Tag Archives: reading

July’s Books

5 Aug

July has been a good month for reading. Beautiful weather makes me think ‘I must enjoy this! I must spend time outside!’. Computers and the like are for cold days. Books are for sunshine. Add to that the family holiday – ten days in Tenerife and hours of quiet, uninterrupted words – and the fact that the Aga has been off (so no diversions into the kitchen occupying hours of my weekends) and I’ve read really quite a lot. So here we go.

First – A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, by Mary Wollstonecraft. Not Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author of Frankenstein, but her mum. Written in the 1790s, Vindication is one of the seminal English texts in modern feminism, though it was largely ignored and/or viciously criticised at the time.

It’s not an easy read nowadays as most of us (with the exception of some ancient academics) have lost the habit of reading and writing like we live in a Victorian crime novel. Yet if you can soldier through the prose and hang the arguments together you get an impressive pearl string of points. Wollstonecraft’s most oft-cited maxim is the one that goes along the lines of ‘I do not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves’. Which is a great line, no?

Wollstonecraft’s argument is imbued with religion, which can make it rather difficult to read if you’re not really into the whole ‘God’ thing. However, she (unusually) uses religion to justify her argument for equality, which is obviously quite a different use when compared to many hardline religious groups even today. She also struggles slightly to escape the biological and, in chastising the often destructive nature of ‘romantic’ love, creates a picture of a marriage that few would wish for themselves in the 21st century.

What I found particularly fascinating was Wollstonecraft’s attribution of much of the unequal treatment of women to economic and industrial factors. The changing perception of what a woman is good for and how much she ought, accordingly, to be educated go hand in hand and in turn create a vicious cycle. That’s why education for girls is so important – because it demonstrates the faith we have that they are worth it.

Anyway. Read Wollstonecraft if you can. Remember the context and try not to judge her by her verbosity, religious fervour and occasional inconsistencies. It really is fascinating.

Next on my list: To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf. Written during the phase of Woolf’s career in which she seems to have found her voice and her style, TtL is a novel about children, about parents, about gender and about expectation (from my reading, anyway. Doubtless others have come away with different impressions). It’s also about art and construction. I enjoyed it for the characterisation of Mr and Mrs Ramsay and their relationship, and also for the flow of the prose and the natural descriptions. I enjoy reading the characters Woolf writes. They always sound familiar while still being mysterious and interesting. She catches human nuances really well.

Next I read The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter – a compendium of short ‘fairytales’ designed, I assumed, to sit together. Written along similar lines and with very similar themes, each story was about femininity, property, innocence and violence. I raced through these – not because they were insubstantial; more because they were delicious. I couldn’t wait to read each one. I’m going to go back and read them all again because they really were great.

Continuing the Angela Carter theme, I next read Nights at the Circus. This was a slightly different kettle of fish as it was a full novel rather than a collection, although the themes were very similar and the characters and premise no less fantastical. It was funny, endearing, wild – and though-provoking, questioning, too. I later loaned it to my mum who had run out of things to read and I think she was a bit baffled by it, but a fantastical version of late Victorian London and its unusual inhabitants is right up my street. I loved it. If it’s up your street, I definitely recommend.

Written on the Body, by Jeanette Winterson, was the penultimate book I finished on holiday. I wrote about this at the time (and subsequently) when I wrote about gender and authorship. That aside – I thought it was a beautiful book. Winterson is so deft with her language – rarely, if ever, overblown. Whatever she is writing about, the tone is always right on the money between tripping and sincere; light enough to be humorous, dark enough to be deadly. I don’t know if I could pick a favourite JW of all the ones I’ve now read, but if you prefer reality to fantasy, this one’s a good bet.

I also read The Waves, another Virginia Woolf. I had heard that this is a difficult text to comprehend, let alone to get through. I’ll admit that I’m reasonably sure a lot of the significance of things was lost on me (although reading the critical introduction after I had finished the book was a little illuminating on that score). However – I actually really enjoyed it. The style is an almost relentless narrative relay, the baton passing between the six main characters across the course of their lives. I say ‘almost relentless’ because there are clear pauses between the otherwise-unbreaking patter of voices. These pauses take the form of an ongoing description of a sea landscape, described throughout the course of a single day, mirroring the characters’ much slower incandescence and subsequent decline. These bits have a lot in common with To the Lighthouse, especially in the ‘Time Passes’ segment. There’s nothing like a contrast with nature to emphasise the brevity of human life (I always think of Sophocles’ Ajax in these instances. But that’s just me).

Unwilling to take my kindle to the beach for the rest of the holiday (the sand was getting *everywhere*) and caught in the straitjacket of my good intentions pre-holiday, all I had left to read in paperback was More’s Utopia or Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies. Foolishly, perhaps, I went for Popper. I read a significant amount of it before coming home, but I find it difficult to read except in hefty chunks, as I struggle to pin down the philosophy straight away and need to allow it to build up until I have a mental breakthrough of understanding.

I didn’t finish Popper because once I got home, I had a conversation with the wonderful E in which we agreed to send each other books (yes, we’re starting our own Feminist Library Lending Service, one day to be a full blown library/bookshop/café affair). Anyway, I sent her The Feminine Mystique and Tiffany Atkinson’s Catulla et al, and she sent me Toni Morrison’s Jazz and a short poem by Adrienne Rich. So I read those instead.

Jazz is set in the early years of the 20th century, mostly in New York but ranging around America in the telling of the main characters’ backstories. It’s soulful, thoughtful, with a narrator who places herself on the edge of the action to watch but who admits later on her fallibility and its basis in the human trait of making stories up about people to make them more interesting. Jazz is imbued throughout with the music that makes uptight characters suspicious and everyone else relaxed. It’s a book about colour and what it means, love and what that means and happiness, and what that means. In every case, the meaning is practical as well as emotional.

Jazz had some great lines and there was a particularly powerful segment about the way the black women of New York defend themselves or die. Though it wasn’t a book I would have thought to pick up off a library shelf or in a bookshop, I really, really enjoyed it. It was deep. It was funny. It was illuminating and it was dark. The characterisations were brilliant; the scenes were evocative. No character stayed the same and the end was pleasingly rounded off without being obvious from the beginning. Jazz left an impression.

Well. That’s it for July. August has started well so far after a large order of new books and the arrival of some university reading lists. Ariel Levy and Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling, in case you still hadn’t heard) are already on there. Til then, toodles!

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The Darling Books of May

4 Jun

I know, I know. Where have all the blogs gone? Where’s the monthly book review? Why is there nothing to read?!

I hear you and I answer. Here is the blog. It has not gone anywhere, I’ve just been… distracted. I’ve been writing other things, for other people and other events. None of those have been finished or replied to or progressed yet, so you can’t see them, I’m afraid. And as for the monthly book list – here it is! Woop woop! So now you can chill out and read about what I’ve been reading. Yeah.

All right. First up – Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel Garcia Marquez). I was looking forward to this, as I mentioned to the wonderful E a little while ago that I had bought it and she raved enthusiastically about how wonderful it was. I generally trust E’s opinions on life in any case, but I’m particularly susceptible to her book-loving, so I permitted myself a small rubbing-of-hands-plus-gleeful-chuckle when I got down to opening the book itself.

It’s a great story. I wish I hadn’t read the blurb on the back of my copy, because the first chapter is so integral and yet so disconnected that a blurb which tells you about the story is a bit of a problem. Anyway, I devoured the book. I read it in my lunch breaks and on the bus home and in the evenings after work. I loved it. It was funny and poignant and moving. I had read a Marquez before – One Hundred Years of Solitude – and I was aware that, although I had really enjoyed that, I’d also got quite lost with the seemingly never-ending repeating names and lengthy time span. Happily, the story has a much more compact character base in LitToC, so there’s plenty of opportunity for the pale outlines you meet at the beginning to be fully coloured in as the story progresses. I heartily recommend it to anyone. Especially anyone who thinks that old people shouldn’t fall in love.

I was totally in the zone with my reading one lunchtime when I ran out of book. I had finished the Marquez but I had nothing else with me except my iPad. Happily, I have a kindle app and on that particular day, I even had the wireless connection required to access my books. So there I was, browsing through Aphra Behn, George Eliot, William Thackeray, etc, wondering what to read next. I decided to read Game of Thrones. Sometimes you just need to kick back and read something crazy, y’know?

I couldn’t remember where I’d left off, only that I’d read an awful lot of it back in January (remember that post? Read it here: https://natashasfragments.wordpress.com/2013/02/05/januarys-books-a-rundown/ ). I decided just to crack on. I figured that I’d work out pretty quickly whether I had messed up.

Alas for my presumption! 60% of the way into book 5 I realised to my horror that I had omitted to read book 4. I had been pleasantly enjoying quite a heavy bias of the story towards Tyrion, Daenerys and Jon Snow, all of whose stories followed on from where I had left off at the end of book 3, part 2. I hadn’t really twigged that there was a large chunk of story about Sansa, Arya, Theon, Margaery, Cersei, Jaime, Brienne, etc, etc, etc that I was missing. Don’t believe me? Then you’ve never read a book by George R. R Martin.

That said, I did enormously enjoy the book, as ever. Yes, I was missing a fair bit of backstory but I didn’t really notice this until a fair way along. Wikipedia provided me with enough snippets to fill in the major plot holes I was missing and I continued onwards, since I hate not finishing books and I couldn’t face leaving one book halfway through to tackle another that was set partly concurrently, partly earlier (no, seriously). I am going to have to go back and read book 4, if only for the Arya storyline (she’s so goddam kickass), but a whole book without Tyrion is a pretty hefty ask. He is, after all, the best character.

Book 5 is the latest one to come out, so the ending is actually quite a cliffhanger. There are the usual graphic descriptions of bodily functions (less sex in this one, I think, though a lot more wee) and brutal fighting, with some good turns from Asha Greyjoy and Daenerys especially, waving the flag for the girls. There was also an exceedingly clear framing of the unfair societal restrictions on women – a whole paragraph of internal monologue by one of the female characters mentally decrying her status and power. I don’t know if this is something Martin had in mind all along but he’s certainly bringing it to the fore in the later stuff and also, very much so, in the television series. It’s great. Anyway. Some absolutely classic lines from Tyrion, as ever, and some fascinating plot developments re Young Griff (I’ll say no more, except, in an annoying River Song voice, ‘spoilers!’). But there you have it. Game of Thrones.

Hoping to atone a little for my foray into the world of the ridiculous, I decided the time was ripe for some Jeanette Winterson. I bought some of the books a little while ago on the recommendation, once again, of the fabulous E, and I had been sitting on a little stash of them, Smaug-esque, ready to consume at any moment. Then my sister wandered in to pinch a different book off me one afternoon and said ‘Oh, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit! I’ve read that – it’s really good’. So I had to read it, even if only to catch up with the sis. And it was good. It was very good. Funny and interesting and a tiny bit heartbreakingly sad. And when I’d finished it, I read Sexing the Cherry, which was also funny and interesting and not so sad but very structurally engaging. Now that I think about it, it had a lot in common with Cloud Atlas – but if Cloud Atlas is a series of vanilla sponge layers with interesting fillings, Sexing the Cherry is a chiffon cake, with fewer segments but an infinitely more complex and interesting texture. Edible analogies aside, though, both Jeanette Winterson books were delicious reads, perfect for reminding me why I enjoy books and words and stuff. Yeah.

And on that note, I leave you with news that I’m currently reading a book about how to write a screenplay, and then I have two books in French lined up. And another Jeanette Winterson, in case I somehow manage all of that.

April’s books

1 May

Hullo my lovelies. Those of you among the faithful will be familiar with the monthly book review. As it is now the end of April (with all the attendant Joys of Spring etc that this brings) it is time to look back and consider what I have read.

I’ll be honest, I don’t have a list as lengthy as – well, any of my previous ones. I don’t know if I just burned out after March or if it was something to do with getting off to a bad start, but I’ve only read three books this month, and they aren’t even big ones. Nevertheless, ours not to reason why, so I will give you the (dubious) benefit of my thoughts on them notwithstanding.

I got part of the way through the Mill on the Floss, but after two weeks I realised that I just wasn’t going to finish it. If there is one problem with reading books on a Kindle, it is this: you can’t tell – physically – how far through you are. Now, with something that’s not terribly verbose or is highly character/plot driven (eg Game of Thrones), this isn’t really a problem. But with a Victorian novelist it’s a bloody nightmare. I’ve had the same problem with Vanity Fair. I still haven’t finished the damn thing. And I haven’t finished Mill on the Floss, either. So I’m not counting that as one of my ‘completed’ books, but I thought you should at least receive some explanation for the lack of other titles…

I did, however, read Flatland, by the excellently named Edwin Abbott Abbott. Flatland is a late Victorian novel which was recommended to me by my mathematician friend Michael. I am pretty average at maths and fairly awful at spatial awareness, so even though this is a very short work, it took me a few days to read it – properly – and assimilate what on earth was going on.

Basically, Flatland is a 2-dimensional world inhabited by shapes; the more sides the shapes have, the higher their social prestige and mental capacity (the two are inextricable). The story is narrated by a self-described ‘respectable square’. He lays out the principles and features of Flatland, then goes on to describe a dream he has where he visits a 1-dimensional world. Stepping down the dimensions prepares the reader – though not the poor square – for a visitation by a denizen of Spaceland, who arrives in the square’s home on the evening of the millennium to announce that the concept of three dimensions is  possible. The square takes some convincing but eventually considers himself enlightened; however, he cannot remain in Spaceland and his knowledge of it makes him a traitor in Flatland. He is consigned to a prison and there he ends.

It’s an effective story about the limits of our perceptions and the way that our understanding about how we live reduces our capacity to think in a different way. It’s also an interesting example of analogy and its various powers. And it’s a social study, too – hierarchy, education, upbringing, social mobility, intelligence, the position of women – all are presented in such a way as to seem perfectly congruous with (perhaps not our own experiences, but certainly) those of a late Victorian – yet also ridiculous.

I can’t say the plot was necessarily ‘gripping’, nor could it be described along generic lines – but it was provoking, engaging and enlightening. A curious read, and not in a bad way.

Well. Empowered by my new understanding of planes and solids, I cracked my literary knuckles and picked up another Virginia Woolf – this time, Mrs Dalloway. My previous experiences with Woolf – detailed in March’s Books, if you’re looking – did not prepare me for this. Woolf the essayist is not the same as Woolf the novelist. Or rather, the core is very much the same, but you are looking in through another window altogether. The Voyage Out is such an early work that it can barely be held up as an exemplary piece of her writing, so that didn’t help me much either, except to make me wonder why the names of some of the characters seemed so familiar (yes, she does reuse them; Richard and Clarissa Dalloway feature in The Voyage Out too).

Anyway. It was – difficult. Stream of consciousness writing is immersive; you have to be able to commit to every line, every sentence, every paragraph, one after the other, unwinding your thread of understanding so you can follow it all the way back through the labyrinthine text and see the point from which you started. Close the book and the skein is cut – you won’t find it again unless you go back to the last place where you tied it to something solid; a chapter heading or new section. So that meant it took me a little while, even though it is, again, only a very short book.

It is short, but it is intricate. There are phrases in it that made me laugh out loud and ones that made me murmur them again to myself, just to feel the buzz of the words on my lips. “The word ‘time’ split its husk; poured its riches over him…” – it’s a lexical aneurysm, a sentence you can’t understand when it first hits you but leaves you reeling with the effects. I could wax lyrical about the words, the characters, the truth, the folly, the compassion, the levity, the painful relevance – but others have said it better. Read it, then decide for yourself if you want to read anyone else.

Finally – finally! I read Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad. I struggled with this one, too.   I don’t know why. It’s not a particularly difficult book; it’s certainly not a long one. It is, however, dense and dark and it clings to you like a viscous, poisonous mud. There are moments where it feels incredibly current and true and cruel – and others which are anachronistic and jarring. I haven’t quite decided where I stand on it yet. I am glad to have read it. That’s about as much as I can tell you today.

That’s your lot, I’m afraid. That’s really all I’ve read. I dabbled a bit with some Hippolytus because I don’t like to feel I’m forgetting all my Greek, and I did the same with the opening of the Aeneid, too, but those aside – that’s April.

I can’t promise great things for May, on this basis, although I have got some good novels lurking around my room, bought in great eagerness earlier in the month. The best I can say is ‘wait and see’.