This week I’ve been reading… Married Love and other stories by Tessa Hadley

I picked up this book immediately after finishing War and Peace. I picked it up without much thought but I do have to wonder if subconsciously I was craving short stories. After 4000 pages of the same people, places and events being introduced to and done with a character all in 20 pages was a welcome relief.  And whereas in War and Peace I found myself skim reading to get it over with as soon as possible, in Married Love I wanted to savour every word because it was the writing that had all the beauty. Almost like poetry.

The stories in general perhaps had more in common with poetry than a traditional novel. Many of them didn’t really have a notable plot; nothing much changed from beginning to end. Instead of being full-fledged narratives they were more like snippets of stories, brief glimpses into a life, like you’re peering in through a person’s window as you walk down the road.

And because there wasn’t a plot I didn’t get hung up wanting to find out what would happen next. Usually I see long-winded descriptions, character sketches and scene setting as a waste of time, an obstacle to get through to get to the really good stuff: the story. But with no story to worry about I could fully immerse myself in the subtle, delicate writing style.

It’s that lack of a narrative, that uneventfulness, which ties together all the stories. The characters’ imaginations take them on a course that their life never actually does – Shelley expects the worst news about her son, Alec expects the worst news about his sister, Ally takes an unnecessary risk, Kirsten acts without thinking – and they all come out the other side unscathed.

But although the worst never does happy, it doesn’t prevent an overwhelming sense of misery in all the stories. From the slow, introspective writing style and the dreary normality of the lives being portrayed. The dramatic life-defining crescendo might seem the more emotional of the two options but Tessa Hadley articulates so well the quiet melancholy of everyday life that it becomes far more relatable and therefore far more affecting.

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This week I’ve been reading… Dark Places by Gillian Flynn (and I won’t be sleeping again)

I’ve been on a bit of a thriller hype the past few months. It had always been a genre I’ve avoided because, well, I’m a massive scaredy-cat. But I couldn’t ignore all the clamour being made about Girl on the Train so I jumped on that bandwagon. And loved it.

It seems obvious to say it, but it was so gripping, couldn’t-put-it-down, a-real-page-turner – just all the clichés.

And the more thrillers I read the more arrogant I was getting because I just wasn’t finding them that scary. They had moments that made me tense up but nothing that was actually keeping me up at night. I was really starting to think that I had got over my wimpiness.

Well, Dark Places, I take it all back. Continue reading “This week I’ve been reading… Dark Places by Gillian Flynn (and I won’t be sleeping again)”

This week I’ve been reading… Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

It has actually happened. I have read Gone Girl. After all those months of delays and excuses, reading every other thriller I could get my hands on apart from the one that started the whole craze, I finally pulled it off the shelf.

I’d been putting it off partly because I knew it wouldn’t be able to live up to this fearsome hype it’s amassed and partly because I expected it to be really scary and really addictive, the kind of book that needs a whole day set aside to just devour it and still have time to watch a Disney film afterwards to remind you that the world is in general a cheerful happy place. Continue reading “This week I’ve been reading… Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn”

This week I’ve been reading… Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

The more I enjoy a book the harder I find it to write the review. I don’t know whether this is just because it’s easier to criticise than praise. Or because writing a positive review can quickly become gushy, and no one wants to read that.

Anyway, this review of Station Eleven is really really hard to write. Continue reading “This week I’ve been reading… Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel”

This week I’ve been reading… Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

Firstly, I just need to get some things off my chest. Baz is not a suitable name for a supervillain, it’s a guy off Jeremy Kyle with 4 missing teeth, 6 kids and a girlfriend who might also be his mother. Watford is not a magical school, it’s a slightly dodgy part of North-West London. And Carry On is not a good name for a fantasy book, it’s a film franchise from the 1960s where mice run up women’s skirts and everything’s an innuendo.

Phew, glad to get that out the way. Continue reading “This week I’ve been reading… Carry On by Rainbow Rowell”

This week I’ve been reading… The Children Act by Ian McEwan

The Children Act by Ian McEwan with a cup of tea

The books I’ve read by Ian McEwan can be classed in two categories: bleak period pieces (see Atonement, On Chesil Beach) and modern day tales that take place over a very short period of time and whose main characters are high-flying professionals (see Amsterdam, Saturday, Solar and now The Children Act).

Back in October (when I read this book, drafted this review and then never got round to editing it) I was in a bit of a reading slump. And by a bit of a reading slump I mean I hadn’t even picked up a book in three weeks. But it was the middle of the night and I couldn’t sleep and the one thing that I really fancied doing was getting stuck into a good Ian McEwan novel. I picked The Children Act purely because it was the one I could reach without having to get out of bed.

The Children Act is a strange blend between fiction and non-fiction. The main character, Fiona Maye, is a high court judge in family law and the book follows several cases as she passes sentences, as well as showing the impact they have on her personal life. The characters and their lives outside the courtroom are all the invention of Ian McEwan. But the court cases used to provide plot are all fairly truthful accounts of real court cases that have taken place. Almost in the same way that historical fiction takes the bare facts of what we know happened, and then embellishes a story around it.

The particular case which makes up the bulk of the plot concerns a teenage boy with leukaemia, who is refusing a blood transfusion on religious grounds. Fiona’s role is to decide whether the boy can be classed as an adult – and therefore have the right to refuse treatment – or a child who can be taken under the custody of the law and forced to receive a blood transfusion. One meeting between them sparks an unusual dynamic and a difficult to manage relationship.

Every time I return to Ian McEwan after a long absence I’m struck all over again by just how well he writes. The words just slip down so easily. You can be a third of the way through the book and it have felt like no effort at all, like no time has even passed.

Unfortunately with this particular book once I got a third of the way through I did hit a bit of a bump in the road – recording an entire court case takes a lot of speech and it’s just not that pleasant to read four pages of speaking. But aside from that little blip it was an interesting read, an enjoyable read and one I would definitely recommend.

The forgotten Bronte sister

 
This post started out as a little aside while writing my review of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall but once I was on the third paragraph I figured it deserved a page of its own.

Hands up if you never read the introduction at the beginning of the book? It can’t just be me. I without fail will skip it to get to the good stuff and only if I’m really struggling to keep my mind on the plot will I return to read it, and then it’s generally just a skim. I think it’s my dislike of non-fiction that puts me off. But by pure chance I happened to buy a copy of Wuthering Heights while reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, happened to be sat on a bench with no other reading material so happened to read the preface of Wuthering Heights and it happened to be hugely interesting and relevant to all the Bronte novels. Interesting enough that when I finished The Tenant of Wildfell Hall I bothered to go back and read its own introduction. And I shall now impart what I learnt.

Charlotte Bronte was a bit of a bitch.

Need some context? Ok.

In the front of my copy of Wuthering Heights was the ‘Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell.’ These were the pseudonyms adopted by the two younger Bronte sisters and the notice was added by Charlotte Bronte to a reprinting of Wuthering Heights. It was added after their deaths to reveal their identities. It’s a sweet, heartfelt read which clearly shows how close the three sisters were. And yet Charlotte also uses it as an opportunity to publicly criticise both their novels. She refers to the ‘immature but very real powers in Wuthering Heights’ and calls Emily ‘stronger than a man, simpler than a child.’ Talk about giving with one hand while taking away with the other. Anne gets an even rougher time. Charlotte ‘cannot wonder’ at the poor reception that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall receives, calling the subject matter ‘morbid’ and ‘an entire mistake.’ And in private she’s even worse, telling her publisher that ‘it hardly seems desirable to me to preserve’ and she did actually prevent it from being republished. She censored her sister. Charlotte is the reason that Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are household names and you’ve never heard of this book.

In Anne’s preface to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall she basically calls Charlotte an idiot, or at least calls those who criticised her book for its morose subject matter ‘prejudiced’ and ‘bitter.’

I wished to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it. But as the priceless treasure too frequently hides at the bottom of a well, it needs some courage to dive for it, especially as he who does so will be likely to incur more scorn and obloquy for the mud and water into which he has ventured to plunge, than thanks for the jewel he procures.

Yeah it’s perhaps verging a little on big headed but it certainly told Charlotte. Although actually it made not the slightest difference as Charlotte’s ‘Biographical Note’ was written after Anne’s preface was added. It was written after Anne selflessly and publicly tried to correct the misunderstanding that Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell are all one person so that the faults found in her works ‘are not attributed to them.’ Like I said, Charlotte Bronte, bitch.

And I’m not really sure where Charlotte got off with her obvious favouritism between her sisters. How is Wuthering Heights so much more moral, upstanding and worthy of preservation? Heathcliff shares many of the characteristics with Mr Huntington – violent, abusive husband and father – and yet she liked Wuthering Heights fine. Just because Healthcliff loved Catherine that makes it ok? I think the quote from the introduction to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is very telling on this: ‘Charlotte Bronte… had for complex reasons babied Anne.’ Which is an incredibly frustrating and cryptic kind of sentence and I’m going to have to actually go out and buy a biography of the Bronte sisters now to discover what those complex reasons were but it certainly suggests a sort of prejudice against Anne’s work.

When really I’d suggest that Anne was much more switched on about the world around her. Heathcliff, Mr Rochester and Mr Huntingdon all have a huge amount in common and yet Emily and Charlotte romanticise these alcoholic, abusive men and make them the heroes of their stories. Heathcliff and Mr Rochester don’t exactly have the best track record with spouses – Mr Rochester locking his in the attic and letting her burn to death and Heathcliff abusing his wife until she ran away. And yet Charlotte ends her story assuming that this time around it’ll all be different. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is practically the sequel to Jane Eyre. Yes, you can marry for passion and lust and it’s all very exciting at the time but ten years later you’re going to be seriously regretting that decision.

This interesting article suggests that the three leading men were all just different incarnations of their brother, Branwell. So maybe that was Charlotte’s problem. She couldn’t stand to see a reality where her brother gets his comeuppance rather than a happily ever after. Which is perhaps understandable but her reaction is still not forgivable.

I think that’s my biggest problem now. Not that Charlotte didn’t like it but that she actually managed to stop anyone else from being able to decide for themselves. She condemned her sister to obscurity when she refused to let The Tenant of Wildfell Hall be republished. She made her a laughing stock even now, centuries later (see the Family Guy joke which goes something along the lines of: you think you’re the first person to outshone by a sibling, what about the third Bronte sister?).

And if Charlotte thought The Tenant of Wildfell Hall wasn’t worth preserving because it was too bleak what on earth would she have thought of Anna Karenina, The Virgin Suicides, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Bell Jar? Should all these great works of fiction be censored too?

This should be up there as one of the greatest novels ever. And even if people disagree with how good the book actually is it’s perhaps the first ever work of feminist literature, which is surely recommendation enough.

So why isn’t everyone reading it?

Because Charlotte Bronte didn’t like it.

This week I’ve been reading… Wild by Cheryl Strayed

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I can probably class my enjoyment of books into four different categories (aside from the obvious – not enjoying it at all):

  1. It was ok but I have no intention of reading it again
  2. I’d recommend it to certain people but it’s doubtful I’d read it again
  3. I recommend it to absolutely everyone I come into contact with and know I’ll definitely read it again at some point
  4. I get to the end and immediately want to start again at the beginning

Of the books I’ve read in the last month or so I’d said I’ve read one for every category. The Secret History would be a number one, Breakfast at Tiffany’s I’d class as a number two, The Tenant of Wildfell a number three and Wild would be my number four.

I LOVED this book.

I went into it with very few preconceptions but still expecting not to like it that much. In case you haven’t heard of it, which would be quite an achievement as with the release of the film last year it’s been absolutely everywhere, the plot goes something like this:

At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life. With no experience or training, driven only by blind will, she would hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State — and she would do it alone.

I think I expected it to lean heavily on her reminiscences about her lost years after her mother’s death with lots of soul searching paragraphs of internal reflection, which didn’t exactly have me jumping for joy. I enjoy a depressing story as much as the next person but I didn’t fancy a whole book with that narrow a focus. But by the time I’d finished the prologue I was already pleasantly surprised – the book had me smiling. And it continued to all the way through. Yes there are some hugely emotional moments and I teared up on several occasions. But it probably caused me to well up as many times from happiness as sadness.

The book acts simultaneously as a testament to the human spirit and to human generosity. She had people she’d never met before offering her shelter and food. And the comradery between the other hikers she met on her walk (which at 1100 miles long I definitely shouldn’t be calling a ‘walk.’ In a similar vein to when my dad corrects me anytime I call ‘ships’ ‘boats’ which apparently is a big deal) was really heart-warming.

And it is beautifully written. Which for me to notice (someone who prioritises plot and character over everything and would happily skim every descriptive paragraph in a book to find out what happens next) is really saying something.

I also have to say that I’m very glad I didn’t see the film before I read the book as I think it would have put me off hugely. I found the film completely depressing, something I didn’t get from the book. They very much played up her mother’s instability and the more risky situations she found herself in on her journey whereas the book focussed on her loving family growing up and the friendships she made on her way, however fleeting some of them may have been.

This was actually almost a feel good read. As much as a book whose main drive is the death of someone’s mother can be feel good.

This week I’ve been reading… The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

 

In a nutshell: Men: treating women like shit since 1821.

Favourite quote: When you have once extinguished my love you will find it no easy matter to kindle it again.

How long: Just over a week

Would I recommend it: I’m going to be waving copies under the noses of everyone I know until they read it just to make me stop.

My mum has been nagging me to read this book for years whilst at the same time telling me that it’s not an easy read and there’s way too much stuff about religion in it, which instead of making me want to read it had just completely put me off. But I got a desperate urge to read a full on classic last week and so instead of picking one of the many many many books clogging up my own bookshelves waiting to be read I borrowed this.

I think I’d forgotten just how much I enjoy classics. It’s easy when you haven’t read one in a while to assume that it’ll be a much tougher read than a contemporary novel. But I just don’t find that. And this one had me hooked very early on. I’d say the style of writing is more Charlotte than Emily Bronte, which suits me as I much prefer Jane Eyre to Wuthering Heights, but the book in general is far less gothic than the other Bronte novels. In the whole 535 pages there is only one reference to a moor.

So what is the plot? A mysterious woman and her young son move into a new village and try to settle into a new life there. They attract the attention of Gilbert Markham who soon finds himself falling in love with Helen. But rumours about the morality of the woman are spread throughout the village and Helen hands over her diary to Gilbert for him to read to understand her circumstances.

I think this book acts as a harsh reminder that life in the 1800s was tough for women. It’s easy to forget this when you’ve got Jane Austen telling you that life was peachy and everyone ended up with their fairytale happily ever after. But most men aren’t Mr Darcy, as sad as that is to admit. The situations these women ended up in had me angry, like I had to put it down and breath deeply for a few minutes angry.

People can go on and on about Jane Eyre being a feminist – ‘I am no bird and no net ensnares me’ and all that – but she had nothing, nothing, on Helen Graham. This book reads as a feminist manifesto. A seriously brave choose of story to chronicle in the 1800s.

But I get the impression that Anne Bronte was a bit of an early feminist from the preface at the beginning. She wrote under the pseudonym ‘Acton Bell’ which was specifically chosen to convey no clear sex of the author and here addresses the critics who she suspects are overly severe because they assume it to be a woman. I’d quite like to walk into my local bookstore which chooses to separate women’s fiction from ‘modern literary fiction’ and recite to them:

‘I am satisfied that if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be. All novels are or should be written for both men and women to read, and I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censored for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man.’

Whoops just slipped my feminist hat on there for a moment. I’m back on message again.

I have only one criticism and that is something that is in no way Anne Brontes fault. Why, oh why, would you put a quote on the back which acts as a massive spoiler?!? As a rule of thumb I would suggest that the quote above the blurb should be taken from no more than a quarter of the way through the book. In this case it came from well over half way and ruins any suspense about Helen’s backstory. And it’s not as though this book is well known enough that the plot goes without saying – it’s no Jane Eyre with the inevitable mad wife in the attic. A bit of uncertainty about the plot would have only made this book more enjoyable – so if you do decide to read this then avoid the Penguin Classics edition at all costs! Or at the very least the blurb.

I really recommend this book. It is by far one of the best I’ve read this year and deserves so much more fame than it has. And despite what my mum says the religion in it is purely secondary to, and in no way detracts from, the story of one woman’s struggle to have some power over her own life.

Five books that absolutely lived up to their hype

HypedSo I’ve decided to start myself a little blogging feature. Although there’s only three posts so does that really count? Maybe series is a better word – a blogging series. But a UK series, not an American series because then I’d be writing 24 of them and now way could I think of that many. I should point out that I’m writing this having eaten nothing all day but drunk three lattes (because I’m camped out in Costa using their free wifi) and caffeine really affects me – I’m full on shaking as I type this – so this will in no way be well written and at some points it won’t even be coherent. And there will be lots of wandering off the point (like that thing above – what even is that about?).

Anyway, deep breath, focus on what you’re doing, Lizzy.

Basically these posts will be about those books that get an awesome hype – either the books that for a few months are just everywhere; shop windows, blog posts, Instagram, everywhere or the classics that have survived hundreds of years and maintained a fearsome reputation. This first one is the five books that absolutely lived up to their hype. No matter how many times I read these they never fail to impress. People can talk about them as much as they want and it will still never ever do them justice.

1. The Fault in our Stars by John Green

I really didn’t expect that much from this as I tend to like to run away from the crowd but there’s no denying this is a great book. Funny and sweet and (I imagine) a really realistic portrayal of life with cancer.

2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

There is literally nothing wrong with this book. Nothing. The best love story ever written with the best characters, setting and language. Perfection in book form.

3. Atonement by Ian McEwan

So very very romantic. Just thinking about this book makes my heart break a little bit. And with a great twist at the end. If you haven’t read this you really need to.

4. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I actually read this at school, which is usually the death of any book, so it’s a sign of it’s greatness that even that couldn’t ruin it for me. It’s one of those books that everyone needs to read – not just a great story but historically significant too.

5. The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Hilarious. Absolutely hilarious. I found this such an addictive read that I even stopped watching a tennis match to finish it which for me is really saying something.