Friday, 23 September 2011

Sort of halfway

So I'm sort of halfway through this project. I thought that I'd probably be further along than 50 by now, but events have gotten in the way, and I'm still not reading as much as I used to read.

It's picking up considerably since then, which is good.

In the meantime I've been thinking about what it would take for me to finish this project by the end of the year. By that, I mean what would it take for me to get up to 111 books by the end of the year?

Well, I worked it out, and it turns out that it'll probably be more work than I have time for at the moment, but I'll give it a try.

I have 61 books left to read.

I have 14 weeks left of 2011.

This means I have to read just over 4 books per week in order to hit my target. Can I manage this? Maybe. Probably if I read all my really short books, and really put my mind to it, I'd be able to do this.

We'll see.

50/111 - Wilson by Daniel Clowes

This blog post makes me want to type 'WILSOOOOOON' a la Castaway, but I think that would be too much of a cliche, plus I'm drunk and will most probably regret it in the morning.

I got this book when I was working at Vintage again earlier this year. I was working in the same department as Jonathan Cape and I really like their comics so I took a copy of this one too. My old manager from Waterstone's had been really excited to read this and I generally value his taste in books so I thought I'd give it a try, even though I haven't read any Daniel Clowes before.

Man, Wilson is a dick.

Wilson is a middle-aged American dude who tries overly hard to make connections with total strangers, pretending that he is some sort of empathetic philanthropist when in fact he is barely masking the fact that he has total and utter contempt for most people. And at the same time, he is totally self-involved, obnoxious and misinformed about all those around him and their perception of him.

Basically a terrible, empty, human being.

The story consists of a number of 'shorts' of 6-8 panels, normally with some sort of bleak punchline at the end of each one. Wilson fins himself empty after the death of his father and decides to try and reconnect with his ex-wife and the daughter they gave up for adoption.

The results are terrible. Wilson is barely able to conceal insults to his former wife and daughter, as well as those around them (he sends a bag of poop to his ex-wife's brother at one point) and tries to involve total strangers in their lives.

There is also quite a sinister undertone to the relationships with his ex-wife and daughter, with his ex-wife recounting a vague memory of a kidnapping and his daughter remarking that she's had a lot of therapy since being adopted. I get the impression that the pregnancy was nonconsensual somehow, and that this is why his wife gave up their daughter for adoption? Maybe I'm being a little dark and morbid because I'm drunk but who knows. Who knows.

Anyway, I liked this. It was funny, even though Wilson is a total douche. Probably even BECAUSE he is a total douche. The whole thing feel very alienated and distant, which is a style I can only put up with for so long, however in the form of these tiny vignettes, it works perfectly.

One of the funniest parts for me is when he approches a hooker on the street, with the pretence of looking for his ex-wife, and when the hooker says she doesn't know her, he says, 'I guess maybe I'll get a blow-job, then.'

The artwork is pretty cool. Wilson's face keeps changing and morphing, from a fairly realistic looking man to a cartoon-ish character with a huge head.

That's all I have to say.

Next: The Night Circus by Erin something-something

Monday, 19 September 2011

49/111 – The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan

Okay, this is my last of the recent Canongate purchases. Maybe I ought to stop buying books based on who they’re published by? Try something new for a change? Who knows.

I quite liked this, apart from the ending, however I thought that the writing was excellent and pretty stunning throughout. The story is about a man called Jake, who is a werewolf. It’s set in a world pretty similar to ours, except that there’s an organisation who set out to eliminate occult phenomena from the planet, like an FBI or something similar. Jake is the last werewolf left on the planet, and is being hunted down by a man with a grudge against him for eating his father.

Jake’s mood at the beginning of the story changes pretty dramatically from being pretty much ready to give up and die, to being desperate to stay alive. The reason being that he meets a lady wolf, who no one knew existed. I’m totally going to give away the ending of the book now because it pissed me off quite a bit, but they fall in love and then get separated by the baddies, and she is captured. Werewolves are supposed to be infertile but oh my gosh she manages to get pregnant, and not only that, but Jake dies at the end, leaving her all mournful and Linda-Hamilton-in-Terminator-2-esque.

I despise endings like this because they seem like such a cliché and such a lame way to end what had up until that point been a pretty awesome story. So lame!

But before that, it was pretty great. I’m not at all a fan of all the chick-lit fantasy shit floating around at the moment, and this was clearly something from a different area of the genre altogether. It did have a romance element to it, but it wasn’t girly or overly romantic. Mostly it included a lot of sex and some sweet, sweet murder, which is fine with me. I don’t have much else to say about it right now because I’m running late, but I imagine there’ll probably be a sequel, and I was suitably entertained that I’d read the next one in the series. Even though I hated the ending of this book, the writing was really something special, which usually isn’t enough to keep me going, but on this occasion, I’ll make an exception.

Next: Wilson by Daniel Clowes

Sunday, 18 September 2011

48/111 – How To Be A Woman – Caitlin Moran

I bought this book recently on the recommendation of a friend from Waterstone’s who said that she thought I’d probably like it. I’d already seen the book around a little, on shelves etc and I’d suspected that it might be quite trashy and full of great ‘advice’ on how to make your tits look good, or how to trick a man into marrying you, but I was quite pleasantly surprised to find that I was wrong. However, even though I really enjoyed parts of this, I still found that there were other parts where I strongly disagreed with Moran and other features that I found quite irritating.

I’ll get the annoying bits out of the way first.

The first thing I noticed which kind of pissed me off was Moran’s tendency to use all caps when she wants to emphasise something. This isn’t something she uses sparingly, either. It’s pretty much on every other page. EVERY OTHER PAGE. Like that. She uses it to sort of drive home a point she’s making while trying to also make a joke, but for me it was irritating. After a while I just started to skip the bits in all caps. I don’t know if this was her choice, or an editorial choice or what, but there were a couple of other editorial hiccups too, which makes me think it may not have been proof-read as efficiently as it should have been. For example at one point there’s a reference to two people being stitched together from mouth to butthole a la ‘Human Caterpillar’, when the reference is obviously intended to be Human Centipede. Who let that one slip through the net?

Another thing which annoyed me was the half-arsed references to her childhood. For the first half of the book Moran references incidents in her childhood quite a bit, and I found them to be kind of trite and forced, as if she was trying, really trying, to go for laughs. I just didn’t like it. There were also some views she had which I didn’t agree with, but I’m not going to go into all of them here, as they’re more just a difference of opinion.

On the whole though, she seems like a pretty cool and sassy chick, and there was a lot about the book I did like. In spite of the clumsy all caps bits, there were also bits of prose in there which I felt genuinely shone really well and were stunning. Later in the book she also tackles some more serious issues, like childbirth, motherhood and abortion, and these (particularly the section on abortion) were really touching and handled brilliantly.

What I particularly liked about the section on abortion was the way she spoke about her experience in terms of dispelling the myth that only 'slutty' girls have abortions. Her own abortion procedure took place after she already had two daughters, knowing that she and her husband didn’t have the resources or the energy to have a third child at that point. Many people would call this a selfish or wrong decision, and might put pressure on a woman in this position to ‘just have the baby’ and many women in this situation will probably do just that. However stats show that most of the women having abortions (in the West at least) are married women who can’t afford (for whatever reason) to have any more children.

She also does really well to talk about this idea of ‘good abortions’ vs. ‘bad abortions’. What I mean here is the moralistic idea that it’s only okay to have an abortion if you’ve, say, been raped. Or if yours or the baby’s life is in danger. This is a dangerous way of thinking because it puts a moral kind of judgment on who should on shouldn’t be allowed to have abortions. You can only have one if having the baby would be really really bad for you/it. In fact, having an abortion when you’re in Moran’s situation is a responsible choice. Too many families have their resources stretched to breaking point because there are too many kids and not enough to go around, and it’s not a ‘bad’ choice to acknowledge that fact. 

Another thing I really liked about her account was that there was a tone of mourning for the baby she never had, but Moran doesn’t go on and on about how ‘hard’ the decision was, or how she’s had to live forever with the consequences, or that she has any regrets. There’s this idea that if you really have to have an abortion, the very least you can do is feel terrible about it forever.

So yeah, some pretty bold stuff in there. The end of the book really turned it around for me. I kind of wish the whole book had been more like that. Not necessarily overly serious or dealing with big issues, but the tone definitely changed a lot, whilst still managing to stay relatively light-hearted (the parts about horrific childbirth are hilarious/horrifying, but I think I’ll probably always feel that way…)


Next: The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan

Saturday, 10 September 2011

47/111 – Sarah by J. T. Leroy

I bought this book quite a long time ago now. I can’t remember why I bought it, but I think it had something to do with the fact that someone had told me that when it was first published, it had been marketed as an auto-biography. I think it’s pretty clear when you start reading it that it’s fiction, however I can totally see why some people would have been shocked to read the auto-biography of a twelve-year old cross-dressing lot lizard. That’s a hooker, for the laymen here.

However I think I may have been getting mixed up. What actually happened is that a female author called Laura Albert was actually using the name J.T. Leroy as a pseudonym for her writing. She was even convicted of fraud for signing papers as him, and said that she thought she could write things as Leroy that she didn’t have the guts to write as herself. This info is all from Wikipedia, by the way.

I’ve been kind of haunted by this book since I read it. At first, when I finished it, I thought 'what the fuck'. I wasn’t sure if I even liked it or not. Since then I’ve been thinking about it a little, and it reminds me of so many things. It reminds me of a cross between: Vernon God Little, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Wetlands. And also maybe a little bit of The End of Alice and Lolita.

The more I think about it, the more I think it’s kind of a strangely brilliant book.

Cherry Vanilla is twelve years old and lives in a motel truck stop with Sarah, his hooker mother. He wants to be a lot lizard, just like her, and one day gets taken under the wing of Glad, the truck stop pimp. Glad wants to train him, and wants Cherry to start off slow, but he/she’s impatient and runs away to another truck-stop to get blessed by a road-kill Jackalope. While she’s there, she meets another pimp called Le Loup, who commandeers her. She decides to take on her mother's name, and doesn't tell anyone there that she's really a boy. Then for a while she works as some sort of saint, blessing the truckers who come to see her, but she gets away with being a boy because no one is allowed to touch her. Oh, and Le Loup pays her in Barbies.

Eventually, her ‘powers’ begin to wear off and the truckers and Le Loup grow tired of her. Eventually, they find out that Sarah is actually a boy when one of the cooks tries to have sex with her. Eventually she gets sent off to a more low-rent truck stop where he now has to work as a male hooker, until he’s rescued by his former pimp, Glad.

It’s… so weird. But also incredibly well done. For something that’s only 160 pages long, I’m having real trouble summing it all up in an easy way. It's definitely a very strange take on a coming-of-age story. It’s also a very feverish and sensual book, in a lot of ways. And I don’t mean that reading about young prostitutes is sensual. I mean that it’s set in the South, and the narration constantly refers to gorgeous food dishes, and silky fabrics. The whole thing feels very hot and swampy and overwhelming. Very close.

It also has quite a fantastical feel to it, for example when the prostitutes queue up to see the Jackalope, they are there to worship it and to look for special powers, such as the ability to tell what a john wants without him having to say it. Later, all the truckers believe that Sarah is a saint, which is of course a hoax. However this mystical feel threads itself all the way through the book, and even when it’s funny or unpleasant, it’s still kind of there.

When I first finished this, I thought I kind of hated it. A lot of it left me feeling very slimy, even though it's not all that graphic or sexual. There is a lot of implied violence, especially towards the lot lizards, however it's also very funny in places. I liked this a lot, but it still feels very elusive to me.

Next: How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

46/111 – Bed by David Whitehouse

This was one of the other recent Canongate purchases I made. Again, I bought it because I really liked the cover design and the whole look and feel of the book. I guess they really are doing something right in their design department.

I’m not totally sure how I felt about this book, and so this is probably going to be a pretty short review, because I don’t have all that much to say about it. I read this book when I was visiting my friend Emily in Manchester. I had read a little of it before heading up on the train, but it’s almost a 4 hour journey to get there, so I was hoping to have it finished at some point over the weekend. As it happened, I was about to be struck down with a cold, so I ended up sleeping for most of the journey on the way up there. By the time I got there, I had become so ill that I had to leave a day early to recuperate before going back to work. Moderately ill, but freakishly alert, I finished the rest of Bed and even managed to read the whole of Sarah by JT Leroy, which was also a bizarre experience.

I often think that the pleasure I get out of reading a book is as much a consequence of the circumstances under which I’m reading it as the quality of the book itself. As such, I didn’t really enjoy bed all that much. It was good, but felt slightly floppy and unsubstantial, which is also how I was feeling at the time.

On his 25th birthday, Mal decides not to get out of bed ever again. For the next twenty years, he stays there, growing to over 100 stone in weight as he is waited on hand and foot by his adoring mother. The story is told by Mal’s younger brother, and switches between the present, as Mal waits to give his first television interview in 20 years, and their childhood together.

I can’t remember the name of the narrator, and I’m too lazy to pick up the book right now and find out his name, but I feel like that’s pretty appropriate since he spends his life figuratively and then literally living in Mal’s huge shadow.

The writing was great and it was a fairly interesting idea, but it just didn’t hold me. It wasn’t quite all the way interesting the whole way through, and seemed to sputter a little and just fizzle out. Plus I was ill while I was reading it, so maybe I wasn’t giving it the full beam of my reading powers.

Next: Sarah by J. T. Leroy