A Tin Drum by Gunter Grass

Earlier this month I was looking around in Waterstones for a new book to take with me on holiday. Just by chance, I picked up this book, and thought it would be a good opportunity to expand my horizons in foreign literature. And honestly, I’m not sure I would have written a review on it had I not seen the film this week.  If you have not seen the film then I’m not sure whether I would recommend it or not. If you’re into weird films, with characters that act outrageously peculiar then this is the film for you. If not, then I suggest you give the film a miss. 

But let us start first by reviewing the book. It is interesting to say the least. The writing itself is simple, you aren’t hit with long sentences, or a confusing narrative. As for the main character, he’s like Marmite, you either love or you hate him. Oskar is born in Danzig, the sometimes German but mainly Polish town. His life takes place before, during and after WW2. To the clueless adults around him he is born with the cognitive faculties of an adult, though most people around think he is stupid. At the age of three he decides to stop growing. He chooses the life of being a dwarf in order to avoid working in his family’s grocery store. He does this by throwing himself down the stairs into the cellar to effectively stunt his growth. On his third birthday Oskar is given a tin drum, which he centres his whole being around completely. He lets out a glass shattering scream if anyone tries to take it from him. Apparently the tin drum is meant to be symbolic for the marching of the German armies, but I’ll be honest that I just found his incessant need to drum a bit bratty. 

Photo by Sylvie Tittel on Unsplash

The basic premise of the book is that Oskar is wiser than his years, and makes no secret of it. His character is arrogant in claiming to know better than anyone else. Throughout the book he commits multiple crimes, including many murders (direct and indirect), vandalism, theft etc. He’s vain, selfish, malicious, cruel and a compulsive liar. I would not want to get on the wrong side of him basically. The only thing I do like about characters like this is that you are obviously meant to dislike them. Grass doesn’t portray Oskar in a way that makes you feel sorry that he is a dwarf. And if I thought the character of Oskar was dislikeable in the book, well then I was not ready for the film. 

The child actor who plays Oskar is the creepiest little person I’ve ever seen. I’m even wondering whether he’s a fantastic actor, or is he really just that creepy in real life. It somehow made the book even more terrifying, when I had the image of this little guy in my head. The film was widely praised, and even won an Academy Award for best foreign film. It was seen to be taking a stand against war and nationalism, and in favour of the innocence of childhood. Having watched the film, some of the themes of the book become easier to visualise and understand. 

Overall, the book is well worth a read if you’re looking to widen your foreign literature reading like I was. If you have a wider knowledge around Germany/Poland in WW2 then it will help you enjoy the book far more. The Guardian wrote a review of the book naming it the ‘defining novel of the 20th century’. I don’t know if it is because I was born in 1996, and never fully experienced the 20th century but I cannot say that I agree with the above statement. It’s a good book for sure, but when comparing it to books written by George Orwell in this time period. Let me know if you find the film as weird as I did!

Until next time, 

-S

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

I am going to be reviewing the most highly anticipated and talked about book probably of the whole year: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. More specifically, I am going to be discussing the issue in the modern Western world of the decline of childbirth, and relating this what Atwood’s book. 

Having loved the dystopian novel ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ written 34 years earlier, I like everyone else, had very high expectations of this book. But to me the novel felt entirely unnecessary as a sequel. Though it was undeniably a page turner, it followed an entirely different story line to its prequel. Probably like many others I was hoping for the storyline to follow along the story of the Handmaids or even the Marthas. But instead the story follows the life of ‘Baby Nicole’, and all those involved in bringing about the end of Gilead. The Handmaid’s Tale had dealt with themes of women in subjugation in a patriarchal society, and the ways in which they attempted to gain independence. The Testaments at a stretch can be seen to tackling these issues. The book includes female teamwork to overcome the predicament they are in, but they also portrayed consistently throughout the book in a quite negative light. The ending is predictable, and the characters (except for maybe Aunt Lydia) are nothing notable. The character development was also slightly all over the place, and for me there was too much jumping between the narrators.

Image result for the handmaids tale protest

One of the themes prevalent in both books is how the decline of fertility rates can impact on society. The current rate for children per families has now fallen between 2 for almost all Western countries except Iceland and Albania. The current UK rate is 1.7 which is similar to most European countries. Unlike the women in Gilead, women nowadays are less keen to have children either because of career aspirations or the impact of the growing population on climate change. The people of Gilead go to extreme measures to deal with the problems of infertility and the decline in population. For modern day women the right to choose whether or not she wants to have a child is fantastic. But there might be consequences of such choices. 

One of the questions asked in The Handmaid’s Tale is whether the needs of society should be allowed to become more important than the rights of the individual. The Gileadean society population size was declining, and acting under the idea of Utilitarianism; acting in the interests of the greatest amount of people. This question is highly interesting, and Atwood could have developed it further in the sequel.  

Photo by John-Mark Smith on Unsplash

The Testaments was joint in winning the Man Booker Prize, and was brought publicity with women wearing a Handmaid’s outfit (as seen in the television programme) in a protest for pro choice in abortion. Interestingly however, the reviews of the book have been somewhat average. There are some that even argue that Atwood was using the popularity of the TV series to make a cash grab. Despite this, just in the US 125,000 copies were sold within the first week and 250,000 in the UK.  Overall, I am glad I bought the book but it won’t be making it to my list of favourite novels.

The Independent published an article entitled ‘What Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments tells us about the state of feminism today’. The article mentions that Atwood ‘explores the insidious ways a society polices women’s bodies’, a notion found by many women in modern day society. I would be interested to hear if any men resonated with any parts of Atwood’s writing, and if so, which parts? Let me know your thoughts!

Until next time, 

-S

Sources: 

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-46118103

https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/testaments-margaret-atwood-feminism-handmaids-tale-metoo-a9103891.html

https://bookriot.com/2017/08/25/handmaids-tale-free-costumes/ (picture)

Origin of Books: Part Two

In my blog post entitled Origin of Books I ended at the date 1832 which was the invention of the book sleeve. I want to revisit the timeline and continue talking about everything that happened after that date. Basically, that is what this blog post is going to do. The first mass market paperback books in the UK were born between the years 1832 and 1860. There were two distinct markets these publications were aimed at, the ‘juvenile market’ with the story papers, and the working class adult which were known as the ‘penny dreadful’. 

These stories were printed on cheap ‘pulp’ paper, and featured stories largely in the Gothic thriller or Crime genre. In America these ‘penny dreadfuls’ were named ‘Dime novels’ and are thought to have begun with the Beadle and Adam’s ‘Beadle’s Dime’ in 1860. The Beadle series ran for 321 episodes, and was thought to have covered nearly all the conventions of genres. 

The years 1920-1938 saw the fall and the rise of the Paperback. By the beginning of the 20th Century hardback books were more common, and most considered paperbacks to contain trashy or lower quality content. Meanwhile, the Boni Brothers who founded the Modern Library (which eventually became Random House) , realised a book has more success in a mail order than if it is sold in a bookstore. They started sending out the ‘Charles Boni Paper Books’ for $5 a year, and received a book on the 25th of each month. Unfortunately, they were not able to survive the Wall Street crash, and closed publication in 1930. 

Then, on the 10th May 1933 in Germany, the historic burning of the books began. The Nazi’s wanted all the German history, culture, belief and ideology to fit with the Nazi regime. Over 25,000 ‘non-German’ books were burnt that day. 

Next, in 1935, came the publication of the very first Penguin paperback. This was founded by Sir Allen Lane, who rather than choosing to publish ‘low brow’ works, purchased the rights to 10 high class titles. He then ordered 20,000 copies to be printed, a risky move that actually paid off. Woolworth’s bought 63,000 copies, and sold out within 2 days. By March of that year, only 10 months later, Penguin had printed over 1 million books! In 1937 Penguin then bought it’s first imprint, Pelican which was designed to educate the public rather than entertain. By 1940 it had bought its second imprint, Puffin which was to be a supplier of children’s books. Because I’m talking about the history of Penguin, I just want to say I admire the company for being the first to offer paid work experience in 2017, and for abolishing the requirement of having a degree for entry level jobs. As someone who is currently trying to break into the Publishing world it was very refreshing to apply for their jobs by filling out a questionnaire rather than by submitting a CV and cover letter. Just a slight divergence from the topic, but just wanted to add that in. Anyways… 

One of the USA’s largest publishers of encyclopedias published a text only version of the Academic American Encyclopedia in 1985. This was the very first ever book to be published on a CD. Then in 1995 came Amazon. They were the first people to ever sell books online. Founder Jeff Bezos’ idea was to create an online bookstore that was not limited to the volume of books offered by traditional bookshops. The very first book sold online was called ‘Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought’. Sounds like a riveting book doesn’t it. From then on things stayed pretty much the same in the life of a paperback/hardback. It wasn’t until the turn of the century that things changed again. The birth of the e-book. I have mixed feelings about e-books, and I’m still on the fence about whether or not I like them. But that is a subject for another post.

Until next time, 

-S

Greek Mythology: Medusa

Whilst most people in the world have heard of Medusa, and the legend of the look that turns men to stone, I’m less sure how many people know the full story. The most common interpretation of Medusa suggests that she is an apotropaic symbol, who is used to protect from and ward off the negative. Medusa’s name in Greek roughly translates to ‘guard or protect’.  According to Hesiod’s Theogony, she was one of the three Gorgon sisters born to Ceto (Keto) and Phorcy’s (Phorky’s) who were primordial sea gods. Primordial basically means ‘existing at or from the beginning of time’. They had three children; Sthenno, Euryale, and Medusa. The other two sisters were immortal, whilst Medusa was a mortal. 

Medusa was an attractive girl, distinguishable from her sisters as she had been born with a beautiful face and enviable hair. Ovid (a major Roman poet during the years of Emperor Augustus) describes her in the excerpt below: 

‘Medusa once had charms; to gain her love

A rival crowd of envious lovers strove.

They, who have seen her, own, they ne’er did trace

More moving features in a sweeter face.

Yet above all, her length of hair, they own,

In golden ringlets wav’d, and graceful shone.’

Now, the next part of the story has different versions. Some stories claim that Medusa vowed to be a priestess of Athena, therefore promising to live as a celibate. She then met Poseidon, whom she fell in love with and broke her vow of celibacy by marrying him. In other versions of the story Poseidon takes a liking to Medusa, and then proceeds to impregnate her by raping her in the temple of Athena. Athena, the virgin goddess,  became so enraged with this news that she transformed Medusa into a monster. She gave her bloodshot eyes, and turned her beautiful hair into poisonous snakes. Her face became so hideous that the mere sight of her could turn a man to stone.  

The myth of Medusa continues with her fateful encounter with the Greek ‘hero’ Perseus. The dishonourable king Polydectes sent Perseus on a mission to come back with the head of Medusa,  because Perseus had offered the king any gift he could name for failing to turn up at a banquet without a gift. Perseus had been provided with divine tools from the gods, and using Athena’s shield to view the reflection of Medusa’s awful face, he beheaded her with a harpe. As Medusa was pregnant at the time this caused the birth of her two children, the winged horse Pegasus and the giant Chrysaor. Pegasus is probably the most recognised creature from Greek mythology. After decapitating Medusa, Perseus (with Medusa’s head safely bagged) embarked on his journey home. Along the way he used Medusa’s head as a weapon in many different situations. For example, he met the titan Atlas, who he turned to stone after an argument, which thus created the Atlas Mountains of North Africa. Once Perseus had finished with the head, he gifted it to Athena, who adorned her shield and breastplate with it. 

But now comes the question why is the story of Medusa so popular? In the context of feminism the image of Medusa has come to be a symbol of female rage. The feminist magazine Women: A Journal of Liberation, in their 1978 issue, used the image of Medusa on the cover and explained that she ‘can be a map to guide us through our terrors, through the depths of our anger into the sources of power as women’.

Medusa’s image is used to symbolise the female rage at the patriarchal society of Western culture, she was a victim in the story because of the actions of both a man and a woman. Though it was Poseidon that raped her, it was Athena who punished her for it. Athena turning her into the monster that she’s known for is what then encouraged Polydectes to challenge Perseus to bring back her head. There is an argument that portraying her as a monster is the exact problem. Medusa was raped, cursed and then killed, and yet she is demonised for something she can’t control. It can be argued that it is wrong for the hero of the story to be Perseus, because killing an innocent victim does not make you heroic. Rather than being a story of heroism, this one is a story of tragedy. 

Thanks for reading, and if you have any thoughts or comments please let me know! 

Until next time, 

-S

Sources: 

Photo: http://jacquioakley.com/?portfolio=medusa-turning-patriarchy-to-stone-bitch-magazine

Feminist Magazine Quote: Wilk, Stephen (2000). Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 217-218

Greek Mythology: An Introduction

It is probably pointless to explain but Greek mythology is a large collection of stories started in Ancient Greece about the beginning of the world, and writes about the lives and adventures of gods, goddesses, heroes, and heroines. 

Greek mythology has twelve main gods known as the Twelve Olympians. They were Zeus, Poseidon, Hera, Hephaestus, Hades, Athena, Artemis, Apollo, Ares, Demeter, Aphrodite and Hermes. The Ancient Greeks believed that the world was in a state of nothingness in the beginning, which they named Chaos. Then from the light came Gaia (mother earth) and Uranus (the sky) along with other old gods (called primordials) like Tartarus (the pit of eternal damnation) and Pontus (the primordial god of the oceans). 

The Greek mythological ‘family tree’ is vast when you consider it in its entirety. I’m including a picture above for reference of the most simple one. The reason it is so confusing is because many of them had a lot of children, across a lot of different relationships. Some of the gods are less significant than others, which is why there is a simplified version of the family tree. Considering I’m just a novice in this topic I’m quite grateful for this more basic version. However, I am also going to include a link to a picture on Wikipedia of the entire family tree just in case anyone is interested.

In this series on my blog I am going to explore the different stories in Greek mythology, basically whichever one takes my fancy. Or if other people start to show an interest in this series, then ones that people suggest they want to talk about. It will be like a book review, but on Greek mythologies instead. At some point I will probably also compare the differences and similarities between Roman and Greek Gods so look out for that!

I hope you enjoy!

-S

The link for the entire family tree: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Family_tree_of_the_Greek_gods

My Thoughts on Rupi Kaur

Considering Rupi Kaur’s last book release was in 2017 I can admit that I am pretty late to the party by commenting on her work. However, after photos of her poems were making repeated appearances on my Instagram feed it made me think about the poetry of this generation and where it is heading. I would like to emphasise that my comments are purely my opinion on the literary quality of her poems, and not her as person. The success that she has made for herself is only admirable, and she obviously has worked hard to achieve it. That being said we can get on with the actual post.

Milk and Honey has sold 3.5 million copies worldwide, and has been translated into 40 languages. The Huffington Post dubbed her writing as ‘essential reading for women everywhere’ but I don’t know if I would agree with the use of the word essential. My opinion is that Kaur’s poetry consists mostly of Instagram captions disguised as poems. And while the short and simple writing can be appealing, when reading them I get the impression that they were written to sell well rather than because they are a true reflection of her thoughts. To me poetry isn’t about being basically four lines of texts that lacks in punctuation, but about a deeper interpretation within each sentence. 

It is obvious though why her poetry has gained such popularity, and it is because of teenage girls being able to relate to it. The themes in her poems range from love, sexism, family, racism, heartbreak and more. If you are, or have ever struggled with any of these, then you will find her poems engaging. And maybe I’m in the minority when I say this, but though I can relate to the subjects in her poems, they do not help to cope with any of the issues. My self-worth didn’t increase when I read her poem that sounds almost exactly like the phrase ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’. (See first poem below) But as a generalisation I have more of a problem with her short poems, as some of them seem almost pointless.

Undoubtedly, Kaur is the most popular young female poet at this moment in time. She is said to have made £1m from her last book alone which is almost unheard of for a female poet. The age demographic she appeals to is young women aged 13-14, who have become the biggest consumers of poetry in the UK market. This is fantastic news for the world of poetry, and I applaud Kaur for being able to excite poetry in the minds of young people again. That is something poems from the likes of John Keats or William Wordsworth would never be able to achieve.  There has been an influx in females opening their own poetry publishing companies to make up for the obvious gap in the market. The success of Kaur with young girls created a market for other women to appeal to. These are all wondering things, and for me the best thing that has come from Rupi Kaur’s popularity. 

Though I regard most of her work to be too plain I have to include some of her poems that I did enjoy and had all her work been like this I probably would not be writing this post. The poem above and below this text are two that I think articulated some of the important issues women face everyday.

In conclusion, I hope that this movement that Kaur has helped create continues to excel in celebrating and recognising more female poets. Below are links to some other poems from female poets that I think are worth a read. 

  1. Still I Rise by Maya Angelou

https://poets.org/poem/still-i-rise

  1. Lady Lazarus by Sylvia Plath

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/49000/lady-lazarus

  1. Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

https://www.anythinklibraries.org/blog/poetry-picks-wild-geese-mary-oliver

  1. Remember by Christina Rossetti

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45000/remember-56d224509b7ae

  1. The House by Warsan Shire

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/90733/the-house-57daba5625f32

Until next time, 

-S

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

With the recent release of the film this month I thought it would be a good time to reread the book. I first read this book when it came out in 2013, and I was only 16 then. I loved it, and it was one of those books that I could not put down until I finished it. And then I read her other two books, The Little Friend and The Secret History. To me the books only got better and better.  But I wonder if it altered my opinion of the books as I had read her most popular one last, with her least popular one first. 

Having finished the book I was curious what other people had thought of it. I had never really heard of leaving reviews on Goodreads or Amazon back in 2013. I read what I picked up in Waterstones, and then if it was really amazing I gave my mum a verbal review of what I thought of it. There is however, 53,113 reviews for The Goldfinch currently on Goodreads. Most of the people who left reviews only left them to say why they did not like the book, and the ones that loved the book left only a 5 star rating without a comment. But now here’s my review.

I did not love it this time around. But I also did not hate it as much as a lot of people did. There were times that the sentences were overly long and convoluted, and there were so many occasions when I was tempted to skip sentences altogether. The plot, though not revolutionary, was interesting. Theo’s guilt over never having admitted to taking the painting after the bombing shapes his entire life. He develops an addiction to prescription medication, and when faced with the knowledge that the original painting had been stolen years earlier from him by his supposed friend, he confronts the idea of suicide. But then the redemption of the character comes at the end when he uses his reward money to buy back the fake antiques that were sold because of his lie. Throughout the book it was easy for me to feel sympathy for Theo; his mother’s death was brutal, and his father would not be winning any Father of the Year awards. He certainly did not appear to have the easiest life. It can be understood then why he would steal the painting, his last connection to his mother. But does that excuse keeping the painting hidden for years? For me, it almost did. Had Theo not experienced any guilt for his actions then I would feel differently. But his case was the perfect example of how it is not always the easiest to do the right thing. Sometimes doing the right thing is the hardest thing in the world. Also Tartt to me conveyed that there is a reason behind everyone’s actions, and we should be mindful of how people’s past plays into their future.  

So, would I recommend this book? Yes, but mostly to teenagers looking to expand their horizons away from Young Adult fiction. Tartt is said to be inspired by the likes of Dickens, and this book might be a good warm up for someone not quite ready to read something like the The Tale of Two Cities or The Great Expectations.

Finally, one of his mother’s last lines to Theo stuck with me. It reads ‘anything we manage to save from history is a miracle’. I find this interesting because in the modern day we are moving away from having physical objects to become history, to just having everything online somewhere. I think that this generation spends more time building online profiles than real life memories. So in a 100 years time what will be found to remember us by when everything is password protected on iCloud somewhere? Just a thought.

Until next time,

-S

The origin of Books

As this is my first official blog post I thought I would delve into the origin of books and use this blog as an excuse to learn more about where they come from. My hope is to head into the publishing world soon, and where better to start than learning about what the whole of the publishing world revolves around? 

From my research I have gathered that the very first people to transcribe the written word onto move-able materials were an ancient group of people known as Sumerians. The group lived in Southern Mesopotamia around 3500 BC. They devised the ‘cuneiform’ alphabet, which was etched onto clay tablets and allowed to dry in the sun for as long as possible. Then in 2400 BC and originating in Egypt, the earliest form of Papyrus scrolls we know to date were written. This thick paper, named after the papyrus plant it was sourced from, was used for hundreds of years before the Greeks and Romans eventually adopted the technique. Obviously this is a very abbreviated version, but if you want to know more then there is a tonne of information on Google.

Next (and probably the most well known) comes parchment paper. Herodotus, a Greek man regarded as being the ‘Father of History’, describes the use of parchment as being common in his time. However, scrolls of parchment paper were not the most practical. Firstly, you would have had to use both hands to unwind carefully from the right, and to roll it back up to the left. Secondly, archaeologists have found evidence of scrolls being worn at the bottom from where it has spent time rubbing against clothing. The scrolls would have been too heavy to keep elevated for long periods of time. A modern day equivalent of this is seeing a worn out looking book on someone’s bookshelf, a clear indication the book has been read more than once.

I’m skipping over the invention of wax tablets next, because I do not find it that revolutionary. They are quite self explanatory, words were printed into tablets of wax. What comes next though in 105 AD is the Chinese eunuch. The process of this paper making involves making a mixture of fibres in water to form a suspension and then allowing this suspension to drain through a screen so that a mat of fibre remains. The very first book was printed in China in 868 AD. They used a block of wood that had characters carved in reverse relief. Ink was then placed on the block of wood to create a print in the paper. I think people then thought their words out more carefully than we do now, as there was less opportunity to just correct mistakes.

In 1439 AD -1490 AD the first move-able type is developed in Europe, by Mr. Johannes Gutenberg. This man’s greatest work is no other than the Gutenberg Bible, known as the first book to be printed using his method, and marked the beginning of the Gutenberg Revolution, the dawn of printing books. The year 1455 marks the beginning of the books sat on my bookshelf right now. Fun fact: according to a study in 2010 there are over 129 million books in existence. I’m not sure how many more have been printed since then, but just know that if you ever think you can’t find anything good to read, then just know that the options are endless.

Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press by the end of the 15th century had spread to no less than 236 countries in the world, with more than 20 million books produced. From here on the printing world was in full swing. Something I did not know until researching the origin of books was that the element chlorine, which was discovered in 1744 AD, is used in the bleaching of paper and without this we would not have the nice clean white look we have now. And so with the appearance of book sleeves in 1832 AD, this marked the very first books that most resemble the books that we buy now.

Obviously I have blitzed through this and have left out a lot of details. For me though it is important to know at least a bit of the history of something in order to be able to fully understand it. The history of books follows with the invention of the ‘penny dreadful’ and then (a long period after) the progression of the e-book market in the 2000s. I know this little blog post has not even scratched the surface, but maybe I will explore this topic deeper in later posts.

Until next time,

-S