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.

Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders (Book Review)

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I heard about the release of this book at the beginning of the year, and it was my most anticipated to date:

February 1862. The American Civil War rages while President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son lies gravely ill. In a matter of days, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns to the crypt several times alone to hold his boy’s body.

From this seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of realism, entering a thrilling, supernatural domain both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself trapped in a strange purgatory – called, in Tibetan tradition, the bardo – invisible to his father, bowed at the tomb. Within this transitional realm, where ghosts mingle, squabble, gripe and commiserate, and stony tendrils creep towards the boy, a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

Unfolding over a single night, Lincoln in the Bardo is written with George Saunders’ inimitable humour, pathos and grace. Here he invents an exhilarating new form, and is confirmed as one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Deploying a theatrical, kaleidoscopic panoply of voices – living and dead, historical and fictional – Lincoln in the Bardo poses a timeless question: how do we live and love when we know that everything we hold dear must end?

Having read some of Saunders’ short-stories, I was quite eager to see how he would approach writing a full length novel.

The whole story is set over one night in the graveyard in which Willie Lincoln was buried. He joins other spirits in the bardo, each reflecting on the lives they lived before they were left, forgotten in this place.

The characters all now live exaggerated realities of their desires in life, refusing to move on from that which characterised them before they were “sick”.  The book is written from the point of view of many of these characters in a very unique way, characteristic of Saunders. Many pages contain little more than 5 lines, and often these are quotes from sources around when Lincoln buried his son. The contrast between fiction and reality merging seamlessly in the writing.

The book has moments of stark honesty about the nature of life and the denial of death; the unity in suffering and the clinging to dissatisfaction. It was written in a unique way which garners interest in and of itself – I appreciate authors who are willing to take risks with what they write about and how they present it, and Saunders definetely pays off in this regard.

Worth a read if you get a chance, or have read his other stuff before. Otherwise it may seem a bit pricey for the time being until the paperback is released! With the line-spacing and the short chapters, this could easily be read very quickly, despite being around 350 pages long.

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.

The Light Fantastic – Terry Pratchett (Book Review)

I bought the second in the Discworld series after enjoying the first one. The ease in reading this, and the light-heartedness of the stories, have become something I look forward to between reading more challenging books:

In the sky appears a red star, which gets bigger day-by-day as Great A’Tuin approaches it. The wizards of Discworld begin the search for the 8th Great Spell, which must be said along with the other 7 – only in times of crisis.

The 8th spell, safely within Rincewinds, seems somewhat reluctant to be caught, however.

Joining up with the now old, Cohen the Barbarian, Rincewind and Twoflower traverse Discworld, seeking the answer to save the world from colliding with the great red star.

The story sets place in a variety of environments, from forests, to cities, to inside an ancient spell-book. The characters continued to be developed, and the conclusion of their story-lines something which I’m eager to pursue in the following books in the series.

I did feel, however, that there were one or two lines which should have been cut somewhere in editing. Though perhaps humorous, they just didn’t sit well in the holistic atmosphere of the book.

Though perhaps not quite as enjoyable as the first Discworld novel, the conclusion to evade me until the closing pages – the threat of the approaching star seemingly unavoidable, yet the mixed reactions of the inhabitants of Discworld making it hard to guess who knew what was actually happening – which is not a bad thing.

Reading the Discworld series so far has encouraged me to branch out more in fantasy novels, and that can’t be a bad thing. I looked forward to exploring the genre more this year!

Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami (Book Review)

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Being Murakami’s most popular book, and having enjoyed the others of his I have read, I decided Norwegian Wood should be a book I read before the end of the year:

Toru, a young university student in Tokyo, is living a fairly lonely life after the suicide of his best friend. His friend’s girlfriend, Naoko, whom Toru previously had nothing but mutual friend in common with each other, begins walking with Toru regularly, hardly talking.

Toru receives a letter from Naoko saying she is now in a sanitorium and is seemingly coming to terms with her trauma. Around htis itme, he also meets Midori, a ‘sexually liberated’ fellow student.

The story essentially follows the relationships between characters, rather than an overbearing plot throughout the book. It is more of a study of humans rather than events which happen to them. The event which triggers a reaction happens fairly early on – the suicide of Kizuki, the character’s mutual friend.

I got thinking about half way through that this book is for another time – I think it is likely better than how I was experiencing it… perhaps something which makes more sense when unsaid.

The book seems to have regular explicit scenes between Toru and pretty much every female character – which I found strange as Toru (though many characters seemed to disagree with me) seemed fairly average in just about all aspects.

Again, perhaps I’m simply too busy to put more energy into understanding the book.

Overall not the strongest of Murakami’s books I have read. I found it difficult to truly care about the characters, and wasn’t gripped by anything that made it hard to put down. I would regularly stop mid-way through chapters without much worry about what was to happen next.

I will try again in the future with this one though!

Patriotism – Yukio Mishima (Book Review)

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The image is explained by the fact the book has a white cover… oh well. This book was presented to me as an example of Japanese literature. Being described as ‘Nabokovian’ too, perhaps as a method of convincing me to try.

Shinji, a lieutenant in the Japanese army, arrives home to inform his wife that his friends have become mutineers. Due to his position in the army, he has been ordered to lead the attack against them.

Unwilling to slaughter his friends, Shinji decides that he must commit seppuku, and informing his wife of this, his wife decides to join him.

The book describes the last night the couple spend together before taking part in their mutually agreed upon ritual suicide.

The tension of the book was felt throughout, with the reader and characters being made fully aware of what was to come.

The whole feel of the short story is intense, and the attitude with which the characters face their death is with both bravery and sorrow.

The book is very well written for one so short. The writer manages to raise so many questions about the choices made by the characters. Their seemingly mundane activities before the event being doing with a gruesome level of normality. The act itself being described so graphically that you can almost feel it.

Being from a Western culture, the act of seppuku can often be quite staggering. When faced with the ‘honourable’ thing to do in battle, most Western armies agree to die by the hand of the enemy. In fact, deserting is a serious offence, and in the examples such as WW1, returning to safety meant returning to the gunfire of your previous allies.

In Japan, however, it seems more honourable to die by your own hands in the ritualistic way than to allow your enemies victory. It’s quite the opposite in terms of an ‘honourable death’ to what we expect, and so as a reflex the reaction is often one of disagreement: how can suicide be brave?

Yet strangely to myself, I felt that the way Shinji approached the event was certainly brave. The cold, sharp steel being just a fact to face up to. I don’t think I could do it… a slow and bloody death by a blade.

Overall the book was fantastic for it’s length. The author himself also dying by seppuku lends it a somewhat prophetic title and characteristic too.