August and September in Books

Caught between packing up my life in York and finishing my degree, it has taken me a while to sit down and write this – but I haven’t stopped reading (quite the opposite!) This is what I read between August and September.

Featuring: The Help, Gone Girl, The Goldfinch, Normal People, Dance, Dance Dance and The Wolves of Leninsky Prospect.

Image: The Telegraph. The Goldfinch, Carel Fabritius (1654)

The Help, Kathryn Stockett (2009)

I spent my first, initial bout of freedom with The Help, a book I had been meaning to read for years. Having only read about its reception after finishing the book, I was shocked to discover the critical reviews and accusations of ‘white washing’ surrounding Stockett’s depiction of the black maids. Upon reading it, I found quite the opposite. It was so refreshing to read a book set during the Civil Rights movement which was centered on depicting the struggle through the eyes and experience of the marginalized.

The novel is told through the experience of black, female maids working in Mississippi whilst the Civil Rights movement begins. Another perspective offered is through Eugenia Skeeter, an aspiring, young white journalist. Through her attachment to her own previous maid, Constantine, it becomes her ambition to write a book portraying the experiences of black maids in Mississippi. Through her lens, we get an insight into the difficulties of writing about a ‘taboo’ subject in an era still favoring the use of black maids in white households, the segregation and pull of white supremacy.

Stockett herself, makes no claim to be documenting the entirety of black maid experience. However, she draws upon her own experience having grown up in Mississippi during the 1960s – she was also close to an African American domestic worker – which formed the inspiration for this novel.

I loved this novel and thought it was incredibly eye opening and cleverly written. (5/5)

Gone Girl, Gillian Flyn (2014)

I found myself fully immersed in this novel as soon as I started reading it. I was gripped towards the two leading characters, Amy and Nick Dunne. Their relationship and lives are told through alternating chapters, featuring their perspectives of each other. The reader is left not knowing who is the ‘mad’ one in the relationship and who is responsible for the series of events which escalate.

The beginning of the book outlines their rather chaotic and different lives and questions how they have ended up together in the first place. It is interesting how Flyn has paralleled the two alternative perspectives of the same relationship to the point where the reader cannot side with either perpetrator.

Up until the point where Amy Dunne goes missing, I was hooked. But when the novel begins to shift towards its ending, I lost interest. I felt the initial complexity of it was lost and the ending was rather dull. I was left with the impression that the author had gotten bored with it and wanted to quickly wrap it up.

Still worth a read though, 3/5.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt (2013)

These few words I’m about to write about The Goldfinch, will never pay homage to its genius (I am thinking about writing a separate post on it altogether), but I would just like to say I think it is one of the best novels I have ever read. Not only is it written beautifully, but it draws on all the essential assets of being human in the modern age.

It plays on what is is to be human and how we are all, in some way, suspect to being driven by the fallibility of beauty, art and illusion. Featuring the 1654 painting by Carel Fabritius, which is stolen by the protagonist, Theodore Decker, during an explosion in an art gallery, each aspect of the story comes back to the painting and its central, symbolic message. There is beauty in everything but is is all essentially an illusion, and not necessarily worth saving.

It is also deals with the imperfection and fallibility of human experience, against the backdrop of urban America. Theodore experiences the trials and tribulations of an adolescent growing up in modern America. It touches on the sensitive, human issues of our times in the most beautiful way.

The extent of character development Tartt is able to create in this book blew me away. Although Theo was flawed, often wrong and subject to countless stupidity, I was always drawn to him and I felt bound to him in a way I never have to any other fictional character.

A must read for anyone, 5/5.

Normal People, Sally Rooney (2019)

For all the hype surrounding this book, and the claims it is the next D.H Lawrence or J.D Salinger, I failed to see how it could be comparable. I found it to be a good book, but I am unsure whether it is one of the best of our times.

It explores the lives of two main characters growing up in Dublin, Ireland. The two protagonists, Marianne and Connell, find themselves always drawn back to each other, whether by a platonic or sexual relationship, which appears to constantly alternate. It draws upon wider issues of class in the contexts of ‘modern’ relationships and the barriers that can remain between them.

Their lives are complicated, as all young adults’ are. I did I feel connected to them and the novel in general, but it hasn’t really resonated with me in the same way as it has with other people.

The relationship between the two protagonists is explored against a backdrop of the class inequalities in modern Ireland. However much I appreciate the sentiment and the characterization of the protagonist, I cannot quite fathom why it has had such a great reception. 3/5

Dance, Dance, Dance, Haruki Murakami (2011)

I go through periods where I absolutely devour Murakami and others where I don’t touch his books. These few months were the former.

I will be biased as Murakami is by far one of my favourite authors but I really did love this book. The novel is told through the protagonist whom is struggling to acquire work as a commercial writer. A sense of restlessness seems to follow him around, so much so that he always ends up at the same strange, Dolphin Hotel; the place where two worlds meet. Strangely enough though, the protagonist is never named. Perhaps, like the premise of the book, he is not known in the present world? Who knows.

Like most Murakami novels, there is not just the present world, but an abundance of worlds where characters lose and find themselves. Although technically a sequel to A Wild Sheep Chase, I think this novel still works as a stand-alone if you are familiar with Murakami’s writing.

The novel deals with sexuality, friendship, love and loss through the typical sense of strangeness and restlessness which appears in most of Murakami’s novels. It also contains a subtle critique of some elements of modernity, including the wrath of capitalism and how it can be a force for destruction. 4/5

The Wolves of Leninsky Prospect, Sarah Armstrong (2019)

I found this book whilst browsing through the proof copy bookshelf in the shop where I work. I was drawn to it as it was written by an author I had never heard of. Sarah Armstrong actually lives in the same town as I do, so I naturally wanted to become more familiar with her work.

I instantly fell in love with the feel and intrigue of this book and learnt a lot about life in Soviet Moscow in the 1970s. The book follows the main protagonist, Martha as she moves to Moscow with her new husband Kit, who is effectively, her gay best friend. Martha moves to Moscow in the hope to start a better life, having been sent away from Cambridge University for distributing left-wing leaflets.

Martha attempts to fully immerse herself into the Moscow life in her attempt to learn the language and make friends. But she is unaware of the dangers of her actions and the spy-like consequences of her actions. Life in Moscow is never quite what she imagined.

Armstrong depicts the Soviet state in the 1970s with startling realism. Like Martha, I too was lured in by the beauty, fascination and sense of the unknown that Moscow seemed to portray. The novel always feels slightly uncomfortable, but all the while, utterly fascinating and alluring.

I was very pleased to find out there is a sequel is in the works! 4/5

14/10/19: A State of Distraction

Image: Queen at the State opening of Parliment (Monday October 14, 2019) SkyNews.

Like most people in the country, I hold my breath each morning as I enjoy the brief silence before I expose myself to the morning’s news. Alas, the exposure has to be done in an attempt to understand the path of British politics as it changes from one minute to the next.

Standing at on the door of Number 10 during his first speech as Prime Minister, Boris Johnston promised the country that he would restore their faith in democracy with, “no ifs no buts” and deliver Brexit by October 31st. In the Queen’s speech, Johnson seemed to be promulgating a mixture of election style pledges on boosting the regulation of crime and punishment, false promises of education improvements and of course, more policemen on the street. The current climate crisis was merely accounted for, as critiqued by Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton and Pavillion, the Queen’s Speech contained just six words dedicated to the issue.

Brexit related issues in the Queen’s speech include confirmed heightened restrictions on freedom of movement and a proposed introduction of a points-based immigration system from 2021. Additional Brexit promises also included a new Environment Bill to reduce the use of plastics and encourage biodiversity and the proposition to raise the national living wage to £10.50. But remember, all these policies have to be taken with a sack (not pinch) of salt, as Johnson has no parliamentary majority but is instead, high bent on churning out a list of propagandist policies that will vote him into Number 10 in the next following election.

It is highly likely that none of his pledges to make Britain, ‘the greatest place on Earth‘ will ever be enacted due to their failure to be passed by the House of Commons in the following few days (thanks to Johnson’s majority of -43).

But again, there was hardly any concrete information on the progress of leaving the EU, instead the issue seems to be brushed aside in favor of hauling out what seems like election promises instead of addressing the current political moment.

In every interview Boris is keen to reassure UK Journalists that progress on Brexit is fine and dandy – but can never elude to anything more. As the days unravel at a seemingly quicker pace, the public are endlessly left in the dark and with no further understanding of how the course of Brexit is going to play out. It seems the current Prime Minister is lost in his bubble of statecraft, with a sole desire of becoming Britain’s greatest orator – but not the beacon of democracy he so promised on the first day of his premiership.

The pomp and circumstance of the Queen’s arrival into parliament on this drizzly, October day seemed a somewhat perfect reflection of Boris Johnston’s government.

It is merely a governance of showy polemic, with little grounding or care for the future impact of policies which are being muddled through in a blurry haze. Speeches are often propagandist, but this one in particular proved to serve as a distraction from the looming realities of the Brexit deadline. Once more, we are still kept in the dark and it is unlikely to get brighter as the eve of Halloween remains on the horizon.

July in books

Image: On Chesil Beach (film adaptation, 2017)

Although two and a half books in one month is not a lot too most people – it is more than I have read for a while! Earlier on in the month I told myself I wanted to read more for pleasure – and I guess I have succeeded. Next month’s target will be three books – which should be more achievable as I will have finished my exams!

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (2007)

The first book I chose to read this month was one of the most harrowing books I have read for a while. I feel in love with Atonement when I was studying A-Level literature and have always wanted to read more McEwan and this didn’t disappoint. I read the short novel in about two days and was at once taken back to the writing style which made me fall in love with literature. McEwan has such a rich palette for detail and makes every scene come alive. On Chesil Beach follows the account of a newly wed couple on their honeymoon evening. Flipping from their student days until the present, McEwan tells the story of their upsetting struggle. Subtle but innovative, the story is compelling but nonetheless devastating. A perspective not often covered in literature, but tackled with beauty and elegance, the reader can almost feel the tension prickling through the pages. 4/5

Autumn by Ali Smith (2016),

Considered to be the first fiction book written in response to Brexit, this book (and following series) follows a contemporary criticism of Britain in the aftermath of the 2016 vote. Written in the third person, in prose somewhat resembling poetic voice, it offers a stark criticism of the feeling of Britain in a post-Brexit world. Although being fiction, one cannot help but interpret Autumn as symbolic of Britain’s Brexit sentiment as a historic moment. Leaver or remainer, upon reading Autumn, readers should agree that it is a remarkable work of fiction based on a current, real life political event that everyone should read regardless of political persuasion. Autumn is a set of four books which include Spring, Summer and Winter. Each is a reflection of the moments following the Brexit vote. Stark, yet wonderfully written and reflective. (5/5)

Saturday by Ian McEwan

I cannot really write a review of this as I am only half way through, but I thought I would include a some thoughts anyway. As I was impressed by Chesil Beach, I thought I would continue the McEwan theme. Saturday is set in the post 9/11 age and offers a subtle reflection on British politics in the 2000s; the threat of nuclear war with Iran and urban life in modern London. As expected, McEwan intricately describes every nook and cranny of the life of the protagonist, the neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne and his family. It is a novel set in one single Saturday, but the intricacy makes it feel like a lifetime. I am very much looking forward to reading more of it!

falling back in love with reading

Image: Pixabay

With every passing year, I make the resolution to read more. Which sounds ridiculous if you knew what I was like ten years ago. I was one of those children who used to stay up at night with a book under the covers and a torch. Not even sunny days could drag me away from the comfort of printed pages.

I used to read until my eyes got sore and my joints got stiff from holding the heavy weight of thousands of words.

Every year since I started university (three now) I have made the resolution that I really must read more. Which is ironic as I study history and my days revolve around reading. But reading for pleasure has been out of the question since 2016.

Reading for pleasure can often feel like a selfish indulgence – especially with fiction books. Often, they’re not really adding much to your life (or you intelligence) and feel as if they are a sinful indulgence. That’s what my relationship to them has been recently anyway. After failing last year’s Goodreads reading challenge I set for myself, and the one before that I really want to start enjoying reading again.

Because reading should not be categorized as a form of guilty self indulgence, even when our busy lives are jam packed – who can’t spare ten minutes a day? Reading is so important for the mind and maintaining a mentality of freedom and imagination.

So for this month (during my revision for exams!) – I have challenged myself to read more fiction. I am on book number 2 so far. A follow up ‘books I have read this month’ will be on the horizon soon.

V.

as we implode

we’re a whole season apart

missed sunsets and falling leaves.

next time the trees will be stark

and autumn’s mark

left

into the dark.

I can see fireworks through my little window

big, bright bold

sparks of colour unfold

into the night

Watch as they erupt,

Booming, all consuming.

We are the sky you and I

We illume

Catch us, go on

Try as we subsume.

the season takes hold.

make room,

as the sky unfolds

I am reminded of the line between us

unrelenting; never growing old.

because between us we are missing a whole season

it took you and left me

and us,

to dust.