Monthly Archives: June 2014

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green

 

the fault in our stars by john green

As soon as the trailers for this film started appearing, and I learned it was an adaptation of a hugely popular and successful book, I wanted to read THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. Quirky, moving and often very funny, it’s one of those books that really does make you laugh one moment and the next reduces you to tears. Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters meet and fall in love, “the way you fall asleep: slowly then all at once.” This is the story of their whirlwind romance. Whirlwind because both are teenagers whose lives to date have been shaped almost entirely by the fact that they have cancer. THE FAULT IN OUR STARS is above all about them wanting to be more than their illnesses. About wanting to be remembered for more than dying young. And about the precious joy of living in the moment.

It’s the exact opposite of the cross stitched versions of “inspirational”  quotes and platitudes, which adorn Augustus’ parents home and are ridiculed by the pair as prosaic and banal.

This could so easily be an insufferably sweet tale, but Green has created characters that strenuously resist typecasting as brave and saintly  cancer sufferers. They deride the notion of nobly battling their diseases and instead rail against the raw deal they have been dealt by the universe. At the same time, both avoid being consumed by anger or bitterness thanks to their ability to laugh at, rather than pity, themselves. Perhaps it all works so well because these characters would be interesting and credible with or without their cancer. Like all other teenagers they are fighting for independence, to be in control and to get a moment away from their parents so the rampaging hormones can get a look in. They are at times pretentious, at times refreshingly honest. They are simultaneously wise beyond their years, immature, hopelessly scared, naive, prescient and fearless. Just like most 16 -18 year olds. And yet there’s always that extra dimension – they are not like other teenagers.

This manifests itself in lots of different ways but I was especially struck by how mindful it makes them of their parents’ existence as separate entities from their offspring, of the impact that their cancer is having and of the fact that their parents’ pain will not end with their children’s deaths. Neither want to be the cause of so much suffering and Hazel Grace in particular worries about what her parents will do when she dies. Will they stay together, how will they pass the time, what will they talk about?  Her quest to track down the Dutch author of her favourite book, An Imperial Affliction, leads to a particularly poignant realisation that adds to the power of this aspect of the book.

It’s pretty powerful all round and I hope the film retains some of the depth of meaning and the darkness that lurk between the pages of the book. Because in THE FAULT IN OUR STARS Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters are trying to make sense of something that’s senseless, to find meaning in something that’s meaningless. And what elevates their story, and makes it very special,  is that they are more than aware of the futility of what they are doing, yet choose to do it anyway. Because whether you are fated to die at 16, 60 or 106, that’s what life essentially is – it’s the living it that counts, much more than that which you might never find.

 

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A SHORT HISTORY OF TRACTORS IN UKRAINIAN by Marina Lewycka

a short history of tractors in ukrainian by marina lewycka

I’ve categorised this book as comedy but let me start by admitting I did not find it that funny. Perhaps if I saw a film of the story I might laugh out loud, but many of the episodes that I imagine have prompted the “mad and hilarious” or “extremely funny” plaudits on the front cover, just made me sad. Maybe it’s because they involve a fragile old man and there’s something intrinsically sad about the loneliness that drives him into the arms of Valentina, a buxom gold digger and fellow Ukrainian. And whilst she is a figure of fun, with her satin greens bras and peep toed mules, she’s also desperate and that’s not something I find very funny either. The feuding sisters, worried by the way Valentina is taking advantage of their Pappa,  made me sad too; for the many things that they struggled to say to each other, for the way even being united against a common enemy cannot quite overcome years of rivalry, and for how it takes their own daughters to make them realise that there’s nothing to be gained from holding on to bitterness and recrimination.

Each character is not much more than a caricature and whilst this works for the moments of almost slapstick that make up the action, it’s less appropriate to the  parts looking back at the family’s early history, taking in the Nazi occupation of Ukraine, Stalin’s purges, famine and “correction” in a concentration camp. The whole things is dotted with excerpts from the book Pappa has been writing – and the inspiration behind the novel’s title. These passages grant some additional insight into Ukraine’s history, and the pride with which its glory days are remembered by the aged tractor historian, but they sit rather uncomfortably alongside the other elements of the book – in fact they felt forced and unnatural to me.

This isn’t a bad book, but it’s not a good one either. It left me rather indifferent if truth be known, and that’s rather a shame because there’s some interesting ideas here about the relationship between past and present, about which can hurt us most and which we let rule our lives. But mostly I just feel cheated, because a book with such a great title  really should deliver something special and yet the description that most springs to mind about A SHORT HISTORY OF TRACTORS IN UKRAINIAN is “instantly forgettable”.

 

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FALLOUT by Sadie Jones

fallout by sadie jones

I adored Sadie Jones’ first two novels, THE OUTCAST and SMALL WARS, and whilst the third, THE UNINVITED GUEST, was disappointing, this latest sees her back on form and is a delight to read. The plot is actually reminiscent of Nick Hornby or David Nicholson but becomes something so much more exquisite in Jones’ hands. Set in the 1970s, it’s the story of charismatic Luke, an aspiring playwright, and the fallout that occurs when a damaged actress called Nina enters his life. Her arrival blows apart his close friendships and professional relationships, most critically with Paul and Leigh with whom Luke lives – and with whom he is entangled in a complex, but almost entirely unacknowledged, love triangle.

Sadie Jones excels at creating characters. Luke’s drive and intensity is palpable as you turn the pages. He’s “itching with the blood rushing through him and his thoughts, topped up with life” but he’s also deeply troubled by his past – by a mother that is locked up in an asylum and a father with demons that mean he will not visit her there. This draws him inexorably to Leigh and Paul, who are “of good stock with no shadows cast over them from behind. They were not like him, they were not contaminated.” Paul in particular is solid, safe and reliable. On opening nights, he lays a steadying hand on Luke’s shoulder “as if to keep him from disappearing” and he anchors Leigh too – for as long as she allows him. When her reaction to Nina exposes how Leigh truly feels about Luke, she realises “She had prized safety above all things, had backed herself into a corner and found nothing but danger there.”

Luke’s past is a large part of what draws him to Nina too; he recognises and relates to her pain, wants to rescue her and to free her. But Nina does not believe she deserves rescuing – or happiness or love. So she keeps going back to the husband that holds her tightly by the hair as they walk up the stairs together, not causing any pain but simply exerting his control.

Sadie Jones writes prose that makes you want to re-read sentences to enjoy how well they have been written and fully appreciate how laden they are with meaning. When Leigh and Luke kiss, for example, they are “Revealed and encircled.” A phrase that perfectly captures all that has led to the moment and all that comes afterwards.

 

She crafts wonderful, credible plots too, pacing them well and filling them with strong secondary characters. The theatrical setting of FALLOUT is rich with opportunities in this respect and helps create a powerful sense of place and time, enhanced by precise details that feel effortless but are clearly the result of painstaking attention.

Perhaps best of all though, is that she does stories with proper endings, that make up for the fact you are leaving behind the world she has conjured for you and that fill you with the warm satisfaction of believing the characters live on beyond the last page. In less capable hands, the conclusion of FALLOUT might smack of Hollywood schmaltz but Jones does a beautiful job and this reader, who is notoriously difficult to please when it comes to how books end, was more than content. If I ever write a book, this is the kind of writing I will aspire too – spare, emotive and profoundly real.

 

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BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley

brave new world by aldous huxley

What to say about a book that has been reviewed so many times and is such an enduring masterpiece? Simply that I get something new from it each time I read it again (and that’s true of so many books and is the primary reason I like to buy my own copies to read over and over).

Huxley’s creation is as potent now as it was when he first wrote his future world back in the 1930s. The control exerted over the masses via drugs and sex, the genetic engineering, the relentless brain washing, the social segregation – all have kernels of possibility at their core which make them still highly relevant today. But it’s Huxley’s portrayal of the loss of individual identity that really struck me on reading BRAVE NEW WORLD this time around.

In Huxley’s dystopia, the refrain “everyone belongs to everyone else” is used to reinforce the abolition of the family and of close personal relationships. The desire to spend time alone is a failed opportunity to consume – and, as such, is seen as alien, even threatening, behaviour. Much as Americans were urged to go shopping in the wake of 9/11, in BRAVE NEW WORLD being a good consumer equates with being a good citizen. Contrast with today’s World Controllers, who like to deny the existence of society and yet are also intent on defining belonging in terms of economic activity. The difference, perhaps, is that they now see a role for encouraging the type of individuality that goes hand in hand with selfishness, for pitting people against one another and breeding feelings of isolation.

Huxley proffers two choices for those who don’t fit in (or comply) – exile to an island where others are plagued by similar thoughts (Bernard Marx’s fate) or insanity (as befalls John the Savage). So complete is the loss of individual identity in this BRAVE NEW WORLD that, unlike in most of the dystopian literature I read, changing the world by collectively challenging the Controllers, doesn’t even feature as an option. That struck me as unimaginably bleak. After all “Everyone belongs to everyone else” has another interpretation; one that speaks of strong families and friendships, of responsibility, community and solidarity.

I am not sure what conclusions to draw from all this, other than perhaps it’s important to get the right balance between one’s sense of self and one’s role in a society, but BRAVE NEW WORLD certainly does what I think any good book should do – get me thinking.

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A DEATH IN THE FAMILY by Karl Ove Knausgaard

a death in the family by karl ove knausgaard

Very rarely do I start a book and dislike it so much that I cannot finish – I can remember doing so as an adult only a handful of times. This was one of them. I saw the author at Charleston and thought his six volume memoirs sounded interesting. They also rang bells because his decision to controversially call the set Mein Kampf had generated a great deal of publicity. Sadly installment one (of which I read almost half)  failed to live up to any of the hype. Dull and meandering it’s little more than a series of unrelated episodes interspersed with reflections on the nature of writing and of remembering.

To give him his dues, Knausgaard has never claimed the books are anything more – he reports starting to write them at a time when he was sick of fiction and was only able to read diaries and memoirs. And in A DEATH IN THE FAMILY he writes ” Writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows. That is what writing is about. Not what happens there, not what actions are played out there, but the there itself.” The trouble is I found his “there” incredibly boring. I am not alone. One reviewer has said this of the series:

This is not boring in the way bad narrative is boring; it is boring in the way life is boring, and somehow, almost perversely, that is a surprising thing to see on the page.

It is surprising – in the way your rarely see fictional characters go to the toilet or sleep unless it’s got some bearing on the plot. But does that make it good? Not to my mind and it doesn’t make for much of a read either. So when someone I was complaining to suggested I give up and read something else instead I felt strangely liberated. I’d like to return to these one day – particularly to book three, BOYHOOD ISLAND, but for now I am simply grateful my own struggle with A DEATH IN THE FAMILY is over.

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