The Reflective Cynic

Floundering in a sea of reflective cynicism….come on, dive in

2014 – My top 10 books

Well, I managed to read a few books in 2014 and almost reached the target I set for the 2014 Category Challenge. Life, work and family ilness all took over and I suffered a readers block in the middle to late end of the year as I went for months without picking up a book. Ah well, nil desperandum. I’ll be setting a new challenge for 2015 so let’s hope I acheive it this time.

For now, I want to recap what I think were the top 10 books I read in 2014. It’s possible this list may form part of how I chose my 15 categories for 2015. We shall see…. Click on pictures for more of my inane ramblings….

 

Flowers for Algernon

The Death of Ivan Ilyich

 

Black Swan Green

 

The Plague

The Outsider

Little Man, What Now?

 

Let the Right One

An Equal Music

 

The Robber Bride

The Men Who Stare

 

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

.

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
Date of publication: 2007

Contemporary Literature
*****

After one game of round-the-clock I put my darts away and came back inside. Dad was watching a debate about whether or not Britain should have American cruise missiles on its soil. Mrs Thatcher says yes so it’ll happen. Since the Falklands no one can tell her no. p.284

It’s 1982 and Jason Taylor is 13 years old. Jason narrates the story of a year in his life. Every day is a battle for Jason growing up in the fictitious English village of ‘Black Swan Green’. He tries (and fails) to evade school bullies, he fights his stammer (otherwise known as ‘The Hangman’), writes poetry under the pseudonym of Eliot Bolivar and at home his parents are going through one of those ‘silent in front of the kids lets split up’ periods. Growing up is tough for Jason. Despite all this, and maybe because of all this, Jason is one of the most level-headed and empathic characters I have read in a book for a long, long time.

Mitchell draws heavily upon his experiences growing up in the 70’s and 80’s and particularly from when he started to develop an awareness of problems with his speech at the age of 7 or 8. Jason Taylor is, in part, David Mitchell. Mitchell conjures up the early 80’s with such accuracy that I felt I was transported back there. Forget the current trend for romanticising the 80’s. Read Black Swan Green and get a true picture of those of us ‘misfits’ who were growing up and ‘coming of age’ during this time. Mitchell hits the nail on my head. The politics, fashion, furniture, school days, tv programmes and even the food. Nothing is left out.

Lunch at 9 Kingfisher Meadows, Black Swan Green, Worcestershire, was Findus ham ‘n’ cheese Crispy Pancakes, crinkle-cut oven chips and sprouts. Sprouts taste of fresh puke but Mum said I had to eat five without making a song and dance about it, or there’d be no butterscotch Angel Delight for pudding. p.13

Black Swan Green is beautifully written, witty, painful and wonderfully nostalgic as we get to hear about Jason’s life during this time, his woes, experiences and struggles. The sense of belonging Jason tries to attain with others at school, the bullying he endures and yet manages to come back from, the awkward crush on the local goth girl, his rather dysfunctional family, the embarrassment he feels as he tries to get his words out, the heartlessness displayed by some of the teachers and, in the midst of all this, some brighter moments portrayed in the warm relationship he develops with his friend Dean Moran, another school outcast, and his older sister Julia. Jason could easily become a pitiful character, a ‘victim’, but he doesn’t and he isn’t. Mitchell has created such a well-rounded, real character that you can’t help but feel affinity towards and root for.

Picked-on kids act invisible to reduce the chances of being noticed and picked on. Stammerers act invisible to reduce the chances of being made to say something we can’t. Kids whose parents argue act invisible in case we trigger another skirmish. The Triple Invisible Boy, that’s Jason Taylor. Even I don’t see the real Jason Taylor much these days ‘cept for when we’re writing a poem, or occasionally in a mirror. Or just before sleep. p.296

I’m not one to throw out 5 stars willy-nilly, but sod it, this is one of the best books I have read this year. It runs neck and neck with ‘Flowers for Algernon’ and ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’.  Need I say more?!

 

Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid

Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid
Categories: Contemporary Literature, Pakistan, drug addiction.
Rating:

Moth Smoke is the debut novel by Mohsin Hamid and tells of the descent of Daru Shezad as he loses his job, becomes more dependent on drugs and turns to crime. The story is set in 1990’s Lahore in Pakistan with most of the narration coming from Daru as we witness his disintegration. Daru’s narration is interspersed with stories from his former college tutor, his best friend and his best friend’s wife whom Daru is in love with.

Hamid tells this story within the context of a class system where you are nobody unless you have money, air conditioning and a servant. Hamid is a great writer. The book flows well and is an easy read. However, and this is no doubt intentional, I found the main characters to be unsympathetic, self-absorbed, contemptable and cruel. I found Daru to be the most contemptable of all which, for me, can bring about difficulties seeing as though he is the main character. His opinion and treatment of Manucci, his ‘servant’, especially demonstrates his character. Daru doesn’t pay Manucci and expects him to continue working for him as he treats him like crap.

I let go and he runs into the kitchen. I know I haven’t paid him in a long time. But he isn’t going hungry: he eats food from my kitchen and sleeps under my roof. Sometimes servants want their pay so they can leave, and if that’s his plan I won’t make it easy for him. Not that he has anywhere else to go. p.217

The book is said, by many reviewers, to provide a commentary on 1990s Pakistan and the class system that pervades. It certainly portrays an awful picture of the upper-middle classes and can be quite graphic in this portrayal and Hamid succeeds in getting this across. However, whilst I did enjoy Hamid’s writing and will be seeking out more of his work, I do think the book tries to pack too much in and, as a consequence, spreads itself thinly. It didn’t really hit the spot for me and it wasn’t until I got to the last third of the book that I felt it had found its place. Yes, it flows along well, but in some parts it does lumber and at times I couldn’t decide what it was meant to be. Is it a commentary on drug abuse? Pakistan and politics? The feudal system? A love triangle? I think it is trying to be all of these things but in doing so I think it loses an opportunity. However, my grumbles aside, it is a good book and one to recommend to those interested in this genre.

The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy

Image

The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy
Categories: Classic Literature, Russian Literature, 19th Century
Publication date: 1st published in Russian in 1886. This edition in May 2008 (Translated by Ian Dreiblatt).

This is my first venture into the land of Tolstoy. As with Camus, I was intimidated by the name ‘Tolstoy’ and, as with Camus, this should never have been so. The Death of Ivan Ilych is a rather poignant, striking novella written following a time where it is said Tolstoy went through a religious conversion. The book provokes thoughts around mortality and provides us with a harsh lesson in ‘live life well’.

Despite the book title, the story focusses upon the life which Ivan Ilych felt he had lived and the process of dying he goes through rather than of death itself. It is striking, emotive and frighteningly remorseful. It’s that 3am in the morning kind of stuff. If you’re the kind of person who lies in bed agonising over your mortality, that funny twitch in your arm, pain in your chest or asking yourself “why am I here?” then the themes running through this wonderful novella will certainly chime.

Ivan Ilych is a well-respected judge who receives an unspecified diagnosis and deduces that he is terminally ill. As his condition deteriorates, we witness Ivan Ilych struggling to come to terms with his condition and the fact that he is dying. He begins to look back on his life with some sadness and regret.

Lately in that loneliness in which he found himself….in these late days of horrific loneliness Ivan Ilych lived only by his memories of the past. One after another he imagined scenes from his life. He would always begin with the most recent and proceed to the earliest, to his childhood, and settle there.  p.92

Such memories proved painful to bear. On looking back through his life, Ivan Ilych realises that as life moved forward and he became removed from the innocence of childhood, the worries of his life, career and money took over to a degree where his life became superficial and shallow and without meaning.

…the further back he looked, the more life there had been in him; both the more sweetness to life, and the more of life itself….There had been one point of light far back at the start of everything, and ever since everything had gotten blacker and blacker, and moved quicker and quicker. p.93

The only moments of tenderness and understanding he finds are in Gerasim, the butler’s assistant, who is able to emphasise and understand his needs. Ivan Ilych views others around him as selfish, looking inwards to their own needs as he himself seems to do. Ivan Ilych starts to look on his wife, friends and colleagues with the same feelings of bitterness, regret and hate which he has for life and himself.

His marriage…so accidental, and such a disappointment, with his wife’s bad breath, and her sensuality, and their hypocrisy. His moribund professional life, the obsession with money…The further on in years the more deadening it became. In perfectly measured steps I went downhill imagining I was on my way up…. In public opinion I was on my way up, and the whole time my life was slipping away from under me….and now it’s all over, and it’s time to die. p.88

The inevitability of death pervades the book and feeds into this readers’ mortality. As Ivan Ilych struggles to come to terms with his life, dying and death the reader is also carried along and forced to ask questions of his/her own mortality and life. The fact that Ivan Ilych is dying is, for want of a better word, irrelevant. Death is inevitable – we are all dying, we will all face death and this is the only thing we can be sure about in life. The important lesson we should learn is how to spend our time wisely as we move towards this inevitability.

I’m so glad that this is my first experience of reading Tolstoy. It’s a quick, compelling read with so much feeling and emotion packed into the 104 pages of this edition. It is without doubt a masterclass in writing and a 5 star read.

 

The Outsider by Albert Camus

The Outsider (L’Etranger) by Albert Camus
Publication: 1943, French 1942
Rating:

 

This is my second outing with Camus and, as with The Plague, The Outsider hasn’t disappointed. My Camus journey will certainly continue. Camus has a minimal and uncomplicated style of writing which is certainly refreshing. He manages to produce simple sentences with a simple use of words which nonetheless convey so much meaning and atmosphere. I find his work extremely accessible and direct. He is not a man to waste words and compose sentences which end up being a paragraph long. You know, the ones where you need oxygen to complete them. The ones where you need the Oxford English Dictionary at hand before discovering the sentence really didn’t mean a thing although it sounded good as you were reaching for the Oxygen once again *and breathe* Or maybe that’s just me. To each ones own.

Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: “Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.” That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday. (p.13)

The Outsider is a simple story with the main protagonist, Meursault, narrating a short time in his life. Here we see him tell of his life, working, sitting by his window watching the world go by, the funeral of his mother, finding a girlfriend, making love and finally going through a personal tragedy which would have most people climbing the walls with fear. Meursault presents this with all the excitement and emotion of a rock. It’s all the same to him. He is matter of fact, descriptive and emotionless.  He gives no reasons for his actions and offers no feelings or insight. That is left up to the reader to assume. Things are as they are. In ‘normal’ mainstream society, he could be described as detached, emotionless and apathetic. They’d probably call him a sociopath these days.

Early in the story, Meursault tells us about the time when his girlfriend broached the subject of marriage. He provides a typical response to her request, one of indifference, which runs throughout the book.

Marie came that evening and asked me if I’d marry her. I said I didn’t mind; If she was keen on it, we’d get married. Then she asked me again if I loved her. I replied, much as before, that her question meant nothing or next to nothing – but I supposed I didn’t.
“If that’s how you feel’ she said, “why marry me?” I explained that it had no importance really but, if it would give her pleasure, we could get married right away.(p.48)

Meursault’s indifferent acceptance to whatever comes his way is intentional. It is a wonderful portrayal of the ‘Absurdist’ philosophy which Camus held and which is presented brilliantly with the character of Meursault.

Reading books by Camus is an adventure where one can’t help but look at what lies behind the story in order to give it greater meaning. Without going into a full discourse on philosophy and Absurdism (of which I am sure I would fail), this school of thought describes the conflict between our need to find rational meaning to life where it is impossible to do so. It is in effect ‘absurd’ to think we can possibly know the meaning of life in a universe where there are so many unknowns. As a consequence, the answer to the fundamental question we always seek ‘why are we here?’ is impossible to discover. The Absurdist school of thought would say that there are three ways in which we react to and cope with this conflict. We either comment suicide and thus evade it or we take on religion or spirituality and thus deny the conflict exists by assuming a higher purpose or, finally, we accept this conflict and continue to live life with this knowledge.

The world seems absurd because we are part of nature and yet able to take a step back from nature and rationalize our place in the world. We become aware of what we call the Absurd when we cannot reconcile the two experiences: what we instinctively feel to be true and what we rationally believe to be true. (Simon Lea,The Camus Society)

Meursault accepts everything which happens and comes his way. He attributes no meaning to his actions and offers no explanations. It’s an extreme example which creates this motive less, detached, emotionless character.  He isn’t particularly realistic or likeable nor does he invite empathy from the reader. However, he does generate interest and intrigue and that, I believe, is one of the points being made. As humans we always want to find rationality and answers where there may be none. Where we don’t have the full information and facts we make judgements, stereotypes and ideologies to make sense of our world in order to ease the conflict the Absurd brings. With the creation of Meursault, Camus has provoked us to try to provide our own analysis to his actions and words with the very little information we have.

The Outsider is a quick read (at 120 pages) which nonetheless packs a punch. I find it encourages an interesting discourse and further reading. Yet again, I am astounded at how Camus is able to write about what could be complex theories in such an accessible and simple way. More Camus will be coming my way…..

If I try to seize this self of which I feel sure, if I try to define and to summarize it, it is nothing but water slipping through my fingers. I can sketch one by one all the aspects it is able to assume, all those likewise that have been attributed to it, this upbringing, this origin, this ardor or these silences, this nobility or this vileness. But aspects cannot be added up. (An Absurd Reasoning, Camus)

 

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan
Publication Date: December 1998
Category: Contemporary Fiction

No big, wordy, analytical review from me today, if ever there is. I’m tired, work is busy and life is going through one of those ‘let’s throw all the crap we can at you and see where it ends up’ phases. So, just the bare minimum from me, something which I can look back on and say ‘Ah yes, I remember reading that book’ because the way things are going I’ll be lucky to remember my name by last Thursday.

I have to say I finished Amsterdam before I realised I’d started it. One thing that can be said – it’s a quick read and I found McEwan’s style of writing pretty easy to follow.  However, I came away with the sense that there is something missing from the book and I’m not quite sure what. I found the characters a little thin and not very likeable and the story just plodded along. It won the 1998 Booker award though and McEwan wrote ‘Atonement’ (which I did enjoy), so who am I to argue?

The story centres around old friends, Clive and Vernon, who were at one time both lovers of a recently deceased woman (although not at the same time I hasten to add, or maybe they were? I wasn’t really paying attention at one point). The book begins where we see them at her funeral and her husband and another former lover are in attendance (I think she had a few lovers in her time). The other characters are important to the story but remain mainly peripheral as McEwan focusses on the deteriorating friendship of Clive and Vernon. I don’t really want to say much more about the story as I would run the risk of giving some serious spoilers and you might enjoy the book more than I.

I think Ego is the key to this story. All the characters portrayed have huge egos and are unable to see beyond their own needs. They aren’t very likeable, sympathetic or nice. They are extremely self-centred. I suppose that’s the way it’s meant to be. However, I just couldn’t connect and didn’t feel for any of the characters and so felt somewhat detached from the story.  That said, I finished it which is always a plus point and I raced through it in double quick time. In all honesty I wouldn’t put myself out there and say to you ‘yes, it’s great! Go read it!’ but equally I didn’t hate the book and so it gets 3 stars from me.

 

The Silent Twins by Marjorie Wallace

The Silent Twins by Marjorie Wallace
Category: Non-fiction, Biography
Rating:

The Silent Twins is about identical twins June and Jennifer Gibbons. They were born in Barbados on 11th April 1963 but grew up in Wales where the family moved shortly after their birth. They spent most of their lives living in their own impenetrable world. June and Jennifer knew what each other felt and thought but they were silent to most people outside of their world, despite having the physical ability to speak. The twins confounded teachers, speech therapist, specialist educational schools and psychologists who crossed their paths. However, a battle raged between the two girls who loved, controlled and hated each other in equal measures.


The author pulls together the story of their experiences through meeting with the twins, their family and countless professionals who were involved in their care and also in using accounts from their diaries. The twins were, at one point, very prolific writers both in diary form and in fiction. Wallace is able to put across the differences in personalities between the twins and also the emotional battles of control and power they had with each other.

The girls started to experiment with drink, drugs, bad boys and petty crime in their mid-teens and were eventually caught and charged with vandalism and arson. Ultimately, this is a a tale about how the mental health and justice system, failed two girls primarily because they had no idea how to support them (and if they did then the appropriate resources were not in place).

The girls spent a year in prison on remand awaiting their trial. They were finally found guilty and, at the age of 19, were sent to Broadmoor high security psyhicatric hospital for an indefinite period of time. For those not familiar with the name, Broadmoor houses some of the most dangerous offenders, examples including Peter Sutcliffe (Yorksire Ripper), Charles Bronson and Ronald Kray. June and Jennifer ended up here merely by default. There were no secure, hospital facilities around at the time which could take on twin teeagers with such unique behavioural issues. They ended up at Broadmoor which in itself hadn’t really got the appropriate tools for supporting the teenage girls.

Wallace sums up the situation perfectly…

“Jennifer and June could never come to terms with the fact that they had been given what amounted to a life sentence for vandalism and three counts of arson, when other teenages guilty of far more serious crimes, often involving bodily harm, would spend, at most, a few months in prison.” (p.255)

The book gives a fascinating insight into this sad story. Woven throughout the story is the difficultly the twins had both being together and apart. Sadly, they felt that it wouldn’t be until one of them died that the other would truly be ‘free’.
Image

Recommended to those who like to read about sad, gritty, real-life stories.

The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson

The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson
Category: Non-fiction, conspiracy, psychological warfare.
Publication: 2004
Rating:

Jon Ronson is an investigative journalist and best-selling author. He also writes for the Guardian from time to time and has the kind of ironic wit and dry sense of humour I can fully appreciate. Anyone familiar with the work of Louis Theroux might want to give Ronson a try. His interviewing and investigation techniques strike me as being very similar and just as engaging. I can only imagine what would be presented should Theroux and Ronson ever work together in the future.

I was first introduced to Ronson’s work with The Psychopath Test which I thought was an enlightening and engaging read. The downside was the sense of paranoia I started to feel which was brought about by my fledgling belief that the majority of people in politics, management and showbiz, plus a few people I have known directly, have been psychopaths. It’s in us all to varying degrees…..the potential is there…

https://i0.wp.com/crimlabs.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Psychopath-Norman-Bates-631.jpg

Norman Bates

I get that similar paranoid feeling whilst reading ‘The Men Who Stare at Goats’. What the heck are those people higher up getting up to? The invisible shadowy ones lying in dark corners. Who are they? Do we really want to know? Will we ever really know the truth? Is the writer really independent from all of this? I tend to push such questions to one side. No good can come!  Rightly or wrongly, I hold to the view of  ‘Look, they ain’t ever gonna let us know the truth. They’ll only allow tales to be told of what they want us to know, the rest remains hidden’.  Not surprisingly, I end up going around in circles, becoming increasingly depressed until I take on the ole ‘ignorance is bliss’ view because I know I’ll never get answers to questions searching for truth.

‘The Men Who Stare at Goats’  does provide some answers, especially if it’s an area which the reader may not be familiar with. But I’m sure we’re only allowed to scratch the surface. I wonder how many layers of the onion will need to be removed before we find what truly lies beneath. But then again, maybe that’s what THEY want us/them/whoever to think… Paranoia reigns..

Catch 22, Joseph Heller.

Anyway, as ever, I’ve veered off track like a spy stumbling about in the dark without his night vision goggles. The Men Who Stare at Goats is a fascinating book written in Ronson’s very engaging and affable style. It does jump back and forth and the structure can be difficult to keep up with for someone like me. That says more about me rather than the book.

The book provides a brief introduction into the rather dark world of ‘Psychological Operations’ (PsyOp). Ronson focuses upon the covert psychological techniques which have been used for interrogation purposes by the CIA and US Army. He introduces us to projects from as early as the 1950’s up to the modern day 2000’s and the ‘War on Terror’. Warning! For those not yet aware of this world it is pretty twisted and frightening.  Ronson touches upon areas including Project MKUltra (commenced in the 1950s by the CIA and including the use of drugs, sensory deprivation, hypnosis and various forms of torture in order to influence), the torture and human rights violations which took place at Abu Ghraib prison (2003-2004) and the link between the US military and the mass suicide by the Heaven’s Gate Cult in San Diego in 1997.

Sometimes Interesting Blog – Project MKUltra

One of the poignant stories Ronson recalls is that of Frank Olson. Olson was a leading US biochemist working with the US government in the 40’s and early 50’s. In 1953 he ‘jumped’ to his death in what was an apparent suicide.

Circumstances around his death have been suspicious, especially given that Olson was becoming more and more concerned about the work he was doing. At the time, he was rumoured to have been resigning from his post and ready to speak out against the CIA. Ronson spends some time with Eric Olson, Frank’s son, who has searched tirelessly for the truth about the circumstances surrounding his father’s death. It gives a fascinating and frightening insight and certainly provides enough interest for me to read more on the subject.

It has been said that the book is one of two halves and I would tend to agree with this opinion. At the beginning of the book you could be forgiven for thinking this is a rather humorous piece of fiction. There are some incredibly amusing stories (which Ronson hints are purposely put out there in order to detract). The tale relating to a Major General Albert Stubblebine III may even raise a chuckle. Stubblebine was active in the early 80’s and particularly interested in psychic warfare. He was also convinced given the right training people can walk through walls. Was this guy really a General?

General Stubblebine bangs his nose hard on the wall of his office. Damn, he thinks. General Stubblebine is confounded by his continual failure to walk through his wall….There is no doubt in his mind that the ability to pass through objects will one day be a common tool in the intelligence-gathering arsenal….These powers are attainable, so the only question is by whom?……Special Forces! (p.3).

However, the more we move through the book, the darker it becomes. We are reminded that fact is often stranger than fiction and that this story involves real people, families and victims. Ronson provides an insightful and thoughtful introduction to what is, essentially, a complex story of conspiracy, psyops and the ultimate power of psychological warfare and mind control which goes far deeper than we can ever know.

Little Man, What Now? by Hans Fallada

Little Man, What Now? by Hans Fallada
German Literature

First published: 1932

This is the third book that I’ve read which has been written by Fallada following on the heels of Every Man Dies Alone (or Alone in Berlin) and The Drinker. I have enjoyed every single one. Kudos has to be given to the translator,  in this instance Susan Bennett, who makes this work so accessible. One day I will be fully conversant in German and be able to read the original! Until then, I shall enjoy the translated works which we are fortunate enough to have.

Little Man What Now? tells the story of a young, newly married couple living through uncertain times and financial hardship. The threat of unemployment and homelessness is never far away. Sonny Pinneberg is a menswear salesman under extreme pressure from a manager who holds unrealistic expectations of his staff by increasing quotas which they must reach to get paid or face losing their jobs. His new wife, ‘Lammchen’, is expecting their first baby.

(Model: My cat Rosie)

The couple is clearly in love but lacking in funds. However, they somehow manage to work through the hardships they face with dignity, humour and the view that something good will happen sometime soon.

As with all the books I’ve read by Fallada, there is a sense of truth and honesty in the characters and in the story he presents. The story also transcends geography and time and the fact that this was based in Berlin in 1932 doesn’t seem to matter. Many of the conversations Lammchen and Sonny have could surely be taking place in homes across the globe today. They bicker, make up, laugh, cry and argue over things such as which is the right way to care for a child? What are they are going to eat? How to make ends meet? What shall we spend our little bit of money on? and so forth.  However, there is more than enough lightness and humour filtering through the pages which leads the story on to be engaging and hopeful rather than dark and dreary.

 

Fallada wrote during times of hardship and the Depression. He also suffered greatly throughout his life. At 16 he was run over by a horse-drawn cart and a year later he contracted typhoid. He was a tormented soul having life-long struggles with drugs and alcohol, several suicide attempts, one of which led to the death (manslaughter) of a friend following a botched suicide pact. He also had numerous stays in mental institutions. It’s not surprising Fallada was influenced by what was happening around him and thus wrote about the darker and tougher side of life. However, despite all he experienced, his writing always manages to convey warmth, humour, hope and humanity which seep through the characters and relationships he brilliantly portrays. Whilst often hard hitting, you’re never far away from a joke, a bit of hope or a warm hug from Fallada’s accessible and affable writing.

I love his works and have to say he has firmly become a leader in the running for my all time favourite author. Written in 1932, and just before the Nazis came to power,  Little Man What Now seems as relevant today as I am sure it did then.

Jesus’ Son: Stories by Dennis Johnson

Jesus’ Son: Stories by Denis Johnson.
Contemporary Fiction.

Publication Date: December 1992

“When I’m rushing on my run. And I feel just like Jesus’ Son….” Lou Reed,  ‘Heroin’

I would be the first to admit that my guilty book reading interest (I won’t go as far to say ‘pleasure’) is that of the ‘addiction, drugs, alcohol, mental health and/or messed up state’ genre. I suppose it comes from life and work experiences. I’m a social worker by background and for as long as I remember I’ve worked or studied in health and social care. I’m interested in the personal story, the human condition and often fascinated in how addiction impacts upon someones life, on those around them and the psychology of addiction. I am certainly not talking about glorification. With this in mind it’s no surprise for me to say that I’ve read a number of fiction and non fiction in this area.

As is often the case, fiction seems to be more believable than non fiction and there is often an element of truth. I’m thinking The Drinker by Hans Fallada, Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton and of course Junky by William S Burroughs. Jesus’ Son almost makes it.

Jesus’ Son is a collection of 11 short stories all told from the experiences of the same person. It’s a very short book which can be read in one sitting. It can be confusing at times which is what I think it’s meant to do. It appears to be a well structured stream of consciousness (if that makes sense).

We don’t know the current age of the narrator, I’m not sure we even know the gender (assumed to be a man) and we are certainly not provided with reference to the time frame of when most of the stories happened. What we do know is that the narrator is a recovering addict although he does not explicitly inform us of this.

Each short story tells of a memorable occasion in his life be this an interesting person he met, where he was working or who he fell in love with. Maybe. In some stories the writing is vivid and graphic, although in the main it appears to tell of life which in reality is mundane and aimless. The physical act of drug use is mentioned fleetingly. The book mostly focuses upon the narrators actions whilst high, low and going through withdrawal from drugs and alcohol and it certainly provides us with the impression of the confusion and chaos in the mind of the narrator.

“We lay down on a stretch of dusty plywood in the back of the truck with the day light against our eyelids and the fragrance of alfalfa thickening on our tongues.

“I want to go to church” Georgie said.

“Let’s go to the county fair.”

“I’d like to worship. I would.”

“They have these injured hawks and eagles there. From the Humane Society” I said.

“I need a quiet chapel about now.” (p.63)

Jesus’ Son is a well written journal, quick to read and easy to confuse. I don’t understand why I remain unsure as to what I really think of the book. There is a lot of hype which surrounds it and I always seem to be a little out of step in such cases. I would guess that my expectations for the book were out of step having read a number of different books in this genre which left me feeling more fulfilled (for want of a better word). I’m left feeling that there are things I have missed and maybe I need to read the book again. Nonetheless, it’s very much subjective and I feel that Jesus’ Son remains a well thought out, well written chronicle.

What's funny about Jesus' Son is that I never even wrote that book, I just wrote it down. I would tell these stories and people would say, You should write these things down.  - Denis Johnson

The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood.

The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood
Contemporary Fiction
Publication date: Sept 1993
Rating: 4 star rating

My third attempt at reading, enjoying and finishing a Margaret Atwood novel. It’s third time lucky which has demonstrated that persistence surely pays off. I struggled with Alias Grace and got about a third of the way through before giving up. I think this was more to do with not being in the right mood than the book itself. I read all of The Handmaid’s Tale but just couldn’t connect with any of the characters and the style in which the book was written in wasn’t for me. It all made me feel rather inadequate. It reminded me of the times when I would be at a party or club standing in a corner on my own, feeling somewhat confused and left out of things. Everyone seemed to be having a good time except me. Everyone seemed to love The Handmaid’s Tale, except me….

So, onto The Robber Bride. It’s a pretty straightforward story and written in a style I can read without having to repeat the sentence several times over before it makes sense (sadly, and possibly due to age and stress, the ability to understand and retain information is becoming problematic for me). The Robber Bride is set in the 1990’s and tells the tale of three forty-something year old friends whose lives have become infected by the legendary, sociopathic, femme fetal called Zenia whom they have known since college. Their stories are told in turn. How did they became involved with and be taken in by such a woman? How has she been allowed to impact so negatively upon their lives?  Atwood also gives us a glimpse into each woman’s childhood which enables us to see how they may have been taken in by Zenia and how she was able to find their individual weakness and go for the ‘kill’.

We really don’t get to know much about Zenia although she is a constant threat running throughout the book. She is larger than life with a character something akin to a predatory hawk sizing up and seizing her prey. Zenia holds an almost mythical status, a legend who breezes in and out of their lives taking what she can whilst managing to seduce them into believing whatever she says. There are times where you do wonder whether such a person has existed in the lives of these women or whether she is in fact one and all of them. She ‘physically’ appears throughout the book only a small number of times yet her character manages to seep out of all 466 pages of the book.

The tale of the Robber Bride is said to be the female version of  The Robber Bridegroom, a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm.  The Robber Bridegroom is a rather gruesome tale of a chap who lures young women with the promise of love, marriage and wealth but where the final result is that he and his fellow crew fill the ‘brides to be’ full of booze and eat them (or something along those lines).

The Robber Bride is definitely more subtle than that. However, you are left in no doubt that Zenia must be some kind of sociopath. She does the things she does for no other reason other than because she can. She takes advantage of her prey and is quick to recognise and seize upon each vulnerability. She takes no prisoners. I’m very glad I have never knowingly known a Zenia…..

I enjoyed reading the Robber Bride. I thought the characters were very well written, sympathetic and with very well thought out back stories. The writing style flowed along nicely and, whilst I did get a little distracted on a couple of occasions (becoming impatient and wanting the book to hurry up and finish), I did overall enjoy the story and the characters.  I’m also quite relieved to say I have read and liked an Atwood book! Success!! I shall no longer be found in the kitchen at parties looking sad, dazed and confused and alone.

young Margaret Atwood

The Plague by Albert Camus

The Plague by Albert Camus

First published: 1947

I’ve actually read something by Camus. Oooh Get me. Plus, I actually think it is really rather good. Get me even more. I’ve wanted to read Camus for some time, no, really, I have.  I have been somewhat intimidated by the name “Camus” – the absurdist, existential, philosopher and award winning writer whom many intellectuals have analysed, critiqued and philosophised over for years.  I bit the bullet and went for it.

I’m sure you’re all familiar with the story and there are enough reviews and literary critiques online to fill a million plague infested towns. I won’t be going down that route. I’ll only embarrass myself. But, just in case you have lived in a concrete shoe for many years, The Plague is, as one would expect, about a plague taking over a town which ultimately leads to its’ complete isolation and separation from the rest of the world. This town is Oman in Algiers which is said to have suffered the plague in the 16th and 17th centuries. This is set in the 1940’s and Camus wrote the book with the intent that it would also be an allegory for the French Resistance during the occupation by the Nazi’s. I probably wouldn’t have got that one if it hadn’t been pointed out to me but, once you know, it becomes pretty obvious.

The story is told in five parts by an anonymous narrator who provides his account of the events as they unfold. The account follows the experiences of the town as it’s inhabitants endure the various stages of the plague. Ultimately, it’s a story about the human condition relating to isolation, separation and death. Underlying the story is Camus own belief that as humans we have a profound resilience and adaptability which enables us to cope with most of the crap which is thrown at us – even when faced with exile and the threat of death. Camus constantly reminds us about the depth of isolation and separation people are subject to as a consequence of being quarantined from those they love and the outside world. In describing the habits of the townspeople at moments of such exile, the narrator tells us;

“Hostile to the past, impatient of the present, and cheated of the future, we were much like those whom men’s justice, or hatred, forces to live behind prison bars”(p.62).

Camus is a wonderful writer, prone to completing many beautiful passages which conjure up the atmosphere, sights and sounds of any particular setting and some which seek to have an alternative meaning. It’s also a book which confuses me a little. I would imagine that a story about a town being cut off from the rest of the world because of an epidemic which means many people suffer a painful and gruesome death would be sensational with a great sense of panic and chaos. Camus does not write in such a way. As beautiful and sparkling as some of the passages are, the story is often told in a matter of fact way and there are equally mundane passages and, dare I say it, there were a few occasions where I did feel a little…bored… However, these were few and far between. Camus would then raise the bar with the most delicate touch in describing something so simple yet beautiful. One of my favourite parts is the moment when two of the main characters are sitting on a roof terrace, getting some brief respite from their relentless care of the dying. For the first time they open up and let down their defenses. The sounds, sights and senses lift off the page as Camus describes the almost idyllic setting amidst a town gripped by plague.

“In a sky swept crystal clear by the night wind, the stars showed like silver flakes, tarnished now and again by the yellow gleam of the revolving light. Perfumes of spice and warm stone were wafted on the breeze. Everything was very still” (p.200).

How I wish I could write like that!

As we come to the end of the book the narrator, who so far has remained anonymous, takes away the cloak and reveals himself. Still speaking in the third person, he lets us know that his decision to remain anonymous whilst recounting the tale has been done purposely in order that the tale be told more objectively and to enable him to speak for the town. He says –

“To be an honest witness, it was for him to confine himself mainly to what people did or said and what could be gleaned from documents. Regarding his personal troubles and his long suspense, his duty was to hold his peace…. Whenever tempted to add his personal note to the myriad of voices of the plague-stricken, he was deterred by the thought that not one of his sufferings but was common to all the others and that in a world where sorrow is so often lonely was an advantage. Thus, decidedly, it was up to him to speak for all” (p.246).

So, I have read Camus. I can’t say it’s changed my life and there were a couple of occasions where it had felt like I had been reading the book for months. However, the smattering of beautiful passages more than made up for the times where I did become distracted.  Additionally, I have gone on to read more about Camus, his philosophies and views on life and think he must have been a pretty cool chap to know. I’ll certainly pick up some more of his work in the future.

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Book: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
1st Year Published
: 1959

OK, Flowers for Algernon has become my favourite book, of ALL time. In fact, until now I don’t think I have been able to say what my favourite book was. It’s knocked my socks off, thrown me in the corner and left me a crumbling, emotional wreck. I can’t fault it, the character and story development, the writing, the way in which it stirs the emotions and its sheer humanity have all hit the right spot. It’s a winner of both the Hugo Award and Nebula Award and is part of the SF Masterworks series and quite deservedly so.

The book tells the story of Charlie Gordon, a 32 year old who is ‘retarded’ (a word I dislike but this is 1959 and a language of its time) with an IQ of 68. Charlie is recruited into an experiment which aims to increase his intelligence to that of a genius. The ‘Algernon’ named in the title, and whom the flowers are for, is a white mouse who has undergone the experiment prior to Charlie.

M is for mouse...

The story is told from Charlies’ perspective in the form of ‘Progress Reports’. He has to complete these as part of the experiment in order that any changes in his intellectual development are documented and evidenced. An exerpt of the first progress report shows us where Charlie begins the experiment;

“progris riport 1 martch 3
My name is Charlie Gordon I werk in Donners bakery where Mr Donner gives me 11 dollers a week and bred or cake if I want. I am 32 yeres old and next munth is my brithday. I tolld Dr Strauss and perfesser Nemur I cant rite good but he says it dont matter he says I shud rite like I talk…..Dr Strauss says to rite a lot evrything I think and everything that happins to me but I can’t think anymor because I have nothing to rite so I will close for today….” (p.1).

Over the months, we become privy to his observations and deepest thoughts and emotions as he looks back on his childhood and recent life with an ever-changing outlook and increasing intelligence.  Situations, events, family and friends are all seen through new eyes and at times these observations are incredibly moving.  As the reports progress, we witness not only his spelling and grammar improve, but also his thought processes and observations;

“Progress Report 13
….I have thought about death often in recent weeks, but not really about God. My mother took me to church occasionally – but I don’t recall ever connecting that up with the thought of God. She mentioned Him quite often, and I had to pray to Him at night, but I never thought much about it. I remember Him as a distant uncle with a long beard on a throne (like Santa Claus in the department store on his big chair…) (p.93).

In Charlie Gordon, the author has managed to develop a character who demands and receives our empathy, understanding and affection. Even at his most obnoxious (his emotional intellect does not progress at the same rate nor as favourably as his intelligence), the writing is such that we always seek to understand Charlie’s motivations and reasoning for speaking and behaving as he does.  I believe that the book is more about the way in which society views, or, more accurately, has viewed, a person with a learning disability through the eyes of that person. It is also an emotional study into how a person may react to the possibility of the onset of dementia and how he perceives those around him.

If you have never been interested in the science fiction genre, please don’t let the tag put you off. Yes, Flowers for Algernon has won awards for science fiction and yes it is in the SF Masterworks list but, ultimately, it is a story of humanity and a person struggling to gain acceptance from others for who he really is and not for who others want him to be.

The Prince of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Prince of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Category: Young Adult/Mystery/Horror
Rating:  

I start the review with a disclaimer! Please bear in mind the following points when you read my review as these no doubt have an influence on any concluding thoughts on the book which I present here.

  • My mum gave me the book a couple of years ago.
  • I would not have bought it myself.
  • The ‘Young Adult’ genre is not something I usually read, well, not for many years.
  • I do like mystery and horror genres though.
  • I just wouldn’t have bought it myself.

So, we need to keep these points in mind as I continue. The Prince of Mist is the debut novel for Carlos Ruiz Zafon who has since developed an extremely successful writing career. The book is primarily classed as ‘young adult genre’ but Zafon hopes that adults of any age will enjoy the book.

The story is set in 1943 and follows 13 year old Max and his family as his father moves them from their home in the city (we are never told where in the world this is) and out to a picturesque coastal village primarily as a perceived threat of war approaches.  In his new home Max is confronted by anticipation, fear and wonder as mysterious happenings start to arise. These are linked to the story of the previous home owners, a strange walled garden filled with unusual statues (for Doctor Who fans think ‘Blink’) and the spooky shipwreck of The Orpheus which Max gets the opportunity to visit with his older sister Alicia who is 15 and his new friend Roland.

The Weeping Angels, Dr Who…..

Zafon writes extremely well in that he has created an easy to read, captivating book with a wonderfully chilling and mysterious atmosphere. I would say that the strength in his writing lies in this development of atmosphere and scenery. However,  I found the character and plot development to be a little ‘thin’ at times. Whilst I found the book to be a page turner, in that it was so easy to read and had great atmosphere, there were elements of it that did niggle to the extent where I didn’t really care about the characters and thus I wasn’t really bothered about what the outcome would be.

Max, the main character, is 13 and, without wishing to go too far into the story to provide spoilers, he and the other young characters seem to have almost superhuman strength, power and emotions.  I do realise that this is fantasy and so need to suspend an element of my disbelief, however, as odd as it sounds, I do like some of my fantasy to follow a certain logic, particularly when it comes to human nature and ability. If the characters portrayed here were muted to be superheroes then all would be fine but they are not. They are young teenagers and we are led to believe that they would do certain things which command superhuman powers.

Max is 13, he has been uprooted from his family home and all that he has known to a strange place. He and his family go on to suffer an incident early on in the book which lead to his parents having to leave him and his 15 year old sister alone for a few days in these unfamiliar surroundings. Again, without wanting to give too much away, I can understand the reason for his parents absence however, both? at the same time? for a number of days? With a war on? Max and his sister seemed nonplussed at this and we have very little discussion between them about the matter which appears to be of no consequence to them so I guess I should just take this as read. I do find it odd that I can easily believe in the creepy happenings in the story but not in the characters who I feel are ‘thinly’ drawn and almost comic book in style. Maybe this was the intention. To create role models and super heroes, characters that young adults reading the book can relate to and want to be.  Unfortunately, for me, this just detracted from the enjoyment of the book.

Oh dear. I feel I am being way too critical and analytical about this. If I was more used to the young adult genre then maybe I would think differently and I would be giving 4 or 5 stars which a large number of the reviews do give.  Ultimately, I can’t help wondering if it is more of a personality clash between me and the book. We didn’t really see eye to eye on a lot of the points and I just don’t get some of it.  As with personality clashes, other people can, do and will get on famously with him, it’s just that it wasn’t to be for me and The Prince of Mist.

An Equal Music by Vikram Seth

An Equal Music by Vikram Seth

Rating:

I’ve had An Equal Music left unread on my bookshelf for a number of years. I bought the hardback for 30 pence at a sale in a library. I bought it mainly because the cover was nice (yep, judging a book by its cover), it was a hardback and it was only 30p.

An Equal Music is a wonderful book of love won and lost. The book is written in the first person as Michael Holmes, our main character, narrates his life and experiences. We read about how he walked out on the love of his life, Julia, in Vienna where they both lived and studied. Ten years later, Michael is living and working in London and is part of the successful Maggiore Quartet. He thinks of Julia daily and dwells upon the regret of leaving her years ago. One day, Michael spots Julia on a bus in London having never thought he would see her again. Michael embarks on a mission to find her and win her love once again.

Picnic for String Quartet

“Picnic for String Quartet” by Erin Dinur

This is the first book I have read by Vikram Seth. I had heard of A Suitable Boy which seems to have been a heavyweight contender in book awards. I have to say having read An Equal Music I do love how he writes and I read the book quite quickly (for me that is!).  Seth has a wonderful ability of conjuring up sights, smells and emotions.  From the beauty of Venice to the cultural cities of Vienna and London, Seth describes the places wonderfully.  A big surprise to me, and nestled within all of this beauty, was the mention of Rochdale and the moors which surround this area, not somewhere which often gets a mention in a major piece of fiction. Michael hails from Rochdale and occasionally goes to visit his father there. When he talks about going back to visit and going out to eat at ‘Owd Betts’, the pub up on the moors, I got rather excited because we go there to eat now and again. They do a very nice cheese and onion pie by the way…..

Owd Betts (http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/510011)

Inside Owd Betts...

Seth describes the scenery surrounding the pub with a windswept beauty and one which I have forgotten to notice having become so familiar with the area.

There are many, many reviews on this book which seem to provide two very different viewpoints. An Equal Music seems to be a book of Marmite. You’ll either love it or hate it. Most reviewers do love the writing, the story and the character development. However, there are some that find it rather self-indulgent and pompous. This mainly relates to Michael and his obsession around his love for Julia, his need to have her in his life and the effect this has on his behaviour.  I can see how people could feel this way and indeed I did think this at several points of the story, that kind of ‘get a grip man!’ feeling. However, I don’t see this as a negative aspect of the book and would even say that Seth has scored a victory in character portrayal if people feel this way. I believe this is integral to the story.  As well as bringing joy and happiness, Love can make us selfish, self-indulgent, pitiful and obsessive especially where love has been lost and yet we still desire that person and want to be with them at all costs. Ultimately this is the story which Michael has to tell.

An Equal Music is not really a book I would initially go for. I’m not big on love and romance books however, I do enjoy books on character development, relationships and struggles which Vikram Seth portrays well. All in all a surprisingly good read.

The view from Scout Moor near Owd Bett’s (Photograph by me).

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 233 other followers

%d bloggers like this: