“On Love” by Alain de Botton.

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Having first come across De Botton’s lectures on relationships a few years ago, I immediately knew that everything that he was saying was true. However, at the time I was reluctant to follow his advice and so, while it was still there at the back of my mind, I chose to forget about it until recently. Once I re-watched all of them again, I decided to see if he could transform all of his ideas into a novel and I also wanted to review it, purely to expose more people to Alain de Botton in general.

The story begins when the narrator meets a woman named Chloe on a flight back from Paris and it then continues as they begin a relationship, illustrating all the stages one goes through in such a situation. It’s a very short novel and it’s difficult to call it one in any case, since it still mostly consists on reflections about relationships more than an actual plot. Yet I find that this book is a perfectly condensed version of all of De Botton’s thoughts, which is certainly very helpful.

He is not a believer in romantic love, as he thinks that the 19th century romantics have skewed our vision of what love is, often quoting La Rochefoucauld; “Some people would never have fallen in love if they had never heard of love” and states that the “Romantics made love into a religion”. Prior to hearing De Botton talk about this, I firmly held onto the notion of romantic love and could have even called myself a hopeless romantic at that. However, both personal experiences and the clarity with which De Botton addresses the dangers of looking at relationships and people with this expectation, has changed my perception entirely. For example, he focuses a lot on why, if one is a victim of the vision of romantic love, it is easier to fall in love with someone you known nothing about, since the idealised version of this person can be an excellent escape from our own flaws. Another little taste of the book is this extract, which shows that it does not only contain wise advice about life, but also reflects a sense of  quirky humour, which is present throughout the story;

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(first time I’ve included an actual photo in my review, but it’s definitely worth it)

This is only one of the ideas that is at the heart of this book. It also examines in detail the other moments in relationships, not only the very beginning stages, starting from the dynamic of arguments and fights, how our personalities adapt to other people and what happens when attraction begins to fade. De Botton has other books which deal with similar subjects such as married life, and his Youtube (The School of Life) holds an even larger wealth of advice about such matters, as well as educational videos on history and philosophy among other things.

While De Botton possess an equally entrancing and charismatic way of delivering his message as Jordan Peterson, whose book was the subject of my last review, I can say with absolutely certainty that I would have still loved this book even if I hadn’t seen a single video of De Botton’s. His book is a third (even less maybe) of Peterson’s in length, yet he delivers his ideas with such precision that they are easy to both understand and implement. Not only that, but also a lot of what he points out is common sense and something that I’ve often considered, yet he is just able to articulate coherently instead of whatever may be going on in my chaotic mind.

This book in no way insists that one give up on love. It just offers a more healthy vision of it, instead of continuing to confuse obsession or ignorance of a person’s flaws as the equivalent of love. I’d recommend it to people who are struggling with that or who feel as though they may have been disappointed by love one too many times. I did not want to give too much away with this review, because it is such a short book and yet at the same time it is so focused on various concepts, but I do hope that I inspire at least one person to read it, because I truly loved it and it now sits on my favourites shelf.

I give this book five out of five wine bottles.

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“12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos” by Jordan B. Peterson.

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It’s quite entertaining to think that a self-help book may be the most controversial book that I’ve ever reviewed on my blog, yet this is exactly how it feels. This is of course due to the fact that even though Jordan B. Peterson is a renowned clinical psychologist, he is also a notorious figure when it comes to politics. Therefore it seems almost impossible to review the book without mentioning this and touching upon some of his views.

His claim to fame was his refusal to comply with compelled speech initiatives which concerned gender neutral pronouns. From that he emerged as an internet phenomenon, becoming an advocate for free speech and highlighting his worries about the postmodernist, Neo-Marxist ideology that, in his view, has permeated academia. I discovered him through his Youtube videos on these subjects and while I didn’t agree with everything he said, I found his way of presenting his arguments to be convincing, insightful and most importantly level-headed, which is a quality that is lacking in most political Youtubers.

All of that being said, let’s move on to the book. When the rules are taken on their own, they seem laughingly simple, almost too cliché. Yet Peterson explains them in depth in a book that spans some 450 pages (this is the first sign that he could have used a better editor). However, the reason for the length of the book is that he illustrates the rules by relying on either his own experiences as a clinical psychologist, pop-culture references, or Bible stories, which were by far the largest contribution to the content.

The disproportionate amount of references to the Bible (with the same points often being repeated) was my greatest disappointment when it came to this book. I know that Peterson’s Youtube channel consists of lectures upon lectures on this as well, but I was surprised to find this in such a mainstream book. By relying so heavily on religion and thereby implying that moral values can only be attained through belief in Christianity, and that they are the foundation for meaning, which is in a way the first step to fulfilling oneself, seemed very alienating to me. I have never been religious, my family is not religious, so while I found his analysis of these biblical stories interesting, I could not really become emotionally attached to what he was saying. I was far more interested in the parts where he focused on his patients, his marriage or his own past, because he still provided an original and thoughtful insight into the rules, and it was easier to identify with. Therefore, I once again must say that it was very surprising to me that a book focused so heavily on the implication that values and virtues are apparently only derived from Christianity has become a bestseller and is such a mainstream book.

Something else that amazed me was how the book was written. Here again I blame it on Peterson not having a good editor. I do take Peterson seriously as an academic so it left me kind of puzzled when I saw that he used smileys on several occasions. I don’t even know what else to say about that. Also his way of writing left me speechless at some points – it’s hilarious at times, but still unexpected from an academic (probably the most vivid example is him referring to the Simpsons and when talking about the mother of Nelson Muntz, summarising her character as ‘his thoughtless slut of a mother’). Finally, the rules were used as mere headings for chapters in which Peterson seems to jump from idea to idea losing the ease and flow of a logical argument, which makes the book difficult to read.

Then again, I do feel like I picked this book up at the right moment in my life, since I am trying to work on self-improvement, so some of the things Peterson said definitely resonated with me, as banal as they were at times. But I did wonder whether it wasn’t also due to the fact that I knew of him and his work and respected him before picking up the book. I tried to imagine myself not being familiar with him and reading this with no knowledge of his background, and I have to admit that I would probably have thought that the book was not that great and it would hardly have changed my life.

As Peterson himself has often said, his audience consists of mostly young men, who are looking for someone to tell them how to get their life together, take responsibility and become more confident. In this book it is clear that he is speaking to this part of his audience and I can see that in that regard it could definitely be a helpful tool.

I must admit that over the past few months, I’ve become less interested in what Peterson has to say. Not only because he keeps repeating the same ideas, but also because I’ve come across a lot of arguments that I see as flawed (mainly his comments on women). Even his main concerns with postmodernism and Neo-Marxism are something that I consider to be somewhat exaggerated and I worry that because of his near cult-like status this exaggeration is feeding the fear of many people, who would otherwise look at this issue quite rationally.

Overall, I liked this book as part of a further insight into Peterson’s mind, but not as a self-help book. He is a strong personality, who is excellent as a lecturer and debater (his interview with Cathy Newman was a perfect example of that), but I don’t think that this translates that well into text. I find it difficult to narrow down who I would recommend this book to – I think I’d rather recommend that you first explore his Youtube channel and if that resonates with you, then you should try the book.

I give this book three out of five wine bottles.

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“The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera.

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This book is perfect.

 

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I wanted to leave the review as just that, but I felt like that may have been too dramatic. However, I knew that were I to write an actual review, I would be at a loss for words when it came to describing why I loved it so much. For this reason, I have been unable to write this review for nearly a month.

The novel consists of two intertwining stories, that of Tereza and Tomas and that of Sabina and Franz. The former begins as the story of a young Tereza falling madly in love with Tomas, a womaniser. Yet he falls in love with her too and so begins one of the most perplexing reflections on what love really is, as he is unable to tame his desire for other women. The latter, Sabina and Franz, is a story where the roles are reversed in a way, as Sabina is a free-spirited person and so Franz is her slightly awkward, faithful lover.

I’m usually someone who seeks to identify with the characters I read about, yet in this book I didn’t feel as though that was necessary. The story is quite fragmented whereby Kundera does provide the reader with ample amounts of descriptions of the characters lives, but he mostly uses these descriptions to then segue into philosophical musings. For this reason I can understand some of the critiques which claim that the relationship between the two main characters is superficial and nonsensical as it is difficult to understand why they stay together, with their thoughts being repetitive, yet disjointed. Yet for me Kundera’s way of exploring the minds of the characters and why people feel the need to stay in relationships was fascinating. Because there was so much in the novel that was focused on this, I can only attempt to summarise this by first including Tereza’s thoughts towards the end of the book and then Tomas’;

Perhaps the reason we are unable to love is that we yearn to be loved, that is we demand something (love) from our partner instead of delivering ourselves up to him demand-free and asking for nothing but his company.

Perhaps all the questions we ask of love, to measure, test, probe and save it, have the additional effect of cutting it short. 

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He tried to picture himself living in an ideal world with the young woman from the dream. He sees Tereza walking past the open windows of their ideal house. She is alone and stops to look in at him with an infinitely sad expression in her eyes. He cannot withstand her glance. Again, he feels her pain in his own heart. Again, he falls prey to compassion and sinks deep into her soul. He leaps out of the window, but she tells him bitterly to stay where he feels happy, making those abrupt, angular movements that so annoyed and displeased him. He grabs her nervous hands and presses them between his own to calm them. And he knows that time and again he will abandon the house of his happiness, time and again he will abandon his paradise and the woman from his dream and betray the ‘Es muss sein!’ of his love to go off with Tereza, the woman born of six laughable fortuities.

These two versions of perceiving love may seem different at first, but it is frightening to notice how similar they actually are. Tereza wants nothing more than Tomas’ love and yet while she is unable to fully obtain it, she is willing to stay in the relationship, sacrificing her own happiness. Tomas does the same, only for a sense of guilt that he often mistakes for love. It’s a melancholy and painful story, but one which is so well-written that it is a true pleasure to read and re-read (while picking out the right quotes, I delved into much of the book for a second time).

This novel is also great for dismissing the feelings of those who seek to romanticise the Soviet/communist regimes. It is mostly set in Prague in the 1960’s during the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union. When it comes to this aspect, the story gets progressively darker, the lives of the characters more miserable, which is emphasised beautifully by creating a steadily greyer atmosphere and increasing the threat of the Secret Police, which looms in the background. Kundera includes great anecdotes, explains interesting concepts (such as totalitarian kitsch) and overall is able to provide a gripping account of this moment in history. Another political element which is explored in a fantastic way is political activism in general. This is mainly done through the characters of Franz and Sabina, as the former keeps searching for an idealistic cause which he can devote himself to, while the latter wishes to remove herself from the realm of politics in general after having had to participate in political propaganda/activism as a result of the Soviet regime. Franz’s journey is at times funny, but it does shed a light on some of the more absurd aspects of activism and the fine line between when it is meaningful and when it has no purpose at all.

I read this book over two days and I remember waking up early on the second day, making my morning coffee and with sleep still in my eyes, immersing myself in this story again, because I missed the setting and mood of it. This novel is clearly a favourite of mine and I would recommend it to everyone. Kundera is an excellent writer – a master of details, originality and evoking reflections within the reader, whose works I will definitely read again.

I give this book five out of five wine bottles.

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“Intimacy” by Hanif Kureishi.

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The phrase; ‘The controversial number one bestseller’ is written on the cover of the book, so naturally this would make any person curious. I was intrigued and bought it, not really knowing the story I was about to read.

While my next review will be about a book which I absolutely loved beyond reason, I would have to say that this was the most interesting novel I’ve read in quite a while. It follows the story of a middle-aged man, who is about to leave his wife of ten years. He is the narrator, so the reader is able to see inside the mind of someone who’s about to change his life and end a relationship, which is fascinating in and of itself.

A lot of books focus on romantic relationships, but this was the first time I encountered not only a book that was solely focused on this one particular moment (on the last night he’s spending with his wife before leaving), but also one which seemed almost too personal and real. As you’re following the thoughts of the narrator, you’re living through his anxiety, despair, hope and worries with him, almost becoming him. So when it turns into a real emotional roller-coaster of hating him because he seems unreasonable at times, or sympathising with him because you can understand that he’s unhappy with his life, the book forces you to think about yourself in such situations as well.

It’s a short read, but one which left me feeling very emotional. The moment that you start applying the book to your own life is when it becomes difficult. The vulgarity of some of the main character’s thoughts, the disdain he feels for his wife, along with everything else that seems awful that could go through a person’s mind, seeps into your perception of your previous relationships. It makes you think about whether the person who left you thought about you in the same way towards the end. At the same time, you scramble to remember your own thoughts when you ended a relationship, and hope that they were nowhere near as terrible as those of the narrator. The more you think about it, the more it can cause distress and yet it makes you appreciate this book and the thoughts it was able to provoke.

A lot of reviews focus in particular on the fact that it’s an insightful read on ‘male sexual restlessness’ and while that’s true, I think it limits the novel’s potential if you only see it that way.  Not only can the aforementioned relationship aspect apply to most people, but the book also deals with other universal themes such as searching for purpose in life, your position amongst your friends, a sense of melancholic nostalgia and more. Beyond everything I already mentioned, the novel was full of sentences that could be taken on their own and written about at great length. To give just one example; ‘Yet I am aware how susceptible to illusion we all are. How disturbing it is that our illusions are often our most important beliefs’. 

I look forward to reading more from Kureishi, because while his writing style was simple and straightforward, his attention to detail and his skill for creating such vivid characters was amazing. I recommend this for anyone who wants to read something soul-stirring and provocative, because this really is the book for that.

I give this book five out of five wine bottles.

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“Selected Stories” by Anton Chekhov.

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I remember reading Chekhov’s short stories years ago, when I was still in high school and while I liked them a lot, they did not really leave a strong impression on me. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve matured more or I’m just more excited about everything that I now read in general, but this time around, I think that they are an absolute masterpiece. Granted, a lot of the stories included in this Wordsworth collection are ones that I had not read, but still the writing spoke for itself more than the plots of the stories.

For years now I’ve been contemplating how wonderful it would be to actually have the ability to read the works of Russian authors in their original language, but when a translation as good as this comes my way, I again feel like there’s no need. I have no doubt that there are certain things that are lost in translation, yet for this collection the brilliance of the writing definitely remained in its pages.

Chekhov is a master when it comes to subtlety. His stories reflect the lives of ordinary Russian people at the end of the eighteenth century and so the reader has an insight into their inner turmoils and tragedies. However, it is never exaggerated or played up for the purposes of the plot. Rather there is always a quiet build up to the point where the lives of the characters come to a head and although there may not be a clear and concise ending, the story always seems to have a resolution. And so even though the stories often involve no great drama, but rather focus on the daily lives of the characters, consisting of the most mundane activities, by creating complex characters or rather by giving them a unique trait or an intriguing backstory, each story draws you in immediately. And this is made even more vivid by the backdrop of each story which is the peaceful and what would seem to be the uneventful countryside (usually during winter), so that all the inner conflicts of the characters become even more poignant in an otherwise soothing setting.

Beyond characters, Chekhov is also clearly the expert at writing short stories. Not once did I feel like there was something missing or too much of something and I finished every story with a clear understanding of what he wanted to express and accomplish with it. Or rather with the understanding of the questions he wanted the reader to have. Oh to have this level of skill! I think that my two favourites would have to be ‘The Man in a Case’ and ‘Dreams’. The first one purely because the main character seemed so authentic and fascinating, and the second due to the way Chekhov handled this tale of misfortune – in both an agonising and intriguing manner.

While there is definitely a lot of satire and a dose of humour in this collection, most of the tales have a distinct melancholy feel to them, which is something that I always greatly enjoy. This is definitely a must read for everyone! Not even a mere recommendation. I feel like Chekhov may be a good introduction into Russian literature in general, since his stories are not as heavy as some of the other great authors, yet they still possess the same themes and the same pleasantly gloomy undertones. Also have to say thank you to my brother for giving me this collection as a present!

While I have not focused much on specifics from this collection, because I find that impossible in a short review, I will include some words which made me smile and which I think may often be hard to accept as true, yet they are for a lot of people;

The train flew noisily by me, and its lights shone on me unconcernedly out of the ruddy windows. I saw it halt near the green station lamps; it stopped there for a minute and then rolled on. After I had walked two miles I turned homeward. My sad thoughts still pursued me. Bitter as my mood was, I remember I seemed to try to make myself gloomier and sadder. Shallow, self-centered people, you know, have moments when the consciousness that they are unhappy gives them a certain pleasure, and they will even coquet with their own sufferings. There was much that was just in my reflections and also much that was conceited and foolish, and there was something childish in the challenge; ‘What further misfortune could befall me?’

I give this book five out of five wine bottles.

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“Winter” by Ali Smith.

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To fully embrace Christmas and winter, I decided to slowly read this book (a thoughtful gift) throughout the holiday season. While it was definitely a good decision, this novel left me perplexed in a way which I still can’t quite explain. However, even before I begin the review, I will say that it was lovely to read a book by a contemporary Scottish author.

Where to even begin? Since even the plot of this book is difficult to explain. The story introduces us to a few key characters – Sophia, Iris, Art and Lux. The first three are related and as the tale unfolds Ali Smith takes us on a journey through their memories, particularly those of the two sisters, in order to explain the tension between them in the present. The four characters all find themselves together for Christmas and somehow between the atmosphere of the holiday, their shared memories, and with the help of Lux the slightly enigmatic and intelligent outsider, by the end of the book they have each come to terms with their issues. For a more in-depth summary of the plot, I suggest reading other reviews, since they explain it much better than I do. For me the book was much more about the ideas that went beyond the characters and the story, as I feel like I could have read many of the passages even outside of the context of the book.

I will begin to illustrate my confusion about how I felt about this book by giving you a quick fact. Whenever I like a phrase or passage in a book, I tend to fold down the corner of the page it’s on. This book has by far the largest amount of folded down corners of any other book I own. Beyond that, something about some parts of the writing made me feel so cosy and nostalgic, and good about life that I would have gladly given this novel five wine bottles and a glass, something I have never done. Smith’s writing takes you to an entirely different yet familiar world (don’t ask me how that works) and while it is a bit quirky, there are so many details and interesting notions in these pages that it would be a true shame to ever forget them.

Now that I have gushed about Smith’s writing, I must turn to why I’m left so puzzled. Thrown in once in a while amongst these beautiful pages of writing were haphazard sentences that refer to current political events. Now I would find it interesting, had these been expanded on or if they had a real purpose in the story, but they didn’t, which left me wondering why they were included at all. Was it meant to be a way of bringing the reader back to reality from the flow of memories? If so, it was done awkwardly. Was it meant to be there as a reference for anyone reading the book in the future, in order to situate them in the political context? Again, if that was the case it was quite a weak way of doing that. Were they there to emphasise the importance of the current political climate? If so, then it was very badly done, since downplaying things like Trump or problems with the NHS to one or two sentences, lessens the gravity of these things. Since I am so in awe of Smith’s writing, I can’t really understand why she chose to include some of these references since they felt so amateur. Having said that, some issues were explored more fully so that they became meaningful, such as the threat of nuclear weapons. I overlooked the rest and can still say that I loved the book.

To somehow sum up my thoughts, I would just say that I recommend this gem to everyone. I wanted to include quotes to illustrate her brilliant writing but I could not narrow them down, so you should just read the book for yourself. Also because then I might get someone else’s input on the parts which I didn’t quite grasp.

I give this book four wine bottles and a glass.

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“Party Monster” by James St. James.

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I can’t believe it took me a year to get around to reading this book after my best friend first mentioned it to me. But I couldn’t be happier that I finally did since I enjoyed it so much. In theory this should not be a cheerful book – it is a true story about drug addicts and a gruesome murder after all, but St. James’ writing made it an incredibly hilarious read, which sucks you in from the first page.

Set in the aftermath of the eighties, the book focuses on New York club kids and their wild way of life, particularly that of Michael Alig. The constant clubbing and consumption of every drug imaginable is the tamest part of their lives, as St. James provides an insight into the most bizarre situations and characters which one could possibly find in a book.

When it comes to St. James’ writing, it is something that a reader will either love or hate. It’s quirky, full to the brim with dark humour and essentially all over the place as the book reads more like the chopped up recollection of a bad (or good, depends on how you look at it) trip that lasted for several years. He includes lots of pop culture references, helpfully describes how to cook up Special K and offers brutally ‘honest’ portraits of the people who were around him at the time. What I truly enjoyed was the fact that underneath all the humour, the pretentiousness and perhaps even the shallowness of the writing, St. James was able to convey genuine emotion and regret. I know that many disagree, but I think that may depend on how much one can relate to the characters and see beyond many of their flaws.

This goes back to the most fascinating aspect of the club kids – it seems as though they were just young people who were famous because of partying, seemingly having no talents or there being nothing extraordinary about them. Yet I think it’s crucial to put it into the perspective that they were at the stage in their lives where one feels like they have to choose their path for life and become a serious adult and that can be a frightening prospect. So the fact that these kids were able to postpone that or evade that and earn money by remaining in this pleasant limbo between one’s youth and adulthood is quite interesting.

What is even more interesting is that this account of their lives even exists. If the world had to learn about what happened between Michael Alig and Angel, then what could be better than an account from someone who was there to see Alig unravel and descend into the madness that he did, to the point where the murder did not even seem surprising? St. James’ book is definitely not for everyone but it is an incredible read all the same. The film was equally as wonderfully strange and exciting, but I did enjoy reading about some of the other characters in the scene that did not make their way onto the screen. One final take-away thought from this book is – don’t do drugs, kids. It may be fun to read about, but even then you are overwhelmed by sadness as you see the complete decay of human beings as they struggle to keep in touch with reality.

I give this book five out of five wine bottles.

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