“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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“The Motel Life” by Willy Vlautin.

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I was already feeling the approach of winter here in Glasgow, but this novel really put me in the mood for it. The story focuses on two brothers, Frank and Jerry Lee. (Which is funny considering that the last book I read was also about two brothers) It begins by revealing that Jerry Lee has just killed a young man after driving home on a snowy night while he was drunk. What follows is the heart-wrenching journey of the two brothers as they come to terms with this event and their move from one motel to the next in order to escape its consequences.

What I found interesting was how the extent to which I liked the book kept going back and forth as I was reading it. I’m quite sure that this has never happened before. The reason for this was that while I thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere that Vlautin was able to create, I found the plot somewhat lacking at times. The book is told from Frank’s perspective and the reader soon begins to understand that the two brothers have not had an easy life – coming from a broken home, their mother dying young, both having dropped out of high school, it feels like the two of them have not even had a chance to really become a part of society. Especially as Frank sometimes tells incredible adventurous stories to Jerry Lee, it becomes increasingly clear how strong their longing for something ‘great’ is. This aspect of the plot was truly beautifully written – it was sincere and most importantly harsh and eye-opening in its honesty.

The reason I found the book lacking in some respect was due to the monotonous flow of the story . ‘The Motel Life’ is an accurate title, but it meant that a lot of the same behaviour was written about over and over again. A large part of the book was dedicated to describing the food they ate, how they drank coffee, Frank’s boozing, which are all things I know that I include too much of in my own writing, so I am trying not to be hypocritical, but Vlautin certainly took it to a whole other extent. That being said, sometimes it did indeed add to the book’s atmosphere which I already praised. There was something truly immersing about the freezing, snow-covered Reno with its casinos, a feeling of loneliness and the simple things which consumed the days of the two brothers.

When it comes to dealing with the subject matter of coping with killing someone, while Vlautin partially addresses this in a way through some of Jerry Lee’s actions and words, I thought that it could have been explored more. Particularly if some of the book could have been dedicated to Jerry Lee’s perspective. However, the most important element to focus on when it came to this, was the bond between Frank and Jerry Lee, which was so very endearing and genuine, that it is bound to leave any reader with the urge to reflect on their own relationships with their family members.

However, the most interesting reflection I came away with from this book was that underneath all the sadness that was present in this story, there was profound optimism. And this hopefulness which Frank somehow always touched upon was emphasised in a very subtle way. The book never attempted to lecture the reader on not giving up, rather it instilled the idea, that things may turn around. One final element that needs to be mentioned is the artwork, which preceded every chapter. I don’t think it added much to the novel. It may have even been nicer to just imagine the drawings that Jerry Lee did, since leaving that up to one’s own interpretation may have been more effective.

Nevertheless, even in this review my thoughts have been all over the place, which perfectly illustrates my feelings about the book. I did enjoy it and would certainly recommend it, but I did not think that it was beyond reproach.

I give this book three bottles and a glass out of five wine bottles.

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“Modern Baptists” by James Wilcox.

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This was such a lovely read. I don’t often say that about a book, mostly because I tend to read depressing novels about complicated characters, so ‘lovely’ isn’t really a word I could use to describe them. That’s why this novel with its lovable and slightly goofy characters was a breath of fresh air.

The novel focuses on a small town in Louisiana, where Bobby Pickens, a theoretically morally righteous and religious man, welcomes home his half brother F.X. who has just been released from prison. As events unfold, F.X. begins to entangle Bobby in situations which cast a shadow over his previously impeccable reputation of being an honest and principled character, while also taking over his life starting from his home to his love interest. The lives of these two are closely intertwined with the lives of others in the small community, with perhaps the most eccentric of the characters being Donna Lee.

Pickens is an adorably awkward person which really makes this novel so charming. Nothing seems to be going right for him, despite his best efforts. His musings provide plenty of opportunities to laugh your heart out, as does almost any situation in this book since humour comes so effortlessly to Wilcox. Pickens’ concept of the modern baptist is in itself worthy to quote;

Mr. Pickens knew that once he got his preaching diploma, he would open a church for modern Baptists, Baptists who were sick to death of hell and sin being stuffed down their gullets every Sunday. There wasn’t going to be any of that old-fashioned ranting and raving in Mr. Pickens’s church. His Baptist church would be guided by reason and logic. Everyone could drink in moderation. Everyone could dance and pet as long as they were fifteen–well, maybe sixteen or seventeen. At thirty, if you still weren’t married, you could sleep with someone, and it wouldn’t be a sin–that is, as long as you loved that person. If you hit forty and were still single, you’d be eligible for adultery not being a sin, as long as no children’s feelings got hurt and it was kept discreet. But you still had to love and respect the person: you couldn’t just do it for sex.

I really enjoyed the juxtaposing characters of Pickens and Donna Lee, as the former tries to hold on to his religious roots and his traditional perspective of how people should be while Donna Lee is more progressive than any other person within the community and tries to spread her ideas to other people in the town. It was not only entertaining and humorous but also demonstrated how a certain kind of feeling of superiority will not get you very far in life, as both characters come to realise that by the end of the book.

The book is bound to provide plenty of comedic relief for any reader and is bound to leave you feeling warm and comforted by the notion that failures can indeed be overcome and that life’s tragedies are sometimes worth seeing in an amusing light. Not only that but it will leave you with an intense longing to be in a small Southern town sipping Tab cola with bourbon while sitting in a yard, watching the sun go down while listening to the sound of crickets all around you.

I give this book four out of five wine bottles.

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“Money : A Suicide Note” by Martin Amis.

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Reading this novel amid the peak of the sexual assault scandals in Hollywood was beyond appropriate, as the narrator of it is John Self, a man on a venture to create a semi-autobiographical movie but who lives his life in a frenzy of excessive consumerism whether it be alcohol, cigarettes,  drugs, pornography or fast food. He values nothing but money, which he has a lot of and which lets him enjoy his miserable lifestyle. For Amis hardly tries to glamorise any of it. In fact, reading this novel is likely to make you feel nauseous at some point because it seems like a fast-paced descent into an alcohol fuelled nightmare where you are along for the ride.

The character of John Self is so unrelatable and vile due to his racist, homophobic, misogynistic views and his overall attitude towards the people in his life, that it not only becomes a caricature, but it also seems like Amis was trying to push the limits to see whether the reader would in fact pity him at some point. It seems like he has no redeeming qualities, except perhaps for his self-deprecating humour, which ensured that the tragedy of it all provided some humour and relief in an otherwise dark story.

In theory because Self is so unbearable and amoral, it should be the case that as part of his character development he would abandon his terrible beliefs and become a better man by the end of the book, which would inspire at least some hope in the reader. Yet that was not the case at all and what’s more, I could not imagine him without all the things that made him so vicious and deplorable. Even more surprising is that when for a brief moment Self tried to be a better person, it seemed so wrong that it was at that point that I started to pity him. This revelation is something I had never experienced before when it comes to a character, and so it was somewhat of a strange shock.

Essentially, what should already be clear by the title of the book, Self’s character shows the power of money to corrupt the soul and the devastation it can cause to all the people subjected to its hold. Very early on in the book it becomes apparent that as much as Self may talk about money, he himself knows that it will not fill the void inside him. I already mentioned the fast-paced quality of the novel – something that made it feel beyond realistic. A bad trip, if you will. That was not the only brilliant aspect of the writing. It was truly beautifully done how Amis slowed down the book to reflect Self’s encounter with the concept of ‘thinking’ (as it didn’t exist in his world of chaos), as Self struggles to shake off his addictions and attempts to read a few books as part of his journey to become more aware of the world around him. Yet he has already been so destroyed and overtaken by all the negative sides of having money, that this of course leads to nothing.

In general Amis has a way with words that I had also never seen before. The language is so rich, the metaphors and similes so clever and vivid, that I feel like I underlined almost half the book. There were so many interesting concepts and thoughts thrown in so casually along the way, that early on I knew that this would be a book that I would re-read at some point in my life. Just an example;

Yesterday afternoon I was doing then what I’m doing now. It’s one of my favourite activities – you might even call it a hobby. I was lying on the bed and drinking cocktails and watching television, all at the same time … Television is cretinizing me – I can feel it. Soon I’ll be like the TV artists. You know the people I mean. Girls who subliminally model themselves on kid-show presenters, full of faulty melody and joy,  Melody and Joy. Men whose manners show newscaster interference, soap stains, film smears. Or the cretinized, those who talk on busses and streets as if TV were real, who call up networks with strange questions, stranger demands … If you lose your rug, you can get a false one. If you lose your laugh, you can get a false one. If you lose your mind, you can get a false one. 

I truly, truly loved this novel. I’m not really sure if I conveyed this clearly enough in my review, but I hope I did. Again it is something one has to read for himself to become immersed in the depravity of John Self. I recommend this to everyone, but at the same time I would say that it is not for the fainthearted.

I give this book five out of five wine bottles.

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“The Rules of Attraction” by Bret Easton Ellis.

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Usually when I watch a film based on a book, I have either already read the book or I am not really inclined to read the book afterwards. ‘The Rules of Attraction’ was the exception to the rule. I remember watching the film years ago and thinking to myself, that the book should be equally as charming with its array of hopeless characters. Mostly, I just wanted to know more about each of them.

Now, having read the book, I can say with absolutely certainty that the film does not stand anywhere close to it. The story is told from the perspectives of a variety of characters, which is really the essence of it, and this aspect was heavily underplayed in the film, since what the book provides is an insight into the same situations by several of the people involved. This is especially important when it comes to the relationships between them, as it becomes obvious that none of the characters see them in quite the same way.

What really lies at the heart of this novel is a nihilistic view of love in our modern times, or rather among privileged students wasting their lives away at university. It’s an endless stream of parties, casual sex, alcohol, drugs and the rare moment of realisation that they actually have no idea what they are doing or what they want to be in life. What is most striking is the absolute hopelessness which Ellis attributes to the idea of love, since every character who is in love with someone, loves the person unrequitedly and is even disdained by the object of their affection. Not only that, but every single love story seems to be based on not even really knowing the person who they are in love with, pointing to the idea that love is merely a fantasy which we allow ourselves to drift into.

The most profound feelings in the book are possessed by an unnamed girl, who is so in love with Sean Bateman, that she kills herself, when she realises that he will never love her back. After her death we see the characters mention it briefly in their reflections, without knowing why she did it, who she even was or in some cases they mock her suicide, essentially rendering her death meaningless and showing the absurdity of her feelings. The same goes for Lauren, who could be called the main character of the book, as her own life revolves around longing for Victor, another student, who has gone abroad to Europe, and she patiently waits for his calls and dreams of their reunion. Only when that happens, Victor does not even know who Lauren is, once again showing how her self-destructive behaviour which stemmed from her longing for him, was completely pointless to begin with.

It’s a book that might leave some in despair, as Ellis indulges in this defeatist portrayal of love and does not shy away from graphic and obscene descriptions of the worst things that may happen in student halls, but it’s a valuable read. It strips away some of the illusions a more naive reader could have about some aspects of life, and instead sobers them up to the prospect that in any given situation one should put themselves first. Which is why at times this book may become frustrating since it’s difficult to accept how little the characters think of their long-term interests and how little they appreciate the opportunities, which they are given in life.

This novel may not be for everyone, as some may find it vulgar and repelling, others just infuriating and not relateable at all. However, I still highly recommend it, since I rushed through it in only a two days, eager to see if any of the characters will have a long-awaited epiphany or if Ellis will sprinkle even a grain of optimism into the final pages. That is for you to find out.

I give this book five out of five wine bottles.

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“Contempt” by Alberto Moravia.

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Nowadays hearing the title ‘Contempt’, it is more likely that one will think of Godard’s film than this book by Moravia. This may be an unfortunate oversight as this short little novel perfectly encompasses the painful end of a relationship, reflecting the thoughts of a man who cannot understand why he is no longer loved. It’s a relatively simple premise and what may seem like a strange execution to some, seemed beautifully done to me.

Ricardo and Emilia have been married for only a few years, but as Ricardo begins his story, the reader already knows that Emilia no longer loves him. Following a first-person narrative the book reveals how Ricardo begins to realise this and then explores his reasons for why it might have happened. Set against a beautiful background, namely Italy, Moravia’s writing is straight-forward and at the same time complex. As Ricardo becomes more and more obsessed about finding out why his wife no longer loves him, his reasoning becomes more and more convoluted, eventually nearing insanity. He is so caught up in his own thoughts and how he should or shouldn’t act, or how other people expect him to act, that he can no longer really embrace reality.

I truly enjoyed this approach of the book taking place largely in Ricardo’s mind. Him over-analysing every situation and him desperately trying to hold on to the ghost of their love is a heartrendingly true depiction of what often tends to happen. I feel like this is the criteria upon which people understand whether they like the book or not – some may feel like he is a possessive lunatic, while others may identify with Ricardo more than they would like to admit. He is by no means a likeable character, quite the opposite, as his ego constantly stands in the way of the reader finding him relateable. Yet his thoughts are interesting to observe, and it may even grant the reader a sense of pleasure to see how Ricardo comes to realise his failures – as he recalls all the incidents which may have changed the way in which Emilia perceives him. What is infuriating is seeing how entitled he feels when it comes to her, since he feels like she almost owes him her life and love, because he, an intellectual, married her and is now slaving away in a job which he doesn’t like to give her an apartment, which she seems to have wanted. This may be the reason why many give the book a bad review, pointing out how sexist the main character is.

What added yet another layer to the plot was the discussion of ‘The Odyssey’ in the context of making a modern film adaptation of it where the modern Odysseus would no longer be a hero, but rather a neurotic man and where the story accidentally seems to mirror Ricardo’s failing marriage. It was an intriguing perspective and was made even more vivid as part of this novel, where we can see Ricardo’s refusal to acknowledge his similarity to this interpretation of the character as another one of his self-deceiving failures.

This book was a real gem and I would highly recommend it to everyone. The story and obsessive descent into a frenzy ensures a riveting read, that is bound to stay with you for a while. I will definitely be picking up something else from Moravia in the near future. It did make me wonder – once again coming across a book that I like so much, that it has earned a place amongst my favourites, I’m starting to realise how difficult it has become to write reviews. I keep choosing books, which I will almost certainly like and so it has become a pattern that all I do is gush over how beautiful the writing is or how compelling the story is. This pattern started to make me feel useless at critiquing and also made me frustrated as I did not know how to find different words for saying the same thing – essentially, that I loved a book. And yet I’ve understood, that perhaps the fact that I am so taken by these books so that I devote a review to just praising them, may be helpful if this clear admiration for a book can inspire at least one person to read it.

I give this book five out of five wine bottles.

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“Goya” by Lion Feuchtwanger.

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This book pleasantly surprised me from its first few pages. Before reading it, I had assumed that since this was a historical novel simply called ‘Goya’, the book would look at all stages of the painter’s life. However, rather than doing that, Feuchtwanger chose to focus on a specific time in Francisco Goya’s life during which he was already well-known and during which he produced some of his greatest work. I saw this is as an entirely positive approach, since this time period is what interests me the most.

While the book is divided into three parts, it would be easier to say that it actually consists of two. The first part of the book is heavily devoted to his love affair with the Duchess of Alba and how this destructive and yet passionate love inspired his work at the time. Political tensions can be seen simmering in the background, and while Goya is slowly being pulled into them against his will by some of his friends, it does not really impact his life greatly until the second part of the book. The first part is dedicated not only to Goya’s relationship, but it also focuses on relationships between several other key characters, which resulted in an incredibly romantic read. And yet despite all the love scenes and depicted emotions, the novel never once felt too cheap or over-sentimental. Rather, Feuchtwanger ensured that these feelings were meaningful to the way in which Goya’s style of painting progressed. Essentially when he began to see people in a different light, or rather to see their true selves, his paintings began to reflect that as well, so Goya was able to breathe life into his masterpieces.

Having already read Feuchtwanger’s trilogy about Flavius Josephus, I was well aware of his writing skills, but when it came to exploring the deepest corners of Goya’s mind, he succeeded so brilliantly and effortlessly that it just goes to show what true talent is. This is most evident in what I deem the second part of the book, which shows him coping with his deafness and producing Los caprichos, driven both by his fear of madness and an eagerness to show the deplorable state of everything around him (from the people, to the country) which eventually meant that he had taken a political side in the ongoing battle of ideas at the time. Feuchtwanger focused on these etchings, describing Goya’s journey of creating them in great depth, drawing the reader into the loneliness and sadness which the artist felt, making Goya come alive just as the artist had been able to do with his paintings. The book compelled me to look up Goya’s work and examine it more closely, taking into account this insight provided by Feuchtwanger into a strong, determined, complex, passionate and life-loving character. This led to an extremely different experience than just merely looking at a painting with no context to build upon.

The amount of detail put into this novel in order to come to conclusions about Goya’s character and work starting from the intention behind it, his own emotions about a particular piece and finally to the lives of the people he painted, is truly astounding. From the new ideas propelled by the French Revolution to the tyranny of the Spanish Inquisition, these historical events entwined with Goya’s life create a page-turning novel, which is difficult to forget. It’s a shame that Feuchtwanger’s books are not really accessible in English, since I can almost guarantee that every Latvian has at least one book of his at home. If there is a master of the historical novel, he is it. If you do stumble upon a copy of this book in  English, or any other book of his, buy it, as you will definitely not regret it. This novel has earned a place in my favourites list and so I would recommend it to absolutely everyone.

I give this book five out of five wine bottles.

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“The Festival of Insignificance” by Milan Kundera.

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This is the first work by Milan Kundera that I have read and while I was worried that choosing a new work of his, especially one which has had such mixed reviews, was not the wisest choice when it comes to being introduced to an author, I was pleasantly surprised.

The book is far from insignificant as its pages contain a wealth of opinions about existence, individuality, will and humour. It focuses on four men in contemporary Paris, and the reader becomes privy to their thoughts about specific matters. While the reader immediately gets a sense of each character when it comes to their distinct concerns, that is about as far as character development goes in this short book. Intertwined with that, the book tells the story of Stalin and his comrades, specifically Kalinin. To say that nothing much happens would be an understatement as there is no real plot, rather the story takes place within the minds of the characters. As I thoroughly delight in such a premise, it was certainly an aspect which I liked.

The book definitely possesses a healthy dose of humour, while still focusing on serious themes. Kundera rightly shows that the best thing we can do in life, is to simply laugh at the absurdity of things and eventually come to the understanding that we are all ultimately insignificant. In a way it’s a beautiful thought because it means that we can drive away some of the worries that may make us take life too seriously. This is perhaps a reflection which Kundera has come to with age, as the older we get the more we lose the maximalism of our youth and our will to excel, and rather accept our place in life, focusing less on the abstract and more on the concrete.

While there are many interesting thoughts to be found in the book, they are found in the realm of the seemingly meaningless which makes it all the more intriguing. The example of the subplot of Stalin is the most notable, because rather than highlighting Stalin in the story, Kundera focuses on Kalinin, an unremarkable man, but one who has still had his place in history (revealed through the tale of Stalin bullying Kalinin over his problems with his bladder, but eventually naming Kaliningrad after him). This tale is really the key to understanding the book and the extent to which Kundera suggests that the insignificant is really what we should focus on in order to live our lives to the fullest;

“Insignificance, my friend, is the essence of existence. . .,” says Ramon. “We must love insignificance, we must learn to love it . . . in all its obviousness, in all its innocence, in all its beauty. . . . It is the key to wisdom.”

I truly enjoyed this little novel, and so would recommend it to absolutely everyone. I do admit that perhaps some of the more nuanced philosophical aspects may have escaped me slightly, but it did not lessen the impact of the book.

I give this book four out of five wine bottles.

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“The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt.

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 Picking up another book by Donna Tartt, I knew that I would not be disappointed, but once again I have to admit that this novel exceeded all of my expectations. As I took it off the shelf and immediately started reading it, I forgot to even read the summary on the back, so I was surprised, when I was halfway through the book and actually took a peek, that it hardly matched the story that I had already become so immersed in.

The blurb is as follows; ‘Aged thirteen, Theo Decker, son of a devoted mother and an absent father, miraculously survives a catastrophe that otherwise tears his life apart. Alone and rudderless in New York, he is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Theo is tormented by longing for his mother and down the years he clings to the thing that most reminds him of her: a small and captivating painting that ultimately draws him into the criminal underworld’.

While it sounds like the novel may be riddled with suspense and crime, it hardly is. Rather it is truly about a lost little boy, who has lost the only person who truly loved him and as a result he embarks on a self-destructive journey which destroys any hope he could have in his life. It is a harrowing tale, which was very difficult to read, because of Donna Tartt’s incredible insight into the human mind and the often terrifying world of emotions (for this, the backdrop of Las Vegas with its desert emptiness was the most striking). Not only that, she also manages to make the reader feel anxious along the way, making him feel like he is a part of the book himself. It is near impossible to put into words how beautifully Tartt knows how to focus on details and surroundings, which is what really makes her writing so great.

At times it is deceptively simple, as if truly written as a straightforward memoir by a broken man, who remembers his past, but there are so many layers to it that it can’t be called anything but masterful. I have never been to New York, but the manner in which Tartt wrote about it and the immense amount of detail she put in, makes me feel like I now have (or at least want to go there very soon), and the same goes for Las Vegas. But it was not just the environment which came alive, but also the characters and their knowledge, as she is not afraid to write long passages about aspects of culture whether it would be a painting or a book. When it comes to characters, while Theo himself was already an absolutely mesmerizing character, his friend Boris formed another interesting part of the book with his Russian mannerisms, past and attitude.

Boris’ and Theo’s escapades in Las Vegas of getting drunk and high on whatever they can get do take up a lot of space in the book, and while some say that this is completely unnecessary, for me they were the most compelling. The reason why is because they formed Theo’s future character and were so bleak and disturbing when you imagine 13 year-old boys doing all this to themselves because they feel unloved that it baffles me how someone can say; oh, those little brats, how unappreciative they are of what they have in life. Rather it illustrates the hopelessness of how they felt and the misery, which Theo was thrown into the moment his mother died.

Here I’d like to return to the summary again, as I feel like it is very deceptive. The entire book was strong so that everything made sense and while the flow of it was very slow, it was an exciting read. That being said, when it came to the last two hundred or so pages of the novel which actually focused on the advertised ‘criminal underworld’, things felt rushed and so it lost a little of its charm. Especially as it could be felt how Tartt was trying to pull things together at the end, the weakest of those being Boris’ monologue in Amsterdam, which was very out of character as it was too polished, too serious for him. If these thoughts would have been attributed to Theo it would have worked, but somehow it ruined the realness of the novel which was so poignant up until that moment. As for the painting, which is supposedly the main focus of the novel – the painting is but a tool and not the centrepiece, as it eventually brings the story together at the very end, in order for Theo to understand why everything has happened to him, the way that it has. At some points it even faded into the background where it was easy to forget that such a secret exists.

As my copy was a whopping 864 pages long, this is not a book that everyone will have the patience to finish. Among most reviews the common consensus is that the book is too detailed and drags on in some parts for too many pages, but since these are things I often enjoy, I clearly appreciated it in this novel. Particularly because the amount of research that has gone into writing this is so apparent to the point that it is at times breathtaking. I would recommend this to everyone because it is definitely worth a read, so no wonder it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014.

I give this book five out of five wine bottles.

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