Category Archives: 100books

95. The taste and decency of A Confederacy of Dunces

A Confederacy of Dunces is set in the early ‘60s of New Orleans, written by John Kennedy Toole in 1969, but not published until 1980 through the perseverance of his mother (read: the stalking of an influential professor until the man succumbed and read the carbon manuscript) after Toole’s suicide.

The first thing you should know about the novel is that its title was derived from a Jonathan Swift quote:

“When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”

I guess the next thing is to meet Ignatius J. Reilly: protagonist of A Confederacy of Dunces, and a self-styled genius. Forced by his mother to get a job (his first), he drags his 30 year old, university educated obese ass to gain employment as a filing clerk and, later, as a hot dog vendor. This doesn’t stop him from waging a one-man war against modernity, vices, and pretty much anything going against his principles of “taste and decency” and “proper theology and geometry”.

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The, incredibly literate and rather fabulous, Picture of Dorian Gray

Literary Blog Hop

Q. Please highlight one of your favorite books and why you would consider it “literary.”

A. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Because it’s quite awesome.

 

Ok, not exactly an ‘A’ worthy answer. Let’s get into details.

I started this blog a few months ago to get through the 100 Books You Must Read Before You Die list, which was (surprise, surprise!) comprised mostly of literature. Motivation? People kept telling me I wasn’t allowed to judge books that I hadn’t read. Pfft.

In any case, this blog follows my spectacular(?) reading journey, so I figured The Blue Bookcase’s Literary Book Hop was the perfect chance to share one of my favourite books with you.

I am talking about, of course, Oscar Wilde’s fabulous The Picture of Dorian Gray (published in 1890).

Long-time readers (and I adore you all!) are probably unsurprised at this not-so-startling revelation; I have exhibited a certain penchant for hedonistic characters before.

The plot recounts the life of Dorian Gray (duh), a man obsessed with youth and beauty. By an undefined twist of fate, his “soul” is transferred to a magnificent portrait of himself. Gray is blessed with good looks and youth forever, whereas his effigy bears the signs of his evil deeds and aging body.

If you’re confused, it pays to know that Victorians believed in physical appearance as a representation of the sort of person you are – they used to make moulds of criminals’ faces after their death so that scientists could figure out commonalities, and, therefore, apprehend future wrongdoers.

Anyway.

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68. Bridget Jones’s… no! The Friande’s Diary

Dear diary,

Another fabulous day in the sun, finishing up Bridget Jones’s Diary, and getting my tan ready for summer. Unfortunately, the sun seemed intent on moving from one side of the sky to another, so now half my body is tanner than the rest. Meaning that, despite my detest for tan lines, there is a (note: singular) bikini line next to my left collarbone.

Gah.

On to less pressing matters: like pretty much everyone I know, I’d watched the movie version of Bridget Jones’s Diary before reading Helen Fielding’s book. Luckily, this was ages ago, so I wasn’t stuck second-guessing the plot every five seconds (which, by the way, occured whilst reading His Dark Materials).

Have a bullet point list of Thoughts on the book:  Continue reading

64. The bare bones of The Lovely Bones?

First of all – what a bizarre title! Yes, it comes from a quote in the book, but I still have no clue what bones are lovely, and why, exactly, bones are lovely in the first place.

Secondly, my best friend lent this book to me, saying that I was going to detest it. She certainly had a point – any weepy, and/or ‘meaningful’ plots lose my interest in 0.5 seconds flat, including, but not limited to, novels’ whose blurbs that contain the words “… a touching story”. Erm, no thanks. I’d much rather read a story where ‘action’ isn’t a synonym for an emotional breakthrough.

Having said all that – and you know what I’m going write next, don’t you? – it wasn’t all bad. In fact the only bad parts were a) the ending, because those paragraphs read like an inspirational fridge magnet; and b) the weird part where a character possessed someone’s body to get laid.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

It’s the late 70’s in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, and Susie Salmon was brutally raped and murdered at fourteen. She spends the rest of her non-life alternating between chilling in heaven and watching her family, friends, and even her killer, continue their lives on Earth. Slightly voyeuristic, eh?

Alice Sebold

The Lovely Bones is a pretty light read. I’m not saying it’s fluffy or anything (aside from the aforementioned fridge magnet), but the author doesn’t feel the need to whack her readers over the head with how much of a traumatic experience the protagonist went though. Nor do we have to endure long descriptions about all the grief Susie’s family members are grieving about.  Sebold seems quite content to let her readers grasp characters’ feelings quite intuitively, which goes a long way towards stopping The Lovely Bones from degenerating into a giant chick flick moment.

The author also injects a touch of sinister atmosphere every now and then, reminding us, ‘hello, ghostly dead girl narrating the story here.’ Sure, there’s all the noise about whether or not Susie’s killer – her next door neighbour – will be discovered, but what I particularly liked was Ruth’s visions of dead women. Ruth, a girl who barely spoke to Susie when she was alive, became obsessed, and, indeed, in love with Susie after her death. Ruth’s fixation triggered her (latent?) psychic abilities, adding the perfect amount of intrigue to the novel’s ambience.

Saoirse Ronan as Susie Salmon in The Lovely Bones movie

I did my typical nosing around after finishing The Lovely Bones, and learnt that Sebold was sexually assaulted walking home one night from university. Which was a little awkward to discover. I honestly couldn’t have picked it; The Lovely Bones has none of that harrowing experience vibe going for it. Hopefully, Sebold was able to get some closure from her writing.

On the flip side, The Lovely Bones is so focused on women, that it excludes the opposite gender. Apparently women are the only ones vulnerable to rape and murder.

Which leads on to what I found so interesting about the novel – inasmuch as a book is able to embody a gender, not to be confused with a genre, The Lovely Bones is intensely female. I already mentioned how readers are expected to grasp the novel intuitively; aside from Susie’s killer, every male character is loving, sensitive, forgiving, perceptive and, excluding their ‘male’ (it was the 70’s) occupations, inhabit stereotypical female attributes. It’s like Sebold created this familiar and comforting world just for one gender.

Here, then, is how I would describe the novel: a graceful and, well, lovely book, that doesn’t shy away from, nor ever display ostentatiously, its grisly bare bones.

 

47. How I learnt that Mr Hardy wants to be very Far From the Madding Crowd.

Like any art form, a book reveals plenty about its creator.

For example, Thomas Hardy was rather obsessed with farming being, like, the way of life.

Or, at least, that’s what reading Far From the Madding Crowd (1874) led me to assume. I could be wrong.

Something else I learnt was that, while it seemed that Mr Hardy was overcompensating whenever he launched into avid details of every square centimetre in a room, in actuality, he considered himself to be a bonafide, beret-wearing poet.

Think neon signs throughout the book, proclaiming, ‘I’m still a real writer, dammit, even if I’ve sold out to magazine serials.’

No clue how good he was at poetry, but he certainly had talent for describing characters, if not the setting. It boggled me why no one had told Mr Hardy that readers were fully capable of filling in any gaps left open by a book. Having to visualise the exact décor, layout, and atmosphere of a room before getting to the action or, rather, exposition, was considerably trying. And slow.

Thomas Hardy

Mr Hardy wrote this neat little tale about Bathsheba Everdene – a terrible, terrible name – who fended off three suitors whilst inheriting the running of a farm. Being a product of my time, much like Mr Hardy was of his, I spent the majority of the book rolling my eyes at the typical, repressed fare that Victorians liked to serve up regularly (minus the cherries on top) about appropriate behaviour.

But then I thought – it was all a little too typical, wasn’t it?

You see, Mr Hardy, the sly old goat, smirked his way through the writing process. By creating a conventional story with characters behaving in proper ways, he managed to subversively cause his readers to question the logic behind social rules (particularly in regards to marriage). Though he explored such issues with more gutso in his later novels, Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, Far From the Madding Crowd was certainly forward thinking.

Shame about the narrator’s Mr Hardy’s sexist comments on every second page.

True, they could be excused as standard for his day, but what made me laugh was that, it wasn’t women that our author had a problem with. Oh no, Mr Hardy seemed to have a personal issue with attractive women.

I guess it goes part and parcel with liking farming or whatever, but Mr Hardy strongly asserted that being pretty leads to all sorts of horrible things. Like vanity, and people living in cities, and dozens of men falling in love with one beautiful women, whilst all those poor, ugly, women that the love-struck men would have married were stuck with no prospects.

In fact, the narrator Mr Hardy made it very clear that Bathsheba should feel guilty for being so good-looking.

Methinks Mr Hardy was a tad bitter, yes?

(If you’re curious, Mr Hardy’s first marriage broke up because his wife lost her looks, leading him to seek out other companionship).

Original illustration of Sergeant Troy & Bathsheba

Like I said, it’s fascinating what one can deduce about the writer of a book, though it could feel like I’m prying a little too much. But sometimes I simply felt embarrassed on behalf of the author – *cough* Stephanie Myer *cough*.

Anyway, I had a less than stellar opinion of Far From the Madding Crowd – I picked it up because I was in the mood for an era piece, but didn’t want to subject myself to Jane Austen’s riveting gossip. It ended up being a soap opera love triangle quadrilateral that Austen would have been proud of. Except it was set on a farm.

Nevertheless, I found Mr Hardy to be far more compelling than his own characters, and I’m sort of looking forward to reading Tess of the d’Ubervilles and Jude the Obscure, if only to learn more about Mr Hardy’s motivations. And hopefully be in for further Zoolander references.

25. Life lessons from a hitchhiker: firstly, you may be excused from saving the galaxy if you have a headache.

So I’ve just finished books two and three of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (titled The Restaurant at the End of the Universe and Life, the Universe, and Everything), and thought I’d share a few of life’s lessons that Douglas Adams taught me.

Before I impart my hard-earned knowledge onto you ducklings, I want to make sure that you had all read my commentary on the first book in the series? Yes? Excellent.

Firstly, the universe has no end. Don’t be confused by the Restaurant at the End of the Universe – it actually uses time-travel hydraulics to continuously serve expensive dinner at the very moment when the universe implodes. I hear it’s a spectacular show.

Following on from this, it is only natural that you start feeling a little existential angst when you think of the vastness of the universe in comparison to your own meagre existence. Don’t fret. This is perfectly normal. Take a deep breath, and consider the Oglaroonians, of planet Oglaroon, who all live in one nut tree, despite an entire planet full of hospitable forests at their disposal. It is decreed that any other trees are hallucinations and, should an Oglaroonian persist in such talk, s/he is presumably put to death by being kicked off the tree.


Now that you are feeling more or less normal, think of your chosen career. It’s all well and good if you are an academic or a scientist or a tradesperson because, (congratulations!) you are a useful member of society. Lawyers, hairdressers, marketing managers and the like are not. Should the imminent doom of your planet be announced, along with a plan for sequestering the population into three spaceships to colonise Somewhere Else, then do not get on your spaceship if it’s the first one set for departure. Run and hide instead. There is no imminent doom; you, along with the rest of the pointless third of the population, are simply being tricked off the planet.


On to more practical matters. I’m sure you had noticed by now, at least abstractedly, that all humans suffer from a blind spot, or, if you will, selective vision. If you are a scientist, you can turn this propensity into state-of-the-art invisibility technology. Although true invisibility is nigh on impossible, one can hide pretty much anything in a Someone Else’s Problem field.

To be truly successful at life, you need to change your negative thinking patterns. You may believe that it is impossible for humans to fly unaided. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy disagrees: “There is a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.” I give you a moment to contemplate how this bit of information has changed your outlook on life forever.

Done? Good.

Finally, stop blaming the ruler of the universe for your shortcomings. He has as little clue as you do about why shit happens, and any conversations will result in a strong urge to punch him. If you are unconvinced, think of an extremely annoying and indecisive philosophical essay, with an excess of qualifiers and footnotes. Yep, like that.

… I have faith you guys can figure out the rest.

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62. An ode to Lolita, the fire of my loins.

My favourite characters have always been hedonists.

Dorian Gray. Claudine. Robert Forbisher. Blair and Serena (book versions). Holly Golightly. The narrator of Invisible Monsters.

They may not have been the nicest of people, but compared to the staunchly miserable Jane Eyre and the dime-a-dozen noble gentlemen featured in Dracula, they were alive.

It doesn’t matter whether it is for learning, or entertainment, or both, we read because we are none other than voyeurs, living vicariously through the characters on our pages. So I find it far more engrossing spending time in the head of a person who isn’t constrained by the same rules I am.

Enter Lolita.

We all know who she is. She began life sucking popsicles – amongst other things – in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, but she also strode confidently into popular culture, and resided there ever since as that sexually precocious girl. Which is probably why, since 1955, no unfortunate babies had been named Lolita. Because that would be awkward.

Lee's infamous Lolita-themed ad campaign shot by Terry Richardson

The novel’s (anti?) hero is Humbert, an erudite European living in America, who is sexually attracted to nymphets. Nymphets, as defined by our charmingly disdainful Humbert, are girls aged between nine and fourteen, who are, at least partly, aware of their burgeoning sexuality (and how to use it). These creatures also share similar physical characteristics; Humbert likens Lolita to Botticelli’s Venus. It makes sense, then, that dear old Humbert, a man in his forties, falls in love with twelve-year-old Lolita and farcically kidnaps her for an impromptu road trip over America. Yes, they have sex. No, he wasn’t her first.

Throughout my reading of Lolita, I noticed that friends seemed fond of giving me sympathetic looks: “Oh poor you, having to get through such a disgusting book.” Look, I’m not exactly into macking on pubescent girls or anything, but the book? Was good.

If you are looking for porn, sorry. There were very few sex scenes, and zero four-letter words; Lolita, both the book and its namesake, wasn’t obscene.

Vladimir Nabokov

Vladmir Nabokov was the son of a prominent politician in Russia, and grew up in a tri-lingual household. French. English. Russian. A bit off-topic, but you’ll see where I am going with this. His family fled Russia after the Bolsheviks rocked up and seized power (fun fact: I, too, was born in Russia), and he lived in many countries since then, one of which was America. His inspiration for the setting of Lolita was tangible in all its tacky, suburban glory, complete with plastic flamingos in the front yard, and an obsession with sodas. He wrote Lolita in English, not his native Russian.

It is one of, if not the, best-written books I’ve ever read. The wordplay was titillating, the metaphors were rampant, the euphemisms were gratifyingly unique, the characters were delightfully believable, and the entire novel accomplished a successful tiptoe between comedy and tragedy.

The biggest testament to Vladimir’s skill I can give you is this: not once, in the 300 or so pages, until, perhaps, the very end, was I outraged or repulsed. It was only after I had finished, and dragged my eyes away from Humbert’s eloquent gaze did I realise that I had just read a book where a child was abused. And enjoyed it.

Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 adaption of Lolita

The character Lolita reminds me a less refined version of Colette’s Claudine (my review here), who, of course, would be one of Humbert’s nymphets. Humbert, on the other hand, is a slightly more eerie, but no less humorous, Robert Forbisher from Cloud Atlas. Needless to say, both Lolita and Humbert have joined the much exalted ranks of yours truly’s favourite characters.

If you read the book (and you’d better or I will hunt you down and force you to purchase kitschy garden ornaments) keep your eye out for The Funniest Death Scene Ever; Lolita’s report card, which focused less on her knowledge of Shakespeare, and more on rating her attractiveness to possible husbands; and a detailed diagram – complete with trajectory lines – drawn by the man who ran over Lolita’s mother, who created it to prove without a doubt that the entire accident was the woman’s fault. Laugh out louds, guaranteed.

P.S. I plugged a few of my stories into http://iwl.me. Evidently, statistical analysis of my word choice and style means I write like none other than Vladimir Nabokov.  Or, at least, a poor man’s version; I imagine Vladimir as a benevolent god, peering down from the clouds, and fondly, if not condescendingly, patting his disciples on their heads – “Sure, little ducklings, you can write just like me,” he says, “but only if you eat all your vegetables.”

P.P.S My blog posts are, apparently, in the style of H.P. Lovecraft? I’ve never read anything by the man, can anyone attest to this?

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