Top Ten Books I Read In 2012

So I read quite a few good books this year, 42 so far and 11 of which I rated 5 stars. Of these, I’ve selected 10 and put together the list below. So it was quite easy to do. They are listed in an order reflecting only on the order I read them in, the last read mentioned first. These are all great books, if you haven’t read them, you should go do so now! As always, the Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

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  1. Elie Wiesel: Night. Wiesel’s short book about his experiences in Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps, is almost beyond description. It’s a must read for anyone, simply put.
  2. Victor Hugo: Les Misérables. I haven’t gotten around to writing a review of this book yet but it still seems that I have been talking about it all over the place. Hugo can write about anything and he frequently steers off on a tangent to do just so. Still, this story about Jean Valjean and Colette is a wonderful book, it’s a classic and it’s worth the many pages and the huge amount of time, it takes to take.
  3. Mark Helprin: Winter’s Tale. I really like magical realism. This story of Beverly Penn and Peter Lake and Athansor set in a mythic and fictionalized New York City is written in the most beautiful and lyrical way and I just loved it. So much in fact, that I don’t dare to read another novel by Helprin because I’m afraid that it will not live up to this one.
  4. Koushun Takami: Battle Royale. In some ways, this is the Japanese version of The Hunger Games. A class of kids with weapons are set free on an island to shoot each other down until only one remains. This is much more violent than The Hunger Games and it’s such an exciting book. Pure entertainment.
  5. Jonathan Safran Foer: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. How does a boy handle loosing his father? How does he handle loosing him in the 9-11 attack? This is a wonderful story of a young boy dealing with this loss and at the same time, it’s an experimental novel using pictures and more to tell this story. Foer is an amazing writer and he writes so well and not only uses pictures to emphasize his story, but also paints pictures with his words. And in this way, he is telling Oscar Schell’s story as well as the story of his grandfather who survived the fire bombing of Dresden during World War II.
  6. Wilkie Collins: The Woman in White. So if everyone knew just how thrilling the classics can be, everyone would be reading them. And to get them doing so, everyone should be handed this one and told to go read it. When I read it, I just sat down and read and read and read, ignored everything around me to finish this novel to figure out what happened to Walter Hartright, Laura Fairlie, Marian Halcombe and the woman in white.
  7. Dan Simmons: Drood. On June 9, 1865, Dickens was in a train disaster that influenced him for the rest of his life. This is Simmons’ account of what happened. And it’s amazing and exhilarating and exciting and even when you’re done, you’re really not sure what happened. It was so good!
  8. Lionel Shriver: We Need To Talk About Kevin. I read this in the beginning of the year and … well, after what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School, it just became an even more important book. Everyone should read this. It tells the story of a mother whose son guns down several of his school mates. Is it nature or nurture who caused this to happen? If it’s nature, can you do something to prevent it from happening? I don’t want to get political here but really, everyone should read this!
  9. Donna Tartt: The Secret History. Richard Papen starts attenting college and taking Classics studies. The group of kids studying Classics studies consists of 5 other students and are taught by the charismatic Julian. But right from the beginning, you know that this group of friends kill one of their own and you’re eagerly reading on to find out why and how this happened. This is Donna Tartt’s first novel and it’s amazing! Much better than other books with a similar theme like Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics.
  10. Yiyun Li: The Vagrants. This is one of those novels that hurts you when you read it but which is worth the pain. It’s set in China in 1979 and it’s about the execution of a 28 years old woman and the consequences of this death. I’m fascinated by China and what happened in China after Mao came to power, after the Cultural Revolution and more. This is a debut novel and you should definitely read it now so you can say you were in almost from the beginning!

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Top Ten Favorite New-To-Me Authors I Read In 2012

 So we are getting closer to Christmas and it shows in the Top Ten topics as well. Last week, we listed the books we wished Santa to bring us and this week, we’re looking back on 2012 and listing the best new-to-us authors we’ve read this year. Looking back over the year, I think I’ve read some really excellent  books, I have read some not so good – and I’ve read books by authors, I haven’t read before or even in some cases, haven’t heard of before. So it was relatively easy for me to put together this list. As always, the Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

  1. Yiyun Li. The Vagrants was the first book I finished in 2012 and it was amazing. I just looooooved it. It was a wonderful book and it made me feel so sad. Both people and animals are hurt in it but it’s so worth reading. Yiyun Li is definitely an author that I will keep an eye out for.
  2. Lionel Shriver. We Need To Talk About Kevin freaked me out. It’s one of those books where you stay up reading it because you have to know what happens, you have to finish it – even though you have to get up early in the morning. It was such a nasty read but also very much worth reading.
  3. Dan Simmons. After finishing Drood, I knew I wanted to read more books by Simmons – especially The Terror because he mentions the story in Drood, and it sounds so fascinating.
  4. Wilkie Collins. Like Simmons, Collins was part of my Dickens-and-Drood reading this year. I grew to really like both Dickens, Simmons and Collins. The Woman in White is such a good book, I just sat there and read and read and read to finish it and find out what happened and I’m so looking forward to  reading The Moonstone.
  5. Jonathan Carroll. Almost all Carroll’s books sounds amazing. I enjoyed The Ghost in Love so much and I just want to read more, more, more. I think Carroll might end up on my favorite authors list some day in the future!
  6. Jonathan Safran Foer. Before reading it, I was convinced that Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close would be good, but I had no idea how good. I already own Everything is Illuminated, which is supposed to be even better, and Eating Animals so I hope to get around to reading these next year.
  7. Mark Helprin. I had never even heard of Mark Helprin before finding Winter’s Tale in a secondhand bookstore. I bought it – and loved it. It’s an incredibly journey you take when you read this novel and the love story and the characters just stay with you afterwards. It’s a huge novel but amazing.
  8. Ken Follett. Of course I had heard of Ken Follett before. Over and over and over. And I really had no desire to read anything by him but a friend had gifted me The Pillars of the Earth years ago so this year, I challenged myself to actually read it. And guess what, I loved it! Despite a weak ending, the novel was so so good and I’m hoping on Santa bringing me World Without End this year.
  9. Iris Murdoch. A friend challenged me to read Murdoch’s The Message to the Planet – and I liked it quite a bit. It’s a novel that makes you think and challenges you and I think some of Murdoch’s other novels will do so even more. I’m definitely looking forward to reading more by her.
  10. Victor Hugo. Les Misérables is one of those classic novels which are rather intimidating. But I had challenged myself to reading it this year and it was an amazing book. It’s huuuuuge but the story of the two lost souls at the center of the book is just beautiful. Hugo can write about sewers in a way that makes you think it the most pretty poetry. Sometimes you feel he has completely lost it but he always manages to bring it all together. And he’s even funny at times.

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Clarissa in June

June has been rather thrilling, at least for Clarissa. Or well, as thrilling as Clarissa ever gets. Much has been said by me about Clarissa and the struggle it is to finish it, the repetitiveness of it all, the need for an editor and more, but in June, I must say, Richardson stepped up his game. This has definitely been the best month so far! I have actually been wanting to pick up the book to continue with the story and find out what would happen! And that is because June is the month. This is the month everything has build up to and this is month that will definite everything that is to come.

As always, I start by summarizing what has happened this month but in this month, I’ll also draw some comparisons to Wilkie Collins’ novel The Woman in White. I can’t believe I haven’t thought about the similarities between these two novels earlier!

Lovelace is actually trying to  obtain a marriage license but also still trying to test Clarissa’s virtue and he still wants revenge for (perceived) grievances. Lucky for him, there’s a small fire in the house and Clarissa gets scared and he gets to be in her room while she’s in her bed, in her nightie. He allows himself some freedoms which makes Clarissa beg him to leave her – or to kill her, since her honor is dearer to her than her life. He leaves after extracting a promise of forgiveness from her – and is very impressed with her virtue.

Clarissa is shocked and very angry after this. She cares no longer what others think – Lovelace has made her vile to herself. Even though Lovelace thinks higher of her for her resistance, he still thinks she should forgive him as she promised. She writes him that she will not see him for a week – and he thinks she’s scheming and that if she insists on it, he will have her in his own way.

But for once, Clarissa catches a break. She manage to escape from Lovelace and Lovelace looses it, he’s mad about loosing her and even madder about being outwitted by her. But Clarissa’s escape definitely shows how young and inexperienced she is and it’s really easy for Lovelace to track her down and starts weaving his net again, telling stories to the women she’s staying with that will ensure their sympathy for him, not her. Still Clarissa is resisting him with everything she’s got – and her resistance is almost getting to be too much for Captain Tomlinson too. He’s also starting to have second thoughts and to feel that Lovelace is acting wrong when he pursues Clarissa in this way and don’t just marry her. But Lovelace isn’t done. Since Clarissa already resents him so much, he don’t think she can resent him even more for making one last – and final – attempt at her honor and virtue. And then, he wants her to forgive him – out of love for him…

Since Clarissa’s escape, Lovelace has stepped up his game. He has intercepted a letter from Anna Howe and starts faking letters between the two women, thereby adding to his hold on Clarissa. This has been even more necessary for him since Anna has found out that Clarissa has been living in a whorehouse and suspects Captain Tomlinson to be an impostor. He also succeeds in making the women in the house suspect Anna so they will help him prevent her letters reach Clarissa uninterrupted.

He has two women pretend to be his aunt and cousin and they come and visit Clarissa. They persuade her to come back to London with them to pick up her things. Once they’re back at Mrs. Sinclair’s brothel, they slip out and Clarissa is once again completely in the hands of Lovelace and the women in Mrs’ Sinclair’s house.

And now is the time to stop reading if you don’t want to know what happens because this is the key moment of the book.

Lovelace finally decides to put Clarissa to the ultimate test. He rapes her – with the aid of some kind of medication. He is astonished at her reaction. She sinks into a stupor so deep that he fears for her wit. She stays so for a week before she starts getting better. And when she does, Lovelace is shocked by her reaction. She’s not even close to forgiving him – which doesn’t come as any surprise for anyone who’ve read so far. Lovelace’s friend Bedford is even surprised that she has survived what Lovelace has done to her. And all she wants, is to be locked up in a private madhouse.

She tries to escape again and again. She is rather composed most of the time since she now hates herself more than she hates Lovelace, hates herself for not listening to her family and for not seeing his true colors earlier. But she despises him for robbing himself of his wife’s virtue and swears that she will never ever be his wife. He is mortified that she refuses him – but still schemes. Luckily, Clarissa doesn’t fall for his next scheme that would have made her fall in the hands of an even worse brothel madam than mrs. Sinclair.

When this fails and when Lovelace have to go to his sick uncle, he comes up with another huge scheme, involving all the ladies in the house. However, Clarissa outsmarts them all – and makes Lovelace wants her even more. He goes to his uncle and keeps sending messages to her, trying to get her to name a church.

However, when Clarissa is left on her own in the house with no Lovelace, she finally manages to escape. For good, we take it. And she starts writing letter after letter to find out to what extent Lovelace has tricked her. She writes her friend Anna, she writes Lovelace’s aunt, she writes her old nanny Mrs. Norton – and from everyone she hears, that what Lovelace told her was a lie.

So now we’re at a breaking point in the story. Clarissa has escaped Lovelace but she’s not at all well. She has lost what she valued the most, her virtue and the love of her family. I guess the rest of the book is about how she copes with this.

Incidentally, I just want to point out that for a ver very very wordy book, it sure doesn’t spend a lot of words on it’s climax. This is what Lovelace writes to his friend to announce what he has done: “And now, Belford, I can go no farther. The affair is over. Clarissa lives.” (letter 257). You will be in your full right to feel a bit cheated at this point! Still, the letters leading up to and down from this climax, are just amazing. The letters Clarissa writes in her madness just after, are so tragic and full of sentiment, just heartbreaking. I’m almost positive that this novel is actually worth reading!

How come I’ve never thought about the similarities between Clarissa and The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins? The Woman in White was published in 1860, about 100 years after Clarissa. But there’s a lot of similarities in the stories (and of course in the epistolary format). In both, a women is kidnapped by a very charming scoundrel – and what my thoughts about the similarities have made me think more about, is the extent to which we can trust Clarissa. And Lovelace. What we know of what happens between them, is all told from their points of view – and can we trust that they don’t embellish at times to make themselves look better? Especially Clarissa, in fact, since she has the most to loose … Is Lovelace the only one to blame for Clarissa’s rape? Is it only naivety and a lack of knowledge of men and the world that made Clarissa think she could trust him – or did she think she had virtue enough to change him? Or was she just so much in love that she couldn’t see straight (Anna has several times tried to make her admit that she had fallen in love with him.)

(I know I didn’t write much about the similarities between The Woman in White and Clarissa but that’s because too much will ruin The Woman in White for those lucky ones who’ve never read it. I did write about some of the common themes in Moll FlandersFanny Hill and Clarissa in my recent post about Moll Flanders.)

These are my thoughts about June – and lo and behold, I’m actually looking forward to reading July’s letters!

You can see how the other participants in Terri and JoAnn’s read along are doing here.

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March 2012 – Monthly Wrap Up

In March I continued with my Charles Dickens and Edwin Drood obsession by reading Wilkie Collins The Woman in White and Matthew Pearl The Last Dickens. I also read 3 contemporary fiction novels. It has been quite a nice month with some decent reads. I had planned on reading most of these books and I rarely plan that much ahead with my reading so this was an interesting experience and I kind of liked it.

I had hoped to read 6 books this month but towards the end, I didn’t have the time to really sit down and read. So another month with 5 books. Still – I’m 3 books ahead of my reading challenge goal of 52 books so that’s really great!

  1. Wilkie Collins: The Woman in White. A mystery involving a woman running from an insane asylum. I was so well entertained for most of this book – couldn’t put it down. 5 stars.
  2. Marisha Pessl: Special Topics in Calamity Physics. This was supposed to be somewhat similar to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. I think there’s potential in this book but I was not too impressed with it. 3 stars.
  3. Jonathan Carroll: The Ghost in Love. A humorous take on what happens when people stop dying. I really liked this book – it was just too short! I’ll definitely be reading more from this author. 4 stars.
  4. Matthew Pearl: The Last Dickens. What happened when Dickens died? Did he finish his last book or did he die in the middle? His American publisher sets out for England to find out. Some interesting things – but not as good as Dan Simmons’ Drood. 3 stars.
  5. John Irving: The Water-Method Man. I love John Irving’s novels – this was his second and it was so interesting to see how a lot of his familiar themes are already present in this early novel. A great read – but not as good as some of his later novels. 3 stars.

I’ve read 2265 pages this month – but no e-books. The longest book was Wilkie Collins The Woman in White  (672 pages) – this was also this month’s only 5 stars read.

On most of my challenges, I’m doing really well. I haven’t started working on the Haruki Murakami or Neil Gaiman challenges yet but I’ve read 10 out of 25 for my Mount TBR Reading Challenge, I’ve read 5 out of 6 chunksters for the Chunkster Challenge (as well as some extra chunksters that didn’t count). I’m also doing okay with the challenge I’ve set for myself – I’ve read 6 books out of the 25 titles I have planned to read this year and 15 out of a year goal of 52 books. My to-read shelf has 177 books on it – I’m working on getting less books on this shelf and it’s not going very quickly because I’ve bought a few books and read some books from the library, but it’s getting lower at least.

And then there’s Clarissa … Oh yeah. I will post a Clarissa post for March later but for now I’ll just say that although I started March full of enthusiasm and really looking forward to reading a lot of Clarissa, I have been struggling a lot this month. I’m not quite on track but almost and I will get there!

I haven’t all that much planned for April. I plan on reading the books mentioned in my post about my 9-11 theme (I’ve already started with Jonathan Safran Foer Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close which I love – the other two are Don DeLillo Falling Man and Amy Waldman The Submission). I’m not sure what else I’m going to read – whatever I feel like afterwards, I guess. On a somewhat book related note, I plan on watching The Hunger Games tomorrow. I’m really looking forward to that!

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Wilkie Collins: The Woman in White (review)

I really wanted to read a novel by Wilkie Collins after reading the Dan Simmons novel Drood where Collins is the narrator. Collins talk a lot about his books and how they compare to Charles Dickens’ novels in this book so I wanted to see for myself. I choseThe Woman in White since I’ve heard a lot of good about it. So I got it from the library and I’m so glad I did. I ended up reading more than 350 pages in a day just to figure out what happened (and after having kids, that doesn’t happen often).

Collins doesn’t waste any time in this novel. The novel begins with Walter Hartright being engaged as a drawing teacher to two young women, residing at Limmeridge House. Afterwards, he walks home from his mother’s late at night and meets a strange woman dressed all in white. This woman starts the mystery in this book – on page 23. Walter helps her to get to London where she gets in a cab and drives away. He later overhears two men talking about her and how she has escaped from an insane asylum.

When he arrives at Limmeridge, he gets kind of a shock when he sees the young lady he’s supposed to teach how to draw. This young lady, Laura Fairlie, turns out to have a striking resemblance to the woman, Walter met on the road to London. Walter then confides in Laura’s half sister, Marian Halcombe, and tells her about the woman in white – especially because the woman mentioned having at one point been happy at Limmeridge House.

Now Marian isn’t your typical heroine. She has the most beautiful figure – but an ugly face with a mustache. Marian is almost masculine and spends the entire novel making excuses for her sex. My favorite one: ‘Being, however, nothing but a woman, condemned to patience, propriety, and petticoats for life /…/’ (p. 198). I’m not quite sure what Collins wanted to say about woman with this novel – yes, Marian is resourceful, intelligent and wonderful – but she’s ugly and masculine, almost a man. And Laura, her beautiful sister, is sweet and kind, but weak and without the courage to do much for herself. So his view on women doesn’t seem to be too positive – nevertheless, he created a heroine that men lined up to marry when the novel was first published.

Walter of course falls in love with Laura, but unfortunately, Laura is engaged to marry Sir Percival Glyde. Of course, Sir Percival Glyde turns out to be somehow involved with the woman in white – and in fact, she tries to stop Laura from marrying him. But there’s no proof that there’s something wrong with Sir Percival so even though both Laura and Marian feels something is off, the marriage takes place.

And now the action really goes into overdrive. Who is the woman in white and what is her connection with Sir Percival? What is Sir Percival’s secret that he’s doing everything in his power to protect? How is Count Fosco involved – besides being Sir Percival’s best friend?

I must admit that I just fell under the spell of this novel. The actual secret and much of the plot, is nothing new. But the way Collins does it, just drags you along for an exciting and excellent ride. I really loved this book. There were twists and turns and even though I did guess some of the twists, I was still intrigued enough to just read, read, read. No wonder people where queuing up to get each new installment as they were published weekly originally! I’m glad I didn’t have to wait but could just read whenever I could find the time.

This is a epistolary novel. It’s written from the points of view of various characters – some have a lot to say (especially the two main characters Walter Hartright and Marian Halcombe). They write journals, diaries, letters, tombstones – and all this comes together and creates a mystery where we are constantly trying to keep up with what’s actually happening. We don’t know more than the characters do. Writing in this way, gives the character the opportunity of speaking for themselves. We are creating the story out of the various testimonies and eye witness accounts we receive.

I’ve read some review stating that there are several narrators who are unreliable. And yeah, there are definitely some narrators who don’t tell the truth as we get to know it – or at least as we think we know it. But they believe they tell the truth – they tell the truth as they saw it. They are not (all) trying to mislead, they simply don’t have all the information we do. For instance, the housekeeper thinks one of the guests in the house is all nice and friendly – and as long as he is kind to her, how should she know otherwise? I know I can’t trust all these, but my definition of an unreliable narrator has probably hitherto been that it was someone who was either deliberately trying to mislead or who was influenced by drugs, alcohol or suffering from mental illness. I guess I need to change my definition – since I definitely can’t trust all of these! One can even question to what extent it’s possible to trust Walter Hardright himself, the main narrator. He gets the chance of a lifetime to dispose of his rival – and the question is whether he takes it or not, whether he tries to save the man or not. Also, he doesn’t try to get justice from a legal standpoint. He becomes a regular vigilante and goes after what he thinks is justice. Can we trust what he says? Is he just trying to justify that he took action in this way?As a first-time reader, I at least was so caught up in the plot that I trusted Marian and Walter completely and just read and read and never looked back. I think this novel will benefit greatly from a reread where I’ll be more able to look beneath the layers of deceit and look behind all the action to try to discover what’s really going on.

In some ways, this remind me of the movie The Ususal Suspects. When I first saw it, I doubted everything about who Kaiser Soze really was – when I saw it the second time, I had no doubts. If I see it a third time, who knows what I’ll think? I think it will be the same with this one – your perception of it will change by where you are in life at the moment, you sit down and read.

For some reason, this is my year of reading epistolary novels. I read We Need to Talk About Kevin earlier this year – loved it – and I’m reading Clarissa right now. Both written completely in letters. I didn’t plan for this to happen but I think this way of writing a novel really works. You feel like you get under the character’s skin, you feel that you are part of their lives. I think that this way of writing is not used as much anymore – and it’s a shame, which We Need to Talk About Kevin is a perfect example of. In this novel, you really got to understand the mother’s frustration and doubt about herself when faced with her son being a high school shooter. But this was a one way communication. In Clarissa, we get letters from several parties and thereby, we get to see the thought processes of several characters. And although I’m only a little way into this huge novel, I love it so much so far. The Woman in White is another take on how to write an epistolary novel – with a combination of letters, diary entries and more with not all characters being enthusiastic about having to write down what they think and remember. Another way to gain insight.

Besides being an epistolary novel, this is also generally regarded as the first sensation novel. It combined the ‘thrills of Gothic literature with the psychological realism of the domestic novel’. (p. xiii) The scary things from the Gothic novels was suddenly present in the well-known middle-class Victorian England. Home isn’t exactly a happy place – which is very true for the characters in this novel. Home is a place where you get poisoned, drugged and insulted. It’s not a safe place.

This edition of The Woman in White has three appendixes. Two of which I didn’t find very interesting – the first was theatrical adaptions of the novel, the third was how the novel was serialized in Dickens’ paper All the Year Round. But the second appendix had an interview with Collins where he talked about the novel, how he works by first finding a central idea, then the characters. Then the incidents comes from the nature of the characters and finally, he just starts at the beginning. In this case, he was inspired by a letter he received about a real or supposed wrongful incarceration at a lunatic asylum as well as he heard about an old French trial about substitution of persons. From there, the rest came.

This appendix kind of gives a peak into an author at work which is rather rare with an author writing in the 1800s. So I found these few pages extremely fascinating.

To end this rather lengthy review, I just want to mention my Dickens-Drood thing (obsession, some might say). Now this novel doesn’t shine any additional light on the question about who killed Edwin Drood (The Mystery of Edwin Drood) but what it does do, is give additional information in the appendix about Wilkie Collins and the hints in Drood to The Woman in White gives the Simmons novel a level more. I really like how it gives so much extra when you read several books by the same author and about the same theme. I’ve really gotten a lot out of focusing on Dickens and his Drood mystery.

  • Title: The Woman in White
  • Author: Wilkie Collins
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • Year: 1999 (original 1860)
  • Pages: 672 pages
  • Stars: 5 stars out of 5

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