Saturday, 30 October 2010

When a voice makes all the difference...

I was never much of a reader as a boy but I found listening to audiobooks an invaluable way to enjoy the excitement of stories without the chore of actually reading words on a page. I also listened to them as a sleeping aid.

These days I listen to audiobooks to keep me entertained on my long walks to work each day. In the past I have really enjoyed listening to such classics as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde read by Christopher Lee and I Am Legend read by Robertson Dean these artists actually work hard to bring the story to life and create characters using only their voices, acting abilities and enthusiasm to create a tense and enjoyable atmosphere...then you get people like Edward Asner who narrated an audiobook version of 'Sphere' by Michael Crichton.

Asner is, without a doubt, the most infuriating narrator I have ever experienced. I understand that he may be popular in the US for his work as Lou Grant on the 'Mary Tyler Moore Show' but his audiobook work is so atrocious I found myself convinced that throwing myself off a bridge was preferable to listening to another second of his wheezing, mumbling intonations.

When Asner is trying to sound sincere he sounds bored to the verge of passing out and speaks so softly you can hardly hear him, at points his voice is barely more than a whisper. When the tempo increases and the excitement builds Asner compensates for this by attempting to speed up his dialogue, as one does when something exciting happens, however due to his lack of skill (and possibly due to being a thousand years old) he cannot keep up with his own words and ends up muttering and slurring. In fact Asner was 72 years old in 2001 when he made this recording and it really shows, in consequence all of the characters in the story sound ancient. There is no variation in his voice for different characters which makes it hard to tell who is saying what. The only exception to this are his pathetic attempts at imitating a female which he does by softening his voice even more (which hardly seems possible) and raising the pitch slightly. As a result when two female characters have a conversation it sounds like a geriatric drag queen talking to himself.

Asner effectively ruined the story for me as I found myself physically unable to listen to his voice for more than five minutes without wanting to break things. If I was ever a spy and captured by the enemy there would be no need to electrocute, starve or beat me. Just tie me to a chair and force me to listen to Asner going on for ten minutes and I'd be willing to tell you anything you wanted to know.

Have you ever had a bad audiobook experience?

Friday, 29 October 2010

Edgar Allan Poe

My wife bought me this book a few months back for me to try since I've been enjoying horror stories of late. Before I picked up this book I had never read Poe before and was wholly ignorant of the bizarre circumstances of his life and death.

The book is a collection of twenty five short stories, one complete novel and one poem (The book's full title is 'Edgar Allan Poe, The best of his macabre tales complete and unabridged' which doesn't exactly fall off the tongue) Most of the stories featured are horror however a few of his detective stories were thrown in for good measure. I am reviewing the short stories here and plan to review the full novel at a later date.

I enjoyed reading the short stories and found Poe's writing style easier to get on with than I anticipated. Poe did have an unfortunate habit of putting Latin, French and German sayings into his stories. This wouldn't be so much of an issue if the publishers had included a translation for those of us who only speak English but unfortunately they did not so I was often forced to put the book down mid-sentence and turn on the computer to look up the saying in case it was critical to the story (which it never was)

The horror stories were truly frightening, the accounts of premature burials made my skin crawl as did the cold and calculated murders often carried out by Poe's creations. The horror rarely involves any kind of 'beast' or 'monster' but rather the horrors of violence carried out by men either insane or just plain nasty.

Of the horror stories my favourite would have to be 'The Black Cat' the main character, possibly suffering from alcoholism and depression, takes his frustrations out on the family cat. One day in a fit of temper he attempts to kill the cat and, in the process, brutally murders his poor wife. He bricks her up inside a wall in the cellar...I won't say what happens next but needless to say the cat gets the last laugh!

Poe has a beautiful sense not only of fear and terror but also of irony and there is humour to be found within the pages which helps break up the melancholy. There is a good deal of insanity which features in many of the stories and I believe Poe understood about human psychology and how fear can paralyse a person or cause irrational behaviour. Sadly not all of his horrors were entirely original and after a while I noticed common themes which were often repeated from story to story; Poe seemed to have a pre-occupation with bricking people up behind walls!

Sadly I did not enjoy Poe's mystery stories as much as his horror stories (with the exception of the first story; The Gold-Bug) and found them far too tedious to bother with but this did not deter me too much as I was mainly interested in the horror stories anyway.

Oddly enough my overall favourite story in the collection doesn't fit into the category of horror or mystery. It is called 'The Angel of the Odd' and I have rarely come across a more fascinating, diverting and original story. The main character reads a typically apocryphal tabloid newspaper story and declares his disbelief to himself. No sooner has he done so than a bizarre creature who declares itself as the Angel of all the odd, bizarre and unusual things that happen in the world makes its appearance in his rooms. Ever the skeptic the protagonist patronises the angel resulting in it leaving his rooms in a rage. Soon after a series of odd events begin to plague the man who, by the end of the story, is forced to beg for mercy from the Angel.

I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to glimpse the darker side of human nature or just anyone who loves horror. A very good collection.

Final verdict 4/5

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Madame Bovary

I read Madame Bovary as part of a read-along hosted by Nonsuch books. Please do check out the other reviews and thoughts on this novel.

Madame Bovary is a complex character and my attitudes and thoughts towards her changed in various ways throughout the novel. Emma is someone who is unsatisfied with what life has to offer a women in her position at that time which is something that a modern reader could surely understand. But instead of being an intelligent women who tries to forge her own happiness in her own way, she is instead quite often very silly, vain and selfish. Her interests in affairs, material goods and religion prove ultimately without substance and happiness remains ever elusive. While I could understand her, her behaviour and the fact that she was not in a bad position compared with other women at that time meant that I could never feel sorry for her.

The other characters in the small town of Yonville-l'Abbaye are all unlikeable in their own way from Emma’s husband who is pretty hopeless overall, to the shopkeeper who ruins Emma into debt deliberately for his own profits and Emma’s lover Rodolphe who simply plays Emma like a fiddle for his own amusement. I am assuming that Flaubert was holding the mirror up to a certain part of French society here and unfortunately I am not knowledgeable enough to comment on how effective Flaubert was in this regard but I did wonder if Flaubert liked any of his characters at all. I'm guessing not.

Quite a lot of people have complained that this novel bored them. I think, the self-destructive behaviour of Emma does run in a loop which is repeated a few times until her untimely demise. This repeated unrepentant behaviour and the slow pace of novel in general meant that I find it understandable if people do complain that they found it boring although I personally didn't.

This novel certainly raised questions for me and made me ponder about the Madame Bovarys of today but the unlikeable characters and the overall slow pace makes it unlikely that I will pick this one up again. After saying that, I have found that the people reading this for the second time for the read-along seem to have got more out of the experience and this book was not what I was expecting at all (in a good way).

Verdict 3/5

Posted by Jess

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Bartleby the Scrivener (good) Moby Dick (bad)

Bartleby is an attempt of mine to read more short stories, I often complain that I 'don't like them' but I'm really beginning to see that I just hadn't read that many great ones. Despite Bartleby being written in the long winded heavy prose that Melville writes in, this has to be one of my favourite short stories.

Bartleby is hired by a lawyer (who narrates the story) to work as a scrivener the lawyers office along with the two existing scriveners. Bartlebys job is to hand-copy documents (in the days before photocopiers) sometimes over and over. One day when Bartleby is asked by his boss to do something, he replies 'I prefer not too' and he goes onto repeat this phase every-time he is required to do anything causing ciaos in the office.

This story had me feeling quite a few emotions over the course of its 40 or so pages. At first I felt the frustration of the lawyer as he deals with a man who will not leave this office (even at night or the weekend) and refuses to do anything apart from stare out the window. I mean what would you do if a co-worker did this? because the phrase 'I prefer not too' is not technically an outright refusal.

Of course the most obvious answer would be of course to sack him which the lawyer attempts to do only to be confronted by the hilarious reply 'I would prefer not to quit you'. It was at this point I began to find the whole thing quite funny and I laughed when Bartleby uttered his phase as his boss grew more and more frustrated. I also found it funny when the narrator at a complete loss decides to move his office just so that he does not have to face Bartleby again.

Towards the end however the story took on a more darker turn and when the story ended I felt sad about its inevitable ending, but it also had me thinking about what it all meant. After pondering it for a few weeks I have come to my own conclusions but have also realised compassion and responsibly are major themes and that the story is as much about the narrator as it is Bartleby. The narrator attempts to understand and help Bartleby and shows humanity towards him when a lot of other people would have walked away, but of course there is only so much one human being can do for another and unfortunately the narrator reaches that limit.

I also personally see it as a tale of how soul destroying working in an office can be (or to put it more intellectually and essay like; a story of corporate discontentment and how this environment affects the human condition). The office where the story takes place is small and the windows look out onto a sheer brick-wall which is what Bartleby stares at all day long. The work Bartleby does at the beginning is monotonous, he is not fully engaging his brain but instead doing the same repetitive task until one day he stops. Even at the end of the story when Bartleby has the opportunity to look at more of a view, he instead would rather stand inches away staring at a wall. The narrator also concludes at the end that Bartlebys condition was either caused or exasperated by his previous employment working at the dead letter office.

Would I recommend this? I warn you that its written in Melville's normal style which can be heavy going, but I found this story funny, sad and incredibility thought provoking.

Verdict 5/5

Now for the bad news; I have given up at last on Moby Dick. I tried, I really did try, I read 300 pages and even though I had come so far with it I honestly don't think I could stand to read the last 200 pages. When an animal lover like me would quite happily see that dam whale carved up in front of me just so my misery could end, I knew it was time to put it down.

Posted by Jess

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore

After enjoying The Siege by Helen Dunmore I decided to see if I would enjoy any of her other books considering I have brought ten of them (they were on special offer and came as a set, I'm not mad)

The actual plot is not anything particularly new. The main protagonist Nina visits her sister Isabel to help out after the difficult birth of Isabel's baby. The novel then has the set up of two sisters, family secrets, set during a hotter than average Summer, secrets threaten to wrench them apart etc etc. Despite the familiar set up though I could not put this book down.

There are a lot of dark themes running throughout the book and the two sisters Nina and Isabel are not particularly likeable (in fact almost hateful) but I was desperate to know what happened next and the writing conjured up a wonderfully tense atmosphere.

I'm not giving much away but I will say that the plot had me guessing right up to (and I'm not exaggerating) the last sentence. This novel is disturbing and at times I was shocked by events but it is also additively intriguing.

"Slowly, slowly, I push open the door of Susan's room. I make no sound. The pale curtains are drawn, and the room smells of the new pine furniture, and baby sleep. He is rosy with the heat, his hair damp, his fist up to his face. He is sleeping on his side, and Isabel has put a rolled up towel beside him so he can't turn onto his face. I creep right up to the cot. His weight dents the mattress. He looks more solid than I've ever seen him. Already he's changing, filling out, and that fist by his face looks strangely mature."

Would I recommend this? Even if you don't happen to come across this particular book, its worth picking up a book by this author and if you haven't already because as demonstrated above the writing is wonderful.

Verdict 4/5

Posted by Jess

Friday, 22 October 2010

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

Ah I am naïve (or ignorant)sometimes. When I composed my list of American Classics to read (see 'The American Project') I merrily threw caution to the wind and added authors that I had never heard of, as well as those I had, with not the faintest idea of what their writing was actually like. Thomas Pynchon was one such author. Both 'Gravity's Rainbow' and 'The Crying of Lot 49' were both on my list. I read 'The Crying of Lot 49' first after a suggestion from Brenna of Literary Musings and boy am I glad I listened to her.

The Crying of Lot 49 is a small book at just over 100 pages long and I can't really do a proper synopsis as I am sure I only got the general gist of the plot. It has something to do with a woman called Oedipa investigating a conflict between two mail companies in America one of which has been forced to operate underground. Anyway she runs around bumping into wacky and strange characters while she investigates this and it all (I think) has something to do with her late ex-boyfriend's will...I think, frankly I'm still not sure.

Some parts of this book actually had me laughing and was really funny. I read out a couple of bits to Chris because I found them so funny, but he only looked at me confused before asking “What the hell are you reading? What kind of idiot would post a St. Bernard on periscope watch during the Battle of Gallipoli?'. I had to quickly explain that I was describing a film in the book which Oedipa was describing. Makes perfect sense then.

Despite not having a clue what was going on I struggled through, laughing in places, finding other parts strangely melancholy and yet other parts frustrating and boring. During this I had but one thought in my head; there is no WAY I am reading Gravity's Window.

So while I can belong to the club of people that have read a Thomas Pynchon book I will never belong to the rather elite group of people that have tackled Gravity's Window because I am taking that off the list.

One person who has recently read Gravity's Window is Greg from The New Dork Review of Books. You should go over there and pat him on the back, he deserves it :)

Posted by Jess

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Flowers for Algernon

It is a rare and wonderful thing; to read a book that makes you question the way you look at life. I found Flowers for Algernon to be such a powerful, beautiful and poignant book that I'm not sure I'm quite the same person after reading it.

The main character is Charlie Gordon, a good natured floor sweeper in the local bakery with an IQ of 68. To please his teacher Charlie volunteers for a secretive scientific program designed to turn people like him into super geniuses with IQs in excess of 200. The book is structured into a series of 'progress reports' written by Charlie shortly before and then after his treatment. The whole thing is seen through his eyes only. Right at the beginning of the book the progress reports (or 'progris riports' as Charlie writes) are written as if by a child. Here is an example of a typical passage early in the book:

“My name is Charlie Gordon I werk in Donners bakery where Mr Donner gives me 11 dollars a week and bred or cake if I want. I am 32 yeres old and next munth is my brithday I tolld dr Strauss and prefesser Nemur I cant rite good but he says it dont matter he says I shud rite just like I talk”

As you can imagine it's not easy reading whole reports written like this but they don't last long after his procedure and by page 20 there are visible improvements to his writing. Around the page 40 mark there are hardly any mistakes at all and the length of the reports increases significantly.

Art by Matt Valuckis

As the story progresses and his intelligence increases Charlie becomes more aware of his surroundings and is able to communicate more effectively both with the reader and with other characters in the book. By halfway through the book he has become unrecognisable not just because of his obvious increase in intelligence but his overall outlook on life and even his personality. He goes from happy-go-lucky Charlie to a Mensa standard genius who is suddenly aware of what the real world is like and that everyone he used to hold as dear friends prior to his operation were actually laughing at him the whole time.

Charlie is a loveable character and I found myself quite fond of him. I desperately wanted him to be happy and believed (as I imagined I was supposed to) that once he gained intelligence it would lead to happiness. It is in this way that Daniel Keyes most effectively challenges stereotypes and prejudices I didn't even know I had. 'How can a person as stupid as that possibly be happy?' In reality even though Charlie was deluded into thinking people were his friends when he had a low IQ he was very happy. When he gained intelligence he also gained self-awareness and a strong insight into his life and his past problems. Loneliness, humiliation, insecurity, paranoia and anger threatened to overwhelm him as he struggled to come to terms with his new mind.

The book is multi-layered and I am certain when I re-read it I will notice other things I didn't see the first time around. Ultimately for me the main question that sprang out of the pages was; Is ignorance bliss? Is it better to go through life happy in the knowledge that everyone was your friend even though they weren't or would you rather be smart enough to know about their falsehood and be aware that the world is full of cruel, ignorant's a good one for discussion I feel.

All in all a wonderful book not bogged down with any technical jargon and packed full of colourful characters and a heart-wrenching story that may or may not change the way you think (I make no guarantees!)

Final verdict 5/5

By Chris

Monday, 18 October 2010

Don't Look Now by Daphne du Maurier

Don’t Look Now and Other Stories was published in the 70s and of course is very well known because of the film made from the title story with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of short stories but I think this is purely because I haven’t read that many great ones. I did however thoroughly enjoy this collection and I have been thinking about why this is.

The whole collection are on the longer side for short stories which are all over or around 50 pages. This meant that I was able to really get into the stories and I was fully satisfied with them all.

Quite often with short stories I get the impression that the author had some vague small idea and decided to incorporate that into a short story because they didn’t know what else to do with it. Not so with these stories, stuff actually happens in these! We have murder, bombings, evil experiments and mystery going on, its exciting stuff and I was certainly never bored.

My favourite story in the collection is Don’t Look Now but I enjoyed them all and found them to be compelling and suspenseful.

Would I recommend this? Yes, if like me you haven’t read that many short stories then this would be a great collection to start with and I’ll definitely be reading Du Mauriers other short stories.

Verdict 4/5

Posted by Jess

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Charles Darwin Autobiography

Charles Darwin was an amazing man, his contribution to science helped change the way we view the world and although not everyone can appreciate the finer details of his work there can't be many people who haven't heard of him.

Considering all he had achieved, Darwin's autobiography is surprisingly short (only 90 pages) however, as with his 'Voyage of the Beagle' and 'Origin of Species' I find his writing style very dry and difficult to read.

Having said that the portions of the book in which he talks about his family, childhood experiences and friends are very interesting and give the reader an excellent idea of his early life. Sadly the latter chapters of the book slip into details of his scientific publications which I really found boring and a poor ending to the book in general. If you are a fan of Darwin it is definately worth a read but otherwise you probably won't appreciate it.

Final rating 3/5


Saturday, 16 October 2010

The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds

Adam Foulds novel `The Quickening Maze' is a novel loosely based on factual events which took place at High Beach Private Asylum in Epping Forest where the poet John Clare was incarcerated during the 1840s.

The novel gives the reader brief encounters with a large array of characters such as John Clare, the owner Dr Allen and members of his family, other patients and Alfred Tennyson. The writing could be described as sparse but unfortunately due to the mass of different characters combined with the novels short size meant that sometimes the narrative was very confusing in places and I never really felt as though the main issues were fully explored.

On reflection though there is a lot to like about it. The narrative is beautiful and creates an atmosphere of dreamy silence and has an almost Gothic feel to it. The contrast between the Asylum and the quiet surrounding forest where Gypsies make their home is wonderfully done as are the delusions of John Clare who thinks he is married to his first love and Hannah, the Dr's daughter who is embarking on her first love.

The novel does pick up momentum towards the end and I did begin to get submerged in the ‘maze’ of the different narratives and the general atmosphere that the book inspired.

Would I recommend this? Although this novel does have its problems I am glad I read it and can understand why it was short-listed for the booker prize in 2009. I would recommend this more for people who enjoy a more quiet pace of novel with beautiful prose.

Verdict 31/2 / 5

Posted by Jess

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Madame Bovary Part 1

Part 1 (58 pages) of Madame Bovary got read this week as part of Nonsuch Books read-along. I did manage to get hold of the new translation from Lydia Davis and so far I am finding it enjoyable and surprising.

I knew the basic plot of the novel 'bored housewife dives into fantasy and overspends leading to tragedy' so I was surprised that the first part of the book is really nothing like this.

Madame Bovary in the first part is far from my expectations of a scarlet hussy and is instead quite a normal young women. After marrying a rather boring doctor with no ambition she finds that married life does not quite live up to the romantic ideal that she thought it would be. After attending an extravagant ball at the home of a wealthy nobleman, Emma Bovary realises that her life is boring and dull in comparison which proves detrimental to her health and she becomes depressed.

The world that Flaubert describes is not necessary a boring and dull one but rather a realistic one. Unfortunately Emma has grown to believe that life is very much like the romantic novels that she constantly reads. I read an article on the BBC a few years ago which stated that women who read a lot of 'chick lit' today may have unrealistic expectations when it comes to relationships, OK this may have been abit of lazy journalism which used sweeping generalisations but Madame Bovary reminded me of this. It is not therefore surprising when she finds 'real' life and marriage are not as easy or wondrous as she was expecting; to this I am inclined to say 'join the club' ;)

Posted by Jess

Monday, 11 October 2010

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

The Hours follows the day in the life of three women, Virginia Woolf in 1920s London, Laura Brown in 1940s Los Angeles and Clarissa Dalloway in 1990s New York. The day goes through the mundane while themes such as depression, suicide and death feature quite heavily until all three lives converge.

Well I have never read Mrs Dalloway (in fact I’ve never even read Woolf) so I am unable to comment on the similarities between the narrative of the two books.

The author has made the mundane meaningful and the novel is quick and relatively easy to read. The way the women’s day intertwine and mirror each other is very clever as is the way their life's link at the end.

But while I liked this book, I did not love it. The book for some reason did not emotionally stir me in anyway to the point that I was almost left cold, I found the whole thing completely humourless without any kind of joy. Aside from Laura Brown, I failed to really connect with the rest of the characters or their situation as they meandered from one depressing thought to another.

I did see the film a few years ago and I remember finding that a far more emotional experience to the point that I almost cried. Laura Brown in the film also got the opportunity to explain herself better which added impact at the end. Perhaps because I had seen the film first I was let down slightly by the book? I realise that having a film ruin the reading experience of a book is quite rare but the film was wonderfully cast and it filled in a few gaps for me.

Would I recommend this? My feelings towards the book are very much in the minority so I would seek out other reviews rather than take my word for it. However it might have more of an impact and understanding if the novel Mrs Dalloway was read first?

Verdict 3/5

Posted by Jess

Saturday, 9 October 2010

24 Hour Readathon

Well just in the nick of time I have signed up to the Dewey 24 hour readathon.

Since Chris is away for most of today (along with the car) I should have plenty of reading time between entertaining my toddler with visits to the park etc.

Unfortunately I do not have a neat little readathon pile of books because I am reading so many at the moment (how did that happen!) So I'm going to try and finish one I am currently reading.

I am about 200 pages into The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay so my aim is to either finish it or at least get most of it read (there are over 600 pages)

I'll keep updating this post as I go and goo luck to everyone else participating especially those 'mad ones' that are actually staying awake for 24 hours ;)

Beginning of Readathon - percentage of book read 34%

After 4 hours during which my son refused to have his nap (why today of all days eh?)he did however quite happily play in his cot for an hour, but then decided that no he wasn't going to sleep - 51%

After 10 hours during which I had to pop out, bath and put little man to bed and wat Strictly come dancing. I am now going to bed so my total for today is 66% done which I am very happy with. Good night everyone.

Posted by Jess

Friday, 8 October 2010

Titus Groan

Titus Groan is the first book in the Gormenghast trilogy written in 1946.

Castle Gormenghast is an ancient gothic stronghold, vast in size yet slowly crumbling into disrepair after many centuries of neglect. The mighty castle is ruled by the eccentric Groan family; half-mad members of the aristocracy whose antics might be more in line with what you would expect inside a sanatorium. At the beginning of the book the 77th heir to the throne of Gormenghast has been born; Titus. Despite the title of the book Titus remains a baby throughout and plays no significant part in the events that unfold. Instead the story focusses on the rest of the Groan family, their servants and a boy named Steerpike; a seventeen year old Machiavellian kitchen boy full of ambition and desires for power. Through the cunning use of manipulation, deceit and arson Steerpike escapes from servitude and, with impressive speed, manages to squirm his way into the affections of the ruling caste of Gormenghast with terrible, far reaching consequences.

The story is a serious one but there is a good deal of humour to be found in the pages. The settings are atmospheric and frightening. However the characters are what really brought the story alive for me. I'm not sure any other book contains within its pages such a concentration of eccentric misfits. Bizarre but also interesting and satisfying. Alas despite the truly wonderful character development the story, for me, ultimately failed to live up to my expectations.

The book is too long and, to be blunt, not an awful lot happens for most of it. Too much time is spent setting the scene and too little is given to dialogue between the characters. It could have been a brilliant story if it had been 100 pages shorter and there was a little more excitement.

Final verdict 3/5


Thursday, 7 October 2010

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

Stephen Crane wrote his civil war novel The Red Badge of Courage in 1895 and although he was born after this war, it is considered to be a realistic depiction of a young solider.
We take for granted now when literature depicts the psychological view of soldiers or only focus on a small group of recruits rather than the overview of a war so it’s not hard to see how influential The Red Badge of Courage has been.

The novel follows Henry, a new recruit to the Army who at first is subject to endless marching around and the boredom that accompanies it. While the soldiers sit around waiting for rumours that fighting will eventually begin, Henry has time to reflect on his situation and he wonders how he will react once he actually sees battle: will he stand and fight, or turn and run. This psychological battle in his head continues even when he is engaged in battle as he tries to overcome his fears.

“Well, I wanta do some fighting anyway,” interrupted the other. “I didn't come here to walk. I could 'ave walked to home-'round an' 'round the barn, if I jest wanted to walk.”

The novel is quite an intense read as Henry goes through a wide range of emotions from bravery, pride, wishing for a wound (his own read badge of courage) to sheer cowardice. These emotions along with the men’s contempt for their superiors make this one of the most interesting depictions of war I have ever read.

Unfortunately the writing is very heavy going and quite difficult to read. At times, especially during the battle scenes I had trouble working out what was going on and if Henry was observing or participating. This meant that I did not get emotionally involved with the story or with Henry which is a great shame as the ideas and concept is very interesting.

At times he regarded the wounded solders in an envious way. He conceived persons with torn bodies to be peculiarly happy. He wished that he, too, had a wound, a red badge of courage.

Would I recommend this? There are more modern novels which deal with similar themes which are easier to read and have more of an emotional impact so I wouldn’t recommend this one unless you had a particular interest in novels of this period or you wanted to understand why this novel is so influential.

Verdict 2 1/2/5

Posted by Jess

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

On the Road was first published in 1957 and is a largely autobiographical account of Jack Kerouac’s various road trips taken with his friends during the 1940s. All names were changed (to protect the not so innocent) and the story mostly features the characters Sal Paradise (based on Kerouac) and Dean Moriarty (based on real life person Neal Cassady) along with various other real life characters occurring throughout.

I have used this image from Wikipedia to show the different trips that Kerouac took and the book is about these journeys and about the drugs, casual sex and general naughtiness that went on while travelling the American highways. This book was originally written on a fifty-foot-long roll of paper and the narrative is realistic and vivid.

The novel overall has a fresh feel and I think this is because the idea of youth searching for more than the conformity of the society they are in is an idea which is being constantly being explored. This does not mean that the book is cliqued however as although the subject matter might not be original, the descriptions of their methods, ideas and the people they encounter is. Crossing the American continent is exhausting enough (I know, I did it) and Kerouac does not hide from the reader the sheer exhaustion, the dirty aspects, the arguments and broken friendships along the way.

One of the stronger aspects of the novel are the people that Sal and Dean encounter along the way. They have various conversations with drunks, travellers, drug addicts and poor immigrant workers all of whom often add more insight than Sal and his friends can provide. The friendship between Sal and Dean is also interesting and goes through many changes throughout as they spilt then meet up again.

A lot has been said on the bad behaviour of the characters and yes they take drugs, have wild parties, visit Mexican brothels and steal cars. This might not seem so shocking now but when you consider these guys were born before my grandmother it just goes to show that despite the fact that each generation thinks they invented teenage bad behaviour, they really didn’t.

There is no plot really, just the endless travels around which I think is the point. The book starts off as a celebration of youth while all the characters are young and free but as the novel progresses and the characters become older a sadness descends on the overall feel of the book. While their drug infused last adventure in Mexico might have been fun for the characters, I was left wondering why the character Dean was doing this while he had a wife who was pregnant and three other children in various states. I’m afraid I became a boring square and wondered when they were going to go home and face up to their responsibilities that THEY had created.

There was an even bigger sadness to come though after I finished the book and looked up what eventually happened to some of the characters long after the book was set. Kerouac died at 47 from cirrhosis caused by years of heavy drinking and his friend Neal Cassady died at 41 from exposure after passing out in the street in Mexico after a party. Perhaps these fates were inevitable when part of a generation collides with the society they live in, but really, was it worth it?

Would I recommend this? Well I was going to give a 3 star rating. But on reflection over a week later I am giving it 4 stars because its certainly given me a lot to think about.

Verdict 4/5

Posted by Jess

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta.'

From the very first line the narrator of Lolita, Humbert drags the reader into his world. Due to the subject matter of this book I was initially unsure how to begin reading this. I wondered if the subject of Paedophilia would be taken as seriously in Lolita as it is today. I wondered if Nabokov was going to manipulate the reader into sympathising with a Paedophile or if the relationship between a Paedophile and a 12 year old girl was going to somehow be presented as a legitimate love story. More puzzlingly I wondered how on earth people how had read this could describe it as a page turner given the disturbing subject matter.

So it was with curiosity and interpretation that I began to read Lolita and as soon as I did I couldn’t put it down and I began to indeed find it a ‘page turner’.

A simple review of Lolita is not going to give the book justice in anyway and will not demonstrate the beauty of the writing, the clever wordplay or that at points the reader has to look beyond parts of the narrative which are sometimes an illusion and try to see what the actual words are telling you. Instead of a review in my normal style, this will just be an outline of my thoughts from the book.

Lolita has an unreliable narrator, a VERY unreliable narrator. Just one look at the top passage demonstrates this, the way Humbert is talking there anyone would imagine that the object of his affection is some long limbed goddess. But of course Lolita is not. If you or I saw Lolita walking down the street all we would see is a normal looking 12 year old girl, but as the book is told through Humbert’s eyes so the reader sees Lolita as seen by him. While Humbert (because of how his Paedophile mind works) might perceive that Lolita is often a willing participant in their relationship and will sometimes narrate the story this way, the reader is left with clues as to how Lolita really feels or how certain scenarios really did play out. Not everything is quite as it seems and what you are reading did not necessarily happen in quite the way you are being told.

Lolita is a difficult character to pinpoint as she is only seen through Humbert’s eyes, but at various points in the narrative I felt her voice came through very strongly. When her voice does come through I saw a very unhappy girl with no where else to go. Humbert does go into detail on how he has to manipulate, lie and threaten Lolita to get her to stay with him on the crazy road trip they embark on; I was not given the impression at any point that Lolita was a willing participant in all of this.

'At the hotel we had separate rooms, but in the middle of the night she came sobbing into mine, and we made it up very gently. You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go.'

There are no ‘sex scenes’ but the narrative surrounding these events and the odd comment from both Humbert and Lolita have given me the illusion of thinking I have read more in this regard than I actually have.

'And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey.......was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tyres, and her sobs in the night – every night, every night – the moment I feigned sleep.'

I am sure many people will disagree with me but I think the point of the beautiful prose was to keep me reading and turning the pages rather then to get me to ‘sympathise’ with Humbert. If the book had been written with a sparse realistic narrative I am sure I would have stopped reading within a couple of chapters.

This is not a story of redemption. Although Humbert acknowledges at the end that he ‘destroyed something’ in Lolita he is never really sorry. Do not read this expecting a moral tale.

'I loved you. I was a pentapod monster, but I loved you. I was despicable and brutal, and turpid, and everything, mas je t'aimais. Je t'aimais! And there were times when I knew how you felt, and it was hell to know it, my little one. Lolita girl, brave Dolly Schiller'.

The above are my garbled thoughts and the parts which I think I will take away from it. It’s the kind of book which demands a re-read as I am sure that many parts of it went right over my head. If I was going to criticise I would say that towards the end, the book did linger quite a bit and became drawn out.

Would I recommend this? I can understand why people would have reservations about picking this one up (I did) but I would recommend that anyone interested in literature in anyway should give this a go.

Verdict 4 ½ /5

Posted by Jess

Saturday, 2 October 2010

A round up of my bookish news

I have done a guest post over at Fluttering Butterflies on Clovers 'awesome women' today so head over there to read about Beatrix Potter.

I have also been quite productive and have finished my list of American Classics which I hope to read. They are all listed under the page 'The American Project' at the top. I think I have a good mix of classics and more contemporary novels, there are a couple of non-fiction books and even a western in there. I wanted to have around 50 books in the list and I have ended up with just over so I'm quite happy with that, please let me know what you think of the list in general.

Finally I am currently struggling through Moby Dick. I am reading this very very slowly and am now half way through but everyday I swear this will be the day I give up on it. For some reason though I don't want to and every day I find myself reading a tiny bit more. Does this one get any better?

Posted by Jess

Friday, 1 October 2010

Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O’Connor was an American writer from the southern state of Georgia who wrote mostly short stories but she also wrote two novels including Wise Blood. Quite a lot of her stories are based in the south and contain elements of the grotesque and disturbing and have been described as 'Southern Gothic' but they also deal with moral and ethical issues as a result of her Roman Catholic faith. O’Connor was diagnosed with Lupus at a young age which eventually killed her and she wrote the majority of her work including her novels while battling with this disease.
Wise Blood has all these themes mentioned above and the result is a very strange book indeed.

The story opens with Hazel Motes, a man recently discharged from the Army, on the train to the fictional town of Taulkinham, Tennessee, where he's "...going to do some things I never have done before." Hazel has never been to Taulkinham and once he does get there and has sorted out his lodging, he goes about trying to start ‘the church without Christ’ by street preaching.

Allow me to give you a brief summery of ‘the church without Christ’. Hazel believes that he can be saved from evil by believing in nothing. If he has no soul to save then there is no such thing as sin and therefore he can do whatever the hell he likes. By avoiding sin this way he will get to meet Jesus (or something like that).Of course in doing this, Hazel just proves himself as a believer and other characters are used to argue different aspects of theology.

Other characters in the book include a preacher who may or may not have blinded himself with acid, his daughter who only believes in self-gratification and Hazel’s follower Enoch who is trying to find the new physical Jesus. As I say, it’s a strange strange book which brings in one grotesque character in after another and I’m not entirely sure what to make of it all.

I am glad I read it, the characters were all thought provoking and there was a large amount of black comedy throughout. However I don't think I really connected at all with the story and found the narrative quite strange and out of place in parts.

Would I recommend this? I am really not sure, this author has certainly intrigued me but this book will not leave you with a warm happy feeling at the end so it's up to you.

Verdict 3/5

Posted by Jess