TBR Challenge 2019: The Plague by Albert Camus

Genre: Disease, Allegory, Classics

Narrative Style: First person but which gives the points of view of lots of other characters

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1947

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: In the town of Oran in North Africa, the rats are starting to die in unprecedented numbers. The locals start to panic. Then people start to die from a unexplained fever. At first the authorities do not believe what the doctor knows, this is a return of the bubonic plague. 

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge 2019 – Time on Shelf – about five years.

This was an interesting rather than an enjoyable read. Camus is a clever observer of human frailties and the descriptions of the various reactions to first, the plague and then, the quarantining of the town, seem apt and still have resonance today. However, the characters felt a little flat, a little too of a type to have real emotional resonance.

There are many ways of reading this novel. At first glance, it is merely the story of a town fighting for its life, going through various stages of reaction to an emergency. Various battles are fought at an interpersonal level. Then there are the sociological elements such as Doctor Rieux’s fight with the authorities to have the plague taken seriously and his willingness to sacrifice his own life to treat those that are sick. There is the priest who preaches that the plague is God’s punishment. Finally, there are allegorical elements as to what the plague represents. As this was written in 1947, the Nazi threat would likely be high in Camus’ mind. At the end of the novel, when the plague has retreated, many return to their lives confident that it will never return. Rieux knows better and that it will return when the circumstances are once again correct. If that is not a moral for our current times, I don’t know what is.

Camus’ style is readable and the novel is clever but I stayed detached. It felt like what it is, an allegorical tale, with characters serving that purpose rather than developing in their own right.

White Rose, Black Forest – Eoin Dempsey – Full House Reading Challenge

Genre: Historical  Fiction

Narrative Style: Two third person narratives that alternate. 

Rating: 2/5

Published: 2018 (Kindle First Purchase)

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Franka is about to end her own life when she discovers the broken body of a German pilot in the snowy forest outside her family cabin. Instead of committing suicide, she manages to get his body back to the cabin and begins to nurse him. But all is not what it seems. Why does he cry out in English in his sleep?  Who is this man and will Franka be able to trust him? 

Reading Challenges: Full House Reading Challenge – Genre Dual Time Line. 

This was a Kindle First purchase. It sounded interesting, claimed to be based on a true story and had some good reviews so I went for it, despite having read some not so great books through Kindle First. This was no exception.

The story starts from Franka’s point of view. She is wandering through the forest, looking for a spot in which to commit suicide. However, instead she stumbles across the body of an Luftwaffe pilot, still alive but badly injured. She finds herself with a moral dilemma. Should she save the pilot or not, given her ambivalence about the war?

Fairly quickly, we are given the idea that all is not what it seems and the pilot may be a spy. This only furthers the moral issues for Franka, for while she does not approve of the Nazis, she also had issues with the allies who had killed her father in a bombing raid. Nevertheless, she decides that she cannot leave him to die and by some feat of superhuman strength manages to get him back to the cabin.

This was the first time – but not the last – that I felt my incredulity stretched to the limit. How would this one woman manage to move a badly injured pilot and  his heavy kitbag through the snowstorm. Everything is set up just a bit too neatly for my liking.

Then we start to get the story from the pilot, John’s,  point of view. Naturally, he is wary of Franka even though she claims to hate the Nazis, he thinks it is an elaborate plot.  After all, how likely was it that he had fallen precisely into the hands of a nazi hater. I thought it unlikely too but as it was based on a true story, I let it go. After all, strange coincidences do happen. However, when I finished reading this I was curious to know exactly what these events were and it transpires that John and Franka were made up by Dempsey and the ‘true’ elements were the situation in Germany at the time and the details of the White Rose movement. By that logic, all historical fiction could say it was based on a true story.

Over the course of the book, the pair share stories and start to trust each other. Neither story fully convinced although the darker details of Franka’s story were suitably disturbing. In fact, neither character really worked for me. They never truly escaped their stereotypes e.g. the good German and the American hero. As the book continued, the details just got more and more ridiculous and I found the ending particularly irritating. I guess I’m just not enough of a romantic to appreciate this sort of book.

 

Full House Reading Challenge – It’s Not Me, It’s You – Jon Richardson

Genre: Humour, Autobiography

Narrative Style: First person

Rating: 5/5

Published: 2011

Format: kindle

Synopsis: Jon Richardson is looking for love. The only problem is will he be able to find someone who meets his exacting standards. When Richardson has lived with people before, it hasn’t ended well. Will his imminent date with waitress Gemma prove to be the romantic escape that he hopes?

Reading Challenges: Full House Reading Challenge – genre: humour. 

This isn’t really an autobiography or if it is, it is very selective, covering as it does only a few days in Jon Richardson’s life. What it does do – and very well – is give an insight into his obsessive need for neatness in all aspects of his life.

It is extremely funny. Although at times I felt guilty laughing. Of course, there is likely to be an element of comic exaggeration but even adding that in to the mix, it felt more like tragedy then comedy at times. Of course, we all have those things that bug us. Every time you get on a bus or carry out a transaction in a shop, you are risking annoyance. However, few of us would go to the trouble of having a landline phone that no one knows the number to so they are not disturbed. Few of us are so anxious about a future relationship that they sabotage it before it even gets to the first date.

Richardson’s written style is very much like the voice of his stand up comedy and so was easy to read. Whilst ruminating on the possibility of his future relationship, he discusses what he feels are the elements of his personality that will affect his future. It is very intimate in places. It is like being inside his head and that is when it feels wrong to be laughing.

Of course, this book is quite old now and all the way through, I kept thinking how on earth is he coping with having a baby. But maybe I should have been thinking how is his wife coping with him and a baby.

Full House Challenge – Room by Emma Donaghue (Contains spoilers)

Genre: Psychological thriller

Narrative Style: First Person from the point of view of a child.

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2010

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: To Jack, Room is his whole world. He has never known anything else. The only human he knows is his ‘ma’ who also lives in Room. Ma tells Jack that nothing else exists apart from Room. Everything else is just TV and doesn’t really exist. The reader gathers that Ma has been kidnapped and Jack has been born in captivity. When Ma decides they need to escape from their prison, Jack has to learn all about the outside world really quickly.

Reading Challenges: Full House Challenge – Book on a list – Bestselling books of 2010. 

I didn’t read this at the time because I really didn’t want to read a book written from the point of view of a child. Some of my reservations were well founded. Although I did enjoy this book, it was hard going at times. If you can imagine a five-year-old constantly talking in your ear for hours at a time, then you can imagine what it is like to read this book. It was unrelenting.

The book is split into two parts. In the first half, we learn of Jack’s world and how his mother has tried to protect him from the truth of their captivity. Everything in Jack’s world is imbued with personality – from Rug to Wardrobe to Floor – and he doesn’t seem to ever feel bored or lonely.

There are a couple of problems with this. First of all, Jack is incredibly intelligent. He is precocious and his vocabulary is truly amazing. He knows things and songs that it seems unlikely he could have picked up even from all his hours of TV. Second of all, it seems unlikely that his mother could have managed to so successfully keep him away from their captor ‘Old Nick’. She makes demands of Old Nick that I feel stretch the reader’s disbelief. If she really had so much power, why was she still a captive?

This section also gives the reader a chance to get used to Jack’s narrative voice. Much has been made of how well Donaghue has captured a five-year-old’s voice. I’m not sure I agree. It certainly seems to fit with an adult’s idea of what it might be like inside a five-year-old’s head and that is probably why he seems so precocious and has such a good vocabulary. Also, it is too exact. Jack says the same things, the same way every time. I’m not sure that anyone’s thoughts are quite as exact as that.

I must admit that one of the things I found irritating about Jack’s voice was the lack of the definite article. I understand completely what Donaghue was trying to do and it was very clever but it made me cringe everytime it was missing.

The second half of the book documents the escape. This is another moment that does not ring true. Jack’s world is suddenly turned upside down when his mother explains her lies and persuades him to play dead. Old Nick happily drives off with him wrapped in a carpet – not even checking if the boy is dead or not.

However, once he has escaped and his mother is rescued, the book becomes interesting again as Jack and Ma adjust to life outside. Jack learns that there are more people in the world than he could have imagined He discovers stairs. Everything is too loud and too bright. His mother also has difficulty re-adjusting. This is definitely the most interesting part of the book.

While I did enjoy this book, I would probably recommend the film more. The main reason for this is we are able to see things from different perspectives and Jack’s voice wasn’t constantly in your ear. It would have been good to hear Ma’s voice for some of the book as I am sure her story would have been just as interesting as Jack’s.

Full House Reading Challenge – Troubles by J. G. Farrell

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Genre: Irish Fiction, Historical Fiction

Narrative Style: Third personmfoudi1m_jcgjux-pirkv2w

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1970

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: The Major Brendan Archer arrives at the Majestic Hotel after fighting in the Great War. He may be engaged to the owner’s daughter,  Angela, but the details are hazy. This is not helped when Angela is evasive and the Major is too polite to force the issue. The hotel itself is starting to fall apart and its inhabitants too have seen better days. The hotel is a metaphor for the Irish question and the privilege of the Anglo-Irish. 

Reading Challenges: The Full House Reading Challenge – Prize Winner – The Lost Booker Prize 2010

I’m not sure what I was expecting from this book. Maybe more action. Or perhaps being more directly involved with the ‘troubles’. Anyway, it did not grab me. It was a slog to get through it. Don’t get me wrong, it was very well written, but nothing happened.

At first, I thought that it was just the fact that the book was older and so didn’t have the modern tendancy to start the story immediately. I kept thinking, it’ll start soon but it never did. There are a lot of clever set pieces but they don’t really lead anywhere. There is no narrative arc as such. More just a straight line.

The shambolic hotel and its owner, Edward Spencer are clearly meant to represent the English position in Ireland at this time. By the end, the hotel is falling apart and Spencer appears to be going mad. There is Padraig with his love of dressing up in women’s clothes who is humiliated by the British soldiers. There are run ins with Sinn Feiners and hints at the violence of the colonial world but again, it doesn’t quite add up to a story. Everytime, it seemed that an interesting plot line was going to get going, it instead disappeared.

It took me nearly a month to read this book. At times, I didn’t even want to pick it up. I’ve rated it 3/5 because it was well written and it was clever but it just wasn’t to my taste.

The Non Fiction Challenge – Just Kids – Patti Smith

2016 Nonfiction Challenge

Genre: Autobiography / Memoir

Narrative Style: First personUnknown

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2010

Format: Paperback

Reading Challenges: The Non Fiction Challenge

Synopsis: Patti tells of her relationship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe and their time in New York in the late sixties and early seventies, just before both of them became famous. 

It is apt that I discovered Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe together and to me they have always come as a pair. In 1992, my then boyfriend bought a copy of Horses (On vinyl, of course. That’s the sort of students we were.) and we rushed home to listen to it. The music blew me away. I had never heard anything like it. But I was also really taken with the photo of Patti on the front (taken by Mapplethorpe) which seemed to encapsulate something of the music. Patti was all PattiSmithHorsesmasculine elegance, a look I was trying – with less success – to pull of myself. (This was a time when I thought I was Jim Morrison and wandered around in outsize men’s shirts and leather trousers.) I quickly discovered it was by Robert and was soon as fascinated by his photography as I was by Patti’s music.

I knew a little of their relationship already, having read a biography of Patti Smith some years ago but it was interesting to hear it from the horse’s mouth, as it were. It isn’t just the relationship between Patti and Robert that is so interesting but also her description of the times which saw them mixing with Warhol and the members of The Factory and staying at the Chelsea Hotel to name but two things.

Of course, the whole thing is tinged with sadness. At the end, Patti says that Robert asked her to write the story of them and it had taken her until then to be strong enough to do it. (He died in 1989 and this was published in 2010) Her longing for Robert to still be alive is in every word of this and it seems apparent that she misses him still. When I was approaching the end, I found myself preparing for the horror of his death. My relationship with his work has always been tinged with sadness as by the time I discovered him, he was already dead and I was sad to think there would never be any new work from this amazing artist. It was an emotional end and not at all easy to read. You get a real sense of how difficult it must have been for Patti to carry on afterwards.

 

The Art of Fiction – David Lodge

2016eclecticreader_bookdout2016 Nonfiction Challenge

Genre: Literary Criticism

Narrative Style: A series of essays originally published as newspaper columns.Unknown-2

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1994

Format: Paperback

Reading Challenges: Non Fiction Reading Challenge, Eclectic Reader Challenge – Genre a book about books.

I have had this book on my shelf for about twenty years so it seemed a good place to start reading some long neglected non fiction. I do enjoy reading literary criticism and it is a long time since I have read any so I was looking forward to reading it.

Lodge has an easy to read style – probably because these were originally written for a non-expert audience. It is easy to grasp the concepts that he discusses even when they were quite complex ideas. Each chapter looks at a different aspect of literary criticism and is illustrated by extracts from texts which illustrate its use. This was good because it meant that you had carefully chosen extracts to ponder over if you found the ideas difficult to understand.

As always with literary criticism, there were times when I thought Lodge stretched things a bit but they were few and far between. It is the nature of reading that some things that seem obvious to one reader will seem far fetched to another so I would have been surprised had this not been the case.

My other criticism is really a matter of taste. Lodge favours writers such as Woolf , Beckett and Joyce which really don’t particularly appeal to my taste. He seems quite in thrall to this sort of writing – in fact, he does talk of the influence on his own fiction of such writers. Lodge mentions his own fiction fairly often and even uses it as an illustrative example for one of the chapters. While it would seem unlikely that he would manage to not mention his own fiction, it does seem rather conceited to put it up there as an example in amongst such writers as Austen, Joyce, Elliot, James and Poe. (I have never read any of his fiction so maybe I am being a bit harsh.)

The main thing I have  come away from this book with is a list of authors that I would now like to read that I might not have considered otherwise so thank you, David Lodge for expanding my already over burdened to read list.