Saturday, 28 April 2012

Book #10

The Discomfort Zone by Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen arrived late, and last, in a family of boys in Webster Groves, Missouri. The Discomfort Zone is his intimate memoir of his growth from a "small and fundamentally ridiculous person," through an adolescence both excruciating and strangely happy, into an adult with embarrassing and unexpected passions.

This was my first foray into Franzen, and I didn’t enjoy it at all. I will, however, give him huge benefit of the doubt as I have heard lots of good things about his fiction. This was, unfortunately, non-fiction - a less than 200 page account of his life. It was excruciatingly dull, and I have to admit I skipped the last twenty pages.

It did begin strongly with Franzen selling his mother's house and reflecting on his life to date. I liked his little allusions to the past, and how they were slightly disjointed. We then delved into tales from a church group Franzen was part of during his teenage years, which was interesting in places. Then came a great deal of chit-chat about American politics and bird-watching. I blame myself for becoming distracted during the paragraphs on politics (I'm a bit ignorant of such matters), but the bird-watching part I just could not fathom. It didn't seem to have any link to anything that had happened previously. Where did this love of birds come from? Didn't I just read a few pages ago that Franzen wasn't interested in animals? Or did I make that up because my eyes were so glazed over from reading this drivel?

Following the excitement of bird-watching, Franzen seems to skip forwards in time a great deal. We don't see him meeting his wife, but all of a sudden she leaves him and he begins to deal with this. This is where I gave up. I was so lost, so confused, and so apathetic about the rest of his life that I couldn't go on any longer.

I have The Corrections on my shelf and I've heard so many good things about it. It won an award! I really think these memoirs weren't the best way to begin immersing myself in Franzen. I’d have loved to have done a longer, more detailed review on my distaste for the book, but I really have to put it behind me. I want to say don't read this book if you are a Franzen virgin like I was, but instead I will say don't read this book at all.

10 / 50 books. 20% done!

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Book #9

We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

Two years ago, Eva Khatchadourian's son, Kevin, murdered seven of his fellow high-school students, a cafeteria worker, and a popular algebra teacher. Because he was only fifteen at the time of the killings, he received a lenient sentence and is now in a prison for young offenders in upstate New York. Telling the story of Kevin's upbringing, Eva addresses herself to her estranged husband through a series of letters.

I first read this book three years ago and it blew me away. Shriver explores the complications and complexities of parental affection in a beautiful, yet damning narrative. Not only that, she provides us with incredibly interesting thoughts on the nature vs. nurture and 'blame the parents' debates which are prevalent in most writings surrounding school shootings and similar tragedies. Three years ago, my opinions and preconceptions on these matters were blown out of the water, and it has happened once again. I loved every single minute of it.

Shriver's first-person narrative in the form of letters is absolutely wonderful. It's written in a retrospective reflectional manner, and our protagonist's feelings are poured onto the pages. As Eva is writing to her husband, there is a constant feeling of voyeurism which I found absolutely delicious. I'm not sure this story could have worked as well through the eyes of any other character - not even Kevin. Although I could not identify with Eva at the beginning of her narrative due to her materialism and high self-regard, her guilt, shame, remorse and self-blame become completely heart-breaking once her feelings are explained in more detail.

Eva is a cold mother who never truly bonds with her son. Going back to the nature/nurture debate, I really believe the book can be read in two ways: either the story of a good, innocent woman who has been damned to raise the devil incarnate through no fault of her own, or the human result of being raised by an uninterested mother who should shoulder the blame as her glacial approach to motherhood was a contribution to the tragedy. I fully believe Shriver meant for the novel to be interpreted in both ways, adding further flames to the nature/nurture debate. The woman is a genius.

Each and every single word on these pages contributes to a deep and plaguing build-up to the grand finale. We know from the beginning of the novel exactly what Kevin has done, and following pages gives us an insight into the victims, their families, and what they were like as people. However, it isn't until the final 100 pages where we find out exactly what took place on the fateful day, and Shriver gives this to us in the same way one would listen to the lyrics of a truly cold and simple song.

The final plot twist in the novel completely took me by surprise, although from discussing the novel with others I realise this will not be the case for everyone. Rereading the novel this time, the twist giving me a new outlook on the narrative, I found the novel even more disturbing, and even more powerful.

It's harrowing, thought-provoking, and absolutely remarkable. One of the quotes in the blurb on the back of my copy describes the book as "a slow magnetic descent into hell that is as fascinating as it is disturbing." I really feel this describes the novel perfectly. It's now a firm favourite of mine, and I would truly urge anyone to read it, despite the fact that some events amongst the pages are particularly difficult to read. This is the only book of Shriver's I have read, and I plan to track down some others to find out if she is as brilliant as I believe her today. Recommendations are very welcome.

9 / 50 books. 18% done!

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Book #8

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire

We have all heard the story of Cinderella, the beautiful child cast out to slave among the ashes. But what of her stepsisters, the homely pair exiled into ignominy by the fame of their lovely sibling? What fate befell those untouched by beauty ... and what curses accompanied Cinderella's looks?

I must admit I was slightly dubious about reading this. The cover is so horrendously chick-lit and even the title makes me cringe so much that I didn't want to answer the question, "What are you reading now?" because it sounds so rubbish. However, the story wasn't awfully chick-lit, and I did really enjoy the book.

Fairy tales really are fantastic, but I do love a good old twisted retelling of some ancient tale. Maguire does this well (as he did in Wicked), as the story is told through the eyes of one of the ugly sisters. I really did feel it said a lot about the concept of beauty in our time, perceptions of beauty, and the pros and cons of someone (or something) being beautiful. Beauty is generally (in fairy tales, anyway) related to the goodies. Only the baddies are ugly. Maguire turned this on its head and I absolutely loved it. The ugly are good and beauty makes you suffer! Ooooooohhhhh!

Maguire likes to embellish his prose as much as he possibly can, and for this reason it took me a while to understand and adapt to what was happening in the novel. This is by no means a criticism; the narrative is wonderful once you get used to Maguire's writing style.

Becoming reacquainted with the old tale of Cinderella was quite a nostalgic experience. I loved remembering the story as it was told in a massive fairy tale book I had when I was younger, and then having it contorted in front of me into something completely different to my preconceptions of the tale.

I found the climax slightly disappointing, although realistic. The epilogue read almost like then end of a documentary telling us who's dead, who's in jail, who's married, who's pregnant and who's dying alone. There certainly were some scenes that should've been shown, and some questions that should've been answered. I'm not sure whether this was the best way to end the novel, but it was tragic and touching, with a slight twist which made me question my own perceptions of beauty.

The story is good, the writing is lovely, and Maguire sends a good moral message. I just feel that the idea of the book was astounding, and it began well. Then (and I can’t think of a better expression) it fell on its arse. This is my second foray into Gregory Maguire's work, and although I did enjoy this and may try another novel if I come across one, I won't be in a great hurry to do so.

8 / 50 books. 16% done!

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Book #7

The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas

When Ariel Manto uncovers a copy of "The End of Mr Y" in a second-hand bookshop, she can't believe her eyes. She's read about its author before, the outlandish Victorian scientist Thomas Lumas, and this is his most notorious, and rarest, book. It is also believed to hold a curse. Anyone who's ever read it, including Lumas, has disappeared without trace.

Before reading this book I had never thought I would be interested in anything scientific. I don't have a mathematical or scientific mind in the slightest and always assumed these were areas where questions resulted in only one answer, comparing and contrasting them to interpretations of literature and art which normally result in long-winded philosophical answers or debates. This book showed me I was wrong about this, and also showed me that I actually am capable of having a grasp not only of quantum physics, post-modernist theory, and deconstructionist theory, but also that I am capable of understanding (to a degree!) the relationship between the three. My brain was (and still is a wee bit) fried.

Please don't be put off. It's written in a very gripping way; a cursed book within a book, a formula, a journey into the unknown. It is very difficult to describe the story in great detail without giving it all away, so I would urge anyone to read this.

I had a serious fancy for Ariel, the protagonist. She is scarily intelligent, loves old books, and makes living in poverty on only cigarettes and coffee sound so desperately glorious. Her determination to know and understand absolutely everything she comes across, scientific or artsy, is morbidly inspiring to me. She is also incredibly self-destructive which made her entirely engaging and I was able to relate completely.

Ariel finds a very rare and sought-after book in a second-hand book shop. The book leads her into another world, the Trophosphere, where she can access and travel through the minds of people and animals, reading their thoughts and memories. If something can be surreal, yet delicious at the same time, it is this adventure, and the ideas conveyed throughout.

Thomas talks largely of thought experiments, which I found really interesting, particularly as I had never been introduced to them before. Thomas drops various names into the novel, and rather than making me cringe, this made me respect her and gave me an intense desire to read the likes of Heidegger, Baudrillard and even Darwin. It is clear how intelligent she is, and I feel she perhaps may have manifested herself somewhere in Ariel.

Finding other worlds and stumbling across different dimensions are themes in books which always appeal to me (the faerie world in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell springs to mind), so this book was just wonderful in my eyes. There is something so exciting about being in a place so different from the world you originally come from. The idea of travelling through time and space within minds is gorgeous; a world of metaphor and world of thought.

I really would recommend this. It can be read simply as a story, or it can be taken as a scientific, theoretical and philosophical work. The themes it explores are very, very deep and through-provoking. Although it can be disturbing in places, I think this is an underrated marvel.

7 / 50 books. 14% done!