Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion – Review

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“We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.”

If melancholy could be said to have a patron saint, it would be Joan Didion. She travelled throughout California during the 1960s to try and understand what she saw as a confused and desperate time. Not the cheeriest subject, but interesting nonetheless. There’s despair, as this book describes a world of tumultuous change and violence—yet, reading it decades later, there’s also poignancy. We watch social movements grow and gather momentum when we know they will fizzle out and die, having accomplished few of their goals; this is a useful reminder of how difficult it can be to see all ends.

Didion’s perspective on the 1960s is raw and fascinating due to its frustration. Popular culture often sides towards romanticizing Flower Power and the few moments of peace, but Didion reveals destructiveness unchecked naivete can cause. Hippies come across less as fantastical dreamers, and more like perpetually drugged up cliché factories desperate for the illusion of change in a society that seems fundamentally broken.

And then there’s the writing itself. Didion addresses the world with prose utterly devoid of warmth and yet stays emotionally resonant. She was one of the greatest stylists of the 20th century, with the eloquence of Nabokov and the restraint of Hemingway. You would have to be deliberately obtuse not to see her influence on some of the greatest essayists of our own time. Her sentences are devastating, delivering calculated punches to the reader’s solar plexus at just the moment for maximum impact:

“I could tell you that I came back because I had promises to keep, but maybe it was because nobody asked me to stay.”

There’s a moment in nearly every essay of Slouching Towards Bethlehem where Didion seems to lament the lost dreams of both her nation and the individuals who strive and usually fail inside it. The mood is of an extended eulogy for a land of moral decay which she doesn’t seem certain was ever better than now anyway.

It’s the 1960s without the kaleidoscope of modern pop-culture obscuring the nastier elements, and thus a harrowing but powerful read.

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan – Review

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan book cover

“Don’t leave me here with my mind, I thought.”

One of the oldest and most interesting tricks in the literary handbook is to make readers ask, “What would I do?”

It’s a bright summer day in London. Something has gone horribly wrong: a child is in danger, and Joe Rose will be forced to make a difficult choice. Nearby, a strange man is feeling the stirrings of an obsession which will tear apart his sanity.

Enduring Love is above all else about the wild speculation we make when it comes to others’ motives. We can’t know what anyone is thinking, and yet live our lives on the assumption that speech and body-language gives us firm ground when it comes to understanding others. They often don’t. Ian McEwan wants us to know how arrogance in your own beliefs about the world around you can result in tragedy.

Using his own twisted version of the famous Prisoner’s Dilemma as the catalyst to this novel, McEwan makes you question how reliable your mind really is. He excels at showing the untrustworthy nature of human thoughts, and the way our emotions colour every interaction; how we stare out at the world and what we see is always distorted by what fills our head at the current moment.

McEwan’s prose is both clinical and dazzlingly beautiful, despite his often gruesome subject matters. He’s not afraid to look at what’s both rotten and interesting about the world, and reading him is like listening to an educated doctor wax lyrical about diseases. He may throw large amounts of scientific information at readers —which at times feels as though he’s doing so just to prove he can — but does so in small enough chunks that it’s satisfying but not particularly difficult to keep up.

Characters in Enduring Love are often shockingly certain about what others are thinking. This, of course, means things end messily, but it’s always a delight to read because each character is acting what they view as rational: “If you just saw thing my way…” With politics and anger so mixed together in our news, it’s important to often remind ourselves that even people we might see as evil are likely the heroes of their own story.

Number9Dream by David Mitchell – Review

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A Japanese teenager named Eiji Miyake is searching Tokyo for his father, the man that abandoned him at birth. Eiji thinks he’s cursed, has no money, no street smarts, and no clear plan to follow for either this quest or his life. The city he’s moved to changes from sunny business area to Yakuza infested red-light district—drenched in neon, alcohol, and shadow—at the turn of a street corner. He thinks his father might be a scum-bag. His apartment has cockroaches.

Things are not going well.

Fortunately, he has the help of a cat, a girl with a perfect neck, a crude landlord, and a slimy hacker to keep him sane, amidst intrigue, vivid dreams, and crushing guilt from his childhood that he can push down but never really ignore.

Number9dream is the kind of book that, if it connects with you, you will fall inside it and get happily lost there. The heat of Tokyo, the heartbreak of losing a twin, the desperation to find a parent: you feel these things in your chest rather than your head, the mark of a well-crafted story.

The writing is gorgeous but dense in a way that Mitchell shies away from in much of his other work. I don’t mean dense in terms of difficulty; Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet are more challenging from a stylistic point of view. The density is due to how many of Eiji Miyake’s thoughts Mitchell packs into only one book; you may come away with the impression that you’ve lived a full nineteen-years in someone else’s head. There are tangents and diversions, but ultimately this novel is about what makes this young boy tick.

Number9Dream meanders through strange and difficult experiences, and the writing has page-long paragraphs that immerse you by switching between topics in an instant and ensuring you way attention and stay invested. The absurd and mundane are stirred together, as are reality and dreams: you don’t know when one ends and the other begins, but you’re sure to be surprised when you figure it out.

There’s a desperate search for identity and meaning, and a very twenty-first century rejection of easy answers to difficult questions. Miyake tries to be pro-active and dictate his fate, but the city of Tokyo has other plans for him, and throws him into one bizarre and dangerous situation after another. He doesn’t have an ounce of control, something many might find frustrating in a protagonist—but not me; this kept me interested to see what this novel’s universe, rather than characters, had in store.

According to Wikipedia (an always reliable source), this book draws heavily from Haruki Makumari. I’ve tried Makumari before and found him—specifically his novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World—dry and frustratingly vague. The comparisons of Number9Dream to his work, though, have made me think that I overlooked something special, and so I’ll be picking up The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle soon. I don’t want to miss out if I could be reading another novel like this one.

Foundation: The History of England [Volume 1] by Peter Ackroyd – Review

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I recently had the realisation that I grew up in England, went to school in England, got a history degree in England… and yet was embarrassingly ignorant about how this country actually formed. I’d absorbed the basics of life since the Tudors, sure—those years had been hammered into my head by patient teachers in between naps—but what about how people had actually settled this land in the first place? Why had the Roman Empire spent so many resources to keep such a small, soggy island? What the hell did Richard the Lionheart actually do, aside from something something Crusades mumble mumble and his brief appearance in Disney’s Robin Hood?

So, I decided to remedy this, and picked up Foundation by Peter Ackroyd. This book has a lot of ambition. It wants to fold a country inside of its pages, and as such it’s light on detail but heavy on content. If fitting the total history of a country onto five hundred pieces of paper—15,000 BC to the modern day—sounds impossible, that’s because it is. There aren’t gaps in content here so much as caverns. That’s acceptable with pop-history, though, and if you crack the spine of this thing with managed expectations you’ll get an impressive outline of how England became England.

There are annoying interjections at times, with Ackroyd making assertions and declarations that scream out for explanation. You’ll be reading about a random Royal or Important Figure, and Ackroyd will casually mention how they boiled they boiled children, or fought a bear, or caught syphilis from a nun (I might be exaggerating the ridiculousness of some of these slightly, but not as much as you might think). And then quickly move on. “Wait!” the reader cries out. “Tell us more about the damn nun!” Nope, back to agriculture we go.

Every issue I had with this book came down to  the same lack of depth, which is extremely unfair of me considering that Ackroyd’s breezy approach to history is why I bothered to pick this up in the first place. There are fascinating details scattered throughout, and Ackroyd is an adept storyteller. His writing occasionally bordered on too melodramatic for my taste, but that may just be because I trudged through enough dry history books during university that I’ve developed a tolerance for dullness.

If you want a crash course in this weird little country of ours, Foundation is a promising place to start. It’s flagrantly unacademic, and as such gets a bit carried away with sweeping statements about some complicated issues, but that’s part of why it stays enjoyable; go in expecting to take some passages with a pinch of salt and you’ll be more than satisfied.

Euphoria by Lily King – Review

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“You don’t realise how language actually interferes with communication until you don’t have it, how it gets in the way like an overdominant sense.”

Margaret Mead was an incredible woman who lived an unconventional life, and pioneered what we today call anthropology; she rocketed the science into the public eye from academic obscurity and disinterest. Euphoria, by Lily King, is partly based on Mead’s time with native tribes near the Sepik River in New Guinea, and her turbulent romantic life there. In this novel, three scientists, one suicidal and the other two damaged in more subtle ways, are trying to unravel the cultures of a number of tribes in New Guinea while battling their own lust, anger, and depression.

Primal human urges are the centre-point of this story and the novel attempts to tackle some big themes, such as what it means to be a human, and how far Western society has really been able to move past what was often considered “primitive” morality systems. This a vivid and often engrossing tale, too, with an intense sexuality and the threat of violence constantly hovering over the events depicted. Unfortunately, King’s interesting observations about the nature of societies are stapled onto a love triangle which feels far more generic yet prominent than the ideas surrounding it.

The writing has some sentences which crackle with real inspiration, but also a number of tics that keep it from being truly stellar. For instance, King has an irritating tendency towards repetition at the end of her sentences, a stylistic flourish that comes across as clunky rather than poetic.

The few moments we spend with tribal characters overshadow the main cast. When anthropology and its capacity to give insight into human nature is at the forefront, King shines; ironically, however, when it comes to exploring individual characters rather than society as a whole, things get iffy.

The characters are multifaceted and engaging to watch bounce off each other. King excels at witty dialogue, and makes you buy a burgeoning romance and another which is on the decline. There are, however, melodramatically tragic back-stories which may as well have had “Freudian excuse” in bold red letters across the pages where they were being explored. It’s not that these back-stories to be unrealistically tragic; in fact, they’re carefully modelled on Mead and company’s biographies. It’s the way they are brought up as a way to explain a character’s actions rather than to help us understand them better. There’s no subtext here, just text, and we are informed how their histories have damaged the people we are reading about rather than being allowed to figure them out for ourselves. This gave a soap opera tinge to an otherwise carefully put together story, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but due to the focus it take this gives Euphoria a tonal inconsistency due to the more fascinating and mostly restrained sections with the native tribes.

There are a number of moments where we are given hints, or outright told, what happens after these characters leave the jungle, and so the ending feels incomplete and anti-climatic due to a rather abrupt ending that left a large number of questions unanswered. Still, there were some vivid descriptions and interesting character dynamics on display in Euphoria. Just don’t expect to come away completely satisfied.

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach

“Kinsey wanted Dellenback to film his own staff. There are three ways to read that sentence, all of them true.”

If you’re the kind of person who would like to know the story of how researchers discovered that electrical dick machines can stimulate knee orgasms in paralysed people, oh boy, do I have a book for you.

To give you an idea of the tone of Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, here are a selection of chapter titles:

  • Dating the Penis-Camera: Can a Woman Find Happiness with a Machine? [Spoiler: Yes!]
  • Re-Member Me: Transplants, Implants, and Other Penises of Last Resort
  • The Upsuck Chronicles: Does Orgasm Boost Fertility, and What Do Pigs Know About It?

This is a hilarious chronicle of science, and the ridiculous lengths some people will go to figure out the most efficient way their bits can fit in people/objects. After Bonk you’ll come away with ridiculous stories, an appreciation for Roach’s sense of humour and renewed gratefulness for puns. This thing is almost annoyingly funny. I kept sniggering, but really, really didn’t want strangers sitting near me on the train to ask me what I was reading. “Oh no, it’s not like that, it’s funny, I promise. Why are you moving seats? There’s no pictures!”

Mary Roach, for our entertainment and knowledge, performed the following acts during her research: measured the length between her clitoris and urethra; observed penile surgery in person, during which metal shafts were inserted right up a man’s shaft; had sex with her husband inside a confining magnetic tube so that researchers could see what people look like inside during the beast with two backs. She then managed to make my most prominent impressions of her as a person ‘shrewd, hard-working and extremely funny’, instead of ‘the woman who was really into weird sex stuff’. She worked too hard for me not to recommend this enthusiastically.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

“There’s got to be something wrong with us. To do what we did.”

Capote’s non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood, delves into the minds of two petty thieves: the charming and ruthless Dick, and the sensitive and rash Perry. One night in western Kansas, they tied up four members of the Clutter family, then shot each of them from point blank range in the head. They didn’t take anything of significant value from the house. They didn’t even know the family. Why? Why did they do this?

If you are expecting an astounding hunt of the killers, this is not it. The investigation just doesn’t have enough to go on, so they follow leads to dead-ends over and over again. The best parts of In Cold Blood are when it becomes a character study, exploring what made two men, one of whom seemed to grow up in a caring family, commit first-degree murder with no apparant motive. These are confused, angry men, so if you have ever tried to summarise your motives for just about any difficult decision, you will go into this knowing that there can be no easy or even clear answers.

One of the interesting things about storytelling is that audiences voyeurs. Once we’ve begun watching, we have no choice in the matter: we are locked in, watching situations that in any other context would make us feel guilty for impinging on people’s privacy. That’s why this book is so uncomfortable to read, and also why it’s so thrilling: we simply shouldn’t be seeing any of this. The details from In Cold Blood (purportedly) happened. That complicates the reader-story dynamic considerably.

Truman Capote makes a claim of objectivety, and then examines situations which he has no way of assuring us actually happened, even explicitly dramatising his subject’s thought. We aren’t only thinking about ‘characters’ now, we’re thinking about the truth that a family was brutally murdered, and this tragedy has now been adapted for our entertainment, and some details here were surely added for dramatic effect.

This attempt at a different way of investigating and displaying the truth feels occasionally contrived. Yet it’s above all entertaining, and that’s a confusing compliment to give a book that is meant to be about objective cruelty.

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

  
“The world changes too fast. You take your eyes off something that’s always been there, and the next minute it’s just a memory.”

The Book of Strange New Things is a melancholy novel about love and devastation. That might sound like a contradiction in terms, but Faber approaches the well-worn territory of inter-species colonialism with a gentle, sad touch that makes some very old tropes feel new again. This was written as Faber’s wife was dying, and a desperate longing for the restoration of someone in your life you can feel slipping away from you makes the Book of Strange New Things a sad but memorable read.

It might be a sign of the times that a novel exploring religion and aliens has received rave reviews — would it have twenty years ago, when the lines between “literature” and genre-novels were more obvious? Probably not. This change is for the better:Peter, the protagonist, is a Christian missionary sent to outer space. Letters to and from his wife punctuate the narrative; back on Earth things are falling apart. Meanwhile, we watch as the inhabitants of this new planet adopt a religion they might not understand and the strange world begins to shake Peter’s faith.

When talking about all of this, genre definitions are stretched in usefulness. It’s sci-fi, true; but there are many who might hear that and therefore dismiss this book, putting it in a box where they perceive human emotions as being secondary in importance. There’s a literary resonance here reminiscent of Ursula Le Guin, and a nuanced approach to religion that should intrigue fans of sci-fi, literary fiction readers, believers and (thankfully for me) non-believers alike.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

“There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.”

This is an extreme novel. Everything is heightened: language, characters, events, emotions. The beginning feels like the start of a light-hearted adventure in the vein of Robinson Crusoe, with wacky characters, funny misunderstandings, and a protagonist in search of excitement. You only hear whispers about the strange captain who will be manning the Pequod, the ship our protaganist will be leaving on, and hints of madness. As the book goes on, though, the stakes get higher and higher as Ahab and his mad pursuit of the famous white whale dominates the narrative. Our narrator barely even mentions himself in the last half of the book. The danger and insanity gleaming in the captain’s eye is both intriguing and clearly going to lead to disaster, but he’s all the more fascinating for it, arrogantly casting himself as a worthy opponent of not just the white whale but the world itself:

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event — in the living act, the undoubted deed — there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. […] Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”

The ornate, beautiful language — “the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver; and, by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude” — is great to read, and references to the Bible, ancient Greece, Rome, Shakespeare, and others feel purposeful rather than solely as something meant to be impressively ‘learned’, as they make small events feel like they’re part of something large and important. These influences, combined with how difficult life on the seas was in this period, mean you almost believe Ahab when he speaks as though they’re hunting Gods rather than leviathans. All of this, combined with the sheer length of this thing, make the book almost as epic in scale as the whales it’s so fixated on.

The middle was why this was not an easy read, though, specifically absolute pain-staking detail in the sections where Ishmael puts the stories’ momentum on hold to talk to us about whale biology. Some of these help you better grasp the bravery and difficulties in the life of whale hunter, not to mention the the dangers posed by the white whale Moby Dick himself, but others drag the pacing to a grinding halt. These aren’t weaved very carefully with the narrative, mind, or explained by characters; they’re just detailed, over and over again, as though you’re reading an encyclopaedia.

Still, taken as a whole ‘Moby Dick’ is an obviously great novel. The beginning and ending 200 pages were some of the best prose I’ve ever read (Melville has earned his reputation), and there was even a surprising amount of action. The characters are engaging, too. If you’re a patient reader, don’t let this book’s reputation fool you. With a great sense of humour tempering the more serious moments, it’s more fun to go through than you might expect.

I never want to read about cetology again, though.

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

  
“Nothing was ever discussed—nor did they feel the lack of intimate talk. These were matters beyond words, beyond definition.”

The only Ian McEwan novel I’d read before this one was ‘Atonement’, and I immediately noticed that they’re similar in theme. This isn’t a criticism, as the theme is a bloody interesting one. Both explore how misunderstandings destroy lives; in On Chesil Beach, however, it’s the words which go unsaid that cause lives to fall apart, rather than false assumptions as in Atonement. 

In 1962, two newly married virgins have a painful, frustrating wedding night. They lack the language to explain what happened, and the story is a painful one.Explaining their distress would involve skills of introspection which the two young adults simply don’t have, due to the well-meaning, stifling prissiness of their society. Each have problems that they can’t understand, let alone resolve. The language they need to explain and explore what’s wrong lies in parts of their minds they just can’t reach.

Melancholic and beautifully written, with prose which compares and weaves history and the mundane with precision, this is a great short read.