Book Reviews from the Days of Bookish Freedom

reading edit

In my pre-uni days of naïve optimism, I set myself the challenge of reading (a slight variation on) the books on the BBC’s ‘Top 100’ List before starting my English degree. Bloody hilarious, I know. Probably goes without saying that I failed spectacularly, but here are some of the ones I read and reviewed for my old blog. Thankfully, nearly three years at uni has achieved something useful and I can now tick off a couple more, but I’m not sure I could review them without going all analytical on you. And besides, if I’m going to spend the time I should be using for uni work writing things for my blog, I may as well be writing about something other than books (don’t hold me to this: I’ll probably come crawling back to the book-related posts before you can say ‘introverted book-nerd’). Anyway, I’ll let the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed me do the reviewing for now – enjoy!
(Apologies for the lack of photos, the ones from the original post are terrible and now all these books are split between home and uni).

Heart of Darkness

Despite being a classic, I’ll admit that before I read Heart of Darkness (and in fact after I’d read it, before I’d researched it!), I wasn’t really sure what it was about. The title undoubtedly suggests a dark story, but I didn’t know whether the heart was a metaphor, or that of a person or place. It turns out that it’s all three. Actually, it could be something else entirely – the title is left open to interpretation, as is Conrad’s ambiguous central character, Kurtz.

The novella tells the story of Marlow, a sailor who takes a job as a captain with the Company, a Belgian organisation that trades in ivory in the Congo. He journeys up the river on a steamboat in a quest to meet with Kurtz, the chief of the Inner Station who has been described to him, somewhat obscurely, as a most remarkable man. Yet as Marlow and his crew near their destination, they enter into a darker world away from civilisation, where imperialism has led to slavery and savagery. The oppressive and smothering mist adds to the tension and the ambiguity of the situation. They hear that Kurtz is ill, the implication being that he has gone mad, and they fear that he might be dead by the time they arrive.

In case you want to read it for yourself, I won’t give away the ending. Personally, I enjoyed reading this book, thanks to Conrad’s beautiful way with words, as well as the appealing character of Marlow. I also found myself wanting to ‘meet’ the curious Kurtz just as much as he did, which kept me reading on.

Had I not read up on it, however, I’m sure I would have missed out on many of the underlying messages and themes, which would have undoubtedly caused me to be less appreciative of Conrad’s creation. So, seeing as the book itself is only around 110 pages long, I don’t think reading a quick analysis before or afterwards would do anyone any harm!

Memoirs of a Geisha

It came as somewhat of a surprise to me, as I was reading this book, to suddenly notice that it was written by a man. If anyone had asked me, I’d have been absolutely adamant that the voice of Nitta Sayuri (the first-person narrator) was the work of a woman, simply because her character was so stunningly tangible. The ability to write from the perspective of someone of the opposite sex with such insight and immediacy, is a rarity that should be commended as a triumph in itself.

Memoirs of a Geisha tells the compelling story of Sayuri’s transformation from girl to geisha, a journey that begins in a poor Japanese fishing village in 1929. Writing in retrospect, Sayuri recounts her experiences with intense clarity and emotion, as well as with the certain kind of wisdom only gained with age.

Nine year-old Chiyo (that was her name at the time) is plunged into an unfamiliar world in which she must learn a whole new way of life. The narrative is so enthralling that the reader feels as though they are floundering alongside the girl with the remarkable blue-grey eyes, desperately trying to succeed, while also clinging on to a childhood fantasy.
While much of the story tells of parties, enchanting social events and beautiful clothes, the less-spoken-about part of a geisha’s life is explored in equal depth and honesty.

Throughout the novel, the reader is painfully aware of the exploitation taking place, as well as the fact that the central character seems to have no choice nor control.
By the end of the novel, the reader feels as though they’ve been through so much with this woman, that they wish they could meet her, ask her questions and, more importantly, tell her that she’s the most incredible person they’ve ever met.

Before reading Arthur Golden’s novel, I only had a vague idea of what a geisha actually was. I was mostly wrong. While much of what I discovered about the life of a geisha shocked me, I also found myself developing a great amount of respect for these women.

Overall, I think I’d have to say that this was the most beautiful book I’ve ever read. If that’s not a recommendation, then I’m not sure what is.

The Wasp Factory

So, I may or may not have taken a slight detour on the “whale-athon” (as nicely put by someone on Twitter) to sneak in a bit of Iain Banks. As I was struggling a little (to say the least) with Moby-Dick, I was planning on interspersing it with a bit of The Wasp Factory, but I quickly abandoned this idea when I remembered that I just can’t resist a bit of gothic. So now I’m back to square one with Moby-Dick, only this time I haven’t read it for a couple of days…But I refuse to be defeated by a whale!!

Ever since I studied Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at school, I have been a huge gothic fan. Perhaps this is strange, because I absolutely hate horror films and I’m fairly squeamish, but to be honest, gothic horror is something else entirely. If done well, as it is in The Wasp Factory, I think the reader experiences something more awful than when watching a film, as they process the descriptions and develop them into the images or ideas that scare them personally. It’s often our imaginations and our own minds that frighten us the most. I think the fact a few words on a page can do this shows the immense power of the written word.

The Wasp Factory is told from the point of view of sixteen-year-old Frank Cauldhame, our first-person narrator. I’m not going to give away much of the story because I want you to find out for yourself, but just by reading the blurb, we discover that Frank has killed three people. It also becomes clear that he has had some sort of “unfortunate accident”, although he keeps this frustratingly hidden for the majority of the book, only giving us tantalising hints in passing. He also gradually unveils the true nature of the Wasp Factory itself, as up to a certain point, we are unable to fully visualise this strange contraption. As well as this, although we find out early on that Frank has a brother who has gone insane, we’re left wondering what on earth happened to him to cause this madness. We know it must be pretty awful, but I’m not sure we’re quite prepared for the truth.

Essentially, throughout the novel we are presented with a number of incredibly intriguing (yet painfully unanswered) questions about Frank and the people around him. Fortunately, just before the tension gets too unbearable, Banks reveals the truth, often in a way that will make you want to avert your eyes, but simultaneously remain glued to each word on the page. You’ll find you can’t put it down, just in case the next sentence unveils something huge.

But in amongst all this, what if you’re missing something? Something really fundamental? You forgot to ask the most important question…

I shall say no more, otherwise the experience will be ruined. Just read it. Now!

Moby-Dick

I cannot express how happy I was to read the last word of this book. I was in Cornwall on holiday and everyone was waiting for me so we could go out for the day. But I had about 5 pages left, so I announced, “I need silence!” and hurried off to sit at the bottom of the stairs and read in peace. When I was finally done, I took a celebratory selfie.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville tells the story of a whaling ship captained by one monomaniac Captain Ahab, who is on a desperate quest to chase and kill the infamous white whale who was responsible for the loss of his leg. The tale is recounted by Ishmael, a seaman on board the Pequod (the ship), during the lengthy quest. Captain Ahab is blinded by his need for revenge, meaning that he will do anything it takes to hunt down the whale, which has been named Moby-Dick by those who have encountered him.

It’s not that it’s a bad book, (I can see why it’s a classic) it’s just that it was such a struggle. When I first started reading (it feels like years ago now), there were parts that I found really funny and clever. Throughout the book this did continue, as Ishmael often tells his story with a brilliantly dry humour and insight. However, I’m ashamed to say that I think a lot of the references flew straight over my head. If I wanted to, I could spend time researching and studying the deeper meanings of events and descriptions in the book, which I hope to do someday so that I can fully appreciate this ‘masterpiece’.

While the descriptions often created vivid and detailed images in my head, I found them overly extensive and sometimes quite hard to follow. There were many occasions when I had to re-read whole chunks, because by the time I’d got to the end, I’d forgotten what happened at the beginning of the sentence! As I was reading, I was reminded of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which I studied for A-Level English. This is an epic poem, which gives you some idea of the style of Moby-Dick.

I’m finding it really hard to say that I didn’t enjoy reading a classic novel, as I feel as though this makes me ignorant. But I guess everyone has their own tastes, and maybe a massively long tale about a man chasing a whale is not really my thing. Of course, I’m not so ignorant that I think Moby-Dick is as simple as this – Melville’s exploration of obsession and monomania is thorough and intricate and raises many questions about human nature.

When I finally reached the closing pages, it almost felt as though the previous 660 had been a painfully long introduction to this final scene. However, without the build-up, the outcome would undoubtedly have meant absolutely nothing. So, if you want to know what happens, don’t just read the last few pages because, a) that’s cheating and b) you won’t care.

Am I glad that I’ve read it? Yes, definitely. It’s the kind of book that just has to be persevered with and finished. Don’t let those whales defeat you!

The Catcher in the Rye

This book was not what I expected, despite the fact that I’m not entirely sure what I did expect. I think, for some reason, I’d imagined that it was set earlier than it was and that it would be written in a more formal style. So when, by the end of the first sentence, the narrator had already said, “all that crap”, I was rather pleased.

The Catcher in the Rye is in fact set in America in the 1950s and is told from the perspective of a boy called Holden Caulfield. On the first page, you find out that he is currently in some sort of mental institute (we assume), where he has come to “take it easy”. The rest of the book is him recounting to us what happened to him the year before, when he was sixteen and had just been kicked out of prep school for the fourth time.

The things he tells us are fairly unremarkable in themselves, but it’s the way in which he tells them and the way his mind seems to work that are the fascinating parts. Despite the fact that Holden comes across as fairly peculiar, I found myself (along with many others, I hope) being able to identify with him, as well as agreeing with some of the seemingly strange and unrelated things that he says. I really loved the way that the narrative so cleverly shows how his thoughts drift from one thing to another in a way that at first seems quite bizarre, but is actually very realistic.

I also like how insightful Holden is as a narrator. He seems to have this obsession with blaming everything bad on what he calls “phoniness”, which he sees in most people around him, especially adults. This “phoniness” is actually a rather ingenious description for situations and individuals that are superficial, shallow and hypocritical.
Although he’s judgmental and tiresome in that he uses the same phrases over and over again, I found myself quite drawn to this odd sixteen-year-old boy, who seems to be isolated from the world around him.

In amongst all the weird and wonderful things that Holden says, my favourite was his description of his little sister Phoebe as “roller-skate skinny”. I can’t really explain how, but I knew exactly what he meant.

Birdsong

I finished Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks over breakfast yesterday morning. But if I’m honest, part of me wishes I hadn’t! I’m guessing most of you are familiar with that feeling you sometimes get when you come to the end of a really involving book and you feel as though you’ve lost a little part of your life. Well that’s how this book made me feel.

I knew it was going to be good, (if it wasn’t, it probably wouldn’t be on the ‘BBC Top 100 Books’ list ) but that didn’t necessarily mean I was going to like it. I was partly put off by the fact that I actually started reading it a couple of year ago, but gave up on it for some (bizarre) reason. No doubt I decided I was ‘too busy’ or it was ‘too long’. Granted, there is a fair bit of description in Birdsong, but now that I’m a (slightly) more experienced reader, I appreciated it and found that it really drew me into the lives and experiences of the characters. While the details of World War One were often shockingly horrific, the passages of passion and desire were almost unbearably vivid, drawing me in entirely.

I often get frustrated when a book shifts between time zones, as I find myself enthralled in one situation and then suddenly having to readjust to another. However, in Birdsong, the changes occur so naturally that it hardly felt like an interruption, but more of a continuation. Sometimes I thought one story was over, but then it would be picked up again and developed even further, much to my delight.

I’m not going to give away any of the story, because I don’t think you need any more persuading to give this book a read.

Emma

You may remember the ‘BBC Top 100 Books Challenge’ I’ve been doing in preparation for my English Lit degree (which I have now officially applied for, woo!) Well, I’ve decided that I don’t want to restrict what I read to just one list, so I’m pushing the boat out and am just going to read whatever I fancy! I thought it was a bit silly to confine myself, seeing as there are so many books I’ve always wanted to read. I’m still going to be documenting my really brief thoughts on each book, but it’s not going to be under the ‘BBC Top 100 Books List’ title anymore.

So, I’ve just finished Jane Austen’s Emma, which was a really fun read. I’m still not sure whether or not I liked Emma as a character, something that was evidently foreseen by Austen when she wrote to a friend saying that Emma is “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”. But the truth is, I couldn’t really help but like her. While she’s a fairly spoilt and self-righteous young woman, she’s also just a twenty-one-year-old girl who makes mistakes, falls in love and meddles in other people’s business. As well as this, Austen cleverly uses free indirect speech, which means that the narrative is told from Emma’s perspective in the third person, while Austen still hold the reigns as the narrator. This is incredibly effective, as we can sympathise and identify with Emma, at the same time as benefiting from Austen’s hilarious wit and way with words.

All in all, Emma is one of those classics you just have to read. If you’ve read Pride and Prejudice, then you’ll find that this is really similar, only funnier, and that Emma is a little more complex and developed than Elizabeth Bennet. (Not to put a downer on P&P though- yet another of Austen’s masterpieces!).

If you made it through all those mini-reviews, thank you, we are now best friends. 

harriet x

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