Currently Reading: Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

Morning, readers! Not sure about you guys, but it is so cold where I am and I’m not liking it. -1° in the middle of April, seriously UK?

Anyway, I really like this book so far, which I’m surprised about considering that the first chapter reminded me a lot of Robinson Crusoe (which I really can’t stand). 

Has anyone else read this? I’d love to hear your thoughts! 

(And yes, I did go for the 3 for 2 deal – The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro and The Stone Gods by Jeannette Winterson were my other choices. I’m a sucker for a book deal, if I’m honest).

Book Review, Text Post

The Glorious Heresies, by Louise McInerney (2015)

The Glorious Heresies. Wow. What a novel! A few days after being so captivated by the story that I read the last 120 pages in 2 hours and I’m still in awe. No wonder it won the Bailey’s Prize last year!

Set in contemporary Cork (Ireland), The Glorious Heresies pivots on the death of a man named Robbie O’Donovan. His demise influences numerous people in the city, whether they knew him directly or not. He is never alive in the novel’s world – he exists only in the memories of others. What this achieves is to show both how brief and fragile life is, and how one life, one death, one moment can have massive, unforeseen consequences. She weaves this wonderful web of interactions – individuals crossing paths often without knowledge of the connections they share or how they have influenced each other’s lives. Community is both real and imagined in this novel: felt keenly through harsh judgments or offers of solace, or understood only briefly at the mention of a name in conversation. It’s a beautiful and remarkable structure.

McInerney’s Ireland is harsh and brutal. So many fundamental aspects of Irish identity are changing or being erased in the twenty-first century landscape of her novel that the characters resort to desperate measures just to stay afloat. This is about people who do not or cannot ‘toe the line’ by conforming to Irish history and identities. Alcoholism, prostitution, drug addiction, rape, murder, child abuse and, perhaps most difficult to accept, the issue of the influence that the Catholic Church has on Irish identity and in Irish politics. There is an underlying anger towards religion itself coursing through the novel, but particularly towards the treatment of unmarried mothers in the Magdalen Laundries throughout the twentieth century. The characters face these traumas, often in the full knowledge of those around them, except no one wishes to confront the terrible truth directly. Neither the individuals nor their relatives, nor the authorities wish to accept the situation, allocate blame or receive the support they really need. People find their own ways of surviving – ways that both connect them with other characters and force them into further isolation. Those “glorious heresies” portrayed in the novel – glorious, because there is often or appears to be, no other option, meaning characters feel no need for shame- show survival of the fittest at its most raw, its most exposed. 

She presents in great detail how characters come to terms with their past, personal and national. This is particularly effective when it overlaps with parent-child relationships, or interactions between older and younger generations. While Maureen Phelan and Tony Cusack are trying to come to terms with their pasts, the younger characters are trying to escape theirs. In the cases of Maureen and Tony’s children, the past they are escaping is the fraught relationships with their parents.

Maureen Phelan is undoubtedly my favourite character. Her caustic humour provides some much needed relief from the often graphic scenes and subject matter that are portrayed – Chapter 10 is ‘laugh out loud’ hilarious. She is flawed, she makes mistakes and rash decisions, but her story and character remain affecting because she is so rarely self-pitying. She also genuinely wants to help people. She’s a perfect example of the ‘wise older woman’ trope from fairytales, except McInerney makes her ‘real’, with this complex past influencing her attitudes and actions. Our knowledge of her mistakes means we take to her advice to other characters much more easily. McInerney also doesn’t signpost that this is her ‘role’ in the story or that she fits the role comfortably – so often, the female characters written for that role are literally cardboard cut-outs of a ‘type’.

McInerney showcases a masterpiece of characterisation with Maureen. The other main characters are beautifully drawn, and often as endearing, but there’s almost an extra dimension to Maureen that makes her truly magical.

In short, I loved pretty much everything about this novel. The first couple of chapters are really great at introducing the main players, and then suddenly drawing them together and revealing the connections. 

Yes, it’s dark and graphic, but it’s also funny and affecting. There are some parts that seem a little slow, but this let you process events, and the underlying tension keeps you turning those pages.

This should definitely be added to your “To Be Read” list!

Book Review, Text Post

Review: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou (1969)

It feels strange calling this a review. Partly because Angelou is recounting her own experiences, but also because her way of telling those stories just swept me away along a rollercoaster of emotions. I guess it’s hard to review something that moves you so deeply. 

However, I will say that it is a must-read. I’ve been meaning to read it for a while, and when I did, it was genuinely so hard to put down that I was nearly late for work a couple of times.

Angelou’s autobiography covers seven volumes; I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings being the first installment. She recounts experiences from her early childhood – living with her paternal grandmother in Arkansas, developing relationships with her (separated) parents who lived in different parts of California, and her education.

Be warned: there are some truly harrowing memories narrated, things that should not happen to anyone, let alone a child. These experiences alone are moving for a reader, but the effect it evidently had on Angelou’s childhood, her interactions with others, her understanding of herself, I found to be heartbreaking.

There’s also something so powerful in ‘witnessing’ aspects of American society at that time through a child’s perspective. To show the realisation in young childhood that she will be treated differently because she’s a girl and because she’s black. It somehow makes the kind of injustices and violence experienced (even today) that much more infuriating because alongside those, Angelou recalls those universal aspects of growing up, like her dreams for the future and her understanding of her sexuality. It brings home how unjust it is that she was taught to limit her own ambitions because ‘society’ wouldn’t let her go to certain places or do certain things. There are many moments in this installment where I was so angered by how she and her family and friends were treated.

Throughout all that though, Angelou weaves in a very distinct humour, like a witty aside about a quirky aspect of her childhood behaviour or a funny event. This not only reflects that life is full of ‘significant’ moments, positive and negative, and they can be recalled with equal intensity, but it makes her ‘voice’ so vivid. It feels like she’s sitting next to you, telling you these things. 

My favourite aspect was definitely the final few chapters. To keep this as brief and spoiler-free as possible, let’s just say, Angelou’s determination is nothing short of inspiring. 

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is one of those books that people talk and talk about, and now I understand why. I’m only sorry that I haven’t read it sooner. 

It’s emotional, moving, empowering, and beautifully written, and I could not recommend it enough that you pick it up and read it.

musings, Text Post

April Reading

Happy 1st April, book lovers! Here’s my #tbr list for this month.

Halfway through ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings’ now and it is genuinely one of the most powerful books I’ve read. I’m only sorry I’ve not read it sooner!

After that are three books that have been sitting in my room for months untouched because of uni work etc. Really excited for ‘The Paying Guests’ because having read Waters’ other works, I love her plot construction, and I’ve heard great things about this novel too. ‘The Glorious Heresies’ was last year’s Bailey’s Prize Winner and ‘Cloud Atlas’ is one of those books that everyone seems to have read so it seems like I’m missing out.

Hopefully I’ll get to read more but all these seem like hefty reads so we’ll see.

What are you hoping to read this month?

musings, Text Post

Currently reading

I’m currently reading ‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell and it’s so good.

It was recommended by a friend and I was unsure at first (I don’t venture into non-fiction often) but Gladwell is such a great writer and the concept is fascinating. It’s essentially exploring the different circumstances that might benefit (or hinder) an individual’s success, circumstances beyond their innate capabilities.

The way Gladwell frames each ‘case study’ is great, and he shows links between them so clearly. For some reason, I always associate non-fiction with ultra-complex, dense terminology and composition, but I’m flying through this.

There’s a quote from The Times on the blurb that says:
“He is the best kind of writer – the kind who makes you feel like you’re a genius, rather than he’s a genius.” That’s pretty spot on!

 *I love my new bookmark. I went to see The Cursed Child on Sunday and it is marvellous! 

Text Post

Books for Change: Days 1-5

I’ve decided to take part in the social media campaign #booksforchange run by @viragopress because I think it’s a great way to celebrate the creativity of outstanding women. I’ve been updating my Instagram account and thought I’d catch up on here too (not sure why I didn’t think of this before). This is going to be a long post.
Day 1: The book that made me feminist.

Definitely Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Woolf is a fantastic writer (perhaps an unpopular opinion, but I do prefer her non-fiction/essays to her fiction) and the skill with which she engages with the concepts of female creativity and social constructions of gender roles here is wonderful.
I read this at university and it showed me for the first time how skewed reading canons often are. 
It’s striking that in the edition I have, published as part of Penguin’s ‘Great Ideas’ series, the only other female writer included is Mary Woolstonecraft. Not only does this point to the lasting impact and importance of Woolf’s ideas, it also kind of proves her argument in A Room of One’s Own. That writing by women, and the great, radical, pioneering, creative ideas potentially contained within them, was stifled, restricted. Who knows how our reading, political and cultural landscapes, including series like ‘Great Ideas’, may have been enriched had generations of women been allowed the same freedoms as their male counterparts.

Day 2: Hidden from History

Gertrude Stein.

I recently discovered Stein after a seminar focussing on experimental women’s writers. By and large, her work is often overlooked in reading lists and teachings of early twentieth century writing (more so in the UK). Other than Woolf, experimentalism in the early twentieth century is associated more with male writers. It’s a great shame, because her writing should be considered among those pioneering experimental writers. She cleverly adapts painting techniques regarding composition for her stories, particularly those in Three Lives – the stories link and overlap in subtle ways even though they focus on unrelated characters. There’s a lot of dark humour worked in too, often in relation to ideas surrounding a woman’s place in society/marriage and the like.
I’d definitely recommend reading these, and Stein’s other works.
Day 3: Stories of Girlhood

Swing Time, by Zadie Smith

I recently listened to this via Audible and I loved it. The dynamic between the narrator and her parents, and the narrator and her friend Tracy, throughout her childhood is pivotal in understanding her entire character, her motivations and actions. 

Smith also manages to convey how unique growing up in London is. All her novels work with the idea that there is no other city like London. She manages to grasp so many of the unique voices that, while they may not sound harmoniously, all make London what it is. They all belong to the city, and the city belongs to them. 

Seeing the narrator and her friend, Tracy, grow up in adjacent tower blocks, both similar in many ways but also vastly different, really portrays how London offers so many varying options and opportunities for people living side by side. While Tracy initially seems to achieve the childhood dream she and the narrator share, the narrator is the one who gets the jet-setting, exciting lifestyle.

And by the conclusion, they have both made choices that prove that however different their lives may have become, neither have changed much from their childhood.
It’s a great book (although it was rather strange listening instead of reading). Thoroughly recommend!
Day 4: Read in one sitting

The Return of the Soldier, Rebecca West

I read this for a university module and was so taken by the story that I just could not put it down. It’s such an incredibly affecting exploration of the effects of war (in this case, World War One) on individuals, marriages, communities. There’s a dilemma at the core of the book about the best course of action regarding the returning soldier, and that gives this novella it’s tension (right word?). Everybody is trying to do the right thing and is acting from a place of love and care but the reader is asked to consider if there is a ‘right’ solution to the problem.
I really loved it, hence reading it in one sitting.

Day 5: #shepersisted 

Americanah, by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie

This book is something else. It is truly remarkable and Ifemelu, I think, is one of the most strong, intelligent and relatable protagonists of all the novels I’ve read. Many of the challenges and obstacles she faces are very specific – to the cultures that influence her, to her gender, to her generation. 
But I think many of them are also universal. The most obvious one is the false hope offered by the concept of ‘the American Dream’. Every country portrays itself in a certain way, but there’s an almost magical quality infused into ideas about the U.S.A. Ifemelu, like so many others, finds her experiences to be so vastly different from those images. 

But those experiences, even the most negative ones, help her find her voice. In a very twenty-first century formulation of the Bildungsroman genre, Ifemelu turns to blogging to help her try to understand American attitudes to race, to share her ideas with the world, and confront those inequalities head-on. There’s an episode regarding magazines that I found particularly important.

I chose Americanah for #ShePersisted because after initially trying to compromise important aspects of her Nigerian heritage to fit in with American life, Ifemelu realises that doing so made her intensely unhappy. She then refuses to deny her native culture, her accent, her race, but instead expresses these, make them part of herself and her life, in whatever ways are best for her. She makes her voice heard, even when she knows what she is saying won’t be pleasing to everyone.
Adichie herself takes this approach (you can watch some of her lectures and discussions online, she’s a great orator). To not dilute yourself or your identity for others is, I think, becoming more difficult in the Internet age, so Adichie and her creations are truly inspiring.

musings, Text Post

Musings: March

Honestly, how is it March already? This year needs to slow down! So many books to be read and the days just seem to melt away. This month is a really busy one for me so I’m hoping I get chance to read. I want to finish ‘The Essex Serpent’, and get through The Glorious Heresies (Lisa McInerney), and perhaps a classic for a bit of a change. I’d also love to have finished the Harry Potter series before I go to see The Cursed Child in the middle of the month but it’s not looking likely.
I’m in ‘March’ in The Essex Serpent too (I loved that coincidence of real life and book trajectory matching, hence the picture).
Perry is such a ‘visual’ writer – her metaphors and the descriptions of landscapes are so incredibly vivid. There’s so much ‘movement’ in her plot – at this point of the story, each chapter includes a character taking a long walk and/or having an extended period of contemplation. Perry manages to grasp both the physical and mental movements which is really effective: you feel like you’re literally being carried along.
She has a beautiful writing style that I’m finding really enjoyable and the plot and characters are engaging too. 
What is everyone else reading?