The Reflective Cynic

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

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).

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Double Indemnity by James M. Cain

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain (1936)
2014 Category Challenge
Rating:

OK, having read the countless reviews for Double Indemnity I’m left in no doubt that this is considered as one of the greatest books from the American noir, hard boiled genre. In many quarters it is considered a classic with James M.Cain as the master of noir. I really don’t want to argue with the majority however, having finished the book, I do seem to be at odds. Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy it. I loved the story especially the staccato style narration which had me thinking of Spillane’s Mike Hammer every 3 minutes. I also liked the fact that it’s a short, snappy story which took me an afternoon to read.  I just haven’t been left with that ‘wow’ four or five star ‘classic’ feeling. This annoys me, not least of all because I can’t explain why.

But, for what it’s worth, here is my two penneth………..

Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in the 1944 film, directed by Billy Wilder with a screenplay written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler.

According to wiki, Double Indemnity is a novella which was initially written as an eight part serial for Liberty Magazine. Our narrator and main protagonist, Walter Huff, is an insurance salesman who has been doing the job longer than he cares to remember. One day he sets out to visit a customer in order to sell an insurance renewal. The customer isn’t at home, Huff has a chance meeting with the wife and, as is befitting for this era and style, when a man meets a woman, trouble is not far behind.  From this initial meeting, the couple go on to develop a relationship which enables them to hatch and carry out an insurance scam centering around the murder of the husband.

Ah, if only he’d have been at home…..

“Three days later she called and left word I was to come at three-thirty. She let me in herself. She didn’t have the blue pajamas this time. She had on a white sailor suit, with a blouse that pulled tight over her hips, and white shoes and stockings. I wasn’t the only one that knew about that shape. She knew about it herself, plenty.” (p.10)

Huff narrates the tale in the ‘classic’ noir style which I did enjoy. The delivery consists of short, sharp phrases and sentences which bring to mind the classic noir films. It’s very much dialogue driven rather than descriptive.

For some reason the late, great, Frank Drebin/Leslie Neilson  kept popping into my head narrating something along the lines of:

“When I got home I received a call from Mimi Du Jour, she wanted me to come to the club right away. Since I had no idea where the Club Rightaway was, I suggested to go to the Club Flamingo. She agreed.”
Police Squad,
Revenge and Remorse (The Guilty Alibi), 1982.

Obviously, not a quote from Double Indemnity but I’m a big fan of Police Squad and it made me smile. It also highlights how influential the book/Cain has been on the noir style and on the subsequent spoofs such as Police Squad that followed much later.

I can’t deny that Double Indemnity is a great little book and definitely one of its time.  It’s snappy, stylish and the 30s/40s black and white film style oozes from the pages. It’s strong on story telling and, in the usual noir style, has its corrupted and corruptible characters – unlikeable people with no redeeming features and no shades of grey. If you’re a fan of the slick, sharp, dialogue driven crime fiction tale then Double Indemnity is the one for you.

I did enjoy it but I can’t explain why the book didn’t hit that ‘wow’ button for me.

Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Community Post: The Five Greatest Vampire Novels Written In The Past 100 Years

Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist (2007)
2014 Category Challenge
Rating:

Lindqvist has been compared to Stephen King which is a comparison not without merit as he matches King blow for blow with this story. In fact, Let the Right One In takes me back to my King reading youth which lies somewhere in the 1980’s and not far from the year in which this book is set (1981) .

I haven’t read a horror book for many years and, unusually for me, I bought this book after I had seen the Swedish film. I was taken by the simplicity, the atmosphere and horrific beauty of the film that I just had to get the book. I’d heard that the film had missed out much that was in the book (I am not surprised) and this left me curious. The book had been sitting on my shelf unread for the few couple of years and now I’m wondering why I had left it for so long.

“Let the right one slip in” by Morrissey (p.487)

Oskar is 12 years old and relentlessly bullied at school. He has no friends. Life is hard and he is anxious to the point of incontinence. His dream world consists of keeping a scrap-book of newspaper articles on murders and mass murderers and fantasising about fighting back and killing his bullies. He’s a good kid at heart but sad and angry at the cards life has dealt him, about being singled out and bullied and at himself and his inability to fight back. Things change when he meets Eli, his new neighbour and possible soul mate.

Eli is also 12 years old and quite eccentric. She has moved into the flat next door with her ‘father’ but all is not as it seems. After a chance meeting with Oskar one evening they start to develop a friendship.  As this friendship develops so does Oskar’s strength and confidence in life. As the story develops so does his awareness around sex, sexuality and love, in particular the sense of confusion he feels when he thinks about Eli. This is certainly a ‘coming of age’ relationship for Oskar. This is also the case for Eli as she explores her feelings for Oskar, their friendship and especially her struggle in coming to terms with being a ’12 year old child’ having lived as a vampire for 200 years.

“I must be gone and live, or stay and die.
Yours, Eli” (p.283)
Let the Right One In

Around this developing unconventional relationship, Lindqvist creates an atmosphere that is typically Scandinavian. Cold, dark, simple and stylish with a quirky edge. Yes, Lindqvist uses a lot of  words, taking his time to get to where we should be. Some readers may feel that an amount of what Lindqvist has written is superfluous. However,  I believe everything to be an essential part of the story. Lindqvist takes his time, building characters and scenes that may not initially feel relevant to the reader but they will eventually come together to form vital parts to the story overall. Give it time. Once again, comparisons to Stephen King can be made. I remember reading ‘Christine’ when I was younger, wondering where the heck things were going. King got there eventually and it made the journey all the more worthwhile. It’s the same here with Let the Right One In and Lindqvist.

We get there….eventually.

Ultimately, this is a story of two lonely people coming together to form a friendship in a world in which they don’t fit. However, a warning note to readers attracted to the more romantic and ethereal vampire story – Let the Right One In is not soft around the edges. It doesn’t mince its words and certainly does not romanticise the subject in any way.  Whilst it sensitively explores the developing relationship between Eli and Oskar, it remains quite graphic and descriptive in detail. It’s gritty, dirty and, in some scenes, downright seedy.  It’s certainly not a book for the faint hearted nor for those that like their vampires with a bit more romance and less blood and dirt. It’s definitely a book for those who like a horror story to hit them straight between the eyes and not allow them get up for a while afterwards.

Beautiful "Let the Right One In" poster, really captures the film I think. http://bloody-disgusting.com/news/21463/

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin


Title: The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin
Category:
SF Masterworks

I have a goal to read all of the books in the SF Masterworks series. Considering that the list can change over time, books get added, some taken away, it’ll be no mean feat. I’m currently embarking on a challenge which will hopefully encourage me to read more in 2014 and release some much needed brain power. So what better for my first book than one from the SF Masterworks collection and my first category for the 2014 Category Challenge.

The Lathe of Heaven tells the story of a mild mannered chap, George Orr, who possesses the ‘gift’ of being able to change reality through his dreams. He calls these ‘effective dreams’. He can go to bed one night and wake up in the morning only to find his job has changed, the landscape has altered, politics across the world and even the appearance of people. However, people around him do not notice anything different. To them things are as they have always been. Only George is aware of the impact that his dreams have on reality.

The book sounded just up my street. I love dream analysis, altered reality systems and dystopic tales and so a book which incorporates all these sounded perfect. In addition to this, there have been a number of times where I have wished that I could wake up and be instantly transformed into some 8.5 stone fitness guru with a body to rival any athlete (preferably that of a female tennis player). I would also have an abundance of wealth and happiness, popularity unbounded and there would be world peace…

Ah, if only it was so easy!

As is the case with characters who have such amazing ‘gifts’ in any book or film, we find out that such abilities can often become a curse. We meet George at a time in his life where his ability to dream ‘effectively’ has become too much to bear. George needs drugs to manage his sleep and dreams. He tries to stay awake. It’s not like he can just go to sleep and have a dream that he is wealthy and popular and wake up the next day and, hey presto, there it is.  As is often the case with dreams, George doesn’t have such conscious control and, as we know, dreams can become nightmares. How often have you gone to bed and wanted to dream about a particular thing but found that something else had happened? Can you imagine waking each day/week into a dramatically changed social, political and/or environmental landscape? One that came straight from your subconscious?  What if you had a nightmare which became your reality?  It would certainly put that dream where I gave birth to a chicken into perspective….

Right from the start of the book we become only too aware of his problem as he is found in a collapsed state outside his apartment. He explains to the elevator guard who found him that:

“Couldn’t find the fit” he said, meaning that he had been trying to lock the door through which the dreams came, but none of the keys fit the lock” (p.2).

The ‘fit’ for George has meant taking copious amounts of prescribed drugs for which he has to use ‘Pharm Cards’ from other people. This is a crime for which George has to attend the ‘Voluntary Therapeutic Treatment’  programme which will seek to help him with his perceived substance abuse. During this programme George is introduced to his psychotherapist, Dr Haber, who seeks to help him overcome his ‘fear’ of sleeping and dreaming. However, Haber becomes aware of George’s ability and finds ways in which to use this for his own ends. Haber starts to plant suggestions into George’s mind during his dream stage of sleep which leads to the development of interesting ‘realities’.

I enjoyed reading The Lathe of Heaven and Le Guin’s writing flows beautifully off the page. I got through the book quicker than I have got through any book in a long time. I started reading the book before 2014 thinking by the time 2014 arrived and the challenge had begun I would be just about finishing it. I underestimated myself and the book.

The story raises issues around power, powerlessness, control and fear. There is an overwhelming sense of loss which runs throughout.  Le Guin portrays the changes George has to go through as a consequences of his ‘effective’ dreams in a rather poetic way. All facets of life are transient, forever moving on and changing at an incredible pace. This can only lead to a sense of loss for love and life as it is, was or may never be.  Le Guin manages to capture this perfectly as she portrays the grief George feels as his dreams continue to alter his reality and that of the world.  Be careful what you dream….. they may come true.

“Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening” Salvador Dali (1944)

For all my 2014 Category Challenge books to be read please go here.

2014 Challenge: Books to read

See previous post for details on my 2014 challenge. For now here is a list of the books I will be reading…so far…they are subject to change!

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SF Masterworks Category:
The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin.
The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov.

Fantasy:
The Way of the Wyrd by Brian Bates
The Prince of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafron

Dystopia:
The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner
The Drought by J.G.Ballard

Mystery:
Don’t Look Now by Daphne du Maurier
????

Psychology:
The Age of Absurdity by Michael Foley
Modern Man in Search of a Soul by Carl Gustav Jung

Classic Literature: (probably aiming a bit too high here…!)
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
La Dame Aux Camelias by Alexandre Dumas

Memoir/Biography:
My Lobotomy by Howard Dully
A Warrior’s Life: The Authorized Biography by Fernando Morais

Scandinavian Authors:
Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Nemesis by Jo Nesbo

Asian Authors:
Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid
An Equal Music by Vikram Seth

Contemporary British Fiction:
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
In the Kitchen: A Novel by Monica Ali

Hugo Award Winners:
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

Booker Prize Winners:
The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The Unfinished:
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton

2014 Category Challenge.

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I used to love reading books and would get through at least one a week. I used to love buying books too. Over the years I have become more internet dependent. You’ll find me on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, reading online newspapers, blogs, stumbledupon etc sites which seems to fill my spare days or evenings. I am an internet fan. So much so, I think it has affected my brain which, at 42, is starting to become a little more forgetful. I’m not sure if it’s my internet use or my having to hold more information in my brain over the years or a combination of these things, but my attention and concentration span is less and less and I also find it difficult to form a coherent sentence at times. I have also discovered I find it hard to focus on any one particular thing and so reading a book has gone by the wayside.

I plan to change this in 2014. I need to use it or lose it and so I am going to read….. books. I think my brain worked better when I wasn’t as switched on to the internet as much and I want, no I NEED, to strike a balance. I love the internet and think it can be an extremely useful tool be that for education, developing knowledge, entertainment or socialising with others and so I would never cast it aside completely. In fact the idea for my 2014 challenge came from a website which I have been part of for some years now called LibraryThing. The site itself is great for keeping a record of all your books, finding new books and joining in discussions with other book folks. I’ve joined a group called the 2014 Category Challenge which has inspired me to dust off all my unread books and start planning for 2014.  In fact, I have already started reading one of my chosen books early. I was wondering what on earth I could use this blog for (other than speaking to myself) and now I aim to use it to keep a record of my 2014 challenge whilst adding a few moans and mumbles here and there.

For my 2014 challenge I have set a realistic goal of reading 2 books from each of the 14 self imposed categories which are very simple and straight forward. I already have all the books chosen and in my collection waiting to be read. There will be 2 books from:

1. SF Masterworks Series
2. Fantasy
3. Dystopia
4. Mystery
5. Psychology (non-fiction)
6. Classic Literature
7. Memoir/Biography
8. Germany 30s/40s (fiction)
9. Scandinavian Authors
10. Asian Authors
11. Contemporary British Fiction
12. Hugo Award Winners
13. Booker Award Winners
14. The Unfinished (I started but never finished)

I’ll keep a record of the books here which have been started and finished. I’m not so ambitious at this moment in time to think I could provide ‘academic-like’ reviews here. They’ll just be the ‘gut instinct’ comments one has straight after reading a book. If I keep it simple I’m more likely to achieve it.

And so, on to 2014 which will hopefully bring reading of books, *slightly* less time on the internet and a renewed sense of focus, attention and direction. I’m sure Candy Crush will still come into it somewhere though….

Christmas Gifts for…Cats

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Remember, the more expensive the gift, the less likely the cat will entertain its notion.

A box, an old slipper or a scrunched up piece of paper will suffice…..

Osborne’s Autumn Statement in a nutshell: old people are too expensive.

Pride's Purge

(not satire – it’s Gideon!)

Here’s George Osborne’s Autumn Statement in a nutshell so you don’t have to read all the boring, predictable details:

  1. All you old, poor and disabled people are still costing us far too much, so we’re just going to have to punish you even more now.
  2. Don’t blame me, it’s Gordon Brown’s fault for causing the global economic recession.
  3. Suck it up.

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Related articles by Tom Pride:

The remarkable short poem which sums up Osborne’s austerity Britain so well

An APOLOGY to Rt Hon George Osborne MP from Tom Pride

ASDA apologise to axe murderers for George Osborne Halloween costume

Scientists artificially inseminate George Osborne after his reluctance to produce plan B

Police called to George Osborne’s home after reports his lights on but nobody at home.

More People Believe In The Loch Ness Monster Than In Osborne’s Ability To Run Economy

UK suffers worst double-dipstick chancellor in 50 years

Did…

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Hello World…..

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And what a world we have.
I think we took a wrong turn somewhere around 1979.
There must be another earth somewhere which took the right turn and is showing loving kindness to one and all.
If so, and you know where it is, can you beam me aboard?

Before then…

I was barely walking when I understood the world as it is.
I cut the hair off my Girls’ World.
I wombled along with Uncle Bulgaria.
I hid under the sheets whilst the hot water bottle leaked.

Sights and sounds frightened me as Jack Frost attacked my window.
I cut the hair off Barbies’ horse.
I could never climb aboard a Spacehopper.
I hid in the garden whilst the grass grew 6 feet high.

I was nearly struck by lightening as I ran to school.
I cut off my own hair.
I couldn’t paint, draw or sing.
I sat quite still, invisible to the world.

I fell off a slide when I was 6 and never came back.
I had concussion and needed stitches.
I must have been transported to another Earth.
And it’s falling apart at the seams.

Quick someone hand me a needle and thread….
and smile….

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