Saturday, 9 August 2014

The Sorrow of War (Bao Ninh)

--The blurb--
"Kien's job is to search the Jungle of Screaming Souls for corpses. He knows the area well - this was where, in the dry season of 1969, his battalion was obliterated by American napalm and helicopter gunfire. Kien was one of only ten survivors. This book is his attempt to understand the eleven years of his life he gave to a senseless war."

--The review--
The world of modern fiction is already replete with classic war-based literature: Catch-22, All Quiet on the Western Front, Heart of Darkness, and Slaughterhouse-Five are just a few. One could argue that this leaves little to say; that the horrors of war have already been well-documented. However, a book that has been banned by the Communist Party, has won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and which leaves its author reluctant to publish further works is always going to be a source of intrigue, and luckily Bao Ninh's The Sorrow of War does not just disappear behind this smokescreen of hyperbole, proving comparable in quality to the classics hitherto mentioned.

This high quality of work perhaps comes from the adage that it is best to write what you know; The Sorrow of War is based strongly on Ninh's own experiences in Vietnam, and thus the line between fiction and non-fiction begins to blur, with the novel raising compelling questions regarding dreams, hallucinations, and the imagined versus reality, as well as the reliability of protagonist Kien as narrator and the extent to which we can rely on our own memories. We also wonder, as readers, in what context Kien is retelling his story, and frequently question the chronology of the story itself, which doesn't make the plot unclear in any way, but rather opens the door to many future rereadings, so that readers can piece together the narrative in any number of new and different ways.

The piecemeal narrative is enhanced by the strength of the imagery and technique used by Ninh, which is elegant yet accessible throughout, while remaining simultaneously beautiful and ugly as he treats the sheer brutality of conflict with frankness and economy of style. In this way, he emphasises the worthlessness of human life, the ability of war to doom love, and the unforgiving aftermath of such bloodshed. The philosophical elements of this - such as whether ex-servicemen can ever be truly free post-war, and how far the characters in The Sorrow of War are acting according to their 'real' personalities - again make this work worth revisiting.

Even though the novel's title is so often reiterated throughout the novel as to seem contrived (Ninh has already shown us the sorrow of war; he does not need to tell us), the haunting themes, terrifying incidents, and compelling characters also contribute to this 1990 novel's status as a modern classic. Even the most briefly depicted personages are memorable for what the continued fighting has done to them, and the veiled references to the genre's forerunners (such as the emphasis on landscape, which is shared with Heart of Darkness) only emphasise The Sorrow of War's originality and flair, rather than detracting from it. It is therefore well deserving of its place in the literary canon, and one only hopes that Ninh will continue to publish what is surely a valuable extension of this highly significant Vietnamese view of one of the most tragic episodes in the country's history.  

Thursday, 7 August 2014

David Copperfield (Charles Dickens)

--The blurb--
"The story of the trials and triumphs of David Copperfield, growing to maturity in the affairs of the world and the affairs of the heart - his success as an artist arising out his sufferings and out of the lessons he derives from life."

--The review--
Dickens is perhaps most famous for penetrating the darkest side of human nature, and even though David Copperfield seems almost Proustian in scope thanks to its time span, Dickens still manages to do this in quite some detail thanks to well-drawn characters, tribulations of plot, and the struggles faced by London's nineteenth-century poor.

The eponymous protagonist's burgeoning maturity, and yet omnipresent naïveté, throughout the narrative means that his growth from child to man seems to happen before our very eyes with realism and sincerity, despite there being little change in the formality of the language used. This flowery style and chronological order can make David Copperfield seem like a struggle initially, with the eccentricities of the characters not becoming endearing to us until later on, thanks to Dickens' enduring stratagem of repetition. 

As these characters fade into and out of the narrator's life at different stages, we know we're unlikely to hear the last of them, and we are right; rest assured that Dickens doesn't end this epic tome without tying up each of their stories neatly (maybe, some readers might say, a little too neatly). This technique also, however, has the merit of meaning that we have to read on to find out if our predictions regarding plot or personage will come true, and that we are eventually satisfied and rewarded for our perseverance.

And there is plenty to pursue: Dickens does not only tackle the dark side of human nature through themes such as deformity, despair, and deceit, but also gives the reader plenty in the way of levity, thanks to his approaches to the pleasures of love, friendship, and simply getting blind drunk with your first pay cheque. We therefore easily recognise aspects of our own lives in elements of David's, thus reflecting one of the many reasons why Dickens' works are considered classics, thanks to their ability to plumb the depths of human experience.

Dickens' powers of description also never cease to amaze, thanks to his superior lexicon and sheer technique. These gems are treasure that can be found in Dickens' pages by all those who care to hunt for them, and contribute significantly to making the act of reading his works a continual pleasure. While aspects of his literature may not appeal to all - such as the writer's well-documented interest in convoluted legal affairs - Dickens never ceases to keep us interested, thanks to characters that irritate, inspire, and intimidate; terrific showdowns; and a variety of well-depicted settings which can, to a degree, still be recognised today. 

The author described David Copperfield as the favourite of his own books, and it's easy to see why: while a little syrupy towards the end, it combines memorable characters with a dose of social reality, as well as situations and feelings that everyone can empathise with. By the end of the story, we feel as if we have grown along with David, and are sad to see him go; and yet we can also feel that he has grown into someone we can all be proud of and aspire to be, and so be confident that he will be fine on his own, even after we have closed the book. Making us believe that the characters created are so real to us - more than beautiful descriptions or a skilfully sculpted narrative - is perhaps the ultimate hallmark of a truly great writer, and it is this that maybe encourages people more than anything to continue seeking out Dickens' work.

other works by Charles Dickens
The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870)
Our Mutual Friend (1865)
Great Expectations (1861)
A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
Little Dorrit (1857)
Hard Times (1854)
Bleak House (1853)
Dombey and Son (1848)
The Christmas Books (1848)
Martin Chuzzlewit (1844)
Barnaby Rudge (1841)
The Old Curiosity Shop (1841)
Nicholas Nickleby (1839)
Oliver Twist (1839)
The Pickwick Papers (1837)

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad)

--The blurb--
"At the peak of European Imperialism, steamboat captain Charles Marlow travels deep into the African Congo on his way to relieve the elusive Mr Kurtz, an ivory trader renowned for his fearsome reputation. On his journey into the unknown Marlow takes a terrifying trip into his own subconscious, overwhelmed by his menacing, perilous and horrifying surroundings."

--The review--
Joseph Conrad is perhaps thought of as being one of the United Kingdom's most quintessentially British authors, so it is arguably surprising to find that he was in fact a first-language Polish, and second-language English, speaker who was granted British nationality at the age of 29. This surprise arises from the unmistakable richness of his work, of which Heart of Darkness is an excellent example.

While the nautical settings of Conrad's works may seem on the niche side, this merely serves as a framework for the precise, eloquent and well-paced descriptions for which the author is famous. This high level of imagery also lends Heart of Darkness a degree of classicism that some of his more dated works, such as The Nigger of the Narcissus, lack. This is compounded by the other techniques used by Conrad to convey a sense of impending doom, such as motifs and pathetic fallacy, which leave little work to be done in terms of plot and character.

This is not to say that Conrad does not handle these elements of the novella with his characteristic tautness and panache. Not a word is wasted and despite the descriptions, the plot is still being moved forward with every turn of the boat and every movement of the sun. Character is also mainly built up through anticipation, as well as the descriptions and dialogue of others; this has the other equally important effect of building tension and suspense, leaving the reader wanting to meet the protagonist (Kurtz) while wanting simultaneously turns away. As Conrad reiterates throughout the text, "the horror, the horror" is all-pervasive and present not only in the characters and events but also in the atmosphere and landscape.

Naturally, some of this anticipation would be lost on subsequent readings; however, the quality of the description and overall craftsmanship of the writing make excellent reasons to reread, before one even considers the deep moral and existential questions raised by the storyline and characterisation. The richness of the imagery is what makes one reach for Conrad's volume, rather than watching Apocalypse Now (a well-executed adaptation to be recommended for the ways in which is capitalises on the author's precisely-woven plot and intriguing protagonists), and it is this that makes Heart of Darkness such a resounding introduction to one of the great figures of English literature.

Other works by Joseph Conrad
Almayer's Folly (1895)
An Outcast of the Islands (1896)
The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897)
Lord Jim (1900)
The Inheritors (1901; with Ford Maddox Ford)
Typhoon (1902)
Romance (1903; with Ford Maddox Ford)
Nostromo (1904)
The Secret Agent (1907)
Under Western Eyes (1911)
Chance (1913)
Victory (1915)
The Shadow of Line (1917)
The Arrow of Gold (1919)
The Rescue (1920)
The Nature of a Crime (1923; with Ford Maddox Ford)
The Rover (1923)
Suspense (1925)

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Ooh apology is clearly in order.

It's pretty clear that this blog has been on extreme hiatus for the past 4 months or so. There have been reasons for that, although perhaps not very good ones.

I've been working towards my teaching certificate this year, which has led to me a) reading a lot of education books. Not something that was on this year's literary challenge list.

It's also led to b) a state of exhaustion, which doesn't leave much energy to tackle the heavyweights on my list.

This means that when I have been reading, it's mainly been c) the weekly papers, which are quick and easy to read bits of, and d) total junk that's basically marshmallows for the brain, like the typical 'Brits in the shit' stories of Little-Englanders packing up and moving to France...mainly so I can have a laugh at their stupidity without concentrating too hard myself.

I've therefore rather neglected this year's challenge, having not picked the best year to embark on it.

But now it's August, I've qualified as a teacher, and I'm finally beginning to slip into holiday mode. So I'll be catching up on the reviews of the books I did manage to read off my initial list, and making time to read the rest as 2014 marches on. There's still 150 days to go of the year, and I reckon I can make a pretty big dent in the rest of my list in that time. Thanks for reading this far, if there's anyone still out there :)

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The Pearl (John Steinbeck)

--The blurb--
"Kino is a desperately poor Mexican-pearl diver. But when he finds 'The Pearl of the World' he believes that his life will be magically transformed. Obsessed by his dreams, Kino is blind to the greed, fear and even violence the pearl arouses in his neighbours - and himself."

--The review--
John Steinbeck is known for the scenic descriptions of desolate yet beauteous landscapes that he portrays. When combined with the moral dilemmas that his characters often face, or the grave situations in which they find themselves, their power is increased. 

This is equally true in The Pearl, where Kino's discovery of a valuable black pearl drives him to the desire to use it to change his family's life for the better. Barren Mexican panoramas are lit up by his love for his family and the simplest pleasures of his life, and just as quickly darkened by the increasing horror of his quest to sell the pearl.

In many ways this is done to great effect: we, the readers, are on Kino's side, urging him on and longing for his success. As mentioned, the descriptions of emotions and the natural world are bewitching, and the short length of The Pearl means that the story's pace is kept taut throughout.

However, it is all dashed to pieces almost from the start by our knowledge that Kino is doomed - if he is able to sell the pearl successfully, it will be an even shorter story than it already is, and as his agony is drawn out, we have the sinking feeling that there is less and less chance of it ending well. This is arguably the novella's weakness: in Of Mice And Men, which is almost as short, there was always a tantalising ambiguity and a chance that the dream could come true. It is clear early on in The Pearl, however, that this is unlikely to be the case.

And yet we read on. Why? This is testament to the power of Steinbeck's storytelling. It's like seeing a film that's based on a book you've already read: you have a clear idea of how it will end, but you want to see how the director will portray it. In that sense, Steinbeck does step into that role of film director, painting clear visions in front of our eyes of Kino's flight from (and, simultaneously, towards) disaster - and it is therefore this magical quality that makes the story indeed a rare pearl. 

Other works by John Steinbeck (selection)
Cup of Gold (1927)
The Red Pony (1933)
Tortilla Flat (1935)

Of Mice and Men (1937)
The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
East of Eden (1952)

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Tender is the Night (F Scott Fitzgerald)

 --The blurb--
"Dick and Nicole Diver are handsome and rich, their dinners are legendary, their atmosphere magnetic. But Nicole has a secret and Dick has a weakness. Together they crash their lives on the rocks and only one of them really survives."

--The review--
With the glittering success of the latest film adaptation of The Great Gatsby still ringing in everybody's ears, it's in some ways unsurprising that this novel is Fitzgerald's most well-remembered. But is this a fair assessment?

Tender Is The Night was Fitzgerald's final novel, so one could argue that by this stage he should have been at his peak. Sadly, it seems more likely that Gatsby was his apex, and that from there on his work declined. 

The glitz and glamour (whether real or imagined) that makes the story of Jay Gatsby so successful still resonates in the lifestyle of Dick and Nicole Diver, the protagonists of Tender Is The Night. The parade of parties and aura of sophistication surrounding them both is really what lingers after one puts the book down, indicating that it is perhaps this descriptive power that lies at the heart of Fitzgerald's literary legacy. However, in Dick's smouldering not-quite-there affair with Rosemary, Fitzgerald creates a relationship that is reminiscent of Gatsby and Daisy - and this is where the cracks begin to show in Tender Is The Night.

On one hand, Dick and Rosemary's relationship is the most alluring part of the book - even if we don't know whether to want them to consummate it, being carried away with the romance of it all; or whether to be furious with Dick for his betrayal of Nicole. This is especially true when comparing the intensity of it to all of the seemingly insipid and insignificant subplots occurring in the background. However, Fitzgerald doesn't create anything new in this relationship. The fascination that readers (and viewers) often have with Gatsby and Daisy is that, depending on interpretation, their love either seems so real that Daisy leaving her husband is a real possibility, or it's clear that Gatsby is doomed to be heartbroken by the superficial Daisy (who is so silly at times that readers can truly wonder what on earth he sees in her).

None of these nuances exist in the relationship between Dick and Rosemary, meaning that some readers may be disappointed by the liaison's (some would say predictable) outcome. This damp squib of a novel will therefore leave fans returning to The Great Gatsby for a fuller, more complex and more developed tale - or perhaps instead opening Fitzgerald's other famous novel, The Beautiful and the Damned, in the hope of obtaining satisfaction.

other novels by F Scott Fitzgerald
This Side of Paradise (1920)
The Beautiful and the Damned (1922) 
The Great Gatsby (1925)
The Love of the Last Tycoon (unfinished and published posthumously; 1941)

Monday, 17 February 2014

Death of a Salesman (Arthur Miller)

--The blurb--
"Willy Loman is on his last legs. Failing at his job, dismayed at his the failure of his sons, Biff and Happy, to live up to his expectations, and tortured by his jealousy at the success and happiness of his neighbour Charley and his son Bernard, Willy spirals into a well of regret and reminiscence."

--The review--
In the snap-happy world of celebrity, Arthur Miller is perhaps more famous for his ill-fated fling with Marilyn Monroe than for his plays. However, in the worlds of stage, screen and even schools, Miller's plays are still incredibly treasured and well-liked.

The notion of being "well-liked", and the use of this phrase, is something that dogs Death of a Salesman's main character, Willy Loman, throughout this early Miller play. As well as being an aspiration with which he pressurises himself, it also becomes a stick with which he metaphorically beats his sons Biff and Happy. 

Death of a Salesman is also riddled with irony, with this being most immediately present in Happy's name (or nickname, we should say, as his real name is revealed to be Harold). One is left wondering how he ever managed to acquire it, as it hardly proves an example of nominative determinism. Thanks to Willy's forceful style of parenting, Biff and Happy are both made to feel like failures, unable to fulfil the high expectations set out by their father in the wake of the Great Depression and the nascence of the American dream. Willy's self-perceived failure, too, to achieve these goals also lends the play an underlying tinge of sadness and desperation throughout.

It is also this touchstone of the American dream that contributes to Death of a Salesman's popularity in schools, as it has echoes of the dream held by the protagonists of Of Mice and Men - another highly popular GCSE text. Furthermore, Willy's desolation, and the densely descriptive stage directions, parallel those seen in The Glass Menagerie (one of Tennessee Williams' most famous plays, frequently studied at A Level). These comparisons are easy fodder for schools and exam boards, and also enable the texts to be studied extrinsically.

There are further similarities between The Glass Menagerie and Death of a Salesman - particularly in terms of the surreal set design and non-chronological structure. These elements mean that at times the latter play particularly can read confusingly on the page, with Miller's ideas at times being difficult for readers to visualise. However, as plays are written to be seen and not read, this may be a moot point unless you happen to be a director (in which case, your interpretation can be as strict or loose as you wish anyhow).

However, intrinsically speaking, Death of a Salesman's appeal is evident. The human conditions of Willy, Biff, Happy and wife and mother Linda are easily conditions in which any modern reader may find themselves: failing to achieve their dreams, the struggle for popularity, being downtrodden by dominant family members, talking up our paltry achievements in an attempt to impress others, the feeling of life as a treadmill that slips away under your feet, and treating life as a party rather than settling down are all situations in which today's readers and viewers can find themselves. This timelessness is the hallmark of a real classic, making it clear why Miller's plays are still so "well liked".

a selection of other works by Arthur Miller
No Villain (1936)
The Man Who Had All The Luck (1940)
All My Sons (1949)
The Crucible (1953)
A View from the Bridge (1955)
After The Fall (1964)
The Price (1968)
The Creation of the World and Other Business (1972)
The Archbishop's Ceiling (1977)
The American Clock (1980)
The Last Yankee (1991)
Broken Glass (1994)
Mr Peter's Connections (1998)
Resurrection Blues (2002)
Finishing The Picture (2004) 

A complete list of Arthur Miller's works can be viewed on Wikipedia.