Saturday, 30 December 2017

Book #63

Antigone by Sophocles

The remarkable story of Greek tragedy's most intrepid heroine.

Little Black Classics describes Antigone above as an intrepid heroine, but I prefer the term total fucking badass.

Her uncle, the king, declares her rebel brother’s body as undeserving of a proper burial. Antigone disagrees, and despite the order issued that anyone who attempts to bury the body be put to death, she goes ahead and does it anyway in the name of tradition, honour, and familial love. She stands up for what she believes in, never erring from her path, and was comfortable paying the ultimate price for this. Yas, queen.

This section of the Theban plays, however, focuses more on the vile King Creon, than Antigone herself. His decision to punish her for disregarding the law he has passed, seems just, and would be the consequence of any other to defy him. To put her to death, particularly as his niece, however, is unduly harsh. Unable to recognise any flaw in himself, and refusing to listen to reason, Creon represents in this tale the dangers of believing oneself to be correct and refusing to weigh up every option before taking (seriously dangerous) action. His downfall is tragic, heartbreaking, and entirely pitiful. But is it just?

The morality line here is very thin - what is more correct, being loyal to the laws of the gods and burying your dead correctly, allowing them to travel safely to the underworld, or being loyal to the laws of your city, sending a message to those who dare defy you in an attempt to instil order? Neither can be said to be entirely wrong, but Sophocles allows us to consider where thought has to be applied to both arguments in order to come to a sound conclusion. Neither Antigone or Creon, both being passionate about their cause, were prepared to stop and think about their actions, instead running headlong into what they thought was right, and orchestrating a tragedy of untold severity.

Such an intense and beautiful part of the Theban plays.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Book #62

Murder on the Eiffel Tower by Claude Izner

The brand-new Eiffel Tower is the glory of the 1889 Universal Exposition. But one sunny afternoon, a woman collapses and dies on this great Paris landmark. Can a bee-sting really be the cause of death? Or is there a more sinister explanation?

Nineteenth century crime set in Paris is something completely up my street. Couple that with the murder taking place at France’s most infamous landmark, and I was living for this concept. I am sorry to say this whole novel was très atroce.

My first disappointment was the sheer subtly of the murders themselves. People stung in the neck, presumably by an insect, and expiring instantly, doesn’t have the same sort of brutal drama I cling to in a crime novel. For the Parisians to be bumbling around terrified of a swarm of ‘foreign killing bees’, was laughable, and a little bit pathetic.

Secondly, Izner did nothing to create tension, nor to evoke in the reader an appetite to discover who the killer really was. After pages of Legris either coming to ridiculous conclusions and making an arse of himself, alternating his shagging of two women, or having eureka moments and bursting out of the door of his bookshop like a total madman, it got old really really quickly.

So many red herrings and clues were introduced that it was impossible to keep hold of them all together. Whenever Legris came upon another conclusion, I had no idea how he had ended up there. 

And wow, what a number of characters were introduced in a less than three hundred page novel. I could barely keep track of them, had no idea who Legris was speaking to, or pointing the finger at next; the whole thing was a confusion of dapper and sophisticated Frenchmen, any of whom could have been THE BEE. Mon Dieu!

With that being said, the ending was wound up nicely, with everything explained well and contained; it was just a shame the rest of the novel didn’t give me anything so solid and suspenseful to keep me going.

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Book #61

The Woman Who Went to Bed For a Year by Sue Townsend

The day her twins leave home, Eva climbs into bed and stays there. For seventeen years she's wanted to yell at the world, 'Stop! I want to get off'. Finally, this is her chance. Her husband Brian, an astronomer having an unsatisfactory affair, is upset. Who will cook his dinner? Eva, he complains, is attention seeking. But word of Eva's defiance spreads. Legions of fans, believing she is protesting, gather in the street. While Alexander the white van man brings tea, toast and sympathy. And from this odd but comforting place Eva begins to see both herself and the world very, very differently.

So Eva waves her twins off to university, and after doing so finds a soup spoon on the chair it took two years for her to embroider. The remainder of the soup is thrown over the chair, and Eva goes to bed for an entire year. That’s basically it; there are no underlying mental health issues to speak of, no particular traumatic events in her past which have led her to this. She just feels like it.

The concept is interesting, and a lot could have been done here. Townsend starts off strongly, but we soon come to realise that although around one thousand madcap things are happening all at once, nothing is really happening at all to move the plot along. 

And don’t we all feel like staying in bed for as long as possible. Let’s face it, though, there are unavoidable tasks to be completed out of bed, such as feeding ourselves and going to the toilet. Eva’s reliance on others to help her with such tasks, and her willingness to starve rather than get out of bed to find food, was maddening. She was selfish and thankless in expecting others to succumb to her every whim, such as boarding up the window, or removing every stick of furniture from the room. Had these behaviours been attributed to some sort of illness, all would have made sense, however this was just the way Eva was. I hated her.

The finale is poor, as though Townsend also gave up and went to bed without properly rounding off some of the plot points she had only just opened up. I would have liked to have seen Eva reach some sort of conclusion about the way she had treated some of her friends at family throughout her holiday in bed, or even better, I’d have liked to have seen her comeuppance. 

As a lover of Adrian Mole, I wasn’t disappointed with the humour here. Townsend’s sarcasm is glorious, witty, and wonderful. Some of the one-liners from the characters had me grinning, and these made the story itself much lighter than I had expected. These flashes of comedy made the book worthwhile for me, and although the plot progression left much to be desired, I couldn’t actually put it down.

A definite lightweight novel for those looking for something not terribly taxing. Don’t expect a journey, a conclusion, or anything as funny as Mole, but you will laugh. 

Friday, 15 December 2017

Book #60

Sindbad the Sailor

A selection of fantastic and perilous adventures at sea from the Thousand and One Nights. 

I enjoyed this little glimpse into the Thousand and One Nights

Sindbad the Sailor recounts his travels and adventures to Sindbad the Porter, and although I found them somewhat far-fetched, brutal, and wondered how such a level of misfortune could befall one man, they felt almost like gorgeous little fables.

I’m interested in the origin of these tales; there is very little to go on in terms of where they’ve come from, and even less on who wrote them. That they’ve travelled over to the West slowly, is more than apparent, and that in this edition Allah has been amended to God is a curious fact to consider.

Although short and jarring in their seemingly random selection, Little Black Classics have achieved what I was looking for in this series: to open my eyes to new texts and spur me into buying the originals, which I’m sure for this addition in particular will display far more colour and vividness than three short stories can evoke here.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Book #59

Hings: the B-Sides by Chris McQueer

Just when you thought it was safe to move past Hings and read something else (how dare you), we present... the B-Sides.
Chris McQueer’s humour has achieved rave review through his debut collection and online, being described as “doing something similar for Glasgow” as Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting did for Edinburgh, so it’s a fine time to give you some more. Eight more stories, in fact.
Chris’ writing is weird and really bloody wonderful, and the B-Sides is that little refresher of short stories to keep you going.

After finishing Hings a few months ago, I tweeted McQueer begging to know if he was going to grace us with another masterpiece. Although he assured me he would, he also stuck in the wee jolting fact that it won’t be with us until next year. I can’t have been the only one with this appetite, and thank god, because now the B-Sides have arrived with us.

Comprised of eight short stories which didn’t make the final cut for Hings, it’s a perfect wee collection to keep us all going, and to whet our whistles for what’s to come in the future. Where the original Hings family was a dysfunctional one, the B-Sides are the members of the clan who were just that wee bit too weird, were shunned by everyone else, and eventually moved to Rothesay.

I got through all of these in a forty minute train journey, and I don’t really want to think that anyone was watching me reading. My standard commuting bitchface took on a look of familial pride as I got tore into Sammy’s Maw’s New Motor, I let out an endearing dry boke cough during Bursting, was wide-eyed in astonishment at the appearance of my paramour John MacKay in News, and best of all started laughing mentally at Love is Love, my favourite of the eight. They all must’ve thought the weird wee lassie in the corner seat had been on the halves at lunchtime.

The absolute worst part for me was knowing there were only thirty two pages, and by the time the train stopped at Larky, it’d all be over once again. The B-Sides have done nothing to change my opinion of McQueer’s writing at all; hilarious and rank with stunning social commentary. And although I’ve never had a step-da, I’d encourage you to take a read of this if you feel like getting rid of yours.

Absolute belter once again; I am bursting for more.

“Don’t you dare try and compare me and Adam to you and yer fuckin Tamagotchi burd, son.”

Book #58

Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti

A selection of Rossetti's most famous poems, from the hallucinatory 'Goblin Market' to 'In the bleak mid-winter'.
Goblin Market is a wonderfully interesting poem which can be interpreted widely and openly into various themes and meanings. Through the various sexual undertones rippling through the verses, I read of the dangers of temptation, addiction, and of women giving themselves to men. Depicting men as goblins, Rossetti paints a clear picture of untrustworthiness and cunning. She allows us to understand that the goblins are merely looking to use the girls, and are employing a smoke and mirror effect with their delicious fruit for sale. The suggestions and implications were interesting to understand and consider, with Rossetti’s feminist commentary shining through subtly, yet brilliantly.

The rhythm in Goblin Market is difficult to get to grips with, and I felt if I had managed this better (and sooner), I’d have had a better appreciation of the poem itself. On reading the other poems including in this edition, I was able to appreciate Rossetti’s varying metre and couplets, however I am yet to experience the wonder of poetry revealing its secrets to me in general.

Wondering whether to give up on poetry entirely, or whether to wait for something to fall into my lap which will change my views entirely.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Book #57

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

"Sometimes I whisper it over to myself: Murderess. Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt along the floor." Grace Marks. Female fiend? Femme fatale? Or weak and unwilling victim?”

Around the true story of one of the most enigmatic and notorious women of the 1840s, Margaret Atwood has created an extraordinarily potent tale of sexuality, cruelty and mystery
Atwood impresses me once again. Having read The Handmaid’s Tale last year, and now Alias Grace, I’m only amazed it’s taken me so long to discover Atwood’s work.

In this tale of not quite fiction, not quite non-fiction, Atwood explores the life and imprisonment of Grace Marks, convicted of a double murder in 1843, at the tender age of sixteen. Arrested alongside fellow servant James McDermott after the murder of their employer Thomas Kinnear, and the housekeeper Nancy Montgomery, it was widely believed at the time that Grace and McDermott were lovers. Although McDermott was hanged for the crime, Grace’s sentence was reduced to life imprisonment; and questions still remain. 

The real story has always had a great number of holes in it, and Atwood does her best to fictionalise Grace’s life, and attempt to fill in some of the blanks. It’s unclear whether the entirety of Grace’s confession was true, or whether this was an account which was felt by her lawyer to be more likely to lead to a softer outcome. Her version was also a notable contrast to James McDermott’s final words, blaming Grace for encouraging him to help her carry out the murder.

To give more depth to Grace’s tale, Atwood introduces Simon Jordan – a doctor interested in studying criminal minds, with the hope of understanding catalysts. He visits Grace to hear her story, and so her whole bloody history is revealed. Atwood allows her a personality, a family, and a journey, none of which were granted her by the journalists or authors of the 1840s. Her story is written with a lack of dialogue punctuation, and this unsettles the reader into wondering whether Grace is speaking a particular thought aloud, or merely thinking it. This uncertainty is important here, as Grace is already an unreliable narrator, so our confidence in truth dissipates when we encounter her flighty methods of recounting her life story.  
This construction is delectable – we’re given excerpts from newspapers, words from books written about the case, and even quotes taken verbatim from Grace’s confession, as well as Atwood’s fictional imaginings of Grace’s life, feelings, and motivations. The juxtaposition of fact and fiction is utterly gorgeous, and completely blurs the lines of what’s real, linking in with Grace’s confusion and inability to properly remember exactly how the events unfolded.

I was interested to explore the feminine issues raised here, also. Social custom in the nineteenth century has always been something I love to sink my teeth into; Atwood’s commentary on status, poverty, expectations and humiliation was a beautiful thing to digest. Even more interesting, was the treatment of criminal women in those days, particularly in comparison to male criminals.

At the end of the novel, we’re still unsure about the answers to the outstanding questions – what really was Grace’s involvement in the double murder? Was she in love with James McDermott? Did she sexually entice him into committing the crime? Or was she really as insane as she behaved? So much time has passed that we’ll never know the answers to these questions, so Atwood’s indefinite conclusion feels sensible, respectful, but also leaves a curiosity fire burning with her readers.

An extraordinary and fascinating fictionalised account of the life of a murderess – Atwood has created a masterpiece here, and one which will stay with me for a long time.