Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Pulling the wings off bluebottles

The Wasp Factory At least two men I know admit that as children they pulled the wings off bluebottles. Frank Cauldhame, the teenage protagonist of The Wasp Factory carries out much more cruel deeds, living on an isolated Scottish island with his father.

The book has many of the hallmarks of a gothic novel, and indeed this was what led me to read it. It had been sitting on a shelf for 30 years, a gift from a band who used the title as their name, and I always associated it with young men in their late teens and early twenties. As I started reading I understood why.

Frank is a psychopath and for the first half of the book there were sections that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Then something happened about half way through, when Frank goes into town with his friend Jamie to watch a band and get drunk. The writing seemed to develop a dark humour and I even found myself sniggering at the description of an intricately planned and executed murder.

It won't be to everyone's taste, but the writing is spectacular. Iain Banks maintains the tension throughout the story, and although I wasn't fully satisfied with the ending, I felt genuine relief that my male friends had not progressed any further than torturing insects.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Punctuation? Who cares?

The Road Cormac McCarthy left a lot of questions unanswered in this cold, depressing story. There are really only two characters, both remain nameless. We don't know their exact ages, nor where they came from, only that they are heading south.

The grammatical style matches this lack of detail. If I had handed in English language homework with so little punctuation and such lack of conventional sentence structure, it would have been handed back to me covered in red ink and with zero out of ten.

But none of this matters. It certainly wouldn't matter if the world as we know it had ended. The only thing that matters is how you would act if you were in this man's shoes.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Not my sort of thing

Cat's Cradle Cat's Cradle made it onto the list of books I wanted to read for three reasons: first, it's an apocalyptic story, second, it's humorous, and third, I'd never read anything before by this big-name author.

I liked the story, was engaged by the themes of religion and the misuse of technology, and amused by the humour. Unfortunately it just wasn't my sort of thing. I didn't connect with any of the characters, and the style of writing, although clear, didn't capture my imagination. Fortunately, with a whopping 127 chapters, many only a couple of pages long, it was easy to keep reading.

I'm glad I finished it, but I doubt I'll read anything else by Kurt Vonnegut.

Friday, 9 June 2017

I sought trains; I found passengers

The Great Railway Bazaar

"Why spend so much time traveling by train?" a friend asked when I said I was planning a rail journey through Europe. "What's the point?" One reason, according to Theroux, is that train travel animates the imagination and provides the solitude to order one's thoughts; it can be stimulating, relaxing, and sometimes monotonous.

I picked up The Great Railway Bazaar for inspiration in writing my own travel journal. It provides some excellent descriptions of places: Tehran before the overthrow of the Shah (a place I've never been), Singapore on a return visit (a place I've been to a couple of times), where a report in the Singapore Straits Times foresees the electronic delivery of mail and news to every household.

It also shows how the journey affected the author. The final leg on the Trans-Siberian Express was depressing to read, yet vivid. Theroux had clearly had enough. He was having difficulty communicating with his fellow passengers, couldn't keep his promise to get home in time for Christmas and had unsettling dreams about his family.

But above all, the book is about the people that Paul Theroux met on his epic journey by rail through Asia; a slice of life as seen from a train in the early 1970s. As he says, "I sought trains; I found passengers."

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

What's life about and why does shit happen?

American Pastoral (The American Trilogy, #1)

This is the first Philip Roth book I've read and I'm quite ambivalent about it. There were lots of things I didn't like, including the way the narrative jumped around, the unwieldy length of the sentences, and many of the characters.

For a while I was also quite annoyed at the way the book was constructed as a story within a story. The character Zuckerman imagines the life of his high school hero, Swede Levov based on a few facts he learns at a school reunion. He cannot know the truth of Swede's life, and for a while, I found myself constantly aware that "this is a made-up story". Of course all fiction is "made-up", but I was initially frustrated by this knowledge.

Half way through, I had become intrigued. The book is in three sections, the titles of which - Paradise Remembered, The Fall, Paradise Lost - gave me the impression I was going to read something along the lines of Proust or Milton. There are certainly long, reminiscent passages, and although the book is not about the fall of Adam and Eve, it can certainly be likened to the biblical story of Job.

So by the time I'd reached the end of the book, I realised that much as I'd disliked some of it, I wanted to know how Swede would cope with his demolished dreams, and it had made me think and reflect. What is life all about, and why, if we are good and do the best we can, does shit happen?