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.”

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.

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.

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman – Review

“Because,” said Thor, “when something goes wrong, the first thing I always think is, it is Loki’s fault. It saves a lot of time.”

Seeing Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology in a bookstore brought back a memory from childhood: I’d been lying on a sofa, around seven years old; the sun was peeking through the curtains, and boy-me was clutching a book of myths I must have received from Christmas, feeling, despite the warm weather, very, very cold. I had been amazed at how much the book was drawing me into its icy world. There was an ornate drawing of some sort on the left page of a man going into a cave, and the text on the right talked about how brave he was for entering somewhere dangerous. That’s all.

I have a poor memory at the best of times, and most of what I read as a boy has vanished as years go on, but I remembered this. I needed to find out which story it was which had stayed lodged within my sieve-like brain after all these years, and so I snatched up both a hard-copy and an audiobook of Gaiman’s retelling so that I could stay completed immersed in these stories over the following days.

Gaiman’s soothing tone works incredibly well with bombastic stories like the Norse myths, rather than the comparatively constrained affair of his novels. His work has always been most interesting when it ventures into the surreal, such as in the Sandman comics, and so I went in optimistic and wasn’t disappointed.

There’s such a sense of fun here that it’s hard not to be tickled at nearly every page by both the delightful tone and raucous interpretations of dialogue. Characters like Thor are just delightful to be around, acting as the comic relief in a book which I expected to take itself extraordinarily seriously.

Eventually, around halfway through the middle, I realised it likely hadn’t been a cave in the story from my childhood, but a mountain-side needing to be cracked open. I realised the man I remembered hadn’t been a man at all, but a God. I realised that it had been Odin, and that the version I was now reading—where Odin tricks, fucks, and abandons a giantess—was likely very different from the one I’d found as a child. It was no less entertaining for all that.

Nostalgia plays a part in why this drew me in so much I don’t doubt, but Gaiman knows just the right way to pace a short story, and so knows just where to tweak old tales to keep things zipping along for modern readers.

I think the reason that this retelling is such an astonishing success is that if there’s one set of myths tailor made to become a comedy, it’s the Norse ones. Its characters are both endearing and frustrating, lovable and appalling; their values are so different to ours that their struggles for glory come across as comical, and Gaiman plays up these differences to tap what could be alienating for amusement.

Laugh-out-loud funny is a term which is overused, but there was a moment here which had me shaking in the middle of a train, trying desperately to look normal and failing miserably:

Gaiman’s interpretation of the tale I had loved so much as I child, in which Odin drinks the mead of poetry, ends with a chase scene. A giant has turned into an eagle, and Odin needs to quickly lose him before entering Valhalla.

The wise, temperamental king of the Gods decides that sharting (yes, sharting) mead into his enemy’s eye is the best way to handle this situation.

I really, really liked this book.