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.

Monday 15 September 2014

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Sense and Sensibility 

“I wish, as well as everybody else, to be perfectly happy; but, like everybody else, it must be in my own way.”

If there is one author out there that seems to grow in my esteem with time and whose novels I am able to appreciate even more on repeated readings, it is the much beloved Jane Austen. My relationship with Austen got off to a rocky start with Pride and Prejudice, one of those "classics" that I found deplorable and never actually finished. What a daft, illiterate fool I was back in the day! Years later, I decided to give P+P another try and was pleasantly surprised to discover that she wasn't the dull, sappy writer I initially perceived her to be, an egregious mistake on my part. This time around, I found Ms. Austen's clever wit, sardonic humor and social criticism to be delightfully engaging. Having matured in my reading habits, I was able to better recognize the inherent subtle nuances of her writing, which went over my head on the first reading. Her novels aren't simply about women seeking love and getting married, there is so much more going on beneath the surface worth exploring if one is to fully appreciate Austen's ingenuity. There seems to be a certain stigma attached to Austen in which she only caters towards a female readership but this myopic attitude is a completely unfounded. Her works deal with universal themes of love, human companionship; tackling a wide variety of important social issues such as class and gender. As a dude who doesn't place much importance on asserting my masculinity in the first place, I am not embarrassed to admit that Jane Austen has now become one of my favorite authors.

Thus, this brings us to Sense and Sensibility, my third Austen novel, and one that I read last year for the Classics Club challenge. I really should have had the foresight to scribble down some notes at the time when the novel more fresh in my mind but alas, it was during one of my intense reading frenzies. I do look forward to picking it up again because it was excellent and dare I say it, even better than Pride and Prejudice! The story revolves around the Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne who are left with a tiny inheritance when there father dies, thus, their prospects at finding respective husbands becomes greatly diminished. This concept might sound silly and archaic by today's standards but during Austen's time, the  role of women was  in the household, taking care of the children. Living in a patriarchal society, women rarely held an occupation and relied on their husband's income. For me, reading Austen is often like entering a time capsule into the past, allowing the opportunity to contrast older social customs with the present. It is important to note that the Dashwoods are not living in poverty, they still remain a part of the upper-class but as far as their fortune is concerned, they are positioned at the bottom tier of the wealthy elite. Hence, match-making is often based on the financial benefits to both parties, taking precedence over unconditional love. As a hopeless romantic, Austen's conservatism used to irk me but it took some time to understand that within a historical context, marriage was more of a business arrangement. I like to believe that times have changed since the 19th century, that people actually do marry for love instead of money but even now in Western capitalist society where cash is king, survival will be tough without a steady income. Therefore, for many people, marrying into money is a sensible move, ensuring a prosperous future and I can't condemn those who decide to take this route. However, with this novel, Austen places a higher value on love rather than financial pragmatism but also seems to suggest that the combination of both is even more ideal. Inner vs. outer experience is also an important aspect here that should not go overlooked. Austen cleverly shows how society dictates behavior, manners and decorum often restraining one from speaking their mind or expressing true feelings because that type of conduct goes against the norm. Hence, in an Austen novel, this miscommunication leads to many misunderstandings and broken hearts;  she uses this break down in human interaction effectively to create drama. In any other novel, using this particular plot device would likely hinder the narrative but Austen somehow makes it work with the appropriate stylistic panache.

The concept of marriage is always a recurring motif in Austen but the characters themselves must endure many difficulties, facing many obstacles on the paths towards of self-discovery in order to find love. As indicated by the title, the juxtaposition between Sense and Sensibility is the main component of the novel. The two sisters are radically different from each other in their approach to life and relationships. Elinor represents aspects of sensibility--rational, upholding societal values and propriety whereas Marianne is the complete opposite: quixotic, a free-spirit, impulsive, driven by her emotions. The tension between these contrasting dialectics builds up expertly throughout the novel; however, I am unsure whether or not she is successful in finding a balance between traditional values and a more liberal approach towards love.

Austen succeeds in creating such compelling characters full of complex emotions. The sisterly affection shared between the Dashwood sisters is most heartfelt. I am a sucker for a good romance and Jane Austen delivers the goods in spades. Incidentally, the movie adaptation directed by Ang Lee with Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet resonates with me even more than the actual text. The casting is perfect, everyone gives fantastic performances, even Hugh Grant who plays Elinor's love interest. Not to mention, the impeccable Alan Rickman who steals every scene as Colonel Brandon. The beautiful, haunting score is also most memorable. I don't remember if Shakespeare's sonnet #116 is mentioned in the novel but it is Marianne's favorite ("Let me not the marriage of true minds admit impediments") and this left me positively swooning. If I am considered effeminate because of my affection for Austen novels, so be it. I can live with that and frankly, I don't care what others think about my reading habits. She's a literary rock star and I look forward to reading the rest of her novels. Persuasion is next.

This novel is part of my Classics Club Challenge.

Friday 12 September 2014

The Good Luck of Right Now by Matthew Quick

 “The universe hiccups, and we poor fools try to figure out why.”

Considering that I do no read a lot of 'contemporary fiction' and tend to stick mostly with the 'classics' or underground cult novels, I honestly don't remember what compelled me to pick up The Good Luck of Right Now by Matthew Quick. Although, I'm pretty sure boredom played a factor in my decision or was it the simple, yet expressive cover with the fortune cookie? Dunno.

The book was on display at the library with a bunch of other "popular reads" picked by library staff members and I suppose it could have been the blurb on the front cover that says "From the Bestselling Author of The Silver Linings Playbook" that sold me. Granted, I have never seen the movie adaptation with Jennifer Lawrence even though it has been highly praised by critics and recommended to be on numerous occasions. Regardless, having read this book back in March, my memory is a little hazy concerning specific plot details but I certainly recall being very disappointed. Matthew Quick's twee writing style never really gelled with me, the story rudimentary, predictable; the quirkiness overdone to the point of self-parody. If you are going to write a story about an underdog type character on a journey of self-discovery, they best be sympathetic. The author failed to give me any reason to care at all.

The story takes on an epistolary form, written entirely in letters to the famous actor Richard Gere by a 40-year old man-child named Bartholomew (Simpsons reference?) who suffers from some kind of mental condition--never really specified, but it is most likely some kind of bi-polar deficiency. Richard Gere never actually responds to Bart so the letters basically serve as a helpful method of self-reflection especially for someone who has difficulty with expressing his thoughts in a coherent manner and socializing with others. He has lived a sheltered life, nurtured and taken care of by his mother but when she dies from cancer, Bart finds himself in a troubling situation because now he has to step out alone into the scary world. He meets a bunch of other quirky friends who decide to help him out and at one point they go on a road to trip to Ottawa (much needed bonus points awarded to Mr. Quick for including Canada in his story).  For those who are unfamiliar with Canadian geography, Ottawa is our capital, the Prime Minster's main residence and Parliament Hill is the political epicenter of the city where government officials run the country. Bart and his friends decide to visit Ottawa not because they wish to see Canadian politicians in action but in search of his father. They also stop and check out the historical site of Parliamentary Cats that actually used to exist. It was a large sanctuary for roaming cats who lived on the government grounds. Pretty cool. Shame that it is closed down.

Despite my indifference, this book is a light, quick read and easy enough to get through without any difficulty. Too bad it suffers from long stretches of dullness and rendered insubstantial with very little redeeming qualities. The Good Luck of Right Now wasn't for me and it's doubtful I will pick up anything else by this author anytime soon.

Thursday 11 September 2014

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

 “He was going to live forever, or die in the attempt.”

I've encountered these Joseph Heller types before--no, not similar writers per se but actual people who have come across my path at various social gatherings (especially when drinks are flowing and intellectual conversation is in great demand), reminding me why I rarely go out anymore because the experience is usually unpleasant. At some point throughout the evening after people have mingled for a while, eaten some fancy o'dourves, gulped down several glasses of wine, taken too many shots of hard liquor, become bored of talking about the weather or what reality television program they are watching, all of a sudden someone in the group will become the center of attention--not because this particular individual is loud or making a drunken scene; rather, they exude wit and sophistication outmatching anyone else in the room, possessing the capability to spin fabulous, outrageous stories and causing shock-waves of laughter from the party-goers who are astounded by the onslaught of hilarious jokes, executed with the perfect punch-lines. Of course, most of the guests will laugh at just about anything by this point due to the consumption of alcohol. Nevertheless, the speaker revels in flattery and self-gratification. It is as if the avid listeners are under a magical spell as they continue to laugh, and laugh until some are laughing so hard they spill their drinks or fall to the floor in epileptic fits of hysteria. Meanwhile, someone like myself who is an introvert, who would much rather stay at home curled up with a good book, never wanting to come to this party in the first place but ends up being dragged by some friends, happens to be nursing a carbonated beverage while quietly observing the entire ridiculous scene. 

Seriously, please stop talking. Yes, you are eloquent and clever but have been telling the same joke over and over again! You were mildly amusing at first but now I must resist the urge to throw my glass in the general direction of your head to knock you off that pedestal. My friends might find your antics hilariously entertaining but they seem unaffected by the law of diminishing returns. You made your point quite clear at the beginning but seem adamant to drill the argument home within different contexts and comedic sketches. You are fond of satire and paradox. You are in love with irony. War is bad. The military is insane, those in power are insane, soldiers are driven crazy by war. A solider can't be grounded because he thinks he's crazy and no one can vouch for his level of craziness because everyone else is crazy. It's a Catch-22. Yes, I heard you the first time, a Catch-22. Ok, I get it! It's a bloody Catch-22!

AHHHHHHHH!!!! I can't force myself to listen to anymore of your incessant rambling. I don't find these contradictions, breaches of communication and misunderstandings in your jokes to be funny anymore. It's annoying. Are you familiar with that Abbott and Costello routine "Who's on First?" I'm sure you do. Because you've been using that same set-up for what seems like an eternity! I'm so tempted to start taking cinnamon-whiskey shots and perhaps then you might be tolerable but unfortunately I'm the designated driver tonight. I'm going outside for a smoke until you eventually have to use the restroom to unload your bladder and then I'm grabbing my intoxicated friends and we are leaving. 

This novel is part of my Classics Club Challenge.

Tuesday 9 September 2014

Mr. Sammler's Planet by Saul Bellow

“Being right was largely a matter of explanations.”

Note: This will be the first of several reviews that I have neglected to write for the last little while. Considering that my memory remains quite poor and the fact that many of these novels were read at the beginning of the year, most of them will consist of scattered, jumbled thoughts.

No, this isn't a science fiction novel. It is about a Jewish holocaust survivor, haunted by his experiences during the war, who is now an elderly man living in New York during the late 60's. He finds himself alienated by the emerging radical counter-culture: race relations, sexism, social media, greed, capitalism and a whole host of other issues disorient Mr. Sammler's psyche, clashing with his 'old-fashioned' ways. Hence, the writing often reflects his fragmented state of mind with the use of stream-of-consciousness and discursive intrusions as he struggles to adapt to this new world that is now foreign to him. 

Similar to some of his other works such as Herzog or Humboldt's Gift, this is a novel about ideas, not plot. Mr. Sammler is a keen observer of human nature, an erudite scholar and intellectual who is trying to find a rational explanation for these changes to society and perhaps discover answers to the big questions that might aid humanity towards a brighter future instead of letting the world go to hell in a hand-basket. From his perspective, society  has gone completely insane with technological advancements, mass production and material obsession. "Enlightenment" which includes freedom, liberty, fraternity, equality, social security, democracy, etc has turned society into total chaos and hypocrisy. Leading the charge is this new hyper-active generation that is all about self-perseverance rather than the collective good and everyone prefers to remain oblivious to the important problems rather than face them head on. Truth has become obfuscated; the break-down of moral values has lead to anarchy. Inspired by the works of H.G. Wells and feeling disconnected from the rest of his fellow human beings, Mr. Sammler envisions that a possible solution would be to leave Earth in its current state of moral decay (or blow it up, whatever is easier) and start a new civilization on the moon. Here I am thinking that my view of the world was pessimistic. Yeesh. You win, Mr. Sammler.

Seeing as much of the action takes place within the mind of the protagonist, this provides the perfect springboard for Saul Bellow's signature style of protracted prose with its unsparing philosophical discourse, social commentary and critical analysis. His acerbic wit, and oddball humor provides a counter-balance to the lugubrious subject matter. Bellow displays  such a command of language that is most impressive to me. He has a magical way with words, composing long sentences simultaneously overwhelming and captivating. It is perfectly understandable why many people often find Bellow to be insufferable to read because he does can across as self-indulgent, ostentatious and his novels tend to take the form of academic dissertations instead of focusing on an actual story. I usually revere his writing techniques with much earnestness but this is the first time that his incessant ramblings irritated me. There is even a monologue that extends for several pages that attempts to encompass his extensive ideologies about Western Civilization--history, scientific principals, individualism, misanthropy, the millstone of the human soul, the contradictions of transcendence, universal morality. It's all too much. 

Furthermore, one of the most distasteful aspects of the novel for me is Bellow's portrayal of race, especially that of African-Americans, which comes across as discriminatory. At the beginning of the novel, Mr. Sammler gets accosted by a "Negro" who is a thief (typical, eh?) and during their little ordeal, the black man pulls down his pants to reveal his genitals. Bellow is keen to describe the Negro as an animal, a sub-human prone to sexual deviance and violence. Reading this part left me flabbergasted and I admit to losing a bit of respect for Mr. Bellow.

Overall, this novel failed to generate any high level of enthusiasm from me and does not even come close to what I have come to expect from an otherwise consistent author. I would classify this novel as a minor Saul Bellow work that has ambitious intentions but fails to reach its full potential.

This novel is part of my Saul Bellow Project.

Monday 8 September 2014

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

"In this world, where we find ourselves, we need compassion more than anything, I think, or we are all alone.”

Stop the press! I hereby declare that Tigana may just be the finest stand-alone fantasy novel ever written. Yeah, it's that good. In fact, it transcends the genre and should be recognized as a great piece of literature in its own right. This is my my first encounter with the writings of Guy Gavriel Kay and it certainly won't be the last. Where has this author been hiding all my life? I'm kicking myself for not having read anything by him sooner. He's even Canadian! Shame on me.

I am not sure how his other novels compare, but based solely on the masterful work that is Tigana, it's a travesty that Mr. Kay has not received the recognition so rightfully deserved as one of the great Canadian authors of our time. Sure, he is much praised within fantasy circles, but rarely is he ever acknowledged amongst the more notable Canadian writers such as Margaret Atwood, Mordecai Richler, Michael Ondaatje, Robertson Davies, W.O. Mitchell or Alice Munro (just to name a few) who tend to steal the spotlight. I can't seem to shake off the nagging feeling that he has been wrongfully excluded because of a certain level of prejudice that exists against authors who write within the fantasy genre. This elitist attitude is completely unsound and downright infuriating to me. I really wish people would keep more of an open mind, embracing literature in its many forms instead of being quick to judge a novel as simply derivative just because it does not fall into the general consensus of serious literature.

So what is this story about? Well, for starters, it revolves around a conquered land known as the Palm, whose territory is divided up by two opposing empires, each under the control by a powerful sorcerer--Brandin of Ygrath of Alberico of Barbidor. For over twenty years, peace has been maintained by the two rulers but now tensions are beginning to rise as certain events are set into motion by a small group of rebels who aim to overthrow their oppressors. One particular province named Tigana has been cursed by Brandin due to particular circumstances and will soon pass out of all knowledge unless these individuals find a way to bring its name back into the world. Kay weaves a rich history of culture and religion that is nothing short of mesmerizing. He transports the reader to a fantastic realm that pulsates with authenticity and there is no limit to his imagination. It would be cruel to reveal more plot details and spoil the fun of discovering them on your own but it should be noted that the novel is surprisingly light on fantasy elements, the main emphasis placed on the characters and story. There is very little action, no large battles until the very end and the display of magic is marginal. Kay's decision to scale back the action is well-conceived because it allows more time to focus on the intricate narrative rather than wasting time on pointless fighting sequences. When these small bursts of action do occur, the stage has been slowly set up for awesomeness. One of the many interesting aspects of the novel is that the magic used in this world remains ambiguous and Kay is not adamant to go into technical detail at all. This approach is surprisingly effective, leaving room for the reader to use their imagination, to infer through context. He is a natural born story-teller, a very skilled writer who knows how to cleverly hook the reader into the narrative by revealing just enough information but not leaving them completely in the dark; dropping clues, calmly building suspense, and then knowing exactly when to divulge key plot points that are stunning in their turning points to move the story along towards its spectacular finale. He makes it seem so effortless.

Kay is able to take those familiar fantasy genre tropes and flip them on their head to tell a story that is truly unique full of depth and complexity. He imbues layers of ambiguity, metaphors and subtext that leaves the reader with plenty to contemplate. In fact, one can argue that the novel serves as a parable or allegory of colonial rule, the loss of cultural identity that often afflicts a conquered people. Tigana is a slow-burn and somewhat confusing at first since Kay drops the reader into this fantastical world without very little explanation, not to mention the plethora of characters to keep track of. Considering the many interconnected story-lines, Kay performs a miraculous juggling act with the use of shifting narrative perspectives to keep the story flowing at a steady pace. There are plenty of surprises and unexpected plot twists that dropped my jaw to the floor. As a stand-alone epic, I didn't think Kay could successfully pull it off without stumbling towards a lackluster climax but he continually surprised me and left me in awe. The penguin edition clocks in close to 800 pages and it's usually the sign of a great novel if it manages to keep me turning the pages at a brisk pace and by its conclusion, leave me wanting more. I honestly can't remember the last time I became so enraptured by a novel, reveling in the absolute pleasure of reading a great story that is entertaining as much as it is intelligently written, filled with elegant prose and memorable characters--heroes and villains that are not portrayed in black-and-white but come across as complex individuals struggling with their consciousness and who undergo moral dilemmas as a result of their actions. Kay also writes compelling female characters, strong independent women who do not fall into stereotypical gender roles. There are a few sex scenes (gasp!) but they are not gratuitous and believe it or not, actually serve a purpose to the story. Although it is difficult for me to settle upon a favorite character, Brandin of Ygrath stands out as one of the more fascinating villains I have come across in fantasy. He is a tyrant and has committed unspeakable crimes but he is a sympathetic antagonist whose cruel actions are understandable considering the circumstances leading up to his victory over the Western Palm. He might be a sorcerer wielding great power, but he is also human, someone who is flawed, blindsided by grief but also capable of expressing love, especially towards Dianora who plays a key role in the story.
On a somewhat related note, it surprises that no movie studios have decided to buy the rights to this novel. Kay's writing possesses a very cinematic quality that would translate well to the silver-screen and the epic story would certainly appeal to a mass audience but then again, it would also be very difficult to do the novel justice. Perhaps a mini-series would be the better way to go. This is one of those rare novels that still lingers in my mind and I can't wait to revisit it again. Even if you aren't a fan of the fantasy, do yourself a favor and give Tigana a chance. Like me, you might be pleasantly surprised to discover a newfound appreciation of the genre.

This novel is part of my Canadian Reading Project.