Friday, 15 December 2017

Something Old, Something New #1: 'Impressions of Theophrastus Such' by George Eliot

I thought it was about time I started a new series of posts and the perfect opportunity came last evening when I dragged my mother into an antique bookstore to finally indulge once again in my favourite hobby: browsing for antique books! And so came about the birth of Something Old, Something New: Adventures on my Antique Bookshelf! I have a whole collection of antique books at home, widely ranging in topic, language and age and I love researching their provenance and their peculiarities. Now, I will be sharing what I find out with you in these posts! If you yourself would like to share something about one of your books, please share a link to your post in the comments and feel free to use the banner, as long as you don't remove my name from it.

The book I found yesterday was one I had never heard of before. I have only read one book by George Eliot, which was Middlemarch, her enormous psychological novel detailing the lives, hopes and disappointments of the villagers of Middlemarch. I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected and I developed an appreciation for Eliot, yet it didn't equal the fervour I feel for authors like Emily Brontë or Jane Austen. Yet when I spotted this small book with its bright red cover and George Eliot's name on its spine I was still intrigued. Even more so when I realised it wasn't one of her more famous other works like Daniel Deronda or Adam Bede, but rather the obscure Impressions of Theocrastus Such. And so I bought it. Now what is this book about? Let's find out!

Title: Impressions of Theophrastus Such
Author: George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans)
Original Pub. Date: 1879
Original Publisher:

Price: €1
Edition: Collections of British Authors, Tauchnitz Edition, Vol. 1828 (1879)
Bought at: Fächerstadt-Antiquariat, Karlsruhe, Germany

My first action was to Google it and to find out that Wikipedia has exactly two sentences dedicated to this novel. Apparently it was her last work, published in 1879, a year before her death, as well as her most experimental work. The novel consists of 18 essays by an imaginary scholar, whose "eccentric character is revealed through his work" (Wiki). So I broadened my search and stumbled upon a great blog post on this strange novel. In it, Eliot struggles with her own philosophy, her ideas about the world, which she initially present through a character study of her main character, Theophrastus. (For a more detailed analysis of the book's content, please do read this brilliant post by The Lectern.) Theophrastus was a Greek philosopher who became a follower of Aristotle. A book called Characters is attributed to him, in which he wrote the first ever character sketches, outlining thirty moral types. Eliot was clearly inspired by him while writing Impressions, as the title makes beyond obvious.

So what about this specific edition, then? It was published by Tauchnitz, which was a German family of publishers who published English language literature (rather than translation) in mainland Europe. The Bernhard Tauchnitz business was founded on the first of February, 1837, in Leipzig, Germany. The Collection of British and American Authors, of which I believe my book to be part, was begun in 1841 and was something of a precursor to the paperback with its inexpensive reprints of classics. Despite there not being copyright protection for English and American authors in Germany at the time, Tauchnitz paid the authors royalties nonetheless. Once such protections were in place though, Tauchnitz' editions became 'Copyright Editions', and my book is one of those as the title page below states.

An incomplete list of Tauchnitz' English collection's contents exists and it's something of a Who's Who of important English authors. They published the Brontës under their male pseudonyms, Dickens was their first English publication. Thackeray is there, Sheridan, as well as Charlotte M. Yong. The list, created by Amherst College, lists the countless titles published, as well as new editions published of the same books, by year. It is absolutely fascinating to look through, especially just to get a sense of which English books were released to the German audiences through Tauchnitz and how early on. Eventually I found my edition on the list:

As you can see from the photo of the cover I shared above, the description in the list matches my copy exactly. It was quite thrilling to find the exact match and to realise that this book is then, by all accounts, from 1879. That makes this tiny book 138 years old. And all that for only €1. (Find out more about Tauchnitz here.)

So, I had figured out what the book is about and which edition it is I have. But the beautiful thing about antique books is that they come with history. There are little notes scribbled away sometimes, or perhaps your book was once a library book and it has a stamp or sticker from that library. Perhaps there is even a little note or a bookmark tucked away in the pages, forgotten about when it was sold or given away. There is only one immediately noticeable mark of history in my book, and that is a note on the front page.

It is an example of something many of us do, or at least used to. On buying or receiving a new book, you'd write the date and your name in it as a memory. My Impressions has a relatively straightforward note, seemingly. A year and a date. The year is easy to identify as 1901, and the first name is most definitely Therese. I think there are two or three options for the last name. Either it is Rout/Rous or Ront/Rons. The cursive used here could very well be Kurrent, an old form of German handwriting. Although quite recognisable, some letters do have slightly different shapes. The 'n' and 'u' for example, are practically identical except for a small wave-like symbol written above the letter for 'u'. (See the Kurrent alphabet below.) If we accept it's Kurrent, however, then her 'e's are also technically wrong. Then again, we all know what it's like to write cursive, you don't always do it perfectly. Ease of writing is as important as style, after all.

Naturally, I couldn't find anything about a 'Therese Rout' or any other form online. Most likely, she was as normal as I was, and as eager to read this book. But I like knowing someone else once held this book, that a love for reading and an interest in what a book has to offer connects me and someone from over a 100 years ago.

File:Deutsche Kurrentschrift.svg

There are also some small scribbles on the opposite page, numbers they seem to be. I think it most likely that this book was part of a personal collection or home library and that the then-owner marked it as such. The last, blank, page of the book also now has a vague pencil scribble, pricing it at €1. That is now also part of this book's provenance. I'm always tempted to write my own name into a book, perhaps below Therese's. Maybe one day this book will be found by someone else in a different bookstore, and they will trace it back all the way to 1879, but also back to 2017.

That's a nice thought to finish on, no?

Review: 'A Separation' by Katie Kitamura

A Separation fascinated me from the moment I saw it. Relationships are incredibly so interesting, the way people change during the course of them, how we lie and misunderstand. We all strive after relationships, after being close with other people, finding someone who we belong to and who belongs to us. So when the chance to read A Separation materialised, I jumped at it. Thanks to Clerkenwell Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 23/03/2017
Publisher: Clerkenwell Press

A young woman has agreed with her faithless husband: it's time for them to separate. For the moment it's a private matter, a secret between the two of them. As she begins her new life, alone, she gets word that her ex-husband has gone missing in a remote region in the rugged southern Peloponnese. Reluctantly she agrees to go and search for him, still keeping their split to herself. In her heart, she's not even sure if she wants to find him. Adrift in the wild and barren landscape, she traces the failure of their relationship, and finds that she understands less than she thought about the man she used to love. A story of intimacy, infidelity and compassion, A Separation is about the gulf that divides us from the lives of others and the narratives we create to mask our true emotions. As the narrator reflects upon her love for a man who may never have been what he appeared, Kitamura propels us into the experience of a woman on the brink of catastrophe. A Separation is a riveting masterpiece of absence and presence that will leave the reader astonished, and transfixed.
We meet our unnamed narrator at the end of her relationship. They have decided to separate and are now floating in that space between on and off, married and divorced, together and apart. For a while now they haven't seen each other and our narrator has, in a sense moved on with her life. And yet this separation isn't final, no one has spoken yet of divorce although she is pretty sure she wants it. They haven't even told anyone yet that they are separated, it is a secret, shamefully kept private. In that situation a call arrives from her (still) mother-in-law who demands she flies to Greece to find her (still) husband. And she says yes. Because how can she not when no one knows, when she is technically still a wife and when she needs to talk to him anyway. And from there a constant conflict begins within her between duty and freedom. A Separation is about how things end, how we let go and how maybe sometimes we can't.

It's strangely difficult to put A Separation down. Kitamura crafts a narrative that intrigues and makes the reader desperate to know more. What happens to people when they separate, what happens when people lose each other? Because Kitamura's narrator is unnamed, while everyone else is named, you feel the erasure of self that exists in her, and many other relationships. She exists in relation to others. We get to know her based on how she interacted with her husband, her parents-in-law, friends, but we also see her struggling with defining herself as an individual. We are in her head but we are also outside of it. The lack of clarity, the confusion of emotions, it is very recognisable for anyone who has been in a relationship or has had a relationship end. Although marketed as a mystery, I wouldn't really classify A Separation as such. It is a psychological book, a book about humans and emotions. There will be moments of realisation similar to a mystery novel, but they won't be about the plot, but rather about what the events of the plot reveal to you about yourself, about humans. It's also a sad book, tragic, but also beautiful in its own way. You're in a character's head and like you're own head, you can never be quite sure where it's going. But the journey is always interesting.

Katie Kitamura strikes a very impressive balance in A Separation, writing an engrossing novel in a very passive voice. We don't really know her main character, she responds rather than acts, and dialogue isn't set apart with quotation marks. As such, reading A Separation isn't always as easy as reading other books is. You have to work on it, you have to dig into the narrator and see who she is, what she wants. In a way Kitamura here echoes the process of forging a relationship. It is difficult to know who people are, what they hide away, what they're not telling you. So you have to go into it with trust and goodwill, mining every small detail for meaning. She is investigating herself and her emotions, and so are we. I loved this about A Separation because the reader is as much a passive observer of the narrator's relationship as she is in that moment. We are both trying to understand what happened, and how it happened. And there is no perfect, happy end to that query.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

I adored A Separation and couldn't put it down. I was drawn into Kitamura's narrator's mind and  found myself caring. I also realised I was investigating myself as her narrator investigated herself. A Separation is a special book, but also one that is probably not for everyone. I'd recommend it to readers interested in Literary Fiction.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Review: 'Demi-Gods' by Eliza Robertson

I was excited about reading this novel from the moment I saw it. The blurb really grabbed me and I couldn't wait to see how Robertson would bring all these different ideas and themes together. Young Adult and teenage years are rife with potential complications, issues and questions, and I don't think I'm ever going to get tired of reading about it. Thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 02/11/2017
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

A bold debut novel reminiscent of Emma Cline's The Girls; a story of love, lust and the spaces in between, from a 'captivating' (New York Times) new voice in fiction 
It is 1950, and Willa’s mother has a new beau. The arrival of his blue-eyed, sun-kissed sons at Willa’s summer home signals the end of her safe childhood. As her entrancing older sister Joan pairs off with Kenneth, nine-year-old Willa is drawn to his strange and solitary younger brother, Patrick.  
Left to their own devices, Willa is swept up in Patrick’s wicked games. As they grow up, their encounters become increasingly charged with sexuality and degradation. But when Willa finally tries to reverse the trajectory of their relationship, an act of desperation has devastating results. 
Unfolding between the wild freedoms of British Columbia and the glittering beaches of California, Demi-Gods explores a girl’s attempt to forge a path of her own choosing in a world where female independence is suspect. Sensitive, playful and entirely original, Eliza Robertson is one of the most exciting new voices in contemporary literature.
There is something about Demi-Gods that made in "unputdownable" for me. (I know that isn't a word, but let's just roll with it for now!) I was intrigued by the story, by where Robertson would lead us next, what we would discover about the characters as well as ourselves. So I was in deep, in a way. However, there was also something about Demi-Gods that let me sort of drift at the surface. As the reader, you're very much observing these characters. You aren't as immersed in them as in other novels, yet still very engaged with them. The novel is very descriptive and Robertson dedicates a lot of time to observations. You see Willa, Joan, Kenneth and Patrick go through life, make their choices, make their mistakes, and there is something that feels inevitable about it all. Although Demi-Gods is a short read, it doesn't feel like it. It is also quite a weird and upsetting novel, but this shouldn't stop anyone from reading it. Rather, it is something that should recommend it to you.

A big part of the novel is dedicated to the continuous meeting of Willa and Patrick and how their relationship develops over the course of these meetings. As the blurb describes it, their meetings are 'increasingly charged with sexuality and degradation'. Set in the '50s, Robertson shows how aware she is of the strict gender rules that existed and shows her various female characters struggling with these. Willa's encounters with Patrick are a rush, both for her and the reader, a situation in which neither knows exactly what is happening. Yet once they are over, and the reality of what has happened sinks in, there is always the sense of unease, of something not quite right. Analysing the power balance, or rather imbalance, between them is fascinating and it makes Demi-Gods a topical and interesting read. In that sense it is definitely reminiscent of Emma Cline's The Girls, in that both novels look at what happens to girls left alone, girls struggling for some kind of power.

This is Eliza Robertson's debut novel and I'm always wowed by the skill and deftness with which many new authors craft their novels. Demi-Gods sometimes reads like a confessional, as if Willa is unburdening herself to the reader, trying to finally come to term with everything that happened. Robertson weaves the narrative very carefully, using both "real time" and frequent and chronological flashbacks to show what happened. If not welded together properly, this shifting back and forth can be off-putting and confusing. Thankfully it worked really well in Demi-Gods. The writing style might take some time to get used to, as dialogue isn't clearly marked separately from descriptions, but it works very well. The novel very much attempts to capture a feeling or a sense of something, rather than tell a complex story. Demi-Gods has a relatively straightforward plot, yet Robertson explores the slightly uncomfortable yet fascinating time of teen life with aplomb.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I really enjoyed reading Demi-Gods. Eliza Robertson dives head first into what it's like to be a teenager, but also deftly analyses gender and power. I definitely can't wait for Eliza Robertson's future novels! I'd recommend this to anyone who enjoys Young Adult novels..

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Review: ‘Debriefing: Collected Stories’ by Susan Sontag, ed. by Benjamin Taylor

Susan Sontag is one of those writers I have been intending to read. It is her essays that were mostly on my mind, her writings on war, illness, culture and art. But for me, essays are something I have to actively be in the mood for. Unlike short stories or novels, it is not as easy to sink away into an essay. There are arguments to be followed, facts to take in, statements to agree or disagree with. So when I saw that there was a collection of short stories by Sontag coming out I figured it would be as good a, if not a better, introduction to this fascinating woman as her essays. And they certainly worked for me. Thanks to Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 14/11/2017
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Debriefing collects all of Susan Sontag’s shorter fiction, a form she turned to intermittently throughout her writing life. The book ranges from allegory to parable to autobiography and shows her wrestling with problems not assimilable to the essay, her more customary mode. Here she catches fragments of life on the fly, dramatizes her private griefs and fears, lets characters take her where they will. The result is a collection of remarkable brilliance, versatility, and charm. Sontag’s work has typically required time for people to catch up to it. These challenging works of literary art—made more urgent by the passage of years—await a new generation of readers. This is an invaluable record of the creative output of one of the most inquisitive and analytical thinkers of the twentieth century at the height of her power.
 For me, one of the clearest descriptions of, and keys to, this collection comes from the blurb:
"The book ranges from allegory to parable to autobiography and shows her wrestling with problems not assimilable to the essay, her more customary mode."
In the stories collected in Debriefing you can feel the wrestling that Sontag is doing. An essay requires a driving thrust, a clear argument towards a resolution or at the very least a suggestion. The issues addressed in these stories can’t be resolved that way, so Sontag battles with them in short stories. Each story is full of questions, partially rhetorical and meant to go unanswered, but partially also desperately waiting for someone to provide an answer. The stories in and of themselves will not necessarily give you any answers or solutions, rather, they will drop you into a situation and make you consider it, join Sontag in approaching it from different angles, and recognize your own questions in hers. There is no clear link, per se, that ties these different stories together, except for the fact that they all deal, in a way, with the human condition. Adolescent desire for adulthood, parenthood, wanderlust, love, companionship, illness, it all features in Debriefing in one way or another.

Perhaps my favourite stories in Debriefing are the ones in which Sontag gives us her take on a book or an author. The first story in the collection, ‘Pilgrimage’, deals with a young girl and her friend meeting a literary idol. The way in which Sontag captures the adolescent fervor with which her protagonist immerses herself in books, as well as her teenage awkwardness at meeting a hero, rings incredibly true and will make it a very recognizable story for any bibliophile. ‘The Letter Scene’ is another stunning story in which Sontag takes on love, Onegin and letter writing, all while digging deeper into how we communicate and why. ‘Doktor Jekyll’ is a fascinating take on the famous Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, while ‘The Dummy’ is both chilling and hilarious at the same time. ‘Baby’ strikes a similar tone, making the reader both deeply uncomfortable while making them laugh. The stories come from many different places, either clearly inspired by other books or drawn from personal experiences. On the one hand the stories probably reveal a lot about Sontag, about the things she struggled with, was interested in or hopelessly lost about. On the other hand, there is enough remove for someone who doesn’t know much about Sontag to be able to sink into each story as they go.

Sontag’s writing is potentially not for everyone. It is very “wordy”, to put it one way. Where other authors might use two words, Sontag uses two sentences to get to a point. Her language meanders, expands, evades and uncovers. For me, her writing style felt very much like the way thoughts work, without becoming an internal monologue. A story is clearly being told, but chronology or argument doesn’t really hold sway. The story will go where it goes, if it is inspired to move one way now and the other later, then that is what it will do. This can definitely be confusing but it also keeps the story fresh and engaging. Sontag uses different forms throughout the stories collected in Debriefing. Some stories are made up of bullet points, in others we only get one side of a dialogue. Then there are those which feel mystical and those who deal honestly with real life diseases. Sontag’s writing shines through all of these stories for me, always turning a phrase or sentence into something more. Her writing is very descriptive but never sinks into melodrama for me. And some of these stories will stay with me for a long time.

I give this collection…
4 Universes!

I really enjoyed reading Debriefing! Sontag’s stories have something absurd yet highly recognizable about them, as if someone has taking an everyday problem and makes you look at it through a prism. You know what you’re seeing and yet you’re not quite sure how it all comes together, or even if it can come together. Although Debriefing may not be for everyone, I would definitely recommend it to those interested in challenging short stories.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Review: ‘Stay With Me’ by Ayòbàmi Adébáyò

Stay with MeBeautiful books are often painful. They are the kind of books that reach inside of you and touch that sore spot that makes you want to weep. These aren’t the kinds of books that lay it on thick, where the plot is dramatized just to make you cry. Rather, they are honest books, in which despite all good intentions things go wrong, where people get hurt and nothing could have prevented it. They are the kinds of books that celebrate human life in all its painful glory. Stay With Me was one of those books for me and it will stay with me for a long time. Thanks to Canongate Books and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 02/03/2017
Publisher: Canongate Books
'There are things even love can't do . . . If the burden is too much and stays too long, even love bends, cracks, comes close to breaking and sometimes does break. But even when it's in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn't mean it's no longer love . . .' 
Yejide is hoping for a miracle, for a child. It is all her husband wants, all her mother in-law wants, and she has tried everything - arduous pilgrimages, medical consultations, dances with prophets, appeals to God. But when her in-laws insist upon a new wife, it is too much for Yejide to bear. It will lead to jealousy, betrayal and despair. 
Unravelling against the social and political turbulence of 80s Nigeria, Stay With Me sings with the voices, colours, joys and fears of its surroundings. Ayobami Adebayo weaves a devastating story of the fragility of married love, the undoing of family, the wretchedness of grief, and the all-consuming bonds of motherhood. It is a tale about our desperate attempts to save ourselves and those we love from heartbreak.
It shouldn’t be hard to guess from my introduction that I loved this book. Part of why I started a book blog was in order to read more books from across the world because I fervently believe that reading a culture’s literature is one of the key ways of understanding it. There is always an initial hurdle to overcome when reading a book from outside your own culture, whether it is new and strange expressions, traditions and habits you don’t recognize, or settings and names that are foreign to you. However, these end up enriching your reading experience as the book truly allows you to settle into a different place. This was the case with Stay With Me. Adébáyò does not compromise herself for non-Nigerian readers. The book is filled with Nigerian phrases, folklore and traditions, as well as capturing the turbulent years around the military coup. Adébáyò describes her country both honestly and lovingly, and by the end of the book I was desperate to know more about Nigeria.

Parenthood, and especially, motherhood is central to Adébáyò’s Stay With Me. Ayide and Akin want children, desperately, both of their own accord as well as to meet external expectations of a large family. As grandmothers, neighbours and siblings make their wishes known, Ayide and Akin struggle for ways to cope with the pressure in their own ways. Adébáyò captures beautifully how deeply tied maternity is to femininity. To be a mother is to truly become a woman, according to many, and Ayide’s lack of children is taken as a sign of defectiveness. As she resorts to folklore for help, so Akin is pressured to find himself another wife. Without meaning to give anything away, I was very impressed with how Stay With Me showed the blame being placed on Ayide and the pressure being placed on Akin, while their own realities and truths tell them something else. In this quagmire of expectations and wishes, Ayide and Akin find themselves making choice after choice, each understandable and yet damning in its turn. Adébáyò tells their story with a gentleness that is almost painful, while never leaving anything out. By the end of the novel, the reader has been through the wringer with her characters and although they may have wished things had been different, the reader also knows why these things had to happen. Can you tell how carefully I am trying to phrase this so as not to ruin any of it for you?

Stay With Me is beautifully heartbreaking. With an honest tenderness, Adébáyò guides us through the lives of her characters and shows us how the wheel of fortune keeps on rolling. Sometimes you're on top, but before you know it you find yourself at the bottom again. Stay With Me is divided into chapters from Ayide and Akin's point of view, as well as moving back between the present and the past, in order to paint as complete a picture of their lives. By moving in time, Adébáyò is able to show us consequences before the actions, the pain before the happiness, and vice versa. It's hard to describe just how Adébáyò manages to describe her characters' emotions so honestly yet beautifully, to the point where there were moments where reading Stay With Me physically hurt. But in a good way. In the end, Stay With Me is achingly human, full of happiness, sadness, and you should definitely read it. Like now. Go.

I give this novel…

5 Universes!

I adored Stay With Me. It wasn't until the book was over that I truly realised just how much it had truly touched me. Now, days after reading it, Stay With Me is still on my mind and I can't wait to reread it. I'd definitely recommend this to anyone interested in Literary Fiction and African Literature.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Review: 'House of Names' by Colm Tóibín

I love Greek myths and legends so much. They were some of the first stories that ignited my passion for reading and literature and mythology, and they have been a constant companion. I know them in a way you know your childhood home. You can’t necessarily always picture it clearly, but if you close your eyes you always find your way around, remember which step creaks and where the cookies are hidden. As such, adaptations of them strike a double chord with me. They both excite me and worry me, because what are they going to do with my stories? I have had both good and bad experiences with these adaptations, and somehow House of Names falls in between. Thanks to Viking and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 18/05/2017
Publisher: Viking; Penguin Books
'They cut her hair before they dragged her to the place of sacrifice. Her mouth was gagged to stop her cursing her father, her cowardly, two-tongued father. Nonetheless, they heard her muffled screams.' 
On the day of his daughter's wedding, Agamemnon orders her sacrifice.

His daughter is led to her death, and Agamemnon leads his army into battle, where he is rewarded with glorious victory.

Three years later, he returns home and his murderous action has set the entire family - mother, brother, sister - on a path of intimate violence, as they enter a world of hushed commands and soundless journeys through the palace's dungeons and bedchambers. As his wife seeks his death, his daughter, Electra, is the silent observer to the family's game of innocence while his son, Orestes, is sent into bewildering, frightening exile where survival is far from certain. Out of their desolating loss, Electra and Orestes must find a way to right these wrongs of the past even if it means committing themselves to a terrible, barbarous act.
House of Names is a story of intense longing and shocking betrayal. It is a work of great beauty, and daring, from one of our finest living writers.
Greek mythology is a curious beast. On the one hand it pervades Western culture to the extent that everyone will know at least one tale. Our planets are named after the Greek Gods’ Latinized counterparts and Homer is a staple of any literature course. On the other hand, the finer intricacies of it, the way in which the mythology builds on each other, the way our view of it was shaped by those who came after, that makes Greek mythology a tricky thing to truly grasp. Adaptations, then, of these myths and legends find themselves in a precarious position. Some novels go completely the wrong way and try to make Greek mythology something it isn’t, while others try to dig deeper into what the extant tales try to tell us. The Greek myths are as tragic and dramatic as they come, full of careless gods and tortured humans, but they are also full of beautiful images and humanity.

Something about House of Names left me wanting. On the surface there truly is nothing to complain about when it comes to Tóibín’s novel. He treats his characters with respect, he paints beautiful images with his words and has a number of high-stakes moments in his plot. And yet I never truly got involved with it all. Perhaps my standards were too high. When I visited Greece as a child I lived and breathed these stories, knew them inside out and was completely enraptured by them. Their drama, their language, their scope and depth; in comparison to it House of Names fell flat for me. A novel that did incredibly well at capturing the essence of Greek mythology was The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, in which she made the character of Penelope her own while also sinking into the richness that the source material offered her. I liked the chapters around Clytemnestra and Electra, mainly because, like Penelope and Helen, they are sidelined in the originals, yet even those never go me truly got me excited. Also, strangely, in my edition of the book, their chapters are written from the first person, whereas Orestes’ chapters are third person, removing the reader even further from his character.

Tóibín writes very well. He sets scenes up perfectly, captures emotions and mindsets very well and at the end of the book you want more. I personally wanted more because I knew were the story was going and because I was curious how Tóibín would handle it. But I’ve also seen other reviewers saying they wanted more. And yet it is told in a way I can only call dispassionate. The House of Atreus is a doomed house, a cursed house, full of murder, betrayal and vengeance, yet Tóibín brings to it the same passion you would to a shopping list. My problem with House of Names, I think, lies with that he tries to justify or moralize why what happens had to happen. Agamemnon had to sacrifice Iphigenia because he was under pressure from his army. As an outraged mother and sidelined queen, revenge seems a natural option for Clytemnestra. As the only son, Orestes has to avenge his father, even if he is perhaps not quite convinced of it himself. The Greek stories allow for destiny, they deal in absolutes and don’t require moralizing because we recognize that push from destiny. Greek tragedy didn’t really deal with the psychology behind their characters, yet Aeschylus and the others filled their characters with life. By moralizing and attempting to explain, much of the magic is lost and in the end none of the characters are truly likeable. This was my first Tóibín read, and although House of Names convinced me he is a good writer, I don’t know if I’ll want to pick up another one of his books anytime soon.

I give this book…
3 Universes!

Although I enjoyed House of Names, it didn’t blow me away or engrossed me as much as I had hoped. The characterization was there, but left me wanting for something deeper, something more true to the source. House of Names would make for an easy introduction to adaptations of Greek mythology, without requiring a massive knowledge of said mythology.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Review: 'The World of Lore, V1: Monstrous Creatures' by Aaron Mahnke

I was raised on fairy tales and legends from across the world. I remember very clearly the exact shelf on which we had the books through which I would pour, looking for strange stories both from our world and not, full of strange creatures and strange happenings.This translated into an adult fascination with mythology and the persistent question of 'Why?'. So when I saw Magnke's The World of Lore, I could hardly contain my excitement. And it proved to be exactly what I hoped and wanted. Thanks to Headline and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 10/10/2017
Publisher: Headline; Wildfire
A fascinating, beautifully illustrated guide to the monsters that are part of our collective psyche, from the host of the hit podcast Lore 
They live in shadows - deep in the forest, late in the night, in the dark recesses of our mind. They're spoken of in stories and superstitions, relics of an unenlightened age, old wives' tales, passed down through generations. And yet, no matter how wary and jaded we have become, as individuals or as a society, a part of us remains vulnerable to them. Werewolves and wendigos, poltergeists and vampires, angry elves and vengeful spirits. 
In this beautifully illustrated volume, the host of the hit podcast Lore serves as a guide on a fascinating journey through the history of these terrifying creatures, and explores not only the legends but what they tell us about ourselves. Aaron Mahnke invites us to the desolate Pine Barrens of New Jersey, where the notorious winged, red-eyed Jersey Devil dwells. Mahnke delves into harrowing accounts of cannibalism-some officially documented, others the stuff of speculation . . . perhaps. He visits the dimly lit rooms where séances take place, the European villages where gremlins make mischief, and Key West, Florida, home of a haunted doll named Robert. 
The monsters of folklore have become not only a part of our language but a part of our collective psyche. Whether these beasts and bogeymen are real or just a reflection of our primal fears, we know, on some level, that not every mystery has been explained, and that the unknown still holds the power to strike fear deep in our hearts and souls. 
As Aaron Mahnke reminds us, sometimes the truth is even scarier than the lore...
I am dreadfully unaware of podcasts. It's the one thing I keep telling myself to get more invested in because I actually love listening to people tell me about things they are fascinated by and knowledgeable of. It's like being back at university, and I am one of those people who wishes they could just remain at university indefinitely. The World of Lore is another one of those pushes to finally get my act together and start listening, since this book is based on an incredibly popular podcast, 'Lore', by the author. I'm not surprised the podcast is that popular, since the topic is something that everyone at some point finds themselves fascinated with. As Mahnke argues himself in the book as well, humans yearn for stories that contextualise our existence in this world, that bring order and clarity, that explain what is happening and why, that shift some of the blame away from us and onto something we can't control. And the incredible similarity between all of these stories is what truly fascinates me as well. Whether it's South America, northern Europe or South-East Asia, every culture has tales of trickster spirits, dwarves or elves.

The World of Lore is very well-structured. This may sound like a silly thing to pay attention to, but it's actually very important. Each chapter is clearly defined and the creatures he discusses are well-organised. Rather than jumping from one to the other, Mahnke makes to transition from one to the other logical, showing why they are put together as they are. Each description is a great mixture between history, myth and fact, as Mahnke shares both "documented" cases of creatures appearing as well as the research that has been done to prove or disprove their existence. Can you truly believe hidden, invisible people populate Iceland? Perhaps no, but construction work ignoring "their" sites do run into an awful lot of trouble, don't they? It's this balance that makes The World of Lore so much fun to read, because you always walk away from it wondering if maybe it couldn't actually all be true.

Mahnke's writing is definitely what makes this book. Under anyone else it could have easily become a dry book, full of old facts with no life to them. As The World of Lore is now, I can easily see why the podcast is as popular as it is. Mahnke's writing is direct and to the point, almost as if you're actually sitting down with him and having a conversation. He addresses the reader straight on, shares his own scepticism and fascination, and brings a wealth of information to the table. The book makes you hungry to listen to the podcast, to learn more, and surely that is what every book should do? Mahnke's enthusiasm is infectious and it's scarily easy to just keep reading. I almost missed my metro stop more times than I'd like to admit. This book also has brilliant illustrations, which strike that perfect Tim Burton-balance between amusing and creepy.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

The World of Lore is a great read for anyone even slightly curious about the legends and stories surrounding us. Mahnke collects the best and leaves you wanting more. Never dull, The World of Lore makes you desperate to camp out at night in the hopes to catch something mysterious. I'd recommend this to anyone with even the slightest curiosity! Also, this is the perfect book to read in the run up to Halloween!