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.

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All Quiet on the Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque

Book #667
Reviewer: Tall, Short, Tiny & a Pickle

All Quiet on the Western FrontIt’s been a long time since I read a book that had a such profound effect on me as All Quiet on the Western Front. I think its impact has been greater than expected because the book itself exceeded all of my expectations, in every way.

The story is told in the first person, by Paul Baumer, a young German soldier fighting in World War One. It tells of the everyday living conditions of the German soldiers; of the daily struggles, battles, friendships and threats, of the acts of war that were mundane, not unusual, or heroic. When Paul goes home on leave, he feels like he no longer belongs; he doesn’t know how to be a civilian any more, and struggles to see where he will fit in when the war is over. He is relieved to return to his regiment, to his friends, even though he knows it is to the chance of death that he returns. As he watches his friends fall, he tends towards a madness that must be a common scenario during war.

We get back pretty well. There is no further attack by the enemy…in spite of our great hunger we do not think of the provisions. Then gradually we become something like men again.

Night again. We are deadened by the strain – a deadly tension that scrapes along one’s spine like a gapped knife. Our legs refuse to move, our hands tremble, our bodies are a thin skin stretched painfully over repressed madness, over an almost irresistible, bursting roar.

There are sentences that are beautifully written, that evoke a sense of peace and stillness, followed by paragraphs that are so fast-paced that they create a sense of the frantic intensity that must have been trench warfare during this time.

He staggers up and runs. I keep beside him. We have to get over a hedge; it is higher than we are. Kropp seizes a branch, I heave him up by the leg, he cries out, I give him a swing and he flies over. With one bound I follow him and fall into a ditch that lies behind the hedge.

Monotonously the lorries sway, monotonously come the calls, monotonously falls the rain. It falls on our heads and on the heads of the dead up in the line, on the body of the little recruit with the wound that is so much too big for his hip; it falls on Kemmerich’s grave; it falls in our hearts.

As could be expected, death is a recurring theme in this novel; it is impossible to write or read about war without knowledge of the incredible number of lives that were (and continue to be) lost. Remarque has a unique ability to treat this subject both poetically and soberly; he does not try to cover it up or pretend it wouldn’t have invaded every man’s thoughts during the time in the trenches, and this adds to the powerful profundity of the story.

We have become wild beasts. We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation. It is not against men that we fling our bombs, what do we know of men in this moment when Death is hunting us down – now, for the first time in three days we can see his face, now for the first time three days we can oppose him; we feel a mad anger.

The story also offers us a view of war that is poignant and, for me, right on the mark. Remarque’s commentary on the futility of war is as relevant today as it was at the time of publication:

“I think it is more of a kind of fever,” says Albert. “No one in particular wants it, and then all at once there it is. We didn’t want the war, the others say the same thing – and yet half the world is in it all the same.”
“But there are more lies told by the other side than by us,” say I; “just think of those pamphlets the prisoners have on them, where it says that we eat Belgian children. The fellows who write those lies ought to go and hang themselves. They are the real culprits.”

How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture-chambers in their hundreds of thousands. A hospital alone shows what war is.

The ending of the story is possibly one of the most poignant and profound endings I’ve read in a long time. I read it twice before closing the book, and it echoed in my brain for days afterwards:

He fell in October 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front.

He had fallen forward and lay on the earth as though sleeping. Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long; his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come.

All Quiet on the Western Front is a book that I think everyone should read; I can’t say I enjoyed it, as such, but it has had an effect on me that means I’d not hesitate to recommend it to you all.

A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

BOOK #913
Reviewer: Tall, Short, Tiny & a Pickle

A Christmas CarolA Christmas Carol is possibly the most well-known, re-published and oft-adapted of Charles Dickens’ works. Since it was first published in 1843, the novella has been a success, and it continues to delight audiences in the 21st-century. It is a story that has been adapted to screen a number of times, and I’ve already got my eye on tickets for the Royal New Zealand Ballet performance of the story later in 2014.

It tells the story of miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, whose character is transformed following the supernatural visits of his business partner, and the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Yet to Come. The story begins on a “cold, bleak, biting” Christmas Eve, seven years after the death of Scrooge’s business partner, Jacob Marley. Scrooge hates Christmas; he refuses his nephew’s Christmas dinner invitation, and turns away two men who seek a donation from him to provide a Christmas dinner for the poor.

Later that night, Scrooge is visited by Marley’s ghost, who is cursed to wander the earth forever after a lifetime of greed and selfishness. Marley tells Scrooge that he will be visited by three spirits that night, and in order to avoid an eternal curse of his own, he is to listen closely to the lessons of each spirit.

The first, The Ghost of Christmas Past, takes Scrooge to Christmas scenes of Scrooge’s childhood, which remind him of a time when he was kinder, happier, more innocent. We are shown a lonely childhood, and a Christmas party hosted by Scrooge’s first employer who treated him like a son. We’re also shown Scrooge’s neglected fiancée, Belle, who ends their relationship when she realises Scrooge loves money above all else; Belle has since married, and we see her happily enjoying Christmas Eve with her family.

The second spirit, Ghost of Christmas Present, takes Scrooge to several different scenes – a market where people are happily buying food for Christmas dinner, celebrations of Christmas in a miner’s cottage and in a lighthouse, and Scrooge’s nephew’s Christmas party, where he speaks of his uncle with pity. We also meet Bob Cratchit and his family; his youngest child, Tiny Tim, is seriously ill but extremely happy. Scrooge is told that Tiny Tim will soon die unless the course of events changes. The spirit shows Scrooge two hideous, emaciated children named Ignorance and Want; he tells Scrooge to beware the former above all.

The third spirit is the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, who shows Scrooge Christmas Day one year later. Tiny Tim has died because his father could not afford proper care, and we see the death of a “wretched man”. The man’s funeral will only be attended by local businessmen if lunch is provided. Various people steal his possessions while his corpse is on the bed, and when the spirit shows Scrooge the tombstone of this wretched man, he sees it bears his name. In tears, Scrooge promises to change his ways in the hopes that he may “sponge the writing from this stone.”

Dickens paints his usual bleak picture of the plight of the poor, but there is an uplifting, joyous note to A Christmas Carol as well. It reminds the reader of the joys of Christmas, of the spirit of the season, and of the impact we can have on the lives of others. It is an easy, very quick read; despite the length, it still has that characteristic style of Dickens’. It is timeless, with a message that will not date, and I look forward to reading this to my boys when they are a little older.

The Forsyte Saga – John Galsworthy

BOOK #769
Reviewer: Tall, Short, Tiny & a Pickle

The Forsyte SagaThe Forsyte Saga is a trilogy about money, class, and morals at the end of the Victorian/start of the Edwardian era. It focuses on a large upper-middle class family who are very conscious of their wealth being “new money”. The story focuses on two branches of the family (the Jolyon Forsytes and the James Forsytes), and it is their interactions that form the main plot of this saga. It is a series about the expansion of wealth and the price of beauty and love.

It isn’t a story I would rush to recommend, and I did breathe a sigh of relief to have finished. Indeed, there were moments where I put it aside to read something more interesting; I felt that it dragged and wasn’t nearly as exciting or intriguing as I’d been led to believe. To me, it read like a soap opera, and while I’m aware that this would have heightened its appeal to the filmmakers who made it into a miniseries not too long ago, it didn’t really appeal to me as I thought it would.

The style of Galsworthy reminds me of my perennial favourite, Charles Dickens, but he seemed to write with less flair. Perhaps comparing him to Mr Dickens isn’t fair, but it is hard not to when the similarities are so obvious; personally, I found Galsworthy’s prose a bit pompous.

One of the main character is Soames Forsyte (son of James), who is a solicitor and “a man of property.” This refers to his physical possessions as well as his relationships with other characters in the book. Soames’ journey throughout the book is complicated; he struggles with the concept that he can not “own” other people. His wife, Irene, is a beautiful woman, but she is also quite aloof and distant; we learn early on that her relationship with Soames is strained, to say the least. Irene is a character we never fully understand or know, and she remains somewhat of an enigma right to the end. Neither of them are particularly endearing, and by the end of the novel, I had very little feeling about either of them.

Another character who takes on a main role, and the only character I actually really liked, was “young” Jolyon, an impoverished artist who has been long estranged from the rest of the Forsyte clan. His attitude to possession is the complete opposite to Soames’, his cousin; he appreciates beauty and people, and is not interested in materialistic possessions. I liked him partly due to his attitude, but also because he made his own share of mistakes; he was the most realistic of the characters, for me.

The rest of the family are all described in great detail, and we learn a little about each one at various stages. Galsworthy is very skilled at describing his characters – big and small – without letting it take over the story. I particularly liked this early description of the family’s patriach, which says so much about the old man’s character in so few words:

He held himself extremely upright and his shrewd, steady eyes had lost none of their clear shining, thus he gave an impression of superiority to the doubts and dislikes of smaller men. Having had his own way for innumerable years, he had earned a prescriptive right to it. It would never have occurred to old Jolyon that it was necessary to wear a look of doubt or defiance.

Galsworthy also goes on to describe more of the Forsyte men:

Through the varying features and expression of those five faces [the Forsyte brothers] could be marked a certain steadfastness of chin, underlying surface distinctions, marking a racial stamp, too prehistoric to trace, too remote and permanent to discuss – the very hallmark and guarantee of the family fortunes. Among the younger generations, in the tall, bull-like George, in pallid, strenuous Archibald, in young Nicholas with his sweet and tentative obstinacy, in the grave and foppishly-determined Eustace, there was this same stamp – less meaningful perhaps, but unmistakeable – a sign of something ineradicable in the family soul.

There are, as with many stories of this era, a number of little subplots that add to the drama of the story; if I’m to be truly honest, I often found myself wishing that Galsworthy would just get on with the main story.

I can see why some would enjoy this saga, and therefore why it earned its place on this list, but it wasn’t for me.

House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski

Book #67
Reviewer: Tall, Short, Tiny & a Pickle

House of LeavesHouse of Leaves was, quite honestly, the oddest novel I have ever read. It was a mind-bender in both story and style, and when I finished, I felt as though my brain was going to explode. However, don’t take this the wrong way – I thought it was insanely clever and it’s strangeness wasn’t a bad strangeness.

House of Leaves tells a story within a story (and possibly more within more). It tells the story of Johnny Truant, an aspiring tattoo artist who begins to compile the notes of a recently-deceased blind man named Zampano. Zampano’s manuscript is an academic study of a (fictional) film called ‘The Navidson Record’, which captures the explorations of Will Navidson, and various others, into the ever-changing darkness of Navidson’s home. The dimensions outside the house never change, but inside, they do, in an unlikely, impossible,sometimes sudden, and horrific way. Alongside this, are Truant’s footnotes, which are often rambling and confused, echoing the unravelling of the minds of Zampano, Holloway (an expert explorer who attempts to understand the house from the inside), Johnny’s mother (as hinted at in his footnotes, and confirmed in one of the book’s many appendices), and even the madness inherent in the house. There are footnotes within footnotes, and it is lucky that each narrative has a different font, otherwise it would be even more confusing than it already is.

House of Leaves is thought of by some as a horror story

“Since when did you bring a gun?” Navidson asks, crouching near the door.
“Are you kidding me? This place is scary.”

~~~~~~~~~

In the end Navidson is left with one page and one match. For a long time he waits in darkness and cold, postponing this final bit of illumination. At last though, he grips the match by the neck and after locating the friction strip sparks to life a final ball of light.

First, he reads a few lines by match light and then as the heat bites his fingertips he applies the flame to the page. Here then is one end: a final act of reading, a final act of consumption. And as the fire rapidly devours the paper, Navidson’s eyes frantically sweep down over the text, keeping just ahead of the necessary immolation, until as he reaches the last few words, flames lick around his hands, ash peels off into the surrounding emptiness, and then as the fire retreats, dimming, its light suddenly spent, the book is gone leaving nothing behind but invisible traces already dismantled in the dark.

and by others, a love story

…she still cannot resist looking out the window every couple of minutes. The sound of a passing truck causes her to glance away. Even if there is no sound, the weight of a hundred seconds always turns her head.
and I think Danielewski has left this for each reader to decide themselves. For me, I see it as a bit of both. The horror of the house, of death, and of madness are explicit, but the underlining story of Will Navidson and his partner, Karen Green, is too strong to ignore.

The book is structured in a way that is extremely unconventional; Danielewski uses the pages and the space on them to mirror the chaos and madness of the story. As the story advances, each page becomes more unusual than the last; on one, there may be just one or two words, on another, the words slant up the page like stairs, and on yet another, the words are contained within a small box.

As I read, my mind continuously flickered between thinking the story, and ‘The Navidson Record’ , were a work of fiction, and actually real. I’m not ashamed to admit that on one particularly confused evening, I googled the name of the film, just to be sure.

The footnotes and appendices serve to add to the mystery of the novel, and the purpose of them can only be to do just that. Danielewski is a clever, clever writer, and the huge fan base for the novel evidences this.

If you decide to read House of Leaves, do so with an open mind, and an eagerness to be surprised with every turn of the page.