A. S. Byatt: Possession (review)

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‘She held his time, she contained his past and his future, both now cramped together, with such ferocity and such gentleness /…/’. (p. 287)

It seems that my go-to theme when talking about A.S. Byatt is that I’m afraid that she is so much more clever and well-read than me that I will not be able to understand her books. I hope this will change now when I’ve not only read two of her books, one of these being Possession, her most well-known work which also won the 1990 Booker Prize – but actually really liked them both.
And there’s absolutely nothing to dislike about Possession. A young literary scholar, Roland Michell, discovers two hidden and unfinished love letters by the great Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash. But there’s something different about these poems. They have a completely other feel to them than what Ash normally wrote and so, Roland is intrigued. He snatches the poems from London Library and starts investigating who they were written to.
This turns into quite the literary mystery hunt – during which he is joined by the Christabel LaMotte scholar Maud Bailey when it turns out that the poems were written to Christabel. But no one knew that Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Ash had a relationship – especially since Randolph Ash were (happily) married. As Roland and Maud dig deeper, they discover a beautiful, albeit very tragic, love story about two people who supplemented each other perfectly and fell in love through letters, yet could never be together.
Of course, Christabel and Randolph’s love story is somewhat paralleled by the contemporary story of Roland and Maud although the stories are vastly different even though Roland and Maud do their best to follow in the footsteps of Christabel and Randolph.
To make this novel even more impressive, Byatt has written the letters between Randolph and Christabel as well poems written by both poets. These poems and letters are convincing and have no contemporary feel to them. They felt so real, in fact, that I had to google to make sure that Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte were not in fact real people. It is such a convincing story that Byatt has written.
Now, of course no story is complete without a villain and in this book, it is a American Randolph Ash scholar who will stop at absolutely nothing to get what he wants. He wants everything that Ash ever owned to be in his or his university’s possession – and he does whatever it takes to achieve that. Academic life is definitely not always boring and predictable!
A character not to be forgotten in this novel, is Ellen Ash, Randolph Ash’s wife – although it seems easy to do, given you have two couples and two love stories, and she’s not a part in either. She shows herself fully towards the end and is just such a fascinating person, especially when we see what lengths she was willing to go to to protect her husband’s heritage and to protect him.
I absolutely loved this book. I was intrigued from beginning to end and just wanted to know what had happened between these two poets, what happened with their letters and why Christabel’s female roommate (or lesbian lover) committed suicide.
Add to this all the interesting thoughts on scholarship, especially the kind of scholarship that centers on just one person. What happens with a scholar who spends his entire life and career focused on the words and thoughts of one famous person? Does he just becomes a filter through which we experience another man’s life? Does his life loose all intrinsic worth and only gain importance through his scholarship? Does he become possessed by the poet in some ways, like Byatt at one point talks about Ash being possessed by Christabel as like a deamon? It’s fascinating to ponder – also the length scholars are willing to go to gain that piece of new knowledge that will not only ensure their career for life but also, maybe even more importantly, satisfy their curiosity.
This is definitely one of those books that shows you how good literature can be. Interesting and fascinating at the same time as it’s clever and intellectual. Extremely well-written and dealing with deep themes like feminism, Victorian poetry, academic scholarship, love. It was an absolute joy to read and I can only – again – regret that I didn’t read this one sooner. It is a book I can see myself rereading many times and because of the depths of it, enjoy it more and more with each reread.

First lines: The book was thick and black and covered with dust. Its boards were bowed and creaking; it had been maltreated in its own time. Its spine was missing, or rather protruded from amongst the leaves like a bulky marker. It was bandaged about and about with dirty white tape, tied in a neat bow.

  • Title: Possession
  • Author: A. S. Byatt
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • Year: 1991
  • Pages: 511 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 5 stars out of 5

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John Updike: Rabbit Run (review)

816360‘So tall, he seems an unlikely rabbit, but the breath of white face, the pallor of his blue irises, and a nervous flutter under his brief nose as he stabs a cigarette into his mouth partially explain the nickname, which was given to him when he too was a boy.’ (p. 3)
For years I’ve been hearing about John Updike and his four books about Harry Angstrom, the man know as Rabbit. Three of the four books about Rabbit are on the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and two of the books even received the Pulitzer Prize. Before he died, Updike was mentioned frequently as a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature – together with one of my favorite authors Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth who so far does nothing but impress me. So he’s an impressive author. But so far Updike hasn’t really won me over. I read Terrorist a couple of years ago and liked it but felt let down by the ending. I watched The Witches of Eastwick and can’t remember much from it. But now it was time for me to try out the Rabbit series.
Rabbit Run is a very apt name for a book about a man who basically runs whenever faced with adversity. Back in the 1960s, Harry Angstrom is living with pregnant wife Janice and their son Nelson. But one day the drinking habits of his wife and the smallness of their apartment just gets to be too much and he leaves. In a way, he goes back in time to the one thing he was good at, by going to see his old basketball coach and after staying there for one night, the coach takes him out to meet two women – who turns out to be prostitutes.
This doesn’t prevent Rabbit from hooking up with one of them and going to live with her. Besides basketball, he is definitely good at falling in and out of love with people.
Meanwhile, his wife has gone back to live with her parents and the family has contacted a local pastor who reaches out to Rabbit and the two men strike up a friendship by going golfing together. The pastor has lost his faith but by saying the right things, he somehow manages to make Rabbit more of a believer than he himself is and the pastor tries to reconcile Rabbit and Janice.
Rabbit is not a likable character. He leaves when things get rough and leaves heart ache behind. He is 26 years old and hasn’t quite figured out what it means to be a grown man with a responsibility. But this book is not just about one man’s lack of maturity and of the ability to become who he is supposed to be. He might be an example of what happens with (American) boys and men who have all of their identity given to them through the sports they play – and who are lost when they are no longer able to play, for whatever reason. It’s also a book about what happens with families where one person is the black sheep and what hurt this causes the rest of the family. And this might be true of both Harry and Janice.
I’m not quite sure why I didn’t like the book more. When I read, I sort of start out with a neutral attitude towards the book I’m reading and this book just never really did anything to either impress me or annoy me. It just stayed neutral. There are passages which are amazing. There’s a shocking scene towards the end which is so well written. It feels so frantic and desperate and it’s just perfect. Also, and this might sound strange, but the way Updike writes about a new mother’s breasts and the milk leaking from them and soaking her clothes, is just so spot on. He has definitely been paying attention when he and his wife had children. He pays a lot of attention to details but not so much that it ruins the book,  rather just enough to give it a flavor that both makes the characters and (at least part of) the 60s come alive.
I have not given up on this series because I think it has a lot of potential as a image of days gone by. The scenes in the hospital where Janice has her baby and Rabbit is not allowed to see the baby before the next day because visiting hours are over, is so telling of how it was before. Or how he can get annoyed by the way his wife pours the milk on his cereal because he has gotten used to pouring his own milk – well, just do it then! Things certainly has changed and as I understand it, the books are set ten year apart and I find the idea of this, the whole project, very fascinating. I’m just questioning the execution.

First line:
Boys are plaing basketball arund a telephone pole with a backboard bolted to it.

  • Title: Rabbit Run (The Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom series #1)
  • Author: John Updike
  • Publisher: Andre Deutsch
  • Year: 1972 (original 1961)
  • Pages: 309 pages
  • Source: Rented from the library
  • Stars: 3 stars out of 5

I read this one for the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list and because I had a goal to explore John Updike a bit this year.

Virginia Woolf: Orlando (review)

18839 I have owned Orlando for years and been wanting to read it for even more years but Virginia Woolf is a bit intimidating to me. Even after having read – and really liked – To the Lighthouse, I still find her a difficult author to read. But since Orlando is so short, I thought it would be a rather quick read and decided to bring it and read it on our summer holiday. Well, I was wrong about it being a quick read but I was right to bring it with me on holiday because I have quite a bit of time to read when we’re on holiday and this book just needs that you give it some time. At least it does for me. It’s one of those books that forces you to read slower to grasp it all. Not only is it written in a way that makes you go more slowly, my edition also came with a lot of notes that I had to read because they – or at least most of them – actually added to my understanding of the novel. And add to this that I took quite a bit of notes while reading this, of course it will take several days to read these less than 300 pages.
Now who is this Orlando? Orlando is a young man born during the reign of Elisabeth 1. Or at least he is a young man for the first 200 years or so of his life because after that, he suddenly wakes up a woman. Already now, you should know that this is not a novel – or rather, a historical biography – to be read literally. This is in fact a long love letter to Virinia Woolf’s friend Vita Sackville West and at the same time, it’s a book about history and how it’s dominated by male figures. It’s about gender roles in general, about the genre of biography – and it’s absolutely wonderful. Yes, it’s difficult going and yes, this is one of those books that you really need to work at to really get – and I know that I didn’t get anything near to all that is to get in this novel.
One thing I really liked is, how Woolf plays with time in this book – and with how we perceive time and how we relate a life. Seemingly huge life events in Orlando’s life are only hinted at or maybe just mentioned in brackets and I like that, because it’s not always the so called big events that are the most important to us. But these events are the ones the biographer focus on because they are the documented ones and so, the biographed life gets a bit twisted when compared to the real life. And some people live lives filled with experiences while others are seemingly dead on their feet. ‘The true length of a person’s life /…/ is always a matter of dispute.’ (p. 211)
Oh, and Woolf’s funny too. I love how she got rid of an unwanted suitor by dropping a frog down his shirt! She had tried to get rid of him in a lot of other ways but he just kept on forgiving her because she was just a weak woman and they were alone so no one had to know that she cheated at games for instance. Or this quote: ‘/…/ of what nature is death and of what nature life? Having waited well over half an hour for an answer to these questions, and none coming, let us get on with the story.’ (p. 49) Or this one explaining why Orlando’s writing style has changed: ‘Also that the streets were better drained and the houses better lit had its effect upon the style, it cannot be doubted.’ (p. 77)
The best thing about this book is, that it really makes me want to study, to learn more about Virginia and Vita to be able to understand it more, to get more from it. It makes me want to read and read, to be an intellectual and a snob and go to fancy dinner parties with other people who cares about this book, who wants to spend hours talking about love, time, aging, biographies and how funny Woolf really is. It makes me want to take a class on this author, this book, and learn everything. And it makes me want to read her other books. It’s a sort of treasure map to the promised land, an unspoken guarantee that the more I know the more I will get from reading this – and this will go on forever. Few books makes me feel this way – although The Great Gatsby did recently – and it truly reminds me how diverse and wonderful literature is and how lucky I am to be a bibliophile.

  • Title: Orlando
  • Author: Virginia Woolf
  • Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics
  • Year: 2000 (original 1928)
  • Pages: 273 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 5 stars out of 5

Related posts (other books read for The Classics Club):

Oh and read this post too over at Délaissé:

I read this one for The Classics Club and for my attempt at reading the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

Jane Austen: Mansfield Park (review)

jane-austen-mansfield-park-penguin-0140430164-1787-p[ekm]200x300[ekm]I have a serious pet peeve with classics. Well, it’s not really a pet peeve – it’s a huge annoyance that almost ruins the books completely. I’m of course talking about how classics tend to come with introductions. And I don’t mind introductions per se. What I do mind, is when introductions spoils the book. In my edition of this book, the ending is told on the first page of the introduction. First line that talks directly about the book and it’s main character Fanny Price, tells us how it ends. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the ending is further spoiled in the notes to the text. One note not only reveals the ending but even adds details to how that ending is accomplished – and since Jane Austen doesn’t always write the most elaborate endings, this note almost writes as much as she does herself.
All this of course is part of the ongoing discussion about whether a book can be spoiled when it’s 200 years since it was published. And the answer is of course that it can. Now, I’m all for that people should be allowed to discuss these books and I think it’s wonderful when classics come with introductions written by scholars. I just think these introductions should be put at the end of the book – or at least come with a warning about how they are going to talk about specific plot points and that you might want to wait and not read it until you have finished reading the novel itself.
So with all that in mind, I’ll try to explain what this novel is about without spoiling it!
10 years old Fanny Price is taken in by her wealthy aunt and uncle, mister Thomas, and allowed to come live at Mansfield Park along with her cousins, two boys and two girls. From the start It is made clear that Fanny is lucky to have been allowed to live there and that she in no way should feel herself equal to her cousins even though she is raised together with the two girls. And she doesn’t. Fanny is a quiet type, an introvert. She is quite content with being allowed to just live there, helping out anyway she can and otherwise just leading a quiet life, trying not to draw any attention to herself.
But as she grows older, things start to change. A sister and a brother, the Crawfords, moves in and start socializing with the young people at Mansfield Park. The brother is something of a womanizer and quickly manages to get the sisters fighting over him. His sister flirts with the eldest brother, the heir to Mansfield Park who is something of a charlatan. When the master of Mansfield Park goes away on business, he takes his eldest son with him to try to install some sense in him, This leaves his youngest son Edmund and even though miss Crawford has claimed only to be interested in an heir, she still falls in love with Edmund – and he with her.
Which leaves Fanny in a sad position since she has been in love with Edmund for years.
Of course there’s also a rather nasty other aunt who is constantly putting Fanny down as well as putting herself forward as the one making sure everything is in order and that everything is proper. And this being Austen, there’s ill-considered marriages, elopements and just well-written goodness, sarcasm and humor.
This is only a small outline of what the novel is about because of course, since this is Jane Austen, there’s so much more to the plot. This is not just a love story or a tale of unrequited love. This is Austen, baby, and she always has something to say. Something more. Her pen is always sharp and spot on. In this novel, she discusses good and bad marriages, and how to accomplish them – and how not. She talks about the whole issue with having to secure the younger brother a position and an income. Jane Austen knows her time and she shows it to us so we knows it too. Even in one of her not quite as good novels.
So yeah, Mansfield Park, not her best novel, but you know what – I really like Jane Austen no matter what and she’s always recommended!

  • Title: Mansfield Park
  • Author: Jane Austen
  • Publisher: The Penguin English Library
  • Year: 1973 (original 1814)
  • Pages: 462 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 3 stars out of 5

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Jane Austen: Northanger Abbey (review)

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Jane Austen is not on my list of favorite authors – or even on my list of potential favorite authors. And maybe that’s wrong. Jane Austen rocks! Yes, she died almost 200 years ago in 1817 but she is one cool lady. She is so sarcastic and irreverent and just such a good writer.
From page 1 of this book, I was in love. At that point it wasn’t with the characters or the story or anything but with the writing, with the sarcasm. Look at how she starts the novel: No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.’ And then this quote: ‘Her mother was a woman of useful plain sense, with a good temper, and what is more remarkable, with a good consitution. She had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bring the latter into the world, as anybody might expect, she still lived on – lived to have six children more – to see them growing up around her, and to enjoy excellent health herself. A family of ten children will be always called a fine family, where there are heads, and arms, and legs enough for the number; but the Morlands had little other right to the world, for they were in general very plain, and Catherine, for many years of her life, as plain as any.’ These are both from the first page of the book and already, she had me smiling and thoroughly enjoying myself – and reaching for my phone to write down all of these great quotes.
Northanger Abbey is the story of young Catherine Morland who grows up in a loving but plain family. She loves to read, especially gothic literature like The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe. So when she gets the chance of going on an adventure of her own, even if it is only to go with her parent’s friends to Bath, she immediately accepts.
However, Bath turns out to be rather dull at first. But soon, she not only means a very nice young man, Henry Tilney, but also makes a new friend in Isabella Thorpe. And when Isabella and Catherine’s brother falls in love, Catherine is ecstatic. That is, until she is introduced to Isabella’s brother and kind of expected to fall in love with him as well.
But Catherine is more interested in Henry Tilney and luckily, he also has a sister she can become friends with. And when Isabella starts acting strange towards Catherine’s brother – and starts flirting with Henry Tilney’s brother, Catherine is very unhappy.
Luckily, she is inviting to go with the Tilneys to their home, Northanger Abbey, a place Catherine is certain is exactly as the abbeys she read about in her favorite books. And if that’s not the case, luckily Catherine has a great imagination and can invent gothic events that might have taken place there…
I really enjoyed this novel. The story was pretty straightforward, young lovers who are twarted etc., but the way Austen wrote it, is exquisite. This one ranks very high on my list of favorite Austens – probably right below Pride and Prejudice. It was just so playful that I could imagine Austen writing it with a smile on her lips all the time. Humorous, ironic, sarcastic, witty, playful – just entertaining in that particular Austen way. Quotes like this ‘A woman, especially if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.’ makes me want to get to read more about Jane Austen, to get to know her better. She really shows herself in this novel – and I enjoyed that.
And it didn’t hurt that she also spent several pages defending the reading of novels. ‘Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom, so common with novel writers, of degrading, by their contemptuous censure, the very performances to the number of which they are themselves adding: joining wiht their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroines, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve it! and a bit later about novels ‘some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of with and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.\ Austen likes her novels and she lets her heroine have many talks about books and authors with the people around her, even makes a bit of fun about one who doesn’t know who the author of his favorite books are. And what also fascinated me was, how she at the same time defended novels and the reading of them while also showing what happens when a vivid imagination fed by books and not constrained by any grasp on what the world is really like, is let loose in a gothic setting. This is probably meant to be more of a critique of the limited options for young women to be acquainted with the world, the people in it and the games they play than it is a critique of books and reading. Or definitely so.
This novel does read as a bit less developed than the most popular Austen books (Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Emma. But whether that’s because it’s one of her first novels or because she plays with the trope of the gothic novel, I’m not sure. What I do know is, that I really enjoyed it and I loved the playfulness of it. Even though the ending is quite as expected, she does write it with a bit of a twist in the writing, not the plot. It could be seen as taking the easy way out but to me, it just worked.
I love Jane Austen!

I read this novel for The Classics Club and for Austen in August. Two birds with one stone!

  • Title: Northanger Abbey
  • Author: Jane Austen
  • Publisher: Penguin Popular Classics
  • Year: 1994 (original 1818)
  • Pages: 236 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 4 stars out of 5

Related posts (other books read for The Classics Club):

Austen in August

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So all this month, there has been a party over at the Roofbeam Reader blog. A party with a Jane Austen theme. Adam is hosting Austen in August and I’ve been wanting to join in all month. But it’s now August 25 and it’s not until now that I get everything enough together to actually proclaim my interest in the event and show the blogging world that I want to participate.
And I do! Very much so!
And I have already finished one novel by Austen, Northanger Abbey. I bought Mansfield Park earlier this year and when I discovered a read-along of it, I decided to join in. I was actually ready to start it a few days before the official start but then I read the review of Northanger Abbey at Estella’s Revenge and thought that I definitely wanted to read that one. And when I went to add it to my wish list, I discovered that I already owned it…! (Don’t tell anybody that I had forgotten about buying it!) And then I thought that I could easily manage to read that short novel before the read-along of Mansfield Park. Well, I couldn’t. I finished Northanger Abbey last night and am now ready to start Mansfield Park – and even though I really liked Northanger Abbey, I kind of regret the decision of reading two Austen novels right after each other. But too late to change that now.
AIA Read Along button
After finishing Mansfield Park, I’ll only have one of Austen’s finished novels left, Persuasion. I have liked them all with Pride and Prejudice being my favorite (and not just because of Colin Firth…!) and Sense and Sensibility my least favorite. I am really looking forward to rereading, well actually all of these. I kind of feel like I missed something in Sense and Sensibility since I didn’t like it all that much – and I really want to read about Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy again!
Maybe for next year’s Austen in August event.
(Actually I’m a bit confused about whether there are two Austen in August events – one at Roofbeam Reader and another at The Book Rat? Or if they are co-hosting? Whatever the deal, I’m reading Austen in the second half of August and I’m enjoying it. I plan on posting my review of Northanger Abbey tomorrow! Fingers crossed!)

Alexandre Dumas: The Count of Monte Cristo (review)

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‘Wait and hope!’

So one of the major things you learn if you read The Three Musketeers is, that whenever a musketeer is in trouble, there will be fencing. Lots of duels and all fought with rapiers. So I sort of thought I knew what would be happening in this one. People would fence their hearts out and it would be swashbuckling madness. But The Count of Monte Cristo is a very different book than that. And definitely not in a bad way.

Where the morale of The Musketeers is about friendship and loyalty and is shown mostly through the positive behavior of these musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo is in some ways a more sinister book with a focus on how man shall be careful with playing God although still with an emphasis on being truthful and loyal. It’s a novel filled with smugglers, murders, poisoners, illegitimate children, young lovers and cruel fates – and revenge.

Edmond Dantès is a happy young man. Much beloved by his old father, his betrothed as well as his master, he is on the brink of making it. He has been promised the position as Captain on the ship he sails on and he is about to marry Mercedes, the love of his life. However, jealousy abounds around him and he is betrayed by three men he views as friends and is arrested at his own wedding party. When he is brought in front of the magistrate, however, he is sure to be freed because the magistrate seems so kind to him and, of course, because he is innocent.

However, this takes place in France at the time when Napoleon Bonaparte and the royal family is battling over who is to rule France and Edmond Dantès is not only caught in this but also get caught up in the magistrate’s own ambitions and family secrets.

So instead of being freed, he is thrown into a prison at Chateau d’If without chance of parole and is left there to die or go mad. But Dantès is lucky and not only survives but manages to escape and become a rich man because of a strange friendship he formed in prison even though he was put in isolation.

And this enables him to seek revenge on the four men who has ruined his life and turned him into a hard and bitter man; a man willing to wait and plot for years to achieve his goals: to give back to the people who treated him kindly and tried to help him – and to destroy the ones who ruined him.

It’s a book which roughly said is split into three parts. The first part is where we are introduced to Edmond Dantès and his family, friends and foes and where he is wrongly sentenced and put in prison. The second part is where he is setting the stage, networking and preparing for the third part which is his revenge on everyone who ever wronged him. I felt that the second part was a bit slower than the other two. I wouldn’t say it dragged but it was less of a thrilling read. Whether this was actually caused by the novel or because I started a new job at this point and only read about 10-20 pages maybe every other day, I’m not sure. Suffice to say that whether the one or the other was the case, I still really enjoyed this novel and am a bit surprised by myself that I haven’t read it earlier.

My edition, Everyman’s Library, has a preface by an Italian translator and I found it so strange that an French book translated into English should be prefaced by the person who had translated the novel into Italian – but it was engaging and interesting so I kept reading. And I must admit I blushed a bit when I reached the end of the preface and read the name of the translator. Umberto Eco. Okay, I guess then it was fair enough to have him write the preface…!

Despite it’s many many pages (1188 to be exact) and despite the fact that it took me 33 days to read it, this is not a difficult read. It’s engaging with a fascinating main character who one initially gains an incredible amount of sympathy for – but who still is very flawed. Dumas manages to create an enigmatic protagonist whom you start out with nothing but positive feelings for but then his actions and his complete focus on getting his revenge even though innocents get caught in the middle, makes him a character whose actions you really have to question. Man is not supposed to play God!

  • Title: The Count of Monte Christo
  • Author: Alexandre Dumas
  • Publisher: Everyman’s Library #320 – Alfred A. Knopf
  • Year: 2009 (original 1844)
  • Pages: 1188 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 5 stars out of 5

Related posts (other books read for The Classics Club):

F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby (review)

$(KGrHqJ,!h!E-7S82Jb6BP0N1CdgO!~~60_35Years ago, when I was a young teenager, I remember watching The Great Gatsby starring Robert Redford. I was not impressed. I don’t remember anything from the movie except an image of Redford in a white suit. An image, I’m not even completely sure is from that movie and not from some other Redford movie. I think I was too young to understand it and until now, this has been my only impression of The Great Gatsby.

But since Baz Luhrman decided to make a new Gatsby movie, The Great Gatsby has been everywhere. So I decided that not only did I want to read the book, I also wanted to watch both movies.

Of course I started with the book. I was slightly taken aback by it’s slow start. Being a novel of only 188 pages, it seemed odd at first how many pages went by without Gatsby appearing. But when he finally did step into the pages of the book, I was instantly intrigued.

The novel is told from the point of view of Nick Carraway, a young man who happens to live next door to the impressive mansion belonging to Jay Gatsby. From a distance, he watches the lavish parties thrown by Gatsby until finally he is invited and able to experience the extravaganza of Gatsby firsthand.

At this party, he meets Jordan Baker and is drawn into Gatsby’s inner circle and he finds out that Gatsby Is in love with a married woman living across the bay. Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby were sweethearts when they were younger but Gatsby had to leave for the war and when he returned, Daisy was married.

Gatsby has never forgotten his love for Daisy and both Jordan and Nick becomes involved, not only both with Gatsby’s quest to get Daisy back but with each other as well.

Gatsby struck me as such a forceful character. I was immediately intrigued by him. His desperate longing for Daisy and for the status in life, a marriage with her will mean, is apparent on every page and his plight is just so real. I remember walking past the house where the boy I had a crush on lived – over and over and over, just wishing for him to look out the window and notice me. Gatsby, having way more money than teenage me, moves in across the bay from his crush, stares longingly at the green light on her pier, throws huge glamorous parties in order to entice everyone to participate in the hope that one day, Daisy will show up and step back into his life.

Alas, such all-consuming love is rarely rewarded but maybe Gatsby’s love, devotion and ambition will be enough to ensure a happy ending?

It’s a heart breaking novel. A man who struggles so, who does everything in his power to become the man he thinks his one true love wants him to be. A man who is the loneliest man in the world when he stands on his own front lawn, bidding the last of his guests farewell, another night wasted, another night without Daisy.

This is a book and a character that will stay with me. I’m already looking forward to rereading it after watching the movies and getting their perspectives on the story, nay, the life of Jay Gatsby, billionaire and star-crossed lover extraordinaire.

For anyone who has ever loved and lost and longed for that lost love, this is the perfect novel.

‘So we drove on toward death through the cooling twilight.’ (p. 142)

  • Title: The Great Gatsby
  • Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Publisher: Penguin
  • Year: 1994 (original 1926)
  • Pages: 188 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 5 stars out of 5

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle readalong #winditup2013 (book 1)

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As you might know, I’m participating in a wonderful readalong of Haruki Murakami hosted by Ti at Book Chatter. This is my wrap-up post for the first book. You can read Ti’s post about it here.

So the first two weeks of April have flown by and we are already done with the first book of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and it’s been a couple of exciting weeks. I didn’t know all that much about the book before I started. Back when I discovered Murakami in 2008, I read that one shouldn’t read The Wind-up Bird Chronicle before one was somewhat well-versed in Murakami’s universe. I’ve read 5 books by Murakami, both non-fiction and fiction, and both realistic and magical realistic fiction. So when I began this readalong, I felt ready for it and wasn’t intimidated at all. I was looking forward to this book!

And now, two weeks in, how am I doing? Well, the book is about the disappearance of a cat. Think of it as chaos theory. When a butterfly flaps it’s wings in one part of the world, there’s a tornado in another. Or something. One small event has unforeseen consequences. And this is what the disappearance of the cat means in this book.

The cat belongs to Kumiko and Toru Okada. It’s hugely important to Kumiko so when it disappears, she asks Toru to look for it 2 – as well as to talk to a woman on the phone. This is the start of a very strange period for Toru. Not only does he meet a rather strange teenage girl while looking for the cat in the neighborhood, but the woman calling him is equally strange.

Toru strikes up a somewhat friendship with the neighborhood girl, May Kasahara, and even helps her with her job of counting bald people. She lives next door to a abandoned house where a lot of cats hang out and she promises to keep an eye out for Toru’s cat.

Kumiko asks Toru to let a woman named Malta Kano help him. Malta has named herself after the island and is a strange woman. She is able to sense the cat and can therefore give clues about it’s whereabouts – or at least about where it’s not. But Malta also allows her sister Creta to help and she comes with a lot of baggage. The two sisters are definitely not your normal set of sisters, well, for a Murakami novel, they fit right in.

The disappeared cat seems to have a huge influence on the relationship between Kumiko and Toru. She works later and later and doesn’t seem happy and they are both keeping secrets. But the relationship seem to have been so strong that both Toru and us as readers feel that it can survive anything. But this is a Murakami novel and cats are always hugely important so we’ll see how it goes.

I am really enjoying this book. The characters feel very Japanese and some of them very Murakami-esque. There are always details in Murakami’s books that show me the difference between Japan and my daily life in Denmark. The ways people act in their working life, the incredible politeness, the stiffness in behavior – all very different from the way we do things in Denmark.

But while I enjoyed it, there was a couple of pages that were in my personal top two of horrific and horrible scenes in literature (the other is from the Stephen King novel Gerald’s Game). It was only a few pages but I had to shut the book several times and breathe and think of something else because it was so difficult to read. I know Murakami can do this – there was a nasty cat torture scene in Kafka on the Shore that probably should be on my top 3 of nastiness but this one was just so awful.

But I made it through it and am very, very excited about how the book will progress. It is Murakami at his finest, I think. So far, my two favorite Murakami novels have been Kafka on the Shore and Norwegian Wood but this one is up there with them. I love it’s strangeness, the dreaminess of it all, where dreams overlap reality in ways so you don’t know which is which. As always, things are told that may be clues and may not be important at all. I think I read somewhere that Murakami makes it all up as he goes along and it definitely feels that way. Like there’s no one who knows where this is actually going, what the importance of the war story is, what is up with the sisters and who the strange woman is who keeps trying to have phone sex with Toru and insists that he knows who she is? But we are in safe hands when it’s Murakami behind the wheel – or at least safe in the sense that he will get us to the finish line, it will be wonderful, magical, disturbing and surreal on the way and we might get hurt, but we’ll get there!

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Toni Morrison: Beloved (review)

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‘Nothing was in that shed, he knew, having been there early that morning. Nothing but sunlight. Sunlight, shavings, a shovel. The ax he himself took out. Nothing else was in there except the shovel – and of course the saw.’ (p. 185)

Even though Sethe has lived eighteen years in freedom, she is still haunted by her past. She is haunted by what happened on the farm where she was a slave, what happened with her children, what happened to her husband and her fellow slaves at Sweet Home. And most of all, she is haunted by the ghost of her baby girl, the dead baby who is living in the house with Sethe and her daughter Denver. The dead baby on whose grave only one word is written: Beloved.

After reading this novel, I had a conversation with my boyfriend about whether any of us could ever seriously hurt or even kill our daughters to prevent them from suffering a worse fate. It’s difficult to imagine a situation where we would have to make that choice – and even if it ever happened, I think we would both always hope that something would happen that would save them and that by killing them, we would take away any chance, however remote, of them ever leading a happy life.

Not so for Sethe. After living in slavery for years and finally escaping with her baby, after having sent her three oldest children to safety earlier, she will do anything to ensure that none of her children will ever have to suffer through what she suffered as a slave – even though she had it easy for much of that time. But of course, that’s not the point. What is the point is that when you are a slave, someone else is so much in charge of you that they can take everything from you, not just the few possessions you have or your family, but yourself too. ‘That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up.’ (p. 295). And as a mother, you can’t let that happen to your children, can you? So instead, you choose safety by handsaw… and you protect your children best way you can. Even if it’s a gruesome way.

So what makes this book such an outstanding novel is not the story itself even though it is inspired by real events. It’s not the characters even though they stand out from the pages. It’s the writing. The way Morrison uses words is the true star of this book and the skillful way she tells much, but not all. You are not always sure what’s going on, sometimes you have to go back and reread a passage several times, but it’s always devastatingly beautiful. You have to use your imagination to piece it all together – and somehow, that makes it worse. The narrative is not told in a straight and linear way, you jump back and forth as Sethe remembers more and more of what she has hidden away but which the arrival of another slave from Sweet Home awakens in her again. I was confused several times while reading this book and then, towards the end, when she uses different POVs, different voices and even wrote parts in prose poem style, I was even more confused. But it’s a good confusion. It’s the kind of confusion that shows you that there is something here that’s worth coming back for, that you need to read carefully and concentrated and definitely more than once.

Toni Morrison is a Pulitzer winner and a Nobel Prize recipient – and rightly so, if I am to judge by this book. If the rest of her books live up to this standard, I’m impressed! I am not sure if she will become a new favorite author because I think her books might be too devastating – on the other hand, it was such a joy to read a book where an author was so much in command of her abilities and everything was just right. This is a novel you just have to read – there’s no way around it.

Beloved

You are my sister

You are my daughter

You are my face; you are me

I have you found you again; you have come back to me

You are my Beloved

You are mine

You are mine

You are mine (p. 255-256)

  • Title: Beloved
  • Author: Toni Morrison
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • Year: 1987
  • Pages: 324 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 5 stars out of 5