Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Can I Write a Novel?

Several months ago a strange idea popped into my head - I decided that I want to write a novel. I tried to push that idea away - after all I have always been bad at writing. I am a math person - I enjoy logical subjects, where the problem has one and only one solution. No other roots to take, no alternative ways to measure. Simple. Black and white. Writing, on the other hand, is much more different. There is no right or wrong answer. You can write the most amazing story and still some people will love it, while others will hate it.

I follow the maxima The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it in almost everything I do. From that boy I liked over at the disco, through that dress I want so much but I can't afford right now, and finally to the novel I want to write. I resisted the temptation mainly due to the response I met from people around me. Most of them, to be honest, decided this was one of my crazy ideas, which will keep me excited for a few months and then will fade away. Like the time I decided I wanted a dog. Or when I said I was only going to work and study this summer. Or when I was almost ready to give up university and come back home.

However, this time it is different. Writing my own blog devoted to reading has been one of my biggest pleasures lately. I even started opening Read with Style even before Facebook (imagine that). I got excited when someone has been reading or commenting on my posts. So, this time my temptation is for real. And I am going to yield to it.

After all, let's take for example Paolo Giordano. A brilliant physicist, doing a PhD on elementary particles. Nothing to do with literature whatsoever. Still, his novel The Solitude of Prime Numbers (check my review) is indeed very good and inspirational. And what about Jordan Belfort. A Wall Street genius, a fraud, or a junkie, he wrote his autobiographie. Both The Wolf of Wall Street and Catching the Wolf of Wall Street (again reviewed in my blog) became a huge success and even inspired Martin Scorsese and Leo DiCaprio to film it. So, I figured, if a physicist and a financier can write a novel, so can a slightly neurotic, highly ambitious, and cutely weird girl.

I am realistic and I know that it will take me a while to write the novel. But unlike all other aspects of my life, towards which I am highly impatient, surprisingly I do not rush the novel. I write when I want to write and when I feel I want to say something. I do not have a time frame or a dedicated slot of the day when I have to write. Maybe that is how I differ from a real writer, who spends every day pouring his thoughts on a sheet of a paper.

To prepare myself for this task I even started reading some insights on how to become a good writer. I discussed the novel-to-be with a friend of mine, who studies Creative Writing. She gave me one of the best advice - do not try to tell everything you want to. It is simply impossible. Instead choose a topic and stick to it.

Understandingly, we come to the topic. It is still a secret and only a few people know what it is going to be about. I prefer it that way until I have a clear image of what and how I want to write. I just know what my first sentence is going to be. Quite a beginning but I am optimistic. Of course, I do not intend to be the next Carry Bradshaw or some bullshit of that sort. I just want to share some thoughts with the rest of the world. And if I am very lucky, at least one person will take the moral and benefit from my experience. And isn't that why every writer writes? At least, this is a big part of my motivation.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Three Women Take a Brave Step in a Racist US Society

The Help by Kathryn Stockett is certainly the most discussed book of this summer. Successful marketing and PR techniques, or indeed a new bestseller, I decided to check it out and I became one of the fashionable wanna be's (if you do not know most celebrities, including Sarah Jessica Parker are seen carrying it around) and I bought the novel.

Although I do not fancy reading about racist conflicts in the USA, the Ku Klux Klan and so on, I was pleasantly surprised by Stocket's novel. It is told by the perspective of three women - Aibileen, a middle aged African-American maid, who has taken care of 17 white babies, Minny, an edgy and restless African-American maid, who has lost her jobs many times due to her incontinent thong, and Skeeter, a young white woman, who just graduated from university and returned home. The plot is set in the 1960s, in a small city Jackson, Mississipi, torn by racial prejudices, scandals, and intolerance. In this dangerous atmosphere, where African-Americans are beaten because they enter white stores or use white toilets these three women take a brave step. Skeeter, a future writer to be, decides to write a novel from the perspective of the African-American maids. Aibileen and Minny, followed by other brave maids, share their experience with their white masters. They do not reserve any juicy detail - from the insults, beatings, and the contempt to their unlimited love and affection for the little white children they take care off. This initiative, especially in one of the blackest states in the USA, is about to change their perspectives, to motivate them not to give up, but also to put in danger their lives.

I must admit the book is a little bit overrated. It is indeed a good reading but not a masterpiece or a bestseller as carefully prepared and installed PR propaganda claimed it to be. Still, I found many positive aspects. The Help is positive and inspiring; it shows great love, affection, and understanding from the African-American maids. These women are strong and independent; they are learned not to give up and to take care of themselves despite the difficulties. A careful reader may benefit from the simple, yet immensely important life truths - be good to others and to yourself, always search and tell the truth, and never judge other people by the way they look or the amount of money and social status they have.

I understand Kathryn Stockett's motivation behind writing this novel. She was born in Jackson, Mississipi and she was also raised by an African-American maid. As Stockett was growing up, her family insisted that her maid is different from them and doesn't deserve the same respect and possibilities. Kathryn loved her maid very much and claims her to be the biggest influence in her life. I see her image projected in Aibileen, who attempts to teach the little white child to be acceptive, motivated, and confident.

What I didn't enjoy about The Help was the constant change of the point-of-view. Stocket tells the story by alternating between Minny, Aibileen, and Skeeter. I understand she tried to give us a broader and more comprehensive picture by giving us the white and the black point-of-view. Still, I got a little bit confused from times to times.

As a conclusion, The Help by Kathryn Stockett is a good summer reading, which you might as well enjoy on the beach or resting at home. I personally finished the novel for 4 days because it is interesting and compelling. Still, you mustn't expect a profound and extensive description of the racist issues in the 1960s. It is simply a nice, optimistic story, which, I believe, Kathryn used to thank her maid for everything she has done for her.

PS:Interestingly, the Bulgarian translator (as I read it in Bulgarian) translated the title as The Maid. I don't know why such a decision was taken but I certainly do not approve of it. I believe a lot of the meaning the title conveys is lost with such a change. Anyways, it again proves the point that, if possible of course, it is always better to read a novel in the original language. Thus, you are protected from translator's mistakes or weird ideas.

Friday, 20 August 2010

James Clavell's King Rat

James Clavell's King Rat is maybe the best novel I have read in the last couple of months. Clavell demonstrates a rich life experience and a profound understanding of the human nature and its expression in various situations. With an enviable psychologism, the author portrays the detrimental effect of the war on the soldiers' spirituality; the ominous world cataclysm, which deprives these men of hope and belief and changes their relationship with others. 

The plot is set in the prison camp Changi in Singapur, where more then 10,000 warriors of the Allies (Australia, UK, and the USA) are kept by the Japanese government. The year is 1945 and the Second World War is coming to its end. These prisoners of war are living under terrible conditions - they are deprived of food, medicine, and normal sanitary utilities. The struggle of survival and the pursuit to adapt reveal the complexity of their characters. 

The protagonist, Peter Marlow, is an English officer, who strives to survive in the military prison camp. His friendship with The King (Clavell never mentions his real name) portrays the level to which war distorts and transforms human relationships. The King is an American soldier, who, through clever business and trade outside of the camp manages to live far better than the other inmates. He has surrounded himself with "loyal" subordinates, who in exchange of small services receive food and help from the King. The latter's most successful business idea is the farm of rats. The inmates start growing rats in order to sell their meat to the other warriors, claiming it to be chicken. At the end of the novel, the war is over and the camp is freed by the Allied forces. However, 3 years in Changi have dramatically changed these men. They are looked as alliens by the outside world; they are scared and insecure to return; they are not sure whether their loved ones are alive or waiting for them. With a great imagination Clavell gives us the destructive effect of war on the psychological and physical condition of these men. Even freed, they still feel afraid to return to the real world. 

James Clavell's King Rat somewhat reminded me of Pat Barker's Regeneration. In this novel the author depicts again the traumatic effect of war by examining a mental institution for warriors. Similarly, these men have seen terrible events on the battlefield and struggle to overcome them. 

The allusion to rats that Clavell makes is quite obvious. The life in the prison camp is difficult; hence only the strongest survive. As the author mentions at the end of the novel the strong rat eats the week, the clever one destroys the stupid, until only the fittest remain. Only to be substituted by better ones. In that sense the King is the strongest amongst the warriors. He successfully establishes business and trade relationships and controls the other soldiers by offering them food and shelter in exchange of services. At the end of the war, however, most of these soldier forget the help given to them by the King. He is now a simple officer, whom they threat as a subordinate, and not as a King. The reader even senses that the King misses the war and the sense of power and control it gave him in Changi. Only Peter Marlow remains loyal and honest to his friend, but the King refuses this friendship. He enters the real world weak, insecure, and unable to defend himself. Quite a change from the powerful and confident King we meet throughout the rest of the novel.

Clavell is amazing. Many claim this to be a manly novel because it largely focuses on the war. I, personally, enjoyed it a lot. The author's sense for the exotic (Singapur) combined with his great understanding of human nature and behavior results in an extensive gallery of characters, who, despite the difficulties, struggle to balance between life and death. 

My next destination in Clavell's world will be definitely Shogun, claimed to be one of the most eminent masterpieces in world literature. There, the author's fascination with the exotic is evident again, as he explores the rituals and norms in Medieval Japan. Can't wait. 

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

The Bronte Paradox - Wuthering Heights VS Jane Eyre

Three writers largely influenced the course of English literature in the middle of the 19th century. The three of them happened to be sisters. I give you Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte, or using their pseudonyms Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell.

From my modest literary experience I found a trend, which I will call The Bronte Paradox. Despite the family connection and the similar time period, Charlotte and Emily have a different writing style and distinct themes. I judge this by comparing Charlotte's Jane Eyre and Emily's Wuthering Heights. If I didn't knew they were sisters, I would have never guessed by simply reading these two novels.

Wuthering Heights is the grim love story of the rich daddy's girl Catherine and the violent and primitive Heathcliff. Their love is predestined to a tragic end due to the difference in social class. After Catherine's death Emily depicts with a great imagination Heathcliff's physical and mental cruelty. I enjoyed this gothic novel because it is very far from the traditional love story. Catherine is capricious and inconsistent; she marries Edgar, her cousin, because of his social status, but she remains in love with Heathcliff throughout her whole life. Heathcliff, on the other hand, is not the typical white knight. Quite the opposite - he is brutal, cruel, morose, and ill-mannered. Surprisingly, the novel doesn't end with Catherine's death but continues to explore Heathcliff's change afterwards and the destiny of their children. Without unnecessary sugar-coating, Emily Bronte gives us a non-conventional love story, which is highly influential.

The more popular sister, Charlotte Bronte, creates the typical happy ending love story. Jane Eyre very much reminded me of a worse version of Cinderella. Jane is an orphan, tormented by an aunt and cousins, who hate her. She spends her childhood in an orphanage, where her individuality is suppressed, and she finds a job in a rich house as a governess. Of course, Jane falls in love with the owner of the house, Edward Rochester, who happens to have a hidden crazy wife. For that reason Jane and Edward separate, only to reunite in several years and live happily ever after. Not only that, but Jane becomes very rich, when a distant relative of hers dies in the right moment and leaves her the only heiress. Trivial, banal, and absolutely boring.

Critics claim that Jane Eyre is one of the best English novels, far better than Emily's Wuthering Heights. I, however, find Charlotte's story too shallow and simple. We have heard a million times the story of the poor and tortured girl, who falls in love with a rich and handsome man, who doesn't care about social norms. Unlike her sister Emily, Charlotte depicts the white knight and pulls out of her ass the happy ending. Not only Jane and Edward meet again by very strange (and absolutely impossible in real life) circumstances, but Jane becomes rich agan by very impossible circumstances. Personally,Jane Eyre was an absolute loss of time.

To conclude, I would just mention that Jane Eyre is the 2nd most favorite English book. I can't imagine why. Yes, one of my favorite novels shares a similar plot - Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. The latter, however, impresses with Austen's great use of irony and satire to humour the norms and morals in 19th century England. Charlotte Bronte's novel lacks even powerful language and imagination.  Even I could come up with a better story.

If you still want to get a sense of the Bronte literature, I strongly suggest you read Wuthering Heights and then watch the movie. As for Jane Eyre, it is the longest version of Cinderella. Largely sugar-coated, extremely insubstantial, and overwhelmingly trivial.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Lorna Martin - Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

She is a journalist in the Scottish newspaper Observer. She has a stable and loving family, a good and successful job, and loyal and funny friends. Yet, somehow her life is a total disaster. She misses airplanes and appointments, she spends 2 nights in Thailand in a stranger taxi driver's home, and she falls in love with a married man. Her name is Lorna Martin, a successful woman of 35, who has a lot of dysfunctional relationships with men, who doesn't know who she is or what she wants of life. After the last stupid thing in her life, she decides to take measures in her own hands, draws a loan, and starts seeing a therapist to figure out what to do.

At the beginning Martin starts her own rubric in the magazine Grazia called Meetings with the Therapist. People love it so much that she decides to turn it into a book, Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Yes, the analogue is quite right - something like Carry Bradshaw but real. Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is the true story of a woman, whose life is a total mess. Martin is painfully honest, strikingly brutal, and amusingly ironic. I loved the book and I am sure every woman will. Lorna manages to uncover all those little secrets and mistakes we women tend to make but are too ashamed to share. And Lorna shares all of this using a unique sarcastic voice, which makes her novel easy and entertaining to read.

I sense that many of you will react Oh boy, yet another one of those self help books. Lorna Martin's Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is so much more than that. Even if you don't believe that seeing a therapist can help you solve your life issues, you will find Martin's honesty absolutely lovable. It takes a lot of bravery to unbare one's soul to that extent. Because Lorna doesn't reserve any saucy detail from her peripetia - from the unfortunate relationship with the married lawyer, whom she tortures with endless sentimental (and drunk) messages to the envy towards her sister and her friends' successes.

What I loved the most about the book is the character of Lorna's therapist, Dr. J. She is no regular therapist. Unfortunately, in the UK therapy is a very expensive pleasure and Lorna has to draw a loan since one seance with Dr. J costs more than her monthly rent (imagine that). At first Lorna absolutely detest Dr. J and her habit of answering every question with As you wish. Absolutely marvelous. What Dr. J (of course in my modest opinion) attempts to do is uncover Lorna's anger to determine why her life doesn't make any sense. After 12 months of intensive therapy (3 times a week) Lorna is a calmer, more organized, and more confident woman. Her misfortunes are behind her and finally her life is headed towards the right direction. Without hidden and suppressed feelings, without stupid and inconsiderate acts, and without obsession with men and relationships.

I recommend Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown because it is light and amusing to read. Martin's voice is compelling and her ability to satirize herself is admirable. Do not be tempted to believe that this is just a pro-therapy propaganda book. Recently I read an interview with Martin in the Bulgarian version of Grazia. Four years after therapy she is happily married and expecting her first child. Seems as if all of us can use a bit of therapy to help us discover feelings we didn't even knew we had, to get to know ourselves better, and to improve our relationship with the surrounding world. Lorna is a perfect example of the heeling effect of this therapy. Care (or may I say dare) to try?

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

I Wanna Be Still Me When I Wake Up and Have Breakfast at Tiffany's

You either love her or hate her. You either find her amazingly weird or disturbingly phony.  You either declare the novel your new most favorite book or you hate as too shallow. That’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote. That’s Miss Holly Golightly, traveler.

I bought Breakfast at Tiffany’s due to a recommendation from a friend of mine, who is a huge fan of Audrey Hepburn. For those of you falling from the moon today, she played Holly Golightly in the movie, and critics claim this to be her best role. The movie is a must-see but as with all book-based movies I certainly recommend reading the novel first. What I did was rather weird, as I watched it while in the middle of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

The story behind Breakfast at Tiffany’s is not important. Actually, I do not think there is a story whatsoever. Holly Golightly is the usual 20 something girl, who comes to the big city in search for a better life, to follow her dream or one of those bullshits everyone writes about. Sounds trivial but Holly is everything but trivial. On the outside she is phony and capricious; she throws loud parties and searches for a rich man to take care of her. Her favorite place is the jewelry store Tiffany’s where she likes to go and have her morning coffee and croissant. On the inside, she is romantic and sensitive, haunted by the ghosts of past mistakes.  Just like her name suggests, Holly passes through life lightly, as if she hardly steps. Yet, you can recognize her confusion and despair in any lost soul in a search for a relative happiness.

I must say I expected more from the novel. Critics insist that even if Capote didn’t write anything else, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is enough to put him among the greatest classics. Well, the novel is indeed good. What I loved about it is that it poses a question but leaves the answer open to interpretation. In other words, the reader is free to understand and relate to the novel depending on his/her moral views. So far so good. Still, I believe the value of Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a bit exaggerated. A very good, but not a marvelous masterpiece. 

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

The Genius of Historical Novels - Henryk Sienkiewicz

If you are looking for a historical novel, probably the best choice is the Polish journalist and Noble-prize winner Henryk Sienkiewicz. Born in the Russian-ruled Poland in the middle of the 19th century, Sienkiewicz wrote most of his historical novels set during the Polish Republic or Commonwealth. What can be noted about him is his negative portrayal of the German knights of the cross. This idea is most evident in the historical novel The Knights of the Cross.

The Knights of the Cross is set in the 14th century and it depicts the clash between the Poland kingdom, one of the most powerful kingdoms at that time, and the German knights of the cross. The conversion to Christianity is at its peak and most of the nations in Europe are already baptized. The German knights of the cross and the Polish kingdom struggle for influence in the Christian world. Through the story of a common knight, the Polish Zbishko and his uncle Machko, Sienkiewicz condemns the avarice, hypocrisy, and corruption of the German monks. The latter use God to justify their cruel and selfish actions, aimed not to baptize the European nations, but to increase their power and influence. Hidden behind Christianity as an excuse, the German knights of the cross subordinate the nations through murders, executions, and wars. Sienkiewicz, as a Polish citizen, is of course subjective, but he amazes the reader with his extensive historical knowledge and understanding.

Personally, I enjoyed the novel, although I found it a little bit too long. Of course, it didn't lack long and boring descriptions, which are actually typical for a historical novel. Still, Sienkiewicz manages to turn even the driest historical event into an exciting and compelling work of art. What is more, he uses authentic Polish language, the way he believed the Polish spoke during the 14th century.

Still, Quo Vadis, the historical novel dedicated to the time of Nero and the burning of Rome is better and more obsessive. I remember I read it at the seaside last year and I just couldn't take my hands off it. On the other hand, The Knights of the Cross, even though a masterpiece, is a more difficult reading. I wouldn't suggest it for the warm and sunny summer days.