Saturday, 23 September 2017

Book #44

Hings by Chris McQueer

Peter’s earned his night off, and there’s not a bloody chance he’s covering Shelley’s shift. He just needs to find some pals for the perfect cover story. Deek is going to be at the forefront of the outsider art movement and do Banksy proud. Davie loves tattoos and his latest is going to be a masterpiece. Tam is one of the most creative minds in the galaxy (apparently), but creating parallel universes can cause problems. Everybody on Earth wakes up with their knees on backwards.
He caught folks’ imagination on Medium with his stories, had rooms howling with laughter on the spoken word circuit, and now it’s time to put Chris McQueer on the page. Are you ready?

What a fucking ride this was.

This collection of McQueer’s short stories is completely and utterly brilliant. Glaswegian working class norms, social custom, and patter rips right through the pages, and I was presented with characters the likes of whom I could bump into no bother on a stroll up Larky main gaff.

In some of the stories, McQueer explores the mindset of the working-class, their needs and desires, their family. All of this felt familiar and relevant, and I was almost comfortable with seeing Sammy get a samurai sword for his Christmas, because that’s just where am fae. In others, we are dropped right into the macabre, surreal, and downright random. We’re given aliens, budgies with arms, knees bending the wrong way, and hell mend yi if it’s a korma yir after.

Written using a great deal of colloquialism (which I know some of you plums can’t handle), but with some excellent prose weaved into it, McQueer really nailed this for me. His stories have been compared to Welsh, but this was totally different; a stark and realistic jaunt over to the West coast using this type of narrative is something I didn’t know I was looking for. 

I’ve read so many books now that it’s rare any make me laugh or cry these days. I read this over the course of a few days, with a red coupon from laughing too much each time.

A massive congratulations for a total stormer of a debut novel; now I’m looking for a full biography on Big Angie.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Book #43

The Figure in the Carpet by Henry James

The story of an unsolved literary mystery that explores what James referred to as "troubled artistic consciousness" 

I enjoyed this, but I’m not too sure why; it was no Turn of the Screw.

Our protagonist is a keen book reviewer for a popular periodical. After reviewing the work of a pretty famous author, he is lucky enough to meet him at a social gathering. The author hints to our protagonist that no critic has ever successfully hit upon the one thing he has peppered throughout his novels. This maddens the protagonist, and we join him on a journey to uncover the meaning behind all of the novels.

There’s a lot to be said here about author intention. To this day, authors still subtly refer to their meaning, and their intent, in words. Does it really matter? If one enjoys a novel, what are the consequences of deriving a meaning no where near that of the author? Is author intention relevant in every book, or are they just trying to encourage us to read (or reread) their work? Do we subconsciously look for meaning in works of literature? Does finding meaning give us pride? Accomplishment? Who the hell knows.

Although not as compelling as his other works, it’s (ironically) fun to try and deduce what James is getting at with this one. I was only glad I remembered whose pages I was reading from before the finale came like a kick in the gut.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Book #42

As I Lay Dying by Willian Faulkner

Faulkner's harrowing account of the Bundren family's odyssey across the Mississippi countryside to bury Addie, their wife and mother. Told in turns by each of the family members—including Addie herself—the novel ranges in mood from dark comedy to the deepest pathos.

I’ve never read Faulkner before now, and I’m really kicking myself about it, because As I Lay Dying is a complete masterpiece.

Faulkner employs multiple voice narrative to help us get under the skin of each of the Bundrens, and various other characters. An open mind is essential, however, as this is no stream of consciousness walk in the park; nor is it in any way linear, with the characters moving from past to present, to what ifs, to maybes. One character would explain what was going on, only for the next to go back and explain it again on their own terms, and from their own perspective. Their narratives confused the life out of me until I settled into their utterly weird voices, and only then was I truly able to enjoy what they were telling me. 

There are various instances in the plot where everyone knew exactly what was going on, expect me, the humble reader. Initially, I felt idiotic, as though I’d missed something, but after this happened a few times, I realised Faulkner likes to throw us into the delirium before offering his explanations for it. This lends a real sense of pandemonium and bewilderment to the reader, and ties in nicely to the character narratives.

The Bundrens could be the very people who inspired the phrase “dysfunctional family”. Each of them isolated from each other both physically and emotionally, the only thing connecting them is the rotting corpse in the back of the wagon. They respond differently to their mother’s death, some with physical or emotional distractions, some with physical or emotion reactions. The variance in each of them is gorgeous, as is seeing them attempt to achieve their purpose with no form of honest communication or understanding of one another.

In summary, this novel could be explained away as a comedy. Reading it, however, is anything but; Faulkner’s atmospheric melancholy and sense of hopelessness bleeds through the pages, and inadvertently shows us the turmoils of poverty in the Deep South. It was wonderful.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Book #41

Fat Jimmy and the Blind Ballerina by Eddie Owens

This is the story of one young man’s desire for comedy fame: a tale of ambition and humiliation on the way to the top.
Fat Jimmy is a cynical, young comedian and writer, who desperately wants to make it to the big time. He wants it all and he wants it now.
Fat Jimmy loves women; he loves booze and he loves comedy. He is sweary and controversial, but always funny and always memorable.

A huge thank you to Eddie Owens for asking me to review this; it was right up my street.

Fat Jimmy is a stand-up comedian looking to break into showbusiness. He’s a crude arsehole of a man, with no shame, no filter, and no self-deprecation. If I met Fat Jimmy somewhere, he would be a victim of my famous death stare, but Owens allowed me to like him.

Jimmy’s journey through the labyrinth of showbiz is fuelled solely by his grit and determination. He stays true to his morals, never sucking up anyone’s arse, and making sure to bring people down a peg or two when they’re due it. He’s relentless, mortifying, hellbent on success, and so flawed. And a flawed character, as we know, is a great character.

My favourite parts of the novel were the small snapshots of Jimmy’s childhood, and the stories of his family. How his mum and dad met, the differing characters of his brothers and sisters, the fights they go into were all so real. I loved it.

There were a lot of sub-plots here, and I must admit I enjoyed these more than the main story. Many of these weren’t resolved entirely to my satisfaction, and I would’ve liked more than I got. But maybe that’s just real life.

I really enjoyed the metaphor of the blind ballerina - someone who makes it despite the obstacles life has thrown at her - but I would have liked this to be a bit more rounded. The ballerina was only referred to fleetingly, a few times, and I felt this could have been crafted into something bigger. For such a clever and impressive analogy to have so little exposure disappointed me.

A great wee story on fighting for your dreams, and being the person you really are. Even if the person you really are is a big-mouthed sycophant. 

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Book #40

Arms From the Sea by Rich Shapero

Lyle is a young man who hates his life in the State of Salt, a cultural and literal desert. He vandalizes a State icon, then swallows a poison pill that transports him not to death, but to a liminal realm—blue, watery, and wholly alien.
He’s rescued and shepherded by henchmen of the Polyp, god of the oceanic world they call “heaven.” A series of encounters unfolds between Lyle and the monstrous, seductive god, who gradually reveals his grandeur and mysterious purpose.
Lyle is horrified at first but soon finds himself falling for the Polyp, and the potent and bizarre creative potential he represents.

I have no idea what I’ve just read; it was like smoking a load of bad grass.

This is a standard dystopian future story where the protagonist is a paragon rebel caught up in a fight to overthrow the malicious government. Although this is usually an excellent formula for excitement and adventure, Shapero manages to miss the bullseye entirely by jumbling his prose and baffling his readers.

The plot is infernally foggy, with a tiring quantity of confusing imagery thrown in. It’s difficult to keep track of what’s going on - and what’s going on isn’t at all compelling, or even significant. The narrative slops along for a few pages at a time until something somewhat evocative happens, only for nothing to ever become fully realised. 

Lyle the protagonist is dull, with no real substance between his ears, making him incredibly difficult to connect with. His motivations and backstory are told, rather than shown, rendering any potential emotional connection null and void. 

There are various scenes where Lyle, after being whisked off to the water kingdom, has encounters with the Polyp, or water god. Many of these felt really creepy and sexual, as the god felt him up constantly with his tentacles, and whispered questionable things to Lyle. Think Robin Thicke with fins.

An utterly baffling story whose plot I am at a loss to describe; I’m only glad it’s over.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Book #39

The Reckoning by Edith Wharton

Two moving stories of love, loss, desire and divorce, from one of the great chroniclers of nineteenth-century New York life. 

I much preferred the first story, Mrs. Manstey’s View to the second, the collections namesake. Mrs Manstey is a lonely widow, who takes her only pleasure from the view of New York from her window. Wharton describes this view in it’s truly beautiful, albeit small, form, and familiarises us with Mrs Manstey’s pure love of it. When the view is threatened to be taken away from her, we see our poor widow take drastic action in her desperation and loss. It’s a very clever commentary on how the smallest thing in someone’s life can really be the most important.

The Reckoning itself is a quite amusing tale of how one’s own rules and ethics can become enemies with your needs and desires. The moral quandary the protagonist finds herself in is as delicious as it is heartbreaking, and truly underlines the contrariness of the human psyche.

Both stories well ahead of their time, they’re an excellent introduction in Wharton’s work. Another glorious addition to the Little Black Classics range. 

Book #38

Bedroom Secrets of the Masterchefs by Irvine Welsh

At Edinburgh's Department of Environmental Health, hard-drinking, womanising officer Danny Skinner wants to uncover secrets: 'the bedroom secrets of the master chefs', secrets he believes might just help him understand his self-destructive impulses. But the arrival of the virginal, model-railway enthusiast Brian Kibby at the department provokes an uncharacteristic response in Skinner, and threatens to throw his mission off course. Consumed by loathing for his nemesis, Skinner enacts a curse, and when Kibby contracts a horrific and debilitating mystery virus, Skinner understands that their destinies are supernaturally bound, and he is faced with a terrible dilemma.

The male psyche is a complex thing. In the never-ending battle to become the alpha, men beat their chests in an attempt to not only establish dominance over their brothers, but to commit the most humiliating act possible - embarrass them in front of the burds. In this way, rivalries are created and nurtured, and Welsh shows us in Bedroom Secrets how poisonous this rivalry can truly be.

Danny Skinner is a pretty standard Welsh character, with flashes of Bruce Robertson and Sick Boy peeping through the cracks. Through booze benders, and his love of being a part-time football casual, we begin to understand his motivations. 

When mummy’s boy Brian Kibby arrives for his first day in Skinner’s work, something malicious takes root in Skinner’s mind - a hatred for which he can’t locate the source. Kibby is a hillwalker, a train-set collector, and a total geek. He struggles talking to women, his shyness holds him back in the office. There is nothing about Kibby for Skinner to feel threatened by, yet this unfathomable hatred takes root, and Skinner unknowingly casts a curse upon him which will link them inexplicably in the future.

Welsh uses these two men to show us the horrors of this type of hatred, the similarities between them which we hadn’t quite clicked on to initially, and explores the differences in family situations. One man has grown up a product of a single parent family, and the other in a much-coveted standard mum, dad, and kids outfit. But, do either of these upbringings have any sort of effect on their moral compass? Or are you just your da’s bairn?

None of the characters here have anything redeeming about them, and that is one of Welsh’s skills. Everyone here has their skin peeled back for us to see the maggots underneath, and I love it. 

I also particularly enjoyed Skinner’s jaunt to America, where I saw him become a better person. Is there something about living here amongst the grey, dreich, depressing buildings, the closed off, miserable people, and the complete lack of vitamin D, that drives us all to drink? Doesn’t take a genius.

Although I’ll admit there are far better Welsh novels, this is still a wee underrated gem. You’ve got your flawed characters, you’ve got a good bit of violence, and you’ve got the booze. Fucking party. 

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Book #37

The Power by Naomi Alderman

The world is a recognisable place: there's a rich Nigerian kid who larks around the family pool; a foster girl whose religious parents hide their true nature; a local American politician; a tough London girl from a tricky family. But something vital has changed, causing their lives to converge with devastating effect. Teenage girls now have immense physical power - they can cause agonising pain and even death. And, with this small twist of nature, the world changes utterly.

Alderman flips gender norms on their heads in this stunning depiction of a sudden onslaught of female power. Young women begin to develop a strange, electrical power, which they can bend and control at their will. They can hurt, they can influence, they can awaken the power in their elders, and they can do pretty much what they damn well want. The patriarchy crumbles; we see men become the victims; I begin to salivate.

The story progresses through the viewpoints of different characters. And they’re very different. An American mayor with high hopes of her own progression, a daughter of a British gangster, an orphan escaping her disgusting foster parents, and a man hellbent on documenting everything in his notebooks and digital camera. None of them fit with each other, none of them felt like reliable narrators, yet each of them had to come to terms with what was happening in the world.

It feels liberating for a while. Society has been flipped, and we are the dominant sex. The thrill is in you, you long for this electricity to course it’s way through your veins. Then Alderman takes us down a dark, political path, and it’s clear to see what is bound to happen in a world where this type of power is available.

Alderman is so clever with this. She describes the atrocities committed against men until you feel sick to the stomach. How can we live in a world like this? Until the realisation dawns that we are living in a world like this; it’s just not the men who are taking the pain.

Just imagine a world where one sex is oppressed, sexually violated, and lives in fear of their lives daily. Unable to walk alone in the dark, a world where listening to music with both earphones in place is unimaginable, where if you’re a member of the weaker sex, you are fair game. Imagine that. Unthinkable, right?

If you don’t get it yet, see below for a member of Goodreads being schooled:

This was truly wonderful and so intelligent; I haven’t read a book like this in a very long time. I think it’s important, exciting, and absolutely gorgeous. Read it immediately.

One of them says, 'Why did they do it?'
And the other answers, 'Because they could.'
That is the only answer there ever is.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Book #36

The Great Fire of London by Samuel Pepys

A selection from Pepys’s startlingly vivid and candid diary. Originally written in code, Pepys’s diary includes his unforgettable eyewitness account of the 1666 Fire.

The Great Bore of London - Samuel Pepys.

I have always been fascinated by the Great Fire, but this is the first time I’ve read Pepys account of it. A first-hand witness, it’s a shame his diary wasn’t a victim of the flames. His report was so dire, so full of tedious details, that my need for a startling version was quashed. I didn’t need to know who he had dinner with, nor did I delight in his soulless descriptions.

Writing of the times, definitely, but it didn’t stop my apathy. The only exciting moment was when Pepys was transporting his treasured personal effects to safety and decided to bury some parmesan cheese out his pal’s back garden - a dullard, yes, but also a man after my own heart. 

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Book #35

Emma by Jane Austen

Beautiful, clever, rich - and single - Emma Woodhouse is perfectly content with her life and sees no need for either love or marriage. Nothing, however, delights her more than interfering in the romantic lives of others. But when she ignores the warnings of her good friend Mr. Knightley and attempts to arrange a suitable match for her protegee Harriet Smith, her carefully laid plans soon unravel and have consequences that she never expected.

Emma is, by far, not only my favourite Austen heroine, but my favourite Austen novel.

In many ways, she’s awful. Determined to matchmake after she believes her governess marrying is all down to her, she considers herself an expert in love. Her blind determination in matching her friend up with men leads to an entertaining set of blunders, embarrassment, and a steep learning curve. Emma knows nothing of love and its nuances, and this becomes abundantly clear as each little gaffes come to light. She’s an Austenian pain in the arse, but I love her dearly.

She is, in many ways, a strong woman. She admits when she’s wrong; she owns her mistakes graciously and truly does learn from them, apologising for them, and feeling the mortification that would be expected. She has a strong love for those close to her, and will defend and aid them ferociously (even when such defending and aiding is perhaps not the best thing for them). Emma is far from perfect; that’s why she’s my favourite.

Austen’s wit is superior here. She shows us all of my favourite Austen themes - the flaws of aristocracy, the frightening gender roles performed, the insanely polite yet subtly malicious dinner table conversations - with an excellent degree of underlying commentary; something not quite said, but implied between the lines of every paragraph.

All of the characters here were gorgeous. The blabbering Miss Bates (don’t we all have an auntie like that), the insufferable Mrs Elton, the exasperating yes-man that is Harriet Smith. I knew and loved them all for their flaws, and Austen allows these people to become real, despite the passage of time, and, you know, the fact they are fictional.

A tale of seemingly first-world Regency problems, Austen’s real message seems to be to own your inexperience, and remember being too confident in your own abilities isn’t always a good thing, whether for you, or others around you.

Emma, I love you. All of the others are passive, dreary, and let’s be frank, far too polite. I hope you continue your meddling (although maybe more sensibly), and never let your big heart shrink.

“A heroine whom no one but myself will much like.”

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Book #34

The Foretelling by Alice Hoffman

A coming-of-age story that pierces the soul and heals the spirit, this is the tale of the future leader of the Amazon women warriors. Rain must hold fast to her inner warrior, but she is startled and mystified by the first stirrings of mercy towards the enemy.

This was loaned to me by a friend, and I really didn’t think I was going to like it. The blurb on her particular edition puts heavy emphasis on horses; quite frankly I think you’re either a horse girl, or you’re not a horse girl - wonderful readers, I am not a horse girl. In actual fact, this story is about strong women (who happen to ride horses), and strong women are really something I can get behind. Note to self: do not doubt friend’s taste in books again.

Rain is a girl warrior, daughter to the queen and born after a vicious attack on her mother. For this reason, the queen cannot look at her for fear of seeing nothing but sorrow. Rain feels an outsider in her community of women, yet cannot see her own strength, and continues to struggle on for her mother’s acceptance; she’s reminded she is the product of fifty men, and so has more power than the others, but this does not solve her feelings of otherness. 

Throughout the pages we see Rain learn and grow, become stronger, more defiant, and more sure of her place. She makes mistakes and learns from them, and most importantly of all learns the futility of trying to be something you’re not.

Despite Rain’s excellent journey and growth, I’d have liked some more depth or growth to the other characters, and for a little bit more to happen. Melek, Deborah, and even the queen herself had so much more to give, and could have bolstered the story wonderfully. I’d also have enjoyed some social commentary on how the women live. I did, however, appreciate the introduction of a homosexual relationship, and felt this was artfully done.

The prose is effective in its simplicity, and gives us trust in Rain’s voice. Despite the short, modest sentences, there is some real beauty here in Hoffman’s descriptions, particularly those depicting the scenery and animals. 

Seeing, and being part of, this powerful tribe was nothing short of captivating. Hoffman unleashes a true feeling of power and intensity in this short novel. As a story targeted towards the young adult audience, it holds an important message of resilience, and of accepting who you are.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Book #33

Nasty Women

With intolerance and inequality increasingly normalised by the day, it's more important than ever for women to share their experiences. We must hold the truth to account in the midst of sensationalism and international political turmoil. Nasty Women is a collection of essays, interviews and accounts on what it is to be a woman in the 21st century. 

People, politics, pressure, punk - From working class experience to racial divides in Trump’s America, being a child of immigrants, to sexual assault, Brexit, pregnancy, contraception, identity, family, finding a voice online, role models and more, Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!, Zeba Talkhani, Chitra Ramaswamy are just a few of the incredible women who share their experience here. 
Keep telling your stories, and tell them loud.

This is such an important book.

I’m a self-confessed hater of non-fiction. I prefer to be carried away by fiction, to escape the confines of my life and to fly anywhere else for a birds eye view of someone else’s life. I didn’t hate this book for being non-fiction; the deep personal levels of detail given to me were akin to viewing someone else’s life, but this couldn’t ever be escapism because the stories were all so real. 

The strength and honesty from these women’s essays rips right through the pages. This is feminism without the vacuous celebrities, without the neon lights, without apologetic backing down; this is stark female reality served up in a bitter bowl of facts. And it fired me up.

As a white, straight, able-bodied woman (albeit with an invisible disability), I knew I experienced misogyny, but in subtle ways. I also knew that I had sisters all over the world who experienced this discrimination, and worse, on levels more negatively impacting than I did. Before I read Nasty Women this was a mere awareness of the fact, and nothing more. This book has given me a deeper insight into the lives of my queer sisters, my sisters of colour, my disabled sisters, and has given me a far more ferocious attachment to feminism than ever before. I mean, yeah, I get on okay, but there are girls out there who don’t, so there’s absolutely no excuse to stop fighting.

There’s importance in sharing our stories, in banding together, in honesty. These essays address so many important areas; areas I believe many of us identifying as feminists have never even considered before - and that, girls, is pretty disgusting. It blew me away - we all must do better.

I could write for hours on how I felt reading this book, but instead I’d prefer if you all just went on to buy it. Whoever or whatever you are, this is an important one to wake us all up to learning. I’m awake, I’m angry, I’m hungry to learn more, and I am fucking nasty.

‘Feminist’ gets misrepresented as a dirty word, echoing throughout the timeline of experiences of activists in the women’s movement since the 70s and longer; we’ve been seen as the radical feminists who want women to leave their husbands, become lesbians, dye their hair green. If wanting a woman to be able to own her own sexuality, to be able to live life with freedom and dignity and find and make her own choices are these things, then yes, we are nasty women - the nastiest around. - Nadine Aisha Jassat

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Book #32

The Nose by Nikolai Gogol

Russia's great nineteenth-century satirical absurdist shows what happens when a man wakes up with his nose missing, and illustrates the folly of boasting.

I really enjoyed this satire.

Gogol weaves an utterly absurd tale about a man who wakes up one morning without his nose. Worse than that, the nose appears in his barber’s morning roll. And to go even further, he soon encounters his nose wandering around wearing a uniform of rank - a rank higher than his own.

It’s a social commentary on vanity, the importances we place on appearance, on rank and class, and human nature’s paranoia when looked upon by other person. Gogol’s story follows no logic, makes no sense, yet his thoughts on the matter are made completely clear. I particularly loved how the nose fell out of a bread roll one moment, sized as one would expect a nose to be sized, and the next moment it was strolling round St Petersburg the height of a man, and wearing men’s clothing - with no explanation provided.

Reported as having quite the monstrous nose himself, I am basking in the idea that this story came from his desire to get rid of it.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Book #31

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Master storyteller Madeleine Thien takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations—those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution and their children, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square. At the center of this epic story are two young women, Marie and Ai-Ming. Through their relationship Marie strives to piece together the tale of her fractured family in present-day Vancouver, seeking answers in the fragile layers of their collective story. Her quest will unveil how Kai, her enigmatic father, a talented pianist, and Ai-Ming’s father, the shy and brilliant composer, Sparrow, along with the violin prodigy Zhuli were forced to reimagine their artistic and private selves during China’s political campaigns and how their fates reverberate through the years with lasting consequences.

Before reading this novel, my knowledge of Mao’s Cultural Revolution amounted to zero. I was so looking forward to beginning an exploration into this period in history, and somewhat bolstering my intelligence in learning of the political upheaval for the Chinese people. How someone can take such a multi-layered segment of history and turn it into a dull four-hundred pages of blether, astounds me, yet by god Thien has managed it.

There should be real impact here, morals, heart. Thien’s writing style limits all of this, and feels hugely like a lecture in music for the majority of the time. As someone with no grasp, nor desire to grasp, the nuances of music, I found it difficult to struggle through the endless descriptions of the most minute details in the anatomy of sound. Peppered with the most florid styles, the narrative felt as though it should be attacked with a pair of pruning shears. I was tickled by a metaphor and stroked by some sort of imagery every few sentences. It was too much.

Salvation could truly have come from the characters. Thien showed us different generations of the same family, each of them beginning beautifully, and with the most gorgeous names - Swirl, Sparrow, Old Cat, Wen the Dreamer, Big Mother Knife - all of them seeming so exciting in the early pages, only to bring nothing, to become as bland as the paragraphs on Bach.

I know in my heart that the revolution created such heartbreak, loss, and sadness in China, yet I felt none of these things. The complete lack of connection I felt to the characters was instrumental in building nothing but apathy inside me, and a guilt for not feeling the pain I should have. Even this review has been written with a passivity that brings guilt to me.

With a grey and woolly storyline, prose that stuck my eyes together, and a completely unsatisfactory dip into Chinese history that just droned on and on, this work by Thien is an utter disappointment.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Book #30

The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler

Seventeen-year-old Franz Huchel journeys to Vienna to apprentice at a tobacco shop. There he meets Sigmund Freud, a regular customer, and over time the two very different men form a singular friendship. When Franz falls desperately in love with the music-hall dancer Anezka, he seeks advice from the renowned psychoanalyst, who admits that the female sex is as big a mystery to him as it is to Franz.
As political and social conditions in Austria dramatically worsen with the Nazis’ arrival in Vienna, Franz, Freud, and Anezka are swept into the maelstrom of events. Each has a big decision to make: to stay or to flee?

Franz Huchel is a seventeen year old mummy’s boy who moves from his quiet and lazy life in the Salzkammergut to Vienna, where he begins work as a tobacconist’s apprentice (arranged by mother, of course). The tobacconist himself, Otto Trsynek, is an utter defiant; having had one of his legs blown off in the First World War, he makes no secret of his political opinions, and as a result is branded a Jew-lover by his peers, and is persecuted terribly.

One of the tobacconist’s more notable Jewish customers is the Professor Sigmund Freud himself, who enjoys the Nene Freie Presse and twenty Virginias. Franz becomes fascinated with this intelligent yet vilified figure, and they develop a strange and gorgeous relationship through cigars and conversation. The words passed between them illustrate the changes in Vienna, and the slow loss of safety for its people. They are also testament to Franz’s transition from (quite frankly a quite irritating) mummy’s boy into a strong, wilful young man.

Beautifully, Franz falls in love with a Bohemian girl, and laments for pages and pages over this lost love. The contrast of this against the political backdrop was quite jarring, and seeing Franz realise this towards the end of the novel was a gorgeous thing to see.

Seethaler’s writing has an almost lyrical, melancholy feel to it. He describes the smallest details of Vienna, the most minute things captured by Franz’s senses, so that character, time, and place all come together to create a setting of pure wonder. All of this came through perfectly in the translation, and the result was captivating.

A very quiet and gentle commentary on the Nazi occupation, it shows the life of one boy, and how the Nazis affected it - however minutely in the grand scheme of the Holocaust. The finale is a grand punch of satisfaction peppered with a realisation of the futility of it all. A wonderfully poetic depiction of life during the Anschluss - I loved it.  

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Book #29

A Simple Heart by Gustave Flaubert

With pathos and humour, Flaubert imagines the unexamined life of a servant girl. 

Un coeur simple.

Like our wonderful protagonist, this is a simple story that holds so much more than you initially realise. The prose is quite stark, yet has something gorgeous about it; it’s reserved in much the same way as (our ironically named) Félicité, who keeps all of her heartbreak and woe to herself, living life very much in solitary as the servant of a household. She doesn’t let her sadness take away from her duties, and used religion and small tokens to remind her of everything that was important to her.

Flaubert explores Félicité’s bleak existence, one which would have garnered absolutely no interest otherwise, and one which could quite easily be considered dull. Yet Félicité’s life on display by him is so interesting, her history painful yet glorious, and Flaubert plants an important idea in our heads - everyone is important, and no matter how small a story, they all have meaning.

This was absolutely wonderful, and I feel Flaubert’s skill transcends translation. Madame Bovary was a work of art for me, but this is a smaller, more profound piece. I feel utterly humbled to have read this woman’s story. A simple heart is a momentous heart.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Book #28

IT by Stephen King

The story follows the exploits of seven children as they are terrorized by an eponymous being, which exploits the fears and phobias of its victims in order to disguise itself while hunting its prey. "It" primarily appears in the form of a clown in order to attract its preferred prey of young children. The novel is told through narratives alternating between two time periods, and is largely told in the third-person omniscient mode. It deals with themes which would eventually become King staples: the power of memory, childhood trauma, and the ugliness lurking behind a façade of traditional small-town values.
I’ve decided books don’t really scare me. Put the scenes on film, with some creepy atmosphere-building music on, and I will jump out of my skin. It didn’t scare me. Really, it wasn’t scary.

Having quickly come to terms with this fact a mere less than fifty pages in, the book began to read as more of a character study, as a commentary on childhood, on trust, and on the power of friendship. I fell in love with these kids, and the depth to the characters is exquisite in allowing this.

King works magic, travelling from the 50s to the 80s, and back again. We see the kids conquer It as eleven year olds, and then see them return 27 years later to carry it out all over again. The juxtaposition of them both young and old, was glorious, and seeing how they had changed (or in most cases, how they hadn’t) was wonderful.

Using children as the protagonists here was important. We forget how different they are to us; how they can cope with so much more than we can, simply due to their power of imagination; how time works differently for them; how responsibilities and worries, although smaller, take on a different feel. In It, King shows us how the power of children and their imaginations were enough to conquer the demon lurking in Derry, the one the adults couldn’t see, smell, or even imagine.

As an exploration into the wonders of childhood, and with the addition of some really good commentary on racism and homophobia at that time, it’s great. The sheer length of it, however, is way too much. There were a colossal number of unnecessary elements or subplots here, some grossly long paragraphs about things that had no relevance. Although I enjoyed the depth of the characters, and the explanations of how It had attacked in the past, I felt it could have been cut down immensely, and found myself dragging myself into it just so I could get to the end.  

In the end, I imagine we’re all the same; what we’re afraid of most is having no one there to face terror with.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Book #27

The Meek One by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

In this short story, Dostoyevsky masterfully depicts desperation, greed, manipulation and suicide. 
Dostoevsky perfectly uses stream of consciousness narrative to get inside the head of a husband and pawnbroker as his wife lies dead before him. Driven to suicide by his own selfish way of loving her, the grief consuming the pawnbroker is mingled with regret, self-deprecation, and futile justifications. The jarring contrasts of all of these build a clear picture of both his mental state, and the events and behaviours that led to the meek one taking her own life.

This style of writing also allows for the pawnbroker to be considered an unreliable narrator. Grief aside, we are only able to view his wife through his own eyes, and it's entirely possible there were various other reasons at play here. 

A fantastic short exploration of the human psyche when confronted with loss, and one you absolutely have to be prepared for some confusion, and some reading between the lines. A perfect depiction flaw and shame.