Review: War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

040 - War and Peace

This is the only book I’ve read for the best part of two months. It’s been a journey, it’s been long and difficult but I am so, so glad to have finally read this gargantuan book. I stuck with the schedule in the Goodreads group that was on, which really did impact my enjoyment I feel. I think I could have enjoyed it more if I had read more when I had momentum rather than sticking to the 6ish chapters a day to get through it.

It’s not going to be a long review, or even much of an overview, because trying to pin my thoughts down is nearly impossible and something I don’t feel I can do after just one read. This is a book I know I will want to read again in the future – not immediately, but in a couple of years for sure. Only then do I think I’ll be able to give a more rounded view.

I’m not going to go in to depth because honestly, I feel like I’ve forgotten a lot of the finer points. Two months is a long time to be stuck in the same book and reading about the same people, and I did feel completely entwined with their lives, but come the end of the book I was tired of the company. I fell in love and out of love with so many characters; those we see through to the end I have such conflicting feelings towards.

There are a lot of issues for me; mostly in how women are represented in the book. I know many people use the excuse of “well it was just the done thing in that time period” – yes, I know, but it still makes me angry because there are so many interesting women in this book who were just objects or tropes, while they did have character I felt the women a lot more stereotypical than the men which, for me, just lessened my enjoyment. That is especially true given the nature of Anna in Anna Karenina – because she’s a pretty great female character, and knowing Tolstoy could create her just makes me frustrated with the endings the women got in this.

As for the story, I loved the ‘peace’ sections of the book; I loved following the lives of so many varied people in a period of history I know so very little about. The lack of knowledge of the history is something I know I want to fill at least a little bit before I reread the novel if only so I can understand the ‘war’ segments of the book a little more fully. For me, they dragged and I lost interest and motivation, which in turn made the whole book a lot more of a chore than an enjoyment.

It’s not my favourite Russian classic I’ve read. I preferred both Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment – both of which are long, but not quite this long. And if I am entirely honest, if I am going to dedicate 2 months of my life to a book and read over 1200 pages, I want it to blow me away much like The Count of Monte Cristo or Bleak House – and keep me engaged, make me want to keep going, which this just didn’t unfortunately.

Ultimately, I’m not going to be rushing back to it in the immediate future, but I am so proud of myself in actually finishing it. It’s one of those books I have wanted to read for an absolute age, and to say I’ve finally done it is just such an achievement. While I didn’t enjoy the book as much as I had hoped, I think the satisfaction in reading it far surmounts anything I’ve felt from reading a book in a long time. It’s also made pretty much every other book in existence much less daunting to approach!

Also, this was the last book in my 50 books of 2017 challenge on goodreads – so I don’t even care it took me 2 months!

Review: Jerusalem: The Biography – Simon Sebag Montefiore

038 - Jerusalem

Rating – 3*

Jerusalem is, for me, one of the most fascinating cities in the world. While I have never been there, it is probably one of those cities on my very short travel list because it is so historically rich. I’m going to say that this book will definitely not be for everyone and I respect that. For me, it’s just a fascinating topic that I wanted to learn more about (not being at uni has done wonders for my general knowledge!)

This book is a biography of the city of Jerusalem. Montefiore takes us on a journey from 2000 BC to the present day. Starting with the birth of Judaism, moving in to Christianity and Islam, this book avoids religious bias admirably; I think all three of these sections were handled really well. While it is natural that there is more Jewish history in Jerusalem, I think fair amounts of information were given to both Christianity and Islam without any bias in spite of the authors own family connections with Jerusalem and coming from a Jewish background. I find the origins of religion fascinating, and I think that is partly why I was so drawn to this book, as I find the basis of the three Abrahamic religions really interesting. Jerusalem is considered to be the birth place of all three, or at least in some peoples eyes, it is most certainly still a Holy city for all three religions. The city itself went back and forth under Jewish, Christian, and Muslim control many times over the years, and for me that’s something that is really very interesting to learn about as it’s not something that I’ve ever been taught.

This book also covers so much more than religion. There is sections of it dedicated to the Ottoman empire, the world wars, how conflict and xenophobia has had a role in the shaping of the city. Interestingly, there was a chapter on the six day war which is, shamefully, a conflict I have only recently become aware of due to my reading of Salt Houses. I’ve always dismissed modern history, I’ve always been more interested in ancient history – but if I’m entirely honest this era of history is something which I’m very glad that I’ve read about, and been able to research and understand. Education is so sheltered and whitewashed, for me I love to see it from different perspectives and learn about things that aren’t taught on the national curriculum.

Montefiore’s writing is fantastic – a lot of this read more like fiction because he tends to focus on one person in history and tell a snippet of the history of the city from their perspective (not first person, but you get my drift). Key figures map out the history and for me, that really made this book more palatable than some history books.

My only issue with this book is that it was heavy going. There was a lot of information – it covered over 3000 years of history – that in itself is not an issue, what my issue was with is the footnotes. SO MANY FOOTNOTES. The fact is that for me many of them could have been included in the bulk of the text, or put to the back of the book wherein supplementary information could be looked at if you wanted to. Instead they sometimes take up half a page and it’s just really frustrating for me as a reader! I also feel that there could have been a disclaimer that part of this book is his own family history – while that became pretty obvious while reading it, I felt a bit annoyed that it wasn’t something that was outright mentioned in the introduction – call me a bit silly if you like!

I’m really looking forward to picking up the other non-fiction book I have by Montefiore (The Romanovs) – but I think I’ll be reading that in quite a while because this is a book I feel I need to fully digest! His writing is great, and very engaging, and I feel like I’ve achieved something from reading this book. It’s a solid 3* and I’ll be picking up more books by Montefiore, and on Jerusalem!

Review: Now and at the Hour of Our Death – Susana Moreira Marques

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Rating – 3*

This was a short and very interesting book. I picked it up because I’m on a bit of an independent publisher binge at the moment and, as Portugal won the Eurovision Song Contest I decided to pick the only book by a Portuguese author that I own up.

The basis of this book is that the author, who is a journalist, spent time with a palliative/end of life care team in a remote area in Portugal, and the result is this book. It is an intimate look in to the lives of the people undergoing care and their families.

The book is split, really, in to two distinct parts. Travel Notes About Death is the first part, and reads very much like poetry. It is short snippets from lives of those dying and their families, with odd interjections from the author. As I said, it reads like poetry and is absolutely beautiful – if the whole book read like this I would happily have given it 4 or even 5 stars because, honestly, I read a lot of it twice because it was so beautiful.

The second section is Portraits in which there are 3 distinct stories told. First we have the authors interpretation of these people, which is then followed by the voices of the patients or their families. These are three very different stories, and it is very intimate to look in on families at this time of their lives. It’s poignant, and the first story of Paula – a 40 year old mother dying of cancer – hit me quite profoundly to the point I was near tears when reading this section, particularly in her own words.

I feel I ought to just state that the translator in this book has done an incredible job, especially capturing the poetic nature of the first section, and the individual voices of the second section. The writing itself was beautiful, my only issue with this book is that it felt disjointed, there was no real flow to the narrative. As I said, if it carried on as the first section was, I’d have easily given it 4 or 5 stars, I just found the portraits a bit clumpy at times and if I’m honest I put the book down and didn’t feel an urge to return to it.

This is definitely an interesting read, but didn’t quite hit me full on!

Review: Fly Away Home – Marina Warner

035 - Fly Away Home

Rating – 3*

After reading what I can only describe as an incredible book published by Salt earlier this month, I decided it was high time I started making headway on the collection of books I have published by them sitting on my shelves. It was this one which caught my attention.

Fly Away Home is a short story collection containing 20 stories. I had very few doubts going in to this collection, frankly I didn’t even know what it was about, I saw it in a local bookshop a few months ago, saw Salt’s logo on the side and picked it up. As discussed previously, I love them as a publisher and whenever I see a book when I’m out, I do have a tendency to pick it up!

Unfortunately, this collection wasn’t for me. It wasn’t that it was bad, it was just that there were only a few stand out stories in the 20 which I really enjoyed, everything else just didn’t hit all the right buttons for me. I love stories which tread the fine line between fantasy and reality. As a whole, the collection had this but I felt that the balance of the two was slightly off. There were so many stories in here that I wanted to love but just lacked something – it’s hard to put my hand on what it was because I loved so many of the ideas, it was just the execution of them which lacked.

Warner’s writing is engaging, it’s interesting and how she interprets myth and fairytale is really something I enjoyed. I just wish there had been more exploration in some stories (Mélusine: A Mermaid Tale for example is one I wish could have had more context and more exploration because I wanted to love that one so, so much) and explored less in others.

It’s by no means a bad collection, I did give each story a rating which, on average, was a 3*. One of my favourites was one of the earlier stories A Chatelaine in the Making which for me had the best balance of fantasy and realism in the collection; it was just the right amount of fantasy to make it read like a fairy tale, but enough realism there to make it dark and twisty.

It isn’t my favourite short story collection, but as with all books (especially short story collections I find) there is a large matter of subjectivity. If we all loved the same thing, then the world would be a boring place! If this book sounds like something you might be interested in do pick it up because I appear to be in a minority – at least according to goodreads!

Review: Testosterone Rex – Cordelia Fine

031 - Testosterone Rex

Rating – 3*

After the horror show that was the representation of women in my previous read, I decided to clear my mind and read a book on gender theory/feminism. I needed to cleanse my soul with something just like this. I actually bought this book because 1) the title made me laugh and 2) the cover is gorgeous. I did briefly read the blurb and picked it up because it sounded right up my alley.

I’ve never read any of Fine’s work before, though after reading this I have since purchased Delusions of Gender, which I am already looking forward to reading as I feel it would give this book a little more meaning.

Testosterone Rex is a relatively short book which aims to debunk the gender myth, or more particularly the “boys will be boys” stance and the universal blame of testosterone for all male behaviours. It’s a good book, for the most part, and it conveys some really important information. For me though, and this is just an opinion, it could have been put across in a much more approachable manner. What could have been pretty straight forward, with real world examples was often over complicated for someone who doesn’t have a background in social sciences or gender studies. Often I found myself scanning through the information in front of me and not fully understanding what was going on until the end of a section.

There were some really, really good bits in this book which I really enjoyed, other bits not so much. The book itself is split in to three main sections – past, present, and future. I found the first 70 or so pages on the past really engaging; honestly those set the book up as a 5* read for me. I also really enjoyed the future section, albeit it was only one chapter but I found the look in on gendering of childrens toys interesting and actually something I’d have liked elaborated on further. For me, what let this book down, was the middle – the present – and it was just that it was so dense.

This is by far the most academic book I’ve read on feminism, and I’m glad it wasn’t my first as it would have put me off the genre of ‘feminist non fiction’ (if there is such a genre!) for life – it would have scared me away because it’s very in depth, and often I couldn’t make out the wood from the trees. The best way to describe this would be a dissertation on gender studies, but without a clear conclusion, rather an overarching sentiment throughout for you to draw your own conclusion.

It’s most certainly not a book for people new to feminist non-fiction, but I would say it’s a good book to pick up if you’re new to – or even wanting to try picking up for the first time – more academic non-fiction and essay collections, because it is most definitely an academic text opposed to a ‘popular non-fiction’ book.

As I said, I’m looking forward to reading Delusions of Gender because if Goodreads is to be believed, that book is a LOT more popular than this!

Review: Stranger, Baby – Emily Berry

027 - Stranger Baby

Rating – 3*

One of my many bookish resolutions this year was to read more poetry – having seen glowing reviews of Emily Berry’s newest collection, I felt like maybe Stranger, Baby was a good way to go. I will tell you now this will be a shorter review, simply because poetry analysis never was (and never will be) my forte!

While I can appreciate that this book was probably incredible from a technical standpoint, for me I felt I wasn’t able to grasp the content of the collection in full. Some of them I did find myself connecting to more than others, which is only natural in a poetry or even a short story collection. For me, I think a lot of this went over my head which is a shame because I think the themes I did pick up on were things I really, really wanted to get more out of them than I did.

Most of the poems in this collection focus on the death of Emily’s mother – they’re intimate, personal, and in a way when reading it it did feel like I was invading her grieving process. Some of the places she went in this collection, those that I did connect with, I connected with quite deeply. Having had loss in my family which is still impacting me, having suffered with depression – parts of some of the poems really hit me but I lost that connection as quickly as it came.

For me, I think this is maybe a book for someone more “experienced” reading poetry. While a lot of this was raw, expressive, and beautiful I found myself disconnecting quite a lot from this collection (and it was quite a sporadic thing, some poems really had me at the start and lost me, others didn’t have me then got me!). As someone inexperienced with the nuances of poetry and being a very emotional reader, I did find myself getting a little frustrated that I wasn’t able to fully engage or connect with the content.

As I have said previously, poetry is a very personal thing and something that no two people will ever have the same reaction to. There are some poems in here I will definitely want to be revisiting, and I think honestly I will revisit the whole collection in the future – probably not this year, maybe not even next year, but definitely in my reading future I will pick this up again.

Review: I Contain Multitudes – Ed Yong

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Rating – 3*

This is the 3rd book from the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist that I have read, and if I’m honest it’s so far my least favourite.

Now, the content of this is really interesting and something I didn’t know much about (I am by no means a microbiologist, and what little I do know about microbes comes from New Scientist articles!) The microbiome is fascinating and this book makes it something that is very approachable and easy to understand. There are numerous good examples in this book, relating what is ultimately an enormous subject to things that anyone can understand. For me, it was also quite a fast paced book which is a rarity in non fiction.

Microbes are something which are all around us; inside of us, our homes, our environments. Everywhere. Science is now understanding the unique relationship that animals, plants, and the environment have with microbes. Studies in to the relationship between humans and our microbial tenants are hoping to understand how our overall health relates to the happiness of our microbiome. There is a lot of research in to illness and our microbiome, and how it can directly and indirectly affect our overall health. With society obsessed with sterilisation and cleanliness we are now at the point where we are doing more ham than good, and while there is no doubt that sterilisation has lead to significant improvements in healthcare there is strong evidence to suggest that things like air conditioning, and obsessively cleaning, causing more harm to society as a whole.

However, while I enjoyed this on the whole, there were a number of things which I found borderline irritating throughout. I found bits of it quite repetitive, while I appreciate that things do have to be repeated sometimes, I found there were a lot of instances of the same thing being said throughout the book quite needlessly. I know it’s probably a small thing, but for me it really affected my overall enjoyment.

I have absolutely no doubt that the future of Ed Yong’s writing is something I am looking forward to. I just feel that this book could have been so much more with a better organisation and maybe a bit of editing. I have no doubt that his articles and shorter work would be great, they’d be more fine tuned and less waffle-y! I also found that the barrage of Latin names for bacteria and microbes borderline annoying, it made it read more like a research paper than a book and with the otherwise relaxed tone of the book it made it feel a bit disjointed.

On the whole, I learnt quite a bit from this book, and it has changed the way I’ll be looking at things in the future and I did enjoy it. There were just minor things for me which didn’t make this as enjoyable as some other non-fiction books I’ve read lately (especially The Gene, another shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize which I absolutely adored and reviewed a few days ago!) and while I’m aware you shouldn’t compare, it’s hard not to when they’re shortlisted for the same prize.

If you’re interested in learning more about microbes and your microbiome, this is a pretty good read, and quite an easy one to follow too.

Review: The Tidal Zone – Sarah Moss

sarah-moss-book-cover-tidal-zone-2016

Rating – 3*

So, I actually read this book in October last year – it was one of the last books I read before I hit The Great Reading Slump of 2016. I thought it about time I reviewed it as I have decided to read the Wellcome Prize shortlist this year, and this is one that has made it. Naturally, this seemed like as good a time as any to finally write this review.

Most people who watch Booktube, or follow bookish blogs like myself, will have heard of this book. It’s been raved about – and for me that was a bit of a hindrance to it because it really set high expectations, which it didn’t quite live up to. However, reviewing this nearly 6 months after I read it has allowed me time to reflect back on it – and I realised that I can still remember it vividly, and that it has suck with me in that time.

For anyone who doesn’t know, The Tidal Zone centres around Adam – a stay at home dad to two girls. The whole family is shook when for no apparent reason Miriam, his 15 year old daughter, collapses at school. The book follows the family coming to terms with this, learning to live with the not knowing and the overwhelming fear that plagues them daily. It discusses everything; teenagers, gender, sex, academia, marriage, family, the NHS but it also follows mundane, daily chores that Adam undertakes too.

It really is a remarkable book, and I’m glad that it’s been recognised on at least one shortlist this year. I gave it 3 stars when I read it, and I think reflecting on it I would still very much agree with that rating. But, reading this has prompted me to pick up more of Sarah Moss’ work – and in researching I’ve found she’s been shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize several times, which just makes me even more excited to read more from her!

Review: Romola – George Eliot

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Rating – 3*

Anyone who reads my reviews regularly will know I adore George Eliot. This book, however, was a bit of a miss for me unfortunately.

Romola takes place in late 15th century Italy; Florence mainly. While Romola is the titular character of this book, as I have come to expect with Eliot’s work this book is much more of an ensemble piece and there’s so much more to it. Tito is, for me, definitely the main character – and an interesting, deep character he is! This book is an exploration of his character, how he descends in to morally ambiguous behaviour; Tito is truly one of the most well explored ‘villains’ in literature. Even though he was the bad guy, following his journey through this book to see him get to that point was complex, and on the whole enjoyable. I’m glad I read this book if only to ‘meet’ Tito.

On the other side of the coin we have Romola. Romola herself was disappointing for me, compared to Tito – who was portrayed in Technicolor –  she was very grey-scale.  I found myself getting frustrated; with characters like Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss I knew that she was capable of creating a female protagonist who fights against societal norms. I thought, at points, we would see Romola rebel, but we didn’t. Instead she submits to Tito, endures his abhorrent behaviour. She feels like a caricature of Victorian virtue – and that frustrated me to no end. She didn’t feel fully formed, she felt very halfhearted and where there was a deep study of Tito, I don’t feel as a reader I ever got any insight in to Romola.

The scope of this novel is amazing, and the research that she must have put in to it is incredible. Italy came alive, and when reading this I did feel like it was a sunny afternoon on the continent. I felt like I was in 15th century Italy. And while this had all of the key things I adore about Eliot’s work; beautiful prose, locations that come alive, (on the whole) interesting characters, I felt a lot of it was lost on me. While I admire the amount of research that went in to this book, it often lost me or frustrated me. I can understand why she is thought to have said this was her best book, her favourite book – because it is incredible – but to enjoy it fully I think you have to be a 15th century scholar.

George Eliot is still my favourite 19th century female author. The woman can do no wrong in my eyes. However, this is definitely not a place to start with Victorian literature, George Eliot, or classics in general. It’s definitely a book which required patience, and a dedication that only someone who loves either the Victorian novel generally, or George Eliot more specifically, can get a modicum of enjoyment out of. That and maybe 15th century scholars.

So, yes, I liked this book. Not my favourite Eliot by far, but one I may revisit in the future!

Review: Junk DNA – Nessa Carey

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Rating – 3*

I was missing science – having finished lectures nearly a year ago now I was hankering to get back in the saddle, so to speak. Genetics is something I didn’t study in depth during the course of my degree (I favoured more protein based science which did require basic knowledge of genetics but nothing which really complex) but it is something that I have always loved learning about. I previously read Nessa Carey’s Epigentics Revolution way back in 2012 before I even started my degree and when I saw she had another book out I had to get in there because I remember loving the way she explained things and learning a lot from what I was reading.

This book explains things well too. She uses analogies (which I am very appreciative of) and it makes the book much more approachable for the keen ‘amateur’ scientist – someone who has a GCSE in the subject and a keen interest. For me, it was a great refresher on some of the basics and a more focused look on the complexities and I really enjoyed it.

Ultimately, Junk DNA is nothing of the sort – about 98% of human DNA doesn’t code for proteins, and is therefore considered ‘not-necessary’, or junk. However, as research has progressed it’s become pretty clear that the non-coding, or junk, regions of DNA are actually crucial to the healthy function of cells. Alterations in these non-coding regions result in significant disabilities and can prove fatal.

There is a link back to her previous book on epigenetics also. Epigenetics is the modification of DNA which does not change the sequence of the genetic code – this is most commonly done by adding groups on to that well known structure of a double helix without changing any of the functionality of the DNA. In this book Carey links the importance of ‘junk’ DNA and epigenetics in linking the malfunctions and human diseases.

As someone who has a background in science, I enjoyed this but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had hoped. I think having really enjoyed her first book I had high hopes for this one, and while I did learn from it I found bits of it quite difficult to get through and, as such, it took me a month to read this end to end. Which, I do realise isn’t bad by any standards but it didn’t have me as gripped as Epigenetics Revolution did in the past.

If you have an interest in genetics, this is definitely worth considering as a book to pick up! If you don’t, then I’d advise you avoid this book.