Review: The Undertaking by Audrey Magee

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The Undertaking tells the story of Peter, fighting for Germany in the Second World War, and his new wife Katharina, who remains in Germany. They have an unusual type of arranged marriage, organised so that Peter can take three weeks leave from the front, and Katharina will get a widows pension if he is killed. After the first three weeks together, the book tracks the many years that they spend apart, while always in each other’s thoughts.

I went into this book almost blind, and it was very different to what I anticipated. Although in some respects it may sound like a love story, in reality it never felt like one. Instead, the main focus is the exploration of the Second World War from the side that I’ve never really considered; those who fought quite willingly for the Nazis.

I found the narrative style to have a curiously detached quality to it, which meant that while I didn’t grow to care for any of the characters, I remained interested in the outcomes of their actions. I can’t say that I personally loved this style, but it definitely helped to distinguish the book from others about the same topic and I can see how others would really enjoy it.

One of the most interesting things about this book is the way the personalities of Peter and Katharina unfold during the course of the novel, and the progression of the War. They mature in a way that is severe yet realistic under the conditions, but at the same time retain the same fatal personality flaws that make it difficult to become invested in their welfare.

The unsentimentality is unflinching throughout a whole host of horrible scenes; warefare, rape, xenophobia and death. It’s certainly not a book for the faint hearted  but the way in which this trait is shared amongst all the characters leads the reader to question themselves about how they would and should act in similar circumstances.

I wouldn’t say I really loved this book, and because of it’s difficult topic it wasn’t an enjoyable read. Despite this, the unusual nature of it still made it a really interesting read, and I have no major criticisms of it, only that it wasn’t a perfect fit for me. I love narrative styles that manage to be beautiful while quietly tearing your heart out, whereas the author here spreads everything out before you, without really giving emotional cues. However, without spoiling the ending, it demonstrates how this style of writing can be just as powerful.

“It wrecks your head a little less, doesn’t it, when you say that you’re killing a man to protect your wife, that you’re evicting a child so yours can stay home?”

Sarah Kay: Poetry for people who don’t like poetry

Poetry can be pretty daunting.

In prose, you can nearly always find a story- something to latch onto even if some of the book is going over your head. Often people don’t see poetry like that.

However, I don’t think that’s actually poetry’s fault. We can sometime make it out to be this horribly complex, unsolvable puzzle…and it doesn’t have to be. Yes, sometimes, it can be difficult to understand the meaning. But as with any literature, it’s more important that you can take something from it, whether or not it was what the author intended.

With that in mind, I want to talk about a specific poet that I think makes poetry accessible, and what’s more likeable to just about anyone.

Sarah Kay is a spoken word poet from New York, and it’s safe to say she’s had some well deserved hype. Five years ago she gave an amazing Ted Talk which you can watch here, I’m which she recites a beautiful poem called “if I should have a daughter”. Honestly, I can watch his poem and her other performances again and again and again. She’s incredibly talented and I challenge anyone with the slightest interest in books to not love her poems.

She also has an entire poetry collection published called “No Matter the Wreckage” and regardless of her spoken word performances I love this book. There’s all sorta of themes clearly based on her personal experiences and they’re truly beautiful without being in the slightest inaccessible.

Even if you think you hate poetry, it’s worth spending four minutes of your life listening to the start of her Ted Talk because I think it has the power to change your mind. Below is the first poem taken from her collection.
Love Poem #137

I will wake you up early
even though I know you like to stay through the credits.

I will leave pennies in your pockets,
postage stamps of superheroes
in between the pages of your books,
sugar packets on your kitchen counter.
I will Hansel and Gretel you home.

I talk through movies.
Even ones I have never seen before.

I will love you with too many commas,
but never any asterisks.

There will be more sweat than you are used to.
More skin. More words than are necessary.

My hair in the shower drain,
my smell on your sweaters,
bobby pins all over the window sills.

I make the best sandwiches you’ve ever tasted.
You’ll be in charge of napkins.

I can’t do a pull-up.
But I’m great at excuses.

I count broken umbrellas after every thunderstorm,
and I fall asleep repeating the words thank you.

I will wake you up early
with my heavy heartbeat.
You will say, Can’t we just sleep in, and I will say,
No, trust me. You don’t want to miss a thing.

By Sarah Kay

Review: Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman

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Britt-Marie’s life revolves around the organisation of her cutlery draw, having coasters for every cup and the plants on her balcony until she discovers her husband is cheating and leaves him. She leaves the only adult life she has ever lived to become the caretaker of the community centre in Borg, a tiny rundown community, starting a life she never imagined.

This book achieves in being both funny and achingly sad. My favourite thing about it is that the author has a way of using quite simplistic language to create profound sentences that can both break your heart and put it back together again. This is done subtly throughout the narrative and it really takes it to another level.

“Of course the dust is building up unseen, but you learn to repress this for as long as it goes unnoticed by guests. And then one day someone moves a piece of furniture without your say-so, and everything comes into plain view. Dirt and scratch marks. Permanent damage to the parquet floor. By then it’s too late. “

Throughout the course of the narrative the character of Britt-Marie is broken down so that you see all of the pieces that made her into a misunderstood, under confident and often quite rude woman.

There’s something very fulfilling about a book that takes a character on such a journey of personal development, and manages to do so in such a way that you feel personally attached to her without sharing any of her life experiences.

“She was one year older than Britt-Marie and five centimetres taller – it doesn’t take much to put someone in your shadow. It never mattered to Britt- Marie that she was the one who receded into the background. She never wanted much.”

The characters of the children’s football team are also particularly well written. They’re realistic, often hilarious and yet the love that Britt-Marie grows for them feels entirely realistic. They see things in black and white, the way only children often can and through this view the author questions the dogmatic views of the adult characters. Not only do these characters seem realistic, but in fact all of the characters are interwoven into clever subplots that make them seem familiar, even after just a few pages.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s sharp, witty, heartbreaking and truly accessible to anyone.

“Because life is more than the shoes your feet are in. More than the person you are. It’s the togetherness. The parts of yourself in another. Memories and walls and cupboards and drawers with compartments for cutlery, so you know where everything is.”

The things we don’t say. 

I was raised to think that words held all the answers. I thought I could catch them between my teeth and hide them in notebooks under my bed, magical spells that could make all my dreams come true. I thought I could fill glass jars with stolen words on torn up paper so that they glowed like fireflies in the dark.
Now that I’m older I know that my words don’t have that kind of magic. I don’t know if I wrote the spells down wrong or if my tongue just trips over them as they leave my mouth but somehow I just can’t find the words I need to fix everything between us.
Instead, silence has power. Silence slips between my pauses, steals away under my breath until the silences between the words last longer than the words themselves. Every time I try to break through the silences that hide you from me they push back harder, faster…until with every heartbeat I realise you’re inching away.
It feels as though my mouth is bound with tape and I can’t make a sound. The words that I built like a tower around me lie in pieces on the floor. All I can do is watch you walk away.
Maybe silence is what has the magic after all. Silence made you disappear.

Review: The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker

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The Art of Hearing Heartbreaks tells the story of Julia, who is baffled by her fathers sudden disappearance from New York until she finds a love letter among his things, written to a Burmese woman. This draws her into the unknown world of her fathers past in Burma, a world he has always refused to speak about. She travels to Burma to find her father, and discovers things she couldn’t even have imagined.

I almost put this book down after the first thirty pages. I couldn’t stand the voice of Julia, who comes across as a spoilt and self-entitled brat in the opening chapters. However, I’m so glad that I preserved because the story improved quite drastically as he narrative was mostly in the voice of her father. Although the author may have written Julia’s narrative like this on purpose, it really didn’t work for me and added nothing to the effectiveness of the book.

The central love story is extremely sweet, and quite beautifully crafted amongst the imagery of the Burmese countryside. I found this imagery to be extremely effective throughout the book, a great balance between description and narrative action. However, I at times found it difficult to suspend my belief over some of the entirely unrealistic plot turns. The relationship between Tim Win and Mi Mi, the two main characters, was at times in danger of being ruined by this. Despite this it was saved by some quite poignant dialogue between the two. Although I enjoyed the narrative I don’t think it was quite strong enough to support them.

Ultimately I think I was drawn in by the beautiful title of this book without reading enough about it. It’s not a bad book but it lacks the power and the draw that would make me think about it after I finished reading. If you’re looking for a bitter-sweet cosy book to get lost in on a cold day this could be ideal, but otherwise it doesn’t quite hit the spot.

“When we get over something, we move on, we put it behind us. Do we leave the dead behind or do we take them with us? I think we take them with us. They accompany us. They remain with us, if in another form. We have to learn to live with them and their deaths.”

Review: Ruby by Cynthia Bond

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“Ruby Bell was a constant reminder of what could befall a woman whose shoe heels were too high. The people of Liberty Township wove her into cautionary tales of the wages of sin and travel. They called her buck-crazy. Howling, half-naked mad. The fact that she had come back from New York City made this somewhat understandable to the town.”

I went into this novel without knowing much about it, and from the first paragraph (copied above) I was completely blown away. Set in the Deep South, this book is the story of Ruby and Ephram, her childhood friend. It deals with the hard hitting issues that face black people in America, particularly women, and also the LGBTQ community. Ruby was taken to live with a white woman from a young age, and returns to the town after many years away in New York. Although she at first looks the part of a sophisticated city woman, this slowly falls away as her imagination enfolds her, in order to protect her from a harsh reality. Meanwhile, Ephram has never left town, nor the house where his sister raised him. But he has never forgotten Ruby.

The author has managed to blend beautiful imagery and metaphors with the awful realities that many black people have faced throughout history. Although it at times becomes difficult to read, it seems like a just way to deal with the atrocities of abuse, rape and lynching.

A powerful message running through the book is that if we are told enough what people think we are, it’s what we become. Ruby is told time and time again from a young age what white men think she is, and as she grows older it becomes her only way of identifying herself. Whenever Ephram’s sister tells him he’s hurting, his body begins to ache until he cannot move. This emphasises the terrible power labelling others can have throughout their lives.

Despite not understanding each other, Ephram is drawn to Ruby, until she too becomes attached to him. Ephram finds Ruby lying in a pool of mud beside the road and instead of thinking her to be crazy, he sees that she has hidden herself in nature, even though he doesn’t understand why.

“He wanted to tell her that he had seen a part of the night sky resting in her eyes and he knew it because it lived in him as well. He wanted to tell her about the knot corded about his heart and how he needed her help to loose the binding.”

The beauty and innocence of their relationship despite all of the sorrows they have suffered provides a well needed respite. It gives hope against the odds without ruining the power of the narrative. This fragile hope is reflected in the imagery of nature that protects Ruby from the humans around her. To her, humans are dangerous; Nature is safe.

“The audacious hope of rooted things. The innocent anticipation of the shooting stalks, the quivering stillness of the watching trees.”

Along with a similar setting and shared themes, the writing style of this book often reminded me of the imagery in To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s truly unmissable.

 

Three things living in the Middle East has taught me.

As part of my degree I’ve now spent over four months in the Middle East; three months in Morocco and I’m now halfway through my stay in Jordan. Aside from Arabic – which is still very much a work in process – here’s just a few of the things I’ve learned.

How to eat with my hands
Every day in Morocco my friends and I would eat at a local cafe; by cafe a room that opened onto the street. There was no menu, and the food was cheap, simple and delicious. They were extremely welcoming but we soon realised that they only had two forks and about 30 people were eating their at any one time. Eating a bowl of beans, or even chicken can seem pretty daunting with just bread for cutlery, but with a lot of messy fingers and sneaky glances at how other people did it, we all got there in the end. Yes, there is a skill to it.

How to guess what people are saying (when I had absolutely no idea.)
Although I’d spent two years learning Arabic before going to Morocco, I soon realised that it wasn’t going to be much help with people day-to-day. The Arabic in Morocco is so far removed from the Arabic I had learned that even other Arabs can’t understand them. The first time I took a taxi alone I tried to speak to the driver in Arabic and he replied; “sorry, no speak French.” After this I realised how much you could get from a person just be reading their body language, but also that sometimes you just have to agree as if you understand, even when you have no clue what’s happening.

That British people really aren’t as polite as we think we are.
Compared with French and Spanish people, I’d often found the British manners that have been drilled into me from birth to be awkward and unnecessary. Not in the Middle East. While we may repeat sorry, please and thank you constantly, Arab pleasantries can take up an hour. To my knowledge there’s at least 8 ways to say thank you that all have different uses, and there’s even a special phrase to say to people who just had a shower. And people actually use it everyday. Seriously. Everyday. Arabs are so polite that if you compliment one of their possessions, they will immediately offer it to you. My friend casually complimented a woman’s dress, only for her to appear moments later with the dress wrapped up, ready for my friend to take home. British manners really bear no comparison.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, and I’m sure there’s still many things I will learn in the time I have left. More than anything I’ve learned to leave all and any expectations on the plane, and to enter into a new culture with a completely open mind.