About a boy by Nick Hornby

Even the cover of this book portrays Hugh Grant and an adorable and chubby Nicholas Hoult, and I think most people know the ‘About a boy’ film adaptation of 2002. Before the film, however, there was the coming of age novel, which is a lot less comical and deals with quite serious topics, such as suicide, depression, casual sex, bullying and loneliness. Also, in the book Nirvana is quite important, which was unfortunately left out completely in the film (even worse in fact, replaced by rap music..).

The novel has two main protagonists: 36-year-old Will Freeman, who believes he’s as hip as any teenager could only dream to be, and twelve-year-old Marcus Brewer, who has great difficulty bonding with anyone. Set in the 1990’s, Will spends his time ‘being cool’ basically, living off the royalties of some crappy song his father once wrote, by drinking a lot, partying, having casual sex and making sure his hair is perfect. Marcus lives with his suicidal mother, Fiona, who is a bit of a hippy, and he isn’t able, not for lack of trying though, to make any friends or become popular. His home life and the responsibility of taking care of his mum has turned him into an introvert and his only connection to another human being, is his depressed alternative mother. Needless to say, he has a hard time at school.

Will then comes up with the brilliant idea of picking up women through a single parents’ support group, where he invents a two-year-old son called Ned. Through these women, Suzie in particular, he eventually meets Fiona and Marcus. At first, Will thinks nothing of Marcus, except that he is a weird kid. He has never even owned a pair of trainers! But he gets used to the kid hanging around, until everything goes south when Marcus kills a duck.

The fact that Marcus accidently kills a duck at the park by chucking a loaf of bread at its head is not that important, but the fact that he comes home to his mother, who has overdosed on pills, is. The incident changes something vital for both Marcus and Will, when Marcus decides his mother might like a boyfriend to cheer her up, and he has set his eyes on Will. Will doesn’t like Fiona and it doesn’t work out, but he does try and help Marcus (though at first only for selfish reasons). He even buys him a pair of trainers, which get nicked after school of course. Marcus’ new love for Nirvana does earn him a friend however: 15-year-old moody Ellie, who sadly gets him arrested at some point. But in the end, both protagonists learn from each other: Marcus turns out to be the one who brings everyone together, forms his own opinions and has some friends because of it, and Will let’s go of his old ‘cool’ indifference towards the world and actually, for real, falls in love.

Starting off with the title, ‘About a boy’ is actually a reference to the Nirvana song ‘About a girl’: Nirvana plays a big part in the book. Ellie is a huge Nirvana fan and constantly gets into trouble at school for wearing her Kurt Cobain jumper, which is not part of the school uniform obviously. Even though Marcus and Ellie form an unlikely pair, they bond over Nirvana. Ellie is the one who teaches Marcus to not care as much about what other people think of him and to voice his own opinions. When Marcus goes to visit his dad, he brings Ellie along for support: she really is a bit like his big sister. But she’s not as uncaring as he had thought and is quite affected by Kurt Cobain’s death. Marcus can’t understand why she cares so much about him, but Ellie insists that he was the only one who understood her. When she sees a cardboard cutout of Kurt in a shop, she becomes unbelievably angry, as she feels they are trying to exploit his suicide. Her anger and violence result in their arrest, but it also results in Marcus being able to vent his anger towards his dad for the first time. I quite liked Ellie for that.

The character of Marcus was very likable to me. He’s such a tragic figure, but an adorable boy at the same time. For example, through his mother he has only learned to love Joni Mitchell and Mozart, and he has the terrible habit of humming songs with his eyes closed, out loud, in class, without him noticing it. The boy never stood a chance against bullies. I thought it interesting how the book deals with the problem of bullies, because there’s Will teaching him how to fit in more, but there’s also Ellie who teaches him to not give a shit and fight back. In the end, both help him a lot. Then there’s the massive responsibility he faces in taking care of his suicidal mother, which explains why at times he seems far too grown-up for a twelve-year-old, but at other times makes him seem very naïve and young: he can be quite wise one moment and incredibly vulnerable the next. Quite often, children turn into half-adults when something like that is expected of them, and Marcus is a great example of the depression that can occur in a child when they find they can’t fix it all on their own. In a way, Will brings him back to what it’s like to be a child again and that’s what I really liked about Will: he’s in fact a lot more than just the epitome of consumerism and laziness. At the same time, Marcus shows Will how vacant his life is, and so Marcus turns Will into more of an adult. This idea, the healing combination of those two characters that really are worlds apart, was a brilliant invention by Nick Hornby.

The style of writing is very British: covering deep and meaningful topics, but often with very dry humour. In the film this doesn’t come across as well as it does in the book, how Brits often deal with shit by making light of it, sort of. The ‘dead duck day incident’ is a great example, because the story of Marcus inadvertently killing a duck is quite funny, but in his mind it is forever connected to his mother’s suicide. He feels guilty and lost, both times, and he can’t fix it. The emotional depth of the book surprised me greatly when I first started reading the book, because Nick Hornby doesn’t lay anything on too thick, which I can appreciate. Also, the style of writing makes is very easy to read, in one go even, so I’d recommend this book to anyone really: housewives, hip bachelors, mothers, sons, English boys, foreign boys, punk girls and all introverts, read it! I know it’s a saying, but I can vouch for it when it comes to ‘About a boy’: You’ll laugh and you’ll cry, a lot.

Stop the exploitation of Kurt Cobain!-award, because I’m with Ellie on this one 

Nick Hornby, About a boy (London, 1998)

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Thura Nightingale

The drunken botanist: the plants that create the world’s great drinks by Amy Stewart

Despite my love-hate relationship with potted plants (they keep dying), the title of this book immediately caught my attention. Maybe that’s because I have a love-love relationship with liquors and most kinds of alcohol, who knows. While writing this review, I was sipping a good red port and musing over all the great anecdotes in this book. The book is best described as an encyclopaedia of the botanical origins of drinks, and how people came to make alcohol out of every plant they could find, such as the banana. Sometimes I really do admire the inventiveness of humans. So grab a nice drink of your choosing and let me tell you a bit more about this book.

The book is divided into three parts. The first one talks about the most common plants used to transform the sugar within into alcohol through fermentation. Amy Stewart compares the process where plants soak up carbon dioxide and sunlight to turn it into sugar which fermentation turns into alcohol, with the process where plants create oxygen out of sunlight that sustains life on earth. Both processes of indispensable importance to living on this earth. This comparison shows the reference given to a good drink in this book. This is even more articulated when Stewart talks about the best ingredients to make a cocktail, and that one should really strive to find those ingredients. The chapter ends with lesser known plants used to create alcohol, such as parsnips, the cochineal bug, and bamboo. This shows that people will try anything to get their hands on some alcohol.

The second part of the book goes into all the different botanical stuff brewers put into their drinks to add flavour such as spices, flowers, part of trees and seeds. This is where the book gets most interesting with lots of nice stories. One of them is about Bonnie Prince Charlie who got refuge on the Isle of Skye after he failed to regain the throne of England. Allegedly he gave the recipe of Drambuie, a kind of honey whiskey, as thanks to the people of Skye. There are also stories of people claiming to have more than 100 different ingredients in their spirits, stories of illegal ingredients and a liquor that gets its taste from being shipped around the world for almost four months, crossing the equator twice. The last one might sound excessive, but the resulting drink, Linie Aquavit, has a really nice taste, so I’d say it’s worth it. Although, I cannot say whether the taste comes from the voyage or good brewing of course. At any rate, it is a great story to sell the drink.

The third part of this book is an account of the final stage of cocktail making: the garnishes. This part has gardening tips for if you want to grow your own ingredients, or as Stewart claims: “mint for Mohito has to be homegrown”. Although I do agree with her, this will be frustrating to read for people who live in an apartment building like me. But still, this is a nice chapter to fantasize about your future garden you’re definitely going to have when you’re grown up and have a proper house. Besides gardening tips, this chapter gives some potential uses of garnishes to flavour drinks yourself. This includes one of my favourites: infused vodka. One tip that Stewart gives when you want to try it yourself is so great that I’ll share it here:

 (…) some plants, particularly tender green herbs like basil or cilantro, produce bitter, strange flavours if they’ve been soaked for too long. To get around this, make a small batch as a test, and taste it frequently, starting just a few hours after the infusion has begun. (p.343)

Advice few people will have problems with.

This book is a combination of a serious botanical account, with growing tips that all seemed very sensible to me as a non-gardener. Also, there are funny stories and advice how to make the best cocktails and where to find the highest-quality ingredients. The book ends with a list of recommended readings for the reader who wants to know more. This combination of informative and entertaining works very well, especially because the topic of alcohol lends itself well for humorous accounts. It is a tricky balance though, because sometimes authors try to be too funny, losing credibility during the more serious parts of a book. Amy Stewart doesn’t do that: there is a clear division between the serious and funny parts. It might not be the kind of book you will read from cover to cover in one go: that will probably make you forget all the names of the plants and drinks, even when you’re reading it completely sober. It is the kind of book you pick up once in a while and read a few chapters from to have something new to tell next time you’re enjoying a drink in a bar or pub.

One downside of this book is that a lot of the liquors and ingredients mentioned are too obscure to get a hold on. I don’t know if that’s because I’m not an American, and Amy Stewart is, that is difficult to say. In many a chapter, she talks about a delicious drink you as a reader will never be able to taste in person, because it’s from one small family owned brewery in the highlands of Scotland or something like that. This makes sense for an account of plants used for alcohol from all over the world, but is also a bit disappointing. Luckily, there are cocktail recipes in the book you can try for yourself. One of my favourites so far is ‘the ‘Vavilov affair’, which is a cocktail made with apple and bourbon. The cocktail is named after the Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov, who risked everything to preserve the wild ancestors of the apple tree. Sadly, Stalin considered him an enemy of the state and Vavilov spend the end of his life in jail. Luckily, we have a great cocktail to remember him and his love of apples by.

Drunk award for giving us so many more ways to enjoy the wonder of alcohol.

Amy Stewart, the drunken botanist (New York, 2013)

Bella bookworms 2

Bella G. Bear

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

In honour of last week’s International Women’s Day, I’ll review a book by one of the great feminists who have gone before us. This is the first book I’ve read by Virginia Woolf, and already I am in awe of this brilliant woman. While the book is not fiction per se but rather an essay, it is written like a fictional story. It’s an edited and extended version of the speeches Virginia Woolf held for two women’s colleges at Cambridge University in 1928. She shows the reader the thought process that led up to these speeches, about the subject she was handed: ‘Women and Fiction’. From the banks of a river in a generic university setting, to a stall in the library of the British Museum, to the bookshelves of Virginia’s own collection of literature written by women through the ages, she gives a poetic account of thinking about a tricky subject.

When she was given the task of preparing a speech about ‘Women and Fiction’, she wondered what was expected of her. Should she talk about female characters in fiction? About female authors? About what women are like? She decided the most interesting thing to talk about was all of these questions combined, to consider them linked. But immediately, she realised that she wouldn’t be able to come to a clear conclusion at the end of her speech. The true nature of women or the true nature of fiction couldn’t be determined by her, only considered. One opinion, she promises to her audience, she will give and explain: “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

To reach that conclusion, Virginia Woolf gave the subject a lot of thought. To take the listener or reader with her on this journey, she describes the past few days. She imagines her alter ego sitting beside a river in what she calls (in reference to William Thackeray) ‘Oxbridge’, an amalgamation of Oxford and Cambridge. The beadle that admonishes her for walking on the grass where only professors and students can walk, the librarian who turns her away because she is a woman, the contrast between the meals enjoyed in a mens’ and in a women’s college all steer her towards certain aspects of her subject. Why is it, she asks, that men have always made money, while women have not? Why can men leave that money to great, ancient colleges, while female scholars in their new colleges only have money for the bare necessities?

After leaving ‘Oxbridge’, Woolf’s alter ego visists the British Museum in London to do research on the physical circumstances of women in history. She doesn’t find as much as she had hoped for, and all she does find is written by men. She continues her research at home, by leafing through the books on her own shelves. While discussing female authors from the Elizabethan age until the present, she wonders what might have happened if Shakespeare had had an equally talented sister. Nothing, she argues, because this woman would not have had the chance to develop that talent, let alone have her works accepted by the public.

This brings her to her central argument: that thinking and writing requires more than raw talent and intellect. It needs the right physical and intellectual circumstances as well. For a woman to start writing good literature, she needs money to live on and a separate room to shield her from everyday distractions, things that women historically did not have. Additionally, she needs both encouragement and criticism to develop, and a tradition of female fiction to help her write as a woman, instead of trying to conform to a style created by and for men. To put it this simply does not do Woolf’s argument justice, I’m afraid. The aim of the essay is not to prove a point, but to consider the subject in all its complexity.

One of the greatest things about writing academically is, to me, to reach the state of mind in which you are both utterly concentrated and relaxed enough to let your mind wander. It is something that happens when you leave your books behind for a moment, the newly acquired knowledge fresh in your mind, and sit on the curb outside smoking a cigarette. Instead of focussing on a text, or alternatively, being distracted by things around you, you can let thoughts and facts and feelings freely associate. Perhaps you’ll come to some new realisation, something resembling truth that you could not have otherwise come up with. This state of mind is a rare thing for me, scatterbrained and lazy as I am, and even when I reach it, no great truths are likely to come out of it. But I suspect that Virginia Woolf is a master of this kind of thinking. She has a natural talent for it and I feel smarter just reading her thought process.

Her choice to write in the form of a fictional narrative is not an indulgence or mere entertainment. The images she conjures up, like a rowboat floating on the river or people stepping into a taxi, frequently return in later chapters as metaphors. They bring her arguments to life by nailing them, ironically, firmly to the real world. Her writing style makes me very curious about her novels, because it is wonderfully poetic but in no way sentimental. Read, for instance, the following quote:

“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt, that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”

It is powerful and true, but when you read it aloud, you will hear that it is also beautiful. It has a rhythm, a flow to it.

Woolf ends her story by posing that maybe in a hundred years time, if women continue writing and thinking and start earning their own livings, the circumstances will be right for a female Shakespeare to appear upon the stage. Ninety years later, I wonder if we’re almost there yet. I hope that any woman reading this will keep studying, keep writing, and especially keep forming and re-forming opinions in her own beautiful mind.

Beauty and the Beast Award for imagining a world in which women can have the freedom to read, to write, and to be realistically represented in fiction

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (London, 1929)

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Jo Robin

The Story Sisters by Alice Hoffman

When I was little, I loved fairy tales. I loved the idea of good prevailing over evil, even the idea of the wicked stepmother being horribly punished for her deeds, and I loved the magical elements to them. As I grew a bit older, I loved dark fairy tales: those stories that start off as fairy tales, but something has gone horribly wrong along the way, so everything has turned to shadows. This book read like one of those grim fairy tales. I was drawn to its almost poetic darkness, but I wouldn’t recommend it to any of my friends, because if you don’t know this sort of pain, please stay naïve: it’s haunting.

Imagine three incredibly beautiful dark sisters, aged fifteen, fourteen and twelve, standing in their blue dresses by the window. They speak a different, but melodic, language that even their mother can’t understand. She sees her daughters and sees their beauty, but they are unreachable and so she seems to have lost the connection to her daughters. The eldest daughter fills her sisters’ heads with tales of another realm, named Arnelle, and pushes them to act. They are like faeries, not from this world. The mother worries of course and wonders if it is wrong to save one child, over her other daughters. But how do you save a child who doesn’t ask for your help? This is how the story of the three Story sisters starts off.

Elv is the eldest and she has made up their secret language once upon a time. While speaking it, she tells her younger sisters of their kingdom Arnelle, where they are originally from and are faeries, and how they must defeat all demons. The second girl, Meg, just goes along with it, but doesn’t know why they became like this. But she likes stories and she loves her older sister, who is incredibly forceful in her imagination and actions. Claire is only twelve, but she knows something happened when they were little. Elv made up that language and that world, because several years ago, Elv saved her from a terrible fate and took the fall for her instead, on that rainy day in the summer. Now she protects her younger sisters by creating a world of their own and keeping them safe inside. There, she warns them of the demon that once tried to take her sister, but took her instead.

The story centres mostly on Elv during the second part of the book. As a teen, Elv becomes more and more withdrawn. She takes to sitting up in a tree at night, running off barefoot and using sex as a tool. She’s so beautiful; men commit suicide over her, before she’s even hit adulthood. She appears to self-destruct in every manner: drugs, sex and emotional distance. She cares for no one but her little sister; otherwise she is cold and uncaring towards everyone. Her life spirals completely out of control, all starting with her childhood trauma. Bad things happen to her and her imaginative world changes: she is now on the side of the demons and gets taken down by the dark side of her fantasy realm. She comes to believe that she must become completely evil, in order to expel all evil. Needless to say, this doesn’t do her any good.

All three girls have their own talents and together they make a frighteningly perfect family, but untouchable. Claire is the kindest girl in the world, Meg is the smartest girl in the world and Elv is the most beautiful girl in the world. But as they grow older, Elv retreats deeper and deeper into her dark mind. Claire trusts her sister completely and tries to follow her wherever she can, because she doesn’t know what happened to Elv that summer afternoon, but she knows it should have been her. As she grows up, Claire’s guilt over these events takes over her life and she retreats into solitude. Meg drifts away from her sisters, as she is the only one who doesn’t know about their trauma. She tries to live her own life, tries to look different from her sisters in appearance, but Elv punishes her horribly for her ‘betrayal’. The family falls apart and the sisters drift apart. Each has their own battle to fight in the end, and they must fight it alone.

Alice Hoffman often writes books in the ‘magic realism’ genre. The language she uses is simply amazing: poetic, realistic, moving and flowing. The magical imagery is wonderful, with magic being both dark and light in this tale. A magical reality and our harsh world flow into each other, and you can’t quite make out the borders any longer. The pace is often slow in her books, but they are page-turners. Hoffman creates atmospheres that draw you in, like when the girls are in Paris and you can smell the air and see the colours of the city. At the same time, the topics of abuse, rape, drugs, mental health, are serious ones, but she treats them with a lot of respect. It’s like she understands what survivors have gone through. The characters are generally hard to like, but I admire that, because most real people are in fact difficult to like. My favourite thing by far is how her books make us believe there is magic everywhere, whether it be good or bad, and that strange and wonderful things can happen at any time.

I read this book when I was fifteen years old and it hit very close to home back then. As an abuse survivor, I dealt with various traumas throughout my life by retreating into a fantasy world. I distracted myself by making up stories with characters that defended and loved me. I, too, made up my own language when I was so little, just to have something of my own, when I felt like the world didn’t hear me. Reading about these sisters, especially Elv, I completely understood what she was doing the entire time: she’s getting by. Children develop strange but brilliant coping mechanisms just to survive, and even though you hurt yourself in the process at times, you’re doing it just to stay alive. When I read this book for the first time, I realised that I was also going down a very self-destructive path filled with self-harm, but I didn’t want to end up like Elv. I wanted life to get better and it did! This took a lot of work on myself, the same kind of work all three sisters have to do in the end, and a great deal of kindness towards myself. But it is possible.

This book, however, is not only a dark fairy tale, but also a tale of hope. It’s about girls claiming their own selves back and learning to stand on their own. It’s a story of forgiveness, mostly forgiving yourself: second chances in life, when you allow yourself to grant yourself a second chance. It’s about coming to terms with the past and letting go of tormenting yourself. I started this review off by saying that I wouldn’t recommend this book to any of my friends, because they haven’t been hurt like this. I would however recommend this to any survivor or someone who’d like to learn about these topics. For me, this book was very healing. To me, it is a story of love, especially self-love.

Recovery award: Hoping that this can help others, as it has helped me

Alice Hoffman, The Story Sisters (New York, 2009)

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Thura Nightingale