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message 1: by Lauren (last edited Jan 19, 2010 11:09PM) (new)

Lauren Smith | 6937 comments Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee


**spoiler alert** The first time I read Disgrace I hated it. It evoked so much anger and sadness I didn't care if it was brilliant - I wrote it off as a horrible book. How could a woman feel that, because of apartheid, she should allow her rapists to get away with their crime? How could she allow the man who may have organised the attack to take over her farm? Why did the rapists have to shoot the dogs in their cages?

I didn't want to see the movie, but a friend had a role in it and I felt obliged to watch it. I'm glad I did. After talking about it I realised that, although anger, disgust, and sadness were the emotions the story seeks to evoke, they'd obscured the ideas and insights offered. Of these there are many - I'll have to stick to just a few.

Coetzee skilfully depicts some of the racial and power dynamics and attitudes at work in post-apartheid South Africa. As a 52-year old white male and an expert in Romantic poetry, David Lurie is out of date and out of place in this social and political landscape. However, he has no interest in adapting, believing that his temperament is fixed and that no one has any right to make him change. Elaine Rasool, the head of his department at Cape Tech, sees David as a "hangover from the past, the sooner cleared away the better." Dawn, the secretary David sleeps with, has a view I've heard a few times - even though apartheid was morally bad, those were still, in some way, better days. In Dawn's case, she believes the law was better enforced during apartheid; now it's anarchy, and she wants to emigrate for the sake of her children.

In these attitudes is a reluctance or refusal to deal with the difficulties of SA today. Lucy's approach on the other hand, is more complex, more practical, but also far harder to accept. As a white South African she sees herself 'owing' something for the privileges she enjoys, for the stolen land she lives on. She allows her rapists to get away with their crimes because she sees them as 'debt collectors'. To her, violence is a reality of the place in which she lives, and if she wants to stay she must put up with it. Lucy, as Petrus says, is "forward-thinking".

The injustice of this is very difficult to accept, and I personally cannot do it. Nevertheless, what I think is interesting here is the similarities between David and the rapists and how the reaction to the attack as a whole can be compared to ideas about apartheid today.

David draws a parallel with the rapists in his attitude toward sex - it is sex, not companionship he wants from women, he feels he has a right to pursue it, and uses whatever means he has to get it. In the past, his looks were enough. Now he pays for it, as he does with Soraya, or abuses his power as he does with Melanie. The difference between David and the three black rapists is that David has this financial and social power to wield. He can fork out R400 for a blissful afternoon, as a lecturer he can coerce a reluctant young student into sleeping with him. The three black men have only their physical power, and therefore resort to violence. The result is that, even though their attitudes are similar, David is seen merely as another womanising bastard, while the attackers are loathed as barbarians. Social circumstances make black stereotypes self-fulfilling prophesies.

The reader, rightfully, wants justice, making Petrus' nonchalant attitude toward the attack infuriating. Yet his attitude is similar to the way many (privileged) South Africans view apartheid: it was bad, but it's over now and we must all just get on with our lives. Now the tables are turned - the white man demands justice and the black man tells him to get over it.

The idea of 'disgrace' in which so much of the novel is steeped, is not what we expect or what it should be. With the exception of David's disgrace after his affair with Melanie, it is the victims, not the perpetrators who are humiliated, broken down. The rapists leave Lucy a damaged and vulnerable woman; David is shamed by his inability to protect her and embarrassed by his physical wound; and of course apartheid has left millions disgraced by poverty, poor education and racial stereotypes.

In the end, I found that Disgrace had given me many tough questions to consider, but very few answers. Which is appropriate. There can be no easy solutions to healing the damage, the disgraces this country suffers from. One option, perhaps, is the course that David finds himself on - slowly broken down and humbled by his victimhood, by his time spent putting down stray dogs and cremating their bodies. He gives up on his grand opera, and starts from scratch with a simpler but more authentic one. He lets go of his lofty ideals, as he gives up the dog he was trying to save, and faces reality.

As brilliant as this book is, I would be reluctant to recommend it to most people, as it is painful to read, and a superficial reading could easily lead to racist interpretations. However, it's an important novel, especially for South Africans, and I hope readers will do their best to endure the pain of it and take the time to consider its ideas.

message 2: by Lauren (last edited Jan 19, 2010 11:09PM) (new)

Lauren Smith | 6937 comments Dancing Naked at the Edge of Dawn by Kris Radish


I read this novel for an 'I'll Read Yours if You Read Mine' challenge. I was challenged to read it because I don't like chick lit. Well, I still don't. This book tries to be feminist, but it's just a lot of New Age blather that simply ignores men.

It's the story of Meg, a middle-aged, middle-class American suburban wife and mother whose life undergoes a series of drastic changes after she watches her husband Bob having an affair with another woman. The event leaves Meg broken and she goes into a lot of detailed whining, but as the narrative progresses it seems to be the best thing that's ever happened to her, causing her to escape the life that has made her so unhappy and start a new one more in tune with her passions and friendships. Meg finds solace in a multitude of strong, wise women who are always available to listen and have no shortage of inspiring metaphors and anecdotes. These women and Meg's friendships with them are nice but unreal - wonderful as they are, the way they pop up wherever Meg needs them is terribly contrived.

In fact, given the people and influences in Meg's life, I couldn't understand why she'd married Bob in the first place or why she'd allowed herself to become so unhappy. Each flashback chapter shows a 'feminist' influence in Meg's life, but none of these seem to have had much impact on her. She encounters several women whose stories show that marriage (at least in this society) is bad for women, turning them into unhappy servants of their husbands and children and reducing their aspirations to daydreams. At one point, she admits that she doesn’t know of any happy marriages except her grandparents’. Other characters encourage Meg to follow her passions rather than submit to social pressures. And yet she still marries Bob at 20. I don't think it's impossible for something like this to occur, but given the circumstances, I found myself waiting for an explanation, a glimpse of Meg and Bob’s early relationship. I felt Radish owed it to the reader, but it never came.

I was also left wondering why Meg, a well-educated woman with so many strong, outspoken women in her life, never seems to have talked to her husband about her unhappiness and tried to work things out, either before or after learning about his affairs. Despite the novel’s strong feminist tones, the conclusion it offers is that women are still the weaker sex. They may have the strength to leave their husbands and stay single, but they don’t have the strength to face the men in their lives and confront the problem of sexism. They can escape, but they can’t fight. If they’re lucky, they will find kind men with egalitarian sensibilities who will not pose a threat. Or they can just live with other women, and avoid men.

Divorce seems the only solution posed for an unhappy marriage then, because it’s always going to be unhappy. Women must find solace in each other, or in themselves. But on the whole, this feels like a fantasy. There are mythical women like Elizabeth, Linda, Dr Carol Kimbal – goddess-like in their wisdom, strength and beauty. There are magical places – Elizabeth’s apartment, Mexico, Meg’s new apartment. There are New Age ideas and practices throughout and the ending is a lovely dream of success. To me, all the wonderful things the novel celebrates feel unreal, a New Age fantasy. In contrast, there's a 'real world' where men like Bob are still in control and that fantasy falls flat. I wanted the novel to solidify into a biting feminist tract or just veer off into a thrilling reckless fantasy where Meg parties and has wild affairs on gorgeous Mexican beaches. Unfortunately, it falls somewhere in the middle, trying to impart serious messages about empowerment in a way that makes it all to magical to be real.

Nevertheless, I still found aspects of the novel inspiring, even if I don’t agree with the way Radish has expressed them. The voracious appetite for change is so exciting, the suggestion of being happy while staying single is both calming and thrilling. I also valued this perspective on middle-aged women in suburban middle-class America - a culture far from my own. It’s clearly something that speaks to them, and to women elsewhere. And I too would love to do some of the things Meg does as she changes her life, but for me this novel could only work as an inspiring fantasy, nothing more. And for novels about women, there are many others that are better-written, more fun, more feminist...

message 3: by Lauren (last edited Mar 25, 2010 09:08AM) (new)

Lauren Smith | 6937 comments Fear of Flying by Erica Jong


Last month I read a chick lit novel whose idea of feminism was to avoid men and portray women as either victims of their unhappy marriages or single and thus empowered to almost mythical proportions. Whatever its noble intentions it made feminism look like a joke. The best thing I can say about it is that it made me long for something far bolder, more complex, and better written. I'd had Fear of Flying on my shelf for a few years and had started it a few times without finishing. Now I found myself in the ideal circumstances to really enjoy it.

Fear of Flying has a chick lit plot pulled off with more flair, honesty and insight than that normally fluffy genre seems able to muster. Isadora Wing is frustrated by her unhappy marriage to Bennett and longs for the elusive 'zipless fuck' - a 'pure' sexual encounter, an indulgence without strings, without power games. She thinks she may have found one in Adrian Goodlove, but in pursuing him she has to face her titular fear of flying - both a literal fear and a fear of freedom, of being single. As imperfect as her marriage might be, Isadora clings to its security and is not devoid of feelings of love and loyalty to Bennett. Also, she is more dependent on men than she would like to be:

"All my fantasies included marriage. No sooner did I imagine myself running away from one man than I envisaged myself tying up with another. I was like a boat that always had to have a port of call. I simply couldn't imagine myself without a man. Without one I felt lost as a dog without a master; rootless, faceless, undefined" (78).

And it's true - without a man she does lack definition, at least for herself (less so for the reader). She's dreamed of finding “a perfect man whose mind and body were equally fuckable” (91) and in this seemingly impossible search for love she's avoided defining her own identity and desires. “In the mornings,” Adrian tells her at one point, “I can never remember your name” (227).

This seems odd for the narrator of a feminist classic, but this is part of what interests me about Isadora - she's a mass of contradictions and conflicts. What she has learned from her mother (who is indulgent and loving yet blames Isadora's existence for her failure to become an artist) is that “being a woman meant being harried, frustrated, and always angry. It meant being split into two irreconcilable halves” (148). However liberated, Isadora has still grown up in a sexist society and been influenced by its dysfunctional ideals. In addition, she happens to be a lustful, heterosexual woman. She's been a feminist all her life, she says, “but the big problem was how to make your feminism jibe with your unappeasable hunger for male bodies” (88). She wants to be married, but she also sees all the flaws in marriage. Currently, she's torn between the dull security of her marriage to Bennett and the unstable excitement of an affair with Adrian. Having both passion and security, it seems, is too much to ask. Isadora (like Jong) is also a writer who has struggled for years to find the confidence and discipline to turn her craft into a profession. She may be intelligent and educated, but she can also be terribly immature and irrational. She's not a heroine I'd aspire to be but I admire the fact that she articulates and struggles with her conflicts, and this is where the novel has its greatest strengths - it's sincere and insightful in depicting dilemmas some women struggle with.

Jong pulls this off with witty, energetic writing. I love close psychological studies of characters and this one is as fun and inspiring as I'd hoped it to be, rather than being whiny like the watered-down 'feminism' of the chick-lit that led me here. However, it occasionally gets slow and dull. Fear of Flying is obviously semi-autobiographical, and Jong seems determined to show off Isadora's - and by extension her own - intellectual prowess. There is far too much name-dropping and the narrative sometimes gets held up by history lessons, travel impressions and psychoanalysis lectures. This isn't entirely irrelevant, but it can get long-winded. 'I know you're smart and educated,' I want to say, 'so could you cut this short and get back to your sex life?'

This is not because Fear of Flying is a particularly raunchy book. It's often fun, yes, but it's the kind of amusement you get from witty rants. The book is about sex, not of it. Its unabashedly graphic when talking about sexual relationships, but with the exception of the 'zipless fuck' fantasy in the first chapter, the sex scenes are brief and perfunctory, not naughty deviations from the plot.

The story follows Isadora across Europe as she vacillates between Bennett and Adrian, and regularly turns to the past as befits the psychoanalytic theme that runs through the novel. We learn about Isadora's family life, sexual encounters, affairs, therapists, her career, and her first marriage (to a genius who unfortunately turned out to be a lunatic).

Overall I found it inspiring, not because it offers solutions (it doesn't), not because I thought all Isadora's problems applied to me or women in general, but because she is sincere and often funny in articulating them, she's honest about her cowardice, but she also makes the effort to engage the conflicts she finds herself in. It's the kind of book that promises rewarding and comforting rereads, and I'll definitely return to it.

message 4: by Lauren (last edited Jan 19, 2010 11:08PM) (new)

Lauren Smith | 6937 comments Room 207 by Kgebetli Moele


I read this some time ago, but I have no desire to reread it. It tells the story of six black South African men living in a dingy little flat in Hillbrow, a particularly dodgy suburb in Johannesburg. They all have their aspirations but their poverty, the city, and they themselves are killing their dreams. Moele’s writing and storytelling ability is great - gritty and evocative, immersing you in an intense existence characterised by crime and poverty.

Unfortunately the novel has quite a few flaws, the cumulative effect of which is that you feel little empathy or even pity for the characters. Four of them have similar sounding names starting with ‘M’ and, especially for a reader unfamiliar with African names, this causes them to merge into a confusing, amorphous entity. The only character whose name I remember is ‘Zulu-Boy’. The five roommates are all slaves to ‘Isando’ (the home of SA breweries) and consequently squander most of what little money they have on beer, coming across as drunks whose habit will leave them trapped in Hillbrow and help destroy their aspirations.

What I dislike most about the book though, is its blatant, unquestioned misogyny. Womanising is glorified, and in one (unfortunately) memorable scene in a club, one of the characters tempts a woman away from her boyfriend and has sex with her in the club. Afterwards, he waves the used condom in front of one of his roommates, saying it has her true smell on it. On another occasion, the characters are laughing at an anecdote about a man who chastises his girlfriend by lightly *stabbing* her in the backside. They seem to think is story is hilarious, but I was just appalled. If I’m missing some cultural joke here I doubt I’d find it funny even if it was explained. The few women in the novel are poorly sketched and exist largely as sex objects for the main characters.

The ending was rushed, if I remember correctly – the narrative leaps ahead several years, to see how the characters’ lives have turned out. There’s nothing triumphant about it, but again I didn’t feel sorry for the characters except for a general pity for the hard lives of black South Africans, which turns men into brutal beings we struggle to pity. The novel does an excellent job of portraying this, but more thought should have gone into structuring its characters, particularly the women.

message 5: by Lauren (last edited Jan 19, 2010 11:08PM) (new)

Lauren Smith | 6937 comments The Slave by Isaac Bashevis Singer


I should admit, from the start, that this novel is really not to my taste. This largely explains my rating, which is entirely subjective and no indication of the quality of Singer's writing or story. For me, The Slave was also a lesson in Jewish history and culture, of which I know very little. It's perhaps because of this that I couldn't really appreciate the novel, didn't find it as engaging or touching as others seem to have. Whatever my personal reaction though, The Slave is a beautifully written tragic love story and an evocative tale about a man's struggle with religion.

Jacob and Wanda are good people in every respect, and it is hard not to like them. They don't allow themselves to be degraded by the harsh circumstance they find themselves in. Jacob is incredibly pious and takes every opportunity to study his religion yet does not hesitate to question it. Even as Jan Bizik's slave at the start of the novel he remains true to his religion and even tries to etch what he remembers of the Torah into a rock. Unlike most people though, his faith keeps him humble, rather than making him pretentious and self-righteous. For this I admire him, but for the most part I found his piety silly (a thousand tiny rituals, worries bordering on neuroses), and even unkind - for example, despite his love for Sarah/Wanda he forces her to disown her family, even her beloved father, so that she can convert and they can be together. On another occasion, he is upset that he must remind her that she cannot touch him or eat with him when she has her period. However, I try and remind myself that this is not a flaw in Jacob, but in his religion and the superstitions accompanying it, to which he is a slave, as much as he was Jan Bizik's slave, as much as he is a slave to his love and lust for Wanda/Sarah. In addition, both he and Wanda/Sarah are slaves to the demands of society - unless she becomes a Jew, there will be no way for them to be together, and Jacob is too devout for anyone to even consider the idea that he would convert instead.

The novel takes a very critical approach to the supposedly pious people of the communities Jacob and Wanda/Sarah live in. It shows them to cruel, petty, greedy, exclusionary. In Wanda's villages, Jacob is abused and often has his life threatened because he is a Jew. He and Wanda must keep her conversion secret because the punishment for converting a gentile is death. Everywhere Jacob goes he is angered by the cruelty and depravity of people, saddened by other Jews' hypocrisy. They may claim to be devout and will adhere to every minor rule and ritual, but still give in to their petty human weaknesses:

“Jacob was continually astonished at how many Jews obeyed only one half of the Torah. The very same people, who strictly observed the minor rituals and customs which were not even rooted in the Talmud, broke without thinking twice the most sacred laws, even the Ten Commandments. They wanted to be kind to God and not to man; but what did God need of man and his favors? What does a father want from his children but that they should not do injustice to each other?”

These people do not embody the goodness their 'faith' should imply. Although they seem devoted to God because of the rituals they perform to please him, they disregard more important laws and fail to treat other people kindly and fairly. One passage I particularly liked was this one:

“But now he at least understood his religion: its essence was the relation between man and his fellows. Man's obligations toward God were easy to perform. Didn't Gershon have two kitchens, one for milk, and one for meat? Men like Gershon cheated, but they ate matzoth prepared according to the strictest requirements. They slandered their fellow men, but demanded meat doubly kosher. They envied, fought, hated their fellow Jews, yet still put on a second pair of phylacteries. Rather than troubling himself to induce a few to eat pork or kindle a fire on the Sabbath, Satan did easier and more important work, advocating those sins deeply rooted in human nature.”

These two passages are what I found most memorable and valuable about the novel, but as a whole it failed to engage me. Conceptually, I thought it wasn't bad, but in the actual reading of it I struggled to empathise with a man so pious (although he was likeable), and the simplicity of the story sometimes left me bored. But perhaps it's simply the wrong story for me.

message 6: by Lauren (last edited Jan 19, 2010 11:07PM) (new)

Lauren Smith | 6937 comments The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold


This seemed intriguing at first, and I enjoy novels about mental disturbance. However, it got more and more boring as it progressed, and by the end I didn’t care about any of the characters and only finished for the sake of finishing. The protagonist went loopy without being the least bit interesting or comprehensible, and what good is a novel about madness if it can’t draw you into its fascinatingly deranged world?

message 7: by Lauren (last edited Mar 04, 2010 11:34PM) (new)

Lauren Smith | 6937 comments On Love and Death by Patrick Suskind


A very short book of Suskind's musings on love and its relation to death, with some interesting insights for his famous novel Perfume (and possibly some of his others as well - I have yet to read them).

Love, Eros is described as a frenzy, “the finest frenzy there is... a mania inspired by and yearning for the divine” (15). Love is “a force instilling in human beings a desire for what they lack: beauty, virtue, happiness, perfection - whose reflection the lover sees in the beloved - and finally even immortality” (15-16)

Suskind looks at examples of Eros as an insanity that leads to poor choices, an intense desire in which lovers cut themselves off from the world and even scorn everyone else in their longing for each other. There is also a more noble example of a writer who falls in love with a waiter but never confesses it, turning his passion into creativity instead, using love to achieve immortality through his work.

About halfway through this little book, Suskind turns to the relationship between love and death. “[L:]ove in general is on easy terms with death” (42) he says - lovers kill themselves to escape the pain of love, others are willing to accept death as the price for a great love. Suskind turns to the poetry of Goethe and the suicide of writer Heinrich von Kleist to explore the idea of love finding “it's highest and purest form, indeed it's fulfillment, in death” (43).

Finally he compares Orpheus to Jesus Christ, both of whom tried to conquer death for the sake of love, and comes to the conclusion that Orpheus is more human and his story more touching because of his humility and his ultimate failure.

These musings are literary, not literal, making it a quick and interesting read for literature lovers and anyone interested in the association of love with death and insanity.

message 8: by Lauren (last edited Jan 19, 2010 11:07PM) (new)

Lauren Smith | 6937 comments The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg


**spoiler alert** I read this novel for an “I’ll Read Yours if You Read Mine” challenge. It was chosen for me because I normally avoid classics. Nevertheless, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner had many of the features I enjoy in fiction – conflicting perspectives on the same events, a close psychological study of a tortured character, torment and seduction by a devil, and a criticism of strict religious doctrine. Consequently, I quite enjoyed it (which I often do, with classics, when I take the time and patience to read them).

My feelings about the main character, Robert, were unusual. As much as I disliked him and was angered by the injustice of his actions in the Editor’s narrative, I found Robert’s narrative to be the most interesting. The first part of the story reveals him to be a grossly self-righteous, cruel, petty little man. This is no less obvious in his own story, but Robert’s memoir allows you to understand him, without condoning any of his beliefs or behaviour. Usually, if I enjoy the narrative of such an unfavourable character, there is at least something I admire about him/her, but not so with Robert.

Through Robert, Hogg illustrates one of the things I dislike about religion – the way it can encourage people to put dogma above compassion. From ruining a boy's reputation with lies to committing murder, Robert justifies his sins with the excuse that he is doing God's work. His 'divine' motives thus cause him to be cruel to others. Another problem is that Robert sticks to religious doctrine rather than thinking for himself. I think this is one of the reasons he's so susceptible to Gil-Martin's influences - initially he can't see past Gil-Martin's religious pretences, and when he finally does it is too late for him to resist. Robert is also unable to see all the logical flaws in his beliefs. I felt that the torment he suffered as the devil's follower was, in a way, the logical conclusion of his irrational beliefs. His suffering was as much a consequence of trying to cling to such extreme, illogical beliefs as of his relationship with the devil.

About Gil-Martin - I liked how he assumed the looks and ideas of whoever he was thinking about or focussed on. A nice touch, and pretty creepy. I'm wondering if it was some kind of twisted version of the idea of being made in God's image? Instead the devil shapes himself according to human images, and as a result is more grotesque and scary.

The narrative as a whole is beset with doubt. The editor’s narrative is a factual account of the novel’s events, but as the editor did not experience anything personally, he must rely on other sources. Robert’s narrative differs from the editor’s at certain points, giving a slightly more favourable account of himself in some situations. Robert’s narrative also has a supernatural element which the editor refuses to accept. And of course there's Hogg's letter, which is revealed to contain a few odd lies. I think the story’s uncertainties are a suitable counterpoint to Robert’s unquestioned religious beliefs. The reader, unsure of the truth, should have more reason to criticise Robert, Wringham and Lady Colwan’s assumptions about their acceptance into heaven. If the editor, and thus the reader, can’t be sure of history, how can anyone be sure of God’s mind?

My only real problem with the book was the Scottish brogue. Normally I adapt to accents fairly easily, but I found this frustrating, especially since there were many colloquial terms and pronunciations I had to try and figure out. Language is actually one of the main reasons I tend avoid classics. While I don't mind taking my time to appreciate the nuances of an author's writing, I have less patience for taking my time merely to understand what is going on, which is often the case with older styles of writing. However, with the exception of the Scottish accent, I found this to be a relatively easy read. Overall, my half of the reading challenge proved to be a worthwhile one, and although I probably won’t seek out many more classics in future, it sparked my interest in gothic literature.

message 9: by Lauren (last edited Mar 04, 2010 11:33PM) (new)

Lauren Smith | 6937 comments The Tommyknockers byStephen King


I read this a long time ago, so forgive me if the details are distorted.

In a lot of ways, The Tommyknockers was a pretty cool book. There’s the mystery of the artefact buried in the woods. It’s causing lots of strange, miraculous, and often creepy behaviour in the residents of the town alongside. It’s also turning them into mechanical geniuses somehow and slowly causing physical alterations in them too. It won’t let the inhabitants leave the town. There’s the excitement of encountering a potential hero who is immune to the artefact’s evil power and could save the town from the horrors engulfing it. But every potential hero is thwarted, and eventually, when the next one appears, you’ve had just about enough of this bloody repetitive plot. The Tommyknockers is way, way too long, although that’s hardly surprising, since it is a Stephen King novel. There were things I really liked about the end, and a great deal of the novel was truly disturbing, but it’s so long it desensitises you to its own horrors until the only thing that’s bugging you is how many more pages are left.

message 10: by Lauren (last edited Jan 19, 2010 11:15PM) (new)

Lauren Smith | 6937 comments The Forever War by Joe Haldeman


I read this novel for an 'I'll Read Yours if You Read Mine' challenge. It was chosen for me because I don't like hard sci fi, and I'm not a fan of military sci fi either. However, Haldeman’s novel is quite hospitable to all readers, and although I prefer my sci fi to be more character-focused, I enjoyed this story and its ideas very much.

For reasons that are very thin at best, the human race goes to war with the Taurans, an alien race no one has ever seen or even communicated with. Lack of knowledge about their enemy doesn't put the slightest damper on preparations for war however, and “the intellectual and physical elite of the planet” are recruited, trained in combat methods that may well have no effect on the bodies of their mysterious enemies, and sent to die by the masses for their species. The narrative follows William Mandella, one of very few soldiers to make it through several battles.

Although the novel's technical jargon went right over my head, I think I managed to translate it into the intended meaning - fast, very fast, hot, searing hot, very powerful etc. As pahoota, my partner in this challenge pointed out, Haldeman’s use of science gives a good impression of how dangerous space is. Mandella and the soldiers face just as much danger from being killed by their own equipment and the environment as they do from attacks by the Taurans.

Haldeman's style is very lean and to-the point, and the plot moves so briskly I couldn't believe how fast I was going at times. The downside of this is that you don't get much of an opportunity to explore Haldeman's vision of the future, or engage with any of the characters, all of whom are rather flat and forgettable. The advantage though, is that, in reading The Forever War, you feel as helplessly swept along by the forces of war as Mandella does. Although he spends only a few years in active duty, hundreds of years pass by for the rest of the human race. When Mandella first returns to civilian life, he finds that 17 years have passed on Earth, society has changed drastically, his mother is suddenly old, and his father is dead. Thereafter the gaps only get longer and the social changes even greater. Out in space and on the battlefield, fellow soldiers die horrifically, but barely a moment is available to mourn them as the plot rushes onwards and Mandella must focus on the next Stargate jump, the next battle.

As the narrative progresses, the concept of a 'forever war' really makes itself felt, and Mandella finds it impossible to escape his duty, except in death. Even medical advancements seem as much a horror as a blessing - badly injured bodies are simply repaired so that soldiers can be sent back out into the field rather than being allowed to retire.

The Forever War makes for a good anti-war novel, a quick punchy read that lacks strong characters but effectively reveals the brutalities and absurdities of war. I particularly liked the last battle and its implication that war itself never really changes. The technology used may become deadlier, and the soldiers better trained (and better indoctrinated), but it remains a bloody slaughter. And those who gain any kind of benefit from the battle, are not the ones fighting in it.

message 11: by Lauren (last edited Jan 19, 2010 11:15PM) (new)

Lauren Smith | 6937 comments Magician: Apprentice by Raymond E. Feist


Entertaining in a kind of dull and familiar way. Magician read like a collection of fantasy cliches and stereotypes that really only worked when Tolkien did it in The Lord of the Rings. This novel alone is a very long story to waste your time on, and I definitely won't give another moment of mine to this author.

message 12: by Lauren (new)

Lauren Smith | 6937 comments Public Power in the Age of Empire by Arundhati Roy


Are 'democracies' still democratic? Are governments accountable to the people who elect them? These are some of the questions that Arundhati Roy asks in her brief but insightful speech (this little book is the transcription, and can also be found free online). We live in an Age of Empire, she argues, characterised by economic colonialism and the repression of resistance.

Using Indian and American governments as her main examples, Roy discusses the ways in which governments can manipulate the people they're supposed to serve, and how elections have the illusion of ideological choice. While people might get the governments they vote for they might not get the governments they want. Or need. In third world countries, the national agenda is often not dictated by the needs of the people, but by the demands of foreign capital and freemarket capitalism which are given the label of 'reform'. However, these 'reforms' lead to mass unemployment and poverty. Faced with the threat of being crippled by capital flight, governments continue to facilitate the economic exploitation of their countries. Consequently, Roy says, it is impossible for governments to achieve radical change. It is only the public that can do so.

In the second half she looks at some of the dangers that resistance movements face, such as their relationship with the mass media and the use of NGOs to defuse political resistance. What I found especially powerful was her argument that public power in the age of Empire can be forced to resort to terrorism (which here is loosely defined as violent resistance) as a direct consequence of governments' merciless crackdown on resistance in all forms. If governments are not open to change through non-violent resistance, then they are in fact endorsing violence as the only choice of action for an oppressed and exploited public.

Overall I found this to be a very useful, memorable book that should be easy for the most readers to understand. In a very few pages it provides an essential critical perspective with which to view contemporary global politics, particularly the depiction of humanitarian struggles by the media and political authorities. Even if you don't agree with everything Roy says, this essay does you the valuable service of dissuading you from swallowing information whole and encouraging you to learn more and think more carefully and critically about the way in which countries and global powers are treating human beings.

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Lauren Smith | 6937 comments Two Stars by Paul Theroux

A quick easy read, comprised of 3 pieces on female movie stars - a definition of the 'starlet', a long article detailing Theroux's interviews with Elizabeth Taylor )including an interview with her close friend Michael Jackson) and a very short article on the auctioning of Marilyn Monroe's possessions.

A sense of tragedy runs through the whole book - the dashed hopes of most starlets in their longing for fame, the lost childhoods of Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson, Taylor's many failed marriages, Marilyn Monroe's miserable life and her eventual suicide. At the same time their bizarre lives and the money it generates feels incredibly surreal. Elizabeth Taylor bought Michael Jackson an elephant, Jackson went on tour with two cargo planes, carrying things like arcade games. The pair had a very playful relationship, perhaps trying to reclaim their lost childhoods, and imagine themselves as Peter Pan and Wendy.

Marilyn Monroe's red stiletto's were sold for $21 000 dollars; Tommy Hilfiger bought her thrift-shop jeans for $36 500. These were some of the low-priced items. Her sparkly 'Happy Birthday Mr President' dress sold for over a million dollars, the record auction price for a woman's dress. And yet, when Monroe died, she had only $5000 in the bank.

Two Stars reads a bit more like a biography than the study of celebrity in general that I had hoped for (with Taylor and Monroe as case studies), but I enjoyed it nevertheless. I'm from the wrong generation to know much about these stars though, so for someone who lived through their days of iconic fame (or just has a great interest in it), Two Stars would no doubt be an even better read.

message 14: by Lauren (last edited Feb 23, 2010 09:58PM) (new)

Lauren Smith | 6937 comments The Grandmothers by Doris Lessing

The first two novellas in this collection - The Grandmothers and Victoria and the Staveneys - are great stories, engaging you in the characters' lives, raising questions for you to ponder as you read. The titular story is about two best friends who have affairs with each others' seventeen-year-old sons. The affairs last for many years, until the men are eventually pressured to marry and social conventions push the women to end their secret relationships. Some reviewers have found this improbable, but I just shrugged it off - you love who you love, whether it's considered appropriate or not, and I thought The Grandmothers was an interesting story about unlikely, difficult love that isn't swayed by the age barriers even when the rest of society is.

In Victoria and the Staveneys, a young black girl (Victoria) struggles through a difficult childhood of poverty and hardship. Later, she has an affair with a boy from a liberal white family (The Staveneys) that she has idolised since she spent a night sleeping over at their home. She falls pregnant, and when she finally decides to tell the family about the child, they are surprisingly happy to have a black relative. Their liberal sensibilities make the child's race a point of pride for them - a sign of open-mindedness and belief in racial equality. Whether they really embody the attitudes they wish to portray is a debate that runs throughout the story.

Both The Grandmothers and Victoria and the Staveneys move briskly and juggle difficult questions without weighing you down. Easily, pleasantly entangled, I breezed through them.

And then I hit a dead end. The third and fourth novellas - The Reason for It and The Love Child - are dreadfully boring with little or no rewards for the time it takes to slog through them, comparatively short as they are.

The Reason for It is a political fantasy, the story of the rise and fall of a group of cities. The story is narrated by the last surviving member of The Twelve, a group of administrators who were responsible for maintaining the prosperity of the cities. The narrator, like the rest of The Twelve, has for many years been baffled and saddened by the seemingly cruel and destructive actions of the cities' latest leader, DeRod. He slowly dismantles the progressive policies put in place by earlier rulers, favouring military might instead, and the advanced society deteriorates. In theory, this is interesting, but in practice it's a flop. Lessing is very vague in this tale - rather than starting by presenting the context, she throws you right in. You get an idea of what's going on easily enough, but the story remains blurry and unremarkable throughout. The 'revelation' of DeRod's true motives at the end is equally mundane.

The final story, The Love Child, starts off well enough, but then its protagonist is sent into the army for World War 2 and for ages all you read about is the boring life in the barracks, and then a dreadful life at sea, characterised by filth and sickness. There is a brief respite, as the plot picks up for a passionate but unwise love affair, and then we're back in the banality of army life, for an even longer stretch, until at last the war ends and the story speeds up again and sprints to another forgettable ending. If I hadn't promised to read this book in its entirety I would have stopped early on in this novella and not missed anything worth my time and effort.

The difference between the first two novellas and the second two is the use of plot. I think Lessing is often a great storyteller, but not a great writer. The Grandmothers and Victoria and the Staveneys both have dramatic, fast-paced storylines; The Reason for It and Love Child do not. With better writing this would not matter - the language would grab and hold the reader even if the plot can't. But I find Lessing's writing flat and functional. She's not a bad writer, but her writing only carries the story and the characters - it is nothing special in itself.

So if you're interested in reading Lessing and are considering picking up this collection, then go ahead. I highly recommend the first two novellas. I just suggest that you stop right there and not waste your time on the second two.

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Emma (emmauk007) | 1081 comments Lauren wrote: "Magician: Apprentice by Raymond E. Feist


Entertaining in a kind of dull and familiar way. Magician read like a collection of fantasy cliches and stereotypes that re..."

Hi Lauren,
I have this on my Reading Challenge list, so I was disappointed that you didnt like it. I hoping to get around to reading it soon. :-)

message 16: by Lauren (last edited Mar 04, 2010 11:31PM) (new)

Lauren Smith | 6937 comments You may like it Emma - as you mentioned in the other thread, tastes differ very widely.

I would not have read this book if it wasn't strongly recommended to me by an over-enthusiastic fan. I don't read sword-and-sourcery fantasy specifically because it mostly seems to be similar to LOTR (which I loved in high school, but won't re-read). There's a minority who feel the same way I do, but Feist has many, many fans, so chances are, if you like this kind of story, you may love the book too :)

message 17: by Emma (new)

Emma (emmauk007) | 1081 comments I will get around to reading it soon Lauren, and I will tell what I thought of it. I do tend to like the kind of fantasy which you have described, so this might be a book that is just up my street.

Ill let you know how it goes.

message 18: by Lauren (new)

Lauren Smith | 6937 comments Ok, looking forward to it :)

message 19: by Lauren (new)

Lauren Smith | 6937 comments Bad Monkeys by Matt Ruff


A really entertaining read, even though some of the 'technology' was eye-rollingly implausible. Cameras in the eyes of pictures everywhere? Books that can record what bits you read and how often? Come on.

But it's fun anyway. Jane Charlotte is a good mystery narrator, constantly dropping in juicy tidbits of information that you can't wait for her reveal more about later. She is an assassin for a secret organisation, but after killing someone she wasn't authorised to, the normal authorities have been allowed to arrest and interrogate her. The narrative is divided into two parts - the discussions Jane is having with the prison psychiatrist in the present time, alternated with the story she is telling him about her life and 'Bad Monkeys' the assassination division of the secret organisation.

In addition to dropping tantalising hints about dirty secrets, Jane also lies to her psychiatrist and the reader quite often, resulting in plenty of twists along the way. The ending itself is a twist, both in the plot and in the twist conventions of mystery stories. It's not a profound one, but I found it satisfying enough.

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Emma (emmauk007) | 1081 comments Sounds like a book I would be interested in reading in Lauren.

Thanks for the review, I will check it out. :-)

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Lauren Smith | 6937 comments I think you might enjoy it too Emma :)

You can download the e-book from if you like.

message 22: by Emma (new)

Emma (emmauk007) | 1081 comments Thanks Lauren, Ill do that. I am reading The Historian By Elizabeth Kostova at the moment, and it is creeping me out. Its one of those books that can do that even when the sun is out. :-) Enjoying it though it appeals to the historian in me.

Have you read it?

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Lauren Smith | 6937 comments I meant to, since my mom has a copy, but then I moved out and to the other side of the country :)
I'd still like to check it out though, so I'll get it from the library sometime or ask my mom to send it to me.

Let me know what you think of it.

message 24: by Lauren (new)

Lauren Smith | 6937 comments Keeping It Real by Justina Robson

A female cyberpunk hero, parallel dimensions, and fusion of science fiction, fantasy, and mythology. I thought this would make for an amazing novel, or at least a very entertaining one, but it's poorly executed. Lila Black, despite the fact that she's supposed to be a hardcore cyborg, is annoyingly fragile on occasion, thanks to her machine parts rather than her meat. She seemed clunky rather than cool.

The rich fantasy/sf fusion I expected turned out to be a bit lame. It felt a lot like the author was writing a book designed to be turned into a movie, so while Keeping it Real might look really great on screen, on the page it had me rolling my eyes a lot of the time.

I did like the elven dimension very much though, despite the nagging feeling that some of it was just there to create an erotic atmosphere for intense elf/cyborg sex scenes. Confusion about the particulars of Lila's modified anatomy had me scratching my head a bit during these, but maybe I just wasn't paying enough attention.

While I was initially very keen to explore the other dimensions in later books, by the end of Keeping it Real I was disappointed enough to drop the series then and there.

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Lauren Smith | 6937 comments Crooked Little Vein by Warren Ellis

If there was a 'What the Fuck?' genre, this would be in it. Otherwise, I guess I'd call it sci fi. It's a perversely funny detective story, gross someimes, but I was laughing too much to care.I read it with my eyes widened most of the time, and there were a good few hand-over-mouth shocked gasps in between the naughty laughs. Some valuable educational material too - I don't know how else I would ever have learnt about such eccentric sexual perversions as injecting warm salt water into your balls or wanking to Japanese lizard movies. Thank you Warren Ellis.

Not for the faint-hearted - the poor things will have to miss out.

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Lauren Smith | 6937 comments Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk

After reading the blurb I thought this sounded like it could be an interesting novel, and I'd wanted to try something by Palahniuk for a while. However, I soon got very tired of his shock tactics and the constant attempts to stimulate my gag reflex rather than just my mind. I dropped it about a third of the way through, and won't ever bother trying to finish.

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Lauren Smith | 6937 comments 'Salem's Lot by Stephen King

This really wasn't the terrifying, iconic vampire novel the hype had led me to expect. Except for a truly scary vision of a vampire leering through a bedroom window, I was bored senseless. Stephen King tends to be a hit or miss author for me, and this flew very wide of the mark.

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Lauren Smith | 6937 comments The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

A friend strongly recommended this book, saying it had changed her life. I guess it changed mine too - I now know never to listen to that recommendation again.

Boring New Age blather.

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Niecole | 2404 comments Mod
I've heard strange things about this one, so now I really dont know if I should read it or not

message 30: by Lauren (new)

Lauren Smith | 6937 comments The Alchemist? It's one of those love it or hate it books I think. It might depend on your take on New Age religion/philosophy, and ideas about fulfilling your destiny, finding your true self, etc.

message 31: by Niecole (new)

Niecole | 2404 comments Mod
Oh then it sounds like I might not like it :)
Thanks for that Lauren, at least now I wont read a book that I might find very boring :)

message 32: by Lauren (new)

Lauren Smith | 6937 comments Update on my reviews:

Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss

Beastly by Alex Flinn

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thompson

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

Surfacing by Margaret Atwood

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

Quiet Days in Clichy by Henry Miller

Fury by Salman Rushdie

On Truth by Harry G. Frankfurt

The Good Old Boys by Elmer Kelton

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Lauren Smith | 6937 comments Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris:

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Lauren Smith | 6937 comments Flyleaf by Finuala Dowling:

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Lauren Smith | 6937 comments King Rat by China Mieville:

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Books mentioned in this topic

Disgrace (other topics)
Dancing Naked at the Edge of Dawn (other topics)
Fear of Flying (other topics)
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (other topics)
The Tommyknockers (other topics)

Authors mentioned in this topic

J.M. Coetzee (other topics)
Kris Radish (other topics)
Erica Jong (other topics)
Patrick Süskind (other topics)
James Hogg (other topics)