The Places in Between by Rory Stewart – Review

“I had been walking one afternoon in Scotland and thought: Why don’t I just keep going? There was, I said, a magic in leaving a line of footprints stretching across Asia.”

I was initially repelled by the summary of this book: an upper-class English military man wanders from Herat to Kabul on foot, surviving through the generosity of people already deeply in poverty. Why, I wondered, would I want to read about the self-realisation of a twit achieved through the endangerment of Afghanis?

It’s a difficult thing to write a book about being a tourist in war-torn Afghanistan at the height of the Western invasion and not come across as a self-serving narcissist; Stewart, for the most part, manages to thread that needle by not talking much about himself at all. His reasons for the trip are outlined vaguely – following the path of Babur, an ancient conqueror who overtook large parts of Asia – but that explains his route, rather than his actual motivations for a journey which was both extraordinarily dangerous and costly. Instead, his writing focuses on the voices of the villagers he meets, explaining their stories briefly and with sympathy, focusing on Stewart’s interest in them both as people and products of the region they live in.

You get the sense that an impartial observer should be sceptical about the idea of Afghanistan as a nation at all, at least in the sense that the modern West conceives of one – a place with a united government, for whom all its citizens should both account for and be accountable too.

Afghanistan’s many tribes are ruled in a sort of Feudal system, relying on the whims of foreign aids and local chiefs to live on land that has been ravaged by war for decades. You get a strong sense for how the geography of the land governs a person’s life, and how history stretching back millennia has shaped the current social and political climate.

However, some nearly-shot children and nearly-murdered guides cast a foolhardy glare on the enterprise which spawned the admittedly engaging book. Stewart’s a talented writer, and his observations about the country feel carefully observed and truly felt; it’s easy to admire adventurers in the abstract, but Stewart’s flights of fancy seemingly result in more death than would have occurred had he never arrived at all. We never see him regret this; he doesn’t seem to think of it at all. Thus, the glossy shine of his adventurous spirit sheen fades quickly, revealing a reckless man who’s good with words but bad at caring for people who would be better off if he’d stayed home.

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante – Review

Book Review: The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante | Theresa Smith  Writes

“Why, then, even when I advanced, was I so quick to retreat? Why did I always have ready a gracious smile, a happy laugh, when things went badly? Why, sooner or later, did I always find plausible excuses for those who made me suffer?”

The second in Elena Ferrante’s blisteringly passionate Neopolitian series, The Story of a New Name takes place on the dirty and sun-baked streets of Naples, as residents are swept through life in a whirlwind of anger, resentment, and short-lived love.

A young girl named Elena’s complex and passionate friendship with Lina has been stretched by their changing social conditions and Lila’s abusive marriage. As Elena longs for Lila’s beauty, charisma, and recent wealth, Lila resents Elena’s education and the chance it gives her to transform. The two see adults around them as miserable, and both fear and strongly suspect that they will one day become the same way, beaten and tired shadows of their young selves with their bright eyes dimmed and dreams pissed on and laughed at.

Ferrante’s writing has a warmth to it, as her sentences pile descriptive clauses on top of descriptive clauses focused on the emotional state of Elena rather than the world she occupies. A single mood will be expressed over three paragraphs, exploring both its origin and consequences in conversations that mood impacts. Emotions dictate the situations characters get into, rather than an easy-to-grasp plot pushing the narrative forward.

Did a passing yet stinging remark from her mother leave Elena angry, and thus more likely to conflict with her temperamental boyfriend? Did a conversation between characters three years ago create a distance which cannot be crossed, resulting in stunted expressions over something important? Or is one of them merely in a foul mood due to lack of sleep, resulting in a cascade of bad feelings that results in an explosive argument with ramifications for years to come?

When you listen to Elena despair over the state of her neighbourhood, it feels as though she’s despairing over the state of the world, because from that’s all of the world she’s been allowed to see exists. She might have glimpsed a kinder or richer place in one of her novels, a city or community she knows is real, but her vision of reality has been narrowed by poverty until it seems that she might be trapped in a cycle of her ancestors: work for nothing, rage, die.

Caught between the desire for a better life and the deep-seated fear that they are living in precisely the conditions they deserve, an impression confounded by the contempt outsiders’ treat the very dialect they speak, residents of Elena’s neighbourhood view change with suspicion. They are people who grew up in poverty and, for the most part, were never shown away out of it, so they view any who try and leave the dramas of their corner of Naples with deep-seated resentment.

A combination of good fortune and dedication might Elena her escape, but her parents sneer at her changing voice, her need for teaching materials that other, less uppity children would never ask for. They see her attempts at walking a new path as condemnation of their own journeys. ‘What’s so bad about where we ended up?’ they feel. ‘We’ve done the best we could. You think you’re better than us? Put down those books and help make a meal, find a husband, get a job.’

Marriage binds families of their community, a line that connects two drowning and resentful captives. Passions fizzle only to be enflamed with jealousy, and beatings are commonplace and admired as a way to assert proper dominance by petty men. Insults, disgust frustration. Lina wants to escape her abusive marriage, but there’s no way to do this without destroying both herself and her family. Sometimes that’s a sacrifice she’s willing to make, but other times she staggers through a world she’s numb to, drained of joys but bearable through sheer stubbornness.

Elena is on the rise in terms of class: the first in her family to attend high school, mastering Italian beyond the vulgar dialect she throws around in her neighbourhood, mingling with the daughters and sons of professors and artists who pay no regard to people like her parents. This paralyses her in a state of fear, however, as she is aware that no matter how hard she studies the time is too late, her life began in a lower-class neighbourhood; she thinks this has marked both her brain and body so deeply that anyone truly knowledgeable could chip away at her persona with some intelligent words and see her true self, unworthy, just barely buried beneath a layer of pretention.

The Story of a New Name is a novel about transformation, and the cost of making a new life for yourself. Poverty binds characters to the land they grew on; if they want to plant their roots in new soil, there will always be a great price. Elena finds escape through knowledge, Lila through passion, and both are resented for these choices. Who could judge them for this, however, when these desires stem from a need to feel something other than resignation?

Country by Michael Hughes – Review

Country by Michael Hughes

“When you hear some of the stories, you can see plain that the old times were not a bit different than today.”

Set during the end of the Troubles, Country by Michael Hughes centres on a fighter named Achil’s rage, black and murderous. He’s a war hero to locals and a terror to the British occupying force.

Achil is a sniper with godlike aim who leaves his enemies scattered about the earth for dogs and birds to feed on, a man it’s unwise to make angry. The leader of his troop, however, named Pig, embarrasses Achil by stealing his girl – and by ‘his’ girl I mean that in the sense of ownership; girls are treated as little more than property to be bartered with by this group.

Sulking in his house accompanied by his friend Pat, drinking tea and brooding over old stories, Achil refuses to take up his weapon and kill a single person until his girl is returned. Deaf to the cries of his countrymen, his feud with Pig sets their company on a path towards destruction.

This novel makes the hunger of citizens to take back land stolen from them by a hungry colony power feel intense yet desperate, seemingly hopeless yet vital. Hughes’ echoes of the Iliad, an epic I deeply love, gives a gripping and grand feel to this gritty, perfectly paced novel of war and misery.

Innocents are tortured or worse, while the guiltiest men sit in offices and get off with firm handshakes. How can peace be achieved when many soldiers don’t want the anger in their bellies to fade, as peace might make all they’ve fought for been for nothing?

I tore through chapters then had to stop myself so I might enjoy this book in full; I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough, then became worried I was reading too fast and might miss an important shot or vital piece of dialogue in my rush to see what happened next.

Hughes has a gift for putting readers in miserable situations and making them rush back for more.

A Painful Truth: Review of ‘The Sixth Extinction’ by Elizabeth Kolbert – Review

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People often roll their eyes when they’re told apocalyptic scenarios about our environment. This is understandable. In the information age, dire predictions are so common that they’re dull and suspicious, since tragedy and disaster have passed into the domain of clickbait. Parsing truth from hysteria can be tricky. That’s where talented nonfiction writers can come in handy. The Sixth Extinction is a sobering book that reminds us just how urgent the situation on our planet is.

Kolbert looks at past and present extinction events to help us understand our changing world. We now take it for granted that the Earth is in a constant state of flux, but the idea of extinction—something every five-year-old in England will now be familiar with—is actually relatively new, and was shockingly controversial when first unearthed. Its discovery, denial, and acceptance into the pantheon of accepted scientific theories is made especially poignant here, paralleling the current struggle for the acceptance of man-made global warming in the face of staunch denial, and despite the weight of evidence.

Instead of focusing solely on the global repercussions of humanity, smaller stories are woven together to form a larger picture of our past, present, and future. By making each global extinction understandable there’s urgency without alarmism.

Moving between travelogue to analysis about the impact of the Anthropocene, we are forced to confront our impact on the world. The changes we’re making aren’t solely through pollution; our travel spreads fungus and is shifting the ecological balance of every remote region on the planet.

An example of the cheerful facts presented may be appropriate: the oceans are in trouble. This will not be news to anyone who reads this. An ocean so polluted as to be literally acidic, though? This sounds like something out a Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, so nightmarish a scenario that it could be rejected as over-the-top if seen as an offhand detail in works of dystopian sci-fi. Could humanity really have that much of an impact on our planet? Well, yes. The evidence points to that being one of our more lasting legacies.

As we read, the planet’s fauna and flora destroy and rebuild, destroy and rebuild, are destroyed and rebuild, etc. and Kolbert is level-headed in emphasizing that, eventually, life adapts. That is on a multi-million timescale, though, and if things don’t change the species we share this planet with are facing annihilation. George Carlin’s words: “The planet is fine. The people [and species] are fucked.”

Moonglow by Michael Chabon – Review

Book Cover - Moonglow

“On a clear night in blacked-out countryside, in between bomber runs, when the tracer fire ceased and the searchlights went dark, the stars did not fill the sky so much as coat it like hoarfrost on a windowpane. You looked up and saw The Starry Night, he told me; you realized that Van Gogh was a realist painter.”

When Michael Chabon explores a character, he doesn’t just wander across the surface of their minds: he goes spelunking, exploring nooks and crannies of their psyches that most wouldn’t think to poke inside. The result is a collection of richly drawn people who are unlike anyone you’ve known yet are intimately familiar.

In ‘Moonglow’, Chabon tells the deathbed confessions of his grandfather. Well, sort of. Most of these confessions are fabrications. The opening epigraph clues the reader in, if they are paying attention, that they are being toyed with: “There is no dark side of the moon, really. Matter of fact, it’s all dark.” This is attributed to Wernher Von Braun, the aerospace engineer and Nazi who was instrumental in launching the United States to the moon – it’s actually a Pink Floyd quote.

Stubbornness in the face of horror: spitting in the eye of the world and living in spite of it.

Chabon doesn’t construct his novel’s characters with cold Freudian logic – there isn’t a simple explanation for why Michael’s grandfather is so stubborn, for example, such as truculence stemming from childhood abuse; nor is there an easy answer for why this same grandfather dropped a kitten out of a window as a child. He had an instinct and followed it with disastrous consequences like most of us have at some moment or another. His past has impacted him, but not in the ways that might be intuitive. This is one of the reason’s Mike’s grandmother is the most fascinating character in the book:

She was a vessel built to hold the pain of her history, but it had cracked her, and radiant darkness leaked out through the crack.

She’s a haunted woman. Something happened to her during World War 2, as she proclaimed Jewish heritage and the numbers tattooed on her skin signify, but we are never sure exactly what. We hear stories, but, as with much of this book, the narrator is deeply unreliable. After all, she’s mad; however, it’s a madness borne of survival, a way to navigate a world which never gave her coherence or stability anyway. As a result, she is an enigma with a grasp on the truth which is fluid; lies must seem a small sin compared to what she saw as a young woman.

While the world’s tragedies sometimes almost cause him to break, he remains fundamentally himself: curious, stoic, and unyielding over what he believes is best. If you met this man on the street he would be a difficult person to appreciate, but Chabon’s gift lies in sifting through the detritus of human minds and finding the pearls – moments of compassion, frustration, joy – which can make you love someone even if they are, to put it politely, imperfect. You may not have made the same decisions as Mike’s grandfather during World War 2, but you damn well understand why he made them.

Chabon’s sentences are a pleasing blend of poetic and straightforward, performing a balancing act that would have toppled many other novels into either pretentiousness or boredom. He uses around nine-hundred metaphors a page (this is an estimate), but this never feels stilted or unnatural as they use grounded concepts often related to engineering. This ties both the writing and the action of the book back to space travel again and again, and instills you with a sense of wonder at the idea of traveling to another world — after all, you’ve been reading about it even when it wasn’t obvious.

At one point, Mike’s grandfather has made a terrible decision that might ruin his life. He was, put simply, reckless, but not unsympathetically so, and thus still has a reader’s sympathy when he begs for forgiveness. The answer he receives, from a hardened military officer who’s quickly figured out his penchant for self-destruction, is blunt:

Mike’s grandfather is a fatalist, yet one that can’t help dream of a better world. He’s given up on this planet and is more aware than most that the moon is a lifeless desert, yet can’t help but romanticize it. He wants somewhere to fly away to.

The novel is heavily influenced by Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow in terms of subject matter, although it averts the cold nihilism its predecessor often dwelt in. While rocketry was a symbol of whirring death for Pynchon, humanity at its most destructive, Chabon is more preoccupied with technology’s capacity to inspire hope, even when it’s used for horrific purposes. That’s not to say he doesn’t acknowledge and wrestle with the darker motives behind the development of the space age – a significant plot point revolves around America’s space program’s founding on Nazi research, after all – but he wants readers to be able to dream, and remember the joy the stars can inspire.

Moonglows takes you through the lowest lows and the highest highs of a man’s life, which frequently intertwine into some of the most important moments of the twentieth century. Chabon’s grandfather was like a whip-smart, assholish Forrest Gump. It’s the small moments – dying gasps, hopes dashed, friendships sundered, brotherhood betrayed – which make this book feel far larger than the story of just one man, however: it’s a story about hope and despair, and the painful and beautiful consequences of both.

Horns by Joe Hill – Review

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“I guess Satan was the first superhero. In his first adventure, he took the form of a snake to free two prisoners being held naked in a Third World jungle prison by an all-powerful megalomaniac. At the same time, he broadened their diet and introduced them to their own sexuality.”

A young man named Ig is accused of murdering his ex-girlfriend; after a year of depression, one morning he wakes up with horns pricking out of his head, forced to hear everyone he meets confess their greatest sins. Snakes like him a lot, and he keeps wanting to wield a pitchfork.

You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes you just might find
You just might find
You get what you need

For a book with such a potentially goofy premise, it’s a relief that an unblinking fascination with the nature of sin fuels Joe Hill’s Horns, an unflinching view of human urges and morals. Its twisted sense of humour makes all of it a fuckload of fun, too.

Demons are often more fascinating than angels, and watching a good man turn very, very bad is deeply absorbing to read about. In our time of entertainment in the mainstream loving muddled-motives and monstrous acts by protagonists (think Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad, and compare them to classic tv heroes) sympathy for the devil comes easier. I suppose that might have been true for centuries, though, ever since Milton cemented Lucifer as the ultimate anti-hero: a rebel who chose freedom and sin over paradise.

Hill is good at describing the inner workings that push humans along, the strange motivations that make us individuals. He moves the reader into a dirty territory, and makes you both wince and wonder simultaneously. Just how far can a good person be pushed? The line between sin and mistake, and what we can forgive, is presented by Hill as something inherently fluid; understanding the motives of the people around can create both empathy or anger, and which you choose to focus on will determine how clearly you view the world through the tinted lens of personal prejudices.

Put some Rolling Stones on in the background and pick up Horns, and be ready for a blazing-fun LSD-fueled car ride through the gates of hell.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion – Review

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The appeal of a memoir is typically one of empathy, of plunging and swimming inside in the life of another, becoming fully submerged in experiences far outside your own. At least, that’s always been the appeal in picking them up for me. It’s strange, then, that most renowned memoirs tend to be about lives whose experiences would devastate readers who try to become immersed; tragedy is seen as something we can learn from, something that can be understood and therefore prepared for, in case such horrendous events ever happen to ourselves.

In The Year of Magical Thinking, however, Joan Didion accounts the first year of her life without her husband John Gregory Dunne, who died of a heart attack at the beginning of 2004, and explains her feelings of numbness and the absurdity of trying to learn something from a black hole called death that’s left you far weaker than you ever would have been had it not appeared.

It’s a harrowing account, detailing the way grief erodes day-to-day experiences like an earthquake tearing apart the mantle of life. ‘I could not trust myself to present a coherent face to the world,’ Didion laments, and for a woman who values control as she does, this is truly damning.

As the book continues and you see her clinging to the pain like a limpet, as though to let go of it would be a betrayal to the man whose absence caused it. She explains how harrowing it can be to mourn in a society that values letting go, moving on, making the best of things. She didn’t want to make the best of things. She just wanted her husband back. I was reminded of a lyric from Mount Eerie about the passing of his wife, ending the song Death is Real:

It’s dumb
And I don’t want to learn anything from this
I love you
This isn’t a rational way of approaching things, I thought, but of course it isn’t; that’s why this book is so valuable: it shines a light on the irrational ways minds approach the world after tragedies, the strange thought-patterns that make sense to no one but yourself. Nothing about grief is rational, after all; it just is.
To those looking for a salve to spread over the wounds caused by the departure of someone beloved, The Year of Magical Thinking may not be what you had in mind. It’s an brutal account of grieving that eschews sentimentality and looks the rawness of death in the face. It isn’t, basically, a comforting read. It is a valuable one, though, and anyone who has experienced a tragedy knows the value in seeing the world from the eyes of someone who feels like you do, even if that feeling isn’t positive.

Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee – Review

“Was it serious? I don’t know. It certainly had serious consequences.”

Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee is like a carefully and beautifully composed photo of a rusted car: it draws your attention to a nasty, forgotten thing and makes it fascinating.

David Lurie is a 56-year-old divorcee Professor of English in post-apartheid South Africa, content to dwindle away in his final years with a mediocre career and a penchant for prostitutes. His life is less sad than painfully mediocre, and he doesn’t seem bothered by this; in face, he revels in it, glad that,after a life of failed relationships and dreams he is finally able to accept just existing.

Then, after bumping into a 20-year-old student of his while walking home from class, he invites her to his apartment and begins a disturbing affair that will be disastrous for both parties, and bring everything he spent his life working for tumbling down around his head.

Life in South Africa at this time is not fair for anyone, and Coetzee details how historical injustices pull the strings of modern life even when many would wish to either move on or forget the horrors of the past completely.

After a tragedy when visiting his daughter, Laurie is broken in ways I could never have predicted. Coetzee has a fascination with destruction, the way mistakes can tumble on top of one other and shatter multiple lives in their wake.

Disgrace is a depressing novel, but also a masterfully crafted one,; it’s barely two-hundred pages, but the brief the length was necessary because it’s also a cruel read that still keeps you interested. The subject matter gets sadder, more disgusting and more frustrating as it goes on but things stay compelling. Despite that it’s not a thriller I couldn’t stop flicking through the pages. It’s truly like watching a train-wreck in the best way possible, leaving you unable to look away from something that can only end in tragedy while keeping you empathetic towards everyone involved.

The characters here are deeply, disgustingly flawed, but compelling and believable; none are monsters, and many want to be better people than the world will allow them to be.

Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle – Review

“It was later, lying supine and blind for days, faced with the choice of either inventing internal worlds or having no world at all to inhabit, when I started to fill in the details.”

There’s a game called Trace Italian, and you won’t win.

Like many, I was drawn to Wolf in White Van because of its author John Darnielle, lead singer of The Mountain Goats. He’s a songwriter with a cynical bent and arresting lyrics, capable of transporting his audience and making them feel a whirlwind of both positive and negative emotions through a single verse. I did wonder if his pithy style would translate to the long-form storytelling of novels, though — talent doesn’t always, after all, cross genre or medium.

Thankfully, this is a novel into which Darnielle put a lot of care. There’s a puzzle-like structure, as chapters are told in fragments from all over the protagonist’s life. Sean Phililps has a horrific head wound and a strange past that he doesn’t want to reveal, and his life is shown in snippets. He’s more than happy to talk about a game he’s created, though, a place where the rules are in your favour as long as you play thoughtfully—put another way, obsessives always have the advantage.

This isn’t a plot heavy story, and it works all the better for this. The style is slick enough that you glide through. The narrator’s musings on how, for example, wallpapers, the universe and pain are all intricately connected like threads in a blanket are fascinating enough on their own.

Darnielle uses poetic language to create unusual connections between situations and themes which my brain would never find without help. It’s gratifying to read, and gives the delightful tingle in your mind of “I got it!” which mystery novels normally provide. It also helps in convincing readers to empathise with a main character who can be more than a little bizarre.

Wolf in White Van shows the beauty in escapism, the desperate need which can build inside people for a world entirely different to our own. Escapism, after all, drives the vast majority of fiction writing, television and music. This novel doesn’t glorify it, though, and we see the dark paths that can open up when longing becomes obsession.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro – Review

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“The evening’s the best part of the day. You’ve done your day’s work. Now you can put your feet up and enjoy it.”

A butler named Stevens is heading across post-World War II England to visit an old friend and offer her a job on his staff; this was supposed to be an uneventful trip. His sheltered worldview is challenged, however, as the stark reality that his country has changed without his consent looms on the horizon. New experiences lead to painful reflections on times past, while shame and confusion thicken like mist as the pages turn. The Remains of the Day uses a simple premise to disguise a journey into heavy themes of memory, regret, and love.

Stevens’ mind is a wandering thing, flitting between topics like a bird between trees; this gives a loose and unmanufactured feeling to the novel’s structure, while snippy, deliciously passive-aggressive dialogue keeps the tone light and makes it easy to breeze through despite heady themes. Serious conversation are undercut in accidentally hilarious ways by proto-typically English repression which characters must overcome just to express themselves.

There’s a truism saying it’s impossible to truly hate something you can empathise with, and this novel makes a good argument for it. Ishiguro makes a very difficult and stuck up character seem naive and lovable through masterful characterisation, showing how easy it is to confuse repression for dignity. Actions which could be viewed as despicable seem merely sad blunders by people no more malicious than the average man.

The certainties most novels offer are muddied through Ishiguro’s subtle deflation of the idea of memory as something that can always be trusted. Our protagonist’s recollections of the seemingly most important moments of his life are revealed to be faulty, a reflection of a time long past which has been muddied by the years in between; we are left wondering how ‘true’ this story really is.

Stevens’ life was spent in duty to a higher purpose as he saw it: serving one of the great gentlemen of England. But can a life be called well lived if it was in service to a man who made disastrous mistakes? Does seeing trust as a virtue excuse us from turning a blind eye to evil when it’s performed by people we feel know better than us? Ishiguro gives no simple answers. Finishing The Remains of the Day made me truly appreciate how tragic life lived without the ability to love selflessly really is, however; dignity seems a hollow reward by comparison.