Yann Martel: The Life of Pi

10 Jan

imagesThis book had so much potential…I really enjoyed the first chapters. I like books about India and about religion.

Alas, what could have become a great piece about India, the world religions, faith and tolerance quickly and abruptly turned into a kind of third-class Robinson Crusoe story about a shipwreck – tedious, uninteresting and pointless. This novel is thus divided into two parts – a very small quite interesting part in the beginning, and an incredibly large, incredibly boring second part that seems to have no connection whatsowever to the very short first part.

I honestly disliked the book, I don’t understand the hype, and it is a pity that it is what it is when it could have been so much more. Maybe I have to read it twice to appreciate it – but unfortunately, the style of writing is not good enough that I could devour this again.

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Zadie Smith: NW

10 Jan

imagesThis book is a nut hard to crack, but you can see why Smith currently is the Britain’s favourite contemporary author. NW lives and thrives from its flair for location, precisely NW (North-West) of London, the evocation of smells, sounds, tastes, visual and haptic stimuli. Smith lets the reader feel the vibes of her NW through the eyes and minds of her four characters. NW is highly experimental, written in a style which almost classifies as stream of consciousness, and this makes the novel very hard to get into.

However, it is worth lasting through the first 150 pages. Localese is NW’s strong point, and the coat for a subtle of a presentation of the intricacies of the lives of 30-somethings in a cosmopolitan city, whose lives are all different, but strangely intertwined. Sadly, the characters are hard to relate to, are with their dishonesty and self-obsession not likeable.

Had it not been for the ending, which is abrupt and hardly credible, I would have given this work four stars. The weak ending and artistic but awkward style, which is difficult to get into and make this book take a long time to read, unfortunately only amount to three stars.

 

Erin Morgenstern: The Night Circus

13 Dec

images “The circus arrives without warning” – thus the first words of this magival novel – before the reader gets swept away in a miraculous world which makes everyone believe in magic. As Fontane put it, the first sentence of a novel need to comprise the whole novel, and this is what Morgenstern’s novel does – it comes without warning; it is all about illusion, and nothing is what it seems.

In the arena of a circus, two magicians are fighting a duel by means of their protegés Marco and Celia. They each represent two different schools of magic. In the end, none of them wins, as Marco and Celia fall in love and end the combat in their own way.

But this novel is so much more. What sounds like a compelling thriller when reading the blurb is all about illusion. Morgenstern plays with the reader’s imagination. What looks like unimportant cameos turn out to be important characters. What looks like illusion dressed like magic is magic dressed like illusion. Many criticisms attacked the fact that the characters appeared rather flat and lifeless – but I reckon that this as well is part of the illusionist game Morgenstern plays with us. Since we do not get to know any of the characters well enough, we do not know who to trust – an intelligent play with our imagination. The thing is, this novel is written in such a mind-blowing way that you cannot put it down. You feel like you can touch the tents of the circus, you can smell the waft of caramel apples in the air, and the heat of the bonfire on your face.

This book is well worth reading, be it just for the astonishing prose. Underneath it, however, there is much more which could have given way to interpretations or the quest for the meaning, but it has not been used to its full potential. There is the theme of dualism (black vs. white, public vs. secret, physical illusion vs. mental illusion, academic vs. practical education) which is prominent throughout the novel, but unfortunately not elaborated like in a masterpiece of literature. Then, there is the theme of children (the protegés) suffering for their parents vanity. There is also the theme of two conflicting philosophy or doctrines battling each other, with none of them ending up superior. There is a lot of potential for an interpretation going deeper than remaing with the prose. This could have ended up a groundbreaking, life-changing piece of art, about dualism, generation conflicts (just think of Bailey and his decision to abandon his life in favour of the circus), conflicting doctrines. Unfortunately, when it comes to the actual meaning or message, Morgenstern’s novel remains vague. Despite its potential for more meaningful interpretations, it remains all about imaginative style and descriptions, rather than making a point or focusing on the characters’ developments.

This is fair enough, but with a bit of elaboration, Morgenstern could have made this a bigger work of art. I felt the novel had a few loose ends. What was the point of the Burgess sister or Tante Padva? Why did the characters not age? It did not add anything to the novel, so could have been left out in favour of a more pronounced elaboration of a message, be it generation conflicts, the life choices we make, that every individual needs a complimentary one etc.

Anyways, considering that it is Morgenstern’s first novel, and that she is pretty young, this is definitely impressive, unique and – ya, magical. And magic makes up for many things.

J. K. Rowling: The Casual Vacancy

28 Nov

Today I would like to break a lance for J. K. Rowling’s latest novel – and her first novel for adults, as it says in the blurb: The Casual Vacancy.

To cut a long story short: It was one of the best, if not THE best (contemporary) novel I have read in the past ten years. Only Stieg Larsson caused in me the same urge not to put the book down. With anything else on the bestsellers’ lists in recent years, I could not down any more than the first three pages. Rowling’s novel I gulped down. You don’t just read this novel – you live it. This is expecially remarkeable, since, none of the (around 30) characters is at all likeable!

So how can you like a novel, but none of its characters?

A novel has to be made of two vital ingredients – the characters who drive the plot, and the style of writing.

Rowling’s secret lies in the way how the characters are described – you can actually feel them; you feel their presence in the room, and if I was to make a movie out of it, I would already know which actors to cast! They just feel so so realistic, it is rather stunning. Is that why you cannot take to any of them? Because they are so natural and versatile rather than just heroes and villains? Anyways, the characters’ development is what drives the story, and the way how the strands of action are intertwined simply reveals a master of language who is very, very rare to find nowadays. Many self-professed contemporary writers think they can write, but very very few can write in such a compelling way, that there cannot be found any slip-up, anything unlogical. Everything in the plot just makes perfect sense. Even though the characters are not likeable, it is them who make the book likeable.

In the same manner, although Rowling uses the vilest and most evil words, it just never feels out of place. It never feels crude. It is aesthetic writing on every page, beautifully crafted, almost comparable to the 19th century realists. This is why this book is such a precious gift in today’s superficial literary world. People have bemoaned the fact that “nothing happens” on the 504 pages of “The Casual Vacancy”. One of the world’s greatest works of literature is Theodor Fontane’s “Stechlin” – 500 pages on which “nothing happens”. Of course, this is not appreciated in today’s pleasure-seeking, fast-paced world. But literary beauty lies in the crafty depiction of the characters, and the style of writing which has the task of transforming crude reality into a jewel. It is obvious that “The Casual Vacancy” was written by someone who is a master of words – and never loses this mastership once. This is about the picture of society, and not about the plot.

As realistic and mixed as the characters are, so is the ending of the novel. Without revealing too much of the contents, I would like to conclude that in this adult novel, it is the kids and teens who lift the blanket and display their parents’ and grandparents’ hypocrisy. It is the new generation who takes responsibility and stands up for what they do. Yes, the ending IS depressing, but at the same time, there is hope for a new start – a new generation.