October in Books

Image: The Lake District, Pixabay

I didn’t get round to reading much this month, but the two books I did read, I very much devoured and loved.

Imaginary Friend, Stephen Chbosky (2019) Thriller/Horror Fiction

I initially piked up this book as I was attracted to its beautiful, reflective cover. Having devoured Perks of Being a Wallflower during my teens, I had high hopes for this book, the first Chbosky has written in twenty years. However, I was disappointed and actually abandoned it after 200 pages. I just couldn’t get myself invested or hooked on the story. Working in a bookshop has made me realise that life is far too short to plough through books which I am not enjoying.

I started off intrigued, as the book gave me Stranger Things vibes right from the beginning. I enjoyed getting to know the characters in the brief period I was reading the book, however, I felt the book got progressively silly. The story is narrated primarily through Christopher, a seven year old boy. One night, after him and his Mother have moved house, Christopher goes missing in a nearby woods.

Christopher eventually returns, but mysterious voices remain stuck in his head and he is instructed to build a tree house in the woods to ensure his loved ones are safe. As I said, I didn’t get far and soon abandoned it. The narration through the eyes of a child kind of annoyed me. But some might like it.

Beartown, Fredrik Backman (2018) Swedish Contemporary/’Sports’ Fiction. See my in depth review here.

Although being branded as ‘Sports Fiction,’ this book is far more complex. It is a critique of the bonds of community in the face of injustice and a tale of youth culture. But above all, it is a book of remarkable strength and one where the central message remains long after finishing the final page.

The story is narrated through different residents of Beartown in alternating sections – some of which can sometimes be just a few lines. This gives the impression of the interconnectedness of the small community. The beauty of the rural community is constantly critiqued by the featuring of rape culture, alcoholism, toxic masculinity, adolescence, loneliness and drug abuse which engulfs various inhabitants.

Hockey is the central force which binds the community together – but it is also the reason for its downfall. An awful crime is committed by one of the town’s leading hockey players which divides the community in ways not experienced before. It offers an insight into how communities can be so tightly bound that justice is ignored in the face of their own preservation. It is far more than a tale of a sporting team in a small town, but a critique of contemporary society and exposure of the social problems rural communities across the world can face.

5/5

The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District (2015) James Rebanks Non-Fiction/Nature writing

With its endless, glorious greenery and mountainous views under a constant gaze of misty fog, it can be easy to forget that the landscape of the Lake District is one maintained by committed farmers who spend their lives working this landscape. However, this well written memoir is an ode to the lives of those who do just that.

“The farms and the flocks endure, bigger than the life of a single person. We are born, live our working lives and die, passing like the oak leaves that blow across our land in the winter.”

This book is written by farmer, James Rebanks, whose family has been farming the same area for nearly six hundred years. Rebanks narrates farming life through the seasons, as well as adding his own personal insights and thoughts about the changing landscape. Rebanks, although born and bred in the Lake District, made the difficult decision in his early twenties to attend Oxford University, in an attempt to widen his skill set and employability, in a period where farming was beginning to decline. He explains the difficulties and strains of this period of his life – especially when revealing these plans to his farming family.

“It felt like the whole modern world wanted to rob me of the life I wanted to lead.”

The book acts as a memoir, rather than a history of the Lake District as such, but dicusses some imperative points. Rebanks gives attention to the impact of tourism, decline of rural farming in the modern world and the historic legacy of romanticizing the landscape – from writers like William Wordsworth. Despite his many criticisms of the fleeting tourists, whom may pay little attention towards the hard work which goes into maintaining the landscape, Rebanks does acknowledge that everyone should be allowed to appreciate the beauty of the landscape.

However, his central argument which he draws upon is that visitors should appreciate the centuries of hard labour which has gone into making the Lake District the beautiful place it is today. It is not just a fleeting, glamorous visit for inhabitants, but a lifelong commitment. Above all, it gives central attention to the financial hardships which current farmers are facing, and the ins and outs of daily farming tasks in an environment which is just as harsh as it is beautiful.

This book is beautifully and coherently written, and one which I would recommend to anyone. I am very much looking forward to James Rebanks second book, due to be published in 2020.

5/5

Book Review: Beartown – the quietly unassuming novel

Image: Pixabay

For a long time, I haven’t been so taken away by a book. I am a sucker for reading books I know are good due to their reputation, but I decided to read a book which hasn’t had the grand reception of other leading titles.

I was quite blown away by the premise and central message behind this book, which came as a reminder to myself to branch out and read lesser known titles. For once – this book has warranted an entire post by itself!

Beartown revolves around its surroundings – the geography and nature of the small, isolated hockey town, nestled in the icy depths of a Swedish forest, forms an essential part of the novel. The story is narrated through its various inhabitants, each paragraph takes on the perspective of a different character. At first, I found this format quite hard to keep track of but as the novel wore on and I got more familiar with the characters, I came to appreciate it more. The structure of the narration fits in with the centrality of community in Beartown and how nobody in the town has secrets or can live in complete isolation. They are all, in some way, bound to each other in some relation.

Hockey has central importance – at first, it is outlined as the running economic force behind the entire town. Due to its isolation and harsh climate, Beartown has little else to offer economically – the hockey industry is its saving grace. In some ways, it is a complete necessity. However, hockey also becomes the reason for its downfall. Hockey and community become completely intertwined in the novel, as “community” is the binding force behind the residents in Beartown – nobody would do anything to break that force – even for social justice to flourish.

The novel hints at the idea of how a community force can be potentially disruptive, even dangerous, when a sudden and unexpected, brutal crime takes place, perpetrated by a member of the town’s prized hockey team. Because everyone is intertwined and dependent on hockey to serve and maintain the community, the players, the managers and the investors all try to hide what happened. The lines between justice and injustice get blurred and members seem to be blinded by the actuality of what is going on around them. Community, rather than justice, is the force that is preserved.

“But they’re all silent. Because that’s easier.

Not only is this crime ignored by most, but residents in their defense of their humble “community” appear to be in the dark about other related social problems which feature heavily in the novel. Told through a range of character perspectives; the novel points to the issues of teenage mental health, rape culture and alcoholism – and how they can become so prevalent in small, rural communities. It feels like the novel is trying to make a critique of the concept of “community” and all the glamour and perfection which was presented at the beginning. At first, the community seemed humble, full of friendship, love and commitment. But as the novel unravels it is presented to the reader that it is all an image, a facade for what is simmering underneath.

“Difficult questions, simple answers. What is a community? It is the sum total of our choices.”

A small town in rural Sweden, nestled between a vast and beautiful forest, at a glance seems idyllic, even desirable for most of us who live in busy towns. We tend to look at small town communities in wonder. However, this novel pays homage to the idea that nothing is ever perfect or what it seems. The grass is always greener in our imagination.

As the novel draws to a close, a small sense of justice and re-evaluation is gained by some residents of the town. Some are beginning to question the nature of their community and realise that things have to change. But others simply move away from the town and do not address the problems they helped to create.

I found this novel to have a very profound and relevant message, presented in a very complex way. It deals with some central social issues such as homophobia, alcoholism, rape culture and loneliness – but in such a subtle way that the reader becomes invested in the people rather than the big issues at large. The criticism is subtle but prolific, and one that is entirely relevant.

4/5

I hope this post does not read too cryptically, but it is hard to write about this novel without giving the main event away!