CraigReviewsBooks He Read Over Summer – No Music Here

Because it’s good to mix things up a little every now and then, right? Maybe, maybe not. Over the course of this Summer I moved into a new house, a student house in the town I happen to be a student in, a town which is pretty quiet even on its busiest days. Being a student in a place which empties of students during the years warmest months is strange – it’s difficult not to feel like you’re waiting for something to start, or for everyone else to return so something can start again. In a way, that’s been my Summer, a pleasant enough wait which I’ve spent with good friends in a house without internet access. Being a student in a place without Wi-Fi is even stranger than the scenario I just covered, and I’m a little disappointed in myself that that’s been the case. I suppose it explains the lack of activity re: this site, which has been almost non-existent, and in the time I perhaps would’ve spent writing about music I’ve been doing some reading instead. Some of it was for University, some of it wasn’t, most of it was worth reading anyway, and I figured I’d write a little about some of the novels I turned my attention to:

Crime-and-PunishmentFyodor Dostoyevsky – Crime And Punishment This one doesn’t exactly fall into the category of ‘light reading’, and nor should it. I’m not entirely sure what made me pick it up, but I’m glad I did, because although the novel itself is long (600+ pages for the Penguin Classics edition), it’s a read which is rewarding due to the sense of place, and the story it creates. Following a poor Russian student before and after committing a murder, Dostoyevsky creates a vivid portrait of life in nineteenth century St. Petersburg, which I was frequently sucked into, tasting the Vodka and feeling the dirt under my fingernails. It’s all exceptionally well written, due partly to David McDuff’s translation, which my copy featured, and rarely have I been so convinced by a work of fiction. Dostoyevsky fills his city with characters at both end of the moral spectrum, some corrupt, some innocent but guilty of association with their darker counterparts in a way to explore the title, with the central character locked throughout within a cage of his own making, wrestling with his conscience and growing whilst doing so. The character of this protagonist, Rodion Raskolnikov, (I shorted his name to Rask for the entirety because trying to read Russian names always throws me off the content) is somehow detestable and likable, and his inner struggle is one of the more interesting elements of the novel, which only features a few characters, but brings each into a believable reality. At times things did become long-winded with some scenarios and chapters drawing out, but that stands moreso as a testament to Dostoyevsky’s attention to detail than to his talent for writing somewhat entertaining filler pages. I went into it expecting something Dickens-esque, and in a way Crime And Punishment is a period Bildungsroman, but I enjoyed it more than I’ve enjoyed any Dickens novel, and likely ever well. I tasked myself with reading fifty pages a day, and finished it within two weeks, making it the longest trek in terms of my Summer reading, but it was also the most rewarding. A deserved classic. [9]

Master And MargaritaMikhail Bulgakov – The Master And Margarita It doesn’t happen too often, but have you ever picked up a novel based solely on the blurb and then gone on to love that novel more than most? Normally I like to know a fair amount about a text before I dive into it, maybe giving it a look on Goodreads, or looking at the authors other work to get an idea of what might await me, and whether it’ll be any good. I knew nothing about The Master And Margarita prior to reading it apart from what its blurb informed me of, and that short paragraph was tempting enough to interest me, especially coupled with the front cover, which depicts a giant black clutching the moon. Mikhail Bulgakov was more foreign to me than most foreign authors already are, but after reading his masterpiece I feel better acquainted. The Master And Margarita is weird and wonderful, a magical, humorous, and occasionally dark classic deserving of its status, which I’ve recently come to acknowledge and agree with. Beginning on a normal day, with a somewhat normal conversation things escalate quickly, Anchorman style, when the devil suddenly shows up and begins to wreak havoc. Granted, that havoc isn’t as grand as I expected when the blurb informed me of it, but it’s enough, and Satan is as mischievous as Bulgakov is eloquent and absorbing as a narrator. Set in Moscow the novel gradually grows stranger and more scintillating, playful yet poisonous, and I’m not sure I’ve ever read anything like it. If fellow Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime And Punishment was great because it was realistic, Bulgakov’s novel is great because it’s farfetched yet immensely good fun. It’s a gripping read, part fairytale part nightmare, and it’s willingness to mix the real with the surreal gives it a striking and enthralling quality. The Master And Margarita is gorgeously rich and detailed, packed with quirky characters – from huge talking cats to invisible men – and as a whole it’s an immensely rewarding read, one which is exceptionally and imaginatively told. I wasn’t overly keen on the early-A.D Pontius Pilate parts of the novel which tie in with, but also detract from the texts present, but these pay off at the novels mystical end, where everything comes to a satisfying close, leaving plenty of space for reflection. I’ll be sure to read this again at some point, if only to appreciate it more than I did first time through. I know that the novel has much deeper themes than I cared to explore this time around, and being so caught up in the spectacle of it all probably did distract me from some deeper underlying meanings, but even at surface level The Master And Margarita is brilliant, and I fully recommend reading it. [9]

F451Ray Bradbury – Fahrenheit 451 Ray Bradbury’s esteemed classic is a novel that’s been on my own list for a while now, not one devised by my University. I’ve been aware of it for a while now, but never really got around to exploring it. Maybe that’s because there isn’t a Penguin or Vintage edition – most of the books I pay for tend to be one or the other. Charity shops are the only places I really buy other versions, and it was in one that I found Fahrenheit 451, and I’m glad that I happened to. Dystopian novels appeal to me more than realist works of fiction do, and I went into this one expecting something similar to Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World. Bradbury’s novel falls somewhere between the two, revolving around a conscience-stricken fireman whose job is to burn books, which are banned in a futuristic city. Although not as complex or deep as the previously cited works, Fahrenheit 451 is a safer reading experience, not posing too many big questions upon completion, but still seeming to matter. The sci-fi ‘hound’ elements were cool, and the general concept was original, but the novel felt more grounded, a more comfortable road to breeze along. I liked the idea of firemen starting fires instead of putting them out, and the idea of a society free of literature does highlight just how important literature is – The Complete Works of Shakespeare in Brave New World emphasised. It’s relatively short, meaning I made my way through it quickly, and I’d happily do it again. A worthwhile read for those who like some substance to their novels, but not too much perhaps. [8]

TrumpetJackie Kay – Trumpet Part of the appeal an English degree held for myself was the opportunity to study and discover works of literature which I would have almost definitely overlooked otherwise. Trumpet, Jackie Kay’s fourth novel, is the first text I’ve studied which I hadn’t already heard of in some capacity, and I ended up liking it far more than those familiar texts which I touched upon in my studies last academic year. Telling the tale of a recently deceased and famous jazz musician who was secretly a woman, but preferred to be seen as a man, Kay explores the ripples of such a decision on said musicians family and others who knew him well. It’s all very powerful, and beautifully penned, allowing you to empathise with the grieving widow and understand the perspective of the angered son who feels greatly deceived. Incredibly poignant, Kay’s novel is an excellent character study, and the way it wrestles with loss is particularly inspiring; as a reader I felt everything her characters felt, and sharing their viewpoint allowed for a kind of clarity in regards to their conflicting emotions. I’ll admit that things did end very suddenly, and I feel the final few pages could’ve offered more than they did, but it’s a small gripe of a text which is unique and absorbing. Definitely one where I’m looking forward to finding out more. [8]

StonerJohn Williams – Stoner I’ve been browsing in book shops probably ever since I was old enough to realise what they were, and until around four months ago I’d never seen a John Williams novel. Since then, since reading Williams’ Butchers Crossing I’ve seen his novels in almost every single one I visit, and the American has only released four, one of which seems impossible to find. Stoner is one of those four, and it’s excellent, following quiet William Stoner’s journey from life to death across a few hundred pages, chronicling his life and the events he encounters. None of these events are particularly ‘blockbuster’ moments, but they all form a tapestry, a means by which to understand and sympathise with a protagonist who isn’t your typical leading figure. Stoner, from his time as a young farmer to his time as a University English teacher is unremarkable, quiet, and in any other novel very likely forgettable. What Williams does so well, and what I loved about this novel, is how well the character is brought to life, how the ripples of his existence seem to wash outwards from the pages and hold some kind of real world applicability. William Stoner is a character I can support, one I can empathise with, and his solitary, lonely existence feels very real as Williams sculpts and moulds his progress from nobody to a man who remains a nobody for the majority of his life. For me though, Stoner was somebody, and I’m full of love for Williams’ third novel, because it makes something extraordinary from something simple, and does so with genuine heart and delicate craft. A great work of literature, and one I’m very happy to have stumbled upon. [8]

JunkyWilliam S. Burroughs – Junky I’ve been reading a few novels recently which have centred around drug addiction, and it’s mainly because I find it so interesting, in a weird sort of way. I like reading about the turmoil addiction inspires in the addict, the way it changes their character and bends it to the will of their chosen dependency. This juxtaposing shift between enjoying and detesting vice is at the heart of Burroughs’ autobiographical account of a heroin addiction which spanned a large part of his life, and it’s fascinating to read about something which I feel a million miles away from, but still hangs gloomily in the distance. He cites boredom as a main factor in the birth of his habit, and from here on things spiral downwards in a novel which is rarely boring. Granted, it is quite repetitive, and for those who aren’t interested in the subject matter it would prove a slog, but I liked Junky, which reminded me of a Bukowksi novel, Ham On Rye say, but with less boils and fighting and more needles and withdrawal symptoms. At times difficult to reads, it’s more of an essay than a novel, but it works, and it’s a credible account of addiction which isn’t too unsettling, but finds a comfortable perspective from which to tell its believable tale. Something to read if you have a slight interest in the subject matter, or are a fan of Burroughs’ work. [7]

The Big SleepRaymond Chandler – The Big Sleep I’ve never really been big on the detective novel. Granted, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe is more of a private investigator, but my opening statement remains true. That being said, I decided to make an exception for Chandler’s most famous work when it made its way into the British Heart Foundation where I volunteer occasionally. For £2 I don’t have a whole lot of complaints, liking the novel a good deal, partly due to the twists packed in throughout, and also because of the lead, who is how I picture the stereotypical P.I to be, Bukowski’s Nicky Belane in Pulp without the crazy alien encounters and the same asshole attitude. Following Marlowe as he attempts to solve an ever-expanding case, the novel makes its way down a winding path, littered with surprises and memorable dialogue, particularly from the protagonist when he has to turn down female attention or talk himself out of a tricky situation – both often take place at the same time, and happen often. Chandler’s prose is effective, and his story a good one, and I’d be tempted to delve further into his writing based on my time with The Big Sleep. [7]

OrlandoVirginia Woolf – Orlando When I had to read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway for a module on modernism last year I wasn’t a huge fan. It all seemed too long winded, too unnecessarily unnecessary. I didn’t understand why the novel was as highly regarded as it is, but I think after reading Woolf’s Orlando I’m starting to back Virginia a little more. Woolf is rightly recognised as one of history’s most talented female writers, and if I found Mrs Dalloway dull and tepid, I found Orlando to be a more to my taste. It was less of the reality and more of the fantasy, depicting the life of a young nobleman who grows into a noblewoman, experiencing love, loss, and other roadblocks along the way. It’s written in typically fashionable Woolf prose, elegant and convincing, immensely well composed, and I cared for what was going on far more than I did when reading Mrs Dalloway’s conveyor belt careening. It’s a rich and detailed novel, covering historic events and melding them into the text, and somehow it spans a few centuries, with the protagonist seemingly possessed of some otherworldly abilities. The sudden sex change around the centre is baffling and bizarre, but it adds to the novels charm, at least in my eyes. I did struggle with it in parts, mainly when there wasn’t a whole lot going on, and when that Dalloway meandering began to rear its head, but for the most part I thought it was alright, and I’m glad that it at least changed my opinions in regards to Woolf and her work. [7]

Requiem For A DHubert Selby Jr. – Requiem For A Dream I recently decided to watch Darren Aronofksy’s cinematic adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr’s novel, and immediately ended up hating myself when I realised what I’d got myself into. Very few films scare me in the way that Requiem For A Dream does; that final half hour or so always gets me, because it’s disturbing and realistic enough to really make a mark on a viewer. I saw the original novel on sale in a Waterstones, and remember thinking ‘Surely, it can’t be as bad?’ Well, it isn’t (thank God), and there’s definitely less shock value, although the climax does escalate just as rapidly. Focusing around four New York situated drug addicts of differing nature, Selby Jr’s novel is a stark and bleak reality presented in black and white. I can now see that Aronosfsky’s 2001 take is as faithful as it gets, and it helped to have a visual aid as I was reading the source material, because reading  Requiem For A Dream is not made easy by its author. There’s a complete absence of speech marks, or any punctuation for that matter, and line breaks are non-existent except when the scene changes. You’re forced to distinguish a character by the way they talk, and Selby Jr’s prose mixes with his character’s dialogue, making it tough to separate a lot of things, therefore making the novel a fair trek to get through. Get through it I did though, once I’d adapted to the unusual craft, and I liked it, even if it was very repetitive – although most drug based novels tend to be. There’s a lot of waiting around to score, and then lots of scoring, and it’s only towards the end when it all finally culminates in something far more unsettling that the style of writing. Raw, unpolished, and brutally honest, Requiem For A Dream is vivid and visceral, but will alienate the casual reader a great deal. I stuck it out because I wanted to see how it compared to the film, and compare it does, although I doubt I’ll give it a repeat viewing / reading. [6.5]

Cat's CradleKurt Vonnegut – Cats Cradle I read Vonnegut’s most famous work, Slaughterhouse 5 in the span of a few days last December, and liked it plenty enough to explore another of the American authors novels some seven months later. Similar, but different, Cat’s Cradle takes Vonnegut’s trademark eccentric style and throws it into a doomsday scenario, following the travels of protagonist John as he tries to track the inventor of a deadly substance known as ‘ice nine’. It’s weird, it’s wacky, and it’s Kurt Vonnegut through and through, a multilayered text which is unusual in a good way. I didn’t enjoy it as much as Slaughterhouse 5, but I definitely enjoyed it, if only for its uncanny narrative and enigmatic narrator, who meets a plethora of equally ‘interesting’ characters along the way. If you’re new to Vonnegut, maybe start somewhere else, but if you’re already a fan, I’d say Cat’s Cradle is worth a look, just don’t expect to be blown away. I wasn’t, but I’m glad I chose to check it out; Vonnegut always makes his work interesting – put it that way. [6.5]

BlindnessJose Saramago – Blindness I’m drawn to ‘Vintage Classics’ novels like a moth to light, and the blurb of Jose Saramago’s well respected 1995 novel had me particularly interested. Basically, blindness spreads from one person to the next like the common cold, leading to a national epidemic during which those infected first are confined to an abandoned mental asylum as a means of quarantine. Sounds pretty interesting, right? It is, but I felt like the premise was wasted by Saramago, and instead of an apocalypse style thriller I was left reading something philosophical and claustrophobic, with the novel following a single group who spend the majority of the novel locked up in circumstances which are a little hard to believe. The government is immensely negligent, the people they employ to protect those quarantined are trigger happy and seem to lack humanity, and those who are blind spend a lot of time bumping into things and pondering what it is to be human – especially if being human means being able to see. I could be missing the point of it all though, and likely am. It wasn’t the dystopian novel I expected basically. It was a good book, don’t get me wrong, and I find the concept unique and stimulating, but I felt like I’d been sold a little short, and that ruined things for me, and prevented me from really enjoying what should be a thought-provoking and engaging read. [6]

AngelElizabeth Taylor – Angel There are a few quotes on the back of my copy of Angel, highly positive character comments, which I found misleading and false when I read the novel the described. I finished this in under two days, and at 250 pages I was a little surprised. I realised after shutting it that the reason I’d read it so quickly was because I wanted it to be over, so that I could move onto a book featuring a protagonist who hopefully isn’t a bit of a dick. I said it, I’m sorry quoters whose names I can’t  check right now because my text is in Italy, but Angel is a bit of a lot of a dick, and I couldn’t tolerate her for almost all of the novel – which isn’t ideal when she’s the focal character. I struggled with Angel, novel and character, because if I don’t find a character interesting then I likely won’t find her story interesting. For me, reading Angel was like reading Jane Eyre again, except I found that Jane, annoyingly persistent as she was, at least had some redeeming qualities. Taylor’s novel is well-written, and follows the character well, but I didn’t really care a whole lot about her protagonist, and even hated her at times. Maybe I’m meant to, and hopefully studying it this year changes my perception of things; it did with Bronte’s classic. [4]

The AwakeningKate Chopin – The Awakening This was Another novel that I had to read for University, and one which I think I’ll wait on before truly passing judgement, and in this case, condemning it. As an ignorant student hoping to soon find enlightenment, I wasn’t a fan of Chopin’s esteemed classic, and I’m hoping that receiving some context as part of my course improves my opinion of The Awakening, which didn’t do a whole lot for me. I can imagine how groundbreaking a work of literature it was at the time in terms of its portrayal of female empowerment, and I can see why it was labelled as such, but in terms of my reading experience I couldn’t really feel involved. I wasn’t routing for protagonist Edna Pontellier, but neither was I against her decisions and character. I simply felt detached, as she did from her husband and children, and The Awakening did have me close to snoozing – which I suppose is ironic. Time will tell whether I change my mind, hopefully it will, because I could’ve read Trumpet again in the time it took me to get through this, even though Chopin’s novel is shorter. [?]


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