Friday, 29 June 2018

Book #47

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Set in Victorian London and an Essex village in the 1890's, and enlivened by the debates on scientific and medical discovery which defined the era, The Essex Serpent has at its heart the story of two extraordinary people who fall for each other, but not in the usual way.
They are Cora Seaborne and Will Ransome. Cora is a well-to-do London widow who moves to the Essex parish of Aldwinter, and Will is the local vicar. They meet as their village is engulfed by rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist is enthralled, convinced the beast may be a real undiscovered species. But Will sees his parishioners' agitation as a moral panic, a deviation from true faith. Although they can agree on absolutely nothing, as the seasons turn around them in this quiet corner of England, they find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart.

The only thing this novel has going for it is its incomprehensibly stunning cover.

Perry promises a gothic tale of Victorian rumour, panic, love, and unlikely alliances. What she delivers is a droll, plotless story, serving no real purpose other than to allow Perry moments of lyrical poignancy in the form of a simile poorly supporting every second sentence.

Our recently widowed protagonist, Cora, is intended to be portrayed as an independent ‘modern’ woman. Casting off the ties that bound her during marriage, she begins dressing in men’s clothes, discards personal grooming, and loudly explains to anyone who will listen how liberating it is to forget to be a woman. I had a lot of problems with this.

Cora, alongside every single other character, was loathsome and incomprehensible. I couldn’t get on board with anyone’s motives or justifications, cared not for their thoughts and feelings, and muttered in disdain on more occasions than I’d like to admit. A band of beige cretins, each of them seemed to be placed into the novel purely to serve a purpose, rather than to be themselves explored.

Although by no means an expert, Victorian fiction is one of my favourites – the era fascinates me; there was something really not quite right about Perry’s Victorian London. The lack of research and care was apparent, and more time should have been spent on specifics; some of the time you could’ve been excused for assuming the section you were reading was set in 2010. The letters, the dialogue, even the descriptions of food and clothing, were well off the mark, and horrified me.

My other serious issue was the need for there to be any type of love triangle here. It was pointless and unresolved; Perry seems here to be commenting on how love can take over us at any moment, but why not the love of friendship? Why do all main characters have to end up shagging each other at some point? I also could have done without the image of the Good Revered wanking into a field, but the damage has been done.

There are so many things about this I dislike. The serpent itself caused so much panic within the area, however none of this was probed or discussed in detail by Perry. There was even a moment of hysteria in the classroom which excited me at the time, but which fell flat as we became embroiled again in the futile overarching theme of romance.

I won’t go on (although I could go on for quite some time on this one). All I can say to conclude is that I’m utterly shocked at the praise that has been loaded on this novel, and truly feel Perry has done a disservice to a wonderful premise. 

Monday, 25 June 2018

Book #46

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The Brothers Karamazov is a passionate philosophical novel set in 19th century Russia, that enters deeply into the ethical debates of God, free will, and morality. It is a spiritual drama of moral struggles concerning faith, doubt, and reason, set against a modernizing Russia.

I always approach works of classic Russian literature with trepidation; I have no idea why. Before Crime and Punishment, before The Master and Margarita, even before Lolita, I have felt cowed by their notoriety, nervous of their words, and completely overwhelmed by their perceived themes. Every time, and I mean every time I finish one of these, I am left with an unbridled feeling of awe, and I wonder at why I was so intimidated by them in the first place.

The Brothers Karamazov has now opened my eyes to the fact that Russian literature is everything. I’m not even sure where to begin describing how much I loved this.

Dostoevsky gives us a complex family, with complex feelings for one another, alongside a love triangle, a monastery, a murder - and lets us ponder and reflect on the philosophy involved in each of these things. I don’t consider myself ponderous, or any type of philosopher, but having read this I believe Dostoevsky can make any one of us a great thinker.

The human condition is explored in each of the brothers, all of them differing in their behaviours and thinking, and Dostoevsky asks us which one of them is thriving. They all have their flaws, their beliefs, they all have their grey areas, but how I loved all of them.

Yet each of them are the way they are thanks to their brutish and insensitive father, Fyodor Pavlovich. We’re shown how family can work in different ways to shape and mould us, and yet the same upbringing does not mould each of us similarly - it’s our thoughts and beliefs that ultimately do.

I won’t force my amateur philosophy on you all too much, but the themes here are golden; it was glorious to watch how character behaviour affected others, and set chains of motion off all over the place. Comparing and contrasting the characters, seeing their beliefs come to life before them and force them to rethink their maxims - all of it was simply gorgeous.

My favourite device here was the narrator; an anonymous resident of the town, he gives us the details as though from a town gossip, although there wasn’t a point where he felt unreliable. There were moments when his words moved me so much I wanted him to name himself, and wanted to meet his family. Alongside the narrator, Dostoevsky’s sarcastic portrayal of a Russian courtroom was also something to behold; it truly is a work of art.

And the finale just warmed my heart. The name Karamazov would never be looked upon in the same way it was when Fyodor Pavlovich was the patriarch. All brothers were redeemed. Utterly, utterly beautiful. 

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Book #45

Image result for it was snowing butterflies book cover
It was snowing butterflies by Charles Darwin

A selection of Darwin's extraordinary adventures during the voyage of the Beagle. 

This is a nice little insight into Darwin’s journals and his explorations of nature both off and on-board the Beagle, although it struggled to capture my attention.

There are many detailed accounts of his encounters with animals, insects, landscapes, and even the natives, on whom his remarks are spectacularly outdated and frankly racist. The beauty of all of this, though (apart from the old racist part), is seeing the world through the eyes of someone who doesn’t have the benefits we do now – namely Google – and the titular line “it was snowing butterflies” could only have come from someone with this fresh view of the world.

It was written in a simplistic style, which worked well for the accounts, however the lengthy notes on the behaviours of both animals and plants was dull to me. Perhaps you, an intellectual, will fare better.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Book #44

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy

On January 15, 1947, the torture-ravished body of a beautiful young woman is found in a vacant lot. The victim makes headlines as the Black Dahlia-and so begins the greatest manhunt in California history. Caught up in the investigation are Bucky Bleichert and Lee Blanchard: Warrants Squad cops, friends, and rivals in love with the same woman. But both are obsessed with the Dahlia-driven by dark needs to know everything about her past, to capture her killer, to possess the woman even in death. Their quest will take them on a hellish journey through the underbelly of postwar Hollywood, to the core of the dead girl's twisted life, past the extremes of their own psyches-into a region of total madness.

I have no idea what I’ve just read, only that I didn’t enjoy it much. I bought this book during a thirst for crime – true or otherwise – some years ago. The Black Dahlia is a notable, legendary unsolved crime from history, and I wanted to learn more about the woman herself, and her unjustified end.

Instead, I met two Los Angeles police officers, both ex-boxers, who become paired together to solve this mess. In the first stages of the novel, they are pitted against each other in the ring, and the pages and pages of in-depth fight commentary are absolutely something to avoid.

The narrative focuses on Bleichert, the smaller, lighter-weight boxer/cop, and his perspective. We are treated to his insipid thought processes and reasoning. He was stubborn, impervious to criticism, misogynistic, and utterly selfish. I hated him. Bleichert seems to fumble his way through the investigation, often making aggressive or self-destructive decisions, yet finds all of the answers falling into his lap. Each catastrophic mistake seemed to lead him to the next clue or suspect, yet there was no feeling of reality or relatability, and no real development or reflection from him. It was the standard Hollywood chips falling into place, and I’m a cop so I don’t need to change for anyone, type of shit.

The worst part of this novel is all the unnecessary crap thrown in. Nothing really happens until about 100 pages have turned, then we’re stuck in a stalemate for another 100 pages before something worthwhile happens again. Ellroy throws in all sorts of pointless drivel, I assume to connect us with the characters. He failed in this.

Ellroy’s language is peppered with post-war Los Angeles colloquialisms and police jargon which get old real quick. The dialogue helped to paint every single character as a trite caricature, and I soon felt the novel akin to a bumbling police drama I might watch at 2pm on a Sunday. Incredibly disengaging.

And there’s hardly any Dahlia. Yes, we hear the gruesome details and are involved in finding the killer. We even hear first-hand from her family and known associates. But the Dahlia murder was never solved; Ellroy takes it upon himself here to fictionalise a killer, rendering himself untrustworthy and leaving me in serious doubt as to whether the Elizabeth Short within his pages was the same as the real girl who is still awaiting her justice.

This story is more about two cops becoming obsessed with a murder inquiry and letting it destroy their lives. Read if you like pointless details, cringey American police jargon, and dickhead boxers. Do not read if you’re on a crime burst and are looking for some insight into The Black Dahlia case. A complete waste of time. 

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Book #43

A Pair of Silk Stockings by Kate Chopin

From Louisiana’s remote bayous to its gilded cities, five startling stories of awakening by one of fin-de-siécle America’s most famous writers.

Another reminder, after a few colossal misses, how important the Little Black Classics range is in introducing me to authors I’d never heard of.

This is a collection of short stories from Chopin, with A Pair of Silk Stocking reserved for the finale. I enjoyed each in equal measure, excepting the penultimate tale, Nég Créol, which didn’t rouse me in quite the same ways.

Chopin is a delight, though. Her stories are daring in fulfilling characters’ karma, and of describing the ways of life in nineteenth century Louisiana. A Pair of Silk Stockings is a tale of luxury, with Mrs Sommers finding fifteen dollars and, despite planning how to clothe her children with it, taking the money and spending the whole lot on herself, having a wonderful day which is completely out of the ordinary for her. It speaks of what women sacrifice for their families and how powerful it can be to have a treat, the power to choose for yourself, and time to spend only in your own head.

Désirée’s Baby, Miss McEnders, and The Story of an Hour all told of situations where characters believed they had the upper hand, only to become punished by fate. This was particularly delicious in Désirée’s Baby, which was my favourite of the five.

I would have liked Penguin to have used a different quotation for this one. Although I may have bias, as the chosen quote is from Nég Créol, I didn’t feel it quite covered the feel of the stories, and I’m sure there are many other quotes in the collection which could have served much better.

This is an important addition to Little Black Classics for me, as it’s already prompted me to go out and buy more Chopin. New discoveries were my goal all along, and I’m absolutely delighted with this one. 

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Book #42

Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller

From the first day that the beguiling Sheba Hart joins the staff of St George's history teacher Barbara Covett is convinced she has found a kindred spirit. Barbara's loyalty to her new friend is passionate and unstinting and when Sheba is discovered having an illicit affair with one of her pupils, Barbara quickly elects herself as Sheba's chief defender. But all is not as it first seems in this dark story and, as Sheba will soon discover, a friend can be just as treacherous as any lover.

I was completely unprepared for how absolutely wonderful this novel was going to be. It’s chilling, unsettling, and utterly, utterly captivating.

Any stories in the news of teachers having sexual relationships with their pupils are generally categorised in the same ways by both the press and the public. The pupil is perpetually an innocent, naïve victim, lured into inappropriate liaisons by the teacher. The latter is often described as a sex-crazed predator, a pervert conniving to groom and exploit the wholesome young person. Heller turns this idea on its head entirely, and comments on our perceptions of such crimes.

Although we’d love for issues like these to be as clear-cut as possible; to be able to scream obscenities at the accused, look after the abused, Heller explores the idea here that things simply aren’t as elementary as this, particularly when it comes to sex. The ways in which she achieves this are so clever, so outside of the norm, and just so bloody readable; I was engrossed from the beginning. It was difficult to ascertain which of them really was the predator.

Her narrative is what grabbed me here. Written by Barbara, a colleague and friend of our so-called predator, it gives us all of the facts from an entirely unreliable vantage. Barbara is much older and experienced in the ways of teaching than Sheba (the she-wolf), and ends up being her confidante in both the affair, and other aspects of Sheba’s chaotic life. She lays out the events as delivered to her from Sheba’s tongue, also affording us the opportunity of hearing her own thoughts on the matter.

Barbara, however, is a frightening narrator. Originally coming across as a wise and trusted being, your typical older spinster lady with a cat, it quickly becomes apparent Barbara has issues of her own. These trickle into her narrative almost seductively, and so carefully, that the slow realisation that you should be questioning her authenticity comes like a sudden death.

The beauty of this novel is that it screams ‘forbidden love and romance’ before you open the first page, but it’s barely about love, sex, or romance; it’s about people, loneliness, perceptions, manipulation and assumption. I could have read it for the rest of my life.     

Monday, 4 June 2018

Book #41

The Voyage of Sir Francis Drake Around the Whole Globe by Richard Hakluyt

Scholar, spy, diplomat and supreme propagandist for Elizabethan sea power, Richard Hakluyt's accounts of famed explorers mythologised a nation growing rapidly aware of the size and strangeness of the world - and determined to dominate it. 

Simply, purely awful.

Hakluyt writes of voyages around the world in a factual, disconnected tone. Many of these visits to foreign lands spell trouble for the locals, who find themselves robbed and killed, mainly as a display of superiority than anything else. Neighbouring sailors meet the same fate. Hakluyt’s tone here never falters; dispassionate, dead, laying out the facts of the terrors as though they’re the same as tying a knot in a rope. No wonder the English were so hated back then, running around taking lives for a laugh and a couple of bags of leather.

There are no thoughts or feelings here, it reads similarly to the diary of my ten year old self – “Went to the shop. Got a lollipop. Came home and we watched Frasier.” It’s so bloody dry. My imagination was the only thing keeping me together – to think how huge and unknown the world was back then, to have none of the knowledge we have now of other cultures, lands, people. It must have been exciting, frightening, wonderful. None of that was given to us here.

I realise the words are a product of their time, but in some instances, words just aren’t worth the bother. 

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Book #40

Leathered by Chris McQueer

Frank a 6ft 4 prison guard at Bar-L. A hardman and technophobe, firmly set in his ways, until Joe, a ‘Twitter Famous’ inmate, convinces Frank to send a tweet that changes the world. 

‘Kim Jong-Un? I could kick f*ck out of him.’

McQueer has done it again. It’s a real wonder what goes on in that boy’s heed, but we should be grateful for his capacity to put his mental thoughts down on paper for us to pore over.

This time, we meet Frank, a Bar-L prison guard and an absolute unit, who (after removing a phone from an inmates arse and being taught how to use Twitter), casually posts his first tweet: Kim Jong-Un? I could kick fuck out of him.” The rest of the story can only be politely described as fucking chaos.

We’re thrown into discussions on which Scottish celebrities would be able to hold their own in a fight, delivered to North Korea to see the fallout of Frank’s tweet, and ultimately given a ticket to the Hydro to see the biggest political bareknuckle scrap which has ever been imagined; the highlight of which is the supporting acts.

Fast-paced and completely hilarious, as is McQueer’s style, it’s another gorgeous wee gem set right on your doorstep. And on the Scottish celebrity capacity for violence, I think I could take Sheena Easton. 

Friday, 1 June 2018

Book #39

To-morrow by Joseph Conrad

Set in a desolate English port, Conrad’s spare, savage turn-of-the-century story of lives haunted by the sea. One of Conrad’s most powerful, gripping stories.

This was such an unexpectedly gorgeous short story from the Heart of Darkness author.

Focusing on an old sailor desperate to find his missing son, we see his preparations and plans for his ultimate return, with the old sailor always claiming this will happen “to-morrow”. This is a seemingly delusional hope, as his neighbours and the other villagers see him as a bit of a character, and can only humour his self-deception to avoid violent outbursts of indignation.

I felt a warmth in my heart for the old man. His meticulous planning, collecting of household objects, consideration for what his son would say or how he would feel about certain particulars, showed a real love. Conrad creates this, I feel, in order to ensure the finale hits as hard as it possibly can.

Without spoiling it, the ending is utterly heartbreaking, and really underlines the extent of the sailor’s delusion. It speaks of perception of people we haven’t seen in a long time, interpretation of memories, the holding of grudges, and more typical family behaviour. Most of all, it speaks of routine, and how letting go, whether knowingly or not, is a difficult thing to do.

A crushing tale on waiting, and being unable to live until our dreams fulfil, this was an absolute little diamond from Conrad.