Sunday, November 20, 2011

'Beatrice and Virgil' - Yann Martel 2010.

It is rare that I actually dislike a book. I enjoy reading, enjoy narratives, and enjoy various styles of writing, even if I am not always convinced by the characters or plot, or the writing is simply of poor quality, I can usually find something that redeems a book. The only redeeming element of 'Beatrice and Virgil' is not enough that I can say I enjoyed it, and I would not recommend anyone read it. The book was originally given to my sister (who didn't read it) as a gift, I decided to read it as I was intrigued by the blurb and seemed to be outside the, admittedly quite wide, scope of novels I read.

'Beatrice and Virgil' is a story of two layers. The first layer the is protagonist Henry a writer who wrote a very successful first novel, but is having a lot of difficulty writing his second, which he wants to be about the Holocaust. Through the fame of his first book he is contacted by a taxidermist who requests help in finishing a play he is writing. The second layer is the play, which is about a Donkey named Beatrice and a Howler monkey named Virgil. The two animals are close friends and have been driven from their homes and are travelling around a country called 'Shirt' which is stripy. It is eventually deduced by Henry that the play is actually about two Jewish people fleeing from persecution during the Holocaust.

The only redeeming element of this novel was a couple of sections of the 'Beatrice and Virgil' play, especially the scene in which Virgil describes a pear to Beatrice who has never seen or heard of one. There is something beautiful about the way this section is written. Unfortunately a couple of pages of excellent dialogue cannot redeem this book for me. The whole plot of the book is completely pretentious and the way in which it is structured feels forced, as though the author is trying desperately to convince the reader that the book is being clever.

Ultimately Yann Martel awkwardly and forcefully attempts to batter readers into believing that a subtly brilliant story has been created, by writing about an author who cannot write a book about the Holocaust and including segments of a play about the Holocaust, and thus actually writing a book about the Holocaust. What it really feels like is that Martel is simply writing about himself, not so subtly. After the huge success of his novel 'Life of Pi' which won many awards, including the prestigious Man Booker Prize, Martel seems to have been beset by overwhelming pressure to produce another award winning novel. I have not read 'Life of Pi' and now have absolutely no desire to, but if anyone has read it and thinks it really is deserving of all the praise I may be convinced to give Martel one last chance.

Love it, Read it,

'Cold Spring Harbor' - Richard Yates 1986.

While reading this book I realised that a very large number of the books I have been reading recently have been written in the 1930's. This was certainly not by design, merely by coincedence, but it is still interesting. Though Cold Spring Harbour was published in 1986 it is set throughout the 1930's and 40's, which would have been the time of Richard Yates' childhood (he was born in 1926). The setting is also that of Yates' childhood, and though I didn't realise this until after I finished the whole book, the obvious realism of the setting gives this book much of its 'flavour'.

The story scrolls through the perspectives of a number of characters, but mainly centers around the life of a young man, Evan Shepard. After a troubled adolescence, followed closely by a tumultuous relationship which resulted in a child at an early age, and then divorce, at the beginning of the book Evan is living at home with father and mentally unhinged mother, and works in a menial factory job. From Evan's chance meeting with a lovely lady, Rachel, the novel charts their swift marriage, and their downward spiral into unhappiness.

Despite enjoying the setting and the 'time capsule' feel of the book, overall I didn't really enjoy it very much. The plot is quite vague, consisting of very little more than the above paragraph.. There is something quite depressing about a book in which none of the characters, central or peripheral, are able to achieve anything of note or live to their full potential, almost entirely of their own volition. Without exception the characters are all hopeless in all their pursuits. This sense of hopelessness and entrapment permeates all aspects of the book, and left me with a feeling of sadness. Definitely not a cheerful puff piece to read at the beach this Summer.

Love it, Read it,

Saturday, November 12, 2011

'The Windup Girl'- Paolo Bacigalupi 2009

'The Windup Girl' is one of the most genuinely frightening dystopian novels I have ever read. While many dystopias are frightening for their sometimes bizarre abstraction from our current reality, or huge disasters or cataclysmic events leading to dramatic change, 'Windup Girl' frightened me as it was (in my opinion anyway) based on a quite plausible premis; human expansion reaches it's peak when oil reserves are depleted fully, resulting in conflict over food production, consumption and distribution. Bacigalupi imagines this to be followed by aggressive, competitive, genetic engineering of food for maximum 'calories' by huge transnational (but particularly American) corporations, referred to as 'genehacking'. Apparently there is a whole genre of this kind of dystopia, it is referred to as 'biopunk' and I am definitely looking forward to exploring it a lot more!

The novel is set in Thailand in the 23rd Century and only alludes to the conditions of people in other parts of the world. The setting is beautifully realised, tying together elements of the current Thai system, such as the royal family and traditional religious/cultural practices, with some 'futuristic' elements such as the use of genetically altered Elephant-like creatures to generate power. One thing which I found a bit irritating about the book was the use of various Thai, Chinese and Japanese words. While it is not a prominent as in 'A Clockwork Orange' for example, I did find it difficult to remember the meanings of some of the Thai words. This is probably a personal preference, as the Thai/Chinese/Japanese terms do add colour to the language, and help to differentiate between how various characters see the world.

I was not immediately drawn into the narrative of 'The Windup Girl', and could not see why one of the minor characters gave the book its title. However, as the novel progressed the characters began to interlink and the main thrust of the narrative became clearer, culminating in one of the most breath-taking climaxes I have read in a long time. I had to take breaks from reading between the last 4 or 5 chapters so that I could fully digest the complexities of the unfolding situations.

That 'The Windup Girl' is a debut novel was a complete surprise to me, as it was written with such finesse. I can see why it is so highly praised and won both the prestigious Hugo and Nebula awards for Science-Fiction writing. I am definitely going to be watching out for more novels by Bacigalupi, and intend to track down some of his short stories as soon as possible.

If you are interested in other dystopian novels I have read and  recommend, then have a read of my review for 'A Brave New World'. But remember that 'The Windup Girl' is now at the top of my list of dystopian favourites.

Love it, Read it,

Saturday, November 5, 2011

'Dance, Dance, Dance' -Haruki Murakami 1988 (English translation by Alfred Birnbaum 1994)

Murakami's novels are so unusual I find them very hard to describe. He is definitely one of my favourite authors, for a number of reasons relating to his style of storytelling, but especially because I read two of his books while travelling in Japan alone earlier this year and they became a big part of my journey. Thus far I have read (in this order); NorwegianWood(The movie of which I saw recently and enjoyed), The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, A Wild Sheep Chase, and today's review Dance, Dance, Dance. All four feature a Japanese male protagonist who deals with love, loss, loneliness, rejection, dislocation and friendship. Feelings of isolation and despair are pervasive in all four books, yet somehow they are not depressing.

But for today we will focus on 'Dance, Dance, Dance'. This is the sequel to 'A Wild Sheep Chase', something I did not realise when I bought the book, but was immediately clear once I began reading. I think you could read 'Dance, Dance, Dance' alone, however reading 'A Wild Sheep Chase' beforehand would definitely help to make sense of some of the more bizarre supernatural elements.

I honestly believe that the people who write the blurbs on the back of books must not have read the books they are writing about (This is a long running bugbear of mine). The same goes for many reviewers, or the people who choose which quotes go onto book covers. With 'Dance, Dance, Dance' this was especially irritating, as the blurb and some of the quotes (in my opinion, feel free to correct me) completely misrepresent Murakami's work. Dance, Dance, Dance, is not science fiction. Murakami is not 'imagining the future' as one reviewer mentioned, the book is set in the late 1980's in Japan, a real time, and in real places. There are real celebrities mentioned, many many real songs from the correct periods mentioned, and references to real events such as the Vietnam war, World War 2, student riots in Japanese universities etc. None of these events are 're-imagined' and the world is not an alternate universe, a dystopian or indeed utopian future. The closest thing to 'science fiction' are the supernatural elements I mentioned before. However they are written in such a way that they could be explained as vivid dreams revealing the (unnamed) protagonist's subconscious. The main supernatural character 'Sheep Man' is described as being a part of the protagonist, and the supernatural worlds visited are described as belonging to the protagonist (though a hotel receptionist also accesses one). Another main character described by the blurb as a 'lovely teenage psychic' specifically says she is not a psychic, though he abilities add a strong element of the metaphysical to the novel, and I think you could call her an empath.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. I love the way Murakami writes (there are a couple of quotes below to demonstrate), and the story like that is a slow building detective novel or crime drama. As more and more information comes to light and more and more people become implicated, the original investigation reveals many related crimes, and ultimately there is a resolution and a mostly happy ending. 

[With regards to advances in phone communication] "But no matter how advanced the systems, no matter how precise, unless we have the will to communicate, there's no connection" (p126)    

[Dick North is a character with one arm, who, in the preceding chapter, died] "The house was still haunted by Dick North's presence. Dick North was still inside me as well. I remembered his smile, his surprised look when I asked him if he used his feet to slice bread. Interesting man. He'd come more alive since his death." (p335)

Love it, Read it,