Thursday, 26 March 2020

Book #22

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

When she was only twenty-three, Carson McCullers’s first novel created a literary sensation. She was very special, one of America’s superlative writers who conjures up a vision of existence as terrible as it is real, who takes us on shattering voyages into the depths of the spiritual isolation that underlies the human condition. This novel is the work of a supreme artist, Carson McCullers’s enduring masterpiece. The heroine is the strange young girl, Mick Kelly. The setting is a small Southern town, the cosmos universal and eternal. The characters are the damned, the voiceless, the rejected. Some fight their loneliness with violence and depravity, some with sex or drink, and some— like Mick— with a quiet, intensely personal search for beauty.

This is a novel of misunderstanding.

A certain kind of hopelessness seeps through the pages here. McCullers makes clear the poverty of the town, the lack of prospects for its inhabitants, and the effects racism and capitalism has on both of these things. As the novel is set in the South in the 1930s, there’s a lot of oppression to explore, and a lot of it heartbreaking and furious.

Our protagonist, John Singer, is deaf-mute. He communicates by writing messages, and is able to lip read. His silence gives him a calm, understanding aura, which encourages people to gravitate towards him. We meet four characters in particular who take comfort in having Singer as a friend, and who proceed in making him into exactly who they want him to be. As he listens, yet rarely responds, the characters feel he understands and agrees with them. 

It’s a very important note on how we see people as we want to see them, and shape them in our minds into exactly what we need at that moment in time. Whether it’s someone to understand, someone to admire, even someone to hate, we create perceptions of people which don’t necessarily reflect the whole of the person we’re perceiving. It’s everyone misunderstanding everything, all at once.

McCullers shows us how this behaviour drastically impacts the relationships in the novel. Although there is very little plot, everything revolves around the four characters and their relationships with John Singer. It’s a brutal look at how we love and behave, and it’s done masterfully.

Not only do the characters misunderstand Singer, but they frequently misunderstand each other. This can be in the form of two men, one black and one white, who have read and respect Marxist theory, they cannot see the other’s agenda, nor their aspirations on mobilising change. It can be in the form of a young girl who believes an older restaurant proprietor hates her, but really he holds a deep unexplainable love for it. Or it’s in the form of a daughter who cannot see her father just really wanted her to open her eyes.

This novel has crumpled my heart, has taught me moral messages, has made me examine my own behaviour in life, and has, ultimately, left me awe-struck. Another great American novel. 

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Book #21

The Watch List by Joseph Mitcham

68 dead and nearly 300 injured in a hostile vehicle and bomb attack on a community festival in Birmingham, the country is in shock. 
Battling the mental turmoil of the aftermath, Alex, a former Army communications specialist, stumbles across the UK Terror Watch List - he cannot resist the challenge of stealing the list from under the nose of his contract supervisor, Lucy Butler, a razor sharp and headstrong Intelligence Corps corporal with big ambitions. 
Wrestling with his conscience and the ethics of tackling unconvicted suspects, Alex enlists the help of famed former UK Special Forces Warrant Officer, Craig Medhurst. Alex struggles to win the respect of Craig’s core team, but together they hatch a daring plan to act on their selected targets. 
Can Alex use his charm to persuade Corporal Butler to join them? 

This isn’t my usual genre, so I wasn’t too sure what to expect from Mitcham, but I found myself propelled along in an engaging tale of terrorism, community, and some serious ex-soldiers.

Alex spends his post-Army time in IT solutions, and one day finds himself working a one-off job for the Intelligence Corps. As he inadvertently comes across the UK terrorist watch list, he’s forced to make quick decisions on whether to make a copy, and then what to do with it.

It’s a real eye opener into a world many of us are utterly oblivious to. There’s a real sense of the behaviours and thought-processes never leaving those who have served; a lot of the narrative is knowledgeable and insightful, and has some really interesting commentary on how being in the forces can affect someone.

My favourite chapter in the novel was the first one. Mitcham begins his novel beautifully contrasting calm with chaos, innocent with evil. It was truly masterful and completely pulled me in. 

The story itself is packed full of pace and tension as Alex and his team take action on the list of dangerous individuals in their hands. There are some serious moralistic and ethical implications here and Mitcham explores them well.

An excellent novel for someone who’s interested in the forces, the people who serve, and what could happen if you stole a confidential document from the Security Service. 

Friday, 13 March 2020

Book #20

Flush by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf's delightful biography of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning's spaniel, which asks what it means to be human - and to be dog.

Elizabeth Barrett was a Victorian poet with a gorgeous little cocker spaniel called Flush. I was curious about Woolf’s decision to write his biography, and found this gorgeous quote from one of her letters to Lady Ottoline Morrell: ‘I was so tired after the Waves, that I lay in the garden and read the Browning love letters, and the figure of their dog made me laugh so I couldn’t resist making him a Life’.. I mean, that’s as good a reason as any.

Flush is a city dog, raised in the streets of London where all dogs must be kept on chains. He learns of aristocracy (even amongst dogs), and becomes very intuitive to human emotion. He adopts a beautiful synchronicity with his mistress, and absorbs her moods as his own. Woolf does well to characterise him as an almost-human, feeding us his human-like feelings, and then describing his very dog-like motivations, such as grass under his paws, or the smells he finds glorious.

Woolf makes a lot of comments here on class. Flush is well-bred, with all the components required to be a dog of high-standing. He is originally quite vain and pompous, but slowly comes to realise through the biography that there is nothing much defining him from other, dirtier, or crossbred dogs.

It was a beautiful change to read of the life of a dog, and the life of humans through the eyes of a dog. Seeing his confusion and emotional changes when things happen which he couldn’t quite understand, made me think deeply about how we are seen by these gorgeous creatures. 

Thursday, 12 March 2020

Book #19

Limbo by Thiago d’Evecque

The fate of the world hinges on a forsaken spirit, a mad god in a sword, and 12 mythological beings.

A forsaken spirit is awakened and ordered to dispatch 12 souls back to Earth to prevent the apocalypse. Many don't take kindly to the return. Accompanied by an imprisoned mad god, the spirit must compel them.
Each of the 12 unlocks a piece of the forsaken spirit's true identity. Memories unfold and past wounds bleed again.
The journey will reveal buried truths about gods, angels, humanity, and the forsaken spirit itself.

Imagine a world, very much like our world is now. A world which is such a mess with hate and fear that the only solution is to invoke a spirit of the underworld to sort it all out. To collect twelve souls of Limbo’s finest and bravest inhabitants, and, armed with a sword holding a malevolent god, send them back upstairs to put things right. Imagine the journey that spirit would go on as they meet these legendary souls and convince them to return.

That story is the story d’Evecque has given us, and it is quite simply something else. The premise is so unique, so intriguing, and he carries it out with utter brilliance. He seemed to have a second sight into my brain as the story ticked along, everything kept me wanting more, everything compelled me to continue reading. A true work of marvel.

My favourite part of the story were the souls themselves. All twelve differed unimaginably, but d’Evecque was careful to reinforce the reasons why they were chosen - courage, reason, love - all twelve had something unique about them which would heal the human condition. Amazingly, wonderfully, gorgeously, all twelve were beings from the books of history; the stuff of legend. I learned so much, and d’Evecque’s research here has been impeccable.

What happens when the souls reach earth must be a story for another time, and it simply didn’t matter, because the thread of the story was focused on the spirit. With originally no idea of who they are, or why they are carrying out this mission, it proceeds in its gathering of souls. After each one returns to earth, memories flood back to the spirit, and slowly a picture of its identity begins to form. The ultimate reveal was done beautifully, and with pleasant surprise. I had no idea whatsoever.

A stunning work of legend, theology, rebellion, and the underworld. I’m very grateful to have been asked to review this.

Saturday, 7 March 2020

Book #18

Face It by Debbie Harry

‘I was saying things in songs that female singers didn’t really say back then. I wasn’t submissive or begging him to come back, I was kicking his ass, kicking him out, kicking my own ass too. My Blondie character was an inflatable doll but with a dark, provocative, aggressive side. I was playing it up, yet I was very serious.’

I’m very rarely interested in any type of autobiography. There’s something to be said about the phrase ‘never meet your heroes’, and to me an autobiography is a type of meeting; a bare all. And yet, ever since I was around twelve years old and heard Maria for the first time on the radio, Debbie Harry has been one of my heroes.

She’s a phenomenon, a powerhouse, a woman at the beginning of punk, shaping it into something new and visceral. She’s stunning, a badass, absolutely everything you could ever dream to be. I had to read her memoirs, and learn as much as I could.

I did enjoy it. I loved finding out small details, and reading of mad events that could probably only happen in Debbie’s era of emergence. It started off wonderfully, as Debbie describes her childhood, her small town escape, her awe and wonder as she first falls in love with New York.

Then, it dips. Debbie chooses to describe things factually rather than emotionally, and we’re presented with a bombardment of places, names (a lot of fucking names), and moments in time. There’s very little description of how she felt, how things impacted her, or her motivations and reactions. She flicks around in time, shadowing forwards and backwards, rather than sticking to more of a linear narrative which would’ve worked better as we tried to keep apace with these thousands of happenings and constant introductions to people.

Her saving grace, and the reason I’m still glad I have the book, are the photographs and fan art peppered throughout; they really are something to behold. She tells us of keeping all fan art she’s given, and some of it is spellbinding. To have someone love you so entirely that they sit down and recreate your face on paper must be a wonderful accolade.

Still a phenomenon, still a dream, maybe just not great at weaving her thoughts into an engaging piece.