Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Ten Of My Most Recent 5 Star Reads | Top Ten Tuesday

Each week The Broke and The Bookish provides a topic for a Top Ten List. This week the theme is:

Ten Of My Most Recent 5 Star Reads

I'm not sure about anyone else but whenever I'm asked, 'What have you read recently?' my mind always goes blank. Thank goodness for Goodreads! So... here are my ten books that deserve five stars and more. What are your most recent five star reads? 

The Godfather by Mario Puzo
Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman
Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
Antigone by Jean Anouilh 

The Chimp Paradox by Prof. Steve Peters

Audiobooks: Fiction
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene, read by Colin Firth
American Pastoral by Philip Roth, read by Ron Silver

Audiobooks: Non-fiction
How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Moby Dick

Has’t thou seen the white whale?

Rating: 8 out of 10

Despite Moby Dick; or, The Whale having an almost mythic status today, in Melville’s own era this nautical epic was panned. For a long time, there wasn’t much that enticed me to read Moby Dick but seeing that the juggernaut actor Brendan Gleeson was in the film In the Heart of the Sea (based of the true events that inspired Moby Dick) I thought it was time to go on a ‘fishing’ adventure.

Call me Ishamel

Ishmael has to be one of my favourite narrators in literature. In the first third of the novel especially, Ishmael’s observations are so sharp and witty that they could easily be placed into the mouth of a comedian today. Ishmael is also a very comprehensive narrator (which goes someway to explain the length of Moby Dick) and for any readers who love intricate novels full of foreshadowing then I would highly recommend this. I think it would also get better the more you read it because there is so much to potentially ponder on and to discover each time.

The urbane activity with which a man receives money is really marvellous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and that on no account can a monied man enter heaven.

I definitely did not expect Moby Dick to be as good as it was. I anticipated it being a bit dry and dated. Personally, I think the relationship between Ishmael and the Polynesian Queequeg to be ahead of its time. Queequeg is presented in a very respectful manner, even with his ‘pagan’ religion, despite being a clear outsider to the Western norm. The two have a great friendship, which is surprising given the racial tensions in America at the time (understatement of the 2016). There are also slight homosexual undertones in Moby Dick.

To accomplish his object Ahab must use tools; and of all tools used in the shadow of the moon, men are most apt to get out of order.

The only downside for me was the long digressions about whales. Sure, some of the facts make for good things to casually drop into a conversation like ‘whales only breathe on a Sunday’ and if there was ever a shortage of people to do a post-mortem on whales I could probably assist them. Even so, it got to the point where I was beginning to wonder whether Moby Dick actually existed. 

It is worth persevering to the end because the end itself redeems the whale waffling and heck, at least you can say I’ve read Moby DickAt least with the whale digressions, Melville (pictured below) knows what he is talking about. Melville's experience as a whaler resonates throughout as well. Personally, I would have preferred more time dedicated to describing what happened at the end but I guess it is a nautical novel so it's not highly unexpected. Without the digressions, this would easily have been 10/10 but they just left me so frustrated.

I would really recommend the audiobook narrated by the American actor William Hootkins, especially if you're a bit apprehensive about the language. Hootkins' voices are superb. Each character is distinct; faithful yet respectful is always what should be aimed for. He really captures all the various emotions, especially Captain Ahab’s obsessional nature and rage. The audiobook probably added to my enjoyment of Moby Dick. If people are looking to become narrators, I'd tell them to study Hootkins and I'd even go so far as to look at trying to see if I could watch him in a film.

I’m not really amazed that so many high-profile writers wished they wrote Moby Dick. With so many pages, an awful lot could have gone wrong but Moby Dick is an amazing testament to Melville’s abilities as a writer. Aside from the whale lectures, it is beautifully written containing both comedy and tragedy. It’s an excellent examination of an obsessional rage and portrayal of relationships. Even if you don’t care for the maritime, don’t write off Moby Dick too flippantly.

Friday, 18 March 2016

The Joy Luck Club

“For unlike my mother, I did not believe I could be anything I wanted to be. I could only be me. ” 
Rating: 6 stars out of 10

The Joy Luck Club is a series of vignettes (short and distinct episodes) centred around the relationships within several Asian American families. I read this last year as part of my aim to read more diversely. I have to say I was surprised at how old this book is. Despite it being nearly thirty years old, the themes raised still feels very modern and it remains relevant.

The main types of relationships focused on are between mother and daughter, husband and wife. My favourite aspect was the interspersal of Chinese culture such as expectations, traditions, symbolisms and opinions on topics like interracial relationships. I don't know anything about Chinese culture so getting that brief glimpse from the first and second generation immigrants was fascinating. It didn't assume any background knowledge either so it was easy to follow (and, obviously, these are just the opinions of imaginary characters). I think overall, the cultural tensions and conflicts that the characters faced were captured really well. When you consider the short space of writing for each vignette, the conflicts are well explained and don't come across as unclear, boring or patronising.

One thing that struck me was that just as interesting questions were coming from a vignette, it would end and a different one would begin. Maybe this was intentional. On one level, using the vignettes in this way reinforces the seemingly unordered and random nature of life in general. Life isn't perfectly and evenly packaged with a beginning, middle and end. On the other level, it made the connection with the characters feel almost pointless. I had just started to get into a character or conflict when it is cut short. You are effectively repeatedly dumped into a random, single chapter of a story. For some people, I can see the appeal but mostly I felt like I 'missed out'. Maybe I was looking for a happy ending, a sign that relationships between mothers and daughters can be improved. Or more likely, vignettes just aren't for me.

The audiobook was read by Amy Tan and this was an excellent decision. Some authors lack the ability to narrate well and in doing so, they damage their own story. Tan's narration was very good. You could hear and experience her emotion. Her voice is very soft as well. I listened to The Joy Luck Club in one go whilst I was making bread last year. If you have two hours of mindless activity planned and you want to read The Joy Luck Club then I'd suggest giving the audiobook a try.

For some reason, The Joy Luck Club just didn't wow me. If I was making bread again, I wouldn't listen to this. I'm not sure why I didn't like it because it has some great features, and I am kind of sad that I'm not raving about it. I think my main issue was that some of the vignettes were forgettable. The characters just didn't seem to be easily distinguishable and I couldn't tell you the name of a single character other than there was a baby, something to do with a dentist and a chess player. Some vignettes I cannot remember at all; others I might only remember what it was about or just how it ended. I agree that the best part of each vignette is the last third.

Overall, this book accurately reflects life. It's random and far too short. It's full of complex fundamental human relationships that can't be walked away from. You are dumped in the middle of conflicts without explanation or choice. It appears to strike a deep meaning and as soon as you think you have found it, it slips through your hand like smoke. If you can live with these things and find this quasi-existential by-product angst enjoyable then I can see why you'd like it and it deserves a cult following. Personally, it's not for me.

Book facts
Year published: 1989
Pages: 288
Publisher: Penguin

Sunday, 13 March 2016

TBR Pile Reading Challenge 2016

Bookish Lifestyle's 5th Annual TBR Pile Reading Challenge!

Recently I've been feeling the urge to change my Classics Club list. As a half-way house, I've signed up to Evie-Bookish's amazing reading challenge. I stumbled on it by chance and to make up for the missing January-February, I've added two that I've already read and been dying to read this year to take my total TBR to 21 (Level: First Kiss). As a change, they're ordered by the date of first publication.

The Iliad by Homer (800BC) Read
Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare (1596)
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (1605)
Autobiography by Benjamin Franklin (1791)
The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels (1848)
Moby Dick: or The Whale by Hermann Melville (1851) Read

Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen (1881)

Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche (1883)
Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (1924)
Civilisation and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud (1930) 
A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams (1947) Read
The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1953)
The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley (1953)
The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon (1961) Currently reading
The Godfather by Mario Puzo (1969) Read
Orientalism by Edward W. Said (1978) Read
Darkness Visible by William Styron (1990)
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (1996)
Anatomy of Influence by Harold Bloom (2001)
Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr (2014)

You can also track the various TBR challenges on Twitter through #2016TBRPile. What is on your TBR pile this year? Good luck to everyone taking part!

Saturday, 12 March 2016

The Revenant by Michael Punke

As he waited for the rabbit to roast, Glass became suddenly aware of the sound of the river. It was an odd thing to notice, he thought. He had clung to the river for weeks. . . . It struck him as strange that the smooth flow of water would create any sound at all. Or that the wind would, for that matter. It occurred to him that it wasn’t so much the water or the wind that accounted for the noise, but rather objects in their path.

Rating: 4 out of 10

The Revenant is based on the true story of Hugh Glass, a Rocky Mountain Furs Company man who is left for dead after a bear attack. I was really looking to this book. I’m a huge fan of Irish actor Domnhall Gleeson who stars in the adaption as Captain Andrew Henry. Naturally, I had to read the book before the film.

There are some good features in The Revenant. The descriptions of nature can be really good. It makes you think about nature from a new perspective and with a renewed appreciation. It also provides a nice break from the tone, which is mostly factual. The survival techniques are a great embellishment, like using pine tar to help seal open wounds, and makes it more like a vivid adventure.

The characterization is really good. You can tell that a lot of effort has gone into the planning because you get unique backstories and personalities in every character. The only downside to this is how their worries are expressed. The immediate worry for a character is repeated frequently within the given chapter but the way this is represented is repetitive in nature and doesn’t add anything for me.

The second half is definitely better than the first. The repetitive nature calms down but is still present to some extent with the worries. There is also a mix of perspectives within each chapter. The action is very fast-paced in the book as well. I found it hard to follow and not very visual or scary.

It also has a pet-hate, the use of dates on each chapter. I really dislike having to remember dates and years and I don’t really like flicking back as it disturbs the flow. Again, this is personal taste. The blurb on my edition is also incorrect. It says that Glass is ‘asking after two men, one with a gun that seems too good for him…’ Glass did say who stole his rifle but he doesn’t go around asking people if they’ve seen him or the gun. I’m surprised HarperCollins green lighted something like that.

I think this will be one of the rare occasions where the film is better than the book (I’m just about the watch it). I wouldn't really recommend it as an exciting thriller because there are better books out there. Have any of you read The Revenant or seen the film? What did you think?

Book facts
Year published: 2002
Pages: 308
Publisher: HarperCollins