Monday, 16 September 2013

When subject matter gets serious: a pair of book reviews

While I like to consider myself a "jane of all genres", I have often been diagnosed as a great reader of adventures and comedy.

However, this past week I found myself keeping company with two VERY heavy, emotional and deeply saddening works of fiction.  This was unusual for me not because the books were sad (call  me a cold-hearted bitch but I really do enjoy a good unhappy ending), but because I will rarely follow a heavy, emotional book with a second book of the same nature.  I typically like to break them up and intersperse some lighthearted children's works or maybe a cute graphic novel in between these emotional heavyweights.  Just for the sake of my emotional health, and my supply of tissue.

But without further ado, I present the two reviews.  The first is a classic of Russian fiction and criticism of Stalinist repression; the second is a work of YA fiction that forces the reader to confront their deepest fears.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

This book was my pick for book club this month, for which our selected genre was fiction in translation.  I have developed a great love for mid-20th century Russian fiction and satire due to the wonderful, insightful writings of Mikhail Bulgakov.  Beyond his most widely read The Master and Margarita, Bulgakov has a substantial list of works which were not published until long after his early death, due to his overwhelming criticisms of life in the Stalin-ruled USSR.  With Bulgakov as the foundation for my experience of Russian literature, I had some expectations going into One Day.  And all of my expectations were met and greatly exceeded.  One Day takes the reader into the bitter, unmerciful world of a Soviet prison camp through the eyes of Ivan Denisovich Shukov, a former soldier who is imprisoned after being accused of going AWOL.  By the time the reader is introduced to Ivan, he has already been incarcerated for several years.  Solzhenitsyn spares nothing in his description of camp life, from Ivan's rejection at the medical facility to the meagre meals and bitter cold in which the imprisoned men are forced to work.  But the part that really hits the reader square in the gut and conscience is how grateful Ivan is that this day of his is a particularly good one.  He is so thankful that he managed to stay out of solitary confinement and received an extra tiny piece of black bread.  The last few pages of this book describe how Ivan drops off to sleep in a state of contentment.  This is so difficult for the reader to digest after reading the descriptions of all the awful abuses of camp life.  The contrast pulls on the emotions and adds even more to the reality of the experience and the appreciation of those awful circumstances that Solzhenitsyn instills in the reader.  Overall, this book was a difficult read due to the all too true descriptions and subject matter of the work, but absolutely worth reading. 

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
 Having read Patrick Ness' Chaos Walking triology, I also had expectations when approaching A Monster Calls, which I had been meaning to read for a very long time.  A Monster Calls is just so incredibly different from Ness' other work, I quickly disregarded what I remembered from those books and looked on this one with fresh eyes.  In this disturbing teen read, a 13-year-old boy is visited by a monster which forces him to confront the disturbing realities of his life.  And I can't tell you anymore than that without completely spoiling the book, which I wouldn't want to do because EVERYONE should read it.  Books don't often make me cry, but this one had me darn close at the end.  The writing is lyrical even though it is told from a 13-year-old perspective, and the accompanying illustrations are perfectly suited to the tone of the story.  The story is simultaneously beautiful and horrifying, it is truly a unique work of fiction which conquers very difficult subject matter without being trite or melodramatic.  The message of the story is incredible, and I very honestly would recommend this book to anyone who is capable of feeling feelings, because A Monster Calls will make you have so many of them.

So after all that strenuous emotional reading, what am I reading now?  I'm working on some non-fiction reads on information consumption for an online course I'm taking.  Talk about switching gears!

Ciao for now.

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