Category Archives: Contemporary

101 and Counting..

I have passed the 100 books mark in the combined 1001 Books Your Must Read Before You Die List. There are times when I do not care about the list at all, there are others where I find it quite a nice challenge to read something that is on there.. Very often I find myself discussing with the list: Why is this book on there and not this one? Why so little fantasy? Why still an overrepresentation of “white men”? Etc.

Nevertheless, here are some brief thoughts on the three books I recently read that were on the list.

Diary of a Nobody - George and Weedon GrossmithThe Diary of a Nobody – George and Weedon Grossmith*
Penguin Books, 2003 (first published: 1892)

Basically, this quote sums it all up:

“I fail to see – because I do not happen to be a ‘Somebody’ – why my diary should not be interesting.”

Diary of a Nobody is the (fictional) diary of average middle class(?) Mr Pooter. We follow his everyday adventures and observations, as he renovates parts of his house, some of his friends come to visit, and his son starts living at home again after losing his job. It is a humorous book that at once proves that the life of an ordinary person can make for worthwhile reading, while simultaneously poking fun at the habits of people like Mr Pooter and the idea that their lives might be interesting at all.

While Diary of a Nobody is a fast and perfectly entertaining read, I wasn’t as enraptured by it as I expected from some of the reactions that I have seen on the internet. I mostly blame me though. I tend to find humour a little tiring after a while, and I might have liked this better had I not read it in one sitting, but in several.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Arthur Conan DoyleThe Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle*
Oxford World’s Classics, 2008 (first published 1892)

Many years ago [I cannot believe it was back in 2010!] I won a complete set of Sherlock Holmes books through a twitter competition held by Oxford World’s Classics. Being me, I continuously planned to start reading them and yet never did. I finally picked up one of the books last week.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is a collection of 12 stories about Sherlock Holmes. Apparently, many of these are considered widely known, but uneducated Iris did not know any of them. I cannot say that these mysteries had me riveted and on the edge of my seat, but I do not think that is what these stories are supposed to do. Instead, they are very entertaining stories, and that is exactly what I was: entertained  much more so than I expected to be. Perhaps it is time to read one of the novels next?

The White Tiger - Aravind AdigaThe White Tiger – Aravind Adiga*
Atlantic Books, 2008

The White Tiger is the story of “entrepreneur” Balram and how he came to be succesful. He writes the story of his success to the Chinese minister who is supposed to visit India to learn about entrepreneurship. Balram, who has adopted the nickname White Tiger because it indicates a very rare species, is not a very reliable narrator, nor is the reader ever sure if we should be on his side. Pretty early on in th story (the last sentence of the first chapter), we find out that Balram’s vision of entrepreneurship entails something that very few of us would capture under that heading. He then continues to explain why he did what he did. Meanwhile, he portrays the stark divides between the rich and poor in India, and the manner in which corruption works to keep this divide in tact.

Again, The White Tiger is a very readable book. I read this in one sitting (which seems to be my reading mode lately). I had expected this one to be difficult, both in style and theme, but really it is not. The theme is heavy but is wrapped in a deceptively lighthearted style. And somehow this works? Even though I would never have expected it, and it still bewilders me a little after finishing the book. I wish I could offer you a more in-depth opinion than this one, but honestly? bewildered seems to be a key word in how I feel about this book. It was entertaining, and cruel, and a little horrid at times. The narrator is fascinating but occasionally entirely unsympathetic. I feel as if I could never say I loved this book, yet it is hard to pinpoint why except that its topic is.. well.. difficult? And I did think it a good book? Perhaps a little bleak… But then again, that hardly seems a reason to detract from the quality of the novel.

* These are affiliate links. If you buy a product through either of them, I will receive a small percentage of the purchase price.

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Sometimes you are in the mood to read books that have lingered on your shelves forever and yet always skip over because you want to like them too much. Or is that just me? Anyway, that mood struck this week, which meant I finally took the time to settle down with a book (it had been far too long!).

Purple Hibiscus - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie // Harper Perennial, 2005

Purple Hibiscus – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie // Harper Perennial, 2005

One of these was Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie*. It was the last unread Adichie I had on my shelves (I still need to buy Americanah) and I kept postponing reading it.

Part of that had to do with the fact that this is the story of Kambili who grows up in a religious household. Her father is a strict Catholic who is beloved by the community, but is authoritarian and abusive at home. When Kambili and her brother go to stay with their aunt after a military coup, they slowly learn to live outside their father’s rules a little.

I do not know why I am always so nervous about reading books that have religion as a central theme, while these are the books that are very fascinating to me at the same time. I guess I fear I will have to engage with them too much on a scholarly level, taking away from my enjoyment of the actual story. And I am always a little afraid that authors won’t do justice to the complexities of religious life (now that I think about it, that probably has to do with the way religion is so often treated in the media nowadays).

Of course, I might have known that I needn’t fear that Adichie would not acknowledge said complexities. Yes, the father is abusive and it is hard not to see how religion serves to provide the reasoning behind his strict hand (side note: there are definitely other circumstances mentioned in the book as well, it is more that all of his life functions within a religious worldview, not that “religion says you should hit your family”). But that’s just the thing, Adichie shows that this is what a religious worldview becomes for the father. She contrasts this with the lives of the aunt and their religious “father”, where religion is often about laughter and freedom. By also introducing a grandfather who keeps to his tradition beliefs, “a traditionalist” in the words of Kambili’s aunt, and showing how for him religion means being grateful, loving, and hopeful, she does not create a stark divide between Catholicism and other religions, but instead shows how religion can take on the same and different meaning across denominational divides. Moreover, Kambili’s father is not simply a “bad man”, he is also a very socially engaged man who, in the name of religion, donates generously to others.

I also found it fascinating how colonialism as well as the flowering of Pentecostal churches intertwined with the narratives about how the characters shaped their religious lives.

As always, Adichie drew me into the world of her fiction and wouldn’t let me go until I had finished the book – which is why I read for 3-4 hours straight until I had come to the end. I need more books by Adichie in my life. Or by authors like her.

* These are affiliate links. If you buy a product through either of them, I will receive a small percentage of the purchase price.

Suite Francaise by Irène Némirovsky

Suite FrancaiseSuite Francaise – Irène Némirovsky
Translated from the French by Sandra Smith
Chatto & Windus 2006 (French: 2004)
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *

I started reading Suite Francaise right about the time when the end of reading War and Peace was in sight. Moreover, I started it right after finishing that month’s  section. Hopefully this will explain why I chose to write about this novel for the War and Peace Carnival, besides the obvious, of course — the fact that it is consistently called Némirovsky’s War and Peace-like epos on the cover and the appendices.

Némirovsky’s Suite Francaise consists of two parts. The first, called Storm in June, follows a number of families and persons as they flee Paris on the eve of the German invasion. The second, ‘Dolce’, depicts live in a small village while it is occupied by Germans. Meant to be a novel of more parts, Némirovsky never got to finish it before she was transferred to a concentration camp by the Nazis. In published form, these two parts are followed by appendices containing her notes about the war and her ideas about Suite Francaise as well as her correspondence from 1936 until her deportation.

There is a certain feel to the novel that struck me as justifying the idea that Némirovsky was aiming to write a War and Peace of her time. I felt there were similarities in how Tolstoy and Némirovsky chose to depict the chaos and yet the familiarity of everyday life during war. How human natures will remain what they are, even if they are undergoing drastic changes at the same time. How people will make choices, one or the other, without knowing the outcome, but mostly trying to maintain a sense of normality. And how some might struggle to hold on to class and all that, even if that should hardly matter any more. (Btw, it certainly seemed that Némirovsky had more sympathy for the working classes than the richer persons she depicts, or was that just me?)

The difference perhaps being that whereas Tolstoy included a lot of battle scenes from the point of view of the army/soldiers, most of the fighting that we see in Suite Francaise is through regular characters. (with one scene with a boy who wants to join the army as an exception, perhaps?) I wonder if this is why I felt more instantly attached to the story and its characters in Suite Francaise compared to War and Peace. Or perhaps it was the length of the –unfinished– novel? Or maybe even the fact that the historical setting is more familiar to me? I do not mean to detract from either novel, it is simply that Suite Francaise was somehow easier to read for me.

There is one thing that frankly surprised me while reading Suite Francaise: the constant feeling that it was written as if the war was already over, as if the author already knew what things were going to happen. There was such a, I guess I could call it knowingness?, about the war. A familiarity combined with reflection that had me wondering repeatedly if perhaps I hadn’t gotten my facts straight, if perhaps Némirovsky did live until the end of the war and revised the novel afterwards. But alas, that was not the case, or we might have had a complete novel instead of a story in two parts. Either way, I think it was that tone that was part of the magic in Suite Francaise for me.

There is a lot more to say about Suite Francaise, but I am afraid that it has been a while since I read it, and that while I knew I was going to write about it in December — close to that time when I would have finished War and Peace – I forgot to make notes of all the other things I wished to say. This will have to do, until, perhaps, I reread it someday?

War and Peace CarnivalI read Suite Francaise as part of my Classics Club list. This post is part of the War and Peace Carnival

Other opinions on Suite Francaise may be found here.

* These are affiliate links. If you buy a product through either of them, I will receive a small percentage of the purchase price.

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets - Eva RiceThe Lost Art of Keeping Secrets – Eva Rice
Review, 2005
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *

Last weekend I was on a quest to find the best comfort book, due to being confined to the couch unable to do much besides sit wrapped up in a comfy blanket in the company of tea. I progressed fairly well through a number of books, but The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets — although I only started it at the very end of that weekend — definitely won the title.

Last year while I was visiting Ana in the UK, she pushed this book on me with the assurance that I would love it. Now, I have come to trust Ana’s recommendations blindly over the years – and she was definitely right.

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is set in the 1950’s and begins with Penelope Wallace meeting her best friend Charlotte quite by accident when Charlotte insists she takes a cab with her and joins her at her aunt’s for tea. From there on out, the story follows Penelope in her developing friendship with Charlotte, her navigation of the complicated scheme set up by Charlotte’s cousin Harry, her helplessness as she watches her unhappy mother struggling to overcome her father’s death in the war leaving her with a crumbling and large ancestral home, and her relationship with her brother Inigo who only has ears for Elvis Presley.

There is something about Penelope’s story that is utterly charming. Perhaps it is to do with the fact that there is a love story, but it never becomes front and centre. Instead, this is a book about all sorts of relationships, with family and definitely friendship taking centre stage over any crush or love Penelope has or feels. Moreover, as Ana explains in her review, it is interesting that the manic pixie dream girl theme is explored through a different dynamic, namely in a setting of friendship between two girls instead of a romantic relationship between boy and girl. Furthermore there is the prose that is utterly captivating. Plus, there is the description of a love for music that is so utterly true in exploring both its evocation of devotion to persons and to music’s meaning. And last but not least, there is the fact that this compares so wonderfully to I Capture the Castle. I was constantly reminded of my love for that book, which I only read in recent years,while reading The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets. At the same time, this reminder of another book never took away from the joy of loving this book on its very ow., for it is most definitely its own novel with its own story.

In conclusion: The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is a wonderful, wonderful book. It felt like coming home and it made me want to only read books like this from here on out. If only I could find them. I am now debating whether or not I should move on to The Misinterpretation of Tara Jupp right away, or if I should keep it on my shelves a little longer to make sure I have the perfect comfort read waiting for me when I need it. Meanwhile, I have Amanda Applewood’s I Love Boys album on repeat, for as Ana told me, Amanda Applewood and Eva Rice are one and the same. Just imagine: being able to combine writing wonderful books and make lovely music

Other Opinions: Write Meg, Things Mean a Lot,  The Indextrious Reader, A Work in Progress, Stuck in a Book, Chachic’s Book Nook, Yours?

* These are affiliate links. If you buy a product through either of them, I will receive a small percentage of the purchase price.

Heaven and Hell by Jón Kalman Stefánsson

Heaven and Hell - Jon Kalman StefanssonHeaven and Hell – Jón Kalman Stefánsson
Translated from the Icelandic Himnaríki og helvíti by Philip Roughton
Maclehose Press, 2011
Review copy from the publisher
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *

As I sit here staring at a blank screen of a post to be written, I think the only thing I can fairly say about Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s Heaven and Hell is that it puzzled me. More than any book has done this year, perhaps even in the past few years, I am left a little speechless. You see, I am not sure what I think about this book. It is a very accomplished book. I can see that it is very good and has a lot of literary qualities. All the same, it left me feeling completely apathetic.

*sigh* I know this is an admission on my part that means I probably fail to understand very significant parts of this novel. So many of the bloggers I respect and look up to loved this book. But blogging is about honesty and I cannot pretend I liked something, let alone felt something very particular, about a novel that just did not seem to evoke much at all in me. Again, this is not to say that this is not a good novel. Perhaps the failing is solely mine or maybe even the particular time at which I chose to read it. I don’t know.

In its most basic form, Heaven and Hell is a story about the following, which I have copied from GoodReads because I could not try to summarise it more concisely myself:

In a remote part of Iceland, a boy and his friend Bárður join a boat to fish for cod. A winter storm surprises them out at sea and Bárður, who has forgotten his waterproof as he was too absorbed in ‘Paradise Lost’, succumbs to the ferocious cold and dies. Appalled by the death and by the fishermen’s callous ability to set about gutting the fatal catch, the boy leaves the village, intending to return the book to its owner. The extreme hardship and danger of the journey is of little consequence to him – he has already resolved to join his friend in death. But once in the town he immerses himself in the stories and lives of its inhabitants, and decides that he cannot be with his friend just yet.

The setting of the story, then, sets the novel apart from other stories about loss and grief and personal journeys. The remote Icelandic setting, the indistinct but definitely historic time period (I do not think a year is ever actually mentioned?) all contribute to the feel of the novel that is quite “other”, somehow, and a little forlorn as well.

But what really sets this book apart is the writing style and particularly the narrator. Or narrators really; for this story is told by the dead of the community it is set in. Thus, the whole story is captured by a plural voice, which is all-knowing about both the individual and the communal & about the present, the past, and the future. It often juxtaposes and bundles individual thought, feeling, or acts with seemingly universal truths in one sentence, or one paragraph.

This plural narratorship combined with its poetic language is definitely what gives Stefánsson’s book its distinct feel.  I fear it is also what made me unable to engage with the story fully. For through the communal and the plural, through the universal truths that almost seem too obvious (I hesitantly add: bordering on trite), as a reader I was constantly held at a distance. This was compounded by the long sentences interspersed with commas, that I constantly felt deserved my attention but however much I tried I ended up skimming them instead.

There are interesting themes pinpointed in this novel. There are questions to be discussed. For example, how do the different stories we are told about a large range of characters relate to each other? What exactly are the major themes of this novel except for the question of meaning in life (and in death)? What to say about the changes from communal to individual stories and perspectives, where in the latter half of the novel the individual is given just a little more room than in the first half? What does it say about me as a reader that it was exactly that second half that I could engage with a little bit more, was it the fact that there was a glimpse of individuality there – does the communal feel too stifling to me, really?

But really, I feel I cannot do this book justice because I couldn’t appreciate it as I feel it probably deserves to be appreciated. I couldn’t give it my full attention, however much I tried not to drift to other thoughts. I almost feel I should apologise to the book. But then again, I try to remind myself that there should be no shame in “not getting” a book sometimes, that reading “is what it is” at a particular moment in time, that there is always the possibility of giving it another try when the mood might be right. Or that perhaps the book just was not for me.

Other Opinions: Book Atlas, Farm Lane Books Blog, Book Monkey, Reading Matters, Tony’s Reading List, Winterlief (in Dutch, but she writes so lovely and I first heard about the book from her), Yours?

* These are affiliate links. If you buy a product through either of them, I will receive a small percentage of the purchase price.