Thinking about books

eclectic thoughts on eclectic books

The Bell Jar

One month after The Bell Jar was published in 1963, its author Sylvia Plath committed suicide. Some wry critics are quick to comment, that here the death of the author did the opposite of what it normally means. These critics are the type of people whose wardrobes are mostly black and wear a slight, permanent sneer on their faces in an attempt to appear more intelligent than their peers. Readings of The Bell Jar should be guided not by the Plath’s death, but by her life.

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Sandman Volume One

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is often given the title of graphic novel, which I disagree with. Not because I doubt its literary value, but because of its 75 issue run, it’s more of a graphic epic.

Of this epic I can only comment on the first twenty instalments, which is all I have read so far. We are introduced to The Sandman, or Dream as he is more often called, in the first issue, when he is captured by magicians seeking Death, his older sister. The first two story arcs cover the seventy years of imprisonment Dream endures, his escape, and the rebuilding of his kingdom, the Dreaming. These two narratives have a sprinkling of single issue stories amongst them, making up twenty issues altogether.

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A Thousand Splendid Suns

I was told to think of A Thousand Splendid Suns as the sequel to The Kite Runner.

It’s written by the same author, Kahled Hosseini, with the same setting, Afghanistan. Here however, the similarities end. A Thousand Splendid Suns is vastly better than The Kite Runner, as Hosseini has learned from his mistake of making the narrator the most annoying character, and now narrates the story himself. He does this excellently, as he tells us the untold story of Afghanistan. Here in the West, this story is given to us via body counts on the evening news, a constant, if faint, reminder of its existence. Through reading A Thousand Splendid Suns this abstract suffering was suddenly made real.

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The Sun Also Rises

In the June of 1925, Ernst Hemingway went on holiday to Spain with his a group of his friends. It was such a terrible holiday that he decided to write a novel about it.

Considered a classic of the 20th century, The Sun Also Rises was Hemingway’s first novel. It’s about a group of English speaking expatriates, some American and some British, going on a journey both physical and emotional. At the core of the story is the tragic love between Jake and Lady Ashley.

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Ham on Rye

Making a Meal of Masculinity

Sometimes a writer will thinly disguise themselves as a character within their story. This comes at great risk to the work’s narrative integrity, and whole plot lines are sacrificed so that the author’s avatar can ride the dragon, get the girl, and blow up the death star, much to the disgruntlement of the readers.

Charles Bukowski does put himself into Ham and Rye as Henry Chinaski, but circumvents the aforementioned risk by doing two things in particular. Firstly he does not allow himself a cameo that becomes bloated

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An Evil Cradling

Whilst in Lebanon in 1985, the Irish literature professor Brian Keenan was kidnapped and held hostage by Muslim extremists for four and a half years. An Evil Cradling is his account of that time.

I foolishly let myself judge the book by its cover, but only a little. Unfortunately, the striking, sobbing silhouette, black upon grey, was enough to make me think it would be a very dreary book, exploring on the inner turmoil of a man tortured, physically and mentally. The memoir is this, for its first quarter or so, after which he is joined by the journalist John McCarthy, ending Keenan’s isolation and most of his introspection.


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The Death of Ivan Ilyich

and the Life of Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy is widely regarded as one of history’s greatest authors, and The Death of Ivan Ilyich as one of his greatest works. The story is mainly one of rejection; it is a rejection of the church, the state, and perhaps most importantly, a rejection of the bourgeois lifestyle of Ivan Ilyich and much of contemporary Russia’s middle and upper classes. A lifestyle, it could be argued, that is not dissimilar to the lifestyle of today’s middle and upper classes.

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Consider Phlebas

Probably Pulp

Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks starts like a fourteen-year-olds’ idea of a sci-fi novel. We’re introduced to our hero Horza as he is being buried alive in excrement, at the last moment he’s rescued by his Alien comrades, the Iridians. Banks then lets us dimly comprehend the background interstellar war with the culture, before having Horza join a crew of space pirates, by winning a fight to the death. He helps them stage a disastrous raid on a temple, and manages to fornicate with a ship mate, before we even have time to feel like we’ve learned everyone’s name. Amidst so much action and so little exposition I read on with and self-indulgent incredulity, not believing the author of The Wasp Factory would write such throwaway pulp, albeit enjoyable. My faith was rewarded, and as The Wasp Factory improves exponentially towards its end, so too does Consider Phlebas.

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Slaughter House Five

 Not the sequel to Slaughterhouse Four

I approached Slaughterhouse Five cautiously, as I was dimly aware of the book having a reputation of being something of a modern classic. The slim volume that greeted me was a surprise. I had been given to expect a grey dreary war novel and I was, to an extent, right. Whilst it was every bit as grey and dreary as I’d hoped, Vonnegut grants the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim the power of time travel, or at least the belief he can. In doing so he leads the reader on a fantastic exploration of war, but also of free will, the human condition and even the art of storytelling itself. We don’t follow Billy Pilgrims life in a strict sense, rather Vonnegut hands us fragments of it seemingly at random, mirroring the novels of the alien plant Tralfamadore.

What sets this book apart from most war fictions is how much of himself the author pours into the story. Vonnegut is so invested in the story that he cannot help give himself a cameo or two, and in doing so reminds the reader that although Billy’s extra terrestrial adventure can be questioned, the suffering dealt by wars cannot. Overall this is a book that one is able to enjoy and feel richer for having done so, and like all good books leaves much to be debated, as I will do in the second part of this review.

Spoilers after the jump

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