Category Archives: Chunkster

Eline Vere by Louis Couperus

5 stars

5/5

I planned to spend Sunday reading through extracts from the Waterstone’s Eleven choices, that I picked up on Thursday, but instead gave in to my desire to finish the last 80 pages of the WONDERFUL Eline Vere.

Pushkin Press, 2010 edition (first published in 1889), 540 pages - personal library

Thank you, thank you to my ‘Secret Santa’ Armen (hmm.. not so secret!) who gave me this Pushkin Press translated Dutch classic novel by Louis Couperus at December’s Riverside Readers book group. I have thoroughly enjoyed being immersed in this delicious doorstop of a novel for the past three weeks. Before I continue, I want to do a little plug for Pushkin Press. I’ve only read two novels by this publisher of translated European literature, but this, and Journey by Moonlight have completely won me over as an advocate for their titles – Literary gems, beautifully bound quality paperbacks with yummy illustrated covers in muted tones. (NB neither of these were sent by the publisher – I just really dig this publisher!) Anyhow, to the novel itself…

My experience of reading Eline Vere was a bit like watching a very good period drama series on the television. A sumptuous visual experience conjured up by descriptions of the vivid colours of dress and opulent surroundings of well-to-do members of Dutch society at the close of the 19th century. The narrative is frequently broken up by intimate tête-à- têtes between the different characters, sometimes philosophical, sometimes frivolous, occasionally candid and cutting. This creates the impression of multiple little scenes, so that although this is long book it is broken up into enjoyable and manageable segments.

I haven’t gone straight into describing the plot because although there is a central character and several plot-lines, this book is really driven by a set of circumstances and the relationships between different characters and how they react to each other. There is much discussion of the role of fate in this novel and yet although the main character Eline, comes to believe that her future is pre-destined, what Couperus seems to play with as a device is really the idea of chance – how a word uttered or held back can make a mark on a person’s future, which can be indelible depending on the nature of the person. And this idea of a persons nature is really key to the novel as it centres around a young woman who despite having everything in her favour – riches, beauty, grace and intelligence – is unable to take control of her own will to the extent that she undermines her own chances of happiness.

Eline is an incredibly complex character. A less skilful author would be unable to gain the reader’s empathy for this charming yet doleful figure. How frustrating she should be, but yet I was sympathetic to her because despite orchestrating her own misery she genuinely seemed paralysed by her mental state. Couperus’s subtlety in conveying each characters’ core ‘being’, giving the reader insight into their mind is almost magical and it was a genuine pleasure to be introduced to the contrasting personalities in the novel. I loved the outwardly frivolous yet wilful Frederique (Freddie) and revelled in the descriptions of young Lili Verstraten aware and happy with her own indolence –

“She was never bored, even when she was idle. On the contrary, she would sit back and enjoy the notions drifting through her mind: rose petals wafting on a gentle breeze, soap bubbles, fragile and iridescent.”

But as you have probably determined by my earlier comments Eline Vere is not simply a frothy book. Couperus’ insight into people, and their sense of self-awareness is remarkable. His writing is beautifully descriptive yet well paced. Themes of love, free-will, spirituality and psychology are interwoven deftly into the story. This isn’t a novel to consume in one sitting – as that would be rather too much, like eating a whole pile of profiteroles! When enjoyed at a languid pace however, this is a richly rewarding read.

Has anyone read any of Couperus’ other novels? Can you recommend any translated foreign classics?

The Slap, by Christos Tsiolkas

2.5 stars2.5/5

The Slap was chosen by one of my colleagues at work for our book group at the end of last year.

Tuskar Rock, 2010 edition (paperback), 496 pages - book group.

It’s taken me a little while to write about it. Why? I suppose I felt a bit apathetic about it, which presumably is not the appropriate emotion considering that the book deals with the controversial subject of whether it is ever ok to hit a child.

The story mainly centres around an event that happens at a friendly barbecue and the fallout from it. A young child creates a scene and is aggressive towards another child. The situation becomes complicated when a grown man named Harry steps in and slaps the toddler. The barbecue breaks up amid horrified screams from the toddler’s mother and shock amongst the other adults.

The book is delivered as a series of excerpts written from the point of view from the various people who were at the barbecue. This is definitely a clever way of highlighting the different responses to the incident, and also making the reader question their initial response to events. For example – finding out that Harry has a history of beating his wife definitely made me feel less sympathetic towards his character.

Actually, reading most of the character’s extracts made me feel unsympathetic towards them. Even Aisha, who seemed quite an interesting woman, disappointed me by the end of the book. The bits of the book that were testosterone-fuelled (Hector and Harry’s expletive filled extracts) packed the most punch for me. I disliked Hector and Harry, but felt that their accounts were more authentic-sounding. Something about the female accounts just didn’t quite ring true for me, although it’s difficult to put my finger on why. Out of all the characters, Richie – a young man struggling to come to terms with his sexuality – was the most tenderly written and he was really the only person that I felt any empathy for by the end of the story.

There is a lot of crude language in The Slap and I was pretty shocked at how much casual racism there was but then I don’t think that either of these things were inappropriately employed by the author – they simply delivered a realistic view the way that people can be. The behaviour of the characters seemed very impulse-driven, be that sexual or physically violent. I found I disliked the characters but this was not what made me apathetic towards the book. I think it got off to a great start – I was hooked after the first incident had taken place, and Harry’s account was fascinating. However I found the middle to the end of the book quite slow to read. The accounts of Manolis (Harry & Hector’s father) bored the pants off me. Connie’s chapter was just too long.

I do think that The Slap raises many excellent discussion points around class, family and society’s mixed views towards smacking a child. One of the excellent points made at our book group discussion was about the definition of ‘the slap’ itself. Was it a slap around the face? A slap (smack) on the bottom? Does it matter? Does it make a difference that it was  a hulk of a man slapping the child and not one of the mothers?

One of the most successful aspects of the book for me was that Tsiolkas doesn’t prescribe an answer. The reader is left to make up their mind, and in my case I was left more baffled as to my own feelings than anything else. However I felt that the book fell down in the way that the female characters were written and tried to cover too much ground, which made the middle to end section of the book really drawn out and dare I say it… a little bit dull. That, added to the fact that I really detested most of the people in it mean that I didn’t really enjoy The Slap. A brilliant book for creating discussion, but flawed in the way those points were delivered.

The Slap is a book that provokes strong responses. Read more positive reviews from Farm Lane Books (“…the male version of ‘chick lit’…”) and Reading Matters (“…a very bold book…”).

Have you read The Slap? If you haven’t do you think its a book that you would enjoy?

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte

As luck would have it, I found this lovely 1933 edition of Jane Eyre in a charity shop about a year ago, and over the Christmas holiday I got a chance to read it.

Jane Eyre, Hazell Watson & Viney Ltd, 1933 edition

Hazell Watson & Viney Ltd, 1933 edition (hardback), 512 pages - own purchase.

Jane Eyre, Hazell Watson & Viney Ltd, 1933 edition

The lovely frontispiece - a portrait of Charlotte Bronte.

I read (and enjoyed) Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights during a trip with friends to the sister’s home of Haworth a couple of years ago. Although from reading reviews and articles about the books I expected them to be different, I was surprised at quite how dissimilar the writing style was. Wuthering Heights is bleak, cold and intense, whereas Jane Eyre is dramatic yet our heroine is practical, kind, courageous and moral. She sounds a little boring, no? Not at all, as I found out.

I didn’t know the plot at all before reading Jane Eyre and it was a delight for me to discover it so I won’t go into too much detail but try to give the gist instead. Jane is an orphan who has a pretty tough time of things in her early years, first living with mean old Aunt Reed at Gateshead House where the eldest child John torments her, and then moving to Lowood School, a charitable institution where the students live a modest lifestyle in quite harsh conditions. Jane eventually becomes a tutor at the school herself before leaving to become a governess at Thornfield hall which is where she meets a certain Mr Rochester, but that is merely the beginning of the story!

How could I not love Jane? She is kind-hearted, high-spirited, and a book-lover! Written in the first person, Jane has a wonderfully warm and eloquent voice. She takes the reader into her confidence, revealing her private thoughts, hopes and fears. I felt that I really came to understand her as I followed her growth from a little girl to a young woman. She makes much of the fact that she is plain-looking, but her mind is anything but plain. She is passionate and really quite modern in her thinking – quite the early feminist:

“Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from to rigid a constraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.”

With these personal sentiments, Charlotte Bronte must have found it frustrating that she had to adopt a male pseudonym to publish Jane Eyre and I like to think that she gained great satisfaction in its success.

One of the key themes in Jane Eyre is of personal morality. Jane is a very moral person, however while she is influenced to some extent by religion she is also strongly guided by her own conscience. A keen observer, she also learns from and is influenced by those around her. Helen Burns, a fellow student at Lowood, makes a lasting impact on her by teaching her the value of patience and forgiveness, not just from a Christian perspective but also from that of a sense of being able to liberate oneself from the burden of anger:

“What a singularly deep impression her injustice seems to have made on your heart! No ill-usage so brands its record on my feelings. Would you not be happier if you tried to forget her severity, together with the passionate emotions it excited? Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity, or registering wrongs.”

It is this sense of independent conscience which helps Jane on her journey to make many difficult decisions.

I should mention that although I found Jane Eyre a gripping read for the most part, I did lose momentum a little towards the middle section. I think that perhaps because Mr Rochester appears relatively early in the novel I was bemused about how it would progress from there. The structure of the story is a little unusual, however Charlotte Bronte continues spin her story and reveal surprises that kept me compelled in the second half of the novel.

Jane Eyre is full of drama, but Jane herself is down-to-earth. Her frank tone helps to temper how preposterously unlikely some of the plot twists are. I did have some small reservations about how unlikely some of the situations were and also felt quite sorry for one particular character who I won’t name for fear of spoiling the story. However I loved the character of Jane and the story itself that I can happily overlook those issues!

In Jane Eyre, I was expecting a brilliant story and that’s exactly what I got. Love, learning and dark secrets – it had everything I wanted and I felt that I had almost come away with a new friend in Jane, so sincere was her voice.

A Guardian article that I read suggested that you could only be either a Jane Eyre person or a Wuthering Heights person. I’m not sure that is exactly the case, but having read them both now I think that I can say that I’m 80% Jane with a little bit of Wuthering thrown in for good measure!

My rating: 9 out of 10

Have you read any Bronte novels that you enjoyed?

This was this post on Mad Bibliophile’s blog that bumped Jane Eyre up my reading pile and Savidge Reads’ glowing review confirmed that it was a must-read for Christmas. Kimbofo also just read it, and you can read her thoughts here.

Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides

4.5 stars4.5/5

Jeffrey Eugenides Middlesex, totally lives up to it’s Pullitzer Prize-winning credentials.

Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides

Bloomsbury, 2003 edition (paperback), 544 pages - book group.

I won’t attempt a synopsis as I feel that there are too many strands for me to adequately describe without giving the whole plot away or stripping it back so much that it doesn’t sound compelling. Instead, I will just give you my glowing opinion!

Middlesex is epic in scope, spanning over 80 years and two continents, yet is a fluid read, enjoyable and entertaining read. The narrative of the novel’s protagonist, Calliope (Cal) is absorbing – personal and authentic, and I felt as if I was listening intently to someone recounting their own extraordinary family history.

The way that Eugenides conveys the locations in the novel and the sense of each decade was for me one of the most enjoyable aspects of the book (although there are many things to love about Middlesex). I could really imagine the industrial grit and dirt of Detroit, visualise it as a cultural melting-pot, and sense change bubbling under the surface.

I was also enchanted by the way that the different characters were shaped and defined over time, and became engrossed in the love stories that formed the backbone of the plot. Eugenides discusses biology in a beautiful romantic way, using eloquent language to create a sense of magic. In the following snippet, Calliope considers the changing and different bodies of her schoolmates:

“The surface of the sea is a mirror, reflecting divergent evolutionary paths. Up above, the creatures of air; down below, those of water. One planet, containing two worlds. My classmates were as unastonished by their extravagant traits as a blowfish is by it’s quills. They seemed to be a different species.

A sense of fate (genetic destiny) makes Middlesex feel like a Homeric account – poetic and mythical. Eugenides combines funny, tender and devastatingly tragic moments in perfect equlibrium. Middlesex delighted me from beginning to end.

Have you read Middlesex or other novels by Jeffrey Eugenides?

Millennium Series Books II & III

Today’s post is a double-whammy review of two books I’ve been hooked on for the last couple of weeks – Stieg Larsson’s the The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest. I’ve squeezed them into one, because I think of the last two Millennium series books like a single story with an interval in between.  If you haven’t read the first book you might think that it’s not worth reading this review, but read on and you may be convinced to read all three!

I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo last year and really enjoyed it. While it is not a perfect novel for everyone, it has wide appeal, is a brilliant thriller, and is very well written one with particularly engaging characters. (See more of what I thought of the first one here.) It was the characters again that stood out for me in the final two books of the series which are quite different from the first in that the plot is almost exclusively focussed on the background of Lisbeth Salander, who is the tattooed anti-hero(ine) who we meet in the first book.

The Girl Who Played with Fire

Book II picks up a couple of years after the furore from the Wennerstrom Affair has died down.While Mikael Blomkvist is in Sweden still working at Millennium magazine, Lisbeth Salander has been travelling – escaping it seems from past events. On her return to Stockholm, she becomes mixed up in an investigation which two employees of Millennium Magazine, Dag and Mia are doing for a book on sex-trafficking. When the couple are murdered, Lisbeth goes on the run, suspected of the crime, and is portrayed in the papers as a ‘psychotic lesbian S&M satanist’.  As the story develops, a much deeper and more complex situation is revealed which is intimately connected with Lisbeth’s own personal history.

I had high expectations of this book as I had heard lots of comments that it was the best book of the series. It didn’t disappoint. Ever since the first book I’d been wanting to know more about Lisbeth and also wondering if her guardian Nils Bjurman would resurface, which he did along with a whole other set of new bile-inducing characters. Larsson creates a fascinating history for Salander which is revealed throughout the book, and helps the reader to make sense of her as a character. this is done effortlessly as part of the plot in which current events are a direct consequence of what has come before.

The Girl Who Played with Fire, had some brilliant plot twists and somehow managed to walk the line between having a selection of bizarre characters and making them seem almost realistic. In this book I found I could relate to Lisbeth much more. As a character she demands a sort of odd respect rather than being exactly likeable, and although I found I could empathise with her, I never felt that I was being manipulated into feeling sorry for her. She is portrayed as both a product of her background and also culpable for her own mistakes.

There’s alot of action in The Girl Who Played with Fire which makes for a taught and suspensful read right the way through.

My Rating:

8 out 10

The Girl that Kicked The Hornet’s Nest

Book III, follows on almost directly from where the previous book leaves off. Lisbeth is in hospital following recent events and yet again finds herself painted as a criminal with a long list of charges for which she will later be taken to court for. The story – a whopping 700-plus pages, mostly accounts for the time leading up to the trial in which Larsson answers the question – how on earth is she going to get out of this mess?! Lisbeth is the key to uncovering a scandal which is so secret that she finds herself with powerful enemies who are prepared to use any means necessary to keep her quiet.

Oddly enough, I liked The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest even more than it’s predecessor. Most of the action takes place without Lisbeth as she is laid up in a secure wing of a hospital, but this is just as interesting. She becomes a sort of central figure, almost a totem. One group of characters (Mikael, Armansky) are investigating the past and fighting to clear her name, and another powerful, covert group of people are doing anything they can to discredit and harm her. Unusually for Lisbeth, she finds she has to rely on others to help her.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nes nicely finished up the trilogy for me. There is a strong moral theme to the series around the idea of consequence. The message seems to be that ‘the truth will out’, which may not always be the case in reality, but on a very fundamental level does speak to the idealist in me. Plus, it is delivered in such a violent and messy way that the sentiment wasn’t cloying or sweet.

My rating:

9 out of 10

Overview

The thing that makes the Millenium Trilogy both appealing to me and at some points a little bit of a conundrum is the depiction of strong women characters. At the end of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, Blomkvist in reference to Lisbeth’s journey sums up neatly:

“When it comes down to it, this story is not primarily about spies and secret government agencies; it’s about violence against women, and the men who enable it.”

Larsson is quite ruthless in the way that he highlights the prevalence of misogyny in society through sex trafficking, stalking and on a common day to day level of women experiencing hatred in an office environment. He does this using an array of strong female characters that challenge typical female role models – notably Lisbeth herself – whose sexuality is ambiguous, is introverted yet has superior intelligence and is a technology geek. There is also Officer Figuerola – a spy of amazonian proportions, and Erica Berger – a tough career woman with an open marriage – amongst others. Larsson seems to be looking at the idea of femininity through a prism.

I’m sure that it isn’t a coincidence that like Mikael Blomkvist, Larsson was also a journalist. Many the female characters have sexual affairs with Blomkvist who seems to be strangely irresistible and at times I felt as if Larsson was living vicariously through this character. I’m sure it isn’t a coincidence that he was a journalist himself!

I had mixed feelings about the women characters. My gut tells me they are a little bit unbelievable – too perfect perhaps in their complexity and toughness. However, I also loved how tough, interesting and different they were. Larsson obviously had a healthy respect for women.

I so enjoyed the Millennium series and feel a little bereft now that I’ve finished it. I liked the fact that the investigative work is done by a roving reporter instead of the rather hackneyed archetype of a depressed male detective. While some of the female elements are little contrived, I can’t help but love the fact that Larsson cast women the key protagonists. Complex plotting, dark themes and compelling characters made this series really stand out for me. There is a reason why every other person on the tube has a copy of a Larsson book.

Have you read any of Stieg Larsson’s books or been put off by the hype?

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

Fourth Estate, 2010, 650 pages.

After reading quite a few novellas I fancied reading a big book that I could really get my teeth into. I bought a copy of Wolf Hall in the new year, curious to find out why it had won the Man Booker and spurred on by several great reviews. I also studied Tudor History at sixth form college so was interested to hear a new perspective on the period. So it was, that I settled down with my first Hilary Mantel novel with anticipation.

I’m not going to keep you in suspense – I can say straight away that I was seriously impressed with Wolf Hall! From the first chapter I was hooked by Mantel’s style. The personality of a young Thomas Cromwell exploded into life on the pages – a scruffy, roguish butcher’s boy beaten black and blue by his seemingly unhinged father he picks himself up and leaves his home town on a ship to France. His character is tough through necessity but smart – the boy and the man Cromwell learns from the mistakes of those around him. He is a Jack of all trades (lawyer, soldier, diplomat) and manages to master them all, able to make even the most difficult to persuade people to keep them near him for his usefulness, if not his odd kind of charm. His honest yet tactful approach and cleverness is what makes him first the companion of Cardinal Wolsey and later of course Henry VIII’s right hand man.

Mantel’s portrait of Cromwell is fascinating and believable because of the depth of which she explores his character. I really felt that she had completely imbued herself in the period. It was clear that she must have read so much source material in order to create the vision on the page. It seemed as if she was interlacing and descriptions of characters and words that they had used from letters and other documents that she had researched. However, this never felt laboured to me – she seamlessly pulled those images and words from source into the dialogue of characters or their descriptions.

The scope of the book is Thomas Cromwell’s early life through to when Anne Boleyn is crowned Queen of England and a few months after. The way that it is split into chapters is that the reader gets a very detailed focus on one point in time in which you feel almost as if the story is ‘realtime’ and you are right there watching events unfold and the interplays between characters vying for power. Whether it be because of court politics or illness, one of the key things that Wolf Hall conveyed to me was the transience of human life in the 16th Century and how brutal a world it was. If you were clever or brave enough (or stupid enough) to enter into court games, you had to be prepared for the consequences. And, even if you were rich, powerful and successful, your own life or that of someone you loved could be snatched away so easily.

I found the style in which the book is written unusual. It is not written in the first person, but at times it feels as if it is Cromwell’s voice and observations that you are hearing, or perhaps another close onlooker. This has the effect of giving the reader two perspectives. One is a birds’ eye view as the story unfolds, however more often than not the reader is dragged right into the thick of characters’ motives and conversations.

I found Wolf Hall a fascinating and absorbing novel. Mantel retells a familiar story from a completely different angle and creates something entirely new. It may not be a book for everyone. I don’t want anyone to say that I didn’t warn them that this is a detailed book with a multitude of characters to follow. This is, however, what also makes Wolf Hall incredibly involving and satisfying to read. The character of Thomas Cromwell is utterly brilliant – ridiculously smart and resilient. Morally grey at times but somehow admirable. Mantel has done an amazing job of bringing him to life and creating a hypercolour version of the Tudor era. She gives the reader a front row seat to one of History’s greatest dramas.

My rating:

9 out of 10

Have you read Wolf Hall? What do you think makes a great work of historical fiction?

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

After reading The Book Whisperer’s glowing review of The Help by Kathryn Stockett I knew that I had to get my hands on a copy and sure enough I was lucky enough to spot it on the new arrivals shelf at my local library. Joy!

The Help, is set in the early 60’s in Jackson, Missisippi where black maids raise white children but aren’t trusted not to steal the silver. The story is told from three perspectives starting with the voice of warm-hearted Aibileen who is maid to the Leefolt family and takes more care of their little girl than the mother, Elizabeth ever does. Then there is Minny, an excellent cook with a sharp tongue which gets her into trouble and adds a good deal of humour to the story. Finally Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan, is a 22 year old aspiring writer whose unlikely relationship with Aibleen and Minny begins after she gets a job at the local newspaper writing a weekly cleaning column.

I loved reading The Help. While I didn’t want to put it down, I also found myself taking my time with it because I simply didn’t want it to end! I found myself smirking at Minny’s bad behaviour, gaping open-mouthed at the hideous behavour of the maid’s employers, and I had to try very hard not to cry in some of the more moving moments.

The charactarisation in the book is fantastic. Because of the first person narrative, I really felt that I got to know Aibleen, Minny and Skeeter and I was impressed with the authenticity of their voices. I also appreciated that Stockett took the effort to give a little bit of background at the end of the novel about where the book came from and how she struggled with representing the voices of black maids in the 60’s. It confirmed for me that The Help was a truly heartfelt novel.

Stockett uses lots of historical and cultural references to give context to the situation. For me these gave a real sense of how the town of Jackson was so unmoving in an era of change. This became particulary acute when the backward views of the inhabitants of the town are put into the context of a country that was about to put a man on the moon!

The Help, is an absolutely wonderful story of friendship and bravery which tackles the subject of racism from a totally new perspective. The heavy and light-hearted moments are perfectly balanced and Stockett conveys tragedy with subtlety. This book made me want to sit around the kitchen table with Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter, while reminding me how glad I am to be living in an era where racial attidutes have changed so much. I’m certain that this will be one of my favourite books of 2010.

My Rating:

9 out of 10

Savidge Reads has also reviewed The Help here, and you can read an interview with the author over at The Book Whisperer’s blog.

What books have you read lately that really moved you?