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 Corrections – Jonathan Franzen

Book #43

Reviewer: Naomi

The Corrections
The Corrections is the second book of Jonathan Franzen’s I have read, and I enjoyed it immensely. I read it quickly over a few days during summer, and while it may not be some people’s idea of holiday literature, I think had I read it during ‘normal life’ it would have resulted in some very late nights and bleary eyes the next morning.

Some aspects of the story are so innately American it can be hard to pick up the nuances that a US audience may get from aspects of the writing. For instance the novel is set predominantly in a small town in the Midwest, and in Philadelphia and New York. Franzen makes the reader very aware of what the Midwest presents in terms of values and lifestyle, but I suspect that many of the preconceptions of place that an American reader has would contribute in a richer way to how the characters interact and what they are trying to achieve by locating themselves where they have. This didn’t in any way diminish my experience of The Corrections, but it does make me wonder what more I could have discovered. (The Corrections was written and published before the attacks on 9/11 and again I think this distinction would have more meaning for an American audience.)

The Corrections centres on the lives of Lambert family. Alfred is the father, an emotionally distant man whose sense of success and value within society has come from his work as a railroad engineer. As we meet Alfred he is beginning a decline into Parkinson’s following his retirement. His wife Enid is the long-suffering housewife and mother who is maintaining a willful ignorance about his condition and is increasingly frustrated by the difficulties of living with his erratic behaviour. Eldest son Gary is a banker and a mummy’s boy who has married a woman who manipulates and bullies him with the help of the two eldest of their three sons. The middle son Chip is a disgraced university professor who is rudderless and careening from one disaster to the next both professionally and romantically. The youngest sibling is Denise a successful chef who seems to have inherited some of her father’s emotional isolation.

The story is set near the end of the twentieth century and consists of interweaving story lines focusing on each character, moving back and forth between past and present, finally converging on Christmas morning in the parental home.

Thematically the novel deals with a greedy, capitalist society where entertainment and technology are seen as means of subduing the less wealthy in a post industrial economy. It focuses on the breakdown of family values and generational misunderstandings and differences. Like many other modern novels there was also a strong feeling of isolation in each of the character’s lives. The relationships of the children’s generation are shallow, transitory and based on a transfer of power or status. The relationships in the parent’s generation seem to be stagnant, disconnected and filled with the pretense of keeping up appearances.

Franzen as a writer seems to me like a person who might build model railways in his spare room. Every detail is meticulous, every character is carefully placed, every conversation rich with underlying thematic resonance. He does however seem like the god who watches from a distance, and sometimes there is just the touch of coldness in his treatment of his creation. In saying that, it did not detract from what a thought provoking, clever and engrossing commentary on modern western society The Corrections is.

Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

Book# 13

Reviewer: Kara

CA

“Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow?”

So it is for the souls in Cloud Atlas, a novel of nested stories. The time period and characters are different in each story, but it’s clear that many of them share souls with each other – they ARE each other, reborn.

The first story takes place in the late 1800s and we enter it like a powerful drill digging into the crust of the earth. Each story – there are six – takes our drill deeper, and forward in time, until we reach the core, a story set several hundred years in the future. We don’t stop there, but on the other side of the core we continue on through the same layers in reverse, until we arrive back at the surface, in the 1800s, where we started.

The six stories are connected in many ways. Not only do the characters share souls, but each protagonist reads or hears the story of the one who came before them. Additionally, the stories together serve as a history of human greed and desire for power, ultimately leading to the end of civilization as we know it. One character writes: “In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction. Is this the doom written within our nature?”

I was fascinated by this novel. It wasn’t the individual stories exactly – they are strong and well-written, but not mind-blowing – it was the interconnection between them. Mitchell captures and builds his themes in these very, very different stories in an astounding way. I can honestly say he does this better than any other novel in stories I’ve read before. The threads are woven beautifully and almost magically – the book IS the fictional symphony (one character composes a musical masterpiece called Cloud Atlas Sextet) that gives it its name. His experiment absolutely succeeds.

I also enjoyed the thread of repeated events or experiences – as one character says, “we cross, crisscross, and recross our old tracks like figure skaters.” – coupled with the ongoing revelation that there really are no patterns. It’s so easy to find patterns in history and turn them into theories and laws after the fact, but that can never ensure a certain outcome in the future.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes thought-provoking contemporary literature. Cloud Atlas is beautifully imagined and its stories will stay with you.

“Souls cross the skies o’ time… like clouds crossin’ skies o’ the world.”

Kafka on the Shore – Haruki Murakami

Book #28

Reviewer: Ange from Tall, Short & Tiny

KafkaHaruki Murakami is a dear friend’s favourite author, but until reading ‘Kafka on the Shore’, I’d had no experience of him whatsoever. Now, I am desperately awaiting a delivery from The Book Depository of another four of his books; needless to say, I am converted fan. I can’t recall another author I’ve read who can write a novel with such a combination of whimsical, fantastical, ethereal, spiritual, metaphysical words.

In saying this, I am not claiming to fully understand this novel – not by a long shot – but I certainly enjoyed it, and it got some rusty cogs turning in my brain. I had to think and process everything twice; there were long-dormant neurons firing up in my brain and I felt like I was back in a philosophy lecture at university.

There are two parallel stories in ‘Kafka’, with chapters alternating between the two. After each story is established, there is a hint that they will come together, and towards the end, the lines of each are running so closely together that I was excitedly turning pages to find out if they met.

We never find out the real name of 15-year-old Kafka Tamura, the main character in the odd chapters. He has run away from home, desperate to escape a curse that his father has deemed he will fulfill. He has an alter-ego, the Boy called Crow, who appears during times of anxiety and stress to advise and cajole. Kafka is very wise and intelligent, more than his 15 years would suggest. His ability to comprehend intensely metaphysical, improbable situations adds to the whimsy; his uncharacteristic traits don’t seem too out of place in Murakami’s world. I didn’t exactly like him as a character, but I also didn’t hate him. He was, in that respect, a good main character, in that he carried the story well without the interference of too much emotion.

Paralleling the story of Kafka is the story of Nakata, an old man who has the ability to talk to cats. As a boy, he was unconscious for three weeks, and upon waking, had no memories and had lost his ability to read and write. Throughout the story, he is often heard saying, “Nakata isn’t very bright”, or “I’m stupid, you see”, yet as the story unfolds it becomes clear that his lack of intelligence makes him the perfect vehicle for what transpires, and that his intelligence lies along another path. Nakata was hugely likeable; he was simple, but polite, funny and honest.

The novel features fish that fall from the sky, and a spectral pimp dressed as Colonel Sanders. There is a flute made from the souls of cats, and un-aged WWI soldiers living in a forest. There’s a transgender haemophiliac, a prostitute spouting philosophy, and a woman living in the past with the ability to travel through space and time. Many times, I had to re-read passages, to put the book down in order to digest what I had just read. It filled my head, it consumed me, and it confused me…but I loved it.

There are many questions left unanswered at the end of the story. I had many a theory, yet by the end, nothing was certain. Murakami is reported to have said that his novels are meant to be read again and again, and that it is up to the reader to formulate their own thoughts and conclusions. I imagine that every reader could theorise something different; book group discussions of this work would be lengthy, heated and perhaps polarising.

I can honestly say I’m a convert to Murakami’s work. I enjoyed being challenged as I read, and I loved being left to draw my own conclusions; I loved the poetic way the story was written, combined with humour, fantasy, spirituality and surrealism. ‘Kafka on the Shore’ gets a big 5/5 from me.