All the birds in the sky by Charlie Jane Anders

This is such a weird book that it totally made sense that there was a love story between an Yggdrasil tree and an artificial intelligence computer (AI). This book is a delightfully weird mix of magic, sci-fi, YA and the dichotomy between magic and technology, all brought together with the beautiful lyrical title ‘all the birds in the sky’.

I listened to the audiobook of this story, narrated by Alyssa Bresnahan. Audiobooks are amazing because who doesn’t like to be read to? And with an audiobook that is always possible, even when there is no obliging friend nearby.  Additionally, it really helps to make a boring activity less so, such as cleaning, which I unfortunately have to do a lot because it’s my job.  Personally, I always have to get used to a narrator, because it is a voice I’m not used to, and with Alyssa it was the same. Especially because she made some of the characters, especially Patricia, sound really whiney and annoying in the beginning of the book. The beginning of the book was slow at any rate. But soon I became fascinated by the story, because so much is happening at the same time!

The story is about two people, Patricia and Laurence, who meet as children, and connect over the loneliness they both have, because they are both outsiders in their own way. Patricia spoke with a bird in the woods one day and suffered from that, because nobody believed her. However, she keeps believing she actually talked to a bird. Laurence is a nerdy boy with strict parents who do not understand his passion for science. They worry because he does not make friends. At a certain moment he sneaks away to see a rocket launch and he invents a two-second time machine. Also he eventually builds the AI mentioned before in his closet. Naturally, as they should in a YA novel, the two outsiders connect and become best friends. This goes all swimmingly until the day Laurence is packed away towards a militaristic boarding school to become a ‘normal’ boy. The only good thing that happens on that school is that Laurence manages to give live to his AI. Further on, the school is horrible and at a certain moment his life is in danger when he gets locked in a closet as punishment. Meanwhile Patricia discovers more about her magical abilities. She even gets the opportunity to go to a magic school to develop her skills, but only if she leaves immediately. She begs to be allowed to stay for a short while to save Laurence, because she knows he is in danger. Saving Laurence is the last thing she does before she goes off to magic school, and it will be years before the two see each other again. At this book the book had my attention, because magic schools are always interesting to read about, however interestingly enough Charlie Jane Anders does not talk much about the school. This was a shame I thought.

Patricia and Laurence represent two ‘parties’, or sides in this story, namely magic versus science, both working towards the same goal: the earth is in danger of ecological breakdown. Both sides are trying to find a solution for the problem. After many years apart, Patricia and Laurence re-connect with each other, and their friendship symbolizes the potential of the two ‘sides’ to work together for a solution. Originally there might be more interest in working against each other, because of a deeply-rooted distrust between the two parties. Patricia and Laurence do not have a relationship immediately, because Laurence already has a girlfriend. Halfway through the book Patricia and Laurence get together anyway, around the time something horrible happens with the planet and shit gets real.

The magic versus technology is nicely executed in this book. The science, for example, is innovative enough to be interesting, but plausible. There is a super fancy personal AI computer everybody owns at a certain point which maximises your life experiences by plotting everything in your life, such as guiding you to places to eat. At those places the computer has even calculated who you will meet and should be friends with to have maximum enjoyment of your life, a bit creepy, I know. This innovation reminded me a lot of the google glasses and other smartphone-related developments. The magic school is interesting as well. Its educational system is based on a balance between healing and trickery, which is a balance every magician should keep. Every magician has the danger of ‘Aggrandizement’, which in this book means that the urge towards trickery overtakes, and one starts to do magic to gain personal power.  The healing side of magic, which manifests in helping people without self-interests, keeps the trickery side in check.

This is shown when, a few years later into the story, Patricia has finished her magic schooling and is living in San Francisco. During the night she walks around the city and saves people from unhappiness with her magic. In the daytime she has annoying jobs to pay the rent. Because of the danger of Aggrandizement she is not allowed to gain any compliments or positive outcomes from the magic she does, because it might lead to arrogance, miss-use of magic and general destruction of the established magician society. Basically the concept tells about the danger of being too proud of one’s abilities as a magician, because that would lead to ‘getting airs’ and believing one can, and should, use magic to gain personal power. Consequently, one is not allowed to do any magic for their personal benefits. The tendency towards Aggrandizement in magicians is kept in check by a board of magicians. Somehow they believe Patricia is in particular danger of Aggrandizement. When Patricia and Laurence meet again their friendship is prohibited, because they are representatives of two different parties in the world and any relationship between the two is dangerous. Laurence, in the meantime, has become a genius whiz-kid kind of guy and works in a very prestigious lab where they invent new technologies, such as an anti-gravity machine. He has his own troubles, because he has a beautiful girlfriend of whom he does not understand why she loves him, and he is trying to save humanity from an ecological disaster.

Part of this book revolves around a looming climatic disaster, which makes this a very interesting take on the dystopic genre, because the dystopic future described in this book is one potentially close to our own future. Events in this book are set somewhere in the next 20-30 years, I would say. It is a climatic dystopia full of epic devastating storms and ecological degradation, as mentioned before. Halfway through the book there is a superstorm which makes clear how bad the status of the earth actually is. Also in the dystopia elements of this book, the idea of magic versus science becomes clear because both sides have a radical different solution to the problem, which I of course won’t tell, because spoilers. So, in conclusion, the technology in this book was plausible and the climate of our planet is already showing some similar problems to the ones in this book, which makes this book a combination between a warning and entertainment, which is an amazingly ambitious attempt of Charlie Jane Anders. Wouldn’t you call that Aggrandizement?

Aggrandizement award because this book has high ambitions, and delivers

Charlie Jane Anders, all the birds in the sky (New York, 2016)

Bella bookworms 2

Bella G. Bear

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Ghost Stories by M.R. James

Hallowe’en is over, and I have done nothing special except for staying in and reading an excellent book. But in honour of the season, I read a SCARY book. The holiday has now come and gone, but from where I’m sitting, the weather is grey and dreary and I have some candles burning, so no-one can keep me from staying in its sinister spirit for a while longer. Have a glass of wine and some ghost stories on me!

Because there are altogether thirty-one stories in this collection, all with different characters and playing at different times, I can’t give you a quick introduction to what it’s all about. What I can do, is tell you the premise of one of the stories that I thought was the scariest: ‘Lost Hearts’.

An eleven year old boy, recently orphaned, arrives at a country house in the year 1811. He is to live with his rich old cousin, who is a learned recluse, specialised in pagan religions from the first centuries AD. The man isn’t sociable, but by all accounts a kind guardian who has taken in abandoned children before. The boy has been living in the big house for a few months, in the care of the housekeeper, when this kind lady scolds him for having torn his nightdress. The boy doesn’t know anything about the rips in the cloth. “But,” he said, “Mrs Bunch, they are just the same as the scratches on the outside of my bedroom door; and I’m sure I never had anything to do with making them.” Things escalate from that point.

I am sure that the terrifying sounds and visions from this story could be made into the scariest film ever if someone should try, but M.R. James only needs nine pages to leave you shivering. Every story is like that, whether it plays in the sixteenth century or the twentieth, in London of in a small village in Sweden. The premises are diverse, but most of the plots are based on some kind of historical object or ancient building. When they are disturbed, intentionally or by accident, weird and threatening things start happening. The protagonist usually starts out rationalising these occurences and when he finally realises something fishy is going on, he is already in deep trouble.

This particular collection of very short stories was first published in 1931, so obviously before the age of television. Luckily, there are ways to scare people without the visual shock television can provide. You might say that a book relies more heavily on creating an eerie atmosphere, than on giving you a fright, but the result remains the same: you make sure all lights are on when you have to visit the toilet at night. M.R. James tells his stories like historical reports, using fictional eyewitness accounts and records from the archives. He takes the reader with him through all the steps of his research and takes great care in mentioning every possible detail he could find, acknowledging when there is some missing information that has been lost in time. Not only did I love this storytelling device because I’m an aspiring historian myself, but it also greatly enhanced the tension. The scientific, business-like style in which they are recounted makes the gruesome aspects of the stories that much scarier.

In between the scary parts, now and then, there is actually some dry humour. It is usually subtle, so it doesn’t interrupt the story, but keeps it entertaining. It might be a description of an oblivious servant, or the conversation between a middle-aged gentlemen and his dictatorial wife, or the portrayal of a professor whose strong unbelief in the supernatural takes some hits in spite of himself. Again, the contrast between the unremarkable and the matter of fact on one side, and the strange occurrences on the other is specially frightening.

Throughout the stories, it becomes abundantly clear which things in life interest M.R. James, who was a medievalist and actor, and which don’t. Architecture and archeology, for instance, are evidently subjects he knows a lot about, so he describes every house, church and ancient ornament in great detail. Even if you couldn’t say if ‘wainscot oak’ is something special to save your life, like me, you still get a good sense of your surroundings before some ghost or monster appears and makes them terrifying. Golf, on the other hand, is not the author’s cup of tea but was a popular pasttime in his age (it probably still is) and so many of his characters play the game. M.R. James makes fun of this in several tales, pretending to leave out parts of fictional conversations that his ‘witnesses’ recited to him because they are about golf, or replacing them with generic ‘golf jargon’ because he supposedly couldn’t be bothered to remember the exact words.

Of course, I did not like all the stories equally. Some of the evil creatures, most of them hooded and operating in the shadows, were quite unpleasant, but I noticed that I found the stories containing actual, physical monsters less scary than those with some kind of ghost or witchcraft. The build-up to the revealing of the monster was usually scarier than the thing itself. Isn’t that always the case?

Additionally, certain elements felt repetitive sometimes, like the scenes in which a man, from pure terror, is bedridden for days. The first time a formerly strong and sensible fellow was reduced to a shivering heap in that way, it added to the horror, but after a few times I was hoping for a different reaction. Then again, I can’t really blame these characters because I would definitely not leave my house ever again if I encountered one of the terrible creatures that lurk in the ancient churches and obscure artwork of M.R. James’ imagination.

All in all, the book made me feel scared of my own shadow, which is what I hoped for. I had never heard of the author before I picked up this book from a second-hand bookshop, but now I would love to meet him, partly because I always think writers of horror stories and murder mysteries must be very interesting people, and partly because, from his writing, he seems to have been a brilliant man. Unfortunately, Montague Rhodes James (isn’t that a great name!) died in 1936. I couldn’t find any particulars on his death, however, so I’m still hoping for a final, real life ghost story to be uncovered some day. M.R. James, Ghost Stories (Londen, 1931)

Shot of Whisky Award, because that is what you’ll need after you’ve finished reading this book

M.R. James, Ghost Stories (Londen, 1931)

P1000840

Jo Robin

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

The pressure of reviewing a book that has meant so much to you is incredible: what to say exactly and where to start? I read this book for the first time when I was twelve years old, when I was a troubled and defiant little girl and people thought very little would become of me. So let me introduce you to this wonderful classic through my favourite quote in the entire book. At the start of the book, Jane Eyre is a little girl, very much like I was, and the awful Mr. Brocklehurst, supervisor of a boarding school, gets called in to give Jane a good scare with the image of her burning in the pit of hell for being such a sinful little girl. And he asks her:

‘And should you like to fall into that pit, and to be burning there for ever?’
‘No, sir.’
‘What must you do to avoid it?’
I deliberated a moment; my answer, when it did come, was objectionable: ‘I must keep in good health, and not die.’

And here my love for my heroine Jane Eyre was born.

Jane Eyre is an orphaned little girl, taken into the household of her Aunt Reed and her aunt’s horrible son John, who bullies her mercilessly. After yet another fight, basically Jane just defending herself from John’s abuse, Jane is sent up to the room where her uncle died and frightened out of her mind with the image of his ghost coming down the chimney. Eventually, she is sent away, taken by the aforementioned Mr. Brocklehurst to Lowood boarding school for orphaned girls. The conditions at this school are horrific, with complete disregard for the girls’ feelings and cold, starvation and humiliation as punishment. Especially horrendous is the punishment of cutting off hair, supposedly to remove their vanity and individuality. Many girls die of typhus or consumption, as the living conditions are so bad, like Jane’s only friend at the school: Helen Burns.

As Jane grows up, she is able to leave the school and advertises her services as a governess. She then finds a position at Thornfield Hall, where she teaches a young French girl, by the name of Adèle Varens. The mysterious Edward Rochester is apparently the master of the house, and an arrogant man at first, but they learn to enjoy each other’s company and a romance ensues. But then things get really interesting, as odd things start to happen around the house: noises upstairs, a woman laughing in the distance and a sudden house fire, but I won’t spoil that wonderful part of the book. Complicated family bonds are revealed and Mr. Rochester proposes to Jane, but that doesn’t really work out. Then he asks her to run away with him without them getting married. Jane refuses to go against her principles and tries to find other employment, almost dies on the moors in the process, but is saved by a clergyman. Yet another proposal follows, a possible trip and life in India, and then, a sudden plot twist. In the end, all is well, though not in the way you might have suspected.

The author, Charlotte Brontë, grew up on the moors in Yorkshire in the 19th century, where she and her sisters banned out the cold and depressing environment through their writing. Many aspects of Jane Eyre are based on her real-life experiences, especially Jane’s childhood. Firstly, the dark setting of the moors is in every part of this book. Charlotte Brontë grew up in the middle of nowhere, looking out on a graveyard, which does very little for your everyday mood, I’m sure. This entire vibe is evident in the book. Jane’s friend Helen Burns was based on Charlotte’s sisters Elizabeth and Maria, who both died because of the bad conditions at the boarding school they attended. Also, Mr. Brocklehurst was based on the evangelical minister who ran their Clergy Daughters School. Thornfield Hall was most likely based on North Lees Hall, with all its stories of a confined lunatic upstairs. John Reed’s decline into alcoholism was based on her brother Branwell. And lastly, Charlotte became a governess herself. In many ways, Charlotte Brontë is Jane Eyre.

Some read this book as a great romance novel, but I do not and never have. It’s a bildungsroman, following the emotions and experiences of a young heroine. There are many characters I could explore further, but for this short review I’m just sticking with Jane. It’s the story of a strong woman, and most of all an independent woman: she can take care of herself, as she was forced to learn this early on. The things she encounters would make a lesser person give up a lot sooner. Remember that this was written in a time when women had very little means to ever be independent, let alone the will to do so. Society frowned upon it like we can’t even imagine now. But Jane clings to her independence, as well as to her morals. At first this may make you think of her as old-fashioned and boring, but that takes a lot of strength! When she doubts marrying Mr. Rochester for the first time, she does so because she is also wise: gentlemen do not marry governesses, and it puts her future and integrity at stake. Even when she is little she has the intelligence to recognize injustice when it occurs and to stand up for herself. Her refusing to run away with Mr. Rochester to live in sin shows her self-worth. In conclusion, Jane Eyre is a woman with her own opinions, her own mind, morals, self-worth and wisdom. She goes beyond the gender as a Victorian female and she actually stays true to herself, always.

The variety of themes in this novel is incredible and one of the main reasons I read this book almost every year, and it never bores me. There’s the element of abuse and childhood neglect, with a rebel girl in the middle of it all. There’s Victorian romance, with strangely erotic vibes through their polite conversations only, and the effect of society on how people behaved. We even have the horrible aunt, in a big old Victorian house, with even more horrible cousins. There is mystery and even a little bit of horror, with an insane woman up in the attic and characters suddenly waking up in a bed in flames. There’s the importance of money, appearance and family connections, as is always a wonderful element in these classic novels. There’s the power of the rich and the powerless of the poor, or women. There’s religion, heaven and hell and standing by your morals. And there’s love, but mostly life.

English Classics often have a bad reputation for being boring, slow-paced and about caged women in society. More than anything I hoped to get across that if you feel this way, read Jane Eyre! It will open the entire wonderful world of English Classic for you. Each time I read this book, another theme stands out and I notice something new. If I were to write this review again next year, it would be a different one entirely. But one thing remains: Jane Eyre is a strong-willed and admired heroine, which, in my opinion, makes her to this day one of the best role models a defiant twelve-year-old girl can have.

Introduction into Classics Award, because this book would be my choice as a starter

Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (London, 1847)

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Thura Nightingale 

The bone people by Keri Hulme

When I was in a particular sad and lonely state of mind, I had the brilliant idea to pick up a book called ‘de boekenapotheek’, which is the Dutch version of ‘the novel cure’. The novel cure is a book that recommends novels you can read as therapy to overcome certain difficulties.  I searched for anti-sociable introversion and ‘De boekenapotheek’ recommended me to read ‘the bone people’, by Keri Hume, because that is a story about lonely people and how they find their way back into the world again.

The main character of the story is Kerewin. She lives in New Zealand and she used to be a well-known artist, but at a certain moment she lost her art. It is never fully explained why, but it has something to do with a difficult relationship with her family. Kerewin retreats from all human contact and hopes in seclusion her art will come back to her. She has built a tower at the edge of civilization where she plans to spend the rest of her days in blissful solitude. Her house is full of artefacts, books, her guitar and a cellar full of quality alcohol. That might sound like the ideal life for a lot of people here, including me, but her house is actually a fortress, where she hides from everything and everyone. Also the loneliness is not actually that blissful.

At a certain point, a young boy named Simon appears in her hallway. She asks him to leave, but he doesn’t. Simon is a very stubborn boy, who does the things that please him. He is a castaway, who appeared in the little town close to Kerewin’s tower one fateful night during a big storm. His past is never fully explained, but it does become clear he has lived through many traumas in his childhood already by his fearful reaction to random things such as French being spoken and getting a haircut. Also he does not talk, and it frustrates him no end people don’t understand him or think he is stupid. Eventually Kerewin accepts his present in her house in a grumpy way. He basically just keeps coming, and drinks her home-made dandelion wine, and after a while she accepts his presence as the status quo.

Later on, Simon’s foster father, Joe, comes to pick Simon up, and that is the start of the friendship between Joe and Kerewin. Throughout the first part of the book, Kerewin and Joe cook exotic meals for each other and drink vast amounts of fancy alcohol. They share a passion for food and each tries to surpass the other with the dishes they make.  Joe is Simon’s adoptive father. Briefly, Simon, Joe, his wife and an infant son lived together happily. However, Joe’s wife and infant son died, leaving Joe and Simon alone. Joe is a very sad men, and he never really dealt with the death of his wife and infant son. He drinks too much, and is aggressive. It is undeniable that Joe loves Simon, but he does not know how to handle him. Simon wanders around, has irrational behaviours and can lash out unexpectedly.  When everything gets too much Joe hits Simon. Sometimes he hits Simon very hard because his own grief for his wife and son, and his alcohol abuse makes him lose control of himself.

Child abuse is a very difficult theme in this book. Simon and Joe obviously love and need each other, and maybe can’t be apart, but it is also undeniable that child abuse is wrong. This element in the book really makes it difficult to say whether I like this book or not. Other reviewers do not like this book because the relationship between Simon and Joe is crafted as something good, and based on love. This, they feel, glosses over the fact that Joe is a child abuser, something that is inherently wrong, which is of course true.  Also Joe’s actions are not stopped by anyone, despite the fact that quite a lot of people know about it. The moment Kerewin discovers about the abuse, she does not take much action because she does not want to get involved with other people. In that way this book shows what happens when abuse is combined with love. In a way the question Keri Hulme asks in this book is whether Kerewin, Simon and Joe are better off with each other, because they are all bad at being with people, but somehow seem to accept each other, or not. At a certain point in the book the characters get separated from each other because of an ugly fight in which Simon is heavily injured by Joe, but in the end they find their way back together again. I personally really struggled with that part of the book.

Another theme in this book is loneliness and isolation, and how to overcome that. All three of them are horrible people in a way, with aggressive moods and more unfriendly behaviour, but still they stick together. Slowly they begin to trust each other. This is greatly increased with Joe and Kerewin’s shared love for food and good liquor.  A key element of their friendship is a trip to a beach hut of Kerewin’s family, where everything seems to go well and their friendship seems to become grounded. However, quickly it becomes clear all three have underlying demons waiting to come out. The fight I talked about, takes place not long after this trip. The difficulty of making connections with people is handled very well in this book. It shows that it is not easy and can take a lot of time. Also it shows that not all people who connect with each other, are necessarily good for each other.

The style in which this book is written is really different. The book tells you in short sketches of scenes what happens, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks. This style does give the book a magical feel to it, which enchanted me and drew me in. The ending of this book was very mystical, but felt a too bit too weird to me, especially because the book had no obvious magical elements in it before that. In that way I am not a big fan of the ending. Also the ending is pretty sudden and certain key elements of the story, such as the abuse, are resolved too easily in my opinion.

In the end I loved this book because of what it does for a lonely soul, because healing happened in this book. It also shows that you don’t have to become super social to overcome isolation, and that a few people can be enough. However, this book definitely could use a trigger warning, and I am not sure Keri Hulme handled the themes of child abuse well. In the end I remain conflicted about this book, and I am not sure I am conflicted in a good way.

Healing award because this book aids a lonely soul

Keri Hulme, the bone people (London  ,1984)

Bella bookworms 2

Bella G. Bear

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

My friends and I don’t think we can pass definitive judgment on the books we review. What we hope to achieve, by putting our opinions on the internet, is to give you lovely people some ideas, and to entertain a little. Even so, I feel a bit underqualified to say anything at all about the great Charles Dickens. But, as a look at Goodreads proves, everyone else does. So let me tell you about the Great Expectations of Philip Pirrip, commonly known as Pip.

Pip is an orphan, living with his witch of a sister and her kind husband, a blacksmith. Their little village, in the middle of the marshes, is periodically startled by the escaping of convicts, who are stationed on a ship nearby. Seven-year-old Pip encounters such an escaped convict, is scared out of his wits by his threats but manages to steal some food for him, as commanded. This incident impresses him greatly and, as it turns out, will have some interesting consequences.

Yet another important thing happens to young Pip. The eccentric lady who lives in e mansion nearby asks for him to come to her house, to keep her company. She likes him, and so he visits her regularly. This lady is Miss Havisham, who is in my opinion one of the most wonderful creatures ever to float out of literature. She never leaves the house, where she lounges about in the wedding dress she never got to use, among the remnants of the wedding party that never played out. All the clocks are stopped, because the jilted bride refuses to ever move on from the nightmare that was her would-be wedding day. The only thing she has done since that day, is adopting an orphan girl, and she is determined to enact her revenge by raising the beautiful Estella to hate all men.

It will come as no surprise that Pip falls heavily in love with the girl. He desperately wants to escape the simple life as a blacksmith’s apprentice to become a gentleman and be worthy of her. He has his chance after a few years, when a mysterious and anonymous benefactor chooses to provide him with money, education and more to come. Pip, now with great expectations, moves to London, but things do not develop exactly like he was expecting them, and the secret benefactor certainly is not the person Pip suspected… what follows is intrigue, danger and a woman on fire.

Originally published as a serial, like many of Dickens’ books, the story is full of cliffhangers and strange twists and turns. How Dickens managed to keep track of all the subplots and characters without being able to change anything in a previous chapter, I don’t know, but somehow he ties everything together. He was to write a chapter every week and people bought it like their lives depended on it. Even people who couldn’t read, paid to have the the story read to them. Can you imagine writing such a good story that you introduce a whole new class of people to literature? With Dickens, it is not hard to imagine. Maybe some children who are assigned his work in school think of him as stuffy and old-fashioned, but when you actually start to read Great Expectations, it is full of mystery, humour and romance.

The mystery part of the story you will have to read for yourself, although I can tell you that it involves an ominous note reading ‘DON’T GO HOME’, which made my stuffed turtle and me gasp. The humour is found in the smartly written, sometimes absurd characters and the deadly sarcasm on nearly every single page. The romance takes different forms: the love of Wemmick and the proper Miss Skiffins, who are clearly meant for each other, the love of Herbert Pocket and his fiancée Clara, who stick together cheerfully through thick and thin, and Pip’s passion for Estella, that leads him to exclaim:

“You are part of my existence, part of myself. You have been in every line I have ever read.”

I personally thought teenage Pip was rather a brat, feeling superior to everyone and saying hurtful things to his brother-in-law Joe, who is an illiterate and a simple man, but generous and loyal to a fault. Pip even puts down the smart village girl who taught him how to read and write. Luckily, grown up Pip shares my opinion of his younger self. Perhaps Dickens was trying to make a not-so-subtle point about gratitude and appreciation?

The best thing about this book, though, are the great characters. Joe, the blacksmith, speaks in dialect with a peculiar flood of words, but usually makes a very wise point. A pompous corn merchant, a terrible actor and Pip’s sister, who regularly flies in a temper, all bring colour to Pip’s youth. In London he meets new people like his best friend Herbert Pocket, several snobby youths with a love for rowing and, of course, his guardian Jaggers. Jaggers is a lawyer with a special talent for making people talk. He is scrupulously professional and unscrupulously amoral, and keeps clay casts in his office of the faces of two criminals, made just after they were hanged.

But the greatest London character is Wemmick, Jaggers’ clerk and Pip’s friend after a while. He has managed to completely separate his private life from his professional life, to the point that Pip feels he is speaking to a different person when Wemmick is at work. Does Pip know that he lives in a house with a drawbridge and a cannon, to make it seem like a castle? Does Pip know that he takes care of his elderly father, commonly referred to as ‘the Aged P.’? Does Pip know that he is in love with Miss Skiffins, who visits the Castle regularly? Of course Pip knows all this, because he visits Wemmick regularly in a ‘private and personal capacity’. But work-Wemmick doesn’t care: in the office he knows of no home, family or love. You can imagine how difficult it is to plot a secret voyage when your friend is very helpful at one moment and doesn’t know what you are talking about in the next.

I think I already made it clear, but I really loved this book. My beautiful and sturdy copy was given to me by Thura and made to withstand the test of time. I therefore hope that I can reread it many times in my life, and maybe make it an heirloom for posterity, if I will have anything like posterity. Luckily, if I ever get scorned by a prospective husband, I now have a plan B.

Niles the Butler Award, for pure dry wit

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (London, 1861)

P1000840

Jo Robin

The day before happiness by Erri De Luca

Have you ever read a love letter to something other than an actual lover? Maybe an ode to a certain place or time? Well, this little book is a declaration of love to the city of Naples. Erri De Luca was born in Naples in 1950, but is also a translator from Ancient Hebrew and Yiddish. Both of these elements can be found in this novel. The only thing I truly regret is that I never got my mother to teach me Italian, so that I would have been able to read this story in its original flowing language. Apart from that, I loved every minute of reading this short coming-of-age tale.

A young orphan boy grows up in Naples, just after the Second World War. He is narrator of the story and we follow him as he tries to find his way in the world. The city is still in shadows after the war, but has found its pace again. To the orphan boy, the courtyard and the building where he lives are his whole world. As a little boy, he spends his time playing football, staring at the beautiful girl behind a window and discovering a secret hiding place, where once a Jew hid during the war. Time passes and the boy grows into a young man, when Don Gaetano, the superintendent of the apartment building and a wise old man, takes him under his wing and teaches him how to play cards, how to fix things for people in the building and the history of their beloved city. Not only is Don Gaetano an orphan himself, but he also has a special gift of being able to read people’s thoughts. He says: ‘Hearing thoughts is like a porter or custodian; you have the keys to all the houses while standing in the middle.’ Eventually, he is the one who teaches our protagonist what it means to become a man, through his lessons on sex, morals and the meaning of ‘the day before happiness’.

As a coming-of-age tale of an orphan boy, the book mostly contains descriptions of day-to-day activities. The orphan boy goes to school, he plays cards, he learns Latin, he reads books, but mostly he thinks a lot. This is never boring, but it is hard to put into a review. There were, however, three particular elements of the story that stood out to me.

The main character doesn’t have a name, maybe because he’s an orphan. He gets called ‘kid’ or ‘monkey’, but that’s it. He is a nobody and he is like nobody. What struck me most about this book was the fact that both the main character and the superintendent are orphans: they understand each other, and they understand most of all that they are not family. Don Gaetano is like a father to the boy, but he can never be a father. He tells the boy about the history of the city and to the boy it feels as though the old man’s memories are becoming his own. He does eventually tell the boy about his father, because he knew him, and about his mother, but this disturbs the orphan mostly. His father was a soldier and his mother was a cheater, and he never wanted to know about them. Of course he’s had questions all of his life, but knowing he has a father also means he is also a son all of sudden: he is no longer free, in his own opinion. He can no longer look to the rest of the world for his origins. He is no longer simply a brick in a building, or part of the city of Naples.

Another important part of the story is the girl behind the window, whom the boy adores. The narrator explains: ‘I hadn’t missed what one has as a child: a family. Out of my whole childhood, I chose the little girl at the window as the thing I most needed.’ He is only little when he first sees her for the first time, when he climbs up onto the balcony to retrieve a football, just to be able to see her face up close. From that moment on, he plays football, simply to get that ball up onto the balcony, so that he can go and get it. It’s adorable. When he is much older, he sees her again and learns that her name is Anna. Don Gaetano tells him that she used to be kept inside because she was supposedly sick in the head. Don Gaetano has taught the boy about sex, after sending him to do chores at the widow’s house, where the boy had his sexual initiation with the widow. But being with Anna is completely different. She is so very troubled and he will do anything for her, as she has been the object of his obsession ever since he was little. The only problem is that she has a gangster for a boyfriend…

Lastly, ‘the day before happiness’ is a returning phrase in this book. In Jewish culture, ‘the day before happiness’ is the day before the Jewish New Year and the phrase is therefor linked to Jewry. This is the first time we notice how familiar the author is with Jewish history and customs. As for the orphan, when he gets kicked in the nose when playing football, Don Gaetano tells him that these things happen on the day before happiness, when he is with Anna in the Jew’s hiding place, it is the day of happiness and after she has gone again and the boy is left broken and confused, it is the day after happiness. The secret hiding place has become an important stage for the story and books, which are so important to the boy, are linked to the Jewish. Don Gaetano explains: ‘The Jews were brought up to run, just as we’re always ready for earthquakes under our feet or for the volcano to erupt. The only difference is that we don’t leave home with our books.’ And then the boy replies: ‘I would, Don Gaetano.’
So would I.

The language used in this book is beautiful, almost flowing like water. You can smell the food, hear the ocean and feel the heat. Sometimes, though, some sentences come across as a little awkward. And this is why I regret not learning Italian: as I’ve understood, Italian is so much more descriptive and smooth than English is. I found this book to be a true treasure and was very much afraid I wouldn’t be able to do it justice in a review. I can hint a little, providing quotes to trigger your curiosity, but this really is one of those books I would just recommend you to read for yourself. More than anything, this story is a lyrical description of any young man’s search of happiness. But he is an orphan. Being an orphan means freedom as well and coming of age means losing some of that freedom. It’s like the day after happiness: you don’t want to come down after you’ve been up high. But another day before happiness can come again: a day of anticipation and promise.

Nostalgia Award: as you feel nostalgic, while reading, for a city and time you never even knew

Erri De Luca, The day before happiness (Milano, 2009)

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Thura Nightingale 

Youth by J.M. Coetzee

This is a book about a boy who flees his home country in the hope of finding a wild life as a poet with a never-ending string of fabulous no-strings-attached lovers. This sounds like the introduction to a young adult book, except for two facts: the country the boy flees from is South Africa at the time of the Sharpeville massacre, which means Apartheid was still raving. And the place he flees to is London in the 60s, where he becomes a computer programmer, hardly a glamorous profession. Let me tell you whether his dreams of love and poetry became reality.

The protagonist is a nameless student at the beginning of this book. One of the reasons of the namelessness of the boy could be to signify how cut-off he is from with other people. He has alienated himself from his family, and wants to make a life for himself, by himself. The boy somehow has an attitude that distances him from other people. He dreams of having many sexual adventures, but those dreams never become reality, because he does not know how to love or woo a woman. He dreams of becoming a poet, and he is convinced he has to adopt a lonely lifestyle for that, but it seems that his loneliness is what keeps him from writing. I actually wondered if he secretly felt better than other people.

Another reason why he is cut-off from almost everyone is because he despises his home country South-Africa. He is white, and does not like the oppressive lifestyle he is forced to have in South-Africa.  Being white during Apartheid, he is confronted with many dark and uncomfortable realities of the system he is not allowed to think about. I lived in South-Africa for a while (post-Apartheid) and I can relate to that feeling. There is a certain atmosphere of cheerful denial in the attitude of some white people, which in my opinion comes from denying something is very wrong with the system they live in. They know it is wrong, but can not, or do not want to change it, therefore they pretend nothing is wrong. This is of course all my own interpretation, but I can image for a person who wants to make it his life to explain things around him in poetry, it’s hard to live in a society where one is only allowed to express certain elements. The protagonist hopes emigration to London will help him to get loose from those restrictions.

When he arrives in London, the first thing he has to do, is to find a job. That is the only way for him to be allowed to stay in the country. He finds a job with a computer company as programmer. The computer is not common yet, because we are talking about the sixties, when computers were still being developed, and many of the programs he writes are to improve rudimentary functions of the computer. He is not great at this job, but good enough to keep it. The job slowly pushes him into civilian life. Many times he wants to break with his life, because he fears the choice between a stable life of mediocrity, or to become a poet is slowly becoming more difficult because he is growing too comfortable in his job. The dilemma of quitting a job he does not want to have, and the fear of having to move back to South-Africa because the job allows him to stay, are a constant theme in this book. The thing that keeps him from potentially achieving his dreams seems to be a leap of faith where he quits his job and prays everything is going to be alright when he starts writing real poetry. However, the boy lacks the courage to do so. In that sense he stays a frightened young boy, while he actually already is an adult with a job and all. That fear, which keeps him from doing what he actually wants stays with him for the whole duration of the book, and that is why I call him ‘boy’, instead of man, despite the fact that he is already in his twenties at the start of this book.

Throughout this book there is the underlying theme of loneliness, partly caused by alienation. The boy does not manage to find meaningful contact in his old and new homeland. I call it homeland because he wants to become an English man. However London does not welcome him with open arms. The only people he manages to befriend are also outsiders, and those contacts do not last.

He is torn between figuring out the kind of English person he could be: a worker, or maybe a gentleman or still pursue his poetry dream. He does not seem to be able to settle on a persona. This is also visible in his changing taste of authors and poets he admires. Instead of finding who he wants to be, he changes between different authors he aspires to mimic.  The boy is constantly torn between different questions, never settling on any answers. This makes his life meaningless, something he suffers from greatly. These feelings of loneliness are connected with the question of belonging. He left his despised homeland to be free of its attitude, but he has not found the new homeland he hoped for. Ultimately he did not manage to get loose of South-Africa at all, because he still writes about the country. Which makes one wonder if a person can ever cut itself of from cultural or national ties, they do not want to belong to anymore.

The writer of this book, Coetzee, is actually from South-Africa. I read somewhere that this book is semi-autobiographical, which could be another reason for the namelessness of the protagonist: giving him his own name would be too obvious, and it would be too weird for the author to give the boy a different name, or so I think. Especially because Coetzee obviously did manage to become a writer (I know too little of the man to know how similar his life path is to the boy’s). It feels as if Coetzee wanted to explore what would happen with a person like him, with a similar background, who does not manage to succeed in achieving their dreams. At a certain point in the book, it becomes obvious the boy will not become a poet, which makes this an interesting book.  There are many books around about people who manage to succeed to fulfill their dreams, despite adversity, and this book is quite the opposite. It is about a boy who slowly gives up and settles into the live he has

Coetzee writes more often about Apartheid, and the effect living under that system has on the later life of people. In the other books I’ve read, summertime and disgrace, the emphasis is, just as with this book, on the effect on social connections Apartheid has had. In all books it becomes apparent that it is difficult for the characters to connect with people, especially between people of different ethnicities. I do not know enough about the history of Apartheid to make some definite conclusions, but it is certainly seems true that living under a racists system has effects on how people interact with each other long after the system is officially gone. If anyone knows more about this, or has some books to recommend, I’ll gladly hear it, because this is a subject that interests me.  If you are interesting in those themes, I can recommend the other works of Coetzee.

This is a sad tale about a boy who tries to find his place in the world, but does not quite manage to do so. At least not in the way he wants to. He won’t die of hunger or lack of a job, but maybe he will die of a broken heart because he is lonely and not a poet. Therefore I would advise all young people starting out in life to read this book, but to not be influenced by the boy too much. Rather see this as a book that shows you what can go wrong. It is good to get the perspective of how one fails, beside all the people with glorious success. After this book you can always read another success book to regain your hopes for future happiness.

Willie E. Coyote award because this book about failure and resignation  is a useful addition to everyone’s more optimistic readings

J.M. Coetzee, youth (New York, 2002)

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