Review: Dracula by Bram Stoker

HARDCOVER; 384 P.
ILLUSTRATIONS BY BECKY CLOONAN
HARPER DESIGN, 2012/1897
SOURCE: FROM THE LIBRARY

From Goodreads:

A true masterwork of storytelling, Dracula has transcended generation, language, and culture to become one of the most popular novels ever written. It is a quintessential tale of suspense and horror, boasting one of the most terrifying characters ever born in literature: Count Dracula, a tragic, night-dwelling specter who feeds upon the blood of the living, and whose diabolical passions prey upon the innocent, the helpless, and the beautiful. But Dracula also stands as a bleak allegorical saga of an eternally cursed being whose nocturnal atrocities reflect the dark underside of the supremely moralistic age in which it was originally written – and the corrupt desires that continue to plague the modern human condition.

Dracula is a Gothic horror novel that keeps readers on their toes. Bram Stoker’s creation has inspired several adaptions to both stage and screen as well as a ton of so called “vampire literature”. Although not an immediate bestseller after its publication, this classic tale of hunting down Count Dracula is probably known to everyone by now. However, surprisingly many have never actually read the book that gave birth to the character of Count Dracula.

The story of Dracula begins when a young attorney, Jonathan Harker, travels from England to Transylvania to assist a client named Count Dracula in his plans to purchase an estate in London. However, when he reaches the Count’s castle and settles down for what he thought to be only a few days, he begins to notice strange things about his host. The tendency to stay awake during the nights, the solitude of the castle, the absence of mirrors, the particular interest to English customs, never eating during dinners, etc. As his stay progresses, Mr Harker begins to fear for his life – and for his sanity. A few months later a shipment carrying the cargo of Count Dracula hits the shores of Dover – without any crew. Strange things are afoot and mystery brings together a group of strangers. Dracula is an epistolary novel story told through a series of journal entries, letters and newspaper clippings, slowly building the storyline.

Dracula is an exciting story that combines adventure, terror, love – and of course the supernatural. The writing flows easily, making this novel a real page-turner (not something that can be said about many 19th century novels!). Aside from writing, Bram Stoker was a business manager in a theater and you can definitely sense the theatrical influences in his text. The descriptions of scenery, the tension building and the dialogue bring the story to life and make it easily adaptable. The illustrated edition naturally supported the visuality of the narration, but although I liked the art style, I had few issues with the layout of the illustrations. Unlike with many classics, the story itself and some of its characters – mainly Count Dracula and Dr Van Helsing – were already familiar to me through popular culture. However, as a sensational novel Dracula has a lot of tension building, which in this edition often fell flat due to illustrations of scenes in the story that were laid out about a spread before the they happen in the text. As for the structure, I really enjoyed the epistolary form with which Dracula was constructed and the way it emphasised the emotions of the characters as well as the importance of how a story is told. The theme of science vs supersticion was also an interesting one, although for me it was overshadowed by the plot itself.

Dracula is definitely one of the most accessible classics of the Gothic period and a must read to all who enjoy a bit of supernatural in their reading. I’d highly recommend it also to younger readers and those who are trying to get into reading classics!

4/5

Do not fear ever to think. A half-thought has been buzzing often in my brain, but I fear to where that half-thought come from, and I find that he be no half-though at all; that be a whole thought, though so young that he is not yet strong to use his little wings. Nay, like the ‘Ugly Duck’ of my friend Hans Andersen, he be no duck-thought at all, but a big swan-thought that sail nobly on big wings, when the time come for him to try them.

Review: Sandman, vol. 1: Preludes & Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman

PAPERBACK; 240 P.
DC COMICS, 1993/1991
SOURCE: FROM THE LIBRARY

Written by Neil Gaiman; Art by Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, and Malcolm Jones, III; Painted Cover by Dave McKean

The Sandman is the most acclaimed and award-winning comics series of the 1990s for good reason: a smart and deeply brooding epic, elegantly penned by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by a rotating cast of comics’ most sought-after artists, it is a rich blend of modern myth and dark fantasy in which contemporary fiction, historical drama, and legend are seamlessly interwoven. The saga of The Sandman encompasses a series of tales unique in graphic literature and is a story you will never forget.

Preludes & Nocturnes introduces readers to a dark and enchanting world of dreams and nightmares – the home of The Sandman, Master of Dreams, and his kin, The Endless. This first collection of Neil Gaiman’s multi-award-winning title introduces key themes and characters, combining myth, magic, and black humour.

There’s this fascination around Neil Gaiman that I’ve tried to understand. I, perhaps a little foolishly, started with his children’s book – Fortunately, the Milk – which was hilarious and inventive, but not all-encompassingly amazing. After that I read the generally loved The Graveyard Book, and though it’s very clever and imaginative, I found that it didn’t really spark anything within me to award such high praise. However, if anything, I am stubborn (see for example my weird habit of reading David Nicholls) and I am determined to find out what it is about Neil Gaiman’s work that makes so many love it. The Sandman is one of those comics series that everyone seems to know and love, so when I saw that my local library had the first volume, I went with it.

Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes kicks off with a ceremony heldon a dark night in a gothic mansion in the beginning of 20th century. A man attempts to capture Death in hopes of bargaining for special gifts, but something goes wrong and instead he ends up with the brother, Sandman. At the same time, several people across the world fall asleep and never wake up – or stay forever awake because they fear to sleep. Generations pass until Sandman manages to escape his confinement, but when he does, he has been robbed of his powers, his kingdom lies in shatters, and he has to rely on his kin, The Endless, to help him gain back what he had lost. Sandman’s powerful talismans have, however, over the years fallen into wrong hands and are inflicting much misery and pain to the world.

The first thing that you notice with The Sandman, vol. 1 is that it is dark – not just the subject matter or the humour, but also the art. The pictures are in multi-colour, but the colouring still uses a lot of black and for example Sandman’s speech bubbles have a black background colour as opposed to the normal white. The first volume, Preludes & Nocturnes, focuses mainly in introducing the main character and the world from which he comes from. There are some interesting cameos as well as references to other DC superheroes, but for the most part I was fascinated by the ingenious use of panels and the beautifully constructed covers as well as frames. Neil Gaiman has a twisted imagination – I don’t think I’ve ever read anything as horrible as “24 hours” –, but I also liked how he combines epic myths and pop culture in this fantastical story. There is so much detail that it almost forces you to take your time when reading it and to really look at the pictures and their relationship with the story. I very much liked the twist that Gaiman gave to Death – not going to spoil it for you here – and I wished I could have immediately jumped on to the second volume as soon as I had finished the first one. I’ll have to check out more volumes next time, because despite enjoying the complexity of a single volume, I’m a voracious reader.

I’ve never read anything like The Sandman before, and I can bet that you haven’t either. There’s a reason why “everyone has read it”, even though it’s once again one of those that is not for everyone – it is quite graphic and almost ultraviolent. Through Sandman I’ve also found that I prefer the adult Gaiman over his children’s books. Not that my opinion is set in stone seeing as I’ve only scratched the top of the vast amount of work he has published. However, what I do know is that I will definitely continue to explore Neil Gaiman and The Sandman universe.

4.5/5

Review: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

PAPERBACK; 234 P.
FABER AND FABER, 2013/1964
SOURCE: FROM THE LIBRARY

When Esther Greenwood wins an internship on a New York fashion magazine in 1953, she is elated, believing she will finally realise her dreams to become a writer. But in between the cocktail parties and piles of manuscripts, Esther’s life begins to slide out of control. She finds herself spiralling into depression and eventually a suicide attempt, as she grapples with difficult relationships and a society that refuses to take women’s aspirations seriously.
The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath’s only novel, was originally published in 1964 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. The novel is partially based on Plath’s own life and has become a modern classic. The Bell Jar has been celebrated for its darkly funny and razor sharp portrait of 1950s society and has sold millions of copies worldwide.

The Bell Jar is a modern classic that is often found on those “30 books to read before you’re 30” lists, and it’s also often referenced in popular culture. The author Sylvia Plath is generally more known for her poetry, but I think that the novel – although originally published under a pseudonym – has through its autobiographical aspects partly contributed to the air of mystery that surrounds Plath. Going into the book I had an idea of what I might find in it, but it turns out that what I really took away was something quite unexpected.

The story of The Bell Jar follows Esther Greenwood, a young and highly talented student, who gets a summer internship on a popular magazine and is whisked away to a glamorous New York life with a group of other female students. Although Esther is at first enthralled by the glitz and glamour surrounding her, she also feels disconnected from it. Life outside of the controlled school settings presents new challenges and Esther begins to question her place and role in the world. And when she’s confronted with the question of what she wants to do with her life after graduation, Esther draws blank. This realisation sets Esther on a journey to find her purpose, but also herself. Played against the backdrop of 1950s society, the young woman’s story of anxiety and mental illness is poignant look at the side effects of a society that at the same time is both free and constricted.

What I really enjoyed about The Bell Jar was how it reflected indecision and living with uncertainty. Like Esther, I too have felt like I have too many dreams and have stood awake in the middle of the night haunted by fear of not being able to make up my mind. Plath captures something very live and vivid in the modern society, because even today many of the readers find themselves in the pages of this book. I honestly can’t remember when was the last time I related to the main character so much as I did to Esther for the first half of the book. However, as her world starts to crumble, there is a distance that grows between not only Esther and the rest of the world, but also between Esther and the reader. The first person narration of the slow descent to depression is fascinating, and it describes the feeling of being trapped in your mind very vividly, but I still felt at times like I was only watching from the sidelines instead of experiencing things first-hand.

Plath’s simple but poetic style of writing makes The Bell Jar a compelling read, but the thing I really found myself thinking about was the binary of self and society presented in the novel. Although Esther’s struggle is internal, it is very much also reflected in the society and vice versa. The private becomes public and the problems of the public are reflected in the private. Esther struggles in trying to decode the mixed messages of her surroundings, and feels anxious about the choices she has to make and the expectations she has to meet. The Bell Jar is a very though-provoking read in both its take on mental illness as well as the personal-public binary. I’d definitely recommend it to everyone who feels like they are standing at the crossroads of their life. It offers both perspective and support and lets you know that you’re not the only one going through the pains. I’d also recommend it to the fans of The Catcher in the Rye.

4/5

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose.

Review: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

PAPERBACK, 203 P.
FABER & FABER, 2014/2013
SOURCE: FROM THE LIBRARY

Eimear McBride’s award-winning debut novel tells the story of a young woman’s relationship with her brother, and the long shadow cast by his childhood brain tumour. Not so much a stream of consciousness as an unconscious railing against a life that makes little sense, it is a shocking and intimate insight into the thoughts, feelings and chaotic sexuality of a vulnerable and isolated protagonist. To read A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing is to plunge inside its narrator’s head, experiencing her world first hand. This isn’t always comfortable – but it is always a revelation.

“Eimear McBride is that old-fashioned thing, a genius … The adventurous reader will find that they have a real book on their hands, a live one, a book that is not like any other.” –Anne Enright, Guardian

Last year’s winner of Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (beating Donna Tartt’s award-winning The Goldfinch), A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is a touching and notoriously difficult read. For such a short book, McBride manages to pack a punch that hits you straight into the heart and will make you plough through the book hoping that somewhere in the distance things will be alright. It is a very dark and harrowing read, but as the blurb mentioned, it does also have it’s funnier moments.

The story of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing follows the life of a young woman growing up in a very religious family in Ireland. The protagonist’s childhood is clouded by his brother’s brain tumour as well as the family violence that stems from previous generations. The story is told from the perspective of our protagonist, but, like thoughts, it flits from memories to present day and onto dreams; it’s slightly similar to Woolf’s stream of consciousness – although less calming and fluid. Through her eyes, you get to experience the first instance of her brother’s illness, the strained relationship between her mother and her charismatic grandfather, the pressures to keep her family secrets hidden as well as the alienation from her family. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is a story of rebellion and assimilation, of sickness, ignorance and abuse – and the vulnerability of a young mind. I warn you now: it can be brutal.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is one of the hardest books I’ve read this year and that is not only because of the writing style. In fact, the writing style is very beautiful – almost like prose poetry – so it’s best to take your time with it and feel the words. When I began writing this review I first berated myself for being so bad with names, but flipping through the pages of the book I soon realised that the characters are nameless. The book is almost devoid of names, distinct places, or other things that should help you to pin the story to a specific time and place. The characters are only referred to through family relationship – such as ‘my uncle’ or ‘Mammy’ – but still I developed a distinct sense of each character. I guess because of the vagueness I struggled in the beginning in identifying the narrator, but as she grew older also the style of the narration became more refined and got easier to follow.

The honesty and realness with which the story approaches some of its topics is shocking and occasionally made me want to stop reading. Although the main character’s obsessive approach to purity and the “to the bone” feeling of worthlessness were painful to read about, but I persisted because A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is an important book. I can understand why McBride might have had some difficulties getting her debut novel published (9 years of queries!), but I’m so glad that Galley Beggar Press took the plunge. Like Enright mentioned in her review in Guardian, McBride’s style can be uncompromising, so you really have to invest your time and energy to it. However, what waits on the other side is an intimate insight to a very different mind.

I feel that I cannot express with words how much A Girl is a Half-formed Thing shook me, but it definitely was an eye-opening experience. The Baileys winner is not a book for everyone, but if you think you can handle the subject matter and want to immerse yourself in McBride’s writing, then you need to pick this one up.

4/5

On the beach. On the stones. On the water splash. I’ll hear it go right through me. Now see. Because he’s going away. I knew sure. I knew that. But still. The ocean comes. I’ll put my hands in. I’ll baptise. I like again. That cold running round my knuckles. Catch it just a bit. Don’t you start. And don’t let the ice in. Don’t you dare start now. A stupid fucked-up thing. Walk and walk it. Go on over the rocks. Put the air in young lungs. The fright out. You didn’t want. Took it. But. But but. It’s nothing now. Forget all that was nothing at all.

For the libraries that shape our lives

Today, on the 15th of July, Finnish book bloggers gather to show their support for public libraries and to highlight the often disregarded importance of said libraries. This is done in defense to the government plans to change the current Library Act so that what is now a basic municipal service would become optional. In Finland public libraries are governed by national law and, according to a report in 2001, they are the most frequently used cultural service – about 80% of Finns use their libraries. We, as book bloggers, feel concerned that demoting libraries to an optional service might deteriorate especially the smaller community libraries. Whereas municipalities are currently required to offer library services, they can independently choose how much funding they allocate to these services. In many cases, the funding may be as low as 1% or less of the municipality’s yearly budget.

My relationship with the public library system has been long and thriving, and it has definitely shaped me as a person. Hence I’m going to share with you a snippet of my history with libraries and hopefully encourage you to consider yours. Due to moving around, I’ve had 3 local libraries, that have all served as my second homes, and which in this post I shall call My Childhood Library, My Teenage Library, and My Adult Library. Aside from these three, I have also owned about 5 additional library cards to libraries in neighbouring towns or municipalities. All of these libraries have been public and funded by tax revenues, which I can assume has been vital for their operation and success.

librarylove1

Books I’ve checked out from the library between January and March 2015

My Childhood Library was the main library of a small agricultural municipality in Eastern Finland (population approx. 7,000). I got my first library card at the age of 6 or 7 and continued to use the library services until the age of 13. The library was situated in the centre of the municipality and I used to spend my free hours between school and piano or dance lessons inside the library walls. In other words, it was a safe place for a young girl to spend her lone afternoon hours – a fact that my parents must have appreciated. Despite being a small and not very thriving community (an aging population with a yearly declining population count), the library had large sections of children’s and young adult books, a long row of CDs, and a good collection of magazines and newspapers. The library was a place where people came to read the daily newspapers or magazines, to study, or to listen to music. It hosted a regular Story Time afternoons during which librarians would read (and act) aloud fairy tales for the younger children, and displayed art work of local painters and art clubs. My recollections of the library are definitely coloured by what I as a child saw and understood, but the memory of My Childhood Library is a place of safety and warmth – as well as loooong bookshelves (all those Nancy Drews, I could never read them all!).

Moving across the country to a new city can be challenging to any 13-year-old, and being a shy and insecure teenager definitely didn’t make it easier – which is why I am ever grateful for My Teenage Library. Having a library at hand and an access to books definitely made the transition process easier and the books kept me company when I was feeling too shy to approach new people. My Teenage Library was the main library of a mid-sized town in Northern Finland (pop. 22,000) close to the Swedish border. Between the ages of 13 and 19 I read probably 90% of the library’s Young Adult collection, but what really made the difference for me was the fact that My Teenage Library gave me the tools to explore who I was and what I wanted to be. Instead of remembering the “never-ending shelves of books”, I remember all the different sections of books that I explored during those years. I dabbled in fantasy and science fiction and fell in love with the Redwall series as well as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I also discovered kick-ass female heroes, such as Yoko Tsuno, in comics. I slowly transitioned from Young Adult section to the Adult section. I read and tried out hobbies such as origami, yoga, knitting, drawing, and sowing. I dipped my toes into architecture, veterinary medicine, history, politics, psychology, sociology, etc. And what must have been the most influential experiment of them all, I started reading books in English (eventually also Swedish).

I began with the small collection of children’s books in English (which also included YA classics such as Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret), moved upstairs to the crime and detective fiction guided by Mrs Agatha Christie, and eventually, through movie tie-in chick lit such as Devil Wears Prada and Confessions of a Shopaholic, to classics (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Wives and Daughters) and other adult fiction. Looking back, I kind of wish there had been a Goodreads or other mode of tracking what I read and listened to during those formative years, but I guess it’s also better that I don’t remember exactly everything that I read. (Nonetheless, I do need to revisit On the Road by Jack Kerouac, because I don’t think my 17-year-old self quite got it the first time around.)

librarylove3

Books I’ve checked out from the library between April and June 2015.

If My Teenage Library was all about discovering myself and where my passions lie, I guess My Adult Library is about exploring deeper into what it all means. What I now call my local library or “home library” is the main library of a larger Western Finland university city (pop. 223,000). It’s one of the 17 libraries that are together form the city library system, and though I do often visit also the other branches, the main library is my favourite one. I’ve been a member of the library since 2010, and although I haven’t always been an avid user, I’ve lately grown to appreciate the community aspect of my local library. Aside from fiction, My Adult Library houses a good variety of non-fiction and trade literature as well as a considerable collection of books in different languages ranging from English to German to Estonian to Arabic. The library hosts literary events, open lectures as well as courses in information technology. It is a popular place for students as well as families, and there are even some groups of senior citizens that gather there every day to read the newspapers and to socialize. The café connected to the library hosts regular language evenings in which non-native Finnish speakers can practise their Finnish or vice versa.

A library serves as a quiet, but at the same time lively centre for people, and the multitude of services it offers as well as the up-to-date collection of books might not be available without the necessary funding and support. Despite the fact that libraries in larger cities will most likely be able to find additional monetary support for their operations, it is the smaller communities and their libraries that will suffer from the law change. In hard times culture is often the one that experiences the largest cuts, because it is not one of the essential human needs (see for example David Pountney on ‘cultural health’). However, cutting from libraries is also cutting from a system that supports equality. The public library services are free to all its members, regardless of their economic situation or social status. Libraries offer free and safe environments where you can relax, work, or further your education. Libraries also bring together diverse group of people fostering the community consciousness.

Libraries house books, but also ideas and dreams of reaching beyond the immediate surroundings. My childhood municipality didn’t have a dance studio where I could take ballet lessons, but that didn’t stop me at the age of 9 from devouring every ballet book the library had, checking out videos of famous performances, or listening to the music recordings. For me libraries have often felt like my second home, because they have been homes to the books that have influenced me, excited me, and changed the way I see myself as well as the world around me. And I don’t think I’m the only one.

Do you have any special memories connected to libraries? Good or bad, I’d love if you could share them with me in the comments! x

Reading update – The first half of 2015

ginnerobot_flickr

© ginnerobot / Flickr

2015 has been an interesting reading year so far. I’ve been challenging my reading habits, testing my reading tastes and picking up titles more impulsively. There’s also been a variety of formats in my reading, and though my preferences still go for the paperback, I’ve also grown to enjoy the benefits of ebooks. In the first six months I read 13 ebooks and 35 physical books. I wish I could also say that owning a Kindle has decreased my need to buy more books, but it really hasn’t. In total I’ve acquired almost 30 books during the first half of the year. Nevertheless, I’ve also been actively using my local library and checking out books every month – for free! And now that the first half of the year has passed, it’s good moment to check how I’m doing with the goals that I set myself in the beginning of the year.

In short, my reading goals for the year 2015 are to read equally both men and women, to read bigger books, to read more poetry and to read more Finnish books. I wrote down these challenges in the beginning of January, and for the most part, I’ve been sticking with them. For the most part. In many cases I’m doing better than I imagined and in some, my progress is barely on the line of trying at all. For example, I was surprised to find out that my male-female ratio is almost where I want it to be. It’s not fully 50/50, but it’s definitely looking good and, to be honest, I haven’t even had to try very hard to achieve it. Go me!

I’m quickly surpassing my Goodreads challenge for the year, which was expected, and I’m considering lifting the challenge to 75. However, the focus in this year is supposed to be in quality, not quantity, so I feel that lifting the challenge bar higher might make me forget that and just focus on the numbers. Another challenge that I’m acing at the moment is the 15 in 2015 challenge, in which I try to read at least 15 Finnish titles this year. One of the reasons why that challenge has been coming along so nicely is that I’ve read and reviewed also comics and graphic novels as part of the challenge, but where’s the fun in excluding those?

Half-year progress in Reading goals 2015:

  • Male/Female ratio: 25/23
  • Goodreads challenge: 48/50
  • Big Books: 1/4
  • Languages: Finnish (9); English (37); Swedish (1); German (1)
  • Poetry: 0,75/4
  • Reading England 2015: 1/7 (+3 Detours)
  • 15 in 2015: 9/15
  • TBR 274: 7/20

On the side of not-so-great progress, my score for Big Books seems quite poor now that I look at it. And my Goodreads stats agree: I’ve now read more books than in 2013, but about 2,300 pages less. Hmpf. I believe the lower page count is due to the fact that a) I finished both Gone with the Wind and A Game of Thrones in 2013 and b) I’ve been reading more plays, graphic novels and essays this year than in the previous years. Hence more books, less pages. Contributing to the low number is also the fact that my definition of a big book for this challenge is 600+ pages; if I were to count all the books that surpass the 500 page mark, I would also count The Name of the Rose (557 pages in my Finnish edition). The only book so far to breach that 600 page mark is Night Film by Marisha Pessl which had 602 pages. However, I have some hefty books set on my 20 Books of Summer TBR which should fix the problem.

I signed up for Reading England 2015 challenge already in December 2014 and I was so excited in picking up titles that matched certain counties and looking up new ones. However, I might have been a bit too ambitious with my goal setting as well as blind to my own reading tastes, because lately I’ve just been favouring American classics over the British. It all started with Melville, Steinbeck and Salinger in 2014, and continued with Fitzgerald, Poe, Chopin, Lee and Plath in 2015. Right now I feel like moving on, so I’m not completely giving up, but I’m not yet sure where the road will take me. We’ll just have to wait and see. However, I’ve been keeping track of my Modern Detours, so my combined number is not bad at all.

I’ve also been struggling with poetry, and part of that is because I might have picked the wrong book to start with. I’ve been reading the Complete Poems and Aforisms of Edith Södergran since March and the 300+ paged omnibus has been keeping its hold on me. I probably should have  picked up a shorter collection to begin with, as well as something in my mother tongue. Södergran was a Finnish-Swedish poet in the 1920s and, despite loving to read her in the original, the Swedish of the twenties is a lot different from the Swedish of today. So you could say I’m having a bit of problems in translation.

The last challenge on my list one that I’m most low-key about, and that’s reading 20 books from my super-long TBR 274 list. I set it to 20 books because that’s been the approximate number of books that I’ve read from the list in a year. I’ve currently read only 7 books from the list, which was a bit of a surprise because I expected some of the classics that I read (Waiting for Godot, Dracula, The Bell Jar) to be on that list, but it turned out they weren’t. But as I said, it’s not an issue. I’m often reading more classics during the autumn than during spring, so it should correct the balance naturally.

All in all, I’m pretty pleased with how the year is going and hopefully I’ll be able to discover my inner poetry-loving reader soon. And if not, I’m not forcing it – sometimes these things require the right time and place. In the meanwhile, I’m heartily welcoming poetry recommendations!

 

Review: The Beggar and the Hare by Tuomas Kyrö

PAPERBACK; 224 P.
TRANS. DAVID MCDUFF
SHORT BOOKS, 2015/2011
SOURCE: FROM THE LIBRARY

Vatanescu is striving for a better life, and with it a pair of football boots for his son – but his search has led him to collecting small change on the streets of Helsinki, and he needs something drastic to change his fortunes.

His lucky break comes when a fellow outcast – a hare with an injured paw – hops into his life. In rescuing the little creature from certain death, he finds not just a companion, but a source of unexpected inspiration and wisdom.

Together, the beggar and the hare embark on an adventure that is both funny and absurd. Theirs is a moving story about the meaning of friendship, with the power to change the way we see ourselves.

Picked as one of the Waterstones’ book club books for this spring, The Beggar and the Hare is a humorous road trip with two unlikely accomplices and a myriad of peculiar, yet identifiable characters. The author, Tuomas Kyrö, is a popular humorist writer in Finland and the story of The Beggar and the Hare is his modern retelling of the Finnish classic The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna. The original story follows a middle-aged journalist who one day gets enough of the rat race as a consequence to a road accident involving a hare. The man adopts the injured animal, leaves everything behind and heads out to the wilderness for a year.

The Beggar and the Hare follows a Romanian beggar Vatanescu who was recruited from his home village to work in the Nordic countries in order to buy his son a pair of football boots. However, when he arrives to Helsinki, Finland, it turns out that the work in question is organised begging in the corners of the city. Life as a beggar is tough and one day Vatanescu has enough and after a confrontation with his Russian boss, runs away. But in a strange country and with a very angry Russian criminal after him, Vatanescu is all alone. But when he runs into an injured city hare, he picks it for his travel companion, and together the two encounter several personalities, such as a first wave Chinese immigrant, a traveling magician, a patriotic pensioner, and many more. Despite the language barrier and his obscurity, the travelling beggar ends up becoming an online sensation with the entire country looking for him.

I had previously read some essays and short stories from Kyrö, so I knew what to expect from his style. And having read The Year of the Hare in school, I was interested to know how he’d update the classic. Turns out it works quite well. The Beggar and the Hare is funny, exciting and filled with random moments as well as sharp jabs at the current society. The book was originally published in the 2011 and it references some of the major changes in the Finnish political atmosphere – such as the landslide of votes for the right-wing populist True Finns party – which were so on point, but I also fear that they might not translate well for a reader outside of the culture. However, there is more to the book than the satire of Finland-centered issues as poverty and globalisation are known around the world. The Beggar and the Hare has kind of a road movie-ish type of structure spiced with a lot of cultural collisions between Romanian and Finnish customs. Overall, the books was an enjoyable and a very quick read, but in my opinion it could have been snarkier and bitten more deeply into few issues rather than lightly on several. I’d definitely recommend it to readers who have read The Year of the Hare, but it’s not mandatory. Any reader who enjoys absurd roadtrips or is interested in Finnish culture and society of today should be able to enjoy this book.

For more insights about the book, I’d recommend that you check out Tuomas Kyrö’s interview in the Waterstones blog. You can also read an extract from the book there.

3.5/5

If a beggar had a smile on his face it robbed him of credibility and showed up as reduced cash flow. If you made people feel pity and guilt, one got mercy. Mercy was money, mercy was the biggest thing in Protestant religion and life in social democracies. In the Nordic countries people had such a low pity threshold that their coins burned a hole in their pockets.

‘We help to make it easier for them,’ Yegor explained. ‘The donor ends up with a good conscience. I take seventy-five per cent, you get twenty-five.’

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Review: Just Kids by Patti Smith

PAPERBACK; 320 P.
ECCO, 2010
SOURCE: FROM THE LIBRARY

It was the summer Coltrane died, the summer of love and riots, and the summer when a chance encounter in Brooklyn led two young people on a path of art, devotion, and initiation. Patti Smith would evolve as a poet and performer, and Robert Mapplethorpe would direct his highly provocative style toward photography. Bound in innocence and enthusiasm, they traversed the city from Coney Island to Forty-second Street, and eventually to the celebrated round table of Max’s Kansas City, where the Andy Warhol contingent held court. In 1969, the pair set up camp at the Hotel Chelsea and soon entered a community of the famous and infamous—the influential artists of the day and the colorful fringe. It was a time of heightened awareness, when the worlds of poetry, rock and roll, art, and sexual politics were colliding and exploding. In this milieu, two kids made a pact to take care of each other. Scrappy, romantic, committed to create, and fueled by their mutual dreams and drives, they would prod and provide for one another during the hungry years.

Just Kids begins as a love story and ends as an elegy. It serves as a salute to New York City during the late sixties and seventies and to its rich and poor, its hustlers and hellions. A true fable, it is a portrait of two young artists’ ascent, a prelude to fame.

Just Kids is a memoir by one of the iconic women at the top of rock world, Patti Smith. I discovered her music a few years ago prompted by the ‘Piss Factory’ and moved on to her debut album ‘Horses’. Thus when I opened the book, I expected it to focus mostly on her career as a musician – only to discover that, more than anything, Patti Smith is a writer and a poet. The book was published in 2010, received critical acclaim and was named as one of the most inspiring artist memoirs of the year. Ever since hearing about it, Just Kids has been on my radar of memoirs that I want to read, but what really prompted me to read the book now was the fact that Smith is publishing a second memoir of her New York years in October, titled M Train.

Just Kids is a memoir based in the New York art scene in the 1970s and in it Patti Smith recounts her life together with artist and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Smith was born in Chicago in 1946, but her family moved around before settling to New Jersey from where she eventually moved to New York at the age of 20. With only a bundle of clothes, a bag of books and a waitress uniform from her mother, she vagabonded around the city searching for a job. During that time Smith met Robert Mapplethorpe and discovering that their shared passion for art, they fell in love and moved together. Just Kids maps the journey of both Patti and Robert in New York from love to friendship and from self-discovery to religion, and it brings to life their passion for art and drive to work, the community of artists living close to one another and inspiring each other, the pains and joys of getting your work out there as well as the frustration of not being able to execute your vision. Just Kids is dedicated to the memory of Robert Mapplethorpe, who died of Aids in 1989, and Smith writes with passion and heart of their time together and apart, of the struggle of Mapplethorpe realising his sexuality, and of him discovering the form of photography – the art that made him famous.

I fell in love with Patti Smith’s writing from page one. The text flows from page to page and the book is filled with memorable lines that you stop to read again and again. Discovering her passion for poetry and writing made me view her music in a new light and connect the dots with her style, which is very much influenced by the spoken poetry. What’s truly interesting about the relationship between the two artists depicted in Just Kids is how different they could be – whereas at times Mapplethorpe was anxious about money and gaining fame, Smith knew they would survive and had bouts of introspection. My understanding and appreciation towards Patti Smith grew immensely the more I read, and the descriptions of creating and working with art where inspiring me to pick up my pen and start creating my own. However, Smith also doesn’t shy away from the roughness of artist life – the low and unreliable income, the doubts of ever succeeding, the negative criticism, etc. The image that she paints with her words of New York in the 1970s is vivid and buzzing with creative energy – and made me wish that you could travel back in time.

Just Kids is essentially a diary of the defining years of two artist living and creating together, of the people around them (among others Burroughs and Capote), and of discovering yourself over and over again. It is a very inspirational book and has become one of my favourites – I need to get a copy of this for myself! I highly recommend it the readers interested in artist memoirs, New York in the 1960s and 1970s, and above all – Patti Smith.

5/5

We used to laugh at our small selves, saying that I was a bad girl trying to be good and that he was a good boy trying to be bad. Through the years these roles would reverse, then reverse again, until we came to accept our dual natures. We contained opposing principles, light and dark.