Showing posts with label Book reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Book reviews. Show all posts

Friday, 31 December 2021

The world itself is the bad dream

The Bell Jar I was taking a chance with The Bell Jar. A fictionalised autobiography about a young woman attempting suicide is unlikely to raise the spirits when you're living through the Covid pandemic. But there were headlines in the media about how lockdowns and isolation were affecting people's mental health so it seemed like something I should read. Besides, it's generally considered a classic.

Monday, 20 December 2021

A child's Christmas in...

A Child's Christmas in Wales Adults always claim that Christmas is for the children. Who are they trying to kid? Whatever your age, 25 December provides an excuse to stuff yourself with sweeties and play silly games.

If you want something to get you in the mood for a merry Christmas, you could do no better than to pick up a copy of Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales. It's so short you can read it in less than an hour.

Saturday, 11 December 2021

Everyone thought I was rather a strange child

Convenience Store Woman Convenience Store Woman is about Miss Furukura. "Everyone thought I was a rather strange child", she says, and it was only when she started working at a convenience store and was trained to deal with customers that she was able "to accomplish a normal facial expression and manner of speech." Now in her mid-30s, unmarried with no boyfriend, she's worked part-time in the same store for the past 18 years or so. Following her sister's advice on how to appear "normal", she's happy.

The edition that I read included an essay by author Sayaka Murata entitled A Love Letter to the Convenience Store, and the tale is indeed a sort of romance between Furukura and the store. In the opening pages the character describes in fascinating detail how the sounds of the convenience store enable her to anticipate customer needs. She makes odd comments that set you wondering what, if anything, has happened to make her the way she is.

Although Furukura is content, there's a sadness to her situation. She realises that her sister is "happier rather thinking [Furukura] is normal, even if she has a lot of problems, than she is having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine". When Shiraha, a young man who rejects the expectations of society, joins the team, Furukura's ordered life is thrown into disarray. However, what is chaos for Furukura is conformity for her co-workers, and their interaction with her changes. Unfortunately "it felt like [they'd] downgraded me from store worker to female of the human species".

In addition to this idea of societal norms, the book raises questions about sexlessness and celibacy, which brings into question the translation of its title. In Japanese it is Convenience Store Person, but in English it has become Convenience Store Woman. I wonder why this decision was made, because it doesn't really tally with those themes.

Furukura reminded me of Aroon St Charles in Good Behaviour, or Eleanor Oliphant in Gail Honeyman's book. They are women who function within society and accept its mores but either can't or won't conform. Some might describe them as nerds or geeks, characters who take people at their word and don't understand sarcasm or "banter".

Furukura has found her place in society, or rather a small space where she fits without having to compromise. As she says, "I am one of those cogs, going round and round. I have become a functioning part of the world", and this makes her happy, whatever other people think of her.

Monday, 6 December 2021

Permissive, modern, challenging, gappy, frustrating, moving, attenuated, beautiful, ambiguous, resourceful, provoking, necessary. Yours.

This Is Shakespeare Here's a book for people who want to know more about Shakespeare but need a bit of guidance before sitting down to watch or read a whole play. Emma Smith has chosen 20 of Shakespeare's works, briefly explains the plots and investigates the themes. More importantly she teases out what it is about them that continues to make them relevant to theatre-workers and theatre-goers today.

Although written by a Shakespeare scholar, the writing style is accessible and engaging. Each chapter discusses one of the Bard's plays, but there's no need to read them in order. You can pick the book up and delve right into a comedy or tragedy that you know, then investigate those you may not be familiar with later. I started with favourite movie adaptations: Sir Ian McKellen as Richard III, Ben Whishaw as Richard II, Baz Luhrman's Romeo and Juliet, and The Taming of the Shrew aka Ten Things I Hate About You or Kiss Me Kate.

One of the most memorable chapters dealt with A Midsummer Night's Dream, which I'd never seen and knew little about. I'd thought it was just a fairy story, but it turns out that it "really isn’t a play for children". I've subsequently enjoyed the 1999 film version with Kevin Kline as Bottom. Other adaptations are available.

Like many, my introduction to Shakespeare was at school, but when I studied Twelfth Night aged 15 its cross-dressing characters merely seemed to be a plot device to set up some humorous misunderstandings. Now, in a world of LGBTQ+ rights the play takes on a new relevance. This is the value of Emma Smith's book. It shows how over the past 500 years, for each generation Shakespeare "can resonate in particular circumstances, and how we can bring to the plays our own emotional, political, ideological and creative energies."

More stuff

Friday, 12 November 2021

I read it in the Daily Mail so it must be true

We Need New Stories: Challenging the Toxic Myths Behind Our Age of Discontent This week saw yet another report of university students banning a speaker for remarks made during a debate. It was a perfect opportunity for John Cleese (Monty Python and Fawlty Towers star) to gain some publicity for his upcoming documentary on "cancel culture". The media is full of such voices, incensed by "woke rules". We Need New Stories shines a light on such outrage and exposes the hidden agendas.

Thursday, 11 November 2021

Latin, cockney slang, and teenage argot

The Emperor's Babe I'd come across Bernardine Evaristo's 2001 book, The Emperor's Babe, in a search for fiction based in Roman times. It had won a few awards and been named "best book of the year" by several newspapers, so after reading 2019's Booker-Prize-winning Girl, Woman, Other I got hold of the author's earlier work.

Revolutionary deaths

Tu montreras ma tête au peuple (Folio) Tu Montreras Ma Tete Au Peuple is a gem of a book, but as yet only available in French, the language of its author François-Henri Désérable. It contains ten bite-sized stories, myths and legends of the French Revolution.

The title of the book is taken from the supposed last words of Danton who is the subject of one of its fictionalised accounts. These narratives are based on a variety of reported last moments, some apocryphal, some invented, of the unfortunate souls who were guillotined during the Terror (generally reckoned to be from 1793 to mid-1794). Each is told from a different perspective, jailers, onlookers, relatives, friends, and even an executioner.

Take back control of your town

Paint Your Town Red: How Preston Took Back Control and Your Town Can Too If you want something done, do it yourself. After "forty years of neoliberalism having gone unchecked and unchallenged" in the UK, what can people living in depressed areas do to counteract "post-industrial neglect and its deeply damaging social and economic impact"? Matthew Brown and Rhian Jones have some suggestions in this book.

Beautiful princesses and handsome princes

The Swans of Fifth Avenue Is the The Swans of Fifth Avenue a fairytale? In the Preface Melanie Benjamin describes the eponymous swans as if they really are talking birds floating on the water, rather than a group of rich American women who spend all their time buying clothes, having their hair done, or just doing nothing in expensive properties. Primarily tho', the book is about the relationship between writer Truman Capote and socialite Babe Paley - the other characters play supporting roles.

Mostly an entertaining story

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared Oh dear! This is the first book I've seriously considered not finishing, yet it started so well.

Allan Karlsson, never "given to pondering things too long", steps out of the window of his ground floor room in an old people's home, and sets in motion a series of tragic yet comic events. By chapter five we know a little about Allan's childhood, and his philosophy of life, "Things are what they are, and whatever will be will be. That meant, among other things, that you didn’t make a fuss, especially when there was good reason to do so".

The result of idle speculation

Hamnet Hamnet is the name of Shakespeare's son who died aged 11, but the book is not really about him, it's about his mother Anne, or Agnes as she is known in the novel. It begins in 1596 with the boy home alone. The narrative follows him through the house, setting the scene, introducing us to the players. In the second chapter we go back in time to 1582 or thereabouts and meet Agnes Hathaway and her family.

Truth or fiction?

The Book of Evidence In John Banville's The Book of Evidence, Freddie Montgomery sits in prison, awaiting his trial and sentencing for the murder of Josie Bell. The unfortunate maid came across her killer as he was stealing a painting, and one thing led to another. In Freddie's account he imagines he's standing in court, talking to the judge. "Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Don’t make me laugh".

Freddie identifies the turning points that have led him to his current situation. But if we think we can begin to understand his actions by these meaningful moments, Freddie quickly puts us right. He says, "They have significance, apparently. They may even have value of some sort. But they do not mean anything. There now, I have declared my faith.".

We can't believe anything that Freddie says. Which parts of his life are fake and which real? He tells us he might try to use what he has written as his testimony. "But no," he says, "I have asked Inspector Haslet to put it into my file, with the other, official fictions." On finishing The Book of Evidence I can only conclude that Banville has written a metafiction, an account of a murder narrated by a fictional murderer who never stops telling us stories. Deep!

A generous and wise aunt

Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen How brilliant it would be to have an aunt like Fay Weldon in her epistolary novel, Letters To Alice: On First Reading Jane Austen. She not only dispenses advice to her niece Alice on literary criticism and the art of writing, but she's also generous with her money; £500 for a word processor, and the offer to pay for a course of study at UCLA.

The first of sixteen letters explains that Alice is "doing a college course in English Literature, and ... obliged to read Jane Austen" Alice finds Austen boring, petty and irrelevant and sees no purpose in reading her books, but Weldon attempts to persuade her niece otherwise.

Can you trust your memory?

Burnt Sugar Sometimes you'll be watching a movie or TV series that portrays the ideal family, one where problems are discussed and resolved, where mothers dispense hugs and wisdom to daughters in equal measure, and you think to yourself, "what a crock of sh*t". This is what I imagine Antara, the protagonist of Avni Doshi's Burnt Sugar would think. Age 36, she's resentful of the way she has been raised, despises her mother who has recently developed Alzheimer's, but can't cut the ties.

The story is set in Puna, India, and narrated by Antara who intersperses scenes of her current life with episodes she remembers from her upbringing. Tara, her mother, didn't conform to the life society expected her to lead. She left her husband and his overbearing mother to live in an ashram, the source of Antara's first memories.

Memory is a key theme of the novel. In one scene Antara tells her grandmother she remembers the time her mother added chilli to her food. "Your mother didn’t add the chilli to your khichdi. I added ginger to it because you had a very bad cold", says Nani. Later, Tara's doctor explains, "memory is a work in progress. It’s always being reconstructed". The daughter tries to mitigate the effects of her mother's dementia by trying to keep the memories alive, but whatever Antara relates is her own truth (although she admits to telling lies) and not Tara's.

As the story unfolds the daughter seems to morph into her mother and you sometimes wonder whose thoughts are being spoken. No matter how much Antara wants to be her own woman, live her own life, she cannot escape her mother: "I understood how deeply connected we were, and how her destruction would irrevocably lead to my own". In the end, you have a great deal of sympathy and admiration for the woman who has lived her own life. As for Antara, you can't help thinking that she'd be better off living in the present, rather than continually picking over the past.

You're better off without him, love!

A Cat, a Man, and Two Women According to the Wikipedia page Cats and the Internet, "images and videos of domestic cats make up some of the most viewed content on the web". It goes further: "viewing online cat media is related to positive emotions, and ... it even may work as a form of digital therapy or stress relief".

Can the same be said for feline-centric literature?

A grim and fiercely joyless old lady

Great Granny Webster These days it's impossible to read a book without the gloomy cloud of Covid looming above me. Unfortunately Caroline Blackwood's Great Granny Webster filled me with a despondency and ennui that might not have been so bad if I'd read it before 2020.

The eponymous matriarch is a "grim and fiercely joyless old lady". Her 14-year-old great-granddaughter is sent to live with her for two months in the hope that the girl will benefit from the sea air in Hove, where Mrs Webster lives. As the teenager is leaving she discovers that her father, who died when she was nine, regularly enjoyed visiting the old woman.

Wednesday, 10 November 2021

A modern day Beowulf

The Mere Wife Maria Dahvana Headley's The Mere Wife opens with a female soldier, Dana Mills, "facedown in a truck bed, getting ready to be dead." It's a powerful beginning which draws the reader in, written in the present tense with short, punchy sentences. It hints at an optimistic future too, as Dana's only comfort is the memory of "a line I read in a library book. All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well."

Tuesday, 9 November 2021

I thought LA was a sunny place

The Big Sleep (Philip Marlowe, #1) There are not far off 6000 reviews of Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep on Goodreads. Can there be anything more for me to add to the pile?

I'll try to keep it brief. Private detective Philip Marlowe is hired by millionaire General Sternwood to find out who's blackmailing him. The wealthy old man has two strong-willed and wayward daughters, "Vivian is spoiled, exacting, smart and quite ruthless. Carmen is a child who likes to pull wings off flies. Neither of them has any more moral sense than a cat". They both have links to crooks and gangsters, and the book follows Marlowe's investigation of this seedy underworld in Los Angeles.

Thursday, 4 November 2021

Inhumement, entombment, inurnment or immurement?

The Loved One Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One is a short novel which often appears in best-of lists of humorous literature. It's an Anglo American tragedy according to the subtitle, about an American girl called Aimée who can't decide which of two suitors she should marry: British expat poet Dennis Barlow, or her respected American work colleague Mr Joyboy.

Waugh wrote the book during an all expenses paid visit to Hollywood, where MGM was hoping to obtain the film rights for Brideshead Revisited.

Monday, 1 November 2021

Heavy themes, light touch

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World "Her name was Leila. Tequila Leila, as she was known to her friends and her clients." Elif Shafak's 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World is the story of Leila and the five friends who loved her.

The story is in two parts: part one The Mind, part two The Body. In The Mind, we discover the events in Leila's life that led to her leaving home and becoming a sex worker in Istanbul. It's narrated in flashback during the brief time between her heart stopping beating and her brain ceasing to function; the 10 minutes 38 seconds of the title. I don't want to give too much away. Suffice it to say that Leila and her mother, being female, have little control over their lives. There's a particularly disturbing scene that takes place when Leila is six, but in spite of the dark subject matter it's not a bleak tale because Leila is a fighter.