the retiring Amelia Sedley and the brilliant Becky Sharp, Thackeray examines the position of women in an intensely exploitative male world.

I say: Goodness gracious what a tedious read this was, and mostly due to that damn overly familiar narrator with his random yammering about who knows what that had no relevance to the plot whatsoever.


This book made me violent.

I mean this:

But the writer of these pages, who has pursued in former days, and in the same bright weather, the same remarkable journey, cannot but think of it with a sweet and tender regret. Where is the road now, and its merry incidents of life? Is there no Chelsea or Greenwich for the old honest pimple-nosed coachmen? I wonder where are they, those good fellows? Is old Weller [here my footnotes tell me that tony Weller was the father of Sam, Mr Pickwick’s servant, in Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers (1837) Old Weller was himself a coachman – p 667] alive or dead? and the waiters, yea, and the inns at which they waited, and the cold rounds of beef inside, and the stunted ostler, with his blue nose and clinking pail, where is he, and where is his generation? To those great geniuses now in petticoats, who shall write novels for the beloved reader’s children, these men and things will be as much legend and history as Nineveh, or Coeur de Lion, or Jack Sheppard [and then my footnotes tell me who these people are]. – p 63


If I were to remove all of these inane monologues directed to the reader I think about 1/3 of the book would disappear. And considering that this tome is 657 pages, that’s a lot of excess reading for no purpose at all – and then I haven’t even mentioned the ridiculous amount of times that he wrote Vanity Fair.

"Well, that’s Vanity Fair for you… If it weren’t for Vanity Fair... When you go to Vanity Fair..."

We get it.

*takes a deep breath*

Now that I have gotten that out of my system (barely) I shall speak about the story, which wasn’t so bad once you remove the annoyance with how it was written. I liked Becky and I loathed Amelia, even though the narrator was trying his utter best to make me feel the opposite with his stupid asides. Both of them go through the motions, and the only interesting parts were the ones concerning Becky and her artful ways of getting men to give her what she wanted. There were good guys and bad guys, promises and lies, regret and pride, and if it’s not clear by now, I would not recommend this book to anyone. 

And this is without me even mentioning the misogyny that saturated the entire text.

The only reason I am not giving this 1/5, apart from Becky, is that every now and then Thackeray painted a vivid and interesting picture of London society. And that is pretty much the only positive thing I have to say about Vanity Fair.

*This is my third entry in The Classic Bribe Challenge (which is an additional  incentive for me to work on my 100 Classics Challenge that’s been going on for a tad too long).

Friday, 22 June 2012

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (4/5)

Goodreads says: He has been feeling bored with London life - until he discovers a dead man in his flat, skewered to the floor with a knife through his heart. Only a few days before, the victim had warned him of an assassination plot that could bring the country to the brink of war.

An obvious suspect for the police and an easy target for the murderer, ordinary man Richard Hannay goes on the run in his native Scotland. There, on the wild moors, he must use all his wits to stay one step ahead of the game - and warn the government of the impending danger before it is too late.

I say: I didn’t know anything about The Thirty-Nine Steps or John Buchan before I started reading this. It was a part of my 100 Classics Challenge and so I had no choice but to read it. However, as proven quite often with this classics challenge, I actually wound up really liking it. If I had read the synopsis before starting to read it I would have had an issue with my prejudices, because this is the type of fiction that generally steer clear of, so

Yay for challenges!

Here is the thing about this novel that I really liked: it’s completely and full of sheer and utter nonsense. The entire plotline is ridiculous, the things that happen to Hannay improbable, and John Buchan is slowly becoming a slight hero of mine for writing this.

To be noted is that Wiki tells me that Buchan referred to the novel as a “shocker,” i.e. an adventure where the events in the story are unlikely and the reader is only just able to believe that they really happened.”

So, it was all deliberate.

There isn’t really much I can say about the plot itself because so much random nonsense happens the entire time, and once we get to all of Hannay’s smart thinking I was reminded why I don’t like detective stories. In other words, as long as it was silly and unbelievable, I could laugh and shake my head – once he started figuring out impossible things, I got bored.

Hence the 4/5.

I feel the need to quote Wiki one more time in pointing out that “The Thirty-Nine Steps is one of the earliest examples of the 'man-on-the-run' thriller archetype subsequently adopted by Hollywood as an often-used plot device.”

Which is awesome, I guess.

I downloaded this from and since they also have the remaining 4 novels about Richard Hannay, I may read them at some point as well. Also, the picture above is of the cover of the first edition of the novel, from 1915.

*This is my second entry in The Classic Bribe Challenge (which is an additional incentive for me to work on my 100 Classics Challenge that’s been going on for a tad too long).

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Seven Deadly Sins of Reading

I saw this over at Book Nympho and thought I’d answer it as well. If you are are doing the same, do send a link so I can see what your sins are.

GREED: What is your most expensive book? What is your least expensive book?
I’m not sure which my most expensive book is (not counting books I bought when I was at uni), probably my gorgeous 4 volume set of In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. It wasn’t too expensive, considering how much I love it and how many times I’ll be re-reading it. Also, it’s so pretty I sometimes just stare at it. Yes, I'm that person.

Apart from books I’ve been given for free, I’d say about half of my books are my cheapest since I tend to go crazy at the annual book sale in Sweden every year.

WRATH: What author do you have a love/hate relationship with?
There are so many Brits (and Americans) I could write about, but I’ll stick to my favourite; Charles Dickens. I don’t know why, but his books are always such a slow and painful start for me, and yet when I finish them I’m always glad I made the effort. The truth is, I don’t really like the Dickensian world, so I have to get about halfway through to acclimate myself to it all.

I am Charles Dickens and you will love me.

GLUTTONY: What book have you deliciously devoured over and over with no shame whatsoever?
There is a Swedish book that I’ve read well over 20 times called Jag Saknar Dig, Jag Saknar Dig by Peter Pohl and Kinna Gieth (it’s been translated into English as I Miss You, I Miss You) and it always makes me cry at the exact same places. Every. Time.

SLOTH: What book have you neglected reading due to laziness?
Pretty much any of the hundreds of books in my library pile on the floor. Other than those, I’d neglected War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy pretty much all my life because I was daunted by its magnitude. However, once I finished reading it last year, I started wondering why it took me so long. No book daunts me in that way anymore.

PRIDE: What book do you most talk about in order to sound like a very intellectual reader?
First of all, most people label me as a book snob (which I was definitely in my youth – and may still slightly be), but I think that’s mostly because of the type of books I enjoy reading. Second, I am an intellectual reader, and I see no shame in that. Do I walk around with a copy of Nietzsche, Sartre or Camus just to prove how intellectual I am? No. But should a conversation about books arise, I refuse to dumb down what I enjoy so as not to come across as pretentious. I read (and blog) for my own amusement and have been known to go on about some random nothing novel for as long as I would a Russian classic.

LUST: What attributes do you find most attractive in male or female characters?
I want my characters broken in one way or another, both male and female. Whether it’s from grief, guilt, depression, addiction, mental illness or what have you – if they have experienced the darker side of life, I am likely to fall in love. It also helps if they have some form of neurosis. And I have a weird fascination with villains; the more evil the better.

ENVY: What books would you most like to receive as a gift?
I only want to receive books as a gift if I’ve requested them. Otherwise people tend to buy me something I have little, if any, interest in. I’m actually like this with everything in life, which is why nobody ever dares buy me anything unless I’ve specified exactly what I want.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (4/5)

The back says: Tony Webster and his clique first met Adrian Finn at school. Sex-hungry and book-hungry, they would navigate the girl-less sixth form together, trading in affectations, in-jokes, rumour and wit. May be Adrian was a little more serious than the others, certainly more intelligent, but they all swore to stay friends for life.

Now Tony is retired. He's had a career and a single marriage, a calm divorce. He's certainly never tried to hurt anybody. Memory, though, is imperfect. It can always throw up surprises, as a lawyer's letter is about to prove.

The Sense of an Ending is the story of one man coming to terms with the mutable past. Laced with trademark precision, dexterity and insight, it is the work of one of the world's most distinguished writers.

I say: This book was almost exactly the type of book that I tend to fall in love with; bleak, ruminating and moving as if in slow motion. I loved taking part of the guys’ lives when they were in school – it felt like the makings of a perfect coming-of-age story if Barnes had chosen to merely focus on that. Instead he started somewhere towards the end and kept dipping in and out of Tony Webster’s past, rearranging his experiences and thus also his memories.

Contrary to most people (based on the reviews I’ve read), I liked Tony. I don’t know if that’s because I could relate to him in some sense, or merely because I sympathised with him, but I actually had a rather evil smirk on my face when I read the letter he had sent to Adrian (and Veronica). Having been a hothead in my youth, I understand the malice in his words.

Therefore not saying that I condone any of them.

What I don’t understand is Veronica’s utterly selfish actions. And not just because of what she did in the end, but even when they were young. She came across as a petulant bitch brat who very easily could dish it out but couldn’t take it when the tables were turned. She says to Tony in the end something to the effect of him not getting it and he never did, and I kept thinking that the reason he didn’t get it was because he was never the type to play games. All she ever did was play games, even in the end, and she struck out.

And yet she still continued to blame Tony for what happened to her.

One of the things that really made me like this book was because they mentioned Albert Camus – whom I love and adore – and a philosophical question that I have been wanting to discuss ever since I was a kid, but people never want to talk about because they find it unnerving or something. Tony’s mother says at one point that maybe Adrian was too smart, and I don’t know if that’s a way of oversimplifying things, or if she hit the nail right on the head. Sometimes I find that the more we think about things the less they mean; i.e. it’s easier to just take things for granted and not question them.

I won’t philosophise any further here, but I’ll be talking about this book for some time to come.

Even though I would love to give this a full 5/5, it’d only be for sentimental reasons. I liked the story – all of it – but the more I think about it the more I realise that what I loved was Adrian; his thoughts, his words, and his decisions. I wholly understand why all of these people were so enamoured with him, and then never able to forget him.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Within A Budding Grove (In Search of Lost Time Vol 2) by Marcel Proust (5/5)

The back says nothing, but here’s my synopsis: In the first part of Within a Budding Grove we follow the unnamed protagonist as he falls deeper in love with Gilberte and is finally welcomed into the Swann household, where he becomes very infatuated with Mme Swann. He is invited to their parties and meets his favourite author, amongst others. After a while Gilberte appears to have grown tired of him and they have a fight, in which he swears to never see her again. However, he continues to visit Mme Swann.

In the second part he and his grandmother go to the seaside town Balbec one summer, but he initially winds up unable to enjoy himself due to his poor health. At first he is quite bored and spends a lot of time watching the other residents of the hotel. However, he soon befriends a royal young man, Robert de Saint-Loup, whom he spends time with. When the young royal leaves the town, the narrator befriends some girls, and falls in love for the second time.

I say: I am so in love with Proust and this epic story that I can’t even know what to say. I was like spellbound when reading this; completely lost in the language and the story. Not very much happens, and yet, it’s as if an entire lifetime passes by.And how I loved it.

Proust is a master at revealing and unfurling emotions; the way that he describes everything that the narrator feels is so incredibly affecting that I can only think of one other person who has been able to perfect that, André Aciman (but considering that he is an expert on and teaches the works of Proust, it’s no big wonder). I’m in absolute awe of the way that he can twist and then turn inside out the simplest of emotion and have it stretch on for pages; dissecting and examining every last bit of it. His insight into people and how they feel and behave is truly extraordinary and I wish I had read this in my teens.

[Instead I was busying myself with Machiavelli and John Keats]

There was a lot more humour in this second book than in the first, mostly because we were introduced to a lot of random characters at the hotel in Balbec. Another thing that I found myself getting more and more intrigued about was the way that French society worked; how much pretence and snobbery there was. Robert de Saint-Loup, who was disillusioned by the high society in which he had been raised, spent a great deal scorning it, and I really enjoyed his thoughts. Furthermore, I'm loving the way that all the lives entwine, and I'm dying to know the real deal with Mme Swann.

I could go on for days about this, but will save everyone the trouble by just saying that it was absolute perfection and I actually want to read the second part again.

Right now.

*This is my first entry in The Classic Bribe Challenge (which is an additional incentive for me to work on my 100 Classics Challenge that’s been going on for a tad too long – even though Proust isn’t on that list).

Monday, 18 June 2012

Paris Spleen & La Fanfarlo by Charles Baudelaire (4/5)

The back says: Paris Spleen, a diverse collection of fifty prose poems, is provided here in a clear, engaging, and accurate translation that conveys the lyricism and nuance of the original French text. Also included is a translation of Baudelaire's early novella, La Fanfarlo, which, alongside Paris Spleen, sheds light on the development of Baudelaire's work over time.

Translation by Raymond N. MacKenzie.

I say: I love Baudelaire, and though I have grown fonder of prose poetry in later years, I have to admit that I prefer his other poetry to this. But it seems almost madness to compare anything to Les Fleurs du Mal/Flowers of Evil (translated by William Aggeler - my favourite), so I tried really hard not to do that.

But of course, I still did.

Especially since Baudelaire himself said of the collection"These are the flowers of evil again, but with more freedom, much more detail, and much more mockery."

I find it hard to review poetry since I have a tendency to take everything straight to heart, making it hard for me to describe precisely what it is that has captured it. If anyone was to ask me why I love Baudelaire I’d mumble for a bit and then start babbling about the way he doesn’t mince his words, how he cuts straight to the bone, but in a soft and dreamlike atmosphere. He keeps his metaphors stark and almost forces you to think about his use of, as well as feel, his words - which is something that I sort of missed in the poems of Paris Spleen.

I like my Baudelaire dark, and even though his usage of spleen refers to "melancholy with no apparent cause, characterised by a disgust with everything (according to Wiki)" I didn't feel enough of it.

There was something about the prose that took away some of the magic of precision. Baudelaire was telling me these stories, rather than offering me words to decipher. On the one hand, I missed the dark Baudelaire, but on the other I was introduced to a humorous one.

Yes, he actually made me laugh.

With regard to La Fanfarlo (which, coincidentally, one of my favourite bands have named themselves after, i.e. Fanfarlo), I liked it, but didn’t love it. This is probably because I expected more from it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a delightfully ironic story about a poet (who is Baudelaire himself) and his affair with a dancer, but it felt like there was something missing. I’m one of those people who often say that you’re either a great poet or a great write, but rarely both. Yes, I’m sure we could talk about this until the cows come home, but I’ve yet to read anyone who didn’t clearly excel in the one art form.

So yeah, 4/5 because there’s a lot of beautiful poetry in there (although I found myself noting down parts of poems rather than the entire thing), and even though it’s no Les Fleurs de Mal, I look forward to re-reading this quite a few more times over the years.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Moscow 2042 by Vladimir Voinovich (4.5/5)

The back says: Vitaly Kartsev, Soviet writer in exile, has only his curiosity to blame for the plane flight which passes him through a time warp to land in Moscow – in 2042. Here Marx’s vision has reached absurd proportions – there is a Bureau of Natural Functions and a Palace of Love. Kartsev survives his first encounter with a KGB agent disguised in lederhosen. But it is another writer in exile, the towering, moralising, authoritarian figure of Sim Simych Karnalov, who may yet prevent his confrontation with the Keepers of the Kremlin...

I say: This was a pure delight to read and I have now managed to add yet another Russian author to my endless list of favourites. Moscow 2042 is written as a novel by Vitaly Kartsev who is writing about his adventure to the future. I am not even going to begin to try to summarise what happens because, quite frankly, there’s just too much of it – and too absurd to even put into words.

Which is exactly why I loved it.

The Moscow of 2042 that Kartsev eventually winds up in is considered to be the embodiment of communism. But, as always with these dystopian science fiction novels, the more we find out about the society, the less perfect we realise that it is. This is a place where you turn in your excrement in exchange for food coupons. It’s place where in order to get a library card you have to apply for it inside the library, yet they won’t let you in to the library unless you have a library card. It’s a place where the ‘rebels’ show films on the clouds, which the government then disperses.

In other words, it’s the perfect satire.

I laughed out loud for the most part; shook my head in confusion and quiet dismay, all the time wondering how much of Kartsev was based on Voinovich himself (who was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1980 – this book was published in 1986 before the fall of the Soviet Union). It magnifies the reading experience to know a bit about life in the Soviet Union and communism, but it’s not really necessary; the story can stand on its own, but then I guess the satire and references are sort of reduced to nothing.


Either way, the writing is witty enough to stand on its own – as is the random ludicrousness that ensues. And the best part is the ingenious way the novel ends. We get a sense of it somewhere in the middle, but just as I was trying to figure out the details I was waylaid by all the descriptions of the society in 2042. And then when the end came I really just wanted to give it a standing ovation.

It’s that good.

The reason I’m taking away 0.5 points is because some of the plot was a tad too ridiculous, even for me. Nevertheless, this is an instant favourite and deserves, in my humble opinion, to be right up there with the other dystopian classics. And yes, there are some influences by We, 1984 (which is mentioned in here – huzzah) and Brave New World, but this is still a standalone piece of brilliance.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

We Bury the Landscape: An Exhibition-Collection by Kristine Ong Muslim (3.5/5)

Goodreads says: We Bury the Landscape is an exhibition of literary art. Ekphrasis, collected. One hundred flash fictions and prose poems presented to view. From the visual to the textual, transmuting before the gallery-goer’s gaze, the shifting contours of curator Kristine Ong Muslim’s surreal panorama delineate the unconventional, the unexpected, and the unnatural. Traversing this visionary vista’s panoply of “rooms of unfinished lives,” the reader unearths and examines and reanimates—revealing the transcendent uncanniness that subsists underfoot.

I say: First off, I received an electronic copy of this flash fiction collection by the author, but that didn’t affect my review. I normally don’t accept review copies because I don’t like deadlines or obligations, but since this was already on my endless TRB list, I snuck it in there.

And I’m glad I did.

I asked Ong Muslim about the title of the collection, as I didn’t really get the connection, and she said “We […] took a line from the prose poem "Abandoned Dwellings." We bury the landscape - like a metaphorical plea of not having to look at the "landscape" but what's on it or what's beyond it.” I really like that explanation, and it certainly adds another dimension to the 100 stories/poems.

More than anything I really loved the short flash fiction stories; especially the ones written about the more abstract art. It somehow felt like that art allowed Ong Muslim the liberty to transform the images into whatever she liked – almost as if her imagination ran a little more freely.

All of the artwork can be found here.

What I really liked about this collection was Ong Muslim’s vision; her play with words when she touches the abstract part of life; those subtle emotions/feelings that I imagine only someone who has been there can recognise and touch; and at the same time providing something so tangible one would have to be a fool not to understand it.

The Red Orchestra
after Salvador Dalí‘s Music - The Red Orchestra - The Seven Arts (1957)

We shaped ourselves into violins whenever we sought strumming. Into pianos, when we ached to be touched in places no one could reach. There were tubas and percussions, the shrunken and the bloated. We comfortably let out our breath in metered intervals, but most days we weren‘t in the position to breathe at all. The musicians pretended not to notice the blood welling from where our flesh tore apart as we twisted into familiar instruments. The bony fingers of the conductor coiled and uncoiled, slashed the air with the precision of a matador‘s sword striking bone. The audience sat in awe, entranced by the sound of our pain.

That last sentence is just pure perfection.

I really fell in love with a lot of the stories and poems (and the fact that I was introduced to a lot of new artwork), while some of them didn’t really touch me in the same way, hence the 3.5/5. I’ll undoubtedly read more of Ong Muslim’s work – I need more contemporary poetry/flash fiction on my shelves.

Favourite stories: Sketch for a Dirty Princess, A True Story, Strange City, Everything That Rises, For the One Who Got Away, Sphinx Embedded in the Sand, The Red Orchestra, and many more (it'd just be silly to name them all).

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Black Hole by Charles Burns (3.5/5)

The back says: Suburban Seattle, the mid-1970s. We learn from the out-set that a strange plague has descended upon the area’s teenagers, transmitted by sexual contact. The disease is manifested in any number of ways — from the hideously grotesque to the subtle (and concealable) — but once you’ve got it, that’s it. There’s no turning back.

As we inhabit the heads of several key characters — some kids who have it, some who don’t, some who are about to get it — what unfolds isn’t the expected battle to fight the plague, or bring heightened awareness to it , or even to treat it. What we become witness to instead is a fascinating and eerie portrait of the nature of high school alienation itself — the savagery, the cruelty, the relentless anxiety and ennui, the longing for escape.

And then the murders start.

As hypnotically beautiful as it is horrifying, Black Hole transcends its genre by deftly exploring a specific American cultural moment in flux and the kids who are caught in it- back when it wasn’t exactly cool to be a hippie anymore, but Bowie was still just a little too weird.

To say nothing of sprouting horns and molting your skin...

I say: I had never heard of this until about a couple of weeks ago when I read an interview where this book was mentioned, and especially the illustrations. Curiosity obviously got the better of me and I went straight to the library to find it, not really knowing what to expect since I haven’t really read any graphic novels since I was a kid.

To be honest, I’ve been very prejudiced against them since I don’t really like comic books. And because I’m trying not to be such a book snob to broaden my reading views, this was a nice challenge for me.

To start with the illustrations, they were beyond awesome, and I am already thinking of looking up more of Burns’ work. The way that he not only captured the weirdness of the story, but really enhanced it had me staring at some of the pictures for quite a while. I’m amazed at how intricate and suggestive they were.

Please note that I do realise how arrogant this makes me sound, but I can’t help it; I’ve been exposed to a new world that I actually want to explore further.

Now, on to the story...


I loved it in a morbid and freaky sort of way; the different ways that the disease manifested itself had me both disgusted and fascinated. One guy grew a mouth on his throat; one girl grew a tale and another girl shed her skin like a snake. Although I could just as easily have merely read the story without the illustrations, they added a completely other dimension to the story. However, as weird as it was initially, after a while it sort of petered out, and although the idea of a disease that you have to hide isn’t a new one, I like the execution in Black Hole (even if the end was somewhat disappointing).

So yeah, 3.5 out of 5 for my first graphic novel in years, and although I’ll try not to look down on them anymore, I’ll read more if I stumble upon them but won’t go on a hunt for them (although I’ll probably buy Black Hole in the near future).

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

This isn't the Sort of Thing that Happens to Someone Like You by Jon McGregor (4/5)

The back says: A man builds a tree house by a river, in anticipation of the coming flood. A sugar-beet crashes through a young woman's windscreen. A boy sets fire to a barn. A pair of itinerant labourers sit by a lake, talking about shovels and sex, while fighter-planes fly low overhead and prepare for war.

These aren't the sort of things you imagine happening to someone like you. But sometimes they do.

Set in the flat and threatened fenland landscape, where the sky is dominant and the sea lurks just beyond the horizon, these delicate, dangerous, and sometimes deeply funny stories tell of things buried and unearthed, of familiar places made strange, and of lives where much is hidden, much is at risk, and tender moments are hard-won.

I say: I fell in love with McGregor’s writing when I first read If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, and have stayed in love with it ever since. This is probably why I found this collection of short stories somewhat disappointing. Don’t get me wrong; I loved a lot of the stories, but some of them just sort of fell flat.

The reason being the writing.

I understand that a writer has to be somewhat flexible and maintain the ability to speak in several different voices, and that’s what I didn’t like with this collection: some of the voices weren’t written for me. I like the stories that show raw emotions and hint at jagged pasts; the stories that depict broken people and futile hope; I like stories told in a voice that reminds me that there is something larger than what is being said. That is exactly what McGregor has come to mean to me.

You take a breath and swim, fiercely, lunging through the water, blinking against the salt sting, heaving for air, and there’s a feeling running up and down the backs of your legs like the muscles being stretched tight but you keep swimming because you’ll be there soon, climbing out, pulling yourself back onto solid ground, and you keep swimming because there’s a chance that the current has been pushing you away from the shore, and you keep swimming because this isn’t the sort of thing that happens to someone like you, you’re a good swimmer, you’re young, and healthy, and the rocks aren’t really that far away and it shouldn’t take long to get there and there isn’t anything else you can do but now there’s a pounding sensation in your head and a reddish blur in your eyes and a heavy pain in your chest as though the weight of all that water is pressing against your lungs and you can’t take in enough air and so you stop again, for a moment, just to catch your breath.
- p 140, We Wave and Call

I love that.

There are 30 short stories in this collection and I liked the majority of them. As almost always with me, what I loved I really loved, and what I didn’t like I really didn’t like. Some of them felt like writing exercises; which I suppose is a mean thing to say, but essentially I am a creature of comfort and

I want my McGregor the way I’ve always had him.

I should probably not that one of the reasons I'm being a tad whiny about this is because I think McGregor is one of the best contemporary writers I've ever read. Obviously that doesn't mean much to anyone but myself, but I want to know that I'm going to get blown away by the writing when I buy a book by him.

Every. Time.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

The Classic Bribe – Challenge and Giveaway

This week has been full of nieces and nephews finishing different grades (one graduation, and I’m so proud) and I haven’t had any time to read at all. 
Well, maybe a few pages.

Anyhow, I found my way to this most excellent (I’ve got Bill & Ted on the brain – well, just Keanu, really) challenge over at Quirky Girls Read that I thought I’d join. The rules are:

- Read at least 1 Classic over the summer – between Memorial Day and the end of Labor Day Weekend, September 3rd
- You can have begun the Classic prior to Memorial Day, but it needs to have been completed between the challenge dates above
- Post a review on your blog of each Classic that you read during the challenge period and reference a link to this “The Classic Bribe” challenge page
- Link to each of your reviews separately by clicking on Mr. Linky below
- Each linked review counts as 1 entry – no entry limit per blogger – read and review as many as you like
- Each entry builds up $1 toward an Amazon gift card – the more entries the higher the balance can grow – capped at $35
- Random winner selected Labor Day weekend from all entries- no restrictions on region
- Winner receives the full Amazon gift card balance accumulated based on entries received

I’m going to start the challenge as of now; and even though I’m already doing a classics challenge, I think this will spur me on even more.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Tell-All by Chuck Palahniuk (2/5)

The back says: For decades Hazie Coogan has tended to the outsized needs of Katherine ‘Miss Kathie’ Kenton, a star of the wattage of Elizabeth Taylor and the emotional torments of Judy Garland. The survivor of multiple marriages, career comebacks and cosmetic surgeries, Miss Kathie lives the way legends should. But danger lurks when gentleman caller Webster Carlton Westward III arrives and worms his way into Miss Kathie’s heart and boudoir. When Hazie discovers that this bounder has already written his celebrity tell-all memoir, which also foretells her death, she must execute a plan to save Katherine Kenton for her fans – and for posterity...

I say: I knew that this would be a stretch for me when I read the synopsis, but since I’ve heard so much about Palahniuk’s writing, I thought I’d give it a go.

Which I did.

A very patient go.

Being the type of person that has little interest in films and actors, this was a painful read. The entire book is so sprinkled with names and names and names of actors and films it became really old really fast. Another thing that bothered me was the constant use of “to paraphrase [so and so]". Yes, perhaps this is the way that Hazie spoke, but it just annoyed me. The writing did little, if anything at all, for me and the only positive thing I have to say is that it was rather fast paced and a quick enough read at 179 pages.

Like I said, I knew when I read the synopsis that I wasn’t going to like the plot, and I didn’t. I figured out the twist too early to even invoke any type of interest in how the story was going to unfurl, and I was basically reading just to read. When the end came I just rolled my eyes and threw the book to the side.

I’ll still read another Palahniuk book if and when I come across one, because I don’t believe in judging an author by one book alone. However, I’ll make sure I borrow the next one instead of buying it.