Reviews Update

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Just a quick update to say that I’ve been incredibly busy lately with University work and that’s why there haven’t been any reviews (or anything else!) Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about this blog – I’m just putting it on hold for a month or so. See you guys soon!

The Winter’s Tale Review: A Shakespearean Oddity

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This year I’ve decided to challenge myself to read a new book every week – and write about it a little bit here. I hope to touch on a variety of books – old and new, long and short, fiction and non-fiction – and maybe discover some new favourites. Week 15… A Winter’s Tale (1623) by William Shakespeare.

What to make of A Winter’s Tale? It’s quite far from being up there with Shakespeare’s classics – Hamlet and pals – but in some respects it’s just as interesting. Mainly because of its structure. The first three acts serve as a miniature tragedy, with the final two being more overtly comedic. This works both for the play and against it.

The first half of the play focuses on Leontes, the King of Sicilia, who fears that his wife Hermione is having an affair with Polixenes, the King of Bohemia. He becomes delusional in his attempts to prove this – ignoring the words of the Gods and putting his wife on trial. The second half, taking place sixteen years later, is more focused on the budding romance between Leontes’ daughter, Perdita, and Polinexes’ son, Florizel. This probably sounds awfully strange if you haven’t read the play, right? Both parts are connected, but, in many ways, feel as though they’re written by different authors. It’s almost as if Shakespeare was incredibly indecisive about what he wanted this play to be. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll discuss the play’s tragic and comedic sides separately.

Tragedy: it’s arguably what Shakespeare does best. With such works as King Lear and Macbeth, A Winter’s Tale can’t help but feel a little weak in comparison. As the tragedy is squeezed into three acts, it feels pretty basic and underdeveloped. Leontes, for example, isn’t a very compelling character. His tragic flaw – insecurity – doesn’t make him that likable or interesting. Not that a tragic hero has to be likable, but at the very least he needs to be relatable. Leontes is not. He single-handedly tears his family apart – killing his wife and son and banishing his daughter – despite being given several warnings. The only opinion that matters to Leontes is his own. It is only when he’s destroyed his personal world that he learns the error of his ways.

The age-old theme of loyalty plays an important role in A Winter’s Tale’s first half. Leontes fears that his wife – and his men – are acting disloyal and conspiring against him. In maintaining this view, ironically, he acts disloyal to Hermione – failing to place trust in his wife during a time when it’s most important that he does. He ignores every sign pointing to her innocence – going as far as to denounce the God Apollo to maintain his ignorance. The only person that Leontes is loyal to is himself. When characters betray him it is not out of disloyalty, but for the greater good. Camillo, for example, disobeys him in order to preserve his own life as well as that of another king. The reason Leontes is eventually punished is for putting himself before everyone else.

Leontes’ redemption is something the play skips over. This is probably a good thing – I’m not sure I’d enjoy sixteen years of watching him act pleasant. In many ways the second half of the play is a mirror to the first half. In the first half Leontes has everyone dear to him taken away due to his selfish actions. In the second half Leontes regains his wife and daughter for his good behaviour. It’s the first half played in reverse (though that may be simplifying it a little bit). If tragedy is the story of how someone loses everything through their actions, then comedy is the story of how they gain through them.

The comedy-vibe of the play’s second half is heralded in by the famous stage direction that concludes the third act; ‘Exit, pursued by bear.’ Whether Shakespeare intended for this line to be as comedic as it is, I don’t know. The pure bizarreness of it – it literally comes out of nowhere – makes it impossible for me to read it any other way. The fourth act in particular is heavily comedic and farcical. Almost everyone is wearing a disguise, a central romance is introduced, there’s a clown, many songs are sung and there’s a healthy amount of sexual references. It’s far from the dark, serious tone of the play’s first three acts. It’s as if the first half was developed for a cultured audience and the second for a more lowbrow one. More than any of his other plays, The Winter’s Tale seems to demonstrate Shakespeare’s versatility. It’s a great showcase for his range as a playwright.

Despite its many positive factors, I’m not completely convinced that The Winter’s Tale really works. The comedic second half, in many ways, doesn’t serve as a fitting conclusion to the dramatic opening. In a tragic context the deus ex machine ending – in which a statue of Hermione turns to life – feels like a bit of a cheat. I enjoyed every minute of reading this play (heck, I read twice over in a couple of days) but it’s hard to ignore its flaws. The Winter’s Tale may not be top-tier Shakespeare but it’s definitely worth experiencing.

(7/10)

H is for Hawk Review: H is for ‘How Good is this Book?’

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This year I’ve decided to challenge myself to read a new book every week – and write about it a little bit here. I hope to touch on a variety of books – old and new, long and short, fiction and non-fiction – and maybe discover some new favourites. Week 14… H is for Hawk (2014) by Helen Macdonald.

This is a book that I’ve wanted to read for a while (I could tell it was my sort of thing from just looking at the cover) and it very much lived up to my expectations. If you’re a fan of nature writing – or memoir-style creative non-fiction – then this one is right up your alley too. Helen Macdonald offers us a personal insight into her life as she decides to buy and train a goshawk – notoriously one of the most difficult hawks to tame – after her father passes away. It’s honest, emotionally raw and incredibly hard to put down.

I went into this book knowing little to nothing about falconry. I didn’t know anything beyond, well, that it involved birds hunting things. This book is very accessible though, as Macdonald, through the lens of her hawk-obsessed childhood, tells us everything we need to know. And like most creative non-fiction books it’s brilliant in how it acts informative while still being incredibly entertaining. Facts and necessary information are folded into the central story effortlessly, never slowing down the pace.

It also helps that the author is very good at weaving together beautiful prose. Given their centrality to the book, she has to describe hawks a lot, and coming up with fresh descriptions each time probably isn’t an easy task. You’d assume there are only so many ways you can describe a goshawk, but this book would prove you wrong. The way she conveys her thoughts and feelings is also very honest and very human. A good example of this is when a jogger startles Mabel – Macdonald’s hawk – when she takes her outside for the first time. Macdonald spews aggressive thoughts about this stranger that, while we can see them as a slight overreactions, seem completely real and genuine. They are the sort of thoughts that many of us are ashamed to admit we have, making Macdonald’s pure honesty both a compelling and refreshing aspect of H is for Hawk.

She tells us in detail about her reaction to her father’s death, relates a significant visit to the doctor and tells us of her many anxieties about raising a hawk. The level of intimacy this book holds is rivalled only by a personal diary. Macdonald’s ability to relate her feelings like this is an achievement in itself, but even more remarkably she achieves a similar effect with another person. The author T.H. White in many ways serves as the book’s second protagonist and Macdonald is absolutely brilliant at tapping into the feelings of this man she’s never met. Parallel to her own experiences raising a hawk, she retells the plot of White’s own book on hawking, The Goshawk, while adding important background to its events through his letters and personal writing. It wasn’t something I expected, but ended up being one of my favourite aspects of the book. The story of T.H. White is a moving and tragic one that manages to heighten the quality of Macdonald’s own narrative through the parallels she draws.

Unfortunately there’s one aspect of this book that holds it back slightly; the structure, specifically in ‘Part II’. It’s an issue that I’ve found to be common with these sorts of non-fiction books – I felt similarly about Jenny Diski’s brilliant Stranger on a Train – they lose steam halfway through and have a difficult time pulling together a satisfying ending. This is due to them being true stories; real life isn’t as clean in a narrative sense as fiction is. Training Mabel – paralleled with White’s training – forms a strong narrative thread through the first half of the book, but things become more disjointed later on. This isn’t something I can completely blame on Macdonald – in fact she does a very good job of tying things together as well as she can – but it left me slightly unfulfilled. Some emotional stakes are set up that never really get resolved and that’s a shame… But these factors don’t stop the book from being as strong as it is.

You don’t need to have the slightest interest in hawks – or birds in general – to enjoy this book. It’s as much about humans as it is about anything else. If you just want something that’s fantastically written then H is for Hawk is definitely worth picking up.

(8/10)

Wurthering Heights Review: A Hate-Hate Relationship

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[Note: From now on I’m dumping the ‘things I liked’ and ‘things I didn’t like’ structure of these reviews as I found it restrictive as well as a little too basic. There are also some large spoilers for Wuthering Heights in this review.]

This year I’ve decided to challenge myself to read a new book every week – and write about it a little bit here. I hope to touch on a variety of books – old and new, long and short, fiction and non-fiction – and maybe discover some new favourites. Week 13… Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Brontë.

I’m not quite sure how I feel about Wuthering Heights. It’s a novel that’s populated with some of the nastiest characters I’ve encountered in literature, with there only being a couple who are remotely likeable. Because of this there’s hardly anybody to root for. But these unlikable characters are also what make the novel so brilliant. The central love affair between Heathcliff and Elizabeth isn’t romantic like the one between Jane and Rochester in Jane Eyre – written by Emily Brontë’s sister – it’s selfish and destructive. It’s a relationship that’s filled with hate as well as love, having a poisonous influence on everybody who comes into contact with it.

While Mr Lockwood and Nelly are ‘technically’ the story’s protagonists, they are little more than observers. Given their positions in relation to Wuthering Heights, outsider and servant, there is no room for them to have any influence on the story. And that’s why they make perfect narrators. To have Heathcliff or Catherine as the narrator would take some of the mystery out of the novel and add too much explanation to their actions. Heathcliff in particular is the novel’s most fascinating character; he’s riddled with ambiguities and contradictions. His race is ambiguous, being described as dark-skinned early on and pale much later. His attitude towards Catherine is both loving and abusive. He acts both gentlemanly and animalistic. And we never do learn how he earns his large fortune or where he came from in the first place. Heathcliff is impossible to work out as a character – and that’s what makes him so great.

The novel belongs to Heathcliff – he is the sun that all the other characters orbit. It is telling that the novel begins just before his arrival at Wuthering Heights and concludes shortly after his death. However I would also argue that many of the characters that ‘orbit’ Heathcliff are much less interesting than him. Hindley just seems to wander through chapters, mad, drunk and threatening to kill children and Isabella never really becomes that compelling of a character. But Catherine is perhaps the worst. While Heathcliff’s complexities make his unlikableness tolerable, Catherine is just plain unlikeable. Her self-centredness becomes absolutely unbearable throughout the novel, making her eventual death more of a blessing than a tragedy. The way Brontë frames her illness, as well as how Nelly acts, suggests that it is something we should care about; but Catherine makes this impossible. As a result I felt conflicted about actually wanting to continue with the story. While some characters interested me deeply, others made me want to put the book down and go read something else.

If the novel had ended with Catherine’s death, I would’ve been disappointed. In many ways it is the second generation of characters that make the novel a classic for me. Like Catherine and Isabella, these characters are caught in the orbit of Heathcliff’s world and need to escape, even if they aren’t aware of it, to survive. Before knowing Wuthering Heights even exists, Cathy is drawn to where it resides. Heathcliff has an almost invisible influence, even pulling Isabella’s son back to him. The consequence of Cathy and Linton not escaping from Heathcliff’s world is having to repeat the mistakes of their parents. Heathcliff attempts to form his son into the same abusive person he is, demonstrating to his son how he should act towards Cathy through his own violence to her. Linton’s illness is the only thing that stops Heathcliff’s plan from come to fruition. Cathy is able to differentiate herself from her mother, acting with kindness instead of cruelty and helping Hareton with his literacy instead of teasing him about it. By their intended marriage they stop history from repeating itself.

I’m very split on Wuthering Heights. It’s a well-written and thematically rich novel, but was not a pleasant reading experience at all. There’s a lot that I dislike about this novel and a lot that I admire. It’s something that, on one hand, I’d love to read again to try and get everything out of it, but, on the other hand, would be happy never to touch again. At least I can now understand why it’s a classic.

(7/10)

 

Pica Pica

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She sits among the leaves, surveying the land below her. The creature’s head jitters about, finding it impossible to focus on one spot for too long. Her feathers are predominately black and white; the former ruling her back, the latter her stomach. I have somewhere to be but decide that somewhere can perhaps wait a little while. I take off my satchel and settle down on one of benches. This magpie has my attention.

Although I refer to her as a she, I have no idea what gender she really is. I’m a shameless amateur when it comes to birds. To call her ‘it’ would make more sense, but it would also make her seem less alive. She lets out a rattling cry. Given that her Latin name is Pica Pica, you’d expect it to be a sweet and gentle sound. Her Czech name instead is a much more accurate representation of her call; Straka.

To me, magpies are synonymous with childhood. The amount I saw on my way to school would foretell what sort of day I’d have. As the old rhyme goes; ‘one for sorrow, two for joy’. Back then they could tell the future – now they are simply links to the past. As I outgrew Santa Claus, I outgrew the magpie. I stopped looking at them with wonder and began to see them as simply part of the scenery. Decorations; like baubles on a Christmas tree.

She swoops down, flaunting her impressive wings. The feathers on them spread out like a spilled deck of cards. Landing, she begins to hop around – as if playing hot potato with her own body. It’s almost as if she’s trying to imitate the giants around her, curious as to how they work. If only she knew how to hold a mobile phone – she’d fit in perfectly.

Magpies have long been known for their curiosity, stealing whatever shiny trinket crosses their path. The magpie in front of me clearly sees something worth investigating in us, just like I see something worth investigating in her. It’s a quality that links us. Apart from the yapping seagulls she seems to be the only animal present in this part of the city. She almost feels like one of us; even being granted a human name, ‘Mag’. But every relatable quality in her seems to be matched by one that distances her; a beak, a pair of wings, a life among the clouds. Though she sits close by, there is an immeasurable chasm between us; one that can never be crossed.

John Berger sums up my feelings towards magpies perfectly; speculating that the reason animals fascinate humans is because ‘they are both like and unlike’ us (1980, p.2). Though I can relate to her curiosity, I can only theorise what she sees with those blackcurrant eyes of hers. She possesses something – a certain wildness – that I lost long ago. She’s a reminder of how distant I’ve become from nature – of how much time I spend bunged up in four-walled rooms staring at screens. Looking at her almost makes me feel like a child again.

Contrary to popular belief, magpies aren’t just black and white. Depending on the lighting they can also be blue, purple, green and bronze. How can you know an animal when it’s able to hide its true colours from you so effortlessly? The magpie does this in more ways than one. As I watch her, the end of that childhood rhyme plays in my head; ‘Seven is a secret never to be told.’ It would be wrong to assume the magpie is as innocent as it appears to be.

In S. Stillman Berry’s article, Magpies versus Livestock, he records a series of curious encounters between a party of American black-billed magpies and a herd of sheep. Being recently sheared, the sheep were littered with shaving cuts – which the starved magpies took the opportunity to pick at. They would increase the size of the wounds, picking away at and eating the flesh of the sheep. Berry notes that ‘the kidneys are particularly favored tidbits, and the birds were quick to learn the location of these organs in the animal’s body’ (1922, p.15). I imagine the magpies flocking to their banquet – acting as a feathery blanket for the creature, tucking it in for that eternal slumber.

Events like this haven’t been recorded with European magpies,  but they still shine a new light on the prophetic bird I once greeted on my way to school each morning. Though our magpies aren’t as ambitious in killing as their American cousins, they have attained an infamous status through raiding the nests of songbirds. Thrushes, robins, chaffinches, blackbirds, skylarks… All have had their nests ransacked and their young taken by starving magpies. But to condemn them for this behaviour would be silly. The amount of songbirds they kill each year is generally insignificant; especially when compared to those killed by cats. While these felines murder songbirds for the fun of it, magpies do it to survive.

She takes flight and I feel inclined to follow. Walking along the pavement I look around for my pied friend and begin to fear that I’ve lost her. I eventually find her perched on a railing, looking towards me as if this is some sort of game. I approach her, scribbling in my notebook as I walk. I just want to capture that something about her – birdwatchers refer to it as the jizz – that look in her eye. I want to put her into words.

As I’ve grown so has my perception of the magpie. It’s no longer just the whimsical bird I knew as a child, but also a killer. While this might turn some people off, it makes the species even more captivating to me. I want to see all of this bird’s sides, I want to know each and every one of her secrets. I jot down some observations and, upon looking back up, realise that she’s gone.

I wander around a little longer, hoping that I’ll find her again; hoping that she’s simply waiting around the next corner. If she is, I don’t find the right corner. I look down at my notes and become amused by how illegible some of them are. Finding a way to put the magpie into words will always elude me – just like the creature itself.

Reading Challenge Week 12: Red Dragon (1981) by Thomas Harris

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This year I’ve decided to challenge myself to read a new book every week – and write about it a little bit here. I hope to touch on a variety of books – old and new, long and short, fiction and non-fiction – and maybe discover some new favourites. Week 12… Red Dragon by Thomas Harris.

Synopsis: Will Graham is pulled back into the world of the FBI some years after retiring when a ruthless serial killer rears his head. Will must hunt down ‘The Tooth Fairy’ before he strikes again and murders another family.

What I Liked: Given how much I’m in love with Hannibal the TV series, I’m surprised that it took me this long to read a Thomas Harris book. This is a solid crime novel with a great story. Harris does a great job of fleshing out the different characters; from the troubled Will Graham to the always-taunting Hannibal Lecter. Dolarhyde stands out as the most fascinating character, though. It’s really nice to see the story from the killer’s perspective as well for a change. There’s a strange lack of Lecter in this novel, but I don’t think he needed to be around anymore than he is. He remains a curious enigma in the background. The pacing is great and there’s a few nice twists that kept me on my feet. The novel definitely succeeds in telling a good story.

What I Didn’t Like: Harris’s language is a little too basic for my taste at times and the sentences he uses to start chapters are usually very awkward. I know this genre isn’t known for flowery language but a bit would be nice. In terms of plot (SPOILER) the only part I wasn’t sold on was the fake-out ending. Jack’s explanation for Dolarhyde’s return felt so far-fetched that I’m not sure if I’d have preferred them to just leave it out.

Conclusion: Of course this book is good. It’s thrilling, fast-paced and filled with characters that are hard to forget.

8/10

Reading Challenge Week 11: Big Machine (2009) by Victor LaValle

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This year I’ve decided to challenge myself to read a new book every week – and write about it a little bit here. I hope to touch on a variety of books – old and new, long and short, fiction and non-fiction – and maybe discover some new favourites. Week 11… Big Machine by Victor LaValle.

Synopsis: Ricky Rice, a former heroin addict, gets a chance to turn his life around when he receives a train ticket in the post. He’s invited to Vermont to become part of a group of paranormal investigators, searching newspapers for unusual activity. Trying to find evidence for what might be the voice of God.

What I Liked: There’s some really great stuff here. I was totally hooked for the first 100-150 pages as the mystery of the novel slowly unravelled. Ricky’s history, growing up in a religious cult, ended up being the strongest part of the novel and contained some of the best fiction I’ve read this year. Completely original and completely engrossing. I also love how, unlike most authors, LaValle keeps his chapters short and punchy.

What I Didn’t Like: But, but, but… The novel has one glaring issue; it tries to do too much. It tries to tackle too many topics and, as a result, many of them are underserved. Religious cults, drug addictions, neglecting parents, infertility, angels and demons, supernatural organisations, terrorism, prostitution… Too much. The main supernatural plot starts off well, but LaValle decides to introduce too many new elements too late in. When I was halfway through the novel I knew there was no way that he was going to be able wrap things up in a satisfying manner. Some parts just ended up being rushed and others not really explained at all. In addition to this, the first 100 pages or so are spent introducing a cast of characters and then all of a sudden they’re just dropped. It feels like a waste. I just get the sense that there’s more than one novel in here – two, maybe three. If LaValle had left out the supernatural stuff and focused on Ricky’s backstory – which takes up close to half of the novel anyway – he would’ve had a fantastic book. Sadly the whole thing is too messy to live up to its potential.

Conclusion: Big Machine is a novel worth reading, but its poor structure and lack of focus hold it back considerably.

6/10