Friday, 31 March 2017

Ignorance by Milan Kundera

“She makes love wildly, lasciviously, and at the same time the curtain of oblivion wraps her lewdness in an all-concealing darkness. As if a poet were writing his greatest poem with ink that instantly disappears.”

Kundera waxes poetically with an economy of words that is simply marvellous. Here two émigrés return to the Czech Republic after an absence of more than 20 years.
A chance encounter, for the woman, with the one that got away. For the man, a strange encounter with a ghost from the past that he no longer remembers, and that momentarily frees his mind from the  frosty reception of reunions with relatives and the haunting circumstances of losing a loved one. Originally written in French, the novel is a translation and yet eminently quotable and beautifully delivered.

There is an all pervasive sense of honesty in the writing. We all create our own narrative of love and life. It is rarely mirrored by the other players. Sometimes I feel that the disconnect between those stories is a divide that will never be bridged and that the notion of a truly shared experience is a nonsense. I am perhaps a little bitter and twisted, that is one reason why I loved this sad and reflective novel. The only sense of freedom and joy within the novel is brief and between the sheets. Only in the harsh light of day and the realisation that each party had a completely different agenda, does the tale reach its unfortunate anticlimax.

Memories are an unreliable narrator, for they are coloured by our own fears and desires. The notion of home and returning home, referencing the journey of Odysseus, is prevalent here and it is an intriguing one. We remember the place that shaped our youth and yet, should we move away, we grow apart and change with our surrounds. Yet, housed deeply within us, is that notion of home which bring a strange pull. That being said the idea is often vastly different from the reality, as the home of our youth, or in this case that of the two protagonists, has undergone significant change. Time only stops still in memory.

 5 out of 5 a speedy delight and one more tick on my 1001 novel journey.

Monday, 27 March 2017

Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud

"There was Mum, dragging the stove from John's broken-down van."

Many moons ago, I remember watching the film based on this novel and being utterly captivated by the strange story. The book, for me, was a vastly different and delightful experience. The innocence of the child narrator lends the tale a rather unique point of view. The reader, like the younger sister is trying to understand the behaviour of her mother. The title comes from the girls' favourite words. They are the only words they recall hearing their travelling companion, the stricken Maretta say.
The child's perspective means that circumstances are simply accepted and the reader is forced to draw their own conclusions. Is Julia having  romantic relationship with John (Maretta's husband), is that what leaves Maretta speechless and sickly? The narrator tells us only that "John was Maretta's husband. He had brought her along at the last minute only because, I heard him tell my mother, she wasn't well."
Similarly the succession of love interests and spiritual guides are introduced factually and often we're forced to jump to our own conclusions, an experience very different from the movie which focused on a woman's journey for meaning  and struggle with coming to terms with the requirements of still nurturing her children.
The book leaves us with a sense of the fish out of water sensations that the younger sister is troubled by, her responsiveness to any interest or positivity from other adults and fervent desire for some semblance of normality. We feel her need to escape,  away from nappy stealing neighbours, child beating teachers and the fear that her mother will turn into a fully fledged sufi, leaving  her behind, uneducated and unprotected in a strange land.

Beautifully written, it is no surprise that this novel is on the 1001 novels to read before you die list ( hurrah another one ticked off) and also the Guardian's definitive 1000 novels everyone should read list.

5 out of 5 journeys are different from every perspective.

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

"It is a long story, and it does no credit to anyone: there is murder in it, and trickery, lies and foolishness, seduction and pursuit. Listen."

Okay so last week I waxed lyrical about Neil Gaiman and it seems I've gone on a Gaiman binge. Now this would all be fine, had I more of his work to savour,however, I have to wait for him to release some more. Fortunately, his instagram feed tells me he is currently in a productive mood while in a train across America. Nothing like social media to keep tabs on people (and your favourite authors) - am I right?

When I read that there was a new novel coming out based on Norse mythology  I was really excited because the source material is rich, gory and fantastic.This is part fairy story, part nightmare as the trickster Loki reeks havoc and the adventures of familiar characters such as Thor and Odin spill forth with a tone that is both familiar and strange. The reader is transfixed with childlike wonder and yet the deeds and misdeeds are far more adult.Being restrained by the entrails of one's son is definitely the stuff of nightmares; giants are intimidating and Thor really can drink - does that mean he gets hammered?

Myths and legends allow us to contemplate our best and worst behaviours in an atmosphere of the superlative and the fantastical. They fire our imaginations and leave us spellbound. This is why they last throughout the centuries, the strange mix of inherent truths and entertainment. Gaiman's interpretation is fabulous and he is form in this regard (hello Anasi Boys  and American Gods for example). Speaking of which, perhaps my desires for more of his work can be sated by delving into the new American Gods  series - we shall see.

5 out of 5 times giants get a gruff deal.


Thursday, 23 March 2017

The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman

“I believe that in the battle between guns and ideas, ideas will, eventually, win. Because the ideas are invisible, and they linger, and, sometimes, they can even be true.”

How can I express my rapture for the voice of Mr Neil Gaiman. I gravitate towards his work like Pooh chases honey and as such, some of the pieces included within this collection of his non-fiction musings (speeches, reviews, introductions) on a number of topics were rather familiar to me. That is in no way to detract from my unadulterated affection for its content. Gaiman has the ability to make words sing. I am profoundly jealous the way he wields simple words with the kind of deft skill that can just as easily make me smile or cry. His wife is similarly infinitely talented; they must be the most intimidating couple to meet, but I’d love to.

I digress with my ‘fan-girling’ and should get back to the book, because if you’re still reading, I assume that’s what you came here for. Happily it’s a rather large volume that promises to take you on a wide variety of journeys. From comic book heroes to fairy tales, from science fiction to pornography, the subject matter is wide, diverse and intriguing.
After reading this, my aim in life is to write a novel and have Neil Gaiman write the introduction - that would be possibly the most life affirming circumstances this pea brain can envisage.

Rather than go on about the detail. I suggest you get yourself a copy and discover this joyous collection of words for your own enjoyment.

5 out of 5 myth, legend and fantastical, fabulous sentences.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

The Art of Money Getting, or Golden Rules for Making Money by P.T.Barnum

"To make money, requires a clear brain"

Well P.T. Barnum, some of your words of wisdom are delightfully quaint and some hold true today. This is the great American dream stuff, you know the drill, work hard and don't overspend and you'll get rich. The first chapter is concerned with choosing the right profession, something that is less important these days as people change careers with increasing velocity.
Some lessons remain relevant, using the best tools seems like a good idea. The notions that you should not rise above your station and preserve above all, trust me, these do no apply in this world. They tend to keep one trapped in middle management. I'd have to agree with preserving your integrity though, even in today's crazy world.

A quick and interesting time capsule of a read.

3 out of 5 times life is a circus

Ensnared by Rita Stradling

This review is going to depart from my usual format as the copy I received was pre-release and happily provided by netgalley for review in exchange for an honest review. I was compelled to request a review copy by virtue of the blurb which pointed to a re-imagining of Beauty and the Beast  and in my mind I’d anticipated something more along the lines of Gail Carriger’s steampunk universe and yet, this isn’t quite like that.

If I was to categorise this tale, it would probably be as science fiction romance and the connection to Beauty and the Beast acts as a thematic stepping off point, rather than front and centre. Any excuse for a Disney trailer though ( see below).

In the not too distant future, Alainn Murphy’s father has created a succession of increasingly more intelligent robots that look uncannily like her. Unlike self-deprecatory Alainn, Rose 76GF and her counterparts are convinced that they know more and offer the world more than their human model. 

When Alainn’s father finds himself in debt to the reclusive Lorccan Garbhan, his choices are to front up the robot model he has promised Lorccan or be sent to jail for fraud.  With Rose 76GF unwilling to comply, his daughter Alainn takes the robot’s place in Lorccan’s sterile tower and discovers love, intrigue and robotic monkeys in the process.

While the novel requires significant setting aside of moments of disbelief and there are a couple of plot holes here and there, it makes for an entertaining read and a fast one to boot.

I like the parallels between Alainn's sexual awakening and the awakening consciousness of the AI robots, it is a nifty conceit. That being said, I have notes that would no doubt constitute spoilers and so I'll leave them be.

4 out of 5 beastly points for this one.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

The Silent Duchess by Dacia Maraini

"The executioner continues to chew pumpkin seeds and with a defiant look spits the husks high into the air"
I have to admit that I don't even remember buying this book. It is a habit of mine; random book buying. In any case, this one was rather intriguing. A translation from Italian, there was something about the traumatic tale of a young deaf, mute woman married off to her old, wrinkly uncle that kept the pages turning. Lord knows even the prospect of having to marry one of my uncles would have me jumping off a cliff pronto and yet this heroine displays an almost never-ending resource of internal fortitude.  The setting of the novel, however, was quite some time ago and marriage to keep assets "in the family", perhaps was a potential kindness for a girl who would otherwise be tortured or left to rot. Sadly not many choices back then. 

The novel commences in quite horrific fashion with Marianna's father attempting to scare her into speech by taking her to a public execution. Well I guess there were no real housewives on the television in those times. Perhaps, I'm being a little flippant here.  The story is strangely compelling. There is a real sense of struggle for the powerless deaf mute and I was surprised by how engrossed I became in her struggles.

Having just googled the author, I note that she sounds particularly intriguing ; perhaps her  time spent as a child in a Japanese internment camp, gave her the tools to so vividly evoke a feeling of being trapped and without choices. What is so compelling is that a character with no real voice, can have such an impact.  Duchess Marianna's communication through writing is also reflective of the story telling process itself and this lends the tale added texture.

5 out of 5 times reading through this I was glad not to be cursed with the baby making duties of a silent Duchess.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

"We don't teach boys to care about being likeable."

I have always considered  that people are people and that the fact that you have an internal or exterior appendage should really not dictate your behaviour. I've always sought out jobs in male dominated industries to prove that point. Lately, it has been getting to me. Equality seems more and more to be a platitude that people speak of while their actions undermine their very words.

Here are 52 short pages that brilliantly describe some of the core problems and how we might have a hope of addressing them. For instance, how can I have a father that claims to want the best for me and yet laughs at my career "attempts" and belittles any commentary I might have about the industry we have both worked in?

 How is it that I if I earn more than a boyfriend or husband with far inferior intellect, skills and experience;he knows that he can potentially out do my earning potential?

Clearly the scales are not balanced and I think this tiny tome clearly and disppassionatley sets that out.

It is both equal parts distressing and reassuring that the author's experiences in Nigeria, Lagos and America reflect the same struggles around equality of gender. I share her aspirations for "A world of happier men and happier women who are truer to themselves".
In today's crazy media fixated society I worry that aspiration is drifting further away.

 5 out of 5, we should all be feminists. 

The Course of Love by Alain de Botton

“Two cups of tea later, they have agreed to drive back to IKEA, where they eventually manage to pick out some glasses that they will both succeed in tolerating for the rest of their lives: twelve tumblers from the Svalka range”

It is a rare skill to refine the words and images of a life in order to draw out real meaning and that is exactly what Mr de Botton has done here. He does it beautifully too. I dare anyone to read this and not reconsider their previous loves in the spotlight of what's reflected here. For our notions of romance are not sustainable and to nurture something real is all about finding the balance you can live with, supporting and receiving support and prioritising that unit.
I can only really comment on that from cold observation, for to be completely honest, I've never really found that myself. 

Certainly I could relate to both Kirsten and Rabih's challenges of the death of sexual attraction, the attraction of being a couple for the prestige it elicits from one's parents and colleagues,;but when you boil it all down, I've just never really met my match and that's sad. Perhaps I never will. 

In any case I'm done with pretending to be less, being conciliatory and all those other falsehoods that draw them in before they see behind the curtain. I'm aiming higher. When I look at this very real portrayal of a married couple ( and I've been there - married that is - despite feeling it probably was more about ticking off a life goal than anything else) I'm encouraged that we are all pretty rubbish communicators and tend to get everything wrong. Life is really about the mistakes we make and how we change because of them. I think this novel really reflects that. It is insightful, hard to read at times and beautiful.

Don't cheat. Just hire a hotel room and try to remember what you fancied about the person in the first place, if that's not there... you are probably best to run.

 5 out of 5, hugs all-round. 

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

"That we were wonderful travelling companions, but in the end no more than lonely lumps of metal on their own separate orbits."

In some ways, this is the perfect novel to bid farewell to a one sided, toxic relationship with. It is dreamlike, melancholic, beautiful and disturbing. So much love unable to be realised. 

The narrator, K, is hopelessly in love with his friend Sumire, who has never felt anything until she collides with the disturbed Miu ,who can't return the affections that Sumire feels and bam, Sumire just disappears.

Miu wants to make her friend Sumire happy and complete and yet can't  contend with the idea of any lover after her own traumatic sense of circumstances.It is not just the idea of coupling with another woman that lacks appeal. Miu has her own white hair inducing issues. The ferris wheel story reminds me of the way we sometimes repress horrible memories and imagine them as happening to someone else. Miu is a beautiful shell of a person.

In the idyllic Greek Islands, Sumire's disappearance brings K together with Miu and her back story is revealed through Sumire's otherworldly writing. K is propelled into a strange half life and wonders where in time and space Sumire could be. The ending is confusing and strange, is Sumire really back? It seems unlikely that she's returned like Homer's Odyssey and yet the question remains.

The writing, as always is delectable. I'm consumed with jealousy at the deliciousness of the words.

"Maybe, in some distant place, everything is already, quietly lost. Or  at least there exists a silent place where everything can disappear, melding together in a single, overlapping figure. And as we live our lives we discover - drawing towards us the thin threads attached to each - what has been lost."

5 out of 5, life is too short not to read Murakami.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

"He did not know  why he was so irrationally happy, for nothing was changed in his life or hers."

This is a slim, but powerful volume. I imagine that, had I read it as a younger person, I would not have enjoyed it nearly as much. Perhaps what struck me was the sense of futility of middle age, of being trapped in an unpleasant, unrewarding situation and being tempted by the promise of an alternative.
There is a sense of the inevitable that lends the air of gothic horror to the New England farm. Every woman fears the sense that, as she ages, she becomes invisible and in some ways Zeena is the very personification of this. Her cousin, Mattie, is her potential sparkly new replacement. **Spoilers**, no-one gets their happy ending here. Zeena and Ethan trapped in a loveless marriage, Matty caught between love and destitution; and no-one profiting from the tragic events that ultimately bind them all together.
Certainly my review might give you the impression that the novel is hard going and it was not a quick or easy read, despite its size.  That being said, it was beautifully and poignantly rendered. I was particularly surprised that a broken pie dish and a sled ride could move me so much. I'd be interested to hear your opinions.

 5 out of 5 times love is fleeting and we all become our worst relatives.