Why I Write

whyiwriteTitle: Why I Write

Author: George Orwell

Summary: Whether puncturing the lies of politicians, wittily dissecting the English character or telling unpalatable truths about war, Orwell’s timeless, uncompromising essays are more relevant, entertaining and essential than ever in today’s era of spin.

Rating: ★★★★★ 5/5

Review: I loved this book. It actually took me by surprise how enormously i enjoyed it, but i loved this book. I picked it up recently on a whim as a last minute purchase from a secondhand bookshop, and started reading it on a train journey when it was the only book i had easily accessible. For an impulse purchase and a last resort read, this book impressed me spectacularly.

I excepted this to be a simple, easy read about Orwell’s motivations and techniques when it comes to writing. It was actually a lot more. In the first essay his focus is on the writing, including, as he sees it, the main motives for writing and the general disposition of any writer. That’s where the simple stuff that most people will expect ends, though. Right there on page 10. The remaining 110 pages are where things get interesting.

The second, and longest, essay is easily my favourite. Though i can see if you’re not a politically inclined Briton it might not strike with the same energy. Orwell describes Britain and British sentiment and nationality as a context for its politics, before diving right into the politics and the second world war (which was happening around him as he wrote). It is brilliant, and there is no doubt the points he’s making are still relevant today. I underlined a lot of quotes. Most that stuck as incredibly pertinent to current politics, others that were simply magnificent insults, and on the best occasions they were both!

I’ve never found myself quite so into politics. Of course, i keep up to date with what’s going on and have strong-to-vehement opinions on it all, but this was the first time i remember being truly engaged on the right level. I think it helps that Orwell comes at it from a good angle. That angle being it’s a fucking mess and a hell of a lot more needs to change than simply the party in power. He’s my kind of reasonable (which is to say, perhaps, not at all)–he’s equally insulting and fed up of it all. He’s not pushing for a particular agenda or trying to persuade anyone of anything, just stating the facts as he sees them, and his opinion on where and how things are fucked up and unfair.

I can’t quote all my underlining (at least not in this review…), but i’ll include one that speaks broadly to one of the larger issues:

“…no one genuinely wanted any major change to happen. The Labour leaders wanted to go on and on, drawing their salaries and periodically swapping jobs with the Conservatives.”

The last essay focuses on politics in relation to language, and how meaningless speeches and literature can become when vague and inflated. A piece of writing that uses long words and fancy-sounding turns of phrase might seem impressive, but if you really pay attention to it, it isn’t saying anything at all. Seeing the examples Orwell gives, how he picks them apart, and comparing it to his own straight-forward way of writing really made me stop and consider my own writing style. (I’m feeling a little apprehensive about this review, to say the least!)

Some reviews i read from people who did not enjoy this book as thoroughly as I did claim it’s not about why Orwell writes, and I’m left wondering if they’ve ever read any of his other books. Animal Farm, 1984… politics is why he writes. Reading him talk in such an honest and straightforward manner about his political views was thrilling. Without the metaphors and refined prose of a fictional narrative Orwell is sharp, witty, and on point. I could have coped with this book being twice as long, honestly.

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Stop What You’re Doing and Read This!

Stop-What-Youre-ReadingTitle: Stop What You’re Doing and Read This!

Author: Various

Summary: In any 24 hours there might be sleeping, eating, kids, parents, friends, lovers, work, school, travel, deadlines, emails, phone calls, Facebook, Twitter, the news, the TV, Playstation, music, movies, sport, responsibilities, passions, desires, dreams.

Why should anyone stop what they’re doing and read a book?

People have always needed stories. We need literature because we need to make sense of our lives, test our depths, understand our joys, and discover what humans are capable of. Great books can provide companionship when we are lonely, or peacefulness in the midst of an overcrowded daily life. Reading provides a unique kind of pleasure and no one should live without it.

In the ten essays in this book some of our finest authors and passionate advocates from the worlds of science, publishing, technology, and social enterprise tell us about the experience of reading, why access to books should never be taken for granted, how reading transforms our brains, and how literature can save lives. In any 24 hours there are so many demands on your time and attention – make books one of them.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3/5

Review: I love books about books, about reading and about the shared joy i experience with others who love books. This book, unfortunately, didn’t really live up to my expectations.

Very few of the essays in this book really stood out for me. Considering most of the authors are professional writers, i felt they did a pretty poor-to-average job of capturing the unique joy of reading we bookworms experience. Some of the essays focused on the author’s childhood and experience with books and reading as they grew up. A few included another focus, instead of the simply enjoyment reading brings, some chose to highlight how vital the ability is, how access to books is key. And though these were interesting and i agree with them, they didn’t evoke The Feeling or make a lasting impression on me.

The two essays i really enjoyed were the last two.

The Dreams of Readers by Nicholas Carr, though somewhat awkwardly written and including an abundance of direct quotes from others, captured the idea of books being both an escape to lose yourself in, and also an influence which transforms the reader. It talks about each reader bring their own experiences and interpretations to a book, and therefore each experiencing a different reading of the narrative. It’s a pretty simple and acceptable idea, but not one that’s often thought about or discussed.

To me that leads to questions about the subtleties and unique aspects of language; with such an array of connotations to words, meanings and inflection, can we ever know if we’re truly understanding each other?

Then Questions for a Reader by Dr Maryanne Wolf and Dr Mirit Barzillai takes the concept of reading transforming the the reader even further. They consider the history of the written word, how philosophers feared it spelt the end of individuals thinking for themselves, or thinking critically about the information presented to them. As we’ve proven since then, that’s not the case. But they also ponder the future of reading, with more reading happening online. When more words and information is only a click away and adverts and cat gifs are vying for the reader’s attention, how will this affect critical thinking?

In this case, I think the essay gives far too much credit and influence to the work and to the web. It assumes how the presentation of information changes is the only factor, rendering the consumer passive and easily influenced. I would argue the result depends more so on the reader. The reader has to want to critically engage with what they’re reading, and if they do, no amount of reddit or wikipedia links will deter them from that.

Overall, though, this book lacked the magic for me. It felt forced. It felt a little gimmicky. A “look, a book about books, you should read it!” attempt at selling a book, rather than a book that was genuinely about exploring people’s love of reading and trying to capture that feeling we get.

The Wild Girls, Plus…

TWG+Title: The Wild Girls, Plus…

Author: Ursula Le Guin

Summary: Nebula Award winner The Wild Girls, newly revised and presented here in book form for the first time, tells of two captive “dirt children” in a society of sword and silk, whose determination to enter “that space in which there is room for justice” leads to a violent and loving end.

Plus… Le Guin’s scorching essay Staying Awake While We Read, which demolishes the pretensions of corporate publishing and capitalism as well; a handful of poems that glitter like stars; and a modest proposal.

And Featuring: Our Outspoken Interview which promises to reveal the hidden dimensions of America’s best-known SF author. And delivers.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: I’ve yet to go wrong with Le Guin. She’s consistently interesting, well-written and thought-provoking. So much so i recently backed a kickstarter raising money to make a documentary on the life of the author.

The short story here, The Wild Girls, is the only piece of fiction in this collection. I love how simply and seemingly effortlessly Le Guin can lay out the details and intricacies of a society and culture. The class and currency systems, most especially, were odd but recognisable. In terms of plot, it’s simple enough, but this is quite a character-driven story. I rooted for those girls from start to finish, and though some justice was had, it was not nearly enough.

Where i really found myself loving this book were Le Guin’s essays. I absolutely adored Staying Awake While We Read, which addresses they ever-consistent, though somewhat low, number of book sales, and how and why this is seen as bad in a society that is unhealthily obsessed with economic growth. Le Guin make her arguments in witty and rememberable ways; she’s smart and pulls no punches. I really didn’t want that essay to end. Several times i wanted to pull out a pen and underline sentences or mark passages, only remembering at the last minute that the book was borrowed. I’ve had to settle to taking photographs and typing out quotes for tumblr!

I enjoyed the poems, though particularly the shorter ones–i think Le Guin can do a lot with few words. The essay on modesty was interesting, though didn’t grab me quite as thoroughly. And the interview, well… at points i felt for the interviewer, who quite obviously was not getting the answers they wanted, but at the same time, i adored Le Guin’s straightforward, humourous and no-nonsense responses.

There are several unread Le Guin books on my bookshelves, but i can promise they won’t be unread for long. And i plan to hunt down and read the hell out of any other non-fiction essays she’s written–i’m completely and utterly smitten.

We Should All Be Feminists

wsabfTitle: We Should All Be Feminists

Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Summary: ‘I would like to ask that we begin to dream about and plan for a different world. A fairer world. A world of happier men and happier women who are truer to themselves. And this is how to start: we must raise our daughters differently. We must also raise our sons differently…’

Rating: ★★★★★ 5/5

Review: At 50-odd smaller than average sized pages, this is a quick read. It’s also an excellent read. It should be a compulsory read.

Whether you’re a woman who has experienced sexism every day of her life, whether you’re a man who recognises the inequality of the sexes, whether you already call yourself a feminist–you will still gain something for reading this. Of course, the people who really need to read it are none of the above.

Adichie has such a straightforward, easy writing style. Not a single word is wasted or superfluous, and even in print she comes across as so calm and patient. Calm is definitely something i find it hard to remain when talking about sexism and women’s rights. But i think that calmness helps her make her arguments, helps get her point across without sounding challenging or immediately prompting a defence. (And having now heard some of her TEDx talk she based the book on–yes, her delivery is perfect and comes across just as well in writing.)

For so few words the book covers so much, starting from childhood, adolescence, relationships, adulthood, socialising, and work. I’ve lived with some of these things all my life, but some i hadn’t considered in great detail, or hadn’t experienced to such an extent. To have things put so plainly really makes you stop and take them in.

Most importantly, i think, reading it didn’t make me angry. I didn’t feel mad at the world, for all its injustices and prejudice and sexist culture. Becoming fired up and ready to fight is the norm for me when discussing these issues. But Adichie’s words and her calmness in laying them out only calmed me in turn. It made me feel less isolated, knowing there are women going through the same things i am, fighting the same fights. And it also gave me hope that it can be talked about, recognised and fought on a broader level.

I want to buy a dozen copies and leave them about at the bus stop, in cafes, on desks. It’s so small and seems so innocuous, that i think people might actually pick it up. Even if they just flick through it and read a page or two, it would offer them something, a thought or perspective they hadn’t considered before. It might make them think and look around them, it might make them see and act.

The Little Book of Vegan Poems

littlebookofvegampoemsTitle: The Little Book of Vegan Poems

Author: Benjamin Zephaniah

Summary: Benjamin Zephaniah dedicated this collection of 22 new poems to “the caring, dedicated young vegans of the world…who will not stand for any exploitation whatever the species.” Filled with the unique “radical rapper” poems that Zephaniah is famous for, this book also includes an extensive contact list of international vegan and animal rights organisations.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3/5

Review: This was a quick little read. I found it in the room i’ve been staying in over Easter while visiting relatives. The cover attracted my attention (minimalism ♥) and the subject matter gained my interest. It’s short, at 41 pages, and only took me half an hour to read.

The topic of veganism was the most interesting thing for me and these poems explore several aspects of veganism. The fact that eating meat is so ingrained in our culture that no one thinks to question it and the idea that causing harm to other beings should never be so easily accepted and taught. The fact that all beings are equal; animals are just trying to get on with their lives and that humans aren’t in any way better than them.

Some of the poems I really liked. Some for their message, some for their style, some for the fact they made me laugh. Others I was less enamoured with. Some fell flat, some used language in a way that just didn’t work for me, some were just okay.

Benjamin Zephaniah is known more for his dub poetry, and although I’ve not seen him perform, I think these poems would work much better read live. With emphasis, inflexion, personality and energy. I just think they would hit their mark more accurately and punch much higher.

I think this book is a nice reference piece or accompaniment, but as a stand alone is lacking something.

This knocks two squares off my Bookish Bingo: Chosen because of its cover and a book of poetry.

Write

writeTitle: Write

Author: Various, The Guardian

Summary: Liberate your inner writer with insights and inspiration from some of the world’s finest contemporary authors.

Rating: ★★★★★ 5/5

Review: I picked this book up randomly as i walked passed it in the library. I’m glad i did. Generally, i love books and quotes and reading about writing. I find it incredibly fascinating and inspiring. I don’t necessarily agree with everything said, or all tips and rules preached, but it is always interesting to hear about other people’s methods and thought processes.

This book is split into three main sections: Fundamentals, which includes a series of short essays focusing on different aspects of writing (characters, voice, dialogue, plot, editing, etc). Rules, which is a collection of practises different authors follow in their writing. And a ‘How I Wrote’ section, where authors wrote short pieces on their inspiration and method of writing a particular novel. At the end there were a few more essays on the more general topics of deadlines, stationary and copyright.

I was, predictably, hooked from the start. There is perhaps nothing i enjoy talking or reading about more than writing. Seeing other people put into words things that resonate so strongly with me. Seeing concepts and ideas shaped in such a way that it makes perfect sense, that i would never have been able to verbalise myself.

Sensitivity to language is [a] quality that really matters in writing; it is also, perhaps, the most resistant to any kind of formal teaching.

Good novels are completed by their readers. Bad novels by their authors: overwritten, over-detailed and over-plotted.

…to me fiction seems too important to professionalise. Leave it to the amateurs.

All the way through, i was itching to pick up a highlighter pen and a pencil to mark quotes and make notes i the margins. The fact that this was a library book made me refrain, but the urge was strong enough, that i’m looking to buying a second hand copy for myself to vandalise to my heart’s content.

Ultimately, this book has me thinking of ideas, plans, inspiration and generally just desperate to get writing. Definitely one to have, fully highlighted and scribbled in, on hand when i’m writing. To pick up and dive in at a moment’s notice.

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop

yellowTitle: The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop

Author: Lewis Buzbee

Summary: In The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, Lewis Buzbee celebrates the unique experience of the bookstore—the smell and touch of books, the joy of getting lost in the deep canyons of shelves, and the silent community of readers. He shares his passion for books, which began with ordering through the Weekly Reader in grade school. Woven throughout is a fascinating historical account of the bookseller trade—from the great Alexandria library with an estimated one million papyrus scrolls to Sylvia Beach’s famous Paris bookstore, Shakespeare & Co., that led to the extraordinary effort to publish and sell James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Rating: ★★★★★ 5/5

Review: A book about books. Why have i never read one of these before? I loved it. I loved seeing things i feel and experience, but have rarely taken the time to think about put down in words, analysed and expressed.

This is aimed at anyone with a love of books, and i mean books—not just reading them, but their physical presence. It explores the joy of bookshops, of slowly taking your time to look around and enjoy being surrounded by books, of picking them up and flicking through them, of simply spending time around them.

It’s also a memoir of the author’s life around books. From working in local bookshops for many years, to becoming a sale rep and more, it’s obvious how much Buzbee loves books. As much as i loved books before i read this book, Buzbee’s love of them in infectious, and i definitely finished the book with an even higher appreciate and interest in them.

The third aspect of the book is the history of books. On its own, this would have been very dry and uninspired, but the history is presented seamlessly amongst the love of books and Busbee’s life with books. It made the historical facts interesting and fun, like little stories of their own. My favourite was the Shakespeare & Co. bookshop in Paris, how it came about, how it stayed about, how it published and distributed Ulysses and how and why it eventually shut its doors. I think i would read a book entirely about that (is there one?).

Ultimately, what made this book such an enjoyable read was Buzbee’s writing. His love of books shone through and you can’t help but get caught up in his enthusiasm. Reading this book was like being snuggled in a warm blanket. I didn’t want it to end.

Off the Map

otmgallery1Title: Off the Map.

Author: Hib & Kika

Summary: This is what it means to be an adventurer in our day: to give up creature comforts of the mind, to realise possibilities of imagination. Because everything around us says no you cannot do this, you cannot live without that, nothing is useful unless it’s service to money, to gain, to stability.
The adventurer gives in to tides of chaos, trusts the world to support her—and in doing so turns her back on the fear and obedience she has been taught. She rejects the indoctrination of impossibility.
My adventure is a struggle for freedom.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: This is a book about travelling, about adventure and about an alternative way of seeing and doing things. I loved this book. I love that this book exists, and would encourage any and everyone to read it.

Most people travel on planes and stay in hotels. A budget traveller may travel by train and stay in hostels, but I know from experience that there are some people who can’t even afford to ‘budget’ travel. It was refreshing to see the budgetless travel not only represented, but also loved, chosen and enjoyed.

This is the story of Hib and Kika, who buy a one-way plane ticket from San Francisco to Europe, and spend long months hitchhiking, sleeping rough, living out of backpacks and relying on the kindness of strangers. And there are still people in the world who will offer all the help they can to people who need it.

…you get what you pay for. Pay a lot and you get an expensive life. Take what’s free and you get freedom.

I could pretty much quote 80% of this book. I loved reading views and opinions about the world, and ways to live in it that i could appreciate and share. To read about people who see the world in a similar way to me was a joy. I might not agree with everything Hib and Kika expressed, but the fact that they don’t take the world as it is given to them—that they see and think for themselves—was what i most strongly agreed with.

The book is by no means perfect. The chapters are told from either Heb or Kika’s point of view, but i was never able to tell which until whoever was narrating mentioned the other. That could get rather confusing.

Also, for my tastes, it was at times written a little to poetically; too dreamy. I love to daydream, but i think Heb and Kika’s daydreams were not quite my style. They involved too much a feeling of helplessness and overly feminine tones, such as mermaids, witches and pretty flowing dresses… For two punk girls in dirty overalls, i didn’t like the juxtaposition, personally. As if their real dreams involved being meaninglessly beautiful. Rubbed me the wrong way.

The book is not written as a typical story; it’s not a straightforward account of their travels. Instead it more like snippets and stories of their travels. Time and space skips in large chunks, without pause, and you just have to keep up. I liked it like that. Instead of weaving an intricate narrative, they present you with 30 small ones. It’s a book that you could flip through to read any random chapter and you wouldn’t be thrown into the middle of a story you wouldn’t understand—each chapter is its own story.

My favourite of these 30 small stories was Street Rat Dreamers. I’ll leave you with a snippet.

…off the map and beyond the boarders there are other formulas. Abandoned house – permission = free shelter and adventure. Rain + covered doorway = gratitude. Soon it’s obvious that what you thought was flat actually has an underside, an edge, a core. That the mirrors you grew up with are as warped as the ones in the funhouse, and there’s no going back to them. There’s either giving up, or going on. One way cynicism, the other, dreams.