Lo, Lola, Lolita

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Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

Ah, Lolita. One of the most controversial books of the 20th century, perhaps of all time. It’s a novel which approaches the incredibly taboo subject of paedophilia from a very unusual angle- a romantic one. We are drawn into the twisted mind of Humbert Humbert, an attractive European academic, who develops an infatuation with his landlady’s daughter, who reminds him of a lost childhood love. Nabokov does not portray Humbert as a hero, but does allow him the odd moment of sympathy throughout, and he boldly resists characterising Lolita as an angelic, innocent child.

This novel is, in short, mind-blowing. From Nabokov’s lyrical writing style- which often makes the novel seem more like poetry than prose- to his wonderfully complex portrayal of the disturbing relationship between Humbert and Lolita, he takes your expectations of a novel about paedophilia and turns them on their head. At times, novel is erotic- romantic, even- and forces you to empathise with Humbert’s desire for Lolita through wonderful descriptions of her tanned, bony feet and glossy hair. Even though Lolita is Humbert’s victim and her life is effectively ruined by him, she is often portrayed as cruel and manipulative. Meanwhile Humbert, the predator, who does despicable things such as have Lolita perform sexual acts upon him in the car whilst he watches children walk out of school, often seems weak and pathetic- in making Lolita the object of his affections, he gives her the upper hand. In the end, it is Lolita who breaks Humbert’s heart, not the other way around. Lolita is undoubtedly a victim and suffers some terrible things, but she is strong whilst Humbert is weak, and Nabokov challenges convention- and flirts outrageously with controversy- in playing with this unusual balance.

However, I disagree with those who call the novel ‘immoral’, or even ‘amoral’. Although he is a desperate, pitiful man at times, we are never permitted to forget that he is a lecherous paedophile and any brief flashes of sympathy are soon replaced by enduring disgust. Humbert wishes to view himself as a lover, and in a sense, he is- the problem is, his ardent passion is directed towards a child. He tries to delude himself, and the reader, that his relationship with Lolita is a great love affair, but he has moments of clarity when he is overcome with self-loathing and begs her forgiveness- much to her disgust. Nabokov delights in playing with conventions of romance and his style is poetic, but at the centre of Humbert’s magniloquent narrative lies a rotting core of disturbing obsession; Nabokov leaves no doubt as to who the villain of the piece truly is. However, Lolita is not a morality tale, and nor should it try to be; do we really need a work of fiction to tell us that rape, exploitation and murder are wrong?

Have YOU read Lolita? What did you think? I’d love to know your thoughts, so please leave a comment!

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The Odyssey

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The Odyssey – Homer

I had to study this text for my Classical and Biblical module last year and whilst it’s not the sort of material I usually blog about, I thought I’d write a post about it because I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it, and it’s actually a lot more accessible than most people think. The Odyssey tells the story of the Greek hero Odysseus as he tries to return home to Ithaca after the Trojan War, an epic journey that takes him ten years. Back home, he is presumed dead and his wife and queen, Penelope, is being inundated with marriage proposals from suitors, who are also taking advantage of the palace’s hospitality.

I assumed that The Odyssey would be boring and difficult to read, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. I had the Oxford World Classics edition, which is translated into prose, and so the poem reads almost like a novel. In fact, The Odyssey is often cited as one of the most significant precursors to the novel. The timeframe of the story is not linear and there are frame narratives along the way, so it’s necessary to pay close attention to that to avoid getting confused, but other than that I really wouldn’t describe The Odyssey as difficult to read. And it’s far from boring; there’s romance and adventure aplenty as Odysseus fights a cyclops, beds various goddesses and flirts with a young princess (whilst expecting his wife to remain faithful to him, even though she’s 99% sure he’s dead- double standards. But it’s Ancient Greece, what can you do?).

As well as being pleasurable, The Odyssey is also a great way to get to grips with various classical myths and legends, such as Scylla the Sea Monster and Clytemnestra’s murder of Agamemnon. I’ve always been interested in Greek myths, so this was a great way to learn more- some of the stories are incredibly juicy. Parts of it are also very modern and it’s an interesting reflection of Greek life, culture and society if you’re interested in history!

So if you’re interested in classical literature/myth and legend, fancy something a bit different or just want to sound well-read, I’d definitely recommend The Odyssey to you. It’s an easier read than The Iliad and is certainly entertaining, plus a prose translation means it’s not difficult to read if you’re new to classics and poetry. It’s a beautifully written work and is one of the oldest in the Western cannon. I certainly prefer it to The Aeneid, which I’d only recommend if you’re very interested in classics and history as it’s drier and more political, whilst The Odyssey is more sensual and entertaining. Plus, you can get a free version on the Kindle, so you’ve got nothing to lose (although I really do recommend the Oxford World Classics edition). Happy reading!

Have YOU read The Odyssey? What did you think? Please let me know in a comment!

Maddaddam

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Maddaddam- Maragaret Atwood

The cover of my copy of Maddaddam warns that it’s a wild ride, and it’s not wrong. This is the final instalment of the Maddaddam trilogy and my expectations were high. It didn’t disappoint.

The novel follows the ragtag group of God’s gardeners, Painballers, Crakers and Jimmy who have assembled on the beach at the end of The Year of the Flood. At the end of the second book, the Painballers are tied up but not killed, Amanda is traumatised, Jimmy gravely ill and the future of the world looking uncertain. At the start of Maddaddam the brutal Painballers trick the Crakers into releasing them and the group find a new home and start to rebuild their lives, as much as is possible in this post-apocalyptic world. Once again, much of the novel focuses on a character’s backstory, this time the story of Zeb, the former Adam Seven of the God’s Gardeners. We find out about his difficult childhood and his subsequent escape with his brother Adam- and no, it’s no coincidence that his brother is called that.

What I loved about this novel was how flawlessly it tied in with the other two; it’s as though each novel contains several piece of the puzzle, and they all fit together perfectly. There are some surprising revelations (who knew the creator of Scales and Tails, the sex club for which Ren worked, would turn out to be Eve One?) and there are more of Atwood’s fantastic dystopian inventions, such as a sexual online beheading game and the church of PetrOleum, a religious cult based on the worship of oil (not so hard to imagine, is it?). There’s also a lot of humour, much of which derives from the Crakers believing that ‘Fuck’ is a helpful spirit after hearing Jimmy curse.

It was great finding out more about Zeb in Maddaddam, since he’s a character who’s always raised a few questions, and I loved the development of Zeb and Toby’s relationship, although I would have liked to see a little more of the Ren-Crozier and Ren-Jimmy relationships. Ren is seen caring for Jimmy but some interaction from their own perspectives would have been nice- I would have liked to have listened in on a conversation between them and to know what he thought of her. Although Ren and Crozier end up very much a couple, we are made away that Crozier is unfaithful to Ren with Swift Fox, a character you’re pretty much guaranteed to hate. As far as we know, Ren is never made fully aware of his cheating and for all we know he might do it again which is somewhat frustrating, but also reflects a lot of relationships in real life.

The survivors’  main quest in Maddaddam is to destroy the escaped Painballers and find Adam One, the leader of the God’s Gardeners sect. There’s a very touching moment between Zeb and Adam One and an exciting conflict, but just as you think things are resolved, Atwood has to stick the knife in one more time. The book’s epilogue, quite frankly, annoyed me. Two characters die (I won’t say which ones) in a rather anticlimactic sort of way that also leaves you with some unanswered questions. If these characters had died in the main conflict, I would have been sad, but accepting. It happens. But why seemingly resolve everything only to quickly pen an unsatisfactory ending for the characters? Yeah yeah, it’s probably a more accurate reflection of what living in a post-apocalyptic world would be like: no happily ever afters and you’d never be truly safe- BUT STILL.

This annoying epilogue aside, however, Maddaddam is a fitting end to the trilogy and it certainly didn’t fall flat. The trilogy has been incredible and an absolute pleasure to read, and I’m sad it’s over. Still, there’s the HBO series to look forward to, although I personally think that the structure of the books mean they’d work much better as films. With a film series, you could turn each novel into a film and include the backstories no problem, but I can’t see how that’s going to work with a TV series. So much of the books are set in the past and the backstories are really quite separate, so it’ll be interesting to see how HBO will handle that. Still, Margaret Atwood herself is one of the writers so I’m told, so things look promising!

Have YOU read Maddaddam? What did you think? Did you like the ending? Please leave your comments!

Oryx and Crake

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This is my first blog post in over a year, so please bear with me if it’s a little substandard! I won’t bore you with the reasons I haven’t written, but essentially university and travelling mean that I haven’t had a lot of time to write, or to many books to blog about (unless you’d all enjoy a review of ‘Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Speaking People’?). However, I have read some books along the way that are most definitely worthy of a mention, and none so more than Margaret Atwood’s ‘Maddaddam’ trilogy and so I’m going to write a review of each book over the next three days.

Right, that’s enough pre-amble; on with the review…

I received Oryx and Crake and its sequel, The Year of the Flood, as Christmas presents from my sister. I knew Margaret Atwood was a critically acclaimed and prolific writer, but I wasn’t sure that the novels were going to be my cup of tea. I’ve dipped my digits in the dystopian before (The Hunger Games, 1984) but it’s not a genre I frequent, and I’ll admit that at first terms such as ‘pigeons’ and ‘Crakers’ did baffle me a bit. This wasn’t an issue for long, however, as Atwood has such a clear way of explaining her outrageous creations, although perhaps that’s because the world she describes is frighteningly possible. A few chapters in and I was hooked.

Oryx and Crake tells the story of Jimmy (a.k.a. Snowman), the last surviving human who has been entrusted with the care of the Crakers. The human race has been all but wiped out and the Crakers are sort of like Humanity 2.0- they’re humans with all of the flaws removed. As Jimmy remembers his life, his friendship with Crake (the creator of the Crakers) and their relationship with the beautiful and enigmatic Oryx, we learn about the dystopian world which existed before humanity was culled, and how the cull was brought about. It’s a fascinating portrayal of a terribly corrupted world, as well as one of love, loneliness, nostalgia, bitterness and jealousy.

Atwood has denied that her novel is science fiction and has instead called it ‘speculative fiction’, which I agree is a much more fitting term. Yes, the world of Oryx and Crake is saturated with corruption and dishonesty, but it isn’t that dissimilar to our own. Yes, Jimmy is in a unique and rather improbable situation (or so we’d like to think), but he’s something of an everyman. He isn’t a particularly good character, nor is he particularly bad. Throughout the novel attention is frequently drawn to his averageness, especially in comparison with brilliant Crake, and this averageness allows- perhaps even forces- the reader to relate to Jimmy, to put his or herself in his situation. You come to the realisation that you are Jimmy, that he does what you would do, that he feels as you would feel. You can no longer palm off the story as ‘unrealistic’ or ‘impossible’; you are drawn into it and forced to confront it. By giving Oryx and Crake an unremarkable protagonist, Atwood renders it a remarkable novel.

But the novel’s merits don’t end there. Atwood’s writing style is incredibly easy to read without ever feeling simplistic, and full of shrewd observations about human nature. She’s often very funny too, particularly in the scenes with the naive Crakers, who know nothing about the world before. One such incidence is when Snowman, irritated by their incessant questioning, tells them to “Piss off” and they endearingly respond “What is ‘piss off’?”. The mixture of past and present Atwood uses is also compelling; we delve into Jimmy’s past but are never allowed to forget his present and we discover enough at a time to interest us, yet leave us wanting more.

Oryx and Crake is a novel that’s hard to sum up. It’s beautiful, brutal, funny and painful. At first it seems far-fetched, then it becomes a little too close for comfort. It’s romantic but realistic. It deals with universal human emotions, yet it’s not an overly sentimental novel- some critics have gone as far to say that Atwood’s writing is unemotional, but I disagree with that entirely. In short, it’s a work of genius and I’d recommend it to everyone. You don’t have to be a sci-fi lover (I’m certainly not) or a serious bookworm to enjoy them; I’d say they have a pretty universal appeal as there are so many different elements to the story- you’re bound to find something you like in there!

(I was going to include a discussion on an event near the end of the novel in this post but decided better of it due to spoilers. The post will follow shortly!)

Have YOU read Oryx and Crake? What did you think? Please leave me your comments here!

Fifty Shades of… What?

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It’s been dubbed Fifty Shades of Sex and Fifty Shades of Shit but for this review I think its original title, Fifty Shades of Grey, is more apt- grey because I’m not really sure how I feel about this book. It is, as I’ve said before, not very well written, and it’s just not distinctive. You wouldn’t read something by an unknown author and say “this is definitely the work of E.L. James!” because it could easily be the work of any young teenager (if it didn’t contain so much sex).  Jessica Reaves claimed that the book is “sprinkled liberally and repeatedly with asinine phrases” and I have to agree- too many repetitions of “holy crap!” make it sound like a bad fan fiction. In fairness to James, this did start out as fan fiction which makes the terrible writing style forgivable…. just.

Furthermore, I can’t work out my feelings about the protagonists. Anastasia Steele is almost identical to every other fan fiction heroine- she’s shy, intelligent, insecure, occasionally witty, frequently at odds with her subconscious (don’t even get me started on her ‘inner goddess’) and hopelessly beautiful, but of course, she doesn’t know it. Whilst Christian Grey claims that she doesn’t “have a submissive bone in [her] body”, I wouldn’t exactly call her dominant either- she’s eager to make him happy and she certainly lets her best friend, Kate, push her around. She also cries whenever Christian leaves her, which I think is a little pathetic. However, it’s her “smart mouth” that saves her. Her email exchanges with Christian are genuinely funny and I did giggle a few times at what she came out with, but having said that, surely someone with a truly smart mouth wouldn’t keep repeating the same few expressions over and over again (but this is more a criticism of James’ writing style). Having said that, some of the expressions the pair use put a smile on my face, such as “laters baby” and I loved the way Christian signed off his emails with things like “Christian Grey, Cad and CEO”. Which brings me nicely onto the subject of our… hero? Villain? Deep down, we all know he’s a hero. He’s caring, he’s occasionally funny and he wants to make Ana happy. He’s certainly attractive (in every chapter there is, without fail, a description of his stomach-melting, heart-wrenching beauty) and he is, in Ana’s own too-often-repeated words “mercurial”. His mood changes swiftly and for all his I’m-the-dominant talk, he sometimes reminds me of a toddler bossing everyone around, wanting desperately to be in charge and everyone just indulges him to keep him happy. James certainly has created an interesting protagonist here and I’m dying to learn more in particular about his relationship with his adoptive mother- there’s definitely more to explore there. Overall, Christian is like a romcom hero with a kinky twist- he starts off all cynical and moody and then softens and becomes all romantic but still won’t admit that he’s fallen for the heroine.

Christian’s volatility and Ana’s vulnerability make them an interesting pair. There relationship is like a see-saw- if someone puts a foot wrong, or a bit too much weight down at one end, the whole thing is unbalanced. Their relationship starts off tense and awkward, then becomes hot and complicated and towards the end it begins to seem almost like a warm, fuzzy, romcom relationship. Were this real, a relationship counsellor would probably have a field day.

Of course, sex is a big aspect of their relationship. Ana loses her virginity to Christian and he awakens desire within her that she never knew existed. They also have sex very frequently, but the book is about more than S&M. However, it is, of course, probably the main reason that the book has accumulated such notoriety within such a short space of time. This book is definitely not one for younger readers!

Sex wasn’t actually my main issue with this book- it was the way in which James desperately tried to prove herself to be intelligent. I believe that Stephanie Meyer does this in Twilight too, with her prophases and anaphases and chromosomes- another similarity between the two series. James throws in several mentions of the medulla oblongata just to show, it seems, that she knows something about anatomy and references several classical writers, mainly Thomas Hardy, in an obvious attempt to seem well-read. I can’t quite put my finger on why this annoy me but perhaps it’s because the author is trying to pretend to be something she’s not. She may be a genius for all I know, but Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t an intellectual book and a few literary references isn’t going to change that- she’d be better off just calling a spade a spade.

In spite of all my criticisms, Fifty Shades is strangely addictive and very easy to read, which has probably contributed hugely to its popularity. You don’t have to be an avid reader to read it, unlike some of the classics, you can just pick it up and go. It’s not a challenge, which is perhaps a factor in its addictiveness.

All in all, Fifty Shades of Grey can only be summed up as a guilty pleasure. It does have a few good ideas in it- I particularly like that Christian tells Ana she shouldn’t feel guilty for enjoying S&M. It’s also got the feminist critics going crazy- is it feminist, is it not?- so it’s interesting from that perspective too but essentially I don’t feel that it’s one of the greats of literature. As April Alliston wrote “though no literary masterpiece, Fifty Shades is more than parasitic fan fiction based on the recent Twilight vampire series.”

30 day book challenge; day 29, book you’re currently reading

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Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James

I’m reading this book at the same time as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and I must say, the two couldn’t be more different. Still, that’s not necessarily a bad thing- they balance each other out rather nicely. Heart of Darkness is a modernist masterpiece full of complex issues, whereas Fifty Shades is badly written but strangely addictive…

As you’ve probably heard, Fifty Shades had its origin as Twilight fan fiction- and if you’ve read any of my earlier posts, you’ll know how I feel about that. It’s definitely obvious within the book- not only is it poorly written (hey guess what James, there are other expressions aside from ‘crap’) but there are also too many parallels with the Twilight books to count. Namely, the protagonist is an insufferable, whiney wimp who doesn’t seem to realise how irresistible she is; her best male Hispanic American friend is in love with her but she wishes he were her brother instead; and on every other page there is sycophantic description of her breathtakingly beautiful yet complicated love interest (who just happens to have beautiful bronze hair). Yet despite all this, I can’t help wanting to read more. Their relationship is more complex than Edward and Bella’s because it’s not clear what Grey wants from Anastasia- he asks her to be his sex slave but he’s also very caring. I also enjoy their email banter, which is quite amusing. And of course, there are the sex scenes. So far (bearing in mind I’m only on page 207) it’s not been too bad. Well, there has been a lot of sex but so far it hasn’t been very violent or weird and even though I’m not into erotic fiction, I’m keen to see what these scenes entail. I’ve heard that it gets pretty grim and even though I’m sort-of dreading the later parts, so far it’s just been two people having a lot of sex. However, it’s also during the sex scenes that the writing becomes shockingly bad- as if the ice cold Christian Grey would call a girl “baby”! Plus, Anastasia seems rather sexually advanced for a virgin. There are many problems with the book and I’ll admit that I believe it to be the worst kind of fiction- literature so bad that it’s good. 

Have YOU read Fifty Shades? What did you think? Let me know!

One-Day-Ful!

Sorry about the cheesy pun! I’m trying to come up with imaginative titles for my posts and this was the best I could come up with- I’m not very witty or a natural comedian. But anyhoo, I’m reading ‘One Day’ (as you might have guessed). It’ s written by David Nicholls, who I hadn’t heard of previously but is actually a fantastic writer- the book is funny, poignant and a fantastic love story.

But the critics on the back of the jacket could have told you that. ‘One Day’ is about more than Emma and Dexter (wonderful protagonists though they are); it’s about ageing, growing, changing. We travel with them through twenty years of their lives- we experience their ups and downs, career changes, new homes and new partners, with their love for each other constant the whole way through, even when they don’t like each other much. The changes that the protagonists go through reflect the experiences that everyone has between the ages of twenty and forty- being radical, being oversexed, holidays, awful jobs, drink, drugs, going to parties, feeling down, settling down, parenthood, break ups, loss, letdowns and family divisions. It’s the coming of age novel for an older generation. It really is an incredible book, not to mention it’s easy to read and impossible to put down. ‘One Day’ is an absolute must for any book lover, especially if you like a bit of romance, like me. And though it essentially is a romance novel, it’s not too soppy, but paints a more realistic picture of romance, bittersweet, painful, yet irresistible.

What did YOU think of ‘One Day’? Let me know!