Book Review: The Buried Giant

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To walk separately from you, when the ground will let us go as we always did.

The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

When I was a child, my mind sustained a variety of imaginary worlds, as most children’s do. One of these imaginary worlds consisted of people living in underground warrens, connected by a network of tunnels, much like rabbits. When I first opened Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant and encountered the nature of Axl and Beatrice’s community, I felt both comforted and excited. The physical aspects of Axl and Beatrice’s home was much like the one I had imagined as a child.

Of course, unlike the one in my childhood imagination, Axl and Beatrice’s world is plagued by a variety of problems. Saxons and Britons wage war against each other, diseases sweep villages, and, most importantly, a mist of forgetfulness has settled over the world. Most people are unable to recall even what happened earlier the same day.

The only Ishiguro novel I’d read prior to this was Never Let Me Go. Never Let Me Go also explores the ideas of memory and forgetfulness, mainly through the cloudiness of the narrator, Cathy H.’s memories, and the differences between her recollections and the other characters’. I wouldn’t characterize Never Let Me Go as an exciting novel, but it kept me intrigued.

Similarly, I wouldn’t say The Buried Giant is an exciting novel. Some exciting things do happen in it. There are duels, battles, escapes, and a dragon. But all of this is told in a gentle, quiet way, that downplays even the most exciting aspects of the story. The novel primarily revolves around Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple, and this is reflected in the novel’s tone. I would call it a polite novel, with a polite narrator, and polite characters, who, even when threatening each other, are polite to the very core.

Because of this, The Buried Giant is often painstaking to read. What got old real fast was Axl and Beatrice constantly referring to each other as “princess” and “husband”. For two people who supposedly are as intimate and close as two people can be, they are awfully formal with each other.

Much of the novel is dialogue, but none of the characters seem to have distinct personalities. Other than Axl and Beatrice, I didn’t particularly care for the other characters, who mostly seemed like they were there to propel Axl and Beatrice’s plot forward. The plot itself makes a nice read, but I think it could have been accomplished in a far smaller number of pages. I can imagine myself liking this work a lot more if it had been a short story. At the length that it is, it made for a tough read, and failed to captivate me.

YES OR NO?: NO. I wanted to like this book, since it seemed like the perfect blend of fantasy and historical elements for me. However, it failed to hold my attention, and I often found myself bored by it. I did like the ending, but it failed to make up for the boredom I felt in the middle bits.

Finding time to read

One question I often get asked is, “How do you find the time to read?” Finding the time to read is difficult if you, like many of my acquaintances, are a college student juggling your classes, a part-time job, extracurriculars, a social life, etc. Throughout my university career, I managed to stay an active reader, reading my own novels of interest in addition to my class readings. A lot of this comes down to simple time management.

I remember last August being one of the busiest times in my life that I can remember. I was taking two classes, working a part-time job, tutoring, volunteering for the BC SPCA, taking swimming lessons, and still trying to make time for friends and family. I was pressed for time, sleeping less than I should, and eating quick meals on the go. But still, I managed to find the time to read for pleasure. And here’s how I did it:

  1. Read on the go. I’m not the type of person who can sit for hours at home with a book and a cup of tea. It’s nice, sure, but when I’m home I like to be lounging, watching my favorite guilty pleasures on Netflix. To be honest, I have too short an attention span to be reading for hours on end at home. I do most of my reading on my long commute to and from work or school, always sticking my Kindle or a book into my purse. You’d be surprised how much time you can find to read. I pull out a book when I’m waiting for a friend, taking a short coffee break at work, or otherwise killing time.
  2. Read what you enjoy. This is a hard lesson that I’ve had to learn. I’ve often been encouraged to read certain types of books, but what I’ve learned is that just because a book is a well-established literary masterpiece does not mean it is right for you. I’ve tried to get through A Tale of Two Cities countless times, and it still sits on my shelf unread. Whether you enjoy chick lit or crime novels or both, read books you actually like.
  3. Waste less time. We’re all liable to sleep in on the weekends, roll around in bed and watch pointless YouTube videos. I love to relax as much as the next person, but I’ve learned to limit myself. One trick I have to making the most of my time is leaving the house earlier. If I’m meeting a friend for a lunch date, I’ll just leave the house an hour or so earlier, grab coffee, and sit and read until it’s time for lunch. I make progress on my book, and I also make use of time that I would have spent just lying around.
  4. Set a reading goal for yourself. Goalsetting is a general habit I have that applies to all of my life, not just my reading. I keep a few Post-It notes stuck on my desk, which detail goals I’ve set for myself. One of these is to read a book every month, which so far I’ve kept up with. Actually having this written down and having to look at it everyday will force you to take action.

Making time to read, like making time to do anything, I think, just comes down to time management. What are some of your tricks to keeping yourself on track?

Book Review: In Cold Blood

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I didn’t want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.

In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote

I recently finished a course in data visualization, where we learned to use tools like Gephi, OpenRefine, and Jigsaw to analyze different types of datasets. As part of the course, we were required to analyze a dataset and present our findings to the class. We were free to choose a dataset that interested us, and I chose to analyze data about serial killers.

If you know me at all, you’ll know that I’m very interested in serial killers. I thought it was a little unusual, but I soon realized that many of my acquaintances found similar topics–crime, murder, serial killers–fascinating. We all consume media about these gruesome topics, whether fictional or true, in many forms, from podcasts like Serial to movies like American Psycho to books like In Cold Blood.

What is it about murder, about crime, that fascinates us? I think it’s our human capability of empathy. In Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? humans are differentiated from all other creatures, androids and animals alike, by their ability to empathize with other creatures. In other words, what makes humans special is our ability to relate to any other creature, to see a little bit of ourselves in others. That’s what makes murder so fascinating a crime, because the average person can’t imagine doing it–being filled with the desire to so brutally hurt another human being. And the thought that at the core, that a murderer is human, and, in the end, not so different from you or me, is both fascinating and terrifying.

What interests me more than the gory details of murders (which, in fact, actually make me feel a little nauseous) is attempting to comprehend the psyche of such criminals. And that’s what made me enjoy In Cold Blood so much.

In In Cold Blood, Truman Capote details the murders of the Clutter family, as committed by Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. But what’s more interesting than the actual details of the murders is the characterization of the two murderers and their families, the townspeople and acquaintances of the Clutters, and the numerous other characters. At first, it can be difficult to keep track of all the different characters, but Capote is careful not to overburden the reader with too many new people at once, and each character is distinct enough to remember after a couple of appearances.

What is especially interesting about this book is that it chronicles a real crime. Whether it is accurate in its portrayal of the characters, the places, and the events is up for debate, and, in fact, Capote is believed to have greatly dramatized many scenes of the novel, and cast the murderers, especially Smith, in a more favourable light. However, I think that as a modern reader, we should know to take “true stories” with a grain of salt. Some things must be done for the sake of a good story, and Capote was no doubt a great storyteller.

YES OR NO?: YES. As someone interested in crime, this novel was perfect for me, but I would also recommend it for Capote’s prose, flowing brilliantly in places where a more amateur writer would have constructed awkward sentences. It also exposed me to lifestyles previously foreign to me, like that of a Kansas farmer in the 1950s, and forced me to mull over thought-provoking issues such as the death penalty.

On books I had to read for class that I actually enjoyed

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I was born in Korea, but I immigrated to the United States at the age of six and a half, meaning that I survived almost the entirety of North American K-12 schooling. I remember learning to read in Korean (which I can still do), but I never got to the point where I was thumbing through novels with ease. But I remember really starting to love reading once I mastered English.

I was lucky enough to attend schools where reading was not only actively encouraged, but a crucial part of every subject. It makes sense, after all, because you can’t really expect to do well in most other subjects without a firm grasp on reading comprehension. Except maybe math, but even then, word problems could get quite particular. But my favourite memory of being encouraged to read is from when I was in eighth grade.

For eighth grade English class, I remember we focused a lot on grammar. We analyzed sentence structure, and learned to label words in a sentence with their parts of speech. For novel study, we read two books: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Elie Wiesel’s Night. We were given time to do silent reading for a few minutes sometimes. But other than that, I remember my teacher, Mrs. G.

I didn’t have too many significant encounters with Mrs. G that I remember. I didn’t stay after school to get extra help, and I don’t think she picked favorites. But I remember Mrs. G kept a pile of her own books, from her personal library, on her desk. We had a small shelf of books in the classroom, where you could pick books from, if you hadn’t brought your own silent reading book.

But the pile of books on Mrs. G’s desk was special, and what made me feel most special was that Mrs. G allowed me to borrow her own books. The only one I remember now, ten years later, is Life of Pi, which I read quickly, without really absorbing the more spiritual aspects of the story. But even now, I’m glad that Mrs. G noticed that I loved to read, and offered me books that broadened my horizons.

That being said, I don’t feel like I had to read too many canonical works for school, other than Shakespeare. I was never forced to read 1984 (which I read on my own time) or Lord of the Flies (which I didn’t). Instead, my teachers (and professors, once I transitioned to university) assigned me some books which I would still recommend, outside of an academic setting:

1. Salome, by Oscar Wilde: This is cheating a bit, since Salome is not an entire book. It’s a short play. I read Salome for a Victorian literature class, which I initially assumed would consist of Dickensian fiction, but instead ended up being about Wilde and decadence. Salome is different from what little I’ve read of Wilde’s other work, and while writing my final paper for the course, I fell in love with the language–obsessive and artificial, paired with Aubrey Beardsley’s iconic illustrations.

2. White Teeth, by Zadie Smith: There is something for everyone in White Teeth. Characters of every possible colour, appearance, personality, and motive. All told in a realistic, yet comedic, yet also tragic, voice. I read this book while staying in London for the summer, and walking through the places described in the novel just heightened my love for it.

3. Woman’s World, by Graham Rawle: Unlike the other books on this list, I didn’t do an extensive project on Woman’s World. I was assigned to read it during my second year of university, in a class on British literature. The unique way it was put together, and the interesting ideas it has on gender relations (one of my favorite topics) puts this on the list.

4. Night, by Elie Wiesel: Night is one of those books that I wish was mandatory reading in schools all around the world. Before reading Night, I was aware of the history of the Holocaust, but I wasn’t aware of the reality of it–and I will never be fully aware of it, but Night helped bring me one step closer.

5. Dawn, by Octavia Butler: I disliked this book when I first read it, but I was forced to read passages over and over again, because I had to do a presentation on it. In hindsight, this was one of the most interesting books I was assigned to read. It’s definitely strange, and more than a little disturbing, but good stories are the ones that make you question yourself and your surroundings, and this is one of them.