Animal Farm – George Orwell

Book #564

Reviewer: Inspirationalreads

animal farm

There are not many unfamiliar (well, many readers) with this allegorical tale of farm animals rising up to overthrow their human owner and install a new regime in which all animals are equal and whatever goes upon two legs are the enemy.  With clear lines able to be drawn from this novel to the Russian revolution and the rise of Communism and Stalin, this novel has long been a popular staple of English curricula the world over.

Old Major, the ageing prize winning boar, calls all the animals of Manor Farm to a meeting, where he tells them of his thoughts on how animals are unfairly treated, that they are slaves to unworthy humans. When Old Major dies, his message is taken up by some of the younger pigs, who rally the animals into action, rising up against their particularly inept farmer and claiming the farm as their own.  With the pigs behind the brains of the operation, the animals successfully make the farm their own, creating Animalism, a mandate that follows seven commandments;

  1. Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy.
  2. Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend.
  3. No animal shall wear clothes.
  4. No animal shall sleep in a bed.
  5. No animal shall drink alcohol.
  6. No animal shall kill any other animal.
  7. All animals are equal.

However, this idealism is short lived and not all continues on in Animal Farm as initially hoped for, especially when some animals become “more equal” than others.

Written in 1945, Animal Farm is of a certain time and yet timeless in what it is trying to say and how it is being said.  Criticised at the time for being too heavy handed in its obvious views on Communism, particularly Stalinism,  by its author, this novel is short and clearly written.  This direct allegory allows for easy identification of its themes, even specific historical figures and events, making this ideal for younger readers and an obvious choice for English teachers.

Having never had to read it in this environment, I did not suffer for having to analyse and nit-pick at it over  a few months.  I was drawn into the story, sympathising with the well defined characters; rallying with them against their human oppressors, becoming horrified at the actions of the pigs as the story progressed.  I was entertained and enjoyed the time I spent in this  fable.  I will be passing it on to my 13 year old son to read, not knowing if it will be in any of his English classes as a set text, but I will be brushing up on my Russian Revolution knowledge.

Beasts of England is the rallying song of the animals movement.  I am off to see if I can find a youtube clip of it.

Beasts of England, Beasts of Ireland, Beasts of every land and clime, Hearken to my joyful tidings Of the Golden future time.
Soon or late the day is coming, Tyrant Man shall be o’erthrown, And the fruitful fields of England Shall be trod by beasts alone.
Rings shall vanish from our noses, And the harness from our back, Bit and spur shall rust forever, Cruel whips no more shall crack.
Riches more than mind can picture, Wheat and barley, oats and hay, Clover, beans and mangel-wurzels, Shall be ours upon that day.
Bright will shine the fields of England, Purer shall its waters be, Sweeter yet shall blow its breezes On the day that sets us free.
For that day we all must labour, Though we die before it break; Cows and horses, geese and turkeys, All must toil for freedom’s sake.
Beasts of England, Beasts of Ireland, Beasts of every land and clime, Hearken well, and spread my tidings Of the Golden future time
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The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison

Book #365

Reviewer: Inspirationalreads

the-bluest-eye-by-toni-morrison-profile

There is a commonly held belief that a reader will live a thousand lives in a space of one lifetime.  Sometimes those lives are fun, sometimes morbidly fascinating.  But sometimes they are important, they are necessary and it is here where The Bluest Eye firmly lies.

Pecola Breedlove is a young black girl, growing up in a small town in a post-Depression USA.  History dictates that this was not a great time to be any of the things that Pecola is – poor, a girl and black.  Her parents are locked in a bitter disdain-fuelled marriage; her mother only happy when she is at work as a maid for an affluent white family, her father an alcoholic who turns to abusing his daughter.  In this, the most horrific of childhoods, looked down upon everywhere she turns, Pecola takes to praying and wishing to be white with blue eyes, because surely life would be better if she were those things.

A majority of the story is told through the eyes of Pecola’ s peer, nine-year old Claudia MacTeer, whose family take Pecola in after her father burns down their house.  She is Pecola’s counterpart.  Claudia’s family life is stable, enabling a confidence and fierceness that allows her to defend herself, her sister and by extension her friend Pecola who is passive and run down and unable to do these things for herself.  The contrast is most blatant in how Claudia questions a blue-eyed , yellow haired baby doll and why it was loveable.  No wishing for blue eyes for Claudia.  Also in Claudia we see how Pecola is viewed as ugly, something to be pitied but also as a comparison to make one feel better about themselves.

This is no tale of the triumph of the human spirit, no tale of redemption through self-realisation.  Pecola’s life is horrible, becomes more horrible through factors that are beyond her control.  She is a victim, but not because of her ethnicity.  Claudia too is poor, and black and female but her home life enables her to be strong. This is where the difference is between her and Pecola, Breedlove being a farcical name.  Cholly and Pauline, Pecola’s parents,  are the villains in this story, are also victims,  victims of their upbringing, their stories told to humanise these “monsters” not as a way of excusing them but by as a way to ground this story.  This happened, does happen still, everyday, everywhere.

This is a powerful and moving book.  Morrison’s first and my first Morrison, it is an eye-opening introduction to an author who plays around with language, time, even grammar to bring her own refreshing touch.  I did not find this “poetic license” a distraction, but can see how some might do.  For example, the opening passage is of Dick and Jane and their ideal life, repeated again in the following paragraph word for word except without any punctuation, no full stops, capital letters, commas etc.  The following paragraph is a repeat again but with all the words running together, no spaces.  Her manipulation of the structure in this book adds a surreal touch, poetic and lyrical at times.  The themes though are clear; obviously race is a big one in a story of a black girl wanting to be white. But self-hatred and that hatreds influence on those around you also plays a major part here.

This is not an easy read, but is an important one.  Going back to my opening sentence, there is a resulting empathy that comes from reading stories like these, even if it is on some minor level, that can only work towards a greater awareness of the the world outside of yours, and an appreciation of the world in which you occupy.  Highly recommended.

The Body Artist – Don DeLillo

Book #45

Reviewer: Inspirationalreads

BA

Lauren Hartke is the body artist of the title.  A performance artist, she is married to film maker Rey Robles who shortly after we are introduced to him, drives to his first wife’s house and kills himself by way of gunshot wound to the head. Staying on at the rented beach side holiday house they had been temporarily living in, Lauren becomes mired in her grief, drawing in on herself, isolating herself.  Until one night she happens upon a stranger in the house with her, a stranger who happens to be able to speak in Rey’s voice and recall whole conversations between Lauren and Rey leading up to the day of his death.

So far, pretty straightforward.  Yet, this book is nothing of the sort.  Let me give you the first paragraph;

Time seems to pass.  The world happens, unrolling into moments, and you stop to glance at a spider pressed to its web.  There is a quickness of light and a sense of things outlined precisely and streaks of running luster on the bay.  You know more surely who you are on a strong bright day after a storm when the smallest falling leaf is stabbed with self-awareness.  The wind makes a sound in the pines and the world comes into being, irreversibly, and the spider rides the wind-swayed web.

This leads in to the last morning that Lauren and Rey are together, their morning routine laid out in a seemingly pointless routine, familiar to many couples and yet not.  Because when Lauren bent

…she let out a groan, but not really every time, that resembled a life lament.

Or about Rey shaving;

“Why shave at all?” There must be a reason,” he said. “I want God to see my face.”

I really had trouble reading past this first part.  There is a forced feel about this mundane ritual that immediately left me cold.  A widely lauded post-modern author, DeLillo use of language is brought to bear heavily on this couples morning ritual perhaps to elevate it beyond what it was, but only inducing eye rolling in me.  But at just shy of 130 pages, I decided to push on and while the rest of the book improved for me, my opinion is a mixed bag.

The reader is delivered the news of Rey’s demise via a news article, perfunctory and concise, filling in a few more details of Rey’s life as per any regular obituary article.  But this is where the clear and straight-forwardness ends.  We are then plunged into Lauren’s grief, returning to her in their holiday home, the perspective flicking back and forth between first and third person.  The reader is privy to Lauren’s thoughts and like anyone’s personal thoughts, there are non-nonsensical leaps and turns that are dream-like and at times, hard to follow.  When a young stranger suddenly appears in one of the rooms in the house, his arrival is not startling, but inevitable her instincts having known there was someone always there.  This stranger, whom she names Mr Tuttle after one of her teachers, is childlike in appearance and capabilities but has the unnerving ability to parrot past conversations with Rey, mimicing his voice and his side of the conversation. I struggled to understand the significance of Mr Tuttle beyond the obvious; he is a representation of Rey one that Lauren can care for, nurse due to his childlike state.

Why shouldn’t death bring you into some total scandal of garment-rending grief? Why should you accommodate his death? Or surrender to it in thin-lipped tasteful bereavement? Why give him up if you can walk along the hall and find a way to place him within reach?

But his utterances are confusing too; repetitive and making little sense.  Is this to reinforce his childlike fragility?  He isn’t a total blank space for her to write Rey into, so again confusing and distracting in its oddness.

I went to have a look at some other feelings about this book from other readers on Goodreads, as I was feeling a little like a lot of this book went over my head and maybe my feeling of inadequacy led to my dislike of it.  However, there is the general feeling that it is deliberately vague and “hallucinatory”, leading to differing opinions of what the story actually is even among the literary reviewers.  While this appealed to some, I can not count myself among them.  I found the ideas and the tone of this book quite personal to DeLillo himself, a creation of art that is particular to his specific vision and thus making it not accessible to everyone, but then in leaving it to taste, not something that will be enjoyed by many also.  I did have to laugh at one reader addressing DeLillo as “you post-modern gargoyle of unmeaning“.  And I agree; I think his unmeaning was the undoing of my enjoyment.

Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro

Book #1

Reviewer: Inspirationalreads

NLMG

So I want to start out by saying that I am going to be deliberately vague about the finer points of this novel.  Like others on this list, I have avoided any kind of advance knowledge about the plot of this book because I wanted to go in and come out again having experienced the book as a whole, not tainted by any pre-conceived ideas about it.  And I am so thankful that did this.  All I knew was that it has been classified as a British Science Fiction novel about three people who grew up in a private boarding school establishment who grow to be more aware of their significance and contribution to the world they live in.   From this point onwards  as said earlier, I will be vague but still will give more specific details so if you want to go into this book like I did, which by the way I recommend, then STOP READING NOW!

Kathy is a thirty-one year old carer, of which she has been for the past eleven years. When a patient learns that Kathy is from the esteemed and now defunct school Hailsham, he asks Kathy to let him know all of her memories and experiences.  With this, it sets Kathy to reminiscing, about her time at Hailsham, in particular her relationship with two of her school mates Tommy and Ruth and how the path for their life was laid out .

Despite shielding myself from any spoilers, I did go into this novel with high expectations, and these were easily exceeded.  Having seen it described as “a tale of deceptive simplicity” it is hard to find anything more apt to describe it myself.  Kathy’s tale slowly unfolds, one memory leading to another in an almost conversational recollection.  This never becomes confusing, rather the reader is taken along, snippets revealed here and there.  There is no complex weaving of multiple narratives, the timeline despite being a recollection moves in a linear manner, the language is clear and straight forward.  But this simplicity is deceptive, because this story is full and layered.  There is a analogy here, about what we as humans do for the supposed greater good.  Does the end always justify the means?  Also the question of destiny, if the destination is known does it matter what we do on the path towards it?  Does that journey matter at all?

I currently have the movie waiting beside my player, all ready for me to watch.  Much is made of the love story on the DVD cover that has already made me so wary to watch it and so if you have seen the movie but not yet read the book I implore you to rush give it a read as it will be well worth your time.  As is generally the case of any movie (or TV show ) adapted from a novel.

Ishiguro is truly a masterful storyteller, entwining these questions, these comments on destiny and purpose, into a story that is enthralling as much as it gives the reader much to mull over.  The simplicity is the way it is told, the deception is in what is being told. I can see this story not letting me go for quite a while yet.

One more thing – yay for number one being done and dusted!

The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks

Book #254

Reviewer: Inspirationalreads


wasp

Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons than I’d disposed of Blyth, and then a year later I did for my young cousin Esmeralda, more or less on a whim.That’s my score to date. Three. I haven’t killed anybody for years, and don’t intend to ever again.It was just a stage I was going through.

Let me introduce Frank Cauldhame; sixteen years old and living a reclusive lifestyle in rural Scotland with his father.The typical adolescent though, Frank is not.  If it is not obvious from the above quote, Frank is a sociopath; although he has limited his murder of humans to three, he continues to torture and murder animals, using them in rituals to help predict the course of events in his life.  Told from Frank’s perspective, the story opens with news that Frank’s older brother Eric has escaped from a psychiatric holding facility.  Oh yes blog follower, not one but two mentally deranged individuals in one family.   With Eric arrival imminent, Frank’s story unfolds switching between current events and Frank’s memories including the abandonment of his mother, a savage attack on him by the family dog which maimed and physically altered Frank, and the three horrific acts of detached, calculated murder.

Which leads me to that regular old disclaimer from me; if you are at all easily offended or squeamish and wish not to purposefully introduce dark, disturbing reading material into your life, then avoid this novel. I like to think I am providing at least some small kind of service to those who wish to avoid such books.  Don’t all rush to thank me.

This is a masterful novel, the first outing for Banks.  This is the first of SIX of his books on the list and is a quick read, but by no means easy.  The prose is straight forward but the subject matter is hard hitting.  Frank’s internal monologue is far from a rambling mass of delusional diatribes.  He is clear, methodical and applies his own brand of morality on everything he does.  There is a genuine quality in Frank, a madness that is not in any part an affectation and it is this, the characterisation of someone abhorrent and yet deserving of our sympathies and in some way, affection, that Banks genius is clearly evident.  For example, when Eric and Frank get a chance to talk Frank becomes horrified that Eric could possibly have a dog with him, setting dogs alight being one of the key indicators of Eric’s deepening instability.  Yet, earlier that same day, Frank kills one rabbit with his bare hands and then blows up a warren, delighting in his victory.  Frank is self-aware, he knows just what kind of monster he is and is often repentant, but is unwilling or unable to change.

The story itself moves along at a great pace, never feeling sluggish.  This is aided by its short length, but also in the way that the past and the present being are revealed at the same time.  All leading to Eric arriving back at the family home, bringing revelations that changes Frank’s world and the readers perspective of it.

I feel like I am doing a disservice to those who will avoid this book because of some content.  It really is a great story, with one of the most interesting characters I have read in a long time.  The elements of ick can be viewed as sensationalist or can be viewed as necessary to Frank, his inner dialogue, his idea of himself and therefore necessary to the story.  I would like to therefore take back my advice and just add a little cautionary message because this book is worth reading and I feel like it is a great introduction to a wonderful author.  Highly recommended.