Book Review: Call Me By Your Name

Title: Call Me By Your Name

Author: Andre Aciman

Genre: Literary fiction, LGBT, Romance

My rating: ★★★★

This book has been recommended to me more than once, so I thought I’d give it a shot. Granted, it is a bit out of my comfort zone, however I felt myself pulled into the dreamy prose and the featuring of a timeless, hot summer in Italy.

Synopsis

Seventeen year old Oliver lives in the Italian Riviera. In one hot and heavy summer, he falls in love with one of his parents’ guests. His father hosts people every year and Oliver is used to the ritual, but nothing prepared him for this.

In the initial stages, Oliver tries to keep his attraction below the surface. He experiences all the emotions in the space of a few weeks, and battles with the inner fears of first love, lust and rejection.

However – passion is always hard to subdue. Oliver eventually makes his feelings known and what is to follow is a steamy romance, laced with endless intimacy. Oliver is constantly battling between what he fears is right or wrong. Their relationship is kept from all that know them and they sneak around to express their deepest love for one another.

The romance only lasts six weeks, but the impact lasts a life time. Wrought with narration about the human condition, this novel tackles the intricacies of passion and what it takes to feel.

Review

  • I was inherently drawn to the prose in this book, it is written entirely through the perspective of Oliver in monologue style. The writing is dense, descriptive and beautiful and I felt myself escape in it. Although I can see this won’t be for everyone.
  • It deals with some important issues – such as discovering sexuality, how to express this and what goes on in the mind of someone as they experience love for the first time. But this isn’t the usual perspective featured in mainstream literature – as it features a relationship blossoming between men.
  • Sadly, Oliver feels like he has to hide his sexuality and often feels trapped in a cycle of guilt about his feelings.
  • I had a slight problem with the portrayal of love – it seems to conjure up something that overrides self appreciation. Oliver almost loses his self worth when falling in love as he places all value in another person. I understand this is meant to portray the feeling of falling in love for the first time, but I thought it was somewhat over the top in some instances. (e.g the peach scene, which I won’t reveal for the sake of spoilers)
  • I think there’s a lot about this novel I don’t understand and that’s why I had some problems with fully appreciating it. (I didn’t really get the ‘Call Me By Your Name’ part and the nicknames, but maybe I missed something important…) ?
  • However – I felt that this novel has an utterly trans-formative capacity. For me, it got more poignant with the pace of time and as Oliver grew older. It illustrates the human impact of lost time, chances and lost love.
  • When I finished the book, I felt touched in some way – and that Andre Aciman had a reached a part of me that has never been felt before. But at the same time, I was left not knowing what exactly.
  • For me, the book’s success is in its poignant ending, revealing an enduring type of love that lasts a life time of waiting.

Book Review: Machines Like Me

Title: Machines Like Me And People Like You (2019)

Author: Ian McEwan

Rating: 3/5

Synopsis

Charlie lives in a rather dingy flat in London, it is some time in the alternative universe of the 1980s. After landing himself with a stack of inheritance money, he buys one of the first synthetic humans, a robot called Adam.

Charlie is in love with the resident living in the flat above his, a student called Miranda. After their love begins to blossom, together, they adopt Adam and play a hand in forming his design.

These first synthetic humans are designed by Alan Turing, as a result of his ongoing research into artificial intelligence. It is important to note that this novel is set in an ‘alternative 1980s’ meaning Turing is still alive – when in fact, he died in 1954. Additionally, Britain has just lost the Falklands war (which was won in 1982) and Tony Benn becomes Prime Minister under the Labour party. However, it was Margaret Thatcher who was in power from 1979.

Among the narrative of Charlie’s everyday life, adjusting to this new relationship with Adam and Miranda, we see snippets of political commentary based on this alternative Britain. Ian McEwan, although presenting an alternative history, still manages to convey the sense of change and upheaval that was the 1980s.

However, when Miranda opens up to Charlie about the events of her past, it throws their relationship and Adam’s involvement up in the air. The use of an artificial human, who appears perfectly likable, and morally aware, makes the reader question humanity’s assumed superiority of being.

Are we really superior, if machines too, are capable of love and compassion. What makes them a machine and us humans?

Review

I desperately wanted to like this book. However, I was left feeling endlessly disappointed.

I picked up this up, as I was fascinated by the theme which the novel aims to discuss. The novel centers on the extent to which artificial humans have the same capacity to feel, understand, and form relationships. McEwan poses the question with the interweaving of two sub plots, can artificial beings tell the difference between right and wrong? Can they feel quintessentially human emotions such as desire, compassion, and sadness?

In the featuring of a being so like us, it raises the question as to whether humanity is the superior being it often imagines itself to be. With the exploration of Miranda’s crimes and Adam’s want to put things right, McEwan infers firstly, that we are always flawed as human beings even if we essentially pursue a positive morality, but that artificial beings could also have a moral compass.

Image: NB Magazine, featuring Adam.

At first, Charlie is hesitant of Adam’s capacity to feel. When Adam reveals his feelings for Miranda, Charlie dismisses his capacity for love as a machine, but this is overshadowed by his anger and jealously. It is only at the very end, that Charlie admits that he thinks machines can feel like us. Turing himself, the fictitious creator of these synthetic humans, also believes his machines are capable of all the feelings and functions of an average human.

All in all, I loved the themes this book prompted and like many of McEwan’s novels, this one certainly caused me to think; about humanity, the function of artificial intelligence and science more generally. However, the way this theme was executed in certain events (which I won’t reveal due to spoilers) I thought was trivial, when it could have been done poignantly.

The complex theme and parameters of the novel were spoiled by the dystopian, alternative history setting, as this sets up an element of the ‘make believe’ which destroys the ability for readers to engage in the possibility of synthetic humans and their capacity – which I thought was the ultimate point being made by the novel.

The love triangle between Charlie, Miranda and Adam was made trivial by the events McEwan crafted between Adam and Miranda. It was, I believe, an unnecessary addition to the novel. Through the mere existence of their cohabitation and Adam’s display of friendship, the theme could have been explored in a more delicate way. However, it was erased by the acts that took place between Adam and Miranda. (You’ll have to read it to find out…)

Miranda and Charlie are likable enough characters and it is interesting to see how their relationship develops alongside an artificial human. However, the novel is completely told through Charlie. Although this creates an in depth, detailed insight into the mind of Charlie, I feel it could have been valuable to include alternative perspectives. Charlie is naturally hesitant about Adam’s capacity for humanity, whereas Miranda is more supportive. It would have added more depth to the novel to include her insight, and the insight of Adam himself. Adam could have shed a light on the nature of humanity from a non human perspective. This could have forced the reader to ask more questions about themselves, and the wider nature of humanity.

There is a few sub plots to the story, one which I thought was rather useless and poorly executed. One day Charlie stumbles across a young child, Mark, whom has been abandoned by his biological parents and eventually gets put into local authority care. Miranda takes a shine to him and convinces Charlie that they should adopt him. Adopting at 22 is strange enough, but Miranda knows she is about to gain a criminal record for her past offences. Additionally, she is cleared of all charges by social services and allowed to adopt Mark, despite spending time in prison. As someone who was adopted myself, I know this would never have happened. Nonetheless, I don’t think this subplot added to the novel at all.

As mentioned – I don’t believe the alternative history added to the story. We are currently living through rising artificial intelligence and the plausibility of synthetic human beings, so why set the story now? The element of dystopia makes the ideas and themes seem alien to the reader, due to the divergence from history. Thus, already, the reader is exposed to inconceivability, which is the opposite of what McEwan is trying to raise.

In portraying Adam as more human than Miranda and Charlie ever sought imaginable, McEwan infers that synthetic humans could be more like ourselves, and thus, more believable. However, in crafting an alternate history, miles from our own, he renders his inference implausible, and ridicules his own suggestion. Creating an inherent weakness in the execution of an initially enthralling theme.

Naturally, the writing is technically beautiful, and nothing far from what I expect from McEwan. It contains large sections of inner monologue from the protagonist, Charlie, with interweaving of political commentary from the alternative world. These parts do not add to the novel, although are sometimes interesting to ponder on.

I was lured into the novel as the writing is beautiful, but I was left feeling utterly disappointed. Nonetheless, this was an interesting novel which is well worth a read. Just not the best McEwan out there.

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.