I thought Slaughterhouse Five was an incredible read. Mr. Vonnegut’s style of writing is unique to say the leas**spoiler alert** As posted at my blog:
I thought Slaughterhouse Five was an incredible read. Mr. Vonnegut’s style of writing is unique to say the least, but it’s a style that remains wholly readable. The novel primarily follows a fictional American veteran, Billy Pilgrim, who found himself a prisoner of war in Dresden during the time of its infamous bombing by the Americans in 1945. What makes Billy’s story unique however, is that Billy, in the decades following the war, is abducted by an alien race - the Tralfamadorians, who introduce him to the fourth-dimension of time travel. Subsequently, Billy spends his time in the novel zipping back and forth to various times in his life, but primarily back and forth to the time when he was the prisoner of war.
It’s clear that Slaughterhouse Five is particularly personal to Mr. Vonnegut. Having himself been a POW in Dresden at the time of the bombing, this novel is to some extent biographical (and to some other extent cleansing of some inner ‘demons’?). Mr. Vonnegut uses the first chapter to explain this to the reader and for me, this was one of the most interesting chapters of the book (although some argue that this first chapter is also wholly fictional too).
Having been an eye-witness to the war, it is no surprise that Slaughterhouse Five is presented by Mr. Vonngut as being anti-war in nature and this is wholly apparent. I don’t want to spoil the story for anyone who hasn’t read the novel, by posting specific examples, but needless to say, once read, Slaughterhouse Five’s anti-war message is clear. I was surprised though that Mr Vonnegut’s ‘account’ of the bombing of Dresden was not quite as graphic as I’d imagined it would be. As a work that is so wholly anti-war, I would have expected Mr. Vonnegut to infuse his narrative with copious amounts of gory detail. Don’t get me wrong the ‘gory detail’ is there (the description of the ‘corpse mines’ is unforgettably powerful) but instead of endless gore, Mr Vonnegut provides the ‘graphical’ in less gory, but more powerful ways. For instance the reader is left in no doubt as to the extent of the devastation caused by the bombing of Dresden, with Billy comparing the bombed landscape to the surface of the moon, and the intesity of the firestorm illustrated through the presence of ‘dollops of melted glass’.
One thing that did give me a warm feeling in Slaughterhouse-Five (aside from the anti-war sentiment), was the Tralfamadorian concept that humans never actually die. Sure we go through the process of death, but as we have existed in the first place, we are perpetually alive at some point in time. It’s just a matter of utilising the Tralfamadorian’s fourth dimension and traveling to that time, where any and all of us, are well and truly alive and kicking. Nice!
Favourite Quote: “I have this disease late at night sometimes, involving alcohol and the telephone. I get drunk, and I drive my wife away with a breath like mustard gas and roses. And then, speaking gravely and elegantly into the telephone, I ask the telephone operators to connect me with this friend or that one, from whom I have not heard in years”.
Favourite Scene: Billy Pilgrim watching a backward playing film about American planes bombing Germany. The narrative explained what happened in the backward playing version. Effectively the bombers ‘sucked up’ the destruction, returned to base unharmed, the bombs were dismantled and the minerals buried back in the ground “so they would never hurt anybody again”.
What this novel has taught me about writing: Don’t be afraid to mix things up. On paper a story which combines an eyewitness account of the bombing of Dresden, an alien race and time travel, makes it sound from the outset as though it’s going to be some bizarre tale full of disjointed confusion. However I never once found this novel to be in the slighest bit, disjointed or confusing. Mr. Vonnegut makes all the components work beautifully together. ...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**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)) ...more
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 DenisovicSet 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. ...more
Intense! Moving! Unforgettable! - a few resonant 'power words' which could help me to describe Mr. Knut Hamsun's H**spoiler alert** Posted on my blog:
Intense! Moving! Unforgettable! - a few resonant 'power words' which could help me to describe Mr. Knut Hamsun's Hunger to some extent, but they do little to fully encapsulate my innermost feelings about this novel. Quite simply Hunger, is one of the most powerful books I've ever read, in any genre; whether fictional or factual, and given that I've read countless biographical accounts relating to some of history's most harrowing events, this is quite a statement to make, but it is one that I wholly stand by.
Stunning in its delivery, Hunger is one of the few books that has the ability to truly touch your soul. What makes the novel so intense is not the storyline; for the most part the story is devoid of plot. Rather the sense of sympathy and desperation one feels for the main character (a struggling writer on a psychological roller-coaster ride, stricken by poverty, who always seems as though he is about to draw his final breath), is, for me, the novel’s crowning glory. This mechanism of ‘survival doubt’ is superlatively engineered into the story by Mr. Hansum. There are times, usually at the start of a new ‘chapter’ when the writer’s survival seems assured (he himself proclaims many times that his latest work will be the one that end his dificulties). Inevitably however, the character’s situation diminishes, and the reader’s confidence can do nothing but diminish along with it, until, through some fortune turn of events, the main player draws himself back, if usually only temporarily, from the ‘abyss’.
As intense as Hunger is (and it really is intense at times, with the writer’s moods elevating and lowering as often as the paragraphs change), I also found the novel to be quite humourous in parts. The writer’s ‘unnecessary’ and continual bickerings with people he meets, is only surpassed in humour by the intense arguments the writer often has with himself, which more often than not, involves some form of self harm. In essence this personal self loathing is of course a sign of utter madness and desperation, the mark of a madman, but one cannot help but raise a smile when the main character is found in the middle of the street bawling at himself, with onlookers staring aghast.
The writer’s obstinate stupidity also makes for a number of humourous scenes, such as when he declares his homelessness at a police station, falsifies his name and circumstances and consequently misses out on a desperately needed meal. Humour can also be found in the unrealistic value that the main character quite often places on his own personal artifacts. Of course in desperate times especially, one would be inclined to place an inflated value on their personal effects, and Hamsun is primarily illustrating this fact. However it still brings a note of humour to the proceedings, especially when the character attempts to pawn various belongings.
I’m well aware there is controversy surrounding the author of this work, (Mr. Hamsun evolved with quite repungent notions of Nazi idealism), but that is irrelevant to this novel and should not, in my opinion, be brought into consideration. Hunger stands on its own as one of the finest psychological works ever written. It is a book that I will invariably think about often. It is a book that has well and truly touched my soul
Favourite quote: [Note: The main character is mad at himself for raising the notion in his head of asking for a loan of money] “I started running to punish myself, left street after street behind me at full blast, pushed myself on with suppressed shouts, and screamed mutely and furiously at myself when I felt like stopping…[…]…not being able to run any further I threw myself down on some steps, ‘No, Hold it,’ I said. And to torture myself properly I got up again and forced myself to remain standing..”
Favourite scene: The main character’s early encounter with an old man on a park bench. Fraught firstly with curiosity about a package the man is holding, the writer moves on to take great delight in relaying outrageous lies to the old man which he swallows up without question. A sublime piece of writing!
What this novel has taught me about writing: A good plot is not always necessary to produce a good story. The human condition can often produce a compelling tale, provided one engages completely with the psyche of his character(s)....more
I didn’t know what to think at first after I finished reading The Catcher in theAs 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. ...more
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 WilliI 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....more
Briefly, Danny, the chief protagonist in this novel, returns from the war to Tortilla Flat (a paisano district that sits upon a hillside above MontereBriefly, 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....more
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, sThe 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....more