Welcome back to the Monthly Reviews series, where I chronologically list last month’s reads, along with a short reflexion and opinion regarding each book.
Here’s what I read in February:
Amélie Nothomb: The Character of Rain (Métaphysique des tubes, 2000)
I’ve been raving about Nothomb for a while now. Although not all of her short-form novels have the same impact, every one of them has been interesting, entertaining, intense and educational in some way.
The Character of Rain is a perspective on life, drawn by a two-year-old Belgian girl who grows up in Japan, where she is doted on by her Japanese nanny in a manner similar to worship. However, the girl still feels lonely and neglected by her family, which leads her to reflect on her existance being similar to a tube, where food, opinions, information and emotions go in and come out – processed in a manner depending which input went in – at the other.
Although she experiences a happy childhood, her reflexions lead her to feel singled out by her siblings, seeing herself as an outsider because of her sex, and to alienate consumption of food – topics which Nothomb both focuses on respectively in later novels.
Character certainly is an interesting novel, and to put a child as a narrator for rather gloomy topics is an unusual choice. Her simplistic view of trains of thought that by normal standards should lead to a psychological evaluation, and her suicidal tendencies are fascinating.
Still not my favourite novel by Nothomb, but Character of Rain becomes more and more interesting and deep every time I reflect on it.
All in all, it is a solid Nothomb piece.
Mario Vargas Llosa: The Bad Girl (Travesuras de la niña mala, 2006)
Having read The Bad Girl about five years ago, I already knew it had made an impression and needed to be praised and talked about in regular intervals.
Vargas Llosa is to Peru what Marquez is for Colombia, and although he is lesser known in Europe by comparison to the former, Llosa is one of the most significant Latin American writers of our time.
The Bad Girl is a gripping love story, filled with emotions, struggles, losses, sex and violence. It is a hopeless pursuit of happiness since the characters are not really pursuing what makes them happy, and are doomed to fail from the very beginning of the story. Nevertheless, to follow them on their paths is a fascinating endeavour.
The protagonist Ricardo Somorcucio has to be one of the most stupid and self-sacrificing male leads I have ever come across, but to watch him throw himself into a ring of fire for a girl he hopes to tie to him is a heartbreaking emotional rollercoaster worth getting onto. Eventually Ricardo succeeds and gets close to her, but his pain and suffering are by no means put to an end at this point.
The bad girl herself comes from a financially challenged family which leads her to chase after fame and fortune. She ties herself to wealthy and powerful men who treat her as their property – and keeps convincing herself that the material gains made by those relationships are what makes life worth living.
The opposite ambitions in life those two represent lead to similarly contrasting outcomes: All the while Ricardo gains wonderful friendships, knowledge and respect in his field, broadens his cultural horizons and enjoys a quiet but emotionally fulfilling life in a frugal manner, the bad girl lets herself be pampered aesthetically and materialistically while being emotionally empty. He keeps telling himself his life is empty without her, while she keeps telling herself her life is full without him.
Even dangerous situations concerning life and death do not lead to either of the two to change their ways, which is a lesson in itself.
In the end, the fact of the matter is that realistically most great love stories do not end happily and are only made great by the magnification of their most intense moments. These are usually a mix of destruction and bliss. That is exactly the way Llosa tells his love story, and while the story goes into some deeply dark and gloomy places, it is exceptionally suspenseful, intense and a pleasure to read.
Beyond that, the novel is a bag filled with historical tidbits on Peruvian and European history and cultural movements in the 20th century.
Llosa’s raw and fearless caption of the human condition is an absolute must-read. It will keep you on your toes until the very end.
Stephen King: The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger (1982)
Having greatly enjoyed King’s horror story It and being impressed by his way to describe the most regular people in the most fascinating ways by focusing on peculiar everyday details, I gladly started with his Dark Tower series. This is the first of eight books in a fantasy series praised and loved by many.
The Gunslinger was written when King was 19 years old. Obsessed with Lord of the Rings and arrogant, as he himself puts it in a foreword that was added later. That does show in the writing, since many of the sentences and paragraphs could now be considered even satire of a fantasy writer who takes himself way too seriously. This is also something King mentioned in the foreword.
As he himself found it necessary to emphasize those points, I have done so here – and must now admit that although the style of writing did come across as naive and been-there-done-that, the story itself is quite intruiging and original.
This exposition piece introduces Ronald, the last of the mythical and mysterious gunslinger line, traveling through worlds to confront the Man in Black and to prevent him from destroying the dark tower. As such, Roland is also on a quest towards the tower itself.
While the stroy of Ronald’s becoming reminded me strongly of Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (I highly praised it over here) (Chronologically speaking, it was obviously King who did the inspiring, but the association is there, so King fans should maybe check out Rothfuss!). The topic of destiny and making definite choices to mold your way of life at 14 seems a bit harsh but seeing as it is a fantasy piece, it can be accepted that such is the life of a gunslinger.
Ronald is a fascinating character and King’s description of him and his childhood is well-written. What still needs more development and context is why a young boy named Jake has popped into Ronald’s realm from what seems to be modern day New York, and why it is so easy to find the man in black at the end of the very first part.
Certainly those questions will be answered in the next novels.
Gunslinger was a well-written exposition. I am interested enough to keep reading.
Mariama Bâ: So Long a Letter (Une si longue lettre, 1979)
It is not easy to be a Senegalese woman, a muslim, a feminist and an author at the same time. Mariama Bâ can be called a pioneer in the latter fields, since her novels and essays on the woman’s role in Senegalese society were the first of their kind.
Having been divorced herself, Bâ’s novel So long a Letter is something of a first step towards the emancipation of a women who has been repressed and tossed aside after aligning her complete life to a man.
The novel is a series of long letters by Ramatoulaye who is adressing her friend Aissatou. The latter has moved to the States and found independence, while Ramatoulaye has stayed with her husband even after him taking a second wife – who happens to be Ramatoulaye’s daughter’s best friend.
Letter starts with Modou’s funeral, so a slight gratification of the villain’s death is already given as Ramatoulaye describes her model conduct towards every relative present at Modou’s send-off. From there, events start rolling as Ramatoulaye remembers their courtship, her excitement about falling in love and finding a good man, her mother’s reluctance to bless the union, their marriage, Modou’s betrayal, and finally her emancipation.
Ramatoulaye’s tone can be described as bitter and emotional in the beginning, and I was afraid this novel wouldn’t be able to grasp beyond its own reach – as it is often the case that writers drown into their own emotions when using autobiographical subject matter.
However, the emancipation of Ramatoulaye is anything but sobby – she finds herself again outside of her marriage as a free person, and while she keeps her title of first wife, Ramatoulaye begins an independent existence and becomes her own person at last.
So long a Letter is an emotional yet reflexive novel. It shows the awful restrictions that are still very present in a woman’s life in many parts of the world – but it also dares to challenge and overcome them. In that sense, Bâ is an inspiration and should be discovered by a larger audience.
Sadly, this novel is not something one would come across in a regular bookshop, which is why I am glad to have started the “in 80 books around the world” challenge to broaden my literary horizon even more.
Unfortunately, this list does not consist solely of gems, which you will be learning more about in next month’s reviews.
What was the best or worst book you read last month?