Regeneration – Pat Barker

BOOK #170
Reviewer: Beth’s List Love (review previously published February 5, 2014)

RegenerationThe books in this trilogy have received awards and huge critical acclaim, but I was having trouble getting excited about starting them.

Once again I have learned that I irrationally fear historical fiction, but love it once I begin to read. This book was particularly interesting to me as a psychologist and faculty member teaching psychology. I am far from psychoanalytic in orientation, but this novel does a marvelous job of illustrating how some of the techniques of psychoanalysis can be tremendously useful in understanding psychological phenomena.

The novel also beautifully illustrates the many potential psychiatric manifestations of war trauma. It is written with tremendous compassion for the men whose lives it portrays, soldiers suffering shell shock in the first world war and the doctors treating them. This was a very moving account of the impact of combat in WWI on both the men at the front and those who treated them after the psychologically traumatic events they lived through. It’s based on real people and real events.

It is beautifully written, combining some of the real poetry written by soldiers in their time convalescing in a military psychiatric hospital with the author’s own equally well-crafted prose. This novel, which is the first of the trilogy, explores questions about the morality of war, about the ways in which the military and political aims of those safe and in power are played out at great cost by those who actually do the fighting, about the morality of returning psychologically traumatized individuals to relative mental health only to send them back into the trauma.

It juxtaposes two very different ways of treating conversion symptoms which translate conflicts about returning to combat into debilitating physical symptoms, and provides excellent examples of psychodynamic psychotherapy complete with analysis of dreams. I used it to teach my personality theories course the day I started reading it, because it was so perfect for illustrating some of what I was teaching about.

I am really looking forward to the rest of the series! 5 out of 5 stars.

Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

BOOK #496
Reviewer: Tall, Short, Tiny & a Pickle

LolitaLolita is one of those books that I’d heard of, but knew very little about before picking it up from our local library. It is considered one of the best novels of the 20th-Century, and therefore I had high expectations….which sadly, weren’t met.

Lolita tells the story of Humbert Humbert, a 38-year-old scholar with an obsession for young girls (“nymphets”), who, after a failed marriage and a stint in a mental hospital, falls for his landlady’s 12-year-old daughter. He is infatuated with young Dolores (who he nicknames Lolita), partly because she reminds him of his childhood sweetheart who died prematurely.

“I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita forever; but I also knew she would not be forever Lolita.”

Humbert takes every opportunity to be alone with his Lolita, and when they aren’t alone, he finds ways to watch her inconspicuously, or touch her in a seemingly paternal way. While she is away on summer camp, her mother, Charlotte, gives Humbert an ultimatum: marry her, or move out. Humbert doesn’t want to be away from Lolita, and agrees to marry Charlotte; she has no idea of his feelings for Lolita until she reads his diary. She threatens to expose Humbert, but before she can take any action, she is struck by a car and dies.

Charlotte’s death gives Humbert the opportunity to become more than just a step-father to Lolita; they begin a sexual relationship and spend a couple of years on the road, until settling in a town where Lolita can attend a girls’ school (Humbert is possessive and jealous, refusing to allow her anything to do with boys of her own age). While at the school, Lolita becomes involved in drama, and her quest for freedom from Humbert begins here.

The subject matter of Lolita is uncomfortable at times, but it is less so than I thought it might be. The novel is written in such a way that the language and humour took a prominent position for me – this might not be the case for everyone, however, and if you do plan on reading this book, please go into it knowing it has been classified by some as “erotic fiction”. Nabokov’s style is typical of other Russian authors, but unusually, his novel is set in America, not Russia.

I think that the main reason, however, that I didn’t find Lolita as uncomfortable as I expected is that the underlying theme of love, regardless of societal norms:

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.”

There was just something about Lolita that missed the mark for me. It was poetic, and beautifully-written, but it didn’t grab me, and I found reading it a bit of a chore. This novel wasn’t for me, but I accept that others have and will love it, in order for it to take its place on the 1001 Books list.

Trainspotting – Irvine Welsh

BOOK #134
Reviewer: Tall, Short, Tiny & a Pickle

TrainspottingIt has been a number of years since I read Trainspotting, but both the novel and the movie have stuck with me with unsurprising clarity. If you have read the book, you will know exactly what I am talking about: it is memorable in both content and style, and while I don’t know that it’s  book you necessarily enjoy, it is one you will urge others to read, if only to have someone to discuss it with.

Trainspotting is written as a series of short stories, collated to become an oft-incoherent but certainly cohesive novel. The stories revolve around a group of young adults living in Edinburgh, who all are heroin users, friends of heroin users, or engage in other self-destructive, addictive behaviours.

There’s Mark Renton, the depressed, intelligent main character who sometimes appears “normal” and at other times is stealing to support his drug habit. His tales are darkly-funny, full of crazy anecdotes and abhorrence of many of his friends. One of Mark’s oldest friend is Sick Boy, who indulges in frequent sex with random women for whom he feels nothing but contempt. He thinks very highly of himself, even when binging on heroin, and appears to have no morals whatsoever. Another childhood friend of Mark’s is Tommy, who doesn’t use heroin but dabbles in speed. When his girlfriend leaves him, however, he begins to experiment with heroin, and his experiments do not end well.

Spud is perhaps the most likeable of all the characters in this novel, despite being sent to prison for theft; he is a sweet character with a kind heart, who unfortunately will never have the skills or opportunity to make anything of himself. In stark contrast to Spud is Franco Begbie, a violent character who constantly bullies his “friends”, despite being quite loyal. He is an alcoholic, and addicted to speed. Davie Mitchell is the complete opposite to all the other characters in the book; he has a university degree and a job, and is seemingly “normal”. However, being part of such a group of friends can not leave someone unscathed, and unfortunately, Davie is no exception.

Each chapter is told from differing perspectives (with Mark’s being the constant voice throughout), and this makes it challenging to read: Welsh has written in the varying “dialects” of Edinburgh, which takes quite some time to get used to. A lack of quotation marks to identify speech also adds to the challenging nature of the story, but I think these quirks merely serve to accentuate the difficulties and horrors faced by the characters.

The subject matter isn’t pleasant, and there are scenes that are uncomfortable and difficult to read, but overall, I think Trainspotting is worthy of its place on this list. It may not be a story you enjoy, but it’s likely to make you think, and it will undoubtedly register on some level.

200 Books Reviewed

We’ve reached another milestone – 200 books reviewed!

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Our 200th review was for Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck. Quite fitting that this review was written by our very own Ms Oh Waily, who is doing a brilliant job at working her way through the books on the 1001 Books list.

The review for Cannery Row is the second review of the three Steinbeck novels on this list. Of Mice and Men was highly thought of, and Grapes of Wrath will also no doubt also be positively reviewed.

Over the past few months, we’ve seen a handful of authors recurring in our reviews.

Charles Dickens has been well-represented, with reviews for Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations joining the previously-reviewed A Tale of Two Cities and The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.

The four Dashiell Hammett novels were also reviewed in quick successions recently; you can read Ms Oh Waily’s thoughts on The Thin Man, Red Harvest, The Glass Key and The Maltese Falcon.

A review for After the Quake completes the entries of Haruki Murakami novels on the list. It joins Sputnik Sweetheart, Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles; obviously these novels are a popular choice for our reviewers.

There are, however, still 800 books to be reviewed. If you have previously read any of the un-reviewed books on the list, or have been meaning to read any of them, we would love to publish your review. You can join the review crew here. We’re also more than happy (due to being extremely grateful!) if your review has been previously published on your own blog.

Thank you for reading, and for reviewing, and for your support as we slowly make our way through this labour of love.

xx Lynn and Ange xx

Beloved – Toni Morrison

BOOK #223
Reviewer: Tall, Short, Tiny & a Pickle

BelovedBeloved was my first Toni Morrison novel, and golly, what a place to start. This is a powerful story, with memorable characters and a strong sense of history.

Beloved tells the story of Sethe and her 18-year-old daughter Denver, who have escaped from slavery to Ohio – a free state – after the American Civil War.

In order to keep her children safe, Sethe tries to kill Denver and her three siblings, but is is successful in killing only her eldest daughter. Her two sons run away, and Denver is just a baby at the time, but her older sister, age two, is buried with a tombstone with simply “Beloved” on it. When a strange young woman appears on their new front porch, saying nothing about who she is but claiming her name is Beloved, Sethe believes that she is her murdered daughter. She falls over backwards to spoil Beloved, offering her the best of everything, including food, to the detriment of her own health. While Sethe wastes away, Beloved grows larger; she becomes very demanding and throws toddler-like tantrums when she doesn’t get her way.

While Sethe’s actions towards her children seem abhorrent on the surface, one of her redeeming features is her intense devotion to her children; her attempts at murder are to keep her children protected from the horrors she experienced as a slave. I went through stages of loving and hating Sethe for her treatment of Beloved and Denver, and by the end of the story, I still had mixed feelings towards her.

Denver is a shy, intelligent girl, often portrayed as possessing a gift for communicating with ghosts. While Beloved flourishes, Denver appears to withdraw further from the outside world, but by the end of the novel, she is proven to be much stronger, more courageous and determined than I first thought. Denver is the most interesting of characters, for me, and I found her a fascinating character.

“There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up, holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship’s, smooths and contains the rocker. It’s an inside kind–wrapped tight like skin. Then there is the loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive. On its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one’s own feet going seem to come from a far-off place.”

The character of Beloved is also intriguing, and throughout the story, Morrison presents three different perspectives regarding who Beloved may be. She may simply be a stranger, a young woman who has been kept locked away as a slave for many years, which would account for her language and social difficulties. Sethe believes her to be her Beloved, her toddler, because of the way she acts, her outward appearance, her breath that smells like milk and her knowledge of a few facts that only one of Sethe’s children could know. In later chapters, Beloved tells stories that make Sethe and the reader wonder if she is Sethe’s mother; she shares personal traits with Sethe’s mother and recounts stories of her voyage to America from Africa.

Beloved is a great story, with a strong sense of the power the past can have over people, and how they can either overcome it, or let it haunt them forever. It is uplifting, horrifying, saddening and hopeful all at once, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.