Tag Archives: 1% well-read

Thursday (Without) Tea: A Room With a View

I still love the idea of Thursday Tea, so I have been thinking that if I cannot get an actual bookish post written, I might just settle for an update of sorts through this format. Until I arrived back home from work today and realised that there is one problem: The water boiler I use for tea has been moved to the new house already, and here, in this apartment with only the bare essentials (and all the books in boxes) left, I cannot drink any tea anymore!

So instead, I give you: a thursday without tea.

Fortunately, I have been reading in between packing and preparing for a paper presentation (Seriously, WHY did I figure it was a good idea to attempt to write a paper for a conference in between pregnancy and moving, even if the conference theme is perfect?!)

These past few days, I have been reading A Room with a View by E.M. Forster. Another one of those classics that has lingered on my shelves for years and years and years. I never knew quite what to expect of it, but then I read the back cover while packing and decided that I simply must give it a go.

And it is turning out to be rather lovely! The writing is wonderful. The plot might seem predictable, but it is executed very nicely. And I love the themed critique of the power of what imagery of women can do to curtail women from being individuals and instead constantly aiming to live up to an image that society imposes. I also like how it shows that this imagery harms both women ánd men, because both struggle to look beyond it to the person behind the facade that is expected at every turn. The image of the room, used in discourse between Lucy and Cecil as a metaphor for this kind of relationship and between Lucy and George for what might be found beyond societal expectations: it’s simple, but it really spoke to me.

Conclusion: I am enjoying my time with this book very much. Even if I have to read it with plain water instead of tea.

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.

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Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit - Jeanette Winterson

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit – Jeanette Winterson
Pandora Press, 1985

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Jeanette is brought up by her mother as one of God’s elect. Jeanette loves her mother and her God, even if she never quite seems to fit in with children her age because her habits are considered strange. Nevertheless, she seems content. That is, until Jeanette falls in love with a girl..

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is one of those books that I had been meaning to read forever. So when I came across it in a charity shop while on holiday in Devon this summer, I couldn’t not pick it up, right? Now that I have finally read it, I am glad I did. Even if I did not all-out love it.

Jeanette Winterson’s writing is quite captivating. I was pulled into the book almost immediately.  Moreover, after taking some time to get used to it I found the switch-over between Jeanette’s story and the intermixing of elements of other stories, such as a legend about King Arthur and the Holy Grail, to be beautifully done. Moreover, there are some piercing observations on classicism in the UK and there is a strangely funny sense of humour throughout the book – strange because you know these are real and painful situations being described.

In evoking the highly religious setting Winterson manages to do two things at once. On the one hand, the setting will be somewhat strange to most people who have not been raised as strictly religious as Jeanette is. Her descriptions of it somehow border the strange-funny-creepy divide in an interesting manner. At the same time, in having Jeanette take her own situation for granted as she does, in a way that is difficult to imagine as an outsider but probably very true to experience from the inside, she also makes Jeanette’s world seem immediately familiar. I found this strange-yet-familiar divide that both draws the reader in and makes Jeanette’s world somewhat distant very intriguing.

There is one thing that left me puzzled though, and I am not quite sure how to articulate it as it seems unfair to raise the subject? Winterson’s story radiates anger, in a very raw manner. Anger, that I think is justified given the subject manner – even more so when you know that Winterson herself probably lived through most of this herself. It feels unfair to feel even a glimmer of disappointment in this anger, this anger almost bordering on revenge – because it is a story of unfairness, of deep frustrations and social repression. And yet.. I felt the story was somehow held captive by it? Like there might have been more  that did not have a chance to be captured somehow?

In some ways, the end builds and hints towards a transcending of at least the anger towards Jeanette’s mother, but to me, it still felt as if we were held in the middle of it.  Probably this reflects the reality of the situation for Jeanette’s character, the impossibility to let go. And possibly this is exactly what gives the story its immediacy that has you reading  without a thought to anything else. But I couldn’t help and put the book down feeling a little drained, as if I had left some of what drew me in in the beginning behind, as if there was and still is something gnawing at me that I cannot quite articulate but won’t let me go. This *something* that has me unable to really love this book, while at the same time, it might be the very thing that makes this such a courageous and intriguing book? Help! Sometimes I wonder why I am even trying to articulate my thoughts on novels :P

classicsclub1I read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit for my The Classics Club reading list. And despite my vague inability to love love love the book, I am very happy to have read it since I did think it a convincing novel. It is with joy that I mark this as the first book read on the list.

Other Opinions: Tales from the Reading Room, The Reading Life, Fifty Books Project,  Sam Still Reading, Novel Insights,  Savidge Reads, Reading Matters, Yours? 

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Wise Children by Angela Carter

Wise Children - Angela CarterWise Children – Angela Carter
Vintage, 1992

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I finally read an Angela Carter! Long as that took me, it actually wasn’t all that hard. I plunged in and did not let go and the book simply carried me to the end. I completely understand why I was nervous about reading my first book by Carter, even having finished it now. Had somebody told me what this book was going to be about, what it was going to be like.. I fear I might never have picked it up, thinking that it sounded the complete opposite of my taste in books. But if Angela Carter proves anything, it is that one cannot predict one’s taste by mere descriptions. It is the execution that defines the book, or in case of Wise Children anyway.

Wise Children is about the illegitimate twins Dora and Nora Chance and their interactions with their father’s family, the Hazards. This is a family of twins, legitimate and illegitimate. It is also a family of disclaimed, claimed, and false parentage, of transgressive sexual mores, of divorce and marriage, of adultery and hints of incest. Describing it like this, my reaction would be “it is a mess”, but I think that is exactly the point. Admittedly, it took me an embarrassing long time to understand, but Carter’s Wise Children can be read as a continuous nod to Shakespeare and his intricate and transgressive family dramas and comedies.

Dora Chance, the narrator of the story at 75, tells us about her current setting before diving into her childhood, youth, later years, and then returning to the day of their 75th birthday, which is also her father’s and his brother’s  – who is claimed as their father in public – centenary.

Dora and her sister are a bit miffed by the way they have gone unacknowledged by their father. Born as illegitimate children, with a father who refuses to acknowledge them and a mother who is dead, they are raised by their adoptive grandmother. Dora and Nora quickly learn to make their own way for themselves, performing as dancing and singing girls – but always on the margins of respectability, never truly admitted into their father’s family side of true Shakespearean theatrics.

As we follow Dora’s narration, things quickly turn from the absurd to the outrageous, but it works. I cannot quite capture how marvelously Angela Carter manages to work with these absurdities, how humorous this book is – particularly its narrator with her humour and liveliness that constantly balances on the coarse but never really feels like it. I did love this book. And I cannot wait to read more by Carter, even if I think I agree with Jenny that I wouldn’t be able to read one of her books straight after this one, even if I am tempted to.

If you know me a little, perhaps the above attempt at a plot summary and the description of humour bordering on the coarse, might have given you a glimpse of why I said that this sounds like the complete opposite of what I like usually. Books that claim to be funny? They usually make me hesitate. But this one is. In a way that is inexplicably lively, joyous, optimistic even when the most dreadful things are happening. Dora is a great character, a great narrator, to evoke all these feelings.. Most of all, Angela Carter is a magician with words and prose, the way each sentence simply works. Yes, I admit, I am a little bit in love..

Another thing that stood out as completely-not-me-and-yet-I-loved-it? It was the way this book handles sexuality. It is rare that a book manages to describe sex, to evoke sexuality, and not make me cringe or feel complete and utter shame. But Angela Carter manages to describe it in a way that made me feel none of these things. Moreover, in Dora and Nora and all of their family, she seems to go completely against conventional sexual mores but in a way that never once bothered me, that was instead elusive-and-yet-explicit enough, normalising it in a manner that I have not encountered before. More than ever it made me realise how much female sexuality is usually shamed, or how that shame is reinforced perhaps not through the story itself but through the marketing of it as “erotic fiction for women” or whatever. It made me realise – I think perhaps for the first time – how it need not necessarily be so. Not that this is erotic fiction, I would say, yet it oozes sexuality in a way? It was sort of liberating to notice, really. I cannot quite explain it.

Can I also pinpoint the smallest drawback of this book? It is its complicated list of characters (which can, I later found out, be found at the end of the book). The complicated relationships these all have with each other daunter me a little at first, and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to tell them all apart. However, it all comes together in the end, so it was more something that made me hesitate during the first half and then became quite familiar in the second.

More Angela Carter from now on? Yes please! What do you suggest should be my next read?

Other Opinions: Stuck in a Book, Litlove, Lovely Treez Reads, Steph and Tony Investigate, Reading the End, Yours?

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The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

The Elegance of the Hedgehog - Muriel BarberyThe Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery
Translated from the French L’Élégance du hérisson by Alison Anderson

Gallic Books, 2009
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I finally read The Elegance of the Hedgehog. I had my own little Paris in July while on holiday in England. The weather was fitting too, averaging around 28 degrees celsius.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is one of those books that has been on my TBR list for years. That had been sitting on my shelves for years as well. It would have been a suitable pick for Long-Awaited Reads Month. Rather like the experience with the books I read that month, the long wait did not set me up for disappointment. Instead, I quickly became enamoured with Barbery’s book, as well as with its two main characters – albeit with some reservations.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is set in and around a grand Parisian apartment building. The main focus of the novel are the every day dealing and particularly the contemplations of the concierge of the building, Renée. Renée has carefully crafted her persona of what she has observed is expected of a concierge, i.e. a person of her education, class, and income. But below the surface, in the sanctum of her home and thoughts, she is someone else – a woman who enjoys art and culture above all. Renée’s story is interspersed with diary-like writings of a 12-year-old girl, Paloma, resident of the building and daughter of one of the rich and superficial major men living in the building. Paloma, aware of the sameness and inescapability of the future ahead of her, a future that she feels can only end in disappointment, plans to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday. However, Renée’s and Paloma’s futures are about to alter through the change in circumstances following the death of one of the residents of the building, and the new resident that comes along: Mr. Ozu.

As I mentioned above, The Elegance of the Hedgehog quickly drew me in. Despite the negative, and sometimes extremely bitter, outlook of both Renée and Paloma, particularly when it comes to their fellow humans, despite what could be perceived as their self-indulgent and self-important contemplations, I quickly fell in love with both voices of Renée and Paloma. Particularly as I saw them changing as persons before my very eyes. Quiet, contemplative, and written in beautiful prose, their stories touched me – even when I did not want to, even if at times I fiercely disagreed with one of their opinions, or if I was wondering whether it wasn’t trying too hard to be intellectual. As to the latter: at times, perhaps, but not nearly as much as Night Train to Lisbon, which I, by the way, also enjoyed although not nearly as much.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, Barbery, professor of philosophy, manages to give nods to a lot of great French – and none-French – thinkers and artists. There are hints of Bourdieu, Foucault, Kant, and of course the motif of Tolstoy in the novel, and I am sure many more that I either did not recognise, or do not remember as vividly. These nods – and I call them nods because these are mostly hints, buried in the contemplations of Paloma and Renée as I perceived them, dropping keywords from time to time but never much, except for when it comes to Tolstoy – were enjoyable to me. It became a joy to find fiction and non-fiction interwoven in this manner.

Overall then, I very much enjoyed The Elegance of the Hedgehog. It came to the point where I enthusiastically told Bas that I was reading two amazing books, at the same time – something I felt had not occurred in a while. I told him that The Elegance of the Hedgehog might very well be the next book I would be able to recommend to anyone, despite taste or preference. And I told him how involved I was in the lives of these characters, how real they felt, even if also a little remote, seeing them mostly through their articulated thoughts, even if I knew they were fictional. Mind you, it is rare that I tell Bas this much about specific books, so this is to illustrate how much I was enjoying it at the time.

That same evening, having picked up the book again to finish it, something changed. The next time Bas looked up from his book and his music, I was crying without restraint. The book had just taken a turn – the surprise ending that came as quite a shock to me – and as I tried to explain to him why I was crying I became puzzled and hesitant about whether this was indeed a book I truly loved. That ending, and those of you who have read it will know what I mean, I still don’t know how to feel about it. Was it the fact that I was so immersed in the story, cared so much about the character, that I hated to see it end like this? Was it because I am that kind of romantic who often prefers happy endings (even if you might argue that this is not an unhappy ending), that the story was directing me in one way and then the next moment pulled the unexpected which hurt my romantic heart? Or was it that I felt cheated by the ending somehow, too much dramatics for the quietude of the overall novel, too big a leap to ensure there was an actual end, cheated by the fact that I so wanted a more meaningful ending somehow – even an unhappy one, just not this.. I don’t know.. cheap and easy trick in some ways?

I suspect it was a combination of all three of these reasons, which were also the reasons it made me cry. And even though I am as yet undecided if the ending was indeed somewhat cheap, or if by the very end, it was quite satisfying, mulling it over I suspect it may take away some of my downright love I felt for the book at moments like the one in which I shared all my thoughts with Bas.

There is also the question of Mr. Ozu – is he enough of a genuine character to take away the question of him being an example of the “exotic, Asian-and-thus-wise-and-unmaterialistic” character trope who intervenes and saves those in need? Or is that only what he is to the other residents, a curiosity, allowed to become a person in the company of Renée and Paloma?

And what about the message of the book? I wondered if it did not become a bit too obvious at points? At the same time, it seems very fitting in today’s day and age of the economy question. And I did appreciate it, overall, just not at certain moments, when I disagreed, or when I almost – and I wish to emphasise the almost as it never really became bothersome – wanted to exclaim “enough already!”

There are doubts to be expressed about The Elegance of the Hedgehog, discussions to be had. I have my own reservations about the book, and yet.. And yet, ultimately I did love it for most of the time while reading it, occasionally I even experienced the swelling of the heart and the contented sigh that will make you feel how truly enjoyable reading can be. I wonder how I’ll look back on my thoughts and appreciation of the book in weeks, or months, or in a year. I wonder if it will hold up on a reread. We will have to wait and see.

[edited to add that I was persuaded to finally begin reading this because I saw a readalong being organised by two bloggers in July. Sadly, I cannot find the URL right now as I am not on my own computer at the moment (which is also the reason that I haven’t yet caught up with all your blogs). I will edit it in once found!]

Other Opinions: A Good Stopping Point, Rhapsody in Books, Leeswammes, The Blue Bookcase, Vulpes Libris, Necromancy Never Pays, Sasha & the Silverfish, Love, Laughter and a Touch of Insanity,  Fleur in her World, Alex in Leeds, Lakeside Musing, The Sleepless Reader, and many more..

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