Bibliophilia (iv) Book Reviews (A Mixed Bag)

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

Bibliophilia (iii) Book Reviews (Random Reads)

I haven’t done a book post for a while and I thought I ought to address that. One, I’ve been reading a bit slower than usual and this time, one book at a time. Two, I do have a book problem, in that I’m addicted to buying books, and I really ought to get on with reading them rather than creating yet another book tower by the bed. Three, the books I did happen to read were not massively enthralling, so I didn’t feel compelled to recommend them.

Perhaps I should review them anyway? The thing is, I don’t feel comfortable giving anything a “negative” review. I only want to review stuff I wholeheartedly recommend. I’ll still read a book I’m not crazy about to the end though in case it livens up midway or has a blinder of an ending. That aside, I’ve had some great bookshop experiences lately.

Last week, in my local secondhand bookshop, I came across Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea. I’ve never read any Sartre and it seems like the kind of writer any reader worth their salt ought to notch on their desk post so I got it (literally only £1.29!). I also found a Vonnegut (£2!), a book of poetry by Margaret Atwood (£3!) and another book of poetry by Carol Ann Duffy (£2!). So it was a good day at the bookshop, people.

Anyway, I’ll stop banging on and let you know about some random reads I ardently recommend…

Blue Ticket by Sophie Mackintosh

This was a painfully beautiful read. So many poetic turns of phrase throughout that made me sigh.  No unnecessary words are used.  Some sentences are three words long.  Images are painted and left hanging.  An air of dystopia pervades the world.  You question which country this could be happening in and you have to fill in the blanks yourself. 

It deals with how women are judged within society for perfectly reasonable choices they make, and also how they are dealt with if they step over the line, drawn by an ill-natured authority. It is not for them to decide what they do with their bodies. There’s quite a parallel with what is currently happening with the anti-Abortion bill they’re trying to pass (and have passed) in certain US states.  It’s not an easy read.  Characters are acutely lonely for different reasons. Emotions are stark and glaring. You are left wondering what you would do in similar circumstances.  Still, I found this a riveting read and – to use an overused phrase – unputdownable.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka

I got this a year ago, and I would have experienced it differently had I read it then. It’s quite poignant to read it with a filter of war waging in the country it talks about.  It’s actually a laugh-out-loud comedy and deals with relatable dysfunctional family scenarios with delightful dry humour, reminding you how “normal” your own family is.

It puts a lens on how family members can be so different and divided despite being blood-related, something I’ve always found fascinating. But also how one’s search for love can lead them to make shocking decisions that disturb the clan status quo, whilst also in some ways bringing it together.  Such as your elderly dad marrying someone less than half his age so she can get a passport and all his money, and he in return gets, well, other favours. A wonderful read when taking a pause between chores or for some coffee break quiet time.  Though at times the humour is dark, and darker still knowing the country it describes is being utterly destroyed as we speak.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

So I finally got round to reading some Vonnegut. And now I get why there’s so much fuss around this one. It’s a very surreal, unexpected premise for a tale. Gritty, unflinching, and at times, darkly ironic, it depicts the casual cruelty and senselessness of war told through the eyes of an accidental time traveller.

The main character has an unusual condition where he often finds himself coming unstuck in time so he is able to experience different moments in his life simultaneously. He is flung hither and yon from one reality to another, the main one being his experience of the deplorable fire bombing of Dresden in 1945, controversial because the war was coming to an end and it was therefore unnecessary (though of course, all war is unnecessary).

In a weird way, I found the whole tale very plausible. I could imagine someone having this condition. The ability to time travel as another level of extra sensory perception. And despite the subject matter, this book is infinitely readable because it’s peppered with such brilliant nuggets of wisdom and moments of candid comedy throughout.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

I’ve read this before but recently I had a strong urge to read it again and it was just as enchanting as I remembered it. Hemingway always takes me a while to get into, but this tale will gently sweep you away. We learn about the strange and beautiful behaviour of fish at sea told through the eyes of an age-old fisherman. We share his lamentation and the ongoing brotherly battle of wills between him and the sea creature he is trying to overcome, as they refuse to give in to each other. Both are at the other’s mercy and beyond help. This story really speaks of the bonding between man and beast. It’s moving and humbling. You’ll probably get a lump in your throat. It may well put you off fishing. It’ll certainly renew your respect for the sea.

I’m now spoilt for choice as to what to read next but it’s a lovely dilemma to have.

What are you reading at the moment?

© N Nazir 2022