“A Meaningful Life” by L.J. Davis.

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While explaining the plot of this book to a friend, I realized just how overdone and cliché it sounded. Lowell Lake, a man in his thirties, works a regular office job in New York, has a nice wife and a comfortable living situation,  yet realizes that he has never done anything that might be regarded as meaningful. The book explores his crisis through his memories and through the solution which he has found – the renovation of an extremely run-down house in Brooklyn.

The subject matter definitely sounds familiar, but Davis turns the life and fate of Lowell Lake into a marvellously hilarious story. It’s dark, it’s brutal at times, and because of Davis’ writing it is exciting to follow the story. Any book which results in me laughing out loud in a coffee shop full of people is a gem of comedy in my eyes, so I greatly appreciated the humour which was introduced to an otherwise miserable tale.

That being said, the flow of the book changes quite significantly half way through. While the pace is quick at first as Davis builds up Lowell’s character through his memories, from the moment that Lowell purchases the house, the book begins to drag on. Not only that, but Lowell’s character becomes practically unbearable. While he is easy to relate to and understand given that he is just an average man, who has had it easy in life, but is faced with the prospect that he has always been and always will be average, he becomes difficult to pity by the end of the book. His lack of appreciation for everything around him and his inability to see his failures as his own fault, as he tries to blame the system or tries to blame his wife, makes him appear weak and ungrateful.

This is especially crystal clear as the house is not his first attempt to give meaning to his life. The reader is also made aware that upon moving to New York, Lowell decided to dedicate his time to writing a book. With him spending days drunk and hopelessly trying to scribble words on a page without even knowing what he was writing about, the only sacrifices made were by his wife. So when the house comes into the picture years later, it is difficult to see how he could not have learned from his mistake and why he takes his wife for granted once again. As I’m writing this, I understand that this sounds like a rant about Lowell’s character, but his unlikeable nature was what ruined the novel for me when it came to the ending, since I could not care less about him, his choices and the consequences which they would bring, no matter how funny Davis kept the story.

Beyond Lowell’s unsympathetic character, the novel was an interesting read as it exposed the class and racial situation within Brooklyn in the 1960s, and opposed to that had a variety of hilarious situations and episodes that were a pleasure to come across. I understand the premise of this book, I understood Lowell’s obsession with the house, as he wanted to restore it to its grandeur for it to be a symbol of something he could never be, and if he had been a more compassionate character I would have rooted for him. All in all, the book is still worth a read, because my dislike for the main character has obviously influenced my opinion of this book greatly to the point where I’m not sure whether the rating I’m giving it is based on my thoughts on the book or my thoughts on Lowell Lake.

I give this book three out of five wine bottles.

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“The Winter of Our Discontent” by John Steinbeck.

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There is a reason why I always finish a book when I start reading it, and this book by John Steinbeck reminded me why. I started this novel back in January and every single time I picked it up, I just did not find myself enjoying it, so I would only read two or so pages. Recently, I decided that I needed to give it a fair chance and so I sat and read it seriously, and to my surprise, I could not put it down.

The novel follows Ethan Hawley, a grocery clerk, whose spirit has become broken by slaving away at a store while he is haunted by the memories of his great and aristocratic ancestors. His family being unsatisfied with their position, with his children constantly asking him when he will become rich, Ethan finally decides to change the course of his life. The only thing of value which Ethan possesses is his honesty and throughout the story we see how it is eaten away at by the influence of those around him and the most primitive need to have wealth and satisfy his own pride.

Steinbeck uses an interesting approach when it comes to narrative, by starting the first two chapters of both parts of the book in the third person and then switching to Ethan’s point of view. This fact greatly contributed to why I enjoyed the book, because the moment when Ethan’s narrative began, I became enraptured by him and this was my reason for loving the book. It was interesting to see the way his mind worked in how he dealt with situations inside his head and then how he acted upon them, because there was a very clear difference as he most often played the part of a fool in real life in order to confuse those around him.

This deliberate manipulation along with his wit and charming nature made him an intriguing character, one which I constantly wanted to know more about. This was also largely due to how well the dialogue was written, because it constantly maintained wonderful rhythm. When it comes to the plot, Steinbeck himself has said that that he wrote the novel to address the moral degeneration of American culture during the 1950s and 1960s, and this could not be clearer in the book. We see Ethan challenge his own beliefs when he is faced with the prospect of coming into money, whether it would be through a bank robbery or through getting it by deceiving an alcoholic friend, who can be of use to him, and these moral dilemmas make for a fascinating read.

The most interesting and perhaps tragically ironic of them concerns Ethan’s boss and owner of the store Marullo, who has looked upon Ethan suspiciously all the years he has worked there only to finally see him for the honest man he is, when Ethan is already on the way to his moral decline. Saying all that I am saying regarding questions of morality in the book, I feel like I am greatly oversimplifying Steinbeck’s work. The nuances which he adds and his writing in general are anything but simple, which is why I enjoyed this novel so much. No one in the book is inherently good or inherently bad, which is something that eventually provides a moral predicament even for the reader. While the book does have a cheery feel to it, mostly because of Ethan’s personality, it is based on an underlying darkness, which can leave the reader with a feeling of despair in the pit of their stomach when it comes to the ending.

I am beyond glad that I finished this book, because I absolutely loved it and the themes and characters are so universal that this would be a great read for anyone. While Steinbeck failed to impress me with ‘Of Mice and Men’ (I just wasn’t moved by the story, not the writing), this novel has persuaded me to pick up a book by him again in the near future.

I give this book five out of five wine bottles.

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“Milk and Honey” by Rupi Kaur.

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I think that this may be the first poetry book which I will have the pleasure of reviewing on this blog, which just goes to show that I much prefer to read novels over anything else. After having seen a poem from this book published online (accompanied by its illustration), I was intrigued and could immediately see that I may relate to a lot of the themes from this collection. I was not wrong. Kaur focuses on love, relationships, the pain caused by them and the healing which one has to go through in order to feel good again.

The collection is divided into four chapters – the hurting, the loving, the breaking and the healing. The poetry itself is simplistic, one could say almost minimalist, not only in the way it is presented, but also the language which is used. Kaur does not employ incredibly original metaphors or intricate words, which is both the charm and the downfall of her poetry. The reason for the latter is that some poems fail to deliver a strong message and rather resemble overused quotes that you may feel that you have already seen on the internet. That being said, a few of them are truly beautiful, making you reread the poem more than once, as it draws you in.

However, these quality poems are largely outnumbered by underwhelming ones, which are either too cliché or simply fail to impress because the emotion or statement is so obvious that it seems like Kaur has stripped down ideas which so many other poets try to express in eloquent ways in their poetry. It baffles me that this book is a New York Times bestseller, but at the same time it also reflects the literary level which our society, particularly the younger generation, has now embraced.

The most profound chapter of the collection was definitely ‘the hurting’, because it focused on raw emotions and pain in the face of a domineering or menacing father figure and the consequences which that can have later in life. ‘The healing’ ranks as the worst as it was full of supposedly empowering poems, which were essentially just banal and threadbare words, resulting in a near-unreadable chapter.

While I said at the beginning that I related to a lot of what Kaur wrote about, I failed to be moved by the collection in general. I will definitely reread some of the poems from time to time, but for the most part it left me wanting for more complicated writing. I do want to include a poem which I liked, which would also illustrate her style of writing for anyone who might be interested in reading the collection;

emptying out of my mother's belly
was my first act of disappearance
learning to shrink for a family
who likes their daughters invisible
was the second
the art of being empty
is simple
believe them when they say
you are nothing
repeat it to yourself
like a wish
i am nothing
i am nothing
i am nothing
so often
the only reason you know
you're still alive is from the
heaving of your chest

And also to show the change in quality, I’ll include one which I particularly disliked (which honestly I can’t believe was included in the book);

you
are your own
soul mate

I give this book two out of five wine bottles.

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“Mr Palomar” by Italo Calvino.

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If your mind needs a rest from everything going on around you, then pick up this book by Calvino. Through the eyes of Mr Palomar, an old and retired man, one can experience the world in a way, which may not seem accessible in an environment of daily stress and worries. Mr Palomar, however, spends his days musing about the minuscule details in life such as the movement of waves in the sea, the way birds sing, the shops he goes to, and beyond the minuscule, about his own existence. I would not call this fiction, although it is classified as that, purely because the atmosphere created is so real and also because the book does not have a plot. It is purely a series of thoughts.

While the observations listed above may sound trivial, Calvino keeps his thoughts concise and intriguing to read. He offers ideas which may not even have occurred to you and in doing so reveals something magical about the world we live in regarding any given situation. Although this book may be easier to understand and relate to if you are an introvert, it would be more beneficial to read if you are not. It may give you an entirely different perception of the small things in your life, that you may have failed to notice if you have not spent enough time by yourself. Being a sublime mix between comic and profound, Palomar’s reflections will not leave you without something meaningful to think over. His way of looking at things is perfectly summarised by this quote;

“Or else, given that there is world that side of the window and world this side, perhaps the “I,” the ego, is simply the window through which the world looks at the world.”

To conclude, if someone is convincing enough to convey how a cheese shop in Paris is similar to a museum (doing so in an elegant but modest language), while at the same time provoking thoughts in the reader as to all the places he visits daily in order to draw comparisons, it can be said that they are a truly great writer. I’ll end with words which really caught my eye;

“A person’s life consists of a collection of events, the last of which could also change the meaning of the whole, not because it counts more than the previous ones
but because once they are included in a life, events are arranged in an order that is not chronological but, rather, corresponds to an inner architecture.”

I give this book four out of five wine bottles.

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“The Collected Stories” by Richard Yates.

 

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During a recent conversation I had trouble thinking of American writers who I really like (apart from Fitzgerald, of course). I had completely forgotten Richard Yates. Thankfully, during a book buying frenzy I had bought these stories and they proved successful in reminding me why I loved his writing when I read ‘Revolutionary Road’. All of the stories have a clear theme running through them, which could be summarised as the unhappy and lonely lives of husbands and wives in the 50s and 60s in the American suburbs, with some exceptions. And while on the surface the stories are precisely about that, Yates provides a wealth of insight into the minuscule details of the lives of ordinary people and the reasons for their pettiness. Overall the stories are bound to leave the reader with an overwhelming sense of doom and sadness, which is something I always look for in a book, and a desire to never get married, which is slightly more controversial.

Talking about a collection of stories is always difficult, so just as I have done before, I will discuss my favourite stories; ‘Saying Goodbye to Sally’ and ‘A Convalescent Ego’. The first follows Jack, a young and poor writer, who is commissioned to write a screenplay for an upcoming movie, therefore finds himself in L.A. There he meets a girl called Sally, who he clings to at first because she provides excitement and an insight into the strange world she lives in, making him feel alive again. The novelty quickly wears off and he begins to see the emptiness of her life, the lives of those around her and his own loneliness. Yates illustrates this beautifully with minor quarrels and almost comical situations, which do not diminish the melancholy present throughout the story. The most pertinent aspect being the need to have someone by your side, whether you love them or not, to quench the loneliness we all feel and to forget about the things which bother us in ourselves. For Jack it was Sally, but it could just as well have been anyone else, which is hinted at with one of the other characters of the story Jill – who changes partners constantly, always being unsatisfied with the previous one, yet still needing someone by her side. A beautiful story with painful realisations and a bleak undertone, which made me put down the book for a while, as I needed to think it over.

The second story, ‘A Convalescent Ego’, is about Bill, a man who is home from the hospital, recovering from an operation due to tuberculosis (an illness which appears throughout many of the stories). During a day at home, he clumsily breaks a tea cup while his wife is out shopping and this accident, having followed many similar ones before, leads him to a form of hysteria of trying to make up for his mistake while simultaneously trying to predict his wife’s reaction to all the possible ways he could resolve the issue. Not only were the intricate ways in which he imagined his wife’s responses genius, because creating such scenarios in my mind is something I can relate to a bit too much, but the way Yates revealed so much about Bill himself was exceptional. It becomes clear that Bill despises the fact that the surgery has made him weak, barely a person, as he can’t go to work. This quality has in his eyes stripped him of his masculinity and made him feel pathetic in the eyes of his wife, who in every scenario wins the argument and proves how foolish he has been in his attempts to rectify the situation. I was unsure I liked the ending of the story, but I suppose that following every imagined scenario it could not have ended any other way but with a reaffirmation of his masculinity. Bill’s behaviour towards his wife at the end of the story seems so unexpected yet the reader, having been privy to all his thoughts, should not have expected anything else. It was the outburst of the exasperation which had built up inside him for a long time, despite his inner desire to do well and be kind. It’s almost a reminder that even though we may see some things that we feel as obvious to others and easy to notice by those around us, it’s not always so. These feelings do not necessarily show on the outside and rather than lashing out when it all gets too much, it would be better to remain cool-headed and communicate with others.

I loathe the fact that this review cannot capture the brilliance of Yates’ stories and that I have to resign myself to choosing my favourites in an effort to discuss the book. In fact, I don’t like choosing favourites at all, because when I like a collection as much as I did this one, it almost feels like a betrayal. All of these stories rely on subtleties and a dark sense of quiet and inner unrest, which is almost never resolved, only accepted. The subtle nature of the stories is what I cannot illustrate here, therefore I recommend for everyone to read the book. It is a heartbreaking and emotional collection, which may be hard to get through all at once, but once you do, it will feel like a part of you has been left within the pages and this will make you want to re-read it for years to come.

I give this book five out of five wine bottles.

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“A Sun for the Dying” by Jean-Claude Izzo.

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Another review, another depressing French book. Funnily enough, I couldn’t be happier about it. Izzo’s book is a real gem. It always fascinates me how, when I choose to buy completely random books in bookstores, I usually find something excellent.

This story is centered on Rico, a homeless man, who decides to leave Paris and head for Marseilles after the death of his friend Titi. Throughout the novel, the reader is made aware that he is telling his story to someone, yet we only find out who it is at the very end. Rico recounts his experiences on the streets of Paris, he delves into his intimate relationships and explores his past, in order to explain why he has found himself on the streets.

It would take a very cynical person to not be moved by this book. I feel like what surprised me the most was the lack of ‘what ifs’ in the story. Rico constantly dreams, thinks and talks about his past, yet he never imagines what his life might have been like, had it not been for one of his choices. This, coupled with his string of very unsuccessful romances, is just pure sadness. The reader is subjected to the harrowing tale of a man, who has been looking for love, or if not that, then some meaningful relationship his whole life, only to have it crumble before his very eyes every single time. The most acutely gloomy story is that of his wife, who leaves him after he has sacrificed his entire existence for her, only to have her fall in love with another man. With that begins his descent into alcoholism, which eventually puts him on the streets.

Rico numbs himself to the world, drinking his days away, trying to get into some sort of routine. Focusing on the past seems to both help with that and destroy his sanity at the same time, because he cannot really accept how the events unfolded and the pain which he has had to endure since. The interactions he has with others seem to be meaningless, except when it comes to Titi, who is almost a guide to him – trying to teach him how to survive. This being the only true relationship, which Rico has been able to form, Titi’s death quite clearly makes Rico feel like he has died too (since it seems to be a pattern in his life in one form or another).

The reader feels the intense cold, the desperation, the humiliation, the anxiety which Rico goes through as he travels from Paris to Marseilles, where he meets the narrator of the book – a young Algerian boy, who is in the same situation as himself. Finally in Marseilles, where he finds  friendship and the return of his self-respect, as he rediscovers himself as a salesman, it is by then too late, making the ending even more sombre.

I also liked that the book was not entirely black and white – Rico was by no means a perfect man, yet feeling sorry for him came naturally. At the same time, Izzo did add a character like Dédé, who seems to be evil incarnate on the surface and yet he is also very easy to understand. Unlike Rico, he has not given up and still wants to enjoy life, without thinking about the consequences of his actions. This makes me return to the point about surviving – even while writing this review, I have changed my mind. I don’t think that Rico’s story is one of survival, it is rather about getting by, merely awaiting the end.

Even with all this going against them, Rico and Titi retain their humanity and, despite the hardships which they have encountered, they can still appreciate those of others. Most clearly demonstrated by something Titi says about prostitution, which becomes relevant when Rico encounters Mirjana.

I’ll tell you something, Rico. When a man’s at the end of his tether, he begs, but when a woman’s at the end of her tether, she sells her body. Just think of that. Any humiliation you may feel is nothing compared with what they must feel. Getting fucked for a living, we can’t even imagine what that must be like.

I would strongly recommend this book to everyone. It has made me see things which I had only seen in the abstract sense before, in a completely different light. Especially when it comes to Paris. Izzo writes with such emotion that it draws you in and tugs at your heart strings in the most incredible way.

I give this book five out of five wine bottles.

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“Aimez-vous Brahms?” by Françoise Sagan.

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Starting off the New Year in terms of reading with a book that could not be more ‘me’ if it tried. By that I mean, Paris, a sad love story, dysfunctional relationships and much more. Immediately after reading this book, I had a feeling that there might be a film based on it, and I was not disappointed. (Called ‘Goodbye Again’ starring Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Perkins) It is probably worth watching, mostly because they might be able to recreate the atmosphere, which this book excels at creating, and yet I have the feeling that, as with many films, the character’s thoughts may not be portrayed so powerfully on-screen.

The story is a simple one. Paule, a woman approaching the age of forty, is in love with a slightly older man, Roger. Their relationship has gone on for years and yet it is a casual one, where she is strongly in love with him, but he only uses her as a form of reassurance of his own masculinity. Through her work, Paule meets Simon, who is fourteen years younger than her and, beyond his looks, does not attract her whatsoever. Yet Simon falls madly in love with Paule. What fascinated me about this book was the complete misery which could be seen in each relationship.

First, looking at Roger and Paule, Sagan perfectly describes the feelings of unrequited love. The loneliness Paule feels, when Roger is not around, the hopelessness of performing any task, because all she can think about is him. Finally, when Paule does begin a relationship with Simon, mostly out of pity, the fact that she does not even have to say it out loud for him to know that she thinks of nothing but Roger, hits the nail on the head. On the other side of this coin, there is Roger, who has constant affairs with Paule being the only stable thing in his life. His thoughts reflect the fact that he is drawn to her because of her sadness, the thought of her pining for him, yet it does not change his behaviour. The mere thought of it makes him feel so secure, that he does not need to make an effort.

Second, Simon and Paule. While Paule’s love for Roger is melancholy, Simon loves Paule obsessively, to the point where it seems that he is insane. Yet this is merely another expression of unrequited love. Just as Paule theoretically has Roger in her life, Simon has Paule, but while he is close to her, he knows that it means absolutely nothing to her. This would be a good moment to emphasize once again, that this book really showed the most dysfunctional of relationships.

As I’m writing this, I realize that I cannot really depict how powerfully Sagan was able to demonstrate the emotions of the characters. To see that, you must really read the book. Of course, another important element in the book was Paule’s age. She reflects on the things she should have had by that time, of the idea of Roger as something permanent in her life, of the mockery she would have to endure if she were to settle down with Simon. All of these aspects come together to create a gloomy but beautiful stream of thought, of personal reflection mixed with love. The book does end on an unhappy and ironic note, as it should in my opinion, because anything else would ruin the tone of the story, yet I did not feel sad after reading it.

Something about the insights in this book coupled with the incredibly Parisian setting of cafés, drinks, cigarettes and outings to the Bois de Boulogne, made for a lovely read. I would assume that reading this in French would have made this atmosphere all the more authentic (which I probably should have done), but the translation, in my opinion, did it justice. To illustrate that;

Aimez-vous Brahms?‘ It was one of these questions young men had asked her when she was seventeen. And no doubt she had been asked the same things later, but with no one listening to the answer […] Nowadays she took six days to read a book, lost her place, forgot music. She could not keep her mind on a thing, except fabric samples and a man who was never there. She was losing herself, track of herself; she would never be herself again. Aimez-vous Brahms? For a moment she stood by the open window; the sunlight hit her full in the eyes and dazzled her. And the little phrase, Aimez-vous Brahms, seemed suddenly to reveal an enormous forgetfulness: all that she had forgotten, all the questions that she had deliberately refrained from asking herself. Aimez-vous Brahms? Did she care for anything now, except herself and her own existence? Of course, she said she loved Stendhal; she knew she loved him. That was the word: knew. Perhaps she merely ‘knew’ she loved Roger. Sound acquisitions. Sound touchstones. She felt an itch to talk to someone, as she had felt at twenty.

 I give this book four out of five wine bottles.

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“The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism” by Pascal Bruckner (2010).

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After an interesting conversation about politics which took place during the summer, a friend recommended this book to me. I knew that I wanted to read it, but my incentive came after I started reading more and more articles and watching videos which dealt with the themes this book deals with. All of this ensured that I was already biased when I began the book and so I would constantly find passages with which I agreed. This review will include long quotes, because I think that Bruckner’s own words are a better way to show the tone of the book.

The author explores a wide variety of subjects within the book, but they all link back to why the West is losing its grip on reality by constantly victimizing itself. He does this in a sarcastic and very straightforward style, which does have a consequence that I will mention later on. This self-victimization is especially relevant in the context of Europe, since Bruckner does think that the United States have a better attitude towards current events. That being said, he did not shy away from criticizing the forceful way in which the States sought to bring democracy to the countries in the Middle East. He also ended the book on a wonderful reminder that both Europe and the United States can learn from each other – where one is too passive and guilt-ridden, the other might do well to learn a little modesty and take a better look at how it is perceived by other countries in the global context.

Much of the book is, however, focused on Europe and particularly France. Bruckner condemns the French self-deprecation, even self-hatred which he thinks is causing a revolt within a country which should be united. Speaking of multiculturalism, Bruckner sees the necessity for assimilation, but sees it as impossible within the current context, where the French identity seems to be non-existent or rather unappealing. The reason for this is a mix between both France constantly apologizing for its crimes rather than learning from them and the resulting sense of guilt which it has instilled within its own society. I think the most poignant fragments which illustrate the current situation, especially where the immigration issue is concerned is this;

“It is true that there is a chauvinistic nostalgia for past grandeur, but it is for an abstract grandeur for which we are not prepared to pay anything. The fantasy that torments France in the early 21st century is not expansion, it is separation. It is a mistake to describe France as a power that dreams of dominating; at best, it is a country that is in need of a destiny and is trying to survive. The memory of the glories of yesteryear is accompanied by a complete renunciation of the mentalities that were the condition for those glories. […] Consider the immigration problem: by its attitude, simultaneously repressive and permissive, the Republic has put itself in a position to lose on all fronts. Its visa policy, which is restrictive and touchy, discourages the best minds of Africa and Asia, who allow themselves to be snatched up by universities in North America and Britain. Ultimately it welcomes only the least qualified, who are employed in servile, thankless tasks and its bureaucracy and police then carry on an ignoble guerrilla war against them.”

and

“This Left has to produce, relying heavily on artifices, the image of a France which is xenophobic, because it is France, that is, branded with a criminal past […]. Paris is supposed to steal from the projects, exploit their wealth, and conduct violent policy of despoiling them! Let us recall that others have tried to make these areas the equivalent of the occupied territories in Palestine, a Gaza Strip or a West Band of their own around Lyons, Toulouse, or Paris. So now the French have become colonialists at home, and the hexagon will have to be taken from them! Instead of admitting that the French system discourages initiative and effort, that an unemployment rate of 40 percent among young people in the projects, the absence of qualifications and inter-familial solidarity, and the omnipresence of gangs that rule the projects and regularly shake down the inhabitants of the apartment blocks there make their situation catastrophic, a fantastic genealogy is invented, and areas like Les Minguettes and La Courneuve are seen as if they were the Aurès mountains of Algeria or the high plateaus of Tonkin. […] The situation in the projects has to do with rejection, with territorial separation, not with the subordination to commercial ends that was the peculiar feature of empires.”

This, however, ties in with the politics of identity, which Bruckner denounces quite strongly. He sees it as a form of inciting even more separation and as a way for many people to enjoy the benefits of being a victim of a system which is seen as oppressive. That should not be the case since it discourages action and a desire for meaningful change. Ultimately, Bruckner sees the solution at a European level. Once Europe is politically and militarily strong it can be a better ally to the States and as a result become more forward-looking.

When I mentioned a consequence arising out of Bruckner’s style of writing, I was referring to the possibility that this essay might not be a good tool to use for convincing people who have completely different ideas. The sarcasm and bluntness, which do make the essay entertaining to read, may seem patronizing to some, and while it does balance out by the end of the book, many may not stick around as long as that. Especially when Bruckner touches upon the problems in Israel, because, while I agreed with most of what he said, it is still a controversial topic yet he seemed to present things as though they were self-evident. Therefore, I would recommend this book to everyone who is open-minded and to those, who may disagree with the passages quoted above to read until the end of the essay, because there are a lot of good points to be found within these pages.

I’ll end this review with a lighter quote, which pokes fun both at the reality we live in and at the sense of entitlement which we have become accustomed to;

“We are now scandalized by hot summers and cold winters: the heavens owe us temperate weather or we will prosecute them! We sniggered at the American’s incompetence in dealing with Hurricane Katrina in September 2005, but when the temperature rose a few degrees in August 2003 it was experienced in France as an Apocalypse, and fifteen thousand elderly people died: ‘The Battle of the Heat Wave,’ read a headline in an evening paper in September of the same year, as if the summer heat were the equivalent of Verdun or Stalingrad.”

I give this book four out of five wine bottles.

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“This Modern Love” by Will Darbyshire (2016).

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When you feel like you have become a cynical misanthrope and have lost all hope in today’s society, and you want to procrastinate rather than study, you might want to pick up this book. Reviewing a book of letters is hardly an easy thing to do, but I will still try my best.

I had seen some of Will Darbyshire’s videos on YouTube and when I saw the one where he announced that he was releasing this book, I immediately thought it might be something which might interest me. Having gone through a breakup, Darbyshire was reaching out to people, who were feeling the same way as him, and this blossomed into a general concept of what it means to be in a relationship and the beauty which can be found in each phase of it. He encouraged his subscribers to send him letters they had written to their significant others and crushes and eventually this became ‘This Modern Love’. Beyond the fact that this book is visually stunning, the content seemed like something I might enjoy when I was feeling overly sentimental.

The book is divided into three parts – beginning, middle and end, with love letters reflecting each of these stages in a relationship. Some were silly, some were truly beautiful, but all of them possessed such honesty, that it would be difficult to dismiss them as cliché or banal. The mere fact that Darbyshire received as many submissions as he did goes to show that love letters as such are not extinct and that there are still people who want to put their love, or in some cases heartbreak, into words.

Truth be told, when I did finally pick it up and read it, I did not feel sentimental at all, which makes it all the more surprising that I enjoyed it as much as I did. Rather it crushed my inner cynicism and that alone is an achievement. I’ve read so many books about love and romance over the years and yet, despite finding something meaningful in every single one of them, it is an entirely different feeling when you feel like you have become privy to someone’s personal life. For this reason, the longer letters, the ones which had more context, were the most powerful ones.

I would recommend this book if you’re looking for something soothing and romantic to read. The rating I’m giving this book is not based on the writing, because of course this is no great work of literature. Instead it reflects what I thought about this idea and the letters, which Darbyshire decided to publish.

I give this book four out of five wine bottles.

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“All the Rage” by Courtney Summers (2015).

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Reading this book made me frustrated, angry and entirely mesmerized as I followed the story of Romy Grey, a young girl, who has to cope with the aftermath of her rape in an incredibly hostile and even hateful environment. Some passages were so difficult to read, because of the tragedy of it all, that I simply closed the book in my hands and sat for a while before continuing. Since I read ‘Asking For It’ by Louise O’Neill only a couple of months ago and it is so similar to this one, this review will inevitably be a comparison between these two books when it comes to certain aspects.

The timeline seems confusing at first, as the reader is thrown into the story by a memory of her rape, but then it immediately jumps forwards in time, only to go back slightly. Destabilizing the reader from the very start was a smart move on Summers’ part because it forces the reader to put the events together thereby already putting him in Romy’s position, who feels the same way. The central plot is focused on Romy’s life quite some time after the event and her interaction with people in her school. Since she lives in a small town, the accusation she made against the boy who raped her has made everyone turn against her, because no one believes he could have done it.The novel eventually leads to the mysterious disappearance of a girl – an event which once again makes Romy the centre of attention.

Starting with Romy herself, Summers has created a character which is much more likeable than O’Neill’s Emma, at least in my eyes. I did read reviews, which strongly disagreed with me, but at the same time said that the consequences of rape were well represented in this book. The two don’t go together. Romy’s bursts of anxiousness, disregard for other people and aggressiveness are exactly the consequences of what happened to her. Not only that, but the setting which Summers provided with a school full of cruel teenagers, who all hate her, only added to one’s ability to relate to her, especially following some of the gruesome things these people do.

What really made the difference when it came to comparing the two books, was the role of the girls’ mothers. In O’Neill’s novel, the mother is cold and does not believe Emma either, while Summers has decided on a kindhearted, loving and understanding character. This added another layer to an already emotional story, because whenever Romy felt like she could not tell her mother what had happened yet again, it broke my heart to see the helplessness her mother felt. A helplessness which resounded throughout the story. Particularly when it comes to Romy, who feels like she has lost all control in her life yet is still determined not to be victim. A determination, which is constantly destroyed by the situations she finds herself in.

Telling the story from Romy’s point of view was yet another element, which made it all the more real and also heartbreaking. Once one feels her pain and her constant worries about everything, it is near impossible not to want to continue reading the book for the hope that it will all be alright in the end. What also stood out was Romy’s ‘armour’ – the red lips and painted red nails, the application of which was described in great detail. This little aspect of her behaviour added so much to the story. Every time her lipstick was not there or one of her nails was chipped, she seemed vulnerable and exposed. It was as if she had branded herself with the label others had given her and she did not want anyone to see the broken girl underneath it.

When it comes to the story of the rape itself, unlike in O’Neill’s book, here the discussion of whether it was rape or not if she was drunk was skipped. Instead it focused more on the people who were at the party where it happened, such as her best friend Penny, who should have spoken up and believed her but didn’t. These people were definitely a dark reflection of society and yet at the same time teenagers, who by nature are prone to gang up on a particular person.

This review is already quite long, yet I could go on and on about this book, but there is only so much emotion I can convey through a review. The writing was beautiful (although at times simple) and the message was very powerful. I don’t normally read young adult books, but this one was definitely worth the read.

I give this book five out of five wine bottles.

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