Book Review: “NW” (2012) by Zadie Smith

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Willesden is the setting of both this book and Smith’s debut novel, “White Teeth.”

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(I wish my rating system allowed for a more nuanced rating, like 3.5 stars. This book is flawed, but still really great. More on that later.)

 

A couple of chapters into NW, I had a revelation. “Mrs Dalloway! If On Beauty was a modern take on Howards End, then this must be Zadie Smith’s spin on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway! I’ve got the ‘hook’ for my review!” One quick Google search later, I sank back into my seat. Turns out the rest of the world had had that same idea when the book first came out in 2012, and that Smith had actually discussed Woolf as a direct influence on her book:

I was just trying to find a way to be adventurous and do something new in the writing while still holding on to the things that I can do well, [...] So [Virginia Woolf is] just a good example of a forward-thinking and yet consistently humane writer, and just a great female modernist. An old inspiration returned to me at the right moment.

Well. So much for my spark of brilliance.

…Anyway.

Major plot spoiler towards the end of the review.

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Book Review: “Grief Is The Thing With Feathers” by Max Porter

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Artwork by Kelly Blevins.

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“Grief is the thing with feathers,” eh? I see what you did there.

Read me, he said.

Just because the title grabbed me? I don’t think so. Have you seen my list of books to read? Who wrote you?

Max Porter.

I’ve never heard that name before.

I’m his first book.

Crow is an immaculate conception, a virgin birth (not that Max Porter is a virgin, although he might be, you never know).

I’ve never heard of you and I have no idea what you are. I bought three books this week that I want to read – forget it.

Rat-a-tat-tat.

I can’t. I am crushed by the weight of all the books I haven’t read. Go away.

Rat-a-tat-tat. Knock. Knock.

No.

But I’m really short. Look at me. You could finish me this afternoon if you wanted to.

Stop.

Rat-a-tat-tat. BANG. BANG.

FINE. (I throw my twenty-euro bill on the counter like it has personally offended me.)

No need for that kind of violence.

Shut up.

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Book Review: “Books v. Cigarettes” (2008) by George Orwell

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Books v. Cigarettes is the second volume of essays written by George Orwell in Penguin’s Great Ideas series that I’ve read – the first one being Some Thoughts On the Common Toad (review here). Between the two, Books v. Cigarettes is easily the superior selection. As you would expect of Orwell, there is some talk of politics and totalitarianism, but he also writes about working at a bookstore and his time as a young boy at St Cyprian’s school for boys. …That said, the essay about his school days still ends up being about class differences, snobbery, and indoctrination, because of course it does. Orwell has a lot of feelings about social mobility, you guys.

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Book Review: “Slade House” (2015) by David Mitchell

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Slade House initially seems like a typical horror story: an old house that is located in a place it cannot possibly be, strange disappearances, and a pair of mysterious twins with a horrible secret. However, since this is a horror story written by David Mitchell, there is more to Slade House than meets the eye at first. If you are at all familiar with his work, you know that all of his novels are connected in some way. There is an overlapping mythology, including recurring characters and concepts. Slade House takes place in this shared universe as well; you could even say that it is a missing intermezzo to 2014′s The Bone Clocks. As some of you may remember, I had some issues with that one; it was too long, too baggy, too confusing. Thankfully, it seems that Mitchell has learned from these mistakes; Slade House shines exactly where The Bone Clocks struggled – but it’s not quite there yet.

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Book Review: “Some Thoughts On the Common Toad” (2010) by George Orwell

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Picture credit: Typography for Lawyers.

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This collection is part of Penguin’s Great Ideas series, which I am steadily working my way through (read my review of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet “Common Sense” here). I adore these little publications; the cover designs by David Pearson are some of the best he has ever done, and the full series is a great overview of some of the most influential essays and manifestos in (mostly) Western history.

Some Thoughts On the Common Toad is one of four George Orwell collections included in this project, and contains eight articles written between 1944 and 1947. Spoiler alert: the titular essay is not actually about toads – it’s about capitalism.

…And toads.

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Book Review: “Agnes Grey” (1847) by Anne Brontë

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This book is about a young woman who decides to become a governess and finds the job a lot tougher than she had anticipated. The children refuse to listen to her, their parents blame her for their offspring’s terrible behaviour, and she finds herself increasingly frustrated by the thanklessness of her work.

I’m the same age now as Anne Brontë was when she wrote this book and as an English teacher, a lot of Agnes’s troubles hit home for me. Some struggles are timeless, it seems.

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Book Review: “Frenchman’s Creek” (1941) by Daphne du Maurier

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Clara Paget in Black Sails.

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Frenchman’s Creek is a historical novel set during the reign of Charles II that tells the story of a wealthy woman named Dona who moves to an isolated house in Cornwall with her children to get away from her schlubby husband and the judgmental looks of London society. Finally away from prying eyes and spousal demands, she feels like a weight has been lifted off her shoulders; she revels in the solitude and the freedom it provides her. Dona spends her days blissfully exploring her surroundings until she finds a pirate ship hidden in a remote creek near her house. She ends up falling in love with the captain of the crew – brooding, sexy stubble, will draw you like one of his French girls, you know the type – and has to make a decision: does she do what society wants her to do and stay at home with her children or does she leave everything behind for a life of sex love and adventure?

Oh yeah. It’s that kind of book. …Or is it?

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Book Review: “A Christmas Carol” (1843) by Charles Dickens

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Michael Caine in A Muppets Christmas Carol (1992).

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I should probably come right out and say that I did not grow up with A Christmas Carol. In my defense, I am neither British nor American; the story is not as culturally significant in the Netherlands as it is in other parts of the world. Until very recently, my only exposure to the story had been through snippets of the Muppets, Blackadder, and Scrooged. I had some vague idea of the plot and its characters, but I had never seen a full movie adaptation, let alone read the book. Every year I told myself that I would finally pick it up and read it for myself, and every year I either forgot or decided to read other holiday books instead (last year’s pick: Hogfather).

I think I knew that this book would be almost impossible to review. It is the quintessential Christmas read, has been adapted a billion times into other media, and has an iron-clad place in Anglo-American culture. It’s like trying to come up with a fresh perspective on Hamlet; everything has already been said – and probably much better by people much cleverer than you.

So… No pressure.

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Book Review: “Welcome To Night Vale” (2015) by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

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In the summer of 2013, Tumblr was briefly taken over by a curious little fandom – a podcast by the name of Welcome To Night Vale. Up to that point, no one had ever heard of it and those in the know had trouble explaining it to newcomers. “It’s like if Twin Peaks had a local radio show. And there were angels. And an entire civilisation of tiny people hidden underneath the bowling alley. …You kind of have to find out for yourself – just listen.” After a few days of scrolling past pictures of mysterious desert landscapes and fanart of the stars above a glowing Arby’s sign, curiosity got the best of me and I downloaded the first few episodes. An hour later, I was hooked.

Over the next couple of weeks, the smooth voice of Cecil Baldwin became my constant companion as I did my grocery shopping, folded laundry, and waited for the bus (bus not here why the bus so late). For me, this story could not have come at a better time; after my obsession with the TV show Hannibal and Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves earlier that summer, Night Vale‘s strange combination of horror and comedy fit right in. As time went on, I dusted off my rarely-used credit card to buy the crossover episode with The Thrilling Adventure Hour, got a ticket to one of the live shows, and started exploring other podcasts like Serial and The Infinite Monkey Cage. Night Vale ended up being much more than a summer obsession – it was an eye-opener.

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Book Review: “H Is For Hawk” (2014) by Helen Macdonald

Original photograph by MJ Springer.

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The first time I tried to write a review for this book, I was going to stick to the facts. I was going to marvel at what a coincidence it was that I’d read T.H. White’s The Once and Future King only a few weeks before this (review here) and comment on my mixed feelings towards its author. I was going to draw comparisons to Moby-Dick and the daemons in His Dark Materials. I’d planned to wax philosophically about how the hawk functions as a mirror in the narrative, reflecting Macdonald’s own emotions back at her, cutting her hands with its razor sharp edges.

The second time I was going to comment on how, even though my own father survived his heart attack earlier this year (which I touched upon in my review of Pyramids), I still felt that I could relate to her story of loss and bewilderment in a way that I would not have been able to before. I would have brought in other memoirs of loss, including personal favourite Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty, and knowing me, there probably would have been a reference to the Book of Job at some point.

But the picture still felt incomplete. It felt dishonest. The truth is that I could not have picked up this book at a better (or worse) time; as I was reading about Macdonald’s mourning process and her struggle to train a goshawk, I was sinking deeper and deeper into a hole of my own, clawing at the walls, unable to find my way out.

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