Look Who’s Back – Timur Vermes

Across the front cover of Look Who’s Back is an endorsement from the Independent. “Be warned. This book is funny. Very funny.”

Let me tell you – it’s not.

Well, maybe it is. Humour is subjective, after all – I guess one could say that although it’s not funny-haha, or funny-peculiar, it is at least…. I don’t know. Funny-horrifying?

I can tell you I didn’t laugh. Perhaps, looking at the strikingly recognisable cover art, that makes sense.

Look Who’s Back starts from the premise that Adolf Hitler somehow wakes up alive and well in Berlin in 2011. Not much time is wasted on the how or why of this miraculous(?) occurrence – the fictional Hitler himself simply takes a little time to accept his new reality, and then gets on with things, and the narrative behaves the same way; the somehow-still-alive dictator quickly becomes a sensation, lauded as a brilliant satirist, with his own TV show, going viral on YouTube, becoming the talk of the town etc etc.

I didn’t laugh. It wasn’t funny.

It was a gripping and engaging read, though. I read it for my office book club, and even before our meeting there have been a few discussions – reactions are spilling out of me and my colleagues with some heavily divided opinions; one person at least has put the book to one side in frustration and disgust, a few have read avidly, almost unable to put it down. Personally, I found it to be a very readable and well-written (and well-translated) narrative. Although the content is – quite frankly – terrifying, the story itself is, as I say, engaging and easy to read. Apart from the self-consciousness of carrying a book with Hitler’s face on it, that is. I definitely felt awkward reading this on the tube.

I’m still slightly reeling as I write this, to be honest, so it may not be the most coherent of posts. As they flow from my brain to the keyboard, then, a few thoughts:

It is extremely disconcerting to find oneself empathising with (albeit a fictional version of) Hitler. The narrative is written from his point of view, and while none of what the main character says is softened from the old speeches, we the reader see these awful words juxtaposed with a man forming relationships with those around him; see that famous charisma; see his (if you like) humanity. Although this is not an enjoyable or comfortable experience, there is a part of me that does think it’s important. As I wrote about in reaction to Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things (where similarly, we as readers are confronted with the humanity of a modern day white supremacist), it is both the mark of a clever author, and an important element of defeating that kind of hatred to be able to do so.

That might not make sense, but bear with me. When extremists (or those with extremist views) are demonised, or turned into monsters – something less than or other than human – several things happen. Firstly, the collusion of society or individuals is swept under the rug. We can say – but it’s not us, it’s them – they’re the monster! – and conveniently forget (in the case of Hitler, for example) that this ‘monster’ was overwhelmingly supported and voted into power. All responsibility is pushed onto the ‘monster’, which makes everyone else feel less guilty. This may be fine, except that this removes a significant barrier to the same things happening again with a different monster. Right? If we separate the extremist from humanity, humanity has no impetus to learn from our bad choices.

Secondly, othering extremism creates the conditions for extremism. By ostracising and dehumanising the views – the anger, the hurt, the need, the want, the very human emotions and reactions which contribute to someone developing extreme views and actions – we create an environment where these views can’t be aired. Which ought to be a good thing, of course – except that if the views can’t be aired, they can’t be answered or addressed, and if they can’t be answered or addressed, they continue, and if they continue, they continue underground, out of sight, and if they continue out of sight, they grow in strength and volume and number until they have enough whallop to win an election.

And if these -surprise-election-winning-extreme-views are, in the future, dehumanised again… well, then the whole cycle starts over. People don’t recognise the contributing factors, because there’s such a vast gap between ordinary human beings and the monster who did those awful, unspeakable things… allowing us to forget entirely from our collective consciousness that it was not a monster who did these unspeakable things, but a human being.

Which is infinitely worse.

Here are some promises I have made myself, or renewed in myself, after reading Look Who’s Back. I’m not going to keep these perfectly, but I am going to try my utmost, and keep trying every day. If you can, I urge you to do the same.

  • I will engage in conversation – not just debate, but actual genuine conversation with actual human engagement, and two-way listening – with those who hold different views from mine.
  • I will – as far as I am able – answer hatred with love, not more hatred. I will endeavour to show compassion and empathy to all those around me, even when I think they’re wrong, or think they are leading with hate and anger.
  • I will not allow myself to be complicit in hate-filled opinions or ‘humour’. When I see or hear bigotry, I will challenge it – however I am able – just not with silence.
  • I will try to use my privilege for the good of others. More on this promise in this post.
  • I will VOTE. I will exercise my democratic right as wisely as I am able, with research and the courage of my convictions. I will not fall back on the easy bitterness of ‘But it won’t make a difference’ – even if I think it won’t.

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P.s. The film adaptation is on Netflix in the UK. It’s in German with English subtitles, and again, I didn’t laugh, I cried.  The book is better, IMO, but if you prefer to watch than read, you can.

The Enchanted April – Elizabeth von Arnim

The Enchanted April is one of my mum’s favourite films (hi, Mum!), so, because it’s always easy to love something that someone you love loves, I’ve seen it lots and enjoy it every time. Recently, I saw on my Goodreads feed that a friend had recently read the book (hi, Friend!), and I was struck with a full on moment of ‘Duh!! Why have I never done this?!’.

Thankfully, that kind of problem is an easy one to fix. Thanks, Library!

This book is genius. It’s so beautifully written, so gently-paced and evocative, that a book about a holiday in Italy starts to feel like a holiday in Italy in and off itself. I swear, when I put it down I was more relaxed than after an hour and a half of yoga! If you’ve never heard of it, or never seen the film, here’s a short summary:

Two women, known to each other by face but not name, are living in grey, miserable, early twentieth century London, with grey, miserable, early Twentieth century marriages and grey, miserable, early Twentieth century lives. Both of them, in different and distinct ways, are feeling overwhelmed by the drudgery of living the ‘expected’ life, and both of them have reached a hidden fever pitch of quiet desperation. Then, Lottie spots an advertisement in a newspaper – the phrase ‘wisteria and sunshine‘ capturing her imagination – and what’s more, a little while later, she spots Rose spotting the advertisement as well. Moved by the aforementioned quiet desperation, Lottie breaks all the social norms to approach Rose, introduce herself, and make the outlandish and outrageous suggestion that they share the opportunity for wisteria and sunshine together – take a month off, away from their husbands, and go on holiday to a castle in Italy with a woman one hardly knows.

I love this. It might not raise many eyebrows now, (I’m looking at you, Air BnB), but at the time the book is set that was so very much Not The Done Thing. I love the idea of these women taking a risk to change things up, and do something entirely for their own happiness and wellbeing. Mad! Radical! Completely wonderful!

Anyway, Lottie and Rose end up hiring this castle in Italy (for the month of April, funnily enough), and end up advertising for two other women to share the cost of the rent with them (it is a castle, after all, albeit a small one – there’s plenty of space!). These four women – different ages, situations in life, personality types – soak up the solitude and sunshine together, letting themselves unfold and unwind, forging friendships and healing old wounds. Everything, by the end, is a lot less miserable, a lot less grey, and although it’s still early Twentieth century, everyone’s a lot happier about that than they were.

Ultimately, it’s delightful. Although I described the premise as radical, the reading experience isn’t at all – it’s a supremely relaxing novel, but von Arnim’s prose is such that it’s not hard to imagine yourself basking in the Mediterranean sun under the shade of a large wisteria or three. (I had to Google what wisteria looked like. Once I had, I immediately decided that I want seventeen of these things in a garden when I’m a Grown Up™.)

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Check out the Google image search results… MAGICAL FAIRYLAND!

My recommendation? Get thee to Italy and take this book with you. Or at least read the book…. it’s the next best thing.

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The Coldest Girl in Coldtown – Holly Black

This is an unabashed YA Vampire Novel, and I am unashamed of reading it. I loved it – the vampires weren’t all ameliorated and generically romanticised, the teenage heroine is completely terrified of being separated from her family, of being ‘infected’, of BAD VAMPIRES GETTING HER… it was everything I wanted from a YA Vampire Novel and I would love a follow-up or sequel.

You’ll note I said ‘generically romanticised’. This is still a YA Vampire Novel and (slight spoiler alert, I guess, but come on… really what do you expect?!) there is still one vampire potential love interest. Because duh. And honestly, I’m more than ok with that because the vampire dude seems waaaay more respectful than the heroine’s asshole ex… so yeah.

There’s not much more to say about this… if YA Vampire Novels aren’t your thing, you won’t like it,. because that is definitely what this book is. I thought it was well written, it struck a good balance of surprising and satisfyingly going where you wanted it to go, and I thought the vampires were generally scary and bad (which is good – scary and bad things should always be shown as, and treated as, scary and bad, IMO) and the interplay of relationships was complex and interesting and not always easily resolved – friendships and family relationships included.

Pretty much does what it says on the tin.

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Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

Some books are snapshots; products of their time. It’s fascinating to read them, and consider how society has changed, and how attitudes have developed and evolved – to imagine how one would fit in to a time which is so different to one’s own. (Who else has fantasised in abject horror about being a woman in Austen’s world… no reading after dark?! No working!? Forced to marry out of convenience??!)

And then there are the other books. The ones which seem – worryingly, in this case – to transcend the bounds of recent human history, and maintain currency and relevance long after the author has died.

Brave New World (like 1984, one of my all-time faves) is one such book. I’m not going to write much about it, simply because I feel that smarter and more eloquent people than I have already said much more, and better, than I will ever be able to, but in reading this classic I am stuck once again with how terrifyingly prescient it is.

In case this wasn’t one you read in school, or it’s one of those which you have added to the mental pile of books you probably ought to have read but just haven’t really considered, here’s a quick plot summary:

Set in a dystopian future (I do love my dystopian future novels), the narrative opens in a literal baby factory. In this world, procreation has been sanitised, standardised, and outsourced – no longer left to crude nature (imagine! A baby born, with a *hushed whisper* mother and father??), all children are conceived, carried and conditioned in bottles on a carefully calibrated production line. (I am enjoying alliteration today. Just roll with it, k?). Sex, on the other hand, has not been outlawed – it’s just that it’s for fun instead of making babies. Promiscuity is encouraged, just as exclusive relationships are considered dangerous and vulgar. Young children engage in ‘erotic play’ as a matter of course – sex is considered part of the natural order of things, just like taking soma (a synthetic, hangover-free recreational drug) and shopping for new stuff. Why would anyone be exclusive? Everyone belongs to everyone, after all – and exclusivity is the enemy of happiness, breeding jealousy, passion, and instability.

Society, in short, has been perfected. Every person is perfectly conditioned to their work and social status; everyone has everything they could want or need – sex, food, drugs, shopping, games (which require more shopping), and a job for which they were literally born.

Perfect, right?

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It’s a short book, and an easy to read one – it’s not one of those dense classics which you need three months and a dictionary to get through – and it’s most definitely worthwhile.

If, you know, a little terrifying.

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The Signature of All Things – Elizabeth Gilbert

Regular readers may remember that I am a fairly recent Elizabeth Gilbert convert – her most famous/infamous book, Eat Pray Love, was one of the first books I reviewed for this blog. In the post, and in the subsequent post I wrote once I had finished (the first was a mid-read review), I wax lyrical about the author’s skill in the way that only someone who has had their opinions turned on their heads can… and I followed it up some months later by reading Big Magic at the beginning of this year, and waxing lyrical about that as well.

Safe to say, then, that I am a Gilbert fan. However, until now I had never read any of Gilbert’s fiction, having only focused on the non-fiction for which she is arguably most famous (unusual for me!). So when a friend lent me The Signature of All Things, I didn’t really know what to expect. I thought I would enjoy it – that seemed a fairly safe bet – but having loved so much the voice (the incredibly personal and candid voice) of Eat Pray Love and Big Magic, I wasn’t sure how I would find a book where that voice is disguised as a fictional character’s.

I needed have worried. I did love The Signature of All Things, and quite frankly, Gilbert’s personality is stamped through and through it like Brighton Rock, just as surely as in her other works.

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The story is centred around Alma, a botanist living in Philadelphia around the turn of the eighteenth/nineteenth century. It’s actually something of an epic – having met Alma at the moment of her birth, we quickly move backwards to meet her father as a young boy, in order to re-join Alma having watched her father grow up, move from London to America, travel across the globe and make his fortune – only to then follow Alma as she grows up, too, and learns and writes and travels and loves and loses and gains.

More than investment in the characters and their lives, though, what I found beautiful about this book was the beautiful juxtaposition between the mystical and the concrete. Gilbert’s non-fiction is dripping in spirituality and philosophical questions – how interesting, then, that the central character of this novel is a scientist with a fiercely logical and rational outlook on life. In another’s hands, this could easily have been propaganda, I think – a clumsy cautionary tale in which Alma, the dry and blind rational scientist, has an inexplicable epiphany and realises the error of her ways to embrace mysticism whilst eschewing modern life and making a home on a small barely inhabited tropical island – but no, Gilbert is (of course) far too skillful a writer for that.

Instead, we have a layered, complex novel, in which Gilbert’s unique brand of humour and spirituality are clearly visible – but without losing the integrity of the story or characters. It was so interesting to think about these concepts through Alma’s rational viewpoint, and while enjoying a thoroughly good story to boot. Apart from anything else, The Signature of All Things is a gorgeous portrait of the world – sort of simultaneously a snapshot and an intricate oil painting of humanity and our relationship with the natural world.

Ok, I’m pretty sure that last sentence didn’t actually make sense, but it’s the best way I could think of to describe it. You’d better read it, and then you’ll see what I mean..!

If you already like Elizabeth Gilbert’s writing, you will like this. If Big Magic and Eat Pray Love were just a bit… much for you… then you will probably still like it, as it’s less overtly about spirituality and philosophy, and can absolutely just be read as an interesting story about a female scientist who lived when Darwin published On The Origin of Species.

Still a Gilbert fan!

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My Not So Perfect Life – Sophie Kinsella

I have to say, I’d been looking forward to reading My Not So Perfect Life for a while. I really enjoyed The Undomestic Goddess and Remember Me by Sophie Kinsella – and you know what? Sometimes you’re just in the mood for some happy endings and heartstring tugging! Gritty reality is all very well, but sometimes I get fed up of grit and reality, and I want some silly, happy escapism – and Sophie Kinsella is wonderful for that.

My Not So Perfect Life centres around Cat (or Katie, depending on who you ask), a young professional from Somerset who has moved to London to make her career in branding. She’s had two unpaid internships, lives in a tiny shoebox of a flat with two irritating flatmates, can’t afford much outside of rent and basic food, and has a nightmare of a boss in a basic admin role… but dammit, she’s in London! Wonderful London, and she’s finally got a PAID job in her industry of choice. Besides… judging by her Instagram, you would never ever know that her life is anything less than perfect…

I loved it. There are some pretty silly moments, and some improbable twists of fate, like any good romcom – but there’s some reality in there too. It’s important, I think, to have regular reminders that Instagram and Twitter give only the filtered, edited highlights of someone’s life, and that believing the hype while desperately hyping yourself – well, that way leads madness. There was a lot for me to personally identify with, as well – as a young(ish) professional in London, recently at the bottom(ish) of a new career ladder, and paying waaaaaay more than is reasonable for rent, Cat was a nicely relatable heroine.

My Not So Perfect Life was just exactly what I wanted it to be. In this case, feel free to believe my online hype!

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The Time Keeper – Mitch Albom

The first book I read of Mitch Albom’s was The Five People You Meet in Heaven – and it was so lovely, so beautifully written and poignant, so filled with touching ideas and deceptively gentle questions that I was sure I would love anything else he had written.

Thankfully, I wasn’t disappointed with The Time Keeper. Like Five People, it handles intensely personal and weighty ideas with a wonderfully gentle touch – in this case, the idea of time. The narrative has that touch of fairytale and fantasy which is like catnip to me, and explores the idea of time from many angles; philosophical and religious to individual and private. It tells the story of Father Time – not, as many may think, a mythical symbolic figure of mere imagination – but a real man, raised (or punished) to watch over the world and hear every voice, every plea for more time, less time, faster time, slower time… for the achievement (or dreadful crime) of inventing the human concept of time, for trapping the passing of it in months, days, and minutes.

(Yes, I have now written the word ‘time’ so often that it’s started to lose all meaning to me. But then again… did it ever have meaning…?)

I really enjoy Albom’s writing. This little gem was poignant and touching, and I inhaled it in one afternoon – his language is both easy to read and elegantly constructed.

Highly recommended!

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The Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss

This was recommended to me by a friend, and I loved it.

The Name of the Wind is a beautifully written fantasy novel. The central character is Kvothe, a mysterious figure of living legend in a world where magic exists (if not in the way that it does in children’s tales). The first book is told in retrospect, and it seems like that how the second book will be too – we meet Kvothe first under an assumed name and identity, until a stranger wanders in – the Chronicler – and recognises him. Then Kvothe begins his previously untold story…

It’s a relatively simple concept – take a hero, and have him tell the real story of his legendary life (truth being stranger than fiction, as we all know) – with a complex and intricate execution. The world Rothfuss has created is detailed and engaging…. and, really, this is just an excellent fantasy novel with a general LOTR-esque feel to it. If you like fantasy, this is a great book for you.

However.

What I didn’t realise when I reserved this, and the next book – The Wise Man’s Fear – from my local library is that the third book of the trilogy…. doesn’t actually exist yet. GRAARGH!

The instant-gratification Millennial part of me is now distraught, of course! I flew through the nearly 700-page fantasy tome in two days flat, squeezing in reading time on the tube, during lunch breaks, while walking down the street… I know the next instalment is waiting for me at home, but honestly, by the time this post goes live I am likely to have finished that too…. and then what do I do?!

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But I want it NOOOWWWW!!!

I failed to do my due diligence and now I am hopelessly hooked on a story that I may never get to know the end of. I have a choice, ten years after The Name of the Wind was first published – join the pain of the many fans waiting on sharp tenterhooks for the promised release of the third novel (It already has a title! Rothfuss has been doing interviews saying he’s working on it! IT MIGHT BE SOON!) or give up the pain of hoping before I’ve started and make my peace with the idea that I may never know the ending.

Either way, I may have to seriously review the status of the friendship with the recommend-er. What have you done?!

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The Man Who Forgot His Wife – John O’Farrell

This was another book picked up from Leamington Spa railway station (this time by my Mum, whose bookshelf I duly raided… thanks Mum!) – and it was surprisingly lovely! The concept sounded interesting enough to keep me occupied for a Saturday afternoon in the quiet countryside – a man suffers suddenly from severe retrograde amnesia and completely forgets everything, including the fact that he is married with two children! What happens now?!

The plot device is perhaps a little implausible, but I thought this would be an enjoyable light sort of story – like Remember Me by Sophie Kinsella, which works from a similar starting concept except the other way around. Or, I was prepared for it to maybe be a little darker, perhaps with some ‘gritty realism’ (i.e. depressing ending) as a counterpoint to the improbable premise.

What I found was an incredibly engaging novel, with believable characters (even if still in slightly unbelievable circumstances) and a very satisfying ending. This to me shows real skill as a writer – to take something that could easily be a silly flight of fancy, and create characters who are 3D and realistic anyway. The story had coherence, and although I don’t know if any of the medical case studies mentioned in the book are real, I sort of wouldn’t be surprised if they were – because O’Farrell has constructed such a thorough and cohesive story that something wildly outside the normal bounds of day to day life feels like it could possibly be real life. Excellent work!

Ultimately, this was a very enjoyable read for me. Engaging, interesting, and romantic without being fantastical – summed up, I think, by my comment to Mum as I put it down: That was lovely!

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Disobedience – Naomi Alderman

Books are like people. They’re all different; some are a bit holier-than-thou, some obnoxious, some thrilling but exhausting, and some are interesting and kind and you return to them again and again.

Then, too, meeting books is like meeting people. Some you may take a while to warm to, some you hate, some you have to get on with for the purposes of work, and some you politely say hello to and never see again… and then, every so often, you meet someone with whom you just click. Instantly, that spark is there, and you both know that you’re going to be very good for each other…. whether it’s a romance or a friendship, whether it turns out to be temporary or the beginning of something lifelong, there’s nothing in the world like feeling that someone understands you – really gets it, through and through.

Disobedience is a wonderful story, well written with fascinating characters and an insight into  worlds which I have never personally experienced. It won the Orange Award for New Writers in 2006, and personally I think the accolades are deserved – an intensely human story, which prompts philosophical thinking as well as self-reflection and introspection, as all the best books (and people, IMO) do. The narrative is centred around Ronit, a woman born into an Orthodox Jewish community, after she has done the unthinkably scandalous, and turned her back on her religion and community. Years before the book’s narrative starts, she has left London and moved to New York to become a ‘cigarette-smoking, wisecracking, New York career woman’ – then her father, the Rav (beloved Rabbi, community leader) dies, and Ronit has to face once more the places, people and culture she had left behind.

I found this to be an absolutely compelling read. I cared about Ronit, and about her childhood companions, now grown and integrated as adults in their community. I was fascinated by the insight into Orthodox Jewish culture in Britain – the narrative is peppered with short lessons on some of the history and language central to the way of life, which adds a depth of learning, and I suppose, a sort of exoticism to the story and makes it even more enticing. For this reason alone, I would happily recommend Disobedience to anyone.

Ultimately, though, what touched me about this book was that it felt like Alderman had written it just for me. It’s not about me – Ronit and I have not had the same life experiences at all – but it is for me. Like meeting someone and instantly becoming friends, I put the book down and felt both that I understood and was understood.

So don’t feel bad if you don’t connect with it like I did. One doesn’t meet a soulmate every day!

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