29 Aug 2012

The Boring Lives of Others

Some of you might remember "Privileges" by Jonathan Dee which I reviewed a while ago and today, time has come to review his novel "Palladio". I had looked so much forward to reading this book because "Privileges" was so amazing and I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed Dee's writing. His writing is incredibly skilled and he can do things with words that few authors manage. He is an artist and his ability to tell a story is great. 

The story that Dee tells in "Palladio" is a story of star-crossed fates, maybe even star-crossed lovers. Molly grows up in suburbia in a dysfunctional home where love is sadly lacking and in depression, frustration and an attempt to find love, she does something that leads her to be ostracized not just from the town but from her family as well. She feels to Berkeley, where she meets John, a young, impressionable man who falls head over heels in love with her. When Molly one day disappears without any clue to why or where she is, she leaves behind a wound in John's soul that never quite heals. 
Years later, John is successful in the fickle world of advertising when the enfant terrible, the prodigy of the advertising world, Mal Osbourne, tempts him to leave New York in pursuit of art and adventure. John takes the leap to Virginia and becomes an important piece of the puzzle that is Osbourne's empire. But then one day, out of the blue, his and Molly's paths cross again. 

Despite all of his talent, his beautiful artistry, "Palladio" did not work for me. For a very specific reason.  The two main characters, Molly and John, are annoying, frustrating and I found them impossible to empathize with. John is a gutless whiner who takes no responsibility for his life and just lets it happen to him without taken active part. He is an anti-hero but not a lovable one. Molly is to be pitied. If John is not a pilot in his own airplane of life, she is not even an air hostess, hardly even a passenger. Throughout most of the book she is depressed and she lets the depression guide her life, lets it take control and steer her away from anything that might call on her passion, her will to live not just survive. It is impossible to feel any love, any  empathy, any interest in these two. 

The story is fantastic, it's a really good story, but the characters leave me cold. I can't help wishing that Dee had told the story from the angle of Mal Osbourne instead. This maverick of a man, a dreamer with little to no interest in his fellow men, is so much more interesting even if he is not more likeable. The story would still have been difficult to empathise with but at least it would have had the advantage of a dramatic protagonist. 

Read it if: You think your life sucks or you think you're a boring person -  Molly and John will put this into perspective!

26 Aug 2012

So what do modern women want?

Everyone wants the answer to that question - from men to marketing companies, there are plenty of people who would pay big money for the answer. I don't have it but this summer I've been reading through a whole bunch of feminist, modern-womens books in the hope of finding the answer to this and other equally important questions. And I think there's a book I will need to have for my journey, a guide books of sorts. Namely "The Feminist Bestseller: From Sex and the Single Girl to Sex and the City" by Imelda Whelehan. 

This is what it says on amazon.co.uk: 
Imelda Whelehan provides an overview of popular women's writing from the late 1960s to the present, looking at how key feminist texts such asThe Women's Room, Kinflicks and Fear of Flying have influenced popular contemporary fiction such as Bridget Jones' Diary and Sex and the City. Whelehan reconsiders the links between the politics of feminist thought, action and writing and creative writing over the past 30 years and suggests that even so-called 'post feminist' writing owes an enormous debt to feminism's second wave.

Have you read it and can you recommend it? 

25 Aug 2012

The Japanese Godmother of the Fifty Shades Segment

Though "Snakes and Earrings" by Hitomi Kanehara is a short book, very short really, it is one that leaves an impression. The first time I read it was a few years ago. I was on my way out to shop for dinner just as it started raining, so I decided to read for a few minutes to see if it would clear and picked up "Snakes and Earrings" and started on it. It did clear up relatively fast but by then I was deep in reading and I didn't stop reading until I had read the last page. Dinner was delayed by almost two hours.

It is a forceful book and though I rarely say this about any book, this one is not for the fainthearted or for the young. Though it was written by Hitomi Kanehara when she was only 21, I would not recommend it to anyone below the age of 18 as it contains some really explicit scenes of sex and violence.

Lui is a young Japanese woman who is emotionally fragile and depressed. Her boyfriend Ama is an emo, goth type who loves piercings and body modifications and while living with him, Lui starts shedding her pop girl image and exploring the darker fashions, eventually deciding that she wants to split her tongue. To do so she first needs to have her tongue pierced and then gradually make the hole larger and larger. Ama takes her to a friend of his who is specialised in tattoos and piercings and from the very first second there is a fierce sexual chemistry between the piercer and Lui. It is a not a healthy love-at-first sight we are talking about here but a dark, sadomasochistic sexual current. One where there is only a short distance between pleasure and pain, between living and dying.

Kanehara takes her protagonist to the very darkest of places, the deepest despair and a pain that is difficult to handle. It is a beautifully written story. Every word is just right. It is no surprise that it won several awards and has already been made into a film. Don't cheat yourself of this read though you might be repulsed by some of the topics or the actions of the characters - it will stay with you for a long time as it did with me.

Read it if: You want a painful but authentic story that will pierce you with its words. You want a book that deals with sex in a very different way to the 50 Shades type books.

22 Aug 2012

Is it really Super in Cannes?

Ever dreamt of emigrating to France? In the U.K. it seems like it is a dream that  most people entertain every once in a while. Paris is just on the other side of the Channel and if you then drive south for a few hours, you'll be in the beautiful Provencal countryside where a smell of lavender is in the air and where all the women are gorgeous in that French way. At least that seems to be the perception and it definitely is the vision that Paul and his wife Jane from J. G. Ballard's novel "Super-Cannes" have when they up sticks and move to Cannes.

Jane is a 27-year-old doctor who married Paul, an older man and a pilot, while he was in the hospital after a nasty flying accident. When she is offered a role as a resident doctor at the prestigious Eden-Olympia business park just outside Cannes, it seems like the opportunity of a lifetime. Leaving a grey, miserable London behind and pursuing the possibilities that a great laboratory and lots of funding will provide. Paul, the protagonist of the story, is happy to tag along. He is head over heels in love with his teenage doctor, as he calls her, and he is still recovering from the accident and is hoping that the sun and the lazy days by the poolside will do him good.
As they settle into the pace of life at Eden-Olympia, a modern piece of paradise where all you need is inside the gates, Paul starts to become restless. In his restlessness he begins to ask questions - what happened to the doctor who previously held Jane's position? Why did he suddenly (?) snap and murder ten people in a shooting spree? And were they victims chosen at random or were they carefully selected?
Early on it becomes clear that there is more lurking beneath the surface of paradise than visible to the naked eye but what it is and how it will impact the lives of Jane and Paul remains hidden until the last pages of this thrilling novel.

"Super-Cannes" is exceptionally well-written. If you are one of those people who like mystery or thriller novels but hate the fact that the majority of them are thrash, written by people who are not exactly good at writing... then "Super-Cannes" will be for you. It is so subtle and elegant, yet despite the sunkissed setting, it sent shivers down my spine. It is so scary and the reality that Paul is trying to navigate is so distorted that he loses sight of everything but the mystery.

Read it if: You like stories about what happens behind the facade. If you like a well-written psychological thriller.

14 Aug 2012

The Poet, His Girl and Her Brother

Ever since reading "The Line of Beaty", I have been an avid admirer of the beautiful prose and the twisted characters of the author Alan Hollinghurst. With regards to the prose, at times, it is more like poetry. He writes the way I wish I could. The way most authors wish they could. As a first class magician he takes normal words, shuffles them and transforms them into art, making us believe that it is not about skill or talent but about pure magic. In "The Stranger's Child", Alan Hollinghurst has taken this gift for magical writing, honed it, fine-tuned it, so that we are left with not a book but a work of art. However, as magical as the writing is, the story is even better. 

 In 1913 George Sawle is home from Cambridge on a visit and with him, he has a friend, the semi-famous poet Cecil Valance who, it turns out, is more than just a friend. At George's childhood home Two Acres, his mother and sister welcome Cecil and for the 16-year-old sister Daphne, the meeting with Cecil comes to change her life. At the end of the weekend, Cecil writes a poem, a romantic celebration of love and the English garden, in Daphne's autograph book and in the decades following, this poem comes to symbolize England on the brink of war while shaping the destinies of several of the characters in the novel. 

Hollinghurst's ability to make small parts of the history of England come to live is astonishing. The first story takes place in 1913, in a still innocent Edwardian England, full of fragrant country gardens. The next takes us to the 1920s, the innocence has been stolen by a World War and families are left amputated as the trenches in France claimed the lives of their sons. Then years pass and we are in the late 1960s, the second World War still fresh in memory and the English still feeling the pinch. Then a short jump to the late 1970s where the world has changed and the fortunes of the great and the good have transformed - gone are the servants and the grand houses, surburbia is on the rise.  

It is without doubt one of the best books I've read this year. Actually more than just this year, in a long long time. It is an absolutely wonderful story, told with elegance, humour and a feeling for passing of time and the evolving of history. 
The characters are interesting and easy to sympathize with and every time the story jumped to another era, I found myself searching the pages for my favourite characters, eager to find out what had happened to them. It's immmensely satisfying to follow the characters for so many years, even the ones whose development disappoints and whose flaws become more and more apparent. For me, that is one of the real strenghts of Hollinghurst's book - that he keeps the reader engaged (to the point of blocking out the rest of the world) without losing the integrity of the characters and the story.

Read it if: You haven't already read it.

6 Aug 2012

Dear Mr. Postman, what have you got for me?

Hopefully, very soon, my good friend the postman will  bring me a little something in the mail. A few somethings actually, some presents from me to me. 

5 Aug 2012

Laced With Romance and Clichés

A few weeks ago, I came across an interview with the author Shirley Conran in The Times. I had no idea who she was but the article heading "Shirley Conran: bonkbusters, mummy porn and housework" grabbed my attention. How could it not really? It turned out to be yet another article inspired by the ca-rayzay success of the 50 Shades enterprise which seems to be taking over the literary world (yes I just wrote 50 Shades and literary in the same sentence... never thought that would happen!). Conran's opinon on The Shades was pretty much the same as mine: 
“More like baby porn. You have to wait until page 200 for any sex at all. She doesn’t get her bottom spanked until page 400. The writing is jerky: it needed a good edit.”

Based more or less on this one quote, I decided that I had to read Conran's 1980s bestseller "Lace" expecting it to be a good deal more racy than The Shades. 

The plot is quite intricate and jumps in time as it tells the stories of five women. The famous and celebrated actress Lily has summoned four lifelong friends to meet her at the Pierre in New York - she wants to know which one of them is her mother. From this dramatic start, the reader is taken back to the 1950s, to a Swiss boarding school where the four friends meet. Maxine is the less-than-elegant French girl whose rich, Dior-worshipping aunt is paying for her tuition in the hope that she will transform from an ugly duckling into a beautiful swan (which I can say without spoiling anything that she does). Pagan is from an eccentric English family, a part of the landed gentry and destined for a season in London once finishing school is smoothed the rough edges. Kate is from a nouveau riche family and her father is hoping that sending her to finishing school will catapult her into society. Judy is not going to school, at 15 the American girl is the youngest of the group but also the most mature, working in a skiing hotel to pay for French and German lessons in the hope that these tools will help her make it in the world of business. That year one of these girls fall pregnant and the novel charts the highs and lows of their life until the final pages where all is revealed. 

"Lace" is heavily embroidered with the stuff that tv-series such as "Dallas" and "Dollars" was made of: couture fashion, money, designer labels, dashing men and scandals. There is no end to the glamour in this story, it is all clothes, cash and celebrity for these women who all happen to be highly glamourous, elegant and good looking. Nausea much? 

However, despite this incessant vomit-inducing glamour, "Lace" has some advantages over The Shades. Not the sex, it is just as bloody boring and stylized, this is not in any way, shape or form steamy. However, it has an interesting take on men because apart from the odd gay designer, the men all have their faults, some more than others. Some are worthless barstards, some are normal men with the flaws that we all have. None of them are Edward Cullens or Christian Grey dreamboats and that was really refreshing. The main advantage is the degree to which independence is emphasized as the ultimate goal for women. The message is clear: a woman is responsible for herself, for her own happiness. She has to make her own money, have a career, row her own canoe.         

I'll be honest, I was hooked while reading this one. Once I had started it, I couldn't put it down, in exactly the same way as I have trouble putting down a bag of Doritos once I have opened it. But in just the same way as Doritos, this doesn't meant that that it's good for you and it doesn't mean that it's quality. "Lace" is the kind of book that you can read once in a while. Perfect for lazy afternoons in the beach in a foreign country where you don't know anyone who can catch you read what is ultimately quite trashy... 

Read It If: You sometimes (when no one is looking) buy trashy magazines to spy on the rich and famous. You know the lyrics to "Independent Women" by Destiny's Child and "Single Ladies" by Beyonce by heart. 

3 Aug 2012

Fear of Flying, Fondness of F......

Did my headline seem like a bit much? If so, I'm sorry. Well, not really. If I'm being totally honest, it sums up "Fear of Flying" by Erica Jong rather nicely, I think.

This is not the kind of sex that you find in "50 Shades of Whatever" and its counter-parts. It's dirty, yes, but mostly because the people taking part in the sexual acts haven't had a shower in days... The sex in "Fear of Flying" is more real, not stylized in any way and way cooler than a lot of the drivel in the market at the moment. 

Isadora Wing is a 29-year old divorced and remarried author. Having married and divorced her clinically insane college boyfriend, she is now married to psychoanalyst Bennett and together they are attending a psychoanalysts' conference in Vienna. What better setting for a comedic drama than a room full of psychoanalysts all peddling their individual interpretation of Freud and Jung? While in Vienna, Isadora falls in lust with the psychoanalyst (yes there are a lot of them in this book, somewhere close to 120) Adrian Goodlove who appears to Isadora to be able to supply her with something that she has always wanted: the zipless fuck. As in an anonymous, non-commital, passionate roll in the hay. 
This is a love triangle unlike any I've come across in a novel before, especially as it is terribly short on love, and it causes Isadora to think back and consider her history with men in particular and with her own sense of self in general. 

As a main character, Isadora is interesting because she's bloody annoying. She is indecisive and does not know her own mind. She's frustrated with her sisters for looking down on her for not having children, yet condescends their life decisions. She is passive when she should be proactive, then stumbles mindlessly into trouble when she should be considering the best line of action. Yet somehow, she is also likeable, probably because she puts herself through an awful lot in the hope that things will end up right. Some will be appalled by what has been deemed her promiscuity but sex for Isadora is about more than the physical act, for her it seems to be a tool used to explore her own identify. She is on a journey of self-discovery and her fear of flying is not only literal but also a symbol of her fear of searching for herself and for her own identity instead of searching for a man whose identity she can mould herself on.   

It could all get a bit stuffy (especially as so many psychoanalysts are involved) but actually it is a really funny book, particularly the parts involved Isadora's sisters who really are quite a bunch. When it comes to dumb remarks and stupid decisions, they are up there with the Bennett sisters from "Pride and Prejudice". 

This is the thinking young woman's book. If you are a 18 to 20-year-old considering whether to spend your money on 50 Shades, please pick up "Fear of Flying" instead. It'll give you much more to think about and to consider, about yourself and your generation, about your mother's generation, about men and about sex.

Read it if: You're a woman between the ages of 18 and 60 with a sense of humour and an appetite for passion.