Saturday, 22 February 2014

Book #06

Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote

It's New York in the 1940s, where the martinis flow from cocktail hour till breakfast at Tiffany's. And nice girls don't, except, of course, for Holly Golightly: glittering socialite traveller, generally upwards, sometimes sideways and once in a while - down.
Anyone who has seen the Hollywood adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany's will be highly disappointed in the novella. The reasons they would be disappointed, however, are the things I like about the story. This isn't a romance tale of a beautiful socialite falling in love, but something much darker, and much more investigative of  the human spirit and its reactions. 

Holly Golightly in the novella is in no way in need of a knight in shining armour to save her, or love her. She isn't enamoured with the concept of love in the slightest. She isn't your typical 1950s Hollywood girl; she's far more real, and far more layered, than all that. Holly is all about perception and deception. She runs away from an old life, and invents a new one, feigning culture and knowledge to seem to be the person she wants to be - but who, ultimately, she cannot become. We see her fear of being caged and pinned down by someone contrast with her fear of being alone. She desperately wants freedom, and to see the world, but also craves stability. She is constantly changing her priorities according to her whims, and despite having an epiphany near the novella's finale, we are finally given the news that years later she hadn't changed at all. What a life.

Our narrator was interesting in that he was barely a character at all. He was constantly on the outside looking in, and although he was friends with Holly, he simply acted as a peephole into her life. Very little was mentioned of his past, and I would have liked to have learned more about him. He is a serious contrast to his counterpart in the Hollywood movie, as in the novella it is implied that he's gay. Although he absolutely loved Holly, I suppose churning out love story films makes more money in the industry than exploring non-sexual love. Not only the narrator, but a number of men in the novel were peppered with hints of homosexuality, and this leads us to consider their love for Holly as something other than sexual, and also the consequences of being gay in the 1950s. 

I wanted to love this supposed masterpiece, but only liked it (a bit). Although I liked the message Capote was giving about Holly's nature and desires, the plot barely gripped me at all. I could only warm to Holly at times, and at others found her loathsome, with the narrator's shallow depth and outsider's vision becoming a total bore. 

Surprisingly, my edition had three short stories included, and it was these that I absolutely loved. House of Flowers, the first, was my favourite as it explored the power of love against the power of wealth and comfort. The Diamond Guitar looked at a friendship ending in betrayal, and how this is dealt with. The Christmas Memory was a powerful story of love between two friends (and a dog), who are each others' world. I found each of these little stories to be far more gripping, poignant, and illuminating than the main event, and would recommend you pick up Breakfast at Tiffany's only if you find an edition with these three included.

If you're one of those Sex and the City girls who love the Breakfast at Tiffany's film - don't bother.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Book #05

The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold

For years, Helen Knightly has given her life to others: to her haunted mother, to her enigmatic father, to her husband and now-grown daughters. When she finally crosses a terrible boundary, her life comes rushing in at her in a way she never could have imagined.

There are thousands of reviews of this novel littered all over the internet absolutely trashing Sebold for her efforts. They say they were so disappointed that she could write such crap after the ground-breaker that was The Lovely Bones. They wanted The Lovely Bones II! They were devastated they couldn't love Helen Knightly the way they loved poor, victimised Susie Salmon! My dear friends; that was the point.

I loved this novel. It took me some time to understand where Sebold was going with it, and what she was exploring. Once I was on board, I was absolutely overwhelmed by her skill. 

The novel opens with Helen confessing to killing her mother. We are then taken through the motions of how this happened, and how events unfold subsequent to the killing. That's the bare bones, and what the slandering reviewers can't get over. "It was just so boring!" they cry, "with such disturbing subject matter, how could Sebold go so wrong?" You, petal, just didn't get it. The killing became almost irrelevant as Helen's post-killing journey unfolds. As she struggles through the next twenty-four hours, we are graced with memories of her childhood, her family, and where things went wrong. These memories are the true meat of the tale, and with a bit of foreshadowing trickery, we are still putting the pieces of heartbreak together until the very end. We see the cogs of Helen's existence, and how they turn. We not only see inside her heart, but see what made it into such a cold room. This is the true mastery of The Almost Moon.

Even the explanation of the book's title is absolutely gorgeous. Helen's mother, suffering from mental illnesses, is neither here or there, floating through life irrelevantly; almost something, but not quite anything. Yet she remains, like the moon, a constant force in Helen's life, relentless until the end. The Almost Moon - a gorgeous nickname for such an enigma. I was, and still am, really impressed by it.

I do agree with one thing - Helen was abhorrent and I couldn't get on her side at all. But this just reinforced the things I learned about her, and helped me understand why other people in her life feel the way they do about her, why certain relationships broke down, and why she devoted her life to submission. Where many feel they always should love the protagonist, I occasionally love to hate them, and in doing so learn from them.

Saying much more on this would spoil experiencing the slow trickle of information this novel gives, so I'll stop here. Sebold deserves far more credit than she has been given. It's absolutely not The Lovely Bones II, but why would you want that? Why should Sebold write that? This is a novel you should appreciate outside of the lines; it's not a crime novel, but a story of upbringing, poor choices, and how our minds work in times of desperation.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Book #04

The Witch of Portobello by Paulo Coelho

This is the story of Athena, or Sherine, to give her the name she was baptised with. Her life is pieced together through a series of recorded interviews with those people who knew her well or hardly at all – parents, colleagues, teachers, friends, acquaintances, her ex-husband. The novel unravels Athena's mysterious beginnings, via an orphanage in Romania, to a childhood in Beirut. When war breaks out, her adoptive family move with her to London, where a dramatic turn of events occurs. Athena, who has been dubbed 'the Witch of Portobello' for her seeming powers of prophecy, disappears dramatically, leaving those who knew her to solve the mystery of her life and abrupt departure.

I have both heard and read rave reviews about Coelho for a number of years. I currently have five of his novels on my shelves waiting to be read, and this one is the first I have ever tried. Readers say that Coelho changed their lives, and encouraged them to think about things in different ways, which then led them to enlightenment and happiness. Being quite open to enlightenment and happiness, I was so excited at giving his novel a try. I was deeply disappointed.

The book is comprised of a collection of interviews, which describe the life of Athena. I really enjoy novels with multiple narrators, however the narrators were dull, with many of them being incredibly similar. I found it difficult to ascertain which character was telling the story, as their narration styles didn't differ, and their messages were mostly the same. I didn't care for any of them, and would go as far to say I hated some - our protagonist most of all.

Athena is on a mystic, spiritual quest. The reasons behind this, and her beliefs on the matter, are presented in the most fuzzy, difficult to understand way imaginable. I felt completely out of the loop, as I had very little prior knowledge of spiritualism or New Age beliefs. I didn't understand any of it. Feeling isolated as a reader is such a page-turner. 

What I did understand, was that Coelho was trying to feminise God. I completely get that. I'm not religious in the slightest, but I see both masculine and feminine parts of nature, and I see the world working in both masculine and feminine ways, all at once. Coelho's feminism failed me, however, by categorising women into one of four types - witch, martyr, virgin, and saint - reminding us of our societal oppressions of the past (remember when you were all burned at the stake?), and calling us all witches anyway. Brilliant. An interview with Coelho at the end of the novel sees him defend this, saying all women are witches as they have a sixth sense, a higher perception than men. I'd rather he called us goddesses, or even deities, however only Athena was given that title in the novel.

I'm in no way blasting people who have read this and have taken something from it - I love that a book can evoke that in a person. It just didn't engage me enough; I wasn't interested nor awake enough to understand the love and spirituality Coelho was trying to preach. And it was preachy. At times I felt if I smoked a load of dope and had a pen and paper, I too could come up with something this deep.

This is one of those novels I have to get rid of and put behind me as best I can. Having looked into this further, I can see that many others have been disappointed by this one, so hopefully the other four on my shelves can do some justice to to Paulo Coelho rave reviews that excited me so much in the first place.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Book #03

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë 

Heathcliff, an orphan, is raised by Mr Earnshaw as one of his own children. Hindley despises him but wild Cathy becomes his constant companion, and he falls deeply in love with her. When she will not marry him, Heathcliff's terrible vengeance ruins them all - but still his and Cathy's love will not die.
Some books arrive in your lap with such fame that you have the opinions of others engraved in your mind before opening the first page. The biggest misconception about Wuthering Heights is the idea of it being a love story steeped in romance. Images of Heathcliff and Cathy in a wild, passionate embrace on the Yorkshire moors, perhaps with Kate Bush in the background, flit through your mind. You are wholly unprepared for the tumult you are about to be subjected to.

Cathy and Heathcliff are not romantic characters; they are monsters. Both are selfish, malicious, and entirely irrational. They are absolutely everything you despise in a person, and then a little bit worse than that. Their passion for each other leads to the crumbling of not only their own lives, but the lives of every other character in the book. They are heat-seeking missiles without any sort of concern for those in their path. Brontë shows us that love is by no means genteel, but utterly animalistic. Love is completely dangerous for all involved.

Brontë's narration style is interesting and unique. The story is told through the words of an observer, the housekeeper Nelly Dean, to Mr Lockwood, the new tenant of Thrushcross Grange. She compiles her story through first-hand accounts, letters, stories told to her by others, and various other devices. As a result, it's difficult to trust her as a narrator. It's a story taken from a story taken from a number of other stories. It's also clear Nelly Dean holds her prejudices against certain characters, and love for others. We regularly see her thoroughly praise characters such as Edgar Linton, who meet her social expectations, or completely vilify those who she is prejudiced against, mainly Heathcliff and Cathy. She also regularly justifies, and I suspect alters, her wrongdoings throughout her tale. We are then expected to trust her detailed account, coming only from memory, as the way things happened.

The moors are a famous gothic symbol for the darkness and destruction of the protagonists' love, and the events that take place. The cold, dark and stormy nights are wonderful symbol for mayhem indeed, but my attention was taken by the two houses in the novel; Wuthering Heights, ultimately home to Heathcliff and his cruelty, and Thrushcross Grange, home to the Lintons and symbolic of class, order and polite society. Both homes contrasted massively, and even their names suggest which holds chaos and which holds calm; the Heights sounding menacing and imposing, whilst the Grange seems more peaceful and nurturing. The movements of the characters between the houses also have an effect on the character's behaviours, which is incredibly interesting. I could write essays on the symbolic contrasts I noticed in the novel, but the one between the two homes was my favourite.

Wuthering Heights is testament to Brontë's skills as a novelist. Some feel it a pity that this is her only novel; I feel it makes the novel more powerful on its own as something that can still be explored and dissected 167 years since it was published. I'd urge anyone to read this, but not as a romance novel. Read this as a lesson on how love can turn obsessive, and can ultimately lead to a fog of hatred, anger, and jealousy falling over everything. Read it as a lesson in vengeance, and in emotion.