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.

Brief Interviews With Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace

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“When they were introduced, he made a witicism, hoping to be liked. She laughed extremely hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces.”

I love David Foster Wallace, but he’s a strange one. He’s been described as a human eyeball, which is also a good way to describe how he makes a reader view the world. Everything is laid bare, all small details magnified, even the parts of human life we’d normally avoid or ignore.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is an uncomfortable but insightful book of short stories. Examining self-consciousness, loneliness, misogyny, and other more lurid aspects of modern life, the narratives flash between ridiculous, heartfelt, skull-achingly painful, and very occasionally beautiful.

I get the feeling that very few people could read this and find it mediocre. The reactions would be love it or hate it. I’m in the former camp, but even so some stories just left me bewildered or mentally exhausted (for example, “Tri-Stan”), unsure whether the effort to get through these was even worth it. And then pieces of genius like “Forever Overhead”, “Adult World (I)” and “Brief Interview #20” remind me why I think David Foster Wallace was one of the greatest writers of the 21st century.

Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

“We have dreamt the world. We have dreamt it as firm, mysterious, ubiquitous in space and durable in time: but in its architecture we have allowed tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason which tell us it is false.”

Labyrinths, a book of short stories by Jorge Luis Borges, is dense. Neutron star dense. Its overwhelming scope makes little moments feel massive, as Borges can use ten pages to create what would take others hundreds.

He tries to make you process the impossible as plausible, and the results are mind-bending.

Despite the grand ambitions and heady concepts, the style here is smooth. Borges’ prose is academic and understated, so things never feel (unintentionally) frustating. Erudition comes roaring out of this thing like heat, so it can take a while to adjust; you may want to shut it and cool off occasionally, or you’ll lose focus. But oh, it’s worth it.

The stories here are so varied in theme, tone, and genre, that I can see just about any of them being someone’s favourite from the collection. Not every one will stay with you, and some you might even find boring if they’re not written in a style you appreciate, but they all have extremely creative and well-thought-out ideas. A few, like “The Immortal”, “The Circular Ruins”, and “The House of Asterion”, are some of the greatest short stories you’re likely to read.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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‘Those years (of equality) were just an anomaly, historically speaking,’ the Commander said. ‘Just a fluke. All we’ve done is return things to Nature’s norm.’

The Handmaid’s Tale is a stylistically beautiful, worryingly plausible novel about a world in which the United States government has been overthrown by civil war, and a totalitarian Christian theocracy has been installed in its place. This isn’t the futuristic nightmare of 1984 or the Hunger Games, however, wherein technological advances and inequalities make oppression simple. This is a fictional world which demonstrates how it easy it would be to lose the progress of the last few centuries made, in regards to gender and race.

Before reading The Handmaid’s Tale, I had seen Margaret Atwood’s comments denying she was a science-fiction writer. Oryx & Crake fit snugly in the genre, and so I viewed her attempts at distance from with a degree of scepticism. I thought of her as another writer attempting to escape from the label of sci-fi for the same reason Vonnegut described: “I have been a sore headed occupant of a file drawer labelled ‘science fiction’ […], and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.”

The Handmaid’s Tale is not science-fiction. This isn’t because it has literary qualities; if that was a qualifier, Gene Wolfe would have escaped the drawer along with her. It’s because it takes place in a dystopia, yes, but not one undone by technological advances and scientific arrogance like the world of Oryx and Crake (which was incidentally why the book grated on me occasionally), or even where technology is used to particularly insidious means in the style of 1984. Atwood predicts no new force which wrenches our freedom from us. It is a regression to the values of the old world, a desire for simple, comforting roles of gender enforced by those who are most powerful, which erodes hard won rights.

There are a number of direct parallels across many modern states for the subjugation that women undergo here, but Atwood also draws heavily from the history of Antebellum slavery on topics such as literacy and Biblical justification for cruelty. She’s done her research on how oppression and slavery can manifest and maintain power in societies, and as such this dystopia is hauntingly believable.