Book | A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness

Didn’t I warn you that my blog would be left abandoned to the wind? Here’s a short post.

Let me confess to some unashamed literary snobbery right now. I didn’t fancy reading this book at first. It was a recommendation from my sister. I’m not saying she has bad taste – she doesn’t – but we differ very much in what we enjoy reading. We have read many books that we have both enjoyed (and she recommended Naive. Super to me which I liked) but her reading habits are very different to my own. She can get through books a lot faster than I can because she is a page skipper (such criminal behaviour!) and because the kind of books that she likes are kinda similar to this in density and investment.

A Monster CallsThe literary snob in me is usually attracted to books that have won some kind of award. This book won plenty but I was still put off. I’m not into teenage fiction, particularly from a trashy genre like horror. Stop throwing your rotten fruit.

But at the end of it, I was impressed.

The book is about a boy called Conor who is visited each night by a strange nightmare – a tree in his backyard talks creepily to him. Conor has to put up with this tree while dealing with his ill mother, snashy friends at school and generally the troubles of being a young kid going through maturity.

I hate limp teenage drivel about overcoming yourself and melodrama over things that would make your eyes roll, but this book doesn’t turn out to be like that. Without giving it away, it’s worth that read because it pulls off themes that teeter on the border of cliché and ends up being about something completely unexpected and pulled off in a nice way. It also has some stunning visuals as you read along.

If you want a short and pleasantly surprising read, this is definitely worth an hour or two of your day.

That’s that. Thanks for reading.

Book | Why Look at Animals? – John Berger

This week Last month, I read Why Look At Animals? – a compilation of essays and musings by John Berger that deal with the role of animals in our modern society as well as meditate over human behaviour, nature, art and human progress. Berger’s standpoints a lot of the time are depressingly Marxist and neo-Darwinist but the writing style is light and accessible and can actually be taken seriously.!!d8P1)gCGM~$(KGrHqMOKkEEwQOfWmnGBMSC0-tZ8g~~_35

The essay “Why look at animals?” looks at how animals have changed from kindred beasts that we used to interact with every day, share in our labours and revere with respect and reliance, versus now where they exist as a commodity or as often quoted in the book, a “marginalised spectacle” thanks to the logic of capitalism. Animals have become reduced to being things outside of themselves in human eyes, whether as representations of social status or else symbols of exoticism and civic/historical alliance, or else as empty promises of transcending our own emotions and biological limitations. Animals sit listless in zoos or lurking within human homes and streets. We have now become completely separate to animals despite how biologically and emotionally similar we are to them and Berger stresses how capitalism’s powers have corrupted this relationship to an irreparable extent:

“The marginalization of animals is today being followed by the marginalization and disposal of the only class who, throughout history, has remained familiar with animals and maintained the wisdom which accompanies that familiarity: the middle and small peasant … That look between animal and man, which may have played a crucial role in the development of human society, and with which, in any case, all men had always lived until less than a century ago, has been extinguished. Looking at each animal, the unaccompanied zoo visitor is alone. As for the crowds, they belong to a species which has at last been isolated”

Another essay, “Ape Theatre”, elaborates on the results of animal captivity and marginalisation by talking about his experience at a zoo in Basen. This essay is more focused on Darwinism, evolution and the rejection of creationism. It is structured anecdotally while providing lots of neat facts and philosophy about how similar apes are to us in how they can communicate and experience the same emotions as we do. This essay was written during a time where the discovery of our 99% genetic similarity to apes created a wave of thought concerning evolution and the instability of religion. Nevertheless, Berger’s position is poetic by confronting these two trains of belief and in the way we see our world.

“Birth begins the process of learning to be separate. The separation is hard to believe or accept. Yet, as we accept it, our imagination grows – imagination which is the capacity to reconnect, to bring together, that which is separate. Metaphor finds the traces which indicate that all is one. Acts of solidarity, compassion, self-sacrifice, generosity are attempts to establish – or at least a refusal to forget – a once-known unity … To create is to let take over something which did not exist before, and is therefore new. And the new is inseparable form pain, for it is alone … Alone, we are forced to recognise that we have been created, like everything else. Only our souls, when encouraged, remember the origin, wordlessly.”

Deep stuff, innit.

There are other cool little essays like comparing the eating habits between different classes and why one (no prizes for guessing which) is will be insatiably unfulfilled over the other. Also here’s an extract of this cool poem:

Out of the single night
came the day’s look,
the wary animal’s glance
on every side

Once the animals flowed like their milk

Now that they have gone
it is their endurance we miss

This post ties in seamlessly with the fact that I went to the zoo the other day. London Zoo. Bit of a bittersweet situation. Obviously it is great to spend hilarious times with friends and see all the different animals but you can’t help but wonder how aware the animals are of their own captivity. Seeing endangered species whose only means of existence is within the confines of a zoo is also quite depressing. Depressing’s not really the right word for it. But seeing this rockhopper penguin isolating himself to just stare at the edge of the enclosure says it all really.

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Book | Engleby – Sebastian Faulks

Engleby

Engleby, in a non-spoiler nutshell, is the story of a man who discusses his life at school and university, and in particular, the disappearance of one of his friends, Jennifer Arkland, and then his life afterwards as a journalist. Mike Engleby resembles the archetype of the bright-eyed working-class boy off to seek adventure at university, much like Brian Jackson in David Nicholl’s Starter For Ten, but takes a sinister tone as his personal story unfolds.

Engleby, as you discover, is unreliable narration par excellence. Events are misrepresented, glossed over, embellished, and crucially omitted, despite the narrative’s prevailing clarity. The deviation in time, as well as the reference to Engleby’s incessant pill-popping, drug misuse and blackouts, all hint that there is something fishy going on in the way that Mike tells his story, that he is concealing key details. On top of that, it is clear that Engleby is regarded by other characters as unusually reserved and eccentric, even a bit of a loner.

Spoiler time. Unfortunately, it is very clear from the moment Mike Engleby obsesses over Jennifer (to the point of concealing and learning her diary verbatim) that he had a hand in her disappearance. The intrigue of the book was all a matter of when it was to be revealed. Nevertheless, Mike’s apparent obliviousness to what others think of him, and the structuring of the novel to be broken down into chapters, only to have each chapter later “psychoanalysed”, was an interesting use of meta in the novel:

Chapter Six. His only friend in London appears to eb the shopkeeper, a refugee form Amin’s Uganda. His account of buying pornographic magazines shows little libido. He is more interested in the imagined lives of the models and the homeland of the shopkeeper. His attempts to meet women in the wine bar is half-hearted and inept; his account fo it is misogynistic. Note: his account of his father’s abuse. Lacks detail. Detail suppressed? Or gravity of epsode(s) exaggerated?

Mike is neither really apologetic or pleased to have done the murder(s). Mike’s prose, though clear, lacks a certain gutsiness to it and reveals something despondent and lost, as though events were out of his hands. Mike seems disenchanted with his life, like it swept him up and dumped him into the familiar machine of school-uni-job-relationship-aging. His dissatisfaction with teaching approaches to literature, the manner in which his journalism is conveyed via pseudonym, his stumbling into the relationship with his friend, Stellings, and his woman, Margaret, all seem to suggest that he is out of touch with people and his own times. The novel seems to hint that it is could perhaps be this life that enabled him to do the killings. The snatches of revelation and pondering about life, and particularly parts that glorify Jennifer, prevent the novel from slipping into some gloomy existentialist exercise.

Engleby is a good read, but maybe a bit too predictable for me when it came to Jennifer’s disappearance. Other revelations in the novel, however, I did not see coming, so that was good. One thing I did enjoy, on a personal level, was that Mike Engleby’s decision to switch from an English Lit degree to a Natural Sciences one, is the inverse of what I did before coming to Edinburgh, and although he is a murderer, perhaps he made the more sensible decision!