Saturday, 9 November 2019

Book #83

A Nervous Breakdown by Anton Chekhov

From the supreme artist of the short story, three disturbing tales of supernatural hallucinations, hysterical obsession and moral decay.


I didn’t enjoy this nearly as much as I did Gooseberries. Although the prose was just as skillful, there was something lacking here which I wasn’t quite able to put my finger on.

Chekhov explores morality and mental decay in the first two stories. Men becoming overcome, having erratic and terrifying thoughts, worrying those around them, and worrying themselves. Chekhov depicts this well, although I feel the stories were too short for a proper dissection of the human psyche, and his characters’ wellbeing. The third story was short, woeful, and due to it being completely unrelated to mental health, felt distinctly out of place - a fault, I should say, which is down to Penguin and not Chekhov himself.

Perhaps I was missing the type of moral message I found in Gooseberries and The Two Volodyas, or even the dismally melancholic tone of The Kiss. I just wasn’t engaged; there was nothing here for me.

It ain’t his best work, comrades.  

Friday, 8 November 2019

Book #82

Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth by Xiaolu Guo

Life as a film extra in Beijing might seem hard, but Fenfang won't be defeated. She has travelled 1800 miles to seek her fortune in the city, and has no desire to return to the never-ending sweet potato fields back home. Determined to live a modern life, Fenfang works as a cleaner in the Young Pioneer's movie theatre, falls in love with unsuitable men and keeps her kitchen cupboard stocked with UFO instant noodles. As Fenfang might say, Heavenly Bastard in the Sky, isn't it about time I got my lucky break?

Twenty fragments. What a perfectly apt title for a novel comprised of twenty non-linear, illogical pieces of life.

Our protagonist, Fenfang, leaves her country village for the big life in Beijing. With her eyes on becoming a film star, she is soon disillusioned with the city and its prospects, and we see her life pan out in a realistic, yet beige, manner.

I felt for Fenfang deeply, as she is a trudger. We trudgers take the blows life lands on us, and carry on. We’re not happy, we’re not sad, we’re just here, keeping going. It was so sad so hear Fenfang relate her symptoms of depression without her realising what she was describing.

The prose here is raw, simple, and excellent. Short sentences depict Fenfang’s emotions perfectly, the settings were eloquent, the dialogue clipped and effective. It’s a relatively quick read, but somehow manages to pin to you corkboard.

It was wonderful to read of China from a Chinese author, mainly Beijing; the cultures, the expectations, the sociology. I was rapt. The skill here is where she doesn’t provide lengthy explanations of culture, food, the whims of people; she presents everything as it is, and nothing could be more realistic.


I became a person who was very good at hiding her emotions. Maybe that was why people thought I was heartless. Apparently my face often had a blank expression. Huizi, my most intellectual friend, would say, “Fenfang, yours is the face of a post-modern woman.”

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Book #81

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Stephen King returns to the characters and territory of one of his most popular novels ever, The Shining, in this instantly riveting novel about the now middle-aged Dan Torrance and the very special 12-year-old girl he must save from a tribe of murderous paranormals.

On highways across America, a tribe of people called The True Knot travel in search of sustenance. They are quasi-immortal, living off the steam that children with the shining produce when they are slowly tortured to death.
Dan has been drifting for decades, desperate to shed his father's legacy of despair, alcoholism, and violence. Finally, he settles in a New Hampshire town, in a job at a nursing home where his remnant shining power provides the crucial final comfort to the dying. Aided by a prescient cat, he becomes Doctor Sleep.
Then Dan meets the evanescent Abra Stone, and it is her spectacular gift, the brightest shining ever seen, that reignites Dan's own demons and summons him to a battle for Abra's soul and survival.


I always felt King was mighty ambitious in trying to write a sequel for something so monolithic as The Shining. So much so, that Doctor Sleep has been on my shelf unread for a number of years, because really, how do you top The Shining?

The answer is, simply, that you don’t. You take the beloved innocent boy from your original novel, tear him to pieces, and carve an entirely new story from his mutilated parts. It was so utterly unlike The Shining, and yet something quite special in itself.

Dan Torrance grows up to exhibit many of his father’s flaws - alcoholism and violence, yes, but battling demons more so. As Dan grows older, his shine diminishes, and the more he drinks, the duller he shines. Through alcohol, he manages to almost entirely lose his power, until he meets a young girl who shines like a lighthouse, and they band together to combat a band of true supernatural bad guys intent on murder and torture.

King’s prose is gorgeous and descriptive, and yet I found his pace jarring. I was propelled along initially, dragged along in the middle third, and then roused back into life for the finale. I know King is capable of keeping this momentum for the entirely of the novel, so the middle section was a slight disappointment.

I think most of the draw here for me was seeing how Dan had grown. That he’d developed most of his father’s addictions and habits sparked a true nature vs nurture debate in my head. That he and his mother had kept in touch with Dick Hallorann warmed my black heart. King characterises Dan perfectly, and it truly was a joy to see the little boy on the tricycle as a man - albeit a broken one.

Having said that, I really felt some of the other characters could have done with some attention; they were interesting as hell, and yet their back stories and motivations were pretty lacking. King presents us with a whole new idea of the shining, a whole new cast of weirdos with this curious ability, and yet we aren’t allowed to explore their lives.

All things considered, I enjoyed this more than I was expecting. King creates an adult life for a true OG, mixing hopelessness with purpose, experience with youth, and in true King fashion, supernatural with mundane.