Broken Glass, A Review

…in which Helen becomes a big fan of Alain Mabanckou; not for the first time she rambles extensively; she starts to become unsure of how much longer she can keep up with all this ‘in which’ lark when it seems all very self-evident, must yet again apologise for neglecting her blog for too long, the blog readers start to suspect our blogger is slightly unorganised…

Sorry AGAIN that I haven’t posted for a while. I know, I really am rubbish. Luckily, however, I have now finished my exams at laaaaaaaaaast!!! And I have just been so busy because I have landed my self a summer internship doing copywriting! Wahoo…

Anyway, for my second around the world reading challenge book, I have read Broken Glass by French-Congolese author, Alain Mabanckou. Broken Glass is his second translated novel available, and I enjoyed it so much I have added his other book available in English, African Psycho, to my TBR list. I would recommend Broken Glass to anyone who likes the sound of a refreshingly amusing exploration of people and life that makes you think without being too preachy or heavy. Also, if you know your French Literature, the majority of the gags and references will not go over your head, like they did with me. Even if you don’t, there are references to many more in this book, including Hamlet, Tarzan, Catcher In The Rye and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.

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Owner of the bar Credit Gone West (I love that name), known as ‘Stubborn Snail’ (everyone in this book has nicknames – such as ‘Pampers Guy’, initially amusing until you find out how he earned his name), gives the main character, the unreliable narrator we know as ‘Broken Glass’, the task of writing this story. He wants Broken Glass to immortalise the bar and the people who visit. And that is what Broken Glass does. It’s such a realistic portrayal of human nature and the unreliability of the tales we tell, that I found it difficult to believe it was written by a once-lawyer academic professor and not a bitter drunk.

…let’s say the boss of Credit Gone West gave me this notebook to fill, he’s convinced that I – Broken Glass – can turn out a book, because one day, for a laugh, I told him about this famous writer who drank like a fish, and had to be picked off the street when he got drunk, which shows you you should never joke with the boss…

One thing you should be aware of is the punctuation style – or lack of. There are no full stops in Broken Glass, and I know that this is something a lot of people have been put off by. I have read some reviews that express a frustration at the inability to focus to everything being narrated due to the lengthy, rambling prose style. Please don’t let this put you off. Some of the best books I have ever read have been written this way. My advice is not to worry too much about paying close attention to each detail and not skimming across things. How can you expect to read and take in the book if you are too busy thinking about the act of reading itself? Broken Glass is a silly, funny – although not exactly light-hearted – story and I think it aims to paint a picture, an overall impression, of life. You wouldn’t pay attention to everything a stranger said in a bar, hanging on to their every word. Like the impression met by a meeting in a bar, what is important in this book, in my opinion, is the overall tone and story arch. This is an excerpt:

…and what I really want people to say when they read me is ‘what’s this jumble, this mess, this muddle, this mish-mesh of barbitraries’

[…] my mischievous answer would be ‘this jumble of words is life, come on, come into my lair, check out the rotting garbage, here’s my take on life, your fiction’s no more than the output of a load of old has-beens designed to comfort other old has-beens, and until the day your characters start to see how the rest of us earn our nightly crust, there’ll be no such thing as literature, only intellectual masturbation’…

The blurb cites the book as a ‘mocking satire on the dangers of artistic integrity’, but if Broken Glass is a comedy – it is certainly a dark comedy. I found some parts uncomfortable, but that’s part of its charm. I have also read some people’s opinions of Broken Glass that claim that it was a little too crude for them. My response to this is ‘Don’t be so boring!’ Yes, there is a section where two characters have a pissing contest and the winner urinates a perfect map of France. Personally, however, I am not above a bit of toilet humour here and there.

I have to remind myself sometimes that I’m writing a book review and not an essay. Some books, like Broken Glass, are so – for want of a better word – tasty that I could sit for hours dissecting and exploring all the different ideas and themes. So I will just have to say this: read it!

To my shame, I must admit I have not read much African Literature (aside from the obvious Things Fall Apart, Half Of A Yellow Sun, etc.) so if anybody has any recommendations they would be greatly appreciated. Likewise, if you have read anything by Mabanckou, or if you know how I feel about ‘tasty’ books, I would love to hear from you. Thanks for reading!

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What Kind of Girl, Exactly? A Review of Lena Dunham’s Memoir

…In which our blogger discovers the holy grail of TMI; struggles to form an opinion; the resulting review probably makes no sense…

Also WARNING: I think I’ve mentioned on here somewhere that I am a huge fan of children’s fiction and YA novels, but I just wanted to make it clear that Not That Kind Of Girl, and by extension this review, is not suitable for children.

“If I could take what I’ve learned and make one mental job easier for you, or prevent you from having the kind of sex where you feel you must keep your sneakers on in case you want to run away during the act, then every misstep of mine was worthwhile.”

I don’t know what to tell you about Not That Kind Of Girl. Honestly, I have mixed opinions, so I have just written how I felt – please bear in mind that I still wholeheartedly recommend this book to anybody who hasn’t yet read it.

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I was pretty excited to read this book because it was not only recommended to me personally as a piece of feminist writing, but revered as (I quote this from the back cover of the book) ‘To a generation of girls, she [Lena Dunham] is the thing. The very thing. The absolute thing.’ Big boots to fill.

Unquestionably, Lena Dunham’s writing is brilliant. I started reading this book when I picked it up from a friend’s bookshelf. Instantly, it felt like Dunham’s prose started a conversation with me, and this was so absorbing that I borrowed the book from the library as soon as I got home. I even laughed out loud several times the one night I stayed up to finish the whole book. A book rarely makes me laugh out loud.

This being said, I couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed. It’s not that I found Lena’s account problematic exactly (although I can see how people feel that way). The problem was more the fact that the narrative was really, well… annoying.

I don’t know if you’ve ever watched Girls, but the main character, Hannah Horvath is noted for being self-centred. In interviews, Lena has always distanced herself from Hannah, saying that Girls is in no way autobiographical (although this has been disputed). However, on page 135 Lena admits ‘I can be very self involved’. In my opinion, it seems as if the book is written from the point of view of Hannah Horvath. I can cope with this as a piece of fiction, but as a memoir it causes me to feel slightly exasperated. Are her stories supposed come across as self-aware because she honestly admits that she cried when her sister told her she was gay, that she insisted that a girl she knew at college was pretending to be gay, and that she (possibly?????) sexually abused her sister, among other things? (Also, I won’t spoil anything, but for those of you who have read this part – wtf is up with ‘Emails I Would Send If I Were One Ounce Crazier/ Angrier/ Braver’?! Startlingly childish.) However, my initial thoughts were that the narrative lacked self-awareness. This can get irritating.

I’m sorry for how up-and-down this review is. I just can’t seem to grasp at an opinion of this book.

I have criticised the book for lacking self-awareness. Somehow, at the same time, I still feel Lena’s writing can be inspiringly self-aware:

“I’m an unreliable narrator.

Because I add an invented detail to almost every story I tell about my mother. Because my sister claims every memory we “share” has been fabricated by me to impress a crowd. Because I get “sick” a lot. Because I use the same low “duhhh” voice for every guy I’ve ever known.”

Perhaps Dunham’s book generates this kind of criticism because it is analysed in the same way we might analyse a self-help book. The front cover with its bold typography is clearly a parody of this kind of genre. As I neared the end of this memoir, I felt increasingly frustrated that Lena doesn’t seem to learn anything. She continues to be self-absorbed and doesn’t seem empathetic to the other people in the stories she tells. Despite what she says in the introduction – I can’t help but feel like maybe this is the point. A block of text on front cover surmises the book: ‘A young woman tells you what she’s “learned”.’ Perhaps this is the reason that learned is in inverted commas. You can’t learn anything from anybody else’s experiences. I find that refreshing. This brings me to an extract I liked:

“What was it that I couldn’t understand and how I could I understand it, short of moving to a war-torn nation? I couldn’t escape the feeling that I had experiences to gain, things to learn […] The secrets of life aren’t being revealed when someone laughs at you for having studied creative writing. There is no enlightenment to be gained from letting your semiboyfriend’s bald friend touch your thigh too close to the place where it meets your crotch, but you let it happen because you think it might be love.”

Sorry to continue being so up-and-down, but I’ve just got to add before I finish this, that it is still definitely a valid point to say that unfortunately, the annoying-ness of this book interrupts the book and spoils it a bit. The most annoying aspect, I forgot to say, is the title. Not what kind of girl? What is she implying? I hope that this is intended in an ironic way, because it comes across as judgmental and misogynistic.

Okay! I’ve said everything I think about Not That Kind Of Girl. I think you should read it even if you end up hating it because it is so rich and so relevant. I’m not even going to attempt to rate it out of 5 until I’ve thought about it for at least another week.

I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts about this book. What did you think? Did you find it annoying?

Can You Sell A Country? The Atom Station Review

This is my first book review and the first book I have read for the around the world reading challenge. Icelandic writer, Halldór Laxness is the only Icelandic Nobel Laureate, having won the Nobel Literature Prize in 1955 for his sixty novels. The Atom Station is one of them…

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Ulga is a country girl from the North and The Atom Station is the tale of her experience as a maid in the house of a politician. Somewhere inbetween a political satire and a coming of age novel, Laxness’s story revolves around the themes of corruption, westernisation and the preservation of traditional Icelandic values. Personally, I found parts of The Atom Station quite amusing, but I’m not sure whether I found it amusing enough to warrant being classed as a ‘satire’. Although, I understand that the irony mostly relies on knowledge of the context, which I don’t claim to have. This book would not be wasted on anyone with an interest in Icelandic history or politics. However, parts of the book resonate with anyone who knows anything about the nature of politicians. They did with me anyway…

“But he turned on his heel in the middle of the hall on his way up and continued his monologue: ‘As I was saying, you can always depend on him absolutely: If he swears something to you in confidence when he is sober, and pledges it on his honour, you can be quite sure that he is lying. If he swears it thrice in public on his mother’s name, then, quite simply, he means exactly the opposite of what he is swearing. But what he says when he is tipsy he really means, even though he swears it.'”

One of Laxness’s strengths is his characterisation. He has the ability to sum up a character just through his description of how they first appear to us in the book. Ulga is a real treat of a narrator. She is witty, curious and bold. I think if the character of Ulga hadn’t been as strong and quirky I wouldn’t have enjoyed The Atom Station quite so much. Parts of it were very heavy on philosophy and politics, which felt overwhelming and almost obnoxious, actually. The distinct preference for Communism and the Communist characters cannot be ignored. However the parodies Laxness paints of the various social groups (the upper class families, the old-fashioned farmers, the overdramatic modernist guests at the organ player’s house) were insightful and, at times, hilarious. I particularly enjoyed Ulga’s account of the spoilt family for whom she worked…

“‘I will, I will, I will go to America.’

In the middle of the floor of the study this beautiful, sleek woman lay on her back, her skirt up around her waist, wearing nylon stockings, silk panties and gilt shoes, belabouring the floor with her heels and fists and screaming, her bracelets jingling with the blows and one gilt shoe flying across the room.

Her husband stood at a distance, watching, wearing a surprised and helpless look; yet I suspect he had seen such a performance before and was not particularly amazed.”

Ultimately, The Atom Station was thought provoking and incredibly readable, although not unputdownable. At just 180 pages, I managed to read the whole thing over two two-hour train journeys. While I would not say that this was one of my favourite books, or that it moved me emotionally, I would recommend it to anybody as an insightful and unusual novel that is fun to read.  I’ve never read any Icelandic Literature before so if anybody else has read anything Icelandic or has any thoughts about this I’d love to hear about it!

#2

…in which Helen ceases to talk about interrailing at last, the awesome power of nature and the insignificance of man…

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I was planning my next few blog entries when I came across the around the world reading challenge.

I love travelling. I think everybody should travel whenever they can, if they are able to. It’s a running joke among pretty much anyone who knows me, actually, that I can’t stop talking about the time I went interrailing. Well, I didn’t know you went interrailing, Helen, they say, you never mentioned it. Some have even gone so far as to compare me to that gap yah video. I promise you I am not that annoying. And I have never, probably, possibly… mentioned ‘the awesome power of nature and the insignificance of man’ (although I can say, without a doubt, that I have ‘chundered’ all around Europe. I’m not sure that this is necessarily something to be ashamed of).

Anyway… I was thinking about reading and travelling and how linked they are. Well, for me anyway. I think it’s cool how you can read a book when you are away from home and that book will always remind you of that place. Slaughterhouse 5, unfortunately, will always remind me of sitting on a hot, sticky bus for 15 hours, slowly losing the feeling in my left bum cheek. If anyone has any books that remind them of places they’ve been, or any travel book recommendations, I would love to read them.

For my first around the world challenge book, I’m reading the Nobel Prize winning The Atom Station, by Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness. I would really appreciate any recommendations for books from any of the other five continents, so comment below!