Outline by Rachel Cusk

To live as a detection device in the middle of a busy street is a legitimate choice – and a tempting one to make. To observe the world as it leisurely unfolds without your interference means to avoid the difficulties of constant selection. If you are just a passive receiver, all bits of the ceaseless flow of information fit your narrative; there’s no need to shape them in accordance with your purposes. In exchange for cohesion you get all kinds of bypassing, unfinished, often interesting stories. In other words, you get an outline.

Since nowadays this kind of existence is often imposed on us with or without our wanting it and we are forced to let a lot of material pass us, untouched and unattached, I was intrigued to read a book with aspirations towards exploring the living conditions of such complete surrender. But the main character in this novel, a sponge that soaks everything and gives away only the least of herself, encounters, in accidental meetings with others, a strange amount of coherent and completed life stories. Though there are plenty of these others, who can’t wait to share their biographies with a listener that never interrupts, I was able to decipher only one voice. Instead of diversity, otherness and chaos, I got the author’s attempt to write something, anything.

Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan

Being a part of any community, let it be marriage, family or close circle of friends, does not entail an alignment of thoughts and values – however it often feels this way and forms the basis for connecting. Everyone knows an unsettling feeling that a certain kind of recognition brings, when all of a sudden your world becomes more parallel than related to that of others and an abyss opens to show you that an intersection of beliefs is made of so completely different directions that three dimensions are suddenly not enough to describe the space we live in.

This was the feeling of reading this book. After an initial story about a family that is at least close if not happy, where the joys and tragedies are described from a chronological and personal distance, it makes an abrupt switch to the consequences of a dark, previously unmentioned family secret, that weaves its web on generations to come. From an idealistic family portrait we are dragged into the personal lives of traumas and their tangible realities. The fundamental loneliness of each of us, that is never felt deeper than in a company of deft listeners, is shown within all its reach – to the point I wondered if perhaps it is not the author’s fault to make the threads that link solipsistic planets so little known. As in life, I was left to fill the blanks myself.

Signs of Life by Anna Raverat

A relationship that one can have with a wooden fence is in many ways similar to the emotional landscape portrayed in this book. A breakup following an affair was described with as much sensitivity. On the surface, a wooden fence looks meaningful. It gives one a sense of security as it separates one’s place from the rest of the world; it provides a sense of satisfaction when is colored nice and it can even help one’s flowers to grow. It also resembles some of the possible dangers that a relationship can encounter. It breaks when one leans too harshly and it always has an open space or gates, so that one can exit without too many difficulties.

But relationships between people are normally more diverse; they aren’t just there waiting for someone to attach whimsical meanings to them and they aren’t the servants of a mere convenience. They need some action and reciprocity to happen, and some motives to define their course. Considering an abundance of works with similar themes, where the hardships of relationships are shown in all their glory (Kureishi’s Intimacy, Ferantte’s The Days of Abandonment etc.), I mistakenly believed that the protagonist’s search of finding a purpose in a mess of her affairs will eventually bear some fruit, but every new page proved me wrong and has drawn me further away from discovering it.

I can’t blame the components the author has used. Youth, childless attachment and unfounded obsessions are fragile enough to work with and there’s a lot of effort needed to prove their significance. But it can be done (at least Shakespeare’s done it!), so something else has to be responsible for this novel’s lack of credibility and force. It was as if the author was convinced that twisting and turning the plot will bring on a complexity by itself. That didn’t happen and even the promise of a final hook, that was all that held me on, turned out to be as superficial as the rest of the book.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

In a noble English household, where the banquets are prepared by loyal servants and consumed by mighty statesmen, a butler with his reminiscences of the war period serves us the essence of servitude and its quiet assistance to history. In a nice, neat world that he inhabits, the schedule is set and its boundaries established; his freedom ends where his master’s expectations begin. The unpredictable is for others to handle and the fog surrounding decisions is dispersed without his helping hand. Within these simple rules, life can easily be fulfilled.

Like silver and plates, everything has its order and all is just a matter of keeping its position. Diminished display of thoughts is a job requirement, in his case internalized to such a degree that no human interaction can be but a useful tool for improving professional skills. Only little contentments of his work achievements constitute his reality, leaving behind all vagueness and sorrow. In a dull, complacent state like this, there is no room for doubt, changes of course and no room for freedom.

I don’t recall many so pleasant and readable metaphors for the limitations of mind. Even if one chooses to obey orders to make a living (as we all do to some extent) and finds certain joy in being a shadow of another one’s willpower, he is still not excused of responsibility. Not making your own decisions is quite similar to making them. Putting general morals concerning others aside, the saddest result were the butler’s own missed opportunities.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

In the middle of an African village on the verge of white people’s arrival, the rhythm of living is dictated by weather, crops and all sacred nature’s inventions. Inner life is as important as any of intangible magical forces – not very much in comparison with the plenitude of all the other ephemeral things.

Everything that transcends an individual is a cause for commotion. Marriage means a colossal feast and faraway death disturbs everyone’s night rest. All the society’s great events are accompanied by divine beings. With such a vast entourage, many of this distant world’s characteristic that we condemn today (gender inequality, lack of education, ostracism…) feel at least as peaceful and joyous as the ones we’ve gotten used to cherish.

Even some aspects of their arbitrary laws and consequent violence made me feel sorry for all that was lost in between. Without written, defined constitution, justice is made by people’s spontaneous and versatile interpretations of it. Divine order (or nature as a whole) is an unfair judge; it speaks to everyone differently and its language is too similar to all kinds of prejudices and accumulated experiences. But it is also a very reassuring messenger. It makes everyone responsible only to itself, the whole. Wrongdoings are therefore punished only for restoration of the divine order; they have no integral fault or debt to society in themselves. Guilt is nonexistent and thinking about alternatives diminished. Nowadays, there’s only camping left for a little bit of nature’s touch.

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

The AwakeningThe Awakening by Kate Chopin

Sea, sun, bathing and loose summer rules form a recipe for a respite. Warm and welcoming environment, shaped by people with different predispositions gathered under the same soothing conditions, lighten the protagonist’s manners. Her senses, before entangled beyond recognition, suddenly soften and let the melodies, smells and shapes in. Adjustments within her, long having been guided by society’s calls, now slowly, but steadily, change course. In awakening to the stimulants and novelties the protagonist quietly, but firmly, demands her right to feel her own feelings.

If in the works of similar stature the nuances of emotions are often but subtly implied and hidden behind the excessive behavior, they are here stated openly and affectionately. Although we are given free access to her thoughts, it is with less spectacle than any implication could leave us to imagine. It’s a silent, straightforward strength; she doesn’t lose herself in a love affair, but gains vigor from it. Similarly, her decline is more connected with a realization of the eternal gap between human nature and natural laws than it is with love itself. When summer ends, autumn comes and interrupts the immediacy of her bond with nature. Being enclosed between the walls of human invention, she knows no way out, for her awaking progresses linearly and is not attuned with the nature’s cyclic seasons.

Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates

Black WaterBlack Water by Joyce Carol Oates

Cautious interwinement of different time modes and perspectives held a lot of promise. Parts of the plot were carefully strung into a captivating, fight-for-breath whole. Along with the lack of misplaced words and clutter, it was what made the flow neat and tidy, but also what opened the possibility of its pitfall. By definition, stringing pieces in a sequence involves staying within the narrow line and connecting similar components. The same happened to the story – the auspicious start did not progress and evolve, but only invoked a complementary platitude.

The purpose of books based on true stories, is to give us a possible narrative behind the bare facts. Instead of plausible interpretation and deeper understanding this one delivers only more cliches and pompousness. It felt as if the author had mistaken an image of an all-American gal, with unresolved daddy issues and girl-power ambitions, for a person. The protagonist and her relations had no uniqueness that would make them convincing, but remained the manufactured products waving from the billboard, that one sometimes wants to get to know, but never can. Yellow pages of an artsy journal would have as much effect. Life can be but a series of coincidences and its end a peak of absurdity, but at least it has some moments of significance, which is a fact this book desperately tries to avoid.

The Nun by Denis Diderot

The NunThe Nun by Denis Diderot

Through the halls and cells of a convent, guarded by high walls and austere religious customs, we follow a young nun making arrangements to escape a future that was imposed on her. She has a knack for logic and no ear for vocation, so she is not able to find any justification for all the suffering and pious rules that govern her. In her fight for freedom she uses all the means of revolt there are: open protest, rigid obedience, lawsuit, relocation etc. Embracing her destiny is not a viable alternative and even an ungodly reader prays with her that it will not become one.

Our habits and rituals may seem ridiculous to an outside observer, all the more so, when there is no reason behind them. The church’s aberrations are rarely so vividly coloured as in the journey of this nun, who happens to find herself surrounded by odd habits of nunneries and can’t make sense of them. She is as close to a spring of meaning as it gets and everything she encounters forces her to drink from it: old traditions, that must have some sense to have lasted for so long and to be so highly respected; the lives of fellow nuns that must be meaningful in some way. Nevertheless she finds none for herself and remains detached. There’s no hidden, internal logic of such a closed system, just an obliviousness to the general laws of the world.

Although this novel is an epitome of all the wrongdoings of religious institutions to a degree that it made me laugh, I still felt a bit cheated by the final twist; but in a most charming way there is. I wanted to go back in time when stories emerged in passing and there was still as much effort put in personal pursuits as it was in professional ones… If, of course, such a time ever existed and it was not reserved for the chosen few who might as well be living today.

 

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Of Mice and MenOf Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Power and simple mindedness are terrible companions. No matter what aspect of life they inhabit, it is rarely with festive consequences; if they work on a smaller scale, the experience only becomes more personal and therefore tragic. This one certainly can’t get gloomier. Everyone wins the sad competition – the author, with his all encompassing vision of sadness, the readers, forced to accept his vision of human existence (worse things do happen every day in some places) and most of all, the characters. They dream of a world where everything would be different, but every time something new happens, it only increases their bitterness. I was always curious about the outcomes of Lessing’s fifth child living in a different environment and this book has provided me with an answer – distance doesn’t matter.

I assume every reader knows what this book is about right from the start, even if he is unfamiliar with the plot. One can’t escape the charged atmosphere, electrified by contrasting the indifferent, all-embracing nature to the human world, and an ominous feeling of increasingly tragic events. What’s magical about Steinbeck’s writing is that while the events keep moving faster with each page, they nonetheless remain perfectly still. This paradoxical stillness resembles a calm before an earthquake. With an alertness of an animal anticipating danger, the reader doesn’t need to change the position to see what’s on the other side; everything is already there at the beginning. Perhaps the story was almost too neat, which is why it was easy for me to get detached.

Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis by Erich Fromm

Zen Buddhism and PsychoanalysisZen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis by Erich Fromm

If you can guess that what Zen and Psychoanalysis have in common is their aspiration towards fuller awareness, you might as well pick a more thorough book. However, if all you need is a straightforward introduction to philosophy, or more specifically, a simple sketch of Western and Eastern forms of humanism, this paper can aid you in this task. With slow, undemanding progression that underlines the crucial aspects repeatedly, it tells us the familiar story about why all modes of being, without proper guidance of trained healers, are left in a state of lower consciousness or if one is particularly unlucky, in madness.

Though I think the focus on the differences rather than the similarities between these distant forms of thought would make the book much more substantial, the author doesn’t want to enlarge the gap between them even further and contrasts them only with the aim of moving them closer. In the more rewarding end, the asymmetry finally outshines his aim – what psychoanalysis or Western thought lacks is awareness that in order to become a united, fulfilled person doesn’t simply mean to dig for one’s faults and traumas and make them productive, but a deeper, positive change of personality, where these faults don’t need a special treatment, but a general one with the rest of one’s traits. Fromm’s vision of psychoanalysis being the basis for further Zen trainings seems a bit far-fetched in this regard, since Zen’s interpretations of human’s shortcomings are entirely different.

Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles

Two Serious Ladies Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles

What at first seems as a sequence of peculiar acts and events, occurring without an explanation and disappearing without a trace, soon reveals its substance and connects causes with effects in a most unconventional manner. It is briefly mentioned in the book as a »dispensation from the world«, but its presence radiates through every sentence.

The world as known to common people, without enough luck or money to follow every impulse to the end, is quite foreign to the two serious ladies. They posses wealth and with it a chance to create their own universe; they are free of worries about their future, consistency and composure. Without external obstacles to overcome and goals to reach, their reality is entrapped in the present flow of affairs. They don’t know the need to escape anything that happens. Everything is interesting to them, if anything is interesting at all. A lack of any but prosaic initiative of their own, brings their fears to the surface and their world becomes as claustrophobic as it is free. If in a way their experience is similar to that of a child – their pride and self-respect are subdued to an interest in what each opportunity can provide -, it differs in one crucial aspect. The child learns by trial and error, while they know no errors. The more they try to change something for sanity’s sake, the more it becomes obvious that their errands have ends only in themselves.

If at the beginning of the book I couldn’t care less about this imaginary life-style, I felt like walking through a funfair with them later. I’m not sure whether I could stay there for long, but I certainly lingered on the question “Who of us is freer and merrier?” for more then a while.

A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch

A Severed HeadA Severed Head by Iris Murdoch

What ties people together when they by choice or necessity escape the security of their own habits and find comforts of domestic life insufficient? The author seems to answer this question in a row of equally unlikable characters mixing up together in an accidental way, where no emotion is strong or lasting, no relationship reliable or inconvenient and no thought independent of other people’s whims. In a new-found freedom we don’t, as expected, witness autonomous, powerful beings, but the ones suffering from despair and restlessness. None can now be overly cautious of everyone else, since this becomes the only way of orientation in a newly opened horizon where previous patterns of behaviour are gone and foreign rules take charge (of which ‘the severed head’, coming from one of her distant tribe-expeditions, is the symbol).

Seeking for humanity when attachment is not a necessity anymore, the protagonists have to find comfort in ‘I suffer, therefore I care’ mentality, yet they are suffering from nothing but vanity, jealousy and leisure. The initial crossing of borders opens them only to fleeting and disappointing experiences, but after the painful rearrangements, a little gratification can nevertheless be found.

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne

The Hating GameThe Hating Game by Sally Thorne

The problem I have in reviewing books of this genre is that the characters’ introspective inspection is nonexistent by default and so is my patience with them. Why are they the last to know about their first and single occupation, which is of course love? Maybe I don’t get the foreplay – the endless struggles, tons of misinterpretations of one’s eyebrow movement, all kinds of games (where the only unexecuted one is “Just kill each other already”)…

Other then that, the book was witty and enjoyable, discounting the end where I witnessed some melodramatic healing of childhood wounds in the midst of admissions about painting His bedroom walls in the colour of Her eyes.

The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley

The Doors of Perception & Heaven and HellThe Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell by Aldous Huxley

Based on his own experience with mescalin, Huxley informs us about the true nature of reality, that is, the sheer scope of it. He doesn’t stop at great works of art, schizophrenia or religion, but freely attaches his intake to an ambitious bundle of themes in order to supplement them all. Drugs and transcendence/life in general had always have much in common, but his way of portraying is exactly like what his drug encounter warns him against.

The description of his adventure would be much more revealing, if it hadn’t elevated into a lecture about two ancient categories of being, one experienced through our everyday life, where language represents a barrier between us and the world, and the other one of true essence that can be reached only through some transcendental activity such as taking drugs. Although his expedition to the sphere of “pure perception” shows him the limitations of words and all our classifications, it seems he identifies his trip with as many concepts and theories as he possibly can. He makes a paradigm of unvailed awareness out of it, which selfless as it is, is based on one sole experiment of his humble self. Little is left of this experiment but widespread doctrines, which just fit too neatly. I wonder how much previous knowledge affected his experience or how much posterior interpretations transversed it and I got the feeling he didn’t quite catch it in its uniqueness, or as he would said, suchness.

The End of the Road by John Barth

The End of the RoadThe End of the Road by John Barth

The first quarter of this book was as good as the last was bad. The opening two chapters were hilarious (and I don’t use that word lightly), but then my enjoyment started to deteriorate until it reached bottom with the introduction of THE GUN. Of course all existentialistic novels deal with death in some way or another, sooner or later, however to bring it up just like that, like nothing had happened, with a casual emergence of this silly object that just shows up and occupies all the minds of all the characters, is just too much. The little essence they haven’t lost up until this point is gone and all that is left are the mannequines of author’s copied philosophical ideas. I always hate when ideas become predominant and make the story itself unimportant and incoherent, yet it is rarely done in such a transparent way.

Daisy Miller by Henry James

Daisy MillerDaisy Miller by Henry James

To condemn values of Victorian origin it is necessary to demonstrate that they cannot overcome some of their essential antagonisms. If a critique of questionable morals is the intention of this book, the second part is more vague, since it lacks any struggle worth struggling for. We get to meet a young woman without many redeeming qualities that lives only to charm man-kind. She fights for nothing but her right to annoy, which meets some reservations among others, readers as well. “All I want is a little fuss” she tells us and summarizes her motives.

If the author’s intention was to show that any person, no matter how superfluous she may be, deserves freedom and acceptance, it would be a wonderful book, with all the steady rhythm and clarity of style. But he seems to claim the opposite – all that lies under the petty social judgments are some innocent actions performed by harmless girls, and so such social standards are worthless. And although he tries to make a tragic hero out of her, he lets her stand out only in her poise, for her mind stays old-fashioned, as men remain her only interest. Maybe that’s how changes always form, first comes form and then comes the content. But I think it would be better if he just put less fantasy and more life into it.

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

A Handful of DustA Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

The perfection of this novel lays only in its title, for a handful of dust is the exact description of the reading experience it provides and to some extent, its content. The fragile remains of the barely lively activity called reading this book would be swept away with the last page, if not for the purpose of writing this review. The book had so little impact on me that I, after finishing it last night, already have troubles remembering the theme.

It’s a story about privileged people of the last century, their deceits and similar troubles, built on lots of external happening, chattering and characters that are like the buzz in the spring – all over the place, but without knowing where they’re coming from or going to. Their final destination sure is surprising and constitutes one of the best parts of the novel, but before we reach it, gossip serves as the only tool to get in touch with them. As it is with gossip, it slips away with the change of perspective. It could be a witty conduct, but is just boring and unavailing.

Troubling Love by Elena Ferrante

Troubling LoveTroubling Love by Elena Ferrante

I started reading this after finishing the Neapolitan novels, hoping to extend the exiting journey that Ferrante took me on. With such high expectations, I was bound to disappointment. It’s not that the book is bad, it just seems as a distant echo of her saga, with similar themes (closeness, domestic violence, clingy Napels), but without the captivating drive that would bind the reader to the pages. Maybe the problem lays in the outlines of her characters, which are too vague and dreamlike to give a novel a solidified reality that the author tries to convey. Or perhaps she grasped this reality in Neapolitan novels so thoroughly, that all her other work will feel as lacking something.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels #1)My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

This kind of book is difficult to find – it moves with great ease and vibration, yet it doesn’t give you the nervous feeling of wasting your time with yet another contemporary exploration of the depths of everyday life (that are only the depths of boredom and complacency as it is with Knausgaard, with whom Ferrante is often compared).
Although this novel is written in an autobiographical way as well (it’s a story of two girls, growing up in after-war Naples), the author is aware that in order to produce something valuable, it is not enough to live and write about it. She knows how to transmit that life to her book, how to give it its own force. You end up sucked into the whirl of friendship and its tensions. It is as picturesque and noisy as a novel can get without turning the psychological insights and interpersonal dynamics into soap opera. In my opinion, it’s a perfect holiday book and you get two new friends out of it.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the TrainThe Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The book kept me captivated until the very end, I was, however, suffering the whole time. Even afterwards – I felt like I’ve inhabited the protagonist’s struggle to wake up from an alcoholic delirium with an unspecified feeling looming over me, as if something unknown yet distinctly horrible had happened to me. It didn’t help that in this case the reason was obvious (the book!) and that my memory of it was all too clear. The story is not only about a drunkard (and perhaps a murderer? No spoilers), but also written as if a drunk would have written it. Not a bad thing by itself, yet here only the limitation of such a state were shown. It was just a prolonged version of the numb, repetitive, disoriented anguish experienced in a drinking stupor. The reader is stuck in this womans head, a place where not a single sober thought points to the exit.

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