Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Book #87

The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura

In this charming book from 1906, Okakura explores Zen, Taoism, Tea Masters and the significance of the Japanese tea ceremony.

Tea. I’m not into it.

I didn’t finish this one. From reading other reviews, I recognise I have probably missed out on some gorgeous Asian customs, architecture, and prose, all of which crop up later in the book. I mean, just read the excerpt printed on the inside cover:

'Meanwhile, let us have a sip of tea. The afternoon glow is brightening the bamboos, the fountains are bubbling with delight, the soughing of the pines is heard in our kettle.'


I just simply could not continue reading how tea is brewed. These explanations, I imagine, are to be gotten through before you hit the good stuff. Friends, I could not.

Which poses the question - why on earth are you reading The Book of Tea? And the answer, of course, is that I’m trying with every fibre of energy I possess, to finish the Little Black Classics range once and for all, and put them safely into my reading past where they belong.

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Book #86

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

The beloved American classic about a young girl's coming-of-age at the turn of the century, Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a poignant and moving tale filled with compassion and cruelty, laughter and heartache, crowded with life and people and incident. The story of young, sensitive, and idealistic Francie Nolan and her bittersweet formative years in the slums of Williamsburg has enchanted and inspired millions of readers for more than sixty years. By turns overwhelming, sublime, heartbreaking, and uplifting, the daily experiences of the unforgettable Nolans are raw with honesty and tenderly threaded with family connectedness -- in a work of literary art that brilliantly captures a unique time and place as well as incredibly rich moments of universal experience.

Wholesomely bleak seems like a true oxymoron, but it’s a wonderful way to describe this novel. Poverty and joy, cruelty and kindness, struggles and celebrations; Smith gives all, and it truly is glorious.

The novel traverses the life of Francie, a Brooklyn girl in the early 1900s. At our first meeting, Francie is eleven years old, and we’re allowed to make our way through life with her until her late teens. Smith wonderfully details the things that excite and fascinate her at eleven, only to slowly advance her into almost-adulthood, where very little is big and wonderful any more. It’s a sad, yet relatable fact that we all become apathetic and less imaginative as the years progress. It’s an excruciating blow to an adult reader, which made me wish I’d read this earlier in life when hope was abundant.

Francie’s life, and the life of her family, is difficult. She’s given a poverty-stricken home, an alcoholic father, and the curse of being born a woman. Every obstacle seems to be against her, and yet Francie sets her eyes forward to the future she wants, sometimes erring in her determination, but always returning to her resilient personality.

Smith consistently hits the family with tragedy and woe, yet always juxtaposes this with the notion that the world has more good in it than evil. Every single black cloud comes with some sort of silver lining, whether that be the kindness of humanity, or simply a life lesson. Francie develops throughout the novel as a result of the struggles in her childhood, becoming the woman her family knew she could be, and it’s heartwarming to watch her grow.

It was glorious to see Brooklyn set in this age; I loved reading the social commentary from Smith here. One particularly interesting mainstay was the idea of ‘what will the neighbours think’, present in situations ranging from babies born out of wedlock, to the noise created by a husband aspiring to become a one-man band. What other people will think or say is far more prevalent in poor communities than in the wealthier, and Smith presents this as bring down to a stronger grasp on morals and religion.

The different ethnicities shown in the book also make for fascinating analysis. Although Smith reinforces that they simply do not mix together, Francie often visits Jewish and Chinese neighbourhoods to buy provisions, witnesses Germans drown out their holiday singing, and even mistakenly offends someone by using a racist slur which she wasn’t aware was a slur. The commentary is very subtle, and yet the differences in comparison to how we behave now are clear, and Smith makes very apparent hints towards the status gained by those whose parents were born in America. Even Francie feels pride as she stands up in (a very white) class to announce both her, and her parents, had been born there. Many had parents who had made the journey looking for a better life, so this makes Francie feel like a true American. I doubt I need say more.

Although this could be considered a coming of age tale, particularly for young adults, I absolutely loved reading this as it’s so much more than those things. It’s heartbreak, it’s love, it’s family, and most importantly, it’s human. Thank you, Betty Smith.

“People always think that happiness is a faraway thing," thought Francie, "something complicated and hard to get. Yet, what little things can make it up; a place of shelter when it rains - a cup of strong hot coffee when you're blue; for a man, a cigarette for contentment; a book to read when you're alone - just to be with someone you love. Those things make happiness.”

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Book #85

Farewell Olympus by Jack Messenger

Howard has it all – love, Paris, prospects – until an unexpected guest plunges him into mystery and farce

When a patron of the arts named Serge loans him a luxurious penthouse apartment in central Paris, Howard can’t believe his luck. Then, disaster strikes, in the shape of Eugene, Howard’s half-brother and personal nemesis, who sows chaos and discord wherever he goes. 
People are suddenly not what they seemed, and danger lurks in every restaurant. Serge himself is implicated in wrongdoing, while Giles, an Englishman abroad and seldom sober, knows more than he’s prepared to tell.
Can Howard and Eugene overcome their mutual antagonism long enough to survive? Should Howard forgive Eugene for being better looking? Will Eugene ever help him with the housework? Above all, will they ever agree about anything, particularly women?

Howard is living his best life in Paris - huge apartment, gorgeous girlfriend, alongside various other prospects - until his half-brother Eugene arrives and brings with him multitudes of chaos. Thus, Messenger plunges us into a riotous plot filled with espionage, kidnapping, almost-torture, and a host of mysteries to be solved - one of which is the nature of Eugene’s calamities.

The relationship between the two brothers is one of the most fascinating things here. Howard almost flees when he notices Eugene has arrived in Paris, and we are then encouraged to explore the reasons behind this. Dangerously close in age, each of them seem to subtly compete to be the better of the two, most which takes place through dialogue. Howard is thrown into crisis as his brother takes over his apartment, invokes bad men to follow him, and begins to seduce his girlfriend (a sore punch right on the masculinity).

Messenger’s prose is profound and yet engaging as he makes observations and drops bombshells into his plotlines. He peppers a lot of humour in exactly the right places, and has a skill in his writing which I’m at a loss to describe, but will use the word endearing for lack of a better. Howard’s mainly self-deprecating innermost thoughts were a particular mix of pity and giggles.

I found the mystery plotline to be slightly confusing, and I wasn’t entirely sure how to process the wrapping up of this. Nevertheless, the mechanisms worked well, and it was pleasing to see an eventual point of closure for the brothers.

A definite recommendation for a character study of siblings, Farewell Olympus was a special little gem highlighting just how we can find ourselves in situations we wouldn’t have the imagination to consider. 

Monday, 18 November 2019

Book #84

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

Jude Fawley's hopes of a university education are lost when he is trapped into marrying the earthy Arabella, who later abandons him. Moving to the town of Christminster where he finds work as a stonemason, Jude meets and falls in love with his cousin Sue Bridehead, a sensitive, freethinking 'New Woman'.

I consider this novel a very old friend. One who is a bleak, depressed individual, intent on ruining my optimistic outlook on life, and regularly urging on another morbid existential crisis. Yet, with old friends, you love them for who they are, and Jude is this kind of friend.

Of course, it’s Hardy, so all of the above should be no surprise to anyone who’s delved into his work before; but hell, it seems as though this is the most desolate of all. Jude is initially presented as a child of hope - one with ambitions, dreams, and purpose. We’re banded together with him for almost 500 pages, and are witness to his slow destruction, his crumbling away, as the world takes swipes at him in a constant, insurmountable fashion. Some of the things which befall him are entirely incomprehensible and cruel; it’s a wonder he continued to dream. But such are the wonders of Jude Fawley.

From the beginning, despite Jude’s original faith in his future, Hardy hangs a desperately black cloud over each word he writes. It’s grimly fascinating how he achieves this, and although the gloom dissipates and intensifies throughout the pages, it remains a constant spectre hovering over us. It’s no wonder many have crowned Jude the most depressing book ever written. 
Aside: this leads me to wonder whether the character Jude in the other most depressing book ever written, A Little Life, was somewhat based on his Victorian counterpart in sorrow. I should look that up.

The characters are simply wonderful here, and the reader is bound to become mesmerised by them. Our main characters could inspire in depth studies into their motivation and psyche, Jude and Sue in particular who seem keen to overthrow society’s moralistic expectations and religious shackles. I won’t dive into these, but it was truly a wonder (albeit a heart rending wonder) to read of these two lovers who, despite everything, are consistently shunned away despite their deeper intentions.

Hardy has lots to say here, from the folly of ambition, to a woman’s role in society. Each satirical comment was a blow, every obstacle a curse. He critiques religion, the institution of marriage, wealth defining intellect, and a thousand other Victorian social norms. His comments rattled Victorian England so much, that Jude was his final offering to the world of fiction. I would mourn this fact, but if Hardy decided to crank up the tragedy in a subsequent novel, I’m unsure whether I, or indeed the world, would be able to handle it.

So, old friend, we have met again; you’ve given me joy and heartbreak, light and shade, as you always do. Maybe we’ll meet again in another ten years or so.

Somebody might have come along that way who would have asked him his trouble, and might have cheered him by saying that his notions were further advanced than those of his grammarian. But nobody did come, because nobody does; and under the crushing recognition of his gigantic error Jude continued to wish himself out of the world.

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Book #83

A Nervous Breakdown by Anton Chekhov

From the supreme artist of the short story, three disturbing tales of supernatural hallucinations, hysterical obsession and moral decay.

I didn’t enjoy this nearly as much as I did Gooseberries. Although the prose was just as skillful, there was something lacking here which I wasn’t quite able to put my finger on.

Chekhov explores morality and mental decay in the first two stories. Men becoming overcome, having erratic and terrifying thoughts, worrying those around them, and worrying themselves. Chekhov depicts this well, although I feel the stories were too short for a proper dissection of the human psyche, and his characters’ wellbeing. The third story was short, woeful, and due to it being completely unrelated to mental health, felt distinctly out of place - a fault, I should say, which is down to Penguin and not Chekhov himself.

Perhaps I was missing the type of moral message I found in Gooseberries and The Two Volodyas, or even the dismally melancholic tone of The Kiss. I just wasn’t engaged; there was nothing here for me.

It ain’t his best work, comrades.  

Friday, 8 November 2019

Book #82

Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth by Xiaolu Guo

Life as a film extra in Beijing might seem hard, but Fenfang won't be defeated. She has travelled 1800 miles to seek her fortune in the city, and has no desire to return to the never-ending sweet potato fields back home. Determined to live a modern life, Fenfang works as a cleaner in the Young Pioneer's movie theatre, falls in love with unsuitable men and keeps her kitchen cupboard stocked with UFO instant noodles. As Fenfang might say, Heavenly Bastard in the Sky, isn't it about time I got my lucky break?

Twenty fragments. What a perfectly apt title for a novel comprised of twenty non-linear, illogical pieces of life.

Our protagonist, Fenfang, leaves her country village for the big life in Beijing. With her eyes on becoming a film star, she is soon disillusioned with the city and its prospects, and we see her life pan out in a realistic, yet beige, manner.

I felt for Fenfang deeply, as she is a trudger. We trudgers take the blows life lands on us, and carry on. We’re not happy, we’re not sad, we’re just here, keeping going. It was so sad so hear Fenfang relate her symptoms of depression without her realising what she was describing.

The prose here is raw, simple, and excellent. Short sentences depict Fenfang’s emotions perfectly, the settings were eloquent, the dialogue clipped and effective. It’s a relatively quick read, but somehow manages to pin to you corkboard.

It was wonderful to read of China from a Chinese author, mainly Beijing; the cultures, the expectations, the sociology. I was rapt. The skill here is where she doesn’t provide lengthy explanations of culture, food, the whims of people; she presents everything as it is, and nothing could be more realistic.

I became a person who was very good at hiding her emotions. Maybe that was why people thought I was heartless. Apparently my face often had a blank expression. Huizi, my most intellectual friend, would say, “Fenfang, yours is the face of a post-modern woman.”

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Book #81

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Stephen King returns to the characters and territory of one of his most popular novels ever, The Shining, in this instantly riveting novel about the now middle-aged Dan Torrance and the very special 12-year-old girl he must save from a tribe of murderous paranormals.

On highways across America, a tribe of people called The True Knot travel in search of sustenance. They are quasi-immortal, living off the steam that children with the shining produce when they are slowly tortured to death.
Dan has been drifting for decades, desperate to shed his father's legacy of despair, alcoholism, and violence. Finally, he settles in a New Hampshire town, in a job at a nursing home where his remnant shining power provides the crucial final comfort to the dying. Aided by a prescient cat, he becomes Doctor Sleep.
Then Dan meets the evanescent Abra Stone, and it is her spectacular gift, the brightest shining ever seen, that reignites Dan's own demons and summons him to a battle for Abra's soul and survival.

I always felt King was mighty ambitious in trying to write a sequel for something so monolithic as The Shining. So much so, that Doctor Sleep has been on my shelf unread for a number of years, because really, how do you top The Shining?

The answer is, simply, that you don’t. You take the beloved innocent boy from your original novel, tear him to pieces, and carve an entirely new story from his mutilated parts. It was so utterly unlike The Shining, and yet something quite special in itself.

Dan Torrance grows up to exhibit many of his father’s flaws - alcoholism and violence, yes, but battling demons more so. As Dan grows older, his shine diminishes, and the more he drinks, the duller he shines. Through alcohol, he manages to almost entirely lose his power, until he meets a young girl who shines like a lighthouse, and they band together to combat a band of true supernatural bad guys intent on murder and torture.

King’s prose is gorgeous and descriptive, and yet I found his pace jarring. I was propelled along initially, dragged along in the middle third, and then roused back into life for the finale. I know King is capable of keeping this momentum for the entirely of the novel, so the middle section was a slight disappointment.

I think most of the draw here for me was seeing how Dan had grown. That he’d developed most of his father’s addictions and habits sparked a true nature vs nurture debate in my head. That he and his mother had kept in touch with Dick Hallorann warmed my black heart. King characterises Dan perfectly, and it truly was a joy to see the little boy on the tricycle as a man - albeit a broken one.

Having said that, I really felt some of the other characters could have done with some attention; they were interesting as hell, and yet their back stories and motivations were pretty lacking. King presents us with a whole new idea of the shining, a whole new cast of weirdos with this curious ability, and yet we aren’t allowed to explore their lives.

All things considered, I enjoyed this more than I was expecting. King creates an adult life for a true OG, mixing hopelessness with purpose, experience with youth, and in true King fashion, supernatural with mundane.