Review: “Hot Milk” by Deborah Levy

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Hot Milk

By Deborah Levy

(Man Booker Shortlist 2016)

 

“’Sofia is a waitress, for the time being,’ my father said in Greek.
I am other things, too.
I have a first-class degree and a master’s.
I am pulsating with shifting sexualities.
I am sex on tanned legs in suede platform sandals.
I am urban and educated and currently godless.”

hot milk

25-year-old Sofia is an anthropologist working in an artisan café. Her mother Rose has been suffering with unidentifiable leg problems for many years, and Sofia has become her carer. Theirs is a tense relationship. Both Sofia and Rose have just arrived on the Spanish coast to see an expensive doctor.

In the Spanish sunshine, on a jellyfish infested beach, Sofia is stung in more ways than one. The novel is incredibly sensual: The tang of sweat on a body, the sting of a jellyfish on the skin. Desire is tangible; an excuse to be a wilful and a reason to surrender.

“The Kiss. We don’t talk about it but it’s there in the coconut ice cream we are making together. It’s there in the space between us as Ingrid scrapes the seeds from a vanilla pod with her penknife. It’s lurking in the long eyelids and the egg yolks and cream and it’s written in blue silken thread with the needle that is Ingrid’s mind.”

The language is mesmerizing. The imagery Levy uses is unusual and enigmatic, as are her characters.

Everyone we encounter is an enigma. As an anthropologist, Sofia cannot help but be fascinated by them. Her subtle observation of others demystifies and beatifies these people, while respecting that full understanding is not always possible or necessary. It is also in this way that Sofia reaches revelations of her own.

“Your boundaries are made from sand, Sofia”


Title: Hot Milk
Author: Deborah Levy
ISBN: 9780241968031
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Click to buy.

Book Review: “House of Names” by Colm Toibin

House of Names

By Colm Tόibίn

house of names

I received an ARC of this title from NetGalley and Viking.

First things first: how do you say his name? I looked it up: CULL-um Toe-BEAN.

Tόibίn has been around for a good while and written several notable titles, including Man Booker Shortlisted titles and a film adaptation of Brooklyn in 2015. But I have yet to sample his work. Thankfully, I have now broken that trend, with his newest release: House of Names.

King Agamemnon makes a horrific choice: the day she was to be married, Agamemnon has his daughter sacrificed. It is brutal and shocking. It is the will of the Gods. It is only this act that will bring him favour in the Trojan War. Or so he believes. This brutal act leaves a legacy of grief and treachery for his wife, Clytemnestra and they’re surviving children, Orestes and Electra.

As a student and lover of the classics, I found it fascinating. House of Names is based on Greek myths that I am not particularly familiar with, so I don’t know how true it is to historical sources, but given Tόibίn’s calibre, I think we can safely assume that a fair amount of research went into it. Something I really appreciated and enjoyed while reading this novel, was the considered effort to create an ancient – and therefore timeless – narrative. The writing style reminded me of that which we find in existing ancient texts, such as Livy.

It is a style that shuns embellishment and uses very little description. Yes, landscapes have their dimensions and facets – be they open fields or cold stone prison cells. And yes, characters have their thoughts and actions – be they private and murderous or steadfast and brave. But Tόibίn finds more than that unnecessary. The result is an action driven narrative, governed by its restrained descriptive style. My imagination thrived on this starvation of description, and when I think back to some of the action scenes in the book, vivid images instantly appear inside my mind.

While this is a story driven by soul-consuming emotion, Tόibίn’s decision to heavily restrain his character’s voices compresses and represses these violent emotions, emulating the experience of his characters. Unfortunately, while I found the style overall to be effective, it was the restraint that prevented me from truly connecting with the characters. I felt removed from them. Therefore, even when a first person narrative was being used, I could only observe and not empathise with them.

Perhaps that was intentional on the part of Tόibίn; a decision made as part of his endeavour to recall this ancient myth of murder, betrayal and power.


Book Title: House of Names

Author: Colm Toibin

ISBN: 9780241257685 (HB)

Buy it here.


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Quicky Book Review: “Alice in Brexitland” by Lucien Young

Alice in Brexitland

by Leavis Carroll (aka Lucien Young)

 

alice in brexitland

(I received an ARC from NetGalley, in return for an honest review.)

A clever little satire that sums up Brexit in witty and not too pessimistic terms.

As a young voter, still developing a political opinion, there is a lot to be confused and frustrated by in this political climate. Reading a satirical take on Brexit just before bed could have been a really bad idea. It could’ve thrown me into a funk of existential, millennial depression. But thankfully, Young’s clever little satire is the perfect amount of cynicism and optimism. Often satire errs very hard on the side of pessimism, but I am grateful to Mr Young for avoiding that pitfall… or rabbit-hole. It succeeds in being entertaining and not just another series of clever traps and ruses designed to confuse or to lull you into a fall sense of security – as others are wont to do…

The illustrations are apt and really add to the entertainment value, giving a feel for the original Lewis Carroll. The playful use of verse was also very Carrollian, and by bookending the story with his poems, the piece feels rounded and satisfying. Thanks to the eponymous Alice, trademark bluntness and plain-faced frustration is a refreshing change in Brexitland. In the absence of sanity and honesty, it isn’t harsh attack that is needed but plain speaking and legitimate indignation. (I know how Alice feels!) Carroll’s Alice is just the ticket, and Young has done well to remind us that it doesn’t all have to be doom and gloom. You can read it in the hour before bedtime, and happily doze into your own wonderland.

Sharp-tongued but also sympathetic, I found Alice in Brexitland to be a highly enjoyable read. I hope Young is planning to write another for the approach of this snap election in June, so that he might continue to be the balm for this particular citizen of the world.

Nonetheless we can resist:
Though the liars tweet and twist
Light still penetrates the mist

(P101)

alice in brexitland cards

Title: Alice in Brexitland

Author: Lucien Young

ISBN: 9781785036965

Buy it here

Book Review: “The Cairo Pulse” by B.B. Kindred

The Cairo Pulse

by B.B. Kindred

I received a reading copy from NetGalley and Troubador Publishing Ltd in exchange for an honest review.

“Throughout recorded history there’d been both religions and individuals who believed that all human experience existed in a cosmic reservoir that could potentially be accessed; the Buddhists with their Akashic Records, Carl Jung and the Collective Unconscious, Rupert Sheldrake’s Morphic Resonance.”

I am fascinated by this concept.

Haven’t we all experienced those flashes of lucidity that arrive-depart with lightning speed and infinite grace? I know I have. Fleeting moments that put the world on pause for a few nanoseconds. Everything is still and perfect and knowable. There is something more, something open and natural. A whole galaxy floats before you with its beauty and magnitude. A sense of sublime perspective. And then it’s gone.

“Nothing was lost on me, not the pitching waves or rustling grass, the pine and salty air, the caramel sand that nuzzled my feet, the skin pleasing breeze, the mingling scents of my following companions. Everything was delicious and captivating, no ripples of dislocation or question. A head untenanted by thought and memory, filled with only knowing.”

What if we learnt to reach that state and harness its potential? What might become of us, then?

The earth emits electromagnetic energy. This is a scientific fact. Humans are conductors of electricity and our brains emit electromagnetic waves. These too are facts. It does not seem to me so entirely far-fetched that our brains might one day be able to harness that energy. That we will become attuned to the natural electromagnetism of this universe. What precisely would come from such an evolution is up for debate and B.B. Kindred’s characters are exploring just that.

This is not a new idea; many grasp at this same notion. Blockbuster films like The Matrix and Lucy grew from the same place as B.B. Kindred. Both films are really quite weird, objectively. (And their endings suck, subjectively.)

Often the problem with this kind of exploration is maintaining a coherent story while also successfully conveying a wildly abstract theory. This novel isn’t exactly a sci-fi, but that’s probably where you’d find it in a bookshop. (N.B. It’s currently only available as an eBook, so don’t actually go looking!) It reminds me of titles like Nod by Adrian Barnes and Eleanor by Jason Gurley – both of which I read last year and both of which defy easy genre classification. They are playing with huge ideas, possibilities and ways of thinking and being. It is easy for the ideas to take over the story. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s better to know that going in. In regards to The Cairo Pulse, it’s success as a story is mixed. The best moments in the novel are those that venture into cosmic experience and the comedown that follows. Wonderment hit down by normality, the flippancy and self-awareness of it all.

 “I woke feeling irritated by the sharpness of my thoughts”

Similar Titles:

Nod by Adrian Barnes

The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

Eleanor by Jason Gurley

Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre

Smoke by Dan Vyleta

Title: The Cairo Pulse

Author: B.B. Kindred

ISBN: 9781788031974

Only available as eBook.

Buy it here.

Book Review: “On Tyranny” by Timothy Snyder

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

by Timothy Snyder

on tyranny

A short book deserves a short review.

Concise, punchy and imperative, this world of ours needs people who think, write and do as Timothy Snyder does. This book should be required reading for anyone who believes in democracy. But in particular, it is an urgent message for the young and apathetic voters of not just this country, but every country. Despite its focus on Trump’s America, this is a message for all. It is a call to action and a pointed reminder that oppression and tyranny is a cornerstone of our global history. We need not look far to find it. It is closer to us than we realise, ensconced in our “safe” democracy. Do not take choice for granted. Do not take your voice for granted. Do not take your right to vote for granted.

Register to vote now.


Title: On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

Author: Timothy Snyder

ISBN: 9781847924889

Publisher: Bodley Head, Penguin Random House

Buy it here.

Book Review: “A Rising Man” by Abir Mukherjee

A Rising Man

by Abir Mukherjee

rising man

Calcutta, 1919. The rule of the British is starting to crumble. Dissenters both violent and peaceful are rallying but the Imperial Police Force and the Lieutenant-Governor are having none of it. Tighter restrictions are being placed upon the native Indians, the Bengalis are becoming “too smart for their own good” and political dissension is now fuelled with passion and education – a dangerous mix (p380). Captain Sam Wyndham, a veteran of the Great War has just arrived in the humid, febrile city, when a Burra Sahib is found with his throat cut. Believed to be the work of terrorists, Wyndham is put in charge of the investigation, but finds himself haplessly ignorant of the local customs. At the mercy of bureaucracy and corruption, Wyndham finds hypocrisy everywhere and before long, Wyndham finds himself being lead down the primrose path.

This is the first instalment of what Mukherjee hopes to be an enduring series, featuring Captain Wyndham and Sergeant “Surrender-Not” Banerjee. I received a proof of the second instalment (“A Necessary Evil”) and gave it away to a colleague before reading “A Rising Man”. I will now be hurrying said colleague to finish it so I can take it back and add it to my TBR pile! I will happily consume another of Mukherjee’s thrillers.

While I am not generally a big reader of crime/thrillers, I have recently developed a penchant for the historical variety (“Ashes of London” by Andrew Taylor). This subgenre offers much in the way of world-building and is a delicious way to swallow nuggets of history. Mukherjee’s novel succeeds on both counts. The city is vibrant, smelly and sticky. And I mean that in a good way. The political landscape is a work in progress. With this first novel of the series, Mukherjee paints with a broad brush. Outlines of buildings, systems of government and caste are successfully scattered throughout the narrative in order to provide backdrop, but little detail is gone into. I hope very much the politics of Imperial India will develop as further publications are released.

The narrative itself moves with great pace and makes for an incredibly readable book.  The characters, again, are a work in progress. But, what is clear is that there is respect for the nuances of character-building and Mukherjee does not rush the process unnecessarily. Our Captain is not without flaws, and while I occasionally cringed at his somewhat outdated phrasing with respect to women in particular, I can certainly respect the efforts made to create a man and not simply a character.

All in all, a good solid beginning to a new historical series that I will happily continue to read.

Book Review: “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles

A Gentleman in Moscow

By Amor Towles

gentleman in moscow

A book that soothes and warms you with its infectious geniality. A book filled with optimism, verve, self-belief and, incongruous though it seems, Communism. A gorgeous story, whose luxury comes not from the fine dining, orchestral music and room service of the best hotel in Moscow, but from its generosity of spirit.

Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is a gentleman in every sense of the word: not just thanks his to family name, but to his undying optimism and good humour. He is a gentleman in the age of Bolshevism, he is a “Former Person,” he is a prisoner of the state. Once accustomed to all the finer things in life, a gentleman of distinction and leisure, he is now under house arrest till the end of his days. The Hotel Metropol must now become his world.

But there are worse places to be put under house arrest than the most glamorous hotel in Russia. And besides, one can never predict who might stroll through the elegant revolving doors and change your life forever: a forthright girl, a brooding poet, an elegant movie star, an American ambassador, a prissy hotel manager, a one-eyed cat, a cantankerous chicken…

Despite Rostov’s confinement, the story does not feel the slightest bit confined. Where better to accommodate important committees on commerce and industry than the grand halls of the Metropol, while a curious girl and a Count can quietly observe? Outside the hotel, queues of people line the streets to get a new pair of shoes, and city monuments are brought down to make way for something more utilitarian. We peer into the Kremlin offices and travel out to rural farms; we hear stories of a rich man’s past and a loving husband’s broken home.

A world of experience, sprawling outwards and curling back inwards; a spiralling map that leads back to the Hotel Metropol and the ever charismatic Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, “the luckiest man in all of Russia” (p313).

 “Our lives are steered by uncertainties, many of which are disruptive or even daunting; but that if we persevere and remain generous of heart, we may be granted a moment of supreme lucidity – a moment in which all that has happened to us suddenly comes into focus as a necessary course of events, even as we find ourselves on the threshold of a bold new life that we had been meant to lead all along.” (p441-2)

“The Count had restricted himself to two succinct pieces of parental advice. The first was that if one did not master one’s circumstances, one was bound to be mastered by them; and the second was Montaigne’s maxim that the surest sign of wisdom is constant cheerfulness.” (p417)

(I really tried to delete one of these quotes for the sake of brevity, but I just couldn’t.)


ISBN: 9780091944247

Publisher: Cornerstone

Title: A Gentleman in Moscow

Author: Amor Towles

Book Title: “Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde”

Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

By Robert Louis Stevenson

jekyll and hyde

Thanks to over a century of interpretation, the story of Jekyll and Hyde has been retold over and over. Thanks to TV, film and generations of school teachers, this classic novella is part of our national and, indeed, global culture. Everyone knows the basics: a scientist, Dr Jekyll, creates a formula to separate his evil qualities from himself. But rather than purging his evil, he gives it a face and a body to call its own. As a result, Jekyll periodically transforms into his evil doppelganger, Mr Hyde. As Hyde gains more and more control over Jekyll, terrible consequences follow.

“Street after street, and all the folks asleep – street after street, all lighted up as if for a procession and all as empty as a  church – till at least I got into that state of mind when a man listens and listens and beings to long for the sight of a policeman.” p.3

It is a classic for a reason: it keeps you turning the pages, it makes your heart beat faster. It makes you want to ask the questions you’re not sure you want answered. The gothic atmosphere is timeless and potently imagined. Seen through the eyes of Mr Utterson, Jekyll’s friend and solicitor, much is kept from us and more still is never truly revealed. We only catch glimpses through closing doors and hear footsteps down dark alleys. The rest is up to us.

Born of Gothic Romanticism, Stevenson’s novella focuses on themes of morality and human folly. Cloaked in the shadowy alleyways of Victorian London, deliciously grimy and decadent, Jekyll has embarked on a dangerous game. Despite the warnings of his fellows, he is wont to delve further into the mysterious existence of morality than is wise, upsetting the delicate coexistence of the soul and the human body.

I have read and studied a fair amount of Gothic literature, but “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” never featured on the reading list, so I have only just got around to reading it. I wish I had read it before, because it compounds huge amounts of that era’s nuances into such a small space: doppelgangers, shadows, mad scientists, tragedy, morality, suspense, murder, mysticism – all in fewer than 100 pages. Understanding the ideas and devices that define Gothic Romanticism is in no way necessary to read and enjoy this novella, but if you do have some understanding and have yet to read it, I would heartily recommend it.

ISBN: 9780141389509

Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd

Title: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Author: Robert Louis Stevenson

 

 

Book Review: “Reunion” by Fred Uhlman

“Reunion” by Fred Uhlman

reunion

In the afterword to this novel, Rachel Seiffert’s phrase puts it perfectly: “His restraint is formidable”. Sometimes the most difficult thing for a writer to achieve is restraint, the tendency to embellish being too difficult to resist. Uhlman’s narrative is stripped back, leaving only what is essential. I found reading this very short novel to be an unusual challenge, simply because of its brevity. I had to deliberately slow my reading, so as not to skim past something important. It is imperative you pay attention to every word, or you’ll miss something delicate and urgent.

This book is about friendship, the essence of what it is to find another person with whom you can share, with whom you feel natural. And the fragile state of adolescence, on the brink of adulthood, but still so much the child.

“Just as I took it for granted that it was dulce et decorum pro Germania mori, so I would have agreed that to die pro amico was dulce et decorum too. Between the ages of sixteen and eighteen boys sometimes combine a naïve innocence, a radiant purity of body and mind, with a passionate urge to absolute and selfless devotion. The phase usually only lasts a short time, but because of its intensity and uniqueness it remains one of life’s most precious experiences.” p13

This is the state in which we join two sixteen-year-old boys. Full of potential, minds to be readily moulded… or taken advantage of.

A thin, at times imperceptible veil floats above Hans and Konradin’s friendship. Konradin’s parents shake hands with Hitler in a photo. Herr Pompetzski delivers a lesson on the “dark powers” at work everywhere. A schoolboy tells Hans to “go back to Palestine”.

This book can be read in a matter of hours. Remarkably swift, delicate and poetic, Uhlman’s style reminds me an equally short novel: A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler. It is, like Ulhman, Seethaler’s ability to hold back that makes the narrative so powerful. They refuse to dress up a story that can and will speak for itself, with its humble words and noble human intention.

Book Review: “A Little History of Philosophy” by Nigel Warburton

“A Little History of Philosophy” by Nigel Warburton

little history philosophy

ISBN: 9780300187793

Does what it says on the tin. From Socrates through to Alan Turing and Peter Singer, bitesize chapters relate the history of philosophy from its birth to present day. You couldn’t call it a full history, since it focuses primarily on Western philosophy. Nevertheless, it is a lovely introduction to philosophy for students or for anyone with an interest in the subject. These philosophical episodes also coalesce with pivotal moments of political and scientific change: Rousseau in the French Revolution, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Karl Marx theorising Communism, Alan Turing cracking the Enigma code. Joining the philosophical dots through history helps to paint a picture of humanity and continued attempts to improve ourselves.

The tone of the chapters evolves as you read. Warburton is almost flippant and comedic at the start, when discussing Socrates. But this may well be a reflection of the ancient historical accounts we have access to. The erosion of time has made them into characters, rather than people. You cannot help but find Pyrrho to be an amusing character. Pyrrho was an early sceptic who believed we can know absolutely nothing. Our physical senses were likely to mislead us, so he therefore ignored them entirely.

“So, whereas most people would take the sight of a cliff edge with a sheer drop as strong evidence that it would be very foolish to keep walking forward, Pyrrho didn’t … Even the feeling of his toes curling over the cliff edge, or the senstation of tipping forward, wouldn’t have convinced him he was about to fall to the rocks below. It wasn’t even obvious to him that falling on to the rocks would be so bad for his health. How could he be absolutely sure of that?” p17

As the book moves further toward the present, the tone becomes more sincere and the questions more relevant for a modern reader. Will computers be able to achieve consciousness, for example? Is abortion moral? Reading this book is like studying a unit called “Introduction to Philosophy,”  with lectures from a university professor (which of course they are). Studying Socrates and Pyrrho give you a flavour of philosophical thought, but their insights are unlikely to impact on modern day life. Warburton fulfils his role as teacher by introducing an increasingly provocative style that encourages the reader, or student, to explore and question.