All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr (Book Review)

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This was another book chosen for the book club I attend: something I wouldn’t typically chose: my first impression of it being a historical fiction. I was quite surprised, however:

The book follows a two story lines in almost alternate chapters:

Marie-Laure, a six-year-old French child, is daughter an employee at a museum. The museum is home to a mysterious diamond: the Sea of Flames. Becoming blind at the age of 6, she navigates the streets of her home town by memorising a model her father has built for her. When the German armies begin to occupy France, she travels with her Father to Saint Malo to live with her uncle Etienne.

Werner Pfennig is a young German boy living in an orphanage, destined to work in the mines like the rest of the community. Due to his aptitude with electronics, however, he is welcomed in the Hitler Youth. Continuing through the programme and finally joining the troops, Werner helps capture those using radios by tracing their signals, ultimately leading him to Saint Malo.

As the Second World War unfolds, and stories intertwine, the story of two seemingly ordinary people face the challenges brought to the youth of Europe in the 1940’s.

The book was quite well written, and the storylines felt quite natural in presenting the horrors of war-torn europe. I first feared that author may feel the need to contantly remind the reader that Marie-Laure was blind (as is often the case!) but he did not, and this made the writing so much more flowing.

The story line was quite touching, and challenging in some place: how do we in the 21st century think of those who were lucky to have a bowl of watery, cabbage soup as their only meal in days? or those who, though so young, were forced to defend their country, some of whom didn’t want but had to in order to not be executed, or shamed?

I don’t wish to spoil the ending, but I appreciate the method the author uses in the fate of some of the characters: we simply don’t find out what happened. It can often leave the reader frustrated, but how much more were those back then frustrated to never find out where their loved ones were? Alive or dead, identified or just a number, it must have been a difficult decision to stop searching years after the war, and some probably never did.

WW2 showed the horrors of humanity at its rawest, and those are times we can’t imagine to have lived through. Heres to hoping we needn’t!

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Mary – Vladimir Nabokov (Book Review)

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Mary was Nabokov’s first novel, and was quite difficult for me to get a copy of. After months of thinking I was going to have to pay up to £25 for a used copy, I found one new for £4.

Ganin, a Russian emigre is living in a hostel with other Russians who have left due to the communist uprising. Living a fairly mundane life with people he didn’t necessarily like, Ganin learns that his neighbour’s wife, Mary, is coming to visit; a woman Ganin has a romantic history with.

I left the plot relatively short as this is a short book, being only just over 100 pages (my copy anyway). The book touches on topics such as past love, and often gives honest views into how realistic relationships work: whether it be ups and downs, or looking back and longing for what the relationship once was but failed to maintain to be.

The book also surprisingly has solipsistic themes, and with Mary not even being physically present in the story, it is interesting to learn so much of character who, in a sense, doesn’t speak for herself, but through the opinions other’s have of her.

The book is Nabokov’s first and not his best, but definite evidence of the wordplay he was to master is present in a lot of the descriptions.

The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov (Book Review)

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A few people have claimed this book as their favourite from the 20th century, such as Daniel Radcliffe and Steven Fry, which is quite the claim considering the books I have read from then. I thought it worth a go, being a Russian author and all…

In the 1930’s, Satan, under the guise of a magician, walks the streets of Moscow with his three pals: Azzezelo, Koroviev, and Behemoth – the talking cat. Observing the Russian people, and causing a lot of trouble for the aristocracy, the Devil and his friends settle into Flat 50.

Meanwhile, an author of a book about the life of Pontius Pilate, calling himself the Master, is in a mental asylum, longing for his married mistress, Margarita; who herself longs to leave her husband she regards as boring, for the author of what she considers a masterpiece.

And throughout this is the story of Pontius Pilate on the days surrounding the crucifixion, his dealings with Jesus (Yeshua), Judas, Matthew, and his mysterious head bodyguard. All the while detesting the city of Jerusalem, and seeking the sleep which evades him.

At first I was hesitant to read the book, having heard that a fictitious version of Jesus appeared in it who, for the most part, acts a bit bewildered as to the claims against him – frankly, he’s portrayed as a simpleton – albeit still the Christ. This, with me being a Christian and the book being potentially offensive to the faith, made me cautious. There are few reasons why this may not be so though, which I address first for the sake of others in my position:

Firstly, the stories told are from the point of view of the Master, and Satan himself (who even in the novel is hardly a reliable source of truth), and are therefore fictitious even in the fiction.

Secondly, Jesus is still revealed as telling the Truth, as he is shown eternal throughout.

And thirdly, the book has strong themes of repentance throughout, which I may touch on later.

That aside: the book was fairly good. I wouldn’t go as far as saying one of my favourites, but nonetheless recommendable. The characters are certainly unique (if not bizarre), and there were some genuinely funny moments throughout.

The descriptive prose is well done, and much of it graphic to the point of breaking through even my 21st century sensitised reactions – the descriptions of Pilates torment due to lack of sleep made me incredibly thankful that I could sleep without trouble.

The stories are much more like fairy-tales than ordinary classical fiction, and are therefore somewhat bordering magical realism(?).

Now to be annoying; the drawbacks: firstly I felt that morality was often too simplified in the novel. Though there were some moments that felt real (which I won’t share due to spoilers) often the portrayal of good and evil were far too separated, unlike the usual mix in each man.

Secondly, the portrayal of the devil was quite cartoon-y, and the ‘antics’ him and his friends got up to seemed somewhat childish. Unless this novel is viewed as a somewhat jovial book – which it certainly has elements of – this could seem quite tedious. It was also hinted at that he is somewhat in charge of the souls of the damned, which is a particular misconception that I can’t help but allow to irk me.

Thirdly, the purpose of the book, should it have been a satire of communism in Russian, was somewhat hard to grasp and hold onto, though that may be perhaps due to ignorance on my part: was the devil, who caused so much trouble for the Russian citizens, a characterised Stalin? I’m not sure.

Overall, however, it wasn’t a bad read, and I’m open for someone to point out something I missed. I’m of the school of hermeneutics that assumes that the authors intent is the true meaning, so sources from Bulgakov that I’m unaware of, perhaps…

It does leave me thinking what I would publicly put forward as my favourite book of the 20th century, however. I’d be interested to hear some people’s thoughts.

Netochka Nezvanova – Fyodor Dostoevsky (Book Review)

 

Netochka Nezanova was the first attempt of Dostoevsky’s to write a novel. It is also, unfortunately, unfinished.

Netochka is a young girl who grows up in extreme poverty, living with a cold and severe mother, and a step-father who is a failed musician, trying to gain a position he feels he deserves, though falling into alcoholism and debt by failure to do so.

She is adopted later by a wealthy family, though struggles to find her place in the new environment.Becoming friends with their daughter, they are eventually separated.

I really enjoyed the book, and was saddened when finishing it, incomplete as it is. Though it initially took some persistence, once the main characters were introduced, they were developed uniquely and in-depth very quickly. Dostoevsky seems to have an ability to create amazing characters, and force you to feel a certain way about them.

 

The fact that this is his first novel, to find such talent as available in the incomplete book is something to be mentioned, and envied.

Unfinished books are somewhat sad thing, which leaves the mind wondering what could have been should the author have completed it if they weren’t interrupted by circumstance or death…

Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov (A Book Review and Mini-rant)

 

‘Lolita’ is the most controversial novel by Vladimir Nabokov, and because of this, his most famous.

The premise is fairly simple from the outset, though upon hearing it, many immediately write off any likelihood of reading the book, so hold on to the end:

H. Humbert is a professor of English in the US. He also has a habit of sitting in the park to watch children – many of whom he fantasizes about. He is also the narrator of this story.

Upon going on holiday, he stays in a house owned by a landlady with a young daughter, revealed in the story by the nickname ‘Lolita’. Humbert slowly begins living at the house with the aim of getting closer to Lolita, and even goes as far as marrying her mother in the hopes of this encouraging more affection from her.

After opportunity arises to runaway with Lolita, Humbert travels across America in this illicit relationship with the young girl.

So bluntly, the story is about a paedophile, written from his perspective. He is completely and obviously unrepentant of this too, and so many come under the impression that the book therefore is written sympathetically towards paedophilia, and that Nabokov himself must have felt this way.

This, in my opinion, is the complete opposite of what the book was intended for, but unfortunately due to many being unwilling to finish (or start) the book without jumping to conclusions, they won’t reach this point:

The book is written from Humbert’s perspective, so in his eyes, this relationship was great: running away with a compliant young girl. The problem is that if the reader reaches the end and can read between the lines, they will see how unbelievably damaging this has been on Lolita: once a likely heiress to a moderate estate, she ends up with nothing due to the actions of this man’s sick and uninhibited desires. She also ends up in essentially abusive relationships, with little consideration of herself. She doesn’t even hold a grudge against Humbert, only taking more of his money due to poverty.

Humbert himself is only driven by jealousy at Lolita’s outcome, and his selfish actions against another only show that he is now and only ever was thinking about himself. Even his love he describes towards the child scream out the actual truth of ‘I’m getting what I want, and therefore I want to keep her’, and is not at all for the betterment of Lolita: and so the ‘love’ is no love at all.

Nabokov himself joked that, upon seeing the poster for the Lolita movie (by Stanley Kubrick) showing a young girl licking an ice lolly, that the director had clearly missed the point.

But we have to appreciate the cleverness of this novel: the completely unlikable narrator who can still keep you reading, to the fact that with Humbert being an English professor he can describe nothing explicitly but only poetically, which lends a necessary level of censorship to the book.

Though not necessarily my favourite book by Nabokov, it certainly had an impact on my view on the value of human life: the suffering of children being a coincidental theme in other books I read at the time certainly spurred me to consider how I viewed those trapped in situations with seemingly no escape, and only as the result of others.

This book is holistic in it’s message and many can’t stomach it, but with perseverance, its certainly worth it for the message it gives between the lines.

The Bees – Laline Paull (Book Review)

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“It’s a book set in a hive, where all the characters are bees, except maybe the odd wasp or spider, but all the main ones are bees. And the book is about them doing bee stuff”… and it’s actually quite brilliant.

Flora 717 is born a sanitation worker, the lowest level worker bee in a hive. Her job is to clean up after the other bees, and her life, like all other sanitation bees, is very expendable.

Like all other bees, she loves and is devoted to the Queen; “Accept, Obey, Serve” being somewhat of a mantra to all bees.

But Flora 717 is different, being able to fill more roles than a simple sanitation worker. Despite the resistance of the bees higher up in society, Flora tries to work her way into society, and earn respect for her kin.

The book in many senses is about totalitarian societies: at the top you have the singular leader, whose power is enforced by politicians and police, all working under the guise as ‘the benefit of the whole’, but never having to actually sacrifice their luxuries themselves.

As the sanitation workers gain a voice, it echoes of a not so distant past with the rise of labour unions and socialism, giving a voice to the lower echelons of society, and allowing them to raise their displeasure regarding their anonymity and condescension. Questioning those who assume power, and recognising their is no basis for why they should be obeyed other than they have simply assumed the role and told others so.

The book is brilliantly written, with me genuinely caring about the fate of a lone worker bee and the hive. I was reading it one night and couldn’t put it down, but once I finally did, I reflected that I had just stayed up late to read about a bee being in some dispute with another insect… seemingly insignificant.

It sounds strange but it’s worth a shot. One of the better books I have read so far this year!

A Brief Reflection

I am soon to work my last shift in my current job, and move into another. I thought this would be a good time for reflection on the past 9 months I have been working full-time night shifts at a care home:

Night shifts have been challenging, and have changed the way I socialise. I often had to withdraw my participation in social events in order to ensure I wasn’t tired, and a lot off my days of were spent sleeping. Some groups I attend; I had to stop altogether.

This was my first ‘real’ full-time job, and through it I have become adapted to the workplace which, as it turns out, isn’t as scary or impersonal as I had thought.

There are a lot of real problems with current state of the health care system though, and this is much to the distress of those working in it who want to provide genuine care to patients. To start with, there is little incentive to work in care: the pay is often minimum wage, and employee benefits are non-existent… you don’t even get paid sick days. This alongside long shifts, short staffing, and cost-cutting, care is not an easy job to work in. Having worked in the private health care sector now for some time, it only redoubles my position against the privatisation of the NHS: when working for profit, those in charge find any way to cut down on costs: lowering the workforce numbers, providing cheaper meals for patients, and supplying care staff with cheap, easily-broken equipment to use for their job. When seeking to make a profit, corners are cut, and in health care, this shouldn’t happen.

That being said, I worked alongside some very caring and compassionate people, who disliked the state of health care as much as I. They would go out of their way for the benefits of the patients, and on a 12-hour shift, maintaining a high level of motivated compassion can sometimes be trying. Some openly admitted they didn’t expect to become rich by working in care, but that didn’t seem to bother them. The level of human interaction, the visible benefit of your work; these were often rewarding enough.

I also met some people there who I have learned a lot from: people who, because of unfortunate circumstances, had their lives changed by disabilities, and face ongoing health challenges with that. Yet who, after a fortnight in hospital, can still come back and greet you with a joke…

I’m not sure what the next job will hold: it seems it will be less physically demanding, and during the day. I’m excited to begin, however!