Life and Death – A Review.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles was the first book I read this year. I had no idea at when I started it how much Russia and Ukraine were going to feature in my year’s reading, and looking back at the books I read in 2022, it is bizarre how many were set in Russia/Ukraine, or were about war, as war is not a subject I naturally veer towards.

Having said that, maybe I should refer to what it is I like to read before telling you my best reading of the year. In brief, I like stories that sweep me into the scenery, I enjoy experiencing the emotional upheaval of the characters in the book. I do like ‘reality’ in my reading and enjoy references to ‘actual’ places and events that happened. I like ideas, discussion, and seeing how the characters are driven. I like novels with a philosophical bent…and this, in fact, brings me back to A Gentleman in Moscow.

The book is set in Moscow during a forty year period of the early 20th century. The protagonist, a respectable count, is condemned by an early revolutionary committee to live in a Moscow hotel for the rest of his life. The story is about how he adapts and makes use of his ‘honourable’ and ‘civilised’ principles. It’s clever, witty, erudite and well written.

I listen to a lot of radio and get many of my book recommendations from this source as well as podcasts.  I had never heard of Konstantin Paustovsky, a Russian writer, who wrote about his life in Ukraine and Russia during the first half of the 20th century. His memoir ‘The Story of a Life’ is an extraordinary book. It is broken into three parts, childhood; the war and youth; and the revolution and the WWII. The book is beautifully descriptive, so I felt as if I was really experiencing life in Kiev as a child. In the second part he travels throughout Russia as a medical orderly on a train, picking up injured and dead bodies from the war. The poverty, violence, and cruelty caused by war is vividly described yet so is the kindness, sensitivity and resilience of the individual people he comes across. The third section which covers the Russian Revolution onwards depicts the chaos and confusion that people lived with. The book really illuminated the territory and history of Ukraine which was particularly fascinating given Russian’s invasion at the start of the year. Paustovsky was a romantic and a writer in search of experience and in his memoir he forges a path through violence and horror finding the glory of human nature and the power of humanity in a society that was cruel and relentless.

I read The Story of a Life just after reading To Paradise by Hanya Yanighara which is also three books in one. So, after the Story of a Life I wanted to read something shorter and thought maybe an Irish author would do the trick. So, I read Audrey Magee’s The Undertaking. Oddly enough, it is also set in Russia during the war and shows how human vanity massages the weakness of human nature. While being a grim read it was again vivid in its description of the violence, greed, fear and shame…the ultimate victors of war. I found Audrey Magee’s other book, The Colony, an easier read, though the violence of the Troubles in the North is interleaved throughout its pages. It too is a beautiful book. Her language reflects the harsh conditions of the islanders, the cruelty of deprivation, the hypocrisy of love and honour and how small communities breed jealousy, resentment and betrayal. It’s very good, but sad.

I guess, because I enjoy reading books about people, it is inevitable that many I read are about violence and degradation. But this year in particular, most have shined a light on the harsh nature of everyday cruelty. I read thirty five books this year so I am not going to go into all of them but I do want to mention Natasha Brown’s Assembly which, although short, stayed with me a long time after I read it. For me, it was beautifully written and very poignant. It is about a young black woman living in London who works extremely hard and makes it in the world of Finance. But she finds herself wondering for why? She is still black, peoples’ attitudes have not changed, her liberal middle class white boyfriend and his family have no appreciation of her real self and existence; she realises she still doesn’t belong and never will. She gets an incurable cancer, tells no one and doesn’t mind that she is dying. Natasha Brown’s minute observations of people’s behaviour and attitude are very sharp. It is a short book, well written and shocking.

Yes, unfortunately, dying featured a lot in my reading this year (is this blog itself beginning to tell a tale?) and one the best books I read in 2022 was Mend The Living by French author, Maylis de Kerengel. It is an extraordinary book, but wonderfully positive. The language, the words (brilliant translation by Jessica Moore) encapsulated and surfed the emotions that are immersed in life, death and love. The detail, the technical words drill down into the heart of the book. It’s about a boy who becomes ‘brain dead’ and the consequent ‘harvesting’ of his organs. It begins with him surfing the waves in North France. The description of the water, the force, the rise, the fall, the pressure, the balance of the wave is then continued throughout the ‘death’, the ‘actions’ of the doctors , the relationships and reactions of the loved ones, the recipients. Each has its own sequence, delving into the power /forces of emotion through words and technicalities, each of which enrich and deepen our understanding. Her use of language is exquisite, as was the use of words in The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard. The latter book is an examination on love. Yes, it reveals love in all its glory, mendaciousness and ordinary betrayal. The story is erudite and clever. Her attention to language is precise. She succeeds, with marvellous perception, in illustrating the minutest aspect of love through exquisite detail and with a wonderful use of metaphor and simile. It is extremely satisfying.

I also enjoyed the latest Celeste Ng Our Missing Hearts about a dystopian future with strong roots in our present day. It picks up on the current streams of right wing hatred and nationalism. The book illustrates the power of words, language, stories, poems, origins, nature and innocence. It describes both the beauty and the cruelty of courage and the need for us all to share our humanity.

I think these were the books that stood out for me in 2022 but I also want to mention A Golden Age by Tamima Anem which showed the brutality of the Pakistani response to the Bangladeshi bid for independence. I knew little about this.  Lessons by Ian McKewan I found slightly irksome though fun because it spanned my life experience. However, I think it was too long though this book and the recent detective novel of Val McDermuid, The Distant Echo, are both novels which span nearly the whole lives of their characters in order to reflect the impact of what happens in youth. Wisdom clearly comes with the author’s age. In contrast, White City, by Kevin Power, a younger writer, was in really brutal and in your face. Set in Dublin, it was about the corrupt investment practices of the rich and powerful, the reign of drugs, and the weak moral fibre of the upper classes. It is gritty, well written and incredibly depressing. Finally, If It Bleeds by Stephen King whose novels I haven’t read before, I really enjoyed. Stephen King is a concise writer, he does tension brilliantly and his plots are absorbing. I will go back for more in 23.

I’m able to write this review of the books because after reading each book, I write a short blurb about what its about and what I think of it. If I don’t do this, I forget, which is worrying because most books I read these days help me frame my thinking.  I have never had a great memory which is why I have always written, whether it be notes as a student, or as a part of my work. When I start to write I can see my thoughts start to take shape. They then begin to behave like an unruly crowd and all jostle for attention. It is only when I reorder or line them up (literally), that I can clarify my thinking. My poems come from this disorder too. If I didn’t write, I wouldn’t think clearly.

The books above, fiction or memoir, helped me appreciate better the world we live in and somehow made a little more sense of the madness which seems to be all about us, while, at the same time, magically, allowing me to escape it.

Happy New Year!


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