Wednesday 22 October 2014

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

 “The trouble was, I had been inadequate all along, I simply hadn't thought about it.”

Esther Greenwood is a young college girl who travels to New York for a publishing job, has a rotten time assimilating into this new life, undergoes a mental breakdown, attempts suicide, is thrown into a psychiatric ward, receives shock-treatment and once deemed healthy enough by her doctors, she is released back into the world. Whether or not she will succumb to her mental illness again remains uncertain. Not exactly your typical feel-good novel. Plath is uncompromising, successfully conveying the despair, gloom, helplessness and downward mental spiral of her protagonist with bleak overtones, which makes the story a unsettling reading experience.

As someone who has battled with depression for many years, Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar hits very close to home. Of course, it's difficult to resist the urge in making parallels between the story and the author's own troubled personal life, especially pertaining to her history with mental illness. Published soon after her suicide, the novel is eerily autobiographical in nature but an overwhelming amount of scholarly effort has already been expended on this particular subject matter. Thus, my aim with this review is to convey my own personal reflections and determine whether or not The Bell Jar is worthy of its iconic status. In short, the novel doesn't quite live up to its reputation--the narrative is often dull and disjointed; it lacks a sense of cohesiveness. Of course, one could make the argument that Plath's aesthetic is deliberate; her sporadic prose is supposed to reflect the protagonist's fragmented state of mind as she descends into madness. Plath is a wonderful poet and a superb writer of letters, but she doesn't seem to hit her stride as a novelist. However, Esther Greenwood is such an empathetic character, which makes it easier for me to overlook the narrative discrepancies. I found myself connecting with Esther on a deeply personal level because many of her thoughts and experiences mirror my own: cynicism, depression, attempted suicide, hopelessness, misanthropy, shame, personal inadequacies, loneliness, social alienation, disillusionment, the obsession with death. She feels like a kindred spirit and I just wanted to give her a warm hug and tell her that everything will be ok. You'll get through this Esther, I'm here for you. You're not alone. 

Plath should be applauded for her honest depiction and keen insight into a neurotic psyche. Only someone who suffered from mental illness and severe depression could have written such an accurate portrayal of being stuck in the hell of one's own mind. The novel is also rather forthright in its feminist ideologies and a great deal of analysis can be focused on the exploration of gender inequality. Plath infuses so much of her own personal life, painful experiences, and somber reflections into the novel, which is truly admirable.

The sum of its parts are greater than the whole, containing a plethora of powerful aphorisms and astounding golden nuggets of wisdom. Here are a few of my favorites:

“There is something demoralizing about watching two people get more and more crazy about each other, especially when you are the only extra person in the room. It's like watching Paris from an express caboose heading in the opposite direction--every second the city gets smaller and smaller, only you feel it's really you getting smaller and smaller and lonelier and lonelier, rushing away from all those lights and excitement at about a million miles an hour" (17). 

Wow, she really understands what it feels like to suffer from loneliness. I've always been an outsider, stuck on the sidelines, an observer, detached from the world. Hence, relationships are foreign to me. I'm not exactly envious of others who find happiness through love; rather, it is the despair that comes with being completely incapable of making those personal connections. The thought of never experiencing love and dying alone is quite disheartening.

"If you expect nothing from somebody, you are never disappointed" (63).

I feel ya there, Esther/Sylvia. I have placed way too much trust in people and only ended up getting hurt in the end. They either let me down in some way, put up a front, or stab me in the back. I've lost faith in humanity.

Wherever I sat—on the deck of a ship or at a street cafĂ© in Paris or Bangkok—I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air" (195).

The bell jar is obviously an important metaphor in the novel but it is used expertly by Plath to convey the debilitating anxiety of being trapped in the madness of one's own mind. Paradoxically, the bell jar is a defense mechanism against a hostile world so it's no surprise that suicidal tendencies are inevitable.

"I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story.  From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked.  One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out.  I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet" (81).

Story of my life.

Wednesday 15 October 2014

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

“All I ever wanted was a world without maps.”

Often regarded as one of Canada's greatest living writers, Michael Ondaatje doesn't strike me as an author who would reach a wide audience at all. Granted, my only exposure to his writing is with this particular novel but it is far too abstract, fragmented and heavily infused with poetic language to appeal to many readers. Visit any used book store or second-hand thrift shop (with a book section) here in Toronto, and I can guarantee you that several copies of this novel--along with other titles by the author--can more often than not be found at low bargain prices or in the "free bin." Most people don't seem particularly fond of Ondaatje or The English Patient in particular, and they seem more than happy to be rid of it, which helps to partially explain the overwhelming amount of copies floating around. 

I have been avoiding this novel for years and probably never would have picked up this novel had it not been for my Canadian Reading Project. Even though I don't feel that all of the negative flak it tends to receive is completely warranted, it is perfectly understandable why so many people are keen to express their vitriolic hatred towards this novel. Those looking for a well-told story are bound to be disappointed and frustrated. The narrative is convoluted and disorienting: jumping around between past and present, distorted by fragments of memory; the characters exist on the periphery, obscured by shadows. It does not surprise me that Ondaatje was a poet before turning towards fiction because his writing revels in lyrical diction, elevated language and imagery. There is no denying that the prose is beautiful, sensual and even provocative at times (bringing to mind the writings of Virginia Woolf minus the stream-of-consciousness) but it is overdone, inadvertently encouraging mockery. At one point, Ondaatje tries to convey the overflowing passion between the mysterious pilot and his lover by describing one of their sexual experiences together where he licks up her menstrual blood. Sorry, but that is just gross no matter how eloquently one might describe this act. There does exist scattered moments of stylistic virtuoso and profound insight but the novel ultimately collapses under the weight of its superfluous purple prose--all style, very little substance. Ondaatje would much rather focus on establishing a specific mood or explore the fallibility of memory. I don't usually mind this type of poetic style but he gets too caught up in trivialities and seems a little smug in showcasing his literary pretensions.

It's the end of WWII, a Canadian nurse from Toronto (bonus points) is caring for a severely burnt patient at an abandoned Italian villa where two other people eventually enter their little sanctuary. Utilizing shifting character perspectives and flashbacks, the story (or lack thereof) unfolds in a cryptic fashion shrouded in ambiguity. We get glimpses of these people but the reader is always kept at a distance. The basic premise of the novel is intriguing enough but I really wish Ondaatje had spent more time fleshing out the different characters and focused more on the story, instead of leaving it dormant and veering off into elaborately discursive territory. I'm no medical doctor, but it bothered me that this pilot who is suffering from life-threatening burns could stay alive so long with only the aid of morphine and still be able to maintain complete mental acuity. This novel could have been a sweeping historical epic with a powerful love story at its core but Ondaatje has other intentions. If he somehow managed to balance his poetic aspirations and brand of literary impressionism with developing a solid story containing believable, strong, well-rounded characters, he might have been able to achieve something truly spectacular. 

Taking into consideration that very little action takes place in the novel, it baffles me that it was even adapted into an Oscar winning film. To my mind, the end result can only be disastrous and I am very curious to watch that train-wreck unfold on the screen. My two star rating might seem a tad generous but I didn't find the novel to be completely without merit, even though my general impression was that of indifference. Ondaatje might be self-indulgent but his writing can be quite beautiful and enrapturing in small doses.


This novel is part of my Canadian Reading Project.

Monday 13 October 2014

Mini Reviews #1: Retribution Falls, Embassytown, Veronica Mars

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

I've been working a lot lately and also trying to squeeze in as much reading as possible, which unfortunately, has not left much time for writing reviews. The only reason I'm even posting today is because it is a stat holiday and I finally have a day off. Truth be told, I've been lacking in the motivational department and can't seem to focus on writing anything at all, endlessly frustrated with my own incompetence. I'm burnt out. I think it might be time to take a vacation, perhaps go someplace warm and try to relax. Better yet, I ought to quit my perfunctory and mind-numbing job which is surely causing my brain cells to deteriorate at a rapid rate. Not to mention the unnecessary stress. I have even detected a few gray hairs! After coming home from a grueling and laborious shift, I tend to be in a foul mood where only alcohol and sleep is at the forefront of my mind. Reading offers a slight reprieve from my woes but I can't even enjoy my favorite past time very long before passing out due to exhaustion. 

On those rare occasions when I'm able to muster enough energy to sit down and attempt to hash out a review, my mind goes blank. I really hope this is just a dry-spell and I'll be back to writing more reviews on a regular basis but as my previous track record has shown, I tend to be rather inconsistent in updating this blog with new content. Therefore, I hope to make these "mini reviews" more of a common feature. Besides, my reviews tend to be quite lengthy and not many people read them anyways, so perhaps I will be inspired to write more if I keep my reviews nice and short. 

Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding

I can see the similarities to Firefly but Chris Wooding ain't no Joss Whedon. He pays homage to his predecessor, mixes in some steam-punk, a bit of Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean, blends all of these elements together and presto! You get Retribution Falls. Except, I think the author forgot to add the necessary ingredient to hold everything together: good writing. The story starts off promisingly enough with a great action sequence but soon loses momentum and becomes silly, contrived, all too predictable--a flimsy rehash of its pop-culture influences. Although the novel doesn't pretend to be anything but entertaining fiction, the story never fully develops into an exciting adventure as I was lead to believe by the synopsis or the high praise bestowed by other readers. The narrative drags along at a sluggish pace and I found myself bored, anxious to be done with it. Often disjointed and clumsily written, the story has so much potential but is poorly executed. The characters are flat and the world-building is underdeveloped. The writing lacks polish and a certain level of finesse where everything comes across as amateurish. Perhaps Chris Wooding intends to expand on these narrative deficiencies with the next books in the series but I'm not in any hurry to find out.

Embassytown by China Mieville

I'm left with mixed feelings on this one. Embassytown marks my first foray into the surreal, nightmarish and bizarro world of China Mieville. Although I enjoyed my stay, it might be a while before I visit again. He's clearly an intelligent fellow, an erudite word-smith (be sure to have a dictionary handy) and a talented writer with a wild imagination. This story is unlike anything I have ever encountered before--seriously, some of the stuff he comes up with is totally insane--floaking, biorigging, bladderwrackish, polyps, aeoli (breaking apparatus), amniotic fluids and pabulum (food sources) just to name a few of the crazy aspects of this world--but I'm not sure this was the best starting place for me to experience his unique brand of weirdness. 

My lukewarm impression stems more from my own personal taste rather than faults with the author or the actual novel itself. Stepping back and viewing the novel objectively, Mieville has written an intelligent and absorbing piece of hard science-fiction. Cognitive estrangement is one of the defining characteristics of the genre and Mieville is able to take this concept and put his own unconventional spin on it. However, I tend to enjoy a novel a lot more if I able to connect with the characters or the actual story on some emotional level and found it difficult to do so here. Then again, Mieville deliberately uses narrative distance to emphasize themes of otherness and alienation that connect to the larger ideas of cognitive estrangement.

I adore Science-Fiction and Mieville certainly pushes the limits of the genre in a new direction, subverting many of the familiar tropes that have become all too commonplace in a human/alien contact narrative.  By focusing on semantics and the complexities of  "Language" in relation to understanding culture and others (humans or otherwise) makes this novel wholly unique.

 Veronica Mars: The Thousand Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham

A long time ago, we used to be friends...

That song still gets me super-excited and brings back so many fond memories. Pure nostalgia. I'm an unabashed Veronica Mars fan, not going to lie. I have a huge crush on Kristen Bell. I've seen the television series many times including the disappointing season 3, even contributed to the kick-starter movie campaign and went to see it on opening night. As a fellow marshmallow (fans of the show will understand the label), I can't get enough of Veronica Mars and when I found out that there was going to be book series that will continue the story of our favorite private detective, I was all over it like white on rice. A quick and entertaining read, I burned through this novel in a few days. This also marks the first time I have read anything by two collaborative authors. I am still unsure if Rob Thomas, the creator of the show, wrote anything that made its way into the novel or just provided the  idea and left it up to Jennifer Graham to work her magic. Either way, I am more than satisfied with the end result and so happy to see that the awesomeness of Veronica Mars will live on in book form. Boo-ya.

It's difficult to review this novel without any personal bias since I can overlook some of its minor flaws. The mystery aspect of the story isn't particular exciting and is a tad predictable in the end but it is still manages to deliver a few unexpected surprises that is sure to delight fans and create anticipation for the next installment. Both authors should be commended for successfully transporting the television show into a novel. I had my doubts at first but it didn't take long to realize that they were equal to the task. The show comes to life on the pages. The quality of writing is adequate enough to suit the material and the story moves along at a brisk pace. The most striking aspect is that the authors do such an excellent job of capturing the voices and personalities of the characters. Veronica's sharp wit and sarcastic sense of humor is spot-on. A common feature of the show is Veronica's internal monologues and the novel form provides more liberty to get inside her head. Also, where would Veronica be without help from her dad Keith or best friends Mac and Wallace? What about her relationship with Logan? The authors manage do justice to these fabulous supporting characters and its hard not to see the actual actors in their respective roles.

The Thousand Dollar Tan Line takes place soon after the events of the movie so be sure watch that first before picking up this novel to avoid huge spoilers. In fact, if you haven't seen the show before, do yourself a favor and acquire the first three seasons and then the movie. You can thank me later.  

Logan: I thought our story was epic, you know, you and me.
Veronica: Epic how?
Logan: Spanning years and continents. Lives ruined, bloodshed. EPIC. But summer's almost here, and we won't see each other at all. And then you leave town... and then it's over.


Tuesday 7 October 2014

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

“The more you love someone, he came to think, the harder it is to tell them. It surprised him that strangers didn't stop each other on the street to say I love you.”

Dear Mr. Foer:

I am in awe of your talent. And envious. I still can't believe this is your debut novel and that you wrote it at the age of 25! Hell, not even some of my favorite authors such as Virginia Woolf, Graham Greene or John Steinbeck (to name a few) were able to burst onto the literary scene in a blaze of glory like you have here with Everything is Illuminated. They each had to work at their craft over a prolonged period of time, constantly fine-tuning their skills, experimenting with different stylistic forms in order to find their authorial voice--but you make it all seem so effortless. You're a literary wunderkind. This novel feels like the work of a mature writer in his prime, not a young man who is just beginning their writing career. What a delectable and enticing read! Completely absorbing, overflowing with creativity, a real tour-de-force. I can't recommend it enough. I'm tempted to stand on street-corners handing out copies to people but that is an expensive enterprise (unless you want to send me several hundred copies? We can discuss my promotional compensation later). In the mean time, I have given this novel away as gifts to a few friends, recommended it as a 'must read' whenever literature comes into the conversation, which unfortunately, is rare. Maybe it is time to find new friends.

I can see how many readers might find your style 'gimmicky' or 'pretentious' but it worked for me. I thought the concept was completely original and nothing short of brilliant by having two distinct narrative voices working simultaneously (am I correct to see the stylistic influence of Joyce's Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man? The way Alex's language improves progressively from crude at the beginning of the novel to sophisticated by the end is very reminiscent of Stephen Dedalus)--a meta-narrative where you, the author, Jonathan Safran Foer, is written into the story. Many might accuse you of being self-indulgent and rightfully so. However, you somehow manage to pull off this narrative feat most effectively --and might I add, with a slight touch of bravado--without having the story fall apart at the seams or coming across as a pompous show-off. No easy task.

Rarely have I come across a novel that mixes humor and sadness so harmoniously. I found myself laughing uncontrollably one moment and then struck with such profound emotion the next. My only minor quibble is that the magical realism sections felt drawn-out and went a little overboard at times with all of the stylistic flourishes but your writing is such a pleasure to read that it did not bother me too much. Most of my favorite authors are buried six feet under and I don't read a lot of 'contemporary fiction' but you good sir, deserve to be recognized as one of the more unique and accomplished writers of this generation.  

Your newly devoted fan,

~ Jason.

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Jacob's Room by Virginia Woolf

“It's not catastrophes, murders, deaths, diseases, that age and kill us; it's the way people look and laugh, and run up the steps of omnibuses.” 

Note: This review may contain minor spoilers. Oh, and the cover of this Mariner edition perfectly captures the essence of the novel with the young man appearing blurred, fading into the background.

The name Virginia Woolf often sends people running to the hills. Perhaps a slight exaggeration, but you get the point. She tends to be one of those intimidating figures of English literature that frightens readers away and for those feeling brave enough to venture into her domain, tend to approach her work with much trepidation. Even someone like myself who is familiar with her work and knows exactly what to expect, I still find her very challenging to read: Jacob's Room is no exception. Written in 1922, this particular novel marks the beginning of Virginia Woolf's experimental phase and along with other contemporaries at the time including James Joyce, she helped to usher in what many scholars refer to as  'literary modernism.' This was a radical aesthetic movement that aimed to supplant the older traditional narrative forms with new unorthodox methods by bringing in a 'modern' innovative sensibility to literature. While Woolf should be applauded for her efforts, one gets the sense that she does not quite achieve her literary ambitions of psychological realism here, which would later become fully realized with the publication of Mrs. Dalloway and subsequently To the Lighthouse. Hence, Jacob's Room serves as a necessary stepping stone that Woolf will improve upon to establish herself soon after as one of the dominant writers of the 20th century. 

With an elaborately baroque writing style and the use of vivid imagery, she attempts to create a sensory experience, a type of literary impressionism if you will. In my honest opinion, no one can write as beautifully as Woolf although it is easy to understand why so many readers might be put off by her ornate poetic language but for me, it is truly sublime. However, with this novel, the lengthy descriptions of nature were a tad bit excessive but there is no denying her mastery of creating such a striking picturesque scene akin to a painting. One can perfectly visualize the rich greenery, hear the birds soaring above in the clear blue sky, smell the musk roses in full bloom. It's incredible how she is able to conceptualize such rich detail through words. Literary aesthetic aside, Jacob's Room is an unconventional character study but feels unpolished, inchoate in its narrative structure. Woolf is merely in the nascent stage of developing her craft and on the verge of achieving greatness. 

Do not be deceived by the relatively short length of this novel (my penguin edition clocks in at 168 pages)--Virginia Woolf is not one of those authors to pick up a whim. She demands a great deal of patience, dedication, mental energy and analysis on the part of the reader if any sort of valuable insight is to be gained. Unlike some of her other great works, which possess a certain level of fluidity, this novel is much less accessible; the writing often cold and clinical in its approach to narrative. Her prose is incredibly dense and nearly impenetrable, thick as molasses. Woolf purposely keeps the reader at a distance, almost always in a perpetual state of disorientation where it is made immensely difficult to discern just what exactly is happening. Plot and character are irrelevant. For Woolf, she is more interested in presenting fragments and exploring ambiguity. A hall of broken-mirrors. One must read between the lines, it is all about what is happening beneath the surface. Woolf prefers dropping hints, using subtlety or oblique implications. The novel is a complicated jigsaw puzzle and just when the picture seems to be coming into focus, it soon becomes apparent that the box is missing some of its pieces. Hence, the reader (speaking for myself here) is often left in the dark with more questions than answers:

Who exactly is this Jacob fellow and why should we care? Why does Woolf utilize blurring as a narrative technique? What is the purpose of introducing a large host of disjointed and peripheral character perspectives instead of just providing Jacob's own point of view? What is Woolf trying to convey about identity, socialization and western civilization? What meaning is there behind the emphasis on nature imagery? What is with the derogatory anti-semitism? What is Woolf trying to get across concerning death? And so on.
This novel is open to endless interpretation. Personally, the emphasis on identity and death are the two most interesting aspects worth exploring in greater detail. Let me try and formulate some haphazard thoughts concerning these two dominant themes. First of all, Jacob's surname is Flanders. This piece of evidence should sound off alarm bells. "In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row..." If it doesn't, don't feel bad. Not everyone is familiar with WWI history even though this is probably one of the most famous war poems. Ok, so Virginia Woolf lived during the turn of the century and witnessed the horrors of the First World War so perhaps she is doing a bit of foreshadowing here? In hindsight, this seems most likely. Taking into consideration that Jacob's identity is distorted by other people's perspectives, what do we really know about him? Not a whole lot. The closest the reader can get to him is through inference. Woolf does provide a brief description of his physical features and he is often described as "distinguished looking but awkward" (147). Unfortunately, that doesn't get us anywhere. We as readers want to know more about his sense of character or personality. What are his dreams and aspirations? Is he a nice guy? Is he a pompous asshole? Does he prefer cats or dogs? For goodness sakes, just give us some kind of inkling Virginia! Why do you have to be so cruel and shroud us in mystery? Remember now, Woolf is being unconventional. Show, don't tell. The ice-berg theory. Hemingway would be proud. I can accept this narrative choice but it doesn't make the text any lest frustrating to decipher. One thing is certain though, Virginia Woolf doesn't like Jewish people, which is ironic, since she married a Jewish man: Leonard Woolf. She is unequivocally forthright in her position when referring to them as "dirty Jews" (74); looking down upon them with contempt on more than one occasion.

Jacob is a young man who attends Cambridge with literary ambitions; he  can speak Greek, is particularly fond of Sophocles and Shakespeare. His bookshelves contain Spenser, Spinozoa, Dickens, Elizabethan poets, even Jane Austen. He reminds me of many pretentious undergraduate English majors who take pride in showing off their knowledge of literature and how well-read they are but have no real life experience. They live through books, are prone to depression and often brood about death. This persona has become a terrible cliche and perhaps Woolf is working within the realm of parody. I make this observation because of the many references to Keats, this tragic romantic literary figure who seems to have an influence on young aspiring writers, including Jacob. Woolf writes: "Only perhaps that Keats died young-one wants to write poetry and to love-oh the brutes! It's damnably difficult" (41). Perhaps I am reading too much into it, but I cannot help but see the similarities between Keats and Jacob that Woolf is subtlety hinting at throughout the novel. They each want to be great writers--or at least, that is general impression concerning Jacob's ambitions--and both die young at the exact age of 26. Perhaps it is just a coincidence but Woolf is a meticulous writer who pays attention to small details. Furthermore, Keats traveled to Rome to improve his health just before he died and Jacob goes abroad as well, albeit to a different country altogether (Greece) before succumbing to his death. Certainly, this connection might seem a bit of a stretch but having Jacob visit the Greek ruins of the Parthenon ties together Woolf's exploration of self-identity and death. He is a lost soul, wandering around in a state of limbo, trying to find some kind of meaning or purpose to his otherwise dull life. In the shadows of this ancient monument, he feels insignificant. These ruins are a relic of ages long past and it has stood for centuries, practically immortal--they will outlive him and likely many generations to come. The past and the present collide. The relationship between history and a rapidly advancing world is tenuous and on the breaking point. Civilization  is on the verge of collapse with the outbreak of WWI and the future looks bleak at best. What's one man supposed to do in the face of such monumental change?

Jacob seems like an ordinary young English bloke entering adulthood at the beginning of the 20th century. He reads obsessively, attends the opera, even enjoys getting funky on the dance floor. He might even be a little eccentric at times such as riding around naked in a sail boat or reading Christopher Marlowe in the British Museum; but he goes through familiar periods of self-doubt in the process of discovering himself and experiences various romantic escapades. He falls for a floozy named Flordina but is conflicted by his own base desires. Even though she is dimwitted, he still finds her attractive and wants to get into her panties: "Beauty goes hand in hand with stupidity" (78). That's kinda harsh dude. Near the end of the novel, he falls in love with a married woman. The scandal! He resists the temptation to initiate an affair but just having these' immoral' feelings is punishment enough for the poor lad. These various moments of action are never straight-forward or entirely clear at first because of the distorted lens in which they are presented.

Early in the novel, Jacob states: "I am what I am, and intend to be it" (33). What the hell does that mean? Well, on the most basic level, he is asserting his self-worth. He is not afraid of what other people think about, determined to live his life on his own terms. Woolf knows that readers instinctively want to know everything about Jacob but decides to withhold key information so we only get impressions of his character, never a complete picture of his core essence. She makes several sly and blatant comments on the futility of trying to understand someone: "Each had his past shut in him like the leaves of a book known to him by heart; and his friends could only read the title" (61). Woolf seems to be alluding to the fact that human nature or individualism is far too mutable and complex to pin down with any kind of accuracy. The best we can do is obtain surface details. It is impossible to truly know someone, even close family members or friends. I believe she is correct in this assessment because unless we possess some kind of telepathic power, we can never really know what is going on inside someone's head. The juxtaposition between internal and external experience is constantly in conflict with one another. Whether or not we want to accept it or not, our behavior is influenced by social norms. Yes, we have made pivotal strides forward in terms of individual rights and freedoms since Woolf's day, but there is something intrinsic about our human nature that makes it difficult or at least makes us apprehensive to fully express ourselves towards others. So much is left unsaid. It's not fear exactly that prevents us from revealing our true nature (although, that might be the case) but rather, societal values or pressures, which make it nearly impossible to do so. We learn to adopt various personae to deal with different social situations. Additionally, she writes: "What remains is mostly a matter of guess work. Yet over him we hang vibrating" (69). That is a presumptuous statement to make, Mrs. Woolf. Even though many readers might be curious about Jacob, it's doubtful many will even care. Despite this erroneous generalization, she is keen to emphasize her point once again: We are never as we seem to be, whether to others or to ourselves.  Human beings are too complex and idiosyncratic to fully comprehend from an objective point of view.

 She continues: 

"It is no use trying to sum people up. One must follow hints, not exactly what is said, nor yet entirely what is done. Some, it is true, take ineffaceable impressions of character at once. Others dally, loiter, and get blown this way and that" (146). 

Eschewing with her usual evasiveness, Woolf is shockingly direct here but it seems to me, that Jacob falls into the latter category. This statement also brings the idea of individual freedom and pre-destination to the forefront. Jacob might be under the impression that he is in complete control of his own life but there are also greater powers at work that influence the direction he will take. Although he is steadfast in his ways ("I am what I am"), society or perhaps even God, remain indifferent: "It is thus that we live, they say, driven by an unseizable force" (148). Jacob's tragic death is the result of society's forward momentum into the new age. He is "blown this way and that" by radical social change with the the rise and fall of empires: Jacob is a casualty of war.

Mortality tends to always be an important theme in Woolf's writing and of course, her suicide is well known. Death plays a prominent role in this novel but is handled with subtlety, always lurking in the background. Woolf does not evince a tone of foreboding or nihilistic despair but there is an understated melancholy in relation to the inevitability of death. We must "shuffle off this mortal coil" one day and Woolf seems to be asking the question: How will we be remembered? Some of us might leave some kind of legacy but most will likely live on through the memories of others. However, with the passing of time, those close to us who cherish our memories will also die and eventually any notion of our existence on this Earth will fade into oblivion. A depressing thought, no doubt. The final page of this novel is haunting and executed perfectly to emphasize this fundamental human truth of life as transitory, where all that might be left to remember us is an empty room we used to inhabit containing some of our possessions. Like a pair of old shoes that used to belong to Jacob. 

Unfortunately, Virginia Woolf does not make it easy to reach this remarkable climactic scene and it is almost not worth the effort. Well, maybe.


This novel is part of my Classics Club Challenge.

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: The Top Ten Most Difficult Books I Have Read...Or how I learned to avoid Ulysses

Yikes, I can't believe it's Tuesday again! Where does the time go? Soon Christmas will be around the corner. I've been meaning to post some more reviews last week but work has kept me quite busy and any free time has been spent, well, reading voraciously. Don't worry, I promise to post some new content soon. In the mean time, it's time for another round of Top Ten Tuesday hosted by The Broke and Bookish and this week they ask book bloggers to list their most difficult reads. I'm going to include some novels that I started but never finished because those ones exemplify my most painful reading experiences.

  1. Ulysses by James Joyce: The constant thorn in my side. This is supposed to be the greatest novel ever written? Balderdash! I've lost count as to how many times I have tried to read this monstrosity only to toss it aside in a fit of rage. This book right here is the apotheosis of literary masturbation. For 800 pages, Joyce wants to prove to the world that he is a literary genius. This may be true but I can never get past chapter three to find out. Oddly enough, I don't despise Joyce as a writer and really enjoyed Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man but Ulysses is beyond my intellectual capabilities, only serving to put me in a foul mood of consternation. 
  2. The Ambassadors by Henry James. I detest Henry James and his convoluted, ostentatious writing style. Enough already with the excessive details and run-on sentences that stretch a full page amounting to nothing of significance! Get to the bloody point, geez! Here is my rant
  3. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens: I don't know what it is about his writing exactly but it's aggravating to me. I've tried several times to get past the firsts few chapters but gave up. Sorry Mr. Dickens, looks like you and I aren't meant to be friends. 
  4. Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence: Again, another one of those "classics" that I have tried to finish countless times but failed because it proved far too effective as a sleeping drought. I am big fan of Lawrence's short stories but this novel along with some of the others I have attempted are so tedious and verbose as to drive me mad.
  5. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner: Probably the most difficult novel that I have forced myself to read cover to cover. Maybe I am used to Woolf's more elegantly composed stream-of-consciousness but Faulkner's attempt in this style is so rough, jagged, violent and completely incomprehensible. The various time lapses and abrupt jump cuts between past and present left my mind reeling in agony. I might tackle this novel again in the future to see if I am able to make better sense of it. 
  6. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte: Ugh. I really had to force myself to finish this novel and came very close to tossing it out the window. I'd rather gouge my eyes out than have to read this rubbish again.
  7. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway: Dull. Dull. Dull. 
  8. As for Me and My House by Sinclair Ross: Apparently, this is is a Canadian literary masterpiece. What a joke. I had to read this for class and if anything, it sets Canadian literature back another 50 years. Terrible writing and tedious. Probably one of the worst books I have had the displeasure of reading.
  9. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller: One of the most overrated 'classics' in my opinion. Not a difficult read by any means, just overlong and repetitive. It's just the same joke over and over and over and over...
  10. The Waves by Virginia Woolf: My favorite author but this novel puts stream-of-consciousness and free association into overdrive. The writing is achingly beautiful as much as it is utterly perplexing. 
I'd be curious to know if any of these titles would make your list or what other novels gave you much difficulty. Feel free to leave a comment below.

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Books On My Fall To-Be-Read List

It's been a while since I last participated in the Top Ten Tuesday held by the Brooke and the Bookish so let's give this another go. As the first day of fall, this weekly meme is quite appropriate and asks fellow book bloggers to list their top 10 books to be read during this season. It's doubtful that I will be able to even get through three books, let alone ten before winter peaks its head around the corner but we'll have to wait and see what the next few months bring.
  1.  The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay - If I only manage to read one book this fall, it will be this one. Mr. Kay is probably my favorite living author right now and I even had the distinguished honor of meeting him last week where he signed two of my books. He was very down to earth and a really cool dude to chat with. Tigana is the best novel that I have read this year and I plan on reading everything he has ever written. 
  2. A Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay - Same as above.
  3. Pastures of Heaven by John Steinbeck - Steinbeck is one of my favorite authors but there is still so much of his early work that I have not yet had the pleasure to read. I adore short stories and this collection has been on my radar for quite some time. I have not come across many authors other than Steinbeck who are able to combine beauty, intellect and pathos so seamlessly into their writing. 
  4. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy - I still think The Road is one of the most overrated novels ever but this one sounds awesome. I'm getting a Red Dead Redemption type of vibe from the premise. 
  5. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje - For my Canadian Reading Project. I have been avoiding this one for years but feel that it is time to see what all the hoopla is about. This books receives a lot of negative flak but my gut tells me that I will end up enjoying it.
  6. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursala Le Guin - Often praised as one of the great science fiction writers of all time and I still have yet to read a single novel by her! For shame. Granted, I have managed to read several of her short-stories and enjoyed them immensely. 
  7. Persuasion by Jane Austen - I am always down for some more Austen.
  8. City & the City by China Mieville - I finally took the plunge into the bizarro world of China Mieville this year with Embassytown and look forward to seeing what other craziness he can conjure up. The premise behind this book sounds totally insane!
  9. Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding: Apparently it shares many similarities to Firefly. Sold.
  10. The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon - I've never read anything by Chabon and perhaps it is time to see whether or not he really deserves all the critical acclaim.
What's everyone else planning to read this fall? Let me know in the comments below.

Monday 22 September 2014

Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow

 Henderson the Rain King
“We are funny creatures. We don't see the stars as they are, so why do we love them? They are not small gold objects, but endless fire.”
Why have you forsaken me Saul Bellow? There was a time not too long ago when I had no reservations in acknowledging him as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century but after the disappointing Mr. Sammler's Planet and now the even worse Henderson the Rain King, I may have to retract my initial position. Herzog still remains one of my favorite novels and there is no doubt in my eyes that it is a masterpiece. However, this now places an exorbitant amount of pressure on The Adventures of Augie March (the last of his 'big important works' that I have yet to finish) to exceed its already high expectations in order to persuade me otherwise that he does indeed, deserve to be recognized as one of the literary giants in modern fiction. Of course, there is still a chance that some of the minor novels written near the end of Bellow's career might prove worthy of esteem, although I can't help but remain skeptical of their merit. After slogging through the dull and insufferable Henderson the Rain King it will be a while before I am capable of mustering up the enthusiasm to read anything else by him. Out of the six novels that I have read by Mr. Bellow, this one ranks as the worst: a total abomination in which the critical acclaim it has received is most baffling. If I wasn't already familiar with his works and determined to complete my Saul Bellow Project, I would have tossed this novel aside after the first few pages. 

I think the only way to read this novel and perhaps find some minuscule redeeming quality is to view it as a satire of the white-man colonial narrative, more specifically, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Other than the setting of Africa as the main back-drop for the story, both novels could not be more different in their depiction of imperialism and exploration of human psychology. While Kurtz suffers from a certain type of madness ("the horror, the horror!"), Bellow is keen to parody this internal suffering in his larger-than-life character of Henderson, who continually repeats "I want! I want! I want!" in his mind. My interpretation of Kurtz's madness is inexplicably linked to imperialism--the ruthless destruction to a third world culture by unwarranted colonial rule. In contrast, Henderson's mental breakdown is caused by a vile capitalist society where money and greed has corrupted the human soul. Ironically, Henderson is a millionaire and believes that the only way to deal his mid-life crisis is to leave his old life behind, travel to the mysterious land of Africa to seek answers, spiritual fulfillment and perhaps find peace at last. As befitting a satire, the premise is ridiculous and excessively over-the-top but Bellow wants to have it both ways. Unfortunately, he is unsuccessful in finding a stable middle ground between satire and seriousness so the novel becomes a wandering mess of contradictions.

Henderson is not supposed to be perceived as a sympathetic character. He is a violent brute, an alcoholic, a blundering oaf, a pompous and misogynistic ego-maniac who is driven only by his self-interests. Bellow is often accused of his negative presentment of women in his novels (treated mostly as simple-minded 'sex objects') and while his sense of male chauvinism never struck me as particular unsavory before, I can totally understand the criticism after reading this novel. For example, one of Henderson's wives is punched in the face by an ex-husband and decides that it wouldn't be proper to file for divorce since she would rather prefer the physical abuse rather than having sex with him. Henderson himself is no better: he is a womanizer, a callous licentious man who uses women to satiate his own sexual appetite. Even though he treats them like pieces of meat, they still pine over him. The ultimate male heterosexual fantasy. Henderson is a pig farmer back home but comes to resemble one as well in a figurative sense through his ill-treatment of women. Once he travels to Africa, the metaphorical transformation from a pig into the lion is supposed to have powerful implications but Bellow gave me no reason to care about the plight of his protagonist. No matter what continent Henderson is on, he's still a narcissistic asshole.

Another problem with this novel is Bellow's depiction of the African 'savages' which is racially insensitive and distasteful. He plays on racial stereotypes that are downright discriminatory. While Henderson's assimilation into a foreign culture is supposed to be humorous, it wasn't the least bit funny and comes across as offensive. Bellow tries to be ironic by parodying Henderson as the well-to-do white man of the Western world who will bring modernity and order to an uncivilized people only to have him mess up constantly and actually be the one who achieves enlightenment from the local natives. On some level, the satire works but Bellow's smug arrogance in thinking that he is being insightful by cramming incessant philosophical ideas and "life lessons" down the readers throat gets annoying fast. I usually find his captivating use of language and discursive musings quite fascinating but not here. Instead, the prose lacks his usual stylistic vigor and is a tedious affair to get through. Nevertheless, there does exist several great passages like this but they are far and in between: "Of course, in an age of madness, to expect to be untouched by madness  is a form of madness. But the pursuit of sanity can be a form of madness too" (25). The use of irony is quite effective here.

Reading this abhorrent novel that masquerades as being profound brought to mind another similar work that manages to take the "white-man goes to Africa" narrative and do it so much better: A Burnt out Case by Graham Greene. This is an underrated little gem--an intelligently written story containing a sympathetic protagonist along with well-rounded supporting characters that deals with various aspects of imperialism in an insightful manner without sacrificing the narrative flow with rambling, excessive discourse as Bellow is prone to do. Greene is such a wonderful story-teller whereas Bellow seems to struggle in this area of writing; his plots meander, fall flat, often dissolving into the ludicrous. Graham Greene was a world-traveler who spent many years living in Africa. Thus, his novel contains a level of rich detail and authenticity not found in Bellow's work. Henderson the Rain King is written by someone who has never been to Africa with a narrow-minded, commonplace and mystical view of the dark continent that is laughably erroneous. In essence, A Burnt Out Case  succeeds on every level where Bellow's novel fails. Read that one instead.

This novel is part of my Saul Bellow Project.

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Cockroach by Rawi Hage

"The underground my friend, is a world of its own. Other humans gaze at the sky, but I say unto you, the only way through the world is to pass through the underground."

Rawi Hage has given me hope that there does exist other great writers hailing from Canada whose name isn't Margaret Atwood (no disrespect intended). His novel Cockroach was the runner up in this years Canada Reads: a "battle of the books" competition where one book is voted amongst a panel of judges for the whole country to read that will inspire social change. He lost to Joseph Boyden's The Orenda in a tight match where the final votes were 3-2. This novel is a gritty, raw, solemn and unflinching look at the ugly side of immigration, which is unlikely to appeal to a wide audience. I never really paid much credence to the legitimacy of Canada Reads selections before since it often feels like a marketing ploy to increase sales for specific novels but I'm glad Cockroach received the proper recognition and here's hoping more people will be inspired to read this wonderful novel because Rawi Hage deserves a wider readership.

Canada's open immigration policy has made it one of the most diverse multi-cultural countries in the world but it is not all sunshine and rainbows for those who come here in search of a better life. Rawi Hage reveals the seedy underbelly of this country that often gets swept under the rug, or in relation to this novel, squashed (a bad pun but I can't resist). The narrator of the story is unnamed: he is invisible, living on the margins of society as a a Middle-eastern immigrant in the grim wintry climate of Montreal. Alienated in a foreign country, everyday is a struggle for survival. Destitute and living in poverty, he must rely on his wits to keep from starving or freezing to death in the cold streets. This means manipulating others to get a hot meal or resorting to thievery. He is also an expert at breaking and entering other people's homes, but not so much to steal from them but to observe how the more fortunate live in luxurious splendor. Unable to find steady work that pays a decent wage, he has no choice but to take any job that comes his way, no matter how crippling to his pride or self-worth. He drifts along without any real purpose, moving from one service position to another and is content to land a job as a bus-boy at a Persian restaurant. It is revealed early on that he has attempted suicide and through mandatory therapy sessions, the reader is provided glimpses of his previous life before coming to Canada in a serious of flashbacks. Rawi Hage does an excellent job of infusing plenty of dark humor to counterbalance the depressing subject matter. His prose is sensational; emanating a stark and gripping quality that makes it a pleasure to read. He expertly draws the reader into the tumultuous mind of the protagonist that is unsettling as much as it is fascinating. He has a great ear for dialogue (although I am unsure why he decided not to use proper quotation marks when someone was speaking--perhaps to further highlight the loss of identity?). Rawi Hage leaves it up to the the reader to make up their own opinion of the narrator. I found myself sympathizing with the main character a great deal despite his lascivious behavior and various transgressions. Are we too look down upon him as immoral if he is driven to a life of depravity by a society that makes it increasingly difficult for immigrants to establish a modest living?

Of course, not all immigrant experiences are as bleak or depressing as the one depicted in this novel and to interpret it as representative of the norm would be a spurious conclusion. Many people do manage to make a better life for themselves in a new land but Rawi Hage is less optimistic. He attempts to convey immigration as paradoxical: new arrivals to a country find themselves in a perpetual state of displacement, unable to fully assimilate into society and forced to live on the periphery. The narrator perceives himself as a cockroach and the metaphor is perfectly apt--he is a nocturnal creature, viewed a pest in the eyes of others who discriminate against him as a racial minority. Cockroaches are able to adapt to their harsh environment and so does the protagonist even though it is met with much hardship and misery. Of course, one can't help but make the connection to another, if not, the most famous bug or "cockroach" in literature: Gregor Samsa in Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis. Both novels couldn't be more radically different whereas Kafka emphasizes psychological transformation through allegory and Rawi Hage focuses on depicting caustic realism. However, they both deal with social alienation where the protagonists are outsiders living in a world of chaos and absurdity. A more detailed comparison would be interesting to take under consideration.

Even though I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, it does contain several flaws. First, despite the protagonist's devious personality and grueling situation, he still manages to engage in sexual relations on a regular basis. His frequent sexual encounters seem implausible and hinder Hage's representation of estrangement. The lack of female companionship might have proved more effective in the attempt to illustrate the narrator's brooding loneliness as an immigrant. Second, even though the narrative is purposefully discursive without a discernible plot, a hallucinatory nightmare of sorts that reflects the protagonist's erratic mind, the final denouement seemed rushed and contrived. I realize that Hage stresses ambiguity and the climax does fit the persistent cynical tone already established but the ending felt unsatisfying, incomplete somehow. It seemed as if Hage was setting up for a powerful, gut-wrenching and explosive finale but it sort of just fizzles out.

Nevetheless, Cockroach is an absorbing and worthwhile read that puts the controversial issue of immigration on the table but as an advocate for social change? Probably not. However, it does possess the power to stir up discussion on the subject and that's a start. Rawi Hage is a talented young author and I believe he is capable of putting Canadian literature back on the map. 

 This novel is part of my Canadian Reading Project.