Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Book #76

Love that moves the sun and other stars by Dante

A collection of cantos from Paradiso, the most original and experimental part of the Divina Commedia.

I thought this would ease me gently into Dante, and instead it has me running in the opposite direction.

My feelings are very strong on the fact that this simply is not my thing. My brain can’t seem to work to the levels needed to comprehend this, even merely to follow along, and all I did throughout was marvel at the beautiful writing, without a clue in the world as to what was going on, or what was being conveyed.

Despite self-proclaimed stupidity being to blame here, I also feel Penguin should have done more to help their readers. A selection of cantos from the work does not make a clever introduction; it’s too sporadic and confusing to simpletons such as myself. It seems very much shoehorned into the collection after someone in a meeting room said, “need some Dante.” 

Monday, 7 October 2019

Book #75

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

Will Grayson meets Will Grayson. One cold night, in a most unlikely corner of Chicago, two strangers are about to cross paths. From that moment on, their world will collide and lives intertwine.
It's not that far from Evanston to Naperville, but Chicago suburbanites Will Grayson and Will Grayson might as well live on different planets. When fate delivers them both to the same surprising crossroads, the Will Graysons find their lives overlapping and hurtling in new and unexpected directions. With a push from friends new and old - including the massive, and massively fabulous, Tiny Cooper, offensive lineman and musical theater auteur extraordinaire - Will and Will begin building toward respective romantic turns-of-heart and the epic production of history's most awesome high school musical.

As someone who is fairly militant about despising John Green books, I was surprised to find this one strangely okay.

Of course, we have our usual cringeworthy incorrectness, here taking the form of fat-shaming, hints of homophobia, and ‘not like other girls’ rhetoric; the kind of stuff you wouldn’t want the target audience absorbing.

Despite his constant failings to prevent his inner bias seeping through, and his lacking capability of understanding how real teenagers think and behave, I found the plot quite heartwarming and adorable. Maybe it was just the kind of mindless drivel I needed at this point in time.

Dealing with catfishing (where are Nev and Max when you need them?), coming out, friendship struggles, and general teenage angst, Green gives us some likable, yet slightly unrelatable, characters. I liked seeing them fall apart and come together again, and there really was something there which made me just want everything to be okay.

Nothing high-brow, nothing poignant, nothing even remotely relatable, and yet a nice easy, heartwarming read. Maybe the next time a Green novel wings its way to the top of my pile, I won’t meet it with such disdain.

Thursday, 3 October 2019

Book #74

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

In a London flat, two young boys face the unbearable sadness of their mother's sudden death. Their father, a Ted Hughes scholar and scruffy romantic, imagines a future of well-meaning visitors and emptiness.
In this moment of despair they are visited by Crow - antagonist, trickster, healer, babysitter. This self-described sentimental bird is attracted to the grieving family and threatens to stay until they no longer need him. As weeks turn to months and physical pain of loss gives way to memories, this little unit of three begin to heal.

A father and his two sons lose their wife and mother. A crow arrives to guide them through the initial stages of the grieving process. What follows is a beautiful yet heartbreaking view into their lives after the loss, the processing, the hope, the memory. I was captivated.

Although taking the form of a novella, this felt very much like a toe in the waters of poetry. There were some really gorgeous lyrical moments, alongside some very clever and impactful prose. Porter’s skill is glorious, and unmistakable on every page. The pain and confusion of grief is depicted all too well, and yet in such a rare way that it feels unfamiliar and raw.

The narrative is split into three voices - Dad, Boys, Crow. This allows us to see the different ways in which Dad and the boys are coping with their grief - the kids buoyant, Dad numb - and Crow’s cryptic interpretations on their progress and current states. It allows for empathy, allows us to grieve alongside them, and allows us to also struggle.

I imagine one could take more from this having read Ted Hughes’ Crow; I haven’t. Yet Crow seems perfect here to an amateur, as though no other bird could do. We couldn’t have a robin, a dove, a peacock. Crow’s darkness and vulgarity can cast him in only one feathered form.

I missed her so much that I wanted to build a hundred-foot memorial to her with my bare hands. I wanted to see her sitting in a vast stone chair in Hyde Park, enjoying her view. Everybody passing could comprehend how much I miss her. How physical my missing is. I miss her so much it is a vast golden prince, a concert hall, a thousand trees, a lake, nine thousand buses, a million cars, twenty million birds and more. The whole city is my missing her. 

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Book #73

The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry

Edinburgh, 1847. City of Medicine, Money, Murder.

Young women are being discovered dead across the Old Town, all having suffered similarly gruesome ends. In the New Town, medical student Will Raven is about to start his apprenticeship with the brilliant and renowned Dr Simpson.
It is here that Raven meets housemaid Sarah Fisher, who recognises trouble when she sees it and takes an immediate dislike to him. She has all of his intelligence but none of his privileges, in particular his medical education.
With each having their own motive to look deeper into these deaths, Raven and Sarah find themselves propelled headlong into the darkest shadows of Edinburgh's underworld, where they will have to overcome their differences if they are to make it out alive.

What a wonderful walk through the Victorian streets of Edinburgh. This is one of my favourite eras to read, but rarely do I find one set in streets I’ve walked myself.

Our protagonist, and many other characters here, are medical men. I found it fascinating to read of the methods employed in those days - amputation with an audience is a particularly shocking example - and relished in the knowledge of how far we’ve come. Enthralling as they were, I did feel as though the medical descriptions were at the forefront of the prose, forcing the criminal aspects to take a backseat.

Medicine and medical procedures are an integral part of the plot and subsequent mysteries here. It’s an original twist on the old murder mystery, and the prose supported the gloom of it with its atmospheric, and sometimes quite bleak and chilling, word choice and structure.

The commentary on social customs here was exquisite - a real view of social class, gender, and the measures people would take to elevate their social standing. Even the wealthy and successful had ferocious appetites to gain more wealth, and more success. The focus here is on women as victims, and women as the oppressed; our female protagonist was given to us as a real breaker of chains, and I loved her for it.

I really would have liked the crime to have taken more precedent over the medical explanations, but this series has real potential purely down to the skill of the writers. I plan to read the sequel, The Art of Dying (ominous), very soon.

Monday, 30 September 2019

Book #72

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

"Dear Readers: Everything you've ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we've been living in." --Margaret Atwood 

I’m going to have some troubles putting into words how this book made me feel. I always have my doubts about sequels, and how can one possibly write a sequel to something as monolithic as The Handmaid’s Tale? It’s too huge a feat; unless, of course, you’re Margaret Atwood.

She writes from three different perspectives here (making me want to kiss my fingers and throw them in the air like a cartoon chef). We hear from a young girl growing up as a Commander’s daughter in Gilead, another young girl who is lucky enough to live somewhere that doesn’t aspire to the regime, and, finally and most importantly, Aunt Lydia. 

The first two voices contrast their upbringings and current lives, with Aunt Lydia’s words cementing her as matriarch and keeper of wisdom. All three, however, bring hope for the future of Gilead, and unknockable desires to bring it to the ground.

As we’ve only ever heard of Gilead from a Handmaid’s perspective, it was wonderful to see how children in Gilead are indoctrinated into believing in the regime, and also to understand how things were run from Aunt Lydia’s high (for a woman) position within the system.

Where The Handmaid’s Tale is a bleak picture of what can happen ever so slowly when we sit back and allow the men in charge to make decisions, The Testaments is more of an inspirational prod to make change, to shout from the rooftops, to never accept.

Once again for the men in the back: nolite te bastardes carborundorum