Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit- Jeanette Winterson

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Winterson based this novel on her own childhood

The bones of this book are made from the Bible. Yet it is also constructed from the joyous shredding of beliefs, when Jeanette starts to question her religious upbringing by her Pentecostal parents.

Religion? You might say. Religion; today the cause of wars, shootings and fear. Religion; a burden on society that is as addictive as it is dangerous. Why would I want to read about something like this? I’ve enough of it in the skirting the tabloids next to gruesome photojournalism. Why should you read this? Because it’s hilarious. It opens with the frank lines; “Like most people I lived for a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle; it didn’t matter what.” There is an honesty behind these words, a vivid way that the characters are illustrated that it seems like the story can be nothing but genuine. It follows Jeanette’s childhood, where her predominant influences were her strict (adopted) mother, driving her to be a missionary and the local church community. Initially homeschooled, legal obligations forced her to school;

‘”Why do you want me to go?’ I asked her the night before. “Because if you don’t go I will go to prison” … “But if you go to prison you’ll get out again. St Paul was always going to prison.”      “I know that” (she cut the bread firmly, so that only the tiniest squirt of potted beef oozed out) … “but the neighbours don’t. Eat this and be quiet.”‘

Jeanette struggled with fitting in with her decidedly non-Christian classmates, as well as  with desire, when she falls in love with one of the girls at the Church. At sixteen, she is forced to decide between religion and love, family or girlfriend.  And the question that rages in Jeanette’s mind is; why can’t I have both? 

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Personally, I do think that there is a slight inequality in the amount of male and female characters, but given that this is a book about matriarchy in society and lesbian love, there isn’t much room for omnipresent male characters…. maybe not such an appalling thing, actually. (It’s worth mentioning that there are a few but they’re more secondary/ tertiary characters, hence the visibility of this ‘inequality’.) It doesn’t detract from the quality of the plot though, even if the storyline is more thought-provoking pace than action packed.

One issue, however, was the slight irrelevance of the myth theme of Percival which was introduced; it did offer variation from the wintry grey industrial scene, and it was an unusual way to represent Jeanette’s story (I presume that’s what it was), however it did appear to be part of the novel as a mystical exciting feature, rather than something which was actively contributing to the story.

The wonderful thing about this was observing the transformation of Jeanette, and the way her comically awkward tone dominated her perspective of childhood. Although it’s set in the drab Midlands, this novel is a sparkling example of fiction at its finest. Like all novels, there’s an interesting reflection of author in it, too: the fact that the protagonist has the same name is the author is not the only similarity- the novel is actually based on Winston’s own upbringing, where she explores her childhood by turning herself into a fictional character.

Anyway, generally a great 20th century novel that is worth the title of a classic. If you’re a literature fan, then you should have read this by now (!), so I recommend this specifically to teenagers, mainly because the book discusses the pressures of conformity. A pressure they are no doubt familiar with, so reading this might just be an eye-opener on the topic.

Magnificent Desolation by Buzz Aldrin

Moonwalker. Innovator. Alcoholic.

A brutally honest autobiography of Aldrin’s life, reflecting on not only the stellar parts of his career, but the parts which have shrouded him in despair and embarrassment.

Many Americans view Buzz Aldrin as a national icon; a hero. Part of Apollo 11, the space mission which cemented him in history as the second man to ever walk on the Moon, Aldrin certainly is extraordinary. But there are other sections of his life that define him, too. Like when he was a fighter pilot in the Korean war, an author of novels or when he spent most his days slumped beneath bedsheets, due to the overwhelming depression he suffered. Most people aren’t aware of this side, and Magnificent Desolation explains what precisely Aldrin went through following his Moon Landing; it turns out that the physical side effects were the least of his worries, and that he was psychologically underprepared for the fame that would ensue.

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This book, despite being co-written by Ken Abraham, was definitely written by Aldrin. The words had bitter edges on certain topics (like when discussing his failures in his post-astronaut military career, or when discussing conspiracy theorists) and at other times would appear as if he was desperately trying to seem complementary, as if through the publication of this book he was wary of any outstanding offences he could cause.

Also, occasionally Aldrin would start to build up an event as if it had massive significance in the grand scheme of his life, and as a reader I would wonder what this event would foreshadow. More often than not it turned out to be completely irrelevant and not tie into anything else in the book:

“One overly zealous reporter planted himself in front of our car, refused to budge while snapping photos of me through the windshield. In exasperation, I raised my hand and gave him the finger. As soon as I saw the flash go off, I knew that I had made a gigantic mistake. When we got back to the hotel, my first call was to the attache at the embassy to see if he could quash the picture. He must have successful, because the photo never showed up”

It’s just utterly frustrating. If it turned out that the image had been leaked and had started to give Aldrin an awful reputation which affected his speaking career, then it would have been understandable. But nothing came of it- so why waste a paragraph mentioning  an irrelevant event that is not tied onto anything else in the book? This happened so many times throughout and frankly I found myself exasperated.

What I did enjoy though was when Aldrin started to discuss how in his later career he continued to develop ideas for space exploration. His words sounded so resolute and hopeful for the future- how by 2030 we should have people living on Mars, and his grand plans for a Mars Shuttle System. Above all I found that part fascinating, because it offered me an insight into the future of space. He spoke a lot about space tourism too; it seems like a plausible concept and he discusses it at length because he had devoted plenty of time to ensuring that it became as intrinsic to the American economy as ordinary tourism. We’re not quite there yet, but time can only tell!

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I would recommend this autobiography to those  who have an interest in space history and astronauts, as it does not only offer a valuable insight to Aldrin’s life, but also into the future of space in our society. It is not a necessarily a relaxing read as most of the information is presented quite factually and straightforwardly, but nevertheless I’m glad I gave it go!

December Book of the Month – The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer

A mystery clouded by mental instability. Raw, shocking and cruel, but above all honest, this is a insight into the world of a teenager battling mental illness. It is clear that, in 2013 at least, the judges of the Costa Book Award were wise. I can’t think of a more suitable winner- I was gripped by the novel and read it in less than two days.

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Matthew Holmes, aged 19, recounts the incident that has dominated his childhood painstakingly, from the computer in his local mental health centre. Why is he there? Diagnosed with schizophrenia, just like his grandfather, Matthew often hears his older brother with Downs Syndrome, Simon, speaking to him. Begging him to play, to come outside and join him:

“If the tap choked and spluttered before the water came, he was saying I’m lonely. When I opened a bottle of Dr Pepper and the caramel bubbles fizzed over the rim, he was asking me to come out and play. He could speak through an itch, the certainty of a sneeze, the after-taste of tablets, or the way sugar fell from a spoon.”

And our protagonist feels compelled to listen. Simon has been dead for over a decade. Some say he died at a Caravan Park in Dorset, but  Matthew believes it was practically murder. The guilt that has wracked him, and wrecked his family after that fated night saw a shocking transition from an innocent, boisterous boy to a teenager stumbling through life, taking all the wrong turns.

For me, it was Matthew’s voice that made this novel remarkable. His voice, breaking free from the words, illustrated the development of his character incredibly. Matthew was almost tangible, and that is what Filer achieves so greatly. That sense of a person speaking just out of sight. That there really is someone out there, a boy that age. It’s how we get lulled into fiction, because it’s all just stories, isn’t it? In the end it’s a product of a person sitting in front of a bright little screen, carefully crafting the characters that seem so spontaneous. The characters we take home and discuss over dinner, and bring into our lives.

One outstanding aspect of this novel was the detail that Filer gave concerning mental health facilities and regimes. He clearly didn’t research through watching films. Actually, Filer was a mental health nurse, and so the vivid descriptions of the mistrust Matthew feels as he is forced to take his drugs tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, and to endure the awful side effects, can be taken at face value as that of a (relatively- this is still fiction) accurate account, not that of some dreaming, sheltered author.

Yet on the other hand, there was a minor issue. Only a small one in the grand scheme of things, but it must be mentioned. The great reveal was grossly delayed. It was saved until page 247. By that time the actual suspense had faded away, because my interest in reason to Simon’s death could only last for so long, and by that point I had a rough (correct) idea anyway, so the climax/ reveal came as no shock. It is worth mentioning, that from the outset the protagonist does mention it the ‘shock of the fall’ (yes, that’s the title too!) which kills his brother, but we only really learn why it is has triggered schizophrenia and lasting guilt until the reveal. And marvellous at character building although Filer is, I don’t care that much to be interested until the end of novel.

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Overall I thought that this poignant novel, with a frank and humorous tone, is definitely worth a read because of it’s insight into the life of a teenager with schizophrenia, and the clever use of typography and sketches to aid the narration. Here is a short extract which I think sums up the tone of the novel perfectly:

“I’ll tell you what happened because it will be a good way to introduce my brother. His name’s Simon. I think you’re going to like him. I really do. But in a couple of pages he’ll be dead. And he was never the same after that.”

So have you read the Shock of the Fall? What do you think of it? What is your favourite book concerning mental illnesses?

 

The Secret by Rhonda Byrne

The title is misleading. Having sold 19 million copies across the globe and accessible in 46 languages, suffice to say, the Secret isn’t quite so confidential anymore.

19 million is a large number. So what’s the attraction? Apparently, according to Rhonda Bryne, it’s in your thoughts. The actual Secret is the law of attraction, which basically means that the thoughts coming from You (she was very found precociously capitalising this pronoun) could control the Universe, as long as they’re on the right frequency. All you had to do, it seems, was twist your internal antenna and tell the Universe what you wanted. In fact, it clearly says: “You are the master of the Universe. You are the heir to the kingdom. You are the Perfection of Life.” Bryne continues by telling us that apparently you, (yes “You”), have attracted everything in your life towards you. So, she continues that means that people who have cancer, were in a housefire or unwillingly part of a warfare were so because their thoughts had attracted them to that situation. It seems questionable.

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But there is technically some truth in The Secret, in the sense that it relates to the psychological concept: “Confirmation Bias”, and manipulates it slightly in order to make the book the best-seller that it is (along with the help of the promotional shout outs by Oprah Winfrey). So the Secret says think good thoughts, and good things will come your way: well, we are already subject to confirmation bias, whether we know it or not. As all scientific studies has shown, humans have incredibly short attention spans, so we have to select carefully what we pay attention to. An easy example of this is a broken friendship: you and this friend are getting along swimmingly until they do something shocking to break this bond. Enraged and surprised by this, you review your past few months together and suddenly realise how all along they’ve been scheming, and you’ve never recognised these blatant signs until now- because you’re actively looking for them.

In short, the Secret channels confirmation bias to such an extent that you are obsessively positive for a such a long time that eventually the bias must to work. It changes your perspective on life and encourages you to never doubt yourself and always take that plunge, because negativity will be your downfall. This kind of positive thinking, where you consistently tell yourself that you WILL get that job interview, or whatever else you aspire to, actually resolves in laziness. We become complacent because we have already ‘completed’ the task- which results in a lack of motivation and thus preparation, because what’s the point if you’ve already ‘achieved’ the end result? Therefore overall performance will be lower. And anyway, on a personal level I don’t think that it is such a good idea: think about all those crazy ideas we’ve had (what if you had worn that cat suit to the Christmas Party last year- what would Aunt May think of you now)? Precisely. I believe that second thoughts are useful after all.

But- and this is where the Secret attempts to justify itself, it has loyal supporters! William Shakespeare, Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein are meant to have owed their successes to this Secret. There is only limited evidence though: random quotations dotted throughout the oddly square book which have only very weak relevance to the topic at hand. Here is an extract from the book:

“ ‘Is this a friendly Universe?’ … Albert Einstein posed this powerful question because he knew The Secret. He knew by asking the question it would force us to think and make a choice.”

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I am not sure that is entirely justifiable. Einstein actually offers us the meaning behind his quote, and it’s surprising that Bryne didn’t include it in her self-help book, (as it completely contradicts what she decided it meant). Einstein explains that “If we decide that the universe is a friendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to create tools and models for understanding that universe.” No concepts about thought-attraction here, I’m afraid, and no mention of the Secret he was allegedly so fond of.

So; the Secret. Take it, or leave it. It’s a strange concept, with psychological roots wrapped up in mushy quotes about our perfections and best-selling anecdotes that tell people exactly what they want to hear. The question is, have you read the book? Do you believe it to be true, or not- if you do, do you have any examples?

The Moth- Book of the Month November

You walk away from a conversation with friends. Shaking your head, marvelling at the bizarre cases of truth. How no one could possibly have made that up. Welcome to the Moth.

The Moth is a kind of event, where people stand up and recount true hilarious, heart-breaking or horrifying stories on the stage. And, standing alone on the stage, clutching only their memories and a mic in their hands, they all have a personal touch. The Moth as a novel is no different: it is merely a compilation of 50 of the best short stories that have been told. Originally, The Moth was created to mimic that feeling of story-telling around the campfire, as your words pour out of you whilst everyone else is leaning in, the flames’ shadows flickering on your face. There is a deep sense of satisfaction rooted in sharing stories; after all we’ve been doing it for most of our history, and just because we have superior technology doesn’t mean this art should fade away: that’s why it is called The Moth; it reflects the fact that humans are attracted to stories like moths to a light, and maybe it is our light; our escape from reality.

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And, although it’s in the written word, this has still been conveyed into the book. Each story has been copied from the speaker (because they’re all spoken on-stage, remember,) word for word. This is fantastic for us, readers, because it presents you with the genuine idiosyncrasies of their voices. You feel like they’re standing over their shoulder, whispering into your ear, and you truly get a framework for their character. People speak differently depending on their upbringing. You know that. So you will understand how frustrating it is when all the characters in a book sound the same; well, all I can say is that the Moth will provide relief in that respect.

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys any form of a short story, because there is a wide variation in the topics covered, so you’re bound to find something that appeals to you. Each one is a convenient length so that normally you can read it in one sitting, but usually I’m so enthralled by the previous tale I am driven to discover the next one, and see where it leads me! The best thing about The Moth is that there are so many topics covered. It isn’t simply about travelling, or love, or that funny thing Jeff said yesterday. There are magnificent stories, such as the one about the man who saved Mother Teresa’s life, or optimistic ones, like the woman testing out life with a new prosthetic limb, or harrowing stories about a scientist and his relationship with his monkey used in experiments. It evoked so many emotions with me- so if you’re looking for an uplifting read or a challenging one, then look no further.

 

Are short stories novel?

A calamity has occurred. I am barely scraping in enough time to read, struggling as I am with the obligations of everyday life.  And since I am embarrassingly lacking books to review, I will instead try to settle the dispute that has divided the country for centuries. Is the short story the champion of literature, greater in impact than it is in length, or is the humble novel the true victor? Read on to see them go head to head. Go on- settle in, bring popcorn, and watch this tense battle unfold.

Novels are a thing of beauty. With plots flourishing across several hundred pages, and intriguing characters that morph and develop before your eyes, they are things you can truly invest in, even if it’s only for a fortnight.
Of course, these characters may spontaneously die on you, but you will always have a place, hidden between pages, that you can return too. In novels, you can truly indulge in the world building and marvel at the view from that spaceship’s portal. You have the luxury of pages to explore a new world; you aren’t plunged headfirst into the relentless action (well, I hope not); you can settle into novels, meet them regularly on the commute to work and habitually wave goodbye at the last train stop. And there’s that delightful horror at the plot twist, which you didn’t even notice was looming over you until it drenched you with surprise. With short stories, all the action is shoved into the expanse of a few pages, and the forms are generally limited. Do short stories give us that satisfying multiple points of view, or scatter letters in between the pages of prose? I thought not.

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Short stories, on the other hand, are miracles in themselves. Everyone is busy. You know that. There are constantly deadlines swirling around our heads and stress clogging in the corners of our lives. That is partly the reason why I haven’t had enough time to finish a book. Because yes, reading is fantastic, but there isn’t always enough time: of course we wish there was, but with some things even intentions aren’t enough. Thankfully, a marvellous creation was born. The best thing about short stories, even if they are part of a collection, is that you can dip into them, when you notice with glee that you have a spare 25 minutes. They are undemanding creatures. They don’t need to much commitment, only asking for you to follow along for a few pages. In that respect, novels are so needy. They beg you to stay with them hours, and when you want to leave, that gripping plot just clutches you closer, your duties elsewhere becoming a vague memory. One ought to be aware of this. And the best thing about short stories is the impact is they have. The authors have to be economical with their words:  you won’t find soliloquies draped across pages, and endless recounts of that view of the Alps from the winter break six years ago. No rambling and endless internal monologues about what Clancy said to Clark about Clara concerning their course with Clarence and Carl. Short stories are a relief. Mercilessly blunt. Some might find the fact you can’t truly get a sense of a characters from a short story, but I don’t believe this to necessarily be true. Even in the space of a few pages, I believe that you can relate and identify with characters, granted that the author has relative competency. Also, short stories ensure that you are never bored, because by the time the story becomes dull- it’s over! Flick a page and you’ve entered a whole other kingdom, a new scene, different characters. Purge your mind of the bored and prepare to be inspired again.

So, what are better, collections of short stories or novels? It depends on your situation. If you have a tedious car journey squatting before you, it is a perfect opportunity to invest time into the characters, to discover them and devour the pages. But if you have limited time, or only have the opportunity to read rarely, them short stories are more attractive, as you aren’t at risk of forgetting the plot, or becoming emotionally disconnected from the story as time progresses. Personally, I prefer novels because I feel often cheated when I begin to engage with a character in short stories, and they simply wander off elsewhere, and I am left, confused and metaphorically alone. I am willing to see time stretch before me as I trudge through the chapters.

Please feel free to comment your opinion below. Which one do you think triumphs? What novel or short story is your favourite?

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

An astounding début novel that delves beyond the cliché college drama into a much darker, sinister reflection on life of those lounging in the exclusive corners of society.

Richard studies at Hampden college, and after arriving, on a whim, takes a sudden change in subject into Classics. Soon he is accepted into an eccentric and elite group that seem, for their unbelievable intelligence, completely oblivious to contemporary life. Before long Richard’s life is tangled with that of his newly made friends, a diverse and bizarre group, whom he seeks to understand. Yet the façade slowly gets worn down and whilst he’s roaming in an ordinary life, he does he realise that not only is he entangled in this cobweb of lives; he’s being plunged into a profoundly different world.

This is an incredible novel; firstly the meticulous level of detail applied to the plot stands out. Each character, sentence, sub-plot has been applied into the novel with such a pedantic level of care yet it does not draw any attention away from the powerful and compelling plot. This novel is undoubtedly a thriller; but that does mean everything happens at hyper speed. Despite the plot occasionally drifting along a river of tension, it was as equally compelling as when the most important action happened. This is not because of ill-use of writing techniques; Tartt manipulated language so that even when the pace is slow (predominately the first bit of the novel) it is still interesting to read. However, this was not achieved through the use of hyperbole but because of the reader’s care for the quirky characters.
I love the characters that are in the novel; they are far from the bland, dull eyed students that plod through the ink of many college novels today. It took Tartt 8 years to write this novel; it is clear that a portion of this went into painstaking character history. There is a shrouded history for each person, and it is only rarely that we can peer through the smoke and grab the meagre pieces of information given to us. Enough to survive on, but I’m always wanting more.

Do not be put off by the number of pages; it is worth the commitment. I think you will be hard pressed to find another thriller quite like this; it’s in a league of it’s own.