Sunday, 30 October 2016

Book #57

The Terrors of the Night by Thomas Nashe

The greatest of Elizabethan pamphleteers, Nashe had a magical ability with words, never more so than in The Terrors of the Night, where he mulls over ghosts, demons, nightmares and the supernatural. 

Well, this one wins the prize for most misleading description of the Little Black Classics range so far. Demonic horrors and spirits on the weekend of Halloween? I am ready to be scared. What followed instead was fifty pages of blather on the devil, demons, superstitions, and dreams.

Nashe bleats on for ages in robust lecture fashion. It reads like a stream of consciousness essay, which is never really effective. I imagine, in his time, this would be interesting, and perhaps even frightening; but the back of the book had so convinced me I'd be scared, that I was incredibly disappointed. The only scary thing about this is the thought of it being longer, or indeed having to read it again.

Did you know dreams are a culmination of our thoughts during the day, and anything that's stuck in the back of your mind? Did you know that the main cause of insomnia is a guilty conscience? Did you know that spirits are more likely to target women, as they are so so incredibly weak? Yeah, okay, that's an Elizabethan social thought of the 1500s, but the repetition of women's susceptibility to being haunted was incredibly tiresome.

A wordy, diverted ramble through what felt like Nashe's thought process on the supernatural. I once listened to a tired and drunken friend beat on about the philosophies of life for what felt like hours; had I given him a pen, I imagine his thoughts would read a lot like Nashe's essay.

I have been robbed of my presumed Elizabethan ghost stories.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Book #56

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

In part, Moby-Dick is the story of an eerily compelling madman pursuing an unholy war against a creature as vast and dangerous and unknowable as the sea itself. But more than just a novel of adventure, more than an encyclopaedia of whaling lore and legend, the book can be seen as part of its author's lifelong meditation on America. Written with wonderfully redemptive humour, Moby-Dick is also a profound inquiry into character, faith, and the nature of perception.

I used to think it entirely blasphemous to loathe a great work of fiction with my entire being, but here we are. Moby Dick was an absolute slog, an utter bore, and (no apologies here) a waste of my precious reading time. I persevered, I read all 600-odd pages, I looked up things I didn't understand, I tried to get with the overly eloquent language and the tedious factual offerings which removed me from the plot. I did everything. I hated it.

The tale of one man's vengeance against the sea monster who nibbled off his leg, in my mind, was going to be what all the classics lovers in the land said it was going be - epic. There is nothing epic about interrupting a plot with grand commentary on whale anatomy, the origins and evil of the colour white, or where each nail and screw goes on a ship. If Queequeg was in my flat, I'd have allowed him to eat my eyes.

I did enjoy some of the commentary, particularly the racist custom of the time, and seeing this being different when away from land. I loved Ishmael and Queequeg's relationship at the beginning of the novel, but would've liked to see more of the comical and loving side of them once they were onboard the Pequod. I also loved the homoerotic tones that came from men on a boat squeezing a load of sperm in a bucket, and squeezing each others' hands at the same time. Oh, Melville!

Few of the characters had any real charm, with most of the crew bleeding into each other until you couldn't tell one from the other. Ishmael was merely there to put the whole thing into words, and barely got involved in what was going on. Ahab was originally painted as a demoniac monomaniac, but quickly turned into a sad old man who needed to go home and assess his priorities.

I'd feel like a high school English student being force fed Moby Dick if I called it boring, so in the interest of expressing my vocabulary, it was completely spiritless. It was also boring.

Being about a third of the way through Moby Dick, and realising you're in the middle of nowhere in the throes of insanity, is probably a lot like being on a three-year voyage with this lot. Nowhere to turn, with the days (or pages) fading into one another, hating everyone you come into contact with, and when everyone dies, you're just glad it's finally over. If I rationalise that in my mind as what Melville was trying to achieve, I'll feel a lot better about spending so much time on this gargantuan monolithic nightmare of a novel.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Book #55

For One More Day by Mitch Albom

Charley Benetton is a broken man, his life destroyed by alcohol and regret. He loses his job. He leaves his family. He hits rock bottom after discovering he won't be invited to his only daughter's wedding. And he decides to take his own life.
Charley takes a midnight ride to his small hometown: his final journey. But as he staggers into his old house, he makes an astonishing discovery. His mother - who died eight years earlier - is there, and welcomes Charley home as if nothing ever happened.
What follows is the one seemingly ordinary day so many of us yearn for: a chance to make good with a lost parent, to explain the family secrets, and to seek forgiveness.

I had read this book before, many years ago, before I knew how it felt to lose someone. I hadn't taken much from it; I enjoyed it, yes, but it didn't hit me quite as hard as it did this time.

You would have to spend a lot of time, with a lot of well-prepared arguments, to convince me we don't all take our parents for granted. Of course we do. The love they pour upon us in different ways, whether it's asking if you're home safely, or sticking some money into your bank account, is all testament to the unique selflessness that can only come from loving a child. Albom shows us a heart-rending and impactful example of the guilt and circumstances involved in not giving this love back to the best of your ability.

Chick Benetto tells the story of his life's descent which led him to attempt suicide. At the end, he is allowed one more day with his mother, who passed away eight years previously. A countless number of us would do anything for this chance with a loved one, and the storytelling through flashbacks was nothing other than gorgeous. Chick remembers the times he wasn't there for his mother, and remembers the times she was devotedly there for him. He learns of things she did for him, things she had given up for him, and of all the ways she loved him he hadn't previously had any inkling of.

The plot is nice, and flows well, with some interesting family commentary, and a couple of plot twists. Despite this, the message is the key thing here. Although part of this is to encourage us to make the most of the treasure of life, the most important thing is to make the most of the treasure of family.

Simple, but steeped with true Albom emotion, this is a hard hitter. Don't postpone your visits, appreciate the company, and phone your mum before the freedom to do so is taken away.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Book #54

How We Weep and Laugh at the Same Thing by Michel de Montaigne

A selection of charming essays from a master of the genre exploring the contradictions inherent to human thought, words and actions. 

I took very little from this. Montaigne, the French Renaissance philosopher, states an incredibly obvious case in that humans are cursed with conflicting emotions. We laugh when we're upset, we cry when we're happy. This may have been an interesting essay in the 16th century, but it's hardly groundbreaking in our day.

He goes on to write how words are meaningless and actions are the only thing that matter, enforcing the moral of deeds not words. The irony of Montaigne feeling this as a famous writer was not beyond me.

I did enjoy the quotations (kindly translated) in French, Latin, and Greek; most of them quite poignant and relatable. They did well to reinforce his points, but not well enough to let me enjoy his own words.

We also learn of our conscious, of philosophy preparing us for death, and the wily ways of Fortune. Incredibly dull; I wouldn't like to have a drink with him.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Book #53

Hogwarts: An Incomplete and Unreliable Guide by JK Rowling

Hogwarts An Incomplete and Unreliable Guide takes you on a journey to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. You’ll venture into the Hogwarts grounds, become better acquainted with its more permanent residents, learn more about lessons and discover secrets of the castle . . . all at the turn of a page.

My favourite of the three. I can't begin to explain how many times I've longed to explore that castle, or find out more about its inhabitants, whether ghost, portrait, or otherwise. This is our version of Hogwarts: A History, and I'm so glad to have it.

One of the biggest plot holes in the series involves the time turner, and Rowling addressed this graciously:

She admits she went into the time travelling business "too light-heartedly", hence the various discussions between Dumbledore and Hermione on the dangers of letting anyone see you time travel, and the later destruction of the Ministry's collection of time turners. Rowling's explanation of the five hour limit patches up a lot of these plot holes.

I was so fascinated to read of some of the things that didn't make it into the novels, particularly Nearly Headless Nick's ballad detailing his death, and the names and characters of some of the ghosts who didn't make the final cut. The decision to magic up a train and use it to transport the students to Hogwarts was also an absolute jewel, with Muggles from Hogsmeade 'forgetting' they had a train station, and railway working Muggles in Crewe wandering around for weeks with the strange feeling they'd misplaced something important, but never realising it was an entire train.

The best thing about Hogwarts, of course, is its founders (i.e. Salazar) and its origin. Reading about the main man and his creation of the Chamber of Secrets, alongside the Gaunt family's in-school boasting of their knowledge of the chamber, made my Slytherin heart beat with joy. I bet I could open it with a bit of practice if someone could just distract Myrtle.

Fangirl ramblings, I know. My only criticism would be that it just wasn't enough. I won't be satisfied until all 1,000 pages of Hogwarts: A History are written. I'd pay about 300 quid for it.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Book #52

Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason by Helen Fielding

Lurching from the cappuccino bars of Notting Hill to the blissed-out shores of Thailand, Bridget Jones searches for The Truth in spite of pathetically unevolved men, insane dating theories, and Smug Married advice ("I'm just calling to say in the potty! In the potty! Well, do it in Daddy's hand then!"). She experiences a zeitgeist-esque Spiritual Epiphany somewhere between the pages of How to Find the Love You Want Without Seeking It ("can self-help books really help self?"), protective custody, and a lightly chilled Chardonnay.

After my embarrassing self-discovery review of Bridget Jones's Diary, where I admitted to the world that yes, I was Bridget Jones, I launched into the sequel ready for more relatability and laughs. I was disappointed to learn that Fielding had decided to throw Bridget to the wolves of sequels, and deliver to her readers a multitude of setbacks that became less believable as the diary went on.

Jones in her underwear outside and being happened upon by her ex. Jones finding a small Oriental boy and a bunny rabbit in her boyfriend's bed. Jones arrested for drug trafficking. Jones being targeted by a lunatic murderer. The ridiculousness of it all made the story less funny than its predecessor, as one spent the entire time exasperated by this hapless bad luck magnet. It was so forced. It felt like Fielding was capitalising on Bridget's wit and irrevocable calamity, so she hammed both of these up to an uncomfortable degree. Utter slapstick.

The diary format I so loved in the previous novel failed miserably this time. Fielding opted for longer diary entries, giving the story more of the feel of a novel, where previously the shorter glimpses into Bridget's life given the air of writing on the go, again in the most unfeasible places. God knows how she managed to smuggle her diary into a Thai prison, or to write exactly 0 minutes after having sex.

A catalogue of stories you'd hear from exaggerating drunks, and, quite frankly, an organised mess. I'm pleased to report I'm no longer Bridget Jones, as (and I struggled to believe this previously) she truly is a fictional being whom I cannot relate to. Fielding lost her everywoman.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Book #51

Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding

Bridget Jones' Diary is the devastatingly self-aware, laugh-out-loud daily chronicle of Bridget's permanent, doomed quest for self-improvement — a year in which she resolves to: reduce the circumference of each thigh by 1.5 inches, visit the gym three times a week not just to buy a sandwich, form a functional relationship with a responsible adult, and learn to program the VCR.

I've had this on my shelf for years. My literary snobbery dictates that all chick-lit novels are flouncy, pathetic nonsense; so much so that this week, when asked what I was reading, I would reply, "Bridget Jones; not my kind of thing, but I'm giving it a bash because I'm taking my mum to see the new film next week."

Actually, let's talk about the first film. 2001. I was fifteen and laughing at a woman in her early thirties who lived alone and couldn't keep a boyfriend. Flash forward the same number of years and I am that woman. My fifteen year old self did not see that one coming.

Being Bridget makes this book a good one. The way she scrutinises herself to the point of considering plastic surgery, analysing things she's done or said which have led to unfortunate circumstances, desperately trying to give up vices, yet having absolutely no impulse control, and most of all, being asked yet again by friends, family, and family friends "why haven't you got a boyfriend?, make her (quite sadly and embarrassingly), one of the most relatable characters I have experienced in recent years.

Fiction in diary form has always been a draw for me, so this added to my appreciation of the story. I've always felt it allows you a personal insight into the narrator's life. Bridget's wit and absolute palaver make her entries hilarious; even if she claims to be writing in the toilets at work, or whilst in the midst of a culinary disaster.

It's not the best book I've ever read. It's not even really up there with the all right books I've read. It's a bit nonsensical, slightly repetitive, and sometimes exasperating. I wasn't particularly impressed with the ending. But it's funny, it's honest, it's real. And I'm about to read the sequel.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Book #50

Short Stories from Hogwarts of Power, Politics, and Pesky Poltergeists by JK Rowling

These stories of power, politics and pesky poltergeists give you a glimpse into the darker side of the wizarding world, revealing the ruthless roots of Professor Umbridge, the lowdown on the Ministers for Magic and the history of the wizarding prison Azkaban. You will also delve deeper into Horace Slughorn’s early years as Potions master at Hogwarts - and his acquaintance with one Tom Marvolo Riddle.

This is what I was waiting for; the stories of those attracted by power, the story of Azkaban, and tales of backdated political corruption. This little Slytherin's dark glee was bubbling.

The comparison of two Slytherins here is very important in diffusing some of the myths about our house. While Umbridge is the epitome of evil, she is ambitious (albeit selfish) in the main. I never believed she truly supported Voldemort, only chose her side by weighing up what benefits could be gained from each (and being appointed the severe head of Muggle-born oppression was a big one). Slughorn, however, has always been my favourite Slytherin. Slightly weak, yet kind-hearted, he revelled in others' accomplishments in order to have these reflect upon himself. Seeing, in this collection, his abject regret and woe at his ultimate mistake (explaining the concept of Horcruxes to Voldemort), truly shows where his loyalties lie. Not all Slytherins are dark, and Rowling does a good job here to show us the proof. We're ambitious, we're cunning, and we're classy as hell.

I've always been particularly impressed by Rowling's choices when naming characters and objects within her world. Being allowed to see the reasoning behind some of these is nothing short of wonderful. The derivation of Umbridge, Slughorn, and Quirrel's names was explained brilliantly, and reinforces my opinion that none of them could go by any other name.

Another excellent collection from Pottermore. Although I'm aware most of these stories are available to read on the website, there's something to be said about the flow of them being sewn together. I'm very sorry I only have one left to read. 

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Book #49

The Wife of Bath by Geoffrey Chaucer

One of the most bawdy, entertaining and popular stories from The Canterbury Tales. 

Earlier this year I made an attempt on The Canterbury Tales, and quickly realised this valiant endeavour wasn't bringing me any joy. Having The Wife of Bath in the Little Black Classics range, I felt, would ease me in gently and possibly alleviate any feelings of hatred towards the entire work. I fool myself like this often.

I know it's not that I'm wary of a classic challenge. Is it my irrevocable incapacity to appreciate poetry? Who knows. I didn't enjoy it. I should've loved it due to the examination of this medieval female, who seems to actually relish in recounting the tales of her five marriages; she pays no heed to the social expectations of the time, has entirely no shame, and details some of her sex life brazenly.

Would I have appreciated this more as prose? Yes. Is it just me and my steeled poetry brain-blocker? Probably. 

Book #48

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

Cecily Cardew and Gwendolen Fairfax are both in love with the same mythical suitor. Jack Worthing has wooed Gewndolen as Ernest while Algernon has also posed as Ernest to win the heart of Jack's ward, Cecily. When all four arrive at Jack's country home on the same weekend the "rivals" to fight for Ernest s undivided attention and the "Ernests" to claim their beloveds pandemonium breaks loose. Only a senile nursemaid and an old, discarded handbag can save the day.

It's all too easy to dismiss some of the great classics as dull before even picking them up. Even as an avid fan of Victorian literature, I'm guilty of this from time to time. I did not expect to shake with such laughter as I did reading this; Wilde has a skill for commenting on the ridiculousness and vanity of Victorian social custom.

The dialogue is masterful, the characters charming and hilarious, and Wilde's concept of Bunburyism reflects the rigidity of maintaining a good social reputation. Algernon invents an invalid friend named Mr Bunbury, who provides him with the excuse (through serious turns of fictitious ill health) to turn down dinner invitations, or indeed turn down anything he'd prefer not to attend, in order to escape to the country. The importance of being seen as an upstanding gentleman was high, but the temptation to escape it all and indulge in some mischief so strong, that Jack and Algernon play a deceiving game to satisfy the selfish curiosity they both hold dear.

I have a strong dislike for liars, so seeing the two of them become so entangled in the mess they'd created brought tears of laughter to my eyes. Watching the two women believe they are both engaged to the same man, and then subsequently entering into the most civil and polite slagging match of all time was also a great moment of fun. But the handbag - oh the handbag; that was the best of all.

To write such a funny play with an important message to the classes was Wilde's master stroke. An absolute classic, and one which, I imagine, could be improved only by a turn on the stage.

"Never speak disrespectfully of society, Algernon. Only people who can't get into it do that."