What I read in July ~ 2020

I’ve experienced a bit of a ‘lull’ in reading this month, and I’m not sure why really. Some days I’ve barely picked up a book! I started off the month well but haven’t read as much as I would have liked, oh well! Here is what I read in July.

If I Could Say Goodbye, Emma Cooper (e-ARc)

Rating: 3 out of 5.

This is a novel about grief and understanding how it can affect our minds and relationships. Told through the perspective of Jennifer Jones and her husband, Edward, Emma Cooper sets out to explore the impact of the sudden death of Jennifer’s sister, Kerry. Within this novel is a very honest and revealing depiction of grief and how it can overturn our whole lives, however, I found the book itself a struggle to read. It lacked structure and a definitive overarching narrative, but nonetheless, was one of the most realistic portrayals of grief I have seen explored in a novel.

Broadwater, Jac Shreeves-Lee (e-ARC)

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Broadwater is a collection of short stories, narrating the lives and experiences of a group of people living in Tottenham, North London. Jac Sheeeves-Lee showcases the variety of generations and nationalities that live alongside each other in high density housing. Each chapter is told through a different character and experience, but all are united by the shared sense of striving for a better life and seeing the beauty in the everyday – despite their ongoing struggles. Shreeves-Lee depicts the realities of race, economic inequality and lack of opportunity in this stunning collection of short stories which had me hooked from the get go.

A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A truly wonderfully crafted story, set between the French revolution (1789) and the Reign of Terror that followed. Living in times like ours, it seemed apt to read a novel set within so much uncertainty and a quest for change. Despite this, there is also something strangely comforting about returning to Dickens and classics more widely. Although I found the plot hard to follow at first, unlike other Dickens novels, there are only a few characters to keep track of – so the narrative became easier to follow as the novel went on. Dickens exposes the reality of the revolution and the brutality of Robespierre’s regime so viscerally – it is revealing, clever and extraordinary. I think this is my favourite Dickens I’ve read (so far!)

An American Marriage, Tayari Jones

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This book hit the spot in every way. Tayari Jones crafts a well thought out and beautifully written story but filled to the brim with complexity. It follows the lives of a newly wedded couple, Roy and Celestial. One day Roy is falsely accused of a crime he didn’t commit, and spends five years in jail which causes his relationship to fall apart. Celestial and Roy spend their time communicating through letters, which gradually dwindle out as time goes on. At the heart of this novel is an exploration of the rampant racism at the heart of American institutions, the impact of gender, class and race on life chances and opportunities and an evaluation of a relationship. I loved reading this book from start to finish and think it is an incredibly important one to read.

Currently reading

Image: Violet Daniels

If you have read one of my recent posts, you will know I’m currently reading The Little Friend and We Need To Talk to White People About Race. The Little Friend is a mammoth of a book and I still have around 200 pages to go, but the Reni Eddo-Lodge is smaller but way more dense – I’ve got round 50 pages to go with this one. I’ve been taking my time with both and reading them more leisurely but I’ll probably finish them soonish, so expect some more reviews for next week!

July’s TBR (I didn’t do too well here…)

An American Marriage

A Tale of Two Cities

The Little Friend – in progress

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race – in progress

How I learned to Hate in Ohio

That’s all for now! Hope you all had a good reading month and are keeping safe and well.

Violet xxx

Book Review: A Tale of Two Cities

I could write an essay about the eternal greatness of this book, but I thought I would keep it simple.

I think a lot of people are put off by classics because of their density and complexity. A Tale of Two Cities is both these things, but once you get beyond that, it is a truly remarkable story. In my opinion, classics are always relevant, and in starting this blog I was on a mission to try and write about books in a more accessible and down to earth way, but haven’t really gotten round to focusing on classics.

Ever since I came across the famous opening line, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…” I have known I wanted to read this.

In a way, I think this current climate is one of the best times to read it. We too, are living in a time of great change and upheaval, but obviously, in many different ways.

Synopsis

Written in 1859, this is a book divided between London and Paris, set in the period between the French Revolution of 1789 and the Reign of Terror which followed.

It centers on these characters: Lucie Manette, her father, Alexandre Manette, who is rescued from imprisonment, Charles Darnay and Sydney Carlton, who are both in love with Lucie, Jarvis Lorry, who rescues Lucie in bringing her back to England, and finally, the Defrages, owners of a ‘radical’ wine shop situated at the heart of the revolution. Darnay is wrongly accused of being a traitor and is imprisoned in the Bastille. During his time on trial, Dickens documents the spirit of post Revolutionary France and the constant state of terror that dominated. No one was exempt from the threat of the Guillotine, or the repressive State under Robespierre.

In a lot of ways, it is a historical novel, but also one of universal hope. Dickens speaks about the importance of humanity arising from the darkness and striving for betterment. During our own uncertain times, it seemed an apt novel to read. Indeed, Dickens’ words of wisdom have the power to transmit through generations, and they certainly do here.

Review

Rating: 5 out of 5.
Image: Violet Daniels
  • Dickens paints a picture of this particular moment, which is why I loved it so much. I have always been fascinated by this period, and therefore it’s incredible to see it reflected on, in an absorbing and visceral way.
  • Unlike other Dickens novels, there aren’t too many characters to keep track of. There are a handful of main characters that feature more than others and often, each chapter features a new character and perspective, which I liked.
  • The language is beautiful, timeless and utterly immersive. But Dickens is also analytical, and a provider of historical and social commentary, which is fascinating.
  • The metaphors are well thought out and consistent. I particularly liked the comparison between the Revolutionary fever, crowds and the endless blood created from the Guillotine, to the sea and forces of nature. Nature is unpredictable, and so is the Republic in its slaughter of civilians, this illustration is stark and uncomfortable, but conveys so much feeling.
  • I found the plot at the start hard to follow and did have to do a bit of Googling just to make myself more familiar with the story.
  • It contains an important message which can be applied to our time. Despite tough periods in history, we have always arisen from it and retained the sense of hope for a better future. In this Covid-age, I couldn’t help but feel this sentiment was significant.
  • Despite the horror that is depicted throughout, it ends on a positive note, “I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss” in other words, people (and more widely, humanity) is always capable of changing and a better world is always possible. This pandemic is global and the fight is real, but one day we’ll look back on it and be better for the experience.

My favourite quote

Aside from the opening passage, I feel this quote sums up the novel and draws upon that clever comparison between the feeling of the revolution and the oppressive state, and the unpredictability of nature,

“With a roar that sounded as if all the breath in France had been shaped into the detested word, the living sea rose, wave on wave, depth on depth, and overflowed the city to that point.”

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Currently reading ~ June 18, 2020

Just a mid month update from me (well actually more than midway through…) thought I would do a quick post detailing my current reads. I’m actually pretty surprised at myself, usually I’d be reading 3-5 books at once but I have been very self controlled lately.

I set myself the goal of reading 50 books this year, which now doesn’t feel ambitious enough but then again, in January I had no idea that lockdown would happen or that I would get so into blogging! I’ve already read 35 books this year, and have a feeling I’ll be at the 100 mark by December.

Currently reading

  1. The Sacrifice by Indrajit Garai <- I am around 70% of the way through this and enjoying it so far. I was kindly sent it in exchange for a review, so many thanks to Books by Indrajit Garai @ Estelle for letting me have a copy! I reviewed (and loved) The Little Bridge of Jeremy a while ago and am excited to read the rest of this. Reading a short story collection is a nice change from what I usually read.
  2. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens <- I am around 10-15% of the way through. After writing my post about classics, I managed to inspire myself to pick this up. It’s been one of those books I’ve wanted to read for ages so I thought now would be a good time. I’m finding the plot quite confusing but I love the writing, despite it being hard to understand. I find myself having to re-read sentences to get the gist of things. Definitely not a quick fire read, but very worthwhile. In a time of uncertainty and change I thought it was quite an apt choice.
  3. The Truants by Kate Weinberg <- About 15% of the way through, I started this last night before I went to bed and immediately fell in love with the writing. It feels so comforting and nostalgic. Also, it’s set not too far from me so that helps too. I think this is going to be a winner for me!
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And that’s it at the moment! I’ve almost surprised myself, at the beginning of lockdown I had about 4-5 books on the go at one time but I’ve managed to tone it down a bit since.

My June TBR as it stands:

  1. The Shelf Helly Action
  2. The Sacrifice Indrajit Garai
  3. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race Reni Eddo-Lodge
  4. An American Marriage Tayari Jones
  5. My Sister, the Serial Killer Oyinkan Braithwaite
  6. If I Could Say Goodbye Emma Cooper
  7. The Truants Kate Weinberg

It’s safe to say I usually get distracted and don’t stick to my TBR (anyone else?) but there’s still a good number of days left in June!

Reading recommendations are always welcome. 🙂

Happy reading!

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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.”

Reading more poetry

Image: Pixabay

As someone who claims they love poetry, my range tends to stick to those I know, (or studied at A-level) such as Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Carol Ann Duffy and William Blake. During these years I enjoyed studying poetry but was consumed by having to memorise it for an exam.

I’ve decided that I want to read more poetry and have set myself the challenge of reading a new poem every day. Using the book, Poems for Life, I am picking at random a poem everyday to read.

Part of my appreciation for poetry comes from the process of ‘unpicking’. On the first read, sometimes things don’t stick out. On the second, comes the realisation that certain phrases, lines and images are of importance to the central message. I like the fact that the more you read a poem, the more you understand. Above all, what I like is that poetry can have so many different interpretations.

I won’t always be writing a post about each poem I read (as that might get a bit much!) but I thought I would share with you the first one.

Flicking through the pages, I stuck my thumb at a random spot and fell on the poem, “Casabianca” by Felicia Dorothea Hemans. Upon reading it, I had no prior knowledge of the poem (or even when it was written.)

The Poem

The boy stood on the burning deck,
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck,
Shone round him o’er the dead.

Yet beautiful and bright he stood,
As born to rule the storm;
A creature of heroic blood,
A proud, though childlike form.

The flames rolled on – he would not go,
Without his father’s word;
That father, faint in death below,
His voice no longer heard.

He called aloud – ‘Say, father, say
If yet my task is done?’
He knew not that the chieftain lay
Unconscious of his son.

‘Speak, father!’ once again he cried,
‘If I may yet be gone!’
– And but the booming shots replied,
And fast the flames rolled on.

Upon his brow he felt their breath
And in his waving hair;
And look’d from that lone post of death,
In still yet brave despair.

And shouted but once more aloud,
‘My father! must I stay?’
While o’er him fast, through sail and shroud,
The wreathing fires made way.

They wrapped the ship in splendour wild,
They caught the flag on high,
And streamed above the gallant child,
Like banners in the sky.

There came a burst of thunder sound –
The boy – oh! where was he?
Ask of the winds that far around
With fragments strewed the sea!

With mast, and helm, and pennon fair,
That well had borne their part,
But the noblest thing which perished there,
Was that young faithful heart.

Reading “Casabianca” for the first time

Before researching , I believed this poem was about the departure of childhood, set against the natural rhythms of nature. The poem features a father and son on board a ship in the middle of the sea. Thus, the passing of nature could be related to the certainty of the end of childhood. Lines such as, “The boy stood on the burning deck, / Whence all but he had fled” and, “Yet beautiful and bright he stood, / As born to rule the storm” suggests the idea of departure with words like, “fled”. Additionally, the image of a boy ruling nature suggests an element of leaving childhood behind.

The poem also contains the repetition of a heroic like theme, words such as, “heroic,” “brave,” and “gallant” which suggests the idea of conquering. Whether that be over nature itself during the sea storm, or over the eventual eradication of one’s childhood. Thus, the conquering of childhood, as it were.

In sum, I read this poem to be about the gradual but relentlessness transition from childhood to adulthood, mirrored by the undulating rhythms of nature presented in the waves. The timeless image of a ship sailing away, relates to the human life cycle passing into the next phase of life, from childhood to adolescence. Like nature – life always has a next stage, or ending.

History and impact

Image: Felicia Dorothea Hemans National Portrait Gallery

Although this poem does contain a considerable element on childhood, it also documents an actual event.

Published in 1826, this poem details events that occurred on the Orient during the Battle of the Nile in 1798. It was a French ship commanded by Louis de Casabianca. The poem features a scene between a 12 year old boy and his Father; whereby the boy refuses to abandon the ship during a series of attacks. It becomes clear during the course of the poem, that the young boy tragically dies, he only ever wanted to protect the ship and perform his expected duties.

Thus, the poem explores elements of death, as well as transitional life. It’s a tale of commitment, resilience and dedication from a young boy, but also the bond between father and son.

The poem became a classroom staple throughout the United Kingdom between the 1850s-1950s. It is therefore, a classic example of classroom poetry recital. It explores a sense of military prowess by featuring the 1798 Battle of the Nile, between the British Royal Navy and the Navy of the French Republic. Hence, I suspect it was chosen for classroom recital due to its demonstration of patriotism and British victory.

Felicia Hemans was a known poet in her day, whose major collections included: The Forest Sanctuary (1825), Records of Woman and Songs of Affections (1830). She was known to be quite popular, especially among women. It is welcoming to note such a successful female poet during this period. Sadly, she died from dropsy in 1835. Despite the beauty of this poem (and probably the rest of her work) it was often used for school children – due to its discussion of morality and patriotism, and easy to remember rhyming rhythm. (see what I did there…)

Upon reading this poem and unpacking it, I was able to reflect on the many things I had learned just from reading these few lines. I had no idea to begin with that it was written so long ago, and about a true event I wasn’t even aware of. I nearly always learn something when I read a new poem, and this one didn’t disappoint!