Monday, 19 August 2019

Review: 'A Double Life' by Karolina Pavlova, trans. by Barbara Heldt

My "mission" when starting this blog was to spread my literary horizons and read more authors from other countries and cultures. A large part of this has been reading novels in translation and publishers liek Columbia University Press and Pushkin Press have been incredible helpful to me in spreading my wings. The latest translated read was A Double Life and it had an incredibly impact on me. Thanks to Columbia University Press and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 08/06/2019
Publisher: Columbia University Press
A classic of Russian women's writing that combines poetry and prose
An unsung classic of nineteenth-century Russian literature, Karolina Pavlova’s A Double Life alternates prose and poetry to offer a wry picture of Russian aristocratic society and vivid dreams of escaping its strictures. Pavlova combines rich narrative prose that details balls, tea parties, and horseback rides with poetic interludes that depict her protagonist’s inner world—and biting irony that pervades a seemingly romantic description of a young woman who has everything. 
A Double Life tells the story of Cecily, who is being trapped into marriage by her well-meaning mother; her best friend, Olga; and Olga’s mother, who means to clear the way for a wealthier suitor for her own daughter by marrying off Cecily first. Cecily’s privileged upbringing makes her oblivious to the havoc that is being wreaked around her. Only in the seclusion of her bedroom is her imagination freed: each day of deception is followed by a night of dreams described in soaring verse. Pavlova subtly speaks against the limitations placed on women and especially women writers, which translator Barbara Heldt highlights in a critical introduction. Among the greatest works of literature by a Russian woman writer, A Double Life is worthy of a central place in the Russian canon. 
Karolina Pavlova, born Karolina Jaenisch in 1807, was a Russian poet and translator and presided over a famous Moscow literary salon. She died in Dresden in 1893, having abandoned Russia not because of tsarist oppression but because of hostile criticism of her poetry and her personal life. A Double Life is her major work. 
Barbara Heldt is professor emerita of Russian at the University of British Columbia. Her books include Koz’ma Prutkov: The Art of Parody(1973) and Terrible Perfection: Women and Russian Literature (1987). 
As this translation comes from Columbia University Press, it has a solid introduction which is great. Karolina Pavlova was a fascinating poet and author who has not received the kind of praise she deserves. From an early age she showed incredible talent and, after her marriage, hosted a literary saloon at her home, gathering there with brilliant authors from both Western and Eastern European countries. After her marriage ended she first lived in what is now Estonia, and then Dresden, Germany, continuing to write and translate Russian fiction. Throughout her life she struggled against the criticism she received, not for her poems but for being a female poet. Poetry and literature belonged to the men and so they critiqued her publicly and viciously, even if they privately admired her work. And so she disappeared from the list of of great Russian writers of the 19th century. A Double Life seems to rise from a lot of Pavlova's own experiences, but above all her love for poetry.

In A Double Life we get to know Cecily von Lindenborn, a girl growing up in the Russian elite. Her world has been so restricted to make her proper that to us she seems an almost stunted creature. As Pavlova writes:
'Now, at eighteen, she was so used to wearing her mind in a corset that she felt it no more than she did the silk undergarments that she took off only at night.'
She can only do as she has been told, except at night, when her mind unravels itself and spreads out in the most beautiful poetry. See, in A Double Life Pavlova brings together both prose and poetry, the latter used solely for Cecily's dreams. It is at night that she can rise out of her restraints and her dreams warn her of what is truly happening around her, how she is being played with and how truly unprepared she is for it. Initially I looked at Cecily as a silly girl, distracted and naive, until Pavlova's truth really hit home. This is how we raise girls, not knowing how restrained they are, unaware of the tests they're being set up to fail. A Double Life is heartbreaking, as Cecily's mind clamors at night while completely barred away during the day. She is set up for pain and doesn't seem to realize it until it is way to late. A Double Life is a feminist novel, even if that may not have been Pavlova's attention in mid-1800s. It's message that women suffer under repression, not just physically but especially mentally and emotionally. That not allowing them to express themselves truly cuts off a part of them. That having a daughter only to marry her off is cruel. And we know these things, but the fact that it hurts to read it means it is as true as ever.

Pavlova is a masterful writer. Although A Double Life is typical in many ways, following a young girl in love as she moves between social engagements towards a marriage, it goes much deeper. There is a sharp analysis of the society she is describing. An especially painful passage looks at the poorer relatives kept around as servants, desperate to stay near the glow of the rich. Pavlova finds that sore spot most of us have and isn't afraid to press it, which makes it even more outrageous her work was described as clinical and cold by her contemporaries. There is anger here, and pain, and a thirst for freedom of mind. A Double Life is a novel I will be rereading, often. From the soaring poetry to the honest prose, this is a brilliant, feminist even, novel that should be much more prominent than it is.

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

A Double Life blew me away in a way I hadn't expected. Set aside the dresses, the mansions and the carriages and you have a story about a girl who's mind is rebelling and in pain, who is unaware of what path she is on because she has never been taught to think of her life critically. A Double Life is an important and beautiful novel I would recommend to everyone.

Review: 'Never Have I Ever' by Joshilyn Jackson

I spent much of last week at a beautiful beach in Vietnam and knew I would need a good beach read, the kind of book that gives you all the tension and all the twists and turns, while also not distracting you from the beautiful calm you're surrounded by. And Never Have I Ever was the perfect read for that. Thanks to Raven Books, Bloomsbury Publishing and NeGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 08/08/2019
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.; Raven Books
It starts as a game at a book group one night. Never Have I Ever... done something I shouldn't. 
But Amy Whey has done something she shouldn't. And Roux, the glamorous newcomer to Amy's suburban neighbourhood, knows exactly what that is. 
Roux promises she will go away. She will take herself and her son, who is already growing dangerously close to Amy's teenage stepdaughter, and she will go. If Amy plays by her rules. 
But Amy isn't prepared to lose everything she's built. She's going to fight back, and in this escalating game of cat and mouse, there can be only one winner.
One of the things that stood out most to me in Never Have I Ever was the importance of diving to Amy, and no, this isn't a spoiler. Diving is something that she feels saves her and there are a few moments during Jackson's novel where Amy goes off and dives, surrounds herself with the calmness of the sea and decompresses. The reason these moments in the novel stood out to me is because it elevated Never Have I Ever above the usual shlocky suspense novel. Yes. the dramatic twists were still there, the novel was outrageous and nuts, but Jackson let her main character have moments to contemplate and to gather strength. In many of the novels the characters run around frantically, making move after move without ever really growing or even really establishing themselves. This means that they're easily forgotten after the book is finished, as we stayed with them only for the twists and turns. As Jackson gave her character the time to breathe, the reader breathes with her and I found myself caring much more about the outcome. I also really want to go scuba diving now.

Amy's good life is turned upside down when one day a new woman appears in her neighborhood, Roux, who seems to know everything. Either Amy will pay her with the savings she has left, or Roux will blow up the life Amy has built for herself. She decides to play, recognizing the satisfaction Roux gains from digging into other people's lives. What will she do? How far will she go? What is she willing to sacrifice? And how much more will be revealed? These are all the questions you want answered in a book like this and Jackson delivers. It takes a while to really get into Never Have I Ever, but the last third of the novel will have you gripped by the throat. I found myself caring for Amy more than I do for most of the protagonists in similar novels. Jackson explores the darkness and the desperation inside her, the deep love she feels but also the solid fear. You're invested as a reader because Jackson's focus on Amy makes the twists and turns seem a lot more realistic.

I hadn't read any of Joshilyn Jackson's previous novels so I came in completely new. What had really drawn me in was the blurb and knowing I would have time to really soak in the novel. The first few chapters of Never Have I Ever may feel slow but do set up the groundwork for the rest of the novel. There is a slow build up of tension around Roux, there is a growing awareness that Amy isn't as normal as she presents herself, and then there is constantly escalating game between Amy and Roux. The 'never have I ever' game of the novel happens in the first chapter, but the overall game is a lot darker. How far will either of them go? Where does this ability to lie and break others come from? Jackson infuses each scene with details ripped from life, which means that Never Have I Ever is very grounded for a mystery and suspense novel. Oddly enough, I wasn't too big a fan of the final twist of the novel, or rather the extent of that twist. I don't want to go into any details, but it felt like an odd step for a novel that had so far seemed very interested in that shade of grey between good and evil.

I give this book...

3 Universes!

Never Have I Ever is a great suspense novel with high stakes and beautiful moments. It is sometimes a love letter to friendships and family, but also an exploration of desperation. I'd recommend this to those looking for a gripping suspense read.

Sunday, 28 July 2019

Review: 'The Toll' by Cherie Priest

I was first intrigued by this novel's premise, the idea of a dark secret hidden in the swamp. Growing up in northern Europe, I am horrible unfamiliar with American swamps so they always sound mystical to me. They also sound like a place where I could absolutely not thrive. So of course I had to explore this Southern Gothic horror novel. Thanks to Tor Books and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 7/9/2019
Publisher: Tor Books; MacMillan -Tor/Forge
From Cherie Priest, the author of The Family Plot and Maplecroft, comes The Toll, a tense, dark, and scary treat for modern fans of the traditionally strange and macabre.
Take a road trip into a Southern gothic horror novel. 
Titus and Melanie Bell are on their honeymoon and have reservations in the Okefenokee Swamp cabins for a canoeing trip. But shortly before they reach their destination, the road narrows into a rickety bridge with old stone pilings, with room for only one car. 
Much later, Titus wakes up lying in the middle of the road, no bridge in sight. Melanie is missing. When he calls the police, they tell him there is no such bridge on Route 177 . . 
Most of my focus when it comes to studying or just reading literature has been on English literature, as in books written in the United Kingdom. As such, Southern Gothic is really unfamiliar to me. Doing some research into it, I discovered that many of the aspects I enjoyed about The Toll were elements of the Southern Gothic genre. The presence of horrific thoughts, grotesque characters and a deep sense of alienation, as well as, of course, a dark sense of humour. The genre looks at the dark tragedy behind the idyllic pastoral ideal, as well as the Freudian idea of the repressed. It is a very potent genre, one that has given us authors like Edgar Allan Poe, as well as Tennessee Williams.

The Toll starts with Cameron, observing his two god-mothers gardening. They're fascinating little women, and he is a very bored teenager. The plot of The Toll starts with Titus and Melanie Bell, fresh off their wedding, heading into the Okefenokee Swamp. Their bickering is just on the wrong side of constant, with some real angry undertones. They drive up to a suspicious bridge and before he knows it, Titus wakes up outside his car, having lost both time and his new wife. The rest of the novel takes place over the following few days as Titus encounters various inhabitants of Staywater in the search of his wife. The storylines of both Cameron and Titus are told alongside each other, but only entwine towards the ends. I would have loved to see more of the swamp, although the novel only truly moved there towards the end of the book. Overall, The Toll is an atmospheric tale that perhaps could have dug a little bit deeper.

I hadn't read anything by Cherie Priest before, although The Family Plot is on my list. The Toll is an interesting story but there is a lot going on with it. In general, the characterization is pretty on point. Cameron sounds like a seventeen year old boy, which means that at times he is very self-involved and annoying. His godmothers are lovely old women who are definitely hiding things. At times their sassiness is a little bit too much feeling more contrived than realistic, but I liked them anyway. Titus is a little harder to suss out as he is not really likable. At times the plot feels rushed, with not as much time spent on exploring motivations as just having them go through the steps. SOme really interesting ideas were underdeveloped, which was a shame. Sometimes The Toll really grabbed my attention and at other times I had to focus to stay interested. I wanted to like the novel more than I did, in the end, but there were some undeniably strong moments in this novel. 

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

The Toll excels when it focuses on its folklore elements and lets the swamp do its work. The other elements of Priest's novel don't always work, but it does make for an interesting read. I'd recommend it to those wanting to dive into the Southern Gothic genre.

Review: 'The Big Book of Classic Fantasy' by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

I adore Fantasy, no ifs or buts about it. My first introduction to Fantasy were fairy tales, which showed me the magic of the everyday as well as the possibilities of the extraordinary. From there I moved to The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series. A  lot of the Fantasy I consumed was very European and very Western, and it is only in the past few years I've been able to expand on it through books like Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi and Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean. I have loved expanding my Fantasy horizons and The Big Book of Classic Fantasy was a great way of digging deeper into the diverse roots of my favourite genre. Thanks to Knopf Doubledat, Vintage and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date:7/2/2019
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group; Vintage

Unearth the enchanting origins of fantasy fiction with a collection of tales as vast as the tallest tower and as mysterious as the dark depths of the forest. 
Fantasy stories have always been with us. They illuminate the odd and the uncanny, the wondrous and the fantastic: all the things we know are lurking just out of sight—on the other side of the looking-glass, beyond the music of the impossibly haunting violin, through the twisted trees of the ancient woods. Other worlds, talking animals, fairies, goblins, demons, tricksters, and mystics: these are the elements that populate a rich literary tradition that spans the globe. A work composed both of careful scholarship and fantastic fun, The Big Book of Classic Fantasy is essential reading for anyone who’s never forgotten the stories that first inspired feelings of astonishment and wonder.
*Stories by pillars of the genre like the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Mary Shelley, Christina Rossetti, L. Frank Baum, Robert E. Howard, and J. R. R. Tolkien*Fantastical offerings from literary giants including Edith Wharton, Leo Tolstoy, Willa Cather, Zora Neale Hurston, Vladimir Nabokov, Hermann Hesse, and W.E.B. Du Bois*Rare treasures from Asian, Eastern European, Scandinavian, and Native American traditions*New translations, including fourteen stories never before in English
Collections of any genre are tricky. What, and perhaps more importantly who, do you include. How do you organize it? Do you go chronologically or thematically? Do you introduce each story or do you let them speak for themselves? In the end, no single collection can encompass an entire genre or reflect all its nuances. However, The Big Book of Classic Fantasy does a brilliant job at showing just how wide the Fantasy genre is. Covering the time period from the 1800s to World War II, the Big Book gives its readers both the usual suspects and some rather unexpected ones. I was not looking for Franz Kafka in a Fantasy collection, and yet his story fits in perfectly with the other ones. The Big Book does contain many stories never  before translated into English and a few non-Western stories, but not as many as I would have liked. However, overall the collection shows how all-encompassing the Fantasy genre is and just how much variety it has to offer to its readers.

It's hard to pick a favourite story but there were a few key standouts for me. One of my absolute favourites was 'Furnica, or The Queen of Ants', which first appeared in 1893 and is written by Pauline Elisabeth Ottilie Luise Zu Wied, the Queen Consort (!) of Romania. I discovered a whole new author for me to be fascinated by and the story itself is a tragic story about 'love and responsibility'. Another favourite was 'The Ensouled Violin' by Helena Blavatsky, inspired by a nightmare and full of music, body horror and black magic. It's a stunning story that is also slighty terrifying. Another story I wanted to highlight was 'The Kingdom of Cards' by Rabindranath Tagore. I had already put down Tagore as someone I wanted to read, so his short story popped up at the perfect time. It's a great, absurdist tale that comments on the pitfalls of bureaucracy while telling a great story. There are a great number of literary gems in The Big Book and i loved discovering one after the other.

Every story in the Big Book is prefaced by a short introduction. What this does is separate one story from the other, preventing them from bleeding into each other, while also giving readers an idea of whom they're reading. This is especially useful for some of the lesser known stories and also gives the Big Book something of a didactic feel. I personally love that, but it may not be for everyone. This collection might not contain what many readers expect when they think of Fantasy. The pages aren't covered with dragons and knights and fairies and ogres. The Big Book shows the different directions people can take with this genre, the depth of topics it can explore and the varied emotions it can arouse in its readers.

I give this collection..

4 Universes!

I loved reading The Big Book of Classic Fantasy. The VanderMeers did an amazing job at collecting a variety of different stories and different authors. For anyone wanting to explore the Fantasy produced in the previous century, the Big Book is definitely a good start.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

‘Pan’s Labyrinth: The Labyrinth of the Faun’ by Guillermo del Toro & Cornelia Funke

How was I ever supposed to pass this novel by? Below I will go into a little bit more detail about why a novelization of Pan’s Labyrinth would have drawn me in straight away, but let’s just say that I adore it wholeheartedly. This actually meant that I went into the reading of it almost fearfully. What if it didn’t live up to my expectations? How would this affect the way I saw the film? Would it at all? So many questions, and yet del Toro and Funke were safe hands to place myself in. Thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book.

Pub. Date: 7/2/2019
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
You shouldn't come in here. You could get lost. It has happened before. I'll tell you the story one day, if you want to hear it. 
In fairy tales, there are men and there are wolves, there are beasts and dead parents, there are girls and forests. 
Ofelia knows all this, like any young woman with a head full of stories. And she sees right away what the Capitán is, in his immaculate uniform, boots and gloves, smiling: a wolf. 
But nothing can prepare her for the fevered reality of the Capitán's eerie house, in the midst of a dense forest which conceals many things: half-remembered stories of lost babies; renegade resistance fighters hiding from the army; a labyrinth; beasts and fairies. 
There is no one to keep Ofelia safe as the labyrinth beckons her into her own story, where the monstrous and the human are inextricable, where myths pulse with living blood ...

Pan’s Labyrinth was one of the first movies I discovered on my own and for myself. I read about it in an article in, I believe, The Spiegel, and then convinced my German granddad to buy the DVD when I visited him shortly after. So there we were, both lovers of literature and fairy tales, and we were utterly swept away by the sheer beauty of del Toro’s film. We were also shocked by the violence of the Capin, oddly fascinated yet disgusted by the Pale Man, and heartbroken at the end. Pan’s Labyrinth is a film I have never stopped loving and have found new appreciation for again and again. Meanwhile Cornelia Funke was a big part of my childhood from the moment Inkheart landed in my lap. My father read it to me as I was young in what became a very meta experience. As he read to me of characters being read to life, Funke’s story was brought to life for me. It was perhaps the first novel to make me think of books and characters as things that were real and that could affect your life. Together, del Toro and Funke’s works have played major roles in shaping how I look at stories, so the coming together of the two in this adaptation of Pan’s Labyrinth is simply too much.

Pan's Labyrinth is a story about magic and childhood, about loss and pain, about love and hate. Ofelia is cast adrift in a new surrounding, a mill engulfed by a forest. Her father has died and her mother has married the Capin, a fear-inspiring and cruel man. Ofelia's only escapes are fairy tales, until a fairy takes her to a labyrinth, where a faun explains to her that she is a princess and must complete three tasks to regain her place in her underground kingdom. Magic and reality begin to collide, as everything around Ofelia unravels. This novel is not just a retelling of the film, it is a broadening of the whole experience. del Toro's film is focused largely on Ofelia, although we do get some insight into the inner lives of the adult characters. This novel delves into their personalities much more, showing us the fragility of Carmen, Ofelia's mother, the steel that runs through Mercedes, and the mercilessness of the Capitán. It also provides the labyrinth and Ofelia's origin with more background and I loved discovering this new aspect of the story. It brings an even more legendary feel to a movie that is already steeped in lore. In the end, both on its own and in addition to the film, Pan's Labyrinth is a great read.

Pan's Labyrinth is a retelling that celebrates its new medium and invites new readers to its story. Although the film is definitely R-Rated, the novel leans more towards the YA genre. Its writing is generally simple but evocative, with the dialogue kept to a minimum and relying mostly on showing rather than telling. Part of the reason why Pan's Labyrinth is such a beautiful and meaningful story is that it is very fantastical and yet incredibly grounded. del Toro and Funke find a great balance between highlighting the magic of the natural world, the precociousness of a child, and the horror of the human world. It all comes together into a story that transports the reader. At times Pan's Labyrinth feels a bit like a fable, as del Toro and Funke don't shy away from putting the moral right there on the page. However, it doesn't overwhelm the novel and rather adds to its fairy tale-esque feel. There are also some beautiful phrases in this novel, many in relation to magic, love and storytelling. One that stood out to me early on in the novel is below:
'The letters were like footprints in the snow, a wide white landscape untouched by pain, unharmed by memories too dark to keep, too sweet to let go of.'
Stories such as these transport the reader, showing them a path that may lead through pain and hardship but also leads to the sweet things. I simply adored del Toro and Funke's Pan's Labyrinth.

I give this novel...
5 Universes!

It should have come as no surprise that I would love the novelization of Pan's Labyrinth since I adored the movie. del Toro and Funke expand beautifully upon the existing story, adding new layers to both the characters and the narrative itself. Anyone who has loved the film or is looking for an enchanting and engrossing fantasy novel, this is the read for you!

Review: 'Silver in the Woods' by Emily Tesh

What first drew me to Silver in the Wood was its stunning cover, the trees and the wood intertwining to form a man’s face. I have always loved trees and wild woods. They contain history, in a way, and their quiet fortitude is rather inspiring at times. So of course I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the Wild man of the woods. Thanks to Macmillan-Tor/Forge, and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 6/18/2019

Publisher: Macmillan-Tor/Forge,
"A true story of the woods, of the fae, and of the heart. Deep and green and wonderful.”—New York Times bestselling author Naomi Novik 
There is a Wild Man who lives in the deep quiet of Greenhollow, and he listens to the wood. Tobias, tethered to the forest, does not dwell on his past life, but he lives a perfectly unremarkable existence with his cottage, his cat, and his dryads. 
When Greenhollow Hall acquires a handsome, intensely curious new owner in Henry Silver, everything changes. Old secrets better left buried are dug up, and Tobias is forced to reckon with his troubled past—both the green magic of the woods, and the dark things that rest in its heart. 
Praise for Emily Tesh's Silver in the Wood:"A wildly evocative and enchanting story of old forests, forgotten gods, and new love. Just magnificent."—Jenn Lyons, author of The Ruin of Kings

Silver in the Woods is more like  a folk tale than  a novella. The setting is quite precise and yet vague enough that it could be any wood. It sometimes felt as if I was reading a story I knew but which was being presented to me in a completely new way. Some aspects of the story reminded me of the Green Man archetype in folktales, a symbol of growth and rebirth, but also a symbol that closely ties man and nature together. Us humans aren’t separate from nature, we are of it, and Silver in the Woods couldn’t make this clearer. There is a love for nature that runs through Tesh’s writing that sometimes reminded me of how Tolkien’s passion for trees shone through in The Lord of the Rings. Whereas Christianity and other religions of the Book set man against nature, our earlier religions saw us as one with it, and so both Tobias, Henry and everyone else who comes in touch with the woods remains, in a way, a part of it.

Silver in the Woods follows Tobias Finch, the Wild Man of Greenhollow, who was once a man but is now something else. The caretaker of the woods, perhaps? Its spirit, somehow? It’s not entirely made clear by Tesh and I prefer it that way. Tobias’ quiet life is shaken up by the arrival of Henry Silver, the new lord of Greenhollow Hall who is absolutely fascinated with the woods and with folklore. Henry brings some human joy to Tobias’ life, but he also draws the attention of the old ghosts that haunt the Greenhollow woods. In Silver in the Woods magic and folklore are always just under the surface. The woods are a place of life, death, worship and depravity. They are a place where you can both find and lose yourself, face your fears and discover new ones. Tesh captures the beautiful duality of the woods in Silver in the Woods and they form the perfect background for the tentative romance and self-discovery her characters go through.

Although the cover was the first thing that drew my eye to Silver in the Woods, it was also the Naomi Novik’s enthusiastic endorsement that convinced me. I adored her novel Spinning Silver, which brought a fascinating twist to the Rumpelstiltskin tale. Similarly to Novik, Emily Tesh crafts some wonderful imagery in Silver in the Woods. There are some stunning phrases throughout the novella that truly transported me and captured some of the timelessness of nature and storytelling.  Although Silver in the Woods is quite a gentle novel, it doesn’t shy away from laying bare the cruelty and greed of humanity. It asks us how we use our power, what we’re willing to sacrifice, and how far we’ll go to win back what we’ve lost. Tesh doesn’t get too moralizing, but it is quite clear what she thinks herself.

I give this novel...
4 Universes!

Silver in the Woods is a beautiful tale that will whisk its reader away. With stunning nature descriptions and lovely interactions between characters, Silver in the Woods is a sadly short but very rewarding read. I’d recommend this to anyone with a love of woods and a passion for folklore.

Monday, 17 June 2019

Review: 'Same Same' by Peter Mendelsund

Some novels require work and dedication, whether you're writing them or reading them. Same Same was that kind of novel for me. What do you say about a novel that is as much about writing as it is about creating as it is about the meaningless of trying to do either? Below I have done my very best to gather my scattered thoughts on this novel. Thanks to Knopf Doubleday, Vintage and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 2/5/2019
Publishing: Knopf Doubleday; Vintage
In the shifting sands of the desert, near an unnamed metropolis, there is an institute where various fellows come to undertake projects of great significance. But when our sort-of hero, Percy Frobisher, arrives, surrounded by the simulated environment of the glass-enclosed dome of the Institute, his mind goes completely blank. When he spills something on his uniform—a major faux pas—he learns about a mysterious shop where you can take something, utter the command “same same,” and receive a replica even better than the original. Imagining a world in which simulacra have as much value as the real—so much so that any distinction between the two vanishes, and even language seeks to reproduce meaning through ever more degraded copies of itself—Peter Mendelsund has crafted a deeply unsettling novel about what it means to exist and to create . . . and a future that may not be far off.
I am going to have to be very honest in this review and admit that for much of Same Same found myself a bit confused. It took me a good few pages to get into Mendelsund's narrative, but once I did I was engrossed by it, despite still being a little lost. Same Same is a novel about creating, with its protagonist Percy Forbisher coming to a desert institute to do exactly that. He is there to create something, if only he knew quite what. Peter Mendelsund says Same Same was largely inspired by Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, a novel I have not read. As such, I feel like part of the novel may have gone over my head. Same Same is a philosophical novel. It is also a minimalist, mystery and meta novel. Because of this, it is also a rather obscure and difficult novel. It is engaging but also disconcerting. There is a sense of claustrophobia and pointlessness to the novel that makes reading it almost off-putting. In that sense, Same Same is a masterful novel.

Percy is at the institute to create something. That much is clear. All he has, however, after many attempts, are his principles, the bare bones of what he think the work he might create be built around. However, his stay at the Institute has been ruined from day one due to a stain on his uniform. A different Institute member nudges him towards the Same Same shop, which replicates everything perfectly, whether it's a uniform or a device that may or may not be a phone. Percy becomes obsessed with this store, but at the Institute things slowly unravel as paper begins to pile up, creeping into all its corners and bringing the whole thing to a slow and painful halt. And then everything goes to hell and I'm not quite sure how. I still haven't quite figured out what the end is, exactly, or what it is trying to say. And perhaps that is the point. Because in the end Same Same is largely about the emptiness of creation. The industry is led by a Director who does nothing but threateningly shout inspirational slogans and empty words like 'synergy'. He'll remind you of influencers, spin instructors and Apple product releases. He's terrifying and  almost gave me nightmares.

Peter Mendelsund presents his readers with a challenge in Same Same. Reading through other reviews I have found many readers struggling with the novel in similar ways at myself. And yet I never once considered putting it aside. Mendelsund perfectly captures the oddities of humanity and the little inconsistencies in our world that make it so interesting. At one point he mentions how "the nicely cooled breezes blow in, jellyfishing the curtains" and I had to pause for a minute and accept just how brilliant that description was. Same Same is full of those kind of moments and they were largely what kept me engaged because they grounded the philosophy of the book in how mundane humans are. Same Same is challenging and at times it does feel like Mendelsund is a little bit too indulgent with himself. However, getting through it is rewarding and I can't say Same Same hasn't made me reconsider the way we think of art and creation.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

Same Same is complicated and long and indulgent and weird. It is not an easy read, but it is a fascinating vivisection of creation and the artist. This is a book for those looking for a challenge.