Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.

Category: Read in 2012

The Weekend When My Boyfriend Decided I Have Emotional Problems

I have had the best and most awful weekend. As previously mentioned I spent quite a bit of time on Friday weeping about Jean Valjean. A completely legitimate activity, I’m sure you’d agree. On Saturday evening, Apocalypse Now was on TV, which I accidentally also cried at. This is much less legitimate, but I will try to excuse myself on the grounds that (a) I haven’t seen it before and (b) I’m clearly still very upset about Jean Valjean.

But then came Sunday and I read this:

9780141345659

And I felt ALL OF THE THINGS. I started off laughing out loud, quoting bits, being impressed at witty dialogue. Then I moved onto bawling. Yes, I knew it was coming – cancer teens falling in love is always going to end in tears. So many tears. And then I spent the next four hours watching John Green videos on youtube and now I must proclaim that John Green makes me feel like a teenage girl about how much I love him.

I read this in a few hours, it is clever, powerful, emotional and thought provoking about situations I don’t spend much time thinking about. Here are some snippets that (hopefully) might be interesting:

  • The Fault in Our Stars has a fictional epigram like The Great Gatsby
  • There is a hamster called Sisyphus (check your Greek mythology – I didn’t have to, my brother explained it)
  • The title is taken from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings”. This is interesting by itself as usually when people talk about a fault in the stars, they mean it as though there is some predestined flaw that prevents something from happening. Obviously the words with the rest of the sentence mean something else altogether.

So yes, this is a book technically for teenagers. However, when I was a teenager I found books with this irreverent, witty, Dawsons Creek style eloquent chatter unrealistic and a bit intimidating. I wanted to know about things and be able to talk about them profoundly and have original thoughts but instead, along with pretty much all real teenagers I was jumbled up and shy and read a lot of books. Luckily for me, I’m not a teenager anymore, I’m fully fledged into my mid twenties and whilst I am still shy, I can get my words out. (Plus I now have the option of writing them down and putting them on the Internet.) My point is that I enjoyed John Green’s punchy style because I know teenagers don’t really talk like that but I also know that they’d kill to be able to. If this kind of dialogue and typing in capitals when EXCITED  irritates you (an understandable opinion, but not one I share) then you probably won’t enjoy this book, even with its aforementioned cleverness and importance.

On a slight side note, if you were a teenager like I was and have retained a massive part of your introvertedness then I would also recommend Susan Cain’s Quiet. I read it towards the end of last year after reading Lucy’s excellent review and it is brilliant. I’m not sure why I never got around to writing about it in a separate post – perhaps I will. It is all about how introverts are sidelined in business and school environments because of our culture’s exaggerated worshipping of the gift of the gab. It is thoughtful, rang true and has encouraged me to be a tiny bit braver.

I won’t lie, I’m about to leave the house and I fully intend to come back with another John Green book. So as to not completely lose the tone of Charlotte Reads Classics let me assure you that I am currently reading The Great Gatsby (albeit because John Green mentioned it in one of the million videos I watched yesterday) and still have a post about Ethan Frome to write.

There will be classics again, I promise!

The Books of 2012

Perhaps a post I should have written before my 2013 reads but here are the results of another year successfully recorded. In 2012 I read 85 books.

My particular top ten favourite reads and recommendations this year are:

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Clarissa, Or, The True Story of My Reading in 2012

Merry Christmas! I hope it was wonderful for everyone. Mine was a very relaxing couple of days with family and I enjoyed it immensely.

As Christmas seems a concluding event to the year, it seemed especially satisfying that on Boxing Day I finished reading Clarissa. Yes, ours had been a year long affair, but like her family I neglected her terribly in the summer months. Now it is all over I feel quite sad but luckily I have the sense of achievement for comfort. Clarissa is an excellent read. Yes, really. If you want to be convinced to buy it, this is o’s post that convinced me.

Very well read.

Very well read.

When I started reading it back in January I was overwhelmed. The language was tricky and dense and despite my enthusiasm not a lot was going on in terms of plot. I read a few pages here and there until April, when I put the book down. And it stayed down. From time to time I would look at it sitting on my bookshelf and feel a bit guilty, but I started my War Books project so I wasn’t inspired to pick it back up. I knew that to finish it, I would have to read nothing but Clarissa until the bitter end and I wasn’t in the mood. Then came November and the awareness that I would have to start now or never if I didn’t want to be dragging my old reads into the new year. Funnily enough, I had managed to stop at just the moment Clarissa gets exciting. (Clever, me.) I made my schedule and stuck to it – actually I beat it slightly – and here we are.

Clarissa has got to be the ultimate classic: One of the very first European novels and one of Jane Austen’s favourite writers. I’m not quite sure why it is so neglected. Yes, it is incredibly long but that doesn’t stop us reading War and Peace or Les Misérables. Rather amusingly, in the Author’s Note at the end Richardson justifies the length of the novel by claiming that the details are what makes the story realistic and enjoyable, therefore why would you complain about getting a complete picture? (Incidentally on the Jane Austen note, there is a clergyman who is sent to check up on Clarissa who I’m sure must have been a basis for Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice.)

I wasn’t sure I would warm to Clarissa herself in the early stages because she’s so virtuous. I completely did, though. I fell for her hook line and sinker. I don’t want to spoil the plot for anyone still ploughing through it, but what other end could there have been for her? And for Lovelace? The way the family separates and takes sides is so convincing and so much more interesting from only getting it through odd perspectives. I took sides too – I was always pleased when I turned the page and the next letter was one from Miss Howe or Mr Belford. The presence of Richardson at all was slightly mystifying because it really, honestly felt like I was reading real letters. Perhaps an obvious comment to make, but the characters are like Tolstoy’s – genuine people who change and adapt over time.

For a lot of this book I was only looking forward to finishing: I was counting pages and scheduling time. However, when I realised I was onto the final ten pages, I was gutted. I was so sad that something I had been carrying around and thinking about all year was leaving me. Read Clarissa for its characters and richness, for it’s often surprising plot, for its family drama, for its place in history, for its descriptions of a world far removed yet not so dissimilar from our own.

Just make sure you read it.

Wait, Are You Dickens?

This is the most readable thousand page novel I’ve read. Not the best, but the quickest and the most indulgent: The Quincunx is seriously gripping with a serious plot. I freely admit that I am more interested in atmosphere than action so The Quincunx was a refreshing change… because it has the most complicated mystery plot of any book I’ve ever read before and I’ve never found a family tree of characters quite so crucial.

Yes, every review mentions Dickens and Wilkie Collins but how do you talk about a Victorian novel with a vast array of characters and a damn good mystery without claiming the author was influenced by either? I loved that Palliser had clearly wanted to include a huge spectrum of Victorian society into this book – aristocrats, merchants, traders, sewer divers (yes, really), servants in great houses, laundry women and an unusual band of misfits living in a half built neighbourhood. The parts of the book that really grabbed me were surprisingly mundane – as poverty hits John and his mother have to wake up each morning worrying about how to get food for the day and shelter for night. I think a really good writer can make the simplest of details interesting and this section of the story reminded me of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London.

I loved it, even though John as a child was exasperating and his mother is just so stupid, right up until the end. Don’t worry – I’m remembering not to put any hint of spoilers in. The ending is not unlike the ending of Great Expectations or The French Lieutenant’s Woman in that it can be read as ambiguous or just plain unsatisfying. To be honest, the bigger problem I had towards the end of the book is that there were just too many twists and turns and important details saved until the very end. Don’t get me wrong the plot is hard to follow at the best of times, but the last hundred or so pages threw me off completely.

In spite of this I still really enjoyed the book and was more than happy to have invested so much time in reading it. In fact, if I didn’t have so many other books to read not to mention a pressing Clarissa schedule, I probably would have started it again from the beginning. There is so much in it that I haven’t even mentioned the book’s mathematical layout, the lost story within a story or the mystery itself! Not a classic per say, but definitely an interesting read in comparison to some well known and loved authors.

I Have Been a Waif for Twenty Years

And I pray one prayer – I repeat it till my tongue stiffens – Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest, as long as I am living! You said I killed you – haunt me, then! The murdered do haunt their murderers. I believe – I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always – take any form – drive me mad! Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!

Always, always, always read your favourite books more than once. I fell in love with Wuthering Heights as a teenager because it was wild. A passionate, emotional book that every stroppy teenager can’t fail to identify with. As an adult – it is so much better. Everything that was difficult the first time (mainly who was related to who, and how) was simple, which meant I could pay attention to parts previously hidden.

I think the biggest thing about Wuthering Heights is confusion at its reputation for being a love story. Yes, Catherine and Heathcliff have no ordinary connection but I can’t help thinking that people who list them as a great couple must be mad! I had forgotten quite how horrible Heathcliff is and that really the book is about the very worst of human emotions: Jealousy, betrayal, revenge. What I really enjoyed during this particular read was the cathartic nature of younger Catherine and Hareton’s relationship. I found it much more touching than I did the first time.

I just really love Wuthering Heights. I can’t write about it in any way that does it justice because it is one of my everything books. It has fantastical depths and unrestrained brilliance and it never leaves you. When I was reading it, I felt like I was Lockwood too – looking in on this tiny rural society. Just read it . And then read it again.

I had an excellent Saturday – spent walking from Haworth to Top Withens, a ruin said to have inspired Emily Brontë when she was writing Wuthering Heights. Luckily, despite being absolutely FREEZING, not only did it not rain, there were even sporadic bouts of sunshine. The walk started in Haworth village and was a seven mile round trip across open moors like this:

Top Withens is next to that tiny tree in the distance!

I visited the Brontë Parsonage Museum again but didn’t take any photos because I couldn’t beat the amazingly atmospheric mist that had descended when I went last year.

I am reading Shirley by Charlotte Brontë at the moment, although I haven’t read enough yet to talk about it. I think in terms of Brontë-love The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is still my favourite, closely – very closely – followed by Wuthering Heights.

Further reading: I love this Guardian review.

A Return to War With Pat Barker

The other day I realized – this is going to sound really mad – what I really think, deep down, is that the dead are only dead for the duration. When it’s over they’ll all come back and it’ll be just the same as it was before.                      – Toby’s Room

Lessons learned from reading Toby’s Room and Life Class by Pat Barker: read them in the right order. I didn’t. So a word to the wise: Life Class comes first. The two books combined follow a group of art students from 1912 until 1917. As in Regeneration there is a mix of medicine and art, this time focusing on Henry Tonks’ medical drawings of facially wounded soldiers. I enjoyed the two books together, much more than I liked each one separately. There are quite a range of topics covered in the two books but the parts I found most interesting were clashes between the changing attitudes between the younger generation and their parents.

A few Sundays ago I went to see Pat Barker speak at the Imperial War Museum and I’ve tried to remember all the interesting parts!

On History

Barker was always drawn to the First World War because she was brought up by her grandparents. Her Grandfather had a bayonet wound which although she thought was something every Grandfather had is actually very rare, only accounting for about 3% of injuries. She would see this wound every weekend whilst he was washing before going to the British Legion social club. She said it wasn’t pretty, or smoothly healed like a scar from an operation might be. It made such a big impact on her when she was young because he would never speak about it: “best way to get an author inspired – keep silent”.

She was asked about why she writes about real people, and whether it was difficult to speak for them. She replied that using real people as in her novels meant that she had to be as accurate as possible and not say anything damaging to their reputation. Incidentally her favourite character is a real person too – Dr. Rivers.

The best part of writing about real people is how they react to her fictional characters. For example, in Regeneration everyone in the hospital (including Sassoon and Owen) idolised Rivers and the work he was doing to treat psychological war wounds. Therefore she needed Billy Prior to be the fictional difficult patient. He was a way to force Rivers to expose parts of his personality and psychology that he wouldn’t normally reveal.

On Feminism

Someone asked Barker whether she was still the gritty northern feminist that wrote her earlier novels like Union Street. The answer was yes – but only as far as she ever was. She said that because she was originally published by Virago this persona was slightly enforced. She would call herself a feminist but her feminism doesn’t exclude men – hence the focus on male characters in her writing today.

On Writing

Her philosophy is to just ‘keep on going until the end’ because there is no point polishing and polishing a couple of paragraphs if you don’t have anything else to work on. What I found most interesting was something she said about writing a vivid atmosphere. She started by explaining that the Author has to act as the reader’s five senses. Furthermore, when you are writing more often than not you are in the mind of one of your characters. To give a sense of place you should pick out the one detail that your character would notice. The example she gave was that a couple with infertility problems might go into a house and immediately notice a toy lying under a sofa. The challenge is to work out what your character would see.

Had I never read a Pat Barker book I would have been won over – she came across as clever, interesting and secretly shy. The only downside is that she says she doesn’t read WWI fiction: I was hoping to get some recommendations for my reading list, but alas I will just have to read more of her books instead.

Money, Money, Money

Yesterday, the day of the readathon, I was at work. Hurrah. But I put my best reading efforts forward and still managed to read a whole book: Life Class by Pat Barker. Rather excitingly I am going to hear her speak this evening so I will temporarily hold off talking about Life Class and Toby’s Room until next week.

I’ve spent a sunny but misty Sunday morning reading Martin Chuzzlewit. I’ve been trying to start it all week but with difficulty, just because I haven’t read any Dickens in a while. So far, I am a fan of this part:

‘For the same reason that I am not a hoarder of money,’ said the old man, ‘I am not lavish of it. Some people find their gratification in storying it up; and others theirs in parting with it; but I have no gratification connected with the thing. Pain and bitterness are the only goods it ever could procure for me. I hate it. It is a sceptre walking before me through the world, and making every social pleasure hideous.

On that cheerful note: The Casual Vacancy.

Am I allowed to compare J. K. Rowling to Dickens? Possibly with The Casual Vacancy more than Harry Potter but I will attempt to justify the comparison. I suppose I’m only drawing lines between the two because I am writing a post that happens to mention both of them. But, why not?

Firstly, the main reason I enjoyed The Casual Vacancy is because J. K. Rowling is an excellent storyteller. When it comes down to it, this must be why she has been so successful. Even with a very bleak plot, quite horrible characters and a grim outlook, I could picture it all – I knew the characters and I had to know what happened. Basically, she doesn’t need wizards or an audience with a nine year old reading age to write something compelling. Dickens link: I don’t think I need to justify the statement that Dickens is an excellent storyteller. That’d be ridiculous.

J. K. Rowling makes no secret of her humble beginnings. Living off benefits, struggling as a single mother, she has been very, very poor. These are the characters that are the focus of The Casual Vacancy. Set in the quiet suburban village of Pagford, the only blemish is the nearby council estate – known as The Fields. Here there are drug addicts, prostitutes, criminals and children. The book is so desperately sad because there are young children growing up in poverty with no chance of escape. Talking about this exploration into people’s lives, Rowling says:

People’s lives generally are more absurd, sadder, funnier, stranger, than you’re average soap opera […] but if you depict that then you are said to be writing satire.*

The book isn’t only about these people, it is about middle class parents and their children, high-flying academics, shopkeepers, Doctors, Councillors – everyone. Dickens link: What are Dickens’ characters if not an elegant and eccentric cross-section of Victorian society?

“Probably everything I write will be about death and morality because that’s what I think about.”* I think this is a moral novel because there is no way you could read it and not think that there must be a better way. I think that had this book been written by a different author I probably wouldn’t have chosen to read it. However, if I had read it then I would still think it was an important comment on the society we live in. Dickens link: I briefly mentioned the Dickens-morality-death theory in another post: there is a moral core to all the Dickens novels I have read so far. He was a big figure in trying to change what he viewed as negative in his society, he even ran his own house for fallen women. Think about Tom in Bleak House, or the debtor’s prison in Little Dorrit.

Well, that wasn’t quite the review I originally planned to write when I read The Casual Vacancy, but there you have it. And now I’m much more in the mood to carry on reading Martin Chuzzlewit.

* Quoted from the BBC Culture Show interview. If it’s not word for word, it’s because I was typing and listening at the same time.

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.

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The Death of the Country Gentleman

The land had not changed. … There were still the deep beech-woods making groves beside the ploughlands and the rooks rising lazily as the plough came towards them. The land had not changed. … Well, the breed had not changed. … There was Christopher. … Only, the times … they had changed.

Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford was the most difficult book I have read in ages. Worthy, beautiful, atmospheric, a document of history – yes, but don’t forget confusing, lengthy and misleading. Now that I have finished reading it, I can look back and think about how good it was – something I definitely couldn’t envisage in the last few weeks of reading.

A completely unexpected comparison can be made between Levin of Anna Karenina and Christopher Tietjens: Both are members of the upper classes connected with the land. Whilst Levin is seen as a bit of a reformist trying to make money out of farming his estate but not at the expense of the people who work on it; Christopher is presented as the last of his kind. That is, a man highly concerned with the preservation of his ancestry and obeying what he feels is his duty to the lower class people who rely on him and his land. I really liked how the Groby Great Tree becomes a symbol of pastoral scenes of country life: local couples get married underneath it and people adorn it with lucky charms during festivals. Sylvia threatening to cut it down in the years after the war are a way of showing the changing times.

Whereas Christopher was everything I wanted him to be, Valentine was a bit of a disappointment. At the beginning of the novel she is quite revolutionary. However (without plot spoilers) in the last chapters she suddenly becomes very predictable and, well, kind of drippy. I’m not sure whether this is a response to the things that happen to her or whether it is a failing of Ford’s: Maybe he couldn’t write stream of consciousness as a woman?

What would Parade’s End have been like without the crazy plot structure? I don’t need a book to be completely linear, but I had such trouble working out what was happening, let alone how much time was passing. All in all, Parade’s End is excellent in terms of character and themes, but I’ll always prefer The Good Soldier for readability.

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.