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Sickening Love of Privilege?

A Review of Gabriel García Márquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera

I think, this, for the first time in the admittedly short history of my book reviews, is a review of a book I didn’t particularly enjoy. With writing about something that I didn’t enjoy outright, there come some difficulties and hurdles. These hurdles are especially pressing, as I didn’t hate this book – it just bored me quite often. Boring things always are particularly hard for my ADHD-brain, and I’m surprised I still managed to read this book so quickly despite the fact I often only managed to press on with a feeling of obligation.

Why did I feel obligated to read this book? Well, it’s lauded as one of the big works of Gabriel García Márquez who incidentally is a Nobel laureate in literature. This should give some indication to the importance this book assumes, and nevertheless, I did not enjoy it as much as I had expected. So this review will be tasked with the job of figuring out why this book disappointed my expectations, and maybe if this is an outlier in Gabriel García Márquez’ work.

As should be noted here, I don’t speak or read Spanish, I can cobble together a few words here and there with my Latin and French, but for this, I relied on a hopefully faithful translation into German by Dagmar Ploetz. To be exact I read El amor en los tiempos del cólera in its German translation as Liebe in den Zeiten der Cholera.

The Physical Book

My edition of Love in the Time of Cholera is the 14th German paperback edition published by Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag in April of 2014, originally published as a paperback in Germany in February of 2004, 10 years earlier, and as a hardcover in 1987. The original Spanish edition was published in 1985.

The book itself is a paperback of middling sturdiness, its cover kept in dark red and purple with a flaming parrot painted by Brad Holland on the front. It’s an understated book despite the saturated colours on its cover. Fitting with the heat this book contains on so many levels.

The Setting

Never is the city in which the plot primarily unfolds named, and that’s not to a detriment. Through some research and collection of geographical hints dropped within the book, the city could be identified as Cartagena in the north of Colombia, but as a reader, I’m not as much interested in the reality of a place as much as I’m interested in how much I feel like I can become a part of it. García Márquez manages exactly that with his descriptions of city through the lifetime of two adults some time from the latter half of the 19th to the earlier half of the 20th century. Through a changing environment and very much changing story, the city retains its own character.

This place is not, strictly speaking, beautiful. The city is not luring me to a visit (at least not a time-travelling one), but it is nevertheless a fascinating place, that came vividly into my mind with every single one of the 509 pages of this book I turned.

The Plot

This plot is an outlier in the things I usually like to read, to some extent at least. It is centred around love. The title doesn’t hide it, but the love is not just a side story in a cholera epidemic, no it’s the main point and arguably the only “cholera” this story has to offer. This metaphor might be a bit blunt in English or in German but becomes a play on words in Spanish, or so I’ve heard.

The plot revolves around three main characters and their play around love and marriage. Florentino Ariza plays an extravagant play of courtship when he deeply falls in love with the young Fermina Daza, only to be booted out by her father and the successful and more privileged Dr Juvenal Urbino, who just returned from his studies in Europe. Still, Florentina Ariza vows eternal fidelity to Fermina and never marries. He sets out to wait for Dr Juvenal Urbino’s death in the hope to then get back together with the love of his youth.

He keeps his vows at first completely, but then only superficially as he discovers sex and tries to forget his aching love, that his mother at first compared to cholera, through sex. He becomes an outright sex-addict and his adventures cascade into more and more morally questionable behaviour as the plot progresses. Meanwhile, Fermina Daza experiences the heights and lows of her married life with Dr Juvenal Urbino.

This recounting of their adult lives is framed by the first and last chapter. The first chapter describes the last days of Dr Juvenal Urbino’s life and his death, with a parrot and a mango tree. The last chapter describes life after his death and a fateful voyage on one of Florentino Ariza’s company’s river steamers.

The plot keeps a surprising amount of elegance even if for me the constant love and sex of this story fell somewhat flat. I’m just not too interested in who fucks whom and loves whom with eternal faithfulness, I would have rather have the suicide with which this book opens explored more, but you can’t always get what you wish for.

The Characters

The two characters this story centres around are two very different humans, at least on a surface level. After closer inspection, they exhibit striking similarities, however. Both Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza are societal upstarts, moving into the upper society of their city throughout their life. One through marriage, the other through work in anticipation of the end of said marriage.

The main characters are fully fleshed out over their lives. Our narrative point of view jumps back between Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza, with interludes of Fermina Daza’s husband Dr Juvenal Urbino being the focus of this story. And we follow these characters basically through their entire life from their adolescence to their death or their last years of life. No character is without their moral flaws. At least Florentino Ariza engages in outright gross behaviour at points in this story. Nevertheless, he remains one of the most constant identification points for the reader and to some degree, their flaws make them more human, even if they are still all members of privileged society, and to a striking extent cishet white and male.

Being gay is used as an element of social derision at many points in this book, but that’s probably in keeping with the time this book is set in, but nobody is actually gay. Black characters are mostly only introduced as potential love interests and with a weird racialising tone in their descriptions, to a point they are objectified. At several points, I was left wondering how much of these descriptions had to find their way into this book to capture the racialised tone of the time, or if it could have been framed better. At least a counterbalance to the racialising inner monologue of our main characters would have been a welcome refreshment.

Florentino Arizo appears definitely as a love-stricken sex addict, who doesn’t even recoil from morally questionable affairs with people way younger than him. Fermina Daza appears as a somewhat unwilling wife and victim of cultural expectations of womanhood and Dr Juvenal Urbino seems to be basking in his glory and privilege without being conscious of said privilege.

The Writing & Themes

So neither the characters nor the plot managed to grasp my attention. What kept me from throwing this book aside. Well, aside from the weird feeling of obligation I felt to read this book, there was the writing. I really enjoyed many of the descriptions this book had to offer, ad I felt engrossed by the general mood this book managed to set.

This might just be a case, of “this is not the best book to start with for Gabriel García Márquez”, but it was disappointing to me that a well-written book like this fell down in the plot department. The writing manages to incorporate its themes so well, and the structure is thought out excellently, it feels just like a world you can dive into without trouble.

Thematically, this book sets out multiple different points. There’s the comparison of love as an illness, that is masterfully incorporated in the wordplay around cholera and the physical heat. This oppressive heat was almost recognisable on my skin as I turned the pages of this book.

There are a few other themes that struck me while reading. One of them is the environment. This probably fits in with the theme of illness, at least they are closely connected. The destruction of the natural beauty of the woodlands and mangroves, the dead fish swimming in the overfished lagoon and the sewage of the city itself go hand in hand with the dangers of the cholera epidemic that stays in the background for the entirety of the whole plot. Though there are probably even more themes in this book that a reader could find, and that I could talk about after closer inspection and maybe a second read.

Summary

I struggle to recommend this book. If you’re interested so far, you should definitely be okay with reading detailed descriptions of sex and even sex in, in my opinion, abusive situations. This is not an easy read, and it definitely isn’t a book that hides its gruesome elements, be they death or promiscuity and rape.

Other than that, if you enjoy love stories and stories that follow through the lives of others, this is definitely a book for you. Though if you’re just starting out with Gabriel García Márquez, I would maybe recommend starting with another book or even better with his short stories. I myself am not terribly familiar with Latin American culture and writing and I’ve been told there are better things out there, but I also have to concede that in all of Latin American Writing there will be parts lost on me, just because I’m generally not familiar with it.

Maybe these losses hurt my general view on this book, but still for me this was a so-so experience. I enjoyed the writing, themes and descriptions. I missed some nuance to the characters sometimes, but enjoyed how relatable if morally questionable they appear, but I could not give much praise to the plot and story of this book, which just was too much of a privileged love story, that reminded me a bit too much of the somewhat cliché German institution of Rosamunde Pilcher movies.

My last book review was Four Gods of Nature about Ann Leckie’s The Raven Tower. Up next probably a review of a non-fiction book: Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative?.
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Four Gods of Nature

A Review of The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

This is the first book I read within 2020 (this year) in its entirety, and it’s a very different book to those I usually read. I don’t tend to read much fantasy. As a child, I categorically avoided anything even remotely fantastical out of a lack of understanding for anything mystical. I lacked the ability to even think about what could lie beyond a very straightforward reading of nature as a system of physics. Over the years I’ve gained more and more of said ability, but still to this day, I prefer my books to be grounded in a physical reality I experience every day. And still, I find myself uninterested in what could be called “big picture stuff”. I don’t care for troops sent out to do this, Kings set to do that. Not unless I can establish a relationship with them beforehand. That just usually is easier if there isn’t a mountain of exposition and world-building in the way. This preference of mine is probably one to keep in mind while you read this review of The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie.

I first heard about Ann Leckie when she won the HUGO award for her book Ancillary Justice in 2015. And I’ve heard much good about the trilogy Ancillary Justice started since, but I have to admit, I have not read any one of those books. This, The Raven Tower, is the first book by Ann Leckie I came to read.

The Physical Book

The paperback of The Raven Tower I own is a big one, probably among the biggest paperbacks I own and it’s of the floppy kind, I’ve always somewhat disliked. This 2019 edition by orbit has 416 pages, but all of them are set fairly large and with spacious margins. Margins perhaps, that could have contained Fermat’s marvellous proof. And while its pages are floppy and it’s pages besmirched with a repeating dollop of misplaced ink, the dark cover brooding like a seal and lock on the book captures the essence of this book so well.

To any uninvolved onlooker, the cover might look reserved and uninviting, but to anyone, who has read more than the first few pages, this cover is a merciless siren of mystery and hidden darkness. This luring is only increased by the beautiful illustration on the first pages of the book and the ravens that lurk ever so often on the pages at breaks in narration.

The Setting & Worldbuilding

The Raven Tower‘s plot is for the most part centred around the fictional country of Iraden and its de-facto capital Vastai, but the reader does learn about a lot of the surrounding terrain though especially the area to the north of Iraden. I’m not usually interested in big picture stuff like countries and wars and often would prefer to read about intricate details of small locations than to know the borders and landscapes of a fictional country. Much of that is founded in my aforementioned dislike of fantasy settings, but there was definitely an exposition hump to overcome with this book for me. Only after that hump, I truly came to appreciate the world as a setting for the story’s characters.

Even if descriptions of single places and objects are rarely exhaustive, over time they build a gripping picture of a world in which multiple gods and humans coexist and interact based on rules and on the limitations of godly power.

The Characters

In this world that becomes the reader’s home over the 400 odd pages of this book, you learn to know a few characters really well. There’s Eolo probably our main identification point within the story, except for the narrator The Patience of the Hill. Now, this feels almost like a mild spoiler already, because it is something that is only hinted at, at first, and only later revealed in its full consequence, but Eolo is trans. And oh boy is it good representation. Now I’m not a trans man, only a trans woman, but this felt like a genuinely beautiful example of good trans representation to me. Eolo is smart, resourceful and quick to act nevertheless. Serving his Lord Matwat, The Lease’s Heir, who is more often viewed as a petulant child than a good commander they form an interesting team to unravel the mysteries of the story surrounding the Raven’s Lease, Matwat’s father, and his succession.

With the Raven, we are now at the other big group of characters: the gods of Iraden and its surrounding countries. The Raven is ruler over Iraden, in a power-share agreement with the god of the silent forest. But more interesting are the two gods of the north with which we make intimate acquaintance. There’s one the Myriad come as a meteor often represented as a swarm of mosquitos, and even more important, The Patience of the Hill, who is the narrator of our story and plays a decisive role in the unfolding of the plot.

The Writing

The Patience of the Hill is an interesting narrator. As a god, they are bound by the rules of their own power. In the world of the Raven, a god may only speak that what is true, or what they know to be within their power to make true. If they stray from this rule, they run the risk of draining their power either indefinitely or even dying. This leads to a very careful story-telling often hedging bets over things The Patience of the Hill has no immediate knowledge about or has only heard about.

With that prudence comes another quirk about this narration. Huge parts of this novel are told in second-person-narration. Namely, any bit that talks about Eolo is told from the perspective of The Patience of the Hill recounting the plot and feelings of Eolo to Eolo himself. That takes a bit to get used to but seems very effective at conveying the character of this story and world to the reader.

The Plot

From the start this plot centres around human sacrifice and worship. These are the things that can feed a god’s power and this nourishment might be vital especially in times of need and war. The Raven has a peculiar arrangement for a human sacrifice. The god inhabits a raven, but every so often this instrument dies and with its death and the birth of a new instrument the Raven’s Lease is obligated to kill himself. The Lease’s Heir takes the position on the bench of the Raven. As Matwat, Heir to the Lease arrives in Vastai with his companion Eolo, the Lease, Matwat’s Father has disappeared, without fulfilling his obligation. In his place, Matwat’s Uncle Hibal has taken the role of the new Lease, but that opens just even more questions.

At the same time, there’s a much longer plot unfolding. An outright war of the gods is taking place over centuries, somewhat in secret to the humans inhabiting the world around Vastai, only breaking out into outright war every so often.

All this comes to a culmination within the Raven Tower and it’s full of intrigue, traps and brooding and intelligent actors on multiple levels of power. Only after I had finished this book, someone mentioned the idea that this is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. And I might agree if not for the fact, that I’ve never in my life seen or read a Shakespeare play, not less Hamlet.

Summary

This is very much a book worth picking up. It’s, and I say this not casually, definitely the best book I’ve read within the last couple of years. It might not be the most “valuable” or the most adult and earnest literature, but it was honestly gripping, well written, and interesting. This is a world worth diving in.

Now there’s definitely an exposition hump to get over and an unusual second-person-narration to get used to, but that effort is without question worth it. I often, like with my last review, qualify to whom I recommend this book. For this book, however, I don’t feel the need to add any more qualifications. Thus, I’ll just say it plainly: Do read this book! It’s great. I don’t have this feeling often, but I truly didn’t want this world to end, just because I wanted to remain enthralled in its story.

My last book review was about The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers. Next up, a review of Gabriel García Márquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera. You can find all the images of this review (and a fe more) on my Ko-Fi. I’d appreciate your small support. Thank you.

A Gritty World

A Review of Benjamin Myers’ The Gallows Pole

It took me quite a while to finish this one. It’s probably the book I read in the longest without giving up. Well, excluding reference works naturally. I bought this in a Waterstones on my first trip to London in July 2018. And it’s always had a bookmark in it somewhere. However, for the longest time, it remained my secondary read. Only after I had finished Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon, I picked it up again and found it to be an actually enjoyable read, even though I had long since forgotten the introductory pages. Nevertheless, after that long hiatus this book grabbed me, and enthralled me into a world I’ve never once before considered.

The Physical Book

This is definitely not an especially well-crafted physical book, but it’s also not sloppy. The most striking thing about this relatively sturdy paperback is the striking colour palette of its cover design. One with which I really enjoyed working with for the artwork accompanying this review.

The Setting

The Gallows Pole is set in the last years of the 1760s around Halifax in the West Riding of Yorkshire, mostly in Cragg Vale and Mytholmyord in the Upper Calder Valley. And Benjamin Myers manages to paint a thoroughly engulfing picture of the Yorkshire moors and the villages, farmsteads, and towns within it. Without ever having been there, my mind could form a picture of the surrounding landscape and feel myself into a striking description balancing between the broad strokes and the little details.

The world Myers paints is a gritty and unforgiving one, but also one filled with glorious detail and thoroughly enticing descriptions especially of food, but also of the seasonal changes rolling over the moor. It’s the writing of a writer who is fundamentally familiar with the landscape they are describing and has done their research to form a vivid picture of life in a long-ago time, right before the onset of the industrial revolution finding its way into the small valleys of northern England.

The Characters

The Book in my hands

In The Gallows Pole, Myers tells, as the epigraph reminds us, The True Story of King David Hartley and the Cragg Vale Coiners. The story told centres around two groups of people, one one hand the Coiners i.e. farmers and workers in the Upper Calder Valley, on the other hand, the exciseman William Deighton and the Solicitor Robert Parker of Halifax working to bring the coiners to justice for defacing the currency of the land.

These two groups are a great contrast, both morally questionable at times, both morally upright in other times. As a reader, my sympathy often changed sides. Sometimes fevering with the Coiners or Clippers and their families, sometimes with those coiners around James Broadbent, who chose to become turncoats, and sometimes with the exciseman William Deighton himself. Myers really did a great job of moving the narrative focus from one to the other.

The most striking downfall of the characters of this book is their lack of diversity. And yes I know, especially with writing based on historical sources, getting a picture of for example women’s lives is often a hard task, fraught with its own trappings, but I don’t think this book would really pass the Bechdel Test.

The Plot

Several years and seasons elapse during the unfolding of the story of the Turvin clippers, as the Cragg Vale Coiners are also called. As such the book is divided into seven parts each detailing the happenings within a season from spring 1767 to 1770, with the epilogue jumping forward to 1775. It’s a varied plot, with turns and climaxes, with sexual abuse and murder, but also with harvest feasts and drinking bouts. Detailed descriptions of food follow similarly detailed descriptions of death.

The book is slow to start and even with a year to forget the first few pages of this book, I didn’t really miss them, nor can I in hindsight really figure out how they fit into the general plot except possibly as setting the mood. After that slow start, however, I found the plot thoroughly captivating and felt the cold of the night giving me cover as I travelled through the moor in the hope of securing a better future for myself as James Broadbent did.

The Writing

I think the writing of The Gallows Pole is its most striking asset. Rarely, have I felt as drawn in into an environment, rarely have I felt my mouth watering as much at the descriptions of food and drink, and rarely have I felt the cold wind of the night so intensely on my skin as when I read this book. I could go on, but suffice it to say, the descriptions are just very enthralling.

Noteworthy is how the narration of the book is interspersed with King David Hartley’s own account of events, often disagreeing with the narration on details of his nefarious dealings. I don’t exactly know how much of these accounts is fiction. I presume most of them are, but they are held in a very different style to the rest of the narration, imitating the local dialect and sociolect of the Cragg Vale Coiners. Sometimes that makes them challenging to decipher, but especially if you’ve found your way into them, they offer a great contrast to the normal narration of this book.

Additionally, ever so often especially as the noose tightens around the neck of the Turvin Clippers, Myers adds a quotation or an excerpt of source material into his writing, even more so, breaking up the flow of narration with contrasts.

Summary

I don’t know to whom I should recommend this book. It’s definitely a captivating read, well at least after the first few pages, but it’s also a heavy read, and dark at times. If you’re interested, be warned. This book isn’t always easy to stomach, but it rewards the reader with a lush landscape of fascinating descriptions and at least I am a sucker for detail. I just love the power with which the details of this story enveloped me, but I understand that such a level of detail might not be for everyone, and is often a point of contention if I discuss books with other readers.

I think if I had to finish this review with a sentence, I would just repeat the advice of the bookseller I bought this book from almost two years ago in London, “It’s a good choice.”

For my other book reviews, feel free to browse the book category. My last review was of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. Next up, a review of Ann Leckie’s The Raven Tower.

A Dance through Minds and London

A Review of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway

It’s not common that I get enthralled by a book, especially not these days. Most often this is not about plot, not about story, but about feelings, feelings and descriptions. This book took me on a very different journey than the last one I reviewed, which was The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf certainly didn’t take me as long to read, and I am willing to extend it a much more favourable review. But I think I need to make some clarifications at first.

Well, you, dear reader, might come to this and ask, why the everloving fuck I’m writing a review of what is commonly considered to be among the canon of the so-called “Classics”. I can almost hear you scream: “Well, of course, it’s good; it’s a classic!”. And on some level, I’d have to agree with that yell of despair, but let me tell you why I chose to write this as a review when there would be so many reasons to make this a discussion:

  • I think it’s funnier this way.
  • I don’t think I possess the necessary qualification, the useful background knowledge on early 20th century English writing.
  • I don’t want to make this a spoiler-heavy discussion of a book, I think is very much worth being read on its own merits.
  • I don’t want to be forced to make this about anything but my own opinion. There’s a many good discussion of this book, citing sources, taking actual discourse into account, but I just want to have fun with this.

It’s weird that I come to read this book only now. My then-girlfriend gave me this little book for Christmas 2017 after all, almost exactly 2 years ago to this day. It was a wonderful gift, but as I am with books it usually takes a while till I get around to one even if I look forward to reading it.

The Physical Book

Hiding under the dust-cover …

Its physical appearance is probably what intrigued me most about this little book when I unwrapped it on that Boxing Day in 2017. It was a small gift, and an impactful one even if its impact was delayed by two years. It’s a beautiful book, even if not a unique one in its styling. The edition I got is the one issued by the Macmillan Collector’s Library: a collection of small, little, truly pocket-sized editions of the classics of literature. Their dust-covers all held in a light pastel-blue and golden colour scheme, they hide even lighter blue thread-bound books, embossed with a floral pattern and Macmillan’s M in a square. The edges of the pages are covered in gold paint and a light blue ribbon cuts through the thin and narrowly printed pages full of text.

This book as a physical object feels like a treasure to me from appearance and feel alone. Its design is beautiful and every time I look at it there’s some little detail of mass.produced craftsmanship I failed to notice before. But what about its content?

The World & The Story Behind It

Mrs Dalloway is not set in an alternate reality, not in a different world. It’s very much grounded in real life. Characters walk and drive and wander through 1923, post-war London as they could have in real life. But London is not the setting as much as it is the backdrop for the real setting. The story of Mrs Dalloway unfolds entirely within the minds of its characters. In a way, it’s a dance through minds and London. London’s cityscape sets the beats of the characters’ minds. Big Ben signals the passing of time. The omnibus takes them through a journey in their mind.

The story of this book unfolds all within a single hot summers day, only interrupted by flashbacks through the memories of its characters. A relentless march of time set with Big Ben’s chimes at the midday mark of this novel.

The CharacterS

Our view on the story unfolding is filtered and enriched through us gliding into the mind of this and that character, seamlessly slipping between them. Under this assumption, it might not surprise you to find, a pretty diverse set of characters for a novel essentially set in London’s upper society of the 1920s. Foremost, Virginia Woolf remains occupied with the fate of women in this society. Our main character Clarissa Dalloway is the knot that keeps all threads of the plot together and lends her name to the book itself.

Our main point of view characters are Clarissa Dalloway, Peter Walsh and to an extent Septimus Warren, a shellshocked veteran and his Italian wife Rezia. Clarissa’s point of view is marked by a ton of wit and nevertheless, her stability seems frail at points, she herself is plagued by emptiness and the dread of her greying years. She reminisces about her youth, love, and her age. Peter Walsh, her former suitor, is himself just back from India as he pays Clarissa a visit. He is reminded of the rejection he had experienced at her hand, while Clarissa had a lesbian love affair with their mutual friend Sally …

To love makes one solitary, she thought.

Mrs Dalloway

I could talk much more about every single character, but I don’t think this would get to an end. The more striking fact is that Virginia Woolf managed to fit so many detailed characters into such a small book. In no small part, this is helped by her stream of consciousness style, that allows us to fly into the inner workings of so many characters.

The Plot

In turn, it’s not easy to summarise the plot of Mrs Dalloway. With its many point-of-view characters and the recurrent shifting between them, it’s definitely not an easy task to find a short description or to even follow its storyline. Even calling it a storyline feels slightly inadequate.

As such this book is almost certainly one that benefits from a re-read. I would bet it is one that grows upon me with every subsequent read through, giving me only more opportunity to get swallowed in its depth and details.

If I had to try to summarise it I would probably flail my arms around and then settle on:

  • On a hot summers day, Clarissa Dalloway is caught up in the preparations of a party she’s hosting that evening, as she gets visited by her former friend and suitor Peter Walsh just back from India and starts to reminisce about her youthful passions.
  • At the same time, Septimus Warren falls deeper and deeper into the pit of his shellshocked mind, and through inadequate (to the point of absurdity) treatment by the renowned Sir William Bradshaw and Dr Holmes, Warren is pushed towards his suicide.

In itself the plot is short, but what this book accomplishes, is less the narration of a riveting story, but an impressionistic view of British society, and especially the life women can lead within it.

The Writing & Style

Virginia Woolf’s writing seems masterful. Her sleight of hand when switching from point of view to point of view, in between so starkly contrasted characters is often almost imperceptible. The wit she imbues Clarissa with and the poignant observation of subtleties she shows, speak of a great writer and mind.

Her stream of consciousness writing reminds of her contemporary James Joyce, but in its dancing lightness I found, this prose way more accessible to my distractible mind, than I ever thought, for example, Ulysses to be.

Woolf’s prose is imbued with lightness and an uncanny ability to convey the passing of time and the emptiness, so many of these characters feel. It’s hard to not get drawn in by the often fitting and sometimes humourous observations this book makes, and it’s very hard to not feel strong emotions with it. Of course, the elaborate style also takes its toll on the reader. At least for me, this book was not at all a quick read despite its size and relatively small length.

The Themes

There’s more than one theme hiding within this dancing prose. I talked about many of them in my revue of characters already, but I don’t think it would be amiss, to point these themes out again. Mrs Dalloway is not an easy book at all. It’s ram-packed with heavy themes, hiding in so beautiful a prose.

There’s the theme of a troubled state of mental health. Almost certainly something Virginia Woolf felt very acutely herself. After all, she herself had a long history with depression. Mixed in is the trauma World War I left behind, most obviously manifest in the character of Septimus Warren. And at last, there’s Woolf’s unique perspective on women in early 20th-century society, with their lives and success, their relationship to their husbands, age, and not to forget outside of heterosexual love.

Summary

This book is, without question, worth reading. However, I do think it’s appropriate to warn any potential reader. First, on a mostly practical point, this book talks about mental health and suicide, not everyone will be able to stomach such topics. Second, I do think to enjoy this book, you have to like or at least be fine with stream-of-consciousness writing. It’s a masterful example, but nevertheless, it takes some getting used to stream-of-consciousness writing, and this book is definitely not an easy read.

I love the impressions this book has left behind and I loved the experience of bouncing from mind to mind from character to character. Its perspective gives a very unique look into British society. It’s definitely a book on my “Read-this-again!”-list.

My last book review was about The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon. Next up: The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers. You can check out my reviews of 1956 Eurovision here or read my serial fiction: Touching a Tree

Incidental History

A Review of Micheal Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

This is a special book for me. It’s a book that accompanied me for some troubled months of hardship, turmoil, and uncertainty. It’s a record holder. It is the book that took me the longest to finish. I have laboured longer on certain books. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen comes to my mind, but I’ve never laboured this long on a book and not put it away unfinished. Putting a book away is not a failure, but there’s a difference to having to put a book back in its place with the knowledge that I won’t come back to it for a long time or potentially even forever. This book was different.

It never managed to excite me enough to finish it quickly, but it also never bored me enough to not want to read further along. In a way that was torturous, but in a meta way it was also a very interesting experience. Of course, that experience was contingent on my shaken up mental health, but we don’t need to get too far into that right now.

Life's Library Book Club

I got to this book through John Green‘s internet bookclub Life’s Library. It was read and talked about there throughout June and July 2019 and it was at a point where I could jump in after Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost had made me miss two reading periods. (Maybe that too is a book I could talk about in future.) Anyhow, I started reading it about 10 days into the reading period, and it took me on a now 5-month ride, I want to tell you about.

The Physical Book

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and The Gallows Pole

To my shame, I have never been a paying member of Life’s Library but had always worked to find the book in question through other means, sometimes in a German translation. To my further shame, my lingering depression made it seem the easiest to ignore my intentions to patronise the local bookstores and to order it on Amazon.

The copy I ordered, is the UK paperback edition of the book published by 4th Estate, London in 2010. And its cover struck me with its noirish tones and imagery. Two detectives facing each other, cigarettes stuck in each face, framed by a fedora and an opened collar. I quite enjoy that kind of punchy design, though I don’t think it’s my favourite book cover I could find in my collection of mismatched books.

The Story & The World Behind IT

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a strange book that in its own way defies categorisation. It is a mystery thriller, maybe with a dollop of the political set in a world that deviated from our current political world sometime around 1948. It hits on everpresent Jewish themes like life in the diaspora, blatant antisemitism, but also on finding and building a new home and personal trauma.

The plot unfolds in cyclic circles, expanding into the world, gaining greater reach, and then folding in on themselves hitting closer to home again. Though for the first part the book reads to me like a frankly crawling and cliched police procedural just with the odd flair thrown in here and there. The world-building gains more importance in the second part where the plot picks up on speed and twists. Frankly, that is where my reading speed picked up considerably too.

The Characters & The Writing

The Protagonist Meyer Landsmann is fleshed out to be a broken man. He’s the divorced and alcoholic police detective who doesn’t care for the rules too much. Through unfortunate circumstances, he came to work with his ex-wife as his boss and she very much enjoys the rules Landsmann doesn’t care for. But here the biggest problem of Chabon’s writing looms. He doesn’t write female characters that well. Throughout this book. Female characters even more so than male ones fall onto trodden tropes, become at times even just golden calves to drive the action, but they don’t feel lifelike. Their decisions feel at times unmotivated or ill-conceived.

I don’t think Chabon’s male characters in this book are amazing, but they are considerably more well-rounded than the women that surround them. There’s some room for a favourable interpretation of some of the flaws around female characters. Certainly, the story’s point of view character Landsmann doesn’t have favourable views of women. In a sense, the narrator’s bias against women fits in with the noirish tropes of a brooding and hurting detective. A question remains: are Chabon’s female characters in other books any better?

As much as the female characters in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union are flawed, that doesn’t detract much from the story, Chabon tries to tell, largely through the regrettable fact that the women in this story, for the most part, play a role on the sidelines of the action. They are witnesses, judges hovering above the action but they aren’t directly and emotionally involved until the book hits its finale.

There’s a fool of a devil in him that wants to feel the thrum of current, there’s a current in him that wants to feel the devil in the wire.

Page 293

What fascinated me most about Chabon’s writing is his command of similes and rhythm. His descriptions of the world enthralled me at times, they showed his research and they showed an inventiveness that was very enjoyable to me. Though this talent of style doesn’t necessarily extend to talent in crafting suspenseful arcs. Especially the first half of the book felt like a slow drag. Like an investment needed to get to the faster-paced and tighter written second part, when the circles widen from a pure provincial crime procedural to a wider and wider conspiracy.

Another uniqueness of this book is its slang. Chabon took it upon him to at least develop a rudimentary form of local slang for the colony of Jews in Alaska. It is heavily influenced by Yiddish as the title would suggest. Switching languages, especially between English and Yiddish, remains a constant occurrence in relationships to the outside world. The reader doesn’t have to follow these switches, they are fleshed out only in the dropping of certain slang words, the reader can either pick up on or look up in the glossary some editions provide. To me, the allusions to Yiddish didn’t assume the role of a big obstacle, as Yiddish is more closely related to my native German than to many other languages, but it certainly makes reading a bit harder. Especially in interaction with a full list of names and their variants, it can at times get confusing.

Summary

I am conflicted about this book. On the one hand, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union casts its feathers and becomes a suspenseful read somewhere around the midpoint; on the other hand, the first half is a bit of a drag. On one side, the book offers a rich world and an interesting conundrum, on the other side, the writing and characters are hard to get through at times. I don’t think I would recommend it to anyone who isn’t super interested in alt-history and crime, but then I don’t think this is the best these genres have to offer.

Mrs Dalloway and The Gallows Pole

On to other books, my next projects in this department are Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers. The first of which has been waiting in my to-be-read-pile for about 2 years now. It was a Christmas present made by my then-girlfriend. And The Gallows Pole has been started and unfinished since a trip to London in the summer of 2018. Buried behind work and more exciting or pressing books to read. Maybe I can finally make a dent in it.

This is my first book review on this site, many more might follow, but they aren’t here yet. If you enjoy my reviews, I’d like to direct you to my reviews of 1956’s Eurovision Song Contest entries: for example: Speaking like a German Melancholist.

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