Monday, 10 December 2018

Monday Musing - 10/12/18

As we edge closer to the start of 2019, I've found myself reflecting a lot on this past year. It has been, without a doubt, the hardest of my life. It turns out that getting used to life in a new country isn't all that easy, particularly when it coincides with turning away from just about everything that formed the foundations of your status quo. I left a career path that had been my preoccupation and identity for over a decade. And my husband and I went from being students, together 24/7 for most of our relationship, to being thrust into the adult world of work and responsibilities. The learning curve has been steep and my mental health at an all-time low. But I'm fortunate to have so many places that I can turn to when crisis hits. An amazing husband, an irritatingly insightful therapist, and a decision to embrace my new-found freedom have all helped me to reach the end of 2018 with some semblance of optimism! 

One other thing that helped to shift my attitude this year was the decision I made that, when all else failed, I would not stop reading. If I couldn't drag myself out of bed or find the energy to get dressed, I would read. When making contact with the outside world felt like an impossibility, read. It was the best choice I could have made for myself. It allowed me to feel connected without having to connect. It gave me the space to reeducate myself on my place in the world, through the perspective of a hundred different lives, all with their own struggles and fears. Most of all, it helped me remember that writing and reading will always provide places for me to seize back some of the power I've relinquished. Everyone has the ability to create those spaces for themselves, although they will look different for us all. It is this lesson that I'll be carrying forward with me into the new year.


Saturday, 8 December 2018

Review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

"I conjure the boy I knew. Achilles, grinning as the figs blur in his hands. His green eyes laughing into mine. Catch, he says. Achilles, outlined against the sky, hanging from a branch over the river. The thick warmth of his sleepy breath against my ear. If I have to go, I will go with you. My fears forgotten in the golden harbor of his arms. The memories come, and come. She listens, staring into the grain of the stone. We are all there, goddess and mortal and the boy who was both."

I have always had a fascination with myths. I remember hunting out books at the library in my childhood - anything that would offer a retelling of the most enthralling legends from ancient history. I watched countless Sunday afternoon reruns of old film adaptations on the BBC (Jason and the Argonauts was a personal favourite). To this day, the ancient history sections of any museum hold a magic for me that has yet to be replicated elsewhere. Something about myths captured my young imagination and has not let go. The battle between gods and mortals, the infighting between deities, and the half-god heroes that surpass all reality in their bravery and singular focus on legacy, it all intrigues me. It is a surprise, therefore, that it took me so long to finally read Madeline Miller's celebrated retelling of the Achilles myth, The Song of Achilles.

The Song of Achilles was Miller's debut work (followed up this year with another mythical rewrite, Circe), published in 2011. Introducing a new element into the legend of Achilles and his participation in the battle of Troy, Miller chose to narrate the story from the perspective of Achilles' best friend and, in her telling of the myth, lover, Patroclus. Patroclus' own participation in the story of Achilles is well supported in the Greek canon. He features, albeit minimally, in Homer's epic Iliad as the "best-beloved" of Achilles' companions. Later interpretations of the myth understood the two to be lovers. It is out of this tradition that Miller has woven The Song of Achilles, more love story than high-reaching myth. With Patroclus as the story's narrator, Miller begins the novel in unchartered territory - in Patroclus' childhood as the son of King Menoitious. Following an incident in which a boy is killed, Patroclus is exiled to the court of King Peleus of Phthia to be brought up an orphan. It is immediately clear that Peleus' son, Achilles, is a boy of prodigious talent and beauty. The legends surrounding his birth - the rape of the goddess sea nymph Thetis by Peleus, as organised by the gods - are well known and taken as truth. In Patroclus, Achilles finds a companion unlike the adoring boys that vie for his attention. They become firm friends and, eventually, lovers. The story follows the two as they are taken in by the centaur Chiron, whose job it is to instruct the boys in all areas of education necessary for future warriors. As the story intersects with the Iliad, the reader accompanies the teenage lovers to Troy as Achilles readies to join Agamemnon's army and retrieve the exquisite Helen from her captors. It is from there that the story builds toward its fateful and tragic conclusion.

" 'I will go', he said. 'I will go to Troy'. The never-ending ache of love and sorrow. Perhaps in some other life I could have refused, could have torn my hair and screamed, and made him face his choice alone. But not in this one. He would sail to Troy and I would follow, even into death. 'Yes', I whispered. 'Yes'."

It is true that The Song of Achilles will win no prizes for lyrical or transcendental prose. The book has been accused of falling too much to mimicry of young adult fiction, a point on which I both agree and disagree. The writing certainly lacks maturity - Miller herself is a classicist in background - but I felt that this lack of clear technique worked in the novel's favour. Patroclus' naiveté and simplistic narration permits Miller to capture the human elements of the towering figures by which Patroclus is surrounded. Where historical myth and its retellings do an excellent job of positioning these heroes and kings as something surpassing human, Patroclus' narration introduces a novel degree of humanity into the characterisations. It is this that makes The Song of Achilles a worthwhile read. The humanising effect rendered by the narrative perspective perfectly complements the story's position as somewhere between myth and history. It is a novel replete with gods appearing in tangible form, mythical beasts, and the intricacies of god-designed fate. Miller manages to make these features feel perfectly positioned, whilst also moulding a plot that reads closer to a historical account. 

This said, there are places in which the narrative style is quite jarring. The tone itself feels stuck somewhere between the conversational and awkward style of modern teenage boys and the lofty, supercilious language that we might believe more appropriate to retellings of classic myth. Odysseus - brother-in-law to Helen and hero of the Odyssey - has dialogue that wanders between the two. At times, he sounds like a character that would not be out of place in a Jane Austen novel. At others, his turn-of-phrase becomes noticeably simplistic and contemporary. It is understandable how the novel is somewhat lost in amongst these two opposing styles. Miller's choice to dictate the narration through Patroclus, a teenage boy whose main priority is his romance with Achilles, makes a more contemporary use of language feel appropriate. Although born of kings, Patroclus is also a self-described simpleton. With the introduction of epic heroes and names with which we are all familiar, however, modern turn-of-phrase feels out of place. The result is dialogue that is stuck somewhere in between the two and a good amount of narrative confusion. The novel is saved largely by the humanising effects of the narration, as mentioned above. The elimination of lofty phrasing and flowery description - so often characteristic of classic retellings - brings a unique degree of relatability to the historical figures. Their humanity  - as depicted through their pride, conceit, manipulation, and love - is central to Patroclus' perspective. Whether intentional or not, the language's lack of apparent technique helps to break down the barriers that would otherwise prevent the reader from relating to this fictionalisation of history's greatest heroes and villains.

While The Song of Achilles has been loftily praised across the board, winning the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2012, the book is not without its detractors. The novel has been condemned for the distraction provided by the romantic elements, as well as for its failure to adequately explore the events that surround the battle of Troy. It seems to me that any opinion of the book will be largely influenced by how closely you view The Song of Achilles in its relationship to Homer's Iliad. The mistake is to discount Miller's own description of the novel as fundamentally "a love story." In this summary, alone, it becomes difficult to see The Song of Achilles as attempting to follow in Homer's unreachable footsteps. If you view the novel as a work in its own right, detached from any previous attempts to retell the myth of Achilles and Troy, it immediately takes on a narrative depth that might otherwise be easily missed. 

" 'You have made a fair run of blocking fate's path. But you cannot do it forever. The gods will not let you'. He pauses, to let us hear each word of what he says. 'The thread will run smooth, whether you choose it or not. I tell you as a friend, it is better to seek it on your own terms, to make it go at your pace, than theirs'."

Miller does something unique for classic myth in her fictionalisation of Achilles and Patroclus. Not only does she successfully offer an interesting and innovative degree of tragedy to the legend's plot, she also introduces consequence to elements of the story that previously had none. The rape of Thetis, the sea nymph, dominates the novel's turns. Achilles' destiny becomes intwined with the goddess' distaste for mortals and the suffering that she has incurred at their hands. Similarly, the love affair between Achilles and Patroclus is not without consequence. Where such desires are excused among younger boys (who are expected to 'grow out' of their proclivities) or wealthy aristocrats who use slaves for the purpose, Achilles and Patroclus are often regarded with disdain and confusion. At a number of points in the story, their choice to pursue a relationship (albeit a choice that is typically restricted to private moments) is a point of tension. I enjoyed that Miller prevented The Song of Achilles from feeling blind to consequence. Although cultural and social differences quite clearly existed at the time, Miller offers a dose of reality to the implications of choices that, in some way, defied norms. It is a brave choice and, at times, means that there are almost too many motivations and narrative threads at play. Fictionalising myth is, however, no easy task. Miller manages to keep The Song of Achilles grounded in its origins, whilst still offering a twist that makes the novel feel both appropriately contemporary and exciting.

Although there are flaws in the novel, Miller does an incredible job with such intimidating source material. The choices that she made regarding narrative style and perspective give The Song of Achilles a truly unique angle on a myth that has already been so thoroughly explored and fictionalised. It is a wonderful novel that captures an unseen side to the tragedy and misfortune that characterises Achilles' story. That Miller is able to generate such sympathy and emotion surrounding the fate of characters originally described in an epic crafted over three thousand years ago is no dismissible feat. If you have a love of ancient myth or are simply looking for a novel that will draw you along on characterisation alone, you cannot go wrong with The Song of Achilles.


Wednesday, 5 December 2018

A Book Lover's Gift Guide (For All Budgets)


I'm definitely one of those people who unashamedly revels in the Christmas season. I have my decorations up mid-November and make it a personal goal to watch a different Christmas film every night of December (although this admittedly requires watching some truly atrocious ones). While I don't love the commercialisation that undoubtedly accompanies the holidays, I do feel that gifts can communicate a thoughtfulness that is quite exclusive to this kind of occasion. The difficulty is that, over many years, it becomes harder and harder to buy presents that don't just feel like throwing money at the first potential gift idea in desperation.

Fortunately, for those of us who love books, there is always a way to integrate our obsession into the gifts that we give. Additionally, if you're buying presents for book lovers, you have a super easy avenue through which to make sure that any gift you give will feel incredibly meaningful. I've given and received a lot of book-related gifts over the years. As we enter the present-buying frenzy of December, I thought that I would share some of my favourite gift ideas with you - with suggestions to meet any budget!

*An important side-note: nothing in this post is sponsored, nor are any of the links. These are all knick-knacks and gift ideas that I just truly love!*

1. Give A Book

This may seem a bit elementary but it amazes me how few people think to actually give books as presents. One thing I love to do over the course of the year is make a note of any books I read that I think family or friends would enjoy. It shows a level of thoughtfulness that, even if the person doesn't end up loving your pick, you really can't achieve with many presents. 

I've been giving books as gifts for a long time. It's also a foundation for my relationship with my husband. Our first date was visiting bookshops around St Louis and we bought one another copies of our favourite novels. Every anniversary, we now pick out books for one another. It may sound overly sentimental but I don't think any present will rival the thought that goes in to picking a book for someone. It's also a really inexpensive option!

2. Book-Themed Jewellery

One of my first sets of presents from my husband was a pair of earrings and a bracelet featuring small excerpts of pages from Pride and Prejudice. I don't wear a lot of jewellery but these are some of my favourite belongings. If you pay a visit to Etsy (one of my all time top sites for gift purchasing), you will see just how many options exist. There are pins, necklaces, earrings, bracelets. And you can even tailor your search to specific books.

If you don't mind the American covers of the Harry Potter books (I'm biased, sorry!), there's this adorable bracelet for $35. Or perhaps classic novels are more your style, in which case this homage to Jane Eyre is perfection at just $16! Whatever your literary desires, this is an affordable way to give something perfectly tailored toward your favourite bibliophile!

This necklace is available from Nevalia Moon on Etsy for $10!

3. Tote Bags

I love a tote bag. In fact, I use them in the place of regular handbags, largely because they are far better at accommodating everything that I want to carry with me (and I always carry my current read wherever I go, in case of emergencies). Literary tote bags are everywhere and are such a great, inexpensive gift for the book lovers in your life. Out of Print is one of my favourite websites for bookish knick-knacks and they have a wonderful collection of totes, representing so many wonderful books. Their normal cost is $20 but they're currently down to $12 (although I'm not sure for how long)!

Totes are truly the perfect gift for those friends who make too many trips to the bookshop or library and could do with an extra bit of help in carting all of those books around with them!

You can get this super cute tote from Barnes and Noble! A little more expensive at $24.


4. Book Journals

Last year, my husband bought me a book journal - a specialised journal designed to help you record your different reads and thoughts about them. I had thought that this kind of thing was obsolete in the face of Goodreads and, in my case, blogging. But it is such a helpful way to keep a concrete record of your reading habits. 

There are number of book journals that are very fit for purpose. Although I don't own it myself, this one from Amazon (for $12.69) looks really perfect and is, importantly, small enough to carry with you. If you haven't tried keeping a book journal before - or if you think it might interest someone you know - I highly recommend it. It's such a great way to keep track of your thoughts and avoid that 'I think I've already read this' fiasco.

For a super sleek option, Moleskine's Book Journal is perfect (and on sale for $11.48)!

5. Bookends

Even with bookshelves everywhere, any bibliophile can always use more bookends. My husband and I have bookshelves all over our flat, yet we still end up with piles of books dotting virtually every available surface. As such, bookends have become a bit of a saviour for us. I love the feeling of being surrounded by books but I also like everything to have a place. So having a few sets of bookends really helps to create the feeling of organised chaos that has come to characterise my life.

Bookends are also a great budget gift because you can buy them from virtually anywhere, across a spectrum of costs. Amazon is a particularly great resource, with so many options that you are sure to find something absolutely perfect!

I actually have a set of bookends very similar to this. They're sturdy and wonderful! You can get this set from Amazon for $35.99.

6. Bookmarks

Finally, if you are on a really tight budget but want to buy something thoughtful, you can never go amiss with bookmarks. I have about 30 and yet can never find one when I need it. No surprise then that, whenever I get a bookmark as a gift, I'm so excited! Once again, this is a gift that can fit a spectrum of budgets - but pay a visit to any bookshop and you'll easily manage to pick up a set of pagemarkers or a bookmark for under $5/£5. 

I even spotted these gorgeous metal mermaid bookmarks on Etsy, with a set of three costing just $4! 

You can find these gorgeous bookmarks from GlitteramaCrafts!

So there we have it, some holiday gift ideas to suit all budgets! Christmas present buying can certainly be a trying experience, particularly with our propensity to do it all from behind a computer screen without much thought. Everything has become a little less meaningful as we've put more distance between ourselves and our gift giving. Fortunately, if you have any book lovers in your life, it's so easy to find something that will make them feel extra special! 

If you have any book-themed gift ideas of your own, leave a comment down below. Otherwise, good luck!






Monday, 3 December 2018

Monday Musing: 03/12/18

One of the things that I've had to get used to living in the US midwest is the incredibly variable weather. Going from 35-40C heat in the summer to lows of -15C in the winter takes quite the adjustment, particularly for someone so used to very mild English weather. Living in such extremes has, however, given me a new and strange attachment to nature. I monitor the weather daily, watching the trees for signs of a turn. In winter, when it's possible to end up in inches of snow overnight, I'm especially conscientious about staying clued in on Mother Nature's favourite tricks. I've never been a big fan of snow, in particular. This is something that my husband - a native midwesterner - just can't understand. But I'm used to the 'snow as slush' relationship of England with its winter weather, as well as the inevitable fact that even the smallest amount of snowfall grinds my entire country to a halt for days on end. 

Now that I'm into my second December in Missouri, I'm finally starting to embrace the unpredictability of the winter weather. I've learnt to appreciate the value of a proper winter coat, the miracle of hats, and the singular focus with which to concentrate on the prospect of sitting inside with a cup of tea. With that mindset, even the most ferocious of winter storms can be an attractive proposition. So here's hoping that this December will bring a little more snowfall and some cosy afternoons inside, surrounded by Christmas lights, books, and - if you're very lucky - a little dog for company.


Friday, 30 November 2018

Review: Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak

"In front of me, there's the old TW. Beyond it, a scratchy wooden tableland. There are mismatched salt and pepper shakers, and a company of stubborn toast crumbs. The light from the hall is yellow, the light in here is white. I sit and think and hit here. I punch and punch away. Writing is always difficult, but easier with something to say: Let me tell you about our brother. The fourth Dunbar boy named Clay. Everything happened to him. We were all of us changed through him."

For fans of Markus Zusak's remarkable The Book Thief, it has been a long wait for his newest novel, Bridge of Clay. In fact, Bridge of Clay represents an idea that has been 20 years in the making. That Zusak has spent so long working on the novel is a testament to his determination, as well as his faith that Bridge of Clay is a story worth telling. I love Zusak's writing for its succinct distillation of the human experience and have been waiting for this release with patient anticipation. While I didn't know what to expect - particularly as a follow-up to the unexpected global success of The Book Thief - I was prepared to assume that Zusak's narrative skill would turn any plot into a revelation. I certainly wasn't disappointed. Although Bridge of Clay has flaws - an inevitability with a work that has taken so long to come to fruition - they feel incidental to a work that is so replete with vulnerability. It is easily one of the most humanistic novels that I've read this year - a raw account of the trauma that can accompany both loss and reconciliation.

Bridge of Clay follows the story of the four Dunbar brothers, living an almost feral existence following the death of the mother and abandonment by their father. Their existence is tribal: full of boyish violence, understated love for one another, and a fierce preservation of their mother's memory. This status quo exists until the return of their absent father - dubbed 'the Murderer' for his decision to leave his young sons to their fate - asking for help in building an old-style bridge across a river by his house. Clay, the fourth of the five brothers, is the only one to agree. In an act viewed as betrayal, Clay leaves school and moves out to his father's house to assist with the bridge-building process. Of course, the bridge is as much symbolic as it is real. The narrative's non-chronological structure unpicks the history of Clay's parents - including the life and death of his immigrant mother, Penelope - alongside Matthew's real-time reflections. At the heart of all of this is Clay, the bridge-builder whose love for stories allows him to rebuild a family shattered by tragedy.

"There, out there, was a mistake maker, and a distant statue of Stalin. There was a birthday girl rolling a piano. There was the heart of color in all that grey, and floating paper houses. All of it came through the city, across The Surrounds and Bernborough. It rose in the streets, and when finally Clay left, there was light and gathering floodwater. First it reached his ankles, then his knees, until, by the time he made the corner, it was up to the height of his waist. And Clay looked back, one last time, before diving - in, and outwards - to a bridge, through a past, to a father. He swam the gold-lit water."

This is a story about family and the narratives that underlie them. The idea of personal history forms such a central part of the plot and the novel's structure. The chronology of Bridge of Clay drifts around, from the story of Penelope - the Dunbar's mother - to the history of Michael - their father - to Matthew's present-day writing of the narrative, to the eleven years earlier that Clay left school to help 'the Murderer' build his bridge. It is an expansive story and, admittedly, the elliptical nature of the various revelations and histories can be a little tough to follow in places. However, this is something that Zusak pursued consciously: "You have to do a bit more work but I think the rewards are greater, too" (Entertainment Weekly). For me, the payoff is most definitely worth the patience required as the various narrative threads come together.

This isn't a novel driven by action. It moves slowly, but purposefully, as it untangles the web of grief that has so clearly ensnared the Dunbar family. While the chapters that detail Penelope's drawn-out death from cancer are desperately emotive, it is the myriad ways in which the Dunbar boys have been clearly impacted by the loss that are the most emotionally evocative. From their collection of pets - all named after Greek heroes, as per Penelope's love of The Iliad and The Odyssey - to Clay's torturous and seemly meaningless physical training routine, the boys have been destroyed. As Matthew himself reflects on the night of his father's abandonment: "There were five of us in that house then. We dreamed in our rooms and slept. We were boys but also miraculous; We lay there, living and breathing - For that was the night he'd killed us. He'd murdered us all in our beds." Moments such as this are as frequent as they are beautiful. Zusak does not rely on elaborate or lengthy prose to generate moments of power. It is his unique ability to conjure the most emotionally intense moments from relatively short, declarative sentences that makes his narrative mastery all the more remarkable. His decision to tell the story through Matthew's words - perhaps the most hardened of the brothers - really serves to extend the understated elegance of Zusak's literary style.

"Early on, our father was called to the schools, and he was the perfect post-war charlatan: well-dressed, clean-shaven. In control. We're coping, he'd said, and principals nodded, teachers were fooled; they could never quite see the abyss in him. It was hidden beneath his clothes. He wasn't like so many men, who set themselves free with drink, or outbursts or abuse. No, for him it was easier to withdraw; he was there but never there. He sat in the empty garage, with a glass he never drank from. We called him in for dinner, and even Houdini would have been impressed. It was a slow and steady vanishing act. He left us like that, in increments."

The grief that transcends this novel is palpable. Although death does not haunt this novel as visibly as with The Book Thief, it is there nonetheless. There are moments of such raw potency, it is almost hard to read on. The loud, direct strength of Penelope - a woman who has endured and lost so much - juxtaposed with Michael's quiet resignation and desperate sadness are tangibly painful. Yet, the healing capacity of stories and the understanding that they bring offers a hope that tempers the novel's hardest moments. As Zusak explained in an interview with Publisher's Weekly"We're all made up of so many things. We're made up of stories - not only the stories of our lives, but the stories of lives that came before our lives. Clay builds the bridge and it's made of him, but so much of him is made of his mother's and father's stories." As Clay, through Matthew's narration, weaves the stories of his families together, he creates a history that mirrors the expansiveness of the Greek legends that Penelope so loved. 

Bridge of Clay has certainly assumed a place as one of my favourite novels of 2018. While it does perhaps suffer from one too many narrative threads, it offers one of the most fully-realised and authentic depictions of familial love and shared tragedy that I've yet to encounter. I must, however, admit my consternation that Zusak's US publishers have decided to market the books as Young Adult (as the only country to do so). Although I certainly recognise - and hope for - this novel's ability to engage diverse audiences, I am concerned that the relatively slow burn, as well as the work required of the readers, will make this an unattractive prospect for most teenagers. There is also a very real risk that many adults will breeze past it - displayed alongside other YA fiction - and miss what is truly an incredibly poignant and beautiful read. I certainly hope that anyone who has loved Zusak's previous works will not miss the opportunity to relish in the potent skill with which the author has weaved another truly unique exploration of what it means to love and grieve. 


Wednesday, 28 November 2018

The Monthly Reader: November 2018


Interested in what's been happening across the literary world this November? Fortunately, I've gathered the best articles, releases, and reviews for you in one place! So grab a cup of tea and take a look at what's been happening this month.

Articles

'From Hamilton to Thatcher: the best books about divided governments' by David Runciman 

Global politics is certainly a point of exasperation and fear for many of us at the moment. After moving to the US from the UK last year, I now have two political systems (each with their own issues) to contend with and worry about. Most immediate on my mind is, of course, the chaos of Brexit currently engulfing the UK and the apprehension surrounding the seemingly inevitable political crisis about to occur. 

In this short piece for Guardian Books, David Runciman pays homage to the best fiction and non-fiction books on partisanship and political division. I'm always on the lookout for books that deal - whether directly or indirectly - with real world events. Since my day job is in human rights and international relations, this is probably no surprise. But, for those of us who feel any degree of unease regarding current global events, Runciman's article is a helpful signpost to books that might help alleviate some of the fear. 


This excellent article unpicks the reasons behind America's inattention to translated literature. The article is premised on publishing figures that suggest just 874 of the 185,000 books printed in the US in 2004 were translated works. My instinct is that this has little to do with the fact of translation in and of itself. Rather, it's the message that translation can communicate - the idea that a work is 'too literary' or otherwise prohibitive. For many readers and non-readers, translated works equate with the Russian literary behemoths. Given this, publishers are likely attempting to predict market trends. However, the popularity of authors such as Haruki Murakami and Carlos Ruiz Zafon also suggests that an appetite for translated works does exist.

Robert Gray's article interrogates these trends on behalf of the amazing organisation, Words without Borders. Since I've spent a good portion of this year reading works in translation, I'm so interested in the way that the West interacts with books in translation. Often, I will purposely seek out translated works - I've spent a lot of time trawling bookshelves for that Europa logo (one of my favourite publishers of lesser-known translated works). Whether you're a lover of books in translation or not, it's worth considering the wider attitude. Because literature, as a lesson in empathy, necessitates that we cast our net wide in order to gain most. 


This article has to be my favourite for the month. Matthew Taub describes the Bodleian Library's 'Phi' collection - books branded with the Greek 'phi' symbol as works that were too controversial and subversive for general consumption. As you might expect, most of these books were consigned to the collection because of sexual content - such as the mighty work Phallic Objects and Remains, with "an erect, prehistoric Irish tower on the cover." Even Monty Python and Madonna have found themselves joining the illustrious names deemed too scandalous.

The most amazing fact behind this article is that the collection wasn't abolished until 2010. Up until that year, students looking to access works from the collection still required special permission from both Oxford professors and the librarians themselves. So definitely give this article a read. It's a fascinating insight into a strange part of British literary history!

Bodleian Library / Flickr

New Releases

Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (Mariner Books)

Fiction can be a powerful antidote to illiberalism and inequality. It provides a platform and a voice but, inevitably, relies upon readers to centralise those necessary works exposing violence, poverty, and other social ills. Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is the writer's debut work. It is a collection of stories that unpicks the violence of racism, within a dystopian framework. As with all the greatest dystopian fiction, however, the message is as much about what contemporary society is as what it may become.

I would highly recommend reading Tommy Orange's review of Adjei-Brenyah's debut work. It's a wonderful piece, written by an author who has been one of this year's stand-out voices for the incredible There There (which, incidentally, I reviewed earlier this year).

Fox 8 by George Saunders

My most recently reviewed book was George Saunders's debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. It was an incredibly moving and raw exploration of grief that, amongst many other things, highlighted George Saunders as an author worth further exploration. Prior to publication of Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders was already celebrated for his collections of short stories. Fox 8 is another of his short offerings, originally published by The Guardian and now released in book format. 

Fox 8 mirrors the fables of Aesop with a focus on the story's eponymous Fox 8. Fox 8 has managed to pick up the language of the nearby 'Yuman' population and the story is related in the form of a letter from Fox 8 to the Yumans. Anything by George Saunders is well worth reading, in my opinion. By coincidence, he was also a professor of Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, author of Friday Black! You can also read more about Saunders's newest publication in a review by The Guardian.


Interviews


I hadn't heard of Sulaiman Addonia before reading this interview, which is surprising given the critical acclaim with which his debut novel, The Consequences of Love, was received in 2008. Addonia's personal history is one of violence, the consequences of war, and cultural adaptation. An Eritrean refugee, Addonia spent part of his young childhood in a Sudanese refugee camp, witnessing the sexual violence and murders that plagued the exiled occupants. His father was murdered while Addonia was still just a toddler. Addonia's story eventually takes him to Saudi Arabia - via his mother's hard work and sacrifices - and then to London, where he gained citizenship in 2000.

I'm always intrigued by fiction that emerges from an author's own experience. It can be some of the most fully realised and emotionally captivating literary work. Addonia's new publication, Silence is My Mother Tongue, details the lives of two siblings as they attempt to navigate life in a Sudanese refugee camp. Given Addonia's own history, this novel will surely serve as a challenging insight into a community beset by violence and displacement. Beyond the novel itself, however, this interview is an incredible insight into the transformation of personal pain and experience through fiction.

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

10 Classic Novels Everyone Should Read In Their Twenties (Part Two)


Answering the question 'What makes a novel a classic?' is a challenging task. What exactly is the common thread that brings a diversity of titles, from various genres and centuries, under this illustrious label? Although I'm sure that there are plenty of opinions on the subject, for me it's something about the universality of a novel. Classics are those books that are able to reach us across centuries, from an entirely different context, and still have something to say about the condition in which we live. There's a reach into the human experience - in a way that remains fundamentally unimpacted by technological advances, new fashions, and social changes - that traverses difference. 

It's interesting to me that searching for 'books I should read in my [insert decade here]' will typically bring up various lists of either personal development or contemporary books. Not to invalidate either because I recognise the value of - and read - both. I think, however, that there is a neglect in recognising the incredible potential of classic novels - particularly those written pre-20th century - to inform the framework around which we structure our lives. The transformative power of literature will vary from person to person. Not everyone is receptive to the ways in which books can have a direct influence on how we look at and interact with the world around us. Yet, studies have shown that reading more literary fiction develops our capacity for empathy and compassion. To me, it's about opening the door to the possibility that reading fiction - even and, in many respects, especially fiction written in a context so removed from our own - will have a tangible impact on the way that you live your life. It's unlikely to offer that 'everything has changed and I'm going to be a better person' moment that you often get with self help books. But seeing the world through the eyes of others will subtly alter your perspective. For most of us, these subtle and unconscious changes are the ones that truly last.

It is on this premise that I've put together my list of 10 Classic Novels Everyone Should Read In Their Twenties. Although anecdotal, based on my own experience, these are 10 books that I think have incredible potential for calming some of that mid-twenties chaos and laying a foundation from which you can address the many changes that tend to come with that transformative decade. If you missed Part One, you can read it here. Otherwise, we'll get back to it!

6. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

My first Orwell novel was Animal Farm, read way back as a teenager in secondary school. It was the first dystopian novel that I'd ever read and it began a love affair with Orwell that is still very much real. In many respects, Animal Farm is my favourite of George Orwell's works. However, Nineteen Eighty-Four is undoubtedly his most provocative and important. It follows the story of Winston Smith, a worker at the Ministry of Truth in the totalitarian state of Oceania. The state is ruled under the ideology of Ingsoc and the leader Big Brother, around whom a total cult of personality exists. Winston's work involves the revision of historical records to reflect the ruling party's current 'truth' and removing any reference to those who have been deemed 'unpersons', effectively erasing them from existence. When Winston meets the mysterious Julia and begins an affair, he begins to question the way that society is being ruled and starts walking a path that brings him both closer to the truth and the danger of discovery.

The predictive abilities of George Orwell, as he wrote this novel in 1948, have been thoroughly dissected. Yet it is undoubtedly the conformity of Orwell's imagination with the reality of what the world has become that makes the novel such a remarkable work. While we have thus far largely avoided the western totalitarianism that Orwell depicts, you will certainly feel uneasy when reading Orwell's vision alongside existing political trends. The power of this novel as something that you should read (or re-read) in your twenties is the centrality of objective awareness to the plot. Society's willingness to blind itself served the purposes of those seeking power and, whether or not you agree that this implied permission is a present-day problem, it is surely the case that ignorance and democracy rarely support one another effectively. Nineteen Eighty-Four is a warning against complacency and a reminder that we all must play a role in facing even the most uncomfortable truths. 

7. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

We weren't ever going to get through this list without a nod to magical realism. I thought that, just this once, I would avoid my usual trend of mentioning Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits and give Marquez a look in. He is, after all, considered by many to be the father of magical realism and its most skilled executor. One Hundred Years of Solitude is a novel of truly epic scope, following seven generations of the Buendia family in the town of Macondo, founded by Jose Arcadio Buendia and his wife. Reflecting the ways in which magical realism is often used to incredible effect to interrogate contemporary political changes, Macondo gradually finds itself exposed to the tumultuous and violent national politics dominating Colombia. The Buendia family become embroiled in the battle between political parties and the civil war that ravished the country for many years. Peppered with ghostly visits and a certain foreboding inevitability, One Hundred Years of Solitude is a truly magnificent read.

Magical realism was, for me, the defining genre of my twenties. In many respects, therefore, it should be the genre at large that features on this list, rather than any specific title. However, One Hundred Years of Solitude is a seminal work and undoubtedly deserves direct credit for providing a framework that many novelists have successfully utilised since. While The House of the Spirits will always be my favourite work of magical realism, it is so clearly influenced by what Marquez was able to achieve. One Hundred Years of Solitude is such a feat of compassion, awareness, and imagination. Beyond this, I recommend magical realism to anyone in their twenties for the way that it truly expands perception. When executed well, works of magical realism are able to take the most mundane aspects of daily life and develop their meaning. Reading magical realism has transformed the way that I perceive the world. Although I'm not seeing apparitions or moving furniture with my mind, it has definitely taught me to see a little more magic in the everyday. 

8. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

For most, your twenties are a decade in which romantic relationships, and a preoccupation with them, feature pretty heavily. There's typically a transformation from the heady jumpiness of your early twenties to the pressure and anxiety that tends to seize as more and more of your friends become permanently paired off in marriage. So what better place to turn that to Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights for an important reminder of exactly the kinds of relationships that you do not want. We follow Cathy and the orphaned Heathcliff as they indulge their ecstatically dangerous love for one another, damaging countless lives along the way. It is a story shadowed by the unpredictability and violence of the Yorkshire moors and cycles of revenge that bring almost everything to ruin.

It's difficult to summarise the plot of Wuthering Heights, largely because there are so many repeated names and overlapping relationships. If you're prepared to wade through this, however, the novel is also one of the most powerful works of fiction I've ever read. It is an interesting contradiction of the types of relationships that so many of us are seeking out when we are in our twenties. There is, after all, an almost exclusive focus on finding 'the one' and experiencing that kind of all-consuming, 'I'd give my life for this person' kind of love. Wuthering Heights shows exactly that but in its darkest form. It's interesting to me that so many celebrated quotes on love have been extracted directly from this novel. When I was searching around for bookish items that I could squeeze into my wedding, I can't tell you how many things I found with quotes like "Whatever our souls are made out of, his and mine are the same." It's a wonderful quote but entirely divorced from its bleak context. After all, Cathy and Heathcliff's relationship - as all-consuming as it is - leaves destruction in its wake. I'm not recommending this novel as a warning off of relationships and, inevitably, everyone who reads it will extract something different. It is, however, certainly a powerful take on what love can mean and become.

9. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

I'm very aware that most people reading this list will be confused by this entry and, granted, I'm taking a bit of a liberty. Although Italo Calvino is not considered a classic novelist (and most people haven't even heard of him), I'm using some predictive abilities in my certainty that Invisible Cities will stand the test of time and increase in popularity as time goes on. It was one of the most perspective-altering books that I read in my twenties and, I think, deserves a place on this list (it's also my husband's favourite book so it comes doubly recommended). While it does not have a plot in the conventional sense, Invisible Cities is essentially a conversation between the Venetian explorer Marco Polo and the Tartar emperor Kublai Khan. Polo is relating his travels to 55 different, fictitious cities, each described in vivid and beautiful detail. They read almost as parables and thought experiments (in a similar vein to Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman), told in luxurious detail with moments of truly transcendental luminosity.

My twenties were a decade of constant moving - between countries, cities, and houses. I'm not someone naturally given to change. I find comfort in routine and familiarity. Naturally, I spent a lot of my time trying to find things that might help me adapt to the constant shifting of circumstance. Invisible Cities was a book given to me by my husband at the very start of our relationship, while he was still in the US and I was in the UK. It began what has now been five years of uncertainty, visas, and goodbyes. So this book came to me at the perfect time. A sense of adventure and wonder is inherent in what the work describes. It is about travel, humanity, and imagination. This is one that you must absolutely add to your 'To Read' list and, despite its relatively short size, savoured. Because I can't resist, here is one of my favourite passages:

"When a man rides a long time through wild regions he feels the desire for a city. Finally he comes to Isidora, a city where the buildings have spiral staircases encrusted with spiral seashells, where perfect telescopes and violins are made, where the foreigner hesitating between two women always encounters a third, where cockfights degenerate into bloody brawls among the bettors. He was thinking of all these things when he desired a city. Isidora, therefore, is the city of his dreams: with one difference. The dreamed-of-city contained him as a young man; he arrives at Isidora in his old age. In the square there is the wall where the old men sit and watch the young go by; he is seated in a row with them. Desires are already memories."

10. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Sometimes those books that we best loved in childhood end up having even greater meaning the older we get. Part of that is, I'm sure, the way in which they remind us of the joyful freedom of youth. Given how challenging our twenties can be, it's probably no surprise that so many of us spend most of our time re-reading Harry Potter and recalling all of that truly regretful fan-fiction we used to write (or was that just me?!). One book that I found gained resonance as I went into my twenties was Louis May Alcott's Little Women. This novel follows the March family, living in relative poverty in Massachusetts during the mid-1800s. The family - four teenaged girls and their mother, Marmee - are facing life while their father/husband is away, involved in the American Civil War. The story navigates the lives of the women, their relationships with one another, and the dynamics of their very different personalities. 

Little Women is, in many respects, a product of its time. It is often criticised for its portrayal of domesticity as necessary to women 'coming into their own'. Any novel from the 1800s is, however, necessarily going to suffer from a somewhat archaic approach to gender issues. For the time of writing, Little Women is incredibly ahead of its context. In Jo March, the novel gives us a character who refuses to be constrained by traditional expectations. Her love of literature informs those around her and her approach to romantic relationships quite clearly contravenes the social paradigms that dominated in the mid-1800s. Most importantly, Little Women offers us a diversity of female characters, present and three-dimensional in their own right, without bolstering from male characters. It is a wonderful portrayal of female relationships and a representation of diverse personalities, owning who they are and refusing to compromise on that. As you pass your twenties planning your future, making important choices, and facing myriad pressures to conform, Little Women can certainly serve as a powerful reminder of how to stay true to yourself.