Autumn – Ali Smith

This novel was touted as the first Brexit novel, due to its publication in 2016 only four months after the Brexit vote, and was subsequently short listed for the Man Booker Prize. It is the first in a series that Smith plans to write over the next few years, Winter, the second was released in 2017. Smith wrote this novel in a response to the Brexit referendum result, and throughout it she is critical of the result, this makes the short time between the start of writing and publication important as it reflects the true reaction of Smith to the result.

Autumn tells the story of two characters; 101 year old Daniel Gluck, and 32 year old Elisabeth Demand. The two characters used to be neighbours as Elisabeth was growing up, and Daniel Gluck has had a huge influence on her life. Elisabeth is now an arts lecturer at a London university, mostly thanks to Daniel’s influence during her teenage years. The novel revolves around Daniel, he is in a coma but Elisabeth comes to visit, reads to him from famous novels and the news of the day. We learn about their relationship, how it developed when they were neighbours, and how Elisabeth now feels that she is in love with him. As the novel develops we learn that Daniel was a songwriter in his youth and he knew or met a number of famous musicians and artists. He introduced Elisabeth to the art of Pauline Boty, the only female Pop-artist of the 1960s, whom she later writes her university thesis about. Boty’s work actually graces the cover of the novel.

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Throughout this novel we see pieces of 21st Century Britain; the house that has graffiti written on it, ‘Go Home’, the fence being built around public land, and Elisabeth informing Daniel that the MP Jo Cox has been murdered. Autumn is clearly an anti-Brexit novel, highlighting the problems that stem from the result of the vote. I enjoyed Autumn but I could definitely tell it was written in four months, and I’m not sure it deserved to be nominated for awards. Smith has definitely written the first Brexit novel, however I feel the subject deserves more, parts of this writing seems rushed and doesn’t come across well. I would be interested to read Winter the follow up, to see if the same is true of that novel.

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All That You Can’t Leave Behind: Why We Can Never Do Without Cricket – Soumya Bhattacharya

In recent years I have become more and more interested in Twenty20 (T20) Cricket, especially with the availability of the Indian Premier League (IPL) and Australian Big Bash League (BBL), as well as the occasional broadcasts of the Caribbean Premier League (CPL). I, like many people of my age, do not often watch any other forms of cricket, a topic covered in some parts of this book. In All That You Can’t Leave Behind Bhattacharya has written a homage to cricket from the viewpoint of a spectator and cricket lover first, and a journalist second. All That You Can't Leave Behind

Throughout this book Bhattacharya writes of his love of cricket, reminiscing about India’s successes (and failures), and the way cricket has changed over the years that he has been watching it. India is the nation that has been effected the most by the changes in viewership of cricket, making millions out of the IPL and as such being able to influence the International Cricket Council an amazing amount. With brilliant use of wit, personal experience and knowledge, combined with facts and figures, Bhattacharya has created a succinct tale of modern Indian cricket, whilst also showing the socioeconomic situation of one of the worlds emerging powers.

I found this book fascinating because it so clearly shows the generation gap between those who have grown up enjoying Test match cricket, Bhattacharya himself was born in 1969, and those who have been lured in by the glitz and glamour of T20 cricket, such as myself. This book may be a few years old, yet it is still relevant as a historical account of late 20th Century and early 21st Century cricket. I think that although Bhattacharya may lament the recent decline in popularity of Test cricket, he feels that due to the cycles he outlines in the book, the ‘patterns that we fans love so much’, Test cricket may rise again. One of the brilliant things about this short book is the obvious love and passion for the sport. There is no us vs them attitude about Test cricket vs T20 cricket, but an understanding that they are two divergent parts of the same sport, and their differing spectators may eventually come to love them as separate sports.

Gargling with Tar – Jáchym Topol

The only previous Czech novel I have read is Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk, Gargling with Tar is very similar in places especially its coverage of war in Czechoslovakia. Topol was born in 1962, and as a young boy lived through the Prague Spring of 1968; Gargling with Tar covers this period of time, and the life of a young boy during 1968. I have to admit that without knowing too much about the history of Czechoslovakia, and its successors the Czech Republic and Slovakia, I may have missed parts of the underlying themes of the novel, however it was hugely interesting and a well written work.

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Topol divides his novel into two parts; the first of which tells of the lives of young boys in an orphanage run by nuns, which later is turned into a military academy by communists. In this first section we meet Ilya, a boy living in the orphanage, and his younger disabled brother named Monkeyface. We are shown a home in which the nuns are in charge, strictly and often cruelly; when the boys lie they are forced to gargle with tar, hence the name of the novel. There is an obvious sense of relief when the nuns are driven out by the communists, however this doesn’t last too long. The boys of the orphanage descend into Lord of the Flies style situation, with the nuns usual order and routines replaced by the boys rambunctiousness and brutality. This is only brought under control by the communists, who then train the boys into potential soldiers.

Ilya, in the second part of the novel, becomes a saboteur and guide; thanks to his knowledge of the local terrain. Ilya switches sides from those supporting the Prague Spring to the invading forces of the Warsaw Pact. At this point Ilya becomes more sexually aware; witnessing the sexual abuse of his double by a war hero, and the rape of a number of Czech women by soldiers. He also begins to understand that the image of Czechia, a heroic female figure in Bohemia, is often portrayed as a very pornographic image. The young man is also complicit in much of the armies plundering of the land, including times when they burn farms and destroy villages. Ilya is caught up with an army troop who are tasked with creating a socialist circus, including a dwarf, bears, camels and a mermaid, the purpose being to showcase the talents of the Eastern bloc, and therefore the benefits of the invasion.

Gargling with Tar is an interesting novel, it highlights a piece Czech history from the eyes of a young boy, yet we have to take everything with a pinch of salt. The title itself is directly taken from the manner in which Ilya, and other orphans, were punished by nuns for lying. Ilya is an unreliable narrator and is the whole novel could be a true work of fiction; can we believe him at all? Topol has intrigued me, and I’d like to explore more of his literature, he’s also inspired me to look into more Czech literature, and learn about the Czech history.

1984 – George Orwell

1984 is one of those novels that I picked up many times, but never got around to reading. I’ve read a number of Orwell’s works before, including; Animal Farm, Homage to Catalonia, Why I Write and Down and Out in Paris and London. The novel was published in 1949 as a dystopian novel set in the future, telling of a superpower called Oceania which is engaged in perpetual war, and has extensive surveillance of the populace by the ruling regime.

We follow the life of Winston Smith as he begins to question the world he lives in. After a nuclear war, possibly a Third World War, there are three superstates: Oceania, covering the Americas, the UK, Southern Africa, Australia and New Zealand; Eurasia, covering Europe and Soviet Russia; and Eastasia mostly covering China, Korea, Japan. The three are constantly at war and changing alliances, whilst fighting over a disputed area described as a, ‘rough quadrilateral with its corners at Tangier, Brazzaville, Darwin, and Hong Kong’. Oceania is ruled by Big Brother, a party leader who is the figurehead for the ruling Inner Party. Despite the ruling party supposedly being socialist the Inner Party are actually only interested in keeping power for themselves. georgeorwellxobeygiantprintset-1984coverbyshepardfairey

Throughout the novel Winston Smith fall in love with a colleague, Julia. The two enter into a relationship which is banned as it has not been approved by the Party. They both realise that they no longer agree with the way that Oceania is being ruled and question their whole upbringing, which has essentially been indoctrination by the Party. Eventually they are tracked down by the Thought Police and they betray each other under interrogation. After a long period of interrogation and re-education they are allowed to enter back into society.

This novel is both a novel of love and a warning to the world about the dangers of indoctrination and the importance of people questioning everything that they are told. 1984 is famous, much of its terminology has entered into the English language, and I think now it is more important than ever. If you haven’t read this book before, or even if you have, now it is the time to read this novel.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra – Friedrich Nietzsche

zarathustra-1blogThis philosophical novel by Nietzsche mostly deals with his idea that God is dead. The book tells of the mythical travels and speeches of Zarathustra, a man who has lived alone in a cave for 10 years. He decides to travel and spread the word of his new found love and wisdom, and he also wants to teach humanity about his discovery of the ‘overman’; a man who is free from prejudice and the morality of humanity. Zarathustra has come to the conclusion that humanity is the connection between this overman and the rest of the planets animals, however, when he tells the people of a nearby town, Motley Cow, the majority of people do not seem to understand. This is when Zarathustra decides to concentrate on the people who seem to understand and want to learn about the overman.

The first parts of this novel are mostly speeches by Zarathustra that outline Nietzsche’s philosophy, despite being in allegorical and symbolic forms. Zarathustra is highly critical of mass gatherings, namely, ‘the rabble’; a clear attack on organised religion, and specifically Christianity. This is just one of the many criticisms of Christianity found in the book. Another key point against Christianity are the values of good and evil, and the belief in an afterlife; we have no evidence of this afterlife, so why do we waste our time trying to attain it? This view isn’t really discussed by Zarathustra, but is just taken as truth, there is no afterlife. I think this text is probably the most outspoken about the idea that ‘God is dead’, it does however also reject nationalism and mass politics, two other key ideas of Nietzsche.

I would thoroughly suggest reading this book, it gives an insight into Nietzsche, without the really complicated terminology of other philosophers or historians. It is split into four sections, each with very short chapters which makes it incredibly easy to read. I read most of it in short spurts, reading on or two sections at a time. I think this way of writing philosophy is brilliant as it allows more time for reflection by the reader.

Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita is probably the most disturbing novel I have read recently. The titular character is Dolores Haze, a young girl who becomes sexually involved with her step-father, Humbert Humbert, who nicknames her Lolita. Their relationship is portrayed in the novel through the eyes of the step-father, throughout the novel he explains his love for Lolita, despite understanding that the relationship is wrong. The reason I found this novel so disturbing is just that; Humbert’s lust for this child is despite him knowing that the relationship is wrong, and the fact that after a while I started to sympathise with Humbert.

Lolita has a foreword by a fictional psychologist, John Ray PhD. This foreword is used by Nabokov to outline the rest of the novel which is written as though it is the diary of Humbert Humbert, who had suffered a number of mental breakdowns, and has now died in jail awaiting his trial for murder. Humbert’s diary tells of his life in Europe, firstly his childhood sweetheart, Annabel Leigh, who is taken away from him before they have the opportunity to have sex, and later dies. His diary insinuates that this is the cause of his later obsession with ‘nymphets’, young girls between 9 and 13. Later we are told about his ex-wife, and her having an affair which results in her leaving him for the other man. This episode triggers the second mental breakdown of his life, after which he leaves for America.

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Upon arriving in America, Humbert moves in with Charlotte Haze. Mrs Haze is a widower who politely offers a room in the house after his previous arrangement is no longer feasible. Humbert actually contemplates declining her offer, then sees her daughter Dolores. After moving in with Charlotte and Dolores Haze, Humbert begins to see Charlotte as a barrier between himself and Dolores, whom he has begun to fantasise about. His fantasies become an obsession that he records in a diary, in which he nicknames her ‘Lolita’. At the same time Charlotte has fallen for him, and eventually tells him of her love for him in a letter. Following this declaration of love, Humbert proposes marriage to Charlotte, which she accepts. Some time after their marriage, Charlotte discovers his diaries about Dolores and tells him he will never see ‘Lolita’ again. She runs out the house to post some letters to friends telling them of Humbert’s diaries, but is killed by a car.

After Charlotte’s death, Humbert takes Lolita away from her summer camp and plans to drug her before raping her; the drug isn’t actually strong enough to knock Lolita out so he doesn’t touch her. The next morning Lolita actually initiates sex with him, and he informs her of her mothers death. Humbert is a man who clearly has a sexual interest in young girls, but throughout the novel Lolita herself plays the seductress. This becomes clear as the pair travel around America, playing the roles of father and daughter in public, but in private Nabokov uses innuendo and double entendres to portray their true activities.

As the novel progressed I came to the conclusion that Humbert had murdered Lolita after she had left him, my reasoning for this stemmed from the constant cat and mouse between the two. Like I said to begin with, this novel is disturbing; one starts to sympathise with both of the main characters, this is Nabokov’s gift. I became to think of the diary as an extended love note to Lolita, however, it is hard to ignore the fact that we know very little abut her despite her being the subject of the whole novel.

Existentialism & Humanism – Jean-Paul Sartre

Also known as Existentialism is a Humanism this is a work by Sartre based on a lecture he gave in 1945. Following this lecture, Sartre answered a number of questions regarding the lecture, both the lecture and the following discussion have been translated and published numerous times. The basic subject of the lecture was the idea that existentialism can be a humanist doctrine; the following questions were often criticisms of the lecture and the doctrine that Sartre was trying to present. Existentialism_and_Humanism_(French_edition)

Thanks to Sartre’s writing this lecture is fairly easy to follow, even if occasionally difficult to understand fully. Sartre’s key assertion is that the existence of a person comes prior to their essence; there is nothing to determine a persons character, ambitions, and the like, and as such only they can define their own essence, “man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards”. This assertion became key to the Existentialists, this lecture confirmed Sartre as a key member of the movement, especially as it was one of the first times he accepted that the term could be used about himself.

In the discussion, that follows the lecture, Sartre clearly and succinctly refutes the criticisms of the lecture. The power of this book lies more in Sartre’s rhetoric and passion about his philosophical ideas, than in the execution. In the years following the publication of the book, Sartre himself rejected some of the ideas that he had put forward. I think this is a good book to read for a brief introduction to Sartre and his philosophies, and wish I had read this before some of his bigger works, it is extremely accessible due to the style. However, it can only be viewed as a starting point, and one must understand that it is not definitive of Sartre’s philosophies.

The Circle – Dave Eggers

This is probably the scariest book that I have read in recent years; however, in no way is this horror, or the ilk, its just that Eggers take on the near-future is alarming. The Circle is a science-fiction novel, a bit like a 1984 for the 21st century. The protagonist of the novel is Mae Holland, a recent graduate, who joins an internet company on the recommendation of her friend, who has a high position within it. As the novel progresses  Mae’s role in the company changes drastically, becoming one of the companies most recognised staff. She soon has to decide between her own opinion or her role within the company.

The novel’s name, The Circle, is shared with the internet company that Mae joins. This company is an amalgamation of every major internet company that exists today; it allows you to do everything you currently do on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram with the functions of Apple, Microsoft, YouTube, Google, etc. in one place with one log in. To some people this would be perfect, but I personally find this a bit too much, I have recently tried to cut down on my social media use…

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Mae initially struggles to conform to The Circle’s idea that you should share as much information as possible, but is soon persuaded that anything she does is for the greater good. When she goes kayaking, her form of relaxation, surely she should share this experience with people not able to kayak; the sick, the old, and others? asks The Circle. As a result of a misdemeanour when she is kayaking, Mae agrees to start live streaming her entire life. After this point she becomes one of the worlds most recognised people, showing the inner workings of The Circle as well as some parts of her own life. Live streaming, or SeeChanging, becomes the norm for politicians who wish to be seen as transparent. It is at this point that the novel takes a turn away from bildungsroman into politics and social commentary.

Eggers is a great writer, but I don’t think it is necessarily the penmanship that should be admired here. The Circle is, in my opinion, a warning about the future.  The content of this novel is scary, foreboding and interesting; do we really need to live in a world in which everyone knows our every moment? Eggers sets these ideas out alongside personal relationships, making the whole novel feel even more real.

News of a Kidnapping – Gabriel García Márquez

Thanks to the brilliant Netflix series Narcos most people have seen a fictionalised version of Colombia’s drug wars of the late 80s and early 90s; News of a Kidnapping is a non-fiction book on the same topic. Gabriel García Márquez is one of the most famous Colombians in history, and in this book he writes indirectly about another, Pablo Escobar. This book tells the story of ten politically prominent figures of Colombian society who were kidnapped at the height of Pablo Escobar’s notoriety.

Each of the ten kidnapped people is represented fairly by Márquez, telling their story as both a historical fact but also has a personal story. 220px-NewsOfAKidnapping.jpgOf the ten kidnapped persons, Márquez has obviously spoken to as many as possible to educate himself about their experience. As well as this, Márquez tells the stories of the families of those kidnapped, of the guards looking over them, the politicians and judges who were either involves, and the man behind it all, Escobar. In combining all these stories, Márquez allows a true insight into Colombia at the time.

The victims were kidnapped as bargaining chips by the Medellin Cartel in an attempt to prevent extradition to the United States of America; Escobar stated, ‘We prefer a grave in Colombia to a prison cell in the US’. As Márquez relates the ordeal that they went through, he allows the reader an insight into the reality of Colombia during the drug wars. Each victim has to live a fine line between hope that they are going to be rescued and that they may be killed. They are also left in the dark about the fate of other victims; are they alive, have they been killed, have they been released?

Márquez discusses, through the experience of the kidnapped, the other victims of the drug wars. Some of the people guarding the hostages are teenagers. They are involved in the drug wars as they see no alternative, they did not have any other opportunities and at least these gangs give them purpose. These young men are employed to guard hostages, yet also boast of their murders of policemen. I think this is the most powerful part of this book, we are shown that there are victims on both sides of this war. Also discussed are the various assassination attempts on politicians, some of which resulted in numerous civilian deaths.

This is journalism at its most accessible, Márquez reports the events of the time, whilst also retaining the humanity of the subjects. The manner in which Márquez is able to combine his journalism skills and his novelistic style allows for a remarkable book. It is engrossing, educational and beautiful.

A Maze of Death – Philip K Dick

A Maze of Death is another of Philip K Dick’s novels that I had never read, he wrote about 40 novels, and over 100 short stories. It is yet another one that is brilliant, although decidedly strange. A Maze of Death tells the story of a group of humans who have each been chosen to colonise a world, named Delmak-O far from other human civilisation. 22397054Each of the fourteen colonists has a different skill and profession, but none have an idea why they have been chosen to colonise this planet. Once the last colonist has arrived they attempt to communicate with the organisation that has sent them to the planet, but the communication system fails. After this they try to work out their true mission on Denmark-O; this only results in them rounding on one another and eventually, a number of murders.

Dick is an excellent science-fiction writer, this novel is more proof of that, however this also shows that he can write flawed characters, and can write very dark stories. As the story develops, and the world seems to become more dangerous, each character reveals parts of their psyche. They each have flaws; be it the overly sexual Suzie Smart, or Ignatz Thugg who eventually becomes a murderer. The group has no way of functioning together, they elect a leader, but this is disputed as one of the characters was not present. Within 24 hours the whole group is either dead, contemplating suicide or confused by the whole situation.

This novel is weird, it has a number of twists and is definitely not easily understandable. One character begins to understand what appears to be going on, but has no way of escaping, except through death. I would recommend this as one of Philip K Dick’s strangest novels, but it is also thought provoking, and in places very humorous.