Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Book #21

Cold Calling by Haydn Wilks

You spend your days staring into a computer screen, trying to sell life insurance to young couples with new babies.
You spend your nights staring into a computer screen, extracting filth from and injecting bile into the internet.
You still live with the same dickhead housemate you went to university with.
Your only respite from computer screens are nights spent getting smashed with him at student bars, watching him prance around, trying to pull much younger girls.
Your life sucks and you suck at it.
One drunken night, you try something new.
Something terrible.
But something that brings you new energy, new drive, new desires.
You start eating the young.

Sick, sick, sick. Wonderfully sick.

Wilks' writing is superb again. His words are addictive, and his relatable world of the call centre, the what am I doing with my life dilemma, the mundane repetition of a life you didn't choose, makes the ultimate scenes of depravity all the more realistic, and all the more disgusting. I very rarely squirm at the grotesque in novels, but here I actually had to avert my eyes and steel myself before committing to read any more. Utterly horrendous, yet somehow delicious at the same time.

I loved the macabre mixed in with the mundane. Flesh in a Heston Blumenthal slow cooker; human bones in a council bin. None of the perverted romance in similar novels was present here (think American Psycho), nor was it welcome. Walking through John Lewis with the thought of cannibalism on your mind. Glorious.

There was something missing for me, though. I read The Death of Danny Daggers a couple of years ago and found it entirely amazing, but Cold Calling didn't seem quite as good. It was fairly short, and could've been doing with some more meat to the bones (no pun intended), and a far better ending. Maybe I'm just greedy for more baby flesh.

An excellent one for those of us stuck in the call centre life, that daily repetition of the workaday blur. I'd recommend this for a quick injection of obscenity, but I'd caveat that by suggesting you read Danny Daggers first. I look forward to seeing more from Wilks.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Book #20

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

First published in 1892, The Yellow Wallpaper is written as the secret journal of a woman who, failing to relish the joys of marriage and motherhood, is sentenced to a country rest cure. Though she longs to write, her husband and doctor forbid it, prescribing instead complete passivity. In the involuntary confinement of her bedroom, the hero creates a reality of her own beyond the hypnotic pattern of the faded yellow wallpaper--a pattern that has come to symbolize her own imprisonment.
The Yellow Wallpaper is a powerful, yet utterly horrifying, story of the Victorian rest cure for women. In those days, female mental illness was almost always put down to hysteria, with women being institutionalised for the remainder of their lives. In this short story, Gilman gives us a woman subjected to imprisonment by her physician husband due to what we'd recognise today as postpartum depression. Deprived of any sort of mental exercise, she focuses on the one thing in the room she can - the horrendous wallpaper. This soon becomes a tormenting obsession, and can be argued is the sole contributor to a descent into madness.

The sadness here is in the husband's actions and inactions. The Victorian cures leave a lot to be desired, with us being the fragile sex and all, so of course, hubby knows best. His refusal to listen to our narrator's pleas for mental stimulation, his inability to see her decline, and his clear opinion that his wife was a mere object in his life to be polished for best, were all guilty factors in the ultimate tragic end. The true tragedy is the implication that, had our narrator been given what she'd asked for, she could have had the ability to overcome the problems in her mind.

Gilman uses the wallpaper itself to symbolise the rapid loss of sanity; the further she sinks, the more the patterns on the walls undulate and morph, giving our narrator a feeling of unease, and then a grip of mania as she attempts to remove the paper. It's gothic, and Gilman's descriptions of the movements of the patterns creates an eerie, supernatural feel. When one remembers all of this is the work of the narrator's mind, rather than ghosts, it becomes all the more real and macabre.

I was very, very impressed with this little story and would urge you to read it. The other two in the edition were worthwhile inclusions, but truly paled in comparison to the titular story.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Book #19

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

Twenty-year-old Tassie Keltjin, the daughter of a gentleman farmer, has come to a university town as a student. When she takes a job as a part-time nanny for a mysterious and glamorous family, she finds herself drawn deeper into their world and forever changed. 

What an absolutely colossal waste of my time. The praise that has been written for this book, the five-star, one-sentence reviews printed on the back and front, the people who loved it! Why?!

Moore gives us pointless, grandiose, utterly irrelevant prose, holding her sparse plot points together like blu-tack that's just been urgently removed from a dog's mouth. Her philosophy, her social commentary, her embarrassing attempt at embodying a college student, were all just so trite and dull. As I neared the end of the novel, I started to speed-scan paragraphs, then pages; I missed the grand total of nothing.

Our protagonist was one of the worst I have ever seen in literature. Had I known her in real life, I'm not sure I'd be able to curtail my violent streak. A complete wisp of magnolia trying to be somebody with deep thoughts, but failing miserably with thoughts that would send anyone into an early grave of boredom. She coasts through this story, never having any impact on her own life, nor or the life of others, despite being given ample opportunity. She uses a vibrator to stir her chocolate milk. She takes a single book of poetry on holiday. She goes out with a Brazilian and thinks she's multicultural. I hated her.

None of the characters were believable, or even likeable, and spoke in ways no one in this world speaks. They spoke like characters conjured up for a pseudo-hipster indie movie that only indie pseudo-hipsters want to see. I cringed violently and often as they expressed their exasperating opinions and desires.

Despite being contrived, clumsy, and irrevocably colourless, Moore has taught me two things here; do not trust the opinions of others, and do not continue to waste your time with hopeless literary crap such as this.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Book #18

The Atheist's Mass by HonorĂ© de Balzac

A stunning pair of short stories about faith and sacrificial love. 

Both of these little stories are absolutely gorgeous and so important. Both were steeped in compassion, both told of the kind of devotion we have for those who aren't our lover, both were incredibly clever.

The Atheist's Mass tells of a surgeon who scorns all idea of religion, yet who is observed going to Mass four times a year. This seems entirely suspicious to the spectator, who asks questions of the surgeon on his apparent piousness. The story that unfolds afterwards is touching, thought-provoking, and completely understandable. Balzac explains the idea of an atheist respecting religion, and the faith of others, and the idea that just maybe, the atheist wishes he had something like religion to hold on to.

The Conscript is a much different story, yet all the more heartbreaking. Balzac shows us life during the French Revolution through the eyes of a mother waiting for her son to return home. The suspense created during this short story was masterful, with the ending utterly devastating.

Balzac has weaved so much into these two small tales; I wasn't expecting to be as touched as I was. They were raw, honest, and felt almost pure to read. Absolutely wonderful work. 

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Book #17

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Twenty-seven-year old Anne Elliot is Austen's most adult heroine. Eight years before the story proper begins, she is happily betrothed to a naval officer, Frederick Wentworth, but she precipitously breaks off the engagement when persuaded by her friend Lady Russell that such a match is unworthy. The breakup produces in Anne a deep and long-lasting regret. When later Wentworth returns from sea a rich and successful captain, he finds Anne's family on the brink of financial ruin and his own sister a tenant in Kellynch Hall, the Elliot estate. All the tension of the novel revolves around one question: will Anne and Wentworth be reunited in their love?

I've never read an Austen novel I didn't love, but I'm sorry to report the day has arrived. Persuasion is fairly bland, with no real dramatic events, and a lot of sitting around chatting politely.

Our heroine is a paragon of society; polite, accomplished, and ready to be of assistance to anyone who needs it. She's lovely, but also incredibly dull. We're given her history of love with Captain Wentworth without any real glimmer of her passion for him until later in the novel. Wentworth himself is dire, and we are only given a true account of his character in the final stages.

Certainly, there were elements present which I normally love about Austen; the commentary on societal norms, the fascination of rank, class and wealth, and the importance attached to grand appearances, were all there. Austen's scathing remarks as narrator also really hit the spot.

I was torn by the relentless comments on Anne's age of 'seven and twenty', which had attached to them merciless implications that she's entirely past it, and that all youth and charm are now behind her. Now, I know this is a sign of the times, but Jane, I am thirty this year and do not appreciate such assertions.

The most important thing I've taken away from this novel is the importance of decisions we make in life, the requirement for risk, and the danger of inaction leading to misery. This all resounded well with me due to what's currently happening in my life, but I did find myself frustrated at all the dancing around and subtle looks that were going on. Anne Elliot certainly is not one to take the bull by the horns.

It's not a bad book, by any stretch, it's just not the best. The words are beautiful as always, the glimpse into Victorian life, as always, delicious. It's just a bit predictable, with too many characters, and a serious lack of happening.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Book #16

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

From his rooms in Baker Street, Sherlock Holmes's brooding figure emerges into the foggy streets of Victorian London to grapple with the forces of treachery, intrigue, and evil.

This is an excellent work of twelve short stories exploring some of Holmes' smaller cases. Despite their length, they are each of them wonderfully layered, and provide a deeper insight into both Holmes' skill, and his almost sociopathic persona. I imagine there's no psychologist, dead or alive, who wouldn't have loved an attempt at fully exploring his mind. Having only ever read full novels on Holmes' cases, I wondered whether shortening his adventures would remove some of the magic. Doyle simply compresses his genius into fewer words - that's it. The enchantment is still there.

Each of the clients bring something aloof and mysterious to Sherlock's room. Doyle's imagination is unrivalled as we see the cases resolved, some in ways that could be easily predicted, but most not. Guessing the outcome can create a feeling of your own superior intellect, however the prize is being treated to how Holmes worked it all out. The pace is perfect, the characters intriguing, and most beautifully of all, we're given our first glimpse of Irene Adler.

There's just something about the idea of foggy Victorian London, awash with mysteries and secrets, darkness and deceit, that gets me every time. Add in a man of astounding intellect and a general impatience for the dull, and you've got yourself a beautiful detective novel. I love crime mysteries, but police cars, roaring sirens, and the aid of technology completely pale in comparison to the pipe smoking, newspaper reading, telegram sending detective of Baker Street.

My only critique of these stories would be that they all followed exactly the same structure. Holmes and Watson lounge in Baker Street one morning until a client appears. The client unravels the situation they've found themselves in. The duo find a way of visiting the scene of the incident (note: not scene of the crime, as not all of these stories had a criminal aspect to them - wonderfully). Sherlock then solves the matter, and describes at length how he managed to do so. The structure worked, and I'm sure I couldn't live without the finality of the explanation, however I would have loved a little bit of variety here.

Holmes and Watson are both literary legends, and deservedly so. Doyle's storytelling skill is an absolute treasure; it takes a true master to make mysteries like these, and the way they are solved, believable, not to mention making a reader love a quite irrefutable and exasperating man.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Book #15

Five Chilren and It by E. Nesbit

The five children find a cantankerous sand fairy, a psammead, in a gravel pit. Every day 'It' will grant each of them a wish that lasts until sunset, often with disastrous consequences.

What a glorious little tale about being careful what you wish for, and full of nostalgia.

Our five children are presented as five pieces of a tight family puzzle; they work well with one another, they are each of them different, and they behave exactly as children their age should. We see them brimming with excitement and naivety at the beginning of novel, and then slowly, as each and every wish brings some level of catastrophe, we see them become careful, cynical, and crafty. They're clever kids, and they manage to wriggle out of each situation using only their wits. I did find them lightly irritating, although that's just how I feel about most children.

Nesbit's style is perfect for her target audience. Never patronising, she delivers her morals with subtlety, yet with an important weight. These kids have the opportunity to ask for anything they want from their sand-fairy, and they ask for all the things that would cross my mind (namely money, looks, and wings), yet each of these things brings misery and problems. They come to understand, with every wish, that things were much better before the wish had been made.

There's some clear racism and sexism here; although I normally write these off as a sign of the times, I was uncomfortable in places. I've read female authors from that period who would never have described someone as "just like a girl." It was disappointing.

Although the idea of having a wish every day is entirely delectable, and although I know I am cleverer than these kids, seeing the ways their dreams were thwarted each and every time has put me off limitless wishes. I would, however, like an irascible little sand-fairy to keep me company; his temperament was so exactly like my own.