Monday, October 31, 2011

'Cakes and Ale' - William Somerset Maugham 1930.

Cakes and Ale is a rather biting satire of the life of various notable British writers, including Thomas Hardy, who were prolific in William Somerset Maugham's time. Though he vehemently denied that there were any links between his characters and real life figures, which I suppose makes the definition of it as a 'satire' a little presumptuous. But at the time it was published Virginia Woolfe saw one of Maugham's friends in tears, as he saw that one of the characters presented as an unscrupulous literary social climber who churned out books of low quality, was actually himself.  

My favourite character in this book was Rosie, around whom most of the novel winds itself. She is vivacious and flippant, the muse for many of the central characters, and ultimately somewhat enigmatic in her motivations and desires. You can see an artists impression of her on the cover of my copy, from the first scene in which the protagonist meets her. Aside from her strength and sense of fun, her ability to ignore with ease the social conventions of the times are what made her so much fun to read about.

There are many memorable quotes throughout this book, however my favourites are those relating to 'Americans' such as: 

Alroy Kear: "You don't know America as well as I do. . . .They always prefer a live mouse to a dead lion"

William Ashenden: "The Americans, who are the most efficient people on the earth, have carried this device [the use of "ready-made phrases"] to such a height of perfection and have invented so wide a range of pithy and hackneyed phrases that they can carry on an amusing and animated conversation without giving a moment's reflection to what they are saying and so leave their minds free to consider the more important matters of big business and fornication."

You can find more quotes from the book on wikipedia and other places around the internet, but if you find these entertaining or interesting I suggest you buy and read the whole book. It is quite short, and as it is now published by 'Vintage' it is also quite inexpensive. 

Love it, Read it,

Friday, October 21, 2011

'Scoop: A Novel About Journalists' - Evelyn Waugh 1938.

Evelyn Waugh is fast becoming one of my favourite writers. A few months ago I read one of his most famous novels 'Brideshead Revisited' which I highly recommend. The way he uses language is masterful, if writing was ever like music, or dance, it is in Waugh's books. Interestingly enough in the introduction to the Penguin edition of 'Scoop' there was a quote from Waugh himself, which I think illustrates my observation:

"I regard writing not as an investigation of character but as an exercise in the use of language... I have no technical psychological interest. It is drama, speech and events that interest me"

This statement positions Waugh as the antithesis of writers such as Émile Zola who writing is deeply interested in exploring the psychological elements of character, especially in his book I have mentioned previously, Thérèse Raquin. Though I have enjoyed both in their own way, there really is nothing more enjoyable than excellent prose (I think anyway).

But now back to Scoop. It is a great little novel, with a plot based on awkward situations, misunderstandings, miscommunications and social gaffes. The plot revolves around a case of mistaken identity, where a reclusive nature write is mistaken for an up and coming journalist with the same surname. He is sent (reluctantly) to Africa to cover a civil war as it unfolds. There were many genuinely hilarious moments which made me laugh out loud, though when trying to explain them I cannot recreate the humour, so deeply based is it in the way Waugh uses language. My one disclaimer in recommending this book is that it is a reflection of its time, and in quite frequently (and I suspect unintentionally) racist. If you can take the book for what it is (a satire of foreign correspondence and the British press) then I think it can be thoroughly enjoyed.

Once again my studies certainly influenced my enjoyment of this book, the subtitle is "A novel about journalists" and much of the comedy is based around the lies and ridiculous lengths journalists will go to in order to create a story. As I am currently researching media representations of war, this was, entirely coincidentally, the perfect novel for me to read.

Little piece of trivia for you, Evelyn Waugh and I were born on the same date, 28th of October.

Love it, Read it,

Sunday, October 16, 2011

'Fight Club' -Chuck Palahniuk 1996

This is a guest review from the 'Handsome Leper':

I don’t consider myself to be a reader of literature. I was about to insert some witty sentence here about you giving me a book by such-and-such author, but I’m so ‘uncultured’ I can’t even think of a relevant name. Dostoevsky? Even his name puts me to sleep. If I find myself unable to read at night, I’ll read a page or two of 1984 and that knocks me out in no time (sorry princess...). I’ll be honest though; I haven’t read much of classic literature to begin with. I’m a fantasy and science-fiction fan, through and through (though given my distaste of 1984 a sentence ago I draw a line even in the genres I truly love) so it was with no small amount of trepidation that I bought ‘Fight Club’ from the ‘indie’ kind of independent book store in the swanky part of Melbourne city a while ago. I’d seen the movie, so unfortunately the ending was spoiled (and will be for you if you hadn’t watched or read the movie or book, so consider this my warning), but I was sucked in by the first couple of pages, so I decided to risk my hard-earned fifteen dollars and buy the thing.

Well, I can’t say my money was wasted. But then again I don’t know what to say.

Let’s start with the technicalities. The book was good. Really good. Incredibly good. I can see what everyone’s been going on about. First rule, second rule, et cetera. I have finally been enlightened. Granted the book’s hardly old enough to be considered a classic, but it is nonetheless literature, and I did in fact enjoy reading it. And there’s an added bonus that I’m now one of the clique who can look down their noses at those who have ‘only’ watched the movie and haven’t read the book that inspired it.

Okay no, not really.

The writing style was thick and fast in the truest sense of the words. To me the book felt like a key. Not because it unlocked some hidden thing within myself or any of that nonsense, but rather in the design of it. A key is simple. It’s plain. It unlocks things. That’s all it does. It doesn’t have any unnecessary bells and whistles attached to it, because it doesn’t need them. All it needs is... well, itself. As it is. ‘Fight Club’ is just like a key. It has no superfluous description. No flowery words, no unnecessary paragraphs describing someone’s hair. Not unless said description was utterly crucial to the plot or the development of the central characters.

And yet, I still found it hard to read through. Perhaps in the way that someone finds it difficult to live off multi-vitamins and baby food. Sure, you’ll get all the nutrients and vitamins you’ll need, but damn, that’s just no fun.

I’m not going to talk about the themes it presented because frankly, they’ve been talked to death already. I’m just going to say that personally, once I finished this book I didn’t really get the urge to form anarchic fight clubs, develop a borderline-psychotic alterego and unleash him on the town and myself. In fact, after I finished the book I nodded, relieved I had managed to plow through a piece of ‘literature’, and began reading the next book in the Codex Alera series.

But maybe I’m just weird.

And from Little Raven:
I read this book in a single afternoon, which should give an indication of how absorbed I was by the narrative. That said, having only recently watched the movie I found that I did not imagine/visualize the book, I was simply recalling the visuals of the movie and overlaying that with the additional dialogue and scenes. In the end I loved it, despite wishing I had read it before seeing the movie, it was all kinds of brilliant and that is enough for me.

Love it, Read it,

Saturday, October 8, 2011

'Brave New World '-Aldous Huxley 1932

Ultimately I enjoyed this book. As a story it has all the elements of an entertaining reading experience, and it is deserving of its status as a 'classic'.

In summary, it is slightly older, slightly weirder and slightly less well-known than George Orwell's 1984, but I compare the two because they both are dystopian novels. Huxley's vision of the future is, to the best of my knowledge, unique for it's time, and a long time afterwards. It is a book with a bleak vision for the future of humanity. Much bleaker and more frightening than Orwell's world of censorship and coercion and perpetual war, is Huxley's vision of a population manufactured into castes, educated to desire, willingly drugged into compliance. This subversion of will is really what frightened me about 'Brave New World', there is no way to resist when you are constructed from conception to comply. Although the population of 1984 were deceived through propaganda there was the (albeit very small) possibility of resistance.

Aside from their prominent status as classic dystopian novels, part of the reason I draw so many comparisons between Orwell and Huxley is this comic. Stuart McMillen has interpreted a section of Neil Postman's book 'Amusing Ourselves to Death', and all of the text is a direct quote from the book. While I am fascinated by Postman's conception of humanity and our descent into distraction via media and communication technologies I don't think the comic really represents either Huxley or Postman's work accurately.

The comic implies a passivity in humanity which isn't present in Postman's writing, and to equate twitter, facebook and reality TV with some of the mind-numbing social distractions of Huxley's world is a stretch. While facebook et al., may be argued by some to be 'mind-numbing social-distractions', we do not use them and engage with them because we have been sleep-taught by the government to do so. We still retain agency, the ability to choose to engage, something unthinkable in Huxley's world. I think this is a really important distinction, and while reading Brave New World I found very little, beyond the superficial distractions of the society, which would indicate we are living in 'Huxley's World'.

As a closing note, aside from 1984 and Brave New World, some dystopian novels I have read and would recommend are: Fahrenheit 451, A Clockwork Orange, Do Andriods Dream of Electric Sheep, The Forever War and Jennifer Government. (A couple of these probably would also fall into 'post apocalyptic').

Love it, Read it,

Saturday, October 1, 2011

'Feed'- Mira Grant 2010.

I must first admit that I have a soft spot for zombie books, and apocalypse books in general, which is what originally made me buy this book online. Mira Grant's book 'Feed' did not disappoint, it had a sizeable helping of gadgets and gore which is expected of this kind of book, but what made me love it was all the unexpected angles on inquiry into society.

The first surprising thing was the setting, or rather the time of the setting, 20 years after the 'Rising' is not you usual starting point for a zombie novel. In the genre the good (who could go past 'World War Z'?) and the bad (I want 5 hours of my life back- 'Married with Zombies') seem to have all, or at least most, of their action taking place during the main 'rising'.

My favourite part about reading this book was thinking of it as an allegory for the US fear-mongering in response to the threat of terrorism. Yes, my university degree impacts on how I read zombie novels, and I am well aware that Grant may not have had any intention of it being read like that, but it doesn't make it any less interesting as a political commentary in the face of a threat.

Since I have also been reading extensively on propaganda, communication techniques, narrative theories and all sorts of other wonderful things (like disconnection from traditional media sources and what that means for politics), Grant's version of future news media as blogging was also fascinating. I especially enjoyed some of the commentary on 'ethics' and 'truth' because if you ignore the zombies this book has a lot of insightful observations about the media culture in the US (and the rest of the world).

Another plus for this book was decent non-Mary-Sue female protagonist! I don't want to give anything away, so I shall not say any more. But I did find it really refreshing to read a novel filled with a number of interesting, multi-dimensional female characters, rather than a token cookie-cutter female victim or hero.

My final good point about this book is fearless plot progression. I recently read the first book of the Codex Alera Series (which I will review when I read the next few) but my main bugbear with Jim Butcher is his addiction to ALMOST killing all/most of his main characters in every single book, only to have them revive in time for the rest of the series (Harry Dresden *cough*). It drives me mad.

The only downside to this book was the slow plot development in the first third of the book, I feel like there was a lot was superfluous information which, while helping to build a picture of the 'world', but didn't really contribute anything to the main plot.

An interesting little tit-bit I discovered, Mira Grant is actually Seanan McGuire, I can see why she wanted to name herself Mira...

Love it, Read it,