**spoiler alert** As posted on my blog [NOTE: The following may contain minor spoilers]
When I finally laid this book on the table as finished (as part...more**spoiler alert** As posted on my blog [NOTE: The following may contain minor spoilers]
When I finally laid this book on the table as finished (as part of my 50 Novels in One Year reading challenge), I blew out hard and gasped Wow! I knew I was in for a ‘bumpy ride’ before setting out to read this post-apocalyptic tale of human survival, but I didn’t realise quite how bumpy that journey was going to be (quite literally, as a lot of the action is cross-country :o)). I thought of metaphorically comparing the novel to being on a roller-coaster ride. However on a roller-coaster, the ride is full of ups and downs and in this novel, aside from occasional moments of success, the characters only really experience ‘downs’. It’s definitely not a ‘feel good’ book.
Mr. McCarthy does an incredible job of ‘painting’ his post-apocalyptic America. The impression of bleakness, of total destruction, of a country where everything has been reduced to nothing is wholly apparent. The author spends a lot of time describing the landscape with everything covered in ash, all plant life dead, every man-made structure in a state of ruin and it almost always raining or snowing. I couldn’t get it out of my head, how grey everything must look in this landscape, and being faced with such a monochromatic vista, how could everything not seem bleak?
Whereas the majority of these kind of ‘world disaster’ novels illustrate apocalyptic destruction and survival by basing their ‘survivors’ in cities (typically New York), or towns (typically mid-sized, and cut off from the outside world), barely any of the action in The Road takes place in cities or towns. Urban areas are treated as ‘passing points’, places to briefly forage for anything of use (and to proceed through with extreme caution). As such this brings both, an increased emphasis on the nomadic journeying aspect of the novel, and a greater emphasis on the main transit ‘artery’ used by any of post-apocalyptic survivors, the road.
One thing I found that Mr. McCarthy achieves just as successfully in The Road, is to wholly personify the human bond that can exist between father and son, especially when a father and son are facing insurmountable odds in unimaginable circumstances. I can’t recall seeing this father/son bond being so well exemplified in words, anywhere else, and it’s truly one of Mr. McCarthy’s crowning glories. The father’s love and devotion for his son is clearly evident, as is the son’s love and utter reliance on his father.
While I hugely enjoyed The Road, I did have a couple of minor niggles with it. Firstly I was hoping to see a more moralistic struggle for survival being shown from the main characters. Although it’s clear that the father would stop at nothing to protect the safety of his son, I would have liked to have seen him wrestle more with the biggest survivalist taboo, and one focused on often in the novel, that of cannibalism. He does touch on the issue but not to the level and depth I would have liked to have seen.
There is also an aspect of the prose that take some getting used to at first: the severe lack of punctuation. Seeming as though he has an aversion to their usage, Mr. McCarthy omits quotation marks and apostrophes for the majority of his contracted words. However, although such a practice may leave a grammar teacher squirming in his/her seat, this is a technique that I think works. It brings a kind of visual barrenness to the page that mirrors the emptiness of the landscape of the novel. As I said it does take a bit of getting used to at first, but once you do it becomes invisible.
Favourite quote: “She was gone and the coldness of it was her final gift. She would do it with a flake of obsidian. He’d taught her himself. Sharper than steel.” [Note: This is not my favourite quote because of the quality of the prose, it is more to do with what the quote relates to]
Favourite scene: When the father and son come across a grand house at the edge of town and find something ‘interesting’ in a locked cellar.
What this novel has taught me about writing: How important it is to create an environment that is wholly described and wholly believable. The realism that Mr. McCarthy presents in his apocolyptic landscape is stunning and added hugely to the sympathy I felt for the survivors (even the bad ones :o)) (less)
Set in a post-war Stalinist labour camp, this novel, as the title suggests, centres on a single day in the life of ‘political prisoner’ Ivan Denisovic...moreSet in a post-war Stalinist labour camp, this novel, as the title suggests, centres on a single day in the life of ‘political prisoner’ Ivan Denisovich, from (before) sunrise to (well after) sunset. As one might imagine, Ivan has little to look forward to on this ‘typical’ day in the camp; ultra sub-zero temperatures, horrendous food, forced labour, and incessantly picky guards all await him, and his fellow inmates. As harrowing as the day is though, this day actually turns out to be one of the ‘better’ ones, which although bringing a little cheer to Ivan, leaves the reader puzzling (and more than a little shocked), over what must constitute a ‘bad’ day in one of these places.
Comprising of a mere 143 pages, I finished reading this classic rather speedily, although perhaps not as ‘speedily’ as I would have, if I were reading a novel that originated in English. As a qualified historian I’m wholly familiar with clumsy translations, and sadly this translated novel is no different. So if you’re planning on reading this yourself, then be prepared to re-read a number of the sentences, in order to fully decipher their full meaning. Don’t let that put you off though (or from reading any translated Russian literature for that matter), as the minor hindrance caused by having to pause and re-read, is completed negated by the quality of this work.
Along with other works that he penned during the 1960’s, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn got himself into a lot of bother from the Soviet authorities for writing this novel, and after reading it, it’s clear to see why. Aided by more than a liberal dose of anti-Stalinist sentimentality, Mr. Solzhenitsyn pulls no punches in describing the conditions in Soviet labour camps. Given that he himself spent eight years in these camps, after the war, this is no surprise, but because Mr. Solzhenitsyn was able to infuse his own experiences into this novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is an absolute ‘must read’ - just don’t expect to leave your chair in anything like a cheery mood.
Favourite quote: “There is nothing as bitter as this moment when you go out to the morning muster - in the dark, in the cold, with a hungry belly, to face a whole day of work. You lose your tongue. You lose all desire to speak to anyone.”
Favourite scene: Breakfast in the mess-hall. The description of what the prisoners ate and how they ate it is gross to the max. Very memorable and hugely powerful!!
What this novel has taught me about writing: Life experience can enrich a novelist's work immeasurably. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn spent 8 years interned in Russian labour camps (followed by 3 more in exile) and this is clearly evident in the detail of this novel, and the depth of emotion it contains. Perhaps this advocates, although not exclusively, a policy of choosing a subject to write about that you have personal experience and knowledge of. (less)
I didn’t know what to think at first after I finished reading The Catcher in the...moreAs posted on my blog
Warning: the following may contain minor spoilers
I didn’t know what to think at first after I finished reading The Catcher in the Rye, I really didn’t. Fundamentally, and perhaps rather controversially (because it has such a positive following), I didn’t really like the novel as much as I thought I would. I thought that the story was weak, that the plot was largely uneventful, and I was left wondering why so much ‘evangalising’ of this novel? That was my initial thoughts, but once I’d determined that the purpose of this novel was not to deliver an enthralling action-packed story, my opinion began to change and I realised that Catcher in the Rye does have something a bit special about it. That ‘something special’ is in the characterisation of the chief protagonist, 16 year old Holden Caulfield, a youth teetering on the edge of manhood.
Holden Caulfield’s ongoing struggle to fit into the adult world, is superbly realised by his creator, it truly is. Again and again Mr. Salinger thwarts Caulfield’s attempts to rise into the realm of adulthood. Caulfield nonchalantly speaks of drinking alcohol, as though it were the same daily ‘matter of fact’ activity for him, as it was for an adult. However in reality, the reader sees that he is almost always turned down in his requests for ‘booze’. Additionally, and most eloquently, the author further indicts Caulfield’s failure at ‘being a man’, by detailing Caulfield’s numerous failed attempts to ‘amplify’ his maturity, by connecting with women of the more mature variety.
I also loved how Caulfield’s attempts at acting as an adult were often betrayed by his inherent juvenile behaviour; his habit of continually exaggerating things, of coming up with ‘on-the-spur' unfeasible notions of escape to a ‘better’ life, and his critical bemoaning of everything and everyone around him, belied, rather magnificently, the true immaturity of his personality; Caulfield may not admit it himself but it’s evident that under the grown-up veneer, he was still very much the boy.
Another wonderful thing I enjoyed following through the novel was Holden Caulfied’s serial hypocrisy. He spends much of the time criticising everyone around him, labelling almost everyone as ‘phoney’, and questioning their moral values. However Caulfield shows himself as being just as ‘phoney’ as they were, if not more-so, through the endless yarns he spins, and his use of multiple pseudonyms; and how can anyone question someone’s moral values when they themselves agree to spending time with a prostitute?
All in all I really did enjoy this novel. I stick by my opinion that the story itself is largely dull and without plot, but Mr. Salinger’s depiction of teenage angst, and the challenges faced in the ‘coming of age’ is truly applaudable.
Favourite quote: “[the fish] live right in the goddam ice…[…]…They get frozen right in one position for the whole winter…[…]…Their bodies take in nutrition and all, right through the goddam seaweed and crap that’s in the ice”
Favourite scene: When Holden sneaks home to visit his little sister Phoebe. I love the tenderness of the scene and the obvious connection that Holden has with his sister and vice-versa. If I have to be honest I much more preferred the character of Phoebe. She’s a much more endearing character than Holden, and hugely charismatic. Every time she came up in a scene I couldn’t help but think that Phoebe would make a great sister.
What this novel has taught me about writing: Probably the importance of building your characters as comprehensively as possible, and to use a language for their direct speech that truly reflects them. I think Mr. Salinger nails his character’s voices perfectly, ‘breathing’ a high degree of believability into them. (less)
I confess to not reading much fiction in my lifetime, but when I was a kid I did read quite a lot of children’s novels (my favourites being Just Willi...moreI confess to not reading much fiction in my lifetime, but when I was a kid I did read quite a lot of children’s novels (my favourites being Just William and The Famous Five). The opening to Never Let Me Go instantly propelled me back to those junior years, with the setting, the characters and Mr. Ishiguro’s style of prose being wholly reminiscent of the English-esque adventures of Enid Blyton’s famous quintet. However any resemblance to anything I’d read before quickly dispeled as the story unfolded, and I realised that Halisham, the ‘boarding school’ that the first part of the story was solely centred on, was a place that could never be found in an Enid Blyton story; that Halisham was a school with a difference.
This is not to say that Mr. Ishiguro comes right out and tells the reader that Halisham is far from norm, instead he slips strange, and seemingly out-of-context nouns into the narrative, such as 'donations', 'guardians', 'possibles' etc., to get the reader's mind thinking. He also increases the ambiguity of the story by describing unusual activities, such as the regular visitations to Halisham by the mysterious Madame, and her quest to find art additions for the ‘gallery’.
Ambiguous is probably the perfect word to describe the feeling one gets when reading the bulk of this novel. In the latter chapters all, or at least most, of the obscurity is cleared up, but for the most part the reader is left very much ‘in the dark’ about what exactly is going on. This sounds like a bad thing, but it’s not really. Mr. Ishiguro injects just the right amount of intrigue into the story, to instill the reader with enough curiosity to make him/her read on - which is pure genius on Mr. Ishiguro's part.
Friendship and trust emerge as the most important themes in Never Let Me Go. Given that the ‘students’ are related by a common bond, and live mainly as an isolated collective, it’s not surprising to see these themes explored so fully. However the point of note is how well Mr. Ishiguro treats these humanistic themes, especially through his main characters - Kath, Ruth and Tommy. Not surprisingly, given that the focus of part of the novel occurs during puberty, sexual exploration is another theme explored to some extent. However Mr. Ishiguro treats the theme quite eloquently, never going into graphic detail, but making it clear how important, and indeed sanctified, sexual exploration is to the characters.
So do I consider Never Let Me Go to be a good novel, worthy of its 2005 Booker Prize ‘shortlisting’? Ultimately I’d say yes, definitely; the story may not have been one I expected (no bad thing), but it was one that I enjoyed. I wouldn’t consider it to be one of the best novels I’ve read so far, but neither would I consider it to be one of the worst either. Mr. Ishiguro’s skill in characterisation is clearly evident, as is his ability to interweave different time-frames into a story. For those reasons alone Never Let Me Go is, in my opinion, a worthy read. Just be prepared to spend a lot of your time reading this at first, in a state of bewildered puzzlement.(less)
Briefly, Danny, the chief protagonist in this novel, returns from the war to Tortilla Flat (a paisano district that sits upon a hillside above Montere...moreBriefly, Danny, the chief protagonist in this novel, returns from the war to Tortilla Flat (a paisano district that sits upon a hillside above Monterey), to find he has inherited two houses. What then follows is a comedic tale that fundamentally can be summed up in 5 words - wine, friendship, food, women and err..wine again :o)
This is the first John Steinbeck novel I've had the pleasure of reading, and quite simply it has left an indelible mark on me. What captivates me in the first instance is the remarkable talent Mr. Steinbeck shows in the quality of his prose. He demonstrates an incredible talent for expressing himself literarily, and in the most poetic way. I could provide endless examples but as an illustration, instead of penning something simple such as "the Pirate used his wheelbarrow to help Danny", Mr. Steinbeck eloquently scribes it as "then borrowing the Pirate's wheelbarrow and the Pirate to push it, Danny..", which, like the most of the sentences in Tortilla Flat, read like silk.
If the quality of Mr. Steinbeck's prose forms one half of the success of Tortilla Flat, then the sublime depth of his characterisation fills the other half. Mr. Steinbeck succeeds at magnificently bringing his characters to life. Every one is profoundly realised, with each possessing their own idiosyncratic yet appealing qualities. It is a difficult choice to make but the most endearing character for me is "The Pirate', the man `whose head had not grown up with the rest of his body'. Conscientious, hard-working, a man of simple pleasure (a pleasure that consists of him either showing affection for his dogs, or working towards winning the approval of his friends), the Pirate epitomizes how a humble, honest and largely pious life should be lived, which superbly juxtaposes the lifestyles of the other friends in the group (well, with the exception of Big Joe Portagee :o)) which are as far from pious as one could get.
This is not to say that Danny and his friends never show good intentions at heart. Mr. Steinbeck is masterful at setting his characters on a path of good intention, only for them to either falter, or to manipulate circumstance to meet their own needs. This happens a lot, and more often than not, wine plays a role as either the primary motive or betrayer.
I truly loved reading Tortilla Flat. It is a delightful story, with magnificent characters, and I would consider it to be a work of absolute genius. I never thought it could be possible to be completely captivated by an author on the strength of reading one book, but I can state without fear of contradiction that Mr. John Steinbeck, thanks to Tortilla Flat, has found a rare place in my heart. I look forward to discovering the rest of his collection.(less)
The Pearl is a Steinbeck title that's a little different to say the least. This is a parable rewrite by Steinbeck, based on an old Mexican folktale, s...moreThe Pearl is a Steinbeck title that's a little different to say the least. This is a parable rewrite by Steinbeck, based on an old Mexican folktale, so unlike his others novels, Steinbeck is somewhat bound by an existing plot and characters(?). As such he has little freedom to evolve his characters or plot to the same extent he does in other novels, and it shows.
The story itself is centred on a poor Mexican fisherman Kino, who discovers a pearl - ‘The Pearl of the World’, and it looks as though all of his problems, mainly financial, are now over. However the discovery is set to doom Kino and his family, as paranoia and the evil of others conspire against his good fortune, and shatter his good intentions.
The highlight of The Pearl is definitely Steinbeck’s treatment of the paranoia which is growing in Kino. He illustrates this to great effect, showing Kino becoming more and more suspicious of other people’s motives, and he further emphasises the sense of foreboding through the use of a kind of ‘wandering evil’, the ‘song’ of which Kino often seems to be perceptive to.
All in all The Pearl isn’t a bad novella. It’s quite enjoyable, but not to the same depth of many of Steinbeck’s other works. It’s short so I would recommend it to other people to read, if only to take from it the lesson that wealth doesn’t always bring happiness.
Originally I had planned to read this novella as my only introduction to John Steinbeck. I'm glad I expanded into other Steinbeck works as I don't believe The Pearl, as good as it is, gives a true representation of Steinbeck's skill.(less)
Quite simply Water for Elephants is an exceptional read and one that any reader should not miss out on. Briefly the novel is about a circus struggling...moreQuite simply Water for Elephants is an exceptional read and one that any reader should not miss out on. Briefly the novel is about a circus struggling to survive the Depression-era years in America, or more specifically circus life from the perspective of an ad hoc ‘veterinarian’ - Jacob Jankowski, who jumped on the Benzini Brothers circus train by chance, one evening.
The action in Water for Elephants is fast-paced; more than sufficient to keep the reader glued to the pages. ‘Pit stops’ to the action comes in the form of the story reverting back to the nursing home of the present-day, where Jacob is finding his aged infirmity almost intolerable. These respites back to present-day are brief though, and inevitably the narrative shoots back quickly to Jacob’s circus days where the action regains its breakneck speed.
Gruen has really done her ‘homework’ while researching for this novel. She’s created a circus world that’s wholly believable; one that you feel right in the midst of (especially when she intersperses the chapters with contemporary circus photos). Gruen tells us in the ‘author’s note’ at the back of the novel that she had researched extensively for Water for Elephants and it shows! So much so that you can almost smell the menagerie, and the sawdust of the circus ring.
What really makes Water for Elephants special for me though (aside from the great storyline) is the characters. Gruen has done a remarkable job of creating some truly colourful and memorable people in the pages of her novel. Uncle Al (the circus boss) and August (the animal trainer) are characters you’re going to love to hate. Marlena, Kinko the Clown aka Walter, and Camel are character’s you’re just going to love. You’re going to love the chief protagonist Jacob Jankowski too. Personally I found him more endearing in his role as the ‘present day’ Nonagenarian, but his struggle to fit into circus life, gain acceptance from his peers and deal with the urges of his love interest, make him a hugely engaging character.
In summing up I’d say that that Water for Elephants is one of these rare novels that will both thrill you and shock you at the same time. I really want to tell you everything about the story because it’s so good, but also I don’t want to tell you anything, because it will spoil the thrilling ‘ride’ you’re going to find yourself on when you read this novel. Sufficed to say that the story grips and twists almost ceaselessly on its way towards a quite thrilling climax. Miss this at your own peril!
Note: I should probably point out that the novel does contain some sexual content which could be considered for the more mature audience, so I probably wouldn’t recommend this to anyone under 15. On the other hand I may just be being a little prudish, so perhaps you may want to check out the mature content yourself before passing the book on to any juniors (chap 3. pp.44-47, chap 8 p.97 and chap 10 pp.133-135 contain the ‘offending’ material). (less)
As part of my *Steinbeck Special* (which in turn is part of my 50 Novels in One Year reading challenge) I’ve finished reading Of Mice and Men and desp...moreAs part of my *Steinbeck Special* (which in turn is part of my 50 Novels in One Year reading challenge) I’ve finished reading Of Mice and Men and despite its short length, I’ve got to say it’s a monumental piece of literature, with a story as powerful as anything I have, or am probably ever likely to read.
The story centres around George Milton and Lennie Small, two migrant workers who are scouring the Californian countryside in search of work. Again, as was other Steinbeck novels, I have been mesmerised by Mr. Steinbeck’s profound ability to create characters that are wholly ‘stick in the head’ memorable. Lennie, despite being a bit of a ‘man mountain’ and a ‘hell of a good worker’ suffers from a high level of mental disability. His only motivation seem to be that one day he’s going to own a farm with George, solely so he can care for a load of rabbits. Lennie loves to pet soft cuddly things, but as you’ll find out if you read Of Mice and Men, this passion ends up being quite detrimental to him at times.
George acts as a kind of mentor or carer for Lennie. It’s obvious he has a real affection for Lennie (and he apparently made a promise to Lennie’s aunt that he would care for him after she passed away), but one has to wonder to what extent George may be exploiting Lennie’s strength and ability to work. George like to proclaim to potential employers, the fact that Lennie can do the work of many hands, and this seems to be a good ‘bargaining chip’, provided Lennie can keep his mouth shut at the ‘interview stage’ for securing work.
George and Lennie may be the primary ‘players’ in Of Mice and Men but Mr. Steinbeck has also created a whole host of characters that are equally interesting. It would be giving way too much of the plot if I went into detail so suffice it to say that characters such as Candy, Slim, Crooks and Curly will remain unforgettable to the reader of this novel.
The story, although powerful is, as I’ve found with a number of Mr. Steinbeck’s books, fairly linear and not hugely plot-driven. I often see the plot and settings of Mr. Steinbeck’s novels to be more a stage for his characters rather than anything else, but that’s no bad thing, given that his characters are so well put together. However what Mr. Steinbeck does do well throughout this novel is to infuse suggestions of an ulterior motive for George and Lennie’s nomadic wanderings (it isn’t just to find work), which becomes clear near the end of the story.
Of Mice and Men is proclaimed by many as being one of the greatest works ever written, and after reading it I can see why. For anyone wishing an introduction into the novels of Steinbeck, this title is ideal. It’s short enough to complete in one or two days, and while the characters in Of Mice and Men are profoundly realised there are only a handful of them, and each is presented in an uncomplicated and straightforward way. I’m sure there aren’t too many people who haven’t read Of Mice and Men sometime in their life, but if you’re one of them then I highly recommend picking this book up. I know you’ll enjoy it.(less)