The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan September Book of the Month

marrr“Marina wouldn’t want to be remembered because she’s dead.” wrote Anne Fadiman, her university professor, “She would want to be remembered because she’s good.”

But she isn’t good. Marina is phenomenal. Her fiction stories, each no longer than twenty pages long, are delicately composed featuring wildly different plots and characters. One is set in the sandy planes of Iraq, relocating Iraqi families and written purely in letter form. Another, prose, revolved around a theatre-set in Cape Cod, paragraphs littered with late night drinks and angst. And so it goes on. They are unique, seemingly revolving in their own literary sphere, untouchable. But there are ties: these characters are not built of marble, they are fallible. Keegan has portrayed them as real people, with true problems, refreshing as, unfortunately, despite it being an important rule of fiction, you often find unrealistic, overly successful characters . As a reader you could sympathise with their fears, relate to their worries. The stories were all ideal lengths too: even if they were only a few pages long, you seeped into the characters’ mindset seamlessly, and I never felt bored or disengaged with the narrative. Fresh, too, with Keegan’s voice gleaming from under the printed words.

‘”Why didn’t I think to rewrite Mrs. Dalloway? I should have thought to chronicle a schizophrenic ballerina. It’s inexcusable. Everyone is so successful, and I hate them.” and “I’m so jealous. Laughable jealousies, of everyone who might get a chance to speak from the dead…I worship the potential for own tangible trace. How presumptuous! To assume specialness in the first place.”

I won’t tell you how Marina Keegan wrote this incredible collection of short stories and essays as part of her graduation piece, and how, only five days after she graduated from Yale in 2012, she died in a car crash. I won’t mention how she was only twenty two, or how she had acted in and wrote numerous plays, was the President of the Yale College Democrats and had already secured her ideal job for her life after Yale. Because, instead I told you how inspiring her collection is. Marina wouldn’t want to be remembered because she’s dead. She would want to be remembered because she’s good.

 

Advertisements

The Book of Strange New Things- Michel Faber

Have you ever dreamt of being missionary to another species? To aliens living in a settlement, half the universe away? If so, then this is a novel engage your fantasy, and if not, you should still read it anyway.

book o

It is set in an indefinite time in the future; all the notable landmarks of our time period are still there, such as Heathrow airport, but there is a menacing undertone behind the news. In the opening scene, Peter discusses with his wife the monumental collapse of businesses and how many transport systems have simply slipped out of reality. But Peter doesn’t have to worry about that: there’s also a space travel at this point, too, and he is about to be transported to another galaxy, to a growing settlement called the Oasis, which run by an elusive corporation called USIC. Half the universe away. With his co-workers being mechanical engineers and elite geologists, he is surprised at having landed a role so out of this world. Peter is not a scientist, a genius whose name is framed by the list of letters succeeding it. His main function will be to satiate the native beings’ desire for Christianity. He is a priest, and his ‘people’ will be the Oasans. Oasans, with faces Faber insisted on continually describing as like “two foetuses”.

swirll

On that note, the writing in general was elegant; like a minimalistic house gracing an interior design magazines- there were hints of simplicity, but that added to the beauty of his writing. However, as with all magazines, you are bound to find repeats, and Faber would often use the same word to describe the same object at various points in the novel. This is a large book- nearly 600 pages and by the fifth time he describes the air as swirling you’re bored.

The idea fuelling the novel itself was intriguing, and was embedded in the classic science fiction duvet of; “Let’s put a major concept out of context and see how it floats”. The concept in question here was religion, specifically Christianity, and thanks to Faber’s portrayal of Peter, the novel is not only engaging to those who do, or don’t share the faith, but it is also not offensive without Faber being overly cautious in with his language. This is largely due to Peter’s characterisation, I believe, because although the novel oversees his tantalising mental transformation, in essence he is a mild mannered man with firm morales. (Do not conceive him to be merely a meek man though…he has a startling history, which is agonisingly drip fed to you throughout the novel.)

Faber’s strengths were shown when he wrote about Peter’s time with the Oasans. Firstly, his style came across as more fresh there, and it was interesting to read as it contrasted starkly with Peter’s time spent back at the USIC base with humans, which frankly was largely mundane: there were chapters of him merely wandering around the corridors, uncertain of what to do with himself and where to find something to eat. Relatable, perhaps, to ravenous nights at a hotel, but not as engaging as reading about alien races with bizarre rituals and delightful dressing habits.

A notable proportions of the book was also written in letter form: Peter can only maintain contact with Bea, his wife, through this way, and the insights Bea gave into the world collapsing around her, whilst Peter was working, isolated from the news, in another galaxy, was insightful. These letters were not only fascinating in themselves, illustrating the changing dynamics in the pair’s relationship as their separation became prolonged, but it also offered variation. There was a balance between the prose and letters which was struck sublimely.

Whilst I would recommend this novel to anymore who is attracted to science-fiction novels, I would also say that those fantasy readers with an inter-galactic taste would enjoy it too. The pace is erring on the sluggish side though, and is more contemplative than action-filled. The Book of Strange New Things offered me an insight into the world of science-fiction, which I am tentatively exploring, and generally, it has done a brilliant job in doing so.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

My ideal holiday is one where I’m always busy- reading. On my annual trip to Italy, the days are spent sprawled in a sun lounger, watermelon slices gradually turning tepid due to neglect and heat, and noses shamelessly inserted between pages. I chose to immerse myself in Catch-22 and explore Heller’s most prestigious work. It wasn’t your typical holiday read, a novel that you could ooze into as you slowly inflated on pizza, but nevertheless I undertook the challenge. It was a challenge. I was required to adopt a surgeon’s precision, trying to peel apart the meaning behind each sentence. So although I couldn’t fall into a typical holiday induced mental slumber, there were benefits: I would finally be able to nod my head, and smile genuinely, when people spoke airily of that old novel. Oh, and the  phrase ‘Catch-22’ would have 518 pages of context behind it.

catch

In a way, this novel did help me let go…of my preconceived notion that plot is essential to a novel, and made me stop fishing around Heller’s chapters for sense. It’s a confusing read. Yet I will try to sum up the thread I could identify; Yossarian, the protagonist, serves as an American pilot in 1944, on the island Pianosa. He is terrified by the prospect of death, with the clear attitude that “the enemy is anybody who is going to get you killed, no matter which side he’s on.” Yes, there is a paranoid edginess throughout. And not only that, but the sense of desperation Yossarian has to flee the country and find refuge from the violence and imminent threat of death. It’s not a surprise, really. All around him is friends are either flying, dying or decaying, and then hurriedly forgotten.

Yossarian is a typical anti-hero, perhaps one of the most notable of the 20th century. He continually attempts to escape his military duty and is perching on the end on the coil of sanity. He is not particularly inspiration, being one of the 20th century’s greatest anti-hero, as he is willing to abandon his comrades in order to save himself. But he does ignite laughter. And that is crucial, because the humour in Catch-22 was one of the few things that made it bearable. Another thing which was engaging, and lightened the tone made damp by the subject of war, were the colourful exploits of Yossarian abroad. Whenever he left Pianosa for a holiday trip, miniature adventures would ensue; the brief escapades were brimming with action, and the characters cameoing were marvellously outrageous. Imagine: Yossarian chasing a girl throughout the streets of Rome, ducking into restaurants and racing through streets frantically- of course this is going to be more interesting than his monologues and moaning in the field.

But the novel is not as straight forward as that, unfortunately. The events take place non chronologically, and there is never any indication that the time period has changed, or is about to. So that was initially a struggle for me to comprehend, and I found it unconformable to read as I was unaware of what was actually taking place. But Catch-22 hasn’t been sold more than 10 million times for it’s perplexity. The language is exceptional, gouged from a scholar’s thoughts. The style and syntax is alien to what we’re accustomed to today, but I can only see this as an opportunity to examine 1960s literature, and to expand my vocabulary! Having said that, some of the words were so unbelievably long and complex, that I thought that the only reason Heller put them there was to be pretentious, but still.

On the whole, I think that this is a novel worth reading, yet only once. As you know, I am an avid reader, and even I had to set myself daily benchmarks to force myself to persevere  through the literal sludge. 100 pages a day normally isn’t too ambitious, yet I was reading for 3 hours a day and just about managed to stumble through the pages in that time. Of course, I could have meandered through the novel, picking it up when I felt the urge, but that approach relied on you wanting to read the novel, at all, in the first place. And although I was starting to enjoy Catch-22 by the end, the deep madness and blatant contradictions were a constant challenge. But an unique novel is going to tough, is it not? The perspective on war is much less poetic than other novels, and fills you with a sense of the massive impact the conflict had on everyone’s life. For us, 6 years in history seems like nothing, merely a couple of words in a sentence, referring to something decades ago. But in this novel, you can see that everyday was signifcant, something they had to suffer through, ponder continually Is this the day I will die? So take the plunge, and challenge yourself. The waters are icy, but by the end you’ll acclimatise, and in although it’ll feel like a gruelling experience at the time, when you look back you’ll smile.