Sunday, 27 November 2016

Book #67

Gooseberries by Anton Chekhov

Chekhov perfected the short story, as shown in these three moving miniature dramas of love, dread, and lies.

These three short stories were excellent. All touching on humanity's quest for happiness, the importance we place on love, and the ability we have to deceive each other; they were stirring, and quite impressive.

The Kiss was definitely my favourite. In a darkened room, a soldier is kissed by a woman mistaking him to be her lover. The joy this brings to the soldier is immeasurable, and he begins to invent situations in his head, of love and marriage, despite never having seen the face the kiss belonged to. He is soon plunged into an melancholy, as he realises the scenes he's created in his mind will never come to pass. His feelings are beautiful and heartbreaking all at once, and Chekhov's commentary on the fatalities optimism and hope can bring, is devastating.

The Two Volodyas tells of Sophia, who married for money. Meeting an old friend who, despite a prior life of immorality, has converted to life in a convent, she mourns the friend's loss of life, living in an oppressed and dull dungeon. Soon after the meeting, she begins to realise her own life is much the same, and she reverts to affairs and debauchery, understanding her greed has not brought her happiness.

Gooseberries is absolutely the most dismal of the three. A man tells the story of his brother, whose life's ambition was to live in the country in a grand house surrounded by gooseberry bushes. Once he has achieved this goal, the man visits his brother and becomes aggrieved at the superiority of his happiness. This being told, the narrator pontificates on the meaning of happiness - how can one be happy when so many others around the world are suffering? To be happy, we must shut out the misfortunes of others, and pretend they don't exist. It's thought-provoking; the brother worked hard all his life in order to pursue his dream, now he has it, he should not be allowed to enjoy it because of the world's sufferings. Can he single-handedly stop these sufferings, however? He can't. So should he be allowed to be happy, despite the deprivation of others which he's unable to control? Such questions.

It reminds me of the feeling that occurs when something traumatic happens in our lives. After the loss of a loved one, you see others carrying on with their lives in the same way as they usually do. You wonder how they can be do audacious as to do so; you cannot believe they're completely unaware of the grief you're experiencing. How dare they?

An excellent first experience of Chekhov; his commentary on the human condition is timeless, as is his ability to relate the complexities of life. I found this is to be another success story of the Little Black Classics range, and long may it continue.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Book #66

Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

When Alice steps through the looking-glass, she enters a world of chess pieces and nursery rhyme characters who behave very strangely. Humpty Dumpty, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the dotty White Knight and the sharp-tempered Red Queen - none of them are what they seem. In fact, through the looking-glass, everything is distorted.

I'm sure a huge number of us, as children, have wondered what's on the other side of the mirror. Is it a world where everything is opposite, or is it something else entirely? Does the entire world mirror our own, or does the area just outside of our view hold something completely different? Carroll once again taps into the inner curiosities of our younger friends, and delivers another illogical, yet captivating, tale of Alice's adventures.

The world through the looking glass is infinitely more complex than Wonderland. Alice is given a clear route to follow here, which reads like more of a quest than her wanderings through Wonderland ever could. Although the characters she met in Wonderland could never be described as friendly, most of those through the looking glass have something not quite right about them; whether disdain, an agenda, or something else ticking under the surface, I couldn't quite make my mind up.

Carroll's word play here is twice as fascinating as it was in Alice, and our girl's frustration at being mocked for the words she uses is absolutely delightful. Most of the characters Alice meets here regale her with some form of poetry or song, all peppered with nonsense. My favourite of these is The Walrus and the Carpenter, a macabre sort of poem which sends Alice into a flurry of confusion as to which of the two is the biggest villain, and to whom she should apportion the most blame, as though that's of any importance. The poem itself can be broken down into all sorts of interpretations, mainly religious, however I love it for exactly what it is: an act of evil coaxing in order to satisfy a hunger. Ponder that.

Although I didn't prefer it to Wonderland, I definitely laughed more here. There were some excellent characters, and some excellent moments that will no doubt continue to live on in my memory. I'll leave you with my favourite:

"And when I found the door was shut, I tried to turn the handle, but-"
There was a long pause.
'Is that all?' Alice timidly asked.
'That's all', said Humpty Dumpty. 'Goodbye.'

Friday, 25 November 2016

Book #65

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

On an ordinary summer's afternoon, Alice tumbles down a hole and an extraordinary adventure begins. In a strange world with even stranger characters, she meets a rabbit with a pocket watch, joins a Mad Hatter's Tea Party, and plays croquet with the Queen. Lost in this fantasy land, Alice finds herself growing more and more curious by the minute.

Everyone knows this story, so I won't insult anyone's intelligence by trying to explain it all to you. Undoubtedly, the characters of the Disney film will be imprinted in your memory, making it entirely impossible to imagine the characters of Wonderland looking any different to how they were drawn for that. Unlike many book to film nightmares I've experienced, this phenomenon only created a sense of nostalgia, rather than frustration, when coursing my way through the pages.

Children's literature is a difficult feat. I've written before my thoughts on young readers' minds, and their capacity to hold, enjoy, and interpret so much more than many authors think them capable of. It's a real shame to place in front of them a novel that deals only with trivialised and dumbed down accounts of life. It's even worse to give them a story which only holds loud, patronising, and obvious moral messages in an attempt to make them a good person.

Carroll understood this. In Alice, he gives us a complex and confusing world which children will have to wrap their minds around. He gives us illogical nonsense within its pages, which will fill the readers with complete awe and (no pun intended) wonder. The colourful characters, their ridiculous reasoning, and the pace of Alice's adventures, have no doubt kept kids gripped for years.

Despite its renown for being a children's classic, there are many important sections to analyse here for adults. Admittedly, there's no real need to, as the story is wonderful on its own, but it's great to understand Carroll's hints towards growing up, politics, the law, and the monarchy. He gives us a clean exacted prose littered with word play and language twists, which, although entirely uninteresting to children, will cause the wordy adults amongst us to giggle with joy.

Yeah, he liked a bit of the old opium, as evidenced by the caterpillar smoking hookah on a magic mushroom, but thinking DRUGS whenever Wonderland is mentioned means discounting its merits. Carroll has created a story which transcends time, and has remained in our minds since the 19th century. Drugs, though.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Book #64

The Beautifull Cassandra by Jane Austen

A selection of Austen's dark and hilarious early writings - featuring murder, drunkenness, perjury, theft, poisoning, women breaking out of prison, men forging wills and babies biting off their mothers' fingers.

This is quite possibly my favourite instalment so far in the Little Black Classics range. I could read Austen until the end of the time, and have quite an irrevocable love for her. To be able to read a collection of short stories she wrote as a teenager, which were never meant to be published and were only written for her own amusement, alongside that of her family and friends, was a complete treat for me.

They are not the Austen we are used to; they don't involve important satirical social commentary, nor do they come across as affected by love as some of her later works. They are somewhat hilarious and provoking little clips of fun, that glaringly show Austen's talent was within her from an early age. Her spelling in places is incredibly askew, and Penguin's decision to leave these unedited portray a gorgeous picture of the naive author. I loved it.

It's so easy to imagine a young Austen amusing herself by writing these, and giggling along to herself as she came up with more scandal and shock to surprise her family. She has her characters behave in ways which would be thoroughly condemned in her time, and this mischievousness is completely loveable.

Lastly, as I probably say in every Austen review, she resonates today with her empathy for women's emotion, as clearly shown in the title of the final story:

What a woman.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Book #63

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Dark allegory describes Marlow’s journey up the Congo River and his meeting with, and fascination by, Mr. Kurtz, a mysterious personage who dominates the unruly inhabitants of the region. 

Reading A Hippo Banquet led me into this one perfectly, and gave me the only thing lacking from Kingsley's accounts: human nature and interaction.

The framed narrative worked wonders for me. The narrator beginning the story gazing down the Thames, imagining the hope and promise far-off lands can offer, was exactly the way I felt after Kingsley's colourful and utopian descriptions of Africa. Once he has heard Marlow's story, he feels as though he is staring straight into the heart of darkness. The narrator is beside us in the audience, listening to the story, trying to understand its meaning, and ultimately becoming convinced of the horrors spun by the teller.

Marlow's tale is filled with moralistic warnings; the main one being that even the most upstanding citizen can be consumed by madness, and descend into brutal behaviour often painted as civilised. The barbarism here wasn't from the 'uncivilised savages', but from the apparent white pillars of the community, many of whom (including Marlow) are only in Africa in order to experience something, or advance their careers. His commentary on imperialism parallels this, and although interesting, is difficult to comprehend into a defining conclusive statement on Conrad's true opinion.

The prose perfectly captures a man telling a story; he struggles, he stops, he diverts. Despite this, all the workings of excellent literature are there. He throws symbols at you mercilessly, and the only way to enjoy the book is to interpret these to the best of your ability. Each device weaves together to create the gloom of being walled in, of being alone, and of slowly losing your mind.

An utterly uncomfortable read, it's an important one in understanding the dangers of power, the importance of conscience, and the overwhelming complexity of human nature.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Book #62

A Hippo Banquet by Mary Kingsley

Told with verve and self-mocking wit, the adventures of doughty female Victorian explorer Mary Kingsley describe stumbling upon five hippos by night, dodging elephants and fighting off a leopard with a stool. 

I had never heard of Mary Kingsley before picking up this book, and I'm both ashamed and amazed at this fact. A woman choosing to be an explorer in Victorian times was shocking; exploration and travel were men's hobbies (usually for the very rich) and for Kingsley to simply take off and pursue her dream, not bothering one ounce about what society's opinion of this was, shows complete strength and drive.

No doubt dispelling many social expectations of the time, she travels alone with only an interpreter and natives guiding her through the jungles. Not a single white man 'escorts' her on her mission; she learns as much of the language and dialect as she can, and survives an emancipated woman. And what a woman.

Her musings on her time in Africa are peppered with humour alongside hints at the danger she was in, between both the big game and the natives. Although she reminds us frequently of her feminine disadvantage (with female locals fleeing upon seeing what they believe to be a white woman devil), she also shows us determination; whether that be eating a snake her awestruck companions believe to be treacherous, or fighting off a leopard with a wooden stool matters not. Despite her dangers, a clear love of animals seeped through her words, and this was the most heartening aspect of all.

The writing itself is gorgeous; I loved reading her descriptions of her surroundings and the animals she encountered. My favourites were the birds; their colours, their bodies, their behaviours. She captured all of these beautifully, and I could picture everything so vividly, I thought I could smell the gunpowder.

For me, this volume is what the Little Black Classics range is all about; opening readers up to writing they otherwise wouldn't be exposed to, and prompting them to look at these types of historical figures in more depth. This was absolutely captivating, and an excellent legacy for an excellent woman.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Book #61

Business Stripped Bare by Richard Branson

In Business Stripped Bare, Sir Richard Branson shares the inside track on his life in business and reveals the incredible truth about his most risky, brilliant and audacious deals. Discover why Virgin tried to take on one of the world's biggest superbrands, how Virgin Mobile USA holds the record as the fastest company in history to generate revenues of over one billion dollars (faster than Microsoft, Google and Amazon) and how Richard is the only person in the world to have built eight billion-dollar companies from scratch in eight different sectors.

There were a few raised eyebrows when I announced this was what I was reading next. Despite being a non-fiction hater, I have a business degree, and I manage a team. I bought this book back in the university days, read a few pages, then left it to languish on my bookshelf, always favouring the excitement of the fiction world over business facts and advice. I should have stayed there.

Branson is one of the main men in business today. Virgin is one of the most diverse brands on the planet - he has his fingers in rail and air travel, banking, telephony, health and fitness, and even has his own branded vodka. This autobiography had lots (and lots) to say about how he managed it all, but instead of taking us under his wing and giving true business advice, he simply told us what he'd done, how brilliantly it had worked, and implored us to follow his lead.

Don't get me wrong, there is an entire chapter detailing mistakes made in the past, and how he learned from them. This is an excellent message, but the mistakes seemed to conveniently be the fault of something, or someone, else (such as, when a Virgin train derailed and killed a passenger, it was the fault of the rails, not the train), or mistakes that could easily be written off to experience and didn't exactly land Branson in a tonne of shit.

I was looking, in the main, for ways in which to empower employees to own their roles and take joy from them. Branson is a man of the people, and I was convinced his chapter on being exactly that would give me some, if not all, of the answers. Turns out all he suggests are completely common sense strategies that any manager worth their salt will already have employed. He gives no examples of times he's empowered and motivated his own staff, and instead boasts that they just manage to find the right people to work for Virgin. As though absolutely no lazy bellends have slipped through the net somewhere; they are all amazing entrepreneurs.

Let me be perfectly honest - I skipped most of this. Self-aggrandising, name-dropping, dull, heavy on the factual statistics, light on the business advice, and no doubt heavily ghostwritten, it was another nail in my non-fiction coffin.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Book #60

The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe

Stories about murder, mystery and madness, portraying the author's feverish imagination at its creative height.

As someone with a good few copies of Poe on her bookshelf, I'm embarrassed to say this is my first foray into the master of macabre. This is a collection of three of Poe's short stories, and each of them was as creepy as the next; I loved every single word.

A Tell-Tale Heart is one of Poe's most famous short stories. Its terror comes not from the act of the narrator (the killing of an old man), but from the narration itself. Speaking as though to a policeman, or doctor, he tries to prove his sanity by detailing the calm and collected way in which he planned the murder, and the detached manner in which he carried out the act. His justification for this alone reeks of madness; the old man had an evil eye - very much like a vulture's - which caused our narrator great unease. The way this was written was utterly delectable; frightening, unsettling, and most of all, seeped in tension.

The Fall of the House of Usher immediately introduced us to a dark and gloomy house in the middle of nowhere, in true gothic style. He visits an old friend who has come down with an affliction, and soon comes to discover the family and the house, are far more disturbing than he had imagined them to be. I loved this for all of the gothic elements employed; the house, the darkness, the strange sounds, and the ultimate ending. A true terror.

Finally, and quite unfashionably (as is my way), I found The Cask of Amontillado to be my favourite. No madness, no gothic supernatural, just pure human evil. Simply a tale of revenge, Poe kept the climax quite veiled until the final moments. Deliciously horrid.

This is an excellent collection, showcasing Poe's varied styles and approaches to terror. A great starting place for Poe, but also a terrific quick read if you want to get back into the macabre. Wonderful.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Book #59

The Virgin of the Wind Rose by Glen Craney

While investigating the murder of an American missionary in Ethiopia, rookie State Department lawyer Jaqueline Quartermane becomes obsessed with a magical word square found inside an underground church guarding the tomb of the biblical Adam.
Drawn into a web of esoteric intrigue, she and a roguish antiquities thief named Elymas must race an elusive and taunting mastermind to find the one relic needed to resurrect Solomon's Temple. A trail of cabalistic clues leads them to the catacombs of Rome, the crypt below Chartres Cathedral, a Masonic shaft in Nova Scotia, a Portuguese shipwreck off Sumatra, and the caverns under the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
Intertwined with this modern mystery-thriller, a parallel duel is waged:
The year is 1452. One of the most secretive societies in history, Portugal's Order of Christ, is led by a reclusive visionary, Prince Henry the Navigator. He and his medieval version of NASA merged with the CIA scheme to foil their archenemies, the Inquisitor Torquemada and Queen Isabella of Castile, who plan to bring back Christ for the Last Judgment by ridding the world of Jews, heretics, and unbelievers.
Separated by half a millennium, two conspiracies to usher in the Tribulations promised by the Book of Revelation dovetail in this fast-paced thriller to expose the world's most explosive secret: The true identity of Christopher Columbus and the explorer's connection to those now trying to spark the End of Days. 

If you found the above blurb lengthy and confusing, you're going to have a hell of ride with this one. Filled with religious and historical detail, almost painfully so, this novel takes us on a mission of intrigue towards the End of Days.

Almost two books in one, we see Jacqueline Quartermane, a devout Christian and American lawyer, try to make sense of the death of her fiancé in Ethiopa, after finding out his reasons for being there weren't quite as honest as Christian as he had maintained. Parallel to this, we're transported to the Portuguese 1400s, see the Inquisition begin to rise, and follow the paths of three squires enrolled into a secret society. Both paths begin to intertwine and make sense of each other, despite the separation of time.

The writing was impeccable, and kept my attention mercilessly. Craney weaves his mysteries expertly, with plenty of twists and surprises along the way. There was always a perfectly positioned clue to move the plot along, and Craney never patronised his readers by explaining their meaning too clearly.

My main issue was with the immense level of detail involved in the story. Craney is clearly incredibly intelligent, and has vastly researched his stuff. For me, it became difficult to keep track of names, symbols, relics, and even where the characters were in the world at any particular time. The changing landscape of the plot happened so quickly, that although it moved the plot on wonderfully, I was plunged into confusion often. I believed this to be down to my slim knowledge of religion, the Columbus era, and the Knights Templar, but now I realise it was just a tonne of information being cannonballed my way, and I wasn't able to catch it all.

This is a long haul of a book, and you have to ensure you're alert, and ready to interpret the next clue. Despite its length, it's a fast-paced torrential whirlwind of information. Some suspension of belief is required, however Craney's clear historical and religious facts make up for it.

One for fans of historical and religious mystery, but mainly one for fans of cryptography - hopefully you'll have more success with your own grey matter than I did with mine.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Book #58

Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian

London is poised on the brink of World War II. Timid, scrawny Willie Beech -- the abused child of a single mother -- is evacuated to the English countryside. At first, he is terrified of everything, of the country sounds and sights, even of Mr. Tom, the gruff, kindly old man who has taken him in. But gradually Willie forgets the hate and despair of his past. He learns to love a world he never knew existed, a world of friendship and affection in which harsh words and daily beatings have no place. Then a telegram comes. Willie must return to his mother in London. When weeks pass by with no word from Willie, Mr. Tom sets out for London to look for the young boy he has come to love as a son. 

I have read this book over a hundred times over the space of twenty years, and it's nothing less than wonderful with each read. Initially, I was introduced to it through the standard primary school studies of WW2. Adopting a fascination for evacuees, ration books, and air raid shelters, and as the girl who read so much she had to be placed into a reading group all on her own, I was directed towards this novel by a teacher.

Flash forward twenty years, and I'm a bitter old cynic chasing the warm feeling I experienced before my heart frosted over. Sad films, romantic displays of affection, sick puppies on the telly; nothing was making me feel anything. Enter William Beech, the frail, frightened and abused evacuee; show me Mister Tom, the grumpy old man with a full heart; give me Sammy, the most perfect dog I have ever seen written; describe to me the horrors of wartime England, and the way people came together to get through it, and I'm done. I'm brimming over with warmth, fuzz, and a slight relief that my heart can still be reached somewhat.

The story is steeped in the innocence of being young, discovering the world, understanding the importance of friendships, and most of all, the importance of having someone you can trust, even if you are the unlikeliest pair Little Weirwold has ever seen.

Magorian's descriptions of William's new home are completely gorgeous. The rolling countryside, the horse and cart, the sun shining through tree branches, were all written simply yet delicately, creating in us a strong sense that this is where William belongs. Summertime dissolves into a chill, with rain bouncing off the gravestones, and William and Tom running for cover in their cottage. Magorian's description of Tom's fireplace, and the two of them curled up on an armchair reading together, did a lot to warm my otherwise chilled soul.

For these two to come together, grow together, and encourage each other (however unobserved) to change into stronger and more loving people, just brings a total lump to my throat.

Despite the comfort and simplicity of William's new life, Magorian doesn't keep us safe. She reminds us of war happening just outside of Little Weirwold's utopia, and jars us unexpectedly into the terrors of its grasp by sending our lovely little evacuee back to the ravaged dirty streets of London. I was rapt. Although the novel deals with an abundance of serious issues, Magorian writes these subtly, in a way which won't perturb young readers, but also being careful enough to highlight the more adult issues for those of us guilty of being a bit older.

The most gentle and heartwarming childrens' novel, I will come back to it time and time again. It's more than worthy of any reader, of any age, and I would encourage those of you who haven't tried it to absolutely pick it up. Those of you who have, please read it again.