Tag Archives: NetGalley

The Humans by Matt Haig

The HumansFirst things first, is everyone familiar with the term defamiliarization? Let’s dip in to the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms to remind ourselves: defamiliarization – the distinctive effect achieved by literary works in disrupting our habitual perception of the world, enabling us to ‘see’ things afresh. 

The Humans is a concerted exercise in defamiliarization. The protagonist is an alien sent to Earth to take the place, and form, of a Cambridge maths professor who has discovered  a proof that is too much for human minds. The alien’s mission is to kill everyone that the professor has told. Despite the sound of it, this is far more family and psychological drama than science fiction novel. From an initial revulsion, the alien grows to understand the complexities and ironies of human life, and (rather too predictably for my taste) learns to love. 

The novel is at its best when it tackles issues of human nature with a wry self-awareness, for example, in the defamiliarization of humans: ‘The Things They Do To Make Themselves Happy That Actually Make Them Miserable…shopping, watching TV…writing semi-autobiographical novels.’ I liked the supporting players more than the main cast: the dog, Newton, is exemplar of characterization done right.

It is well written, though I did begin to skim some of the description-heavy sections that seemed less related to the plot. Quotations were beautifully used to introduce chapters and set tone.

Generally, if you like the idea of the familiar being made strange again, I would highly recommend A Martian Sends A Postcard Home by Craig Raine:

Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings 
and some are treasured for their markings– 

they cause the eyes to melt 
or the body to shriek without pain. 

I have never seen one fly, but 
sometimes they perch on the hand. 

Mist is when the sky is tired of flight 
and rests its soft machine on the ground: 

then the world is dim and bookish 
like engravings under tissue paper. 

Rain is when the earth is television. 
It has the properites of making colours darker. 

Model T is a room with the lock inside — 
a key is turned to free the world 

for movement, so quick there is a film 
to watch for anything missed. 

But time is tied to the wrist 
or kept in a box, ticking with impatience. 

In homes, a haunted apparatus sleeps, 
that snores when you pick it up. 

If the ghost cries, they carry it 
to their lips and soothe it to sleep 

with sounds. And yet, they wake it up 
deliberately, by tickling with a finger. 

Only the young are allowed to suffer 
openly. Adults go to a punishment room 

with water but nothing to eat. 
They lock the door and suffer the noises 

alone. No one is exempt 
and everyone’s pain has a different smell. 

At night, when all the colours die, 
they hide in pairs 

and read about themselves — 
in colour, with their eyelids shut.

Thank you NetGalley and Canongate Books for the review copy. Have you read it? Leave me a comment!

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Marilyn by Gloria Steinem

“When the past dies, there is mourning, but when the future dies our imaginations are compelled to carry it on.”Marilyn - Gloria Steinem

I’ve just finished the new ebook edition of this 1986 biography and I sort of miss it. I want more of it to exist, perhaps because of Steinem’s sensitive style, perhaps because mysteries which remain unanswered. More than a simple biography, this felt like a thesis on why things fell apart for Marilyn Monroe, or Norma Jeane. Steinem’s starting point is the sad young life of Norma Jeane: abuse, foster homes, her mother’s mental health issues. Steinem hypothesises how these experiences coloured Marilyn’s adult choices including her career and unsuccessful marriages. It is an intelligent study of fragility and celebrity.

Talking of intelligence, one of the most interesting aspects of the book was learning the depth of Marilyn and her love of reading and her natural intellectual curiosity.

“Her searches after knowledge were arbitrary and without context. It was as if she were shining a small flashlight of curiosity into the dark room of the world.”

She never finished high school as she was forced into an early marriage and always regretted her lack of education. She studied acting with great drive and devotion, striving to be better and brighter in every aspect of her life. She wanted children, but medical complications made that impossible. My heart broke with the description of her sitting alone on a park bench, disguised so that she could watch the children play.

The most profound moments of the book are when Marilyn’s own words are used. This includes passages from her unfinished autobiography and an interview conducted just weeks before her death. She cared little for money and turned down the offer of an older male friend to marry her so that she would inherit his fortune.

Marilyn_Monroe_by_George_Barris_1962‘Because she was sometimes forced to give in, to sell herself partially, she was all the more fearful of being bought totally.“What have you got to lose?” asked a friend who was urging the marriage to Hyde.
“Myself,” Marilyn said.’

Marilyn Monroe felt to Norma Jeane like a fictional construct: a person separate from herself that she often referred to in the third person and ‘turned on and off’ by doing the walk or adopting the mannerisms. This means that a lot of what she said is contradictory, unreliable, and probably not the truth. Steinem has done a thoughtful job of sifting through the claims and looking for evidence to piece together her life story. What is interesting about the book is that it critiques other biographies and seeks to get as close to the truth as possible, while recognising its limitations. Steinem used it to make wider points too, about the social construction of femininity, fame and psychoanalysis, with varying levels of success. There were pictures too: poignant, beautiful pictures.

I found it fascinating and deeply memorable. My ever-patient loved one listened to me recount the entire life story and then proceed to evaluate the book for a whole car journey. Be delighted, my dear readers, that I provide you with the condensed version!

Many thanks to NetGalley and  Open Road Integrated Media for the copy.

Have you read it? What did you think? I haven’t read a huge amount of biographies: do you have any recommendations? Do let me know in the comments!

As always, liking and sharing is hugely appreciated.

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How to Read Literature by Terry Eagleton

What makes a work of literature good or bad? How freely can the reader interpret it? In this accessible, delightfully entertainingHow to Read Literature book, Terry Eagleton addresses these intriguing questions and a host of others. In a series of brilliant analyses, Eagleton shows how to read with due attention to tone, rhythm, texture, syntax, allusion, ambiguity, and other formal aspects of literary works. He also examines broader questions of character, plot, narrative, the creative imagination, the meaning of fictionality, and the tension between what works of literature say and what they show. Unfailingly authoritative and cheerfully opinionated, the author provides useful commentaries on classicism, Romanticism, modernism, and postmodernism along with spellbinding insights into a huge range of authors, from Shakespeare and J. K. Rowling to Jane Austen and Samuel Beckett.

That’s what the synopsis says. This book is clearly competent – it is written by a well-known literary professor and commentator and generally I love this sort of book. When I’m not reading literature, I’m reading books about literature. So I thought the best way to review it would be to see whether it lives up to its own hype.

I do agree that it helps to answer those initial framing questions with strong examples and intelligent points. I also concur that it was entertaining. I liked the author’s wit and sense of humour, though I feel that his frame of reference might not be universally relatable. I think this reviewer sums it up: ‘I think he’s trying to be funny. I don’t know because his type of humour is not my type of humour. I can see when he’s being funny, and I can imagine people laughing, but my reaction is “…. OK”.’

This brings me to the claim of accessibility. I think for the wholly uninitiated, the vocabulary may be challenging and new terms aren’t always explained. However, it is worth persisting. The analyses are illuminating, giving proper recognition to the formal features of literature. Eagleton’s writing is at its best when he guides the reader through a great range of examples: his talent and passion shine through. He covers a huge amount in a reasonably sized volume from the intricacies of technical aspects to over-arching themes and critical perspectives.

Overall, although I wouldn’t be quiet so enthusiastic with my adjectives, the synopsis does reflect this amusing and thoughtful book. The questions it asks are worth debating and add to the ongoing conversation  about how to determine the value of literature.

What does make a work of literature good or bad? What makes a book literature? Please tell me your thoughts in the comments!

Many thanks to NetGalley and Yale University Press for the copy.


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