I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover but how can you not? The cover says so much about it. Every so often, publishers will revamp a book with a new cover. Apparently, the least favourite book covers, or those with the lower end of sales, all happen to have a purple or purplish book cover. Fancy that? I wonder why?
I’m one of those finnicky readers that gets put off by certain types of font. I’m not a Times New Roman fan. I love the elegant Papyrus font. Just certain fonts put me off reading. I don’t know why. Anyone else a font freak?
Despite psychology, I buy a book regardless of blurb or review or cover or font. Sometimes, I’ll get it because I have a hunch it’s good. I’ll have opened it at random and a particular paragraph gripped me immediately and I’ll think, okay, you’re coming home with me. Though I prefer to buy used books.
These past few weeks I finally managed to read the books I’d borrowed from the library instead of renewing them for the umpteenth time. Plus a select few from my book tower. I’m still part-way through a few. But here are the ones worth talking about…
Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre
I had mixed feelings at first. It started off promisingly enough, but Sartre meanders so much it takes the reader a while to figure out where he’s going. The thing is, he doesn’t know where he’s going because he’s questioning everything at any given moment. The existence of his hand on the table, the loneliness of night-time, the whole point of being. We are privy to the fact that he is slowly losing his mind, or feels as if he is, and is confiding this with us. No doubt we could name this condition now, bi-polar disorder perhaps, or a type of depression, but it is clear that he’s undergoing an emotional crisis as he persistently questions the very point of why he is here and cannot find one.
The story continues in a present tense vein, chaotic and angsty, and I can’t help but wonder if Sartre himself was channelling his own feelings through the main character. Given that this was the last thing he wrote before his death, it’s possible. It was a rough draft that was found in one of his desk drawers and was published posthumously, so it may well be more of a personal journal. You can tell it needs rewriting. Still, though it feels largely unresolved, it contains a raw vibrancy that rough drafts often do, with some lovely turns of phrase throughout, making it very readable.
The Fine Art of Invisible Detection by Robert Goddard
I’m not crazy about Goddard as it seems he writes more to quicken the pace of a story than to make his words enchanting. Still, he is a master of plot and this novel is an ideal example of this. I do like the fact that the main protagonist is a Japanese woman in her late forties, a plain Jane if you will, which works to her advantage when she finds herself quite unexpectedly drawn into the world of espionage, enabling her to go about her business in an unassuming way because no one ever suspects her.
For years, she has worked as a secretary for a well-known underground private detective in Tokyo, cases so top secret even she has no clue what they’re about or the reason behind the errands she is asked to run, but after her boss’s sudden mysterious death, she is faced with having to step into his shoes. After spending her life blending into the background, it turns out this is the perfect quality for a private detective. However, she does find herself entangled in one sticky situation after another, with only her wits to go by. The plot twists keep you guessing and do make up for the fact that the quality of writing is not, shall we say, electric.
The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf
First of all, Wolf is such a talented writer. If anyone’s got the right words to nail a point, she does. Here she deals with what she terms “the Beauty Myth” – the idea that women must somehow conform to an impossible-to-achieve idea of beauty in order to be seen or heard, in any context of society, especially if they wish to be successful in the same ways as men, and especially as they age.
She dissects this myth and lays it bare, this persistent dilemma that women face around the world: the pressure to be beautiful in order not to become invisible. She also discusses how beauty and sexuality can co-exist but are also separate things, and how the meaning of true beauty has been thwarted as a result.
I really can’t put it as succinctly as Wolf as she is so good at explaining the whys and wherefores of how this myth began and also how as women, we can dismantle it, and collectively begin to redefine what real beauty is. She correctly defines it as something women of all walks of life embody, in all periods of their life, who embrace their evolution as an ageing woman, the beautiful journey of it, and who come to discover that power and beauty does not diminish with age but grows. She points out that it is this fearlessness that a patriarchal society is actually afraid of as it would disempower those who perpetuate the myth and thereby unseat the myth-makers – positions of power often filled by men.
More of a long essay than a book, I found it such an empowering read and I highly recommend it for both men and women, to recognise the beauty myth at work and to interrupt it, to encourage self-acceptance and gain more valued perspective.
A Primer for Poets & Readers of Poetry by Gregory Orr
This book is wonderful. Brimming with incredibly useful explanations, tips, theories and poetry exercises to assist the budding poet on their journey, it is a deeply enjoyable read. I consumed it slowly in a drip-feed kind of way over the past year as it’s quite cerebral (for me, anyway) and there’s so much to take in. Orr gives us a full in-depth view to all the various components that go into writing a poem, the many styles we can employ and how they’ve changed over the years. He covers the meaning of rhythm and meter, to the power of saying and naming things with words, and exercises to better engage the imagination when writing. What’s more, we are given a wonderful array of poems to work with, from Whitman to Yeats, Dickinson to Neruda, Roethke to Baudelaire, that Orr uses as examples to illustrate his point or when offering us a juicy writing exercise to play with.
The part I found most fascinating was where he talked about writing from what he refers to as our personal “threshold,” i.e. the place within ourselves where we’re at our most honest and vulnerable, our chaotic unresolved self, where we are called to dig deep and access the well where we hurt and feel and love the most. From this place, he says, we write our very best poetry.
I loved this book. I will be dipping into it again and again, I’m sure. As a handbook for writing better poems, I recommend it wholeheartedly.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
I’m not sure where to begin with this one as it is such an epic, densely populated with characters and twisting storylines. But it’s Gaiman, so it’s easy to read, if that makes sense, in terms of writing, not so much subject matter, which always veers towards the dark side. We follow the path of the main character, Shadow, whose story is the most interesting and mysterious. I had such a soft spot for him, this big friendly giant of a man whose intelligence and abilities are always underestimated, and who finds himself in tricky situations more often than he’d like. After his release from prison, he bumbles along from one crazy scenario to the next, under the instruction of an enigmatic older man who takes him under his wing and is a god in disguise, though he’s not altogether to be trusted.
The whole tale is very filmic as it leads towards a climactic ending and is littered throughout with various gods of old from all cultures popping in and out of scenes, as well as new gods now worshipped that are growing in power. I found it very reminiscent of Stephen King in that there is an undertone of menace as you read along, where you’re waiting for the bad thing to happen and sometimes it happens very quickly and other times you’re led along a winding path toward it and it’s unpredictable when it happens. Then there’s a twist and sometimes it doesn’t happen at all and you’re suddenly in someone else’s dreamscape and there’s a whole other parallel narrative going on.
It’s unsettling from the off, but there are moments of surreal beauty. Gaiman’s imagination works in startling and surprising ways. He wants the good guy to win but understands that doesn’t always happen yet there is a kind of justice to it all even though there isn’t entirely an explanation for parts that don’t make sense. If you enjoy this one, you’ll be pleased to hear there are sequels (Monarch of the Glen and Black Dog).
I think I’ve said enough for now. Have you read any of these? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts 🙂
And what, pray tell, are you reading at the moment?
© N Nazir 2022