Monday, 26 December 2011

Book #47

The Outsider by Albert Camus

Meursault leads an apparently unremarkable bachelor life in Algiers until he commits a random act of violence. His lack of emotion and failure to show remorse only serve to increase his guilt in the eyes of the law, and challenges the fundamental values of society - a set of rules so binding that any person breaking them is condemned as an outsider. For Meursault, this is an insult to his reason and a betrayal of his hopes; for Camus it encapsulates the absurdity of life.

This is one of my favourite novels. I have read it three times; once whilst living in France, once in the original French text, and finally at home in English (which I am ashamed of - there is no way I could manage the entire novel in French any longer, short as it is, and this makes me feel like an absolute imbecile). My thoughts and opinions on the book change each time, and have in fact changed a lot this time. I have seen a lot more in the text than I did in my previous reading, however whether this is down to the last reading being in French or that I have matured in the three years since, I have no idea.

This book has stemmed for Camus's philosophy for the absurd. He believed life had no rational meaning to it, that there is absolutely no purpose for our being here, and that the idea of existence being structured was simply absurd. I believe Camus and many other philosophers were given this idea by the horrors of World War II. For these reasons The Outsider is widely described as existential, and I think to an extent it certainly is. However, the idea of existentialism extends far beyond this, and far beyond my comprehension, and I don't believe Camus explores it in a great deal of detail here. Perhaps existentialist is not the best word to describe this novel, although that could be filed away with many of the other unpopular opinions I have.

Our narrator, Meursault, is as emotionally detached as he possibly could be. For the first few chapters of the novel, I believed him to suffer from depression, however I don't think this is the case. He is just entirely indifferent to people and events around him, and he is incredibly honest in an uncomfortable way which means he does not hide his indifference. In this way he completely rejects social standards, such as crying over his mother's death, and in doing so renders himself an outsider and a reject. It is interesting to note that during his trial for murder, the fact that he did not grieve over his mother's death was the damning evidence which damaged his reputation above all other facts. This prompted a wave of philosophical debate in my own head; however I will spare you the details.

Although this novel works wonderfully well as a literary text, and is in no way a philosophical essay, it also displays Camus's ideas on absurdity and the meaninglessness of life. By absurdity, Camus is referring to the way in which humans attempt to find rational meaning and order in their lives, when there is, and never will be, any at all. For example, there is no rational meaning in aspects of this novel, such as the reason for Meursault committing murder. The idea that something like this can happen for no discernible reason and that Meursault did not have a real reason for committing the act, is unsettling to society and so they will attempt to create reason and order to justify actions - Camus's take on absurdity. I find this idea absolutely delicious.

A small thing I noticed in this novel hit me in quite a big way. In most of the scenes, Meursault is either being watched by someone, or is watching someone. I think this says a lot about the notion of absurdity as well - always watching, always looking for something tangible to hold on to.

This has been more of a philosophical observation than a book review; I'm sorry. It really is a wonderful little novel, although I'm not sure whether it would be more enjoyable if you're not looking for existentialist and nihilist commentary, resulting in strange thoughts enveloping your brain. It's very short, though enjoyable, and the short sentences are very akin to our narrator's personality. I'd definitely recommend this, and I will be gearing myself up to read this in French again at some point in future.

47 / 72 books. 65% done!

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Book #46

Moab Is My Washpot by Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry's bestselling memoir tells how, sent to a boarding school 200 miles from home at the age of seven, he survived beatings, misery, love, ecstasy, carnal violation, expulsion, imprisonment, criminal conviction, probation and catastrophe to emerge, at eighteen, ready to try and face the world in which he had always felt a stranger.

I have always considered Stephen Fry as a national treasure and a man to be adored. Before now, however, I had never read any of his writing. I have to say, my adoration of him has soared after reading this autobiography due to his severe confessional honesty, and his untethered swearing (mainly f--- and c---; joyous!).

There are quite a few shocking scenes in these memoirs: expulsions from school, a spell in prison, and even a suicide attempt. Finding out about these was like being told a secret. I could never imagine Fry in any of these situations; he simply does not strike me as one who would do such things. But he has! And it was so delicious to learn that this famous, intelligent gentleman was once as naive and ridiculous as everyone else.

My favourite thing about this book was Fry's use of obscure words. I reached for my dictionary more times than I usually do whilst reading, and I learned so many new words (namely pleonasm, Fry's guilty pleasure). This is quite rare for me these days; although I do not like to boast of having a large brain and a wide vocabulary, this is the case, and finding new words has become a rarity.

I also really enjoyed the sections relating to Fry's school days. I have had a strange obsession with tales set in boarding schools ever since the wonderful Malory Towers, so I was in my element. Even his descriptions of the buildings sent me into absolute rapture. A strange fetish, but one that is present in me nonetheless!

He does tend to go off on rambling tangents, reminiscing about one thing or another, likening one situation to literary pursuits, and placing quotes from various places into the text where he thought applicable. This could be irksome with some authors, but with Fry it is simply endearing and a bit quaint.

The only downfall with this autobiography is that it only details the first twenty-odd years of Fry's life. We don't even get to meet Hugh Laurie! I find it amazing that it has taken him thirteen years to write the second half, The Fry Chronicles, however I will be attempting to source a copy as soon as I possibly can. Moab Is My Washpot, I feel, is essential for a Stephen Fry fan, full of so much honesty and self-deprecation that I simply cannot fault him.

46 / 72 books. 64% done!

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Book #45

The World's Most Evil Murderers by Colin & Damon Wilson

From Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, who sexually assaulted and killed five young victims in 1960's Britain, to Andrei Chikatilo, the Red Ripper, who confessed to fifty-fife sex murders in Russia, and from Richard Ramirex, the night Stalker, in the USA to Peter Kurten, the Dusseldorf Vampire, these are some of the most evil killers the world has ever seen.

This may have been really, really bad, or I may have a serious aversion to non-fiction. I haven't quite decided yet, but I didn't enjoy this at all.

It's split up into little chunks, one for each monster, and tells you all about their past, what drove them to it, the sordid details of exactly what they did, and how they met their end (if they had yet). Who knew such gore could be so boring? I frequently stopped halfway through a section to skip into the next one because there was no incentive to read on. It was all very dull and clinical, even the most disgusting and shocking of crimes were met with a "meh" from me. It read like a poorly written high school essay; there was absolutely nothing exciting in there at all. A book about serial killers which is lacking in excitement really is something to behold.

I really thought I was one of those crazy chicks with an obsessive interest in serial killers, but after reading this I could take them or leave them. Two people have asked to borrow this book from me, and I am going to feel guilty giving it to them.

I think I hate non-fiction.

45 / 72 books. 63% done!

Monday, 5 December 2011

Book #44

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

It’s the early 1980s. In American colleges, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels. As Madeleine studies the age-old motivations of the human heart, real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes. Leonard Bankhead – charismatic loner and college Darwinist – suddenly turns up in a seminar, and soon Madeleine finds herself in a highly charged erotic and intellectual relationship with him. At the same time, her old friend Mitchell Grammaticus – who’s been reading Christian mysticism and generally acting strange – resurfaces, obsessed with the idea that Madeleine is destined to be his mate.

Over the next year, as the members of the triangle in this spellbinding novel graduate from college and enter the real world, events force them to reevaluate everything they have learned. Leonard and Madeleine move to a biology laboratory on Cape Cod, but can’t escape the secret responsible for Leonard’s seemingly inexhaustible energy and plunging moods. And Mitchell, traveling around the world to get Madeleine out of his mind, finds himself face-to-face with ultimate questions about the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the true nature of love.

Are the great love stories of the nineteenth century dead? Or can there be a new story, written for today and alive to the realities of feminism, sexual freedom, prenups, and divorce?

I honestly cannot describe how excited I was a few months ago when reading the above blurb. I thought this book was everything I had been looking for, everything I could ever hope to learn. I had a high opinion of Eugenides, with Middlesex being one of my favourite reads of all time. How could this one disappoint?

It began excitingly enough. I related to Madeleine so well - a girl who is in love with English Victorian and Regency novels, who falls in love with all of the wrong people, and who is entirely socially awkward and romantic. Tick, tick, tick. Then I got bored. I stopped reading, I stopped wanting to pick the book up. Nothing was happening; it was a road to nowhere, a cyclical walk through hell. These characters go on pointless typical journeys in order to 'find themselves'. I started to hate every single one of them (including Madeleine, I could no longer relate, she was so flat), and I didn't learn a thing. No morals of the stories were to be given, nothing was clear, the ending was AWFUL. I am devastated.

The entire thing was so dull that it has taken me weeks to get through. I could not gain the motivation to pick it up and start reading. I am sure one day I even vacuumed the house over reading a chapter. There was the odd streak of Eugenides brilliance, of course, but these were so few and far between that the 400 pages of fog seemed hardly worth it. The tangents Eugenides goes off on were ridiculous! The ins and outs of molecular behaviour of yeast! Quite the thing! This book was terrible.

I would love to sit here and delve into the ironies, subtexts and real meanings of this novel in order to understand it more clearly, but to be perfectly honest I have had quite enough of it. It was a massive disappointment after Middlesex, and it really will make me think twice about buying another Eugenides book (that is, if he writes another one after all of the God-awful reviews on this shambolic work). It may be worth a re-read in a year or so, but for now I'd really like to forget all about it. Infuriating.

(My apologies to those who were looking forward to this review, particularly Ingrid – sorry, petal)

44 / 72 books. 61% done!