Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel-Bring up the Bodies “Where to begin with Cromwell? Some start with his sharp little eyes, some start with his hat. Some evade the issue and paint his seal and scissors, others pick out the turquoise ring given him by the cardinal. Wherever they begin, the final impact is the same: if he had a grievance against you, you wouldn’t like to meet him at the dark of the moon.” – Hilary Mantel, Bring Up The Bodies

It’s not often I enjoy the second book in a series better than the first. But Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel has left its predecessor Wolf Hall in the dust.

When I reviewed Wolf Hall in March, I confessed that it had “the tendency to put me to sleep” and that reading it “felt like running a marathon”. I encouraged people to read it if they were “up for a literary challenge” or had “an interest in Tudor history”. What a bland review!

Now I want to eat my words. Stop what you’re doing and read Wolf Hall. Persevere through the detailed descriptions and fight your way, one sleepy page at a time, to the end. Because Bring Up The Bodies is well worth the effort.

Synopsis

Picking up where Wolf Hall left off, Bring Up The Bodies starts in the depths of Thomas Cromwell’s mind. As readers, we are forever perched on the shoulder of this elusive Tudor lawyer, shown snippets of his brilliance and malice.

Setting the tone for the novel, the first chapter opens with ghosts and omens, as Cromwell rides through the English countryside, on yet another errand for King Henry VIII.

“His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horseback, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze. Grace Cromwell hovers in thin air. She is silent when she takes her prey, silent as she glides to his fist. But the sounds she makes then, the rustle of feathers and the creak, the sigh and riffle of pinion, the small cluck-cluck from her throat, these are the sounds of recognition, intimate, daughterly, almost disapproving. Her breast is gore-streaked and flesh clings to her claws.”

Here is he, Cromwell, cantering forward, with England “behind him”, his own wretched past a constant companion, no matter how much ground he covers. Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son, the Putney-born, now Master Secretary to the King of England.

Anyone familiar with Tudor history knows Cromwell does not have a happy ending. It makes for interesting reading then, to follow his life knowing what fate lies ahead. Each page is marred by a sense of foreboding, each word uttered tinged with risk. The roll of a dice, a high-stakes game where the rewards are dazzling and there are no second chances. But Cromwell knows no way but forward.

“The things you think are the disasters in your life are not the disasters really. Almost anything can be turned around: out of every ditch, a path, if you can only see it.”

Bring Up The Bodies is set during the reign of Queen Anne Boleyn – or La Ana, the concubine, depending on which team you play for. Anne is one of history’s most famous figures. Like Cromwell, she is elusive, much of her character having evaded historians for centuries.

Historians have used much creative licence when depicting Anne. There has been much literature about her rise and fall. The majority of historical fiction from the Tudor period is filled with sex, romance and war – as if one has to ‘sex up’ history to make it interesting.

But Mantel chooses to portray Cromwell, the lawyer. It says a lot about Mantel’s commitment to character, that she manages to make Anne look dull and Cromwell dazzling. In her two books about the Tudors, there is barely any sex or battle, just words and whispers.

In doing this, I believe Mantel gets closer to the heart of Henry VIII’s reign. What happened during this period was not driven by romance or lust, but by law. Henry could not simply act as he pleased – all of his whims and desires had to be framed in legal terms. It was Cromwell’s task to legalise and justify his King’s demands.

“We are not priests. We don’t want their sort of confession. We are lawyers. We want the truth little by little and only those parts of it we can use.”

There is nothing simple about the way Henry dismissed his wives. Behind the scenes was Cromwell, pulling the puzzle apart and piecing it together again. Bring Up The Bodies is a masterpiece of political brilliance and calculation. It’s offers unique insight into one of the most turbulent times of British history; I won’t bore you with the plot, it is already well-known. Instead this book is worth reading for its fresh perspective.

My thoughts

I was completely blown away by Bring Up The Bodies. The time Mantel put into building Cromwell’s character in Wolf Hall shows, as in Bring Up The Bodies he is as familiar as an old friend. You know his character and his ambition. You might not know what he is going to do next, but you have a fair idea of how he is going to do it; with deliberate precision and care. You find yourself respecting him, even if the outcome is bloodshed.

“Look, he says: once you have exhausted the process of negotiation and compromise, once you have fixed on the destruction of an enemy, that destruction must be swift and it must be perfect. Before you even glance in his direction, you should have his name on a warrant, the ports blocked, his wife and friends bought, his heir under your protection, his money in your strong room and his dog running to your whistle. Before he wakes in the morning, you should have the axe in your hand.”

The book makes it feel as though you, the reader, are Cromwell’s shadow. You follow him from the warmth of his home to the coolness of the court, and everywhere in between. Cromwell sees and hears everything, and therefore so do you. Mantel has managed to find a way of condensing the complexity of Henry VIII’s court into one man’s mind, and then opened a window so the world can look in.

When I finished Bring Up The Bodies I had goosebumps, a huge smile on my face and I think I may even have whooped with satisfaction. Well played, Mantel, well played.

Bookmarked Quotes

“But chivalry’s day is over. One day soon moss will grow in the tilt yard. The days of the moneylender have arrived, and the days of the swaggering privateer; banker sits down with banker, and kings are their waiting boys.”

“Truth can break the gates down, truth can howl in the street; unless truth is pleasing, personable and easy to like, she is condemned to stay whimpering at the back door.”

“He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.”

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

The Rosie Project “But why, why, why can’t people just say what they mean?” – Graeme Simsion, The Rosie Project

One part romance, one part comedy, The Rosie Project will forever have a place in my heart as my first book club* read.

It was the perfect initial choice: light and funny, yet also deep enough to inspire a little discussion.

*I recently joined not just one, but TWO book clubs. My life feels complete. How many book clubs is too many? Wouldn’t say no to a third.

Synopsis

Meet Don Tillman, an eccentric genetics professor with undiagnosed (and unconfirmed) Asperger’s Syndrome. Intelligent and pragmatic, Don has the mind of a genius yet he struggles in social situations. He takes everything literally and therefore finds most people a source of mind-boggling confusion.

Don is the embodiment of the phrase ‘creature of habit’. He lives his life according to a very strict, self-devised schedule for success. Everything he does is carefully calculated to help him reach his full physical and mental potential, from the amount of sleep he gets every night to the type of food he eats. He’s incredibly fit, smart and healthy, but not that great at small talk or spontaneous fun.

Despite the odd pang of loneliness and the fear of social embarrassment, Don seems pretty happy with his life. He’s just missing one thing: romance. Never one to sit idly over a problem, Don devises a plan. Welcome to the Wife Project.

Armed with a sixteen-page questionnaire and some rather striking hypocritical tendencies, Don sets out on his search for the perfect woman. He hopes to use the questionnaire as a type of screening test, to eliminate any ‘unsuitable matches’ in the early stages, rather than get halfway down the road of love and find out Miss Perfect is actually a sports-watching, smoking disappointment.

“A questionnaire! Such an obvious solution. A purpose-built, scientifically valid instrument incorporating current best practice to filter out the time wasters, the disorganised, the ice-cream discriminators, the visual-harassment complainers, the crystal gazers, the horoscope readers, the fashion obsessives, the religious fanatics, the vegans, the sports watchers, the creationists, the smokers, the scientifically illiterate, the homeopaths, leaving ideally, the perfect partner, or, realistically, a management shortlist of candidates.”

This is where things start to get a little predictable. Who walks into his life but a beautiful, eccentric, chain-smoking vegetarian? Enter Rosie. As Don is about to find out, romance hardly ever goes to plan.

My thoughts

This book made me laugh, a lot. Mostly at Don, but also at the ridiculousness of some social norms that he highlights through his inability to read between the lines. And then there is the fact the author likes to squeeze as much laugh potential out of an awkward situation as possible. I think the below quote sums up what I mean pretty well:

Don: “But I’m not good at understanding what other people want.” Rosie: “Tell me something I don’t know,” said Rosie for no obvious reason. I quickly searched my mind for an interesting fact. “Ahhh… The testicles of drone bees and wasp spiders explode during sex.”

Sometimes this humour was eye-rolling ridiculous, sometimes it was very clever & understated. All of the time, it was highly enjoyable. Speaking of reading between the lines, sometimes it’s nice to read a book for pure entertainment, without getting too caught up in the myriad possible meanings of every sentence.

I think you will enjoy The Rosie Project if you take it for what it is – a light and entertaining read. Or as the queen of chicklit herself, Marian Keyes, said: “funny and heartwarming, a gem of a book”.

This is a romance novel for those who do not like romance novels (thereby proving that everyone likes a nice love story every once in a while).

Bookmarked quotes

“Professor Tillman. Most of us here are not scientists, so you may need to be a little less technical.’ This sort of thing is incredibly annoying. People can tell you the supposed characteristics of a Gemini or a Taurus and will spend five days watching a cricket match, but cannot find the interest or the time to learn the basics of what they, as humans, are made up of.”

“It would be unreasonable to give you credit for being incredibly beautiful.”

“It seems hardly possible to analyse such a complex situation involving deceit and supposition of another person’s emotional response, and then prepare your own plausible lie, all while someone is waiting for you to reply to a question. Yet that is exactly what people expect you to be able to do.

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer book review“We know that if someone offers to show us a film on how our meat is produced, it will be a horror film.” - Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals

I knew I was in for a ride when I picked up Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. I have been aware of this book for some time, but had – until now – managed to push it right to the bottom of my ‘too-hard basket’.

Isn’t it strange when massive, universal, ethical questions randomly tap you on the shoulder and demand your attention? I have gone 24 years without sincerely worrying about the meat on my plate. Then one day, out of the blue, I felt ready to explore this issue further.

If you have ever felt any curiosity or concern about how meat is produced, then this book is an excellent place to start. Yes, it does push a vegetarian agenda, but it is not preachy or confrontational in the way you might expect from a book of this title. It simply lays some facts bare and lets you decide where you stand. Ultimately, this is a book about choice.

Synopsis

Factory farming, America, the mid to late 2000s. This is the context in which Eating Animals was written.

Jonathan Safran Foer’s mission is to expose some truths about factory farming, which – at the time of publication – was in some way or another part of the production process for 99% of all meat in the United States.

It’s easy to think about factory farming as something that happens elsewhere, but New Zealand isn’t exempt. Although set within the context of the United States, the issues raised in Eating Animals have global influence, especially considering the scale and power of some of the largest meat producers.

In other words, as tempting as it might be, don’t write-off Jonathan Safran Foer’s research just because you don’t live in America.

The premise for Eating Animals is simple: write about factory farming and eating animals. The results are much more complex. Discussions about what we eat – especially about meat – tend to either induce extreme emotions or extreme apathy. You either shrug your shoulders and take another bite of your burger, or you argue passionately for one side or the other.

“I can’t count the times that upon telling someone I am vegetarian, he or she responded by pointing out an inconsistency in my lifestyle or trying to find a flaw in an argument I never made. (I have often felt that my vegetarianism matters more to such people than it does to me).”

Jonathan Safran Foer explores people’s reactions and tries to shine some light on why a conversation about eating animals is so fraught, when most humans eat some form of meat every day.

The result is a powerful, thought-provoking book that provides you with the knowledge to make better informed decisions about where you spend your consumer dollar. That said, it may also have the side-effect of making you worry about food, a lot.

My thoughts

I didn’t so much as have thoughts about Eating Animals, rather I felt a powerful response – philosophically, morally, physically and emotionally.

I will spare you the details of just how bad factory farming is, and instead tell you how this book made me feel.

Whether I continue to eat animals or I choose a path of vegetarianism, this book led me to the following conclusion: I want to lead a gentle life.

I want to be gentle in the way I approach and treat others, and the way I approach and treat myself. I want to tread lightly on this earth and leave little destruction or waste in my wake. I want to prioritise compassion over indifference and awareness over ignorance. I want to carry myself with integrity and consideration.

Currently, factory farming is the antithesis of all these things.

Three questions I keep asking myself are: does eating animals align with my values, my ideal of who I wish to be? And do the animals on my plate require my compassion, or are they integral to my health and survival, and therefore exempt? And is it possible to be truly, authentically compassionate towards animals and still eat them?

As I was reading the book, I kept thinking about my interactions with animals. I thought about stroking a kitten, playing ball with a dog, looking into a cow’s eyes, or even picking up a chicken and feeling it’s warmth. Everything about my interaction with animals is gentle.

That said, I’ve never considered myself to be an ‘animal person’. I am almost a little bit afraid of them. During my childhood we had grumpy cats who were prone to scratching and biting, and I was terrified of dogs. I still cross to the other side of the street when I see a dog off a leash. Just a few weeks ago, I was afraid to pick up some baby chicks on my mum’s land.

I don’t believe this fear comes from a concern that they will actually hurt me, rather animals make me jumpy because I have no idea what they are going to do next. I regard them with caution and curiosity, and ultimately, as individuals. Until I get to know an animal better – pet or otherwise – I would rather observe them from afar.

Perhaps it is precisely because I have always kept animals at arm’s length that I haven’t worried about eating them – until now.

Listening to a news story about the use of antibiotics on factory farmed animals triggered an impulse in me to delve deeper, to learn more about how meat is produced. And a small part of me wishes I hadn’t opened this can of worms. Once you take a look under the lid, you can’t go back.

Of course I had a slight suspicion that the lives of factory farmed animals were difficult. But to have their suffering and death described to me in such detail, well, it made me question everything I believe in.

That reason alone is evidence enough that Jonathan Safran Foer has written a brilliant book.

Any piece of writing that forces you to reconsider your values, to think deeply about the world and your place in it, is – in my opinion – worth reading.

“In the three years I will spend immersed in animal agriculture, nothing will unsettle me more than the locked doors. Nothing will better capture the whole sad business of factory farming. And nothing will more strongly convince me to write this book.”

Sometimes I curse my thirst for knowledge – wouldn’t everything be so much easier if I remained ignorant to certain realities? Wouldn’t I be happier in the short-term if I refused to make connections between the meat on my plate and an animal?

But that’s not my nature.

My mind jumps from one to conclusion to the next, but it keeps coming back to that desire to know rather than not know. I would always prefer to be told than to be kept in the dark.

Knowledge is power. Knowledge also implies change and adaption. The more we learn, the better we can respond to changing circumstances, and the better we will be able to find solutions to problems.

As Maya Angelou famously said: “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

As we acquire more knowledge we must be prepared to reassess and realign our journey through life.

This is the sentiment I will hold close to my heart as I continue to explore my relationship to food and to animals. I will continue doing the best I can with the knowledge I have in front of me, and try to make the best possible decisions.

And throughout this process, I will endeavour to be gentle, kind and compassionate.

Bookmarked quotes

“Ironically, the utterly unselective omnivore – ‘I’m easy; I’ll eat anything’ – can appear more socially sensitive than the individual who tries to eat in a way that is good for society.”

“Meat is bound up with the story of who we are and who we want to be, from the book of Genesis to the latest farm bill. It raises significant philosophical questions and is a $140 billion-plus a year industry that occupies nearly a third of the land on the planet, shapes ocean ecosystems, and may well determine the future of the earth’s climate.”

“Cruelty depends on an understanding of cruelty, and the ability to choose against it. Or to choose to ignore it.”

“Whether we’re talking about fish species, pigs, or some other eaten animal, is such suffering the most important thing in the world? Obviously not. But that’s not the question. Is it more important than sushi, bacon, or chicken nuggets? That’s the question.”

“My decision not to eat animals is necessary for me, but it is also limited – and personal. It is a commitment made within the context of my life, not anyone else’s.”

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel Book Review “Some of these things are true and some of them are lies. But they are all good stories.” – Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

If you love a good literary challenge, add Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel to your reading list.

Published in 2010 and winner of the Man Booker Prize, this piece of historical fiction is brilliantly crafted and extraordinarily well-researched.

That said, it did have the tendency to put me to sleep.

Hence why I referred to reading Wolf Hall as a challenge. Mantel’s masterpiece is too good to be light entertainment; you must prepare to engage your brain.

I was warned this mammoth 650-page tome would require some commitment to see through to the end. Many people have started Wolf Hall with good intentions, only to see it gathering dust on the bedside table.

I first heard about the book when I was listening to a BBC History Podcast. Peter Kominsky, the director of the television dramatization of Wolf Hall, was being interviewed. The BBC series sounds dark and dramatic, everything I look for in historical drama. I was hooked.

But I wouldn’t be a true bookworm if I watched the series before reading the book…

Synopsis

Wolf Hall is set in Henry VIII’s England. It follows the life of Thomas Cromwell, a prominent lawyer from this period.

The novel opens during Cromwell’s childhood, to him being physically beaten by his volatile father, Walter. Cromwell grew up in Putney – very much the wrong side of the Thames in those days – and was the son of the town’s brewer and bully.

The story then leaps forward several years, to when Cromwell is working as Cardinal Wolsey’s right-hand man. Cromwell’s adolescence, spent mostly abroad in Europe, is shrouded in mystery. Everyone wonders how this commoner rose to such prominence in Wolsey’s entourage.

“It is wise to conceal the past even if there is nothing to conceal. A man’s power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fantasies, fears and desires.”

Highly intelligent and intuitive, Cromwell continues to rise well above his rank and eventually becomes one of Henry VIII’s closest advisors and most cherished friends.

But you know what they say about kings. “Kings have no friends, only subjects and enemies” (A Game of Thrones).

In his proximity to Henry, Cromwell is one of the most feared men in the kingdom, but his position is fragile. His success depends largely on the whims of one woman: Anne Boleyn.

Wolf Hall offers an extraordinary glimpse of Henry’s courtship with Anne through Cromwell’s eyes, painting the reader a different picture of this well-covered storyline.

Mantel does an excellent job of providing insight into Henry’s character, while at the same time bringing Cromwell – one of the most under-celebrated personalities of this period – to life.

My thoughts

Firstly, I am glad I consulted Goodreads before picking up Wolf Hall. I remain immensely grateful to the reviewer Teresa Tumminello Brader, who shared an incredibly useful tip for approaching the book.

“The thing to remember when starting this book is that 99% of the time the pronoun ‘he’ refers to Cromwell, even at times when the sentence structure makes it seem like ‘he’ would be someone else. It took me a short while to realize this, but once I did, I was fine.”

I think the use of ‘he’ to refer to Cromwell works very well. It creates an illusion of overhearing Cromwell’s thoughts. It almost feels like you are listening in on a conversation you shouldn’t be privy to.

The effect is the same when Cromwell is talking to other characters. The whole time I was reading, I felt like I was listening with a glass to a wall, or illicitly eavesdropping on a secret conversation. This was especially pronounced during Cromwell’s visits with Anne Boleyn.

Although confusing at first, I grew to appreciate this style. I feel it is perfect for historical fiction, where the line between reality and embellishment is always blurred. To tell the story using ‘I’ would be to assert Cromwell’s identity. Mantel’s use of ‘he’ leaves much more room for interpretation.

Nevertheless, you get a strong sense of Cromwell’s character – or at least how Mantel imagines him to be. He is equal parts cold and warm, remorseless and generous, calculating and spontaneous. At first men dismiss him, then they respect him, but at all times they are wary.

If Cromwell is your man, he will be loyal to the end. If he is not, you face an inexhaustible adversary.

“Lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning,” says Thomas More, “and when you come back that night he’ll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks’ tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money.”

I grew to admire and empathise with Cromwell, but even after 650 pages of reading his thoughts, I remained unsure as to what he would do next. I knew his eventual fate, which made observing his decisions feel bittersweet.

I expected the book to end when Cromwell’s life ended, but to my surprise I discovered there was a sequel upon finishing the last chapter. Reading Wolf Hall felt like running a marathon – I am drumming up energy to tackle Bring Up The Bodies.

Although tiresome in parts, and written with such dense prose that it often put me to sleep, I am glad I saw Wolf Hall through to the end. I would recommend it to anyone who has an interest in Tudor history.

Bookmarked quotes

“He sees it; then he doesn’t. The moment is fleeting. But insight cannot be taken back. You cannot return to the moment you were in before.”

“Why are we so attached to the severities of the past? Why are we so proud of having endured our fathers and our mothers, the fireless days and the meatless days, the cold winters and the sharp tongues? It’s not as if we had a choice.”

“You mustn’t stand about. Come home with me to dinner.” “No.” More shakes his head. “I would rather be blown around on the river and go home hungry. If I could trust you only to put food in my mouth – but you will put words into it.”

Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

Sputnik Sweetheart Haruki Murakami review "And for a while I can’t work out what’s real and what isn’t…” – Sumire, Sputnik Sweetheart

The above quote is an excellent summary of my initial feelings about Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami.

When I finished this book I felt disoriented and disappointed. A significant storyline was left unresolved. My head was lost in metaphors, trying to interpret a sequence of events, but struggling to reach a place of understanding.

So I did what is now a natural reflex when I am confused: I consulted Google.

Hours of Goodreads reviews later and I was no more certain about the fate of the three protagonists, but I did discover that feelings of confusion were pretty standard symptoms for first-time Murakami readers

Yes, Sputnik Sweetheart is my first Haruki Murakami novel. The Japanese author has a strong loyal following and has written 13 novels to date, not counting his extensive bibliography of short stories and non-fiction essays.

In picking up Sputnik Sweetheart, I stumbled across one of this century’s most celebrated and revered writers.

Right, I thought, I either have to come up with an utterly profound review or pretend I haven’t read it all!

I always feel a slight tinge of self-consciousness when reviewing books that are written by such revered authors. What if I get it wrong? What if I completely miss the point of the plot and sound like an idiot?

I tried to push the book to the back of my mind, but for the past few weeks it has been staring at me from the bookshelf, its bright red cover standing out from the rest. Go on, it says, I dare you.

So, here goes, my interpretation of my first Murakami novel. Hold onto your seats!

Synopsis

Sputnik Sweetheart is set in Tokyo, Japan. The story is told through the eyes of K, a male primary school teacher in his mid-twenties, who is trying to find his place in the world.

“I’d stand at the front of the classroom, teaching my primary-school charges basic facts about language, life, the world, and I’d find that at the same time I was teaching myself these basic facts all over again – filtered through the eyes and minds of these children… Still, the basic questions tugged at me: Who am I? What am I searching for? Where am I going?”

K comes across as a gentle, relatively uninteresting, character. He has few friends and his life outside of work largely consists of reading, television, perhaps a few cold beers before bed. The most interesting thing in his life is Sumire.

Sumire is a young aspiring writer, a ‘lost artist’ type, who spends most of her time dedicated to her craft, rarely stopping to eat or sleep.

The pair met in college, K is two years Sumire’s senior. Both loners, not people to surround themselves with a large group of friends, they found comfort and companionship in each other.

[K]: “We used to spend hours talking. We never got tired of talking, never ran out of topics – novels, the world, scenery, language. Our conversations were more open and intimate than any lovers’.”

However it is clear from the get-go that K wants something more from Sumire. She is the light in his life, the person he gravitates towards, the main character in his personal story.

The novel starts with the revelation – by K – that Sumire has fallen in love, only not with him.

“In the spring of her twenty-second year, Sumire fell in love for the first time in her life. An intense love, a veritable tornado sweeping across the plains – flattening everything in its path, tossing things up in the air, ripping them to shreds, crushing them to bits.”

This is K’s opening statement: an acknowledgement of the love of his life’s love for someone else. And an acknowledgement of the violent impact of this love, not just on Sumire, but on K’s world too.

K then works backwards, informing the reader of how Sumire met and fell in love with Miu, a woman 17 years her senior.

He writes with a sort of ‘crazed detachment’, from a necessity to put Sumire’s story on paper but also as if he is convincing himself this is actually happening – that this change is really rocketing through his life.

Then the story takes on an unexpected twist. Sumire vanishes without a trace from a small Greek island, where there are literally no hiding places. She was in Europe with Miu on a business trip.

K flies to Greece and forms an unlikely friendship with Miu, as the two try to find their lost friend. But is everything as it seems? What is real, and what isn’t?

My thoughts

I wish I knew more about Murakami’s reputation before I started reading Sputnik Sweetheart. I interpreted this book too literally, when in hindsight I realise I should have been questioning every word.

K is an unreliable narrator. I think my initial disappointment at the end of the book was a reflection of the misplaced faith I put in K. I wanted to believe every word he wrote was true – that he was painting an authentic picture for me, his reader – but I don’t believe this was the case.

Through K, Murakami deliberately blurred the lines between fact and fiction, injecting just enough plausibility into a scenario to keep you guessing.

There are many theories circulating on the internet about what actually happened to Sumire, but no one will ever know the ‘truth’. Murakami left the storyline open for interpretation. All we have is K’s word – what we take from that is up to us.

This type of writing style is clever and poetical, but so different from ‘mainstream’ novels, where plotlines are neatly wrapped up and explained.

Murakami caught me off-guard, a sly reminder that a writer is not a slave to a reader’s expectations. Next time, I’ll be ready.

Bookmarked quotes

[Sumire]: “Sometimes I get so frightened, like everything I’ve done up till now is wrong. I have these realistic dreams and snap wide awake in the middle of the night. And for a while I can’t work out what’s real and what isn’t… That kind of feeling. Do you have any idea what I’m saying?”

---

[K]: “I think right now it’s like you’re positioning yourself in a new fictional framework. You’re preoccupied with that, so there’s no need to put your feelings into writing. Besides, you’re too busy.”

[Sumire]: “Do you do that? Put yourself inside a fictional framework?”

[K]: “I think most people live in a fiction. I’m no exception. Think of it in terms of a car’s transmission. It’s like a transmission that stands between you and the harsh realities of life. You take the raw power from outside and use gears to adjust it so everything’s all nicely in sync. That’s how you keep your fragile body intact. Does this make any sense?”

[Sumire]: “And I’m still not completely adjusted to that new framework. That’s what you’re saying?”

---

[Sumire]: “Understanding is but the sum of our misunderstandings. Just between us, that’s my way of comprehending the world. In a nutshell.”

---

[K] “When dawn comes, the person I am won’t be here any more. Someone else will occupy this body. Why do people have to be this lonely? What’s the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves. Why? Was the Earth put here just to nourish human loneliness?”

 

Revolution by Russell Brand

Revolution by Russell Brand review “Homelessness is a bit of a scourge on our society, a shrill whistle from the canary in the cage of our collective conscience that all is not well… We know it’s wrong, we feel a bit of a cramp of entanglement when we walk past a rough sleeper, especially when alone, like it’s an ex-lover or something. Is there anyone who strides mightily by, untroubled with a smile?” - Russell Brand, Revolution.

 

Homelessness. Of all the problems discussed in Russell Brand’s latest book, Revolution, homelessness is one I cannot push to the back of my mind. Brand’s short yet insightful chapter on America’s rising homeless population created imagery of an early Apocalypse, creeping “into the present like a fog”.

“All about us we may see the shipwrecked harbingers foraging in the midsts of our excess. What have we become that we can tolerate adjacent destitution? That we can amble by ragged despair at every corner?”

Every morning on the way to work I pass at least five people sleeping rough. They are often drunk. The smell of alcohol may produce an easy scapegoat for some: ‘don’t give them money, they’ll just buy booze’. True, maybe, but no less sad. Allocating blame doesn’t make the problem go away.

Every morning I keep my eyes to the pavement and walk quickly. Sometimes they reach out, say good morning, yearning for acknowledgement. I always reply with a smile. But I never stop, and I never initiate a conversation. I walk faster through a wave of sadness and unease, towards sanctuary in my air-conditioned office.

These people on the street are strangers. I have no idea where they have come from or how they have ended up without shelter, family or love. But I feel guilty about not giving them money, food, conversation or respect. I feel that I need to do something, because I am in a position to help. Occasionally I drop a gold coin in a collection bucket. But the gesture feels hollow, insincere. I know my generosity is not enough.

Russell Brand believes homelessness jars us because deep down, we are all connected. That we are all in this together. And that we have a profound aversion to injustice.

“If… we are all invisibly connected, then this suffering is dragging us all down. We don’t even need to look at academic studies: just feel what happens to you when you walk past, some inner alarm goes off to remind you that there is a problem, and it’s your problem.”

Feelings and problems: these are two key themes that run through Revolution. Brand has a lot of thoughts and feelings. He prompts readers to look inside themselves, to ask themselves: “Are we happy with things the way they are?” and “Do you believe things could be better?” His writing spirals from one passionate thought to the next, often in chaotic fashion. And as he writes he presents problems.

One particularly memorable line: “Literally almost everyone is getting fucked.”

Overall not the most optimistic view of current society. But upon finishing the book I was inclined to agree with him: injustice and inequality have a negative impact on the majority of the world’s population, homeless or not.

It doesn’t matter how much you earn or where you live or what you’ve achieved: if the ‘system’ does not benefit the whole, if it puts the environment at risk and perpetuates conflict, then everyone has something to lose.

Unfortunately, although problems are a dime a dozen in Revolution, solutions are sparse. Brand is incredibly adept at drawing your attention to issues. He uses humour and wit and intelligence to highlight the ridiculousness of current societal norms. But he does not claim to have all the answers.

It appears his primary objective is to raise awareness. To plant a seed in our minds. To capture our attention. So that we, as connected individuals, can begin to tell ourselves new stories, stories that will overwrite the habits that no longer serve us.

“The only Revolution that can really change the world is the one in your own consciousness.”

This is where Brand enters self-help territory. His book is a blend of autobiography, advice and aggravation. He both educates and provokes. He calls for love but he also calls for people to wake up and acknowledge some hard truths.

“Drag your past around you if you like, an old dead decaying ox of what you think they might’ve thought, or what might’ve been if you’d done what you ought. That which needs to burn let it burn. If the idea doesn’t serve you, let it go. If it separates you from the moment, from others, from yourself, let it go.”

This piece of advice can be applied to yourself, as an individual, but it can also be applied to society as a whole. What no longer serves humanity? Who is benefitting from things the way they are, and who is suffering? These are the questions that Brand repeats over and over again, drilling the hard truth home.

“The truth. The truth is: there are on this frequency, from our human perspective, a planet, some beings, some resources; would it not be sensible to employ systems that benefit the planet, the beings, and the resources? Not needlessly revere artificial constructs that only benefit a few people?”

When it comes to talking about a Revolution, it’s hard to ignore Russell Brand’s irrefutable logic.

Crown and Country by David Starkey

"How are we to find the right way forward if we do not understand what has been?" We currently live in a world of touch screens and keypads, instantaneous communication and constant information. It's easy to forget there was once a time, not so long ago, when the internet did not exist. What did people do before the World Wide Web?

In Crown and Country, historian David Starkey takes us back to the dawn of the English monarchy and the birth of Britain as we know it today. Yes, it's long and full of dates and names. But for anyone even remotely interested in the challenges that face modern-day Britain, this book provides a useful overview of previous struggles for leadership and power.

And, as anyone who watched the recent Russell Brand Newsnight interview can attest to, changes are afoot. We are living in a turbulent time and it is for this reason that I think the study of history is more important now than ever. How are we to find the right way forward if we do not understand what has been?

Of course Crown and Country is only the very tip of the iceberg and hardly provides a comprehensive overview of British history and politics. But if you're looking for a quick and easy way to gain a better understanding of British leadership then it's worth a skim-read, at least.

Plus you get to learn about the colourful lives of those 'born to rule' - this subject alone has always fascinated me. Imagine if all the luck (or lack of luck...) in the universe caused you to be born into the royal family and charged with the responsibility of ruling. What would you do? Isn't it interesting the fate of millions of people is placed in the hands of 'whoever happens to be born next in the line of succession'? I mean, it's a bit of a gamble is it not?

Oh, and for Game of Thrones fans, you can draw a lot of parallels between real events in British history and those that happen in a A Song of Ice and Fire...

Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography by Walter Isaacson

Steve Jobs The Exclusive Biography by Walter Isaacson "The best way to predict the future is to invent it." - Steve Jobs

I really, really enjoyed this book. As the many people who had to put up with my 'Fun facts about Steve Jobs rants' can attest to. And I'm not even an Apple fan-girl. The only Apple product I own is an old, battered iPod Classic.

I think the reason I enjoyed it so much is because I knew very little about Steve Jobs before I started.

I knew he was famous. I knew he was despised by some, loved by others. I knew my Android-loving stepdad was adamant he was an asshole, and my Apple-loving friends were adamant he was an inspirational genius. I knew he delivered an amazing speech to Stanford graduates in 2005. I knew he died too young.

But those snippets of information were enough to convince me his biography was bound to be interesting. And I wasn't let down. I think everyone who owns a personal computer should read this book. Because it's not just a book about Steve Jobs - it's a book about how personal computers came to be in nearly every home over a relatively short space of time.

This biography is about how our appetite for technology has grown rapidly over the past few decades. It's about the war between Microsoft and Apple and the mutual hostility-cum-admiration between Jobs and Gates.

On a deeper level, it's also a story about childhood and friendship, education and work, illness and health, love and family. It's about the decisions people make when placed in challenging situations and the sacrifices they have to concede to succeed.

Steve Jobs had a big life and an even bigger personality. The impact he has made on our generation is enormous. But I think this has caused some people to paint him as a flawless figure, when really he led quite a fractious life. Walter Isaacson does his best to provide an accurate account of Steve Jobs, shedding light on the good, the bad and the genius. I can't recommend the book highly enough.

Bookmarked quotes

“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

"We are inventing the future," [Jobs told a job applicant]. "Think about surfing on the front edge of a wave. It's really exhilarating. Now think about dog-paddling at the tail end of that wave. It wouldn't be anywhere near as much fun. Come down here and make a dent in the universe."

“I want it to be as beautiful as possible, even if it's inside the box. A great carpenter isn't going to use lousy wood for the back of a cabinet, even though nobody's going to see it.”

Accidentally Overweight and Rushing Woman's Syndrome by Dr Libby Weaver

Dr Libby "Remember to see the wonder in the world. It's everywhere, it keeps you young, and lights up your heart." - Dr Libby

Dr Libby Weaver is a 'Holistic Nutrition Specialist' from New Zealand. If you have seen any of her YouTube clips or Facebook posts, you will know she is a veritable bundle of energy, ready to come at you with all the optimism she can muster. Yep, I like her.

You can probably find her books Rushing Woman's Syndrome and Accidentally Overweight in the self-help section of your local bookstore. And let's be honest, who likes to linger around self-help? I have to admit, I nearly didn't start reading her work because I thought to myself "I don't need these books! I'm not one of those accidentally overweight people or rushing women!"

What is it they say about denial?

Sure, I'm reasonably healthy and happy. But since when were these books only written for people in the depths of despair, crying over littered chocolate wrappers and last night's takeout? Since when was being 'averagely healthy and happy' reason enough to shun all dietary advice and er, self-improvement?

So, one hungover Sunday morning I delved deep into self-help territory - and well, I haven't looked back since.

I'm about to make a big statement: I think every woman should read at least one of Dr Libby's books. I learned more about my own biology in Accidentally Overweight than I did in years of school science classes. I almost couldn't believe that just a few weeks before reading her research I had been walking around completely unaware of how simple processes in my body worked.

Those little things called hormones? Yeah, they are quite important. And, digestion, that is a pretty essential process too. And don't even get me started on what I learned about food. Or should I say 'woke up to' about food - because reading Dr Libby's books feels like waking up to reality. You know those moments when reality dawns and the earth seems to shake a little beneath your feet, because you realise with anger and resentment the absurdity of the messages clever marketing has been feeding to you for years on end?

Every day we are told different things about food, about health, about what we are supposed to eat and drink. "Don't forget your vitamins!" "Have you had your probiotic yoghurt this morning?" "Do you get enough grains?" "Are you allergic to gluten?" "Meat is bad, no meat is good!"

Food is a multimillion dollar industry. Next time you go to the supermarket, walk down every aisle and observe the advertising screaming at you from the shelves. No matter how much sugar, artificial flavourings or processed nasties a product contains, the manufacturers will try and make you believe that your body needs it. Cereals are perhaps the worst. Nutri-Grain? Don't worry about all the sugar it contains, you need to eat it if you want to be strong! Special K? Eat it and you will be running along the beach in a skin-tight red swimsuit in no time!

I mean, it's completely ridiculous right? But let's be honest: we all want to believe it. That's why it works. Of course we want to think that eating sugary breakfast is good for us, or pre-prepared microwave meals really are packed full of nutrients.

Dr Libby shakes it up a bit and tackles these false truths head on. In fact, she makes the message pretty simple: "Nature knows best."

Say what now? You mean, the way food comes in nature is good for you? It doesn't need to be refined, processed, coloured, then refined and processed some more before it contains all the nutrients you need?

Reading Dr Libby's work is like being punched in the face with common sense - in a good way. We are fed so much crap - literally - from food giants, that women who opt for salads over sandwiches when out for lunch with their friends get berated for 'being anorexic', or those who eat organic are told that they are just paying for the word 'organic'.

According to Dr Libby, "Organic is the true price of food". It takes more energy, time and patience to cultivate. But the result is 'real' food, just as nature intended. Isn't it sad that we now have to differentiate between 'real' food and 'processed' food? It now is a ridiculously difficult and expensive task to try and fill your shopping trolley with only nourishing food. And that's just from a practical and financial perspective.

The emotional challenge lies in defending your food choices against people who judge you for being 'boring'.  You realise the full power of food manufacturers when you are judged for choosing health and happiness, as if looking after your body and your mind is an outrageous pursuit. I can't count the amount of times people have judged my food orders and said, voice full of condemnation, "You're so healthy", as if healthy is a dirty word. Sorry, should I eat food that makes me feel sick just to conform?

Anyway, I digress. Dr Libby's two books Accidentally Overweight and Rushing Women's Syndrome both explore and explain how the body works, how it processes food, and what foods you need to eat in order to support your body in the best way you possibly can. In addition, they both explore how hormones, such as stress and sex hormones, impact a woman's happiness, health and weight.

Written from a biochemical perspective, Dr Libby's work is scientifically sound and may even have you looking up words in your dictionary. Yet it also covers the relationship between emotions and food - something that I personally found enlightening and empowering. And by emotions I don't mean crying over a bowl of ice cream - I mean emotional attachment to certain foods, such as eating chocolate after a hard day at work 'because you deserve it', or reaching for a bag of chips when you're stressed. I'm not saying there is anything wrong with this (heck, I eat chocolate on daily basis) - but it helps to be aware of why you make the choices that you do.

If this review has made you feel somewhat disgruntled or depressed, then I would definitely suggest you read one of Dr Libby's books - they are meant to make you think, to shake up your current beliefs. And if you are reading the review whooping for joy because you know all this stuff already, then the books are only going to help cement your beliefs (and trust me, they take a little cementing... I'm still yo-yoing between putting my health first and heading straight for the chocolate muffins)...

But we've all got the right to choose.

Jess x