The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

I have quite a number of books by Isabel Allende on my shelves. Most of them unread. I do not know why, but I always feel a little hesitant to pick them up. Am I intimidated? Or am I scared I might not like them as much as I expect to? I think it is a mixture of the two. When I read Island Beneath the Sea, the first and only book by Allende I had read until last month, I vowed I would get over those feelings and finally dedicate some reading time to her work. Because I did really like the story and the themes it explored. Despite this vow, it took me quite some time to pick up another one of her novels, this time her classic The House of the Spirits.

It was Aarti’s A More Diverse Universe event that finally gave me the push to give this one a go. I never even thought of Allende as an author nor about this title as a book that might count towards a challenge to read more diversely, but yay for her including it on a list of suggested titles and for me realising I actually owned a few of her suggestions and that now might be the time to start reading them. Sadly, I only made it through one book due to the time restraints of giving birth and taking care of a small baby, but at least I read one book, right?

The House of the Spirits – Isabel Allende // Vintage, 2011 // First published in English in 1985

The House of the Spirits is a family saga situated in an unnamed South American country which can easily be identified as Chile. The story concentrates on three generations, but mostly on the first and third in the form of Clara and Esteban Trueba, and Alba Trueba. Intermixed with the narrative of the personal lives of the Trueba family are elements of the supernatural (the magical realism component of Allende’s work), the social and the political. It also carries an undertone of gender criticism, though not always as explicit as I might have liked as I will explain below.

There is something about Allende’s style that appeals to me. I flew through the first 100 pages of this book. I found her prose very convincing and I immediately felt part of the world of the Trueba family. I had fully expected to continue reading the other 400 pages in the same vein. However, something made me slow down. And while, in the end I continue to feel that Allende’s worldbuilding and narrative is very convincing and I can still vividly imagine her characters a week after finishing the book, I cannot say I feel head over heels in love with this book, as I expected from those first pages.

The main thing holding me back from a declaration of outright love is the gender angle that I briefly mentioned before. I should add that this is more a matter of personal taste than me finding fault with Allende’s argument or gender perspective in the book.

Allende definitely argues for a less normative and patriarchical society in her book, which I think is illustrated by the fact that the book begins with Clara and not with Esteban, and that it is the women who take the lead even if Esteban is the narrator for much of the story. Yet, because Esteban is the narrator for part of the story, I felt uncomfortable with some scenes. It is an accomplishment that Allende manages to write from the perspective of many characters and not apologize for any of their feelings or deeds, and part of me appreciates that. Another part of me couldn’t help but feel incredibly uncomfortable with the many rape scenes and Esteban’s overbearing and masculine-centred behaviour. It just.. made my skin crawl at times. Particularly because Esteban’s character didn’t even bat an eye. True, Allende makes up for these scenes by drawing such wonderful women in Clara, Blanca and Alba, but I could never quite shake this discomfort at the character of Esteban, or maybe the masculine society as a whole. Is Allende’s protrayal of this realistic? Possibly, or even probably. Does she hint at acknowledging the discomfort this portrayal might make the reader feel? I think so. She also hints at disagreement with it. And yet… part of me wishes for more, or perhaps a little less of the brutality, or perhaps simply less details. Or maybe to have Clara do more than hint at her knowledge of Esteban’s former behaviour, or be more outspoken about it from the outset. I don’t know.

In short, I both admire and hesitate over Allende’s ability to draw such a realistic brutal history that is cushioned and mirrored in the personal entanglements of a family, but I also shrank back from the sharp edges of it. Are they there by necessity? Very probably. And therefore I feel I have no right to complain. But these sharp edges.. they made me uncomfortable nonetheless.

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A More Diverse Universe is a blogging event hosted by Aarti over at her blog BookLust in a effort to promote reading diversely, providing insight into the fact that reading diversily does not require you to change your taste in reading, only to search more actively for diverse books within your favourite genre(s). For more information and other reviews, please visit this dedicated post on Aarti’s blog or follow the hashtag #Diversiverse on twitter.

Four Weeks Later…

Pim is one month old today. I cannot believe that it has been four weeks already!

Meanwhile, Pim, Bas and I are semi-quietly enjoying our time together. Bas has began working again, I am still on maternity leave (thank god, because I wouldn’t survive nursing every 3 hours while going back to work yet). We are happy and healthy, even if our new schedule takes some getting used to at times. It is weird how on the one hand it feels completely natural that Pim is here, as if it has never been otherwise, but how on the other hand you realise that your life has changed so much. I wouldn’t have it any other way though, even with the minor difficulties of colic and breastfeeding issues that play up from time to time. I would never have expected to feel so much a mother from the outset, never having been the type to want to hold babies or anything, but it is all surprisingly easy and just sort of happened overnight. Just like Pim’s arrival sort of happened with a very fast delivery.

We’re at this stage where we feel Pim is growing so fast, while everyone who visits tells us how small he still is. And he is, if you think of babies of 6 months, or even of one month older. But he has changed so much already! I am constantly divided over wanting to hold on to this small baby and wishing to see how he will develop further, and dreaming about all the things we will do in a few weeks to a few months time. I guess that’s all part of being a parent, right?

I could write a thousand more words, but I still feel a little awkward talking about my child (and posting pictures of him) in such a public setting. On the other hand, I desperately want to share and discuss. I haven’t quite decided how I feel about that yet, or how I want to handle these questions. Perhaps one day? Or perhaps next week, when and if my laptop finally gets repaired.

Pim

On Sunday, at 8:13 am, our son Pim was born. We are happy and proud and doing well.

More to follow…

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The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

The Rosie Project - Graeme SimsionThe Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion
Penguin, 2013

This is unlikely to be the first time you read or hear about The Rosie Project, it being another one of those books that everyone seems to have read before me. Praised by most readers, when this book appeared in our national “vacation library app”, which allows your choice of a limited number of ebooks to read on smart phone or tablet, I was curious enough to click and see what all the fuss was about.

The Rosie Project is the story of Don Tillman who hopes to find true love through a scientific method he himself set up under the title “The Wife Project”. It is quickly established that Don has Asperger syndrome –although never made quite explicit that this is the exact name for what he suffers from–, and that he doesn’t quite know how to interact with people as others do. He lives by a tight schedule, has a tendency to look at things scientifically, being a geneticists by professions and living mainly for his work. One day he meets Rosie, a girl he thinks his friend selected for him out of the candidates for his wife project, only to learn that she has her own project to work on: that of finding her biological father. Becoming increasingly caught up in helping Rosie, “The Wife Project” is put on the back burner while “The Rosie Project” takes centre stage.

What makes The Rosie Project so readable is its light and entertaining tone. It is a humorous and quick read that is easily picked up (even at 3 am in the morning) and can be read almost on a whim.

While I enjoyed reading it, and Bas even found me shedding a few tears towards the end (6 am in the morning), I admit I was a little uncomfortable with my enjoyment of it, which, in turn, means I am not sure “enjoyable” is the correct word to use.

Summarised, I think what bothered me most is that in order to be humorous, the book invites you to laugh at the characters, particularly at Don and what is considered his social awkwardness. Though there are hints later on in the book, that this is a strategy that Don himself employs in order to “survive”, and as such might be read in a critical manner, I could not quite shake the feeling that it seems a little bit too convenient and easy to play up the social awkward of those who are diagnosed with something like Asperger to create humour and sympathy. Similarly, there is a hint of normativity throughout the book, articulated by the other characters and by Don with his projects, that I don’t feel was challenged enough through the ending of The Rosie Project. And then there’s the comments on Rosie’s supposed feminism and the way Don relates to it that I didn’t feel quite called for the comments made.

In summary, The Rosie Project was an entertaining read, and I can see its appeal on one level. On another, I am not quite sure if I’d recommend it. At times, its very lightheartedness was at the root of my discomfort with the book, and it is this discomfort that I never quite managed to shake.

Bout of Books

So, as long as the baby is not making an appearance and I am trying to get back to blogging, I thought it might be a good idea to participate in the Bout of Books read-a-thon. Basically, this is a week-long event in which you read as much as you want/like and can interact with other bloggers/tweeters/etc who do the same. Pretty basic, right?

Bout of Books

I do not have any set goals (except to read and enjoy), nor do I have a TBR pile, because honestly, my reading taste sways back and forth a bit too much lately to commit to even one book before actually picking it up. However, I am currently in the middle of three books (or, at the very beginning of two of those):

  1. Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore
  2. The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
  3. How to Be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman

I think I will be able to finish the first two this week, and after that.. we’ll see, shall we?

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Because I do not want to bore you with endless update posts (although that might be a good way to make the blog look more active again :-P) I will record my week’s progress here.

Monday:

Bitterblue: 130 pages
The House of the Spirits: 33 pages

Since my living, sleeping, and reading schedule is way off these past few weeks, I actually managed to read quite a lot already, between the hours of 12 and 4 am *sigh*. Hopefully, I’ll manage some more pages of The House of the Spirits during daytime.

Tuesday

Bitterblue: 226 pages

Last night and today I finished reading Bitterblue. So much for moving forward in The House of the Spirits. I simply couldn’t put Bitterblue down anymore. Predictably, I loved it.

Wednesday/Thursday/Friday

The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens: finished (320 pages)

I did manage to read in between household chores (which I do incredibly slowly now), but did not find the energy to climb the stairs to the attic, which is where the only currently-working computer resides nowadays.. So no updates, these past days. I started and finished reading The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens. I did not love it, but did enjoy it very much.

Saturday

The House of the Spirits: 118 pages

I am less enchanted with this book than I was during the first 100 pages. I’m not sure what it is. Perhaps it is all the masculinity of the narrator that gets on my nerves (I think it is supposed to be this way, the women seeming to be at the centre of this novel, and yet.. at times I get impatient?).