Monday, 17 April 2017

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

"Lust and desire, which placed private interest over the public good, was a bourgeois luxury and a political crime."

Investing time into a 300+ page novel is sadly something I really lack adequate time for these days, and that is my loss. Nevertheless, I was looking forward to exploring this highly praised novel ( shortlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction, Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and last year's winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize). You know me, sucker for a shortlist.
There are sublime moments within the novel that place it firmly in the winner's seat, and yet.... I really struggled with this one. I feel that I've gained a new understanding about the social upheaval and struggle of the cultural revolution, a period in history that was completely foreign to me and that, I find really impressive. My struggles were with keeping track of the many characters and time frames given my own time constraints - reading a few pages per night just before heading to sleep. Perhaps if I had read the novel on a plane or by the pool on holidays, my response would be slightly more favourable.  Perhaps this is a work that demands undivided attention for better appreciation.

I still think its great, and I just wish I could have immersed myself more fully within its pages. I did love the book within a book and reflections on the transgressive nature of storytelling.

 4 out of 5 people should never smash a violin.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

A Boy's Own Life by Edmund White

"People say young love or love of the moment isn't real, but I think the only love is the first. Later we hear its fleeting recapitulations throughout our lives, brief echoes of the original theme in a work that increasingly becomes all development, the mechanical elaboration of a crab canon with too many parts."

A gorgeous novel that transports the reader into the life of a young boy growing up in the 1950s. His family life is vividly depicted along with his struggles to come to terms with his growing attraction to men and failed attempts to 'cure' his homosexual leanings. There is so much feeling here and torment in trying to find a way forward. 

The writing perfectly conveys the yearning and confusion of young adulthood - the quest for love and acceptance is something we can all relate to. Certainly the sense of feeling apart from your peers is one that immediately takes me back to adolescence. There are moments within the novel of complete heartbreak, of the joy of discovery, and an awakening of the powers of adulthood.

It is clear why this novel is one of the 1001 books to read before you die, and I'm very glad I have.

5 out of 5 love letters are a bad idea.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Mary by Vladimir Nabokov

"It had lasted no more than four days - four days which were perhaps the happiest days his life"

No reality can ever compete with the glorious and perfect memories of young love. Memories are untroubled by the angst and worries that might have existed in reality. They are edited and perfect, like an amazing portrait in a gallery, preserved in its perfection. 
This little tale from the author of Lolita,  at times beautifully outlines such ideas.
There are sublime descriptive pieces in here and yet they are interspersed with some real filler.
Most of us can relate in some way to Ganin, frustrated with everyday life and dreaming of some ideal that can never be. Perhaps that is the curse of getting older.

4 out of 5 times misery doesn't always love company.

What Maisie Knew by Henry James

"Maisie's eyes opened wide again; this was so different from what she had expected."

Yet another rare occasion where I'd seen the movie before reading the book. Hard to believe seeing as it is a classic. Perhaps it was the allure of Skarsgard, yes definitely. What struck me with the film and was further underlined by the novel, was how despicable Maisie's parents are. Here is an impressionable young child, trying to make sense of a fractured family life due to her narcissistic parents.

I've been rather busy with work and reading this in fits and starts. The dense language and strange pacing evoke the meandering thought process of a child, and yet make reading difficult. This is not an easy read by any stretch of the imagination and quite possibly my least favourite James novel. Maisie's tale is probably rather familiar to many broken families these days and far more common than I imagine would have been the case in 1897 when it was first published.

Maisie's parents have divorced and Maisie spends her time divided between both households. Her father re-marries her governess - hello cliche - or shades of Affleck (allegedly). Her mother is equally frightful and yet manages to ensnare a new lover in the form of Sir Claude, who seems to have a real rapport with the young child. When Sir Claude and Maisie's former governess end up cheating on their respective partners with each other, brought together in some part by their interactions about the child, things get very messy.

As for the rest, I'm sure I can leave it to you to explore the sub 300 pages for yourself. It certainly makes for an interesting comparison with the cinematic outing. The film from 2012 has been modernised and is perhaps therefore much more easy to access and relate to. Both share, at their centre, the innocent upbeat perspective of a young child attempting to make sense of a complicated adult world. I'd be interested to re-read the novel when I've got more dedicated time because I think that my review might be bumped up another star in that instance.

4 out of 5 stars from this precocious kid.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Under the Skin by Michel Faber

"Already he looked much like all the others she had picked up; later, when his clothes were off, he would look more or less identical."

I've avoided reading this for quite some time and I have no idea why. This is one of those rare instances where I watched the film before reading the novel and I'm slightly miffed because I was haunted by Scarlett Johanssen and a little too aware of what was really going on. Both the novel and the film are excellent and if you've not encountered either, I think perhaps, as is usually the best bet, go for the book first.

So how to discuss the novel without giving too much away. It is rather difficult. Potential spoilers coming. There is this fascinating juxtaposition of the way we treat dogs versus cattle and they way (spoiler alert) the aliens harvest their human meat. The alien identifies as human and the locals as lower life forms. Her reaction to sheep is particularly interesting. 

Apart from harvesting lonely, male, hitchhikers,the protagonist wrestles with her transformation to fit in with the locals - the overblown boobs based upon a local magazine ( I think we know which kind), the mutilation of her natural form and the troubling feelings that immersion with the vodsels have evoked.  Faber has this amazing way of humanising the aliens and by doing so, causing the reader to think closely about what it means to be human.

Good news also that this is another tick on the 1001 list and the guardian list. Yes, I'm list mad, you should know that by now.

5 out of 5 - A thrilling read.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks

There is no maze more labyrinthine, it would seem, that the human mind. Written in 1985, this strange collection of tales of neurological patients from the pen of renowned Neurologist, Oliver Sacks (perhaps best known for Awakenings – the book that inspired the movie) is just as quirky as the title suggests.

The old woman plagued by the Irish songs of her youth, the man convinced he’s still 19 when clearly in his seventies, the twin idiot savant mathematicians, are characters that shock and fascinate. Perhaps this book was the perfect remedy for complete and utter abject work frustration. It seems that the peculiarities of unusual mental maladies make for far greater entertainment than report writing.

Perhaps what is most frightening is the potential for our own faculties to deceive us, that is something that is very difficult to process.

5 out of 5 crazy stories prove truth is often stranger than fiction.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Chess by Stefan Zweig

"There's not much point in describing the game."

Does chess drive you a little berserk? Then perhaps this is the novella for you. Perhaps I jest, and yet this thin sliver of a book is fantastic and certainly worth reading. Mirko Czentovic,somewhat of an idiot savant and the current world chess champion, is leaving New York for Buenos Aires on a cruise ship.
On board he encounters a man with an almost uncanny ability to predict his moves, little does he know what a game with him will deliver.
It is really easy to see why this Austrian novella is included in the 1001 novels list, it is original and really draws the reader in.

5 out of 5 - good things do come in small packages it seems.