Archive for the Books Category

Book of the Week – Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 11, 2010 by helenperkins

IT is one of those texts I’d heard spoken of in hushed tones – one of the Great Ones, lauded from the heights of the literary world, in columns of high-brow literary reviews and pretentious politics essays across the globe.

Also, by Boukalas and Rusty, in various pubs.

It’s also a book I’d avoided for the first 23 years of my life because of its size and heft, and the stern tone of its title.

The low down, for those who have never read the blurb or the spark notes version of the novel, is this:

Written around 1865, Crime and Punishment tells the story of an ex-student called Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov who has fallen on hard times and murders a pawnbroker in St Petersburg.

The killing is self-justified by the protagonist – whose academic theory assumes that there are individuals who have the right to make, and break, laws which ordinary mortals live by without dispute.

The action-drama sequence which sees him bludgeon his neighbour to death is just the first chapter of the novel’s 450 pages. During the rest we follow Doestevsky’s troubled character as he struggles to live within his own philosophy – and as he slowly realises he is not the ruthless Napoleon he imagined.

As a reader you follow this fraying consciousness around St Petersburg, meeting his family, his friends, and the drunks and peasants he hangs around with – as he tries to work out the meaning of what he’s done and what he should do.

The huge irony in this text, for me, was that the more you read of this tortured character and his everyday life, and the more worried, distracted and guilt-ridden his outbursts became, the more you were made aware that the author behind the charade was a writer in full control of his senses.

Dostoevsky – a similarly impoverished Russian thinker to Rodion – found it in him to set down and write a text that makes most other characters in most other texts look comfy – sort of lazy – a bit fat. His protagonist seems worryingly alive.

It intimidates me that the characters of a man writing well over a century ago can put modern devices to shame. Rodion is involved – he doesn’t stop. He is curious, worried, loyal, hot and cold.

Fyodor Dostoevsky in 1863

I will stop praising him now, lest I come across as a complete simpleton but, still, I think I am in love with Fyodor Dostoevsky.


Book review of the week: A prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2010 by helenperkins

There are some memories that return to you again and again throughout your whole life. Here are a few of mine.

I remember being told in class assembly – by a teacher whose name I’ve forgotten – that she had seen pictures of the Jewish Holocaust when she was about my age and she still had a reoccurring nightmare about the tiny corpses of people who had starved to death on cold camps in mid winter.  

I remember the last day of Year Six, lying on the field next to Joanne, my best friend, and thinking “When I leave today I will never have another lesson here.” We put our navy jumpers on the ground so our hair wouldn’t get full of grass. I remember closing my eyes and facing the sun, then staring at the ground so everything around me looked like it was washed with pale blue.

I remember Nick Miller saying he would never go out with me because I was too ugly.

I remember sitting at the Jehovah’s Witnesses hall on a Sunday and writing down the scriptures in a notebook, copying them out from my little maroon Bible, which had a pony sticker on the front of it.

I remember sitting behind the sofa with sad music playing on my Dad’s hi-fi, and realising that first my grandparents would die, then it would be my aunty, then probably dad, then my mum and then the next one to go would be me.

I remember walking back from Fay’s, as a young teenager, and watching the sparrows wash themselves by rubbing their feathers against the sand that had collected at the side of the road.

All these weird little snippets of memory surface from time to time. They don’t seem to need any provocation, they just rise quietly out of the past like bubbles.

Reading an Irving novel creates so many of these little bubbles that a week after you have read one of his stories your mind is still popping with all the weird little instances he describes, the odd histories, the strange eccentricities of his characters. An armadillo with no claws, the missing baseball, fate and what it means to be a part of society, granite grey, guilt, the red dress…these are a handful of the things you find popping up again and again in Irving’s novel.

A Prayer for Owen Meany is about a boy that is small and has a voice that is very high pitched. He kills John the narrator’s mother and then leads him to believe in God. Events in the book are foreshadowed and remembered and play out backwards and forwards as the lives of Owen and John progress.

The pair grow up in America during the Vietnam War, which lasted from 1959 – 1975. John, who writes about his past with Owen, is haunted by the news and reporting of the time – what America as a nation was doing and how this affected those around him. The novel, like his earlier story The World According to Garp, is a long, but pacey, first person coming of age narrative which suggests that everyone believes in something and, even if it’s not God, even if it’s just the stories we tell ourselves to get us out of bed, it’s a powerful force. ‘Faith and prayer work,’ says Owen Meany, ‘ they really do.’

Book review of the week: Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 17, 2010 by helenperkins

Kafka’s ominous short story Metamorphosis is one of those weird semi-fables that keeps cropping up in your mind for the week after you’ve read it. 

It also contains what is considered to be the best first line ever written for a short story: 

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” 

Metamorphosis is probably Kafka's most famous short story


Gregor, another of Kafka’s literary victims, loses his travelling sales job after turning into some sort of cockroach or beetle – we’re never told specifically. His family neglect him and he is forced to live under the sofa in the spare room, partly through shame but also for fear of being assaulted. We track him through the year as he eventually meets his sad demise. The reader never finds out why he turned into a giant bug, and this change is never reconciled. 

This theme of becoming something other than yourself – and unrecognisable to your peers, your family and society at large – has been played out in other stories to suggest a whole range of human fears. 

There are several films that focus on the fear of aging. These films don’t just suggest the human dread of mortality, they also play out a fear of a loss of innocence or a loss of young feminine sexuality – because there’s no way you can be sexy once you’re 30, right? The 1988 hit film Big, sees Tom Hanks play an American 13-year-old who wishes he was older and then wakes up to find he’s suddenly a fully grown adult, quickly beginning to wish he was younger. 13 Going on 30 has a similar theme of suddenly realising you’ve become, literally, your parent and desperately wanting to roll back the clock. 

Added to these examples there’s a great superhero tradition (Superman, Incredible Hulk, Spiderman, Batman) of characters gaining superhuman powers – making them different – and preventing them from ever fitting in with the society they grew up in. 

These films, comics and books all share the idea that once you have transgressed – not necessarily by committing a conscious crime, but often simply by wandering into a different demographic, species or social group – you will be rejected by the loving people you thought you were close to. Metamorphosis paints a bleak picture of the human race and the family as a disloyal group of unsympathetic creatures. 

The weird thing about Kafka’s stories, I find, is that as a reader you’re very tempted, when you first read about the flawed main character, to assume he’s done something wrong to end up in the sorry predicament he finds himself in. In this particular story Gregor is a bit of a wet sop. He’s gone into a tiresome and uninspiring job for a boss he can’t stand, he’s too much of a coward to tell his manager what he thinks of him and he’s prone to self-pity. However, just as in Kafka’s novel The Trial, there’s no suggestion in this story that Gregor has earned the persecution he faces. You can’t help thinking that the lead character has just been terribly unlucky and wondering why the author has inflicted his terrible situation upon him. 

While Gregor’s family are at first very concerned for his wellbeing, by the end of the story and Gregor’s short life they have already moved on to consider their own futures. So has the narrator – who is busy talking about a bright future for Gregor’s young sister Grete. Even I was bored of Gregor by the time I had read 60 pages of his bug’s life.  He was a bug…there’s a limited novelty to that plot. 

Metamorphosis…to change form…to move on…

Award winning writer Iain Sinclair gives a guest lecture at Lancaster University

Posted in Books, News with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 22, 2009 by helenperkins

With white hair, a tailored jacket and not a tremor of nerves, the award-winning British author Iain Sinclair met  Dr Brian Baker to discuss Sinclair’s work. Here are just a few fragments from the event at Lancaster University, October 2009.

Iain Sinclair: speaking on psychogeography and narrative in the noughties

Sinclair began by talking about the way his life developed after gaining critical acclaim with his novels and poetry, such as Lud Heat and the 1992 Encore award winner Downriver.

He said: “I once thought of my travels to universities as research for the books I was writing, now I see my research going towards the travelling. I’ve had only two days at home to write in over a year.

“One tries to get a sense of this time spent travelling up and down the country in a way that’s not altogether unlike travel writing – engaging on a series of trips, detouring and writing a story and making up elements. Each of the places in my book becomes a kind of novella. Each place is precious.

“I think we have gone beyond the idea of pure fiction and pure documentation. My writing is not quite a novel and not quite a kind of documentary. What it’s about is creating a personal system. It suggests if you don’t create your own system you’re living by the system of somebody else.

“I want to work in a different way to traditional authors. I will keep my notes. Sometimes I will write a one piece poem when I’m walking, including particular details and specifics of place. Sometimes it will be something longer.”

He then gave an explanation of one of Sinclair’s recent travels: “One of the suggested stops I visited was Milton Keynes. They have got lots of money for a new arts centre. There’s a massive place built for the arts but no content to go with it. The person with me was showing a film he had made by driving to Rugby. Rugby has become this huge retail park and distribution centre. He just fixed a camera on the side of the lorry and drove there. There were three people at his screening – one of them was the organiser, one was someone asking if I would come and give a lecture and the third was a runner who would run up the motorway until he was arrested. He had just taken a detour to find out what all the fuss was about.

“My book … is a kind of debate between critique and personal memory set inside a detective story. There was even a detective element to writing it. I know that there will always be books that have written what I want to write better than me. So I began my book by taking another that I admired and blacking out parts of the text to leave key phrases. This, although it worked a little like a conspiracy, revealed to me the framework and themes that I was trying to create in my own stories.

“I believe that often what matters is what writers don’t say and what’s created there – that’s how books inspire us. Pull down a story and out come the perfect images – you get the impression of secret message beneath. But by taking another story as a base point for writing my own came risks and I had to be careful the stories did not double the worst elements of each other.

“My overriding theory is this – a culture xerox: Take anything successful and you can trace it back eight steps and find its routes spread in the architecture of the cultural and physical landscape. We have had this idea re-popularised for us recently in Dan Brown’s books – this idea that there is not sort of deep cultural memory which nobody remembers and it’s there – in the walls.”

Sinclair then spoke on the idea of walking as an art and the politics of walking. “Actively knowing a place before I begin a walk allows me to walk as a form of supping up a narrative. It allows time for a story and a shape to occur without the distraction of navigation. Often by walking the same journey you recognise and remember people – and a pattern and story evolves through this repetition.

“The idea of the politics of walking is an interesting one because it challenges a culture that’s often quite static. There are several jokes about the concept – for example, me and a friend said we should walk through Paris using a map of Venice.

“The is a difference between urban and rural walking for narrative purposes. Urban is always a kind of exorcism because we have to block stuff out because there are so many things happening in a city. It’s like warrior walking to get from one side to the other without being carried away on the tide.

“John Clare’s landscape was completely bereft of human inhabitants – nothing like the places I choose. You have to build your way out if you want abstraction from more industrial climates.”

Book of the week: The Rum Diary by Hunter S Thompson

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 16, 2009 by helenperkins

Sometimes, I confess, I buy the paper and I forget to actually read it. It will probably be the Guardian and I’ll buy it – promising myself that I will consume it lovingly cover to cover and that it will somehow make me a better person, raising my mind from thoughts of X Factor and lasagne. Such good intentions…

The next day I will see my paper on the sideboard. I will consider reading it but by now it looks deflated – its stories less enticing. I turn on the radio – the next episode of life and death is already happening somewhere out there. What is the point of paper pulp that only screams the breaking news of yesterday? So my paper ends up discarded and my money-waster guilt lives on. 

The characters in Thompson’s novel also face the question of the precise literary value and meaning of journalism. Well, I say face. They are journalists so they encounter the problem of writing reality but never fully discuss this issue in so many words and then, in most scenes, they get really drunk and sleep with other people or each other.

But Thompson’s narrator Paul Kemp carries around The Times like ‘a precious bundle of wisdom, a weighty assurance that [you’re] not yet cut off from that part of the world that was real.’ Maybe, his character suggests, literature could learn some new tricks from the field of the hack. Get a bit more real. The alcoholic 60s cohort of ‘New Journalists’, including Thompson and his characters, try out a range of narrative and journalistic modes of writing in order to test out this theory.

Thompson, most famous for writing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, paints a pretty debauched picture of Puerto Rico, its coin slots, fiestas, hotel parties and printing houses. Paul Kemp is portrayed as painfully aware he has only one drunken mind in a thousand with which to write reality. The Rum Diary stands as a record of a journalist-persona who writes reality ‘badly’ and offers us the job of doing better.

4/5 stars

Next I’m reading…Norman Mailer’s The Deer Park

Book of the week: Norwegian Wood

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , on August 11, 2009 by helenperkins

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami – ****

Japanese author Haruki Murakami is a great storyteller. His novels and short stories can be fantastical, with little green goblins and elephants that disappear overnight, but they often manage to appear realistic – even ordinary – in their plots, dealing with people’s day-to-day lives. With a gift for the uncanny his stories have impressed me over and again.

Norwegian Wood, the author’s eighth fictional text, showcases the fairly simple years of one student as if these were a strange, glowing object found on a  beach. The black thoughts of friends, his developing morals and their fears become the focus of a book that could also be read as a fairly straightforward love story.

The novel focuses on memories of Toru, a student whose best friend deliberately gases himself to death when the pair are 17. Chapters chronicle Toru’s student days as he wanders around Tokyo making friends and losing them among the bars and bookshops.

Murakami’s main character tries to cope with the loneliness of being in a world without a defined purpose or any wealth of family and friends. The quiet character is taught in his History of Drama lessons that the writer Euripides imagined worlds with gods that sorted out people’s fortunes and decided their fate – deux ex machina. Ironically, it feels like Murakami deliberately writers a world for Toru without the luxury of a set fate. I wonder what Roland Barthes would say about this.

Norwegian Wood reads like a fly on the wall documentary of one attempt to survive life without a meaning – with a non-hero comparable to JD Salinger’s character Holden.

Repeatedly, this is represented as an impossible task. Toru’s sense of time and purpose is only maintained by his attendance to lectures and his determination to keep himself wound up like a clockwork toy; on days off Murakami depicts days floating past him as he becomes increasingly lonely.

The book details the flexibility of morality and personality and its exploration of this leads into several taboo social themes including suicide, mental illness, pornography and sex.

While no message is explictly forced towards us in a book where many of the characters fade away and die without anything to say, a lesson is still suggested in the text’s strongest character – Midori. Though her family have each died slowly of cancer she is shown to be the text’s most able survivor. Her character embodies a principle that one must create a practical moral code, however unique this must be, and must stick to it like a religion – generating a personal Euripides god and living under him.

It’s a tricky idea, not without contradictions, and a perplexing read.

Book of the week: A Pale View of Hills

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2009 by helenperkins

***** – You have never read anything like this before

If you have not yet discovered writing by Kazuo Ishiguro I implore you to go and find A Pale View of Hills, lock yourself in a quiet room and prepare to guided over hushed stepping stones to a world of the uncanny and the eerily quiet.

Ishiguro’s first novel is a strange tale of memories layered over each other, with events leaking into one another and leaving you reading about history, the recent past and the present simultaneously.

For Ishiguro’s narrator Etsuko, a woman who has move from Nagasaki to England, an unchanging, ultimate view can be found everywhere, linking her back to a time to which we are never fully privileged. There is a calendar photo of a Japan devastated by the war, the view from her daughter’s old room, the memory of the rocky road to her mysterious friend’s house, a memory of cable car rides with her unborn daughter or the pale view of the hills from her later home in England. Each view provides a platform for memory – and every one serves as a window to a time she would rather not speak of. Though Etsuko’s youngest daughter is keen to applaud her for moving out of Japan and on with her life the text’s narrator suggests this clean break is never possible.

Understated scenes of Nagasaki life are mixed with private characters and faded memories of violent crimes, each providing strange parallels and insights into Etsuko’s motives for leaving Japan and for her daughter’s suicide.

Like his later Booker prize-winner The Remains of the Day Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills is striking in its quietness. There are no signposts, fireworks and loudmouthed Rushdie narrators. The world you are asked to view is painted before you in pale colours with a dreamlike hesitancy to remain on any one subject for too long – is Etsuko’s friend a strange image of the narrator herself? – how does she break up with her husband? – the darks truths have to be developed between the pages by you alone.