Hitman Anders and the Meaning of It All — Jonas Jonasson

A hilarious, thought-provoking and unusual read, Jonasson has delivered a novel which looks at our world through a completely different lens.

Imagine, a hitman. You know the type: leather jacket, yesterday’s stubble and the cool shades. There’s one in Stockholm, living in a hotel, and this novel follows his exploits (or how he has been exploited, more accurately), as the receptionist of the hotel and a priest use the hitman in order to create a business. Except, of course, the first attempt didn’t work, and the novel follows them as they try to set up three different businesses in succession, all with differing aims. As the trio’s professions change, their mindsets change with them, as each experience has altered their perspective and outlook on life.

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The plot flowed marvellously. It is hard, reflecting on it now, to see the seams of the novel, to segregate it into the pigeon holes of “Begining, Middle and End”. Even though there were three business opportunities, the way that Jonasson writes about them makes you feel like you are floating along with the current of the story. It is all smoothly executed; there were no random, stilted scenes. It felt like the characters were creating their own destiny, and that I was merely an observer. Which, of course, is enjoyable to read. But not as enjoyable as the humour that populated the pages, the small witticisms that punctuated the paragraphs and brought grins to my face. And how can I help it? It’s a funny book. Honestly. And if the chilly weather and darkness is affecting your mood, I’d recommend you read this.

The protagonists were certainly not the usual stereotypes: there was a scheming priest (who didn’t believe in God), a receptionist who ends up running a multi million dollar enterprise, and a hitman who had been recently converted to Christianity. By choosing such bizarre characters to star in his book, Jonasson puts creativity back into writing. Why couldn’t this happen? Perhaps it never would in the real world, but at least in a place without boundaries, it’s fun to allow yourself to imagine. Right now, there is a feeling that people are clinging to their clichés. We are a long way from books like Pullman’s Northern Lights, or one of Dahl’s creations. I know that they are both children’s books, but at least they have a sense of wonder about them, of the credibility coupled with the unbelievable. And that is what I have found here.

One issue I discovered though, was that the antagonist wasn’t dislikable enough. He was known as The Count, and would constantly be talking about chopping people up, but not exactly in a menacing way. Actually, I found the way he spoke, and was referred to, more humorous than anything else, and so this made it difficult for me to feel any sense to rally against him. It’s a minor issue, because the novel’s not really centred around the antagonist vs. protagonist theme, but it’s worth mentioning nevertheless.

So, looking for something a bit different, something light-hearted? Then find a copy of Hitman Anders and the Meaning of It All. Have you read it- how did you find it? What’s your favourite comedic book? Do comment below and let me know your thoughts!

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The Uses and Abuses of History by Margaret MacMillan

It’s January. People are looking at gym leaflets, trying again to stick to the resolutions they made in vain last year. Trying as best possible to hide from last year’s events, (whether it was political, or that Dinner Party at Fred’s which no one dares mention,) using the new shiny ‘2017’ as a shield. It is at this time of year that most people try and avoid history, in whatever form. However, we shouldn’t shun history. It should not be cast aside. Instead, it should be utilised, and used to our advantage. (So, note to self, never attempt to serve Baked Alaska near the Victorian curtains again.) The Uses and Abuses of History illustrates people who have done exactly that (no, not served Baked Alaska and then set the house on fire,)  but have used history to their advantage. Although there may be situations you will never find yourself in, there are many examples that can be related to, and the book will start to answer the common question: What can you even do with history?

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The Uses and Abuses of History is a thorough review of the way history has been manipulated and used as a tool in order to achieve certain goals. It shows us what the consequences are when history is taken into the wrong hands, and how this can in turn affect us in the present. To tell the truth, there wasn’t exactly a balance of uses and abuses of history, as Macmillian mainly looked at the more negative side to the way the past has been used, but it was nevertheless an interesting collection of essays.

For a non-fiction essay based book, it is surprisingly readable and full of interesting and understandable examples, which makes this book stand out from the hundreds of others similar in theme, crammed with illegible text and unfathomable references. A great example from the book was the Communist Chinese’s’ use of history; they tried to eradicate every single piece evidence of a time before communism in the country, including priceless artefacts, and rewrite the past to be used for their own means. Many people brought up in the Chinese education system have never once questioned their textbooks, the history of their country that had been fabricated from someone’s mind in an office. The words from their teachers that settled like dust in their minds after a long day at school were, and still are, taken as complete truth. The Uses and Abuses of History teaches you that rewriting the past to suit your own means is easier than you think, and more common in our lives than you’d expect, whether in terms of a politician vying to elevate their popularity, or a simple blunder made by an uninformed amateur historian.

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Not exactly a fast-paced action novel, nor one bursting with intricate characters (although the public figures referred to here are illustrious,) but if you’re willing to read a book about history, then this may as well be this one. After all, what is the point in history?

Have you read this book- what did you think of it? What’s your favourite historical novel? How close to the truth  do you think historical novels should be? Comment your thoughts below!

Burmese Days by George Orwell

Myanmar has only had 69 years of Independence. The past is closer than you think- and you can immerse yourself in it in Orwell’s first novel.

Imagine the existence of places centuries ago. We are all familiar with the concept of Victorian London, or the America as Columbus saw. But can we ever really believe in that place, petrified by the weight of history? Not simply in terms of overpaid actors, but understand the place that existed only a lengthy string of years ago?

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Yes- if you read Burmese Days. Since Orwell himself was stationed in Burma as a policeman there is an inescapable authenticity to the novel, and the blank way he causally refers to cultural customs illustrates that he wasn’t desperate to impress readers with his knowledge. (Unlike those authors who adopt the manner of *And here is a recipe for a rare national dish, inserted for no purpose whatsoever except to show you that I didn’t intend to spend countless hours trawling the internet for no credit.*) Due to his experiences (Orwell could even speak Hindi and Burmese) the novel felt genuine and gave me a clear idea of life at the time, and should be regarded as a valuable resource to anyone studying Burma in the early 20th century.

The plot itself could be considered mundane. There is a languid pace; it moves at the speed of someone overwhelmed by the summer heat. It’s mundane, almost. All that happens is that a British man abroad struggles (and fails,) not only to secure his Indian friend a membership to the European club, but the marriage of a girl. This is what the story is driven by, and after awhile it does become rather repetitive.

But then again the ending was shocking, and ends the sense of banality that had been previously lurking. It was so depressing (and tragically realistic,) that it made you ponder the entertainment value of reading it after all. (Why do I spend hours of my life, in happy solitude, staring at bits of paper?)

Thankfully this is interspersed with Orwell’s vivid descriptions of the scenery- he indulges much more in the literary side here than in his other works. For this reason, it would be useful for any fan of Orwell to read this first novel, so that not only can they enjoy the contrast to his later more refined tone, but see how from the start he was interested in discussing political and social ideologies. In fact, Burmese Days foreshadows the themes that would be seen so boldly in his books later on; the individual flailing against the tidal wave of an inhumane society.

A bold and unashamed novel, Burmese Days challenges British colonialism in Burma, offers a rich insight into the life of officers and has an unnerving finish despite the light hearted manner veiling the rest of the novel. If you are interested in political affairs (for Burma/ Myanmar, is rising globally currently), then this is an essential read. After all, if you seek to know something, you must first understand it’s history.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Intricate, intelligent and incredibly long; I bring to you the Goldfinch, renowned novel and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014.

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Set in the modern world, this novel follows Theodore Decker throughout his life, starting with the time as a teenager he survived a terrorist attack at an art gallery, but his mother did not. This  incident shapes the rest of the plot, and Theo’s character rapidly morphs into a miserable one as he, still a minor, is tossed from guardian to guardian, all the time guarding a secret. When he walked out of the gallery, he did not leave empty handed. Instead, he brought with him a masterpiece, the Goldfinch, and as Theo travels the country, the painting follows him. Until the aftermath of the attack has been cleared away, and people start to look for the priceless piece of art. Suddenly Theodore has a multitude of options, and things start to spiral out of everyone’s control.

Overall this was masterfully written, and I admire Tartt because she has created an admirable plot with extraordinary characters, written with the utmost of style, whilst still remaining quite realistic. This is harder to achieve than one initially anticipate; this is probably why she has been showered with awards. However, the Goldfinch is long. At first I leapt into it with an eager mind, but one’s level of commitment dwindles slightly by page 400, and by the time you’re 600+ you just want the book to finish. It has 864 pages, and by the end I was feeling every single one. The issue was, there is a section where Theo lives with his father in Vegas, and it drags on forever. It’s meant to signify I suppose the extent of the neglect that Theo faced, but that doesn’t mean I have to suffer through all those incidents too. That sections was simply unforgivingly slow paced and dull. Honestly, half of the book is about Theo taking various types of drugs and getting drunk: fine, show how his once ordinary life descended into addiction, but does the reader really need to witness every single shot glass he took to grapple with the idea? Clearly Tartt and I have contrasting views on this.

Also, the style of writing here is remarkable. Every page is crammed full of devices, (but not so that you’re just wading through metaphors and similes, trying to decipher a plot,) and it results in a clear idea of the shape of the scene. Having said it, it’s striking because whilst Tartt is so diligent with imagery on the one hand, at other times, she ‘tells’ the reader what is happening. Often, Tartt would just toss in; ‘Theo looked embarrassed’, or ‘Andy was angry’. Were they really? Can you see it on their faces, or is it they way they wring their hands? I thought this was irritating because Tartt is a gifted writer, and she could obviously describe their emotions, but chose not to.

The plot is interesting, but it is slow. Awfully slow- at times it was like running through knee-deep sand. You’re putting in so much time and effort to get somewhere (to the action in this case) but you remain rooted in the three page long description of a tea cup. To add to that, the climax is shoved into a very short space of time at the end, so it’s hardly like the action snowballs. It’s strange, because there is an in explicable wasteland of everyday actions; hundreds of pages dedicated to Theo going to school, Theo eating Chinese, Theo eating at a friend’s house, Theo walking his dog. All rather scintillating in its execution but ultimately unengaging stuff, and then suddenly there’s death and crime and blood everywhere. The Goldfinch would be multitudes better if it was 400 pages shorter.

I would recommend The Goldfinch to anyone who has lots of time. It is a great novel, but it has flaws too, one main one being it’s unnecessary length, so you will have to sacrifice a lot of time to get even vaguely close to finishing it in a reasonable amount of time. Other than that, it does explore large themes (like ‘why be good’ and ‘is there fate’) and contains some of the best dialogue I’ve ever read.

Have you ever read The Goldfinch; what are your thoughts on it? Or, have you ever read another Pulitzer Prize winner- what did you think of it? What are your favourite books concerning the topic of art? Do comment below and let me know you’re thoughts.