Monday, 14 May 2018

Being fine is not enough

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine Eleanor Oliphant is odd. People don't understand her and she finds it difficult to make friends. We very quickly learn that she's had at least one abusive experience, since she turned up for a job interview "with a black eye, a couple of missing teeth and a broken arm." But there are little clues in the text that lead us to suspect that Eleanor has suffered something much more dreadful, and this has probably influenced her behaviour and self-imposed loneliness. Things start to change when Eleanor finds the love of her life wearing "the bottom button of his waistcoat unfastened", and when she develops a friendship with the office IT guy, Raymond, who wears "a T-shirt showing a cartoon dog, lying on top of its kennel".

Set in Glasgow, the story is narrated by Eleanor, but the expressions she uses and her way of talking give the impression that something is not quite right. She says things that don't make sense, suggesting her version of events is not necessarily reliable. Her language is very formal, and her use of the word "Mummy" is particularly unsettling.

The story was tragicomic, in that it made me both laugh and cry. Eleanor's description of Hell was very amusing: "the soundtrack to the screaming, the pitchfork action and the infernal wailing of damned souls would be a looped medley of 'show tunes' drawn from the annals of musical theatre." Her dislike of geraniums took me right back to childhood: "that rich, sticky scent when you brush against them, a brackish, vegetable smell that's the opposite of floral." And then I shed a tear quite a few times with Eleanor, even tho' I was uncertain of just what she was crying about.

It's Gail Honeyman's first novel, and just like another favourite of mine, Notes on a Scandal , its treatment of loneliness had an emotional appeal. Eleanor Oliphant thought she was fine but I wanted her to be more than that. I wanted her to be happy.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Bally foolishness

Three Men in a Boat (Three Men, #1) There were four of them --- George, and William Samuel Harris, and J., and Montmorency the dog. They were sitting in J.'s lodgings, comparing their ailments, and reached the conclusion that they needed rest, a "change of scene, and absence of the necessity for thought." Two weeks in a hired rowing boat on the River Thames was chosen as the best remedy, although Montmorency thought "the whole thing bally foolishness". The three friends packed their bags and set off to enjoy themselves.

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) follows the narrator J. and George and Harris from Kingston to Oxford. There is enough information for those who wish to follow in the men's wake, but the book is not really about the traveling. It is about friendship. The men argue, lose their tempers and break things, but at the end of their vacation they have had a wonderful time.

Above all, the book is funny. It is one of the funniest book I've read, managing to not only provide chuckles and guffaws throughout, but in several places causing me to laugh out loud. The best episode, I thought, was J.'s explanation of why neither "paraffine" oil nor cheese should ever be included in a list of items to be taken on a boat trip. His retelling of Harris's experience with swans came a close second. Jerome's writing occasionally lurches from the comic and vernacular to poetic musings on landscape, but this serves to throw the humour into relief.

Anyone who has been away with a group of mates will relate to the book. If the holiday was spent outdoors in Britain, even more so. I believe that is what continues to make Three Men in a Boat so popular nearly 130 years after it was written. It so wonderfully held a mirror up to the plucky British character, the types who, no matter how dreadful the situation in which they found themselves, insisted "We had come out for a fortnight's enjoyment on the river, and a fortnight's enjoyment on the river we meant to have.

Monday, 23 April 2018

The injustice of man's justice

It's a Battlefield "Do you believe in the way the country is organized?" asks Caroline Bury in It's a Battlefield. She's a woman who's connected, who "had chosen to exercise her passion for charity" in the territory of politics. The story follows Caroline and others as they try to prevent a London bus driver named Jim Drover from hanging.

Graham Greene described the book as his 'first overtly political novel'. It was published in 1934, when Britain was experiencing the effects of the Great Depression. Although the story references unemployment and poverty, for example when the Assistant Commissioner considers that "the beggar did not beg because he would not work", it's not primarily concerned with them (check out Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier for this). Instead, Greene claimed its theme is 'the injustice of man's justice'.

The Assistant Commissioner, perhaps the story's primary character, questions a justice system which allowed a company director convicted of income tax fraud to repay his debt at "twelve shillings in the pound to save [him] from bankruptcy, to save him from a nervous breakdown." In comparison "men who stole a little jewellery from a rich man's house" might go to gaol for five years, because laws, he says, are made to protect property.

The book also conjures up the experiences of working class females in a matchbox factory. Greene uses the same phrases with which he'd earlier written about life in prison, and the women come out worse. Certain prisoners "have certain privileges", "as many library books as they want", and "more butter with their bread", whereas the girls, from eight in the morning until six in the evening stood "between death and disfigurement, unemployment and the streets, between the cog-wheels and the shafting." They worked until they married, like Milly Drover, the condemned man's wife, who will have to return to the factory whatever happens to her husband. If his sentence is repealed she'll face 18 years waiting for him. Would it not be better if he were to hang?

It's all very bleak, apart from Kay Rimmer, Milly's sister, who was determined to have a good time whilst seeking a husband. I particularly enjoyed the episode where Jules takes her away for a night. Greene very briskly gets the sex scene out of the way: "He was with her, he was in her, he was away from her, brushing his hair before the glass, whistling a tune."

The writing style in the first chapter reminded me of Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf in how it follows individual characters as they travel around London between work, home and leisure, exposing their thoughts, worries and hopes. Greene opens a new section to clearly demarcate the shift from one character to another, although I was occasionally confused by the much too similar names of Conrad, the condemned man's brother, and Conder, the journalist.

This is the first time I've read It's a Battlefield, although in my early 20s I used to devour Graham Greene books. What attracted me to the author then was the way in which he juxtaposes religion (Catholicism) and communism, and this book did not disappoint. I re-read Stamboul Train last year and am now determined to tackle all his books again.

Friday, 13 April 2018

Bunkum and claptrap

Veronika Decides to Die Just what is wrong with being a librarian? Around half way through Veronika Decides To Die, we learn that "Veronika [-] finished her studies, went to university, got a good degree, but ended up working as a librarian." This is not the sort of thing that endears an ex-librarian to a narrator. But I'd already made up my mind about Paolo Coelho's book before the end of the first chapter.

The story is about a young Slovenian woman called Veronika, who tries to commit suicide but fails. She wakes up in La Villete mental institution in Ljubljana, where the action is mainly set, and is told she has only a few days to live. The story then deals with how Veronika's prognosis affects her and the other inmates.

Many years ago I read Coelho's blockbuster The Alchemist and remember wondering what all the fuss was about. My overriding memory was that it was very twee. Veronika Decides To Die has not improved my opinion of the author. It was full of bunkum and claptrap. The style left me cold because there was so little descriptive depth that I found it impossible to immerse myself in the story. It consists mainly of ensuring that I get the message by hitting me over the head with it. And it was a particularly worrying message. The author's thesis appears to be that people who suffer from mental health problems are not ill, they just want to live outside the accepted norms of society. According to the character Dr. Igor, the cure for these people is "an awareness of life" and the medication is "an awareness of death".

Coelho has said that "when you write a book, you use your experience", and in the Afterword he relates his own detention in a mental institution as a teenager. This was the best bit of the book for me (because it is the most truthful). He has also said "if you overload your book with a lot of research, you are going to be very boring to yourself and to your reader. Books are not there to show how intelligent you are. Books are there to show your soul." I'm obviously not Coelho's target audience. I found this book very boring and thought it suffered from a lack of research. My preference is for intelligent writing, and I don't really care about the author's soul, which in Paolo Coelho's case seems to resemble an ego as big as a planet.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Strange noises and messages written on walls

The Haunting of Hill House On the surface, The Haunting of Hill House is a straightforward ghost story, where four strangers meet in an isolated gothic mansion and experience supernatural phenomena. Dr. Montague, an anthropologist, has rented the haunted house for three months. He hopes to make his fame and fortune "upon the publication of his definitive work on the causes and effects of psychic disturbances." His search for suitable assistants unearths Eleanor Vance, who had dutifully cared for her mother for eleven years, leading a life of "small guilts and small reproaches, constant weariness, and unending despair." Two others agree to join the Doctor, Theodora, for whom duty and conscience are "attributes which belonged properly to Girl Scouts", and Luke Sanderson, who will inherit Hill House, and who "was a liar" and "also a thief."

There is one memorable scene early in the book that depicts the strange folk in the town of Hillsdale, but other than this the action takes place in and around Hill House. The quartet of characters are subjected to strange noises, inexplicable temperature variations and messages written on walls. But these are not what make the story frightening. It is how the characters think and react that provoke feelings of unease and dread.

Although I found the characters fascinating, the ghostly events are somewhat cliched. Shirley Jackson's writing style is very evocative of 1950s America and the dialogue reads like a film script. My personal preference however is for a British, more modern setting, such as The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley or Sheep by Simon Maginn, both of which contained more psychological terror. The Haunting of Hill House feels dated compared to these, but it is nonetheless a classic of the horror genre.

Surprisingly there was a fair amount of humour provided by the unwavering Mrs. Dudley and Dr. Montague's eager wife. The star of the book however is Eleanor. Throughout the story she repeats a line from a song by Shakespeare, "Journeys end in lovers' meeting", but I thought a more suitable refrain would be from The Smiths's There Is A Light That Never Goes Out: "I never never want to go home, Please don't take me home, Because I haven't got one".

Monday, 19 March 2018

But. nothing happens!

Mrs. Dalloway I imagine that many youths have developed a loathing for Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway because they have been forced to study it. The story begins with Clarissa Dalloway setting out to buy flowers for a party she is throwing later at her home in London. Its narrative weaves in and out of the minds of several characters, follows them as they wander through streets and parks, and accompanies them to appointments. "But nothing happens!" I can hear the teens cry. Having been exposed to Proust's reflections on tea and cake at school, I understand their anguish.

Woolf takes us into the minds of her characters using a stream-of-consciousness technique. As a writer, I was enthralled by the style and will more than likely read Mrs. Dalloway again. As a reader, I found it much less endearing. Without the usual narrative breaks of chapters, it's impossible to gage how much to read in any single session. There weren't even any section dividers in the ebook I used. This lack of visual markers, combined with the need for great concentration often resulted in my own thoughts drifting away from the narrative.

And yet I did like the book. The three main characters are Clarissa Dalloway, Septimus Warren Smith and Peter Walsh and the action takes place a few years after the European War (when Woolf was writing there had been no second disaster). Clarissa has recently had a heart attack and Septimus suffers from shell-shock. They are two sides of the same coin. Peter had proposed marriage to Clarissa many years before, but she had turned him down because, "in marriage a little licence, a little independence there must be between people living together day in day out in the same house." She had chosen Richard Dalloway for that reason rather than Peter, with whom "everything had to be shared".

I can't say that I related much to the primarily upper-middle-class characters, but Woolf's way of taking the reader on a walk with their thoughts was very appealing. It made me long to be in London again, on a hot day in June, experiencing the bustle, enjoying window-shopping, hearing Big Ben chime, wandering the streets I know very well. Mrs. Dalloway is a classic of early 20th century literature and the first of Virginia Woolf's books that I have read. It has changed my opinion of stream-of-consciousness, but I won't be reading Ulysses any time soon.

Friday, 9 March 2018

A proud mummy's boy

Barry Lyndon 'I have always found that if a man does not give himself a good word, his friends will not do it for him.' Barry Lyndon is not shy of praising himself in the book that bears his name. The subject of Thackeray's The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq. is self-explanatory. Redmond Barry is brought up by his mother, who fills his head with heroic tales of his ancestry. He is a belligerent boy, proud and naive, and grows into a wild teenager, who, in one of my favourite episodes of the book, becomes involved in a duel for the love of a local Irish girl.

Following the duel, Barry joins the British army and spends his late teenage years and early twenties involved in the Seven Years' War. After successfully extricating himself from military service, he calls himself Redmond de Balibari and joins his uncle in making a fortune and reputation through gambling. Up to this point, I found the character to be something of a cheeky rogue, but this changed once Redmond decides to obtain his money through marriage to a rich heiress.

Women, Barry Lyndon would have us believe, are his downfall. The 'only women who never deceive a man, and whose affection remains constant through all trials' are mothers. He tells us, 'Since the days of Adam, there has been hardly a mischief done in this world but a woman has been at the bottom of it', and blames everyone but himself for his misfortunes. But his wife is the worst of all. Lady Lyndon, was a blue-stocking and Redmond initially had no interest in her. However, when he hears she has said that he smells 'too much of the stable to be admitted to ladies' society', his pride is wounded. He felt 'equal in blood and breeding to any Lyndon in Christendom, and determined to bend this haughty lady.' His actions from this point can only be described as those of a stalker and a psychopath.

I didn't get a sense of Thackeray trying to put across a moral theme in the actions of his characters. Indeed he has said that 'the true end of fiction lay not in pointing morals but in the art of representing a subject, whether sordid or pleasing.' My own reading of the story did bring up the question of why certain activities are fine if you happen to be upper-class, but are seen as degenerate if you are poor. Redmond de Balibari sees society's hypocrisy in considering the profession of the law as honourable, 'where a man will lie for any bidder', and yet 'the gallant man who sits him down before the baize [-] is proscribed by your modern moral world'.

I had enjoyed the Kubrick film, which follows the story fairly closely. The book is Thackeray's first substantial work of fiction and as such I thought it lacked the skill with which his later book, Vanity Fair, was written. The use of the protagonists own voice to narrate the story was very satisfying. It's clear from the start that Barry Lyndon is unreliable in remembering and telling his story, which makes it impossible to be sure how much was truthful. Some of the inaccuracies are revealed through footnotes written by Thackeray's fictitious commissioner of the work, FitzBoodle, but the other characters are never given a voice except through the protagonist. Readers must decide for themselves on the veracity of Barry Lyndon's tale.