The Tobacconist – Robert Seethaler (Book Review)

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Earlier this year I read A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, and after enjoying that, chose to read more of his work! This was also selected as a book for this month’s book club:

Seventeen-year-old Franz Huchel journeys to Vienna to apprentice at a tobacco shop. There he meets Sigmund Freud, a regular customer, and over time the two very different men form a singular friendship. When Franz falls desperately in love with the music-hall dancer Anezka, he seeks advice from the renowned psychoanalyst, who admits that the female sex is as big a mystery to him as it is to Franz.

As political and social conditions in Austria dramatically worsen with the Nazis’ arrival in Vienna, Franz, Freud, and Anezka are swept into the maelstrom of events. Each has a big decision to make: to stay or to flee?

The book is set in pre-war Austria where a young man is sent to Vienna to work with one of his mothers old friends at a tobacconist shop. This tobacconist was once a soldier in the trenches during which time he lost a leg and now worked in the shop to make ends meet – reading the newspapers and knowing everything about the cigars (despite not smoking).

The shop gets regular customers, one of which is the famous “idiot doctor” Sigmund Freud – a man Franz has heard much about and is excited to meet.

As war approaches however, the shop becomes vandalised as a “place that sells cigards to Jews”, and as the tobacconist fights these strange new ideas, and Franz chases love, the city of Vienna seems smaller and smaller as war approaches.

Frustrated by the Nazi’s, sad at the fate of his lost love, Franz seeks Freud’s advice and friendship, though this becomes difficult; Freud being a Jew.

The book is not unlike A Whole Life in the way that it is written – no chapters and much imagery. The constant call backs to a peaceful childhood fit effortlessly in the prose, and Franz becomes a likable character as he develops into a man in such a difficult time.

It certainly gives a good glimpse to pre-war Austria, with peoples opinions seeming to change in such a short period of time – one month mocking Hitler as a dog; the next shouting “Sieg Heil” and mocking the Jews…

The cynic in me questions our immunity to such fluctuations too – we are often blind to our hypocrisy even today, and a liberal society is in danger as being no different to a totalitarian one once it starts enforcing by law it’s liberal ideologies – “believe in liberalism, or face punishment, or public shame, or jail”. We must be on guard and soberly check our logic in such things.

Overall a thought-provoking read though an acquired taste – often slow and seemingly insignificant, but all rounded to a big picture of change and the loss of hope in the face of your own country against you.

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath (Book Review)

The first book for Book Club this year was The Bell Jar; a book I’ve been meaning to read for a little while now:

We follow Esther Greenwood’s personal life from her summer job in New York with Ladies’ Day magazine, back through her days at New England’s largest school for women, and forward through her attempted suicide, her bad treatment at one asylum and her good treatment at another, to her final re-entry into the world like a used tyre: “patched, retreaded, and approved for the road” … Esther Greenwood’s account of her year in the bell jar is as clear and readable as it is witty and disturbing.

I was first introduced to Sylvia Plath through her poem Lady Lazarus; the bleak acceptance of a reality she knew in it drew me to explore her writings further, and it only made sense to want to read the novel she wrote too.

The book is written much like her poetry – clever metaphors, well flowing language, and brute honesty. Plath is often too bleak for many to read and enjoy, but to take a step into her shoes and see the world as she does, we find ourselves being completely honest with ourselves, and falling to melancholy.

Perhaps I enjoyed this book because of this – that the author identifies so much that many would read publicly and laugh about, but individually sympathise with and weep.

This book is often described as “a young woman’s descent into madness”, but I can’t help but think that’s a little bit dated considering what it is: an account of a person with severe depression – a feeling that many can sympathise with today; recognising their own thoughts in that of the Narrators.

To those who have never experience such a thing, it may be a good read to catch a glimpse, and to those who have, a reminder of there being no solitude in the struggle.

Death and The Penguin – Andrey Kurkov (Book Review)

This months Book Club book is Death and The Penguin. I have seen this around before, and considered buying it, but didn’t do so until now:

Viktor is an aspiring writer with only Misha, his pet penguin, for company. Although he would prefer to write short stories, he earns a living composing obituaries for a newspaper. He longs to see his work published, yet the subjects of his obituaries continue to cling to life. But when he opens the newspaper to see his work in print for the first time, his pride swiftly turns to terror. He and Misha have been drawn into a trap from which there appears to be no escape.

The book starts very quickly, with little to no build up in terms of the characters introduction: Viktor lives alone with his pet penguin, and gains a job out of nowhere, writing obituaries for a newspaper for stable income.

Sooner or later, Viktor makes friends with various people who all seem to know more about Viktor’s new role than he does.

The book is very well written with amazing prose breaking up the dialogue. Viktor is very reflective throughout, seemingly dragged from his quiet life into a dangerous one, with a child to look after who is indifferent to him, and woman who is forcing herself as an almost ‘wife’ that he didn’t want.

His situation is sad, and yet a lot of the story is humorous. The penguin seems to get more respect than himself, and he soon finds that he is invited to certain events only is the penguin is there too, later the facade being dropped, and only the penguin being invited at all.

It is a short read, and the ending quite abrupt and ambiguous. Perhaps I will need to read the sequel. This was one of those books where, though not a lot seems to happen, you become engrossed regardless.

Alex – Pierre Lemaitre (Book Review)

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This was one of the choices for this months book club. Being a crime book, and assured that it doesn’t rely on a twist ending, I thought to give it a go. I usually avoid crime novels due to cliches after all…

Alex, a young woman, finds herself kidnapped and hanging in a cage from an abandoned warehouse ceiling; the abductor saying he only wants to watch her die.

Verhoeven is assigned to the case and must track down a girl who seems to have no connections to anyone, and who seemingly moves about France a lot.

A fairly simple premise, but a quite complex story-line as it gets going.

The crime in the book is described quite graphically, which though it could have worked, felt somewhat forced in the writing. I got the impression that I was supposed to be more shocked than I actually was (perhaps I am desensitised, but who isn’t today?)

Alex was a very interesting character, and by far my favourite in the novel. For a victim, she had none of the cliches that are common in crime novels, and I for one certainly appreciated that.

Verhoeven, however, did carry some cliches. Widowed, angry etc. But perhaps if I read more of Lemaitre’s books, I’d grow to like him more (being a recurring character).

The story-line was complicated and the ending very clever. In fact, it dawned on me what had happened at exactly the same time it did another character, which I felt was novelty: the writer had managed to keep me in the dark as much as the characters, despite knowing all the clues.

Overall, certainly a unique crime book, and for lovers of the genre, one I would recommend. Perhaps I will develop a love for crime fiction eventually, but until then, books like this certainly make an argument in favour of the genre to me.

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!

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!

The Reader on the 6.27 – Jean-Paul Didierlaurent (Book Review)

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This book is fairly popular at the moment, and I have even heard in anecdotal exchanges that some adults are almost in tears at the impact this book has had on their life.

Guylain, an employee at a book-pulping factory rides the 6.27 train every morning, reading aloud to the other passengers pages from random books that he had pulled out of the pulping machine the day before.

Living a pained existence in a job he hates, feeling like a murder, his best friends are an elderly man who speaks in alexandrines, a disabled ex-colleague obsessed with finding his legs, and his goldfish (replaced when necessary).

Until he finds the diary of a young lady who cleans public toilets for living, and immediately falls in love with this stranger he has yet to meet.

The book itself is perhaps something I wouldn’t usually go for: the feel-good, romantic theme being something which I’d consider often predictable, often repeated, and often unsatisfying. I wouldn’t necessarily say that for this book: it is quite a unique romance in a sense. The girl seems like a very unique character, and was in someways my favourite in the book for her outlook on life.

Though the book was sometimes funny, an easy read, and not at all boring: I still found that I was dissatisfied upon completion: I found Guylain’s idol somewhat annoying and couldn’t quite see his fascination with him. I also found the romance ultimately open-ended with a somewhat ambiguous ending. I guess in someways the couple were both individually quirky, but it seems a bit of a mismatch to me: Guylain always came across a bit too passive.

Not a terrible book by any means, and could easily be read in a matter of a few sittings. Perhaps it’s the ‘feel-good’ factor that will draw many towards it, and it is likely just not my cup-of-tea. Worth a shot if it sounds like your thing, though!