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Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran Foer


Hey guys! 

Hope you’re all well this beautiful August day. I’m back into the swing of things reading wise so I thought I would post a review of a book I’ve finished reading: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. This was quite a quick read as I managed to finish it in three days. I’ve surprised myself with that one. I was thinking that my brain wouldn’t let me read much! 


What’s it all about? 

The novel is narrated by nine year old protagonist, Oskar Schell. He is grieving the loss of his father, Thomas, who was killed in the World Trade Center on September 11th 2001. The consequence of this for Oskar is that he feels angry and depressed as well as being distant with his mother. Essentially, Oskar is afraid of everything. 

“Why didn’t I learn to treat everything like it was the last time. My greatest regret was how much I believed in the future.” 

However, Oskar has a terrible secret that he shares with the reader. When he returned home from school on September 11th, he listened to the voicemails left by his father whilst he was inside the burning World Trade Center. On the final call, Oskar fails to pick up the phone as he was too afraid. The line goes dead. Oskar feels so guilty that he hid the answering machine and hasn’t told anyone about the messages. 

“My life story is the story of everyone I’ve ever met.” 

In the not too distant future, Oskar finds a key inside a vase within his father’s closet. Along with the key, there is a little envelope with the word ‘Black’ on it. Oskar deduces that this must be a name and he makes the decision to track down every person in New York with that last name, Black. 

It is whilst Oskar takes this mission that he meets a range of different characters e.g. Abby that I found quite relatable. Yet non of them know anything about the key. A Mr. Black, first name unknown, has not left his apartment for 24 years, agrees to help Oskar on his search. Over the course of eight months, he visits all of the Blacks in all the boroughs. 

Oskar visits his Grandma’s apartment and talks to her allusive renter, who unknown to Oskar, is his grandfather. We are told how years earlier, Oskar’s grandfather had abandoned his grandmother when she became pregnant with Oskar’s father. Following the events of WW2, where he consequently lost everyone he loved, he decided he couldn’t bear loving anyone again. He did write letters to his son throughout his life, yet never posted them. Sadly, he returned to America before September 11th to reunite with his family, but it was too late to meet his son, Oskar’s dad. As a result, he moves back in with his grandma; a relationship that appears as rather strange to Oskar. 

“I missed you even when I was with you. That’s been my problem. I miss what I already have, and I surround myself with things that are missing.” 

Oskar discloses his story about his dad and the search to the renter. Whilst this is ongoing, Oskar checks his phone and sees that he has a message from Abby Black, the second Black he spoke to. Abby knows who or what the key belongs to: her husband’s father’s safe deposit box. This is anticlimactic for Oskar and he is disappointed that the key had very little to do with his own dad. He decides to return the key to William. 

“So many people enter and leave your life! Hundreds of thousands of people! You have to keep the door open so they can come in! But it also means you have to let them go!” 

Whilst this is happening and Oskar’s search is ongoing, his mother never asks where he is going. It is finally revealed at the end of the novel that she has known the whole time. Once she gained this knowledge, she called every person and explained what Oskar was up to, before he got there. 

When his search ended in bitter disappointment, Oskar decides to dig up his father’s empty coffin and asks the renter for help. Together, they go to the cemetery. The renter brings two suitcases with him filled with all the unsent letters he wrote to his son. The renter decides to fill the empty coffin with these letters. This seems to be a turning point for Oskar, who is now able to move forward from his grief and loss. Importantly, he reconnects with his mother. 

To conclude, in a long letter from Grandma to Oskar, we discover that Grandpa and Grandma grew up in Dresden, Germany and both survived the firebombing of the city. However, neither of their families did. Grandma knew deep down that Grandpa was in love with her sister, Anna, but she married him anyway. She accepts that fact when he comes back to her on September 11th because she doesn’t want to be alone. When he tries to leaves her again, they decide to live at the airport together. 

“There were things I wanted to tell him. But I knew they would hurt him. So I buried them, and let them hurt me.” 

Oskar is back to square one. He’s failed to find any conclusions about his Dad. The novel ends with a series of pictures of a man falling to his death from the World Trade Center. Oskar decides to flip them so the man falls up the building. Therefore, imagining his Dad is safe. 

“I like to see people reunited, I like to see people run to each other, I like the kissing and the crying, I like the impatience, the stories that the mouth can’t tell fast enough, the ears that aren’t big enough, the eyes that can’t take in all of the change, I like the hugging, the bringing together, the end of missing someone.” 

Overview:

I really enjoyed this book and I was surprised how quickly I managed to get through it. I had a tear at the end because I was incredibly moved by the content and plot. I tried to put myself in Oskar’s shoes; to feel what he felt throughout this novel. I am a firm believer that all novels have the ability to teach us something. This taught me that we can always feel pain and sometimes we are desperate for answers that just are not there. It’s really easy for us to look into things and make assumptions, like Oskar and the key. I’m not ashamed to say that this book broke my heart a little bit, possibly because of Oska’s narration and because I can remember 9/11 like it was yesterday. I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing at the time. This gave me some form of personal response or relationship with this book. 
Keep reading guys! Enjoy August. 

Big love xx

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13 Reasons Why – Jay Asher


Hey guys! 

Happy Sunday. I hope you’re having a restful weekend. It’s been a funny one for me. I’ve done lots of reading because I feel utterly exhausted. It’s the last English exam tomorrow so this is probably why. Anyway, it meant that I got to finish reading 13 Reasons Why. Blimey, what a cracking little book this is! It’s probably one of the best books I’ve read in 2017 so far. 

What’s it all about? 

The novel evolves around two characters: Hannah Baker and Clay Jensen. Now I have to say Clay is a rather shy, mild character in high school. I actually quite liked him as a character and there were times when my heart broke for him. Anyway, Clay comes home from school to find he has received a mystery package in the mail, with no return address. Inside the package was 7 double sided cassette tapes used by Hannah to explain why she committed suicide. Each tape details a reason why. The novel follows Clay’s listening of the tapes (on a stolen player from his friend Tony) and him walking around the town to visit various places mentioned. 

The first to receive the tapes was Justin. They shared a kiss once after Hannah developed a crush on him. However, it wasn’t long until she remembered she liked someone else. Yet, Justin bragged to his friends that it was more than a kiss, earning Hannah an unwarranted reputation as some kind of slut. It was Justin who started the journey to Hannah’s death. 

“I’d like to not be the thing people dig their hands in anymore.”

The second person was Alex. Alex foolishly published a ‘hot or not’ list, comparing the girls in their class. He credited Hannah with the title of ‘Best Ass’, adding fuel to the fire about her reputation currently flying around school. At the same time, he awarded Jessica, his ex girlfriend the title of ‘Worst Ass’ in revenge for her not sleeping with him. Needless to say, Alex’s character enraged me. Little shit. 

Next up: Jessica herself. After the list, this friendship became rather strained. Jessica got angry and slapped Hannah. It was this altercation that ended their friendship. Also the consequence of the slap was a scar above Hannah’s left eye brow. Clay noticed…

The tapes were then sent to Tyler, another classmate. He worked as the photographer for the yearbook. But it wasn’t just photos for the yearbook he took. Hannah knew he was stalking her and taking photos of her through her bedroom window. Hannah asked Courtney for help in catching Tyler in the act. Tyler took a picture of Hannah and Courtney kissing in Hannah’s bedroom. The photo got published, leading us nicely to the next receiver of the tapes. 

Courtney was the fifth person. Hannah was desperate for Courtney to be her friend. Yet the picture Tyler had published created more rumours, this time about Courtney’s sexuality. In a vain attempt to save herself from embarrassment, Courtney added to the rumours about Hannah. That snowball of events is just getting bigger…

“Some of you care. None of you cared enough.”

Marcus was next and again I have to say he is another male character I did not like. Nevertheless, his role is rather small yet still important. He decided to believe the rumours about Hannah and made a pass at her. He clearly believed she was easy and up for a good time.  Obviously he was rather surprised when Hannah knocked him back. 

Zack tried to comfort Hannah after Marcus has stormed off. He became the seventh character to receive the tapes. The following day he tried to ask Hannah out, but made rude remarks and got turned down. Clearly, his ego bruised, he went out of his way to seek revenge on Hannah. He decides to steal her notes of encouragement from her. Each student had a paper bag where you could leave little comments of encouragement. Yet she saw Zach take hers. As a result, Hannah was cut off from a tiny piece of happiness from her day. 

The eighth person to receive the tapes was Ryan. Hannah decided to try and trust others again yet her previous experience should have taught her better. Ryan stole a poem Hannah had written about her personal problems. As if this wasn’t bad enough, he then published the poem anonymously in the school newspaper. Unfortunately some students recognised Hannah’s handwriting and mocked her for it. This, for me, was a huge turning point for Hannah’s character. Her thoughts were not the object of scrutiny as well as her perceived actions. 

“You can’t go back to how things were or how you thought they were. All you really have is now.”

Clay’s tape was different to the others. For a start, he didn’t make her feel suicidal like the rest of the characters. Hannah acknowledges that Clay is the nicest person she has ever met and wishes they had more time to get to know each other. She also apologises to him. At a party, the pair clicked and automatically got on. They talked and talked and eventually shared kisses. Yet, it all went wrong when Hannah started to think about Justin and the other boys she kissed. She sends Clay out of the room and cries. 

Number ten: Justin. After Clay leaves, Hannah hides in a closet feeling emotional and drunk. She witnesses the rape of Jessica. Justin knew it was going to happen and just let it. Hannah struggles with her responsibility in this. She could have stopped it too, but she was in a state herself. 

“All guys are arseholes. Some are arseholes all of the time, all are arseholes some of the time.”

The eleventh person to receive the tapes was Jenny. Jenny was a popular cheerleader from school who offered Hannah a lift home after the horrendous house party. It is on their way home that she mounts the pavement and hits a stop sign, giving Hannah the feeling that she wasn’t safe enough to drive. Hannah got out of the car and begged Jenny to ring the police. But, she never did. Later that evening, the lack of stop sign caused a car accident that killed one of their senior classmates. 

Bryce. When my dislike of characters couldn’t get any more, Bryce rocks up. He is the next to receive the tapes. He did feature earlier in the novel (don’t want to spoil everything!) and again he messes with Hannah and makes assumptions because of the earlier rumours. He clearly takes advantage of her. Hannah is pretty much shut down, thinking about her life and her funeral. 

“You don’t know what goes on in anyone’s life but your own. And when you mess with one part of a person’s life, you’re not messing with just that part. Unfortunately, you can’t be that precise and selective. When you mess with one part of a person’s life, you’re messing with their entire life. Everything…affects everything.”

The final person to receive the tapes was Mr Porter, Hannah’s teacher and school counsellor. There is a sense that this really is th last chance for Hannah. She even admits it herself. Hannah secretly records his conversation. It is here she expresses her desire to kill herself because of all of the events we learn about from the tapes. Mr Porter doesn’t offer the most sound advice, telling Hannah that she should press charges or move on. 

Clay is broken and utterly exhausted by the end of the novel. He runs into another classmate, Skye. He has suspicions about her wellbeing. The novel ends with Clay reaching out to her. 

Overall:

I loved this book. It didn’t take me long to read it but that was probably down to the fact that I felt so strongly about all of the characters. I wanted to save Hannah, scream at most of the boys, kick Bryce in the balls, comfort Clay, shake Mr Porter for giving up on her so flippantly. 

The narration of Hannah and Clay was clever. Even in Hannah’s death they are still linked; Clay understands her. The use of cassettes is quirky, retro almost. It takes me back to when I was a kid. 

There are a lot of lessons you can take from this book, put best by Hannah herself:

“In the end, everything matters.”

Big love xx

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My Not So Perfect Life – Sophie Kinsella Review 

Hey everyone! 

Happy May! Time is definitely flying by now. I can’t keep on top of it really. Anyway, I’ve not posted a book review in what feels like eternity. September apparently. This is for a number of reasons…time being the  biggest factor. Also, only reading books that I’m teaching. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read Macbeth now. I’m starting to have Macbeth type dreams! 

Yet, onto something a little more lighthearted. I wanted an easy, happy read to help me recover from work in the evenings. This is where Sophie Kinsella comes in. I rely on her for this and her new book, My Not So Perfect Life, did not disappoint. 


What’s it all about? 

The story follows protagonist Katie Brenner, a Somerset girl trying to make it in London in her dream career: advertising. She’s even rebranded herself; changing her look and name to ‘Cat’ to fit in. However, London life isn’t as she expected. Her cramped flat that she shares with two others is problematic (I’m sure many of us can relate to this!) her commute to work is a horror and she stumbles over her new name. Her job too also isn’t as she expected (another point of relation for some of us!). Instead of being anywhere near the ideas aspect of branding, she enters tiresome amounts of data from questionnaires and deals with admin. But, London is her dream, she will not give up. Her Instagram shows the kind of life wants in London, yet who is to know it isn’t her life yet?

“Then, on impulse, I scroll back through my previous Instagram posts, looking at the photos of London cafes, sights, drinks, and smiling faces (mostly strangers). The whole thing is like a feel-good movie, and what’s wrong with that? Loads of people use colored filters or whatever on Instagram. Well, my filter is the “this is how I’d like it to be” filter. It’s not that I lie. I was in those places, even if I couldn’t afford a hot chocolate. It’s just I don’t dwell on any of the not-so-great stuff in my life, like the commute or the prices or having to keep all my stuff in a hammock. Let alone vanilla-whey-coated eggs and abnoxious lechy flatmates. And the point is, it’s something to aspire to, something to hope for. One day my life will match my Instagram posts. One day.” 

Her boss, Demeter, is equally problematic. She presents herself as mega successful and perfect with the best clothes, the successful career, the idyllic family: the Queen Bee. Yet, very few seem to like her. She also doesn’t seem to like ‘Cat’ much. Two instances that stand out for me are when Dementer gets Cat to dye her roots for her and when she fires her. The firing is a low point for Katie. Dementer doesn’t really remember if she’s done it or not. Awkward. However, Alex is at work and he’s a bit of a dish…

“I think: We’re rebranding Clairol? I’m going to help REBRAND CLAIROL? Oh my god, this is MASSIVE – Until reality hits. Dementer doesn’t look excited, like someone about to redesign an international brand. She looks bored and impatient. And now her words are impinging properly on my brain…”

Katie has no choice but to go back to Somerset where her dad has a new business idea: glamping. Katie refuses to give up on her dream, however, practicality tells her she has too. She’s broke and struggling to find another job. Her dad, Mick, and his partner Bibby, are overjoyed at her return. Katie throws herself into making this business work for her dad and Biddy, with the intention of getting back to London asap. She creates a brand for the farm and gets a website running. It’s not long until glampers arrive. Ansters Farm Country Retreat is taking off! 

“It’s funny how life works like a see-saw: some things go up while others plunge down. My life is swiftly unravelling while Dad’s is finally, it seems, coming together.”

A surprise visitor soon turns up at the farm: Dementer. Katie sees this as an opportunity to get revenge. Kinsella monopolises humour here. Her writing is witty, clever and incredibly realistic. As a reader, we naturally dislike Dementer as does everyone in her workplace. After numerous ‘bespoke’ activities, Katie learns to see a different side to Dementer. She even begins to feel sorry for her. Her husband is aloof, her kids are spoilt brats and she is utterly exhausted. I have to say, there were a number of laugh out loud moments here! 

God, this feels good. I start slapping Dementer’s head as I apply mud to her hair, and that feels even better. Slap-slap-slap. That pays her back for making me do her bloody roots.” 

When Alex turns up to fire her, Katie (as well as Dementer) believes someone is out to set Demeter up, prying on her scattiness and vulnerability. A side plot: romance. Who doesn’t love a bit of romance? Things hot up between Katie and the gorgeous man that is Alex. They each help one another to see the importance of their relationships with their fathers. Yet, there is a feeling of like a superhero mission though for Dementer. Naturally, Katie was right to trust her instincts. Without spoiling anything for those who haven’t read this yet, the ending is perfect. Life lessons learnt. Bright futures. 

“As the hubbub starts up again I glance over at Dementer and she clasps her hands tightly; then she blows us a kiss and puts a tissue to her eyes, as if she’s my fairy godmother.”

Overall: 

This book is pure joy. It’s so relatable on so many levels. It challenges your perceptions of characters, making you think about your own behaviour. You never know what’s really going on with someone. One thing it’s reminded me of, hard work pays off and everything happens for a reason. Thanks Sophie. A perfect stand alone book with characters you’ll fall in love with. 


Big love xxx

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Chocolat – Joanne Harris 


Hey everyone! 

I’ve not left you all, I’ve just had a crazy start back at work. My summer feels like a distant memory. But, my apologies for leaving you all, temporarily. I knew the start of school would hit me like a brick in the face, so I wanted to read something that made me feel cosy and warm inside. Hence: Chocolat. I just love it. 

What’s it all about? 

Set in Lansquenet, France, nothing seems to have changed in what feels like a hundred years, until Vianne Rocher arrives. It was Mardi Gras when Vianne and her daughter Anouk with her imaginary rabbit, Pantoufle arrive. They have spent their lives wondering from place to place. However, Lansquenet-sous-Tannes appears to be different. After enjoying the Mardi Gras festival so much, they decided to stay. Vianne rents a house and she opens a tempting and luxiourous chocolate shop, La Céleste Praline, in front of the church which causes controversy with Lenton vows. Father Reynaud, the village priest, is not impressed. He believes that by opening a chocolate shop at the time of Lent, a time of fasting, is an insult to religion. 

“For a time, then, we stay. For a time. Till the changes.” 

Father Reynaud also doesn’t approve of Vianne because of her blatant refusal to attend church or confession. He convinces other parishioners to stay away from her chocolate shop of evil. Yet, despite this, the shop attracts a few curious customers from the start. These, in turn, become some of her closest friends. With every box of her fabulous chocolates, a free gift: Vianne’s perception of its buyers’ private discontents and a clever, yet caring cure for them. The description always makes my mouth water. I can almost taste it. 

“I sell dreams, small comforts, sweet harmless temptations to bring down a multitude of saints crashing among the hazels and nougatines” 

Vianne is a good listener, doesn’t judge and makes everyone feel welcome within her shop. Her regular clients consist of Armande Voizin, an 80 year old woman who never followed the traditions and customs of the village, Joséphine Muscat, a woman abused by her husband and an old man with a dying dog called Guillaume Duplessis. Vianne talks to her guests and asks them things that make them challenge their original beliefs. She wants to make their lives better, thus making her the catalyst for change. But, some characters do not wish to change. 

“Guilleaume left La Praline with a small bag of florentines in his pocket; before he had turned the corner of avenue des Francs Bourgeois I saw him stoop to offer one to the dog. A pat, a bark, a wagging of the short stubby tail. As I said, some people never have to think about giving.” 

When river gypsies arrive along the river bank in the village, Vianne and her friends naturally befriend them too. Her attention is focused on the rather handsome yet aloof Roux. His red hair like flames. The river gypsies are not doing anyone any harm to the village or its people. Nevertheless, the priest is ready to resort to any means in order to get rid of them. This adds to the growing tension against Vianne too. A fire starts on one of the boats. Thankfully no one was hurt. 

Reynaud’s attempts to sabotage Vianne’s shop, friendships and to drive out the gypsies from the village made her more determined to stay. Yet, her mother’s tarot cards that she reads, continue to show black. There is repeated reference to the ‘Black Man’ throughout the novel. The motif of her mother’s folklore. Reynaud makes it his personal mission to run Vianne out of town. There are pages of description where he is talking about her and her temptations at church on Sunday. Some people listen, but it isn’t long until curiosity gets the better of them. 

“Protected from the sun by the half-blind that shields them, they gleam darkly, like sunken treasure, Aladdin’s cave of sweet clichés.” 

Vianne organises a Grand Festvial of Chocolate. The shop is decorated beautifully. It is the sign that she has won, that maybe life might be safe here. 

“Places do not lose their identity, however far one travels. It is the heart that begins to erode over time. The face in the hotel mirror seems blurred some mornings, as if by too many casual looks. By ten the sheets will be laundered, the carpet swept. The names on the hotel registers change as we pass. We leave no trace as we pass on. Ghostlike, we cast no shadow.” 


Overall:

I love this book. I love the split first person narration. You can really feel the tension between Vianne and Father Reynaud. Yet, as I was reading, I was desperate for the two of them to make peace and find a way to live together in the village. The descriptions of the chocolates make me feel like I can physically taste it. It’s a marvellous book, perfect for this time of year. 

Big love xxx

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Silk – Alessandro Baricco


Hi all! 

Another book review to close August. Can you believe it’s the last day of the month? I can’t! I feel like time is whizzing past me and I’m struggling to keep up. It also means with September fast approaching, I’m one step closer to being back at work. Better to put that thought on the back burner and concentrate on my review today. Today’s book is a little, cute thing I found at a charity book shop on my travels: Silk by Alessandro Baricco. 

Originally written in Italian in 1996, this book was translated in 1997. What’s strange is I stumbled across this 20 years later. It was sticking out, on a slant on the shelf. It caught my eye. I quickly saw that the cover was beautiful and the back of the book was full of quotes like:  

“A moving allegory of life as a quest…”

and

“A heartbreaking love story told in the form of a classic fable…”

Clearly a bargain at £1. 


What’s it all about?

The 1860s silk trade was booming and Hervè Joncour travels around the world buying silkworm eggs. Eventually, after problems with the silkworm eggs in Africa, Joncour travels to Japan. He buys eggs from the interesting character of Hara Kei, a French speaking nobleman. Joncour falls in love with his mistress, a rather curious and silent character, ultimately incredibly beautiful also. He makes a note of her eyes in particular. 

“Suddenly, without the smallest movement, the young girl, opened her eyes.” 

During his second visit to Japan, Jancour learns about the aviary of exotic birds that Hara Kei has built. His mind, however, seems distracted by the young girl. He leaves a glove her the mistress to find in a pile of clothes: a token. Towards the end of this visit, the mistress gives him a love note written in Japanese, the first of many over the travels. Unable to understand, Joncour visits Madame Blanche, a rich draper and brothel owner. She translates the letter for him. 

“Come back, or I shall die.” 

During Joncour’s third visit to Japan, Hara Kei’s mistress released the birds from the aviary. Through the darkness, as time progresses, they make love, thus starting their affair. It should be noted that Joncour was married to Hélène. She waits patiently at home for his return. Hara Kei conducts the silkworm egg transaction via another associate and refuses to say goodbye when Joncour leaves. 

However, when it is time for Joncour’s fourth trip to Japan, war had broken out in Japan. He finds Hara Kei’s village was burnt to the ground; nothing remained. From what appears to be out of nowhere, a young boy appears and gives him the glove that he dropped on the pile of clothes for Hara Kei’s mistress. Showing unlimited trust, he follows the boy to a place where the refugees from Hara Kei’s village are camping. 

“In front of him, nothing. He had a sudden glimpse of what he had considered invisible. The end of the world.” 

Unlike his previous visits, Hara Kei refuses to welcome Joncour, rather urging him to leave. They are living in a war and clearly nothing was left. Nevertheless, Joncour refuses to leave. The following morning, Joncour sees the body of the boy who guided him, hanging from a tree. Hara Kei has executed him for carrying the glove to Joncour and bringing him back to their village. 

Rather hastily, Joncour procures a supply of eggs but leaves far too late in the season to transport them. The silk mill, despite its earlier success, sits idle. To help the workers in the seven mills, Joncour decides to essentially landscape his garden, offering work to those who were missing out in the idle mills. 

“Occasionally, on windy days Hervé Joncour would go down to the lake and spend hours in contemplation of it because he seemed to descry, sketched out on the water, the inexplicable sight of his life as it had been, in all its lightness.” 

Time passes and Joncour receives a letter, again written in Japanese. This cues another visit to Madame Blanche who, after some reluctance, translates this for him. It is an erotic love letter from a woman to her beloved master. It’s lyrical, almost moving.  It tells the tale of a love that we all hope for. After reading, Madame Blanche gives him some of her trademark blue flowers. 

It is at this point that Joncour decides to retire from the silkworm egg business. At this point he and Hélène have three daughters. Unfortunately, Hélène gets sick and dies of a fever. Joncour lives a life of existing, visiting his wife’s grave whenever he gets lonely. It was at one visit he notices Madame Blanche’s blue flowers there. This sparks one final visit to her. 

“When loneliness mastered him he would go up to the cemetery…The rest of his time was taken up with a liturgy of habits that succeeded in warding off sadness.” 

It is with great sadness that at this visit, Joncour learns that this great love letter was authored in fact by his wife. 

“She even wanted to read it to me, that letter. She had the most beautiful voice. And she read those words with an emotion that I’ve never been able to forget. It was as if they really were her own words.”


Overall:

This novel is quite possibly one of the most highly descriptive, moving and emotionally charged novel I’ve probably ever read. It is beautiful and lyrical. It keeps you thinking about it long after you’ve finished reading it. It’s probably one of the best £1’s I’ve spent. 

Big love xx

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The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery


Back to books today! I’m focussing on one of my summer reads which I really enjoyed: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. 

I bought this book for three reasons; the cover is very pretty, the title intrigued me immensely and the fact that it is set in Paris. It turned out to be a great little find. I would definitely recommend it. The novel is about facing life head on, rather than living behind masks and walls we make for ourselves, which are meant for keeping others out. It is a lesson in showing how not only do we deceive others, but we also deceive ourselves. 


What’s it all about? 

The narration is split in this novel between the two main characters: Renee and Paloma. Renee Michel is a concierge who believes that every concierge is perceived to be beneath others and lacking the intelligence of those they work for. It is because of this that Renee tries to hide the fact that she spends her days revelling in the works of Marx and Tolstoy. This was easier to do when her husband was alive, she could hide behind his interests, but since his death her lack of interest in television and what was current was harder to hide. However, Renee has found that the wealthy prefer to ignore what is right under their noses, rather choosing to believe in what they already perceive to be true. This is how Renee has managed to hide under their radar for more an twenty years.

“I have no children, I do not watch television, and I do not believe in God — all paths taken by mortals to make their lives easier. Children help us to defer the painful task of confronting ourselves, and grandchildren take over from them. Television distracts us from the onerous necessity of finding projects to construct in the vacuity of our frivolous lives: by beguiling our eyes, television releases our mind from the great work of making meaning. Finally, God appeases our animal fears and the unbearable prospect that someday all our pleasures will cease.”

In the building where renew works, there is a highly intelligent twelve year old girl called Paloma Josse. She has decided to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday. As the daughter of a diplomat and his bored wife, she feels as though no one ever sees the real her. She hides her intelligence and her true thoughts from others. Paloma has decided that it is much easier to kill herself rather than continue to fight for some kind of recognition from her parents, sister and peers. Her death will be a fitting one; by setting fire to her parents’ apartment in an attempt to force her family to see beyond their wealth and status. 

“We don’t recognize each other because other people have become our permanent mirrors. If we actually realized this, if we were able to become aware of the fact that we are only ever looking at ourselves in the other person, that we are alone in the wilderness, we would go crazy.”

After a death in the building, the widow decides to sell the apartment. Disliking change and ever worrying about what or whom shall move into he apartment, the other residents speculate. The catalyst for this being that there hasn’t been a new tenant in the building in more than two decades. For Renee, her excitement is hidden more underneath. Besides, it is not her job to gossip or get excited about such goings on. 

“In our world, that’s the way you live your grown-up life: you must constantly rebuild your identity as an adult, the way it’s been put together is wobbly, ephemeral, and fragile, it cloaks despair and, when you’re alone in front of the mirror, it tells you the lies you need to believe.”

Kauri Ozu, the new tenant, is a charming and polite man. He is the one man that will bring great change to Renee and Paloma’s lives. During their introduction, Renee makes an offhand comment that draws Kakuro’s attention to her love of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. This sparks curiosity and intrigue in Kakuro. He invites Renee to dinner in his apartment once he has settled. As well as this, Kakuro becomes friends with Paloma’s after he learns she is studying Japanese at school. The friendship between the three begins to grow. 

Over time, the friendship between Renee and Kakuro blossoms. Renee is overwhelmingly relived to have a friend with whom she can be herself, who understands her and shares her own interests. They have great discussions about literature, music (brought on by borrowing his bathroom!), art and philosophy. Yet, there is a flaw. Renee struggles with reconciling herself with this relationship as her past has taught her that the social classes cannot mix without some form of conflict. Therefore, when Kakuro invites Renee to dinner to celebrate his birthday, she says no. Kakuro does manage to persuade her eventually and thus their relationship blooms. 

“The peace of mind one experiences on one’s own, one’s certainty of self in the serenity of solitude, are nothing in comparison to the release and openness and fluency one shares with another, in close companionship.”

Paloma, with her own struggles, asks Renee if she could visit her apartment to escape the chaos of her own home. Paloma’s becomes a regular visitor and forces Renee to share her reasons for turning down the dinner invitation of Kakuro. It is here that we as a reader are allowed a little insight into the past which seems to haunt Renee so. She tells the story of how her sister died after being used and deserted by a rich man. Little does Renee know, Paloma takes this information to Kakuro. 

Kakuro, ever the gentleman, comes (to Renee’s surprise) to her apartment to explain how he has no desire to use and desert her. After all, Renee is not her sister. It is at this point, that Renee looks towards the future, something she is yet to do in this novel. Before we can get excited, a cruel twist of fate results in Renee getting hit by a truck. Sadly, she dies. Paloma struggles with grief and promises not to see her plans of her own death on her birthday, rather she wants to learn from Renee in order to have a happy and fulfilling life. 

“I find this a fascinating phenomenon: the ability we have to manipulate ourselves so that the foundation of our beliefs is never shaken.”

Overall

I really enjoyed this book. It challenges beliefs about class systems and relationships. It shows that we all hide something through fear or frustration, yet there is always someone who can relate to you. People are naturally brought together by comment interests. Give this book a try, you may just love it! 

Big love xx

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Educating Rita – Willy Russell


Hey guys! 

I’m on a massive countdown now until the summer. I just can’t wait. I’m so exhausted. I’m also a bit down about my reading. I either can’t get into books or I fall asleep. It’s frustrating me immensely! However, I have had a little treat recently, and that is to revisit Educating Rita. I’d kind of forgotten just how magical this play is. Then, my school for free trinkets to see this at Hull Truck which was equally awesome. (More on that later!) 

The play focuses on two characters, Rita, a working-class woman in her twenties from Liverpool and Frank, a late middle-aged professor at a university. The play begins with Rita arriving at Frank’s office. She’s there to be tutored after deciding to return to education to pass her exams. At the start, Frank is on the phone with Julia, his younger live in girlfriend. He claims he will be going to the pub on the way home. This becomes a prominent image in the play. 

“Life is such a rich and frantic whirl that I need the drink to help me step delicately through it.”

Like a whirlwind, Rita enters bold and brash but utterly charming. She focuses her attention onto a nude painting on the wall that Frank claims to never look at anymore. She jokes with him and gives her opinions on various matters without holding back. Frank is amused and intrigued by her. He offers her a drink, revealing numerous bottles as the play progresses behind a number of books. 

“But if you wanna change y’ have to do it from the inside, don’t y’? Know like I’m doin’…tryin’ to do. Do you think I will? Think I’ll be able to do it.”

Frank presses Rita to know why she is there. She wants to learn everything, much to Frank’s surprise. She is hungry to learn and tired of everyone around her. Her job as a hairdresser, where she has to listen to mundane chat every day is bringing her down. She teases Frank about needing a haircut, but he disagrees. 

Rita is naturally inquisitive. She starts to ask him questions like what assonance means. She tells him her real name is actually Susan, but she prefers to be known as Rita after the author of her favourite book, Rubyfruit Jungle, which she repeatedly presses him to read. 

Rita reveals how she wants to improve herself, but her husband Denny does not understand why she wants to do this. Frank agrees to teach her but informs her of how he is openly disillusioned with education. He tells her that once he is done telling her she should go and not come back. Eventually, he tries to get rid of her, but she pursues him as her tutor. 

Rita continues to come for her lessons and Frank has usually been drinking. Frank enquires about her experiences at school when she was younger. It is quite disheartening. People fought, argued and didn’t know any better. No one ever paid attention and anyone who wanted to learn was automatically an outsider. She went along with everyone else but started to wonder if she was missing something.  

“See if I’d started takin’ school seriously then I would have had to become different from my mates; an’ that’s not allowed.”

Attention then focuses onto a written response from Rita about her favourite book, Rubyfruit Jungle. Frank criticises her work for being too subjective with no literary criticism. Rita struggles with the concept of criticising something she likes. Discussion then moves onto a Forster book Frank had mentioned previously. She hated it! One thing she does learn though is that Frank wrote poetry. She pushes him to see some but he refuses. 

The more their conversations develop, the closer Rita and Frank become. Frank’s negativity towards the world is more and more apparently. He claims this would not be the case if Julia were more like Rita, but Rita just laughs these comments off. 

The tone seems to change in Act three because Rita rushes in, apologising for being late. It was because of a very talkative customer. Frank doesn’t seem annoyed about this, rather her answer on the staging of Peter Gynt seems to infuriate him. Rita admits it’s quite short and reveals to Frank a growing conflict at home regarding Denny and her education. Therefore, she has to write her essays at work. Discussion changes to culture, with Rita saying the working class has no culture. Frank tries to say they do, but Rita’s questioning making him realise that maybe she is right. 

Their next meeting is quite frosty as Frank is annoyed that Rita hasn’t got her essay. He eases when he realises that Denny has burnt all of her books and notes because he was mad at her for not taking the contraceptive pill and for going back to school. Rita explains his reasoning for it, how he feels betrayed and how they already have choices in their lives. Yet, Rita knows they don’t. Rita decides that they need to have fun and go to the theatre. Frank joins her, despite it being an amateur production. Rita’s love for the theatre grows as she boasts about seeing a Shakespeare play. 

“But it’s not takin’ the place of life, it’s providing’ me with life. He wants to take life away from me; he wants me to stop rockin’ the coffin, that’s all.”

Frank invites Rita to a dinner party Julia is giving; Rita agrees but she doesn’t turn up. She later reveals to Frank that Denny did not want her to go and she felt nervous and underdressed. She obsessed about bringing the wrong wine. Frank tries to explain how none of that matters and she just needed to be her charming self, but Rita is offended. She wasn’t going to provide the ‘banter’ for anyone. 

“…I don’t wanna spend the night takin’ the piss, comin’ on with the funnies because that’s the only way I can get into the conversation. I didn’t want to come to your house just to play the court jester.”

At the next meeting, Rita comes in upset with a bag of her belongings. She tells of how her and Denny have split up and she is going to live with her mother. She begs Frank to keep on teaching her, to change her. She refuses to give up, despite Frank telling her she is fine. He gives in and does as Rita asks. 

Over time, Rita becomes more and more like the other students. She gets herself a new flat mate, a new job at a bistro and makes new friends. She also starts to speak without her trademark Liverpudlian accent. On the other hand, Frank is drinking more, troubles with Julia remain and is saddened by the changes he sees in Rita. 

“I have merely decided to talk properly. As Trish says there is not a lot of point in discussing beautiful literature in an ugly voice.”

Things take a turn for the worst when Rita next arrives as Frank is frantically packing his books. He tells of how the university suggested he take a sabbatical because of his drinking. Rita tries to sympathise with him, but his attitude and negativity towards her exam paper make her angry. She yells at him saying he told her to be objective and to do her research, which she has done. She claims he does not want her to have her own thoughts. But, their fight fizzles out when he says he read and enjoyed Rubyfruit Jungle. 

Their meetings start to dwindle because of Rita’s busy schedule. Frank is drinking even more and seems somewhat jealous of Rita’s new friends, in particular a young student called Tyson. He and Rita are fighting more, but he does sign her up for her exam. After the exam Rita returns and tells him she wanted to write something sarcastic, but she ended up writing a thoughtful answer. She admits she is still learning about life, but that Frank was a good teacher. Frank doesn’t believe her. He is depressed and getting ready to go to Australia without Julia. 

There is a pause and Rita says she has something to give him. The play concludes with Rita sitting him down, taking out her scissors to give him a haircut. 

“I never thought there was anything’ I could give you. But there is. Come here, Frank…”

This play really is cracking. It showcases the beauty of education and what it can do to people. It also shows the power of friendship; Rita and Frank need each other. This play naturally appeals to the educator in me, but it works on other levels. Who doesn’t want to better themselves?! The production at Hull Truck Theatre was also brilliant. It is a play you have to see. 


Big love xx

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Filed under Book review, Drama, Theatre Review