A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
A Clockwork Orange is set in an alternate England “sometime” in the future. The main character, Alex, is a teenager up to no good. His nights are filled with acts of gang violence and destruction. He is devoid of the moral compass that guides most of us. Eventually his luck with the authorities runs out and the rest of the book deals with the aftermath of his incarceration.
I found the first part of the book particularly taxing. Burgess, much like Orwell in 1984, invents his own slang language that is used throughout. I constantly found myself trying to decipher the word meanings based on the context which I didn’t really find very fun. I did eventually get the hang of it, though. The crimes that Alex and his gang commit are described in a no-nonsense way, without any emotion or feeling. It sometimes took me a while to realise that at certain points they just described killing someone. I haven’t seen the film but I can’t imagine that it would be possible to do a similar thing.
I didn’t really enjoy this that much. Even if we weren’t supposed to sympathise with Alex, I didn’t really take away any meaningful message about youth, violence, the criminal justice system or extreme psychology (did I cover everything?).
Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, the US has a new President. This book was written by Obama shortly after being voted in as the editor of the Harvard Law Review. It is more or less an autobiography tracking his first 30 years.
What is so refreshing about this book is that it was entirely written before Obama entered politics. This means it is often candid, revealing and ever so personal. I’d seriously doubt that any Presidential hopeful would write a book right now talking about their cocaine use, for instance.
Much of the book deals with Obama trying to trace his (often complicated) family – most of which live in Africa. Due to his family complications, a young Obama struggles to find ‘his place’ in the world but in particular, a sense of identity as he is neither truly white nor black.
One thing I wish he covered in more detail is the relationship with his wife, Michelle – especially considering the special family dynamic from which he came.
Still, quite a good book and not politically charged by any means.
When You Are Engulfed In Flames by David Sedaris
Proof that the Daily Show sells books. I bought three of Sedaris’ books based on this five minute interview.
Sedaris’ books are collections of short essays; usually humorous, always quirky. The title of this book refers to the main essay, where Sedaris moves to Japan in order to quit smoking. Although I found his attempts to understand Japanese culture amusing, I find the whole concept a bit of a soft target seeing as their culture is so…well…foreign to Westerners (and already quite extensively made fun of).
The highlights of the book aren’t Sedaris’ own escapades but when he describes the colourful characters in his life. In particular, his bigoted neighbour in New York and his flatmate when he was a college drop-out are stand outs. Although this wasn’t quite as funny as I thought it would be, it was quite smirk-worthy and I’ll definitely be reading his other books (seeing as I bought them already).
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
This is the second of Orwell’s better known works. The other of course being Animal Farm, which I reviewed previously.
We follow Winston Smith, a public servant in a totalitarian regime. His job is to edit newspaper articles to reflect whichever ‘truth’ the Party wants told. As such, the ruling class can always be correct because the past can be modified to suit the present. Winston is just a small cog in a very large machine. Winston is growing weary of life in such a claustrophobic atmosphere and yearns for change, freedom – the whole kit and caboodle. A chance encounter with another Party member piques his curiosity and events follow on from there.
In contrast with Animal Farm, where animals are used to keep an arms length from the characters, 1984 is far more real. Some of the events can be quite confronting because Orwell relates characters whom we build up far greater sympathy for than is possible for a horse or a sheep. At a few points I had to question whether I should keep going. The other part I didn’t really enjoy was the large blocks of explanatory text about the history or philosophy of the 1984-world. Being able to weave these passages into the main story would have been far more engaging.
Read Animal Farm instead.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré
There is a sub-set of the people who watch Bond films. We all know ones. They’re the people who have no idea what’s going on. “Why did he kill that guy?” “I thought he was with him?” I’m pretty sure that’s an opening skit to a Seinfeld episode so I’ll leave it there.
These kinds of people shouldn’t read this book. If Bond stretches their brains that much then this book will puree them into a tasty mush. We follow a recently ‘retired’ British spy (Alec Leamas) at the height of the Cold War. In order to exact revenge on a spy that has eliminated several of his own agents, Leamas is convinced to embark on one more mission – to pretend to pretend to defect to the enemy. What ensues is an at times savage tale of double-crossing, mystery and intrigue. The book is beautifully paced but you have to pay attention to what is going on. Fragments dropped here and there play an important part in the telling of the story. The only part of the book I didn’t really like was the socialist debate between two of the main characters whilst driving at high speed through the streets of East Germany. I would have thought a more pertinent discussion would be “how are we going to stay alive” but obviously not.
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
In this book we follow Holden, a teenager who has just been expelled from (another) school. Afraid of having to go home early, Holden whittles away the time in New York. He gets drunk, he smokes a lot, he hires a prostitute – you know, the kinds of things normal teenagers do.
This review is quite brief because I found this book quite disappointing. It’s hard to relate to a main character who does so many stupid things, who drifts through life and who doesn’t seem to make any kind of progress or learn from anything he experiences. If there was a point to this book I must’ve missed it – the ability of Holden to get easily side-tracked into little whinges to me was pointless and annoying because it’s as if the majority of the book is him complaining about other people.
Maybe there’s 65 million people that disagree with me but I’d suggest people avoid this one.
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
I’m usually a book-is-better-than-the-movie kinda guy. When I’ve already read the book and go and see a movie I’m usually thinking through in my brain which parts they’re leaving out (e.g. Hitchhiker’s) which kinda ruins it.
When it came to Fight Club, like most people, I’d seen the film first. Yes, I’m going to assume that you’ve seen it too. If you haven’t you need to see it. Now.
When I compare books to movies there’s usually two things I think about: what stuff they invariably have to leave out when going to a 2-3 hour film and the different ways the author/director is able to convey the story.
The first of these comparisons is fairly easy. Thinking back I don’t really remember anything in the film that wasn’t in the book. Certainly the key themes and scenes are there. There might be a scene or two here or there but nothing major.
The second of these comparisons is what you get from being in a film versus being in a book. The emotional distance that Tyler is kept from the narrator is more pronounced in the film because you actually see two separate characters. In the book this is harder and Tyler’s thoughts do get mixed in which I think would have someone who doesn’t know ‘the twist’ to both get it earlier and for the shock/surpise/etc. to be far less pronounced.
For these reasons I don’t really see a reason to recommend this book even though, as an isolated work, it is a good book. Its downside is that there is a great film about it that you can watch and get pretty much everything you would get from the book. In the afterword Palahniuk actually laments that the book is overlooked in respect to the film (with most people not even knowing that this book exists).
I just hope he had a good revenue-sharing agreement…