Sunday, 29 April 2012

The Driver's Seat

I'm thrilled when I see challenges that will help me discover new writers and new genres of literature.  Simon at Stuck in a Box together with Harriet organised this week a retrospective on Muriel Spark, a novelist that I may had heard the name of, but certainly knew nothing about.  Quickly I ordered my copy of The Driver's Seat, to get me into the mood for adventure...  Little did I know that this book would open a whole new horizon - not only for Spark. I prepared myself by reading the reviews posted in the two hosts' blogs, trying to figure out what I was in for - what Spark's style was.  My book is in the 1970's, so I was prepared for an alternative subject.  Still, when I got my copy I knew that I was in for a treat - a wonderful new context was there for me to read and enjoy.
The storyline is quite dark, and I have to say, in line with what my idea of the 1970's would be: already from the first pages, I was inside a futuristic 1970's film, with the heroine, Lise, becoming a hysterical, almost paranoid, overworked (?) woman, who decides to flee.  Within the first 20 pages I knew the end, she would be killed.  Very unusual, but all the more intriguing:  by whom and most importantly, why?

Lise's apartment is really taken out from that decade, all pieces being multi-functional:  "... the furniture is all fixed, adaptable to various uses, and stackable".  I could well imagine how the bed would disappear, the kitchen as well, and how a tiny little apartment would be spacious for entertaining - I've actually watched documentaries on this...

Things go wrong when Lise talks in a baby voice - never a good indicator when it comes to women.  I knew then, even before I read she would be killed, that the book would not have a good ending.  The psychedelic-coloured clothes she's wearing also made me feel uneasy as to her sanity...

She's heading off to Italy, and in her short journey before her death manages to meet a whole array of people (funnily, this never happens to me when travelling):  an Enlightenment Leader (this is, after all, the 1970's), an elderly lady who clings on to Lise, and a series of unimportant men who, as Lise puts it, are not her type... (my, my, are we being picky...)

What puzzled me reading this book, was the rather spastic activities:  it really felt as if I was watching a movie, where separate frames of film were played one after another, with no real continuity. This reinforces the tragic end, and even the hopelessness for Lise - she just didn't stand a chance.  The almost paranoid outbursts she has at various incidents, also work up towards the climax at the end of the book. I could almost feel the eagerness she felt towards her purpose...

The old lady, who will play an indirect role in Lise's demise, provides the humorous (for me) part of the book:  "(Men) want their equality today.  All I say is that if God had intended them to be as good as us he wouldn't have made them different from us to the naked eye... They won't be content with equal rights only.  Next thing they'll want the upper hand, mark my words".  So, if I understand well, we're way beyond the feminist movement, women are now superior to men, and quite soon we'll have the counter-feminist revolution...

I can honestly say I've never read anything like this  book before and am therefore intrigued to find more about Spark's novels. Thanks to Simon and Harriet I've discovered a new writer I want to read more, and thanks to Spark, I've also discovered the Lost Man Booker short-list - another TBR list that will keep me well supplied with books!

For the visual interpretation of this novel, I watched the film by the same name with Elizabeth Taylor.  I fully recommend it - Taylor is as mad as I had imagined Lise to be...

Also read for the European Reading Challenge

Friday, 27 April 2012

The Classics Club: A Room with a View

Many times, the novels I've read as a teenager seem to lose their appeal when re-reading them as an adult.  Others, on the contrary, gain even more allure and highlight new facets to their story.

A Room with a View by E.M.Forster is one such novel.  Having read it while a teenager (and watching the film about 15+ times...), I was still aware of the main characters and the overall plot, but I could not remember whether it was all that good.  As my first novel for the Classics Club, I wanted to carefully read this and put down my thoughts in an objective manner...

The first comment I can make on a Room with a View is definitely politically incorrect:  I had the impression that I was reading a book written by a woman!  I know this is ridiculous, there is no feminine or masculine way of writing, but I honestly found the writing style too focused on petty details, too romantic... too pink!!! (excuse the expression).  It didn't make an impression as such, but that made me pay even more attention on the book...

Moving on, Forster presents an array of situations and happenings to showcase comparisons:  the two main venues in the book are Italy and England:  Italy, the land of freedom, of laughter, of endless meadows with violets, a pure beauty - in sharp contrast with stiff upper-lipped England, full of rules and regulations, with the Church imposing the norms of society, a beauty perhaps only on a first glance... I found the stereotyping very amusing, and mostly spot-on:  I believe the intention here was not to shock the audience, but rather  to move across the "sensitive" subjects rather painlessly, while still making the social criticism.  Very clever indeed...

Lucy and her warden Charlotte find themselves without rooms with a view in Italy.  Such a dramatic event surely cannot be sustained of course, and a respectable complaint starts  being heard in the Pensione.  Upon the offer by the Emersons to swap rooms with theirs that do actually have a view, we witness the hardship of  good manners, taking refuge with the vicar, and finally the obedience towards the decision taken by said priest - the fact that this coincides with the original desire of the ladies, need not bother us... First ...:  things are not always what they seem.  From the perspective of a woman who knows what her position in society is, but who nevertheless wants to accomplish (tiny) things, the procedure to follow is way too time-consuming and complicated:  she has to make everyone think it was their own idea and decision, while she has been plotting the end result since the beginning... "(the women's) mission was to inspire other to achievement rather than to achieve themselves".  Difficult times... (I really laughed when Charlotte wouldn't give the big room to Lucy because young Emerson had it - that worry for absolute protection is bound to have the opposite results).

This difference between the new generation and the established one is also a main theme in this book.  Not only is Lucy rebellious in contrast with her warden Charlotte but also the two Emersons seem to differ immensely - they just don't understand one another.  Only novelists are allowed to cross over to the other side, and hence we have the little devil in the story:  Miss Lavish.  She will inform Charlotte of all possible mischief that can befall Lucy (I believe this is how Charlotte catches Lucy in the meadow and spoils one of the best romantic scenes in literature...) but she is also the source of amusement for Cecil by writing a book on Italy that will inevitably bring George and Lucy together... (I'm starting getting the romance now...)

On to the next set of comparisons, the conservative versus the radical:  the Cecils of this world, who will say to whoever will listen how radical they are, how beyond class they've become, only to prove that they keep the status quo and even worse - they are actually misanthropists:  "of course, he despised the world as a whole; every thoughtful man should; it is almost a test of refinement".  Fortunately, there are also the Georges and Lucies in this world, who may stray in the beginning, when they're still trying to fit in the norms of society, only to realise that life's too short for "trying": there has to be a rebellion, and it has to be now.  Not in the most articulate manner as in Lucy's breaking the engagement off, but all's well that ends well..

Although the novel is full of comparisons / antitheses, it prefers staying on the surface of the matter at the most crucial point - I was surprised when Lucy and Cecil call off their engagement, that the dialogue is plain and civil to the point of being dry - not much information is provided for the inner feelings (or lack thereof) of the two main characters.  That was the only point where I felt I wanted more.

In general, I have to say the novel gave me a lot more food for thought.  The characters are given much more shine and I got much more information on the main characters:  I was surprised, for example, at the very unflattering light Charlotte is portrayed.  I had as reference the film, where Charlotte, while a stiff old spinster, is actually a likable stiff old spinster.  I did not get that feeling at all with the book.  She is to be meaningless, living in a cheerless, loveless world, "a world of precautions and barriers which may avert evil, but which do not seem to bring good...".  There is only one hint at her good soul at the very end of the book.  Interesting to see the difference between writer and filmmaker...

For the visual interpretation of this novel, I re-watched the 1985 film by the same name, directed by James Ivory.  I have to agree that the film does the novel more than justice - the points where the novel may lack in depth, are compensated by the actors' interpretation.

Also read for the Back to the Classics challenge-

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

The Memory Chalet

This is a peculiar subject - what happens when you find yourself trapped inside your body?  What thoughts, what regrets, what needs, what worries go on in your mind, while you await your death?  I started having an interest in these questions, after reading Tuesdays with Morrie, an excellent wake-up call of what really matters in life, and what to avoid in order to fully benefit from it.  I then read about The Memory Chalet by Tony Judt in Nigella Lawson's blog, and I was interested to see how these questions are seen through the eyes of someone whose actual work is to jot down the history of the world.

The Memory Chalet, despite its sad content, does not have a melancholy theme.  The author explains already in the very beginning of the book the cause of his slow demise, Lou Gehring's disease, without any emotional attachment.  While I cannot imagine how I would have reacted to similar news, I can fully sympathise with his intention to make the most out of a sinister situation.

Judt begins by describing the thought-arranging process, something like compartmentalisation (I use this technique particularly with painful/difficult memories, in situations when I have to remain calm/cheerful/optimistic).  He uses a chalet for this purpose, which I found rather peculiar.  Is it a matter of size?  of country? no, he simply does not want to impress, he wants it to serve. Just a thought...

From then on, he begins taking advantage of his sleepless, motionless nights and goes back in time to his austere childhood (rationing in post-war Britain) and how this developed his character.  I have not had that experience, but I can well imagine his dislike for present-day extravagance.  From corruption to the 15 minutes of fame, most parts of our lives have been shattered to pieces and provide no motive for improvement.  Why should I study, learn a profession, be good at my job to set an example for the next generation, when the person next to me will be on Reality TV, make headlines and set a (bad) example and laugh all the way to the bank?  True, it's the law of demand and supply, but in our days these two are highly suspicious...  

In this point I also liked Judt's differentiation between being and becoming.  It is really that small difference that can have a major impact on one's life - being, passive, the duty, rather unchanged versus becoming, developing, the journey, embracing change.

He is displeased with many of today's shortcomings - I suppose every generation is for the following one.  And although I am that generation he's referring to, I myself can see these same shortcomings in the generation after me:  educational standards are getting lower (I have to admit that even at my time, education was only for those who really wanted to learn on their own - the rest did not stand a chance from teachers who knew even less that they did...); politics is happening elsewhere (this was true then as it is now) - and indeed, we have missed the boat; reforms for the sake of reforms have created  mayhem in our public / professional / industrial life, with the result of sub-average products and services.

And then he turns to language... one of my favourite subjects, I have to say:  it's the use of language that sets humans apart from other animals (here I can recommend the documentary Planet Word), and yet, we don't seem to care.  The times we live in promote the use of language to mystify rather than inform:  "we speak and write badly because we don't feel confident in what we think and are reluctant to assert it unambiguously.  Rather than suffering from the onset of "newspeak", we risk the rise of "nospeak"".  If this is painful for me, still in top form, I'm wondering how excruciating it must be for a professional user of language who, in the grip of a neurological disorder, loses control of words.  We are so lucky to have this ability to use a wealth of words - we should never take it for granted.

Tony Judt has had the opportunity and the ability to live a full, hands-on life and, when facing a horrible end, proved he could conquer this feat as well.  He has put his thoughts in this book to shake the rest of us from our comfortable seats and take (back) control of our lives. It certainly has shaken me...

Also read for the What's in a name challenge

Monday, 23 April 2012

World Book night

It is time! The biggest celebration of books around the globe is today!

World Book Night is celebrated primarily in the UK, Ireland, Germany and the USA. With this year's title "A milion reasons to read a book" this event is spreading the word on literacy and the celebration, sharing and enjoyment of reading! Even here in little Belgium, there are bookstores, libraries and cultural centres that have incorporated small-scale events to mark the UNESCO International Day of the Book.

A big hello and thank you to Belezza, Allie and all other bloggers who are participating in this worthy cause and are gifting books in their communities to spread the love and joy of reading on this day!

As my small contribution to this event, I have put those books I have not yet read from the list of the 2012 UK books in my TBR for this year:

The 2012 UK books  and those I've already under my belt!

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Weekend cooking - coffee desserts

Let me count the ways I love coffee - no, wait - it's pointless. I am a coffee-holic. I love to smell, taste, cook with coffee - and that goes for all types of coffee! In desserts, I like using coffee because it cuts the sweetness and provides for new ideas and flavours. Here are my two favourite recipes involving coffee:

Coffee and walnut muffins

A very old staple in my recipe book, these muffins are just too easy not to make them every week (and they taste double so good!):

- 1 and 3/4 cups flour (I use instant, no need to sift)
- 1/2 cup each of butter in cubes / chopped walnuts
- 3/4 cups milk
- 1 egg
- 1/3 cup light brown sugar
- 2 tbsp instant coffee powder
- 1 tbsp baking powder
- 1 tsp vanilla extract (or vanilla paste)
- 1/4 tsp salt

Mix everything - pour in oil-sprayed muffin tray, or in paper cups. Bake for about 30 minutes at 190oC. Leave to cool and enjoy!

Coffee mousse (recipe from the Dagelijkse kost cooking show)

A new recipe which is bound to become a favourite in no time: although I had to use all my mixing bowls, it took practically no time to prepare and the only thing that remained was to wait for the mousse to thicken: 

For the mousse:

- 3 eggs, separated
- 90gr sugar
- 150ml espresso coffee
- 150ml whipped cream
- 2 leaves gelatin (I used powder gelatin, about 7gr) 

For the whipped cream:
- 300ml whipped cream
- 60gr sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla extract (or vanilla paste)

Now, the difficult part:
If you're using gelatin leaves, soak in water before mixing with coffee - with the powder, you can mix immediately - in both cases, leave coffee to cool. Then comes the whisking: in order to use my hand mixer once, I mix in the following order: first the egg whites, until I have a nice meringue (one mixing bowl). Next comes the whipped cream, which should not be super-whipped (the recipe calls for a "yogurt" consistency) (second bowl). Lastly, the egg yolks with the sugar, which need a couple of minutes of whisking, just to combine the two (third and last mixing bowl). This bowl should actually be the larger one, because everything else will get in there: again, in order: coffee, whipped cream and egg whites (you know how to integrate the egg whites? first a small part to beat relentlessly into the mixture, and then the rest, "folding" it? don't worry - any way this is managed, it always tastes good in the end). Pour in glasses and leave in refrigerator for about 1-2 hours.
For the whipped cream: whisk everything, pour on top of mousse:  You now have a Latte Macchiato dessert!

This post is my entry into Weekend Cooking, a weekly event hosted by Beth Fish Reads.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

The Ministry of Fear

Graham Greene's Ministry of Fear is considered by many to be one of the first examples of spy novels, for which the author would become famous.  My first encounters with Greene were the Quiet American and Travels with my Aunt, which initiated me in the writing style of repressed, unfulfilled situations that would nevertheless exude so much emotion that would amaze me (they still do).  I came across Ministry of Fear at a book auction  - this one was a beautiful leather-bound edition from the late 1940's.  I bought it based on my experience with Greene and because it was such a beautiful book.  Now I would have to read it as well and see whether it was worth the while...

The writing is still the same - the main character, Arthur Rowe, finds himself trapped between a cake that was not meant for him and a murder he did not commit - coming from a background of mercy killing only further complicates his situation.  The alternation between dialogue and third person narrative creates a distance from the depth of emotions that actually take place, and allows (my) imagination to fill in the gaps when the characters remain passive.

While he is trying to figure out what is happening, we follow Rowe through London during the Blitzkrieg and watch as he gets involved in more and more complex situations, while reminiscing his adolescence (at times the scenes reminded me of Hitchcock's "Spellbound", with Dali's beautiful dream sequences).  There is a lot of soul-searching and Greene makes several points to one's childhood and how this is in stark contrast with what we all go through in adulthood:
"none of the books of adventure one read as a boy had an unhappy ending" vs. "he grew up - learned that adventure didn't follow the literary pattern, that there weren't always happy endings" a little further down in the novel

Rowe reaches a point when he cannot take it anymore - he is seriously considering killing himself but decides to at least postpone it when he can be of use to someone - I found it very interesting that even in the direst of conditions, people will cease to be selfish when they can provide companionship (even though Greene believes this not to be an English custom...):
"he was going to live... because he no longer felt that he was dragging round a valueless and ageing body"

We are also introduced to two notions that I spent a lot of time re-reading, to fully grasp their meaning:  
- the economics of terror: "the maximum of terror for the minimum time directed against the fewest objects" ( how does that fit with recent examples of terrorism, I still have to figure out...)
- and the Ministry of Fear itself:  from the initial spread of fear and blackmail in Nazi Germany and copied in other governments, so that no one could depend on anyone (very nice thought, especially in present-day "reality" state of mind, where everyone will betray everyone for 15 minutes of fame) to a permanent fear of disappointing the woman Rowe loves and does not want to hurt: 
"They had to tread carefully for a lifetime, never speak without thinking twice; they must watch each other like enemies because they loved each other so much"

For me the Ministry of Fear proved once more the ability Greene has in providing great food for thought through an unusual story, told by common people ...

For the visual interpretation of this novel, I watched the film by the same name directed by Fritz Lang (Metropolis) starring Ray Millard (Dial M for murder).  As an old movie aficionado, I was expecting a very good "film noir" interpretation of the book.  The beginning was very promising, but alas that was to be only.  The rest proved to be a very simplified, succinct version of the book, and was rather disappointing...

Also read for the Graham Greene 2012 Challenge

Tuesday, 17 April 2012


While watching the BBC's The Review Show, I heard a very good presentation of one of the latest of Ian Rankin's books, The Impossible Dead, and what caught my attention was the comment that this, all with all other of his books was a "page turner".  I'm not usually influenced by such reviews, but something must have made an impression, because, some time later during a book festival, I managed to get Watchman, one of Rankin's first novels.

I was not disappointed.  In the introduction to the book, the author provides ample information as to his difficulties in those early days to make it in the literary world, and how he managed to pull through.  In researching for this book, of the spy genre, he recalls the advice given that the book be as realistic as possible - not stories that exaggerate the "glamour" of the spy. I couldn't have said it better myself.  The overall tone of the book is slightly cynical - as I imagine the security service would be in real life, which made the story all the more believable.

There is no great drama - just a fairly realistic day-to-day job that the main character, Miles Flint, has to go through - the internal intrigues of the service, the personal disappointment - things that we can all associate with.  He works a lot to avoid facing the real drama in his life - his wife, with whom he has practically no contact anymore.  One of the most distinguishable traits of this character is his obsession with all types of bugs- what an ingenious idea!  Other than some very specific cases in primary school, I honestly can't remember anyone around me having such an interest - yes, my first reaction would also be wow, how boring! but once I got into the subject matter, it's actually pretty amazing and interesting!  Picture this: "the security services were running around like so many ants in a glass case" - crystal clear what the author means!  Rankin manages to insert tiny details that play a minimal role to the overall story, but which contribute to its authenticity.  In such a case, Miles' son gives him an adoption certificate for a zoo pet as a present.  I did exactly the same for my mother some years ago and reading this put a smile on my face - I found it so brilliant!

Miles then, is a watchman - he watches people in situations and then informs.  When a routine stake-out goes wrong, his world collapses:  he is the one now being watched and he realises that things will no longer be the same - he is exposed.  When he realises that this minor incident actually part of a larger operation is, he is the hunted:  he grasps the last chance given and goes to Belfast, where he fears he will be asked to do -not just watch! The tables are turned and he becomes the hunter, and manages to come out gloriously (well, almost).

Together with a well-written series of events, Rankin also makes comments that - for me at least - provide food for thought:  journalism nowadays: "why bother?  why try to tell the truth when the truth isn't wanted anymore", disturbing thoughts on the use of terrorism (about IRA): "who wants them to stop? it's the best training ground Britain's got. NATO's learned a lot from our experiences, medicine's learned how to treat skin burns more efficiently", and some thoughts on life in general: "if there is game, or even a game within a game, there must be a way out. All we have to do is keep on playing"...

As with most of the books of this genre, there are more twists in the story that imaginable.  Still, the innovative aspect in this book was that even towards the end, when all elements are slowly being revealed, I was caught unaware several times (and I'm a master in deciphering difficult cases...).  This book is really a tiny gem among Rankin's works!

Also read for the Mystery & Suspense Challenge

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Weekend cooking - Spring soups

It is finally Spring, with birds and flowers slowly making their appearance heard and seen!  I've managed to clear half of my tiny garden in view of the coming season (before a bout of rain yet again forced me to put plans on hold...).  I just love working around the plants (with gloves on, bien sûr, for fear of unwelcome surprises) - but also with the - even tinier - vegetable patch, where primarily herbs but also vegetables sometimes manage to grow to adulthood (i.e. when snails don't get the best of them...). 

Should I be that lucky to actually have vegetables to use, I love making soups this time of the year - the weather is not that warm yet, and a soup in the evening is both comforting and nourishing:

Carrot and red lentil soup

Carrot and red lentil soup with hallumi

700gr grated carrots
100gr red lentils
1/2 teaspoon harissa (dried chili paste) - or according to taste
1.2l of vegetable stock or water

For the vegetable stock, I have the luxury I can find vegetables already cleaned and cut for making stock in my supermarket, otherwise it's roughly 1 potato, 1 onion, 2 celery sticks, 3 leeks, 3 carrots, all cut to small/medium pieces.  I roast the vegetables slightly (to bring out flavours) before putting everything in a huge pot and adding 1.5l water and a bouquet garni (thyme/rosemary/bay leaf) - let it boil for about 1 hour, and then I just leave it to cool with the vegetables still in the water.

For the soup now, same simple procedure:  at medium heat, start with about 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil and harissa.  Immediately put the grated carrots and the lentils and stir for about 1 minute.  Add stock/water, lower heat slightly and let everything bubble away for about an hour.  Let it cool down and blitz.  You can then add milk/cream, but I prefer it pure and then just add a few slices of grilled hallumi cheese instead...

Zucchini soup

Zucchini soup with shrimp
400gr zucchini, cubed
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 medium potato, cubed
700ml chicken stock or water

I use chicken stock for this recipe, but obviously you can use vegetable stock or water.  I make chicken stock every time I roast a whole chicken.  After roasting, I just put the carcass aside, and let it boil together with 1.5l water, 1-2 carrots, 1 leek, 1-2 celery sticks and a handful of peppercorns.  Let it bubble for about 1 hour and then let it cool with all ingredients in the water.

For the soup: in medium heat, lightly fry all vegetables in 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil.  Add stock/water, salt/pepper, and let it bubble for about 40 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender. Let it cool and blitz.  I like to serve this soup again pure (but you can add milk/cream) with shrimp:  I marinate them in lemon juice, salt/pepper and a little grated ginger, and then lightly fry them.

This post is my entry into Weekend Cooking, a weekly event hosted by Beth Fish Reads.

Friday, 13 April 2012

The Star

I know Arthur C. Clarke from his masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey and its subsequent instalments.  I liked the "futurism" of A Space Odyssey and wanted to find out more about this author. He is considered to be one of the "big three" science-fiction writers of the 20th Century, together with Assimov and Heinlein.   Looking around for any of Clarke's novels to read for my Century of books, I stumbled upon The Star, a short story that won the Hugo Award in 1956.  Without exaggeration, this is the best short story I've read so far - I now grasp the genius of Clarke's work, but also his immense knowledge and vision. 

Before reading the story, I went on an information-spree for more details about his life.  It's incredible how easily I'd dismissed science-fiction in the past as a "lesser" art, because it was "not real" (are other types of fiction real?).  Reading about the author, I've come to realise that a well-written science fiction novel requires the same, if not more, amount of background information and research.  Clarke did not stop at writing science fiction.  He was involved in the pursuit of popularisation of science (for which he won the UNESCO award in 1961) , and even wrote non-fiction books on technical details of rocketry and space flight.  Clearly, there is substance in his work.

With that in mind, I started reading The Star.  The main character is a Jesuit astrophysicist, describing the return from a mission to the Vatican, which is 3000 light years away.  First shock - a Jesuit astrophysicist?  I knew they had been some great Jesuit scientists, but that a renowned scientist like Clarke writes about one of them?  Isn't science supposed to be cut off from religion?  Again, I went back to more searching.  Clarke was fascinated with the concept of God, and was convinced that any path to knowledge a path to God is.

The story is full of pessimism and disappointment.  The mission had been to see what was left when a whole civilisation is destroyed following the explosion of a supernova.  Thoughts about the futility of things and the loss of faith following what the crew witnessed reveal a great disaster that must have taken place on site.  Second shock - A Jesuit losing faith?  to wonder "how can complete destruction in the full flower of achievement, leaving no survivors be reconciled with the mercy of God?" and even wondering about future generations "would we have been too lost in our own misery to give thought to a future we could never see or share?"  I was intrigued.

I did not read the end first (which I notoriously do in every book).  Even though I could sense that the origin of this depression must be something huge, I restrained myself and kept on reading.  The climax is actually the last paragraph.  It is phenomenal.  I would never have imagined this outcome, and I'm glad I waited until the end to read it - that is all I'm going to say, to avoid spoilers.

Highly recommended reading - I look forward to reading Clarke's other works.

Also read for the What's in a name challenge

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Bleak House read-a-long - thoughts in the beginning

I've started reading one of Dickens' most famous books, Bleak House, in a read-a-long organised by Wallace. Here are my thoughts after a bit over a month of reading:

This being the 200th anniversary of Dickens, I am reading quite a number of his works - some I like, some not so much. I started reading Bleak House right after having finished another of his books which I did not like much, and what a relief this one is! A writing style that is totally different, a writing that invites me to read on. From the beginning, Dickens uses a parade of words that seem to exaggerate, but actually serve a purpose: to exactly describe the person, the case, the situation… (as in the helpnessness surrounding the Jarndyce case). These words provide such precision to the story itself, I can place the main actors in their respective situations much more effectively than if I had to use my own imagination (which tends to go to overdrive…). I also get to witness an excellent use of language – which does not make for a melodramatic story, just more thorough in my understanding.

The main narrator is Esther, a "lost soul" I would describe her for now, who finds herself from a loveless environment with her aunt, to the company of two heirs, where she is to be the companion of the girl. I found it surprising that Dickens chooses to use a woman to narrate (Iwould have thought that in those days the easy thing would be to have a man do this) - but I quickly understood why: he makes her sound too good - I still wait for a twist somewhere in the book that will show something dark in her character…

In this part, I'm also fascinated by the manner in which Dickens describes "social injustice":  he never ceases to point the finger at the the two sets of standards that exist in his society, even for the ridiculous things: the upper class who have a right to a ghost, the vain who make a great deal of noise about the little things they do, the orphans who are expected to be the little old women (taking care of everyone else). I would say Dickens’ social comments hit a point that is just as relevant today as it was then. 

Much as I was mesmerised by Dickens' writing in the beginning, however, I soon found myself having trouble keeping track of all characters introduced.  In addition to purely descriptive parts (I've since found out that the book was first published in several installments, so naturally, he might have had to find additional content to make this possible), all these new characters puzzled me (I agree that it is intentional, and I can’t wait for the new angles in the story). Fortunately, the unmistakable pen of Dickens is apparent and makes up for this disturbance – whether it describes the cemeteries, where diseases are “communicated” to the living, or the everyday lives of the main characters. The chapter of Lady Dedlock are much more fascinating, as the caustic remarks Dickens makes about her and Sir Leicester and their boredom and their complacency are just too funny to pass by.
The twists in Bleak House are neverending, and so is the connection of the characters: Lady Dedlock is interested in finding out about Nemo, whose doctor is fetched by Miss Flite, who is the new friend of Miss Jellyby, who is a friend of Esther… I only hope this sorts itself in the coming chapters.
Towards the middle of the book,  we get at last a glimpse at what (I hope) the second part of the book has in store – the revelations about both Nemo and Esther have roused my curiosity, and I just have to pause myself from imagining all the possible combinations and explanations and hidden stories around the main characters!

Friday, 6 April 2012

Agnes Grey

My favourite classic novelist is by far Anne Brontë, even though she only wrote two books, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Agnes Grey.  The Tenant is indeed my all-time favourite, so when my book club proposed  Agnes Grey, I knew it was time to revisit this one as well - last time I read it I was still a young adult (*aah*)

Even from the first pages, Anne's writing style is evident - describing in all honesty what each situation entails, especially if it's bound to be uncomfortable (for the time in question).  It is exactly what I long to read in a book:  great use of language and great, multi-faceted storyline.

Agnes Grey also has the bonus of dealing with a subject that was prone to misinterpretation, the job of a governess. Agnes looks forward to the life of being a governess, only to find out that she's actually less than a servant - the children treat her like a toy:
"I must run, walk, or stand, exactly as it suited their fancy"
for someone who has proved educational qualifications, this must be the utmost disgrace, to be acknowledged neither by parents nor by pupils:
"... there are few situations more harassing than that wherein,  however you may long for success, however you may labour to fulfil your duty, your efforts are baffled and set at nought by those beneath you (the pupils) and unjustly censured and misjudged by those above (the parents)"

Anne Brontë develops all characters in this book to the minutest detail so that she will explain and demonstrate how the various elements, however insignificant they may seem, contribute to the storyline.  When little Tom prides himself in front of his siblings that he will torture the birds found in a nest, "his face is twisted into all manner of contortions in the ecstasy of his delight" - what dark pleasure for such a young child.  But what is the reaction of the mother? the poor creatures "were all created for our convenience".  I can not only imagine the scene, but I can also feel  the coldness in the atmosphere and poison oozing from everywhere!

Agnes, just as Anne, are daughters of clergymen, with the result that much of their upbringing relates to Christian beliefs.  This is in stark contrast with the pupils both have had to face as governesses: "to submit and oblige was the governess's part, to consult their own pleasure was that of the pupils".  The pupils are almost always of a specific social status, that entitles them to mingle with the "right" kind of people and to "flirt" with the wrong kind.  Such is the case with Rosalie, the eldest of Agnes's pupils, who is set to marry someone with great affluence.  Her mother sees to this, as well as to make certain that Agnes should not forget that "it is not proper for a young lady of her rank and prospects to be wandering about herself in that manner", i.e. mingling with people beneath her class.  

Agnes throughout her stay, becomes stoic, trying to remain faithful to her own beliefs, help the pupils as much as she could, help other - poor - people in their needs, and, slowly, fall in love with the curator.  Mr. Weston is rapidly gaining the admiration of Rosalie as well, however, and here again we get a vivid description of all the mischiefs caused just to be able to claim yet another victim of one's irresistible beauty.  At this point, I was really impressed by how boring that particular class must have been - especially the women of that time, as they were not allowed any interests that might have improved their standing...

The end is as close to reality as can be:  Rosalie does indeed marry Sir Thomas Ashby only to discover that she despises her husband, that she cannot see herself caring for her child and finding it hard to reconcile with her mother-in-law.  Now that she has settled for a nun's life, she longs for her maiden years.  Agnes, on the contrary, will eventually marry Mr. Weston, and have a family life that, despite their own trials, is amply sufficient: "... by never attempting to imitate our richer neighbours, we manage to enjoy comfort and contentment ourselves".  I could actually suggest this to a lot of people in our days!

The only "flaw" I would say I found in this book is Agnes herself.  She remains exactly the same throughout the story, never evolving - which is a pity, because she demonstrates all the abilities for breaking barriers.    Other than that, this book provides ample evidence of a great writer in the making.  I'm glad I re-read this classic!

Also read for the Back to the Classics challenge

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

101 Dalmatians

First, a confession:  I'm actually a cat person - I may not currently have any, but I actually grew up with cats and whenever I go to cat friends' house, you can bet you'll find me where the cats are...
But, I also care for dogs:  they are cute, warm, and always ready for play and belly-rubbing... Plus, they're in the best animated films,  like Lady and the Tramp, Scooby-Doo, and my favourite, 101 Dalmatians!
For my Century list, I found that in 1956 Dodie Smith wrote the actual book to The 101 Dalmatians - the decision was made!

It's written from the point of view of the dogs, which is just hilarious.  Pongo and Missis (the dogs) are the owners who "were lucky enough to own a young married couple of humans", kept on a leash (and here I thought only cats had the notoriety of being the boss...)

The story is well-known, but I was pleasantly surprised that the characters and the whole storyline are well-developed and worthy of an adult audience - even though it's a children's book, it does not leave out substance:  rather, it passes on ideas and notions to children in a very simplified form and I found this very interesting, especially at that point in time.

First we have the "almost" love triangle of Pongo and Missis with Perdita - but of course, dogs will not fall in the traps humans find themselves in and will clearly remain faithful to each other:

"(Pongo) never felt he had two wives - he looked on Perdita as a much-loved young sister"
(do humans use the same line, I wonder...)

The search for the puppies takes the parents to a whirlwind journey and they get to meet fellow dogs, cats, horses and cows - the world of the animals is perfect and they are all there to help each other (moral of the story:  humans should as well...)

The dogs that help out do so with the assistance of their "pets" - they clearly run the show: steaks are readily available, places to sleep are fluffed up (I totally love the Old Inn, where everything is waiting for the happy couple, including a stage coach to sleep in...).  Indeed, there were several instances when I would burst out laughing - including a dog having a butler (I'm sure this really exists somewhere in the world...)

I found the Starlight Barking a brilliant idea to introduce the "common good" network - together with the wild imagination children have, this should clearly provide for some attention they should pay to communicating with animals. The book also explains the difference between children who love dogs and those who throw stones at them - they are not bad children, they just haven't yet had dogs around them (plus, I would say, seen grown-ups do this...)

And then I just loved the human traits in Pongo - from the big lunch he has next to his pregnant wife's, in case he should feel neglected "as the fathers of expected puppies sometimes do", to his interest in classic literature (having devoured Shakespeare as a young dog), to plain simple vanity: When Missis fails to reciprocate a compliment, he asks her whether he's looking pretty fit - "He was not a vain dog, but every husband likes to know that his wife admires him" (hmmm...)

So what if everything in the story is just too easy - Mr. Dearly, the human, is obviously rich and has all the time in the world.  He's able to bring home one of the Top Men from Scotland Yard to investigate the kidnapping, and in the end he even has the ability to retire while he takes care of all the animals (sure...).  So what if indeed all puppies make it in the end (in harsh winter...).  It remains a beautifully written story with great descriptions (and some indirect moral lessons) and a well-deserved happy end!

Sunday, 1 April 2012

My progress so far

I'm thoroughly enjoying my first challenges as a blogger, and I see that there's way too much more to do before I'm through.  Here's a recap of my standing in the challenge world:

  • What's in a name: 4/6 read
  • Mystery & Suspense reading: 2/12 read (I need to up this one)
  • Back to the Classics: 1/9 read 
  • Ireland reading: 1/5 read
  • Graham Greene: 0/4 read (really, a disgrace!)
  • European Challenge: 2/5 read

My major challenge of this year, War and Peace, is not going as I would love to, with only 3 books read so far .... I can only hope that the Easter break will allow for more reading!

My last "challenge", the Century of books, is on the contrary going well, with 8 books read so far, but almost 90 already set (not an easy task, mind you!)

In April, I HAVE to finish Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene because it's taking much more than it should, together with these books:

- 101 Dalmatians by D. Smith (I love it!)
- Agnes Grey by A. Bronte (good old classic reading...)
- The Memory Chalet by T. Judt (sad but very interesting)
- Barchester Towers by A. Trollope (have no idea, would like to be pleasantly surprised!)

and of course, I keep reading Bleak House by Ch. Dickens for the Unputdownables read-a-long.

What are your plans?



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