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review 2018-07-17 20:30
How to Stop Time
How to Stop Time - Matt Haig

“The longer you live, the harder it becomes. To grab them. Each little moment as it arrives. To be living in something other than the past or the future. To be actually here.
Forever, Emily Dickinson said, is composed of nows. But how do you inhabit the now you are in? How do you stop the ghosts of all the other nows from getting in? How, in short, do you live?” 

You know when sometimes it feels like a book chooses you rather than the other way around?  Apparently, the two books I picked up while dazed with exhaustion at Heathrow last month did exactly that. I knew little about either of them and both turned out to provide exactly the kind of world-critical comfort I needed.

 

And, yes, I tend to not turn to sweet or light reads for comfort. Never have, really.

 

Anyway, How to Stop Time tells the story of Tom who was born in 1581 and "suffers" from a rare condition that makes him age very, very slowly. So, he lives through the centuries, falls in love, looses his loved ones, sees the world change, and sees the world remain the same.

"I go on the BBC and Guardian websites. I read a couple of news articles about fracturing US and Chinese relations. Everyone in the comments section is predicting the apocalypse. This is the chief comfort of being four hundred and thirty-nine years old. You understand quite completely that the main lesson of history is: humans don't learn from history."

Tom really suffers with this condition. He finds it hard to invest his life in people that he knows will die so long before him. He also finds it hard to live in one place, because his condition means that he is looked up with suspicion by the people around him, at best. At worst, he and his loved ones are persecuted.

“Human beings, as a rule, simply don't accept things that don't fit their worldview.”

He lives through the plague and the witch hunts and several other catastrophes. He discovers new worlds with Captain Cook and sees them go to seed.

“And yet we had done what so often happened in the proud history of geographic discovery. We had found paradise. And then we had set it on fire.” 

I really enjoyed the book. The story struck a balance between bildungsroman as we watch Tom grow and learn about who he is and about his place in the world, mystery as we follow Tom's quest to find his daughter, thriller as watch Tom get caught up in a dubious organisation, and social criticism. I really felt for Tom as he, despite his wisdom of age, struggled to deal with each moment of new-ness in this world.

“As far as I can see, this is a problem with living in the twenty-first century. Many of us have every material thing we need, so the job of marketing is now to tie the economy to our emotions, to make us feel like we need more by making us want things we never needed before. We are made to feel poor on thirty thousand pounds a year. To feel poorly travelled if we have been to only ten other countries. To feel too old if we have a wrinkle. To feel ugly if we aren’t photoshopped and filtered. No one I knew in the 1600s wanted to find their inner billionaire. They just wanted to live to see adolescence and avoid body lice.” 

What struck me most about the book, tho, was that Haig inserted snippets of positivity into the story. Despite the general observation that humanity is doomed to forever repeat itself because it does not take lessons from the past, there is also some hope:

“Whenever I see someone reading a book, especially if it is someone I don't expect, I feel civilisation has become a little safer.” 

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review 2018-07-14 11:44
The Salt Fish Girl
Salt Fish Girl: A Novel - Larissa Lai

After a month of trying to read a mere 256 pages, I have finally finished this...but I still really don't know what the book was trying to do or what it really was about. 

 

We have two stories being told in alternate chapters: the story of Nu Wa, a take on the Chinese creation myth, and the story of Miranda, which is set in the future and tells of a girl who was born with an unusual condition - she smells of durian fruit and later develops scales.  

 

I got the connection between Miranda and Nu Wa, but I'm not sure I got anything out of the book. I guess I needed a bit more in the way of connecting the dots or elaborating on why certain things were the way they were. 

 

For example what did Miranda's father do for a living that is called "tax collecting" but seems to happen in virtual reality where he still gets beat up every night?

 

I guess the book just wasn't for me.

 

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review 2018-07-04 22:37
The Book Lover / The Reader
The Book Lover - Ali Smith

This was a collection of poems, short stories, and excerpts of novels that Ali Smith put together when asked to reflect upon books, or literary works, that have influenced her. 

 

I enjoyed this. I loved that a print of the comic strip Beryl the Peril features alongside the poetry of Margaret Tait and others as well as parts of several novels.

 

There were many selections that I only sampled in this book and that I was happy to move on from sooner than later, but there were also some that I would not have stumbled upon in any other way and of which I really want to read more of.

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review 2018-06-20 16:41
The Nice and the Good
The Nice and the Good (Vintage Classics) - Iris Murdoch,Catherine Bates

This might officially be my last Iris Murdoch novel. 

 

As with Fitzgerald's short stories, there was a time when I loved Murdoch's novels but the last couple of times I've read her books, I didn't enjoy them much at all ... Granted, the messed up relationship games in A Severed Head did nothing to endear the book to me, but even this one here (The Nice and the Good) is struggling to spark any enthusiasm in me. And I'd be happy to skip much of the relationship-babble and stick to finding out why the Whitehall official shot himself (or did he?).

The trouble is, by focusing on the mystery part, I'm going to miss Murdoch's point, which, inevitably, is not going to be about solving the puzzle. 

 

Saying that, will this story about a set of well-off members of a rather homogeneous section of society that is really similar to the sets of characters in Murdoch's other books really reveal any new aspects of Murdoch's writing? Unlikely.  

 

I've dithered for the last 30 pages whether to finish this one or move on to something I am likely to enjoy more, and I don't believe this book will ultimately hold the same magic for me as the novels that introduced Murdoch to me initially.

 

DNF @ 135 out of 350 pages.

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review 2018-06-18 15:17
The Love Boat and Other Stories
The Love Boat and Other Stories - F. Scott Fitzgerald

We all have that exasperated moment!

There are times when you almost tell the harmless old lady next door  what you really think of her face - that it ought to be on a night nurse in a house for the blind; when you'd like to ask the man you've been waiting ten minutes for if he isn't all overheated from racing the postman down the block; when you nearly say to the waiter that if they deducted a cent from the bill for every degree the soup was below tepid the hotel would owe you half a dollar; when - and this is the infallible earmark of true exasperation - a smile affects you as an oil baron's undershirt affects a cow's husband.

(from The Smilers)

I may have to face it - I may have grown out of that phase when Fitzgerald's short stories were delightful, quaint, diversions. I still count some of them as my favourites, but more often than not reading his stories has become somewhat repetitive - telling fairly superficial stories about fairly superficial people, most of whom seem to be Princeton men, or Harvard men, or Yale men, or someone closely connected with them. Like the characters in Wodehouse's stories, they never develop, never amount to anything more real than a cliche.  

 

Unfortunately, many of Fitzgerald's short stories seem to feature them. Even more unfortunate was it that most of the stories in this particular collection featured them. 

 

Still, there are the odd gems. In this collection, The Smilers stood out for me. I liked it just as much as The Ice Palace, Bernice Bob's her Hair, The Camel's Back, or May Day, but sadly it was the first story in the collection and the rest of the stories did quite manage to live up to the quality of that first story.

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