Civilisation and Its Discontents – Sigmund Freud

Everyone has heard of Freud, but how many people have ever read his work? I never had until now, despite doing a philosophy course at school. This is one of his most important texts, an book on psychology, and the differences between society and individuality.  He writes about humans needing to feel a sense of freedom whilst society tells us to conform to the rules that have been set.

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I do not have an amazing grasp of psychology or philosophy, this is partly why I try to read about it, yet I feel this is one of the easier texts to read. Understanding it properly is the real challenge. Freud’s book asserts that humans are naturally inclined towards certain acts, which are then forbidden by laws set by society. For example, we seek sexual gratification, yet rape and adultery are forbidden. In no way does he justify these acts, he is just stating that humanity is naturally inclined towards such acts through out sexual needs. He also discusses violence, especially towards those in authority, humans are naturally indisposed to commit violent acts yet we control ourselves in order to not enact our feelings.

Throughout this work Freud discusses various ideas, most of which seem to be influenced by the First World War. The war was probably the biggest example of humans as a group fighting for a cause despite maybe not personally believing in it. I feel like I need to re-read to gain more understanding, but as a text it is very interesting, and I have definitely taken in some of Freud’s ideas. I’m going to start steering away from this kind of non-fiction text in for the next few books I read, mostly to give my brain a rest.

The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

I quite often look at shortlists for literary prizes to help select which books I’d like to read soon. This has been nominated for, and won, numerous prizes since its publication last year. We all know that awards are not always given to the most deserving people, but this novel definitely deserves all the accolades it receives. The Underground Railroad is a work of semi-fantastical and historical fiction; it tells the story of Cora, a slave escaping a plantation in Georgia, who uses a series underground trains to flee to the north. Colson Whitehead has bravely written about a key part of American history, and adapted the true history to highlight the sheer inhumanity of slavery in the south. The trains on Whitehead’s underground railroad are dangerous, infrequent and head to unknown destinations, but they are used because escapees are so desperate to get away from slavery.

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The reader follows Cora on her journey, and sees the various events and incidents that happen to her as she strives for freedom. Whitehead has obviously done his research very well and has fictionalised history for a modern audience, almost suggesting what may have happened if emancipation had not been enacted. He brings Cora’s story to life in an manner that is so good its impossible to not get emotional whilst reading. We also are given small non-linear chapters that explain the roles of various people in Cora’s life; her mother, a slave catcher, a emancipation sympathiser and a fellow escapee. With these short chapters we learn about the each character and the influence they have on Cora, an interesting way of developing her character.

Throughout the novel there is a grand narrative that follows more than the characters within the novel; it is essentially a narrative on America during slavery, but also seems to be a comment on the whitewashing of black American history. I don’t want to comment too much on this however, because I am a white middle class male… Whatever you read into this novel, it is excellent.

On Solitude – Michel de Montaigne 

I have never heard of Michel de Montaigne, yet again showing some of my ignorance of historical figures. He is one of the most famous French renaissance philosophers, and is one of foremost exponents of the essay as an important literary genre. This collection of essays is part of the Penguin Great Ideas series. This series is often my starting point for philosophers and theorists whom I have not read previously, plus there are often essays by authors I only know as novelists or poets.images-2

On Solitude is a collection of essays on a variety of subjects, often laced with anecdotes from de Montaigne’s own life. Each essay is informative and interesting, but I don’t think I’ve gained much due to my lack of real philosophical understanding. I can see how he influenced a vast number of authors, especially ones whom I studied when at university such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and René Descartes.

I’m having to keep this review short, as it has actually taken me a couple of weeks to write due to other commitments.

 

The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafón

In September I am fleeing Britain and heading to Spain to work as a teaching assistant, in the meantime I’ve been immersing myself in Spanish culture. I’ve been cooking Spanish food, watching Spanish language TV and movies, and, of course, reading some Spanish literature. Carlos Ruiz Zafón is currently considered one of the most successful modern Spanish authors, having had his novels translated into over 40 languages, The Shadow of the Wind itself has sold over 15 million copies. Zafón started his literary career as a young adult writer, then moved into adult fiction with this novel, which now has a prequel and two sequels.

Barcelona is the star of this book. The author was born in the city and there is a sense that he was writing a homage to the city itself. We see two different versions of the city; the post-war Franco-era city of death and fear, and the pre-war city of aristocracy and grandeur. Zafón’s description allows the reader to see both of these worlds in great detail.images

The main protagonist, Daniel, lives in the post-war city. At the age of ten, he finds the last copy of a novel, and sets out to find out about the author, Julian Carax, and why there is only one copy left. This leads to a decade of action, of intrigue, of love and death. Over the next 500+ pages Daniel unravels a world of secrecy around the forgotten author, whilst also experiencing all the emotions of a growing young man. In his quest to find out about this mysterious author Daniel attracts the attention of numerous characters who all link together in a beautifully intricate manner. The most intriguing of these is the vindictive, brutal police chief who may be a metaphor for Franco’s dictatorship and its treatment of Barcelona.

I wouldn’t necessarily describe this as a classic, but I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It has a mix of historical, crime and romantic fiction, yet never really decides what it is. There are multiple parts to this novel, the most interesting being the section written from Nuria Montfort’s point of view, in which she reveals the answers to many of Daniel’s questions. Despite this I do feel the novel loses its way, there story is very clever and intertwines together neatly, but the writing never totally lives up to this, however this may well be down to translation. I am curious to read the other novels in the series, partly to see more of Zafón’s Barcelona, and partly to see if his writing has matured.

The Bundesliga Blueprint – Lee Price

This is the second of two books I recently borrowed from my brother on the subject of German football, the Bundesliga and the re-emergence of Germany as a international football force. The first I read, by respected journalist Raphael Honigstein, was excellent, this however is not as good. It reads as a comparison of British and German football, and maybe I would have enjoyed them both more if I had read them the other way round. Lee Price’s book is well written and does give some in depth analysis, especially the financial and statistical side of the game, and he has managed to interview some giants of the footballing world, however this is supplemented with regurgitation of other interviews and does come across as slightly simplistic.

I do admire Price’s attempt to write an explanation of the changes made to the German academy system and the effect this has had on the national team’s fortunes. Alongside this Price throws envious glances at the fans experience in the Bundesliga; the low ticket prices, the safe standing and opportunity to drink beers in the stadiums. I did enjoy this book and it was fairly informative, but out of the two books on the subject this was the weaker and as such I don’t want to write too long a review.

Our Friends from Frolix 8 – Philip K Dick

In the 22nd Century, humanity has evolved into three separate groups, Central Park is only an acre, and alcohol is illegal. Earth is ruled by an uneasy alliance of New Men, super intelligent humans, and Unusuals, who have various psionic powers. These two groups share power over Old Men, who have neither of these abilities and are more like humanity as we know ourselves today. This future is the setting for an enthralling story of rebellion, love and humanities failure. FROLIX10

Whilst the world is ruled by two groups of advanced humans, the majority of the population are Old Men, and amongst them is an organisation of rebels known as Under Men. This group is plotting to overthrow the establishment; they distribute illegal literature by an activist named Corden, and support another, Thors Provoni, who has fled the planet in search of extra-terrestrial help. With Provoni’s impending arrival the leadership of the planet is thrown into panic. At this point the novel truly starts, we see both an Old Man and Unusual fall in love with a young black marketer, which clouds both of their judgement. Meanwhile, the “Friends” from Frolix 8 are approaching the planet at the side of Provoni, coming to support him in his quest for equality.

As a fan of Philip K Dick this was everything I expected, a wildly imaginative universe populated by flawed characters. The idea of this universe is not so ridiculous that it is impossible to imagine the action, even if it is set in two centuries time, yet it is clearly the future. Here are a couple of examples; alcohol is illegal, but opiates are not, private transport does fly, but require rubber wheels for ground movement. Dicks imagination is astounding, hence so many of his novels and short stories being adapted so effectively into film and TV. Whenever I mention him as a favourite author of mine I have to reel off a list of his most famous adaptions. If you like sci-fi he is the author for you, and this novel would be as good as any to start with.

The Torrents of Spring – Ernest Hemingway

I recently visited my local second hand bookshop (Kim’s Bookshop, Chichester) and found a selection of books I wanted to read in excellent (basically brand new) condition for very reasonable prices. This Hemingway novella is one of those. I had a vague recollection that this existed but clearly isn’t as famous as other works, it was in fact one of Hemingway’s first works to be published, and many believe it was written to fulfil a contractual obligation.

ernest-hemingway---mini-biographyThe plot is not the strongest part of this novella, although is interesting. The Torrents of Spring is split into 4 parts, each with an epigraph from the writing of Henry Fielding, yet another allusion to other writers. Each part of the novella tells the contrasting, but intertwined, lives of Yogi Johnson and Scripps O’Neil, two factory workers in northern Michigan, both searching for the ideal woman.  Scripps’ wife has left him one year previous, now he pursues first an older English woman, then goes after his new wife’s younger colleague. Meanwhile, Yogi, is losing his interest in women. He wanders the environs of the town, meets some Native Americans, goes to their club and eventually meets a Native American women.

The main aspect of this novella is the satire, the plot is merely the vehicle for Hemingway’s critique of other authors. Throughout the novel, Hemingway parodies Sherwood Anderson, especially his work Dark Laughter which was published the year before. With notes to the reader throughout the novella Hemingway alludes to works by Sherwood Anderson, John dos Passos and F Scott Fitzgerald, each of whom was active at the time of writing, even the title was chosen due to Turgenev’s own The Torrents of Spring. Although not necessarily a must read piece of writing this is worth having a look at if you like Hemingway, and it is fairly short so would only take a couple of hours to read.

Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

11062402This is the second novel I have read by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and it is equally as good as Americanawhich I read almost a year ago. Half of a Yellow Sun is named after a detail in the flag of the short-lived Biafran nation; the novel is based in a period of political uncertainty during which Nigeria and the secessionist Republic of Biafra engaged in a war, and millions of people died due to starvation. (This is yet another novel that proves my ignorance of certain periods of history).

The novel follows three main characters; Ugwu, a young village boy who works for a university Professor names Odenigbo, Olanna, the girlfriend (and later wife) of Odenigbo, and Richard, an English writer who later becomes Kainene’s lover (Olanna’s twin sister). These three characters lives all become intertwined, yet each show a different view of the war. Ugwu develops intellectually throughout the novel, in my eyes being symbolic of Nigeria as a youthful nation, in a way he finds his feet and matures in a similar way to the Nigeria that Adichie portrays. Olanna seems to represent the idea of intellect over practicality, she is shown to be very intelligent but not very practical in comparison to her twin sister. Lastly Richard represents the lingering colonialism, he hopes to immerse himself in Nigerian/Biafran culture but never truly can and is only effective in his writing when he writes for the Western press about the war.

Although the war is the key theme of this novel, there are numerous other themes, including family relationships, politics and female empowerment. We see strained relationships between Olanna and her parents, Odenigbo and his mother, and Ugwu rarely seeing his family due to his work for the two of them. Throughout the novel we see Odenigbo and Olanna hosting social gatherings, at which the politics of both Nigeria and Africa in general are discussed. The reader also sees the development of female empowerment, both Olanna and Kainene live with men when unmarried. Kainene seems to be more powerful than Richard, having more influence on society. Olanna is told by her mother at one point, ‘You must never behave as if your life belongs to a man’, one of the more feminist comments in the novel.

This novel is amazing, it is powerful and it is informative. Adichie writes in such a way you can feel the heat of the country, the tension of the pre-war years, and the desperation when the Biafra nation is starving. I would thoroughly recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys good writing.

The Spanish Civil War: A Very Short Introduction – Helen Graham

I have yet again read one of the ‘A Very Short Introduction’ series, but they are always well written and informative. Due to my life plan to move to Spain in the near future I wanted to educate myself a little about Spanish history, having only really known small bits and pieces. This book has helped me tremendously by succinctly outlining the causes, politics and effects of the Spanish Civil War. The book also outlines the effects of the civil war on Spanish society, including the manner in which later generations are commemorating the dead.PicassoGuernica

Helen Graham is an expert on this period of Spanish history and it shows through with her explanations. I’m still not one hundred percent sure I understand the whole situation, but I feel a lot more confident in my knowledge. One of the things that has been most interesting is the idea that this war was almost a test run for the Second World War, with Hitler and Mussolini helping Franco; the bombing of Republican cities was described as being very similar to the Blitzkrieg. On the other hand, the Republicans were supported by the Soviet Union, and as such one of the most westerly countries in Europe was a microcosm of the later Eastern Front. The manner in which Graham explains these points, as well as the inaction of other European nations is eyeopening yet effective. I really felt I learned a lot, even if not totally understanding.

Undermajordomo Minor – Patrick deWitt

This is the second of the two deWitt novels I found in my brothers room. He is one of my best friends favourite authors, hence I had to explore his writing. This is a comedic novel embracing European gothic tradition, whilst exploring modern humour, sexuality and morality. To compare this to the previous deWitt novel I have read, Ablutions, would be unfair, as they are so different. The reader is given no true indication of the setting, deWitt has invented a generic European country. This adds to the general intrigue of the novel; what is actually going on? The over26215466riding feeling I got was of bewilderment, how could deWitt have written such a drastically different novel to Ablutions?

I can only describe this book as weird; it took a while for me to even realise the main character was a male named Lucy. I can see the obvious influence of traditional fairy tales; the castle, the village beauty, the servant boy, however each are presented in a modern way, twisted into modern characters relatable despite their existence in a seemingly medieval setting. Lucy moves from his home village to a castle, from which he observes a series of battles, the local village and the oddities of castle life.

Despite not being one of the best novels I have read recently I was certainly enthralled by it. It is hard to put down, it has twists, it is amusing and it is very readable.