The true university these days is a collection of books.
-Thomas Carlyle

Monday, 27 June 2011

Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk

I was lent this novel by a friend. She didn't tell me much about it other than it was by the author who wrote Fight Club and I should read it. I got an inkling that she had not altogether enjoyed reading about the main character. I have not read anything else by the author but I loved the movie of Fight Club so I figured it was going to be an interesting one.

Once again this year I was reading a book about a former member of an enclosed religious cult now let loose on the modern world (see Whit by Iain Banks) but it is there that any similarity between the books ends. What one tells you in great detail, the other uses language to hint at, allowing the reader to fill in the rest.

This is the story about Tender Branson, told by himself, as he hurtles deliberately to earth, alone on a jet soon to run out of fuel, recording his life on the Black Box recorder. A former home help hired out by his community, who have now committed mass suicide, he is one of the few hundred survivors of the cult, and the number is dwindling further due to cult member guilt and a murderer popping off the survivors. Soon our narrator is the only one left and becomes an evangelising celebrity sucked into the shallow world of fame and lies.

The book is intriguing from the start with the chapters and pages counting backwards. The narration is punchy, glib, and economical with words and information while we can fill in the gaps readily with our own observations on the image driven modern life of the West.

Tender Branson is not a loveable character, in fact I didn't care a whole lot about his fate at all. Seriously warped by his constrictive upbringing and then the banality of the outside world, he gets off on advertising his own phone number as a help line for the desperate so he can listen to their suicidal rantings. When, on his encouragement, one of them does himself in, he obsesses about finding his burial place. Enter Fertility Hollis, the victims sister, who can predict future disasters, and the plot goes off on several tangents at once, advancing our protagonist through many bizarre and extreme scenarios, before hurtling towards its conclusion.

This book is driven by comedy, not realism, and it takes everything that is bad about Western society, multiplies it by fifty, and gives us it back to laugh at and be appalled by it. We recognise this world but it has mutated to an alarming proportion. It is fast paced with multiple plot strands. Some of the strands end up ridiculously off-kilter.

This is not a book I would have read ordinarily so I enjoyed the refreshing angle, the unusual setup and the narrative which I thought was clever and suited the comment it was making. I did find that it lost pace in the second half though, and the ending just went nowhere so felt as if it ended abruptly with no surprises. Please be warned, if you are easily offended, have a staid sense of humour or have issues with suicide or extreme behaviour, this is not the book for you. However if you like Fight Club the movie you will certainly get the authors style, and if you want a satirical comment on how absurd aspects of our lives, especially driven by the media, have become, then this book will entertain. I will be careful who I recommend it to, but I have recommended it already.

A totally bonkers ride with scarily resonant messages, however extreme.

You can check out Survivor on Chuck Palahniuk's website by using the link.

There are quotes from Survivor, use the link, but remember, there will be spoilers.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

The English Novel in History 1895-1920

Here are the notes on the next 2 chapters from this book that I found earlier this year and am serialising throughout 2011.

Last month we covered The Relevance of Ulysses and Degeneration. We now move onto chapters 8 and 9 in Part II of the book about Nation and Society.

Chapter 8 -Declension

The short era of the slum novel was coming to an end by the 1890's, leaving Zola behind for the 'romance' of Dickens and his depictions of the more 'cheerful' aspects of the poorer classes. At the same time a new class was emerging from the areas quickly becoming the suburbs, spreading out from London's centre and the major industrial centres, as well as coastal resorts now easily accessible by railway. This new 'tribe' of city dwellers was of special interest to the cultural anthropologists, and was also composed of avid novel readers, too leading to a flourishing fictional genre that 'celebrated or gently mocked suburban lifestyles and values', (p129). The characteristic most obvious from such writing was the monotony of suburbia, the elimination of variety, producing a certain type of person that denied differences, or sense of community. We no longer seemed to witness a society united by common human bonds, but one that thrived now on individual capacity and desire. This uniformity could be viewed in 2 ways, the Dickens view of benevolence, or the Ruskin view of pettiness and destruction.

Authors Arnold Bennett and Virginia Woolf took opposing views about characterisation at this time. Woolf embraced the new concepts of identity and their depiction in literature, Bennett felt that she neglected depth of character while trying to be clever in her writing. Woolf rejected the traditional tools and conventions of portrayal, preferring to convey character through 'poetic awareness'. In Modern Fiction, the more aware someone is of their own identity, the more representable they become. Modernism itself has been said to be a 'poetic of awareness' (133).

Bennett on the other hand preferred to use the differences between people as essential to their portrayal. These differences, particularly between gender, were key to Bennett's characters.

Where there is awareness of character, there must also be unawareness. Bennett championed the right to a characters unawareness. This required a new type of plot. Traditional English novel writing had included revelations throughout as a character develops, and prejudice and habits make way for a when the 'naked self confronts a naked world' (p135). Layers of character needed to be stripped away to reveal the truth, the final transformation. Bennett found himself between 2 traditions, so a new plot was formed, to illustrate a personality that does not develop, that is stuck in a kind of inertia and unable to progress. Bennett called this type of personality, one 'not shaped by development or degeneration' (137), as 'declension', and few people in his novels escaped it. 'Declension involves a gradual loss of energy, will, presence, significance.', (p137).

Hysteria during the 19th century was considered to be a serious disablement, mainly in women, due to hormonal attributes that could run genetically through families, as portrayed in Zola's novels regarding members of the same family's degenerational characters. Whereas Zola would portray Nana's degeneration into hysteria, Bennett took the Freudian stance in his novels, of hysteria brought on by a traumatic incident, in the form of declension instead. Sinclair, Joyce, Lawrence and Mansfield all use this basis for their stories of declension.

Chapter 9 - Frontiers

In opposition to realism came romance and during our modern era of writing romance had new territories, that of empire. Anxieties about society and degeneration were explored in naturalist novels, anxieties about the decline of Empire were explored in romance. Imperialism was having to reassert itself amongst so much competition from other countries wanting the same resources. This regeneration was the source of a lot of reproduction in our culture.

Studies on colonization have revealed that far from moving the colonizers identity abroad, as was often the intention, the reality was a new identity formed out of survival in the colonies and adapting to the new conditions. Renewal or regeneration of identity was also seen as a threat, reinforcing the conviction of the West in decline. Colonial experience however, was to provide writers with fascinating new angles and comparisons to use in their work, even for an anti-Imperialist writer like Henry James.

America had already embraced the regeneration of individual and collective identity with its own frontier myths. In 1893 Frederick Jackson Turner read his paper to the American Historical Association, stating that 'American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character.' (p145). As the Americans have had to readapt to the new conditions of the perpetually moving frontier, so must Europeans adapt to influences as they march across continents with their own frontiers. However, the British novels, unlike the American writing, illustrate the process of renewal, strength out of weakness. This renewal can be emotional as well as political.

Writers were now taking their characters, exhausted and purposeless, who would have descended into degeneration, to new territories where they can find new identities through emotional and political commitment. The only way to complicate this narrative was to mix up the two in one novel, as A.E.W. Mason did in The Four Feathers.

Contemporary works that illustrate the above points include...

Howards End by E M Forster

Clayhanger and Hilda Lessways by Arnold Bennett

Nana by Emile Zola

Kim by Rudyard Kipling

The Half Hearted by John Buchan

The Great Amulet by Maud Diver

The Tragedy of Korosko by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

The Four Feathers by A E W Mason

Look out for the next two chapters from this fascinating book in a post next month.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Through the Kitchen Window by Susan Hill

This is the third of my Susan Hill books about her life in the country. After being totally enchanted by The Magic Apple Tree last year, I bought Through the Garden Gate and this title. Susan Hill's voice has an gentle and honest quality, and I have become a fan of her writing.

This book is quite short and you would be able to read it in one sitting. Illustrated again by Angela Barrett, the pictures enhance the main themes of the book, which are home, family, living in a community, and cooking things that you have grown yourself. The whole book is infused with recipes alongside the authors recollections, stories and recommendations.

Arranged seasonally we are taken through a whole year in her kitchen...hearty meals in winter and dishes that help you get over a cold, young greens in spring, picnics, salads and fruit in summer, bottling and preserving in autumn. Naturally each seasonal festival is also included, The Christmas table, Easter treats, and suggestions for using whatever is in season.

The recipes are of a traditional nature with family in friends in mind, Fruity Tea Bread, Dorset Apple Cake, Sausage and Onion Plate Pie. Many dishes are mentioned without the recipe, as a nostalgic memory or appreciation. We also have 'Ten Pleasures of the Winter Kitchen' and sections on Damsons, Asparagus, Rhubarb and many more.

Again this is a book to treasure and dip into, very sensory, and a haven to retreat to during a busy day. Out of the 3 books this is my least favourite, and The Magic Apple Tree remains miles ahead, but if you like books about country living and Susan Hill's mesmerising writing voice, this is worth looking up.

To see more book illustrations by Angela Barrett, who mainly does childrens books, but whose contribution to some of Susan Hill's books can not be understated, use the link.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

May Roundup

Spent a whole day making Elderflower cordial while working on the farm last week, a drink forever associated with summer. The picture here, together with the recipe, can be found on Farm in my Pocket.
Read - almost 2 books
Completed - Through the Kitchen Window by Susan Hill
Currently Reading -
Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk
Watching the English: the hidden rules of English behaviour by Kate Fox
The English Novel in History 1895 - 1920 by David Trotter
TBR Pile - Now at 99 (according to GoodReads) with 5 added this month...
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Challenges - summarised chapters 6 and 7 from The English Novel in History 1895 - 1920, the literary theory book that I am making notes on each month.
Wishlist Additions -
I'll Never get out of this World Alive by Steve Earle
The Juggler by Sebastian Beaumont
Discoveries -
There is a flickr group called mybookshelves where you can add pictures of your own collections of books. The group was started by the Guardian and there was an article about the mybookshelves group here. Instructions on how to include your own photos of your bookshelves can be found on the Guardian's book blog.
Events -
Macbeth at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool starring David Morrissey and Julia Ford. Brilliant production with strong performances and an excellent set. It is also one of my favourite Shakespeare plays.
There was also the bookswap at work which was very successful, good fun, and I got 3 new books to read.
Summer came upon us when we weren't looking. Onward into June...

Hay on Wye

Hay on Wye