Review: “The Tobacconist” by Robert Seethaler

The Tobacconist

By Robert Seethaler

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The Tobacconist is Robert Seethaler’s new release, following his Man Booker Shortlisted novel, A Whole Life (2016) (click here for my review of A Whole Life). I adored A Whole Life and was very eager to get going with Seethaler’s new novel when I got wind of its publication.

Vienna is on the brink of World War II. The city and its people are still recovering from the previous war, but Hitler’s influence is spreading and a restless populace is growing evermore so. Franz Huchel, a naive teenager from the salt mines, has been sent to work as an apprentice in a tobacconist’s. Franz’s employer, Otto Trysnyek, is a veteran, having lost a leg back in the war. He lives a simple and honest life and finds an unexpected ally in his dedicated apprentice. The tobacconist shop is the social equaliser: cigarettes and cigars, newspapers and pinup girls in a private drawer; everyone has their usual order, even a certain Jewish psychologist by the name of Freud.

As “Heil Hilter!” becomes a more regular greeting around the city, the lives of Otto, Franz and Freud grow ever more challenging. By the time his apprenticeship ends, Franz will be a boy no longer. He’ll learn about friendship, love and respect in a city about to be overrun by hate and fear.

“Maybe that’s it, he thought: just stop and stand here like this and never move again. Then time would drift past you, you wouldn’t have to swim with it or struggle against it.”

Now, I’ll be honest, it’s nowhere near as good as A Whole Life. But then I have put that book on something of a pedestal, so I had a lot of expectations going in. Seethaler’s stoic yet emotive description that so captured me before makes sporadic appearances but not nearly enough, in The Tobacconist. However, the characterisation and the plot development are more reminiscent of the writing I remember. Seethaler’s success is in taking everyday people with extraordinary struggles and infusing them with quiet strength. It is the noble example his characters set that I hope will continue to make his novels worth seeking out.

Alphabetty Spaghetty Review for A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

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Review: “The Child that Books Built” by Francis Spufford

The Child That Books Built

By Francis Spufford

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Golden Hill by Francis Spufford is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Possibly even the best. Spufford’s masterful storytelling and delicious, effusive creations captured my imagination in every possible way. Sensuous experience, corporeal characters, and a plot that transports and invigorates its reader; Golden Hill is the kind of book that forces any reviewer into excessively compounded, erudite sentences. This book is awesome.

I’m not even reviewing Golden Hill  and I have fallen into raptures (click here for my review). But to segue, the reason I am now reviewing The Child That Books Built is because of Golden Hill. I couldn’t get enough of Spufford’s voice. I read GH and immediately went in search of more.

To my dismay, Spufford has yet to publish any more fiction. The title I settled upon, therefore, is a biography. I am not, generally speaking, a non-fiction reader and have never read a biography cover-to-cover before. Needless to say my Spufford infatuation has changed that.

This book is precisely what it says on the tin – The Child That Books Built is about how books were his friends and teachers as he grew up. Interspersed with light psychology (which I am partial to), some frank confessions and plenty of books, all in fabulous Spufford style. Entire passages deserve to be read aloud and I did just that. My colleague was much bemused to find me sat alone on the work sofa reading to myself.

“We can remember readings that acted like transformations. There were times when a particular book, like a seed crystal, dropped into our minds when they were exactly ready for it, like a supersaturated solution, and suddenly we changed. Suddenly a thousand crystals of perception of our own formed, the original insight of the story ordering whole arrays of discoveries inside us, into winking accuracy.”

The title of this book, unlike many books, sums up the content admirably. Titles often outright ignore their purpose of being informative, something Spufford discovered to his frustration as he got older:

“If a children’s book was called The Blue Hawk, it would have a hawk that was blue in it … Perfectly straightforward. Adult authors, on the other hand, seemed to be constitutionally incapable of giving a book a truthful name. … The Centaur did not contain a centaur: it turned out to be just some bloody metaphor.”

Spufford’s voice perfectly combines observational humour and gently fluttering revelations, making his experience universally empathetic for book lovers. He recounts and relives his experiences of literature as a child, re-reading his favourites as he writes the book. His enthusiasm is contagious and one could not be blamed for seeking out all the books he rhapsodises throughout – from the magic of Narnia and The Hobbit, to action packed James Bond, to the eloquent sci-fi of Ursula Le Guin, to metafictional Herman Hesse, a lifetime of books. A love story, an addiction that persists and experiences that fuse with one’s very being.

 “It is the directions [books] can point us in that we value – and then the way those interact deep down in our reading minds with the directions our own temperaments are tentatively taking.”

“When a fiction does trip a profound recognition … the reward is more than an inert item of knowledge. The book becomes part of the history of our self-understanding. The stories that mean most to us join the process by which we come to be securely our own.”

This adult was built by books and I hope I am too.

Alphabetty Spaghetty Review of Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

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“Nod” by Adrian Barnes – Book Review

Nod

Adrian Barnes

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“Nod” is a dystopian sci-fi set in Vancouver, Canada.

One morning, Paul wakes from a beautiful dream to learn that no one else slept the night before. And this happened everywhere, all around the world. Apart from a few individuals, no one sleeps from that day on.

Biology continues in every other way and the countdown is on for when the human race can no longer survice without sleep. Paul however, who still sleeps, must be a sober witness to his world going mad. His wife is losing her mind and everything he once held dear is disintergrating. People begin to turn on each other and factions start appearing. New religions and new theories are emerging; the world is a new and terrifying place. Chaos reigns.

But what of people like Paul, who still sleep and dream? And then there are the children who dream and sleep. They have stopped talking and isolated themselves from the chaos. They smile and play and seem to have a world of their own. What will be their future?

Barnes raises many questions in this novel, and with his protagonist being a writer, he is well placed for some existential indulgence. There are some obscure literary references – not quite enough to alienate this particular reader though I suspect others might find it jarring.

“During my time in Nod, I came to believe that if something can be imagined it must be possible. Want proof? We imagined space flight, then it happened for real. We imagined holograms and they happened too… So is a Rice Christian or a Blemmye or a burning ice cube or a green sun or a widowed scarecrow just some meaningless assemblage of sounds and letters? Or, in some way, are they all real? Wow, I’m really babbling here in Babylon, holed up in my tower of words.”

Overall, I found this novel to be a bit disappointing. There is a lot of potential in the ideas expressed but instead of resolving these issues, they are left completely open ended. I’m all for literature making one think more deeply about the world and our fellow humans and I’m not asking for all the answers to be handed to me. But I feel the novel would have benefited from a little more direction if it is to be regarded as a successful story and not just an exploration of ideas.

Review: “The Well of Loneliness” by Radclyffe Hall

The Well of Loneliness

By Radclyffe Hall

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“The Well of Loneliness” is not to be read lightly, for its title does not exaggerate. It is tragic and powerful; it shudders with empathy and spiritual resilience.

First published in 1928, it tells the tale of Miss Stephen Gordon: a woman who identifies as a man, who loves other women and must suffer the condemnation of all for her “abnormality”. Incredibly ahead of its time, as far as public opinion was concerned, it was the subject of an obscenity trial at the time of publication. It was published in the same year as D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando”. Hall was part of an oncoming wave that rose in the years that followed World War I. It was a wave that saw taboos transforming from absolutes into debatable ideas, and – even more importantly – it was a wave that streamed into the public forum. Ideologies, and the courage of those who lived them, were coming to bear against received wisdom.

“As though gaining courage from the terror that is war, many a one who was even as Stephen, had crept out of her hole and come into the daylight, come into the daylight and faced her country: ‘Well, here I am, will you take me or leave me?’”

The scope and breadth of this highly empathetic and emotional work is without compare. It crosses a number of social boundaries. It begins in the well-to-do grounds of Morton, the home of Stephen’s father, Sir Philip Gordon. We then travel with Stephen to the front lines of the First World War, where she becomes an ambulance driver. Then, the war over, back to Paris, where Stephen mixes with the greats and the groundlings of society’s so-called “inverts”. Having made a name for herself as an author, she is privy to a very exclusive circle. Stephen meets many prominent men and women of cultured society, including writers, poets and artists whose characters often have real life counterparts. From a young child to a middle aged woman, Stephen’s life is a landscape and a broad reel of life, love and loss.

Stephen’s life has many ups and downs, but it cannot be denied that tragedy has the final word. Radclyffe Hall – christened Marguerite – is quite clearly writing from personal experience and Stephen Gordon is modelled on herself. Existential turmoil and fear of and anger against public opinion battle vehemently with pride and courage.

“She would clench her hands in a kind of fury. How long was this persecution to continue? How long would God sit still and endure this insult offered to His creation? How long tolerate the preposterous statement that inversion was not part of nature? For since it existed what else could it be? All things that existed were a part of nature?”

Courage does not win very much in this novel; it is a thoroughly depressing read. But it is so wholly courageous and forward thinking when hope does make its sporadic appearances.

“We’re all part of nature. Some day the world will recognize this, but meanwhile there’s plenty of work that’s waiting. For the sake of all the others who are like you but less strong and less gifted perhaps, many of them, it’s up to you to have the courage to make good.”

The most readable sections of the novel are those set in the grounds of Morton with the young Stephen. Pastoral descriptions are full of English pride and a liberating sense of natural freedom. Stephen is at her most free when she gallops across green hills and fields with her faithful horse Raftery.

“The gardens lay placidly under the snow, in no way perturbed or disconcerted. Only one inmate of theirs felt anxious, and that was the ancient and wide-boughed cedar, for the weight of the snow made an ache in its branches … But it could not cry out or shake off its torment.”

These early episodes make wholesome use of natural metaphors that are infinitely more successful than the later episodes contained within inner-city Paris. The gay bars that Stephen and her partner Mary frequent later in the novel are dirty and degrading and Stephen is appalled that she must be forced to mix with the people for whom life has “at last stamped under; who, despised of the world, must despise themselves beyond all hope, it seemed, of salvation.” They are described as “haunted”, “tawdry” and “shabby” and it is sections like these that betray a hint of classist bias.

Maureen Duffy, in her introduction to the novel, expresses it thus: “The Well certainly has its shortcomings both as a work of literature and as an apologia for a homosexual way of life and love; nevertheless, for decades these have been outweighed for many readers by the novel’s mere existence in telling them that they were not alone, and by the courage of its author in both writing and defending it.”

“I am one of those who God marked on the forehead. Like Cain, I am marked and blemished. If you come to me, Mary, the world will abhor you, will persecute you, will call you unclean. Our love may be faithful even unto death and beyond – yet the world will call it unclean. We may harm no living creature by our love, we may grow more perfect in understanding and in charity because of our loving, but all this will not save you from the scourge of a world that will turn away its eyes from your noblest actions, finding only corruption and vileness in you. … And when you come to me for protection, I shall say: ‘I cannot protect you, Mary, the world has deprived me of my right to protect; I am utterly helpless, I can only love you.’”

The F Word & The F Word

“I’m sorry, which one?”

It is a strange thing that modern vernacular now has two possible answers to this question: Feminism or Fuck.

“The F word” is a phrase born of censorship. Keep the nasty words out of the earshot of innocent minds and out of polite conversation. The notion of contracting a word to its first initial and a series of asterisks as a means of hiding it’s meaning, is itself a ridiculous notion. We all know what it means. Children know what it means. That cannot be avoided. The word is still there, you’re fooling no one with your asterisks.

But censorship is its own debate. What is relevant here is that another word is apparently now worthy of being censored to the same level as “Fuck”. And that word is “Feminism”.

How has that happened? How has Feminism become a nasty word to be half-hidden and whispered in conversation for fear of reproach? Feminism is being treated like a dirty word and that is unacceptable. I know that I have personally felt like I need to mumble it under my breath with a tone of apology, to ward off anyone who might roll their eyes and lean back in their chairs wishing they hadn’t started the conversation. People are afraid of arousing debate. And, really, why is that? Why are people scared of talking about important issues, as though it is going to ruin their evening? “I just wanted to have a quiet drink in the pub. I wasn’t looking for an intellectual debate at this time of night!”

Political debate does not equal argument. Sharing opposing ideas can be a passionate experience, yes. But passion, when exhibited by generally reasonable persons, should not lead to negative results. Especially, a word like Feminism – a word that means equality for everyone, everywhere. There is too much misunderstood about this word, but in the words of Caitlin Moran, Feminism is: “Not all the penises being burned in a Penis Bonfire. Just women being equal to men.” And everyone else in between.

So don’t be afraid of this F word. Don’t mumble it under your breath, but say it proudly, with the appropriate decibel level. Of course if you want to go shouting it from the rooftops, then be my guest. You won’t be arrested for public indecency or disturbing the peace, because Feminism is NOT a dirty word. Feminism is a fucking beautiful word.

 

(Quote from Caitlin Moran found here: http://www.esquire.co.uk/culture/advice/a9641/things-men-dont-know-about-women-caitlin-moran/)

Book Review: “A Whole Life” by Robert Seethaler

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

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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 jackdaws could be heard again.”

He limps through life as best he can, and his quiet, persistent trudging is honourable and life-affirming. An unstudied lesson in philosophy; gently shown, not taught. We are blown through his snowy valley as quiet observers. In Egger’s solitude, we are not made to feel like intruders, but rather to join with the quiet breath of the mountains that are his constant companions. And for our silent companionship, his unimposing wisdom is our gift.

“A Whole Life,” in less than 150 pages. As you read, the sense of empathy settles quietly within, without your noticing and Egger, though often a stranger within his own story, is not a stranger to you for long.

 

Alphabetty Spaghetty Review of The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler

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Job Success -The Cover Letter Resolution

As I wile away the time between being an Almost-Adult and being a Finished Adult – perish the thought – I have gotten myself a part-time job in a bookshop. It’s not a life time goal, but a facilitator for the many I hold. For, like it or not, money makes this giant sphere rotate around an off-vertical axis. Or something more catchy than that. So, I’ve got a job at a bookshop, which is already infinitely better than counting money in a department store. Books are my thing.

As some of you may recall from previous posts, the process of filling out job applications and writing covering statements is a task I much lament. I therefore took a bit of a different tack with my cover letter on this occasion and, evidently, it worked…


 

To Whom It May Concern,

To be blunt, I really want to work in [Big-Brand Bookshop]. I’m looking for a part-time position with flexible hours, and I’m happy to work weekends, and a position in your shop would be perfect for me.

I’ve been a book lover ever since I can remember. I remember the first book I ever read; it was called Look, and on each page was one word, “Look.” It was my first book, what do you want from me? I remember the first time I read a whole book in one day. It was Fantastic Mr Fox, by Roald Dahl – that’s a big achievement when you are seven years old. I remember my older sister reading Mr Men books to me when I couldn’t sleep. I remember racing against my sister to finish the latest Harry Potter. I remember staying up all night, because I couldn’t put down The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. I remember the sense of discovery I felt when Continue reading

Don’t Talk on The Tube!

It is an unwritten, or more precisely, an unspoken rule, known instinctively to all Londoners.

As paramount to survival in the great metropolis as never waiting for the lights to change at a zebra crossing. As infamous as the knowledge that you are never more than 300ft from a Pret A Manger. As dependable as the unsmiling face of the barista who serves you your morning coffee.

You don’t talk on the Tube.

The London Underground is a peculiar environment, the commuter’s sanatorium. Suits and Backpackers metonymically mingle here, on the great equaliser of Public Transport.

The chaos of the station platform billows through the sliding doors and is hushed.

London delights in its ambivalence, its ambiguity, its contradiction. The chaos and the hush.

I am not a native Londoner, but I go in and out of the city enough to know how it works. I obey the rules. I stand on the right of the escalator, and when someone stands on the left when I’m in a rush, I tell them where to go. But one day, when a friendly Northerner sat down next to me and struck up a conversation, I couldn’t give him the cold shoulder. He needed someone to explain the rules to him, someone to bring him into the fold.

Northern Guy: “So, where you going today?”No Talking

Me: “On my way home.”

Northern Guy: “Ah ok. So is it always like this? People don’t talk to each other in London?”

Me: “No mate, people don’t talk on the Tube.”

Northern Guy: “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m from Leeds, ya see.”

Me: “It’s fine, you weren’t to know.”

Silence.

Of course I did this without making eye contact with him. That’s a rule I’m not willing to compromise on.

There is only one instance in which discussion is acceptable: transport delays. The horror of your train screeching to a halt, then the tell-tale crackle of the speakers…

The echoing muffle of the train attendant through the overhead speakers – incomprehensible to the average human – will drag the quietest of carriages into audible grumbles. This is the signal to look up from your LCD screen or paperback book, emit a murmured curse and make eye contact with another disgruntled commuter.

This announcement is permission, nay, an invitation to make acquaintance with your fellow travellers, through mutual exasperation. Because, although we all abide by the Unspoken Rule, the truth is, many of us wish we could be like the Northern Guy. We wish we could make friends with the people we are sardined in with. But Heaven forfend anyone who causes a delay.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must get to his meeting on time. If Jane Austen’s Mr Darcy were to run up to the closing doors of a Bakerloo Line train at Piccadilly Circus, he would definitely be one of those arrogant wankers who uses their briefcase to keep the doors from closing. And our modern-day Lizzie, already sat demurely in the carriage, would be righteously pointing out his solipsism to her giggling companion, as they shuttled towards Charing Cross.

Of course this is only fiction.

People don’t giggle on the Tube.

What Do Your Books Say About You?

This morning, I got to do something I haven’t been able to do in a long time. I woke up on my day off, turned on the light, picked up a book from my bedside table and read. The luxury of simply reading for the love of reading is one I have struggled to find time for since university.

What do your books say about you? (I don’t mean behind you back.) The books currently sat on my bedside table could tell you a lot about me.Bookshelf


The Unknown Unknown, Mark Forsyth

Where did I get it? Received this in the post, adorned with a post-it, which read, “Thought you might enjoy reading this. Granny x” After receiving said delightful little package, I rang my Gran. She said it reminded her of my blog, the way I ramble, tangents veering off.

The tagline reads: “Bookshops and the delight of not getting what you wanted.” Do you know what a good bookshop is? Forsyth does. I haven’t been in a good bookshop since I was in New York and my wonderful aunt took me to a little treasure trove, where I discovered Verlyn Klinkenborg.

While I would happily tell you more about this little beautie, I’m concerned I might ruin the joy of an “unknown unknown.” It took less than an hour to read, and made me laugh out loud several times. Clever and witty without trying to be. Delightful in its purposelessness.

Bookmark: A page torn from my notepad at work. It is the beginnings of a short story I started writing during that last useless hour of a work day. Between half 4 and half 5, when no one really does anything but wait for the day to end. The Twilight Hour.

I have since continued writing the story on the computer at work – typing gives the impression of doing something productive – and I’m hoping to extend this into a collection of short stories. Might post a snippet on here at some point.


Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes

Where did I get it? Waterstones, Oxford.

This is one of the classics that follows you around. One of those epic, brick-like monstronsities that act as an adequate book-end until you work up the courage to dig in. Our friend Forsyth puts it thus in The Unknown Uknown:

“Tolstoy, Stendhal and Cervantes, these men follow me around. They stand in dark corners and eye me disapprovingly from beneath supercilious eyebrows. And all because I’ve never got round to reading their blasted, thousand-page, three-ton, five-generation, state-of-a-nation thingummywhatsits.

I’m taking on this monster. About 6 months in and I’m half way through. The adventures of the deluded knight, Don Quixote and his hapless copanion, Sancho Panza. It makes one giggle in a “Droll, Cervantes, very droll” kind of way. But there’s also the odd Dick Joke, which is nice.

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

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 find yourself voting for who you want to be PM as opposed to what party you want in charge.

Policies begin to take a backseat. Likeability and public presence become overriding selling points. It’s a popularity contest no one can ever truly win. We are often faced with men and women who have been coached on how to present themselves. But people are not stupid. I for one am very wary of people who try to market themselves at me – not to me, but at me. Though they were all guilty of it, the worst offender during the Leaders Debate was Ed Miliband. Miliband would periodically assume a practised posture: shifting his stance and looking directly down the camera, he would deliver what was clearly a prewritten speech, in measured, mannerly tones. Anyone I have spoken to about this has agreed with me. His attempts to stare down the camera and engage personally with his constituents was emphatically transparent and as such, ineffectual.

The Leaders Debate, while interesting, did little to help me reach a decision. As a first-time voter, I am striving to approach the election without bias or preconceptions and consider the policies for their merit, but feel inundated by bias on all sides. Whenever the P word comes up, Passion runs high, often with Prejudice not far behind.

“Politics and Religion are not Dinner Party Conversation.”

– I was told this not two days ago, after proudly sharing with the guests that I had watched the entirety of the Leaders Debate.

If talk of politics either leads to damaging statements born from preconception, or courtesy leads others to abstain from the conversation altogether, how am I supposed to gain an informed understanding of politics? How can young people find a credible, unbiased source of information that will not lead by the collar, but guide by the hand?

Answer:

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