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Sunday, 31 July 2011

The Same Sea As Every Summer by Esther Tusquets

The Same Sea As Every Summer is one of those books that I wasn't even vaguely aware of until it turned up on my university reading list. It was also one of those books that is very difficult to actually get a copy of, so when it actually got to the top of my TBR pile I was hoping that it would be worth the difficulty that finding it caused. I would say that it was definitely worth the time spent reading it, if only because I can see it staying with me for a very long time to come.

The plot is quite a simple one really. The narrator, an unnamed middle-aged housewife, who decides to move back in to her childhood home after her husband begins the newest affair in a long string, where she tries to recover the person she was before she grew up and begins an affair of her own with a university student, Clara. The plot alternates between the past and the present, interweaving the myths and fairy tales that the narrator has grown up with throughout the narrative. Along with the detailed descriptions and long rambling sentences, this gives the book a languid pace, giving the atmosphere and tone more than enough time to sink in.
The characters are a little harder to pin down, as for the most part they tend to act more as archetypes that affect the actions of the narrator rather than fully rounded characters, which adds to the fairy tale theme that I mentioned above. The narrator is a dissatisfied housewife, most accustomed to isolation from her peers and family, causing her to associate closely with characters like Ariadne and the Little Mermaid: princesses who are abandoned by their princes and left to flounder in whatever is left. The narrator's mother is similarly described in mythic terms, as a distant perfect Olympian, constantly disappointed in her daughter. Clara is an interesting character to see in hindsight, but considering the twist that was both frustrating and yet completely understandable there's only so much that I can say without spoiling the ending; what I can probably say for Clara is that she is the Beauty to the narrator's Beast (and vice versa) and is romanticized as "the most princesslike of princesses" in the narrator's view. If I'm honest, the lack of characterisation beyond the fairy tale archetypes would probably have annoyed me if it were another book, but considering the dreamy quality of the pace and the themes it actually works really well.

Overall, it's a difficult book to talk about, as not a whole lot actually happens. I hope that I've done it at least some justice in this review, as I really want to say why I like it but keep finding that it's more a feeling that I've been left with as opposed to one or more elements in the actual book. I suppose it's like a fairy tale in that respect as well, where it's just the simplicity and dream-like quality of the story that makes it stay with you. 4/5

Next review: The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende.

Signing off,

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita. A book infamous in popular culture for being a pornographic account of a paedophile and his obsession with the eponymous Lolita. It's one of those books that one has to at least try reading within their lifetime, here prompted, yet again, by university reading lists. I'll admit, I've been thinking about how to word this review throughout my reading, as it covers a subject that is, obviously, quite taboo in polite company and if my wording is even a little out then I imagine I will be attracting several angry comments; if in doing so I seem a bit overly polite or obvious about points then that's the reason why and I apologise.

So, on to the review itself. The obvious place to begin would be the book's unsavoury subject and the main perpetrator of it. Our narrator, Humbert Humbert, is a tricky protagonist to define for one main reason: he's incredibly unsympathetic, due to the nature of what he does to Lolita and the kind of thoughts he has regarding young girls, but at the same time he is incredibly charming and an interesting voice to read. This odd balance between distaste and being charmed does make reading this uncomfortable; for instance, there may be several pages that paint a beautiful picture of a scene in painstaking detail, before he reminds the reader quite abruptly that underneath the educated, artistic exterior there is something very wrong with him. To be fair to the book, the actual hints of sexual acts and paedophilia are buried beneath numerous academic references to works by Joyce, Proust, Freud and many others, so only a scholar/someone who reads very widely or someone with a heavily footnoted copy (including myself) will actually understand most of what would count as “pornographic”; if you don't have the qualities that would allow you to see the references for what they are, the book is surprisingly light in terms of pornographic content. If I'm discussing the theme of paedophilia, then I need to look at the subject of this obsessive lust, Humbert's “nymphet” Lolita, otherwise known as Dolores Haze. This is a trickier character to get a grip on than Humbert, simply because all the information provided about Lolita is provided to the reader by Humbert who is undoubtedly an unreliable narrator in this respect. The main example of this is that she is predominantly described in a way that highlights whatever sexuality a twelve-year-old girl is likely to possess, even going so far as to heavily imply that Lolita was the seducer in the relationship; obviously this is an uncomfortable idea to associate with a pubescent girl, but at the same time is very similar to a common defence against rape, namely that the victim wanted or encouraged it. Other than the overt sexuality which is debatable, she seems to be your average pubescent girl who is unfortunate enough to have had her childhood abruptly ended by an adult who abused his position of care.
The other main thing that I have yet to talk about is the actual writing. It is fantastic. The descriptions are incredibly evocative, the literary references are all there for a reason and tighten the various different themes or motifs, and those motifs are threaded throughout the entire narrative. There were only two points that I personally found irritating, if only because they didn't help with comprehension at all. The first thing was the insertion of various phrases in various European languages, mostly French; whatever language skills I picked up in high school and college are rather patchy, so if I hadn't had the footnotes available in my edition of the book I would have really struggled. The second annoyance was that occasionally when foreign phrases are used in dialogue, they're written phonetically in order to convey a poor accent, leading to instances where “voulez-vous boire?” is written as “woolly-woo-boo-are?”. If you could connect those two phrases together then good for you, but I imagine that the average reader is going to be as absolutely confused as I was when reading that.

A fantastically well-written account of an uncomfortable if interesting subject, I would recommend this highly. 4/5

Next review: The Same Sea As Every Summer by Esther Tusquets. 

Friday, 22 July 2011

A week away with the family

This is just a quick post to let people know (those who are following me on here in any case) that I shall be going on holiday tomorrow, where there is no Internet connection. In the meantime I shall continue my reading as normal, writing up reviews as I finish a particular novel and posting them after I return to civilisation. Lolita is nearing its end, so there will almost definitely be a review of that posted when I get back. That is so long as I'm not totally over-run by the blogs that I follow (a distinct possibility).

Signing off,

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Jealousy by Alain Robbe-Grillet

Another book that I read for uni, I went into the book with no expectations or standards for it to meet, mainly because I'd not really heard of it before. And now, having just finished it, I can't say I have many more impressions of it than I did before I began.

So, first things first, the plot. What is it about? A very good question and not one that I can answer particularly well. At it's most basic, it's a story about life on a banana plantation somewhere in Africa. That is also the plot at it's most certain and comprehensible. To be quite honest, I had very little idea of what was actually going on at any one time, as there are virtually no segues between setting and due to the routine nature of the characters' lives there is very little sense of actual time scale; I couldn't tell whether this was a linear storyline, a circular storyline or whether the author just decided to take random leaps in the allotted time scale he'd written about. Now I'm all for experimental novels and circular time scales that add to a scene the more times you see it, but this seems to have forgotten the part about adding extra things. Plus, the scenes themselves are very inconsequential, so I've finished reading this wondering what the story was actually about, which is highly dissatisfying.
The characters aren't much better. There are a fair few characters mentioned, but the only ones worth really mentioning are A..., Franck and the nameless narrator. A... is our female lead, the person whom the narrator mainly focuses on. She is a mystery. The narrator does hint several times that there may be more to her beneath the surface, and frankly I'd like to believe that because if we only go by what is on the surface, she has all the personality of an automaton. All she is seen to do throughout the novel is act as a near-silent hostess, write letters, brush her hair and occasionally get scared of centipedes. The regular guest at the plantation is Franck, a man whose entire purpose seems to be to drive A... places, make in-jokes with her about a novel they're both reading, squash centipedes and have constant troubles with one of the trucks on his plantation. And then there's the narrator. Where do I begin with this? The narrator was one of the few things with actual potential in this book. He's constantly there with A... and Franck, but they never make reference to him. So who is he? Husband, friend, relative? What?! It's a question that is never answered, but I could deal with that; a nameless narrator has worked many a time before. The problem with the narrator here is that he is hinted to be an actual character (he does occasionally interact with the servants a little bit and he has a place laid each night at dinner) but doesn't do anything noteworthy throughout the entire narrative. For all the impact he made, he might as well not have been an actual character at all.
So far, I've essentially ripped this book to shreds. Is there anything I actually liked about this? The writing style is admittedly interesting. I felt I got to know the setting better than the people simply because the narrator spends a huge amount of time describing every single detail of whatever part of the house/plantation the reader is supposed to be looking at. It's quite difficult to imagine at first as it's stuff that the eye would take in immediately, but after a while you do get used to it and it is very well written, even cinematic at times. But to be honest, it's still not really enough to redeem the non-existent plot and paper-thin characters.

My final opinion of this is one of disappointment really. At first I was intrigued by the fact that there was very little given away detail-wise, combined with the unusual writing style. But then nothing was added to all the mystery, which is frustrating because you can't create an emotional attachment to an enigma. 2/5

Next review: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.

Signing off,

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence

So, my first review in the new format and I pick another classic, straight after I'd finished All Quiet on the Western Front. Why this one? Three reasons. One, I need to read it for university. Two, it's been on my TBR list for a long time now. And three, I'd already started reading this a while ago, but thought I'd cut my new format's metaphorical teeth on something that I wasn't all that far from finishing.

So, Lady Chatterley's Lover, a book most famous for the controversy it stirred up at the time of publication (hell, I should know, I had to analyse the prosecution's statement from the trial in one of my exams this year). The story concerns Lady Constance Chatterley, a young woman who marries a baronet, Sir Clifford, who was paralysed from the waist down in the First World War. As she becomes increasingly disillusioned with her life and her marriage to Clifford, she starts an affair with the gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors. That is the book at it's most basic form, but there are more layers to it than that.
But, it being an obvious place to start, I'll talk about the bit that everybody knows about: the sex. Is it that controversial? Well, yes and no. Yes, because I can very well see how shocking this would have been to an audience around the time it was published, as it is quite candid about nakedness, the intimacy between a man and a woman and the subject of adultery. No, because by today's standards, while this is candid, it's not really anything that we haven't seen a million times over in trashy gossip magazines all over the country. In comparison to today's standards, it's rather tame. At times it's downright unusual (threading flowers in each other's pubic hair? Really?) and at others so vague that I wasn't 100% sure that anything was even happening. In any case, sex is only as interesting as the characters and the love affair that goes with it, right? Well, that was something that I had issues with reading this. I know that the whole point of the sex and the adulterous relationship was to highlight the importance of physicality in a relationship, but I couldn't help but feel that the sex was all that really made up the relationship between Connie and Mellors. The only real scenes of them talking have them either admiring each other's physicality or despairing at a world that is losing physicality in favour of money and industrialisation. I also felt rather more sympathetic towards Clifford than I probably ought to have. True he is a very creepy, childish and selfish man, but these main faults ultimately stem from his injuries and the horrors of the war, which I can't honestly hold against him. That also made the adultery seem a little underhanded (or more than normal anyway).
The main other messages in the novel are the evils of war, industrialisation and money, which I think was conveyed much better. Living in the British countryside myself, the images of it being ravaged by coal mines and heavy industry is suitably ugly and dispiriting. The idea that industry will lead to us happily slaughtering one another for money and consumerism is uncomfortably familiar, considering some of the attitudes that lead to our current economic environment, makes this book fairly powerful still, just not for the reasons typically assigned to this novel.

So my overall opinion? A novel with very interesting ideas about war and industrialism, but the romance and the sex is far too over-hyped. 3.5/5

Next review: Jealousy by Alain Robbe-Grillet.

Signing off,

Saturday, 9 July 2011

From All Quiet on the Western Front to something completely different.

Well guys, it's been an interesting six months. Having thought this over a lot, I've decided to change the format from chapter-by-chapter/readalong entries, to straight review posts. Mainly because I don't especially like the slower pace needed for it, and also because it gets awkward when there's not much actually going on in a chapter. But anyway, let's finish this bad boy and get a layout change.

So, what did I think of All Quiet on the Western Front? As a case for anti-war sentiment, it's fantastic. As a straight novel, I'm not sure it quite ticked all the boxes for me.
Regarding story, it does read well. The tone is very well handled and there are several very memorable and harrowing moments, bar the odd strange moments (the screaming horses, for example). It's linear and easy to read, which I suppose helps to convey a message. So it's not the story that I have issues with.
Characters? Well, this is where I get a bit irritated. The relationships between the group are fantastic, what with the close wartime camaraderie and the soldiers' humour. The problem I have is that they all kind of blur into one figure, they don't really have enough personality to stand by themselves as characters. This is why whenever one of them died, I would get sad about it (admittedly) but not as sad as I would have been if I'd known them more intimately as people. It made the deaths seem a bit emotionally manipulative in hindsight, which, again, I suppose was to help convey a message but if an author is setting out to manipulate my emotions, I'd like it to be a little less obvious by not killing off what are effectively mooks in the end.
Overall, a very powerful novel, but not necessarily one I'd re-visit.

Next review: Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence.

Signing off,

All Quiet on the Western Front - Part 12

Well guys, final chapter of the book. Only the narrator and Tjaden left now. And it's only two pages long. I'm presuming this means that the ending will be fairly quick and painless, which I hope will be the same case with the format. I think I might fiddle around with the layout to celebrate as well, so hopefully you'll come back, see my overall review and a shiny new layout to go with it. Last chapter was basically more death than the rest of the book put together.
So the majority of this chapter is talking about the rumours of an armistice and an end to the war. The basic idea seems to be that they as a group won't be able to handle the idea that the end of the war isn't happening. There's a lot of negativity, mainly about whether people like the narrator will be able to handle life without war, as it is what they have essentially spent their first years as adults doing. But then there's also a lot of hope there, with the narrator hoping to regain some of the love that he used to regard his home with, the hope that the person he was is still in there somewhere, which I really like.
Except that it's all for nothing, as he's just died. Well, that whole paragraph that I wrote there has been made completely and utterly futile. Oh well, it says that he didn't suffer, which I suppose is nice. I'm a bit annoyed that it was quite so abrupt, but I suppose that's to be expected, seeing as it wasn't deemed important in-story either.

So yeah, there'll be a new review coming up some time later today and hopefully a new layout to reflect the change in format.

Signing off,

Friday, 8 July 2011

All Quiet on the Western Front - Part 11

Hi guys, sorry for the huge delay between posts. For most of that time I actually have a legitimate excuse (consisting of the book being tidied away where I couldn't find it) which is odd; from about the beginning of the month it's basically been procrastination, which isn't so odd unfortunately. In any case, this will be my penultimate post in the old chapter-by-chapter format, and to be honest I'm really not sad to see it go. Last chapter we had our narrator and Kropp go into the hospital, ending with Kropp minus a limb and the narrator back to the front, seeing as you can't kill the narrator with two chapters still to go.
And thus we start this chapter with everyone essentially worn down to the basest of human instincts. Tjaden has taken to wolfing down his meals when he knows there's a raid on as he can't tell whether he'll be alive after it, which is fair enough; the other guys discuss why this might be a bad idea. It's rather depressing to realise that even their conversations only cover survival now, I mean I might have complained that all they seem to talk about is the war and reasons why it shouldn't have started etc, but at least it's better than "you probably don't want to eat that soup right now, it'll screw you over if you get a stomach wound". Personally I'm kind of hoping they die soon, because this is no way to live.
Turns out that one of the guys from their company has been court-martialled because he tried to go back home. I would make a comment, but I can't think of anything suitable.
Another guy has died trying to rescue/mercy kill a wounded messenger dog. The misery is unrelenting.
Müller's died too, from a stomach wound. Again, some unrelenting misery for the reader's discretion, like thousands of unprepared new recruits dying because they haven't been trained properly. 
Two more have died protecting the company from the enemy's flamethrower, one of them being the company commander. 
The months drag on and rumours of peace start to surface, but they still have to go out to the front, despite the fact that they know they're losing the war. 
And now Kat's been wounded. Not as bad as it could have been, but still. Never mind, he got some shrapnel in the head while he was being taken to the dressing station. So now Kat's dead. 

This chapter has pretty much been death, death and just a touch more death. It is, as I mentioned before, unrelentingly miserable, but at the same time almost absurd by the time the chapter ends. It just seems a bit too much.

Signing off,