book recommendations

The Heart’s Invisible Furies | Review

“Maybe there were no villains in my mother’s story at all. Just men and women, trying to do their best by each other. And failing.”

“I could number more sexual partners in my history than anyone I knew but the difference between love and sex could be summed up for me in eight words: I loved Julian; I had sex with strangers.”

“A line came into my mind, something that Hannah Ardent once said about the poet Auden: that life had manifested the heart’s invisible furies on his face

33253215I don’t even know where to begin with this book. I initially took it out from the library, while following along in the text with the audiobook read by Stephen Hogan. About 90 pages in, I knew I had to buy my own copy, and when I was done I bought two for my friends. First of all, hats off to Hogan for being able to read each character in a different voice, I don’t know how he did it, but it was an exceptional audiobook.

The novel’s true life-force and heart however is John Boyne. His prose is unmatchable. With this novel Boyne went to the top of my list as a contemporary author and I am currently acquiring the backlist.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies is a bildungsroman following Cyril Avery. His birth-mother, Catherine Goggin, is ‘a fallen woman’ who cannot provide a life for him and puts him up for adoption. He is taken in by Maude and Charles Avery who remind Cyril that he’s not “a real Avery” on a daily basis. Cyril knows early on that he is not interested in women like the other boys in his immediate circle of friends, and falls deeply in love with his best friend, and roommate, Julian Woodbead. Boyne highlights the dominance of homophobia in Dublin at the time, and the hypocrisy of the Catholic church in many respects. The same priest who had violently exiled Cyril’s birth mother had fathered children to several women—that’s just one example among many. The novel follows Cyril through Amsterdam, all the way to New York during the AIDS epidemic, and then back to Ireland. The difficulties of coming out, the struggle of living a lie, and the violence and hatred directed at the LGBT community historically are shown with such dexterity in this narrative. It truly is an education, and simultaneously a heartwarming reminder of how far we’ve come. The story is told in first person by Cyril, so readers know from the very beginning that he will one day be reunited with his birth mother, and we get a chance to know his feelings, while seeing his actions often contradict them (though not by choice). I was taken aback by the way in which Boyne crafted Cyril to come across as a quiet person even though he was ‘talking’ the whole time. The dominant theme of this novel is growth, and the difficulties of being forced to lie—those lies creating pain to oneself and other innocent bystanders. It also demonstrates how, if we don’t make progress and meaningful social change, history will continue to repeat itself generation after generation.

Synopsis aside, this novel is very much character-driven. There are three incredible women in this novel. First we have Catherine Goggin, who is strong, resourceful, and self-sufficient considering all the hardships that life has thrown at her. Then, there is Maude Avery who, to me at least, reads like she is Gertrude Stein—without the freedom to be Gertrude Stein. She is constantly writing novels, shies away from fame, cares very little for her husband, and has literary circles of bohemian artists. Lastly, there is Alice Woodbead—Julian’s sister. She is by far my favourite character. Her traumas speak to all my anxieties. She is smart, has a Ph.D. in literature, studies Maude Avery exclusively (writing her biography), and she’s an Ally, or at least more understanding than others to the LGBT struggle. Cyril feels an emotional and temperamental connection to her, and as a reader, so did I. She completely charmed me and got my attention when she says to Cyril:

“I sometimes feel as if I wasn’t supposed to live among people at all. As if I would be happier on a little island somewhere, all alone with my books and some writing material for company. I could grow my own food and never have to speak to a soul.”

The novel is, of course, mostly focused on Cyril. There are many characters that come and go in his life, and the novel relies heavily on coincidence meetings, and extremely dangerous events happening at random times. Characters make “cameo” appearances creating a strong sense of dramatic irony. There are a few events however where I felt that maybe the timing was just too convenient. I’ve seen coincidences happen many times, but there are two deaths that were kind of unexplained, as if by fate’s design when the character conveniently needed it most. Two other ‘deaths’ afterwards are quite rushed, and it feels as if the author needs to get rid of them somehow to focus on Cyril’s growth as an individual instead, and he does so in a very Shakespearean way (Polonius comes to mind). Aside from that, this novel is absolute perfection and I can’t give it anything less than five perfect stars.

boyneI also love the way Boyne guides you safely out of the novel in the epilogue, and the story comes full perfect circle, leaving no question unanswered. None. None of my questions were left unanswered, and the reader gets closure with every single character and how their life turns out. It’s absolutely wonderful, which is something you need considering the heavy topics discussed. The chapters are each seven years apart which makes things really quite exciting because we get to experience only the interesting bits.

Lastly, there is Boyne’s masterful use of humour. Though the humour is much stronger in the Dublin parts, there are some lines that made me laugh out loud. Cyril is so naïve and innocent that some of his limited understanding of women, or just life, made me laugh out loud. A small example of that for instance is when one of the women at his work refers to her menstrual cycle as “aunt Jemima” coming for a visit and Cyril narrates: I don’t know who this aunt was, or where she lived, but she came to Dublin every month and stayed for a few days.

Again…. there are no words. Just a perfect book. Absolutely loved it from beginning to end. Character development is perfect, plot is very exciting, and the humour is spot on, while dealing with some of the most difficult topics, and the language is absolute perfection.

This novel came strongly recommended by James Chatham whose Booktube channel I follow quite passionately. Thank you very much James.

Revolutionary Road | Thoughts

“What the hell kind of a life was this? What in God’s name was the point or the meaning of the purpose of a life like this?”

51uwmSFbeOL._SX318_BO1,204,203,200_I read Revolutionary Road for the first time in high school,  and I can honestly say this lifestyle is my biggest fear and worst nightmare: the suburban family. Franzen’s novels just added salt to the wounds afterwards, and it gave me the impression that people still live this way. The good news: not all people do, and we don’t have to anymore. It’s a choice, not an imposition.

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates is a modern classic, and widely-known, even more so after the cinematic adaptation featuring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. The novel is set in 1950s New York and follows April and Frank Wheeler, a couple with two children who live on Revolutionary Road in the suburbs. The couple appears happy from the outside—April stays home, while Frank commutes into the city every day, but they love each other, and they are both beautiful. In reality, the couple is absolutely miserable, and April experiences the worst of it. Her disposition creates discord in their marriage. She tries to participate in the community by attending a theater group’s small performance, which fails miserably, she tries to talk to the neighbours, and finds that no one has anything interesting to say. April fondly remembers how exciting Frank was when the two had met. He traveled the world, and made grandiose promises of the adventures they would have together, while she herself was a young, beautiful, aspiring actress. Day in and day out, the couple is shrouded by extreme boredom, and they feel the hopelessness and emptiness of their situation. April proposes that they break this lifestyle, quit everything and leave. She suggests Paris, knowing it’s where Frank had traveled in his youth, hoping his nostalgic feelings towards Paris would inspire him to agree. This idea brings joy and hope into their lives—while everyone around them thinks they are making the wrong choices in life, trying to stop them from leaving. The only person who understands them is John, the son of the real estate agent, who used to be a bright mathematics teacher, and has recently come out of a mental institution. This trigger puts a series of events in motion, and there are lots of twists which pull at the reader’s heartstrings.

A simple Google search for the author states that he is associated with the mid-century ‘Age of Anxiety’ coined by W.H. Auden in his Pulitzer-prize Winning poem. Both Auden and Yates emphasize the struggle of man’s quest to find substance and identity in a rapidly changing, industrialized, Capitalist world.

The way Yates sets up the narrative, it feels as if everything done in suburbia is a game of pretend—grown adults pretending that everything is okay, when really, everyone is aware that every little thing they do is irrelevant, and a distraction from the rich, fulfilling lives they should be living.

“[play director:] any play deserves the best that any actor has to give…we’re not just putting on a play here. We’re establishing a community theater, and that’s a pretty important thing to be doing…[narrator:] the main thing, though, was not the play itself but the company—the brave idea of it, the healthy, hopeful sound of it: the birth of a really good community theater right here, among themselves.”

Everything around the play sparks pity, and is the catalyst for April to stop pretending. There are many layers to this pretense. Acting in itself isn’t real, and yet, acting in a small suburbian, amateur production, for April, isn’t real acting—not at her age.

“No one forgets the truth; they just get better at lying”

Time and pretense are entwined, things that would have seemed fine years ago, no longer work at this age. April might have had a chance to be a real actress, but now it’s too late for her, and it’s too late to start over. Her age, and her disposition are constant reminders throughout the text, particularly in the ways that Frank sees her:

“[April used to be:] A girl he hadn’t seen in years, a girl whose every glance and gesture could make his throat fill up with longing (‘Wouldn’t you like to be loved by me?’) and that then before his very eyes she would dissolve and change into the graceless, suffering creature whose existence he tried every day of his life to deny but whom he knew as well and as painfully as he knew himself, a gaunt constricted woman whose red eyes flashed reproach, whose false smile in the curtain call was as homely as his own sore feet, his own damp climbing underwear and his own sour smell.”

Time is passing, resentment builds up, and pretending everything is fine no longer works. Another point that Yates touches on in this work is the incredible loneliness felt on an individual level by everyone in this kind of world. Everyone thinks the other is better off, while each character experiences an extreme, forceful loneliness—while at the same time longing for a spiritual solitude in which you can find your truest self, and the source of your honest actions.

“if you wanted to do something absolutely honest, something true, it always turned out to be a thing that had to be done alone.” 

“Being alone has nothing to do with how many people are around.”

What I particularly love about Yates’s narrative is the way in which he touches on sensitive topics regarding women and the ways they were trapped by their womanhood. Had April not kept the two children, she would be chain-less. Choices as such weren’t as readily available in the ‘50s, and in many ways continue to be limited today. I was also somewhat struck by the way in which John discusses “female” versus “feminine” with the Wheelers. He says:

“’I like your girl, Wheeler,’ he announced at last. ‘I get the feeling she’s female. You know what the difference between female and feminine is? Huh? Well, here’s a hint: a feminine woman never laughs out loud and always shaves her armpits. Old Helen in there [his mom] is feminine as hell. I’ve only met about half a dozen females in my life, and I think you got one of them here.’”

John compliments April for her resilience and strength, while simultaneously directing the compliment at Frank, as if he needs to take credit for ‘[his] girl.’ I don’t know if “female vs. feminine” as a topic for discussion would stand a chance today, and I see the term ‘female’ be used in a medical realm more than a conversational one.

Everything in Revolutionary Road clashes, people want things and do the opposite, and characters continuously say things that are innately contradictory, and paradoxical. Even the road which is supposedly ‘Revolutionary’ has nothing but the ‘ordinary,’ on it. This work truly is a masterpiece, and I can see why it’s a modern classic. There is a lot to discuss about this novel, and it’s a perfect book for a reading club, or close study. It is quite depressing (so read cautiously).

Love is Love | Books | Suggestions

book-lovers-3So…Valentine’s Day. Though it’s a holiday most people have mixed feelings towards, it gives us a good opportunity to think about love, and romance, particularly what it means to us on a personal level and what we think philosophically. My favourite thing about love is that the same thing that makes us warm in the heart, and gives us butterflies in the stomach can so easily turn into a hideous scar leaving us all walking wounded. The line between love and hate so thin, and it always amazes me how two people can go from being together every second of every day, absolutely besotted, to avoiding each other like the plague. It’s both sad and hilarious. It’s sad when you’re the kid of divorced parents, it’s heartbreaking when it’s happening to you and it feels like someone tore off a limb, but watching it happen from far away, there is some humour in all this melancholic drama.

That said, love—when it’s happening— is absolutely beautiful, particularly in the many forms and shapes it has: how, with whom, and its duration. Whatever societal obstacle may be, there is one undeniable truth: love is love is love. Love is sometimes not even separated by death and the living continues living, forever loving the departed—I’m sure there are necromancy love novels re-imagining a happy alternative to the tragic reality. Love can happen for a month, or ten years, or a lifetime, and no one else can deny that it happened just because of its brevity. We are ready to accept that Rose and Jack loved each other in Titanic when it lasted less than three days, or that Romeo and Juliet are in love as young teenagers who know each other for less than a week. Likewise, if the love dissolves over time it doesn’t mean that it never happened. Most importantly, no one else has the right to deny the way you feel, or decide how you choose to love—you alone can know how it happens to you, and how you feel. In that respect love is very much like pain: a personal experience that can never be fully expressed because language is too limited for its complexity. The way these little wounds or loves happen can influence the ways you live your life henceforth, what you look for in other people, and how you interact with the world around you. Other people denying the existence of certain kinds of love does not make it any less real for the people living it. Above all else, the way you love, and the people you love influence the books you read and your relationship to that literature (see I made it about books eventually).

685392My favourite kind of romance in literature has always been when it’s love between two incredibly broken people. My two favourite “romances” are Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (which many argue is not even a romance), and The Reader by Bernhard Schlink. In both cases, the main characters are absolutely broken (as individuals), and broken down by society, and the past (Heathcliff by poverty, class structure, and child abuse, and Hanna by the Holocaust in which she was an active participant: detailed analysis of that here). There’s also the ‘messed up/one-sided’ kind of love bred out of pure insecurity and need for possession without consummation like in Fowler’s The Collector, or the kind where it ends miserably like in Anna Karenina, Revolutionary Road, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, or Madame Bovary. And that got me wondering just how much of love is exciting and thrilling because something in society finds it shameful and/or problematic. If there were no boundaries, restrictions, or societal pressures, how would ‘free’ love look like? How would love without any problems, hiccups, or prejudices even look like? But for the sake of not going down the rabbit hole of my weird state of mind, I am going to list some books that are at least semi-appropriate for Valentine’s day. I am going to just assume that most people have read: Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and due to recent films you’ve read or heard of Call Me By Your Name, Carol, Brokeback Mountain, He’s Just Not that Into You, Hedwig and the Angry Inch and The Bridget Jones Diary—or that if you haven’t read them you’ve at least heard of them and know the premise.

37530My difficulties here lie in whether love is necessarily tied to sex. For instance, should George Bataille’s book Erotism: Death and Sensuality, The Kama Sutra, or Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom count as Valentine’s reads? Did I enjoy them? Yes. Should I recommend them for Valentine’s Day? I don’t know. If you can have one-sided love, and love without sex, then is counting sex with the absence of deep affection, appropriate for a ‘Valentine’ tradition? And what about self-love? As in, when a character is self-sufficient, invests in themselves, and has no interest in anyone else in a self-kind, non-selfish way. Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game for instance contains such a character, who is constantly looking within and focusing on his own spiritual journey. I started wondering, if I was sitting down with Plato and his fellow characters in The Symposium, and the topic of love came up: what would my input be? Would I fight with Aristophanes and argue that our goal isn’t to find our missing half, but to become whole before joining lives with someone else—being self-sufficient and happy as an individual?

A simple ‘love and romance’ search on Goodreads reading lists has given me so many variations: bad boy, forbidden, literary, angsty, violent, funny, bikers, erotica written by men, ‘I’ve loved you for years,’ time-travelling, historical…after page three they start to sound like porn categories: “the sexy teacher,” “the bad boy vampire’…endless choices my friends. You can mix and match for years! I can’t do justice to all the lists and all the forms. So instead I’m going to tell you some of my personal favourites followed by suggestions I’ve received from others…because I clearly haven’t read everything. I’m going to try to combine different kinds of love with different literary genres as well. Space-alien love counts too. My platform, my rules.

Few of My Suggestions

 (from the little ‘romance’ category I’ve read—aside from all the ones mentioned above)

Note: if the author is dead more than 75 years the book is very likely to be free in the public domain. If not, I have linked the list to The Book Depository.  Also, they will most likely be available at your public library.

Philosophical Takes:

Biographical and semi-biographical works:

Fiction

Suggested by Others (I have not read yet)  

Cheers everybody! Love others, love yourself, and LOVE books!