Category Archives: Challenges & Read-Alongs

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.

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?).

 

 

The TBR Project 2014

Last year, I took a somewhat different approach in my mission to reduce the TBR pile. Even though I did end up reading a book for every letter of the alphabet on my TBR pile, the idea became too restrictive as time strolled on. Plus, let’s face it.. 2013 might be the year I added the most books ever to my shelves, what with visiting England often and going crazy at the charity shops.

This year, I am taking the more old-fashioned approach. I am setting out to read 50 books from my own shelves. This may not seem a lot, but given that I expect not to have that much time for reading this year, plus knowing I have a ton of review copies to catch up with come February, I think 50 books is actually quite a high number. Lucky for me, I can strike 3 books off the list so far. (3 books read and it is already past the halfway mark of January – when did my reading become so incredibly slow?)

You can find my project-in-progress page here.

Are you planning to tackle your TBR pile in any particular way this year?

Wrapping Up War & Peace 2013

During my absence I failed to participate fully in the event Amy and I organised to celebrate reading War and Peace in 2013. I felt I should at least give you the answers to the questions posted in Amy’s wrap-up post for this Read Along, given how much time I spent with the book last year I would feel bad about not writing up my final thoughts in the end.

warandpeace2012

1) When did you finish?
I finished reading War and Peace on the third of November. So yeah, it has been a while! By that time I had been busy catching up with my reading for October, and once I had finished that I felt I might as well try and read through what was left of the rest of the book. I still feel that although dividing the book up into chunks of 100 pages each month made it seem more doable, at the same time I think I might have been less confused and perhaps a little more interested in parts of the book if I had read more of it at once.

2) What surprised you most about reading War & Peace?
I know this must sound silly, given that War and Peace is about, well.. a lot of war.. but I was not prepared for the long battle scenes. Or at least, I was not aware beforehand of how much my mind would wander when reading about battle scenes. I really struggled with those parts, particularly during the first half of the book.

3) Who was your favorite character and did that change during the course of reading?
I think more than anything, I liked the female characters. This might simply show my own prejudice, or the fact that I failed to connect to the masculinity of the male characters (even if Tolstoy undermined the ideal in lots of places). Strengthening my sympathy for the women, particularly the younger generation of Natasha, Sonya, and Marya, was definitely some of Tolstoy’s characters ideas about women (ugh!). As for the women, I had been told to expect to really love Natasha, but I think I felt for Marya more, in the end.

4) Do you feel like a better historian after Tolstoy’s lectures? ;)
Hahaha, do I really need answer this? His lectures were definitely the parts I struggled with most in the second half of the book. I tried to engage with some of it, and I could even agree with some of the sentiments he expressed, but his general philosophy just did not sit right with me. Then again, this is 21st-century Iris speaking, who was rolling her eyes at some of the dated (read: 19th-century, as in, the time during which Tolstoy wrote the book) ideas. I hardly think that is fair on my part. And yet.. it just felt so repetitive, and hardly necessary most of the time.

5) Is there anything you would have changed about the book?
The lectures. That is not to say that I do not appreciate what Tolstoy was trying to do. Or that I think he did not accomplish it. I just think that at times I would’ve liked the story to speak for itself more, with a little less of the explanatory philosophy chapters in between. I think that might have made his sentiments about war, about glorified masculinity that will lead to unmistakable disappointment, about the unfairness of politics that has old men deciding on the fates of masses of younger men more powerful, somehow? They are definitely there, and I think these might be the things I remember most strongly about War and Peace apart from the storylines of the three younger women, I just think I would have appreciated the book as a whole better if there had been less repetition of his central idea in philosophical language.

6) What did you like best about it?
The ideas articulated through stories (see above). Moreover, I enjoyed the family scenes much better than I would have expected. The lives and fates of the different main characters were intriguing and very well-shaped. I felt sympathy for many of the characters, and often felt deeply for their fates. More so than I would have expected 1/4th into the book.

7) What did you like least about it?
The second epilogue! The historical philosophy. And some of the sentiments on women that were occasionally expressed by some of the characters.

8) What advice would you give someone who is planning to read War & Peace in 2014?
Definitely give yourself the time to read the book. Dividing it up in sizeable chunks might work wonders. At the same time, I would not recommend reading 100 pages in one day, setting the book aside for a month, and then repeating the exercise. The book and its storyline are too intricate for that, and I will guarantee that you will have forgotten some of the names or developments. Personally, I seemed to get into the story only after a chapter or 3-4 each time I began reading again. Give yourself time to enjoy the reading. And if you do not enjoy it, perhaps stop reading altogether and try again at some other time in life, or just accept that this might not be the book for you. (although I feel that had I taken that advice, I might not be writing this post right now. And I am not even sure if I would’ve felt that I had missed out on the book as a whole.. But on some of the characters, some of the scenes? Yes, I would miss those).

9) Did you reward yourself when you finished?
No! I feel I ought to though. Is there any reward you would recommend?

War and Peace Check-In #11

warandpeace2013

Can you imagine? I am writing this post early as it is the third of November and I already finished this month’s section. What can I say? I think the fact that we are getting close to the end finally hit me and I just wanted to read until the finish.

But before I share my thoughts about this section, let me please remind you that you are all very welcome to join our War & Peace Carnival at the end of December, to celebrate having finished reading War & Peace this year, somewhere in the past, or just wanting to join us in celebrating. You can find more information here. Also, you can find the Mr Linky for this month over at Amy’s blog.

I grinned when I found Tolstoy mentioned Russian historians in this month’s sections, after wondering why he seemed to single out French ones in the reading for October.

I still want to argue with parts of Tolstoy’s philosophy of history, and yet, for the first time I found myself actually liking one of the paragraphs he wrote on the topic:

‘This whole strange, now incomprehensible contradiction between facts and historical descriptions comes only from the fact that the historians who wrote about this event wrote the history of the beautiful feelings and words of various generals, and not the history of the events themselves.

They find very interesting the words of Miloradovich, the decorations received by this or that general, and their own speculations; and the question of those fifty thousand men left in hospitals and graves does not even interest them, because it is not subject to their study.” (p. 1074)

For me, as a historian, this is a true and important reminder, particularly in light of some movements within the discipline who again seem to be calling for a study of only those “great” and “relevant” figures in historical processes. Alas, I still don’t think I can agree exactly with what Tolstoy provides as a solution (as if histories of the masses were simple and easy truths, as if this would not lead to its own kind of mythmaking – maybe?). I keep having all these questions I wish to pose to him, however much I like his critique and anger in places. As such, I find myself agreeing with his critique quite often, but less so with his counterclaims.

I also found it surprising to see Tolstoy turn more decidedly in favour of religion in this part again – or at least, with religiously inspired principles. I think we have seen that he disagrees with fanatic religion (as per how he seems to define it): Marya’s overly pious pondering in a large part of the book, Pierre’s adventure with free masons. But now, he’s calling, in another critique of historians, for a Christian judgement of right and wrong when talking about greatness, which I found really interesting (and his critique of historians there was very funny too).

C’est grand!” say the historians, and then there is no longer any good or bad, but there is  “grand” and “not grand.” Grand is good, not grand is bad. Grand, to their minds, is the property of some sort of special animals known as heroes. And Napoleon, in his warm fur coat, clearing off for home from his perishing men, who are not only comrades, but (in his opinion)  people he has brought there, feels que c’est grand, and his soul is at peace.

(…)

And it never enters anyone’s head that the recognition of a greatness not measurable by the measure of good and bad is only a recognition of one’s own insignificance and immeasurable littleness.

For us, with the measures of good and bad given us by Christ, nothing is immeasurable. And there is no greatess where there is no simplicity, goodness, and truth.” (p. 1070-1071)

Turning to the stories of the people, I was so sad that Petya died. And then to see the family fall apart over that (even if Natasha’s mother got on my nerves a little).

As for the couples, I am quite glad that it seems Natasha and Pierre and Marya and Nikolai will end up together. And yet, the distinction drawn between intelligent women and real women? Ugh.

Despite all my frustrations and questions posed to this month’s section, though, I quite enjoyed reading it.

Now we just have the epilogues left!