the pencil reads

posts on articles, books and movies

Stardust, by Neil Gaiman

Saturday, October 21, 2006

This is the most imaginative story -- the most whimsical, heartlifting, funniest, well-rounded story -- that I have read in a long time.

Like the old fairytales, Stardust is about a quest -- a quest for a fallen star. Because of a hasty promise to a young lady, Tristran Thorn sets out from the quiet, secluded village of Wall in search for the star, and along the way, meets many adventures. Thematically, it is similar to the journey Odysseus takes in The Odyssey, yet it is different in one refreshing aspect: Tristran is no greek hero. He even becomes a dormouse (sic) at one point!

According to Wikipedia, Gaiman's style and tone in Stardust is very different from his other books. This is the first book I've read of his, so I can't comment. Though I have to say that even if all of his books were written in this style, there would be little loss, for there are too few old-fashioned fairytales today.

I may take that last sentence back after I read his other books though. ;)

Find it in a library here (Singapore) or here (rest of the world).

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith

Monday, October 16, 2006

Elle, I gave Alexander McCall Smith another chance, and I'm sure glad I did.

I like this one a lot better than the first two I read by him. Compared to the pompous and eccentric academia in the von Igelfel series, Precious Ramotswe is a breath of fresh air. It is just so much more fun to read about characters you like.

She is everything a woman should be: warm-hearted, squeamish about snakes under the car, fat, sensible, smart, maternal, observant, brave. I want to be just like her! (Except maybe for the fat part.)

It is easy to read, yet through the traditional and lyrical story-telling, the heart of Africa shines through. McCall Smith brings to life the emptiness of the Kalahari, where lions roam and the sun beats down, the music of Botswana, dotted with acacia trees and thornbushes, goats and cattle, and the taste of edible Mopani worms.

It is a warm and light-hearted story, suitable for all ages.

To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf

Saturday, October 14, 2006
I don't think this post will do justice to this novel.

There is just too much in it. Each moment in the story is so full and rich that if I were to unpack it and try to line it out systematically, it would require three times the original number of words. How does Woolf pack so much emotion and nuance into something as ordinary as a walk in the garden or a dinner with friends? She must have been keenly attuned to life to be able to put so much into so few words.

Woolf is a nothing less than an expert on human behaviour. She is uncannily observant and is able to decipher the motives behind what people do and say. For example, she describes how a husband goes to his wife with the benevolent intention of "doing homage to the beauty of the world" (45), but is really just demanding sympathy. This is how she describes the wife giving the husband what he wants:

"Mrs Ramsay, who had been sitting loosely, folding her son in her arm, braced herself, and, half turning, seemed to raise herself with an effort, and at once to pour erect into the air a rain of energy, a column of spray, looking at the same time animated and alive as if all her energies were being fused into force, burning and illuminating (quietly though she sat, taking up her stocking again), and into this delicious fecundity this fountain and spray of life, the fatal sterility of the male plunged itself, like a beak of brass, barren and bare. He wanted sympathy....

He was a failure, he repeated. Well, look then, feel then. Flashing her needles, glancing round about her, out of the window, into the room, at James himself, she assured him, beyong a shadow of a doubt, by her laugh, her poise, her competence (as a nurse carrying a light across a dark room assures a fractious child), that it was real; the house was full; the garden blowing. If he put implicit faith in her, nothing should hurt him; however deep he buried himself or climbed high, not for a second should he find himself without her. So boasting of her capacity to surround and protect, there was scarcely a shell of herself left for her to know herself by; all was so lavished and spent; and James, as he stood stiff between her knees, felt her rise in a rosy-flowered fruit tree laid with leaves and dancing boughs into which the beak of brass, the arid scimitar of his father, the egotistical man, plunged and smote, demanding sympathy." (44, 45)

Wow. Woolf later describes the husband as "filled with her words, like a child who drops off satisfied", while Mrs Ramsay "seemed to fold herself together, one petal closed in another, and the whole fabric fell in exhaustion upon itself, so that she had only strength enough to move her finger, in exquisite abandonment to exhaustion, across the page of Grimm's fairy story, while there throbbed through her, like the pulse in a spring which has expanded to its full width and now gently ceases to beat, the rapture of successful creation." (45, 46)

Wow. Woolf uses so many words to describe something invisible, yet does it so perfectly that you know exactly what she means.

From the passage above, it is also apparent that one of the themes of this book is the divide between men and women. It is really quite a feminist piece of work, with one of the whiney characters declaring "women can't paint; women can't write"; yet, the entire novel is described as "a vision" of a middle-aged, single woman who struggles through her painting. It mustn't be overlooked that author herself was female.

This novel treats life as fragile and temporal. Decay, rot and change are prevalent themes too: the greenhouse needs a new roof, the boar's skull hanging by the door, wrapped in the mother's shawl, the shocking news given to the readers abruptly in brackets, the rabbits running amock in Mrs Ramsay's garden...

Woolf suffered from depression and eventually drowned herself because she was afraid of another attack of mental illness. It troubles me that such a sensitive person took her own life. It is as if the foreboding melacholy that is found in this novel won after all, and that all we have left are words, just words...

I would rather believe otherwise.