Wednesday, 11 December 2019

A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

Dickens’ most famous Christmas tale is a warning against greed and a reminder that money doesn’t buy happiness. In his characteristic style, he brings Victorian Britain to life skilfully, with some dark humour running underneath. In such a short story he succeeds in creating believable characters and drawing out the traits them make them so memorable.

Scrooge is a miserly figure, universally disliked (although some do try) for his lack of generosity and dismissal of those closest to him. He finds no comfort in his wealth, keeping himself in discomfort to save money. He is the epitome of the futility of hoarding wealth for the sake of it. Through the visits of the three ghosts we learn more about his behaviour and some hint at what turned him into the cold, unloving figure that we know him as.

The Cratchits on the other hand are full of life and love despite their meagre income and the health problems that haunt them. Dickens’ character sketches are such that we feel for them almost instantly. The juxtaposition of Scrooge’s solitary, cold life and the affection and joy shared in the company of loved ones in the Cratchits is stark.

A cautionary tale for those in a position of privilege, it encourages a softer, more gentle approach. Scrooge realises how callous his own attitude to the poor is and comes to regret it. Dickens was originally planning to write a pamphlet in response to the horrifying facts revealed in the Children’s Employment Commission report. His choice of fiction instead has meant that his words and message have endured through the ages and remain relevant and heartfelt into the twenty-first century.

A short yet powerful book, and a great one to pick up if you want to give the classics a go.

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

A Girl Behind Dark Glasses, Jessica Taylor-Bearman

A Girl Behind Dark Glasses is one young woman’s story of life with a chronic illness that is largely misunderstood and desperately under researched. She is fifteen when Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME, also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) comes into her life. Up until then she had been active and fun loving, enjoying spending time with her family and sharing the dream of becoming an author with her grandmother. It seems as though her dreams are shattered when she becomes hospitalized, unable to move or speak. She comments on the humiliations of the early months and how eventually they fade, although the feeling of being treated like an exhibit rather than a human remains.

She finds solace in her audio diary, Bug, and offers an honest portrayal of her experiences. Readers will be shocked by the lack of compassion shown to her by medical professionals and their actions and treatments that make her condition deteriorate. She suffers cruelty, her family only being allowed to visit briefly once a week, essentially condemning her to solitary confinement with carers who do not take the time to learn the codes that she’d built with her family to allow communication.

There are terrifying accounts of traumatic procedures without any support in place. During one period she suffers abuse at the hands of a member of staff who is meant to be caring for her. It is shocking to read that even when the truth came out he was let off and it was Jessica who suffered as other staff began to treat her differently.

It is overwhelming to see all that she went through and the diary style format makes it feel both very real and honest. This isn’t a book with a fairytale ending but the shining star is Jessica and the amazing positivity and determination she possesses, along with the love and support of her closest friends and family. Since being diagnosed she has created paintings that were first exhibited at the Canterbury Art Festival. She also founded a charity, Share a Star, to support other children and young people who are suffering from serious illness.

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Autumn, Ali Smith

It’s 2016 and the Brexit referendum has left Britain divided, all across the country people are feeling variously outraged, smug, and tired. The political tensions provide a backdrop to the humorously written mundanity of life as Elisabeth struggles with an unstable career and bureaucracy. The trials of post office queues and over zealous passport checks will feel familiar, amusingly retold. Her job as a junior lecturer at a London university leads her mother to believe she’s living the dream ‘and she is, if the dream means having no job security and almost everything being too expensive to do and that you’re still in the same rented flat you had when you were a student over a decade ago’. Her situation will ring true for many readers. Despite this, the book is bright with the friendship she has shared with a former neighbour, Daniel Gluck , now 101 and dying in a care home.

Her mother didn’t encourage their friendship in her youth but they nonetheless managed to form a strong bond that profoundly impacted Elisabeth. We see snippets of conversations they’ve had through the years as he encouraged her to see the world differently, to think more creatively, and engage with under-appreciated art such as that of Pauline Boty, a female artist who was integral to the British Pop Art movement yet largely passed over since.

Smith uses events of the past such as the Profumo scandal to remind readers that turmoil is cyclical. The opening line ‘It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again.’ points to the fact it can often feel like things are the worst they’ve ever been, that the media may encourage hysteria, but that it will pass, and doubtless come again. There is something reassuring in placing current political woes into a broader historical context.

The setting may put some readers off, looking instead for escapism in their fiction, but ultimately this feels like a hopeful book. It points to the benefits of intergenerational friendship at a time when generations are pitted against each other. This is a book that will teach you not only about events of the past but also make you think about the different ways we see the world. The idea of being in love with the way someone sees is profoundly moving. Autumn jumps around in time and alternates between cuttingly realistic vignettes of every day life with passages that will make you think more deeply.

The first in Smith’s Seasonal Quartet, this is an addictive read. I’m looking forward to picking up Winter but only wish we could have more time with Daniel and Elisabeth.

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Non-Fiction November – Favourites

This week’s non-fiction November theme, picked by Katie at Doing Dewey, is favourites. I’ve been reading more non-fiction this year and it’s been a great addition to my reading life. Currently working my way through Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano, my first ever ‘true crime’ book and it’s fascinating and horrifying. Here are some other brilliant non-fiction reads from over the years. I’d love to hear what you’d recommend.

Reason to Stay Alive by Matt Haig:
This is a book that doesn’t really need any more publicity but it’s popular for a reason. It details Haig’s battle with depression and offers insights into what has helped him, without ever claiming to have universal solutions to the illness. Whether you’re looking to find out more about mental health issues or just want to know you’re not alone, this is a great place to start.

Bryson brings his characteristic wit to his exploration of Australia, with funny anecdotes and informative snippets, it will leave you feeling like you’ve learned a lot as well as possibly more than you’d like to about all the potentially dangerous wildlife you might encounter out there. I’ve never read a Bill Bryson book that I haven’t enjoyed and he writes on such a broad range of topics that there’s bound to be one you can get stuck in to.

The Greatest Traitor: The Life of Sir Roger Mortimer by Ian Mortimer
This book had me hooked from the start. Medieval history doesn’t get all that much attention in general but I was shocked I’d never heard of a man that deposed the king and ruled England, albeit fairly briefly. This is history at its most dramatic – escape from the Tower of London, affairs that have extreme consequences, and a murder mystery that historians are still debating to this day.

The Brontës seem to be the object of insatiable public interest and although you may think we don’t need another biography, this is a brilliant addition. Well researched and thoughtfully portrayed, it is an enlightening read and one that makes you feel the heartache and difficulties that the family and specifically Charlotte faced.

This book should be required reading for all those politicians who tell us how wonderful employment rates are at the moment. Eye-opening and horrifying, this book gives you an insight into what it’s like to be stuck in the gig economy, working for companies that pretend to give you flexibility and freedom while trapping you in an endless cycle of being overworked and underpaid.

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town, Mary Beard

In this easy to read history Beard cuts through the myths surrounding Pompeii and looks at life in this ancient town. Discussion of the eruption is confined to the opening chapter, a moving introduction that dispells many commonly held misconceptions. Tour guides and popular imagination like to perpetuate the idea that it is a city frozen in time, unexpectedly interrupted by disaster. The truth is that there would have been earthquakes and other warning signs leading up to the eruption and many had already evacuated. This explains both the sparsity of items in the houses and also the amount of renovations that seem to have been taking place. Beard also lays bare the claim that what we see now is as it was discovered, in reality early excavations damaged remains and the site was bombed during World War Two. Renovations have taken place to create a less damaged appearance. Nonetheless, it is a unique and intriguing site, although one that throws up as many questions as it answers. Some objects and frescoes have sadly been lost to time but we can be grateful to artists of the past who created detailed images of what was there when it was originally discovered.

Beard discusses the split in opinion of historians – some are happy that an unexceptional town has survived, giving us a glimpse into the normal life of a Roman town that would otherwise have been forgotten whereas others lament that it wasn’t a more important place, believing we could have been privy to far more. She discusses the role of Pompeii, seemingly a town of little consequence yet evidence suggest its port was busy and that it facilitated foreign trade.

The importance of where historic evidence is found in its interpretation is also highlighted. For example, graffiti about gladiators has been used to suggest they were the heart throbs of the day, yet when you consider the graffiti was found in the barracks of gladiators it seems more of a brag than an indication of public perception. The discussions of how history is pieced together are an interesting addition and important for an excavation that elicits so much interest and to which so much has happened in the intervening millennia.

Beard’s style makes this an accessible history and one I would recommend to anyone planning a trip to Pompeii. It adds context to much of what you’ll see there including an explanation for the roads that needed stepping stones to cross and that the phallic imagery present around the town doesn’t indicate a city over-run with brothels as many would have you believe. For a town best known for its demise this book helps to bring the life of the town back to the fore.

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Three days in Naples

View from Castel Sant'Elmo

Naples has a reputation for being dangerous and dirty, although people that live there or have visited generally reject these assumptions. It is busy, chaotic, and very polluted, but you don’t feel unsafe walking around (although the traffic takes some getting used to!). Take care of your personal possessions, as you should anywhere you visit, but don’t let its reputation put you off visiting. It’s worth factoring in some time to just wander around the maze of streets and experience the bustling city first hand.

There’s plenty to see in Naples including three castles. Castel Sant’Elmo sits proudly above the city, an imposing fortress that has often been used as a military outpost. It now hosts art exhibitions and offers beautiful views over Naples. If you don’t want to climb the hill to get to it, there’s a funiculare that will take you nearby.
Inside Castel dell'Ovo

Head toward the harbour and you can’t miss Castel dell’Ovo guarding the bay. It is the oldest standing fortification in Naples and the peninsula on which it sits used to be the island Megaride. It is free to enter and there are information boards explaining its varied history including being used as the seat of the Royal Chamber and State Treasury, as a prison, and as a defense structure during many periods of unrest.

Follow the harbour round and you will soon find yourself at Castel Nuovo which has been used frequently as a royal residence over the years. Today it hosts a museum, chapel, and library. A short walk from here will bring you to the Piazza del Plebiscito, on one side a royal palace, on the other an impressive church. 

If you’re tired of tourist attractions by this point and want a bite to eat or to do some shopping, the Galleria Umberto I is just around the corner. An impressive nineteenth century shopping gallery with domed ceilings and mosaics lining the floors. It’s worth popping in to see it but pass through it and head into the narrow side streets and you’ll find a wide variety of pizzerias and trattorias where you can eat a delicious meal and have change from €10.
Galleria Umberto I

Approximately half an hour walk from here takes you to Napoli Sotterranea where you can go on a guided tour of the underground sections of the city. Here you’ll learn about the devastation that Naples suffered during the Second World War and how they converted tunnels they’d been using for rubbish for decades into bomb shelters, walk along ancient aqueducts, and even see some flowers growing 40 metres underground. Opposite the entrance to the tour you’ll find Christmas Alley, where you can pick up handmade Christmas decorations all year round.

A ruined temple at Pompeii
Few travellers will stop in Naples without visiting Pompeii or Herculaneum. Easily accessible by the Circumvesuviana which departs from Garibaldi, allow a full day to walk the Pompeii excavations. Herculaneum is a smaller site as the new city was built over the remains and so it’s unlikely the whole city will ever be fully uncovered. Although Pompeii is the far more popular site, Herculaneum is worth a visit. Its proximity to Vesuvius means that it was destroyed and therefore preserved, in a slightly different way. The hot ash carbonised wood, preserving features that were destroyed at Pompeii, and more of the buildings have upper floors and wall paintings still intact.
Remains of a building in the excavations of Herculaneum

As it’s a smaller site it’s possible to combine a day trip with going up Vesuvius. There is a tour company that operates from Ercolano Scavi station. They’ll drive you the majority of the way up the volcano and you then have an hour and a half to climb to the summit yourself, just enough time to get there and back with a few photo stops.

If you’ve not reached archaeological saturation point, the National Archaeological Museum in Naples is a popular tourist spot as it houses the majority of treasures unearthed in the excavations, moved to the museum to aid in their conservation.

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Victober 2019

To my great delight, I discovered Victober this year – a month of reading Victorian novels run by some lovely bloggers. Check out the Goodreads page for more details and to get involved. I found out about this quite late and alas already had a full reading schedule for most of the month so haven’t been able to take part as much as I’d like but will be ready for it next year and have loved all the discussions going on around it. As regular readers will know, I’m a big fan of Victorian literature so this month is my idea of bookish heaven. Not wanting to be left out, I thought I’d do a summary of books I’ve read that fit in with the themes and a few that I’m still hoping to get to.

Challenge one – read a book by a female author (bonus if you haven’t read it before):
There are a lot of great female Victorian writers, many of whom I still need to get to. I’m always an advocate for Mary Elizabeth Braddon who doesn’t get nearly as much love as she deserves, but my book by a female author that I haven’t read before will be Shirley by Charlotte Brontë.

Challenge two – Re-read a Victorian book: 
Wuthering Heights is my most re-read Victorian novel, with Frankenstein a close second. With Christmas fast approaching though, I think I might give Charles Dickens’ Christmas books another go.

Challenge three – read a book under 250 pages or over 500 pages:
My favourite short story from the period (although not from a British author so not sure if it entirely counts) is The Yellow Wallpaper. For the 500+ pages I’m going to suggest Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin, a generally under read book that may have had a boost with Sarah Perry’s re-imagining Melmoth last year.

Challenge four – read an underrated book from the same year as your favourite:
I’m going to go for The Professor by Charlotte Brontë which I know wasn’t technically released in the same year as Wuthering Heights but Charlotte was trying to get it published at the same time and it would have been written around the same period. I read it last year and wasn’t sure what to expect as it’s famously her first rejected novel, but it was brilliant, and I’d recommend picking up a copy.

I’d love to hear from you if you’re taking part or for a general chat about all things Victorian. 

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein

In the first of Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels we are introduced to Elena and Lila in their childhood and adolescence. They live in a poor area of Naples and struggle to balance their desires and the reality of their lives. Both impressively intelligent, they find themselves misplaced and misunderstood in a world where women are not expected to be highly educated. Their family lives drag them in separate directions but they are essential to each other’s existence and manage to maintain their complex relationship through a number of major changes.

From the short prologue we see an older Elena setting out to write their story, almost to spite Lila, giving us an instant sense of how fraught their relationship has been. Throughout the book Elena sees herself as lesser than Lila who she believes to be more intelligent, more beautiful, and yet less likable in their youth. There is a constant sense of competition, of almost wishing Lila ill so that she can shine for a change. There are suggestions too that Lila feels jealousy on occasion and sets Elena up to fail, yet it is only ever Elena’s voice that we hear, we see Lila only through her eyes. Lila is outwardly the less devoted friend – not responding to letters and showing little interest in Elena’s achievements, yet we also see glimmers of how much she relies on Elena when she’s feeling at her most vulnerable.

Ferrante does not shy away from the transformative period of puberty and how challenging it was in the 1950s when it was not openly discussed. Elena feels unattractive as her body changes but is pleased that she reaches certain milestones before her friend. When Lila catches up however, she transforms into a beauty that captures the heart of almost all of their male acquaintances and Elena is left feeling once again that she has been left behind. Marriage and the starting of families happens at a much younger age than the average today and although in itself it is not unusual, Elena struggles with the thought of a man violating her friend, responding by wishing to have the same happen to her simultaneously. The mysteries of sexual maturity help place the action in past generations as the girls are shocked and confused by the arrival of menstruation, completely ignorant in a time when it came with no warning.

Another main theme that runs throughout is the violence of their upbringing. It is woven throughout the story, parents and siblings regularly attacking them, and ongoing feuds and violence between families in their neighbourhood provides a dramatic backdrop. They accept it as part of their lives but Elena does not feel able to hold her own whereas Lila has a more determined, violent streak, thinking nothing of threatening even the most feared men.

A wonderfully well-written novel with characters you won’t want to say goodbye to.

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Murmur, Will Eaves

Alec Pryor's story uses Alan Turing's life as inspiration in Eaves’ latest novel. The character worked at Bletchley Park and is undergoing chemical castration for engaging in homosexual activity. We know that Alec is a doppelganger for Turing but Eaves is clear that there was a purpose for this slight separation of historic figure and fictional character. He did not want to attribute words and thoughts to Turing that he would likely have rejected. The characters in the novel have a life of their own while shining a light on history.
The structure jumps around in time and style. At times we are taken back to his school days and first love – Christopher Molyneaux who died tragically young. We see him in dreams and flashbacks, the memory of him haunting Alec still. There are also letters between Alec and his ex-fiancée June. Intimate, honest letters that show the depth of their friendship and mutual respect for each other’s intelligence. We see in flashbacks his proposal and the transparency of their relationship – he was honest with her about his sexuality and expectations, not wanting to trap her in an unfulfilling marriage.
There are musings on his change of appearance caused by the injections. He seems barely recognisable but knows, deep down, that it doesn’t change who he is, and acknowledges the strangeness in seeing our own reflection, that there’s also something between it and reality. He approaches his treatment intellectually, almost as though he sees it as a research opportunity, he doesn’t rail against the injustice of it.
Another theme that recurs is that of personal responsibility. He comments that the nurse who injects him is able to separate her actions from the result as someone else has ordered it, she is just doing her job. Later Eaves writes ‘pain is memory without witness or corroboration. It isn’t real to anyone else, and that is what allows torturers, including governments, to be torturers. They can pretend it isn’t happening because it isn’t happening to them.’ In interviews Eaves has spoken of the importance of including Turing’s interest in psychology and philosophy in the novel, areas of his intellectual life that are not commonly known. They are carefully woven into the narrative, making the reader think more broadly about human behaviour.
An interesting read whose prose is almost poetic at times. One to read if you like your fiction to leave you with lots to mull over.

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

The Woman of Rome, Alberto Moravia translated by Lydia Holland and Tami Calliope

Moravia’s 1949 novel tells the story of Adriana, a young woman who lives in a poor area of Rome with her mother. At sixteen she has grown to be beautiful and her mother believes this will be their way out of poverty. She takes her to an artist to pose nude and encourages her to become a prostitute, a more lucrative trade but one that runs counter to Adriana’s dreams of marriage and raising a family. It is not long before she falls in love, and although we know it won’t work out (the narrator is an older Adriana who drops in snippets of information she has gained through the years), she is completely wrapped up in the idea, much to her mother’s distress. Her model friend Gisella tricks her into spending time with Astarita, a man completely obsessed with her. The events of this meeting are the catalyst for a change of direction for Adriana and she comes to crave the freedom of not being beholden to any man. Her new life brings her into contact with hardened criminals, a new love, and Astarita, although she has learned to use his insatiable lust to her advantage.

She speaks of how the denial of things she wanted as a child while living in close proximity to Luna Park, a fairground that she desperately wanted to visit, led her to feel as though she is locked out of a world of happiness. It’s also hard for her to feel her self-worth, settling for men she knows don’t love her. This is rooted in her relationship with her mother who has told her repeatedly that she was the ruin of her. She had not wanted to become a mother and when she fell  pregnant it was the end of her prosperity and happiness. Adriana is sympathetic, believing that her behaviour is an attempt to protect her from the same fate.

Adriana’s life lacks positive relationships. Gisella facilitates her rape in what is an incredibly uncomfortable scene, blaming her afterward by claiming it wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t wanted it. Astarita believes himself in love with her but degrades her, showing little respect for her as a person. Her first love, Gino, lies to her. Giacomo, her second love, does not pretend to love her but continues their relationship. Other men she encounters use her one way or another. There are many times that it’s easy to feel sorry for Adriana but there’s much to dislike in her personality. She becomes fickle and enjoys the suffering of others. There’s something about the way she is written that feels false, as though the author hasn’t successfully encapsulated the reality of life as a woman.

An interesting read, at times gripping, but the style of writing does not flow all that easily. This could be a result of translation, or a deliberate device to show that it is Adriana who is telling us the story.

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar, Tom Holland

Holland’s book on the Julio-Claudian dynasty has the pace and interest of a novel, making it easy to forget you’re reading non-fiction. We are swept through the dangerous and erratic lives of the most powerful men in the world at the time, interlaced with Rome’s origin myth and broader historic notes such as the ability of descendants of freedmen to rise through the ranks. Coming to the topic as a novice, it makes for an entertaining, engaging read.

The history of ancient Rome’s ruling elite is bloodstained and full of intrigue at a time when having even a vague claim to power could leave you with a slit throat. Holland highlights both the impact that the wolfish origin myths had on the Roman psyche, creating driven, violent men, as well as the popularity of gossip and rumour. These rumours are passed down to use with little dissection, whether they are true or not playing second fiddle to the melodrama. It is a valid point however, that even if not true, it is telling that citizens would believe their ruler would set fire to the city in order to make way for a palatial garden, for example.

There are moments where the subjects seem somewhat more relatable – Tiberius’ sorrow at his forced divorce from a wife he loved for a more politically beneficial match, or Claudius’ rejection by his family for his misfortunes from birth. Sympathy is short-lived however as they proceed to murder, rape, and generally abuse their power. None more so perhaps than the last of the dynasty, Nero, whose grief at the death of his wife (by his own hand…) led him to castrating a young boy who resembled the deceased and forcing him to act the role of wife for the rest of his life. Deranged as these behaviours are, and as much as this may seem like a male-dominated tale, there are plenty of ruthlessly ambitious women scheming to manoeuver themselves and their offspring into positions of influence and power.

A very readable introduction to one of history’s most infamous families. The narrative style is occasionally a little odd as it seems to mingle assumed thoughts of the classical figures with Holland’s narrative voice. Not the most probing of historical accounts but one that encapsulates all the drama, excess, and treachery of a family desperate for power.

Sunday, 1 September 2019

In Search of Beatrix Potter

Hill Top
Beatrix Potter’s children’s books have captured the imagination of generations with their beautiful illustrations and witty tales. As I’ve grown older I’ve come to appreciate the woman behind the books even more. Potter was a strong-willed, talented woman who did not let social constraints stand in her way. She also played an important role in the preservation of farmland and Herdwick sheep in the Lake District. She bequeathed her property to the National Trust, ensuring their survival to the present day.

Hill Top in Near Sawrey is open to the public, and although she didn’t live there she did find inspiration and the peace to write a number of her stories there. It has been preserved exactly as she left it, including a room dedicated to her brother’s art. The garden proved the most evocative part of the property, overflowing with plants and a kitchen garden you can easily imagine Peter Rabbit scampering through. The property is very popular so be prepared to wait for your allotted entry time, or even to find it sold out.

Beatrix Potter's paint set
While waiting to explore the building itself it is worth taking the short walk to Moss Eccles Tarn where Potter spent many a happy evening boating with her husband, William Heelis. Despite the frequency of visitors it nonetheless retains a sense of seclusion.

A few miles down the road is picturesque Hawkshead village, home to the Beatrix Potter Gallery. The building itself is thought to be where she first met her husband, adding an extra sense of importance. The gallery showcases her original paintings for the books and offers some context into the process of getting them published and merchandised. I would have like to have seen more of her non-book art but it’s still worth a visit and as they have rotating exhibitions you never know what you’ll see.

Derwent Water
The landscape of the Lakes is familiar from her books and it’s easy to see why so many artists have found inspiration there. The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin features red squirrels, not found in many parts of the UK today, and an adventure involving Derwent Water. A lake in stunning surrounds and small islands that promise adventure, it’s well worth getting out on the water if you’re able.

Sunday, 25 August 2019

Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Thompson-Spires’ debut short story collection is darkly humourous and thought provoking. Some of the characters appear in multiple stories and there’s a good sense of cohesion and neat circularity. The opening story jolts you into the seriousness of the content with an innocent black man being shot by police. We then move on to petty office politics, the pitfalls of social media obsession, and competitive parents point scoring against each other. The subjects of the stories have wide appeal and relatability but the normality of the lives depicted make the painful truths that much more stark.

For the younger characters especially there’s a certain amount of conflict regarding their identity. They find themselves in predominantly white environments and some become conflicted, keeping different aspects of their lives separate, adjusting the way they speak or do their hair depending on who they’re spending time with. The book gives us an insight into the challenges facing black people in America today and the ways in which they navigate this.

Relationships are examined in almost all of the stories. We see a mother and daughter falling out over disagreements on YouTube content and the false perfect family image they show to the world. There’s teens struggling to find true connection in a world that never switches off and mothers struggling to look after their children, worn down by the tragedies they witness every day. This is a thoughtful collection that’s full of cutting observations on the modern world. The stories are engaging and sometimes shocking, with a host of characters that capture the imagination. A brilliant read.

Sunday, 18 August 2019

Sight, Jessie Greengrass

Greengrass’ debut novel is unapologetically introspective as our narrator questions whether or not she should become a mother. Her decision is known from the start and so it is not that you wait to find out but instead experience all the self-doubt and moral questioning that went into the outcome. In some ways her reservations seem linked to the death of her own mother. The dependence and forced physical intimacy toward the end had a profound effect on her and the absence of a maternal figure that follows makes her question herself. Without a mother she forgets how to be a daughter, something she doesn’t notice until she receives the care of her partner’s mother.

Her relationship with her maternal grandmother has also impacted her deeply. Known only as Doctor K, she advocated for an examined life, sitting with the narrator as a child, teaching her to reflect on dreams and her internal life. She encouraged her own daughter similarly, resulting in the extinguishing of dreams, a fact the narrator has always found sad. The novel is interspersed with sections on historic figures. The most obvious parallels are with that of Sigmund and Anna Freud in which the father psychoanalyses his own daughter with seeming beneficial results. Many readers would question the moral reasoning behind a parent exposing their own child to their analysis, and the narrator finds connections to her own moral musings.

Many of the historic sections deal with consent or the lack thereof, and the narrator torments herself with the thought of bringing another person into being without the chance of them having given consent. She feels keenly the responsibility that in choosing to become a mother she must make herself the best than she can, a task she believes she has failed before her baby has even been born, putting her own comfort first. This guilt and self-doubt do not seem to fade with time. She notes that she is only truly able to love in absence – when she is with her daughter she craves time to herself yet when she gets it wishes she were with her. Many of the thoughts and behaviours she chastises herself for appear to be experiences common to parents.

A refreshing, honest look at motherhood in the modern world. In generations past it would be hard to imagine a book such as this being published, for it to be acknowledged that motherhood is not necessarily the obvious choice and that it is just that, a choice. Greengrass creates a sense of place with great skill and the tangents into the lives of real people are both interesting and add depth. An unsettling but thoughtful read that opens the way for considered conversation.

Sunday, 11 August 2019

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

Tartt’s much anticipated third novel throws the reader straight in to the action. We meet Theo Decker holed up in an Amsterdam hotel room, hiding from the police. It’ll take another seven hundred pages to show us how he got there. The second part of the opening involves a trip to the Met, an explosion that kills his mother, and the stealing of a precious painting. What follows is a heartfelt, sometimes bordering on the absurd, tale in which Theo finds himself under the care of a number of guardians as his grief and guilt slowly eat away at him.

The story is framed around the stolen painting and although you feel Theo’s anxiety about it being found, it's not ultimately the strain of the story you care about the most. Instead we are treated to a host of characters, all intriguing in their own way. From the wealthy Barbours who take him in initially who are kind but distant, missing the heart of his home with his mother, to Vegas with his perpetually absent father. Finally he finds himself back in New York with a benevolent guardian with links to that fateful day.

Tragedy seems to follow Theo and through this we see a variety of coping mechanisms. Theo’s guilt over the death of his mother and the complete absence of the emotional support needed to process such a traumatic experience makes him turn to drugs to see him through. You’ll often find yourself wishing desperately that someone will notice his pain and help him. In others we see avoidance and pretence in the face of their own tragedies, none of which seem to truly serve them well.

Some of the most moving passages revolve around his unflinching love of Pippa. Glimpsed only momentarily on the day of the explosion, they are reunited briefly before Pippa is whisked away to recover abroad. Much as Theo may try to hide his feelings it is abundantly clear to all who know him that his attachment to her goes beyond friendship. His feelings for her are uncomfortably tied to the death of the person closest to him and it is painful to see how utterly devoted he is to someone who is always just beyond his reach.

Beautiful written with entirely believable characters, your heart will break for Theo. At times a page turner, at others a thoughtful treatise on the value of art, the importance of relationships in all their forms, and the all-consuming nature of loss. Fans of Tartt will not be disappointed.