A blog for everything bookish

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Rape a Love Story by Joyce Carol Oates

So, you may be wondering if I have some kind of obsessive compulsive disorder to return to an author I've read only recently so soon, but when I find a new author I like I like to read their other stuff too, and having read something by Joyce Carol Oates and enjoyed it I really wanted to read something more. So if that's OCD so be it. I liked her work. I wanted more.

So when they had a copy of Rape: A Love Story in my local library I figured 'why not' and so I did and with an intriguing title like that it was an easy grab off the shelf moment (I didn't steal it, just loaned it. Honest). And I wasn't disappointed. Not an easy read, but a rewarding one. Well I think so anyway.

Rape: A Love Story follows the story of Teena Maguire, a single mother, slim, young, attractive, sexy if you like, and her 12 year old daughter Bethel and the 4th of July night when Teena decides to walk through the park to get home, rather than take the long way around. It's a nice night. They've been to a party. It's late. The decision is made.

In the park they run in to a gang of lads who have also been partying. Drunk, high on drugs, they drag Teena and her daughter into a disused boat house. They then gang rape Teena and beat her daughter who, fortunately, is too young to take their interest and instead merely has to listen to her mother being repeatedly raped and beaten while she hides behind some disused boats. When the boys have finished they leave Teena for dead.

And then the story starts. Because in spite of the evidence, in spite of her injuries and the testimony of her daughter, many of the townspeople turn against Teena. Teena the tart. Teena who dresses too provocatively. Teena who was asking for it, who wasn't raped but who was only assaulted when a deal to prostitute herself and her daughter went bad.

And this is the uncomfortable part of the story, because through her delicate, beautiful prose Oates leads us into the minds of a town torn apart by this terrible crime. Into the minds of the rapists whose only regrets are that they didn't kill Teena and her daughter, that they left them alive in order to identify them. Into the minds of the parents of the boys who raped Teena who don't want to believe their sons did this terrible thing, who also maybe know that they did but will do anything to stop their sons' lives being destroyed by terrible, expendible Teena, that floozy woman who is trying to ruin their sons' lives.

Into the minds of Teena and Bethel, especially Bethel, whose childhood ended in that park. Who lost a mother and instead...found love?

Because there are two sides to this story, two sides to the title in fact. This is Rape / A Love Story. And the love story is Bethel's. Bethel falls quietly in love with her rescuer, the police officer who was first on the scene, the strange, enigmatic Officer Dromoor. Not that she ever mentions how she feels.

As the court case begins, and the families of the rapists collectively hire a shark lawyer who twists the events to make them sound innocent, and make Teena sound guilty, Teena withdraws into depression. She refuses to take part in the case, in spite of her terrible injuries, the fact that she only just survived, in spite of her attackers continuing to threaten and harass her, she is portrayed as the villain. And at this point she walks away.

And then her attackers start to go missing, one by one. The first one is openly killed by Dromoor, apparently in defence of another after Teena's ex-boyfriend was attacked in a pub car park. Then two others go missing. Then another appears to commit suicide. The remainder confess. And Bethel knows why. The town moves on.

Rape: A Love Story is a difficult read. It reminded me of a time when I was a much younger woman and I first saw the movie The Accused and felt horrified that beyond the terrible experience of rape was an even worse experience. That after the violence and violation comes a further violation - the trial, in which a woman's whole character, her appearance, her behaviour is measured as justifiable reason for rape. And I can understand how women can choose to turn away from that. Having suffered a terrible, dehumanising assault, to then suffer the psychological damage of being subjected to accusations that the crime had been caused by you, because your skirt was too short, you dressed to provocatively, you 'came on' to someone, you lead them on, you asked for it. Well I can see how in some ways that can be worse.

And this book confronts that fact. That people can be faced with a terrible truth, that terrible violence can be done to a person and it is still preferable to think that the attacker is somehow the victim, the innocent one. Oates, with her beautiful prose, is unflinching in her approach to this subject, forcing us to see the victim, forcing us to see into the minds of the attackers. It is a short, but breathless book and one well worth reading.

If I had one criticism of this book, it would be that it felt rather rushed. And I would have liked to have understood Teena more, but then her very withdrawal is perhaps the thing that brought home how terrible the crime against her had been.

A terrible reminder of the soul destroying, unjustifiable crime that is rape. Please spare a moment to think of the many victims worldwide, and if you can spare a few pennies perhaps make a donation to one of the charities listed below.

Rape: A Love Story receives a stunned 9/10 Biis.

Joyce Carol Oates, you are my hero.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

By now you must be thinking that all I ever do is read books written by ladies. Whilst it's true that I have spent some time shifting the balance to incorporate more works by my fellow female I do, in fact, also read books written by men. And I'm here to prove it. Because as part of my mammoth reading challenge, I read Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie.

So, what's to say about Midnight's Children? For a start off, Midnight's Children was a Booker Prize winner and then the Booker of Booker's prize winner (being the best Booker of Bookers...or something along those lines) so you can feel reassured that it's a pretty good book. And it is. It is an excellent book. Well written, engaging, funny, massive in scope, crazy-confusing-andabitmad. But I didn't like it. Does that make any sense? Not really. Read on and see if you can figure it out.

So the story of Midnight's Children follows the life of Saleem Sanai, a boy who was born on the stroke of midnight on the day of the 'birth' of new India, India's independence from Britain. And later in the novel, but not much later, we learn that Saleem, like all the other children born between midnight and 1am on that day, has special powers, special powers that are a threat to Mother India.

There's so much packed into this novel that it's hard to know where to start to tell you about it. So I don't think I will. Suffice to say that this novel is jam packed full of information, characters, events, thoughts and circumstances. From Saleem's Grandfather Aadam Aziz's hole in his chest where God used to be, to the massacre of hundreds of innocents by the British Army, to Tai the boat man and his unwashed, mad, ravings, to Mumtaz Aziz and her secret fantasies of a lanky haired, podgy poet, to prophesies, to Pakistan, to coups, to pickles and child swapping, this book has pretty much got it all. If you enjoy reading novels which are clever, well written and dizzyingly complicated, this is definitely a novel for you.

And I like all those things, but for me the storytellery approach just made me feel excluded. I felt like I was watching a play that was put on for the benefit of the actors, and as a consequence I just felt a bit left out. And maybe not clever enough to understand it (though I could follow the story well enough). There's a lot to take in with this novel. There are a lot of characters, and a lot of history. There are allusions to the 1001 nights (which I wish I'd read all the way through...maybe this year?) and Indian history, hinduism. The main character, Saleem, talks of himself in the third person, as though he is mythologising his own history. And he's an unreliable narrator, he admits as much. So we're left, at the end, wondering if we've been conned, or whether we've witnessed the inevitable fallability of memory. I don't know. I'm still not sure what to think.

I'm sure I missed 1001 things from this dense, intelligent and well written book. I was left in no doubt of Salman Rushdie's superior intelligence, his skill in story telling, his imaginativeness and brilliance. But it was all so shining I guess it left me feeling a bit dull and grubby. And contrasted with the equally skilled but inclusive writings of, say, David Mitchell (who I totally love, I'll get to him eventually) it just didn't do it for me.

So, in the end, Midnight's Children gets a conflicted 9/10 for skill and imagination, it's definitely an excellent book but 4/10 for enjoyment.

Weird, I know.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

When I was first researching great female writers, the name Marilynne Robinson came up. Her catalogue is small (she's written a mere 3 books) but all the vibe suggested that those three books were like diamonds in paper form. So, last year I read Home which is a beautifully written, sad story. And then a kind friend bought me a copy of Housekeeping for Christmas. I finally got around to reading it.

There's not a great deal of story in Housekeeping. Primarily we follow the fortunes of two sisters, Ruthie and Lucille, and the story is told from the perspective of Ruthie and it's a story of loss, of transience, and the tenuous links of family. We begin with the death of Ruthie's grandfather, a man she'd never known, who was claimed by the lake in the town of Fingerbone, a town he'd moved to from the flatlands of the Midwest in a search for mountains. Fingerbone, in itself, is a transient town. Transient in the sense that it's subject to the vagaries of nature: fire and flood, the swamping weight of snow and ice. But also in its position on the railway, which attracts people who are only ever passing through.

Ruthie and Lucille's own story begins when their mother, Helen, about who they knew so little, drops them off at her mother's house in Fingerbone then drives her borrowed car into the lake. Ruthie and Lucille are then brought up by their grandmother, then after their grandmother's death by her sisters Nona and Lily who in turn brought in their Aunt, their mother's sister, Sylvie then left them to her. And Sylvie in her own right is transient, transient in body and spirit, an unconventional guardian for two small girls.

It is, quite simply, a beautifully written book. It has a delicacy, like a thin film of ice, and the prose is simply drenched with poetics. At times it feels like you're reading your way through a long, mystical dream, but don't be fooled by that. Housekeeping is rooted by strong themes, themes of family and loss, the links that bind us to a place, to a set of people who may not be our choice but who are our family. Throughout the upbringing of Ruthie and Lucille, their lives have been punctuated by loss and yet each guardian tries, in their own way, to bring a kind of solidity, a fake solidity, to their lives. And each guardian fails, until, surprisingly, Sylvie. It is her very transience, her gossamer-like grip on what is 'normal' that creates a sense of permanence in both children albeit in slightly different ways.

There is wisdom in this book. You have to grasp a bit for it, it isn't easy, and I can see how it could be accused of being a book which is about nothing, because it does have this sense of being thinly stitched together, but to me this was the strength of the book. If you don't like poetically written fiction, then this book is not for you, but for me it was beautiful. At a time in my life when I feel like reality has me in an iron grip, this was exactly the book I needed. Because in its dreamlike prose it reminds us that 'reality' is only what seems normal, and that normality in itself is an image, a thin veil which can be torn aside to reveal something more true underneath. That beneath respectability is at worst violence and at best habit. That what is deemed 'abnormal' is merely different and is threatening only in that it makes us challenge our own habits and find them questionable, that it makes us question the solidity of our own lives, the rocks on which we lean, and find them resting on surface tension alone over the waters of a great lake.

After reading Housekeeping I feel as though I have been steeped in a lake filled with beautiful language ,and a quiet wisdom that is ever so slightly out of my reach. Ghostlike. And stunning. A beautiful, transient read.

Housekeeping receives a stunning 9/10 Biis.

Friday, 9 March 2012

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

Given the hype surrounding the movie, it was fairly inevitable that someone, at some point, was bound to offer me a read of Susan Hill's said-to-be spooky novella, The Woman in Black. So when a friend offered to lend it to me I thought 'hey, why not?' After all I quite like ghostly stories and it's been a while since I read anything genuinely scary, and in advance of watching the movie (we'll wait for DVD) I would prefer to read the book. So I said yes, and she gave me the book and after I'd finished reading something else which I haven't blogged about yet I picked it up and started reading.

Phew! Took me a while to get going there didn't it? And that was my experience with reading The Woman in Black. It's only a short book, a novella really, around 200 pages long. So when, after getting about 50 pages in, I was still waiting for something significant to happen it got me a bit worried. And to be honest, throughout this nicely written gothic-Victorian style (whilst being neither Victorian nor gothic) book not much really did happen. He saw a woman at a funeral. He heard some noises, saw her again, heard some rumours, got a bit stressed. But as I was expecting a spine-chilling ghostly story what I got fell a little, or rather a lot, short. And the ending felt a bit rushed, and a little forced too.

And whilst I write this, I have to admit that it all sounds a bit negative and perhaps, just perhaps, I am being a little unfair. The thing about this story, and the hype that currently surrounds it, is that I had expectations of it. I had heard from reviews elsewhere that this is a scary story. And I had seen from the billboards for the movie, and people who have seen the movie, that this is a scary movie and therefore must be a scary story. And when it wasn't. When it failed to elicit even the slightest rumblings of nervousness from me, I was disappointed.

There is a lot to like about The Woman in Black. It's nicely written for a start, and the characters (perhaps excepting Stella) are well drawn, authentic and believable. The setting is beautifully described, and you really get the sense of the house and its surroundings, the creeping, unexpected fogs and the desolation. The local characters come across well, and in general it feels like an authentically written period book, with a bit of a ghostly overtone. And if you read it with that in mind, it's a decent book. Easy to read and engaging, if a little slow paced.

So forget that it's supposed to be as scary as scary and you'll probably find The Woman in Black a nice read. As for me....

The Woman in Black receives a disappointed 6/10 Biis.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Books that are just plain nice

Following on from my last post about The Housekeeper and the Professor it got me thinking about books that are just really nice reads. You know those days where you just want to read something uplifting, something that's not filled with drama or sadness or vampires or violent death, but that carries you along on a rainbow coloured cloud into the warm arms of happiness and leaves you feeling refreshed with a sense of peace and bliss? Those kinds of books. They do exist, though they are as rare as the Kitti's hog-nosed bat. Let me tell you about a few that I have found...

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Armin
This is the first book I always think of when I think of 'nice' books. The story of four women, at first strangers, who together hire a castle in Italy for a month and over the course of the month are changed, casting off their fears and the troubles that plague their lives. And in the process discovering love, not just of Italy but of each other. After reading it, you feel like you've had a month's holiday yourself.

Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
Siddhartha, as were many of Hesse's books, is heavily influenced by Eastern philosophy and as a result it's definitely zen-like. Following the life of Siddhartha Hesse explores human development; how we go through love, trials, we gain friends, family, knowledge and how the acquisition of knowledge in itself is not enough to bring us peace and enlightenment. How there is more to it than that, but how it is all within our reach. If we are just willing to trust and love and try. A beautiful, profound and inspiring book, Siddhartha is a book to read once a year just to remind yourself that enlightenment, however you see it, is possible.

A Room with a View by E. M. Forster
What is it about Italy? Another story that starts in Italy, this time Florence, and follows a young woman, Lucy, on a path towards love of a young man, George, who 'insults' her by kissing her in a poppy field on a day trip to the countryside outside Florence. Of course the path is not smooth. Lucy's concern for 'appearances' and George's apparent lack of self-control (or perhaps openness) which Lucy's conservative upbringing had not prepared her for. But it all comes good in the end, of course. Another sweet, uplifting book.

The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western by Richard Brautigan
I could have picked just about anything by Richard Brautigan barring In Watermelon Sugar which, whilst strange, errs on the depressing side. The Hawkline Monster is an odd story about two criminally minded cowboys hired by Miss Hawkline to hunt down a monster she believes has killed her father. And what is it about that umbrella stand that's so strange? A seriously odd but fun book-child of the 60s summer of love.

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
There's a Grandmother and her six year old granddaughter, an island, and lots of strange Scandinavian wisdom. Like everything written by Jansson this has a kind of strange bohemian beauty to it. Not much happens, but there's a lot of love and sweetness and a kind of old, profound type of wisdom. Indescribably lovely.

If nobody speaks of remarkable things by Jon McGregor
Okay, there's maybe some drama here and I have to admit this book does make me cry, but there's an ordinary street in an ordinary summer, a lot of love, a lot of self discovery, a bit of tragedy, and a whole load of poetically beautiful writing about traffic lights.

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
There's a little tragedy in this (isn't there always!) but mainly it's a beautiful love story told through a series of emotionally charged recipes. If nothing else, it'll make you want to eat!

Mr Palomar by Italo Calvino
I don't think this little book is quite loved enough. A series of stories about the part-time philosopher, Mr Palomar, and his musings and experiences of the world. Not a novel, but a series of interlinked stories which get you thinking about what's good and curious about the world. I love Calvino's mischievousness and his keen eye. A beautiful book to dip into and out of.

What 'nice' books have you encountered?

Saturday, 3 March 2012

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

Not a great deal happens in the story of The Housekeeper and the Professor, a short but definitely sweet book by Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa. Now I have a bit of a fondness for Japanese fiction, which you might gather over time, as Japanese fiction tends to speak to my feelings about the world: it's lonely, overcrowded, people are a bit mad and sometimes strange and sinister things happen. Not so, however, in this lovely story of a single mother who is given the job of housekeeping for the former professor of mathematics who, following a car accident, has been left with a memory span of only 80 minutes.

Primarily this is a story about relationships and how they grow, in spite of the challenge of the professor's short term memory issues. And there's mathematics in it too, enough and put plainly enough that even I could understand it. And this is the fascination, for me, with this story. Not much happens. The professor never remembers the housekeeper or her son, who he nicknames 'Root' because of his slightly flattened head. Outside of her time with the professor we learn nothing much of the housekeeper's life, not even her name, just a little of the back story about how she ended up a single mother and working as a housekeeper for the agency and how it lead to her working for the professor. But we learn about prime numbers, perfect numbers, Fermat's last theorem, and the general beauty and perfection of pure mathematics and number theory. Oh, and there's a little baseball thrown in.

There's not a great deal to say about this short novel, but I can highly recommend it. If you're looking for a nice, gentle read which opens up the subtle beauty of a subject which confuses many and turns it into something amazing, then give The Housekeeper and the Professor a try.

The Housekeeper and the Professor receives a cleanly 9/10 Biis.