‘Chernobyl Prayer’ by Svetlana Alexievich

My rating: 2 stars

Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich could have been an informative and absorbing read. However, it failed to enthral me, since the testimonies presented throughout this non-fiction book weren’t edited, analysed nor properly contextualised. Occasionally, it raises interesting questions, but they are never fully explored.

The Chernobyl nuclear accident, which happened on 26 April 1986, didn’t affect only Ukraine. High levels of radiation were reported throughout Europe. No country was as affected as Belarus, though. The incidence of cancer increased immensely, as did the mortality rate. Svetlana Alexievich decided to give a voice to some of those who were affected. She interviewed former workers of the power plant, people who returned to a village that had been evacuated, doctors, scientists, displaced people and soldiers. Many had already died when the book was first published.

The Communist authorities lied and hid critical information. They didn’t explain how the accident happened, and the population wasn’t informed about the consequences. Military officers and clean-up workers, for example, weren’t told about the dangers of exposition to radiation. The main security agency for the Soviet Union, KGB, ordered them never to speak about what they had seen. Propaganda was successfully employed to the point that even engineers started to believe in it. This is some of the scant significant information that I was reminded of while reading. Continue reading

Monthly Favourites – November 2019

This instalment of my monthly favourites is, unfortunately, as short as the one from October. I finished reading four books in November and enjoyed three of them. But I didn’t dedicate much time to my other interests.

My favourite book from the ones that I read last month is Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. It’s an enthralling gothic novel about obsession and revenge. Although many of the characters are despicable, they are fully believable. One of them is Heathcliff. He spent good part of his life trying to take vengeance on those whom he believed had wronged him in the past. When he was a homeless boy, Mr Earnshaw found him on the streets of Liverpool and decided that he was going to live with him and his children at Wuthering Heights. He was from the beginning looked down on by Hindley, while growing very close to Catherine.

The only TV series that I watched in November was the third season of The Crown. Despite the acting being really good, I didn’t like it as much as previous seasons, for reasons that I can’t pinpoint for sure… Nevertheless, I loved and was heartbroken by episode 3, which is about a disaster in the Welsh town of Aberfan. Continue reading

Daphne du Maurier: A Queen of Atmospheric Novels

Daphne du Maurier may have been born in London in 1907, but it’s Cornwall, where she lived for most of her life and died in 1989, the main setting of several of her books. Boasting a craggy coast, inspiring coves, sandy beaches and clifftops filled with flowers, the region fits perfectly with her atmospheric stories. It’s not difficult to fall in love with her writing style. Vivid characters, a gripping prose and a sprinkle of mystery turn her novels into enthralling reads, even if they are not always perfect. She published her first novel, The Loving Spirit, in 1931. This is not the book she is best known for, though.

Rebecca is probably her most famous novel and, without a doubt, my favourite so far. After marrying Maxim de Winter, the unnamed narrator moved with him to his family home, the iconic Manderley. Being an insecure young woman, she already felt inferior to his deceased first wife, Rebecca. Living in Manderley only amplified her doubts and apprehensions. While she didn’t know how to deal with the staff nor was she familiar with her husband’s routines, Rebecca seemed to have been perfect. And Mrs Danvers, the housekeeper, was always there to remind her of that.

Accusations of plagiarism were raised regarding the book. Carolina Nabuco, a Brazilian author, believed that Daphne du Maurier had plagiarised her novel A Sucessora, although it had only been published in Portuguese at the time. She considered that the initial storyline of both novels was very similar, but she never sued Du Maurier, who claimed that she had never heard of Nabuco’s book before. The American Edwina Levin MacDonald went as far as filing suit in 1941. The complaint was dismissed, however. Continue reading

‘Wuthering Heights’ by Emily Brontë

My rating: 4 stars

More than a love story, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë is a tale of demented obsession and revenge. Despicable characters are enthrallingly brought to life in a gothic novel that is narrated in the first person from the points of view of two secondary characters – Mr Lockwood and Mrs Dean. Past and present generations become either willingly or inadvertently embroiled in a long-term reprisal scheme that stems from an unhealthy fascination.

Mr Lockwood became Mr Heathcliff’s tenant in 1801. He paid two visits to his landlord at Wuthering Heights but was never properly welcomed. That is not surprising, however, seeing that he was too intrusive and inconvenient. He didn’t consider himself so, though. Lockwood had to stay at Wuthering Heights after his second visit because of a snowstorm. One of the servants, Zillah, took him to a room where he found some writings by a Catherine Earnshaw. He realised then that there was a mystery involving that household.

When Lockwood returned home, his housekeeper, Mrs Dean, who had been living there for 18 years, told him the story of his neighbours. Before she moved there, she used to work at Wuthering Heights. At the time her employer was Mr Earnshaw, who had two children – Catherine and Hindley. Once, after a journey to Liverpool, he returned home taking with him a homeless boy, whom he called Heathcliff. Hindley didn’t like him, and a conflict soon erupted between the two. The situation deescalated when Hindley was sent to college. Catherine and Heathcliff became close friends and supported one another when Mr Earnshaw died. Continue reading

Favourite Books by My Most-Owned Authors

In past years, I wrote a blog post listing all the books that I had on my shelves by my most-owned and read authors. The plan was to publish such a post every year, in order to evaluate if there were any changes. As the differences weren’t that significant from one year to the next, I discarded the idea of doing it annually.

My shelves look slightly different now, since I’ve unhauled not only many books from my childhood, but also more recent ones that I didn’t enjoy that much. However, instead of just listing the titles of the books that I read by my most-owned authors, this time I decided to reveal my favourite book by each of the most prevalent writers on my shelves. The list below features seven authors. Four of them I read and own six books by, the others more than that.

 

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling

I read and own eight books by J.K. Rowling. A number that increases to nine when adding the work that she wrote under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith. My favourite is still Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. In the third book in the series, Harry, Hermione and Ron investigate Sirius Black, whom they believe is an ally of Voldemort. It also explores Harry’s family history. Continue reading

‘We Should All Be Feminists’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

My rating: 4 stars

It’s baffling how feminism still manages to be constantly misinterpreted and discredited in the 21st century. We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a modified version of the TED talk that the author gave in December 2012. Having her personal experience as a starting point, she engagingly describes how feminism can benefit both men and women and how, in order to prevent change, some people continue to misjudge its purposes.

Although Adichie frequently gives as examples situations connected with life in Nigeria, women worldwide can surely relate to many of those instances of everyday sexism. She mentions many familiar topics: magazines telling women how to act in order to please men; marriage being a sign of success for women; children being raised according to stereotypes; and victims of rape being blamed for their assault.

Some of the topics mentioned could have been further developed, though. Being a version of a talk, this is obviously a tiny book. Adichie could have taken the opportunity to further expand her thoughts on certain issues. She mentions, for instance, that she likes wearing high heels, but, as many women find them uncomfortable and are pressured to wear them in many occasions, she could have further delved into this. Continue reading

‘The Birds and Other Stories’ by Daphne du Maurier

My rating: 4 stars

What is more destructive: the uncontrollable forces of nature or humans’ darkest side? The collection The Birds and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier features six short stories not only about the power of wildlife and people’s relation with it, but also about the terrible actions that humans are capable of. Although some of the stories share similarities, they are all distinguishable, mainly thanks to the unique voices of their narrators.

My two favourite stories in this collection have one surprising action in common, but what leads to it is entirely different. ‘The Little Photographer’ shines thanks to its compelling characters, visual descriptions and engaging style of narration. Madame La Marquise was on holiday at a seaside resort with her two daughters but without her husband. Soon after musing on how many women seemed to be having affairs, she met a photographer. In ‘Kiss Me Again, Stranger’, on the other hand, the narrator is a former military man, who now worked at a garage. He once went to the cinema and became smitten by the usherette. It has a compelling conversational style and touches on feminism and the consequences of war.

Nature is particularly relevant in two of the stories. ‘The Apple Tree’ is about a man who noticed a strange similarity between an apple tree in his garden and his recently deceased wife, Midge. She died of influenza, followed by pneumonia. He had not been a good husband and now seemed to dislike the tree as much as his late wife. But the tree, which almost has human qualities, fought back. Although the story is narrated from his perspective, it is easy to discern that he had a dismissive attitude and didn’t have much respect for other people. Daphne du Maurier managed to clearly characterise him without resorting to telling his features directly. Continue reading

Monthly Favourites – October 2019

October was not a particularly fruitful month when it comes to favourites. I liked all of the books that I read in their entirety, but I DNFed two books in a row at the beginning of the month. I also didn’t watch many TV series or films. So, this instalment will certainly be much shorter than usual.

I finished reading three books last month – A Espada e a Azagaia by Mia Couto, The Devil’s Footprints by John Burnside and Mar Novo by Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen. Although I enjoyed the three of them almost equally, I decided to choose as my favourite the poetry collection Mar Novo, mainly because I relished analysing some of the poems featured in it more thoroughly, something I hadn’t done in a while. Various poems in this collection have pessimistic undertones and allude to a world of darkness. The sea is used as a symbol for freedom.

More or less two weeks ago, I watched the fifth season of Peaky Blinders. I was not impressed by the first episodes, as they don’t seem to have a clear focus, but adored the last two (5 and 6). This season is set in the 1930s, and the Shelby family becomes embroiled in the rise of Nazism in the UK. Continue reading

‘Mar Novo’ by Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen

My rating: 4 stars

Pessimism and despair loom large in the majority of the poems that are part of the collection Mar Novo by the Portuguese author Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen. Originally published in 1958, when Portugal was under a fascist dictatorship, they allude to a world of darkness and terror and to the need to build a new one. As in other of her collections, natural elements are used as metaphors for concepts that could have been censored.

The sea is constantly used as a symbol for freedom, a desirable right that at that point in time she didn’t believe could soon be attained. In ‘Marinheiro sem Mar’, one of my favourite poems in this collection, that symbolism is particularly noticeable. It mentions a sailor without sea, which can be interpreted as a metaphor for a people without freedom. In that world, where the sea had dried up, it was also impossible to find the truth. While this poem has a gloomy undertone, ‘Liberdade’ is more positive. There are references to beaches and waves, elements with no impurities.

One poem that stands out because of its sonority is ‘Porque’. It emphasises the reasons why a specific person, most certainly her husband, is different from the others. She lists what makes him a good man by juxtaposing what others do and he doesn’t. The repetition of “tu não” (“not you”) is powerful. He is brave, honest and stands up for his values, even though it’s dangerous to do so. Her husband, Francisco Sousa Tavares, was an opponent of the fascist regime. Her love and admiration for him is mentioned in other poems as well. Continue reading

‘The Devil’s Footprints’ by John Burnside

My rating: 4 stars

Throughout The Devil’s Footprints by John Burnside, the past of the main character, Michael Gardiner, seeps into the present. Readers are presented with the memories of a man who is struggling to come to terms with various events from his life and whose mental health is compromised. This short novel doesn’t have a particularly fascinating and exciting plot. It shines thanks to the distinctive voice of its troubled narrator.

There’s a tale in Coldhaven, a fishing town in Scotland, about the devil roaming the streets on a winter night and leaving a trail of dark hoofprints. Michael, the narrator and main character, connects this tale with his own personal story. He recalls reading a piece of news a year before about a woman, Moira Birnie, who drugged her two young sons, drove them to a quiet road and torched the car with the three of them inside. She had started to believe that her husband, Tom Birnie, was the devil, and that the two young boys were the devil’s children. She didn’t kill her 14-year-old daughter, Hazel, though.

Before she got married, Moira had briefly been the narrator’s first girlfriend. But their connection extends to other elements of her family. Michael keeps a dark secret about his association with her deceased brother, which he recalls with unsettling normality. He also learnt that he and Hazel might have something in common – she could be a sleepwalker as he was for a while as a child. He clearly states that he had temporarily gone insane after learning about this possibility. Continue reading