Thursday, August 27, 2015

About a Boy by Nick Hornby

Reviewed by The Quidnunc

Will is a 36-year-old child that never bothered with serious matters. He suffers from the Peter Pan syndrome so badly that he hungers to stay as hip as any teenager. He jumped straight from the pages and right into my heart. Although naive and breezy the novel is enjoyable and manages to surprise you even with a little depth.
What I absolutely adored about it is the lack of any pretensions what so ever. I am so tired of reading books that aspire to be so much more than they have the potential to be, that I was toppled by the simple, honest charm of this unexpected and definitely unintended masterpiece.
Hornby does a wonderful job creating realistic characters who suffer from as much unlikeability as real people would. I am part of a generation spellbound by the perfect unison of romantic and cynic and "About a Boy" is that, but also so much more.
In a world organized around the idea that childhood is meant to last forever, why would anyone bother to defy the labyrinths of adulthood? These conflicts wouldn’t ring as true to me without the constant references to the good, the bad and the ugly of the phonographic industry at that time. It’s possible to grasp a variety of unwritten aspects about the boy and his messed up folks simply because Hornby’s writing makes me hear a multitude of tones (sometimes mere noises) travelling through their trajectories and, somehow, making them who they are. Hornby's musical sensitivity is always present, even when he doesn't directly mention anything about music: there's a peculiar rhythm in his language I can recognize and listen to it for hours, like one of those killing tunes I used to listen during my teenage years, when I would lock my room, light an incense, turn off the lights, put on my favorite CD (Radiohead? AlanisMorissette? Nirvana?) and repeat the same track as a mantra, wondering when my personal turmoil of agonies and expectations would finally end. Luckily, that bizarre phase did end one day, but the music survived. Not specifically the same music I used to dig at that time, but the need of music itself: there’s always a certain song I HAVE TO listen over and over and over with my eyes shut because it’s just that irresistible, a metaphysical experience almost. Hornby portrays this sentiment incredibly well, and is able to compose the narrative as one very captivating song by assimilation.
Now there’s one thing: this book won’t change your life. it’s just about a ridiculously immature guy trying to pick up women and have a suave existence, but things rapidly change when he meets an unhip kid and his depressing mom. Nothing so special about the plot as you can see, but I would give Hornby a chance. His music really is addictive.

Disobedience by Naomi Alderman

Reviewed by The Quidnunc

"Disobedience" as a Jewish-world-revealed type of novel. Firstly, I should probably mention that I am not a particular fan of books that tell the stories of religious struggling and religious communities. You see, religion and I, we don't get along very well. However, I will attempt to be as objective as possible when judging Disobedience. 
The story alternates the perspective of Esti, a not-altogether-happily-married observant Jewish woman, with that of Ronit her childhood friend. The women are reunited when Ronit returns to Hendon after the death of her father, a much esteemed Rabbi. The two viewpoints shed light on what is good - and what is a little less good - about life in a tightly-knit Orthodox community.
Each chapter begins with a discourse on aspects of Jewish beliefs and practices. These passages serve to lift the book beyond being just one more 'feel-good' story about women re-evaluating their lives. Although, I admit they were very educational for someone who is not familiar with the Jewish tradion, I found them annoying and boring. It seems they stole the colour of the pages of this otherwise decent novel. 
Most of the time I was haunted by the feeling that Alderman followed a recipe for writing rather than her own voice. And this is what lead to the very Lenten sense of humour. It was funny at times, but mostly it was just a sad attempt of sense of humour. 
One of the obvious disadvantages of the novel is that the principals, and the world of the Orthodox (Jewish) British community is presented in such a compelling detail that it becomes almost claustrophobic for someone as free minded as me.
But I guess a novel like this takes a bit of warming up time to take in. It's incredible to think that this book was written by such a young woman. It is wise beyond her years. Much of it has an omniscient narrator whose range extends from ironic commentary on the quirks of the Orthodox Jewish community to Torah lessons that I was still pondering days later. The contrast between that all-inclusive narration and Ronit's brash, self-absorbed first-person voice helps set up the problems of the novel.
With this said I am not surprised it won the Orange Award for New Writers, BUT I will not dare recommend it to any of the readers I know, for it just lack severely in character.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

A Room with A View by Edward Morgan Foster

Review by The Quidnunc

This one was a very hard for me to review, not only was I confused by the chaotic structure of the novel, but was also mesmerised by what seemed a deliberate rejection of controlled style to reflect the messy complexities of the human hear. You did it Mr Foster: I have become yours truly. Once more you managed to remind me how fiction should make the reader feel both for and through it. I do realize of course that this may sound to the least a bit childish, but that does not miniature the obvious the theme, mechanics of plot and vicissitudes of characters A Room with A View possess.
Foster's novel makes us feel as Heraclitus would put it: "Estranged from that which is most familiar."
Our story begins in Florence, Italy, where two English women, Lucy Honeychurch and her spinster cousin Charlotte Bartlett, are at a hotel full of other English tourists. They are displeased with their rooms, which don’t have a pleasant view from their windows, but a pair of unconventional fellow guests, Mr. Emerson and his son, George, offers to switch rooms with them. This sparks a whole discussion of what is proper and what is improper, a dialogue that continues throughout the book. Eventually, the women take the Emersons’ offer, only after a visiting pastor, Mr. Beebe, convinces Charlotte that it’s okay.
The majority of the hotel guests are still unconvinced that the Emersons are socially acceptable, though. Lucy, who realizes early on that Mr. Emerson is actually just an old sweetie-pie who doesn’t play social games well (or refuses to), is saddened by the attitude of the other guests towards the quirky father-son duo. We see that she’s confused and not entirely convinced by the strict rules and regulations of “good” society, and that she’s tempted to follow her own emotions sometimes, rather than just doing as she’s told. She wishes something would happen to her – and it does. She and George both witness a dramatic murder in a Florence square, and both are irreversibly changed by it (as we all would be, no doubt). This makes Lucy realize that life is not as simple as she’d thought it was up to this point in her life, and she begins to slowly question her belief in the social order she grew up with.
The plot gets thicker when the guests at the hotel go on what is meant to be a pleasant drive in the country. When they arrive at their destination, a particularly beautiful “view” from a hilltop, everyone wanders off to explore. Lucy inevitably (though unintentionally) finds George, and, overwhelmed by the beauty of nature and the beauty of Lucy herself, he kisses her. She is shocked! We are shocked! Charlotte, who accidentally witnesses the kiss, is shocked! Part One of the book ends as Charlotte and Lucy beat a quick retreat from Florence, attempting to avoid any further complications with George and his father.
Part Two takes us back to Lucy’s home in pleasant southern England, Windy Corner. We meet her family (her charming mother and her adorably ridiculous brother, Freddy), and her stuffy new fiancĂ©, Cecil Vyse. Cecil is not exactly a barrel of laughs, but he certainly thinks he is. Through Cecil’s devious and rather cruel maneuvering, the Emersons end up moving into the neighborhood. Their previous relationship with Lucy is a total coincidence – Cecil’s a fool, not a monster! He doesn’t know about Lucy and George’s fraught relationship, and he only brings the Emersons to town to provoke a local landowner, who’s concerned with finding the “right” kind of tenants. Everything converges upon Lucy: George, who she secretly loves (it’s a secret to her, too), Cecil, who she thinks she loves, her family, Mr. Beebe the pastor, and, to make matters even worse, Charlotte. Windy Corner is suddenly a powder keg of potential drama.
The spark that blows the whole thing up is a novel written by Miss Lavish, a fellow traveler they met at the hotel in Florence. In this trashy romance novel, a passionate kiss identical to the one Lucy and George shared is described. Unaware of this awkward fact, Cecil reads the scene out loud – he just thinks the novel’s cheesiness is hilarious. However, he doesn’t realize that in so doing, he reminds both Lucy and George of their Italian encounter. This inspires George to kiss Lucy a second time when Cecil’s momentarily out of the way.
Lucy is torn between inexplicably complicated feelings for George and her social obligation to Cecil, which, in her mind, masquerades as love. She sends George away, claiming that she doesn’t love him, but he manages to make her see how ridiculous Cecil is. She then realizes (thankfully) that she doesn’t love Cecil, and breaks off her engagement with him. All of a sudden, she’s down from two suitors to none – and she attempts to resign herself to a life of spinsterhood. She makes desperate plans to travel to Greece, hoping to escape her tumultuous feelings.But when true love comes a-callin’, packing up and going to Greece is not the answer (a valuable lesson for all of us to learn). At the last moment, Lucy runs into Mr. Emerson, who comes right out and begs her to face her emotions. She realizes that she’s been lying to herself and everyone else – she really does love George. She finally throws off the restrictions and expectations of society and runs off with George. The novel ends where it began, in a room with a view in Florence, with Lucy and George happily united. It’s not perfect – Lucy is alienated from her family, who feels that she’s acted poorly – but it’s still safe to say that love wins out over society in the end. 
Romantic comedy this is not. The rosiness of a woman stumbling upon convenient fantasy fulfillment by marrying into privilege and bourgeois wealth do not tinge the themes of this classic. Rather this aspires to the novelty of a sort of female bildungsroman. A woman who is roused into the acknowledgement of her desires and self through the unwitting intervention of men considered unworthy of being even good travel companions - how many male authors/poets/dramatists of Forster's generation have cared enough about class distinctions and gender inequality to fashion such a narrative?
I can think of G.B. Shaw- a dramatist unlike Forster, but contemporaneous in stature and rise to fame - who did wean a generation away from the romanticism of war and the burnish of social affluence and forced them into acknowledging the foolishness of prejudices. Shaw, who gave a working class flower girl an indestructible sense of self-worth and a right to reject the suave, much older, educated benefactor in favor of the younger man who loved her without reservations, should be mentioned in the same breath as Forster in my eyes. Both looked upon women as humans and not as passive accessories meant to magnify the worth of the men in their lives and that's reason enough for me to be an unabashed fangirl for life.
"He had robbed the body of its taint, the world's taunts of their sting; he had shown her the holiness of direct desire."
Sexually and emotionally inhibited young woman savoring personal liberty for the first time through the love of a man of inferior social standing who assumes a consciously passive role in earning her affections - this was, perhaps, Forster's way of contradicting and affirming Austenian values at the same time. The very possibility of the intersection of marital bliss and lack of wealth and connections in a prospective husband and disregard for societal approval lay well outside the limits of Austen's imagination but she did endow her many women characters with enough dimensions to be keenly distinguishable from each other.
"They have sinned against passion and truth, and vain will be their strife after virtue. As the years pass, they are censured. Their pleasantry and their piety show cracks, their wit becomes cynicism, their unselfishness hypocrisy; they feel and produce discomfort wherever they go."
What else is there to say? Here's to the unexpected joy of discovering another male author of the last century, who was effortlessly free of the abysmal sexism that is so regrettably palpable in the work of many novelists (of all genders) of the present. Here's to a great story-teller who ventured beyond the narrow horizons conferred on him by his times.
I foresee much more Forster in my future.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi

Review by The Quidnunc

Picture The Buddha of Suburbia was going to be called The Streets of My Heart, a title which emphasizes the fact that the novel is, on one level, a sentimental education as Karim struggles to ‘learn what the heart is’. The first title also suggests that this is an urban novel in which the streets, instead of being a place of danger as so often in London literature, are the locus of erotic possibility.
In some ways, The Streets of My Heart might seem to reflect the contents of the novel more accurately. After all, only the first part of the novel is actually set in the suburbs; and Karim’s father, the eponymous Buddha, fades from view for much of the second part. Despite this, the title The Buddha of Suburbia is not only more catchy and original but also emphasizes the heterogeneity of the novel’s suburbs, which are not all steely conformity and twitching net curtains. ‘Was I conceived like this,’ Karim wonders, ‘in the suburban night air, to the wailing of Christian curses from the mouth of a renegade Muslim masquerading as a Buddhist?’ . 
In 1990 there were hardly any English novels about growing up as a mixed race child so The Buddha of Suburbia and Kureishi’s first film with Stephen Frears, My Beautiful Laundrette, were important interventions in the debate about what it means to be British in the wake of postwar immigration. A lot of critical attention has quite rightly been paid to this. Now, in large part because of Kureishi’s work, multiculturalism is mainstream. So this is a particularly a good moment to look back at less discussed but equally significant aspect of The Buddha of Suburbia: its treatment of class and the links between class and place.
If namedropping were a crime, Kureishi would be on death row. The pages of his first novel are peppered with references to pop culture and the literary canon, sometimes up to five, ten times per page. Being his first novel, it seems like he has something to prove, how well read and studied he is. I remember reading an Umberto Eco essay where he talks about the open/closed text, and how the post-modern writer/author/narrator/whatever will write using genre, vernacular, whatever, to appeal to a wide (dumb) audience, whilst still putting in little "winks" for the educated reader, who can pick up on that shit (he gives Dante as an early example, I don't remember who for a contemporary example but probably considers his own work in that light). Kureshi does not do this. Subtlety is unheard of in his world, and for all we know, he's just read a couple of wikipedia pages, because it's all 'my copies of On the Road and Tropic of Capricorn this and 'he had a moustache like Flaubert' this, and 'they were talking about obscure composers like Dvorak' that.
It's little more than embarrassing. As for the narrative itself, it's told from the point of view of a 20 year old Indian boy living in the United Kingdom, (fuck knows if this is disguised autobiography, I can't be bothered looking into the background), and appears to want to reflect the 'On the Road's and 'Tropic of Capricorn's, the world of entry level lit for young horny dudes with existential issues, but it's carried with an ungrounded pretentiousness that I usually let Henry Miller get away with; but at least unlike Kerouac, Kureishi knows how to write. It's entertaining enough that I read the bulk of it without stopping on the 3 hour all stops Sydney-Newcastle train between 11pm-2am, feeling slightly hazy all the time. My last gripe with the book is that it is not funny, but the whole thing is screaming out "Look at me, I'm quirky, I'm funny", but I not once even smiled when reading this. The attempts at jokes just shitted me. I guess it is his first novel though. I hope they get better.