Thursday, January 30, 2014

Book 48- The Golden Notebook (79th Book)

Sigh, I think I have gotten too snobby from my Novel 100 list. Although I haven't loved all of the top books on this list, I am finding the further down it I get the more dissatisfied I become. Book 49 was The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing and I wanted to like it, but felt that it fell short of my expectations. The premise of the story is about Anna, a women living in the time of Communism and Women's Liberation. She writes about her life in a series of notebooks each separated by colour and topic since she can't reconcile all the pieces of herself into a whole person. I picked this book up at a great little used book shop in Vancouver called The Paper Hound. I was very excited to find what I was looking for there as I had just finished reading an article about the store in The Georgia Straight. As a side tangent, the store is fantastic. It is well organized and easy to find what you are looking for. They also have a rack of bookmarks and papers they have rescued from within the pages of books.

I was excited as I read the preface to the book written by the author. She talked about how she became an accidental mouth piece for the Feminist movement. As she wrote her semi autobiographical story in the context of things she knew about she covered the topic of liberated women (and communism) to accurately portray the time period she was writing in. Despite the book also covering the topics of Communism and mental breakdown, it got co-opted by Feminists as a manifesto of the times. I was endeared to the author's heart by a quote from the preface where she talks about agreeing with their ideas, but not liking the manner in which they spoke. "I support their aims, but I don't like their shrill voices and their nasty ill mannered ways". When I was getting to know my husband he was surprised to discover that I was a feminist, but I reacted violently to the word. I described my beliefs to him in much the same way as Lessing; I liked all of their ideas, but hated the working out of their values.

During the rest of the preface, Lessing breaks down the intent of her novel to cover the fragmented aspects of personality and how people take on different roles in different parts of their lives. Having read the preface of the novel before reading the book I don't know if I would have seen all these elements without the prompts. It is curious though because the "Golden Notebook" is the notebook where she finally writes down all of her fragmented selves in one volume. Thus the title itself gives the clue to the author's intended vision. I find it fascinating that authors can write books that can be taken in a completely different light than what they intend. Lessing was very vocal in her preface about her disappointment about the fact that the topic of mental break down got lost. For me, this is my favourite part of the book and I found a lot of great quotes in that context.

"I know what I don't want, but not what I do want". Anna struggled to figure out what she wanted to become amidst the competing roles of mistress, Free Women, Communist, mother  and friend. The clearest statement of the wealth of human experience the novel takes is shown in this simple quote, " Men. Women. Bound. Free. Good. Bad. Yes. No. Capitalism. Socialism. Sex. Love." I loved all the philosophical pieces to the novel, but I kept getting bogged down in the actual plot of the novel. The notebook that focuses on Anna's  time in a communist outpost in Africa was a slog. Parts of the story between Anna and her friend got bogged down as well.  The parts of that tale I loved were when people questioned Anna about her inability to write all the messy pieces of herself down in one journal. "Are you afraid of being chaotic?", "Why shouldn't it be a mess?"

I also loved that Anna was struggling with the future because she was excited about the possibilities. She tried on various identities in the characters she wrote about in her journals. She struggled when she had to pick just one future possibility. "I am a person who continually destroys the possibilities of a future because of the numbers of alternative viewpoints I can focus on in the present".


"A hundred things to do, but only one thing to be".

I love quotes. I love thinking through philosophical ideas. I love novels focused on character development. This book has all of those things, but it is a slog through much of the middle to read. I have discovered after pushing through so many of the novels on the list that high flying ideas are great, but a novel actually needs to be fun to read as well. In my teens, a smattering of great quotes would have been enough for me, but this project has taught me that in rating books, enjoyment will be the thing that pushes a novel to the top of my list every time.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

A Void (78th Book)

Dang! Another great book that I am extremely tardy on a review for! Despite being unemployed, I have found it difficult to blog about the books I am reading. This is mostly because I spend the day looking for work, which is harder to do than expected coming from a smaller town to the city. The great thing about being in the city is that this book was actually in at the library when I wanted to read it! I am so used to dealing with the Vancouver Island Public Library where I often had to order books from another branch which would take upwards of two weeks to come in. I am now walking distance to the Vancouver Public Library which is one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen:

A Void by Georges Perec is one of the most delightful books I have ever read. It is a 5 star book in a sea of below 3 star duds I have read this past year. A Void is a novel that doesn't have a single E in it. An incredible feat in and of it self, the novel has been translated from the original language. The translator had the triple hard task of translating the novel without "E's" as well! The story is a mystery where the main character Anton Vowl (A clever play with the words A Vowel) suffers from insomnia. He is trying to solve the mystery of something he feels is wrong. This thing (the fact that there are no "e's) lies just beyond his reach. Anton disappears before he has solved this mystery and his friends set out to solve the mystery of his disappearance dying, or disappearing at an alarming rate themselves.

I love mysteries, I love puzzles, and I love things novels that are a task to understand as a reader but brilliant on the part of the author. I am one of the few people that enjoys James Joyce despite the challenge of reading him. This book was tailor made for me and I read through it so fast. I would recommend this novel to everyone and I can't wait to pick up some of Perec's other novels which are also on the list of 1001.

You would think a novel without e's would be difficult to read, but it flew by surprisingly fast. After awhile I stopped noticing the patterning of the words and just enjoyed the story. I did spend the first part reading trying to catch out the author by spotting a stray e somewhere in the novel. I really wish that I hadn't discovered the fact that this book didn't have any e's in it, because I am dying to know if I would have figured the puzzle out on my own. I honestly don't think I would have, because except for a few weird phraseologies such as the use of stylo for pen, the novel flows quite easily. A Void is famous for it's lack of e's however, and it was the description of the book in 1001 Books that drew me to read it. I couldn't have avoided the knowledge even if i hadn't read the description because the novel I picked up from the library had a giant e with a strike through it! 

Having known that there was no e's in the novel I was able to enjoy the author/translator's interpretation of Shakespeare "To be or not to be" and other snippets of writing. There was also several references to 27 things with the 5th being missing. I was also amused by the repetition of the the phrase a void, which is exclaimed several times as the gang of mystery solvers tries to crack the puzzle. I was so amused by the whole book, that I could go on forever, but I would really like everyone to read the book for themselves. 

This is one of the few books that I think would be even better on the second read through because you would pick up even more of the clever plays on words and puzzles than in the first read through. I have very few books that I would say that about, but this is one of them. I am so happy to finally have a review on a book above 3 stars. I was becoming disheartened by my snobbery and dislike or ambivalence of so many of the books that I was reading. If any of you read it I would love to hear your comments on it. 

Book 47- Lolita (77th Book)

Oops! I read this book quite sometime ago and forgot to do a blog on it. I have been surprisingly on top of my reading despite getting married and settling into a new life in a different city, trying to adjust to married life, and looking for work. I read Lolita in the first month after I got back from my honeymoon. I was surprised by the book because I had only heard half of what the story was about from people in passing and it was not accurate at all. The part that I had heard about Lolita was that it was a novel about a young sex obsessed girl who flaunted her sexuality. In actual fact, the book is about a pedophile who places the girls sexuality at the forefront of her personality because that is what he sees. What a difference!!!! For that reason I am glad that I actually read it. Other than that, I could have done without this book.

The main trouble I had with this book was that I struggled to figure out why the author needed to write it. I know most writers have burning issues that they need to speak about and, for the life of me, I can't figure out why this book was burning in Nabokov's heart. It had a very American feel to it, despite the fact that Nabokov is a Russian author. I read the foreword in the novel I picked up, and he talked about the fact that he was intentionally trying to write an American novel since his move to the States. I do see glimmers of Russian novel themes in it....mostly the focus on a flawed character with the hope of showing them as a human being. The difference with this novel is that I didn't feel a sense of oneness with the character or their flaws. Usually, with Russian novels I fall in love with the character's flaws and understand where they are coming from. That didn't happen with this novel. I don't like Humbert Humbert, although I pitied him.

The story was an easy read, despite the fact that I was highly disturbed by being thrown into the brain of an active pedophile. It was a quick read for me, so there is one redeeming feature of the novel. The story follows Humbert Humbert as he moves into the house of the Haze's and slowly becomes obsessed with the 12 year old daughter Dolores. It is written as a retrospective account after he is put in prison for his indiscretions. The novel is also one of the shorter ones I have read so I flew through the novel quite quickly. I think the reason I am lagging on the blog, is that I struggled with what to say about. I spent a lot of time mulling over what the writer's intentions were in writing the novel and in my delay, I forgot that I hadn't actually put pen to paper to collect my thoughts.

Someone noticed Lolita on my shelf and was asking me about it just the other day. I offered them the novel to read and then told them my thoughts on it. They asked if I would recommend they read the novel despite my dislike of it. My answer was that I would recommend it, mostly because it is so different from anything I have ever read before. I am curious to see how it affects other people, as well.  I personally will never read it again, nor will it shine as one of my favourites on the list, but I am not unhappy that I read it. I have enjoyed this project, mostly because it has been a chance to pick up titles that I would otherwise have never picked up.