Friday, 30 August 2013

The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling): Depression, Quotes from the Classics & A Murder Mystery

The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith, or JK Rowling
The Cuckoo's Calling, a great tale of mystery, exploration
 and a little bit of Tennyson. 

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling has never really appealed to me. The novel is set in a village, which is perhaps just a bit too close to home to be exciting, and while I probably wouldn't hate The Casual VacancyThe Cuckoo's Calling seemed much more exciting. Rowling's a great writer, and the thought of her putting pen to paper to create a crime novel seemed like the perfect combination.

After the surge of publicity we immediately got the "Robert Galbraith" novel into the bookshop I was working at this summer, but, owing to the fact that the large paperback had certain rights and limits back then, there was only the option of hardback. I get funny about buying hardbacks. 1) Where would it live on my shelves? 2) What if it's rubbish after I've spent all that money? 3) Surely I can wait for paperback; it can't be that great, can it?

Fast forward to a fortnight ago. I was sitting on the train to Liverpool from London - having just been to the amazing Harry Potter Studio Tour and acted like a real nerd/superfan - with my Kindle and no paperback books on hand. The Cuckoo's Calling was on the Kindle store for about £7, and I decided to try the sample. The sample was consumed in a matter of minutes, and the £7 soon flew out of my bank account.

Despite getting really into it on my train journey, I've just finished The Cuckoo's Calling this morning, after having several sessions of War and Peace reading (yes, more posts on that still to come!) at the same time as reading it. It's a fantastic book. It's quite like the Stieg Larsson Millennium series, particularly due to the attractive females, the emphasis on physical appearance, and the dual personalities of several characters. I think that Rowling does it better, though.

For one, Rowling uses her classics degree (from my university, might I add!) to really complement both her writing and the crime genre. Each part of the novel begins with a epigraph from classic literature, with examples including passages from Horace's Odes and Virgil's The Aeneid.

SPOILER, you may want to skip two paragraphs ahead now! 

The book also ends with an incredible quote from Tennyson's Ulysses.  Yes, Tennyson's Ulysses, the poem that I so frequently adore and eulogise on this blog as one of the greatest antidotes to my PTSD symptoms. The passage included goes as so,

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy'd
Greatly, have suffer'd greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro' scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name...

Wonderful, isn't it? It's such a sublime poem to read, and I'd like to expand my memorisation of its last stanza to cover a much larger part of the piece one day. Tennyson's one of those writers I feel somehow connected to, or similar to, in the way that Tolstoy has always struck a chord with me. Rowling too, in this book, provides much that those who have suffered from mental health issues will relate to. Her struggle with depression has been made quite public in the past, and it's interesting to approach The Cuckoo's Calling with a consideration of this.

Rowling describes a destructive, psychopathic side of mental illness through some characters (albeit with an insight into their wider life and past), but she also describes it as something normal, often unpreventable, and applicable to even the most "unexpected types". The girl who has everything can be depressed too, implies Rowling.

The Cuckoo's Calling is a great novel, and I truly hope there's a sequel, even if all the publicity has made Rowling reconsider this. It's much more than a crime novel, particularly owing to Rowling's personal experience, education, and writing history.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Why Read War & Peace? The Reasons Why I Love Tolstoy's Masterpiece

Anthony Briggs War and Peace translation
My well-worn (and well-loved) copy of
War and Peace

If you tell someone that you're reading War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, you tend to get a reaction. I've found this is usually because people are impressed by it, the book being one that is renowned as being very long and, generally, very difficult. People tend to praise your efforts, but at the same time refrain from envying your reading choice. I'm often told...

  • It's too long
  • There are too many characters
  • The character names are impossible to remember
  • It's difficult to understand
  • Tolstoy is depressing
  • Why would I want to read about war or peace?

I find it a shame when people tell me this. I wish I could reply, "no, you're missing out on one of the best books ever written!" There's a reason why writers such as Nabokov and Proust regarded Tolstoy as a favourite author, and War & Peace a landmark text. Yes, at roughly 1300 pages it is a long book. However, the first time I read the Anthony Briggs translation I was shocked at how quickly I got through it. On my second reading, last August, I finished it in twelve days. I struggled intensely with Cloud Atlas, but always seem to fly through War and Peace

Here are the reasons why I read War and Peace, but also why I enjoy it so greatly.

  1. The truly incredible writing. You frequently find yourself thinking - or exclaiming aloud - "God, this is good!"
  2. The intricate portrayal of characters and their connections. The characters weave, separate, and reflect on each other's situations in a way that is truly skilful. 
  3. The incredible love stories. Some of my favourite literary matches are in this text. 
  4. The great explorations of life and death. The quote that goes something like, "a sense of remoteness from all earthy things, and a strangely joyful lightness of being" is certainly worth savouring.
  5. Pierre Bezukhov is a truly remarkable character, and one in which I can see so many aspects of myself. His transformation is great to follow. Pierre learns that "man was created for happiness, and happiness lies within", and goes on to state that as there is "a limit to suffering and a limit to freedom", "there is nothing in the world to be frightened of". This latter phrase means the most to me - it helps me realise that my anxiety is entirely meaningless and trivial. 
  6. It demonstrates a true passion for living.
  7. It doesn't present war in a positive way, although neither as terribly bad. You can make up your own mind. “If everyone fought for their own convictions there would be no war”, Tolstoy writes.
  8. You learn a bit about history. Napoleon is described from so many perspectives, and you can experience the historical context for yourself from a really great angle.
  9. The author was a fascinating man. He first visited a brothel at fourteen, was watched by the Russian secret police, and had a game with his brother that involved standing in a corner and not thinking of "anything white" for thirty minutes. What more can I say? If you'd like to learn more about him, perhaps watch this film
  10. The characters are never static, but constantly developing. We see how they grow and change because of events, feelings, and other characters.
  11. Tolstoy manages to put everything into the grander scheme of things, and you find yourself appreciating life rather than worrying without reason. As one of my favourite quotes reads, "Yes! It's all vanity, it's all an illusion, everything except that infinite sky!"
  12. Characters lift each other from depression with their own joie de vivre. Happiness is presented as contagious, and it's remarkable to see how characters regain their love of life because of others.
“Here I am alive, and it's not my fault, so I have to try and get by as best I can without hurting anybody until death takes over.”

I've learnt so much from War and Peace. As you can read about in my guest post on Better Living Through BeowulfWar and Peace became the antidote to the severe anxiety I had been suffering from for years. I first read it when I was fifteen, and it wouldn't be inaccurate to say that it changed my life.

I'm making an effort to reread the book every August, and while I'm very behind this August due to my upcoming move to Spain for eight months (leaving on Monday!), I'm still enjoying it thoroughly. This book has everything I need for a great read, and I'm sure it will continue to read a lot to me.

Have you read it? Did you finish it, or was there a reason why you stopped reading? If you stopped reading, which translation did you choose?

You can get the Anthony Briggs translation of War and Peace here.

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Sunday, 4 August 2013

On The Anti-Anxiety & Calming Effects of Asian Literature

Ruth Ozeki A Tale For The Time Being
A Ruth Ozeki inspired adaptation of the famous wave.
Image from
Lately I've been reading mostly Asian-inspired and Asian-authored literature. In fact, it's all I've been reading. I've been tempted by the superb posts on Japanese lit at Dolce Belleza lately, and I'm glad that I've finally followed suit. I find such literature helps me feel relaxed and mindful, perhaps due to the frequent minimalism and simplicity of the writing. Due to my rather chaotic schedule lately, this fits me and my feelings exactly.

Some calming and bibliotherapeutic Asian literature

The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng was the ideal text for me to read last month. I've previously read The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, in which I greatly admired the parallel created between strength and poetry. I remember reading that the author wants each book to be better than his one before, although I must say that I prefer his first book, The Gift of Rain. It's a fascinating tale of friendship and betrayal during World War II, in which the incredibly complex mixed-race protagonist, Philip Hutton, is left to make some unenviable choices. Philip must choose between his family and friends, but also between his dual nationality and that of the enemy.

I next turned to A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. I'd been contemplating the novel for weeks at the bookshop I work at, lured in by its victory in the Independent Booksellers Award and the Anglo-Japanese plot. The novel started of a little slowly, with the teenage voice of the protagonist Nao hard not to find irritating. However, the rest of the novel soon forced me to consider other things. The storyline across the Pacific, for one, was so well-written. Ruth, a novelist living simply on a remote island, discovers a collection of artefacts washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox—possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. As the mystery of its contents unfolds, Ruth is pulled into the past, into Nao’s drama and her unknown fate, and forward into her own future. It's a brilliant concept for a novel, and the book is perhaps my favourite of 2013 this far.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami is one of the books I'm reading currently. I started it thinking I was in the mood for reading Murakami, but now I'm not so sure. I love his books, especially Kafka on the Shore, but I have to be in a very particular mood to enjoy them. If I'm feeling a bit tense, Murakami's writing can really unnerve me, so I won't make myself rush through Hard-Boiled Wonderland. In fact, I'm going to read it at the same time as War and Peace. "Again?!" you may be thinking. I've decided to reread the almighty tome every August, so yes, it's that time again. I look forward to posting some new thoughts and reflections throughout this month.

Another novel which I'm really excited about reading is An Exquisite Sense of What is Beautiful by J. David Simons. I read the sample on my Kindle, but have decided to order a copy from my bookshop for a true paperback reading experience! Here's the summary, although I look forward to writing about the novel in full at a later date:

Bibliotherapy in Asian Literature, J. David Simons
An eminent British writer returns to the resort hotel in the Japanese mountains where he once spent a beautiful, snowed-in winter. It was there he fell in love and wrote his best-selling novel, The Waterwheel, accusing America of being in denial about the horrific aftermath of the Tokyo firebombings and the nuclear destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As we learn more about his earlier life, however - as a student in Bloomsbury, involved with a famous American painter - we realise that he too is in denial, trying to escape past events that are now rapidly catching up with him. A sweeping novel of East and West, love and war, truths and denials.

Do you enjoy reading Asian literature? If so, do you think there is a reason for this, or do you find it helps your anxiety? Also, do you have any favourite authors or texts?