Saturday, 24 August 2019

Book #62

The Watsons by Jane Austen

Left impoverished upon the death of her aunt, Emma Watson has no option but to be reunited with her estranged father and siblings. Initially delighted with her new life—including the fashionable society balls to which she now has access—Emma soon realizes that her family harbors many ill feelings, not least those springing from the sisters' hopes—and disappointments—in snaring a husband. So when the eligible and suitably rich Tom Musgrove begins to transfer his affections from her sister Margaret to Emma, the result can only be further sibling rivalry and unrest. 

There are few things in life which give me greater distress than an unfinished Austen novel. The Watsons is comprised of only a small number of pages, yet Austen injects such intrigue and possibility into a woeful lack of word count. 

Emma Watson has been brought up by an aunt, and moves back with her family after the aunt remarries. As Emma has been brought up in a wealthier, more refined setting than her siblings, it’s interesting to see how she adapts and reacts to their coarse gossiping and gauche husband hunting. The sisters are anything but loving to one another, and the sniping is truly something to behold. 

Then there’s the added fascination of Emma’s introduction to her new neighbours - a few of which take a serious liking to her which foreshadowed  a fast approaching love triangle situation. Such loss.

It could’ve been great, kid. 

Friday, 23 August 2019

Book #61

Oroonoko by Aphra Behn

When Prince Oroonoko's passion for the virtuous Imoinda arouses the jealousy of his grandfather, the lovers are cast into slavery and transported from Africa to the colony of Surinam. Oroonoko's noble bearing soon wins the respect of his English captors, but his struggle for freedom brings about his destruction. Inspired by Aphra Behn's visit to Surinam, Oroonoko reflects the author's romantic view of native peoples as in 'the first state of innocence, before man knew how to sin'. The novel also reveals Behn's ambiguous attitude to African slavery - while she favoured it as a means to strengthen England's rule, her powerful and moving work conveys its injustice and brutality.

Behn writes of Oroonoko, an African prince who is deceived, captured and sold into slavery along with many others. She meets him on a plantation some time later, and reports of his dazzling personality, and the nobility which emanates from him. 

This nobility affects the whites so greatly that they treat Oroonoko as a novelty pet, rather than a slave. The normal toils of slavery are kept from him, and he’s permitted to live a life far more comfortable than his fellow Africans. This, at times, didn’t feel too realistic to me, and yet at other times the idea of the whites using the prince as a mode of entertainment and curiosity seemed to fit.

Of course, racism is abound throughout the pages, yet Behn seems to be confused in her conditioning. She mentions Oroonoko’s beauty in a surprised tone, as though beauty is something only the white can achieve. She describes him like a pin-up model - gorgeous flowing hair, and an uncanny Roman nose in contrast with the shapes of the other slave noses. But in other sections of the novella, she comments on scarification - something I imagine would be very alien and unsettling in Behn’s time - and describes this as artistically pleasing, curiously pretty, and accentuating the charm of the slaves.

Her finale is hard-hitting and utterly harrowing, coming out of a fairly tame account like a lingering demon. As the novella didn’t strike me as an anti-slavery piece, I can’t decide whether this ending was a commentary on slavery itself, or simply a point being made on the fall of nobility. Either way, it resonates, disgusts, and makes the story uncomfortably unforgettable.

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Book #60

The Automation

The capital-A Automatons of Greco-Roman myth aren’t clockwork. Their design is much more divine. They’re more intricate than robots or androids or anything else mortal humans could invent. Their windup keys are their human Masters. They aren’t mindless; they have infinite storage space. And, because they have more than one form, they’re more versatile and portable than, say, your cell phone—and much more useful too. The only thing these god-forged beings share in common with those lowercase-A automatons is their pre-programmed existence. They have a function—a function their creator put into place—a function that was questionable from the start.

This has to be the strangest little book I’ve read in a very long time, based on gods, family, power, and souls anthropomorphising.

The format initially knocked me for six. The narrator’s editor chimes in constantly with footnotes - adding, clarifying, and inserting information, whilst repeatedly slagging off the narrator for their choices of plot device, names, metaphors - anything. It’s jarring, and utterly disorienting, but it’s an interesting and unique way of driving the story along and making subtle hints at the importance of the narrator/editor relationship.

And then nothing happens. There’s barely any plot; everything is driven forward with world-building, and character explorations. This isn’t a bad thing - both the world and the characters are intricately complex, and the importance of cementing the reader’s understanding is clear. This is an introduction, the lead up to the sequel - the novels in this series cannot stand on their own.

The implications of deceit, double-crossing, and unreliable characters (or unreliable narrators and editors?) were what kept me going here. I was out of my comfort zone, confused and anxious, and yet there was something so engaging here, something I simply had to get to the bottom of. 

And yet, I managed to get to the bottom of nothing at all. It’s acknowledged that the finale is fairly flat and disappointing, and yet this is justified by this novel being merely the starting point. I’m grateful I’ve been sent both The Automation and the sequel, The Pre-Programming so I can continue this weird journey. 

Monday, 12 August 2019

Book #59

Seven Hanged by Leonid Andreyev

This astonishing novella from 1908, newly translated for Little Black Classics by War and Peace translator Anthony Briggs, probes the emotions and experiences of seven people condemned to death in Tsarist Russia. With a powerful and subtle exploration of the morality of capital punishment, it was a best-seller at the time, and, in a strange quirk of history, influenced the conspirators in the cataclysmic assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914. 

This is a horrific, heart-rending novella. Andreyev tells the tale of seven prisoners sentenced to hang, without telling a tale at all. Nothing happens except his exploration of their psychological states in such close proximity to death; it’s harrowing, and it’s perfect.

Each of the seven approach their fate in different ways - with fear, with pride, with apathy, with scorn. They begin to appreciate the smallest of life’s offerings, such as a breath of spring air, as they try to become accustomed to what lies ahead for them.

His underlying commentary on capital punishment is exquisite. Where is the punishment? Is it within death itself, or is it purely in the time between, waiting for something you have no power to delay, the worst fate, decided by someone else. After all, once death comes, surely, we are free?

Ultimately, Andreyev is asking which of them we’d be when staring death in the face. All were terrified, but displayed this differently. How would you do it? Bravely? Or would you resist? Who can say until the time comes, but the thought is somehow wonderfully provoking and equally uncomfortable. 

Friday, 9 August 2019

Book #58

Fat by Rob Grant

Grenville is no longer Off the Peg. Grenville is fat, very fat. He’s not quite sure how it happened, but it has. Sitting up makes him dizzy, getting dressed leaves him breathless, the sight of his face in the mirror is always a shock. He’s not happy about it, and yes, he’s had a bellyful of people telling him he should watch his figure. In fact, if just one more person says anything at all about his weight, Grenville might just lose it. 
Hayleigh can’t bear to look t herself in the mirror either. All she can see is how fat she is. She can’t bear it. People are laughing at her behind her back. Her mum and dad won’t say it of course, but even they think so. She’s trapped in her own body, looking for a way out. 
Jeremy can’t bear people who can’t help themselves. People need to take responsibility for their lives, and if they won’t, the government will. Jeremy’s the PR man, sorry, Conceptuologist, who will launch Well Farm. People just can’t keep on getting fat. The Tube is already full to capacity, the NHS simply can’t take the strain. People are going to the Well Farm. If they know what’s good for them.

Fat begins with the sentence “It’s unclear precisely when it became illegal to be fat”, which leads us to imagine a dystopian future where this is the case. Although this would be an excellent premise for a novel, Grant doesn’t follow up with this, and instead drops us into the lives of three people for whom being fat may as well be illegal.

We meet Grenville, an overweight TV chef with anger issues, Hayleigh, a teenager with a severe eating disorder, and Jeremy, the newly appointed PR man in charge of promoting the government's new weight-loss camps. Grant’s use of multiple-voice narrative is effective in displaying the stark contrasts between each of three, and how weight rules over their lives.

I found this very well-written, nicely light, and absolutely hilarious. Grenville’s furious rampages, Hayleigh’s teenage rants, and Jeremy’s fuckboy attitudes, all resonated well and completely tickled me. Although there isn’t a great deal of depth to any of them, Grant has constructed these characters well enough to allow us to relate to them. 

He knows when to make his serious points, and when to utilise humour in a novel which could have been problematic if handled in the wrong way. It’s very tongue in cheek, but Grant makes some thought-provoking points on the subject of weight, the nation’s obsession with it, and covers some interesting myths on the types of things we put into our bodies. 

This was a perfect book to eject me from the reading slump I’d found myself in - nothing too taxing, a little bit of hilarity, and something to turn the old brain cogs. Wonderful.