Colombia is a country that lives in two worlds. Host to vast deserts, labyrinth rainforests, Caribbean beaches and awe-inspiring mountains, it’s one of the most biodiverse nations in the world. It’s hard to travel more than a few hours without the landscape completely changing, and its people are as open and as flourishing as the land around them. However, its history is dogged by a bloody violence, decades of unrest that still claws at the country’s back as it tries to move forward. When Escobar was killed in ’93, it didn’t instantly heal the wounds he had made. Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s fascinating novel The Sound of Things Falling pries open those wounds, and provides a case study of national trauma as chilling as it is beautiful.
Richard Ayoade is an actor, comedian, TV presenter, director, and writer. He is most well-known for playing Moss in The IT Crowd, directing the films Submarine and The Double, and being notoriously difficult to interview. In 2014, he wrote his first book, Ayoade on Ayoade: a Cinematic Odyssey, in which he actually interviews himself. In the book, a fictional version of Ayoade (a film obsessive) interviews another fictional version of Ayoade (an ‘auteur’ director). It’s a parody of film books that overanalyse their subjects, and it’s extremely funny.
The Grip of Film, his second book, was published in 2017. Instead of interviewing himself again, Ayoade this time hands the reins to a fictional alter-ego: Gordy LaSure. Gordy LaSure is a devotee of 80s and 90s action films, and treats them as high art, while dismissing classics such as Citizen Kane and The Godfather. He delusionally believes himself to be a film expert, and the book is a glossary of terms that in his view are vital to good film-making. It’s a parody of film books that give hackneyed and unhelpful advice on storytelling, and it’s also extremely funny.
Dmitri Shostakovich was a composer born in St. Petersburg on the 25th September 1906. He wrote his first piece at the age of 12, and at 19 achieved success with his First Symphony. 1934 saw the debut of his opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtensk. Though it was initially well received, a performance was attended by Joseph Stalin, who was less than impressed. The next day an anonymous article entitled ‘Muddle Instead of Music’ appeared in the country’s leading magazine, denouncing Shostakovich and his music. This marked the start of a long period of conflict between him and the government of the Soviet Union.
The Noise of Time begins in the aftermath of this denunciation. Shostakovich is awaiting his arrest, due to be taken to the Big House, where those deemed enemies of the people were taken and shot. He thinks on his past, sifting through his memories, not knowing when the moment will arrive when his fate is decided.
The concept of multiple marriages is still one that shocks and causes derision and judgement from wider society. However, I like to view it as a strength of somebody’s determination to not accept anything less than what they deserve. An unwavering faith in the quest for love. That is why I chose Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo as my pick for the book club I have with four feminist friends.
We adored it.
I often find that my favourite reading experiences come from when I’m taken by surprise, and The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly was definitely one of those times. I picked it up mostly because it was short and I was in the mood for something wholesome, and with the promise of a story about a plucky mother hen it seemed to fit the bill. It certainly delivered on that front, but I was not expecting it to become one of my favourite reads so far this year.
The act of mindfulness is about observance and awareness. It’s a meditative practice that attunes us to our body and our surroundings and helps to ground us in the present moment. You can practice mindfulness by sitting still and watching your breath, or by taking time to notice little things in your world, how a garden is growing, how sunlight reflects off the tele, or how steam whispers out of a teacup. This slowed down, compassionate approach to human thought is championed as a key combatant against mental health problems like anxiety and depression. Nowadays, there are thousands upon thousands of self-help books that preach mindfulness and provide comprehensive guides for how to pursue it, but no text seems to completely embody the concept as much as Patricia Highsmith’s spellbinding queer romance novel, Carol, even though it does so by quite wonderful accident.
Terence McKenna put it best when he described how we in the West spend so much time turning over rocks in search of great mysteries, always looking down darkened byways of knowledge for the bizarre, the peculiar, the outré. For centuries the search for alchemical gold carved out huge chunks of the lives of learned people. Shamanism, on the other hand, long ago stopped searching for the Philosopher’s Stone; it has already found it. Carlos Castaneda, in the early 1960s, met according to him a man named Don Juan who, over the course of several years, inducted him into the practise. What Castaneda describes, if it is to be believed, proves McKenna’s claim. There is power at work in the world, wieldable by human beings, a ‘quality of experience besides which scientific inexactitude stands in peril of paling into insignificance’, said Theodore Roszak.
Generally speaking, I don’t like short stories. I’ve never been able to get into them. I’ve struggled through countless collections full of quaint tales of small happenings and chance encounters, but the fundamental problem has always been that I can’t bring myself to get invested in a setting and in characters that I know will be gone in under thirty pages. When I picked up George Saunders’ critically acclaimed collection Tenth of December, I went in telling myself that if I didn’t like it then this would be the last straw. I would renounce the short story for good and stick to good ol’ fashioned novels. But life, like good stories, finds ways of surprising us, and it transpired that I not only enjoyed Tenth of December, but I would also actively recommend it to other fellow sceptics of short fiction.
This deeply moving book illuminates refugee journeys with a rich narrative. Taking the case of a couple and their romance, they are torn from a relatively harmonious life in Aleppo. They must face each other’s relationship and the challenges of a relationship across continents. The story starts off with a serene depiction of their life. Nuri is a beekeeper and Arfa is an artist, who becomes blind and so Nuri has to take on the main responsibility. They furthermore take on the care of a young boy called Mohamed, furthering their woes. Nuri emerges as a hero type figure.
The graphic novel section of any large bookshop is one of my favourite places to explore. There’s such a diverse selection of tomes, vibrant colours, strange and vague titles. But I have to admit, I never end up buying one - I already have too many to read at home, and never get round to them anyway. I’ve had the same copy of Watchmen on my bookcase for roughly 8 years, and that copy wasn’t originally mine (I’m sorry, friend that lent me Watchmen back in high school). There’s just something stopping me from sitting down with a good graphic novel and devouring its images, perhaps a latent habit from university days where it was Shakespeare or bust. However, when I was given a favoured graphic novel from a friend for a birthday gift, the pressure of the gift led me to reading The Motherless Oven, and having finished the series last year, I feel like I must recommend them to everyone.