Tag: book review

Review of ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’ by Richard Bach

It’s June 23rd 2019, and I want to say a massive happy 83rd birthday to Richard Bach, author of 70s classic, ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’.

Back in the 80s, I discovered this mind-blowing book in the eclectic library of two aging peace campaigners. I read it in a single sitting, then immediately began again. It delivers the clearest of messages:

It isn’t only acceptable to be different – difference is desirable.

Society inevitably values conformity when really it should be seeking uniqueness, free-thinking and transcendence.

Of course, stability, regularity and rules are important. Vital, even.

But there is always space for those who think outside these limits, as ‘Jonathan’ does.

Plot-wise, ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’ focuses on a radical young seagull who has ambitions to live differently to his fellow gulls. They exist only to eat, but Jonathan spends his days in more noble pursuits – perfecting experimental flying techniques. Undaunted by failure, even being ostracised by his fellow gulls doesn’t make him give up.

Like Jonathan, achieving my own ambitions hasn’t always been easy, but this book has given me the strength to carry on more times than I care to remember.

And it’s because of this that I recommend EVERY writer read this book, and EVERY artist. In fact, EVERY creator of EVERY kind.

But this isn’t only a book for creators, it’s a book for any free-thinker, and for everyone who has experienced isolation, disassociation or social exclusion – you too have much in common with this short novel’s titular character, and will have much to gain from Richard Bach’s writing.

So, Richard, have a wonderful birthday. Mine is one small voice among many, but I’m grateful to you for making me realise it’s OK to stand out, to leave behind the familiar, and to work towards achieving your dream, no matter what.

#childrensbooks #richardbach #jonathanlivingstonseagull #bookreview

Review of ‘The Last Runaway’ by Tracy Chevalier

‘The Last Runaway’ was written in 2013 and was selected for me to read by my teenage daughter. She was hovering around the historical fiction shelf, which is usually the least likely location for my own hoverings, and she emerged with this book through an entirely random choice. Our guinea pig was also rather taken by it, as he ate a few inches of its cover when I put it down on the sofa to make a trip to the kitchen.

Anyway, the story’s a good and powerful one. In the year 1850, Honor agrees to accompany her sister on a one-way trip from England to America. Grace dies before she meets up with her betrothed – the marriage being their reason for travel. But she feels as if she can’t return to England, and instead continues her journey and moves in with her sister’s intended. Her own intended, back in England had broken off their relationship to marry outside their shared Quaker faith.

Though life in American isn’t easy for Honor, she meets new people, lives a good life and eventually meets the man she will marry, farmer Jack Haymaker. An article on the Publishers Weekly website summarises as follows: ‘They marry and Honor, drawn by her sympathies into helping the Underground Railroad, is forced to choose between living her beliefs and merely speaking them. The birth of her own child raises the stakes, and she takes a unique stand in her untenable situation. Honor’s aching loneliness, overwhelming kindness, and stubborn convictions are beautifully rendered, as are the complexities of all the supporting characters and the vastness of the harsh landscape. Honor’s quiet determination provides a stark contrast to the roiling emotions of the slave issue, the abolitionist fight, and the often personal consequences. Chevalier’s thought-provoking, lyrical novel doesn’t allow any of her characters an easy way out’. I’ve quoted that in its entirety as it basically covers the entire plot of the book without giving too much away.

What I will say is that ‘The Last Runaway’ won the Ohioana Book Award and was in the Richard and Judy Book Club, autumn 2013. Though it isn’t Chevalier’s most well-known novel (that honour goes to ‘The Girl with a Pearl Earring’ which was made into a film with Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson) it is certainly popular and well-respected, even amongst other writers. For instance, on Amazon, Rose Tremain says ‘I have always admired Tracy Chevalier’s un-showy brilliance, and this moving story of a young English Quaker girl trapped between duty and conscience in 1850s Ohio is the best thing she’s written since Girl with a Pearl Earring’.

I don’t want to give any spoilers, which can be quite difficult in a book review. So, I had a look on Tracy Chevalier’s website instead and found some really interesting points of reference for reading groups – about the constant sense of movement (from the Underground Slave Railroad), and the feeling that home is not a permanent place, about survival and the importance of silence,  about relationships outside the Quaker community, about the horrors of Honor’s journey and her history, about the differences between the UK and the US and how they are reflected within their patchwork styles, and about dealing with  both loss and hope.

Chevalier’s website also shows us how deeply she was emerged in the world she’d extracted for Honor. She learned to make a quilt in the traditional Quaker style that Honor would have used, and she also undertook masses of research about the town, Oberlin, which was an important stop on the runaway slave escape network – the Underground Railroad, which enabled slaves to move from the south to the safer north.

The story is sensitively written and descriptive, but not boring and self-congratulatory as is often the case with historical novels.  Honor is an interesting and complex character who is living in an equally interesting and complex time of US history. I don’t like historical fiction, but I did like this book very much.

I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, but also to those who don’t. The story is of social expectations, rebellion, love and frustration, and these are universal themes, no matter what your religion or your time of living.

#book #bookreview #chevalier #oberlin #ohioanabookaward #quaker #review #richardandjudybookclub #rosetremain #slave #thelastrunaway #tracychevalier #undergroundrailroad

Interview with Lesley Atherton about her book, ‘Past Present Tense’

Interview with Lesley Atherton re: ‘Past Present Tense’

A: This book is about hoarding and nastiness as well as being about family and relationships. It’s an obvious question, but why on earth would anyone want to write (or read) about hoarding?!

L: Well, it’s down to my own personality really. I’m a natural acquirer of unnecessary items but have always managed to stop short of becoming a hoarder. I’m more of a clutterer. Give me a wall and I will put things on it.
Give me a shelf and I’ll fill it. I wish I wasn’t like this, but I am.
Waste Not, Want Not. Make Do and Mend.
So this led me to begin watching programmes about hoarding and getting some deep compassion and understanding of the sufferers as well as those who must live with a mess not of their making.

The main character of ‘Past Present Tense’ is Tanya, who discovers that the dad she thought was dead is actually alive, and is buried under his own clutter in his own hoarded house. I was able to put myself in her position. I was able to also put myself in his position. I hope that’s come over in the writing. There is so much misunderstanding of the reasons behind hoarding. I know that one of the fallacies is that the people just need to get up off their bums and start to clean.

But for the majority of hoarders, it isn’t laziness that causes the collections and clutter, it is more a feeling of connection to the items, and to the memories and feelings those items hold. There are elements of anthropomorphism too. Hoarders don’t just feel responsible for the items they own, but also feel compassionate towards them and often their relationships with the objects are more meaningful than many of the relationships they have with other humans.

Like I say, I’m not a hoarder, but I do understand where the hoarding motivation comes from. I currently own 76 musical instruments. I play only 3 of them regularly, and play none of them daily. Why do I not sell them? Because I like them and enjoy the ownership of them. I like them to be there when I’m ready for them. And there are so many other reasons too: creativity, appreciation of beauty, appreciation of usefulness, and the desire to be able to entertain myself!

I know I’ll never be a minimalist. Blank spaces irritate me. But I really do need to have far less stuff. I hoped that writing about hoarding in this way might interest those people who live with hoarding, either their own or that of others.

A: Is the writing based on the work of anyone else in particular?

L: No. Just me, though one of my reviewers felt that the inner dialogues of the early chapters were reminiscent of Sartre’s ‘Nausea’. It’s odd really, but in recent years my reading has definitely taken back place to my writing. On the plus side, it means I’m not overly influenced by new books I’m reading, but on the negative side, I’m also behind the times. But that works for me. I don’t mind being retro. I can’t imagine being anything else.

A: That’s your personality?

L: It is. I don’t really do trends. I am who I am.

A: I understand you’re working on another book at the moment.

L: Yes, I’m finishing the manuscript for my novel, ‘The Waggon’. It requires completion before September 2019 as I will be submitting it as the final assessment for my Masters Degree in Creative Writing. It’s currently at the 65,000 word stage, but there’s quite a way still to go. After that, I’m going to be starting on a book about teenage Aspergers, and will continue with my publication of other peoples’ work through Scott Martin Productions. I have a few ideas for novelettes and many ideas for short stories, and will also be working on my blog.

A: You’re unstoppable. Do you still have time to attend writing groups?

L: I do. Currently I go to two weekly groups, and two monthly groups. I also attend two monthly reading groups. Why do you ask?

A: I was just wondering if you still find them of use, now you’re published and have more writing experience. Isn’t it something you grow out of as time goes on and you know what you’re doing?

L: In my case, no. My Tuesday group, in particular, is like family. I don’t know what I’d do without them
socially, and they give me great confidence creatively too. My advice to anyone who wants to write, is to
engage with other interested souls online and in person. Once you get over the first feelings of fear at
sharing your work, it really is liberating!

A: I can see that. Thanks so much for answering my questions!

L: Thanks. It’s been fun 🙂

‘Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play’ by Mark Forster

I love books like this. They basically buy into what I’ve always felt – that work and play are seriously allied. Work is best when seen as a form of play, and play benefits from being taken as seriously as work. It is all about getting a balance. The book recommends we all increase our ‘depth’ activities such as walking, yoga and reading, but mainly it is about useful activity.
As is the case with many of these books, much of the advice seems logical – like decide on one thing you’ll do the next day (work or leisure related) without fail. Or start small with organisation and become a little more demanding with yourself day by day, pushing yourself only to your maximum capacity.
One of the statements that really resonated with me was that you can’t manage time (because time just ‘is’) but that you can manage what you give attention to. It is easy to be busy without achieving much – because you’ve been taken over by trivia. We need to know the big picture and where we want to be. This way, we don’t avoid trivia and stress, we just deal with them in a focused way.
What I took away from this book was the importance of dealing with your own resistance to the big, scary, important tasks. I know that I can spend happy hours on paperwork, but when it comes to something more scary, I always feel like I need a clean desk before I can even approach it. Hence important stuff does not get done with the priority it deserves.   
Real effectiveness depends on the ability to cut through to what really matters and to concentrate on that. I know this, because the alternative is unthinkable…
When you follow the disorganised path of least resistance, the way you live your life is almost completely the result of outward stimuli – connected with other peoples’ disapproval and expectations. But if you overcome resistance and take action before resistance builds up, if you break large tasks into smaller ones and increase the pains of not doing the task, resistance is more pointless. You need to get resistance working for you by setting up good routines and as much automation as possible.
Say NO, in order to make space in your life for new projects. You need to focus on the right things – not the insignificant busy-making tasks which take attention from the bigger picture.  The author recommends you cost out the activities you deploy your attention on. Split things into must do, should do and could do, and do the ‘musts’ first! Start a daunting project TODAY. Do the thing you fear most first, and this just makes everything else seem relatively easy. We will only change something if the pain of doing it is greater than the pain of changing.
Free-flowing tasks which don’t have time scale are often those for which we have the most resistance. Natural inertia prevents us from starting, but it is also what keeps us going thereafter. The best antidote for fear is action.
When you use resistance as a guide and a motivator, what is important gets actioned first, days become easier, anxiety and tension are dispersed, procrastination is eliminated, real work gets done, ‘busy’ work withers away, concentration is maintained, and crises are prevented. If you don’t use this as a guide, the entire opposite happens.
I took a lot from this book the first time I read it. I still listen to the advice now.
Resistance is FUTILE!

#book #bookreview #geteverythingdone #markforster #organisation #review #time

‘Past Present Tense’ – Brilliant Review Comments

“Good pace. Takes its time to reflect in intriguing fashion.”

“May not suit readers of the ‘Wham Bam’ genres. Will suit readers wanting more depth and more 3D characterisation. A lot of interior verbalisation and feeling.”

“Motifs ; Sartrean existential angst. No way to anticipate direction of story because of unpredictability of players.”

“Fear, insecurity. anxiety. loneliness v aloneness. strong but vulnerable characters causing conflict within and outwardly.”

“House belonging to Edward, another ‘character’ in its own right, reflects mental turmoil and needs at the time. For father it is an anchor to a wavering reality. It is a symbolic order (in a Kristevian sense ) but a symbolic disorder. Abject. Revolt. Chaotic thoughts and action or non-action.”

“Search by all characters for Home or sanctuary. For the villian, Craig, his is violent efforts to control or he is lost at sea.”

“Action is woven into interior monologues. In the case of Craig it is difficult to detect any residual charm that had first won Natalie but his violence paradoxically shows weakness.”

“Concept of Home = Concept of identity. Gregarious human need v Need for individual creativity and protection of one’s integrity.”

“Finally there is an acceptance and value of valuable pluralist connections, choices and ideas.” 

‘Get Rich Blogging’ (by Zoe Griffin from ‘Live Like a VIP’)

‘Get Rich Blogging’ by Zoe Griffin is a chunky paperback book by a Sunday Mirror former showbiz gossip columnist which is touted as the only thing you need (apart from a laptop and an internet connection) to blog your way to wealth. Zoe’s blog, ‘Live like A VIP’ is clearly based on lifestyle tips and superficial celebrity chat. These kinds of celebrity sites do absolutely nothing for me, but apparently they sell.

The book begins with a summary of what Zoe wishes she’d known before she began. Quite early on it became clear that the book wasn’t going to give me what I thought I needed. I’ve never been much of a fan of PR and marketing, even when I’ve really needed to do it. But I LOVE writing and that is why I blog. But, according to this book, it is only possible to make any kind of income from your blog if you include a LOT of advertising and follow some fairly rigorous rules. It also seems to indicate that the only reason for blogging is to make huge wads of cash. Of course, I should have guessed from the book’s title. Durrrr.
But this is what gets me down, as does the fact that the blogs the author focuses on are those which mirror her own interests. The final third of the book comprises of sections on different types of blog: fashion, beauty, parenting, technology and business, food and drink, and film, music and celebrities. Of course, this is necessarily reductionist but it was also irritating. What about those who review and test power tools or kids’ toys or those that talk about literature or sport or walking routes?
Having said all this, if you were to replace the word ‘blog’ with ‘website’ or ‘business’ then a lot of the advice would be equally valid – and there is quite a lot of decent advice in there. I learnt a lot that I didn’t even think I wanted to know.   
I picked up the book, wanting to read about good writing, but what you get in this book is marketing, advertising, engagement and advice on selling yourself. Zoe talks about how it is important to update, to index and to ensure your new posts generally feature at the top of the page. She talks about how important it is to create something readable, with wow elements, how to promote other bloggers so they will reciprocate, and how to look for indirect revenue through collaboration, public appearances etc. She goes into flagship content, consistency, style and so much more.
In general, the advice is good, for example, how it is important to know what to blog about, in the same way as businesses have to know their target customers and how to satisfy their needs. Also it’s important (but kind of common sense) to know that if you blog on a subject you love and other people care about, it has far more chance of growing. With this in mind, the book gives readers exercises to work out what they care about then asks them the questions: 1) Can you contribute anything unique? 2) Will anyone care in 12 months? And 3) Can I start conversations about my blog?
Though I found it disappointing to read that you MUST have ads on a site to make money from a blog, I was not at all surprised. And much of the other stuff was self evident. Unfortunately when I am confronted with something so prescriptive I always want to rebel. I don’t want to write about things that celebrity-loving people want to read. I want to write what I want to write, and hope that someone interested eventually comes along.  
I’m not in this for the money. I’m in this for the fun(ny).
With the knowledge that this was definitely where I was going wrong, I closed the book, sighed, and prepared for a big rethink! Perhaps the book didn’t give me what I thought I needed, but instead gave me a way to change and see how things could be if I tried a different angle. I may or may not do anything about this, but – like I said – BIG RETHINK!

#book #bookreview #getrichblogging #review #zoegriffin

‘Light Reading vol 2’ (by Peter McGeehan)

I have heard Peter McGeehan read his work in person on a great many occasions, and his touching and humorous short stories are always worth hearing, especially when read by the man himself.

As you’d expect from Peter’s work, there’s an easy balance to the tales in ‘Light Reading 2’ – from the poignant sensitivity of ‘Ode to the Poor’ to the self-deprecating humour of ‘Knight on the Train’ (the story that kicks off ‘Light Reading 2’). The balance comes from Peter having got the mix right in the variety of styles, the variety of genres, and the variety of emotional states he transports us to. We have his unexpected poetic bent in ‘Celtic Woman Perform Fields of Gold’ and the crazy-beautiful world of ‘Where there’s a Will, there’s a Way’ – in which revenge comes unknowingly and in an unexpected manner.

There’s a lot to this little book – badger stories, a spider story, a dream story, 100-word stories, the suffering of a witch, God meeting the devil and even six traffic light stories (in which the original concept goes off in six different directions).

I’ve always found Peter McGeehan’s writing to be engaging, and the contents of this book are no exception as Peter picks up on some interesting scenarios – the humour of talking sandals, a firing squad action taking place just five hours before the end of World War 1, homophobia, and an elderly gentleman being directed round in circles when his bin goes missing – to name just a few.

Though Peter’s humour and down-to-earth writing are the backbone of the book, I was surprised to discover the unexpected poetry and descriptive glories of some of the work within. Consider this quote from ‘Rain Forest’ – “Cold air attacks the valley, drawing a new veil of mist over the trees. One orchestra is replaced by another, the symphony of night”. Wonderful.

This is a lovely, gentle and thought-provoking book. Good on you, Peter.

‘How to Enjoy your Life and your Job’ (by Dale Carnegie)

The crux of Dale’s message is that we should all discover who we are – and must become or remain that person. In his thinking, not being yourself is behind a great many neuroses, psychoses and complexes. The most miserable person is one who is longing to be something other than what and who they really are. This inevitably leads to the realisation that each person is unique, with their their own skillsets, needs and so on. A person must make the most of who they are and must  develop more than the standard 10 percent of their latent personality and mental strength than does the standard person. 

So much wisdom is held between the pages of this book. For example, when the writer states that all art is autobiographical, that you can only be what made you, that envy is ignorance and imitation is suicide…

But this is not a book about working so hard you drop or learning to relax and become mindful. It’s more interesting than that. According to Dale, seeing an unending stretch of work ahead of you can breed neuroses. But it isn’t the work itself that’s the problem, it is is the way we deal with this work – people do not die from overwork, but instead die from worry.

The book recommends:
Organise your life.
Solve problems there and then if you can – don’t put things off. Come to decisions.
Get up early, plan your day and do things in order of their importance.
Organise, deputise and supervise.

But it is important also to relax and ask yourself if you’re making your work harder than it actually is – because of your attitudes, and because of the way your body works.  Work in comfort, and measure your accomplishments not by how tired you are at the end of it, but by how tired you are NOT.

I found the section on boredom particularly interesting. He believes that when you have no interest in tasks, they fatigue you, and that metabolism picks up when interest picks up. A person is not tired when exhilarated and achieving. From this it must be inferred that where your interest are is where your energy lies. 

And, from this, we come to some of the most wonderful teachings in this book. Firstly, to make everything a game. Next, to work ‘as if ‘ you love what you’re doing, and look at things in depth to accumulate interest, giving yourself daily peptalks and concentrating on the 90% of what is right in your life. Counting blessings, not troubles.

Of course, this doesn’t always happen because we are naturally inclined to think the worst, especially in the face of negative feedback, but Dale tells us: ‘Remember that unjust criticicm is ofen a disguised compliment’. Also it is important to remember that other people aren’t listening to criticism of you as they are too busy thinking and worrying about themselves. This makes it even more important to ignore unjust criticism and become accustomed to it: ‘If you get yourself and your head above the crowd you will be criticised. So get used to it’.

It is connected with the fact that everyone wants to be important and appreciated – some people even going insane to find the importance that has been denied to them in life.  Dale Carnegie quotes Emerson who said ‘Every man I meet is in some way my superior; and in that I can learn of him’ and we need to recognise this without undervaluing ourselves. 

Many people believe that Dale Carnegie’s writings are outdated, and they have a point to an extent, but his thinking has also very much stood the test of time. You only need to go into Google and put in the title of this book to note a huge number of different book covers, indicative of the huge number of print runs.

People still read these books and find a lot within them. People still underline passages, or highlight them in luminous green. Dale Carnegie still has plenty to say to us and we would do well to listen.

#book #bookreview #dalecarnegie #howtoenjoyyourlife #pleasure #review #work

‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ (by Moshin Hamid)

Questions as part of Masters Degree

I’d like to begin the discussion by thinking about style. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is notable for its use of dramatic monologue. This style involves the use of first-person speech, directed explicitly towards an addressee whose presence is felt only through the discourse of the narrator. Dramatic monologue has a long tradition in poetry – Robert Browning, Tennyson, and T. S. Eliot are famous exponents of the form (Mathew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ (cf. McEwan’s Saturday) might also qualify) – but is less commonly found in the novel. What do you feel might be the advantages of employing the dramatic monologue form in novelistic writing? What sorts of effects can it generate for the reader? What potential drawbacks might it bring? Might it be something you would consider adopting in your own writing? Are there any particular styles, genres, or story forms, which you feel lend themselves to this address?
Dramatic monologue is a narrative style in which the story is spoken or thought aloud by an individual character.One of the main advantages of this form is that it is able to accurately impart the life history and feelings of that character and to impose them onto the story unraveling.There is little sense of the other characters involved.In some stories, this could be a major disadvantage, but in “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” it adds to the dramatic tension.The speaker speaks and he hears the replies the American makes.We, the reader, do not.
I have written one piece, a monologue by a middle aged neighbour, who is commenting on weirdly criminal events going on next door to her.It worked because it told the story from a single viewpoint, and it was presented in the form of a lady giving her story to a newspaper reporter.Any story form which requires some knowledge of the feelings or actions of another party would not suit the dramatic monologue this form, unless multiple narrators are used.

How successfully realised is this style in the novel, in your opinion? Think about how The Reluctant Fundamentalist might have altered had Hamid used one the following points of view: direct first-person narrative (without recourse to an auditor); third-person omniscient; third-person limited, or free indirect. Don’t worry too much about demonstrating the exact distinctions between these styles; what matters is that you can identify how and why the choice of PoV might fundamentally impact upon the novel.

Had the protagonist been presented to us in, for example, a free indirect style, his voice would have automatically been tempered by the authorial voice itself.That would mean that readers wouldn’t have been relating to the character, but to an authorial interpretation of the character.The author or narrator would therefore have been free to pass judgements on the character, thoughts and actions of the protagonist.This way, using direct first- person narrative, gives the tale a strength and sense of reality that it may not have had otherwise.
Had multiple POVs been adopted, the work and message would have been diluted.I feel this is a very successful piece of writing, in some ways BECAUSE of the style used.The style accentuated the book’s message.
How would you characterise the unheard auditor to whom Changez addresses himself? How does Hamid reveal this silent interlocutor? What effects might this addressee generate, compared with, for instance, the implied reader of a traditional first-person narrative?
Hamid reveals the “American” by a series of questions following which an answer is implied – “How did I know you were American?” and “Your disgust is evident” etc.Their initial meeting seemingly takes place by accident, though as we get further through the book, this seems less probable.The interlocutor is silent to us, but not necessarily to Changez, who clearly hears or otherwise experiences responses from the American.This addressee is a hearing ear and acts as the silent audience in Changez’s monologue.The implied reader of a traditional first-person narrative doesn’t necessarily seem to interact with the narrator.In this case, there is interaction, and the interaction allows Changez to tell further tales and expand on the story.
“It’s more of a novella than a novel,” she said. “It leaves space for your thoughts to echo.” (p58)
Does the ‘claustrophobic’ relationship between Changez and the American allow your own thoughts to ‘echo’? What is the relationship between yourself as a reader of the novel and the ‘you’ to whom Changez speaks? How closely did you identify with this mysterious character? What might the use of dramatic monologue imply about creating meaning and the coercive nature of story-telling?
The echoing of my thoughts does tend to occur more regularly when I am reading a shorter piece of work, as it allows me to concentrate more fully on each word written and read.In longer works I do find myself skimming over the surface rather than reading in great depth.That said, the relationship between Changez and the American does allow a further form of echoing.Changez makes statements and the American ‘answers’, leading Changez to make further statements.This ‘dialogue’ leaves lots of room for the reader to wonder what exactly was said or implied, and whether either or both of the characters actually have additional agendas that are under the surface.
There is no relationship between us as readers and the ‘you’ (the American) of which Changez speaks, other than in two ways.Firstly, we are being addressed and informed, as is the American. And secondly, we as readers in the Western world, could be argued to be on the same ‘side’ as the American and therefore take a more partisan approach.
I did not identify with the American at all.So little was disclosed of this person that he became a storytelling device, cipher or nonentity, rather than a living man.
The coercive nature of storytelling does come to the fore in books like these.We are steered as readers in the same direction as the American is steered.We are led to believe in all that Changez says.
The confession that implicates its audience is – as we say in cricket – a devilishly difficult ball to play. Reject it and you slight the confessor; accept it and you admit your own guilt. (p80)
What was your attitude towards Changez? Were you sympathetic to his ‘confession’, or critical of his motives? How does the novel aim to position your response? For that matter, did you feel that Changez was a reliable narrator?
Many believe that a firs person narrator can’t, by definition, be reliable as there isn’t any distance from the characters and events described, and nor can there be any kind of objectivity in the narrator’s responses to them, being themselves usually part of the story.  Was Changez a reliable narrator – yes, from his point of view.  He doubtless narrated what was going through his own mind, and his own version of the story.  I felt he was an interesting character, somewhat deeper than usual, and complex.  I could not imagine a young man like him having such a formalised conversation in front of an anonymous American.
I wasn’t particularly sympathetic to his ‘confession’ as it was less of a confession than I expected.  The reaction to the Twin Towers disaster was interesting.  He didn’t jump up and down in joy, but he felt some positive emotion, but the fact that he also experienced guilt at that feeling was also very interesting.  I have no idea as to his motives for the confession or for befriending the American.  Various reviews I’ve read give different responses to the reasons why.  Was it non-accidental, political, was it the actions of the American rather than Changez which forged the ‘friendship’? 
Without recourse to the inner thoughts of either Changez, the American, or the insight of a third-person narrator, The Reluctant Fundamentalist relies upon the simulation of direct address in a (largely one-sided) conversation. How convincing did you find the ‘speech’ of the novel? How did you respond to Hamid’s prose?
The speech of Changez is extremely formal in style, much of the kind of speaking you’d expect from someone trying to impress or perhaps training a younger person etc.  The speech style was almost clichéd English as you might expect from a stereotyped student of English who had learnt only the formal forms of address, or a semi-Victorian style of speech and expression.  It didn’t seem particularly convincing given that Changez had spent so long working in America and had embraced many elements of American culture as a result, but, oddly, that actually added to my enjoyment of the book.  It made him seem more Pakistani and less Western and worldly and that worked well for me. 
I enjoyed Hamid’s prose, finding this book one of the more compelling on this course. 
Would you describe The Reluctant Fundamentalist as a ‘thriller’? How does Hamid integrate aspects of unease, suspicion, or suspense into the novel? How many threads does the narrative encourage the reader to follow?
I would find it difficult to categorise this as a thriller.  The definition of a thriller is (according to Google) “a novel, play, or film with an exciting plot, typically involving crime or espionage”.  This book is more a re-telling of a man’s past and the main danger or action is in the man’s head itself, with very little happening between the American and Changez.  So it doesn’t appear to fit into the thriller mould, particularly as it is not exciting or cram packed with action and activity. 
However, Wikipedia also describes a thriller as “characterized and defined by the moods they elicit, giving viewers heightened feelings of suspense, excitement, surprise, anticipation and anxiety.” So from this definition, the novel does seem to fit into the thriller category, especially when you think of uncertainty, apprehension, doubt, dilemma, eagerness, expectations, hesitation, etc.  All thriller trademarks, and this book has them all. 
Unease, suspicion and suspense are integrated into the novel by means of storytelling which leaves out as much as it expresses, by the use of ongoing uncertainty, particularly with regard to Erica and her mental state, and also by the expression of reader anxiety to the confused Changez losing his job etc.  The change in his psychological state becomes more evident throughout the book, as does the  constant talk of armed conflict, political instability etc – all adding suspense. 
Did the novel keep you intrigued? What kept you reading? Was the relationship between Changez and Erica, for example, of sufficient interest to hold your attention?
I enjoyed this book, and yes, there was sufficient in it to keep me reading.  I did want to find out more about the shady American but this never happened, and my questions weren’t answered, but this left me interested and wanting more rather than being unsatisfied with what I’d got.  There is a subtle distinction. 
Changez and Erica’s relationship was interesting.  I would have expected there to be a little more racial tension, but there was little or none. 
Despite all the positives as previously mentioned, I actually found it unfeasible that Erica’s fall into deep depression and hospitalisation happened so speedily.  It just seemed too fast and I would have preferred her to hold onto Changez for longer.  Would it be usual for such a young woman to have taken the death of her husband in such a way, and for so long?  I would also have been happier if she had, for example, been in a mental institution when the pair of them met, as it would not have seemed as contrived.  Also, the scene of making love while Erica pretends that Changez is Chris, seems weird.  Would a young man go to such lengths?
Islam and religious radicalism seem conspicuously absent from Changez’s monologue. Is this a ‘political’ novel, in your opinion? To what extent does Hamid intertwine the personal and the political? How explicit is the novel’s critique of, for example, America and the West?
Yes, there was very little mention of Islam in the book.  Similarly, though, there was little explicit mention of politics, apart from as general critique of nations, current events and thought patterns.  It was more of a sociological book, or rather a book of social comment.  The 2001 Indian parliament attack is mentioned and is necessary backdrop to the rest of the book, but it isn’t what it’s all about, unlike in “The Harmony Silk Factory” where politics seems to permeate more fully, despite the book not being as explicitly political.  I felt that this was more a book about people and thoughts rather than about bigger issues. 
How clear, convincing, or compelling did you find the account of Changez’s conversion across chapters 10 and 11?
Changez’s ‘conversion’ reads more to me of a person experiencing a mental breakdown than a life changing religious or political epiphany, but I am guessing that it does happen that way for many people.  Still, I found it more compelling than I found it clear or convincing.  Pg 153 – “I must admit, Jim’s words gave me pause.  I had great admiration for him; he had always stood by me, and now I proposed to betray him”.  This is a man torn in two directions rather than a man who is ready to sacrifice all for a new thought pattern.  Read a few pages later Pg 157 = “But I must have been in a peculiar emotional state, in a sort of semi-hypnotic daze, for when I woke in the morning my feelings were entirely different.  It was then that I was hit by the enormity of what I was giving up”.  This isn’t just about his good job and impressive income – this is also about the country of America that he’d made his home, his friends, his colleagues etc.  He is giving up much, but for what? 
Did you read the novel as a literal narrative, or do you feel that it contains allegorical elements?
Most critiques of the book do not take it as a literal narrative, and instead find multiple allegories – Erica is America, Changez = changes.I think it can be read as both a literal narrative and an allegorical work, and that’s what makes the novel so strong.
How did you respond to the end of the novel? Did you feel it to be a satisfying conclusion?
I responded to this book pretty well as a whole, but do feel the end let it down just a little.The lack of conclusiveness regarding Erica was bad enough, but the oddness of the final events didn’t really tie things up for me on first reading.
When first considering this, I wondered if I would have preferred an ending more similar to that of “Keep the Aspidistra Flying£.In the book Gordon Comstock takes stock of his everyday life and rebels in a quite serious manner.By the book’s ending he has moved back to the everyday life with increased gusto as circumstances have conspired against his rebellion.Perhaps this as an ending would have been more corny or predictable, but it would at least have been clear.The ending we are presented with could have the American pulling out a gun or business cards.Either would fit in with the story.However, because we don’t know, we lose some grip on who or what the American character might have been.Clearly, Changez is aware that the American isn’t always entirely enthralled by his chatter, and does warn him to stop looking over his shoulder.He perhaps feels that Changez is a liar or a potential terrorist.I feel sure that the American, whoever his is, does know how to react to Changez and precisely who he is, even though Hamid clearly never intended for the reader to know for certain.The interesting part is that we are left guessing to the final moment. What is Changez doing by befriending the American? Why is the American listening to his ramblings? What is the ultimate aim of their meeting? We don’t know, but that’s ok.

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‘How to be Both’ by Ali Smith

Questions from Masters Degree Assessment


Smith’s novel was printed in two versions, identical but for the order of the two stories which it contains. Which of the novel’s strands – George’s and Francesco’s – did your copy of the novel begin with?
How did this ordering affect your experience and understanding of the novel?
How do you think this would have differed had you picked up the alternate version?
Did you prefer one strand to the other? If so, why? On a related point, would the novel work better had Smith chosen a particular set order? To what extent does/could either strand stand alone?
My copy began with Francesco’s strand which was so disjointed (especially in the beginning) that I found myself struggling with confusion as to who was speaking and what he/she was talking about.It took a while for the sense of time, place and person to become real but once it did it was quite compelling.The writing about art was fascinating and I do think both strands could stand alone. However, I think they work well together.It would have been easier to come to grips with a version that began with the George strand. This was more solid and seemed to give a stronger sense of story, whereas the Francesco strand was detail and description and elaboration.I think I would have been more inclined to continue if the George strand had come first.It is likely I wouldn’t have persevered past the first few pages of the Francesco strand had it not been required for the course.
Why do you think Smith made this unconventional choice? Is How to Be Both a successful novelistic experiment, in your opinion?
From reading the article where Smith discusses what inspired her to write this book, it’s clear that she was inspired by a picture at a time that she had been looking for a new idea for a novel.  To me, the defining part of that article is when Smith says “I’d liked the notion that those first drawings had been there, unseen all along under the wall surface, which is, after all, what fresco is, an actual physical part of the wall. I’d been wondering if it might be possible to write a book consisting of something like this structure of layer and underlayer, something that could do both”.  I do feel that this is a successful experiment,  though the lack of initial clarity could put off less persevering readers.  Though the book isn’t plot led, plenty does go on, with some engaging characterisation and gorgeous prose – and this is certainly one of my favourites on this course.  The cover (two women walking along a street) really did not endear the book to me and I couldn’t figure out what it had to do with the actual story.  I thought the book was going to be chick-lit.  I discovered that this is the photograph mentioned in the novel (of Francoise Hardy and Sylvie Vartan) regarding a similarity to George. But it didn’t encapsulate the novel in my opinion.
We’ve discussed several novels in the unit which employ various forms of stranding (the alternating letters, novelistic prose, and magic realist history of Trachimbrod in Everything is Illuminated; the linear Leah/Felix/Keisha structure of NW; the similarly linear character stranding in Arlington Park). Smith could have chosen to structure How to Be Both in an alternating way (George/Francesco/George/Franceso, etc.). How would this more ‘recursive’ structure have altered the text, in your opinion? 
A more recursive structure could have been beneficial, but ultimately this structure did work.I enjoyed getting inside the head of Francesco and George and really found that devoting a section to each was beneficial.However, I don’t think this is a book which gives everything on first read.I’m looking forward to reading the Francesco section again, having now read the George section as I think the subtlety will come across better at the second time.


How do the two strands relate to each other (or not)? Which themes and ideas run through both stories? Do they do so convincingly/satisfactorily, in your opinion? To what extent does one story elucidate or enhance our understanding of the other?
The two stories cross very well.There are some direct connections and references which make the reader think further about the overlap.It seems perhaps obvious to have a character in a photo or painting interacting with the viewer, but is a lot less usual for the interaction to be with a not particularly well known painter.I enjoyed this unusual feature very much.The themes of art appreciation, difficulty fitting into the world, and conflict in general do come across brilliantly.
Why is the novel called How to Be Both? How many ‘boths’ (reflections, pairings, binaries oppositions) can you identify in the text?
Both relating to: two genders, two historical eras, “top layer and underlayer” of story (like fresco), famous and anonymous, alive and in purgatory, “every circumstance or obstacle can be subverted and become its opposite at the same time” (atlantic.com review), British teen/Italian fresco painter, two sexualities, and “Why, Smith seems to ask, should we expect a book to run from A to B, by way of a recognisable plot and subplot, peopled by characters who are easily understood to be one thing or another?” (Guardian review).
How is time and tense treated in the novel? How does the novel articulate the distinction between now and then, past and present, which we’ve discussed, for example, in relation to Ian McEwan’s Saturday?
The Francesco section is about a woman artist who lived as a man.She is in purgatory in the present, and recalls her past life many centuries ago.The George section is set in the current day with musings on the past and on art.I am sorry – this was the final question I looked at and I didn’t get time to answer properly as my copy of the book has been lost somewhere in the mess of my house with the builder, plaster and rewiring electricians all going on at the same time.
Characterise the narrative voice, and other literary qualities, in both strands. How do they compare and contrast? In what ways might the choice of narrative perspective help or hinder in both stories?
I am sorry – I didn’t have time to answer this question and couldn’t find the book.
How would you describe Smith’s style? Is How to Be Both in fact a novel of multiple styles? If possible, find examples to help make your case.
I adored the Ali Smith Observer article – ‘He looked like the finest man who ever lived’ – the love of life and art shine out in her prose which, to me, is a true credit to the white-clad figure in the painting.
The style is an abstract and disjointed first person in the Francesco section- and its rambling muses take a little getting used to.The George section is more traditional prose, and works well after Francesco.
Substantial sections of the novel are devoted to the description of art works and other visual images. What affects does this detailed verbal exploration of images have? Did you feel it was successful? Does Smith run any risks in relying so heavily upon this approach? (You might find it interesting to look up the term Ekphrasis and decide whether or not this idea could be justifiably related to the novel.)
I absolutely love the writing about artistry and art works in this novel.  The techniques used, the cheekiness of the artist, the prostitute visits to draw the human form… it all works so well for me as someone who loves art and it surrounded by it.  I don’t know much about this period of art and found it fascinating, yet I do think there is a chance that Smith may run the risk of alienating potential readers who don’t experience the same sense of enjoyment from this approach.  Mind you, would such readers pick up this book?  I don’t know.  Regarding “ekphrasis” – this relates to a piece of work which is directly about a piece of art or music etc – I would say that this book definitely fits.  It doesn’t only use a huge amount of description about artworks and techniques, it also was inspired by a real life painting.
Are there any other issues relating to the novel which you’d like to discuss?
Close Readings (obviously accurate pagination is a problem in this novel, so I’ve decided to look at the openings of both stories)
The opening five and a half pages of George’s story, from ‘Consider this’ to ‘below the voice.’
The opening six pages of Francesco’s story, from ‘Ho this is a mighty twisting’ to ‘as soon as I open my’.

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