Sunday, 25 September 2011

Deal me in

Casino Royale (1953) by Ian Fleming is the first novel to feature British Secret Service agent James Bond. Villainous Le Chiffre, from the Soviet counterintelligence agency “SMERSH”, is participating in a high stakes baccarat game at a French casino. In attendance are Bond and his female companion Vesper Lynd, CIA Agent Felix Leiter, and Rene Mathis from the French Duexieme Bureau.  After many rounds of baccarat, described in detail, by Fleming, Bond succeeds. Le Chiffre kidnaps Vesper as ransom for Bond’s winnings. When Bond attempts rescue, he is tortured. Vesper cares for the injured Bond as he recuperates in hospital, and the two become lovers. However Vesper holds a secret, which is revealed in a surprising twist at the end.

There were many lines in the book that got my feminist back up. For example: These blithering women who thought that they could do a man’s work. Why the hell couldn’t they stay at home and mind their pots and pans and stick to their frocks and gossip and leave men’s work to the men.

However it was written in the 1950s and many of the dated misogynist sentiments are laughable when read today (although his description of an encounter as having “the sweet tang of rape” is certainly not amusing). Fleming writes with such detail - the description of the baccarat game in particular is long and tedious. Missing here, for those who only know of Bond from the films, are the explosions and other action sequences. The book is fairly tame by comparison.

The 2006 film version of Casino Royale is the first to feature actor Daniel Craig as Bond. The film brings Fleming’s book to life and reinvigorated the Bond film franchise. The film adds in global locations (Bahamas, Miami Montenegro, Venice, as well as various places in Africa), romance, adventure (the opening sequence of running through a building site was amazing), action (blowing up planes, cars etc.) and updates the game to poker, which would be better understood by modern audiences than baccarat. The film is visually stunning and I really enjoyed it. My main criticism is the overt product placement that appeared throughout. But I admired Craig’s portrayal and the fact that his Bond got injured in fights unlike his pretty boy predecessors who emerged from encounters unscathed. Craig’s Bond is more faithful to Fleming’s vision of the character than any other actors who have portrayed him.

Fleming’s novels are interesting spy thrillers focusing on the Cold War. Bond is dark, cold, ponderous and a creature of his era – sexist and snobby. While I could do without the sexism, I enjoyed the novel. It is a quick read and a good introduction to Fleming’s work.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Not my slice of Pi

One of my blog readers enquired about whether I would ever write a negative review, as so far my reviews have all been favourable. I tend to stop reading disagreeable books. I don’t see the point of forcing myself to read something I am not enjoying but I often come back to them later when I am more in the mood. However, from time to time I read books that I do not like. One such novel is The Life of Pi (2001) by Yann Martel. 
I bought The Life of Pi because I collect books by Canadian authors and this novel won the Booker Prize in 2002, had rave reviews, and was on all the best sellers’ lists. I thought the premise sounded interesting and, adding all these factors together, that it would be worth a read.

The story is about Piscine Patel, known as Pi, and his early life in India where is father owns a zoo. As a young Hindu, Pi explores Christianity and Islam. The family sells the zoo and moves to Canada, travelling by boat with some of their animals. The boat sinks and Pi, the sole human survivor, ends up in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, orang-utan, zebra and hyena. Pi floats along at sea for 227 days while the animals eat each other (described in graphic detail).

The book is divided into thirds. I probably should have quit reading it after the first third, but because of all the best-selling, prize-winning hype, I kept at it hoping it would get better… It didn’t. It just got more violent and gory and duller leaving me disappointed and flat. I don't even feel it was well written.

So, while I absolutely hated The Life of Pi and can never get those hours of my life back,  reading it did teach me some important lessons. First, just because a novel wins a major literary award doesn’t necessarily mean it is actually any good. Second, just because thousands of people rushed out to buy it, putting it on the bestseller list, doesn’t mean that these people actually read it. So popularity and literary kudos do not always mean a winning formula for creating a reading list. 

Monday, 19 September 2011

Carrying the fire

Across a bleak and barren landscape a man and his son journey south to the sea in an attempt to flee the winter’s cold.  They march on through the rain, over the ash-covered streets and fields, pushing a supermarket cart with all of their belongings – a tarpaulin, blanket, some canned goods.

An unnamed event has destroyed civilisation and only a handful of survivors remain. While some are nomadic ‘good guys’ with no intention of harming others, there are also tribes of cannibals scavenging the desolate land for food in any form.

The man and his son rely on each other. The father is unwell and fears for the boy. He gives him a revolver with one round in it and tells the boy to use it on himself if he is about to be captured. As they make their way toward the sea, the man tries to impart as many life lessons as he can upon his son.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) is an extraordinary novel of post-apocalyptic life. It is a brilliant page-turner, poetic in its prose.  Told in short staccato sentences, The Road is atmospheric and vivid. With few words McCarthy creates this world. By cutting out excess verbiage he strips the story down to its roots allowing the reader to fill in the gaps. The themes that underpin the story - good and evil, love and hate, life and death – are captured in the man’s teachings to his son. They are the ‘good guys’, the ones ‘carrying the fire’. The hope of the whole world is in the boy.

McCarthy is my favourite contemporary author and The Road is among my most loved as he writes with such mastery – saying so much with so few words. Confronting and moving, I could not put it down and read it in one sitting. I felt so emotionally connected to the story, to the bond between the father and his son, that for days and weeks afterwards I thought of them and their predicament. Despite the bleakness of the subject matter, ultimately it is a story of hope and love.

The Road was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2007 and was adapted into an excellent film in 2009 starring Viggo Mortensen as the father and Kodi Smit-McPhee as the boy.  I recommend reading the book before seeing the film so as to appreciate McCarthy’s words and to allow you to imagine the world he created without the influence of the film. 

Sunday, 18 September 2011

The Lowe-Down on Hollywood

When I was a teen the walls of my bedroom were plastered with posters of actors and musicians I admired. For many years, in prime position, was a large poster of Rob Lowe, with cigarette and saxophone, in character as Billy from St Elmo’s Fire. For most young girls in the 1980s he was an icon: pretty-boy and bad-boy rolled into one. 

Stories I only tell my friends (2011) is Rob Lowe’s memoir of the highs and lows of his life and acting career. It is told as a series of stories as if he is sitting down with the reader and reminiscing about ‘this one time…’.

Lowe had a fairly unsettling childhood in Dayton, Ohio: his parents divorced when he was five; mom remarried and was divorced again by the time Rob was 12; his father was absent for much of his life and his mother struggled with serious mental health issues. Despite this, Rob knew at an early age that he wanted to act. He was involved in community theatre and sought out every celebrity that came to town for advice.

Moving to Malibu at 12, Rob became friends with Emilio Estevez, Charlie Sheen and Chris Penn. He travels by bus across Los Angeles to audition for every part going, does some after-school specials, and crosses paths with Janet Jackson, LeVar Burton, Sarah Jessica Parker, Daryl Hannah, Melissa Gilbert, Dean Cain, Ron Howard and various others who would go on to become big names.

Lowe’s big break was Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders and he spends a lot of time describing his time on and off set with Matt Dillon, Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, and the other actors who would experience a meteoric rise in stardom in the early 1980s. He goes on to tell stories of his post-Outsiders successes and failures; his relationships with a string of actress, models and royals; his involvement in a sex tape scandal; his battle with alcoholism that sends him to rehab; his move into comedy (Wayne’s World); his interest in politics; his marriage and parenthood; and eventually his experiences as Sam Seaborn on The West Wing.

While I enjoy autobiographies, I don’t often read celebrity memoirs. Despite my teenage crush on Rob Lowe, I didn’t really have much interest in him until he returned to prominence in The West Wing. But I read an excerpt of the book in Vanity Fair (May 2011) and enjoyed the candour with which Lowe described his auditions for Outsiders, which sparked my interest in his insider’s view of Hollywood. Reading the whole book, I found Lowe to be entertaining, witty and insightful. He can also be humble and self-depreciating. While there were parts that I wish he’d explored more deeply (he skims over some of the seedier aspects of his life), I respect his decision to tell his story the way he wanted to.  

Friday, 9 September 2011

At the Edge of a Cliff

I recently became reacquainted with Holden Caulfield, the hero of my teenaged years. First introduced to me in a high school English class, I came across my old dog-eared and yellowed copy of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and was instantly reminded of how intimately I once knew and cherished it.

A few weeks before Christmas 1949, seventeen-year-old Holden has been expelled from Pencey Prep School for flunking out of everything except English. Unable to go home and face his parents, Holden packs his bags and takes the train to New York City where he spends the next few days aimlessly trying to decide what to do and where to go. While Holden contemplates his future he encounters prostitutes, pimps, taxi drivers, nuns, old girlfriends and a former English teacher.

The novel is told from Holden’s perspective – a stream of consciousness monologue in which he frequently uses phrases like “that killed me” or referring to everyone as “old” (Old Ackley, Old Stradlater, Old Allie etc). Holden rails against the phonies of the world: the fake; the superficial; and the pretentious. He is bored and ungrounded with a lack of interest in most things. He lies compulsively, inventing tales to thwart his ennui.

Holden’s angst is central to the novel. He is immature yet deeply thoughtful. He is also anxious and desperate to preserve childhood from the corruption and phoniness of adult life. He seeks to protect his beloved younger sister Phoebe and maintain her childish naiveté forever. Misinterpreting a Robert Burns’ poem, Holden sees himself catching children running from a rye field before they fall off a cliff.

There are laugh out loud moments as Holden describes his thoughts and gets himself in to some strange situations. But more compelling are the moments of tremendous tenderness. Holden is lonely and sensitive and wants desperately to connect to the world around him. Will he ever find a place he belongs? Can he ever be happy? These are questions we all ask ourselves at some point in our lives.

The Catcher in the Rye is one of the best novels of the 20th century. It has been frequently censored for its themes and language, which seem so tame and uncontroversial in modern times. On re-reading Catcher as an adult I have a deeper appreciation of the underlying themes and the quality of Salinger’s writing. I have now bought a new copy to treasure and am sure I will read and re-read this version time and again. 

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Who killed Boy Staunton?

The Manticore (1972) by Robertson Davies is the second book of the Deptford Trilogy. It begins where Fifth Business left off, with the mysterious death of Percy Boy Staunton.

Boy’s son David, a Canadian lawyer in his forties, attempts to come to terms with his father’s death by going to Switzerland and engaging in an intensive program of Jungian analysis. In therapy with Dr Von Haller, David describes his unhappy life from childhood to the present as he tries to reconcile his feelings for his larger-than-life father.

Robertson Davies’ humour is evident in this novel - the description of his father’s death mark and in the relationship between David and his sister Caroline – are outright hilarious. But the novel feels much bleaker with the Jungian analysis allowing for exploration of David’s repressed Shadow self.

David’s therapy sessions are the basis of the novel – in the form of his diaries interspersed with dialogue between David and Dr Von Haller. His dreams of the mythical manticore (a beast with the head of a man, body of a lion and tail of a scorpion) and other archetypes are analysed. Readers with a keen interest in psychology will enjoy the theory and perhaps have a deeper engagement with the book.

Along the way David gives his perspective on events that appeared in Fifth Business from Dunstan Ramsey’s point of view. Where the two novels dovetail is a particular delight and demonstrate the genius of Robertson Davies’ ability to depict the layers of complexity in human relationships.

After a year of therapy, David encounters Dunstan Ramsey, Magnus Eisengrim and their companion Liesl in Switzerland and spends the Christmas holidays with the trip in a gothic mansion. David learns more of his father from them but becomes more perplexed about the identity of his father’s killer.

While the ending of the novel is open, the third book World of Wonders (1975) promises to add more depth to the tale of the three boys from Deptford with intertwined lived.

I enjoyed this book but not to the same extent as Fifth Business (I missed Ramsey). In many ways The Manticore feels like a bridge in the trilogy, an awkward middle child. But I look forward to reading World of Wonders (1975) to round out the series. 

See also: 
My review of  Fifth Business (1970)