Ahad, 25 Mei 2014

The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf

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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf

The Enchanted

Posted: 24 May 2014 09:00 AM PDT

Reading frees a man who is locked up physically and emotionally.

SOMETIMES, you've just got to judge a book by its cover. And a cover that features golden horses racing out from behind steel bars is not something you'd want to miss.

The title gives everything and nothing away. What could it be? Some magical place where elves and fairies reside? Or is it just another story book with a typical happily-ever-after ending?

Turns out it is a magical place, after all. A place where molten horses race, where little men with hammers reside within stone walls, where flibber-gibbets wait for their next warm meal from the oven. Sounds like a fantasy – only this story is set in a maximum security prison.

In a place of Stygian darkness, a nameless inmate is awaiting his end on death row. We do not know what his crime was, only that he is mute, or perhaps chooses to be so. Only in reading books from the prison library does he find the freedom his reality denies him. It is beautiful, fascinating even, how, in his four by nine windowless cell, his imagination takes him, and us, on an enchanted voyage that draws us fully into his world.

The inmate believes the prison is a shelter, an escape from the sinister world beyond the prison walls. But while the prison may be a sanctuary to him, it is a living hell to The Priest. He is a fallen angel with clipped wings, his hollow eyes reflecting his belief that he is beyond all redemption. We come to understand why he decided to serve as a death row priest – not a job most would willingly undertake.

The warden of the prison has the gargantuan task of policing 3,000 prisoners. A fair and just man within a cruel system, he believes in the death row – rapists who kill, serial killers and baby killers should be sentenced to death, he feels.

Which is why he cannot come to terms with what The Lady does. A mitigation officer, she plumbs the background of her clients to get them off death row and serving a life sentence instead. Her dysfunctional upbringing makes her connect with the damaged men she works for, and she knows that the person behind bars could easily have been her is she had ever stopped pretending that everything will be peachy at the end.

As she digs deeper into the case of an inmate who wants to die, York, she recalls her sordid past, one that is similar to his. York, unlike all the other inmates on death row, wants to die. He wants to be free, of the prison, of life, and all the shackles that are anchoring him down, physically and metaphorically.

Rene Denfeld takes us on an electrifying ride filled with wonder and enchantment, yet the ugly truth is still noticeable behind the beautifully-woven gossamer gown. We pick up bits and pieces abut what goes on behind prison bars – sodomy, rape, murder, corruption. We take in the Machiavellian operations, where hierarchy plays a bold part.

And yet, between takes on heinous crimes and unnerving behaviours, Denfeld bestows us with a flicker of hope. We traverse from a place where walls sigh with sadness to a place where emerald lakes and soft fluffy clouds are so spellbinding we cannot help but long to be there for real.

Words cannot describe how alarmingly beautiful The Enchanted is. The characters, especially, are given a life so unlike any others I have come across.

In a murky world, we are offered the soliloquy of the inmate who sees and hears all, with the beauty of words accessible only in his head (and ours, of course). We trail in the footsteps of the Lady, weeping for her harrowing past, and then salute her for her strength. We despair at the prison system, yet even in the darkest of places, love is not lost.

One of the best books I've come across in years, The Enchanted is not to be missed by anyone.

When Mr Dog Bites

Posted: 24 May 2014 09:00 AM PDT

A teenager afflicted with a neurological disorder who doesn't let it get in the way.

AFTER reading Mark Haddon's (2003 Man Booker-longlisted book) The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, I took a liking to novels featuring protagonists with special needs such as autism. So I was quickly onboard with When Mr Dog Bites, which is not only told from the point of view of a special needs teenager but also has a canine in the title.

Brian Conaghan's teen, Dylan Mint, has Tourette syndrome; it manifests as barks and growls when he's very stressed, so he aptly dubs his condition Mr Dog. I felt a lot of sympathy as I read Conaghan's descriptions of Dylan struggling to deal with uncontrollable body and facial tics and episodes of swearing and barking and growling – and most of all, the embarrassment of having it all happen in public, beyond his control.

Can you imagine this? You finally get up the nerve to ask your crush out and what comes out – because you're as stressed as you've ever been – is "Would you like to come to the Halloween disco with me? F****** b****!" It's so cringe-worthy, you can't help but feel the urge to hug Dylan.

The author takes a front seat in making this novel a quick read, one that is sparsely witty and loaded with profanity. Then again, the swearing is truly a part of Tourette's, and Dylan has little to no control over it.

What I found more amusing is Dylan's naive banter with his best bud, Amir, and his charming inner monologue. Though his habit of using mangled slang and the repetitive phrases "No Way Jose" and "Friar Tuck" does require some patience. Where When Mr Dog Bites offers especially good insight is in describing how people with Tourette's think, and how the condition is expressed. In Dylan's case, he lets Mr Dog out.

If you discount his condition, though, Dylan comes across as your typical, uncivilised teen at first (he refers to his crush, Michelle Mallory, as "sex on legs", something that any 16-year-old male might do!). But one of his regular visits to the doctor changes everything: Dylan thinks he's going to die.

And so he decides to create a bucket list; or as he charmingly puts it: "Cool Things To Do Before I Cack It".

I have to say, though, after his first reaction to overhearing that he might die, Dylan comes across as rather unperturbed by his circumstances, which seems unnatural to me, as does his enthusiasm for creating a bucket list.

When Dylan searches online for bucket lists, he's so disappointed by the ridiculous things people want to accomplish that he decides to make his own list. It isn't a long list, having just three things on it: No.1 is to have sex with Mallory (he's an adolescent boy, after all!); No.2 is to find his best friend Amir a new best bud; and No.3 is to get his father back from the war. To me, these three acts are just the sweetest things a 16-year-old could wish for.

Thus begins Dylan's awkward and amusing journey. While this list guides us through his transition towards adulthood, it's a letter to his father, who he once adored, that Dylan writes at the end of the book that shows his maturity as well as a newfound respect for women.

It is, in fact, this last bit of the book that helped gel this entire novel together and make Dylan's story so much more impactful than what came before in the plot.

Frog Music

Posted: 24 May 2014 09:00 AM PDT

This story is based on a true unsolved murder of a cross-dressing frog catcher.

EMMA Donoghue's latest novel has many facets, all of them fascinating. Like her short-story collection Astray and her novel Slammerkin, Frog Music is a detailed slice of historical drama, this time set in the festering boomtown of San Francisco in 1876. Like her hair-raising bestseller (and 2010 Booker Prize shortlisted) Room, it incorporates the elements of a thriller; in fact, there's enough of a puzzle here for it to qualify as a full-blooded mystery (Donoghue herself refers to Frog Music as a crime novel in an author's note).

Best of all, there's Donoghue's familiar and intricate examination of women in impossible circumstances, bound to repugnant men for survival but never broken by them.

Like the works in Astray, Frog Music is based on a true story, this time about the unsolved murder of a cross-dressing frog catcher named Jeanne Bonnet, here called Jenny. (If you can resist the phrase "cross-dressing frog catcher", you really need to examine your lack of curiosity.) In the book, as in life, Jenny is shot through the window of a boarding house in the novel's opening pages, in the company of Blanche Beunon, a burlesque dancer and prostitute.

Inspired by an account of this crime she read years ago in a museum gift shop book, Donoghue takes this event and puts her formidable, eloquent mark on it. In her version, Blanche's survival seems random chance: She's only spared because she bent down to untangle her gaiters. She has known Jenny for only a few weeks when she dies – they met when Jenny ran her down on a bicycle – and their friendship has hit a difficult spot.

Still, Blanche grieves, and her sorrow gives way to outrage. She spends the next several days trying to track down Jenny's killer, sure she was the intended victim. Her main suspects are her estranged, dandified lover Arthur and his sidekick Ernest, freeloaders and former acrobats who gamble away Blanche's earnings. Furious at her refusal to work so she can care for her infant son, they spirit the child away, leaving a frantic Blanche to search for him, too.

Blanche acts as a guide through the seamy, steamy city by the bay, which is undergoing a brutal, uncharacteristic heat wave and a massive smallpox outbreak. Both plagues have set the citizens on edge, as have long-simmering tensions against Chinese workers filling the city's tenements.

Cultural disgust is universal, though, in this overheated melting pot. Blanche, a French immigrant, is disgusted by a family of Irish saloonkeepers. "You Frog whore, that's what Ellen would have liked to call Blanche, no doubt, except that the woman probably couldn't pronounce such a word because the Irish are the prudes of Europe. (Always have more children than they can feed, then go round crossing themselves as if they don't know what f****** is.)"

Donoghue revisits an older and in some ways more horrifying version of the shed where a small boy grows up captive in Room, exposing the shocking practice of baby farming, in which unsavory individuals are paid to take in unwanted infants – and then treacherously neglect them. "How many will she find stacked in each crib, alive in name only, sucking on what – milk watered down to cloudy water? Glazed-eyed and crone-faced, tiny bones showing through translucent skin?"

But Blanche learns rescuing her child from this hell is no easier than leaving him to wither and die. Donoghue isn't blind to the demands of motherhood, and some of the book's best sequences involve the impatient, inexperienced Blanche, used to catering to the dark tastes of men, trying to decipher the whims of a baby.

Colourful French slang and period songs – both of which have their own glossaries in the book – flow through the novel lyrically, making the era as vital as the plot. Donoghue paints the stinking city vividly as "a roulette wheel that spins its human chips at random. Blanche has been driven around by cabbies who claim to be gentlemen temporarily down on their luck, and spent high-paid nights with michetons who boast that they began as coal miners."

Gradually, a second question emerges. The mystery isn't merely about who shot Jenny; there's also the question of the person Blanche will become. Will she stay a prostitute? Or will she break free from the men controlling her?

"She is different these days, one way or another; she knows that," Donoghue writes. "(H)as this older, harder Blanche been hidden inside her all along?"

Early on, Jenny had told her, "If you meet an obstacle you can jump free." She's talking about riding the bicycle on crowded city streets, but by the novel's end, Blanche sees another, more important lesson. "(N)ot always," Blanche thinks. "You have to allow for some damage." Damaged or not, she has a choice, one that will keep you riveted as you make your way through this vibrant and remarkable novel. – The Miami Herald/McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Kredit: www.thestar.com.my

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