“Nutshell” by Ian McEwan (Or “The New Hamlet”)

Nutshell

Ian McEwan

nutshell

What a refreshing change from his usual bittersweet format; Ian McEwan’s “Nutshell” is like no book I’ve ever read. Told entirely from the perspective of an unborn baby, the intellectual life of this foetus is a fascinating retelling of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” The bliss and boredom of existing afforded to the unborn promotes the excess of existential thought exhibited by the eponymous Hamlet, who battles vehemently with the notions of life, love and death.

There are moments of fantastic introspective clarity as well as hilarious observation throughout the book, as he makes use of what he hears and feels of the outside world. His observations and sensations are filtered through his mother – her hormonal/emotional/digestive responses are also his. Don’t think that means he has no emotions or opinions of his own, being in fact very frustrated by having to share in everything she feels and eats. But, he has excellent hearing of his own – a known fact of unborn children – and so his commentary and accounts of conversations can be taken as reliable.

He has some very sophisticated tastes for a foetus, not least his penchant for a good vintage – thanks to sharing his mother’s food and drink – and his appreciation for poetry and literary criticism – thanks to having a poet for a father and late night podcasts that his mother listens to when she can’t sleep. The sophistication of this foetus is fantastically absurd. “Milk, repellent to the blood-fed unborn, especially after wine, but my future all the same.” Small talk “is an adult device, a covenant with boredom and conceit.” “God said, Let there be pain. And there was poetry. Eventually.” These statements contain a wonderful meshing of childish bluntness with old-age boredom. Things children say because they don’t know they shouldn’t. Things old people say because they no longer care. One thinks of another famous Shakespeare quote – “second childishness”.

Of all the Shakespeare adaptations that exist – books, films, plays, TV – this is one of the most successful I have come across. It rather puts “The Wyrd Sisters” (aka “Macbeth”) by Terry Pratchett to shame, a book I read alongside “Nutshell”. Hamlet is one of the most famous of Shakespeare’s characters and rightly so. His soliloquys are the most infamous, powerful and elegant. It is particularly this feature of the play that McEwan has fabulously reworked in “Nutshell”. The passages I enjoyed most were exactly what you expect from Hamlet’s monologues: powerful exaltations and lamentations on human nature; the wonder that it is to think and be. Consciousness in overdrive. Besides their evident connection with Shakespeare, these passages are also incredibly modern and relevant with regards to politics, science and social analysis.

“Elsewhere, everywhere, novel inequalities of wealth, the super rich a master race apart. Ingenuity deployed by states for new forms of brilliant weaponry, by global corporations to dodge taxes, by righteous banks to stuff themselves with Christmas millions. China, too big to need friends or counsel, cynically probing its neighbours’ shores, building islands of tropical sand, planning for the war it knows must come. Muslim-majority countries plagued by religious puritanism, by sexual sickness, by smothered invention. The Middle East, fast-breeder for a possible world war. And foe-of-convenience, the United States, barely the hope of the world, guilty of torture, helpless before its sacred text conceived in an age of powdered wigs, a constitution as unchallengeable as the Koran. Its nervous population obese, fearful, tormented by inarticulate anger, contemptuous of governance, murdering sleep with ever new handgun. Africa, yet to learn democracy’s party trick – the peaceful transfer of power.”

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a highly cerebral soul and that is his fatal flaw. Hamlet fails to be active or effective in the real world and this is precisely what escalates the tragedy in the play. Hamlet thinks and fails to act. Others complain he is too melancholy, too lost in his thoughts. What McEwan has done, by making Hamlet a foetus, is remove the blame that was laid at Hamlet’s feet. A foetus cannot be blamed for its inability to act. Where Hamlet’s is a cage of the mind, the baby is physically caged within his mother’s womb. By replacing a mental cage with a physical one, McEwan also gives us a powerful metaphor for depression, anxiety and even psychosis.

“What’s an imagination for but to play out and linger on and repeat the bloody possibilities? Revenge may be exacted a hundred times over in one sleepless night. The impulse, the dreaming intention, is human, normal, and we should forgive ourselves.”

Equally though, McEwan is crediting the relevance, the potential of a soully conceptual existence. For the foetus, to think is its only activity, aside from giving mum the odd kick, and as such, thinking is the only way it knows how to be. It may observe, speculate, look forward to existence beyond the womb, but at least for now, this warm, moist sac is his world, his universe.

“Just think: nothing to do but be and grow, where growing is hardly a conscious act. The joy of pure existence, the tedium of undifferentiated days. Extended bliss is boredom of the existential kind.”

Throughout the book, the baby is a witness, incapable of taking action, but that does not detract from its contribution to the plot. McEwan gives us an entirely inactive character as our narrator, but does that mean the story does not progress? That the child’s existence has not played its part in the story, or at least, in the telling of it? No.

McEwan has reinvigorated “Hamlet” and reminded us of the value of Hamlets in literature and art in general. “Hamlet” and “Nutshell” are artistic masterpieces because they deal with ideas. We feed off ideas, we exist because of ideas. We think, therefore we are.

Book Review: “The Long View” by Elizabeth Jane Howard

The Long View

By Elizabeth Jane Howard

the long view1

Mrs Fleming has no first name for the first half of the book and the second half of her life. Defined by her wifely title, she struggles to maintain a sense of self – a struggle no doubt undergone by hundreds of women in this era.

This beautifully told narrative is in reverse: starting in 1950 and ending in 1927. By reversing the chronology, Antonia Fleming’s moment of revelation at age nineteen, becomes the conclusion of the book. This rearrangement creates a feel similar to that of a mystery novel: we know what has happened already, but we don’t know how or why. We begin with an intelligent and sophisticated middle-aged woman, living in London, trapped in an unhappy marriage, hosting dinner parties she doesn’t want with guests she doesn’t like. As the decades retreat, the veils are drawn back, we eventually approach her vulnerable 19-year-old self – a girl so capable of love and intelligent thought but drawn towards an unhappy future, almost inevitably.

It is for this reason that Antonia’s revelation makes both a satisfying and bittersweet end to the novel. I feel the urge to re-read the book immediately, but this time starting at the end, so that I can spot the clues and connections that bring the narrative together. The book is intelligently crafted, and such an endeavour would indeed prove fruitful.

It is beautifully written, although occasionally abstruse. The narrative voice is excellently used to create different characters within the text rather than constantly breaking the flow with dialogue. Howard’s ability to create their different voices is a treat. There is also a nod to formalism in its method of description, keeping the imagery far and away from clichéd or boring observation.

The book’s best feature is the way in which Mrs Fleming’s intimate thoughts are communicated fluidly and with such a degree of empathy that they cease to be fictional. Howard’s strength is finding the words and the cadence with which to communicate untold and often unspeakable feminine sensations.There is an innate femininity to many of the feelings and situations addressed by Mrs Fleming’s story. Told with respect and sensitivity, she reveals the humanity¸ not just the femininity, in the process, because they are made to be understood.Rather than diminishing or reducing female emotion to hysteria or irrationality, as is often the case in literature and life, we are given entry into the innermost workings of a feminine mind. Complex, certainly, but ultimately honest.

“She had forgotten these minute inversions of feeling, that with certain kinds of experience shift all the contours of any settled view.”

“Golden Hill” by Francis Spufford – Review

Golden Hill

By Francis Spufford

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Woe-betide anyone who dared in to interrupt me mid-chapter! A glittering gem of a book, this historical New York adventure satisfies every requirement for a fantastic novel. Language that glitters and glides across every page. Delightful use of old English gave this historical novel authenticity and a sense of old-world grandeur. Combine that with a festival of characters, delicious and imaginative description and the perfect amount of mystery. Francis Spufford’s “Golden Hill” is encrusted, gilded, sheathed with magic. Pleasure beyond measure.

“When a log that has lain half-burned in a winter fire is struck suddenly with the poker, a bright lace of communicative sparks wakes on the instant. The sullen coals shatter into peach and scarlet mosaic, with a thin high tinkling sound, and pulses of the changing shades pass over the surface in all directions with rapidity too great for the eye.”

Twists and turns through every chapter kept this reader well and truly glued to the page and though I am generally a slow reader, I steamed through this book within a couple of days. It’s a testament to any book when its reader cannot have a spare moment that isn’t filled with hastily consuming another chapter – or three.

The more I like a book, the shorter the review is. Let this suffice.

 

What Do Your Books Say About You?

This morning, I got to do something I haven’t been able to do in a long time. I woke up on my day off, turned on the light, picked up a book from my bedside table and read. The luxury of simply reading for the love of reading is one I have struggled to find time for since university.

What do your books say about you? (I don’t mean behind you back.) The books currently sat on my bedside table could tell you a lot about me.Bookshelf


The Unknown Unknown, Mark Forsyth

Where did I get it? Received this in the post, adorned with a post-it, which read, “Thought you might enjoy reading this. Granny x” After receiving said delightful little package, I rang my Gran. She said it reminded her of my blog, the way I ramble, tangents veering off.

The tagline reads: “Bookshops and the delight of not getting what you wanted.” Do you know what a good bookshop is? Forsyth does. I haven’t been in a good bookshop since I was in New York and my wonderful aunt took me to a little treasure trove, where I discovered Verlyn Klinkenborg.

While I would happily tell you more about this little beautie, I’m concerned I might ruin the joy of an “unknown unknown.” It took less than an hour to read, and made me laugh out loud several times. Clever and witty without trying to be. Delightful in its purposelessness.

Bookmark: A page torn from my notepad at work. It is the beginnings of a short story I started writing during that last useless hour of a work day. Between half 4 and half 5, when no one really does anything but wait for the day to end. The Twilight Hour.

I have since continued writing the story on the computer at work – typing gives the impression of doing something productive – and I’m hoping to extend this into a collection of short stories. Might post a snippet on here at some point.


Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes

Where did I get it? Waterstones, Oxford.

This is one of the classics that follows you around. One of those epic, brick-like monstronsities that act as an adequate book-end until you work up the courage to dig in. Our friend Forsyth puts it thus in The Unknown Uknown:

“Tolstoy, Stendhal and Cervantes, these men follow me around. They stand in dark corners and eye me disapprovingly from beneath supercilious eyebrows. And all because I’ve never got round to reading their blasted, thousand-page, three-ton, five-generation, state-of-a-nation thingummywhatsits.

I’m taking on this monster. About 6 months in and I’m half way through. The adventures of the deluded knight, Don Quixote and his hapless copanion, Sancho Panza. It makes one giggle in a “Droll, Cervantes, very droll” kind of way. But there’s also the odd Dick Joke, which is nice.

Continue reading

Book Review: “The Bookshop” by Penelope Fitzgerald

The Bookshop

Penelope Fitzgerald

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A short and utterly compelling novel that I read within the space of a few hours. I simply could not sleep until I reached the final page… and then wrote a review.

Florence Green has a simple desire to open a bookshop in her quiet Suffolk town of Harborough. There’s an old, damp, unwanted building, stood empty for years and Florence has the idea to repurpose it as The Old House Bookshop. The old farts and local council botherers don’t like change and decide to kick up a fuss.

Mrs Green is an astonishing woman. Not in any sensational sense of fame or great feats of strength or ability. Hers is a quiet courage, juxtaposed with moments of delightful bluntness that the majority of her peers find intolerably rude. “Her courage, after all, was only a determination to survive.”

Half-baked officials for the Something-Or-Other Committee periodically appear out of the damp woodwork, as the self-important Mrs Gamart engages in ruthless tactics, determined to see the shop fail. Mrs Gamart, a petty woman and chair of various local committees, “always acted in the way she felt to be right. She did not know that morality is seldom a safe guide for human conduct.”

Some of my favourite moments in the book are the correspondence Florence is obliged to enter into it with the various officials that pop up. Letters filled with verbal parrying and barely concealed contempt are quintessentially British and delightful to read. When Florence’s decision to market a certain “unduly sensational novel” – Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov – gets a surprising amount of local attention, a certain prominent member of society sees fit to seek legal representation:

December 4 1959
Dear Mrs Green,
               I am in receipt of a letter from John Drury & Co, representing their client Mrs Violet Gamart of The Stead, to the effect that your current window display is attracting so much undesirable attention from potential and actual customers that it is providing a temporary obstruction … and that she, as a Justice of the Peace and Chairwoman of numerous committees (list enclosed herewith) has to carry out her shopping expeditiously.

 After much back and forth, Florence exhausts the pretence of polite correspondence and brings it to a close rather succinctly:

December 11 1959
Dear Mr Thornton,
Coward!
Yours sincerely,
Florence Green.

The descriptions of small town society and their petty commander-in-chief made me laugh out loud. While scenes shared with her ten-year-old assistant, Christine, and aging neighbour, Mr Brundish, are peaceable moments that deflate the barriers of age and status. The misanthropic Mr Brundish and the terse ten-year-old are her closest companions and biggest supporters of her bookshop. Neither of them are great talkers and Florence is fine with that. Moments of silence are used to great effect throughout the novel, demonstrating the ease with which mutual understanding can be found between kindred spirits without need for words.

Florence is quietest when among friends, while she is at her most effluent, ready with a quip, when confronted with her opposers, her letters being great examples of this. The silence also allows for the presence of the mysterious ghost that resides in the Old House, referred to as “the rapper”, as well as the absence of her husband, whose death is only briefly alluded to. Altogether creating a sense of lonliness to the novel, but it is not a self-indulgent or overwhelming. The silence, the lonliness, is an accepted part of her existence, and becomes a thing to be shared with her chosen companions.

“Lonliness was speaking to lonliness.”

The most touching stories are the ones that don’t try to be so. A Whole Life, The Book Thief, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. These titles are treasures because of their quality of being uncomplicated and reserved; their pages gently exude warmth and compassion with honest emotion, eschewing the kind of melodrama and tragedy that some authors pump into their chapters, determined that we should burst from the pressure of it all. No, the stories that stay in my heart, in my stomach, are the ones that creep up on me with their unassuming tones and humble offerings. To this list of pearls within oysters, I now add “The Bookshop”.

“A good book is the precious life-blood of a masterspirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life, and as such must be a necessary commodity.”

 

“Number 11” by Jonathan Coe – Book Review

Number 11

By Jonathan Coe

number 11

I read Jonathan Coe’s novel, What a Carve Up! while studying at university a couple of years ago. It was an excellent book – not to mention it lead to an essay worthy of a 1st (it got 2:1, but I’m not bitter or anything…) – so I didn’t need much encouragement in reading another of Coe’s titles.

I picked up Number 11 with a great deal of hope. I put down the book with disappointment.

I was unaware when I started reading that Number 11 features a great deal of narrative strands connecting it with his previous novel, What a Carve Up! (WACU). The wealthy and loathsome Winshaw family, who meet a gruesome end in WACU, have some grandchildren and extended family members yet to be culled. Number 11 appears to be Coe’s way of tying up these loose ends.

I have not read any other Coe novels, but his tendency to be self-referential is known, and as such I cannot be certain if “Number 11” is intended as a sequel to WACU, or if he is just sticking to his regular habits by reusing character names and referencing his own work. Even if it is a sequel, Number 11 can certainly be read independently, you’ll just miss out on the occasional giggle when something familiar pops up.

In any case, I can only judge from what I have read myself, and what I think is this: Number 11 is a lazy sequel to What a Carve Up!.  Before, there were fantastically clever twists and turns, infuriating but exacting use of metafiction; all leading to a tumultuous and harrowing conclusion which looked into the very soul of modern classism and cultural degradation. And now? Some lame attempts at self-referencing and unrevealing examples of Continue reading

Review: “The Name of the Wind” by Patrick Rothfuss

The Name of the Wind

By Patrick Rothfuss

5-stars

name of the wind

I have found my new fantasy series. “The Name of the Wind” is the first in “The Kingkiller Chronicle” series by Patrick Rothfuss.

“I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during the day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make minstrels weep.

My name is Kvothe. You may have heard of me.”

I haven’t had a good fantasy series to get addicted to since I was reading Anthony Horowitz as a teenager. “The Name of the Wind” by Patrick Rothfuss is surely a fantasy for adults. The most sophisticated of its kind I have come across. The language is rich and beautiful and the world Patrick Rothfuss has lent himself to flourishes under his care.

Any book preceded by a fictional map already has my attention. Why? Because it is an indicator of how rich this fictional world is; of how much thought has gone into its construction.  There is a sense of careful management that dictates the movement of the narrative as well as the development of characters.

At 662 pages, it isn’t a paperback that you can snugly fit into your handbag. The creased spine and dog-eared corners of my copy – an upsetting thing for any booklover – is proof of my need to make it fit into my handbag and carry it everywhere until I had finished. Its length might sound intimidating, but the lyricism and storytelling carried me through hundreds of pages without even noticing.

If I were to criticise this book, it would be to say that occasionally the language is so rich with imagery that it is slightly treacly. My other minor criticism is that the majority of the book consists of our protagonist, Kvothe, telling his past life story, neglecting the present of the story. And when I passed the 600th page, I realised that the story had barely progressed at all.

BUT, having said all this, I do not care. My criticisms fade into insignificance. I hope “The Name of the Wind” will be the extended preface to a long series of novels that will continue to capture my imagination for years to come.

Review: “The Reader on the 6.27” by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent

The Reader on the 6.27

Jean-Paul Didierlaurent

9781447276494The Reader on the 6-27

This book is the antidote. To cynicism, to the everyday drudgery of existence. I cannot recommend this book enough to you, my reader.

“The Reader on the 6.27” will reignite your hope and redeem every bad book, every disappointing ending; every over-pretentious pit-stain of a novel you have ever had the misfortune to encounter. This book will remind you of your faith in literature.

Guylain Vignolles hates his job; Guylain works in a book-pulping factory. His only joy is his morning ritual, where he boards the 6.27 train and reads from the fragments of books he has saved from the teeth of the monster. He reads aloud to his fellow passengers, who “show him the indulgent respect reserved for harmless nutters”. Nevertheless, he is the ray of sunshine that briefly illuminates the dullness of their 9-to-5’s.

“He was the reader, the bearer of the good word.”

Guylain appears to be suffering from the Nausea, as Sartre would define it: that indefinable feeling deep in your gut that life is pointless. Then one day, he happens upon a USB memory stick that changes his life forever. What is on the USB? The diary entries of a 28-year-old toilet attendant, named Julie.

How, you might ask, can this bored young woman, who sits outside toilet cubicles all day, help Guylain? How can accounts of what other humans are literally experiencing in their guts save him? Isn’t she just another sufferer of everyday drudgery, like him? Well, Julie is no ordinary toilet attendant.

Humanity abounds – glorious, at times stupid and disgusting, but glorious humanity. There is nothing high-flown about this honest, forthright account of how words can, sometimes, save people. Of how people can save each other.

This book is the antidote to modern life. Continue reading

Book Review: “The Buried Giant” by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant

by Kazuo Ishiguro

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My first reading of an Ishiguro novel has shown me how his masterful storytelling has succeeded in capturing readers around the world.

A mysterious mist covers the land of medieval Britain and robs the inhabitants of their memories. Borrowing from Arthurian legend, Ishiguro takes us on a journey of discovery that meets with adventure and the heart-breaking account of what it means to love and to remember.

By elegantly weaving memories with present action, the passing of time becomes an impeccable example of writing style working in step with the narrative themes. In the quest to find the source of the mist, the memories of our characters come and go and we, as readers, glide imperceptibly between past and present. Quiet revelations permeate the story as they remember things forgotten, and uncover the truth of their present. These revelations are precious moments of truth and clarity spared of ostentation or announcement. You could almost miss them if it weren’t for the rapt attention that Ishiguro conjures with his gently powerful style.

There is not a single moment in this novel that doesn’t feel considered and concise. Every line, every sentence, every moment is integral. All the components are perfectly in tune with one another, like the internal workings of a clock. Busily, steadily, the cogs wind onward and we are comforted by the sense of considered purpose that sustains the entire novel.

As I neared the end, I felt a genuine desire for a quick resolution, a knot somewhere in my chest as I hastened to toward the last page. But, as throughout the rest of the novel, Ishiguro neither slows cruelly – as some authors do, stretching out our anxiety – nor hastily rushes his conclusion. He simply continues, steadily, unswervingly, with the measured pace of a practised storyteller. He trusts in the story to make its own impact and not once does he employ any cheap keep-away tactics.

“The Buried Giant” is a story that stays with you. Moving and gripping, but never pushing, pulling or grabbing, it is a style that invites you in but knows precisely when to let you go. Even when you implore him to continue.

“He felt as one standing in a boat on a wintry river, looking out into dense fog, knowing it would at any moment part to reveal vivid glimpses of the land ahead. And he had been caught in a kind of terror, yet at the same time had felt a curiosity – or something stronger and darker – and he told himself firmly, ‘Whatever it may be, let me see it, let me see it.’”

 

Book Review: “Eleanor” by Jason Gurley

Eleanor

By Jason Gurley

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When tragedy befalls the Witt family, young Eleanor is left to pick up the pieces of her grief-stricken parents. And just when it couldn’t seem to get any worse, Eleanor is pulled out of her world and thrown, bewildered, into a netherworld, before being flung back again with terrible consequences. Like Alice falling through the rabbit-hole, Eleanor dangerously traverses the line between the real and the other.

“Eleanor” by Jason Gurley is classified as sci-fi/fantasy. It would be better to describe it as a realistic drama set against a surrealist dreamscape. Sci-fi and fantasy novels can reflect reality as much as a naturalistic novel, but fantasy looks at the world through a prism that promotes an alternative focus. Like walking through a corridor of distorted mirrors at a fairground, Gurley chooses to inflate or relocate aspects of known reality, forcing specific themes and ideas to come into sharper relief. In the case of “Eleanor”, it is the deeply complex experience of grief that thrives in the freedom of a sci-fi. Continue reading