Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Review: 'The Woman Who Would Be King' by Kara Cooney

The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut's Rise to Power in Ancient EgyptWhen I was younger I wanted to be an archaeologist maybe even an Egyptologist. There is something extremely interesting about this ancient culture which is definitely worth exploring more. I loved finding this book by Kara Cooney because Hatshepsut is a fascinating woman in history.
An engrossing biography of the longest-reigning female pharaoh in Ancient Egypt and the story of her audacious rise to power in a man’s world.
Hatshepsut, the daughter of a general who took Egypt's throne without status as a king’s son and a mother with ties to the previous dynasty, was born into a privileged position of the royal household. Married to her brother, she was expected to bear the sons who would legitimize the reign of her father’s family. Her failure to produce a male heir was ultimately the twist of fate that paved the way for her inconceivable rule as a cross-dressing king. At just twenty, Hatshepsut ascended to the rank of king in an elaborate coronation ceremony that set the tone for her spectacular twenty-two year reign as co-regent with Thutmose III, the infant king whose mother Hatshepsut out-maneuvered for a seat on the throne. Hatshepsut was a master strategist, cloaking her political power plays with the veil of piety and sexual expression. Just as women today face obstacles from a society that equates authority with masculinity, Hatshepsut had to shrewdly operate the levers of a patriarchal system to emerge as Egypt's second female pharaoh.
Hatshepsut had successfully negotiated a path from the royal nursery to the very pinnacle of authority, and her reign saw one of Ancient Egypt’s most prolific building periods. Scholars have long speculated as to why her images were destroyed within a few decades of her death, all but erasing evidence of her rule. Constructing a rich narrative history using the artifacts that remain, noted Egyptologist Kara Cooney offers a remarkable interpretation of how Hatshepsut rapidly but methodically consolidated power—and why she fell from public favor just as quickly. The Woman Who Would Be King traces the unconventional life of an almost-forgotten pharaoh and explores our complicated reactions to women in power.
What I really enjoyed about this book is the simple fact of its existence. There are a lot of women in history which aren't given the kind of attention that they deserve and Hatshepsut is definitely one of them. Cooney initially takes some time to discuss the absolute relevance of Hatshepsut to Egyptian history, showing that in many ways she was more crucial and ground-breaking than Tutankhamun or Kleopatra VII. What The Woman Who Would Be King does is set up Hatshepsut in all the different ways that would have informed her character. Cooney approaches her as a daughter, sister, wife, priestess and, eventually, Pharaoh, supported by the research that has been done within the field. I hope that this book is the first in a long line of books which explore some of the darker corners of history.

Cooney explores a lot of different aspects of Hatshepsut's life, may it be politics, religion and sexuality. As such, towards the end of the book the reader has a relatively good idea of the complexity of a royal Egyptian's life. However, at times I felt there was too much speculation, there was too much interpretation. I am used to reading non-fiction when it comes to history and archaeology and usually the style and tone is relatively dry while very informative. There are so obvious exceptions and authors who manage to combine both great writing and a lot of information, but generally you don't read these books for the writing. Cooney's style is very interesting and she does very well at sketching an interesting portrait of Hatshepsut and her life. However, I found it hard to know how much of it was conjecture and how much of it was fact based. The notes section towards the end of the book was very interesting and maybe my favourite part, but while reading the bulk of the book I consistently found myself asking 'Really?'. How would we know what Hatshepsut thought about having to marry her brother? I guess we can speculate but isn't it more interesting to look at what we have found, evidence-wise? This is a personal style-preference though, and I don't think it should stop you from trying out this book!

I think that it is key to a history book, may it be partially fiction or biography, that it is educative to a certain extent. For those looking for an account on what life might have been like The Woman Who Would Be King is a perfect choice. If, like me, you are looking for a detailed account of things found, things verified etc. then the Notes section is interesting, but I'd recommend heading towards a different book. This book is a great introduction and Cooney's writing style ensures that the reader is utterly drawn into the world she builds up from the facts.

I give this book...

3 Universes!

The Woman Who Would Be King is an important book, one which sheds some light on a woman from history who is absolutely fascinating. Cooney brings together an interesting writing style with facts and research and manages to draw a picture of Hatshepsut's life that makes her feel real. I would recommend it to those interested in Ancient Egypt and historical biographies.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Weekly Overview

This hasn't been an amazing week, blog-wise. I only managed to get a few posts up, two of which were admittedly reviews though, which is pretty good. But then I did go and see The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies thrice, which is always a sign of success, and I managed to catch the train down to London to get ready for the Israel trip. So while the personal life is largely good, the blog suffered a tiny bit.


So, that was my week. I'm heading off to Germany on Tuesday but will be on a blogging hiatus from Thursday when I take of to Tel Aviv early in the morning! 

How was your Week? Do you have an overview post? Leave a link in the comments!

Friday, 19 December 2014

Review: '100 Skills for the End of the World as we Know It' by Ana Maria Spagna

I requested this book because I really think I need to work on my skills before the end of the world! Thankfully 100 Skills is a great way to make you into a a regular Robinson Crusoe!
What skills will you need after a global catastrophe? Whether it’s the end of oil, an environmental disaster, or something entirely unforeseen, Ana Maria Spagna outlines 100 skills you’ll find indispensable for life after the apocalypse. Once the dust has settled, you’ll need to know how to barter, perform basic first aid, preserve food, cut your own hair, clean a chimney, navigate by the stars, stitch a wound, darn socks, and sharpen blades. You’ll also want to build a stable and safe community, so you’ll need to master the arts of conversation, child raising, listening, music making, and storytelling. This fascinating and entertaining book, full of quirky illustrations by artist Brian Cronin, will provoke surprise, debate, and laughter while it provides a road map to greater self-reliance and joy, whatever the future brings.
This book is  very accessible and readable. Manuals about anything can be very dreary and long at times. Just page upon page of advice, half of which isn't useful or relevant and lacking any kind of order. Thankfully 100 Skills suffers from none of those problems. Spagna clearly spent a lot of thought on which skills to include and how to describe them. How much can be said about daydreaming or about lumbering without becoming repetitive and too didactic? By keeping her descriptions and examples short and too the point, with the occasional joke thrown into the mix, Spagna makes sure that the skills are both interesting and fun.

Spagna writes very clearly and precisely. On the one hand she has to actually describe the skills and on the other hand she has to keep the reader slightly engaged. What I think she decided to go for was to create the kind of book that you can flick through, open up on random pages and have a short read, rather than a book which is read continuously. Reading about one skill after the other might get tiresome eventually, whereas 100 Skills works best when it is occasionally picked up. Brian Cronin's drawings are great and offer some humorous asides to the different skills. They are very colourful as well, which kindly distracts you from the fact you're preparing for the end of the world.

To a certain extent I had hoped for a bit more humour in this book. When I requested it I thought it might be a crack book, in the sense that it would recommend hoarding on spam because that's exactly what you want to eat during the apocalypse. Instead, I accidentally learned something while reading through this book! It was fascinating to see how many options humanity has to provide for themselves if we could not rely on electricity etc. The wide variety of skills upon which our society relies is quite astounding, especially when it comes to provision of food etc. Although I won't spontaneously start keeping bees or become a blacksmith, 100 Skills has definitely made me very aware of how many processes go into maintaining the life most of us lead at the moment.

I give this book...

3 Universes.

I really enjoyed flicking through this book and teaching myself about the different skills needed to survive the world. Unfortunately there isn't a lot to keep the reader completely fascinated for the whole book, but as a coffee table book 100 Skills is definitely recommendable. Cronin's drawings go beautifully with Spagna's writing, creating something that's not only interesting but also beautiful to look at.

Friday Memes and 'In the Beginning was the Sea'

Alison Can Read Feature & FollowIt's Friday and it's my last Friday in England! Well, at least for 2014. I can't wait to take off on Tuesday, first to Germany and then to Israel. This will be one of the more exciting Christmasses (surely this is not a word?) of my life, I believe. Let's get onto some memes, for the last time this year.

Follow Friday is hosted by Alison Can Read and Parajunkee. This week's question was suggested by Take Me Away...:

Do you have a go to genre when you're happy, sad, or angry?

As such, I don't. I have go to genres in general, i.e. I tend to make a grab for Classics or Fantasy whenever I want to read something. However, when I am sad or upset I definitely go for fantasy because I want to go to a completely different world and forget about everything else. When I'm very relaxed I like to dip into the occasional romantic/chic-lit book so as not to put too much pressure on my brain and just have a fun time.
Book Blogger Hop
Book Blogger Hop is hosted by Billy over at Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. This week's question came from Samantha over at Bakey's Book Blog.

Do you write a review for every book you read or only review copies from publishers?

I try to mix reviews for Netgalley/publisher books with my "own" books. Since I tend to request or accept similar kinds of books my blog would be filled with just one type of review if I didn't try to mix it all up a  bit. A really good help is the Classics Club  for which I made a list of a 100 classics I want to read, which means that occasionally I read/review one of those. And sometimes, like this week, I review a book I was recommended by another blogger (Tracy at Cornerfolds), Splintered, or gifted by my dad, The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman.

Book Beginnings and Friday 56 are hosted by Gilion at Rose City Reader and Freda at Freda's Voice respectively. This week I'm using a book I was just accepted for on Netgalley: In the Beginning was the Sea by Tomás González. I absolutely love the cover!
The young intellectuals J. and Elena leave behind their comfortable lives, the parties and the money in Medellín to settle down on a remote island. Their plan is to lead the Good Life, self-sufficient and close to nature. But from the very start, each day brings small defeats and imperceptible dramas, which gradually turn paradise into hell, as their surroundings inexorably claim back every inch of the 'civilisation' they brought with them. Based on a true story, In the Beginning Was the Sea is a dramatic and searingly ironic account of the disastrous encounter of intellectual struggle with reality - a satire of hippyism, ecological fantasies, and of the very idea that man can control fate.
'The luggage was transported on the roof of the bus. Two leather suitcases containing their clothes,a  trunk containing his books, and her sewing machine. Their belongings were surrounded by bynches of plantains, sacks of rice, blocks of unrefined sugar cane wrapped in dried banana leaves, and other suitcases.Elena and J were heading for the sea.' p.7 (beginning of first chapter)
I really liked the last sentence so I decided it had to be part of the BB. I really like the description, it's both so detailed and yet quite atmospheric.

'That night Gilberto and Elena had their first serious argument. J. knew it had something to do with the counter, but never quite understood how it had started.' p.56
Isn't that always what happens when you have an argument, that halfway through the actual reason you're fighting has disappeared?

So, those were my memes and teasers! Do you have a go to genre and do you mix between 'for review' and 'casual' books? And what do you think of In the Beginning was the Sea?

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Harry Potter Moment of the Week - Minerva McGonagall

Term is over, Christmas is nigh and I have a mighty need for Harry Potter! Now that I'm at home and I have a TV and DVD player at hand I feel like a HP movie night is in order, especially since I need to recover from the trauma that is and was The Battle of Five Armies. I have not recovered from my two screenings so far and I don't know when I will, to be honest. But another post about that later. Harry Potter Moment of the Week is hosted by Leah over at Uncorked Thoughts. This week's question is:

Best Minerva McGonagall line?

How do you choose just one? There are so many amazing moment from this absolutely amazing character! I'm going to resort to listing, since there is no way I am going to put just one line down. McGonagall is one of my favourite HP characters because J.K. wrote her perfectly. She is clearly an authority figure and, unlike Dumbledore, she wasn't a complete Harry-fangirl, but, again unlike Dumbledore, I always thought she would sacrifice everything to keep those safe she loves. Ok, I'm going to try not to get emotional over McGonagall while you enjoy the following lines:

  • 'We'll leave you to deal with the monster, Gilderoy. Your skills, after all, are legend.' - Chamber of Secrets (I think she knew all along.)
  • 'They are supposed to be out of bed, you blithering idiot.' - Deathly Hallows
  • 'I will not have you, in the course of a simple evening, besmirching that name by behaving like a babbling, bumbling band of baboons.' - Goblet of Fire
  • 'I've always wanted to use that spell!' - Deathly Hallows
  • 'BOOM!' - Deathly Hallows

Round of gratuitous applause for the genius that is McGonagall and the beauty that is Maggie Smith's performance.

What is your favourite McGonagall line? Did you also fail and make a list instead?

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Review: 'Splintered' by A.G. Howard

Splintered (Splintered, #1)This book I one I spotted over on Cornerfolds and Tracy was really enthusiastic about it which really made me want to read it! And I am so glad I took the indirect recommendation because Splintered was a great read.
This stunning debut captures the grotesque madness of a mystical under-land, as well as a girl’s pangs of first love and independence. Alyssa Gardner hears the whispers of bugs and flowers—precisely the affliction that landed her mother in a mental hospital years before. This family curse stretches back to her ancestor Alice Liddell, the real-life inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Alyssa might be crazy, but she manages to keep it together. For now.
When her mother’s mental health takes a turn for the worse, Alyssa learns that what she thought was fiction is based in terrifying reality. The real Wonderland is a place far darker and more twisted than Lewis Carroll ever let on. There, Alyssa must pass a series of tests, including draining an ocean of Alice’s tears, waking the slumbering tea party, and subduing a vicious bandersnatch, to fix Alice’s mistakes and save her family. She must also decide whom to trust: Jeb, her gorgeous best friend and secret crush, or the sexy but suspicious Morpheus, her guide through Wonderland, who may have dark motives of his own.
Adaptations can be tricky. They can be hit and severe miss and often it depends on whether the author manages to reinvent or add to the story. Stories such as Alice in Wonderland are the kind of stories which facts are known: she falls through a hole, there is a rabbit and bandersnatches. I myself have, as of yet, not read any of Lewis Caroll's Alice books so I only had a very rudimentary understanding of the story. Howard, however, managed to shift everything I knew about it and make it into something completely new. Splintered uses Lewis Caroll's books as a starting point and then writes a story that feels completely original. Howard clearly put a lot of thought into working out her own Wonderland and it really shows in  her descriptions of the world her characters live in. The descriptions are some of the strongest parts of the book for exactly that reason. Howard's Wonderland is genuinely different from any world I have read recently and are beautifully dark and Gothic.

There is a great grungy and gothic feel to the book. Although at times it feels like Howard overdoes
it a bit with presenting her main character as "edgy". Alyssa is, in some ways, your typical teenager. She is balancing her social life with personal issues and manages to fall into some typical YA traps such as self-esteem issues, love triangles and worried parents. On the one hand this alls truck me as very typical, but on the other hand Howard added in little snippets which made Splintered still really fun to read. At times I wanted a bit more "power" out of Alyssa, but on the other hand I felt that most of her actions are quite well-explained. I loved how active her role was in getting herself out of the situation she found herself in, despite having people around constantly trying to save her. The other "normal world" characters apart from Jeb are almost non-existent which is understandable considering most of this book is set in Wonderland. Perhaps Howard was almost too indulgent with her characters in the sense that it's all so pretty that we almost forget to look at everything else. Overall there was nothing that I thought was ridiculous and there are definitely well-used tropes that Howard writes better than a lot of other authors.

A first book in a series always has to struggle with setting up characters and plot lines for the sequels. With Splintered I didn't have the feeling that Howard was only stringing the reader along until she hit a cliff-hanger. The use of the supernatural in this book is also something I really enjoyed. Although there is an element of discovery to it there is no unnecessary drama around it. There are some great dynamics in the book, between different characters and between different ideas. Splintered makes you want to disappear off to Wonderland, not because it's pretty but because it's so exciting! There's something quite riveting about the world Howard creates and it's amazing that she managed to come up with something so different from the source material I am hoping more of her Wonderland will be worked out in the next book, Unhinged. Guessing by the title, I see bad things in Alyssa's future. I can't wait to read it.

I give this book...

3 Universes.

I really enjoyed Splintered, although I'm withholding my final judgement until I've gotten to the next book. I really want to see how the different arcs develop that Howard set up in this book and I hope that it continues to be so inventive. I would definitely recommend this to readers of YA and those who like adaptations in general.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Friday Memes and a Lonely Postman

Alison Can Read Feature & FollowIt's the end of the Autumn Term and I am sincerely worried about how fast time is moving. I will be sending my own children off to university soon if time keeps accelerating this way! But I am looking forward to having some time off so I can focus on my essays without lectures interrupting me. But onto some memes!

Follow Friday is hosted by Alison Can Read and Parajunkee. This week's question was suggested by Liberamans:

Do you have a favourite place to read?

Good question! One of my favourite places to read is in bed! There's nothing better than curling up in bed with a book and not having to move to go to sleep. Last year I didn't have a bedside light so I couldn't actually read in bed without having to move eventually. Now I could just not move between waking up and going to sleep and enjoy my books. If I'm not at home I prefer to read in cafes. Having a cup of coffee or a cup of tea while you're reading is great and I really enjoy taking a break from reading once in a while and do some people-watching. It has actually happened once or twice that something that happened around me mirrored something that happened in the book I was reading, which made me feel like I was in 'Inception'.

Book Blogger Hop is hosted by Billy over at Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. This week's question was suggested by Emily over at Follow the Yellow Book Road:

How many books do you read in a week? How many hours do you spend reading a day?

This is actually quite a difficult question because it really depends on my kind of week. I'm not going to include reading I do for university, so no papers or novels for modules, and if I cut those out there's actually not that much time left. I have days where I read a lot because I decide to fill the gap between lectures not with work but with pleasure and then I might even read a whole book in a day. On average I'd say I leisure-read for about two hours a day and in a good week I can finish two or maybe three books. But all of that work is undone if I am stressed and then nothing will get read for two whole weeks!

For Book Beginnings and Friday 56, hosted by Gilion over at Rose City Reader and Freda over at Freda's Voice respectively, I am using The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman by Denis Thériault which I reviewed on Wednesday. I really enjoyed this book, which my dad gave me last Friday. It's such a nice thing when parents get presents right!

'Swirling like wateragainst rugged rocks,time goes around and around.
Beech Street, rue des Hêtres, was for the most part lines with maples. Glancing down the road, one saw a double row of four-or five-storey apartment buildings, with outside staircases providing access to the upper floors.' p.1
Thériault combines both prose and haiku in this book and it works together beautifully! What I also really like about the beginning is the attention to the streets, since the main character is a postman it is logical that this is something he'd pay attention to but it's remarkable to notice how many authors seem to forget about what their characters would find interesting.

'The basic cause of the miracle wasn't particularly important to him, as long as it worked and he could keep writing to Ségolène, as long as he could dream about her playing the flute on the bank of the lazy river, charming snakes as in that painting by Henri Rousseau, then dozing on a bed of greenery while wildflowers wrapped her in live petals and forest animals mounted a jealous guard by her side.' p.56
I love the continuity of the prose, if that makes sense. Thériault just keeps going with the imagery, drawing the reader deeper and deeper into the character's imagination. Also, I think the nature imagery is quite interesting, how the woman is related to plants and wild life in this character's mind. Sorry, that was the English student in me coming through.

So, this was my meme-post! It's been a long week, yet it's a shame it's over! So, where do you prefer to read? And how much do you think you read a week?

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Review: 'The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman' by Denis Thériault, Liedewy Hawke

The Peculiar Life of a Lonely PostmanI was given this novel by my father on Friday for our Sinterklaas celebration and I thought it looked simply gorgeous. I mean, that cover alone deserves some reflection. And then I found myself on a train journey back and this book simply felt perfect.
Bilodo lives a solitary daily life, routinely completing his postal rounds every day and returning to his empty Montreal apartment. But he has found a way to break the cycle—Bilodo has taken to stealing people's mail, steaming open the envelopes, and reading the letters inside. 
And so it is he comes across Ségolène's letters. She is corresponding with Gaston, a master poet, and their letters are each composed of only three lines. They are writing each other haikus. The simplicity and elegance of their poems move Bilado and he begins to fall in love with her. 
But when tragedy strikes unexpectedly one day, Bilodo is faced with the prospect of being deprives of the one fulfilling part of his life. Confronted with the awful possibility of losing his beloved's poetry for ever, to what lengths will he go to protect his obsession?
Thériault's haunting writing vividly conjures up the reality of one man's life and fate, with all its tragic, comic and beautiful moments.
I really enjoyed the narration, which remains completely with Bilodo throughout the novel. I have read a lot of books recently which switch narrators and although this is a nice way of allowing the reader an insight into all the different characters, it also means that none of the characters become your guiding point, if that makes sense. Bilodo is there for the reader to cling onto in a slightly fantastical tale and the reader cannot help but become deeply attached to him. However, Thériault also makes sure that the reader manages to keep enough distance so that they can take in the whole story. Bilodo is not always shown from his best side, which makes him a very human character, and also the characters around him are both "good" and "bad" at different times.

What I absolutely adored about this book was the way Thériault manages to combine prose and haikus into a style that seems coherent and wholly his. The prose allows him to set up his characters and the plot, while the haikus get deeper into the emotions and themes of the novel. I have never read a lot of haikus and they have mainly been something I have had to study in school. The Peculiar Life is the first time I have genuinely enjoyed reading them and 'got' them. They really add to the story and are truly beautiful. It was also great to learn more about this kind of poetry, what the thought behind it is and what its form means! It means that after finishing the novel you haven't only read a fascinating story but also know more.

There is something magical about a book which completely takes you away for some time and brings you to an ending which is both perfect and leaves you wondering. There are a lot of things about The Peculiar Life which will leave you questioning a lot of things, in the right way. What about all these other characters or the world Bidolo lives in? I think it's a sign of a great novel when the reader becomes so immersed that all he wants to do is know more and not stop reading. Thériault pulls the reader in with just enough information and by immersing the haikus into the narrative there is something very elusive about the narrative. Props have to be given to Liedewy Hawke for an amazing translation. Not only does she manage to translate the French into English but also the haikus are stunning, which in itself already originate from a different language.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

Thériault's writing is captivating and his mixing between prose and haiku makes reading The Peculiar Life of A Lonely Postman quite a singular experience. Not only is the plot interesting but it will also keep you on the edge of your seat. I don't think there is a specific person for who I'd recommend this since it seems to stretch across a lot of genres There is some romance, some mystery and a lot more. I am very happy that my father gave me this book and I would love for someone else to experience it!

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Weekly Overview

The BeautyPenultimate week of my last autumn term as an undergrad is over, which means I have five more days of lectures, seminars and opportunities for questions ahead of me...oh help! Anyways, how did I do this week?

I'm quite happy with this week! Three reviews (the Steinbeck post counts!) and some meme posts! If only I wrote my essays as easily as I seem to be able to post blog posts!

How was your week? Leave a link to your overview or to your favourite post from this week!

Friday, 5 December 2014

Friday Memes and 'The Master and Margarita'

Alison Can Read Feature & FollowLast night I went to see a screening of The Crucible, staged by the Old Vic Theatre in London earlier this year, and I am still slightly blown away by it. Just letting you know that you can expect a post on that by tomorrow! Now, onto memes! Follow Friday is hosted by Alison Can Read and Parajunkee. This week's question was suggested by Unconventional Book Views:

Do you decide in advance what you read for the coming week or month? Why/why not?

To a certain extent I definitely plan in advance. I have a lot of books lined up on Netgalley which need to be read, so in general they are all planned for the close future. However, I am terrible at reading books when I'm not in the mood for them. For example, if I have a stressful week then a Samuel Johnson play is definitely not something I want to get into. A contemporary romance may be much more down my street. So I guess my answer is that I do decide in advance, but I don't hesitate to change that schedule in the moment.

Book Blogger Hop is hosted by Billy over at Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. This week's question was suggested by Brenda over at Daily Mayo:

What is your favourite part about reading a book? Figuring out the plot ahead of time, the feeling of the actual book itself, experiencing the plot unfold, getting to know the characters - or something else entirely?

This is a really good question! In some ways it changes for every genre I read. When I'm reading a crime or detective novel then I definitely enjoy figuring out the plot the most. When it comes to fantasy I prefer the feeling of the book, so the feeling that the author creates  through world-building etc. But overall, I think that acquiring a sense for the feel of the book is my absolute favourite part of reading. I just love sinking into books and into new different worlds and is why I keep picking up new books, one after the other.

Book Beginnings and Friday 56 are hosted by Gilion over at Rose City Reader and Freda over at Freda's Voice, respectively. This week I'm using one of my absolute favourite books, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. This is a genius book and I'm currently rereading it.

'At the hour of the hot spring sunset two citizens appeared at the Patriarch's Ponds. One of them, approximately forty years old, dressed in a grey summer suit, was short, dark-haired, plump, bald, and carried his respectable fedora hat in his hand. His neatly shaven face was adorned with black horn-rimmed glasses of a supernatural size. The other, a broad-shouldered young man with tousled reddish hair, his checkered cap cocked back on his head, was wearing a cowboy shirt, wrinkled white trousers and black sneakers.' p.1
I just love the descriptions in this beginning. You really get a sense of the way the two different characters look and how this might potentially shape them.

Friday 56:
'On the door of room no.2 something not quite comprehensible was written: 'One-day Creative Trips. Apply to M.V. Spurioznaya.'The next door bore a brief but now totally incomprehensible inscription: 'Perelygino.' p.56
I like how absolutely absurd parts of Bulgakov's writing are! I mean, what is going on in the F56 above? I haven't read the book in a year so I genuinely have no idea. Can't wait to get that far!

So, this was my Friday post which I wrote late on a Thursday night, potentially even early Friday morning so if there are any mistakes I am severely sorry! What is your favourite part about reading? And do you plan your reading?

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Review: 'Dinner with Stalin and Other Stories' by David Shrayer-Petrov, in translation

Dinner with Stalin and Other StoriesThe point of me starting this blog, a few years ago now, was to help me explore more of world-literature. A few weeks ago now I attended an event at the Department of Russian and Slavonic Studies and it really showed me how many books and literary traditions are out there that Western readers are unaware of because they haven't been translated yet. Thankfully some of Shrayer-Petrov's best short stories have now been collected and translated by a wide variety of translators.

These fourteen stories by the acclaimed master of Jewish-Russian fiction are set in the former USSR, Western Europe, and America. Dinner with Stalin features Soviet Jews grappling with issues of identity, acculturation, and assimilation. Shrayer-Petrov explores aspects of antisemitism and persecution, problems of mixed marriages, dilemmas of conversion, and the survival of Jewish memory. Both an author and a physician, Shrayer-Petrov examines his subjects through the double lenses of medicine and literature. He writes about Russian Jews who, having suffered in the former Soviet Union, continue to cultivate their sense of cultural Russianness, even as they—and especially their children—assimilate and increasingly resemble American Jews. Shrayer-Petrov’s stories also bear witness to the ways Jewish immigrants from the former USSR interact with Americans of other identities and creeds, notably with Catholics and Muslims. Not only lovers of Jewish and Russian writing but all discriminating readers will delight in Dinner with Stalin and Other Stories.
Translators: Arna B. Bronstein, Aleksandra Fleszar, Margaret Goodwin-Jones, Leon Kogan, Margarit Tadevosyan Ordukhanyan, Emilia Shrayer and Maxim D. Shrayer.
I really loved reading these short stories. Shrayer-Petrov comes across as incredibly observative and perceptive writer, which may partly be due to Shrayer-Petrov also being a physician. It is his job to investigate people and he does so with a lot of feeling. He addresses a lot of potentially very intense themes from religion to race and how these interact with family life. Below I'm going through the stories one by one, trying to give you a look at the different themes and ideas present in the collection. There are twelve stories in this collection and although I enjoyed all of the stories I definitely had some favourites. 'The Russian Liar in Paris' was an incredibly meta story about influences, writers and publishers which I largely enjoyed. Shrayer-Petrov has a really abrupt way of story-telling and of ending the stories which makes you reconsider the whole story. 'White Sheep on a Green Mountain' was the first story from this collection which confronts the reader with political and social tensions for the Russian-Jewish community in a brilliant way. 'Round-the-Globe Happiness' was completely different in setting and tone from the other stories, but at times I felt like it lacked a goal. 'A Storefront Window of Miracles' was a story which developed beautifully in my head. There was some great imagery in the story which was strangely recognizable. The story itself had some great little twists, which I really enjoyed.

'Mimicry', besides the eponymous 'Dinner with Stalin' was my favourite story of the whole collection. There was something brilliant in how it slowly developed into much more than you expected from the first two pages. The clash between immigrated intellectuals who are all trying to avoid their countries problems while desperately wanting to discuss them really came to light in this story. 'Where Are You, Zoya?' is an absolutely heart-breaking story which was beautiful nonetheless. It is a story that very much deals with family and the personal consequences of war and politics. 'Alfredick' is interesting but somehow didn't grab me as much as the others, despite its form being really interesting. 'Dinner with Stalin' is one hell of a story and the collection is rightfully named after it. I won't reveal too much of the story but the way Shrayer-Petrov captures the changing, oppressive mood and the abrupt, shocking, ending truly makes this one of the best short stories I have read in a long while.

'The Valley of Hinnom' is the story that taught me a new word, 'refusenik', a Russian (often Jew) whose request to immigrate out of the Soviet Union was denied. Set after the Second World War, a lot of racial tension run through most of the stories, but don't come together as sharply as they do here. 'Mimosa Flowers for Grandmother's Grave' is a very sad story and also one defined by the theme of immigration. It also, I gathered from the notes, seems to be a deeply personal story and this is something I appreciated throughout the whole collection. Each of these stories seems infused with Shrayer-Petrov's figure. Not in an intrusive way, but in a sense that he, as the author, is right there in the experience with the reader rather than looking down from his high and narrated throne. 'The House of Edgar Allan Poe' felt very different from all the other short stories but was a nice break from the collection as a whole. I loved the connection between Russian and American literature upon which this story was built. 'Trubetskoy, Raevsky, Masha Malevich, and the Death of Mayakovsky' is, perhaps, one of the most honest stories in the whole collection about the problems faced by people within the Soviet Republic, especially those Jewish. 'The Bicycle Race' was a great end to the collection because it seemed very personal to the author while also covering a long period of time.

I give this collection...

4 Universes.

I really enjoyed Shrayer-Petrov's style of writing and how natural his stories seem. There are Russian writers who are amazingly abstract and who show you the truth by completely twisting it. Shrayer-Petrov rather gives you small, episodic glances into characters' lives without pressing the reader into seeing the moral meaning behind the writing. There is also a very personal feeling to the writing which means you easily connect to his characters. I would definitely recommend this to fans of Russian and Jewish writing, because there are a lot of references to history and culture in these stories.

Harry Potter Moment of the Week -

It's Thursday and Christmas cookies have been baked and books read! We're almost at the end of this (calendar) year's penultimate week at University, which is simply terrifying. I don't want to not be a student!! In order to distract myself from the impending doom that is reality, let's focus on some memes! Harry Potter Moment of the Week is hosted by Leah over at Uncorked Thoughts and this week's question is:

Favourite magical pet?

Oh God, there are so many amazing magical animals in the Harry Potter books! On the one hand I'd love an owl because they're simply stunning creatures, birds even. But then a Thestral would be amazing as well although the idea of being able to see one brings a lot of sadness with it. So I think I will have to settle on one of the major stars of The Prisoner of Azkaban: Buckbeak the Hippogriff!

I mean, it doesn't get any more majestic than this gorgeous beast right here! That scene in the film where Harry is flying Buckbeak across the lake always makes me cry with envy. Flying is one of the things I would love to be able to do, I'd even put up with the shoulder ache of having wings, just to get to fly. So having a hippogriff as a "pet" (it's too majestic to just be a pet) would be a blessing!

So, that's my choice for today! What would you favourite magical pet be and why? Or would you just start a magical zoo so you could have all of them at once?

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Steinbeck's 'The Pearl' and Human Nature

The PearlThis is a short story I put on my 100 Classics List because I have been told it is a perfect exercise of imagery and symbolism. For a Western reader, the characters and setting of The Pearl may seem exotic and foreign, yet at the centre of the short story are the very human emotions of fear and greed.
Like his father and grandfather before him, Kino is a poor diver, gathering pearls from the gulf beds that once brought great wealth to the kings of Spain and now provide Kino, Juana, and their infant son with meager subsistence. Then, on a day like any other, Kino emerges from the sea with a pearl as large as a sea gull's egg, as "perfect as the moon." With the pearl comes hope, the promise of comfort and of security....
A story of classic simplicity, based on a Mexican folk tale, The Pearlexplores the secrets of man's nature, greed, the darkest depths of evil, and the luminous possibilities of love.
There is a whole variety of themes that come together in this novella. There is something truly impressive about how Steinbeck brings together greed, love and violence in a way that is extremely recognizable. Steinbeck adapted a folk tale he heard during a visit to Mexico into this novella. Folk tales very often have social issues at their heart and The Pearl has

I was very interested in the character of Juana, Kino's wife and the only really female character in the novella. On the one hand she seems to be very submissive to her husband and to only exist as her husband's wife and her son's mother. However, if one accepts this part of her character, there is a lot more to be found. Quite often Steinbeck makes her the moral anchor that holds Kino back from loosing it without sacrificing her ability to act to that morality. Women, too often, are shown to be paragons of virtue, more symbol than human. This severely holds female characters, and women in general, back from being seen as fully-formed human beings. What Steinbeck does in The Pearl is very interesting on this point. On the one hand we have the virtuous Juana who does as she is told and falls into line. But rather than leave it at that, he gives the reader an insight into her thought process, revealing she has a lot more going on than we might consider. I've quoted a relatively long passage below:
He had said, "I am a man," and that meant certain things to Juana. It meant that he was half insane and halfgod. It meant that Kino would drive his strength against a mountain and plunge his strength against the sea. Juana, in her woman's soul,knew that the mountain would stand while the man broke himself; that the sea would surge while the man drowned in it. And yet it was this thing that made him a man, half insane and half god, and Juana had need of a man; she could not live without a man. Although she might be puzzled by these differences between man and woman, she knew them and accepted them and needed them. Of course she would follow him,there was no question of that. Sometimes the quality of woman, the reason, the caution, the sense of preservation, could cut through Kino's manness and save them all.
There is a lot happening in the above passage. This scene happens shortly after Juana tries to destroy the Pearl of the World and Kino beats her. Juana is very honest about Kino's violence and for her the constant clash between their characters is exactly what she needs. In some ways she is 'the reason, the caution, the sense of preservation' which keeps Kino sane, but on the other hand she is as much a part of this chaos. What I think is very clever about this passage is that Juana is as flawed as Kino is. Her logic hurts her, the way that Kino's need to help his family is part of his undoing. Is Juana "right" or is she even acting in a way that is good for herself? Quite possibly not, but she is flawed, which I think is key in character descriptions.

Steinbeck uses the idea of music a lot in The Pearl. Rather than be overly literal and moralistic about his characters actions he allows music the represent greed or family. It was a very nice way of bringing the folklore aspect into a story that is very advanced, in many ways. Songs represent family or greed and thereby allow Steinbeck to clearly bring these themes into play without it becoming too obvious. Occasionally it feels like Steinbeck is using The Pearl as an exercise for allegory and imagery, but most of the time he makes this imagery part of the narrative, makes it crucial to understanding the narrative. It also helps that he weaves it into a genuinely interesting story that seems to strike a chord in everyone.

I won't rate this novella since this post is an analysis rather than a review. However, I think this is the kind of story everyone should be reading. Maybe not necessarily The Pearl, but a story that so clearly delves into human nature and exposes parts of our characters which we might not necessarily want to see. I'd definitely recommend picking this story up, though, because Steinbeck isn't a bad place to start your moral education.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Tuesday Intros and Teaser Tuesday - 'Fahrenheit 451' by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451It is officially December and my housemates have started to decorate the house for Christmas. Being Dutch I'm still in the process of getting excited for Sinterklaas on the 5th of December! But Christmas cookies will be baked tomorrow so I guess it's inevitable, Christmas is coming and the year is almost over! Before we get depressed at the quick passage of time, let's get on with the memes! Tuesday Intros are hosted by Diane over at Bibliophile by the Sea and Teaser Tuesday is hosted by MizB at Should Be Reading. This week I'm using Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, which I have started reading for my 100 Classics List.

The terrifyingly prophetic novel of a post-literate future.
Guy Montag is a fireman. His job is to burn books, which are forbidden, being the source of all discord and unhappiness. Even so, Montag is unhappy; there is discord in his marriage. Are books hidden in his house? The Mechanical Hound of the Fire Department, armed with a lethal hypodermic, escorted by helicopters, is ready to track down those dissidents who defy society to preserve and read books.
The classic dystopian novel of a post-literate future, Fahrenheit 451 stands alongside Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World as a prophetic account of Western civilization’s enslavement by the media, drugs and conformity.
Bradbury’s powerful and poetic prose combines with uncanny insight into the potential of technology to create a novel which, decades on from first publication, still has the power to dazzle and shock.
I don't think I need to explain why I want to read this one!

IT was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought ofwhat came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies. He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning.' p.1
This is an amazing beginning! The first line immediately sucks you in because it is a very unnatural concept. Then there's also the ambiguity of the sentence. Is the narrator enjoying burning or being burnt?

'Then moaning, she ran forward, seized a book and ran toward the kitchen incinerator.He caught her, shrieking. He held her and she tried to fight away from him, scratching.' p.31
This is a great moment and very tense. Clearly books are something illegal and the owning of it is a danger to both people involved here. Although her response seems very natural in those circumstances I simply can't imagine burning a book.

So, what is the book you're using? And what do you think about Fahrenheit 451?

Monday, 1 December 2014

Review: 'The Beauty' by Aliya Whiteley

The BeautyI decided to read this book mainly because of its intriguing blurb. It sounded quite unlike anything I have read before and after reading it I now know that this thought was utterly correct. There is something about The Beauty which completely and utterly sucked me in and I'm still thinking about it.
Somewhere away from the cities and towns, a group of men and boys gather around the fire each night to listen to their stories in the Valley of the Rocks. For when the women are all gone the rest of your life is all there is for everyone. The men are waiting to pass into the night.
The story shall be told to preserve the past. History has gone back to its aural roots and the power of words is strong. Meet Nate, the storyteller, and the new secrets he brings back from the woods. William rules the group with youth and strength, but how long can that last? And what about Uncle Ted, who spends so much time out in the woods?
Hear the tales, watch a myth be formed. For what can man hope to achieve in a world without women? When the past is only grief how long should you hold on to it? What secrets can the forest offer to change it all? 
Discover the Beauty.
For me, good books have to make me think, make me question and leave me slightly unsatisfied. A book that gives me all the answers may be satisfactory, but it is also immediately over after the last page and easily forgotten. Not so The Beauty. There is genuinely no way that this novel will not make you question your own surroundings. Before I launch into the, incredible, work this novel does I will make some more general comments. Nate, our main character, is a storyteller and in and of itself that is a fascinating character to choose. They are, often, the most observant people and those who see things in a cultural and social context. Nate, then, carries a lot of responsibility as the one who needs to keep the old traditions alive while living in a world that is slowly dying. He is not always likeable, but then how can someone grow up in that kind of world without, at times, being questionable. Survival sharpens the edges rather than softens them. Initially I wasn't too sure about spending a whole novel with an all-male society but then Whiteley's genius struck and I couldn't have been happier.

The idea behind this novel is utterly fascinating. What Whiteley manages to do is deconstruct gender roles down to the very core of what we consider masculine and feminine and then twist it around until the reader finds himself questioning everything. This means that halfway through the novel you find yourself wondering what it is you're reading. It's not until realization hits that you know there is no stopping now. The Beauty plays in to a lot of different debates, nature vs. nurture for example, or whether gender is performative or innate. As such, it is both interesting for men and women, rather than just one. I don't want to give away too much because this novel is definitely at its best when you go into it unknowing. What I am desperately waiting for now is some academic writing on this novel! Maybe I should start...

Whiteley's writing is captivating. It lulls you into a sense of security with its normalcy before hitting you with the strangeness of the events. It is definitely important, then, that Whiteley didn't lose herself in adjectives and grotesque descriptions because all the hard work this story does would have been lost. If she had presented the narrative in a way that was incredulous it would lose all of its power and just be another sci-fi book. But instead the power lies in the simplicity and easy with which it seems that the world changes irrevocably. There are some amazing images and some really powerful scenes within this relatively small novel and they're timed very well, making sure the reader is has a sense of time while also being completely lost.

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

Yes, I have doled out the Five Universe rating which I usually save for classics. It is not often that you accidentally stumble on a book that manages to take your breath away. I haven't read anything like this in a very long time and I doubt I will read something soon that so successfully manages to subvert, reverse and twist what we all think we know. I would recommend this novel to everyone because there is an important message in there!