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Post 13- A book that disappointed you

As ever, thanks to Blogs of a Bookaholic for creating this challenge. 😀

There are those books that have been on my TBR pile since the first moment I heard the title whispered reverentially by a fan of said book. Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov was one of them.

It is also, sadly the subject of today’s post.

This was through no fault of the book or its author and I know exactly why I was disappointed by this one and am taking slow baby steps towards improving myself so as to thoroughly enjoy it the 2nd time around.

How many times have you seen a penguin at a funeral?

Blurb (from goodreads as it’s unbiased)

Viktor is an aspiring writer with only Misha, his pet penguin, for company. Although he would prefer to write short stories, he earns a living composing obituaries for a newspaper. He longs to see his work published, yet the subjects of his obituaries continue to cling to life. But when he opens the newspaper to see his work in print for the first time, his pride swiftly turns to terror. He and Misha have been drawn into a trap from which there appears to be no escape.

So how on earth could a book like that disappoint me? It’s about a journalist who has a pet penguin. A penguin that runs around in a happy, splashy way, eats fish and ends up working as a professional mourner for goodness’ sake! Place a penguin in front of me and you could brain-wash me into doing almost anything.

Well firstly, it’s because of the title and yes, that sounds fatuous but really, it is the case: that title is a hard act to follow.

In the words of Alice from the Vicar of Dibley: “The title says it all

Secondly- and most importantly- I was disappointed because I didn’t understand what was going on sub-textually (is that even a word?). I’m English, so subtext is basically as important as the actual text, if not more so. As y’all know, satire’s all about the subtext and due to my paucity of knowledge about Ukraine’s political system, lots of bits that I’m pretty certain are dead funny and spot-on just soared over my head like a pair of large helium-filled balloons or some other large, soaring creature that sounds more majestic than a humble balloon.

The current political situation in Ukraine’s given me the push I needed to get started on reading up about their political and bureaucratic systems and I aim to be able to understand a little more (OK, a lot more actually) of what’s going on in the next few months.

Expect a euphoric review in the next year or so. 🙂

 

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Post 12 – A book you wanted to read for a long time but still haven’t

Goodness, this is a tough one as my TBR pile is, let us say, extensive. And that list’s made up solely of books I could think of off the top of my head. Every book I read seems to serve as a letter of introduction to at least a dozen more and—oh, you know how it goes!

At this precise moment in time, the book I’ve wanted to read for a long time but still haven’t is the remainder of the Barchester Chronicles by Anthony Trollope. I powered through the first three after watching the BBC adaptation (with Alan Rickman playing the odious Rvd. Obadiah Slope) but never got around to finishing the series for some reason. :/

Alan Rickman as Rvd. Obadiah Slope. Is it wrong to fancy his eyebrows just a little bit?

So why do I want to read the rest of the series? Well, Trollope wrote rather satirically about the abuses of power within Cathedral and Hospital Trusts in the fictional cathedral city of Barchester (which he purportedly based on Salisbury). A dry subject, you may think, but when approached with Trollope’s wit and brilliant characters the subject becomes as intensely exciting as… well… as an Anthony Trollope novel can make it, which is to say; very exciting indeed!

In addition to the afore-mentioned ecclesiastical power struggles, there are also love stories that tug the heart strings, various financial problems and class struggles. It’s all so quintessentially English as the majority of the ‘drama’ does not unfold through peoples’ words but instead through the softly said understatements and the unspoken.

Darn, I want to finish that series now. :/

 

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Post 11 – Favourite classic book

As ever, thanks to Blogs of a Bookaholic for creating this challenge.

OK, first things first; I cannot do this question the same level of justice as the creator of this challenge. Click that. I’ve even included the link a 2nd time, just in case you don’t fancy scrolling up a few millimetres to click the 1st link.

Read it. Fall in love with Wuthering Heights either for the first time or all over again.

And now, for my favourite classic. As I mentioned before, I have two favourite classics, one book of poetry, In Memoriam A.H.H. by Tennyson and one novel. As I’ve already blogged about the former, this post is going to be about the latter. So, without further ado, allow me to present the book that I fall in love with again every time I read it: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell.

So what makes this classic so awesome-sauce? I think it’s because (and forgive the analogy) at the end of the day, I like my books like I like my men– no naughty jokes please!- not just interesting and entertaining but also with some substance; something that will make me aware of the world around me and appreciate my own situation.

It is here that Gaskell really delivers the goods: she was an author whose writing addressed burning contemporary social issues and problems that appeared because of industrialisation. As the wife of a minister in Manchester, Gaskell would have been able to move amongst different social echelons and would undoubtedly have seen and heard the arguments and concerns of both the masters and hands about whom she wrote.

Many of the problems she mentions have yet to be solved, despite the hope expressed that ‘young industry’. If anything, I worry that in some instances, the situation has actually got worse. One example of this is the lack of power of many unions in the UK nowadays. Whereas the Union in North and South is a formidable opponent with the power to cause strikes that seriously affected industry but also won support for their cause (living wages that kept in line with inflation), when unions occasionally attempt the same action for exactly the same reason in this day and age, they are frequently mocked and denigrated, especially by the younger generation.

What I’m trying to say is what Gaskell wrote 159 years ago: ‘the union is a great power: it’s our only power’ and this power seems to be diminishing as people forget that, “It’s the only way working men can get their rights, by all joining together. More the members, more chance for each one separate man having justice done him.”

Well I got carried away there…

The icing on the cake is the romance between Mr Thornton and Margaret Hale. It’s approached so beautifully that some sections gave me goose-bumps and the sexual tension at some points made me go a little fluttery.

They start off as two good in people in their own rights, even though they have different outlooks on life, different experiences and somewhat different values and become- it is implied- the sort of couple that will bring out the best in each other.

 

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Post 10 – A Book You Thought You Wouldn’t Like But Ended up Loving.

As ever, thanks to Blogs of a Bookaholic for creating this challenge. 😀

Also, apologies if this is more of a ramble and less of a direct response. Last week was a nightmare and I just want to blather about nothing. 😛

The book: The Rake and the Rebel Mary Brendan

As anyone who’s read this post knows, erotica and romance have never really been my thing. Indeed I was only introduced to Mills and Boon at the end of 2007. The other people in my French Literature class (all 3 of them, including the teacher) started taking the Mickey of the company when we were discussing Maupassant (no, I can’t remember how we made that jump either). Extensive references were made to different books and series.

It sounded amusing- and totally different from anything I’d read before- so I went to the local library, took out as many books as I could from the different Mills and Boon series, read them all in a week and came back to class on Monday with a better understanding of what the hell everyone was going on about.

Yes, I was that cool. Yes, I do still do that otherwise I really would be unable to talk to most of my peers about ‘what’s hip’. What can I say? It’s just how I roll when I don’t fancy sticking my arms out, my head between my legs and leaning forward.

I digress.

Most of the books didn’t appeal to me. Some made me wonder if love really was a many-splendoured thing. Others made me cringe and go ‘ewwww’. Yes, I really was that mature a 17 year-old.

By the time I got on to the last one, my mind had become slightly misted and fuddled by a combination of earnest writing and ideas that I wasn’t sure I agreed with, such as: ‘He’d been crazy to wait this long. He should have known sex was the fastest way to ensure a relationship settled.‘ Really, the Marriage Bargain?

The Rake and the Rebel either pushed me over the metaphorical edge (hehe!), or it was well-written for the genre. Or maybe it’s because it falls into the ‘historical fiction’ category and I have a major soft spot for that.
The story-line wasn’t radically different from other modern-day romance/ erotica novels out there: there was a feisty heroine, a rake-turned-romantic gentleman and moments of peril and misunderstanding before the pair settled down together.

Somehow it won me over and whilst I haven’t yet reread it, I did purchase a copy from my local library when they decided to sell it on to make room for more Mills and Boon with the intention of doing so at a later date.

 

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Post 9 – Most overrated book

As ever, thanks to Blogs of a Bookaholic for creating this challenge.

My initial instinct was to groan about the Fifty Shades Trilogy or The Alchemist. Then I thought about it for a few minutes and remembered the book that left me feeling about as disappointed as Margery Tyrell on her wedding night to Renly Baratheon.

Allow me to present the one, the only, the (in my opinion) overrated Lady Chatterley’s Lover. And my issue with it is not just the sex scenes. In fact, my issue is more with the author than the text…

OK, so my main issue Lawrence is his rather Nazi view of what should be done to those weaker and worse off than him. In a letter, written in 1908 to Blanche Jennings, he said:

“If I had my way, I would build a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace, with a military band playing softly, and a Cinematograph working brightly; then I’d go out in the back streets and main streets and bring them in, all the sick, the halt, and the maimed; I would lead them gently, and they would smile me a weary thanks; and the band would softly bubble out the “Hallelujah Chorus””

Whilst I know that one’s judgement of a piece of literature should not be coloured by one’s opinion of its author’s political ideology but that quote has somewhat coloured my opinion of him and, by extension, his work. The thing is that in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Lawrence’s ideology does influence the text. He mocks and disparages those characters that he dislikes including Clifford, who belongs to ‘the maimed’, whom he wanted to dispose of earlier. As such, I feel vindicated in allowing my judgement of his ideology to colour my reading of the text.

If you catch my drift?

My second reason for finding this book over-rated is what some might refer to as “the inherent sexism of the text”. Whilst it has been called into question over recent years because of this letter, there are parts that still make me feel uncomfortable. Much in the same way that Blurred Lines makes me feel uncomfortable even though Robin Thicke has repeatedly stated that he believes that it’s ‘a feminist movement within itself‘.

If there hadn’t been so much furore surrounding the novel and the eventual ‘obscenity trial’, that further raised its profile, I do wonder if less people would know about it now and if it would have been excluded from a couple- not all, but one or two- ‘books you have to read before you die’ lists.

What do you think?

 

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{Review} A Woman’s Story/ Une Femme – Annie Ernaux

Read for: Words and Peace’s Books on France 2014 Reading Challenge.

Blurb
After Ernaux’s mother died of Alzheimer’s, Ernaux attempted to commemorate her mother by writing about her to, “capture the real woman, the one who existed independently from me, born on the outskirts of a small Normandy town and who died in the geriatric ward of a hospital in the suburbs of Paris”.

Review
Ernaux wrote A Woman’s Story over the course of a year after her mother died by way of coming to terms with her grief as well as creating what she hoped would be a fitting tribute to her mother. The story of her progenitor’s life is interesting, well-written and really easy to fall into and power through in one sitting: Ernaux’s mother was a tough lady who worked hard to change her life and claim her place in a totally different social milieu from the one into which she was born. This led to several social and ideological clashes between the two which Ernaux explored over the course of the novel.

There are moments when the narrative breaks off as Ernaux reaches for her grief to see if it’s lessened since the last time she wrote. It is these moments that added depth to the biography of the woman Ernaux knew but also didn’t. The reason these moments were so telling and added so much was that the language used was succinct but not impersonal. The sense of loss, the pain were summed up perfectly with each word provoking an emotional response when I was reading.

Overall
At 104 pages, this makes for a quick read that feels much more substantial because of the emotional punch it packs.

 
2 Comments

Posted by on February 21, 2014 in 2014 Reading Challenges

 

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{Review} Histoire de la chauve-souris – Pierette Fleutiaux

Read for: Rose City Reader’s  European Reading Challenge and for Words and Peace’s Books on France 2014 Reading Challenge.

Ashes by Edvard Munch. It pretty much sums up the story…


Disclaimer. Even now, in the final year of my degree, I feel a little nervous about reviewing books read in French. What if I’ve missed some cultural reference that every other French reader’s grasped? What if, even after close reading, I haven’t fully appreciated the linguistic subtleties of the text, such as those present in Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal? Just because I can understand the words doesn’t mean I’ll ‘get’ all the sub-texts.

I fear I shall always be an English woman reading French novels.

Now that’s out of the way, on to the review! 🙂

Blurb
If they had only cut off her hair, she would have been freed from the bat, but her family forbad it and she was lumbered with her “petit bête”. But the beast is demanding and slowly strips her of her sense of self as she strives to care for it. In an attempt to satisfy it, she runs away from home and sets out on a journey that takes her far from her tiny world to one as nightmarish as Lorca’s New York.

Review
Despite being Fleutiaux’s first novel, her style is already developed and by gum, what a style! Part gothic novel, part psychological thriller, part coming of age tale, part social commentary; NdlCS drew me into the claustrophobic head of its narrator from the opening lines. The book is sub-divided into 3 books, just like the novels of yore and each has a slightly different style, even though each section is equally dark and oppressive. With a hand on my heart, I can swear that the last author I’ve read who’s convincingly managed to maintain such a constantly airless atmosphere throughout their novel was Mervyn Peake in the Gormenghast Trilogy.

Then again, perhaps a comparison to The Yellow Wallpaper would do HdlCS more justice: the narrator’s sanity is repeatedly called into question as she is exploited and potentially abused (I say ‘potentially’ as the first-person narrative coupled with her innocence leads to some ambiguous passages that had me squirming and thinking, ‘Oh G-d, really? Is what I think is happening really going on?’).

It seems silly to have written a review about a book with the word ‘bat’ in the title without (thus far) having mentioning said bat! Fleutiaux mentioned in an interview that she chose to stick a bat in there because she « could never have written a novel about a young girl, a coming-of-age story » without the presence of a ‘character’ that would be versatile enough to be used as short-hand for the duality of human nature. So both the darker tendencies of human nature, such as depression, guilt and self-loathing as well as hope and freedom. Furthermore, the bat’s existence is called into question on several occasions, leading the reader to wonder if it’s real until the end. (Don’t worry, there are no spoilers here!)

That bat really does drive the story forward as it has complete control over the narrator, forcing her to exhaust and ostracise herself to feed and care for it.

Overall
Dark, disorientating and darn well-written! If you can read French, I heartily recommend it. English speakers, there doesn’t seem to be an English translation of it 39 years after it was written, so I doubt there ever will be. 😦 Nonetheless, I live in hope!

 
3 Comments

Posted by on February 6, 2014 in 2014 Reading Challenges, Books

 

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Post 8: most underrated book

As ever, thanks to Blogs of a Bookaholic for creating this challenge. :)

Without a doubt, it is War With the Newts by Karel Čapek. An author who deserves at least as much attention as Paul Celan, although now I come to think of it, Celan doesn’t get as much attention as he deserves either… Anyway!

In the first week of my degree, when graphemes such as: č, ę and ţ had absolutely no meaning or sound equivalent in my mind, I stumbled across a book by a Czech author called ‘Karel Čapek’. I didn’t know how to pronounce his name and this automatically made his work interesting enough to start reading then and there.

An hour later midnight struck and so did the bell to tell all the nerds to clear out so that the staff could get some sleep. I did not want to leave. I had fallen in love with his writing style and wanted to stay ‘at his side’, beside the shelf with all his work. I read it, read up on Čapek (he’s the guy who introduced the word ‘robot’ to English-speakers back in the ‘20s!) and proceeded to wander around with fragments of the story in my mind for the next few years.

In a nut-shell: the book’s about the discovery of a breed of newts that are capable of speech and of being ‘civilised’. This discovery leads to them being enslaved by Man, exploited and treated in much the same way as the colonised peoples of previous centuries. Slowly the newts learn all they can about our society and eventually rebel against their oppressors.

It’s a book that deserves to be read and discussed by people of different disciplines, to be wept over and laughed with. It’s a book that, to my mind, challenges not only contemporary schools of thought such as colonialism, but also current questions, such as the sort of greedy consumerism that’s led to maquiladores and other factories that have a tendency to chew their workers up and spit them out when they can no longer operate at full speed. It satirises the racial segregation that led to lynch mobs; the misuse of ‘scientific evidence’ to ‘prove’ that some races are naturally superior to others; the arguments for Lebensraum.
Basically, it’s beautifully crafted Sci-Fi that anyone who’s enjoyed Orwell or Wyndham should try.

Please read it if you get a chance to. Please? I will read pretty much anything you suggest if you read this, even Sean O’Kane (the author, that is).

Although if you recommend Sean O’Kane, I will judge you a little bit. He is like a modern version of de Sade.

 

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Post 7: A Guilty Pleasure Book

As ever, thanks to Blogs of a Bookaholic for creating this challenge. 🙂

This is a tough post that I’ve been dragging my heels over! Thus far, all books I’ve ever read have fallen into two categories: those I’ve enjoyed and those I haven’t. All books that fall into the former category aren’t ones I feel guilty about reading or admitting to reading. There have however been some that I was surprised to find myself enjoying. So this post’ll be a ‘yay’ type one about a book (and genre) that blew my mind.

I feel duty-bound to point out to anyone who gets to the last paragraph that younger-me had lots of preconceived notions about the world, including chick-lit. I also feel duty-bound to point out that one of the joys of having these preconceived notions was- and still is- to have them challenged and re-evaluate them. I am a Humanities student, after all. 😉

The book in question’s called The Secret Shopper’s Revenge by Kate Harrison.SecretShoppersRevenge

The story follows the lives of three women: single-mum-and-not-loving-it Emily, recently unemployed Sandie and Grazia, a glamorous widow who’s lived beyond her means so long that she’s almost out of cash. The three are thrown together when offered jobs as mystery shoppers for the same company.

I know it may sound a tad formulaic but this book challenged quite a few of the preconceptions I had about chick-lit. For starters its three main characters were all distinct characters with different life experiences and different outlooks on life. Each chapter’s written through the viewpoint of one of the three and Harrison really gets the different voices and perspectives on the world across. Each character has a distinct story line but the three band together and support each other over the story.

It wasn’t just the variety of supportive, intelligent female characters that won me over to the genre. Harrison also included a sub-plot that celebrated the family-oriented and creative approach of Central and Eastern Europeans which was pretty darn socially advanced at the time of publication (2008) when England as a whole was still pretty much against immigrants from that neck of the woods… not that Eastern Europeans get the best media portrayal in 2014 either, but it’s improved a little for non-Romanians and non-Bulgarians

By espousing such modern and socially-minded views, Harrison made me realise that instead of being a superficial and capitalist genre that epitomised everything I disliked about literature aimed at women (such as ‘women’s’ magazines that always tell us that we can look better and lose more weight and that it is these things that should give us our sense of self and self-worth), chick-lit is something that can be read with pride and joy.

 

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{Review} Sunshine on Scotland Street – Alexander McCall Smith

Read for: Rose City Reader’s  European Reading Challenge.

Time to start reviewing the titles I’ve read for this year’s book challenges! As I’m so desperate to travel, I’m starting with a book from the UK and aiming to “read my way out” of my home turf so that I can pretend I’m going on an epic hitch-hiking trip around Europe (or wherever I end up).

NB. I don’t actually advocate hitch-hiking unless you take necessary precautions- there are some truly wicked people out there.

Sunshine on Scotland Street

Blurb (from goodreads)
As the sun rises over the Georgian townhouses of Scotland Street, its most delightfully eccentric residents have burning questions on their minds. Will Big Lou find true love at last? How will Bertie’s healthy snacks go down at his school fair? And has Bruce Anderson really won the lottery? With his trademark charm and deftness, Alexander McCall Smith writes the eighth installment in his popular series.

Review
There is something about this series that has me coming back for more. Many somethings in fact, although I’ll restrain my remarks to my 2 favourite aspects of this book. Promise.

Firstly it is the writing style. Whether poking fun at the narcissistic Bruce Anderson, who’s now back in Edinburgh for the foreseeable future (and with one heck of a story-line floating around him), or following Cyril the dog as he embarks on another adventure around Edinburgh, McCall Smith leads the reader with a gentle but firm hand. Each character’s lives progress at a decent rate, except of course for Bertie’s- he’s been stuck at 6 years old for seven books now, which is starting to drag as I really want to see him grow up and become a moody teenager/ independent adult. McCall Smith handles any potentially painful or traumatic moments, such as the near argument over the Battle/ “Misunderstanding” of Glencoe well and resolves them quickly and in a grown-up fashion before any nastiness occurs.

The second something that has me going back for more is that although each character has an active life, they all have time to reflect upon aspects of life and draw some interesting conclusions that always end up filtering back into the non-book world. The part that stayed with me after finishing this novel was the moment when Angus’ looked around the room during a party he and his wife were hosting and felt thoroughly blessed as he saw, “links between people that went in all sorts of directions and had made for friendships that would otherwise not have come into existence. The forges of friendship, thought Angus, may be busy ones, but their doors are always open”.

Overall
Although some elements, such as Bertie remaining 6 and Pat’s continued and completely unbelievable crush on Bruce jar, there is so much goodness and ‘simple’ joy in this that it entertains and warms the cockles of your heart.

Perfect reading in a cold climate.

 
6 Comments

Posted by on January 20, 2014 in 2014 Reading Challenges

 

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