Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Family Man, Elinor Lipman

Posted by lea at 3:59 PM 0 comments Links to this post
The Family Man is funny and charming and witty and sweet. What I love about Elinor Lipman is that her stories don't need to be dramatised or heightened to be interesting, and she doesn't dumb down the narrative for mass appeal. Her writing is just gorgeous, like dipping a big red luscious strawberry into melted Belgian chocolate and letting it set.

At the core of the story is Henry, a single recently-retired divorcee, who has since come to terms with his homosexuality. The catalyst is the funeral of his ex-wife's third husband, which in a roundabout way re-connects Henry with his long-lost but still beloved stepdaughter Thalia, embroiling him in her media-spun romance with a horror director, and the arrival of a new love interest. Sound convoluted? You'd think so, but it's not. Lipman makes everything sound like a natural string of events.

She's often compared to Jane Austen in a lot of her reviews: my two cents worth is that the similarities in the two authors are their wonderful wit, insight into human behaviour and gently mocking social commentary. Austen is a sparklier writer though - her dialogue zings, while Lipman shines more when it comes to internal monologue.

I closed the last page on this book with some wistfulness. I would've loved for it to last longer - I needed this dose of literary medication after reading the last dud.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Dead Until Dark, Charlaine Harris

Posted by lea at 5:20 PM 4 comments Links to this post
My vampire fiction journey began well with The Radleys, but it's taken a real nosedive with this clunker.

Dead Until Dark is the first of the Southern Vampire series by Charlaine Harris, which spawned the True Blood television series. Apparently True Blood is masterful. Having read this book, I can say that must have been quite a feat for the producers.

Okay, let's overlook the ridiculous names. Sookie is a telepathic barmaid who sees her mind-reading powers as a disability and acts like a deer in headlights when others treat her as odd. Bill (Bill! Has there ever been a less sexy name?) is a vampire who's just returned to the small town of Bon Temps to integrate with the humans. Sookie saves his life and promptly falls in love with him. It seems his only attraction is the fact that she can't read his mind, because otherwise he's pretty boring. Laconic, no appreciable sense of humour and not particularly high up in the vampire hierarchy.

The story is told from Sookie's perspective but one can't help but hear a middle-aged author indulging herself a little too much. Sookie is beautiful, has big boobs, is tough but soft, and is desirable to everyone (humans, vampires and everything in between). Oh and did I mention she has an orgasm every time? Like every time. 

The plot itself is surprisingly decent, which leads me to believe that Charlaine Harris is a good story-creator, but not a particularly good storyteller or author. The writing is clumsy and cringe-inducing and the climax is left so far into the plot that when you get to it, you don't care too much. I actually put the book down to do something right in the middle of the climax and didn't pick it up again for another two days. That's unheard of for me; usually I have to know what's going to happen next, but all the eyeball rolling and cringing left me rather untouched by the end. Particularly cringe-inducing was the appearance of an extremely famous now-dead singer incarnated as the vampire Bubba. Seriously.

The characters were one-dimensional and never develop very much, but presumably this is because Ms Harris is busy setting up the following books that have since built her Southern Vampire empire.

If you're a fan, don't hate me. Obviously I'm voicing the opinions of a minority, because this book has received glowing reviews, and not even just from the publishers.

If you want a bit of a thriller with human-vampire sexy scenes thrown in, this might be for you. If you want something you won't be embarrassed to read on the train, then maybe give this a miss.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Sinking my teeth into vampire fiction: a beginner's journey

Posted by lea at 3:12 PM 2 comments Links to this post

I started my foray into vampire fiction with Matt Haig's The Radleys, which I really enjoyed. I think that, combined with the fact that I'm stalled on J in my Great Library Challenge (shakes fist at James Joyce), have contributed to my new challenge: read and compare vampire fiction.

Someone in my book club mentioned that the True Blood TV series is based on a book series that wasn't too bad, so I've borrowed book one from that series (Dead after Dark by Charlaine Harris). Someone else suggested the classic Dracula (hang on, is dracula a vampire? are they the same things?) or maybe it was Interview with a Vampire. Yeah that sounds more like it. But my dracula question remains.

Maybe... just maybe I might even give Stephanie Meyers a go. Maybe.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Knowing my luck

Posted by lea at 1:08 PM 1 comments Links to this post
Anytime there's an easy competition to enter, I'm in. And I've had pretty good luck; I've won countless movie double passes, Jerry Seinfeld's CD, a Rent musical pack (2 t-shirts, the soundtrack and a double pass), a number of DVDs including The Bounty Hunter (which turned out to be more a punishment than a reward), tickets to a Coldplay concert... nothing huge like a holiday (I'm still waiting), but an assortment of little things that keep me going back for more.

Normally they're just a matter of entering your name. Sometimes they take more work, like writing a 25-word-or-less entry about why or how or who or whatever, which you can usually knock out in less than 60 seconds because I bet they're not reading all the entries anyway.

Sometimes, the competition requires a little more. Like writing about it in your blog.

So here it is: to win a new Tamron AF18-270 camera lens, just head to Nothing but Bonfires and leave a comment as to which celebrity you'd want to get up close and personal with. I've just discovered it but it's a really cool blog that I think you'll enjoy. Good luck!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger (a second look)

Posted by lea at 2:49 PM 1 comments Links to this post
This isn't my first time reading The Catcher in the Rye but I have to say it affected me more this time than any other, which is ironic considering that I read it for the first time as an angsty teen and now I'm in my thirties.

The protagonist is 16 year old Holden Caulfield, who's just been expelled from his latest school for poor performance. He's not dumb though, he's just not interested. Still suffering from the effects of his brother Allie's death and in a state of... I guess you could call it depression, he leaves school early and wanders around New York like a self-professed 'madman' for a couple of days before returning home to face the music.

When I was all set to go, when I had my bags and all, I stood for a while next to the stairs and took a last look down that goddam corridor. I was sort of crying. I don't know why. I put my red hunting hat on, and turned the peak around to the back, the way I liked it, and then I yelled at the top of my goddam voice, "Sleep tight, ya morons!" I'll bet I woke up every bastard on the whole floor. Then I got the hell out. Some stupid guy had thrown peanut shells all over the stairs, and I damn near broke my crazy neck. (Chapter 7)

I never noticed before just how funny the book is. It's really a riot and I could barely stop myself chuckling out loud on the bus.

I was half in love with her by the time we sat down. That's the thing about girls. Every time they do something pretty, even if they're not much to look at, or even if they're sort of stupid, you fall half in love with them, and then you never know where the hell you are. Girls. Jesus Christ. They can drive you crazy. They really can. (Chapter 10)

Salinger writes in one of the strongest narrative voices I've ever read. It's completely absorbing and sucks you right into the character of Holden, whether you like him or not (many find him annoying). He's lonely and isolated and horny and angsty and all the things you could expect of a 16 year old, just more heightened. He's at the bottom end of a downward spiral which comes crashing down at the end of his 48 hours of wandering. 

There's an underlying tone of tragedy beneath it all, and through his erratic behaviour we sense an impending doom. A review published in 1951, when the book was still fresh, said:

It’s a sort of lost week end; it’s a boy who can’t go home again; he belongs to a lost generation and lives in a world he never made.... but besides that, and despite your hoots of laughter at Holden’s indomitable speech, this is in essence the tragic story of a problem child, unless indeed it’s an indictment of a problem world. Month in, month out, novels don’t come much better. (source)

Rather than it being an indictment of a problem world, I would suggest that it's just a tale of someone trying to find their place in one. It would explain why so many people are drawn to it, and why others identify themselves with it. It offers no solutions but beautifully captures the troubled thoughts of someone navigating their way.

From my current perspective, I think the breakdown was the obvious conclusion to his not having dealt with Allie's death and possibly even the sexual abuse that he hints at ('perverty stuff' has happened to him around 20 times). When he hits rock bottom, we find that he's telling his story from a psychiatric hospital, possibly the best thing that could've happened to him. Although the novel ends on a bittersweet note, we feel that he is on the way to healing.

A note on the title

I love how the title is explained in the book. Although other members of my book club didn't have patience for Holden, I have a soft spot for him because he has such a tender heart.

I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all.  Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around - nobody big, I mean - except me.  And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff.  What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff - I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them.  That's all I do all day.  I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all.  I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be. (Chapter 22)

A note on the author

What really knocks me out is a book, when you're all done reading it, you wished the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. (Chapter 3)

I found this bit quite ironic because although I don't know much about JD Salinger, I do know that he was a recluse. Actually, that's probably why I don't know much about him.

In all honesty though, I probably wouldn't call him up to talk about The Catcher in the Rye because I'd be intimated by his genius.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A sucker for punishment

Posted by lea at 10:51 AM 4 comments Links to this post
So I've come to J of the Great Library Challenge and I've chosen the most obvious and the most (apparently) painful of all possible reads: James Joyce's Ulysses.

It tops almost all the 'top read' lists so I thought, why not?

The comment I've most often come across regarding this book is "Ulysses was rated the greatest novel of all time, and most of the people who voted it had never read it," so I thought I'd check out a few reviews from people who have read it to see what I'm getting myself in for:

In spite of its very numerous qualities, 'Ulysses' is one of the dullest books ever written, and one of the least significant. This is due to the total absence from the book of any sort of conflict.
Aldous Huxley

OK, I never read Ulysses from beginning to end, but then again, neither, I believe, has anybody else, including most of the writers and scholars who declared it the greatest English-language book of the century in that Modern Library list last year. I have read the first one hundred pages at least three times, and then, longing for a story, I never got further.
Richard Bernstein, The New York Times book critic

I knew I wouldn't be able to read this beast--I've tried & failed three or four times. But last night I had an epiphany.  It occurred to me that Ulysses is the greatest hoax of the century, ranking with Conan Doyle's Piltdown Man. Surely, Joyce must have realized that Ulysses was the inevitable & fitting conclusion to the Romantic Age. Art, cut loose from the mooring of God,  had steadily drifted away from the universal & towards the personal.  Ulysses is the culmination of this trend--a novel that could only be read, understood or enjoyed by its author. Spare yourself.

Oh my god. Oh my god. Just where do I begin? I stopped walking to work as a result of this book. I stopped enjoying the act of reading. I stopped enjoying the very fact of my existence, knowing that the same God who created me also created James Joyce and this pile of pages.

[A friend] asked how the book was going. Without pausing, I said, "It is like having a rib ripped out of my body, being beaten with it, raped with it, and then being forced to eat it." 

I'm sorry that this review is so long, rambling, and at times incoherent.  But it could be worse.  You could be reading Ulysses.

Here's the quick version of my review:   Ulysses was clearly written by a clever guy.  I was not smart enough to understand it.  I had a horrible time reading it, and will never read it again., Ph.D (currently reviewing all Top 100 books)

At least I can't complain since I'm going into this with my eyes wide open. See you when I resurface... hopefully before Christmas.

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