East of Eden – John Steinbeck

Owens River Valley
So take a left at the T junction, go straight past Eden and then take the third exit at the roundabout. Then you’re East of Eden.

Steinbeck said that ‘everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this’ novel, and he was certainly correct in saying that East of Eden was the literary finale compared to all his previous works.

At a hefty 602 pages, it may seem daunting at first, but unlike many of other long novels (like Tess of the D’Urbervilles), the content deserves to sprawls across hundreds of pages. In fact, sprawl seems to the wrong word. Each word seems to be carefully chosen, like Steinbeck was a gardener picking only the best fruit that the English language could offer. It is remarkable to think how Steinbeck could even begin to plan a novel of this magnitude; in no places does it, like an under-baked pie, sag under the need to get to the next exciting event. All of the plot is gripping and thought-provoking, and the meanings span across so many levels. Although I may indeed regret saying this, (the old adage being careful what you wish for!), it seems that in spite of its length, this novel would be a joy to study as there is just so much to unpack.

The first thing to comment on is obviously the book’s namesake, East of Eden, referring to how the plot loosely links to the story of Adam and Eve and ultimately Cain and Abel. Adam is both Adam from the Book of Genesis and Abel; Charles is Cain. This makes sense because if Cyrus, their father, is God, then Cyrus’ rejection of Charles’ pocketknife and adoration of Abel’s stray puppy mirror wonderfully God’s praise for the lamb and hatred for the crops offered by Cain. Following this cruel dismissal from God, Cain famously kills Abel, and so Charles beats Adam almost to death, before running off to get a hatchet to finish Adam before he eventually escapes. Again Cain becomes marked by God to prevent others from killing him, and so Charles becomes scarred when working in his fields. Lastly Cain didn’t have any descendants whilst Adam did, which can be a direct parallel to the lives of Charles and Adam. The interesting thing about the way Steinbeck did this was that it was never glaring obvious that the two stories paralleled each other, nor was the next chapter ever predicatable, whilst still holding true to the Bible original.

Furthermore Adam and Cathy can be interpreted as Adam and Eve from the Bible. When considering the original sin, it can traced entirely back to Eve, as she was responsible for all the acts of wrongdoing in Eden due to the loss of the pair’s innocence. In this way, Cathy can be regarded as a solely evil character because of all the ‘monstrous’ manipulation, lying, cheating and murder she carried out in her lifetime. Scholars believe her to be a representation of a debased form of Eve, as she seduces men at every opportunity for her own means; for example, from framing her parents’ death without remorse, to using the whoremaster to engineer a better circumstance to herself, to her betrayal of Adam and ultimately her own kin. The list of the other devious happenings she organised goes on, but essentially it’s clear that Cathy is undeniably a gruesome and perhaps hyperbolic version of Eve in the context of the Book of Genesis.

The important thing to remember when reading East of Eden, too, is that it’s not necessarily meant to be realistic. The narrator even mentions that Cathy has a ‘deformity’ within her soul, meaning that she is crueler and harsher than an average person. Cathy is an exaggeration of humanity’s worst qualities and yet she is still somewhat plausible, in a twisted sort of way. It’s worth mentioning this just because many critics at the time of the novel’s publication argued that the characters were unruly and unimaginable, making this not such a fantastic read after all, but then again these same critics did believe a certain man to walk on water, and so these contradictions in what is plausible and what isn’t make their arguments rather hypocritical.

All in all, although I was initially quite unenthusiastic about taking the plunge into East of Eden, when I did I was amazed by the vivid characters and plot that lay before me. So come join me! The water’s lovely…

Alderman’s style is The Power to success

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The reason why The Power by Naomi Alderman is such an influential book in the media right now is because of the excitement is has generated, mainly in women. This is because books of this nature have never been written before, and if they have been written then it hasn’t been written with such skill and have been confined to the whimsical areas of Young Adult fiction. Admittedly there might be a seed of an original idea somewhere within the text, but it’s overpowered with dramatic yet uneventful scenes of badly written romance.

The interesting thing about the success of The Power is that it is almost an oxymoronic parallel to The Handmaiden’s Tale, that obviously has recently been in the mainstream media’s attention with the new TV series that just come out and all the press and interviews which  following that release. It strikes me though, that these narratives are capturing people’s attention at the same time because they are the inverse of each other and yet are starting very similar conversations.

Clearly one of attractions of The Power for many readers is the idea that they can induce lightening. It’s exciting in the same way that when you read Harry Potter you first adore it, and then hope that you will receive a letter announcing your place there. Unlike the Harry Potter series though, it’s the feeling that anyone, of any age, has the potential to ignite the Power within themselves, whereas with the Potter saga once you’re past having an 11 year old’s mentality, your hopes of becoming a wizard fade too. Also, it’s the near-plausibility of something like the awaking of the lightening within you which creates an even more vivid story. One doesn’t have to have a particularly active imagination to see something like this feasibly taking place with genetic modification being so visit pervasive in our lives: only one yield of crops could go ‘wrong’ and a whole chain of mass DNA altering could be set off. Yes, it’s never been proven before in biology, but that’s because humans are changing things globally at such a phenomenal rate that there isn’t time to stop and do long-term effects research. All this comes into effect as sowing the idea into people, giving them hope that maybe they have something like a skein inside them, that can be awoken in 5, 10, 25 years and change the status quo forever.

The Power offers an unusual approach to crime. Firstly, in most books a murder, burglary, or act of fraud will act as the centre piece of the book. The book might even be a murder mystery or called “The Grand Heist of George Ned” or something like that. Here, crime actually serves as a catalyst in the plot, instead of as a show-piece, which is strange and yet refreshing. Allie kills her adoptive father early on in the book: the rest of the novel isn’t about her internal demons (although perhaps that might’ve been interesting and accurate to feature, as killing someone would have a psychological effect on you even if you did despise them). Instead of dwelling for chapters on the murder, it’s treated as a necessary event but not a predominant one. Most writers feel like a mugging in their novel needs a thesis from each of characters about it before they can move on, which means that crime is rarely used as an effective tool in literature (except in detective/ mafia style stories) and that is why The Power is so interesting.

One of the crucial literary-based things Alderman has done is that she has made the characters – if not relatable – then at least understandable and has given us a way for the reader to be sympathetic with them. The scene where Roxy kills a man in his pool, in normal society, would be seen as horrific and shocking. But the reader can understand why Roxy feels like she needs to kill the man, and many wouldn’t feel like his death was inappropriate or uncalled for, whereas in a real-life context no-one would necessarily condone that same murder. (Don’t write in a say that readers feel sympathetic to Roxy because they know it’s not a real life situation. Obviously, they subconsciously know this, but if your heart has ever raced whilst reading a book, then you should know words can trick you into thinking they’re reality.) An example of this is that you don’t view Allie or Roxy as murderers. You don’t think to yourself as Roxy speaks, you are a serial-killer, because even though it’s accurate, that language is reserved for people in society who are portrayed as violent, distasteful and unlawful. All very interesting stuff.

As for the characters, Alderman employed the classic multiple point of view. It was used skilfully, and one could notice the various speaking styles the characters had, without it appearing too overbearing or obvious. Often writers read in books or on blog-posts that you need to have clear voices that distinguish each character, and whilst this is true, the result is often unnatural with each character speaking in wildly different stereotypical dialects. In this respect -given that many before her have tried and failed with multiple POVs- she strikes a great balance between differentiating the characters and having read the prose seem natural and not like it fabricated from behind a desk or a computer screen.

One of the essential components of this book was seeing the characters, particularly Roxy and Ali, grow up. All bestselling books or series will tend to share this component of age within their work because, for the most part, the readers will tend to be of an older age and it’s a classic tool which creates more engagement. This engagement is created when the reader, even if they’re not a criminal, sees Allie turning up at the convent with no friends. They remember their first experiences at school. Or when they get into a fight with their parents, or there’s trouble going on at home, and this doesn’t have to be as dramatic as having your own brother rip an organ from you but that sense of betrayal and disappointment can be the same. Yet as the characters grow more mature they come across different situations- which they wouldn’t if The Power was set when they were in their 20s across a 3-day-peroid. You wouldn’t be able to witness the creation of the NorthStar camps, the riots in the Middle East and the creation of Bessapara. Roxy wouldn’t be able to be both the clueless yet eager teenager and the dominating dealer that she was. Yet all these moments evoke priceless emotion in the reader, so not only are they able to relate to them in some way to each part of their lives, but they’re able to see the characters mature and develop to enrich the narrative.

In books giving advice about writing, they often say that the readers want more than anything to see development in a character. In the Hunger Games, seeing Katniss go from a selfish, hard girl to a steely and emotionless to a romantic and sly one is fascinating. Yet in real life this is hardly the case. When people tell you in high school that the bullies are jealous and will grow out of throwing food at you and spreading rumours, it’s true that whilst the methods will evolve, the motivation will remain the same. Whilst ordinarily this character transformation is implausible, the way Alderman artfully went from each time-frame meant that each quirk of each character could be exposed, and that a believable and subtle change over time could be seen.

Now for the characters themselves; there was diversity within the characters, which is important to me but not necessarily for all the reasons in which diversity is important for most people. So often in modern literature you do find this eagerness to over-compensate for the lack of diversity in the past, and I have spoken about this topic at length in my other posts. To this extent, I find that The Power has the perfect balance. The character Tunde is one of these, as he does add new perspective, being male, which is crucial for multiple reasons. It’s important because although it’s a female-centric novel, the impact of The Power is on everyone, so to be able to explore how a man feels not only adds variety but is vital to give the reader the full experience of the revolution that the world is going through.

I recently went to a screening of Journey’s End and I asked the producer afterwards if they were worried about what people would say about the lack of diversity in the film. I have studied WW1 to a great extent and I understand the context that the film has, but many people won’t, and it could potentially cause some backlash because in society at the moment people feel so passionately about this topic. He replied that the board had considered including multiple ethnicities, but ultimately felt like it wouldn’t be true to reality. This is a line that I completely support, because I was genuinely curious and (unlike my friends’ firm beliefs) didn’t ask simply to make the producer feel uncomfortable.

To that extent, I’m glad that Alderman wasn’t trying to address all the problems in society in her novel. She focused very clearly on the female role within modern society, allowing that theme to take precedence instead of including lots of random characters and rogue traits which you often feel like are only included in books so that they can win some obscure prize based on the issue on the character has. The Power is  revolutionary because it asks what if women did have more power, what if the tables had turned and they represented more than angry feminists and people who couldn’t vote just over 100 years ago. Alderman’s not trying on top of that to address alcoholic parents, abusive relationships and mental disorders.

This book should be on a pedestal for all others for the fact alone that Alderman took one problem, turned it on it’s head, and made a best seller. You don’t have to include the entire LGBT+ community and organic vegetables to create a conversation.

Overall, though, the success of The Power is cannot be attributed to the great writing, the vivid use of crime, the development of characters nor the sustained focus on the original problem if one does not consider the timing. Now clearly this book has been in the making for years; yet the timing of its release could not have been better planned. Why? With the recent Hollywood scandals and the whole #metoo campaign, the conversation about women in society has been generated again and this means that The Power is going to be read by people who have this topic already on their mind by simply scrolling through their tweeter feed, meaning that they’re much more likely to be perceptive to the ideas that Alderman is grappling.

 

A review of To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

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Paul O’Rourke is a dentist who believes that flossing is pointless. He lives in New York, owning his business without having an office. He likes watching baseball. Until someone creates a website for his company, creating false bios about himself and even starting up a Twitter account in Paul’s name.

Whilst Paul meanders the implications of the religious messages spread as though from him, his relationship with others in his workplace unfold- ex-girlfriend receptionist, maternal hygienist and blank-faced assistant. As Paul flounders in the face of relating to other people, his lack of a personal life becomes entrenched as his dedication to dentistry fills in the gaps in his life. Paul denies himself the internet and is an interesting 21st century specimen (I feel like this word is appropriate), who articulates the fears that everybody has lodged deep within themselves, but aren’t willing enough to confront. One of the reasons why this is notable, is because it means that the person who has stolen his identity can operate for a vast length of time before Paul even identifies any issue.

I was already at one remove before the Internet came along. I need another remove? Now I have to spend the time that I’m not doing the thing they’re doing reading about them doing it? Streaming the clips of them doing it, commenting on how lucky they are to be doing all those things, liking and digging and bookmarking and posting and tweeting all those things, and feeling more disconnected than ever? Where does this idea of greater connection come from?

It’s true though. Why in society today do we genuinely need more connection? How is my life made any better by knowing that Charlotte did 500 squats in the gym? If tt make me feel inadequate,  I should abandon Facebook, and if it does not invoke a response at all, what’s the point in engaging in the first place?

Paul has a fascinating take on religion. He admires churches and synagogues and rituals, although being an atheist himself. The saddest thing about the rejection of religious practice to him, is not the lack of a guiding figure or book to lodge his thoughts in, but instead the vocabulary. Faith, charity, hope. These are ingrained in religions and it is these words he desires the most in life.

This is no surprise as Paul is an inherently lonely person; it is a winding novel and there is a plot, but it is padded with flashbacks and stuffy bits of information about the protagonist. One of these things are his relationships; he has no friends for certain, but his two girlfriends were heavily imbedded in religious communities and it was these things he was truly attracted to: the sense of belonging, of a wider place in society. Subconsciously, he saw that these girlfriends were his ticket to spot, to becoming enveloped in the Jewish/ Christian way of life. Now, two breakups later, religion is back in his life again as Ulmist messages are being spread across the web; not that he even know what an Ulm is.

The novel takes us on a journey of self-recognition and of realisation of others around you, as well as a reflection of life (and death) itself. This is more of a thought-provoking piece than anything else and although there is notable humour, the selling-point for me is the examination of Paul. He isn’t real. But his portrayal invites the reader to examine their own selves to identify flaws and to try to improve them. What better type of writing can there be?

 

This is my favourite quote from the entirety of the novel:

She no longer lived in a world of speculation or recall and would take nothing on faith when the facts were but a few clicks away. It drove me nuts. I was sick to death of having as my dinner companions Wikipedia, About.com, IMDb, the Zagat guide, Time out New York, a hundred Tumblrs, the New York Times, and People magazine. Was there not some strange forgotten pleasure in reveling in our ignorance? Would we just be wrong?

June Book of the Month- Grief is the thing with feathers-Max Porter

Crows

A pocket-sized explosion of character and immense profundity.

Porter create separate strands of perspective using multiple points of view, which help form a precise map of emotion concerning the aftermath of a women’s death. It weaves a journey through the characters’ catharsis, too.

This isn’t a dazed process though: grief is personified as a crow. A whimsical and fantastical idea, as Crow contrasts the moping father by inserting humour into the piece, especially when he becomes borderline hyper-emotional:

 “The whole city is my missing her. Eugh, said Crow, you sound like a fridge magnet.”

Crow adds a technicolour aspect to the novel, with his attitude to the suffering family of sons and father offering a fresh view of what grief truly is.

The father, a Ted Hughes’ scholar, awkwardly straddles his new-found parental responsibilities over his two sons by ignoring them completely, his sons gently breaking the rules for the sake of it. There are nights of numbness, lasagne, easy laughter because they managed to forget, forget that the hole burnt in their lives by loss exists and should be suffocating them.

The boys are never separated. They remain always identical, similar to A.A.Gill when he referenced the Twins. Although they have different opinions, floating across the page with lyrically, they are always referred to as one. Like youth in many situations, they aren’t indifferent, but more indifferent in an aching way. They don’t linger on the event, but steely smile on, brushing aside their father’s solemn outlook on life.

The concept of metaphorizing an emotion is simply an idea which I believe we all wish we came up with ourselves. It is written in the style of a continuous poem, with the imagery created outstanding and resulting in an ethereal engagement in the text on the reader’s behalf. Presented in the style of snippets of babbling thoughts, poignant reflections and fragmented memories, the brief novel consumes the themes of realisation and sadness beautifully, deserving to be absorbed by all.

 

The Smell of Other People’s Houses- Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock

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Alaska in the 1970s, a typical summer day

Alaska was a lost place in 1970… a location which no one can particularly relate to. Except of course Hitchcock, who grew up there, creating an aura of the authenticity of the poverty and setting. It was time of social revolution, where in this novel the boundaries between child and adulthood are blurred beyond conception.

There are four protagonists Ruth, Dora, Alyce and Hank, with the story being woven between their viewpoints. It creates an intriguing variation for the reader because their lives are revealed through this medium, with the stories being surprisingly knitted together by the closing chapters.

Ruth is arguably the pivot of the plot: her parents have by tragic circumstances fled (as no self-respecting book these days can have a child with 2 living parents it seems) and this leaves her with a strained grandmother and a plethora of rules. This environment creates a palpable sense of tension, especially when Ruth becomes rather involved (ahem) with a popular boy.

On other hand, Dora has the predictable cocktail of the hapless mother slurring her Sundays with beer, and a father who thinks it’s fun to beat her up. Just to make things more interesting, Hitchcock also decided to make her have Inupiat origins so that there could be scenes of racism as well. Which is fine if this was a creative writing project of how many different social problems you can portray in one sitting, however if you’re reading it the main thing that comes across is a desperation to: reveal the scope of characteristics you can write about, appeal to every liberal audience and seem to be supremely intelligent. Which is fine, as long as you don’t want anyone but your inflated version of self to like your book.

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Alyce is sadly a stereotypical story: girl has dream, but family duty calls. Goes to do family duty (here fishing because for some reason the father can’t hire someone or has any friends) and wishes that she could be persuing her dream, ballet-dancing. Readers supposedly are emotionally invested in this girl because of the “heart-wrenching” situation, until (after she has a supernatural whale moment which is frankly weird) she eventually goes to this ballet audition after months of no practise and aces it, which in reality would never happen, but neither do random whale moments. Sorry to ruin the story, but you know you already saw it coming,

Then just to add a male voice so that there was a vague stab at equality (which was never truly reached) there is another storyline. I know, you’re bored already of all these characters vying for attention and so am I. Hank, who it seems thought that running away from his mum and despicable stepfather (because no one in Alaska can have any unclichéd background) was a great idea. The best Hitchcock could do was describe him as a ‘mangy stray dog’ and ‘short and squat, with stubby legs’. Because if a parental figures has stubby legs, you know you’re trouble.  I honestly don’t think if you are living in Canada that just because you hace a bit of family disagrements you will take your two brothers and just go off. That’s all there is to it: people are not that stupid. And then to have a brother who fell off a ferry, (ditto earlier comment as this is out-right stupidity) be magically saved by whales. Really.

So in short, it’s disastrously confusing and although the writing is at first enchanting, by the fifth page it’s clear that the deep-seated editing went into the opening scene and that by the end of the first chapter they thought that ‘Well, if they’ve read this far, they’ve probably bought it and the hook of elaborative worked, so who cares what they think later on.’ Even the better language is simplistic with deer’s hooves being described as ‘pointy like a ballerina’s toes’. (Yes, because there is only one pointed thing in the entire universe, with it also an inappropiate comparison as it makes things more muddled as this girl has no interest later in dance as opposed to Alyce.)

Surprised how this came to be on the Carneige Shortlist.

Hitman Anders and the Meaning of It All — Jonas Jonasson

A hilarious, thought-provoking and unusual read, Jonasson has delivered a novel which looks at our world through a completely different lens.

Imagine, a hitman. You know the type: leather jacket, yesterday’s stubble and the cool shades. There’s one in Stockholm, living in a hotel, and this novel follows his exploits (or how he has been exploited, more accurately), as the receptionist of the hotel and a priest use the hitman in order to create a business. Except, of course, the first attempt didn’t work, and the novel follows them as they try to set up three different businesses in succession, all with differing aims. As the trio’s professions change, their mindsets change with them, as each experience has altered their perspective and outlook on life.

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The plot flowed marvellously. It is hard, reflecting on it now, to see the seams of the novel, to segregate it into the pigeon holes of “Begining, Middle and End”. Even though there were three business opportunities, the way that Jonasson writes about them makes you feel like you are floating along with the current of the story. It is all smoothly executed; there were no random, stilted scenes. It felt like the characters were creating their own destiny, and that I was merely an observer. Which, of course, is enjoyable to read. But not as enjoyable as the humour that populated the pages, the small witticisms that punctuated the paragraphs and brought grins to my face. And how can I help it? It’s a funny book. Honestly. And if the chilly weather and darkness is affecting your mood, I’d recommend you read this.

The protagonists were certainly not the usual stereotypes: there was a scheming priest (who didn’t believe in God), a receptionist who ends up running a multi million dollar enterprise, and a hitman who had been recently converted to Christianity. By choosing such bizarre characters to star in his book, Jonasson puts creativity back into writing. Why couldn’t this happen? Perhaps it never would in the real world, but at least in a place without boundaries, it’s fun to allow yourself to imagine. Right now, there is a feeling that people are clinging to their clichés. We are a long way from books like Pullman’s Northern Lights, or one of Dahl’s creations. I know that they are both children’s books, but at least they have a sense of wonder about them, of the credibility coupled with the unbelievable. And that is what I have found here.

One issue I discovered though, was that the antagonist wasn’t dislikable enough. He was known as The Count, and would constantly be talking about chopping people up, but not exactly in a menacing way. Actually, I found the way he spoke, and was referred to, more humorous than anything else, and so this made it difficult for me to feel any sense to rally against him. It’s a minor issue, because the novel’s not really centred around the antagonist vs. protagonist theme, but it’s worth mentioning nevertheless.

So, looking for something a bit different, something light-hearted? Then find a copy of Hitman Anders and the Meaning of It All. Have you read it- how did you find it? What’s your favourite comedic book? Do comment below and let me know your thoughts!

Burmese Days by George Orwell

Myanmar has only had 69 years of Independence. The past is closer than you think- and you can immerse yourself in it in Orwell’s first novel.

Imagine the existence of places centuries ago. We are all familiar with the concept of Victorian London, or the America as Columbus saw. But can we ever really believe in that place, petrified by the weight of history? Not simply in terms of overpaid actors, but understand the place that existed only a lengthy string of years ago?

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Yes- if you read Burmese Days. Since Orwell himself was stationed in Burma as a policeman there is an inescapable authenticity to the novel, and the blank way he causally refers to cultural customs illustrates that he wasn’t desperate to impress readers with his knowledge. (Unlike those authors who adopt the manner of *And here is a recipe for a rare national dish, inserted for no purpose whatsoever except to show you that I didn’t intend to spend countless hours trawling the internet for no credit.*) Due to his experiences (Orwell could even speak Hindi and Burmese) the novel felt genuine and gave me a clear idea of life at the time, and should be regarded as a valuable resource to anyone studying Burma in the early 20th century.

The plot itself could be considered mundane. There is a languid pace; it moves at the speed of someone overwhelmed by the summer heat. It’s mundane, almost. All that happens is that a British man abroad struggles (and fails,) not only to secure his Indian friend a membership to the European club, but the marriage of a girl. This is what the story is driven by, and after awhile it does become rather repetitive.

But then again the ending was shocking, and ends the sense of banality that had been previously lurking. It was so depressing (and tragically realistic,) that it made you ponder the entertainment value of reading it after all. (Why do I spend hours of my life, in happy solitude, staring at bits of paper?)

Thankfully this is interspersed with Orwell’s vivid descriptions of the scenery- he indulges much more in the literary side here than in his other works. For this reason, it would be useful for any fan of Orwell to read this first novel, so that not only can they enjoy the contrast to his later more refined tone, but see how from the start he was interested in discussing political and social ideologies. In fact, Burmese Days foreshadows the themes that would be seen so boldly in his books later on; the individual flailing against the tidal wave of an inhumane society.

A bold and unashamed novel, Burmese Days challenges British colonialism in Burma, offers a rich insight into the life of officers and has an unnerving finish despite the light hearted manner veiling the rest of the novel. If you are interested in political affairs (for Burma/ Myanmar, is rising globally currently), then this is an essential read. After all, if you seek to know something, you must first understand it’s history.

December Book of the Month – The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer

A mystery clouded by mental instability. Raw, shocking and cruel, but above all honest, this is a insight into the world of a teenager battling mental illness. It is clear that, in 2013 at least, the judges of the Costa Book Award were wise. I can’t think of a more suitable winner- I was gripped by the novel and read it in less than two days.

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Matthew Holmes, aged 19, recounts the incident that has dominated his childhood painstakingly, from the computer in his local mental health centre. Why is he there? Diagnosed with schizophrenia, just like his grandfather, Matthew often hears his older brother with Downs Syndrome, Simon, speaking to him. Begging him to play, to come outside and join him:

“If the tap choked and spluttered before the water came, he was saying I’m lonely. When I opened a bottle of Dr Pepper and the caramel bubbles fizzed over the rim, he was asking me to come out and play. He could speak through an itch, the certainty of a sneeze, the after-taste of tablets, or the way sugar fell from a spoon.”

And our protagonist feels compelled to listen. Simon has been dead for over a decade. Some say he died at a Caravan Park in Dorset, but  Matthew believes it was practically murder. The guilt that has wracked him, and wrecked his family after that fated night saw a shocking transition from an innocent, boisterous boy to a teenager stumbling through life, taking all the wrong turns.

For me, it was Matthew’s voice that made this novel remarkable. His voice, breaking free from the words, illustrated the development of his character incredibly. Matthew was almost tangible, and that is what Filer achieves so greatly. That sense of a person speaking just out of sight. That there really is someone out there, a boy that age. It’s how we get lulled into fiction, because it’s all just stories, isn’t it? In the end it’s a product of a person sitting in front of a bright little screen, carefully crafting the characters that seem so spontaneous. The characters we take home and discuss over dinner, and bring into our lives.

One outstanding aspect of this novel was the detail that Filer gave concerning mental health facilities and regimes. He clearly didn’t research through watching films. Actually, Filer was a mental health nurse, and so the vivid descriptions of the mistrust Matthew feels as he is forced to take his drugs tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, and to endure the awful side effects, can be taken at face value as that of a (relatively- this is still fiction) accurate account, not that of some dreaming, sheltered author.

Yet on the other hand, there was a minor issue. Only a small one in the grand scheme of things, but it must be mentioned. The great reveal was grossly delayed. It was saved until page 247. By that time the actual suspense had faded away, because my interest in reason to Simon’s death could only last for so long, and by that point I had a rough (correct) idea anyway, so the climax/ reveal came as no shock. It is worth mentioning, that from the outset the protagonist does mention it the ‘shock of the fall’ (yes, that’s the title too!) which kills his brother, but we only really learn why it is has triggered schizophrenia and lasting guilt until the reveal. And marvellous at character building although Filer is, I don’t care that much to be interested until the end of novel.

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Overall I thought that this poignant novel, with a frank and humorous tone, is definitely worth a read because of it’s insight into the life of a teenager with schizophrenia, and the clever use of typography and sketches to aid the narration. Here is a short extract which I think sums up the tone of the novel perfectly:

“I’ll tell you what happened because it will be a good way to introduce my brother. His name’s Simon. I think you’re going to like him. I really do. But in a couple of pages he’ll be dead. And he was never the same after that.”

So have you read the Shock of the Fall? What do you think of it? What is your favourite book concerning mental illnesses?

 

Are short stories novel?

A calamity has occurred. I am barely scraping in enough time to read, struggling as I am with the obligations of everyday life.  And since I am embarrassingly lacking books to review, I will instead try to settle the dispute that has divided the country for centuries. Is the short story the champion of literature, greater in impact than it is in length, or is the humble novel the true victor? Read on to see them go head to head. Go on- settle in, bring popcorn, and watch this tense battle unfold.

Novels are a thing of beauty. With plots flourishing across several hundred pages, and intriguing characters that morph and develop before your eyes, they are things you can truly invest in, even if it’s only for a fortnight.
Of course, these characters may spontaneously die on you, but you will always have a place, hidden between pages, that you can return too. In novels, you can truly indulge in the world building and marvel at the view from that spaceship’s portal. You have the luxury of pages to explore a new world; you aren’t plunged headfirst into the relentless action (well, I hope not); you can settle into novels, meet them regularly on the commute to work and habitually wave goodbye at the last train stop. And there’s that delightful horror at the plot twist, which you didn’t even notice was looming over you until it drenched you with surprise. With short stories, all the action is shoved into the expanse of a few pages, and the forms are generally limited. Do short stories give us that satisfying multiple points of view, or scatter letters in between the pages of prose? I thought not.

shorter

Short stories, on the other hand, are miracles in themselves. Everyone is busy. You know that. There are constantly deadlines swirling around our heads and stress clogging in the corners of our lives. That is partly the reason why I haven’t had enough time to finish a book. Because yes, reading is fantastic, but there isn’t always enough time: of course we wish there was, but with some things even intentions aren’t enough. Thankfully, a marvellous creation was born. The best thing about short stories, even if they are part of a collection, is that you can dip into them, when you notice with glee that you have a spare 25 minutes. They are undemanding creatures. They don’t need to much commitment, only asking for you to follow along for a few pages. In that respect, novels are so needy. They beg you to stay with them hours, and when you want to leave, that gripping plot just clutches you closer, your duties elsewhere becoming a vague memory. One ought to be aware of this. And the best thing about short stories is the impact is they have. The authors have to be economical with their words:  you won’t find soliloquies draped across pages, and endless recounts of that view of the Alps from the winter break six years ago. No rambling and endless internal monologues about what Clancy said to Clark about Clara concerning their course with Clarence and Carl. Short stories are a relief. Mercilessly blunt. Some might find the fact you can’t truly get a sense of a characters from a short story, but I don’t believe this to necessarily be true. Even in the space of a few pages, I believe that you can relate and identify with characters, granted that the author has relative competency. Also, short stories ensure that you are never bored, because by the time the story becomes dull- it’s over! Flick a page and you’ve entered a whole other kingdom, a new scene, different characters. Purge your mind of the bored and prepare to be inspired again.

So, what are better, collections of short stories or novels? It depends on your situation. If you have a tedious car journey squatting before you, it is a perfect opportunity to invest time into the characters, to discover them and devour the pages. But if you have limited time, or only have the opportunity to read rarely, them short stories are more attractive, as you aren’t at risk of forgetting the plot, or becoming emotionally disconnected from the story as time progresses. Personally, I prefer novels because I feel often cheated when I begin to engage with a character in short stories, and they simply wander off elsewhere, and I am left, confused and metaphorically alone. I am willing to see time stretch before me as I trudge through the chapters.

Please feel free to comment your opinion below. Which one do you think triumphs? What novel or short story is your favourite?

The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan September Book of the Month

marrr“Marina wouldn’t want to be remembered because she’s dead.” wrote Anne Fadiman, her university professor, “She would want to be remembered because she’s good.”

But she isn’t good. Marina is phenomenal. Her fiction stories, each no longer than twenty pages long, are delicately composed featuring wildly different plots and characters. One is set in the sandy planes of Iraq, relocating Iraqi families and written purely in letter form. Another, prose, revolved around a theatre-set in Cape Cod, paragraphs littered with late night drinks and angst. And so it goes on. They are unique, seemingly revolving in their own literary sphere, untouchable. But there are ties: these characters are not built of marble, they are fallible. Keegan has portrayed them as real people, with true problems, refreshing as, unfortunately, despite it being an important rule of fiction, you often find unrealistic, overly successful characters . As a reader you could sympathise with their fears, relate to their worries. The stories were all ideal lengths too: even if they were only a few pages long, you seeped into the characters’ mindset seamlessly, and I never felt bored or disengaged with the narrative. Fresh, too, with Keegan’s voice gleaming from under the printed words.

‘”Why didn’t I think to rewrite Mrs. Dalloway? I should have thought to chronicle a schizophrenic ballerina. It’s inexcusable. Everyone is so successful, and I hate them.” and “I’m so jealous. Laughable jealousies, of everyone who might get a chance to speak from the dead…I worship the potential for own tangible trace. How presumptuous! To assume specialness in the first place.”

I won’t tell you how Marina Keegan wrote this incredible collection of short stories and essays as part of her graduation piece, and how, only five days after she graduated from Yale in 2012, she died in a car crash. I won’t mention how she was only twenty two, or how she had acted in and wrote numerous plays, was the President of the Yale College Democrats and had already secured her ideal job for her life after Yale. Because, instead I told you how inspiring her collection is. Marina wouldn’t want to be remembered because she’s dead. She would want to be remembered because she’s good.