Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Book #21

The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels

Marx and Engels's revolutionary summons to the working classes - one of the most important and influential political theories ever formulated. 

As I consider myself cretinous when it comes to politics, I wasn't sure how I was going to fare with this one. An obvious addition to the Little Black Classics range, The Communist Manifesto allowed me to expand my mind, throw myself out of my comfort zone, and force myself to learn.

What struck me most was how non-aggressive the manifesto is. It's an almost caring speech on why the proletarians should care about their own lives and welfare, and a glimpse into how things could be under the power of the communists. Various misconceptions and slander against the party are subtly debunked, and the strong image of the majority overpowering the minority, when the scales are tipped the other way, is an important one to consider.

Marx and Engels' call to arms is almost infectious, and the attempts of the manifesto to set a fire under the feet of the bourgeois is admirable. Of course, it's difficult to imagine a world now where the powerful won't always try to exploit the lower levels of the hierarchy, but the communist declarations are definitely worthwhile in their own right.

I'd doubtless take more from this slender campaign were I better-read, more intelligent, and much more politically minded, however I found it an enjoyable foray into communism, and Marx's mind.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Book #20

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

In her early thirties, Elizabeth Gilbert had everything a modern American woman was supposed to want--husband, country home, successful career--but instead of feeling happy and fulfilled, she felt consumed by panic and confusion. This wise and rapturous book is the story of how she left behind all these outward marks of success, and of what she found in their place. Following a divorce and a crushing depression, Gilbert set out to examine three different aspects of her nature, set against the backdrop of three different cultures: pleasure in Italy, devotion in India, and on the Indonesian island of Bali, a balance between worldly enjoyment and divine transcendence. 

I'm one of those headstrong readers who will trudge her way to the end of a novel, no matter how awful, and no matter how difficult it is to persuade myself to even pick it up in the first place. It's been an incredibly long time since I've read something so utterly painful that I cannot find the strength, nor the patience, to make it to the end. Enter, Eat, Pray, Love.

Liz falls out of love with her husband after an epiphany on her bathroom floor where she finds God (you know, like, God). Fast forward a bit, and she's flouncing across the globe to the three I's; Italy, India, and Indonesia. We're caught up in a maelstrom of feminine angst, rich girl privilege, and our own three I's - irritation, insipidity, and ire.

In the pages I read, Liz feels incomplete without a man, and this foray across the world is going to teach her how to love herself. As I didn't care whether or not she finally grew to find peace and contentment, I read a few reviews to check whether she is now able to live without male attention. As it happens, in the true spirit of things, the two hundred pages I wasn't stupid enough to read highlighted dully how she falls into the lap of another gent. This is how things go in Gilbert land, from what I can gather.

As a woman who is on a voyage of self-discovery, the book is surprisingly male-orientated. Gilbert craves male attention, male affection, and male anything. She arrives in Italy wondering why old men aren't leering at her on the bus, because for God's sake, they should be.

Although I would never trivialise the ending of a relationship as something to just get over, for most of us jumping on a plane and gadding around three spectacular countries just isn't an option. That Gilbert managed this with her unlimited funds, alongside a total lack of compassion and awareness for the foreign lives going on around her, and always embroiled in her own selfish inner turmoil (such as "why doesn't anyone fancy me?"), is utterly disgusting. She had an ulterior motive for every experience; if it wasn't find a man, it was learn the language so people are impressed with me and think I'm beautiful, or something along those vain lines.

There are many out there raving about this book, but I have learnt lessons in the past about not listening to book-ravers. The simpering, the complete lack of awareness of privilege, and the utter incomprehension of what she was truly experiencing is sickening. Avoid with your entire soul, and you will find the enlightenment Gilbert (undoubtedly) has.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Book #19

Olalla by Robert Louis Stevenson

A gothic novella about love, torment and doomed aristocracy, set in the remote mountains of Spain.

I'm not sure whether there's anything more tantalising to me than a gothic novel. Daunting, old buildings that loom in the distance, a family with a mysterious past, a spooky portrait that looks incredibly like the inhabitants of the house, and strange, inexplicable events. More, more, more.

Stevenson gives us all of the above in this short story, one of love and mystery. The suspense he built in the initial stages of the story was wonderful, his descriptions nothing but decadent, and I was really gearing myself up for something incredible. Disappointingly, the plot falls entirely flat after the longed for event, and the finale does little to explain our journey.

I mostly detest the instantaneous love men feel for women in novels of this era. I do not buy the love at first sight thing at all, and it truly confirms the banality of men falling for women purely as a result of their looks. Of course the narrator falls for Olalla at first glance, and declares he cannot ever be without her, despite having only exchanged a few words.

The suggestion that Stevenson has written of vampires is an interesting one. There is little to confirm this other than a bit of bloodlust. Despite Stevenson rejecting the usual vampiric qualities, such as aversion to sunlight, which I did like, I much prefer the idea that something less supernatural, but far more sinister, was at work here.

This is a worthwhile read, but I expected much more from the man who wrote such a great gothic classic as Jekyll and Hyde.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Book #18

The Reflections of Queen Snow White by David Meredith

On the eve of her only daughter, Princess Raven's wedding, an aging Snow White finds it impossible to share in the joyous spirit of the occasion. Things could not be better, in fact, except for one thing: the king is dead. 
The queen has been in a moribund state of hopeless depression for over a year with no end in sight. It is only when, in a fit of bitter despair, she seeks solitude in the vastness of her own sprawling castle and climbs a long disused and forgotten tower stair that she comes face to face with herself in the very same magic mirror used by her stepmother of old. 

Meredith writes a very interesting take on what happens once the fairy tale is over. I'm sure we've all often wondered what happens after the happily ever after. Snow White is in a state of grief after the king's passing; unable to join the joy and excitement of her daughter's wedding plans, she flees to a disused room in the castle and comes face to face with the mirror of her step-mother, which forces her to confront the parts of herself she'd been suppressing.

The use of the mirror as a plot device is clever, as it allows us to see Snow White's past and understand her position. Meredith sagely leaves out the parts we already know, such as meeting with the dwarves and the poisoned apple, and instead fills in the gaps marvellously in order to paint what has to be a very bleak and melancholy picture of Snow White's life.

Many of the scenes shown to Snow White through the mirror are harrowing and traumatic. Her love for Charming shines through in most of these, and the depth of her mourning quickly becomes clear. His station in her life was an important one, and their relationship was strong. Her melancholy seeps through the pages, and we're forced to feel this with her, willing her out of it at each change of vision.

Charming is characterised as a real hero, saving Snow White's life initially, and then helping her out of a number of predicaments as their life together rolls on. Although this reinforces her incapability to cope without him, I would have loved to have seen a more badass Snow White in the flashbacks. At times she came across as a useless damsel in distress, which is never something I particularly enjoy. As unlikeable as I found her, however, her journey through sorrow was impactful, and my heart went out to her.

I would have liked to have delved deeper into the lives of the dwarves, and would have loved more clarity on the fate of the step-mother, Arglist. Her doom felt swept under the carpet, perhaps due to Snow White's suppression of it, however I feel this is something that could have made a real impact in the novel.

An enjoyable, but incredibly bleak, view on Snow White's happily ever after; I'd like to thank David Meredith for sending this to me in exchange for a review.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Book #17

The Blade Artist by Irvine Welsh

Jim Francis has finally found the perfect life – and is now unrecognisable, even to himself. A successful painter and sculptor, he lives quietly with his wife, Melanie, and their two young daughters, in an affluent beach town in California. Some say he’s a fake and a con man, while others see him as a genuine visionary.
But Francis has a very dark past, with another identity and a very different set of values. When he crosses the Atlantic to his native Scotland, for the funeral of a murdered son he barely knew, his old Edinburgh community expects him to take bloody revenge. But as he confronts his previous life, all those friends and enemies – and, most alarmingly, his former self – Francis seems to have other ideas.

BEGBIE, I canny believe it's really you. All those years of peevin, scrappin, and jail time, you land it nice in California with a gorgeous wife and kids, a rehabilitative job, and a massive hoose. The boy has changed. Until, of course, his son ends up pan breed and he has to come back to Embra for the funeral.

No one could write this but Welsh. Carving this new life for Franco, under the name of Jim Francis, he creates a stark contrast to the one we're used to, and takes us immediately out of our comfort zones. It doesn't feel right; his redemption is uncomfortable, and his mindset is totally foreign to the one we're used to. We've already seen Welsh set stories on American soil, but this is a life too clean and perfect for Saughton's repeat offender. The boy's done well to make this comfortable nest for himself, but Welsh soon has us wondering exactly how much of Francis Begbie is left in Jim Francis.

I spent a lot of time towards the beginning of the novel in utter conflict. Franco isny Franco, and it wasn't just me who noticed it - a number of characters comment on Begbie's transformation, expecting him to have returned to his hometown to wreak vengeance on his son's murderer. His calm admissions that he wasn't close to his son meant true disappointment in the character's faces; this mirrored my own. We were all itching for a scrap.

We haven't been allowed to see him transform into this Californian gent, but seeing the transgression as soon as he hits Scottish soil is nothing short of delectable. Whether it's the setting, the situation, the company, or all of these that impacts him is debatable, and irrelevant. He's back, but he's new and improved. His calm becomes terrifying, his new intelligence worrying, and where he would initially react immediately and aggressively to any confrontation, we see instead a cold calculation and a man set on viciously confusing those out to oppose him. This is Francis Begbie version 2, and trust me, you'd be much better off trying to jab version 1.

The most wonderful and important parts of The Blade Artist are the flashbacks to Begbie's younger life. We're finally allowed to understand and explore what's made him the way he is. Although his actions are extremely difficult to justify, his reasoning behind them is made clear, and we begin to understand this monster and his world of pain.

Welsh does here what he does best; relatable psychos, understandable yet shocking emotion, a fuck-tonne of glorious violence, and a couple of cameos from some of his best characters. This has been a real change of pace, though; a journey through love and destruction with the biggest character of all. I absolutely loved it.


Sunday, 10 April 2016

Book #16

Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk

She's a catwalk model who has everything: a boyfriend, a career, a loyal best friend. But when a sudden motor 'accident' leaves her disfigured and incapable of speech, she goes from being the beautiful centre of attention to being an invisible monster, so hideous that no one will acknowledge she exists. 
Enter Brandy Alexander, Queen Supreme, one operation away from being a real woman, who will teach her that reinventing yourself means erasing your past and making up something better, and that salvation hides in the last place you'll ever want to look.

I just don't get the fascination with Palahniuk. Yes, he's edgy, disturbing, and presents us with stories the like of which we'll never had read before. But really, really, that's all he is, he's shock factor, and it surprises me that so many people will defend him so drastically.

Invisible Monsters left me with a similar feeling to most of his other novels (except Pygmy; I really liked Pygmy); an excellent premise which fell flat and disappointed me.

Don't get me wrong, there were some excellent features to this one. I liked the conversational narrative style, feeling as though I were being told a story by someone I couldn't quite trust, someone who is holding back the important parts until the very last minute. I liked the non-linear timeline of the plot; we're fed information in short bursts, coming back to the present before being catapulted again into a different time and place (the Remix edition of the novel forces the reader to flip through the novel and back again to piece the plot together, similar to choose your own adventure stories. I'm glad I wasn't subjected to this). I liked Palahniuk's female voice, despite initial misgivings into how he was going to pull it off.

This read a lot like Fight Club with Palahniuk forcing us to think about our own lives in that overly pretentious way of his. Again, I thought, had this been any other author, I could have been much more on board with the satire. He employs a horribly sardonic 'tell' voice that offends me. We know we all buy into the concept of beauty, we know the dangers of striving for perfection; I don't need a holier than thou cult author guy blowing a model's face off to patronise me about it.

Although no expert in the field of LGBT, I didn't feel it was dealt with, or researched, well at all. Without spoiling any of the plot points, Palahniuk wrote his LGBT characters as caricatures; totally over the top and unbelievable. The novel was written in 1999, and I feel we're making more progress as a society now, but also don't feel that is any kind of excuse. I was disgusted in parts, and there was really no need for it.

Final thoughts: what I'd give to go back in time and punch my younger self into submission to stop her buying a Palahniuk novel every time she entered a charity shop.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Book #15

Jason and Medea by Apollonius of Rhodes

The tragic, epic love affair that allowed Jason to get the Golden Fleece. 

Having little to no knowledge of Greek mythology, Jason and Medea made me wish I knew more. With nods to various other myths, places, and gods, I felt wholly undereducated throughout the whole thing.

Here we are given the story of Jason's quest to obtain the Golden Fleece. Aeëtes sets an impossible task for Jason - yoking two flame-breathing, bronze-footed Bulls to plough a four-acre field, sowing the teeth of a serpent which will sprout into earth born men, who he must then kill. Aeëtes advises if Jason completes this quest, the fleece will be his. The goddess Hera, desiring Jason's success, employs Eros to shoot an arrow through the heart of Aeëtes' daughter Medea, causing her to fall in love with Jason and use her strong knowledge of witchcraft to help him complete the task.

As I've grown to learn with the Little Black Classics range, excerpts aren't always great. Yes, I loved reading of Medea's conflict in her love for Jason and her loyalty to her father. Yes, I loved the subsequent struggle with the Bulls, and the slaying of the men. But Jason and Medea's love story seems doomed from the beginning (as most Greek love stories often are), and I needed much more than this. Perhaps it's time for me to step out of my comfort zone and try to tackle the entire Argonautica.