Dark Matter – Blake Crouch

My partner advised me of the calming enjoyment he receives when listening to an audio book on his way to work. I, like many others, find myself staring at the grey stationary bumper of the car in front of me every single morning, which “occasionally” leads to impatience. Despite my conviction that my passion for books derives from the smell and feel of the pages which can lock my intangible memories between it’s physical pages, I decided to give audio books a try.

I knew that to ensure that they were given a fair chance, I had to pick a book that I was likely to have enjoyed had I purchased it in text form. Dark Matter by Blake Crouch seemed to tick all my initial boxes as being a scientific thriller. Crouch delivered on my expectations for the book.

We all yearn for what we cannot have, convinced that the grass is always greener on the other side. It is so easy to do this without realising how ungrateful this makes us for the life that we have. It is a shame how easily the human mind can focus on negatives.

The protagonist Jason Dessen is a married professor. The story opens with the natural wondering of what he could have achieved had he taken a different path in life. In particular, he thinks of the decision he made when as a young adult with abundant career prospects, his girlfriend told him that she was pregnant. It is refreshing that Crouch used a male character for this common theme, as it is often explored from a woman’s perspective. Particularly in our current culture, there seems to be a divide between a working mother and a stay at home mother, whilst this question appears to be mostly unasked when it comes to males. Though typically, for Jason the decision was whether to stay or to flee, a choice that differs for women.

The Jason that we grow to know made the decision 15 years prior to attempt a balance between his work life and his home life, and stayed with Daniella. However, not every Jason would always make this decision, and this is where the book comes into its own as a relatively original and well written concept.

For every choice, there is at least 2 paths that can be chosen. When we start to think of what would happen if everything that could happen somewhere did happen our brains begin to cloud over from the sheer unimaginable size and consequences of thoughts such as these. Crouch attempts, and personally I feel succeeds, to write about this matter which is probably a better suited discussion between two individuals over a coffee shop in Amsterdam.

What I appreciated about the novel is that Crouch uses known scientific theories to give credit and substance to an idea that would otherwise be unimaginable. “You figured out a way to turn a human being into a living and dead cat”- a reference to Shrodinger’s Cat experiment. A small part of me has to wonder if scientists, with brains far more expansive than mine, could possibly be working on a box such as the one the book describes. Can we really know for sure that this is impossible, or just presume?

Listening to the book as opposed to reading it was an enjoyable experience. I found that the book surrounded me, rather than escaped from the pages before me. The narrator, Jon Lindstrom, truly became Jason Dessen to me. Whilst his attempt at feminine voices and his over enunciation of the h in “wh” words was like nails on a chalkboard for me, it was significantly easier for me to imagine myself in the character’s footsteps. This sensation was further supported by Crouch’s writing style, which occasionally sets the scene in much the same way you would expect a script. However, I attributed this to being an aspect of Dessen’s personality. As a man of science; objectivity and perceptiveness are likely to be key characteristic traits of Dessen, so it was appreciated that this crept into his narration. That and it makes the screen play adapter’s job substantially easier.

 I found it to be fast paced and an excellent novel to use as my first dip in the world of audio books. 

Eileen – Ottessa Moshfegh

This book found its way under my Christmas tree this year. My love of reading precedes me and my aunt and uncle bought this for me knowing my penchant for crime thriller novels. Sadly, I have to admit the book disappointed me. 

I found the writing style to be terribly indulgent. Moshfegh uses character development as the main drive of the plot. I suppose I should have expected this, given the title of the book being the protagonists name. Having previously read and thoroughly enjoyed Stoner, I feel that this book has attempted and failed to reach a similar level of success. Both are focused on a portion of a character’s relatively uneventful life and whilst Stoner achieved this with a comfy deliverance, Eileen has failed in this respect. 

The blurb advises that the reader will be taken on a journey through Eileen’s slightly dark lifestyle. Apart from the theme of crime being etched into the settings and characters of the book – Eileen works at a prison, her home love is.dominated by her alcoholic ex police officer father – it rarely otherwise features. The blurb promises that Rebecca’s arrival will soon bring an unexpected turn of events. If you are like me; a slightly impatient reader who without a driving plot can grow tiresome of a book, then you should leave this book on the shelf. 

90 pages into the book I’m wondering where and who Rebecca is. 100 pages later I’m still wondering what she will bring to the book. 30 pages before the end the storyline reveals the only minor twist in the book: something has actually happened rather than listening to an elderly woman’s gripes. Whilst not predictable in its entirety, I was so bored with the book havng been dragged through Eileen’s repetitive retrospective narration of her final few days in X-ville. Moshfegh does achieve the relatable extrapolation of our dark sides in Eileen’s character but this is achieved substantially faster than the 200 pages she dedicates to it. 

In reality this book will sit on my bookshelf and likely be forgotten about. I am unlikely to recommend it or find myself tempted to revisit it’s contents. One slow laborious journey to an anti climatic finish is sufficient for me. I persevered with the book purely due to it being purchased as a gift. 

The cover of the book is inviting, suggesting mystery. The third party praise dotted across it’s blue background promises me an enjoyable read. Whilst one reviewer makes reference to it being a

“Taut psychological thriller, rippled with comedy as black as a ravens wing” – The Times

The only humour I found within the book was a laughable attempt at being anything other than predictably dark. If you wish to establish your protagonist as an anti hero that the audience is invited to treat with a healthy cynicism is to write them as distastefully as possible. The easiest way to achieve this is to give them an interest in bodily fluids. It is not an original concept and where it is the main selling point of a book is effectively a yawning failure for the majority of prolific readers. 

Moshfegh is clearly a talented writer and I would not attempt to dispute this. However, if I was to ever revisit her writing it would only be for a short story where she is unable to waffle as pointlessly as she has in Eileen. 

Woman on the Edge of Time – Marge Piercy

​”The point of a novel about the future is not to predict it; I’m not pretending to be Nostradamus. The point of such writing is to influence the present by extrapolating current trends for advancement or detriment. Nobody is good at prediction. If we were better at guessing events in a year or even a few months or weeks, our divorce rate would be zero, we would not get into stupid relationships, and nobody would lose money in the stock market or to the racetrack. The point of creating futures is to get people to imagine what they want and don’t want to happen down the road – and maybe do something about it.” 

Piercy wrote this as part of the introductory essay to the 2016 edition of her science fiction novel Woman on the Edge of Time. This is exactly why when pushed to pick a favorite genre I would choose dystopian. It is the freedom yet restriction in the genre that is so compelling. 

There is nothing more frustrating to me other than we currently live in a world that is not working. Yet we all close our eyes to it and when challenged respond with “what else would we do? How else could the world work?”. When we put pen to dystopian paper we begin to realise that the society we are about to create can effectively be anything, and this is exactly how I feel about the society we live in. Society is man made. 

When we consume a fictional dystopian or utopian story it works best when there is as Piercy states, an “extrapolation of current trends”. I feel that the success of dystopian fiction is often when there is an element that the consumers can truly relate to. Whilst we comfort ourselves in the fact that this is a constructed imaginary society and is highly unlikely to happen, we are gripped by the book, pawing through the pages; there is an element of our society we recognise – we can almost predict this element happening. 

I liked how in Woman on the Edge of Time, the protagonist Connie visits both a representation of Utopia and a representation of Dystopia. I was disappointed in myself and my perception of my current reality when I realised that the dystopian future seemed far more realistic to me. A person’s negative attributes are more easy to swallow as truthful. When someone accuses someone of being a liar you are more likely to believe them – why would they make up such a statement? However, when someone compliments another as being nice it is easier to distrust this person – what has that person done to earn this loyalty? We almost require proof of kindness. 

I found the book was very disorienting which worked well with the books implicated undertone of the protagonist’s madness. The book requires a large suspension of belief and ability to accept that where you are expected to be can change from sentence to sentence. I enjoyed this, relishing how even from the turn of one page or the linear break of a paragraph I could not be certain what to expect. 

When visiting the future, the language was an adapted English. I’ve found myself using “fasure” many times since reading the book. The use of unisex pronouns in the future was a nice concept, and by the end of the book I found myself longing for it to become a part of everyday lexis. 

It was the tag line that drew me to the book in Waterstones. The Classic Feminist Science Fiction Novel.  I’m a prolific reader and I cannot lie that this normally means that I prowl the best selling fiction charts refusing to miss out on any recent literary smash-hit. There is still the wannabe hipster in me that wishes I did enjoy curling up cosy beside a fire with a copy of Jane Eyre. That’s not me, however, that part of me is what has led me to occasionally tread down the classic novel path. I have found a few modern classics enjoyable during my travels; The Time Machine, 1984 and Brave New World to name a few. The clear theme within these is the futuristic Sci Fi element, but all written and focused on males. I was surprised that the book had previously escaped my attention. Having studied English Literature I would have expected this to have been discussed as an integral part of the modern classic cannon. The combination of the female perspective meant that Woman on the Edge of Time was an unmissable purchase for me. 

I haven’t particularly touched on the feminine perspective that the book holds and it’s influence on my consumption. Whilst it was refreshing to learn of alternative perspectives to sexuality and birth, I felt that the feminist undertone was not overly powerful and I preferred it this way. Piercy was not attempting to bang down doors thrusting feminist ideology down our throats, but rather requesting us to question our current perspectives on the inequality surrounding our sexes. 

Another irresistible draw to the dystopian genre is the way in which the time of consumption can alter the inference of the text. It was with a gentle sadness that I realised that the current trends Piercy was extrapolating in order to criticise and encourage discussion have not gone away. Piercy touches on this nicely in her introductory essay; 

“Woman on the Edge of Time was first published 40 years ago and begun three-and-a-half years before that. The early 1970s were a time of great political ferment and optimism among those of us who longed for change, for a more just and egalitarian society with more opportunities for all the people, not just some of them. Since then, inequality has greatly increased.”

This is why I so enjoy the reading of these novels, and prefer to write within this genre. I feel that texts within this genre are effectively a gift that keeps on giving. A uncomfortable unavoidable glimpse into the past, the future and the present all at once. 

I could attempt and I would greatly fail to reiterate the wise words of Piercy in her essay. She encapsulates my fascination with the genre so greatly. 

I would recommend this book for the freedom it gives it’s reader. I would recommend this book for anyone who sits and finds our current society unfair and yearns for the discussion for change and improvement. In a time when the 8 richest people own more than the 3.6 BILLION poorest I would hope that it would be the majority. 

Filthy Sweet Fries

I’m stupidly close with my best friend, but as we’ve gotten older and she is down a motorway rather than a hallway we see each other less. It is why it is fun to make the times we do see each other more of occasion. My favourite way is food.
I felt like being filthy today and decided I needed something deliciously decadent to celebrate my recent exam successes. That means one thing to me; Mexican. I love the flavour combinations of spice with smooth guacamole and cooling sour cream. Plus there is nothing more satisfying than the sight of melted cheese being stretched and pulled as you tuck in to your dinner 

So a fair few ingredients are needed, but then that depends on whether you want to make your own cheese sauce and be extra greedy like me and add a fried egg. 

But really this is pretty easy. Peel and slice your sweet potato into chips, guzzle over some olive oil and throw in the fajita seasoning. Bung those in the oven till crispy. Chop and fry some chorizo in the fajita seasoning along with the sweetcorn. Chop up the onion and coriander for later. 

The colours in Mexican food get me so excited. I need a life. 

Cheese sauce is simple, combining milk, butter, cream cheese, wholegrain mustard and a variety of grated cheeses over a medium heat. Add the onion and garlic powder and smokify the sauce with some chipotle chilli flakes. 

Then for the fun part, in a loaf tin add some fries, top with the chorizo and sweetcorn, a ladle of the cheese sauce, sprinkle with the onion and then repeat until the loaf tin is full. Top with even more cheese (we live only once) and stick that in the oven for about twenty minutes. Just before I pulled it out, I fried my egg and placed this on top with the coriander. Serve with the usual suspects: salsa, guacamole, and sour cream. 

Oh my life. You need to try this at home. 

The First Phone Call From Heaven – Mitch Albom

It is no surprise that I felt inspired to start a blog after reading a Mitch Albom novel. He has inspired me to write before, when I first came across his novel The Five People You Meet in Heaven. I love the way he uses writing to explore the natural questions that his mind has posed to him about life after death. It is a fascinating freedom with countless possibilities at a writer’s whim.

The First Phone Call From Heaven was an engaging revisit to the post-life theme, as Albom dealt with people’s reactions on Earth when those who have died communicate with those they have left. It was interesting for me as I felt this novel had a more strong Christian bias than my first experience with an Albom novel, that as an atheist I found difficult to swallow initially. What was pleasant is that I have often found it difficult to understand Christianity and the strong influential power it holds over people. This novel put aspects into a more understandable perspective for me, whilst still acknowledging some of my greatest questions. One of my favourite quotes in the book was;

When you believe, you don’t need proof. 

For me, it is my biggest frustration, but it is almost unarguable with. I am forced to agree to disagree.

I’m truly glad that I persevered with this book. I know that if I was to write a novel with the same title it would have taken a truly different turn. However, this is what I so enjoyed about the book. There is no discerning hero or heroine, but rather a group of protagonists where it is impossible to not find a character to relate to, and the book finished leaving me with a comfortable empathy for those I could not relate to.

The final twists and turns at the end left me satisfied, but reflective. I don’t believe that any such miracle as life after death happens, I am comfortable in the knowledge that there is nothing, and whilst tragedy and happiness is endured through life, there is nothing at all when I am gone. It is a comfortable balance that I have wrapped my head around, and feel okay with. However, what would I do, how would I feel, if I had received a phone call from “heaven?”