I disliked this book so much I’ve decided not to formally review it. But let me say very quickly that I found it one dimensional, hugely sexist (rightI disliked this book so much I’ve decided not to formally review it. But let me say very quickly that I found it one dimensional, hugely sexist (right from the start - with female characters objectified into navels, breasts and bottoms), completely plotless, unpleasant, and “peopled” (I use that term generously) with uninteresting protagonists - none of whom appear to have any charm, merit or interest. Others have enjoyed it, and you may too. I certainly didn’t (despite loving Kundera’s earlier books). I read it in English and was left wondering whether it was badly translated? ...more
One of the few downsides to being a book reviewer is that you don’t get many opportunities to read or re-read olderclassic books. Most of what comes tOne of the few downsides to being a book reviewer is that you don’t get many opportunities to read or re-read older classic books. Most of what comes through the door is newly released. So when a publisher like Faber releases new editions of classics like The Remains of the Day, it’s a great opportunity for reviewers like me to do just that. The new Faber Classics have now launched 16 titles that have remained popular with classics readers for at least 25 years, with the intention of coming out with 6 additional titles each year. The books are inexpensive and well-designed paperbacks with simple appealing covers that fit neatly in a handbag or on a bookshelf. Some of the classics also include extra material like introductions and supporting material. Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, for example, contains an introduction, almost as beautiful as the book (maybe more so) by Jeanette Winterson and also the original introduction by TS Eliot. Other books in the first wave of releases includes such well known texts as Arial by Sylvia Plath, Look Back in Anger by John Osborne, Self-Help by Lorrie Moore, and The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. I chose Ishiguro’s Booker Prize winning title because I haven’t read The Remains of the Day (nor have I see the well-lauded film, though I intend to now), and I’ve got a copy of Ishiguro’s latest novel The Buried Giant patiently awaiting my attention and wanted to read this one first. I wasn’t disappointed.
If you’re one of the few people who don’t know the plot of The Remains of the Day, the story takes place in 1956, and is told in first person by the Jeeves-like Stevens, who recounts a rare trip from Darlington Hall where he works, to the West Country, where he goes on a mini-holiday, ostensibly to entice Miss Kenton, a former housekeeper, back into his employ. Though very little happens in the present day narrative: Stevens travels to the West Country, runs out of fuel, meets with Miss Kenton, and returns home, all without incident, during the trip, he reflects on his years of service, his former employer Lord Darlington and the politics in which Darlington was involved. He also relives key moments in his relationship with Miss Kenton, and above all, on the nature of honour and what it means to live a dignified and worthwhile life:
The great butlers are great by virtue of their ability to inhabit their professional role and inhabit it to the utmost; they will not be shaken out by external events, however surprising, alarming or vexing. They wear their professionalism as a decent gentleman will wear his suit: he will not let ruffians or circumstances tear it for him in the public gaze; he will discard it when, and only when, he wills to do so, and this will invariably be when he is entirely alone. (43-44)
Stevens himself seems to fully believes all he says as he progresses through his trip. Little by little he chips away at his own sense of self, journeying not just physically, but mentally as he progresses towards Devon. Always he speaks with a measured voice, and explores his past in a way that begins with a clinical self-justification:
I carried out my duties to the best of my abilities, indeed to a standard which many may consider 'first-rate.' It is hardly my fault is his lordship's life and work have turned out today to look, at best, a sad waste-and it is quite illogical that I should feel any regret or shame on my own account. (201)
and ends with a clear self-indictment:
As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really – one has to ask oneself – what dignity is there in that? (256)
The novel is set between the two wars, WWI and WWII, and even at his most naive, Stevens is aware that his boss, Lord Darlington, is involved in a questionable way, supporting Germany, entertaining Nazis, and even going so far as to get Stevens to dismiss two Jewish maids on the grounds of their Judaism. Stevens does this without question, even though he clearly knows it is wrong, and even though Miss Kenton argues vehemently against it. This unquestionable loyalty to his employer is a character flaw that Stevens tries to justify in the name of dignity, but the reader is well aware that it isn’t acceptable to hand over moral responsibility to someone else, however well-heeled or titled they might be. Stevens formal style of speaking attempts at a kind of meticulous honesty, believing the pretence that Miss Kenton calls him out on is justified on grounds of his role as butler, but he is forced to face what he has done, not only to himself, but to Miss Kenton, his father (though he never does revisit that relationship), and to others who had come to care for him, and whose care was sacrificed to the meaningless ‘cause’ of butlerism.
There is enough of dramatic irony in the book to create a strong forward thrust to the plot. Long before Stevens realises it, the reader knows that he has come to love Miss Kenton. We are also aware, as much through our historical perspective as through the narrative itself, that Stevens’ admiration of Lord Darlington’s anti-semitic politics is morally wrong. So there’s relief when Stevens arrives at his epiphany. We want to forgive him, so painful is the sense that his whole life has been a sham and that he’s wasted his opportunities for love, for meaning, and for self-actualisation. It’s at this point that the notion of the ‘banter’ or small light talk, becomes focal. It represents the breakdown of the order to which Stevens has clung to for so long, because it isn’t ‘banter’ at all, but honest conversation that Stevens is missing. In a show of resilience, Stevens finishes the novel with plans for increasing his skills in bantering in the hopes that he can engage his new American employer, Mr Farraday, whose lack of awareness of the stringent class distinctions that made up Stevens’ world provides a mild kind of hopefulness - perhaps a route towards warmth and responsibility. Though there aren’t many hours left in Stevens’ day -- indeed the time of unquestioning ‘dignity’ in service above love, family and true emotive response is long gone--The Remains of the Day nevertheless ends on a hopeful note. This is a lovely, easy to read, and powerful book. The simplicity of its narrative belies a far deeper and more complex underlying truth, and this new Faber & Faber edition draws attention to how fresh and relevant the book remains to a modern audience....more
Let me begin this review by saying how beautiful this book is. If you’re not keen on cooking, you could just put it on the coffee table, and gawk fromLet me begin this review by saying how beautiful this book is. If you’re not keen on cooking, you could just put it on the coffee table, and gawk from time to time at the exquisite photos by award-winning photographer David Loftus, the sweet, clever cartoons by Sun Young Park, or just enjoy Bloomfield’s prose, which will take you to farmer’ markets, through the philosophy of simple pleasures and enjoying the cooking process for its own sake (the journey rather than the destination), insider knowledge on particular ingredients like garlic, herbs, fennel and tomatoes, or the little blurbs of history and context above each recipe. This isn’t a cheap book, but it would make a wonderful gift for someone who loves not just creating food, but reading about, buying and talking about food too. Bloomfield is as good a writer as she is a cook. There are plenty of interesting tidbits, recollections, and ideas for variations at the start of each recipe – something I always look for in a cookbook.
Many of the recipes are quite simple. For example, “Crushed Spring Peas with Mint” is just a bunch of ingredients blended in a food processor. I have to admit, rather shamefully, to making this dish this with frozen peas, but it was still delicious (I know it would be far better with fresh ones but I didn’t have any on hand and had to try it). The salad sandwiches are just big stacked up sandwiches. Greek Salad, Courgette Bread, Focaccia, Hasselback Potatoes, and Potato Soup are all pretty standard fare, but there’s something about the way Bloomfield approaches these foods that ramps them right up. I think it’s mostly because the ingredients are treated with so much love and reverence: “If I could get away with opening a restaurant that served only boiled potatoes with butter and black pepper I just might” (62). Then there are the innovative options like “Lumaconi Stuffed with Summer Vegetables”, the “Roasted Carrots with Carrot-Top Pesto and Burrata”, “Roasted Treviso with Breadcrumbs and Gorgonzola”, or the “Broccoli Raab Morning Buns”: “They’re magic, really – buttery layers of dough that are somehow both rich and delicate, crackly on the outsides and soft in the middle” (160). I haven’t made the morning buns yet (soon…), but the “Corn Pudding” is a delicious sweet dinner option for vegetarians – it holds pretty well too – more like a quiche than a soufflé, and in this case, fresh corn is an absolute must.
Not everything in the book is vegetarian. There are recipes that use bone marrow, bacon, lardons, ground pork, and pancetta, but all of the meat recipes are concentrated into one chapter, humorously titled “a little beast goes a long way”. Though the dishes aren’t really simple home cooking faire as such – you can make them with whatever you’ve got, and there are plenty of ways to modify (something I’m afraid I always do, not always to good effect), but they won’t be sublime unless you procure really high quality fresh vegetables of the sort that, as Bloomfield makes very clear, can only be found in a farmer’s market. That said, if you’re looking for food that is quite accessible both to cook and eat, but still fancy enough to serve to guests, there are lots of options here which will certainly extend the vegetarian repertoire, and will encourage you to experiment more with fresh ingredients like Kale (“Kale Polenta”), or mushrooms (“Morels with Madiera Cream on Toast”). I dare you to read it and not visit your nearest farmer’s market as soon as you can. Until then, you can put Girl and Her Greens on your coffee table or read it like a novel and you still won’t be disappointed....more
Contrary to what you might think, A Short History of Stupid is unlikely to make you feel smarter. Despite the introduction, in which Razer and Keane mContrary to what you might think, A Short History of Stupid is unlikely to make you feel smarter. Despite the introduction, in which Razer and Keane make it clear that they aren’t experts and don’t have any consistent truths to offer the reader—A Short History of Stupid isn’t a self-help book after all—their rather smart arguments bust a few sacred cows, shine a light on publically accepted stupidities, and make our extensive foibles all too obvious. You may well, like me, recognise yourself in some of their examples and cringe silently, hoping no one noticed your past stupidities. Others will cause you to laugh knowingly, for having called a stupid spade a stupid spade right from the start. Some examples will make you angry, and others will make you shudder. At the end of it though, you’ll likely be more critical even if you aren’t specifically less stupid, and you’ll probably be amused at times at least, not just because a lot of what Razer and Keane write is funny, but because they manage to get a rather sharp finger right into the heart of the matter in a way that is often strikingly apt.
I’m speaking in generalities here I know, and that’s a little stupid, so let me be more specific. The book is written in alternate chapters between the two authors and tackles such topical subjects as the rise of Liberal Individualism (and with it the ‘talking head’ of opinions), the cult of Denialism, the disturbing trend for uplifting moral stories, the danger of safe spaces, Paternalism, the War on Terror, conspiracy theories, on the medicalising of psychology, on the systematic misuse of statistics, the collapse of meaning into real life postmodern relativism, on faked authenticity and faked compassion. All of these are pretty familiar and proliferating forms of stupidity and Keane and Razer do a good job of calling them out. At its worst, the writing can be a bit rambling, straying from the point into all sorts of pop references, from 1980s television series to personal confessions (mostly in Razer’s chapters). There were times when I forgot what the thesis was because the ‘aside’ had become so prominent. Razer makes an art of the ramble, but she’s so funny and so often on point, that I think you could forgive her anything:
Actually, in researching this chapter—surely a ‘rational’ act—I have shown symptoms consistent with BED. I ate an imperial pound of Cadbury Dairy Milk Marvellous Creations Jelly Popping Candy Beanies when I was trying to understand Foucault’s account of madness and I ate a whole barbecued chicken while I was reading just one chapter of Freud’s Civilisation and its Discontents. When Freud compared my conscious mind to a garrison in the city of the id, I thought I felt bad because I knew that most of humanity represses most of itself most of the time. Now I know it was because I ate an entire bird while I was alone in my underpants. (173)
Keane stays a bit more on-track and as Razer is the first to admit, his scholarship is more extensive, but he’s not nearly as funny (possibly as a result). Together though they make a well-balanced pair, and some chapters, such as Keane’s on the “War on Terror” are so frighteningly accurate that once you read it, there’s no hope of ever getting the rosy tint back into your spectacles:
And while we have incorporated the low-level stupid of the War on Terror into our daily lives—enduring the security theatre of the airport scan, assuming our governments are spying on us, tolerating the waste of billions of dollars on pointless conflicts—we’re oblivious to the greater absurdity: that the fixation with natural security comes with a body count, not merely of foreign lives lost in distant wars, but in the consequences of infrastructure not built, health services not provided, prevention programs not funded, social services cut back, all in the name of strategies that in fact make us less safe. (143)
I’m sure it will come as no surprise that the book is left-leaning, and if you come to any book written by the likes of Razer and Keane with expectations of primness, conservatism, and sweetness, you’re stupider than most people (and now that I’ve read A Short History of Stupid I know that’s saying something). This is a book that is delightfully vulgar, bravely contrary, openly critical of media, government (especially the current one), the news, television in general, new age clap trap, and pretty much everything else. If the authors err on the side of being just a little too confident that they’re smarter than the average bear, it’s probably because they are. A Short History of Stupid is a panacea to all the soft serve we’re fed on a regular basis. It might not make you feel smarter, but it will open your eyes a bit and if it makes you more critical, more discerning, and less gullible, it will have been worth the time spent. If not, it’s a lot of fun, and still worth it. You’re worth it....more
Vagabondage is part poetry, part verse memoir, part travelogue. Genre-busting though it may be, there’s a warm intimacy here that draws the reader inVagabondage is part poetry, part verse memoir, part travelogue. Genre-busting though it may be, there’s a warm intimacy here that draws the reader in instantly, taking us along for the ride as Beth Spencer charts a year spent living and travelling in a campervan. The work starts with an open letter of poetic “prologue” giving the book its context. Though the poetry is easy to read and instantly accessible, the work operates on several levels. There is the political: the woman dispossessed, unable to afford rising Melbourne property prices (and a later nod to the global financial crisis; there is the spiritual: the idea of letting go of attachments and expectations: “I am a whisper/of butterflies”; and there is the tangible: the poet’s attempts to make a coherent life and create meaning during this period of intransience. Everything we define ourselves by: our ‘home’, our roles, our communities, and our ‘job’ have been let go and what’s left is the bare bones.
The result is both exhilarating and frightening (“liberating, /if you can handle the vertigo” (“On Being / Inessential”)), and the poetry that Spencer creates is as powerful as it is easy and immediate. The book is interspersed with black and white photos that serve as relics or artefacts—dropped, lost, remembered, like a platonic version of “home”:
Maybe it was because our house was already full before I arrived that I fantasised so much about a white cottage and a front path with violets up the sides and a green door. (“Dreaming Home”)
The story moves through a number of locations in spac. The van takes us along a real road, from country Victoria, along The Great Ocean Road in Warrnambool, up the coast of NSW past a park in Richmond River, the South Coast NSW, and a kitchen in Brisbane.
The book also moves through time, weaving in personal memories of holidays and family occasions (“memory places/of tears and pain”) with the national memory captured in visits to museums, on the Great Ocean Road - “the world’s largest war memorial”, in historic letters, and in those memories that remain in places, such as the house that burns down on “Steels Creek Road” during the Black Saturday bushfires:
I curl my arms out to make a space to hold that family safe
while our house on the hill goes up. (“Snap”)
The work is all about “de-possessioning”; about leaving behind things, places, and ideas, and how they anchor and define us: “”all the more reason/to let them go.” (“De-possession”) It’s not only things and places who are left, but also people. The narrative is solitary, a single voice wondering what it might be like to travel (on the road or through life) as a couple, about waking and eating alone, about dying alone, and about invisibility (“able to disappear/(no one notices)”: “Bookless, boneless”. Solitude doesn’t quite equate to loneliness though, at least not all of the time. Sometimes it’s joyous to find oneself standing in the sun, a ‘wild thing’, completely in sync with the natural rhythm, and untethered by societal ‘norms’, accommodations, and the many skins that make up modern living. Other times the poems show a painful skinlessness. This body is fully open to the elements, subject to the uncontrollable vicissitude of the environment and whoever might show up and change the space:
Because there’s tension in the air and I’m absorbing it like a sponge and I’ve got to get out of here (“Reasons to leave”)
Though there are serious themes in the book, it’s also funny, giving thanks for the air conditioning and toilets available at shopping centres (“Toot-toot!”), the antics of Goofy and Micky on the road, the deep relationship that develops between the driver and her GPS (“Is this what it’s like in a marriage?”), on using public facilities at truck stops, and tips for the dis-possessed:
Join a gym for the showers Get a magnetic sign for the side Saying something like ‘Plumbing’ with a phone number attached, so you can park in side streets and not look suspicious (“Advice for van-dwelling”)
Though this is a first person traveller’s tale, the book is full of observation of humanity as a whole—from our fear of germs and strangeness, the universal pain of aging, losing the self, and feeling on the outside of society. Above all though, through the pain and dislocation there is a growing self-awareness. An underlying subtext to all of the work is about the inevitability of change: this sense of moving beyond the transition, about leaving behind the dislocation, the fear and pain, towards acceptance of the ongoing waves and rhythms of life:
Gradually we weave a little deeper into the heart of what we are saying, until we start to perform something beyond words. A dance. (“Forgetting”)
Vagabondage is much more than a travellers tale. Though it does indeed chart one year in Spencer’s life when she was a gypsy, travelling the country in her camper van alone, each poem builds up to a memoir of deep self-reflection on what it means to be alive on this earth. The book is a joy to read, mingling lighthearted observation with deep, warm and above all intimate introspection that the reader is invited to join, so that the journey becomes a shared one between the poet and the reader:
“I travel the universe (out to the stars) and back again” (“Small world”)
As one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, Philip Glass transformed the landscape of modern music. His work is Renaissance-like inAs one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, Philip Glass transformed the landscape of modern music. His work is Renaissance-like in its scope; the breadth of his projects a wide sweep that encompasses Opera, film scores, symphonies, music theatre, concertos, and the list goes on. To call him a musical genius would be easy. What’s not so easy is to track just how much work there is behind the exquisite music he’s given to the world—not some extraordinary inspiration—just hard yakka and lots of it. If something caught Glass’ interest—and almost everything interests him—he would begin a course of study that involved hours and hours of deep, regimented study and practice. There are never any short cuts. Travelling to remote places to spend time with various teachers, beginning a myriad of projects, taking hold of nearly every opportunity that came his way to grow and learn by studying, practicing and drilling are what characterises Glass’ approach to his craft. I opened the book thinking I’d read an autobiography of a great composer. Instead, I found a deeply introspective story of a man whose work has grown out of a desire to understand life from the inside—at the point where the atoms move.
The book begins with Glass’ young years in Baltimore, where he grew up, the son of well-educated Jewish Lithuanian migrants. His mother Ida was an English teacher/librarian and his father Ben owned a record store. Though they didn’t approve of his desire to become a musician, Glass’ parents paid for music lessons, which began early when a young Glass would take the streetcar to Peabody Conservatory to study flute. When he was eleven, he began to work in his father’s store. The book progresses in a reasonably chronological fashion, through his early schooling and the start of a lifelong love of music, his early entry to the University of Chicago where he obtained a degree in Mathematics and Philosophy, his studies at Julliard, with Ravi Shankar, in Paris with Nadia Boulinger on a Fulbright Scholarship, his visits to India and Nepal to study Yoga and Tibetan Buddhism, his time in a very Bohemian New York’s East Village, his work in the theatre with his then wife Joanne Akalaitis, his immersion in the world of Art, the creation of his operas, his film scoring and his time with his second wife Candy Jernigan.
Throughout this period, Glass not only throws himself wholeheartedly into his work, but also into his spirituality, and into earning a good living. He takes on all sorts of ‘day jobs’ and not only does them well, he seems to take great pleasure out of doing them exceptionally well—whether that’s moving furniture, teaching himself plumbing on the job (!), driving a taxi, or helping his dad out in the record store--there’s an attention and interest shown to everything that turns the work into almost an art. In fact, if there’s one theme that can be found throughout the book, it’s this kind of mindfulness—the art of paying complete attention – whether that be fixing a broken sink, working at a composition, or listening to a challenging piece of music:
The mechanics of perception and attention tied you to the flow of the music in a way that was compelling and that made the story irrelevant.
When you get to that level of attention, two things happen: one, the structure (form) and the content become identical; two, the listener experiences and emotional buoyancy. Once we let go of the narrative and allow ourselves to enter the flow of the music, the buoyancy that we experience is both addictive and attractive and attains a high emotional level. (221)
The story itself is compelling and would probably have been so even if the book weren’t so well-written: there are several love stories, lots of famous names and collaborations, travels to interesting places, and a very wide range of influences and references from literature, art, music, dance and theatre. Glass, however, writes beautifully, exploring, always, the deeper and universal implications of his experiences. The prose is beautiful to read—both simple and powerful. Glass’ recounts are more than just memoir. He is generous in that whatever he writes is always aimed at finding a deeper and collective meaning in his individual experiences. There is so much to learn here, not just about Glass, but about ourselves—how to live, how to learn, how to create. Towards the end of the book, Glass talks about his work on The Cocteau Trilogy in which he says, of Cocteau, that he “is teaching about creativity in terms of the power of the artist, which we now understand to be the power of transformation” (378) The same can be said of Words Without Music. Glass fans will love it of course, and there are detailed deconstructions of most of Glass’ big works: from the making of to the meaning of. However, Words Without Music is a book for all readers—the lessons it provides and the journey it takes us on, is both beautifully expressed and universally applicable....more
The Age of Magic is something of a sequel to Ben Okri’s 2002 novel In Arcadia. It openswith the same group of eight filmmakers who are on a train, movThe Age of Magic is something of a sequel to Ben Okri’s 2002 novel In Arcadia. It opens with the same group of eight filmmakers who are on a train, moving on from Paris, where they left off in In Arcadia, to Basel in Switzerland en route to Arcadia, Greece where they are creating a documentary film about Arcadia. The company do some filming on the train, arrive in Basel, stay in a beautiful hotel on the edge of the lake, work on the film, interact with one another and explore the nature of their lives in conjunction with the filming that takes place. Though nothing specifically happens in the story, and we never actually see the filming process other than initially on the train, each character, in his or her own way, transforms by virtue of their engagement with the spirit of the place. Though the company have not yet arrived in Arcadia, the implication is that they are, in fact, in Arcadia in Basel. Arcadia is primarily treated as an idea—a kind of personal paradise akin to an inner calm or sense of peace regardless of what happens or where you go. This is something that the New York interviewee Emily reveals at the start on the train, and something that each of the characters struggles with in one form or another.
And yet, after I’ve seen everything I’ve decided that home, wherever that may be, is the place for feelings of peace. And if I can be at peace with myself then that is the most important thing. I think travelling teaches one that.
Throughout the book, the literal and the metaphorical or emotional go hand in hand. The physical journey corresponds to the characters’ emotional journey. The physical baggage they carry mirrors the emotional baggage we bring with us wherever we go. The magical spirit world parallels emotional needs and perceptions. These things are intrinsically linked and though shown as separate, it is clear that the spirit and material world interact and create one another.
The book is peopled with two specific magical characters. There is an Quylph, who seems to be benign or even friendly, appearing only to the character Lao and only briefly on two occasions. There’s also the malevolent Malasso, who appears to all characters as a kind of malicious devil. We see Malasso only in brief peripheral images, his voice is present in whispers inside or outside the the character’s heads. Though Malasso is frightening to all the characters, who agree at one point not to even mention his name, he isn’t entirely bad. The devil like character who drove all the action in In Arcadia, functions almost as the author here, exerting a magical influence on the characters and guiding each of them towards some form of self-realisation. Malasso’s influence binds the group. At one point during the narrative, the characters agree that Malasso is a group creation, made tangible from the collective unconscious of the filmmakers’ unarticulated desires, fears, and dreams. This is a theme that is repeated throughout the book: that beauty, magic and power are self-generated, as is evil, spite, and pain. We create our lives, our magic, our failings, and our arcadia, through mindfulness, art and observation—as exemplified by Mistletoe and her magic drawings:
At that moment Lao glimpsed a waterfall of clouds on a mountain peak; the light dying on the surface of the lake pierced Mistletoe’s heart. It was such a rare moment that they couldn’t help thinking how they could borrow its power against the darkness, or coax from it the art of living.
As in In Arcadia, Mistletoe is self-contained, in possession of strong perception, and able to move in and out of the spirit and material world, though she still is a creature of flesh with natural hunger, as shown by her coveting of cake, and her confusion at being objectified by a stranger. She’s a strong character who is contrasted with the focal character of the story, Lao, the presenter and poet. Much of the perspective of the book comes through Lao, and the many questions he asks himself become the underlying themes throughout the book. These include such things as what an “authentic self” might be, the nature of personality, living mindfully, will versus presence and intensity, travelling as a metaphor for life, and the relationship between life and death. We get little snippets of his Haiku-like poems throughout the book as well:
A train gliding Into the dark light. Oxen in the grass. The fields singing. A lost dream.
The book is written in seven parts or mini books, each somewhat self-contained and each of which introduces a theme that is woven through the other chapters. There is a nice flow from one book to the other, as the themes are built up and explored through the characters as they appear, mostly in conjunction with Lao and Mistletoe. As one might expect with Okri, the writing is lyrical and lovely, enriched by his literary philsophising which focuses quite heavily on Goethe’s Faust, referred to many times in the book, both directly and indirectly.
The Age of Magic is not always an easy book to read. Like it’s predecessor In Arcadia, it is an unusual blend of poetry, prose and philosophy—the unique literary form that Okri has coined as fictive philosophy. For those looking for an engrossing read that takes them away from themselves and into a fictive dream, The Age of Magic may prove disappointing, as the narrative, though linear, is not one that progresses through a standard arc. Nothing much happens to these characters externally, and much of the “action” comes through dialogue, argument and explication. However, if you let go of preconceptions about what a novel should be and how it’s meant to function, and read the work, instead, as a literary exploration of the unseen, beyond the world of logic and progression, then the work becomes much more powerful, yielding a transcendence that moves beyond the flow of ordered progression. The work moves in pulses; in moments of magic that become “elixirs, life renewed in the laboratory of Arcadia” or humanity’s highest self....more
**spoiler alert** I hesitate to review The Book of Strange New Things. For one thing, I came to the book with no preconceptions. I had no idea what th**spoiler alert** I hesitate to review The Book of Strange New Things. For one thing, I came to the book with no preconceptions. I had no idea what the plot was about other than the very nondescript wording on the back which indicated that the book was about a missionary who goes some distance to preach the word of Jesus to natives. When I realised what Faber was doing with his plot, I was delighted and surprised. This surprise continued throughout the book and added to my pleasure as a reader. So stop reading this review now, and read no other reviews. Just go and read The Book of Strange New Things. You’ll love it. Trust me on that without the need for substantiation. You could, like I did, judge the book solely by its elegant cream and gold cover, the author’s growing and well-deserved reputation, and just plunge in without preamble.
That said, I feel the book deserves a review, and I want to explore it a bit more in depth, so I’m going to review it anyway. The Book of Strange New Things is a genre-buster that defies classification: sci fi, romance, literary fiction, dystopia, whatever you want to call it, The Book of Strange New Things is a moving and engaging read. I don’t quite want to let it go.
The protagonist of the book is Peter Leigh, an enthusiastic minister who is sent by a company called USIC to another planet, named Oasis after a young girl who entered the name into a competition. I initially assumed USIC was a large ministry like the Seventh Day Adventist Church, though I later changed my mind about this as they appeared to be a somewhat sinister and more secularly capitalistic multinational. Peter has been selected for his mission after a long series of interviews, but he has to leave his wife Bea behind to do so, and the painful rift between Peter and Be a grows as Peter tries to share his experiences on Oasis through a form of email (“the shoot”) that allows for no images. As Peter and Bea’s communication transforms, and their experiences begin to differ dramatically, Peter finds himself struggling with his own faith, his sense of self, and his feelings towards his wife and the human race in general, which appears to be careening towards its end on Earth in Peter’s absence.
From a plot point of view, the book’s restraint is masterful. I was left hungry for more. I wanted to read more about the aliens, with their strange sibilant language that we can almost hear, written in its own font in the book, fetus-like faces, and tender, small bodies that smelled of fruit. We just get hints of their simple agrarian existence, which starts to grow on Peter as he begins to sense that living this way isn’t necessarily backwards. Of Oasis, I wanted more of its unusual dancing rain showers, the whiteflower that could be made to taste like almost any kind of Earthly food, the desolate landscape, and its strange atmosphere of nearly alive breathable air which moves sensually, under the clothes:
It was enjoyable, this sudden all-out luxury of atmosphere, but also an assault: the way the air immediately ran up the sleeves of his shirt, licked his eyelids and ears, dampened his chest. (109)
There are all sorts of intriguing plot points that aren’t resolved. We never learn who USIC is, beyond rumours and gossip, though they begin to appear more and more sinister as the book progresses. We never find out why the Oasans moved, what happened to the previous minister Kurzberg, or the real backstory behind Peter’s attractive colleague Granger, who has scars on her wrist. Bea’s rapid transformation, and the situation on Earth, is as confusing to the reader as it is to Peter. But the lack of information is no impediment in this novel, where the reader’s hunger for more plot is fully satisfied by the very human sense of longing and confusion that Peter feels as he moves sensitively between the delicacy of the Oasians, learning their language slowly and getting to know their nuances, and the pain that his wife is going through back home as the world begins to careen towards a disaster that is all-too-possible. At no point in this beautifully written novel did I ever doubt it’s veracity. Peter’s arc is what drives the story, and he grows through the tale as he struggles to do the right thing while remaining somewhat sane in the face of chaos, loss, and meaninglessness in the face of what had been almost absolute faith. The story remains about Peter, and is consistently moving, tender, sad and beautiful throughout the novel, as Peter comes across the his own strange new things – as much in himself as in others, uncovering beauty and ugliness in places least expected.
There are no answers in The Book of Strange New Things. Certainly the Bible doesn’t provide them, nor does USIC, the Oasans (I feel almost prejudiced calling them that, though my keyboard won’t type out their proper name), Bea, or anyone. It’s entirely possible that if and when Peter returns to the “baad place,” he will find no one and nothing. As Jesus Lover Five, Peter’s favourite Oasan, says, “You are…man. Only man.” There is something permanently beautiful in this frailty; in the attempt to do right; in the love Peter experiences both for his wife in spite of her transformation and for the Oasans, and in the shared song between an Oasan who “wishes to live” and a human who wants to help. The Book of Strange New Things is like no other book I’ve read. It’s exquisite, sad, uplifting and doomed all at the same time. I wish that the ending was different, and know, somehow, that nothing else that would do. This is a book that will remain with me, working its way under my skin like the Oasan atmosphere....more
Both books read cheesy romances. The woman are all impossibly beautiful. The men ridiculously virile. Most of the characters come across as caricatureBoth books read cheesy romances. The woman are all impossibly beautiful. The men ridiculously virile. Most of the characters come across as caricatures and vaguely ridiculous (Beckett is atrocious). That said, the books were well plotted and I found myself reading through them quickly and stayed engaged. ...more
Ran out of books while on holiday and read the one my husband had bought in the airport in one day (even though doing other activities during the day)Ran out of books while on holiday and read the one my husband had bought in the airport in one day (even though doing other activities during the day)! It was a very engaging and well written book that drew me in instantly and kept me involved and reading until the end. ...more
I’ve always thought of myself as a character driven reader. Whenever I think about the books I love I don’t usually think about the setting, the plot,I’ve always thought of myself as a character driven reader. Whenever I think about the books I love I don’t usually think about the setting, the plot, the genre, the stylistics, although all of those things are essential to a good read. I tend to lock onto the characters and their arc. However, Garth Nix has me re-thinking that. I remained engrossed by the Old Kingdom series, flying through each book with intense engagement, even as the characters changed. I began my reading of the Old Kingdom series with Clariel, the latest book in the series, thinking perhaps that it might be enough, but the minute I finished I wanted more, and it didn’t take long before I had read every book in the Old Kingdom series, including the series of short stories Over the Wall, and am still hungry for more about the characters, the plot, and above all, about the wonderful/terrible world of death.
While this review primarily focuses on Clariel, the whole Dark Kingdom series is superb. Each book stands alone, and is able to be read in isolation (I dare you to stop at just one), but since Clariel is set 600 years before the birth of Sabriel, the first character in the series, is works particularly well on its own. I also found that, while all of the books are top notch, engaging and beautifully written, Clariel for me, was the most subtle, the most complex, the deepest, and the most moving of the series. Clariel is nearly seventeen years old, and has just been moved, against her will, to Belisaere, the capital of the Old Kingdom and a major city compared to her quiet country life in Estwael, where her mother, a gifted goldsmith, has been given the honour of joining the high Guild of Goldsmiths. All Clariel wants to do is to go back home to the forest and become a Borderer guard, but her parents, and indeed, the town’s erstwhile leader, Guildmaster Kilp, have other plans for her.
When a free magic creature is discovered in the city, Clariel’s own power begins to emerge in frightening and uncontrolled ways. Her character arc is a strong one, full of conflicting priorities and anti-hero qualities that make her unique and somewhat tragic as she finds herself the centre of political intrigue and manipulation. Watching Clariel grow as she navigates her difficult situation through the complex and superbly built world of the Old Kingdom is fascinating. Mogget, the Abhorsen’s bound cat, a point of continuity between all of the books in the series, is an exceptional supporting character: fully of mystery, fun (often funny) mischief and a perfect blend of sweet cocky cuteness and fierce danger. I was also fascinated by Nix’s Nine Gates of Death, which are extremely detailed and very cleverly described in Clariel (and in all the books). The associated seven bells, the amazing array of extraordinary monsters, the tension between the tightly ordered Charter magic and the wild “beserk” power of Free Magic are all apart of the great appeal of Clariel. Younger readers will relate to Clariel’s discomfort as she wavers between a growing desire to control her own destiny versus the way adults (and others) continue to use her in order to advance her own aims.
Clariel’s struggles are partly driven by the lack of interest her parents show in her needs, and the way the adult world discounts her feelings, and the play between this and other dichotomies adds to the deep thematic threads beneath the plot. Though the fantasy is fully realized and so deftly drawn that it’s possible for the most pragmatic reader to suspend judgment and become caught up in it, it is also possible to see a parallel in Free versus Charter magic against Clariel’s desire to be free versus the very real need to keep her berserk nature under control. Other opposing themes include freedom versus security; camaraderie versus solitude; politics versus sincerity; depth versus superficiality. Nothing is exactly as it seems, and the reader learns, along with Clariel, that we must always look a little deeper in our perceptions.
Not once does Clariel falter for me. Nix does an excellent job of introducing readers to all of the key elements of his series, and providing enough foreshadowing and background so that this book is actually a pretty good place to start the series, though again, I dare you to stop here. While it might be tempting to contain the magic of the Old Kingdom series under genre classifications like “fantasy,” or “young adult” fiction, I think it’s fair to say that Nix is a writer whose work goes well beyond genre definitions and edges towards the classic. The work will appeal to readers of all tastes – particularly those who want to be transported into a world richly drawn and exotic, and yet so full of a very human verisimilitude of life, coming-of-age, and loss....more
The year is 1939, and the Jewish residents of the remote town of Zalischik in Romania keep quiet, hoping to be forgotten. Their isolation has kept theThe year is 1939, and the Jewish residents of the remote town of Zalischik in Romania keep quiet, hoping to be forgotten. Their isolation has kept the villagers safe, and their world appears idyllic with its routines and certainties, but things are about to change. First their healer reads an old newspaper that tells them that, as Jews, they now considered pests to be exterminated. Then a woman, known thereafter as the "stranger" washes up alive on their riverbank after a storm. The stranger has somehow survived the death of her family, and the villagers welcome her as a holy woman, but they also know that she is the precursor of their own imminent destruction. The villagers decide to start the world over, as if it were the first day ever, denying history and tragedy. For a while they are successful, protected by their isolation, but they can't hide forever and eventually their true timeline catches up with them.
No One is Here Except All of Us is a fable told from a grandmother to her grandchild – a story of pain, loss and healing that unfolds from the perspective of Lena, who begins the story as a precious eleven year old girl forced to grow up quickly. In many ways the book is a coming-of-age story for Lena, who uses the power of words to change the nature of what happens to her. Though entirely rooted in the possible, the novel is suffused with magic realism, hinting that, despite the great pain that Lena experiences, she has indeed changed the physical world through her stories. Despite the fact that the story is an old one - made evident in the prologue that puts the reader into the role of newborn Chaya, sitting on the Lena's lap, there is an immediacy and sensuality to Lena’s experiences which draws the reader into each moment as we feel it happen:
The mud pulled at my fine hairs as it dried. The splitting felt deeper, like I might break down, pieces departing from pieces, until I was a shattered thing and the bugs could carry me away. But I was whole as ever. The only thing I started to lose were tears, unreasonable, unspecific tears. I did not know if I was crying for the loss of something or for the weight of what I had gained. (150)
Throughout the novel, the writing is intense and charged with emotion. The historical fact of the Holocaust happens in the periphery of this story – driving the narrative and events without ever becoming the focus. Lena’s husband Igor is captured by Italian soldiers and he’s held prisoner by a man, Francesco, who becomes Igor’s closest friend. Through the unlikely friendship, Igor believes he is living a dream – that his imprisonment is all in his head. Igor's story becomes a second narrative, along with the story of the "Stranger" and the jeweler, who find an odd consolation in one another:
He wanted her to be anything and everything she possibly could be. The biggest wallop of desperation, the brightest sweep of joy. If the stranger were burning hot, the jeweler would have become a lick of fire. If she were freezing cold, he would have become the spear of an icicle. If she were a swamp, he would be algae, growing over the entire surface of her. (258)
Ultimately though, it is Lena’s story, as she escapes the destruction of her people, and travels with her children, hanging onto words as her world becomes increasingly precarious: “Horse, street, lamb, baby, day, night, day.” Lena's story grows from the particular to the universal as she gives up everything she has known and loved, and finds that she’s still alive, and still connected to all she has lost:
We are the clan of women who love their dearests by giving them away. We are the same mother. The metronome of my heart, working to be whoever each person needed me to be – daughter, daughter, mother, mother—now came to center. Absolutely still. My children were not mine. In the same instant I passed my boy on, my mother took me back. As if the difference in our hearts—mine managing to stay whole and hers broken—had separated us. The instant when the earth’s continents, drifted asunder, vast oceans between them, remember they are made of the same stone. Hardened lava, granite. (322)
No One is here Except All of Us is an exquisite, circular tale that takes us back to where we started – where we all start – at birth, where we create the world afresh. It’s full of wonder even in the midst of the most dire tragedies. Beautifully written, full of pain and poetry, this is a book that opens histories most intense and painful moments and shows what survives: love and DNA....more