book review

In Search of Lost Time – Review

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Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Vol. 1: The Way by Swann’s is a densely descriptive, prose-heavy analysis of social mores, veiled human frailty, familial and romantic love, anxiety, jealousy and the relationship between memory, place and time. It is told through the eyes of a tortuously sensitive boy and, later, through the amorous encounters of a socially mobile man within the fickle, pretentious and stifling world of the Parisian bourgeoisie during La Belle Epoque, a period in French society that lasted from 1871 to 1914.

I must be honest and reveal myself a heathen. It took me two months to plough through this novel with pen poised in hand and an intense furrowing of the brow. After the first fifty pages, I shelved Proust for a month, in favour of Hilary Mantel. À la recherche du temps perdu was not a natural pleasure for me by any stretch. I have little interest in the tribulations of well-to-do people deeply aware of and concerned with social class. The turgidity of Proust’s lengthy descriptions of the idiosyncrasies of characters at a dinner party, are somewhat exhausting after ten pages of facial tics and acted laughter, the hidden meanings of which, in the end, do not seem of any particular consequence.

Yet, I persisted. The exquisite, descriptive vocabulary retains a nowness; a timeless quality.  And Proust’s meticulous, academic social observations reveal profound insights into the relationship between outward human behaviour and inner thought.  He reveals a tender cynicism about the contrivances of his characters and a witty self-awareness about the inherent sense of superiority and associated cruelties that are a by-product of his social standing.

The central theme of lost time encapsulated in the spongy joys of a tea-soaked madeleine is touched so lightly that it lingers delicately in the back of the mind soothing numerous angst-ridden tussles between social constraint and individual complexity. And Proust maintains a deeply personal and confiding tone that leaves you feeling you know a part of him, you have seen a glimmer of his inner world and most intimate worries. It is odd but true that I even think the author’s vulnerability triggered my well-buried maternal instincts.

Within the novel, Proust considers his relationship to the inner sanctum of books and exterior reality that presents a concreteness which ‘dissipates’ when he tries to make contact with it. He writes: ‘…as an incandescent body brought near a damp object never touches its wetness because it is always preceded by a zone of evaporation.’ The pages are bubbling over with this type of sumptuously visceral analogy that enables you to see and feel the intended sentiment.

Proust describes an assimilation of a book into a reader’s consciousness as he or she constructs characters from pieces of the writer’s creation; a meeting of minds, an exchange across time and space. His rigorous examination of the nature of literature reminds me that the written word is a living thing to be altered and interpreted differently by each and every reader within their own location and from their own construction of reality so that you might see through thine eyes what I have seen through mine.

I read In Search of Lost Time, despite my initial hurdles with the density of the text and disinterest in the staging of the novel, because I thought I could learn something from one of the most revered authors of the 20th century and I hoped it might make me a better writer. I leave the book on the shelf in the study/laundry/guest room, feeling enlightened, inspired and grateful that I didn’t give in.

So after all, as you read Proust and absorb a character, such as Swann’s lover, Odette de Crecy, and your mind shifts between the nuances of her elusive personality, remember you are sitting beneath a virtual blossoming chestnut tree with a French novelist, one of the greatest literary figures of our time, creating lives and building worlds.

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Avenue with Flowering Chestnut Trees at Arles, Vincent van Gogh, 1889

Image 1 source – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/9713855/All-of-Proust-on-audiobook-Time-to-go-to-bed-early.html

Image 2 source – http://www.wikiart.org/en/vincent-van-gogh/avenue-with-flowering-chestnut-trees-at-arles-1889

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The Signature of All Things – Review

The Signature of All ThingsThe Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The heroine, Alma Whittaker is the daughter of Henry; an entrepreneur who rebelled against the subservient abeyance of his respectable gardening father and clawed his way to the highest echelons of new wealth in a new world.

Alma exists for the better part of her life in a stifling cocoon of wealth, botany and academia. She is fiercely intelligent, frustratingly naïve and endearingly self-effacing. Her story unfolds within the confines of a vast residence and within a small circle of family, friends and acquaintances where there is scant close relationship or understanding.

The icy reserve of her mother Beatrix, her nanny Hanneke and her adopted sister Prudence exacerbate Alma’s social isolation and encourage her lifelong intimacy with moss and a binding closet. The introduction of Retta does bring a warmer relationship but she is portrayed as such a flibbertigibbet that she is quite hard to grasp.

Alma’s love interest, George Hawkes, is never really described. There is no clear sense of what Alma loves about George. It may be that he is the object of her inexperienced affections because her exposure to the world is so limited that he became the target for her burgeoning sensuality out of mere happenstance. This means there is no emotional oomph and meaty substance to get your teeth into.

Alma is prevented by a powerhouse of a male role model, in Henry, from venturing out and making her own life. Yet, it seems incongruous that a character of keen inquisitiveness, exposed from childhood to the great minds of her time, with such capacity to observe and theorise so adeptly upon her world would not delve deeper into human relationships and push the boundaries of her father’s permission earlier in the story.

Consequently, Alma does not come of age and begin her adventure as an independent woman until very late in life and in the book. Her late blooming and emotional starvation may be an accurate reflection of the constraints upon freedom of expression and female liberty in 19th century Philadelphian society. Yet, this means the reader must persevere to stay with Alma to the end, which could easily have come at least one hundred pages earlier and it is tricky to invest in aloof characters hidden behind a wall of stoicism.

Gilbert beautifully weaves botanical, historical and scientific discovery into a fictional tale. I thoroughly enjoyed the melding of fact with fiction, such as, Henry’s discovery of Jesuit’s bark in Peru and other such curiosities. I smiled at Gilbert’s literary skill and entertaining use of language, colloquial or other, such as the description of Henry as an ‘impudent picaroon, this mackerel-backed shaver, this jack-weighted hob.’

On the whole, The Signature of All Things is a gentle, character-light read carried along smoothly at an evolutionary pace on a bed of botanical wonders.

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The Heart is a Lonely Hunter – Book review

The Heart is a Lonely HunterThe Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mr Singer lives with his friend, Antonapolous.  They are mute.  Singer and his friend are separated leaving Mr Singer alone and yearning for company.  Four very different and seeking townspeople are drawn to Singer by his silence.  Never knowing what he truly thinks, they perceive him as being the only person that understands their individual plights.  They imbibe Singer with their own meaning, as he imbibes Antonapoulous with his.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is close to perfection.  Carson McCullers wrote this book when she was just twenty three years old.  The timing of which the story and characters unfurl is expertly measured. The characters, Mick Kelly, Dr Copeland, Jake Blount and Biff Brannon, are beautifully developed.  The author consistently introduces you to each new character with physical appearance, behaviours and idiosyncrasies to guide you comfortably into their lives so that the many people in this book are easy to get to know.

The dialogue has a concise, coarseness to it that gives it a very genuine quality.  The complex inner workings of each person are revealed steadily without it feeling like anything other than organic observation.

The vocabulary throughout is replete with colloquialism.  This enhances rich descriptions of place, tastes, smells and sounds with a transporting outcome.  It seems like McCullers had a particularly keen sense of smell.  She even describes classical compositions as smelling like spring rain and she deftly tricked my brain into fooling my senses.  This August I’m fairly sure I lived in the Deep South.  I lay on dewy grass under a pine-scented night sky while Beethoven drifted from a neighbours wireless and I washed down Dr Copeland’s true purpose and torment with turnip-green liquor and a pone of cornbread.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a nourishing tale that is full of empathy for humanity in all its flaws and foibles.  Carson McCullers must have been one of the highly sensitive persons of this world, possessing great depth and insight into the human condition at a remarkably young age.  To have the ability to communicate that understanding is a rare, innate and instinctive gift. I cannot find fault with this novel. I correct my earlier statement.  The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is literary perfection and Carson McCullers was born to write and she is a writer to aspire to.

I highly recommend this restful, wise, warm marvel of a novel.

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Skinny Bitch – Book Review

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Skinny Bitch by Rory Freedman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Skinny Bitch is a sassy, sharp-talking, humorous, and at times, disturbing assassination of the crap that we put into our bodies. I have been an omnivore all my life but lately, for health reasons, I started thinking about and modifying what I eat. In researching how to be healthier, I came across Skinny Bitch. This book was a #1 New York Times Bestseller…in 2005ish and 2007 in the UK. It does seem like I was the last to know but I say ‘better late than never.’

If like me, you’re starting to think about what you eat and why and how it impacts upon you and the world around you, this is an extraordinarily light and accessible way into a veritable minefield of information. It breaks into bite-sized chunks a huge amount of topics ranging from nutritional content to health outcomes, environmental pollution and animal cruelty and government facilitated industry corruption that I am afraid are still only too relevant today.

The book is, for me, the right balance of enlightenment and humour until Chapter 6 where the authors quote too heavily from another book called Slaughterhouse by Gail Eisnitz. In my humble opinion, supporting materials should be just that and not the body of a chapter. The authors are very honest about their use of this material being to discourage the reader from eating meat. In this vein, it is indeed effective because I haven’t even been able to look at a sausage roll since. On the other hand, using graphically distressing descriptions of extreme animal abuse and horrifying torture has prevented me from sharing an otherwise up tempo book with friends and family whom I am fairly certain will find the content too disturbing.

The writing style is punchy and interesting most of the way through. Chapter 9 delves into government and industry corruption a little too intensely and does become somewhat dry and turgid in comparison to the rest of the book. On the whole, this is a nice, quick read and the lively pace made me gobble it all up in around four evenings.

It is no small feat that Freedman and Barnouin have managed to communicate something as potentially dry as conscientious food consumerism in the voice of girlfriends having fun in a bar over vegan, non-alcoholic cocktails. In a sense they reversed the trickery of big industry marketing teams who present crap as good for us. The authors have presented something good for us in a format that makes us think we’re consuming a celebrity magazine, when in fact we’re learning how we can prevent suffering, reduce damage to our planet and feel altogether better by eating right, well and true. To me, it’s a pretty good message.

Skinny Bitch is an easy, enjoyable and worthwhile read. In the voice of the authors: ‘Just stop being a pussy and read it already!’

 

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Image source: http://www.news.com.au/technology/science/genetically-modified-cows-could-fart-less/story-fn5fsgyc-1226311605016

 

Scott’s Last Expedition – Review

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Scott’s Last Expedition, V1 by Robert Falcon Scott

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Last year my partner and I took a trip to Northumberland. On our return to London we whiled away several hours in a magical antique book store in Alnwick called Barter Books. (http://www.barterbooks.co.uk)  I got lost in almanacs, girl’s coming of age tales, African adventures, poetry, biographies and many literary jewels.  Once I’d swamped myself behind a book tower, The Man chucked me a disapproving look of ‘we’ll never get all those in the boot’ and I began the job of narrowing down what I was allowed to take home with me.

Scott’s Last Expedition in two volumes gifted with love from Dorothy to Herbert in 1954, according to the beautifully penned inscription, was my prize.

I began reading Scott’s diary of the Terra Nova Antarctic expedition last July. It became my bible. I journeyed on an overladen ship that left New Zealand on 29th November 1910 and I stayed with Captain Scott until his last journal entry on 29th March 1912.

Even when I wasn’t reading it, the old, blue book sat on the bedside table and the sights and sounds of the expedition lived with me. In the bright white, ice crystals bit my fingers and my eyes were dazzled and then snow blindness would cure and I could see the Soldier cajoling a wilful pony called Chris into a harness. The dogs barked excitedly before Meares mushed them across a glacier. Skuas shrieked and emperor penguins gabbled. I tasted Clissold’s seal soup. I marvelled at moonlit Mount Erebus. I watched the aurora dance in front of the Owner and I walked hundreds of miles through freezing blizzards of bleak, long white.

Funnily enough, I have never taken the slightest bit of interest in adventurers and expeditions and man’s races to be the first or the pioneers of the world. But I was drawn in by RF Scott’s appealing, personable and beautifully prose-filled descriptions of Antarctica. I fell head over heels in love with the place and the people and the excitement and optimism.

Scott’s portrayal of the expedition is remarkably revealing in what it tries to conceal. He presents an impression of a team of courageous, intrepid, altogether good sorts doing sterling work and following his own flawless planning and command without even the slightest disagreement, in the name of King and Country. But this is a hard task to maintain and he cannot hide his anxieties entirely so when they are revealed there is a poignant intimacy that the author of this wonderful journal is lowering his guard and speaking to you.

Scott’s unerring outward denial of responsibility and lack of expressed doubt regarding the efficacy of his planning, serves to intensify the tragic quality of the final throes.

This is a beautiful book. It is not a novel. It contains wind directions, gale force strengths, temperatures, coordinates and geographical features. It is a physical description as much, if not more, than anything else. It cannot be read in one go.

It is a man’s life and should be digested slowly so that day by day, Antarctica seeps into your bones and you live the adventure. If you read this fascinating man’s journal, you will spot blue whales from the Terra Nova with Edward Wilson. You will pass a wall of blue ice in a small row boat, as it crashes into the Ross Sea. You will get to know the vital and brilliant men of one of the most controversial, daring and infamous adventures in history and in the last moments you will see the South Pole with Captain Robert Falcon Scott.

Scott’s Last Expedition is one of my greatest treasures. I cannot praise it enough. I love it dearly. I urge you to read it.  Be patient with it.  Savour it and share the adventure.

 

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Image: Captain Scott writing his journal in the winterquarters hut. October 7, 1911,  Photo: MASONS NEWS SERVICE, sourced here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/8979966/Captain-Scotts-team-ate-curried-horsemeat-for-Christmas.html

The Little Prince – Review

The Little PrinceThe Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Little Prince is a magical tale about a pilot who crashes his plane in the Sahara and meets a boy; a little Prince. The pilot is enchanted by the sweet enigmatic boy and they soon become friends. The little Prince reveals his origins and shares his innocent wisdom. The pilot is slowly reconnected with a long-forgotten way of seeing; a child’s truth that he had learnt to suppress in order to become a socially acceptable adult concerned solely with ‘matters of consequence’.

The inter-stellar adventures of the cherubic boy show the pilot the absurdity of a material world concerned with placing numerical and monetary values upon beauty and life. The man is reminded of the futility of the human race.  The little Prince and the pilot together learn about friendship, love and loss.

In the unassuming demeanour of a child, there is a powerful voice that tricks you into thinking it is but a whisper when in reality, it hollers at your conscience and summons your spirit.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince is one of the most treasured books I have ever read. There are some tales that are made of gold. Live with it. Live with the Little Prince on his asteroid.

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About the Author

Antoine Marie Jean-Baptiste Roger comte de Saint Exupéry had a very long name.  He was a French aristocrat and aviator.  On December 30, 1935 at 02:45 a.m., after 19 hours and 44 minutes in the air, Saint-Exupéry, along with his mechanic-navigator André Prévot, crashed in the Sahara desert. They were attempting to break the speed record in a Paris-to-Saigon air race (called a raid) and win a prize of 150,000 francs.Their plane was a Caudron C-630 Simoun, and the crash site is thought to have been near the Wadi Natrun valley, close to the Nile Delta.

Both miraculously survived the crash, only to face rapid dehydration in the intense desert heat. Their maps were primitive and ambiguous, leaving them with no idea of their location. Lost among the sand dunes, their sole supplies were grapes, two oranges, a thermos of sweet coffee, chocolate, a handful of crackers, and a small ration of wine. The pair had only one day’s worth of liquid.

They both began to see mirages and experience auditory hallucinations, which were quickly followed by more vivid hallucinations. By the second and third day, they were so dehydrated that they stopped sweating altogether. Finally, on the fourth day, a Bedouin on a camel discovered them and administered a native rehydration treatment that saved their lives. The near brush with death would figure prominently in his 1939 memoir, Wind, Sand and Stars, winner of several awards. Saint-Exupéry’s classic novella The Little Prince, which begins with a pilot being marooned in the desert, is in part a reference to this experience.

 

Biography source: http://www.poemhunter.com/antoine-de-saint-exupery/biography/

 

Interesting 1979 clay animation film of the Little Prince with bonkers music.  Warning: If you haven’t read the book, don’t watch this film in case you cannot get the unremittingly screechy voice behind the little Prince out of your head. 🙂

 

 

Life after Life – Review

Life After LifeLife After Life by Kate Atkinson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Life after Life is a story about a baby, a child and a woman called Ursula who is gifted, or cursed, with the reliving of the same life and the ability to remember her previous lives. The story spans two world wars and its robust historical context provides a tumultuous and fascinating stage for the lives of Ursula and her family, lovers, friends and foe.

In each life, the protagonist effects a change in response to the last, and profound questions are raised both in her individual life stories and as a philosophical theme throughout the book about whether we have the capacity to change our fates and if we did, would it really matter?

It took me seventy pages to get into the story as it leaps across time and lives. This may just be my de-cluttering from the last book I read or a rather slow warming up period to adapt to a new type of narrative structure. But once I was in, I was definitely in and my struggle was rewarded handsomely.

I found the meditative circular rhythm of the many-ended story simply entrancing, soothing and strangely nourishing. Atkinson’s deliciously sophisticated structure serves to build up intrigue in Ursula’s life choices, events and relationships and a commitment to staying with her and finding out if she could and should make a difference.

I only finished reading this book a couple of weeks ago and while the concept, structure and context of the story has stayed with me, the characters are long gone and I’m struggling to remember their names. This is unusual for me. I normally remember people, even fictional ones.

Ursula has several lovers in various lives, but I did not get a sense that any of them were significant and they were quite forgettable. The only real tenderness seems to be for her brothers and her father Hugh, who was perhaps her only true love. I could attribute this to a learnt mistrust of men but her female relationships are all quite absent of emotion at the same time.

There is a distance in each character that keeps them on the historical stage, rather than bringing them to life. If it were only one or two characters, I’d assume it were intentional, but as it is most of them, for me, perhaps there is something about writing people into history and in emphasising the popular notion of a ‘stiff upper lip’ war-time mentality, contact with the frailty of human emotion is sacrificed or lost.

Having said all that, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Life after Life. It is a brilliantly engaging novel for its intelligent narrative structure, grounding historical context and the philosophical questions it tantalisingly toys with on the cyclical nature of life and its infinite possibilities.

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