Friday, 30 August 2019

Book #67

Trivia: or, the Art of Walking the Streets of London by John Gay

O! may thy Virtue guard thee through the Roads
Of Drury's mazy Courts, and dark Abodes,
The Harlots guileful Paths, who nightly stand,
Where Katherine-street descends into the Strand.

This was a very long poem.
Years of experience 
With very long poems 
Have taught me 
That very long poems are, 
In fact, 
My arch nemesis.

Thursday, 29 August 2019

Book #66

Mirror Mirror by Anthony M. Strong

Jaime thought he'd hit the jackpot when he found the antique mirror out by the curb, just waiting for a new home. Hours later the old mirror with the ornate gold frame was taking up pride of place in his apartment. 
But there's something wrong.
The mirror harbors a dark secret, and before long Jaime and his girlfriend Cassie find themselves up against a terrifying supernatural force that has its sights set on them.

Mirrors are terrifying. Are they entry points into another world? Is our reflection trying to keep us out of that world? Why are they infinitely more frightening in the dark? Or are they merely just reflective pieces of glass, condemned to be something to fear simply by our imagination? I was a bit nervous to begin reading this one, as stories about things in mirrors are deeply unsettling to me for unknown reasons. There’s just something so very disturbing about them. 

There’s nothing very unsettling about Strong’s novella, however. The premise is excellent, and frightened me before I’d even begun to read, but there is a real lack of suspense. I did read some fairly weird and creepy sections, but these weren’t reinforced by an overly scary and tense plotline.

Strong’s characters also leave a lot to be desired. They are simply used as plot devices, objects to sustain and propel the supernatural happenings along to their conclusion. I’d have liked far more character development here, at least some backstory, and just a little bit of a hint that these two were actually human, rather than paper dolls.

I like finding truly grotesque novels to read, even though they scare me silly - if you can’t evoke fear in me, you’re gonna have a bad time. 

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Book #65

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

Jess Aarons' greatest ambition is to be the fastest runner in his grade. He's been practicing all summer and can't wait to see his classmates' faces when he beats them all. But on the first day of school, a new girl boldly crosses over to the boys' side and outruns everyone.
That's not a very promising beginning for a friendship, but Jess and Leslie Burke become inseparable. Together they create Terabithia, a magical kingdom in the woods where the two of them reign as king and queen, and their imaginations set the only limits.

This wasn’t a book I ever read in childhood, which is why I feel I’m missing some of the magic. I actually had a few problems with it, on which I will try to keep my commentary spoiler free.

Although the first two thirds of the novel seems to try and focus on character and relationship building, both were lacking here. We see Jess and Leslie become friends, see a little of what makes them tick, and yet they still seemed to be caricatures of ten year olds to me. Leslie was not like other girls, a trope I truly detest, and Jess was keeping his hobbies secret in case anyone decided to slag him off for them. Nothing tangible seemed to encourage their bond, nothing tied them together, they just banded together and that was that.

I appreciate this was published in the seventies, but there were a lot of sections here which made me wince. Excessive use of fat jokes, or fat shaming, weird behaviour from a teacher, the idea we should keep our parents secrets no matter what they do to us, and various other little oddities.

Most of all, I disliked the way Jess dealt with his grief and how Paterson was seeming to say this was okay. The timing of the death was also ominous to me, and I didn’t understand what Paterson was trying to convey, whether she was trying to place blame, or to suggest that bad things happen when we have some luxury. The whole thing felt incredibly rushed; this is a kid’s book, no wonder so many were traumatised as kids.

So flat, confusing, and with questionable messages. I couldn’t explain to you why this book has won awards. 

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Book #64

O frabjous day! By Lewis Carroll

Conjuring wily walruses, dancing lobsters, a Jabberwock and a Bandersnatch, Carroll's fantastical verse gave new words to the English language.

What an utterly delightful little collection of nonsense.

Carroll’s rhymes are glorious, witty, and absolutely made to be read out loud. The rhythm and flow is always perfect, and I spent a gorgeous hour in my reading corner speaking them aloud.

The subject matter is ridiculous, his invented words sublime, and I must stop describing my mood as either frabjous, frumious (a particular favourite), or uffish.

I just couldn’t get enough. I’ll leave you with the greatest poetry finale ever written:

“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,
“You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?”
But answer came there none - 
And this was scarcely odd because
They’d been eaten every one.

Monday, 26 August 2019

Book #63

How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

Though they have the vote and the Pill and haven't been burned as witches since 1727, life isn't exactly a stroll down the catwalk for modern women. They are beset by uncertainties and questions: Why are they supposed to get Brazilians? Why do bras hurt? Why the incessant talk about babies? And do men secretly hate them?

I managed around eighty pages of this drivel and couldn’t convince myself to continue.

Each chapter begins with whimsical anecdotes from Moran’s life, growing up as a woman. These were excruciating in how hard they tried to be amusing and relatable, which lent a disconnected feel to everything she said. I got a real ‘I am so cool’ smugness from her, which actually makes her uncool and a pain in the arse.

Moran’s feminism is incredibly privileged, and a strange shade of white. Some of the terms she used jarred me, made me cringe painfully, forced my eyes to roll into the back of my head, and heated my blood to a dangerous temperature. Moran’s feminism is for Moran, and people like Moran, no one else. Feminists who feminist only for themselves - can we call them feminist? Or are they something else?

I don’t plan to wax on about this as I feel too pissed off about it, but I will say that feminist problems do not include what to name your breasts, the word feminist cannot be compared or ‘owned’ like a racial slur, you cannot call yourself an inclusive feminist if you’re out there using words such as tranny and retard, and none of these things are difficult to comprehend and absorb.

Someone bring gin. 

Saturday, 24 August 2019

Book #62

The Watsons by Jane Austen

Left impoverished upon the death of her aunt, Emma Watson has no option but to be reunited with her estranged father and siblings. Initially delighted with her new life—including the fashionable society balls to which she now has access—Emma soon realizes that her family harbors many ill feelings, not least those springing from the sisters' hopes—and disappointments—in snaring a husband. So when the eligible and suitably rich Tom Musgrove begins to transfer his affections from her sister Margaret to Emma, the result can only be further sibling rivalry and unrest. 

There are few things in life which give me greater distress than an unfinished Austen novel. The Watsons is comprised of only a small number of pages, yet Austen injects such intrigue and possibility into a woeful lack of word count. 

Emma Watson has been brought up by an aunt, and moves back with her family after the aunt remarries. As Emma has been brought up in a wealthier, more refined setting than her siblings, it’s interesting to see how she adapts and reacts to their coarse gossiping and gauche husband hunting. The sisters are anything but loving to one another, and the sniping is truly something to behold. 

Then there’s the added fascination of Emma’s introduction to her new neighbours - a few of which take a serious liking to her which foreshadowed  a fast approaching love triangle situation. Such loss.

It could’ve been great, kid. 

Friday, 23 August 2019

Book #61

Oroonoko by Aphra Behn

When Prince Oroonoko's passion for the virtuous Imoinda arouses the jealousy of his grandfather, the lovers are cast into slavery and transported from Africa to the colony of Surinam. Oroonoko's noble bearing soon wins the respect of his English captors, but his struggle for freedom brings about his destruction. Inspired by Aphra Behn's visit to Surinam, Oroonoko reflects the author's romantic view of native peoples as in 'the first state of innocence, before man knew how to sin'. The novel also reveals Behn's ambiguous attitude to African slavery - while she favoured it as a means to strengthen England's rule, her powerful and moving work conveys its injustice and brutality.

Behn writes of Oroonoko, an African prince who is deceived, captured and sold into slavery along with many others. She meets him on a plantation some time later, and reports of his dazzling personality, and the nobility which emanates from him. 

This nobility affects the whites so greatly that they treat Oroonoko as a novelty pet, rather than a slave. The normal toils of slavery are kept from him, and he’s permitted to live a life far more comfortable than his fellow Africans. This, at times, didn’t feel too realistic to me, and yet at other times the idea of the whites using the prince as a mode of entertainment and curiosity seemed to fit.

Of course, racism is abound throughout the pages, yet Behn seems to be confused in her conditioning. She mentions Oroonoko’s beauty in a surprised tone, as though beauty is something only the white can achieve. She describes him like a pin-up model - gorgeous flowing hair, and an uncanny Roman nose in contrast with the shapes of the other slave noses. But in other sections of the novella, she comments on scarification - something I imagine would be very alien and unsettling in Behn’s time - and describes this as artistically pleasing, curiously pretty, and accentuating the charm of the slaves.

Her finale is hard-hitting and utterly harrowing, coming out of a fairly tame account like a lingering demon. As the novella didn’t strike me as an anti-slavery piece, I can’t decide whether this ending was a commentary on slavery itself, or simply a point being made on the fall of nobility. Either way, it resonates, disgusts, and makes the story uncomfortably unforgettable.

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Book #60

The Automation

The capital-A Automatons of Greco-Roman myth aren’t clockwork. Their design is much more divine. They’re more intricate than robots or androids or anything else mortal humans could invent. Their windup keys are their human Masters. They aren’t mindless; they have infinite storage space. And, because they have more than one form, they’re more versatile and portable than, say, your cell phone—and much more useful too. The only thing these god-forged beings share in common with those lowercase-A automatons is their pre-programmed existence. They have a function—a function their creator put into place—a function that was questionable from the start.

This has to be the strangest little book I’ve read in a very long time, based on gods, family, power, and souls anthropomorphising.

The format initially knocked me for six. The narrator’s editor chimes in constantly with footnotes - adding, clarifying, and inserting information, whilst repeatedly slagging off the narrator for their choices of plot device, names, metaphors - anything. It’s jarring, and utterly disorienting, but it’s an interesting and unique way of driving the story along and making subtle hints at the importance of the narrator/editor relationship.

And then nothing happens. There’s barely any plot; everything is driven forward with world-building, and character explorations. This isn’t a bad thing - both the world and the characters are intricately complex, and the importance of cementing the reader’s understanding is clear. This is an introduction, the lead up to the sequel - the novels in this series cannot stand on their own.

The implications of deceit, double-crossing, and unreliable characters (or unreliable narrators and editors?) were what kept me going here. I was out of my comfort zone, confused and anxious, and yet there was something so engaging here, something I simply had to get to the bottom of. 

And yet, I managed to get to the bottom of nothing at all. It’s acknowledged that the finale is fairly flat and disappointing, and yet this is justified by this novel being merely the starting point. I’m grateful I’ve been sent both The Automation and the sequel, The Pre-Programming so I can continue this weird journey. 

Monday, 12 August 2019

Book #59

Seven Hanged by Leonid Andreyev

This astonishing novella from 1908, newly translated for Little Black Classics by War and Peace translator Anthony Briggs, probes the emotions and experiences of seven people condemned to death in Tsarist Russia. With a powerful and subtle exploration of the morality of capital punishment, it was a best-seller at the time, and, in a strange quirk of history, influenced the conspirators in the cataclysmic assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914. 

This is a horrific, heart-rending novella. Andreyev tells the tale of seven prisoners sentenced to hang, without telling a tale at all. Nothing happens except his exploration of their psychological states in such close proximity to death; it’s harrowing, and it’s perfect.

Each of the seven approach their fate in different ways - with fear, with pride, with apathy, with scorn. They begin to appreciate the smallest of life’s offerings, such as a breath of spring air, as they try to become accustomed to what lies ahead for them.

His underlying commentary on capital punishment is exquisite. Where is the punishment? Is it within death itself, or is it purely in the time between, waiting for something you have no power to delay, the worst fate, decided by someone else. After all, once death comes, surely, we are free?

Ultimately, Andreyev is asking which of them we’d be when staring death in the face. All were terrified, but displayed this differently. How would you do it? Bravely? Or would you resist? Who can say until the time comes, but the thought is somehow wonderfully provoking and equally uncomfortable. 

Friday, 9 August 2019

Book #58

Fat by Rob Grant

Grenville is no longer Off the Peg. Grenville is fat, very fat. He’s not quite sure how it happened, but it has. Sitting up makes him dizzy, getting dressed leaves him breathless, the sight of his face in the mirror is always a shock. He’s not happy about it, and yes, he’s had a bellyful of people telling him he should watch his figure. In fact, if just one more person says anything at all about his weight, Grenville might just lose it. 
Hayleigh can’t bear to look t herself in the mirror either. All she can see is how fat she is. She can’t bear it. People are laughing at her behind her back. Her mum and dad won’t say it of course, but even they think so. She’s trapped in her own body, looking for a way out. 
Jeremy can’t bear people who can’t help themselves. People need to take responsibility for their lives, and if they won’t, the government will. Jeremy’s the PR man, sorry, Conceptuologist, who will launch Well Farm. People just can’t keep on getting fat. The Tube is already full to capacity, the NHS simply can’t take the strain. People are going to the Well Farm. If they know what’s good for them.

Fat begins with the sentence “It’s unclear precisely when it became illegal to be fat”, which leads us to imagine a dystopian future where this is the case. Although this would be an excellent premise for a novel, Grant doesn’t follow up with this, and instead drops us into the lives of three people for whom being fat may as well be illegal.

We meet Grenville, an overweight TV chef with anger issues, Hayleigh, a teenager with a severe eating disorder, and Jeremy, the newly appointed PR man in charge of promoting the government's new weight-loss camps. Grant’s use of multiple-voice narrative is effective in displaying the stark contrasts between each of three, and how weight rules over their lives.

I found this very well-written, nicely light, and absolutely hilarious. Grenville’s furious rampages, Hayleigh’s teenage rants, and Jeremy’s fuckboy attitudes, all resonated well and completely tickled me. Although there isn’t a great deal of depth to any of them, Grant has constructed these characters well enough to allow us to relate to them. 

He knows when to make his serious points, and when to utilise humour in a novel which could have been problematic if handled in the wrong way. It’s very tongue in cheek, but Grant makes some thought-provoking points on the subject of weight, the nation’s obsession with it, and covers some interesting myths on the types of things we put into our bodies. 

This was a perfect book to eject me from the reading slump I’d found myself in - nothing too taxing, a little bit of hilarity, and something to turn the old brain cogs. Wonderful. 

Sunday, 4 August 2019

Book #57

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

A hugely influential collection for writers and artists of all kinds, Rilke's profound and lyrical letters to a young friend advise on writing, love, sex, suffering and the nature of advice itself. 

These little black books now fill me with dread. When I pick one up, I am never filled with any sort of positive anticipation, and I convince myself I’m going to hate it before I even begin. It’s having a detrimental effect on my enjoyment, obviously, and I can no longer guarantee I genuinely dislike these. I’m sure if they were wrapped in different covers, I’d feel differently.

So, Letters to a Young Poet was a slog for me, just as many of the additions to this range have been a slog. The book is comprised of letters Rilke sent to a poet who had sought his advice, and go into lots of detail on the writing process, love, life, and probably whatever else you can imagine.

Rilke’s words are beautiful, and I am sure endearing to many, but I felt like I was reading a very eloquent, and very long-winded self-help book. The passages felt overly long, and somewhat pompous and self-assured. I’m certain I wouldn’t like this guy as a mentor, despite his apparent brainpower.

I can’t wait to finish this range. Perhaps I shall write a book entitled Letters to Young Attempter of Little Black Classics

Book #56

Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus

The stories in Leaving the Sea take place in a world which is a distortion of our own, where strange illnesses strike at random and where people disappear without a trace. From the frustrated creative writing teacher to the advocate of self-inhumation; from Paul, whose return home leads him further into his isolation, or Mather, whose child is sick, to an unnamed narrator who spends his lonely evenings calculating the probabilities of his mother's imminent demise. 

This felt somewhat like a baptism of fire.

Marcus begins this collection of stories by exploring what I should be forgiven for calling the mundane. Relationships, emotions, infidelity, loneliness; they all make their appearance, and are analysed by Marcus in a complex and abstract way which takes some getting used to. I felt there was something lacking in all of the initial stories, and that was simply his preference to leave everything - character fates, the whys, the hows - entirely up to his reader’s interpretation.

As we progress further into the stories, Marcus becomes far more explorative and experimental, easing us in gently with some mundane peppered with dystopia, before plunging entirely into the realms of what the fuck.

The dark humour is on point, the satire is slick, the prose beautiful. I should have been consumed, but didn’t allow myself to be. I could have enjoyed this more, but the problem here was me.

Definitely something I will pick up again in the future when it’s a much better time for analysation and reflection.