Saturday, 26 February 2011

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

The Awakening was a novel which I knew nothing about when I added it to my ‘American Classics list’. When I did eventually get around to reading it I was firstly surprised at how short it is (around 100 pages) and that also the plot falls under the ‘bored housewife’ genre.

Of course I’m joking about the bored housewife genre bit and I certainly don’t mean to sound derogatory but you know the kinds of books I mean. I’m talking about women like Madame Bovary, women who are trapped in their marriage by the constraints of their social world and time period. BTW I did try to find other literary examples but alas I got mostly filth when I typed ‘bored housewife’s in literature’ into google.

While Bovary deals with her situation by delving into her own fantasy world, the protagonist in The Awakening, Edna Pontellier also tries to carve her own life away from her roles as a wife and mother. The catalyst for Edna is her own 'Awakening' when she suddenly cannot bear to keep her own passions (either for music, art or sexual) within any longer.

While I can see how ground-breaking the novel must have been and I can sympathise with Edna, I did not enjoy the actual reading experience of The Awakening. I found the prose while quite dreamlike and full of imagery also quite dull and for such a short book I struggled to read to the end.

I didn’t struggle to connect with Edna, I could see how she wanted to be something other than a wife and mother in that time period. I could see the point I just didn’t enjoy the writing style.

This is one that really you have to make your own mind up about and check out other reviews, many of which are far more favourable than mine.

Posted by Jess

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Coming Up for Air by George Orwell

Most people who read George Orwell’s most famous novels Nineteen Eighty-Four or Animal Farm will not then normally venture into his other lesser known novels. While Coming Up for Air does not have the dystopian impact of Nineteen Eighty-Four it is still a novel that works extremely well and it’s a shame that it is often overlooked.

The plot is very simple; George Bowling is a fat, forty five year old man who looks around at his life and wonders just how did he get here? After winning some money which he conceals from his wife, Bowling decides to use it to take a trip down memory lane and revisit his old childhood town.

"It must have been in 1930 that I got fat. It happened so suddenly that it was as if a cannon ball had hit me and got stuck inside. You know how it is. One night you go to bed, still feeling more or less young, with an eye for the girls and so forth, and next morning you wake up in the full consciousness that you're just a poor old fatty with nothing ahead of you this side the grave except sweating your guts out to buy boots for the kids."

The narrative mostly contains Bowling's own observations on his boyhood and British life during the 1930s as he tries to cope with the impeding threat of the Second World War and the changing world he finds himself in. The narrator himself stops the novel slipping into a rose-tinted haze by not being altogether likeable and yet despite this he is very ordinary, if doomed and beaten.

This might all sound thoroughly depressing but it contains some wonderful humour (very cynical humour) as Bowling's gives his observations in his wry way.

“When a woman's bumped off, her husband is always the first suspect--which
gives you a little side-glimpse of what people really think about marriage."

His childhood is looked back on with nostalgia which only causes disappointment when he does finally make his way back to his home town. This novel was published in 1939 but how many of us now can go back to a childhood town and think that everything seems so much smaller and see that the small business where you brought your sweets from has been taken over by a large chain-store? Everything changes including towns and cities and Bowling is uneasy and scared about it, by going back to his youth he believes he can once again be free to breathe.

Coming Up for Air is a real treat and even if you haven’t given Orwell a try before I recommend this.

"Is it gone forever? I’m not certain. But I tell you it was a good world to live in. I belong to it. So do you."

Posted by Jess

Thursday, 17 February 2011

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

Having read and hated Asimov's 'Foundation' I was hesitant to give 'I, Robot' a go, I was cynical and felt I was bound to be disappointed. I told myself that if I didn't like this book it would be the last Asimov book that ever darkened by TBR list.

I am thankful to say that I absolutely loved this book from start to finish!

I, Robot is a collection of short stories, all featuring the same characters, beginning with the first primitive robots available to the public and ending with machines controlling every aspect of everyday life on earth.

Asimov's visions of the future are not only interesting and exciting but, in my view, quite plausible. His depiction of robots are absolutely wonderful and the robots who feature in the book are never in the background nor are they dull. You can see where Asimov influenced future sci-fi writers both in books and the silver screen. The human characters are also brilliant especially the hapless Powell and Donovan, two US Robots and Mechanical Men engineers who are assigned the thankless, and often dangerous, task of field testing new robots. The two are always finding themselves in trouble and often had me creasing up with the predicaments they get into. A conversation between the two is one of my favourite parts in the book:

"'Your job,' said Powell, evenly, 'for the last five years has been to test new robots under actual working conditions for US Robots. Because you and I have been so injudicious as to display proficiency at the task, we've been rewarded with the dirtiest jobs. That,' he jabbed holes in the air with his finger in Donovan's direction, 'is your work. You've been griping about it, from personal memory, since about five minutes after US Robots signed you up. Why don't you resign?'

'Well I'll tell you...there's a certain principal involved. After all, as a trouble shooter, I've played a part in the development of new robots. There's the principal of aiding scientific advance. But don't get me wrong. It's not the principle that keeps me going; it's the money they pay us. Greg!"

With the Three Laws of Robotics in place most readers would think it impossible for anything to go wrong however Asimov has come up with numerous scenarios which prove even the most watertight of laws are not foolproof and soon things are going wrong with the robots as they struggle to come to practical terms with the Laws they are programmed to obey. Usually the unfortunate Donovan and Powell are on the receiving end as robots disobey the rules or just go insane because of conflicting information.

The best, and most profound, story of all of the collection in my opinion is 'Robbie' a powerful and emotional story which reminded me in some ways of the children's book 'The Snowman' by Raymond Briggs. I would go as far as to say this book is a must read not just for fans of science fiction.

Overall rating 5/5

Monday, 14 February 2011

Penguin Mini Classics

Already well known for their classic collections, Penguin have just released a series of 'mini modern classics' and they sent us two out of the fifty books they have released. As Chris immediately grabbed Lunar Caustic I was left with Odour of Chrysanthemums.

Odour of Chrysanthemums contains two very short stories by D.H. Lawrence and like his novels, the stories explore married relationships within an industrial setting.

In Odour of Chrysanthemums a women realises how little she really knew her husband while the second story, The Blind Man, focuses on the close relationship between a blind man and his wife. Both stories have an intimate feel about them because the narrative is sorely focused on the characters immediate environment and thoughts. After reading and finding Lady Chatterleys lover very boring (even the naughty bits) I was very pleasantly surprised by the stories in this book which are thought provoking and very touching.

D.H. Lawrence does not spell out the meaning or the point to these stories, instead he leaves it to the reader to perhaps re-read the last few pages and come to their own conclusions.

By Jess

Lunar Caustic

Malcolm Lowry began writing this novella in 1936 but due to his turbulent lifestyle he didn't finish it until some years later. The main character, if he could be described as such, is Bill Plantagenet; a piano player who has drunk himself into a nervous breakdown. Bill admits himself voluntarily into hospital for treatment and it is here we pick up the story, told from his point of view.

From reading a little into Lowry's life it appears the story is semi-autobiographical in nature. Lowry himself was admitted into hospital for mental health treatment suffering with alcohol addiction.

Lowry does a first rate job of portraying the conditions inside a sanatorium as well as the patients delusions. He enables the reader to effortlessly get into the minds of the insane and I found myself thoroughly swept up into the world of confusion, utter delusion and insanity the inpatients suffer from. Unfortunately the strong point of the book is also it's downfall.

Because the narrator and the majority of the other characters are completely insane it is very difficult to know what Is actually going on. Although we see through the eyes of a madman it is for this very reason that the story is not at all coherent and rarely makes any sense, it is impossible to see what is really going on. I've often heard stories described as a 'journey' if this is the case then this book felt like white water rafting without a paddle. I was just swept along at breakneck speed rather than feeling like I was walking alongside the characters.

The book is interesting but at the same time frustrating.

By Chris

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Our visit to Hay-on-Wye

Way way back in November we took a short break in the Forest of Dean. The weather was terrible but we enjoyed being holed up in a cottage and since we were less than an hours drive from Hay in Wales we went for a visit on one of the only dry days during the whole trip.

Hay-On-Wye is famous for having over 30 bookshops packed into a tiny village in the middle of the country. The majority of the bookshops sell second hand or specialist books making it somewhat of a haven for bibliophiles.

The village itself is very pretty and there are quite a few teashops and cafes which cater for the tourists that flock there. The bookshops themselves look tiny from the outside but when you enter you are surrounded by thousands of books. A typical bookshop has 2-3 floors crammed with books of all descriptions, shelves go all around and up the staircases and the floorspaces are often so narrow that one of us would have to stand outside shops with the buggy while the other person went in to browse.

Our favorite shop is the one pictured above. It wasn't our favourite because of its selection of books or its creepy basement (think the library in Ghostbusters) but rather because the three floors all had very buggy friendly wide floor space and because they had a little area where children are encouraged to sit and look through the books on offer (then nag their parents to buy them)

In the end we came away with only 6 books between us. When there are THAT many books, quite often in no particular order, it can get overwelming. My finds were purchased from the smallest shop we visited. The books aren't eaxactly cheap for second hand books and prices ranged from £2.50 to £6 but the fun is in looking around, enjoying the atmosphere and eating the homemade jam in the teashops.

Posted by Jess

Monday, 7 February 2011

Couples by John Updike

Set in the early sixties, Couples is about a promiscuous circle of ten couples in the small Massachusetts town of Tarbox. For well over 500 pages the reader follow the couples as they holiday and party together while at the same time they discreetly (mostly) sleep with each others partners.

In a voyeuristic way I enjoyed it and was entertained by it. Aside from a few places where Updike suddenly gives long flowery descriptions, the prose is relatively easy to read and there is a wonderful sense of place. The small town, the houses and the time period are well described, as is the kind of social standing that the couples belong to.

The characters are pretty vile all round as are the attitudes the male characters have towards the female ones. All the female characters are home-makers and are only seen as such. Aside from one exception, none of them have jobs and nor are they expected to have one. They spend most of their time doing chores, hosting parties and having affairs out of either sheer boredom or because they feel they ought to. They are at the age where they are still part of the ‘50s housewife’ life but at the same time they are also young enough to participate in the sexual revolution of the 60s within the confines of their marriages.

While there is a lot to think about and enjoy, it has its faults. The novel is too long and ten couples is perhaps too many, one lady in my book group had to write down a list of all the characters along with all their affairs as it got so confusing. In parts the endless sleeping around became monotonous, the male characters comparing the body of their wives to that of their mistress might have been fine at first but after what seemed like the 6th or 7th time of reading about how saggy a characters wife's belly is compared to a mistress (or vis versa) it got boring.

Couples is a book that I enjoyed more than I thought I would, it was a mixed bag for me in many ways but I’m glad I read it. It's not a book I would recommend but I found it an interesting novel of its time, it not have been written either ten years before or ten years after.

Posted by Jess

Saturday, 5 February 2011

The Long Song by Andrea Levy

I haven't read Andrea Levy's other book 'Small Island' which a lot of other bloggers have compared The Long Song to, so my thoughts on this novel are on this novel alone.

There are a lot of historical novels out there which feature slaves or slave owners as main characters and I've read a fair few myself. The Long Song instantly appealed to me for two reasons, firstly the novel is set in Jamaica, not America, and the slave owners in The Long Song are English. I honestly know far more about the Americas role in slavery than the English's despite being born in Bristol (a major slave port during the eighteenth century) so this novel contained a period of history I know relatively little about.

The novel is spoken in Jamaican English which helps to set the scene and is told by July as an old woman. July was born into slavery and was taken from her mother at a young age to work in her masters house. The novel follows her story as she comes into womanhood and it chronicles the drastic changes her life brings.

July, like many of her fellow slaves, is a survivor and The Long Song is not a tale of pure misery. Slavery is a tough subject to read and I am sure it goes without saying that the salves life's depicted in the novel is a cruel and brutal one yet among the tragic there is also humour and strength which shines through. Halfway through the novel the British outlaw Slavery which gives the story and the subject a new angle as the slaves and their masters struggles to adjust to becoming employees and employers.

One minor complaint is the narration which seems to divide reviewers. The older July is narrating the novel and aside from the fact that she seems to narrates sometimes on subjects she cannot possibly know, she also keeps interrupting the story to mostly argue with her son who is making her tell her story. By doing this the reader is made aware of July's strong personality still shining in old age despite all her hardships so I can understand completely why the novel was written in this way. But I did find it interrupted the flow of the story and I found it annoying.

Overall though its a fine book and one which I found enjoyable and surprisingly easy to read.

Posted by Jess

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

True Grit

I love western movies and have seen plenty of them. This was my first western novel and I must say I am very impressed.

This is the story of Mattie Ross; a rather naive but remarkably headstrong young girl who hires infamous US Marshall Reuben ‘Rooster’ Cogburn to help her track down the man who murdered her father. With the help of LaBoeuf; a Texas Ranger on the trail of the same killer, the trio track the fugitive through the wilds of the southern US until a final fiery showdown.

The story is famous because of the 1969 movie with John Wayne starring as the eye-patch wearing, hard drinking and world weary Rooster. I didn’t remember much about this movie so I read the book not knowing much about the story. I’m glad I did as I like coming to a book ‘in the dark’ so to speak. I believe the reason I found it on the shelf of an English bookshop is due to the imminent release of the 2010 remake starring Jeff Bridges.

The book is short; barely more than 200 pages. The pace is excellent and not too much detail is given to things that don’t matter (no six page descriptions of landscapes here!) the characters are first class as is the amount of detail and personality given to them, even fairly minor ones. There is some excellent, memorable dialogue and figures of speech from the period make it more vivid and believable. There are some genuinely funny moments which had me chuckling and all in all the story exudes an air of authenticity. It is so well written it transports you to the period effortlessly.

No western would be complete without gun battles. Thankfully the author got the balance just right as there are plenty of gunfights but not too many that it cheapens the story. Of course there is bloody violence in the book which was, of course, glossed over in the 1969 Hollywood version, but it is to be expected and only adds to the realism of the book.

All in all I was thoroughly impressed and this book has given me a real taste for more westerns

Final verdict 4/5