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Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk

I have absolutely no clue what I was in for when I started reading Invisible Monsters. I assumed that it would be fairly decent, seeing as I enjoyed Fight Club hugely, but I still had no clue what this book would be like. By the end of the review, you might have just an inkling why.

Regarding the story, there's not much that I can really tell you for fear of giving something away. This is one of those books where there are several twists, one for pretty much every single member of the cast. What I can tell you is that this is a story about the narrator, a model whose life is changed forever when her jaw is shot off, turning her into the eponymous 'Invisible Monster' of the title. Having seen pictures of what people surmise she looks like, I can understand the sentiment. This is also a story about Brandy Alexander, a transgender who is one operation away from becoming a woman and is looking to totally reinvent herself. These two go on a road trip of sorts, in order to reinvent themselves. As I've mentioned, there are several twists in the course of the book. The main question is, are they good twists? Yes, I'd say that they are. Considering that the book's narrative hops back and forth along the chronology of the book's events, the twists are hinted at very subtly in the relevant sections, so that when the moment comes when something is revealed it takes you by surprise, yet seems very natural at the same time.
When I first started reading this, my first impression was that this book would be one of those books that draws you in with the train-wreck appeal: it's horrific, but you can't help but watch it happen. To an extent I still think that that is true. These characters are not nice. They may become incredibly sympathetic, but they certainly aren't nice. Probably the most sympathetic of the characters is Brandy, but unfortunately I can't really say anything unless I give away some really big spoilers. Suffice to say that there is much more beneath the surface than the pill-popping transgender that everyone seems to be drawn to. The narrator is quite interesting too, being possibly the least likeable character on the roster. For me, there's something quite fascinating about someone who is so unapologetically shallow and selfish. There's a certain justification for why she is like she is, but she never uses it as an excuse, which is quite refreshing really.
If there's one thing that I wasn't expecting, it would probably be the ending. Having had a very cynical book thus far, with seriously damaged and unlikeable characters, the ending had a strangely hopeful tone to it. It was unexpected, but at the same time it just felt right.

This is a book that does all the right things with characters and how they evolve throughout the story-line. The jumping about in the chronology was interesting and made for well-timed plot twists. Overall, a fantastic book that I would recommend readily. 5/5

Next review: Midnight Cowboy by James Leo Herlihy

Signing off,

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Child of All Nations by Irmgard Keun

This is going to be one of those reviews where I kind of wish that I could say more about what I've read than I actually will do. I want to say that I have a lot to talk about here, but I have a feeling that I may struggle.

Child of All Nations focuses on Kully, a 9-year-old German girl, in the years leading up to World War II. Her father is a writer who can't stay in Germany because he has written anti-German/anti-Nazi pieces, thus forcing him and his family to travel around Europe, only staying in one country for as long as their visas last for. That is pretty much the plot in its entirety. Their brief stays in any one country is characterised by this basic chain of events: enter new country, stay in fancy hotel, run out of money, father leaves Kully and her mother to earn money, rinse and repeat. This process is shown through what are essentially anecdotes of Kully's experiences. As plots go, I've read many that were more engaging. Fittingly enough, the ending is very open-ended and kind of fades out instead of ending on a clear resolution; especially apt considering that this was written in 1938, the year before the war started. For me, I wasn't overly fond of the plot itself; the repetitiveness started grating quite quickly, for one reason: the father.
So, why is the focus of my irritation embodied by the father? The stupid moves that he just keeps doing that make things intensely difficult for him and his family. Let's be clear here: Kully's family has no money. So where does the father get them to stay? In a fancy hotel. How do they travel? First class. What does he end up doing most of the time that we as readers see him? Drinking near constantly and lending other people money that he doesn't have, instead of writing and actually earning money. It just grates on me that Kully and her mother have to travel and live in uncertainty because of this irresponsible twit, especially in moments like when Kully's mother finds a house to rent and a lifestyle that will actually conserve money. I appreciate that he's been forced into that situation by an incredibly intolerant government, but there's still a limit on how much slack I can give him before I feel the urge to smack him. The other main characters, Kully and her mother are more tolerable. Her mother is especially sympathetic, as she has to cope with bringing up her child away from an education and a stable home, along with the knowledge that every time her husband leaves to earn money she and Kully have to stay at the hotel, essentially as insurance. As for Kully, she is pleasant enough; I mentioned this in my review of Room, but I'll say it again: I'm not fond of child narrators. To be fair, Kully is older than Jack was, making this slightly less frustrating, but I would again have been much more interested in hearing the story from the mother's point of view, as there was so much more character depth hinted at with her. If I'm totally honest, the main thing making me finish this was a sort of curiosity, as opposed to actual emotional attachment, which disappoints me.

At first I was looking forward to reading this, as the concept seemed really interesting and ripe with potential plot-lines. In my mind, that potential was kind of wasted, as nothing seems to have changed by the end. I don't want to finish reading a book feeling like the experience as a whole has been largely futile. 3/5

Next review: Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk

Signing off,

Friday, 7 October 2011

Beneath the Wheel by Hermann Hesse

Hermann Hesse is a name that has cropped up many a time since I started this blog, while I was browsing through books that I could potentially review in the future. Specifically his books Siddhartha and Steppenwolf, two apparent classics of modern Europe. If I were to start his works, those would be the two most obvious titles to read, right? Instead I started with Beneath the Wheel, mainly because that was the book that turned up on my University reading list. Is it a good place to start? I think so. 

Beneath the Wheel follows an adolescent boy named Hans Giebernath, who is quite special compared to the rest of the population of the small German town he lives in. While the majority are only basically educated and happy to settle for apprenticeships at 14, he possesses a keen intelligence and a desire to do well. Because of this, he is entered into the world of academia, where his father and teachers from home hope that he will go on to become an academic or a priest, someone who will contribute greatly towards the state. We follow Hans as he goes through his first year away at school, eventually culminating in a nervous break-down as he tries and fails to reconcile his desire to succeed with his desire to become more like his friend, the outgoing poet Heilner. For me, it boiled down to a critique of competitive education systems and the limits that young people were subjected to if their education didn't succeed. Indeed, my favourite part of the book was the part that looked at how Hans coped with leaving the world of academia. While it's obvious from earlier chapters just how damaging the constant pressure of his school work and the high standards that he had inadvertently set for himself in his teachers' and father's eyes, it is also clear that he has no concept of a future for himself other than that of academia; the amount of special treatment that he has been given because of his intelligence has skewed his perspective, so that he regards the hard-working but otherwise unremarkable people of his home-town with arrogance and disdain. I thought that this focus on the way that he tries to cope with his new situation was pitch perfect, and at times extremely unflattering for the protagonist, despite how sympathetic he and his situation are to the reader. 
Regarding characters, since I've mentioned Hans already, considering that the plot is so inextricably bound up with his character, I think that the only other characters that warrant mentioning are Heilner, Herr Giebernath and Master Flaig. Heilner is Hans' classmate at the academy, and his only 'friend' throughout the course of the book. I wasn't all that fond of him, if I'm quite honest; that's not to say that he isn't a well-written character, and there are things that I like about him. What I like is that Heilner doesn't just learn things for the sake of learning them like the rest of the boys: he reads their Latin, Greek and Hebrew texts to experience the beauty of language, not to learn the grammar by rote until all life is sucked from the texts; that is something that I can respect. But overall, I just got the feeling that Heilner is not a very nice person. I mean, his relationship with Hans seems to be one where Heilner dictates absolutely everything; he constantly offloads his problems on to Hans, most of them based on his notion that a poet should be full of deep and melancholy thoughts, but when Hans tries to study in order to keep his grades up Heilner gets all moody about it. He can't seem to grasp the concept that not everyone will share his disregard for grades, and when you pair this one-sided relationship with his oddly wide streak of malice, it makes for discomforting reading at times. I can almost forgive Herr Giebernath after talking about Heilner, although he too has a share of the blame regarding Hans' downward spiral. Being a basically unremarkable man, Herr Giebernath wants nothing more than for his son to do well, putting extra pressure on Hans to succeed. By the time that Hans has had his nervous breakdown, Herr Giebernath has no idea what went wrong; he doesn't want to upset his son, but it becomes more and more obvious that he is severely disappointed and angry at what must seem a waste of time. I guess I can kind of sympathise with him, as he does honestly want his son to do well, but the lack of communication and attempts to understand him mean that he often acts in ways that are to Hans' detriment instead. Finally, regarding Master Flaig...well, he's kind of a tough character to understand. He seems to have Hans' best interests at heart, but he doesn't actually try and intervene when he thinks that Hans is being worked too hard. So I suppose that he's more likeable than the majority of the supporting cast, but only because he has at least a slight understanding of what is actually best for Hans, despite the fact that he almost never acts on his opinions. 
I think the only thing really left to discuss is the writing itself. It's gorgeous. I take my hat off to the translator, Michael Roloff, as he did a cracking job. Probably the most impressive thing is how evocative the language used is, especially when setting is being described. Just take a read of this part from the section where Hans is asked to help Master Flaig make cider: 
"This fragrance really was the best part of the year, for it is the very essence of ripeness and harvest. It is good to suck it into your lungs with winter so near since it makes you grateful and brings back a host of memories: of the gentle May rains, summer downpours, cool morning dew in autumn, tender spring sun, blazing hot summer afternoons, the whites and rose-red blossoms and the ripe red-brown glow of fruit trees before the harvest - everything beautiful and joyful that happens in the course of a year." 
To be honest with you, I don't think that I could really add anything to that; the writing speaks for itself.

Overall, this was a thoughtful, evocative read with complex characters and a tragic consideration of youth and potential wasted. 5/5

Next review: Child of All Nations by Irmgard Keun

Signing off,

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Spring Awakening by Frank Wedekind

After a couple of days break from reading and this short play that I finished in a couple hours, I'd say that I'm well and truly recovered from The Divine Comedy. Interesting as it was, it was rather exhausting. So, now to review Spring Awakening, and I'm not quite sure where to begin precisely because I've never reviewed a play before. Personally, I'd prefer to see a stage production before reviewing this, but as far as I know the main version of this that gets performed is the rock opera version, which might be a tad too modern for the subject matter in all honesty. In any case, please be gentle in your criticisms if I bungle this horribly.

Spring Awakening follows a group of 14 year old students as they experience the effects of puberty and the first stirrings of sexuality, hence the title. That in itself would be interesting subject matter, but the setting complicates matters somewhat. Spring Awakening is set in Germany in the 1890s, a time where the transitional period known as being a teenager wasn't acknowledged and where awakening sexuality was viewed as a problem at best. So really, these kids have little to no chance getting out of this play unharmed. I personally really liked the way that the setting limited how these teens can express themselves and their sexuality, although its significance in today's society is certainly less than the impact it had at the time of publication.
So, as this play is essentially an ensemble piece, the most important part of the play would be the characters and their mini plot-lines that mix together to disastrous results. I suppose the main character would be Melchior, although he as a character by himself is less interesting than how he interacts with the other characters' plot-lines; in comparison to the majority of characters, he's well-adjusted, happy with who he is and a free thinker who questions the system around him relentlessly. His best friend, Moritz, goes to him as a confidant, in both sexual and everyday matters; in his case, Moritz's parents are pressuring him to do well academically, but the beginnings of puberty are making it harder to concentrate on keeping his failing grades up than it would be normally. There's Wendla, a teen whose mother insists on treating her like a little girl, for instance insisting, despite Wendla's age, that babies arrive via stork; add an ill advised sexual relationship with Melchior to that utter lack of knowledge and you can probably guess where that story-line goes. Those are the main three characters, with both Moritz and Wendla's seperate story-lines culminating in such a way that disaster is brought upon Melchior for his involvement. They aren't the only characters who go through a spring awakening, but they don't really add anything to the overall story arc. There's Ilse, who decided that school wasn't for her and thus dropped out to become a painter's model. There's Martha, whose parents beat her for silly things like decorating her nightdress with ribbons. And then there's Hans, who is probably my favourite character and probably has the two most shocking scenes (for the time it was written anyway) in the entire play: firstly masturbating to a classical nude whilst re-enacting the murder of Desdemona (I have to applaud him for creativity, even if the image makes me break out into hysterical giggling) and secondly an onstage kiss with his friend Ernst. Overall, the characters are very entertaining, with the teen characters nicely curious and the adults providing a suitably limiting atmosphere. My one complaints about the teen characters would be the dialogue. Now I'm not sure whether this is just a matter of translation or whether this is present in the original German, but to me the teens don't sound like teens. The majority of the characters are supposed to be about 14, but unless it weren't specifically stated, I would have thought that they were about 18-19, only a little younger than me. Maybe it was a culture thing or something, seeing as our current concept of children has only been a comparatively recent development in human society, but despite how hard I try to accept that explanation, there are several lines that just remind me of university discussions. Try this line of Melchior's, as he's discussing Faust, specifically the scene where Faust seduces Gretchen:
"Let's face it, Goethe's masterpiece does not reach it's zenith in that sad little episode. But the way people go on about it - you'd think the whole world revolved around penis and vagina." 
What 14-year-old boys do you know who would talk like that? None, that's how many. To be honest, most of the people I can remember when they were 14 would dissolve into fits of giggles the moment anything sex-related was mentioned, so a line like that just seems wrong coming out of a 14-year-old mouth. From college/university student and older? Now you're entering the realms of possibility.

Despite the problems I have with the overly mature language and diction that the teen characters possess, I did really enjoy this play and I would quite happily agree to viewing a performance of this, should I find one. 4/5

Next review: Beneath the Wheel by Hermann Hesse.

Signing off,

Sunday, 2 October 2011

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

Well, where to begin with this one? I'm not sure whether I'll be able to fully express my thoughts about The Divine Comedy for a few reasons. Firstly, it's a huge narrative to get through, so I'd be here all day trying to exhaust all the things that I could possibly say about it. Secondly, it's a classic piece of literature, so there's a certain amount of respect that I feel is its due. Thirdly, because it's medieval literature, there are a few instances of values dissonance, especially regarding the inevitable religious aspects. But, I shall try my darnedest to express my overall impressions.

The Divine Comedy, at its most basic level, is a story about Dante's journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, ultimately culminating in beholding God. That on its own is far too simple a story to review, and is rather misleading as well. Having finally reached the end of The Divine Comedy, my understanding of it is that this is more an essay on religious and political virtues and how people are either rewarded or punished in the afterlife depending on how they lived in comparison to this code of ethics. In particular, it is an essay on Dante's views of religious and political standards that people should live by, hence why there are lots of people that Dante disliked in Hell. The overarching idea that is put forward is that of how a union of the Catholic Church and a God-ordained monarchy will bring virtue back into a world that is being defined more and more by materialism and excess. I think he may have been hoping for a bit much: when in the final circle of Heaven, his lady love and heavenly guide, Beatrice, states that there are only a few places left to fill, implying that the Rapture was imminent, as was this mysterious union of Church and State; fast forward about 700 years and, in Europe and the Americas certainly, we've gone in the complete opposite direction. A classic example of why making prophecies about when the world will end doesn't tend to work. While the overall set of principles that Dante wants mankind to follow are understandable enough, there is a slightly uncomfortable bias towards Judeo-Christian morality, which, while not unexpected given when it was written, makes for awkward reading from a modern perspective. The biggest example would be Dante's opinion on the fate of the prophet Muhammad: he's been sent to the ninth valley of the eighth circle of Hell. Similarly, homosexuals and other 'deviants' are sent to Hell. Considering the time that this was written, I wasn't expecting anything less, but that doesn't make it any less discomforting.
The other main point that comes to mind for discussion would probably be the writing. It is very very good, the translation conveying most of the ideas succinctly and clearly. At times it's difficult to follow the references to contemporary culture of the time, which is where the notes were a huge help. There is one thing that I will mention, that may seem overly picky, but it does bother me somewhat. For me, I found Inferno more interesting than Purgatorio or Paradiso, simply because the description is more vivid and the figures met there are more engaging; I can't be the only one who noticed this either, considering how closely Dante is associated with the Inferno (occasionally being confused with Faust as well, to my annoyance) and how little Purgatorio and Paradiso are depicted in comparison. I suppose for me, there was more variety in the kinds of things were going on in Hell, mainly in the form of highly ironic punishments, which is carried forward a little in Purgatorio although more with a mind to purge souls as opposed to punishing them; when Paradiso started though, everything became extremely homogenous, with the cantos focusing entirely on happy contented souls singing God's praises, with the occasional debate about doctrine or condemnations of the Popes of the time. Don't get me wrong, it's pretty imagery, but there's not really enough to sustain itself for 33 cantos.

This is another of those books that I'm glad I read, but I don't imagine I will be revisiting it in years to come. 3.5/5

Next review: Spring Awakening by Frank Wedekind

Signing off,