#NECESSARY READS: The Things They Carried

stylingLike most British I am, not wholly, but quite majorly ignorant about the Vietnam War. I know it was a travesty with countless atrocities committed by both sides. Conflicting ideologies combined with pig-headed stubbornness that led to the deaths of thousands upon thousands of men, women, and children. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is a collection of stories told by O’Brien about him and his comrades experiences that took place, before, during and after the war. O’Brien states explicably before the book has truly begun that:

“This is a work of fiction. Except for a few details regarding the author’s own life, all the incidents, names and characters are imaginary.”

Now, let’s examine the facts:

Is Tim O’Brien a veteran of the Vietnam War?

Yes.

Do the fictional stories told seem far too personal and real to be completely fictional?

Yes.

Is O’Brien a talented writer?

Yes.

Is it possible that O’Brien is deliberately misleading the reader with the statement, and continues to dance around the truth, mixing sensationalism with a veneer of literary brilliance to make the reader question the truth in the same way O’Brien must’ve and must still think about the War? (And breathe)

Well, bloody hell if I know. But that’s the way I’ve interpreted it.

The Things They Carried is a hard book. Stories of war are always hard to swallow; they can make you feel in different ways to other tales of emotional woe. TTTC makes you second guess those emotions. No matter how touched you may be by a tale, O’Brien will always bring you back down to reality, forcing you to re-evaluate what you feel and, if it is firstly, justified and secondly, true. The story that will undoubtedly stick with most of you is that of the water buffalo. You’ll know it when you come to it. I’ve never felt so… Embarrassed to be almost scolded by an author. I am, however, still waiting for Stephen King to tell me off for abusing the adverbial. We can but dream people!

The entirety of TTTC is an emotional rollercoaster, it is jovial, heartfelt, morbid, depressing, and uplifting. It will leave you pondering about what we, those who have never experience war, think and feel about what happens. Because at the end of it all, us civvies know the approximation of ‘bugger all’ what these men and women and children go through.

If this book gets under your skin, then I will also recommend ‘A Rumour of War’ by Philip Caputo another brilliant Vietnam War memoire. Anyway, The Things They Carried is a must read for anyone. If you’re like me and are ignorant of the Vietnam conflict and war in general, then you must read this book. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

 

Ben

#NECESSARY READS: Dante’s Inferno

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If we were to use modern colloquialisms and slang to describe Dante, then ‘baller’ and ‘straight up G’ would be awfully appropriate. Dante was born in 1265 and died in 1321 (we think), he studied theology and philosophy and was part of the lower-nobility class. He married a woman called Gemma but his muse was a woman called Bice Portinari, whom he called Beatrice. She was the catalyst that drove Dante to write the Divine Comedy, a rollicking ride that takes Dante through Hell, Purgatory and finally Paradise. Effectively, a man travels through the ethereal afterlife to join his one true love. Twilight eat your heart out.

Even if you’re not a fan of poetry, or people being endlessly tormented, or Christianity, The Inferno will have you engrossed from Dante being spooked off a hill by a she-wolf right up to meeting the Devil. The three-headed, multi-coloured, encased up to his waist in ice, whilst chewing on the three great betrayers Devil. Red face and a fiery fork? Pah! Dante’s Devil is pure nightmare fuel. Imagine some Lovecraftian creature or a Clive Barker demon with a heavy injection of Christian fear of the afterlife.

Every ring of Hell is as horrendous as the last. You can feel the pain of each damned soul. The Gluttonous condemned to lay in a mire whilst Cerberus, The Great Worm, rips at their flesh at regular intervals. The Lustful in a ceaseless tornado of flesh. The Violent being cut with a sword “see how I rend me” and of the course, the Flatterers wallowing in human excrement. I am not a religious man, but the imagery, the way Dante condemns these people, some of whom he knew, makes my brain do that, ‘you sure you don’t want to start going to Church?’ thing. It made me paranoid. It still does. Very few books have stayed with me in the way The Inferno has. Yes of course, the ending to Bank’s The Wasp Factory stills plays on the brain. As does Huxley’s Brave New World and that poor, poor savage. None, have however, made me reconsider my beliefs or lack thereof.

It’s not just the imagery, the narrative or the sheer enormity of The Divine Comedy that makes me love it. It’s the deliberateness of the words. Every syllable has purpose; every line and canto adds meaning and depth. No breath is wasted. The rhythm stays in pace of Dante and his companion and fluctuates or calms when they are witnessing some otherworldly horror defile a soul. The Inferno is damn near flawless, everyone needs to read it. Why? Because it has everything and more that any book should have. I simply cannot write or say or do enough to substantially convey how wonderful The Inferno and The Divine Comedy is. Just pick up a copy, finish it, go stare at some ducks on a pond, then go contemplate your own fragile mortality and eventual (but potential) eternal and everlasting afterlife.

#Necessary reads: Lunar Park

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If I was to describe the work of Brett Easton Ellis is one word it would be Marmite. Now, I love his work, I think that he is not only a phenomenal writer but an important one as well. His writing and his persona have been criticised for decades and he remains and probably will remain a controversial figure for many years to come.

Ellis was considered a literary prodigy after his first book, Less Than Zero, was published in the 80’s. Since then he has maintained a Rock ‘n’ Roll lifestyle, drugs, drinking and sex become part of his public Id. For me, Lunar Park broke the mould and formula of Ellis’ distinct style. In a good way, I hasten to add.

Lunar Park tells the story of Brett Easton Ellis who lives with his wife, Jayne Dennis and their two children, in affluent suburbs of L.A. Told as a fictional memoir, Ellis parodies his lifestyle i.e. his drug taking and alcoholism, with a plot that transcends from the borderline believable to the supernatural and downright haunting. The novel was marketed in a unique, guerrilla-esque way, with a fake tabloid website being made, advertising and documenting Ellis’ and Dennis’ relationship. Jayne Dennis being another creation. Ellis, in a later interview, stated that Lunar Park was also a love letter to Stephen King. In case it wasn’t apparent already, I also love the work of Stephen King. Surely then Lunar Park should be one of my favourite books? Well, it is.

Lunar Park is so much more than a twisting, confusing, minimalist novel of Brett Easton Ellis. Have you ever read a book wherein you feel as if the author is bearing their soul to you? I realise that is incredibly corny, but that is the only true and substantial way I can describe Lunar Park. We gain an insight into the true nature of Ellis. His take on his substance abuse, failed love and relationships with family. The theme of fatherhood and being a patriarch of a family is an overriding presence that is eventually the driving force behind the main plot.

Now I recommend Lunar Park for a variety of reasons, but mainly because it quashes any preconceived negative feelings virgin Brett Easton Ellis readers could have. You would’ve heard of American Psycho, even if you’ve never read it. You will be aware that Ellis has been likened to the protagonist, Patrick Bateman, and heard him called every name under the sun. “Misogynist” is a common favourite. Lunar Park shows a sensitive side to the man, a human side and is moving and heart-felt with an ending that will tug on all your emotional strings. That, and it is also the most accessible from a literary perspective. Anyone could pick up, read and enjoy Lunar Park. Ellis’ writing style can be complex and, at times, confusing. After Lunar Park, I can almost guarantee you will want to read the rest of his work. I hope you do. Brett Easton Ellis is a fantastic writer and I believe that Lunar Park is a gateway into a whole new world of literary enjoyment.

Necessary Reads No.1: Last Exit to Brooklyn, Hubert Selby Jr.

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“Yes my love, I hear him. Yes. He is blowing love. Love Vinnie… blowing love… no NO! O God no!!! Vinnie loves me. He loves me. It.

                           Wasn’t.

Shit”

What can be said of a book that has been examined, cross-examined, analysed to the point of nauseam and picked apart by crows, that hasn’t said before? Hubert Selby Jr’s novel shows, in stark and bleak scenes, the underbelly of New York society. Giving the reader insight into characters that are at the bottom of the barrel of the Big Apple. You have the naïve and troubled transvestite, Georgette, the thieving, devious and troubled prostitute, Tralala and the raging, drinking and troubled union man, Harry. As you can tell, Selby Jr’s characters are all doomed from the get go. He writes a tragedy and at the end of the tunnel isn’t sunshine but merely another halogen bulb, illuminating the sign pointing towards another den of cheap beer and cheaper hand-jobs. This is by no means, a bad thing. Last Exit to Brooklyn is harrowing, and in parts, incredibly difficult to stomach. Selby Jr remains true to, for the most part, to the vernacular and slang that would have been used by the people who walked the streets. He was part of it. He roamed the streets and was part of the dregs. A drug addict for a substantial period, Selby Jr was all too acquainted with the likes of Georgette and Tralala. This is perhaps Last Exit to Brooklyn’s greatest strength, the sense and air of authenticity. No conversation seems forced or fabricated. It’s written in such a way that it seems that Selby Jr was hiding behind a grimy menu in a diner, or lingering at the edge of a bar, transcribing down the words. Mimicking the speak. Jotting down actions, not graphically, but like he was spying on them out the corner of his eye. Not wanting to draw unnecessary attention towards himself.

Last Exit to Brooklyn is not flawless. It’s a rough gem of a modern classic. The speech, however authentic, can be difficult to understand and take your eyes off the page for too long and you must re-adjust your vision. Adapt your brain back to these unknown and predominately outdated colloquialisms. Juxtaposed to the rather matter-of-factly way the way Harry grabs another beer or Georgette gets changed. The transition can necessitate a need to step back and process the previous couple of pages. Certain Jury members in the 60’s felt the same way.

British courts banned Last Exit to Brooklyn in 1967 but thankfully the decision was reversed the following year. Jury members were asked to read it and several gave up as they did not have a clue what was happening and what was being said. It caused upset and uproar and embarrassed and infuriated. It confused and bewildered. It remains an incredibly poignant, unforgettable and important read. Every generation has an author that encapsulates the period, for example, Hemingway’s Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises and Brett Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero. Selby Jr does the same, not so much for a specific period, but for a specific culture. He presents us with the still beating and bloodied heart of the dark side of the American Dream. Read it, take your time, leave it on your shelf, and see if you can return to it in the future without a sense of sweaty palmed apprehension.