Thursday, 26 January 2012

Birdy by William Wharton - A F(l)ight for the ideal life

I have always lived in three states of time - the past, the future, and the dream. The past I use for recreational purposes - when I want to cry I think of all sorrows and disappointments; when I want to smile I cherish all those moments when I acted out of myself, when I committed a "crime" against society's opinion, which ultimately made me feel like a God. The future I usually imagine in bright (very) colors after that second bottle of wine, when I make promises I am never going to fulfill and when getting that next step to perfection (which so far is the aim of my life) seems so easy. The dreams I value the most. In them I am not bounded by what happened in the past or by how this is going to affect my future. In my dreams I can be anywhere I want; I can change patterns; I can invent new ways; I can transform time and space; I can even transform people to suit my dreams. In dreams I accomplish something neither the past nor the future can give me. I accomplish freedom. Freedom of society's rules, of people's expectations, of daily obligations, of parents' judgements, of even my friends' judgements. I can be free out there. Trivial, but free as a bird.

When I read Birdy by William Wharton I instantly felt this was my book. It takes place in the past and in the dreams and it merely discusses prospects of the future. But it never stays in the present. The present is filled with despair, loneliness, grief, and suffering. What counts is the past and our dreams of a better present. Upon these two sort of realities the friendship between two opposing characters is revealed. Al is the strong, the wrestler, the fighter who looks at ways to conquer the world, to get revenge at some imaginary (or not) enemy, to be unbeatable. Birdy, his best friend, is different. Throughout his childhood and teens he is obsessed with canaries. He is one of those weird people you see with a strange obsession. Birdy's infatuation with birds, though, is more than an obsession. For him this is a way to escape the meticulous, unfair, and lonely life and to get closer to his ideal - to fly. His greatest happiness comes from breading canaries, from endlessly observing their lifestyle and habitat, from helping them mate, from listening to their songs, and most importantly - from learning how to fly like them. Throughout the years Birdy's obsession increases - he now dreams of being a bird. The present is no longer a desirable present for him; he prefers his dream life, where he acts, eats, sleeps, reproduces, and flies as a canary. The two realities coincide simultaneously in his mind, leading to a deep confusion and a mental illness.

Those two opposite characters remain friends despite their differences until they are separated by WWII. I wouldn't go into much detail as to what war does to people; I think I've discussed that quite extensively in Remarque's fiction. What I would say, though, is Al and Birdy return damaged from the war. One physically, the other one mentally. Al is hit severely in the head and in the stomach and returns from the battlefield, much to his own delight. Wharton here gives us the real world - the one where soldiers are afraid to death on the battlefield; the one where they dream of returning safely; the one where bravery and glory are substituted by fear and simple sense of self-protection. Birdy returns from the war under Catch 8 - he believes and he acts as if he is a bird and is thus trapped in a mental institution. Al is called in to help his childhood friend remember he is just a human. The other reality emerges - the stories of the past Al keeps telling his friend are both simple but powerful proofs of a friendship that doesn't make sense on the outside, but fits perfectly on the inside. Both trapped in their own inquisition, Birdy and Al are looking for ways to continue their life in a world, where despair and desolation are predominant, and where love and compassion are forbidden words.

What I loved about the novel are the birds. Birdy's experience in raising, observing, and learning from the canaries spans more than half of the book. And I get to think - are there more similarities or differences between birds and people? Birds (as people) are born helpless, without any skin to protect them. Their parents take care of them, learning them how to fly, how to eat, how to interact, and how to sing. Birds try flying so many times; they fall constantly, yet they continue trying until they succeed. Not all birds are meant to fly and to sing though; only the toughest, the persistant, the never giving-up are the ones who are able to see the sky within limits. Birds mate and love as well. The male chases, the female runs. Then they both take care of the family until the little ones are big enough to leave the nest and take care of themselves. But birds are different in one aspect - they are free and they can fly. They are not bounded by any rules, any prejudices, any judgements. They see the sky and they take it. Life is simple without complications, without too much thought, without asking the inevitable "why" questions. Unlike humans, who used their brain to construct a cage they now call civilization and are now using that same brain to try and escape from it. In that sense, can you blame Birdy's obsession and his desire to be a bird and not a human? Can you really not envy the canaries? Can't you see how simple everything could be if only we could be free. Not only by society, but free from ourselves. Because everyone has its own cage of inquisitions - and it is usually the head.

PS: The present shouldn't be considered in reading this review or this novel. The present is only there so that we can remember the past and dream of another world. Nothing else.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

It's not to early to call Ken Follet's Fall of Giants a classic!

When I hear "This book is a classic" I usually think of a really long, somewhat boring novel, which I know I have to read because it possesses enormous literary qualities (most of the times). All we now perceive as "classic literature" is written by longly dead writers, who are ultimately said to be genius. But what happens when something so brilliant, so interesting, so provoking, and so well written appears and the author is still well living. The novel has been out for only a couple of years yet you read it and you feel it is going to be read 100 years from now. I had this feeling (as many others did) when I read Ken Follet's masterpiece Fall of Giants. For quite a long time I haven't read something that makes me stay up until my eyes close, that makes me run after classes in order to finish "that one chapter" and that takes my breath away in wondering what will happen next.

What makes Ken Follet so interesting and so easy to read are undoubtedly his qualities of a story teller. The British-born author takes the difficult (and somewhat boring) subject of WWI and turns it into an exciting and compelling tale of greed and pride, of love and prejudice, of war and peace. Indeed, Fall of Giants is a magnificent historical masterpiece. It encompasses the years before the war, the events that lead to its outbreak, the actual fighting, the peace, and the consequences for all the big nations involved in it. Follet describes this important time of the 21st century through the destiny of 5 interrelated families. The British aristocracy in the face of Fitz, his Russian wife, and his emancipated young sister Mod, who fights for the equality of women. The Welsh - a poor family, in which the men earn their living in the mines, while the women are predestined to be servants of the wealthy. The American Gus Dewar, who pursues a career in the office of president Wilson. The two Russian brothers, who dream of escaping the poverty under the Tsarist rule and to sail to the dream land of America. And the Germans - the most controversial ones, the ones who supposedly caused the war with their greed and pride. The fates of these characters intermingle constantly, forming complex relationships spanning on three continents.

Follet easily travels from Moscow to Washington, from Berlin to London and to Paris, from the dirty mines of Cardiff to the White house and presents a thorough picture of the war and the way it affects the mighty and the ordinary. The Russian revolution, the fight for women rights, the outbreak of the war, the desire for territorial power, the whole historical background is perfectly researched and genuinely presented. Not in one time does the novel become boring or slow; it manages to keep the reader entangled in the story, compassionate to the characters, angry with the unfairness, and sorry for the victims. You find yourself constantly exclaiming: "It would have been so easy to prevent the war if..." However, the greed of the Germans, the pride of the British, the turbulences in Russia, and the quest for democracy in the US couldn't in anyway coexist together. The war was inevitable; the end was disastrous. Follet ingeniously shows us the complexity of human relationships in an international concept, with diverse countries such as Germany, Russia, France, and US trying to coexist together.

The only weakness in Follet's Fall of Giants is the presentation of some of the characters. While Walter, the german spy who falls in love with the emancipated Mod, Edith, the servant, who manages to break into the political world of London, Grigori and Lev, the two Russian brothers, who take totally different paths are extremely powerful, some other characters fail to grasp the attention. Gus, the American, feels somewhat shallow and incomplete. Fitz, the English lord cannot strike as the ultimate prejudiced aristocrat. Even Billy, Edith's brother who goes from the mines to the battlefield seems a weak and unattractive character. I give Ken Follet that - creating a historical epos spanning through continents and social classes, it is often difficult to maintain the completeness of your characters. Still, this weakness in representation ruins a bit the overall expression of the novel.

Nevertheless, Fall of Giants is certainly predestined to become a classic. This is only the first book of the planned trilogy, that is going to follow further the destinies of these five families in the turbulently changing environment of the 21st century. I value this book because it objectively shows how and why we came to WWI without pointing fingers or blaming. The Germans, the British, the Americans, the French, the Russians, the Asians, all of them had their part in the outbreak of the war; and all of them bore the consequences. The mighty fall, the ordinary die, and the world changes. From our point of view now, we know that this was just the beginning. WWI and the peace afterwards didn't solve the issues. I look forward to Follet's second and third books, which will explore the subsequent years and hopefully the Second World War, which is by far much more interesting and controversial. I sincerely believe Mr Follet has the power to create a trilogy that will be long given as an example of a strong and compelling historical epos.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Tatiana de Rosnay's Secret Kept - Much Better than International Bestseller Sarah's Key

I've rarely been one to follow trends (excluding music, where I am painfully commercial. Bring over Rihanna and Sean Paul, please!). Everything else, clothes, people, and especially books I have an opinion that almost never converges to the general public's. Same applies to my reflection on Tatiana de Rosnay's fiction.

Sarah's Key is an international bestseller selling millions of copies worldwide. People (very general, huh?) get touched by the sad story of a Jewish girl, who is taken away together with her family and brought to a stadium without food, water, or shelter. She leaves her little brother in a secret wardrobe and promises to come and rescue him but that never happens. Sarah's story is investigated by a journalist, whose family happens to inhabit the same house. I already commented on Sarah's Key a few months ago and as you might see I was far less impressed by it.

Coming back for Christmas my aunt decided that the time has come for YET another novel by Tatiana de Rosnay, i.e A Secret Kept. You could imagine my mere excitement but the good person I am (my family disagrees on that topic) I sat down and as a good girl read it cover to cover. It is not a breathtaking, body-shaking, or life-changing novel but it is much better than Sarah's Key.

Plot is a little bit trivial. Antoine Rey, a recently divorced, depressed, and lonely middle aged man takes his sister Melanie on a trip for her birthday. They go to a French island they used to visit as kids. Memories of their deceased mother re-appear after a terrible accident and Antoine is set to discover the mystery behind his mother's death and the reason why the family doesn't mention her anymore. Meanwhile, he struggles to deal with his growing-up teenagers, his ex-wife's new lover, his father's sickness, and his new-found affection for a mysterious woman. The typical family saga that makes housewives read breathlessly, that requires little focus from the mind, but that indeed has some positive features worth mentioning.

First of all, Tatiana de Rosnay's style is easily recognizable here. Changing point-of-views, introducing letters/thoughts of characters that never appear in the novel (Sarah, or here Antoine's mother), and deeply elaborating on the feelings of the middle-aged person trying to fight with the disturbances of life. More importantly, though, Rosnay touches a rather sensitive subject, which I found enjoyable - parents. What we think about them as children is rarely what we think about them as we grow up. When we are little, we see mum and dad as these heroic human beings, who have no flaws, who make no mistakes, and who always know best. It is extremely painful to grow up and realize that the piedestal you have put your dad (mum) on is too fragile. It is even more painful to see this piedestal crash into pieces and to realize your parents are as every other people on earth (sometimes even worse), to get a sense of their flaws (sometimes too much to bear), and to start appreciating them (accepting them) for who they are. Antoine is in a similar position. Set out to discover the mystery behind his mother's death, he goes deep into family secrets he is not sure he wants to know. At the end the conflict is clear - are you ready to discover things about your parents you never suspected, things that are so outrageous for their time that prompted the whole family to cover up the whole story, things that make your mother seem so different from what you imagined. It requires a lot of strength and courage to open up the family album and to see the real parents. Especially when the parent is deceased and cannot give you any explanation. Antoine takes this next step, realizing it is better to know the truth than to live in denial and ignorance.

The mystery part of the book was indeed good and entertaining. As for the others (i.e teenager problems, middle-age depression, jealousy, love) they are as predictable as Turkish soap operas. Of course at the end love conquers it all, which left me with a bad taste after the solving of the mystery. But hey, one has to give something to those housewives.

I was rather shocked when I saw that Tatiana de Rosnay was named one of the top 3 fiction writers for 2010 together with Dan Brown and Stieg Larsson. I am a moderate fan of Dan Brown (after the 3rd book he becomes painfully predictable) but Stieg Larsson is a genius (may he RIP). This comparison is far overrated in favor of Mrs Rosnay. The Millenium Trilogy (Book 1, 2, and 3) is classes above Rosnay's fiction both in terms of suspense and human psychology. Still, if you come across Tatiana de Rosnay, don't be quick to look the other direction. There is some potential for something more there.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Happy New Year with Erich Maria Remarque and Three Comrades

What was it? New Year - new luck? New Year - new resolutions? I would say - New Year - a new blog and a new book!

I feel extremely guilty for abandoning reading and writing whatsoever for the past two months, but whoever said that when you go through a break-up or any sort of emotional breakdown, you find consolation in your most favorite activities, obviously never went through a break-up. Any form of social activity, movies, reading, or in other words any form of enjoyable act was totally foreign to me for the past few months. I dug into studying and feeling sorry for myself (God, I miss that time, it was awesome), of crying and looking into the mirror (and I actually look sort of pretty when I cry), and into eating tons of sweet stuff (one can totally see the result). Gladly, this period is over, I am back to my normal (weird?) self and I will prove it the only way I can - with a book.

Fourth book by Erich Maria Remarque I read. To be honest, it is going to be the last for quite a long time. Not that I do not enjoy Remarque and not that I in any way undermine his talent. It is just that he is too difficult and too overwhelming at some points.

Three Comrades doesn't deviate from Remarque's traditional style I already saw in The Black Obelisk, A Time to Love and a Time to Die, and The Night in Lisbon. Our disillusioned and depressed character is present again. Of course, Robert (or how they call him Robbie) has participated in WWI and now has to deal with the damages of post-war time in poor and collapsing Germany. He lives a somewhat lonely life, accompanied mostly by his two comrades from the war. Life is difficult, challenging, and depressing. Money is worthless, people are worthless, and love is fleeting and unstable. In that time of despair and loneliness, the only end to a suffering and the only source of enjoyment are the little things. Boring and predictable, you would say. Well, when you have nothing else to hold on, when you work for an auto-repair store, when you barely find money to eat and drink, and when love somehow eludes, you, you stick to your comrades and you attempt to enjoy life in every small aspect.

Until of course, you meet love. Love...I no longer wonder why we always search for love. Even if we have an amazing job, amazing friends, an amazing house, we always feel there something else to it. Well of course, books, movies, magazines, everything bombards us with the theory that a)if you don't find love you are incomplete and b)when you find love, everything else just fixes itself and/or your daily problems no longer matter. Robbie also meets love in the face of the young and fragile Patricia. Their relationship evolves slowly but unfortunately is predestined to a tragic end. At the end, though, which is better - to love but to lose or not to love at all. I would leave the choice to you.

Several images reappear in Remarque's novels making you feel somehow even closer to the writer. The war (well of course). The cemetery. The prostitutes. The comrades from the war. The fragile lady the main character falls in love with. The all-consuming love that goes beyond what the human mind can grasp. And the end of it. What all of this encompasses for me is a thing I am going to call Remarque's world. Definitely not optimistic but strikingly real, it describes life as it is. Ups and downs, friends and enemies, gains and losses, ultimately forming characters you can do nothing but admire.

Bottom line, I said almost nothing about the plot because it is frankly not important. What Three Comrades gives you is a feeling. A feeling of a devastation after a world war. A feeling of sorrow and hopelessness. A sorry feeling for all those poor souls who have to fight to survive. A feeling of a great friendship - one that goes beyond daily problems, one that prompts your best friend to sell his most precious item in order to help you, one that makes your friend commit a crime in order to be there for you. And of course love. In its realest, most purest form, where nothing is only roses and smiles, but where every day is a battle. At the end, are you the loser because you lost your loved one or the winner because you managed to love in a time where people are only able to hate?