The Museum of Innocence: a memoir of obsessive love

I don’t often read extremely long books: War and Peace, Shantaram, A Suitable Boy; I can’t remember any others off the bat. I don’t remember ever having been disappointed by one – maybe because I tend to pick long books very carefully – it’s such a commitment. That said, I selected Orhan Pamuk’s 728-page beast, The Museum of Innocence, solely because I liked its cover. It follows the fortunes of Kemal, a rich heir engaged to a beautiful, captivating socialite, who throws his entire life away over a brief affair with a distant poor relation ten years his junior.

Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk is undoubtedly an excellent writer. He can set a mood, transport a reader to 1970s Istanbul so completely that you can hear the clink of rakı glasses and smell the warm air breezing over the Bosphorus, and he has great insight into the human condition. This is the sort of book that makes you want to highlight whole paragraphs of beautifully drawn, searingly true observation … and yet … in many ways, this was a hard book to love.

Kemal’s obsession with beautiful shopgirl Füsun endures for over a decade and the majority of the book is about him waiting for her, pining after her, making terrible decision after terrible decision until you want to scream at him. The story has its heat and its tragedy but primarily it is about atrophy, about a young man’s decision to let his life decay around him. You could say it is a book about love, but I wouldn’t. In fact, I think the narrative has an uneasy relationship with the concept of love.

Our heroine, Füsun, despite being at the centre of the novel, is a largely unknowable creature – a mere receptacle for the fears, hopes, dreams and obsession of our hero, in many ways. She is not necessarily diminished by this – from what she does say and from her own quiet, dignified and often horrendously stubborn resistance, we know Füsun is no feeble pushover. In many ways, she is always the one in the driver’s seat. But I am surely not the only reader to think that it is Füsun’s untold story that is the interesting one. What is she thinking at the important moments of the action? We rarely get to know. Instead we get Kemal’s thoughts – endlessly – the circular script of the lover obsessed. For me, Kemal was hard to empathise with – this man who had everything, threw it all away more through complacency and apathy than anything else, who then embarks on a lifelong journey of throwing good time after bad. Kemal worships Füsun, fetishizes her – but does he truly care to know her? I was never entirely convinced, and I’m not sure the author is either.

One thing I like about long books, and The Museum of Innocence is no exception, is that they mirror life. There are inevitably boring patches, beautiful patches and profound patches. This book is a wonderful memoir of 70s Istanbul – and in that way is full of life and colour and magic. And as a memoir of obsessive love, it is also powerful. It speaks to the madness, and the general fruitlessness of obsession, about what it does to a life or lives and how dreary and foolish it can become if left unchecked.

Leave a comment

Filed under fiction

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August – eerie, unique and genuinely amazing

I was lent The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by my husband. He is obsessed with the idea of time travel and this is one of his all-time favourite books. Sometimes you read a book and think, damn, I wish I had written that, and other times you read something and know that never in a million years could your mind have dreamed up the intricacies of its plot. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is one of those books.

Harry August is a kalachakra, which means that when he dies, he is reborn at the beginning of his life and relives it with the memory of his previous life (or lives – as this process repeats itself again and again). The first time it happens, he, like so many of his kind, is committed to a mental asylum as a child as he struggles to understand and cope with what is happening to him. Imagine dying at 80 after a lifetime of experience and then having to relive every day of babyhood, childhood etc. again. The tedium, the indignity, the terror of being alone in a world suddenly turned on its head. As far as you know, you are the only one of your kind in the world.

You know the future, inasmuch as you’ve paid attention to world events but you’re still bound by the (albeit adjustable) destiny of your genes. In each life, if he’s not killed first, Harry eventually dies from multiple myelomas. He can’t see any further into the future than his natural lifespan and can’t experience the past before his birth. In this way, Claire North makes time travel eerily imaginable, quotidian, even.

Things turn around for Harry when, some lives down the line, he discovers the existence of the Cronus Club, a society of kalachakra dedicated to supporting its members – and especially extricating them from the tedium of their early years. From then on, Harry’s life becomes more interesting – he can use his knowledge (assisted by the fact that he is a mnemonic with a flawless memory) to rise to the top of any field he chooses and become rich (as long as he takes care not to draw attention to himself – a key rule of the Cronus Club).

Imagine what we could all become if we had endless lifetimes to improve on our skills – if we could pursue endless interests, apply the experience of hundreds, thousands of years of trial and error. This is especially true for Harry because his memory is so impeccable (other kalachakra find their early lives tend to fade after many more have passed). But of course, the other side of this is that kalachakra can be haunted by their memories – by their own deeds, those of others, those things that happen in history that cannot simply be changed. On a personal level, it is possible to submit to a Forgetting, whereby your memory is erased and you begin again, with the unpleasant side effect that you no longer know what you are, so when you’re born into your second life, you will find yourself facing madness alone once again until you rediscover and contact the Cronus Club for support.

On a larger scale, the Cronus Club believes firmly that interfering in the course of history is a bad thing – its consequences can be far-reaching and highly unpredictable, and those megalomaniac kalachakra that have tried it have wrought considerable devastation. So when Harry receives a message from a small girl from the future to say that the end of the world is speeding up and someone is rapidly changing history, there are those in the Cronus Club who would do nothing. But Harry knows a little something about how this may have come about, and he commits the rest of his lives to saving the integrity of the future.

I could go on and on about all the elements of this book that make it a fascinating read, but I would not do as good a job at laying it all out as Claire North, so I simply recommend that you read this book if you are interested in time travel, the passage of time, the nature of humanity or just really excellent writing. Big questions abound in this book. Are we our memories? What would happen to our great loves if forever really meant forever? And what does it really mean to be human?

Leave a comment

Filed under fiction

Eileen – savage suburban noir

I bought Otessa Moshfegh’s Eileen for a book club I never ended up attending, and I read the opening page with a feeling of relief. Moshfegh’s style is unpretentious and compelling, and hers is the kind of writing that doesn’t feel like work to read. Eileen grabbed me straight away as a character, a self-loathing, dowdy young woman who nevertheless has nothing of the victim about her. Despite being her mad alcoholic father’s drudge, there’s a ruthless core about her that’s evident from the very beginning. She is a fully fleshed out woman – self-doubt mixing with arrogance, a vulnerable desire to be loved and wanted mixing with callousness. Though she blends into the background at the juvenile prison she works at, she’s not a genuine wallflower, not ever. Invisibility is just a disguise she wears, just as she wears her dead mother’s ill-fitting clothes. And then the glamorous Rebecca comes into her life.

Though Rebecca is the catalyst for change in Eileen’s world, catapulting her into a new one altogether, it’s hard not to feel in a strange way like she is not the driving force in this story. Rather Eileen is, and Rebecca is what she uses to get there. And I liked that about this book. Rebecca is not what she seems, but more importantly Eileen is not what she seems. She is a plain, unremarkable, downtrodden young woman by all appearances and because of that she can move through the world unnoticed. She is a detached and brilliant observer with a rich inner life most would never think to guess at.

This wasn’t a perfect novel for me. After a strong start, the pressure dropped and I felt there was a bit of meandering in the middle, with the best of the action crammed into the end, when things became gripping again. The conclusion returned me to the magic of the beginning and made me think of it as a brilliant novel again. The Los Angeles Times describes the book as “savage suburban noir”, which I think fits it neatly. For me it was a flawed portrait of a strange young woman in a twisted world, narrated in a voice that felts hauntingly real.

Leave a comment

Filed under fiction

The Bees – a unique and intricate universe

Every so often, a book comes along that is truly original, truly unique. Laline Paull’s The Bees is such a book. It tells the story of Flora 717, a sanitation worker bee, one of her hive’s lowest order. But unlike most of her humble kin, Flora can talk and produce Flow (baby-nursing fluid). She has cunning, bravery and sometimes foolish pride as well as size and strength. Despite her ugliness, and her clumsiness, her gifts and determination lead her to be granted access to areas of the hive that other floras are forbidden to enter. And so she opens a door for us onto the intensely fascinating world of hive life, where everything is done in service of the beloved queen, and Accept. Obey. Serve. is the motto on everyone’s lips.

We see what life is like in the beautiful hive nursery, the drones hall (where the greedy, arrogant males are preened and served), the fanning hall (where chalices of nectar are processed by the delicate flapping of the finer sister-bees’ wings), the honey treasury and even the morgue. In this rigid hierarchical world, Flora becomes the only bee of her kin to ever become a forager, leaving the sheltered world of the house bees for the wide, frightening world outside, where flowers can be tapped for their nectar and pollen and great adventures can be had, but where the terrifying Myriad (flies, wasps, spiders and so on) also lurk and lie in wait for the naïve or the unlucky. And then there is the rarefied world of the queen and her beautiful, haughty ladies in waiting, a world that would usually be completely off-limits to a lowly flora. But Flora 717 is no ordinary sanitation worker…

This book, with its unique and intricate universe, is masterfully woven together by Paull through meticulous research, tremendous imagination and a gift for dramatic storytelling. The level of detail here, from the design of the hive to the rich worlds of scent and often brutal social order that govern the bees lives, is stunning. In many ways, the harshness of hive life is an indictment of the way we humans oppress each other, spin lies to further our own agendas, crushing opposition and those who are ‘born to serve’.

Paull has spun a Harry Potter-esque world of magic for us, and at the same time teaches us all about the fascinating real-world lives of bees, bringing their complicated rituals and nuanced social order to life in a way that had me gripped, from the first page to the last. You will never read another book like this, and you will never look at a bee landing on the petals of a flower in your garden the same way again after reading it. The Bees is a genuine masterpiece.

Leave a comment

Filed under fiction

Mindset – free your mind and the rest will follow

Mindset by Dweck, Carol (9781780332000) | BrownsBfS

I ordered Dr Carol S. Dweck’s Mindset after reading an interesting article that mentioned it. It sounded like a fascinating study of the human mind and how our mindset affects every aspect of our lives. When it arrived, I was suspicious. It looked like any other self-help book promising to help you ‘fulfil your potential’ whether in ‘business, parenting, school or relationships’, and it did have some of the hallmarks of those kinds of books – lots of testimonials, repetition to the point where it sometimes felt like you were being beaten around the head with a simple idea that any idiot could immediately understand, and some real cringe moments, like when little Jimmy learns about the growth mindset and looks at Carol ‘with tears in his eyes’ and says ‘You mean I don’t have to be dumb?’

There are a lot of kids in this book that beggar belief, as they rub their hands together in glee when given a hard puzzle and say ‘I was hoping this would be informative!’ But scratch the all-American surface of this book and you’ll find some really interesting research on the difference between a fixed mindset (talent is what’s important; our abilities and intelligence are innate) and a growth mindset (effort and determination are what’s important; our brains and abilities are entirely flexible).

The book looks at the features and effects of the two different mindsets when it comes to raising kids, romantic relationships, education, sports and running companies, and it invites you to consider where the fixed mindset spots in your life are.

  • Do you give up on something if you don’t take to learning it as quickly as you expected to, or as quickly as those around you?
  • Do you believe that musical geniuses, amazing artists and top athletes have special, innate talents and were just born different to the rest of us?
  • Are you impressed by people who can achieve things seemingly without effort?
  • Are you more proud of the things that you can achieve without effort than things you’ve slaved over?
  • Do you ever get waylaid by a little voice in your head that says you’re no good at this or that, that you’ll never be good at it and that you shouldn’t bother wasting your time on it?
  • Do you ever feel the need to protect an image of yourself as someone who’s talented at something, even at the expense of learning more about it?
  • Do you believe that some people are natural winners in life and others are natural losers?

If any of these things are even slightly true of you, give this book a read – I hope you’ll find it genuinely inspiring and insightful, as I did, with plenty of food for thought.

Leave a comment

Filed under non fiction

A Gentleman In Moscow – spend this Christmas in confinement with the Count…

In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is put under house arrest in the grand Hotel Metropol, having been decreed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal. His circumstances, already greatly reduced, are to change even more drastically when he is unceremoniously turfed out of his suite and into a poky room in the hotel belfry. But the Count is a man who has always been taught that he must master his circumstances, or else be mastered by them, so he sets about making a new kind of life for himself. And it turns out, that for a resourceful man like the Count, the four walls of the hotel are full of secrets, surprising allies and enemies, and decades of unexpected adventure.

This book is not a page-turner in the expected sense of the word, although it certainly has its delicious frissons of excitement. If I could sum it up in one word, it would be charming. The Count is a wonderful narrator – witty, insightful, wise, and it is a pleasure to spend the decades of his confinement with him.

Author Amor Towles has a wonderful sense of place and a natural talent for creating authentic characters. I imagine him to be a little like the Count himself, finely attuned to the human condition, seeking joy in our quirks and surprises and understanding our foibles, despite having no time for a miserly spirit or a jobsworth.

The Times says, on the cover of this book, that it is “a book to spark joy”, and I’d say that’s apt. It is also a book that takes joy in itself. It is intelligently written but never worthy or pompous, and it brings Communist Russia to life in a very human, everyday way. In equal parts amusing and moving, A Gentleman in Moscow is the perfect Christmassy read.

Leave a comment

Filed under fiction

Cider with Rosie – England with that edge of gold around it

Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee

Laurie Lee’s classic Cider With Rosie had been sitting unread on my bookshelf for years, something I always felt I ‘should have read’, and I took it down at the perfect time. I’d just tackled In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts and was feeling worn out, raw and anxious. I wanted a nice book. Something that would transport me, something magical yet comforting, something that wasn’t a mountain (however worthy) to climb. Laurie Lee’s hymn to his childhood in a Cotswold village in the first quarter of the twentieth century was that book, a perfect fit.

It’s genuinely just about life in the village, no plot twists, no monumental character arcs – it moves, as village life did then, slowly, like a meandering stream. Lee is the second youngest of seven children living in a ramshackle cottage under the loving yet wildly haphazard supervision of his mother, aided by the oldest three girls, actually his half-sisters from the first marriage of his absent father.

This book made me for nostalgic for the England of my childhood years, Christmas snow, hot green summers, the fierce secrecy and alternate universe of childhood, except this is nothing like how we lived, and indeed this is not how anyone lives any more. As Lee notes, “I belonged to that generation which saw, by chance, the end of a thousand years’ life… a world of hard work; of villages like ships in the empty landscape; of white narrow roads rutted by hooves and cart-wheels, innocent of oil or petrol”. And indeed this book is as much a memoir of English village life as it is of the Lee family. It is a powerful one. Lee captures the beauty and purity of a life in harmony with nature, a world turned by the seasons – but with the unsentimentality of one who actually lived through it. Yes, there are red-cheeked children skating on glittering village ponds but there are also people dropping down dead of pneumonia every winter. The harsh realities of nature – difficulty, disease and death – are accepted and expected.

In the village, there is a genuine sense of community, for better or for worse. People know and accept the quirks of others for the most part and look out for each other. At the same time, dark secrets are hidden from outsiders. The village essentially polices itself – which is not to say that it doesn’t punish transgressors, but it is the not the high-handed punishment of an unfamiliar, unseen force. Lee says of the modern urban world “It is not crime that has increased, but its definition. The modern city, for youth, is a police-trap.”  That is certainly true, with the heavy-handedness unevenly applied to the poor and people of colour.

Lee’s world is no paradise of course. I recently became a mother to one and even with considerable assistance from my own mum and husband, it’s exhausting. The thought of managing seven alone is unthinkable, and indeed Annie Light is no whitewashed superwoman. The house is a cluttered mess and her children sometimes go hungry and ignored, but her vivaciousness, her love for life and for her children – three of whom aren’t even hers but whom she loves and cares for all the same – shine through without question. In fact, Lee’s tribute to his mother in this book is really quite beautiful. He doesn’t shy away from her faults and in this way he allows her to be a real, relatable woman, but his admiration and love for her are unquestionable. He tells us, “Nothing now that I ever see that has the edge of gold around it – the change of a season, a jewelled bird in a bush, the eyes of orchids, water in the evening, a thistle, a picture, a poem – but my pleasure pays some brief duty to her. She tried me at times to the top of my bent. But I absorbed from birth, as I now know, the whole earth through her jaunty spirit.”

Lee’s mother is not the only one to be painted in such beautiful, evocative, captivating words. He describes his entire family and a host of fascinating characters from the village with a humane wit and an innate understanding of the complexities of the human soul. And not only that. Laurie Lee’s prose is hands down the most gorgeous use of the English language I have ever read. Every sentence sings with poetry. Light dapples every one of his descriptions. He is a master of the English language, and this book is a masterpiece of a novel.

Leave a comment

Filed under memoir

In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts – a haunting, unforgettable study of addiction

In The Realm Of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With ...

I can’t for the life of me remember how Dr Gabor Maté’s In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction ended up on my To Read list. This fascinating treatise on the many facets of addiction from brain chemistry to early childhood experience was an excellent read but not always an easy one. Maté is a doctor in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, where the non-profit Portland Hotel Society provides a “hard-to-house” population of drug addicts and those with serious mental health issues with a place to live and medical and social care. This book weaves stories and anecdotes from Maté’s practice there with scientific research, case studies and his own perspective on the issue of addiction to create something that is incredibly nuanced and complex.

Maté tackles the War on Drugs, exploring its irrefutable failures and their catastrophic consequences, both for the ostracised addicts under siege and society as a whole. He delves deep into the issue of childhood trauma, documenting both the heartbreaking personal stories he has encountered in his practice and the research about what trauma and neglect in early childhood do to the human brain and how this fosters a predisposition to addiction. He considers how modern industrial society with its dislocated families and breakdown in traditional social structures contributes to the West’s current crisis of addiction. He also reviews government and policing policy regarding addiction both in his home country of Canada and in the wider world and he takes in the spiritual and holistic framework that may offer another way of looking at drug addiction.

There is so much insight in this book for anyone interested in addiction, whether on a personal or professional level – or even if you are just a curious reader looking to better understand part of the human condition. Those reading this book primarily from a social perspective (like me) can hopefully get a lot out of the incredible wealth of scientific research Maté has broken down in a clear, accessible manner (that’s not to say I didn’t struggle on tired days with certain portions of the book, or have to reread the odd passage!). You can tell Maté is passionate about helping addicts and effecting real change and all the research he explores is filtered through that perspective – there are no dry, fusty studies for the sake of studies here. Some of the animal research he discusses, however, does make for uncomfortable reading.  

Those coming at this book from a purely medical or scientific angle may, at the other end of the scale, benefit from the very personal, human stories contained in this book – Maté tells these with great compassion yet without sentimentality. There are no great film-worthy triumphs over addiction here and, strikingly, Maté would like society to promote harm reduction policies that accept that, for some, abstinence is not a realistic option, at least for the foreseeable future. That’s actually quite radical and powerful, I think – this idea of meeting people where they genuinely are, and caring about their treatment even if the end result isn’t the outcome we would ideally like to see.

All in all, this book is a powerful and comprehensive study of addiction. I finished it with a sense of relief as some of it felt grim and unrelenting, but I respect that Maté doesn’t shy away from the reality that his patients and others like them truly face. There were moments in this book that made me feel absolute despair for the future and traumatic stories that I will struggle to forget that genuinely gave me nightmares – but I was also left with a sense that much is possible for the addicted person and the addicted brain, that there is another way forward for societies rife with addiction and the myriad issues that arise from that. There are no quick fixes, Maté is clear on that, but with greater knowledge comes greater understanding, from greater understanding comes greater compassion – both for ourselves and for others – and, from that, real, enduring change could grow.

Leave a comment

Filed under memoir, non fiction

The Circle – descent into the Google Gulag

Dave Eggers’ The Circle came highly recommended to me by a friend, and as usual he didn’t let me down. Set in the very near future, it follows recent graduate Mae Holland as she embarks on an exciting new career at the Circle, a Google-esque tech company which looks to be very much on the verge of taking over the world.

Among my friends, I’m known to be a bit of a tin-foil-hat-wearer. I don’t post pictures of myself or my life online, I resisted the lure of Whatsapp for years because their terms of use (what do you mean you need access to all my files and data? Why?) creeped me out, and I never use my real name or date of birth to sign up to anything if I don’t absolutely have to. I am generally mystified by the prevailing culture of sharing everything with strangers, and with capitalist businesses, without any thought about who might end up with this information and what it might be put together and used for at some point in the future. I’ve never trusted people who say “If you’re not doing anything wrong, what are you worried about?” As if the world isn’t and hasn’t always been prone to creating regimes where being outside the norm in an endless variety of ways becomes punishable by loss of livelihood, freedom, or even your life itself. People who trust that the people in charge are always going to be benevolent, or even benign… well, read a history book… or read The Circle.

Eggers’ story of an uncomfortably familiar dystopian hell is exhaustingly familiar in places. A wish for privacy becomes uncool, then suspicious, then by degrees a crime. He has painted, in vivid colour, in accessible, entertaining prose, a totally plausible vision of the future, where we have willingly, joyfully, surrendered to giant internet monopolies with impressive technologies and terrifying scope to dominate every aspect of our existence.

At the heart of Eggers’ genius in this novel, though, is that he is not the cranky tin-foil-hat-wearing curmudgeon (see me) laughed at by owners of Apple watches. He inhabits, on this journey into the seventh circle of hell, the wide-eyed and ambitious Mae, who is totally wooed by the bright, shiny world of the Circle, and who allows us to walk a very plausible and understandable path to this horrible destiny. When government officials are railroaded into ‘going transparent’, with tiny cameras around their necks all day, every day, many applaud it as a step away from backroom deals and shady practices. When Circlers are shamed for not sharing content, reciprocating the friendly (if increasingly overwhelming) energy of others, or opening up their lives to the world, it is because they are deemed selfish. If you enjoy kayaking, why wouldn’t you want to share this with others? Help others know where the best spots are, the best currents can be found etc., etc.? What about the child with cystic fibrosis who can’t climb Mount Kilimanjaro but can feel like he has watching your video feed? Why would you deny him that experience, and so on? There were moments when even I could imagine myself being swept along with the reasoning a little. It’s certainly tiring to resist sometimes, I know that much. People make you feel like you’re mental. But inch by inch, Eggers creates a world that even the most open, tech-fanatic person surely wouldn’t want to live in, a brave new totalitarian hell. Will we try to resist at that point, even? And will it be too late?

I don’t want to go into too much detail on this book because to do so would be to deny you the chance to let it unfold before you in awful, yet glorious technicolour. And I won’t do better than the thoughtful, balanced, imaginative genius of Dave Eggers. This novel is perfectly calibrated and never heavy-handed, never preachy or anything other than gripping. But its subject matter is real and huge and unavoidable. We should all be reading The Circle, and asking ourselves what kind of world we want to end up living in…

Leave a comment

Filed under fiction

August – a game of two halves

Mr Literary Kitty bought me Gerard Woodward’s debut novel August because I’d enjoyed Nourishment. I liked Woodward’s style – his plain but quietly eloquent prose, and the way he wrote women so convincingly (a rarer talent than you’d think). He took the everyday and the mundane and people’s squirrelly secrets and tangled relationships and made them totally compelling.

So I had high hopes for August and I started out disappointed. The story of the Jones family and their yearly camping trip to the Welsh mountains was mundane alright, but it seemed bereft of the quirkiness that had made Nourishment such a great read. I waded through the monotonous tent-pitching details and found myself feeling cold towards Aldous and Colette Jones – a spark of interest only lighting on their creepily precocious son Janus.

About halfway through the book, things started to get good. The Jones’s idyll begins to shatter and Colette in particular comes into blindingly sharp focus as a great character. The upheaval is all the more poignant for life having been so humdrum before. Woodward’s writing, when he’s got his eye trained on human beings and not on mountains and tent pegs is still juicy and insightful and honest. 

By the end I was genuinely hooked on the Jones family and I think I may have to read on to complete the trilogy Woodward has written about them. But I can’t pretend I thought the relatively dreary first half of August was warranted even if things did perk up quite spectacularly.

Overall, I much preferred Nourishment, and it felt to me like evidence that Woodward has blossomed as a writer in the almost-decade between the two books. Or maybe this was just an indulgently slow start to what will end up being an earth-shattering trilogy. I’ll let you know when I’ve followed the history of the Jones family to its conclusion.

Leave a comment

Filed under fiction