The first in a new literature feature, ‘The Book Nook’ aims to give an insight into the bookshelves of editor’s and writer’s of The Yorker. It will act as a type of online book club and reviewing platform, where editor’s and writer’s can review and reflect on the recent books they have read. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you and your book would like to be featured! Welcoming all forms of literature.
- Violet, Editor. The French Lieutenant’s Daughter, John Fowles (1969).
An equivocal re-working of a Victorian romance, John Fowles explores a forbidden love triangle between protagonist, Charles Smithson, Sarah Woodruff and Ernestina Freeman. At the forefront is a presentation of the Victorian era as a repressive age, one which forbids love and lust and class intermingling. Charles is the typical middle class quintessential gentleman who simultaneously wishes to break out of his mould, “When he had had his great vision of himself freed from this age, his ancestry an class and country…” He is both firmly within the age and withdrawn. The novel is naturally ambiguous as the reader is presented with three different possible endings and a constant insight into the writing process through Fowles, the narrator, which represents its meta-fiction style. This style alludes to Fowles’ open critique of the traditional Victorian romance novel as often a straightforward, relentless narrative. Themes that arise within this novel include most notably, class and gender. We see Charles’ faithful servant, Sam, discharge himself from the boundaries of service and go on to live a happier, wealthier life. Charles is a character most aware of his own class, but also drawn to dissolving it. This novel reveals the innate insecurities of a typical, Victorian middle-class gentleman, struggling against the changing currents of his age. Charles is mindless in his travelling and flipping between women which represents a struggle within his own consciousness. Critique’s at the time claimed this was a feminist novel. Sarah Woodruff is depicted as a liberated woman of her own mind; however, it has to be remembered that this is a novel solely told through the eyes and ears of a man.
Well worth a read – 4/5
2. Samuel, Deputy Politics Editor. The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris (2010).
This provocative book written by neuroscientist, philosopher and public intellectual Sam Harris in 2010, makes the ambitious argument that Science can and should be used as a tool to determine human values, an idea which has unsurprisingly stepped on quite a few intellectual toes! The controversial thesis – that scientific enquiry can discover objective “moral truths”, is grounded in a position of “consequentialist morality” (whereby the consequences of moral ideas to human well-being are viewed as the only measures for judging whether something is “good” or “bad”). To make his case Harris employs his own neurological research, philosophical analysis, and a stern critique of religious morality – what else to expect from one the generations most passionate atheists? The enormity of the books undertaking may well intimidate some readers; however, Harris manages this weight in his characteristically lucid style, building up his argument at a pace which always feels appropriate and coherent.
This approach greatly increases the accessibility of the Moral Landscape but is not without its drawbacks. In his attempt to avoid getting bogged down in deep philosophical discussion, Harris` position at times can seem somewhat bare-bones. Harris sidesteps many core ethical debates in just a few lines, providing little rebuttal of the criticisms and quandaries often levelled at consequentialist morality. The pessimistic reader may also accuse Harris of merely trying to use claims of “moral truth” as a means to justify his own pre-existing moral biases. However, it should be recognised that even Harris` ideas (secular humanism and liberalism) are not exempt from the icy appraisal of the “moral science” he proposes – if such ideas are shown to be a barrier to human well-being, they can be safely abandoned. It is perhaps the greatest virtue of the book, that the author has created a moral framework under which he, himself, may well prove to be wrong.
The Moral Landscape is also less prescriptive about specific moral ideas than many may assume. Indeed, Harris expresses scepticism that a complete set of moral truths will ever realistically be found (one hopes Harris hasn’t hedged himself out of existence with such a mammoth-sized concession)! Harris suggests the work of moralizing may never be complete. In this sense, his theory is perhaps better read as a tool of moral condemnation – an excuse to condemn moral ideas which inflict human misery, rather than to propose any kind of moral blueprint (an idea which may well ring alarm bells for any of you plucky libertines, who fear the tyranny of a state-imposed moral collectivism)!
At its core, The Moral Landscape is a bitingly effective challenge to the firewall that has long existed between morality and science. Many are likely to remain unconvinced by the argument. Others may even be incensed by it! But for the audacity of the project alone, and because of the clarity and showmanship with which its written, this book certainly deserves a read.
Provocative and worthwhile – 4/5
3. Isabelle, Comment and Politics Editor. Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite, Suki Kim (2014).
This book, by Korean-American Suki Kim, is a memoir of her time posing as a missionary teacher at a university in North Korea’s Pyongyang. Offering a startling and little seen insight into life under the North Korean regime on the eve of the death of Kim Jong-il, the reader is able to gain a greater understanding of what it means to live one’s life in North Korea.
Kim began working at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology in 2011, a time when every other university in the country had been closed down. Her position as a teacher of English to the students there, all sons of elite members of the regime, allowed her to gain an intimate knowledge of her students, and their lives under the dictatorship. Her tale is one full of sinister and chilling realisations, from witnessing her students daily singing the praises of their Great Leader, and a coach journey in which she saw the skeletal figures of less fortunate ‘comrades’, to her constant paranoia and fear that her notes for this book would be found. Kim does not shy away from the realities of the regime, discussing at length the creeping fear and suffocating atmosphere of the country. But something in this book is also bittersweet and charming. Her pupils, who are teenagers, after all, discuss girlfriends, their social lives, and joke with their teacher. Through her, they are able to catch a glimpse of the outside world that has been denied to them. Ultimately, this book confirms what the West sees as North Korea, but also makes the reader’s heart break for the fate of Suki Kim’s class, left unable to experience the world they are evidently so curious to see.
Thought-provoking and insightful – 5/5
4. Eleanor, Deputy Editor for Content. Mythos: A Retelling of the Myths of Ancient Greece, Stephen Fry (2017).
A week in Ancient Greece; Stephen Fry’s retelling of myth and legend enchants in Mythos, with all the charm of the author himself oozing out of each story.
On holiday in one of the most ancient regions in Italy, Puglia, I thought it only fit to explore my Kindle for some suitably Greco-Roman themed reads. I began with a book I had been meaning to read since its release, Mythos by Stephen Fry.
As someone with a rudimentary knowledge of Greek mythology, extending to the Disney film Hercules and approximately 10 pages of Iliad, I had no idea what I was in for. Expecting a format similar to the other texts on Greek mythology: epic poems or chronologies, I was surprised to find a fluent prose, brimming with fables and legends of the era. Unlike the retellings of Homer, Charles Lamb and many before him, Fry’s recount of these myths is easily digestible for the common reader; I do believe a child could read this book, obviously ignoring some choice vocabulary of the genius who wrote it and some of the adult themes of infidelity etc. For me, Mythos’ glory is in its structure. Not the most enticing advertisement I know but the structure of this book suited the nature of the myths; brief, nonsensical and unfortunately leaving you wanting more.
Working chronologically, Fry divides his retellings into two parts, beginning with Chaos, the yin and yang of the Greek mythological world; the force that controls all and sets the balance in nature. Part One hereby provides the necessary basis for the introduction of characters, starting with The Second Order, the natural elements of earth, and ending with tails of familiar Gods and figures such as Eros (known to the Romans as Cupid). Fry’s continual reminder of who’s-who is incredibly helpful, especially as you move into Part Two when you have long forgotten who is Zeus’s third cousin twice removed; this is particularly necessary with some of the minor gods and figures. By the last third of the book the structural integrity is somewhat lost, with Fry opting to divide the remaining selection of stories by themed sub-categories such as hubris. It appears Fry has prepared the reader with the required background knowledge in Part One, but then loses his sense of organisation and picks and chooses whichever tales and myths he fancies telling, with little consideration of Part One’s basis in chronology.
I therefore find Fry’s subtitle of ‘The Greek Myths Retold’ slightly misleading when he so often focuses on the few topics of transformations, taking influence from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and more interestingly the fluidity of characters’ sexuality and gender. Although I am not begrudging writing on the topic of sexuality and gender, Fry’s sensitivity and proclivity to the topic somewhat limits the texts selected for retelling, skimming over vast periods of time, major characters and events in the mythology of Ancient Greece. Absence of detail is unfortunately recurrent throughout the book as many of the stories too were written briefly and with little detail. I understand that many of the sources used do not disclose a lot of information regarding the details of some myths and figures, but Fry makes little attempt to expand upon the information given to him. He fails to dig deep, historically, culturally and into the story itself. That being said, Mythos provides a great taste of the world of ancient Greece, with tantalising tales of war, romance and the Gods, perfect for a beginner into the field of classics or readers looking for non-comprehensive retelling of tales.
5. Daniel, Arts Editor. Old Masters, Thomas Bernhard (1985).
Old Masters by Thomas Bernhard completes his Arts trilogy following The Loser (music) and Woodcutters (theatre), it focuses upon art itself. Reger, music critic, sits each morning in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum before Tintoretto’s White-Bearded Man delivering attacks on Vienna, German culture, and the world through conversation which his friend, narrator Atzbacher, relates to the reader. The novel is made up of Atzbacher’s conversation with Reger combined with memories of previous conversations. Reger, in typical Bernhard style, rages against Viennese culture, scorns state artists, calls Dürer a “dreadful proto-Nazi”, claims Heidegger “has kitschified philosophy”, and says “El Greco, fine, but the good man did not know how to paint a hand!” Everything, if not terrible from the start, eventually becomes so.
Among the tirades past events unfold. Memories prompted from original topics extend out, in front of Tintoretto, Reger, who thought he would never marry, meets the woman he marries. Nearly forty years later she is taken from him. On their way to the White-Bearded Man she slips on ungritted ice, the Kunsthistorisches museum is too slow to notify an ambulance, and surgeons bungle the operation. Their compounded mistakes cause her death. From this Reger, who never was particularly happy, falls into a pit, losing all taste for art and literature he starves in his enormous flat surrounded by paintings by Schiele and Klimt, who he never liked anyway.
The essential nihilism of the novel is intact, every painter has a flaw, every composer “not even the greatest…not even Bach” composed a perfect fugue, every old master falls apart under scrutiny.
Shakespeare and Kant and all the rest, whom during our life we built up as the so-called great ones, let us down at the very moment we would so badly need them…everything which those so-called great and important figures have thought and moreover written leaves us cold.
Reger, from near starvation, inexplicably returns, he decides to go on. His detestable housekeeper brings him meals and insists his wife bequeathed her certain articles, which he knows she did not, and when he gives in she calls her daughter in and they plunder as much as they can carry. The misanthropy of the novel bears a slight mitigation, like Beckett’s Unnameable Reger goes on, he still visits the White-Bearded Man, and in the end takes Atzbacher to the theatre, to a production they know they will hate, and as “Atzbacher records. The performance was terrible.”
Provocative and hilarious – 4/5