Wednesday 30 May 2012

REVIEW: Rant - An Oral Biography of Buster Casey, by Chuck Palahniuk (4.5*)

(Vintage, 2008)

I've never read Palahniuk before, and although everyone raves about Fight Club, in particular, I wasn't really sure his famously oddball style would be 'my kind of thing'.  Happily, Rant turned out to be EXACTLY my kind of thing, which is why this review has taken so long to write.  It's always hardest to review the books we've loved most, isn't it?

I won't say too much about the plot, partly because there isn't one per se, and partly because I think this is really one those books that needs to be read WITHOUT knowing everything about it.  That way the reader can work things out for themselves and be swept along by the narrative without any preconceptions and erroneous ideas ruining the fun.  On the surface this is just what the name suggests: a fictional oral biography of a strange young man called Rant Casey, who has odd abilities, bizarre habits, and dangerous vices that include 'Party Crashing' - driving around at night in a kind of giant crazy game of dodgems - and being bitten by all kinds of venomous and diseased creatures.

But although Rant is at the centre of the novel, and everything ultimately returns to him, this is an incredibly reductive view of Palahniuk's vision.  It is also very much about the way society works and about the people in Rant's life over the years.  It is only as the book unfolds that you come to realise that Rant's America isn't the same as ours; it's a futuristic place with advanced media technology, and a society segregated into Daytimers and Nighttimers in an attempt to deal with overpopulation and road congestion.  As these things are explained by the various 'contributors' to Rant's biography, the book becomes almost like a fascinating non-fiction at times, kept manageable and well-paced by the broken-up oral-biography format. 

This really is an incredible book.  It has the energy of a Baz Lurhmann movie and the no-nonsense brutality of Quentin Tarantino's finest, all rolled into one.  I don't think I've ever read a book that feels so immediate and ALIVE.  It bristles with energy, like electricity sparking off the page.  As I turned the pages, I felt like I was in the hands of an expert manipulator; the building clues about Rant, about the new society, were all there, but I felt like I was working things out and getting little light-bulb moments EXACTLY when Palahniuk wanted me to.  Whatever he wanted me to feel - nauseated, tender, intrigued, repulsed - I did.  Even when I wasn't sure what was happening or where things were going, I felt 'safe' enough to accept it and carry on.  Like the Nighttimers' Party Crashing culture, I just held on tight and went along for the ride - and what a ride it was!

Rant definitely isn't going to be for everyone - there are some pretty extreme and unsettling moments thrown in along the way - but if you dare to dive in and go with it, you will find a novel that is simultaneously philosophical, amusing, disgusting, exciting, thoughtful, sensual, perplexing, shocking, stimulating and utterly brilliant.  Palahniuk throws out a continuous stream of ideas and observations, skewed through the different characters that make up the 'biography' and through the vaguely dystopian perspective.  I'm still thinking about it now, a couple of weeks later, asking questions and trying to work it out in my mind all over again.  Needless to say, I won't hesitate to read more Palahniuk now I've started.

Notable Quotables:
  • "The way Rant Casey used to say it: Folks build a reputation by attacking you while you're alive - or praising you after you ain't." - Wallace Boyer
  • "In the first forty-three seconds you meet a stranger, experts in human behaviour say that, just by looking at them, you decide their income, their age, their brains, and if you're going to respect them." - Wallace Boyer
  • "How weird is that?  A sexually conflicted thirteen-year-old rattlesnake-venom junkie with rabies - well, it's safe to say that's every father's worst nightmare." - Shot Dunyan
  • "It doesn't matter for crap that you've got three years of sobriety or that you finally look good in a two-piece bathing suit or you've met that perfect someone and you've fallen deeply, wildly, passionately in love.  Today, as you pick up your dry cleaning, fax those reports, fold your laundry, or wash the dinner dishes, something you'd never expect is already stalking you...  That bullet or drunk driver or tumor with your name on it, the way I tolerate that fact is by Party Crashing.  Here's one night when I control the chaos.  I participate with the doom I can't control.  I'm dancing with the inevitable, and I survive.  My regular little dress rehearsal." - Shot Dunyan
  • "There's worse ways to be dead than dying." - Shot Dunyan
  • "Every high school has its Romeo and Juliet, one tragic couple.  So does every generation." - Toni Wiedlin
  • "You could argue that we constantly change the past...  I close my eyes, and the Rant Casey I picture isn't the real person.  The Rant I tell you about is filtered and colored and distorted through me." - Shot Dunyan
  • "Ask yourself: What did I eat for breakfast today?  What did I eat for dinner last night?  You see how fast reality fades away?" - Neddy Nelson

Source: I borrowed this book from my local library. 

Monday 14 May 2012

What I Love About Read-a-Thons, by Ellie aged 24 3/4

1.  There Will Be Pizza
And other delicious snacks.  Read-a-thons are all about luxuriating in reading pleasure, and as we all know, what we're shoving in our mouths as we turn the pages is a huge part of that.  Some people prefer to go for vegetables and dips and healthy, healthy food - but let's face it, that really isn't my style.  For me, the ideal read-a-thon food is anything I can cook quickly and/or graze on.  That means stuff I can cook, slice up and nibble (pizza, Spanish tortilla); stuff I can toast (pancakes, toasted teacakes and, er, toast); cakes and pastries (chocolate chip muffins and custard Danish pastries being my vices of choice) and stuff I can pour into a bowl (sweet popcorn, Hula hoops, M'n'Ms)... I think I might have put on three stone just writing this paragraph.

2. Read-a-Thons are a Geek's Paradise
NO WORD OF A LIE.  There are SO MANY opportunities to geek out during a read-a-thon, which is probably why I love them so much.  Before every read-a-thon I have a total list-making frenzy, combing through my LibraryThing catalogue hunting down potential reads.  It stops me overlooking any perfect candidates and sometimes I stumble across a book and get that NOW IS YOUR TIME feeling.  Aside from all the list-making, a read-a-thonner also has the opportunity to keep numerous read-a-thonny statistics (page numbers, hours, books) to his or her own level of nerd-compulsion.

3. Snoozing Is Compulsory
Whether you're doing a 24-hourer or a seven-dayer, it is VITAL that you get some snoozing time in there somewhere.  Obviously, if you're reading for seven days you're going to be, y'know, SLEEPING and all that.  But if you're reading for any prolonged amount of time, day or night, you know that at some point your eyes will start to burn, the words on the page will start to swim, you'll read the same paragraph thirty times, and suddenly the cushion/sofa/bed/floor will look sooooo inviting...  That's when you snooze.  Twenty minutes later, you wake up, pop a handful of M'n'Ms, and the read-a-thon goes on!

4.  Step Away from the Interwebs
This is v. ironic because quite often during readathons I end up spending a ton of time online reading (and writing) stuff ABOUT said readathon.  I suspect I am not the only one.  WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE READING THIS RIGHT NOW, HMMMM?  I thought so...  The bestest thing about read-a-thonning is that it is a most excellent excuse to NOT do other stuff, like laundry, gardening, cleaning, shopping and playing on Twitter.  Okay, there might be a bit of playing on Twitter.  And laundry.  But the read-a-thon is a very good reason to keep these dangerous, dangerous things in moderation and retreat somewhere cosy where you can read and eat biscuits instead.

5.  I Did it Myyyyyy Waaaaaaay
Above all, a read-a-thon should be FUN!  Whether you're reading over breakfast or before bed, at work or in the park, sunbathing in the garden or huddled in an armchair watching the rain, for twenty minutes at lunchtime or twenty-four hours on your day off, it's all about doing it your way.  Everything about your read-a-thon is personal and interesting, which is why I love trawling other people's updates!  I want to know that X is reading Sarah Waters in Edinburgh, eating Nutella with a spoon, while Y is in Florida reading Charles Dickens while their homemade lasagne cooks and Z is sitting on a bench on their university campus drinking chai latte and reading Sarah Dessen.  This is what it's all about!  Reading good books, eating good food, making good friends and being really, REALLY nosy about other people's reading habits.

Happy reading, everyone!

Friday 4 May 2012

REVIEW: King Solomon's Mines, by H. Rider Haggard (5*)


by H. Rider Haggard (Penguin Popular Classics, 1994)

Well, here's a rave review I didn't expect to be writing!  In fact, I'm not even sure I'm going to make this into a 'real' review - how do you review a book that's been read by generations already and been discussed hundreds of times to boot?  I think if I have to attempt that I might never post ANYTHING about it, so I thought I'd go for a rambly collection of thoughts instead.  Better that nothing, right?!

** There may be teeny tiny SPOILERS ahead here - it's hard to throw together all my thoughts about the book without revealing any details!  But I'll try to keep them very mild and not reveal any major plot points and big moments, okay?  Read on! **

I borrowed this book off my sister's shelves, expecting a light, dated and slightly rubbish adventure story, something I could read fairly quickly, tick off my list, and stick back on the shelf without any fuss.  I am happy to report that I couldn't have been more wrong!  I LOVE it when this happens - when I'm not expecting much from a book and it turns out to be awesome.  Makes the pleasure that much more satisfying, don't you think?  Actually King Solomon's Mines completely blew me away, and by the end, to my surprise, it had even managed to topple Eowyn Ivey's The Snow Child off the top spot as my favourite book of 2012 so far.

In a nutshell, this is a proper old-fashioned adventure yarn.  It is narrated by the now-iconic Allan Quatermain, an English hunter making his living shooting game in South Africa.  He is on a boat returning to his home in Durban when he meets Sir Henry Curtis and his friend, naval officer Captain John Good.  Sir Henry is attempting to find his brother, last seen heading out on a suicidal mission across the desert in search of King Solomon's legendary diamond mines.  He enlists Quatermain's (rather reluctant) help and the three set out for the mountains, aided by a crudely-drawn map left to Quatermain by the last fool to attempt the journey.

What follows is a real Indiana Jones story that had me completely absorbed from start to finish.  First the desert must be navigated, then there are mountains to cross, only for the exhausted trio to find themselves embroiled in a bitter tribal war on the other side.  It could have been so dull, but Quatermain's plentiful dry humour and beautiful flights of description proved irresistable.  The excitement and suspense is genuinely riveting - there are a couple of deliciously gruesome moments that sent me mentally diving behind my sofa cushion - and when I reached the last page I felt utterly bereft.  Having been so completely immersed in the trio's African exploits, I wasn't quite sure what I could read next that could POSSIBLY compare (always the sign of a great book!).

I think two things really made it for me: the characters and the big set-piece moments.  The characters are exquisite creations, each and every one of them.  Sir Henry, the great fair Viking with his deep integrity and ferocious strength as a warrior.  Captain Good, with his eye glass, impressive swearing abilities (never rendered here, by the way!) and determination to dress like a gentleman despite the harsh conditions.  Even foul old Gagool, the ancient and evil Kukuana witch doctress, was so brilliantly drawn that I felt a wave of revulsion every time she graced the page with her presence.

One thing that pleasantly surprised me was the respect Haggard shows towards other races - I had expected a more 'savages vs whites' mentality.  In some ways it is still very much of its time, of course - for example, the idea that it wouldn't be 'proper' for a black person and a white person to be together, and the implication that the local tribes are inferior in status and intelligence - but in others it seems quite progressive.  Quatermain and his companions show great affection and respect for the Kukuana tribespeople across the mountains, joining their civil war and becoming close friends with several of their leaders.  These leaders are portrayed as impressive, if brutal, warriors, and honest men.  The Kukuana language is wonderful too, 'translated' by Quatermain in all of its grand, sweeping and eloquent beauty.

The biggest thing I'll take away from the book, the element that will stick with me the most, is the incredible set-piece imagery, some of which wouldn't seem out of place in a Lord of the Rings film.  I think certain 'snapshots' from the book are forever imprinted on my memory, they're so unforgettable.  The great twin mountain peaks at sunrise.  A wounded bull elephant charging through the trees (there are scenes of elephant hunting in the book, by the way, but as with the outdated race issues it would be unfair to judge Haggard too harshly for it).  Key moments from the tribal war.  The moment when the trio first enter the Kukuana Place of Death (that was perhaps the most memorable scene of all for me).  I mean... wow.  I'm actually glad that no decent film adaptation of the book has ever been made, because now I'm not tempted to watch it.  It'd take a damn fine movie to match up to the pictures in my mind!  Perhaps I should write to Peter Jackson...

Notable Quotables:
  • "There is no journey upon this earth that a man may not make if he sets his heart to it.  There is nothing, Umbopa, that he cannot do, there are no mountains he may not climb, there are no deserts he cannot cross... if love leads him and he holds his life in his hand counting it as nothing, ready to keep it or lose it as Heaven may order."
  • "On, on we went, till at last the east began to blush like the cheek of a girl.  Then there came faint rays of primrose light, that changed presently to gold bars, through which the dawn glided out across the desert.  The stars grew pale and paler still till at last they vanished; the golden moon waxed wan, and her mountain ridges stood out against her sickly face like the bones on the cheek of a dying man.  Then came spear upon spear of light flashing far away across the boundless wilderness, piercing and firing the veils of mist, till the desert was draped in a tremulous golden glow, and it was day." - Isn't that just gorgeous?
  • "My mind's eye singled out those who were sealed to slaughter, and there rushed in upon my heart a great sense of the mystery of human life, and an overwhelming sorrow at its futility and sadness...  Only the old moon would shine on serenely, the night wind would stir the grasses, and the wide earth would take its rest, even as it did æons before we were, and will do æons after we have been forgotten."
  • "Reader, you may have lain awake at night and thought the silence oppressive, but I say with confidence that you can have no idea what a vivid, tangible thing is perfect silence.  On the surface of the earth there is always some sound or motion, and though it may in itself be imperceptible, yet it deadens the sharp edge of absolute silence.  But here there was none."
  • "Truly wealth, which men spend their lives in acquiring, is a valueless thing at the last." - Wise words indeed!

Source: I borrowed this book from my sister - though I'll definitely be getting my own copy now I know how flippin' AWESOME it is!