Decline and Fall – Evelyn Waugh

Decline and Fall – Evelyn Waugh

“…any one who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison. It is the people brought up in the gay intimacy of the slums, Paul learned, who find prison so soul destroying.”

I have read Brideshead Revisited once, many years ago, but apart from that had never read anything by Evelyn Waugh until I picked up this book. I had no idea what to expect, but I had not expected a laugh-out-loud story which caused me to choke on my chuckles in the quiet carriage of a train to London.

This story tracks Paul Pennyfeather’s escapades following a rather ignominious expulsion from college. Every time things are going right, something goes wrong. The characters Paul meets along the way are invariably a mix of grossly unbelievable and intimately plausible- if you think that sounds like a contradiction, you’d better read this book.

We realise, somewhere close to the end of the story, that Paul’s decline and fall is down to the outside actions of other characters, boisterously thrusting themselves through life. Paul is a bystander and, as a result, is treated if not badly then with a great amount of indifference to his comfort. If there is a moral to this story, then perhaps it is this – do not be a bystander in your own life. I’m not sure Waugh would agree with that conclusion, though.

An entertaining account of the absurdity of life.

8/10

Decline and Fall (2) (Penguin Classics Waugh 02)

American Gods – Neil Gaiman

American Gods – Neil Gaiman

“All your questions can be answered, if that is what you want. But once you learn your answers, you can never unlearn them.”

I am so excited to finally be sharing this review with you. This book is long (635 pages!) and due to various commitments it took me about a month to read. But, I don’t regret it for a second.

So far, I have adored everything I have read by Neil Gaiman – though that is limited to Coraline, Norse Mythology and now American Gods – and it is entirely down to his story craftmanship. So unique.

Anyway, to this story – I had no idea what to expect. However, I was pleased to surmise within the first few pages that there is something to do with ancient gods within these pages – and I am fascinated by ancient gods (as Neil seems to be). I immediately thought, ‘ah! This is a story about gods’. I was wrong. It is a moving, disconcerting dissection of human grief. Well, that was the impression I was left with, though there are so many layers to this story that I am certain every reader could come away with an entirely different perspective.

This was an immense, strange masterpiece and, now that I have read it, I am greatly anticipating watching the series on television. But I’m glad I read the book first. I pity the poor person who squeezes Gaiman’s imagination into eight episodes.

9/10

The book:American Gods + Anansi Boys

The TV series:American Gods [DVD] [2017]

Birds Without Wings – Louis de Bernieres

Birds Without Wings – Louis de Bernieres

“Man is a bird without wings and a bird is a man without sorrow.”

I adore Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. The first time I read it was on holiday, sitting in the sun listening to the birds and the crickets, the scents of oranges and lemons filling the air. I am taken back every time I reread it.

However, this is not a review about Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. This is a review about a less well known book by the same author- Birds Without Wings. I didn’t read this on holiday, because I have none of the nostalgia when I reread it. Instead, it is unsettling.

Louis de Bernieres weaves intensely real stories about incredibly believable people. His settings (this one is set in Anatolia) are compelling and I was left with the impression that I had physically been there. But, Louis de Bernieres takes these people, who you come to love, and these settings, where you can see yourself living, and smashes them up, leaving you heartbroken.

Of course, the smashing is done artfully and poetically. He is mimicking the destruction that occurred during World War I. He turns it into many intimate and devastating personal stories,    reflecting the huge loss of life during that conflict. He manages this, in my opinion, better than that other master of war stories, Sebastian Faulks.

At its heart, this is a love story, as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is. It is as raw and desperate and bittersweet as love can be.

7.9/10

Birds Without Wings

Brushstrokes in Time – Sylvia Vetta

Brushstrokes in Time – Sylvia Vetta

“I come into this world

Bringing only paper, rope, a shadow.”

My Bank Holiday Monday has not quite gone the way I expected it to. I had planned a Spring clean, preparations for the coming week at work, perhaps a walk. None of this has yet happened. I have instead read, from start to finish, Brushstrokes in Time by Sylvia Vetta.

The story, based (heart-wrenchingly) on real-life events, is set in China and spans decades, through the 1950s to the 1990s. Prior to reading this book, I had not considered life in this period as particularly difficult in China. I was born in 1988, and this struggle has been invisible to me before now. Of course, I have seen the image of the solitary man in Tiananmen Square holding up the tanks, but I didn’t know the reasons for this, nor had I considered the human stories behind it.

As with all my reviews, I do not wish to give the plot away here (the joy of reading a story is discovery, surely?) but to briefly overview – we follow a young woman who just wants to experience the joy and beauty in the world. Perhaps unwittingly, she becomes a scapegoat for a regime which is violently and embarrassingly lacking in self-confidence by this time.

By the time I finished reading, I (normally stone-hearted, as anyone who knows me will tell you) was wiping tears from my face. Perhaps the most beautiful part of the story is that our main character was relaying her life story to her daughter, born in America and unaware of the struggles her immigrant mother had faced.

A truly human story, in equal measures enlightening and disheartening. I read this story as an ebook but will be purchasing a physical copy for my bookcase so I don’t forget it.

8.5/10

Brushstrokes in Time

Top 10 Non-Fiction Books To Expand Your Mind

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“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.”
― Charles William Eliot

The value of non-fiction books is so often overlooked in favour of other, more instant sources of knowledge (cough…internet…cough), but sometimes there is nothing so beautiful and thought provoking as a non-fiction book. In no particular order, here are my top ten non-fiction books for expanding your mind. Get learning!

1. A History of the World in 100 Objects – Neil MacGregor

A history of the world in 100 objects neil macgregor

Beautifully presented, easy to read, and we learn about the civilisations of the world, from ancient history to modern day. The objects are intimate, strange and tell such wonderful stories about our predecessors.

A History of the World in 100 Objects

2. Freakonomics – Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

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Explains statistics in laymans terms and somehow, amazingly, makes them exciting, interesting and endlessly entertaining. An excellent way to learn about how statistics are used both correctly and incorrectly.

Freakonomics

3. Silent Spring – Rachel Carson

Silent spring Rachel carson

Although outdated now, this book should be read by all- it led to the understanding most of us have about the effect we as a species has on our planet. Particularly pertinent due to high profile climate change deniers!

Silent Spring (Penguin Modern Classics)

4. A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking

Stephen hawking a brief history of time

After I had read this, I felt like my brain had doubled in size. I just understood so much more. Incredible facts and theories about the universe we live in.

A Brief History Of Time: From Big Bang To Black Holes

5. The Origins of Totalitarianism – Hannah Arendt

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In our modern society, we often look back on Nazi Germany and wonder how it happened, because we wouldn’t vote for that. This important book, written just after WW2 highlights some disquieting similarities to our world now.

The Origins of Totalitarianism

6. The Story of Art – E. H. Gombrich

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A beautiful book which will give you a background to the most admired works of art in the world. Make sure you get a recent edition which will include some modern art too.

The Story of Art

7. A Room of One’s Own – Virginia Woolf

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‘Feminism’ is so often seen, ridiculously, as a dirty word. Read A Room of One’s Own to see why it is necessary. A quick read, but an important one.

A Room of One’s Own (Penguin Modern Classics)

8. In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

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Widely dubbed as the first ever true-crime book, Truman Capote meticulously picks apart and examines the lives of a murdered family, and looks into the motivation behind the horrific crime.

In Cold Blood : A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences (Penguin Modern Classics)

9. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat – Oliver Sacks

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Oliver Sacks recounts the tales of patients with neurological disorders. Endlessly fascinating and desperately human stories.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

10. Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen – Christopher McDougall

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An amazing eye opener about the capabilities of the human body! If you want to learn what your body can do, this book is a brilliant place to start. Truly inspiring.

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen

Enjoyed this? Why not have a look at 30 books to read before you’re 30.

The Sense Of An Ending – Julian Barnes

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“History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”

This book’s synopsis immediately drew me to it. It is a study of human memory, and whether the past as we recall it is actually what happened – and if it’s not, whether anyone can say what happened with any accuracy.

The first part of the novel is a recount of a friendship the main character, Tony, had with a childhood friend called Adrian who killed himself. The second part of the novel, following receipt of a bequest, leads Tony to reconsider all he had previously recounted. Evidence comes to light revealing the frailty of Tony’s memories of his past – but his friends’ memories prove corrigible too.

On this level, the story was interesting to me and led me to reflect on my own memories and whether those involved would tell those stories differently.

However, the novel also made me deeply sad. Tony’s desperate delving into his past made it seem as though he had nothing in his future. Tony is not near death, but his lack of close friendships (the vulnerability of even secure friendships is another theme running through the novel) or loving family relationships made it seem, to me, as though he considered his life was practically over.

I enjoyed the book. I enjoyed the study of memory. I finished the book desperately hoping that I do not end up with a similarly unfulfilling life as Tony has when I reach his age.

8/10

 The Sense of an Ending

Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro

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“It never occurred to me that our lives, until then so closely interwoven, could unravel and separate over a thing like that. But the fact was, I suppose, there were powerful tides tugging us apart by then, and it only needed something like that to finish the task. If we’d understood that back then-who knows?-maybe we’d have kept a tighter hold of one another.”

There are surely not many now who haven’t read this book or seen the film with Keira Knightly. Regardless, I won’t give away the plot because one of the key moments when I truly understood the power of literature was reading this book and discovering the horrific twist.

The film is heartbreaking too, but if you haven’t read the book or seen the film yet, do read the book first – you’ll form a much closer bond with the characters.

The characters are what makes this book. They are straightforward, real; we follow them from childhood, grow up with them, discover the shocking truth with them. They feel like people you know, and that is the power of this book.

We are left with questions about the value of life, the value of love and our own humanity. We are, at heart, selfish beings, but I’m sure we’d all like to believe nothing like the plot in Never Let Me Go could ever happen. I’m not so sure. It is easy to distance ourselves from the things which sicken us.

10/10

 Never Let Me Go