Impolitic 3: “It’s not Dinner Party Conversation”

I posted this about two years ago in the lead up to the General Election 2015 that eventually saw Cameron win his second term. It turns out the next election wasn’t so far away after all.

Two years on and I am still mightily disillusioned by the options placed before me, in spite of my determination to take part in the process. Two years on and global political unrest is starting to simmer and bubble; the cauldron of public opinion threatening to overflow. Russia, Korea, France, the USA, to name a few. But perhaps it’s the same as it’s always been and I’m just more attuned to it. Every book I read is suddenly vibrating with political ingenuity. Every article, blog, status and tweet chiming in time with the zeitgeist.

This time around, I enter the fray with renewed vigour and a more mature outlook. But I am still fighting the onslaught of bias everywhere, and the enforced abstinence of politics from polite conversation.

Alphabetty Spaghetty

Dinner Party Battle Edit

(For those who are unfamiliar with my earlier posts: I am 21 and until recently, I made no effort to engage with politics. I recently made the decision to change that.)

The way the media and indeed the parties themselves perpetuate the hype and tit-for-tat style of campaigning, it is difficult to know what and who you are really voting for. It’s so easy to vote for the person rather than the policies, the Figurehead rather than the Party. What’s more, it is not uncommon for someone to align with one party, but fail to relate to that party’s leader.

“I vote for The Whatsit Enthusiasts, but Mr Thing-a-me Bob is a nincompoop.”

Why is it so common for the general public to find themselves backing a leader they think incompetent? Political leanings can flip-flop dramatically when a new Party Leader is elected. And, come the general election, you might…

View original post 688 more words

Advertisement

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.

Vegetables, then Pudding

I have too many books right now. The TBR pile is now a full shelf. A rather large shelf. Ok, more than one large shelf. Fiction, non-fiction, classics, smart thinking, philosophy, science, long, short, new, old, fantastically free, bargain bucketed or painfully purchased. It keeps growing!

So, Continue reading

Book Review: “A Whole Life” by Robert Seethaler

Just filled in an application that asked me to tell them about a favourite book and, having finished said application, I now feel the urgent need to remind everyone about this book!

“A Whole Life” by Robert Seethaler is one of the best things I read last year and it has stayed with me ever since. It’s less than 150 pages long but manages to express the life of one man so entirely and perfectly that you cannot believe how much it touches your heart in so few pages. Seethaler has a beautifully stark style which creates a sense of place, purpose and humanity without the slightest hint of artifice. You can hear the wind blowing through the mountains and feel each deliberate footfall on the landscape. It is almost philosophical. But it never tries to teach you anything, never argues its point. Stoic and warm; penitent and matter-of-fact. A delicately woven tribute to what man can be.

Writing this has made me want to go and read it again! It’s so short that you can read it in a matter of hours. There’s no reason not to take a leap of faith and read it because, even if you decide you didn’t like it (we can argue about that later), you’ve only lost a few hours of your time… but you will love it. Because it is beautiful and life-affirming and humble and I will stop talking now… just go read it.

Alphabetty Spaghetty

The first book recommended to me by the staff at Waterstones:

a-whole-life

A Whole Life

by Robert Seethaler

5-stars

Neither the economy of language nor the physical coldness of the landscape do anything to dampen the warmth of feeling woven throughout this short novel – both bitter and sweet.

There is a frankness and plainness to the words that creates a world without over-filling it. You feel that every word is necessary. It is ungarnished. The infrequent dialogue is made the more potent by its scarcity and blunt truthfulness. You feel as if these are memories hewn by time to their most composite form; memories whose accuracy encompasses all that is needed, all that is most affective. Our guide, Egger, is a man of fortitude and quiet strength. His many trials, though tragic, are without the solipsism of tragedy.

“But each time the rumbling died away and the clear cries of the…

View original post 127 more words

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.

Book Review: “My Name is Lucy Barton” By Elizabeth Strout

“My Name is Lucy Barton” by Elizabeth Strout

lucy barton

 My Name is Lucy Barton is an honest account of family and a true representation of how life and love can be so complicated and yet so simple. Strout’s tone is refreshing and unsentimental, and for me, that is both its strength and its weakness. I struggled to feel invested in what is essentially brief and largely uneventful. Strout’s strength, however, is creating an environment in which empathy is eminently possible.

“Lonely was the first flavour I hast tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, remind me.” p41-2

“I have since been friends with many men and women and they say the same thing: Always that telling detail. What I mean is, this is not just a woman’s story. It’s what happens to a lot of us, if we are lucky enough to hear that detail and pay attention to it.” p28

The charm of this novel is in its little glimpses of human tenderness. Lucy shares those feelings we all have but are often too embarrassed or ashamed to admit. Lucy and her mother do not have an easy relationship. They are real because they are normal and mundane but complicated, like all of us.