The Master and Margarita: Mikhail Bulgakov

Long time no post! – I seem to have gotten lost in the world of seminar readings and procedural essays over the last couple of weeks, reading for fun has been put on the back-burner!

I had to write a review for this book. It is rare to pick something up and love it, even for me (I seem to feel pretty positively about most of what I read). I have come across reference to Bulgakov a couple of times, particularly in relation to other Russian writers like Vladimir Nabokov. I just thought I would give it a try, as a lover of twentieth century literature – I cannot say that I was disappointed.

The Master and Margarita begins with the Devil, otherwise known as Woland, and his arrival at Patriarch’s Ponds in Moscow. From here, havoc is unleashed on the city, with everyone who encounters Satan or his followers; Behemoth the giant black cat, Koroviev the valet, Azazello and Hella the naked witch (apparently to qualify as a witch nudity is compulsory, who knew), are driven to insanity at the sight of such chaos. Thus ensues the slow destruction of the mental state of Moscow. Meanwhile, the story of Pontius Pilate and the truth of Jesus runs parallel to this tale in the work of the Master, a man driven to depression by his literary failures and left isolated from his true love and number one fan, Margarita. Lots of very strange, bizarre and frankly hilarious events unfold, before the Devil and his disciples eventually tire of Moscow.

It all sounds kind of weird, but it only took me a chapter or two, at most, to get into this novel. Whilst I was reading I felt obligated to tell everyone how great it was. That is rare for me! The writing style and wit, do not read like something written around 1928-1940, it is the definition of timeless.

I enjoyed The Master and Margarita tremendously (even enough to use the word tremendous), a definite recommend to anyone who fancies something a bit different.


The Vegetarian: Han Kang

Translated by – Deborah Smith

I could not tell you why I decided to read this book. During my large Waterstones order (honestly, next day delivery on books is fantastic), I happened upon it and it looked pretty interesting. The Vegetarian even won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016. I have never read anything by a Korean author before and was intrigued to try this out. Han Kang is a South Korean author, who also teaches creative writing at Seoul Institution of the Arts.

This book emerged from a line of poetry from Yi Sang – “I believe that humans should be plants.” The Vegetarian is the story of Yeong-hye, a young woman who becomes convinced of her transformation into a tree. The novel is told from the viewpoints of those around Yeong-hye, her husband, brother-in-law and her sister. After Yeong-hye stops eating meat and all animal products, she embarks upon her journey towards plant-hood. Her fear of flesh leads to a sexual awakening and liberation from the constraints of human nature and obligation. Her loss of grip on reality is something that confuses and fascinates those around us, who wish to understand her freedom.

Dark is probably one of the best ways to describe this book. It is tumultuous and twisting, complex and confusing. Whilst reading this I found something gripping, yet terrible about Yeong-hye and her mental journey. The writing is haunting, something I would not normally discuss in relation to a translated works – yet I feel this is what Han Kang would have wanted. I would most definitely recommend this novel, yet I would perhaps suggest that a good head space is needed to tackle this.


Roald Dahl

The Complete Short Stories, Volume One: 1944-1953

No matter who you are, you have probably heard of Roald Dahl. Literally, he is one of the most prolific British authors ever. The man who brought us Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Witches and Matilda was a big part of my childhood – who did not love The BFG? For my birthday a friend gave me this collection of short stories (you all know what a big fan of short stories I am), and I was intrigued to see how Dahl writes for adult audiences.

This collection is the first in a special series of Dahl’s stories, from various magazines throughout the period. The first half of the stories are centred around the Second World War, drawing upon Dahl’s experiences as an RAF flying ace. These in themselves were intriguing, as a testimony to the proximity of death  for pilots and disillusionment with war. Often they feature the tribulations of the same squadron; following their adoption of a Greek girl on the decimation of her village, in their down time in various cities liberating brothels or whatever, and in ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’, considering the legions of dead and the passage to the afterlife.

The second half is a lot more reminiscent of polite British society, with several stories featuring Brits abroad on various jaunts or participating in the last breaths of colonialism. One classic story, that I did not originally realise was Dahl’s, is the tale of a woman who murders her husband with a joint of meat, getting away with it by roasting  it and serving it up to his police colleagues.

I really enjoyed these stories. I think there is a little bit for everyone in here. It does not even need to be said that Dahl is a literary genius, yet each one was beautifully crafted. However, I do not know if this was due to the differences in subject matter, but I almost felt that this should have been two separate books. There was no cohesion, or an overarching style to the writing. Perhaps this is because each was originally piece work for magazines,not intended to be read all together.

If you know any big Roald Dahl fans, I would say that they would still definitely try some of his ‘grown-up’ stuff. I know I definitely want to read more.

American Pastoral: Philip Roth

Not exactly starting off the new year with a cheerful one!

I initially decided to read this book after having seen adverts for the film. Ewan McGregor is great in pretty much anything he’s ever been in and has played some iconic characters so I assumed this must have been special for him to make his directorial debut. I have also studied the Vietnam War many times in my academic history career and it has always fascinated me, inspiring my trip to South East Asia last year. The idea of public response to events occurring thousands of miles away, the role of media in this, and their (sometimes violent) reaction are all essential parts to understanding the war – with a vast amount of American culture having been shaped by it.

American Pastoral begins with an introduction to the ‘author’, an old schoolmate of Seymour ‘the Swede’ Levov’s, whose whole idea of the man is based upon his all-American image and simplicity. On learning the truth of the Swede’s past he chooses to tell his story, how he imagines it to be. Thus we have the motivation for this slice of ‘American history’.

The Swede’s daughter, Merry, blows up a post office. With that post office, the whole of his and his wife Dawn’s perfect American dream is shattered. The story follows the Swede’s internal monologue as he attempts to pick up the pieces and recover what little he can of himself, if only to reconcile himself with a daughter known as the Rimrock Bomber.

Although little actually happens in this book apart from the passage of time and the mundane that must occur in the aftermath of such an event, the writing perfectly encapsulates juddering reality of the Swede, as a man who has done his best to coast through a life based on dreams he thought he had achieved. The narrative is powerfully raw and yet fluid, as his control upon his life continues to slip. There is no happy ending for the Swede, something I personally found dissatisfying yet worked – the book just ends, it does not reach an ending point. This, I feel, is more realistic, as in life there is no perfect cut off point, only death.

If you are in the mood for a profound search of a man’s psyche, I recommend this for you.


The Ministry of Pain: Dubravka Ugresic

Increasingly, my life appears to be taken over by my dissertation topic and anything that can be related to it. For anyone interested in the 1990s Bosnian conflict itself I cannot recommend strongly enough the 2001 film, No Man’s Land, directed by Danis Tanovic – but if, like me, you search for something a tad more literary and poetic, try The Ministry of Pain.

This book addresses the psychological phenomenon of ‘Yugo-nostalgia’, a yearning for the past of the Yugoslav Republic that was lost in its collapse in 1991. The Ministry of Pain is written from the perspective of Tanja, a temporary lecturer in the Slavonic languages department of a Dutch university based in Amsterdam. It chronicles the rememberings and coping methods of Tanja and her students, as they attempt to come to terms with the loss of their country of origin and with it a mutual understanding and language. Complex and conflicting, the fact that nothing really occurs apart from the passing of time is in itself the momentous occurring of this novel – asking if time really does heal all wounds.

Oddly, the theme of loss and missing parts of self are something I could empathise with. I shall leave you with this extract from the diary I have recently started keeping, whilst home for the holidays:

” Whilst I was out I kept considering the point Ugresic seems to be making in the book I’m reading at the moment – leaving home, its an irreparable state of events. Some never truly leave but I think that those who do, return to everything seeming so similar…but it isn’t. There’s something you can’t recapture. I mean, she’s talking about the loss of a country so its kind of different…”

Favourites: F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby

Since it is almost Christmas (Christmas Eve!!!!) I thought I would take a moment to talk about one of my top 3 favourite books of all time. Despite the fact that I love this book – seen the film and theatre versions – I actually do not own my own copy of this book, instead I have to make do with a stolen copy of my Dad’s.

First and foremost, I love the glitz and glamour of the 1920s setting.The vulgarity of Gatsby’s new wealth compared to the delicate gentility of Daisy and Tom Buchanan only emphasises the prominence of  money to the story. Tales of corruption also draw me in, with The Great Gatsby being the supreme example of the inadvertent destruction of innocence.

The complicated character of Daisy Buchanan is particularly interesting; different productions influence her character in different ways – some portray her as a victim, helplessly adrift in the world that has risen around her. Others choose to see her as the master manipulator in a situation she uses to her advantage. I prefer to judge her as a mixture of the two – aware of her situation but not fully in control of it. None of the characters are by any stretch likeable, apart from arguably Nick Carraway – whose passivity is his greatest flaw.

Somehow the book remains a compelling read – call me a sucker for terrible people!

The Beautiful and Damned

This book never gets as good reviews as other Fitzgerald novels. It is considered as less complete and honed. Yet I consider it to be quite haunting in its emphasis of the hopeless, the futility and emptiness of a wealthy and beautiful life. The social climbing and money grabbing nature of Anthony and Gloria’s lives engages the reader, as their passage through time and descent into increasing despair make for a gripping read. I would recommend this as a follow-up to anyone who loved The Great Gatsby, yet I would warn that it does read differently, if possible if you are new to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work, maybe read The Beautiful and Damned first.

So, Anyway…: John Cleese

As you may have guessed, along side my great enjoyment of short stories, I also love comedy auto-biographies. If you do not believe me, please check out my reviews of Stephen Fry, Amy Poehler and Rik Mayall. I first registered John Cleese’s new book after his appearance (with his cat) on The Last Leg. Apart from being generally hilarious, it got me thinking – this guy has been around for a while. Joining the BBC in the 1960s he was a part of the revolution of comedy, the movement towards the zany and bizarre that I find so hilarious. In my opinion, Cleese is a national treasure.

monty python the parrot sketch ex parrot

So, Anyway… details Cleese’s life from around the age of 11 to the beginning of the Pythons, with a brief skip forward at the end of the book to cover the Flying Circus revival in 2014. It kind of seems like he managed to fall into a lot of his career based on accepting every opportunity which came his way – something we could probably afford to do a little more. The book takes a lot of time to discuss Cleese’s creative processes, working with Graham Chapman and on TV and theatre productions.

funny monty python john cleese the ministry of silly walks

Cleese was ridiculously engaging to read, as can be expected, its anecdotal and occasional turn towards tangents making the experience a delight. I was particularly interested in his career experiences – as someone who hopes one day to go into TV production it was fascinating to see how the industry has changed. So, Anyway… also allowed an insight into a man who is often described as withdrawn from the press, some of whom choose to highlight his anger roles as a reflection of the person. To learn of his anxiety and fear of performing is refreshing, as he ponders candidly on why he turned out the way he did.

Could not resist.

If you are intrigued by the vanguard of British comedy this is definitely the book for you, the comedy connections are ripe in this one. On the other hand, it provides an easy to follow read for anyone interested in biographies, with a little extra for comedy fans.