‘NW’ – Zadie Smith

 

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Zadie Smith’s NW is the perfect example of an instant modern classic; prose with the flair and flow of poetry that is indisputably good. One of those books that acutely reminded me why 18-year-old-me chose literature over law. Smith effortlessly locates the reader in North West London where her characters await, ready for you to observe every nuance of their lives.

The book is hardly a love letter to London but that didn’t stop me from reading it as such. It’s so hard to find an author who is capable of capturing the pace, diversity and feel of London, something Smith accomplishes with ease. Pinpointing the melting pot of London, where people are above all else Londoners, but constantly subject to the performativity that makes this so.

The title is surprisingly duplicitous: yes, the novel is about North West London (Barnet, specifically) but also about how lives and socioeconomic status often vary wildly from those just a few streets over. That the reality of ‘living well’ in London means always living reasonably close to those who merely survive. Kiesha Nathalie and Leah are two old friends with similar backgrounds who have ended up living drastically different lives, largely due to disparities in income and choice of partner. The book touches on the uncomfortable distance this creates in their friendship. However, both women are miles away from their ex-classmate, Nathan Bogle. Who, although they all went to school together, has become the kind of person both women would cross the street to avoid.

It’s an expertly executed psychological study into the kind of struggles ordinary people so often face. There seems to be a focus on those faced by Nathalie and Leah, through whom the reader experiences the pressures of womanhood and race, but there is a lesser focus on the expectations of masculinity as well.

Fundamentally, this study of people works as a lesson to its readers. Reminding us that nobody’s life is exactly how it appears and that no one is perfect. Something that, in this time of online self-promotion, is wholly important to remember. A great read.

~M

You can buy NW here. Zadie Smith’s new book Swing Time is out in November.

‘The Buried Giant’ – Kazou Ishiguro

 

‘ArFullSizeRender.jpge you still there Axl?’ To which he would answer routinely: ‘Still here, princess.’

‘The Buried Giant’ was published in paperback in perfect timing for my week on a Greek beach where reading, eating and swimming in the sea were the only activities acceptable. A complete technophobe and book lover, outfits were rejected in favour of space for my collection of reads for the holiday.

The historical setting of post-Roman Britain lends itself perfectly to the metaphorical and fabled journeys of the novel’s characters. This is a beautiful tale that explores the ideas of memory, marriage and truth (rather a deep concept to contemplate from a sun lounger).  The meeting of Sir Gawain the Knight and presence of a dragon doesn’t create a feeling of genre bending but rather cements this slightly ethereal tale, making the reader fully aware that Ishiguro is exploring higher ideas through the pages of this novel.

The allegorical journey of Axl and Beatrice and marriage is beautifully represented in their physical expedition to visit the son they have lost touch with. This soon becomes a quest to banish a ‘mist’ that permeates the land, clouding people’s minds, making them forget events and people.

This novel left me questioning my own ideas on memory, honesty and the idea of a ‘perfect’ marriage. Can a long marriage of utter honesty truly be content? Does fading memory actually aid compatibility? I have always been the strongest advocate of honesty and believe it is the foundation on which to build any relationship (much to the chagrin of some more reserved members of my family), but this novel highlights the potential flaws in this. Axl and Beatrice’s beautiful synchronicity feels aspirational at the opening of the novel, but as they begin to leave the ‘mist’ and its powers, their memories that remain just out of reach begin to damage their mutual idolatry.

All in all, this is not a book to read on a sun lounger on the Greek coast. It needs your full concentration and a mind that is ready to go beyond the ‘whodunnit?’ or ‘will they won’t they’ of usual beach reading. That said, it is an absolutely stunning piece of literature which I have already got on my ‘revisit’ list, ready for it to serve up more philosophical insights into old age, marriage and truth.

K~

Review: The Complete Walk South Bank for #Shakespeare400

Dear Reader,

Welcome back. That is to say, one might have noticed a little break in our modest blog. This time has been filled with work, holidays, texts of regret about said blog, and lots of back and forth guilt. K and I spent a nice few days in the country reading and playing board games and promising to do better – alas, this was a few weeks ago and only now am I writing a post. This is a review of my trip down the Thames for the Shakespeare festival (K couldn’t make it and she was not happy).

Spoiler alert: it was really awesome.

End of a great weekend #shakespeare400 #shakespeare #thecompletewalk #thethames

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So, last weekend the Thames was filled with short film screenings to mark 400 years since Shakespeare’s death. There were 37 films in total for each of Shakespeare’s plays and the whole walk took us about 6 hours. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see all the films – because it was freezing for late April – but we caught all the ones we wanted to see.

#love'slabourlost #shakespeare400 #thecompletewalk

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Fitting each play’s narrative into ten minute shorts obviously presented a unique challenge for the organisers but, thankfully, all the films we saw were spectacular. To describe each play they used footage from previous Globe productions of the plays and used it to bookend the famous scenes performed by our good ol’ British actors. I think my favourite of all the shorts was Comedy of Errors with Omid Djalili. It managed to convey the story whilst having a really powerful middle scene. Unfortunately Poor Capaldi in Coriolanus was drowned out by the trains from Waterloo going over Hungerford bridge! Also, I heard that people who went on Saturday had a lot of broken screens but we only encountered one (one of the Henry’s which — thanks to my degree — I wasn’t too desperate to see anyway!)

If I be waspish you best beware my sting #shakespeare400 #tamingoftheshrew #thecompletewalk

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Overall, it was such thoroughly enjoyable way to spend the most significant Shakespeare anniversary in my lifetime. They’ll be a lot of interesting thing’s going on in London celebrating in 2016 and I’m sure K and I will try to get to as many as we can. Follow the Globe for more information as to how to see the shorts in the future.

 

 

Review: Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari

What a great book! I picked up my copy in a cosy little bookshop in East London called Brick Lane Book. It was the kind of bookshop that makes it all too easy to part with your money and one you’re tempted to set up home in (seriously, we were asked to leave!). I don’t usually buy non-fiction books as I’m normally preoccupied with the fiction / classics / YA sections but I recently binged watched Aziz Ansari’s Netflix series ‘Master of None’ and was itching to see what his book was like. I’m not sure I’m exactly in his demographic as the book is heavily focussed on being single in the modern age. But Aziz’s humour coupled with surprising insight and an impressive amount of research made this an engrossing read.

Ansari focusses on love in the modern world which entails, predictably, a lot of discussion about how technology has impacted our ability to connect with one another. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I picked up a sociology book primarily written by a comedian but I was pleasantly surprised. Aziz Ansari (and co-author Eric Klinenberg) committed themselves to thoroughly researching this book using focus groups, interviews and even reddit. The effect of Ansari plus actual research is a kind of hilarious thesis about the pitfalls of modern modes of dating. Although the revelations aren’t all that surprising, the statistics and graphs make for an interesting read with Ansari’s humour an added bonus.

One thing I loved was the use of colour print. Seriously, more adult books should be printed in colour – I know it’s expensive but so thrilling to see. I must be sad because I was far too excited to see that smooth cobalt print.

Colour print in a book for adults. Life complete. #ModernRomance #AzizAnsari #hopeitsgood #apparentlyishouldhashtagmore

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Overall, it is Ansari’s strong narrative voice that guides the reader through the research and keeps them entertained with insightful and often hilarious anecdotes and jokes. It’s a great read for people looking for love or otherwise.

Review: ‘The Martian’ by Andy Weir

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Happy [Inter]National Novel Writing Month! Typically, rather than spending the first day of the month writing, I dedicated yesterday to consuming Andy Weir’s book The Martian. The books pretty dense so devouring 85% of it in one sitting was no small gesture, we’re talking reading while you cook good. Despite having watched the film, which (as you might expect) spoiled the ending for me, I was still enthralled by Weir’s science heavy tome; set on Mars, the narrative follows Mark Watney who has been left behind by his crew, with limited food and resources, he works against the odds to solve one life threatening problem at a time.

Any book that hinges 80% of the narrative on one characters voice (a character who rarely interacts with another human being) should struggle. It should not be enough to read one man’s experience on an otherwise empty planet (with not even a Martian Queen to hit on!) and yet Weir manages it. Personally, I loved Watney as a character. It’s a pleasure to spend such an extended time in his head because his stark intelligence is tempered with a down-to-earth humour. Even more impressively, despite their comparatively minimal place in the book, all of Weir’s characters stand out. Even from the periphery you are left with a real sense of having known each of them. Weir has a real sense of character which is, I think, what makes this book so good.

From reading the book, it is obvious why this story was snapped up by Hollywood. Even knowing what was coming I found myself turning pages at a ridiculous speed. When I started I was a little concerned I would get tired of reading Watney “think” his way out of problems as I don’t have a particularly strong interest in physics / space but that was never the case. I won’t pretend to anyone that I understood it all but Weir really made me care.

Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have picked this book up if it weren’t for the hype surrounding the film. I was drawn to it because I’d heard that Weir actually did all his research with just Google. This is important because what makes this book so realistic is the realism of the science involved. Fiction doesn’t have to be factual (thank god!) but Weir takes you on an intellectual journey with his book, Watney (and by extension Weir’s) use of hard science to save his own life is what makes the book so thrilling. In the same way great fantasy writers are able to interweave mythology to create a gripping narrative Weir uses science fact to create truly phenomenal science-fiction.

The movie is brilliant, the book is better.

~Molly

Review: ‘Tender is the Night’ by F Scott Fitzgerald

I have something to admit…I love Pinterest. And, what’s more, I love finding beautiful quotes on Pinterest. Yes, I am one of those terrible people who has a whole page dedicated to glorious snatches of literary genius ( I try to justify my terrible twenty-first century whim by only pinning ‘impressive’ quotes from impressive people). Why admit this to you all? Well, I’m afraid it is this ‘Pinterest interest’ (ouch) that led me to my latest read.

At university, ‘The Great Gatsby’ was utterly destroyed for me by a module that applied every literary theory to the same book – never again can I read the section describing the orange machine. I shelved Fitzgerald as a reader, only embracing the novel again when Leo made his glorious moment as the eponymous character in Luhrmann’s film adaptation.

However, one day I was perusing my pinned quotations, known as ‘Wise Words’ on my page (I cringe as I type) and noticed that many of my Fitzgerald quotations were from his 1934 novel ‘Tender is the Night’ – a novel sat on my bookshelf but never opened as a result of first year horrors. So, I decided to take the plunge and threw myself into the world of Fitzgerald once again, with the hope that a novel with such glorious excerpts must be of merit.

How I wish I could write a happy ending to this tale…

The novel lost me from its uncomfortable and problematic premise where the protagonist Dick Diver totally abuses his position by marrying his schizophrenic  patient Nicole. It’s apparently acceptable because she’s pretty and vulnerable, taking the trope of damsel in distress to a truly disgusting extreme. It takes Diver a whole page and a half of musing that perhaps this isn’t appropriate before deciding to ignore morals and sensibility and doing it anyway.

Fitzgerald shows his only moment of sensitivity in then skipping the horrendousness that would be their wedding to the point, five years later, where their marriage, now joined by two young children, is beginning to crumble (shock horror I hear you say).

What then occurs is the reader being treated to the bizarre world of the affluent traveller of the 1930s, moving around Europe in an attempt for the Divers to avoid their problems and, in particular, Nicole’s struggle with her mental health. Each port of call involves Dick’s steady descent into alcoholism and shockingly obvious obsession with young actress Rosemary, whom he eventually beds. This decision, unlike the shocker at the start, takes Dick much more soul searching on his own ethics before, yet again, abandoning whatever moral compass he may once had bestowed on him (by the American Medical Council?!)

There is also a completely bizarre scenario involving disposing of a dead body found in Rosemary’s room in the same style that someone might throw out rubbish – Fitzgerald seems to have is focus completely skewed on what makes an exciting plot.

The only glory comes from when Nicole finally grows some proverbials and decides to bed an admirer, putting the final nail in to the coffin of the Diver marriage , to the relief of any reader.

‘Tender is the Night’ is a semi-autobiographical novel as Fitzgerald’s wife suffered with mental health. However, if sympathy for the male within such a marriage was his intention, he is so far off the mark he’s shooting in a different field with Diver. Never has the name ‘Dick’ been more appropriate for a man who casually abandons his vulnerable wife and disaffected children in the pursuit of brandy and girls young enough to be his daughters.

In a nutshell, after reading this novel I have removed it from my bookshelf and every ‘pinnable’ quote from my ‘Wise Words’ board – now not being able to separate them from the horror that is this novel.

K ~

Review: ‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ by Karen Joy Fowler

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As is the nature of a prolific bookworm, you reach the stage where, while you enjoy the plots of books, they cease to surprise you. That is why reading ‘We are Completely Beside Ourselves’ by Fowler is such a joy. It has been a number of years since I have had to incredulously scan back to work out how I could have possibly missed such a twist in a tale.

Being the daughter of two psychologists herself, Fowler is masterful in her depiction of the young life of Rosemary and her two siblings – both of which disappear from her life. The book follows Rosemary at various points in her childhood through adolescence, trying to piece together the mystery of their disappearance and her own identity in light of it all.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2014, the first person narrative takes on an informative tone throughout – often Fowler having her protagonist aware that she is speaking to the reader about her life. This is gradually subverted as we discover how unreliable Rosemary actually is; her story flitting back and forth, revealing more and more of her bizarre upbringing surrounded by researchers.
Fowler dodges the pitfall of cliché that often arrives with a coming of age narrative by steering clear of a romantic solution to Rosemary’s idiosyncrasies which is entirely refreshing.
In fact, the novel itself feels like a breath of fresh air, offering up a genuinely original narrative for the prolific reader who has become complacent in their assumptions of plot.

K ~