Bartleby the Scrivener – Herman Melville

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This tale is narrated by a very Dickensian gentleman of Wall Street. He is self important, prejudiced, stuffy and pretentious. His world, where everyone and thing has a proper place and a proper order, is rocked by the quietest of revolutionaries. A recently hired, and presumed respectable,  Bartleby voices the phrase ‘I would prefer not to’. His polite refusal defies more than just a direct instruction but the whole construction of society. This is a display of individualism that the narrator cannot countenance. It reminded me of a child asking ‘Why?’. Rather than listening and engaging with Bartleby the man, our dear spluttering narrator tries to knock sense into him with the rule book, to no avail. Bartleby’s continual refusal to integrate and conform without reason or justification eventually leads him down a grim path. There is a lot that can be read into this, but I like the idea of someone who has stood back from everyone else burrowing through life and realised that there is no ‘must’ yet in applying this indiscriminately he opts out of more than just society but also the essentials of living.

Read: At the tail end of summer in Spoke and Stringer by Bristol’s floating harbour

Felt: it was a little dry in places but I loved the overall idea of the swathes of unease and upset caused by such a simple harmless phrase.

Would recommend: hesitantly, it is an interesting thing to have read but not the most captivating of books. In between fun ones, I’d say.

Revolutionary Road – Richard Yates 

As per usual, I had all sorts of preconcieved ideas about this book that proved to be completely wrong – if only there was a suitable book-related idiom about not judging things on appearances…

Frank and April are a married couple in 1950s America. He was meant to be ‘something’ but now works in a mundane office job he hates. She is beautiful, a trained actress and now playing the suburban wife and mother. No-one is happy. To begin with, I thought this was going to be well written but dry – from the first page I was writing down quotes in my little green book of nicely made phrases but I wasn’t really emotionally involved.

Things like:

The trouble was that from the very beginning they had been afraid they would end by making fools of themselves and they compounded that fear by being afraid to admit it.

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Infinite sky – C.F. Flood

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From: A little Bristol bookshop called Bloom and Curll that ticks all the good independent bookseller boxes – I picked this book up for the cover but was pleased to be told the author is a local!

Read: On a Sunday morning before getting out of bed – as in, I refused to get up until I’d finished it.

Felt: impressed. This had neatly avoided the standard pitfalls that can make young adult fiction hard to get into – kids were credited with enough intelligence and individuality to make them and the plot interesting. The story was told from a young girl’s view point and felt new and interesting. There was no ‘good and bad’ divide – which I really liked. Everyone felt very real.

Would recommend: as a quick read – I probably won’t re-read this book but I would definitely pick up anything else she wrote.

 

The year of living Danishly – Helen Russell

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This is my favourite kind of non-fiction. Armchair tourism at its best with a really funny guide who knows her stuff (mainly because she went and found the experts on said stuff). It reads as easily as fiction and has lots of personality woven through what is a pretty informative guide to the Danish lifestyle. The recurring theme of happiness matched quite nicely with my own ethos and has too many laughs to be pretentious or lecturing.

From: a friend with great taste in books

Read: while sheltering from the rain at National Trust Tyntesfield

Felt: like having a chat with a new friend over coffee and some pretty tasty Danish pastries. It was funny and moving and honest and informative. Well researched, well written and a joy to read. The whole expat palava rang painfully true.

Would recommend: highly to everyone, especially those who have lived abroad or are planning a move or anyone who likes a good laugh. So everyone then. Heads up – the food descriptions will make you really very hungry.

No one writes to the Colonel – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

img_5169There is something wonderful about a novella; a sense of dipping only a toe into another world. Visiting for a short while makes it easier to settle in a space that might not be naturally yours, a chance to try out a new author, genre or style of writing. I think I might find a longer work by Marquez more daunting but this was a lovely taster and I found myself taking the time to enjoy the slow meandering tale. The entire world of the colonel is painted with such attention to detail and colour it doesn’t matter that the plot meanders and the pace dawdles. This seems to have been written to be read in the shade when it’s too hot to do anything fast.

Here’s a snippet of brilliant writing:

The lightning interrupted her. The thunder exploded in the street, entered the bedroom and went rolling under the bed like a heap of stones.

and here ‘the woman’ and ‘the colonel’ are as close to names as these main characters get:

‘You can’t eat hope,’ the woman said.

‘You can’t eat it, but it sustains you,’ the colonel replied.

From: Hatchards St Pancras

Read: In a morning while sitting by the pool

Felt: Transported to Spain. Not absorbed by the book but more a curious observer.

Liked: the hope and simplicity of the Colonel

Would recommend: as a quick time filler, a good hand luggage book for a short journey.

The Buddha of Suburbia: Hanif Kureishi

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Written in the style of a memoir, this is harsh and bleak and very honest in a way that softens it slightly. People are continually hateful to each other and yet seem to, almost inexplicably, still care deeply about each other. Karim, who introduces himself as ‘an Englishman born and bred, almost’, goes through the wretched business of growing up with all the awkwardness and unpleasantness laid out in graphic detail. The details make this the great read it is, despite a plot I’m not entirely enamoured by. All the little nods to life in Britain in the 1970s, the current events, the fashions and the music, all give this a feeling of authenticity and being a lived experience rather than a work of fiction. Although certain elements seem fantastical or outrageous, it is always kept just within the realm of possibility and makes for an intriguing read.
On the intensity of a first crush
I admired him more than anyone but I didn’t wish him well. It was that I preferred him to me and wanted to be him.

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Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf

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This has the appearance of being a day in the life of a wealthy married woman in London after WW1 but Mrs Dalloway is not defined as a mother or wife. This is not a guide to her daily tasks but to her psyche – how she came to be herself, from her experiences and the choices she has made, to how she reacts to the people and world around her. Many books run like plays where a cast of characters act out scenes and the authors deftly supply the details to help us stage the action in our imagination. While Woolf always assembles an intriguing cast, she does not write so much about actions but emotions, impressions Continue reading “Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf”