Monday, 26 March 2018

Book #14

Lucky by Alice Sebold

In a memoir hailed for its searing candor and wit, Alice Sebold reveals how her life was utterly transformed when, as an eighteen-year-old college freshman, she was brutally raped and beaten in a park near campus. What propels this chronicle of her recovery is Sebold's indomitable spirit - as she struggles for understanding ("After telling the hard facts to anyone, from lover to friend, I have changed in their eyes"); as her dazed family and friends sometimes bungle their efforts to provide comfort and support; and as, ultimately, she triumphs, managing through grit and coincidence to help secure her attacker's arrest and conviction. In a narrative by turns disturbing, thrilling, and inspiring, Alice Sebold illuminates the experience of trauma victims even as she imparts wisdom profoundly hard-won: "You save yourself or you remain unsaved."

The very title of this memoir speaks volumes. Sebold pointedly shows us people telling her she was lucky it wasn’t worse, lucky the police believed her, lucky she wasn’t wearing anything too revealing. Lucky is one of my most hated words, yet it’s flipped on its head here, and luck hasn’t a thing to do with it.

It’s an utterly bleak and honest account of Sebold’s rape and the aftermath; her attempts to rebuild, and to heal, tempered in difficult words as the shadow of the crime is never far from her back. 

The words are raw and simplistic; not overly emotional, and yet stabbing all the same. Sebold depicts everything from the assault itself, to the reactions and coping mechanisms of her friends and family. Set so starkly, it’s harrowing and gut-wrenching to see the varying ways the people around her try to come to terms with what’s happened to her, and, ironically, make things worse merely by trying to help.

No words I could put down here could describe how naked this account this, nor could I convey how important a read this is, not only for women, for survivors, or otherwise, but all of us. My words on this count for nothing, so I’ll close with some of Sebold’s:

“Since then, I've always thought that under rape in the dictionary it should tell the truth. It is not just forcible intercourse; rape means to inhabit and destroy everything.”

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Book #13

The Life of a Stupid Man by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Autobiographical stories from one of Japan's masters of modernist story-telling. 

This is an interesting addition to the Little Black Classics range, as two of the works in the book are memoirs, alongside one short story. As is usually the case with me and fiction, I much preferred the short story to its autobiographical siblings.

In a Bamboo Grove describes the events of a murder through the eyes of many people; the woodcutter who discovered the body, the policeman involved in the investigation, the accused, the wife of the murderer, and most interesting, the deceased himself speaking through a medium. Each of their accounts were written gorgeously, and I particularly enjoyed their descriptions of the beautiful surroundings. Most importantly, we aren’t able to reach a conclusion on how the events unfolded due to everyone’s tales being so markedly different. It was thought provoking, lyrical, and maddening. I loved it.

We then go on to the stores of the author’s life themselves. Death Register spoke of his sorrow and grief as he described the deaths of family members. It wasn’t as heart-rending as it should be, but I think this speaks of his numb persona, which we go on to explore in The Life of a Stupid Man.

Comprised of small vignettes of his life, the titular story flashes through the author’s life quickly, but confusingly, showing us a scene or conversation he remembers, before moving on to the next one quite rapidly. We see his descent into depression, hear his thoughts on existentialism, yet nothing really settles into the heart here. I enjoyed the format, with each of the memories having a title, but I can’t admit to enjoying the memories themselves. I was completely baffled as to how to begin to interpret them, and had to write them off as some kind of subtle poetry.

I’m very grateful to have experienced In a Bamboo Grove, and it’s something I’d like to read over again, however the other two creations will now be lost within the dark area of my brain titled ‘Little Inconsequential Things I Once Read.

Friday, 16 March 2018

Book #12

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

Demetrius and Lysander both want Hermia but she only has eyes for Lysander. Bad news is, Hermia's father wants Demetrius for a son-in-law. On the outside is Helena, whose unreturned love burns hot for Demetrius. Hermia and Lysander plan to flee from the city under cover of darkness but are pursued by an enraged Demetrius (who is himself pursued by an enraptured Helena). In the forest, unbeknownst to the mortals, Oberon and Titania (King and Queen of the faeries) are having a spat over a servant boy. The plot twists up when Oberon's head mischief-maker, Puck, runs loose with a flower which causes people to fall in love with the first thing they see upon waking. 

Nothing short of wonderful.

Shakespeare tangles with love in amazing ways throughout this play. Demetrius loves Hermia, Hermia loves Lysander, Lynsander loves Hermia back. Seems like your standard love-triangle until a fairy zooms along and spreads some flower dew on to Lysander’s eyes to make him fall in love with the first person he sees. Let the chaos ensue.

It’s nothing like the epic love story of Romeo and Juliet; Shakey makes a mockery of love here, highlighting its frailty and inconsonance. Not only are there problems in love with our foursome, but also between the fairy king and queen. The journey we go through to unravel these relationships into something acceptable is totally delectable.

I enjoyed his differentiation of the three different parties here; the royals and lords speaking directly and behaving fairly reasonably, the group of actors bumbling around trying to put together a show with little to no experience, and the fairies speaking harmoniously and lyrically of natural wonders. Their words really cast them apart, and it was clear to see the troupe of actors were the true comic value here, particularly poor Bottom and his ass’s head.

Always interesting in Shakespearean creations is the role of women. The play opens with Hermia’s father betrothing her to Demetrius much in the way of trading property. Should Hermia disagree to the ‘trade’, she can choose either death or a nunnery. I was also shocked by Helena’s desperation when pursuing Demetrius, asking him to treat her as he would a dog and she would continue to follow him. GIRL, you are better than that.

I very much doubt anyone can review Shakespeare with any amount of skill. I really loved this, though; the dreamlike quality, the comedy, and the skill with which the whole thing was structured. The only thing that could have made it better for me would be Hermia and Helena going “fuck this shit” and skipping off hand in hand into the woods. 

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Book #11

‘Tis: a Memoir by Frank McCourt

The sequel to Frank McCourt's memoir of his Irish Catholic boyhood, Angela's Ashes, picks up the story in October 1949, upon his arrival in America. Though he was born in New York, the family had returned to Ireland due to poor prospects in the United States. Now back on American soil, this awkward 19-year-old, with his "pimply face, sore eyes, and bad teeth," has little in common with the healthy, self-assured college students he sees on the subway and dreams of joining in the classroom.

I picked this up immediately after Angela’s Ashes as I wasn’t yet ready to end my relationship with Frank. He had crossed the Atlantic, fled a life of poverty, and I wanted to see him thrive, wanted to see the underdog win.

The contrast to life in Ireland is clear, but the heartbreak is that he doesn’t win. He leaves the hardships of Limerick only to meet new struggles in New York. He falls into drinking habits which mirror his father’s, he struggles to find a job, to fit into American social customs, he longs to become educated yet feels inadequate to the other students when he finally achieves a place. He’s self-deprecating, a fish out of water, and lost.

All of these factors contributed to a sharp decline in my loving feelings for Frank. He becomes bitter about his childhood, resents his family for either their past struggles or present success, creates tension between himself and others, all due to his desire to be better, to be a class above. Although all of these feelings are natural and understandable, there’s nothing redeeming about Frank in his words, and in his blame.

Although older here, Frank’s narrative is still styled in a similar way of the na├»ve boy living in Limerick. This makes him sound mostly idiotic rather than endearing, and was an irritation throughout the pages. The man sees horrendous things, experiences life-changing things, yet he still describes them as though he’s a young boy. There was something not quite right about this, and I almost felt as though he was trying to capitalise on the success of Angela’s Ashes, rather than giving a true, mature account.

It’s a truthful and bleak sequel, though I was desperately disengaged by the narrative, non-specific vignettes, and a general distaste for Frank’s choices. Where Angela’s Ashes was a tribute to a mother who did everything she could so her children could survive, with love always, ’Tis is just an account of how each of them vilified her for it.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Book #10

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

The Pulitzer Prize winning memoir of Frank McCourt, born in Depression-era Brooklyn to recent Irish immigrants and raised in the slums of Limerick, Ireland. Frank's mother, Angela, has no money to feed the children since Frank's father, Malachy, rarely works, and when he does he drinks his wages. Yet Malachy-- exasperating, irresponsible and beguiling-- does nurture in Frank an appetite for the one thing he can provide: a story. Frank lives for his father's tales of Cuchulain, who saved Ireland, and of the Angel on the Seventh Step, who brings his mother babies. 

This must be the collection of memoirs I hold the most love for. As a blessed girl of ten years, I remember first reading this novel of poverty, hunger, dirt, and mortality, beside a pool somewhere in the sun. I had finished whichever book I had been bought in the airport’s WH Smith, and had decided to move on to my mum’s novel of choice. I was captivated, and it stuck with me.

Of course, being ten, a lot of the themes and issues would have washed over me entirely. Twenty years later, they have broken me. Born to Irish parents in New York, Frank was ripped away from the city of dreams after his father’s alcoholism plunged the family into poverty. Upon their return to Ireland, the McCourts stumble through life, living hand to mouth, with Frank’s father continuing to drink either his wages or the dole money. They suffer hunger and shame, they lose each other, bury each other, and become more and more despondent after every setback.

Written from the point of view of his younger self, McCourt shows us his family’s struggles from innocent eyes. We see him try to understand some of the things happening to them, and see him react childishly and recklessly. An alcoholic father and a despairing mother do not make for the best upbringing, so Frank learns his own lessons about life and morals mainly through making mistakes, then going to the priest to confess. 

Hearing this story from the mouth of a young boy makes the themes all the more painful, yet impossibly endearing. Where McCourt will fill one page with grim hopelessness, the next will give us witticisms only found in Ireland, young men having the time of their lives in clothes “hanging off their arses”, and a community banding together in kindness.

McCourt’s writing is so tangible and engaging that it’s difficult to believe it’s not fiction, but it’s very important to remember the truth of all this. The most heartbreaking thing is realising this all happened to one boy, in one family, but also to many many others.

A dark story of deprivation and delight in equal measures, McCourt has depicted his Depression-era childhood beautifully, and I only wish my words here could do him the tiniest justice. It’s a wonder. ‘Tis.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Book #09

Anna Undreaming by Thomas Welsh

Anna is a student surviving the city, and she lives by a simple credo, “Never play their game; their game is always rigged.” For every man she has ever known, it’s a saying that has served her well.

Especially when Anna becomes lost to the dark heart of the city. She finds herself hunted by Dreamers--artists, both good and evil, who construct new worlds--within a complex community that threatens to undermine reality itself. When Anna learns that she's an Undreamer with powers she cannot yet comprehend, she must travel through their strange and treacherous creations to discover that there's as much beauty in life as there is darkness. As her existence spirals into wonder and danger, Anna must look deep within herself and face the horrors of her own past, to save her old world as well as her new one.

I was absolutely delighted to receive an advance copy of this to read and review. After noticing promotion for the book on social media, I had already made the decision to buy it, so being allowed the opportunity to devour this before anyone else was nothing short of delectable. And devour I did.

You couldn’t call this sci-fi, and it doesn’t even fit fully into dystopian. This is like nothing else I have ever read. Welsh takes everything you know and twists it into a world where reality doesn’t follow the rules we’re used to. The people who are truly in charge aren’t government or business types – they’re artists, and they can easily craft and dismantle what we see and experience. Anything fatal which happens in their dreamworlds (or, to use the correct term, their Hazes) is quickly written off in reality as something we can wrap our heads around; because wrapping our heads around what happens in a Haze is no mean feat.

To combat these Dreamers, Welsh gives us Anna, a strong female protagonist (always a winner in my book) with some serious flaws. She’s headstrong, she’s badass, but she also has issues she’s working through, and demons in her past. Hey, don’t we all? Doesn’t mean we can’t beat the shit out of very real, yet dreamed up monsters. Anna is brilliant, yet the journey we experience with her is even greater. She struggles to come to terms with her abilities, and what’s now expected of her. What she’s capable of is destructive, cruel, and gorgeous.

The world Welsh has created is mind-blowing. There’s a lot to learn, and it’s no easy ride, but by the time I was less than halfway through, I was fully engaged. I was only glad I already knew there was a sequel in the making, as I was loathe to reach the final page. We’re left considering Anna’s emotional journey, and the importance it’s had on the development of her abilities. I am ready for more.

Anna Undreaming will be released on 20 March, but the good news for you kids is that you can read the first three chapters
here. My gift to you.

An altogether wonderful experience; I would urge fans of sci-fi and dystopian novels to try this. Just remember it doesn’t actually fit into either of those categories, and probably deserves a new genre to be invented in its honour.

Never play their game, their game is always rigged.