A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings

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“It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour.”

We may be quite a ways from Christmas by now, but I did originally start this on its very last day. Most of the past five months was spent well away from the book in dread of having to finish The Haunted Man before it finally occurred to me that life is too short to suffer through boring stories – classic or not. So I picked this up again last night and read the rest.

Christmas Festivities: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The perfect amuse-bouche for this eight-course collection, Christmas Festivities captured the quintessential Christmas spirit so evocatively, it is no wonder that when Dickens died in 1870, a “London barrow-girl” exclaimed, “Then will Father Christmas die too?”

The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton: ⭐️⭐️

Not having known what a sexton was, I imagined green mini-Grinches stealing naval navigation instruments* and yes, saxophones. Why are they called sextons anyway? This story was – as the author of the introductory essay observed – an early version of what would become the insurmountable Christmas Carol. And being an early version, the miserable, miserly sexton’s redemption was rather rushed, and the goblins inspired more bewilderment than character-changing fear.

A Christmas Episode from Master Humphrey’s Clock: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

A cheering chapter on lifelong friendship, forged from shared solitude on Christmas Day.

A Christmas Carol: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Ah, the belle of Fezziwig’s ball! Need I say more? Just as delightful as it always was, still is, and ever will be. God bless Us, Every One!

The Haunted Man: ⭐️

The one story I could not finish. The Haunted Man represents best the side of Victorian literature I simply cannot slog through. While Dickens’ ability to spin superlatively detailed descriptions of a single man’s appearance into a five-page-long portrait of the entire British Isles is impressive, to say the least, the slow, brooding nature of this novella was too much for me.

A Christmas Tree: ⭐️⭐️

Rather long-winded reminiscences of Dickens’ childhood Christmases. Intensely vivid, but lacking the vivacity of Christmas Festivities.

What Christmas Is, as We Grow Older: ⭐️⭐️

Another quaint – if quickly forgettable – rumination on the bittersweetness of Christmastime. A season of charity and compassion, unquestionably, but also an annual marker of unaccomplished aspirations, or time passed without loved ones now in “the shadow that darkens the whole globe … the shadow of the City of the Dead”. Dickens emboldens us to admit these remembrances “with tender encouragement” instead.

The Seven Poor Travellers: ⭐️

I dithered between one and two stars for this concluding story. On the one hand, I had no problems finishing it (although it is considerably shorter than the never-ending Haunted Man). On the other, despite the narrator’s impromptu generosity and the conviviality of the seven strangers, I finished it feeling hollow. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more if the travellers’ stories were actually told. Or perhaps not; I was getting tired of the plot by the second page.


*In case it’s too obtuse, sextants, I’m referring to sextants.

Lance

“What I am thinking of is the man of imagination and science, whose courage is infinite because his curiosity surpasses his courage. Nothing will keep him back.”

cover.jpg.rendition.460.707cover.jpg.rendition.460.707 (1)I admit, genius though he is, this is my first work by Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov. After reading these three exquisitely-wrought stories – all from his Dozen and Collected Stories and each depicting obsessions of very different natures – I can only remark how unfair it is that Nabokov can write so expressively in both Russian and English. I, on the other hand, can barely read my ‘mother tongue’.

The Aurelian: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Ah yes, the grim Russian short. I’m not sure I have read a single sunny story by a modern Russian writer. Either way, in The Aurelian, Nabokov (an aurelian himself, by the way) captured perfectly the damp, dark, dusty depths of middle-aged despair, for wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to the purgatory of unrealised youthful ambitions. A truly uplifting tale.

Signs and Symbols: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Upon first finishing this, I confess I was confused. What even was the point? But as I fruitlessly pondered and pondered again the descriptions of this and that offhandedly mentioned detail, I realised what a dull-witted fool I was. In our visceral desire to analyse and assign meaning, are we not, like the son, caught up in mild “referential mania” ourselves? And so, Nabokov sits back and says, checkmate.

“Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme.”

Lance: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Sheer, unbridled brilliance: his hallmark wordplay and wit were poured so viscously into this titular short story, it took some effort to slop through. While it did get rather pompous towards the end, this science-fiction satire of science fiction was still a dazzling display of literary dexterity.

“The clichés are, of course, disguised; essentially, they are the same throughout all cheap reading matter, whether it spans the universe or the living room. They are like those ‘assorted’ cookies that differ from one another only in shape and shade.”

My other Penguin Modern reviews:
Three Japanese Short Stories
Four Russian Short Stories
Of Dogs and Walls
The Distance of the Moon

Fawkes

Thanks to the publisher Thomas Nelson for providing me a complimentary advance reading copy through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review remain completely my own. Fawkes by Nadine Brandes will be available on 10th July 2018.

“An exotic place to live, despite the view of severed heads on spikes rising every which way.”

FawkesAn ambitious allegorical reimagining of the Gunpowder Plot and the English Reformation, Fawkes addresses not only the horrific religious violence, but also the slave trade, racism, misogyny, stigmatised diseases, and such philosophical dilemmas as revolutionary jus in bello and personal spiritual truth.

Fawkes is also an exemplary example of world-building. No passage felt obtrusively expository; instead, readers were allowed to discern the rules governing Brandes’ brand of magic themselves. Few young adult fantasy novels give their audience due credit nowadays.

This otherwise impressive feat was dampened, however, by the lapses into 21st-century colloquial speech – especially when it was the White Light speaking. The omniscient, omnipotent colour snickering like an American teenager was jarring, not to mention that the story took place in 17th-century England. The American spelling throughout the novel was also somewhat distracting, but at least it was consistent, so I let this one slide.

Nevertheless, the colour magic concept was genuinely inventive. I almost wish a little more time was spent navigating its subtleties; after all, much of our protagonist’s motivation was fuelled by his need to master it. How was each person’s strongest colour determined, for example? By their temperament? Talents? Interests? And what about purple?

Some characters’ incentives and plot developments were also too convenient. But I did appreciate the unwavering pace – an admirable achievement for such a thematically ambitious book. I would choose minor improbabilities over drawn-out digressions any day.

Overall, Fawkes is a diligently researched retelling of one of English history’s most widely commemorated events (this accuracy somewhat spoils the plot, yes, but I assure you Brandes remembered to inject fresh suspense). I wouldn’t read too much into the parallels between the two factions of colour magicians and the Protestant-Catholic conflict either (the snarky White Light voice, for one, and for another, religion does not have to be passed down from father to son), but they were cleverly and neatly drawn. A solid three stars.

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Snow City

Thanks to the author for providing me a copy in exchange for an honest review. For my full review policy, please click here.

“Staring through a rainy window at a little piece of heaven. Unwilling ever to fully participate in the paradise that surrounds her.”

Snow City Front CoverSnow City is – double meaning intended – dreamlike. Not quite surreal, not yet magical realism. In fact, I’m not sure the term ‘realism’ could at all be applied to this novel. The hazy quality is not disquieting though. But it does dull the senses.

Echo Japonica: Thirty-five. Unmarried. Living alone in self-imposed quarantine. One day she was surviving apocalyptic America. The next, she was in Snow City – her utopian dream world painstakingly perfected on nights dogged by desperation and despair. In Snow City, people are kind, children are loved, women are respected. But with a creator still haunted by a depraved reality, how safe can this shelter really be?

As tiresome as Echo’s diction became and as frivolous as her imagined name was, it was hard not to identify with her. This is a tad embarrassing to admit, but I often puzzle over the minute logistics and intricacies of my own imagined worlds – whether they be lifted from my favourite books or new ones I hope will one day make their way into my very own bestseller. Who wouldn’t trade the relative monotony of real life for an existence that redefines the impossible?

And so I had no difficulty immersing myself in Echo’s occasionally melodramatic prose (she has a particular penchant for repetition and ellipses). The plot, too, was intriguing – peppered with well-placed twists, some as bewildering as our protagonist’s predicament. I easily waded through these 240 pages in a single sitting.

The dreamlike tone, however, was a double-edged sword. It lulled me through the entire book, keeping me entangled (the usual ‘hooked’ is too sharp a word here) in the breakneck plot. But there were also frequent allusions to the horrors of the – our – real world, from which Echo escaped. Horrors made all the more horrible by the realisation that they are happening around us, right now. Horrors that we have become desensitised to because this is human nature, right? Snow City was not as immune as Echo had intended it to be either, so harrowing events plagued its coddled centre too. Yet – the emotional response these passages ought to have evoked was muffled by that persistent dreamlike tone. Even the moving moments felt oddly detached.

Despite its promising premise, Snow City also adamantly avoided the issues of reality, religion, death, authorship and creative control. More ‘mundane’ questions were left unanswered too: How did Echo get here? Why did Echo get here? In the end, the whole woke-up-in-her-literal-dream-world business had disappointingly little to do with the story. I know, I know, letting yourself let go and indulge was part of the point. But we still deserved more closure than this.

Overall, Snow City has an idiosyncratic – if a little insubstantial – charm. A quick, easy escape from reality.

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Distance of the Moon

“Climb up on the Moon? Of course we did. All you had to do was row out to it in a boat and, when you were underneath, prop a ladder against her and scramble up.”

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Four flights of fancy, these selections from Calvino’s Cosmicomics “interweave scientific fact with wordplay and whimsy”. They tell the history of the universe, witnessed through the eyes of Qfwfq, an exuberant, always extant, chameleon-like figure. But the most extraordinary part isn’t the plot, or the prose, but the opening phenomena, which were once thought to have been real, scientific events. 🌑

The Distance of the Moon: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

The first half was filled with delightful, phosphorescent imagery. But the hollow characterisations did little to endear the lovers’ sheer ridiculousness to me. In such a phantasmic setting, the narrator’s final proclamations ought to have been romantic, but instead just encouraged an eye roll.

Without Colours: ⭐️

Almost as bland as the colourless, “uninterrupted horizons”. The abrupt leaps of language were also too convenient to make the ending poignant. Inventive, certainly, but too insubstantial to sustain my interest.

As Long as the Sun Lasts: ⭐️⭐️

Published three years after the original Cosmicomics, there are subtle inconsistencies in Qfwfq’s recollections of his millennia on Earth. The story was still sweet though – a 12-page expansion on the archetypal bickering old married couple.

“Without which the history of the universe would not have for him any name or memory or flavour, that eternal conjugal bickering: if ever it should one day come to an end, what a feeling of desolation, what emptiness!”

Implosion: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Published 44 years after the original Cosmicomics, Implosion is an abrupt departure from the preceding stories’ conversational tone. Here, Qfwfq is philosophical – no longer enchanting children (or children at heart) by the fire. But while Implosion may be less exuberant and experimental, the introspective prose struck a chord in my introverted soul.

“To explode or to implode, that is the question: whether ’tis nobler in the mind to expand one’s energies in space without restraint, or to crush them into a dense inner concentration and cherish them.”


My other Penguin Modern reviews:
Three Japanese Short Stories
Four Russian Short Stories
Of Dogs and Walls

Three Japanese Short Stories

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Nothing is better than homemade matcha on a rainy day.

I have been making an effort to read more non-English literature, and these new Penguin Moderns are great bite-sized tasters for new authors and unfamiliar cultures. I’m already halfway through my second one, Four Russian Short Stories!

Heroes have always been monsters who crushed sentimentalism underfoot.

Behind the Prison: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Lethally sharp satire whetted against uncomfortably relatable truths. Behind the Prison is at once uproarious and unapologetically pessimistic.

“No, nothing in this world is as oppressive and debilitating as blood ties.”

“For her I would gladly ferry across the Sumida on the coldest winter day to buy her those sakura-mochi sweets from old Edo that she loved so much. But medicine? Not even on the warmest day would I want to go buy her medicine.”

Closet LLB: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The most personally terrifying of the three. Like Otsukotsu Sansaku, I had “embraced the unshakeable goal of becoming a novelist” as a child, and I, too, steep myself in literature while I have supposedly settled into (and here is the most obvious difference) medicine. Thankfully, studying medicine was my own choice, and I hope to become something of a Paul Kalanithi or Atul Gawande. But my goodness, may I never be reduced to a Sansaku!

“How much fun are you getting out of life?”

General Kim: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This last story fits the blurb best: “beguiling, strange, funny and hair-raising”. A delightfully surreal parody of Patriotism with a capital P to round it all off.

“To any nation’s people, their history is glorious. The legend of General Kim is by no means the only one worth a laugh.”

Overall rating: 5/5 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Have you read any Penguin Moderns yet? If so, which ones were your favourites?

The Language of Thorns

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Illustrations by Sara Kipin.

“Because we know – even as children – that impossible tasks are an odd way to choose a spouse, that predators come in many guises, that a prince’s whims are often cruel.”

Subversions of classic fairy tales, villainous origin legends, and just damn good short stories, The Language of Thorns is not another funny but forgettable Tales of the Peculiar, or a mellow and melancholic Beedle the Bard (though I do very much love Beedle the Bard!). The depraved and disturbing roam wild in Bardugo’s own signature Small Science: a language truly wrought from thorns.

Each tale is seasoned with the subtle savour of the sprawling, breathing, beating world Bardugo first fashioned in Six of Crows – one with myriad palpable cultures and customs.* The Language of Thorns presents six stories from four nations, and in the names and shifting landscapes, we see reflections of the real countries that Bardugo’s world was built on.

When Water Sang Fire aptly springs from the Scandinavian Hans Christian Andersen’s universally recounted The Little Mermaid. The Witch of Duva is infused with Russian leanings towards Baba Yaga cautionary tales, though its solvent is a purebred German bedtime story: Hansel and Gretel. In true Ketterdam fashion, The Soldier Prince blends The Nutcracker (another German tale retold by a Frenchman and dressed in a Russian ballet) with Velveteen Rabbit, an Anglo-American children’s book. Amaya and the Thorn Wood introduces the spirits and superstitions that frequent African folk tales, and slides down the same spiral streams of Arabic tales within tales. Amaya herself is something of a Scheherazade too.

Love speaks in flowers.
Truth requires thorns.

I only wish these tales were still more strongly steeped in the cultures they supposedly were the vessels of. As they stand, they resemble retellings of traditional European fairy tales more closely than the varied collection I had expected from the author who had so effortlessly written the most diverse fantasy novel I have ever read. I also wish we had something from Shu Han, the only nation influenced by Asian cultures; the only Shu character in Six of Crows had the least screen time and character development.

I adored (an understatement) Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, but I have yet to read the Grisha trilogy – it strikes me as a plain-Jane-Mary-Sue. Judging from other reviews, those who have read the trilogy may be delighted to find one or two familiar faces. But The Language of Thorns was darkly delightful even without such prior knowledge.

More favourite quotes: “It was the wounds from the thicket that had proven all the sweet blossoms and starlight had been real.”
“A thousand desperate wishes had been spoken on these shores, and in the end they were all the same: Make me someone new.”

Favourite tales: The Witch of Duva (Ravkan)
When Water Sang Fire (Fjerdan)
The Third Tale, Amaya and the Thorn Wood (Zemeni)

Rating: 5/5 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟


*I do realise the Grisha trilogy came first, but that was set in only Ravka. Six of Crows was a considerably more cosmopolitan adventure.