loulamac’s #CBRV review #68: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

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This is one of those books that I felt, as a fan of both sci-fi and 20th century American fiction, I should read. That feeling of obligation is perhaps what kept it on my ‘to read’ shelf for so long, as often these must-read seminal novels turn out to be disappointing. I am delighted to say that Slaughterhouse-Five is not one of those books. It’s bleak and shocking, but it’s also very funny. What’s more, it’s witty and clever, without being smart-arse. I liked this book, a lot.

The story, told un-chronologically due to a mix of flashback and time travel, is of Billy Pilgrim. Born in Ilium New York, Billy enlists in the army during World War Two, and finds himself captured by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge. He and his fellow prisoners are held in Dresden in the fifth block of an unused abattoir, and so Billy survives and witnesses the aftermath of the fire-bombing of that city in February 1945. On his return from Europe, he qualifies as an optometrist, marries the boss’ obese daughter and has two children, has a PTSD-fuelled breakdown, survives a plane crash, discovers he is a time traveller and is kidnapped by aliens and kept in a zoo on their home planet, where he has a baby with a fellow-abductee, an American film star. None of this is explained, or revealed to you in any particular order, but that doesn’t matter. You just to go with it, and have fun. Boy do you have fun.

The novel is full of remarkable, ordinary characters (failed science fiction novelist Kilgore Trout was a favourite of mine), and the writing is a delight, as the destruction of Dresden is described in the same matter of fact way as the eating habits of Pilgrim’s gargantuan wife. Terrible things happen to people, and one of the things Billy (and you along with him) learns along the way is that while death is just around the corner, but might not be the end. So it goes.

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loulamac’s #CBRV review #62: Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud

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It’s the 1960s, and we meet our narrator (an unnamed little girl who seems to be about five) and her big sister Bea’s as they travel across Europe to Morocco in a camper van. The adult reader can infer that their mother is looking for adventure, enlightenment or just an escape from the norm, but we never find out the reason for their journey, or what the ‘norm’ back in London was. They set up temporary home in places as varied as a cheap hotel, an abandoned cinema in a friend’s garden, and a Sufi retreat; and along the way we’re introduced to an array of characters in the towns and villages of Morocco. All of this is shown to us through the filter of the child narrator, with no interpretation or explanation. Much is missing from the story, and so as an adult you find yourself inferring how old she is, who is periodically sending money from England, which of the men the mother is sleeping with, and how long things will hang together for.

I’ve been lucky enough to meet Esther Freud, and she said that when she was writing Hideous Kinky she kept the children’s uncertainty and anxiety in the forefront of her mind. So beneath the surface of the absurd and comic episodes such as the light-fingered prostitutes who share their hotel home stealing a friend’s nappies, or the girls’ realisation that they can never eradicate the ticks infesting the sheep dogs they befriend, there is a continual feeling of bewilderment and home-sickness. The girls are neither neglected nor unloved, but their mother’s flakiness is impacting on their lives and experiences.

This is a short and sweet book. Because it takes a day to read, and is full of comedic and wry moments, it would be easy to dismiss it as just sort and sweet. But in her presentation of the bad decisions adults make and the way they can affect their children, Freud makes this autobiographical novel much more than that.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #48: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: A Novel by Sherman Alexie

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is Native American poet Sherman Alexie’s semi-autobiographical novel about a Spokane Indian teen from the reservation. Arnold Spirit (aka Junior) is different from the other kids on the reservation, and not just because of the condition he was born with. Arnold is different because he has hope and dares to leave the rez to attend the all-white high school in town. Filled with humor, sadness, hard truths and enduring hope, this YA novel, which won a National Book Award last year, is an inspiration for those who feel different and alone.

Arnold was born different. As an infant he had hydrocephaly, and he has had medical and speech problems through his life, problems that made him an object of bullying on the reservation. Arnold likes to read, draw (illustrations by Ellen Forney) and play basketball with his pal Rowdy, also from the rez and a really tough kid. When Arnold starts his freshman year in Wellpinit high school on the reservation, his frustration with the poor, outdated resources at the school causes an incident that ultimately leads to his decision, with his parents’ support, to attend the white kids’ public school in town. Arnold’s decision causes anger and resentment on the reservation, especially from his friend Rowdy, but others like his sister and his dad’s friend Eugene seem to understand and admire his drive to live his dreams.

The novel covers Arnold’s first year in high school, which turns out to be eventful and surprising in both good and bad ways. Arnold spends a lot of time alone and learns to handle it. He also finds some surprising allies at his new school Reardan, gains some confidence and discovers skills he hadn’t realized he possessed. One of the powerful messages of the book is the importance of parents and adults in developing young people’s self confidence. If expectations are high and the adults in your life show that they believe in you, it’s amazing what you can do.

At the same time, though, Arnold struggles with the loss of his friendship with Rowdy and a series of tragic deaths. In one chapter, Arnold addresses Tolstoy’s idea that happy families are happy the same way but sad families are sad in different ways. Arnold disagrees and the reader learns that sad statistics about alcoholism and deaths on the reservation. Arnold observes that on the reservation, they were all drunk and unhappy in the same way. Another powerful chapter deals with the basketball rematch between Wellpinit and Reardan, where Arnold has become a star. It becomes a bittersweet showdown for Rowdy and Arnold.

Alexie’s message for his YA audience (and it’s appropriate for anyone) is to make sure that you don’t let others define who you are or make you fit in some narrow category. Instead, recognize all the tribes you belong to and try to expand them. In an interview at the end of the book, Alexie says that you should be prepared to be lonely, as Arnold was when he made his decision, but Arnold found with time that the people he expected to shun him completely were part of his tribe. Arnold says, “If you let people into your life a little bit, they can be pretty damn amazing.” It’s a moving story with a great message.