kayt’s #CBR5 Review #10: The Hours by Michael Cunningham

ImageThe Hours is a fantastic novel. A profound, passionate and moving book that manages to successfully tell three complete stories. Michael Cunningham shows his incredible skill for complex story telling, weaving together the tales of three women all connected by a book.

The book is Mrs. Dalloway, and the women, spanning generations and continents, are Virginia Woolf, Laura Brown, and Clarissa Vaughan. The book chronicles these women as they go about a single day in their lives, held together by the common thread of this novel. Woolf, of course, is in the process of writing the novel, while also recuperating in a London suburb. Laura Brown  is a fifties housewife in Los Angeles, reading the novel while trying to plan a birthday party for her husband, and Clarissa Vaughan is a modern representation of Clarissa Dalloway.

With The Hours, Michael Cunningham has created a very original, and deeply moving book. His writing is exquisite and he has truly crafted a deeply exciting and original reading experience. Cunningham pays great tribute to Mrs. Woolf and Mrs. Dalloway, in The Hours, a work that is beautiful and enduring in its own right. Although it is in many ways a reinvention of Woolf’s classic novel, it reads completely sincere, and fresh.

The payoff is great, as he successfully intertwines the three separate stories for a satisfying, beautiful and tragic ending. It is an inspired, beautiful and deeply moving novel that manages to be fresh and original, while still acting as a great tribute.

Kayt’s #CBR5 Review #09: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

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I’ve been meaning to read the English Patient for some time now, but kept pushing it to the back of my shelf. I know it is widely considered a fantastic book, a modern masterpiece by many, but it wasn’t until a few days ago I actually decided to pick it up. I was not disappointed in the slightest. The English Patient is an incredibly moving, deeply beautiful story that is very much  deserving of all the praise.

The English Patient tells the story of four people, who in the immediate wake of World War II, end up living in an abandoned, dilapidated villa in Italy. There is Hana, a young military nurse, who has nothing to go back to after losing everything in the war; Caravaggio, her shady family friend, who seeks her out at the villa; Kip, a young sapper who’s spent the entire war diffusing bombs, and the eponymous english patient, a mysterious man, burned beyond recognition, whom Hana stayed to care for long after everyone else shipped out.

The story shifts settings through flashbacks, recounting the rich histories of some of the characters.  Caravaggio, with the help of some morphine, encourages the English patient to tell his story: his exploration of the African Desert, and his great, doomed love affair with Katharine Clifton. The story also shows us Kip’s past in England, and delves deep into the psyche of these extremely damaged characters.

The entire book is riveting not only because of the intriguing narrative, but Ondaatje’s spectacularly beautiful prose. The writing is deeply poetic, and moving but never over the top. It is a thought-provoking novel, and I found myself stopping often either thinking about the story, or marveling at the incredible prose.

As soon as I finished the English Patient, I immediately wanted to pick it up again. To dive back in to the beautiful language and moving story. Ondaatje has truly created a masterpiece, and a book I will savor for years to come.

Kayt’s #CBR5 Review #08: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

ImageWith The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood offers us another version of the dystopian novel, and a pretty great one. Atwood creates a haunting vision of a future not too far off, and while it doesn’t quite reach the heights of the classics that came before such as 1984 or Brave New World, it is still a captivating and highly enjoyable book in its own right. 

In a not too distant future America has ceased to be America and is now the Republic of Gilead. Not much introduction is given to this society, but it doesn’t take long to figure out that this is a backwards, sexist state ruled by right-wingers and religious fundamentalists. Babies are scarce, and the sole purpose of women is to get pregnant, everything else including reading, working and unsanctioned socializing is strictly prohibited. Offred, the protagonist and narrator of this story, serves as a handmaid to one of the high ranking Commanders, a job which requires taking part in a monthly “ceremony” where the Commander tries to impregnate her. This is her only purpose, and everything else such as contacting her missing husband and daughter, or even going by her real name, is forbidden. 

The rest of society has likewise been divided into specific sectors each with a specific purpose and costume to match. Commanders, wives, handmaids, servants and focus on their tasks, hoping to avoid being publicly hung, or banished to the colonies. The devolution into this dystopian state is sketched out vaguely in Offred’s flashbacks, although their main purpose is to reveal her separation from her husband and daughter, who are now lost to her in this dark new world. 

Atwood has crafted a world that is both hard to believe, and hauntingly realistic. She takes many modern issues and stretches them to their chilling extremes, forming disturbing forecast of a not impossible future. She explores the dark connections between politics and sex, while avoiding sounding like a feminist manifesto. 

This story is not so much about the characters, but rather the world they inhabit. Atwood’s portrait of Gilead is engrossing. The utter confusion and terror that accompanies this rapid societal regression permeates the entire story, and Offred remarks that if she could ask any question of her superiors it would simply be “What is going on?”

A well written, immensely readable, almost poetic novel that acts as a satire of modern society, and a warning for future generations, The Handmaid’s Tale is a beautiful and important book. 

Kayt’s #CBR5 Review #07: Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

ImageRed Harvest is an  excellent detective novel, one of many Dashiell Hammett wrote in the genre. It’s a complicated, intriguing story, and the book at times reads like a screenplay for a great film noir. The dialogue is so clever, and so sharp you can’t just read it normally. I had to picture Humphrey Bogart puffing a cigarette, or sipping a scotch while delivering the lines. Hammett creates an entire corrupt, mysterious, world and pulls you into the smoky noir setting of the crooks and cops in Red Harvest’s Personville.

Hammett uses the narrative framing device of a Continental Op traveling to Personville (pronounced “Poisonville” by anyone who knows it), summoned by the last honest man, Donald Willsson, who is murdered before they ever get to meet. While investigating the murder, the Op encounters Willsson’s father Elihu, who strikes a deal with him to clean up Personville. Elihu tries to call it off, but the Op has his heart set on punishing the guilty, and cleaning the streets, even if he has to take on the entire town.

Throughout the story he encounters many colorful characters: the mysterious Max “Whisper” Thaler, the shameless Dinah Brand, the corrupt police chief Noonan, and many more. The Op works with, and against, these people trying to rid the city of crime. The prose and dialogue are sharp and strong, and the story is gloriously bloody, boasting a body count in the high teens. The Coen brothers film Blood Simple is even named after a line in the book in which the Op complains that the corruption and endless murder in this town is turning him “blood-simple”. There are twists and turns and murders all along the way as he tries to execute his elaborate plan to clean up Personville.

To reveal more of the plot would diminish the joy and suspense of actually reading the book, but rest assured it is worth your time. This is a classic story, an exploration of corruption in America, a superb novel, and just a damn fun crime story.

Kayt’s #CBR5 Review #06: Going After Cacciato

ImageGoing After Cacciato is regarded by many as one of the greatest war novels ever written, and it certainly lived up to expectations. I’m no expert on war literature, but I would say it might be the finest literary work to emerge from the Vietnam war. Tim O’Brien has created a beautiful, enduring, and important book that deserves to be read by anyone interested in war, fiction, or just great literature.

The plot is as follows: One day a young soldier named Cacciato decides he’s had enough of this war, and sets out for Paris on foot. A group of fellow soldiers go after him. The story follows them on their absurd journey through Vietnam and beyond. The book takes on a hallucinatory feel, often jumping between timelines, and making you question the reality of the story. This blend of fantasy and reality heightens the story, making it that much more fun to read.

The book is at times horrifying, humorous, shocking, fantastical, and deeply sad, the whole time underscored by O’Brien’s strong, crisp prose. The narrative moves along briskly and engrossingly, following the characters and the crazy things they encounter on their wild chase such as the Water Buffalo they lose falling down an Alice in Wonderland like hole, or the beheading they witness in Tehran . O’Brien beautifully explores  the different men, their lives, fears, and motivations, and on the deeper level, the motivation for war itself, and the purpose these men are actually serving.

It is evident that O’Brien, a foot soldier in Vietnam, knows his material very well. Drawing from personal knowledge and a rich imagination, O’Brien constructs a vivid, haunting and beautiful portrait of war, and soldiers. Combining the gritty realism and horrors of war, with the surrealism of this story, O’Brien has crafted not just one of the greatest war novels, one the greatest novels period.

Kayt’s #CBR5 Review #5: In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

ImageYou all know the story of Moby Dick, Herman Melville’s masterpiece, about the obsessed captain, and the object of his obsession, a sperm whale with a tendency to destroy whaling ships. Moby Dick is indeed a staple of Western literature, but the true story is even better.

In the Heart of the Sea tells the story of the whaling ship the Essex, which sunk in 1820 after being rammed by a massive sperm whale. But where Melville stops after the Pequod goes down, Philbrick continues, telling the arguably more interesting story of a crew stranded in the Pacific, and the lengths they went to to survive.

The book begins on the island of Nantucket, exploring a culture obsessed with, and built on whaling. It follows the crew of the Essex, and reconstructs their journey with the first person accounts of the first mate Owen Chase, and a young Nantucketer named Thomas Nickerson. They depart from the island, under the command of  Captain Pollard, for a two-three year whaling expedition. After sailing around South America they end up in a vast, isolated region of the Pacific called the Offshore Ground, at this time one of the only places where the sperm whale population hadn’t been decimated by whaling ships. Out in the middle of nowhere, thousands of miles from civilization in either direction, the Essex was rammed and sunk by a colossal 80 foot sperm whale.

This event was the inspiration for Melville’s novel, but he chose not to explore the aftermath, which is where it gets really interesting. The crew splits into the three whaling boats, and tries to set a course of action. They are few hundred miles from islands to their west, but fearing the savagery and rumored cannibalism of the native peoples, they decided to sail for South America, almost three thousand miles away, in what amounts to three glorified row boats.

Stranded in the ocean, sailing against the wind, hunger and dehydration takes its toll. Crew members start dropping dead, and in a horrible twist of irony, the men are forced to eat their dead shipmates to stay alive.

Philbrick has crafted a brilliant, and eerie book, that’s captivating from start to finish. It is a suspenseful, horrifying and heartbreaking tale about survival, and the endlessly fascinating culture of whaling. Philbrick admirably, and engrossingly brings this incredible story to life, and gives it its rightful place in American history.

Kayt’s #CBR5 Review #4: Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut

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Galapagos explores an interesting question: what is the future of the human race one million years down the road?

Galapagos is a great novel, one of the last great novels of Kurt Vonnegut’s career. Told from the perspective of the ghost of Leon Trout one million years in the future, it offers an upfront commentary on human nature and society that is scathing, comical and consistently fascinating. Trout died while building the Bahia di Darwin, the ship which would become the second Noah’s Ark. He decides to stay a ghost, rather than venture into the afterlife, and observes the evolution of mankind from the passengers on this ship, to the flippered kin of the future.

The passengers, from who all of mankind one million years in the future is descended, consists of a Captain, an American widow, a Japanese woman and her daughter, a young blind girl, and six Kanka- Bono girls native to South America, each one with a funny or absurd back story. The book follows their journey from Ecuador to a remote island in the Galapagos, while the rest of civilization falls into shambles.

Although we don’t specifically witness these scenes, we know that these people become the ancestors of all mankind ( what happens to the rest of humanity is a bit ambiguous, though there is brief mention of a fertility destroying disease), and mankind, over the course of one million years, adapts to the new environment, adaptations which include significantly smaller brains, and flippers, perfected for fishing purposes.

Vonnegut breaks the cardinal rule of any intro to writing class: show, don’t tell,  but he does so to brilliant effect. Trout tells most of the story, what will become of mankind, what has brought this odd myriad of characters together, but it never feels lacking. Vonnegut’s precise, and humorous writing style, creates an engrossing, and immensely enjoyable read.

Vonnegut’s trademark satire and social commentary, and almost addictive writing style are put to good use, in this interesting novel and I can not recommend it enough.

Kayt12 #CBR5 Review #03 : Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer

ImageJoshua Foer set out to write an article on the US Memory Championships and the “mental athletes” who compete there. He was impressed by these people and their freak ability to memorize entire decks of cards, or hundreds of digits in minutes, but they assured him it is just a matter of training; “anybody can do it”. One year later Foer was competing in the finals of the US Memory Championships.

Memory has undergone a tremendous evolution throughout human history. Before the invention of writing, memory was everything. Later memory was equated with education, and people were expected to be able to recite texts verbatim, and keep everything in their head. Today the need for memorization has been stripped away almost entirely, with the internet, and phones that hold our contact info, and remind us of people’s birthday. And yet it is a fact that memory and identity are inextricably linked. We are shaped by our memories, and everything we perceive is affected by what we have perceived before.

Moonwalking with Einstein explores memory, and is the best kind of scientific book. It is an engrossing read as it chronicles the history of memory from, the ancient Greek Simonides’ memory palace, to ancient bards, to incredible externalization of memory today, where the art of memory really only exists among a select group of mental athletes. In his research Foer talks to the smartest man in the world, the man with the best memory, the most forgetful man with tragic amnesia, a so-called prodigious savant, a multi-millionaire memory guru, and countless mental athletes. He encounters many more incredible minds in scientific studies, and all this combines to create an incredible picture of the human mind and memory.

All of his research exploring the mechanics of the mind, is also contributing to Foer’s endgame of competing in the US Memory Championships. His journey from bystander to competitor is delightful and often comical (the images he assigns to memorize a deck of cards will make you laugh out loud). Ed, english mental athlete who tries to make every moment maximally memorable in an attempt to make his life feel longer, acts as Foer’s trainer. Together they explore the ancient memory techniques, the aforementioned Simonides and his memory palace, and train hard. This technique involves having a “memory palace” preferably somewhere you know well, like your childhood home, and when trying to remember something, arranging whatever it is firmly and memorably inside your palace, so that you can walk through the palace and see images that allow you to recall a specific thing. With this technique you can memorize anything from 300 random digits, to a poem, to a shuffled deck of cards; and it really works.

This book is deeply engrossing, and passionate study of the mind. The techniques described are remarkably effective ( I was actually able to memorize an entire deck of cards in under five minutes) and can be applied to practical things like to-do lists, or phone numbers. This is a fantastic book, essential reading for anyone interested in studying the memory, or improving it, although as Foer demonstrates in the end, you’ll probably never be able to keep track of where you left your car keys.

#CBR5 Review #2: Outrage by Arnaldur Indridason

I usually tend to avoid murder mysteries and crime novels, reserving them for plane rides or when I can’t find anything better. They’re good for mindless entertainment, but too often I find these novels poorly written and predictable.

However there is nothing I love more than fiImagending a great murder mystery which, when executed well, can be a hell of a lot of fun.

By far my favorite crime writer is Arnaldur Indridason. He writes gripping, chilling, smart books where trying to guess whodunit actually requires some brain power. Indirdason writes in a clear succinct style that is well suited to this genre, and doesn’t sound stilted even after being translated from Icelandic. His novels are filled with twists and turns that are genuinely surprising, as is so rare in most of the murder mysteries I read where you can see the big twist coming from a mile away. I appreciate the thought that clearly goes into these books and makes them such good reads.

This particular book, Outrage, focuses on the brutal murder of a young man in Reykjavik, Iceland. He is found in his apartment wearing a woman’s shirt, throat slit and a bottle of date rape drugs on the coffee table. Elinborg is the detective tasked with solving this crime, and while the stories usually follow the cynical, senior detective Sigurdur Oli, focusing on Elinborg is a welcome change and  her family provides a refreshing backdrop for this grim story.  There is a colorful cast of supporting characters- drug dealers, creepy college professors, and angry teenage sons, a cripple- who enhance the story as possible suspects and/or helpful witnesses. As always, the creepiness of the crime is elevated by the incredibly bleak setting of Iceland. The grayness, and depression of the country permeates the entire story and lends a dark mood to an already haunting tale.

The bulk of the story follows Elinborg as she pursues different lines of questioning, and follows her hunches trying to solve this heinous crime. Of course this is fiction, so there are some unrealistic embellishments thrown in, but it still feels like a fairly accurate portrait of real police work: smart people being relentless, paying attention to details and pursuing every possible lead. While Outrage doesn’t surpass some of Indridason’s other books such as Jar City or Silence of the Grave, it still passes as very solid entertainment.

To say more would ruin it. The entire joy of reading crime novels is anticipating the unexpected, trying to solve a mystery filled with twists and turns. So just pick it up, and enjoy the ride.

#CBR5 Review #1: The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley

 

 

 

The Devils of Loudun is a fascinating book on many levels, and one that I now consider a personal favorite. This non-fiction story tackles  the incredible events that took place at a convent in France in the early 17th century( the alleged possession of said convent and subsequent burning at the stake of the evil sorcerer responsible), including the characters that lead up to these events, and the consequences that were suffered long afterwards. This probably would have been an interesting book no matter who wrote it, but with Aldous Huxley at the helm it is elevated to masterpiece status. 

The story follows Urban Grandier  a handsome, charming, charismatic priest in the small French Village of Loudun. He was quite popular with many elite members of the community, but managed to make himself some very powerful enemies, mostly thanks to his seductive and womanizing ways. He  kept secret lovers, and even a wife, throughout his career with the church, but always managed to avoid any sort of punishment. Sister Jeanne des Anges, the driving force behind the possession, was a nun at the convent in Loudun. She became sexually obsessed with Grandier, and claimed  he had sent devils to possess her soul. The entire convent is overcome by this “possession” and gripped in a madness, that lasts six years.  During those six years countless exorcists are sent, Grandier is executed, politicians exploit the possession from every angle, and the possessed nuns become famous throughout France. 

The are parts of the book so unbelievable or frustrating I found myself stopping every five minutes saying “what the hell” to no one in particular. It becomes clear that it is all a show, concocted for personal revenge and political agendas, with innocent people being tortured and burned alive for the sake of it. It is a remarkable feat then, that Huxley actually makes us sympathize with Sister Jeanne, who should be the most despised character in the book. She is clearly a mentally disturbed individual, starting this madness in an ill guided attempt to get back at a man she never even knew, but in other moments she is just a person who got in too deep, and has no escape from her lies, overcome by guilt in moments of lucidity. 

If this book only focused on the events at Loudun it would be great, but in addition to a fascinating story, Devils of Loudun remains one of the best books on spirituality ever written. It explores many of the important questions of faith, and why it is so important to us. 

Aldous Huxley had a long, successful career, but this book may be the pinnacle of his achievements. It is both a fascinating, entertaining historical narrative, and an important book on faith, and it is well worth your time.