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.'

Friday, 24 February 2017

Book #13

The Steel Flea by Nikolay Leskov

An uproarious and alcohol-soaked shaggy-dog story from one of Russia's great comic masters.

A clever, amusing little tale of patriotism, one-up a ship, and the everyday man, The Steel Flea is impressive in quite how much of a story is given to us in fifty pages. 

Each page felt entirely bonkers, with the reader having to interpret what's going on, and decipher the words being used. Once used to this, however, it becomes thoroughly entertaining and comic. Leskov's humour is subtle, yet endearing, and I'm sure I would have been even more tickled had I even the smallest ounce of knowledge on the political climate at the time.

Although a good place to start investigating Leskov's political commentary, I wouldn't say it's a great place to start in Russian literature; I've definitely read better. What's wonderful about it, though, is the commentary on the relations between Russia and England at the time, and the incredible showcasing of the underdog and his fate. 

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Book #12

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit who enjoys a comfortable, unambitious life, rarely travelling further than the pantry of his hobbit-hole in Bag End. But his contentment is disturbed when the wizard, Gandalf, and a company of thirteen dwarves arrive on his doorstep one day to whisk him away on an unexpected journey ‘there and back again’. They have a plot to raid the treasure hoard of Smaug the Magnificent, a large and very dangerous dragon.

I've never read Tolkien, and I've never seen the films. The hype bypassed me, both in words and on screen, and I found it was about time I got my teeth into this saga. Sadly, it did very little for me.

Although it's quite easy to tell the story was written for children, Tolkien spends an arduous amount of time describing the surroundings, the objects, the faces, and the beards. I found my eyes glazing over as once again we were regaled with sweeping views of mountainsides and rivers. It was beautiful, but I was longing for something to happen. The pace is slow, no doubt to reinforce the length of the journey, but the spaces between significant events, or even dialogue, was mostly too long to bear, with Tolkien mentioning many times of hardship and adventure he "didn't have time" to tell us. Not to mention the people of Middle-Earth really love a good song, so there were plenty of those. Great.

Characters introduced and involved here were of a huge number, yet none of them had much depth, nor intrigue, about them. Some were killed off and I barely flinched as I was too busy trying to remember who the fuck it was.

The dwarves and Bilbo wander through roads and forests with no real plan, or clue of what they're doing, constantly relying on Gandalf to save the day each time, until he decides he's going to piss off. Now, I can't blame him for this; if I was walking about with these clueless lunatics who were consistently complaining about being tired and hungry before wandering into more bother, I'd piss off too. However, considering Gandalf had organised this entire shitemare, surely he would think to stick about. Unless, of course, we needed him as a plot device to save the day when all hope is lost.

My favourite part of the novel was Smaug's demise. Not only did our brave troupe of dwarves forget to devise a plan for killing him, they only realised they hadn't done so when they were practically in his knickers. To allow the main enemy of the novel to be defeated by someone other than the 'heroes' shows how pathetic these fools really were. Perhaps Tolkien also thought so, although I doubt it.

I really could go on a lot longer about this novel's flaws, but I need to get it out of my life. It's important to say I didn't hate it, however I couldn't engage with it, and found it entirely dull. I am also more than aware this is an unpopular opinion, however it's one I will not relinquish.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Book #11

The Old Nurse's Story by Elizabeth Gaskell

A phantom child roams the Northumberland moors, while a host of fairytale characters gone to seed gather in the dark, dark woods in these two surprising tales of the uncanny from the great Victorian novelist.

Victorian gothic is everything. It almost always sits within an old house haunted by something who had wrongs done unto them in the past; almost always involves a child, a dark and gloomy night, a family secret. It's almost always exactly the same, but I will embrace Victorian gothic like an old friend each and every time.

I'd never heard of Gaskell before reading this (thank you once more, Little Black Classics range), but I'm very glad I have. Her style is simple, yet captivating, in the sense that she spins us into a normal, dull world, only to release the most terrifying of phantoms upon us. Dead little girls banging on the windows at night - that kind of terrifying.

The Old Nurse's Story was my favourite of the two, told in direct first-person narrative to a group of children. The nurse speaks of her passion for her first little charge when she was a young woman and the girl a small child, her unrest at both being shipped off to live with distant relatives, and her fright when the ultimate supernatural goings on finally occur. She feels real, her words are trustworthy, and I think I loved her a little bit. The story is cast out slowly, and she takes her time to build the suspense, the character, and the world around her. It's truly frightening, and although I have no idea why she was telling this story to children, I'm grateful to have read it.

I wasn't quite so engaged with Curious, If True. The narrator this time was a wealthy male, not nearly as likeable as the nurse. He gets lost one evening and stumbles into a house party of people who seem to have been expecting him. Each of them stinks of fairytale nuances, and it all seemed a bit awkward, if not pointless. It was as though the entire Disney back catalogue of characters had met up for a reunion in a French mansion. All that was missing was the final sentence of, "and it was all just a dream" to underline its futility. This one couldn't even hold me, and I had to keep forcing myself to go back to it.

The nurse alone has driven me to find some more of Gaskell's work and frighten myself once more. I'll hear little girls banging on my window while I sleep for some nights yet.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Book #10

A Quiet Belief in Angels by R.J. Ellory

Joseph Vaughan's life has been dogged by tragedy. Growing up in the 1950s, he was at the centre of series of killings of young girls in his small rural community. The girls were taken, assaulted and left horribly mutilated. Barely a teenager himself, Joseph becomes determined to try to protect his community and classmates from the predations of the killer. Despite banding together with his friends as ' The Guardians', he was powerless to prevent more murders - and no one was ever caught. Only after a full ten years did the nightmare end when the one of his neighbours is found hanging from a rope, with articles from the dead girls around him. Thankfully, the killings finally ceased. But the past won't stay buried - for it seems that the real murderer still lives and is killing again. And the secret of his identity lies in Joseph's own history.

You'd be forgiven if, after reading the back of this novel, you thought of it as a standard crime thriller; little girls get killed and the mystery is eked out over a number of pages until we get to the end - we've all read those. This isn't a standard crime thriller, and it's all thanks to the style. Ellory creates a little life of this novel, moving the plot along slowly, and holding us only with his descriptive prose and intricacies. His words were beautiful.

The plot focuses solely on the protagonist, and at no point are we treated to the thoughts or feelings of any other character. This grated on me initially, but the story eventually casts light on why this might be, and the revelation was somewhat glorious. Presented in what can only be described in a rough and raw fashion, it was a story of a man who was followed by Death throughout the entirety of his years.

Despite enjoying the lyrical prose and languishing pace, there were a few notable aspects here which didn't quite meet the bar for me. There are a huge number of plot holes; inexplicable actions made, mainly by Joseph, which just didn't gel with his personality, or what he was out to achieve. Ellory repeated many of his similes, and had various characters use the same turns of phrases which had originally seemed unique to the identity of the character who had used them in the first instance. Some of the situations Joseph found himself in were trite, and I have absolutely no idea how someone could suffer such bad luck as this guy did. Lastly, the finale was abrupt, rushed, and didn't answer any of the questions we had to committed to slog towards.

Although the above paragraph is slightly longer than I had intended, I don't want to portray any hate for this novel. The blurb on the back lets it down immeasurably; read this for the gorgeous style and prose, not for a quick murder mystery fix, and you're onto a winner. 

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Book #09

The Maldive Shark by Herman Melville

Stories and poems by Herman Melville drawn from his years at sea.

This is the second Melville work I've read in a few months, having previously never ventured into any of his at-sea ramblings. I felt exactly the same about this one as I did about his long famous rambling Moby Dick: underwhelmed and exasperated.

Not only did this edition reintroduce me to Melville's whimsical pointless sea life drivel, it also included words in the form of my academic arch-nemesis, poetry. He drones on and on in sentences the length of which Joyce would have been proud. I think I'd rather have read a fucking autobiography.

Bombasticness aside, his love of underwater creatures does not resonate well with an ichthyophobic like myself. Typing The Maldive Shark into a search engine almost sent my wine glass flying across the room, closely followed by my own vomit. 

Why use one word when you can use twenty, Herman? Set me on fire and call me Ishmael.

Book #08

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell takes us on an intellectual journey through the world of "outliers" - the best and the brightest, the most famous and the most successful. He asks the question: what makes high-achievers different?
His answer is that we pay too much attention to what successful people are like, and too little attention to where they are from: that is, their culture, their family, their generation, and the idiosyncratic experiences of their upbringing. Along the way he explains the secrets of software billionaires, what it takes to be a great soccer player, why Asians are good at math, and what made the Beatles the greatest rock band. 

We've all heard of 'self-made men' rising like phoenixes from the ashes to make their mark on the world. They earn respect, they earn money, they earn immortality. We're led to believe this is due them being born with some innate talent, some irrepressible font of knowledge within them, some quality that they've grown and nurtured just to share with us and showcase their genius.

Gladwell's argument is that this is not so, that there's simply no such thing as a self-maker. Gladwell believes that success is borne purely from opportunity, and how tightly we grasp it. He explores the worlds of hockey players, software tycoons, rockstars, and Chinese rice farmers. He shows us their origins, their culture, and their opportunity, then compares each of them to the other. I realise this sounds absolutely off the charts - how can one compare a Chinese rice farmer to a rockstar? - but it works incredibly well.

To go into detail would be to give everything away, but what I will say is that the way Gladwell positions his information is engaging and educating. As a notorious hater of non-fiction books, I enjoyed his thoughts, and particularly enjoyed repeating these to others in a vain attempt to make myself sound intelligent.

I think Gladwell only had to do one more thing to nail this book for me, and he didn't do it. I wanted him to give me a female outlier; a successful and interesting woman for whom I could examine her social and cultural beginnings, understand her rise, and compare her to other moneyed girls. But alas, no woman outliers. Gladwell gave us either wives and mothers - women who had positive impacts on the success of men, but who had no real acclaim of their own to boast of, or he gave us Renee, who sat in front of a maths problem for twenty minutes and didn't manage to solve it. Hardly inspiring, Gladwell.

It's difficult, when reading this book, not to surrender into examining one's own life for missed opportunities. This is a dangerous game, as remembering missed opportunities often is. The fact remains, however, that it's our culture, our families, our environments, and even our birthdays, that create only the possibility of success. After that we need to hold on and work at it for at least ten thousand hours. Get going.