The Book Nook aims to give an insight into the bookshelves of editor’s and writer’s of The Yorker. It acts as a type of online book club and reviewing platform, where editor’s and writer’s can review and reflect on 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. October’s Book Nook features: The Color Purple by Alice Walker, How Not To Be A Boy by Robert Webb, The Melancholy of Resistance by László Krasznahorkai, Milkman by Ann Burns and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.
Violet, The Color Purple, Alice Walker (1982)
There seems no more appropriate book to read and review this month, other than the Colour Purple. October was Black History Month; a remembrance of the historic contributions and achievements of people of colour. Alice Walker wrote The Colour Purple in 1982, for which she received the Pulizter Prize for Fiction. She is a known activist for the Civil Rights Movement and took part in the 1963 March on Washington. Walker is also a known feminist and advocate for the greater inclusion of women of colour within a movement so dominated by white women. The Colour Purple, seems to act as a personal homage to her political activism and fight for racial, and women’s equality.
Despite being a remarkably simple tale, the novel still retains eminent power in its subtle address of racial and social issues taking place in the 1930s American Deep South. The novel follows the life of Celie, a young black woman born into poverty and segregation. She is subject to continuous abuse by the man she calls her ‘father,’ has her two children taken away from her and is separated from her best friend and sister, Nettie. Her life experiences extreme patches of unrelenting darkness. However, she begins to see the light when she meets Shug Avery, a charismatic, headstrong singer who enables her to free herself from her past. Gradually, Celie confronts her oppressive situation and family life with the help of Shug Avery.
It is in the crafting of this book which makes it such a powerful and timeless classic. Walker uses a unique style of narration to tell the journey of Celie. It is told in first person address, using the twangs and sounds of the Deep South, with no use of speech or dialogue through the whole three hundred odd pages. It reads as if it is an internal monologue played out in the mind of Celie, giving her situation and experiences great depth and reality. This book is a powerful and gripping read even in the present day, I read it in one sitting on a journey back to York. Walker evokes so eloquently in her construction of this narrative, the struggles of black women and in the present day, the still ongoing battle for racial and gender equality. A must read, timeless, evocative classic.
“I spent fifteen minutes with my children. And she has been going on for months bout how ungrateful I is. White folks is a miracle of affliction, say Sofia.”
Isabelle, How Not To Be A Boy, Robert Webb (2017)
Best known for his role as the hapless layabout Jeremy on Channel 4’s Peep Show, Robert Webb’s memoir gives us a closer insight into the life of a man that, until now, I’m sure many believed was just another comedian. How Not To Be A Boy frames Webb’s early life around expectations of masculinity and manhood, depicting both the male and female influences in his life as forged by the expectations of gender roles. Told true to form, in a witty, funny and down to earth manner, the book is a pleasure to read, feeling more like you’re having an intimate chat with Webb, rather than reading. We are taken through his childhood, from pre-school to childhood to adolescence, before witnessing Webb’s removal from Lincolnshire and the life he has always known to attend Cambridge, meet David Mitchell, and eventually end up doing what he’d always dreamed of.
Hilarious at times (the reader is witness to many mishaps), poignant and downright tear-jerking at others (Webb’s mother died during his A Levels), How Not To Be A Boy presents a cautionary tale of the expectations of modern masculinity, highlighting the dangers of bottling up emotions and turning them into anger. Perhaps the most charming part of the book are the conversations between Robert at different ages in time, his with his adult self talking to his childhood self, conversations which remind the reader of the idiocy of many socially enforced norms. Ultimately, How Not To Be A Boy is a moving memoir of a life shaped by learning and unlearning expectations, and is a timely reminder of the importance of talking to others, expressing emotions, and not being afraid to step outside of the box.
Dan, The Melancholy of Resistance, László Krasznahorkai (1989)
At night, a circus arrives in a small Hungarian town with the stuffed body of the largest whale in the world. To the sleepy town, where the bourgeoisie huddle to comfy inanities, where drinkers get drunk, three hundred steely men come, following the circus, they stop in Kossuth Square where the huge steel container rests.
Before these dread portents an array of characters, as satirically small-minded as Gogol’s cast in Dead Souls, carry out their petty politics. Mrs Plauf wants to watch her operettas but Mrs Eszter interrupts in her plan to return to her domicile from which Mr Eszter so rudely removed her. To do this she enlists her lover, the drunkard police chief, and Mr Eszter’s disciple the saintly simpleton Valuska, Mrs Plauf’s estranged son.
The enormous doors open and the circus-goers troop around the enormous carcass, which acts as a primer, the awe of the inordinate beast pushes you into a deep melancholy, an abnormal circuit reaching abnormal ideas and impossible actions. As the ignorant characters bustle in their business they shrink under a great cloud covering the town, threatening violence.
The integral mystery and brutal repercussions of the events emphatically restate The Melancholy of Resistance, resisting great events, or the wear of cynical society, in resisting we lose innocence, faith, simplicity, friendship. The middle segment, The Werckmeister Harmonies (also the title of the Béla Tarr adaption), draws attention to the baroque composer Werckmeister whose simplified twelve half-tones set the position that all classical music since has built from, but the initial simplification, the fudged tonal equivalence, disturbed the ground, provided the wrong foundation, causing as Mr Eszter argues all of philosophic and aesthetic problems. But, whenever he tunes the piano to a natural, correct tuning, the sound is unbearable. The perfect system renders the genius of Beethoven unlistenable, resistance is a sad task with no end.
Richard Tester, Milkman, Ann Burns (2018)
The third novel by Ann Burns, Milkman, is narrated by a woman who grew up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. The story follows her at eighteen, when she was stalked by a figure popular in her antiestablishmentarian community, the titular ‘milkman’, whose sexual presence threatens throughout. The novel depicts his campaign of harassment as supported by the gossip of the community, who believed the narrator and the milkman were having an affair.
I discovered it through a recent issue of Private Eye, which in its literary section expressed bemusement towards the contradictory reviews the novel received up to and after it won the 2018 Man Booker Prize. That it had been characterized as difficult, and for some as too difficult, prompted me to buy a copy. My sense was that if someone can write a book and have it win a prestigious award then one can also read it. Thus, ignorant and impulsive, did I begin Milkman. What I found was a highly readable story about an intelligent young woman, set in an environment where intelligence and youth are wasted by violence, low expectations, and distaste for difference. What I found was a story of group think and harassment. What I found was a timely novel which not only captures traumatic British history, but also responds to contemporary debates over personal responsibility and gender relations. What I found was an experimental and upsetting text that manages to be funny, endearing, and clear.
Its advertised difficulty is disingenuous, it is no arduous mountain for the few to climb. If such descriptions lead it to be mostly unread then that would be disastrous. It is idiosyncratic but not at all opaque. But perhaps the idiosyncratic, because different, is immediately taken to be tough and so is dropped into a box where it can safely go unread. Milkman should not go unread, so visit your local bookshop or library and pick it up and then proselytize it to your friends.
Yun Xie, Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (1932)
What does the ‘new world’ refer to? To what extent does it reflect totalitarianism? Was Huxley relating what happened to the historical trend, reality, or merely imagining what would happen six centuries after the time he lived? As one of the world’s most representative anti-Utopian novels, one theme of Brave New World is totalitarianism, i.e., the social order being completely established by the political power, ensuring minimum personal freedom.
In Huxley’s eyes, rapid industrialization and globalization, took hold when people were not yet recovered from the chaos of World War I, Huxley’s world is a world where different countries and civilizations are eliminated. People are divided into five castes: alpha, beta, gamma, delta and epsilon, immediately after their birth. To prevent the lower castes from fighting against the controller, their learning and working abilities are limited using “Bokanovsky’s Process”, and they are happy with their conditions. Any negative emotion can be erased by soma and everyone follows the motto: “community, identity and stability”.
This is the brave new world, a world where the calendar changes from the Common Era to Ford—the inventor of the assembly line of manufacturing cars. Indicating a world processed in a highly efficient way and where human beings are generated through the assembly line. It is a world where happiness equals to social stability. People do not learn history as it can make people think about the state of their society and may give rise to sadness. Even books leading to scientific progression, cannot be published due to the unprecedented ideas that can threaten social stability.
When we look at the text itself, Brave New World undoubtedly shows totalitarianism. However, if we look at Huxley’s life and social background in the 1930s, there are several conflictions. Firstly, Huxley suffered from a severe eye infection and became nearly blind at a young age. Although he learnt braille and read various books to understand what was happening around him, he could no longer see it. Acquiring things through fewer sensory organs can be difficult and misleading. Secondly, this new world shows the world six centuries on from his life. This book is written between the wars, so there are more uncertainties than in peace time. So how can he predict the victory is totalitarianism? Throughout history, although some extreme political parties can take advantage of the public for a short time, they are eventually overthrown because of our instinct to fight against them. And how can he predict that after six centuries, people are still not recovered from the chaos of war? From the points above, this ‘new world’ is largely his imagination.
Overall, this novel tells us totalitarianism is against human nature. It may maintain the social order and stability, but with the price of losing our emotion and rights to change our fates, and seeking for a more desirable life. These things are how humans differ from animals. Totalitarianism actually generates the morbidity within communities. But since every political ideology comes from social reality and personal experience, we have to make imaginings about the world influenced by this ideology, as these imaginations should be based on the reality, current conditions and historic trends as a whole. At least in my opinion, a political novel becomes more meaningful when it reflects the real picture of the society.