tispity: Vanquisher character from Torchlight (Default)
Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut

It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.

Thanks to [livejournal.com profile] clytemenstra for recommending and lending me this classic of American literature after I read and reviewed Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr Rosewater late last year. It took me a while to get round to this: being morbid I have quite a grim penchant for war novels, but even so I have to be in the right mood for them. Still, Slaughterhouse 5 is by no means 'just' a war novel, it's also an engaging piece of sci-fi, absurdism, and social satire, as well as drawing directly - and harrowingly - on Vonnegut's own experiences as a prisoner of war during the firebombing of Dresden. Although Vonnegut occasionally appears directly as a character, cutting through the more fantastic elements of the plot to remind us that the bombing really happened and that he was there, his main character is the naive Billy Pilgrim, a man who comes "unstuck in time" when he is abducted by aliens from Tralfamadore, a planet whose inhabitants are able to see what we call the past, present and future simultaneously. Given this long view, the Tralfamadorians have no concept of individual agency: they know how the universe is going to end, but do nothing to attempt to stop it, preferring instead to focus their attentions on the more pleasant aspects of the time-stream. This attitude provides a powerful counterpoint for the main message in this compelling anti-war novel, that the horrific events of the past should not be forgotten, and that even if the individual feels powerless to stop war, they can and should still act on an individual level to improve the lives of those around them.

Billy Pilgrim is an unlikely hero but his supreme innocence - which saves his life on countless occasions - has a powerful effect on the reader. The time-travel conceit, of course, makes for a choppy and episodic narrative, as one minute Billy is in a German prison, the next on Tralfamadore, the next at his daughter's wedding. Such fragmented narrative suggests the fragmented selves of those traumatised by the experience of war: as Vonnegut has written "there are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick, and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters..." Indeed, for all its absurdism and sci-fi flights of fancy, I found Vonnegut's book to be one of the most 'real' and heartfelt accounts of wartime horror that I have read. This is a novel at once funny, compassionate, wise and deeply troubling - not a story to be forgotten in a hurry, which is just as it should be.

First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde

When we read of the dying rays of the setting sun or the boom and swish of the incoming tide, we should reserve as much praise for ourselves as for the author. After all, the reader is doing all the work - the writer may have died long ago.

In a complete change of tone and pace from Vonnegut (though still with generous lashings of absurdity) this is the fifth novel in the Thursday Next series. Fforde's wonderfully zany Bookworld is coming to occupy a precious place in my heart with as much affection as I reserve for Pratchett's Discworld. I had rather thought that Thursday's adventures had ended with the the previous book, Something Rotten which tied things up so neatly and well. So it was bit of a surprise to find this fifth adventure existed (with a sixth in the pipeline) and it was with some trepidation that I picked it up. But I need not have worried. Thursday's sixth adventure is well up to the brilliant standard of her previous ones, and it felt brilliant to be returning to the insanity of her world. First Among Sequels picks up about 15 years after the end of the previous novel. Thursday is in her fifties and her son, Friday, has become a surly and unkempt teenager. Although the Literary Detectives have been disbanded she and her colleagues are still engaging in "Special Ops" work under the guise of "Acme Carpets" and Thursday takes the subterfuge up one gear further as her Special Ops work itself is mostly a cover for her continuing duties as Jurisfiction agent in Bookworld.

The action in this novel (and there is plenty of it) is split fairly neatly between the outland, where Thursday battles to get her seemingly lazy son to join the Time Police in time for him to save the world (as future time agents, including a future version of Friday himself, warn he must) and the Bookworld, in which she must deal the arrival of characters from her own backstory (including two different fictional verisons of herself) which has now been published, and hence has a presence in Bookworld, and the threat of Pride and Prejudice being turned into a lame, Big Brother style reality vote-em-off in a desperate and ill-conceived attempts to curb falling reading rates. Fforde is not subtle in his digs at the increasing stupidity of real world popular culture, and as I'm not a fan of reality TV at all I was very much in agreement with him, but I have to say the refashioned Pride and Prejudice scenes (one of which involves all the Bennets being forced to dress as bees) were some of the funniest things I've read in a very long time! I can't wait for the next Thursday book, and definitely recommend this series to others, although you do need to start at the beginning with The Eyre Affair as the books would make very little sense at all read out of sequence!

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Something I'm Not by Lucy Beresford

As I floss my teeth, I think about how life is all about choice. What on earth do you do if you suspect you've made the wrong choice? Or if the decisions you made were the right ones, but based on misconceptions?'

I'm not much in to chick-lit type reads but I picked up this one because the subject matter struck a chord with me. The 'I' of the title is Amber, an upper-middle-class Londoner enjoying what seems a happy marriage and a great career. The 'something' she's not is a mother. Yes, this book - quite bravely in many ways - deals with the issue of women who choose not to have children and the difficulties they face in justifying and upholding this decision as more and more of their friends and relatives start families of their own. Amber seems happy with her life and with her and her husband's mutual decision not to reproduce but as more of her close-knit circle of friends embrace parenthood - even Dylan, her gay best friend begins discussing adoption, she feels her world and her certainty come crashing down around her. It's a subject that's close to my heart because, as many of you will know, I've been struggling recently with the increasing realisation of my own apparent lack of maternal ambition. So I thought I might relate to the characters in this book quite well and that reading it might help me feel less conflicted but to be honest, although it was well plotted and a fairly enjoyable read, Beresford didn't really deliver on any of the factors that motivated me to pick up her book in the first place.

First up, the things I did like about this: as I've said, it was a brave subject to tackle and I love the way Beresford subverts conventions of a more typical chick-lit novel which would probably see Amber finally emerge as an ecstatic new mother by the end of the book. This doesn't happen (though it does to one of her friends) but Beresford seems to have a good time implying, for much of the book, that it will only to finally turn that convention on its head. Also the characters were well crafted and sparky - if somewhat predictable in their diversity (the gay guy, the fragile single mum, the career girl, the parents of five who want more etc) and a few of the minor incidents made me laugh. But overall Something I'm Not disappointed me: I couldn't relate to Amber at all: firstly because she doesn't like pets (!?!) and secondly because her incredibly privileged lifestyle was just too alien for me to fathom (who embraces redundancy as a welcome chance to "rest and sort out my head?") The biggest problem I had with the book, however, was how rushed it felt: so many plot strands are introduced but although Amber finds closure with her motherhood issues, pretty much nothing else in the novel is resolved at all satisfactorily, it's all just left hanging. Most unsettlingly, a massive breach of trust occurs between Amber and her husband part way through the story but then pretty much no mention is made of this incident after the fact; as if pretending it didn't happen makes it all OK. That implication rather undermines many of the positive messages that the book has to share about the tremendous value of friendship and the way that no woman should not be forced to conform to social expectation if that feels wrong for her. So that's a shame really because those are damn important messages.

tispity: (Book fort)
Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel

They don't become decent people just because they're dead. People are right to be afraid of ghosts. If you get people who are bad in life - I mean, cruel people, dangerous people - why do you think they're going to be any better after they're dead?

Wow. I absolutely loved this gripping, blackly comic and genuinely creepy novel. Overweight Alison Hart is a medium (her fleshy folds provide a buffer, she feels, against the tremendous suffering in her life, both supernatural and otherwise), touring the soulless towns of London's commuter belt, bringing her punters messages from the other side. She is accompanied by her assistant, Colette, whose cold-hearted pragmatism provides a sharp contrast to Alison's compassion and supernatural sensitivity, and by Morris, her spirit guide, a thoroughly nasty individual whose seediness and criminal tendencies and been in no way diminished by his death. I love Mantel's chilling take on the phenomena of the spirit guide: the usual cliché, of course, is that psychics claim to be guided by some thoroughly enlightened individual, a druid or native American shaman. But surely these goodly types would have more pressing things to do on the other side than bring the middle-aged women of Slough messages from their deceased aunts? No, Mantel, postulates - persuasively, if chillingly - the sort of people who are more likely to stick around after death are those like Morris; characters with no particular calling other than a desire to cause misery to others in the name of "having a laugh."

Alison is a wonderfully large (no pun intended) and complex character, part victim, part therapist, part fraudulent show-woman, part living saint. The novel deals with her career across a large tract of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, taking in important events such as the orgy of national grief inspired by the death of Princess Di (a field-day for psychics) and of course 9/11. It portrays the ambivalence of Alison's relationship with the spirits, particularly those like Morris who she once knew before he passed over. Mantel writes of the spirit world in a way that is utterly compelling and very real, but it's also possible to read the novel as some sort of exploration of the lingering psychological effects of childhood trauma: Morris and his cronies are "friends" of Alison's Mum, a prostitute, and Alison only dimly remembers the most shocking details of the abuse she receives during her neglected childhood. She must force herself to relive these painful events in order to find closure and any sort of reprieve from the evil supernatural presence of Morris in her adult life. I like the duality of this presentation, the fact that Alison's simultaneous gift and curse can be read literally or psychologically. Mantel is similarly generous to the other mediums she portrays in the book. Whether or not we choose to take seriously their messages from beyond, we should admire their skill as performers and psychologists. Alison often gets details wrong during her shows - the spirits don't always tell her the truth - and even when they do, she prefers to pass on to her clients the details they want to hear rather rather than all the uncomfortable truths. It's an amazing psychological portrait.

I finished this novel with a sense that the real tragedy Mantel is trying to depict is not so much the wasted and tortured lives of neglected children like Alison once was, but rather the emptiness and shallowness of many of the other characters in the novel who have lost all connection to the past: people who live on brand new indentikit estates and do not know or care who their gran was. Whether good or bad the past has a force to bear on the present, we ignore it at our peril.

tispity: (Book pile)
When I asked recently on here the general consensus regarding my bookblog seemed to be that you either liked seeing these posts or didn't usually read them but were happy for them to be here and just skip over them. So the book blog is staying put. And here's the latest instalment:

Love in the Time of the Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

All that was needed was shrewd questioning, first of the patient and then of his mother, to conclude once again that the symptoms of love were the same as those of cholera.

This, the first Marquez I have tackled, is a far-reaching novel that manages at once to be compassionate and cynical. Its themes are grand and universal: love - in all its forms, age, memory, death and the nature of devotion. Set in an unnamed Caribbean town between the late nineteenth- and early twentieth century, it tells the story of Florentino Ariza and his love for one Fermina Daza. As a youth, almost dying for love, he courts her in the most traditional sense with poetry, moonlight serenades and an endless stream of letters but Fermina rejects him to marry instead to marry a forward thinking doctor whose devotion to modernity and progress seems to be the antidote to Florentino's crazed passion. With grand brush strokes Marquez then paints in the pattern of the rest of the lives of these two characters as Florentino vows that he shall never love another and is prepared to wait his entire life to win Fermina back. As he gains fame and power as the rising star of the local riverboat company he has relationships with many different kinds of women, but his heart, it is implied, is reserved for Fermina. It is no spoiler to say that the two are finally reunited in the very twilight of their lives because it is typical of the Latin American style of writing to give away the plot very early on - it is the journey not the destination that matters here. And I have to say the final chapters of this novel contain some of the most beautiful and moving prose I have ever read.

What I like most about Love in the Time of the Cholera is its duality. As the central love/disease comparison suggests, Arizia's devotion can be read at once as an winningly romantic grand passion and as an act of supreme selfishness. It is notable that in his single-minded devotion to Fermina he unwittingly destroys the lives of several other women he encounters along the way just as, up until the final pages, he remains blind to the fatal environmental destruction of the forests wreaked by his company and the constant quest for wood for the boilers of his boats. There is an old Renaissance English expression "making babies" which doesn't mean what it means now, rather it is a comment on the selfishness of the lover who, gazing at their object of adoration, sees a tiny image of themselves "a baby" reflected in their beloved's eyes. It is that above all things - the idea of themselves as someone who is loved, rather than any of the qualities of the person they claim to love - that fuels their desire. The image is never used in this novel but it came to my mind several times as I was reading. Anyway, I highly recommend this as a book that is simultaneously recklessly sexy and searchingly intelligent. Apparently there is a film of it but I have no desire to see it as I can't imagine anything on screen even beginning to match the beauty of Marquez's prose.

Ingenious Pain by Andrew Miller

All that talent! True he was a hard and unlovable man before. But useful; by God he was. What does the world need most - a good, ordinary man, or one who is outstanding, albeit with a heart of ice, of stone? Hard one that.

I loved this, although despite its melodramatic subject-matter, the novel is written with such understated subtlety that even having finished it I remain fascinated and would be quite ready to read it again straight off in the hope of answering my many lingering questions. James Dyer is a child of the Enlightenment and from birth he is quite impervious to pain of all kinds. The novel follows his career from village fair con-artist, through freak-show exhibit to eminent surgeon and even inmate of "Bedlam" the famous lunatic asylum. The novel's geographical scope is similarly exhilarating: extending from rural Somerset across Europe to the icy splendour of imperial Russia. It is a compelling read, though often a brutal and gory one since James' lack of physical empathy makes him an expert surgeon (he does not feel for the patients he is cutting at all and thus is able to operate with hitherto unknown precision) and his pioneering operations - as well as those of his contemporaries - are often described in devastating detail. The scene involving a fatal attempt to separate conjoined identical twins is going to leave me chilled for a very long time to come.

The novel's central question is about what makes us human: we need pain in our lives, it suggests, in order to empathise with and relate others. But too much fellow-feeling can also be disabling, as the novel later demonstrates. Where is the correct balance? I really can't think of another novel quite like this one and while I would have liked to see certain characters more developed (particularly the magical Mary, I have so many questions still about Mary, though I'm sure that's what Miller intends) I would definitely recommend this as a real page-turner: an adventure at once magical, social, gothic, historical and philosophical, Ingenious Pain really has something for everyone except perhaps those lacking a strong stomach for gory details!

tispity: Vanquisher character from Torchlight (Default)
The Millstone by Margaret Drabble

Ben Jonson said of his dead child, my sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy. We too easily take what the poets write as figures of speech, as pretty images, as strings of bon mots. Sometimes perhaps they speak the truth.

I like a bit of Margaret Drabble, her novels are always subtle, wise and thought-provoking. This one was no exception. It was also a very fitting read to follow up Esther Waters as the plot is actually very similar: a young, unmarried woman finds herself pregnant after her only sexual encounter and decides to keep the baby, finding tremendous joy and fulfilment in her new role as a mother, despite the disapproval of wider society. The difference is that while Esther lives in nineteenth-century London, Drabble's Rosamund is living in the capital during the swinging sixties and the book throws into sharp relief the problems of a time when casual sex is becoming de rigeur but illegitimacy remains very strongly taboo. The overall message of this book is strongly feminist: motherhood and independence need not be mutually exclusive. It is a qualified message however since like many of the women in Drabble's other books, Rosamund is an academic of upper middle-class origins, a career and background that gives her more possibility of financial independence than many other women in her position, and Rosamund herself recognises that were she from a poorer background many of the options she chooses would simply not have been available to her. While the novel seems to praise the academic life as a valuable avenue of self-sufficiency and independence for women, at the same time, Drabble is quick to remind us that it is Rosamund's intellectual leanings that have kept her shielded from many of the harsher practicalities of life, an otherworldliness which led to her getting pregnant in the first place.

Although in places I felt the prose becoming less like a novel and more like a slightly dry sociology essay, overall this is sensitively written book gives a wonderfully rich snapshot of life among the more privileged classes in 1960s London and paints a generally warm and hopeful - though not too unrealistic - message about the power of unconditional maternal love.

The Earthquake Bird by Susanna Jones

Tokyo was more than Lucy could have hoped for. Too big ever to be found there, too noisy to have to listen to anything, too expensive to worry about saving any money. And under the chaos, a cool and quietly beating heart. An organ that pumped blood through stooping centenarians, three-year-old Nintendo whizz-kids, office workers with no time for meals or sleep, and university students with all the time in the world

This has the subtitle "a novel of mystery" and it was a very engaging thriller indeed. I was captivated right from the opening page which begins by detailing the arrest of Lucy Fly, a thirty-something British girl living and working in Tokyo. Lucy is the chief suspect in what seems to be a grisly murder case and, while she refuses to cooperate and talk to her interrogators, the narrative delves into her memories and explores the time leading up to her arrest, uncovering the many dark secrets that haunt Lucy's waking and subconscious state. Since Lucy does not talk to the detectives, and her past is revealed only to the reader only as a series of flashbacks, it is up to us to penetrate her icy detachment and ascertain the full level of her involvement in the murder, as well as trying to understand why she has severed all ties with her family in Yorkshire to forge a new life on the other side of the world. I found this narrative technique really succeeded in keeping me glued to every page and I finished the book in just a day.

As well as working as a chilling psychological thriller, The Earthquake Bird is a wonderful piece of travel writing which paints a vivid portrait of bustling Tokyo in all its sacredness and profanity (all of which just adds further fuel to my dream of visiting the city myself). Yet although the novel is brimming with engagingly quirky details of Japanese culture, its overall theme is absolutely universal. Above all, this book is a study of the corrosive power of jealousy which can emerge from nowhere with fatal consequences. I highly recommend this excellent debut novel.

tispity: (Book pile)
Esther Waters by George Moore

Hers is a heroic adventure if one considers it - a mother's fight for the life of her child against all the forces that civilisation arrays against the lowly and illegitimate

Big thanks are due to [livejournal.com profile] pennywren for introducing me to this highly enjoyable but lesser known Victorian novel. First published in 1894 and set in England from the 1870s onwards, the eponymous heroine is an illiterate, working class girl raised as a member of the pious religious group, the Plymouth Brethren. The story begins as poverty forces seventeen year old Esther to leave her loving mother and drunken, abusive step-father and take up employment as a kitchen maid for the Barfields, a noveau riche horse-racing family. Although she comes to enjoy her new life and forms a warm bond with her devout mistress, she also finds herself falling for William, a fellow servant and all too quickly finds herself seduced and abandoned. The remainder of the novel chronicles the hardships that Esther endures as a working class single mother in unforgiving Victorian London. Esther is a very ordinary woman in many ways but utterly heroic in her devotion to her son, Jacky, and in her single-minded determination to see him grow to manhood and settle into a profession.

Moore writes in the same Naturalistic style as Zola (indeed many of the horse-racing and betting scenes reminded me strongly of the race scene in Nana) and as such this novel paints a very powerful and moving portrait of the ills and hypocrisy of Moore's contemporary society. Indeed, although I took two Victorian modules on my Literature MA a few years back and have therefore read plenty of accounts - both fictional and factual - of the suffering of the Victorian poor, I have to say some of the scenes in this book were still eye-openers! In the course of her life, Esther endures the workhouse, abject poverty, domestic drudgery, the scorn of her society, and all the highs, lows and dangers of the gambling life, but every single decision she comes to, every sacrifice or compromise she makes, is motivated by the desire to provide the best for her son. In this respect her story, though pitiable, is also tremendously admirable and makes for compelling reading. Moore is quite progressive in the way that, alongside her suffering, he also narrates the joy that Esther's motherhood brings her. Her life is a sad one, but, significantly, the novelist never suggests - as some of his least savoury characters do - that Jacky is a burden Esther would do well to be rid of. The depiction of Esther's religion is interesting for similar reasons: faith is generally depicted as a positive force in the lives of the novel's characters, yet while Esther is shown to be a very pure in her ideals, the novel also implies that it is just not possible for a poor, working mother like her to live up to these high moral standards. In her devotion to Jacky, Esther frequently compromises her religious devotion: the long hours she works to support him do not allow her time to attend church and although she disapproves of gambling she later comes to tolerate it for the sake of funding Jacky's education, decisions which are narrated with considerable sympathy and understanding.

While the opening and concluding parts are absolutely gripping I found the pace did slacken off somewhat in the middle, and as I'm not terribly well versed in gambling terminology and techniques I found some of the betting scenes rather confusing - though I understood well enough the dangerously addictive power of the pastime and the hypocrisy of the judges who condemned gambling as a lower-class vice while continuing to indulge in it themselves. But despite these flaws, this was an engaging read and one which I'd be quick to recommend to those of you who'd like to head a little way off the beaten track in Victorian literature. And if anyone else can recommend any similarly neglected pre-twentieth century reads I'd be very grateful for the suggestions!

tispity: Vanquisher character from Torchlight (Default)
Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde

'If this were fiction, this little incident would have relevance thirty or so chapters from now; as it is it means nothing - after all, not every incident in life has a meaning.'
'Tell that to the scholars who study me,' Hamlet snorted disdainfully, then thought for a moment before adding: 'If the real world were a book, it would never find a publisher. Over-long, detailed to the point of distraction - and ultimately without a major resolution.'

The fourth and final Thursday Next novel provides a suitably fitting resolution to Fforde's insanely brilliant series. I'll keep this fairly short as it is a sequel and you can read my thoughts on the previous three novels here and here. Suffice to say I think this one may be a strong contender for the best in the series. With her previous adventure having been set entirely in Bookworld it was actually a welcome change of pace and focus in this book to find Thursday back in the so-called real world as she returns to her native Swindon, now with her two year old son, Friday - and also Hamlet Prince of Denmark - in tow, to take on the shady Goliath Corporation, prevent impending Armageddon, help Swindon's ailing croquet team win the world cup, and to find a way to undo the fact that her husband has been eradicated by the time police. It's a non-stop roller-coaster of zany action with lots of typically Ffordian literary gags (Hamlet watching the Mel Gibson version of his play is a classic moment!) At the same time however, with so much focus on the evils of the Goliath Corporation, the tone here is darker and more cynical, I felt, than in previous Thursday adventures and I definitely detected some veiled criticisms of New Labour and Blair's cult of personality amidst all the craziness. There are also some genuinely touching moments, including the ending (which I won't spoil) and the scene in which Thursday is hired to shoot a Chimera, a gene-sequenced hybrid monster, but when she locates the ugly brute terrorising a shopping mall its misguided creator rushes forward calling out "Denis, there you are, Daddy was worried about you." That bit genuinely moved me.

I loved this series anyway and would definitely recommend that those of you who like the idea of Douglas Adams with oodles more literary jokes should get to know Miss Next!

tispity: (Book fort)
Native Speaker by Chang Rae Lee

...a good spook has no brothers, no sisters, no father, no mother. He's intentionally lost that huge baggage, those encumbering remnants of blood and flesh, and because of this he carries no memory of a house, no memory of a land, he seems to have emerged from nowhere. He's brought himself forth, self-cesarean.

This is nominally the story of a detective - or more honestly, a spy. Korean-American Henry Park works for a rather shady firm and is hired to infiltrate the entourage of rising ethnic political star John Kwang, to get to know the man and to report back any compromising material he may uncover. It's an interesting scenario but, unlike probably any other spy novel you'd care to name, very little actually happens here. Tracking back over the plot there are really only two or three big events in the whole book. Far more than a spy novel, this is a searching character study of the sort of person who makes a good spy: aloof, watchful, detached. In Henry, a character who in many ways fails to be "a good spook", Lee masterfully bundles up these qualities with an analysis of the emotional experience of first and second generation immigrants, who are also at once part of American society and pushed to its margins. As well as exploring Henry's links with his late father and various members of the local Korean community the novel also deals with universal themes of love and loss as it narrates Henry's cautious attempts to win back the affections of his American wife and rekindle their marriage following the tragic death of their young son, an event we learn of retrospectively through a series of flashbacks. Indeed not a great deal of anything really happens in the present tense in Native Speaker, a fact that cleverly recreates for the reader the much described experiences of alienation and detachment, but one which also, I felt, stopped me from warming to Henry as fully as he probably deserved. Despite this, Native Speaker kept me reading because it's such an honest book and much of its prose reads like it comes directly from the heart (Lee emigrated to the US from his native Seoul when was three) and while I don't rate this as highly as Lee's brilliant second novel A Gesture Life, I think those of you who enjoy the similarly-themed work of authors like Khaled Hosseini could do much worse than give it a try.

tispity: Vanquisher character from Torchlight (Default)
Oxygen by Andrew Miller

Though now that she was older, much older than he'd ever been, she thought she did understand. The blankness. The way sense can unravel so completely you never quite recover it. What was the word for when nothing made sense any more?

This, the first of Miller's novels that I've read, bravely yet sensitively deals with some of life's most fundamental subjects: memory, morality and death. In 1997, the year of comet Hale Bopp, elderly Alice Valentine is dying of cancer in her West Country home. Her approaching death has summoned to her sides her two sons: needy, sensitive Alec the failed school-teacher, and Larry, the seeming golden boy, the tennis-pro turned soap-opera celebrity who has made a life for himself in the US. Each of the young men returns home laden with assumptions, preconceptions and fictions both about each other and about themselves that gradually begin to unravel in the light of their mother's condition. The fourth major character in Oxygen is Lásló Lázár a Hungarian playwright living in Paris. Alec has been commissioned to translate Lázár's latest work into English and as he labours to do so he retreats into a daydream about its author as a man of revolutionary action, someone "who knew how to handle a tommy gun," and a possessor of the sort of courage that Alec himself struggles to muster. Although Alec never meets his literary hero, interspersed between the chapters on the Valentine family, Miller brings to a life a very different Lázár from the one of Alec's reverie, depicting him as a man haunted by a sense of his own inaction during the Hungarian uprising of 1956.

Cancer may sound like an incredibly bleak theme for a novel, and it is. As somebody who has known three loved ones struggle with the disease in the past few years (two successfully one sadly not so) I was in two minds about whether I could actually face reading this, but I'm glad I did. Miller deals this difficult subject in a way that is at once unflinchingly honest and yet surprisingly poetic - the passages in which he describes Alice's fear of each long, sleepless night are particularly powerful - and in doing so I think he takes away some of its terrifying strangeness. At times all four of the novel's central characters are haunted by memories of things left unsaid, actions left undone, and in bravely giving utterance to one of the major fears of modern life Miller strengthens his own argument within the book for the comforting power of sometimes just facing up to things: "moments you say yes when others say no, or race back into the burning house without the least hesitation." That old adage of it being better to regret things you have done than the things you have not is brought into play with sensitivity and complexity within the pages of this book.

tispity: (Book pile)
I'm going to try to keep this up for a second year, so I'm glad to be kicking it off with a couple of really memorable ones.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

'Does it work? Are they happier dead?'
'Sometimes. Mostly, no. It's like the people who believe they'll be happy if they go and live somewhere else, but who learn it doesn't work that way. Wherever you go, you take yourself with you. If you see what I mean.'

Barry bought me this one for Christmas and I'm glad he did. While this doesn't reach out and grab you by the throat like Gaiman's American Gods, which is one of my all time favourite novels, it is nonetheless well plotted with some engaging characters and the central idea, to "write something a lot like The Jungle Book and set it in a graveyard" is an excellent one. The novel tells the story of Bod, Nobody Owens, a human child who grows up in the graveyard raised by the spirits who rescued him when the rest of his family were murdered. As in Kipling's classic, each chapter of the novel stands alone as a short story but they combine together to chronicle Bod's life and his path towards maturity. For those people who know The Jungle Book primarily through the musical Disney cartoon, Gaiman's work serves as a timely reminder of the oft-forgotten depth and darkness of Kipling's book and in his afterword Gaiman urges readers to revisit The Jungle Book, something that I may just do myself in the not too distant future! I think my favourite aspect of the The Graveyard Book was Gaiman's handling of the discrepancy between Bod's education in the graveyard, where most of the inmates were buried in Victorian times or earlier, and his experiences in the modern world outside, such as ghosts' well-meaning but often hopelessly outdated advice when he attempts to go to school.

I think some of the chapters work better than others, with the most complete and satisfying perhaps being the one that introduces Liza the witch. [livejournal.com profile] davidnm has also recently blogged about this book and I would agree with him that some loose ends aren't tied up as clearly as they could be, particularly those surrounding Bod's special guardian, Silas, about whom I still have some lingering questions. Overall though, this is a wonderfully atmospheric little book with a very moving ending. It's far from being Gaiman's best but that doesn't mean it isn't still well worth a read!

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey

Harding drank and watched and shook his head. "It isn't happening. It's all a collaboration of Kafka and Mark Twain and Martini."

Huge thanks to [livejournal.com profile] janeymouse for inspiring me to pick up this one which has to be one of the most powerful and moving - and certainly the angriest - book I've read for a long time. I've not seen the film of this either so I came to the story almost completely cold and quickly found myself captivated. Set in a mental institution, the story deals with a dramatic power struggle between the tyrannical ward nurse Ratched and spirited new inmate Randle McMurphy, a fun-loving, hard-drinking, gambling, womaniser who becomes determined to break her vice-like grip over all the ward inmates and even the other staff members. Each section narrates a different episode in this struggle for power which comes to represent so much more than the politics of one troubled hospital ward. The story is told from the perspective of "Chief" Bromden, a half Indian giant of a man who is commonly believed to be deaf and dumb. This is a genius stroke in my opinion since Chief's perceived condition allows him to be simultaneously part of the ward and detached from it. Frequently, staff members do not censor their conversations around him because they believe he cannot hear them. But he's also an unreliable narrator since his own inner demons and memories of his troubled childhood as a member of a dwindling and persecuted race necessarily impact on his self-esteem and ability to perceive the world. It's tremendously satisfying to observe how Chief's narrative tone and perceptions change as McMurphy gradually succeeds in empowering him and the other men.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest ends in a way that is both heart-breaking and uplifting and I think the final scenes are going to stay with me for a very long time to come. The almost irrepressible McMurphy has to be one of the greatest characters in literature, he does use the men on the ward and is constantly pumping them for money, but what he gives back to them - namely the confidence to begin to face up to the system that has been repressing and victimising them - is worth so much more than that. And despite the anger that permeates every page of this book there are many scenes of almost unbearable tenderness, not to mention laugh out loud humour (such as when McMurphy "dirties up" the toilets he's supposed to be cleaning by leaving rude messages to the nurse gummed under the rim in backwards writing so she'll see them when she inspects with her mirror). Highly, highly recommended.

tispity: Vanquisher character from Torchlight (Default)
Oh and while I think of it, I promised to plug my brother-in-law-to-be's new photography website:


He's just starting out really but I think he's got some nice shots on here. He works for a wholesale garden centre so he gets the opportunity to take some really impressive views of flowers.

Please check him out.
tispity: Vanquisher character from Torchlight (Default)
I'm doing a rare public post because - inspired by [livejournal.com profile] noting_nothing - I really want to share this recipe for Creamy Red Pepper and Butternut Squash Soup - I love making soups, in fact I find soup making to be one of the few consolations of dark winter days where the light is fading by 2pm. So... as Borat would say "is naice!"

Serves 4

Butter, 25g
Onion, 1 large, chopped
Butternut Squash, 1 medium, peeled, deseeded and chopped into chunks.
Red pepper, I medium, deseeded and chopped
Vegetable stock cubes, 2 dissolved on 450ml water
Cream cheese, 200g
Milk, 450ml
Chives, 2 tablespoons chopped
Salt and black pepper

1. Melt the butter in a large saucepan. Add the onion and fry gently for until softened but not browned.
2. Add the butternut squash, red pepper and vegetable stock. heat until the mixture is just simmering, then turn the heat to low and cook gently for about 20 mins, partially covered, until the vegetables are soft and tender.
3. Transfer the mixture to a blender and add about half the cream cheese. Blend together until completely smooth.
4. Return the mixture to the saucepan and add the milk and half the chives. Stir thoroughly and reheat until piping hot. Season the taste.
5. Ladle the soup into bowls then top each portion with a dollop of the reserved cream cheese. Sprinkle with the remaining chives and serve.
tispity: Vanquisher character from Torchlight (Default)

This journal is friends only for a variety of reasons because I'm paranoid, but that doesn't mean I'm averse to making new friends. My journal gets updated most days and it tends to be a mixture of day-to-day ramblings, rants, raves, reviews, randomness, really boring posts about my research (you have been warned) and occasional poking at current affairs. If you're interested and we've got stuff in common (or even if we don't) leave me a comment and I'll add you back.

EDIT 02/09/2010: I've cut about a dozen or people this evening. Mostly abandoned journals and people who I feel I never clicked with and probably didn't read anyway. If I've misjudged and you want back in then let me know, otherwise have a nice life and all that...


tispity: Vanquisher character from Torchlight (Default)

September 2010

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