Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Unholy Book of Mischief by Elle Newmark

The Book of Unholy Mischief is I’ll admit a book I picked up almost entirely because of the name. It is a good name to have. Then I read the blurb and was intrigued yet again. This is the blurb:

“For centuries the people of Venice have been seeking an extraordinary book, rumoured to contain the key to immeasurable power: Now in the year 1498, mischievous street orphan Luciano stumbles across a secret that others will kill for…”

There is also an excerpt posted above that that I feel should also be posted:

‘Are you sure Luciano, was the man truly dead?’

‘Yes, Maestro.’

‘Other states can be mistaken for death.’

‘Maestro he was poisoned. I saw his eyes. Dead as stone.’

‘Oh, Dio.’ The chef put his head in his hands. ‘It’s begun.’

Luciano, the main character, is a street urchin who is definitely more loveable than certain others. He is taken away from the street and offered an apprenticeship by the best chef in the city of Venice and remarkably this is never fully explained but never seems like deus ex machina either. The whole story is full of surpising elements but never seems unbelievable, which I found myself very impressed by. On a more general note, there’s always something in every book, I think, that makes you cringe a little when you think about. A metaphor that’s too grand for what it’s trying to achieve (worse when it’s a euphemism for sex >.<) but nothing sticks out from this book. It's the most cringe-free book I can ever remember reading. Luciano slowly learns more about the chef that mysteriously rescued him and begins to link him with talk of the mysterious book that the Doge is so desperate to get his hands on. The Doge is dying of syphilis and wants to be cured and it's rumoured that the book has a recipe for the Elixr of Immortality. Luciano also feels guilty about leaving his ‘big brother’ Marco on the streets while he is fed and clothed and has a place to sleep. He is also madly in love with a novice nun called Francesca. He is a very believable character, and while reckless and childish not at all as annoying as certain others.

Chef Ferrero (monsieur!) is a brilliant character. I’d never really considered the idea of a zen chef, particularly not an Italian one, but he is. I’m not going to be a giant spoiler face, but he’s one of the most admirable characters I’ve ever seen ever. It would have been so easy to tell it from his perspective and have it be a total Mary-Sue book, but it’s done really cleverly. Luciano suspects his motives for hiring him, then grows suspicious because of Marco’s suspicious jealous bitching but only comes to really appreciate him near the end. It’s nice to see him be fully realised in stages rather than “OMG! This is my mentor. Isn’t he just the best? He’s the best and he’s teaching me so I’mma be the best.” Apparently he was inspired by the author’s father. I’m gunna write to him and see if he feels like adopting a crazy English redhead and teaching her how to cook. Luciano’s several attempts to make something to impress the cook are also very sweet. The descriptions of food are also gut-achingly wonderful. I often found myself snacking after reading about one of The Doge’s feasts.

Another thing that the author does well and not many do do well in my opinion is use bits of another language to colour the story with the feel of Italy. She uses Italianisms often, but not too much. They don't feel forced in there to be like "REMEMBER THIS IS ITALY YOU GUYS!" but it's just a very consistent yet very subtle way of keeping you in Italy.

There are a million messages in this book, the power of good food, the worthlessness of religion, the importance of knowledge (that’s just three, but I’m hardly likely to reveal all million of them, duh). It’s also really exciting and there are people with funny names. As if that alone isn’t incentive enough. Why on EARTH haven’t you bought it yet? Get to it!

Here are the meagre TWO reviews on the cover. It deserves far more in my opinion:

“Rumour, court machinations, and a rattling good plot.” Woman & Home

Yes. I can’t think of a less helpful review to have put on the cover, but there we are.

“Full of twisting passageways, tapestries complete with spy holes an all manner of skullduggery.” New Books Magazine

It is indeed.

The reviews on the cover make me a sad panda. I am not capable of heaping enough praise on this thing. I love it and it may find itself on my favourites shelf. Luciano is this really believable little guy and nothing seems false even though the authors note extensively lists things that she took liberty with or that she made up completely. She justifies it (unnecessarily as far as I’m concerned, but I’m not a pedantic historian), by saying that she just wanted to tell a good tale.

Mission accomplished!

I give it 5 Mell-heads

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

As I type I’m using a shitty roll away keyboard that I hate and sitting in almost complete darkness because I’m aware that it’s been entirely too long since I updated this thing. It won’t be excellent , but I’m saving my wit to fucking eviscerate the next on my list. It’s dreadful. Also, by way of a further excuse, Academia is kicking my arse and I find myself unable to devote as much time to my escapism as I’d like. I made the mistake of starting a really horrific book so it’s taking me much longer to read simply because I don’t want to. The Graveyard Book was escaping from my shitty escapism, and jolly fun it was too.

The blurb:
Nobody Owens, known to his friends as Bod, is a perfectly normal boy. Apart from the fact that he lives in a graveyard and is being raised and educated by ghosts and his guardian belongs to neither the world of the living or the dead.
There are dangers and adventures for Bod in the graveyard: the strange and terrible menace of the Sleer; a gravestone entrance to a desert that leads to the city of the ghouls; friendship with a witch and so much more.
But it is in the land of the living that the real dangers lurk, for it is there that the man Jack lives and he has already killed Bod’s family.
A deliciously dark masterwork by bestselling author Neil Gaiman, with illustrations by Dave McKean.

Ok, I don’t love the illustrations as much as I might. When I have the money and I’m feeling particularly extravagant I’ll probably buy the other cover with no illustrations for just that reason. They’re too bloopy for me. An art critic I amn’t, but that’s what I think. The book itself though is gorgeous. It feels a little directionless at first, and if you read the author’s explanation of how the book came to be, it’s obvious why. He describes it as a series of short stories here and he kind of articulates here that he originally was going to stop without any direction until his daughter wanted to know what happened next. I’m not complaining, but from where I was reading it was a little obvious. Perhaps I recognised the style of his short stories rather than that of his novels and got really confused. I enjoyed it, but found myself more on many tiny little waves of stories rather than one huge great arc.

Things I loved about the book were many. My own fascination with graves and the things that are inscribed on them was very much satisfied by all of Bod’s friends. “Lost to all but memory” is particular favourite of mine, and as one character poignantly puts it “She’s probably lost even to that now.” I think the idea of it being all that’s left of you is why I’m so fascinated. Anyway, I digress; it was a cool detail that I very much enjoyed.

My favourite character was a stern lady called Mrs. Lupescu who is a real bad ass and a Hound of Fucking God (you can guess which word I added). There are lots of nice bits of mythology slotted in and completely strange and hilarious fully formed characters that you only see once, which makes the world seem massive rather than limited to Bod’s view of the graveyard and a few bits beyond. The many short stories format does allow for a far greater variety of flights of fancy, and since when was that ever a bad thing? I’ve always been hugely envious of Gaiman’s ability to use tropes you’ve heard dozens of times without them ever sounding cliché. I’m also a fan of him bringing up the afterlife and even the G-O-D word without ever actually attempting to explain it. I always feel a bit patronised when the afterlife is attempted with any real assumption of knowledge. Always best to just leave it be.

The ghosts are all really delightful and their constant explanation to Bod why he has to leave the graveyard even though he knows there’s an afterlife is kind of pointed but subtle enough that it doesn’t get wearing. Though I did find myself joining in with his whiny chorus of “Why can’t I just staaaaaay?” once or twice. I do love a good graveyard. I did feel as though the constant explanation for why he couldn’t was Gaiman making absolutely sure that we knew there was a reason he must leave so he could finish the book. The book is also based on The Jungle Book which has a far better explanation for why Mowgli has to leave. I’m probably just bitter that the books I love keep breaking my heart. Damn, even Neverwhere, which is for actual grown-ups, was never this sad.

The book pretty much deals with death, which is a conclusion you might have gotten to on your own. It’s sad in a lot of places and probably for its intended age group, a bit scary sometimes. The last twenty or so pages had me in bits, but hand me any coming of age story and I’ll be in tears by the final chapter. Ask me about Deathly Hallows and the sex shop some time. I’m a fool for lost innocence. However, what I will say for this particular one is that Bod always knows he’s going back, unlike Neverland and Wonderland where you’re pretty much barred once you hit puberty/consciousness. It was a less sad ending for that reason, but there are a ton of other sad endings in there that had me in floods of tears by myself on the train.
What the cover reviews say:

“A novel that is a captivating piece of work, light as fresh grave dirt, haunting as the inscription on a tombstone.” Financial Times

Ooh, get that poetry from Financial Times.

They’re absolutely right, of course.

“Brilliant atmospheric writing.” Irish Examiner

Again, oui!

“A memorable captivating read.” The Times

Christ, they were reaching for the good reviews, no? Yes. They’re right.

There are lots more. Surprisingly they all say nice things.
Gosh, I think this is quite long enough, no?

I give it 5 heads. Pretend the last one is crying its fucking eyes out, k? Don’t say I never do anything for you.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas-Hunter S. Thompson

I feel like I should preface this by filling you in on the positive bias that taints me as I wander into this book. I am a fan of Hunter S. Thompson. I have read articles of his, watched that documentary they made about him “Gonzo” (unless I’m very much mistaken) and having taken a whole class last semester about “The American Dream!” I find myself relishing in his attitude towards it.

I’ve seen Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in movie form before. I don’t remember a great deal about it, appropriately enough I may have been drunk. I knew the basic premise and enjoyed the fuck out of the soundtrack so I knew the story and what it was about, it was more the telling of it that I was interested in, y’know?

This is the blurb:
Hunter S. Thompson is driving to Las Vegas with his attorney, the Samoan, to find the dark side of the American dream. Roaring down the desert highway from Los Angeles, they realise theres only one way to go about such a perilous task: getting very, very twisted. Armed with a drug arsenal of stupendous proportions, the duo engage in a manic, surreal tour of the sleaze capital of the world. The perilous, chemically-enhanced confrontations with casino operators, police officers and assorted Middle Americans have a hallucinatory humour and nightmare terror. Riotously funny, daringly original and dead serious at its core. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a classic statement on the collapsed dream of the American sixties.

So, that’s what’s up. I love this book, and what I love is its unflinching darkness. The writing itself is perfect for the story, it’s detailed but it doesn’t dwell. Trying to comment on the writing is something I feel is way beyond me, so I’ll just skip on by it if you don’t mind. Everybody knows he was awesome at it. There are parts of this book that made me genuinely laugh out loud, usually as much in surprise as amusement. He comes out with foul and depraved stuff as casually as he orders a drink, which gives it all the more impact. Writers like Palahniuk are all well and good, but there’s something to be said for understatement. The more outrageous the better. Can an understatement be outrageous? It’s a question for the ages. My point is, it meanders along with surreal/dangerous/mindless drug fueled behaviour and then Thompson (usually says or thinks, rarely does) something genuinely foul and it’s shocking and terrible and depraved and brilliant. It’s the most consistently funny element in the book.

I also loved the dynamic of him and his attorney. The attorney’s constant “As your attorney I advise you to…” thing was really funny, and reminded me a lot of a Dr. I know who uses a similar tactic to humorously get his own way: “Look, I’m a Dr.” The way he and his attorney constantly fuck with people by making the most absurd claims in a tone of complete seriousness is also fabulous. It’s never quite established whether or not they even believe what they’re saying, so far have their minds been ravaged by the impressive amount of chemicals they’ve devoured.

Occasionally there’s an incident such as with Lucy or the waitress in the diner that is sort of eye-popping and awful in a way that really isn’t funny so much as it is sad and absurd, which is good balance I think. It kind of makes the force of how reckless they’re being hit home, and makes the sheer audacity of the thing so much more jaw dropping. They really are very, very twisted.

Here is what some of the cover reviews say:

There are only two adjectives writers care about….’Brilliant’ and ‘outrageous’. Hunter Thompson has a freehold on both of them Fear and Loathing is a scorching epochal sensation.” Tom Wolfe

So, Tom Wolfe is a fan, and I’m with him on all points. The whole journey has the sensation of complete confusion and being completely lost, while at the same time being incredibly insightful.

That’s the only cover review, but it sums up pretty much everything that needs to be said.

There is NOTHING bad about this book. The quote at the outset is pretty telling of the overall theme and encapsulates the behaviour in the book beautifully.

“He who makes a beast of
himself gets rid of the pain of
being a man.”
-Dr. Johnson
I give this 5 Mell Heads:

Saturday, September 19, 2009

A Time To Dance A Time To Die-John Waller

A Time To Dance A Time To Die is the story of a dancing plague, and other instances of a similar contagious madness that gripped the vulnerable, anxious, exploited and malnourished peasants of medieval Europe. Here is the blurb:

July, 1518. A terrifying and mysterious plague strikes the medieval city of Strasbourg. Men and women dance wildly, day after day, in the punishing summer heat. Heir feet blister and bleed; their limbs ache with fatigue, but they cannot stop.
By the time the epidemic subsides, heat and exhaustion have claimed an untold number of lives.
What could have caused Strasbourgs bizarre ‘dancing plague’? A Time To Dance A Time To Die, historian John Waller’s gripping accout of this seemingly fantastical event, brings vividly to life the sights, sounds, aromas, diseases and hardships, the fervent supernaturalism and the desperate hedonism of the late medieval word.

The book focuses mainly on this one account in Strasbourg, as it’s relatively well documented. Frau Troffea starts to dance and soon starts a dancing epidemic. People wear their feet down to sinew and still keep dancing. Waller explores the numerous circumstances around this event; The tyranny of the church, the misogyny of society (fueled by religious attitudes towards women) and the malnutrition that was especially bad that year following three poor harvests. These meant that Frau Troffea was entrenched in misery and anxiety that had no socially acceptable outlet. As a poor peasant woman she very much had the worst of it. Accused at first of being a shrew doing it only to annoy her husband she soon dispelled that idea by dancing for days on end with little rest or show of exhaustion.

Waller lays out a detailed but manageable portrait of what life was like and why the extreme hardships and religious beliefs could provoke such a strange act. Psychological suggestibility in the ignorant, uneducated and highly religious is the theme and is explained in detail. Heartbreaking accounts of the cruelty of the church and the desperation of the people affected by these hardships mean that the reader soon comes to understand the mental state of these people and why they were so easily caught up in such a spectacle.

For me the last few chapters were the most fascinating. Having been armed with the context provided by Waller’s initial description of medieval outbreaks of the craze it is easy to see parallels with modern pentecostalist churches and their speaking in tongues and the ‘hysteria’ hysterics of the Victorian era. He also draws comparisons to shell shocked soldiers who were also malnourished, scared (although not of a vengeful god) and under extreme stress.

Here are what some of those cover-reviews say:

“A book to make you grateful for the historical increase in human sanity.” New Scientist

It is that. I mean these people were scared and vulnerable at the best of times and they’re being deliberately preyed on by a corrupt clergy and they take it more or less because the clergy is pretty much the authority. The abuse of power made me feel faintly sick and I’m now very pleased that, certainly in our society, people don’t believe this crap anymore. Certainly not to the extent that they’re unwilling to question immoral practice.

“A convincing hypothesis...Waller’s book should interest both historians and scientists, while the general reader will enjoy his colourful depictions of medieval life.” BBC Focus

It definitely is convincing. I mean it’s a coherent argument that makes sense in the context he provides. There are other elements that aren’t quite solid in terms of the links between them and the main event but they still add to the picture Waller attempts to paint. Like I said earlier the context is solid which makes his hypothesis much clearer than if he’d just laid it out flat. There’s a lot of context but reading through it is certainly worth it.

“Extraordinary...You only have to read the first few pages to be drawn into the fascinating story.” Evan Davis, BBC Radio 4 Today programme

I didn’t even have to read the first few pages. The blurb on the back had me at the get go. It’s just such an odd and tangible example of the stranger elements of the human mind and the lengths people will go to when they eventually snap under pressure. It’s also just weird, and reading about freaky things is always fun, scientist/historian or not. It’s also a really sharp reminder of just how good we have it nowadays. I mean really, we’re in the lap of luxury here.

To sum up, I really enjoyed this. I lapped it up over about 4 sessions in about 3 days. It’s a pretty easy read despite being detailed and informative. It doesn’t skip anything but doesn’t bore you with relentless dates and other stuff that makes history hard. It’s just a fascinating and very human look at a subject that could have been cold and clinical in other hands.

I give it 4 Mell-Heads.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

The Historian has sat and looked impressive and imposing on my bookshelf for a really long time. A friend of my mum’s is as much of a book fiend as I am and so when she had a clear out about 18 months ago she let me descend on her “to go” pile and take whatever I liked. The Historian was one of my finds and one that most interested me because I love books and I love history so anything about both of those things has to be fascinating, yes? I was even willing to give it a go despite that fact that generally Vampires annoy me. You’re young and beautiful and immortal. What the fuck is your problem? I am of course referring to the Anne Rice brand of Vampire who does nothing but pout and moan and toss violent manes of hair around enough to give Loreal adverts reason to fret. Thankfully The Historian contains no such creatures.
Via Tumblr
I know, right?

This is the blurb:
“Late one night, exploring her father’s library, a young woman finds and ancient book and a cache of yellowing letters addressed ominously to ‘My dear and unfortunate successor.’ Her discovery plunges her into a world she never dreamed of-a labyrinth where the secrets of her fathers past and her mother’s mysterious fate connect to an evil hidden in the depths of history.’

Dracula is that evil, btw. That isn’t spoilery as it’s evident in the first few chapters and even in the reviews on the covers. This is a Dracula update, and make no mistake. Here are my thoughts on the book:

In the beginning the exposition is really clumsy. I mean it’s all important stuff but I can’t help thinking that there had to be a more elegant way of putting it than “Oh and this was the person to whom these events happened which actually have nothing to do with what we’re talking about right now.” It clanged.

The other thing that bothered me really early on and consistently throughout the book was the lack of distinct voice for each of the people telling the story. It’s told by 3 people: The Narrator, her Father and her father’s friend and University advisor Professor Rossi. There are smaller sections told by other characters but you’d never know if it wasnt specifically stated because they all speak with the exact same narrative voice. There is very little distinction between their styles. This not only makes bland reading, but gets confusing, particularly when it switches narrator mid-chapter. Quite often the narrator will begin a chapter with details of her father's letters and then begin her father’s narrative. This is marked only by her saying “my father said”. If you miss that you have to go back a few pages later when you’re really confused as to what’s going on. It gets frustrating after a while. Really, you should be able to tell that somebody else is narrating just by their voice. Not so with The Historian.

Any kind of attempted difference in voice is reserved mostly for non-native speakers of English and uses annoying and overused collocations like “how you say?” and “how do you say?” That is the only distinction between the characters. Having met a fair few ESOL students at different levels and from all over the world, I can tell you not-so-very-exclusively that I’ve never heard them say that. They ask about words sure, but never “how you say?” before immediately using the right word. The Historian isn’t the only culprit of this annoying habit but it bothered me enough to mention it here. The only character with anything close to his own voice was an unpleasant Bulgarian communist official called Ranov. There are Americans, English, Scots, Bulgarians, Turks, Hungarians, Romanians, Peasants, Noblemen,Monks, Scholars, Dons, Professors, Oxbridge Students and they All. Sound. The. Same.

Another thing that bugged me massively was the large instances of COINKYDINKS! All stories rely on deus ex machina to some degree and conincidences generally do strike me as odd but usually I let them go. Sometimes things do just happen, right? However, there is an enormous coincidence about a third of the way into the book that is never explained and that is even acknowledged by the characters as being a huge coincidence. That’s what bothered me most I think. Not that the thing happened but that they acknowledged it but never actually got an explanation. (I made this note as it happened and it was never explained at any point in the book.)

The bulk of the story follows the (frustratingly unnamed) narrator’s Father and Mother as they seek answers to the many mysteries surrounding the Dracula myth and those obsessed with it. Often it’s compelling as you will them to uncover some secret or partial revelation. However it really really starts to drag by about two thirds of the way in. The book is split into 3 parts. The latter half of the second and the first half of the third are tedious beyond measure. There are ways that it could have been summarised or glossed over, other crucial elements certainly were. The Mother and Father are traveling extensively in the East Bloc having come from America. Their visas are all obtained by a “powerful Aunt” but their difficulties are never so profound as to stop them getting where they need to be. I’m not an expert on that period in history but something about their relative ease of travel just didn’t ring true. The reader is not so fortunate as to be spared the tedious elements of their long and detailed search. A lot of it seemed to be an attempt to crow-bar in as much of the research the author had evidently done as possible. To her infinite credit the details are extensively researched, but just a little tedious when provided in the enormous quantities that they are.

The last 70 pages or so are really excellent though. They bring everything together and manage to be bittersweet and immensely satisfying all at once. It’s also pretty harrowing stuff. The beginning has a hint of this but the reader and the narrator are not as deeply entrenched in the knowledge and dangerous secrets, so it isn’t as intensely dangerous nor as scary for the reader. The awful discoveries and immediate dangerous possibilities faced by all of the characters seem completely real in the last pages. The very end of the narrators discourse does what the author didn’t seem to be able to do for huge parts of the story and summarises everything beautifully and in a satisfying way. I know the ultimate fate of everybody that matters and there’s still a mystery to keep you pondering as you close the final page.

Here’s what some of those cover reviews say:

“Told with a compelling intensity which will keep the reader hooked until the last Undead tomb door swings shut.” Sunday Telegraph

Uhm, I’m with ya on the first half of the book and the last 70 pages but Sweet Perspiring Christ that second half really drags. I disagree with you for a large chunk of the novel, Sunday Telegraph.

“Filled with fascinating details of archaic vampire lore, the splendors of the Ottoman Empire and the beauty of the Romanian countryside.” T L S

Can’t argue with that. Although my earlier thought that too much detail was crowbarred in still stands. Perhaps understandably. If I’d spent 10 years writing and researching something I’d want the fruits of my labour to show as much of my hard work as possible. It does make tiring times for the reader, though.

“Elegantly written and genuinely scary, The Historian is a gripping work of literary fantasy.” Image

Sometimes it’s a little clumsy in terms of exposition and plot holes, but on the whole it is really gorgeously written (and monotonous in style, but at least it’s a nice style). However, at times, particularly towards the end, it is indeed genuinely frightening.

There are pages and pages of these things. I disagree with many of them on a lot points, but it was a good read for the most part. I tend to dislike things that drag. I have a tendency to read things in huge chunks and prefer a sharp pace though, so long slow unwindings are generally not for me. I genuinely think that a lot of the second half could have been pruned down without the book losing any of its punch or realism, though.

I give this 2.5 Mell-Heads. As beautifully researched as it is and as satisfying as the end was, there’s too much that irked me for me to give it more than that. It was a good read, just not great.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

This is one of those books that is always on those “Books You Must Read Before You Die” lists along with the bible, War and Peace and something by Orwell. Now, I may just be an uncultured and ignorant pleb, but I had no real idea what it was actually about. I knew it was semi-autobiographical but I’ve never heard a conversation that started: “Remember when [X Y or Z] happened in The Bell Jar? Wasn’t it exciting!?”. I know Jesus rises from the dead and says a bunch of hippy sounding stuff, there’s a war in War and Peace and Orwell talks about dystopian societies…a lot. Those are exciting things. All I know about The Bell Jar is that Plath killed herself a few weeks after it was published. A cynical and hard-hearted person might say that it was foolish to upstage the publication of her own book. Thankfully I don’t know any hard-hearted cynics. The book is notorious by association with Plath’s tragic demise rather than any of the plot is what I’m driving at. At least in my sheltered little world it is.
It must be a closely guarded secret (or my ignorance is more profound than I first imagined) because there isn’t even a blurb on the cover. There are just about 50 words of praise for Plath and a sentence describing who she was and when she published the book. I’m going to risk breaking some kind of secret literary protocol by telling you what the book is about. Esther Greenwood, the protagonist, is a college student. When the story begins she is on an internship at a magazine in New York. The story follows the gradual decline of her mental health and personal relationships. There. I wonder if I’ll be set upon in the night for revealing a well-guarded secret that you definitely cannot get off Wikipedia.
Another strange thing about The Bell Jar’s notoriety is that there aren’t any of those “buy me now!” reviews on the cover. I had to go and consult the oracle in order to find copies with those snippy little reviews on them. Of which there is exactly one, and that isn’t even about the book.
This copy says:
“Sylvia Plath’s attention has the quality of ruthlessness…imagery and rhetoric is disciplined by an unwinking intelligence.” Observer
I do love Plath’s writing. I was afraid that, having been a huge fan of her poetry and short stories since I was about 14, I’d be disappointed by her book because she couldn’t sustain the style I love for a few hundred pages. I wasn’t disappointed at all. What I’ve always loved most are her descriptions and imagery that cut straight to the bone of what she’s getting at. An English teacher of mine once said something to the effect of: “she has this knack of just pinning people with a word or two,” and that’s exactly right. She doesn’t just describe somebody, she fuckin’ eviscerates them. Her writing is extra concentrated too, so it’s just a blast of THIS IS WHAT THIS PERSON WAS LIKE and then you’re moving on with an exact picture of them in your head, even if she’s only used two words. Plath describes somebody at one point as being “mushroomy”, and sums up the whole of his being perfectly with that one word. It’s something she does better than anybody I’ve ever read.
The Bell Jar is a strange and difficult read, because it’s upfront and intimate about the workings of Esther Greenwood's slowly unravelling mind. It feels like an intrusion into this woman’s life. Especially with the knowledge that it’s semi-autobiographical, written by somebody I very much admire. The intimacy is, I think, the biggest “problem” when reading it. Not because I dislike it, but because it has the effect of making the reader feel low as well. I can see it being an enormous comfort to those who identify with what Esther is going through, but it was hard to read having been in a good mood for a few weeks. It’s a personal, idiosyncratic and detailed account that there’s something in there with which everybody can identify. There’s the confusion and self doubt that choosing a career inevitably brings and then the kind of obsessive curiosity about sex you go through before you’ve ever actually had any. The downside to this incredibly personal and identifiable account of a mental breakdown is that you find yourself slipping into memories of your lowest point, whatever it may be. That’s a testament to the power of the writing but it certainly sucked to be dropped into icy depressed mode in the middle of a perfectly lovely day.
The other hard thing about reading this book is that Esther Greenwood seems 100% real. She actually reminded me a lot of my friend Emily, which was weird because Emily is not having a mental breakdown. This familiarity is a product of the intimacy of the reader's relationship with Esther and the obvious fact that a lot of it is autobiographical. It’s a sort of double-whammy heartbreak. You feel awful for Esther and awful because she reminds you of times when you’ve felt as rotten about life as she does. And then an extra whammy when you remember that the pain Path describes so keenly is exactly what she felt before her suicide.
I’m not sure I can say I enjoyed The Bell Jar, but I love it. It's been hard to review it because I can feel myself in this maddening sink of bad mood and it's entirely down to the crappy mindset this sodding book has put me in. It’s gorgeous and touching and heartbreaking, but it’s not something I personally could just pick up and re-read when I felt like it. Possibly when I was feeling shit and wanted somebody to empathise with me, or if I was for some reason too happy and wanted to feel bad I’d pick it up. Otherwise I’ll leave it alone.

I give it 4 Mell-Heads. The other one was destroyed in a fit of Plath-induced despondency.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

Any quoted text in italics is the work of the author and I make no claim to it. Anything else in quotes is just me taking the piss a bit.
Okay, this is a fuckin enormous book, huge, and you know from the outset that it’s not even the half of it (literally) because the title page says “The Name of the Wind: The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day One.” The premise of the book is that the main character is retelling his story to a scribe over the course of three days. "The Name of the Wind" is Day One, the next book will be Day Two and so on.
If 1/3 of a story takes 662 pgs you know you’re in for the long haul. I like that about a book, I find it comforting rather than intimidating. I find it’s a bit jarring if you’re completely immersed in a world and then suddenly it’s gone. However, I also hate it if I start a book and feel like I’ve been thrown into a room full of strangers. It has to feel familiar and warm if I’m gunna plough on into it…there’s a filthy and all too easy to make joke in there and I’ll have none of it, you dirty bitches.

Anyway, that familiarity and warmth is in there straight away with this thing, it’s an Inn with a competent but mysterious barkeep and old men spinnin’ yarns and ripping the piss out of young men. Marvellous. I like it, it’s really well done as an introduction and I find myself liking all of the people involved for various reasons. All is well in the world. The standard of writing is kept up throughout the book and I find myself believing (if not liking) all of it. I’m not considering any of the stuff I write about after this spoilery because this is what the blurb says:

“I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings, I burned down the town of Trebon, I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from The University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods loved women and written songs that make minstrels weep.
My name is Kvothe. You may have heard of me.”
funny animated gif 

This guy sounds like a badass, no? You are correct. This kind of hyperbole is used only for the introduction, hyperbole with which he will dispense once he has you on tenterhooks, yes? NO. You are dead fucking wrong. He talks about himself like this the whole way through the book. It’s an incredible story, really well told, and I can’t stress that enough. However much you might empathise with the narrator I find it almost impossible to really genuinely like him as a person. He is a proud, arrogant, boastful shit who, for all of that, tries to act like he’s entitled to it because of all the shit life laid on him. What would be admirable is him coming out as a rational, kind, albeit slightly troubled person at the end of a shitty ordeal. To come out of a shitty ordeal as a shit is not remarkable, not even commendable. 

Also, and I feel like I have to say this,I have no inherent problem with arrogant and reckless protagonists as a rule. Two of my favourite protagonists are one or the other. Lucifer Box is SUCH an arrogant bastard, but he's a self-aware arrogant bastard and realises how he is and why he gets himself into such stupid situations. Harry Potter is a reckless idiot, but doesn't want the ridiculous fame and notoriety it brings him. Kvothe actively denies that most of his lot is the result of his own ridiculousness and actually makes up his own rumours about himself. It does not make for a likeable bloke.

Despite my dislike of the protagonist, this book absolutely deserves the awesome reputation it has. My friend Alex agrees with me. It’s a fabulously compelling story and I don’t regret spending a penny of my money on it. I recommend it enthusiastically and whole-heartedly. 

However, I have a lot of problems with it, they are as follows:

First of all there’s the fact that he’s telling his story at all. He passes himself off as an incredible warrior style tough guy who’s fought his battles and wants to retire quietly to an Inn and be left alone. But mate, if you really wanted to be left alone you’d let the rumours spin themselves further away from the truth so that there was an ever-decreasing chance you’d be found. Right? OR you’re just a falsely modest dickhead who wants to be begged and pleaded to please tell the commoners of your stupendosity. If you wanted the lies cleared up you can take an hour or two to set the record straight. But telling your whole sob story is superfluous unless you really just want to make adventure porn and have lesser mortals get off on it. 

Not that it isn’t a truly amazing story but for a guy who’s supposedly hiding his identity in a shitty inn, he’s real casual about spilling his guts to the first shaven monkey to show up with ink and parchment. Maybe it’ll be explained later, maybe it won’t, but in order to stop me hating this bloke in the face, it might have been cleared up on Day One.

As well written as it is, the parts where it’s not so good really clang as a result. The writing style is often pretentious and full of vague grabs at philosophical metaphor that rather than inspire, make me want to repeatedly smash the Kvothe's face into a pebbledash wall. Just so his agonised screams as he lies bleeding in a back alley make a more profound point than the tripe he routinely spouts as an attempted means to look deep. For example:

“Music is a proud and temperamental mistress. Give her the time and attention she deserves and she is yours. Slight her and there will come a day when you call and she will not answer.”

The notes I made while reading make my point articulately enough. I wrote:

He patronises the reader constantly, often while trying to outline the lows to which he had sunk and their inability to empathise with such suffering, as he is truly the only person to ever suffer as he has suffered. Either that or he’s explaining that they couldn’t understand cause they’ve never been this awesome.
“I doubt you really truly properly understand, I was so poor and hard done by and everybody else was privilged and had it so easy. Woe! Woe! I am so awesome YET HARD DONE BY ALSO TOO AS WELL, DO NOT FORGET!”
funny animated gif
Kvothe: Less annoying than this guy. 
These are actual examples: 

“If you’ve never been desperately poor…” 

No Kvothe, having never been desperately poor, I am not be able to empathise with your feelings at all. It’s not like I just spent 408 pages reading about how desperate your plight is and how hard money is to come by. Not at all.

I think he starts more than one sentence like this. I don’t know who he thinks he’s telling the story to. Earth to Kvothe, human beings are gifted with empathy and are able to understand and imagine the feelings of others. That’s kind of why story telling even works as an art form, numb-nuts.

“If all of this sounds difficult, believe me, you don’t know the half of it.”

 No, because you didn’t describe in detail just how difficult it was to learn when you were 12 nor how unusual it was for a 12 year old to be able to do it and how amazed everybody was when you totally pwned that one guy with your UNUSUAL TALENT at a DIFFICULT SKILL. I know how difficult it is, Kvothe, you just want to remind me of your awesome so you can make your ego-rection just that little bit harder. Y’dick.

Other examples are:

“If you aren’t a musician, I don’t expect you’d understand”

“If you’ve never been deep underground…I doubt…etc etc”

Seriously, these are just examples I wrote down when I’d picked up on it, they are ALL THROUGH the book. He's special, ugaiz.
I concede that there are a few attempts (albeit absurd ones) at modesty. For example, he bets his last money on himself in a fight, but then goes on and on about how worried he is about losing. Yeah, worried enough to bet his last money. Truly, he must have been pooping his pantaloons. He’s either full of himself (yes) or just abundantly stupid (maybe).

As if his awesomeocity and amazing talent and intelligence aren’t enough, he actually invents skills just so he can say he has them and be more stupendously wonderful.

"My well tuned eavesdroppers ear…”

WTF is Eavesdroppers Ear? More importantly, is there a cure? I suppose if you make something up you are automatically the best in the world at it. Well played, Kvothe, you arrogant titbox.He also uses “an old stage trick” to stop himself from blushing. THAT DOESN’T EXIST AND HAS NEVER EXISTED BECAUSE BLUSHING IS A PERFECTLY ACCEPTABLE THING TO DO.
funny animated gif

Not only is his arrogance and often ill-advised self assurance annoying, almost everybody who is useful to him thinks it’s charming, or refreshing is so stunned by his balls-out self assuredness that they buy him a drink or tell him a secret or allow him the popping rights to their first-born’s precious hymen. It’s never explained why they like that he’s full of himself. The only thing I can think of is that the author is labouring under the delusion that it’s perfectly all right to be a complete dick if you can get away with it. I have a theory about this, but I’ll get into it later.

He goes on and on about how tenuously he’s holding on to his place at The University, but I swear to Bob that this is a paraphrase of one of his pity-parties:

“how could I ever hope to stay in the university…I decided to skip advanced sympathy…”

funny animated gif

Seriously mate, I am not student of the year but if I had an unsteady place in the only university in the world, a place for which I’d vowed to work tirelessly and enthusiastically, I would not be skipping class to chase a bit of skirt in a tavern. You can see each and every point at which he goes wrong (and yell at the book for it) and yet he acts like it’s the most unexpected thing in the world when he gets pulled up on his wankery.

He tries to sound profound and sweeping and just comes off (again) as a patronising dick. He says things like “such is human nature” and applies it to seemingly random events that happen to be committed by humans. It carries no actual meaning and only served to annoy me, making no profound statement at all in the process.

He says this at one point:
“‘Son of a Bitch!’ I said, too stunned for proper profanity” 

What does that even mean, “proper profanity”?

“I’m most terribly sorry gents, I’m plum tuckered out. I’m not sure I could manage so much as a half a fuck today.”

It’s not like you’re performing the mental equivalent bench-pressing a Mini by using “proper profanity’. If ‘fuck’ is the first thing to come to mind, say it. If it’s ‘son of a bitch’ then that’s just as well. Don’t act like there’s a whole realm of profanity to which your poor stunned brain could not hope to reach. A naughty word is a naughty word. Portray how stunned you were in a way that makes sense, eejit. This isn’t really a comment on the book in general, or an insight into the character as such, I just thought it was a really weird thing to say.

Those are my only real problems. They are, as you can see, with the protagonist rather than the writing. There is one teeny tiny clue as to why the protagonist is such an arrogant self-assured titbox. And it is on the acknowledgements page at the front of the book:

“And lastly, to Mr. Bohage, my high school history teacher. In 1989 I told him I’d mention him in my first novel. I keep my promises.”

Firstly, it’s a really sweet thing to do, and Patrick Rothfuss is clearly an awesome guy to have remembered nearly 20 years later. I’m not mocking the fact that he thanked his teacher at all. However, the way it’s phrased makes him sound like John McClane or some shit. I’m sure he’d love to be saying: “Twenty years ago I promised if I ever saw that man again, vengeance would be mine. I keep my promises.” It’s just so…needlessly intense. I imagine in the author’s ideal world it would be followed with:

“He taught me a whole lot more than history –Michael Bay Explosion- I am Rothfuss, bad ass novel writer –gun pose- you may have heard of me.“

Via Tumblr

I don’t want to mock the book unduly. The book is awesome. Really I only dislike the protagonist’s enormous arrogance. The examples I’ve got here account for a really tiny proportion of the book. The world is built really skilfully and with obvious and enormous care. I believe all of it, even if I hate the guy whose eyes I’m seeing it through. It’s tremendously exciting and I can’t wait to get to the next day, it ends on something of a cliff-hanger. I laughed and cried and felt desperately sorry for our daring young titbox. I feel his losses like they were my own and I love his friends and hate his enemies. I want him to do well and I’m glad he got out of bad messes and into some slightly less messy ones.

The imagery is dense and believable, and described so neatly that I want to reach out and touch the world Kvothe is moving about in. I loved the legend of The Chandrian, around which a lot of the story focuses. The religion was awesome as was myth he created around it. I loved the idea of arcanists and the true "name" of something being more akin to the soul rather than the label we tend to think of names as being. It's fascinating and I can't wait to find out more. My problems are not at all with Patrick Rothfuss as an author, so much as his protagonist as an unlikable titbox.

It’s a stunning book and well worth the £7.99.

I give it 4 heads out of 5. It would be 5 but the size of Kvothe’s made it difficult to fit my last one here.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Man Who Ate Bluebottles and Other Great British Eccentrics by Catherine Caufield

The Man Who Ate Bluebottles and Other Great British Eccentrics does exactly what it says on the tin. Here is the blurb:

Until he ate a bluebottle, William Buckland had always maintained that the taste of mole was the most repulsive thing he knew. But that was before he ate the embalmed heart of Louis XIV...
Lord Monboddo believed that babies are born with tails and was a careful observer at the births of his own children-but in each case the midwife outwitted him and managed to destroy the evidence.
This delightful survey of British loopiness through the ages is a celebration of true originals, whose strength of character stands out more than ever in our age of mass-market conformity. As John Stuart Mill warned as long ago as the 1850s: "That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of our time."

It's a compendium of about 300 mad British Men and Women who've gone down in history for being more than just a little bit odd. Some of them are laugh out loud funny and others are very touching. There are the odd few that are just plain heartbreaking.

The cover reviews are as follows:

"An entertaining and fascinating book about some of our best eccentrics. I enjoyed it immensely." Sir Patrick Moore

It is definitely those two things. I would also add "touching" to that list. Quite often these people, as annoying and inconvenient as their habits undoubtedly were, had people willing to indulge and to help them. Mind you, quite a lot of them were very rich and could afford to pay people to indulge them, but, my cynicism aside, quite a lot of instances in the book will renew your faith in people just a tiny bit.

"Mad dogs and Englishmen, laid out for public gaze." Fortean Times
There are Englishwomen too, Fortean Times. And non-English types. It is British eccentrics, we had a whole Empire to claim stories from for quite a long time. I do not like this review. It is elitist and exclusive. I shan't have it.

"A compelling read that praises our individual idiosyncrasies." Big Issue
Praise is right. As funny and charming as the author's commentary consistently is, she seems to gloss over the fact that quite a large proportion of these people were very obviously seriously mentally ill. As good as the stories are that are made by these mental illnesses might be, it seems a little exploitative to trivialise the enormous problems of these individuals to the level of "Oh, aren't they odd? Charming, really." It's something that troubled me more and more as I read account after account of behaviour for which somebody would seek treatment in our time passed off as a quirk that was causing nobody any real harm. I'm not saying that the mentally ill should be hidden away and sedated, but more than if they have an illness they should be treated for it, rather than exhibited in a sort of patronising freak show.

Even in the blurb the idea that "mass market conformity" is the reason for the lack of eccentrics is just absurd. Yes I agree that anything very strange is quite likely to be mocked and unpopular, and that's awful, but I think that's always been the case.. I absolutely agree that it's people like William Buckland who make the world a far nicer place to be in. He's clearly a man who really is just a little bit odd. There's a difference between eccentricity and signs of mental illness, is what I'm saying.

Don't think that I don't want to hear about mentally ill eccentrics, nor that the behaviour of the mentally ill is to be hidden away and taboo because of their illness, but the idea that the lack of seriously mentally ill people to write more books about is a negative impact of mass market conformity is absurd. If I have to choose between living in a society with a great many interesting people, many of whom are desperately unhappy OR living in a society where the mentally ill are better cared for and suitably medicated, with slightly fewer truly eccentric people as a result, I know which one I feel better about.

It just could have been addressed a little better, or at all.

It gets 3 Mell Heads, because it's a good read but left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.