Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

‘Fahrenheit 451: the temperature at which book paper catches fire, and burns…’ Ironically, my copy of this book was damaged by water, after I took it with me on our hike through the Ardennes. Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopian novel published in 1953 on the burning of books, something that shocked the author immensely when it took place during the war. Ray Bradbury himself has said on numerous occasions that he didn’t try to predict the future, but in fact tried to prevent it. I’m not sure he succeeded though. It’s considered an American classic and even though I think the message of this book is an important one, I did have a lot of problems with this book. This review does contain a large amount of spoilers, so be warned.

Guy Montag is a fireman and he loves the adrenaline rush his work gives him. As everything has been made fireproof years ago, the fire brigade now has the purpose of burning books, which are forbidden. The captain of the fire brigade, Captain Beatty, explains that books all contradict each other and they make people confused and doubt themselves and the world they live in and therefor it makes them unhappy. And society has to make sure everyone is happy. Guy Montag, however, is not happy and a series of events causes him to really start thinking, for the first time in his life. First, he meets a young girl, Clarisse McClellan, who is unusually cheerful and clever, and often scolded for asking ‘why’, instead of ‘how’. Then he finds his wife, who has tried to overdose on pills. A cold and practical medical team comes in to pump her stomach and blood, and no one seems to actually care about her. Shortly afterwards, the fire brigade gets a call and they burn down a house of an old woman who had hundreds of books hidden in her home. The fact that this woman chose to be burned alive, rather than just see her books burn, really messes with Montag’s mind and that’s when the reader finds out he has been hiding books himself.

The fact that books are outlawed in this novel is quite disconcerting, but I think the warning in this book is twofold. First, there is that of censorship. I grew up in a house filled with books, in every corner. My mother, who was an English student and is now a librarian, has loads of novels and my father has his own study filled with theology and history volumes. I have a neat little combination of everything, and a collection of a size to match. The burning of books is horrifying to me and so it should be. When I was little, I loved the sight of all these books surrounding me, as I felt they contained the knowledge of the entire world. The thought of this being compromised through censorship is hard to imagine and the stuff of nightmares.

Secondly, there’s the theme of media taking over our lives. This book is the epitome of the phrase ‘ignorance is bliss’, with society controlling every thought. People are completely disconnected from their surroundings and from other people. Everyone appears to be obsessed with ‘The Family’, a sort of sitcom on TV, instead of being with their own families. People walk around with these tiny earpieces that give you the news and commercials every second of the day. The state keeps everyone ‘happy’ and happy means as little to think or worry about as possible. This is a dystopian novel, but are we really that far off now? Books are not being burned, thank God, but we do live cut off from reality to a degree through media.

I do love dystopian novels and this one really is spine chilling. The state monitors everything and they watch every move you make. If something makes people think or talk to each other at length, they simply ban it. People who don’t conform simply disappear. The first sense you get of how terrifying this dystopian society actually is, is when Clarisse McClellan, the girl who asks too many questions, simply ‘disappears’. And people actually go along with all of this! As a bit of an outsider, an anarchist and a rebel, this is incredibly scary to me. Brilliantly, Bradbury describes this society like it is nothing out of the ordinary, as though you are part of it and part of the people who question nothing. The ‘wait a minute…’ feeling therefor settles in the pit of your stomach and you never really let go of that unease throughout the book: the paranoia the characters feel becomes your own, while reading. The author really did an amazing job on this.

However, practically all the characters in the story are quite two-dimensional and this bothered me. The only really interesting character, and one with a bit of depth to her, is Clarisse and she disappears early on in the book. Guy Montag seems very much like a vacant character at first. Also, his wife nearly overdoses and he doesn’t really seem to care, and then she betrays him for having books and all hell breaks loose and all of a sudden he’s worried about her: it doesn’t make sense. He eventually starts reading the books he’s been hiding and that’s when he breaks loose. He searches out a former English professor, Faber, he once met and they hatch a plan to take down the system. He never actually gets that far, as he goes on an impulsive spree and endangers a lot of people in doing so. This was just very annoying to me: Guy Montag is not an intelligent man. I understand that not all main characters have to be smart, but it was very frustrating to read and you spend half your time screaming at him: don’t do that! I’m guessing the idea behind this is showing that Guy is named Guy because he could be anyone: a ‘regular Joe’. But in the end, through his own actions he is forced to run and hide, and he doesn’t actually accomplish anything.

The style of writing is probably one that everyone has strong feelings about. As an American classic author, Bradbury is often praised for his unique prose. Some may find his style incredibly poetic and skilful. I did not. I feel like Bradbury is simply trying to hard, with far too long sentences without anything to add. There are too many metaphors and adjectives for my liking and I had a hard time ignoring something that irritated me so. Let me give you an example: ‘With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history.’ Get to the point! Or you might love this style; it’s all a matter of taste. I found it a hindrance.

Today I listened to my professor going on for over fifteen minutes about how books are no longer necessary and bibliophiles are being put to shame by the invention of audiobooks. Not only did this infuriate me to no end and I had the hardest time biting my tongue, but it also made me think of the ending of this book. In the end, Guy Montag meets up with a group of refugees who live outside of society. Most of them are in fact English professors or used to have some kind of academic profession, and are therefor now useless to society. They explain to him that they, the ones who are trying to save books, are actually burning them as well! Come again? Yes, they are book-burners. However, they do memorize entire chapters and people all over the country are involved in this scheme, so that when the day comes that books are no longer illegal, they can write them all down again.

This is a bad idea on so many levels. First off, there’s a lot that can go wrong with this plan! What if someone dies, before they can pass on their chapter onto their children? And, trust me, if paragraph seven of Augustinus’ ‘Enchiridion’, for example, is missing, you won’t be able to understand much of the rest of the book. What if someone remembers a bit of the Bible incorrectly? Major drama can occur, as we know, through different interpretations alone! What if the person who has the plot for some great detective novel memorized goes missing? It’s just a faulty plan.

Secondly, books are so much more than just carriers of knowledge. I’ve been thinking about this: what makes the object book so important? We can’t imagine life without poetry, novels or the Bible. But why? And this is one thing that this story does very well: you will contemplate this while reading. Why are books worth saving? The answer, to me, is that each book is unique. Sure, we invented book printing, but as the horrible Captain Beatty points out in this book: no two books agree with each other. We live in a time where we are already being forced to conform more and more, and books are a much-needed refuge in my opinion. They contain alternatives, knowledge and imagination. Now for the object book; it is nothing but a symbol, maybe. They give me a sense of comfort and the powerful idea that I have all this knowledge in a physical shape in my hands. Though books can be pieces of art, they are just objects. But in the War, people who wore a red cross on their jacket didn’t get shot. That red cross didn’t protect them from the bullets, but it’s a symbol that everyone knew and respected. Books are the same: they are the symbol of freethinking and knowledge. Symbols are incredibly powerful: you don’t shoot someone from the Red Cross and you simply don’t burn books.

Fahrenheit 451 is not only about book censorship, but also about an obsession with media. This is what I loved most about this book: Yes, it is frightening as a prospect, but we absolutely should still read this book and take its warnings seriously. So, here’s to the people, the authors, who have gone before me and taught me all I know, and here’s to the people with whom I can discuss all the books I’ve ever loved, face to face.

Relevance Award: for warnings still to be heeded

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (New York, 1953)

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Thura Nightingale

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Ordinary victories (Le combat ordinaire) by Manu Larcenet

As the saying goes: ‘A picture says more than a thousand words’, and that is certainly true for this book. This book is one of those graphic novels that show that drawings and pictures are able to tell a beautiful story when used well.

This book tells the story of the life of Marco. Marco is a French freelance photographer, who used to travel the world to take pictures of sad events. Now he is back in in his house in rural France. He seems tired of traveling the world, and he wants time to think about a new project that he can feel passionate about. This worries his mother, because she beliefs that every man needs a job to feel good. Marco’s mother is the type of person who always openly worries about people, and in that way gives the impression of never being proud. Marco suffers from severe anxiety attacks, which can explain the worry of the mother a bit more. She figures they will become less when Marco has something to do in his life. Marco’s father was a dock worker until he became severely ill with Alzheimer’s. His parents live by the sea, and now his father sees the same boat passing for the first time, 5 times every day. Marco also has a brother who is his best friend. The brother is married and becomes a father in the book. All these people in Marco’s life have a big influences on what he thinks and help him to realize certain aspects of his own character.

In this book the dock and its workers play a big role. That is because Marco grew up among them and they feel like family. That is why he decides to portray the dock workers for his next photography project. Another reason to portray the dock workers is because the shipyard is closing and all its workers face an uncertain future. Marco wants to photograph the people when they are still there. It feels a bit as if he wants to photograph them as a remembrance of a past that is never coming back. In a sense he has to say goodbye to a part of his youth with the closing of the dock. This shows that many elements of the book are very well thought-through.

An important element of Marco’s story is the anxiety attacks he experiences. Those are related to fears Marco has, which might, or might not, be rational. The origin of these fears and attacks are never really fully explained in the book, and I think that is one of the strong points of this book. In this way, the readers can draw their own conclusions. Also, this tells us that not every issue a person struggles with has to have a clear origin to be real. Not giving Marco a precisely defined dramatic origin story makes him more normal, and therefore more relatable. This is not a dramatic story. It is a story about a guy who tries find his way in life. Personally I am a big fan of stories like that because they can teach us a lot about people. Also it is heart-warming to read about the joys ordinary people experience, despite the difficulties they face. This is also reflected in the title ‘ordinary victories’, which is more or less a literal translation of the original French ‘le combat ordinaire’ (the ordinary fight).

There are three central themes underlying the story in this book. One is the development of Marco’s career as a photographer, and how he finds his own style. The dock workers play a big role in that. The second theme are the bonds of love and family. The third theme is managing to deal with traumas and the question of forgiveness and redemption. This sounds like widely diverse themes for a book, but when you think about that those are not really weird choices. Life often does not consist of well-ordered themes. In this book the different themes are handled well and are nicely integrated.

And now let’s talk about the typical graphic novel parts. Personally I am a great lover of graphic novels. In my opinion they give you two great things in one: a story and artwork. Also, every time when I am in a reading slump, graphic novels help me to find my way back to reading again. The book I am reviewing here managed to pull me out of my latest reading slump. I understand that people prefer words to images in order to allow their own imagination to process the story, but I don’t do that in general anyway. I love reading because it allows you to travel along with the mind of someone completely different from yourself. Therefore it is also lovely to see the interpretation other people give to a story in either words or pictures. In graphic novels the two are combined which makes the journey in another person’s head even more vivid. The pictures below are a good example of the kind of artwork you can expect in this book. As you can see, it is not detailed work, but minimalistic. Still the author manages to make this an emotional book with images which tell a part of the story with simple drawings.

 

A downside in this book was that, up until about the middle Marco’s brother and his family played a big role in the story. Then they sort of have a fight and they are not mentioned again. This bugs me because there were things going on in the brother’s life which I wanted to know the ending of. Also the brother is more of a best friend to Marco, so it is unlikely he just disappears without a word. It read as if the author simply forgot about that part of the story halfway through the book, which feels uncommonly untidy when compared to the rest of the book. Beside the brother’s storyline, this is a book that feels complete and well-thought out in all aspects and will certainly be a joy to read for anyone who likes to travel along with the life of an ordinary man who finds his way in life.

Van Gogh award for a book that brings a person back to words with pictures.

Manu Larcenet, Le combat ordinaire (Paris, 2003)

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Bella G. Bear

 

By the Pricking of my Thumbs by Agatha Christie

I don’t have any skills that would allow me to survive in a horror film. I can’t fight, I wouldn’t think up a strategy when I’m in a state of panic and, trust me, I run like a fish on gravel. The only hope I have of escaping such a scenario alive is getting out before shit goes down. Because my reaction on discovering something creepy would be an immediate ‘Oh hell no’, I might actually be gone before getting involved. For instance, while I was on a hike with my sisters this summer, we discovered some abandoned sheds in the woods, with dark cellars that seemed to go on forever when we peeked down. We could have climbed down the ladder and investigated, but we read enough stories to know that the things you discover in that kind of place are dead bodies, evil creatures and more such unpleasantness. So instead of waking up said unpleasantness, we kept walking until we reached France.
The reason I’m telling you this, is that the main character in By the Pricking of my Thumbs is much braver, much nobler and much smarter than I am. Prudence “Tuppence” Beresford (née Cowley) is intelligent, intuitive, stubborn and very likely to get involved once anything shady starts to play out. And something, indeed, starts playing out.

Imagine a sweet old lady, sipping from a glass of milk in the sunny communal room of the home for the elderly. She kindly makes conversation with you, while you are waiting for your husband, who is visiting his aunt upstairs. She’s pleasant, all fluffy white hair and pink cheeks and soft eyes. She asks if you would like some coffee or milk. And then, catching you looking at the fireplace, she suddenly asks: “Excuse me, was it your poor child?”
Now this is the point where I would smile, say “Goodbye, Mrs. Lancaster, thank you for the coffee,” and then run like the wind. I won’t have cute little ladies talking about dead children behind fireplaces. But Tuppence is a different kind of woman and when strange details start heaping up, she makes it her goal to unravel the whole, seriously sinister story.

Many books start out with a mystery that feels frightening and unhinged. Usually, in general but in Agatha Christie’s works as well, the mystery is explained at the end, thereby losing much of its ability to cause terror. Things are less scary if there’s a logic to them, right? Not so in this book. The thing that makes it brilliant is that the book is creepy throughout, but at least ten times as creepy when things are finally explained. I challenge you to read the final chapter without squealing a little. Tuppence deserves a medal, in my opinion, and so does Agatha Christie for coming up with a story so delightfully eerie.

It is one of her later books, published in 1968, and the third out of only four novels that feature Tuppence and her husband Tommy Beresford. I am now determined to read the other three, and the collection of short stories wherin they appear as well. Tommy and Tuppence are an older couple (in this book), rather ordinary, and happily married. They are one of those couples who stay in love for years and years, with inside jokes that are decades old and a very good idea of what the other is thinking, even if they don’t say anything. What makes them quite a bit more than ordinary however, is that Tommy is a secret service man with an impressive war record. In a less official capacity, Tuppence got involved in his business during the war, refusing to sit at home far away from important matters and from the man she loved. Their shared war experience helps the couple solve the new mysteries.

So, no snappy youngsters in this book, only these wonderful people with actual life experience, and the wisdom to know that an evening at home with someone you love and some well-prepared chicken for dinner trumps just about anything. The combination of Tommy and Tuppence’ kindness and concern for each other, their common sense and their love of adventure clashes spectacularly with insane goings-on of the small village to which Tuppence follows some clues. She is determined to find Mrs. Lancaster, who has disappeared without a trace, which makes Tuppence think that her utterances about the child behind the fireplace might be more than just the confused ramblings of a very old woman. In the absence of tangible proof, she follows clues of intuition and vague memories. This more than justifies the title, taken from the witch in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: ‘By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes…’

Like I said, I’ll avoid a horror scenario at any cost. That is, unless it’s in a book. I expected nothing would be better than a grisly murder mystery novel to take with me for a hike in the Ardennes, and I was right. There is something about lying in a little tent, listening to rain and a thunderstorm in the mountains around you, that makes you enjoy Agatha Christie’s brilliant British mind like never before. When you have written dozens of detective stories like Agatha Christie did, it is impossible that every book be equally perfect. Of the books that I read by her, I enjoyed some more than others, but By the Pricking of my Thumbs is my new favourite and perhaps will be until I’m in a home for elderly people myself. Then I can recommend this book to the other people who live there and if they won’t listen, I’ll scare them by singing nursery rhymes until they do.

Botany Award for all those clueless English people who get excited by wildflowers while terrible things are happening in their picturesque villages (may they ever stay ignorant)

Agatha Christie, By the Pricking of my Thumbs (London, 1968)

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Jo Robin

Danny, the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl

My fiancé is a musician, which means he reads a lot…of music. He never really got into books when he was little and claims he has only finished about twenty books in his entire life. But, as we live together, he now lives in a house that is practically a library and yes, people, he has started reading fiction. I couldn’t be prouder. So this review is dedicated to this man, as he sits outside giggling while reading Roald Dahl. Also, Danny the Champion of the World has always been a personal favourite of mine.

Danny is a nine-year-old, who lives with his dad in an old gypsy caravan surrounded by the lovely meadows and green hills somewhere in England, probably in the 1950’s. Danny’s mother died when he was only little. Danny is at first taught by his father, William, so he doesn’t go to school. His father teaches him all important things, like how to make a kite, a soapbox, how to fix cars and how to have a proper midnight feast. As one can imagine, Danny loves his father more than anything in the world. Later on in the book, Danny does go to school, where he has the horrible Captain Lancaster for a teacher. Then everything changes the night his father goes missing and Danny goes out in an old car to look for him.

His father has a small garage and together they just manage to get by. But in addition to his work on cars, his father regularly goes into Mr. Victor Hazell’s woods to poach pheasants, as he confesses after Danny has found him that night he went missing. Apparently this has been a family tradition for generations now and they have turned poaching into an art, with the secret ‘Sleeping Beauty’ method. The entire village hates the local magnate Hazell, as he tries to buy up land everywhere to host his extravagant hunting parties for dukes, lords and wealthy businessmen, so a large part of the village goes out at night poaching. And this is when Danny comes up with a brilliant scheme to thoroughly embarrass Mr. Hazell at one of his parties: one of the largest and most dangerous poaching plans in history, which will eventually make Danny the champion of the world.

The father figure is very important in this book. Danny’s father is mischievous, with light smiling eyes, and remembers very well what it was like to be a kid. His father teaches him how to build things, how to play and have fun, how to work on cars for his future and what it means to be a good person. Not only is he fun, but he is also wildly protective of his son when he finds out about the archaic methods of punishments his schoolmaster employs. He fulfills both the role of the mother, as well as that of the father. As Roald Dahl mentions at the end of the book: ‘A stodgy parent is no fun at all! What a child wants and deserves is a parent who is sparky!’ And Danny’s father is the father we all wanted.

The first part of the book is quite boring, in the sense that nothing much happens. The real poaching adventure happens later on in the book. However, when I was little I had a book called ‘The dangerous book for boys’, which had all kinds of advice on how to entertain yourself during those long Sunday afternoons and during the Holidays. The beginning of Danny is very similar to this book, as it contains all kinds of fun things to do when there weren’t that many computers and iPhones around. Danny does all of these things with his father and I remember doing and building and playing these things as well as a child. So, not only is it great fun to read these first chapters, it might also give you some ideas on how to spend your next summer afternoon.

Then there are these wonderful village idiots: There’s the brilliant and stoic constable, who poaches as well, of course; The doctor, Doc Spence, who seems a little confused at times, has wild white hair, but is a very, very kind-hearted man; Mr. Rabbetts, the mean guard of Hazell’s woods, who apparently likes to pepper the backsides of the poachers when he catches them; Mrs. Clipstone, the vicar’s wife, who pushes a pram about and secretly delivers pheasants to people and as per usual, the reverend is in on the scheme as well. These characters and their funny descriptions make this a wonderfully charming and witty book. The writing is brilliant, ‘keeping you on the edge of your seat’- kind of scary at times and very imaginative.

Roald Dahl’s books follow a pattern of children winning over adults. Often adults appear in the form of cruel and unfeeling individuals, who get away with whatever they are doing, simply because they are grown-ups. I grew up with these kinds of adults, which is why I loved Roals Dahl’s books so much. As a child, this seems unfair to you: you are only little, so there’s nothing you can do. Dahl must have felt the same way. When you read his autobiographical book, ‘Boy’, he writes about getting beaten with a cane by his headmaster, which is what happens to Danny as well in this book, by his cruel schoolmaster. However, in Roald Dahl’s universe, children are the ones that punish the adults. They can defeat them through tricks and schemes. I loved this concept as a child.

There is however a different side to these stories of children being able to punish adults. As a child I thought it only fair and funny even. But reading these books again now, some of the things children do are quite horrible and the punishments are cruel. When I think about this book now, it can also been seen as a thief, coaching his son into thievery as well, with the help of all the shady characters living in a ‘picturesque’ English village. But then again, conning the money-hungry magnate who likes to shoot over 120 pheasants at the time for sport and humiliating the sadistic schoolmaster, do I feel sorry for them now, as an adult? Nope. Victory!

Ness Award, as it was my three-year-old monster’s favourite

Roald Dahl, Danny, the champion of the world (London, 1975)

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Thura Nightingale 

La nausée (Nausea) by Jean-Paul Sartre

This is one of the books that went with us on our hike through the Ardennes. I picked this book because it is one you can not read through very quickly because of its philosophical nature, therefore ensuring me two weeks of entertainment! Also I tend to read books quickly without thinking about every line, and that would not have worked for this book, because every sentence holds meaning and tells a part of the story. Having only one book to read motivated me to read it as carefully as possible. However, this is not a cheerful read, which makes me glad I enjoyed the hike so much, otherwise the book might have been a real downer. But I was happy, so I enjoyed to read about the negative thoughts going through the character’s mind. Often someone’s misery seems more interesting than someone’s joy, something that is at least true for this book.

This is a work written by Jean-Paul Sartre about a man named Antoine Roquentin, and his musings in his diary. At the beginning of the book he notices ‘nausea’ has come over him and he decides to document this experience to understand it better. Nausea is a difficult sensation to explain, but it feels a bit like an attack of depression, combined with complete alienation from the real world and a focus on, in Roquentin’s viewpoint, meaningless details. At the beginning of the book he is busy writing a biography about de Marquis de Rollebon to document his flamboyant life. Rollebon is an obscure figure, and fictional I fear, and Roquentin wants to let him ‘come back to life’ in his book. However, even the book can not keep nausea at bay, because history is futile and once a person is dead, he stays dead, and is even best kept dead. Or at least that is what Roquentin believes.

Because he writes the book, Roquentin lives in Bouville, an industrious sea-side town, full of busy, hardworking people. This makes him reflect on what can be considered life well-lived, especially when he thinks about the many zealous people in Bouville’s past working tirelessly to build up the town and to make it the great town it is in the book. These considerations only enlarge Roquentin’s feelings of uselessness of his own life. Beside the book, he does nothing and knows no-one. He simply exists and even that can often feel unbearable. The only other people he talks to are Francoise, the barmaid of a bar he frequents, and ‘the self-taught man’ he occasionally meets in the local library. The last character is Annie, a previous love of him. The book builds up to a meeting he has with her after years of silence between the two. All those people will disappoint him one way or other.

As you can see the book shows a downward spiral in Roquentin’s mood and optimism. Other reviewers pointed out that this book is the start of Sartre’s philosophies where he becomes famous for later. He is well-known for his ideas about existentialism and phenomenology. In this book existentialism holds that every person is free without a laid-down inherent purpose in his or her life, something Roquentin discovers and tries to come to terms with it in this book. This makes it not a very cheerful book to read, especially because the feelings of freedom comes with a sense of uselessness in the downward spiral, which takes Roquentin to the rock bottom. The phenomenology manifests in the long descriptions of Roquentin’s experiences on which he bases conclusions about his life. Because a lot of his experiences are influences by feelings of nausea, which might well be depression, these are dangerous experiences to base the purpose of life on.

This book is compelling because of the writing style. Although not cheerful, the descriptions of events and experiences Roquentin has are beautifully written. I read it in Dutch (the book is named ‘walging’ in the Dutch language), so I can not say anything about the English or original French writing style, but it is gorgeous. Roquentin takes you with him in the observations he makes, which are sometimes positive and sometimes deeply negative when nausea takes him.

In the preface of my copy of this book a professor warns you that this is one of the most oppressive books you will ever read. It resonates with the moments everyone probably knows in their lives where they think: what is the point of it all? Also this book lays down a strong argument that there is indeed no real point to life, except the purpose a person decides for herself. Further on this book shows the scary consequences when that thought becomes too present, and becomes everything a person can think about. In Roquentin, the protagonist, this is all caused, in my opinion, by the loneliness, alienation and depression he feels. Especially the feelings of alienation are put down superbly. He describes how, on Sunday mornings, he watches all the different people go to church and how they greet each other. He sees so much life and self-directed purpose in the life of other people, where he is not a part of. Those people have a purpose and respect and other people to live for, and he has none.

I am in no way able to say to which extend my thoughts in this review actually resonate with Sartre’s philosophy, because I haven’t read anything else by him yet. This book has triggered my interest though, only I will explore Sartre’s ideas slowly, at times when I feel positive about live. This book can also be appreciated by people who have no previous knowledge of philosophy at all. That is the great thing about a book that is a story and a philosophical treatise at the same time. This is not an easy book to read or like, and I am not even sure if that was Sartre’s intent, but it is certainly interesting for everyone who likes to explore the dark side of the human mind. But be warned: because of its powerful description of Roquentin’s thought processes, this book can take over your mind and take it on a walk through the dark side of nausea and existential dread.

 

Sunshine award, because this book can take down the joy in everything

Jean-Paul Sartre, La Nausée (Paris, 1938)

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Bella G. Bear

The Oracle of Stamboul by Michael David Lukas

The Oracle of Stamboul is a (somewhat) historical novel with elements of magical realism, set in the 1880’s crumbling Ottoman Empire. As if that premise doesn’t sound enticing enough already, the book boasts a beautiful cover with warm colours and an intricate design. Once again, I fell for a book purely because of its cover: after an internal shriek of delight I took the pretty book home with me. I read it, was momentarily charmed by it, but ultimately felt dissatisfied. About everything in the story started very promising, but wasn’t followed through. Instead both characters and storylines disappeared and were never mentioned again in later chapters. Like the Sultan in chapter Eight, I sighed: “Tell me, what further business needs attending to before lunch?” and moved on to a better book. Here’s why:

Our heroine Eleonora’s birth is accompanied by ominous signs and dramatic events. Not only does her mother die in childbirth, but Russian troops overtake the city and spare only the church and the library from their destructiveness. It is 1877 and the city of Constanta, in Romania, is in the midst of a war, in a jumble of armies of different nationalities. However, as you might have derived from the title, this book is not about Constanta, so the short storyline about the city’s history is abandoned.

Eleonora turns out to be no less than perfect: she is beautiful, a prodigy, communicates with animals and possesses an ‘indescribable inner radiance and clarity’. You would almost say that a girl like that doesn’t need mystic birds to convey that she is somehow destined for greatness, but author Michael David Lukas thought otherwise and lets Eleonora be followed throughout her life by a flock of hoopoes. One detail about the girl jumps out in the early chapters because it is not stereotypically ‘perfect’ like the rest of her characteristics: Eleanora’s family is Jewish, a fact that is mentioned several times at the beginning of the book as being disadventageous or even dangerous because Jews are, to say the least, not liked. However, this aspect is abandoned even before it can develop into a storyline. Eleonora being a Jew has no impact whatsoever on what happens to her in the story.

The girl is taught housekeeping by her stepmother, as well as reading, arithmetic and other school lessons by her father, who is a well-travelled carpet merchant. Among the books she reads, with a speed that reminded me of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, there are many British classics. This led me to wonder whether Eleonora has quickly learned English, or if all those books were translated to Romanian by the early 1880’s. They might be, if British literature was popular at that time in that place, so I am curious to know more about that. The same goes for the French, Russian and other books that are mentioned. As I understood it, apart from some Turkish, she only learns to read in multiple languages much later in the book.

When her father is about to travel to Stamboul (Istanbul) for business, eight-year-old Eleonora can’t bear the thought of being left behind and follows him as a stowaway on a boat over the Black Sea. An unforeseen tragedy forces her to stay longer in the capital of the Ottoman Empire than expected, in the house of her father’s friend and business partner, Moncef Bey. He is only one of the many mysterious characters who appear in the course of the book, with secret clubs, suspected ties to other world powers and a taste for intrigue. What their exact intentions are, however, doesn’t become entirely clear, because each of their storylines is in turn -you guessed it!- abandoned. We simply never hear from these people again.

Among the many scheming and secretive characters, my favourite is Sultan Abdulhamid II. He is tasked with the reign over an empire that at the same time unravels at the seams and wears out in the centre, to employ a carpet metaphor. He does so with dry wit and a weary detachment which makes you root for him, even though we all know the fate of the Ottoman Empire. Neither the character, nor the real Sultan Abdulhamid was a particularly nice man, which we don’t expect the most powerful men and women on our planet to be, but the Sultan’s subtle sarcasm is quite delightful, especially when he defies all his advisers by inviting Eleonora to his palace, to consult the tremendously smart eight-year-old about international politics.

The writing style, though sometimes a little pompous, is not bad. The story’s slow pace is at times annoying, but the author spends a lot of time describing people and surroundings and as luck would have it, they are both beautiful and interesting. I have never visited Istanbul in real life, but the city became one of those places I have a clear picture of in my mind. This picture is of the 1880’s, and fictional, and necessarily limited, but that doesn’t keep it from popping up every time someone mentions Istanbul. That’s just one of the reasons why I will maintain, until the day I die, that books have magic in them.

Eleonora would agree. A recurring thing in the story is her favourite book series, The Hourglass. The series doesn’t exist in our reality, to the best of my knowledge, but in Eleonora’s world it is a classic. She, like her mother and stepmother, reads it many times and she even dares to recommend it to the Sultan, who orders it to be translated to Turkish so that he might read it. It is the only thing that comforts Eleonora when life is turbulent and harsh, which made it all the more surprising that the books don’t play a bigger role in moving the plot forward. And the plot really needed moving.

The story has an open ending, which is usually OK by me. I tell myself I don’t require every story to neatly settle each character and anwer every question in the last chapter. But maybe I do, because the ending of this book infuriated me. It was meant to be surprising and unconventional, I’m sure, but in reality it was just badly set up and out of line with the rest of the book. The characters’ storylines are cut short, leading to nowhere. This rids every action or intention in earlier chapters of importance. When I closed the book, I felt disappointed and not quite sure whether the journey I undertook, following Eleonora through the pages, was worth it when it led me to such a shabby destination. In abandoning even the main storyline, I felt like Michael David Lukas abandoned me. And that’s just rude.

 

Universal Ex-Boyfriend Award for charming you and making you introduce them to your family, before leaving you with a feeling of regret and a yearning for good kebab

Michael David Lukas, The Oracle of Stamboul (London, 2011)

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Jo Robin

Atonement by Ian McEwan

When I was only fifteen years old myself, I actually stole this book from my English teacher. I had every intention of returning it (I think) after I’d finished it, but I simply forgot and so I still have her copy to this day (I’m so sorry, Miss…) And somehow, having an old stolen copy of this book is quite fitting. All children make mistakes, but this book is about the ones that can’t be fixed so easily. So here I am, atoning for my theft and reviewing this wonderful book.

The year is 1935 and England is going through one of those rare hot and humid summer weeks. Briony Tallis is a thirteen year old with a passion for fiction. She dreams of becoming a writer, but her imagination causes a destructive family drama within a few hours. Her older sister Cecilia is home for the summer and she has a sort of fling with the housekeeper’s son Robbie. Briony then sees a moment between them, misinterprets it completely, and convinces herself that Robbie is a ‘maniac’. Shortly after, Robbie writes Cecilia a dirty and explicit letter to tell her he loves her. Knowing he can’t possible send her that one, he writes another one: a more decent version. He then asks Briony to deliver that one to her, but, as you can imagine, he has given her the wrong one and the little girl reads it. During those days their cousin Lola comes to visit them at their country estate, who is raped in the night. Briony, after having walked in on Robbie and her sister having sex a few hours previously, says she saw Robbie rape Lola. She has convinced herself that he is in fact a maniac and, only thirteen years old, knows she saw him.

The second part of the book centres around Robbie, who has spent several years in prison, only to be given a choice when World War II broke out: stay in prison or fight. As most, he chose the front. Cecilia works as a nurse, working day and night out of anger and simply wanting to have something to do. She has broken all contact with her family, as she blames them for the arrest of Robbie.
And then there’s Briony, who has figured out her mistake when she sees Lola getting married to another family friend who stayed at their estate during that summer that altered everything. He is the one that raped her then, not Robbie. Briony then goes on a quest to atone herself for the horrible thing she has done as a little girl. She also becomes a nurse and works herself to the bone. She has abandoned all her ambitions as to writing stories, but she does start to work on one story: the story of her sister and Robbie and how they met just after the war.

When I was a little girl myself I wanted to be a writer. I wrote stories and plays and forced other kids to play in them. The painful thing about this book is that you can absolutely understand how a thirteen year old, obsessed with fiction, arrived to her conclusion. She is the daughter of a wealthy but absent father and a permanently ill mother; she fills her solitude with words. The police puts a lot of pressure on her when she is questioned and she doesn’t understand sex. She thinks she does, she has read about it, but only knows what a ‘sexual maniac’ is. She doesn’t understand the dynamics and she doesn’t understand body language. Also, she just wants to protect her older sister Cecilia, so her actions might even be vengeful. Briony has done a horrible thing by lying, but her imagination took over and she actually believed she saw him. And when you think about it, we could all have done something like that when we were thirteen and that’s what makes the whole process of atonement so painful: you can’t erase a silly mistake like that when it has such big consequences.

The novel was written in 2001, but in a sense it reads as though it were one of the classics. The old themes are all there: rich upper-class girl falls in love with a simple boy. War tears them apart and England as it was, is forever lost. It is clear the author has read a lot about the nurses during and after the Second World War, as nursing takes up a large role in this book. Robbie at the front, at Dunkirk, makes for such a dark part of the book: All his pain from his injury, the hundreds of thousands of soldiers dying around him, his life in ruins, in a war without end. The language is so rich and descriptive, though never boring. Ian McEwan takes you through the psychology of each character, but also excels at describing the daily chores of a nurse and crafting a setting full of detail. Some sentences feel like poetry, which is one of the things that make this book so much more for me than just tragic.

The characters are very compelling. They really do make the story. Briony is arrogant, as a thirteen-year-old rich girl should be, quick to judge and cold in a sense. Cecilia is very entitled, distant and holds a grudge like no one can. Their parents are simply just gone. Robbie is naïve and harsh at times. All of them have their flaws, but not like flaws some writers put in so as to make the characters seem three-dimensional. These people are actual, convincing human beings.

This story toys with one of the most important dilemmas of all time: we all make mistakes, but what if they haunt us? Sure, we drop something in the middle of class as a child and we are embarrassed. We even repeat that one single moment in front of our eyes for weeks. But what if we do this for the rest of our lives? We try to make it right again, but Briony can’t. She can’t fix what she’s done and she never will. How would we cope with that? How would we try to atone? I would probably write a book as well.

End of childhood Award, because yeah…

Ian McEwan, Atonement (London, 2001)

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Thura Nightingale