First Impressions Count, Mrs. Woolf: A Review of 'Mrs Dalloway'

Kelly Schweizer provides a Fresher's perspective on a required English reading that she actually enjoyed: Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.  

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Everyone warns you that an English degree will include a lot of reading but, with typical fresher arrogance, I was sure I could cope. People exaggerate right? No. Not in this case. It is A LOT of reading, and you can quickly end up drowning in it.Which is probably why I approached Mrs Dalloway with far less enthusiasm than I should have.If, like me, you are a novice to the work of Virginia Woolf and Mrs Dalloway in particular, the plot is as follows: we follow the activities of Mrs Dalloway—the titular character—as she prepares to host a party in her London home. The Dalloways are a high society couple who seemingly have it all, but access to the Dalloways’ thoughts, the author’s gift to her readers, reveals the inaccuracy of this, and highlights the elements of social critique within the novel.The first fifty pages were particularly slow and hard going but, as I slowly became acquainted with Virginia Woolf’s elusive writing style, I began to truly appreciate the level of insight such a narrative allows. The representation of Septimus Smith and his battle with PTSD is particularly harrowing and one of the most realistic and compassionate portrayals of mental illness that I have ever read. The misunderstanding of this character’s condition is arguably still relevant, especially considering current campaigns to illuminate the suffering of the victims of mental illness.  I found that the novel swiftly gathered pace and lured me in as it did until I finally found myself relishing reading it again. Personally, I found it interesting that the events in the novel, though primarily told within one day, reveal such intricate details of the character’s lives. I can honestly say that I will be making a definite effort to read more of Woolf’s work.All I can do now is hope that I learn to love the rest of the reading list just as much. Kelly Schweizer Photo credit: Kelly Schweizer

Book Review: 'Escape from Camp 14' by Blaine Harden

Victoria Jarowey explains why you should take time away from your University stress in order to read a book about North Korean labor camps. And her argument is more compelling than you'd expect given the content... EscapeFromCamp14BlaineHarden-620x400  With the stress of classes, essays, and all the reading that comes along with them, I’ve found it difficult to find the time or energy to do any extracurricular reading in the past few years.  It’s easy to get consumed by university life, and, with this in mind, I’m aware of the impossibility of the sell I’m about to try to make. If I came up to a friend while they were in the middle of a German translation or attempting to sift through Medieval canon law and said, “Hey, why don’t you also read this book about a North Korean labor camp?” they would probably assume it was a joke.  Technically that is what I am encouraging anyone reading this review to do, so let me phrase it in a different way: I think you should take some time out of your hectic schedule to get a little perspective that will make the stresses of university life seem a lot more manageable. In Escape from Camp 14 journalist Blaine Harden tells the story of Shin In Geun, the only person born in a North Korean labor camp to escape.  Shin lived in the labor camp because of the alleged sins of his parents, and he is therefore seen, transitively, by the North Korean government as a traitor himself.  The North Korean government denies the existence of political prison camps, despite the fact that they are visible on satellite imagery.  In 2009, the North Korean Central News Agency gave a statement saying, “There is no ‘human rights issue’ in this country, as everyone leads the most dignified and happy life.” Shin, and the thousands of others who remain imprisoned, might beg to differ. The conditions in the camps are inhumane in every sense of the word.  The ideas of love, family, or morality do not exist for those born inside the camps (as opposed to those sent to a camp).  This makes the reading experience jarring and distinct from other books about concentration camps.  When a young girl in his class is beaten to death in front of the students for hoarding five corn kernels in her pocket, Shin, due to his upbringing, believes the punishment to be just and fair. Harden relates these experiences in unadorned, straightforward prose that makes them all the more memorable. Interspersed with Shin’s story, Harden provides wider knowledge about the overall situation in North Korea, creating context for Shin’s particular story.  The narrowing and widening of the scope allows readers to comprehend that while Shin’s life seems extraordinary to us, the statistics show that he is, in the context of his own countrymen, actually fairly ordinary.  Escape from Camp 14 is a difficult read on the basis of content, but the language is simple and unpretentious.  It is a testament to its author that he understands that being unashamedly, brutally honest is the only way in which to tell the story of a man who was denied every human right, including the right to a conscience. Victoria Jarowey Photo credit: Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden

Review: 'Vampires in the Lemon Grove' by Karen Russell

Carly Brown reviews 'Vampires in the Lemon Grove' by Karen Russell.   VAMPIRES 1 Last July, I was in something of a literary rut. I couldn’t seem to find the right book to hold my interest so I phoned a friend who runs a popular book blog for some recommendations to help me out of my dry spell. She rattled off a few titles and I burst out laughing when she suggested a short story collection entitled ‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove’, by Karen Russell. ‘What is that about?’ I asked her. ‘I have no idea,’ she said, ‘but it’s getting great reviews. You should check it out.’ Thus, my love affair with the weird and wondrous stories of Karen Russell began. ‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove’ is everything that the title promises. It is intriguing, startling, and completely original. Russell seamlessly blends elements of psychological realism with the grotesque, the gothic, and the magical. Although Russell’s content is comparable to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Angela Carter, and other writers of magical realism, it is difficult to classify her writing within one particular genre or style. She gracefully shifts from lyrical imagery to dry humor, and infuses historical settings with suspense and horror. What I appreciated most about this collection, however, was that although Russell’s settings are often fantastical, her stories are never outlandish, but always intimate, relatable, and delicately told. Take, for instance, the title story, about two aging vampires living on a lemon grove in Italy, who have given up blood and are satiating their cravings by sucking on lemons. This absurd, even comical, tale about two monsters spirals into meditations on human love, addiction and fidelity. The narrator, himself a vampire, muses on human marriage: ‘These mortal couples need only keep each other in sight for fifty, sixty years. Often I wonder to what extent a mortal’s love grows from the bedrock of his or her foreknowledge of death, love like a green stem that grows out of that blankness in a way that I’ll never quite understand.’ Russell’s imaginative vision spans continents and centuries and some of my favorite stories in the collection are ones that make use of historical settings. One story, set in Imperial Japan, entitled, 'Reeling for the Empire', is about Japanese girls held captive in a silk factory who are slowly transformed into silkworms themselves and lead a revolution against their captors. Another tale grounded in history is 'Proving Up', a bleak and horrifying parable about America's westward expansion and the terrible cost of human hunger for acquisition. When I read the last line of ‘Proving Up’, my jaw fell open. I am still haunted by the images and the ideas in that marvelous story. Although Russell is a relative newcomer on the literary scene, she has already made quite an impact with her exuberant, original voice. Michiko Kakutani, of the New York Times, writes that Russell’s ‘narratives possess both the resonance of myth and the immediacy of something new.’ Her first novel, Swamplandia!, published in 2011, is about a young girl whose family runs an amusement park in the Everglades and it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. I was thrilled to discover that Karen Russell is a young writer, it means that we have decades more magic to look forward to. Carly Brown Photo credit: Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell, published by Alfred A. Knopf 

'Wonder Boys' by Michael Chabon

TribeIdent2 James Chew reviews Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon Chabon's Wonder Boys was handed to me in the upper bar of Aikmans by the Tribe's Editor-In-Chief. 'Go on,' He said, 'It's a book about writing that might not annoy you.' I've had a long-standing fascination for, and dislike of, novels in which the writer writes about books and/or writing. Martin Amis' Pregnant Widow made me despair (though, it must be said, for a variety of reasons). I found any section in A S Byatt's Possession set in the modern day insufferable. Although, I do enjoy Borges so perhaps I'm just a hypocrite. Still, Wonder Boys, a novel about Grady Tripp, aging Creative Writing professor and fading novelist, as he struggles to finish his own novel also entitled Wonder Boys, seemed a recipe for disaster. I suppose the highest praise I can give it is that I quite enjoyed it. Partially because the in-text version of Wonder Boys is such a wonderful farce. It spans 2000 pages and isn't even partially finished, chronicling the absurdly named Wonder brothers and their entire family history and all manner of tragedy and misfortune that befalls them; it's also replete with 40 page interludes on the history of Native American reservations tangentially related to the family. Grady lives in constant dread of his Editor, the notorious (and wonderfully named) Terry Crabtree, ever reading it. Understandably, you might think. Crabtree's arrival in Pittsburgh, specifically for the annual WordFest run by Grady's department, sends Grady's life careening into comic chaos. Grady himself is a deliberately dislikable protagonist: cowardly, ineffectual, addicted to pot, a love-cheat, a terrible tutor, and continuously self-serving. The novel's joy comes from marveling at the ludicrous situations in which Grady embroils himself in and how he digs himself deeper through increasingly ineffectual attempts to extricate himself. Add to that some fine academic satire – Grady's colleague, also the husband of his lover, is a minor but very funny delight, as is his futile pseudo-academic obsession with Marilyn Monroe.  There's also a delicate balance, beautifully negotiated, between a genuine exploration of the demons that plague many a writer and a parody of the excesses and follies of writers and literary culture. My largest criticism of the novel is that, whilst it at both its funniest and most insightful when it comes to writing and literary academia, it falls short as the book meanders literally and thematically into the short-comings of the human condition. Grady's marital problems never entirely convince, and the extended sequence wherein he visits his in-laws at Passover aims and largely fails to convey genuine pathos. The characters introduced are sketched with loving detail and with an eye to their human foibles and failings, but as they seem to exist only in relation to Grady, as obstacles to be surmounted or otherwise overcome and prove irrelevant to prior and later sections of the novel, one can't help but feel the actual Wonder Boys is straying too close to the fictional Wonder Boys.  However, there's a lightness of touch on display and a breezy pace which keeps the novel engaging enough to stick with. Chabon's prose is spare but elegant with passages of genuine lyricism and a pleasantly wistful tone.  There's a surprisingly sensitive and oddly truthful depiction of class and sexuality in the character of James Leer, Grady's most tormented student. In some ways, the novel is at its best when it follows James' twisted, tangled rise towards grace, or at least something resembling it. The ending is certainly more palatable if viewed as James' triumph rather than Grady's. Still, for all its flaws and despite never quite living up to the promise of its opening pages, there's much to recommend here. As novels about writing go, it's probably as good as it gets. James Chew

Review: Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

TribeIdent2 James Chew reviews Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter Curiously and entirely coincidentally I found myself in the middle of reading Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus when it was announced that Carter's penultimate novel had won the Best of the James Tait Black Award. Shortlisted to 6 books from every winner over the last 93 years, the Edinburgh University students judging the award declared that Nights at the Circus was the best ever recipient of the prestigious literary award.It came as something of a surprise to me. Don't get me wrong, Carter is clearly a virtuous performer of magic-realist literary fiction and she could write circles around most of her contemporaries; in fact, I can't think of many living authors who can match her. And yet, Nights at the Circus is such a curious beast. A pantomime horse with the front of a peacock and the arse of a hippo.In brief, the story begins when a strangely blank journalist, Jack Walser finds himself in the dressing room of the famed aerialist, Sophie Fevvers, renowned for her apparently genuine white wings. Billed as a half-woman, half-swan Sophie is graceful and vulgar in equal measure, and her strange body and its stranger tale soon captivate the journalist. The narrative is split into three parts – tied to the three primary settings of the novel: London, St Petersberg, and Siberia. To my mind, by far the most effective section is London: a combination of vulgarity, vaudeville, and Gothic melodrama. Its success is both in the memorability of its vignettes, but also that it is the only section told entirely through Sophie's voice, a throaty, gauche, yet oddly genuine vehicle for the narrative, punctuated with occasional sentimentality.The narrative becomes more disjointed as Walser decides to join the circus on its Grand World Tour, engineered by the magnificently dreadful Colonel Kearney, the circus' master. There are some genuinely chilling sequences – anything involving Boffo the Clown edges towards the nightmarish, and the whole piece takes on the tenor of a fever dream. But one can never escape the impression that Fevver's tale was more effective in her own voice; in Walser's narration she becomes something of an enigma. And without the twin spurs of Fevver's wings or her delightfully mercenary ambitions to drive the plot, things begin to meander.After a truly 1970s piece of literary showmanship in which Fevvers escapes from a predicament via a model train which transforms into the actual circus train in the following paragraph, the novel careens through Siberia encompassing identity, isolation, a somewhat dated examination of 'primitive' culture in the face of modernity, and anticipation of the coming century. There are some magnificent set-pieces, most notably an extended visit to a women's prison in the heart of the wilds which would work equally well as a short-story, but it never quite coheres. I could never escape the impression that the novel's heart had been left in London, and as the oddities increase, the characters become increasingly vehicles for the novel's themes, rather than the magnificent, organic creations that dominated the early stages.There's a distance to events in the latter sections, with set-pieces seemingly illustrating themes and preoccupations Carter wished to explore, rather than organic pieces of the narrative. A friend remarked that the whole novel appears to be a grand tour of 1970s academic concerns and debates, which becomes more and more evident as the novel progresses. The 'tribalism' sections in Siberia in particular seem more illustrative of various academic framings of a debate, than a naturalistic depiction of Siberian cultures.Still, it's an intriguing and beautifully written novel. And having not read most of the other winners of the James Tait Black Award, I can't conclude that it isn't perhaps the best of them. But I can't help but feel Carter was capable of better, richer, and more coherent work. James Chew

Review: Under the Skin by Michel Faber

TribeIdent2 Emma Zeiler reviews Under the Skin by Michel Faber. Michel Faber (of The Crimson Petal and the White fame)’s first full-length novel, Under the Skin, is an eerie science fiction story set in Scotland. If the Highlands have always interested you, or if you are already well accustomed to the drizzly landscape, Faber’s book offers a new spin on the common perceptions of our ethical position as humans inhabiting the Earth. Oddly familiar yet decidedly foreign, Faber’s narrative portrays the Scottish Highlands in an engaging way and forces us to reconsider our own morals.The novel’s protagonist, Isserley, spends her time driving around looking for lone muscular hitchhikers in the Scottish Highlands and bringing them back to the farm where she works. From here Faber weaves together a prosaic narrative, which becomes more and more unsettling as it develops. It is his ability to combine science fiction and human interest that makes the narrative so engaging. Our initial assumptions are contradicted and our moral instincts and ethical decisions are constantly being questioned throughout Faber’s debut novel.Most of the novel is dedicated to Isserley’s inner turmoil and psychological development. When the owner’s son comes to visit the farm, Isserley’s beliefs and way of life become challenged in a manner that makes us reflect on our own actions as humans. Isserley’s struggles highlight many modern concerns, such as our impact on the environment and our increasing reliance on factories to sustain our lifestyle.Faber is utterly convincing in her portrayal of the female psyche, yet the description of her physicality is somewhat lacking and nebulous. This ambiguity is part of the strength in the narrative. Much of Faber’s power comes from her ability to draw the reader into a false sense of understanding and then to contradict any connection that the reader may feel. As Isserley goes through her own personal development, she takes the audience with her. Faber’s narrative leaves room for us to come to our own conclusions, which, in itself, further underlines the perturbing themes of the novel.Soon to be released as an independent film starring Scarlett Johansen, it is a novel worth reading before its onscreen debut. Filled with rich descriptions of life’s struggles and tackling some of the important questions in today’s society, Under the Skin is a short novel that will make you reconsider what it means to be human. Emma Zeiler