The Secret Agent – Joseph Conrad

While Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is certainly his most famous work, I think that The Secret Agent is infinitely better. Why? It’s beautifully-written, full of action, suspense, well-drawn characters, and although it was published in 1907, Conrad’s astute observations about society are relevant even today. Especially today.

The plot: Adolf Verloc has two jobs. One is to run a seedy shop in London with his wife and her simple-minded brother, and the other is to operate as a secret agent. However, Verloc is certainly no James Bond; he prefers to do the absolute minimum required to receive his paycheck. That is, until he is confronted by the shady Mr Vladimir, a foreign ambassador of some kind, with an ultimatum: lose his job or blow up the Greenwich Observatory. The idea behind this plot is that by targeting a building of such symbolic significance, England will be stirred into decisive, even extreme action against criminal/revolutionary/terrorist organisations. This is pretty dark stuff and it is easy to see how this bleak take on the political world would be eaten up by conspiracy theorists.

One of the first things I noticed about this book is that although the novel is set in London, it is surprisingly un-English. None of the characters have very English-sounding names, and even the descriptions of the city do not bring to mind images of red telephone boxes and Buckingham Palace. Rather, Conrad’s London appears to be permanently engulfed in darkness, so much so that it becomes difficult to tell that the novel is actually set in London and not in some bleak, cold corner of Poland (Conrad’s home country).

Another thing I loved about this book is that although it is so obviously, relentlessly political, the characters are not one-dimensional. Throughout the novel, Verloc grapples with his conscience as he is forced to adjust from being an observer to an active participant in a terrorist plot. Then there’s the relationship between the simple-minded Stevie and the Verlocs. It is difficult to discuss this relationship without divulging any spoilers, but it is safe to say that he is, in a sense, both a symbol of innocence and the human mirror of Mr Verloc’s emotional state.

I think you can probably gather that I really loved this book, but I must admit that I did have a couple of issues with it. It did take me about 100 pages to get into the story and I did contemplate giving up once or twice towards the beginning because the writing is so dense (I’m so glad I didn’t). I also thought that some words were used a little too frequently (Mr Verloc ‘mumbles’ so much that I couldn’t help but think of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series) and Conrad uses a ridiculous number of adverbs. But, you can’t be too critical of his over-use of adverbs because did I mention that English was Conrad’s THIRD FREAKING LANGUAGE?!? Yep, that’s right. His first language was Polish, then came French, and then at the age of twenty-one, Conrad finally learned English. And he writes better than the vast majority of native speakers. Unfair.

Anyway, I highly highly highly recommend this book, especially if you’re a fan of political satires. Or even if you’re not. Just read it.

Have you read The Secret Agent? Or any of Joseph Conrad’s other works? What did you think? Would love to hear from you. 

~Anna

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Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil – Melina Marchetta

Melina Marchetta’s Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil is a fast-paced thriller that jumps between both sides of the English Channel. The story begins in London, where suspended desk cop Bashir “Bish” Ortley is grappling with the death of his son and the disintegration of his marriage. Across the channel, a bus carrying a group of British teenagers is subject to a deadly bomb attack and Bish discovers that his daughter is one of those on board. The main suspect is 17-year-old Violette LeBrac, whose grandfather blew up a supermarket thirteen years ago, and whose mother is serving a life sentence in prison for allegedly planning the attack. As Bish is dragged into the search for missing Violette, he finds himself reluctantly working with her mother and begins to wonder if justice was actually served all those years ago.

I picked up this book after one of my coworkers mentioned that it was her favourite crime read of 2016, but I have to say that I was a little disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, I think Melina Marchetta is a fantastic writer and I am a huge fan of her YA novels, but I think this one missed the mark by a bit.

My first criticism of this book is that the plot is highly convoluted. I had a lot of trouble keeping track of all of the characters and their respective backstories, and there are a lot of plotholes. For example, I really don’t think that a suspended London desk cop would ever be allowed to collaborate with MI5 on a serious bombing case, especially if his own daughter were involved in the attack. But whatever… good story > procedural accuracy, right?

My other main criticism is that this book lacks a lot of subtlety. One of the key themes explored is racial profiling, particularly the treatment of those of Arab/Middle Eastern descent by police authorities. This is an important issue, don’t get me wrong. But I thought that it was explored so heavy-handedly that the resolution of the story was clear to me from the very first chapter.

Despite these criticisms, I thought that the characters in this book were well-constructed and interesting, especially the teenage characters. Often, teenage characters in adult crime novels have absolutely no depth, but Marchetta has a real knack for writing complex and believable teenagers.

Overall, this book was a miss for me, but I know a lot of people who loved it. I think that Marchetta is great at exploring family relationships and creating interesting characters, but not so suited to the thriller/mystery genre.

Have you read this book? What did you think? How does it compare to her YA novels? Would love to hear from you. 

~Anna

Eligible – Curtis Sittenfeld

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice may have been written over 200 years ago, but it has been reimagined and resurrected countless times – as a Bollywood extravaganza (Bride and Prejudice), a gory zombie novel (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and best of all, as a BBC mini-series featuring Colin Firth and a wet shirt. Now comes Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, which moves this classic story to that roiling hotbed of societal intrigue, the Cincinnati suburbs.

The basic story is very familiar – a silly woman plots to marry off her five unwed daughters to rich bachelors, couples fall in and out of love, and the grouchy and handsome Mr. Darcy reveals his heart of gold – however Curtis Sittenfeld manages to give it a hearty and original update. I won’t go into detail about the plot because I think it’s pretty fun to see how the story has been reimagined, but I will say that I think this modernisation is lighthearted, fresh, and funny. The writing is not spectacular and it is by no means Curtis Sittenfeld’s best work, but it made me chuckle to myself a few times and it made a 12-hour flight pass very quickly. The final verdict: Curtis Sittenfeld + Jane Austen modernisations + long haul flights = the ultimate guilty pleasure. 

Have you read this book? If so, what did you think? And what do you think of Jane Austen modernisations in general? Let me know what you think.

~Anna

My Bedside Book Mountain

My bedside book mountain is really getting out of hand. Yesterday I bought two new books instead of picking up one of the million unread books lying around my apartment. Pitiful. But they both looked so good and I needed them on my shelf! To be honest, that’s probably a lie, but whatever. Anyway, I thought I would share with you some of the books I’m working my way through at the moment. I wish that I were more disciplined and could read just one book at a time, but I have a bad habit of picking up new books at random, discarding ones that don’t interest me, and most unfortunately, buying new ones instead of going to the library or reading what I already have.

1. The Story of a New Name – Elena Ferrante

I picked up My Brilliant Friend a couple of weeks ago and absolutely adored it (you can find my review here). The characters are wonderfully complex, the writing is so fierce and vibrant, and the story is very gripping. Needless to say, it took me less than 24 hours to buy the second book in the series after finishing the first. So far I am enjoying it immensely and to be honest, I think it might even be better than the first. I have definitely been converted.

2. The Hate Race – Maxine Beneba Clarke

I am also currently reading Maxine Beneba Clarke’s powerful and harrowing memoir about growing up black in Australia. I’m not going to lie, this is a difficult book to read, but I think that it is a very important book for Australians at this time. To be honest, I have neglected this one a little just because it is so depressing – the blatant and cruel racism that Maxine describes really makes my stomach squirm – but I definitely plan on finishing it soon.

3. The Hidden Life of Trees – Peter Wohlleben

Now for something completely different – The Hidden Life of Trees! In this book, Peter Wohlleben shares his deep love of trees and forests and explains the amazing scientific processes of life, death, and regeneration he has observed in the woodland. He argues that much like human families, tree parents live together with their children, communicate with them, and support them as they grow, sharing nutrients with those who are sick or struggling and creating an ecosystem that mitigates the impact of extremes of heat and cold for the whole group. As a result of such interactions, trees in a family or community are protected and can live to be very old. I’m only a couple of chapters in (this is my go-to lunch break read at work), but I still can’t figure out whether this guy is a treehugging nut case or a total genius. Will have to wait and see.

Which books are on your bedside book mountain? Have you read any of these? Do you have any recommendations? 

~Anna

My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

After years of hearing people recommend it, I finally got around to reading Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, the first of her Neapolitan novels. Ferrante has a bizarre cult following here in Melbourne and I thought it was high time I jumped aboard the hype train. On a somewhat related note, when did Ferrante become a thing? Was it this year? 2013? Whenever it was, we should have been talking about her sooner.

At its heart, this book tells the story of the tumultuous relationship between two childhood friends, Lila and Elena, as they navigate through adolescence and struggle to break free of the grinding cycle of poverty and isolation generated by the problems of the post-war, post-Fascist Italian state. The two girls live in a rough, violent neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples, where money is hard to come by and opportunities for escape are scarce. Growing up on these tough streets, the two girls learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone or anything else. As they grow, as their paths repeatedly diverge and converge, Elena and Lila remain friends whose respective destinies are reflected and refracted in the other. They are likewise the embodiments of a nation undergoing momentous change. Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her protagonists.

The best thing about this book is definitely the characters. The relationship between Elena and Lila is so incredibly fascinating, and both of the protagonists have so much depth and complexity. Their friendship is not an easy one – rather, it is fraught with tension and the two girls are in constant competition, although neither can truly succeed without the other. A friend once said to me that Ferrante ‘cuts to the bone’ and I couldn’t agree more. Acts of terrifying cruelty are balanced by offhand displays of extraordinary kindness to paint a mesmerising portrait of a friendship that is at the same time totally unique and extremely familiar.

I also really like that Ferrante takes almost every conventional literary device and narrative structure, flips it over, and spits it out again. She introduces way too many characters at random, inserts about five different ideas into a single sentence, and the story is not quite chronological. I think that these things would annoy me if anyone else did them, but I found myself admiring Ferrante’s audacity and creativity. Also, I think that Ann Goldstein deserves a big shout-out for her spectacular translation! Often, I think translated novels can sound a bit stilted, but this one reads wonderfully.

Overall, I thought that this book was beautifully-written, compelling, difficult to read at times, and absolutely brilliant. Will I read her other books? Hell yes. Especially after the very classy cliffhanger at the end of this one. Would I recommend this book to other people? Hell yes.

Have you ever read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels? What did you think? Would love to hear from you. 

~Anna

My Pig Paulina – Hans Limmer & David Crossley

I don’t usually review children’s books, but I had to make an exception for this one because it’s just TOO DARN CUTE.

The blurb: Angelika lives with her parents and her sister Susi on a beautiful Mediterranean island. She loves roaming the island with her favourite doll, Hippi, and when she adopts a piglet named Paulina, they have lots of fun together! When a farmer wants to take Paulina away, Angelika knows she has to save her best friend. And so begins their adventure…

Originally published in Germany in the 1960s (although recently translated into English), this book wonderfully captures the magic of wandering barefoot through the countryside without a grownup in sight. It made me laugh out loud, feel nostalgic for my childhood, and want to go on a few adventures of my own. Would definitely recommend this book for all the special little ones in your life (especially those aged 3-6).

Have you read My Pig Paulina? What did you think? What are your favourite recent children’s books? Would love to hear from you. 

~Anna

Tenth of December – George Saunders

So I’m not entirely sure what I just read, but wow… It was good. I think. I’m pretty sure. Yeah.

What drew me to this book was the universal praise it has received. It seems that everyone from Zadie Smith to David Foster Wallace considers Saunders to be some sort of literary god. Even the New York Times (which does not speak in absolute terms very often) has called Tenth of December “the best book you’ll read this year”. My final verdict: the hype is totally deserved.

This book is first and foremost a collection of short stories, each one presenting a different vision of a failing America. Although this sounds very gloomy, this collection is surprisingly charming and the stories all have a lot of heart. In one story, a family member recollects a backyard pole dressed for all occasions; in another, Jeff faces horrifying ultimatums and the prospect of Darkenfloxx™ in some unusual drug trials. While each story is remarkably different, they are all distinctly Saundersian – wryly hilarious, dark, and satirical. None of the protagonists are particularly successful. Most of them aren’t even that likable. But they are oh so wonderfully human. I think that Saunders has this incredible ability to reveal to us what we really are in a way that makes us laugh at first, and then feel sickened.

When reading this collection, the first thing you notice is the language. It seems a little bizarre at first, but you soon get used to Saunders’ extensive use of slang, neologisms, and fake product names. To be honest, I hated it at first, but soon came to appreciate it. I think that it really allows the reader to get inside the protagonists’ heads.

Bizarre writing style aside, I was surprised by how readable this collection is. Saunders actually reminds me a lot of Zizek in the sense that you can read the words on the page very quickly, but after a few pages, you realise that you haven’t fully grasped what has been said. And so you go back and re-read the words and they still don’t fully sink in, but you become more and more convinced that Saunders is definitely not a mere mortal.

Overall, I loved this book. I think I need a little break from Saunders, but I will definitely be going back for more after I have had a little time to digest this one. Would definitely recommend for short story enthusiasts and fans of hardcore literary fiction (especially fans of Donald Barthelme and Jonathan Lethem), although if you are looking for a breezy, straightforward read, Saunders is not your guy.

Have any of you read Tenth of December (or any other Saunders books for that matter)? If so, what did you think? 

~Anna