Archive for May, 2009

Inbetweener 4 Elizabeth Strout – Olive Kitteridge

May 31, 2009

Generally I am not a huge fan of short stories collections, mainly because they are usually inconsistent. You will always find some stunning stories, some good ones and a couple of mediocre ones in the mix, and boy a terrible short story is even worse than a boring novel.  Despite the fact that Olive Kitteridge is touted as a novel in stories (which it definitely is) it suffers from the same problems that afflict this genre.

In a nutshell the novel focuses on the live of the title character and how she interacts with different townsfolk. Sometimes it’s a cameo appearance and other times she is the centre of attention. This is where the weakness of the book lies.

Kitteridge is such a formidable and strong willed character that the stories which feature a glimpse of her suffer greatly because Strout cannot really come up with someone just as memorable. Kitteridge is a colossus always giving her opinion and sharing her views whether wanted or not (although she does show some reserve when around family) Whether it is her husband, Henry or an ex pupil (she is a retired Math teacher), Kitteridge has changed their lives in some way.

Like all good novels in short story format (I’m also thinking of Rohinton Mistry’s ‘Tales of Firozsha Baag) there is an amount of progression and Olive and Henry age and experience happenings which befall elderly people. Strout’s writing style also has a classic feel to it, reminiscent of Steinbeck and it encapsulates the feeling of being old (at least how I see it) and this is what the book is fundamentally about ; changes – good or bad.

As I mentioned earlier there are highlights and I found the story ‘Security’ to be the best of the lot, where Kitteridge goes to New York and stays with her son for a couple of days and begins to realise that she too, is aging.

Although a Pulitzer prize winner i felt that the weaker stories (there are three) stopped the progression of the novel’s plot and made the reading experience drag. However once you get through them you’ll have an excellent novel in your hands and a main protagonist that will echo in your mind long after you’ve closed the book.

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Book 979 Javier Marias – Your Face Tomorrow, pt 1 : Fever and Spear

May 25, 2009

Clearly the slump I suffered through during the Easter holidays is over!

This was my first taste of the world of  Javier Marias and I was greatly impressed.

Your Face Tomorrow is the first part of a trilogy chronicling the exploits of Jacques Deza. As Deza relocates himself to England, due to a messy divorce he discovers that his powers of perception are better than the average person. This catches the attention of his former lecturer Peter Wheeler, who introduces Deza to Bertram Tupra, the head of an espionage unit. After cajoling both Tupra and Wheeler persuade Deza to joint this unit so that they can get information on government traitors. During this process Deza begins to learn that things are not exactly as they seem and makes some surprising discoveries about his new colleagues.

You could say this Fever and Spear is merely an introduction. Throughout the novel we learn about characters and, of course Deza’s (and his father’s) life before his move to London. Already we are sucked into a very complex situation, filled with twists and turns where nothing is as it seems. Part spy thriller, part biography Fever and Spear could have stood alone as a single novel, if not Marias inserted a cliffhanger which leads to Deza’s first case.

Marias is a very delicate writer and although one gets the impression that he meanders too much, there is a reason why he does for he ties everything up. Marias is not interested in chronological order and any biographical information is scattered within the book. The language (or translation) is a bit too flowery at times but don’t let it put you off the book itself. All I can say now is that the second part, Dance and Dream should prove to be very interesting.

Inbetweener 3 David Park – Swallowing the Sun

May 19, 2009

First of all I won this book in a competition held by this rather fine blog http://theasylum.wordpress.com/ (for some strange reason the hyperlink button is not working here) so I thought it would be prudent enough to review the book.

One thing I’ve been obsessing about ever since I hit my 30th year is how my perceptions have changed. If I won this book ten years ago I would have chucked it there and continue ploughing through my Vonnegut and Bukowski novels. However, now I read ‘Swallowing the Sun’ and furthermore I liked it.

Martin Waring is clearly a man with issues. Due to his rigid and frightening childhood he has a cloistered view of life (furthermore punctuated by the fact that Martin works in a museum). His family, with the exception of his overweight son, Tom are in the peak of their lives. His daughter Rachel is an A student and his wife, Alison does a good job in keeping the family as a unit.

That is until, Martin has a one night (or to be precise afternoon) stand and then a serious event happens which makes him have   to re-asses his past, present and future. This takes him on a small journey to purge himself  from every thing which has held him back.

Park is a very delicate writer, whereas any other hack would have focused on the depressing aspects of the book, but here it’s more on Martin and his family’s way of dealing with their drastically altered life. There is great subtely and allegorical signs pop up now and then (the title refers to the way the Egyptians believed that the sun was swallowed). This is clearly no kitchen sink drama but a look into values and mores. In fact if this if there is any talk of ‘Swallowing the Sun’ being adapted into a film I can only imagine Ken Loach (maybe Shane Meadows) directing it.

My only qualm is that I felt that some events towards the end of the book are not that clearly linked and more episodic in feel, which makes the last third feel rushed but this is a small quibble for it did not hinder my enjoyment. This was my first Park novel and I will definitely check out more in the future (or when I finish this 1001 task of mine)

Book 980 David Mitchell – Cloud Atlas

May 15, 2009

This is not my first Mitchell,, my first was 2006’s Black Swan Green, which I thought was very good. I was going through a tough time that year and thankfully it helped me forget my unemployment crisis. I hten moved on to his previous novel ‘Cloud Atlas’ but I admit it was a very superficial read as I did not feel like a heavy novel at the time.

Now that I had a second chance to analyse the novel deeply, I was able to understand the importance of the sixth part (more of that later) to the whole novel and obviously how intricately linked the remaining parts are.

With out going into heavy and confusing detail I will  attempt to summarise the whole novel.

The book begins with Adam Ewing, an explorer who has been shipwrecked on the coast of New Zealand and discovers about the customs of the Moari and the sub tribe. Eventually one of the tribesmen hides himself on Ewing’s ship and helps him. You could say this is a tale focusing on racism. This is all recorded in Ewing’s Journal.

The Jouranl finds it’s way into the hands of bisexual Robert Forbisher, a character who is attempts to transcribe notes for a Belgian composer, while creating his own symphony called Cloud Atlas (a classical piece in six parts – get the connection). He corresponds with his gay lover Rufus Sixsmith.

These letters and the Cloud Atlas symphony find their way into the journalist Luisa Rey, who befriends Sixsmith (now an old man) and try expose a company that is polluting the air with radiation. This is clearly an eco mystery and my least favourite part of the book.

These adventures form part of a manuscript, which falls into the hands of a publishing head called Timothy Cavendish, who accidentally finds himself trapped in an old age homw, while trying to escape from his creditors. This would be the ‘comic relief’ bit of  Cloud Atlas and my fave bit.

This saga is actually a film that an android called Somni 451, who is being persecuted for being too human.

The last part takes place in a post apocalyptic island, where a goat herder called Zachry discovers the importance of Somni and the mysterious comet shaped birthmark which is imprinted of every character in the book.

Needless to say that this is a breathtaking novel. Six different literary styles all mashed together makes compulsive reading and it’s probably the only novel that made me smile and tense within the space of half an hour. It is very readable as well so it won’t take too long to plough through. Dare I say that this is a future classic?

One last word. I don’t know if it is my impression but it sems that Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction has seemed to affect the book world. Obviously literary techniques such as Mitchell’s and Bolano’s have been used before, but I feel it on a grander scale. Or is this part of the post modern era???

Inbetweener 2 Linda Grant – The Clothes on their Backs

May 6, 2009

It seems that I have finally managed to get out of the slump I was in for the past month.  It’s funny how one manages to get into phase where some reads are unenjoyable. But thankfully the Clothes on their backs gave me something I was looking for that the previous novels I read lacked and it was by an author I’ve never read before.

The Clothes on their Backs is not a highly original piece of work. It deals with (Hungarian) refugees and acceptance into British society. However the manner which these topics are presented are quite uncliched.

Vivien is the only child of two mousey Hungarian parents who believe  that complete obedience to English culture is the only way of survival and she is very conscious of this. Later on in the book she meets her father’s brother who is the complete opposite of her parents. A shrewd businessman, a bon viveur and a ladies man. Eventually she manages to persuade her uncle to recall his history, back in Hungary.

In any normal circumstances the rest of the book would become one long history lesson but thankfully Grant avoids descending into these territories and keeps her focus on Vivien and how her life relates to her Uncle’s torrid past and the rest of the book deals with this dual life that Vivien experiences until one incident with an ex lover brings out some further truths which shape her outlook on her situation.

As a novel The Clothes… is EXTREMELY readable. Very breezy and  Grant’s unpretentious writing style keeps you hooked from beginning and has enough depth to keep your attention.Furthermore as an a Canadian/Maltese immigrant, I was able to notice was Vivien was going through as I wondered about my identity throughout my my mid twenties. I am noticing that the importance of the migrant has been popular this decade with authors like Zadie Smith, Monica Ali and Marina Lewycka and Andrea Levy (just to name a few) have all touched on the subject. A result of the ethnic diversity? hmmmmmmmmmm

Book 981 Frank Schatzing – The Swarm

May 2, 2009

Oh dear it seems that the high that I got from reading Philip Roth’s ‘The Plot Against America’ Still hasn’t left me and I’ve read a book which has left me a tad unsatisfied.

To be honest a ton of mixed feelings ran through me when I read The Swarm, at times I felt the scientific detail bogged down the story a bit (although I did not mind it) sometimes even Schatzing’s way of injecting sentimentality ruined some things. I mean would you be thinking of a 56 year old scientist that you work with right in the middle of a tsunami? and then at the same time there is a blockbuster element to it all, which means that the author definitely had a film in mind. It is a hefty 900 page novel which could have been whittled to a 400 one easy.

Man has been destroying the environment for ages so the Yrr, a group of single cell organisms have come to teach humanity a lesson and invade the minds of whales, crabs and lobsters in order to destroy and spread disease to the Earth. Also they send out a mass of worms to destroy the methane levels in the sea and create changes in the ocean shelf. After much consternation a group of scientists gather together on a ship and try find a way of stopping the Yrr. The gathering was put together under the military section of the U.S. government. Headed by psycopath Commander Judith Li who stops at nothing in order to make the U.S. a super power decides to destroy the Yrr usuing biological warfare.

Needless to say that nearly every one dies.

The disaster scenes are gripping, if somewhat cliched. If you are a fan of Michael Crichton then you’ve read it all before. However this did not stop me from squirming in my seat a few times, especially the section where the ship is destroyed and they are somewhat ruined by the fact that sentimentality is inserted in the most exciting of scenes. I want to read about the whale attacking the boat not a couple having romantic feelings about each other while their friends are being chewed up by an orca!

There is one section of the book where schatzing shines though and I found this the most pleasant part of the novel. Whale expert Leon Anawak goes back to his inuit roots and learns about his race and mission in life. It is sentimental and touching but in an isolated way so it becomes more credible.

As a novel The Swarm is good and does it’s job, but it is not great and weirdly flawed due to the fact that it doesn’t follow one path. Sure the government satire is interesting and adds depth (no pun intended) but was there need for the mushy bits?

During my research about the book I found out that a film adaptation is in the works.  Despite the fact that I criticised the book the scientific bits are valid and I think that the film will just focus on the disasters (probably 100% computer generated) and the government plot in a superficial manner. But time will tell.