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.”

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.

Engleby by Sebastian Faulks – Review

Engleby - Wikipedia

“My own diagnosis of my problem is a simpler one. It’s that I share 50% of my genome with a banana and 98% with a chimpanzee. Banana’s don’t do psychological consistency. And the tiny part of us that’s different—the special Homo sapiens bit—is faulty. It doesn’t work. Sorry about that.”

The beginning of Engleby by Sebastian Faulks is deeply irritating. The narrator’s condescension and general disgust with society became boring quickly; this made me mistakenly place the novel into the groan-worthy genre of Embittered Failing Male Tells the World Why It Sucks.

I was, thankfully, wrong. This novel is a satire, one which understands its subject  (namely, self-absorbed young men) so well that it took me an embarrassingly long time to realise that the qualities which made me dislike the novel were intentionally over-the-top. Faulks had been constructing an arsehole-pinata, which readers get to enjoy watching him beat down over the final 200 pages of this book.

To think you know a character well and then have your perspective flipped is always an exhilarating experience, one of the most fascinating an author can provide. As Engleby went on, I came to realise that I had been attributing mistakes of the protagonist with mistakes of the author—yes, the protagonist was an insufferable, pretentious blowhard, but this was to set up an unusual narrative which is easily worth the novel’s rocky start.

Aside from the strange story-structure and protagonist, the novel has some fantastic details about life in 70s England. Faulks’ portrayal of a “gaslight grey” country still struggling to rise from the ashes of the second World War thirty years on is a convincing one, filled with nice details of dilapidated buildings and soot-smeared skies.

This is, ultimately, a fascinating character study, despite a beginning which may turn off readers who aren’t prepared to grit their teeth. The final chapter makes it all worth it, though.

Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams – Review

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“They do the work, and he gets all the money. They think he’s a crook, and he thinks they’re fools. You can’t blame either side; they’re both right.”

In Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams, an attempt to explore nature goes very, very wrong. The majority of this novel takes place in a large, isolated valley in the Colorado mountains. Blistering heat and deathly cold bear down on hunters who have gone into the wilderness searching for buffalo (a species, during this novel’s time period, nearly extinct).

The protagonist is William Andrews, a Harvard drop out in the 1870s gone west because of a longing for nature, solitude, and something more intangible. The same naive instincts which pushed him from his warm home leave him unready for this expedition. Things get difficult, and his mind begins to mimic an automaton focused on nothing but staying alive; concerns like companionship and comfort fall away into snowbanks, and his hands grow hard while his head goes numb.

Though written decades before the idea of Neo-Westerns became common, Butcher’s Crossing has many of the genre-trappings: gruff, often immoral characters; a pitiless view of nature; the idea that greed was a far more powerful motivator in the American push westward than any sort of manifest destiny. Williams, however, approaches the time period and gruff figures with his trademark tenderness, and by casting an understanding eye on this band of hunters, and despite some dabbling in nihilism, the novel finds nobility in desperation.

The snow and distance warp the minds of Andrews’ company too, and a strange sense of freeing detachment came over me in a way few books have let me feel. Williams never allows guiltless romanticization, but he captures what drew so many men into this difficult life in the first place: everyday concerns float away from these men, and subsequently from anyone reading. As a result, and this may sound like an odd description given the harsh subject matter, this novel can be deeply relaxing.

If you let your mind focus and absorb the pages describing what should be tedious drudge work, you’ll find yourself falling into an almost meditative state. This is likely the work of Williams’ prose, which is beautiful and smooth; it enhances the atmosphere while rarely drawing attention to itself with stylistic flourishes. The result is a novel which you will drift through faster than most novels claiming to be ‘page-turners’ while still having your mind guided in powerful directions you could never predict.