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Bout of Books 16

Bout of Books

The Bout of Books read-a-thon is organized by Amanda @ On a Book Bender and Kelly @ Reading the Paranormal. It is a week long read-a-thon that begins 12:01am Monday, May 9th and runs through Sunday, May 15th in whatever time zone you are in. Bout of Books is low-pressure. There are challenges, giveaways, and a grand prize, but all of these are completely optional. For all Bout of Books 16 information and updates, be sure to visit the Bout of Books blog. – From the Bout of Books team

I really enjoyed Bout of Books when I took part in January 2015. Unfortunately owing to a bunch of issues I’d been unable to participate again… until now.  Fortunately for me, this Bout of Books falls on the week where I’m going on holiday with the specific priority of reading. I’m packing a suitcase, going to a small cottage on the Isle of Arran with my boyfriend, and all I plan on doing is reading, eating, and drinking wine.  It’s a much needed break after a really stressful year or so, and I’m really looking forward to visiting an island I’ve been to twice before – once when I was eight, and once when I was fourteen – with fresh eyes. Over the next fortnight I’ll be picking my books and packing, and I can’t wait to share all this with everyone and get back into doing what I do best – chatting about books.

 

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Back to the Classics #3 – North and South

North and South

A Classic Written by a Woman

‘Edith!’ said Margaret, gently, ‘Edith!’

But, as Margaret half suspected, Edith had fallen asleep. She lay curled up on the sofa in the back drawing-room in Harley Street, looking very lovely in her white muslin and blue ribbons. If Titania had ever been dressed in white muslin and blue ribbons, and had fallen asleep on a crimson damask sofa in a back drawing-room, Edith might have been taken for her. Margaret was struck afresh by her cousin’s beauty.

I was somewhat nervous to read this novel, but I suppose I have been with all of the books on this list so far – that’s why they’re on the list!  I had heard a lot of comparing and contrasting of this book with the work of Jane Austen (whom I adore!) and arguments for the various merits of both.  I’m not sure exactly what I expected, but what I got was extremely satisfying.

Margaret Hale is a young woman who has grown up living with her cousin and acting as a companion towards her.  When her cousin gets married, she must return to living with her parents.  Upon returning, her father, who is a minister, has a crisis of faith in the church – he disagrees with something (we’re never sure what) that the church is doing and believes it is contrary to his actual religious beliefs.  The family moves to a fictional industrial town (based on Manchester) in order to escape any reminder of their former way of life.  Here, Mr Hale becomes a tutor, and Margaret must come to terms with the change in her social class and surroundings, particularly when she becomes involved with the local people.  These include a poor family who live nearby, and the owner of one of the many factories, Mr Thornton.

This was an excellent study of social class at the time of writing.  Its very direct in its addressing these themes, unlike Austen, and doesn’t shy away from some uncomfortable truths about the way people like Margaret (and her extended family later in the book) look, not only at poor people, but at self-made business people.  I’m writing this on the day of the birth of another royal baby, and it is clear that this is a divide that still exists in British society, though in a much different way from Gaskell’s time.  It’s not just money, it’s how you make it. This aspect of the story can be a little heavy handed but overall I think it’s well addressed for the time, and while I obviously don’t agree with everything or even much of her conclusions, it’s definitely a lot more progressive than I would have expected for its time.

There is, unsurprisingly, a religious vein that runs through the core of this book.  I was less happy about this aspect of the book, not because I don’t believe, but because I felt it was extremely clunky and kept taking me out of my immersion in the story.  For example, the character of Beth, the pious, poverty-stricken, invalid, is not only a cliche (even for the time) but absolutely vomit inducing.  I get the idea Gaskell was going for, but she laid it on far too thickly and I think it could have been done in a more convincing and subtle way (not that much about this book is subtle, but that certainly was a standout!)  Margaret’s not-infrequent religious outbursts seemed unnatural and at odds with the otherwise less-than-pious aspects of her character – I thoroughly believed in her belief, as it were, but I didn’t believe in her suddenly, almost unbidden, making these religious pronouncements when that wasn’t even what the conversation was about in the first place.

Then there’s the love story.  That was definitely a successful aspect of the book for me.  I can see the flaws – she does rather seem to jump from being antagonistic towards Thornton to having more positive feelings about him, but I don’t really care.  I also liked that his “rival” wasn’t completely vile and repulsive, just clearly not the right person for Margaret – though I feel that he had the potential to be, which is much more realistic than some of the absolutely terrible potential suitors you find in 19th century literature.   The last 100 pages in particular were a joy to me, and I was so glad about the way they came together in the end.

There are a lot of tragic elements in this book.  It’s amazing just how many people seem to die around Margaret, to the extent that, if I were Thornton, I would be extremely worried about my mortality!  I thought that perhaps her mother’s death was a little long and drawn out; however, in retrospect, that does reflect the reality of having an illness like cancer, so perhaps I was being a little judgmental. Other things that happen later in the book seem perhaps a little convenient in terms of allowing the plot to converge at a certain point, but it’s hard to discuss without spoilers and ultimately it didn’t really affect my enjoyment of the novel.

I’d certainly recommend this to anyone who enjoys 19th century literature.  Ultimately, I think it’s only Austen-esque in that it was written by a woman and deals with social class issues in a not dissimilar time period.  The prose is great and while it does have some awkward and clunky moments, both thematically and in plot, I don’t see them getting in the way of the riches of character that this has to offer. I give North and South eight and a half out of ten.

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The Official TBR Challenge – Blood Meridian

blood meridian

See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt.

My advice for you, if you’re concerned about reading Blood Meridian because of its reputation for being a bloody, violent, and disturbing book, is to read this review of it first (there are no spoilers, but if you’re worried, just read the last part, under “Blood Meridian Charades”).  Having that in mind throughout the book adds some levity to what is probably the darkest text I have ever read.

It is, however, totally worth it.

Blood Meridian tells the story of a young man living around the Texas-Mexico border in the mid-1800s who gets caught up in a gang of miscreants who bring extraordinary violence not only to his life, but the lives of the native people around them.  At the head of this gang are Glanton and The Judge, the latter being an enigmatic man whose singular cruelty will probably haunt me for the rest of my life.

There is no way to do justice to the bleak poetry of this book.  You would think that a novel which is basically about raping and pillaging ad infinitum would be a slog but I was gripped all the way through.  Part of the point, of course, is that you do become inured to the violence – and at the point where it does become monotonous, McCarthy points out how awful it is that you could possibly become numb to this kind of suffering.  Except that everybody does.  Which of course raises questions about how we should feel about the Glanton gang.  Is it only natural that they should become inured to violence?  Should we have some kind of pity for some of them?  It’s hard to say.  I don’t think I have any easy answers, or any answers at all.

Then there’s the judge, a charismatic monolith of evil.  It would be easy for his character to become almost a laughable caricature – he not only oversees all of this horrendous behaviour, but is a child molester.  This never happens.  I can’t tell you why it doesn’t feel like this, but it doesn’t.  McCarthy is a genius – I can’t see his artistry, I can’t unpick it at all because I have no idea how it’s done.

What happens at the end?  Who knows.  I don’t know what to think.  All I know about this book is that I was immersed.  I don’t have the most visual imagination in the world, but I could see everything in this book.  Sometimes I didn’t want to, but it was there.

I have so little to say about this book, because I think you have to read it to understand.  It is extremely brutal – and it definitely isn’t for everyone.  That said, I really think that most people who like to read should give it a shot.  I give Blood Meridian nine and a half out of ten.*

*Half a point off for the dead baby tree. I mean, really?

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Back to the Classics #2 – East of Eden

East of Eden

A 20th Century Classic

The Salinas Valley is in Northern California. It is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains, and the Salinas River winds and twists up the center until it falls at last into Monterey Bay.

I was not expecting to love this as much as I did.

I always find it difficult to review the classics.  I partially feel like everything has been said that there is to say about them.  I also feel like my reviews aren’t “deep” or critical enough to really say anything of value.  But I’ll give it a go anyway.

I didn’t have a great impression of John Steinbeck going into this.  My mum had read Grapes of Wrath and absolutely loathed it,  which coloured my opinion of him somewhat.  Then I considered reading Of Mice and Men, admittedly because it’s short, but spoiled myself for it and was put off entirely, not because of the fact that I was spoiled, but because of the content of the spoilers – what happens in that book made me feel like he was writing misery for misery’s sake and I’m totally turned off by that.  However, Craig had read East of Eden and thought I would enjoy it, so I put it on my list of things to give a go this year.

I’m so glad I did.  If you don’t already know, East of Eden chronicles the lives of two families in a remote part of California (although one of them does not begin there) and how their lives unfold over the course of two or so generations.  As per the title, the book is chock full of biblical allegory, and the characters inner lives are often depicted in terms of a struggle between the good and evil inside them, and whether these qualities are inherent and indefatigable, or somewhat learned and malleable.

Something about this story won me over entirely.  It has its problems – the female characters are not as well drawn as the male.  Cathy, as much as I enjoyed her wickedness, is a complete caricature of a particular kind of evil woman that seems to be a trope in literature, especially that written by men.  I don’t really go into a lot of classic literature by men expecting to find realistic or fair depictions of women – and certainly the other women in this were better, despite being a little one-dimensional.  I’m glad Cathy was in the book, and I appreciate both some of the reasoning behind her actions, and the thematic role that she is intended to take in proceedings, I just wish she had been given even a touch more light and shade.

There are, however, some excellently drawn characters in here.  I was given a very clear picture of Sam Hamilton and his sprawling Irish family. I’m glad they were in the book – as someone from an Irish Catholic background they were a great “anchor” for me in a tale that largely takes place in a time and location with which I am not terribly familiar.  His story was so lovingly detailed, and I really felt invested in the direction that it takes.  The Trask family were sometimes harder to get along with, but I felt by the time Caleb and Aron were older their story really came into its own and the last hundred pages had me absolutely gripped.  I was an emotional mess by the end!

The thing you have to accept going into this book is that the actual events of the story are somewhat unrealistic, and there definitely is a slight feeling of Steinbeck writing his characters to fit the overarching theme of the narrative, but to my mind this doesn’t stop the reader becoming emotionally invested in this story.  I can imagine for some people it might spoil the enjoyment, but I felt that I once I acknowledged this was happening, I could concentrate on the other aspects of the novel with that sort of held in the back of my mind.

I would heartily recommend this book.  I can see myself revisiting it time and again, and I’ll definitely be trying some other Steinbeck on the basis of my enjoyment of this (though I’m still not going to read OMaM!)  I give East of Eden ten out of ten.

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Bout of Books #13… I’m in!

BoB

The Bout of Books read-a-thon is organized by Amanda @ On a Book Bender and Kelly @ Reading the Paranormal. It is a week long read-a-thon that begins 12:01am Monday, May 11th and runs through Sunday, May 17th in whatever time zone you are in. Bout of Books is low-pressure. There are challenges, giveaways, and a grand prize, but all of these are completely optional. For all Bout of Books 13 information and updates, be sure to visit the Bout of Books blog. – From the Bout of Books team

Yes!  I participated in BoB last time round and I’m excited to do so again for number thirteen! I’ll be working that week so unfortunately won’t be able to participate all day every day like I was last time, but I’m looking forward to at least getting some serious reading done in my down time.  I had so much fun participating in all the various challenges that come up throughout the week so it’ll be great to do that again.  I’ll think of specific things I want to read through that week closer to the time.  I don’t think I’ll attempt anything quite so challenging as Titus Groan again though.  That really knocked me for six last time!

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Top Ten Tuesdays: Top Ten Books Which Feature Characters Who _____

4023e-toptentuesday

As always, thanks to The Broke and the Bookish.

Top Ten Books Which Feature Characters Who… are Actually the Author 

I’ve read a lot of books recently where the author takes a jaunt into the narrative and decides to become a character.  It’s worked for me to varying degrees, though I must admit it’s not always my favourite trope.  Still, here are some books where the author takes to the page. Also, an admission – I struggled to get to ten of these, and I enlisted the help of my boyfriend.  Somehow the venn diagram of our tastes and moderately poor memories managed to form this list:

  1. East of Eden – Steinbeck inserts himself into the whole novel in the role of narrator, though this is not initially clear.  His actual page time is very limited – but as the story progresses it becomes clear that his role is pivotal in recording the tale of his ancestors and their neighbours.
  2. The New York Trilogy – well, really only City of Glass, though he’s mentioned in the other two books.  If you like somewhat post-modern weirdness, in the vein of Borges or Calvino (though not as good as either IMO) with a noirish twist, then Auster is your man.  The way the role of the author and the protagonist is played with in this first novella is particularly interesting.
  3. Breakfast of Champions – I feel like only Kurt Vonnegut Jr could have an author avatar character in Kilgore Trout and still go on to have his “real” self appear in the book.  In order to apologise to Kilgore Trout.  I loved everything about this book, strangeness and all.
  4. A Tale for the Time Being – let it be known that I didn’t even manage to work out that the character Ruth was the author until after the second of her sections of this  book.  Sometime I am not so smart.  I feel like, if anything, Ruth Ozeki inserts a little too much of her own life into this book, but it’s an interesting examination of the role of the reader, the role of the writer, and the role of character, and how these three things can interact.
  5. The Dark Tower – it’s Stephen King, there’s a van, none of his characters like him… what more can one say?
  6. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – or Hunter S. Thompson Makes Really Good Life Decisions.
  7. The Divine Comedy – somewhat obviously.
  8. Eric – but he was having some trouble with the animals.
  9. Labyrinths – several of the stories in here have a Borges author character.  I like Borges a lot, but please don’t ask me what the hell was going on, because I’m damned if I know.
  10. The Princess Bride – of course, Morgenstern himself wouldn’t stoop to insert himself as a character into his book, but the person responsible for bringing his work to light took, I hear, some liberties about inserting a not-altogether-accurate version of himself into the narrative… tsk, tsk!

Can you think of any other explicit author inserts?