Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Books – The Rabbit Back Literature Society, by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

The Rabbit Back Literature Society was written by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen in 2006 and translated from Finnish last year). It is a wonderful and wonderfully bizarre book. The Society, are a select group of nine authors around the town of Rabbit Back, chosen as children by the eminent (and enigmatic) author Laura White, to be her protégés and tutees. Decades later, the members of the Society are adults and published writers. After Ella Milana, a young literature teacher, gets a short story published in a magazine, she somehow finds herself invited into the strange goings-on of the Society and caught up in the strange characters within it.

The writing is very good. It is clear, vivid, and funny, and if it is at times a little detached this narrative detachment works quite effectively. The shifting of tenses is a bit confusing and unnecessary, but this may be a translation issue. It’s possible the shifting between present and past tense might be more fluid and more effective in the original Finnish than now.

Nonetheless, the novel’s true strength is the characters and story – and the premise, I suppose. Or perhaps rather than premise I mean the tone. What I really like about The Rabbit Back Literature Society is the sort of underlying magic realism that never gets explained, and never really even gets questioned. I love that the novels in Laura White’s house and in the Rabbit Back library are rearranging themselves, that a plague of book mould is slowly messing with classic stories. It’s such a simple and yet powerful idea. And I love that we never quite understand Laura White, that the novel is constantly ambiguous without ever being too ambiguous. I suppose I mean I liked the randomness of this book, and the fact that its randomness never feels random, if that makes sense. I also love the idea of the Society’s mysterious Game. In general, the novel is just a fantastic idea. It is delightfully unexpected. 

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Things – A few of my favourite novels... Part 2

Read part 1, my top 25-11 books, here.

The following ten novels are deeply treasured and massively loved books of mine. Having counted, I can safely say that only seven out of ten are nineteenth century novels… Oh dear.

10. Villette, by Charlotte Brontë (1853)

While Jane Eyre is Charlotte Brontë’s most famous novel, Villette is in my opinion the better book. It tells the story of Lucy Snowe, a destitute English teacher who travels to the French town of Villette to gain employment. Not only does this novel deal with human psychology on a very deal and complex level, especially considering when it was written; not only could I not predict what was going to happen from an early stage, as so often with Victorian literature (much as I absolutely love it); but also, the characters are brilliant, and the ending hauntingly superb. Ignoring the slight irritating fact that half the dialogue is in French and you may want to read it near a computer/dictionary, it’s just a brilliant book. Any slight qualms or niggles I have about Jane Eyre are resolved in Villette; what Charlotte Brontë was trying to do in the first she really achieves in the second.

9. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen (1813)

Jane Austen certainly had to make my top ten somewhere. In terms of historical interest, or which I think is genuinely the better book, Mansfield Park certainly rivals Pride and Prejudice, but for sheer enjoyment factor it is near unbeatable. I just like books that make you grin as you read them, thus showing you up in public. It’s a good sign if a book can do that, and Austen certainly can. I like her biting wit and subtle social commentary. And Lizzy and Darcy’s dialogue is brilliant. Jane Austen is particularly and wonderfully skilled at writing flirting. In short, it’s just a lovely delightful story. 

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Things – A few of my favourite novels... Part 1

I thought I’d do something different for a change (mainly because, much as I’ve been enjoying reading all these twenty-first century novels, I do miss talking about Dickens). So today you can have a rundown of my top twenty-three favourite books. I did try to get it down to twenty, but this proved difficult. Today I’ll do number twenty-three to eleven, and next week I’ll give my top ten. I promise that out of twenty-three books, only twelve of them were published in the nineteenth century, and only four of them are Dickens novels. And yes, that did seem like less before I wrote it down.

But anyway, let’s begin:

23. Vile Bodies, by Evelyn Waugh (1930)

As I dedicated a whole module of my undergrad to Evelyn Waugh, I feel he ought to make it into my favourites somewhere. I’m divided on him as a writer on the whole; the language of Brideshead Revisited is a bit rich for my taste, and I couldn’t get into Scoop really – but I absolutely love Vile Bodies. I like the sparseness of the language and the sheer oddity of the plot and characters. It follows a sort of love story between Adam and Nina, a couple on the outskirts of the London high society scene, flitting in and out of the strange parties of the Bright Young Things. I love the obsessive desperation with which these characters live out their lives. And, you know, the 1920s are cool.

22. The Casual Vacancy, by J. K. Rowling (2012)

I almost forgot this one, but it definitely belongs here somewhere. With Harry Potter being so significant to my childhood/teenagerdom/university life, it’s nice to have J. K. Rowling here somewhere. Besides, The Casual Vacancy is a truly great book. It was so thoroughly lovely to read it and realise that Rowling is not only great at creating worlds, but is just a brilliant writer. The Casual Vacancy is a brilliant social criticism, in some ways the sort of book Dickens or Trollope (or maybe Hardy…) might have written if they were alive today. Of all the books I’ve read in the last couple of years, it’s probably made me re-evaluate the world the most. 

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Books with Friends – The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham – reviewed by Chris King

And today we have another guest review by Mr Chris King. To read his last review, please click here.

What strikes me most upon first reading that seminal, yet oft forgotten book ,The Day of the Triffids is how different it is from the movie. I already mentioned that the War of the Worlds movies are very different to what happens in the book; it’s the same with The Day of the Triffids. While the triffids fall from a meteor in the film and scatter themselves across the planet, the book has the triffid seed originate in a much stranger place known as ‘Russia’.

The story begins as a blinded man wakes up on a Wednesday which famously feels like it is a Sunday. The blind man comes to realise that everyone around him is blind too. This is as a result of watching the celestial event of the Earth travelling through comet dust which burns around the atmosphere, creating the most wonderful bright colours. Unlike the others, Bill Masen was blinded before the comet shower and so when he takes off his bandages, he is a seeing man in a blind man’s world. After discovering this, the story shifts back to before the comet debris when Bill worked as a bioengineer cultivating and growing triffids for their fuel uses and the coming of the triffids was certainly a slow invasion. First they appeared, then one or two people were stung, then they were pruned back from stinging and everyone became used to them, humans being frivolous and their nature... ooh a new shiny thing!

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Books – The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, published in 2009, is set in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s, and explores the relationships between white middle class ladies and ‘the help’, their black maids. It is told from the perspective of three very different women: Aibileen and Minny – two maids who could not be more different – and Skeeter, a young white female journalist. When Skeeter begins to think that relationships in their town between employers and employees isn’t quite what it should be, the three of them are brought together. This is another one of those books I’ve been meaning to read ever since it came out, and have only just got round to.

What I like about this novel is that it is about a big war played on a small playing field. I like that the civil rights movement is explored within this domestic – and almost entirely female – setting, in a world of social politics and petty popularity contests, where The Benefit takes on bizarre significance to the middle class ladies inhabitants of Jackson town. A lot of the drama in the book comes from what seem like small issues – toilets, pies, local reputation – but Stockett uses these things to explore wider oppression. It’s done well.