Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Review: The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

I used to love this book. It was one of those that you have to read several times a year, and for a while, it even held the top spot in my own personal Top 10 Favouritest Ever Books. Then Peter Jackson got hold of it, turned it into a film and that was the end of that. Sure, the all-star cast - Stanley Tucci, Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz and Susan Sarandon all feature - did a fairly decent job, but as happens so often, I felt that the film did not live up to the book. In this particular case, I felt that Peter Jackson had got a little bit too special-effects-happy, and had focused too much on Susie's interpretation of Heaven. Similarly, he had also put a lot of emphasis on Mr Harvey, and - as I shall explain later - that is not the point of the book. Subsequently, sadly, I left the cinema depressed and didn't pick up the book for about two and a half years - I just knew that, try as I might to avoid it, I would find myself recalling Jackson's interpretation of a scene when reading it, and nothing ruins a moment like someone else coming in and splashing their version all over it, particularly if it jars with yours. Call me selfish, call me vain, but I think my interpretation of scenes are the best ones, and I don't care for someone else's version very much unless it's exactly the same. (This was, in fact, a lesson I learnt as a result of seeing this film).  It wasn't until a recent conversation with my cousin, in which she had commented on the film version of The Lovely Bones, that I found myself wanting to read it again; so, before lending it to her, I decided to read it.

The Lovely Bones tells the story of the brutal rape and murder of a young teenage girl, Susie Salmon, and how she follows her family from her Heaven as they individually struggle through the years to regain balance and cope with her death. Given the subject matter, it's - unsurprisingly - difficult to read at times; Seabold does not shy away from what might be termed 'the gory bits', which are made all the more vicious by the otherwise poetic tone of the novel. However, as mentioned earlier, Susie's death, and her murderer, are only part of the story, and Susie is only the central character for being the narrator; the real story lies amongst her family, and the ways in which they attempt to cope with her death, understand her absence and endure the unwanted celebrity that violence brings.

First things first, beware; if you are, like me, a fairly emotional person, do not expect to make it through this book unscathed. There will be parts of it at which you will find yourself struggling to read the page because your eyes are swimming with tears. The really tricky bit is knowing exactly when the tears will hit, so that you can prepare yourself; get a tissue ready, make sure no one is around to see you, that kind of thing. Obviously first-time readers will not know when these moments will come, so will just have to wing it, but anyone who's read it before will probably have their own parts mentally bookmarked where they just know a chord will be struck and tears will begin flowing. Unfortunately, as I discovered, these moments are changeable; what had been the point at which I normally break down left me dry-eyed, whilst I found myself unexpectedly and quietly sobbing my way through the first 30 or so pages - a hitherto unknown event that caught me completely by surprise and so without any of my usual anti-tears tools. Instead, I just had to hope that my sunglasses hid most of the damage - I was sat in the garden - and that my snuffles could be put down to hayfever by anyone who might overhear (I don't suffer from hayfever). Such is the power of this novel; at different times, different parts can affect you; a change in your life might render a new response to a passage that had previously not meant anything to you. As a novel that deals with such a horrific subject matter, it's not surprising that there are so many scenes and events that may impact in various ways, depending on the point of view of the reader.

(I'm just going to take a quick moment to clarify - this is not a girls book, so I hope any boys reading aren't put off by the emotion of it. It's an everybody book, it just so happens that the language used, the scenes described, the characters involved often create images that are so bittersweet, or horrific beyond comprehension, that if you are inclined to the occasional sobfest, may wrest a tear from your eye. Hard-hearted types should not be put off by this; it's not a book written to make you cry, but to explore the notions of afterlife, and afterdeath.)

The key to the success of this novel lies in the characterisation; each character is perfectly crafted, with a balance to everyone that lies somewhere between being sympathetic and enraging, complex and straightforward. The ways in which each family member reacts to the death are at times questionable, at others infuriating and always understandable. Seabold paints a brilliant picture of grief embodying itself in different ways; one family member shuts down entirely, whilst another immerses themselves in their grieving, whilst another attempts escape through any means possible, and so on. The supporting cast is also brilliantly fleshed-out - Mr Harvey, the antagonist, is a vile character, made unnervingly complex by his background and Susie's insights into his life and past, whilst the boys who loved Susie and her sister, Lindsay, play a crucial role in the support of both girls, one alive, one dead. There are many other characters that I could speak of, as they are all crucial in their own way to the novel, but these aforementioned ones are the main carriers of the novel, the ones who power it forward and give it momentum - even though the events of the novel take place over the course of ten years.

Susie's Heaven is also a wonder; it's without religion, and is simply whatever your subconscious wants it to be. In Susie's case, Heaven is the high school in which she would have reinvented herself, without classes and teachers but with the good kind of swings. Her Heaven is full of little things designed to make her happy, such as products that are seasonal being available constantly, dogs in abundance, or 'riches in furry packages', as Susie terms them, and the good bits of fame - being in magazines and so on. However, it is a Heaven with limitations; until you can begin to let go of Earth, your Heaven cannot grow, and so Susie restricts herself initially by spending so much time watching her family, trying to connect with them. However, as the novel progresses, and Susie learns more about her family and the secrets of life, her Heaven correspondingly begins to expand, revealing more to Susie about life after death. This is probably my favourite version of Heaven that I've ever encountered.

One last thing: this is not a sad book. It is sad at times, yes, and disturbing at others, but most of all it is hopeful; whilst the book begins with death, it does not end with it, and is full of beautiful moments that remind you that ultimately, life does continue, and must be allowed to continue. I don't enjoy reading this book because it makes me cry; I love it - yes, that's right, I love it again - because, despite the horror, good comes out of it. Once you get past the initial assumption that this book is all about death, you'll come to realise that it is, in fact, about life, and how it must not be taken for granted - something which I think we all need reminding about, from time to time.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

A change is coming...

So I finally did it; I finally caved in and bought a Kindle. It was a long and arduous internal struggle, but in the end I found I had to jump aboard this bandwagon at last. There was a brief period of um-ing and ahh-ing (otherwise known as procrastination) in which I tried to decide between buying a Kindle or a Kobo, the main competitor of the Kindle. For a while there I was edging towards the Kobo - it's cheaper, you can download from loads of places, it has a capacity to increase the memory and comes with 100 classic novels already installed. But in the end - as a friend so aptly, if bluntly, put it - 'Kindle is boss, there's a reason it's the best selling one'. After all, if you're going to do something, you may as well do it properly. It wasn't easy though; even as I processed the order through Amazon, there was still an almighty urge to click 'back' and end the whole thing entirely. And once it had gone through, and I got the confirmation email, I felt a bit sad; in a way, I felt like I had betrayed my own principles. I've spent so long raging against e-readers, firmly insisting I wasn't interested that to finally turn tail and back up on myself... well, I imagine this is how Nick Clegg feels on a regular basis.

But now it's happened, I sense a change in myself. Already I'm adapting, planning, thinking Kindle. I've gone bookshop browsing a couple of times recently, and I've left both times without buying a single book. This in an occurence that even a month ago, would've been laughable; I am, or was, almost physically incapable of walking into a bookshop without buying something, and it's not like I didn't find anything in there that tickled my fancy. Instead, I found myself thinking, 'Ooh, I can download that on my Kindle for my next holiday'. This happened before I'd even bought the damn thing, and already I was planning what to download on it, and speaking about it as if I already owned it. 

I've even found myself looking forward to certain little joys the Kindle will bring; for example, I can finally start carrying a book around with me all the time, which was a habit I was trying to get into, but failing at - a battle of size of handbag vs size of book being the main barrier. Now, though, once it arrives and I've started downloading, I can carry my Kindle with me wherever I like, and be able to read whenever I like. Bliss. It'll also help me pack my bags efficiently when I go on holiday again next month, and as it was actually a holiday that made me start to consider buying a Kindle, what with all the heavy books in the suitcase and losing my passport between the pages of a book in my handbag, this will be a nice little bookend to the whole saga. Also, something I've just thought of - don't you just hate it when you're on holiday, lying in the sun, reading a book, and a sudden wind comes up and whips all the pages about unexpectedly? Not for me this time!

It's also got me and the boyfriend talking about literature again; a few nights ago, when I announced (somewhat dramatically) that I was going to do it, I was going to flipping well get on that computer and buy a Kindle, it led to a discussion on the book world; the boyfriend, very aware of my struggles over the issue, earnestly put forth the idea that Kindles were actually encouraging more people to read. However, I quickly countered with actually, it's just encouraging people who like reading, to read more, which is not the same thing as increasing literacy levels - if you're not a fan of reading or books, you're not going to go out and spend a hundred quid or so, plus the cost of the e-books, just to give it a go. This then led to the boyfriend mentioning Penguin Publishing's new money-making scheme, Book Country, a self-publishing kit for new authors (though it's clearly cashing in on the fear that more and more people like E. L. James will go ahead, self-publish, make a mint out of it and cut out the middle man entirely). It was nice to start talking about books and the world of literature again; I've been less attentive to this blog of late, so I've been missing out on my chance to vent my opinions. 

Also - it's just occurred to me - having a Kindle will also allow me to read new authors who maybe weren't given a chance by traditional publishers, so took the DIY approach, and that's a good thing; bookshops can be restricting in that their only literature is going to be what publishers have deemed good enough to publish, which does not necessarily mean that all the good books have actually been published. The Kindle will allow me to read these authors who didn't quite make it through the traditional gauntlet, which in turn will allow me to support and encourage new authors.

That's not to say that the advent of the Kindle to my life is all sunshine and roses. There's still that clawing guilt in me that I've betrayed print books - currently I'm sat next to a bookcase, and I feel like all the books on there are judging me - and I am worried that already, before I even own a Kindle properly, I'm not buying books anymore. One of my biggest fears about buying a Kindle was that I would stop buying print books, and that's started happening already. Sure, it's probably not entirely a bad thing - even in the new, bigger abode, bookspace is at a premium - but I'm a little bit ashamed that I so easily succumbed. Then, of course, there's the fact that I am a bit of a technophobe, and a Kindle is technology; I had a look at a friend's Kindle the other week and I have to say I was a bit flummoxed by it all, as it seemed opening a book on a Kindle was a bit more of a deal that taking one off a bookshelf. I'm also concerned about money; I may not be buying print books now, as I'm saving them up for e-books, but here's the thing; if I'm not physically handing over cash, or putting my card in a card machine, it's a bit easier to spend money, because it doesn't really feel like I am, so internet shopping can be an issue for me. As a result, I think downloading e-books is going to be surprisingly costly for me, especially as it'll be linked to my Amazon account, so I won't even need to put card details in or anything. Yep, this could be a costly mistake.

I thought making a decision on whether to just buy one or not would help calm my inner battle over this; once I'd committed, I could just move on in the direction I'd taken. I was hoping I still wouldn't be agonising over the pro's and cons of the whole thing, but here I am, still blogging away about it. I guess there has been a change in the waters in this; before, I was just staunchly resisting Kindles, but now it's more a case of guilt over the fact that actually, I'm really looking forward to my Kindle arriving, and quite excited about the ease in which it will allow me to access books; I just hope I can remember to buy print books too, from time to time!

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Review: McCarthy's Bar by Pete McCarthy

I very nearly didn't review this book, but then I found out that the author had died in 2004, from cancer. That was a long time ago, but as it was brand-new information to me, it was as much of a shock as if I'd heard about it the same day as he passed away. As I'd just finished reading McCarthy's Bar not long before I found out, the memory of the events of the book were still fresh in my mind, and subsequently - inevitably - the death of the author immediately gave the book a more poignant edge. Partly in honour of the author of one of my favourite books, and partly in response to the new perspective of the book his death has given, I decided to review it.

McCarthy's Bar is a non-fiction travel book, focused on Pete McCarthy's Irish descendancy, and, in his own beautifully-put words, 'Is it possible to have some kind of genetic memory of a place where you've never lived, but your ancestors have? Or am I just a sentimental fool, my judgement fuddled by nostalgia, Guinness and the romance of the diaspora?' Travelling around Ireland, he tries to ascertain which is responsible for his emotional ties to the country, whilst simultaneously being able to apply one of his many self-penned rules of travel: Never Pass A Bar With Your Name On It. As 'McCarthy', or 'MacCarthy' as it is spelt occasionally, is a very Irish name, he has many opportunities to abide by the rule - some with almost fantastical consequences, others with dull-beyond-remark outcomes.

The first and foremost appeal of this book to me is my own ancestry; I am half-Irish on my mother's side, and yet I've never been to Ireland, not once, and I've only met my Irish relatives a handful of times. Subsequently, my love for this book is tinged by something akin to jealousy; here is a man, with as much genetic claim to the country as I have, freely and ably exploring his genetic roots, whilst I (as a result of my mother's English upbringing, and my own) struggle to celebrate St Patrick's Day in the usual manner. Occasionally Pete finds his English-We-Don't-Go-In-For-That-Sort-Of-Nonsense-Side battling with his Irish-Just-Get-On-With-It-And-Have-A-Good-Time-Side, but at least his Irish side puts up a fight; if mine exists as anything more than a few strands of DNA, it's mostly evident in my pale complexion and crippling bouts of Catholic guilt (as Pete so adequately puts it, 'If you've had the right kind of education, it's amazing how many things you can find to feel guilty about.'). Reading about his own exploits across Ireland, whilst taking in the sights and sounds of what sounds like a beautiful country, both makes me feel like I, too, have a connection with Ireland, whilst also encouraging me to one day get round to visiting.

The other appeal is this notion of feeling at home in a place you've never lived; I've felt this one or two times before in my relatively short life, and it is an intriguing notion - the idea that home actually is where the heart is, and not necessarily where your family is, or your childhood was. Pete touches on this point in a chapter titled 'A Place of Resurrection', referencing a quest made by Celtic monks who would travel around Europe, searching for the place where it felt like God was calling to them, before settling there. All religious connotations aside, this is a very optimistic, hopeful way of looking at life; the idea that somewhere in the world there is a tangible place that you completely belong, where your optimum happiness can be obtained, and that it's out there for the finding - a comforting thought in times of difficulty.

But there is more to it than this spiritual questing; it's actually a really funny, laugh-out-loud book. Pete was an experienced traveller, but it seems nothing can prepare you for Ireland, even childhood memories of the place. He encounters people who are so 'Oirish' that you wouldn't believe they exist, English hippies living in mountains, Essex tourists, Northern Irish escaping the marching season, religious fanatics (not just the Catholic kind, either) and Noel Redding. He becomes the laughing stock of a town for mis-diagnosing a bird up his car exhaust, chooses to go on one of the toughest Catholic pilgrimages there are at Lough Derg, gatecrashes a feast at a medieval castle and finds himself the guest-of-honour at the birthday party of a landlady he's just met (the landlady of a McCarthy's bar, of course). It's almost easy to dismiss these events as fictionalised - they wouldn't seem out of place in any British fiction novels - but as the disbelief of the author is evident in his accounts, you come to accept it as fact. There's a very Any Human Heart quality to it - it all seems both remarkable, and yet unremarkable, and it does make you think back on events on your own life which you took in your stride, but in retrospect maybe were a bit out-of-the-ordinary.

I have to say here that there is a bit of stereotypical air to the book; most of the Irish people Pete encounters are eccentric, overly-friendly, harmlessly invasive drinkers, and I think it's this portrayal that lets the book down; my Irish grandparents and my mother all dislike the book intensely on the basis that Irish people aren't all like that, and that the whole place has been romanticised, like some mystical neverland, rather than treated as the country it is. Furthermore, the book was written during the full power of the Celtic Tiger economy, when Ireland was massively economically successful - given the state of not just Ireland, but the Euro-zone in general, it's sad to read back on how optimistic everyone is, Pete included, when you know how the story is playing out now.

The poignancy of Pete's quest to find his spiritual home was always a powerful one, but has taken on new depth now I know he died 6 years after McCarthy's Bar was first published; I always got the impression he intended to move out to Ireland one day, and fully claim his ancestral heritage, but now I know he never did. It's a lesson, really - don't rest on your laurels, don't live by a 'tomorrow' rule - one that I may have to adopt, and is already encouraging me to start planning my first visit to Ireland. Nevertheless, even with this additional sentimentality, I've read this book so many times now that it's currently held together with sellotape, and every time I read it I enjoy it as much as the previous time - although, I suspect next time I read it, there may be a few wistful sighs, as I contemplate more than ever if he did ever work out the answer to his question.