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)

September 2010

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