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Category Archives: The Book on The Nightstand
Last Sunday I went to our regular bookcrossing meeting held here in Bangkok once a month. I’ve been to these meetings for a few years now and it’s one event I look forward to every month. If you’re not familiar with the concept, it’s quite simple: people go to bookcrossing.com to connect with other readers; they leave books in train stations and cafes and hospitals and hotels, or specially designated “bookcrossing zones”, any place it can be picked up by others – bookcrossers or not – but before they do that they register the book on the site and write a number code (BCID) which can be later entered on the same site and this way track the book on its journey. I have registered books this way and left them at hotels or gave them away to people. Some came to me from Vietnam and UK, some went to Cambodia, Germany and Australia. It’s always exciting to find an email which lets me know somebody has found one of the books I released and I can see how far the book has traveled.
A while ago one bookcrosser from London was coming through Bangkok on her holiday and joined us for a chat about books. She brought James Patterson’s novel Toys, which I look forward to reading as I haven’t read any of his novels before.
There were lots of wonderful books to choose from at our bookcrossing get-together. I got all three books of The Farseer Trilogy, a fantasy I’ve been looking forward to reading for months, and also The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul, because with such a title, how could I resist? And because I had just visited my favorite bookstore, Kinokuniya, I had with me The Lair of the White Worm by Bram Stoker, recommended to me by Pryia, and an English translation of The Pendragon Legend by the Hungarian author Antal Szerb. That should keep me busy for a while.
Right now I’m reading the Book 1 of the trilogy and I’m already a big fan. Not only do I like the main character, Fitz, but his ability to communicate with animals makes this even more appealing. I’m glad this is a trilogy and not one of those fantasy series that are still being written. Nothing wrong with those either but I don’t like to wait.
If you know any good fantasy series, please let me know. I’d love to read more and I’m just getting started.
2014 was a good reading year. Fifty books read, forty-one reviewed, a few abandoned halfway through. This was a great year for horror books, and being my favorite category it will also be the longest.
BEST HORROR (I will include Gothic here as well.)
The Shining – Stephen King
This is the best horror book of the year. I’ve waited a long time to read it, don’t ask me why – maybe it was not the time, maybe some other book got in the way, but when the sequel, Doctor Sleep, came out, I knew the time had come so I read them both. The Shining was by far the best of the two. I still think about that fire hose with shivers down my spine.
Interview with the Vampire – Anne Rice
I’ve read a few books from “The Vampire Chronicle”, back when I didn’t know this was a series, but “Interview with the Vampire” stands out. Not only did it make me love vampire stories even more, but it made me want to read the entire series, in order this time. And with the recent addition of a new book, Prince Lestat, it looks like my journey through the land of vampires won’t stop anytime soon.
The Beckoning Fair One by Oliver Onions – a gem for fans of haunted houses stories. I don’t know why I didn’t review this one but I remember reading it and being lost in the story, just like the main character got lost in that old London house. And the creepy part is that I could see this being an entirely plausible thing.
Frankenstein – Mary Shelley is another book I had my eyes for a long time thinking “one day…”. That day came when I got a copy of The Monsters: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankenstein by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler. Both of them amazing books, the former for its story, the latter for the details about the writers and poets that were connected with Mary Shelley. I’d love to read them both again at some point.
House of Small Shadows by Adam Nevill
Hailed as “Britain’s answer to Stephen King”, I must admit this time the description wasn’t just a catchy trick. Nevill’s book brought me not only hours of delightful reading but some interesting twists and good horror scenes as well. Plus, reading about stuffed kittens all dressed up and taking tea is really creepy, believe me.
The Rats by James Herbert
This was Herbert’s first novel and it packs a good story with some disgusting scenes, so if you’re squeamish I’d say don’t go there. But if you love a fast-paced story and are not afraid of the dark (and rats), by all means, go in. Don’t forget your flashlight, though.
Shadow on the Sun by Richard Matheson – horror in the Wild West. Short and to the point, this is one story I enjoyed a lot and I expect it won’t be the last Matheson book I try.
BOOKS ABOUT WRITING
On Writing by Stephen King is a second (or maybe third?) read for me and a great book I can see myself reading again. There’s a lot of detail about King’s life, how he came to write, how he printed his first newspaper, his childhood, the accident that nearly killed him, and how all this made him into the writer he is today. It feels more like a biography than a writing book but as I am fascinated by details about writers’ lives, I thoroughly enjoyed this. Plus, in case I haven’t mentioned this a hundred times already, King’s storytelling is the reason why horror is my favorite genre and he is my favorite writer.
Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg is a lovely, inspirational book, with emphasis on how-to and many great tips and some interesting writing exercises. This book has a lot of heart and offers plenty of encouragement for writers. I’ve read this during NaNoWriMo last November and it got me through some rough patches. Perfect for when you feel like you could use a pep talk.
The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker is the absolute winner in this category. I loved both main characters and followed their story with a curiosity that never lost its pace. Beautiful writing, well-told story, great setting. I really can’t ask for more.
BEST BOOK/S PART OF A SERIES
This year I’ve read a few books that are part of a series. Robert McCammon’s “Speaks the Nightbird” and “The Queen of Bedlam”, the first two books in the Matthew Corbett series, were the ones I enjoyed the most. This historical fiction was amazing – great characters, good story and plenty of mystery. I’m very excited to read the rest of the books in this series.
From my review:
“It took me a while to get immersed into the nineteen century England, and the story was slow going at first. The omniscient narrator adds a lot of detail, and a somewhat annoying amount of lengthy fictitious footnotes which I read because I did not want to miss any detail that may come up in the story later on (I do like the explanations but preferred they were somehow integrated into the story itself). One can feel immersed in the time period, the language does a very good job of conveying the atmosphere, down to the Dickensian cast of characters very aptly named….”
From my review:
“At just under 180 pages, the book is nicely paced and the writing easy to read. Its melancholy tone and beautiful writing convey a sense of fragility that is both compelling and profoundly marked by sadness. It’s almost as if we know something dramatic is going to happen while at the same time we can’t hope but wish that Isabel finds the happiness she deserves.”
This is part of the review I wrote. While I may seem dissatisfied with the writing, it certainly was memorable.
“The writing is rich and intricate, perhaps a bit too much, like the lilies cloying the atmosphere with their perfume in The Bloody Chamber – at times I felt like being in a dense jungle without a machete to make my way through. While I can appreciate the opulence of the language, there were moments when I wished for a cleaner, less intricate way of telling the story.”
From my review:
“Byatt’s prose is anything but simple and in this last story its construction is intricate, layered, there are vivid descriptions of colors and smells, of sensuality, and it pulls the reader right in from the first sentence. It is also the kind of prose that you have to work for to fully appreciate, but the reward is well worth it.”
From my review:
“I was shocked to discover how much I liked the writing, for in admitting such a thing I would have to admit I liked at least an aspect of the book. I hated the very idea the book was based on, because for me it’s just a story of abuse, of a life torn out of its way. On the one hand I admire the way the words slide down the page so magically until they remind me of what they are saying and then a shudder of repulsion replaces that admiration. Is it possible to love the writing and hate the story? Perhaps this is after all, the ultimate allure of Lolita, this combination of style and story that can leave the reader fascinated and somehow feeling dirty at the same time.”
What wonderful books have you read in 2014?
Please leave a link with your comment so I may come and visit (and add to that never-ending TBR pile!).
I postponed reading Lolita for quite some time. I wanted to, yet something kept me back. Finally, when Vishy said he got the book from a friend (what a coincidence, so did I) and wanted to read it, we decided to do a read-along. His review can be found here.
I started reading Lolita with more than my usual curiosity. It was, after all, a classic. It was, after all, my first Nabokov, and it was, after all, a book about a subject I had heard and read just enough to fan my curiosity even more but not enough to know exactly what was going on. So I began.
Minor spoilers ahead!
From the first page Nabokov manages to establish closeness with the reader, like a friend who talks about an event that irreversibly changed his life. For better? For worse? We don’t know yet. The story begins with Humbert talking about his childhood – his distant father, dead mother, and the first girl he fell in love with. It’s a buildup. We are supposed to like Humbert; he is, without a doubt, very adept at portraying his early life in such a way as to make the reader sympathize. Poor Humbert, deprived of a mother’s love, in love with a girl who dies young, living his days dreaming of what could have been. Until he meets Dolores Haze, or Lolita as he likes to call her. Until then, Humbert, admirer of nymphets to such an extent that he goes to the park so he could be near them and see the girls playing, was too shy and possibly too afraid of consequences to approach them. But Lolita, she of the “tender dreamy childishness and a kind of eerie vulgarity, stemming from the snub-nosed cuteness of ads and magazine pictures, from the blurry pinkness of adolescent maidservants in the Old Country (smelling of crushed daisies and sweat); and from very young harlots disguised as children in provincial brothels; and then again, all this gets mixed up with the exquisite stainless tenderness seeping through the musk and the mud, through the dirt and the death, oh God, oh God”, she is not like all the others. From that moment on, Humbert plans his way to her. A boarder in her mother’s house, he warms (or worms, it works just as well) his way into the small family until fate very conveniently delivers the girl right into his waiting, lusty hands.
And Lolita? Well she is not the sweet innocent I thought she was, and her experience in certain matters was an unexpected twist in the story for me, but still, she was 12 years old and Humbert but a few years shy of 40. She flirts, and teases, and seems to want to be near Humbert until he is all she has left. Her mother’s death leaves her an orphan, and Humbert manipulates her into thinking life without him as her guardian could be very difficult. Lolita accepts the situation at first, but after a year of traveling and posing as the dutiful daughter during the day and unwilling mistress at night, Humbert finds things slipping through his fingers. He guards her jealously, and with just the right amount of bribes, promises and threats, manages to keep his nymphet, until she finally gathers the courage and breaks free. It does not end well. Not for Lolita, and not for Humbert, who writes his memoirs in prison, waiting to be tried for murder. Did he kill Dolores Haze, his Lolita? Yes and no. Her demise, tragic, like her life, may be the result of Humbert’s influence. I strongly believe that.
As for Humbert, I started the story liking him, or at least the way he wrote it. He knew what demons haunted him. He tried to stay away from them, or rather to indulge in his fantasy in such a way that no one would come to harm. He even got married.
“It occurred to me that regular hours, home-cooked meals, all the conventions of marriage, the prophylactic routine of its bedroom activities and, who knows, the eventual flowering of certain moral values, of certain spiritual substitutes, might help me, if not to purge myself of my degrading and dangerous desires, at least to keep them under pacific control.”
It didn’t work out. That was the moment I began to dislike him and it just went downhill from there.
I was shocked to discover how much I liked the writing, for in admitting such a thing I would have to admit I liked at least an aspect of the book. I hated the very idea the book was based on, because for me it’s just a story of abuse, of a life torn out of its way. On the one hand I admire the way the words slide down the page so magically until they remind me what they are saying and then a shudder of repulsion replaces that admiration. Is it possible to love the writing and hate the story? Perhaps this is after all, the ultimate allure of Lolita, this combination of style and story that can leave the reader fascinated and somehow feeling dirty at the same time.
These are some of my favorite passages. The first one I read over and over again, as I imagined it, not as the simple act it really is, but as something beyond that, the ordinary transformed by extraordinary words.
“I set out two glasses (to St. Algebra? To Lo?) and opened the refrigerator. It roared at me viciously while I removed the ice from its heart.”
“There and elsewhere. Hundreds of gray hummingbirds in the dusk, probing the throats of dim flowers.”
“And presently I was shaking hands with both of them in the street, the sloping street, and everything was whirling and flying before the approaching white deluge, and a truck with a mattress from Philadelphia was confidently rolling down to an empty house, and dust was running and writhing over the exact slab of stone where Charlotte, when they lifted the laprobe for me, had been revealed, curled up, her eyes intact, their black lashes still wet, matted, like yours, Lolita.”
My rating 4/5 stars
Read in December 2014
Christmas has come and gone but if you’re in need of some literary sugar to go with your morning coffee and those chocolate cookies you could give this a try. Perhaps you need something short and light before tackling that big chunkster that’s been sitting on your bookshelves for months now. If so, dipping into a bit of romance might be just the thing.
Young cleric William Brook, who dreams of preaching in faraway lands, has to contend himself with the position of vicar in a small village. Cecelia Grant, local beauty and artist, dreads the time when she will have to put her artistic dreams on hold in order to satisfy her mother’s wish that she marry into money. Two people unhappy with the decisions that have been made for them try to find their way out of their constraints but end up finding that those constraints might actually not be that bad. But does love conquer all?
Set in a small village in the Regency period, this is a good depiction of a time when a good reputation can be damaged by a secret, when young women pregnant out of wedlock are ostracized and being of a noble and rich family carries a lot of weight. Husband-hunting mamas, complacent fathers, condescending relatives, a society divided by money and social position, all these are present in the story, giving it an Austen-like aura. The dialogue is simple; the writing – while trying to be true to the time, is devoid of too many flourishes, which to be honest, I wanted more of; the story moves along at a brisk pace.
Normally, I’m not a romance fan. I like my stories darker, with more than a pinch of suspense and possibly with death lurking in the shadows. Drama, twists and sudden turns, secrets and dangerous situations, this is what I enjoy in a novel. Some purple prose doesn’t hurt either. While some of these ingredients can be found in The Vagabond Vicar, this is an easy to read, sweet and pretty straightforward novel. I would have liked to get to know the characters better, to have more details about William’s family and Cecelia’s mother, also the arrogant and careless Mr Barrington (according to the author, a sequel about Mr Barrington might be a possibility). There were a couple of twists at the end but mostly you can see where the story is going. Perhaps this forms the backbone of a romance novel, perhaps my love for horror has made me hungry for something more substantial to dig into. However, if you love a light romance story, you wouldn’t be wrong in choosing this little novel.
I got this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review. You can find more details on her website. The Vagabond Vicar is her first novel.
My rating: 3/5 stars
Read in December 2014
I had wanted to read fantasy for a while but every time I stop in front of this particular section at the bookstore, I feel overwhelmed. Where to start? Most books there are part of a series and I don’t want to start a ten-book story only to give up after a volume or two, or worse, to find out book number six is not even out yet. My dilemma was solved when a friend gave me the first two volumes of Tad Williams’ “Memory, Sorrow and Thorn”.
Simon (Seoman) is an orphan boy growing up in the castle kitchens of King John Presbyter, under the ever watchful eye of Rachel, the Mistress of Chambermaids. He’s awkward and feels out of place, until doctor Morgenes, a learned man at the court, takes him under his protection. But before Simon could learn about the art of magic from his tutor, the king dies, the court is plunged into turmoil, and Morgenes is killed, not before entrusting the boy with a sheaf of papers and helping him get out of the castle.
Simon decides to undertake a dangerous journey to Naglimund, where Prince Josua, whom he helped escape, is gathering forces to fight off the new king, his own brother, Elias. On his way he saves the life of a Sithi, one of the Fair Ones; makes friends with Binabik the troll and his wolf, Qantaqa; meets Miriamele, the new King’s daughter; has a few close encounters with death, and arrives at Naglimund, only to start on another quest. This time he must help retrieve a sword that could tip the balance in the coming war between Prince Josua and his brother. He is accompanied by a motley band – men, a troll, a wolf, and a few of the Fair Ones. Their path goes through mountains and ends up in a cave where they find the sword, but also a dragon, and some of the group do not survive.
It took me almost four months to finish this mammoth of a book. At 912 pages, not including the appendix, it was quite the undertaking. The only other book closer to this length was Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke with 1,006 pages which I read in January. One chunkster to start the year with, another one to end it.
Two hundred pages in, and I wished things would go a little faster. When it did pick up, little by little I began to realize this was so much like The Lord of the Rings that I started to match the characters – I found Gimli, Legolas, Saruman, Gandalf and even Aragorn. I also have a pretty good idea of who Frodo is. I liked The Lord of the Rings and by all rights I should enjoy this as well, but I find my enthusiasm greatly diminished if I can see where the story is going. Even some of the scenes were the same – a path going up the snowy mountains, a cave inhabited by the dead, a land guarded by a fantastic creature, a mirror that can show things to come. And to top it off, there was Ineluki, the Storm King, a great being from long ago whose dreams of power had changed him into a maleficent creature bent on ruling the world.
With the exception of a handful of characters, I could not keep track of the vast array of people described in the book. After a while I gave up on trying to remember who was fighting for whom. Some of the names were difficult to read – Heahferth, Gwythinn (I kept reading Gwyneth), Elvritshalla.
There were some things I did like – the mystery surrounding Simon’s parentage; the shadowy League of the Scroll, a secret organization Morgenes belonged to; the names of days and months, slightly altered but still recognizable (Tiasday, Udunsday, Drorsday; Novander, Decander, etc.); the religious undercurrent reflected in some of the names – Elias, Josua, Simon, the sign of the tree; and magic. It was fun to see Simon’s progress, from a humble scullion to an important character in the new world slowly taking shape. After him, Binabik and Qantaqa were my favorite characters. The troll has a very distinctive voice and his connection to Simon evolved into a beautiful friendship.
I can safely say I have mixed feelings about this book. The writing is beautiful, and I enjoyed reading about Simon’s adventures so perhaps it’s foolish of me to give up on the story now. Volume two is definitely slimmer and if I am to believe the author’s words at the beginning of book one, I should keep going. Yes, maybe volume two would make for a good start to a new year.
The Qanuk-folk of the snow-mantled Trollfells have a proverb. “He who is certain he knows the ending of things when he is only beginning them is either extremely wise or extremely foolish; no matter which is true, he is certainly an unhappy man, for he has put a knife in the heart of wonder.
‘Books’, Morgenes said grandly, leaning back on his precarious stool, ‘ – books are magic. That is the simple answer. And books are traps as well.
‘Books are a form of magic – ’ the doctor lifted the volume he had just lain on the stack, ‘ – because they span time and distance more surely than any spell or charm. What did so-and-so think about such-and-such two hundred years agone? Can you fly back through the ages and ask him? No – or at least, probably not.’
Binabik the troll:
‘Then, let us be considering knowledge like a river of water. If you are a piece of cloth, how are you finding out more about this water – if someone dips in your corner and then pulls it out again, or if you are having yourself thrown in without resistance, so that this water is flowing all through you, around you, and you are becoming soaking wet? Well, then?’
My rating: 3.5/5 stars
Read from August to December
This book starts with an intriguing passage from The Beckoning Fair One by Oliver Onions, a very good story which is part of Widdershins, a short book that can be read for free at gutenberg.org. The passage sets the mood for the story to come, a story where disturbing imagery, intense emotions and glimpses of horrors only hinted at merge to create one of the best books of horror I’ve read and also one of the darkest.
The story begins with Caroline Howard visiting the Red House, famous dwelling of M.H. Mason, master taxidermist and puppeteer, whose work had been kept from the public for a long time. Catherine is sent to evaluate the amazing work that has been kept at the house following H.M. Mason’s suicide. It’s an art curator’s dream come true, a project that would bring fame to the small firm she’s working for, and one that would finally reveal to the world the work of an almost unmatched artist.
The Red House is like a museum, rooms of amazing creations that are unveiled one at a time, and while Catherine can appreciate the craftsmanship and can’t stop dreaming of the great opportunity before her, soon enough she realizes this isn’t just a house, but also the home of some strange people – Edith Mason, the taxidermist’s niece, an old lady guarding her uncle’s work with the zeal of a fanatic, living in a house full of exquisite dolls and amazingly well preserved animals, all existing as if in a separate world, a carnival of the grotesque; the housekeeper, Maude, a stout presence, at times acting like an automaton only to be heard sobbing at night.
Catherine is on an emotional rollercoaster from the start. Her own past, with gaps she struggled to fill with the help of therapists, is in itself a great mystery, and it all comes crashing when her boyfriend leaves her for a woman she hates. Desperate, clinging to her work, not wanting to disappoint Leonard, her wheelchair bound boss, she takes on this new task, determined to see it through, despite the fact that she realizes quite early on something’s not right about her new assignment. Her unexplained seizures, the disappearance of Alice, a childhood friend, the mother she never knew, all make her an unreliable protagonist in the drama enfolding at the Red House.
I know next to nothing about taxidermy but reading about rats and kittens being made to look like people, from their clothes to facial expressions, and the settings they were made to inhabit felt like visualizing a disturbing tableau where the artist went beyond creating something for posterity and reached that place where art marries a sort of madness that can repel and awe at the same time. I was intrigued by the details, and while Nevill doesn’t go into lengthy descriptions (or perhaps it was I who wanted more) he made me see it on the page. And I shuddered, and kept reading. It was unexpected, grotesque, horrifying, scary, wonderful. There’s a particularly disturbing scene where Catherine is running through the dark house, pursued by a voice giving a macabre description of how the process of preserving an animal is achieved.
There were quite a few other shockers, and while the story ends on a satisfying note, it also left me with questions, and no matter how much I would like those questions answered, it made me look at the book in a new light and appreciate it all the more. I had hoped there was a sequel. There isn’t. But in spite of the gloomy, dark, oppressive atmosphere of the book, I found myself fascinated with so many things – Catherine’s seizures, taxidermy, Edith’s past, Maude’s story, Leonard’s duality, even H.M. Mason himself. Nevill gives enough detail to satisfy and create good closure, but my appetite was never completely satisfied. The perfect kind of book – always leaving the reader wanting more.
Some favorite passages from the book:
Speechless, Catherine turned about. And saw red squirrels in frock coats paused in the eating of nuts upon the piano. She looked away and a fox grinned at her from the low table it stalked across. A company of rats in khaki uniforms all stood on their hind legs on parade on the mantel.
She turned again and came face to face with a crowd of pretty kittens in colorful dresses, jostling to get a look at her from inside a tall cabinet. Some of them were taking tea. Others curtsied.
A dog that watched Catherine with a single wet brown eye under a raised brow. In the sunlight that fell through the arched windows the dog’s ruby fur shimmered. The dog, at least, must be real.
Unmoving, Catherine looked at them for a while, nonsensically feeling her presence was an intrusion upon a moment of deep intimacy. She also felt the cold shock of carnal betrayal. A disgust at death. And grasped the horribly simple fact that someone could be alive, but go to the wrong place and then not be alive.
*My rating: 4/5 stars
*Read in October-November 2014
This was recommended to me by one of my NaNo buddies and it was the perfect book to read while trying to create my novel. November can be a stressful month – having to come up with fifty thousand words in thirty days can feel like a burden sometimes, so anything I can do to help me reach that goal is more than welcome.
Writing Down the Bones often takes a spiritual approach to writing. Natalie Goldberg makes parallels between meditation and writing, and they make sense. Writing is a lonely process, and so is meditation, but it’s not a book about meditation, or about running, it’s a book about writing (interesting how writers often compare running to writing – Murakami comes to mind).
She has an encouraging voice, she gives examples from personal life, she even gives some writing exercises that can be done in order to get creativity flowing. Her tips for getting down to work – making an appointment with a friend to discuss writing, rewarding herself with a cookie (or four), setting down time for writing, writing first thing in the morning, filling a notebook a month, and teaching a writing class, they all sound wonderful. As I read I began to tick off the ones I’ve tried and worked for me – the first is the best. The last I haven’t tried but it does sound like fun – learning while teaching. The cookies don’t work for me because I can have as many as I like and not feel guilty, and if I do feel guilty I eat them anyway. Too easy, too convenient. So is writing first thing in the morning and writing in that notebook (I do write sometimes when I’m out but since I only go out during weekends, that’s pretty limited). Trying to find a balance between being a slacker and having a schedule is the hardest thing.
Goldberg taught writing for years. She describes her experience during the classes, how she works with the students, and even shares samples from these courses and the poetry readings she has been to. I particularly liked this poem by Russell Edson because it’s funny and unexpected and I never would have thought writing about a toilet could produce such an interesting result:
With Sincerest Regrets
Like a white snail the toilet slides into the living room,
demanding to be loved.
It is impossible, and we tender our sincerest regrets.
In the book of the heart there is no mention made of plumbing.
And though we have spent our intimacy many times
with you, you belong to an unfortunate reference,
which we would rather not embrace…
The toilet slides out of the living room like a white snail,
flushing with grief….
This is a book I can see myself reading again and again. What Goldberg writes about may not be all new and if you’ve read any books about writing some things may even sound the same, but there are pages, passages, words, that strike a chord and I find myself going back and re-reading them.
Some favorite passages:
When we walk around Paris, my friend is afraid of being lost and she is very panicky. I don’t fear being lost. If I am lost, I am lost. That is all. I look on my map and find my way. I even like to wander the streets of Paris not particularly knowing where I am. In the same way I need to wander in the field of aloneness and learn to enjoy it, and when loneliness bites, take out a map and find my way out without panic, without jumping to the existential nothingness of the world, questioning everything – “Why should I be a writer?” – and pushing myself off the abyss.
When you accept writing as what you are supposed to do, after you’ve tried everything else – marriage, hippiedom, traveling, living in Minnesota or New York, teaching, spiritual practices – there’s finally no place else to go. So no matter how big the resistance, there is one day, there is the next day, and the writing work ahead. You can’t depend on its going smoothly day after day. It won’t be that way. You might have one day that is superb, productive, and the next time you write, you are ready to sign up on a ship headed for Saudi Arabia. There are no guarantees. You might think you have finally created a rhythm with three days running, and the next day the needle scratches the record and you squeak through it, teeth on edge.
Have you read any books on writing? Do you have any favorites?
*My rating: 5/5 stars
*Read in November 2014
After reading A Virtual Love last year, I made it one of my New Year’s resolutions to read On the Holloway Road, Andrew Blackman’s first novel who won the Luke Bitmead Award in 2008.
Because it was inspired by Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, I was a little worried that I might miss something important if I don’t read that one first, but decided to go ahead and read it anyway. Perhaps I’ll read Kerouac’s book one day, but I’m in no hurry.
The story follows Jack and Neil, two young men in their twenties who strike a friendship one night in London, on the Holloway Road. Jack lives with his mother and dreams of one day finishing his novel, a complicated story that he had been trying to complete for a while with no success. Neil is a drifter, a free spirit who takes things as they come, whose exuberance and joy for living are mixed with a carefree attitude and little thought to consequences. Neil lives in the now. Jack lives in the shadow of it. Both of them are united by a lack or purpose, of a tangible goal, until they decide to take a road trip in Jack’s car, follow the road, have adventures, see what might happen. But their dream of embracing the spontaneity of the unknown doesn’t quite fit with the regulations of the present. There are rules to be obeyed, and before long Jack breaks a few, which makes him constantly worry about having his driver’s license revoked.
Neil is exciting to be with. His brash actions, loud mouth and exuberant attitude make Jack feel like a pale copy of who he thinks he should be. Neil is the spark, the adventure, the unknown. He is a shooting star, a meteorite burning brightly before crashing to the earth, the flame that burns the moths attracted to its light. He wants something new, something fascinating, something that’s never been tried before, while Jack is just content to tag along in the hope that some of his friend’s enthusiasm for life will rub off on him. He admires Neil but he’s also a little afraid of him. Although he would like to be more excited about things going on around him, he feels he can’t. In a way, it felt like something was holding him back, what that was, I don’t know. Fear perhaps, of standing out too much, of breaking the rules, while trying in his quiet way small acts of rebellion against the system – not owning a cell phone or holding a job.
Over the course of their trip they discuss friendship, work, and that ever present issue, the purpose of life.
As I was reading I was wandering what will happen in the end, how long will the trip last, what revelation will they come to. Will they find a purpose, a solution, a conclusion, a job, maybe Jack will finally catch a break and finish that novel, perhaps even become famous, and will Neil finally quench that anger that seems to be burning inside him, making him restless and volatile? In a way, I dreaded the ending, because I knew my expectations were unrealistic, but I was unable to let go of hope, of something better for the protagonists after their modern day trials. I was not disappointed. The end came crashing, and it was fitting, even though I had hoped for something less heart wrenching. I had hoped that Jack would finally be able to shake that feeling of gloom and do something, anything that would lift him from the pit he seemed to be descending into day by day. I even think he managed to climb up halfway at least when he met Neil, but it didn’t last long. In the end, he was down even deeper.
On the Holloway Road is the perfect name for this adventure of self discovery, not only because that is the way the two protagonists take to get out of the city, but because even though the journey brings about some self discoveries, in the end I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was all like the name of the road, hollow.
My rating: 4/5 stars
Read in August, 2014
I’ve wanted to read this book for ages, and when I saw a copy at a library book sale I immediately grabbed it and added it to my TBR shelf. And because lately I’ve been reading a lot of slim books, I finally picked this one up and started reading. This book contains three stories: Candide, Zadig, and Micromegas, and also an interesting summary on the life and works of Voltaire (real name Francois Marie Arouet), whose rebellious nature and radical philosophical ideas made him famous.
“He never hesitated to use his personal fame to convince, provoke, and inflame where he thought necessary. He contributed greatly to the creation of modern forum of political/moral debate by fostering an environment of inquiry and interpellation at a time when it was extremely dangerous to do so.”
Denounce, without being able to be accused of being an informer; bite, without cruelty; trample, without malice; kill, while maintaining the appearance of the most angelic innocence.
The first is the story of Candide, an innocent, well-mannered young man who lives in the castle of the noble Baron of Thundertentrunk in Westphalia and studies philosophy under the tutelage of Pangloss, who used to teach “the science of metaphysico-theologo-cosmologo-noodleology”. That is, he was a firm believer in the idea that there is no effect without a cause and that the world we live in is the best of all possible worlds. This idea will follow Candide in all his many adventures, as he is rudely kicked out of the castle for inappropriate behavior towards beautiful miss Cunegund and travels across continents in the hope that one day he will be reunited with her.
Those adventures include a very painful encounter with the Bulgarians, natural disasters, finding unlikely friends in odd places, and killing in the name of love.
While the descriptions and some of those adventures may sound quite brutal, there’s an underlying layer of mockery that prevents the reader from taking things too seriously. Voltaire uses his great talent for satire to talk about religion, war, love, friendship, slavery, and the greed for money, among other things. He places Candide in the most brutal and uncomfortable situations, his only defense and ally his ideas instilled in him by his tutor, Pangloss. There were times when I didn’t know if I should laugh, cry, or be outraged, but it is clear that in this story Voltaire pokes fun at the injustice and corruption of the times.
Candide is just a simple man, neither exceptionally witty nor knowledgeable about the world, and sometimes wonderfully idealistic especially when it comes to love and placing his trust in his friends. The idea that drives him, to be reunited with his love, doesn’t turn out like he expected; in fact, in a vicious twist of fate, the very qualities he admired the most in miss Cunegund are lost and our hero is faced with an uncomfortable decision. But because he is such a positive character, he does what he thinks is honorable and finds contentment in living a simple life.
The whole story has a feeling of Arabian Nights about it, not only because of the astonishing reversals of luck and incredible adventures, but also because of the chapter titles that give a clear idea of what is going to happen. This feeling is even more prevalent in the next story, Zadig, which takes place in Babylon.
Zadig is a rich young man, wise and educated, kind-hearted and good looking, possessor of an array of fine qualities that make him respected and envied by his fellow men. In spite of all his many attributes, he finds himself in some very sticky situations, whether by the hand of envious people or trapped by his own beliefs. He is in turn the adviser of a king, slave, champion of the oppressed, and umpire of philosophical as well as commercial disputes. Still, his great talents are put to the test when he falls in love with queen Astarte, wife of the king, and he is forced to leave the castle for fear of being killed.
Once again Voltaire explores what it means to be human, and how a gifted man whose only purpose is to help others is in turn punished, almost killed, and in the end forced to run for his life. His tribulations seem never ending but one thing Zadig never does is to try and change his nature. In spite of his many misfortunes, he remains true to his own character, even if that almost always seem to turn out badly for him. This is a story similar to that of Candide, but also different. While it follows the same pattern of trials and tribulations the main character has to go through, Zadig is wise and lucky enough to recognize people’s intentions and to save his skin. The ending is a bit brighter this time as well, but the happily ever after doesn’t come easily. From all three stories, this is the most fairy-tale like.
Micromegas, the third and last story, was quite a surprise. Gone are the fairy tale/Arabian Nights influences that seem to heavily influence the first two stories, to be replaced by space. Using science fiction as a background, Voltaire tells the story of two beings – Micromegas, who lives on a planet that revolves around the star Sirius, and a native of Saturn, the Saturnian. They are huge beings by our standards and posses a much longer life span. In their conversations, they explore topics like the senses, colors, and time. They decide to travel together to see other places and they arrive on Earth.
Voltaire describes our planet as seen by the two travel companions. They judge its size and appearance, find it “ill-constructed” and “irregular” and decide that no “people of sense would wish to occupy such a dwelling”. They look for signs of life and can’t seem to find any at first, but when they try harder they discover a ship and try to communicate with the people on board, some of which are philosophers. The exchange that ensues is quite funny.
Under the shelter of philosophy, Voltaire explores once again universal issues – the passage of time, knowledge, wars over the possession of land, the nature of human soul, religion. Man is never satisfied with how much time he has, or how much land he has, or how much knowledge he has, but then neither are the two visitors. In spite their difference in size and life style, the visitors are astonished to discover they have quite a few things in common with the inhabitants of the strange shaped planet. But perhaps the most astonishing thing happens when Micromegas promises to gift them with a rare book that contains “all that can be known of the ultimate essence of things”. I confess I was curious when I got to this part and couldn’t wait to see what was in the book. It was opened in Paris, at the Academy of Sciences, but if you really want to find out what was in it you will have to read the story. All I can say is that it made perfect sense, and the story couldn’t have had a better ending.
This is my first encounter with Voltaire’s work. Behind references to famous philosophers – Locke, Leibnitz, Aristotle, and Malebranche, some of which I knew and some new to me, his work is made accessible by the universal themes he explores. His tone is in turn sarcastic and funny and sometimes biting. He’s not afraid to expose an injustice, punish an evil or poke fun at sensitive topics. His characters are not perfect but their nature, be it simple or wise, is tested to the limits. He sparks witty dialogues that underneath their academic knowledge hide social and political issues valid to this day. He made me wonder. He made me nod in agreement. And he made me realize that time has done nothing to the nature of man, that issues that were discussed and dissected more than two hundred years ago are still fresh today.
I leave you with some of my favorite passages:
“We have more matter than we need,” said he, “the cause of much evil, if evil proceeds from matter; and we have too much mind, if evil proceeds from the mind. Are you aware, for instance, that at this very moment while I am speaking to you, there are a hundred thousand fools of our species who wear hats, slaying a hundred thousand fellow creatures who wear turbans, or being massacred by them, and that over all the earth such practices have been going on from time immemorial?”
“How long do you people live?” asked the Sirian.
“Ah! a very short time,” replied the little man of Saturn.
“That is just the way with us,” said the Sirian; “we are always complaining of the shortness of life. This must be a universal law of nature.”
…“you see how it is our fate to die almost as soon as we are born; our existence is a point, our duration an instant, our globe an atom. Scarcely have we begun to acquire a little information when death arrives before we can put it to use. For my part, I do not venture to lay any schemes; I feel myself like a drop of water in a boundless ocean. I am ashamed, especially before you, of the absurd figure I make in this universe.”
“I have seen mortals far below us, and others as greatly superior; but I have seen none who have not more desires than real wants, and more wants than they can satisfy. I shall some day, perhaps, reach the country where there is lack of nothing, but hitherto no one has been able to give me any positive information about it.”
“The dogs, monkeys, and parrots are a thousand times less wretched than we are. The Dutch fetishes who have converted me tell me every Sunday that we are all the children of Adam, blacks and whites alike. I am no genealogist; but, if those preachers say what is true, we are all second cousins. In that case you must admit that relations could not be treated in a more horrible way.”
My rating: 4/5 stars
Read in August, 2014
It’s been years since I read Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie, but I still remember the book as one of the best memoirs I have come across. Its message of love, life, and acceptance in the face of death had left me in a state of melancholy for days, and having seen his latest novel, The Time Keeper, at a library book sale, I immediately grabbed it and began reading the first pages on the spot. But I didn’t finish it that day. I kept it, like a little treasure, to be savored later, after a chunky book perhaps. Weeks later I picked it up again and this time it didn’t take me long to go through it.
Mixing fantasy with religious elements and real life situations, the novel tells the story of Dor, the first man who began to measure time ever since he was young. From hours to days and months and then years, measuring time with sticks, then water, Dor becomes obsessed, and what started as a hobby slowly takes over his life. When his wife dies, Dor is punished to live his life in solitude, in a cave, haunted by the words of the people who, having perfected the measurement of time, complain of having too much or too little of it. After many lifetimes spent inside the cave, where time has stopped, Dor is sent back among the people to find and save two souls as a way to better understand his creation.
How do you save two people, one who wants to die because of a broken heart, and the other who thinks the future holds the key to a longer life span? How do you tell them that time is precious, that it can’t be turned back, that you have to make the most of it now? How do you tell them that broken hearts can mend and that money can buy so many things but never time? Will Dor succeed in his mission? Will he be able to make two people truly understand the meaning of time and in doing so, understand it himself? Or will he forever be punished to listen to the tormented voices complaining about something they can’t control?
Once again, Albom has tried to explore human emotions in a tale that seems magical and real at the same time. Fast paced, told in snippets that alternate between stories without getting confusing or losing focus, this is a story of time and a reminder that no matter what we do, time will run its course and it can’t be stopped.
My rating: 5/5 stars
Read in August, 2014