Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.

Category: Classics

A Little Bit of Wuthering Heights

I’ve dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they’ve gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind.


My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods. Time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees – my love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath – a source of little visible delight, but necessary.

Remember When I Thought I’d Read a Few Books About War?

Canadian Stretcher-Bearers, Flanders Fields, 1915

Back in May, I came up with an idea to read more books about War. I had several unread books about WWI and WWII on my bookshelves and on my Classics Club list and thought I would make a bit of a themed reading event (albeit just for myself) where really the main outcome was to get the books crossed off. Here is my very naive original post.

What I hadn’t anticipated when I collected these books and stacked them oppressively next to my bed was that the project would turn into the biggest interest of my reading life. Seriously. It is about five months since I started, and I haven’t even made it to WWII yet. And the list has grown and grown. I am really surprised at how much this has inspired my reading – a few years ago I couldn’t have imagined anything worse than being forced to read about horrible historical events over and over again. Ah, the misguided opinions of youth.

Read the rest of this entry »

Yes, The Greatest Book Ever Written

I’ve been lazy with keeping this up to date over the last week, but all shall be remedied soon. I haven’t forgotten my aforementioned post about Parade’s End and I’ve got one to write about The Casual Vacancy too (really good but really grim). But Anna Karenina takes writing precedent as MY FAVOURITE EVER BOOK.

I was intrigued as to whether re-reading would change my opinion, but absolutely not. If anything, I love this (now really quite battered) book even more now. The main reason why – it is about life. All of life, a cross-section of society and every bit as relevant as it was in 1877. What an astounding writer to have written something so universal, so human, that Charlotte (mid-twenties, English, twentieth/twenty-first century) would recognise the internal dialogue of a character dreamt up by Leo (late forties, Russian, nineteenth century).

Contrary to the title, I don’t like Anna and Vronsky and their mad, passionate affair. For me, this book is all about Kitty, Levin and the quest for happiness. Through them, Tolstoy gets to shout about his brand of morality. Getting to the heart of it, I think Tolstoy is really saying that happiness and being good are linked, and that to achieve both you mustn’t neglect your spiritual side. The very end of the book is similar to the style of War and Peace, as they both conclude with a very obvious message from the author. On this particular reading of Anna Karenina I enjoyed this part, although it was something I struggled with the first time. Tolstoy became an incredibly religious man in the last years of his life and perhaps put his own revelations and thoughts into Levin’s moment of spiritual awakening:

My life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which is in my power to put into it!

I read that part sitting on the Metro on my way to work on Monday morning. The sun was shining but the air was crisp and cold like winter. I sat amongst people reading newspapers, playing with their phones, listening to music or just staring into space but I felt as if I was completely separate. I read the last few sentences, closed the book and felt so happy and uplifted – such is the power of Tolstoy and his beautiful words.

There is just so much to Anna Karenina that I think every time you read it you could focus on something different. I haven’t even mentioned the glittering Petersburg social life, the muzhiks, the excellent character that is Stepan Arkadyich, the role of women as wives and mothers, Anna’s position as a fallen women, Russian divorce laws, politics, reform and revolution… I suppose that is the basis of its great appeal – there really is something to suit everyone. I am so pleased that I decided to read this again, if I could pick only one book to read for the rest of my life it would be this one. I will definitely revisit Anna Karenina every few years; the first time I read it was in 2008 – so perhaps we’ll meet again in 2015.

What Anna Karenina Made Me Do Next

I am going to make a bold claim. I have an all time, number one favourite book. My top ten, top five books change all the time, but first place never does. Anna Karenina is my favourite book because I think it is the best book ever written.

This claim is particularly bold because of the following confession: I have only read it once. Several years ago.

Having been to see the new film earlier this week I have been thinking about how much I love it and how I really should read it again.

Russian literature is something I have not got a lot of experience of, yet all the Russian classics I have read I have really enjoyed. So, after reading this article  about the top five books Russian writers on the Penguin Classics website, I have decided that next year I shall read something by each writer. The top five Penguin choose are:

  • Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol
  • The Devils by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov
  • The Steppe and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov
  • The Gift by Vladimir Nabokov

I reckon this should get me off to a good start in finding more Russian books and authors I’d like to try. I’ve studied The Cherry Orchard by Chekhov and have absolutely no memory of it at all, so that doesn’t count. I’ve read Lolita but would love to read another Nabokov too. I’m pretty sure Crime and Punishment is on my Classics Club list because I have my dad’s old copy floating around somewhere so that will take care of Dostoyevsky and after that – we’ll see.

I am putting this goal off until next year because I am determined to read the following by the end of the year:

  • Anna Karenina because my favourite book deserves more than one reading.
  • Clarissa because it needs my full attention and wasn’t supposed to take a year to read!
  • Martin Chuzzlewit because I want to read this with o.

I am confident about having three definite good books to see the year out with. If I get time I’d love to read Les Miserables, but I think I’d struggle to read so many huge books in what now seems like not much time! Plus, I do need to leave some time free for some wintery books when the weather changes.

Here’s to favourites and spending time reacquainting yourself with them.

A Love Letter

I find refuge with people in drawing rooms; pulling dust sheets from the furniture and filling silent spaces with stories. I am not content with today by itself – I want context, I want meaning and I want history. I like discovering and bringing the past to life. I need The Classics. I know that older isn’t necessarily better, so I like historical fiction too – new writers bring new perspectives after all. But what is better than the wicked wit of Mitford? The cutting observations of Woolf? The universal truths of Austen? Narrowing it even further: How can you improve upon writing from the most turbulent and influential periods in history?

I’ve had a break from classics whilst I read a few of Jo Nesbo’s crime novels. They were all action, twisting plots and brutality. Yes, there are plenty of action packed classic novels (and plenty of brutal ones too) but there wasn’t that magical quality of a classic. The sense of being welcomed into something – initiated, maybe – into a much beloved book. I really enjoyed them but I didn’t want to savour them, which is another way of saying that I’d recommend them but I don’t want to write about them.

So I’ve come back to the classics, and my Classics Club list  and have started Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford. Set in my favourite period of history, the crossover between the Edwardians and the Great War, the story is made up of four separate volumes: Some Do Not…No More ParadesA Man Could Stand Up- and The Last Post. The BBC adaptation starts tonight and I have nearly finished the first book so hopefully it won’t spoil anything! There is a nice introduction to Parade’s End on the Penguin Classics features page here.

As you can gather, I’m returning to the War Books project I started back in May –  a list of books that seems to be spiraling out of control, so an update post might be required soon. The Penguin link above mentions a few other WWI titles that sound interesting –

  • The Middle Parts of Fortune by Frederic Manning
  • Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf
  • Death of a Hero by Richard Aldington
  • Memoirs of an Infantry Officer by Siegfried Sassoon

I finally move house next week (cannot wait) so after Parade’s End I may have to content myself with reading whatever is unpacked. But for now, I’m going to curl up and read about Christopher and Sylvia Tietjens and the last long Edwardian summer.

Travels With Shakespeare

I’ve been on a literary trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon and the humble origins of William Shakespeare.

Whilst I was there I saw Shakespeare’s birthplace (see above photo) as well as the house he bought for his family towards the end of his life. Although a lot of the house is gone there is an ongoing archeological dig for the foundations which you can look into.

Of course there was time for a little bit of second-hand book shopping, where I found these great editions of Middlemarch and Jane Eyre.

They were both printed in the 1960s by Zodiac Press – the patterns on the covers really caught my eye.

The main reason for the trip was to see an RSC production of Much Ado About Nothing. It was absolutely BRILLIANT. The play was set in contemporary Delhi and it really worked. The whole Indian spectacle and traditions surrounding marriage made a very natural mix with Shakespeare. Meera Syal played Beatrice and completely stole the show – whenever she was on stage I was mainly watching her. Being well known for comedy, she delivered all of Beatrice’s put downs and jokes like she had written them herself and the banter between her and Benedick was such a highlight.

Stratford is a couple of hours away by train, so I read Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare during the journey. I got the book as a Christmas present and I can’t recommend it highly enough! It is a great, very readable introduction to the life and times of Shakespeare. Bryson doesn’t try to hide that there are very definite limits to what we can know about Shakespeare. Instead he puts the facts forward and guides the reader through the various theories that scholars have come up with. He adds a perfect amount of background history to support his own leanings. I also really liked that he doesn’t subscribe to the conspiracy theories about Shakespeare either – this book is very much grounded in what can be proven.

The trip and the production have renewed my interest in Shakespeare – I was obsessed as a teenager and loved when I got to study the plays at school. I have read The Sonnets and a handful of plays and I’m inspired to read more, so I’ve created a page to follow my progress at the top of my blog – or you can click here to see it. As usual I have no time limit on this challenge, it is just something I’d like to do. I will be using a copy of The Norton Shakespeare for most of the plays and all of the essays.

Incidentally, Shakespeare’s Restless World comes out at the end of September and I can’t wait to read it. Neil MacGregor is curator of the British Museum and the author of The History of the World in 100 Objects. This sounds like a similar premise – discovering Shakespeare’s world through twenty different objects.

At the moment, my all time favourite Shakespeare play is The Tempest, although I do have a soft spot for the ones I did at school; Othello and King Lear. The Histories are probably the plays I am looking forward to least, they seem the most intimidating although I’m not entirely sure why.

What is your favourite Shakespeare play? Have you read any great books about Shakespeare? Recommendations are very welcome!

My Best and Worst Times

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.

Dickens was testing my faith with A Tale of Two Cities, but he didn’t let me down at the end. This was a challenging read mostly due to language. It was quite flowery, especially when you compare it to the novel Dickens wrote next – Great Expectations. I’d had a false start with this book a few months ago: I couldn’t get part the first few chapters because I couldn’t work out what was happening. I decided to give it another try after Ulysses, because it could never be as tough as that.

Dickens described A Tale of Two Cities as his best ever story and it certainly reads as such. This was the first of Dickens’ novels to make me pay attention to where the original installments begun and ended. I was glad I didn’t have to wait for the next part after all the cliffhangers. Fortunately despite his slight change in style, A Tale of Two Cities still has that magical quality of language that made Dickens’ writing so original. Two of my favourite instances are:

  • A dead man lying in his grave is described as listening to the ‘whispering trees’
  • The crowd of revolutionaries rioting are described as rising up like an angry sea

Not to mention you have two of the most famous quotes in English Literature to open and close the novel. Got a little bit tingly when I read the last line.

This book got me thinking about historical fiction: Dickens was writing about a historical event eighty or so years in the past. I think people (I do, anyway) have a tendency to assume that ‘classics’ are a product of the time they were written and that the writers are transcribing their own times. But these books are artifacts of history in their own right. So really A Tale of Two Cities is a product of how the French Revolution was viewed in the nineteenth century. I suppose it made me think about each generation since Dickens’ adding to the meaning of the book, emphasising certain parts, imagining events according to what was important to the reader in their own lives.

After struggling with this book – it was definitely a challenging one – I felt so rewarded by how it ended. I didn’t know much about the plot when I started and I’m really glad everything came as unexpected. Even when a Dickens novel is hard to read, I’d never question the value in reading it. Discovering I could enjoy Dickens is one of the highlights of my reading year so far.

Travels With Odysseus

There is no man living – there never will be – who could come in enmity to the Phaeacian land; we are loved too well by the immortals. We live apart, with the billowing sea all round us; we live at the world’s edge.

I can’t get over how different this was to what I was expecting. It is readable, for a start! I think formatting The Odyssey for today’s audience as prose rather than a poem helped a great deal – thanks very much, Oxford World’s Classics. When I originally signed up to read on Bloomsday all those months ago my plan was to read The Odyssey beforehand so I’d be ready for Ulysses. This didn’t happen as I’ve been totally sidetracked by my war books, but it seemed only right to read The Odyssey now because I have been looking into it so much for Ulysses. I didn’t do any more research whilst reading though because I just felt like enjoying the story. I think you can read the book on a lot of different levels – if I had done loads of research into every unfamiliar name and myth I’d have finished The Odyssey knowing so much more than when I started. BUT the story is such an iconic tale that is still recycled in so many plots today that I enjoyed it on this basic level without doing more than the briefest of research.

The Odyssey has everything – love, jealousy, family, home sickness, adventuring, journeys, gods and goddesses, battles, friendship, kings and beggars, hidden identities, disguises and tricks. Odysseus is a great main character, a mix of warrior king and Everyman. He makes some pretty questionable decisions, but his crew don’t always listen to him.  The other part of the book I particularly enjoyed was the way the Gods were always meddling with human affairs. All the human characters were permanently questioning what was the luck of the Gods and who was worthy of favour.

All in all I’d recommend this, I was pleasantly surprised.

Then of a sudden the wind dropped and everything became hushed and still, because some divinity lulled the waters.

Beginning Ulysses, Or What on Earth am I Reading?

Today I started reading Ulysses. I sat in a bookshop filled with glee and read the first twenty pages. If I’m this proud from twenty pages, how satisfying will this book be when I read hundreds of pages? When I finish? Normally I don’t like to know too much about the plot or themes of a book before I’ve read it. However, due to the extreme challenge that this book is rumoured to be, I don’t want to get all the way through and not pick up on the most basic of details – I know I won’t understand it all, so I at least want to grasp the bones of it.

Here is what I have found out so far, correct me if I’m wrong, because I’m compiling this initial outline before reading from a fair few different websites, but most credit must go to this.

Ulysses is split into three parts and eighteen episodes, each reflecting a character or incident of The Odyssey. There are no episode or chapter titles in the book itself, but they do appear in Joyce’s outline. The novel is set on June 16th 1904 between 8am and 3am.

Part I: The Telemachiad

  • Episode I – Telemachus, 8am
  • Episode II – Nestor, 10am
  • Episode III – Proteus, 11am

Part II: The Odyssey

  • Episode IV – Calypso, 8am
  • Episode V – Lotus-Eaters, 10am
  • Episode VI – Hades, 11am
  • Episode VII – Aeolus, 12pm
  • Episode VIII – Lestrygonians, 1pm
  • Episode IX – Scylla and Charybdis, 2pm
  • Episode X – Wandering Rocks, 3pm
  • Episode XI – Sirens, 4pm
  • Episode XII – Cyclops, 5pm
  • Episode XIII – Nausicaa, 8pm
  • Episode XIV – Oxen of the Sun, 10pm
  • Episode XV – Circe, 12am

Part III: The Nostos

  • Episode XVI –  Eumaeus, 1am
  • Episode XVII – Ithaca, 2am
  • Episode XVIII – Penelope, 3am / unspecified

Apologies if you have no interest in James Joyce, Bloomsday or Ulysses because my next few posts will be about all three! Plus I’ll need a guide to The Odyssey. Now I’m off to read a little bit more….

Now the Sun is Finally Shining, How About Some Books About War?

After my Tudor reading, I fancy a mini reading project based around War literature. There are obviously lots of brilliant books about a lot of wars around the world so I’ve narrowed my selection down to books written about WWI and WWII, as I find this period of history interesting.

I’ve picked eight books that are all on my Classics Club list. Two birds, one stone and all that, and this way I can also stick to my attempt to stop buying new books and read the ones I already have.

  • Faulks, Sebastian, Birdsong
  • Gibbons, Stella, Westwood
  • Graves, Robert, Goodbye To All That
  • Grossman, Vasily, Life and Fate
  • Hemingway, Ernest, A Farewell to Arms
  • Nemirovsky, Irene, Suite Française
  • Vonnegut, Kurt, Cat’s Cradle
  • Wells, H. G., The War of the Worlds

And will add to this list some novels written recently:

  • Beauman, Ned, Boxer Beetle 
  • Hollinghurst, Alan, The Stranger’s Child
  • Kerr, Philip, Berlin Noir
  • Littell, Jonathan, The Kindly Ones
  • Young, Louisa, My Dear I Wanted to Tell You

So, thirteen books, six about the WWI and seven about WWII. I could read them chronologically, I could read the modern novels separately, I might read the two science fiction novels together. I’m not sure I’ll manage to read all of these in a row – I have an unspecified timeframe, but as you know I chop and change what my reading plans are whenever I feel like it. But if this works, I have similar lists for projects that I could start. I’m looking at you, gigantic stack of Edwardian novels…

The books have been moved to their new home – in an oppressive stack next to my bed. I’m feeling quite enthusiastic – it’ll be brilliant to have read all of these books. I am also quite curious to see if any of them will replace my current (I’m not sure ‘favourite’ is the right word) most admired war novel: All Quiet on the Western Front. If any of them even come close, I’ll be onto a winner because that book is truly astounding. Actually, make that fourteen books because I’ll have to re-read this one too.

Edit: I’ve just managed to get hold of a copy of Regeneration by Pat Barker so now there are fifteen books!