A Book Review Blog

Category: Postmodern

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

So A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was another book that I picked up in a bundle. It wasn’t necessarily something that I would have picked up on the strength of its blurb or subject matter alone, but I did find my interest piqued by the fact that it won the Pulitzer Prize. I have found prize winners to be something of a mixed bag, but there’s still something about them that makes me want to try them, just to see how I compare to an “expert” panel.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is a memoir following the author’s life in the years following his parents’ cancer-related deaths. He must take responsibility for his younger brother, Toph, who is only 8 when their parents pass away. Thrust suddenly into the role of parent, he has to try and deal with the fact that his new responsibilities prevent him from a lot of activities that he would like to do as a man in his early-twenties.
I haven’t actually finished A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I honestly tried, but the thought of trying to slog through any more of this tripe is just depressing. Until this point, I couldn’t understand how there are people out there who genuinely don’t like reading, but I think this book has made me realise how they feel.
So, I suppose the big question is what made me not want to finish this one. What it was that made me break the one rule that I have had since starting this blog in January 2011. It was the writing style. While I have expressed a liking for postmodern fiction in previous blog entries, there was something a little too manufactured and artificial about the way that it was presented in A Heartbreaking Work. Metafiction is just one of those things that needs to be properly signposted, instead of thrown into the mix whenever you feel like it. Eggers also seemed to have a grudge against the humble full stop, as his book was full of sentences that went on for-fucking-ever. I get it, you like fragments. How about a sentence that doesn’t make me want to throat punch you and force you to draw breath like a regular human being. Overall, I just got an impression of some dumb twenty-something who is trying to be way too clever in order to compensate for some deep-seated issues that he really should have worked out with a therapist beforehand. Maybe that’s exactly the sort of impression that I was meant to get, but it doesn’t do anything for my enjoyment of the novel. And it’s sort of a shame, because from what I’ve read of him, Eggers seems like a nice guy, with a lot of worthy philanthropic causes that he supports. I feel like he could have given a better account of himself.
So there’s a thing that I feel that I should probably address. Why did this book make me DNF and not one of the other books that I have rated 1/5? It’s a fair question. I think the reason that I got through some other terrible books successfully because they invoked an active emotion out of me. Most of the time my response to my 1/5 rated books has been anger, or occasionally horrified amusement. Regardless of which, both of those states make me feel energised, make me feel like my mind is going a mile a minute, and I absolutely love those moments when I can get that on paper. Since starting this blog, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is the first book that made me feel like my soul was being sapped with every extraneous fragment and with every time he referred to himself or his brother as god-like. Usually my less pleasant reads leave me feeling shaky or overwrought, but never before have I felt sapped of energy. The only word that I can think of for this is grey, like it’s wrung out all the interest in my brain and left me with dishwater for a soul. If this is what some people’s experience of reading is, then I can see why you wouldn’t want to try it again. So yeah, I’m altering my rule. I will now allow for DNFs if a book makes me actively wonder why I like reading in the first place.

Never before has a book left me so drained of enthusiasm. Usually I get angry at books I don’t like. This time, I just don’t have the energy. It’s the first book I’ve DNF’d in over 7 years, and I am just stunned that I found something that could beat even my stamina for not-so-great books. I’m sure there’s an audience for this, but I couldn’t even begin to understand who it would consist of. 1/5

Next review: Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett

Signing off,

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

This is going to be a tricky one to talk about. I would have gotten around to reading The Name of the Rose eventually, but university made it a more urgent read. I had heard of it before: when I first became a film fan, I looked up Sean Connery’s back catologue, which included the film adaptation of this book; as such, I was aware that it was a murder mystery set in a medieval monastery. I think those preconceptions may have been slightly off.

The Name of the Rose follows two monks, a former inquisitor named William of Baskerville and his novice travelling partner Adso. Whilst travelling across Europe, they stop at a Benedictine monastery in order to participate in a theological dispute between the Spiritual Franciscans and representatives of the Pope of the time on the subject of poverty. Their visit is given extra purpose when the abbot asks for Brother William’s assistance following the mysterious death of an illuminator.
So I guess what I should talk about is my opinion of the plot. That’s where I have to stop and mention that I am still trying to figure out what I just read. I suppose the simplest way that I can put it is that The Name of the Rose is part murder mystery, part examination of politics within the Catholic Church of 1327. It’s an odd combination to say the least, but that does at least give me a structure with which to look at the plot with.
In terms of a murder mystery, it’s well-structured and makes sense, but part of me is still unsatisfied with it. On the one hand, it has some interesting red herrings and a twist that I would never have seen coming, as well as ultimately making sense; on the other hand, I’m of the opinion that a good murder mystery will allow the reader an opportunity to piece together their own theory about the murderer, a process that is made difficult when some of the clues provided are in Latin. I don’t know about you, but I can think of only one person I know out of my entire circle of friends and family who knows Latin to any great degree, and most of the Latin that pops up isn’t translated; I kind of feel like the audience is put at a disadvantage because of this. Now that I think about it, the inclusion of particular Latin phrases doesn’t necessarily make sense, seeing as the implication is that, unless stated, everyone is speaking Latin anyway, it being the common language used in the Catholic Church of the time; if you wanted to draw attention to a particular phrase, then why not use italics or speech marks as opposed to Latin? It seems less out of place and doesn’t confuse the majority of your audience either.
In terms of the examination of politics, it’s an interesting look at corruption within the Church, and the thin line that separates a pious saint from the crazy Bible thumpers that we are still unfortunately stuck with. In the past I have made obvious my liking for explorations of the internal politics of social strata or organisations, and this is no exception, although it is a little more blatant than I am used to. The explicit discussions about politics is largely to do with the question of whether monks should practice poverty as a means of emulating Jesus; on the one hand, there is no Scripture specifically stating that Jesus was poor, but on the other, it looks kinda bad if you tell people to practice charity whilst hoarding gold and jewels for yourself. The more implicit examination of politics is the question of what lengths should people go to in order to accumulate or censor knowledge. I would discuss this one further, but it’s sides are somewhat less well-defined.

Like I said at the beginning, The Name of the Rose is an odd one to talk about. It’s undeniably a well-written book, if a tad slow in parts, but there is a fundamental question that I’m finding difficult to answer: who would I recommend this to? I suppose I would recommend it to people who are looking for a murder mystery with a bit more challenge to it, but I would also say that they should keep in mind the many discussions of doctrine; if you just want a pure and simple mystery, then this probably isn’t for you. I guess I would recommend it to people who are looking for something to challenge the mind, so long as you’re willing to put in the extra work of translating the bits of Latin left unchanged. Personally, this has made me want to watch the film version, as I’m utterly confused as to how this got adapted to film. 3.5/5

Next review: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland

Signing off,

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

This is an odd one. I don’t even know whether I can really call Invisible Cities a novel or not. This isn’t the first time I’ve read Calvino’s work before; no, my first introduction to his work was ‘Night Driver’, a short story that firmly places his work into the postmodern. Even knowing that, I’m still not sure what to make of this.

The blurb of my edition states two things. First, that the book is Marco Polo talking to Kublai Khan about the cities within his realm, all of which are actually aspects of his home city, Venice. Second, a quote from Gore Vidal that states, “Of all tasks, describing the contents of a book is the most difficult and in the case of […] Invisible Cities, perfectly irrelevant.” I would be more inclined to believe Gore Vidal. While you do get scenes of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan talking, it is pretty bare and lacking conflict as a “plot”; in my head, Invisible Cities is more an exercise in world building than it is an actual novel. The majority of its chapters are 1-2 page descriptions of a fantastical city. How many of them are supposed to relate to Venice, I’m not sure; the only ones that rang true for me was one with canals (obviously) and one which is constantly under construction for fear that it will crumble once construction ends (it brought to mind the rapidly crumbling foundations). Just because their relation to the real world is tenuous at best is not a criticism from me. Far from it, in fact; whilst I was discussing what I was reading with my boyfriend, we realised just how much potential each of these cities contained. There was something about their weirdness, their unique spin on a city, that really captured my imagination in a way that I haven’t experienced for years now.

This was a pretty short review, all in all. I would definitely recommend Invisible Cities, especially to those who read as an appreciation of writing as a craft, and those who enjoy the world-building aspect of it in particular. I can see it boring people who insist on deep and involving narratives, but I would recommend giving it a go. 5/5

Next review: Demian by Hermann Hesse

Signing off,

Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec

I suppose I should preface this post with an apology for my inactivity. There are two main reasons for that. First, this book is fairly hefty. Second, the last month or so has been largely occupied with writing my last essays of the year and, more recently, with exams. I feel that I should have mentioned this in a separate post earlier in the month, but with one thing or another it just didn’t happen until now. So yeah, sorry about the complete absence with no explanation there.

Anyway, on to the actual subject of this review. Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec. I am still unsure as to what made me pick up this book. I had heard of Perec before, having had my interest peaked by the idea of his novel A Void, in which the letter e is never used. I suppose it was the idea here that made me pick the book up: Life: A User’s Manual looks at the lives of past and present inhabitants of a Paris apartment block. I guess the idea of something that was at once broad in scope, yet focused on a particular microcosm fascinated me.

As you could probably tell from the differences between the date of this post and my last post, this book took me a while to read. Considering that I was largely caught up by exams and university work in that period, this was perhaps not the wisest choice of book to read. The book as a whole could well be described as a collection of intertwined short stories, with each story taking place in a different room in the apartment block. While the largely self-contained nature of each chapter means that it is easy to find convenient places to pause reading, the interconnected nature of the stories as well as the huge cast of characters that is necessarily going to appear in the setting means that referring back to the previous chapters of less focused on characters is going to be a must. I have a feeling that if I had had less things preoccupying me, I might have remembered overall story-lines better. Although considering the huge appendices section, I may not be the only one who would have this trouble.
Talking about the characters is probably a futile exercise, as there are so many that it is necessary that I leave out descriptions of most them, simply so that this review won’t be as long as the book itself. I suppose there could be considered a main character of sorts, as his is the story that is most in-depth. The main character then, is probably Bartlebooth, an eccentric Englishman who has dedicated his life to creating watercolours to be made into puzzles, which will be reverted to their original state of blankness after he has solved them. I actually came to like Bartlebooth the most out of the very large cast, simply because I could remember his story more than most of the other residents. There are other residents who are nearly as interesting, such as Hutting, a celebrated artist, Madame de Beaufort, a woman raising her grandchildren after the death of her daughter and son-in-law, and Henri Fresnel, a chef who left his wife and successful restaurant to pursue his dream of being an actor. There are, however, several times where the constrained way in which the narrative progresses means that there are some really interesting (or just plain weird) situations that are set up and never re-visited. There are two that spring to my mind immediately: first there is a kind of pseudo-cult initiation ceremony in an otherwise empty apartment, which I was desperate to know more about. The second one I was just utterly confused by: the aforementioned Henri Fresnel is a previous resident of the apartment block, so there is a quick glimpse of the current resident. The resident isn’t given a name, and the glimpse the audience gets is of this unknown man lying naked among five blow-up dolls; as it comes at the end of a fairly standard rags-to-riches sort of story, it just seems totally out of left-field and is never given more explanation. This is probably not the only unexplained moment in the book, but it is that one that perplexed me the most.

Overall, I guess I’m still trying to figure out what my feelings are about this book. Like How the Dead Live and The Man in the High Castle, this is a predominantly intellectual book. It was quite rare that I would read a part that really affected me all that much. But it was an interesting read at the very least, so I guess I would recommend it to those who would have the patience for this, as well as those who appreciate good world-building in books. 3/5

Next review: Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos

Signing off,

(P.S. For those of you wondering about the picture, it’s the author. I couldn’t find a decent picture of my edition, so I figured that crazy hair and a cat would make up for it.)

How the Dead Live by Will Self

Oh boy, where to begin with this one? Will Self is one of those authors that I’ve known about for a long time, but had little actual information on his work. I’d seen him a few times on the rare occasion that I watch TV nowadays, but that was about as far as my knowledge went. So when I saw How the Dead Live on sale, I figured that there was little harm in trying it out. Now that I’ve actually read it, I’m not sure how much more I know about him.

How the Dead Live follows the late life and afterlife of the narrator Lily Bloom, a generally cantankerous and unpleasant old woman. In life, the reader sees her deal with her two daughters: Charlie, the elder daughter who is pretty much a non-entity amalgamation of everything that is socially acceptable, and Natasha, a needy and manipulative junky. In death, she has to contend with a calcified foetus obsessed with pop songs from the 70s, three manifestations of all the fat that she’s lost, gained and regained through years of dieting and the angry soul of her long dead son. From that description, it sounds pretty damn interesting. And at times it is. But for the most part, it just left me confused. Not confused in a plot sense: in that respect it’s pretty straightforward. It left me confused as to how I’m meant to feel about all of this. For instance, the spirits that Lily has to exist with make it sound as if the afterlife is some incredibly strange Twilight Zone type of place; it’s really not. All the afterlife is in this is normal life, except you don’t need to breathe, eat or sleep. After a while she even begins to ignore or forget the weird manifestations around her. Considering she’s the narrator, that means that the reader begins to forget them too, which I don’t think should be the case; they’re what interested me on the blurb, so for them to be forgotten so easily is really disappointing. Although I suppose that that may be the whole point: have an afterlife that is exactly the same as life, and you minimise the fear and reverence surrounding it. I guess my main problem with this book is that at times it seems clever and witty, but there’s always an underlying current of irritation at the very cleverness that typifies the novel’s tone; much like my opinion of what I’ve seen of Will Self, now that I think about it. I think the only thing that I really genuinely enjoyed was the ludicrous nature of some of the deaths. Take Lily, for example. She is diagnosed with terminal breast cancer at the beginning of the book. After a few chapters, it spreads to the brain, thus making her demise imminent. It’s when the cancer hits her brain that it gets funny; she begins to rave and lose control of her actions, thoroughly freaking out everyone around her. That doesn’t sound all that funny, but if you have even a passing knowledge of cancer symptoms, it’s pretty damn obvious that this is not how cancer works. Generally, when you’ve got a brain tumour, you get some headaches and then you die; quick and relatively quietly, not gibbering like a loon. That was pretty much the only thing that I liked without reserve, simply for the ridiculousness of it. Otherwise, I’m still not sure what to make of this. I don’t dislike it, but then I don’t particularly care for it either. I feel like it provoked something for me mentally, but I couldn’t tell you for the life of me what that thing could be. I guess all I can say is that I feel uneasy because of this lack of knowing. Maybe that was the point all along.

I honestly don’t know what to say about this overall. I don’t feel I can really say either way whether this is a good or bad book. I guess if you’re looking for a “clever” book or you like Will Self, then yeah I could recommend this. Otherwise I’d probably give it a miss. 2.5/5

Next review: The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Signing off,

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

This is an odd one to review. Then again, American Psycho is just kind of weird all around. I guess I picked this one up because it’s one of those books which is infamous: it’s controversial and the reasons for that controversy are pretty well known, but it’s still something you have to pick up and read yourself in order to understand. It’s been an interesting nine days reading it.

So, I suppose it makes sense to explain what American Psycho is about first, before I go into the weirder stuff. It’s narrated by Patrick Bateman, a young successful banker in New York at the end of the 1980s, so basically he’s a yuppie. So, as a typical yuppie, his life consists of things like eating out at expensive restaurants, buying designer brands and working out; basically your standard process of keeping up (very expensive) appearances. What makes Patrick different from your average yuppie is that he’s a psychopath and kills people. Maybe. That description is pretty much the whole book. The first half is mainly several dinners with work colleagues and one night stands, described in mind-numbing detail and with the occasionally line of absolute psychopathic violence, which everyone summarily ignores or fails to react to. At around the halfway point, we start seeing Patrick killing people in person. Or at least Patrick says he’s killed all these people.
You’ll notice that I keep saying things like maybe and might, when referring to Patrick’s psychopathic tendencies. That’s because he is pretty unreliable as a narrator, including details that both prove and disprove the reality of the murders and other crimes he says he commits. And I find that really interesting. While the violence is a big part of the narrative, and the part that most people focus on, I found the psychological aspect of the novel more interesting. The idea that he could be imagining all or part of the novel is somehow utterly fascinating to me: if he is imagining the whole thing, then would that just make him an average guy who retreats into fantasy and drugs in order to cope with the boring reality that is the high-life? He certainly takes enough Xanax and what-not.
But, of course, the thing that everyone comments on is the unusually high level of violence. That’s fair enough, as Patrick describes his kills in just as much detail as the various different outfits of his colleagues and the menus of various restaurants. There’s so much detail that it’s actually rather absurd. Granted, it might start off nauseating, but then it seems to skip merrily over some undefined line after which the violence just seemed silly and over-the-top. Then again, I might just be that desensitized. In any case, I actually found the more mundane offences like the huge amounts of bigotry and the utter shallowness and vapidity of his acquaintances to be the more offensive parts of the novel. Again, that might just be me.

Like I said, this is an odd novel to review. As a whole, I’m glad that I read the novel, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to everyone; it’s what you could call an acquired taste. If you’re a fan of social commentary in your novels and/or you possess a strong stomach, I would recommend this. If not, then you probably won’t like it. 4/5

Next review: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Signing off,

Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk

I have absolutely no clue what I was in for when I started reading Invisible Monsters. I assumed that it would be fairly decent, seeing as I enjoyed Fight Club hugely, but I still had no clue what this book would be like. By the end of the review, you might have just an inkling why.

Regarding the story, there’s not much that I can really tell you for fear of giving something away. This is one of those books where there are several twists, one for pretty much every single member of the cast. What I can tell you is that this is a story about the narrator, a model whose life is changed forever when her jaw is shot off, turning her into the eponymous ‘Invisible Monster’ of the title. Having seen pictures of what people surmise she looks like, I can understand the sentiment. This is also a story about Brandy Alexander, a transgender who is one operation away from becoming a woman and is looking to totally reinvent herself. These two go on a road trip of sorts, in order to reinvent themselves. As I’ve mentioned, there are several twists in the course of the book. The main question is, are they good twists? Yes, I’d say that they are. Considering that the book’s narrative hops back and forth along the chronology of the book’s events, the twists are hinted at very subtly in the relevant sections, so that when the moment comes when something is revealed it takes you by surprise, yet seems very natural at the same time.
When I first started reading this, my first impression was that this book would be one of those books that draws you in with the train-wreck appeal: it’s horrific, but you can’t help but watch it happen. To an extent I still think that that is true. These characters are not nice. They may become incredibly sympathetic, but they certainly aren’t nice. Probably the most sympathetic of the characters is Brandy, but unfortunately I can’t really say anything unless I give away some really big spoilers. Suffice to say that there is much more beneath the surface than the pill-popping transgender that everyone seems to be drawn to. The narrator is quite interesting too, being possibly the least likeable character on the roster. For me, there’s something quite fascinating about someone who is so unapologetically shallow and selfish. There’s a certain justification for why she is like she is, but she never uses it as an excuse, which is quite refreshing really.
If there’s one thing that I wasn’t expecting, it would probably be the ending. Having had a very cynical book thus far, with seriously damaged and unlikeable characters, the ending had a strangely hopeful tone to it. It was unexpected, but at the same time it just felt right.

This is a book that does all the right things with characters and how they evolve throughout the story-line. The jumping about in the chronology was interesting and made for well-timed plot twists. Overall, a fantastic book that I would recommend readily. 5/5

Next review: Midnight Cowboy by James Leo Herlihy

Signing off,

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