Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Smut by Alan Bennett (3.5/5)

The back says: One of England's finest and most loved writers explores the uncomfortable and tragicomic gap between people’s public appearance and their private desires in two tender and surprising stories.

In The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson, a recently bereaved widow finds interesting ways to supplement her income by performing as a patient for medical students, and renting out her spare room. Quiet, middle-class, and middle-aged, Mrs. Donaldson will soon discover that she rather enjoys role-play at the hospital, and the irregular and startling entertainment provided by her tenants.

In The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes, a disappointed middle-aged mother dotes on her only son, Graham, who believes he must shield her from the truth. As Graham’s double life becomes increasingly complicated, we realize how little he understands, not only of his own desires but also those of his mother.

A master storyteller dissects a very English form of secrecy with two stories of the unexpected in otherwise apparently ordinary lives.

I say: I was a tad reluctant to pick this up since I was rather disappointed with The Uncommon Reader, but since it was staring at me from the library shelf, I figured ‘why the hell not?’ And I’m glad I did because this is nothing like The Uncommon Reader.

That goodness for that.

The title is Smut, and since I am too lazy to research why he chose that title, all I am going to say is that perhaps the first story was smuttier than the latter. Although I guess it’s all in the eye of the beholder. However, none of the ‘smut’ is the reason I liked these stories, in fact, the smut became just a form of necessary evil I had to read through to get to the interesting parts.

In The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson the best parts were those concerning her job at the hospital role-playing different medical ailments to students. I really liked the way Bennett described her preparations, the convincing way she lulled the students in, and just her utter dedication to it all. There were a lot of hilarious conversations and little episodes, and I simply wanted more of that.

The parts that had to do with her tenants I found rather boring, to be honest; and somewhat contrived.

I simply wasn’t convinced.

The same feeling crept up on my while reading The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes; it was just such a cliché. I am not going to give away what Graham is shielding from his mother, but as soon as I realised it I was disappointed. I will say this, he is having an affair with someone whom he believes to have randomly picked up, and then it turns out that they know more about Graham than he thought. Now this I liked very much. And even though the ending was rather anticlimactic, the story was short and sweet enough.

What I’m taking away from this little book is that Bennett is a very good writer, witty and awfully attentive to the little details in his character’s personalities that make them believable. I would say that the humour is quite typically British, which I love, and I may very well look up some more of Bennett’s work in the future.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis (3/5)

The Back Says: Set in affluent Los Angeles, Less Than Zero is a raw and powerful portrayal of a young generation that has experienced sex, drugs and disaffection at too early and age. The narrator, Clay, returns home to Los Angeles for Christmas, but his holiday turn into a dizzying spiral of desperation that takes him through the rich suburban homes, the relentless parties, the seedy bars and the glitzy rock clubs. Morally barren, ethically bereft and tinged with implicit violence, Less Than Zero is a shocking coming-of-age novel about the casual nihilism that comes with youth and money.

I say: I think that the synopsis sets up the premise of the novel pretty well, and to be completely frank this novel wearied the life out of me – I couldn’t relate, connect to or comprehend anything that was going on – and just as I was beginning to hate everyone involved I came across a conversation that turned it all on its head. I’m not sure how much of it I should reveal here for those who may want to read this later on, so highlight if you care to know. Clay’s friends are just about to rape a twelve year old girl when he walks out, his friend Rip following him out of the room and the following conversation ensues (it may be considered a spoiler, so highlight to read it):

‘It’s…’ my voice trails off.
‘It’s what?’ Rip wants to know.
‘It’s… I don’t think it’s right.’
‘What’s right? If you want something, you have the right to take it. If you want to do something, you have the right to do it.’
I leaned up against the wall. I can hear Spin moaning in the bedroom and then the sound of a hand slapping maybe a face.
‘But you don’t need anything. You have everything.’ I tell him.
Rip looks at me. ‘No. I don’t.’
‘No. I don’t.’
‘There’s a pulse and then I ask, ‘Oh shit Rip, what don’t you have?’
‘I don’t have anything to lose.’
     – p. 177

And this is when it all fell together and I realised what Ellis was trying to tell me.

This is one of those books that I can’t really put into words because, as I said, there was just too much of a world that I’ve never known, never will know, and really have no interest of knowing. Ellis’ description of casual sex, abundance of drugs and money, lack of respect or regard for anyone but yourself and your own pleasures made me feel a sense of disgust and abhorrence. I have friends who have grown up like this, and though I love them dearly, it’s clear that their sense of morality is seriously faulty.

Not that I am one to judge [but I still do].

Even though this was full of clichés, I am glad that Ellis ended it the way he did. And I realise the irony of only liking a book of 195 pages until page 177, but perhaps therein is where the brilliance lays.

Or perhaps I was just grasping at straws.

However I chose to look at it, there is no denying Ellis’ oddly riveting prose generating a sense of impending calamity. I suppose the reason I kept reading was because I knew that some disaster lay ahead and I wanted to know what it was. In a sense, I would like to give this a 2/5 due to the predictability and lack of ingenuity in telling the tale. But because I was metaphorically grasping at straws towards the end, I bumped it up to a 3/5 because I found a sense of purpose to all the debauchery I had to endure.

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

Sunday, 29 July 2012

The Guermantes Way (In Search of Lost Time Vol 3) by Marcel Proust (4/5)

The back says nothing, but here’s my short synopsis: The narrator and his family move into an apartment connected to the Guermantes residence in Paris, where he becomes increasingly obsessed with Mme de Guermantes and tries everything to meet her. Since Saint-Loup is her nephew, he arranges for them to meet. The narrator also meets Saint-Loup’s girlfriend and realises that she is the Jewish prostitute, Rachel, that he used to see in his youth in Paris, but reveals none of this to his friend.

In this part the narrator introduces us to a great deal of new characters, as well as a small reunion of sorts with Swann and Albertine.

I say: I’m not quite sure what to say about this volume because there were instances of absolute perfection, and others that bored me to tears – most specifically all the parts concerning the Dreyfus Affair – that I simply wanted to skip as I don’t think they really provided anything to the story. Although I do understand that the Dreyfus Affair was a very big deal at the time, I still wish that Proust had refrained from giving such detailed descriptions/conversations about it; it would have sufficed to let us know who was a Dreyfusard and not.

Pretty much meaning who was for the Jews and who was an anti-Semite.

It was interesting because that was a part of French history that I knew nothing about (not that I know that much about French history) apart from Émile Zola’s part in it, and I have looked further into it since then.

The narrator started to annoy me quite a bit in this volume due to his obsession with Mme de Guermantes. He had spoken of her prior, but to be honest, I don’t see any reason to his infatuation. Particularly, I didn’t like the way he went about to meet her; using Saint-Loup the way he did. I understand that a young man will do anything to get close to the object of his desire, but in a way I thought more of him, probably due to his sensitive nature.

But later on he proved to be nothing more than a horny boy, so boo on me for my high opinion.

More than anything the story I am still in love with Proust’s writing, and falling deeper the more I read. I have realised now that I am taking my time with this story because I simply don’t want it to end – not to mention the fact that the next volume, Sodom and Gomorrah, is the last one that Proust actually finished revising himself.

Having said all that, I think that volume four is going to be the best one yet, and not simply because my suspicions of Charlus have been confirmed, but because of the title; Sodom and Gomorrah.

I can’t wait.

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

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Carry the One by Carol Anshaw (2.5/5)

The back says: Carry the One begins in the hours following Carmen’s wedding reception, when a car filled with stoned, drunk, and sleepy guests accidentally hits and kills a girl on a dark country road. For the next twenty-five years, those involved, including Carmen and her brother and sister, craft their lives in response to this single tragic moment. As one character says, “When you add us up, you always have to carry the one.”

Through friendships and love affairs; marriage and divorce; parenthood, holidays, and the modest calamities and triumphs of ordinary days, Carry the One shows how one life affects another and how those who thrive and those who self-destruct are closer to each other than we’d expect. As they seek redemption through addiction, social justice, and art, Anshaw’s characters reflect our deepest pain and longings, our joys, and our transcendent moments of understanding. This wise, wry, and erotically charged novel derives its power and appeal from the author’s exquisite use of language; her sympathy for her recognizable, very flawed characters; and her persuasive belief in the transforming forces of time and love.

I say: This started out so nicely and had all the makings of perfection, but then it somehow just stagnated and withered into nothing. Somewhere along the line (and I can’t even pinpoint the exact moment) I found myself caring less and less about these people and their problems; they all seemed to turn into caricatures of the people we were introduced to at the beginning of the novel. Carmen with her protests and “strong/cold” demeanour; Alice with her ridiculous obsession with Maude; Nick with his incessant drug abuse and supposed genius; and all the other characters I see no reason of mentioning.

I’m actually rather disappointed.

Alice says at one point:

“There’s still this connection, between me and him because we were both in the car. Like arithmetic. Because of the accident, we’re not just separate numbers. When you add us up, you always have to carry the one.” – p 148

And I feel like this is where Anshaw failed to convince me. Yes, they were all connected due to the accident, but more so because they all so desperately wanted to hold on to it, for all the wrong reasons. I believe that Olivia was the only person who was able to move ahead because she was the only one that got punished for it. The others were fine to let her go to prison and carry on with their lives as long as they could all torture themselves by measure; especially the Sloan siblings. And then they had the impudence to look down on Tom for writing a song about it and then moving on. It felt like they wanted to lay claim on both the connection between them as well as the guilt.

Since they were all in the car together, they all have to share the same feelings their entire lives.

And I just have to leave a small comment on the contrived way in which Carmen’s husband left her, as well as Alice visiting Anne Frank’s house.


In a way I would like to give this a 1/5 because there are so many things about it that annoyed me, but that wouldn’t really be fair. I don’t have much to say about the writing; it flowed along nicely and got the job done. I’m giving this a 2.5/5 because if I had known how this would have turned out, I wouldn’t have read it.

Also, that ending really made me want to throw the book across the room (only I borrowed it from the library – thankfully).

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Life Imitating Art: William Faulkner Edition

I haven’t posted in a while due to illness which culminated in a visit to the ER Sunday afternoon (until Sunday night) when I bailed out of there after being ignored for seven hours.

I figured that if I was dying they’d have helped me by then – and if not, I’d rather die in the comfort of my own bed.

Prior to being near death I was reading As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, and even made some rather morbidly ironic jokes about the title and my state of health the night before and morning of.

It wasn’t so funny when I was laying on a gurney in the hospital, though.

Even if I now can appreciate the humour irony of that being the last book I read (and even bringing it with me to the hospital) if I was, in fact, dying, I have not put it aside until I am 100% recovered.

Apparently I’m allergic to penicillin, and after 5 days of ignoring the signs (which I couldn’t tell from the listed side effects) I had a horrible night of fevers, vertigo, migraines, confusion, and just general hypochondria dying. I called the medical hotline and was told to get to ER, which I did.

Blah blah blah...

I’d never been to ER before, but after fainting in front of a doctor who ignored me, blacking out due to pain, and being told by a nurse that I could buy painkillers at the petrol station, I’m now completely anti-ER. I saw a doctor the following day who confirmed my adverse reaction to the penicillin and I was put on other antibiotics, so I am not almost back to normal.

This is not a sympathy post; I just found it hilarious creepy if As I Lay Dying would have been the last book I had read in my life...

Yes, I am that person.

I’ll be back to posting reviews tomorrow, so...

as you were.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Equus by Peter Shaffer (4/5)

The back says: An explosive play that took critics and audiences by storm, "Equus" is Peter Shaffer's exploration of the way modern society has destroyed our ability to feel passion. Alan Strang is a disturbed youth whose dangerous obsession with horses leads him to commit an unspeakable act of violence. As psychiatrist Martin Dysart struggles to understand the motivation for Alan's brutality, he is increasingly drawn into Alan's web and eventually forced to question his own sanity. "Equus" is a timeless classic and a cornerstone of contemporary drama that delves into the darkest recesses of human existence.

I say: This is another play that I’ve known about all my life but never actually bothered to find out more about – even when Daniel Radcliffe starred in it on Broadway – all I knew was that it had something to do with horses. And since I’ve been dead scared of horses (but a huge admirer of their beauty and strength) since the first time I rode one around age 4-5.

This is one of those instances where I’m kind of glad that I didn’t read this in my teens, because I wouldn’t have been as “open-minded,” for lack of a better word, then.

I’m not sure how much of the plot I should give away, since it was such a surprise and shock, but I’ll say that it’s based on a crime that Shaffer heard about from a friend and then decided to turn into a play. In the notes prior to the play, Shaffer lets us know that he was unable to discern if the rumour he heard was fact of fiction, but he still decided to write about it (p ix).

So we have Alan Strang who has committed this terrible crime, and psychiatrist Martin Dysart who has been, more or less, forced to accept him as a patient (amidst personal problems – of course). In a way, I both loved and hated the way that Dysart handled Alan; at first it was very convincing, but nearing the end, and the final confession, it felt very contrived and sort of theatrical –

the character of Alan gets naked (along with a girl who also works at the stables with him) –

[which is the main reason a friend of mine went to see Radcliffe in the play]

and I didn’t think that part was convincing enough. Nor did I find some of Alan’s mother’s actions to be convincing, although I have to say that his father seemed genuine enough. 

When I first found out what the crime was (highlight if you want to know) he blinds six horses in the stable I couldn’t imagine why anyone would do such a thing. But as the play progresses, and Dysart gets further and further into Alan’s head, it all becomes so captivatingly self-evident.

And I use the word ‘captivatingly’ on purpose – as ghastly as that sounds.

There was no other option for Alan, and it somehow scares me that I can identify with him. Of course, I love plays/stories that make me question myself and my feelings/morals, but this made me somewhat uncomfortable because I could identify so easily with him.

Having said all that, I would love to see this on stage (as with most plays) because there are all these specifics about how the stage is set up and how the actors are supposed to act (they play the horses, as well) that I couldn’t picture well enough in my head. So yeah, maybe in the future I’ll have the chance to relive this on stage, because I doubt that I’ll re-read this play in the coming years.

Of course, I could be wrong... I often am.

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

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis by Wendy Cope (4/5)

The back says: Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, Wendy Cope’s first book, was an immediate bestseller, delighting readers with its unconventional mixture of satire, candid love poetry, and parody. It includes examples of work by Jason Strugnell, the haplessly influenceable bard of Tulse Hill, as well as poems in Wendy Cope’s own voice, unmistakable even in such jeux d’esprit as ‘Waste Land Limericks’ and ‘My Lover’ (in a form borrowed from Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Deo).

I say: The only reason I bought this was because of the title – it was right after I’d finished Lucky Jim  and utterly obsessed with all things Kingsley Amis – and I am glad that I did; Wendy Cope is hilarious at times, touching at others, but always brilliant. The satire is sharp and unapologetic, the wit sort of hits you by surprise, and then there are a few poems with a final sentence that just makes everything stop, and you realise that however funny Cope may be, she’s also able to break your heart.

I’ve already read some of these poems a few times, and I have a strong suspicion that this is going to be one thumbed through many more times.

I’m going to type out the title poem simply because it’s so honest in its simplicity and cunningness:

Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis

It was a dream I had last week
And some kind of record seemed vital.
I knew it wouldn’t be much of a poem
But I love the title.

And so do I.

I’ll be on the lookout for more works by Cope.

Monday, 16 July 2012

The Swell Season: A Text on the Most Important Things in Life by Josef Skvorecky (4.5/5)

The back says: ‘What are you punishing me for, God? Why did You make girls in the first place if a good Christian can’t lay a hand on them?’

In the six tales of The Swell Season, Josef Skvoreky, author of the international acclaimed The Bass Saxophone, traces the libidinous ardours of young Danny as he grows up in wartime Czechoslovakia. He boasts of his ‘conquests’ with fine bravado, but no matter how smooth his wooing, his fantasies obstinately refuse to become reality. Fortunately, there is always jazz, Danny’s other passion; in a world of unyielding girls and ruthless Nazi invaders it is his only solace.

These are wonderful tales, full of the wry humour and surprising twists so characteristic of this most impressive of writers.

Translated by: Paul Wilson

I say: I’ve heard about this book since I was a child, but never actually found it anywhere – it was like this elusive unicorn that I thought everyone had seen but me. So imagine my surprise and utter joy (I literally jumped up and down) when I saw this in a used book store a few months ago.

And it was well worth the wait.

The synopsis says that it’s “six tales,” which is true enough, but that makes it sounds like they’re somehow independent of each other; which they are not. I’d refer to them as six chapters in the life of Danny, a relentless skirt chaser.

For serious.

It was hilarious reading about him trying to get just a single girl to like him; and allow him to make out with her as well, I guess. In the course of the 226 pages he tries to hook up with 23 girls, including a set of twins, with some serious consequences. I’ve never read anything like this, or encountered a protagonist as clueless and yet incredibly smarmy as Danny, and yet so exceptionally unlucky.

I just couldn’t help but laugh at his misfortunes.

But there’s also a more serious side to this novel; the occupation by the Nazis. At first it serves more as a backstory, seeing that Danny isn’t Jewish, but as the story progresses we realize that even though he isn’t one of their ‘targets’ he is still affected nonetheless.

This was one of the best and most sobering endings of a novel I’ve ever read.

Even now, as I think about it a mere week later, it still stops my heart.

Throughout the novel Daniel keeps referring to every season as “the swell season” without really having a clue as to what would make a season ‘swell,’ and it’s his naïveté in the backdrop of the war that makes me love this. Skvorecky has an excellent way of making us forget what’s really going on and focus on Danny’s little conquests before throwing the war in Danny’s (and our) face to make us realise that it’s all quite trivial in the end.

And yet, this isn’t a depressing novel, on the other hand, it’s quite the opposite. 

4.5/5 because, although it was brilliant, there was something that I felt was missing. Perhaps I’ll find it when I re-read this in some time, because I most definitely will. Either way, while googling this I cannot believe that it isn’t all over the place along with the other classics – perhaps because Skvorecky didn’t win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982 – but this is one of the best coming of age novel I’ve read.

*This is my thirteenth 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, 13 July 2012

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (3.5/5)

The back says: Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten. 

I say: I expected more from this, mostly because everyone has been raving about it, including people who I usually share the same tastes with when it comes to Young Adult fiction.

However, I believed the hype and was let down.

As per usual.

Don’t get me wrong, the book was good – it just wasn’t brilliant. I think the biggest problem I had with it was that I didn’t connect with Hazel. She was rather meh, to be honest – there was nothing about her that made me root for her. Yes, it was sad that she had cancer and had to carry around an oxygen tank, and even though Green was trying to show us that there was more to her than just the cancer, I think that he sometimes got it all muddle up.

We pity her in this scenario, but we shouldn’t pity her in this other one.

On the other hand, I really liked Augustus – he was cool, knew himself (as much as you can as a teenager) and his only fear was that he wasn’t going to leave a mark on this world. In a sense, he was the exact opposite of Hazel, and taught the poor girl her how to live and love.

The best part was the dialogue between Augustus and Hazel, and their friend Isaac. It was funny, absurd, enlightening and refreshing.

Hazel is obsessed with a certain book and the author who wrote it, mainly because the book ends midsentence and she wants to know what happened to all these people. This was the most relatable part for me (having read all those Russians who love to burn their manuscripts and/or die before finishing the work), Augustus saying:
“And okay, fair enough, but there is this unwritten contract between author and reader and I think not ending your book kind of violates that contract.” – p 67

But then, and this may be a tad spoilery, so highlight if you want to know what happens, when they meet the author, Peter Van Houten he says:
“[...] to be perfectly frank, this childish idea that the author of a novel has some special insight into the characters in the novel ... it’s ridiculous. That novel was composed of scratches on a page, dear. The characters inhabiting it have no life outside of those scratches. What happened to them? They all ceased to exist the moment the novel ended.” – p 191/2

That made me really think about the relationship I have with some of my favourite books and authors.

Either way, it was a good enough read, and although I really like Green’s writing, this just wasn’t for me.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (3.5/5)

The back says: Set in the harsh Puritan community of seventeenth-century Boston, this tale of an adulterous entanglement that results in an illegitimate birth reveals Nathaniel Hawthorne's concerns with the tension between the public and the private selves. Publicly disgraced and ostracized, Hester Prynne draws on her inner strength and certainty of spirit to emerge as the first true heroine of American fiction. Arthur Dimmesdale stands as a classic study of a self divided; trapped by the rules of society, he suppresses his passion and disavows his lover, Hester, and their daughter, Pearl. As Nina Baym writes in her Introduction, "The Scarlet Letter" was not written as realistic, historical fiction, but as a 'romance', a creation of the imagination that discloses the truth of the human heart.

I say: I am pretty sure that I’ve read this before and simply forgotten about it, because it was all too familiar and I knew what was going to happen in advance.

Either way, it was somewhat worth the re-read.

The story starts with the town being gathered in the square and Hester being brought out from prison wearing a scarlet A (for adultery) on her chest. Since she’s been allowed to sow the A on herself, she’s done it with gold thread in an elaborate and garish way. She stands in front of the people for some time, holding her daughter, while refusing to say who the father of the child is. After she is set free, she makes home in a lonely cottage at the edge of the town by the water. Soon enough she is employed by the townsfolk to embroider this or that for them, even though the still shun her.

All the while keeping her head up, her mouth quiet, the scarlet A on her chest and raising her daughter.

I really admire Hester for her resoluteness to not disclose the name of her child’s father, as well as managing to keep her head held high. They forced her to wear the scarlet letter so that people would know what crime she had committed, but instead of showing shame over her actions, she made it into something beautiful. Now, I am not going to argue that adultery is good, far from it, but since we never learn the exact circumstances surrounding the conception of her daughter, I choose not to judge. Her husband had sent her ahead and she had waited about a year for him before the conception.

But that’s not the point I’m trying to make; what I was hinting at was this quote from one of the town gossips:

“’She hath good skill at her needle, that’s certain,” remarked one of the female spectators; “but did ever a woman, before this brazen hussy, contrive such a way of showing it! Why, gossips, what is it but to laugh in the faces of our godly magistrates, and make a pride out of what they, worthy gentlemen, meant for a punishment?’” – p 51

We do find out who the father is, and it’s hinted at (if you pay attention) long before the disclosure, and though I’d like to discuss the choices Hester has to make after that, it’d be too much of a spoiler.

So, I’m giving this a 3.5/5 because of all that is mentioned above. The best part of the story for me was Hester’s strength and the way she handled herself. What I didn’t like was what happened shortly after we find out who the father is; it just ended too swiftly for me. I would have loved to know more, but I guess that would have been rather irrelevant to the “message” he was trying to send out.

All in all, a good read that I wouldn’t mind re-reading in the future.

*This is my twelfth 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, 11 July 2012

The Plague by Albert Camus (4.5/5)

The back says: Cut off from the rest of the world, living in fear, they each respond in their own way to the grim challenge of the deadly bacillus. Among them is Dr Rieux, a humanitarian and healer, and it is through his eyes we witness the devastating course of the epidemic.

Written in 1947, just after the Nazi occupation of France, Camus’s magnificent novel is also a story of courage and determination against the arbitrariness and seeming absurdity of human existence.

I say: I love Camus, and I couldn’t help but fall in love with this. However, as much as I love the way he writes, in The Plague he did one of the things that irk me to no end; he had a narrator who was overly familiar with the reader.

Hence the 4.5/5 – I just can’t overlook that annoyance, no matter how brilliant the novel was.

And I was near perfection.

As the synopsis says, the plague breaks out and the town of Oran, a large French port on the Algerian coast, is closed off from the rest of the world. As we follow a few select people through this ordeal we learn the different ways they all react to the threat of death and the inability to escape.

And it is in there that the genius of the story lays.

One of the main reasons I love Camus is because he makes me think, and not just from my own perspective, but that of his characters, who usually are very different from me. I am not going to go into this whole debate whether or not this should be classified as an existentialist novel (Camus himself has always maintained that he was not an existentialist) or an absurdist novel (which I would more refer it to as, considering Camus’ definition of the absurd and the sequence in which things happen).

Because we have so many different characters, I don’t really feel the need to map them all out here. The general idea, as I read the novel, is that they all represent, more or less, different schools of philosophical thought, which is apparent in the way that they behave and react to the plague and the imprisonment. Among them we have the absurdist (Dr Rieux) who doesn’t really show his feelings, but is determined to help as many people as he can. We also have a priest (Father Peneloux) who says that the plague is a punishment from God and even though we cannot explain the death of an innocent child, we must still accept it as the will of God.

And so on and so forth.

I’m finding it hard to speak about this novel without being too blatant with my own philosophical beliefs, but that is one of the reasons why I love Camus and will continue to re-read his works. Like I said, he makes me think - and there's really nothing better an author can do for me (except maybe laugh and cry).

*This is my eleventh 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 - although this is not a part of that challenge).

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (5/5)

The back says: The hilarious send-up of academic life which helped to set the style of post-war fiction and placed one of today’s most popular novelists firmly on course for fame.

I say: Oh deary me, I seem to have, once again, fallen in love with yet another dead author. To say that this novel is brilliant would almost be an understatement.

I am in awe of it.

Lucky Jim, i.e. James Dixon is a half-hearted medieval history lecturer at a university, doing everything he can in order to secure his position after the term ends. However, in his attempts to impress the head of the department he winds up creating more trouble – and hilarity – than he is able to entangle. Oh, and there are a couple of love interests in here as well.

As there always are.

I think that Dixon may be one of my favourite anti-heroes to date; he has a habit of doing things without thinking them through, is extremely childish and petty, and he has this hilarious inner dialogue that sometimes erupts in the most absurd and witty comebacks.

I may very well be in love with him.
“Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.” – p 61

I love Amis’ writing; his sense and use of language. Reading this was like being injected into Jim’s world/head and not wanting to let go for fear of missing the minutest of details. And Amis takes great care to make sure that we are aware of everything that is going on in Jim’s world/head. The one thing that I kept thinking when reading this was how much the style of writing reminded me of some of my favourite Russian authors; the detailed descriptions of things that seem irrelevant, the randomness of Jim’s actions, the slight satirical description of the university and the students. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but it was everything I look for in literature.

And did I mention that it was hilarious?

I was, literally, laughing out loud.

I am so smitten with Kingsley Amis right now that I want to run out and buy all of his work (and it’s at times like this that I curse my living in Sweden and not being able to just go out to a book store and buy all his work because they won’t have them, which is just as well cos Wiki lists 50 of them in a partial bibliography).

*This is my tenth 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, 9 July 2012

The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler (3/5)

The back says: A poignant and hilarious tour of the last frontier, the ultimate forbidden zone. The Vagina Monologues is a celebration of female sexuality in all its complexity and mystery. Hailed as the bible for a new generation of women, it has been performed in cities all across America and at hundreds of college campuses, and has inspired a dynamic grassroots movement – V-say – to stop violence against women. Witty and irreverent, compassionate and wise, Eve Ensler’s Obie Award-winning masterpiece gives voice to real women’s deepest fantasies and fears, guaranteeing that no one who reads it will ever look at a woman’s body, or think of sex, in quite the same way again.

I say: I have heard talk of The Vagina Monologues for years, but never felt compelled to go see it/them live. However, when I saw this at the book store I thought I may as well buy it and see what all the fuss was about. 

What it is is Ensler describing how she came to write The Vagina Monologues; anecdotes from the road, as well as transcripts from conversations that she’s had with women about their vaginas. There is some really interesting information in here, inspirational stories, as well as some random silliness.

Like the questions “If your vagina got dressed, what would it wear?” and “If your vagina could talk, what would it say, in two words?”

It was obvious to me while reading this that I was perhaps a tad too old for this, or too aware of the – my – female body; I would have enjoyed this a lot more if it had been given to me to read in my teens, when a lot of things vagina related were curious and a bit of a novelty. Either way, it was nice to read vagina facts like this one:

“In some places, Africans seem to have been quietly putting an end to the tradition of genital cutting. In Guinea, for instance, Aja Tounkara Diallo Fatimata, the chief “cutter” in the capital, Conakry, used to be reviled by Western humanitarian groups. Then a few years ago, she confessed that she had never actually cut anybody. “I’d just cinch their clitorises to make them scream,” she said, “and tightly bandage them up so that they walked as though they were in pain.” – p 91

I can't say that I'd be interested in seeing this live, but it was nice enough read.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee (4/5)

The back says: “Twelve times a week,” answered Uta Hagen when asked how often she’d like to play Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In the same way, audiences and critics alike could not get enough of Edward Albee’s masterful play. A dark comedy, it portrays husband and wife George and Martha in a searing night of dangerous fun and games. By the evening’s end, a stunning, almost unbearable revelation provides a climax that has shocked audiences for years. With the play’s razor-sharp dialogue and stripping away of social pretense, Newsweek rightly foresaw Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as “a brilliantly original work of art – an excoriating theatrical experience, surging with shocks of recognition and dramatic fire [that] will be igniting Broadway for some time to come.”

I say: The best part of this play is, undoubtedly, the revelation at the end. It was one of those moments that just change everything that you thought you knew about these people that you’ve only just met.

We have George, who is a professor of history at a college, and his wife Martha, whose father is the president of the college where the George works. They invite over another couple, Nick, a biology professor at the same college, and his wife Honey. When we first meet the first couple, they have just gotten home from some college function, and continue to drink and abuse each other. After a while the other couple joins them and are quickly embarrassed by the way George and Martha are treating each other. As the night progresses everyone gets drunk and start abusing each other.

As you do.

It’s clear from the beginning that George and Martha have some serious issues, playing various word games with the only object of taunting each other and their guests. However, and after getting the other couple drunk, we start to notice that Nick and Honey aren’t as sweet and innocent as they would like to appear.

It has to be said that I absolutely abhorred Martha in the beginning and kept trying to figure out why poor George stayed with her. However, as the play progressed I started to feel something akin to sympathy for her – although not as much as I sympathised with George – but then when we got to the end, most of my sympathy dwindled away. Their relationship was so destructive, and even though they each had their reasons for staying, I hated them for deciding explode and bring innocent bystander into the fire instead of just imploding.

Initially I felt sorry for Nick and Honey being caught in the crossfires, but after a while I started wondering if this wasn’t the best thing that could have happened to them. Nick was a bastard and actually, the only innocent person in this drama was Honey.

According to Wiki Edward Albee said this about the choice of title:

“I was in there having a beer one night, and I saw "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" scrawled in soap, I suppose, on this mirror. When I started to write the play it cropped up in my mind again. And of course, who's afraid of Virginia Woolf means who's afraid of the big bad wolf . . . who's afraid of living life without false illusions. And it did strike me as being a rather typical, university intellectual joke.”

I didn’t know this when I started reading the play, and all the time they kept singing “who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf” I was wondering what it was all about. It wasn’t until the last line that I actually got it, and then I just wanted to run out and see this performed live on stage; which I hopefully will one day.

*This is my ninth 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 list).

Thursday, 5 July 2012

She by H. Rider Haggard (3/5)

The back says: ‘My empire is of the imagination.’ These are the words of Ayesha, the mysterious white queen of a Central African tribe, whose dead title, She-who-must-be-obeyed, testifies to her undying beauty and magical powers; but they serve equally well to describe the hold of her author, Henry Rider Haggard, on generations of readers.

Writing ‘at white heat’, and in the flush of success after the publication of King Solomon’s Mines, Haggard drew again on his knowledge of Africa and of ancient legends, but also on something deeper and more disturbing. To the Englishmen who journey through shipwreck, fever, and cannibals to the hidden realm, She is the goal of the quest bequeathed to them two thousand years before; to Haggard’s readers, She is the embodiment of one of the most potent and ambivalent figures of Western mythology, a female who is both monstrous and desirable – and, without question, deadlier that the male!

I say: This book has got me slightly torn because, on the one hand I enjoyed Haggard’s writing, but on the other hand, I didn’t particularly like the story and all the heavy Christian symbolism and references.

And there were many to be had.

The entire text is pretty much riddled with allusions to Christianity in one way or another. Some of them were glaringly blatant, whereas others were pointed out to me by the notes. I don’t mind religion in my fiction, but this whole thing with Leo, Holly and Job going to Africa on a ‘mission’ and Haggard repeatedly quoting or referencing the bible was a tad too much.

A huge tad.

Another thing that I really don’t like with old-timey literature is this whole ‘white man’s burden’ approach to Africa and Africans portraying them as savages. Yes, there are tribes that could be called savage, but the whole symbolism of the way they behaved and how they were ruled by this white woman is just more than I bear to discuss right now.

Although I would love to entirely pick this novel apart.

The story itself was rather silly, for lack of a better word. There were a few action scenes that were rather enjoyable, but since I don’t like adventure stories, unless they are in some way humorous, this was never really for me to like.

100 Classics Challenge be damned.

So yeah, the story itself would have gotten a 2/5, but since I would have given the text a 4/5 from a literary viewpoint, we shall settle for a 3/5. I would be interested in picking up another of Haggard’s novels to further examine his writing, and maybe someday I’ll find someone who’ll enjoy dissecting this novel with me.

*This is my eighth 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).