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Monthly Archives: September 2011
A big room, chairs and tables arranged in rows. A man speaking, giving a lecture, the others listening or at least pretending to. This goes on for four days, eight hours a day. My back aches on the hard wooden chair, my hands are restless. After a while, when I’ve had my fill of words, my mind craves a release. I open at a blank page at the back of my notebook and without any pause, I start scribbling. This is what tumbled onto the page.
Any thoughts/interpretations/opinions? I’d love to hear them.
The words float soundlessly,
Big chunks of rock
Hurtled violently at other people’s heads,
They disappear into thin air
Before they reach minds.
The house of words
Came crashing down,
The a’s and b’s and c’s
Spilling out and mixing up
With commas, full stops and other bits,
A writing debris littering the ground
There for everyone to pick
And use as they see fit.
Creating harmony from chaos
Has been a writer’s dream,
Building great works to stand the time
Or be carried away by wind.
Words give shape to ideas,
Ideas build the stories
And the stories become a path
To be walked on
Whenever we feel like it.
In the kingdom of books
We are all kings and queens.
…and a lot of other things in between. Tony Parsons’ new book can be viewed as a collection of personal opinions on various issues with lots of biographical references thrown in. He explores a range of topics, from the mid-life crisis myth to dying, from the feel of fake breasts to getting fit and staying in shape, from dealing with a parent’s death to finding happiness.
Does it sound like one of those self-help books? It really isn’t. This book could be the answer to a (far from simple) question: what ails the modern man? Is it the thought of failure, both career-wise and sexual, is it nostalgia for the long gone experiences of childhood, anger at how things have changed, a feeling of regret for a past marriage? All this and more is talked about and examined and dissected in under 300 pages.
While many of the things may be familiar to the reader, the author manages to combine just the right amount of British humour with sarcasm and some inspirational stories to make the reading of this book an enjoyable experience. And while reading about football and cars and politics isn’t exactly my cup of tea, the author’s point of view did not make me want to skip a few pages ahead. Quite the contrary. The book has the ring of an honest and straightforward story of a man who has been through some tough times, survived and learned a few important lessons, a man still trying to make sense of the world around him, just like we all do. Maybe that’s what makes the book so readable and entertaining and fun.
*Read in September 2011
That’s what my friend Kate said, after I had texted her saying I’d just come out of a Kinokunyia bookstore, after an hour and a half of browsing which resulted in the purchase of three books. She had sent me a message to let me know of a discount sale at another bookstore across town. That’s what friends are for, right?
So the next day I went to Dasa, an used books bookstore, and came away with another three books (and now regret not buying the fourth, but maybe it’ll wait for me until next time). I’m going to need a new shelf soon, but for now I’m building towers of books.
What I bought:
1. On life, death and breakfast, by Tony Parsons
I’ve read Man and Wife by the same author and I really like his no-nonsense approach to life and relationships, so I was intrigued by this book. Also, the title seemed familiar, and if you’ve heard of “Life, the Universe and Everything” by Douglas Adams (hint: the third book in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy”) then the mystery is solved.
2. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
This will be my first novel by this author. I’ve come across a few of his stories in the anthology By Blood We Live – Edited by John Joseph Adams and Stories – All New Tales Edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio and enjoyed them very much. I think it’s about time I tried a full length novel.
3. The Birth of Love, by Joanna Kavenna
I thought it was time for a “girl” book. The back cover promises a story that connects people across time, from a lunatic asylum in 19th century Vienna, to a woman about to give birth in London, with the word “dystopian” thrown in. Intriguing.
4. The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters
Now I’ve had my eyes on this author for a while, ever since Nath (a friend on www.goodreads.com) mentioned how much she enjoyed it. Then I said to myself, an old and mysterious house, the promise of a haunting, how can I resist? It sounds just like my kind of book.
5. The Secret of Crickley Hall, by James Herbert
It’s probably obvious by now that I like scary stories and this one promised to scare my socks off. Good, I hope it lives up to the expectations!
6. The Winter Ghosts, by Kate Mosse
“An ancient mystery….., a cave that has concealed an appaling secret for 700 years…”
Need I say more? I was hooked!
I’ve been looking forward to reading this book. It sat there, in my to-be-read pile and I would look at it with the eyes of someone who saves the best for last and says, not yet…until one day, looking for my next read I thought “why wait?” and so my journey into the realm of magic began.
I am no complete stranger to the world of Clive Barker. Years ago I came across Galilee in a second hand bookstore and was intrigued by the promise on the back cover. It’s no surprise that I had high expectations from Weaveworld as well.
That which is imagined need never be lost
The story begins with birds, pigeons to be more accurate. Calhoun Mooney (Cal) is a young man caring for his father and his pigeons after his mother’s death. When one of them, named “33” (why 33, I wonder, at first I thought Barker had been 33 years old when he wrote the book but actually he was 35), escapes from its cage, Cal pursues it to a house where two men are attempting to remove a carpet and sell it. The house belongs to Mimi Laschenski, an old recluse who had been admitted to a hospital only days before, and the men want to sell the carpet to pay for the debts she had left behind.
In an attempt to capture the pigeon who had found shelter on the ledge of a window, Cal falls, just as the men had unfolded the carpet to have a better look at it. Only this is no ordinary piece of tapestry but an entirely different world. The carpet is the tangible representation of a magic realm, every thread and symbol and picture as real as it can be, all woven together in a brilliance of colors and patterns that dazzle the eye. It is the home of the Seerkind, a race of magical beings which humankind had hunted down and almost eradicated, the only record of them ever having lived being now found only in fairytales and legends.
The fall brings Cal right in the middle of the carpet and he gets a glimpse into that other world, but before more can be revealed, reality snaps him back and the two men leave taking the carpet with them. He vows to find out more and on a trip back at the house he meets Suzanna, Mimi’s niece, who had come following her grandmother’s letter. This is when their quest for saving the magic realm begins.
This story has all the elements of a fairy tale: there’s plenty of magic, a quest, love stories, a villain and even a dragon. Eroticism has its place too, although this being a fantasy it’s often twisted and grotesque not to mention appalling and compelling at the same time. The myth of the Garden of Eden is incorporated into the tale, as are churches and priests and a “demon” who thinks it’s an avenging angel.
The book is divided into thirteen parts, with a quotation by a famous poet/writer at the beginning of each part. This is one of my favorites, by W.H. Auden:
“The sky is darkening like a stain,
Something is going to fall like rain
And it won’t be flowers.”
I found interesting the use of the word “marriage” (and its variations) in the book. It would come every now and then, a tool used to describe the merging of elements:
“Of all the extraordinary times she’d had since she’d first become part of the Fugue’s story, these were in their way the strangest, as her experience of the Weaveworld and that of her present life did battle in her head for the right to be called real. She knew this was Cuckoo thinking; that they were both real. But her mind would not marry them – nor her place in them.”
“Hearing his boast her mind went back to the adventures she’d had in the book; how, in that no-man’s land between words and the world, everything had been transforming and becoming, and her mind, married in hatred with Hobart’s, had been the energy of that condition.”
Despite my efforts to keep up with the story, it was not long before I felt left behind. The characters seemed too remote and devoid of any real substance, the story too fragmented for my liking; it was as if I couldn’t latch on to anything. Halfway through the book doubts began creeping in – maybe it’s just not my kind of book, maybe I’m reading it at the wrong time. And then, in the last 200 pages (out of 722!) a strange thing happened – my eyes had encountered a passage :
“A man was dancing nearby, his skirts like living tissue.”
It was like a button inside my head had been pushed and it brought back a snippet of the past from somewhere deep where all good memories lie waiting. And just like that I went back a few years, to a cold and rainy Easter day when on a trip to Istanbul I watched the dervish dance, their clothes a pure white, human bells spinning around following a music like I hadn’t heard before, their movements hypnotic, making the world around disappear until there was nothing else but a flurry of white. And just like that, I found my way back to the story. If that is not magic, I don’t know what is.
I did enjoy the story but not as much as I thought I would. Barker creates amazing pictures with words, colors unfold and flash brilliantly, descriptions are vivid and mesmerizing, it’s like watching a painting come to life. I’m almost annoyed with myself for not liking it more – it feels that the story is just above average but I haven’t given up hope. Someday, another one of his fantastical stories will come my way and I can only hope this time the journey will be more enjoyable.
*Read in September 2011
I had no idea September’s book-crossing meeting was going to hold such a surprise in store for me. From the odd assortment of books spread on the table at Starbucks, I chose Little Bee. Or maybe it chose me, it’s always a question open to debate.
The blurb on the back cover doesn’t say much about the book but what got my attention was that the girl who had brought it said she didn’t remember much about the story. A mysterious book, I thought to myself, and my mind was made up. Little Bee came home with me that evening.
This is a story of a Nigerian refugee girl who ends up in an immigration detention center in England. Her name is Little Bee, a name she takes after running away from her village in Nigeria when the men came. Indeed, the reader will see these four words quite often throughout the pages and it feels as if her whole story is built on them. She was happy living in a jungle village when the men came. She nearly lost her life when the men came. From that moment on the fear never leaves her. Neither does courage. In the two years spent locked up with other refugees, she learns “the Queen’s English”, an experience described with a sort of humor bordering on sadness (or was it the other way around?). The day she is released together with a few other girls, she goes to search for the man she met on that day on a beach in Nigeria, when the men came. That day when she also met the woman who saved her life.
This reminds me of a line I read in a book a long time ago – it said that when you save a life you are responsible for it. Little Bee’s story seems to fit that line perfectly, because the women meet again. The other woman is Sarah, young, successful, an editor for a women’s magazine. She is married to Andrew, a newspaper columnist, and they have a 4 year old son, Charlie, whose fixation with Batman provides a humorous escape from the oppressive sadness of the narrative.
Little Bee arrives at Sarah’s house on the day of Andrew’s funeral, and while this looks like a rather weird coincidence, it really isn’t. And just like on that day on the beach, Sarah is given the choice of saving Little Bee all over again. And just like on that day, she takes it.
The writer invests the women with strong characters. For the most part the men seem to be either villains or some sort of extras manipulated to reinforce the women’s strength. Although she plays the role of the savior (she is Batman’s mother, after all), Sarah is not perfect. Her troubled marriage is what had gotten her and Andrew on that beach in Nigeria in the first place. Maybe it was a chance to redeem herself. Maybe she was supposed to be there when the men came.
The book explores moral issues and hard decisions, there’s infidelity and violence so atrocious it’s painful to read, but there is also love. Every time I opened the book to read I just wanted to cry. Many times I did.
Why did the men come? This question haunted me while reading the book. I knew the answer was there, in the next pages, but when it came it was more sinister than I imagined.
This is one book that will stay with me for a while – I am not sure if I like that, because it was so hard to read and I still feel depressed. So much of my emotions were invested in that story. It was almost as if I had known Little Bee all my life. And I wish I was with her on that day on the beach, holding her one last time, looking into her eyes to see her courage shine through, when the men came.
*Read in September 2011
The amount of time I spend in a taxi over the course of a day can vary between 40 minutes to 2 hours or a little more than that, depending on how bad the traffic is and whether my return trip also takes place in a taxi or if I use public transport. Having no car to call my own – not that I would want to drive one in this chaotic city, thank you very much – and still wanting to make it to work at a reasonable hour, I have little choice. So in the mornings, instead of switching between various means of transportation I choose the easier way – the bright pink, yellow, blue or plain green cars cruising the streets with a TAXI sign on top and a red light at the front. Being in a taxi everyday can be interesting, fun, scary or downright creepy, much like riding a roller coaster. The taxi drivers I meet range from the silent one to the chatterbox, from the I want to practice my English with you to the one who’s trying to teach me Thai, from the grunt man (because that’s the only sound he makes) to the singer (let’s turn up the radio and sing along, in Thai, of course).
Yesterday I was in a hurry. After a hectic day, wanting to take my aching head home as soon as possible, I hailed the first taxi that passed on the street outside my work and hopped in. The driver didn’t say anything at first so I told him the address in Thai and made myself comfortable and ready to enjoy my book. He asked me something in Thai, but his words were drawn out and spoken carefully, not like the quick jabbering I’m used to hearing. My reply seemed to satisfy him and so once again I turned to my book and lost myself in it. I was reading Little Bee, by Chris Cleave, and this is a very hard book to read in a taxi. Why? Well, because every few pages I just wanted to cry, and not silent tears that can be wiped before they even have the chance to slide carefully down the hills of my cheeks, but a hearty loud cry session, the kind you do in the bathroom with the door closed and the water running. Oh well. Every few minutes I had to take a break and look out the window and breathe deeply.
Me no speak English good, I heard the driver say. I tried to put my reply into a smile and we seemed to understand each other. He was very young, probably in his early twenties and he drove carefully, not in the quick jerks and stops that are the trademarks of most taxi drivers in Bangkok. A thought sprang to life in the back of my mind – there’s something strange about him, he talks funny, like he’s not from these parts, like he’s just learning the language. One or two questions later I was sure of it and my curiosity got the better of me so just before I got out of the car I asked him in my broken Thai: You’re not from here, are you? That’s what I’d like to think my words came out like but it was probably more along the lines of “You not Thai, huh?” He turned to me and offered a broad smile that made his eyes as round as two perfect circles, and then it was plain to see he didn’t look like a local either, made two fists of his hands and shaking the right one he said Thai, then the left and said Malay and brought them together, then pointed to his chest and said Thai. So, I thought, your mother is Thai and your father Malay, or the other way around. He pointed his index finger at me and then used it to draw an invisible circle in the air around his right ear and said, in his carefully spoken Thai – You notice, huh?
I smiled too and nodded, and it struck me how we had both tried to speak in a language that was not our own and how sometimes a simple smile is worth more than a hundred jabbering words put together. How wonderful it is that when words fail us, we can still speak, with our hands, our eyes, even with our smiles. Than even when we find it difficult to say the right words, the body language is sometimes enough. That even though we were both aliens, we found a common language.
There is something about the classics that just wouldn’t go away. Not that I want it to, I have to add. Every now and then I feel the need for the convoluted language, the turned phrases, the intricately constructed sentences that make my head spin and my mind feel like I’ve just been mentally tortured. And yet, it is a sweet torture, and one I find comfort in from time to time.
The only other book by Henry James I’ve read was The Portrait of a Lady and while I wasn’t exactly swept away by it, I refused to give up on the author, at least not until I have had the chance to read more of his writing. After all, it took me three books to get to like Paulo Coelho’s work: The Zahir was just not for me – too ‘fantastical’ and liberal, the adventure in The Alchemist I liked very much, while Brida fell somehow in the middle.
That is why, when I saw the two short novellas between the same covers, I knew it was time to give Henry James another chance.
The Turn of the Screw tells the story of a 20 year old governess who finds a job caring for two orphans at an old house in the English countryside. Her employer, a young bachelor, is willing to pay handsomely for her services, and he only asks that under no circumstances is he to be involved in the whole matter from that point on.
The two little children, his niece and nephew, prove to be perfect little darlings, the dream of every governess: beautiful, attentive, smart and obedient, one can only wonder how nature created such perfection. Their names are Flora and Miles and they live under the care of the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose.
For a while, everything seems perfect – even though the return of little Giles, who was dismissed from boarding school, triggers the first sign of doubt as to the boy’s behavior. Then the new governess starts seeing people whom she shouldn’t be able to see because they were dead; in time she becomes convinced those people want to harm the children. It becomes her life’s mission to protect them but as she is trying to do so, there’s a notable change in the behavior of the children.
The end is strange to say the least – one can only draw their own conclusion, as the events leading to that point are just as strange. Things are far from being clear and I was left with many unanswered questions. It’s one of those books where you are led in step by step with the promise of a good denouement only to be left at the end to fill in the blanks with your own version. Normally I wouldn’t have any problem with that (I do like to have the option of choosing my own ending) but in this case the whole story was too foggy to make a lot of sense.
What I liked:
– The young bachelor – I kind of hoped the author would give more clues as to how he came to be the guardian of the two children. And what happened to his brother anyway?
– The whole atmosphere, very dark and creepy.
– The governess – she seemed like such a nice dedicated person.
What I didn’t like:
– Too much confusion. Why were the “ghosts” haunting the house and more specifically what was their connection with the children? I feel like I’m missing something but I don’t know what. Maybe I should read it again. Maybe I should take notes.
The Turn of the Screw reminded me of another book, The Woman in Black by Susan Hill – the narrator reads (or remembers, in the case of the latter book here mentioned) a story involving some sort of ghost. Both have a woman dressed in black as one of the characters, and both involve children. The Turn of the Screw is much more devious in its ambiguity – the conversations are so cleverly constructed as to be both terribly intriguing and absolutely ambiguous, a trick I appreciated and admired even though I didn’t like it very much.
Did I enjoy the story? I did. I just wish there was more to it.
The Aspern Papers
What would you do to get the thing you want the most? For the protagonist of this story, the answer is ‘quite a lot’.
The story is set in Venice, home of the water canals, gondolas and old palaces. The narrator, an admirer of the famous American poet Jeffrey Aspern, makes it his goal to locate and read the famous correspondence of the late poet. He embarks on a mission to get acquainted with Juliana Bordereau, an old lover of the poet, in the hope of getting access to the letters and other important papers he suspects she keeps under lock and key. The old woman lives with a niece, Tina, a rather gullible and harmless spinster.
Under the pretext of looking for some rented rooms where he can write undisturbed, the man succeeds in persuading the two ladies that he will make an excellent tenant and not even Juliana’s exorbitant rent deters him from his purpose. His greatest fear is that the old woman will burn the letters before she dies and so he decides to confide in Miss Tina who promises to help.
This is a rather neat story – the man who warms his way into the house under false pretenses finds himself trapped by the unexpected turn of events caused by the death of Juliana. He is given a choice, one that could get him what he wants but which comes with a dear price and while he resists at first, in the end his determination to get those famous papers wins. But it is too late – the deceiver is deceived and he is forced to give up his plans.
I liked this story – reading it felt like a game in which I got to watch as each player made his move: Juliana, who in the end realizes what the man wants and is determined to make him pay (in more ways than one) for his foolishness, and the protagonist, whose obsession and admiration for the great poet makes him go to great lengths to get those valuable papers. Miss Tina seemed like such a harmless creature but in the end it is she who turns things around. I have to admit I underestimated her role in the story and I was punished for it.
Now I can safely say I like Henry James a little bit better. Even though both stories were gloomy, they managed to keep me guessing until the last moment (nothing predictable here, fortunately). The author’s capacity to reveal the cunning side of his characters is admirable – appearances are deceiving and the one who falls into that trap has to pay for his mistake.
*Read in August 2011