Friday, 30 September 2011

General End Of Month Update

I haven't read as many books as I would've like this month, but the sheer super quality of the books I have read more than makes up for this. They are:

One Day by David Nicholls (this book DESTROYED me emotionally. Oh Nicholls, you build us up just to bring us down again, just like the irksome buttercup from that popular song)

The Wind Up Bird Chronice by Haruki Murakami (come and live in London, Murakami, so that I may befriend and subsequently wed you)

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (Just. Superb. Review will come imminently because I need to rave about this book to somebody other than my bathroom mirror)

This weekend I will be off round London to search for books as part of the Guardian Book Swap, pretending to be some kind of manic pixie dream girl.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou

The first time I heard this poem was when a lady in a coffee shop in Liverpool played the AMAZING acoustic version (below) that made me feel inexplicably good about myself. I think it's because insecurity has grown to annoy me - there's something sort of vaguely attention seeking and depressing and boring about it. What's refreshing is when people accept their flaws and either try to change them or flaunt them, which is exactly what Maya Angelou does in this poem. Fantastic.

Phenomenal Woman

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model's size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I'm telling lies.
I say,
It's in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It's the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can't touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them
They say they still can't see.
I say,
It's in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I'm a woman

Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

Now you understand
Just why my head's not bowed.
I don't shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It's in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
'Cause I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

Maya Angelou

Thursday, 22 September 2011

For a Fatherless Son by Slyvia Plath

Here is a sad poem - I'm not sure why, as I'm in an uncharacteristically good mood today. It's also by Sylvia Plath, whose poetry I'm generally not crazy about. Good old Sylv wouldn't know a good mood if it smacked her in the face and in tribute to her misery and seriousness, here is a little ditty from "Winter Trees".

For a Fatherless Son

You will be aware of an absence, presently,
Growing beside you, like a tree,
A death tree, color gone, an Australian gum tree ---
Balding, gelded by lightning--an illusion,
And a sky like a pig's backside, an utter lack of attention.
But right now you are dumb.
And I love your stupidity,
The blind mirror of it. I look in
And find no face but my own, and you think that's funny.
It is good for me
To have you grab my nose, a ladder rung.
One day you may touch what's wrong ---
The small skulls, the smashed blue hills, the godawful hush.
Till then your smiles are found money.

Slyvia Plath

Sunday, 18 September 2011

The Passage by Justin Cronin

A futuristic apocalyptic zombie/vampire/mutant thriller, based around an immortal little girl with magical powers called Amy. As ridiculous as it sounds.

Five Things You Really Should Know About The Passage Before You Attempt To Read It

1. The First Half

The outbreak of a deadly virus which turns the world’s population into murderous immortal super-humans had the potential be quite an interesting read. Throw in some sympathetic, engaging characters and a compelling plot and BAM! You’ve got yourself a bestseller. The first half of the plot generally followed this formula; great characters, some really memorable scenes (the zoo scene and the chapter in which the virals escape especially stand out)-overall a worthy effort. I genuinely sympathised with and cared about the protagonists, especially Amy and her police officer, make-shift, foster parent Wolgast. Everything was going swimmingly. That is until the plot jumped forward a hundred years, and all the characters we had grown to love subsequently disappeared.

2. The plot jumped forward a hundred years, and all the characters we had grown to love subsequently disappeared.

Sorry. But it is worth saying twice. This was such a huge risk to take with the plot and I really didn’t feel it paid off. Halfway through the novel, we’re introduced to a completely new set of characters; a community of survivors trying to put the bread on the table without being torn to shreds by the bloodthirsty mutants who roam the neighbourhood. The new characters themselves (Peter the eponymous hero, his brother Theo, Alicia, the token cold, beautiful and deadly female, and about a hundred and sixteen others) were incredibly uninteresting and all came with long established histories and relationships that I found difficult and frankly, boring to piece together. It was like starting a new, different book, just at the point where the original was starting to get interesting. I even resorted to flicking the pages ahead to make sure that Amy does turn up eventually, so that the book’s first half wasn’t rendered completely pointless. This would all be fine- if the book was under 800 pages long.

3. Did I mention the length?

Good God, this was a long read which, again, would be fine if for the most part it wasn’t filled with mind-numbing pointless details. If you’re considering reading this, my advice would be to hack off everything after page 300 with a flick knife and hand it to the nearest available tramp to burn for warmth. I bet even the smoke it gives off would be dull.
About 67% of this novel is made of unnecessary titbits of information, sometimes lasting for entire chapters. If there was a clever and compelling plot to make up for this ceaseless hoarding of minutiae, I could forgive the author (I’m looking at YOU, Tolkien), but it barely even scrapes that. What’s worse is that this that The Passage is only part one of a confirmed trilogy, which I find slightly unbelievable.

4. The Tone

This is a vain book, a book which thinks it is a lot better than it actually is. Only with complete self-assurance could the author introduce aspects such as “Flyers!”-what he imagines to be a commonly used swear word hundred years from now. Only with supreme confidence in his characters’ integrity could he allow most of their actions to be taken up by meaningless humdrum tasks. And to make a trilogy of this…this really is credence at its highest. Cronin has tried to make an epic but has failed to grasp that the word “epic” is not necessarily synonymous with the word “long”. However much it so desperately tries, I Am Legend, this is not-it doesn’t even have the grittiness of I Am Fighter.

5. The Unoriginality

I mentioned I Am Legend, and at the end of the day, there are hundreds of other post-apocalyptic dystopian vampire (virals, vampires, whatever) novels that are shorter, smarter and simply better written than The Passage. The Passage is what you get when you castrate The Stand, from which it has heavily borrowed; the two do display some uncanny similarities (the significant dreams, a war between good and evil, a community of survivors placing an elderly black woman at the centre, etcetera, etcetera, et-bloody-cetra). In contrast to the The Passage though, The Stand is a novel with intense depth and meaning.
If nothing else, the front cover of The Passage should give you clue-whilst I’m sure it was designed to convey a potent mixture of mystery and horror, the greyish dirty face of Amy simply displays an unmistakable look of boredom.


Friday, 16 September 2011

Black Cat by Rainer Maria Rilke

A brilliantly layered little poem by somebody that I'd previously not heard of, Rainer Maria Rilke. (Google Image him. Seriously). I especially love the last two lines. Partly because the image of the black cat's eyes staring into your soul, sucking it in, is so powerful; partly because it reminds me of Jurassic Park.

Black Cat

A ghost, though invisible, still is like a place
your sight can knock on, echoing; but here
within this thick black pelt, your strongest gaze
will be absorbed and utterly disappear:

just as a raving madman, when nothing else
can ease him, charges into his dark night
howling, pounds on the padded wall, and feels
the rage being taken in and pacified.

She seems to hide all looks that have ever fallen
into her, so that, like an audience,
she can look them over, menacing and sullen,
and curl to sleep with them. But all at once

as if awakened, she turns her face to yours;
and with a shock, you see yourself, tiny,
inside the golden amber of her eyeballs
suspended, like a prehistoric fly.

Rainer Maria Rilke

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

If you were hoping for a manual on industrial buildings mass producing hymenopteran insects, then I’m afraid you will be disappointed. If you were looking for a novel which unrelentlessly grips you from page one, leaving you buzzing even long after you’ve finished, then please step up and enter-if you can bear it-the extraordinary private world of Frank, just sixteen and unconventional to say the least (Note: apparently I'm pretentious today).

Top Five Things About The Wasp Factory The Book, (not “The Wasp Factory”, the factory) (or “The Wasp, Factory” about a young wasp named Factory):

1.The Shock Factor

The first and last thing you will always hear about The Wasp Factory is the spectacular way it offends, nauseates and unsettles the reader. With fiction like this, it’s helpful to think of the clich├ęd rollercoaster analogy. You simply have to accept it for what it is trying to do, because only then can you appreciate the ride; resist and you end up angry, sick and completely oblivious to the purpose of such an activity. Make no mistake-graphic animal abuse, child murder and a series of twists unlike any that you are unlikely to ever encounter again mean that this is no Space Mountain. It’s only once you dare to enter the world of sixteen year old, serial murderer Frank, and embrace it’s every facet, that you can really recognise the scope, creativity and originality of this novel.

2.The Hypnotization

Once you do enter the world of Frank, you’ll quickly find it difficult to leave. Even the blurb sold me.

“Two years after I killed Blyth, I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different reasons and more fundamental reasons than I’d disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did my young cousin Esmeralda, more or less on a whim. That’s my score to date. Three. I haven’t killed anybody for years, and don’t intend to ever again. It was just a stage I was going through.”

Enough said. Who wouldn’t want to find out why this sixteen year old was driven to murder? How he can be so nonchalant? How has he gotten away with it? How the murders were committed? Once the novel begins, we are faced with other questions. What drove Frank’s brother, Eric, insane? (Clue: you almost definitely won’t be able to guess). What is The Wasp Factory? Iain Banks unravels the mystery slowly and carefully, slapping the reader in the nose with a tremendous twist at the end.

3.I <3 Frank

Frank is a lot like the protagonist of A Clockwork Orange, Alex. You don’t want to like him-you loathe the things that he does-but you just can’t help yourself. Frank is really nothing more than a bored, insecure and massively misinformed teenager, shaped by his label and fart obsessed father, absent mother, clinically insane brother and his own social isolation. His actions are in no way excusable, but we are pulled towards Frank, in spite of everything, because of his humanity and vulnerability. At one point lamenting “Looking at me, you’d never guessed I’d killed three people; it isn’t fair” Frank displays characteristics of the average teenager. His moods range from low self-confidence, to fantastic self-assurance. His brother Eric is crazy, most certainly-but he isn’t. Killing dogs for food is barbaric, but exploding rabbits with dynamite is a fine way to spend ones afternoon. Frank is a quintessentially flawed character-a cold sadistic killer, he is not, however much he would like to be. It is these insecurities and contradictions that drew me to Frank, and even (dare I say it) encouraged me to cheer him on. Just because he’s a psychotic murderer doesn’t mean you cant sympathise with him. I’m a strict vegetarian, yet I still think bacon smells amazing.

4.The Twist…

…is the very definition of a twist. One of those ones where you have to read the book a second time, to really allow the impact of the twist to sink in. A bit like Fight Club (which if you haven’t already seen, literally go and watch it NOW).

5.The Impact

Days after I finished the book, I was still thinking about it. The character of Frank, Eric’s traumatizing experiences, the grisly deaths of Paul, Blythe and Esmeralda, and the huge twist at the's completely engrossing, in the same way that a car crash is-you want to look away, but find yourself unable to. This is a book that will stay with you. The attitude, tastes and tenacity of the individual reader decide whether this will be for better or for worse.