Thursday, April 9, 2009

Book Review - The Notebook by Agota Kristof

Mortifying Honesty

When reading a book, I have this habit/obsession where I have to add any books mentioned in said book to my ‘To-Be-Read’ list. This started as an interesting way to build my list and expand my range, but has turned into a 2,000 book TBR list comprised mostly of books that I have absolutely no interest in reading. In light of the fact that there are thousands of awesome books out there that I would actually like to read, I think I will be stopping this compulsive practice. However, without having adhered to this exercise, I doubt I would ever have stumbled upon this remarkably moving book.

The Notebook made its way on to my list as per it being on the favourites list of Heather O’Neill, as mentioned in the back of her novel Lullabies for Little Criminals. Once I realized that this wasn’t the book that the movie with Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams was based upon, but was actually an epistolary novel written by a Hungarian woman and translated from the French language, I was intrigued and ordered it from the library.

I feel that I should start with a disclaimer when discussing the content of this book, since these are some of the creepiest and most distressing stories that I’ve read to date. So, there, consider yourself forewarned. Within its few pages we are met with barbaric scenes of bestiality, paedophilia, and gang rape, but to name a few of the atrocities. The abysmal misery that shrouds these pathetic characters is as inconceivable as it is indicative of wartime suffering.

The Notebook is the story of young twin brothers who after being abandoned by their mother, to live with their grandmother in a tiny house on the frontlines of battle, must learn to survive under the gravest of circumstances. With a boorish and insatiable old woman that the neighbours call ‘the witch’ as their slave-driving guardian, the boys quickly learn that they must protect each other or be defeated.

Through self-imposed exercises of fasting, self-mutilation and immobilization, this fearless pair conditions themselves to withstand any torture that befalls them. With their newly fashioned armour of apathy, these savages methodically collect food and earn money, while becoming the most feared of all the town folk. They even avenge the honour of their pathetic neighbour, ‘Harelip,’ and her deaf and dumb mother, this all before the loss of their milk teeth.

By the end of this short novel I was thankful for it to be over, as I was completely exhausted by its viciousness, and was in need of a break. It’s ghastly to think of the monstrous behaviour that shell-shock, starvation and hysteria can cause in the desperate.

Unfortunately, the ending doesn’t provide for much closure since this is book one of a trilogy. I dare say that I might have to search for the other two books because of my curiosity being piqued and what I can only refer to as my morbid fascination with train wrecks needing to be assuaged. As for recommending this book, I'd be apprehensive. Only those with a strong stomach and a hardened heart would make it through, and even they would not be unscathed. In conclusion, read at your own risk.

4.5/5 Snakes

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Book Review - Easy Way for Women to Stop Smoking by Allen Carr

Yippee, I'm freeee!!!!!

If you are or ever have been a smoker, I’m sure by now you’ve heard of Allen Carr and his apparent ‘Easy Way’ to quit smoking. He has written several editions of his book outlining his philosophies relating to quitting the evil nicotine, and has helped thousands of smokers worldwide to quit the nasty habit for good. With his astonishing success rate in mind, and a desperate need to quit this disgusting habit that I’ve had for over seventeen years, I decided to pick up Carr’s Easy Way for Women to Stop Smoking.

Carr’s basic premise is that the addiction that we have to smoking is comprised of very little outside of the brainwashing sustained at the hands of the major tobacco companies. He feels that the actual physical addiction to nicotine, what he refers to as the “little monster,” is minor, remaining no more than three or four days upon quitting. The lasting but still beatable combatant would be what he calls the “big monster,” the brainwashing by the tobacco companies, mentioned above. Carr insists that considering smoking a habit, feeling that you enjoy some cigarettes more than others (i.e. after a meal), and believing that smoking relaxes you, cures boredom or relieves stress is all part and parcel of the brainwashing ploy that we’ve fallen victim to for over a century. He believes that reversing this brainwashing and seeing the truth in all of the lies is the key to rid yourself of smoking, as opposed to the sure-to-fail willpower method that so many of us have faltered on.

I must admit that the book did provide for a profound change on how I view my addiction to this filthy, cancer-causing imprisonment that I’ve been bound to for so many years. I immediately felt compelled to smoke my last cigarette and move on to a healthier, happier and free existence as a non-smoker. With nothing but good intentions I followed his plan and bid it farewell. I lasted about 18 hours, and then buckled to a half-smoked butt that my fiancĂ© had left in our balcony ashtray. Determined not to be defeated, I did not let myself succumb to the feelings of failure that were lurking in my mind, and with a little brainwashing of my own I was appropriately convinced that everyone is entitled to a slipup. I got back on the wagon with the notion that tomorrow is a new day.

It has been six days now, and aside from the first couple of days where I had a few drags to calm the “little monster,” I have eliminated smoking from my daily routine. Yippee! I will not pretend that this happened without a heavy dose of willpower on my part, because I was most definitely white-knuckling it through the first couple of days. In this respect, as well as his downplaying of the physical withdrawal symptoms experienced, I feel that Carr slightly misrepresents the ease of quitting smoking. Unless of course, I am just an unlucky person who went through an extraordinary difficulty in quitting, but I doubt that very much, especially since I was down to approximately 15 cigarettes a day when I finally cut them out.

That being said, I am thankful to Carr’s book for pointing out my error in buying in to society and its brainwashing surrounding smoking, I just find it hard to believe that willpower doesn’t come into play when quitting anything that there is a physical addiction to, no matter how minor. I truly believe that I have rid myself of the mind-games that have kept me picking up a cigarette when I’m stressed-out or bored, because I now realize that the only reason smoking addresses these things is because of the underlying physical addiction that leaves me feeling insecure and in need of something. I understand that once this “little monster” is put to death I will actually be able to deal with stress and boredom better, without a craving for nicotine getting in the way. It is because of these important realizations that I am truly thankful to have read Allen Carr’s book and would recommend it to anyone that is seriously ready to save their lives and quit this disastrous habit.

4/5 Snakes

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Book Review - A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Francie Nolan is a role model for the ages

When I first heard about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I wondered if I would be able to relate to the story of a young girl growing up in the early 1900s. In keeping with my memoir fascination, once I found out that the story was possibly influenced by the real life of Betty Smith, and that she shared the same birthday as the story’s heroine, Francie Nolan, I became more intrigued. In the back of the copy I have there is an article written by Smith’s daughter, about her mother, where she says,

“She was always altering incidents to make them into stories. She often said about ‘Tree’ that she didn’t write it the way it was, but the way it should have been.”
Early 1900s or not, I had no problem relating to Francie, an avid reader of a book a day, who grew up in a household where her mother favoured her brother, and her father was a falling-down drunk. There were a few times where I stumbled on some of the fashion references, like a shoe accessory named ‘Spats,’ and a false shirt called a ‘dickey,’ but with a quick Google search I was in the know and felt as though I had learned something new for the day.

The most important character of the novel, in my opinion, is Mary Rommely, Francie’s maternal grandmother. Mary believes in the importance of an active imagination, and feels that every child needs a place they can go to in their mind when life becomes difficult. Mary asserts her convictions to Francie’s mother, Katie, near the beginning of the novel, and informs her that she must read to her children everyday, and allow them to believe in fantasy worlds such as fairy tales and Kris Kringle. She also assures Katie that through education the cycle of poverty can be broken, as more opportunities will avail themselves to the children with the more knowledge they acquire. It is clear that but for the influence of this insightful woman, Francie may never have become the ambitious and creative dreamer we know her to be.

Part of Francie’s innovative nature could also be attributed to her day dreaming father who forever lived with his head in the clouds. Torn between her father’s romantic world and the hard cold reality as seen through the eyes of her mother, Francie shapes herself into a fine balance of the two. Fortunately she acquires the strength that is common to the women in her family, and this combined with her intelligence and creativity proves to be unstoppable.

You may find this classic in the young-adult section of your bookstore, but I can assure you it is not exclusive to this age group, as there are an abundance of life’s truths, beneficial to all, found throughout. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is inspiring, well written and honest in it’s descriptions of the good and evil that can be found in humanity. The circumstances with which Francie Nolan finds herself are timeless in their portrayal of family, survival and the loss of innocence, and this is one important novel that should be on every bookshelf.

4.5/5 Snakes