Asterios Polyp – David Mazzucchelli

The story of Asterios Polyp, as he loses confidence and almost pulls his life apart, is narrated by his stillborn twin, Ignazio, and David Mazzucchelli illustrates it in a muted palette of purples, blues and pinks. It starts as Asterios’ apartment building burns to the ground, leaving him only enough time to grab three possessions. Although he has previously been a celebrated professor of architecture Asterios decided to turn his back on the embers of his past by taking a bus as far away as possible and finding work as a car mechanic. However, Ignazio fills in the details of this past as he narrates and suggests that Asterios is not making as clean a break as he initially claims. The three objects he saves from his home reveal stories about his parents, a failed marriage and past obsessions of Asterios’ personality. 

His relationship with a shy artist, Hana, is also narrated by Ignazio as their two personalities clash at times but also complement each other, with Mazzucchelli exploring how significant little moments can become. As Asterios struggles to rebuild his life while living with those who know nothing about his past his previous status as a celebrated professor of architecture is called into question as none of his designs were ever built and he is not recognised or respected outside of his elite circle. His character flaws also become apparent, as his loss of easy self-confidence reveals an arrogance in remembered past actions. Mazzucchelli sympathetically portrays the frustration of a man who has lost so much through carelessness and therefore turns away from the skills which he had previously also taken for granted to instead live by the work of his hands. 

The book includes a whole range of illustrative styles, with some pages laid out in a traditional way of evenly sized panels while others include overlapping frames, full bleeds and mismatching images. I particularly enjoyed the idea of separate interpretations of reality by each character which Mazzucchelli occasionally depicts through different colours and styles. The lines reach as far as the next character before breaking into a new kaleidoscope of colours and shapes. However, when Asterios and Hana start a conversation their two separate lines immediately merge to create a joint interpretation of blue and pink shaping. At difficult times in their marriage, this sympathetic union quickly separates and overtly visualises the distance that the couple finds between them.

I would definitely recommend Asterios Polyp as although the actual narrative is simple it is very carefully illustrated and there were certain scenes which I felt encapsulated ideas which would not be the same if written. My thoughts have often returned to the characters since reading it and I expect that they will continue to do so. 

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Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje

I began Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje with very few preconceived ideas or expectations aside from the fact that I had enjoyed The English Patient when I studied it for A level several years ago. As it is very rare to find a book which you can still love and enjoy after pulling apart and analysing each sentence I should not have been surprised at how carefully structured and intricately balanced Anil’s Ghost was. Nevertheless, this book quickly became my constant companion and I could almost not bear to finish it. It follows Anil, a forensic pathologist, who returns to the country where she was born, Sri Lanka, to investigate crimes against human rights for the UN during the ongoing civil war. She arrives in the country after a long absence, more of a foreigner than a citizen since she has forgotten how to speak Sinhalese and no friendly face awaits her. Whilst there she is teamed with a reputable archaeologist, Sarath, who shows her a selection of skeletons, three are centuries old but the other is much newer, buried with them in an attempt to disguise its provenance. Anil then uses this as a focal point for her investigation into the government’s actions as well as using its supposed antiquity as an excuse for when her curiosity becomes too dangerous.

However, while the immediate plot is fascinating, as it demonstrates how the civil war fractured Sri Lankan society in a myriad of ways, it was the individual anecdotes woven into the central narrative which affected me the most. They allowed Ondaatje to explore how grief can possibly be approached or acknowledged when a whole country is overwhelmed in tragedy and violence continues to engulf them. People still die from disease and old age even as their surroundings are overtaken by the war and they act as a reminder that normalcy continues to find a place in their world. These deaths still need to be grieved even as unexplained disappearances demand sorrow and lives adapt to new circumstances. One doctor is kidnapped from a luxurious life in private practice and forced to aid the rebels but finds his new life strangely satisfying while another exhausts himself through constant work at an overcrowded hospital, often being mistaken for a patient. An old man becomes blind and lives in near solitude in a forest monastery but he cannot escape the outside world forever. Anil’s encounters or experiences with these people and others are also intertwined with her memories of life in America and London – her thoughts of noisy bowling lanes accentuate the silence of the rice paddy she stands in and questions what normalcy actually means. The Sri Lanka that is described in the book is seen through this filter of Anil’s interpretation as she learns to accept her status as an outsider even when remembering her homesickness in the past for Sri Lanka. Ondaatje’s pride in his Sri Lankan heritage is apparent throughout the book as even at the darkest points in the narrative everyday Sri Lankan people are shown to be compassionate and have great inner strength which helps them survive the brutal period in their country’s history.

Anil’s Ghost is one of the few books that I was already planning to reread before I had finished it and I expect that I will have reread it at least once by the end of the year. Ondaatje’s writing is so subtle and his characters reveal themselves so carefully that I know I will discover more with every visit. Since finishing it I have continued to think about Ondaatje’s characters, and their experiences and eventual fates have continued to affect me. I would highly recommend it and am very happy to discuss it at great length if anyone is interested!

The Happy Reader

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I was very excited to receive my copy of the first edition of The Happy Reader in the post recently. The magazine is a joint enterprise between Penguin and Fantastic Man to celebrate the luxuries embodied by print and the art of reading itself. They promise that each issue with feature a lengthy interview with a famous reader, whether they are primarily known for reading or not, followed by an in depth exploration of a classic book, in this case The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. They have had a very strong start with an interview with actor and Booker prize judge Dan Stevens which meanders over studying literature, reading to children and not least starring in a range of literary adaptations. This is all accompanied by black and white photos of the man himself to make the experience even more luxurious. At times it felt that unnecessary amounts of detail were reported in the interview, such as discussions with a waitress regarding a glass of water, but overall it was very interesting to read about how Stevens approached reading around 140 books when judging the Booker prize whilst still being on set for Downton Abbey – apparently his Kindle was never far from his hand. The interview ended with several recommendations from Stevens and it has prompted me to search out Of Walking in Ice by Werner Herzog which sounds fascinating and heartbreaking.

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The Woman in White is a book which I have read many times and so know the twists and turns of the Victorian Gothic plot inside out. The opening scene where Walter Hartright glimpses a woman dressed solely in white in the dead of night on Hampstead Heath sets the tone for unexplained and unnerving events throughout the book which does not let up or disappoint. It involves an evil count, one frail invalid with a fiercely devoted sister and a dastardly plot to steal an inheritance which Hartright stumbles upon when he takes a new job as a drawing master. The Happy Reader takes this intricate tale of love, betrayal and deception and produces fashion pages, recipes and recommendations for walks alongside reminiscing around the book itself and pieces on its history and genre. I particularly enjoyed the article on the links between the colour of a character’s clothes and their identity in film and literature. Emily King suggests that single-coloured outfits pigeon-hole women as either saint, whore or crazy while men are allowed to reveal more of their identity through their clothes.

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There is a great feel to the The Happy Reader and it really does make its reader appreciate the print form, with its thick pages and accompanying book marks. It also has lovely wide margins which are occasionally filled with an informative or whimsical side note, ranging from the timetable of a Brooklyn Ferry to information about Peter Capaldi or fan fiction. The magazine plans to produce a new issue every quarter and they have already announced that the next book to be featured is The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakuro. I’m already looking forward to the next issue and will definitely track down a copy of The Book of Tea to ensure I am ready for The Happy Reader‘s arrival. I’ll also be looking out to see if I can spot any other readers preparing and reading the book! At the moment they are doing some great deals on their subscriptions so if you’re likely to be interested I’d definitely recommend investigating the opportunities as The Happy Reader is likely to become popular fast.

Dombey and Son – Charles Dickens

If Charles Dickens had been alive in the 21st century I think he is unlikely to have been a novelist but would have been entranced by the possibilities of the screen. The meandering plots of his hefty novels transform easily into TV miniseries and each episode can use the cliffhangers which Dickens tantalised his audiences with. Dombey and Son, published between 1846 and 1848, is no exception to this and its lengthy overarching plots would be worthy of an HBO drama. The story begins in Dickens’ conventional bildungsroman style, as the eponymous son, Paul, is born and struggles through the first years of his life under the weight of his father’s expectations. However, it soon becomes clear that the story cannot remain solely Paul Dombey’s as Dickens includes increasing detailed accounts of the lives of those who surround the little boy. Florence Dombey, Mr Dombey’s elder child, might be ignored by her father but the reader watches her every disappointment and how her young hopes struggle on.

As with all of Dickens’ novels Dombey and Son is awash with eccentric characters and unlikely friendships. Nevertheless no matter how ridiculous an individual might seem the reader quickly comes to know, understand and sympathise with them as Dickens demonstrates that similar worries are experienced throughout social classes and across England.Throughout this cast of characters there are very few who are portrayed as irredeemably evil since there is always an understandable motivation or foible. Mr Dombey’s concern regarding his rank and the standing of his house is not so very different from the boasting of a proud mother or a young man’s nervous entry into the adult world. It is only Mr Carker, the right hand man of Dombey’s business, who becomes even harder to like as aspects of his personality and past are revealed to the reader throughout the novel. In this character I was reminded strongly of Uriah Heep of David Copperfield and I wonder if Charles Dickens had a particular reason for such a strong dislike of stewards and managers.

Although I felt that the book took a while to engage me due to the apparent lack of plot direction this later grew to be a strength. It was completely impossible to predict whether the narrative would twist or forgotten characters would rear their heads again. I’ve struggled to summarise what happens throughout the book as it is so concerned with social situations and conversations that ultimately there is rarely great action scenes. Instead there is shock as Mr Dombey’s fate is decided by a manipulative beggar woman and despair as social pressures force a range of characters to act against their will. They are trapped in their gilded world and it soon becomes apparent that money can be worth very little when love, whether familial or spousal, is not present.

These contemporary illustrations for Dombey and Son perfectly capture the scenes and characters they depict. I was reminded of forgotten moments and characters were exactly how I had imagined them. The characters seem so wrapped up in their worries, and in Mr Dombey’s case self importance, that is difficult to believe that this is a drawing rather than a snapshot of real people living their real lives.

Dombey and Son might not be the best Dickens book to read first as there is less obvious momentum to the storyline to help keep you glued to the 900+ pages but it contains some of my favourite Dickensian characters. As a small example of such favourites; Miss Tox, a lonely spinister, unexpectedly grows in the reader’s estimation throughout the novel as changes from a cruel, small-minded sidekick to someone with ambitious, and unreachable dreams of her own. Captain Cuttle initially seems a ridiculous figure of fun but he clearly cares deeply for the younger characters as they face the everyday dangers of life. The pride of Edith Granger made her both tragic and fascinating as I felt the anger over her powerless position still resonate today. Of course, I also cannot finish this post without mentioning Diogenes the dog who acts exactly like a dog should and clearly enjoys being Florence Dombey’s pampered and beloved mongrel.

War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

The status of War and Peace as a book which is often referred to but rarely read encouraged me to attempt to scale its literary mountain. I wanted to see if it really does deserve to be a book that everyone feels they should read but know it’s unlikely they ever will. It is historical fiction which cannot be sniffed at, a romance which cannot be patronised and a roadtrip which will not be undermined. Following a large range of characters during the French invasion of Russia in the early 1800s War and Peace explores the impact of this disruption on a cross section of Russian society.

Without a doubt the characters of War and Peace are some of the strongest and believable that I have read recently. Their mistakes reverberate through the book but they also adapt in response to these changing environments. The growth of Prince Andrew’s cynicism as he meets challenges and disappointments seemed sadly inevitable even as I watched his youthful potential being wasted. Obviously the length of the book allows for elaborate development of each character and their relationship so that even secondary characters are given depth in social situations. Tolstoy also based many of the characters on information he found in the letters and diaries from members of his family and their social circle.

I must admit that while the book is called War and Peace I definitely enjoyed the ‘Peace’ sections more. There was more scope for the characters to interact and the plot develop while the ‘War’ sections had to focus on describing military tactics and explaining the positions of the armies. While this was obviously necessary to detail Napoleon’s progress into Russia I found the intricate detail boring. However, as I have heard that the fighting episodes are considered some of the finest bits of writing I suppose it could be down to preference. Nevertheless the characters who I was most interested in; Natasha, Pierre and Mary, were rarely in a war zone so would be absent for long periods during a ‘War’ narrative.

As ever when reading a novel in translation I was aware of the additional barrier to my understanding. Not only is the book originally in Russian but it also contains long passages in French due to the Russian upper classes traditionally speaking in French. While the copy I read attempted to keep these nuances by retaining the French passages and translating them in the footnotes I feel there were situations where the use of a particular language or dialect still passed me by. There were also long passages meditating on how to live and what it could mean. These are obviously difficult to translate and I would be interested in reading other versions to compare.

Although I do not plan to immediately reread War and Peace I expect it is a book which is rewarding to return to. I found the expansive vision of Russia during its wars with Napoleon fascinating, partly because I previously knew so little about the book or the period. However, if you do not enjoy very large casts of characters and a carefully developed and meandering plot then it is probably not for you!