Sunday, 30 March 2014

Anna Kavan - Ice

I chose this book because I heard somewhere that it was about ice apocalypse. In snowless England I wanted to read something to make me grateful for a mild climate (which I’m otherwise not that happy with). So yes, this book did make me appreciate a mild climate and also the fact I don’t do drugs (generally).

I am yet to read a book which was published in the 60s and wasn’t completely bonkers. Our generation seems so tame and conservative in comparison. I can’t imagine contemporary big publishers taking a chance on something that makes so little obvious sense.

The great thing about Ice is that you can have fun with it. I mean you can interpret it in a million ways – not sure if it is your idea of fun but for me it is. On the surface it’s a story of an unnamed narrator searching for unnamed girl while fighting another unnamed man for her affection (why name your characters? That’s sooo 1950s.) And all of this while the planet is facing the apocalypse and ice is threatening to swallow everything. The reader follows this frustrating chase which makes less and less sense and it feels like one of those unnerving dreams.

One of the first interpretations that came to my mind was that of the Cold War. The brutal reality of that world, military governments, ice plus the fact the book was written in the 60s all seem to fit nicely with this theory. But why stop there? Anna Kavan was a heroin addict and you will have no trouble with seeing the whole book as an allegory of addiction.

Let’s remove the book from its author and its time. Then really – the sky is the limit. I think my favourite interpretation is that of a power struggle in a relationship. This whole ‘I can’t love you without possessing you’ conundrum. The whole you are the OBJECT (of my affection). Both men in the book are actually one man trying to disown the part of his personality he is not comfortable with.

All in all, it’s a typical 60s book. You finish the last page, close it and ask yourself: what the hell did I just read? And yet, you keep thinking about it. Every now and then something reminds you of this book. Some time later you are reorganizing your bookshelves, or maybe just looking for that book you were sure you had but instead you come across Ice. You open it at random and start reading it again.

“My window overlooked an empty landscape where nothing ever moved. No houses were visible, only the debris of the collapsed wall, a bleak stretch of snow, the fjord, the fir forest, the mountains. No colour, only monotonous shades of grey to the ultimate dead white of the snow. The water lifeless in its dead calm, the ranks of black trees marching everywhere in uniform gloom.”

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Andrzej Paczkowski - Wojna polsko-jaruzelska: stan wojenny w Polsce 13 XII 1981-22 VII 1983

I will not bore you with another review of a Martial Law book. Or will I?
My research is actually complete and my book is almost finished. The bit I still have left to write takes place in 2012 in London. Yet my mum so lovingly found, bought and sent all those books to me that I feel obliged to read them.

Let me just list a few things I have learnt from this volume. This will be more for my benefit than for yours.

- During early days of the Martial Law there were many arrests for the slightest offences. One priest got arrested for putting up a Nativity scene which supposedly contained elements ‘damaging to the interests of the People’s Republic of Poland’. Another priest got six and a half years for distributing leaflets.

- Mieczysław Rokitowski from Przemyśl was stopped by the police with one copy of a leaflet which he found at the bus stop, he was arrested and taken to custody where he was beaten to death. With new laws under the Martial Law they didn’t have to intern people, now they could arrest them as well for all sort of random reasons.

- They cancelled all sport events, theatre shows, cinema showings. They closed museums and libraries. They even suspended Lotto. On the tv you could watch things like ‘Military Songs Festival’.

- The post censorship was an enormous undertaking. In 1982 they controlled 82.2 million parcels and letters (15% of all correspondence). 930 000 were stopped (including Solidarity leaflets, Amnesty International postcards sent from abroad, and all other letters demanding freeing political prisoners. 3 million parcels were censored this way or another.

- All that blocking of information caused rumours and urban myths to fly high. People talked about thousands killed, about people being herded on stadiums, and some sent to Syberia. This was a mixture of old Polish fears about being sent to Siberia (no, seriously, it’s almost a figure of speech now, but then of course it happened to thousands of people) and new reports of what was happening in Pinochet’s Chile

- In 1983 after the end of Martial Law and the lift of the union registration ban, there was a rush of union creating. The most bizarre one was the Trade Union of the Polish United Workers’ Party Workers. The workers of the Polish Party of Workers had a union! That’s the so called ‘actually existing socialism’ for you. It’s a beauty.

- In 1982 during a heated family argument a retired colonel, supporter of Jaruzelski and the Martial Law took out his gun and aimed at his son-in-law, supporter of Solidarity. The daughter got up to shield her husband but the colonel was so angry at that point he shot the daughter and then he chased after the son and shot him too. The colonel was drunk, of course. There is a whole novel right here. Maybe I should write that one.

Fun times. That’s when my mum had her first child. Moi.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Sherwood Anderson - Winesburg, Ohio

When European artists want to place their symbolical tale in a setting that’s nowhere and everywhere they often settle for Central-Eastern Europe. There are so many countries there, the borders keep changing all the time, no one can keep up, so the artists can let their imagination run wild. They can even invent a whole new country and stick it somewhere between Hungary and Czech Republic. Poland is also a good place. A classic Spanish baroque play – Life is a Dream by Calderón de la Barca takes place in an imaginary Poland. The French Ubu Ori by Alfred Jarry also takes place in Poland (further explained by the author as ‘in Poland that is nowhere’). 

The American equivalent of Central Europe is Midwest. It’s the nowhere and everywhere of the USA. If you looked at those maps on Buzzfeed where Europeans were asked to label American states, you saw that the whole of Midwest was usually covered with question marks.

Sherwood Anderson grew up in Ohio and invented a little town in Ohio to place his stories of sadness and grotesque. He subverts the received wisdom that loneliness is an affliction endemic to big cities, and questions the rhetoric that makes us believe that small towns are oases where humans are there for one another. Anderson proves that just because everybody knows each other’s name doesn’t make them feel any less alienated for this alienation is a condition endemic to all human kind. 

And the greatest tragedy is that we all feel we are the only one suffering from it and we constantly compare ourselves to the other seemingly well-adjusted folks. All lies! We are all lonely and we all feel that life should be something else, something more. We are yearning for that je-ne-sais-quoi, as if someone made us a promise at the beginning of our lives and backed out on it.

"For a month his mother had been very ill and that had something to do with his sadness, but not much. He thought about himself and to the young that always brings sadness."

Anderson is a great poet of a small town, so generous towards his subjects, never sparing any effort to describe their inner lives in the greatest detail. Oh, the frustration of not being able to communicate with the others, to express those suffocating feelings! No wonder all the dialogues feel so stiff and stunted. Anderson takes his own advice (in the book voiced by a teacher):

"If you are to become a writer you'll have to stop fooling with words," she explained. "It would be better to give up the notion of writing until you are better prepared. Now it's time to be living. I don't want to frighten you, but I would like to make you understand the import of what you think of attempting. You must not become a mere peddler of words. The thing to learn is to know what people are thinking about, not what they say."

Sadly and ironically, the author could never reproduce the success of this collection. Although he tried and tried he only created washed-down and trite versions of Winesburg, Ohio and nothing quite as poignant as this book. 

Doubly sadly, those that came after him, those that learnt from him and quoted him in their influences turned out to be superior and more talented. 

"Thoughts came and I wanted to get away from my thoughts. I began to beat the horse. The black clouds settled down and it began to rain. I wanted to go at a terrible speed, to drive on and on forever. I wanted to get out of town, out of my clothes, out of my marriage, out of my body, out of everything. I almost killed the horse, making him run, and when he could not run any more I got out of the buggy and ran afoot into the darkness until I fell and hurt my side. I wanted to run away from everything but I wanted to run towards something too. Don't you see, dear, how it was?"

On a final note, let’s not forget how revolutionary this volume must have been at the time. Some of subjects discussed were: premarital sex, paedophilia, alcoholism, religious zealousness, physical desire, etc.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Linda Howard - Up Close and Dangerous

We had no winter in UK this year. This was probably the first winter in my life with absolutely zero snow. I know the US had quite the opposite of that but we just got loads of rain. I’m Polish – I miss the snow and I miss the cold, so I asked people to recommend me romance novels with lots of snow and cold and people having to share their body heat to survive or some such.

‘Up, Close and Dangerous’ was a perfect choice. The hero needs to crash land a plane with the heroine on board somewhere up in the mountains. Of course they don’t like each other at first but they need each other to survive, etcetera, etcetera. The survival bits were fantastic. I was very happy I was provided with every single detail – what they ate, what they drank, what they wore, how they built a shelter, and what afflictions they suffered from. I do love me a good survival story. The romance itself though, was lacking. If you took away all the excitement of being stuck in the wilderness, there just wouldn’t be much to it.

First of all, there is one lesson I learnt from Sandra Bullock in Speed the Sequel and that is that the relationships formed in extreme circumstances hardly ever survive (that’s how they explain the lack Keanu Reeves in the sequel), so maybe these two should slow down with their talk of moving in together, marriage and living happily ever after, because even though I’m sure they learnt a lot about themselves in those three days of sharing their body heat, I don’t know if it is quite enough. I mean, they should be a bit traumatized after that ordeal and maybe some time off would actually be useful. Additionally, there is that final twist, and while I appreciate the author trying to make things more interesting, that twist means that both the hero and the heroine would need at least six months of intense psychotherapy to even be a normal, trusting person again. Jumping head first into a super-serious relationship would be the last thing anyone in such circumstances would or should do.

And yet, I gave it four stars. Because in the end it did what I wanted it to do and that was to have a good snow-related survival story and outdoor sex scenes.

PS. I have absolutely no idea what that cover is about. There were exactly zero cars in this book.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Donna Hill - Touch Me Now

Here are some of the things that were wrong with this book:
-          The writing
-          The plot
-          The characters
The author seems to think that using ‘OMG’ or ‘WTH’ as a part of a third-person narrative is somehow a thing to do. There is no plot to speak of. The heroine is a masseuse and the hero is a scarred war veteran. She gives him massages, he gives her orgasms. Other than that, he switches between ‘chuckling’ and ‘brooding’ every page for no reason other than being completely unstable and bipolar. The reason he is so upset with the world and his family is because of something that happened many years ago which could have been cleared out with a five minute conversation but of course isn’t because what would an unimaginative romance writer do without the Big, Ridiculous Misunderstanding?

Also, this masseuse with no actual professional training is able to heal his leg by just kneading him a little here and there – something none of his doctors and physiotherapists managed to do. This is obviously a paranormal romance.

Additionally, there is a ridiculous product placement that I bet the author wasn’t even paid for but still she will let you know and won’t let you forget her heroine has an iPad.

Here are some of my favourite quotes:
“He rested his head against the back of the chair and was just about to close his eyes and let the pain medication settle in when movement to his right drew his attention. At first he thought that perhaps it was an apparition, a vision like the ones he would see at the end of the tunnel of light—beckoning him through those painful nights of recovery. That light and the ethereal image at the end of it were the only things that gave him hope and the will to go on. He hadn’t seen the vision since he’d left the military hospital in Afghanistan, until now. But it wasn’t his imagination and the image wasn’t a result of hallucinations from the pain. She was real and she moved as if walking on air. The lightweight white clothing that she wore gently floated around her, lifted by the gentle breeze.”


“ “Humph, humph, humph. That is one specimen of a man, cane and all,” she whispered. She definitely wanted him to sign up to be on her client list so that she could see for herself just how hard those muscles really were. She gave a short shake of her head to clear it. “

This is so professional. I hope all ‘massage therapists’ think of their clients that way. And why stop at massage therapists? I hope that's what gynaecologists think too - 'oh, can't wait to stick my fingers in there'.
“Layla touched a few icons on her iPad and sent the images to Desiree. “

Ah, I almost forgot Layla had an iPad.

“It was her image, her light that finally led him out of the grip of his nightmare. Although he could not see her in his dream, he understood that it was her. How, he was not certain. But he felt it in the depths of his being.”


“What a mess. She’d made the biggest mistake a woman could make—sleeping with a man that she barely knew.”

Yes. That is the biggest mistake a woman could make. Except for maybe adding water to sulphuric acid and having the thing burn your face. Or, I don’t know, buying a computer with Windows Vista on it. Or, in fact, reading this book. I’d rather sleep with a man I barely know.

“Layla was finally able to breathe only to realize how damp she was between her legs.”

Wait, what? Does she breathe through her fu fu?

“He opened her door and helped her in before rounding the front of the car and getting behind the wheel of the silver gray Audi A8.”

One more product placement and this will read like a rap song.

“Was he putting her on? Was he for real in his apparent attraction to her? Was this all some elaborate ruse to get back in her panties? She didn’t know.”

OK. This is illogical. Why would anyone prepare an elaborate ruse to get back into the panties of someone they are NOT attracted to?
“He looked at her for a moment and then tossed his head back and laughed, a deep soul-stirring laugh that rumbled deliciously in her center. “ 
The hero is supposedly deeply sad and depressed, yet he constantly laughs (either a chuckle or a deep soul-stirring laugh) at things that are completely unfunny.
“ “Show me how to be different,” he said on a ragged whisper. “Tell me how to reconcile my two worlds. Teach me what you know about healing, because I’m all messed up inside.” Her throat squeezed and a tear spilled down her cheek.”
Now I’m crying too. Over all the trees that had to die so that this could be printed.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Roddy Doyle - The Commitments

I went into this book knowing nothing about it, not having seen the movie, certainly not having seen the musical and not being familiar with the Irish institution that is Roddy Doyle.

Initially I thought there was a mistake and I somehow obtained the screenplay for the film rather than the novel. Doyle shows a true bravado in his disregard for what we assume to constitute a novel. His narrative is composed almost entirely of dialogues and some diminished descriptions which are no more than stage directions.

Yet, somehow, despite those self-imposed constraints and in just 140 pages he manages to capture the essence of teenage dreams, how they burn and then burn out, how they get lost in arguments and get flooded by hormonal rivers. It’s all there in a story of a few Dublin teenagers who form a band and try to bring some soul into the Irish capital. Make no mistake, though, this is not a novel about sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. It’s a lot more innocent than that. It’s neither glamorous, nor bohemian. It’s just working class. It’s like that Lorde’s song Royals.

Even though the format of ‘The Commitments’ didn’t quite work for me, because I’m attached to the more Dickensian kind of narration, it did manage to extract some emotional response from me. However, I think this is one of the few instances where I think ‘the movie is better.’ And that is without actually having seen the movie.

*Knowledge of 60’s r’n’b and soul music desirable but not essential for the enjoyment of this book.