Saturday, 30 May 2020

Book #44

The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis

Through vignettes told in each of the characters's voices, readers have a kaleidoscopic view of clashing expectations and crushing frustrations, of adolescent dreams fueled by inchoate desires. The Rules of Attraction is a poignant--and sometimes hilarious--evocation of college life in the 1980s.

There’s something hypnotic about reading Ellis’s depiction of American college life in the eighties. Although it’s mostly what you would expect, he portrays each of his characters as selfish, child-like adults, endlessly pursuing what they what - mainly sex, drugs, or the possession of other people.

Written in multiple-voice narrative, it’s interesting to read the accounts of mostly manbabies and one woman. What’s particularly interesting is the differences in their descriptions of situations where they find themselves together. Some leave parts out which another narrator leaves in, some remember events happening differently, whether deliberately or otherwise. It left me unhinged; I didn’t know who was telling the truth, and the whole thing was immeasurably unreliable. But isn’t that just the way of substance-fuelled memories, of people regretting their decisions, and of anyone trying to recount college life.

Ellis deals with a lot of heavy topics here, including homosexuality, suicide, poor mental health, and abortion. None of these things were as readily discussed or accepted when the book was written, and it was something of a comfort to see them (with the exception of suicide) normalised and accepted.

And it’s true what he’s trying to say here - for all of us, whether you like it or not, going to college or university immediately from high school does not make us adults. There’s so much temptation, so much fuckery, so much other stuff to experience and deal with that has no relation to your studies, that it’s simply just a way of extending childhood and delaying the inevitable onslaught of adulthood.

I did feel there was a certain pointlessness to this book; a stew of chaotic experiences mixed in with fabrications and shagging. And despite this, I really enjoyed it and stormed my way through, becoming very sorry I did so when I reached the final page. I’d love to read this again and pick apart some of the more complex themes, but for now it’s time to graduate. 

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Book #43

Lucia’s War by Susan Lanigan

London, 1949. Soprano Lucia Percival has overcome racism and many obstacles to become a renowned opera singer. She is now due to perform her last concert. But she has no intention of going onstage. A terrible secret from her service during the First World War has finally caught up with her.

London, 1917. Lucia, a young Jamaican exile, hopes to make it as a musician. But she is haunted by a tragic separation that is still fresh in her memory - and when she meets Lilian, an old woman damaged by a similar wartime loss, she agrees to a pact that could destroy everything she has fought so hard to achieve.
From the Western Front and the mean streets of Glasgow, to black society in London, Lucia’s story tells a tale of music, motherhood, loss and redemption.

This is a stunning work of historical fiction, and I’m very grateful to have been given an advance review copy.

The title - Lucia’s War - sums up everything about this novel. It’s her experience of war, and it’s everything that happened to her during, or as a consequence of, that war. Lanigan excellently portrays how the First World War affected women left at home, how they helped, how they grieved, and how they managed the consequences.

As a young woman, Lucia travels from her homeland of Jamaica to help with the war effort, finding herself in France and, ultimately, London. Her consequences are dark and heartbreaking, and seeing how she manages these feels impossible. I was desperate for her happy ending to arrive, with Lucia battling through like a true tragic heroine, balancing personal struggles with her quest to become a famous singer.

Lucia tells her story to a music critic, and as it comes in a stream of consciousness format, we flick around through time an awful lot. I felt this was a perfect way to tell the story, with Lucia wandering off on tangents as something evoked a memory. It felt as though she were telling her story to me personally, and I was rapt.

The plot seems to have been very carefully considered, with things falling into place at perfect moments, and characters being related to each other in ways we wouldn’t have fathomed. Lanigan has a wonderful way of subtly characterising even the smallest of parts, and it leads to a deep understanding of the personalities, but most importantly for the plot, motives. Some of them carry out some disgusting deeds, and yet Lanigan’s characterisation allows us to understand their reasons, and almost, if not quite entirely, justify them.

Lanigan’s social commentary on the early 1900s is truly something to behold. She speaks a lot on racial tension, on how people of colour were perceived, the looks, the statements, the othering. It hurt to read, and yet 100 years on, it still happens. As Lucia was not only black, but a woman too, she faces double the oppression, and Lanigan takes great pains to show us the struggles of all female characters within the novel.

This was such a gorgeous account of wartime and its aftermath, of racist Britain, of a woman’s unfeasible fight to get what she wants. I’d wholeheartedly recommend it, with a warning that it will break your heart. 

Friday, 22 May 2020

Book #42

Tell No One by Harlan Coben

For Dr. David Beck, the loss was shattering. And every day for the past eight years, he has relived the horror of what happened. The gleaming lake. The pale moonlight. The piercing screams. The night his wife was taken. The last night he saw her alive.

Everyone tells him it's time to move on, to forget the past once and for all. But for David Beck, there can be no closure. A message has appeared on his computer, a phrase only he and his dead wife know. Suddenly Beck is taunted with the impossible- that somewhere, somehow, Elizabeth is alive.
Beck has been warned to tell no one. And he doesn't. Instead, he runs from the people he trusts the most, plunging headlong into a search for the shadowy figure whose messages hold out a desperate hope.
But already Beck is being hunted down. He's headed straight into the heart of a dark and deadly secret- and someone intends to stop him before he gets there.

I like nice wee thrillers that help disengage my brain from real life for a while. I particularly like outlandish, impossible plots which seem unfathomable to a everyman’s brain. Tell No One was such a novel.

Coben feeds us information piecemeal until we’re drowning in characters, information, and possibilities. This doesn’t make anything confusing, it merely adds to the intrigue and the list of plausible explanations. There are huge twists and turns, some of which I guessed, and none of which particularly shocked me. What made Tell No One a jewel was the pace, the engagement, and the captivation. I was desperate for more.

Where Coben’s skill lies in making us want to read on, this is in no way a literary sensation. I was annoyed at his characters. Some were caricatures, which I could take or leave, but some were excellent and demanded more attention and backstory which they were denied. Most importantly, the characters our main focus was on, the married couple, were cast as having such an unbelievable perfect relationship. Together since they were kids, carving their initials on trees, returning to the same tree every year to kiss and add another tally mark. There were no black marks within their relationship, and although I understand this was needed to move the plot along,  I wasn’t able to suspend my disbelief quite enough to buy it.

As I’ve said, it’s a nice wee thriller. I needed something to help me escape, to help me pass a few hours, and to place my brain somewhere different, and it worked. I was addicted, I was in. I just wasn’t thrown off my feet.

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Book #41

His Last Bow by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sherlock Holmes's fearless chronicler Dr Watson once again opens his notebooks to bring to light eight further tales of some of the strangest and most fascinating cases to come before the enquiring mind of London's most famous detective.
These mysteries involve the disappearance of secret plans as well as of a lady of noble standing; the curious circumstances of Wisteria Lodge and of the Devil's Foot; as well as the story His Last Bow, the last outing of Holmes and Watson on the eve of the First World War.

I’ve been working my way through the entire Holmes collection for a number of years now, and I didn’t feel the stories contained in His Last Bow were as impressive as their previous contemporaries. I usually feel engaged with the detective’s powers of deduction, and overuse of the word singular, but here there was nothing which particularly struck me.

Perhaps the formula is just getting very old. A client approaches Holmes, Watson has his misgivings, the whole thing seems impossible to solve, and all of a sudden Holmes finds the tiniest of clues which has been overlooked, and the game is afoot. The only story here which didn’t follow this formula was the titular story, and yet it still didn’t quite hit the mark.

Still, they are consistently enjoyable, and there’s some good commentary here which forces the reader to question their own morals. More importantly, the normally stoic Holmes is seen to show some compassion, both towards his beloved Watson, to victims, and even occasionally to the odd perpetrator.

Although it seems the earlier tales are the golden eggs (as I felt a similar disappointment with The Valley of Fear the prior story in the collection), I only have The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes left as my final foray into the escapades of my favourite detective, so we’ll see whether or not that theory evolves.

Saturday, 16 May 2020

Book #40

Stancliffe’s Hotel by Charlotte Bronte

These witty, racy vignettes set in Charlotte Brontë's imaginary kingdom of Angria feature rakish dandies, high-society courtesans and the dashing hero Zamorna.

It’s very heartwarming and wholesome to think of the Brontë siblings sitting down to write these in the nineteenth century. I imagine a rainy day, a wooden table covered in papers, and lots of whispering. So charming.

Sadly, I wasn’t as taken with these vignettes as I had believed I would be. Set in a fictional place, the focus seemed to be on the political goings on of the country. It felt plotless, with no real direction other than the narrator wandering around aimlessly and giving us his commentary. I was completely lost.

The fault will, no doubt, lie in part with Penguin, who have again chosen to snip passages from a larger work, with no context, grounding, or explanation.

This is the penultimate book in the Little Black Classics range, and let me tell you dear ones, I am delighted to be almost at the end of this collection. 

Friday, 15 May 2020

Book #39

Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Hardy tells the story of Tess Durbeyfield, a beautiful young woman living with her impoverished family in Wessex, the southwestern English county immortalized by Hardy. After the family learns of their connection to the wealthy d'Urbervilles, they send Tess to claim a portion of their fortune.

It’s been eleven years since I last read Tess, and from this reading it seems the tragedy and heartbreak running through the pages affects the reader much more as they mature. Hardy shows us utter devastation, injustice, and fate, all working in strange ways simply to flatten this innocent woman. I’m still suffering.

And fate is a huge element here. From her rustic upbringing, to the act which shaped her adult life, Tess is a victim of events unfolding which control her life’s path. Whether these are acts done by her, against her, around her, or without her knowledge, everything seems to converge unkindly to lead to her ruin.

The real heartbreak is that Tess does barely anything to help herself. Meek, guilty, and chained by moral code, she unconditionally continues without any true positive action, feeling sorry for herself all the while. To let herself be trampled continuously, and to be chained by social code in such a way, was maddening to this woman of 2020. It’s pitiful and frustrating.

We see each relationship Tess has with any other person as flawed and deeply unhealthy. Her own mother didn’t take the time to teach her about men, so both of the subsequent men in her life treat her poorly, despite one of them being initially characterised as a saviour. She struggles to make friends because of her looks, she impossibly shys away from others because of her innate knowledge of her own damage, her guilt. Tess is a deeply lonely person, and it’s so miserable.

Hardy’s commentary on aristocracy and social norms here is wonderful and modern. He plainly shows us how Victorian morals affected women (particularly very good looking women such as Tess), and how the expectations of society could lead to woman’s downfall, but never a man’s. 

As it’s Hardy, there’s lots of symbolism here, which is gorgeous to interpret, and would take a long time to dig into. He speaks in depth about nature, sometimes to highlight the provincial, and sometimes to create symbols of the romantic, and purity.

His writing is wonderful, and engages with me in whichever of his books I read. I love Hardy, I love Tess, and I only hope I live long enough to reread this another couple of times.

“Justice” was done, and the President of the Immortals (in Aeschylean phrase) had ended his sport with Tess.

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Book #38

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the best chronicle of drug-soaked, addle-brained, rollicking good times ever committed to the printed page. It is also the tale of a long weekend road trip that has gone down in the annals of American pop culture as one of the strangest journeys ever undertaken.
I’ve swallowed and drank so much shit with Thompson over the past couple of days that I feel a mixture of wired and hungover just by reading the end of this chaotic, almost slapstick story. I wasn’t expecting this burnout, this utter exhaustion just from reading the exploits of Duke; I am shattered.

In fact, there was a lot here I wasn’t expecting, namely the idea of a fictional autobiography. That Thompson actually took this trip to Vegas, and wrote about it, is bonkers to me. That some of the things here may have happened, whether with embellishments or not, is equally mind-bending. His clever referrals to himself within the novel seem, at face value, to hint at Duke and Thompson being separate entities, but if you truly consider these, it’s entirely abstract. They could be two different guys. They could be the alter ego of each other. One, or both, could be a hallucination, a delusion had by the other. It’s definitely not something that can be easily processed. 

This is only strengthened by the utter unreliability of Duke as narrator. He is so completely off his tits for the majority of the novel that it’s impossible to trust any of his senses, memories, or opinions. Thompson’s style only reinforces this by having Duke mention things he’d done or experienced during his trip, which we’d never been given sight of at any point in the text. Some of these events were corroborated by minor characters, but others were totally subjective and again left open to the possibility of being drug-infused visions, or creations of the mind.

I loved these insane shit-fits, but what I loved most of all was Thompsons commentary of America in the sixties. Imagining how Vegas looked and felt at this time was a treat to the thalamus, but to have Thompson describe the general feeling was wonderful. Duke rails against authority, using drugs to numb his prevalent disillusionment with America, the direction of the counterculture, and the widespread fear the Vietnam war was creating throughout the country at the time. He suggests many are attempting to escape the slow existential dread which is seeping into the psyche of Americans.

And, ultimately, the idea that Duke believes he’s in Vegas searching for the American Dream, and finds it in the form of the Circus Circus casino, underlines everything Thompson is telling us here. 

There really is so much to discover and analyse with Fear and Loathing, and I think that’s something more suited to a second reading. For now, my delight was in the unreliability, the mayhem, and the strange amalgamation of fiction and non-fiction.

“Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run, but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant.”

Monday, 4 May 2020

Book #37

Waterloo by Victor Hugo

A tense, dramatic account of the Battle of Waterloo - and how a rain shower changed history - from Victor Hugo's epic novel Les Misérables.

This is an excerpt from Les Misérables, which is slowly winding its way up my reading list - I imagine I’ll get to it at some point this year. It was a good introduction to Hugo’s gorgeous writing skills, however I am not, nor will I ever be, interested in the descriptions of battle tactics. Luckily there was a bit more here than crash bang wallop.

Hugo’s descriptions are very fluid and vivid, and Hugo paints an excellent picture of the state of the political and social elements of the time, also hinting at the emotional. It was interesting to read of how Napoleon was raised high on a pedestal by his people, despite his horrific behaviour and decision-making skills.

A wonderful little taster of what lies in store for me when I tackle the entire tome; I’m looking forward to it. 

Sunday, 3 May 2020

Book #36

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

They spend their days - and too many of their nights - at work. Away from friends and family, they share a stretch of stained carpet with a group of strangers they call colleagues.
There's Chris Yop, clinging to his ergonomic chair; Lynn Mason, the boss, whose breast cancer everyone pretends not to talk about; Carl Garbedian, secretly taking someone else's medication; Marcia Dwyer, whose hair is stuck in the eighties; and Benny, who's just - well, just Benny. Amidst the boredom, redundancies, water cooler moments, meetings, flirtations and pure rage, life is happening, to their great surprise, all around them.
Then We Came to the End is about sitting all morning next to someone you cross the road to avoid at lunch. It's the story of your life and mine.

In Then We Came to the End, Ferris sees all of us corporate office employees, and calls us out on our bullshit. Our constant attempts to look busy, our desperate need for coffee, our unflinching relentlessness when we know there’s a story about a colleague doing the rounds, our congregations around the desks of others, our scattering like pigeons when a senior manager appears. All of it.

And, to ensure we really know he sees us, to make us feel we are part of this band of skivers and misfits, he uses the first person plural. We are involved. We are in this. We are part of the team. In using this type of narrative, Ferris clumps everyone together - in the corporate world, can anyone think for themselves? Or does mass mentality take over?

Around halfway, Ferris shifts into third person to describe the life of one of the office partners - the foreboding Lynn Mason, who has been diagnosed with breast cancer. This shift changes the style immeasurably, and adds depth and understanding. I was really impressed with the beauty of this section, and it’s profound commentary.

Overall, this is more an exploration of character than something that’s plot-driven. We see everyone’s desires and motivations, everyone’s flaws and setbacks. Ferris closes everything off quite sadly, but still with hope. And I’m pretty certain I work with a lot of people similar to his merry band of mavericks.