Friday, 21 June 2013

Z a Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler | Her story

So I'm not gonna pretend that I picked up this book for any other reason than nostalgia after watching the new movie version of The Great Gatsby. And it seemed like an interesting perspective - getting F. Scott Fitzgeralds' wife's story, especially considering how Fitzgerald has been accused of being a misogynist. This is Zelda's story - as a novel - but it is the story of Zelda's life with F. Scott, or Deo as she calls him.

 We follow Zelda from when she first meets Scott in 1918. Zelda is 18, beautiful, admired and impulsive. She loves to flirt and her evenings are preoccupied with entertaining soldiers waiting to be shipped off into the war. Among them is Scott, the aspiring author, the man who stands out and speaks to something deep inside Zelda. Although her parents oppose the match, Scott will win her, and soon they start their new married life in New York.

Zelda and Scott make up the perfect couple for the era. Glamorous and scandalous, Zelda quickly learns that she must publicly play a part to fit in with Scott's fiction of who they are. There's always a party, always booze, always an excuse to spend money. And as Scott's literary success increases, it seems that their lives are escalating more and more out of control.

In their quest for stability the couple travel from place to place, finally settling for a longer time in Paris. While Scott should be working on his new novel, he prefers pursuing his new bromance, Ernest Hemingway, a then aspiring author Zelda distrusts from day one. The more Zelda speaks up against Hemingway, the more Scott's esteem for her drops. Throughout their strife, Zelda keeps trying to find her own path. She wants to be more than wife and mother. She can write, she can paint, she can dance ballet, but Scott wants to keep these preoccupations in check.

The conflict between the couple becomes so strained that Zelda throws herself into an extreme ballet dancing routine. Ballet becomes her sole sense of achievement in life, as Scott seemingly cares less and less about her and her opinions. In her pursuit for perfection, however, Zelda throws herself head first into a mental breakdown.

Although this is a novel and not a biography, I feel that Fowler has succeeded extremely well in retaining a sense of truth. Zelda and Scott's relationship is complex and forever changing. There are infidelities, alcoholism and resentment, but also encouragement, compassion and loyalty, and a sense of belonging. Throughout the hardships they face, the love and the well wishes seem to survive. What is also beautiful is the humour between the two. And even though one might come away with the impression that Scott wronged Zelda, Zelda refuses to cast him off completely, and still sees a future for the two of them: "If I could fit myself into this mail slot, here, I'd follow my letter all the way to Hollywood, all the way to Scott, right up to the door of our next future. We have always had a next one, after all..." (p. 1-2, my italics).

I like the Zelda of this novel a lot. She might start out as a flapper, a glamorous party girl without a care in the world, but she grows to being an independent woman who thinks for herself and who is ready to fight for what she believes in. Z is both delightful and sad, and in the process of reading it, I find myself wanting to learn more about this woman and curse myself for not being more interested when I did American literary studies. What a woman, Zelda Fitzgerald! I am charmed and inspired. 

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Night Film by Marisha Pessl | Enter Darkness

So I wasn't a hundred percent sure I wanted to read this, because I read Special Topics in Calamity Physics and wasn't as awed as everyone else. Luckily I was in the mood for something horror-like. Winter has hit Joburg and all I want to do is snuggle under a blanket with a good scary book and a nice cup of tea (or a deliciously dark glass of red wine!). So after reading the blurb for Night Film I decided to give it a shot. It turned out to be just what the doctor ordered.

From the very first pages I knew that this book was going to be different. Newspaper clippings, photographs and online searches are part of the story, and I find this element to be one which resonates with the time we live in. Instead of constantly being told what's happening, we can make up our own minds, based on the information supplied from these "external" sources.

We follow investigating journalist Seth McGraw in his attempt to redeem himself to the public eye through unmasking his "enemy", cult horror director Stanislav Cordova. Cordova's character is immersed in mystery, as he hasn't been seen in public since the 70s. All his movies are shot on his private estate, and he sternly refuses to do interviews. All dealings with the public go through his seemingly bland assistant Inez Gallo. And strangely, actors that have worked with Cordova refuses to talk about their experience working with him, or worse, turn up missing or die under strange circumstances. When Cordova's 24-year old daughter Ashley is found dead after what looks like a suicide, Seth decides it is time he looked into Cordova again. Along the way he picks up some unlikely sidekicks. Nora the aspiring actress and the less stable Hopper who deals drugs when he's not dedicated to the cause.

Through tracing Ashley's final movements, Seth and his helpers manage to slowly hone in on Cordova's well-guarded universe. The closer he gets, the more Seth has to realise that not everything has a logical explanation. The occult seems to be hiding behind all the doors they open, as their search takes them through mental institutions, secret internet sites, "forgotten" clubs reminiscent of the secret club in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, magical shops and finally Cordova's estate. The truth about Ashley the pianist prodigy is turning out to be a lot more complex - or perhaps a lot simpler - than Seth could ever have imagined.

Throughout the reading of this novel I had the same uncanny feeling I get when watching a David Lynch-movie. There are all these characters that seem to appear out of the blue, but you never quite know if you can trust them, or why they are there.  Lynch also uses magical and occult elements in his movies and series. How awesome would it have been to see what kind of movie would come out of this in Lynch's hands?! (The book is being adapted into a movie - I'm really excited about that, but not by Lynch, sadly.)

I haven't read a book like this before, and I can only compare it to Chuck Palahniuk's Haunted in messed-up-ed-ness. Night Film keeps the suspension tense until the end, never quite letting us go. We learn that Cordova, in his movies, always have an open ending. His viewers are not given clear answers, they must themselves decide what to take from it. Pessl similarly also leaves us with an open ending in which we can draw our own conclusion. Do we believe in the existence of mermaids, or are they mere myth?

Night Film is an extremely successful thriller/horror/transgressional novel. I climbed right into Pessl's, and Cordova's world of smoke and black mirrors, and I got completely lost in Seth's dark odyssey. I don't care if it takes Pessl another 7 years to bring out another book. If this is what I  can expect from her, I'm a complete convert. Read it read it read it read it read it! Read it! (Due for release August this year).

Thursday, 13 June 2013

A prequel and a sequel | Shift by Hugh Howey and Long Live the King by Fay Weldon

I’ve been catching up with a few series lately. Two very different books, one a sci-fi thriller; the other a 1900s historical novel. Two more testimonies to what an excellent book year 2013 is.

Moderate spoiler alert. 
Shift is the prequel to Wool, part of the Silo War trilogy by Hugh Howey. In Wool, we followed Juliet who lives in an underground silo that she and the other inhabitants believe to be the whole world. As the plot unravels, we learn that there are more silos, and Juliet realises that someone put them in the silos for a purpose. In Shift we learn some of the purpose. At the beginning of the book, we follow the congressman Donald who came into power through the support of his governor friend Thurman. When Thurman approaches Donald to help him with a top secret project, Donald realises that this is why he helped him be elected. The project involves Donald making architectural plans for an alleged emergency underground building connected to an atomic waste facility. But as Donald learns more and more about the project, and Thurman gives him a book to read, Donald starts suspecting that something is not right about the project. When Donald’s wife accuses him of paranoia, Donald decides to go on anti-depressants to suppress his worries. When the project is finalised, Thurman has organised a great convention at the site, and at the great unveiling, Donald finds himself separated from his wife, and in the company of Thurman’s daughter Anna, who harbours a barely concealed love for him The events of this day is to forever alter the course of Donald’s life. The deep end awaits.

Interspersed between the chapters chronicling Donald’s “life”, we also follow the lives of different people in different silos at different times. In silo one, we follow Troy, who is awoken for his first shift. Troy is fed pills to forget the traumas of his past, but Troy still struggles with ghosts of memories, and in an act of defiance, he secretly stops taking his pills. Troy’s shift is to last 6 months, and during this time, he’s pretty much in charge. His main responsibility is to ensure that everything runs smoothly in the other silos. Unfortunately for Troy, unrest is breaking out in one of the silos, and it’s his job to deal with it.
In silo 18, trouble is brewing. We follow young Mission, who has rebelled against his father’s farming life to be a courier. A lifetime of schooling by the Crow, and old lady who tells them Oldworld stories has encouraged the new generation to dream of something more. But a great division is starting to ruin the harmony that once existed in the silo. And Mission overnight finds himself in the middle of an outright war. Meanwhile, in silo 1, Troy makes a decision that will change the course of history.
To avoid revealing too much, we follow Troy on two more shifts, each about 100 years apart. Each time Troy has to face the consequences of his decisions from his first shift. And each time, there is a serious crisis in one of the other silos. Troy begins a determined search to recover his memory of the past, and to understand what their real purpose is. And this mysterious Thaw Man, what does he know?

As a prequel, Shift is excellent. Once more, Howey proves that he is a master at twists, and every door opens new hidden panels, so to speak. In Shift we get a different perspective on the events of Wool, which adds a whole new dimension to the reading experience. In Wool my objection was that the latter part of the book seemed a bit drawn out. In Shift I have no such objection. Intertwining the different stories, of Donald vs. Troy’s awakening, of Troy’s different shifts vs. the personal experiences of the people in the troubled silos provides great pace and suspense. This is conspiracy theory and sci-fi thriller brilliantly fused. I simply cannot wait for the final installation Dust which is due for release later this year. 

 Now to the very different Long Live the King, book two in the Love and Inheritance Trilogy by Fey Weldon. We pick up soon after the first book Habits of the House left off. Lady Isobel is stressing about some extra invitations for the royal coronation. The four tickets they have already will naturally go to herself, her husband Lord Robert, their son Arthur and his wife Minnie. The three spare tickets are a real head ache, as Isobel doesn’t want her headstrong daughter Rosina to put off the whole event with her intelligent talk and strong opinions. Nor does she want her husband’s lowborn solicitor Eric Baum and his wife Naomi to get the tickets. In a moment of irritation with her husband, she sends the tickets to her husband’s alienated brother, a strict clergyman with no taste for lavish, vain affairs.

On the brother’s side, he not surprisingly asks his wife to throw away these heinous invitations. Their blooming daughter Adela is left to wonder at these relatives of hers she’s never met, but who always sends her Christmas gifts her father denies her to keep. When a fire kills the priest and his wife, Adela is suddenly left alone in this world, and by chance, a bishop and his wife takes her in. Due to his hatred for his brother, Lord Robert refuses to take her in, and because Adela might be a princess, Lady Isobel prefers not to push the issue. She has enough higher ladies to contend with when she goes to court, let alone in her own home.

Meanwhile, Adela’s old servant Ivy and her boyfriend George are planning their future. George is determined that they can make a good life through mysticism, which is all the rage in these days. However, they still need to find the perfect actress to really convince an audience. Adela’s ethereal beauty makes her perfect for the job. Adela on her side has been worn down into accepting a proposal by a Buddhist visionary Australian who she finds quite repulsive, while still fantasising about George who happened to save her from the fire that killed her parents, so she is quite likely to welcome this new opportunity. And seeing as none of the Dilbernes have seen fit to invite her to join their family, Adela jumps at the chance.

In the middle of all the drama, Isobel finds herself once again jealous of her husband, while Minnie adapts to her new position. Still a spinster, Rosina has pretty much resigned herself to her fate, but faith seems to smile at her this time around.

Although still sharp, I find that Weldon is a bit easier on her characters this time around. In Habits of the House Weldon quite openly mocked her characters, whereas here she sympathises a bit more. It’s still funny though, and the vices of the different people are really illuminated in an entertaining way, while we still get the interesting historical backdrop to the plot. I look forward to more elegant plotting from Weldon in the final installation of this trilogy.

So, two amazing but different books that I thoroughly enjoyed. If only there were more hours in the day, so that I had more time to read!

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

The Shining Girls tv rights sold!

I just read that the TV adaption rights to Lauren Beukes' The Shining Girls has been sold to Leondard DiCaprio's production company. I'm curious to see if the plan is to make a TV movie or series. I think a movie version would work really well, but as a series I have my doubts. Anyway, it's still great news for Lauren Beukes. This should open doors for a broad readership worldwide!

To read more, look here.