Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Howards End is on the landing by Susan Hill

Howards End is on the Landing is the book Susan Hill wrote whilst spending a year reading only books from her own (extremely copious) bookshelves, whilst also trying to compile a list of 40 books she couldn't do without if she had to forsake all others.

It's not just about those 40 books though. In fact, the process of selection is not really discussed until the final third if the book. This book is more of a journey through Susan Hill's life, how she feels about books and the reading process. It is more like a series of short essays on a variety of aspects of her reading life, including meetings with well known authors, gushing essays about why she loves particular authors and when she was first introduced to them, confessions of who she doesn't like, praise of the physical books themselves and other such subjects.

Structurally, the book follows her around her house as she moves from room to room, shelf to shelf, with each new shelf bringing out a series of reminiscences about her literary life. The chapters fall mainly into two camps, those about a specific author and those about the books and the reading process themselves. Although I enjoyed reading about her love of Thomas hardy and Virginia Woolf, and conversely her dislike of Jane Austen, my favourite parts were when she talked about books themselves. Enthusing about how books are shelved, where books are shelved and why they should be kept was lovely. Also the sections on children's books, reading slowly and writing in books was brilliant. And in case you're interested, in her opinion, books should be shelved where they fit, where they seem to belong, and never in alphabetical order!

I think the main appeal of this book for me was the obvious love of books and reading that permeated virtually every page. She made her books seem like such an important part of her life and her character. I just wanted to read the books she talked about (not all but most), and more than that, I wanted to visit her house and mooch around her bookshelves. I think I could quite easily spend a year reading from her bookshelves, reading her well loved books. The descriptions of the various rooms and shelves full of books were just wonderful.


"But if the books I have read have helped to form me, then probably nobody else who has ever lived has read exactly the the same books, all the same books and only the same books as me. So just as my genes and the soul within me make me uniquely me, so I am the unique sum of the books I have read. I am my literary DNA."

"How can she not understand that if I let her do such a terrible thing as organise my books, I would never find what I was looking for again? Worse, there would never be any wonderful surprises, as I look for X and Y but find Z, which I thought I had lost years ago. Never the marvellous juxtaposition of a biography of Marilyn Monroe next to Charlie and the Chocolate factory."

Saturday, 13 March 2010

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

The Chrysalids wasn't what i was expecting, but was no less well received for it. I think, given that title, and having only previously read The Day of the Triffids, I was expecting this to be more science fiction, with some kind of other-worldly intervention but I'd label this as dystopian.

Set a few hundred years into our future, with most of the world ravaged by nuclear catastrophe, large tracts of the earth are left uninhabitable, with what land did manage to escape total destruction more often than not growing mutated flora and fauna, and even what is left of the human race being prone to mutations and deviations from the 'norm'. It is never stated how much of humanity survived, but from the descriptions of the wrecked land, it is implied that it is really only small pockets. In a place called Labrador, a child called David lives with his preacher family in a mainly arable setting, with very little machinery, so the assumption is that civilisation has returned to a more subsistence level of surviving. It is through David's eyes that we view this story.

However, civilisation is not a good word to use for this post-nuclear society. I used the word 'norm' very purposely earlier on because it plays an important part in their worldview. It is obviously a staunchly religious society, as is made clear by the dogmatic biblical quotes in the first few pages. However on closer inspection these precepts are not quite as we would know them and as the book progresses, it becomes clear that this society is not civilised at all!

"And any creature that shall seem to be human, but is not formed thus is not human. It is neither man nor woman. It is a blasphemy against the true Image of God, and hateful in the sight of God."

What this all boils down to in the end is that in attempt to keep humanity pure, and restore it to God's true intention, anyone who deviates slightly from what is defined as the 'True Image' is cast out into what is known as the Fringes to take their chances. Deviant babies are simply exposed at birth, and all this is regulated by an inspector, because every human being has to have a certificate to prove their humanity. Eventually it becomes apparent that David himself has a 'mutation', although invisible to the naked eye. He can communicate telepathically with other children in the surrounding neighbourhood. When this ability is eventually discovered, David has to flee, with his cousin and younger sister, Petra, to avoid capture. What follows moves a little into an adventure story, with a posse hot on their heels trying to capture them, with a run in with the people who live in the fringes thrown in for good measure. It becomes clear that Petra's psychic abilities are far stronger than the rest, and she communicates with someone far away, who also get involved in the final confrontation.

I really enjoyed this and thought that the points being made were still current today. Some of the descriptions of nuclear radiation were a little dated, especially comments about things glowing in the dark, but when this was written total annihilation was a new thing and was very much on peoples minds. But more importantly this book is about persecution, fear of difference, fear of change and the wrongs humanity can inflict on each other because of fear. The society in Labrador doesn't want change. In modern terms it would be called fundamentalist. David's father has given up his own children because of slight genetic faults, and at one point, he turns away his own sister-in-law who is asking for help to keep her baby because it only has 'a very small thing' wrong with it. He is a despicable character who even joins the hunt to bring back his own children, refusing them the chance of relative safety. He must be seen as a symbol for all that is wrong with a society that persecutes anyone with a slight difference, whatever that may be.

One of the reasons this book worked so well for me was the way the information about the society was revealed. It was a gradual drip feed throughout the first half of the book. Each time David moves on to a new event, we learn about something else that is horrific and dogmatic about this society. Part of the effect of this book is that we could see this happening in our world, and for this to have the impact it does, we need to see this world as similar to ours. If all the information was revealed in one chunk, it would seem too obscure and irrelevant. For me anyway.

I also liked that this was seen totally through David's eyes, and at various points we see his conflict with the beliefs he has had drummed into him as a child, and how he cannot believe that this can be right.

"Clearly there must be a mistake somewhere. Surely having one very small toe extra-well, two very small toes, because I supposed there would be one to match on the other foot- surely that wouldn't be enough to make her 'hateful in the sight of God...?"

This internal debate is what I like most about this book. David quickly moves away from this and sees his society for what it is, but the debate about the rights and wrongs of society rages throughout the book. And although the end is slightly predictable, it does seem to suggest that the author is making a point that all civilisations will see themselves as superior to another and inflict their beliefs into them. David moves into a new civilisation, but is it any better than the one he left?

Monday, 8 March 2010

A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz

A Fraction of the Whole. As well as the book title, this is probably a good description of what this review is going to cover! This was such a long book, with so much in it, I really feel like it would be impossible to do it justice here. In a nutshell it is the story of Martin and Jasper Dean, father and son. Martin spends all of his adolescent and adult life in a deep depression, although with moments of euphoria, trying to escape from out of the shadow of his younger brother, Terry Dean, sportsman turned criminal mastermind and mass murderer, and trying to bring his son up to not be like him and live in no-one's shadow. Jasper Dean spends most of the novel in conflict with his father, or at least his father's actions, yet towards the end seems to become more and more like him.

Stripped down like this to it's bare essentials, this book is a family saga, encompassing father, brother and son. The story is narrated mostly by Jasper Dean, and is really an autobiography, at least that what he intends to write. I was intrigued from the start, when Jasper admits he is writing this book in prison, although he doesn't say why. He does give the indication that we will find out during the course of the book though. (we do, right at the end) It is not however written as a straightforward biography. As Jasper himself says in the first few pages

"I guess I should admit it. This will be as much about my father as it is about me. I hate how no one can tell the story of his life without making a star of his enemy, but that's just the way it is. The fact is the whole of Australia despises my father perhaps more than any other man, just as they adore his brother, my uncle, perhaps more than any other man. I might as well set the story straight about both of them, though I don't intend to undermine your love for my uncle or reverse your hatred for my father, especially if its an expansive hatred. I don't want to spoil things if you use your hate to quicken your awareness of who you love."

That simple quote says quite a lot about what this book is concerned with. There is a lot in here about family relationships, particularly between father and son, but also between brothers, as well as between mothers and sons, but to a lesser extent. It should be obvious from this that Jasper and his father, Martin have quite a complex relationship, and that Jasper's feelings towards his father are quite complicated and confused. After the brief introduction from jasper, we move into Martin telling a teenage Jasper the story of his own childhood and early adult life, culminating in his birth in Paris and their return to Australia. Martin was a sickly child, and after spending seven years of his life in a coma in his bedroom, he embarks on his life of thinking, philosophising and generally trying to make the world a better place. His projects include installing a suggestion box in his town, which although initially well received, eventually leads to the incarceration of his criminal brother in a mental asylum and the building of an observatory, which eventually leads to the burning down of the town, and the death of his brother. With a brief interlude which involved a visit to a notorious criminal in the local prison, and the publishing of a book titled the Handbook of Crime, which although well intentioned, also ends in disaster. The descriptions of this book are probably the funniest moments of the whole book

Later on, as Jasper takes up the story of his life once again, it is clear that his father's madcap schemes to change the world have not ended, and although his father is constantly plagued by doubt and periods of depression, which at one point sees him confined to a mental hospital himself, he is constantly trying to make the world a better place, and educate his son how to live a good and non-conformist life himself. His sanity is repeatedly called into question though, especially when he decides to build himself a house in the middle of a labyrinth, so they will be hidden away from the world. The whole thing culminates in a scheme to make everyone in Australia millionaires, which true to form, goes disastrously wrong, and leads to the biggest of the many twists and turns in this book.

Jasper himself has a strange relationship with his father. He is there for him, and apart from a brief interlude when he leaves home, he is always with him. But it is clear he gets frustrated with his dad's constant philosophising on life, and pulls him up on his arguments sometimes. Jasper himself is concerned with who he is, and whether he is just a carbon copy almost of his father. He is plagued by the idea that he is turning into his father, which is an idea he abhors. Yet he can't abandon him.

The story itself is only part of this book though. As just this story it would have been interesting, but nothing special. And very long! It is more Martin's snarky commentary on modern life that make this book worth reading. Sometimes serious, sometimes melancholy and sometimes humorous they are peppered throughout the novel, and although there are just a few samples here, I could have quoted hundreds!

"There's nothing wonderful or interesting about unrequited love. I think it's shitty, just plain shitty. To love someone who doesn't return your affections might be exciting in books, but in life it's unbearably boring. I'll tell you what's exciting: sweaty, passionate nights. But sitting on the veranda outside the home of a sleeping woman who isn't dreaming about you is slow moving and just plain sad."

"Honestly, I've never known how people do married life. I mean, when I go from the bedroom to the bathroom or the kitchen to the bathroom, the last thing I want to do is stop to have a chat."

"I thought there must be something secret and sinister about Lionel Potts. I couldn't believe people hated him for being rich, because I'd noticed most people were aching to be rich too; otherwise they wouldn't buy lottery tickets and plan get rich quick schemes. It made no sense to me that people would hate the very thing they aspired to become."

It was these comments, and many many more that made the book for me. The totally dysfunctional family, the outrageous events, gripping story, unbelievable plot twists well drawn, if slightly over the top characters were all essential too, but it wouldn't be what it was (brilliant), without these philosophical musings from Martin and Jasper. And they do continue throughout the whole book.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

The Bird Room by Chris Killen

The Bird Room is a short novel, very economical in it's writing style, and I'm not quite sure what I think about it. I'd usually start with a plot description, but there isn't really much of one. I suppose if it was classified as anything, it would be a character study, or a study of human relationships, and the destructive results of obsession. Maybe. Throughout the book we are following two very different, seemingly unrelated stories, That of the breakdown of Will and Alice's relationship, and the life of a girl called Helen, an aspiring actress, who makes her living replying to adverts on adult contact sites.

Not very clear I know, but I don't think the book is intended to be. The main character is a man named Will, who has a best friend named Will. This gets a bit confusing at times, and although this book is easy to read, it does make you constantly think who you are actually reading about. Will appears to be a pretty dysfunctional character, he has a girlfriend named Alice, who he took home from a club one night who then never left. We start the novel with Alice being introduced to Will (the friend), and the narrator Will being paranoid that she fancies him and is going to sleep with him. Although the language used is actually a lot more choice that that! It's not long though until we move back into reading about the start of their relationship, and learn of Will's incredulity that he actually has a girlfriend.

The story about Helen is very different. Helen is only her assumed name. Her real name is Clair, but she has taken a new name to escape from what is implied to be a traumatic school experience, although this is never elaborated on. Throughout, Helen is obviously acting a role, to avoid remembering a unpleasant part of her life.

The two strands are narrated in very different ways. Will's story is narrated by himself, whereas Helen's is in the third person. Consequently, although we feel some sort of attachment to Will, we are always kept at a distance from Helen, which is obviously how she likes it. She keeps everyone at a distance, even to the extent of changing her name.

This book is really a study of obsessional love, and the lies and deceit we perpetuate in all our lives, as well as the masks we wear both for other people and for ourselves. Obvious in Helen's story, perhaps not so much in Will's. Will's story is really the focus of this book, and he seems to change, or at least the way the author writes him changes, throughout the book. At the start, he seems quite lonely, but generally balanced. He did however quit his job and tell Alice he worked from home, a mask he tried hard to keep up, but when it collapses, so does the life he has built around it. The turning point is when he discovers Alice once filmed a video for an amateur sex website, and becomes obsessed with finding it and deleting it. From this point their relationship goes downhill, he becomes ultra paranoid, and eventually asks her to ignore him. Which if we are to believe his narrative, she does, even to the point of cooking a romantic meal for the other Will, and even sleeping with him in front of him. But by this point, Will has become so obsessive and delusional, it is impossible to know if this actually happened, or if his ultra-paranoia is creating false memories. The events he describes seem quite surreal and dream like, but he obviously believes them. Either way it is tragic. Horrible if it happened, and just sad if it didn't but he believed it did.

I think the two strands come together at the end, but it's all a bit ambiguous. Helen's last client is a man named Will. Same Will, different Will, I don't know. I think probably so, at some point after Alice has left him, but it's not altogether clear. I think this is what was intended though.

As to whether I liked this, I'm not sure. Until three quarters of the way through, I would have said I didn't, even though it was compelling to read. I think it was when I first started to see the possible connections between the two threads that I saw more in this, and it has left me thinking about it a lot, so it's gone up in my estimation. I also really likes the ambiguity, and the unreliability of Will as a narrator. For once, I think I sort of like the confusion!

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was my first Muriel Spark, and most definitely won't be my last. The story pivots around primary teacher Miss Brodie, and her group of favoured students, known throughout the school as the Brodie Set. When we first meet these students they are sixteen, and in the secondary school, although the story starts when they are ten, and move into Miss Brodie's class. Set in an exclusive school, The Marcia Blaine Academy for Girls, the girls have experienced an unusual primary education, hearing about the life and loves of Miss Brodie, whilst having their formal textbooks propped open in case of sudden disturbance by another teacher. Miss Brodie feels persecuted by the other teachers, as they are always trying to remove her from her post, as they do not like her progressive methods of education.

Miss Brodie is an unusual character, and it's difficult to know how to approach her. She is not really a likeable character, but the reader does seem to have sympathy for her throughout the story. As well as her unconventional educational methods, she has an admiration for fascist leaders such as Hitler and Mussolini, who were prominent at the time this book is set. You would think that a woman who believes the girl guides to be a fascist movement to rival Mussolini, manipulate her students into having an affair and can persuade a teenager to run off to fight for Franco would earn nothing but contempt from us. But that's not quite the case. I think perhaps it the persecution of Miss Brodie, and to a lesser extent, her set, automatically puts us on her side.

Her group of girls are all very different characters, and all seem to have an aspect of their personality that the are famous for. She grooms them all to become what she believes they can be, as she says herself

"Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and they are mine for life"

They are all captivated by her, her glamorous clothes, the cultural visits she takes them on and her fabulous stories of her love life (as well as those they make up about her themselves).

She has them marked down as certain things, although her favouritism and manipulation takes a further step when she later on selects one of the girls to assist with the completion of her plan for the other, with unexpected consequences. The set itself keeps to the principles taught by miss Brodie, even when they are no longer taught by her,

"By the time they were sixteen, and had reached fourth form, and loitered by the gates after school, and had adapted themselves to the orthodox routine, they remained unmistakeably Brodie, and were all famous in the school, which is to say they were held in suspicion and not much liking. They had no team spirit."

It has to be said that Miss Brodie is ultimately wrong. Her girls are not hers for life, as one of them ultimately betrays her. We know this from very early on, and not long after, we discover who, although, we don't discover why until the end. Which brings me very neatly round to how this story is written, It's told in a non-linear fashion, with the narration jumping around from the children's childhood, teenage years and even their eventual fates as adults. The progression is so non-linear, that we know what eventually happens to the Brodie Set, and Miss Brodie, through most of the novel. This means we are reading about the events of the girls' childhood with a prior knowledge of exactly how these events affect their adult lives. This serves to make what is actually a very succinct novel, full of ideas and information, and in a few pages characters are illuminated so that we feel we know them inside out, without actually getting much description about them.

I loved this book. I liked the writing, I liked the way the story was told from an adult perspective but through the narrative jumping around from childhood to adult events, we see both the adult and the childhood view on the events. (which can be very different). I think what I like most is that I don't feel I've got nearly anything like what I could get from this book. I don't re-read very often, but on first reading this book feels like one that will reveal more each time I read it. And I think my favourite quote is one concerning an issue I didn't touch on very much here, but does seem to suggest one of the things that I thought about this book, but couldn't quite articulate

"It occurred to Sandy, there at the end of The Middle Meadow Walk, that the Brodie set was Miss Brodie's fascisti, not to the naked eye, marching along, but all knit together for her need"