Saturday, 30 July 2011

Hey Nostradamus! by Douglas Coupland

My first thought as I started reading this book was "more things should have exclamation marks on the end"*. My second thought was "this is quite good actually".

Top Five Things Which I Also Thought About This Book That You Might Find Interesting:

1. The Story:
Cheryl is a high school student, who has recently married Jason in a secret Vegas ceremony. A few days after, she is shot dead in a massacre at her school. The novel explores how a single day can irrevocably change the course of a life forever. Coupland demonstrates humour, subtlety and sensitivity in documenting the effect this tragedy on the character’s lives, over the years.

2.The Characters:
The story is told through four different characters, at four different times. There is Cheryl, the final victim of a high school massacre whose absent minded scribblings (God is nowhere, God is now here) are taken vastly out of context by the media and who now speaks to us beyond the grave, Lovely Bones style. Ten years later we are introduced to Cheryl’s sweetheart Jason who is left to cope with the aftermath of the massacre, Cheryl’s death and his heroic actions at the scene being vastly taken out of context by the media. Next, we are faced with Heather, Jason’s girlfriend who has their relationship vastly taken out of context by a gold-digging psychic. Finally there is Reg, Jason’s father, whose sense of reality is taken vastly out of context by his extremist religious beliefs.
The first two characters, Cheryl and Jason, I found to be endearing, humorous, sympathetic representations. Towards the middle of the book though, it felt like Mr Coupland had run out of steam. Heather was by all accounts a pretty boring character, with not much to say for herself. It’s almost like the author realised this and threw a few “quirks” into her character (like her Muppet-style private jokes with Jason) to make her seem a bit more three-dimensional and likeable. Reg, the final character, was a clich├ęd religious zealot who sees the error of his ways after a stint in hospital. Thankfully, Heather’s chapter has an engaging plotline to it, which distracts from her dreary personality and Reg’s chapter is quite short. So it all works out for the best.

3.The Themes:
The story essentially explores the effect that the Columbine-esque massacre has on each of these characters; this is refreshing for the simple reason that this is often the side of tragedy that you don’t hear about, that doesn’t lay itself open to examination, because grief has evolved to be a solitary mental activity. And this is another aspect which the novel explores-the impact that is produced when this inherently personal reflection is propelled into the public arena by the media. There are misinterpretations and exaggerations, mimicking the media furore that was seen after Columbine**. On a broader note, the themes of death and loss reach into every part of the novel. The characters are essentially defined by their experience of loss, the entirety of their lives being shaped and moulded by one event that happens at the start of the novel.

4. The Humour:
Some parts were ridiculous. I’ve only read one other Coupland novel before this-“Girlfriend in a Coma”-which featured an apocalypse at its climax, before the events of the novel were reversed and everything went back to normal. So I wasn’t exactly unprepared for some, more surreal, occurrences. At one such point, the protagonist Jason’s brother Kent dies. His brother’s wife asks Jason to impregnate her, as Kent was infertile and Jason, being his brother, has the same DNA as him. Jason agrees, but only if they get married in Vegas first. Oh also, when a friend notices them on the way to the chapel, Kent’s wife immediately murders him. As you do.

5.The Style:
For a book with such deep themes, it’s incredibly simplistic in its writing, and this is a great asset. There’s nothing worse than a book which is highly meaningful and profound, but the writing style is so impenetrable that you come away from it uninterested, confused and frustrated (I’m looking at YOU, Moby Dick). If you are unemployed, bored and live in a country where it rains incessantly (I tick all three boxes) you could easily get through this is in a day. And what’s better than spending a day reading a good book? I don’t know, probably bungee jumping or something.

*******1/2 (That’s seven and a half stars out of ten).

*Like this

** Especially with regards to student Cassie Bernell who supposedly answered “yes” when asked by one of the killers if she believed in God, just before being shot. This exchange has later been disputed by witnesses and investigators.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Young by Anne Sexton

There has been a lot of complicated, nasty things happening lately. So here is a simple and sweet little poem.

Young by Anne Sexton

A thousand doors ago
when I was a lonely kid
in a big house with four
garages and it was summer
as long as I could remember,
I lay on the lawn at night,
clover wrinkling over me,
the wise stars bedding over me,
my mother's window a funnel
of yellow heat running out,
my father's window, half shut,
an eye where sleepers pass,
and the boards of the house
were smooth and white as wax
and probably a million leaves
sailed on their strange stalks
as the crickets ticked together
and I, in my brand new body,
which was not a woman's yet,
told the stars my questions
and thought God could really see
the heat and the painted light,
elbows, knees, dreams, goodnight.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Don't Go Far Off by Pablo Neruda

Pablo is always good for a bit of heart-broken anguish.

Don't Go Far Off

Don't go far off, not even for a day, because --
because -- I don't know how to say it: a day is long
and I will be waiting for you, as in an empty station
when the trains are parked off somewhere else, asleep.

Don't leave me, even for an hour, because
then the little drops of anguish will all run together,
the smoke that roams looking for a home will drift
into me, choking my lost heart.

Oh, may your silhouette never dissolve on the beach;
may your eyelids never flutter into the empty distance.
Don't leave me for a second, my dearest,

because in that moment you'll have gone so far
I'll wander mazily over all the earth, asking,
Will you come back? Will you leave me here, dying?

Friday, 15 July 2011

The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ by Phillip Pullman

The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ

Phillip Pullman’s latest venture is a re-telling of The New Testament that took me under a day to read (as opposed to The New Testament).
Don’t be put off by the title-there’s plenty to enjoy whatever your belief. I, personally, have no belief, except the belief that I don’t know enough to have any kind of belief and I liked it enough to give it 7 out of 10.

Here are exactly five notable things about this book:

1. The Story:
If, like me, you were incredibly confused by the title and the blurb, allow me to clear this up. The novel is essentially a “what REALLY happened”; instead of Jesus Christ being one person, Pullman has split the character in two. We are now presented with Jesus, a strong, determined and impassioned preacher and his twin Christ. Christ is the opposite of Jesus, weak, intuitive and an overall relatively simple character who dedicates his life to documenting his brother’s activities (the finished product is implied to be the basis for The New Testament itself). Because the concept of twins as opposites isn’t exactly original, you could be forgiven for thinking that the rest of the story is this predictable. But Pullman manages to pull off a deep and complex narrative, with twists; not only twists of fate, but twists on a story which everybody in the Western world is so familiar with.

2. The Humour:
There are some real comic turns which will probably make some people scream “blasphemy” whilst shaking their fist disapprovingly and/or write an angry review on that will earn them a “1 out of 184 people found this helpful”. At times it actually made me LOL (God, I hate that phrase). The scene depicting the twins’ anything-but-immaculate conception springs to mind; a voice coming from Mary’s window whispers “so sweet and so gracious, to have such eyes and such lips….”. Mary enquires about the gentleman caller, he claims he’s an angel sent to fertilize her, and Mary’s reaction is along the lines of “fair enough”. It’s this blatant naivety that is satirized by Pullman throughout the novel. Miracles are not really miracles, merely ingenuity and mistranslations. Pullman fully exposes the ridiculousness of these events and at times, all you can do is laugh.

3. The Simplicity:
The minimalistic style mimics that of the Bible itself. It’s an extremely quick read, and even though there’s a lot to consider, you could probably get through it in a few hours because of the wonderfully reductionist prose. This simple approach is both a blessing and a curse. Barely any characters are developed beyond your original image of them. The disciples, Mary and Joseph, Mary Magdalene, John the Baptist and King Herod all appear but, apart from a few tweaks, they’re all pretty much what you’d expect. However, the character of Jesus makes a massive turn around towards the last few chapters; he decides to have a little sit down in the Garden of Gethsemane questioning the nature of faith and reason, the evils of church and state, finally concluding that God doesn’t exist. You know, those type of thoughts we all get from time to time, which often result in a SOLILOQUAY THAT GOES ON FOR TEN PAGES. My thoughts when I first read it-“1. This is very poetic and deep, but it’s going on a bit” 2. “Ohhh, THIS must be where all the character development was hiding.”

4. The Accessibility:
One of the most appealing aspects of this novel is the fact that can be appreciated by a person of any faith (unless you’re one of those crazies that Louis Theroux always does shows about, in which case the only thing you’ll appreciate is if I dedicate my life to shooting homosexuals and Bibles out of cannons). Phillip Pullman is famously atheist, so I went into the book expecting an attack on God, Christianity, miracles, praying, faith crystals, yoga, fairies and Bigfoot, especially with comments describing the book as a “rebel scripture” (The Independent). If there is an attack here, it’s on organised religion and not on faith itself- but for the most part I felt like the story was the priority, and that the true meaning is left up to the interpretation of the individual reader. I think the beauty of a novel such as this one is that, like the blurb says, it is a “story about how stories become stories”; exploring the power of individual interpretation is essentially the novel’s purpose, rather than to provide another tired comment on religion.

5. The Reviews:
I’m going to finish up on a bum note here. This book is reasonably enjoyable, quite thought provoking and most of all, superbly overrated. It is no way going to change your life or how you view the world, and it will most certainly not “want to make you put the book down and say “wow”” (Times Educational Supplement). It is not “Pullman at his very best” (Guardian)-for that you need to go and read His Dark Materials. I think because Pullman is an atheist and the book is focused on religion, providing an alternate series of events, critics have automatically seen it as an explosive and damning critique of religion and faith without bothering to really think about what’s being said.
This is a clever, mainly entertaining, sometimes philosophical read; it is by no means a divine read.

******* (That's seven stars out of ten)

If you like these things, you might also like this thing:
Paulo Cohelho, Richard Dawkins, anything else from The Cannongate Myth Series.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Desert Places by Robert Frost

Here's a bit of poetry while I write my next review. It's raining outside at the moment, I'm searching for jobs and everything is very dark and gloomy, so here is a dark and gloomy poem to fit the mood.

Desert Places

by Robert Frost

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it--it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less--
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars--on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

"Kafka on the Shore" by Haruki Murakami

********* (That's nine stars out of ten).

I’m going to start this blog of mine with a review of a book that I simply and utterly loved. It’s called Kafka on the Shore by an author called Haruki Murakami. You might have heard of him before; he’s pretty much the best thing to come out of Japan since Godzilla and before Pokemon. (1) I stumbled upon him quite by accident, about a year ago, when I decided to read arguably his most famous work “Norwegian Wood”. I’m a massive Beatles fan, and despite the fact I usually only read books by people I’ve heard of (2), I thought I’d give it a bash. It was brilliant. And then I read Kafka on the Shore. It was amazing. And then I made some macaroni cheese for dinner. It was a bit too cheesy but, in general, was also very good.

If you like......Twin Peaks, Lost, Mulholland Drive, Labyrinths (Luis Borges), 100 years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez), The Third Policeman, At Swim Two Birds (Flann O’ Brien) might like this, but you know, don’t take my word for it.

Things You Should Know About “Kafka on the Shore” (in no particular order):

5. The Surrealism:
And hence, the completely absorbing nature of the story itself. It shifts back and forth between two protagonists, one: a teenage boy (Kafka) running away from his home and his father to find himself. Yeah, we’ve heard it all before right? Only he’s actually running from an Oedipal prophecy which leads him to become bessies with a gay pre-op transsexual, oh, and he also falls in love with the ghost of a woman who isn’t actually dead yet. The other protagonist is an elderly man who encountered a UFO as a child which left him with the ability to talk to cats and summon fish from the sky, which then leads him on a quest to……well, it’s difficult to say, which leads me onto my next point.

4. The Mysteries:
At the beginning of this post, I compared Kafka on the Shore to Lost, and whilst they are similar in many ways-the surrealism, the bending of time and space, the shifting narratives, the flashbacks-they differ in the respect that an avid Lost fan had to sit through six series to find even half the answers to the questions the show had built up over it’s 8 years. It wont take you 8 years to read Kafka on the Shore (unless you are an incredibly slow reader, in which case I’d stop reading this immediately as it’s probably taken you several weeks to get this far) which is good, as the mysteries can all be solved with a bit of deep and abstract thought. Don’t expect any concrete or definite conclusions within the text, however; the not-knowing, the feeling that the answers are just out of reach, is part of the book’s appeal and everything depends on your own interpretation.

3. A bespoke genre:
In case I haven't already implied it with my previous gushing, it was completely genre defying. Part murder mystery, part epic romance, part Greek tragedy, part comedic buddy story, part horror-it’s these constant shifts in the fabric of the story that made the book so addictive. I, personally, became wrapped up in the romance at the centre of the story (as I usually do, with any work of fiction, because I’m SUCH A BLOODY WOMAN) which was just bizarre and magical, but there are so many layers to this book, that there’s really something for everybody. Above the age of, let’s say, thirteen. Which brings me onto…..

2. There is explicit sex and very explicit violence towards cute animals in this book so maybe just be prepared for all that:
My general view about both these things is that if it’s not necessary to the story, then it probably doesn’t need to be there,(3) because if I want to read graphic cringe worthy sex scenes, I’ll read a Mills and Boon novel.(4) In this case, the sex scenes, though relatively explicit, were written with sensitivity and were necessary for the story to progress; because the teenage protagonist Kafka is essentially on a quest to discover himself, sexual discovery must be included as part of this. The animal cruelty scene was horrific and needed to be. If there was a turning point in the novel that scene would be the main contender, and needed to be as horrendous and memorable as possible in order to motivate the characters and provide momentum to the narrative. If it’s still hard for you to swallow, please do remember that it is A WORK OF FICTION.

1. The Characters:
The characters are layered and genuinely likable. Both characters are so compelling, that once you get caught up in one narrative, it switches to the other-and the exact same thing happens. It’s a page turner with a capital PT. Basically if you like magic realism, fantasy, romance or horror, you will love this book. If you like excellent writing, superb characterization and a plot that will keep you completely involved and engrossed from page one, then you will love it too. There’s nothing more I can say, JUST READ IT WILL YOU.


(1) I think that, in a way, the evolution of the Japanese portrayal of monsters reflects the portrayal of the Japanese culture itself-once a mysterious, fearsome and solitary beast that reacts aggressively when threatened, now a lovable, cute and quirky bunch that just want to be friends with everyone and explore the world, usually in groups of about 150 or more.

(2) I do this because I figure that if it’s famous, it’s most likely a good enough read. Not true. I should probably think about changing this tactic at some point actually.

(3) More on this when I review The Slap.

(4) I actually love Mills and Boon.