Book Review: Keep the Aspidistra Flying

Image: Violet Daniels

Title: Keep the Aspidistra Flying

Author: George Orwell

Publisher: Penguin, Modern Classics (2000/1936)

Rating: 5/5

I will never shut up about Orwell. Yes, it may seem kind of strange to be banging on about his writing so many years on; but his work will never not be relevant, regardless of the type of society we live in. Thus, I once again returned to reading some Orwell. This time, with a book which was published 84 years ago.

Synopsis

Gordon Comstock is disastrously unhappy. He’s a slave to an advertising industry that he despises. He is wasting his literary talents on an industry that he cannot morally support but is reaping the benefits for the sake of having a good job and monetary stability. However, Gordon soon realises that ploughing on with this goes against anything he stands for.

Gordon quits working at the advertising firm and instead spends his days being a bookseller, whilst trying to write. Every literary person’s dream, huh?

But the realities of living in self enforced deprivation soon take their toll. Living in such a futile, poverty stricken existence, soon sucks the life out of Gordon’s writing ambition. It begins to affect his relationship with wonderful Rosemary who he very much loves, and impacts his friendships.

The thing is, at the route of all success, whether that be family, romance, or friendships, is money. Having money gives you everything in a capitalist driven society. Gordon will have to somehow over come his natural opposition to this, if he is to maintain his relationship and devotion to Rosemary.

Gordon desperately did not want to become part of the capitalist, class stricken world that he found himself in, whilst working as a copywriter for an advertising industry. In trying to follow his heart and stick to his morals, he embarks on living in a world of self-inflicted squalor, poverty and pain. Within this, we see a vision into the world Orwell so despised, and the society in which he himself, did not feel part of.

Review

As soon as I had finished this, I knew instantly that it was my new favourite book, and possibly the best Orwell (so far) that I have read.

Others have dismissed this book as just pages of winging monologue, from a failed and depressed creative wannabe. However, I fully sympathized with the struggles and misfortune of Gordon Comstock and felt that the dialogue acted as an enlightening critique of the society that Orwell and many others were living through. This critique is timeless, as it can so readily be applied to our own society.

Fundamentally, Gordon was opposed to the idea of having money and the whole notion that society gives respect to those who have money and ‘stable’ jobs, above anything else. Even now, upon graduating, students are expected to have all these plans and to have secured graduate schemes before even having a chance to breathe after graduating. All for the sake of being able to tell someone your fancy job title and starting salary. After all, is money all there is? No, and this is precisely what this novel is about. It is a critique of the money driven society and individuals that succumb to its pull.

“Money, money, all is money!… Social failure, artistic failure, sexual failure – they are all the same. And lack of money is at the bottom of them all.”

In this book, is a character who tries to follow his principles and who is brave enough to stand against the societal norms he is enchained by. I sympathized with his struggle. To persevere with your own happiness, rather than reaping the benefits of an easy job, is a brave thing to do. Trying to make it as a writer, Gordon’s one true passion, was to take a massive leap in the dark.

However – this book is also an illustration of poverty, using London as an example. The vast difference between those who are in high paying jobs, and those who are struggling to make ends meet. Between those who are living in shared accommodation where the sheets are never free from bed bugs. To those who are living in bachelor pads on their own, that are big enough for a family of ten. As within all cities, there are the super thriving, and the people who are struggling every single day. It is a tale of how living in a city can be simultaneously the engine for creativity but also the architect of destruction when you are living in poverty.

“The bare floorboards had never been stained but were dark with dirt. In the cracks in the pink wallpaper dwelt multitudes of bugs; however, this was winter and they were torpid unless you over-warmed the room.”

I loved this book through and through. The political message is clear and ongoing, the struggle of poverty is brutally and honestly told, but the importance of being happy, self fulfilled and doing something we love is brought to the surface. Being a slave to capitalism will always have the potential to kill personal ambition – and that’s what is reiterated in this novel. Individuals must rise above its forces, by not becoming its slave.

Gordon resolves himself eventually from the cycle of poverty and goes back to his initial job due to the demands of certain circumstances (which I will not reveal as it will spoil the book!) but makes a definitive reservation to keep on writing, despite everything. He can recognise the wrath of capitalism and the drain it can have on his dreams, but he lets it go, and rises above it. Pure genius, as always.

“To abjure money is to abjure life.”

Book Review: Supermarket

Image: Amazon

Title: Supermarket

Author: Bobby Hall

Publisher: Simon and Schuster (2019)

Rating: 4/5

Its been a very long time since my last post. Due to things going on in my personal life, I haven’t felt like writing for a very long time. I don’t even feel fully like I can now but I thought I would try and write a short review to get back into things.

Synopsis

Flynn (at the start) is your classic aimless millennial who doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life. He is still living at home, working in a Supermarket and trying to write a novel. Working at the Supermarket was supposed to give him a kind of structure in his life and enable him to work on making it as a writer. However, things suddenly, and shockingly, go very wrong.

As readers, we are embedded in the mind of a paranoid, psychotic, schizophrenic. Follow Flynn and the entrails of his mind as he tries to narrate modern life, all the while trying to make something of himself, form friendships and find love. This is a tale of living inside the mind of someone with an array of mental conditions, that is both alluring, funny at times and indefinitely inescapable.

Review

Looking at online ratings of this novel, my hopes were not high when I started reading it. Most people on Goodreads have rated it between 1-2 stars, which seems overwhelmingly harsh. The book is not perfect, but it had me gripped, and for a whole two days I didn’t want to put it down. It shocked me, made me laugh and made me wonder and think a lot about myself.

I was drawn to the protagonist, Flynn in many ways. He is seemingly imperfect, trying to make it as a writer, meanwhile working in a mundane job just to try and keep the money ticking over in the bank. In a lot of ways, his situation mirrored my own current one. Naturally, I felt a connection there.

When the book suddenly turns (and I won’t say why or how as it will give the story away) it gets a bit mad – granted. There appears to be a lot of loose ends that were never tied up, regarding Flynn’s girlfriend, Mia and his close friend, Red. All of a sudden the story ends in the space of five minutes and I was left wondering why and how for a long time. Nonetheless, the twist in this novel really did take me by surprise and I never saw it coming. I was so invested in Flynn and his situation that the final outcome was never something I had initially considered.

This may be a novel by first time author, Bobby Hall, however, I never knew of his musical background or lack of literary experience. In some ways, this does shine through in the novel, when considering the amount of loose ends that are left and the sense of the ending being rushed and suddenly skidding to a halt. However, I thought that this sense of breathlessness largely alluded to the whole premise of the novel and what is is like to live with a mental illness.

This book was unlike any I have read before. I was initially drawn to Flynn as a character and empathized with his lack of direction in his life. I enjoyed the twist to the novel, its occasional dark humor and reflection on societal issues and living with a mental health condition. I believe it deserves far more praise than it appears to have gotten.

Furthermore, it’s a book about writing the book the reader is reading, it knows its a book and flaunts it – which I like.

Give it a try and let me know what you think if you do end up reading it!

“One doesn’t create art for the people who hate it. Plus, when it comes to other writers, if they think it’s bad they’ll hate it because to them it’s bad writing and if it’s good they’ll be covetous, wishing they had done it, and consequently hate on it all the more. So if you”re making your art based on others it’s a lose-lose. and if you say, “screw everyone, I’m gonna make something I love,” you’ll win every time.”

Book Review: Ducks, Newburyport

Title: Ducks, Newburyport

Author: Lucy Ellmann

Publisher: Galley Beggar Press

Rating: 3/5

Synopsis

This book follows the thoughts of an Ohioan housewife who bakes for a living. In between baking one pie after another, she worries about the state of the world and everything in between.

She worries she is not making enough money to sustain her family, she worries her children will be shot in a mass shooting and the fact that humans are destroying the planet. In between these worries, she even worries that she is worrying too much. But that’s very difficult when she lives in modern America, and in a state home to Cleveland; one of the most dangerous cities in the U.S.

We never learn her name, but in some ways we don’t have to. This 1000 page book follows the stream of conscious of an average American, trying to make their way through the qualms of modern life.

Review

I will start off by saying this is unlike any book I have ever read before. It has been a long time since it has taken me nearly two months to read any book, however, I was reading other books alongside this, as I couldn’t read this for long without needing to take a break.

I was in awe of the themes and parameters of this book. Like many, I struggle to understand the ways of modern America and the direction in which it appears to be heading. This book deals with these very ideas.

Through a seemingly average American, we learn about problems within American society, Ohio, and the world. There is a persistent critique of society, the political system and sense of injustice,

“the fact that is is all so much about money and influence now, the fact that that’s not very democratic really…. the fact that they’re all in denial about Trump too, the fact that everybody around here just thinks he’s doing a fine job or something, while they get poorer and poorer, and angrier and angrier…”

This Ohioan housewife is definitely not a Trump supporter. It was interesting to read a book discussing many current American political issues in an honest, revealing, and sometimes, amusing way. There were elements which were rather poignant; especially when discussing gun crime, one of her main concerns as a parent, is that she can never do everything to keep her children safe,

“…the fact that that is really not fair, the fact that you haven’t even got a chance if somebody decides to do something like that, just start killing people out of the blue….”

Thus, this is a theme that is repeated throughout the book, which infers how much of a constant worry it is. It really hones in on after all these years and human achievements, this is what is has come down to. In the modern world, some are happy to shoot strangers and tear apart strangers and their families.

As well as these persistent worries, she also frets about the state of the environment and how humans are so happy to kill anything and everything, she worries about the prospects of imminent nuclear war and how we are so powerless as futile individuals to think we can stop it.

In spite of all her persistent concerns, there is always some light at the end of the tunnel. Frequently, she interrupts herself to remind herself that we have to be happy to be alive,

“the fact that there are times, maybe the most unlikely times, that you realize your’re simply thrilled to be alive, and what a great piece of luck it is just to be a part of things, to have a body, so you can feel and see and walk the earth….”

which should serve as a reminder to us all. Above all, this stream of consciousness is a critique of humanity and our collective actions as a species. How we are causing more harm than good, and how these world problems can drain the life out of your average American who is just trying to live a happy life and make ends meet.

As a character, she is endearing and funny. I found her relatable, as like her, I worry about anything and everything. As a reader, you are constantly inside her head with very few breaks which can be tiring but very insightful. There are no other books I can compare it to, that deliver this same depth of consciousness.

Despite its stunning exploration of important aspects of modern life, I can’t help but feel that its delivery was lacking. It really was exhausting to read and because of this, I felt like it could have been written in half the number of words.

Some things are repeated so often that they lose their original poignancy. In her construction of this book, Ellmann makes her point clearly, but I can’t help but feel it was done so much more eloquently by others, such as Ali Smith. The steam of consciousness she creates is initially enlightening, different, and puts across a significant aspect of the book itself – the very fact that this character cannot escape from the depths of her own mind. However, as a reader, reading 1000 pages of the same thing does get exasperating.

I feel like Ellmann was deliberately trying to break the boundaries of a traditional novel just to appear different, when in reality, the boundaries of a novel and its distinct divisions in chapters and paragraphs, are what makes reading such a pleasure and enjoyment. In abandoning this, Ellmann manages to make this read a chore. It may have been an interesting at times, but the sheer lack of structure and repetitiveness made it a far than enjoyable read, but more what you could call a ‘slog’. Abandoning the traditional structure of a novel is bold – but only celebratory if it works.

I was fascinated by the parameters of this book and fully invested in the character, but felt like the pace of this book was slow, going over the same bumps in the road again and again, and could have been cut in half to deliver the same message. I was relieved to finish this book – and that says a lot in itself.

I would talk more about the parallel narration between her and the lion, but nonetheless that wasn’t explained clearly. What I take from it, is that Ellmann was trying to show an animal view of humanity,

“She listened out for her kittens even when all kitten sounds were blocked by dimwitted human excitements, human mirth, human arrogance, and of course the noisy, smelly cars in which they slashed and stabbed and scarred their way across the earth.”

I would say this dual narration was one of the most interesting parts of the book, if only I could fully understand it. It felt like Ellmann was using the narration from an animal perspective to shed an insight into humanity, and offer the idea that we too, are merely animals, rather than some sophisticated beings we imagine ourselves to be. We are maybe not so intelligent, when we are pulling the world apart.

Final thoughts

If you’ve got the stamina to read a 1000 page long stream of consciousness riddled with critiques of contemporary America and everything in between, then give this book a go. And let me know what you think! It would be great to discuss this book with people as I haven’t yet met/talked to anyone who has read the whole thing. It’s definitely something different – and it deserves a try just for that.

If you’re interested, here are some articles on the book:

The New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/can-one-sentence-capture-all-of-life

The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jul/15/ducks-newburyport-by-lucy-ellmann-review

Book Review: Social Creature

Image: The Irish Times

Title: Social Creature

Author: Tara Isabella Burton

Rating: 3/5

Publisher: Bloomsbury, Kindle Edition

Synopsis

This dark, twisted and enigmatic story follows the life of Louise, an aspiring writer nearing her 30s. She lives in New York and is floating around jobs but is always hoping to make it as a writer. Louise has nothing, but like many young people, hopes she can make something of herself in the city.

Louise then meets Lavina. Lavina has everything that Louise doesn’t and soon invites her into her flat to stay. It all seems to good to be true. Louise relishes the prospect of living rent free and living the sophisticated writer life she had always dreamed of. However, we soon learn of the demands of Lavina’s friendships and social circle.

Louise is swept under Lavina’s wing with constant socialising, parties, relationships, gossip, drinking, drug taking and fine dining in America’s big city. Louise, would rather a quieter life, but she has to keep up with Lavina’s lifestyle in order to earn her place as her best friend and have a right to stay in her apartment. She has to perform the role of being her own personal, social butterfly.

Slowly, but surely, Louise manages to sneak money from Lavina’s bank account into her own. Her justification is that Lavina will not even notice such small amounts when her balance is over $100,000, and this is so that she can eventually escape and live out her own life. Also, this arrangement she has crafted, supposedly will allow her more time for writing, rather than working in jobs she doesn’t want to be in.

Many tragic events unfold and change Louise’s life for good. It’s a story of demanding friendships, the maintenance of a certain lifestyle and living in the ever present social media age.

Review

It feels strange to be writing a review on a book I only warranted three stars. I think that’s even a first on this blog…? But at the same time, you can’t always sing the praises of every book you read. Saying that, there were elements to this book that I enjoyed, but I can’t help but think everything about this was slightly cliche.

I was initially attracted to this book due to its portrayal of the social media age and its critique of the hold it has over our lives,

“Lavina does so many interesting things that week. Louise seems them all on Facebook and Instagram.”

Tara Burton

I think it is a very interesting topic and it was explored in the book well. Louise and Lavina’s whole friendship is based on telling the world of their latest outings, events and friendships by posting it online for everyone to see. They cannot go a day without taking each other’s photograph or resist a selfie when there’s good lighting. There is never a social setting where a picture isn’t taken and posted online, there always has to be proof. Proof that they weren’t sitting at home in their pajamas on a Friday night.

I think the idea of exploring this dependency on social media in friendships is an interesting topic and generally explored well in this book. However, everything else seemed a bit incoherent and unrealistic. The turn of events were completely unpredictable, but they did make me want to read on. I found Louise, the protagonist, quite likable but as events progressed, it was like following a different person who went from bad to worse. As a result, I was not able to fully develop a connection with her character as her actions were so unpredictable. I feel as a reader, I never really ‘knew’ her or had the chance to.

It was interesting to see New York used as a setting of a story in a negative way, as in many novels, this city is glamorized. However, Burton plays on its faults to critique the styles of social interaction which are prevalent in young people. Life for Louise, Lavina and their social groups, revolves around crack-cocaine, alcohol, 4am finishes, money and constant posing for their social media profiles. In a way, no one in this book is a ‘social creature’ but merely playing to the disguise of being one. Every night is more of the same thing,

“Nothing in this city changes, and every party is the same, and every bar is the same…”

Tara Burton

but yet it is all done again and again, as that is what is expected of you.

Above all, I thought it had the potential to be an interesting story due to the complexity of some of the ideas that Burton put forward. However, the characterisation of the main protagonist was weak as their was no consistency in her development and actions. At some points the writing felt very cliche, but perhaps that was the point. Nonetheless, I never wanted to stop reading this book due to the sheer craziness and unpredictability of it. It’s worth a read, but is not something that I would go back to.

If you want a quick read that deals with some interesting, contemporary ideas which require little concentration or awareness, this would be a good one.

Lemn Sissay: “Going Places”

Image: Pixabay

After my first poetry post, I have since read two new poems. One being, “The Salutation” by Thomas Traherne (1636-1674), and the other, “I am” by John Clare (1793-1864). Although I enjoyed both, it was the fourth one I read that I felt the need to share.

The Poem

Going Places

Another
cigarette ash
television serial filled
advert analysing
cupboard starving
front starving
front room filling
tea slurping
mind chewing
brain burping
carpet picking
pots watching
room gleaming
toilet flushing
night,
with nothing to do

I think I’ll paint roads
on my front room walls
to convince myself
that I’m going places.

Immediate thoughts

Wow. No, seriously. That’s exactly what I thought. It might not be comprehensive, or insightful, but nonetheless, that is what I thought.

In these few lines and words, Sissay manages to convey a feeling not too dissimilar to what I have been feeling at the moment. Daily life when you have nowhere to go, or no distinct direction can be draining. The routines of life can suck the hopes and dreams out of you if you’re not careful.

With a form mirroring breathlessness urgency; this poem manages to bring to light the vulnerability of being young and trying to make it for the first time. Being a recent graduate trying to find work and not giving up on my ‘hopes and dreams,’ this poem really resonated with me.

The sense of repetitiveness it creates with alluding to routine human actions, “tea slurping,” “cupboard starving” and, “toilet flushing” mirrors the sometimes emptiness of being alive. The simple language reinforces this lack of variety that having a busy schedule can bring. Days are counted by how much tea you’ve consumed, and how much food you can eat from your cupboards out of boredom, rather than countless office dramas.

For me, as I am struggling to get a job, I am taking note of the more mundane things. As a result, I can empathize with the, “mind chewing” Sissay so portrays. Your mind is constantly “chewing” over not being good enough, comparing yourself to others and trying to fill your empty days.

For me, this is a poem about losing hope among the relentless mundane aspects of everyday life. It is a poem that feels vulnerable, lonely and sad. The fact the protagonist feels they have to “paint roads” on their walls instead of having a set path or journey, is revealing. I feel like every young adult, struggling to try and make it for the first time, can relate to the vulnerability which seems to be expressed in this poem.

Lemn Sissay

Before reading, I hadn’t heard off Lemn Sissay. But upon a quick google search, I realized I have read his work before. I am slightly familiar with, “Love Poem,”

You remind me
define me
incline me.

If you died I’d.

however, I had never visited his work properly, or taken the time to find out more about him. His work is exactly the kind of vulnerable, honest poetry that I love to read (and attempt to write.) Sissay had a difficult start in life, he was put in foster care between the ages 12-17 and upon leaving, used his unemployment benefit to self publish his own poetry.

Local authorities placed him in the care of a deeply religious foster family in Lancashire, as his birth mother (who came to the UK from Ethiopia) tried to pursue her own education back home. Being subject to abuse in care assessment centers and racial slurs; Sissay has used his poetry as an outlet to portray life in care and the still ever present stigma’s that are attached to having this background. As care leavers; these individuals are naturally assumed to not have the drive that other young people do. It’s a stigma and generalization that still remains.

He became the official poet of the London Olympic games in 2012, and many of his words feature on public monuments.

Image: The Guardian

As well as being a successful poet, Sissay is also the Chancellor of Manchester University and is a major advocate for increasing care leaver access to higher education. As a care leaver myself, this is a cause very close to my heart.

Austerity continues to affect Britain in many ways, but particularly among care leavers. Cuts to local governments have meant that foster careers and children’s center’s have received less grants over the years, and the support given to care leavers has been slashed. Stepping out of foster care for the first time as young adults, many of these individuals have no idea where to start in life and do not have a family network to support them.

The ‘life’ skills so many of students learn whilst we are at university; are simply not something many care leavers will have as they start independent lives.

I think Lemn Sissay is a real credit to the poetry world and to championing the importance of widening care leaver access to higher education. I’m sad I hadn’t heard of him sooner, but will no doubt be seeking out more of his work.