After my trip to the site of Troy in Turkey, I finally got to reading The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. I intended to read it before the trip, but didn’t get around to. It’s a question I often ask myself, is it better to read a related book before or after the trip? I’d say there are pros and cons to each.
Would the 2 hours I spent in Troy be more meaningful if I had read the book earlier? (I realised the serious of us would be thinking about Homer’s Iliad, but I’m not there yet.) As in my case, I ended up bringing home the memories of Troy, and read The Song of Achilles with the view of Troy – the coast, the city ruins – vivid in my mind. It made for a wonderful reading experience.
The Song of Achilles is told by Patroclus, a person close to Achilles whose fate is an important pivot point in the course of the Trojan War. Who is Patroclus? In Iliad he is a minor character whose death sends Achilles into outrage and despair. The experts have always argued about the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. Are they friends, comrades, lovers? (The Troy movie made them cousins.)
Madeline Miller made them lovers in The Song of Achilles, and the whole tale is told from Patroclus’ point of view. It starts from the very beginning when Patroclus is a child, which slightly bothered me at first, because the voice of the book felt mature and very feminine. But as he grows up, his voice got more believable to me. And at the end – I know lots of people probably say the same – I did shed a tear or two. It was odd, because I knew how it was going to end. The whole book builds up to that moment that most of us knew before going into the book (I’m sorry if you didn’t know, but I don’t think this is a spoiler). But their relationship is so believable, so tragic, and so sad. I was sad for them, Patroclus broke my heart.
I remember the time when I was at the site of Troy, overlooking the foggy coast, where the entire Greeks have sailed across the ocean to take Helen back, and to overtake Troy. Our guide, who also has read the book, told us about the two mounds in the distance, that people believed to be the tomb of Achilles and the tomb of Patroclus. The memory and the reading made the most profound impact.
Fingersmith was a really fun book to read from beginning to the end, though I thought it almost touched the borderline of being “wordy” (being 550 pages). The first twist (probably the biggest too) left me in a state of euphoria, as I got so excited that I did not see it coming at all. I love unpredictable book!
If I have to describe the book in two words, it’d be Lesbian Dickens (stealing that from a goodreads reviewer which I totally agree with). The style of writing is in the style of those novels written by real 19th century writers, but a couple of things gave it away, like the use of swear words (very rare, do not worry) and the fact that there’s lesbian relationship. I don’t think those ever appear in real Victorian novels. But that’s one of the fun things about it I guess! (I knew about the LGBT aspect before I started reading)
If there’s one thing that I did not quite like, it was the ending. It kept me from giving this book a perfect score unfortunately.
(Spoiler ahead, highlight to read)
I just thought the author took the easy way out: Kill all the obstacles! I had a really bad feeling once one of them started dying, and true enough the rest followed.
(end of spoiler)
This book though has set me firm to read more Sarah Waters books (Fingersmith is my first). I am currently looking forward to read either Tipping the Velvet or the Night Watch next. Probably not this year as I try to read just one book per author per year, but we’ll see!
Interesting fact: Fingersmith was beaten by Life of Pi for 2002 Booker Prize, and by Bel Canto (Ann Patchett) for 2002 Orange Prize (it got shortlisted for both prizes that year). I have to agree that Life of Pi is a probably better book, but I read mixed reviews for Bel Canto.
I loved this book. I really really loved it. Hopelessly fell in love with it. There, I need to get that off my chest.
There’s something about the writing that just hit me at all the right places. My funny bones, my melancholy bones, and all the bones I have that possibly evoke feelings. I went into the book not expecting it to be funny. And yet. It’s sooo so funny! I can’t believe I would say that one of the funniest moment in the book was two old men trying to catch a train. I was giggling like crazy. I so loved the main character, an old Jewish man called Leo Gursky, who is the ultimate comic of a man.
But there were sad moments in between the chuckles. Loss, regrets, loneliness, wonders of what could have been. I was laughing one minute and crying the next one. Laugh, cry, laugh, cry, sometimes I did both at the same time because the moments switched so quickly. Isn’t that what life is all about? An insane mix of tragedy and comedy?
Then there’s Alma, a 14 year-old girl who is named after every girl in a book her father gave her called The History of Love. Yes, there’s the actual book called The History of Love in the book, which is the string that will tie all the interweaving stories together. This book within the book, I so adored with the same love I have for our The History of Love.
“Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering.” ~p16
I mean how can you not love it from the snippet above?
Then let me go back to it being funny. I have this preconception that women writers can’t be fun. They could be serious, reserved, intelligent, subtle, daring, romantic, air-headed, anything but fun. But Nicole Krauss is soo fun here, without ever being crude. Leo on describing his best friend Bruno:
“The soft down of your white hair lightly playing about your scalp like a half-blown dandelion. Many times, Bruno, I have been tempted to blow on your head and make a wish.” ~ p8
I realized that I haven’t given much of the synopsis, but really it’s one of those books that is very hard to summarize and much better to enter knowing very little. It was a delight from beginning to the end. Having read a couple of thoughts, I found some people had problem with the ending, but for me it’s just perfect, perfect, perfect. I cannot imagine it to turn any other way. I was absolutely satisfied at the last page, re-read the last few pages multiple times, and would’ve cried buckets if I wasn’t on the train full of people.
I wondered if Krauss purposely chose an old man and a little girl as the main characters of the book. Both are not in the prime of their age and the simplicity of the language just fits so well. Even the simplicity of their thoughts and life. Untainted by the craziness reserved for young working people who think about everything else in the world but.
“Once Uncle Julian told me how the sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti said that sometimes just to paint a head you have to give up the whole figure. To paint a leaf, you have to sacrifice the whole landscape. It might seem like you’re limiting yourself at first, but after a while you realize that having a quarter-of-an inch of something you have a better chance of holding on to a certain feeling of the universe than if you pretended to be doing the whole sky.
My mother did not choose a leaf or a head. She chose my father, and to hold on to a certain feeling, she sacrificed the world.” ~ Alma p69
I would recommend it to anyone who has ever fallen in love, anyone who’s ever looking for something to ease the pain of the world, anyone who has lost and wonders what could’ve been. Don’t we all?
The Orange Prize for fiction has just released its longlist. I was excited to find that I have 2 of the books on the list!
Both books were obtained last year (I wrote about them here and here).
I was interested by Secret Son because it’s Moroccan (author and setting) and The White Woman on the Green Bicycle for its Trinidad origin (again, author and setting).
Jackie and Simon both made their predictions and wrote more about the other books. I haven’t heard of the rest of the others, apart from these two and This is How by M. J. Hyland (who is sort of Australian and whose book was featured on First Tuesday Book Club last year and has piqued my interest since then), The Help by Kathryn Stockett (which I have planned to read) and A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore (whose short story I read a while back and liked). Oh and of course the big names like Wolf Hall, The Little Stranger, and The Lacuna, but they don’t need more mentioning, do they?
Which book piques your interest? Which one do you plan to read?
(left is my advanced copy and right is the published cover)
Burnt Shadows is a pot mix of everything. Setting in various countries, check. People from different culture who speak different languages, check. Mix them up. Mix them up as much as possible, check. A German has relationship with a Japanese in Japan. The Japanese goes to India and has a relationship with an Indian. They are later forced to live in Pakistan. The sister of the German married an English then move to live in India. Their son is somehow later an American. The Japanese and the Indian has a son who is born a Pakistani who later works for the CIA together with the American.
The novel intends to connect the historical moments of bombing in Nagasaki, the war in India which divided Pakistan, and September 11. Hence the mix of everybody from all these places, told through three generations. Does it work? Err.. I wish it did. Too many things were just too hard to believe. The characters seem to talk and act in the same way and that couldn’t work with all these people from completely different background. A Japanese acts like a Pakistani and a Pakistani acts like an American.
Another major element that kept distracting me throughout the book is a couple of characters who are able to speak 4-5 languages. Being a bilingual who is learning a third language, I know how hard it is to pass as a local no matter how fluent your second language is. The accent shows. A little off tune or pronunciation could easily set you apart from the native speakers. There is this man who could pass as someone from the same country by just learning the language from a school bus driver. I had problem in believing any of that. He seems to have a superhuman ability to absorb languages and that’s kind of comical. Of course, with this superhuman ability he could go to work with the secret agents of arguably the most powerful country in the world. Just like James Bond.
Then he goes all the way to save a friend who he had a brief friendship with some twenty years ago (Oh yea he’s an Afghan, so that’s another nationality thrown in the mix for you). Risking his own life, his mother’s, and the daughter of a person he owes a lot to. Though some might find this action perversely heroic, I rolled my eyes and said Oh please. I just. Didn’t. Buy it. I found him an incredibly selfish character and completely had no sympathy for him.
I’m sure there are many more examples that nudged me here and there, but I read the book in quite long period of time on and off (at least a few months), so I may start forgetting details in the first parts.
The prose is written pretty well and I admit there were some great moments. But I dislike her style to lead us in believing one thing which ends up to be another. This is emphasized by the feeling of disorientation every time a new chapter begins. Why? I asked. Why disorient reader all the time? I felt like I never knew any of the characters well until the end of the book.
Burnt Shadows is shortlisted for 2009 Orange Prize. While I can somewhat understand why, the book generally left me a bit frustrated. Other people seem to like it more than me so please check the other reviews below for balance of opinions, though the general consensus sounds like the novel is too ambitious and therefore may have failed in deliverance.
2009, 369 pp
Awards Shortlisted for 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction
First line Later, the one who survives will remember that day as grey, but on the morning of 9 August itself both the man from Berlin, Konrad Weiss, and the schoolteacher, Hiroko Tanaka, step out of their houses and notice the perfect blueness of the sky, into which white smoke blooms from the chimneys of the munitions factories.
Last line Outside, at least, the world went on.
“I love that about the Americans — the way they see certain kinds of craziness as signs of character.” ~ p62
“Heaven lies at the feet of the mother…” ~ p284 (I knew this quote since I was small. Never thought that I would find it in an English novel. It seems to be an Islamic quote.)
“She felt about people who believed in the morality of their nations exactly as she felt about those who believed in religion: it was baffling, it seemed to defy all reason, and yet she would never be the one to attempt to wrestle the comfort of illusory order away from someone else.” ~ p330
“War is like disease. Until you’ve had it you don’t know it. But no. That’s a bad comparison. At least with disease everyone thinks it might happen to them one day. You have a pain here, swelling there, a cold which stays and stays. You start to think maybe this is something really bad. But war — countries like yours they always fight wars, but always somewhere else. It’s why you fight more wars than anyone else; because you understand war least of all.” ~ p345, an Afghan to an American
Purple Hibiscus’s heroine is 15 year-old Kambili who is raised in a very uptight, almost delusional, rich Catholic family in Nigeria. The family that is run by tyrannical Papa, who is truthfully a very frustrating and depressing character, because he doesn’t just abuse. He abuses in the name of God and cries like he’s forced to by divine hands.
You wouldn’t realize it at the beginning though, because Kambili is so reserved and so in awe of her father, that as the narrator, she doesn’t tell you the story as it is. It feels like she tries to hide the fact that her father isn’t the perfect guy she desperately believes and wants him to be. That’s probably why for the first half of the book, I felt the story was almost static. It was a fine family story, but I wasn’t sure where it’s gonna go.
It peaks in the middle of the book when something terrible happens to Kambili and it is a revelation to everyone. And by everyone, I mean Kambili, her family, and us readers. At this point we’re definitely sure what’s going on and it is not right. That’s when the pace starts to pick up and the storyline runs with full force.
As central characters, apart from Kambili’s immediate family: Jaja her older brother, Papa and Mama, there are Aunty Ifeoma and her three children, and Papa-Nnukwu (Papa and Aunty Ifeoma’s father, Kambili’s grandfather). They play a big part in showing Kambili and Jaja the real world, the other world, just a different world with the one they’ve been living.
I often found myself wanting to shake Kambili to open her eyes, to stop yearning for approvals from her father, to see things as they are. On the other hand, I pity her and probably understand in some ways. Fortunately her character is developing throughout the book and we are left with hopes in the end. For me it doesn’t end up bleak. It ends okay.
The mood and atmosphere of the book reminds me of The Color Purple. Somehow when I started reading I had the impression that there would be politics involved. There are some, but really, it’s a story about family and religion. I love the writing. It’s very accessible and it captures the innocence of a confined 15 year-old.
2003, 302 pp
Awards 2005 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize – Best First Book
Shortlisted for 2004 Orange Prize for Fiction
First line Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the etagere. (inspired by Adichie’s favorite author Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart)
Last line The new rains will come down soon.
“Papa spent some time describing hell, as if God did not know that the flames were eternal and raging and fierce.” ~ p61
“She said ‘teenagers’ as if she were not one, as if teenagers were a brand of people who by not listening to culturally conscious music, were a step beneath her. And she said ‘culturally conscious’ in the proud way that people say a word they never knew they would learn until they do.” ~ p118
Chimamanda Adichie’s Top Ten Favorite Books (I found at the end of this book):
Arrow of God by Chinua Achebe
Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi
The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah
Efuru by Flora Nwapa
Reef by Romesh Gunesekera
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane (aren’t they Harry Potter’s friends? :P)
A Strange and Sublime Address by Amit Chaudhuri
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
If You Loved This, You Might Like … (also at the end of this book)
This book is shortlisted for the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction 2007, interestingly. I was flipping through the first few pages at Borders and was intrigued, so I borrowed the book not long after from the library. As funny and interesting the main character’s thoughts were, I quickly got annoyed with the deliberate writing of bad English. Especially with the omission of particles, which seems to be the foremost and most common method to convey how Chinese people speaking broken English. It just seems hard to believe that one could say florescent and wisteria but also say ‘I sad’, know the meaning of words like paradox and fatalism, but say ‘womans’ until the very end of book. It just gives me the impression that someone deliberately sprinkled mistakes everywhere to make it sound like natural bad English.
The story is about Z, a young girl from China who arrives in London to spend a year learning English, during which time she meets a far older Englishman, falls in love, then culture revelation and clash start to unfold.
I hate the part when she travels around Europe, meeting random guys and sleeping naked next to their beds. She is either very naive/stupid, or very wild. Since the hell when could you just follow random strangers in faraway country to their hotel rooms or houses and take off your bloody clothes? I mean, she’s not very good in English, doesn’t make her stupid in everything in life! And don’t even get me started on the unprotected sex. Does she even know the concept of cheating?
end of spoiler
Anyway, despite some of my complaints, the book has funny points and interesting point of views.
Pages: 354 Rating: 3 out of 5 [Okay]
Readable. Not bad for cultural clash topic and insight into Chinese culture.
The rain was ceaseless, covering the whole forest, the whole mountain, and the whole land.
“‘Love’, this English word: like other English words it has tense. ‘Loved’ or ‘will love’ or ‘have loved’. All these specific tenses mean Love is time-limited thing. Not infinite. It only exist in particular period of time. In Chinese, Love is ‘愛’ (ai). It has no tense. No past and future. Love in Chinese means a being, a situation, a circumstance. Love is existence, holding past and future. If our love existed in Chinese tense, then it will last for ever. It will be infinite.” ~Z, p301