“The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” by Rachel Joyce – Review

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

By Rachel Joyce

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Harold Fry is now an old man. He’s lead an unremarkable life and never really committed to anything. He lives with his wife Maureen. They drifted apart a long time ago. Their son left a long time ago. And a long time ago, a simple, kind woman named Queenie Hennessy did Harold a big favour that he never thanked her for. One day, Harold receives a letter from Queenie. She’s dying from cancer. Harold writes a letter, walks down the road to the letterbox and keeps walking. He will walk to Queenie Hennessy. From his home in Kingsbridge on the south coast to Queenie’s bedside in Berwick-on-Tweed on the Scottish border. 500 miles, he would walk; he would say thank you, he would save Queenie’s life. He believed in something for the first time in a very long time and gave others something to believe in too. As Harold walked, and as Maureen and Queenie waited, each would share in his pilgrimage and find comfort, courage and relief.

Rachel Joyce’s book is utterly moving, but equally full of joy, charm and humour. When Harold starts walking, he is an introverted, lonely, apathetic man. But the more he walks, the more he opens himself to the world around him. From the simple joy of walking through green fields, to his belief in the kindness of strangers, Harold finds so much to be thankful for.

“He had learned that it was the smallness of people that filled him with wonder and tenderness, and the loneliness of that too. The world was made up of people putting one foot in front of the other; and a life might appear ordinary simply because the person living it had done so for a long time. Harold could no longer pass a stranger without acknowledging the truth that everyone was the same, and also unique; and that this was the dilemma of being human.”

After he unwittingly shares his story with a journalist, Harold’s pilgrimage becomes national news. Other everyday people, with their own everyday problems are inspired by Harold and go in search of him, believing that they too might find some relief, if only they can achieve something.

“They believed in him. They had looked at him in his yachting shoes, and listened to what he said, and they had made a decision in their hearts and minds to ignore the evidence and imagine something bigger and something infinitely more beautiful than the obvious.”

Book Review: “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak

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The Book Thief

By Markus Zusak

the book thief

This is a beautiful book. Exquisitely heart-breaking.

Germany is in the hands of the Führer, and Liesel Meminger is a book thief. Both Hitler and Liesel know that words have power. Words can save a person’s soul or inspire people to do unspeakable things.

In this novel, Markus Zusak is our omnipotent and benevolent wielder of words. His ability to capture the imagination is powerful and gentle. Master of the concise metaphor. I was drawn into the Book Thief’s world within the opening paragraphs and could not put it down. It begins simply and proceeds in uncomplicated terms. Its gentle twists and turns develop into a fully formed and complex story without you even realising. But I will not allow myself to over-analyse; I wish to leave this story unbroken.

Liesel stole books. And Death was her friend. Discover the rest for yourself.

Book Review: “The Noise of Time” by Julian Barnes

 

The Noise of Time

By Julian Barnes

noise of time book

5-stars

I was already a fan of Julian Barnes before I read this book. But I was familiar with his more overtly humourous titles – “Flaubert’s Parrot” and “A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters”. While this new novel is still unmistakably stamped with Barnes’ wry style, it is of a blacker kind than I had previously encountered.

“The Noise of Time” tells the story of real life Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, during the twists and turns of the Russian Revolution. It is a tale of one man’s struggle, and the problem of artistic freedom versus artistic integrity. You might think – or hope – that the first will bring about the second. If the artist is free to create as he wishes, then surely what he produces will, if he possibly can, be naturally something with integrity. Not so, when the grip of Communism has so thoroughly distorted the nature of what it means to be free.

“Let Power have the words, because words cannot sustain music. Music escapes from words: that is its purpose, and its majesty.”

The distortion of language, of terms like freedom and truth, make the role of musician in our historical protagonist an interesting lens through which to view Russia at that time. Even if words have been betrayed, perhaps there is still hope for music. Perhaps music can be heard above the din of propoganda, and deliver secret messages to those willing to hear. But if Shostakovich’s music could reach worthy ears, would political “truths” and the ghastly practise of Revisionism so dismantle the Russian landscape and its people, that both the man and his music would be drowned out by the noise of time?

And in amongst the big political and cultural questions Continue reading

Book Review: “Several short sentences about writing” by Verlyn Klinkenborg

Several Short Sentences About Writing

by Verlyn Klinkenborg

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“The question isn’t, can the reader follow you?
That’s a matter of grammar and syntax.
The question is, will the reader follow you?” (128)

I’ve never written a book review, but I think it goes something like this: a brief description of subject, author and intended audience; list good and bad points; and a couple of pithy quotes.  I shall largely adhere to this format.  Though do forgive me if I find the implied rules of this genre too confining for my wild artistic tendencies.

So, to begin: a brief description of subject, author and intended audience

This is a book written for writers by a writer about writing.

Too brief, perhaps.

While this text is applicable to writers of any experience or style, I think it is particularly useful for those at a turning point in their career as a writer – professional or otherwise.  You might be taking on a new genre, or adapting to an alternative medium – you wouldn’t write an internet blog like you would a private diary entry, for example. Or you might be moving from school to university, or university to the working world, and experiencing the imperative to evolve as a writer as well as a person. It is this last writer to whom I particularly recommend this book.

I have personally struggled with the step up from school to university writing. It is a transition that leads to anxiety. Be more mature, be more sophisticated. Be “better”. While university is the place to improve and mature, a better writer grows, not by anxiously reaching, but by exploring and experimenting. Don’t be bogged down by the “rules” of writing as they were dogmatically put to you in the early years of education. Respect the rules, of course, but don’t be afraid to challenge them. Verlyn Klinkenborg is emphatic on this point. “And yes, you may begin a sentence with ‘but.’” (119)

(From here-on, I shall refer to the author as VK. Younger readers: feel free to insert drinking puns.)

A revised brief description: this book is for the reader who is struggling to find her voice.

good and bad points

I am loath to tritely fulfil this requirement.  I shall rather offer a few points of interest:

On VK’s style: he really does practise what he preaches. Expect many short sentences about writing.

Don’t be precious about clichéd notions of “what it is to be a writer”. In fact, don’t be precious about clichés, full stop.

“A cliché is dead matter.
It causes gangrene in the prose around it, and sooner or later it eats your brain.” (45)

He isn’t a romantic. There will be no coddling.

VK follows the recent trend of using “her” as the generic pronoun in his text. I’m trying it out. I still find it odd on the ear, but then perhaps I’m antifeminist.

His style isn’t for everyone. He makes no exceptions and allows no excuses.  But he does not patronise you.  His is a clear, forthright voice.  He does not seek to trick or beguile, and though witty at times, his humour is curt at best. Some may find him abrasive, others, refreshing.

At times you will feel like you are back at school. But, as I have already discussed, re-examining the confining and sometimes misleading rules of English school teaching is crucial. This is how you extinguish anxiety and allow your own voice to emerge confidently.

and a couple of pithy quotes.

How about just one:

“You’re holding an audition.
Many sentences will try out.
One gets the part.
You’ll recognize it less from the character of the sentence itself
than from the promise it contains – promise for the sentences to come.” (101)


Reference:

Klinkenborg, V. Several short sentences about writing (New York: Vintage Books, 2013)

Further Reading:

“Several Short Sentences About Writing” Reviewed by Vinton Rafe McCabe (New York Journal of Books, 2012)