Monday, 20 March 2017

Book #18

The Atheist's Mass by HonorĂ© de Balzac

A stunning pair of short stories about faith and sacrificial love. 

Both of these little stories are absolutely gorgeous and so important. Both were steeped in compassion, both told of the kind of devotion we have for those who aren't our lover, both were incredibly clever.

The Atheist's Mass tells of a surgeon who scorns all idea of religion, yet who is observed going to Mass four times a year. This seems entirely suspicious to the spectator, who asks questions of the surgeon on his apparent piousness. The story that unfolds afterwards is touching, thought-provoking, and completely understandable. Balzac explains the idea of an atheist respecting religion, and the faith of others, and the idea that just maybe, the atheist wishes he had something like religion to hold on to.

The Conscript is a much different story, yet all the more heartbreaking. Balzac shows us life during the French Revolution through the eyes of a mother waiting for her son to return home. The suspense created during this short story was masterful, with the ending utterly devastating.

Balzac has weaved so much into these two small tales; I wasn't expecting to be as touched as I was. They were raw, honest, and felt almost pure to read. Absolutely wonderful work. 

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Book #17

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Twenty-seven-year old Anne Elliot is Austen's most adult heroine. Eight years before the story proper begins, she is happily betrothed to a naval officer, Frederick Wentworth, but she precipitously breaks off the engagement when persuaded by her friend Lady Russell that such a match is unworthy. The breakup produces in Anne a deep and long-lasting regret. When later Wentworth returns from sea a rich and successful captain, he finds Anne's family on the brink of financial ruin and his own sister a tenant in Kellynch Hall, the Elliot estate. All the tension of the novel revolves around one question: will Anne and Wentworth be reunited in their love?

I've never read an Austen novel I didn't love, but I'm sorry to report the day has arrived. Persuasion is fairly bland, with no real dramatic events, and a lot of sitting around chatting politely.

Our heroine is a paragon of society; polite, accomplished, and ready to be of assistance to anyone who needs it. She's lovely, but also incredibly dull. We're given her history of love with Captain Wentworth without any real glimmer of her passion for him until later in the novel. Wentworth himself is dire, and we are only given a true account of his character in the final stages.

Certainly, there were elements present which I normally love about Austen; the commentary on societal norms, the fascination of rank, class and wealth, and the importance attached to grand appearances, were all there. Austen's scathing remarks as narrator also really hit the spot.

I was torn by the relentless comments on Anne's age of 'seven and twenty', which had attached to them merciless implications that she's entirely past it, and that all youth and charm are now behind her. Now, I know this is a sign of the times, but Jane, I am thirty this year and do not appreciate such assertions.

The most important thing I've taken away from this novel is the importance of decisions we make in life, the requirement for risk, and the danger of inaction leading to misery. This all resounded well with me due to what's currently happening in my life, but I did find myself frustrated at all the dancing around and subtle looks that were going on. Anne Elliot certainly is not one to take the bull by the horns.

It's not a bad book, by any stretch, it's just not the best. The words are beautiful as always, the glimpse into Victorian life, as always, delicious. It's just a bit predictable, with too many characters, and a serious lack of happening.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Book #16

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

From his rooms in Baker Street, Sherlock Holmes's brooding figure emerges into the foggy streets of Victorian London to grapple with the forces of treachery, intrigue, and evil.

This is an excellent work of twelve short stories exploring some of Holmes' smaller cases. Despite their length, they are each of them wonderfully layered, and provide a deeper insight into both Holmes' skill, and his almost sociopathic persona. I imagine there's no psychologist, dead or alive, who wouldn't have loved an attempt at fully exploring his mind. Having only ever read full novels on Holmes' cases, I wondered whether shortening his adventures would remove some of the magic. Doyle simply compresses his genius into fewer words - that's it. The enchantment is still there.

Each of the clients bring something aloof and mysterious to Sherlock's room. Doyle's imagination is unrivalled as we see the cases resolved, some in ways that could be easily predicted, but most not. Guessing the outcome can create a feeling of your own superior intellect, however the prize is being treated to how Holmes worked it all out. The pace is perfect, the characters intriguing, and most beautifully of all, we're given our first glimpse of Irene Adler.

There's just something about the idea of foggy Victorian London, awash with mysteries and secrets, darkness and deceit, that gets me every time. Add in a man of astounding intellect and a general impatience for the dull, and you've got yourself a beautiful detective novel. I love crime mysteries, but police cars, roaring sirens, and the aid of technology completely pale in comparison to the pipe smoking, newspaper reading, telegram sending detective of Baker Street.

My only critique of these stories would be that they all followed exactly the same structure. Holmes and Watson lounge in Baker Street one morning until a client appears. The client unravels the situation they've found themselves in. The duo find a way of visiting the scene of the incident (note: not scene of the crime, as not all of these stories had a criminal aspect to them - wonderfully). Sherlock then solves the matter, and describes at length how he managed to do so. The structure worked, and I'm sure I couldn't live without the finality of the explanation, however I would have loved a little bit of variety here.

Holmes and Watson are both literary legends, and deservedly so. Doyle's storytelling skill is an absolute treasure; it takes a true master to make mysteries like these, and the way they are solved, believable, not to mention making a reader love a quite irrefutable and exasperating man.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Book #15

Five Chilren and It by E. Nesbit

The five children find a cantankerous sand fairy, a psammead, in a gravel pit. Every day 'It' will grant each of them a wish that lasts until sunset, often with disastrous consequences.

What a glorious little tale about being careful what you wish for, and full of nostalgia.

Our five children are presented as five pieces of a tight family puzzle; they work well with one another, they are each of them different, and they behave exactly as children their age should. We see them brimming with excitement and naivety at the beginning of novel, and then slowly, as each and every wish brings some level of catastrophe, we see them become careful, cynical, and crafty. They're clever kids, and they manage to wriggle out of each situation using only their wits. I did find them lightly irritating, although that's just how I feel about most children.

Nesbit's style is perfect for her target audience. Never patronising, she delivers her morals with subtlety, yet with an important weight. These kids have the opportunity to ask for anything they want from their sand-fairy, and they ask for all the things that would cross my mind (namely money, looks, and wings), yet each of these things brings misery and problems. They come to understand, with every wish, that things were much better before the wish had been made.

There's some clear racism and sexism here; although I normally write these off as a sign of the times, I was uncomfortable in places. I've read female authors from that period who would never have described someone as "just like a girl." It was disappointing.

Although the idea of having a wish every day is entirely delectable, and although I know I am cleverer than these kids, seeing the ways their dreams were thwarted each and every time has put me off limitless wishes. I would, however, like an irascible little sand-fairy to keep me company; his temperament was so exactly like my own. 

Monday, 27 February 2017

Book 14

Candide by Voltaire
Brought up in the household of a powerful Baron, Candide is an open-minded young man, whose tutor, Pangloss, has instilled in him the belief that 'all is for the best'. But when his love for the Baron's rosy-cheeked daughter is discovered, Candide is cast out to make his own way in the world. 
And so he and his various companions begin a breathless tour of Europe, South America and Asia, as an outrageous series of disasters befall them - earthquakes, syphilis, a brush with the Inquisition, murder - sorely testing the young hero's optimism.

A gorgeous tale on the strength of optimism, Voltaire satirises both the inherently optimistic, and the irrevocable pessimistic, in all of us. 

Candide is a naive wee chap. Having been taught that everything in this world is for the best, and having never been allowed access to the world to form his own opinions, not to mention make his own decisions, he is cast out of his household and forced into both of these. The series of events which follow are sent to test his borrowed philosophy. He's an incredibly bland fool; easily taken in, and incapable of any sort of subtlety or discretion.

Every single character experiences some sort of physical or mental torment, many experience a multitude of these. Voltaire shows us a world which is evil to the extreme, and show us how this knocks Candide's belief in the hopeful and promising philosophies he had been taught. Each of these harrowing moments are cast in a comical light, and this brings entertainment to our understanding. Amongst murder, rape, torture, natural disaster, and prostitution, only once does Voltaire lack humour in his telling of human misery, and that's when he shows us slavery. This felt utterly profound and quite telling of his views on that matter alone.

In Pangloss and Martin, Voltaire juxtaposes an extreme optimist with an extreme pessimist, yet allows us to realise that neither is the epitome of perfection, nor do their lives follow sensible, or peaceful courses. Voltaire shows us that neither of these beliefs are admirable, or even desirable, as he attempts to prod these two into revoking their reasoning.

Although inconceivably far-fetched at times, the nonsense works well to enforce Voltaire's point. Misery is living in every possible place, even within us, and this can almost always be traced back to the blackness of the human soul. Yet, we live on, we desire to live on, in a world where happiness can never be a constant.

I loved it.

'You lack faith,' said Candide.
'It is because,' said Martin, 'I have seen the world.'