Tuesday, 17 December 2013

My favourite books of 2013

This is a list of my favourite books of this year. 

Some of them were published quite recently, whilst others have been around for quite some time. But none of that really matters to me because I discovered their brilliance this year. And, after all, brilliant books are timeless.

So without further ado, and in quite a particular order, these are my favourite books of 2013.

Bon app├ętit!

5. The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

N.B. This is a very belated addition to this post given that it's exactly a year since I originally published it. But the fact of the matter is that I've been stewing about whether or not I should add it to this post pretty much since I originally published it - I just forgot all about this book at the time I wrote the post originally. After a lot of umming and ahhing (a year's worth to be exact), I've finally decided that yes I want to include this book on this list. Just to clarify, me thinking about this for a year is in no way an exaggeration; it can (and does) take me a long time to make decisions of this sort at times. So without further ado, here it is now - enjoy.

The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared is the charmingly quirky story of Allan Karlsson, who on his hundredth birthday decides to climb out of his nursing home window and disappear; just as the title states. So really I didn't need to explain that last part to you because I was only repeating the title of the book, but I thought I'd clarify just in case you thought the title was a decoy to get you to buy the book when really it's about a miniature turtle who has a raspberry as a shell* and finds that people are constantly trying to eat him. Because who wants to read about them, right? But rest assured, the title of the book holds true to what it is about. 

After climbing out of his window to run away Karlsson gets tangled in a very bizarre series of events, which begins with accidentally getting his hands on a suitcase of drug money and consequently being chased by both the drug dealers and the police. And remember, this man is a hundred years old, so it's a pretty thrilling chase. Dispersed through this main chain of events are flashbacks to Karlsson's earlier life, which was equally - if not more so - bizarre. Travelling on a riverboat with Mao Zedong's wife and unknowingly helping to build the atomic bomb are just some examples. In this way, the book very much reminds me of a Swedish old-man version of Forest Gump in that Karlsson's like is filled with accidental interactions with very influential and infamous historical figures. Thus the book is very funny and very quirky and is guaranteed to take you on an incredibly entertaining adventure.

If you're still not convinced that The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared is not about rasperry-shelled miniature turtles, here's a trailer of the movie which is based on the book. Hopefully that will convince you.

*cue applause for this brilliant addition to this post*

*miniature turtles with raspberry shells exist, I recommend you Google an image of them right now.

4. The Woman Who Dived Into the Heart of the World 
by Sabina Berman

The Woman Who Dived Into the Heart of the World follows the story of Karen, an autistic female who reinvents the world of tuna farming. 

It begins with Isabelle, Karen's aunt, moving back to her hometown in Mexico after inheriting her late sister's tuna cannery. However, Isabelle doesn't expect to gain responsibility of her late sister's daughter, Karen, whose existence has been kept a secret up until now. Presumably this is because there is something different about Karen. As such, Karen's late mother has neglected Karen since birth; so much so that we are first introduced to Karen as a 'dark, naked thing...[with]...large eyes beneath the matted clump of hair, a wild thing.' This is when Isabelle moves in. 

Karen has not been taught how to speak, and thus has no grasp of language. So the story continues with Karen's journey of discovering language and the world around her, thanks to Aunt Isabelle. 

Slowly we learn that Karen is in fact autistic, and this, together with the late age that Karen acquires language, creates some highly entertaining word-play which evolves out of Karen attempting to understand the world around her.

Karen goes on to study at university, and eventually becomes an animal activist. She finds herself in some extraordinarily bizarre circumstances and rises above all odds; all of which adds to the immensely heartwarming and enjoyable nature of this story.

It's charming. It's clever. And it's very entertaining. Highly highly recommended.

3. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Moving, nostalgic, and at times euphoric, this coming-of-age story is about Charlie, a 15 year old boy and the anonymous letters he writes to an unnamed friend.

It follows Charlie's journey as a freshman and the various anxieties he faces; from being the small fish in the big pond at school, to the pain he still feels from the unexpected deaths of some of the closest people to him - his aunt and best friend. The story also captures the thrills associated with making new, older friends who finally accept Charlie for who he is; as well as the confusions of falling in love for the first time.

It's an emotional roller-coaster-ride of a book. But it is so beautifully and honestly written that it just tugged at my heartstrings like no fictional book has in a long time. It took me back to my time at high school and all of the uncertainties experienced during that time. For that reason I just wanted to give Charlie a big cuddle and tell him everything will eventually work out and be OK. 

Read it. You really should. You'll love it.

2. Life of Pi by Yann Martel 

This is the story of Pi, who grows up in India and whose father owns the local zoo. Pi's family decides to immigrate to Canada, and they wish to take their animals with them. As a result, Pi, his family, and the animals must relocate via ship, and so they all set sail towards their new future.

However, their ship is caught in a terrible storm and tragically sinks. What's left of the original passengers, other than Pi, is an orangutan, a zebra, a spotted hyena, and (to Pi's surprise and fear) a Bengal tiger. What's more, they are all trapped on a single lifeboat.

The story continues with Pi's account of his time lost at sea with these creatures.

Admittedly, this main storyline of the book largely contributed to me putting off reading Life of Pi for a long long time. It had been recommended to me on a number of occasions, yet I couldn't understand how a story about a man lost at sea could sustain my interest. But it did; so much so that I didn't want to put it down. Not even on my 10 minute walk from the train station to my workplace (which can be quite the risky journey). 

Life of Pi is a philosophical, spiritual, and allegorical journey of wonder, and I was left in complete awe of Martel's use of words by the end of it.

1. Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

This is my favourite book of the year. It's a big call. And one that hasn't been made flippantly. But Cloudstreet is definitely, hands down, my favourite book of this year.

It begins with the Pickles family who inherit the house at Number 1 Cloudstreet; a welcome change from the hotel they used to board in. 

Given that the house at Cloudstreet is very large, and that the Pickles family are in need of extra money, they decide to rent out half of their residence - the Pickles will live on the right-hand-side, whilst the new tenants will occupy the left. 

And so the Lamb family move in, who recently up-and-left their struggling farm in hopes of finding more fortune in the city. Cloudstreet is thus the story of these two families, following the hardships and celebrations that they both experience over 20 years in post-war suburban Western Australia.

Cloudstreet has stuck with me like no other book has in a long time. I think it's because the characters have been so well written and developed that by the end of the book I felt like we were lifelong family friends. It made me laugh out loud in amusement, cringe with concern, and whoop in celebration, and it's a book I'll treasure for a long time to come. 

Simple, heartwarming and memorable, Cloudstreet is very rightly considered an Australian Classic, and I'm so happy to have discovered it this year.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Review: Beatrice and Virgil, by Yann Martel

I'll know I'll have read an excellent book when all I can think once I've finished it is WOAH. 

It's as though the wind has been knocked right out of me. 

It's as though nothing is quite like it was before I read the book. That everything is just...different. But in a good way - a different way.

And I won't want to read anything else for a few days afterwards so that I can savour the aforementioned feelings for as long as possible. Just like when I eat something really delicious, like garlic bread, and I won't want to eat anything else after it so that its delicious garlicky flavour can remain on my tastebuds.

That's just how I felt after reading Martel's Beatrice and Virgil. It was flipping great.

In short

Beatrice and Virgil is comprised of two stories. The main one is about Henry, a writer who is struggling to get his latest book published. This predicament comes after the phenomenal success of his previous novel, which was also made into a film (sound familiar?*). 

Feeling desperately dejected and unappreciated, Henry receives a letter from a mysterious fan, requesting Henry's assistance. The assistance required is not specified. So Henry, who is intrigued, sets out to find out more.

The mysterious admirer turns out to be a reclusive taxidermist, also named Henry. Taxidermist Henry is reluctant to reveal too much information about himself; except when he is asked about taxidermy, which he discusses in a surprisingly captivating manner. The mystery surrounding Taxidermist Henry only encourages Original Henry to continue spending time with the former, despite feeling somewhat unsettled in the taxidermist's presence.

It turns out that Taxidermist Henry is struggling with the writing of his own play, and would like Original Henry's assistance with it. This play, featuring the title characters of the novel - Beatrice and Virgil - becomes the secondary storyline of the book.

Beatrice and Virgil are a donkey and howler monkey who have escaped circumstances referred to as 'The Horrors'. Their story, set in a dystopic universe, explores how to cope with experiences that are essentially indescribable.

And so Beatrice and Virgil continues by flipping between Original Henry's peculiar reality and Taxidermist Henry's animal allegory for the remainder of the novel. Along the way, you are taken on a surreal and sometimes obscure philosophical journey; one that at times makes you think, 'Hang on a second Martel, did you really just write that?' But the confident, and often ironic, manner in which Martel writes assures the reader that he knows exactly what he is doing.

Then all of a sudden...BAM!....Beatrice and Virgil comes to an abrupt end. Just like that. Leaving you to wonder, 'My goodness, what on earth just happened there?' 

In three words

Philosophical. Surreal. Beguiling. 

What I liked
  • the ideas that Martel plays with. Such as the distinctions between fact and fiction that Martel blurs (pp.6-7):
Tradition holds that the two must be kept apart. That is how our knowledge and impressions of life are sorted in bookstores and libraries - separate aisles, separate floors - and that is how publishers prepare their books, imagination in one package, reason in another. It's not how writers write. A novel is not an entirely unreasonable creation, nor is an essay devoid of imagination. People don't so rigorously separate the imaginative from the rational in their thinking and their actions. There are truths and there are lies - these are the transcendent categories, in books as in life. The useful division is between the fiction and the nonfiction that speaks the truth and the fiction and nonfiction that utters lies. 
  • Martel's incredibly exquisite description of a pear. You will never think of pears in the same way again. 

  • Ditto with the way Martel discusses taxidermy. His descriptions shed a whole different light on this vocation. Beatrice and Virgil's focus on taxidermy also, coincidentally, has interesting parallels with the last book that I reviewed, Foer's Eating Animals. Particularly this line (p.97): 'But the worst enemy of taxidermy, and also of animals, is indifference. The indifference of the many, combined with the active hatred of the few, has sealed the fate of animals.' 

What irked me

Sometimes I did feel the book was trying to be a bit too clever for its own good. Or like it was mocking me. However I think that was partly Martel's intention; to force his reader to become a bit uncomfortable. But then he also challenges the reader to question that discomfort by asking us if it is really necessary to think about whatever is making us uncomfortable as we always have. Or can we think about things differently? This may all sound cryptic and ambiguous, but that is what you're in for if you read Beatrice and Virgil. I personally enjoy this sort of writing when it's done well, but it could just as easily turn people away.

You will like this if you enjoy reading
  • books that play with and challenge the status quo
  • books that have make you feel a bit uneasy 
  • books that contain multiple storylines for you to follow

My theme song for this book

* the fact that Beatrice and Virgil so closely mirrors Martel's own real-life events has actually been a major criticism of it. As well as the fact that this book, like Life of Pi, contains an animal allegory. 
Personally I don't consider either of these to be a problem, even if Martel is guilty of being self-indulgent and repetitive. Because I think he has been successful with the two. And if something's working for you, why not give it another crack? But there have been plenty of people to argue otherwise - don't let that stop you from giving Beatrice and Virgil a go though!

Read more: http://bloggerknown.blogspot.com/2013/02/changing-blog-page-by-page-number.html#ixzz2mUXnF3wj