The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999) by Stephen Chbosky

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There are two things that attracted me to The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Firstly, it’s become something of a cult classic recently and that just makes me curious to know what all the fuss is about. In 1999, when this was published, I turned 16 and was just starting to turn away from the Young Adult novels that had dominated my reading for the past few years so I didn’t read this book then. Instead I was spending my time scratching Jared Leto’s name into my pencil tin with a compass, writing angstily (with lots of exclamation marks!!!) in my diary and hiding behind the school bike sheds to avoid the monthly cross country run. In some ways it’s nice to know that those days are well and truly behind me but occasionally, just occasionally, it’s nice to revisit them and reminisce. The Perks of Being a Wallflower stood out as one of those books that might be a pathway into all that teenage nostalgia. Secondly, it’s an epistolary novel and god knows I love a novel written in letter format. They’re just so personal and chatty.

The letters in this case are written by troubled teenager Charlie who needs a stranger to talk to while he works through some of the big changes that are happening in his life. There’s a new school, new friends and the absence of old ones, bullies and parties, homework and so on and it’s all quite overwhelming. Charlie’s letters are readable and funny. To me he sounded a bit younger than his years but I can see why Chbosky did this; it’s Charlie’s naivety, I think, that draws people around him but itd also what makes him vulnerable. His problems are manifold but Chbosky treats them all sensitively and never once tries to suggest that Charlie might just grow out of all this one day. On the flip side, however, I did wonder whether there was just too much going on here: abortion, abuse, rape, homosexuality, domestic violence, drug taking, suicide, depression… I wasn’t a bit surprised Charlie found it overwhelming. Give the guy a break, Chbosky. The difficulty, of course, with a novel that tries to cram in so many big issues is that you just don’t get to address them with any depth. They lose their impact and you start to wonder whether this is all a bit manipulative, a cynical attempt at getting you to engage with the novel by forcing you to feel something.  It’s a shame really.

All in all, I had mixed feelings about this book. I love the fact that Chbosky treats some serious issues with real care and feeling and I really loved Charlie. But I wonder if I’d have liked it more if I’d read it back in 1999; reading it now it just fell a bit flat.

Apologies for the very brief review. I’m waaaaay behind at the mo and it’s already three weeks since I finished this one. I need to get back into the habit of blogging about books soon after I’ve read them. I’ll do better next time!

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A Very Long Engagement (1991) by Sebastien Japrisot

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I might have finished this a bit sooner if it hadn’t been for the Olympics. I’m definitely not complaining – after the dramas of the last few months it’s nice to turn on the TV to something that’s worth getting excited about, isn’t it? But it does mean I’ve been squeezing reading time around sports events. Much of this book was read in between gymnastics and cycling heats!

It’s not the ideal way to read anything, especially A Very Long Engagement which, I found, demands quite a bit of attention if you’re to follow it thoroughly. The novel opens in early January 1917 with five wounded soldiers sentenced to a barbaric punishment for cowardice in the line of duty. Two years later Mathilde Donnay, fiancée of one of those men, discovers that her lover may not have been killed in the fighting that day as she’d been led to believe and so she begins a quest to uncover precisely what happened to those men and why it was covered up.

I’m not able to write today, so a fellow Landis is writing this for me. Your face is all lit up, I can see you. I’m happy, I’m coming home.

As I said, it isn’t the kind of book you can only pay half attention to, in part because Japrisot frequently refers back to small details hidden in earlier parts of the novel, details that didn’t seem worth noticing at the time. Mathilde hounds witnesses and compiles hundreds of statements so over the course of the novel you essentially end up reading varying accounts of the same story from different points of view, again and again and again. Many of these stories are garbled, third hand and half forgotten. Some witnesses are helpful; others are evasive. You might think that it’d make for a repetitive, slow narrative but really I quite enjoyed this meticulous combing over of the details. Mathilde is a much more conscientious investigator than me: I forgot every detail within a page or two but you can bet your ass she was lodging them in her brain for safe keeping.

It’s with Mathilde, in fact, that I think Japrisot really excels here. I love her pig-headedness, her refusal to be pitied, and her shrewd ability to sum up others. Without her at the helm I think this novel could easily get bogged down in all that detail but with her it becomes an intensely compelling journey. Japrisot gets her tone of voice just right so that she’s sarcastic without being alienating, single-minded without becoming utterly exasperating. He also subjects the reader to all of her whims; sometimes you feel like she’s sharing her journey with you but at others she keeps the reader at arm’s length. By the end of this novel I cared about Mathilde enough to not mind the fact that the solution to the mystery rests on a rather unlikely coincidence; I was just glad she’d found some answers.

Given the subject matter I was relieved that A Very Long Engagement never strays into mawkish territory and again I think that’s something to do with Japrisot’s portrayal of the clear headed Mathilde. I also think credit lies with the writing; it’s intimate in its depiction of France before, during and after the war but without ever becoming overly sentimental about the effects of that war. It’s an emotional journey both for Mathilde and for the reader but there are moments of real beauty and humour among the horrors. It’s absolutely worthwhile.

The Salmon Who Dared to Leap Higher (1996) by Ahn Do-hyun

Last week I went to a library for the first time in three months. I’ve been meaning to join a new one ever since I changed jobs but it’s taken a while, partly, I think, because I’m still in denial about leaving my lovely old library behind (I know I just need to get over it and move on with my life). This new library is fairly close to my new office. It’s slightly smaller, definitely a bit shabbier, but it seems to be well stocked and the books are much more varied than at the old place. Now that I’ve got a card – and now I know I can definitely get there and back on my lunchbreak – I’m going to try to get back into the habit of going regularly. Maybe once every couple of weeks while the weather’s nice.

I came away with five books on Monday, this being one of them. I was actually looking for an Elena Ferrante book – the mythical Holy Grail of library books of course – but inevitably it was out and the waiting list was huge so I ended up browsing elsewhere. The Salmon Who Dared to Leap Higher caught my eye. It’s short, has a pretty cover, an intriguing name, and it’s by an author I’ve never heard of. It brings us to the next stop on my Around the World in 80 Books tour: South Korea.

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This is the story of Silver Salmon, so called because of his sparkling scales, who asks difficult questions that make him unpopular with the rest of the fish in his shoal. He wonders why it’s so important to make the perilous journey up river each year, why they must avoid the humans who lurk along the banks with their nets and whether this is all there is to the life of a salmon. It feels a little like a gentle bedtime story, told very simply and openly like a children’s book. Some of the language is quite beautiful but I have to say that I got a little distracted by the fact that the narration often seemed to change tenses in the middle of a sentence. I couldn’t decide whether this was deliberate, and if so what purpose it served, or if it was just one of those weird quirks of the translation.

On the whole I was really a little underwhelmed by this book but that just seems to be my standard response to any book that I think I’m supposed to engage with on a philosophical level. I very rarely come away from books like this feeling like I’ve learnt an important life lesson and in this case I think I’d have preferred a simple story about some fish. Maybe the profundity about seeing through the eyes of the heart or whatever was just laid on too thickly… or maybe I’m just a cynical, cold hearted person with no soul. I won’t say that I disliked it, because it’s actually quite nicely written, but I will say that it was just not my cup of tea.

I got four other books out at the same time as this so I’m hopeful that I might enjoy one of those a little more. In the meantime I’m slowly working my way up the waiting list for that Elena Ferrante book…. !

Daughter of Fortune (1999) by Isabel Allende

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P usually goes out one night a week to see friends and I take the opportunity to go to bed early with a cup of tea, a packet of biscuits and whatever book I’m reading at the time. I look forward to these evenings hugely. However, this week, after P had left, I sat in the living room with this book in my hand trying to convince myself to go up to bed and start reading. For pretty much the first time ever, staying put and watching ‘Embarrassing Bodies’ or ‘Sex Box’ or whatever else happened to be on the telly, just seemed to be preferable to an evening with this book. I don’t usually need to pep talk myself into reading. Where did we go wrong, Allende?

On paper I think this novel sounds like a sure thing: a young orphan escapes an oppressive life to go on the run in search of love but along the way meets some wild characters, has some adventures and eventually learns some lessons about love and freedom and what really matters in life. So far so good and I had extra reason to hope here because Allende casts the orphan as a young woman. Eliza Sommers, the adopted Chilean daughter of an English spinster, is strong willed, independent and torn between the two cultures that have dominated her upbringing. It’s set in the 1830s/40s so Eliza’s also trapped by the prevailing ideas about what it means to be a respectable young woman. This I thought was the most interesting part of the novel. Allende carefully shows the reader how precarious Eliza’s situation is and how complex the family relationships around her are. Eliza’s adopted mother, Miss Rose, is particularly fascinating: thorny, contradictory, and likeable enough that I could look past the absurd sounding episode with the German composer.

Eventually, however, the story moves away from Valparaiso. Despite Miss Rose’s best efforts, the teenage Eliza falls desperately in love with a wholly unsuitable young man and, when said young man abandons her to join the Gold Rush, Eliza follows hot on his heels. You’d think that this would be the point at which the novel reaches peak excitement level but no, this was when my interest started to wane. It seemed to me that the sudden change in pace had gone entirely in the wrong direction; everything slowed right, right down and it became painfully sluggish. I continued to read right through to the end but all I really remember of the final half of the book is a lot of words and very little action. I was bored. I stopped caring about Eliza and I didn’t really mind at all whether she found her lost love or not. I was completely indifferent. I just wanted it to end.

Looking back I think at times Allende’s writing was very engaging, especially at the beginning (although this may be just because I liked this part of the book the most). She’s particularly good at quietly setting a scene and she paints some really vivid pictures along the way. The California she evokes here is lawless, inhospitable and kind of terrifying. It’s populated by desperate gold hunters from all backgrounds and races, as well as prostitutes, bandits, Indians and opium addicts. But weirdly enough it’s all described so vividly that you can absolutely understand why it holds such appeal to Eliza. Later, though, I started to find some of Allende’s prose a little tired and her detailed descriptions wore thin when the book was so clearly losing momentum. By this time all I really wanted was for something, anything, to happen. Nothing much did happen in the end but it was all wrapped up very quickly within a few unsatisfying pages, loose ends flying in the wind.

Now that I’ve had a bit of time to think back over this novel I’m wondering whether I just didn’t choose the best Allende novel to begin with. I’ve heard such great things about Zorro and The House of the Spirits so maybe I’d have been better off with one of those, instead of plumping for the first one I found cheaply in Oxfam. The experience hasn’t completely turned me off Allende’s novels though. If anything it’s probably just made me all the keener to track one down that I might like a little more. I’ll keep my eyes open.

Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow (1992) by Peter Høeg

SmillasFeelingDo you ever feel like it’s taking you aaaages to finish a book, even though in reality it’s only been a few days? That’s me and Miss Smilla. It took me over a week, which isn’t a huge amount of time, but it really started to drag and I was left wondering whether it was the book or me that felt slow. I was reading and reading and reading…. but going nowhere. Or at least that’s how it felt.

It was probably me.

“Falling in love has been greatly overrated. Falling in love consists of 45 percent fear of not being accepted, 45 percent manic hope that this time the fear will be put to shame and a modest 10 percent frail awareness of the possibility of love. I don’t fall in love any more. Just like I don’t get the mumps.”

Smilla Jasperson is a native Greenlander living in Copenhagen. She’s a bit of a loner but somehow, over the years, she’s been befriended by young Isaiah, the neglected child of an alcoholic who lives in the same building. The novel opens with Isaiah’s death, which the police believe was an accident, but Smilla is plagued with questions. What was Isaiah doing up on the roof when he was so afraid of heights? And why do his tracks lead straight off the snowy rooftop, as if he’d simply walked over the edge? None of it makes sense to the grieving Smilla so she decides to investigate his death herself, using her understanding of ice and the way it behaves to lead her to the answers.

I really enjoyed the first half of this book. I wanted to know what happened to Isaiah and I found Smilla’s investigative techniques (which rely as much on bullying and spying as her “feeling for snow”) kind of intriguing. As a character she’s difficult to get a handle on: shrewd, obsessive, resentful about the hand life has dealt her. I don’t think I warmed to her (or any other character) particularly – it can be hard to like such a cold character – but I liked the idea of her. She’s weirdly fascinating. Occasionally, though, I found myself getting a bit bored of her smug jokes, her lack of tolerance towards other people, her over confidence. But again, maybe that’s just me.

The novel starts out with an investigation into the unexplained death of a child but it goes off in odd directions and accumulates a lot of baggage along the way: drug smuggling, Nazi collaboration, biological threats, meteorites….. It seemed like the plot had become bogged down in its own cleverness and I started to feel a little overwhelmed by all the detail. I often had to look back through the pages I’d already read to remind myself of details and names I’d forgotten. Who was Victor again? Where have I seen the word Nifleheim before? What does hiquak mean? On one occasion, towards the end, Smilla makes a knowing reference to a bicycle and I had to go back over a hundred pages to find the original brief reference to the said bicycle so I could understand her meaning. This probably says more about my inability to retain information but after a while I started to find these obscure references a little frustrating.

The big change for me came when Smilla went undercover on a shipping vessel heading to an unknown destination near her native Greenland. Until then I’d been quite enjoying the book but at this point I started to wonder if the plot was flagging. It occurred to me that this avalanche of detail was a little unfocused and obscured the death that was supposed to be at the heart of it. My curiosity started to wane and I just wanted it to finish so I could move on to something else. The ending was a relief because it answered some of my, and Smilla’s, questions but it wasn’t really enough to save the book.

There were, of course, some things that I really liked about this novel, the brooding atmosphere (it feels almost like a film noir) being one. I particularly enjoyed the way Høeg makes the coldness emanate from the pages. You can feel the ice, see it glinting on the rooftops, hear it crunch under your feet.  This, I think, is what I will remember most about Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow.